Monday, July 31, 2006

A Dubious Doping Defense

I hope Tour de France winner Floyd Landis is innocent of doping charges. I wish I could say I believe he is, but after all I've seen as a cycling fan this century, I don't know what to believe anymore. I can't say my faith in Landis was bolstered by this dubious statement from Jacques Michaud, his team's directeur sportif (a coach who drives alongside the racers giving tactical advice). French newspaper La Provence Dimanche quoted Michaud as saying, "Frankly speaking, if Floyd was doping, (Phonak) would have known it."

There's just one problem with that statement: Phonak has had an incredible nine doping scandals in the past two years. Aside from one rider who was caught by team testing, Phonak didn't seem to have any prior knowledge of the other cases (for example, the team strongly defended Tyler Hamilton until its very existence was jeopardized). With such a team history, how could Michaud claim they would have known if Landis was cheating (assuming they didn't lie about the other cases)?

Actually, riders usually dope without their teams' knowledge, particularly since the Festina team got busted in the 1998 Tour de France. Many doping stories involve secret meetings in airports, mysterious packages, personal trainers who happen to be doctors -- or even veterinarians -- dispensing pharmaceuticals, etc. Whether teams can't figure it out or choose to turn a blind eye is open to speculation. But the bottom line is there is no reason to believe that Landis wasn't doping simply because his team didn't know about it.

Besides, teams inevitably deny knowledge of doping. Consider the consequences of admitting there was a problem. I would bet that if Michaud had said that Phonak allowed Landis to participate in the Tour despite knowing he was doping, the team would be barred from competition immediately. The UCI and its Pro Tour have strong rules about doping, strong enough for any team to feign ignorance regardless of the truth.

As I said, I hope Landis is innocent. But for someone in the team with the worst doping history in the Pro Tour to claim Landis couldn't have fooled them defies belief.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Score One for the Activists

I recently wrote about unconstitutional practices in FEMA trailer parks. Residents and media were told that they could not converse without the presence of a FEMA representative. Thanks to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) activists and ongoing pressure from Baton Rouge Advocate reporters, FEMA has officially reversed this policy. I still find it disturbing that government officials thought the original policy was acceptable. They were probably hoping no one would call them on it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Night in the Cellar

(sorry it's blurry -- I took this with my cell phone camera)

Someone beat me to it, but I should report on last Thursday's signing at The Book Cellar. I arrived around 6:50 PM and no one was there yet, but the tables were set up in the cafe area of the store. Two other authors were supposed to take part, but Lynn Schnaiberg couldn't make it. Her book Urban Adventure Chicago has some overlap with mine since it includes a chapter about cycling on roads and bike paths. We could have had an interesting discussion. As I was killing time looking at books (I love The Pop-Up Book of Phobias!), a man approached me. It turned out he has been reading about my bicycling exploits on my Web site for more than a year! He even read my cross-country trip journal... in one night. That was so cool -- I've received e-mails from site visitors, but I never met one in person before.

Around 7:10 there were enough people to start. I went first, bumbling through my brief talk as one might expect from someone who spends much more time writing than speaking. I really need to develop those skills and put together a cohesive presentation about my book. Next Noah Liberman discussed The Flat Stick, which is about golf putters (his other book, Glove Affairs, is about baseball gloves) and came across far more polished. I suppose it helps that this is his second book; he's had more practice. If you are a golfer, I wholeheartedly recommend you check out The Flat Stick. It's much more interesting than I expected. I nearly bought it, and I've never golfed in my life.

Cyclo-Chris came in to get a few books. I was amazed that he hadn't seen the book yet, and I wondered how long it would take for him to notice his name in the acknowledgements (answer: about 12 hours). Thanks to him I had a good night, selling six or seven books. Signings also publicize the book to people who don't come -- today a neighbor asked my wife if I was the Johnsen who wrote the biking book. Everyone at The Book Cellar was really nice. It's like an urban incarnation of my favorite small-town bookstore, Books on First in Dixon, IL.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Unhappy Anniversary

It was one year ago today that our dog Teddy got sick. It's somewhat arbitrary since he probably was sick for some time before the symptoms became obvious, but this was the day my wife rushed him to the emergency vet. It's also the day I drove home from Fulton in the middle of the night, not knowing whether I'd get to see him alive again. He made it through the night, but it was the beginning of a torturous month for all of us, probably the worst month in my life. As he struggled against auto-immune disease, our spirits rose and fell depending on Teddy's hematocrit level. People not so attached to dogs would likely advise me to "just get over it" already. But that's not going to happen yet, not today.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Did Landis' Hip Win the Tour de France?

Three days ago, Floyd Landis had a bad day, un jour sans, as they say in France. Landis not only lost the leader's yellow jersey in Stage 16, but he also fell eight minutes behind the new leader. Most said his chance to win had passed.

On Thursday, Landis attacked the peloton like a man possessed, determined to win the race or at least make everyone else hurt trying to stop him. After several grueling mountain climbs, he had pulled himself back to within easy striking distance of the yellow jersey. Everyone was amazed by his performance. Not only had he attacked early, a tactic that had virtually disappeared among the top contenders during the Lance Armstrong years, but to do so after such an awful day was almost unprecedented. Cycling historians went back to 1958 to find a similar chain of events.

There was little doubt that Landis would overcome a 30-second deficit to take the lead in today's time trial. He did not disappoint, taking over the lead by nearly a minute despite an inspired performance from Oscar Pereiro in the yellow jersey. Tomorrow should be an easy victory parade into Paris.

After the huge Operacion Puerto doping investigation knocked several top competitors out of this year's Tour, cheating has been on everyone's mind. Following Landis' stunning comeback, a friend told me that such a performance makes him wonder whether Landis is clean. Indeed, Landis' cheeky move reminded me of another American who attacked relatively early one day in the 2003 Tour, albeit on smoother terrain: Tyler Hamilton. Not only was Hamilton banned in 2004 after evidence of transfusions was found in his blood, but now his name has resurfaced as part of Operacion Puerto. I always thought Hamilton was a hard worker who would never cheat, so his doping affair really shook my confidence. Still, I want to believe Landis is racing honestly, as does my friend.

On the Tour's first rest day, Landis shocked the media by announcing that he had avascular necrosis, a painful, degenerative hip ailment that would require hip replacement surgery after the Tour. Now I wonder if, instead of inhibiting him, his hip actually helped him to win the race. Armstrong will tell you he wouldn't have won the Tour without getting cancer first. Having cancer taught Armstrong how to tolerate more pain than before, and it also inspired him to live for the day, knowing that cancer could return. Has Landis gone through an Armstrong-like experience with his hip? Maybe suffering for several years with this problem has taught him to cope with pain better than most of his competitors, enabling him to push himself harder. Maybe knowing that he may not be able to race again after his surgery (though he is hopeful) gave him that same carpe diem urgency as well. I hope I am right, since there are no rules against competing with a bad hip.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Surrender Your Constitutional Rights to FEMA

Sorry for the tinfoil-hat title, but this is just unbelievable. On multiple occasions, journalists interviewing Katrina victims in FEMA's trailer parks have been kicked out by security guards. Baton Rouge Advocate reporter Sandy Davis was one of them. She followed up with the government agency:

“If a resident invites the media to the trailer, they have to be escorted by a FEMA representative who sits in on the interview,” [FEMA spokeswoman Rachel] Rodi said. “That’s just a policy.”

Wait a minute. So an American citizen is not allowed to talk to the media without government intervention? That doesn't sound like free speech or freedom of the press. Is surrendering one's constitutional rights the price that must be paid to live in government housing?

Davis easily found a shocked legal expert:
Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said FEMA’s refusal to allow trailer park residents to invite media into their homes unescorted is unconstitutional. “That’s a standard for a prison, not a relief park and a temporary shelter,” Leslie said “They cannot deny media access. It’s clearly unconstitutional … and definitely not legal.”
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) cites a similar example from April involving radio talk show host Amy Goodman:
Tape-recording the accounts of residents of the FEMA-run Renaissance Village camp outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Goodman was approached by FEMA-hired security guards from Corporate Security Solutions who told her to “turn it off.” When Goodman explained that the resident had asked to be interviewed, she was told, “He can't. That’s not his privilege.” At first, the resident talking to Goodman was told by the guard, “You can go get interviewed as long as it’s off post.” But when the resident offered to continue the interview outside the camp, the guard said, “Yes, you can be interviewed... if they had a FEMA representative with them, but since they don’t and do not have an appointment....” Interviews are allowed to proceed, the guard noted, when “they have the FEMA public relations officer with them.”
FEMA residents are not even allowed to talk off the premises? Do the guards track down those who do? Are they kicked out of the camps? This is Gestapo kind of stuff, and it's happening right here in America to people who already have enough problems. One could argue that in the aftermath of Katrina, their constitutional rights were all they had left. But FEMA has stripped them of those, too.

07/29/2006 - UPDATE - Thanks in part to FAIR activists, this policy has been changed.

The Burning Question

After Floyd Landis' startling comeback performance in the Tour de France yesterday, he told reporters that he drank a beer the night before. Today VeloNews' Patrick O'Grady asks the burning question that every cyclist wants to know... What brand did Landis drink that made him ride like that?!? Heck, I want to know, and I don't even drink beer. O'Grady starts out by evaluating the VeloNews reporters on the scene:
This is what happens when a magazine sends amateur tipplers to cover a sporting contest of this magnitude. John Wilcockson may have written up 39 Tours de France, but I'll bet you a case of Deschutes Brewery's Twilight Ale that I can drink that skinny Limey under the table without even getting up to take a leak. And I certainly expected more from Rupert Guinness, who in addition to being named after an Irish beer is an Aussie - on the rare occasions when one of those guys gets hurt badly enough to bleed, the stuff tests out at 8 percent alcohol, and comes complete with a foamy head.
My dad isn't a big cycling fan, but I know he would have asked what beer Landis drank. Then O'Grady notes all the times Landis mentioned beer in interviews without once being pressed to name the brand. He takes a few guesses, but ultimately the question is left unanswered. Maybe someone will ask Landis when he appears at Village CycleSport on August 11, prior to the Tour of Elk Grove criterium. By the way, it's worth clicking on O'Grady's article just to see the illustration. It looks like Team Phonak has a new leader.

How to Spot a Copied Web Site

Last night I was checking out the awesome Chicago Bike Shops Web site (I had been there once before, when it was first established). Visitors can make comments about shops, and while reading those I discovered a place I had never heard of -- Oscar Wastyn Cycles on Fullerton Avenue. I guess I should have heard of it since it's probably the most historic shop in a city with a rich (though mostly forgotten) bicycling history. The shop's founder, Emil Wastyn, designed and built the Paramount bicycle for Schwinn in the early 20th century. Anyway, I went to Wastyn's Web site and noticed that the filenames for the pages don't match the contents. Check this out:
Bicycles: http://www.wastyn.com/dining.htm
About us: http://www.wastyn.com/cater.htm
Hours: http://www.wastyn.com/events.htm
Contact: http://www.wastyn.com/rooms.htm
Sheesh, if you're going to copy from a restaurant/banquet hall site, the least you could do is rename the files! I just hope they didn't pay a professional Web designer for that.

Bastard of the Day

Somehow I have skipped over Rush Limbaugh for this award, even though he's just as worthy of permanent bastardhood as Bill O'Reilly. But after reading his ridiculous explanation of how stem cell research works, I decided it's time. Besides, I should have given President Bush the award two days ago for vetoing the federal embryonic stem cell research bill (sorry, I was too busy chastizing incompetent grocery store baggers). Anyway, here's how Rush explained embryonic stem cell research to his rabid, knuckle-dragging listeners on Wednesday:
I'm telling you, and I have from the get-go, who is behind this—is the—the militant pro-abortion crowd, because you need abortions to get these.
While I have to give Rush credit for saying "pro-abortion" instead of "pro-choice" (I detest both terms, "pro-choice" and "pro-life"), he's simply talking out his butt, as Al Franken would say. Anyone who knows anything about stem cell research knows that scientists aren't using aborted fetuses. In case you, like Rush, have been living under a rock, simply check out the Web site of one of the few government organizations that the administration hasn't completely corrupted yet, the National Institutes of Health:
Embryonic stem cells, as their name suggests, are derived from embryos. Specifically, embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro—in an in vitro fertilization clinic—and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman's body. The embryos... are typically four or five days old..."
The thing I admire about Rush as a showman is that he can be so completely full of crap, and yet he manages to take it to another level. In this case, he expanded his rant to encompass the entire scientific community:
This—the—I think we need to re-examine this whole term "scientist." You know, there are certain things in our culture that are never questioned. They have instant credibility. If a scientist says anything, [gasp] it's gotta be true... It is why global warming has become a scientific thing, because nobody can question science. Why, scientists, smarter than everybody else. And science is science. Science is not politics—well, it's absolutely BS. Science is all about politics, and science has been so wrong about so many things. They're not infallible...
After a quote like that, I'm not even sure where to begin. Since I'm feeling charitable, I'll start by granting him his last point. Scientists are not infallible. On the other hand, I don't recall any scientist making such a claim. I mean, isn't that the very nature of scientific inquiry, to form a hypothesis, test it, and come up with something else if it's wrong? (That's not quite the same as Bush inquiry, which determines an objective and changes the facts to support it.)

What really gets me is the sentence before that: "Science is all about politics." That's a Republican talking point if I ever heard one. Bush and company have framed science as politics because it hardly ever supports their positions (hence, it must be concocted by Democrats or other "evil-doers"). And only a Republican would use global warming as an example of scientists being wrong (for more on this, read my pseudo-review of The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney). This goes hand in hand with another GOP talking point, the portrayal of intelligent people as being against all that's good for the rest of America. I'm surprised Rush didn't describe scientists as "Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, East Coast intellectuals." I also love how Rush says "global warming has become a scientific thing" (emphasis added). What the heck was it before?

I don't have blind faith in scientists, but I trust them a lot more than I trust politicians. Or Rush Limbaugh, a most deserving bastard.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

How Not to Frame an Argument

Eric Zorn tries to rile up some outrage over the report about Chicago Police torturing suspects, but he makes a terrible mistake:

Wilson killed two police officers in 1982 and was sadistically worked over during interrogations by an Area 2 police crew led by the now infamous Cmdr. Jon Burge. That beating ultimately proved a window into numerous others incidents, but information about it was brushed off at the time by then States Atty. and now Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Regardless of his case being a "window," was Wilson the best example Zorn could find in that 290-page report? Naturally, a few commenters jumped on the fact that Wilson was a cop killer. And of course, some anti-brutality (dare I say anti-police?) activists said it didn't matter that he killed two police officers because he was still a victim.

Yet the nature of his offense does matter. In general, I don't think police should torture suspects. I don't think police should be above the law. But police are human beings -- how can we expect them to be above emotion? When an officer looks at a guy who killed two of his men, what goes through his mind? You bastard, you killed my friends. Or maybe, That could have been me you shot. Perhaps the activists expect someone in that position to calmly say, "Ah well, I am sure justice will be served. Have a nice day." Sorry, but killing police hits too close to home for officers. Say you caught someone trying to molest your kid. Given the opportunity, wouldn't you pound on that person for a while before contacting the authorities? I can pretty easily forgive the police for beating a cop killer.

Another commenter likened police brutality in Chicago to the torture at Abu Ghraib. That's interesting because the key to illustrating the atrocity of what guards did at Abu Ghraib was choosing good examples. The prime example I heard was that one torture victim was a guy who stole a car -- he wasn't a terrorist, just a thief. When car thieves are being tortured, many of us ask why. It seems just a tad extreme. Notice the example was not a guy who killed two Marines. Citing a case like that would have elicited very little sympathy from the average American.

As for the report, it was a stupid exercise, really. They spent $6 million to investigate things that happened in the 1970s and 1980s, too long ago to be prosecuted. The police can still face civil suits, but why should public funds be used to gather evidence for a civil suit? What a supreme waste of time and taxpayer money. That should be the outrage.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Today's award goes to the two women who bagged my groceries at Jewel on Ashland Avenue this afternoon. By the way, does the overnight cashier who does his/her own bagging know there are daytime cashiers who get two baggers? That's just not right.

I buy a lot of 2-liter bottles of pop because I drink Diet Rite like water (which will probably knock ten years off my life for some reason that hasn't been discovered yet). When Jewel has a "10 for $10" sale, I take it literally and stack ten bottles in my cart. Even when there isn't a "10 for $10" sale, I always buy my bottles in pairs. This is convenient for baggers who always bag them in pairs. Sometimes they double-bag, sometimes not, but they always put two bottles in a bag... and nothing else. When I get home, I don't even bother unpacking these bags of bottles; I just set them aside and empty them only when I need to refill the refrigerator.

Well, apparently the baggers I had today were not privy to this practice regarding 2-liter bottles. Tonight while I was stacking some newspapers, I noticed something in a Jewel bag with my two 2-liter bottles... two packages of shredded cheese. Why? I bought $136 worth of groceries today, so surely there was room in some other bag for my cheese. Besides, isn't it standard procedure to bag refrigerated items together, not mixed with something at room temperature?

Since the packages were unopened and only sat out for six hours, the odds are good that I don't have to throw them away (if this blog stops within the next few weeks, you'll know it was the cheese that did me in). But what if I hadn't noticed them in that bag tonight? Sometime next week I would grab a bottle of Diet Rite and find the cheese. I'd probably go back to Jewel and make a scene, forcing the store manager to give me a refund or call the police. The latter would be a poor choice since I'd have my wife waiting outside in her uniform, ready to walk in and tell the manager to give me my money back (don't worry, there are plenty of other Jewels nearby where I could shop after being shamed out of the Ashland store).

One may say that since there were two baggers, one of them might have been in training. But I've never been trained and I know how to do it, so that's no excuse. Next time I'll have to keep an eye on those bastard baggers. Better yet, I'll just do all of my shopping late at night. The poor cashier is overworked, but at least he/she knows how to bag my bottles.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Requiem for a Record Store

I suppose I visited Crow's Nest Records & Tapes in Crest Hill before I could drive. But it was after I got my license that the store became legendary, indelible in my mind. My best friend and I were both record fanatics -- I'm talking about vinyl -- and Crow's Nest was our favorite local store. Although we went to Rose Records more often (and bought more there since they had an extensive bargain bin, especially when the major labels were liquidating LPs as CDs came to the fore), going to Crow's Nest was always something special, the sort of trip we saved for a Saturday night.

Their sound system usually blasted hardcore, which matched the dress and hairstyles of the staff. That wasn't our scene, but we tolerated it to comb through the broadest selection of music around. There really was a crow's nest inside, attached to one of the thick wooden posts that supported the roof. But the store was named for owner Floyd Crow. Most of the records at Crow's Nest had two prices, a regular selling price and a discounted "3 for..." price. As compulsive collectors, we appreciated the encouragement to buy more (in fact, the store later subtitled itself "The Collector's Choice"). The more obscure our tastes became, the more we enjoyed perusing the bins, flipping through thousands of records in several genres. Eventually we got to know each other so well that we cut our flipping time in half -- each of us knew what the other was looking for.

We instinctively headed for Crow's Nest the night of the prom. The closest we came to getting lucky was lusting over the punked-out, dangerous-looking cashiers, but we could have done worse: a classmate sat at home and watched a Facts of Life reunion show. At least we were in the presence of live females, even if they had black fingernails and skeleton earrings.

My friend moved out of the state as Crow's Nest expanded to Naperville and then Aurora with CD-only stores. Although the Aurora store was half the distance, I still preferred to shop at Crest Hill for the ambiance as much as the selection. When I moved to Chicago after college, Crow's Nest followed me, opening downtown at the DePaul University campus. A few years later they opened a Lincoln Park store, but it didn't stand a chance. It was poorly located, too far west and too isolated to get the foot traffic that helps Lincoln Park stores pay the high rent. I shopped there a couple of times, but when I returned a year later it was closed.

In the meantime, the Aurora store quietly locked its doors, followed by the Naperville location. In January 1999, my best friend came to visit as my best man. We went to Crow's Nest with my brother for my "bachelor party." I bought them classic white-on-black Crow's Nest t-shirts as groomsman gifts.

Two years ago my friend returned to Chicago on business and we went to Crow's Nest downtown. After flipping through CDs for a while, I noticed the sale signs -- this location was closing, and everything was marked down. It was bittersweet; as bargain hunters we appreciated the savings, but we knew it didn't bode well for the business. I found an article saying that Crow bought out Rock Records in the Loop, but if he did, he didn't change its name. The Crow's Nest chain of five Chicagoland stores was scaled back to only Crest Hill, where it all began.

Last year when my friend came on another business trip, it was his turn for a bachelor party. Once again the three of us made a pilgrimage to Crow's Nest in Crest Hill. It was still the best record store around. And yes, the young women at the registers were still punky, although they didn't look as dangerous now that multiple piercings had become de rigueur.

Last Friday, my wife and I were driving from my parents' house to Champaign via U.S. 30 through Plainfield and Joliet. While dodging construction horses in Crest Hill, I looked across the road to see the venerable Crow's Nest. But something wasn't right. The parking lot was empty, and a sign advertised the property for sale.

"Come Dancing" isn't one of my favorite songs. Heck, it's not even one of my favorite Kinks songs. Ray Davies describes how when he was a kid, his older sister would often go dancing at the local palais (actually, he has six older sisters). Then comes the song's climax:

The day they knocked down the palais
My sister stood and cried.
The day they knocked down the palais
Part of my childhood died, just died.

I've seen a lot of record stores come and mostly go. Appletree Records in Aurora closed not long after I got my driver's license, and a few years later the DeKalb location shut its doors. The entire Rose Records chain collapsed, as did Flipside. Small chains were devoured by larger chains, and independent stores disappeared one by one. Even the mall stores where our less savvy friends shopped fell victim to consolidation.

Big box retailers have taken the high-volume business of selling the hits for less, and Internet sites offer breadth and depth that we never even dreamed of in the 1980s. As both proliferate, independent shops get squeezed more and more. They can't compete on price, and the thrill of the hunt that my friend and I relished is gone with the click of a mouse. A few years ago I was disappointed by the closure of Record Swap in Homewood, a mecca for new and used recordings where we had discovered many gems. But when I saw Crow's Nest on Friday, the sense of loss was palpable. I sent an e-mail with the real estate listing to my friend and wrote, "I feel like Ray Davies' sister."

Appendix: Crow's Nest Honor Roll

These are the artists whose music I bought at Crow's Nest on vinyl in the late 1980s. I wish I could say I remembered them all, but I had to look them up in my files. I used to fill out an index card for every record I bought, including purchase location, date, and price (I stopped keeping track with CDs).

The Beat Farmers, David Byrne, Camper Van Beethoven, the Church, Eric Clapton, Bruce Cockburn, the Cramps, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Melissa Etheridge, Steve Forbert, the Grass Roots, Guns N' Roses, Howlin' Wolf, Husker Du, Jethro Tull, Louis Jordan, Love, James McMurtry, Steve Miller Band, Bob Mould, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Pink Floyd, Chris Rea, Lou Reed, the Reivers, Jimmy Rogers, Skid Roper and the Whirlin' Spurs, Rush, the Smithereens, Soul Asylum, Talking Heads, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Big Joe Turner, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Tom Waits, Joe Walsh, the Who, Webb Wilder, Link Wray, X, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, and the Zombies.

Overheard at the Olive Garden

The waitress arrived with a big tray to serve the people next to us. "Here's your pizza," she said. "Do you want cheese on it?"

Of course she was talking about the fresh-ground romano cheese that they offer to put on everything at the Olive Garden, but the mental image of a naked pizza with only crust, sauce, and toppings being served to a bemused diner was pretty comical.

@#$%&* Air Conditioning

I don't even have my electric bill yet, but I'm already cursing about the air conditioning.

We had central A/C installed five years ago as part of a huge remodeling project. It's a Spacepak system, which uses high-pressure, flexible hoses snaked through the attic and walls. There is an A/C unit outside with a long tube running up the wall and into the attic where the blower resides. It works well, but from the start we have had one problem: condensation leaks from our attic down the wall in the stairwell.

We didn't see it the first year because we hardly used the A/C. By the time it became noticeable, we were far beyond the 15-minute warranty provided by our contractor. There was a PVC drainpipe that was supposed to drain into the stack, but water ran off the bottom and into the attic floor instead. I tried to fix it several times, and it went away for a while. Last year we ran the A/C for an entire month because our dog was dying, and the water damage became much worse. Paint was bubbling, cracking, and peeling. When I had insulation installed last winter, I asked the contractor if he could seal the joint between the PVC pipe and the stack. He did, but apparently that wasn't the real source of our vertical river.

This morning I was dismayed -- actually really pissed -- when I saw two narrow streaks of water trickling down the wall. The A/C had been running for most of the past 48 hours without a drop, so I had thought the problem was solved. I climbed up the attic ladder and searched for water, but I couldn't feel any moisture. Of course, my search was complicated by all the new insulation up there.

This afternoon I came up with an idea. I am going to put a picture of Mother Mary on the wall where the streaks originate and charge people to visit my Shrine of the Weeping Virgin. A lot of Hispanics live nearby, and they just eat that stuff up (check out Our Lady of the Underpass, a stain that looks vaguely like Mary on Fullerton Avenue underneath the Kennedy Expressway). Maybe I can get Eric Zorn to write a column about it and sneak in another plug for my book. Of course, it will be more expensive to run the air conditioning with all of those candles heating up the house. It would be just my luck for one of the cats to knock them over and set the whole place on fire. But at least I wouldn't have this water problem anymore.

Doggone It, People Like Me!

Or at least my book, which is good enough. Todd Underwood, bicycling columnist for the Daily Herald, gave Biking Illinois a great review this week. I like that he noticed all the research that went into the rides, including history and background. He even listed my Web site. This was a much-needed ego boost after my long, lonely Saturday in central Illinois.

I forgot to mention here that a few weeks ago my hometown newspaper, the Oswego Ledger-Sentinel, did a nice half-page story about me and my book. Unfortunately, they didn't put it online so I can't link to it. Reporter John Borneman asked me to provide a photo, but when I dragged my heels, he used this picture from my Grand Illinois Trail homepage instead. Since I was six years younger and 40 pounds lighter then, I think he made a great choice!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Will Biking Illinois Play in Peoria?

After the short drive on I-74 to Peoria, we enjoyed a long, relaxed dinner at the Olive Garden on my company's tab. We got to Borders about half an hour before my signing. Despite the morale bust of Normal, I was excited about Peoria. At least one bike club had published my invitation in their newsletter, local outdoors writer Jeff Lampe had given the book a positive review and listed my signing in his "upcoming events" column for two weeks, and a friend had said he would try to get his racing friends to come. Surely Biking Illinois would play in Peoria.

The employee who welcomed me was already familiar with the book, having looked up the Rock Island State Trail before I arrived. He was a runner who had done a lot of preparation for the Gay Games marathon (in Chicago) on that trail. I hope for his sake that next weekend is cooler; running a marathon in this heat can be miserable or even deadly (the LaSalle Banks Chicago Marathon is held in October to avoid such weather). He made an announcement at 7 PM as I prepared myself for the hordes of cyclists anxious to get a copy of my book. Half an hour later, I was still waiting for the hordes when a middle-aged couple came in. They had seen the signing in the newspaper (thanks, Jeff!). We talked for a while as both thumbed through copies, and then I signed one for them.

That turned out to be the highlight of my evening. I talked to several others briefly, some of whom seemed pretty interested, but no one was willing to pony up for a book. One guy said his son was a bike racer in Chicago, so I gave him a business card hoping for a future sale. And that was it. One book for the whole night. I had arrived confident that Peoria would easily exceed Normal, and it turned out to be even worse. At least the Borders guy let me sign six books for stock, quite reasonable as opposed to the two that I signed for Normal. He blamed the heat for my poor turnout, as well as competition from other weekend events -- a balloon festival to the west and a county fair to the east.

I hadn't expected to draw a Stephen King-sized crowd in central Illinois, but I had hoped to sell more than fifteen books. If not for Champaign, my weekend book tour would have been a complete disaster. At least my trip to the Quad Cities had paid for itself. On the bright side, I enjoyed meeting the people who did come out, and it was nice to get away for a weekend, especially since I could deduct it all as business expense (now if only I had more business income this year).

Next up: Thursday night at The Book Cellar on Lincoln Avenue. At least it won't cost me anything to get there since I can walk!

SNAFU: Situation Normal...

My afternoon signing at Borders in Normal got off to a bad start. I walked in around 11:30 for my noon signing. Then I saw a display for my book that said I would be there... at 1 PM. Uh-oh. For the past week or two, I had been sending out reminders about my signing at noon. I went out to the car and looked at my e-mails. Yep, it was supposed to be 1 PM. But what if someone came earlier based on my e-mails?

Embarrassed, I found a Borders manager and asked if we could set up an hour early. I was disrupting their schedule, something my friend who used to work in a bookstore advised me not to do. It didn't matter, really -- no one showed up between noon and 1 PM as I sat there by the customer information counter in the middle of the store (notice that I didn't get a location in front). In fact, the store was pretty empty, no doubt because temperatures were approaching 100 degrees -- why go out in that heat to get a book signed when the air conditioning at home feels so much better?

That was the theme for Normal -- all the people who didn't come. With the rest of the afternoon open on my itinerary, I stayed until 3:30... and sold two books. Two books in 3-1/2 hours. I gave a business card to a woman who said she didn't have the money to buy it right away, but other than that I hardly talked to anyone aside from one friendly employee who asked me dozens of questions. Too bad he got stuck at the front register for most of the afternoon because I was pretty lonely. Another employee walked past, simply asking, "Your first book?" I understood the subtext: You naive fool, you think people are actually going to show up for your book signing.

Even my wife ignored me, burying her nose in a book on the other end of the store. Gosh, just because they only gave me one chair doesn't mean you can't say hi every so often. When she finally came to see me after two hours, I had to give her my seat to get her to stay. Some background: on Friday night, my wife noticed that she wasn't wearing her wedding ring. Since I was wearing mine, we decided that people would think she was my mistress, or maybe a writer groupie. Back to Saturday -- I told her if anyone asked why she was in the chair instead of the author, I would tell them that she promised she'd sleep with me if I let her sit there.

As I prepared to leave, I asked how many copies I should sign for stock. The manager flatly responded,"Well, considering the turnout today, two." Two? Two freaking copies? It was the first time I was told not to sign every copy, but I found two to be a rather insulting number. After all, most stores stocked five copies or so, and the guy in Davenport told me autographed copies sell 20% better than others. Later I said to my wife, "They should have just said, 'Here, sign this piece of toilet paper.'" Not missing a beat, she replied, "Yeah, so they could flush it."

The local bike club had posted an invitation from me on their Web site. An online acquaintenance had said she would come. But the only books I signed were for people who just happened to be in the store when I was. My promotional efforts were all for naught. Some Borders people said the oppressive heat was probably to blame, but I couldn't help walking out of there feeling like the biggest loser ever granted an ISBN.

My next stop was Peoria, where I had promoted my signing much better. Plus Saturday night would probably draw more people than a hot Saturday afternoon...

Champaign -- My First Home

Friday afternoon my wife and I drove to Champaign for a Biking Illinois book signing. I was born there 36 years ago, right after my mom finished taking her final exams. We only lived there for a few years before we moved to the Chicago suburbs.

When we got to town, we had dinner at Famous Dave's Barbecue, which is located in a nifty round barn. I love their barbecued pork salad. Then we happened upon Champaign Cycle, and I figured I'd try to get them to stock my book. Although the doors were still open, it was ten minutes past closing time. An employee flipped through the book, wrote down some information, and promised to look into it. The store is huge, by the way, with lots of space to get around. I'm used to Chicago bike shops where the real estate is too expensive for wide aisles.

The next part of this story is surreal. I was trying to get to University Avenue to get back to the interstate. When I turned onto a street leading in that direction, I realized it was a dead end. As I looked for a place to turn around, I noticed the apartment buildings. Their bricks were an unusual shade, sort of a grayish white. "Oh my God," I exclaimed to my wife. "I used to live here!"

She asked how I could possibly know since I had moved away at age three. "I've seen pictures, and I recognize those bricks." I also recalled my dad mentioning that our apartment was on the west end of Champaign near the interstate, which was exactly where we were. In retrospect, I should have taken a picture, but I was more concerned about getting to my book signing on time.

When we arrived at Borders, there were posters on the front door with my name (spelled correctly!) and a photo of my book. Very cool. (They let me keep them afterward as souvenirs.) I had a table just inside the front door, so everyone saw me as they entered. I had a great time meeting all sorts of cyclists. A guy from the Touring e-mail list told me about his upcoming family tour of central and southern Illinois. I talked with a bike commuter who wanted to broaden his horizons, a woman who loved her recumbent tricycle, a guy who was new to Illinois and wanted to explore the state, and a woman who has been tormented by farm dogs that chase her. All of them bought books. All told, I signed a dozen books for customers and about a dozen more for stock. Since I only sold a couple at my first bookstore signing in Davenport, I was thrilled by the response. And the weekend was just beginning...

Air Conditioning

We made it halfway through July, but with highs approaching 100 degrees today, I reluctantly decided to turn on the air conditioning for the first time this year. Though I have made several efforts at weatherizing our home over the years, it still has more leaks than the White House. Yippee, I can't wait for the electric bill.

I also drove to the grocery store this morning instead of walking even though I didn't have much to buy. It's not that I'm a heat wimp -- I was afraid our food would be thawed if not cooked in the fifteen minutes it would take to walk home!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Lyrics of the Day

A spokesperson announced today that Syd Barrett, a founding member of Pink Floyd, died recently at age 60. Barrett suffered a mental breakdown and left Pink Floyd in 1968, but he inspired some of their most famous work after his departure, including "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" from the album Wish You Were Here, which was dedicated to him. When I heard of Barrett's passing, my first thought was of Dark Side of the Moon and its climax, "Brain Damage:"
The lunatic is in my head.
The lunatic is in my head.
You raise the blade, you make the change,
You rearrange me till I'm sane.
You lock the door and throw away the key,
There's someone in my head but it's not me.

And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear,
You shout and no one seems to hear,
And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes,
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.
Roger Waters wrote those lyrics for his former bandmate: "The lunatic was Syd, really. He was obviously in my mind." The line about the band playing different tunes could be interpreted several ways. Pink Floyd indeed played different tunes and changed their style after Barrett left, but it could also be about one of the symptoms of Barrett's mental illness and/or drug use -- he would literally play different songs from the rest of the band onstage.


And yes, I do realize there is a "Floyd" theme to my posts today.

Why Now, Floyd?

Yesterday was the first rest day of the Tour de France. Though Serguei Gonchar (his name has a dozen spellings, so don't try to correct me) leads the race, all eyes were on American hopeful Floyd Landis, currently second. Gonchar is not expected to fare well in the mountains, so many consider Landis the virtual leader for the general classification (to non-cycling fans -- the G.C. is what Lance Armstrong won, the fastest time for the entire race).

But Landis dropped a bomb that very few expected: he has been suffering for several years from a degenerative hip ailment and will likely need hip replacement surgery after the Tour.
Doctors said the condition - described as "avascular necrosis" - reduced blood flow to the upper part of his right femur, broken during a crash in 2003. The reduction of blood to the bone left a rotten knob grinding inside the hip socket, causing intense pain when he walks, rides and even sleeps.
The damage is irreversible; it's just a matter of how long he can bear the pain. This news is incredible in light of all that he has achieved this year, winning several major stage races.

What I can't figure out is why Landis chose the Tour's first rest day to reveal this shocking news. His official reason for going public is "to get the story right." Most Americans don't realize what a circus the media coverage of cycling is in Europe, especially during the Tour. Some over-excited journalist was bound to connect half the dots wrong and spin some wacky tale, forcing Landis and his team into damage control mode. From what I know about him, I'd also like to believe he spilled his guts because the pressure of trying to keep it secret was bothering him. He has always seemed like a straightforward kind of guy.

But letting your opponents know you have a major weakness just before the going gets tough isn't a normal strategy. Is he trying to craft a story that will make him a sympathetic favorite, a la Armstrong after cancer? That seems too cynical and calculating for Landis. Maybe he is trying to lower the expectations of the press and fans. That might not be a bad move -- it certainly takes off some pressure. Perhaps someone was questioning his medical dossier, which includes cortisone for the pain. That wouldn't surprise me in light of all the doping accusations lately. Or maybe he had reason to suspect one of his confidants was about to spill the beans.

Although Landis' reason -- to make sure the story is told correctly -- may be honest, the timing is the curious part. Landis could have explained all of this at a pre-Tour press conference, or anytime over the last couple of years for that matter. But he did not. So what has changed in the past week to encourage him to talk now?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Competence of Conservatism

Two must-read articles were posted on AlterNet this week. Together, they make a convincing argument that while the administration has been woefully incompetent in serving Americans, Bush has been all too effective in implementing his ideology.

The first, by George Lakoff (author of Don't Think of an Elephant) bears a headline that is anathema in progressive circles: "Bush Is Not Incompetent." His analysis is spot-on. On the surface, one can point to all of Bush's "failures" -- war in Iraq, huge national debt, Hurricane Katrina -- and rant about his incompetence. But Lakoff notes that Bush knows exactly what he is doing. He is being true to the core values of the modern conservative movement, and he has been ruthlessly successful. By putting our country into a state of war and cutting taxes, he has made cuts in "non-military, discretionary spending" essential. Conservatives call it "starving the beast," making sure there is no money to fund the social and regulatory programs they want to eliminate.

The pseudo-intellectuals who frequent AlterNet's comments section just can't seem to grasp this concept. They are so convinced that Bush is incompetent that they can't recognize that the damage done by his administration is deliberate, driven by ideology. For example, the federal government's nonresponse to Katrina dovetails with the "ownership society" where citizens cannot expect the government to take care of them. Sure, Bush looked like a buffoon playing guitar while New Orleans was drowning, but those residents on the rooftops got the message loud and clear: your government isn't here to help you.

As Lakoff writes, the distinction between the man and his ideology is critical.
The mantra of incompetence has been an unfortunate one. The incompetence frame assumes that there was a sound plan, and that the trouble has been in the execution. It turns public debate into a referendum on Bush's management capabilities, and deflects a critique of the impact of his guiding philosophy.
Those of us who don't like Bush's results (remember his 2000 slogan "reformer with results?" ha ha ha) need to make clear that conservatism is to blame, not Bush. Otherwise, we risk leaving the door open in 2008 for someone who shares his devastating ideology.

The other article, "Why Conservatives Can't Govern" by Alan Wolfe (from Washington Monthly, elaborates on this ideology and why it results in poor government. In a nutshell, a government run by people whose philosophy is that government should do as little as possible cannot serve its citizenry.
Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.
Wolfe gives a brief history of conservatism in America, noting that the most effective conservatives have always been forced to compromise with liberals, resulting in some sort of balance. This is the first time since 1932, and since the dawn of modern "big" government, that conservatives have run the executive and legislative branches for an entire presidential term.
Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.
And again, the message is that the ideology is flawed and that no one could follow it and be a good leader. Bush's apparent bumbling shouldn't distract us from that. If the next president is a conservative, he will be just as ineffective.

Wolfe goes on to offer some evolutionary alternatives for the conservative movement that could be viable, though he admits that such changes are doubtful. As evidence, look at how some right-wing pundits are jumping on the "Bush is incompetent" bandwagon. Swaying the public to think we just have the wrong person for the job rather than the wrong philosophy is their best chance to get another conservative elected in 2008.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Are These Facts Related?

Pro cyclist Jörg Ludewig is being investigated for writing a letter inquiring about performance-enhancing drugs eight years ago. Yes, that was a long time ago, but the sport is particularly sensitive about these matters right now. He issued a statement today:
The year 1998 was a difficult year for me: I had private problems (including breaking up with my girlfriend) and in addition I had various severe health problems to overcome (such as mononucleosis and a chlamydia infection).
Upon reading this, one must wonder... Did he break up with his girlfriend after catching chlamydia from her? Did she break up with him after he contracted chlamydia from someone else? Ludewig invites such speculation by oversharing in his statement. He could have left out the STD entirely. Mono is a bad enough health problem; we don't need to hear about your nether regions. Unless you have saddle sores, I suppose -- at least that has something to do with cycling.

Bastard of the Day

Well, Dubya's buddy Ken Lay managed to avoid prison after all. He didn't even get a chance to appeal. Ding-dong, the bastard's dead. But the people he screwed over still have to live with the damage he did. The Lay family would be wise to bury him in an unmarked grave. I wonder if Bush will attend his funeral. And talk about great timing -- I just got Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room from Netflix today!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Since this is Independence Day, every yahoo in the City of Chicago thinks it's great fun to shoot off illegal fireworks. It sounds like Fallujah outside my window. I hate those @#$%&* fireworks, but I am resisting the urge to give today's award to those who launch them.

Instead, I have found a much more worthy candidate. When an especially percussive explosion goes off, a certain car in the neighborhood starts honking its horn. The beeping stops within half a minute. Then another BOOM a few minutes later makes the car honk again.

So today's bastard is the guy who owns that car. Why don't you just turn off the freaking alarm instead of resetting it every time fireworks make it go off? Sheesh.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Lyrics of the Day

I am listening to a Trip Shakespeare concert from 1992 right now. Trip Shakespeare is a forgotten, underrated Minneapolis band. They are probably best known as a predecessor of Semisonic. One of my favorite songs by Trip Shakespeare is called "The Crane":

When the dogs of the bank are upon me
And they've come to repossess my car
I'll be found at the base of the canyon
I'll be torn from the wreck of the motor

Let the crane take back the engine
Let the crane take back the wheel
And I feel that the world should come with me
When I ride to the crack in the earth

I used to work with a guy named Santos. When Santos got his car repossessed, I thought of this song and imagined him literally being chased by dogs, running with car keys in hand. And his legs were even shorter than mine, so it was a hilarious picture.

I still love this song, and not just because it casts bankers as the dogs they often are. I love the attitude: if you want to repo' my car, you're going to have to retrieve it with a crane after I wreck it... and I'm going with it! It's sort of the suburban male's equivalent of prying a gun from one's cold, dead fingers.

Across the Universe includes "The Crane." Their follow-up, Lulu, is even better. It makes me wonder what they were thinking when they split up. Did they figure they couldn't do better than Lulu? Did they decide that since Lulu wasn't a hit, they were doomed to never have one? Two members of Trip Shakespeare helped form the band Semisonic, which did have a huge hit in 1998, "Closing Time." It wasn't all it was cracked up to be; their drummer wrote a disillusioned book about the experience.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

An Historic Clean Slate?

With the withdrawal of Jan Ullrich, the 2006 Tour de France is the first not to include any previous winners at the start since 1999, the year of Lance Armstrong's first victory. Of course, since Armstrong won for the past seven years, it isn't surprising that there is a dearth of former winners still competing in the sport (1996 winner Bjarne Riis is the boss of Team CSC, but he'll be driving a team car, not riding). The only former runner-up in the field is T-Mobile's Andreas Klöden, with CSC's Bobby Julich the only third-place finisher. Because Klöden hasn't impressed since and Julich is beyond his prime, the odds are excellent that we will see an all-new podium this year.

But perhaps more historically, has there ever been a Tour de France wherein none of the previous year's top five took part? I don't have the data to do the research easily, but I suspect that 2006 may be the first. At the very least, we probably would have to go back several decades to find a similar instance -- maybe the 1947 Tour, which was the first since 1939 thanks to World War II.

This could be a watershed moment, a complete changing of the guard. And in the face of the Operación Puerto doping scandal, that is just what pro cycling needs right now.

07/16/2006 - UPDATE - I followed up on my hunch about the 1947 Tour. It turns out that Rene Vietto, 2nd place in 1939, not only raced in 1947 but finished 5th. That poor guy might have won a Tour or two if not for WWII interrupting his career.

Landis Caught Napping

From live coverage of today's Tour de France prologue, a 7.1 km time trial:

Floyd Landis missed his start! He wasn't even on the ramp when the beep came on. But he only missed 6 seconds... still, that won't do it for the win today.
Landis finished 9 seconds behind winner Thor Hushovd. That probably won't make any difference in the final standings, but it reminded me of a much greater error by Pedro Delgado. In the 1989 Tour de France, Delgado was the defending champion. But when it was time for him to start the prologue time trial, he wasn't there. As fans waited anxiously, Delgado showed up two minutes and 40 seconds late for the start. Needless to say, losing that much time in the first 8 km of the race (which most riders finished in less than ten minutes) didn't bode well. Though he battled back to third place in the mountains, Delgado never recovered the time he lost in the prologue. Incidentally, the 1989 Tour was decided by another time trial in the final stage: the legendary duel between Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon. LeMond started 50 seconds behind Fignon and beat him by 58 seconds, winning the Tour by the narrowest margin ever.

UPDATE 07/02/2006 - It turned out that Landis had a cut tire that his team mechanics chose to change at the last minute, so he wasn't just zoning out with his iPod or something.

Ullrich Vs. Armstrong

Reacting to the news of Jan Ullrich's suspension, veteran Gerolsteiner rider Georg Totschnig revealed a difference between the two greatest Tour de France racers of the past decade:
With Jan, it has affected one of my best friends in the scene. You could sit down to dinner with him and talk not just about cycling, but about everything. When I sat together with my wife Michi, him and and his girlfriend Sara, we talked about how his daughter Sarah was doing in kindergarten, when he would hold his next party at his house in Switzerland, and whether singer Udo Lindenberg would drop by. Lance Armstrong was different. He spoke the whole evening only about training, his saddle and the position of his handlebars. For him there was only cycling, and that's probably exactly why he won the Tour seven times.
I agree with Totschnig's assessment. The charge that Ullrich hasn't been 100% dedicated like Armstrong has been made many times, but this spells it out well. We may have seen the last of Ullrich, though. Francisco Mancebo retired on the spot when he was suspended yesterday, and some think Ullrich will walk away from the sport, too.