Monday, April 30, 2007

I Wonder...

Having combed the state for material for Biking Illinois, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about tourist sites here. So let's take a look at the "Seven Wonders of Illinois" according to those who voted on the Bureau of Tourism's Web site. By region:
  • Northern: Starved Rock State Park, Utica. I can't argue with this one.
  • Central: Allerton Park and Retreat Center, Monticello. I'll admit that I don't know much about this place except that I found it while driving around searching for the somewhat elusive Heartland Pathways, a multi-use trail project which runs through Monticello. But surely Rockome Gardens in Amish Country or something Lincoln-related near Springfield would have been a better choice. The article reports that Allerton Park conducted a strong get-out-the-vote campaign to win. By the way, I finally found the Heartland Pathways after dark and was unimpressed, although there is great potential once they become more developed.
  • Western: Black Hawk State Historic Site, Rock Island. In all the times I've been to Rock Island, I've never visited this place so I can't fairly judge. In general, a site associated with Chief Black Hawk is probably a legitimate choice. And yet I can't help thinking people who have never been there thought they were voting for Loredo Taft's Black Hawk statue (officially named The Eternal Indian), which overlooks the Rock River near Oregon, IL.
  • Southern: Rend Lake, Benton. This choice is ridiculous. Southern Illinois is a beautiful region with several great candidates. Yet voters overlooked Garden of the Gods (Ride 58 in Biking Illinois) and Giant City State Park (Ride 54) to pick a dammed lake? (Lest the pun slip past anyone, Rend Lake was formed by a dam on the Big Muddy River.) For that matter, what makes Rend so much better than Shelbyville, Carlyle, or any of the other man-made lakes in the state?
  • Southwest: Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway, following a 33-mile strip of river through Alton, Grafton, Hartford and Elsah. This is a good choice. It's a beautiful drive through historic towns beneath magnificent bluffs -- or a beautiful ride on the parallel Vadalabene River Road Bikeway (Ride 46 in Biking Illinois).
  • Chicago: Wrigley Field. I suppose my family would disown me if I argued against this one, but there are many other worthy wonders in Chicago. At least it's a better choice than the new Soldier Field!
  • Chicagoland: Baha'i House of Worship, Wilmette. The suburbs have plenty of candidates, but this intricately detailed structure is probably as good a choice as any. It's also the starting point for Ride 21 in Biking Illinois.

Overall, Rend Lake is the only real stinker here, although Allerton Park is a dubious choice. Of course, my problem with lists like this is that they are so limiting. I hope they don't promote these seven "wonders" to the detriment of the other great places in Illinois.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Bad Week for Borises

On Monday we lost former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, and Wednesday Bobby "Boris" Pickett died at age 69. Pickett is best known -- okay, pretty much only known -- as the guy who sang the annual Halloween hit, "Monster Mash." Pickett's nickname came from his impression of actor Boris Karloff.

His AP obituary contains some interesting trivia. The piano on "Monster Mash" was played by Leon Russell, who was 20 years old at the time. Also the song was turned down by four record labels before it was finally released.

Pickett managed to build a touring career around "Monster Mash" until the end:
He continued performing through his final gig in November. He remained in demand for Halloween performances, including a memorable 1973 show where his bus broke down outside Frankenstein, Missouri.
The obit did not mention whether Pickett had been sharing that bus with Edgar Winter.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Sweet Smell of Schadenfreude

Today Chicago Tribune auto columnist Jim Mateja writes about a study by the Ecology Center that will please anyone frustrated with the "keep up with the Joneses" consumerism that encourages Americans to buy new cars frequently. It turns out that "new car smell" isn't so wonderful after all. In fact, it's often toxic. And since it takes about three years for the bad chemicals to work their way out, those status-obsessed neighbors who buy a new car every few years are constantly exposed to the stuff. On the other hand, those of us who squeeze every last mile out of our cars will breathe cleaner air (aside from exhaust emissions) even as our cars become neighborhood eyesores.

This study justifies those dashboard shades that were once so popular. The sun's heat activates the bad chemicals, so keeping your car in the garage or at least shading the windows is good for your health. You should also air out a hot car and regularly clean chemical residue off the windows.

You can read the press release here and get a PDF showing every model's toxic chemical rating here. For what it's worth, our Ford Focus is right in the middle, 2.5 on a 5-point scale. We have only two more years of breathing deadly chemicals. Then we can watch our neighbors buy yet another new vehicle and know that they are only hastening their own deaths.

Do They Mean That?

While researching lodging in Montana, I came across this description for the Nez Perce Motel in Wisdom, MT:

The Nez Perce is a very clean, eight unit motel situated at the crossroads of the scenic Big Hole Valley of Wisdom. It provides rooms for tourists, fisherman, sportsmen, and other outdoor extremists.
For clarity, I would change it to "situated at the crossroads of Wisdom in the scenic Big Hole Valley" (it's not the "Big Hole Valley of Wisdom"). But more importantly, notice the tail end of that quotation. Outdoor extremists? Yikes! Wisdom is near the Idaho border, and both states are known for separatist groups. So when I think of outdoor extremists, I'm picturing heavily armed men in camouflage living off the land with questionable allegiance to the U.S. government. Surely enthusiasts would have been a better word.

One could argue that they are trying to cash in on "extreme sports," except the context isn't quite right -- the word "other" would imply that tourists, fishermen, and sportsmen also participate in extreme sports. But I've never seen trout fishing in a Mountain Dew commercial.

Because of the location and high-speed Internet access, I might stay at the Nez Perce Motel this summer regardless of the outdoor extremists. I'll let you know what I find.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Virginia Tech: Guns Aren't The Issue

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, everybody wants to talk about guns.

By Tuesday night, ABC's Primetime had clearly decided gun control was the key issue. They described several times how Cho Seung-Hui purchased his weapon, and every time they emphasized that he made the purchase "with no waiting period" -- right after saying that he bought the gun more than a month before he killed 32 people. Am I the only one who caught the irrelevance of that reporting? As far as I know, no state has a waiting period long enough to thwart a crime planned five weeks in advance. The fact that Virginia has no waiting period has absolutely no bearing on this incident. Perhaps people don't understand waiting periods. The goal of waiting periods is to prevent crimes of passion, i.e. "this guy pissed me off so I'm going to go buy a gun and shoot him." While anti-gun people might like to think those days of the waiting period are being spent thoroughly and feverishly conducting background checks on the purchaser, that simply isn't the case.

Some anti-gun fanatics are trying to blame the gun dealer. But the dealer did everything according to the law. They can argue that Virginia's laws could be more restrictive or that the police database could be more robust, but they can't blame a businessman who followed the rules. Of course, the real goal of the anti-gun folks is to ban guns altogether, a woefully misguided strategy. People who want guns will always be able to get them somehow, whether through legitimate or black market channels -- especially someone like Seung-Hui who plans ahead.

The pro-gun forces take the opposite approach, arguing that if everyone had guns, Seung-Hui would have been shot before he killed so many people. This may sound logical on the surface, but do we really want to effectively deputize every citizen? And don't these people realize that this strategy would put guns into the hands of thousands of troubled (but not disturbed enough to be denied gun ownership) people like Seung-Hui? What about crossfire in a shootout? What about the guy who fires first because he was "sure" the other person was about to draw a weapon? Insert your own bad-idea scenario here, and wait for the pro-gun people to start talking about the 2002 Appalachian School of Law shooting.

Banning guns or giving them to everyone wouldn't necessarily have any effect on a killer like Seung-Hui. Someone who buys a gun weeks in advance could just as easily find another way to carry out a killing spree regardless (homemade bombs and arson are two means that come to mind).

Unlike many other liberals, I don't have my shorts in a bunch about guns. I suppose I should, considering that my police officer wife is a likely target of gun-toting bad guys. But I don't think guns are the problem here. John Nichols writes that people should watch Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. The movie is not the anti-gun diatribe that my pro-gun, Moore-hating dad thinks it is (he's never seen it). Moore makes the point that gun ownership in other countries does not necessarily lead to gun violence and wonders why it happens here.

Charles Madigan, one of the Chicago Tribune's most thoughtful writers, looks beyond guns to another issue, mental health. My thoughts immediately went back to an article -- actually an excerpt from a new book -- that I read last month titled "Why Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy." Here's the part that I found most astonishing:

Indeed, one report in 2000 found that the average American child reported higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s -- our new normal is the old disturbed.
Anxiety equates to stress, and stress eventually breaks down one's mental health. In the last 50 years, our society has exacerbated mental problems, and it's bound to get worse with each passing generation. Guns or no guns, incidents like Columbine and Virginia Tech will become more common in the future unless we make some major changes.

For a really provocative look at the issue, check out "Virginia Tech: Is the Scene of the Crime the Cause of the Crime?" by Mark Ames. He says schools and offices are toxic environments responsible for breeding killers, a thesis he explored in his book Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond." As one who was miserably stressed in both of those environments (despite "succeeding" in them) and who has found great freedom and peace upon escaping them, I think Ames presents a viewpoint that shouldn't be ignored.

Turning the "national conversation" about Virginia Tech into a gun control debate is like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than the root cause. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk rants that pass for dialogue in this country seem more concerned with the sniffle than the virus.

Roswell Weirdness

Before I upgraded to the latest edition, my HTML editing software had a nasty habit of inserting a space after every quotation mark so "Hello" became " Hello." It wasn't a huge problem, but stuff like that really bugs me. Yesterday I'd finally had enough. I went through each page of my Coast to Coast 2002 journal and fixed every occurrence I could find.

I wrote that journal because I feared that I'd forget too much about my trip if I didn't. Here is one strange conversation I had with a motel clerk in Roswell, NM that I had indeed forgotten:

She asked many questions about my trip, but one thing stood out. When she asked if I call my wife every night, I said, "Well, no, I usually call her every few days. Our schedules don't really match up."

"You should call her every night. Being out on the road, anything could happen to you."

"Well, if something did happen, there probably wouldn't be much that she could do about it anyway," I reasoned.

Then she caught me by surprise. "What if you got amnesia or something?"

I looked at her. I couldn't tell if she was serious.

"You hear about it all the time. Somebody's just walking down the street, then suddenly they don't know who they are or where they are," she said matter-of-factly.

Wow, she was serious! I still couldn't see how it would matter if I had called my wife the night before I lost my memory, though. And even if she came and found me, I wouldn't remember she was my wife anyway, right? Then the clerk's phone rang, so I said goodbye and made my escape. How bizarre.

Just when you're sure you've thought of everything that could possibly go wrong, someone gives you something new to worry about!

I should have reread my journal weeks ago -- it's bringing back so many memories of the road that I am getting motivated for some sort of sequel (more on that later).

Saturday, April 21, 2007

New Marketing Phase for Biking Illinois

Sometime this winter I figured out that giving away a few copies of Biking Illinois for promotional purposes is a lot cheaper than advertising and probably just as effective. Get the book out there where people can see it and someone will buy it, right? Besides, I still have many copies left over from the time my publisher suggested that I order 100 books for an event where I only sold 18. So I have begun to select non-profit events that might like to offer autographed copies of Biking Illinois as raffle prizes, door prizes, or auction items (it will be interesting to see whether they will auction for more than list price). Best of all, it's one of the few advertising channels where people thank you for your contribution.

Today was the official launch of this new marketing phase with two small, suburban events raffling or auctioning copies of Biking Illinois. The first was a golf outing benefiting two YMCAs in the Fox River Valley. It was held by my alma mater, Aurora University, at a golf course about two miles from where I grew up. The second was a short, family bike ride in Glen Ellyn to raise money for Children's Memorial Hospital.

I've already contacted several organizations that I'd like to support, including the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, the League of Illinois Bicyclists, World Bicycle Relief, and Friends of the Parks, but I'm looking for more. If you are putting on an Illinois event that involves cyclists, other recreational athletes, or any large number of Illinoisans, please e-mail me. I'll even personalize the books with a message like, "Thanks for supporting _(organization)_ at _(event)_ 2007" along with my signature.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

I own a huge collection of records and CDs, but I like to keep a list of "Top Five Songs I Don't Have." I guess it just reminds me that my collection isn't complete. For a long time "Whip It" was on that list, but then I got DEVO's Greatest Hits. "Rock Lobster" by the B-52's has been on the list for many years (and yes, the grammarian in me is irked by the unnecessary apostrophe in the band's name). So has this song, "Mexican Radio" by Wall Of Voodoo:

I wish I was in Tiajuana
Eating barbequed iguana
I'd take requests on the telephone
I'm on a wavelength far from home
I feel a hot wind on my shoulder
I dial it in from south of the border
I hear the talking of the dj
Can't understand just what does he say?
Barbequed iguana! This may be the only time cooked lizards made it to the Billboard charts. And notice there's an iguana on the band's homepage. Before any of you spelling or geography geeks write to point out that Tijuana is misspelled above, that's the way vocalist Stan Ridgway pronounces it (the extra syllable is important because it fits the meter).

I remember watching the video for "Mexican Radio" in the early days of MTV, or at least the early days of our house having cable TV. But the only scene I remember is Ridgway's(?) head popping up in a bowl of beans near the end. I used to watch the whole video just waiting for that part.

UPDATE 04/22/2007 - Of course the video is on YouTube. Funny how the head in the beans is only shown for literally a second, considering how well I remember the image.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

eWEAK

Although I have become accustomed to intrusive advertising -- especially on the Internet -- today I experienced a new level of irritation. When I clicked on a link to unsubscribe from an eWEEK mailing list, my browser showed me an advertisement. I had to click on "Go directly to eWEEK.com" to reach the page that said I was successfully unsubscribed. There are times when pursuit of the almighty dollar shouldn't get in the way of customer service, and this was one of them. I wanted to say, "Get your tongue out of my mouth... I'm kissing you goodbye!"

The Changing Face of Local Politics

What a week! First we lost Dorothy "The Hat" Tillman when she lost her run-off aldermanic election on Tuesday. Then last night Rosemont Mayor-for-Life Donald E. Stephens died. And this morning CTA whipping boy Frank Kruesi resigned.

Chicago's City Council probably won't change much, although Tillman was one of five incumbents swept out of office like cobwebs this week (alas Bernie "I deserve a raise" Stone was not among them). The CTA's much-maligned service isn't likely to improve immediately following Kruesi's departure, either. Our best hope from this week's news is that Rosemont's next mayor will change that hideous water tower design.
(Sorry the photo isn't better. I grabbed it from Rosemont's Web site. I'm afraid my camera might break if I try to photograph it myself.)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Everybody Wants My Bikes

In the last 72 hours, I have received two e-mails from people wanting to buy my bikes.

A collector in Tennessee is interested in my Mongoose BMX bike. I'm actually a bit torn about this. On the one hand, it's nice to still have the bike I enjoyed so much as a kid. And although he didn't make a dollar offer, it probably wouldn't be enticing enough to make a difference in my life -- the Mongoose isn't the equivalent of a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card. On the other hand, it doesn't fit me anymore so I can't ride it, so why keep it? Plus this guy wants to restore it, so it would be going to a good home and getting a new life. If I keep the bike, it will just end up in an estate sale after I die. (This leads to depressing thoughts about how, since I do not intend to have children, everything I own will likely come to the same fate, which makes me wonder why I bother keeping anything -- although from a different perspective, that realization could be extremely liberating.)

The other offer was for my Cannondale H300 hybrid bike. I don't ride the hybrid much anymore, but I keep thinking it's a nice city bike that I should use more often. And like the Mongoose, it isn't valuable enough to be worth selling, especially since the buyer explicitly mentioned wanting to save money. So for now I'll keep that one, too.

If I could sell one bike, it would be my Bike Friday New World Tourist. It's a great bike, but it was a mistake for me to order it with H-bars instead of drop ("10-speed") handlebars. Alas, converting it would be too expensive. It's six years old but with low miles -- less than 2,000, I think. Anyone interested?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why I Love My Job

A longtime client called today. His first question was, "Can you write about clitorises?"

Surely my cell phone was malfunctioning. He didn't just say that. Did he?

One of the first things I learned about copywriting is pretty obvious in retrospect, though I hadn't really thought about it before: Every word you read was written by somebody. That means every brochure, sales letter, billboard, catalog, instruction manual, Web page, print ad, and product package. Much of that material is written by copywriters. So it's inevitable that a copywriter somewhere has to write the words that appear on a box containing a "female pleasure enhancement" product. And today, that copywriter is me!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Bastard of the Day

The news is a week old, but I can't let Circuit City get by without an award. Last week the company laid off 8% of its workforce. Were they firing people for poor performance? No. Oh, then they must have been downsizing to be "leaner and meaner" by trimming unnecessary positions. Nope. Their press release dated March 28 says
The company has completed a wage management initiative that will result in the separation of approximately 3,400 store Associates. The separations, which are occurring today, focused on Associates who were paid well above the market-based salary range for their role. New Associates will be hired for these positions and compensated at the current market range for the job.
You have to love the language: "separation" is corporate-speak for "termination." We aren't firing people, we are merely separating them from their jobs and paychecks. A New York Times article puts it more bluntly:
...executives said the workers were being paid too much and that the company would replace them with new employees who would earn less. It was the second such layoff at Circuit City in the last five years, and it offered an unusually clear window on the ruthlessness of corporate efficiency.
Wage freezes have been common for a decade or more, but with this strategy Corporate America has fallen to a new low. I can think of no worse evisceration of the American Dream. We're told that if we work hard we'll get somewhere. But Circuit City is firing rank-and-file employees precisely because they worked hard and got bigger raises from their managers than the bosses at corporate desired. These employees were earning $10-20 per hour, not exactly a princely sum (I wonder how much the CEO makes). Instead of merely freezing their wages, Circuit City decided they'd rather hire a guy at $9/hour to do the same work as the guy earning $18/hour, regardless of how well or for how long the higher-paid employee served the company. They could at least have the decency to disguise it like companies did in the 1980s when older employees were offered early retirement packages to get their expensive butts off the payroll. But in today's environment, Circuit City can shamelessly announce that they are firing expensive people to hire cheaper labor as part of "realigning its cost and expense structure."

What is the incentive for those new $9/hour employees to work hard and dedicate themselves to a company that clearly considers them expendable? Perhaps at performance review time, they will beg their managers, "I know I've done great work here, but please, please don't give me a raise!"

The bastards have not completely abandoned the laid off workers, though. They are welcome to reapply for their old jobs in ten weeks, their personnel files presumably wiped clean of any record of their previous wages.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Too Much NCIS

I've been watching an awful lot of NCIS lately, buzzing through the entire second season from Netflix in the past couple of weeks. It's starting to affect me.

My first clue was Sunday night when I dreamed of nuclear apocalypse. I had just finished reading Ian Frazier's Great Plains before bed, and the chapter about the Montana missile silos must have resurrected fond memories of the Reagan era when I thought the end of the world was imminent. In my dream, a nuclear missile was launched inexplicably, beginning the US-Soviet endgame. I helplessly watched as the missile proceeded across the Arctic Circle, dooming all of humanity. It was disturbing enough to wake me, and I stayed up for an hour to make sure I wouldn't slip right back into the dream once I fell asleep again. The strangest thing about the dream was that the NCIS team showed up to investigate why it was launched. These were land-based missiles under command of the U.S. Air Force, so what was NCIS doing there?

I thought that was the end of it. Then this afternoon I fell asleep and dreamed the autobiography of Special Agent Timothy McGee. Funny, I never thought of him as my favorite character or anything like that, but I guess the combination of computer geek and author would be natural for me. The scenes were quite detailed and packed with dialogue, though nothing matched up directly with anything I've seen on the show.

So will I be renting the third season when it comes out in three weeks? Probably not. I started watching the show last season, so I've already seen most of those episodes. Besides, I think it's clear that I need to take a break... But of course I'll be watching the new episode tonight.