Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

DBT Suicide Week continues!

One of the Drive-By Truckers' strengths is their multiple songwriters. Patterson Hood writes the most material, but Mike Cooley contributes two or three strong songs per album (and Jason Isbell did the same until he left the band for a solo career this year). Several years ago a mutual friend of Hood and Cooley committed suicide. Both wrote songs about it for the album Decoration Day, and today is Cooley's turn with the quiet "When the Pin Hits the Shell:"

You can lie to your Mama, you can lie to your race
but you can’t lie to nobody with that cold steel in your face.
And the same God that you’re so afraid is gonna send you to hell
is the same one you’re gonna answer to when the pin hits the shell.
Cooley tries not to judge, but in the end he just has to walk away.

And I ain’t gonna crawl upon no high horse
Cause I got thrown off of one
when I was young and I ain’t no cowboy
so I ain’t going where I don’t belong.
It wouldn’t do you no good to let you know that it damned near killed me too
so I ain’t gonna mourn for you, man, now that you’re gone.
We'll see Hood's take tomorrow.

Monday, July 30, 2007

My Beatle Moment

We were walking Rosco this afternoon when someone called out my name from behind and ran up to me. It was David Turrentine, the guy who does my taxes. Someone gave him Biking Illinois for his birthday, and he wanted me to sign it. It's the first time someone has approached me on the street for an autograph.

Okay, so it wasn't a horde of screaming teenage girls chasing me à la Beatlemania, but it was pretty cool anyway.

Sobering Word Game

Read this letter to the Tribune from Mark Irving of Wheaton. Then replace "motorcycle" with "bicycle." We two-wheelers have a lot in common.

Bastard of the Day

Every so often, the capitalist pigs on the Chicago Tribune editorial staff get under my skin (alas, the only daily that annoys me more is the Chicago Sun-Times). Check out today's editorial claiming that American workers don't really want time off. Look at the facts used to support this ridiculous premise:
Even when vacation days are offered, Americans don't use them all. The average working adult American will fail to use three vacation days this year, according to the annual "vacation deprivation" survey by Expedia.com. That's down one day from last year's survey.
I have news for the editors: people aren't leaving vacation days on the table because they want to. With all the downsizing of the past couple of decades, people have more work to do than ever, and often there is no one to cover for them while they are gone. And of course, if the work doesn't get done, the employee is risking a bad review or even termination. There is tremendous pressure from management discouraging workers from using the vacation time they have earned. The next paragraph is just as weak:
Fewer Americans take long vacation trips, for example, and more take their vacation time as long weekends rather than full weeks. Their reasons: higher gas prices, unceasing customer needs and the difficulties faced by two-income couples in coordinating their vacation schedules.
How does this argue against offering more vacation time? Americans don't take longer trips because management rarely lets workers take more than a week off at a time. We were able to take a three-week vacation because I'm a freelancer and my wife is a police officer. Corporate America frowns on long vacations because there's usually no one else to do the work. They encourage long weekends because then people can work harder when they get back until they are caught up. "Unceasing customer needs" is not a reason for a worker to skip vacation; it's a reason management gives workers to discourage vacations. And couples would be able to coordinate their vacation schedules much more easily if the bosses gave them more time off or more flexibility in taking it. Employees don't suddenly love their jobs so much that they cannot bear to be away from them for more than a long weekend. This myth of "the happy workaholic" is ludicrous. It's all driven by anxiety -- fear of losing one's job or fear of losing one's pay (i.e., commissions, equity, bonuses, etc.). But wait, there's more...
Lest people in small business think they're slaving away while the boss is sunning in St. Barths, be assured they're not. A little more than half of the small-business owners in a Discover Financial Services survey took no more than one week of vacation last year, compared with 36 percent of the general population.
I have news for the editors: nobody in small business thinks that way. Why would they? Many small business owners put in well over 40 hours per week, and their employees know that. They often can't afford to hire people to do all that work in their absence. They also have too much personally at stake to risk having it fall apart while they are away for an extended period. Heck, lots of small businesses are one-person operations, like mine. If I go on vacation, nobody pays me or does my job. If we had a less secure financial position, I'd never take vacations.

When the bastards at the Tribune express their opinion, I expect better support than this ill-conceived editorial fluffed out with misinterpreted data. Do the editors really have no clue about how the rank and file feel, or is this just propaganda to try to convince them that they want to work hard and skip vacations?

Lyrics of the Day

It's DBT Suicide Week! Suicide is a recurring theme or event in Drive-By Truckers songs, and I've been wanting to feature those songs for a while. Since I am honestly in a buoyant, non-suicidal mood this week, I figured this would be a good time.

"Lookout Mountain" is one of my favorite DBT songs and definitely my favorite DBT suicide song. Most of the band hails from northern Alabama, so Lookout Mountain southwest of Chattanooga is particularly iconic. The whole song is conjecture by the main character about how people would react, what would happen, and what difference it would make if he ended it all:

If I throw myself off Lookout Mountain
No more pain my soul to bare
No more worries about paying taxes
What to eat, what to wear
Who will end up with my records?
Who will end up with my tapes?
Who will pay my credit card bills?
Who's gonna pay for my mistakes?
DBT never uses a setlist, but "Lookout Mountain" is usually saved for the encores. Experienced fans will tell you, however, that it's sure to be a kick-ass concert when the band opens with "Lookout Mountain." It's an absolute scorcher with their three-guitar attack. The song was in their live show for years before it made it onto The Dirty South, which is still my candidate for album of the decade. It was first released on the live, out-of-print Alabama Ass Whuppin'. You can check out more than 250 DBT concerts for free at The Internet Archive.

Disclaimer: The author is not promoting nor suggesting suicide with these posts.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Free Bicycle Touring Magazine!

The Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) recently asked members to spread the word about the free sample copies of Adventure Cyclist magazine available from their Web site. Adventure Cyclist is the only magazine dedicated to bicycle touring, and it caters to every definition -- whether you enjoy group tours with a SAG wagon, solo cross-country journeys, or weekend trips with friends -- on every continent (well, I haven't read about Antarctica... yet). Each issue has several stories about tours and a few columns offering advice on everything from bikes to gear to riding skills. What I really like about Adventure Cyclist is what it doesn't have -- no "attitude" (unlike Mountain Bike) and no obsession with going fast and/or losing weight (unlike Bicycling). You won't find reviews of overpriced, lightweight components in Adventure Cyclist.

To get a free copy of Adventure Cyclist, go to the ACA homepage and look for the "Grab it" button in the right column next to the miniature magazine cover. You can also order their catalogs, which sell touring gear and detailed maps of biking routes all over the country. So go "grab it" -- and let me know how you like it.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Funny Thing About Rockwell

I've been thinking about the musician Rockwell's Wikipedia entry today.
Rockwell is the son of Motown founder and CEO Berry Gordy. To avoid charges of nepotism, Rockwell secured his record deal without his father's knowledge.
Okay, good for Rockwell. He did it on his own (it is rather amusing that he was signed by his dad's label without his dad knowing).
In 1984, Rockwell released his only hit single, "Somebody's Watching Me", featuring childhood friends Michael and Jermaine Jackson on guest vocals (notably in the chorus lyrics).
Whoa, wait a minute! Someone who didn't want nepotism to figure into his career recruited Michael Jackson to sing on his first single? Keep in mind that in 1984 Michael Jackson was easily the biggest star on the planet with the gazillion-selling Thriller album. He won eight Grammys that year (this was long before all the creepy stuff at Neverland Ranch). As I recall, Michael's participation on "Somebody's Watching Me" was what brought the song so much attention in the first place. I mean, people would have bought records of Michael burping the alphabet in those days.

So Mr. "I Can Get a Record Deal Without My Daddy" rode the coattails of Michael Jackson instead. And for that matter, Jermaine was married to Rockwell's half-sister, so he was still trading on family connections. So much for doing it on his own.

A Few Minor Cosmetic Changes to the Blog

Whenever I think about overhauling my blog, I end up making just a few tweaks instead. The "new" Blogger doesn't have any templates like mine (many of the new templates are rewrites of old ones, but mine wasn't "migrated" to the new style for some reason). What I hate about most of them is that they limit the width of the blog text so when you maximize the browser, there are big, empty spaces on either side (example1, example2). I like the way my text stretches to fill the entire space. The handful of templates that didn't have this flaw (in my eyes) were unacceptable for some other reason. I guess that means I like my current design too much to change it drastically, but it needed some updating.

My first concern was the right sidebar. I never liked Blogger's default "about me" section, so I deleted it. I changed my blog description to be more about me than about the blog itself, including links to my business and my book. Then I moved it from the sidebar to a more prominent position under the "DJWriter" title. In theory, putting my occupation up front will get me more work. I'll let you know how that goes (as far as I know, the blog hasn't captured any clients for me yet, probably because I sound too grumpy). Removing the description and "about me" from the sidebar brought the Amazon.com link for my book to the top. The blog may not bring me clients, but it has sold a few books.

Since I've been blogging for 36 months, the archive list of every month in the sidebar has become unwieldy. My favorite feature of the new Blogger is the expandable tree-view of the archives (example). Unfortunately, that option -- along with any other "dynamic" features using "widgets" -- appears to be unavailable to people like me who post their blogs via FTP (in other words, people who use their own Web host instead of using Google/Blogger's servers to host their blogs). I guess that's my punishment for being a control freak. Still, I had to do something. I settled for a drop-down menu of the months instead, which at least takes up less screen space. I doubt that people are going to look at old posts unless they find them directly through a search engine anyway.

I also added "white space" (actually gray space) within the sidebar to make it easier to read. Then I made my blog post titles (i.e. "A Few Minor Cosmetic Changes to the Blog") a couple of points larger so they would stand out more. I wanted to increase the space between the post title and the post body as well as decrease the space between the post body and the post footer, but I couldn't figure out how. Then just for the heck of it, I changed a bunch of margins by a few pixels -- something no one would notice anyway.

All in all, I suppose it doesn't make much difference, but I spent a lot of time on it last night. I suppose I should have known, but I didn't realize there is a whole community of bloggers who blog about Blogger, discussing tips, tricks, hacks, and quirks. Their advice didn't help me a lot -- it mostly told me what I couldn't do because I use FTP -- but it was fascinating reading.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Synchronicity

Tonight I had dinner at Rockwell's Neighborhood Grill. It's only a block away on Rockwell Street (hence the name) and their food is very good. A few years ago the Chicago Tribune declared their hamburger one of the top ten in Chicagoland, but I usually order the BBQ chicken sandwich. I wish they would update their menu more often (it has hardly changed since they opened three years ago), but I guess it's wise to stick with your strengths.

Anyway, I was eating a bowl of chicken tortilla soup and reading The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford when I noticed the song playing on the restaurant's satellite radio channel. It was "Somebody's Watching Me" by 1980s one-hit wonder Rockwell. That song has popped into my head hundreds if not thousands of times in the ten years since I started dating my wife -- she lived on Rockwell Street at the time.

And tonight I finally heard Rockwell in Rockwell's on Rockwell Street.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

News Items

  • Shortly after Macy's on State Street closed last night, a man plummeted from the eighth floor balcony to his death. Suicide is suspected but not certain. Personally, I wouldn't "off" myself that way because I just don't like the feeling of falling. But if I did, I think that store would be a pretty dramatic place to do it. Check out the first photo on this page.
  • If the first story didn't make you too acrophobic, check out this video of window washers at the John Hancock Center, part of the Tribune's "Unauthorized Access" series.
  • A cat in a Rhode Island nursing home has a knack for determining when someone is about to die. His arrival usually means the patient has less than four hours until death. Having lived with cats against my will for the past nine years, the last thing I would want is a creepy "Kitty of Death" coming in to lie with me in my final hours. Can't I have a dog instead?
  • In a story near and dear to my heart, San Francisco's taxi commission decided not to retire the cab number 666. It's great to have a joker running the union:
    "How dare you take Lucifer's number away?" said Thomas George-Williams, cab drivers union chief, who sported red horns.
    While I was in school, I worked at JC Penney for a few years. My associate number was 666. How did I get it? My mom worked in the personnel department!

Bastard of the Day

With all the doping drama in France this week, it's easy to forget there is bike racing all over the world. During yesterday's third stage of the International Tour de 'Toona (named for Altoona, PA), several riders were nearly killed by this impatient bastard truck driver who pulled his tractor-trailer loaded with earthmoving equipment out onto the course in front of them:
Cyclingnews.com has the series of photos by Kirt Jambretz/www.actionimages.cc :
There was really no reason for it. The driver ended up behind the bikes anyway, and he could have pulled out 20-30 seconds later without scaring the bejeezus out of everybody. It's highway terrorism. Where's the Department of Homeland Security when you need them?

Note to anyone who wishes I had used a better photo: since I do not own the rights, I would be uncomfortable using anything bigger than a thumbnail. Please visit the links to cyclingnews.com, and respect copyrighted material on the Internet!

On the Floor

Last night I had a dream that I was playing football in gym class. The last thing I remember was seeing the ball on the ground and diving for it. I awoke on the floor next to the bed, my wife asking if I was okay.

"I was gonna score a touchdown," I said. As I awoke fully, I added, "I can't even score a touchdown in my dreams." Regular readers may recall a similar dream a year ago wherein I was a college student trying to start a relationship with Anne Hathaway. Alas, I was unable to score with her in my dreams, either.

It All Comes Down to Money

The Predictor-Lotto pro cycling team is planning to sue Alexandre Vinokourov and his Astana team for $10 million for lost publicity. Vino received the lion's share of media attention after winning the Stage 13 time trial while benefiting from an illegal homologous blood transfusion. Cadel Evans of Predictor-Lotto finished second, so if Vino hadn't cheated, Evans would have been the winner and his photo instead of Vino's would have graced the cover of every European newspaper the next day.

Like NASCAR, pro cycling wouldn't exist without sponsors. The reason companies sponsor cycling teams is to get their names on television and in the newspapers. That's why you see riders with little chance of winning take off on long breakaways that are almost inevitably swallowed by the peloton (the main group of riders) before the finish -- because they and their jerseys and the sponsors on those jerseys get a lot of television exposure that way.

Sponsors expect a reasonable return on their investment (title sponsorships for Pro Tour teams cost between $8 and $15 million per year, as I recall). When someone uses fraudulent means to win a race, he is effectively taking that return away from the second place team. I don't recall seeing a suit like this in the six years that I've followed the sport, but it does not surprise me. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

My guess is that the Astana team will not be held responsible if they can prove they were unaware of Vino's illegal activities. Vinokourov, however, could be on the hook for a lot of money, especially for someone who is unemployed and suspended for at least two years (plus all Tour cyclists signed an anti-doping pledge before the race stating they would relinquish an entire year's salary if caught doping). Just fighting to clear one's name is expensive -- look at what Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis paid to lawyers and assorted experts while defending themselves. Lawsuits from negatively impacted competitors on top of that could bankrupt anyone in the peloton.

This could be devastating for Vinokourov, yet the threat of such drastic measures could be the impetus to finally clean up the sport. At this point, however, I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Chicken's Head Chopped Off

After many days of speculation about Michael "Chicken" Rasmussen's honesty in reporting to anti-doping officials, the Rabobank team has pulled him out of the Tour de France and fired him. Riders are required to report their schedules so that they can be found for out-of-competition testing, and Rasmussen apparently lied about his whereabouts. According to Rabobank, he said he was in Mexico when in fact he was in Italy. Although this reflects poorly on the Tour, I can't say I'm upset about Rasmussen being the guilty rider. I can't put my finger on it, but for some reason I never liked him.

While some are wondering what took Rabobank so long, I applaud them. It isn't easy to fire a guy while he is winning the biggest bike race in the world, so I don't blame them for waiting until they were absolutely certain. This is in sharp contrast to the decision to prevent a bunch of riders from starting last year's race because of doping suspicions (the Operacion Puerto affair). Some of those riders -- including new race leader Alberto Contador -- were later cleared of any involvement, long after they lost their chance to contest the 2006 Tour.

I feel sorry for Rabobank riders like Michael Boogerd and Denis Menchov, who busted their tails to keep Rasmussen in the yellow jersey only to see it come to naught. Also, I hope Contador, the exciting young Spaniard riding for Discovery Channel, is indeed clean. The sport needs young stars to replace the suspected or disgraced old guard. The repercussions from the past few days will be felt in pro cycling for months to come, in the form of sanctioned riders, dropped sponsorships, and even disbanded teams.

Score One for Cyclists!

Every so often, someone acknowledges the right of cyclists to be on the roads. Hooray for Judge Judy for telling off a couple of rural Minnesotans who thought it was the cyclist's fault that he hit their dog because he shouldn't have been riding on a major highway 35-40 miles from home...

Hat tip to the National Center for Bicycling and Walking's CenterLines e-mail.

Bastard of the Day

Be careful what you say, lest it come back to haunt you. Today's winner is Cofidis pro cycling team manager Eric Boyer. Reacting to Alexandre Vinokourov's positive test for homologous blood doping at the Tour de France yesterday, Boyer said
I feel sick. I hope that Vinokourov won't be a coward and deny everything. He said that he worked with Ferrari (a doctor with connections to doping) just for training plans. He always told us what a brave guy he is, that he is stronger than the pain, that the French ride behind everyone else because they are lazier. Now we see that he is a big bastard. These practices discredit all of cycling again.
Well, today another cyclist, Cristian Moreni, tested positive for testosterone doping. And guess which team he rides for? Yep, Cofidis. Moreni and the entire team have withdrawn from the Tour. Now who's the "big bastard," Mr. Boyer?

The cynical among us (moi?) will say today's news is more proof that everyone in pro cycling is guilty of doping. If that is indeed true, then Boyer should have known better than to feign piety.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bastard of the Day

Okay, you've all been waiting for this... I am today's bastard.

I was sitting in my car at the Brown Line crossing on Rockwell Street waiting for a train. When a westbound train passed, a cyclist on the north side of the tracks pedaled around the still-lowered gates and continued south. And in that instant, I had two thoughts: 1.) a man from Milwaukee died doing the exact same thing in this exact same place last month, and 2.) I hope this guy gets creamed just to teach him a lesson for his stupidity, even though I'd rather not be a witness.

And that's where I crossed the line into bastardhood. My anger toward people who do stupid stuff, particularly on bicycles, has grown so intense that I wish death upon them for their ignorance. In that moment I was rooting for it to happen.

It turned out there was an eastbound train coming, but fortunately for the dumbass bike rider it stopped at the station. Sometimes trains that are "not in service" do pass through without stopping, so he was damn lucky -- there was no way he could have seen whether a train was coming through eastbound until it was too late. Oh well, I hope he made good use of the extra ten seconds he saved by risking his life. That's the kind of shit that gives CTA motormen nightmares.


Speaking of the Rockwell crossing (and other at-grade crossings on the Brown Line), why did the CTA (or the city) replace all the crossing gates a couple years ago without making each long enough to cross the entire street? Since I moved here nine years ago, there have probably been about 10 accidents involving idiots driving (or pedaling) around the gates. Adding ten feet to each gate would be a small price to pay to discourage this reckless behavior. There's nothing like a train crushing a car to screw up everyone's commute.

Oh No, Not Vino!

Today being a rest day, I wasn't paying much attention to the Tour de France. Then an e-mail from VeloNews arrived with shocking news: Alexandre Vinokourov, the man favored to win this year's Tour de France before it began, has tested positive for a homologous blood transfusion (meaning a transfusion from a person with a compatible blood type). Consequently, he and his team -- which included the fifth and eighth-placed riders and led the teams classification -- have withdrawn from the race.

Vino, who won the Vuelta a Espana (another three-week tour) last fall, has always been a fighter, an attacker, the sort of guy who makes a race exciting and unpredictable. I have always admired his determination and panache. His victory in Stage 15 of the Tour yesterday was a prime example.

I suppose it all adds up. Vinokourov suffered injuries to both knees in Stage 5 of the Tour and lost a fair amount of blood. Then he came back to win the Stage 13 time trial as well as yesterday's mountain stage. One cannot win a time trial, which depends on a body running at its best, with a short supply of blood, particularly the red cells that transport oxygen to the muscles. I'm not a doctor, but perhaps Vino's body was unable to naturally replace all the red blood cells he lost in Stage 5 so quickly, particularly since his body was under the extreme stress of racing the Tour. So Vino got an extra boost, and he got caught.

Damn it, there's just no one to believe in anymore. I thought Tyler Hamilton was the kind of guy who just worked hard and would never dope. Then when he got busted, I latched onto Roberto Heras. When he got suspended, I turned to Floyd Landis, and we all know what happened to him. Now Vinokourov, the pride of Kazakhstan, the man who gave that country a chance to be known for something better than Borat, has let me down, too.

News Items

  • Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has signed a statewide smoking ban. I think that's great, but it doesn't help me much. My problem is my neighbor whose wife won't let him smoke inside the house -- instead, he smokes on his back porch so it blows through my kitchen window. There should be a law banning that.
  • Hyperbolic headline of the day: The Chicago Tribune Web site's homepage reads "Expect tougher security at post office Monday." Oh my gosh, will federal agents be guarding the doors? Despite the ominous tone, the headline links to a story saying

    Starting on Monday, people who mail parcels weighing 13 ounces or more with stamps as postage will have to hand over the package [at] the post office counter. Previously, the requirement applied only to mail over 16 ounces.

    Wow, "tougher security" applies to people using stamps to mail a package within a three-ounce range... That probably affects dozens of people nationwide. Now those people are required to physically hand over their packages to disinterested postal clerks rather than drop them into mailboxes. Ooh, that's tough!

  • Remember the coyote who was caught after walking into a Quizno's in downtown Chicago? One of his brethren in Lincoln Park has been more elusive. Yesterday he held Animal Care and Control at bay for more than five hours until they called off the hunt. Cardinal Francis George lives across the street from the park.

    The coyote seems to have sought sanctuary recently on the mansion's grounds. The nuns at the residence said they were not bothered by the coyote, which they say gets rid of the rabbits that ravage their garden.

    This reminds me of Elvira Arellano, the illegal immigrant who has sought refuge in a Chicago church for the past year. Will the Cardinal protect the coyote from deportation to a nature preserve?

  • And finally... Law enforcement officials burned 30,000 marijuana plants being cultivated in Crabtree Nature Preserve near Barrington. As the odor drifted through the air, locals looked around for Willie Nelson's tour bus.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bastard of the Day

After a slow but steady decline, Leona's Restaurants (the whole freakin' chain) are collectively the Bastard of the Day. It all started when they stopped offering meat lasagna several years ago. Sure, you can get the five-cheese lasagna with meat sauce on top, but it isn't the same. Then a year or two ago they eliminated their whole wheat crust pizza (which unlike most whole wheat crusts, did not taste like cardboard or sawdust) from the menu. Well, technically it wasn't eliminated from the menu because they kept passing out the old menus, but if you tried to order it, you were S.O.L.

The best pizza crust from Leona's has always been their delicious, buttery, cornmeal deep-dish. It was square to fill the entire box, and Leona's offered special toppings that weren't available on the "regular" thin crust. My favorite was the Italian meats pizza, which included the usual sausage and pepperoni along with tasty meatball slices. The sauce was thick and rich, and the cheese was plentiful.

So tonight when I ordered the Italian meats pizza from the new Leona's menu, I expected that fantastic pizza. The new menu doesn't say anything about the crust, but I assumed since it was more expensive than the thin crust and was categorized under "gourmet pizza pies" that it would be the cornmeal crust I love.

Alas, it was not; the Leona's deep-dish crust is no more. I paid $18.75 for a large pizza, and the crust was about two millimeters thick. Even if I didn't hate superthin crust (and I really, really do), this pizza was utter crap. The toppings were sparse, there was a mere hint of sauce, the cheese was adequate at best, and any spot not covered with cheese was charred. The superthin crust meant there was barely enough to feed the two of us; usually a large pizza is good for at least a lunch or two worth of leftovers.

My wife works evenings, and while she's working I eat cheap, mediocre dinners alone -- frozen lasagna, frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, maybe a bowl of cereal, or creamed chipped beef on toast for goodness' sake. When I'm eating with my wife, I want a good meal for a change. Leona's has always delivered (in all senses of the word) until tonight. I hope they realize their mistake and bring back the real pizza crust, and I hope they fire the bastard who took it off the menu in the first place. In the meantime, there are at least a dozen pizza joints nearby that make twice the pizza for two thirds of the price. Arrivederci, Leona's!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress by Debra Ginsberg

I was looking for some light reading this weekend, and Ginsberg's memoir about twenty years of waitressing fit the bill. It is full of humorous personal anecdotes, and for that reason alone it's worth reading or at least skimming. But overall, Waiting fell flat for me because the memoir aspect is overdone. While I was interested in her work, I didn't really want to hear so many details of her personal life outside of work. I didn't care to read about her boyfriends or her son; every time she detoured into those topics, I found myself anxiously waiting for the book to become interesting again. Finally, a late chapter reviewing waitress movies is an utter waste of time, as if Ginsberg had pages to fill but no more funny stories to tell.

I suppose I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to read amusing tales about waitressing. I'd also recommend skimming the parts about Ginsberg's personal life. The chapter about restaurant hanky-panky is the last one worth reading, so skip the end. Buy it cheap or check it out from the library; it's not something you'll read again and again.

Hallelujah!

Today's Chicago Tribune reports that the Cook County Forest Preserve District is repaving the North Branch Trail! I saw last week that the northeasternmost section of the trail was closed for construction, but I didn't know whether it was just a local repair or part of a larger project. My thought at the time was that there are at least a dozen places that need attention more than the segment that was closed, so I am ecstatic that they are resurfacing the whole trail. The article quotes local cyclist Mike Cobb, but his words could have come from my mouth:
...[I]n recent years, potholes have deepened, ruts have widened and tree-root ridges have grown higher. "I know where most of them are, but every once in a while, you find yourself daydreaming and you hit one and 'whack,'" said Cobb, 60, who lives close to the trail's southern end at Caldwell and Devon Avenues in Chicago. "It's such a nice path, and it has so much potential. It just needs to be fixed up."
Parts of the trail are only 1.5 inches thick instead of the roadbed standard of 3 inches.
Cobb's pet peeve is a stretch between Golf and Beckwith Roads, where tree roots protrude several inches, buckling the asphalt.
Mine, too! The narrow trail is sandwiched between a golf course and horse facilities, and the trees are too close to the trail. I always ride slowly and carefully there, though, so it's usually a stray root elsewhere that catches me by surprise.

When I was working on Biking Illinois, I found that most of the major trails in Cook County had been resurfaced recently. I'm glad they are finally doing the longest (and best) trail. From the language in the article, I think they are completely rebuilding the trail, so there shouldn't be dangerously steep edges like when a new layer of asphalt is added.

The bad news, of course, is that mile-long segments of the trail will be closed for the next three months. Sometimes there are viable alternative routes but sometimes not, so riding the North Branch Trail will be a bit of a crapshoot this summer.

Now if only they would shorten the wait at that Touhy Avenue stoplight...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bastard of the Day

The guy who stole my doorknob is today's bastard. My wife went out to put some garbage in the alley and discovered that the doorknob on our garage walk door facing the alley was missing. Fortunately, the guy (I suppose it could have been a gal, but I doubt it) was still unable to open the door after removing the knob, so nothing was missing from our garage. Then again, I could imagine someone breaking into our garage and deciding not to take anything. The only item of any value is my mother-in-law's old snow blower, but if that was really worth something she wouldn't have left it in our garage last winter -- she would have been using it herself. Our bicycles have been stored in our basement since two were stolen from our garage the day we got back from our honeymoon, so they weren't in danger. And our lawnmower is the kind without a motor, so I don't think anyone would steal that.

Regardless, some bastard did indeed try to break into our garage, and he stole a nice doorknob. Alas, my wife says the police will probably just write it up as "criminal damage to property" because they are under pressure to keep the numbers for crimes like "attempted burglary" to a minimum. But of course, the only reason for removing our doorknob was to attempt to gain entry into our garage. I mean, it wasn't that nice a doorknob that someone would just steal it and leave. Just to embarrass my wife, I threatened to call the police station every day for the next month to ask them whether they have any leads on our missing doorknob. Let's face it; reports like this might as well go into the circular file.

This is actually the second doorknob on that door to be vandalized in some way in the last five years (also, some gang bangers spray painted graffiti on our overhead door shortly after it was installed, for a total of four crimes against our garage since 1999). The first lock was a cheap no-name installed by a contractor, but this one is a Schlage. On the bright side, we never enter that door from the alley, so as long as it still locks from the inside I don't have to replace it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Study in Media Bias

Chicago Police officer Michael Mette was recently sentenced to five years in prison for punching out a drunken college student in Dubuque, Iowa two years ago. The judge did not dispute the facts about the incident. The drunk and a friend followed Mette, his brother, and some friends to Mette's brother's house. The drunk started the fight with two or three pushes to Mette's chest, which Mette answered with one solid punch to the jaw of the drunk, knocking him to the ground. Yet the judge thinks Mette should have walked away, even though Mette was being attacked on his own brother's front lawn.

The Chicago Tribune doesn't report it as a news story, but there is an opinion piece by John Kass bluntly headlined "This officer's sentence is hogwash." He tells Mette's side of the story -- again, the judge did not dispute the facts -- and portrays the drunken student as a child of privilege being protected by the court. A Chuck Goudie report on WLS-Channel 7 (Chicago's ABC affiliate) presents a very similar story with the headline "CPD officer sentenced to 5 years in Iowa." The other major television stations apparently did not cover the story (I'm not going to bother checking radio stations).

The Chicago Sun-Times takes a radically different approach. Their news story bears the headline "Cop gets 5 years in beating of student." In fact, staff reporter Norman Parish uses the word beating three times in his short article though it's conspicuously absent from the Tribune and WLS coverage (except in a quote from Mette about getting, not giving, a beating). It's just another police brutality story to Parish, concluding with this sentence: "This latest incident follows a string of allegations of beatings of civilians by off-duty Chicago Police officers."

Now, I don't know any more about this story than what I've read from these three sources, so I can't say who is correct. But the treatments by the Tribune and the Sun-Times are so different that clearly someone is advancing an agenda. Choose your news sources carefully, everyone!

Bastard of the Day

Today's winner is BP, which of course stands for Bastard Polluters. The state of Indiana has granted them permission to dump more ammonia and industrial sludge into Lake Michigan as part of a refinery expansion program. That's my drinking water, you bastards!

You can read the article for all of BP's public relations garbage about "minimal environmental impact," blah blah blah. But the state's explanation is even worse:
In response to public protests, state officials justified the additional pollution by concluding the project will create more jobs and "increase the diversity and security of oil supplies to the Midwestern United States." A rarely invoked state law trumps anti-pollution rules if a company offers "important social or economic benefits."
How many jobs? Eighty. That's all. So Indiana gave BP an exemption to pollute the drinking water of millions in the name of creating 80 jobs. Thanks a lot, you Hoosier bastards.

Friday, July 13, 2007

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen

This is the first book I've read out of the many that I purchased at Powell's in Portland last month. It doesn't really explain how "mumbo jumbo" took over so much as it reviews a number of disturbing trends that have brought us to where we are. Its subtitle "A Short History of Modern Delusions" is more fitting than the title.

Here's an incredible passage that I must share:
The American presidential election of 1800, in which John Adams stood against his old friend Thomas Jefferson, also happened to be a contest between two men who were, at the time, the president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the president of the American Philosophical Society. The historian Henry May described this as "a coincidence very unlikely ever to be repeated in American politics," and his prediction looks increasingly solid. Exactly two centuries later, the main contenders for the presidency were George W. Bush, a genial chump, and Al Gore, a moderately intelligent liar and influence peddler -- a choice summarized by one British newspaper as "Dumbo vs. Pinocchio."
That says all one needs to know about how horribly America's democratic process has gone astray. There was a time when voters could choose between brilliant candidates rather than wearily punching their tickets for whichever candidate is "slightly less bad."

I thoroughly enjoyed Wheen's sarcastic yet spot-on descriptions of trickle-down economics, self-help gurus, X-Files believers, Princess Diana worshippers, dotcom mania, and other irrational phenomena. While many examples were familiar, Wheen also shared anecdotes from the U.K. that were new to me. I got bogged down in a few chapters discussing philosophy, but I suppose that's the price I pay for not studying the field in college.

Acknowledging that my eyes glossed over during a couple of Wheen's more philosophical chapters, I didn't feel like he really tied all the amusing yet revealing tales together into a consistent message. Sometimes he reached to include things that, though interesting, didn't fit well into his thesis. It was entertaining reading, but How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World is more about What than How. In that respect, it is as good a review of the past 50 years of popular and political culture/history as any. Anyone who likes Wheen's writing style will probably enjoy the book, even if the sections about philosophy are difficult for the uninitiated.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pantagraphic Reading Material

Way back in February, Scott Richardson of the Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph interviewed me about Biking Illinois. Since Scott is a fellow cyclist, we talked for well over an hour. It was refreshing to converse with an enthusiast rather than someone who was merely assigned to write a story. Later, I sent him a handful of photos to publish with his article.

Once spring arrived, I searched the Pantagraph Web site every few weeks to see if it had been published yet. Nothing. Then today I was checking my sales figures as an Amazon.com associate. After a quiet June, I sold a bunch of copies of Biking Illinois in the first few days of July. I could only imagine one reason for that, and sure enough, this time when I searched the Pantagraph Web site, I found a lengthy feature about my book.

Alas, here is how the article begins: "David Jansen made a sharp turn in his life after he pedaled alone across America five years ago." Jansen? All my life people have misspelled my surname as Johnson (my worst nightmare was that it would be spelled that way on the cover of my book!) but Jansen is a new one.

It's an interesting read because I blabbered on for so long that I touched on a lot of things that I never talked about in an interview before. As the lead hints, you'll get to read about my transition from computer geek to DJWriter. You'll also read a couple of anecdotes that I never got around to writing on the Biking Illinois Web site. Not everything came out exactly the way I intended, but I suppose my biographers will sort that out after I'm gone.

Scott mentions that I described the Grand Illinois Trail as a "misnomer." But I wasn't referring to it being a collection of trails so much as I was referring to its location. I said it was really the Grand Northern Illinois Trail. As I recall, Scott had a good laugh when I said the trail fit a typical Chicagoan's definition of Illinois (some Chicagoans act as if anything south of I-80 is in a different state).

As for the part about counties (a properly focused interviewee never would have "gone there," but I did)... Although I have visited all 254 counties in Texas, the article makes it sound like I visited all of them in one trip! I was referring to our November 2006 road trip when we visited the last dozen that I needed to finish the state (I also finished Oklahoma then). Again, I babbled on for so long that things were bound to get a bit confused -- if only I could edit my speech like I edit my writing. Oh well, I appreciate the coverage so I won't get bent out of shape over the details... except my last name!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Attention Mayor Daley!

Dear Honorable Richard M. Daley,

As I was bicycling the street route from the North Branch Trail toward the lakefront, I made a shocking discovery. In the Edgebrook neighborhood, I encountered two (2!) intersections with no traffic controls whatsoever. No stoplights, no stop signs, no yield signs, nothing. I trust that this is only a temporary condition and that your "traffic-calming" methods will be implemented soon.

Overall I don't have many complaints about how the city of Chicago is run, but this traffic calming crap has to stop! The idea is that by placing stop signs everywhere (along with occasional speed bumps), drivers will slow down. But it really just frustrates people and encourages them to run stop signs. When there are stop signs at every minor street, people don't recognize which intersections are truly important or dangerous. So they treat them all the same and roll right through.

The mayor wants to encourage people to ride bicycles. I want to obey traffic laws (though I may be in the minority of riders). But when there is a stop sign at every freaking intersection, bicycling becomes a tedious process of braking, downshifting, accelerating, and upshifting with only a few hundred feet at most of real riding in between. City streets are not my favorite cycling environment to begin with, but what little pleasure I find between dodging open car doors and potholes has been sucked away by the proliferation of stop signs in the name of traffic calming.

My nearest bike path is in River Park (part of the North Shore Channel path described in Biking Illinois) only one mile from my home. To get there, I have to negotiate eleven (11!!) stop signs plus one stoplight. At every intersection, traffic in all directions must stop; there are no "two-way" stops. Another favorite example of traffic calming gone wild is Manor Avenue. Though the street is only 0.6 mile long, one encounters eight (8!) stop signs plus a railroad crossing and a speed bump. On top of that, four of those stop signs are placed at intersections with dead-end streets less than a block long. Earlier this year, Eric Zorn ranted about drivers and cyclists ignoring stop signs, but with ridiculous policies like Mayor Daley has implemented, it's hard to obey the law if you ever want to get anywhere.

Mayor Daley paints himself "green" with his rooftop gardens and such, but how much environmental damage is caused by traffic calming? All those stop signs have a significant impact on gasoline consumption and pollution creation. A motor uses much less energy to maintain speed than to accelerate, but drivers on Manor Avenue have to accelerate eight times in one kilometer!

A lot of people drive like idiots in Chicago, and a good number of cyclists are guilty as well. But the solution is to enforce traffic laws, not to make travel on every street painful. Limit the number of stop signs and issue citations for those who run through them. If people are driving too fast, well, that's what those new laser speed guns are for -- if drivers had any fear whatsoever of traffic laws actually being enforced, they wouldn't drive as recklessly as they do. All those stupid stop signs don't help anyone when people habitually run them. Just ask the family of this kid.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Curse You, Bryn Mawr!

I've never liked Bryn Mawr Avenue in Chicago. Sure, it's a decent street for bicycling compared to the nearby alternatives (Peterson, Foster), but I just can't trust a name with so few vowels. Today I was riding home from the North Branch Trail (actually, I barely rode the trail itself -- the midday heat took a lot out of me by the time I got there, so I just rode a couple miles and came home) on Bryn Mawr, following the signed "North Branch to Lakefront" route. Suddenly, pshhhhh, pshhhhh, pshhhhh, pshhhhh, pshhhh... Darn it, a flat tire! (That really cool but discouraging sound was air leaking from my tire directly into my rear fender as the tire rotated.)

Admittedly, I haven't ridden much in the past two years (less than 1000 miles/year), but the last time I had a flat was April 2005 (I flatted on the Vadalabene River Road Bikeway when I was working on Biking Illinois, but I was able to nurse it the last three miles to the parking lot). The last time I had to fix a flat "on the road" was probably sometime in 2003. Of course, the bad thing about rarely flatting is that one's flat-fixing skills go down the tubes (pun intended). I think it took me about 15 minutes to change the tube, which is half as long as it did one memorably awful time, but still embarrassingly slow. I mean, this guy could probably do it faster in his sleep. Then again, there was no real sense of urgency so why rush?

By the way, I didn't find anything in the tire, but I saw many shards of glass glistening in the sunlight on the road behind me. If you're riding east on Bryn Mawr from the dead-end (where there is a bike trail across the old railroad tracks) toward Pulaski Road, beware!

Friday, July 06, 2007

News Items

Comments on a few of today's news stories...
Christopher Vaughn, accused of murdering his wife and three children, has been placed on suicide watch at the Will County Jail, police said Thursday after he made his first Illinois court appearance.
As my wife said, they can watch, but nobody should stop him. Wouldn't it take some pressure off our legal and prison systems to just let people in jails and prisons kill themselves? Sure, he's innocent until proven guilty, but why expend any extra effort to make sure he stays alive for his trial? Too bad he didn't commit suicide before allegedly snuffing out his entire family.
Money from leasing four publicly owned downtown parking garages will provide financing for about 100 neighborhood park-improvement projects, from new fieldhouses at five parks to new playgrounds at 50 others, Mayor Richard Daley announced Thursday.
The Chicago Reader article published yesterday about the Olympic equestrian center also presented a laundry list of desperately needed Chicago park improvements. The same day, Mayor Daley declared that all this money is going to the parks. Coincidence? Whatever -- I don't care as long as the work gets done.
A tourist from Tennessee was arrested at the Sears Tower on Thursday morning after she tried to visit the Skydeck with a loaded gun in her purse, police said.
A 56-year-old woman brought a .38 into the Sears Tower and was shocked to find herself arrested. I have a hard time feeling any sympathy for this bonehead, despite the useful quote from her neighbor that she is a "responsible pillar of the community" (sheesh!). Anyone licensed for concealed carry darn well ought to know that gun laws vary from state to state. Plus, she should have known bringing a weapon into a heightened-security venue like the Sears Tower was probably not a good idea. This case brings to mind something I thought should have been done long ago, though -- states and municipalities with restrictive gun laws should post them on major highways.
A 4-year-old Carpentersville girl who called 911 almost 300 times on her mother's deactivated cell phone finally gave up her address after dispatchers promised her a snack from McDonald's.
This is a surprisingly big problem. Some 911 centers get 5-10 calls per day from kids playing with old cell phones (a deactivated phone can still call -- and can only call -- 911). That adds up to thousands of calls per year. This particular kid was causing trouble for an entire month, up to 20 times a day. Kudos to the dispatcher who thought up the McDonald's ruse to get the kid's location.

The Dark Side of the Olympics

This article by George Monbiot should be required reading for Chicagoans. In all the hype about competing for the 2016 Summer Games, no one talks about stuff like this:

In every city [the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions] examined, the Olympic Games – accidentally or deliberately – have become a catalyst for mass evictions and impoverishment. Since 1988, over 2 million people have been driven from their homes to make way for the Olympics. The games have become a licence for land grabs.
Monbiot's article is directed at London, host of the 2012 Summer Games, but it certainly applies to us as well. While those getting the shaft will be mostly voiceless poor people (as usual), it doesn't always work out that way. For example, a story in this week's Chicago Reader describes the battle in Lake County over the proposed Olympic equestrian center. After reading Monbiot's brief history of Olympic displacement, I have little doubt that the equestrian center will be built regardless. At least he offers a solution in his conclusion:
None of this is an argument against the Olympic Games. It is an argument against moving them every four years. Let them stay in a city where the damage has already been done. And let it be anywhere but here.
That makes good sense for countless reasons (environmental, logistical, organizational, etc.), but I doubt it will ever happen. The International Olympic Committee thoroughly enjoys watching civic leaders from around the world grovel every time another host city is about to be named. The Olympics are big business, and a permanent location would spoil all of their fun.

(Note: In the past, I've posted positive comments about the 2016 Olympics on other blogs. Right now, consider me conflicted; I haven't decided whether it's good or bad overall. Of course, it matters little because those decisions will be made without regard for the common Chicagoan's opinion anyway.)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Stop! In the Name of Love

This afternoon I was following a utility truck with a yellow-and-black sticker that read, "Caution: This Vehicle Makes Frequent Stops." After watching him roll through several consecutive stop signs, I said, "Hey, I guess I need to get one of those stickers for my car, too. I stop much more frequently than he does!"

Notes from the North Branch

I went for a bike ride Tuesday on the North Branch Trail for the first time this year.

I finally saw our region's famous 17-year cicadas (Brood XIII), and just in time. They won't be around much longer. Unmanly as it sounds, I am not fond of bugs. Frankly, I feel the same way about bugs as Republicans do about minorities -- I'll allow that they serve a purpose, but I would rather they did not live near me. In the media build-up to the day the cicadas were supposed to crawl out of the ground, I feared the worst. But the cicadas never came to Lincoln Square. A handful of sightings were reported, but nothing approaching the predicted carpet of insects. Even in the forest preserves along the North Branch Trail the cicadas were not overwhelming. Only a few groves had the telltale buzzing drone (or is it a droning buzz?) of the males hoping to get lucky in their brief time above ground. Though I am not enamored with these characters, I consider the arrival of the periodical cicadas as a way to mark the passage of one's life, like Halley's Comet but more frequent. It's hard to imagine myself being 54 years old the next time the cicadas come.

Aside from the cicadas, little has changed since I rode the trail last year. I even saw the same characters, including "grim-faced man," a recumbent rider whose stony expression shows no hint of the joy of cycling.

In Biking Illinois, I chose to start Ride 20 (Going to the Garden) from Linne Woods because it's easy to find from I-94 and I-294, but I often second-guess myself. There isn't anything "wrong" with the south end of the trail that I excluded, and I wonder if I should have squeezed in the whole thing (as it was, I reached my word limit for the shortened route). Come to think of it, the North Branch Trail wasn't one of my better write-ups. Maybe my familiarity with the route led to an uninspired description. Oh well, there probably isn't a writer alive who looks back on his or her work as perfect; there's always room for improvement. As long as cyclists don't get lost, I guess my book does its job.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

"Mess with the bull, you'll get the horns."

Man, I love that phrase.

Put this T-shirt on my Christmas list!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Bastard of the Day

I haven't picked on George W. Bush for a while (sorry, I was on vacation!). It goes without saying that commuting the sentence of Scooter Libby is more than enough to earn today's award for Shrub.

"I respect the jury's verdict," Bush said in a statement. "But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison."
The President has absolutely no experience that would deem him capable of determining whether a sentence is excessive. It's not like he was ever a judge or even a lawyer. Bush respects the jury's verdict so much that he's wiping out the entire prison sentence, which means a hotel heiress' DUI merits more time behind bars than exposing a CIA agent and lying about it, at least if you're Dick Cheney's buddy.

Prison was the only notable punishment in Scooter's sentence. A fine of $250,000? Oh come on, these are Republicans! I'm sure at least a dozen CEOs have already offered to pick up the tab for Scooter (probably in exchange for the administration loosening some "restrictive" environmental laws). Two years of probation? Sheesh, even Scooter can probably keep his nose clean for two years. Commuting the prison portion of the sentence and saying you respect the jury's decision is like telling a dog you respect his right to breed as you're neutering him.

But I have a dream...

That someday the indictments and convictions against this administration will come down like rain from the sky, washing away the filth of the G.O.P. and leaving behind gleaming streets of gold in Washington, DC, which will be reclaimed by We, the people. The guilty will be locked away so quickly that Dubya can't keep up, no matter how hard he tries to protect his pals. And someday, George himself will be tried, convicted, and put away for countless crimes against country and humanity.

Somebody pinch me.

UPDATE 07/03/2007 - I can't believe I overlooked this angle: Bob Cesca reminds us that Bush wasn't so generous toward the convicted when he was governor of Texas. He even "wrote" (actually, I think Karen Hughes wrote) in his autobiographic A Charge To Keep, "I don't believe my role is to replace the verdict of a jury with my own." I couldn't make up a better quote. Cesca also notes that the same Republicans who wanted to impeach Bill Clinton for perjury are applauding Bush for going easy on Scooter's perjury. Two-faced bastards!

Tour de France Boss Has a Lot of Gaul (sic)

The Unibet.com pro cycling team has had a hard time this year. Although the team was accepted into the top level Pro Tour by the UCI (cycling's international governing body), the laws in certain countries along with turf wars between the UCI and race organizers have made their season a bust.

In France, online gambling is illegal, as is advertising for a site like Unibet.com. Early in the season, the team wore special jerseys in France that didn't mention their main sponsor. The second problem is more complicated and without such an easy solution. Race organizers contend that the UCI made the Pro Tour too big. The UCI requires races to allow every Pro Tour team to enter, but race organizers say there are so many Pro Tour teams that they don't get to invite enough wildcards (wildcards are usually inferior but local teams). Consequently, they have chosen to exclude Unibet.com from their races.

All of this amounts to a conspiracy against the Unibet.com team. The sponsor has put up a lot of money for a Pro Tour license and yet has been denied the promised advertising exposure. The riders have been shut out of many of the biggest races, including the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. The team has only been allowed in half of the Pro Tour races, and yet they are ranked 19th, ahead of a team that has done every race. I'd say they have done well considering the circumstances.

Now Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France, says Unibet.com can't race in the Tour because they haven't produced good results. But there's a problem with his reasoning -- he and his organization have been directly responsible for locking Unibet.com out of many Pro Tour races, eliminating their opportunities to get those results.

That's like not inviting someone to your wedding and then trying to blame them for not attending.