Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Economic Hit Men, Hard Gainers, and Dead Celebrities

The Secret History of the American Empire by John Perkins -- I thought Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man was a pretty interesting book, so I looked forward to reading this one. It promised to provide more specifics, and it delivers. Perkins moves from continent to continent describing how the American corporatocracy has enslaved and manipulated so-called Third World countries since World War II. Actually, A Secret History would be a more appropriate title because the book is far from thorough. It is based on Perkins' own experiences (lapsing occasionally into memoir) and those of other economic hit men and jackals (his word) that he has met over the years. The examples he gives are just the tip of the iceberg, but this book could really shock a less jaded reader. Perkins ends on a hopeful note with a rousing call to action, comparing our times to the days of the American Revolution with corporate tyranny in place of King George III. As always, I remain pessimistic.

Beyond Brawn by Stuart McRobert -- This is one of the most thorough books about weight training that I have ever seen. Beyond Brawn is aimed at "hard gainers." At first, this was a turn-off to me because I don't consider myself to be one -- I've always been able to build muscle reasonably quickly when I bothered to lift regularly. But McRobert's broader definition of hard gainer includes the 85% of us who aren't genetically gifted or chemically enhanced. The book describes in painstaking detail how most people should train. Throw away the muscle magazines with their "12 sets per isolated body part" workouts that will only exhaust and frustrate most people. McRobert advocates "abbreviated training," which means fewer sets of fewer exercises with less frequency, focusing on multi-joint exercises that stimulate muscle growth throughout the body. He likes squats, bench press, overhead press, etc., and he loves deadlifts. Unlike many books in the genre, Beyond Brawn doesn't prescribe specific workouts. McRobert instead gives readers the tools (and freedom) to create their own routines. The book also excludes instructions regarding exercise form; for that, get McRobert's forthcoming Insider's Tell-All Handbook on Weight-Training Technique. The author is intent on imparting information rather than providing entertainment for the reader. My wife doesn't like his serious, somewhat dry, often repetitive style, which I also find tedious at times. She prefers the lighter (but still informative) tone of The New Rules of Lifting, which similarly concentrates on multi-joint exercises. Note: I read the Revised Edition from 2001, not the 2007 Second Edition available from Amazon.com below.

The Last Days of Dead Celebrities by Mitchell Fink -- I wasn't going to buy this, but after reading the chapter about Warren Zevon in the store, I decided to give it a shot. Covering 15 celebrities who have died since 1980, Fink sets the scene and then describes their final months or days. It's a thoughtful survey of death in general: sometimes it comes suddenly, other times naturally or mercifully. The tragic tales of the Johns (Lennon, Belushi, Denver, Ritter) are the most painful to read, even after many years have passed. Perhaps the saddest passage in the book comes from Dan Aykroyd. After his efforts to save Belushi from himself, he recounts having "the talk" with River Phoenix, Chris Farley, and James Taylor's brother Alex-- yet all three died of drug overdoses. Several of the deaths in the book are surrounded by controversy, such as Margaux Hemingway, who did not seem suicidal; Ted Williams, who allegedly did not want to be frozen; and Tupac Shakur, whose Las Vegas murder remains unsolved. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book, even the chapters about people who never interested me before.

Just when I felt confident that I was getting ahead in the game, I answered the siren song of a Half Price Books e-mail full of coupons and bought seven books. Now I'm behind by one book for the year. I'm still struggling to keep this New Year's resolution.

Current tally: 24 books finished, 25 books acquired

Monday, March 23, 2009

Americans Are Too F***ing Sensitive

or "Why I Will Never Be a Prolific Blogger Again"

As the media tell it, President Obama's only words in his recent late-night talk show appearance were an insult to Special Olympics bowlers. He probably said more, but apparently it wasn't important. Was the comment ill-advised? Of course, it was. Was it offensive? I would argue that it was not because Obama clearly did not intend it to be. Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible these days to speak off-the-cuff for more than a few minutes without someone somewhere taking offense. As a blogger, I've been targeted several times by people who choose to be deeply offended by my words, even when -- no, particularly when -- no offense is intended. Frankly, that is a major reason I've posted less frequently in recent years. It's not that I'm afraid to speak my mind; I just don't need the irritation of defending myself from the perpetually offended American public anymore.

The Chicago Tribune had a ludicrous article on Saturday headlined "Obama's 'Tonight Show' gaffe one of many for president: Special Olympics slip isn't the first time he has stumbled." The story goes all the way back to the Democratic primary campaign to point out every single time Obama said anything vaguely offensive. Give me a freaking break. Imagine how many words the man has spoken in public in the past nine months. Who could do that without upsetting someone in modern America? It's ridiculous to hold anyone to such a standard. Besides, George W. Bush made as many "gaffes" almost every week for the past nine years, speaking a previously unknown dialect of the English language, and most of the media (David Letterman excepted) let him slide.

Someone commented on the Tribune story (insert rant about the general inanity of Tribune commenters here) that the media aren't being nearly as critical of Obama as they would have been if Bush had made the same comment about the Special Olympics. Well, that's because Bush would have flashed his malicious, condescending smirk, as if to say, "Take that, you little retards!"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Two More Books

Earlier this month, I found myself reading seven books at once. With my attention divided, it was hard to finish any of them. I finally got my act together and completed a couple in the past few days:

Oil: A Concise Guide to the Most Important Product on Earth by Matthew Yeomans - Lately, I've been buying oil books as if they were water books. This one is a very good introduction, but I already knew much of the material from reading a lot of articles on AlterNet (btw, Yeomans has a similarly liberal perspective). Oh well, the subtitle warns that it's concise, so I had no reason to expect depth. If you haven't read much about petroleum, you'll get a lot out of Oil. If you've already read books like The End of Oil (a thicker volume in my to-read pile) or Beyond Oil, however, it's probably not worth your time.

Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973 by Robert Christgau - When I aspired to be a rock critic, I read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs. That was freshman year of college, two decades ago (damn, I'm old). By the time I was halfway through Christgau's book, I remembered why I hadn't read a book of rock criticism since: I like it in small doses. The shorter works here are the best, especially the negative reviews. Unfortunately, the longer material sometimes founders under the weight of the critic's self-importance and overwrought prose. Christgau is one of the legends of the genre, though, and I ultimately enjoyed the book mostly because I know and like the music of that era. Note: this is the "expanded edition" of the original book with an extra 20 pages of material.

Current tally: 21 books finished, 18 books acquired

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Bought It At Polk Bros.

When I took this book to the counter at Half Price Books in Highland Park, the clerk's face lit up. "Oh, I remember when this book came in," he said. "I loved Polk Bros.!" I told him that two of my aunts had worked there, and one had met her husband there. "Well, I'm glad this book is going to a good home!"

I Bought It At Polk Bros. by Ann Paden is the classic tale of the children of immigrants working hard and succeeding in America. Sol Polk (nee Pokovitch), his five brothers, and his sister built a retail empire that once dominated appliance, furniture, and electronics sales in Chicagoland.

They did it by moving high volumes of name-brand merchandise at low prices. That doesn't sound like a big deal today, but Polk Bros. revolutionized the appliance industry in many ways. When they started out, most stores carried only one or two name brands, and the list price was unshakable. In fact, many manufacturers were reluctant to deal with the Polks because they didn't want their brands to be cheapened by discounting. Most manufacturers eventually changed their minds once they saw how quickly the skilled Polk Bros. salesmen turned over inventory.

Promotions were another key to Polk Bros.' success. Many Chicagoans remember the thousands of lighted, plastic "Jolly Super Santa Claus" lawn ornaments from Polk Bros., but that was only one of many premium or giveaway offers contrived to bring people into the stores. They gave away crates of fruit, circus tickets, and just about anything else they could think of. The book begins with Polk Bros.' 20th anniversary party: they bought out Chicago Stadium for a night, gave away tickets to customers, and treated them to a live broadcast of Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" followed by an Ice Capades show.

I learned a lot about retail history from this book. For example, in the 1930s the utility companies used to sell appliances to encourage people to use more electricity and natural gas. Before he opened his first store, Sol Polk sold electric irons door-to-door for Commonwealth Edison.

Polk Bros. deserves special credit for what I call "going out of business with honor." They ceased retail operations in 1992 because their stores were losing money, but they made this decision from a position where they could still pay their employees (including severance) and suppliers. The company never went bankrupt. One could cite many reasons for Polk Bros.' demise, including a changing market with greater competition, antiquated information systems that would have been costly to update, a devastating warehouse fire in 1987, and the death of founder Sol Polk (preceded by his brothers). The company's remaining assets were transferred to the Polk Bros. Foundation, which is still granting millions of dollars (nearly $24 million in 2007) to Chicago social service, education, culture, and health organizations.

Paden discusses such unpleasantries as the stress on the family caused by the brothers' insane work schedule, but the book is generally positive and celebratory. Since it is copyrighted by the Polk Bros. Foundation, I can't help wondering whether that influenced how certain events were covered. The photo section is entertaining but too brief, and I would have liked to see examples of the advertising that the author describes.

I Bought It At Polk Bros. follows a prominent retailer in a rapidly changing consumer environment. I would recommend it to someone interested in 20th century Chicago or retail history, or even anyone who wonders about the source of that Jolly Super Santa Claus in the attic.

Current tally: 19 books finished, 18 books acquired

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Bastard of the Day

It's been a while since I did a BotD entry. Of course, getting the Republican regime out of office has cut down on the bastardry somewhat. I'm still having a hard time hearing news reports mention "the president" without automatically thinking asshole, but it will take some effort to undo eight years of conditioning.

Anyway, today's bastard is bus driver Shawn Brim. Here's the AP story from Washington, DC:
A bus driver thought it would be funny to take the bite out of McGruff the crime dog by punching the mascot, but police said children who witnessed the stunt were horrified. Metro bus driver Shawn Brim, 38, climbed off a bus, adjusted his side view mirrors and then punched officer Tyrone Hardy, who was handing fliers to children on a Washington street while dressed as the crime dog, police said. After the punch, Brim got back on the bus and drove away, but was quickly pulled over Saturday.
I hope they hammer this guy for assaulting a police officer, and maybe animal cruelty, too. Don't screw with McGruff, you bastard!