Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thoughts (& Lyrics) on Charlie Sheen

Albert Einstein was a ladies' man
While he was working on his universal plan
He was making out like Charlie Sheen
He was a genius

     -- from "Genius" by Warren Zevon and Larry Klein

Is Charlie Sheen Hollywood's last great method actor? How better to prepare for the role of Charlie Harper on Two and a Half Men than to immerse oneself in a hedonistic world of porn stars and drugs?

As for Sheen's invective directed at the show's executive producer, Chuck Lorre, consider this: Sheen makes $1.2 million per episode of Two and a Half Men. When you pay a guy fuck-you money, eventually he's going to say, "Fuck you!"

Saturday, February 26, 2011

BC2011: Voodoo Histories

I'm not sure whether David Aaronovitch's book satisfies its subtitle "The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History," but the author sets about examining and debunking a broad range of conspiracy theories from the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the anti-Obama Birther movement. While by no means comprehensive, the book covers a good representative sample of the "alternative histories" concocted over the last century. In addition to providing ammunition for arguing with conspiracists, the book is very entertaining.

I bought this book for my wife last year because she enjoys reading about conspiracy theories even though she doesn't believe most of them. I thought she read it, but this week she grabbed it away from me to read about the death of Vince Foster. Taking books away from me while I'm reading them -- especially a book that passed the last six months in a stack beside her chair -- is not one of her more endearing qualities.

Anyway, I enjoyed Voodoo Histories, but naturally Aaronovitch has his detractors at where he gets about the same number of 5-star and 1-star reviews. Unsurprisingly, conspiracy theorists insist that the author has been duped.

I Am What I Am

My wife said, "Someone who didn't know you might think you're an asshole."

I replied, "And someone who did know me would be sure of it."

In other news, people no longer wonder why I don't have kids. They're just grateful.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

BC2011: Kitchen Confidential

Anthony Bourdain's book about "Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" has been widely read over the past decade. I had considered purchasing it several times over the years, but I didn't pull the trigger until earlier this month after I saw it mentioned in an e-mail from Powell's.

I've read several books by waitstaff, and what sets Kitchen Confidential apart is that Bourdain loves what he does. He loves the food, the cooking, the manic environment of a restaurant on a Saturday night, the locker room camaraderie, everything. When a waiter or waitress writes a memoir, an inevitable subplot is about trying to get out of the business (usually to become a writer, which is awkwardly meta). Bourdain, on the other hand, enjoys writing but truly loves cooking. Of course, the irony is that this book became so successful that he left his old job behind anyway.

My only complaint about this book is actually a confession of my own ignorance. Frankly, I don't know what the hell he's cooking half the time. He could be stringing together random French-sounding words just to mess with me, for all I know. Come to think of it, my preference for diners over fine dining may be what kept me from buying it earlier.

Fancy cuisine aside, I enjoyed Kitchen Confidential. I've often wondered what goes on behind-the-scenes at a restaurant, and this book satisfies that curiosity. Bourdain is an ideal narrator, self-deprecating enough not to be arrogant (as many top chefs seem), yet skilled and experienced enough to educate and entertain.

Contrary to Republican Opinion...

... A city is not a business, and neither is a state. And here's a hearty fuck you to anyone who says it is.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I'm depressed because of my grandparents' health.
I'm depressed because of my parents' finances.
I'm depressed because of Dave Duerson's suicide.
I'm depressed because of Chicago's election.
I'm depressed because of Wisconsin's governor.
I'm depressed because of America's economy.
I'm depressed because of America's decline.
I'm depressed because the best days are over.

Never in my life have I been so sure that things won't ever get better. And that's more depressing than all of the above.

Bastard of the Day

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was already a jackass for pissing away his state's high-speed rail funding. But the union-busting bullshit he's trying to pull now elevates him to bastard status (not to mention his suspicious hijacking of state Medicaid funding). Anyone who doesn't know about what's happening in Madison these days -- or anyone who thinks the Democrats and the unions should happily accept Walker's proposal -- should read this.

If any Democratic Wisconsin legislators need a place to stay, the DJWriter B&B would be proud to host you in exile.

Wasn't Wisconsin once considered a somewhat progressive state?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Readers Without Borders

As most of you probably know, Borders filed for bankruptcy protection last week. Although they are closing about 30% of their stores nationwide, the Chicago area was hit harder. Nearly half of the stores in this region will close, including almost all remaining city locations (two were already going/gone and five more were announced, leaving only the State Street store).

As a regular shopper of the entire region, I tried to guess which stores would close, and I was right about most. But I didn't predict that Borders would virtually abandon the city and its neighboring suburbs (I thought Clark St., Lincoln Village, and Norridge would stay open). One might think a compulsive book buyer like me would have a little sway with the company, but apparently not. In fact, the six Borders stores closest to my house are all closing! The nearest surviving suburban location is in Wilmette.

All of this didn't surprise me because Borders has been in and out of financial trouble for years. In general, upper management sucks. They've made one stupid move after another, but two stand out. First, for many years was merely an affiliate site. While Amazon and Barnes & Noble were carving the online book shopping pie, Borders wasn't even at the table. By the time they launched their own online store, it was way too late. To make matters worse, they chose not to discount as deeply online as their competitors. The second big mistake was diversifying. Granted, books and music are rough categories for brick & mortar stores in this century, but why add toys, games, and stationery/greeting cards to the mix? Who shops for games or greeting cards at Borders? Who uses stationery anymore? They probably shouldn't have stocked DVDs either. I can't remember the last time I saw someone buy a DVD at Borders.

Borders wasted no time in liquidating; the sale started Saturday. In typical Borders mismanagement fashion, they didn't send out e-mails about store closings until late Friday (though I have to give them credit for sending out an e-mail on Tuesday about the bankruptcy). And my mom's e-mail was for a store 50 miles from home, even though several much nearer stores were also closing. The e-mails only said "20-40% off" without more details. I had some time to kill on Saturday, so I stopped by the Mount Prospect store to check out their discount levels.

People are incredibly stupid. The Borders parking lot was packed, as was a bigger lot across the street. Inside, the cashier lines stretched from the front of the store to the back and around the corner. What were these great deals that everyone was buying? Books, CDs, and DVDs were 20% off. Of course, most of those items are discounted even more every day at, and with no sales tax (for that matter, Borders regularly e-mails coupons for 25-40% off a single item). Why would anyone wait in a ridiculously long line for such non-deals? At least 95% of the store's inventory was only 20% off, so what was 40% off? Greeting cards!

You know I can't resist a good bargain, and if this sale goes on long enough to offer deeper discounts, I'll be hitting every closing Borders in the area. I'll probably need to bring a shopping cart along. Book Challenge 2011 will go out the window; this is a one-time opportunity I don't intend to pass up. But 20% off is no bargain at all.

BC2011: Shut Up, I'm Talking

I first heard of this book in an article about Facebook. Apparently, a slew of stupid Facebook users "liked" Shut Up, I'm Talking because they mistook it for a catchphrase. They couldn't be bothered to read the subtitle: "And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government." I've always found the Israelis rather fascinating, so when I saw this book months later on the bargain rack at Borders, I grabbed it.

Author Gregory Levey is a Canadian Jew who is hired by the Israeli United Nations mission to write speeches. Eventually, he is invited to Israel to work for Ariel Sharon. Shut Up, I'm Talking takes place during some particularly trying times for the Israeli government (though one could argue that most times are). Despite the seriousness of the events within, this memoir is very funny. Levey describes situations that give the impression that the Israeli government is run more by the seat-of-the-pants than one might expect. I found myself alternately laughing and shaking my head at the ridiculousness of it all.

Lyrics of the Day

It's been a long time since the last LotD (2008!), but today I heard "The Mariner's Revenge Song" by the Decemberists for the first time. The narrator quotes his mother's dying words:
"Find him, bind him, tie him to a pole
and break his fingers to splinters
Drag him to a hole until he wakes up naked
Clawing at the ceiling of his grave"
Is that awesome or what? I've had Picaresque for a month now, but the drawback of listening to CDs in the car is that often the trip is shorter than the disc (since I share the car with my wife, I can't just leave the disc in the player). "The Mariner's Revenge" is the penultimate track; I still haven't heard the last one.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Conservative Certitude

One thing that amazes me about modern conservatives is their certitude. No matter how complicated the question, they will offer a simple answer with the utmost conviction, as if no other possibility even exists. Of course, they are usually full of shit, which makes their confidence even more incredible.

Liberalism, in contrast, is about recognizing shades of gray. It's about pragmatic flexibility rather than rigid moralistic proclamations. As such, liberals are not given to the certitude that makes conservatives so ridiculous.

Conservatism seems to have a special appeal to people who never learned useful skills like critical thinking. The movement paints "intellectuals" as pointy-headed liberal fools in ivory towers, which allows people who never went to college (or perhaps barely made it through) to feel superior to those who did, thus negating a lifelong sense of inadequacy.

It's quite amusing to listen to them. They're like the kid in the class who never does his homework. Then one day he has the answer to the teacher's question for the first time ever and raises his hand excitedly. But when the teacher calls on him, he's got it totally wrong.

To combat the wisdom of actual intellectuals, conservatives have developed their own parallel universe of pseudo-intellectuals in an attempt to lend credence to a smorgasbord of bad ideas. They have their own scientists and their own economists, all generating opinions disguised as facts to support conservative philosophies.

It's funny how conservatives like to portray liberals as controlling know-it-alls when they are the ones who claim to have all the fucking answers.

One brilliant twist in this anti-intellectualism is that it is virtually impossible to insult a conservative for having a lazy mind, using incorrect logic, etc. Having already rejected intellectualism, a conservative doesn't even view it as criticism.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

BC2011: The Barn House

In this book, Ed Zotti, best known as editor of "The Straight Dope", recounts his efforts to restore a century-old house to its former glory. Though subtitled "Confessions of an Urban Rehabber", it isn't merely about fixing up a house. Zotti devotes many pages to higher level musings about why people like city living and how cities have bounced back from decline in the past couple of decades (he and his wife purchased the house in 1993, and The Barn House came out in 2008). Parts read like a love story, whether addressed to Chicago, the house, or the process of rehabbing. Zotti weaves humor as well as scholarly information into the narrative.

Although our home is a bit newer (circa World War I), we have had similar adventures over the last 12 years. I would have liked this book if that was all we had in common. But because Zotti is writing about Chicago, I loved it. In fact, he's practically a neighbor; his house is less than 1.5 miles from ours. The period he describes corresponds to the years I've lived in the city, so I've seen the same changes. These factors made reading The Barn House a very personal experience for me. It made me realize that for all that I may complain about the weather, corruption, traffic, politics, etc., Chicago is not only my home, it's the place I want to be. I'm not worthy of being part of what Zotti calls the "city-guy mafia" (people who get things done), but I am a city guy through and through.

Aside from a few diagrams of electrical wiring, The Barn House is not a "how-to" book. Zotti takes on certain rehabbing tasks and farms out others based on his available time and money. The book's broader perspective makes it useful reading for would-be rehabbers. Not only are Zotti's mistakes and successes instructive, but he shares insight into the stress and strain on family and finances caused by such an undertaking. Ultimately, The Barn House is also a pep talk. By placing the micro-level project of rehabbing a house in the context of reviving a city, he reminds us how our individual efforts collectively achieve great things.


Tuesday, February 08, 2011

BC2011: Mentally Incontinent

Unlike How to be Funny, this book by Joe Peacock is hilarious. In the waning days of 2010, I plucked it out of the Borders bargain bin based on the title, read a few random excerpts and decided to give it a try. Mentally Incontinent is the result of Peacock's web site, where he posts stories and lets visitors edit and vote on them. The book's genre depends on whether the stories are true, which depends on how one interprets this explanation. Fiction or embellished memoir, it doesn't really matter because I was laughing too hard to care. I guess I'd compare it to a modern-day The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, though Mark Twain is probably spinning in his grave as I write this.

The web site features the stories in this book and Peacock's previous self-published volume (also titled Mentally Incontinent), plus other stories that didn't get enough reader votes for inclusion. While I'm working my way through the also-rans, why not check out a few of the stories yourself? Just don't hold me responsible when you spray your coffee all over the keyboard.


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Blizzard Food Panic?

On TV last night, reporters were talking to people at grocery stores buying food for the impending blizzard. The aisles were packed with people -- one store owner said he had to call in extra employees. I don't understand it. I went to the store yesterday (my usual shopping day) and only spent about $40. It never occurred to me to buy extra because of the storm.

We always have a week's worth of meals in canned goods (Beefaroni!) plus another week in frozen food (Stouffer's!), not to mention what's in the refrigerator (Mike's Hard Lemonade! Er, I mean Dannon yogurt!). I'm not one of those survivalist types; I just like to have a wide variety of food on hand ( I know I look like the kind of guy who always has plenty of food on hand). In fact, usually we have even more, but I've been cutting back after throwing away too much expired food last year. Is this atypical? Is it the Boy Scout or hoarder in me? I just assumed everybody aside from the poor or broke -- or the people on Seinfeld who IIRC seemed to come home with groceries almost every day -- stocked food like I do.

Best news of the day: my dentist called to cancel my 2PM appointment. I wasn't looking forward to trying to get home from downtown just as the blizzard hits (3PM) along with the people with real jobs whose employers are closing early today. Now I can merely (merrily?) look forward to an evening of shoveling snow.