Monday, January 31, 2011

BC2011: January Totals & Goodbyes

January was a good month for reading. I managed to finish ten books, wrapping up The Big Con around 4PM on the 31st. I purchased more books than I intended because I had many coupons and a Groupon that I had to use this month. At least I got some good deals, including a couple of old Straight Dope books for a buck apiece and an awesome book about the Chicago freight tunnel system for less than half its $55 list price. I also used four Borders and Half Price Books coupons to buy CDs instead of books (I have plenty of free space on my CD rack!).

January Totals: 10 finished, 7 acquired
Year-to-Date Totals: 10 finished, 7 acquired

Now for the second part of Book Challenge 2011, I have to say goodbye to two books that I won't read. They'll go in the pile for the used book store.

Spoiled: The Dangerous Truth About a Food Chain Gone Haywire by Nicols Fox -- This book is 14 years old (I bought it at least five years ago), and I've read more than I care to about this subject already in dozens of AlterNet articles as well as in books like Fast Food Nation. It may be a good book, but I have topic fatigue.

Straight Talk from the Heartland: Tough Talk, Common Sense, and Hope from a Former Conservative by Ed Schultz -- I used to listen to Al Franken on Air America when he started out. I read about Schultz in an article about liberal talk radio and picked up this book when I saw it cheap. Now Franken is a U.S. Senator, and I don't listen to talk radio anymore. Schultz also has a show on MSNBC, but I don't have cable. Straight Talk from the Heartland is seven years old, long in the tooth for political commentary. Consequently, I have little interest in what he has to say in this book.

  

BC2011: The Big Con

If I had written this book, the sub-title might have been "Why I Could Not Be A Republican Today." I am pretty liberal (maybe slightly libertarian?) about social issues, but I would describe myself as a fiscal conservative if such a thing existed anymore (Bill Clinton was the most fiscally conservative president in my lifetime). In that sense, I might have identified with the Republican party circa 1955. Illinois was governed by moderate Republicans for 25 years in the late 20th century, and I voted for them more than once. Today's Republicans are nothing like that; I haven't voted for a Republican in this century.

The Big Con: Crackpot Economics and the Fleecing of America by Jonathan Chait is one of the best political books I've read in a long time. If you wonder how the party of Eisenhower and Nixon turned into the party of Dubya and DeLay, Chait explains it. The first section is about how the Laffer curve (a.k.a. supply-side economics) came to be accepted as Gospel within the Republican party despite having little or no credibility among academics. Long gone are the fiscal conservatives, deficit hawks who tried to balance taxes and spending. Now the default solution to every economic problem for the Republican party is to lower taxes and increase corporate handouts (Chait also describes the rise of business lobbyists -- can you believe in 1961 only 50 corporations had Washington lobbyists? -- and the K Street Project).

The second part of the book is more diffuse. Chait describes a number of changes in the political landscape and ties them to how Republicans embraced a radical right-wing ideology while most Democrats haven't moved much on the political spectrum. He reveals disturbing insights about how Washington used to work versus how it works today, things that are all but invisible to the average American. For example, GOP legislative leaders have taken over agendas that used to belong to the committees. Also whereas the legislative and executive branches used to operate independently of each other even when the same party controlled both (which is how "separation of powers" is supposed to work), the Republican legislature was utterly subservient to the Bush administration.

One important piece of the political puzzle that Chait tries to avoid in this book is social issues, though the conventional wisdom is that socially conservative voters are the enablers that put the Republicans in office so they can cut taxes and pass out money to businesses (if that sounds cynical, consider how much talk there is about social issues around election time versus how little Republicans actually address those issues in office).

Chait describes himself as a moderate, but no doubt Republicans would portray him as a seething Marxist (as they often do when challenged). I think the first half of the book has less partisan rhetoric than the second half, but generally Chait stays true to his moderate position. It's hard not to sound partisan when detailing the antics of one particular party.

Although The Big Con was published before the 2008 election, the GOP hasn't changed its ideology so it is still relevant. It pre-dates the teabaggers, but their rabid anti-tax views were formed by Republican operatives anyway. I haven't read Chait's New Republic articles lately, but I imagine he'd have some interesting things to say about how with a Democrat in the Oval Office, Republicans suddenly care about deficits again (though not enough to let the Bush tax cuts expire!).

BC2011: Guitar Man

When I was 17, I got a shiny red imported electric guitar. It was cheap, but that didn't matter much. I totally sucked. I never even tuned it properly in the year or so that I played. I didn't learn any chords, but I taught myself the riffs for "Smoke on the Water" (anyone can figure that out) and "Pictures of Matchstick Men". I wrote and recorded a bunch of songs, but I was clearly more of a lyricist than a musician. A few years ago, when I was listening to a lot of bootleg concert recordings of solo performers, I flirted with getting an acoustic guitar and taking classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music (four blocks from my home). Eventually I talked myself out of it.

Guitar Man is Englishman Will Hodgkinson's story of learning to play guitar in his thirties. The author is fortunate to have friends to teach and counsel him. He also manages to get lessons from famous players like Johnny Marr and Bert Jansch. Then he visits America and sits in Roger McGuinn's living room as the Byrds legend demonstrates the intro to "Eight Miles High". His guitar education culminates in performing a gig with two buddies. This book is a lot of fun. It's more inspirational than instructional, more about feel and spirit than how to play particular chords. Anyone who loves playing guitar or simply the idea of playing guitar should find this book worthwhile. It almost made me want to try it again myself, but then I remembered how my poor coordination had thwarted me decades ago. I'll stick to listening to and reading about music for now. Someday I might pick up Hodgkinson's follow-up, Song Man.

BC2011: 'Scuse Me While I Whip This Out

I've read many books by the legendary Jewish cowboy singer-songwriter, author, pet rescuer, and one-time Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman. 'Scuse Me While I Whip This Out: Reflections on Country Singers, Presidents, and Other Troublemakers gathers magazine articles and other odds-n-ends featuring a cast of characters ranging from Hank Williams and Billy Joe Shaver to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to Don Imus* and Robert Louis Stevenson. Many articles draw from Friedman's personal experiences, but a few are just plain made up. Most of them are pretty funny, and this book is a quick read. I have several of Kinky's mystery novels on my sagging shelf of unread books, so he may resurface sometime later in Book Challenge 2011.

* The chapter about Imus was nothing short of a revelation -- as one who knew Imus primarily for his "nappy-headed hos" comment, I now see him in a completely different light.

BC2011: Eating the Dinosaur

Chuck Klosterman is one of my favorite authors, and undoubtedly the best pop culture critic of my generation. In Eating the Dinosaur, he compares and contrasts Kurt Cobain and David Koresh. He examines the Unabomber's manifesto for its ideas (setting aside the author's infamy). He ponders success through the eyes of Garth Brooks and his alter-ego Chris Gaines. If you asked me whether I'd be interested in reading about such topics, I'd probably decline, but Klosterman makes them all interesting. He can even write admiringly about things I loathe like ABBA and basketball in a way that holds my attention. If he was single and I had girl parts, I'd have his babies. Okay, maybe that's going a bit too far. But I love his books. Buy all the paperbacks, and you can spell out "C-H-U-C-K-K" on your shelf! (Unfortunately, I bought several of his books in other editions before the publisher started putting letters on the spines.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bonehead Polling

Last Sunday's Chicago Tribune reported one of the most meaningless polls I've ever seen and then compounded the idiocy by drawing a false conclusion.

The poll question was, "Over the next two years, what should President Obama work on passing?"
  1. Legislation Democrats want
  2. Legislation Democrats and Republicans agree on
  3. No opinion
The results said 70% of Democrats, 93% of Republicans, and 79% of Independents chose the second answer, legislation both parties agree on.

Let's look at how inherently stupid this poll is. Reasonably informed Americans know that the Republicans control the House and the Democrats control the Senate. Since any legislation that won't pass in both chambers is a complete waste of time, the first response defies common sense (as would "Legislation Republicans want" had it been offered). It's not really an opinion poll except for the psychotically partisan.

The Tribune's interpretation of this poll is that "Most Americans, even Democrats, would like to see President Barack Obama compromise on legislation with both parties over the next two years." But nothing in the poll says that Americans want compromise. I'm sure Democrats and Republicans would rather achieve their own legislative objectives. The poll simply shows that most Americans recognize the futility of partisan legislation when the House and Senate are split.

The poll question could have been "What do you want Congress to accomplish in the next two years?"
  1. Nothing
  2. Something
  3. No opinion
Fortunately, most respondents chose "something." But did we really need a poll to tell us that?

Monday, January 24, 2011

BC2011: How to be Funny

I hope most of you don't think I really need a book like this. It wouldn't help much anyway; How to be Funny by Jon Macks is the first dud of BC2011. I bought it because it looked amusing. I was wrong. Parts are funny, but most of the jokes are hackneyed or just plain lame. Much of Macks' advice is iffy at best. The advice drawn from other funny people is better. I don't think being funny is something that can be taught so much as honed -- if you can't grasp what makes something humorous in the first place, a book can't teach you how to riff on it.  On the bright side, at least How to be Funny didn't take long to read.

Am I the Only Happy Bears Fan Today?

I hate the Packers, and I wish the Bears would have kicked their asses back to Cheeseland yesterday. But anyone who says stupid shit like "The Bears still suck!" in the wake of their NFC Championship loss is an idiot with a short-term memory.

For most of 2009, fans were calling for Coach Lovie Smith's scalp, and I'll admit I was one of them. Frankly, the Ditka temperament suits me much better than laid-back Lovie. To the owners' credit and my amazement, the Bears spent heavily on free agents last spring, particularly defensive end Julius Peppers. They also brought in Mike Martz to coach the offense. Then the pre-season began, and the 2010 Bears didn't look any better than before, losing all their games despite a pretty easy schedule (Chargers, Raiders, Cardinals, Browns).

When the real season started, we had little hope and even lower expectations. They barely beat Detroit -- Detroit! -- thanks to a controversial call by the officials (personally, I think it was wrong and the Bears should have lost that game, but we'll take the W). Although a victory over Dallas got many fans excited, we weren't so impressed later in the season as the Cowboys turned out to be a bust. The Bears season was up-and-down, including wins over some impressive teams and losses to some not-so-impressive teams. I had a hard time believing in them, and yet they were putting together a pretty good season, finishing 11-5.

The Bears split with the Packers during the regular season. They dropped the last game of the season in Lambeau Field despite playing their starters (and perhaps unwisely risking injuries when their playoff seed was already decided). Although the Bears won the NFC North division, the Packers were surging. They won their wildcard game against the Eagles and beat the tar out of the NFC Conference-leading Falcons, scoring 48 points.

Yesterday even Bears legend Dan Hampton picked the Packers to win, along with Las Vegas and most of the TV analysts. Aaron Rodgers is one hell of a quarterback, whereas Cutler has been hot and cold all season. In the end, the Packers simply played better than the Bears. I don't think the Bears played poorly; they just lost to a better (at least at the moment) team. Third QB Caleb Hanie played surprisingly well against a defense that clearly flummoxed starting QB Jay Cutler* in the first half. Hanie showed poise both on the field and in the post-game press conference.

Considering all of the above, how can I feel unhappy about coming within eight points of going to the Super Bowl? I'm disappointed, of course, but there is no reason to be down on the team. The 2010 Bears gave us fans much more than we ever expected.


* By the way, the ignorant masses who are questioning Cutler's toughness simply haven't been paying attention this season. He took a beating all year behind a shaky offensive line and only missed one game (due to a concussion). You can question his inconsistent performance, but he is not a wimp.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dental Ethics Revisited

I was just looking over my blog, and I discovered that my "Dental Ethics" post triggered Google to serve up a dozen dental ads. Coincidentally, one of them was actually for my dentist!

BC2011: How to Build Your Own Spaceship

Soon after I read Jen's suggestion to write about why I bought each book, I ran into a problem. I bought How to Build Your Own Spaceship by Piers Bizony a few months ago, and I have no idea why. I remember thinking that a fellow blogger and an old friend might be interested in it, but space travel scares the bejesus out of me. Maybe I was thinking of Mary Roach's new Packing for Mars, which might be more my kind of book.

Oh well, since I bought the book I figured I may as well read it. While not a literal how-to manual, the book is pretty interesting. Bizony describes the current state of space flight technology, both government and private. Then he covers a broad range of topics that builders of the next generation of spaceships will have to take into account from rocketry to politics to consumer expectations. I learned a lot and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, especially considering that I couldn't remember why I even bought it!

  

BC2011: Sun in a Bottle

I've been buying more books about science lately because they challenge me (I have a degree in computer science, but it's a B.A.). Sun in a Bottle by Charles Seife is a history of fusion. It's a frustrating tale without a happy ending. Although scientists have predicted that fusion power plants are only 20-30 years away, they've been saying that for 50 years. Fusion experiments have been successful, but the problem is that they take more energy to execute than they create (achieving a net gain is the goal).

Seife starts with the Manhattan Project, which created a fission bomb, and continues into hydrogen bomb development and Project Plowshare, a controversial plan to use fission and/or fusion bombs for civil engineering. He clearly explains how fusion works and how scientists are attempting to harness it. He also details the scandalous elements of fusion's history from Juan Peron's physicist Ronald Richter to "cold fusion" to "bubble fusion." In reference to these events, the book is in part subtitled "the Science of Wishful Thinking."

I read several books about nuclear energy last year, so fusion seemed like the next logical step. Seife deserves credit for writing about a complex subject in a way that laypeople can easily understand. I would recommend Sun in a Bottle to anyone curious about fusion as well as anyone with a deep interest in future energy technologies. It would take an awful lot of windmills and solar panels to match the output of a single successful fusion plant. Despite all the setbacks, I believe fusion power is still our greatest hope for the future.

  

Saturday, January 22, 2011

BC2011: This Will Kill You

Subtitled "A Guide to the Ways in Which We Go", this is one of the most graphically morbid yet fascinating books I've ever read. Authors HP Newquist and Rich Maloof examine more than 75 ways to die in gruesome detail. The book starts with "Alligators" and proceeds alphabetically to "Working in a Coal Mine." For each way of dying, the authors describe how it happens, the underlying medical cause of death, how long it takes, who has the highest risk, lethality, deaths per year and historically, notable victims, a subjective horror factor, and a handful of related factoids. The authors try to add a little humor to lighten things up, but frankly sometimes it's crass. The tiny illustrations are amusing; I wish they were a bit larger.

I learned a lot from this book, although it gave my wife nightmares. After reading This Will Kill You, I can't say what would be the best way to die, but I have some new ideas about what would be the worst.

Toward the end of 2010, I read a related book called Morbid Curiosity: The Disturbing Demises of the Famous and Infamous. To me it was just so-so, but someone more into celebrities, especially earlier Hollywood stars, would probably enjoy it.

  

BC2011: Good Book

About 10-12 years ago, I tried to read the Bible from cover to cover. As a Catholic, this is far beyond the required reading; the Church has already extracted the "important" parts for Mass, and no one really encourages the faithful to dig deeper (digging into scripture tends to unearth messy contradictions). I got bogged down somewhere in the Book of Isaiah, which impresses Catholics slightly more than Jews (Isaiah comes about 15 books later in the Catholic Old Testament than in the Jewish Bible).

My faith is considerably weaker today, but I still have a strong cultural interest in the Bible. Almost every day, one hears a quotation or story that originated in scripture. I've also been in a reflective, pseudo-spiritual mood lately, so bought David Plotz's Good Book during the last week of 2010. Like a number of books these days, this one grew out of a Web project, "Blogging the Bible" at Slate.com (I have not read the blog, so I cannot compare the book and blog). The author reads the Jewish version of the Bible, providing summaries and commentary. He doesn't proselytize. Good Book is about understanding the stories of the Bible rather than delving deeply into religious belief and faith. It's a little like a humorous Cliffs Notes, making it particularly useful for those with a secular curiosity.

I enjoyed Good Book quite a bit. Plotz finds humor within the scripture and interjects plenty of his own without crossing the line of flippancy. Theologians could argue that he oversimplifies or leaves out some important details, but any summary is guilty of those charges.

Good Book is part of a genre I call "books about reading books." Last fall I read A.J. Jacobs' The Know-It-All, which is about reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. Waiting on my "unread" shelf is Reading the OED by Ammon Shea. Another related book I should mention is Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically, another entertaining book based on holy scripture, which I reviewed as part of Book Challenge 2009.

      

BC2011: The Football Uncyclopedia

My book selection process is like what accountants call LIFO: the last book I acquire tends to be the first that I read. This explains how I have amassed so many unread books. I'll go out and buy a few books, and then I'll start to read one. Then I'll buy another book and start reading that after finishing the previous one. That leaves behind two books that have to fight their way back to the top of the stack. If I buy another book and start reading it, then those books just keep piling up.

I only received two books for Christmas this year, and The Football Uncyclopedia by Michael Kun and Adam Hoff was one of them. Following the LIFO principle, I started reading it before the end of 2010. It is an entertaining, opinionated, and yet informative book.

Although they differ in intent and content (the only commonality is football), I can't help comparing this to a book I read last year with high expectations, The Football Fan's Manifesto by Michael Tunison. That book was rather disappointing and I wouldn't recommend it, but any fan of pro football with a sense of humor should get something out of the The Football Uncyclopedia. There is also a Baseball Uncyclopedia (also co-written by Kun), but I'm not sure my interest in that sport goes deep enough to want to check it out.

Come to think of it, last year I read 23 Ways to Get to First Base: The ESPN Uncyclopedia, and I loved it. It includes a broad range of facts, mostly in the form of lists, from the wide, wide world of sports. Although I don't consider myself a general sports fan (I rarely watch sports except football), I still found the information fascinating, and even the items that didn't interest me were short enough to read quickly.

      

Friday, January 21, 2011

I Dream of Bruce

Last night I had a dream where I was hanging out in Chicago with Bruce Springsteen. First we were walking toward a car with two other people, and we were in the back of the group talking. He told me the people in New Jersey were a little upset with him because he had forgotten to do a Christmas show this year (his hometown Christmas shows are legendary). He felt bad about it, but I guess when you're Bruce's age, you forget things sometimes.

Then we got into the backseat of the car (the others sat up front) and went on a tour of Chicago streets that were named after his songs. Most of them were coincidental. For instance, there just happened to be a Night Street (alas, no Thunder Road). But there was one street, a diagonal somewhere on the North Side (I guess it looked kind of like Higgins Road but further east on the map -- my dreams often have weirdly specific geographic elements, and in this case I remember the angle of the street against the grid) that had been named Prove It All Night Street specifically in his honor. As we continued being driven around, I said to Bruce, "I guess you're too 'East Coast' for Chicago to give you more than one street!" That made him chuckle.

I don't remember how we parted ways, but somehow I ended up falling asleep on the lower half of my bed. I was thinking that my encounter with Bruce was all just a crazy dream. Then (still in my dream) I woke up and found my old vinyl LP of Darkness on the Edge of Town lying on my pillow... with his autograph!


I don't normally have fanboy dreams, and although he was once my favorite artist, I'm not obsessed with Springsteen the way I was 25 years ago (my first Springsteen phase, spawned by a cassette from a friend named Tom, came just before my Beatles phase (which evolved into a 1960s phase)). I didn't even buy his last album, though every 5-10 years I tend to get back into him and get caught up. I have no idea whether he did a Christmas show this year, and I'm pretty sure there isn't a street named for him in Chicago. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any Chicago street names that coincide with his song titles, though there could be one or two. At least my dream reminded me that I still need to listen to The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge of Town Story, which I received for Christmas.
  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dental Ethics

After checking out my teeth, my dentist offered me a free cookie. He does this every time; the cookie is even packaged in a wax paper envelope that says "compliments of" his office. This is like when I went to the dentist as a kid and got to pick a cheap plastic toy out of the cardboard "treasure chest" after my exam. But a cookie? Isn't that sort of unethical? It's like getting a free pack of cigarettes from an oncologist.

The dentist also gives me a bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss, so at least he's providing preventative tools (or to use my favorite term from the dental world, prophylactics*) to go along with my snack. If I'm going to practice good oral hygiene, I need to coat my teeth with sugar first so I have something to practice on.

Oh, ethics schmethics. Who cares? It was a tasty cookie!


* When I was a Boy Scout, I had a book that listed the requirements for every merit badge. One of the tasks for the Dentistry badge involved the word prophylactic, which gave me and my friends endless amusement as junior high schoolers (do younger people even recognize prophylactic as another word for condom anymore?). That's no longer part of the requirements, but this snicker-inducing gem in the current list dates back to my day:
With the help of a dentist, prepare a dental stone cast using a vibrator, a mixing bowl, a water measure, a plastic measure, model stone, and a spatula.
"Hey dad, I need a vibrator for my Boy Scout project."
"Check in your big sister's nightstand drawer."
After 25 years of picturing a large, whirring, realistically-shaped Doc Johnson product at the center of that project, I finally looked up dental vibrators online. Words cannot express my disappointment.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Challenge 2011

After some thought (and a little encouragement from Jen), I've decided to do another "book challenge" in 2011. The best reason is because I can't trust myself if I don't. After Book Challenge 2009, I went on a binge in January 2010 that added about 25 books to my piles. Borders was having a hell of a clearance sale, but still...

The primary goal again will be to finish more books than I acquire. I could try to beat my total of 101 books finished in 2009, but that might encourage me to focus on the low-hanging fruit, the thinner volumes on my "unread" shelf. A better goal would be to increase the margin of finished to acquired since whittling down the piles is the whole point of the exercise.

This year I will add another element to my challenge. In recognition of the utter impossibility of actually reading all of those books, I will pick out two books every month that I will never read. There are some books that I acquired long ago when my interests were different. Others have a limited "shelf life." For example, I can't muster much interest in reading political titles from the Clinton era or even the Bush years anymore. Ideally, I would cull my stacks on a regular basis, but I've never been able to. This way I will have to do it.

What about reviewing every book online, a task that became somewhat onerous in 2009? Jen suggested that I could write about when I bought the book and why, plus whether it was worth reading. That seems appropriate considering I have confessed that I enjoy shopping for books even more than I enjoy reading them. Her idea made me think of 7UP and the famous "Uncola" advertising campaign from the 1970s.* So I may post "unreviews" instead of real reviews.

The only unresolved issue at the moment is whether I will be able to use Amazon links to illustrate my posts, but that is out of my hands.


* Incidentally, the most dramatic moment in my family's Christmas celebration this year was when one of those classic 7UP Uncola glasses -- the kind shaped like an upside-down Coca-Cola glass -- took a dive from my grandparents' cupboard, spraying shards of glass across the kitchen floor.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Baby Doc's Back

This doesn't sound like good news:
Jean-Claude Duvalier, the once-reviled dictator of Haiti known as Baby Doc, made a surprise return to this country Sunday evening, ending almost a quarter-century of exile and sending out shockwaves of speculation over his motives and intentions.
For those unfamiliar with Baby Doc and his dad, Papa Doc, this ruling family has been responsible for vaulting Haiti into the 21st century at the forefront of... well, nothing because the two spent what little there was of Haiti's wealth on themselves as they killed thousands of political opponents. The U.S. Air Force flew Baby Doc to France in 1986, and everyone hoped that would be the last we'd hear from him.

No doubt many Haitians are now saying, "Damn, I wish we would have let Wyclef Jean run for president!"

Congrats to the Human Cannonball

Webb Wilder, Last of the Full Grown Men, is being inducted into the Mississippi Musicians' Hall of Fame today!

I've been a fan since Hybrid Vigor (his second record) when I used to put "Human Cannonball" on every mix tape I made for anyone. It wasn't a big favorite of the girls I was trying to impress (I always had trouble turning women on to good music instead of the crap on the radio), but my brother loved it. I've never been to a Webb Wilder show, unfortunately, but I have a few bootleg recordings.

Remember the Webb Wilder Credo, kids: Work hard, rock hard, eat hard, sleep hard, grow big, wear glasses if you need 'em.

Friday, January 14, 2011

At the Book Store

I never dreamed this genre would become popular enough to have its own aisle sign at Barnes & Noble:

Impressive


These guys must be really strong.

If I Had a Hummer...


... I'd park on top of snow piles. All over this land.

A Question

Does having my hair cut short make my head look fat?

My wife thought that was a weird question, but it made sense to me. At least she didn't say, "No, your addiction to pizza, bacon cheeseburgers, and Coca-Cola is what makes your head look fat!"

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Illinois: Screwing Me Double

Everyone is talking about the state's plan to increase the income tax rate from 3% to 5.25% for four years, declining afterward to 3.75%. I think the moderate increase is reasonable to solve our fiscal crisis, though I'm not enamored with the 5.25% part of the deal.

Fewer people are aware of the state's other "revenue enhancement plan," putting a 6.25% tax on online purchases for companies with affiliates in Illinois. As an Amazon.com affiliate, I received a letter from Amazon calling this "an unconstitutional tax collection scheme." Regardless of whether the tax is legal, Amazon will terminate my participation in their Amazon Associates Program. It's just easier for them to dump me than to assume the burden of collecting this tax and lose part of their competitive advantage over brick & mortar retailers like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Illinois businesses like FatWallet.com who depend on referral fees will have to leave the state to stay in business.

I'll admit that Amazon.com has been only an intermittent revenue stream for me over the past five years, but every little bit helps in this economy. Besides, I like to illustrate my book reviews with picture links to Amazon. As I said above, I understand that Illinois has to raise taxes to stay solvent, but to raise my taxes while taking away one of the ways I make money is just wrong.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

My Overlapping Areas of Expertise

The other day, a friend asked me this trivia question: "What was the original flavor of the filling in Twinkies?"

"Banana!" I replied. "I read a whole book about Twinkies once."

"Really?" he asked incredulously. My friend reads a lot of non-fiction like I do, but the topics rarely overlap. Sometimes when we're at Borders, he'll pick up a book and ask, "Who would buy a book about this?" Then I'll go back a few days later and buy it for myself.

"Yeah, it was about where the ingredients for Twinkies come from," I said. "And come to think of it, I once read a book about bananas, too!" I'm pretty sure both books included the answer to his question.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Toolbar Madness

By now, every computer user has been inundated with Internet browser toolbar offers. Installing just about any piece of software includes an option to install a branded toolbar from Google, Bing, Yahoo, et al. Plus many Internet security suites/anti-virus programs install their own toolbars.

I like to keep things simple, so I don't use any of them. But yesterday at the Corner Bakery, I saw a guy who installed practically all of them! Seriously, this guy had Internet Explorer maximized on his laptop, and toolbars consumed the upper 50% of the screen! I've never seen anything so ridiculous. The guy had to scroll every couple of paragraphs because that's all that would fit in his reduced browser space. He can't possibly use all of those toolbars, and even if he does, it can't be worth the inconvenience it causes on every freaking web page.

Restaurant Bribes Parents to be Parents

It's no secret to most patrons of Rockwell's Neighborhood Grill in Lincoln Square that parents do not control their kids there. My parents would have never put up with half the shit that these inattentive, self-absorbed, yuppie parents let their trophy babies get away with. They would have dragged me out of the restaurant and applied a bit of old-school corporal punishment to my backside. When I returned to the table, ta-da, I'd suddenly know how to behave myself in public.

I was surprised and amused this weekend to see table cards declaring "Rockwell's New Year's Resolution." Essentially, Rockwell's is offering parents a discount if their little bastards actually behave themselves for a change:
For all families that we feel embody what family dining at Rockwell’s is all about, we will present them with a GOLDEN TICKET which they can bring in for 10% off of their next visit.
What are they talking about? Specifically, three things:
  • staying seated
  • no running
  • inside voices
Holy shit, could the bar be set any lower? Sheesh.

Dear mothers, while I am one of the beleaguered guests who stands to benefit from this initiative -- I'm the guy reading a book that you just chose to seat your three whiny preschoolers next to despite the rest of the place being empty -- I have to say this is complete bullshit. You do not deserve any kind of discount or kudos for doing what you are supposed to do. Do the police hand out prizes to people who stop at red lights? Does the city cut my taxes because I shovel my sidewalk? Does PetSmart give me a discount for cleaning up after my dog? No, because these are things you are supposed to do. Like keeping your kids from wandering the restaurant and randomly shrieking.

I expect a number of indignant mommy bloggers (you know, the ones who are blogging instead of watching their kids) to be outraged that anyone would dare to infer that their little darlings need any guidance -- or, God forbid, discipline -- when dining in public. In 20 years when today's spoiled, ill-bred Lincoln Square kids are responsible for keeping our economy going, we're all fucked.


P.S. Will I get a 10% discount for behaving myself? If not, then this incentive program is clearly unfair to childless diners. Rockwell's is essentially rewarding parents for doing what they should while the rest of us who never caused any trouble in the first place get nothing. Here's hoping a "golden ticket" is in my future.

P.P.S. It also occurs to me that this whole thing may be a sneaky way for the owners to encourage return visits during the slow winter months.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Time for Another Book Challenge?

Longtime readers (all four of you) may recall that in 2009, I challenged myself to finish reading more books than I purchased. I ultimately succeeded, finishing 101 books along the way. I also purchased 96, so in the end I barely broke even.

Last year there was no challenge, and my efforts at self-restraint were weak at best. I celebrated my 40th birthday by driving to Indianapolis ostensibly to eat Waffle House waffles, but I also carried along directions to every bookstore in town. Needless to say, I purchased more books than waffles on that trip.

Now my problem is worse than ever. The bookcase that I have reserved for unread books is literally sagging under the weight:


A rough estimate is 350 volumes. I know people who don't own that many books, much less books they haven't even read! That's 3-1/2 years worth of reading, assuming I do not add to the pile or turn into Evelyn Wood (though there are a few books that I'll probably never read anyway --some of the vertical ones have been around for ten years or more). And yet, for Christmas I received a $75 gift card for Half Price Books. Let's face it -- I'm not going to stop buying books anytime soon.

So that brings me around to the title question of this entry. Should I do another "book challenge"? I'm thinking no for two reasons: 1.) I don't like doing big projects twice because the second time is never as interesting or fun as the first, and 2.) writing a review of every single book I read for a year is hard work, and I just don't feeling like doing it again.