Saturday, March 31, 2012

BC2012: The Beat Cop's Guide to Chicago Eats by Sgt. David J. Haynes & Christopher Garlington

Since my wife is a cop, I pretty much had to buy this. It's a little short, but I enjoyed it and I hope to visit some of these restaurants soon, especially with the coupons in the back of the book. The down-to-earth restaurant reviews are seasoned with recipes and funny police stories. I haven't met Sgt. Haynes, but I imagined the voice of Officer Mike Biggs from Mike & Molly speaking throughout the book.

And because I always find something to complain about... The book is divided into the five "areas" of the city designated by the Chicago Police Department (it's the level above districts, sort of like grouping states into regions). It would have been nice if the area maps included some street names so readers would have a better idea of where the boundaries are.

BC2012: Beyond the Box $core by Rick Horrow & Karla Swatek

I bought this "Insider's Guide to the $750 Billion Business of Sports" at a Borders bankruptcy sale. It's mildly interesting, although it reads more like a series of lengthy magazine articles than one cohesive book. The copyediting is especially atrocious. I've become accustomed to misspellings, missing words, and other minor errors, but this book is much worse. There are nonsensical sentences and blatant factual errors. Here is one of the most egregious:
The vote passed. The [Oklahoma City] Thunder rolled in. So far, the team is in the NFL's top five teams in attendance figures. And they're getting better on the hardwood, too. (page 115)
Wow! Who would ever think a basketball team would be among the top five in the National Football League?! Did anybody read this thing before it went to press?

Aside from stuff like that, Beyond the Box $core is just okay. I learned a few things (most shocking: "A staggering 60 percent of NBA players go bankrupt five years after they retire"), but the book didn't hold my interest very well. A book like this really needs an index, too.

BC2012: The CIA's Greatest Hits by Mark Zepezauer

If you aren't aware of the shenanigans of the Central Intelligence Agency over the years, this book is a great introduction. Even if you are, at least the cartoons are good for a laugh. Zepezauer describes 42 situations involving the CIA including assassinations, coups, civil wars, spying, and drug trafficking. Each one gets two pages including a cartoon, so the book doesn't take long to read. While the author obviously has a liberal anti-CIA bias, that makes it an amusing book despite the heinous actions described.

I found this book at Open Books, a non-profit used bookstore that raises money for literacy projects. I plan to donate my books to them in the future instead of Goodwill. It's a neat store, and it's less than a block from the Brown Line station at Chicago Avenue (and two blocks from where I lived in the mid-1990s).

BC2012: 101 People You Won't Meet in Heaven by Michael Powell

Any book with Charles Manson on the cover has to be good, right? Each of "the most brutal and sadistic individuals the world has ever known" gets two or three short pages recounting his or her misdeeds. All the obvious killers and despots are included -- Gacy, Bundy, Starkweather, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot -- but Powell also includes a good number of people I had never heard of (nor had my wife, and she's like the Jeopardy! champion of serial killer knowledge). The only glaring omission to me is Charles Whitman, but I've had a soft spot for the guy in the tower ever since I first heard Kinky Friedman's song. This book is dark reading for sure, and I don't recommend it right before bedtime (actually, my wife had me start reading How Not to Act Old because she didn't want me to read this one to her after dark).

BC2012: How Not to Act Old by Pamela Redmond Satran

How is it that I find so many books based on blogs that I've never heard of? How Not to Act Old is the latest I've read, another Borders bankruptcy sale purchase. This book was fairly entertaining, a few good laughs and a lot of minor chuckles (except the Mad Libs, which were lame). There is some good advice here, and I think it might help me relate better to the 20-somethings who wait on me at the corner restaurant. I read this book aloud to my (older by 2.5 years) wife, who also enjoyed it.

BC2012: Death from the Skies! by Philip Plait

I've mentioned before that sometimes I like to pick out books based on a common theme. A week after Jon Ronson was on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Plait appeared on the same show. Although Death from the Skies! was discussed even less than The Psychopath Test -- sometimes Ferguson has interesting people on his show just to shoot the shit rather than actually discussing their work (btw Plait held his own with the quick-witted host) -- I decided to read it next. Like Ronson's book, I have owned this book for a while. I bought it at Borders in Orland Park the weekend before the initial bankruptcy announcement. Oh, how I miss those $3.99 clearance racks at Borders!

As an astronomer, Plait examines the ways life on Earth could be wiped out by extraterrestrial events ranging from asteroid impacts to gamma ray bursts to the end of the Sun and ultimately the universe. He explains these phenomena clearly and colorfully. The bulk of my astronomical knowledge* is 30 years old, and back then I leaned more toward observational astronomy than astrophysics, so Death from the Skies! helped to bring me up to date.

The cover features a comic book-like illustration of people fleeing from a fireball. The guy in front has a soul patch, and another is a dead ringer for Drew Peterson. I must say, imagining the destruction of hipsters and Drew Peterson makes me feel a little better about the end of humankind. I wonder about the choice of cover art, though. I understand it, but I wonder if it might turn off potential readers who don't "get it" and think the book is sensationalist rather than scientific. I hope that isn't the case because Death from the Skies! deserves to be widely read (hmm... come to think of it, one may argue that in today's society more people would buy and read the book if they expected it to be sensationalist rather than scientific). Now I'm looking forward to reading Plait's first book, Bad Astronomy.

* That is to say, my knowledge about astronomy, rather than to imply that the vastness of my knowledge is astronomical.


BC2012: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The only thing wrong with Jon Ronson is that he hasn't written more books! This is the third I've read (I think he has three more out in the UK), and I've loved every one. His best-known work is The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was made into a movie that I haven't seen. Ronson chooses interesting subjects, and I enjoy his writing style. In this "Journey Through the Madness Industry", Ronson learns what defines a person as a psychopath and looks for those traits in various people, including criminals, CEOs, and himself as a journalist.

I bought this book at a Borders bankruptcy sale (the Orland Park store, I think, where I once did a Biking Illinois signing event). It sat in my massive stacks of unread books until I saw Ronson on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson about 4-6 weeks ago. They didn't talk about the book much -- Ferguson was more interested in talking about Ronson's wife, who had been the hottest girl in Ferguson's high school -- but the appearance reminded me how much I enjoy Ronson's books.

Friday, March 30, 2012

BC2012: Blown Sideways Through Life by Claudia Shear

Shear's book, based on her one-woman show, recounts some of the 65(!) jobs she has held. The most unusual and entertaining is a stint as a whorehouse receptionist. I bought this last fall at Half Price Books when I was on a memoir kick. It only took three hours to read, perfect for an extended brunch on a Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes a sentence or phrase in a book stands out as something brilliant that I had never before considered. Here's Shear's moment of glory:
The fucked-up romance of watching TV shows about hospitals when no one really wants to be in one.
Damn. St. Elsewhere, General Hospital, ER, House, and even M*A*S*H. These are some of the most popular and longest-running shows on television, and yet nobody likes being in a hospital for any reason (maybe excepting doctors and nurses).

Biking Illinois: What Would You Change?

If you could change/improve anything about Biking Illinois -- short of the author -- what would you do? I'm looking for any ideas about format, content, page size, whatever.* Is there any important information missing or worthless information included? Which is more appealing, a statewide book or a Chicagoland book? Ditto for roads versus bike paths?** You can think about it for a while, but please reply within the next few days.

* Note that the original design and format were dictated by the publisher based on Biking Wisconsin, so you won't be hurting my feelings by criticizing.

** I was ruminating over this last night. There are hardcore roadies who have no interest in bike paths, and there are recreational path riders who have no interest in roads. Who is the market for a book mixing the two like Biking Illinois? Is it shunned by road riders because so many rides are on paths? Do path riders put it back on the shelf because there are too many road rides? Ideally road and path riders would all buy it, but I fear that instead of casting a wide net, such a book might appeal only to the overlapping audience of people who enjoy both types of rides.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

BC2012: Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America by John Avlon

This book got off to a bad start when Avlon attempted to equate hatred of George W. Bush with hatred of Barack Obama. There is a huge difference, though: people hated Bush for things he actually did, whereas people started hating Obama before he even took office, and they continue to hate him for what they think he is going to do rather than what he's actually done (healthcare reform being a notable exception -- at least Obama did that).

Although Avlon later admits that "Obama Derangement Syndrome" started before Inauguration Day, my initial irritation points to a major flaw in his thesis. As a self-described independent, Avlon tries to stick to the middle of the road and point out radical wingnutiness at both ends of the political spectrum. But here's the problem: while there are crazy people at the far right and far left, the ones at the far left are much less influential in American politics today than those on the far right. This is painfully obvious when Avlon pits Glenn Beck against Keith Olbermann. Olbermann has his fans, but clearly Beck has had much greater influence in "hijacking" American politics. On some level, Avlon must realize this because his book devotes many more pages to right wingnuts (Sarah Palin, teabaggers, Birthers, militias, Michael Savage, et al) than left wingnuts (9/11 Truthers, Code Pink, and a few other briefly mentioned people and groups).

Aside from that flaw (which is much like the ludicrous "he said/she said" equivalence sadly endemic to American journalism these days), Wingnuts isn't a bad book although it probably wasn't worth my time to read it. I learned a few things, but I was already aware of most of the groups and incidents Avlon covers.

BC2012: K Blows Top by Peter Carlson

The subtitle explains the cryptic title: "A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist". When Khrushchev visited the United States in 1959, he didn't merely meet with President Eisenhower and return to the USSR. He spent almost two weeks here, sightseeing and being feted by New York City capitalists, Hollywood actors, and an Iowa farmer.

I bought this at Borders in Merrillville, IN when they went out of business last spring. I had just read One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, a great book by Michael Dobbs about the Cuban Missile Crisis, so my curiosity about the Soviet leader was piqued.

K Blows Top is hilarious and utterly astonishing. I never imagined Khrushchev to be so personable and entertaining. The book demonstrates that he was a consummate politician with the wit and social skills of the best. I found him very interesting and not at all the monster Stalin was. The book also documents Vice President Nixon's visit to the USSR as a prelude and ends on a down note with Khrushchev's return to New York in 1960, when he received a much colder welcome.

This book was a lot of fun to read, like opening a time capsule of late 1950s American popular culture.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bicycling T-Shirts @ Threadless

I got an e-mail today from Threadless announcing "18 new bike tees!" Five or six of the designs are not actually new, but most are. My favorite expresses a sentiment that a city cyclist can especially appreciate.

Btw despite the dearth of reviews, I have been reading books this month. I've just been too distracted by other projects to write about what I've read. Prepare for a barrage of posts in the next few days.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dumbest Line in Autopsy Stories

This is from an article about Whitney Houston's autopsy results, but I've seen similar statements in many other stories:
No cocaine was retrieved from the Beverly Hills hotel room where Whitney Houston died even though toxicology tests found the drug in her system, coroner's officials said.
Who cares if they didn't find cocaine in her room? Gee, I wonder where all the coke was. It was up her freaking nose, obviously!* I mean, if the toxicology tests show that someone had drugs in his/her system, why do they always make a point of saying whether there was any more lying around nearby?

* Okay, she could have consumed the drug through some other method, but you get the point.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Advertising Age Marks 50 Years of "Retail Revolution"

The current issue of Advertising Age* has a collection of articles about the "Retail Revolution" that began in 1962. Did you know that Target, K-Mart, Wal-Mart, and Kohls all opened their first stores that year?** Bonus points: Can you name which state each retailer started in? (Btw, although the graphic is correct, the lead article text flubs the order.) Although the articles focus on advertising (of course), there are some interesting facts tucked inside.

Alas, a magazine offers limited depth; I would love to read a book about these four competitors and how their paths have varied over the years. For example, K-Mart started big, opening 150 stores within a few years. Their goal was to become bigger than Sears, and although they succeeded, surely they never expected to merge with Sears 40 years later when both were in decline (in another article a retail expert describes K-Mart as "a slow-motion train wreck"). In contrast, Target and Kohls grew more slowly. The article doesn't compare apples to apples, but Target had 50 stores in 1976 and Kohls had only 40 stores in 1986. The companies also had different growth strategies. While the other chains opened stores in cities and suburbs where more potential customers lived, Wal-Mart dominated large towns in rural areas early on, waiting until it was huge to launch in suburbs and eventually cities. I remember when the only Wal-Mart around Chicago was in Plano, about 50 miles from the city. I also remember what was probably my first visit to a Target in 1987 in Bismarck, ND, three years before its parent Dayton Hudson shocked Chicagoans by purchasing Marshall Field's.

It's beyond the scope of Advertising Age's coverage, but these chains also played a key role in the bookstore segment. Target's parent company started B. Dalton Booksellers in 1966 and sold it to Barnes & Noble in 1987. K-Mart acquired Waldenbooks in 1984 and Borders in 1992, eventually merging the two and spinning them off into one ill-fated company.

* Last time I checked, required readers to register to read articles, but there is no charge, at least while the issue is current.

** A commenter notes that Shopko and Woolco also started in 1962.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Check? No Thanks.

Remember how charities used to send you a nickel or a dime and expect you to be so overwhelmed with gratitude/guilt that you sent them a bunch of money? Today we got a check for $2.00 in the mail from the Christian Appalachian Project. There are no strings attached, unlike say, a check from a credit card company that automatically enrolls you in some overpriced identity protection plan. The enclosed letter says they did it just to get my attention, and I guess they succeeded.

Now let's look at my options:
  • Of course I could send money to the charity, but that's not going to happen. My wife already wants to support every animal charity on the planet not to mention every sad case of kids with cancer or cleft palates (I'd send Smile Train twice as much if they'd promise not to send me any more photographs). We're already spread so thin that I question the value of sending $25 to each considering that they will spend $20 trying to convince me to send them more. It would make more sense to send $100 checks to fewer charities instead. Anyway, I guess the point is that although the Christian Appalachian Project got my attention with their gimmick, they won't get any money from me (regardless of whether they are a worthy charity, which I can't judge and won't bother to research).
  • I could deposit the check, but -- aside from the obvious guilt factor of taking money from a charity -- making a deposit is a pain in the ass because none of the ATMs around here will accept a deposit for my credit union. I could deposit it online by scanning it, but the credit union's software doesn't run on Windows 7. That means I'd have to disconnect my desktop computer from the Internet and the scanner, boot up my Windows XP laptop (with the added hassle of having to set the date and time because it resets to 1/1/1980 when it's unplugged), connect the Internet and scanner cables to the laptop, scan my check, and finally reconnect the cables to my desktop. Damn, that isn't worth two bucks!
  • But if I don't cash it, it's like leaving money on the table. What about this: can I take a $2 tax deduction for not cashing the check, treating it as if I had given $2 to the charity? Isn't not taking it the same as giving it? Seems fair to me, but I'm sure the IRS would disagree.
It would have been so much simpler to just slide a nickel into my pocket.

Spring Affective Disorder

Is it possible to have SAD when it's springtime and the weather is beautiful? It's been about the warmest mid-March in Chicago history, but I'm just not into it. I haven't been for a bike ride yet, and on a couple of balmy, sunny days I didn't even leave the house.

Chicagoans spend months looking forward to days like today. Winters are cold and snowy, and spring is our reward for enduring. But this winter was pretty darn mild. Maybe that's my problem; I feel like I haven't earned this. On the other hand, my fellow denizens don't appear to feel similarly unworthy.

I suppose my ennui has something to do with the furry friends I've lost recently. I thought I was okay with Ginger's death, but I guess not. And as for Gracie, I never would have dreamed I'd miss her so much, but I do.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Connected Derrick Rose Stories

A Chicago Tribune story this morning revealed that Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose recently paid $2.8 million for a condo near the top of the Trump International Hotel & Tower. The article stated that Rose currently lives in north suburban Northbrook but will soon be moving to the downtown riverside condo.

Tonight the Tribune put out another story about Rose. This afternoon he had a "minor fender bender" on the inbound Kennedy Expressway near Ogden Avenue when a Saturn driver rear-ended his 2011 Bentley.

One could speculate that had Rose already moved into his new condo, he probably wouldn't have been on the Kennedy Expressway!*

* Of course, I am presuming that Rose was coming from his home in Northbrook this afternoon. He could have been driving from some other suburban location. I also have no idea where he was headed -- maybe he was going to his new condo to enjoy the sunset? Regardless, this afternoon's crash must have reassured him that getting rid of that heinous commute was a good idea, whatever the cost.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

BC2012: You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn

I bought this at a Borders bankruptcy sale last year (the first round, I think). Since Gurwitch and Kahn published this book in 2010 during their thirteenth year of marriage, I buried it in a pile until our own thirteenth anniversary this year. Reading it to my wife became half of our anniversary celebration; the other half was sharing a bottle of 13-year-old single malt Scotch. Our celebration wasn't as memorable as perhaps a romantic Caribbean vacation, but at least the Scotch was pretty good. That's not to say You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up is bad, just that the Scotch was better.

The book is written in a "she says/he says" format that works pretty well because they don't overdo it (most chapters present one side and then the other -- it's not like they are switching back and forth from page to page). A good sense of humor is one of the few things Gurwitch and Kahn have in common, so there are plenty of laughs. Each chapter is preceded by a page or two of interesting quotes and facts about marriage. Here is my favorite, attributed to How to Survive Your Marriage: "69 percent of disagreements that arise in a marriage are never resolved."

It's always interesting to get a peek into someone else's marriage, but the relationship described in You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up seems quite unlike ours. Come to think of it, most marriages don't seem much like ours. And considering how many of them fail, I hope that's a good thing.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Ansel Adams of Meth

Recently one of my photographs was selected to illustrate an article about methamphetamine markets in Contexts, a quarterly magazine published by the American Sociological Association.

I took this picture in Montana on our vacation to the Pacific Northwest. I am thrilled that my eye for offbeat subject matter paid off for once.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

February - BC2012 and Other Goals

February wasn't as productive as January. The obvious excuse is that it was two days shorter even with the leap day, but ultimately the month was defined by Gracie's rapid decline and death, which didn't make me feel like achieving much of anything.

1. Book Challenge 2012: Maybe I got a little cocky after such a good start in January. Not only did I finish fewer books in February, but I bought almost as many as I read. At least I had been hunting a long time for one of the books I bought; I've been searching for John Drummond's Thirty Years in the Trenches ever since I read his other book three years ago. February totals: 7 books finished, 6 books purchased. Overall totals: 18 books finished, 13 books purchased.

2. Cut down on e-mail: I cancelled a couple of infrequent subscriptions.

3. Drive less: This one is still going well. I combined a bunch of errands into a couple of trips, and I resisted the urge to just get in the car and drive after Gracie died.

4. Physical activity: No progress. Actually, one could argue I took a big step back. I had been planning to take long, vigorous walks with Gracie more frequently, but I guess it wasn't meant to be. Rosco stops and sniffs too much to provide much exercise.

5. Drink more: I'd say I held steady on this one -- I drank a little more water but a little less booze.

6. Dine and shop locally: I'm doing better with this. I ran a bunch of errands on foot last Sunday when the weather was nice.

7. Clean and declutter: I'm still just chipping away at piles here and there.

8. Enhance and expand my web presence: No progress.

9. Figure out my professional future: While watching the Super Bowl, I had the revelation that I loathe the manipulative nature of advertising. So why the Hell did I want to be a copywriter? It was a real "duh!" moment. This insight doesn't rule out all business writing, but it's clear that ad copy will not be my path to happiness.

10. Floss regularly: I resisted keeping some sort of "potty chart", but I managed to floss about 15 times in February. "Every other day" is quite an improvement over "once every couple weeks", but I can still do better.

It's too bad I didn't set a goal this year for catching mice. I killed three of those furry little bastards in February.