Sunday, September 30, 2012

BC2012: Shameless Exploitation In Pursuit of the Common Good

This is a great story well told, which is all you can really ask for in a book. With great humor, Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner describe how a night of bottling salad dressing in Newman's barn basement as a Christmas gift for neighbors led to an internationally successful food corporation whose annual profits are distributed to charities. They didn't have any business experience, but they knew what they wanted to create and made it happen, changing entire categories of the food industry.

Nowadays we see all sorts of all-natural products on store shelves, but in my youth it wasn't like that. Newman's Own salad dressing was the first all-natural dressing, defying the industry standard of using additives and preservatives to extend shelf life. In fact, it turned out that Newman's recipe -- and it really was his own recipe, plus he personally taste-tested and approved every new product as well -- created a natural gum, and the product doesn't even require refrigeration after opening! Heck, I've seen entire shelves in refrigerator doors dedicated to salad dressings.

When Newman turned to pasta sauce, he once again changed how things were done. Ever wonder why Ragu is just watery slop? When pasta sauces were originally bottled, they were purees intended to be used as a base for a home sauce. It was expected that the cook would add fresh vegetables, chunks of meat, etc. Of course, now there are lots of chunky sauces, but Newman's Own was among the first (if not the first).

Newman's Own is a remarkable success story, one that shocked even its founders. Newman didn't set out to be a great philanthropist, but he didn't feel right about making a bunch of money on what was essentially a side business or hobby. So once the millions started rolling in, he figured he should give it to people who really needed it.

In 1985 he got an idea for a charity of his own, the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for sick children. A large section of the book describes the founding of the original camp and its many affiliates. The authors include many touching letters from kids who attended the camp.

Anyone who has ever looked closely at Newman's Own products has some idea of Newman and Hotchner's sense of humor -- every product has its own "creation myth" detailed on the label -- and this book is written with that same wit. It's an inspiring story that's fun to read.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

BC2012: The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo

Wow, this book is really fascinating. Using examples from science to business to terrorism, Ramo explains why America's long-time perspective on foreign and domestic policy is no longer ideal or even functional given the complexity of the modern world.

The author describes physicist Per Bak's sandpile theory: a pile of sand looks fairly stable, but adding just one grain of sand can cause an avalanche -- or nothing at all. The idea is that despite outward appearances, there are countless variables hidden from sight within the pile that determine its stability. Many situations in the modern world are like that sandpile -- we cannot anticipate or predict what will happen next because things are happening that we can't see. That being the case, we can't expect simple solutions to be successful.

Ramo says we must develop resilience to deal with the unknown, unpredictable problems of the future. This has a major impact on domestic policy. For example, we can't predict what sort of biological attack a terrorist might launch on the United States, but by developing strong national healthcare we can have an ideal system in place for dealing with whatever might happen.

This is really complicated stuff that Ramo is discussing, but The Age of the Unthinkable is surprisingly readable. As Publisher's Weekly puts it, the author seems more like a dinner companion than a lecturer. Alas, by the end of the book, my understanding was still a bit hazy. I'm not sure what could be done about that, though. For the author to offer more specifics for action would seem to go against the spirit of his thesis. One cannot be explicit about the unknown.

BC2012: It's Not Me, It's You by Stefanie Wilder-Taylor

Yikes, a book by a mommy blogger?!? With a blurb from Chelsea Handler, whose My Horizontal Life sucked? How did I end up buying this, much less reading it?

Although the writer is known as a mommy blogger and author of books like Sippy Cups Are Not For Chardonnay and Naptime Is the New Happy Hour, this book is not about kids or parenting, except for the last chapter.

So what is it about? This is where I get confused about categories. The publisher calls it "Autobiography" but I'm pretty sure this is what most people would consider "Essays" (think Sloane Crosley). Isn't an autobiography supposed to have some sort of narrative that ties everything together? It's Not Me, It's You is a collection of short autobiographical stories in no particular order. Or, as the subtitle describes it, "Subjective Recollections from a Terminally Optimistic, Chronically Sarcastic, and Occasionally Inebriated Woman."

That just about says it all, so I guess I don't need to write much of a review. A few of the essays are depressing since Wilder-Taylor had big problems with her parents (seriously -- who drops their teenage kid off at a shelter?), but most of them are pretty funny. Overall, I enjoyed It's Not Me, It's You.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

In a Hurry

Today I was at Jewel downtown buying a loaf of bread, waiting in line for one of the self-checkout registers to become available. This young, petite woman rushes up to me and says, "Excuse me, I'm in a hurry. Can I go in front of you?"

Sure, I'm waiting in the self-checkout line just because I prefer to do the checkout clerk's job myself for zero compensation. Why would I be in that line if I wasn't in a freaking hurry myself?

"I'm in a hurry, too," I said as I strode past her to an available checkout. I didn't look at her face, but I got the feeling she's used to getting her way and was probably upset. Maybe she even thought I was a racist bastard since she was black.

But I wasn't just being a dick (this time) -- I really was in a hurry. I had just enough time to catch the train and get home in time for a TV show*. I wasn't going to let some rude little P.Y.T. make me miss a train. As it turned out, I got lucky transferring at Fullerton and made it home four minutes early.

* We don't have a DVR so I watch TV the old-fashioned way, live over the air.

Friday, September 21, 2012

BC2012: Tokyo Confidential: Titillating Tales from Japan's Wild Weeklies edited by Mark Schrieber

I bought this last week at Frugal Muse, a bookstore I found through Groupon (I spent a Groupon there last year). It would be my local bookstore if I hadn't moved away from Woodridge at age seven. This book looked interesting, albeit a little perverted (but this is Japanese culture we're talking about, so what do you expect?), and I figured I could pass it along to my Japanophile sister-in-law.

This is one crazy book. It includes perhaps 100 or so articles that summarize articles that appeared in Japan's weekly tabloids (note that these are not the original articles). Some are about individuals or specific subcultures. Others could be categorized as "oh my gosh, what's happening to this younger generation?" And a number are just plain weird. It's a fascinating look into Japanese popular culture, though one can't help question the veracity of at least a few stories.

Monday, September 17, 2012

BC2012: The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club by Laurie Notaro

I passed up many of Notaro's books during the legendary Borders bankruptcy sale, and I'm not sure why. I think I was afraid they were considered chick-lit, and I was already perilously dabbling in that genre with the three Jen Lancaster books I bought.

Last November, I saw one of Notaro's books at Book Warehouse in Iowa for a few bucks. This time I read more pages and decided that she isn't really chick-lit after all. She's just a hysterically funny writer who happens to be female. I bought that book, and a few weeks ago I bought three more in the $2 clearance section at Half Price Books. At this point I thought I'd better read at least one of them.

Released in 2002, The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club is Notaro's first collection of essays, columns, whatever you want to call them. I plowed through it in a few laugh-filled hours. This stuff isn't deep. It doesn't make you stop and think about humanity. But if you just want some light reading and you're not easily offended, then this is a fun book.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

BC2012: How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less by Gregory Levey

I enjoyed Levey's first book Shut Up, I'm Talking about his experiences as a speechwriter for the Israelis, so I bought this one at a closing Borders last year.

Obviously, the author is engaged in an exercise of futility, and if you can't figure that out at the start, you'll surely realize it by the end. Levey's narrative is very entertaining but ultimately doesn't really explain a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I think the pertinent chapters of Andrew Mueller's I Wouldn't Start from Here gave me a better understanding of the actual conflict, but this book probes the range of American perspectives. Levey talks to a lot of people in New York and Washington, including lobbyists from AIPAC and their upstart counterpart, J Street, as well as ordinary Jews and Palestinians.

How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less is far from scholarly, and it's probably too lightweight to interest someone deeply concerned about the issue. I learned more about the players involved, particularly in the United States, than I did about the conflict itself or how to go about resolving it. In fact, the more I think about what I learned, the more I realize that I didn't really learn much. The book was fun to read, but I probably won't retain much from it.

BC2012: The Good, the Bad and the Difference by Randy Cohen

I became interested in "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times Magazine when I learned that Chuck Klosterman took over the job this summer. Then a few weeks ago I found this book by the column's former writer, Randy Cohen, at Barbara's Bookstore in Burr Ridge for only $5.98.

I read this one aloud to my wife, and we enjoyed debating or just pondering the questions and answers within. Though a book like this is as sure to sow disagreements as Sal Paolantonio's overrated/underrated football book, we agreed with Cohen or at least understood his perspective most of the time. But for some reason, he seems to get a lot of unwarranted hate from reviewers. One must remember that ethics is not mathematics; there is often more than one correct answer.

I do agree with one reviewer who said "The Ethicist" works better as a column than as a book because it is a topic best explored in smaller doses. I didn't read more than 40 pages in one sitting, but I imagine plowing through the whole book in a day or two might be overwhelming (something that could be said of other collections of columns as well).

Sunday, September 09, 2012

BC2012: Dirty Little Secrets of the Record Business by Hank Bordowitz

With the subtitle "Why So Much Music You Hear Sucks", this book grabbed my attention at Half Price Books last weekend. Bordowitz has a broad range of experience in the recording industry, and he puts that knowledge and his connections to good use in this book. He covers just about every aspect of the business from contracts to recording to promotion to retail to radio.

As a follower of the music industry, I knew about many of the issues Bordowitz addresses, but I still found a lot of surprises. For example, I had no idea that so many of the classic recording studios like Muscle Shoals, the Power Station, and the Hit Factory closed around 2004-2005. While the ease of digital recording for the masses is an obvious cause, there are others including shrinking record company budgets and equipment pricing.*

Bordowitz explains how the major labels survive on a minuscule number of hit records -- in 2005, about 0.7% of albums accounted for 70% of sales. Consequently, they devote their resources to the records that pay the bills, leaving most artists to fend for themselves. He also addresses payola, which never went away despite occasional legal scrutiny. And of course, he writes plenty about the Internet and file sharing, which probably isn't killing the industry like the industry claims it is.

Dirty Little Secrets leaves the reader with the impression that everything about the record business is hopelessly screwed up. It has always been stacked against the artists, but now more than ever. Even worse, the major labels still market to "the kids" (as they always have) even though baby boomers are buying the most music. By handling the Internet and file sharing so badly, the record business has helped create a generation that believes music should be free, and yet they are trying to sell to those people. It's all a huge mess, really, and Dirty Little Secrets does a great job of examining the many facets of the issue in one handy volume.

* In short, it doesn't pay to be the first to get the latest technology. If you buy the latest console when it comes out, you might need to charge $2000 for your studio. But then a competitor gets one a few months later for less, and he only needs to charge $1800. In addition, the cost of equipment has gone up while the rate record companies are willing to pay has gone down. Larry Fast points out that in 1976 his studio had a $60,000 console and booked recording time at $200/hour. In 1994 the studio had a $600,000 console but couldn't get more than $80/hour for studio time.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

No Longer a Cellular Luddite

I finally gave up the flip phone last night. My wife and I got Motorola Droid 4 smartphones. I also recently set up a wireless network in our house so we don't have to use our Verizon data allowance at home. I used to go out to get away from the Internet. Now it's going to follow me everywhere. Damn.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

BC2012: Magic in the Night by Rob Kirkpatrick

I'm going to see Bruce Springsteen at Wrigley Field on Friday night. Although I've seen him twice before and I've been a fan for over 25 years, I don't listen to him much these days so I thought it might be good to reacquaint myself with his back catalog. I bought this book during the Borders bankruptcy last year, and I figured now would be a good time to read it.

Magic in the Night is okay. Although it is supposed to be about Springsteen's words and music, there is a lot of biographical info, and oddly that was what I enjoyed the most. I've never read a book about Springsteen before, so this book filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge. As for the song analysis, I don't think I gained much from that aside from the urge to pull out a few of Springsteen's older albums (I was really digging the jazzy sounds of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle the other night). I guess I expected more revelations, but a lot of Springsteen's work isn't that hard to figure out in the first place.

So Magic in the Night didn't get me psyched. But this lengthy profile from the New Yorker sure did! Hat tip to Peter King at Sports Illustrated(!) for the link.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

August - BC2012 and Other Goals

August was a bad month for most of my goals, especially BC2012, which had been going so well.

1. Book Challenge 2012: Remember the Labor Day weekend sale at Half Price Books, the annual event that inspired the first Book Challenge? I was so proud of myself in Book Challenge 2009 for resisting its siren song. This year's sale was disastrous. I didn't buy as many books as in 2008, but I bought enough to seriously damage the nice ratio I had been building over the first seven months of the year. The only good thing I can say about August is that I'm still on track to break my previous record for books finished in a year. August totals: 9 books finished, 29 acquired. Overall totals: 83 books finished, 76 books acquired.

2. Cut down on e-mail: There is more in my inbox than I'd like, but I guess it's okay. I need to cancel a few more e-mail subscriptions.

3. Drive less: Not this month! I drove more in August than any month this year except June, when we took a vacation to Wisconsin. That included visiting every HPB in Chicagoland.

4. Physical activity: Not much. I went for a couple of bike rides, but only during the last week of the month. And for anyone who remembers last month's entry, I rode two other bikes instead of fixing my flat-tired Bike Friday.

5. Drink more: I drank some of my Door County cherry-infused vodka (great with Sprite), but overall it wasn't a big month for drinking. As for water, I'm having trouble balancing the goal of drinking more with the goal of not waking up to pee several times a night.

6. Dine and shop locally: This one didn't go so well. I went to Monti's again, but this time I didn't like my Philly cheesesteak (I didn't hang around to test the refills-after-check service). Then two weeks ago I had two disappointing breakfasts at Rockwell's -- and sometimes I spend all week looking forward to breakfast there, so that really upset me. And the last time I went to Costello's, they shorted me a meatball! That may not sound like much, but their sandwich comes with only four large meatballs, so missing one is a big deal. I bought a book locally, but other than that, I didn't have much love for Lincoln Square this month.

7. Clean and declutter: I started the month well, but I've lost momentum. I still have those boxes of books to donate sitting in the living room. At least I haven't gone into them to fish out anything, but I need to follow through and get them out of here. Ditto for several bags of cycling stuff in the basement.

8. Enhance and expand my web presence: No progress, and thanks to # 9, probably no progress for the rest of the year.

9. Figure out my professional future: It looks like I will be updating my book. We'll see how it turns out, I guess. At least it will keep me busy for a few months.

10. Floss regularly: Every day for the past five months!