Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research by Marc Abrahams

Here is yet another book I started reading to my wife years ago and mysteriously stopped after 85 pages. Since she doesn't read my blog anyway, I will blame her because this is a funny, interesting book that I should have read all the way through. Heck, I even bought the sequel this year although I hadn't finished the first book yet.

Officially, the Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced." In practice, most winners have written unusual science papers about topics like how Prozac affects the sex drive of clams, why toast tends to land butter side down, or how to use magnets to levitate a frog. Others win for pseudoscience such as Jasmuheen, who claims people can live on light in lieu of food, and Deepak Chopra, who offers "a unique interpretation of quantum physics" in books like Quantum Healing. This book should especially appeal to science geeks, but it is written for a general audience.

 

Strange But True Chicago: Tales of the Windy City by Thomas J. O'Gorman and Lisa Montanarelli

When I moved to Chicago 19 years ago, I couldn't learn enough about the city. I bought and read two dozen books about neighborhoods, history, architecture, restaurants, and especially the characters that have made this such an interesting place. My enthusiasm faded over the years—I haven't even read The Devil in the White City yet, and that book came out almost 11 years ago.

I picked up Strange But True Chicago hoping it would rekindle my interest in reading about the city. The book is a collection of short anecdotes (ranging from a paragraph to a few pages) about Chicago history and characters. I started out reading aloud to my wife a few years ago but we only got through 90 pages. Judging by the last 160 pages, I don't know why we stopped because there isn't really anything wrong with this book. Except the chapter introductions—those are just redundant padding that spoils the stories that follow. It's an easy book to pick up and put down when time is limited, but it's okay to plow through as well.

Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses by R. Gary Patterson

This is a book I shouldn't have bothered to finish. Although I love to read about music, Take a Walk on the Dark Side is mostly horseshit. Maybe it's all a big joke written tongue-in-cheek. I suppose I should have expected as much from an author who wrote an entire book about the "Paul is dead" myth. I couldn't get into this book years ago (stopped at page 84), and I couldn't wait to get it over with when I picked it up again this month. The book is poorly organized, and Patterson throws in random, irrelevant garbage such as a tangent about supposed pornography in Disney animated movies. Every ridiculous anecdote he ever heard seems to merit inclusion here. It's like the guy has no bullshit filter or editor. Plus he mentions "the Ohio rock group Cheap Trick" when everyone knows they came from Rockford, Illinois. Ugh.

 

Who Let the Dogs In? Incredible Political Animals I Have Known by Molly Ivins

I started reading Molly Ivins' political columns sometime around 2002 and quickly became a fan. Since she died in 2007, I have often wondered what she would say about current events. I can't think of another writer I miss more.

The reason for this book being among my unfinished business has nothing to do with Ivins. Many years ago, I designated this as a "trainer book", a book that I would read only while bicycling on the trainer in the basement. It's easier to just leave a book down there instead of taking down a different one each time, plus I figured wanting to read the book would encourage me to exercise. Alas, even a favorite writer wasn't enough to get my sorry ass on the trainer. The bookmark at page 162 of Who Let the Dogs In? slowly yellowed.

This November as the weather turned in Chicago, I found myself in an unlikely streak—I had exercised every day for two months. Determined to maintain that regardless of outdoor conditions, I cleared out a room in the basement to set up my trainer once again (there being no space in the exercise room since I added a barbell and two sandbags). Incidentally, my first day on the trainer was December 6, right at the start of unfinished business month. I read the last 200 pages over the course of eight bicycling sessions.

I love Ivins' perspective and way with language, so of course I enjoyed the remainder of Who Let the Dogs In?. This is a collection of articles previously published in magazines or newspapers, but they were new to me (according to an Amazon.com review, a few articles also appeared in her previous books). Some of the subject matter was dated back when I started reading the book and is much more so today. The columns range from the middle of Reagan's second term (when I was in high school) to Dubya's Iraq War.

 

The Resolution I Didn't Make

Lots of people make New Year's resolutions to lose a few pounds. I did not, although I began 2013 at my heaviest ever, dangerously close to the limit of our bathroom scale.

I lost 60 pounds this year.

And I didn't even start trying until the end of May. I could write all about how I did it, and I still may, but it's nothing you haven't heard before. If you ask my weight-loss "secret", I'll say it's being neurotic.* Just establish some new behaviors and then get neurotic about adhering to them. It's a way of putting a mental disorder to positive use.

This fall I added a compulsive exercise habit. The last day I didn't exercise was September 19.** I wouldn't say that's the key to my success, though. Richard Muller notes in Physics for Future Presidents that food is so energy-dense that eating less is much more important for weight loss than exercising (though exercise certainly has other benefits).

Even though I didn't make a New Year's resolution to lose weight, it became the defining theme of 2013 for me. Considering how well that turned out, I probably won't bother making resolutions for 2014.


About 17 years ago somebody told me I was neurotic. I didn't think I was. I copied the definition out of Webster's Dictionary (pre-Internet!) and put it in my pocket. Whenever I ran into a friend, I would ask if he or she thought I was neurotic. Then I'd show them the dictionary definition and ask again because the connotative and denotative meanings aren't necessarily the same. The best answer I got was from a woman who said that just by carrying the definition in my pocket and asking people about it showed that I was indeed neurotic.

** I have never been an "exercise every day" person, not even when I biked across the country or ran a marathon, so this is unprecedented. I made a halfhearted resolution to be more active this year after failing miserably in 2012, but I never thought it would lead to this.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Lowbrow Guide to World History by Michael Powell

I bought this years ago at Barnes & Noble. I started reading it aloud to my wife, but eventually it got buried under some clutter and I lost track of it. When I found it again, I didn't remember it being any good so I didn't start reading again.

Though not exactly a masterwork (and with such at title who would expect it to be?), it's better than I remembered. I tend to enjoy this sort of offbeat, humorous, historical stuff. But I see a danger in it, too: if one doesn't know the real history, it can be hard to tell when the author is joking or over-simplifying something.

Great moment: In a chapter titled "Milestones in the History of Breasts", Powell mentions the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at Super Bowl XXXVIII. This is funny because the chairman of the FCC at the time was also named Michael Powell.

 

Gastroanomalies: Questionable Culinary Creations from the Golden Age of American Cookery by James Lileks

I started reading this a few years ago. I think it was the night my grandmother died because I wanted something funny to avoid the obvious. I read 43 photo-filled pages and never got back to it. I buzzed through the remaining 133 pages in one afternoon last week.

Gastroanomalies bears some resemblance to The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan. The author shares photos from ads and cookbooks of the post-World War II era and makes snarky, often hilarious comments about them. I didn't even know what an aspic was until I read this book (and the only reason I had heard the word was because it's in the title of a King Crimson album).

I don't remember what I paid for this book except that it was a pretty steep discount (maybe $6.99?). The list price of $23.95, while appropriate for the print quality, is pretty high for someone of my generation. Perhaps someone older who made this stuff or grew up eating it would be willing to pay that much. Gastroanomalies was preceded by The Gallery of Regrettable Food, both of which were drawn from Lilek's website.

 

Friday, December 27, 2013

When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball

Here is some unfinished business from 2013. I read six books about religion in March and spent a week on When Religion Becomes Evil before giving up after 100 pages. As I wrote before, this isn't a bad book. I mean, I think the author is knowledgeable and thorough, and his arguments are reasonable. But it just isn't an engrossing read. I had a hard time reading more than a couple pages before looking away in search of a distraction. This month, reading the last 113 pages wasn't any easier.

Kimball offers five warning signs that a religion has become corrupted along with examples and discussion. The discussion sometimes drags or ventures into rather tangential areas. While evil within sects of major religions is certainly important, I expected examples of cults as well. And once again, I must complain that there is no index, although extensive footnotes and a selected bibliography are provided.

I showed this to an atheist friend who is eager to read it, but I suspect he will be disappointed. This book is not anti-religion; Kimball is a Baptist minister. I'd give it three stars because the content is useful, but it couldn't hold my attention.

Note: I read the edition on the left from 2003. The "revised and updated" edition on the right came out in 2008.

 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Afterwords: Stories and Reports from 9/11 and Beyond compiled by the Editors of Salon.com

The last book I read was from a store named After-words, but I bought Afterwords at Borders for $3.99 in 2003 or 2004. It was an odd book for me to buy since my reaction to 9/11 was different from most people I know. I never wondered "why do they hate us"; rather I marveled at the naivety of my fellow Americans. Far from thinking something like that could never happen here, I had figured it was inevitable.

Anyway, I started reading Afterwords shortly after I bought it. It went quickly despite the dreary and emotional subject matter, and I got through 173 pages before the book disappeared into the hopeless morass of my office. It turned up occasionally over the years, and I would think I should finish it just to get it out of the way. Well, "unfinished business" month is the perfect time to finally do so.

To my surprise, the last 155 pages contain a lot of interesting stuff. Sure, there are still a few overwrought, emotionally-charged articles, but not as many as in the first half of the book. And I had to laugh at a couple of stories portraying the war in Afghanistan as a success—those writers would be surprised to see nearly 50,000 troops still over there more than a decade later. But there are also some thoughtful articles that look beyond the immediate horror of the day and consider the aftermath and the future.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Don't Believe It! How Lies Become News by Alexandra Kitty

I bought this at After-words, probably around the time it came out in 2005. I started reading it, abandoned it for a few months, came back to it, and put it down again. When I picked it up this month, the bookmark was at page 136. This gave me another 240 pages to go.

Don't Believe It! is an excellent guide to critically analyzing the news. Kitty gives copious examples of various kinds of deception and how to spot them. Some examples are well-known, such as Susan Smith's story about her car being stolen with her children inside and disgraced reporter Jayson Blair's fictional newspaper articles.

Note that this is not one of those "the mainstream media are lying to you" polemics (though the publisher, Disinformation Books, is known for that sort of thing). Actually, many if not most of the errors covered in this book are due to sloppy reporting and/or clever hoaxing. It's the sort of book that should be used in college courses, especially journalism. I only had a few journalism classes before I changed my major, but I don't recall this much useful info about how to spot deceptive sources and such.

So if this is a good book (and it is), why didn't I finish it before? Well, Kitty is very thorough. She provides lots and lots of examples, and frankly it's overkill. I found it hard to keep track of so many stories, especially when she referred back to them in later chapters (naturally, this was much worse with regard to stories that had been mentioned in the chapters I read years ago, but that's not her fault). I was shocked and disappointed to find no index to accompany the 375 pages of information-dense text. Fewer examples would have made Don't Believe It! easier to read, and it is a book that should be read widely. If nothing else, at least check out the CliffsNotes-like "Manual of Rumors and Hoaxes" at the back of the book for a list of questions to ask yourself when assessing a story.

Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

Now this is more like I expected when I chose the theme of unfinished business for December. I struggled through 117 pages of Starstruck in 2011 and set it aside. I couldn't really get into it. It wasn't what I expected; it was more analytic and academic. This month I trudged through the remaining 100 pages.

Currid-Halkett is a college professor who has performed studies of how people become famous and maintain their celebrity. Yeah, I know I look like an idiot saying I didn't expect a book by a professor to be so academic. Starstruck isn't a bad book, it's just a lot more than I wanted to know about the geography, economics, etc. of stardom. There is some interesting stuff, but in between I had trouble staying focused. And although it shows a lack of culture, I will confess that the parts about the art world bored me to tears.

 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of the Beatles by Peter Doggett

It has taken some time to get around to writing about this month's books because I've been busy updating old blog entries with my new Amazon account info. I've gone through 700 posts dating back to the start of 2010 so far, adding links and updating old ones. I have also updated most of my websites. Now I can just sit back and wait for the big bucks to roll in...

I started reading this the day I bought it last year, but I set it aside after 30 pages or so. I don't remember why. Maybe I just got distracted by something else because it turned out to be a really interesting book. As I've written before, although I rarely listen to the Beatles anymore, I still like to read about them.

That said, this book examines some of the unhappiest and most divisive times in the lives of the Fab Four: the fractious White Album and Let It Be sessions, Apple, John & Yoko, Allen Klein, endless court cases, rivalry between Paul and the others, and the deaths of John and George. In spite of the unrealistic expectations of the public, the Beatles were human and fallible, and You Never Give Me Your Money often shows them at their worst.

My biggest misgiving about reading this book was that it would delve too deep into the legal battles. Fortunately, Doggett rarely gets into the blow-by-blow, argument-by-argument documentation of perhaps the most litigious band of all time.

While the era of the Beatles as a band has been exhaustively documented, few if any books offer as thorough a record of their post-breakup lives as You Never Give Me Your Money (note, however, that this book doesn't say much about the actual music). I don't know if there are any great revelations here, but it's an useful and entertaining history.

Note: I read the edition on the left. The one on the right has a more accurate subtitle.

 

Friday, December 13, 2013

November Wrap-Up/December Theme

I liked or loved most of the books I read about liquids last month. The best were Chasing the White Dog, The Frozen-Water Trade, and A History of the World in 6 Glasses. Unfortunately, I only made it through five books before the month ran out. I'm not sure why; none were particularly lengthy or difficult reading, and it didn't seem like I was reading less.

December's theme may be the toughest: unfinished business. I have about 20 partially-read books, and my goal is to finish as many as I can before the new year begins. The catch is that I rarely put down a book halfway through, so there is usually a good reason when I do. Sometimes I just can't get into the subject matter. Other times the writing is difficult, whether overly technical or not engaging. Whatever the reason, the stack with bookmarks sticking out awaits!

Western Water Made Simple edited by Ed Marston

Liquids month ends as it began with that most vital of fluids, water. I bought this book at Powell's during our legendary $400+ shopping expedition in 2007. The title is tongue-in-cheek, of course—there is nothing simple about water in the American West. The book is a collection of articles from four special issues of High Country News from 1986. The first serves as an introduction to a variety of issues throughout the region. The other three delve into the three major regional drainage basins: the Columbia River, the Missouri River, and the Colorado River.

Although much of the information is obviously dated—I was still in high school when it was published—I love this book. Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert sparked my interest in water so these articles traverse familiar territory. I've read other water books drawn from High Country News as well, and their reporting and insight are consistently first-rate.

The book's age makes it hard to recommend to anyone not already familiar with the topic, but for those who are, Western Water Made Simple provides lots of background and fills in some gaps.

 

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

Next up in the month of liquids is an assortment of important fluids. I bought A History of the World in 6 Glasses at The Book Cellar seven years ago shortly after it came out. For some reason, I only read a few pages of the introduction before setting it aside. I should have read the whole book then because it's pretty good.

Standage uses beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola to represent important eras over the course of civilization. Each beverage gets two chapters, one giving its own history and the other putting it in the context of world history. For example, wine represents the Greek and Roman eras, tea represents the British Empire, and Coca-Cola represents American dominance and globalism.

We've all heard of the Opium Wars, but do you know what started them? It was Britain's tea trade with China! Since the Chinese didn't want or need European goods, they insisted on payment in silver for their tea. The British East India Company figured out it could produce opium in India and then sell it to smugglers offshore from China, in turn using silver from the smugglers to pay for its tea. Eventually this led to war, and the British routed the Chinese, winning numerous concessions including possession of Hong Kong. Ironically, around the time of the Opium Wars the British began cultivating tea in India instead of opium, which eventually eliminated the need for tea trade with China altogether.

Coca-Cola was a symbol of America during World War II, and the company went to great lengths to make available to every soldier, going so far as to set up 64 military bottling plants around the world. After the war, Soviet General Zhukov loved the capitalist soda so the company sent him uncolored Coke in plain bottles that could pass for vodka.

That's just a taste (pun intended) of what I learned from A History of the World in 6 Glasses.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Impressive Driving

I have a newfound respect for my wife's driving abilities thanks to something she let slip yesterday. I was dropping her off at work, and she was unloading her work stuff from the car (seriously, it's more of a storage locker than a car sometimes). She set a bottle of water on the roof, and said, "I have to remember to take that bottle. Last week I drove to the vet's office with a can of Diet Coke on the roof."

"It didn't fall off?" I asked.

"No, it was on the roof when I got there."

Our vet isn't far from home, less than half a mile. But because this is Chicago, that short route includes two stop signs, a stoplight, a speed hump, and three turns. She had to brake, accelerate, and turn pretty smoothly to keep a can of Diet Coke on the roof!

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story by Gavin Weightman

One day in a bookstore my best friend pointed at a book and said, "Dude, there's whole books about stuff you never knew existed." The Frozen-Water Trade is one such book, and a darn good one.

Weightman tells the story of Boston entrepreneur Frederic Tudor's unlikely life and how he virtually created a whole new industry and influenced drinking habits around the world. In the early 19th century, Tudor got the idea to sell New England ice in the Caribbean region. Starting with Martinique and moving on to Havana, New Orleans, and Charleston, he developed a successful ice cutting and shipping business. Most incredibly, he profitably supplied ice to India!

This book is exceptional. It is rare for me to really lose myself in non-fiction, but one night I was so engrossed that I lost track of time for hours. Who would expect a book about ships full of ice to be so riveting?


Saturday, December 07, 2013

Re-associated

The good news: Illinois residents are allowed in Amazon's Associate program again. The company kicked us all out almost three years ago when the State of Illinois passed a law that said companies with any physical presence in Illinois had to collect sales tax. Rather than collect tax, Amazon severed ties with Illinoisans. but since the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, now Amazon has invited us back into the fold.

The bad news: I had to reapply for an Associate account. Because my old account was closed, the old links on my site don't earn any credit for me. And there is no way to reactivate them or link them to my new account. In short, Amazon has welcomed me back with the free gift of a huge pain in the ass. I can use a global search-and-replace program to change my HTML files on my other websites, but there is no easy way to change the hundreds of old links in Blogger posts.

This is all stupid because Amazon knows they will someday be collecting sales tax anyway. I've read numerous articles to that effect. So why didn't they suspend our Associate accounts instead of closing them? I am also irritated that the court ruling was weeks ago but Amazon didn't reopen their program to me until Monday. Now I'm going to miss out on part of the holiday shopping season.

I never made a lot of money through Amazon's Associate program, but it paid a chunk of my web hosting bills and provided a nice way to illustrate my blog posts. It was a heck of a lot more lucrative than Google AdWords, which has earned about $50 in three years, which is $0 to me since Google doesn't pay until I reach $100 (Amazon's threshold is $20 IIRC).

For now, any Amazon links from posts after December 1 are active. You still have some Christmas shopping to do, right? Thank you for indulging this shameless plug.

Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine by Max Watman

For my second book in the month of liquids, I chose something a little stronger than water. I thoroughly enjoyed most of Chasing the White Dog, except the court narrative at the end drags a little. The author weaves three story lines throughout: his own distilling experiences, the history of American booze, and the current state of the moonshine business.

Always willing to go the extra mile for full immersion in a subject, I purchased two bottles of legal "moonshine" to enhance my understanding of the book. Thus began a five-day bender; it's amazing I remember anything I read. My first choice was Buffalo Trace Distillery's White Dog Mash #1. Though I am no stranger to strong whiskey (such as cask-strength scotch), 125 proof is a bit much for my delicate palate. After the first glass, I was glad I had chosen a diminutive 375 ml bottle. Of course, I still had to finish it in the name of research.

Since the author spends time with NASCAR moonshine legend Junior Johnson, a bottle—actually a Mason jar*—of his Midnight Moon was a natural choice. I picked out Apple Pie, and damn, that is awesome stuff! My only quibble is that a jar doesn't work as well as a bottle. After a disastrous first pour that spilled more than a few precious drops on the floor, I decided instead to just take a nip whenever I walked past the liquor cabinet. I walked past the liquor cabinet pretty regularly until the jar was empty. If there is a drink that could make me an alcoholic, Midnight Moon Apple Pie is it.


* I can't see or hear of Mason jars without thinking of the Charlie Daniels Band's "The Legend of Wooley Swamp", a song I heard in heavy rotation on the radio at age ten. I've seen Mason jars in stores more often recently, so I'm not surprised to learn they are making a comeback (the jars, not the Charlie Daniels Band).




Last Call at the Oasis: The Global Water Crisis and Where We Go from Here edited by Karl Weber

Last Call at the Oasis is the companion to the movie of the same name. I haven't seen it yet, but I just put it in my Netflix queue. I get the feeling that some of the chapters in this book aren't a big part of the movie, i.e. somebody gives a couple of soundbites in the movie and gets to write a 12-page chapter in the book. I mean, much of the book seems tangential to what I would expect from the film (maybe I'll be proven wrong when I see it).

The book has its moments. One concept presented in this book that is not often acknowledged is the relationship between water and energy, particularly in the American West. Obviously there is hydroelectric power, and a lot of water is used to cool other power plants. But also one must consider how much energy is used to move water around. A popular saying is, "Water flows uphill toward money," and pumping that water uphill takes energy.

Overall, Last Call at the Oasis just didn't work for me. I had such a hard time getting into it that I began to wonder whether I had finally lost interest in the topic of water (which would be bad considering I have two dozen unread books on the subject). I haven't, but it took another book later in November to convince me.

Book:                         DVD:                         Instant Video:
     

Friday, December 06, 2013

Quote of the Day

"Mommy, is the five-second rule for boogers, too?"

Saturday, November 30, 2013

October Wrap-Up/November Theme

Hey, I've set a new record for procrastination! I'm announcing November's theme on the last day of November.

I read seven books about food in October. Lobsters Scream When You Boil Them and Medium Raw were my favorites. The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan was the funniest. The Best Thing I Ever Tasted was a dud, though not terrible.

On the heels of October's food theme, November's theme is liquids. Of course, there will be books about water—I still have an unread shelf full on that topic—but I'll sample a few tastier though less essential fluids as well. I chose liquids instead of drinks because I wanted to leave the door open for, say, gasoline, but since it's the end of the month, I can say that all of the liquids I read about were indeed consumable.

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain

I read Kitchen Confidential almost three years ago. Though I enjoyed it then, I had forgotten how much I like Bourdain's writing (judging from the chapter in this book that provides updates on characters from Kitchen Confidential, I had pretty much forgotten 95% of that book). Just his chapter about Alice Waters makes this book worth reading. I also love the chapter about the man who cuts the fish at Le Bernardin, and I don't even like fish.

As I wrote in 2011, I often have no idea what he is talking about since I'm not a foodie (my tastes run toward sandwiches, burgers, pizza, and barbecue). The first chapter describes eating a rare French bird whole, which sounds horrid. But that doesn't matter; it's still a good book.



Lobsters Scream When You Boil Them: and 100 Other Myths About Food and Cooking by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough

We're at the end of November already and I still haven't written about two books from last month, not to mention those I've read this month. With a work ethic like this, it's no wonder I haven't had a steady job in nine years. Prepare to read a slew of hurried write-ups over the next few days...

I love this book. It's very informative and often hilarious. The authors breezily run through a series of myths and misconceptions about food, cooking, and diet. They include 25 recipes, which is a good number—easy to skip over (the dishes aren't as fancy as those in How to Read a French Fry, so at least I'd eat many of them, but I'm pretty unlikely to ever cook them).

One night at Rockwell's, my server asked what I was reading. Her follow-up question, naturally, was which shattered myths most surprised me. I hadn't really thought about it, which was obvious from my embarrassingly incoherent answer. Then later that night I read the chapter about peanuts. Most people know peanuts aren't really nuts. For years, my dad couldn't see one without pointing out to everyone that they are legumes. But the authors go a step further and run through a whole list of other "nuts" that aren't. Brazil nuts, cashews, pistachios, pine nuts, and almonds are actually seeds, and macadamia nuts are kernels (they also mention coconuts, but does anybody think coconuts are real nuts?). The next time I went to Rockwell's, I was happy to see the same server and redeem myself by sharing this fascinating information. It was new to her, too.



Thursday, November 14, 2013

Not Their Kind of Town, I Guess

Why do so many people leave Chicago and then spend all their free time posting comments on Chicago news websites complaining about how awful Chicago is? They're almost as bad as the dickheads who attribute every negative news item to "the Obama depression."

Look, you're glad you're gone and we're glad you're gone, so just move on already.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Stuffed & Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel

I have several other books in this narrow genre including The End of Food by Paul Roberts and The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan. For food month, I decided to read Stuffed & Starved for its global scope followed by the The American Way of Eating for a national perspective. Unfortunately, by the time I finished this book I was burned out, not necessarily on the topic but on the format of both books, namely the copious endnotes. I generally ignore endnotes if they merely provide citations, but when they have additional content, the constant flipping back and forth between two bookmarks becomes annoying and detracts from the book. I'd much rather read a book with footnotes (ideally footnotes would be for comments and endnotes for citations). I wouldn't judge a book poorly for using endnotes (I know there are good reasons for using them), it's just that I enjoy the reading experience less. I will read The American Way of Eating someday, but right now I need a break.

When I showed this book to a friend, he laughed and said, "It's all bad!" That's a fair assessment considering how large-scale corporate farming has perverted the food system, and Patel offers plenty of examples. Yet he also explores a few movements that are working to change things. A highlight for me as an Illinoisan is his history of soybeans. They are Illinois' second biggest cash crop (behind corn), and Illinois ranks second among the 50 states in production, but I didn't know much about them.

Although Stuffed & Starved is packed with details, the prose doesn't get too bogged down. Also Patel isn't afraid to reference popular culture (such as a long Monty Python quote). I still wouldn't call it an easy read because it's a lot to digest*, but it's more accessible than the typical book of this depth and breadth.


* I honestly wrote that without thinking of the pun.


 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Skinned

At this point, I wish the Washington Redskins would finally change their name just so I don't have to hear about it anymore. My suggestion? The Washington Foreskins. Then their fans can still yell, "Go skins!" And the hardcore fans, well, I'll leave that to your imagination.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure

When I read very local author Wendy McClure's I'm Not the New Me, I loved her remarks about some old Weight Watcher's recipe cards she found in her parents' basement. In The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan, McClure shares more than 100 of them along with snarky comments. I bought an autographed copy long ago at The Book Cellar (my very local bookstore) and although I browsed through it a few times over the years, I finally read the whole book this month.

Many of these foods look just awful. Crown Roast of Frankfurters? Molded Asparagus Salad? Yikes! I would have liked to read more about the ingredients because when McClure mentions them, they are ghastly. For example, one of the Slender Quenchers is water, sherry extract, and two beef bouillon cubes. Yum! And as if the food itself isn't enough to laugh at, some photos are staged with ridiculous props such as the Veal Stew surrounded by dominoes and the Chicken Kiev being watched by a pair of canoodling ceramic ducks.

As Sallie Tisdale notes in The Best Thing I Ever Tasted, American tastes were far less international in the 1970s than today, and many of these pseudo-ethnic recipes reflect that. The prime example is Marcy's "Enchilada" (the quotation marks are part of the name on the recipe card), which doesn't look like any enchilada I've ever eaten. McClure writes, "We don't know who Marcy is, only that she thinks 'enchilada' is wacky Mexican talk for 'shit on a shingle.'"

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink

As Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, Wansink has learned a great deal about how people eat. This book is mostly about the experiments he has conducted over the past two decades, plus he distills his findings into dietary suggestions. While How to Read a French Fry is about the science of food preparation, Mindless Eating is about the science of food consumption.

Most of the studies in this book have been published in professional or academic journals, so you may have heard about a few of them in the media:
  • Diners were given identical wine, some from bottles labeled as California wine and others labeled as North Dakota wine. Drinkers of "North Dakota" wine ate less food and left the restaurant sooner than the "California" wine drinkers.*
  • Tables were rigged with "bottomless" soup bowls that were secretly refilled via a tube in the bottom. Without the empty bowl as a cue, people ate a lot more soup.
  • Cafeteria diners sampled a free brownie touted as a potential new menu item. Whether it was served to them on a china dish, a paper plate, or a napkin influenced both the perceived quality of the brownie and how much diners were willing to pay for it (from $1.27 on a china dish to only 53¢ on a napkin).
  • In the experiment I found most amazing, they gave 32 people strawberry yogurt to eat in the dark. But actually it was chocolate yogurt. Regardless, 19 people—more than half—said it had a good strawberry taste!
Wansick's basic diet theory is that we eat a lot without really thinking about it, and if we learn to recognize those circumstances we can eliminate 100 calories per day without it really affecting our satiety. It's not the fastest weight-loss plan—100 calories a day works out to 10 pounds a year—but it doesn't involve any categorical restrictions (i.e., no desserts or no carbs) or gimmicks (like juice diets). Virtually anyone could implement at least a few of his ideas and probably stick to them.

I told my wife how he describes the household food shopper (me) as the nutritional gatekeeper. Her response was to go out to Jewel and buy a bag full of total crap—cake, candy bars, cookies, etc. <Sigh>.

Whether you are looking for ways to lose a few pounds or you want to learn more about the behavioral science of eating**, there is a lot of fascinating stuff in this book. Plus it's a quick and entertaining read. For more info, check out MindlessEating.org.


* Hilariously, a woman from Fargo gave this book one star on Amazon (one of three one-star reviews versus 183 five-star reviews) because she felt Wansick was dissing North Dakota. Silly NoDaks!

** I bought it six years ago for the latter.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food by Sallie Tisdale

This is another selection from the clearance section of Half Price Books, which is where I discover a lot of books on subjects I don't ordinarily browse.

The Best Thing I Ever Tasted is a polarizing book. A look at Amazon.com ratings reveals a nearly equal number of one-star and five-star reviews. What's more, there are zero three-star reviews.

Naturally, I would give this book three stars.

When Tisdale writes about the history of food, cooking, and dining, she digs up some really interesting stuff. When she writes about her personal and familial experiences with food, she can be dreadfully boring. It took me an entire week to read this book—a long time for a book that is neither technical nor especially lengthy—and it seemed like longer.

  


How to Read a French Fry and Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science by Russ Parsons

This is the perfect transition book from last month's science theme to this month's food theme. I bought it for my wife at Half Price Books for $1 but she never read it.

The science parts are really great. The title refers to the five stages of frying oil and how one can tell the age of the oil used by examining the resulting french fry. Parsons also explains why fresh oil is not good for frying and why pouring in a bit of the old makes it better. His description of the chemical processes unleashed by cutting onions made me understand why I like them minced better than sliced. My main disappointment with the science is that I had hoped for more about baking since that's where most of my kitchen experience lies.

But what spoils How to Read a French Fry is the recipes. I would much rather read an entire book about kitchen science instead of so many pages devoted to recipes.* It's not just that I wouldn't cook these dishes; what's worse is that I wouldn't even eat most if someone set them in front of me. It's highfalutin** gourmet snob food. Someone out there must want these recipes, but I think they detract from a book with great potential.


I didn't actually read the recipes (how boring would that be?), though I did read the introductory paragraph for each.

** For some reason I've encountered that word a lot recently and I've been dying to use it.




Sunday, October 13, 2013

September Wrap-Up/October Theme

I read seven books in September on the theme of science. Naturally, I learned a lot. Best of all, there were no duds. Physics for Future Presidents was my favorite. I passed it along to my wife, who is currently enjoying Bad Astronomy after seeing Gravity yesterday.

October's theme will be food. I won't be reading cookbooks.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth's Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Anil Ananthaswamy

I finished September's science theme with a big bang (groan).* Ananthaswamy begins with the premise that physics has become too theoretical in recent years and we need to confirm these theories with observations. Then he goes around the world to visit telescopes and other instruments that are looking for breakthroughs in physics. His journey takes him to six continents excepting Australia.

The author generally does a good job of explaining things for the layperson, but The Edge of Physics is right on the edge of my comprehension. I don't have a lot of background in quantum physics and string theory so I got lost a few times.

I find it very encouraging that in the three years since this book was published, at least one of the objectives stated within has been achieved: scientists at the Large Hadron Collider detected the Higgs boson in 2012 (and namesake Peter Higgs just won the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Francois Englert). Regarding that project, Ananthaswamy offers many fascinating details about the unusual challenges engineers confronted in design and construction.

I like science books about actually doing science more than those that merely report results or explain theories. The Edge of Physics is that kind of book, and it was a great way to end the month.


* An interesting tidbit from The Edge of Physics: Fred Hoyle, the guy who coined the term "big bang" in 1949, actually supported a different theory; he was using the words disparagingly!



Saturday, October 05, 2013

No Comments

If you do something remarkable and no one remarks about it, is it still remarkable?

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard Muller

Wow, September was a great month for reading. I love this book! Muller looks beyond the politics to explain the science involved in terrorism, energy, nukes (weapons and power), space, and global warming in this brilliant volume.

There are so many good parts, but I'll say a bit about nukes. Nuclear power is such an emotional issue for many, and they ignore the science. For example, after the Three Mile Island accident, some residents set up Geiger counters and found radiation levels 30% higher than the national average. But it turns out the radiation comes from uranium in the local soil. Incidentally, this poses a much greater threat than the tiny amount of radiation leakage from the nuclear reactor.* Incredibly, at least one person (quoted in a PBS documentary) thinks radiation from the ground is okay because it is "natural", as if that makes any difference.

Muller suggests building pebble bed reactors, which are much safer than current US reactors, but regulations must be updated to make that possible. He also addresses nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, completely changing my perspective. In brief, just because the radiation will last for thousands of years doesn't mean the containment has to be 100% perfect for that long. I didn't oppose Yucca Mountain, but I accepted some of the arguments from environmentalists (perhaps just NIMBYs). Now I'm upset that the Obama Administration defunded it.

My only complaint about this book is the title. Most people aren't even going to consider running for president (I wouldn't, and I don't even have a job!). Maybe it wouldn't grab as much attention, but Muller should have called it Physics for Voters because anyone who votes should read this book.**


* This anecdote also appears in Armageddon Science.

** "Physics for Future Presidents" is a course Muller teaches at UC-Berkeley, so that's why he used that title for this book.




Sunday, September 29, 2013

With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change by Fred Pearce

I read Pearce's When the Rivers Run Dry back in 2009 and named it one of the year's top ten out of the 101 books I read. That should have made this book an obvious purchase, but I did not buy it right away. Did I really want to read a book about global warming? I already know it's happening and it's probably our fault, so why get a book about it? That's largely why I didn't bother reading Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth when my wife bought it. Oddly enough, I went back and forth so many times on whether to get this book that I ended up buying it twice, paperback and hardcover, because I couldn't remember whether I'd bought it.

I decided to read the paperback because it includes a "new" preface, albeit now six years old. Pearce is a magazine reporter, and like When the Rivers Run Dry, this book sometimes reads more like a collection of articles than a cohesive narrative. I like this approach because it presents a broad survey of what's going on all over the world. The author takes us where the scientists are making observations, doing calculations, and creating models to predict the impact of countless factors on Earth's climate. Overall it is an incredibly complex system.

Pearce makes climate more intriguing than I ever expected, and I learned a heck of a lot from this book. Sometimes he writes with an urgent tone, but that's understandable because 1.) this is serious shit, and 2.) he's been writing about climate for decades, watching the situation become more dire—and our role in causing it more obvious—while many governments and industries do nothing to alter our course.



Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" by Philip Plait

As I have mentioned before, astronomy was one of my first adult hobbies. Before I could drive, I was peering into a 3" telescope in our front yard. I was fairly well-versed in observational astronomy back then—especially for a preadolescent—though my grasp on cosmology was much weaker. Of course, that was 30 years ago and some things have changed. For example, astronomers have identified many more moons orbiting the outer planets since the days of the Voyager probes.* Regrettably I didn't maintain my interest; by the time Halley's Comet returned in 1986, probably for its only visit to the inner solar system in my lifetime, I couldn't be bothered to look for it.**

I learned of Plait from General Carlessness years ago and last year read his most recent book, Death from the Skies!, which I found fascinating in a terrifying sort of way. I bought Bad Astronomy before I read Death from the Skies!, but I was a little less interested in it. I remember enough about astronomy that I harbor few of these misconceptions. I think most are ridiculous, and my 13-year-old self probably would have agreed. Seeing stars in broad daylight from the bottom of a well?!?! So I feared that I would merely enjoy Plait's presentation and refutation of each myth without learning much.

I should have known better. I learned a lot from Plait, who definitely knows his stuff. Sometimes, such as regarding the cause of tides, I had a vague notion of how something worked and he explained it clearly with greater detail and consideration of additional factors. Other times, he included some historical background or other enriching information that was new to me. And of course it's fun to read. Plait knows how to speak science to the masses.

One of his rants is misguided, though. Plait rails against advertisers using the phrase "light-years ahead" as in "light-years ahead of the competition." His complaint is that light-year is a measure of distance and that admen are mistakenly using it as a measure of time in place of "years ahead". But I would counter that people say "miles ahead of the competition" so there is nothing wrong with substituting light-years as another unit of distance. Of course it's hyperbole, but it's not scientifically incorrect. He has much firmer footing pointing out other linguistic errors in that chapter, such as meteoric rise and quantum leap.


* Jupiter had 16 known moons in the early 1980s, but now there are 67! Saturn has gone from 17 to 62! Of course, none of those "new" moons are visible to an amateur astronomer anyway.

** I don't regret it enough to get back into it, though. Once I lose interest in something, it never comes back with anything approaching the previous intensity. World War II, Route 66, architecture, photography, county collecting, and historic preservation are further examples of this. I retain a lot of knowledge and enjoy occasionally revisiting those subjects/activities, but the passion is gone. Actually, my biggest regret about losing interest in astronomy when I did is that it happened before I could afford a bigger telescope like the ones my pre-employment self drooled over in Sky & Telescope. By the way, I still have that 3" telescope even though I haven't used it in two decades and perhaps never will again. But now we're discussing my hoarding problem.

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall

I've always thought of sleep as a creepy state of being. You're largely unaware of the world around you, which makes you vulnerable. Your brain forms strange images, often so lifelike yet not real. And you spend one third of your life in this state. It gives me the willies.

Dreamland came out last year in hardcover. Though I wanted it immediately, I managed to wait for a paperback to turn up at Half Price Books.

I really like this book, but it isn't as long as it appears or should be. Sure it's 266 pages, but look at the typesetting—the space between lines is unusually large. The chapter about sleep apnea is informative but could be longer. I also expected to read more about REM sleep disorder, which Mike Birbiglia has written about (unscientifically).

Ultimately there are a lot of unanswered questions in sleep science. It is a fairly new area of study. REM (rapid eye movement) wasn't discovered until the 1950s, and the CPAP machine, now a common remedy for sleep apnea, wasn't devised until the late 1970s (using a vacuum cleaner motor!). All of this adds up to a short history with a lot of uncertainties, and that's probably why this book isn't longer.

Dreamland also cries out in need of an index—there are even twelve blank pages at the end of the book!



Thursday, September 26, 2013

Guys Like Me Are Mad for Turtle Meat*

I saw this turtle Wednesday on the Paul Douglas Forest Preserve Trail. It's the biggest I've ever seen in the wild. Its shell was about a foot long. Elsewhere on the trail I saw two snakes of similar length (but slimmer).

Last week I saw a coyote standing in the middle of the Poplar Creek Trail. Unfortunately, I was unable to take a picture before it disappeared into the brush. But at least I'm fast enough to photograph a turtle!


That's a line from Leonard Cohen's "Jazz Police". I recently learned that others do not share my love for that song. But I'm not really mad for turtle meat, and I did not consume the turtle pictured here. Alas I did scare the guy, as he lowered his shell and went into hiding.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Armageddon Science: The Science of Mass Destruction by Brian Clegg

Armageddon is a word that gets people's attention. Just think of that dopey, awful song by Def Leppard. Are you gettin' it? Now that you have that crap stuck in your head, read on...

In this book, Clegg examines seven threats that could kill many or even all of us such as climate change, nuclear weapons, and nanobots. He provides background and history, describes the dangers, and assesses their likelihood. Far from being an alarmist, he dismisses most of them, at least for the near future.

Sometimes the author gets sidetracked on rants, such as his take-down of Dan Brown's Angels & Demons (another example is his rant against the UK's Soil Association for its ban on nanoparticles). It doesn't mean anything to me since I never read the book or saw the movie, and besides, the type of person who would believe the science in a Dan Brown book wouldn't read a book like this one (though that person might own a Def Leppard album or two).

Since entire books have been written about each of these topics, Armageddon Science isn't the deepest discussion of them. Still, it is an entertaining and informative read.

Copyediting note: Clegg misspells tokamak as "tokomak", and boy, do I feel like a smart science guy for catching that one (I read a book about fusion a couple years ago).



Monday, September 16, 2013

The Perfection Point: Sport Science Predicts the Fastest Man, the Highest Jump, and the Limits of Athletic Performance by John Brenkus

I thought this would be a nice transition book from last month's football theme to this month's science theme. It was, though football isn't mentioned in the book.* Sport Science is a show on ESPN that I don't watch because I don't have cable. I saw one episode online last year, which incidentally was about football. It featured quarterback Brandon Weeden throwing footballs at clay pigeons.

The Perfection Point is mostly about physics and physiology. Brenkus explains everything clearly enough for the layperson (i.e, me) to understand. He even passes the ultimate sportswriting test: I enjoyed his chapters about golf and basketball even though I hate those sports. I wish there was an index, though. Shouldn't an index be mandatory in a science book?


* That's okay; I already read an entire book about The Physics of Football.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

August Wrap-Up/September Theme

August was a pretty good month. I read eight books about football, and none were bad. On the other hand, nothing stood out as exceptional either. Regardless, I learned a lot about the sport and a couple of my favorite teams, plus I got psyched up for the 2013 NFL season.

Looking back at the summer, I have to admit that I've chosen some lightweight topics lately: humor, rock and roll, and football. I am going to change that in September. The theme will be science. I plan to concentrate on what I call "real" science (aka hard science), but I might read something from the social sciences, too.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Code: Football's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Honor by Ross Bernstein

Here is yet another lengthy subtitle. As if that's not enough, this book also includes two forewords and an afterword. It all adds up to a lot of text on the front cover. At least the designer used small letters.

I bought this book a year ago at After-words. I wasn't sure I wanted it; I must have been in an "I have to buy something" mood that night. Later I regretted the purchase and doubted that I would read it. But throughout August, whenever I was looking for the next football book to read, I would read a random page from The Code and want to read more.* I decided to wait a while because I had started the month with NFL Unplugged and there's some overlap in subject matter. It turned out to be a good way to finish football month.

I like The Code more than NFL Unplugged. It seems better organized, and Bernstein's writing is more engaging (I had to plod through parts of NFL Unplugged). For the most part, he lets the players and coaches (most if not all retired) speak for themselves, plugging their tales and comments into a narrative. I like it when an author stays out of the way of the story.

Copyediting note: At least twice, Bernstein used the word venerable when he clearly meant veritable. That's one I've never seen before.


* This is often how I decide which book to read next. Just flip to a page, read a little, and if it's interesting, read the whole book. Except I can be indecisive, in which case I pile up a few possibilities and read random pages from each until I decide on one. And no, I have never read two entire books that way trying to choose between them!

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Chicken Little Warned Me About This

Sometime in the last few days, 25 ceiling tiles fell down in our basement workout room. I'm guessing we were away or asleep when it happened because we didn't hear it. On the bright side, I gained an extra inch of clearance for overhead presses.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The Underground Football Encyclopedia: Football Stuff You Never Needed to Know and Can Certainly Live Without by Robert Schnakenberg

Finally, an accurate football book title! This book focuses on the overlap between the NFL and popular culture. It includes entries for mascots, TV announcers, cheerleaders, end-zone dances, football movies, superfans*, players-turned-actors, music videos ("The Super Bowl Shuffle"!), nicknames, and more.

I learned a lot of interesting stuff. I didn't know Alex Karras' wife on Webster was also his wife in real life. I had never heard about John Riggins' drunken encounter with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Like the subtitle says, this isn't critical information, but it's a lot of fun. Schnakenberg writes with humor appropriate to the entries and includes sidebars like "Great Moments in Cheerleaders Scandal".


* Incidentally, the "superfans" entry refers to actual hardcore fans (many of whom also get their own entries) and not "Bill Swerski's Superfans" from Saturday Night Live in the 1990s. I'm not a football expert, but I think that is the author's most egregious exclusion from this book.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Dark Side of the Game: My Life in the NFL by Tim Green

Sheesh, what is it with the titles on these football books? Here is yet another with an inaccurate title, this one obviously sensationalist. The title makes it sound like Green is going to tell us about shooting steroids in a teammate's ass or snorting coke out of a cheerleader's cleavage. Or maybe he's going to dig deep into a dark issue like brain damage or other lifelong physical woes of former players.

There isn't much darkness here, but The Dark Side of the Game is a pretty good book. Green played linebacker and defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons from 1986-1993 (the book is copyright 1996), and he has since written a couple dozen books, mostly fiction. This book is not his life story, though. Instead, it is a collection of essays about various aspects of the NFL, a mixture of recollections and opinions.

The Dark Side of the Game is a well-written and thoughtful survey of pro football circa 1995. Although a few chapters about particular players such as Deion Sanders date this book, I think most of it is still relevant today.



Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The 50 Greatest Plays in Chicago Bears Football History by Lew Freedman

For what turned out to be my grandparents' last Christmas, the task of procuring gifts for my grandfather somehow fell to me (money-wise we all went in together on most of their gifts but I usually didn't do the shopping). I found The 50 Greatest Plays in Chicago Bears Football History and thought it was something he would like as a lifelong fan. It was something I thought I'd like, too, and I hoped to read parts of it when I went to visit. Alas, I don't think he ever got to read it since it was sitting in the same spot on the piano in the living room every time I went over there. After he died, I got the book.*

I didn't plan it when I chose August as football month, but when I found myself looking for the next book to read a couple days before my grandfather's birthday it seemed fitting to choose this one. Plus I had just finished a book about the Steelers, and I felt that I had to read at least one Bears book this month.

The title of this book is inaccurate. Mostly it's the greatest games, not plays. From the X-O diagrams I saw while flipping through, I was hoping for something more technical, a book that took apart the Bears' best plays and analysed why they succeeded.** Instead it's just a gimmicky format used to tell the history of the team while shaking up the chronology.

This scrambling can be jarring to the reader (going from 1926 to 1973 to 1925 to 2006), but maybe it makes the team's long history more accessible by mixing the old and unfamiliar with newer games that readers may have seen. In spite of its misleading title, The 50 Greatest Plays in Chicago Bears Football History works pretty well as an informative, easy-to-read account of the team's finest performances.***


* I ended up with almost everything I gave to my grandparents. That's how things were divided up. Do all families do this? It's like gifts are on loan until death or something. And what am I supposed to do with a thank-you card I sent to them in 1988?

** Ironically, I have shied away from reading Ron Jaworski's The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays because it looks too technical. I hope to read it someday, but I won't have time this month.

*** Freedman also wrote Chicago Bears: The Complete Illustrated History which was released by a different publisher only two weeks after this book. Way to milk one research project for two books, dude!


    

The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s, and the Fight for America's Soul by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne

When I was a kid, I used to play football in the backyard. By myself. That demonstrates my lack of friends/social skills but also (I like to think) my creativity. I would narrate the games like a TV broadcaster as I tossed a pass in the air to myself or ran a few yards and tumbled in the snow as if I'd been tackled by some non-existent playmate. And when I wasn't calling out a reception by Brian Baschnagel* or a run by Walter Payton, I'd be announcing a pass from Terry Bradshaw to John Stallworth.

I've always been a Chicago Bears fan, but my second favorite team is the Pittsburgh Steelers. I remember buying a Super Bowl book at a school book fair and reading it over and over. Of course, back then there had only been 13 or 14 games—in those days the Roman numerals were still novel (now they're kind of unwieldy). The Steelers were the guys who put the Dallas Cowboys in their place by beating them in the Super Bowls of the 1970s, and I've always hated the Cowboys and that "America's Team" crap. Hence I grew to love the Steelers.**

I couldn't help feeling sentimental when I saw this book on the shelf at Borders (albeit not sentimental enough to read it promptly). I wanted to love The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, but I could only like it. I think the authors had too many topics for the level of detail they wanted to provide. The story suffers with lots of gaps. For example, the founding of the Cowboys is covered in depth, leading the reader to expect a lot about the Cowboys in the book (they are second in the subtitle after all). But aside from Tony Dorsett (who grew up near Pittsburgh in Aliquippa like Mike Ditka), the Cowboys story line is pretty much dropped except their Super Bowl appearances.***

The best evidence that the authors took on too much is that they eliminated Super Bowl XIV, which Pittsburgh also won. Maybe they thought it didn't matter since the Steelers didn't play the Cowboys? It's absurd to tell the story of a dynasty noted for winning four titles without even mentioning one of them (seriously, Super Bowl XIV isn't in the index). They also left out any explanation of how the Steelers wound up moving to the AFC when the NFL and AFL merged.**** Instead of taking on a grandiose four-topic subtitle, they should have focused solely on Pittsburgh (city and team), which gets the bulk of the text anyway.

Most true Steelers fans and/or Pittsburgh residents probably don't need to read this except perhaps the younger ones. It was worthwhile for me, though. I learned a lot, especially about the steel industry and its labor woes. Actually, I liked The Ones Who Hit the Hardest a lot more while I was reading it. It was only after I finished and thought about what had been left out that I felt disappointed.


* Wow, looking at his stats reminds me how pathetic those Bears of the late 1970s and early 1980s were. They had Walter Payton but little else. Imagine playing nine NFL seasons as a wide receiver—including several as the team's #1 receiver IIRC— with only nine touchdowns! And in three years he played in all 16 games yet caught six or fewer passes for the season! Even in his prime, he only had about 30 receptions per year.

** I would never root for them against the Bears, and I don't pay much attention to their roster moves and such. I'm not a hardcore fan, but if they're playing anyone else I like to see them win.

*** Maybe that isn't the best example for me to offer because I didn't really want to read much about the Cowboys anyway.

**** That seems like an especially relevant topic considering that this longtime NFL franchise ended up representing the AFC in so many Super Bowls, and the merger/move occurred within the main time-frame of the book.




Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blindsided: Why the Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts by KC Joyner

Joyner aspires to be the Bill James of football. Though Blindsided is an interesting book for the average fan who wants to read opinions about the game, I don't think Joyner is anywhere near James as a statistical analyst.

Of course, football is very different from baseball. It isn't difficult to isolate and analyze pitching and hitting while controlling for a small number of variables, but it is nearly impossible to statistically compare individual performances in a sport as team-oriented as football. The stats of a running back depend on his blockers and the offensive philosophy. The stats of a linebacker depend on the scheme implemented by the defensive coordinator. And as the titular chapter shows, the stats of a lineman depend on the abilities of his fellow linemen.

In most chapters Joyner starts off with some statistical analysis and then gives his opinions. One can't help but wonder whether the stats are selected or massaged to match the outcomes he wants, a cynicism bred by too much statistic abuse. Plus a lot of the statistical analysis is pretty basic; it seems to get weaker as the book progresses. To determine who should be in the Hall of Fame as well as to resolve other disputes, he merely counts the number of times a player was named All-Pro. That's the kind of analysis I did collecting football cards as a fifth-grader. It's been many years (decades) since I read The Bill James Baseball Abstract, but I seem to remember that book having a lot more math, as one would expect in statistical analysis.

Blindsided is decent for what it is, but I'm disappointed because of what I expected and what it could have been. Instead of really pushing the statistical envelope, Joyner comes across as just another sports fan with strong opinions. Still, he offers some alternate ways of considering questions and makes some good points. Most football fans will learn something worthwhile, but the statistically obsessed probably will be disappointed.


Friday, August 23, 2013

Where Dreams Die Hard: A Small American Town and Its Six-Man Football Team by Carlton Stowers

In some states, small high schools that can't field a regular football team with 11 on a side compete in six-man football instead. In 1953 there were 30,000 high schools playing six-man football, but closings and consolidation have reduced that number to less than 250. This story takes place in Texas, of course, because where else is high school football as important as it is in Texas?

This book is as much about small-town life as it is about football. Penelope, TX has a population around 200, and people are much more interconnected than in cities and suburbs. Heck, I thought I went to school in a small town, but that town was 15 times bigger than Penelope (now it's 150 times bigger than Penelope thanks to sprawl).

I wish Stowers had written more about the game itself and how it differs from regular football. He tells its history, but he doesn't say much about plays and strategy. Instead he includes a lot of small town/school drama. I guess he was targeting a more general audience rather than just football fans. Also he should have left out the subplot about his father dying. Dedicating the book to him was enough. Stowers didn't write a lot about it, but authors inserting their irrelevant personal lives into their books is a pet peeve of mine. Just because you experienced something while you were writing a book doesn't mean it should go in the book (unless it's a memoir, of course).

Despite my minor complaints, Where Dreams Die Hard is an entertaining book that gives insight into a little-known sport and a disappearing way of life. At the end, I felt like I had been right there on the sidelines watching the Penelope High Wolverines for the whole season.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football by Anthony L. Gargano

I kicked off football month (sorry) with this inside look at the NFL. Gargano leads the reader through a generic game day and season from the perspective of the players and coaches. This isn't a book about football games; it's about playing the game. It's about preparing oneself mentally and physically. It's about the dirty stuff that goes on at the bottom of a pile after a fumble (hint: watch your nuts). It's about inflicting and dealing with pain. It's about fighting the nervous urge to pee every 15 minutes.

The author is from Philadelphia so there is more about the Eagles than other teams. Some reviewers criticize this, but I think the NFL is the same everywhere so it doesn't really matter. He could have collected these stories in Miami or San Francisco and only the names would have changed.

While there are some interesting stories, Gargano tends to meander from tale to tale and obfuscate with uncommon words. Perhaps he has a thesaurus fetish or maybe he really does have a broad vocabulary, but either way it isn't appropriate to the subject matter or the audience.* His writing style didn't hold my attention very well. I'm also concerned that two weeks later I don't remember much of anything from the book (aside from the scrotum-twisting, but guys don't forget stuff like that).


* This reminds me of a ridiculous comment I heard during a game on TV a few years ago. I don't remember the context or the broadcaster, but a player was waiting for some reason and the broadcaster said it was like he was waiting for Godot. Yeah, I'm sure that's exactly what the dude on the field was thinking!


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rosco's Last Patrol

Our backyard isn't much. City lots are small enough, but with a 3-car garage and an addition to the house, our yard is especially tiny. There is no grass since the previous owner paved it with bricks (probably just as well since grass wouldn't grow in the shade, resulting in a mud pit).

But Rosco loved our backyard. Our other dogs would do their thing and then run up the porch stairs to come back inside, but Rosco often lingered out there sniffing and/or looking for mischief (such as eating organic fertilizer out of the flower pots). We joked that he was a coydog (coyote-dog hybrid), and that's why he liked being outside so much. Sometimes he would ignore my wife's calls until she offered him some sort of treat/bribe. He would always come in for me, though—I was his person. In his later years, all I had to do was stare down at him. He'd look back, and if I kept staring he would run up the stairs, as if he wanted to be sure I really meant it before responding.

On Rosco's final night, his breathing was a bit labored, but I thought he would make it until morning. I spent the evening with him, then I went upstairs to use the computer around midnight when my wife got home from work. She fed the dogs and let them out. A while later she said I'd better come downstairs because Rosco's condition had deteriorated rapidly.

She told me how when Rosco had gone outside, he had walked slowly all around the backyard. Then he stood at the bottom of the stairs, too weak to climb them. She had to carry him up. Now he was lying on the kitchen floor struggling to breathe. We knew he wouldn't make it through the night, so I carried him to the car and we took him to the emergency vet to be euthanized.

I've been thinking a lot lately about Rosco checking out the backyard one last time—walking, sniffing, surveying his grassless kingdom. He must have known it was his final chance to do what he loved in the place he loved, and he mustered his last bit of strength to do it. I imagine it was like an old Babe Ruth taking a final lap around Yankee Stadium or an elderly George Washington strolling the grounds of Mount Vernon.*

After Rosco died, I questioned, as I have with all our pets, whether we did the right thing at the right time. I fretted that he wouldn't have suffered on the kitchen floor if we had taken him in earlier that night. But now I am certain that we did the right thing by giving him that opportunity to say goodbye to the place he loved. Thinking about Rosco's last walk around the backyard makes me cry, but it also makes me very happy.


* Those are poetic images, but after writing them here I thought I should actually look this stuff up.** It turns out that Ruth last visited Yankee Stadium two months before his death. And Washington rode around Mount Vernon on horseback just prior to his death, but that is likely how he contracted the illness that killed him. Their deaths are both interesting stories that I didn't know before.

** Write first, research later—it's the Internet way!