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


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?"