Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Fat, Fit, Phooey: There are few topics subject to more poor and thoughtless journalism, and none rife with more half-baked experts and mindless theories than health and fitness. On July 23rd the Wall Street Journal published a pair of articles on fitness and weight that perfectly illustrate this. I can't link them up because they're for subscribers only (btw, an online WSJ subscription is a steal at $40, especially when the print edition reaches into the 100s), but I can summarize them and quote from them liberally.

The first one is about the latest fashionable health crisis, obesity. It turns out that obesity is official determined by something called Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI = (Weight in pounds / Height in Inches2) x 703. I'm 5' 9 1/2" (that 1/2" is important to me) and I weight about 170. So for me the formula is (170/4830.25) x 703 = 24.74. Before I tell you whether I am obese or not, let's think about that formula. First, ignore the 703, that's just a scaling factor that brings the important number up into the range where the numbers mean something versus a fraction expressed in the hundredth decimal place. So basically what this formula is measuring is how dense you are - how much stuff is squeezed into each cubic inch of your body. Now, any thoughtful person would immediately identify two problems. First, using height2 as a measure of volume for an object as variable in shape as the human body is frankly ludicrous - height2 only works for a square pillar. Second, it makes no differentiation as to whether the stuff squeezed into your cubic inches is fat or muscle, bone or tissue, silicon implants or titanium skull plates.

Yet, from this imprecise, flawed measure we are supposed to know if we are normal, overweight or obese. The exact scale is: less than 18.5 = underweight; 18.5 to 24.9 = healthy weight; 25 to 29.9 = overweight; 30 or more = obese. So that places me (24.74) at the very top of the healthy weight category. If I put on five pounds and lose that ½ inch I'm so fond of, I'm overweight. Nonsense. No one who knows me in real life would suggest I was overweight if I put on as much as 10 pounds. It may be true that there is some median man and woman out there for whom this measure applies correctly, but there is so much variability from person to person that you just can't take the results seriously. From the WSJ article, here are the BMIs of some celebrities and sports figures.
Celebrity BMIs

Using the standard formula for calculating Body Mass Index, or BMI*, several muscular Hollywood hunks and star athletes could be considered overweight or obese, according to weight and height statistics posted on various celebrity and sports Web sites. Meantime, many of their female counterparts are normal or underweight, according to these statistics.


Sylvester Stallone 5'9" 228 34
Arnold Schwarzenegger 6'2" 257 33
Sammy Sosa 6'0" 220 30
Harrison Ford 6'1" 218 29
George Clooney 5'11" 211 29
Bruce Willis 6'0" 211 29
Mike Piazza 6'3" 215 27
Brad Pitt 6'0" 203 27
Michael Jordan 6'6" 216 25
Rebecca Lobo 6'4" 185 22
Venus Williams 6'1" 169 22
Demi Moore 5'5" 130 22
Lisa Leslie 6'5" 170 20
Julia Roberts 5'9" 121 18
Hilary Swank 5'7" 118 18
Nicole Kidman 5'10" 120 17
Madonna 5'4" 101 17
Gwyneth Paltrow 5'10" 111 16

I have to admit it's nice to know I'm doing better than that fat-ass Brad Pitt. (BTW, no way is Brad Pitt 6' tall.) Even Michael Jordan is fatter than me. Riiiiight.

It's safe to say that the BMI is so much blather, except it has become the basis of the now renowned Obesity Crisis. Get this.
The BMI standard made it possible to look back at the change in obesity through the years. And after the 1988-94 results were released, doctors and researchers became alarmed. The figures showed a significant climb in the number of obese participants -- up 53% from the prior survey taken from 1976 to 1980. Experts speculated that lifestyles had changed significantly in the 1980s: People had become more sedentary and their diets had worsened.
The key phrase in the first paragraph is "Experts speculated". They couldn't explain it so they took a guess and that became the accepted explanation. But, man, 53% more people sitting around and stuffing their faces. That strikes me as a massive statistical change in behavior to just let go with a shallow speculation. What happened in the '80s that made so many people want to sit and eat? Cheers and Taxi were big at the time, but that couldn't be more than an hour a week. What happened, did everybody hang up their running shoes and take up reading? Although if everybody became sedentary, I suppose that explains the Thighmaster.

Diet changed, but these days you have to search for fat. You can get fat-free chips, fat-free brownies, fat-free butter, fat-free pork fat. I dare you to name a product that doesn't come in a nutra-sweet version (and no, don't say sugar).

It must be something else. Maybe the data is flawed.
Suddenly, what had been a moderate health concern looked like a crisis. Armed with the new data, obesity experts began lobbying heavily for more funding to research and treat the condition as a disease. In 1999 Congress granted annual funding for the survey. The CDC, under pressure to provide more data -- fast -- last year released the only new numbers it had from its continuing mobile-health survey. Those numbers, based on a sample of only 1,446 people conducted over seven months during 1999, are the standard most experts use when talking about the nation's current weight woes. By those numbers, an estimated 61% of American adults are either overweight or obese.

"You need about three years [of data] for a confident estimate," concedes Bill Dietz, director of the CDC's division of nutrition and physical activity. The CDC also tracks weight and height in an annual telephone survey of 150,000 people. But those numbers aren't as widely cited because the CDC believes people underreport their weight and overreport height when asked, says Dr. Dietz. For example, in its 1999 telephone survey, only 20% of respondents qualified as obese compared to 27% in the widely cited van survey.
Now things begin to get a bit clearer. So based on a half understood, logically flawed supposition, lobbying began. When lobbying begins, reason and the scientific method end. Frankly, even if 27% of the population is considered obese by the BMI standard, that doesn't constitute a crisis. Many of those obese people probably aren't even fat. But that doesn't matter now. There are people counting on funding and they will not be denied. Even if you could cast enough doubt on the statistics, they can generate the wildcard of Anecdotal Evidence. Understand that to politicians, less thoughtful journalists, and the folks who watch 60 minutes, that card trumps scientific method every time.
Given questions about existing data, how does anyone know if obesity is truly an epidemic? Certainly, the anecdotal evidence is inescapable, from the boom in large-sized clothing to hospitals needing to buy more specialized bariatric equipment to accommodate severely overweight patients. The precise dimension of the problem "doesn't matter," argues Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "No matter how you count it, it's a staggering problem."
There you have it; the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders say this is a staggering (staggering!) problem. We better send a some more money their way right quick before this goes from staggering to shocking (shocking!). Just once I'd like to read about some research body closing up shop because their assigned crisis wasn't all that bad after all. "After extensive research we have determined that the number of babies eaten by dingos is not all that staggering here in the U.S., so we're just going to pack it in and go have a Sam Adams. Here's your funding back. Ta-ta." Not.

But enough cynicism. (Can you really ever have enough cynicism when dealing with timely issues?) Let's suppose obesity is as rampant as they say. Why is that bad? Well, obesity is unhealthy because it leads to scary things such as diabetes and heart disease and it will decrease your expected lifespan. Makes sense. Except it's wrong.

Oh I'm sure real obesity is a health threat, but not the dumbed-down, politically correct obesity of BMI. BMI obesity means nothing with regard to overall health and longevity.

A second article suggests that fat and fit are not mutually exclusive.
One study in particular examined both the body composition and fitness level of about 22,000 men over a period of eight years. The purpose was to look especially closely at those who died during that time, a number that turned out to be 428. The study reached this conclusion: The unfit lean -- as measured by performance on a treadmill -- were nearly twice as likely to die earlier as the fit, including the obese fit. Indeed, despite the common assumption that obesity is life-threatening, "we found that obesity did not appear to increase mortality risk in fit men," concluded the three authors of the study, including Dr. Blair.

About two dozen studies support the notion that the standard treatment for excessive weight -- dieting -- is insufficient and perhaps even misguided, at least for any individual who isn't working out. A more effective treatment might be a healthful diet (lots of fresh fruit and vegetables) and exercise -- though not for the purpose of weight loss. While diets typically fail, exercise fails only when participants set unrealistic goals, the most common of which is weight loss.
Well, well, well. Whatever you do, don't mention this to the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. The only thing staggering about this research is the plausibility and common sense. And note the size of the sample: 22,000 over an eight year period vs. 1446 over 8 months for the obesity study. Of course, there's the obligatory anecdotal evidence.
Sometimes a health crisis can achieve that, as happened to Inga Andriessen. The Toronto lawyer, 100 pounds overweight, tried exercising, but invariably stopped when the pounds failed to vanish fast enough. "I was always focused on dress size," she says.

Then she got pregnant and developed pregnancy-related diabetes. Under doctor's orders, she started swimming three times a week for her health and that of her unborn child. It left her feeling great -- and she paid no attention to whether she lost any weight.

Though the diabetes disappeared after she gave birth, her doctor told her she was now a serious candidate for developing a chronic form of that disease. So she set a new exercise goal that had nothing to do with weight loss: the completion of a triathlon. Nine months after giving birth, she did it, and now she's a committed triathlete, exercising six days a week. Of the 100 extra pounds she carried before getting pregnant, she still carries about 70 and wears a size 20 dress.

But her doctor's visits are a delight. Her blood pressure, which was borderline high before she became a regular gym goer, now is fine, and her blood-sugar levels show no danger of diabetes. "My doctor is amazed," she says.
Yeah, yeah - it's anecdotal, not systematic. But think about how much sense that makes. Fat is just fat. It sits in your cells waiting to be burned when you expend energy. Everything bite of food you eat is turned to fat, whatever your weight. Fat in and of itself is not inherently bad. It can be really useful if you're stuck on a desert island with a limited food supply or if your plane crashes in the Andes and help can't get there quickly (of course it can also make you more appealing to the others in your party, if you know what I mean). It's not the fat that's bad, it's the bad cholesterol and the slothful conditioning that brings on disease and kills you. Why go all ballistic about weight statistics? But there's just no fighting a crisis.

Luckily, some folks don't know any better.
Then there is 7-year-old Team Clydesdale, a national organization that seeks to level the racing field for large-size participants in marathons, triathlons and such. Instead of competing against others in their age group -- which is how the typical race is structured -- Clydesdales go up against others in their weight group. The motto of Team Clydesdale: You don't have to be thin to be fit. The truth of that is becoming apparent as growing numbers of large people cross the finish line at marathons, triathlons and other endurance races.
Somebody forgot to tell those people that they were in crisis.

Friday, July 26, 2002

Pedal to the Medal: For some reason we need to refer to every athlete, no matter how obscure, as a "hero." Athletes aren't heros. Being exceptionally skilled does not make you a hero. Even being exceptionally skilled and nearly ruining you life out of self-destructive narcissism, then coming back after therapy to be a role model for potential child narcissists does not make you a hero. Lance Armstrong, however, is a hero, for reasons that have been recounted often. (In case you've been living in a cave, Osama, he was afflicated wtih testicular cancer, which spread to his lungs and brain. He not only beat cancer but is on his way to his, like, 900th consectutive Tour De France victory.)

Now, some fatuous, booger-eating, buttwipe named Ron Borges has published an article suggesting that he is not an "athlete." It's remarkable that this clown can pull his finger out of his nose long enough to peck at his keyboard. Tell you what Ron, you pedal tens of thousands of miles through mountains while trying to dodge this guy, then come back and see me. K THX BYE.

One last thing. It takes along time to load, but they're photoshopping this loser to death over at fark.com. **chortle**
Looking Around: Another set of quick links for your dining and dancing pleasure.
  • Top notch recap of The World Cup from one of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy). I didn't watch any of it and I still liked the article.

  • I now think of this guy every time I go to Border's or Barnes and Noble. Who knew bookstore life could be so entertaining? (This one's for The Legendary KK)

  • I guess we'll hear more about this stunt in the Fall. (Heh heh; I do make my own fun.)

  • History channel eat your heart out. The Best History Sites on the web.

  • Warning! I am not being sarcastic when I say think before you click thru. Body Worlds is a London-based Exhibit of Sculptures made from real cadavers. I have to say from the pictures on the site it looks fascinating. But beware if you have a weak stomach. If anyone has a first person review, please pass it along. (This one's for The Pixie)

  • Think of this site as preparation for your next job interview. I stink at riddles, so I'll have to commit them all to memory.

  • Washington DC could put even the most incompetent third world governments to shame. They finally got rid of the coke-head mayor, but not before re-electing him at least once. They're doing better now, this one's only a forger.

  • If you take my Red Swingline Stapler, I'll burn the place down. (Yes, it's a movie reference.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Gross Invasion of Privacy: It's scary to know you can get anybody's driver's license number off the web for free. Try your own name to verify it.
Be Nice: You may have seen this before, but it came to me today via email:


01. You - Off my planet.

02. Not the brightest crayon in the box now, are we?

03. Well, this day was a total waste of makeup.

04. Errors have been made. Others will be blamed.

05. And your crybaby whiny-butt opinion would be...?

06. I'm not crazy; I've just been in a very bad mood--for 30 years.

07. Allow me to introduce my selves.

08. Sarcasm is just one more service we offer.

09. Whatever kind of look you were going for, you missed.

10. I'm just working here until a good fast-food job opens up.

11. I'm trying to imagine you with a personality.

12. Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you weren't asleep.

13. I can't remember if I'm the good twin or the evil one.

14. How many times do I have to flush before you go away?

15. I just want revenge. Is that so wrong?

16. You say I'm a witch - like it's a bad thing.

17. Can I trade this job for what's behind door #2?

18. Nice perfume. Must you marinate in it?

19. Chaos, panic and disorder - my work is done here.

20. Earth is full. Go home.

21. Is it time for your medication or mine?

22. How do I set a laser printer to stun?

23. I'm not tense, just terribly, terribly alert.

Monday, July 22, 2002

Hurry Hurry: Just some miscellany tonight. I wrote fast because I need to get to bed, so the spelling/grammar will be more atrocious than usual.

On top of all my other problems, my laptop is starting to act up. Lovely. Took me a half hour to get to the point where I could start writing. If you don't hear from me for a few days, it's because I'm busy railing at Dell customer support.
How Bad Can It Get?: The Worst TV Shows Ever, from TV Guide, along with commentary. My only quibble is with Hogan's Heroes at number 8. It was a hoot in it's time. Along the same lines, TV Guide asks What were they thinking.
I'd Better Watch My Tongue: This is old news about someone getting escorted off a plane for making a flip comment about the pilots being drunk. It just occurred to me that whenever I'm flying and the plane hits turbulence, when someone says "Weather must be rough," I generally respond, "More likely they're distracted by the empty bottles of scotch rolling around in the cockpit." I better cool it or I'm going to get an escort one day.
We Get Letters - I: I was expecting flame mail over my trashing of Lord of the Rings. Instead, I got a kindly worded comment from The Always Delightful Chrissy.
I wholeheartedly disagreed with your review of LOTR. Call me a geek or whatever, but I absolutely adored that movie! Bob and I saw it 3 times! And I have to tell you that I would rather see it a fourth time than see either Spiderman or Attack of the Clowns, sorry, Clones a second time! I hadn't read the book until after the movie and I have to say that seeing the movie helped me get through the book. But I did read the Hobbit a long long time ago. I don't know if that was enough of a background to get me into this movie or not. But whatever, I have told you how I feel, and now I feel better...
From TAD Chrissy that's the equivalent of a flame. Hmmm. Had anyone else written that I would probably suspect a head trauma, but since it's Chrissy I'm going to have to give LotR another try.
We Get Letters - II: It's beginning to look like I might not get to Saugatuck this year, for the first time in a few years. Sad. Reader Swhiteb read my little summer vacation essay and took issue with my mild disdain for the restaurants in the Saugatuck/Holland area.
Next time, try Till Midnight in Holland, Toulouse or Chequers in Saugatuck, and Everyday People Cafe in Douglas. The other restaurants in Saugatuck also do a fine job of food preparation and, if you carefully assess their menus, you will discover that they are providing a range of options in food and price because not every person or family who attends their restaurants arrive with the desires and finances of those who frequent The Common Grill.
I have eaten at Toulouse and it was very good, but it was a couple of years ago - not in the span of the vacation I was writing about. And I also remember some decent breakfasts at Everyday People Cafe. So I stand slightly corrected.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

Hide From The Times: Last time I suggested you register at the New York Times on-line site to read the Diesel Jeans article I linked up. I mentioned you could use fake info if you were worried about spam and junk mail, because they don't check. I have held off linking to Times articles because of the annoying registration, but they do feature some good stuff and I don't want to pass it up. The fake info part is now made especially easy thanks to NYT Random Login Generator. In fact, you can paste the URL of the article you want to visit in the first field for a one time login. FYI, I used my real info, except for email address as a spam guard.
Bad Beginnings: The annual Bulwer-Lytton award has been given for the opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels. The winner:
On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.
You can read more here.

Friday, July 19, 2002

Confusion For Fun and Profit: How elite are Diesel brand jeans? So elite you must struggle to buy them. This remarkable article at the NY Times (you'll have to register to read the whole thing - you can give fake info, it doesn't check) explains how whereas most stores are designed to make the purchase process as easy and obvious as possible, Diesel has taken the exact opposite approach.
To the uninitiated, walking into the Diesel jeans store on Union Square West feels a lot like stumbling into a rave. Techno music pounds at a mind-rattling level. A television plays a videotape of a Japanese boxing match, inexplicably. There are no helpful signs pointing to men's or women's departments, and no obvious staff members in sight...

Diesel stores are so confusing that it begs a question: Are they the worst run stores in America, or is something sneaky going on?

The answer: something sneaky. Diesel jeans cost $115 to $210 a pair, and 60 percent of the company's customers are young men, many taking their first anxious steps out of the comfortable but anonymous world of chinos and into the hipper (and more tight-fitting) realm of haute denim.
Allow me to pause to observe that there is a reason super-tight, designer jeans went out of style around 1979. It is because they were so abominable they nearly destroyed western civilization. But I digress. Here's the meat.
While large clothing retailers like Banana Republic and Gap have standardized and simplified the layout of their stores in an effort to put customers at ease, Diesel's approach is based on the unconventional premise that the best customer is a disoriented one.

"We're conscious of the fact that, outwardly, we have an intimidating environment," said Niall Maher, Diesel's director of retail operations. "We didn't design our stores to be user-friendly because we want you to interact with our people. You can't understand Diesel without talking to someone."

Indeed, it is at just the moment when a potential Diesel customer reaches a kind of shopping vertigo that members of the company's intimidatingly with-it staff make their move. Acting as salesmen-in-shining-armor, they rescue - or prey upon, depending on one's point of view - wayward shoppers. Sales personnel, who have been given a five-day course in denim, walk helpless shoppers through a maze of textile-industry terms like warp and weft, as well as Diesel's own confounding lexicon of styles and washes.
Now I appreciate style as much as, no, more than the next man. But it is remarkable to me that this strategy succeeds. I can understand designing promotion and sales process so that the potential customer has to interact with a knowledgeable salesman. I can speak from experience that this absolutely necessary for complicated products like enterprise level software or maybe single barrel bourbon, but these are blue jeans, for pete's sake. They have a certain specific look to them, just like, say, the Jordache look (no age jokes please), but they are made of mere denim and, no doubt, cut and sewn in third world sweat shops just like all clothes. Here's more.
When Mr. Miranda [a Diesel salesdude] spots a wayward-looking shopper, he said, he uses a deceptively soft pitch. "I try to be their shopping friend," he said.

While customers are basking in the sense of relief at being rescued, Mr. Miranda is actually engaging in a bit of psychographic profiling, trying to glean whatever information he can about them from their clothing, attitude and friends. Based on his assessment, he then recommends a number of styles he hopes will suit the customer.

On a recent Saturday, Mr. Miranda demonstrated his technique on a man wandering toward the denim bar. The man was obviously lost, and was accompanied by an attractive woman, who was significantly taller - and blonder - than he.

"He's a regular guy with a really hot girlfriend," Mr. Miranda said. "That pushes him in a certain direction. She's going to have a say. It's going to be something with a little machismo to it."

Mr. Miranda pulled his "shopping friend" bit. Moments later, the regular guy was turning circles before the mirror in a $125 pair of jeans.

"He wanted the men's bell-bottom, the Ravix," Mr. Miranda said, with a thumb's up. "I like that."
First, if this guy is that good, why isn't he profiling serial killers for the FBI? No employee discount at the FBI, I suppose.

Second, a "denim bar"? Does that make him a denim bartender? A horse walks into a denim bar. Bartender says, "Why the long face?" Horse says, "My philly just dumped me." Bartender says, "Wear these and you'll be a stud." Horse buys $500 worth of jeans. Or something like that.

Third, Bell-bottoms? Why, oh why, did those have to come back? So now we have a combination of the worst of the 60s and the 70s. That's marketing for you. And by the way, since when do bell-bottoms have "machismo"?
Douglas Rushkoff, a media critic who has written about Diesel advertising campaigns, said the company's store design is a new take on an old trick. In the 1950's, the shopping mall designer Victor Gruen realized that when shoppers were distracted by confusing mall layouts and grandiose visual stimuli, they seemed more prone to impulse buying.

"They realized the best way to get people to buy stuff is not to facilitate their shopping but to disorient them," Mr. Rushkoff said. "Diesel shoppers say, `I'm not hip enough to get this,' and then in comes the hip salesperson. What makes them hip is that they know how to navigate the space."
This is getting more absurd by the minute. Why not just put a Tilt-a-Whirl in every store? That'll disorient 'em right and proper. And really, if I ever have trouble "navigating the space" of a jeans store, just give me a Mickey Mouse backpack and put me on the short bus.

Seriously, I don't begrudge Diesel any of their success. The whole purpose of a product is to satisfy some need or want. If you satisfy a big enough audience you get rich. That's fair - and it requires a good amount of talent, perseverance, and creativity to do so in retail. So on the one hand, my hat's off to Diesel.

On the other hand, if salesmanship is key, why sell 'em on the web (here and here, for example)? Lastly,
After all, selling jeans, Mr. Miranda said, "all comes down to how a person wants to feel in their pants."
I'm guessing Mr. Miranda bears a strong resemblance to Austin Powers. Yeah, baby.
Monk and Wolfe: I have to stop here because Monk is coming on. The pilot proved to be a top notch mystery about a about a former police detective who just happens to obsessive-compulsive. Kind of like Sherlock Holmes minus a few marbles. Clever plot and a good dose of humor. If they can keep it up it'll be a winner.

Just like Nero Wolfe. If you aren't watching Nero Wolfe, you should be. Best acting on TV.

Thursday, July 18, 2002

So Sorry: The last few days have flown right by, shouting obscenities as they passed. I plead partial innocence because I've been having a bear of a time getting blogger to accept my posts - service outages and so forth. But I haven't forgotten about you. New material coming soon.

Monday, July 15, 2002

Art? Fair?: Here's what you do. If you want to look like a local wear one of those shirts that says, "Welcome to Ann Arbor. Now go home."

It's time for the Ann Arbor Art Fair: 7/17-7/20. (At this point, pedants will pop out of their burrows like prairie dogs to state that it actually consists of three separate art fairs held at once - one on South University, one on State St, and one on Main. To them I say, "Nobody likes a pedant.") You can think of the Art Fair as one of those small town festivals, where everyone sets up booths to sell their arts and crafts except that it covers miles and is a lot more expensive.

Natives turn up their collective noses at the hoards of suburbanites who make the pilgrimage down this way. This is similar to the attitude you get from the locals in, say, Cancun just before spring break; disgust at the crude, uncivilized invaders about to overwhelm the infrastructure. Oddly, whether in Cancun or Ann Arbor, nobody complains about the money that is spent.

Honestly, Art Fair is not the best time to visit. But other than football Saturdays in the fall, it's when everyone finds an excuse to come to town. Let me offer some suggestions for how to do art fair properly.

When and How: Come on Wednesday or Thursday of at all possible. On those days the crowd is merely wall-to-wall, as opposed to Friday and Saturday when the crowds are comparable to the Black Hole of Calcutta. Unless you know your way around town, park at the Briarwood Mall (right off I-94) and take the shuttle in. Ann Arbor is a difficult city to navigate in the best of circumstances. These are the worst. Briarwood is a good place to catch the shuttle because on the way back there may be horrible back-ups getting back on to the freeway. If you're at Briarwood, at least you can wander the air-conditioned mall until things clear up a bit. Come early. You'll want to explore before it gets too hot. By the time late afternoon rolls around, you'll want to find somewhere indoors to chill out.

Cluestick I: It will be hot. Or it will rain. Or both. Bring a hat and sunglasses; wear comfortable airy clothes. And clean underwear (but that has nothing to do with Art Fair).

What I am about to say is important. FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, DO NOT WEAR SPANDEX. Nobody wants to see that. Trust me.

Cluestick II: Don't whine about the prices. Everything is overpriced. You think this is a friggin' outlet mall or something? These people are artists, you understand? A-R-T-I-S-T-S. So don't bother picking up some freaky doo-dad and asking at the top of your lungs, "Who would ever pay these prices?" The only thing worse than pompous, greedy artists are boorish, trailer-trash rubes expressing shock (shock!) at the prices. Seriously, what did you expect? Try to be civilized and quietly mention how expensive everything is later over drinks before dinner. Believe me, we all agree.

A Personal Request: Every year I see that same couple. He is wearing fuscia shorts, a green polyester shirt that barely covers his gut, sandals and white knee socks. She is mostly gelatinous, wearing enough spandex to cover a woman precisely half her size, and carrying a shopping bag filled with a $5 souvenir t-shirt, bottled water and Little Debbies that she brought from home because they charge too much in the stores. Both are drenched in sweat and close to cardiac arrest because they believe their semi-weekly outlet mall shopping expeditions have prepared them for this. She stops every other booth and shouts "Would you look at these prices!" He just wants the day to be over and yells back "Its a scam. I told you its all a scam to catch suckers! Let's get going!" Yep, they're making memories together.

If you are that couple, please don't come this year. You really don't enjoy it, and frankly, we only tolerate people like you if you spend money.

The plan: So here's what you should do. First, do not bother with the art. Really, there are a handful of interesting artists but it's not really worth the trouble to find them. Come for the entertainment. There's music all over the place. Other performing artists are on display. And there are some of the strangest people you will ever see. That's the key: if you didn't come to shop, you'll be OK.

Locate shady places for eating lunch. Many restaurants serve walking-around food at the storefront. It's good stuff. Try the little out of the way places. You may get into Fleetwood diner, but that'll be tough. Tios, on Huron, is one of those good little Mexican places. Jerusalem Garden on Division for Middle Eastern. Oasis on South University for fresh healthy stuff. I could go on. Resign yourself to an outdoor walking around lunch. You may get a table on Wednesday or Thursday but it's unlikely on Friday or Saturday. If you really want to sit inside, chances are better if you can hold off on lunch until 2-3pm. Unless it rains; then everyone dashes into the nearest restaurant and stays there until it stops.

If you want to get away from the crowds head to Nichols Arboretum find a shady tree to nap under or just lounge on the grass by and watch the Huron river flow by.

Once you've heard all the music you want and seen every site you want, it's time to think about dinner. There are an amazing number of excellent restaurants in Ann Arbor, I'm not going to tell you which one to go to. The best thing to do is check out the menus as you pass during your wanderings of the day or ask some of the locals, they'll have opinions. Here's one best of list for a start. Again, on Friday or Saturday, resign yourself to a long wait. Two hours, maybe more. That's OK if you have the right frame of mind. Now is the time to have that drink, complain about the prices, wonder what it would be like to live here.

If you can, make your dinner as leisurely as possible and take a walk Main Street after dark. Stop at La Dolce Vita for dessert.

The shuttle stops at 10pm (7pm on Saturday). You can count your trip a success if you decide to hang around just a bit longer and catch a cab back to your car. Or better yet, come back the next day when the streets are empty and it feels like you have the city to yourself. That's when I'll be there.

Friday, July 12, 2002

Four Wheels...and Shiny: My quest for a new car is complete. After a good long time of pointless fantasizing about all sorts of high status models; an interminable wait for my refinancing to come through; and a brief, but serious, flirtation with the possibility of a Honda Accord, I have purchased a Toyota Camry. It had 4 miles on it. The one I traded in had 199,000. It looks like this.

First, I should note the reasons I didn't get an Accord. Partly, the reason is that I went into the local dealer, Howard Cooper, and showed them the price I could buy the car off the web. The salesman tried to tell me that wasn't the actual price when in fact it was. He tried to tell me it didn't include this charge or that charge, when it clearly did. Even after I explained to him that there was no advantage for me to buy from him and that I was only there to give them a shot because they were conveniently located, he basically just shrugged it off. And offered me a price of 600-700 over the web purchase price. He was very polite, not pushy at all, but he just didn't seem to grasp the reality of the situation.

But mostly, the reason I decided against an Accord was that it was not that much of a revelation to drive. Mind you, I was stepping into this car from a 1993 model Camry with nearly 200k miles on it. I should have been blown away by it. But I wasn't. It was much quieter, but that was because there were no rattles. The V-6 was strong off the line, but there was a trivial, but discernible hesitation to it. Mostly the problem was the ride. It just didn't ride all that smoothly. Now I'm sure any reader of Car and Driver magazine will point out that the trade-off for a smooth ride is something called road feel. Road feel theoretically gives you a better sense of the road beneath you and thereby giving you better control. Sorry, but no one who has driven the streets in southeastern Michigan is going to think positively about road feel. Round these parts, enough road feel will rattle your fillings loose.

So I ended up back where I started: on the hunt for a Camry. I went back to the web - specifically CarsDirect.com and printed out specs and prices in the hopes that my local Toyota dealer would have more respect for the web price. It didn't matter. Upon perusing their stock, I realized they had two types of Camrys, loaded ones pushing 30 grand, and 20 grand-ish basic models. Like the Baby Bear, I was looking for something "juuuust right".

Ok, enough is enough. Instead of just using them for price quotes, I decided to start the purchase process through CarsDirect.com. It worked out well.

CarsDirect (and presumably other similar services) really provides two things to the buyer: 1) A set price. It appears to be around $600 over invoice. This includes everything but sales tax and will take into account any cash back deals. No haggling. And 2) they search for the car you spec. They may not find it exactly, but they'll get as close as they can. That's an enormous time saver. You could spend who knows how long calling and visiting dealers around you. Each car they offer you will be given the same fixed price treatment.

This entire process takes very little time. In my case about four days. I exchanged phone calls and emails with a CarsDirect rep. He couldn't find the car I spec'd, or anything close. Not surprising, I picked out an odd combination of model and options - cars companies often make sets of options technically available, but never or rarely produce cars with those combinations. So I sent an email giving a couple of other model/option combos, suggesting which options were most important to me and which ones I was simply unwilling to pay for, along with a short list of colors in order of preference. The next day he called back with two possibilities. One was marginally close to what I was looking for, the other was almost exactly what I wanted, right down to my first color choice.

There was only one small inconvenience. It was at a dealership 50 miles away. So I resigned myself to a full day of dealing with completing the sale. The trip out to the dealer. Sitting around waiting for the salesman to finish his coffee, complete paperwork. The haggling about my trade-in, which if it fell through would kill the deal and I'd be staring at 200k on the odometer all the way home. I steeled myself to walk-away at the slightest sign of a problem, because I know from my very brief time as a car salesman that is the ONLY WAY you won't get taken by these people.

Once I got to the dealer it took all of a half-hour to finish everything. Salesman had cleared his schedule for my arrival. Take the car for a quick spin. I wanted as least as much for my trade-in as the tax benefit I would have gotten for donating it - no problem. Price was exactly as quoted - no haggling. Paperwork was handled almost immediately. I had even forgotten the title to my old car and they said, that's OK, mail it in when you get back. Wow.

So I have my super smooth new Camry. And it was about as painless as possible. Kudos to Rinke Toyota for having so much on the ball, and a very strong recommendation for CarsDirect.com.

The sleazy car salesman can now go the way of the dinosaur, the 8-track, and the stock broker. Good riddance. You can put buying a car on the short list of activities that have been improved by technology.

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

As Promised: The review of A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance, by Haruki Murakami. I was pleased to have Slashdot publish it so I should get a wider audience. Check it out along with the accompanying commentary.

As I read it, I feel like there's more to say, so I may write up an longer, more in-depth analysis in the future.
Based On The Novel: A note arrived from The Pixie with this comment about my Lord of the Rings review (a few days back).
Nice complete ripping apart of LOTR in your website, BTW. I made it thru Chap 1 of the book and couldn't figure out why such a complete sniffling dork would be the chosen hero...and he played some silly flute or something and was a total kiss-ass, wuss so I didn't read any further...
Maybe she could write a book review. She has a certain way with words.

Please save your flame mail. It'll just encourage her.
Martini Stones: Reader RMW dropped a note, presumably after reading this to ask if I had ever heard of "Martini Stones." (This is where I show great restraint in not making fun of the phrase.)
...a small glass, screw-top container with a sewn leather casing. On the lid of the container it says "Martini Stones." The stones are small, green rocks. There are no instructions besides, "Keep refrigerated." I estimate the item is about 30-35 years old.

Any idea what these are, and how they are to be used?
You got me. A search turned up pretty much nothing. Put them in your martini to help keep it chilled longer? Put them in your friend's martini to see the look on his face when he tries to bite the "olive"?

If you are in the know, please drop me a note and I'll pass it along.

Monday, July 08, 2002

Stuck To The Sidewalk: My shoes are melted in place on the sidewalk and that's why I don't have much of an update for you. I do seem to be making a lot of excuses lately, don't I?

It looks like I'm pretty close to buying a car via the web, so I'll have something to say about that. I also finished a smaller writing project but I'm not quite ready to post it yet. More details later. Plus I've been enjoying the summer. Think about that contradiction: I've been staying productive AND enjoying the summer. Something has got to give - and guess what, it's you. But not forever. Don't worry.
Trolling About: This is the time to spend time in downtown A2. You can start on Main street and grab a drink and an light lunch in the open air at Cafe Felix or Conor O'Neils or any one of a number of other restaurants. Then walk east on Liberty. At Sam's - great cheap men's wear - you can pick up a hat or sunglasses because you're weren't thinking when you left in the morning. Along Liberty, note all sorts of stuff for future possibilities: Dinner at Seva and a show at the Comedy Showcase in the basement, breakfast at Afternoon Delight, a movie at the Michigan Theatre (it's really beautiful in there) - why is life so short?. You are now right outside Border's, the flagship Border's and as good as any bookstore you'll find. Also surrounding you are a at least three used bookstores, and handful of CD stores, and another handful of used CD stores. None of them had the CD I was looking for, so I had no choice but to wander over to the diag and take a nap under a shady tree. Next I have too many choices: Down to South University to check out the freaky goods at Middle Earth and, if I'm really hungry Be Bim Bop at Steve's Lunch. Or if I'm feeling energetic, a walk through the Arb and then back around to State street for a sandwich from Amer's. As it starts to get late, slide over to Top of the Park for a beer and some music.

In case you're curious, here's a decent evaluation of The Best of Ann Arbor. Even folks as far away as Cincinnati agree it's pretty nice here.

Not there's an interesting project: How To Spend a Weekend In Ann Arbor. Travel writing - for visitors. Hmmmm...

Friday, July 05, 2002

Cleaning The Attic: A veritable garage sale of links:

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

Crack Me Up: We've been in the midst of a heatwave. I love the heat. Really. Even with the all the humidity. It's summer and it supposed to be hot and I love it. The problem is that it's just not condusive to me sitting at my laptop and writing away or searching for material. It's condusive to me sitting at a sidewalk cafe quaffing an India Pale Ale. Conceivably, I could crank up the A/C and pretend, just for the sake of getting work done, but (as you know) the A/C is out and it won't be fixed until Tuesday at the soonest.

So bear with me. All I can offer you is Adventures in Chiropractic -or- Who You Callin' a Crackhead?, a bone-snappingly good article. Next up will be my review of Haruki Murakami's Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance. Although I may positon those for external publication, so they may not be immediately available.

And this weekend is dedicated to being productive, despite the heat, so I should be able to get some new and wondorous links posted soon.

Monday, July 01, 2002

Do I Look Familiar?: I spent the last few days in Washington DC for work. The city is still the same. The prevailing comportment for all cashiers, receptionists and transportation workers is standard issue, public servant, chip-on-your-shoulder attitude.

I got to spend an afternoon on the Mall. It's pretty much as it has always been. Lots of activity. There was a Silk Road cultural festival going on in the middle of things. The Silk Road corresponding to stages and exhibits arranged appropriately from Italy to Japan. It was mildly interesting, although I must say the music of the Silk Road really does nothing for me.

Inside the museums there was little outside the ordinary going on, the one exception being a video exhibit of 9/11 at the Museum of Science and Industry. People were sitting and watching in dead silence, in stark contrast to everything around them. Eerie.

I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton at Pentagon City - nice. A bit upscale from your Hyatts and Hiltons, but not extremely so. Well appointed rooms with nice touches like turn-down service (including slippers and chocolates) and an excellent (for a Hotel) exercise facility. Oddly, there is no high speed connection in room, you have to go to their business center - which is only open until 7pm. Reasoning? No clue. And we could use an in-room safe big enough to hold a laptop. But one thing I will say for the Ritz is that they are unfailingly polite and attentive. An oasis of great service in the Metro DC desert of inhospitality.
You Can Dress 'Em Up But You Still Can't Take 'Em Out: I flew Northwest to DC, a direct flight for a change. For those of you who have missed previous rants, despite the fact that Detroit is a Northwest hub - meaning I could fly direct to just about anywhere from here - I have made a point of never flying Northwest after a number of bad experiences. It's not just me. Northwest is consistently rated among the worst airlines in just about any survey. I have flown multi-leg flights that were twice the duration of direct Northwest flights just to avoid them.

This time I had high hopes; they have a brand new terminal, built at a cost of an arm and a leg from everyone with one to spare, so it was time for me to test the waters again.

The results: better than before. Part of that is the terminal itself. It's efficient and well designed for the most part. Lots of shops and food and drink spots (versus the little carts in the hallways in the old terminal). Check-in was a little weird. E-ticket holders have to check their bag first outside, then get your e-ticket at a kiosk inside. Why not both at once, or at least in the same place?

Plane left on time, no real hassles at security. Not bad.

One thing they have not dealt with are the surly, ill-trained and unsavory employees they hire. Checking luggage required me to attempt to speak with a man who could not enunciate the simplest of words and got frustrated when I kept asking him to repeat himself. In the terminal I asked for directions to the men's room and was instructed to take an elevator two floors down. I did so, and found it closed for cleaning. I asked where the nearest one was and they pointed me in a direction and said, "Down that way...you'll find it." So I walked "down that way" and there was nothing but a dead end. So I ask someone else and they send me back up the elevator and to a spot around the corner from where I started. Good grief.

So Northwest looks all pretty and flashy now, but beneath the surface the prevailing attitude is still The Customer Is Always The Problem.
Four O'Clock High: Back when I was but a lad, there were regularly scheduled movies played on TV (the local ABC affiliate) at 4 PM every weekday. This was cleverly called "The 4 O'clock Movie." Generally, these were third rate dramas and old movies that the station could run on the cheap, presumably. Occasionally, they would have a special week of movies that were of interest to myself, as a lad, such as Monster Week (Godzilla, etc.) or Spy week (Matt Helm and other shagadelic James Bond knock-offs) or Horror week (old Vincent Price cheapies) and Adventure week (Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad flicks or Jason and the Argonauts).

Lord of the Rings would make a good 4 O'clock movie.

First, I watched LotR on a hotel TV set in Washington DC. You will argue that I can't possibly enjoy it on such a small screen. By that I suppose you're saying the special effects are what made it great. If that is your argument, you lose. No matter how good the effects are, they do NOT make or break a movie, despite what the folks at Industrial Light and Magic will tell you. Movies are drama, good drama does not need special effect to succeed. If it does, it's not good drama.

Second, I have never read the book. You will argue that you can't possibly appreciate the movie without having read the book. Again, you lose. If that is the case then don't put the movie out for general consumption without a disclaimer, and don't pretend it exists as something other than a visual aid for the novel. There are two things that can happen when a filmmaker assumes pre-existing knowledge of the story. 1) You end up with a vague muddle of a plan (like 2001: A Space Odyssey), and you have to impress everyone with special effects. Or 2) you end up with a story that has only a very tenuous causal progression, and you have to impress everyone with special effects. The later describes LotR.

I know many of you think I just like to go about trashing things. In my own defense, I have to emphasize that I approached this with an open mind. Really I did. But the shortcomings were apparent from the get-go, and they didn't really improve over the course of the movie.

The plot of LotR is moved forward through narration. Interminable narration. Narration to explain the history of the ring. Narration to explain all the players in the drama. Narration to discuss the relationship of the races. Everyone involved with the production of this movie should be forced to write out the Henry James quote, "Dramatize. Always dramatize," at least 500 times. In big black letters. Using the script for paper.

We are told the story of the Ring and how it came to the possession of a Hobbit. (Hobbits are like the nerds of the fantasy world. Hobbits succeeding in spite of this, put one in mind of Revenge of the Nerds.) We are told that the ring is being sought after by bad guys and how important it is for the bad guys not to get it. It falls to one particular Hobbit to safeguard it. This is where things get a bit confusing. In the book I'm sure it's clear to everyone why this certain Hobbit is fated to deal with this issue. I'm also sure that the reason other Hobbits are delighted to risk life and limb to accompany him in his endeavor is apparent to the knowledgeable. To viewers ignorant of the intricacies of the myth, the reason for all this is that we are told.

What follows is a journey by a not-so-merry, multi-racial (Hobbits, Elves, Humans, a Dwarf) band from one encounter to another with various well-rendered evil creatures. Each battle is prefaced by dire, long-winded narration about the horrible consequences of failure. Afterwards, some member of the band declares it to be gravely important that they get on to one of many significantly named geographic regions: The Dark Forest of Whatsiwhosit, The Mystical Hills if Whereintheworld, The Valley of the Golden Whateveryoulike. The meaning of these names, or why it is so important that they make it to those particular destinations, we don't know. Correction: I don't know. It is entirely possible that it made perfect sense to the Tolkein cognoscenti.

Maybe this film could have been saved by brilliant actors. It seems none were available. The lead Hobbit was a played by a graduate of the deer-in-the-headlights school of acting. The leader of Elf-land was the guy who played the Agent in The Matrix. I was begging for him to say "Mis-ter And-er-son" just once. Liv Tyler looked particularly fetching in pointy ears. In fact, she has the most exciting sequence in the movie, which is an intense and gracefully shot horse chase. The assorted wizards and the various members of the band could have been culled from any sword and sorcery movie of the last twenty years - even as far back as Adventure week.

And that's where my revelation came from. LotR is tailor-made for a 4 O'Clock Movie. With running length of THREE HOURS, you could probably stretch it into an entire special week all by itself with enough commercials. If it was on when I got home from school and there was nothing to do outside, I'd probably watch it.

Or maybe I could leave it playing in the background while I read the book.