The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Friday, February 19, 2010
The Kick Is Up...
Former Chicago Bears kicker Bob Thomas now serves on the Illinois Supreme Court. He wrote the majority opinion ruling against our convicted former governor today:

George H. Ryan Sr. has clearly forfeited all of the pension benefits he earned from the General Assembly retirement system. As the victims of Ryan's crimes, the taxpayers of the state of Illinois are under no obligation to now fund his retirement.

...And it's good!

Too bad we can't send the Honorable Judge Thomas to the federal prison in Terre Haute, IN to personally deliver a serious kicking to Ryan's corrupt hindquarters.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009
Number 100!
I wanted my 100th book of Book Challenge 2009 to be something special. I thought about doing something out of character, like reading fiction for once (Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl). Many thick volumes called to me (such as James Loewen's Sundown Towns), but I only had a few days until the end of the year so those were out of the question. I didn't want to be reading feverishly at 11:30 PM on December 31, and I really didn't want to set myself up to fail by picking a long or complicated book.

I looked through the five two-foot stacks of books in our dining room, selecting half a dozen prospects. I could have read any of them, but none were particularly special. Then I went into our library and scanned eight more two-foot stacks of unread books (remember, I haven't been winning this battle by much, so I still have almost as many books to read as I had on January 1). I picked out a few that I've been meaning to read for a long time, but again, nothing set them apart. Then I saw a book I got for Christmas a few years ago... In Life, First You Kick Ass: Reflections on the 1985 Bears and Wisdom from Da Coach by Mike Ditka with Rick Telander.

I've written before about the 1985 Bears. I was 15, old enough to appreciate football but not yet jaded like I am now. Mike Ditka is my favorite coach of all time, in any sport. Ditka wore his heart on his sleeve and said what was on his mind (I don't like Lovie Smith because he's the anti-Ditka). He wasn't perfect, but he didn't try to hide that either.

Needless to say, I absolutely loved reading this book. Every page was a treat, reliving that fantastic season. I laughed and cried, turning page after page. Ditka has so many great stories, like about contract negotiations with George Halas. After Ditka had a spectacular rookie season (as a player), Halas actually tried to sign him for less money the following year! I found out a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff from the 1985 season, and I also was reminded of so many great moments. Any Bears fan should enjoy this book almost as much as I did.

Current tally: 100 books finished, 96 books acquired

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Friday, April 10, 2009
A Solid Week of Reading
The Walrus Was Ringo: 101 Beatles Myths Debunked - I went through a heavy Beatles phase about 20 years (not coincidentally on the heels of a Charles Manson phase). Back then, I bought and read at least a dozen books about them. Although I still like their music, I'm not the Beatle-ologist I used to be. But while I was looking for something else at Half Price Books, this book by Alan Clayson and Spencer Leigh caught my eye.

I enjoyed the way this book reawakened brain cells last accessed years ago, but it's not a good book. Most of it is trivial or esoteric, and I disagree with some of the authors' debunkings. For example, they contend that John Lennon was not a pacifist. Aside from an admittedly unconfirmed allegation that he gave money to the IRA, their argument is based on several incidents where Lennon got into fights. But that just proves he was a mean drunk, not that he supported war or violence as a solution. I hardly think punching some guy at a party in 1963 makes Lennon a non-pacifist any more than it makes him a pugilist. There's a lot of crap like that in this book. Many debunkings are merely conjecture and opinion. I expected some eye-opening revelations, but I found little that I didn't remember from somewhere in the deep recesses of my teenage mind. This book does have a lot of info about the early years in Liverpool, but I was never particularly interested in the details of the band's origins. There is little about the music (less than 20%), which is ultimately the most important thing about the Beatles. Also, I found it ironic that their selected bibliography criticizes books that lack indices since this book doesn't have one, either.

One Knee Equals Two Feet (And Everything Else You Need to Know About Football) - I wasn't sure whether I'd like this 1986 John Madden book, but when I saw the chapter titled "Why Payton Is The Best," I figured I couldn't go wrong. Actually, I know the players of the 1970s and 1980s much better than I know the current NFL, so this book was a lot of fun to read. My favorite chapters are the meat of the book where Madden names his favorite players at each position and explains what made them great. There are many good anecdotes, too. This is easily the best book out of the four here, and it only cost me $1!

Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Throughout the Ages - This book is a disappointment. I've read several similar books, and Stupid History repeats many stories I've seen before. Author Leland Gregory employs too many corny puns, and some of this "stupid history" is just random "fun facts" with little or no historical value (isn't there enough real history to fill a book?). Even worse, there are mistakes. For example, Gregory asserts that Eugene Debs is the only person ever to run for president while in prison. But Leonard Peltier ran for president in 2004. The book is copyright 2007, so the author should have known. Amazon reviewers cite other errors, as well. I wouldn't recommend it and I definitely wouldn't trust it.

50 Ways to Build Muscle Fast: The Ultimate Guide to Building Bigger Muscles - I started reading this late last year and came back to it this week. I put it down because I didn't agree with some of author Dave Tuttle's suggestions, but in retrospect, I was being a bit hard on him. Aside from the typical volume training/isolated body parts silliness and a bit too much rah-rah about supplements (Tuttle's specialty), there are some good ideas here. There isn't a lot of new info, but it is useful as a quick refresher about a variety of training concepts. The end of the book is primarily motivational, which never hurts. All in all, there's nothing "ultimate" about this guide, but it's worth reading if it's cheap (as my copy was).

Current tally: 31 books finished, 26 books acquired

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Sunday, January 25, 2009
The Physics of Football
Late last year, I worked on a chapter for an engineering book. While it excited certain mathematical brain cells that have been understimulated since I left the computer programming world, it also reminded me of my greatest academic shortcoming. Dig into my transcripts past that perfect GPA and you'll find a dark secret: I managed to get through college without taking a physics class. At the time, I was determined not to take any science class that required lab time. Looking back, however, this left a rather large hole in my scientific background.

Last year also marked a sort of rediscovery of football. I used to watch it all the time when I lived at home, but with rare exceptions (a few Bears games and Super Bowls), I've ignored it for the past 15 years or so.

With those thoughts in mind, one can imagine that The Physics of Football: Discover the Science of Bone-Crunching Hits, Soaring Field Goals, and Awe-Inspiring Passes by Timothy Gay practically leapt off the shelf at Half Price Books, especially since it was only $2 on clearance. The idea for the book came from a series of short videos that Gay created at the University of Nebraska to simultaneously educate and entertain fans (which also led to some work with the NFL Films people).

For the most part, I enjoyed the book. Gay admits that physics cannot explain everything -- particularly that it can't predict who will win -- but he highlights certain aspects of the game where some physics background helps to understand what happens and why. For example, a kicked ball has a different range depending on whether it spirals or tumbles, as well as whether it's kicked at sea level or in Denver. In other words, air drag and air density affect the distance of a kick.

This book was much easier to read than I had feared. I understood more than I expected, although my eyes glazed over during Chapter 6 when Gay was explaining the forces acting on a passed football as it spirals. Without a physics background, I can't judge whether Gay hit all the important points, but he definitely gave me some new insights about football. I wish I had read this earlier in the season so I could apply them while watching a game. In general, I'd say anyone interested in a cerebral approach to football would enjoy reading The Physics of Football.

Current tally: 7 books finished, 7 books acquired

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Saturday, February 09, 2008
Hopelessly Late Post About New Year's Day
On New Year's Eve, in the midst of Fighting Illini Rose Bowl fever, Chicago's Channel 7 showed a photo of my parents' dog Molly dressed up in Illini garb:

There is a yellow labrador beneath all that orange. Yes, she looks ridiculous, but oddly enough, she seems to go along with whatever goofy costumes my mom puts on her. My mom sends us pictures of Molly dressed for every occasion... Except she thought I didn't care about the Illini in the Rose Bowl so she didn't send this one.

Yet on New Year's Day, I watched the Fighing Illini get trounced by the USC Trojans. While it is true that I don't watch much sports anymore, my mom forgot a few things:

With all those connections to Champaign, how could I not watch the Rose Bowl? But as I said, it sucked, or more specifically, the Farting Illini sucked. I can't believe I waited nearly a quarter of a century to see that dismal performance. At least Mom finally sent us a picture of Molly Illiniwek after I told her I watched every miserable minute of the debacle (in their defense, no one dreamed they'd be as good as they were this year, so just making it to the Rose Bowl was sort of a victory).

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