June 27, 2012

Sitzbook Catch-Up

I've been busy reading for my Sitzbook book-a-week project, but I've not been as busy writing my reviews. Since I made it a goal to write a review of each book I read for the project this year, I decided to do a condensed review for a few books, like I did earlier in the year

For each book today, I'll focus on The Good, The Not-So-Good, and Should You Read It? Also, I took all the pictures (see more here) for these reviews so if they're crappy or boring, sorry. But they're books, not fashion models, so there's really only so much you can do to make them interesting.

Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse
The Good: This is the story of a young man (Goldmund) who abandons the life of a monk to see the world. Narcissus is his mentor. It's a good example of friendship overcoming obvious boundaries and restrictions. Classic Hesse.
The Not-So-Good: It wasn't as good as I remembered from the first time I read it, about 12 or 13 years ago. But it was still good.
Should You Read It? If you like Hesse, you probably already have. If not, you should read this, but maybe don't read it closely after or before Siddhartha, since the two books have quite a few similarities and parallels. Or, do read them back to back and compare the two. I'm not your mamma, so I'm not going to tell you what to do.

Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
The Good: Another book by a German-language author with an alliterative name, but this is nonfiction. It was given to me by my friend Brad when we visited him last year. I chose to read the book before our upcoming trip to China to find out anything and everything I could about the country, which has been in control of Tibet since the time this book was written. It also talks quite a lot about the Dalai Lama, since Harrer met him while in Tibet. That was interesting, since the Dalai Lama was a young man when the story takes place.
The Not-So-Good: Not much, although there wasn't really anything in the book about China per se except negative comments, which I guess could be expected, considering the author's viewpoint.
Should You Read It? Yep, you probably should.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Good: Another one of Bill Bryson's excellent books. My brother Paul gave me this for Christmas. Bryson recounts his attempt to walk the whole Appalachian Trail from one end to the other. Bryson's accompanied by his friend Katz and, as usual, by his own always-excellent dry humor.
The Not-So-Good: Only the parts where he mentions how overuse, over-development, and the Forest Service have all managed to screw up huge swaths of the Trail and the national parks, as well as the areas around them.
Should You Read It? Yes, and then read the rest of Bryson's books. Do it now!

How To Sharpen Pencils by David Rees
The Good: Although this book doesn't seem like it could possibly be serious at first glance, it actually is. If you read this, you'll learn how to sharpen number 2 pencils using numerous techniques. Having said that, though, there are many hilarious parts in this book. I've long been a fan of David Rees since his years as the writer for the comic Get Your War On, and this book displays some of that same humor, albeit in a less-vulgar, more-subdued way. The book is great, though.  
The Not-So-Good: That Rees has only written this book so far (not counting his collections of GYWO comics). I hope he keeps it up!
Should You Read It? Yes, especially if you're a "writer, artist, contractor, flange turner, anglesmith, or civil servant," as the cover describes its intended audience.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
The Good: Rowling got rid of the the stupid house elf Dobby, who so irritated me in the second book (this is book number three). You also get the sense while reading this book that she'd figured out in what direction she wanted to take the overall story line of the series, so there doesn't seem to be as much "filler" as book two. Also, I must mention here that this is obviously a book for kids, so any attempt on my part to analyze or over-analyze it may just seem stupid. It's not Shakespeare, of course, but for a kids' book, it's pretty dang good.
The Not-So-Good: OK, are we seriously going to have 30 or 40 pages at the start of each Harry Potter novel describing how he has to spend his summers with the Dursleys, his adoptive aunt, uncle, and cousin? We get it: they're really shitty people. Let's get going with the action already! Same goes with anyone with the last name Malfoy.
Should You Read It? If you're reading the series, yes, probably. If you're not, then just see the movie.


I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert
The Good: I've only seen a few episodes of Colbert's show on Comedy Central, but what I've seen has been pretty funny. The book's premise is that he's the same person as he is on his show: a pompous, egotistical, right-wing political pundit. And it's funny, although not as laugh-out-loud funny as the Daily Show's America (The Book) "textbook."
The Not-So-Good: The format on the Kindle really messed up the pictures and graphics, but that's hardly the book's fault.
Should You Read It? Sure, if you find it for sale or used. But that's pretty much my take on most any book.

So, that's it for now. Have you read any of these books? If so, any comments?

Thanks for reading, and have a great night!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

June 22, 2012

Sitzbook: "Fast Food Nation" and "Water For Elephants"

When I found out my brother was going to come visit us at the end of May, I decided to get some stuff delivered to his house so that he could schlep it down here with him. As his departure neared, time was getting close so I decided to sign up for a year of Amazon Prime, which includes free two-day delivery. I'd tried it over Christmas last year on a free trial and I liked it quite a bit. It's also pretty nice for a few other reasons. One cool aspect, which doesn't work in Costa Rica, unfortunately, is that you can get unlimited streaming video from Amazon's collection. It's not got everything, of course, but it seems to be pretty similar to Netflix's offerings. But, like I said, it doesn't work in Costa Rica, so that kind of sucks. 

I'm getting to books, I promise.

Anyhow, another cool thing about Prime is that you can "borrow" one free Kindle book a month from the Kindle Lending Library. I have a Kindle so that's a pretty cool deal, considering that digital books are arguably overpriced and not able to be re-sold like a paper book, and it's also cool since I'm still doing my Sitzbook project in which I read one book a week. The deal is that you can only borrow one book at a time, and only one per month. But it's better than a kick in the ass, as they say, and I've already gotten through two books and am waiting for another one at the start of July (if you know about this program and have any recommendations, I'd love to hear from you-- I've been thinking Moneyball, but you may know of a better selection).

The only downside to the Lending Library program so far seems to be a fairly limited selection of books. Sure, they've got tens of thousands of titles, but a lot of them look like crap, to be honest, sort of like soft-core supermarket paperback smut. But they did have Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants, which seems to be big in the US now because they made a movie out of it (?). Also, I found Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, which seemed to be pretty talked-about about 10 years ago. I don't have much to say about Water For Elephants except "I liked it," so I'll talk a bit about Fast Food Nation today.

FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser

I probably shouldn't have read this so soon after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma if I ever wanted to eat any food in the US again, but I didn't know that both would be so depressing when talking about where American food comes from. On the whole I think I liked and benefited more from Dilemma since it approaches food from a more general perspective, but Fast Food Nation certainly had its moments, too. I made quite a few notes, but many of them were along the lines of "Ugh, shit..." or "Stupid Greeley!" Yes, that's Greeley, Colorado, home to quite a lot of my extended family. In fact, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, both Colorado cities, also play prominent illustrative roles in the book. But Greeley stands out the most.

I really don't care much for Greeley. The biggest reason is that every time I try to go there, I somehow get lost in that stupid city. The other reason is the smell. The book mentioned Greeley quite a bit because it is/was the home of Monfort, the nation's largest feedlot at one time, and also a major plant for ConAgra, a huge slaughterer and food producer. It's not a very sweet-smelling place, and I believe the book refers to it as a "rural ghetto." (Note: I've referred to my present town, Berlín de San Ramón, Costa Rica, quite a few times as a "mountainous slum," so I'm not saying that I'm better than Greeley folks, of course; what I am saying is that both smell like livestock crap fairly often).

I'm getting off track again.

Here's a good summary of the book's point; it's from "page 9," according to the Kindle:

"I do not mean to suggest that fast food is solely responsible for every social problem now haunting the United States. In some cases (such as the malling and sprawling of the West) the fast food industry has been a catalyst and a symptom of larger economic trends. In other cases (such as the rise of franchising and the spread of obesity) fast food has played a more central role. By tracing the diverse influences of fast food I hope to shed light not only on the workings of an important industry, but also on a distinctively American way of viewing the world."

And that he does. He talks about basically every stage of fast food, from the potato fields and cattle ranches, to the waste deposited in the landfills and watersheds. He also looks closely at the marketing and advertising of fast food. It's a fascinating but troubling book. It also talks about how even schools have succumbed to the desire to get money through fast food marketing. It mentions Fort Collins a few times and indeed, my own high school in Fort Collins had 4 fast food chains in lieu of an actual cafeteria. That's something that I personally experienced and I shrug it off now, but I realize it must be hard to eat healthily without a lot of effort. A few of the notes I made in the Kindle were basically to that effect, saying things like "Man, this makes me not want to have kids if I gotta find a way to deal with all this crap."

Another thing that really caught my attention was that the book wasn't just about food, but really touched on the American experience in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, at the beginning of the book it tells the story of the founder of Carl's Jr., and I kept thinking, "This sounds like my grandpa's story!" Many aspects of the story, such as a post-war rags-to-riches success struggle, the upward-moving impulses of the middle class, the movement towards domestic convenience, as well as the general westward migration from the Midwest to California, and then later from California to Colorado, is mentioned in the book, and also happened to my grandpa.

The book is also chock-full of sobering and disgusting statistics, but the ones that were most baffling to me were the ones related to Americans eating in cars. This is evidently still a common thing as evidenced by this article a few days ago about how Popeyes Chicken is now going to make fried chicken that's easier to eat and dip in the car. It also mentions in passing that about 17% of restaurant meals in the US are eaten in cars. C'mon, society. That's just crass.

Other freak-out facts in the book:

-Kids recognize Ronald McDonald more than Mickey Mouse
-There are more prison inmates than farmers in the US
-The largest meatpacking plant in the nation is in Greeley
-A steer produces about fifty pounds of urine and manure every day
-"The two Monfort feedlots [with up to 100,000 cows each] produce more excrement than the cities of Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and St. Louis--combined." (p. 149)

There are others, of course, but it's hard to read this book, especially combined with Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and not feel that we need a massive change in how we feed, produce, slaughter, market, and even think about the plants and animals we put into our bodies. I feel like I may be at a slight advantage in this regard, living in Costa Rica, since I believe it's less industrialized here, and also because we personally hardly ever eat fast food (although looking at eating trends, the nation as a whole seems pretty hell-bent on eating the greasiest, crappiest food possible). Angela and I prepare most of our food at home, but we're still stuck with the question of where those ingredients came from, and that's a question that's usually hard to answer satisfactorily. But for now, I guess each of us can try to do our part. For me, that'll include trying to find out more and more about where the food I eat comes from, trying to cook more at home while using more fresh and whole ingredients, eating less meat, and staying away from Greeley whenever possible.

Thanks for reading, if you made it this far. If you have any comments or want to join in on the discussion, you're welcome to leave a comment. Have a nice weekend!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

June 20, 2012

Jim Steinman

A few weeks ago for Meat Loaf Monday I talked about the video for Meat Loaf's song "Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through." I love the song, and the video's completely overdone (it even has Angelina Jolie and exploding jukeboxes). Yes, we all know it's great. But what you may not know is that Meat Loaf didn't actually write the song. In fact, most of Meat Loaf's best and most famous songs were written by Jim Steinman. 

Exactly, I didn't know who he was, either. But basically any hit Meat Loaf had, Steinman wrote it.  It's not like it's some kind of conspiracy, though; the album covers even say something like "songs by Jim Steinman." Steinman also wrote "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which Bonnie Tyler later sang. So he wasn't just a one-trick pony (although due to the cheesy Conan The Barbarian-style imagery in both Steinman's and Meat Loaf's album covers and videos, he'd probably prefer that I say he wasn't a one-trick warrior stallion... so be it).

Anyhow, I was poking around on the internet looking for more Meat Loaf videos (as I am wont to do), and I came across Steinman's video for "Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through." It's pretty...um... I'm not sure how to describe it. It looks like it's set about 20 feet below any scene depicted on a Meat Loaf or Steinman album cover, if that makes sense. The main theme of the video seems to be that the guy dancing in the hot pants wants the guitar, and the girl dancing in what appears to be a jazzercise outfit wants the guitar, too. Fortunately, Jim Steinman's there to mediate over the dance-off. And in a dance-off like this one, everyone wins. But I've said enough. Just watch it, and appreciate the kind of video you could get in 1981 if you had a budget of about $65:

Thanks for reading, and keep on dreaming and rocking!

(Update 1, 10 minutes later): OK, no, sorry. I just can't let it stop there. How in the world did they get this video made? It baffles my mind. I can't even begin to imagine the sales pitch they made to the production company. "OK, so we're on the moon, right, and Jim's gonna be standing on some kind of stump while a guy and a girl dance around with a silver guitar. Oh, and there'll be some kind of raptor bird-- either a hawk or an eagle, whichever's cheaper and more photogenic. The kids love hawks, so maybe we can even tie it in with some kind of She-Ra or He-Man cross-promotion. We'll be millionaires!"

(Update 2, 30 minutes later): Holy crap! Check out this video from a German TV program in 1981! They even brought in the Dancing Hot Pants Duo for a live performance!!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

June 17, 2012

Paul's Visit

At the start of June my brother Paul came to visit us for about 10 days. It was really nice to have him here, and we had a good time (and I hope he did, too... it's kind of boring around here sometimes).

In any case, I just wanted to quickly put up a few pictures from while he was here. You can see more on my flickr page, too.

This is "advanced eating"; try it at home at your own peril. In this case, Paul and I went to Grecia and got a burger (me) and a hot dog (Paul). But that the kicker was that each also had two fried taquitos inside the bun! It was pretty crazy and intense, although not as tasty as one might imagine/dream.

We also stopped by Sarchí, where every single flat surface in the town is covered by this type of traditional Costa Rican painting designs. But at least this guy was really nice.

Here's part of the axle of the World's Largest Oxcart in Sarchí.

So, if you want, check out the other pictures from Paul's visit. And to Paul: it was really nice to have you visit-- come back soon!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

June 14, 2012


For anyone who reads this blog (aka "mom"), you may be wondering why I've not been posting as much lately. It's true I've not been writing much here, but I've been putting up other stuff on my other blogs. The one that's grown the most lately is Sitzman ABC, since I'm updating it three times a week. I started it for my students as a way to give them language tips, but I also try to make it interesting for native speakers, too, so you may want to check it out.

Today, in fact, I had planned on simply posting a video of Burt Reynolds explaining football, but then it turned into a huge examination on the differences between football and soccer, and how they're both really, really boring to watch on TV. So I decided I'd just re-post it here, since it's more along the lines of this blog's themes anyhow. But still, if you're bored sometime feel free to check out that blog or my Costa Rica website, Costa Rica Outsider.

Anyhow, here's the football post. "Enjoy" it, and have a great day!
Opening Trivia Question: What do you call the girl throwing the ball in the picture? 
A) The Quarterback  B) The Pitcher  C) The Seeker  D) The Umpire  E) Jenny

Good evening, and welcome to Word Wednesday! Today we're going to talk about sports. To be honest, I'm not a very sporty guy. I like to do exercise and walk around and do stuff, but I just don't like watching sports on TV. It's really boring for me, although that's obviously a personal preference.

Every play in a football game is 4 "exciting" seconds of chaos followed by 5 minutes of commercials. (Photo by Ed Yourdon)

Nevertheless, a few of my students are going to do a presentation on "American Football" tomorrow, and I found myself in a position where I had to explain some of the concepts of the game to them. I was a little embarrassed that I actually know so much about the game, so please don't tell anyone!

First of all, in much of the world "football" is the sport where players kick the ball with their feet and try to get it into the goal. It has 90 minutes of excruciatingly boring play, frequently punctuated by players falling down and faking injuries like drama queens. For a few countries, though, that same sport is called "soccer." It's called "soccer" in the USA, of course, but the name "soccer" is also very common in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, since all of those countries have different sports that are referred to as "football."

In another half-second, all three of these players will be on the ground, holding different body parts, pretending to be in pain. This is the "thrill" of soccer. (Photo by Ingythewingy)

In the US, "football" is completely different. In Costa Rica and Latin America, at least, it's called "American Football," although they also say "we're all Americans," so something doesn't quite compute. But that's OK. A football game in the US has 60 minutes of excruciatingly boring play, but a game somehow takes about 4 hours to finish since the play is constantly interrupted by commercial breaks. It's really quite intolerable. The players also wear a lot more padding and equipment than in soccer. To play football without getting killed you should wear a helmet, shoulder pads, wrist tape, a mouth guard, knee braces, thigh pads, a jock strap and shoes with cleats

Some people say that football is better than soccer because football has beautiful cheerleaders. I'll admit it: these women are more attractive than me and better dancers, too. However, if you need to look at beautiful women to distract you from the sport you're supposed to be watching, then I'm sorry, but your sport is boring. (Photo by Keith Allison)
Here's some "cheerleader math" for you: The average cost of a ticket to a professional football game is almost $77, and some are even over $100--and that's the average cost. Parking can cost around $20, hot dogs can cost $6 or $7 a piece, a pop or beer is about $8, and in the end, you may not even see a cheerleader if it's snowing. However, the price of a copyright-free picture of a beautiful cheerleader is exactly $0.00 on the internet. So which is a better deal? (Photo by Keith Allison)

On the other hand, if you want to play soccer you just need some shoes, but even that is probably optional if they get stolen or you forget them on the bus. In soccer, players try to kick a ball into a goal. There are more rules, but that's the main idea of the game. It's pretty simple.

The main idea of football is... well, it's a lot more complicated than almost any sport except cricket, chess, or assembling furniture. I think it's (much) better if I let Burt Reynolds explain it to you:

So, did you get that? Hopefully so. It's cheesy but kind of funny. I really liked this video, mainly because it had Burt Reynolds, but also because of the amazing music and breathtaking fashion trends.

Ugghhh, here we go again: a soccer player fakes an injury to interrupt Sitzman ABC. The clock is still running, but don't get your hopes up: The worst part about soccer injuries (besides the pain the players suffer) is that the referees add extra time on the clock at the end of the game to make up for the lost time treating the injury. (Photo by ecmorgan)

So which is "better": soccer or football? It's very hard to decide. In both sports grown adults run around in the grass for a few hours and get paid more money in an hour than I'll earn in my life. Both sports are really boring unless you are drunk or have a very loose definition of the word "entertainment." Football's advantage is that it has cheerleaders and Burt Reynolds supporting it, but soccer's advantage is that the games end more quickly, giving you more time to do something more interesting and productive than reading a sport. In the end the score is zero to zero, so I'll have to call it a tie!

And that's it for today. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment, either in the comment form below, or by calling Burt Reynolds directly.

Thanks for reading, and have a great night!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

June 10, 2012

May 2012 Pictures of the Day

My brother Paul was visiting last week and stayed here about 10 days, so I've not been blogging much lately. However, I've been taking lots of pictures, and some of the ones near the end of the month have Paul in them. Have a look!

Thanks for reading, and have a good week!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

June 1, 2012

The Fresh Fighter and The Freshmaker

Last Friday I wrote a post on my Sitzman ABC language learning blog that included the Foo Fighters' video for "Big Me." It's a pretty classic 1990s music video that parodies the old Mentos commercials:

It's a great video. I remember when the Foo Fighters formed from the ashes of Nirvana in the mid-1990s, and people complained about them because they didn't sound like Nirvana. But then again, if they had sounded like Nirvana, people would have complained about that, too. I like their music but if you don't, there's probably nothing I can do or say to convince you otherwise.

I also like their videos. There are so many rock bands that take themselves too seriously and don't really worry about making entertaining music videos anymore. And I guess that's fine, since with bands it's supposed to be about the music, not the video. But a cool video can really enhance a good song, and the Foo Fighters have had a long run of videos that are lighthearted, funny, and entertaining.

Apparently this is what happens. (Image)

Now to the Freshmaker. When I was watching the video for "Big Me" and Mentos commercials on YouTube, I noticed in the "related videos" section that there seemed to be a recurring theme of "Mentos + Diet Coke." Apparently, if you put the two together, they explode. Who knew?! I didn't know this was "a thing," but apparently there are even world records for this. Here's a video of 500 people in downtown Cincinnati making "Mentos Geysers," which apparently set the world record at the time:

And here's even one from 9NEWS, my Denver news channel of choice when I still lived in Colorado and had a TV that got some channels. Apparently 200 science teachers got in on the fun for this one:

And it was even explained by two psychopaths with facial hair:

Has anyone out there tried this? Did it work for you? I'd be keen to try it myself, but I don't think they sell Mentos here. Also, I'm assuming Coke Light (what they have here) is the same as Diet Coke, but then again, there may be some difference.

Oh well. Enjoy some Foo Fighters!

Thanks for reading. Stay safe out there!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook