At this time of year, with all of the holidays and my editor placing early deadline pressure on me, I like to share how I spend many of the 166 hours each week when I'm not writing my column. (OK, sometimes, it's 167.)
One time, a guy e-mailed me and said, "I read your crap, and I was really bored, so I (illegally) downloaded one of the CDs you mentioned, and it didn't suck."
High praise, Sir. High praise, indeed.
Here's how I frittered away 2008:
FAVORITE BOOKS: It was an OK year for books. I really liked American Lightning by Howard Blum. It's the story of how labor extremists bombed the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, killing 21 people. Hired to defend them was notorious jury-tamperer Clarence Darrow, who had successfully defended national labor leader "Big Bill" Haywood in the bombing assassination of former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg.
The owner of the Times was conspiring with other big-money types to buy up the then-arid San Fernando Valley for pennies, and then steal the water from the Owens River Valley to irrigate it. I've always wondered whether one has to be crooked to do something big in America, or does doing something big make one crooked?
I liked James M. McPherson's Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, the painstakingly researched book about Lincoln's frustrating search for a general who would take the fight to the Confederates. After reading this book, I came away with a worse impression of General McClellan than I have of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney combined.
My gee-whiz! book this year was The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved by Mario Livio. It's about a centuries-long effort to solve the equation of symmetry. It was eventually worked out by a young, political French student named Evariste Galois, but when he submitted it for review, none of the professor/reviewers was smart enough to understand it. He died at age 21 in a duel over a woman. Those of you who are really smart: Be glad you're not a genius. It doesn't go well for many of those people.
Oh yeah, one last thing: I got the International Mathematical Olympiads 1978-1985. It spotlights these math competitions where they have the toughest questions in the world. Somebody gave me the first book (1959-1977), and it darned near killed me. So I got the second one to show math who's the boss. So far, math is in the executive suite, and I'm cleaning toilets, but I'm working my way up the ladder.
Here's the easiest question in the two books: Find all sets of four real numbers w, x, y, and z such that the sum of any one and the product of the other three is 2. (Hint: There are two sets of correct answers.) If you want the answers, e-mail me.
FAVORITE MOVIE: It keeps on getting worse and worse every year, folks. I'm talking about my aversion to overpriced and undersupervised movie theaters. My hermit-ness. Hermitage (no, that's something else). Hermit-iosity, I guess.
I saw exactly three movies this year at the theater. Two of them were not nearly as funny as they should have been, and one, Iron Man, exceeded all of my expectations. I really, really liked that movie. Robert Downey Jr. was great in it.
FAVORITE MUSIC: Kind of a lean year. I really liked Raphael Saadiq's The Way I See It, his collection of newly written but spot-on '60s soul that has several great songs, including "Never Give You Up" (with Stevie Wonder). Saadiq walks a very tricky line between homage and mimicry (he sounds like Curtis Mayfield on one song and Eddie Kendricks on another), but his voice is real, and the music is pure. A treat.
Speaking of British soul singers, I also liked Duffy's debut, Rockferry. It became an instant cliché to refer to her as Amy Winehouse without all the attendant disasters. Winehouse's voice is of the tortured blues/jazz variety, while Duffy recalls the patron saint of all British soul singers, Dusty Springfield.
FAVORITE TV SHOWS: With no 24 (except for that TV movie) or Rescue Me (except for those hilarious mini-sodes during the summer), I guess I'll have to go with The Shield, which ended its seven-year run with an episode that was so much better than the finale of The Sopranos. Central character Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), who, in the show's first-ever episode back in 2002, shot and killed an undercover cop to keep Mackey's many line-crossings from being uncovered, finally got his comeuppance. Sorta.
As for sitcoms, I love The Big Bang Theory and The Office, but my favorite is 30 Rock. Alec Baldwin has incredible comedic timing, and Tina Fey is an absolute genius. In a recent episode, her Liz Lemon character was on a jet that she thought might crash, so she tried to get some things off her chest, blurting out, "I once laughed at a blind man trying to eat spaghetti!"
You don't know how much I wish I had written that line.