Book Review: The Art of Making Money

July 31, 2009

The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter

the_art_of_making_moneyBy Jason Kersten

Published June 11, 2009

Gotham Books

304 pp.

ISBN 1-592-40446-4

Reviewed July 30, 2009

Over the last few years, there have been a variety of changes made to the style of U.S. currency, and few of them have been rated as aesthetically pleasing. Larger portrait heads, oversized numbers and multicolored inks have all led to criticism and unflattering comparisons to phony money – but the reality is entirely opposite. These new designs incorporate minuscule factors like fine-line printing, color-shifting ink and watermarks, all of which are designed to place the dollar beyond replication.

But the best counterfeiters, an egotistical group by nature, tend to see these developments as a challenge rather than an impasse and master new techniques to create the most accurate copy possible. In “The Art of Making Money,” Jason Kersten tracks the development of one of these schemes, getting into the mind and methods of the counterfeiter who was able to break the most secure bill in decades. Along the way, he manages to pull together a story with some of the most classic literary themes: rags to riches, best intentions laid low and a son desperately trying to live up to an absent father.

The subject of “Making Money” is Art Williams, a product of the slums of Chicago who grew up surrounded by gangs and a troubled family life. Rather than being a drug dealer or stick-up artist however, he had the good fortune to become a pupil of a talented Italian counterfeiter who taught him the science and good sense needed to survive in the field. After a few small-time scams, Williams set his sights on a true challenge – replicating the “New Note” hundred-dollar bill released in 1996 for the purpose of shutting down his profession.

Kersten tracks Williams’ exploits across the United States, from the bunkers in Chicago where he started his printing operation to the wilds of Texas and Alaska where he’d lay low after a bust. He presents his narrative in a very compelling way, showing how Art would sell his merchandise to a variety of Chicago gangsters or liquidate it himself in cross-country mall trips. On the other side, we also see how Art’s broken home life shaped his business decisions, and how more than once his attachment to a deadbeat father pulls him back into a life of crime.

The book originally began in 2005 as an article for Rolling Stone – much of the article is transferred over in fact – and it retains the feel of a magazine feature with heavy emphasis on quotes and narrative. Williams was the key source for the story and is quoted regularly, but Kersten also weaves in interviews with his wife and family and cohorts from his glory days. The reporting style makes the book a relatively quick read, and the narrative’s presentation regularly allows for other sides of the story and how the players were affected.

The glory days do seem to sway Kersten’s attention a bit too much though, and more than once he waxes romantic on Williams’ escapades. He points out a series of near-misses the police had, speculates on the ways things could have gone different for Art and even paints him in a heroic light at one point – giving a good portion of his gains to charity. Williams is a fascinating character, so this can be forgiven – though it’s less easy to forgive the occasional overwrought sentences like this one describing the feel of Williams’ bill: “It was the lovely, husky crack made by the flying whip that drives the world economy – the sound of the Almighty Dollar.”

Thankfully though, he manages to keep these lines to a minimum and balance Art’s stories with some more in-depth research on the counterfeiting details. He walks us through the technical aspects of how a counterfeiting shop worked, the records and routine of the anti-counterfeit agency – the Secret Service – and the details of how the 1996 bill was made more complicated. A lot of these details are very interesting (did you know the Secret Service was originally founded to crack down on counterfeiters, and guarding the President came later?) and he meshes the facts well with Williams’ tireless efforts to beat the security measures with phone book paper and auto paint.

As Kersten portrays it, counterfeiting is a complicated, time-consuming and overall dangerous prospect – and it’s also one that has the potential to give one almost everything they ask for. “Making Money” is an excellently constructed true crime story, assembling every step of Williams’ journey from success to sorrow. For a story about a man who made his living on fakes, it comes across as a very real tale – just be careful not to get so caught up in it you debate photocopying twenty-dollar bills.


Classical Anna: Absalom, Absalom

July 23, 2009

200px-AbsalomAbsalomThere are some sentences one re-reads because they are so beautiful, so delicious, that one wants to experience them again.  Take, for instance, this gorgeous passage from the Japanese classic “Naomi” by Junichiro Tanizaki, in which the narrator describes his beloved’s body: “This back was a landmark of my love. My hands, my fingers, had frolicked joyfully in this chillingly beautiful snow.” What reader wouldn’t love to roll around in pages filled with such sentences?

Unfortunately, there are other sentences one re-reads because they are so obscure, so wandering, that one needs to go over them numerous times to grasp their meaning.  This is the problem with William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom,” a book with such a murky, wordy writing style that the intriguing plot is nearly lost beneath it.

First published in 1936, the book concerns the success and sudden downfall of the Sutpen family in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi during the Civil War.  Faulkner reuses the character of Quentin Compson from “The Sound and the Fury” as a transmitter of this story, as he hears it told layer by layer from those who bore witness to it and attempts to come to some conclusion as to what caused the family tragedy.

Faulkner was a pioneer of experimental, modern fiction, along with James Joyce and Marcel Proust, and because of this a reader nearly expects to find difficulty understanding the action and meaning of his books. The most famous example of this may be Benjy’s section in “The Sound and The Fury,” which is narrated by a mentally challenged person and therefore is a literal, child-like, disorganized stream-of-conscious. This part is challenging and requires piecing together on the part of readers, but when they succeed in comprehending the narration it is a rewarding moment, as it allows them to see the story in through a unique mind.

“Absalom, Absalom” was also considered experimental, as it is non-linear and, like “The Sound and The Fury,” pieces together a story through several points of view.  However, the prose style, instead of seeming cutting-edge and electric, is cumbersome, heavy-handed, and repetitive, reminding one more of a 19th century novel instead of a modern American one:

…she was even more inaccessible to the grandfather of whom she had seen but little during her life and probably cared less anyway – that state where, though still visible, young girls appear as though seen through glass and where even the voice cannot reach them; where they exist (this the hoyden who could – and did, outrun and outclimb, and ride and fight both with and beside her brother) in a pearly lambence without shadows and themselves partaking of it; in nebulous suspension held, strange and unpredictable, even their very shapes fluid and delicate and without substance…

An entire book of sentences like this is irritating, even more so because every character talks in this same style, whether they are an old maid with little education, a southern gentleman, or a northern college student, which makes them indistinguishable from one another.

It is unfortunate that the plot is obscured beneath all this flourishing prose, because it is a Southern-Gothic tale about a doomed family and such tales in the hands of writers like Tennessee Williams are often intriguing.  However, Faulkner does not reveal the truly riveting plot details until the end of the book, and this makes much of the novel feel like a lot of fuss about nothing, merely the story of a slightly dysfunctional family.

“Absalom, Absalom” is considered one of the greatest American novels, but much of what made it so powerful and cutting-edge has since worn off: the book is structured upon the once-experimental methods of non-linear plot and unreliable narration, and because today’s readers are adept in navigating such techniques, the edginess of the book has worn off. For many readers, it may not only fail to live up to its status, but instead prove to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


CSS Troubleshooting

With the introduction of the new Themes in WordPress v1.5, boring and commonplace website layouts have become a thing of the past. With a few clicks, you can change your layout instantly. With a few more clicks and tweaks, you can screw up your layout instantly as well. Welcome to the exciting world of web page design.

When you encounter a screw-up in your layout, many people come running to the WordPress Forums. While the willing volunteers can do what they can to help you, there are some steps you can take to get to the solution, or at least a better idea of where the problem may lie, before you get to the Forums.

Know Before You Go
We have a list of things you need to know before you go to the forums with layout design problems, and tips on solving the problems yourself.
Examine Your HTML and CSS
Take a close comparative look at your HTML and CSS and make sure that all the references match.
Isolate Your CSS Challenges
Below we’ll show you a couple of techniques to help identify the areas that are causing your problems in an effort to narrow down the problem to a specific area and code.
Common CSS Errors
You are not the first to have this problem. We have a list of some of the most common CSS errors to help you fix the little details that can mess up your layout.
Pest Control – Watching Out For Browser Bugs
While we will help you identify some of your CSS challenges, a lot of them come from bugs and conflicts between browsers, so we’ll give you some tips on how to work around the various browser bugs.

It is the goal of this article to help you solve your layout design problems within the CSS file, not within the HTML or PHP files. For help on modifying those, check out Using Themes for more information.





Before beginning any of these problem-solving tips and techniques, be sure and backup your data just in case. Also, backup the files you are working on as you try different things so you have some places to go back along the way.

You can do “live” CSS testing without editing your WordPress files

If you have the means, it is much quicker and safer to do your CSS testing and troubleshooting “on the fly” using (e.g.) Jesse Ruderman’s Edit Styles bookmarklet or the Edit CSS extension for Firefox. When you’re done making changes, copy your new (edited) code into the appropriate WordPress theme files (after you back them up).

The Web Developer extension for Firefox can help too.

Know Before You Go

If you are new to CSS and web page design, start with a visit to WordPress’ CSS Tips, Techniques and Resources to find information on the basics of CSS and possibly answer some of your questions. At the least, you will get a basic overview of what CSS is, the impact it has on the HTML or structure of your page, and learn some jargon to help you ask a more informed question on the forums.

You will also need to know some basic terminology to help you express your problem to others. This isn’t a how-to-CSS guide but more of a “what is thingamahjig called” guide.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are bits of code that influence the presentation or the look of your page’s HTML code. In WordPress, the CSS styles are generally found in a file called style.css in the specific Theme folder you are using. The HTML code and CSS references that hold the structure of your page are generally found in the index.php file in your Theme folder.

The PHP files are found within your Theme folder and contain the code and references which generate your HTML page. It is here, in the final run, that you may make changes to the specific CSS selector tags, not your HTML page. For help on modifying those, check out Using Themes for more information.

CSS selectors (names) are generally grouped into three specific references: The ID, CLASS, and HTML tags.

The ID

The ID is a reference to a specific unique area on your web page. It is generally seen represented on your HTML web page as an enclosed DIV (division) block:

<div id="header">Title of the Page</div>
In the style sheet (CSS) the ID selector is referenced as #header and might look like this:
#header { position: relative; margin:0; padding:0;
	height:100px; width: 100%; background: red;
	color: white;}


The CLASS is a reference to any element on a page that needs to look a specific way when this reference is used. For example, if you frequently want to highlight a word or two within your text (we’ll use red as a highlight color in this instance), you might have a CLASS selector in your style sheet like this:

.hilite { color: red}
and the reference in your HTML might look like this:
...this is some text about something
I want <span class="hilite">in red</span>. And 
some more rambling here...
As you can see, the difference between ID and CLASS selectors in the style sheet is that an ID uses a pound sign (#name) and a CLASS uses a period (.name). ID references must be unique on a page and used once. CLASS references can be used repeatedly in the same page.


If you want to “design” a specific HTML tag reference, such as a blockquote, the code within the web page may look like this:

<blockquote>This is a pithy and brilliant quote 
that I knew you would enjoy.</blockquote>
In the style sheet, the reference to the blockquote would not have a # or period but would just simply list the HTML and then the design elements. This example indents the quote on both sides and puts a blue line on the left side of the quote and makes the text italic.

Column: The Orwell/Kindle Fiasco

July 23, 2009

“Not even the ash remains” on screens: Kindle reveals its darker side

By Les Chappell

The Lesser of Two Equals

kindle2In the dystopian classic “1984,” the main character Winston Smith works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to aid in the alteration and destruction of documents so that history can never show the government as anything but infallible. Cubicles are set with small openings called “memory holes,” where the original documents are sucked out of sight into a furnace where “not even the ash remains.” The overall effect Orwell hit readers with was one of total control, where he who controls the records of history controls history itself.

As such, there were some darkly ironic overtones that came about last week with the annoucement that Amazon had remotely deleted electronic copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm” off of users’ Kindle reading devices. Bloggers of course dove onto the metaphor, with titles such as “Some E-books are More Equal Than Others” and speculation on whether or not “Fahrenheit 451” would wind up being the next casualty (most likely because they want to use the headline “The Temperature at Which the Kindle Burns” – though they can’t as I’m reserving the copyright).

Amazon was of course quick to realize the PR nightmare this generated, and a spokesperson quickly issued a statement that the deletion came about as a result of the copies being illegally added by “a third-party who did not have the rights to the books.” They also refunded the money to anyone who had purchased one of the titles, and made sure to emphasize that they will not do this in the future (sort of).

Now, I don’t own a Kindle myself (chiefly because Amazon always ignores my requests to be comped one for purposes of reviewing its technology) so I can’t comment too heavily on what inconvenience this causes users. I’m also tempted to give Amazon a bit of benefit of the doubt here, as copyright lawsuits tend to be problematic and they did at least have the good sense to refund their customers. What this little flap has done however, is bring a little noticed factor about e-books into the public eye.

As I said many moons ago in my column on e-books, the biggest issue I have with them is the lack of physical connection they provide the reader. I take a rather totemic perspective on my books, and have no small amount of pride that for every title on the shelf I can name the history of where I got the book and (typically) the circumstances of my first read-through. A book is supposed to be valued, both for the content and the memories.

But what this ruckus has done is bring an even scarier another issue into focus: the elimination of permanency it implies. When a book is a physical item it has to be destroyed physically, burned or shredded or blasted into pieces with a revolver (if you take the route Dr. Thompson did when autographing the books of his visitors). An e-book on the Kindle, on the other hand, could disappear with one push of a button, leaving the sense that your collection isn’t really yours – some sort of electronic library that doesn’t bother to tell you when it may be overdue.

And what happens if the Kindle takes over completely? I have a horrible imagery of the next generation’s book burnings being even more brutally efficient than the Nazis, adopting the form of a particularly clever program that fries the titles off your Kindle, removing the ability to reacquire it with a HAL-like voice entering in to say “This title can serve no purpose any longer. Goodbye.” Or perhaps some devious hacker, evoking “V for Vendetta” and releasing a virus with the tagline: “Your pretty little book took so long to write, and now, with a snap of a Trojan’s fingers, down it goes.”

But perhaps I’m going a bit overboard here, and the issue doesn’t really forebode planting a memory hole into every last Kindle. Printed books aren’t going anywhere despite what the naysayers say, a lot of people read e-books on non-Kindle formats and the backlash should be enough to chastise Amazon into doing this again. Perhaps this discovery will even allow society to ward off my fatalistic visions, and help secure the titles already into the virtual marketplace.

All I know is, the saga hasn’t made me any more eager to start saving up for a Kindle – at least until I brush up on my Newspeak.

Les Chappell is not exaggerating when he says he can come up with the history for every one of his books. He suggests you not encourage him on this, but if you feel so inclined to hear him ramble he can be contacted at

Link of Literacy: Awful Library Books

July 21, 2009

The most prevalent trait I’ve noticed about the older used bookstores – beyond the fact that I think I want to be buried under one if my time comes before I can be uploaded into a HAL 9000-like consciousness – is that they’re usually full of books that no sane person would likely have an interest in reading. You know the ones I’m talking about – the torn dust jackets, yellowed pages, cover designs that are nauseatingly old-fashioned with retro fonts. These are the books that you marvel ever got published, and which exist more as historical curiosities than actual literature.

And for the past few months, these books have been cataloged online throught the efforts of Awful Library Books. Started in April by Michigan librarians Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner, the site lists the older titles that public libraries still have in stock and which likely haven’t been checked out since the Ford administration.

This is a great site for two reasons. First of all, the breadth of titles they come up with are hilariously out of date, and in some cases shockingly un-PC. They evoke some sort of Brady Bunch-esque idealized view of their readers, and I’m sure if you were to open them up the language would be equally outdated. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example of some titles:

dealwithparents1 starpower

those-amazing-leeches craftsforretarded

Don’t exactly look like the titles that’ll fly off the shelves, do they?

And that leads me to my other observation on this site – the books covered are silly and clearly for a past generation, but there’s something to be said for their nostalgia/camp factor. At some point, someone not only thought that producing these books was a good idea, but there was an audience of people who bought the titles and discussed them in the same context I and other critics discuss books. It makes me wonder how twenty years from now some of the glossy political books or mass-market paperbacks will be viewed by the enlightened next-generation Kindlebots.

It’s important to appreciate one’s literary past, no matter how strange, and ALB is a site that has that quality to spare. In their posts, Kelly and Hibner both are clearly very fond of their research material, and their judgment on culling the books from shelves is tempered with their gentle mocking of the subject matter. They’re not as cynical as I’d likely be, but in our world of shrinking literacy a little affection is a welcome quality.

So, I encourage all of you with a fondness for absurd titles – check this site out, and if you happen to have a particular title on the shelf send it their way at

Back Shelf Review: The Year of Living Biblically

July 21, 2009

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

year-of-living-biblically_coverBy A.J. Jacobs

Published October 1, 2007

Simon and Schuster

392 pp.

ISBN 0-743-291476

Reviewed July 20, 2009

While the concept of gonzo journalism is most regularly associated with excessive drug use and acts of mayhem while reporting, the founding ideas are a bit more serious. Hunter S. Thompson defined his creation as the pinnacle of engagement, comparable to “a film director who writes his own script, does his own camera work and somehow manages to film himself in action.” The driving principal is that in this deep level of engagement, the author cannot remove himself from the story and as such greater depth can be attained than through straight reporting.

From this technical perspective, it’s easy to consider A.J. Jacobs as some form of gonzo practitioner. Jacobs’ writing career regularly involves chronicling a series of social experiments he subjects himself to, ranging from outsourcing his daily life to India to striving for honesty in all cases to studying every last piece of information in an encyclopedia. Not content with these lengths though, he moved from the collected knowledge of man to the collected knowledge of God in his book “The Year of Living Biblically” – and the journey proves to be entertaining and surprisingly poignant.

The book’s title summarizes its intent perfectly: for one year, Jacobs strove to follow the Bible to the letter, ranging from its most basic commandments to the most obscure proverbs. Visibly, this meant donning all-white single-fiber garments and growing a beard resembling the brush outside a haunted house; and behaviorally it meant regular prayer, never lying and giving away 10 percent of his salary. He presents his findings in a journal format, tackling a new issue each day and recording his results.

Of course, the issue with following these rules is that many of them aren’t truly applicable in modern life, and therein lies the real humor of “Living Biblically.” Not eating fruit unless the tree is five years old, not wearing any garments that have more than one fiber, not touching any woman for a week after her period (his wife Julie is not amused) – Jacobs tries to keep to all of these and more, often going to great lengths and annoying those around him. He never betrays any frustration at the limitations, only an increasing curiosity at their origins and how he can work them into his daily life.

The real problem – from his perspective at least – comes up in the variety of instances where the Bible seems to contradict itself, especially when moving from Old to New Testament.  A key instance comes in what should be one of the simplest rules, the Sabbath: “A friend of mine once told me that even observing the Sabbath might be breaking the Sabbath, since my job is to follow the Bible. That gave me a two-hour headache.” Jacobs come across as neurotic and yet likable, determined to find an answer no matter what crazy direction it takes him.

Jacobs doesn’t try to work these issues out alone, consulting with a wide variety of scholars and professors to seek interpretations of the Bible and interpretations of those interpretations. He runs the gamut from a sect of snake handlers to openly gay Christian fundamentalists, and even makes a pilgrimage to Israel where he herds sheep and speaks with his “spiritual omnivore” guru Uncle Gil. As with the proverbs he judges none of them beforehand, but simply admires and comments on the strength of their faith.

His neutrality is helped by his own lack of religious background – raised in a secular family and a self-defined agnostic – but as the year goes on he finds that immersion in faith is starting to rub off on him, creating an alter ego dubbed Jacob. Jacob scolds him for paying attention to Rosario Dawson’s sex life, puts olive oil in his hair and pays attention to every little moral choice made during the day. With every prayer or simple “God willing” he inserts into conversation, it’s clear as the book goes on that his journey has changed him, not dramatically but in very subtle ways of thought and appreciation.

At one point in the book, as Jacobs begins to show some frustration at why the Bible can be so contradictory or hard to understand, one of his spiritual advisers offers him a key piece of wisdom: “Life is a jigsaw puzzle. The joy and challenge of life – and the Bible – is figuring things out.” In many ways, “Living Biblically” is defined by this wisdom – a book that confronts hundreds of challenges, and winds up being a joy for the sheer fact that the journey is being undertaken.

Death of a Writer Notice: Frank McCourt

July 20, 2009


The New York Times announced on Sunday that author Frank McCourt passed away at the age of 78 from metastatic melanoma. A long time writing teacher in New York City, McCourt was best known amongst literary circles for his 1996 memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” a tale of his difficult Irish and Brooklyn childhood that won several awards and was adapted to film in 1999.

“I must congratulate myself, in passing, for never having lost the ability to examine my conscience, never having lost the gift of finding myself wanting & defective. Why fear the criticism of others when you, yourself, are first out of the critical gate? If self-denigration is the race I am the winner, even before the starting gun. Collect the bets.” – Frank McCourt

Poetry Review: Sudden Anthem

July 16, 2009

Sudden Anthem

Sudden AnthemBy Matthew Guenette

Published February 8, 2008

Dream Horse Press

84 pp.

ISBN 0-977-71824-7

Reviewed July 16, 2009

On my summer reading list, I labeled Matthew Guenette as, “The Hometown Hero” because, unbeknownst to me, he has been teaching at the technical college in Madison for a few years now and Sudden Anthem, was released shortly before I graduated from the UW. Since most people living in the Midwest tend to be friendly and laid-back, I imagine I could’ve managed to chat with him or get a signed copy of his book for less than I paid to have it shipped to Asia from some faceless, worn warehouse in Indiana.

My point is: Poets. You are shopping next to them at the farmer’s market.

“Sudden Anthem” is the product of a seven year labor, which I think ends up suiting the book well. Guenette is still a really young poet, but his first book is evidence that he’s already spent a lot of time experimenting with his style. Like photographers, poets can create a lot of pictures of the same thing or the same place in their work, trying to get the perfectly worded money shot. But this book has obviously moved with Guenette, seen a lot of different landscapes and taken on a lot of different jobs. In his biography, Guenette mentions that he’s been a busboy, a landscaper, and a salesclerk. It mentions a childhood in New Hampshire, several stops in and around the Midwest.

Instead of posed shots and still scenes, the book offers up a disorganized scrapebook of gas stations, malls, and contorted self-portraits. In the “Seven Prepositons of a Bus Boy”, the split narrator states, “The Ghost of Me/It already exists…My ghost should have serious questions for me/like, who do you think you are? Or, what the fuck?”

Guenette, however, doesn’t resist this chaos and seems willing to promote range as a strength. The first half of the book is written in a more straightforward style while the second half toys with form, drawing you further into Guenette’s clever imagination. What keeps it all together is the consistent tightness of his language, which has punch that hovers between joking and real. “The evening/ divides (in two) couplets./ Sizzle steak. Wasp’s sting,” the poem “Problems of Transcendence” quips. Figures from popular culture and the academic world drink in the same bar, and Guenette’s narrator, like much of the world, seems confused as to who to look to, who to take seriously, or at least, unable to look away. He writes in the poem, “The Hush of Something Endless,” “But a stone-rhined Dolly Parton/kept bring more and more bottles of wine./Pretty soon I was terrifically drunk,/tripping from room to room like one/of Faulkner’s minor fools telling ridiculous/ lies to anyone who would listen.”

While reading this book, I immediately thought of how well it answers to a quote by David Foster Wallace I furiously underlined in his introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays,

“Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.”

We receive a million hits of all kind of information and images every day. We, ourselves, are more popular than any video on YouTube. It’s the reality, as we all know by now, of the modern world. And Guenette, unlike many writers, doesn’t seem fearful of it. He’s critical of it, certainly. In “Problems of Transcendence,” he writes, “And look how helpless we are; that’s one message/Another one is huh? and what?” But he also pushes forward, and that’s what makes his poetic voice sane. “We know the dream is other dreams smashed/to fragments but sometimes the fragments/fight back,” he writes in the poem “Arkein.” Guenette’s voice is smart and witty, almost nimble enough to seem one step ahead and laughing at all of us. But there is still a sense of intimacy there, and poignancy, rooted in a willingness to embrace the near-infinity of experiences available in the world.