Thursday, November 29, 2001

I e-mailed my encouragement to Lance Harke, the Miami attorney going after America Online on behalf of customers swamped by long distance phone bills after a free trial offer. I asked him if he used AOL. He wrote: "I do not use AOL but can understand why some do." And lest you think lawyers are a slithery breed, he signed it, "Have a wonderful holiday season."

Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Who will write suburban history, and how? I was walking, lost, through a far West Chicago suburb last night. The place, the aura of it, the quietness of it, not only lacks the city's noise and density, but its sense of place, its sense of past. Walk down State Street, Halsted, Washington in downtown Chicago, and history swipes you over the head. All the settlers and wokers, politicians and professionals and poor who have shared those streets over the years. And the history is well-documented, or at least within reach of a researcher. But how to write about a place that exists for its lack of past, its newness, its remoteness from everything, which looks exactly like any other suburb across the nation? Covering the city this semester I've learned some of the stories behind buildings, what they used to be and who used to live and work in them. And I've learned why Chicago is distinct from other places. But in the burbs, there is no history, no distinctiveness, no So-and-so Slept Here, no ghosts walking the streets. And with its cookie cutter architecture and temporary feel, none likely will ever walk, no buildings are likely to stand for decades and be re-used more readily than wiped out. I am interested in Unexpected Chicagoland, but beyond that, I wonder how history will change when its subject has no soul.
Haven't made it through the whole thing yet, and not fully sure what to make of it, but this Washington Monthly piece is worth reading:
One of the wisest religious writers I know is Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary. Here's a provocative column for Beliefnet on being an evangelical Christian and fasting for Ramadan:
An original take on Harry Potter from a Catholic discussion forum: It's not the witches; it's the secularism.
Numbers: 757: Millions of dollars given to charitable relief organizations in the three weeks after September 11, although it's a little hasty to see this as an uprooting of America's deeply planted consumption values, as the Boston Globe says. Again, see Anna Quindlen.
Print and memorize Anna Quindlen's latest column in Newsweek. What a weird country with weird values:

Peggy Noonan has a book out about character with Ronald Reagan, habitual truth-twister and anything but a family man, incongruously on the front. I don't expect her to report that Jimmy Carter was the most sincere Christian and best human being to occupy the White House in the last 100 years, which he was, even if he was a poor politician. Book Magazine is better:

Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Provoked is not the same as justified. The right casts anyone who asks tough questions of our country as blame-America and un-patriotic, but there should be room for sound discussion like this from E.J. Dionne:

Conspiracy theories surround the Jordan comeback in the Washington City Paper:

Monday, November 26, 2001

Especially lucid column from the typically sensible Molly Ivins about Aghanistan. Why is it so hard for everyone else to make so much sense? Excerpts:

"In the first place, there's not much there to hit, and in the second place, we are up against the dismal fact that the bombing campaign could well cause the starvation of literally millions of Afghans who never did anything to us."

"The Northern Alliance is not the good guys; they're just a different set of bad guys."

No, bloodlusting right, that's not communist or pacifist, that's just common sense.
And speaking of Harry Potter, isn't Santa Claus and the commercial notion of "Christmas magic" a far more offensive affront to Christ?
Interesting column by wise religion writer Terry Mattingly on the bizarre culture wars over Harry Potter's supposed sorcery. Love the closing quote.
Monsters, Inc. is a silly, fun, clever, good light movie. But because it's Disney, I just can't sit still about its moral framework. Typical Disney formula: unassailably good-hearted protagonist, hapless wise-cracking sidekick, damsels in distress, crystal clear face of evil, valiant rescue and triumph. In this case the moral simplicity is almost laughable: Ooh, the big bad slithering monster with the raspy voice and forked tongue is going to turn his evil machine on the cherubic baby girl! It's up to our good-hearted strong hero to come to the rescue. That's just not interesting. That's 0% creative, 0% subtle, 0% provocative. And so, morality-wise, it's not quality art. It's a Happy Meal construction.

You may say it's Disney so it's harmless, but this consistent theology -- we are basically good, threatened by a definite face of evil, and a valiant, righteous struggle is needed -- flies in the face of Christian theology, which says we are all sinners born into a broken world, and good and evil collide in all sorts of confusing ways. Accepting the first outlook, it's easy to see how George W. gets such a kick out of making us sound so righteous in our "way of life" as we battle a definite face of evil, Osama bin Laden. But in adopting the more subtle and sensible second outlook, we are more open to peer within our own souls and look for our own wrongs, and not to get too triumphant or simplistic in a confusing world.

To reiterate: Monsters, Inc is a quality see. Just don't get too tickled by its two-penny theology.

Speaking of lazy moral outlooks, I saw on the El this morning an ad for On The Line, the celebrity construction involving some N'Sync guy, set in Chicago, and it reminded me of Roger Ebert's review. He pointed out how romantic comedies always involve how two lovers will get together against the odds, and all the zany circumstances that keep them apart before an aw-shucks tacked-on ending. What's missing, he says, is any portrayal, exploration, development of the actual relationship. There's no Then What?

Is it any wonder that a culture so mesmerized with the thrill of the "catch," the initial thrill, the early sexual consummation, struggles so much with marriage?

Monsters, Inc. reviews:
Speaking of Thanksgiving, how about them Lions? What an entertaining terrible team. Many Detroiters want them to go 0-16. My thing is, with all the awful Bengals and Buccaneer teams of recent years, who were unmitigatingly and unentertainingly terrible, it would be a bit of a shame for an interesting team that is so close to being, say, 3-7 or 4-6, to go down as the worst ever. It wouldn't be a useful reflection of what their season was really like. But here's Mitch Albom's take:
Had a wonderful Thanksgiving, one of peace and quiet and reflection and family. Stark contrast to my country, which values shopping ahead of human relationships and contemplation. The orgy of consumption that is the Day After Thanksgiving is as incongruous a follow-up to a day set aside for gratitude as Mardi Gras would be if it followed Ash Wednesday. What a crazy country with wacky values. Speaking of which, a quality debate about the wise and refreshing Buy Nothing Day campaign at the Adbuster's website:

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Pseudo-personalization is the by-product of big companies getting bigger and technology getting stupider. We are greeted by automated recordings and automated-sounding people, devising the illusion of intimacy, when in it is only artifice. This morning in Starbucks I was startled when the cashier asked me my name after taking my order. Subsequently she, and the worker down the counter at a coffee machine, bellowed, filling the small corner shop: "Tall mocha for Nathan!"

It wasn't necessary and it wasn't endearing; it was unsettling, like bank teller blaring your balance to the people waiting. There should be laws on how technologies and services can use first names. The other night I got to Jewel after midnight. My receipt faithfully introduced my cashier: "Hello I'm OVERNIGHT." My roommate got a better one from the alchohol section: "Hello I'm LIQUOR."
Peter Jennings, reflecting on Gary Condit through 9-11 goggles: "With the media, it's like getting a bite and you can't stop scratching it. It's sick in some way."

Bookmark for Web watchers:
Not-so-identical Twin Cities - Minn. Star-Tribune:
Provocative piece by Jon Caroll in the San Fransisco Chronicle about "anthrax nostalgia" and other public health problems:
Tonight, Jennifer Lopez shakes her sedan-sized rear end and sings poorly in an NBC special to honor the victims of Sept. 11. No,'s hard to keep up with what's supposed to be commemorating the tragedy these days and what isn't. Everything in American life now seems to be implicitly dedicated to remembering Sept. 11, even if it's cheesy. Or laughably meager: I was in the Starbucks on Division and Dearborn this morning and saw a little clear plastic box on the counter, maybe six inches cubed, labeled "September 11th Fund." It had, like, three dollar bills and some loose change in it. Billions of dollars in damage in the world's financial center, thousands of families affected, and Starbucks is going to try for a meaningful gesture with a piggy bank?

This just in: J-Lo will break for a monologue on geopolitical shifts in the twenty-first century halfway through her special tonight.
No, they don't hope for "the perfect storm," though portrayed otherwise on the movie. Weathercasting in Boston:
Pretty sad how the Washington Times artlessly distorted a recent Clinton speech. Why does anyone trust the propaganda-pumping WT anyway?
For someone who takes the El every morning, it's all too easy to nod knowingly and condescendingly when reading that Chicago's auto commute is worse than Los Angeles':
Where has this site been all my life? Now the Web keeps me on time with
Resource for fellow exactness-obsessives everywhere.

Thursday, November 15, 2001

One possible bin Laden capture scenario is a Taliban leader succumbing to the lure of the U.S.' $25 million reward. Is everyone OK with funding these tyrants? Theoretically, couldn't anyone take over a weak nation, harbor an internationally-feared terrorist, wait for a rich country to put up the reward, and then turn him in for a solid profit? Some would see that as sound investing.
Another question that's bugging me: The right is blasting those who question U.S. policy in the Middle East for being blame-America. But think of it this way: If I intentionally stomp on your toe and you shoot my brother, you are evil and I will justifiably take revenge. But I was still a moron for stomping on your toe. And it would be odd of me to talk about a subsequent confrontation between us as "good versus evil" and a valiant struggle to protect my "way of life." Your awful evil doesn't make me really darn good. I'm still subject to answer for my earlier actions, and to say that is different than blaming me for the shooting.
Charleston, S.C. cleans up, envies the Big Easy
ABC execs try to expose NBC News for the cheesy, fluff-puffed, pseudo-drama operation it sadly is. Tough to do when your morning host is the maudlin Dianne Sawyer. Philly Inquirer TV column:
You call it patriotism, I call it groupthink. The truth is in the middle ground, I guess. Mitch Albom highlights the tensions quite well in a column called "Patriotism is No Excuse for Stupidity."
One of the biggest challenges of the digital age is forming any sense of digital history. What sort of permanent record can be left behind in an age of bytes, when texts are not physical objects but rather unseen bits that can be deleted at the press of a button? A good attempt to assemble a library of old Web pages is at Interesting to see famous Web sites in their infancy: Yahoo,, New York Times, and ESPN SportsZone. Search at:
It's official: local TV news is a farce. The Project for Excellence in Journalism finds this hype industry exaggerates crime, sells out to advertisers, and is thinned out by budget cuts and over-airing (stations fill the air with "news" because it's cheaper than buying syndicated programming). We had a hunch about this, but it's depressing to see the numbers PEJ put together. For example, one of four stories in local news is about crime.

Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Do you think in words? Are feelings thoughts? Are thoughts just chemical-electrical impulses bouncing around in the cerebrum like a pinball machine? Or are they somehow more spiritual, more visceral? The question was put to me today and I wasn't sure what to do with it. I guess I don't think in words; that's why writing is so hard--matching verbal symbols to the thought process isn't easy. I see an object or remember and experience and I have an emotional burst within. Often segmented words or phrases will leap up as a part of this, but they're more like chocolate chips in batter. The base is a texture of pleasure or anger, nostalgia or hope. No, thinking isn't just about words. That's why writing can be so satisfying--it's good to pull thoughts out of the oven and see how they turned out.
VCR's still outnumber DVD players more than 4 to 1 in American homes, but sales of DVD's are catching up to video tapes:

Our national epidemic: children of a consumer culture ingesting too much sugar, fat, and entertainment. The results aren't pretty, says the Arkansas Times:
So much for the liberal media. They really distorted an albeit confusing story about the Florida election recount and vindicated Bush when in fact, the winner, and the correct re-counting method, is really a toss-up. The conservative dinosaur Chicago Tribune surprisingly was most frank about the sketchy results, as Jack Shafer writes in Slate:
Trib story:
I'll be using for most of my links. To read NY Times articles, enter "nbiermaread" for both user name and password.
Dizzying world events, mixed emotions. A plane crashes in New York, one of the worst accidents in recent years. And we seemed relieved that it was an accident; we're so fatigued from agonizng over hijackers crashing into buildings that this fails to fully seize us with natural shock and grief. Meanwhile, Kabul falls. We're supposed to cheer, to be glad that the Taliban is disintegrating, that rebuilding can begin. And I am glad. I'm also confused, as is the government, over whether the Northern Alliance really are good guys or only slightly less evil, and whether we're ready to build a stable coalition. Maureen Dowd touches on this pretty well in today's NYTimes.
There's also a part of me that doesn't want us to get too excited about war and how well it works. The more war is made-for-TV, with rapid action and easy heroes, as with the Gulf War and (less so) now with Afghanistan, the less we are apt to hear the cries of the suffering civilians and to be self-critical in this and other situations. That was the only good part about Vietnam and America's response to it. It's been mostly lost in a flurry of patriotism of late. And oh by the way, anyone seen Osama bin Laden lately? He's still alive and well, and if he's not, how will we ever know?

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin visits from Russia, and seems to have an awful lot of leverage with the leader of the free world for an average politician in charge of a limping country. Should be interesting to hear NPR's interview and call-in session with him tonight:
Dizzying world events, mixed emotions.
Yup, I'm going blog. I've long dreaded doing this, dreaded joining the ranks, as I saw it, of the get-a-lifers who paste the most minute details and random emotions to the Web, wasting screen and storage space. ("Fed the dog at 8 this morning," "I'm in a really pissy mood. The end.") I also hate links without context or analysis, which blogs are full of. But regularly reorganizing and FTP-ing gets time-consuming and I can only do it at home, after a long day of looking at a computer screen at work. This way I can add something in a rare idle moment at work, or just after I get off the subway while it's still fresh on my mind. I'll try to make it worth reading and the links worth clicking, and not just to a niche audience, as with many blogs. I'll shoot for substance and analysis, of which there's way too little on the Web. We'll see how it goes. E-mail me and keep an occasional eye on