Monday, September 30, 2002

Number of the Day: 32:
College-age men, out of every 100,000 who committed suicide in 1980, up from 10 in 1950. The rate for college-age women nearly doubled from 4 to 7 per 100,000 in the same span.
Previous Number
Audrey Peterman, whom I quoted in my national parks story last week, e-mails this response to the NPS quotes in my story:

Is it my imagination, or do some of the statements by NPS leadership sound incredibly condescending? Once again the ethnic groups are positioned competitively against each in, if some have caught on, why haven't others? the tone suggests that people of color, black people, urban people, should be confined to urban parks and should not expect or be expected to be in the
Crown Jewels. this is not the first time I'm hearing this rhetoric, but the first time i'm hearing it from this high level. To show you how much THE WELCOME MAT IS NOT OUT in the park system, my company had a small contract with the South Florida National Parks to do outreach...generated multiple stories in the Herald and ethnic press, 7-minute NBC segment, took lots of journalists to the parks etc, and the Superintendents have so much interest in encouraging diversity that they eliminated it the first chance they got..and i'm talking $40K!! Then everyone sits around and moans about how hard it is to attract...etc etc. WHERE IS THE
EFFORT?!! I'll write a letter to the editor by Monday making those points..

Previous Tribune stories
Tempo does a nice job deconstructing the latest Jesse Jackson flap. The two most common mistakes made around these situations: If you think something dumb was said, don't dignify it by giving it such political potency--let dumb be dumb (and let the characters in the movie call it dumb, as they do). Second, is curtailing the dumb more important than allowing freedom of speech?,0,2552401.story
Money&Culture In college I worked at an airport restaurant, and I was worried about the industry's fate after the reduced travel and security restrictions of the past year (particularly food joints located past security gates, where non-passengers can no longer go). But the Tribune reports airport food and beverage sales are actually up 14.4 percent the first 8 months of this year from the same period last year:
Previous M&C
Places&Culture from NY Times Magazine:
MoscowRichard Lourie wonders what to do with irony in Moscow: I noticed that Aeroflot had elected to keep the hammer and sickle on its logo. What exactly was that -- the past intruding on the present or the past becoming style, national reconciliation through design?

By W.D. Wetherell:
Vermont Route 102 forms the northeast edge of what is called, with more than a little irony, the "Northeast Kingdom" -- a broad upland of granite hills and boreal forests with a few well-scattered villages that seem just barely connected to the rest of the United States. The radio dial dominated by Quebec stations broadcasting in French. The legacy of bootleggers and smuggling. The Depression-era feel that hasn't really left since the 1930's. The fact that the "Moose!" warning signs really mean it. It's a region apart, and Route 102 seems even farther apart, the loneliest, most forgotten corridor down a lonely, forgotten land.

By Patricia Hampl:
Today, old alliances and antagonisms, along with recent immigration, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, give Montreal its durable international sprit. And you can try out your high-school French there without having to fly across the Atlantic.

''Bonjour! Hello!'' My husband, Terrence, decided, a day into our Montreal weekend, that this doubling up of social pleasantries accounted for the feeling of uncommon civility we kept encountering. Cabdrivers, hotel clerks, waiters, Metro commuters -- everybody said ''Hello,'' ''Excuse me,'' ''Please'' and ''Thank you'' in French, followed by the same in (usually unaccented) English. ''They're putting twice the time we do into being polite,'' Terrence figured. Double the linguistic courtesy, double the urban civility.

Previous P&C
Sports Beat: After a month of the NFL season, the Chargers and Raiders are unbeaten, while the Vikings, Rams, and Bengals have yet to win. Tonight the Broncos, who are also undefeated, play the Ravens, who are 0-2. Raiders versus Eagles doesn't look like a bad Super Bowl pick.
Architecture Watch: Tweaking 50s drabness, by Blair Kamin.
Previous A.W.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Sunday Clippings: Ah, Sunday, a day to sit back, take a deep breath in between weeks, read the phone-book thick Times and Tribune and pore over a couple of magazines. Whereupon I find...

First, from the depths of my reading pile, this plea in NY Times Magazine for Baseball Without Metaphor, which, in American social thought, is practically a contradiction in terms. Writer David Grann poignantly points out the problems with the mythology, excerpted below, but then proceeds to break his own rule--taking pages to plumb the soul and look for deeper social meaning in a baseball star he urges people to stop plumbing the soul and looking for deeper meaning in. And he ends with a metaphorical image of baseball as peace on earth. Pick one: either baseball shouldn't be treated as metaphor or it should.

(And the correct answer, in my opinion, is: seeing baseball as "just baseball" is like trying to see the president as just another government employee.)

As the former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once claimed, ''It is a dream of ourselves as better than we are.''
Although baseball actually began as a game played largely by urban toughs, its image was soon reconstructed to mirror the country's pastoral myth. And in the constant search for meaning in the flick of a glove or a routine hit, most of the game's greatest players, no matter how ordinary or reprehensible off the field, were also transformed into something more than they actually were. (There were exceptions, of course, like Ty Cobb, whose official biographer referred to as ''psychotic.'') In his recent book on Joe DiMaggio, Richard Ben Cramer described how the owners, along with a complicit media, created an unofficial ''hero machine'' that invented entire personalities around the best sluggers. Many of the writers, whose travel and food and lodging were paid for by the owners, turned Ruth's appetite for female fans into an appetite for hot dogs. ...

But as the latest strike loomed, it it has become harder and harder to deny the true nature of baseball -- that it is, at its core, a business like any other, filled with labor disputes, petty disagreement, greed and drugs. Still, rather than view the threat of a strike as the ordinary jostling of competing self-interests, it has been spoken of as a moral catastrophe and a violation of some sacred trust. And alongside the old hero machine there has, over the last decade of strife, emerged a kind of antihero machine, in which the most ordinary weakness -- from conceit to carousing to even a divorce -- can be seized upon as proof of some larger rot.

From last week's New Republic:
(log in with member name and password of 'nbiermaread")

One of my recent Thoughts of the Day posed the question of how important it is for everyone to agree before we change the world. A related letter to the editor is wondering this too:

On paper at least, Peter Beinart makes a strong argument for an empirical study to determine once and for all if vouchers improve student achievement ("Test Case ," July 29). What he doesn't understand, however, is that in the real world the "grand experiment" he proposes won't settle the matter. Even the best social scientists don't always agree on the score-based inferences they make about a student's status. Evidence is always subject to interpretation, even when it is gathered under controlled conditions. The clash of opinions between the Hoover Institution and FairTest, for example, over the use of standardized test scores to measure instructional effectiveness in public schools, illustrates how difficult it is to arrive at an agreement when stakes are high. Both groups are composed of eminent scholars, and yet they don't see eye to eye on issues of critical importance to the nation's schools. Why will things be any different when a blue-ribbon panel is convened, as Beinart suggests?
WALT GARDNER, Los Angeles, California

On the next page, one of my favorite political writers, Peter Beinart, on Bush's UN speech on Iraq:

Before he took the podium on Thursday morning, the United States had one rationale for war with Iraq: to prevent Saddam from gaining the nuclear capacity that could threaten the world. By the time Bush stepped off the podium, the United States had another: to make the United Nations relevant. It is this second, multilateralist rationale that has won President Bush newfound goodwill among European leaders who don't particularly fear Saddam but who love the U.N. That goodwill, however, rests on a fiction. The Bush administration is not going to war to empower the U.N., a body that until last week it treated with scarcely concealed disdain. The gap between Bush's speech and the reality of American policy will come back to haunt this administration sooner or later. And the bogus war rationale Bush has ginned up for the world is already undermining the clarity of his case at home. ...

The Bush team may think itself shrewd for having raised these other issues and thus given itself an excuse to deride Saddam's inspections offer. But focusing on peripheral issues is not shrewd at all. As much as the Turkmen deserve not to be persecuted, as much as Oman deserves a full accounting of its Gulf war prisoners, and as much as it galls us to see Saddam spending his oil revenue on palaces, these are not the reasons we are going to war. The president's defenders will note that Bush was tailoring his message to his U.N. audience. But that is precisely the problem. If the Bush administration appears to select from an array of justifications for war depending on the audience, it will breed cynicism about its motives. And it will lead Americans to suspect that the real rationale for war--Saddam's potential nuclear capacity--is just as trivial as all the others.

And on the next page after that, this TNR editorial:

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to New York last week, Bush presented him with what looked like a handsome trophy: The United States would contribute $80 million toward construction of a new 600-mile road linking Kabul to Herat, basic infrastructure that would help create the first semblance of a functioning Afghan economy. "Our commitment to a stable and free and peaceful Afghanistan is a long-term commitment," Bush promised. As a practical matter (not to mention a moral one) it makes sense for the United States to leave Afghanistan a demonstrably better place than we found it. The rest of the world will more easily accept American military intervention elsewhere if they believe it will be followed by humanitarian intervention. And if Afghanistan collapses into anarchy, it may once again become a haven for terrorism. ...

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had refused to free up funding, instead insisting that the State Department dig into already committed "disaster-aid funds" to find $20 million dollars for the road. (Budget experts will note that $20 million is less than $80 million.) And where had this $20 million been previously committed? To Afghan village-development projects, women's centers, and assistance for the Kabul finance ministry. So, in the singular logic of OMB chief Mitch Daniels, in order to reconstruct Afghanistan the U.S. government would have to cut funding for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Friday, September 27, 2002

Another Trib piece, this one leftover from my internship:,0,5286274.story

Thursday, September 26, 2002

• In Tempo today: Gold medalists lead Canadian company's charge across the border:,0,6484570.story

• In Woman News yesterday: Women positioning themselves for the presidency:,0,2923648.story

One person whose comments I trimmed for this piece was Harvard professor Pippa Norris, who gave a more sobering global perspective:

Well it is promising in its own right. But the process of women emerging as head of state is one that is often more accidental than planned. Worldwide out of 193 nations only nine women are currently elected heads of state or government. Only 39 states have ever elected a woman Prime Minister or President. So the track record isn't great.

At the same time the broader the pool of eligible women with experience at many levels of office then the better the prospects, as in Norway, Sweden and so on. But don't hold your breath for America. Rememember that the US is also way behind many nations in the proportion of women in Congress. The US currently ranks 56th: here's the link

Previous Tribune stories
Today is my 23rd birthday, not a landmark like 18, 21, or even the nice-and-even 25, but still an occasion to step back and take stock of my life. I saw Kate Hudson on a TV interview recently, talking about all she's achieved at age 21, and it's enough to make you feel like your life has slipped idly by. On the other hand, I've achieved most everything I dreamt of in the last 5 years--writing for major publications, including the Tribune, living in downtown Chicago, getting married to a smart, beautiful woman. All that's left is to write my book, which I plan to start next week. It's enough to make 33 sound like a distant, foreign age--who knows what I'll be doing by then, or even next year--there are still a lot of professional and geographical question marks in the lives of my wife and me. But for today, I'm sitting in a high-rise in Chicago, the sun splashing down on my bay window view of the Near North Side, and I had an article (far from my best, unfortunately) run in the Trib this morning, which should mean another paycheck sometime in the next few...months (knowing the Trib's administration...) and I'm spending the whole day with my wife, who doesn't start her job till Monday. That's a whopping birthday present, one that humbles me for the blessings God has granted. If my life contributes in some small way to his kingdom, year in and year out--only then does this meager milestone of the universal speck of my life count for anything.

Monday, September 23, 2002

Google News is the latest must-bookmark. Here's CNET's blurb about it. Looks a little blog-ish so far, but at least it avails itself of different news sources, including some from overseas.
I'm not saying I disagree with Gore as he battles Bush over Iraq--but how does the most hawkish Democrat of the Bush Sr.-era Senate now cast himself as a war agnostic?
Steve Johnson starts the conversation about last night's Emmy's. Good to see John Spencer win for West Wing, but as overdue as it was for him, it was undeserved by Stockard Channing--she's hardly even on the show. Writer Aaron Sorkin, brilliant as he is, has a track record of under-using promising guest stars and minor characters.,1962576).story
IMAX is getting even bigger, says the NY Times, clipped from last week:

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 15 — A flame-spewing rocket fills the theater's six-story screen, not quite life size but close enough for discomfort, its roars and rumbles shaking the high-back seats and vibrating the concrete superstructure. "How about that?" asked the producer Brian Grazer. Imax, the maker of giant-screen film-projection systems that has hobbled along for three decades on a steady diet of natural wonders and scientific dazzle, never quite able to convince Hollywood to adopt its humongous but cumbersome format, says it has developed a new technical process that can transform existing 35-millimeter movies into bigger, more vivid 70-millimeter Imax experiences.
Etymology Today from M-W: oleaginous \oh-lee-ADGE-uh-nuss\
1 : resembling or having the properties of oil : oily; also : containing or producing oil
*2 : marked by an offensively ingratiating manner or quality

The oily "oleaginous" slipped into English through Middle French, coming from the Latin "oleaginus," meaning "of an olive tree." "Oleaginus" came from the Latin "olea," meaning "olive tree," and ultimately from the Greek "elaia," meaning "olive."
"Oleaginous" was at first used in a literal sense, as it still can be. An oleaginous substance is simply oily, and an oleaginous plant produces oil. The word took on its extended "ingratiating" sense in the 19th century.

Previous E.T.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

I'm going to have to temporarily scale down my blog--from daily output to one or two days a week--until I get some job interviews and freelance stories under my belt, and until I get a more stable Internet connection. But keep checking back to see what's new.

Next week: my story in the Woman News section of the Chicago Tribune on influx of female candidates for governor in this year's election. Look for the link and footnotes here.

In the meantime, enjoy this classic I clipped a while back from The Onion

And these links on road rage:

And, finally, the NY Times on cell phones in the classroom:
Thought of the Day: Da Thing about Da Bears
When I came to Chicago I wasn't sure how much to wear my new hat of Chicagoan and how much to retain the Michiganian in me. But when it comes to pro football, the case is clear--the Bears are my new team. I watched the Lions week after week over the last several years--watched the immerse themselves in steadfast mediocrity, and now, for a season and two games, wallow in the dark confines of last place. The Lions used to find maddening, amazing ways to lose--now they've given up the ruse and just lose normally. The Bears, on the other hand, are the ideal team for a fan to embrace--not definitively good, by any means, but enticingly lucky and consistently entertaining. Where the Lions used to create opportunities to lose, the Bears artfully, luckily develop ways to win football games--last-minute interceptions, overtime stunts, and last week, an opponents' missed field goal. The Bears may not be all that good anytime soon; they'll probably lose badly in the playoffs like last year, but it will be hard to keep from watching until they do.
Previous Thought: Marriage and absolute truth
Even if you remove the domestic partisan posturing from the story, you can see President Bush is doing some fuzzy math in his Iraq strategy, says Peter Beinart in The New Republic:

TNREuropean opposition is a problem financially and politically. It's a financial problem because when it comes to overseas expenditures, the United States (especially with Republicans running the government) is cheap. If Europe doesn't back the war, it won't be obligated to help pay for the post-Saddam peace. And that could leave Iraq's reconstruction (including, perhaps, peacekeeping) almost entirely in the hands of a Bush administration that loathes nation-building and faces a mountain of budgetary red ink. In which case Iraq might never be adequately reconstructed at all. European opposition also represents a political problem because much of the world--rightly or wrongly--considers the United States a colossus bent on dominating the planet. If war with Iraq is seen as a purely American exercise, it will provoke even greater hostility toward the United States down the road. The Bush administration seems to think multilateralism gives weak European states an influence they don't deserve. But it also eases their resentment of the United States, which makes them less likely to band together to try to cut Washington down to size.
The future of Christianity is in the Southern Hemisphere, says Philip Jenkins in
It's time to expose journalists who keep declaring what it's time for, says Michael Kinsley in
Places&Culture from
NY Times

LAGOS, Nigeria — As the sun rises over West Africa's new moviemaking capital, the Surulere district of Lagos, the cast and crew of "Blackmailed" form a four-car convoy to leave for their first day of shooting. "It's like a dream come true," said Nonso Diobi, 21, who had snatched one of the lead roles in "Blackmailed" only two months after leaving his home in southeastern Nigeria for Surulere, here in the country's commercial capital. "This is where it all happens, where all the stars are who make big money because they can sell movies. I'm not a big star yet. But when I am, I will fix a big price." Since the late 1990's, Nigerian movies have found a place next to offerings from Hollywood and Bollywood, Bombay's equivalent, in the cities, towns and villages across English-speaking Africa. Though made on the cheap, with budgets of about only $15,000, the Nigerian movies have become huge hits, with stories, themes and faces familiar to other Africans. It is now, according to conservative estimates, a $45 million a year industry.

BIG SUR, Calif., Sept. 14 — When a winter storm four years ago sent a hillside crashing into the mineral baths at Esalen, the coastal healing retreat that became synonymous in the 1960's with California's New Age consciousness, Eastern mysticism and self-awareness, the damage nearly doomed a way of life. ... A $5 million bank loan allowed the institute to rebuild the sulphur baths, which over the decades had drawn thousands of pilgrims to soak au naturel on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific. They reopened on Sept. 8 to appreciative clamor. But Esalen could not afford another disaster. Its near-death experience forced the institution, now in its 40th year, to jettison its legendary laid-back style. Taking a cue from an Aikido martial arts admonition to "take the hit as a gift," Esalen's leaders adopted a corporate ethos that includes long-term strategic planning, tighter security and a $25 million fund-raising campaign run by highly paid professionals. The lurch toward Wall Street thinking has rattled Esalen traditionalists, some of whom are all but crying heresy.

Previous P&C

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Amtrak's online sale is back, which I plug in my ongoing hope that rail travel will yet gain the popularity it deserves.
Working on a dialup is raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels, which may hurt the output here for a while. Hopefully I'll get a DSL soon ...
Thought of the Day: marriage and absolute truth
There's nothing like marriage to make you doubt the idea of absolute truth. I've been down on absolute truth anyway lately, after taking a Social Psychology course last spring that convinced me much of what people perceive to be absolute truth actually depends on relative social norms. But marriage is another blow struck against ontology. When you enter into a union you surrender your self-oriented worldview--you are no longer the magnetic body around which the world whirls. You are no longer the only frame of reference as life happens to you. You must reconcile it with the worldview of the person you love more than anyone.

When the two differ, at least on the smallest level, it's not only frustrating, it's worldview-altering. You have to look in the mirror and say, Am I perceiving this right? A question you seldom ask when single, when there's less occasion to question your judgement. You don't think twice about the assumptions you live by. This summer, my first as a married man, I keep asking myself, in the last two days, was I really a self-absorbed jerk, as she says, or an altruistic saint, as I recall? The truth, of course, is in between. But the point is, we each operate with complete certainty that our perception of recent events and how we reacted to them is certifiably accurate. We're each reasonably intelligent people who can sympathize with other opinions, and yet we struggle to tolerate each other's viewpoints, as do all married people. People function as though their perceptions and memories perfectly correspond to reality, but marriage is just another reminder that while truth is indeed absolute, our perceptions of it are flimsily relative.
Previous Thought
Etymology Today from M-W: thimblerig \THIM-bul-rig\
*1 : to cheat by trickery 2 : to swindle by thimblerig

The game of thimblerig seems innocent enough. The thimblerigger places a seed under one of three thimbles. He deftly scoots the thimbles around on a table, then asks the player to bet on which one hides the seed. (Perhaps the poor bettor is unaware that "rig" has meant "trick" or "swindle" since the 1700s.) But thimbleriggers are masters of sleight of hand and can move and manipulate the seed unfairly -- so the guileless player doesn't stand a chance of winning. When the same sham is played with nutshells, it's called a "shell game."
Previous E.T.
Bush is bloating the federal government, says Steve Chapman in the

Like many a president before him, George W. Bush sees an urgent national problem and offers an interior-decorating solution: adding another chair to the Cabinet table. He proposes to create a federal department to protect the homeland from attack--which apparently is too much to expect from a Defense Department that is supposed to get $369 billion next year. ... Somehow I don't think Osama bin Laden is sitting in a cave somewhere fretting that if we create a Department of Homeland Security, he may be in a real pickle. And anytime someone from the government tells you this won't cost anything, you're advised to hold onto your wallet with a pair of Vise-Grips.

Friday, September 13, 2002

Etymology Today from M-W: estival \ESS-tuh-vul\
: of or relating to the summer

"Estival" and "festival" look so much alike (and the estival months lend themselves so well to festivals) that you might think they're very closely related, but that isn't the case. "Estival" traces back to "aestas," which is the Latin word for "summer" (and which also gave us "estivate," a verb for spending the summer in a torpid state -- a sort of hot- weather equivalent of hibernation). "Festival" also comes from Latin, but it has a different and unrelated root. It derives from "festivus," a term that means "festive" or "merry." "Festivus" is also the ancestor of "festive," as well as "festivity," the much rarer "festivous" (which also means "festive"), and the also rare "infestive," meaning "not merry, mirthless."

Previous E.T.
Last September 11 footnote for some time, I think: Last month the Village Voice pondered the worst about New York's future, and featured the effort to keep the city's "DNA" should it be destroyed:

Also, D.C. freelance writer-photographer Declan McCullagh's 9/11/01 pictures of the capital, including eerie shots of deserted rush-hour streets.

All right. No disrespect to the victims, but there comes a time to move on.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Now-ghostly glimpses: My June 2001 pictures of the World Trade Center

Twice this morning, on my way to and from the newsstand, I walked past the spot on my street where you can see the forehead and white spires of the Sears Tower peeking between two buildings. Both times, at first I saw only clear blue sky, and panicked. Then I realized my angle was just a little off; a few steps further and the massive tower reappeared.

I've never looked at the Sears Tower the same way since September 11, and never will. My affection for it is deeper, as is my appreciation of its engineering genius, its architecturally parental role on the Chicago skyline, its ability to define city spirit for Chicagoans.

It's odd: the Sears, the Hancock Tower its sibling which looks down at our apartment from less than a mile away, and the World Trade Center twin towers were hoisted in an age, some thirty years ago, that valued distant gigantism--colossal structures that fixed the gaze but seemed cold and detached; they failed to inflame warmth and intimacy among those who walked by them and worked in them.

That's why it's so interesting to see how these buildings now evoke such passion in us; they strike in us thoughts not of cold engineering, but of people--people we lost or dread the thought of losing. The buildings built as cold banks now bring us to tears.

If anything is hard to put into words, one's emotions about September 11 are. Nancy Gibbs of Time magazine, as usual, is among the most poignant. She wrote last week about today:

TimeAn anniversary can be sweet or solemn, but either way, it is only the echo, not the cry. From this distance, we can hear whatever we are listening for. We can argue that Sept. 11 changed everything—or nothing. The country is more united, and less; more fearful and more secure, more serious and more devoted to American Idol. It is like looking at your child's baby pictures. You know exactly who it is: every feature is both different and the same, despite new expressions, and furrows and knowledge.

Holding two contradictory ideas in your head was supposed to be a sign of first-rate intelligence. Now it just feels like a vital sign. To say we have changed feels like rewarding the enemy, but to deny it risks losing the knowledge for which we paid a terrible price—knowledge about who we become under pressure, in public and private. People talked about living on a higher plane, with an intensity of fear and faith and gratitude, when it was easy to salute and hard to sleep and nothing was bland or phony or cheap. But we could not live there forever; it was like the day you graduate from high school or your first child is born or your father dies—days of power and insight that grab you for a moment and, when they let you go, leave marks on your skin.

Here's what I wrote in Chimes last September:

Put no faith in “national security.” Hope only for the coming restoration of shalom. Do not wonder if you will ever feel safe walking around in this world again. Rejoice that you will peacefully walk around in the next one forever. Do not regret the shattering of American confidence. Lament the devouring of human life. In times of earth-shattering destruction, we are urged not only to weep, but to consider our destiny as, in the words of our leaders, “a civilized people.” Directly or indirectly, we are led to reflect on the narrative of our nation, a people progressing towards prosperity and prestige. ... What is less bold and plain to us is that American destiny and Christian destiny often diverge. America’s strong, steady march towards its own perfection through technology, medicine, and wealth, its own triumph over the evil it defines (four months ago, the U.S. gave money to the Taliban), is a different path from the Christian duty to suffer, to stick out, and to hope solely for the New City.

Also, my impressions of being in Chicago after the attacks:

NY TimesMy Sept. 11 scrapbook and other links from Sept. 11, 2001 and aftermath:
• NY Times, Sept 11, 2001, Plane Crashes Collapse World Trade Center Towers
• NY Times dramatic narrative: Fighting for life 50 floors up
• Sept. 11 newspaper front pages from around the nation
• James Lileks: the week after:

I wrote earlier this week about the difference between media and reality. It's worth noting that the vast majority of Americans experienced the terrorist attacks through media. Many have never been to Lower Manhattan or Washington D.C., and hardly anyone has been to Sommerset, Pa. TV critic Aaron Barnhardt's diary of watching TV on Sept. 11, 2001, is thus well-worth revisiting:

Finally, I can't help visiting the cultural question about irony amid the reverence of today. I was watching Letterman last night, the show whose somber tone last September helped capture the national mood. Last night Letterman joked that the bad news is Iraq has a nuclear bomb, the good news is they have to drop it off a camel. Whether this strikes the proper balance between useful expression, through humor, of our fear and disdain of a distant enemy, without being trite about horrific weapons that could take American lives in the next decade, is unclear. Still, humor is an important tool to try to get a grip on reality. The Onion was one of the most useful forms of media last fall. Ron Rosenbaum writes today in Slate:

And this is a time, isn't it, when there's a kind of hyper-vigilance for all forms of irreverence, which is usually defined as whatever someone doesn't like. Remember "irony is dead"? Looking back on what I've written over the past year, one of things I'm most glad to have said very early on is that "Irony is what we're fighting for"; irony (properly defined as skepticism, not mere sarcasm) is what theocrats hate most.

Irony--when, as Rosenbaum says, it is functional and responsible skepticism--is how we humbly sense the nuances of reality, whether reality is the quiet goodness of a family evening or the fiery hell of buildings crashing into skyscrapers.

We are, after all, small beings, who make bold pronouncements about destiny at our peril. We live in God's good world which was invaded by evil, and visited by his grace. As I wrote above, when we find meaning in his narrative, and not our infinitesimal personhood, we can actually live at peace, post-September 11.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002


The Wash.Post's Peter Carlson is looking back on September 11, but not in the way you'd expect:

At a time when every magazine from Vanity Fair to Bird Talk contains an anniversary article on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, American History magazine has published a fascinating story about an event that took place exactly 150 years earlier -- on Sept. 11, 1851. Shortly before dawn that morning, a posse of slave catchers led by Edward Gorsuch, a wealthy Maryland farmer, surrounded William Parker's stone farmhouse in Christiana, a village in southeastern Pennsylvania. Hiding inside the house were two slaves who had run away from Gorsuch's Baltimore County farm two years earlier.

Previous H&T
Urban Issues Watch:

Just a few years ago, the proletarian bicycle seemed an indelible part of the streetscape, as emblematic of China as the giant panda and the Great Wall. Yet seemingly overnight, authorities have begun treating bikes as nuisances, with government planners giving right of way to taxis, buses, subways and, increasingly, the private car. Determined bicyclists and environmentalists lament the fading of a half-century tradition of commuting on two wheels, particularly as belching autos create an ashen haze over many Chinese cities. But government planners appear to have no more love for bikes than post-World War II Los Angeles had for its streetcars. China has spent billions of dollars to convert Shanghai's European-style warren of row houses and winding lanes into a Jetsonian vision of modernity. Elevated expressways now weave through a forest of glass and metal. Arching suspension bridges and their on-ramps spiral over the Art Deco facades of colonial-era waterfront banks.

London's bold traffic-abatement scheme — a program to charge motorists £5, or about $7.80, a day for the privilege of driving into central London at peak times — is scheduled to take effect next February. While the famously automobile-shunning mayor is already hailing the plan as the best way to get traffic moving, critics, including small businesses and residents' associations, cannot quite believe it is actually going to happen. ... Nobody disputes that the traffic situation is terrible. Each morning, 40,000 cars, trucks and buses an hour pour (or trickle) into central London, using roads meant for horses, carriages and pedestrians. Traffic now moves at an average of less than 10 miles an hour. Businesses estimate that some £3 million a day is wasted because of gridlock.

Since 1970, the population of the United States has grown by forty per cent, while the number of registered vehicles has increased by nearly a hundred per cent—in other words, cars have proliferated more than twice as fast as people have. During this same period, road capacity increased by six per cent. If these trends continue through 2020, every day will resemble a getaway day, with its mixture of commuters, truckers, and recreational drivers, who take to the road without regard for traditional peak travel times, producing congestion all day long: trucks that can't make deliveries on time, people who can't get to or from work, air quality that continues to deteriorate as commerce suffers and our over-all geopolitical position weakens because we are forced to become ever more dependent on foreign oil. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a traffic jam.
see also

Previous Urban Issues Watch

Monday, September 09, 2002

Number of the Day: 3 million
Americans who have been out of work at least 15 weeks, up from 2 million last year
Previous Link and Number of the Day
Thought of the Day: media vs. reality: is there virtue in mediated experience?
I'll be working from home now, contributing stories to the Tribune, in between my summer internship and my next full-time reporting job. So my life will be increasingly a mediated one; my day will be all the more composed reading newspapers and magazines, scanning Internet sites, reluctantly watching some TV news, spending time on e-mail, here in my apartment or at the bookstore across the street. The question is, how unhealthy is this? On the one hand, it's great to read, to be aware of the larger world, to put your little life in the larger context media provides, to bulk up the mind. Too many people float through life with narrow worldviews, deliberately oblivious to the larger cultural dynamics that shape their personal narratives.

On the other, I must constantly pinch myself and remember that media is not reality--it's a necessarily distorted view of reailty, a certain filter of the world. If you've ever read an article or seen a TV report about a person you knew or event you witnessed, you no doubt came away thinking, what a slim vision and incomplete picture (maybe even misleading) that was. Reality as we directly experience it is deeper, richer, nuanced, and whole. What we experience through media is limited and somehow skewed. It's the difference between running through a sprinkler and going swimming.

I sheepishly admit, though, that part of me feels more inclined to live in a mediated world sometimes. I love the experience of letting a movie screen, magazine photo,or newspaper article connect me to other places, other people, other ideas. My personal theory is that this is more true of introverts than extroverts, and I have a little more of the former in me. Again, it's not all bad--a well-written article by a wise writer can help you see and think about things you wouldn't otherwise. And there's a safety element: I live about a mile down the street from Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects. Last year I toured them with a student group, and someone threw eggs at us from their window. So I don't mind reading about the area in books for the time being (though here the media picture on television is especially poisonous--Cabrini is unfairly shown as a latter-day Lord-of-the-Flies inhabited by savages). (my essay on my Cabrini walk)

This last point pricks me. Christ never settled for media. He was about people. Granted, there was unimaginably less media when he was on earth, but he wore out his sandals and his stamina by walking all over his country, meeting people, reaching out, looking at them as only God can. I can't imagine him sitting in a high-rise apartment on the Internet all morning. I know have a personality and cerebrum geared more toward reading and writing than ministering to people, and I know that's not inherently bad, but I need to keep looking beyond the mediated world and trying to see reality as Christ, not CNN would see it.

Footnote: At Calvin we spent a lot of time talking about worldview, or forming a framework for viewing nature and society, and with good reason--anti-intellectual evangelicals and spiritually aimless Americans all lack grounding in a larger reality, a bigger picture in which to view their lives. But one criticism of the word "worldview" I heard from a British theologian is that it is a very detaching word--it positions you at a distance from reality, or above it, peering over, making broad judgments with superhuman scope. Thus it goes against personal engagement with the world around you. I disagree; a worldview anchors, inspires, and guides your engagement with the world around you. But I get his point, which is one of the primary frustrations I have with the world I left behind in West Michigan--there are fine people with fine minds in that world, but their ivory tower tendencies impair their ability and desire to roll up their sleeves and engage the world with personal passion. As I am increasingly drawn to the academic world of writing and ideas, I must watch out for this pitfall.
Previous Thought
Earlier Thought: Would we be better off if everyone went to college?
Earlier Thought: Would we be better off if everyone voted?
This is a pretty nice piece of sportswriting by the NY Times' Selena Roberts. As a former-future sportswriter I'm always on the lookout for writing that isn't cliche-ridden, melodramatic, and bogged down with stats, but is human and authentically passionate, which is what sports brings to the paper. Although I don't love this lead, this is a decent example:

Peel away their history together, and go beneath their past loves, losses and current reincarnations, and what remained was two married guys at a special reunion last night, playing as if nothing ever changes. They were the same as always, and as different as usual. There was Pete Sampras, methodically popping out aces like a Pez dispenser, deliberately separating his racket strings between points. There was Andre Agassi, trying to find himself on the court, pacing in cat circles between points. Then Agassi tuned in and Sampras fizzled out. But just when it appeared that Sampras's desperate attempt to soothe two empty years in his career would escape him, when it seemed Agassi's winter of wind sprints would doom his longtime rival, the pattern of the ages continued.
Sports&Culture File
Architecture Watch:

The NY Times breaks down attempts to shore up new skyscrapers; the Chicago Tribune runs a two-part feature on life in the Sears Tower, last September 11 and this one.
Previous A.W.

Etymology Today from M-W: muckrake \MUCK-rayk\ (verb)
to search out and publicly expose real or apparent misconduct of a prominent individual or business

The noun "muckrake" (literally, a rake for "muck," i.e., manure) rose out of the dung heap and into the realm of literary metaphor in 1684. That's when John Bunyan used it in _Pilgrim's Progress_ to represent man's preoccupation with earthly things. "The Man with the Muckrake," he wrote, "could look no way but downward." In a 1906 speech, Teddy Roosevelt recalled Bunyan's words while railing against journalists he thought focused too much on exposing corruption in business and government. Roosevelt called them "the men with the muck-rakes" and claimed they didn't know "when to stop raking the muck and look upward." Investigative reporters weren't insulted; they adopted the term "muckraker" as a badge of honor. And soon English speakers were using the verb "muckrake" for the
practice of exposing misconduct.

Previous E.T.
Places&Culture from
NY Times

VENICE, Sept. 5 — A city can post extra signs all over advertising the speed limit, and still motorists ignore it. A city can buy more radar-style guns and assign more men and women to operate them, and still motorists zoom heedlessly from place to place. So when police officers spotted Gino Mazzura barreling down one of Venice's major arteries the other morning at an unauthorized clip, they not only pulled him over and gave him a $200 ticket. They also impounded his vehicle. Mr. Mazzura would have to wait a whole week to get his motorboat back.
Previous P&C

Thursday, September 05, 2002

Sporadic postings, if any, as I feverishly finish a few stories and wrap up my Tribune internship tomorrow. I hope to be back on a blogging schedule next week. Topics to come--traffic jams, God's will, national parks, suicide rates, "right wing envy," and maybe something on Sept.11, although we may have reached saturation point on that already. Plus Notebook Reader, Etymology Today, and the other standard features from this randomly curious log.

In the meantime, enjoy a little look back on the summer: from the Tribune: Minority Report, Blogathon, Thera Date, Elvis, Web diversions, Polling problems, and more.

From this blog: Will R, Nigerian e-mail hoax, Washington Post on the Info Glut, Nathan V.K, personal media and public responsibility, and follow the strands of my regular features: Places&Culture, Sports&Culture, Media&Culture, Money&Culture, History&Today, Link and Number of the Day, and Architecture Watch.

And there's always my link page.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

LATEST TRIB STORY: The problem with polls

My chief worry is that the evidence in this story supports the pollsters while only a hunch supports my slant--that polls are problematic. Pollsters measure everything by numbers, and four or five distinguished stats profs I interviewed for the story say the numbers just don't support my misgivings that response rates automatically skew poll results. And I did let them make their case in the article. But I still feel uneasy about how much weight we give polls when the logistics of poll-taking have been so recently challenged by technology and social shifts. As Professor Brehm seemed to say, that's just common sense,

I got the idea for this story from this William Safire column. Which is good, but I cleared up a couple things he screwed up. I fear, though, that I did little to improve on this fine Boston Globe story (if link is busted, look for it here, except add the takes of some major names in the stats world who work in Chicago.

Recent Trib stories:
'The Note'
My Tribune archive
Media&Culture File: Et Tu, Poynter?
I thought the St. Petersburg Times, under the wing of the auster Poynter Institute, was a bastion of pure old-fashioned journalism? But the paper has just become the first to slap its name on a sports arena, raising all sorts of conflict-of-interest issues. Sigh.
Previous Media&Culture
Etymology Today from M-W: pogonip \PAH-guh-nip\
: a dense winter fog containing frozen particles that is formed in deep mountain valleys of the western U.S.

In the mountains of the western U.S., the fog condenses into tiny, biting ice particles in extremely cold weather. The English-speaking settlers who encountered this unpleasant and sometimes scary phenomenon when they went out West in the 1800s needed a word for it. So they borrowed "paginappih" ("cloud") from the Southern Paiute, a Shoshonean people of the southwestern U.S., altering it to "pogonip." "Pogonip" is also the designation of an aptly named wilderness area north of Santa Cruz that is often enveloped in fog.

Previous E.T.
Places&Culture from
NY Times

For over a thousand years, the monastery here has thrust skyward out of the sea, like the pointed finger of some giant piercing the earth's crust. The image favored by visitors is at high tide, when it rises islandlike from the smooth waters of the bay that shares its name. Though dedicated to monastic peace, the place has always been the theater of conflict: between the earth and the eroding sea, between the English and French, and between the religious and the profane — as during the French Revolution, when the monks were dispersed and the monastery dedicated to the Archangel Michael, France's protector, was converted to a prison. The latest battle, more mundane, is between the protectors of historic monuments and the engineers who advise them, on the one side, and local merchants on the other. In very French fashion, it also pits the periphery against the center — local interests in Brittany, a region noted for its independence, against Parisian central planners.

JOSHUA TREE, Calif. — WHETHER you are a scorpion, a fire ant or a human, the desert demands creativity of its inhabitants. This skin-searing stretch of the Mojave foothills, two and a half hours east of Los Angeles, is a landscape of extremes, marked by rock slides waiting to happen and the spiky yucca plants, called Joshua trees, that look like botanical sparklers. So perhaps it's not surprising to find Andrea Zittel, a 36-year-old New York installation artist and one of the area's new art homesteaders, ensconced in a stucco shack under a foreboding mound of boulders, carving out her own idiosyncratic domestic utopia.

The Meguro Parasitological Museum in Japan is a rare storehouse devoted entirely to tapeworms, bloodsuckers and other organisms that feed off their hosts. The ghoulish
gallery in central Tokyo has amazed and alarmed millions of students, researchers and veterinarians for nearly half a century. But in the last several years the museum has also turned into an urban version of Blueberry Hill, where eager couples come to bond and test their mutual mettle. And while two floors filled with graphic pictures of goiters, a world map of infectious diseases and bottle after bottle of hookworms would seem unlikely to put one in a romantic mood, there appears to be no shortage of young lovers willing to play Gomez and Morticia Addams for a day.

Previous P&C

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Also from Sunday's Times, this observation about NFL realignment:

Realignment ends some unusual scheduling aberrations. For example, Miami and Denver played only once between 1983 and 1997, when Dan Marino and John Elway were in their prime. Oakland did not play in Pittsburgh from 1981 through 1999. Tampa Bay has never played in Buffalo.

SI Picks by Division
Sports&Culture File
I'm getting sick and tired of Iraq war talk sucking up space on the front pages. The media are beating this to death before it starts. I will let the questions of the NYT's star players, Friedman and Dowd be the last words here on the matter for a while:

Friedman: One question gnaws at me: Is Iraq the way it is today because Saddam Hussein is the way he is? Or is Saddam Hussein the way he is because Iraq is the way it is? I mean, is Iraq a totalitarian dictatorship under a cruel,iron-fisted man because the country is actually an Arab Yugoslavia - a highly tribalized, artificial state, drawn up by the British, consisting of Shiites in the south, Kurds in the north and Sunnis in the center - whose historical ethnic rivalries can be managed only by a Saddam-like figure? Or, has Iraq, by now, congealed into a real nation? And once the cruel fist of Saddam is replaced by a more enlightened leadership, Iraq's talented, educated people will slowly produce a federal democracy. The answer is critical, because any U.S. invasion of Iraq will leave the U.S. responsible for nation-building there. Invade Iraq and we own Iraq. And once we own it, we will have to rebuild it, and since that is a huge task, we need to understand what kind of raw material we'll be working with.

Dowd: By overthrowing the Saudi monarchy, the Cheney-Rummy-Condi-Wolfy-Perle-W. contingent could realize its dream of redrawing the Middle East map. Once everyone realizes that we're no longer being hypocrites, coddling a corrupt, repressive dictatorship that sponsors terrorism even as we plot to crush a corrupt, repressive dictatorship that sponsors terrorism, it will transform our relationship with the Arab world.
Man on the Scene: My friend Nathan up North turned this dramatic narrative around in under an hour. Posted at my file site:
the blogger link problems persist. try this
Money&Culture File: The nation's 4 million soccer-playing kids make for a robust soccer economy, says the KC Star.
Previous M&C
My latest Trib story: ABC's The Note and other Washington weblogs deliver the inside scoop:
Linked to from MediaNews today. What I should have said in the article is 1) the site has over 13,000 unique visitors, not just hits and 2) it's a competitor to the National Journal Hotline, but has the competitive edge of being free and more readable. Halperin said in his interview with me that he has great respect for the Hotline and that the Note has a different focus, although there is some overlap in readership and mission.
My Tribune archive
History&Today from
NY Times

Like someone who has found a van Gogh at a garage sale, a research team on a routine dive near Pearl Harbor has uncovered a Japanese midget submarine that provides physical proof that submarines tried to infiltrate the harbor before the air attack of Dec. 7, 1941.
Previous H&T
Etymology Today from M-W: nescience \NEH-shee-unss or NEE-shee-unss\
lack of knowledge or awareness : ignorance

Eighteenth-century British poet, essayist, and lexicographer Samuel Johnson once said, "There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable that I would not rather know it than not know it." He undoubtedly knew a thing or two about the history of the word "nescience," which evolved from a combination of the Latin prefix "ne-," meaning "not," and "scire," a verb meaning "to know." And he probably knew that "scire" is also an ancestor of "science," a word whose original meaning in English was "knowledge."

Previous E.T.