Monday, July 28, 2003

My latest B&C blog:
Steven Pinker says "designer babies" are a myth of genetic research, plus my monthly book review roundup.

My B&C archive
• Randomly Interesting
- Beekeeper tends hive on Paris Opera House roof, from the NY Times.

- Fight to preserve 1812 flag that inspired Star Spangled Banner, from the NY Times.

- U.K. commission recommends queen be stripped of status as head of the Church, from the SF Chronicle.

- Kenyan couple, 67 and 25, harassed for unprecedented age discrepancy, from the Wash. Post.

- Waging war out West on the tamarisk shrub, from the Wash. Post.

- Dominican baseball prospects turn to animal dietary supplements, from the Wash. Post.

- Nuns imprisoned for sabatoging nuclear site, from the Wash. Post.

Previous Randomly Interesting
'Cannot find weapons of mass destruction'
If you haven't seen this yet, it's worth a chuckle:
These Weapons of Mass Destruction cannot be displayed
The weapons you are looking for are currently unavailable. The country might be experiencing technical difficulties, or you may need to adjust your weapons inspectors mandate. ... "
Can you hear The Juice saying 'Hasta la Vista'?
Bit of trivia from Anthony Lane's review of "Terminator 3" in the New Yorker:
By now, [Schwarzenegger] is so seamlessly joined to the part that we find it hard to conceive of another arrangement, yet the fact remains that at one point, when James Cameron was devising the original picture, of 1984, the name pencilled in for the Terminator was that of O. J. Simpson. The trouble was, as Cameron told Esquire, 'People wouldn’t have believed a nice guy like O.J. playing the part of a ruthless killer.'
Maybe you two shouldn't see a counselor:
The harm of marriage counseling--when the mediator is ignorant, indifferent, judgmental, or divisive--from my favorite new newspaper bookmark, the Melbourne Age:
Boy, does this one have me pegged...

Etymology Today from M-W: luftmensch \LOOFT-mensh ("OO" as in "foot")\
: an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income

Are you someone who always seems to have your head in the clouds? Do you have trouble getting down to the lowly business of earning a living? If so, you may deserve to be labeled a "luftmensch." That airy appellation is an adaptation of the Yiddish "luftmentsh," which breaks down into "luft" (a Germanic root that can be tied linguistically to the English words "loft" and "lofty"), meaning "air," plus "mentsh," meaning "human being." "Luftmensch" was first introduced to English prose in 1907, when Israel Zangwill wrote "The word 'Luftmensch' flew into Barstein's mind. Nehemiah was not an earth-man . . . . He was an air-man, floating on facile wings."

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Monday, July 21, 2003

My latest B&C blog:
Last installment of my New Atlas series, plus the study of stupidity, the science of sunscreen, and the "Professor of Baseball."

My B&C archive
My grandfather died last week. The peaceful circumstances of his death undermine my protests over his absence. He woke up last Wednesday as usual, had breakfast with my grandma before she went to work, lay down on the couch for his morning nap, pulled the blanket over his chest, and never woke up. He was mostly homebound the last few years, spending his days reading, reflecting, pausing to listen to the quietness--no doubt treasuring the peace at times, no doubt exasperated at others with the lack of sound around him. I spend much of my time these days the same way--though I am in a downtown apartment and he was in a sleepy condominium community, I have the climactic chapters of my life ahead of me while his were behind him--and I wonder what went through his mind all those hours, what memories drew a smile on his face while he sat, what regrets pricked him in the side, how much the silence soothed him and how much the loneliness was intolerable (while leaving no option but to tolerate it). He wanted to go back to Iowa, where he was born, one last time, and that's what he did with my grandma this month for a family reunion. So there were no glaringly blank pages of his life waiting to be filled, it seemed, save for the milestones of his 80th birthday (in October) and 55th wedding anniversary next month. I'm grateful that he attended my wedding and visited us here in Chicago a couple of times, and took a special interest in the start of what appears to be my writing career. I believe it to be no accident that, with his love of reading and of words, this son of a self-educated farmer-scholar was himself the father of a seminary professor and grandfather of a journalist. One of my least forgettable childhood memories is the sound of his voice as he read to me--its cadence, modulation, and reverence. He also taught me to play checkers, chess, and golf--the latter of which I would not have inherited from my father and will be a lifelong passion.

But while his departure does not, mercifully, release a flood of regrets, his absence still sticks like a pin. He is possibly the most gentle and gracious man I have ever known well, and it seems unjust for that to end. Grandpa was one of those teachers who didn't teach people what to know as effectively as he taught how to be, how to carry yourself, how to treat people. He carried himself with dignity and self-assurance without a single ounce of superiority or sanctimony. He was a missionary (to Africa) who shared his faith without pomposity, without oratory. We tried this past weekend to remember him saying something harsh about anyone at all--at funerals, it can be healthy to acknowledge someone's faults or less flattering moments--and we couldn't do it. One colleague scrounged up the memory of the time a particularly unruly student caused my grandpa to shove open the window and fling the contents of his coffee mug toward the trees. That was about it. It's ironic that he died of a weak heart; his entire life was evidence to the contrary.

Grandpa's death--this paradox of peace and injustice--reminds me why I believe in life after death, in the resurrection of the body through Christ. Eternity, as I've been guided to see, is implicit in the present: the love--for people, for God, for his creation--we come to know in this life is stronger than death, and thus must logically continue in perpetuity. As so the interruption of my grandpa's life last week is not the destruction of a person, because it would be impossible to destroy who he was, how he was, how deeply he knew God. His fellowship with God was unstoppable, irreversible, inevitable. It continues now, in between the already and the not yet, and will be complete when death is finally evicted from the created order. With love and gratitude for his life, I dedicate the words Grandpa wrote about his father, over twenty years ago, to him: "He combined a warm piety with a kingdom vision that was remarkable. ... He saw God's world as just that. ...[His] life [was] one whose experiences were one continuous demonstration of how the Lord can use gifts that are His in the first place, not to be hoarded, but to be used, not to glory in, but to give Him all the glory."

Monday, July 14, 2003

My latest B&C blog:
More on the New World Atlas--genetic mapping, network security, and other contours of a changing world.

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Chicago Beat
BILL OF GOODS: With all the hype about the All-Star Game returning to Comiskey this week (on the 70th anniversary of the game's birth across the street), I appreciated the Tribune's effort to take a look at the neighborhoods surrounding the stadium, which benefit little from having big-league baseball in their backyard. The Tribune said that only Cleveland's Jacobs Field has a higher proportion of poor neighbors than Comiskey does with the area down 35th Street between the Dan Ryan and State Street.

What was blatantly neglected until the last three grafs of the story was the fact that this stadium was sold to the public--literally: it was funded in part by tax dollars--with the promise that it would help revive the area. But the team's design for the new stadium--whose high walls close off the park to the neighborhood, and whose lease prohibits any souvenirs or food from being sold within several blocks of the park--ensured that this would not happen. It was a fraud. I covered this angle in an April interview in the Tribune with the authors of a book on Chicago stadiums and neighborhoods (more of my interview with them here in my B&C blog).

- One more thing about the All-Star Game itself. I still haven't heard a persuasive argument from those opposing the new wrinkle to the game: the winning league will have home field advantage in the World Series. Yes, this means an exhibition game will help determine who wins the championship, but how could it possibly be less sensible than the current system, by which home field advantage alternated every year with no regard to which team had the better record? Besides, with all these All-Stars on one field, why not make it count for something?

CubsWAIT TILL NEXT MONTH: The Braves roughed up the Cubs this week, and figure to do it again when the teams meet in Atlanta after the break. But if the Cubs can just hang on to .500 (which is where they are at the break, at 47-47) by the time August 3 rolls around--after a punishing stretch that also includes the Marlins, Phillies, Astros, Giants, and Diamondbacks, then they should be in good shape for the homestretch. Besides crucial division matchups with the Astros and Cardinals, and road series at Montreal and Arizona, the Dodgers are the only winning team they face the rest of the year. Maybe that will help reverse the Cubs' trend of late-season losing; if I heard right on a telecast this weekend, the Cubs have the worst August-September record in the big leagues over the last five years.

SACRILEGE: The July 4 Chicago Reader featured an alarming article on the so-called "Cathedral District," a nasty plan by a developer to mar even more of the Near North Side with condos under the guise--strangely enough--of preserving the neighborhood's character. The Fordham Company has placed lightpost banners bearing a "Cathedral District" emblem within the region bordered by State, Michigan, Chicago and Ontario (a region that has been particularly battered by condo-minded demolitions the last ten years), and is planning a high-rise condo building called "Cathedral Tower." A Fordham brochure gushes,
"A tremendous development boom is transforming this area, once a combination of vintage offices and trendy galleries, into a very desirable residential neighborhood. The surge of new residents opens an unparalleled opportunity to create a true community, one that celebrates the city's religious heritage while extending a welcoming presence to all."

Longtime resident Barton Faist gives his take on the brochure:

My first reaction is that this is not a place of history. It's a place of demolition. It's not even a cathedral district, 'cause there are only two churches--Holy Name and Saint James--actually in the cathedral district. Those other churches and synagogues [listed on the brochure] are located outside the district. They'd have to bus them in. So tell me, how do two churches in 12 square blocks make a cathedral district? Then there's that line about 'a tremendous development boom' opening 'unparalleled opportunities' to celebrate the city's religious heritage. What does a development boom have to do with celebrating religious heritages? A development boom is a euphemism for saying 'We're destroying old buildings.' What does historical demolition have to do with religion? They talk about preserving the past. Oh, they're going to put up signs to tell you what was here before they tore it down? Do they think we're stupid? And that thing about the community seders and the Christmas caroling--what a joke. They're building great high-rise fortresses. How can you go caroling there if you can't get past the doormen?

No surprise to see the 'Cathedral District' heartily endorsed by Ald. Burt Natarus, a classic Daley crony who shouldn't be allowed within 100 yards of anything resembling city business. Not only is he an obnoxious person, but when I interviewed him in January he told me that the demolition of potential landmark buildings on Division east of State to build a CVS--with a Walgreens, Jewel and Osco all within two blocks--was a triumph of our captialist system, which thrives on competition. Oh, how wonderful, now I can save 20 cents on a bag of Doritos--so to hell with history! It's not a triumph of competition, it's a triumph of monotony.

Previous Chicago Beat

Monday, July 07, 2003

My latest B&C blog:
The start of a series on the New World Atlas--what maps, borders, and golf courses have to do with how we see the world.

My B&C blog archive:
Chicago Beat
I didn't appreciate the local media's breathless coverage of the Lincoln Park porch collapse as much as Steve Rhodes did--I just don't share the media's insatiable appetite for violent death--but I applaud his point that the media over-eulogized the porch victims for being affluent achievers: "Were the tragic dimensions of the Lincoln Park porch collapse enlarged in the eyes of the media because the victims were affluent people from elite schools who appeared to have, by traditional standards, bright futures?" he asks in his column this week. He seems to suggest the answer is yes, and I agree.

An impolite but pertinent question whether such reportedly bright people should have identified the danger of squeezing so many bodies onto such a small porch. The local press has been obsessed with whether porch builders and city inspectors should have been more accountable for the porch's construction and permit, even though there was no indication the porch was unsafe. The press is always looking to beat up on city officials for something--usually for good reason, but sometimes far too eagerly.

- One rule of Chicago sports is that the Cubs and White Sox have a kind of equilibrium--when one has a good year, the other has a bad year. With both in playoff contention at the All-Star Break, the rule is holding true on a month-by-month basis. After the Cubs had a brilliant April and the Sox a stumbling start, now the Sox are going full throttle--having swept the Twins (my wife and I were at Comiskey for the homer-happy series opener) and making two playoff-minded big-name trades--while the Cubs are struggling, having been swept by the Phillies and dropping two of three to the first-place Cardinals. If the Sox can keep it up through the break and the Cubs can find some consistency, it's going to be an interesting August and September on both the North and South sides.

- An important but unexplained clip from the June 20 Chicago Reader:
"The growth in population is outpacing the growth in commuters for the first time in 40 years," reports Siim Soot, coauthor of "Commuting in the Chicago Area," a recent report from the U of I at Chicago's Urban Transportation Center. Between 1970 and 1990 the metropolitan Chicago population increased 4 percent, while the number of commuters increased by over 20 percent. Since 1990 the population has grown 11.4 percent, but the number of commuters has increased by just 6.9 percent."

- Another Reader clip: According to something called the Center for Impact Research, 57 percent of Lawndale adults are incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.

- Despair elsewhere: Just up the lakeshore in my home state of Michigan: the Benton Harbor riots

- Here's a Slate story on "blog maps" in NY and DC--bloggers who organize themselves according to their city's subway maps. Chicago really should have something like that, but I don't know if there are enough local bloggers to pull it off. E-mail me if you're a Chicago blogger who's interested in this.

Previous Chicago Beat
Misguided earnestness and other stories:
If you, like me, think the most interesting journalism is about "ordinary' people and their everyday lives, not the speeches and strategies of government leaders, you must enjoy the NY Times' Metropolitan Diary, as I do. My favorite entry from this week's column:

I was playing a homeless man in a film being shot in the fountain area in front of the Plaza Hotel. I had a scraggly beard, a filthy face, tattered clothes and a shopping wagon filled with junk. A film crew always attracts a crowd, which now watched as the camera moved across the area to my bench. A bystander boomed out: "What the hell are you doing? Leave the poor guy alone!"

The nonplused crew stared at him.
A second man called out, "What are you taking advantage of this guy for?"
Another angry voice asked, "Did you at least give him a couple of bucks?"
Finally the director found her voice and shouted, "He's an actor!"
And the first man said, "Yeah, and I'm Donald Trump."
He moved in and put a hand on my shoulder. "Come on, pal," he said. "I'll get you out of here."
The director shouted: "Wait a minute! He's a professional actor! He's in a costume, you nitwit."

The crowd looked at me. I looked at the crowd. The crowd raised a questioning eyebrow. I nodded yes. And the film continued.
Damned if you're interesting, damned if you're boring: why to stay out of politics:Poor Howard Dean. He was sucked in by one of the most reliable currents of the news media: the punishment of freethinkers for every minor imperfection. Identifying this phenomenon is a step to understanding our sorry state of today's campaigns. The problem is that candidates must be mind-numbingly predictable in order to raise funds and not commit "slipups" or "mishaps" which will be punished by the press. (Even though the more boring you are, the more hungry the press is for mishaps in order to write about something interesting.) But on the other side of the boringness spectrum, the press punishes outspoken and interesting people like Howard Dean for not being more scripted, by focusing on how their outspoken style leads to--you guessed it--"slipups" and "mishaps" (as the Washington Post did with a story called "Misfires from the Hip Create Problems, Dean Discovers").

In other words, if you are boring, the press will focus all the more on your mishaps as a way of trying to stay awake. If you are too interesting, the press will focus on your mishaps as a way of smugly saying, "We're wiser than this know-it-all outsider." (Only John McCain was able to avoid this trap by kissing the press' ass in 2000.) The result? Boring campaigns, meaningless but endless press coverage of "mishaps," and citizens left with no compelling reason to vote one way or another.

In an earlier B&C blog, I wrote about the problem with press coverage that limits itself to campaign strategy rather than ideas and issues.
With government aid and health care for all:
Canadian columnist Naomi Klein comparing Canada and the U.S. in an interview with the NYT Mag. I think there's a kernel of truth to this, although my sister (who is attending college in Ontario) would rush to point out that the expediency of Canada's health care system is far from comforting:

The main difference between the two countries is that the United States is driven by fear. There is not a strong social safety net in the U.S., so you worry that you will have no money when you retire, or have no one to take care of you when you get sick. The look-after-yourself mentality is at the core of how the United States has chosen to build its society. link
Etymology Today from M-W: tantivy \tan-TIH-vee/
:in a headlong dash : at a gallop

"Tantivy" is also a noun meaning "a rapid gallop" or "an impetuous rush." Although its precise origin isn't known, one theory has it that "tantivy" represents the sound of a galloping horse's hooves. The noun does double duty as a word meaning "the blare of a trumpet or horn." This is probably due to confusion with "tantara," a word for the sound of a trumpet that came about as an imitation of that sound. Both "tantivy" and "tantara" were used during foxhunts; in the heat of the chase people may have jumbled the two.

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