My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

..but he's still an idjit

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Even though I may agree with him on occasion, I still think that, taken as a whole, Justince Scalia is an idiot. The Tribune reports that Scalia took the unusual step of summarizing his dissent in the 10 commandments case from the bench:
Scalia's dissent was personal in tone. He recounted that on Sept. 11, 2001, he was in Rome for an international conference when terrorists attacked the U.S. Upon hearing President Bush end his address to the nation with "God bless America," a European judge said such religious expressions would be forbidden in his country.

In Europe, "religion is to be strictly excluded from the public forum," Scalia wrote. "This is not, and never was, the model adopted by America."

I have two problems with this. One is that conservatives always attack court decisions that protect civil liberties with the pseudo-argument that judges are ruling based on the permissive cultural preferences of the "Elite" rather than on the law. But here, Scalia is making a decision based on his personal reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the way they make him feel about religion. If the cultural sensitivities of the "Elite" are inadmissable in court, what makes the cultural sensitivities of the Idiot Mob any more relevant?

My second problem with Scalia's little story is that it is completely untrue. Here in the real world, European countries do not enforce a separation of church and state. In fact, most of them have an official state church - Catholic in France and Italy, Anglican in England, etc. The establishment of religion in Europe is directly related to the decline of religious faith on that continent, as the entanglement of church and state led Europeans to regard both as mouthpieces for the corrupt powers that be.

In America, by contrast, church and state have been separate. The result has been the flourishing of religious thought and practice, since religion was something people did for themselves, not something dictated to them by authority. If there's something that has made the American experience different, that something is precisely the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The past fifty years or so, however, in which religious groups, especially evangelical protestants, have been organizing for political power, have not coincidentally seen a precipitous falloff in church attendance. And look at the effect on religion itself. The evangelical movement, for all its stunning anti-intellectualism, was once also known for its radical egalitarianism. It was embraced by, and embraced abolitionists, anarchists, and trade unionists. These days the movement has become chief apologist for the rapacious corporate elite. How? By getting caught in the web of the quest for political power.

Look at Iran. Officially a religious dictatorship, the majority of its population was born after the 1979 revolution. And today's young Iranian men are far more likely to be interested in heroin and girls than in Shi'ite Islam. If they wanted to raise a religious generation, they would outlaw Islam - then all the cool kids would be doing it. People are like that.

Monday, June 27, 2005

I agree with Scalia?

A wave of Supreme Court decisions over the past few days. No resignations thank god, but after reading about these decisions, how could it get much worse?

Fort Trumbull Massacre

I blogged about the Battle of Fort Trumbull here, and I'm not about to do it again, so follow the link, you lazy bums. But the Supreme Court has spoken, and the decision, 5-4, states that local governments have the legal right to use eminent domain to seize people's homes and businesses against their will for private development.

The constitution explicitly grants governments the right to seize land for "public purposes," and no one is contesting the constitutionality of appropriating land to build a hospital, road, or park. At issue was whether homes can be seized and domolished to build a Wal-Mart or an office park. Is such activity a "public purpose?"

The court has ruled that it is. "The city has carefully formulated an economic development that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including — but by no means limited to — new jobs and increased tax revenue," wrote Justice Stevens, a guy I often find myself agreeing with. He was joined by Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. You know, the "good guys." Defining the public interest as "economic development" and "increased tax revenue."

In other words, it's in the public interest to remove lower income people from within city limits and replace them with people and businesses which will pay more in taxes. Since the poor are a drain on public finances, obviously it is in the public interest to drive them out of town! Following this logic, since our economy really has no further need for unskilled manual labor, it would be in the public interest to take the deindustrialized underclass out in a field somewhere, tie their hands behind their backs, and shoot them in the head. Think about the gains in efficiency and economic growth! Thankfully the Supreme Court was not quite so sweeping in its reasoning. This term.

Defending our rights and basic human dignity were a group of dissenting justices - namely O'Connor, Renquist, Thomas, and, yes, Scalia. How come these guys can so clearly see that granting the government power to run people out of town with bulldozers is wrong, but don't have a problem with sodomy laws? I just don't get it. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's dissent said that the majority handed "disproportionate influence and power" to the well-heeled in America. No shit. We'll return to that theme in a moment.

Well what the f**k is it good for then?

In another fun case, the Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled that Jessica Gonzales did not have a constitutional right to police enforcement of the court order against her husband, who subsequently kidnapped and murdered her children.

Justice Antonin Scalia, (back on Team Evil where he belongs) wrote, "The creation of a personal entitlement to something as vague and novel as enforcement of restraining orders cannot 'simply go without saying.' We conclude that Colorado has not created such an entitlement."

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said that the woman's "description of the police behavior in this case and the department's callous policy of failing to respond properly to reports of restraining order violations clearly alleges a due process violation."

"The restraining orders are not worth anything unless police officers are willing to enforce them. They are just paper," said Brian Reichel, the attorney for Gonzales. "If nothing else this case has shined the spotlight on a very important issue."

It sure has! Abusive thugs everywhere are celebrating and stocking up on ammo now that it's been established the people with orders of protection don't actually have a rigtht to, er, protection.

End of the digital revolution?

In another fine example of Supreme judgement, the court ruled - unanimously! - that the music and movie industries can sue technology companies like Grokster to stem losses from music and movie piracy. These corporations have been blaming file sharing for their failure to achieve the profits the feel the so richly deserve.

The court may be right about the letter of the law, but I have two big problems with this decision. First of all, Congress keeps extending copyright protections out to the horizon, so that it looks like nothing is ever going to be public domain again - and now those copyrights will be rigidly enforced, not just against sale by a rival company, but against you, doing things traditionally regarded as "fair use."

The second problem here is that piracy isn't really causing the big media companies to lose that much money, any more than cassette tapes or VCRs did. Example: Wells burned me an illegal copy of a "Tindersticks" album, which I occasionally listen to. Did the company or the band lose any money here? No, because I never, ever would have bought it myself. Basic supply and demand for you: quantity demanded at a price of $0 is much higher than quantity demanded at a price of $17. I learned that in Econ 101. If they had to pay for all these songs and movies, consumers would pony up for maybe 10% of what they grab for free. Which means corporate losses are less then they are claiming by a factor of 10. The real reason they are losing money is that the product in recent years has been bland, boring, market tested, genre-specific, derivitive, unimaginative crap. Look who supported the decision: Don Henley, Cheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks. Mass marketed pablum. Look who opposed it - Chuck D, Brian Eno, Heart, and a bunch of musicians having trouble getting their product out passed the corporate filter to their audience.

What's really at stake here is control over the distribution of content. Take the example of that Fiona Apple album, finished but locked up somewhere. The record company owns it and won't release it. Do you really want big media corporations deciding what you can listen to? Again, the rights of the rich and powerful trump your rights.

In a related case, the Court in its infinite wisdom decided that cable companies cannot be forced to allow competing Internet Service Providers from using their broadband networks, establishing a virtual broadband monopoly in many areas. This will slow the public's uptake of broadband technology, of course, but it has other implications as well. We are at the point technologically where we could eliminate fixed TV programming schedules for good. Under a more competitive model, if you wanted to watch the latest episode of "Battlestar Galactica," you'd just go to the Sci-Fi Channel website and download in whenever you felt like it. But now that companies have asserted total control over the content of their infrastructure, your only option is to set the VCR or TiVo for its obnoxious Friday night timeslot (I'm assuming you have a life). That is, until next term, when the Supremes will probably reverse their 1983 Betamax ruling and decide that taping shows is copyright infringement, too, as is hitting MUTE during those stupid car commercials.

Conservative Movement whackos like to complain that when the Court acts to protect the rights of women, homosexuals, and minorities, it is answering to the social preferences of elites rather than the law. While the argument is ridiculous, it is sort of a funhouse mirror image of the truth; time and again, the Court seems to bow to the economic interests of the corporate elite, no matter what else is at stake. I heard a man on the radio bemoaning the New London case - he's being thrown out of the house he's lived in his whole life, as has his elderly mother. "My great grandfather built this house - I garden the same ground as my great grandfather." This time next year, that garden will probably be paved over as part of the parking lot of one of those horrible suburban office parks. Ah, progress.

At least they can't do any more harm until October 3. Let's hear it for those long Federal vacations!

Thursday, June 23, 2005


Hey, it's time for a new feature here at WCB. Today we bring you two voices from the community to rationally debate the issues of the day. From today's Tribune:
Special-ed quota criticized
State says Chicago schools' testing restrictions violate federal law

By Tracy Dell'Angela and Bonnie Miller Rubin, Tribune staff reporters
Published June 22, 2005

Chicago Public Schools has violated federal law by restricting how many students could be referred for special education services at specific schools, state education officials allege.

Teachers, specialists and advocates have long complained of an illegal quota system. They say the city school system tightly controls access to services, denying struggling children extra help because of money constraints.

With us today are Tracy Triplicate form the Chicago Board of Education, and LaToya Watson-Mohammad, representing the Chicago Teachers' Union*.


TT:First of all, there's no quota. But, look - for a long time we have had teachers just dumping kids in Special Ed so they don't have to deal with them. Have you heard of the famous study in which it was demonstrated that teachers were classifying Latino kids as mentally retarded because they didn't speak English? Rather than helping them learn the language, they were put in Special Ed classes in which they weren't taught anything at all. The same thing has happened here. If a child has a disability, then by all means put the child in a special program. But lots of kids don't do well because they have behavioral issues, or have trouble at home, or are in fear for their lives from gangs, or have other emotional issues that keep them from learning. Ths solution is not to stick them in Special Ed. The solution is to help them and teach them.

LWM: There is a quota system. And in some of our neighborhoods, there are a lot of disabled children. We have kids who can't read, who don't learn, who aren't retaining anything and it's disruptive to keep them in class. It hurts the other children. We already have 30 kids in a class some places, and we can't afford to deal with kids who aren't going to learn. What would you do with a sixth grader who can't read?

TT: Have you tried teaching them how? That is in your job description, you know.

LWM: Let me check - hey! Low blow! That's not the point, and you know it. You just don't want to pay to educate these kids! You get a fixed special ed grant from the Feds no matter how many kids are in the program! You're just gaming the system.

TT: No, you're gaming the system. You know these special ed kids don't count against you test scores, so you want to exempt everyone it would be difficult to teach.

LWM: You created these incentives! You want to shut our school down over some stupid test.

TT: You're a lazy ,incompetant blockhead. I wish it was easier to fire you.

LWM: Well, you're a bloodless fascist troll.

TT: At least my kid goes to a real school!

LBM: Think you're too good for us, you pasty-faced bitch!

TT: Fuck you.

LBM: Fuck you!

Well, I guess that clears that up! Join us next time on Point-Counterpoint, when we discuss the East Village Landmark District!

*note - not their real names. nobody you know. composite characters. don't sue me, I don't have any money.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

What Rough Beast . . .

He caved. I guess he's not in line for the next edition of Profiles in Courage after all.

I can't really express my disappointment, but Yeats can:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

He has nothing to apologize for. The Right uses American troops like hostages; they hide behind them, claiming that criticizing the war policies of the administration is beyond the pale because it might hurt the soldiers' feelings to hear that we don't support their actions. But I don't really care how it makes them feel. I'm not the one who put them in harm's way in Iraq, after all. I always said it was a bad idea. Iraq is a political problem, not a military problem. That's why efforts to "crush the insurgency" don't work. These are ultimately attempts to crush the Sunni Arab population, and nothing short of genocide will accomplish that.

Which is why it's perfectly fair to compare the Bush administration's tactics to Pol Pot or Stalin. The neocons believe they are engaged in a struggle of democracy against fascism. They aren't - they've wandered into ongoing conflicts between ethnic and religious groups, and they don't know which side to take - Shiites in Iraq, Sunnis in Lebanon, do we have any friends in Syria at all?

To "win" such conflicts takes tactics worthy of Stalin, or at least Saddam. No, Bush isn't really Pol Pot, and doesn't have it in him to really destroy another people. Or I sincerely hope not. But if that's the case, we need a different kind of solution if we want to bring democracy and peace to the Middle East. Because the type of military force we are bringing to bear just isn't going to cut it.

THe problem is, gaining and keeping power in the middle east is a life and death proposition, because of the "winner take all" political culture. Being out of power or in the minority doesn't just mean you don't like the laws that are past, it means that you are subjected to the underside of a repressive regime. That's right, detention without charge, assassination, torture, "waterboarding," you know, all that good stuff the Bushies think is necessary to protect you.

The solution is not a military victory over the forces of evil, but a political solution that enshrines minority rights in law, allowing people to be safe and free even when their tribe doesn't control the state. It's things like the rule of law, the separation of church and state, exactly the things the Conservative movement is threatening to destroy in our own country, that can make social peace possible. The victory of one group over another isn't even desireable. What's needed is a system that allows people to work out their differences peacefully, or agree to disagree.

You know, a system like we used to have here.

Speaking of which, hey, has anybody seen Jose Padilla lately? He looks sorta like this:
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Another quote, from the people over at Charge Jose Padilla, one you probably haven't heard in oh, about four or five years now:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

5th Amendment to U.S. Constitution

It's like this. Either Padilla's a terrorist, in which case charge him under that anti-terrorism law that got passed after Oklahoma City, or else he's not, in which case release him. The same goes for Guantanamo. Either those guys are illegal combatants, in which case charge them with crimes, or they were legitimate Afghan soldiers, in which case they are POWs and need to be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. There may be some grey areas there, but there are no legal black holes through which several hundred people can fall and land on lawless islands where they have no rights and can be held and tortured at the President's whim. These are the first stages of tyranny. If they can hold Jose Padilla for four and a half years without meeting any standard of proof or being accountable to any judge, they can hold you too. What good will being innocent do you without due process?

"Trust us" they say? This country wasn't built on trust, it was built on checks and balances and the rule of law. This attitude is spreading and has infected the local level. Consider this new policy here in my hometown:
The city has begun posting the names and photographs of alleged "johns" on the Police Department's Web site for all to see, including spouses, children, employers, friends and neighbors, Mayor Richard Daley announced Tuesday.

Now I've got no problem with posting the names and photos of convicted johns on the Web. But alleged johns is a different ball of wax altogether. What, do you think the police never arrest the wrong man? Or, um, sentence him to Death Row, or leave him to rot in prison for 24 years? Miscarriages of justice turn out to be pretty common, but at least with a convicted criminal you have a judge or jury backing up your claims. But just an arrest - again, with no standard of proof, they can arrest anyone they want, post their name on the Web, and then drop the charges.

And now it looks like Congress is going to pass an amendment to allow it to ban flag burning. I listened to the arguments on the radio this afternoon. One congressman said the amendment was necessary because the flag is "a sacred symbol of our country that is being desecrated." But last time I checked, desecrating sacred symbols was none of the government's business, since it was protected behavior under the freedom of religion. But now I guess Congress will assert its right to define political and religious "crimes."

Is this the kind of country you want to live in?

Sunday, June 19, 2005


The headline in yesterday's Tribune, in big bold letters:

DNA clears dad in girl's slaying

The article by Deborah Horan, Jo Napolitano and John Biemer describes the release of Kevin Fox, a suburban Will County man who spent eight months in jail charged with the rape and murder of his 3 year old daughter. DNA test results from the crime scene resulted in an "absolute exclusion of Kevin Fox as a donor," State's Atty. James Glasgow told the judge.

So why was he in jail, and why did it take so long to perform the test? Simple. Kevin Fox confessed. To a crime it's now clear he couldn't have committed. Why would someone do something like that?
Fox turned aside questions about the videotaped confession at the heart of the case, saying "it was a nightmare and I don't want to relive it right now."

But later, in an interview with the Tribune, he said he was "fed lies and threats the entire time." His wife, who stood by him through his arrest and time in jail, said that when she was questioned "they messed with my mind so much in what little time they had so I couldn't even imagine what they did" with him.
. . .
Fox, according to [attorney Kathleen] Zellner, confessed only after he was questioned for 14 hours and was exhausted, and because authorities allegedly promised him that he would face lesser charges and quickly be released if he said his daughter's death was an accident.

"They get people who are emotionally traumatized and obtain a bogus confession," said Zellner, who has helped to free several wrongly convicted inmates but, in an unusual move, took on the defense of Fox before trial.

Let's put this in context. Although there are many fine and honest officers serving and protecting our fair state, the Illinois law enforcement community has the reputation of not being above delivering a good ass kicking in much the same way the ocean is not above the sky. Several of the 13 subsequently cleared Death Row inmates who made our state's system of capital punishment so well known around the world complained that their false confessions had been "coerced" by police.

Yes, I'm talking about torture. Or "aggressive interrogation tactics" or whatever the FBI is calling it these days. Here in the Windy City, there is a history of obtaining confessions from suspects, especially suspects who are racial minorities, but applying a great deal of what apologists call "pressure" and normal people refer to as "force" or perhaps "violence or the threat of violence." There's even one local technique rumored to involve a car battery, cables, and genitalia.

Leaving the Constitution out of it for just a moment, the problem with these techniques as an information gathering tool is that they result in an unacceptable number of false positives - all you have to do is show me the car battery and I'm probably going to confess to anything they want me to. I have no special knowledge of the Fox case, but I have my suspicians as to the kind of thing police might do or say to get a man to confess to raping and killing his three year old daughter, when he did no such thing.

Which brings us to the Guantanamo Bay, and the rest of our gulag archipeligo. I'm really tired of hearing our elected officials defend these "aggressive interrogation techniques" as necessary to gain "actionable intelligence" in the Global War On Terror. But torture doesn't produce actionable intelligence. Absolutely it produces confessions. Subjecting people to pain and exhaustion quite naturally makes them want to tell you whatever they think will make you stop doing that to them, which is not necessarily the same thing as telling you the truth.

I'm sure there are al Quaeda terrorists at Guantanamo who have given the US useful intelligence. But I am also certain that a number of ignorant herdsmen and poppy farmers were rounded up, mostly by neighbors who wanted the reward money for turning in terrorists and Taliban during the invasion. Either group will be eager to confirm whatever story their torturers want confirmed after a few days of waterboarding. This has always been true. Going back to the Inquisition, we see countless cases of people confessing to congress with the Devil, even though there's no such person as the devil, and of practicing dark magic and witchcraft, even though there's no such thing as magic. Some people confessed they had the power to fly, or do other impossible things. As would you, if you were being tortured on the rack.

So the usefulness of torture for intelligence gathering is extremely limited. Forming alliances with prisoners and stroking their egos is a much more reliable method of intelligence gathering, as of course is the age old method of exchanging money for information. But torture, in the Inquisition and the GWOT, has the advantage of confirming for the torturer that he was right about everything all along. No wonder they haen't been able to find bin Laden.

Dick Durbin, our Senior Senator, drew a lot of fire for the following comment:
If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings.

Faced with a withering assault from the right, he has "clarified" his remarks somewhat:
<''My statement in the Senate was critical of the policies of this administration, which add to the risk our soldiers face," he said in a statement released yesterday afternoon. I have learned from my statement that historical parallels can be misused and misunderstood. I sincerely regret if what I said caused anyone to misunderstand my true feelings: Our soldiers around the world and their families at home deserve our respect, admiration, and total support.

Which is bullshit. If they're engaging in torture, they don't deserve our total support. They deserve to be charged, tried and imprisoned as criminals, for engaging in behavior that is intolerable in any civilized society, whether it takes place at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, or Cook County Jail. Torture is not effective, it does not keep you safe, it does not help promote freedom around the world, and it sullies and compromises the principles on which this country was founded.

Please write to Senator Durbin to thank him for his remarks and ask him to never, ever apologize for speaking truth to power. It's important.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Minority Report II

From the comments:

And--advertisers are whining because they can't target their CTA ads to specific neighborhoods?? Hello, this is a transit ad. Thus, "in transit". I can only imagine what kind of ads the Western bus would have to carry, to appeal to every ethnic and S-E group on the route.
Actually, that’s a great idea. The computer calls stops based on GPS satellite positioning these days, so why not the ads? Heading south from Touhy past Devon, all ads would be in Urdu and would make no sense to people unfamiliar with Bollywood films (“what’s the deal with the water buffalo?”). South through Ravenswood it would all be home improvement products, Home Depot probably, featuring the guy from This Old House working on a Queen Anne. Maybe a spot for a Korean grocery around Lawrence, followed by commercials for travel agents, in English, as the bus passes through Lincoln Square. Lakeview would be your standard TV fare, Target/Nike/iPod stuff.

South of the river, commercials for travel agents, in Spanish, would alternate with dada ads pitching $200 pairs of jeans by showing you hot chicks. These would continue on through Wicker Park, in the Village the iPod ads would start up again. South of Lake street there’s not much to pitch, ads would probably push DeVry, and also Hennessy. There would be something inane featuring a pro basketball player talking to a puppet.

The Illinois Medical District? Probably malpractice insurance. Local businesses advertising in Spanish would pick up south of Ogden and run through the canal. These ads would feature minor Spanish soap opera stars smiling way too wide. Tortillas and Tecate. And possibly Erik Estrada. A Polish beer commercial would run between 33rd and Archer, followed by a string of car dealerships and White Sox promotions, in both English and Spanish, through 55th Street. A couple spots in Arabic for immigration lawyers would probably find an audience here, too.

West Englewood could be done in style, with funky Jheri Curl ads and BET spots, but I suspect that it would really be annoying, with megachurches alternating with malt liquor and cigarette ads, just like the billboards. Also movie ads, which could be cool depending on the movie.

South of 71st, cars and sitcoms, as well as more home-improvement ads, this time featuring black actors. Definitely a spot for the Target at 86th and Cottage Grove.

From 87th Street through the end of the line at 103rd, ads would feature Guinness, Aer Lingus, and fundraisers for the Irish Republican Army.

Unless you’re running express, there’s time for a captive audience to take in maybe two hours of ads on this line! The CTA should definitely look into this. At least until they come out with those cool holographic ads that access all of your personal information from your retina scan and use it to market to you personally, like in that creepy Tom Cruise movie. It's closer than you realize (thanks for the link, Trope).

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

"Progress" stinks

Apparently not everyone shares my horror of advertising invading every public space in the world. Some people are writing that the CTA doesn't have enough advertising up, and that blank surfaces are wasted space that could be used to tastefully pitch lingerie, movies or gas guzzling SUVs. Alison Neumer of RedEye writes that "Obstacles discourage progress" including "City Hall red tape" that "make[s] it difficult to introduce new types of ads." Well, let's hear if for red tape, because "progress" stinks. What would a progressive advertising utopia be like?
It's time the CTA considered all of its property--the sidewalks, the stairwells, the Web site--potential advertising real estate. Billboards, bus posters and train placards are CTA's obvious choices, but people screen out traditional media ads after a while. That's why advertisers continue to go the guerrilla marketing route, always hunting for unrealized space such as an elevator, the back of ticket stubs or someone's forehead.

The subway tunnel commercial like the one on the Blue Line is a good first step; let's see more stuff like it. Riders might be irritated: Do we really need more ads? No, but I can deal with a deodorant or cell phone pitch if it means my train shows up.
Or maybe we could keep the trains running by taxing environment destroying, national security compromising SUVs, rather than using the subway to promote them? And leave my forehead out of this, you bastards.

One thing I've been meaning to mention but don't think I'm going to have time to really right about is Revealing Chicago. On the way home from the Blues Festival last week I came across this exhibition of aerial photograpy by Terry Evans, focusing on all my urban issues: density, suburban sprawl, etc. They're beautiful pictures, trying to show the relationships between different patterns of settlement. But I don't think they make the case for traditional neighborhood design over sprawl, because the exhibit inclueds not one single picture of a healthy traditional neighborhod like mine. Also, she shows a block of ranch houses and calls them bungalows, which bugs me. Bungalow is a very specific term around here. Still, it's a cool place to start. It could have been a lot stronger with a couple more pictures, though.

I've also been venting about war and stuff. I just don't want to do it here. So it's back at ye olde blogge.

Demolition of the Century: Yankee Stadium

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No longer content with his run of the mill brand of banal evil, George Steinbrenner apparently plans to build a new, modern stadium for the evil empire, to replace the House that Ruth Built. By new and modern, they mean adding luxury boxes for the wealthy while having fewer seats for regular fans. Have you ever seen a game from a luxury box? It sucks. You have to bring your own food or take an elevator just to get a hot dog. You're way up in the sky, but instead of getting in for cheap because you're not up close, you actually have to pay more. Wimpy old people like this setup because they get better bathrooms, but for everybody else it's just another way corporate types can avoid muddying their feet by sharing space with the rest of us suckers.

Why would I be pissed about this? you wisely ask. I hate the Yankees, right? But I love hating the Yankees, and I don't want them ever to change.

I can't even talk about this. At least they're not asking the public to pay for it (First of all, the Yanks will never leave New York, and secondly money never seems to be an object for Steinbrenner). I've got to figure out how to get back out to New York while it's still baseball season . . .

Monday, June 13, 2005

Gum and Cell Phones: The Siege Engines of Global Consumer Capitalism

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So I went to Wrigley field on Saturday for the second game of the Cubs long-awaited series with the World Champion Red Sox. The Cubs can always make a game exciting – even when they’re way ahead, you never know if they’ll find a way to blow it in the end. They came perilously close that day – giving up two runs and letting another guy get on base in the top of the ninth. Still, a command performance compared to Sunday’s debacle.

But while the game didn’t disappoint, Wrigley did a bit. This was my first visit this year, and I couldn’t help being put off by the new upper deck scoreboards with the corporate logo advertising, especially since I had been looking forward to the classic Wrigley nearly ad-free baseball experience. This in addition to the annoying digital sign they added under the classic scoreboard last year. Yes, I know the field is named after a gum company, and that it was named that way to sell gum. Yes, people weren’t any more innocent back in 1914. But it seems like advertising is slipping more and more into everyday experience, and after my nightmarish experience on the el the other day it felt like an invasion. It’s no Jumbotron, but it sure is annoying. I mean what do Washington Mutual Bank and Cingular Wireless have to do with baseball, anyway? At least with beer, I can see the connection.

Friday, June 10, 2005

"Just a bunch of idiots"

As I write the Cubs and Red Sox are in the early innings of a game at Wrigley Field. It’s strange for me, I root for both teams, which has never been a conflict since they haven’t played since the 1918 World Series. Until today.

Across town people are asking whether the rematch still means anything. In the past, both teams seemed equally cursed, and both teams suffered improbable losses just three outs from the 2003 World Series – which was where both Cubs and Boston fans had hoped the rematch would take place. But now that the Red Sox are defending world champions, does it matter?

Hell yes. For one thing, Cubs fans never really shared the existential angst of Sisyphean losers in Boston. For that, you’d have to go down to the South Side where they won the Series as recently as 1917. Up here, the “idiots” are the fans, not the players. We just like to go to Wrigley Field where the advertising is at a merciful minimum, the game is played the way it should be and the beer flows like a mighty stream. Hell, Cubs fans probably know less about baseball than fans of any other team. My fear is, we win it all someday (inevitable now that there are wild card teams and playoffs), and afterwards Northsiders come to expect victory, and leave Wrigley empty and forlorn during losing seasons, like they were the Devil Rays or something. Which would be foolish. It’s summer, it’s beautiful, and the joy of life springing forth after the horrible winter is embodied by the boys in blue.
And our bitter, sarcastic, East Coast cousins are in town for the weekend, flush with cash and full of themselves. Does it matter? Hell yes. Manny Ramirez is in town – let’s see if we can’t strike him out.

It's 2:17 pm - Cubs 3, Red Sox 1 . . .

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Blues for the Advertizing Age

Trope's out of town due to an illness in the family almost instantly I am bored, so I wandered down to Grant Park to see John Mayall's Blues Breakers play at the opening night of the Chicago Blues Festival. To my horror, staring out the window into what should have been the inky darkness of the subway tunnel, I discovered there are now ads deep in the bowels of the CTA. I'm not talking about the poster ads for iPods and divorce lawyers which line the inside of the el cars, I mean video advertisements on giant TV screens. It's devilously ingenious, really. A bank of screens each shows a short segment of a commercial over and over again, so as the train drives past it's like watching a flip-card notebook movie, the kind you used to draw in math class when you should have been learning what a cosine is. Only not quite as pornographic.

The ad was for the Hummer H3, and it really bugged me. I don't want every corner of my life invaded by advertising for products I don't want and couldn't afford anyway, not even from our official sponsor. So imagine my horror when I arrived at Blues Fest to find that, not only had a giant Jumbotron-style TV screen been set up to show rock-video style closeups of the bands while blocking the view of the actual live performance, but that between sets it was used to show an endless loop of really loud commercials. For Fandango, Sharpie pens and Moen faucets, for chrissakes. I tried to imagine the ditzy pre-yuppies, geeky Zeppelin T-shirt clad high school kid, and tatooed lesbians who surrounded me, not to mention Ronne "Woo Woo" Wickers (yes, he was there - the Cubs had the day off) being moved to buy an ugly new faucet by the pursuasive power of these ads.

It's sad, really. Hold on a minute, I gotta go hit Danny's Liquor and Porn before they close or I'll run out of beer.


Okay, I'm back. Let me take this opportunity to put in a product plug for Heineken in the 24 ounce bottle. One time when I was backpacking at Canyonlands National Park in Utah and was becoming dangerously dehydrated, I hallucinated a giant green bottle of Heinie, glistening with sweat and beckoning to me, promising to quench my thirst. Also, the 24-ounce bottle has 2 more ounces than your ordinary double deuce.

Anyway. I'm increasingly dismayed by how every experience in increasingly brought to me by some big evil corporation or other. I mean TV shows are one thing (it comes with an off switch. Did you know that?) but the Blues Festival? A fucking el ride?

Still the show was pretty good. Mayall can't sing anymore (shouldn't have smoked so much) but he can still play piano and harmonica, and the band was great. They played some old Willie Dixon tunes - de rigeur for the Blues Festival - and jammed a lot. Not sure if I'll go back, though. I remember when the blues found me. My first exposure had been through Led Zeppelin, just like the geeky kid standing next to me tonight. Shuffling through cassette tapes (yes, I'm that old) at the Wake Forest college bookstore on a campus visit in high school, I discovered two albums containing songs covered by Zeppelin - Bob Dylan's first record, featuring In My Time of Dying, and I Am the Blues, featuring a whole lot of stuff, including You Shook Me and I Can't Quit You Baby. My first chance to really listen to Dixon was on a long van ride with Jay Gibson. We sprawled in the back of the van and let the music wash over us like revelationl. It was like nodding on painkillers after having your wisdom teeth out. It was like the earth crying out in despair. It was like the sun setting over the Pacific on a quiet beach. It was smooth. That was 1989.

When I moved to Chicago a few years back, the blues became the Checkerboard Lounge, a South Side neighborhood place featuring the Thursday night guitar heroics of Vance Kelley. The cool kids would drive up to see him play, while most U of C dorks wouldn't venture north of 47th street if you paid them. Hell, I once offered this one girl $1,000 if she would walk home from Jimmy's (aka the Woodlawn Tap - about four blocks). So afraid of the neighborhood was she, she turned it down. White people. I mean, really. If the music was "brought to me by" anybody in that era, at least it was Old Style. In 1993 I drove all the way from Ohio to see the Blues festival. Messed up the car doing it, too - I got run off the road by a semi in road construction, and took out a big line of orange and white sawhorses. They shattered and went flying, it was very Dukes of Hazard. I don't know how the windshield survived. Now, I don't know if I'll be going back. They have a very good lineup this year, but I'm not sure I'm up to watching old people try to recapture their glory days on the Jumbotron between commercials. I mean, they even intercut the Bluesbreakers with shots of the skyline, MTV style. I can see the skyline, I screamed to myself. I'm standing right here.

And it's not just the ads. The whole spirit of the thing. It's the videos, the safe choices, the sterile new park . . . it's like they're turning Chicago into some bizarre combination of Midtown Manhattan and the family friendly Vegas of the '90s. It used to be this town was former sharecroppers, pushcart vendors, shifty bartenders, mobsters, anarchists, and Irish street toughs, and that was just City Council. I don't want this place to be too safe and clean, then all the Republicans would move back, and nobody wants that.

But when the sun sets behind that weird red skyscraper, and the sky turns purple and mauve, and the wind shifts and brings the smell of the lake into the park, and Ronnie Woo Woo starts jumping around like a maniac to impress a couple cute tourists, it's still pretty damn cool.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Weird Science

In my odd moments of spare time recently, I've read some cool stuff about science. For example, I've learned that garderners such as me have had a big impact on the evolution of flowers. I can see how that would work, as I'm reluctant to weed out any of the wild violets taking over the yard, even the ones threatening to crowd out stuff we actually bought.

In addition, I've learned that human settlement is creating new ecosystems in the icky cities of the Southwest. Brain imaging has revealed that love is more powerful than sex. And the indiginous inhabitants of the new world were likely descended from just 70 people who crossed a land bridge from Asia during the last Ice Age.

Interesting stuff. What do all these stories have incommon? They are the result of ongoing research guided by the theory of evolution, a theory that once again is coming under attack by anti-intellectual stooges intent on making this into the most ignorant country in the world. The "debate" has spread to Georgia, which state was apparently appalled that lowly Kansas has been making a run at the title of least educated state. "What's the matter with Kansas?" they ask, indignantly. "Have you ever been to Georgia?"

Now, in spite of appearances (this blog, for example), I'm a fairly tolerant guy. A functioning democracy, not to mention an educational instutution, must have a climate in which competing ideas can thrive. And in the realm of basically unanswerable questions: the meaning of life, the existence or nature of God, the role of the individual in society, etc., it's fine and good that people come to different conclusions.

But when you have people who insist on believing things which have been proven to be false out of some psychological need to believe it, that's not a valid opinion, it's a psychological pathology which should probably be treated with drugs. So-called "Young Earth Creationists" fall into this camp and I'm not even going to address them in this space. The earth is not 4,000 years old. The Garden of Eden is a powerful myth, but history it ain't. The pseudoscience these people dig up about carbon dating and so on has been proven wrong again and again, yet they keep spouting the same gibberish as soon as your back is turned.

Okay, so I guess I am going to address them in this space. I have had this "debate" in more civil terms in the past, but I just don't have the patience for it now. The problem is, these people are not willing to have a debate about it, so it's pointless. They want to maintain in the public mind at least the possibilty that the Bible could be a literal history, so that they can continue to beat people over the head with it. They are making what is essentially a religious point, that the Bible should be interpreted literally and that all Biblical scholarship and criticism is wrong and irrelevent. Many Christians, a good number of scientists among them, find no conflict between faith and science, because they do not hold to this religious point of view about how the Bible should be read and used. But Fundamentalists are essentially using the Bible as a shield to avoid the thorny ethical debates of modern life. The Bible, to them, is a road map that sets out exactly what one should do, say, and believe. To be moral is to follow it exactly, to stray from it is to sin. Any kind of higher discussion of values, ethics, and morality, any kind of higher thought at all, is unnecessary, vain and possibly dangerous.

So they practice what I like to call "spurious logic." They already know the conclusion they want to reach, and pull together any piece of evidence that seems to support their position, discarding or explaining away the pieces that don't fit. It's a valueable skill in our society. A lot of people make a killing doing this, in advertising, law, and politics. But it shouldn't be confused with rational thought. Reason requires you to look at all the evidence available, eliminate the impossible, and come the the conclusions which best explain all the evidence before you. Whether or not you like the answer or feel comfortable with it is essentially irrelevent.

Not everyone who rejects rational debate in this way is on the Right. Some groups of radical feminists on the Left have also been known to strenuously object to scientific theories and research, not because it's bad science but because they don't like the political, social, or moral implications of any study which suggests there may be inherent differences between men and women.

But such concerns are irrelevant to science, and should be. Which is not to say there's no moral danger in science. One should always look critically at flashy new studies and theories. What's the sample size? Are there confounding variables? How have they operationalized the concepts they are studying? And so on. Ane one should always be cautious about generalizing results from a controlled study and applying them to the world we live in. But you can't go around denying or trying to suppress rational inquiry because you're not comforable with where it's leading, and fear that your pet beiefs about the universe may be proven wrong. The truth hurts, most of the time. Find a way to deal with it.

The only remedy I can see to this situation is to mount a oounterattack. If fundies want to come at us with an attack on the way we teach science, we should come at them and challenge the way they teach the Bible. It was written by men, not God, and is not a literal history. Here is the book they don't want you to read. Buy it. Read it. Talk aoout it in public. It's a history of how the book came to be written, and who decided which parts got accepted as canon. It also discusses different ways people read and use the Bible, among which Fundie literalism is only one, relatively recent approach. Yet the rest of us are so ignorant about it ourselves that we don't realize that these people have no idea what they're talking about. You should probably read this one, too.

The recent challenges to the teaching of modern biology don't come from Young Earth Creationists, however. Realizing they look like idiots when they make such claims in pulic, anti-scientists have changed their tune and are now pushing a thing called "Intelligent Design," which stops pretending the Earth is only a few thousand years old, but still insists that life could not evolve without the intervention of a Creator. They have prettied it up and made it sound more plausible, but it's still crap science. Some of the reasons are here. I don't have time to summarize it for you, read it yourself ya lazy bums. I'll quote the end for you, however, because it makes my point for me: Intelligent Design is not science, it is a social and political movement that has already decided what conclusions to reach and will use any argument it can grab onto.
It’s also hard to view it as a real research program. Though people often picture science as a collection of clever theories, scientists are generally staunch pragmatists: to scientists, a good theory is one that inspires new experiments and provides unexpected insights into familiar phenomena. By this standard, Darwinism is one of the best theories in the history of science: it has produced countless important experiments (let’s re-create a natural species in the lab—yes, that’s been done) and sudden insight into once puzzling patterns (that’s why there are no native land mammals on oceanic islands). In the nearly ten years since the publication of Behe’s book, by contrast, I.D. has inspired no nontrivial experiments and has provided no surprising insights into biology. As the years pass, intelligent design looks less and less like the science it claimed to be and more and more like an extended exercise in polemics.

In 1999, a document from the Discovery Institute was posted, anonymously, on the Internet. This Wedge Document, as it came to be called, described not only the institute’s long-term goals but its strategies for accomplishing them. The document begins by labelling the idea that human beings are created in the image of God “one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.” It goes on to decry the catastrophic legacy of Darwin, Marx, and Freud—the alleged fathers of a “materialistic conception of reality” that eventually “infected virtually every area of our culture.” The mission of the Discovery Institute’s scientific wing is then spelled out: “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.” It seems fair to conclude that the Discovery Institute has set its sights a bit higher than, say, reconstructing the origins of the bacterial flagellum.

The intelligent-design community is usually far more circumspect in its pronouncements. This is not to say that it eschews discussion of religion; indeed, the intelligent-design literature regularly insists that Darwinism represents a thinly veiled attempt to foist a secular religion—godless materialism—on Western culture. As it happens, the idea that Darwinism is yoked to atheism, though popular, is also wrong. Of the five founding fathers of twentieth-century evolutionary biology—Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky—one was a devout Anglican who preached sermons and published articles in church magazines, one a practicing Unitarian, one a dabbler in Eastern mysticism, one an apparent atheist, and one a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and the author of a book on religion and science. Pope John Paul II himself acknowledged, in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, that new research “leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Whatever larger conclusions one thinks should follow from Darwinism, the historical fact is that evolution and religion have often coexisted. As the philosopher Michael Ruse observes, “It is simply not the case that people take up evolution in the morning, and become atheists as an encore in the afternoon.”

Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science. Meanwhile, more than eighty per cent of Americans say that God either created human beings in their present form or guided their development. As a succession of intelligent-design proponents appeared before the Kansas State Board of Education earlier this month, it was possible to wonder whether the movement’s scientific coherence was beside the point. Intelligent design has come this far by faith.

Damn, I wish I'd written that.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Half a Loaf: The Budget Deal

. . .is better than none, I guess. Governor Blagojevich was finally able to pass a state budget on time with a party line vote. The budget meets my minimum standard of acceptability: it funds the CTA (by reimbursing the transit system for paratransit services), and manages to direct a little more state money to schools. However, it doesn't include the tax swap provision to shift the burden from property taxes to income taxes, or provide any other revenue enhancing policy. Instead, it raids the state's already shaky pension fund again, contributing less than required and hastening an eventual fiscal crisis.

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Without The Hair, G Rod almost looks like a regular guy.

I wish G Rod would just suck it up and raise taxes, but I guess he's too much of a coward. He thinks that holding the line against taxes is the best way to get the stupid people vote. I've got news for ya, Rod, downstate Republicans are not voting for you, no matter what.

I am not running for office, so I'm gonna come right out and say that Illinois needs a tax hike. There's no other way to provide an acceptable level of government services. The shortage of funds is not caused by inefficiency and waste. State government spends about 8% of its government on administration, vs. 16% on average in the private sector. Half as much! School systems are even less wasteful, spending maybe 5% of their funds on administration. It is a myth that goverment can cut costs by eliminating waste.

How is this possible? you ask. Aren't the politicos robbing us blind? Well, yeah, but it's no different in the corporate world. Remember Tyco? Enron? Wherever no one's watching the store, somebody's stealing from the till. That's life. Deal with it.

Also, Illinois is not a big spending state. Ranked by population, we are 41st in per capita spending. And we can't even afford the low level of spending we have. Why? Our tax code is a relic from the industrial age. We tax goods, but not services. This made sense when we were a manufacturing center, but we are rapidly transforming into a service economy. And services, the fastest growing segment of the economy, is excluded from the tax base. Pay a tax when you buy a hot dog, but not when you get a haircut. The result is that taxes are too burdensome on the kinds of businesses that are taxed, as well as on homeowners. Yet the government remains underfunded.

So a real budget would include an income tax hike. And it would ditch the stupid flat tax - Illinois has one tax bracket, at 3%. Which is madness. We should soak the rich! That's what they're there for, ain't it?