Thursday, July 27, 2017

Blogs are dying but I feel fine

     On Monday, the Wall Street Journal shut down eight blogs, on a range of subjects: legal and breaking news, the arts, the Chinese economy. I found out, of course, not by looking at the WSJ, which has a paywall and I never consult, directly, but on Twitter, noticing a story from the Nieman Lab blog, which I never look at either.
     It turns out blogs have been old hat for a number of years.
     "It’s truly the post-blog era," Wendell Jamieson, the New York Times metro editor was quoted as saying in 2015, "and I barely had time to get into the blog era.”
    Testify, brother. If you are curious—as I was—what is replacing blogs, the Nieman post cites a WSJ spokesman explaining, "other storytelling formats and our digital platforms,” meaning, I suppose, social media and other apps, like podcasts.
     There are several ways to view this. When I began, I chose that yellow legal pad background motif because it had, in my eyes, a certain charming retro office supply quality, an aspect that will only be enhanced as blogs die off one by one, joining semaphore flags and telegrams in the realm of the tragically defunct.
     It can be hard to keep track. My first thought was that blogs must be giving way to entities like Twitter, but we have Reuters sharing the news that Twitter is doing better, since six months ago it "was knocking on death's door and going the way of Myspace and AOL." Why am I always the last to know these things? (To illustrate how quickly this changes, the rosy Twitter outlook was Wednesday. On Thursday, Twitter stock plunged 13 percent on reports of disappointing user figures).
     I certainly used Twitter less, as it became clotted with ads, fewer nuggets of interest showing up in pan after pan of useless gravel. And Facebook seems dominated by ads touting shoes I bought on Zappos last week, as if they're expecting me to break down and buy a few more pairs.
     Looking at my own regular media diet, there are actual subscriptions, received at home, of the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times. A digital subscription to the Washington Post. Copies of the New Yorker and the Economist arriving weekly, Consumer Reports monthly. That keeps you pretty busy. On Facebook I keep continually updated on the ever-on-point Eric Zorn without the bother of consulting the entire Tribune.
     I've even subscribed to a podcast: "50 Things that Made the Modern Economy," with Tim Hartford, a BBC analysis of diesel engines and barbed wire, air condition and shipping containers, exactly the sort of see-the-universe-in-a-teacup kind of exploration I relish.
                Each new format takes advantage of a certain consumer need, or vulnerability—the podcasts are an outgrowth of listening to audio books. Something to listen to while walking to and fro, because we can't be on the phone all the time. A little lesson in the intricacies of baby formula or the dynamo makes the walk from the paper to the train a lot quicker.  
     Though to be honest, if the BBC issued the series on cassette tapes, I'd buckle down and buy an old Walkman on ebay for a dollar. (I'm being fanciful. Doing that checking thing that journalists still do, I see you'd be hard-pressed to find a knock-off for under $20, and vintage actual Walkmen, in box, go for $500. The mind reels).
     I'm of the antique notion that it's the words, and concepts, that matter, and whether you are reading this on the phone, or etched into a wax tablet, is secondary. But that might be an antique and increasingly irrelevant opinion. Anyway, I don't mind blogs vanishing as fast as they possibly can. Maybe when mine is the only one left people will start to notice. More likely not, but a guy can still dream, one communication medium that never goes out of style. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Tiny scientists mobilized to study eclipse

     I didn't want to get political on this post, but as I was watching this one fledging, ad hoc science program at one pre-school in Chicago, I couldn't help but think of millions of children in tens of thousands of pre-schools across the country being indoctrinated in the sort of magical thinking and mendacious myth that gets a Donald Trump elected president. 

     Jason Henning is a post-doctorate fellow at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. He's been to the South Pole three times, working on the university's 10-meter telescope there.
     On Tuesday morning, he found himself advancing science in a place it doesn't frequently go: sitting on a too small chair in a basement classroom with the lights dimmed.
     "Who's ready for an eclipse?" he asked a group of 4- and 5-year-olds sitting around a table at Bright Horizons at Lakeview, a preschool.          

     The youngsters didn't exactly squeal "Yes!" in unison, but they at least cast their attention in his general direction. Henning proceeded, using a small model Earth, moon and, as a light source, a lamp with a dinosaur base.
     "Does anybody know how you make night and day?" asked Henning. "Does anybody remember?"
     "Spin the Earth," squeaked Emily.
      Henning was joined by Joshua Sobrin, a U. of C. physics graduate student, also with Kavli.
     If it seems odd that a pair of such advanced scientific talents would spend time instructing children who might miss the eclipse Aug. 21 because it arrives in the middle of their nap time, well, there's a simple explanation.
     Sobrin's wife, Sweta Sobrin, is a teacher at Bright Horizons.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Picketing a building over something important but we won't tell you what

     I don't understand people. 
     Or maybe I do; they're slow. And timid. 
     Maybe I better just tell the story.
     So Thursday, I'm meeting a friend for coffee on Wells Street, in Old Town. Quick two stop trip up the Brown Line. Easy stroll a few blocks east along North Avenue. 
     On the way back, I notice this gentleman, Bob Sheahan, picketing a building all alone. We stop and chat pleasantly. "Any relation to Mike Sheahan?" I ask. The former Cook County sheriff. No, lots of Sheahans. 
     Why did I stop? I'm in a union too, and I like to show solidarity with picketers, because nothing is worse than picketing. It's lonely. It's dull. It's often pointless. I hate it, and feel pity for anyone forced to do it.
     The building behind him, Sheahan said, was built by union steelworkers. But the framing out is being done by non-union (and, therefore, the implication is, inferior) labor.  
     Hence the picketing. They'd been picketing for six months. 
     Six months.
     He was eager for me to know about the situation, and I would take no issue with him. But I asked one of those probing questions journalists ask.
    "What's this cross street here?" I said, glancing around for a sign. For some reason that prompted Sheahan to usher me over to someone in higher authority, a guy in a car parked down the street whose name I didn't catch. The guy in a car was on the phone—maybe strategizing how to get more media attention—and didn't want to get out of the car or talk to me. He suggested I talk to someone at the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters.
    "Gary Perinar," he said. "And the phone number?"  He gave me a number. When I got back to the office, I phoned and left a message: saw the picket, interested in the issue. Please call me.  
     Nothing on Friday. Nothing on Monday, so I called again. Nothing. Silence. picket a building for six months, why? You want the word out, right? You want people to know, to be aware that this particularly building is not being built in a desirable fashion. And all that time, these poor union carpenter foot soldiers, holding their signs—not the most efficient use of communications technology—to an audience of cars whizzing along North Avenue. The heart breaks. Support your guys.
     Yet should the distracted beast of the media pause and pay attention, they all scatter. Maybe it's the same publicity phobia you find in cops and fire fighters. Fear of the Man. They don't want to stick their neck out. Maybe they're like corporations. The gears turn slowly. I'll hear from them in a week.
     Whatever the situation, indifferent or a defensive crouch, silence doesn't  work in this information age. One reason it's so easy for unions to become punching bags is they don't speak up for themselves, not even when you give them an engraved invitation to do so. The paper is owned by unions now, though honestly, I'm not worried about them telling us what to do. Just the opposite; with unions, as with any organization, it can be a challenge just to get them to pry open their yaps and let words out. And the sad thing is, now they'll call. To complain.  

Monday, July 24, 2017

Russian artist fighting to make America her home

Yulia Kuznetsova
    Fiona McEntee is an immigration attorney. Born in Dublin, she has practiced law in Chicago for the past 10 years. Hundreds of would-be clients have found their way to her office, seeking her help in maintaining their tenuous finger hold on the American Dream.
    Only one, Yulia Kuznetsova, made her weep.
    "I actually cried, and I never cried in a consultation before in my life," said McEntee. "This is a really emotional situation. I felt the weight she has on her shoulders. She is just so talented."
     Kuznetsova is an artist, a painter from Russia. Twenty-four years old, she was 19 when she was accepted to the School of the Art Institute. Her parents sold their apartment in Moscow to pay her tuition.
    There's a lot of that going around. Some 900,000 foreign students come to this country, where American colleges accept them—and their rupees, pounds, euros and rubles—with open arms. Then the students graduate, and the United States tries to boot them out, just when they're ready to be productive. A cruel trick, really.
   As I dug into Kuznetsova's life, now-you-cry part eluded me. There seemed to be a dark buried something that I couldn't put my finger on.
     I spoke with one of her teachers at the School of the Art Institute.
    "She's very agile with paint," said MaryLou Zelazny, a professor of painting and drawing. "She's masterful, and has got a tremendous facility. She comes up with images that are very heartfelt and personal."
    Can't a person paint in Russia?
    "No," replied Zelazny. "Not with the censorship they have now."

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Asombro en el agua

Photo by Matt Beard

      I didn't think they could do it. Not again.
      My strongest memory of the first time I saw Cirque du Soleil,  some 30 years ago, was walking out of a tent by Navy Pier with open-mouthed wonder. I had never seen anything like it; they had taken the circus, trimmed away all the problematic animals, and created a show out of pure whimsy and athleticism, twirling acrobats gibbering in an invented language, wicked clowns snatching eyeglasses from audience members and depositing them on faces far away. I felt like a child staring at the stars.
     Since then I'd seen the show a few times, in various incarnations, the most recently a decade back, with the family in Disney World. It was still very good, but that sense of miracle had faded into something expected: 80-pound Chinese acrobats forming a pyramid.
     But they invited me to the Friday opening of "Luzia: A Waking Dream of Mexico," playing until Sept. 3 in a big top in the parking lot of United Center, and my wife and I went, hoping for a diverting evening, nothing more. What we got was amazement. "Wow!" my wife kept saying. "Wow!"
     Any one stunt—aerialists leaping from swinging platforms, tumblers dressed as birds diving through hoops, a lady performing in a rolling ring, strong men bracing against high poles—might have been merely well-done, a perfectly executed trick seen before. But taken together, the music, the costumes, the sets, colorful and redolent of Day of the Dead iconography, worked together to nudge it toward magic, not a word I use lightly. Lucha libre wrestlers, bird people, musicians, a Mexican carnival come to life.
Photo by Matt Beard
    The show opens on a treadmill--a butterfly dancer running before a giant horse, one of several enormous puppet creatures Cirque employs to good effect. The seamless integration of the contraption amped up the wonder, the first of several mechanisms well integrated into the show. Particularly the "rain curtain," which added comedy—a lanky clown trying to fill a canteen—difficulty, for artists doing once familiar stunts, now in a downpour, and visual interest, as the water was manipulated into marvelous shapes, fishes and birds and flowers.
    It's a difficult performance to convey in words, or even in pictures. Looking at the press photos, I kept thinking, "No, that it isn't it at all." They were fine photographs, not a question of their quality. But separated from their context, from the trilling enthusiasm and happiness of the performance and they were beetles tacked to a board, beautiful, but lacking the life that was pulsing through them.  Like stills from a gorgeous movie.
     If I said there was a juggler you might shrug—we've seen jugglers— but this juggler, blazing, intent, energetic to the highest pitch, doing the fastest juggling I've ever seen, six sparkling pins in the air, was breathtaking. If I said a man and a woman came out and free-styled with a pair of soccer balls, you might reply "So what?" But to see them do it, the balls one moment spinning on their heads, the next deftly held in the arch of their foot, moved around their bodies as if on a track, was a wonder to behold. And the contortionist—at one point I had to shield my eyes. Creepy and incredible.
    Earlier in the day, at the paper, I told a colleague that I was going to "Cirque" and he looked at me strangely. "That doesn't seem your type of thing," he said, or words to that effect. And yes, while I'm more given to "Medea" or "Valkyrie"—which starts tech rehearsals soon at the Lyric—I really think you'd have to be dead not to be thrilled at "Luzia." My wife already wants to go back. And at the risk of politicizing a circus in our very political times, to present such a joyous and amazing romp through the lens of the rich culture of Mexico, a country constantly scorned and mocked by our toxic shame of a president, well, that's icing on the cake. 
      There's so much going on in "Luzia." Aerialists, acrobats, clowns. At one point, three cast members came onstage dressed as cacti, a bit of comic relief. "Look at the cactus in the middle" I said to my wife, and she laughed—a strategically-placed stem jutted suggestively from his mid-section. We both did, smiling at the bobbing cactus part; it was funny, both understated and in plain view, at least in profile. You had to admire the directness of it, of the whole thing, the entire enterprise, from high to low, soaring aerialists and flights of comedy, taking the familiar, cherished Cirque du Soleil formula and somehow making it fresh and fantastic once again.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     As with last week, I was going about my business, not thinking of the blog at all—it does happen—when I noticed a tableau that fairly shouted: "Saturday fun activity!"
     On the plus side. Very few people could have been in the room with this avian menagerie. It isn't some public spot that readers are constantly traipsing past. So that ramps up the difficulty factor.
     On the negative, someone knowledgable about the circles I travel in might hazard a guess.
     Which makes it doable and, who am I fooling, if history is any judge, it'll be cracked at 7:03 a.m., as always.
     Still, a guy can dream. Right? Right?! I mean Trump hasn't banned it yet, has he?
     So where is this flock of birds? The winner gets my already-five-years-old-Christ-I-can't-believe-it book about the city, "You Were Never in Chicago." Place you guesses below. Good luck. 

What are you doing up?

     It's Saturday, and once again I've blundered onto grist for the Saturday fun activity. Which posts at 7 a.m. G'night. 

     Oh, and it's not the place above. I just picked that photo.