Monday, September 30, 2019

AI might be the new electricity

Aron Culotta

   
 Someday you might have a significant relationship with your toaster. With a few silicon chips and the right programming, it’ll use its considerable downtime to compose original musical interludes to play while your English muffin is browning. It’ll text you Haikus designed to make you smile:
Toasting your bagel
brings light to my elements
And warmth to my heart
      This change won’t happen by itself. Students are working hard to master the art and science of designing machines that learn, make decisions, create, think. Staring this fall, the Illinois Institute of Technology — in recent years branding itself as the more brawny “Illinois Tech” — became the only college in the Midwest to offer an undergraduate major in artificial intelligence, creating the systems that will guide everything from robots to trucks to medical care.
     ”Traditionally, AI would be taught at the graduate level, because it’s a research degree,” said Aron Culotta, director of IIT’s bachelor of science in artificial intelligence program. “Occasionally, you’ll see it as a specialization inside of a computer science degree. But really it’s matured a lot in the past 10 years. We feel like a lot of the core principles can be taught at the undergraduate level.”
Devyani Gauri
      The change was announced last spring after admission deadlines, so new students haven’t yet enrolled as AI majors. But 10 of the school’s 500 computer science students shifted to AI. One of them is Devyani Gauri, 20.
     ”I’m interested in deep learning and neural networks,” she said. “Deep learning is something that uses huge amounts of data and also uses neural networks — artificial networks based off how animals’ brains work, using that pattern to solve problems quickly.”

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Sunday, September 29, 2019

Lost in a tranche.

The Veteran in a New Field, by Winslow Homer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


     I have no trouble using the occasional exotic word, and certainly endorse the practice. How are you to ever learn new words if you never encounter an unfamiliar one?
     Still, I was taken aback not only to see a word I had never noticed, but see it in the very first sentence of an impeachment story in the New York Times, prominently placed on the upper right hand of the front page, under the masthead:
   "House Democrats, moving quickly to escalate their impeachment inquiry into President Trump, subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday, demanding that he promptly produce a tranche of documents and a slate of witnesses that could shed light on the president's attempts to pressure Ukraine to help tarnish a leading political rival."
     "Tranche?" That's a new one for me, and though you can guess what it means from the context—"a bunch" perhaps, or "a pile"?—I leapt to the dictionary to see why the Gray Lady feels the need to deploy it.
     "A cutting, a cut; a piece cut off, a slice" is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, noting "Now only as a loanword from French."

    Indeed, it comes from the French, trenchier, to cut, and thus is related to both "trench" and "trenchant." 
    A slice of documents? The "Now" in my Oxford is 40 years ago, so maybe the meaning has shifted. The online Merriam-Webster defines "tranche" this way:
"a division or portion of a pool or whole. Specifically: an issue of bonds derived from a pooling of like obligations (such as securitized mortgage debt) that is differentiated from other issues especially by maturity or rate of return."
    Plunging into Nexis, "tranche" seems chiefly related to financial dealings. Business stories speak of "tranche triggers." Though it does pop up in the political. On Sept. 19, a report from the British newspaper, The Independent contained this sentence:
       Mr Giuliani had, in particular, asked for an inquiry into the "Black Ledger", a tranche of information about Manafort which was supposedly forged.        
     Earlier this month, Alexandra Lange wrote this, in a column headlined, "Is Instagram Ruining Design?" 
I'm an architecture and design critic. Buildings are my life. But it isn't that unusual to try to find and follow the tranche of people who love what you love. If you're in the visual arts, they are probably on Instagram.    
     So obviously "tranche" is in common use among the chattering classes.  Though I can't see myself using it, just because it doesn't bring anything to the table. Take "the tranche" out of Lange's sentence above. Improved, isn't it? 
   
 


Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot: High-tech park bench



   
     I can't be everywhere, nor would I want to. Think of how tiring that would be and, besides, how would you dress?
     But my readers are far afield, and ace craftsman Tony Galati sent me these photos he took under the subject heading, "The future is here." 
     Tony writes:
I found this Solar Charging Station park bench at the marina in Bayfield Wisconsin. I've never seen anything like it. I love seeing clean energy ideas like this. They send the right messages—one of them being: Republican lawmakers can go fuck themselves.
    Well said. That would certainly give them a break from fucking our country. You know the solar future is chugging toward us when remote outposts start jumping on the bandwagon. Bayfield, if it doesn't ring a bell, is a town of 530 souls 450 miles northwest of Chicago, on Lake Superior.
     Speaking of lawmakers, I thought I would rouse someone from Bayfield officialdom, such as it may be, and try to squeeze out a little more information on this bench. I started at the City of Bayfield, where, despite promises of the phone system, typing the last name of mayor, Gordon T. Ringberg, does not in fact lead you to his voicemail. I tried the Chamber of Commerce and Visitor's Center. There a person did answer the phone. Thinking I might prompt her to rhapsodize Bayfield, I observed that I had just been up to Ontonagon, east of there, and speculated "if Bayfield were half as beautiful it would be very beautiful indeed," or words to that effect.
EnGoPlanet bench
     The Visitor's Center lady let that slow pitch thump into the catcher's mitt, and explained, and none too warmly, that I needed to talk to a Billie Hooperman, back at the city.
     Alas, Billie was not manning her telephone. A message was left for her, plus an email to the city for good measure.
      Poking around online, I quickly ID'ed Tony's find as an Uptown Charging Bench from  Sun Charge Systems of Cleveland, Alabama. The one I saw for sale was an invigorating electric blue and cost $3,000. But still, the thing stopped being high tech and began to seem almost cobbled-together when I encountered other, sleeker, more well-designed solar benches on the market, such as those from EnGoPlanet, which incorporate the solar cells in the seat of the bench.
     Still curious how this bench, which allows you to enjoy the scenery and charge your phone, ended up on the shores of Lake Superior, as Friday waned, I asked Tony which marina—there are several—and he said it was the Bayfield Civic League Memorial Park.  No luck there either. I suppose Bayfielders value their solitude, and let's just leave them in it.
     





Friday, September 27, 2019

See how your excuses for treason stack up against the masters

Judas kissing Christ surrounded by soldiers (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     Five columns—plus two days off to immerse myself in the glory of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. More than two weeks since I last uttered the obscene T-word in the column. 
     I’m astounded. And proud. Nowadays, any relief, any space you can tear your horrified gaze away from No. 45 is a personal triumph. Otherwise, the Orange Enormity grows more huge, day by day, almost hour by hour, like those radioactive blobs in 1950s monster movies, threatening to engulf everything.
     This week, we can’t look away. Nancy Pelosi pulled the trigger on impeachment Tuesday. Good. I happened to be surfing live television and caught the announcement live. Pelosi offered up perspective that might have been lost in the glare of events.
     ”On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall to await the news of a government our founders had crafted,” Pelosi said. “They asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?’ Franklin replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Our responsibility is to keep it.”
     Good use of the historical, Madam Speaker. Americans wrested their freedom from tyranny, at the start and must do so periodically ever since. Only the form of tyranny changes, from a British king, to a immoral slave system, to capitalism run amok, to fascism overrunning the globe, to our our latest, and strangest challenge: a cruel and egomaniacal buffoon whose attempts to enrich and aggrandize himself trample our democratic values and institutions.


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Thursday, September 26, 2019

Boys will be cats

Gizmo, surveying his domain. 
   
   When former colleague Kara Spak mentioned a column where the boys were allowed to eat like cats, I drew an utter blank. I almost didn't believe her. But that SOUNDED like us. Fortunately, the Nexis machine is a tireless birddog, and dredged this up. It's from 14 years ago—I'm encouraged to think that anything I wrote would stick in the mind that long—back when the column was a thousand words and filled a page, and I'm keeping the first two non-cat items, for the heck of it. You can, if you like, jump straight to the cat part. Though I still maintain the appeal of performing Merchant of Venice as the comedy it was intended to be by Shakespeare. Oddly, just Monday, at the Goodman dinner, I sat with Bob Falls and Canadian actor Colm Feore, and I mentioned the idea to the latter—Bob's probably sick of me urging him to do that. It would catch people's attention. 


Opening shot

     Like you, I was glad to see President Bush finally put to rest the idiotic debate over whether New Orleans would be rebuilt. If we can rebuild Iraq, we can -- we must -- rebuild New Orleans.
     So the will is there. And so is the money, apparently -- from whatever magic source federal money now pours.
     But what I don't understand is the logistics; where are the carpenters going to come from? How is it going to be done? I don't know if you've ever tried to get someone to come by your house and rebuild a shaky fence. But you can be in Northbrook on a dry day, waving a fistful of cash over your head, and nobody will agree to do it.
     Now imagine thousands upon thousands of destroyed homes in an enormous blighted area covering several states. If they started building today, it would still take years, and by the time they were done, a big chunk of the displaced residents would have decided to stay where they were.
     The devil is in the details, and so far the federal plan reminds me of the classic 1941 New Yorker cartoon where the catcher advises the pitcher: "Strike him out."

The quality of mercy

     Shakespeare can be thick going for modern audiences. Thus, there is the temptation to spice up productions by yanking plays out of their tights-and-feathers context and dropping them somewhere unexpected. It can be merely gimmicky—Kabuki Othello, or the gay Richard III in "The Goodbye Girl" —or it can take overly familiar material and make it new again.
     I was lucky enough to have seen Robert Falls' groundbreaking "Hamlet" in 1984; I think of it as "Reagan Hamlet," since Claudius' speech is shown on a TelePrompTer, and Gertrude, in a red tailored suit, gazes with that same fixed Nancy Reagan smile at her husband.
     I remember exactly the thought that popped into my mind when Ophelia shows up on stage, late in the play, makeup scrawled on her face, hiking up her dress.
     "She's crazy," I thought, horrified, before smiling at myself because, of course, Ophelia is one of the more famously insane characters in literature, and it is a sign of Falls' genius that he could make it fresh again.
     "The Merchant of Venice" poses a similar problem: what to do when the central character is not only one of the most familiar parts in literature, but also one of the most offensive stereotypes: the money-grubbing, bloodthirsty Jew?
     Barbara Gaines solves the problem with mastery in the "Merchant" just opened at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. She places the play in the present. Her Venetians are jaded Eurotrash, swilling scotch and spitting lustily on Shylock, the moneylender.
     And she gives it an earthiness. The spit isn't polite stage spit, but real hocking spit that makes the audience cringe.
     As someone who constantly deals with people unhappy to see their own group maligned, I was glad to be able to enjoy Shylock, who despite Gaines' humanizing touches is no hero.
     It was only later, musing on the play—always a sign of a job well done—that reservations arose. Nobody dies in "Merchant of Venice," which seemed unique for a tragedy, until I remembered that it was not a tragedy, originally, but a comedy. Shylock is supposed to be funny.
     Perhaps the only way to stage the play nowadays is how Gaines did, to include all sorts of humanizing touches to explain why Shylock is the way he is. But it strikes me that we are ready for the play as written -- to be hit with the full grotesqueness of Shylock. Give it to us straight. Perhaps the most radical revision of all would be to present the play in all its original harshness, and force audiences to grasp the depth of the ancient hate on their own, while laughing.

"Meow," my son said


     We have rules in the house. No computer games in the morning. Homework gets done first thing after school, before the television goes on.
     The rules are especially plentiful around suppertime—if you can't preserve decorum at dinner, when can you? Thus I insist, for instance, that the boys wear clothes. I would not have cooked up this rule myself, understand, but, let's say, it became necessary. They also need to use napkins instead of shirts, and silverware—that's what it's there for. If they emit that saliva-gargle of food lust sound that Homer Simpson makes, I send them to their rooms.
     Still, we try not to be tyrants. Which is why my wife, in her wisdom, hatched the idea of an "anything goes" break from all the rules. One dinner a week, the rules are suspended. They can slurp and slobber their food all they like.
    Thus, I was not too surprised, at a recent chicken dinner, when one son said he wanted it to be an "anything goes" dinner. I figured he wanted to eat the chicken with his hands.
     "Sure," I said.
     Without a word he leaped up, went to the cupboard, found a bowl, returned to his seat, and poured his glass of milk into the bowl.
     "I want to drink my milk like a cat," he explained.
     Our younger son, recognizing fun when he saw it, followed, and got his own bowl.
     My wife began to protest—there are limits. I, intrigued, raised a palm to quiet her. This, I wanted to see.
     A few moments of silence, except for the sound of gentle lapping, both boys bent over their bowls, their tongues darting.
     My wife and I gazed into each other's eyes. I mouthed the words, "We're in trouble."

Closing shot

     God knows I have my problems with the president. But never so much that I'd take the time to Photoshop mocking pictures of him. But other people do. A lot. Bush, happily playing guitar for weeping Katrina victims. Bush, golf clubs tucked under arm, among a band of New Orleans looters. Bush and his father fishing in the devastated flood region.
     They're funny, sort of. But they also puzzle me. Isn't the truth insane enough? Why imagine new craziness to lay at his feet?
     Similarly, a caller phoned and began babbling about Bush's facial twitches. As soon as he paused for breath, I said something like, "Isn't this beside the point? It's like criticizing Hitler for bad posture."
     But he didn't understand.
     What's the point of being against zealotry if it makes you a zealot?

                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 18, 2005

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

More wonders than space in the newspaper

Sgt. Tony Valentn, left, and son Anthony.


     If there is one comment my readers make most frequently — well, after some variant of “you suck” — it is that they are fans of the print newspaper, the log of dried tree pulp tossed at their homes every morning and spread with a sigh of pleasure over the breakfast table.
     I like that too. But at the risk of apostasy, I have to confess that, as a writer, I prefer the online edition, for two reasons.
     First, errors can be easily corrected. If, say for instance, a careless writer’s right index finger falls short of the “Y” and hits the “U” instead, converting the J. Tyke Nollman Field into the J. Tuke Nollman Field, it’s a moment’s work to set it right, not counting responding contritely to all those print readers solemnly pointing out the gaffe.
     Second, you can find older stories without pawing through filing cabinets and manila folders. Searching is a breeze.
     Print, however, has one big advantage over online. It’s finite. With print, you have to cut, and cutting is good, because while the internet is boundless, attention spans are not. In print, my column should run 719 words, which means if want to go much longer, like Monday’s introduction to the joy that is rugby, I have to get approval ahead of time.
     Even then, I lost marvels worth sharing. For instance, in rugby, referees are called “the Sir” — even women (though some female refs prefer “Ma’am”). Regular players may not speak to the Sir — that’s a penalty. Only team captains can. Here’s a line from the Nashville Grizzlies online “Rugby Primer”: ”If the Sir speaks to [a] player directly, it means the player did something bad. The ONLY correct response by this player to the Sir is ‘yes Sir.’”
     Kinda makes you wish life were a rugby game.
     Then there was Tony Valentin. I was standing on the sidelines Saturday, watching players tussle over the ball, and struck up a conversation. Turns out he is a sergeant, 20 years with the Chicago Police Department, assigned to the boat unit.


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Tuesday, September 24, 2019

A box full of darkness




     "If you don't care about your writing," I tell aspiring writers, who, now that I think of it, I don't encounter much anymore, "then nobody does."
     What I mean by that is, you can't dog it, can't phone it in, can't half-ass your way to any kind of success. At least not in most cases. For every 6-year-old who finds internet fame and a book contract by posting their finger paint poetry online for a month, there are 100,000 other writers who must grind forward with all their might and not give up.
     That said, on rare occasions, a writer, if he or she is lucky, will encounter somebody else, a person not themselves, who also cares about their stuff. Best-selling authors are accustomed to this, no doubt, and come to expect lionization as a daily event, the general public tapping at their windows from dawn to dusk. Must be nice.
     But we mid-list authors, who sweat mightily just to find somebody to print our writing, have to catch at whatever passing shred of significance we may, cling to it, admire it, then use it to feed the guttering fire of our self-regard. Like recently spying my 2012 memoir, "You Were Never in Chicago," and in abundance, at the Chicago Architectural Association bookstore on East Wacker Drive. Still in the game...
      I considered revealing myself to the clerk, maybe offering to sign the copies. Increase their value! But the clerks seemed pretty busy, ringing up books that customers actually wanted to buy, and there are so many ways an offer like that can go wrong. ("Oh no, you can't sign them, because that might complicate things when we return the books to the publisher to be ground into mulch...") I figured better to savor the situation and not muddle things.
      So timidity is a stumbling block, but professionalism can also get in the way of cheesy self-promotion. I really wanted to tuck a plug for tonight's talk, "A box full of darkness" at 7 p.m. at Northbrook Public Library, at the end of a column in the Sun-Times, where 50 times the amount of people might read it compared to here. But the moment never presented itself. Doing so would mean trimming the column by a few lines, and I could never bring myself to undercut whatever point I was trying to make merely to ballyhoo an appearance discussing my most recent book, "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," written with Sara Bader. Should be proud or disappointed at that? I suppose a little of both.     

Monday, September 23, 2019

Rugby ‘makes football look for little babies’

The Chicago Lions women's rugby team, in black, playing the Minnesota Valkyries. 

     The Rugby World Cup is being played right now in Japan. You are forgiven if you didn’t know; rugby occupies one of the lower rungs of American sports consciousness, somewhere below soccer but above cricket.
     Rugby is also being played right now in Chicago, including a day-long celebration on the West Side last Saturday, as the Chicago Lions Charitable Association — the Lions have played rugby in Chicago since 1964 — unveiled its new J. Tyke Nollman Field at Chicago Hope Academy.
     The action began shortly after 8 a.m., with younger players — organized rugby starts at age 4 — gathering to practice on the special shock-absorbing artificial turf.
     Among them, Keandre Bates, 14, from West Garfield Park, who has played rugby for four years.
     “It’s a challenge at most times. Rugby is really tough,” said Bates. “It just makes football look for little babies. You have to pass backward.”
     “It’s the greatest game out there,” agreed Mike Inman, of North Center, who brought his son Sullivan, 10. “For somebody likes Sullivan, loves to be active, to be out there, tackle, and run, and do it all, this is a great sport for him. At this level they’re just kids running around being kids.”


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A rugby scrum is actually a carefully-structured event. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

When summer's end is nighing



       School begins before summer ends. So we typically sigh for the end of summer during the last days of August, when we are urged to stock up on rulers and pencils and back-to-school clothing. As if summer only exists for children, which in a sense it does, though adults appreciate the warmth and life and sense of possibility. My wife and I are members of the Chicago Botanic Garden, and while we do visit in February as well as July, let me assure you: July is better. 
A. E. Housman
       But summer ends for adults too, at 2:50 a.m. Central Time on Monday, Sept. 23. And for grown-ups, the opening gong of winter can bear an extra element of regret. There is a lovely poem by A.E. Housman, "When summer's end is nighing"—an unfortunate word, "nigh," redolent of the preciousness that poets have rightly banished, replaced by bodily fluids. 
     But to be expected. Housman was late 19th century Oxford don, seemingly a "dried up husk of a man," in Alan Bennett's words, huffing on the dying spark of a youthful, unreciprocated flame. A prig and something of a fraud—he lionized the dead in war but complained when Cambridge took in wounded soldiers. When the philosopher Wittegenstein, feeling the indisputable call of nature, rapped on Housman's door and asked to use the loo, the poet replied "Certainly not." 
     Still, he could be bracingly direct. "The faintest of all human passions," he wrote, "is love of truth." Practically ripped from the headlines, as is his observation that men "think in fits and starts."
      The poem is out of copyright, so I can print the whole thing without guilt, which is more than I can say about reading it:

      When summer's end is nighing
         And skies are evening cloud,
      I must on changes and fortune
         And all the feats I vowed
         When I was young and proud.

      The weathercock at sunset
          Would lose the slanted ray,
       And I would climb the beacon
          That looked to Wales away
          And saw the last of day.

      From hill and cloud and heaven
         The hues of evening died.
      Night welled through lane and hollow
         And hushed the countryside.
         But I had youth and pride.

      And I with earth and nightfall
           In converse high would stand,
       Late, till the west was ashen
           And darkness hard at hand
           And the eye lost the land.

        The year might age, and cloudy
            The lessening day might close.
        But air of other summers
             Breathed from beyond the snows.
             and I had hope of those.

        They came and were and are not
           And come no more anew;
         And all the years and seasons
            That ever can ensue
            Must now be worse and few.

          So here's an end of roaming
             On eves when autumn nights:
          The ear too fondly listens
              For summer's parting sights,
              And then the heart replies.

     A bit treacly perhaps, but to the point.
     Speaking of which, I'm giving a talk entitled "Box Full of Darkness," a line filched from Mary Oliver, at the Northbrook Public Library, 1201 Cedar Lane, this Tuesday.  It begins at 7 p.m., lasts about an hour and admission is free. The subject is poetry and recovery from addiction, and I'll sign copies of "Out of the Wreck I Rise," the book on the subject I wrote with Sara Bader. 
     Though if you plan to go—and I hope you do, I'd feel stupid standing there alone, talking to myself—the library asks that you pre-register here.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

And another thing ...

Destin, Florida anti-circumcision protestor. (Photo by Robert Angone)

     I had a lot of fun putting Wheaton College over my knee yesterday. But when I was done, after finishing the first draft, the column was 1100 words long. One important point got cut out reducing it to the print-friendly 719. I lost professor Larycia Hawkins, the political science professor forced out of Wheaton College in 2015 for wearing a headscarf in solidarity with Muslims threatened by the rise in poisonous rhetoric. In retrospect, I wish I had kept her and cut Wheaton scuttling health insurance for its students, lest one girl use it to buy contraception, since the Hawkins case spoke to the school's trademark stifling of free speech and religious immorality even more than health care did. 
    Ah well, not every choice is the best one.
    And I also lost the thread on how The Bean will be cluttered if we let one in religious fanatic, we let in them all.  Plus freedom of speech never means freedom of speech everywhere at any time. I wrote, then cut:
     The sidewalks of the city are not enough. Chicago doesn't have enough corners, apparently. With 99.99 percent of the metropolis at their feet, of course they'd must come here, where so many lambs aggregate. The question is, how many flock there in order to be endure a religious lecture, and the answer is: none of them.
     The ability to control when and where rights are expressed is inherent to running a city. You may not preach the gospel in the Gehry bandshell—also public space—during a CSO concert, you may not read the Constitution in the middle of Michigan Avenue during rush hour.
    Abandoned as too much of a digression was a passage where I pointed out that just as people pushing for school prayer can only conceive their prayer being allowed, and forget that opening the door also welcomes in a confusion of prayer mats, beads, rituals, prayer times, sacrifices so that nobody learns long addition. 
      Thank goodness Eric Zorn had my back, and expressed it perfectly in his take, the same day on the same subject:
     “Irritation or annoyance of some opinionated minority is unavoidable in public spaces and is never enough to prohibit someone from exercising their First Amendment rights both to express and to hear ideas wonderful and ridiculous,” said a letter to the city from John Mauck, an attorney for the students.
     “Visitors at The Bean who want to enjoy the reflection of Chicago’s skyline will not miss it because they turn their heads for a few seconds,” Mauck wrote.
     No, but their enjoyment of their visit to The Bean stands to be dramatically impaired if the immediately surrounding area becomes a boisterous daily forum for competing religious, political and social activists ululating for attention.
     And that’s what a total victory for the students here might do.
     Well said. Protest used to be about information and entreaty—you were telling the public about a situation and urging them to act. Now a lot of public action, like our political realm, is about manifesting power, showing what you can do—you carry your gun into the store because you can, or think you can. You bully and harangue strangers because, well, that's what you do. Of course they don't like when the afflicted push back. Nobody cries like a bully.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Chicago prays: Let us not be Bible-thumped



     The line snaking through the deafening, dripping bowels of Union Station, waiting to squeeze up the stairs to Madison Street, can take an eternity. When you finally break the surface, into light and air, one more hurdle awaits: the permanent pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses hoping to break you on their rack of literature.
     No biggie. Sidestep them and be on your way. But they are also the opening salvo in the constant barrage of admonition and entreaty that is the price of walking downtown.
     On Madison Street you’ll likely encounter a mendicant or two on cardboard, blessing you for whatever funds you contribute to their meth addiction. And if you’re really unlucky, Joe Scheidler and the entire Pro-Life Action League will be waiting across the bridge, human easels for their five-foot-tall color posters of the diced up fetuses of women they wouldn’t bother to spit on in person.
     That’s life in the big city. Window shopping on Michigan Avenue? Dare make eye contact with a well-scrubbed millennial holding a clipboard and they will bound over, flash you a Colgate smile, asking some inane question — “Do you like animals?” — while snaking a hand into your pockets, metaphorically.
      Finished? I’ve barely begun. State Street is the home of gaunt, Elmer-Gantry-style preachers screaming into blown-out loudspeakers about the fiery pit that awaits cigarette smokers and sodomites. All December much of Daley Plaza becomes a jostling religious anti-science fair, with little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay close by Muslims brandishing their star and crescent and the brutalist steel menorah of the Chabadniks, a decoration Albert Speer might have used at the Nuremberg rallies had the Nazis, you know, been into that kind of thing. Worst of all, the flimsy, anemic glowing red “A” of atheism, a physical manifestation of their feebleness relative to the Biblical passion of the Godstruck. 

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Thursday, September 19, 2019

And you think YOU go through changes...

 

     "Do you want to see some interesting mushrooms?" my friend Rory said, or words to that effect, over the weekend in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

      I admitted that I did, and followed him into a field of wildflowers—black-eyed Susans, mostly—just off the road to where we were staying.
     The mushrooms were interesting indeed. A big, golf ball-size yellow one, mottled, somewhat resembling Jupiter, and then a similarly colored, but differently configured mushroom shaped like a small pancake.
      I dutifully took photos of both.
      The obvious question then became: what kind of mushrooms are these?
       I figured the internet machine would be of help. I plugged in "Mushroom Identifier," and then clicked on the promising "Mushroom Identification Help" from something called Mushroom World.
       It offered pages of paired photos of types of mushrooms, none of which looked like my mushrooms. The next step was a Google Image search, but that didn't find a mate either.    
      There were a number of Mushroom Identification apps on the iPhone, but they not only wanted money upfront, but expected me to sign up for a subscription, as if ID'ing mushrooms were to be an ongoing concern. Which I do not expect; really, I was just curious about these two. 
     So I plugged in "Yellow Mushroom Upper Peninsula Michigan." The first hit was "Michigan Species List (159)." I assumed "159" to be the number of species described. As luck would have it—it's better to be lucky than good—my mushroom was number three, "Observation 25037: Amanita muscaria var. guessowii VeselĂ˝." It included four photos, one looking similar to my first spherical mushroom atop the blog, the other three of a pancaked mushroom. 
      In a note taken 10 years ago, Sept, 8, 2009, the observer, Jon Reck, wrote: " The three bottom photos are from the same mushroom as the top one, 24 hours later. (But you probably knew that anyway)."
     I did not know that anyway. Though now, having found out the name, I was saddled with a new question: Why do spherical mushrooms open? (This curiosity thing can be hell sometimes, a junkie scramble from one puzzle to the next).
     I had a guess—the mushroom mutates in order to drop spores—but a guess is not a certainty.
     So I shot off an email to the Field Museum—I once went on a field trip to Indiana with their mushroom expert, years ago, in the few minutes I was the newspaper's environment reporter. Do they still have one, I asked, and can he answer a basic mushroom question? 
    Waiting, I dug into Jon Reck. Who posts photos of mushrooms for the edification of others?
     "I’m a printer," writes Reck on his mushroom hunter page. "I live in the country on a small lake with my wife and two dogs. Have two grown sons. Enjoy photography and computers. Have always been fascinated by the ever-expanding extremes of the very small and large."
     A few hours passed. I put in a call to the Field to prod them. The Amanita Muscaria is both hallucinogenic and poisonous, which would at first seem to be mutually exclusive qualities. But the toxins are water soluble, and can be drained off, leaving you with, well, whatever hallucinogenic thrill this particular mushroom provides.
     The name "muscaria," by the way, is from Latin musca, meaning "a fly." The common name of the mushroom is the Fly Agaric; it would be used in European countries as an insecticide: crumbled in saucers of milk, the milk would absorb enough poison to the kill flies that drank it. 
    Toward end of day, the museum got back to me.
    "Why does it go from that shape?" said Wyatt Gaswick, a mushroom expert at the Field Museum. "When it's in its spherical shape the gills are just developing.  They're protected by a little membrane that rips away. It expands once it gets older, exposes it to the air so mature spores can drop out, catch the breeze and get from point A to point B."
     Turns out I had guessed correctly. Gaswick confirmed that my seat-of-the-pants identification was also correct. While I had him on the phone, I had to ask: How are mushrooms faring in the face of our climate crisis?
    "It's difficult to tell for fungi in general, because so much basic knowledge—how many species? Their identity?—so much basic research remains undone, it's hard to see patterns. Mushrooms are responding to climate change. Things are starting to fruit in the fall and spring. They should come up in the fall."
    "Fruit" by the way, is the term of art for mushrooms popping up, and quite descriptive of what we are looking at. 
     "Like an apple is the temporary reproductive part of a tree," Gaswick said, "a mushroom is the temporary reproductive part of fungus," the bulk of which remains underground. 
    All told, I was glad Rory called me over.


     

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Booby trap killing echoes textbook case




     As a homeowner, you can put a 12-foot-tall fence around your property and top it with coils of razor-sharp concertina wire. The law will make no trouble for you, provided there aren’t zoning regulations regarding fence height.
     But if inside the fence you dig a moat, and line it with spikes, so that anybody brash enough to go over the top of your fence might be impaled, you could set yourself up for serious jail time.
     Why? Anybody? C’mon folks, you’ve got to do these readings.
     Katko v. Briney, a classic legal case on the tip of the tongue of anybody who ever went to law school or who, like me, typed his wife’s law school papers.
     On a July day in 1967, Marvin E. Katko broke into an unoccupied Iowa farmhouse, where the owners, tired of such break-ins, had set a shot-gun on an iron bed frame with the trigger wired to the door and the muzzle pointed toward it.
     The booby trap worked, the shotgun firing into Katko’s legs. The injured intruder sued the farmhouse owners, Edward and Bertha Briney.
     “Did Defendants employ a reasonable means of preventing the unlawful entry of trespassers on their property?” asks the CaseBriefs web site.
     The Iowa Supreme Court said no, concluding, “the law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property.”
     It awarded Katko $30,000 in damages. The Brineys had to sell 2/3 of the land on their farm to pay it.
     Alas, William Wasmund did not go to law school, nor type his wife’s papers, apparently. Nor did the Downstate man pause to ask himself whether rigging a 12-gauge shotgun to the door of a shed on his property was a good idea.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Nature is not cruel

 

     I didn't even try to take a picture of the eagle that swooped in front of our pickup truck.
     It was early morning Saturday. I had planned to hike the road before breakfast. But Ben, who took it upon himself to whip up breakfast, announced there were no eggs. Which made preparing his menu of pancakes and eggs problematic. The solution was to go into town, but he was a newcomer—from New Jersey—and wasn't quite sure where it was. Hoping to go on my walk, I at first tried explaining. I tried calling up a map on the phone—in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the Internet can be a work in progress. I got a white space with a line on it. 
    "I'll go with you," I gamely said. He said it wasn't necessary, which only steeled my resolve. 
    "If you go alone, you'll never get back," I said.  We got into the truck and rumbled down the long, long drive, firs and oaks and ferns flashing green past us on both sides. 
     As we turned onto the road, the eagle zoomed up from the shoulder and flapped its wings in slow, powerful beats just ahead of the car.
     "Keep up with it," I urged Ben, and we did, for 10 glorious seconds before the eagle peeled off. I considered the bird's appearance as a kind of cosmic reward, for my going along as navigator. 
     I've seen eagles up here before, in the same place, leading us up the road. Icing on the cake to what had already been a memorable trip, bird-wise: I spotted a pair of wild turkeys on our way in. I've never seen a wild turkey that wasn't capitalized and in a glass with ice.
      The trip to the store in Ontonagon was uneventful, except for the guy behind us in line who excitedly announced there was drag-racing going on, right now, at some fairgrounds nearby. I think he expected us to thump our kneecaps and exclaim, "Well, tarnation, let's GO!" And to be honest, the thought did cross my mind. But there were eggs to ferry back, pancakes to eat and friends awaiting.
    Afterward—almond-flavored pancakes, who knew?—I had my walk. There, by the side of the road, just where we had encountered the eagle, was a smear of feathers about 10 yards long. Obviously, we had interrupted its breakfast, though it must have made off with it—there were no remains, and I never saw the beak of the eagle, only its hind end. 
      I almost drew a connection between the nobility of the eagle—a hunter, a predator—and the cruelty of nature. But that isn't true, only an interpretation that humanity assigns to it, in our constant effort to get everything to reflect our own precious selves. Nature is not cruel. Nature just is. 


     

Monday, September 16, 2019

Well, this, for starters...



     My readers occasionally send gifts—often really nice stuff, like handmade easels and homemade English muffins.  Books they're written and drawings they've done. Sometimes portraits, quite good ones, given the subject matter. I always mean to write back and thank them. Sometimes I even do. But the race to get something half decent in the newspaper has a way of pushing everything aside, and then there is this blog. Every. Goddamn. Day.
      Last week I received this sign, sent by a reader. To be honest, I was more impressed with the quality of the sign itself—enamel over metal—than  by the sentiment expressed.  It wasn't cynical at all, but rather ... well, quite positive. It was suggesting that we need to focus on doing good for other people, and that can't be right. Then there was that bothersome "shall"—"What shall I do this day?" Quite fey in 2019. A question that you really have to be pressing your hands against both cheeks and sighing in order to express properly. Plus "this day." Not "today," but "this day," an echo of "Give us this day our daily bread." Practically a prayer. Ewwww....
     What to do—not "What shall I do"—with it? I flipped the sign over. On the back it read:
SEAMLESS ENAMELWAREBEST MADE CO.NEW YORK
     Curious, I jumped online. Best Made Company is a hip concern with stores in Manhattan an Los Angeles. It's "About us" section offers nothing specific, only that their "customers are makers, adventurers, tinkerers, and curiosity seekers who only want one thing: quality." I bet they are.
     A little digging shows they started in spring, 2009 as a boutique axe company, founded by two Canadians, Peter Buchanan-Smith and Graeme Cameron. I'm not immune to quality axes. I've got one. But there are axes and there are axes. But let's put it this way: a Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe, stamped by the craftsman who made it, a fantastic tool I have rhapsodized here previously, costs $172 from Highland Woodworking. Five times the price of an axe you can grab at Home Depot, but a beautiful tool that's worth it.
     The Best Made Hudson Bay Axe goes to the next level. It costs $348, a little more than twice as much as the Gransfors Bruks. That seems excessive, almost grotesque.

     The sign, I couldn't help noting, cost $32. A lot for a little sign, and quite a compliment from the reader, who explained in a lovely note that she was moved by the column I wrote about a woman who altruistically donated her kidney to a stranger, to do her part to offset the carnival of vileness that is the Trump era.
     Tossing the sign in the trash seemed wasteful. And an insult to the reader who was not only so thoughtful, but shelled out 40 bucks to buy and send the thing to me.  I felt obligated, almost trapped.
     But "WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO THIS DAY?" Was I now committed to looking at the thing for the rest of my life? I decided to bring it home and consult with my wife. She'll know what to do. I showed her the sign and mused that I might put it up somewhere. 
   "Oh it's beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Put it up in the kitchen." 
    Okay then I swallowed hard and did.  After screwing it into the wall—a central location, just as you walk in—I thought to research the phrase.  
     Turns out the sentiment goes back to at least Benjamin Franklin, who before he was a Founding Father was a busy Boston printer, creator of "Poor Richard's Almanac," coiner of admonitory sayings. He claimed to begin each morning at 5 a.m. with thanks to God, followed by asking himself what good he should do that day,  and ended each day asking what good he had done. 
     So what's so bad with that? For a selfless person, nothing. But as somebody with a rather inflated sense of self, with a full time job wandering through his private Hall of Mirrors with a chamois and a bottle of Windex, the vow of helping others well, it seems insincere.  And unrealistic. Maybe I could insert a strategic "for me" with a Sharpie—"WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO for me THIS DAY?"
   No, no. That would throw off the purity of the design. And is probably a bad life strategy as well. I mean, look where it has gotten me. 
   Not that I'm against doing good for others and some days it does happen, mirabile dictu. But to be so intentional about it, so public, to ballyhoo the thing like that, raising the question on the kitchen wall. To set it as some kind of goal, to intend to do it, premeditated. That's a big step. 
     What good shall I do today? Well, I put up this sign. And wrote this post. That's a start.
     
     
     


 



Sunday, September 15, 2019

Illinois Tech (aka IIT)



      Illinois Tech—or it is IIT?—is very proud of their Mies van der Rohe buildings. And rightly so. But they're also very proud of their new Kaplan Institute, particularly because it is light and not dark, mostly white, with splashes of color, such as these cushions in its amphitheater-like space, designed to look like giant Post-It note pads.
    Designed by IIT—or is it Illinois Tech?—alumnus John Ronan, it opened in October and is the first new building on campus in 40 years.  It's called the "Kaplan Institute" because 1965 alumnus Ed Kaplan kicked in $11 million for it.
     I was on campus Tuesday researching an unrelated story. But the Illinois Tech—or is it IIT?—folks were so proud of the new place they had to show me around, including the second floor, where they have fancy glass that ... I'm not sure what it does ... has dots that expand on sunny days to keep the sun from heating up the place too much, and contract on cool, cloudy days to let the heat and light in. Or some such thing.  Compressed air is involved.
     There's a lot more to it; study rooms and 3-d printer labs, a big area to construct prototypes. IIT—or it is Illinois Tech?—is pushing the snazzier latter name over the former. That's a good thing—Illinois Institute of Technology is a mouthful, and IIT can too easily be confused with UIC. But they seem to still have a foot on the dock and a foot on the pier, with lots of signs and banners reading IIT, and others reading Illinois Tech. I suppose it can be both, the way Northwestern and NU are the same place.

     Embarrassingly, Eric Zorn covered this topic, far more thoroughly, four years ago. 

 



Saturday, September 14, 2019

Flashback 2012: A late-night romp with exotic models


     An Ohio teen, Hannah Jones, came home early from college late last month and thought she would surprise her mother. She did. Her mother was indeed very surprised, and shot her. Only winged the young woman, thankfully. But a reminder that people who really cared about the safety of themselves of their families would ditch their guns, since owning a gun ramps up the odds that you'll shoot yourself or a loved one. It made me think of this column, which, to my surprise, I have never posted here before.

     Between the time the back door opened with a metallic "kathunk" and when it closed with a dull "knuhtak," I was on my feet, in the early morning bedroom dimness.
     I gazed across the sleeping form of my wife, at the clock on her night table: "5:03." My first waking thought was, "cats," the usual source of nocturnal disturbance: cats knocking cups into sinks, cats chasing each other howling through the house. Cats. 

     The next sound was a very human treading of feet downstairs. My second thought was a grim, "That's not a cat."
     I reached into the night table for a weapon.
     Many prudent men keep a handgun at their bedside. Houses are broken into. Horrors occur. A man must protect his family.
     And though I am certainly a prudent man, I am also a mathematical fellow, and can do numbers: the odds of bad stuff taking place in my leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, of dangerous situations that can be resolved by my being armed, are minuscule—say a 10-second window every 20 years, if that—compared to the low-level threat posed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by the weapon itself. "The blade itself is an incitement to violence," as Homer put it. Plus accident: the possibility that, reaching into the drawer for a pen, I would manage to fire the handgun and blow my kneecap off. Owning a gun in Northbrook makes as much as sense as owning a grenade.
     Yet many people, indulging in their Clint Eastwood fantasies, don't see it that way.
     Anyway. For reasons mathematical, I reached, not for a pistol, but for a black Mag-Light flashlight. Not the most potent weapon, true, but a 10-inch-long steel cylindrical club that at least instilled a tiny bit of confidence—and isn't that what weapon ownership is all about? To calm our insecurities? Why otherwise would people assemble, not one gun or five, but whole arsenals, plus bottled water and dried food and God knows what else. A desperate, futile attempt to feel protected.
     The flashlight was satisfyingly heavy in my hand, thanks to its trio of D batteries, ready to bash whoever was making those footsteps.
     At the bedroom door I saw the downstairs lights were blazing. A second possibility, after cats, stirred at the back of my mind.
     "Ross, is that you?" I squeaked, my voice suddenly thin and anemic.
     "Go to bed," my 17-year-old commanded, tossing a pile of calculators, pens and notebooks onto the kitchen table, then looking around at the downstairs, lit up like a cruise ship.
     "Why are all the lights on?" he asked
     "Your mother probably left them on for you," I said, meekly complying with his command, climbing the stairs, limply holding my flashlight. "Turn them off before you go to sleep."
     Not that I would have shot him if I had a gun, mind you—I like to think that I would be the sort of gun owner who takes a gander at what he's shooting. But doesn't every gun owner tell himself that? Yet teenage boys creeping in at dawn are still blown away by sleepy dads, far more, I'd bet, than the number of potato-nosed villains in black and white striped shirts and soft caps, caught dead-to-rights, with the family silverware in a sack over their shoulders.
The reason

     OK. OK. I know my audience. I can't just have my kid waltzing home at 5:03 a.m. without SOME explanation.
     But it's delicate . . . and as much as readers say they enjoy reading about the boys, they just don't appear here all that much anymore. They're studying a lot, or slumped on sofas, flipping through magazines or watching TV. There isn't much to say. I try to respect their privacy.
     He was coming home so late because . . .
     Oh, this will be hard to believe. I have a hard time believing it. When I was 17, and crept home with the dawn, it was not for this reason or anything like it. But kids nowadays . . . I'm no dupe; I've considered other scenarios, just to see if there is any chance an alternate might be possible. I wish there were. But there isn't.
     OK. Here goes: The 15th Annual High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling, run by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications. Each team—he and three pals—picks a problem and has exactly 36 hours to answer it. They were at a buddy's house crunching numbers all night. After he had slept, my wife's attempt to pry more information resulted in exactly one sentence, an exasperated, "We were modeling gasoline prices, mother." And that was it.
     Don't get me wrong. I'm proud. Though I worry he's frittering away his youth, and have encouraged him to pursue other, umm, non-mathematical activities ("Think of it as a new skill set you could master," I said, wanly). But with kids, you have to accept what you get, and as strange as it is, at times, I'm not complaining. I'm just glad I didn't shoot him.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 26, 2012

Friday, September 13, 2019

Flashback 2000: Miracles of not-so-modern medicine

    

     You've probably never been to the International Museum of Surgical Science on Lake Shore Drive. Few people have. I've been twice; last year, so I could compare it with Philadelphia's notorious Mutter Museum. And the first time, for a party in 2000.

     The bone crusher caught my attention.
     A massive, chrome device with a pair of hooks that go over a limb, holding it in place, and a threaded rod tightened by a steel bar, that pushes down, breaking the arm or leg so it can be reset. The thing was dated to 1918, though it seemed as if it belonged to the Middle Ages.
     The intriguing contraption was just one of the eye-popping—sometimes literally—displays at the International Museum of Surgical Science, located, along with the International College of Surgeons, in a grand pair of side-by-side mansions on the 1500 block of North Lake Shore Drive. The museum is a perennial favorite in the pantheon of offbeat Chicago sites.

    I had always intended on visiting, someday. But the years passed, then decades, and the desire never coalesced into action until free food and beverages were thrown into the mix.
     Then I was there in a heartbeat, joining the throng celebrating the publication of Secret Chicago (ECW Press, $ 17.95), Sam Weller's guide to odd, little-known places in the Chicago area.
     As is inevitable with such guides, the book is a curious mix of genuine hidden treasures, such as the museum, visited by as many as 20 people a day, and better-known locales, such as the Art Institute, or that obscure gem known only to the 4 million people who somehow discover it, Taste of Chicago.

     While I enjoyed the museum, I don't know if I would recommend it to everybody, particularly the faint of heart.
     True, it has a certain naive charm. In an era when most museum exhibits are ultra-slick endeavors, assembled by teams of academics and funded by multinational corporations, the surgical museum is endearingly rustic, almost crude, in a cobbled-together way, between the rough stone statues in its Hall of Immortals, and the haphazard jumble of displays, identified haltingly with handmade labels, all skewed and fading.
     But the folksiness of the place also contributes to its chamber-of-horrors feel, the way the serenity of a town in a Stephen King novel underlines the nightmares building below the surface. I had heard about the uteral and kidney stones on proud display, but was caught off-guard by the vivid oil paintings of unspeakable pre-modern surgeries, not to mention the saws, knives and, of course, that bone crusher.
     I left the place intrigued by a pair of questions.
     First, why is the museum there? As flush as the International College of Surgeons, which runs the museum, must certainly be, it also must be tempted to cash out on such a prime piece of real estate and put its museum, oh, in Navy Pier or Woodfield Mall or some place where people could actually get at it.
     Short answer: They can't.
     "Of course the buildings are landmarks," said Dolores Leber, a museum associate. "That's why we're in the place we're at. It's the perfect site for high- rises, but being a landmark . . . .       And second: Sure, that bone crusher seems barbaric. But how do they reset bones now? For all I know, every hospital in America has a bone crusher.
     They don't.
     "Things are much more sophisticated," said Dr. David Beigler, an orthopedist at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He said the problem with a device such as the bone crusher is you never know where the bone will break. Nowadays, they'd operate, going in and cutting.
     Still, the process is not without its throwbacks to the past.
     "We do have a wire saw that you operate with two hands called a 'giggly saw,' " said Dr. Brian Cole of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. "It's sort of a prehistoric device."
     Dr. Cole had no idea, however, what the ominous "giggly" in "giggly saw" refers to. That's the problem with this profession. You solve one question, and another pops up to take its place.
         —Originally published May 18, 2000 in the Sun-Times