Sunday, May 31, 2015

The shortest bucket list ever

Man and dog resting after a run, Nashville

     I am morally opposed to bucket lists of all kinds, those bossy catalogues of experiences that every upper middle class person ought to aspire to. One hundred books, places, restaurants, whatever, that you must—must!— read, visit, eat at before you die. In order to live a full and complete life. According to someone else, to some low-wage assistant editor at a fading magazine or web site who never met you.
     To me, it's as if the martinets of fashion, driven out of the business of dictating our clothing choices by general slovenliness, regrouped around lifestyle for their last ditch stand at ordering people to do something.  We may not be able to ordain your skirt length, anymore, but we sure as hell can demand you go to Prague. You can't die and not see Prague. 
     Really? Just watch me. 
     The world's a big place. You could sit down and start reading books from this moment until you take your last breath, and you would still miss wonderful works of literature. You could stand up, and begin a Conradian wander across the earth and still miss fabulous places. The idea of generating lists of obligations is such a dreary eat-your-peas, fill-in-the-stamp-album notion, I'm astounded anyone has ever done it once, never mind made it a tiresome journalistic cliche.  
     I've been to a number of very nice cities. London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Tokyo, and such. But I'd never suggest that you must go to these places. You should. It's not a bad idea, if you are so inclined. But lots —the vast majority of people in the world—have never been to any particular place, and to suggest that their lives are somehow incomplete because of it is another form of cultural imperialism and intellectual arrogance. Paris is filled with Parisians whose lives are neither charming nor fulfilled despite their being right there. You could read half of Moby-Dick and cast it away, hating the book. There's a lot about whales.
     When I look at my own life, at things I've done that I'm most happy about, most proud about, never show up on anybody's list. I've never seen "Get sober" on a bucket list, but I'm glad I did. Or "Have children," though that's an adventure that beats the hell out of bungee jumping into some gorge, not that I'll ever considering doing that. 
     If I had to compose a list, if you put a gun to my head and made me, I'd recommend people get a dog. Because I never had a dog, never wanted a dog—in fact, was dead set against them. I didn't even want to touch a dog. My dad was from New York City. We never had dogs.  When my older boy began pressing for one, I replied. "You're not asking for a dog, you're asking me to pick up dog crap twice a day and I'm not going to do it." He was eight or nine. 
     But my younger son also wanted a dog, and asked for it for his bar mitzvah, and that was the loophole that brought us Kitty. I was terrified at the time—I sincerely thought the dog would ruin our lives. She didn't, and now that care for her as devolved to me, as it invariably does, I'm really glad we have her. Walking Kitty is the most normal thing I do, often the highlight of my day, and as we take in the air, morning and night and noon if I'm around, I think, "I'm really glad I got a dog. My life is so much fuller." 
     That said, I be reluctant to put "Get a dog" on my never-to-be-written bucket list, because all that really says is that I like having a dog. You, a completely different person, might not, due to whatever persistent personal flaw makes you immune to a dog's charms. 
     Of course, I didn't want a dog either.
      So maybe I could take a risk and write a very short bucket list, because if you really are the sort of person who'd be unhappy with a dog, well, that's awful, and you should get a dog and endeavor to change yourself while there's still time. So, as much as I thought I'd never do it, here's Neil Steinberg's What You Must Do Before You Die list:
     1. Get a dog.
     At least you won't have trouble remembering it.         

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     I did not look up and see this.
     Rather, I looked up and saw this. 
     But with sufficient climbing, and head craning, and body angling, and I was able to get the result above, which has a certain satisfying balance.
      So where is this oblong tableau? It's sufficiently obscure that a hint is in order. It was mid-afternoon Friday, the work was done, and I sort of hit a wall and thought, "Get out of here, poke around." So I hopped on the Divvy at the Mart, took it north, then south, and then wandered around on foot until I came across this.
     Let's sideline Dale -- he won last week. But all you non-Dale readers. If I'm looking up and seeing this, where am I?
    The winner will receive one of my not-so-special-after-all 2015 blog posters, of which I have a superabundance. Good luck.

Go to bed.

         Due to popular request, from now on the Saturday Fun Activity will post at 7 a.m. on Saturdays, to give people who aren't insomniacs or Dale a better chance to win. 
      Or at least for today, given the chance of my automatically reverting to my routine next week. But I'll try to stick to the change, because it seems sensible and fair.
      Please check back after 7 a.m.     
      Thank you.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Serve and protect ... themselves

     The truly disturbing thing about the photograph of two cops brandishing rifles and grinning over the prone body of a black man wearing antlers (wearing antlers — how do you even do that? "C'mere buddy, put these antlers on and let this third cop take your picture before we turn you loose?") is not that it jarringly captures one moment of grotesque bad judgment and racial insensitivity a dozen years ago, but that it is also a perfect expression of the main ongoing problem then, now and into the foreseeable future of the Chicago Police Department.
     The motto on Chicago squad cars, "We Serve and Protect," is a phrase without an object. "We serve and protect whom?" The implication is the people of the city of Chicago, and to be fair, much serving and protecting goes on, all the time, all day, every day. Any discussion of the Chicago Police has to start with a caveat: that there are over 12,000 sworn officers, most doing their jobs in a laudable fashion, enduring an at times dull, at times difficult routine, performing acts of heroism, sometimes laying down their lives.
     But the ooze from the bad apples spatters them, big time. The routine competence and occasional excellence of the department is undercut by a general atmosphere that could be emblazoned on their cars as "We serve and protect ourselves." The attitude is that their job is so dangerous that their first duty is to each other, and it fosters an insular world of corruption and cronyism. Every illegally parked car with a pair of handcuffs or a checkered hatband hanging from the rearview mirror is a whisper of "I'm a cop; give me a break."
     And they do, on matters big and small, and it leads to cops like Jerome Finnigan, on the left in the instantly infamous photo. Finnigan is in a prison in Florida serving 12 years for robbery and home invasion. The other officer, Timothy McDermott, is still trying to get his job back, and the public has to shake its head that the Police Board voted 5-4 to fire him last October.
     Really? A close call? McDermott argued it was a youthful prank, and to the degree that could be true, you have to feel sorry for him. But the Chicago Police Department has long been a weight on our city's reputation. Try to pick an era without a jaw-dropping police scandal, from this latest embarrassment rocketing around the Internet to Burge torture to the police riots of the 1960s. It never ends.
     At some point the police need to at least give the impression they care, that the best interests of any officer who does any misdeed imaginable and some that aren't won't trump what is in the best interests of the department and the city.
     Finnigan and the three officers working for him logged 200 complaints without raising any alarm among their superiors, and when you look at how one of those complaints was handled, you see why. In 2002, Finnigan and his fellow Chicago Police officers broke into the home of Robert Cook, who turned out to be a Chicago firefighter. They beat him in front of his children. Cook filed a complaint. Here is how the complaint was handled, according to Cook's lawsuit against the city:
     The next day, May 30, 2002, an investigator from the CPD came to plaintiff's home to discuss his complaint. The investigator told plaintiff that plaintiff was a drug dealer and that his complaint was "bogus." A day or two later, the investigator returned to plaintiff's house and told him that if he pursued his complaint the police would cause him to lose his job. Plaintiff told the investigator that he would not pursue the case so long as the police did not arrest him, plant drugs on him, or have him fired. As the investigator left plaintiff's home, he told plaintiff, "just forget about this; otherwise kiss your job goodbye, and you're f----."
     Over the past decade, the city of Chicago has paid out $500 million in lawsuits based on such police work. A half-billion dollars. That's almost exactly the nut due on the ballooning police pensions. If cops weren't so adept at ignoring the malfeasance of their brethren, Chicago wouldn't be quite so broke.
     Police have a tough job, which they make tougher by coddling the rotten apples among them. We haven't had a Ferguson-type crisis in Chicago yet out of pure dumb luck. But luck only holds so long, and the Chicago Police Department must start policing itself better.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Prize Possession

     The Sun-Times ran a story Wednesday —about physicist and former Fermi head Leon Lederman selling his Nobel Prize — that brought to mind one of my favorite stories I ever wrote, not so much for its execution, but for the idea sparking it. It was 1988, and the Small family had just started a new magazine called Chicago Times, and I wanted to impress them with my sense of quirk.  My first piece is below, on Nobel laureates, where they put their Nobel prizes when they get them home, and do they show them off to dinner guests. The original lede on this story was a non-sequitur —"Most people know that Albert Nobel invented dynamite, but few realize that his father invented plywood"—that appealed to me because I felt it set the proper surreal tone of focusing on a mundane aspect of the Nobel Prize (faithful reader Gry Haukland contributes this sublime item from Scientific American about trying to get your Nobel through airport security). But the editor rejected my beginning, so the story was printed the way it appears below, in September 1988, a few months before Lederman won his Nobel Prize in physics. Bidding for the medal starts at $325,000. As for my story, well, I hope it's worth the time it takes to read.

     On December 10, a new group of academics will be paraded, blinking, into the glare of global publicity in Stockholm, Sweden. There they will receive what may be the world's most prestigious award, the Nobel Prize, along with a payment of approximately $225,000.
     These laureates will be questioned about the discoveries and life work that led to their awards. But, if this year is like others, the really pertinent questions about the Nobel will go unasked. Where do the winners put the prizes when they get them home? And what do they do with the money?
     Luckily, the University of Chicago has produced fifty-five Nobel laureates, more than any other institution in the world. Consequently, answers are close at hand.
      "It's a lovely paperweight," George Stigler says of the beribboned two-inch-across, one-eighth-inch-thick solid gold medallion he received in 1982 for his work on economics and public information. "It's in my desk and I bring it out once in a while to amuse people."
     Stigler says he knows of one laureate who carries his Nobel Prize around, presenting the stamped profile of the inventor of dynamite at hotels, along with demands for discounts.
     Other laureates are more hesitant about displaying their prizes out of a combination of fear and modesty. 
     "The prize is usually in a safe-deposit box," says Jim Cronin, who, with Val Fitch, won it in 1980 for his work on subatomic particles called K-mesons. Cronin does have a facsimile prize close at hand, however.
     "What the foundation does, for a minimum charge, is give you a replica, a fake," he says. "It's sitting in the study with all the other memorabilia that I'm ashamed to show to anybody I respect. Maybe I'd like to, but I'm too embarrassed. But the children like to see it."
     Theodore W. Schultz, who received the prize in 1979 along with W. Arthur Lewis for pioneering work on economic transformation of traditional agricultural societies, found the idea of making a replica distasteful. He keeps his prize locked away in a special safe the Defense Department gave him to store classified documents. "I've not displayed it—once in a while my children may look at it, and that's about it," he says.
     As an economist, Schultz chides himself for holding on to the prize, which he calls "a gravestone that draws no interest. I could have sold it and drawn interest on it." But the man who was insightful enough to develop the idea of the importance of human capital recognizes that, in the grand scope of his personal finances, the interest off a Nobel Prize will not make or break him. "my marginal interest would have been quite low compared to knowing it's just there."     
     Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the great astrophysicist who theorized the existence of black holes when he was nineteen and who won the prize in 1983, never thought about selling his Nobel. "What can one do?" he asks in a faint, philosophical tone. "You can melt it down for gold, or you can put it in a bank. I don't go to the extreme." Chandrasekhar did have a reproduction made, but then gave it away to his brothers in India.
     The "minimum charge" Cronin mentioned for the replica—other laureates estimated it was between $25 and $40—points out another interesting aspect to the award. "You'd be amazed," Cronin laughs. "They give you all this money, pay for your transportation and hotel, but if you want photographs—and they photograph the ceremony like crazy—they charge you $10 apiece."
     Cronin also dispels the myth that laureates use the prize money to "further their work." He says he used some of the money to put plumbing and a new porch on his cabin in Wisconsin. Stigler built a cabin in Canada. Schultz pointed out that travel expense to the ten days of festivities in Stockholm for twenty-nine family members "took a good hunk out of the prize." 
     And finally, for all the scientists working away in obscurity, dreaming of the day they will wow the academy in Stockholm with the scientific brilliance of their acceptance speech, Cronin offers a disillusioning revelation.
     "I put a lot of work into my speech," he says. "This was a social occasion, and my speech was a scientific paper—no jokes. It went over like a lead balloon." 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Can you spell 'labyrinthine?'

     The finals of the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee are going on in Maryland over the next few days. One of those quaint bits of Americana that persists in the face of being utterly mooted by technology. Who needs to know how to spell? Tap out a jumble of letters somewhat close to the correct spelling and your phone will do the rest.
     Yet millions of kids dutifully study long lists of words, and jam themselves into the wide end of that funnel squirting out one lone champion (or, at best, like last year, two) this Friday.
     Why? That’s easy. It’s a way for children who otherwise might not find opportunities for acclaim to win big. Any kid who can run fast or pitch hard can find fleeting glory playing sports. But the ability to focus, to study hard, for years? Who honors that? You’ve got science fairs, chess tournaments and the spelling bee, and that’s about it.
     This year there is bee controversy. The Washington Post, which watches the bee more closely than most, since it finishes up in the newspaper’s backyard, spotlighted the domination of the bee by Indian-American kids, who have taken the championship seven years in a row.
     Which led to ugly social media condemnation last year. Co-champions Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe “were greeted with a barrage of racist comments on Facebook and Twitter,” the Post reported, citing examples such as, “The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN.”
     Like the Post, I have a particular interest in the bee. In 1993, I was writing a book on failure, and thought it should include something related to public school — that’s where much of our fear of failure comes from, the red F, all those nightmares where you’re taking a test you haven’t studied for. But what to actually report on? A student failing a class? A girl who didn’t make the cheerleading squad? That seemed so bleak. And then I remembered the National Spelling Bee. It was perfect. Nine million kids enter. They all lose, in a public, humiliating way that gets more public and more humiliating as it goes along. And it’s spelling, it’s stupid, it’s not even a valuable skill.
       So I decided I would follow a student through a year of the bee, through local, regional, state and national bees.
     But how to find one student in the Chicago area with a chance of going to the nationals?
     I formed a strategy: hedge your bets. Those who go to the national round are often those who went to the nationals in the past. So I would observe a past state winner who would have a better chance to go back for another go. The two previous winners from Illinois were kids named Gary Lee and Sruti Nadimpalli. My reporter’s instinct told me it would be far easier to find the latter, and I did. She was 12 then, a serious girl, the child of two doctors. I followed her through her bees at the school, regional and state levels. She didn’t go to nationals, but I did, and found a brutal competition. The chapter in my book was called, “Shiver Like Rhesus Monkeys,” the way a Scripps flack described the weeping losers.
     Twenty-two years is a long time, but again, thanks to her distinctive name, I found Sruti in about 10 seconds, a doctor herself now, teaching at the Stanford University School of Medicine. I asked her how she views the bee, from the perspective of an adult in her mid-30s.
     “I think studying spelling fosters a love of language in many of the participants, the preparation is intense, and rote, and — depending on one’s parents’ approach — can be a bit much,” she wrote in an email. “In this age as well, I don’t think good spelling carries the value it used to. That said, I probably wouldn’t have opted out of participating if I could do it over again.”
     Her mention of parents made me realize something. A lot of these kids are in the bee because their folks push them. Which puts an extra cruel spin on the abuse of winners. Their ambitious, often new immigrant parents force them to participate in this surreal struggle where, after years of effort, should by some fluke they emerge victorious, then the children of parents who let them spend their youths playing Xbox await to heckle them online. That isn’t right.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Will my air bag kill me?

The author with his 1963 Volvo P1800, 1984.

    Once I drove a car without brakes. Intentionally. It was my first car: a 1963 Volvo P1800, the Swedish idea of a sports car with stubby fins, white in color, just like The Saint’s. The brakes quit abruptly. Push the pedal to the floor and nothing happened. But I could still downshift and had the emergency brake, so I drove it home. I was 22 and stupid, if that isn’t being redundant.
     But I got away with it.
     Now, 32 years later, the same guy who climbed behind the wheel of that brakeless Volvo contemplates the burgeoning Takata air bag recall. I’ve been manfully ignoring it, but like the radioactive blob in one of those 1950s horror movies it keeps getting bigger. Last week the recall doubled to 34 million cars, the biggest recall in automotive history.
     The air bags, which are supposed to save you in an accident — a nice touch of irony — instead can spray metal shrapnel into your face, even after a minor fender bender. Six people have died. A hundred more have been injured, some with gruesome facial injuries. Nothing like someone having their throat cut by an air bag or a shard of steel jammed in their eye to catch public attention.
The 2005 Honda Odyssey on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
       This has been gathering for years. Now seems the moment when even the most complacent driver looks up from his silage, utters a worried “moo,” and goes shuffling off to find out whether his silver bean of a 2005 Honda Odyssey is among those now being recalled. The van that my darling boys and precious wife drive.
     The government has a website — — good old government, catching business when it falls in a swoon. Easy to find. And look, a big yellow button marked “Search for recall by VIN.”
     Trot out to the driveway, open the driver’s side door. The expected big white sticker. Fall to my knees. Squint at the tiny type: “MFD. BY HONDA MFG. OF ALABAMA.” Of course, Made in America. I can’t even work into a towering “Remember Pearl Harbor” sense of betrayal. “THIS VEHICLE CONFORMS TO ALL APPLICABLE FEDERAL MOTOR VEHICLE SAFETY AND THEFT PREVENTION STANDARDS IN EFFECT ON THE DATE OF MANUFACTURE.”
     Ha! All the good THAT did! Too bad Congress didn’t pass the “Don’t Bungle Producing The Air Bags So Badly That They Start Killing People Act of 2005.” All of this might have been avoided.
     There, the VIN, a blindness inducing jumble. “5″ or is that an “S”? “FNRL38″ or is that a “B”? And so on. Seventeen digits.
     Back to the computer, plug ‘em in.
     “Number of Open Recalls: 0.”
     Hooray, right? Wrong. Thanks to the orange box reading “Please Note: If you are checking to see if your vehicle is affected by the Takata air bag recalls, it generally takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks for automakers to gather individual VINs associated with a recall. It is important that you check back periodically as a recall on your vehicle may not show up immediately.”
     Oh. It is important, is it? Another important task that may or may not help keep me in some infinitesimal way.
     So do you drive the car and try not to think about it? Or what? Walk? Wear a hockey mask? Buy a new car? A new car that might also have some defective part you’ll find out about in a decade.
     Sigh. Keep driving. Try … not … to … think … about … it.
     Earlier this month, Malcolm Gladwell published a lengthy article in the New Yorker on the safety of the Ford Pinto, which my generation knows as the pinup for unsafe cars — they burst into flames if you rear-ended them. Only, as Gladwell demonstrates, they didn’t, at least not any more than any other of the cars at the time. “In 1975-76, 1.9 percent of all cars on the road were Pintos,” Gladwell writes, “and Pintos were involved in 1.9 percent of all fatal fires.”
     Whoops. Turns out the Pinto wasn’t more dangerous than any other lousy mid-1970s car.
     You know what is the most dangerous part of any car, don’t you? What causes tens of thousands of deaths every year?
     The driver.
     But we can’t recall those, can we? So instead we fixate on these one-in-a-million risks — which are a big deal if you or your loved one is that one unlucky driver out of a million. For the rest of us, it’s all just part of the endless, confusing, scary hassle that is modern life. Drive safely. If you can.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Flanders is in Belgium, for one.

Purple poppies at the Chicago Botanic Garden, May 22, 2015. 

     We went shopping Saturday. It was a tiny bit chilly, so my wife put on her light black jacket.
      "I bought a poppy," my wife said, fingering a small red paper flower at her collar. "They were selling them downtown."
     I nodded.
     "It's ironic," she continued, "that they'd sell poppies to benefit vets, considering the drug problem."
      Poppies are made into heroin. 
      I paused.  It's bad enough to be pedantic—to be always dredging up minutia to afflict your friends and loved ones with. But worse to be a repeat offender. I tiptoed gingerly.
      "There's a reason they use poppies," I said. "I may have told you."
      "Maybe you did," she said. "But I don't recall."
      That was encouragement enough, for me.
     "There is an cemetery in Flanders ... in France," I continued. "Where thousands of American servicemen are buried. After World War I, someone wrote a poem."
      "In Flanders field, the poppies grow, upon the crosses, row on row...." I began. But that was as much as I remembered. Back at home, I checked. 
      As blowhards often do, I had a few key details wrong. The poem wasn't written after the war, but in May, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, by a Canadian military doctor and artillery commander, Major John McCrae. And Flanders isn't in France; it's in Belgium. 
       Details now, I suppose. It's a short, powerful poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. 
Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

     A lot to think about. What does it mean to "break faith" with the dead? To forget them, perhaps? And who is the foe? A century ago, it was the Germans. Now...not as easy.  Those last two lines are certainly a lie: I don't believe the military dead rest lightly or uneasily depending on the diligence of our military policy.  Perhaps he meant we have a responsibility to them, to act in a better fashion than we usually seem inclined to. 
      We forget the past without frequent reminders. So Memorial Day is important, to reflect on all the soldiers who fell trying to keep our country free, and remember the responsibility that we as free citizens have to sort through it all, and to remember, and to elect leaders who won't squander the precious gift that service men and women so willingly gave, and give.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Dante turns 750


     We don't know exactly when Dante Alighieri was born. June 1, 1265 is the commonly given date, but scholars say late May, early June. Around now.
     Like countless others, I have an enduring admiration and interest in Dante. I was reading Justin Steinberg's "Dante and the Limits of the Law" and thought, "Retirement won't be so bad; I'll just read books about Dante and the years will roll by."
     It's a hard fixation to explain; you kinda have to be there. But I gave it a go five years ago, ironically, when an Inferno video game came out.

     Offense is the grease that keeps us spinning. Someone says something that clashes with your values, and you register your displeasure by complaining, flexing the newfound power you believe being a victim gives you.
     There is another way. Your cherished beliefs being mangled can also be a "teachable moment." Take a TV commercial running during Sunday's Super Bowl -- no, not the pro-life ad. I mean the 30-second spot for EA's new video game, "Dante's Inferno."
      Ahem. Yes, liberties were taken with the 700-year-old poem. The character of Dante —his gaunt visage, scowling as if he had actually seen the souls in hell — is rendered into your basic, bland, buff superhero, mowing down demons with a scythe. His great love, Beatrice, is no demure Florentine lady, but a sultry blond bimbo in a white strap dress who looks like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader on date night.
     My reaction—the reaction of anyone who loves Dante and pauses first to think—is "Hooray!" Thanks, EA. How many people were introduced to great art through what were once called "low culture"—comic books and cartoons and games? How many first heard opera on "Bugs Bunny"? Or cut their literary teeth on "Classics Illustrated" comics? I did.
     So welcome, thumb-twiddling teens. I won't pretend many of you will shift from the video game to the 100-canto poem. But some will. They've reissued Longfellow's translation of the Inferno with a video game cover, and it's doing far better on Amazon than previous editions. A few kids will wonder what the real thing is about. It's simple.


     Many facts are known about Dante Alighieri—as opposed to his only equal in literature, William Shakespeare, about whose life we know almost nothing for certain.
     Two facts about Dante are particularly important: 1) At age 9, he saw Beatrice Portinari, 8, in the street and fell madly in unrequited love. 2) In adulthood, Dante, accused of the unpoetic (but rather Cook County-ish) crime of skimming funds intended for municipal road repairs, was exiled from Florence.
     In exile, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, a poem divided into three major sections: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
     The Inferno is the most fun, since souls suffering endless torment in hell are a lot more interesting than souls humbly ascending purgatory's mountain or souls whirling around the complex golden landscape of heaven.
     The plot is outlined in the famous first sentence: "Midway through our life's journey, I found myself lost in a dark wood. . . ." Dante wanders into hell, where he meets the Roman poet Virgil, there at Beatrice's request to guide Dante to her in heaven. They take the long route.
      The two emotions that drive the Inferno are love and revenge. Dante's hell is a meticulously crafted vengeance upon everyone who did him wrong, populated with real Florentine political figures. "Come get Filippo Argenti!" filth-spattered souls cry "crazed with rage" as they mangle Dante's enemy.
     The love in the Inferno is not so much for Beatrice — that comes later — as for his lost Florence in general and for a certain Florentine in particular: Dante himself.
     The Inferno is the first modern piece of fiction (it's so vivid, you have to remind yourself that he's making all this up; our concept of hell today, with pitchfork-wielding demons and lakes of fire, is all Dante). Modernism is about the rise of the individual, and Dante is not writing about heroes or gods, but himself. He's the hero, and his participation in the story is stunningly contemporary—as many plays as Shakespeare wrote, no character named Will Shakespeare ever shows up on stage and talks about how great he is. Dante does that. He brags like a rap star.
     Dante also wrote in Italian, something new at the time. Thus the Inferno has to be translated every generation to keep it fresh -- it's a shame the kids are being served stale Longfellow because Robert Pinsky's 1994 translation is much better.
     Compare Longfellow in the 9th Circle: "Then I beheld a thousand faces, made/Purple with cold; whence o'er me comes a shudder/And evermore will come, at frozen ponds" to Pinsky: "I saw a thousand faces after that/All purple as a dog's lips from the frost/I still shiver, and always will, at the sight."


     I couldn't resist checking in with Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States, to learn his take on this newest interpretation of Dante.
     "I love games (and Dante)," he e-mailed back. "And when a publication, in advance, asked me to go online to play this one, I tried, with an open and maybe even receptive mind. But after a while I noticed that I was having trouble staying awake." He found the game "tired, cornball and dull."
     Not something that could be said about the Inferno. To enjoy it, keep Dante's life in mind, the relentless way he goes after his foes (unable to put Pope Boniface VIII in hell, since he had not yet died by Easter 1300, when the tale takes place, Dante pauses to admire the hole waiting for Boniface as soon as he arrives).
     "Bitter is the taste of another man's bread," Dante writes, "and weary the way up and down another man's stairs." You remember that this is a disappointed, middle-age exile who didn't get the girl and never got to return home. A message that won't resonate with many teens. But as the years go by, it might, and that gaudy video game edition will still be on their shelves, ready when they need it.

     -- Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 7, 2010

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     As proud as I am of being Jewish, I gotta say. Catholics have us beat, architecturally. For all sorts of legitimate socio-historical reasons. Synagogues invariably look like some weird modern spaceship structure built in Belgium—I guess because all the cool old urban dome synagogues were abandoned by their congregations fleeing to the suburbs, and became churches. 
    I hope that doesn't make me a self-hating Jew, to acknowledge factuality like that. I'm not saying there aren't any pretty synagogues anywhere. I've been to some beauts, particularly overseas—in Rome, in London, in Barbados, of all places. But in Chicago? Well, not so much.  
    Anyway, I encountered this brick beauty...ah...while on my peregrinations around the city Friday, and had to stop and snap a few photographs. 
     Recognize it? Where was I? The first to ID the church wins one of my okay-I-admit-it-I'm-stuck-with-them blog posters. Place your guesses below. Good luck. Have fun. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Starting to win the war on drugs

     It was always crazy that you could buy a gallon of vodka at any grocery store, while a joint would land you in a jail.
     But “crazy” is one of the more apt adjectives describing America’s War on Drugs, a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar effort that in the end . . . assuming this is, please God, the beginning of the end . . . produced what? Plentiful, ever cheaper street narcotics and a prison system jammed with drug offenders.
     More than half of the inmates in the federal prison system are there for drug offenses. As are nearly a quarter of those in state prisons.
     True, most are there for hard drugs, which is an actual social problem. About 12 percent of prisoners in the state and federal systems are there for selling marijuana. That’s still more than 100,000 people, all for involvement with a drug that has killed … well, nobody ever.
     On Thursday, the Illinois Senate took another baby step toward sanity by decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. Sure, pot isn’t healthy, and not a very productive use of your time. But if mind-numbing time wastes were crimes, then a whole lot of folks would be in Stateville on an Xbox rap.
     It’s uncertain whether Gov. Bruce Rauner will sign the bill, though as a guy already lashing out at the unions and at Chicago, he might decide to go with the flow, for once, and approve of a popular measure. Americans are tired of this war.
     Anyone concerned about a nation in gridlock — and any patriotic American should fear that more than the Russians and ISIS put together — has to cheer this development, as nearly half the states, including Illinois, have legalized marijuana in some form. Even people who never smoke pot — i.e. me — have to welcome the reduced waste of police and judicial resources, the money saved, the eventual tax bonanza gained, should we follow Colorado, Oregon and Washington State and allow recreational uses.
     There are two ways to view this. It could be seen as a victory for drug culture, for those who want a bit of impairment to help their lives slide by. Or it could be seen as a victory for good government, for allowing American citizens their supposed liberty to do as they please, to indulge in a recreation that harms no one. Maybe we’re at along last starting to win the war, but not in the way we had planned. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Photo atop blog: Venice Beach, California, 2009

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Stealing their souls

    The place, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The time, last February. The museum consists of a number of various buildings and courtyards and, coming out of one, we encountered this installation of yellow plastic string— Jesus Rafael Soto's 1990 "Penetrable"—with children happily scampering through it. It seemed a picture. I whipped out my cell phone.
     "That's creepy," my teenage son said.
     "It's creepy to take photos of other people's children," my wife agreed.
    I was taken aback, surprised, indignant. Yes, I knew where they were coming from—fear of perverts—but didn't agree that this was an intrusion.
    I gestured to proud parents, standing around, also snapping pictures, one assumed of their kids, who were supposed to play in the thing (One critic called it "part geometric abstraction, part day care.")
    "Nobody knows that I'm not the parent of one of these kids," I said.
    Or, now that I think of it, the grandparent.
    It was a sour moment, that left a bad taste in my mouth for an hour, one that came back to me when reading about an incident earlier this month in Australia. A man took a selfie in front of a Darth Vader poster at a mall, and said some benign comment to a group of nearby kids, waiting to take a picture as well, something along the lines of, "I'll be done in a minute." Their mother caught the exchange but not what was said, instantly decided her children were being approached by a would-be molester, snapped his picture, and posted it online identifying him as "a creep." The post was shared thousands of times, the man's complete innocence established, and soon the mom was getting death threats and issuing "a groveling apology" through the Daily Mail.
      Fear spreads instantly but rationality takes its time. Being kidnapped by strangers is a risk, but a minute one. Far greater is the risk of overprotective parents warping their children'a lives by living in a state of constant fear, or blaming innocent persons doing unobjectionable things. I don't consider the above an inappropriate picture, nor the taking it, in a courtyard at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an act of questionable judgment. Or was it?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rahm's zenith of cynicism

     A buddy of mine had Rahm Emanuel's private cellphone number and dialed it by mistake, which he discovered when the mayor's voice barked, "I'm with my family!" from his back pocket.
     When I heard that story, I did not think, "Poor Mayor Emanuel, interrupted while on the floor playing Monopoly with the kids." What I thought is that family is the club he pulls out automatically when fending off the prying gaze of the media, the fire ax behind the glass. A trick he learned from Mayor Daley: Put Maggie in a magic garden with unicorns and bristle indignantly whenever anyone looks over the rose hedge and asks, say, about the fat salaries she draws sitting on corporate boards. How dare you! That's my family!
     But family isn't always of practical use in every occasion, and so other families, particularly other families' kids, are a surrogate, and the mayor uses them continually as the perfect human shield to duck behind for political cover. Emanuel's second inauguration speech Monday continued the trend, evoking, to me, Karen Lewis' classic assessment: "Rahm thinks you're stupid." Not me, personally, though I'm sure he does. But people in general. You'd have to consider the intelligence of the city pretty low to, at a moment of true civic financial crisis, look to the clouds and wax poetic about the intractable problems of urban poverty and Our Young.
     "I want to use this moment to shine a spotlight on preventing another lost generation of our city’s youth."
     He didn't address kids who'll be lost because their schizophrenic parents can't go to the mental health clinics that the city closed, who suffer living in an economically collapsing city, or the disabled kids who've had their support kicked out from under them by his buddy Bruce Rauner in the name of making Illinois a more hospitable place to run businesses
     Rather, he told us that every child holds "the spark of the divine."
     Well thanks for the big reveal, Mr. Mayor, because some weekends it seems like they're the cast of a zombie shooter video game.
     Like "the most American of American cities" line he keeps repeating, Emanuel said a lot that sounds good but falls apart upon examination. "They may have been born in poverty, but poverty was not born in them." Nice chiasmus, your Honor, but what does that even mean?
     I half expected Rahm to trot out a kindergarten class, right there on stage at the Chicago Theatre, and start reading them "Hop on Pop." Delivered by another politician, the inauguration speech would be an unobjectionable effort. But coming from our mayor it is the zenith of cynicism, his standard schtick, children being the shiny watch he hopes to dangle in front of the electorate and the media hoping to mesmerize them.
     This time it was an epic fail. The front-page stories in both Chicago dailies presented schizophrenic coverage of the inauguration, alternating between the mayor's empty city-on-a-hill bromides and the looming economic disaster that he barely mentioned.
     Inaugurations are superfluous. The law doesn't require the mayor to be sworn in. His new term would have begun anyway at noon, with or without the Festiva del Rahm. Compare his one-size-fits-all speech to how powerful it would have been had he said, "You know, we're in a crisis, so rather than throw myself another bar mitzvah party, I'm asking that the money go to fund an after-school program in Roseland." That would have been something to applaud.
     Instead, we got endangered kids and how "we must make them ever present in our conversation."
    Oh, we're going to talk poverty away. Who knew it was that easy? Was there a specific thing in there that the mayor said he'd actually do? Good programs we're already doing, and the importance of parenting and mentoring. The usual suspects.
     The speech left me with this question: If talking about disadvantaged youth puts them on the road to solving their problems, in the mayor's mind if not in hard actuality, then what does not talking about a problem, say the city's finances, mean? That we're nowhere? Exactly. Which is why the mayor isn't talking about it. Maybe it's about time he does. Put down "Hop on Pop." Pick up Crain's. And start talking about the elephant that is not just in the room but in the room standing on the city's neck.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Scouting report

Christine Goerke with Sir Andrew Davis
     Opera must really be an odd taste, because it sticks in readers' minds, festering, and even though I only write a handful of columns about opera, it's often the go-to topic when angry correspondents are looking for something to toss back in my face. Outraged with my position on their pet fixation, they'll snarl, "Stick to opera!"
     Happily, at least for today, though it's a subject that, even after years, I'm still in the early stages of understanding. When someone accuses me of being an opera expert, I instantly correct them: No, I'm an enthusiast. An expert commands a body of knowledge and an acuity of perception that I can't touch. Andrew Patner, may he rest in peace, was an opera expert. Alex Ross is an opera expert. 
     I'm just a fan. I find that opera gives my life unique pleasure, scope and meaning. Opera is my version of following pro sports, only, you know, interesting. Though I'm open to the idea of eventually developing a better grasp of opera. Having dabbled, I've begun to notice certain glimmerings of a more subtle understanding, a few green shoots of insight. When the Lyric announced they'd be doing "The Merry Widow," next year, my first thought was, "What, again?" and then I smiled, realizing, "Ah, Renee Fleming wants to star in it. That's why it's back so soon. Now I see." 
     Or reading Alex Ross's "Musical Events" column in the May 11 New Yorker. I was on familiar ground from the get-go, since it begins talking about one of my favorite operas, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," currently on-stage at the Met, paired, as is typical, with Pietro Masagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."
     Of course, knowing of Cav/Pag isn't much—they're two of everybody's favorite operas, among the most familiar operas of all time. Pagliacci's "Vesti la Giubba" is the soaring aria evoked when popular culture wants to convey "Opera." Cavalleria is only a little less famous.
    Then Ross pivots from those pair of one-hit wonder composers to the workhorse of all opera, Richard Wagner. First Houston, an unexpected oasis of culture in the Texan intellectual desert, where "Die Walkure" is starring Christine Goerke. He moves to Eric Owens, singing "The Flying Dutchman" at the Washington National Opera.  
     Hey, wait a second, I thought. Goerke. Owens. I KNOW those guys. I MET them.  Goerke at a press conference announcing Lyric's ambitious presentation of Wagner's full four opera Ring of the Nibelung cycle, which will be performed at the Lyric Opera beginning in the fall of 2016 with "Das Rheingold." And Owens,  an excellent Porgy in last season's "Porgy and Bess," participating via Skype, will be the Ring's Wotan.
    Not that Ross mentions any of this. I was tempted to wave the oversight as a bloody shirt, more evidence of the unfortunate invisibility of Chicago to the Gotham elite. But Ross once commented on this blog—thank you Andrew—so I decided his heart is pure, and he probably just didn't have the space, and since I hate it when local media fusspots zing me without gathering the courage to ask for my perspective, I checked with Ross: slight to Chicago or not enough room? He replied:
Thanks for the note, and for giving me a chance to respond! Comments about New York ignoring Chicago are seldom unjustified — Andrew Patner might well have chided me on this very point — but in this case I don't feel guilty as charged. I had very little space to discuss the performances, and so I chose to focus entirely on what I heard in DC and Houston. Not only did I omit Goerke and Owens's future engagements in Chicago, but I also made no mention of Goerke's appointment to sing Brünnhilde at the Met in 2018-19. In other words, it was a rare case of New York ignoring both New York and Chicago. Needless to say, I am very eager to hear Owens's Wotan — I've been anticipating the occasion on my blog for several years — and plan to attend the Rheingold in Oct. 2016.
    Fair enough. So to bring this lengthy overture to an end, and get to the point of this: Ross's scouting report from the Grapefruit League in Texas and the swamplands of DC. (New York isn't the only city that gets to snap open the lorgnette and squint at smaller places). How did Goerke and Owens do, Wagner-wise? 
     "Both singers fell short of technical perfection," Ross writes, "at a few moments of high pressure, they issued tremulous, imprecise sounds. Yet they delivered portrayals of acute, pulsing emotion, belying the stereotype of the well-trained American singers who is expert in various styles and native to none."
     Good news, in the main (you should read his entire piece by clicking here).  Ross calls Owens "the most overtly human, openly wounded Dutchman I have heard live" and Goerke's entrance "ricocheted through the house and radiated joyous strength." 
     Joyous strength is good. That's what I go to Wagner to hear. Falling short of technical perfection won't even register on my score card. When I mention Wagner to people and they make a face and talk about his operas, which they haven't heard, taking a long time, I think, So does being alive. Ross said he paired these two singers because they are both "new" to Wagner—Owens first sang Wagner five years ago. It would have been nice if he had the room to tuck in that this duo will share a stage here for years. But his not mentioning it meant that I had to, sort of a gift, which mirrors how I came to writing about opera in the first place. Wynne Delacoma  had retired, yet the opera world somehow carried on, and I said to myself Someone has to pay attention to this

Monday, May 18, 2015

Consumer Reports: "Don't suffer in silence"

   To be a responsible citizen, you ought to vote in each election, raise your children, and subscribe to Consumer Reports.
     Though not in that order.
     If I had to lose one of the three, I'd say skip voting and stick with the magazine. Every month Consumer Reports examines our vast, sprawling, shifting culture of consumption and asks not the standard question we ask ourselves — What should I buy next? — but tougher questions such as "Is this any good? Will it harm you? How can I push back against it?"
     I was reading the June issue.
     And you tend to really read Consumer Reports. Not a lot of skimming, because it tends to be so interesting, even focusing on stuff you never wondered about before, such as this issue's "Special Report: How Safe is Your Shrimp?"
     Like you, my entire thought process about shrimp can be summarized as: Oh there's shrimp? Gimme shrimp. Am I taking too much shrimp? Can I have more shrimp? It never crossed my mind that there might be more to the subject. And I'm a curious guy.
     Seven pages on "choosing the healthiest, tastiest, and most responsibly sourced shrimp." It leaps out of the box with interesting facts about American's love affair with shrimp — four pounds a year per person, three times what we ate 35 years ago.
     I had no idea where shrimp came from. The sea, I assumed. (Wrong: Most is farmed in huge industrial tanks and football-field size artificial ponds.) It never dawned on me that there are different types of shrimp (beyond size, that is, tiny to jumbo). Four thousand varieties, the top six profiled in the magazine.
     By the time I was done reading the article, I felt like an idiot, shrimp-wise, with my snout stuck in a bowl of prawns, never pausing to wonder, Geez, could this stuff be treated with harmful chemicals or silly with disease? (CR: You betcha!)
     And I hadn't even gotten to the cover story, on the gathering peril of the "Internet of Things," as your refrigerator and your thermostat start spying on you and sharing your data with potentially everybody.
     It's cool that your car can talk to your house and tell it to kick in the air conditioning as you near home. But "that convenience comes with a trade-off. The devices can also send a steady flood of personal data to corporate servers, where it's saved and shared, and can be used in ways you can't control." Not only loss of privacy, but exposure to hackers. In Britain, cruel pranksters took over baby monitors to scream at sleeping infants.
     Something for society to look forward to. While it might be too early to truly worry that your Crock-Pot slow cooker is informing on you, it isn't too early to be aware of it.
     There's more. Bicycle helmets. Getting the most out of your used car. And, as always, my favorite part, the back page snickering at the stupidest marketing blunders of the month. Consumer Reports not only takes citizenship seriously, but encourages readers to do the same, with a section, "Actions You can Take In June" ("Ask Congress for safer detergent pods" since thousands of children find them, think they're candy, and eat them). There's a call to arms against inaccurate, illegible unit pricing. "Don't suffer in silence. Tell a store manager."
     And that's just June, with sunscreen and mosquito repellents and more on deck for July.
     Consumer Reports spent nearly a half million dollars testing shrimp. Yet the magazine has no advertisements — itself incredible, in our ever-more-branded world. The government can't get by without selling out to corporations. But Consumer Reports manages. That's why it's important to not just read it, but to subscribe — it's only $29 a year, the cost of a couple pounds of dubious shrimp. It's something that should be supported. I almost called Consumer Reports a fifth branch of government, but then I realized that the press is the fourth branch, and CR is the press, though its gimlet eyed, let's-buy-every-model-and-test-them mentality is so out of keeping with mainstream journalism, and its general, tongue-lolling, seal-clapping applause for whatever junk is being flung at consumers, that it might deserve a category of its own.    

     I don't like focusing on other publications — professional pride. But Consumer Reports is an exception, and if you don't subscribe, you should. And not just for your own good. It's a civic duty.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tsarnaev should die

     When I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, my immediate, unfiltered reaction was "good." I don't think that puts me too far out of the mainstream of American thought.
    That "good" comes despite my opposition to the death penalty
    But not in this case.
    What's the difference?
    If killing is wrong—that's why Tasrnaev's being punished, for murdering three innocent bystanders with the pressure cooker bomb he and his brother built—then isn't it wrong to turn around and kill a killer, even through a deliberative legal process? 
    Good question.
    On one level, the criminal justice system is broken, men are sentenced to death wrongly, as a matter of routine by overzealous prosecutors and colluding cops. It's  skewed against minorities and the poor. If killing is wrong, then the great United States of American should not kill people, for any reason, as an official act. It's bad enough that cops and soldiers kill in the name of society, and how often does that turn out to be error when the smoke clears?
     Let's call that Logic Loop A.
    Logic Loop B goes like this: I'm glad Timothy McVeigh is dead. The Oklahoma City Bomber should not be wondering if there's vanilla cake for dinner, and issuing his occasional manifestos, through his lawyer, explaining why he's glad he blew up the Murrah Federal Building and buried those toddlers alive in the day care center. Society needs a way to express its utter disgust, and jamming him full of poison and letting him die strapped to a gurney just feels right. 
     It's emotional.
     When you look at society's that don't kill such people—Norway sentenced Anders Behring Breivik, the fascist asshat who murdered 77 people, mostly teens, to 21 years in prison—that seems wrong. Justice calls for something more than two decades in a Scandinavian prison. Then again, Norway is Eden compared to the United States, crime-wise, so maybe we should pay more attention to how they do things, and ask ourselves whether killing Tsarnaev feels right because we're a murderous nation of gun nuts who've barely knocked the dust off our Wild West spurs, at least intellectually. Maybe we should worry about this feeling like the right thing. 
     It's a tough judgment call. I can see those who are against capital punishment in any form, far more than I could buy the Texas, kill-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out approach to criminal justice. 
      Bottom line, for me, is that executing terrorists is good for society. I can't pretend it has deterrent value. These are not long-range thinkers and, besides, half the time they intend on killing themselves anyway. At some point we have to re-establish that we're a culture with limits, and the need to not randomly kill others for your psycho nihilistic cause is a fairly low bar to set. 
    Regular life is so precious, and sweet, someone who would shatter in on a clear spring day, at a joyous civic event, how should that person be dealt with? You could argue that an application of the mercy and humanity that is at the core of our Western culture, or should be. I could see that. But emotionally it jars for me. I don't want to see TImothy McVeigh, out after 20 years, as dictated by our Norwegian stands of justice, in downtown Northbrook, licking an ice cream cone. Better that McVeigh is in hell, and good news that Tsarnaev will be joining him. Not every decision should be made by cool reason. Sometimes you have to go with your gut.   

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     I think I take so many pictures of street scenes and inanimate objects because I'm shy about asking people if I can take their photograph. It's awkward for me, makes them self-conscious, and shatters the moment, causing them to stiffen up. Usually I try to photograph people on the sly, while their attention is elsewhere, but something that isn't an option, as with this man enjoying his cigarette in solitude. But I couldn't just pass him by, given his singular outfit. The deep orange jacket is what first caught my attention, and his pork pie hat, rolled jeans, expanse of ankle and dapper mustache. It looks like a costume a child would wear in 1910. I asked if I could shoot his photo, and he said yes, but then his body language was directed at me, and he didn't have the sense of solitude he had when I first saw him. He wouldn't give me his name or other details, beyond the fact that he wasn't visiting, but on a break from his office ... where?
     Where exactly did I notice this young, or youngish man, having his nicotine fix? Guess the correction location—I'm looking for a specific street—and win one of my coveted 2015 blog posters. Any insight into the fashion would be appreciated as well. I can't say I've seen anything like it, other than on gondoliers in Venice. Good luck, and please remember to post your entries below. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

A pocket guide to financial disaster

     Personal experience is overrated. People fancy their closeness to a situation gives them the last word: "Look buddy, it happened to me, I know." When it can just as easily blind them. "I hate Mexicans because I went to Mexico in 1967 and got food poisoning . . ."
     Okay, thank you for your valuable insight.
     So let me start by sharing my bias, and you can decide whether it provides clarity or confusion. In 2009 when Jim Tyree wanted to buy the Sun-Times, the deal offered was the union would surrender seniority, take a 15 percent pay cut and lose our pensions. The choice was that or the newspaper would fold.
     We didn't snap at the deal. In fact, the union rejected it on the first vote. I was the only one, in my recollection, to speak in favor of the deal, and here is what I remember saying, "I'm a Jew and we survive. The purpose of the union is to protect our jobs at the newspaper, but if there's no paper and no jobs, then it really doesn't matter if the union is sound or not." We took the deal, and while I'm sorry to have to work like a hamster on a wheel until the day I die, I've never for a moment regretted taking it. Six extra years at a big-city paper is something.
     So now the come-to-Jesus moment for Chicago's pension fiasco looms. The Supreme Court spiked the fix that our political geniuses spent a year cobbling together because it's illegal. Moody's immediately downgraded Chicago's bond rating to junk status. Which means that massive borrowing, the only thing keeping the city afloat, just got even more expensive. And it's going to cost even more to borrow money, assuming Chicago can find folks reckless enough to lend to it to us.
     What to do? I heard one expert say that digging out of the pension hole will take a 40 percent property tax hike. No, said another, make that 49 percent.
     Let's review, for those who haven't been paying attention. (This problem is not only a tribute to the short-sighted cowardice of politicians, but to the electorate's genius for ignoring gathering disaster.) Politicians gave out pensions — I won't debate whether they're "fat" pensions, let's just call them "pensions" — to government workers, basically promising money the city didn't have and — whoops! — was never going to have. Knowing their own tendency to filch stuff, our leaders built into the law that the pensions, once established, could not be reduced. And the retired folks who receive them, former teachers and electricians and such, worked their various jobs for years, expecting those pensions. It was a promise.
     But you can't give money you don't have. Since it's against the law to cut pensions, Chicago has been cutting everything else. The constitution doesn't demand it provide mental health services or give aid to people with disabilities. No need to pay traffic aides — I didn't see a one downtown at 5 p.m. Wednesday and many Loop intersections were gridlocked, a metaphor for our times.
     These cuts degrade life in the city. That's going to grow worse, as everything gets tossed over the side in order to keep ballooning pensions from capsizing the ship. At some point Chicago will hollow out and become an enormous pension plan that also puts out fires.
     There is no facile solution, just a series of bad choices. A clear-cut sacrifice, like the Chicago Newspaper Guild made, isn't even possible. Retirees can't vote to cut their pensions to save the city and wouldn't if they could. Taxes could be raised, though the common wisdom is that jacking up property taxes or increasing taxes on corporations would cause Chicago residents and companies to flee faster than they already are, leaving those who remain clawing at an ever smaller pie.
     I believe this is referred to as the "death spiral."
     There is no easy solution that doesn't involve going back in time, and the necessary time-travel technology is not in place. Me, I think the city declares bankruptcy and puts the pensioners in line for their dimes on the dollar with all its other creditors. That's bleak. So here, let's end on a light note:
     Anybody wish that Chuy Garcia was on the fifth floor of City Hall? Busily forming his exploratory committee and trying to figure out which wire to cut before this problem sends Chicago up in a mushroom cloud of insolvency? I didn't think so.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

And no, there are no actual coins....

     We are in an era when, if you are not careful, technology will race away from you, and you'll end up a befuddled person confronting a puzzling world of alien systems and incomprehensible institutions. Thus while I don't believe in giddily embracing every new development, in case it becomes popular, you shouldn't ignore the arrival of significant developments either, just because it takes effort to comprehend them.
     Thus the installation of this "Bitcoin" machine recently between the Jamba Juice and the FedEx on the second floor of the Merchandise Mart seemed the moment to pause, bite the bullet, and try to understand what Bitcoin is, and the best way to do that is by trying to explain it to you, assuming that, like me, up to this point you've kept the whole issue on the periphery of your perception. 
    Assuming I'm not that last person who hasn't yet grasped it. If you're buying your pizza and paying your mortgage in Bitcoin, well, laugh away. I haven't joined Uber yet either.
    It isn't as if I have no idea. Bitcoin is some kind of online currency. Though that is the limit of my knowledge, along with the recollection that the whole thing collapsed a while back, which can't be true, as testified by the arrival of this machine.
    So...let's poke around. 
   CNN Money describes Bitcoin this way: "Bitcoin is a new currency that was created in 2009 by an unknown person using the alias Satoshi Nakamoto. Transactions are made with no middle men – meaning, no banks! There are no transaction fees and no need to give your real name. More merchants are beginning to accept them: You can buy webhosting services, pizza or even manicures."
    Well, that is interesting. Its creator being unknown puts it in an elite group of technology—along with fire and the wheel, I suppose.
     So it's like cash, only online. You store it in a wallet in your device or in the cloud, and people have hacked them and stolen them. That said, what good is it? 
    The downside of the CNN Money description is that it doesn't seem to be accurate. Vox published an interesting account in December (only half a year ago, so I'm not lagging behind the curve that badly). Timothy Lee points out that while Bitcoin fluctuates like any currency, sometimes losing alarming portions of its worth against the dollar, despite CNN Money's claim, it actually is not quite a currency, but more of a new, unregulated open financial system, and so has enormous potential. Lee compares Bitcoin to the Internet:
     Because no one owns or controls the network, there are no limits on how people can use it. Some people have used that freedom to do illegal things like buying drugs or gambling online. But it also means there's a low barrier to entry for building new Bitcoin-based financial services.  There's an obvious parallel to the internet. Before the internet became mainstream, the leading online services were commercial networks like Compuserve and Prodigy. The companies that ran the network decided what services would be available on them.
    So what good is it besides buying drugs? Lee says they can do international currency transactions, that while Western Union charges 8 percent, that Bitcoin ATMs charge only 3 percent per transaction (on each end, meaning sending funds would cost 6 percent, and also painting CNN Money's "no transaction fees" as wrong—it isn't as if Malaysia Airlines is their only embarrassment ) an improvement, though hardly worth braving the uncertainties of the Bitcoin world, at least right now. (He also mentions the ATM's were launched in late 2013, and by 2015 there were some 329 of them).
     I explored the glowing orange machine screen, but it seemed to only work if you already had an account, and given that it accepts only $20s and $100s, I didn't quite see the point of pumping big bucks into it just to then try to find a vendor who would take the Bitcoins my money would become. Where's the benefit in that?
     I don't want to merely echo Lee's analysis, you should give it a read. The takeaway is that Bitcoin is to financial networks what Uber is to taxi services: an unregulated, technology-driven twist that might work spectacularly—as Uber has so far—or might crash and burn. The question is whether all that regulation is necessary. My hunch is, given how screwed up our own economy has been—thank you banking industry—that people going into Bitcoin in a big way are going to miss those legal protections.
     Right now, it seems only really useful to those who want to buy drugs online—that wouldn't be me. As for its other uses, I'm not exactly an early adopter. Maybe some of you have some Bitcoin experiences you'd like to share. I think I'll wait, then maybe find a place that accepts them that has something I wish to buy.  Investors have poured some $500 million into it, so somebody thinks it has potential.