Friday, September 30, 2011

While computers get smarter...

Once I got on I-94 in Detroit I didn't need to keep the GPS on, but since it was going to be a long drive home and it was getting late, I thought I'd keep Marianne, my name for the machine, around just to keep me company. After nearly flawless directions, (the only mix-up was when Marianne mistakenly recalculated after a 15 foot detour in Gary), I got to the major east-west street closest to our home in Chicago when Marianne told me to turn right on "TAU-hee" Avenue. I immediately corrected her (OK I was getting a little punchy after a long drive on top of a full day's work): "It's 'TOO-ee' Avenue you dumb machine!" I said.


I returned the car the next day and took my son along so he could see my cool rented car and meet Marianne. "Listen to this," I said to him as we approached Touhy Avenue. "Turn right on 'TOO-ee' Avenue" said the machine. I said to my boy: "wow this really is a smart machine after all, she must have listened to me!"

Marianne was my first experience using a GPS, which is short for a global positioning system, a machine that is able to pinpoint your exact location then determine the best route to your destination. It's a marvelous bit of technology but I've always felt confident enough in my own navigational skills that I've never been tempted to get one. Once I was picked up at the Phoenix airport by a friend of my parents who insisted on using her GPS, even though I knew exactly how get to where we were going. She insisted on listening to the machine instead, which led us on a wild goose chase and got us hopelessly lost. But that was ten years ago and the machines are much better now. When presented with the GPS option as I rented the car a couple of weeks ago, I thought I'd give it a whirl, besides the company would be paying for it. Like any relationship there were some bumpy moments mostly due to my own inexperience. But pretty soon we were in the groove so to speak and as they say, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

In the Detroit area, my work was about 15 minutes from the motel and Marianne got me between the two via a dependable, if somewhat convoluted route as I would later discover. But after making the same trip three days in a row, I still depended on Marianne getting me there, I never committed the route to memory. What's more, I never got to know the territory I was covering. "Did you see such and such?" I was asked by a colleague who had been there before. I hadn't because, as far as I was concerned, following Marianne's directions to my destination was my only mission. Had I used a road map, I would have had to figure out the route myself, which as I have learned from experience, would have imprinted itself on my brain much quicker than simply following Marianne's directions. Plus a map would have shown me other features of the neighborhood I was driving through, places my curiosity would have taken me.

Which got me thinking about what we lose when we let our machines do the thinking for us. To put it more bluntly, as computers get smarter, are we getting dumber? Some might argue that computers are now employed to do many of our routine mental chores, freeing up our brains to think about more important things like our fantasy football roster. Others would argue that the very process of figuring out simple things like how to get where we are going, go a long way toward keeping our brain synapses active, healthy, and alive.

Let me say at this point that I love computers. To me they are amazing creations of the human spirit, limited only by the creativity and intelligence of the people who control them. I have done some programming of my own as a hobby, and have come to greatly respect the work of software designers. I thoroughly understand their drive to make computers perform tasks that people only a generation ago could not have dreamed. The holy grail of software design is to create intelligent computers, that is machines that can learn, correct themselves, and create and teach other computers, in short, computers that can do essentially what we do, only better. No one quite agrees whether we're there yet, computers can do truly remarkable things, but they don't do them the same way humans do and because of that, can't be truly called intelligent.

Take the computer that beat World Chess Champion Gary Kasporov. There have been chess playing computers for a long time but until fairly recently, none of them have been able to beat the best human players. It's not really intelligence that computers use to play chess, it's shear processing muscle. In chess a good player must look ahead several moves on both sides of the board to determine a successful strategy. The better the player, the farther ahead one can look. But even with the limited number of pieces on a chessboard, there are millions of permutations of moves, far more than even a grand master can possibly see. That's not a problem for a computer, even the old beat up one one I'm typing on now can perform about a billion calculations per second, give or take a few hundred million. A computer can take those possible moves, play them all out to their completion, and determine which will yield the best results, in far less time than it took me to type all that. Still it took a massively powerful computer to beat Kasparov, one that was was devoted entirely to the game of chess. In other words, you or I could have beaten it in a game of tic tac toe.

For his part, Kasparov was a bit of a spoiled sport when he lost to Big Blue the IBM computer in 1997. He claimed that it cheated and demanded a rematch, which never happened. To me that seems a little like a world class runner being disappointed at being beaten in a race by Michael Schumacher driving his Formula One race car.

Given that, one would think it would be child's play for a software engineer to design a program to play the game of Jeopardy. Not so. Jeopardy is not merely a game of retrieving information, which computers can do in their sleep. It's a game about human language, which computers are terrible at. Again it was the scientists at IBM who took on the challenge to build a computer to take on the greatest of the Jeopardy champions. Their challenge was to create a machine that could understand the clues which often contain slang words, cheeky puns and double entendre . Some Jeopardy clues are painfully easy for a computer. Take this one:

"He was the pope in 1324."

I googled exactly that and Google's first response was Pope John XXII, AKA Jacques Duèse. Pretty damn good.

Here's another clue, one that actually appeared on the show:

"The original head shrinker, he fled to London in 1938 following the Nazi annexation of Austria."

Try googling that and you'll get everything from Rudolph Hess to the Dalai Lama, but not the right answer. For a human player, that's not a terribly difficult clue. "Head shrinker" could either be a person who makes shrunken heads, or a slang term for a psychologist. We quickly dispose of the former since A) not too many makers of shrunken heads are household names likely to be answers on Jeopardy and B) in the clue we have 1938, and Austria, neither a time nor place known for shrunken head makers. So by process of elimination, this term must refer to a psychologist, and if that is correct, an obvious shot in the dark would be Sigmund Freud, which would be the correct answer. The other words in the clue merely confirm the solution. Rather than using this simple string of human logic, a computer analyzes each word in the clue and ranks them in order of importance. Judging from the Google results to my query, I'd say the program deemed Nazi to be the most significant word followed by Austria, then London. The results Google gave me contained all three words, but nothing having to do with a head shrinker, although some results included the word head and others the word shrinker. It's the subtleties and nuances of language that computers can't deal with very well. That is until the IBM guys got to work on the project. After another single use monster computer, a few years of work by some of their most brilliant minds, and tens of millions spent on the project, the folks at IBM did indeed build a computer that beat the best human Jeopardy players.

Now you may be wondering why all the effort to build a machine that can win a TV quiz show. Well its the same reason we learn subjects at school that seem at first to be pointless, like algebra. It's all about learning how to solve problems. While to this day I still can't factor a quadratic equation to save my life, much of what I learned in high school algebra has stayed with me and at least abstractly I use it as a basis for solving daily problems. Solving the Jeopardy problem gave programmers a clear insight on how to create software that comes close to dealing with the complexities of human language, that will help them build systems with far reaching applications. Some of these future applications no doubt will benefit us greatly. Of course as is the case with all great innovations, some applications will cause us harm. In the end, computers are simply tools. As a tool, a hammer can be used to build a house, it can also used to bash someone over the head. It's the same with computers, it's up to us to know how to use them wisely.

There is an ongoing debate in education circles on the use of computers in the classroom. Movements are afoot to provide money to underprivileged schools for the purchase of computers. This is seen as progressive, after all computers, the theory goes, are such an important part of society that in order to make it, let alone prosper, an individual needs to be computer savvy. If learning computer skills is to be part of the curriculum, something has to be sacrificed, as there are limited hours in a school day, especially here in Chicago. In the case of my son's school, as always, art, music, and the rest of humanities, which so many seem to think are the most dispensable, are the first to go. The old fashioned skill of penmanship seems to be a thing of the past, I guess what's the point of handwriting if you can type on your laptop? Arithmetic and spelling are still taught but one can only wonder for how much longer, after all we have calculators and spell check to do that stuff for us. The saddest of all to me, is that libraries are being turned into media centers and what was once space for books, is now space for computers. We removed our son from his first school because the room that was once a library became a broom closet. A seventh grade class project shown at an open house that publicly bragged that all the research was done on Wikipedia sealed the deal.

But like it or not, computers are here to stay. I believe there is a place for them in our children's schools but I don't think they should take the place of books or other traditional subjects that are also necessary elements of life. I just challenged my son to look up the state motto of Hawaii, in Hawaiian (please don't ask me why). He came up with the answer on the computer in less than a minute. That's great. But we need to find more challenging tasks for our children, tasks that teach the elements of problem solving. If computers are going to be an integral part of the curriculum, I would suggest including basic computer programming for children, that is, start with a blank screen, teach the kids a simple computer language, one perhaps designed for such a purpose, and let the kids have a go at creating simple programs, then see what happens. They will fail as everybody does at first. But gradually they'll learn to understand what makes a computer tick, and learn a very valuable lesson in logic and problem solving by being forced to communicate with a device that "thinks" much differently than they do. Most importantly, they will learn that a computer, a tool they have known all their lives, is not simply a magic box where you type in a question, and it delivers an answer.

Any innovation's greatness is measured in terms of how much it benefits vs. how much it hinders society. The automobile gave people at all ends of the economic spectrum unimaginable independence. On the flip side driving has become the primary means of transportation for most of us at the expense of walking and other healthy activities. We are consequently told that we need to exercise so many hours per week to make up the difference. By letting them do the thinking and not challenging us, computers and software, especially dependable ones that are completely intuitive and user friendly I'm afraid are doing the same thing to our minds that automobiles did for our bodies.

Computers may or not be intelligent, but the people who design them certainly are. Maybe we can tap into those minds if just a little to learn how to keep our own minds active and healthy,

And whatever we do, please let's not throw away those road maps.

Just an idea. But what do I know? Thanks to the computer, I just write a blog and as everyone knows, any idiot be a blogger.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Motor City

The best commercial that aired during the last Super Bowl was a Chrysler ad that featured the city of Detroit. Detroit of course is the quintessential rust belt city, the epitome of the run down, crime ridden, great city of a bygone era whose best days are behind it. The commercial makes no bones about that, at the outset it describes the city as a town that's "been to hell and back". Why then would we want to buy anything that comes out of this place? Well "it's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel" as we are told by the voiceover with an attitude. The soundtrack and cameo appearance by Detroiter, Eminem, give the spot an edge that is entirely appropriate.

The tag line coming from the rapper, his only line: "This is the Motor City, and this is what we do" sends a chill down my spine. And the slogan invented for the campaign: "Imported from Detroit", lends a memorable, if quirky bit of irony.

It's a brilliant spot:



You may have noticed that the makers of the commercial chose to show you more of Detroit than the car they're trying to sell. That may speak volumes about the state of the U.S. auto industry, to which the fate of Detroit is intrinsically tied, but that's a story for another day.

It can't be good when you Google your city only to find that half of the images on display are of urban decay. See for yourself. Detroit's hardships have been so well documented that there is a cottage industry in exploiting the ruins of what was until not too long ago the fifth largest city in the United States. And what magnificent ruins they are.

The statistics are grim, here are just a handful plucked randomly off the internet. Some of them may even be true:
  • Detroit's boom in the first half of the twentieth century was nothing short of meteoric. In 1900, the city's population was 285,704. By 1920, the population was pushing one million, and in 1950, over 1.8 million called Detroit home. Detroit's fall was almost as meteoric as its boom, in 1980, the city's population was 1,595,138. From the 2010 census thirty years later, it was cut in less than half to 713,777. Civic leaders who were surprised and appalled at that low number, complained that the census takers failed to count the folks who would one day return from prison.
  • From the 2000 Census, 21.7% of families in Detroit lived below the poverty line.
  • 50% of Detroiters are functionally illiterate.
  • The unsolved murder rate in Detroit is approximately 70%.
  • Depending on how you define unemployment, between 25 and 50% of Detroiters are unemployed.
  • Approximately 30% of the land area of Detroit is vacant, so much so that there is a movement to remove much of the existing infrastructure and return the vacant land to nature.
and on and on.

So why is Detroit in such bad shape? The easy answer is that the city is essentially a one company town. As long as the auto industry prospered, so did Detroit. But the downward population shift in Motown began in the fifties, long before the crash of the U.S. auto industry. In that sense, Detroit is no different from other cities in the United States.

In her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote that a large part of what makes a vital urban community is a vibrant street life. Cities with people out and about contribute to a healthy social structure. She sited several criteria that contribute to an active street life and used Detroit at least three times as an example of what not to do:
  • Lack of diversity. By diversity, Jacobs refers not only to population but diversity in how a neighborhood functions. She believed for example, that successful urban communities do not segregate commercial and residential functions. Easy access to shops and services ensures a constant flow of people within the neighborhood. A mix of people with different types of jobs and schedules, means that there are folks out on the streets at all times of the day. Detroit's neighborhoods have been historically segregated in both regards.
  • Lack of density. Contrary to common wisdom of the time, Jacobs believed that urban crime is not born out of overcrowding. She points out that some of the most successful neighborhoods in the country are the most densely populated. Crime thrives on desolation, empty streets and sidewalks are far more dangerous than crowded ones. Area wise, the city of Detroit is sprawling, as much of its housing has traditionally been devoted to the single family home. From this map you can see that you could fit Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston within Detroit's city limits and still have room to spare.
  • Building a city around the automobile. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the Motor City should be this way. Jacobs does not blame the automobile itself for urban decline, but the theories of urban planning that insist that the city become the servant to the automobile and not the other way around.
Put them all together and you get what Jane Jacobs called "the great blight of dullness", cities lacking cohesive communities that encourage people to stick around. It's the same story in big cities all over the United States, only more so in Detroit.

Or so they say. In my life I've barely scratched the surface of Detroit, merely passing through it on trips to Canada. That is until last week when my job brought me to the Motor City for a few days.

Unfortunately, my experience exploring the city on this visit was limited by time constraints and a bad cold. I did manage to briefly get into Detroit from the suburb of Dearborn where I was working. One evening after work I headed straight in the direction of the Renaissance Center, the 1970s skyscraper which is visible from all over town.

I have to admit that I had low expectations of Detroit, having been swayed by the impression described in the Chrysler ad as: "the one you’ve been reading in the papers, the one being written by folks who have never even been here."

I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that there was indeed life and beauty in downtown Detroit.


For starters, Detroit has several fine skyscrapers built during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a collection which is rivaled only by New York and Chicago. Notable examples, the Dime Building by Daniel Burnham, the Fisher Building by Albert Kahn, and the Guardian Building by Wirt C. Rowland to name a few, grace the skyline with a mixture of Romanesque, neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance and Art Deco styles. There are also newer buildings of note: One Woodward Avenue by Minoru Yamasaki, the aforementioned Renaissance Center by John Portman, and John Burgee and Phillip Johnson's One Detroit Center are three distinctive landmarks of the Detroit skyline.

Life has been brought back to Downtown Detroit, (not that it ever really left), by a number of development projects mixing the old with the new. Perhaps the most famous rehabilitation project was the restoration of the magnificent Fox Theater.


Across the street from the Fox is the new home of the Detroit Tigers, Comerica Park, perhaps one of the very best of the new ballparks built for major league baseball. Beyond that is the new home of the National Football League Detroit Lions, Ford Field. I haven't read any reviews of that stadium but it appears far superior to the joint it replaced, the Silverdome in suburban Pontiac. Both teams were out of town during my visit but I can imagine the bars and restaurants in the area are hopping on game days.


On the edge of Downtown, the neighborhood of Greektown was indeed hopping, a commercial area that doesn't close up after 6 PM, as so much of Detroit seems to do these days. The other institutions that don't roll up the sidewalks after dark are the three casinos that call Downtown Detroit home. Parking lot attendants were out and about hawking spaces in their lots, just as they do outside sports venues on game days.

There were a few important attractions that I didn't get to visit this time, but will definitely make plans to see in the future. Eastern Market, is the largest public market of its kind in the United States, Belle Isle, the island park which features work of the architects Frederick Law Olmsted, Cass Gilbert and Detroit's own Albert Kahn, and Midtown which is home to Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Here is an article about the magnificent set of fresco paintings devoted to the workers of Detroit by Diego Rivera that graces the DIA.

After a brief tour of downtown and a pleasant dinner, I got into the car and headed back to my suburban motel. I entered the motel's address in my rent-a-car's GPS which dutifully led me to the walled expressway which would prevent me from seeing the devastation outside of Downtown that I've read so much about, save for one building.

The Michigan Central Depot, about a mile outside of Downtown, was a rail terminal built in grand Beaux Arts style that opened in 1913. It still stands majestically, though now even driving by at 70 mph, one can't miss the fact that you can see right through it as all its windows are gone. Here is a loving tribute to the building.

The Michigan Central Depot's days were numbered because it was built for a mode of transportation that would be supplanted by Detroit's chief export. Not only that, it was built in an inconvenient location outside of Downtown, along street car lines that themselves were put out of business by the gas powered bus, also manufactured in Detroit. But today it still stands, nearly twenty five years after being abandoned, waiting for somebody, anybody, to bring it back to life. Standing there, magnificent in its decrepitude, the old train station in many ways is a metaphor for its city.

It is impossible to downplay the role, for better and for worse, of the automobile in our society. I dare say that the automobile has changed the way we live more than any other invention perhaps since the printing press. The industrial revolution that Ransom E. Olds, Henry Ford and others started in Detroit is largely responsible for creating the middle class as we know it in this country. It was one of the first times in history where factory workers would build something that they actually could afford to buy. The automobile brought a kind of freedom, previously enjoyed by only the upper strata of society, to just about everybody.

On the flip side, it's easy to blame the automobile for all the woes that befell most older American cities, but let the truth be known that the real culprits are the social planners in the first half of the last century who believed they had a better idea of how to build a city. Whatever flavor the city of the future would take, be it the horizontal Garden City, or the vertical Radiant City, the role of the personal transportation device would be front and center.

We can thank the failed utopian notions of these planners for our suburban sprawl, traffic congestion, the decline of public transportation, for pollution and scores of other causes of the erosion of our great cities.

My superficial visit to Detroit did dispel many of the assumptions I had about the city. It's definitely a place I'd like to get to know better as Detroit remains an enigma to me. I was drawn to it in a way that I could not have imagined. I longed to turn back the clock to the Belle Époch, back to when the city was called the "Paris of the Midwest." Detroit is the oldest city in the United States outside of the eastern seaboard and had a magnificent history long before it became the Motor City.

As the Motor City, Detroit became one of our great cities, a powerful symbol of American ingenuity and resourcefulness. More recently of course it has become a much different symbol.

Beaten down as it is, it's not going away. It's not likely it will regain its power as an industrial giant, that simply has become out of the grasp of any city in the United States. But somehow it will revive, people will come back to the Motor City to live and to work, perhaps drawn by the impossibly low cost of buying a house, perhaps for the chance of starting something entirely new.

And when that happens, I'll be here to cheer it on, as every American should.

By the way, here is some tentatively good news about Detroit.

Detroit is a place where people make stuff, whether it be cars or music, or whatever. It was fitting that the last song I heard on the radio on the way home before leaving Detroit air space was this Motown classic by the Temptations:

And oh yes, after only driving Japanese cars for a very long time, the car that brought me to the Motor City and back was a Chevy Malibu, conceived and built (in part) in Detroit.

You know what? It was a damn good car.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

News...

Some promising, a fundraiser for the Uptown Chamber of Commerce which hopes with the mayor's support, to restore the old Uptown Theater. With the heartbreaking closing of Borders in the old Goldblatt's building, this would be a very welcome jolt to that wonderful neighborhood.

You can read about it here.

Page two... The Wrigley Building has been sold to a consortium which includes the internet giant Groupon. All indicators point to the new owners' intent to preserve Chicago's most iconic building (in my opinion) which surprisingly is not a landmark. And, they seem not intent in changing the name which in this day and age is something indeed.

Blair Kamin writes about it here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ten years ago

Between now and this Sunday we will be deluged by accounts of people telling us where they were on the morning of the terrorist attacks on the United States. That is entirely as it should be. December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963 and September 11, 2001, are three days that changed America forever. They are days whose events are etched into the minds of all Americans who were alive at the time and old enough to understand them. As someone who has an almost pathological memory of my whereabouts during momentous news events, I can remember almost every detail of September 11, 2001. And since my story is virtually identical to the story of every other American not in the direct line of fire that day, it is perfectly irrelevant.

I will however share for a moment my memories of the day exactly one year later, September 11, 2002. I was in Los Angeles working at one of the city's major art museums. In LA like everywhere else in the country, full scale public events were planned to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11. Having been involved in the art world for a very long time, I've become accustomed to the political leanings of the vast majority of people in that world which as you can imagine are shall we say, to the left of center. My own politics are not entirely out of sync with theirs, just perhaps slightly more nuanced, I do try to listen to all sides and when necessary, break from the party line on occasion. For example, unlike many of the people I come in contact with on a daily basis, I don't have an overwhelming distrust of our country and its institutions. Not that I'm a jingoistic, flag waiving, my country right or wrong type of individual, but I do love my country despite its shortcomings.

Having said that, I was still unprepared for the conversation that took place during lunch with some of my colleagues from that LA institution, the gist of which was: "so what's with all this fuss about 9/11?" Frankly it was the first time I heard anyone address 9/11 without the gravitas it deserves, out of a deep respect for the victims and their families. Not these folks. "People die all the time...", someone said, "why should we place so much energy on this one event?" Another added: "...besides Americans are hated all over the world and we probably had it coming anyway."

Of course there is some truth to those words. No, we don't go out of our way to remember victims on the anniversary every single tragedy, and yes, our government's occasional forays both before and since 9/11 have created great resentment toward our country around the world. Like it or not, some folks do indeed hate us.

Still I find it amazing that there are people in this world whose hearts are so hardened by living in their own smug little cocoon of cynicism, that they cannot break free, not even for the most gut-wrenching experience they or any of us will likely ever experience, even if it was only from a distance.

I was reminded of those remarks the other day after hearing a snide remark about our museum's exhibiting some pictures of the World Trade Center (taken in happier times), in honor of the tenth anniversary of that terrible day. Granted, I haven't heard those sentiments expressed very often in the past ten years. Most folks I know who may at times feel a bit overwhelmed by all the attention to the event, out of respect for the dead, keep those opinions to themselves.

There will certainly be lots of coverage of 9/11 this Sunday, and I'll probably miss most of it.

This Sunday, the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, I plan to go to church and pray for the victims of 9/11 and for the loved ones they left behind. I'll especially remember the first responders who without any regard to their own safety, went into those buildings to do their job, saving the lives of others. I'll think of all those folks who went to Washington, DC and New York, also at great personal risk and without compensation to themselves, to help out in any way they could. Of course I will also remember our servicemen and women who put their lives on the line every day in the service of our country. And however futile this may sound to some of you, I will be praying for peace in the world.

This Sunday by happenstance will be an unusually busy day for us. We are going to two first birthday celebrations AND the baptism of a new born. Most importantly, I will be spending the day with my family. I can't think of a more fitting way to spend September 11, 2011.

After all, life goes on.

Post Script...

My day went mostly as planned. Either by pure coincidence or by divine providence, the gospel reading for Sunday, September 11, 2011 was the parable of the unforgiving servant who after having his own enormous debt forgiven out of compassion by his master, refused to forgive a trivial debt owed to him by another servant. An amazingly apt and challenging lesson for us about forgiveness, on the anniversary of one of the most painful days in our history.

I did manage to catch most of the coverage of the memorials in New York, Washington and Shanksville, and a part of the film shot by the two French film maker brothers who were in the process of shooting a documentary on a firehouse in Lower Manhattan when the attacks on the World Trade Center took place. Never during the day yesterday were my thoughts far from the events of ten years ago, but the most compelling moment was during the recessional hymn in church when we sang America the Beautiful. I completely lost it during the fourth verse:

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Labor Day

Holidays have lost much of their meaning for us, they're usually just a welcome break from our everyday routine. The bookends of summer, Memorial Day and Labor Day are perhaps the most removed from what they commemorate, so much so that it's not uncommon for people to confuse the two. Memorial Day to most Americans honors something, most folks remember tacitly at least, the soldiers who died for this country. On the other hand, I suspect that the majority of Americans haven't a clue that Labor Day is more than just the last day that we refrain from labor after summer vacation.


As the day to commemorate the contributions of the workingman and woman in the United States, Labor Day came into being in the 1880s, during the period of the most turbulent battles for the rights of workers in this country. Chicago was a major battleground at the time, and one event that took place here was so compelling, that countries all over the world, except this one, celebrate their own Labor Days around that particular event to protest injustice and to honor the men who gave their lives one fateful day in 1887 to the struggle for justice for all workers.

That event was the Haymarket affair. In a nutshell, on May 4th, 1886, a rally was held at Haymarket Square, to support the workers who were striking at the McCormick Reaper Plant on the South Side. The organizers unequivocally emphasized the need for a peaceful rally to prevent the violence that took place the day before at the plant. The rally went on peacefully for a few hours until the police decided it was time to break it up. As they began to move into the assembled crowd, someone from the alley to the left of the speaker's stand threw a bomb in the direction of the police. One officer was immediately killed and mayhem ensued. Police fired into the crowd, some of whom may have returned fire. In the end, eight officers were killed as were an undisclosed number of civilians.

A public outcry went out that someone must pay for the deaths of the policemen, and the organizers of the rally were rounded up. Even though few if any were present at the time of the riot and the identity of the bomb thrower was never discovered, eight of the organizers, Albert Parsons, Louis Lingg, Albert Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, and Oscar Neebe were convicted of conspiracy. For their parts, Neebe got fifteen years, and the rest were sentenced to death. Fielden and Schwab's sentences were later commuted to life in prison. Louis Lingg cheated the hangman on the eve of his execution by biting down on an explosive capsule. Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fischer went to the gallows on November 11, 1887.

Shortly before his death Spies said:

"The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."


His prophetic words would become his and the rest of the Haymarket martyrs' epitaph. Their grave is marked with a tremendous allegorical statue by Albert Weinert based on the French anthem the Marseillaise, which was sung by Spies, Parsons, Engel and Fischer on their way to the gallows. A female figure represents Justice. In one hand she places a laurel wreath upon the head of a fallen worker, while in the other hand she prepares to draw a sword.



The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument, at the Forest Home Cemetery in the suburb of Forest Park, while being under the radar of most Chicagoans, is a pilgrimage site to anyone interested in issues involving labor and workers' rights.




Needless to say, labor issues are making headlines as we speak. Whatever side you may take, even if you're smack dab in the middle like me, if you earn a living through a paycheck, you owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to these men and the countless others who gave so much so that we all could have a better life.

Happy Labor Day.