Saturday, April 28, 2012

Saturday, April 21, 2012

To be demolished...

A series of photographs and information about several buildings in Chicago that are either imminently to be, in danger of, or have recently been demolished can be found here. It is the work of David Schalliol, a wonderful photographer who has produced several cohesive bodies of work. He's also a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago, a professor of Social Sciences at the Illinois Institute of Technology, AND Managing Editor of the blog Gapers Block.

Other than that, he seems to be a bit of a slacker.

Check it out.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Lonely and stupid here... you rang?

Two articles from The Atlantic were recently brought to my attention that deal with something I've been thinking about a lot lately; the role of innovation and technology on our lives.

Stephen Marche wrote an insightful article on social media titled: Is Facebook making us lonely? The article delves into the contemporary psyche, especially from the American standpoint. He touches on subjects that go beyond the scope of the title such as questioning what exactly makes us happy.

Here's a hint: trying to be happy doesn't make you happy.

As far as loneliness goes, we Americans the author believes, are a lonely lot by design. We value our independence and individualism over community. In other words, we choose to be lonely. It's not surprising then that Facebook, which allows us to connect with others without having any real contact with them, was born and bred in the good ol' USA.

But is there a causal effect between the social media and loneliness? On that subject, the author reluctantly seems to suggest no; you get out of Facebook what you bring to it.

I could have told him that.

The other article addresses how new computer technologies and the quest for artificial intelligence are affecting human intelligence. It was written by Nicholas Carr who wrote a book on the subject. His point in a nutshell is that our attention spans have been greatly compromised by the cacophony of information the new media bombard us with on a steady basis. See if you can prove him wrong by getting through his lengthy article provocatively titled: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Carr's most salient point comes toward the end of the piece where he questions his own premise by noting that the inventions of writing and the printing press themselves were questioned by folks back in the day who worried about the loss of oral history and memory, the dissemination of information without appropriate instruction or background, and the spread of "sedition and debauchery." In other words, they understood that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Sound familiar? It turned out that the fears of the naysayers about the written word and printing press came true. It just so happened that the benefits from those earth shattering inventions outweighed the drawbacks.

The fact is, with every great invention created through the ages, something has been lost. Before the phonograph was invented, people entertained themselves by making their own music. Before television, people used their imagination to conjure images in their mind's eye of the characters they read about or listed to on the radio. Before the automobile, people got their exercise by walking. To escape the summer heat before air conditioning, people sat on their front stoops and talked to their neighbors. The list goes on and on...

This brings to mind the greatest invention story of all time. A very long time ago, farmers stored their grain in large earthenware pots. One day, some farmers forgot to cover the pot to protect their precious harvest from the elements. A rainstorm drenched the grain. Then the sun came out and heated the rainwater, slowly cooking the grain converting starch into sugar. After the water cooled in the evening, yeast spores suspended in the air landed in the mixture, voraciously consumed the sugars, and reproduced wildly. When the farmers discovered the uncovered pot sometime later, they assumed their harvest was ruined. That is, until one brave soul decided to try the soupy mess. It tasted peculiar, but the farmer soon discovered that drinking the concoction sure made him feel good. In fact, the more he drank, the better he felt. Soon the others tried it. You can imagine the party they had that night.

After the next morning's grogginess wore off, the farmers realized they had a good thing on their hands. The problem was, recreating it wasn't simple as they weren't around to witness the sequence of events that had to take place before their simple grain would become a magic elixir. Through experimentation by trial and error, they eventually came up with a successful batch. Many archeologists credit this as the dawn of the scientific method. Next they needed a way to remember how the heck they did it so they could repeat the process. Other than their memory, (which may have been altered by this time), there was no system to record the steps they took to create the potion.

So they had to invent one.

We know this to be true because the earliest examples of written language that archeologists have discovered are you guessed it, recipes for beer.

Now I needn't point out the obvious benefits of beer to society. As is the case with all great inventions, we lost a few things too; productivity, innocence, and countless weekends just to name a few. But the fact remains that beer's greatest contributions to society are written language, science and mathematics, (they had to keep track of all that precious brew you know).

Because of written language, we have books, and because of books we have libraries and the dissemination of knowledge. After Guttenburg's invention, knowledge was no longer the exclusive domain of a select few. Along with the rise in literacy came the fall of oligarchies, the dawn of the Enlightenment, and the rise of the arts and democracy.

Just as literature opened our minds to the ways of our world, science and mathematics gave us a greater understanding of the mechanisms of our world. The work of scientists and mathematicians opened the door for inventions that would work for the benefit, and sometimes to the detriment of society. Increasingly complicated problems required a new method to calculate mathematical equations that was quicker than the capability of the human mind. Again out of necessity, they had to invent one. They would call it the computer.

Eventually it was discovered that the computer could be used for things other than calculations, it could be used on words as well as numbers. Once that discovery was made, as with the invention of movable type some 500 years earlier, the computer forever revolutionized communication and the spread of knowledge. Soon the entire world became connected.

Then along came Google and Facebook and because of them, we all got lonely and stupid.

Just think, all that because of beer.

We beer lovers the world over realize that at some point, our preferred beverage would make us stupid and maybe a little bit lonely. Who knew it would take 5,000 years?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

On controversy, icons and photography

There's a photograph that's been making the rounds for six years that continues to create a stir. Five young adults, a woman and four men, are engaged in what appears to be casual conversation on the banks of the East River in the neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The photograph could be an ad for high priced vodka, or an illustration for a lifestyle piece on artists living in Williamsburg, were it not for the background which dates the photograph almost to the minute. The picture was taken on September 11, 2001 and in the background is the Manhattan skyline with a huge plume of smoke emanating from the spot where the World Trade Center stood, only minutes before.

Of the hundreds of thousands of photographs made that day, this particular one sat in a box for years as its author, Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker, felt it was too enigmatic to publish given the raw emotions of the time. The photo was finally published four years later, and was picked up by the New York Times critic Frank Rich on the fifth anniversary of the attack. It has since been dubbed "The most controversial photograph of 9/11."

Rich uses the subjects in the photograph and their alleged indifference to what's going on behind them to illustrate how quickly Americans would put the sorry event behind them. He wrote:

Seen from the perspective of 9/11’s fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker’s photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come... This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. 

The article then goes on to blast the Bush administration and in typical Rich style, everything he finds objectionable about Americans.

Did Americans really just keep on going, throwing off 9/11 like a bad penny? I hardly think so. Today, five years since the Times article and more than ten years since the tragedy, 9/11 is still a festering sore.  Yes there is some indifference. I wrote about that subject in this space last year. However in most cases, the very words "nine eleven" evoke horror, grief and sorrow, just as they did ten years ago. That date will live in infamy long after the last generation who was around to witness it has passed on. Most importantly, our soldiers are still sacrificing their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, direct results of the attacks of 9/11. They don't have the luxury of tossing away that day, nor has any American who cares about them or the memory of their fallen comrades, or needless to say, the direct victims of 9/11.

We move on, yes, but only because life demands that of us. What else can we do?

Not only do I discount Rich's assessment of the American psyche since the attacks, but I find his remarks about the photograph, which have since been expanded upon by others, to be not only dead wrong, but also lazy and harmful.

In my opinion, Rich's (and others') assumptions about Hoepker's photograph tell us absolutely nothing about 9/11. They do say a great deal however about the medium of photography and its ability to manipulate, misinform and distort reality.

On a quick glance, the five subjects do appear to be oblivious to the tragedy that is taking place just a few miles away. There are no tears, no grimaces, no beating of the breasts. No one is gazing off to the south to look at the scene of the terrible carnage. The ease of their posture suggests they could be chatting about their artwork, or the new night club down the block.

Frank Rich assumes they have already moved on, just minutes after the towers fell.

But how does he know that? What's to say these folks weren't in lower Manhattan when the planes hit, evacuated the borough via the Brooklyn Bridge, made their way up to Williamsburg and just before the photographer snapped their picture, caught up with their friends, relieved that they too were safely out of harm's way?

The truth as we'll see in a minute, not surprisingly exists somewhere between these two highly unlikely scenarios.

The question is, does the truth behind this picture really matter? A "work of art", as this photograph is portrayed in Jonathan Jones's recent article in the Guardian, represents a greater reality, one that goes beyond the picture frame. Jones suggests that the Hoepker photograph illustrates the very human condition of life going on in the face of tragedy, which is a recurrent theme in art throughout history. Yet paintings and literature represent symbolic figures. Portrayed within the frame of Hoepker's photo are recognizable individuals who have stories that may or may not jibe with Thomas Hoepker's, Frank Rich's, Jonathan Jones's or anyone else's assumptions. Given that I'd say yes, the truth does matter a great deal. And if we don't know the story behind those people in the photograph, then it's best to leave them, and the picture alone.

This is nothing new. The history of photography is filled with iconic images that aren't exactly what they seem. There is a famous photograph by Margaret Bourke White that portrays a Depression era bread line made up of African American people. The people are standing in front of a billboard that pictures a happy white family driving in their car, the copy of the sign reading: "World's Highest Standard of Living; There's no way like the American Way." The irony of this scene is pretty hard to miss and for years the photograph has been used to illustrate the inequality between the races in this country. Now there's absolutely nothing made up about the photograph, but what some folks who use it to illustrate racial inequality in America fail to mention is that the people in the bread line were flood victims. They were temporarily dispossessed naturally, but we simply don't know what their everyday lives were like and where they fit in the overall economic spectrum. Like the 9/11 photograph, the subjects of the Bourke White photograph were recognizable and may or may not have appreciated being used as symbols of a cause.

One of Diane Arbus's most enduring images is of a young boy in a park, holding a toy hand grenade. He holds his body in an unnaturally stiff position, his free hand in a claw grip, and there is a bone chilling grimace on his face. It is a haunting, ominous image. That is until you see the proof sheet that shows the rest of the pictures the famous photographer shot of the same boy. In the other pictures, the boy looks like a normal little kid hamming it up for the camera. The picture Arbus chose to use was the last shot on the roll where the child, possibly out of frustration, or boredom of being photographed, mugging it up to the extreme, strikes the curious pose. Arbus was known for her portraits of freakish looking people and this picture used in the context of her other work, made a statement about the human condition, one that the artist conjured up in her mind.

The subjects of the 9/11 photograph were not asked permission to be photographed. That's not at all unusual in photojournalism. The photographer writes that in his journey down through Brooklyn to get closer to Ground Zero, he came across this scene of relative tranquility in the midst of the chaos. He snapped three pictures and moved on. There was no contact between him and the subjects so he couldn't have possibly known their stories. I'm guessing, being a photographer myself, after shooting only three frames in the midst of a day like that, he probably put those folks entirely out of his mind until he saw the images.

Shortly after Rich's article came out in the Times, David Plotz of Slate Magazine published an article whose title expressed his feelings in no uncertain terms: "Frank Rich is Wrong About That 9/11 Photograph." The article is so spot on that instead of quoting sections from it here, I suggest you just read it yourself. Plotz not only made some assumptions of his own about the subjects of the photograph, but asked them to contact Slate to tell their story. Two of them did. You should read their replies for yourself as well, here.

It turns out that two of the people, a couple at the time, watched the Twin Towers collapse from their rooftop in Williamsburg. Shocked like everyone else, they made their way down to the waterfront where they saw thousands of folks covered in dust walking across the Williamsburg Bridge, helping each other in any way they could. Before the famous brief encounter with Hoepker and their date with destiny, the couple encountered the other three men in the picture, all total strangers. The man in the photograph noted that the event brought people together in ways only a catastrophe can. He writes:

Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw... A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one's own biases or in the service of one's own career.

The woman in the photograph wrote later confirming the man's words and added that she too is a professional photographer who didn't touch her camera that day, in part because:

This somewhat cynical expression of an assumed reality printed in the New York Times proves a good reason... I also have a strict policy of never taking a photograph of a person without their permission or knowledge of my intent.

She went on:

I am a third-generation native New Yorker, who knows and loves every square inch of this city, as did her ancestors before her. My mother and father are both architects and artists who have contributed much to the landscape of this city and my knowledge of the buildings that are my hometown and my childhood friends.

The woman added that her mother once worked for Minoru Yanasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center and concludes: was genetically impossible for me to be unaffected by this event. 

So it turns out that Frank Rich was right on one point; the photograph is indeed an important, perhaps iconic image that illustrates the American experience on 9/11.

It just illustrated the opposite of what he assumed.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

This could be the year... a sentiment heard all over America this time of year as we begin another baseball season. I've never been much for New Year's Day, to me its only significance is having to remember to write a different year on my checks. The significance of my own birthdays, except for the ones ending in zero, has also been greatly diminished at least since I turned 25, a long time ago. These days I usually have to stop and think how old I am.

But Opening Day is different. The slate is truly wiped clean, all the transgressions of the past are forgotten, well almost, and the stats for every player and every team are exactly the same, that is to say, zero. This is the time of year when - OK say it along with me:

Hope springs eternal.

One might think this would be an especially optimistic time in Chicago as both our major league baseball teams have new field managers, and in the case of the Cubs, an entirely new, track tested front office. Strangely enough however, this year most Chicago fans are philosophical, they have great hopes for the future of their beloved teams, but not necessarily for this season.

Still it's a brand new day. 'Tis the season for new life and renewal, the time of spring cleaning and getting rid of our excess baggage. They say that baseball is a metaphor for life, and this time of year it couldn't be more true.

It took me nearly fifty years to realize that baseball was far more than just the Major Leagues and my favorite team, the White Sox. Since my son the Cubs fan, (who incidentally shares his first name with the new boss of his team), became passionate about the game, my life at this time of the year revolves around baseball almost as much as his. I'm now an assistant coach of the Warren Park Cardinals Little League team. It is an awesome responsibility that I don't take lightly. Now, my own baseball playing experience is limited. I never played Little League baseball , just lots of softball, mostly the Chicago (no gloves) version of the game. Still that doesn't prevent me from contributing my two cents on fielding, hitting and baserunning. My creaky old joints mean I can't show them how to properly field a ground ball, giving me the excuse to tell them: "do as I say, not as I do" - not letting on to the fact that even in my prime I never was able to properly field a ground ball.

The part of the job I take most seriously is teaching the kids to play fair, be good sportsmen, respect the umps (even when they make bad calls), to love the game, and to have fun. Fortunately our head coach and all of our parents are on the same page, and up to this point it's been a great experience for both my son and me.

The funny thing about playing or coaching sports is that it puts the whole notion of team loyalty in a different light. Of course you root for your kid's team, but every other team has kids just like yours. How can you not root for any kid who's giving his or her all to make a play or run out a hit?

There was a widely publicized play in a ball game a few years ago that puts everything into perspective. With two runners on base and the team at bat down 2-0, the batter hit the ball over the fence. After making the turn at first, the batter stumbled and fell, tearing an ACL. The rules state that in order for a home run to be credited,  the batter must round the bases, touching all three and then home plate. As the injured player hugged first base unable to stand, the first base coach and manager asked the ump if teammates could assist the player around the bases. The umpire correctly interpreted the rules saying that any interference from a teammate would result in an automatic out. But there is no rule in baseball that prevents players on the opposing team to help. Which is exactly what they did. Two members of the opposing team carried their opponent around the bases making sure each base and home plate were touched by the foot of the stricken player.

You might guess this didn't take place during a big league baseball game. You would be right. This incredible act of sportsmanship took place during a playoff game between the Central Washington and Western Oregon University women's softball teams.

Sara Tucholsky was the batter. With the help of her opponents she would score what proved to be the winning run, and be credited for the one and only home run of her career. The two players who carried Sara around the bases were Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace. Holtman and Wallace's act of selflessness cost their team the game and perhaps the championship.  But they became heros in ways that winning a mere championship could never have.

You gotta love this game.

Now let's play some ball.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Fourth City

This article by Aaron Renn, and this one by Phil Rosenthal in the Chicago Tribune, illustrate the gap between how we Chicagoans feel about our city, and what the rest of the world thinks of us. We natives, those of us who at least on a good day love the place, think of Chicago as a beautiful, sophisticated, exhilarating city. The rest of the world, at least those who haven't actually been here, think of Al Capone, bad weather, deep dish pizza and Michael Jordan. Rosenthal cites an article on Chicago in the travel section of Los Angeles Times. The article began with this:

The first rule of business — any business — is this: Do what you do well. And what Chicago does well is drink.


They must have been thinking of this:

Now there's no reason to get all indignant about that. After all, what do Angelinos know about anything outside their own town? And let's be honest, what do most of us know about the second third and fourth most populated cities of most countries? Everyone knows Paris of course but unless we've been there, what do we really know about Marseille, Lyon or Toulouse? Not to mention Birmingham, Leeds or Sheffield.

When people outside of this country think about American cities, they think of New York City and Los Angeles. Why not? LA has Hollywood, for all intents and purposes, the world's capital of popular culture. And New York is well, New York, one of the great cities of the world. There's probably something in The Big Apple for everyone except for hardcore city haters.

Aaron Renn argues that Washington D.C., first in war, first in peace, and last in the National League, now comes in as the nation's third city in terms of its attractiveness to tourists. That's not too surprising since it's the nation's capital. D.C. is a great place to visit, lots of things to do for a visitor with its plethora of monuments, museums and historical sites devoted to the American Experience. It's a must see place for every American, but I question how well it plays for someone without a deeply rooted interest or understanding of what this country is all about.

From my experience, LA is a fabulous place to visit if you have at your disposal all of the following:
  • People to hang out with, 
  • a car, and 
  • LOTS of money.
Without any one of the three, Los Angeles, which I just visited for the umpteeth time, can be the lonliest, most depressing place imaginable. 

Now I'm not the biggest civic booster around, I'm as critical and cynical about Chicago as any native can be. But the truth is, I honestly can't remember ever meeting anyone, especially a non-American, who has visited this city and wasn't blown away by it. Perhaps it's the surprise factor. Chicago isn't on most people's radar; what they expect to find here are handrails that people grasp onto to prevent them from blowing away in the incredible wind, and of course, gangsters. For those of you who have never been here, here's a little secret; the handrails and mighty winds are urban legend. The gangsters are real, but you're not likely to run into one, unless you really want to. 

What people do find is a great urban experience, a unique city that offers a tremendous variety of attractions for visitors, no matter what their interest, or the size of their pocketbook. No it's not New York, but it does have much of what that city has to offer in terms of cultural, epicurian and entertainment amenities, without much of the hassle and expense that go along with the much larger city. And they tell me the people here are really friendly, at least by big city standards. If you can't have a good time in Chicago, you're simply not trying. (That slogan is mine and is available to the highest bidder.)

Boosterism aside, tourism, whether we like it or not, is an important part of our economy, not something to be taken lightly. Tourists on their own bring in a sizable chunk of change into the city's coffers, but less obvious are the business possibilities that come along with the good PR generated by foreigners returning home with positive stories about the Windy City. Still we can't rely on that alone to generate interest. That's why I supported wholeheartedly Mayor Richard M. Daley's attempt to bring the 2016 Olympics here. The kind of worldwide publicity the Games would have brought this city I believe would have been well worth the money spent and the hassles getting around town for the brief duration of the event. I found the protests against it to be foolish and short sighted. 

We are about to host the upcoming NATO summit in May and once again the whiners and naysayers are complaining about the hassles they'll have to endure for two whole days. But again, the publicity, even if it's just the image of the Wrigley Building behind a talking head in China or Myanmar, will help cement an image of Chicago in the minds of people who would otherwise never have given us a second thought. That publicity may not immediately pay rich dividends, but down the line you never know how familiarity (however subtle) of this city will effect tourism, and business prospects in the future.

I was just in Melbourne last month on a work trip. That city was never on my radar, unlike Sydney which was very familiar to me from the iconic images of its harbor and the 2000 Olympics. (True Melbourne also hosted the Games, but in 1956, a little before my time). Before my trip, had I chosen to travel to Australia on my own, I certainly would have visited Sydney, but probably not Melbourne, which would have been a shame as it's a fantastic city.

Go there if you can.

OK there's a plug from a satisfied customer. Now, for those of you reading this Down Under, or in Asia, Africa, or wherever, come to Chicago.

As they say: The water's fine, we'll leave the light on for you.