Thursday, May 31, 2007

The now-not-so-public schedule

Posted By on 05.31.07 at 05:38 PM

For years the mayor's daily "public schedule" was available to the public--which seemed fitting enough. All you had to do was call 312-744-0052 and a recorded voice message gave you the list of events, places, and times where the mayor would be appearing that day.

This morning, however, I called the number and encountered a very different message: "This line is being checked for trouble."

A call to the mayor's press office established that there's no trouble at all--just a significant reduction in the mayor's public accessibility.

"We are no longer giving the mayor's schedule out," a mayoral spokeswoman told me. "We want to make sure that only certain people have that information."

So the mayor's public schedule is no longer available to the public.

"We've had some problems," the spokeswoman said. 

She wouldn't specify what kind of problems, or from whom.

"OK, you can give me your information," she said. "We'll see what we can do." 

She said the mayor's press office will now send e-mails with the daily schedule to news outlets that provide contact information. I passed on my name and e-mail address, but she said she wasn't sure that was good enough: I myself am not a news outlet. She might need to talk to my editor first.

She did transfer me to the voice-mail message I'd been looking for in the first place. The mayor would appear at three events this morning: a police academy graduation ceremony, a press event featuring the unveiling of a new police helicopter, and a scholarship fund-raiser. He would take questions from reporters after the last event.

A few minutes later I got a call back from the press office. They wanted to clarify: they would only provide the mayor's schedule to one person at each news organization. If they put me on the e-mail list, was there any guarantee that someone else from the Reader wouldn't call them seeking the same information? "We don't want to send it to multiple people," I was told.

In the most professional manner possible, I bitched. How hard is it to add another e-mail address to your press-release list? What's so problematic about making it simple to find out where we could catch up with our city's top elected official?  I belabored the point. 

I made the list.

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How not to design a poll

Posted By on 05.31.07 at 03:21 PM

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I don't think the Trib is trying to stir up controversy with this, but it's a good lesson in Web usability issues nonetheless.



I almost voted "Yes" until I realized the question's wording in the poll was exactly the opposite of its wording on the homepage.

Torey's folly

Posted By on 05.31.07 at 11:24 AM

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When Chicago Public Radio announced that it would launch its "secret radio project," aka Vocalo, only in northwest Indiana, it seemed like a letdown. Now that it's live and streaming at vocalo.org, their "soft launch"--not only confined to Indiana and the south side, but also limited to four to five hours a day during the work week--seems more like a blessing. Because this radio station isn't ready for prime time.

(Oh no . . . they're playing Sixpence None the Richer as I'm writing this . . . the last time I heard that, it was on Muzak at Village Discount Outlet.)

Right now Vocalo combines all the qualities of amateur podcasting with the convenience of terrestrial radio--if you're outside its broadcast range, the only way to listen to it is on a live and occasionally buggy mp3 stream. None of the shows are archived in any form. The "playlist" for Darlene's Wednesday show this week reads in full: "these are the people in your neighborhood--a best of my fave interviews."

Worth noting that's a best-of for one host, who has been on the air for three hours over a couple weeks. Her name is Darlene Jackson; she's a club DJ as well as a "writer, producer, record label owner and creative director." She kicked off her best-of by talking to someone about her vacation home in Beverly Shores, Indiana, asking the sorts of questions that would be of value to a club DJ. "I can see you having crazy parties . . . do you have crazy, crazy parties there?" The answer was yes, fortunately. So, Darlene concluded, "For the longest time I wondered why Indiana was part of Chicagoland. What does Indiana have to do with Chicago? Now I know it's a great getaway."

Later in the show she had someone from the Cook County juvie read a Maya Angelou poem badly. The host who followed her, Brian, aka Brian Babylon, played the exact same recording not more than 20 minutes later, the third time I'd heard it in three days of listening.

Vocalo is deeply in thrall to the cult of the amateur. Of the station's seven hosts (half of the promised 14), one is an actual journalist (Reader contributor Dan Weissmann), one is a documentary filmmaker, and one teaches media production and literacy at Columbia. One has actually worked for radio stations. Number seven is a "clinical/community psychologist and personal coach."

And the results are exactly what you would expect, if you're the skeptical type, from a small cast of nonprofessionals. The high point thus far has been Weissmann's engaging interview with the great historian Timuel D. Black Jr. It was pretty standard public radio journalism, like an 848 bit. 

Later in the broadcast afternoon, Brian Babylon was laughing along with a song called "Why Do You Think You Are Nuts" ("why do you think you are nuts / eating cigarette butts . . . did your daddy beat you?") by a multicultural baby-boomer punk band, but he didn't catch the name of the band, despite having two different versions of the song and having seen the video.

This is a frequent problem on Vocalo, not knowing or caring to tell the listeners what they're listening to. During the previous set, Darlene played an interesting, brief interview with a Nigerian immigrant discussing the differences between African immigrants and African-Americans. She described it as "a conversation that one of my colleagues had." I went to the site to see if there was more information, but I only found the previously mentioned "playlist."

(Now they're playing another interview, with a woman who has a British accent. She's talking about cabs in between yelling at her dogs. She always has problems with Indian cab drivers. "That's a little bit from a young lady who's got drama," says Brian Babylon. Yes, but who is she? Now "your boy" Brian Babylon is signing off with the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." His "main man" Usama is next.)

The amateurism isn't exclusive to the programs. The "Meet the Hosts" page is a good example of why you should resize pictures in an image-editing program instead of resizing them with the HTML code. Here's another example of the importance of resizing pictures. Many of the blog posts are incomprehensible or just weird. And they have to cut down on the ALL CAPS and the LOLs. I'd also recommend deleting the test blog posts

I could see Vocalo working if it was just their current cast of radio amateurs with some content from WBEZ pros, or if it was a group of radio veterans corralling a cast of amateur contributors from the general public, but as it stands Vocalo consists of the severely nearsighted leading the blind, and it's mostly a train wreck.

(Now they're playing audio from someone who just ate a bunch of pot brownies. He really wants to know what the score of the Red Wings game is. "Time is going by really, really, really, really slow." I'll say. Wait . . . it's apparently a cop who seized a bunch of pot and cooked it into brownies. "He hasn't been fired," Usama says. Who's the cop? Is he CPD? Is this an issue of public concern? Now they're playing jazz, so I guess not.) 

I can't help but think that the desperation for "nontraditional talent" must stem from the overwhelming success of This American Life, a program that has introduced defiantly nonradio voices like hypersqueaky Sarah Vowell to the medium. But TAL orbits around Ira Glass, a man who's been in the business since he was in college and had done practically everything that can be done on the radio before he started his masterwork.

It's not just that Glass has a gift; he's also developed the ability, over a career in the business, to make the amateur sound professional and vice versa. He makes it look easy, but radio is anything but. If Chicago Public Radio learns anything from this "soft launch," I hope it's that.

(This morning "Kiss Me" was stuck in my head. I demand a no-Sixpence pledge from Vocalo.)

PS: If you want to learn from the best, Ira Glass gave a master class to transom.org readers awhile back. It's great advice not only for people getting started in radio, but for journalists in general.

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This weekend and beyond

Posted By on 05.31.07 at 10:55 AM

June is is National Hunger Awareness Month , and the Greater Chicago Food Depository is sponsoring a number of fund-raising events throughout the week beginning with Dine Out to Fight Hunger, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday when nearly three dozen restaurants will donate a portion of your tab to the cause. (See the link for participating spots.) Tuesday there's a $100 dinner at mk sponsored by Epicurious.com. And Tuesday through next Sunday you can purchase and sign an "icon" at Rock Bottom Brewery, 1 W. Grand, that will be displayed in the the restaurant.

The fifth Chicago Turkish Festival continues today through Saturday at Daley Plaza, featuring performances, crafts, and food stalls featuring kabobs, doner sandwiches, coffee, kahramanmaras (orchid ice cream), and more. The Four Seasons is also hosting Turkish lunch buffets through Saturday, starting at 10 AM, and a Turkish brunch on Sunday. Call 312-649-2349 for reservations.

The Chicago Botanic Garden Wine Festival, sponsored by Blistex (?), starts at noon Saturday and goes through Sunday with some 250 wines, plus music, seminars, cooking demos, eats from Nick’s Fishmarket Grill, Osteria di Tramonto and more. $25 daily advance tickets buy you a wine glass, ten tastings, and the chance to buy more. Designated driver tickets are $15 in advance. Call 847-382-1480

Tuesday at 7 PM, Scylla hosts a five-course "Wines of New Zealand" dinner featuring pours from the Maori-owned Tohu Winery. It's $75. Call 773-227-2995.

And Wednesday at 7, Fixture opens its biweekly "Summer Beer Series" with a $20 intro to beer class presented by "self-proclaimed beer expert Wesley Phillips." Call 773-248-3331.

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Around the web: 37signals makes Time, Gapers Block marks four years, and more

Posted By on 05.31.07 at 09:35 AM

* Time has a great profile of the innovative local software company 37signals, who have become well-regarded among Netizens for their simple, beautifully designed software. Their design and usability blog, Signal vs. Noise, is a must-read and has given me great advice over the years.

* Andrew Huff reflects on four years of Gapers Block.

* Coudal's Verse by Voice makes for a great midday poetry break.

* A couple of my favorite local bloggers are compiling a list of poetry for the college graduate. My sole suggestion, Auden's Musee des Beaux Arts, has already been made. It's not that I'm totally ignorant of poetry, I just thought the better genre for the grad was rock. Um . . . "Bastards of Young"? "Hung on a Bad Peg"?

* Bookslut points to a great Slate feature on authors and the fonts they choose to compose in. U. of C. law school star Richard Posner favors the elegantly old-school Century Schoolbook.

* The always wonderful Martin Marty Center Web forum examines how malls borrow from religious categories to simulate a sacred space.

* U. of C. law prof/blogger Randy Picker is working on a brief history of copying

The Democrats are in the tank

Posted By on 05.31.07 at 06:04 AM

Chalmers Johnson at History News Network tells it like is, not the way I'd like it to be:

"As Adam Nagourney of the New York Times reported, by the end of March 2007, at least 280,000 American citizens had already contributed some $113.6 million to the presidential campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Rudolph Giuliani, or John McCain.

"If these people actually believe a presidential election a year-and-a-half from now will significantly alter how the country is run, they have almost surely wasted their money. As Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism, puts it: 'None of the Democrats vying to replace President Bush is doing so with the promise of reviving the system of check and balances.... The aim of the party out of power is not to cut the presidency down to size but to seize it, not to reduce the prerogatives of the executive branch but to regain them.'"

The federal government can recover from Bush's unerring instinct to do the wrong thing from New Orleans to Iraq. But the constitution may not recover from signing statements, the effacement of habeas corpus, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, torture, and the excesses of the Patriot Act. If the republic ever needed an opposition party, it needs one now.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

How do you spell "relief"?

Posted By on 05.30.07 at 07:28 PM

It looks as though House Speaker Michael Madigan, Mayor Richard Daley, and State Senate President Emil Jones have reached a deal on a bill governing residential property taxes in Cook County.

Under Senate Bill 13, the maximum home owner's exemption for most residential property owners will rise from $20,000 to $30,000 this year. Next year it will fall to $24,000, and the year after that it will drop to $18,000. After that, the powers that be will have to reconvene to figure out what to do next.

The proposed bill, now being debated in the house, also offers a property tax break for low-income residents who have owned their houses for at least ten years. These people will have their equalized assessed value (don't ask) capped at 7 percent. This would help protect those in Woodlawn, Englewood, East Garfield Park, and other poor but gentrifying neighborhoods from getting property taxed into foreclosure or selling their homes.  

If you want to read the bill, here's the link (PDF). As you can see, it's 143 pages of legislative gobbledygook that under the guise of offering home owners a break would make a complicated system even more complicated. With Madigan, Daley, and Jones behind it, the bill's almost certain to pass before the June 1 deadline. Governor Blagojevich has been privately telling legislators he might veto it because it doesn't go far enough. But after the stunning 107-0 defeat of his gross-receipts taxation plan, who knows if he'd have the guts?

Still, he may be right: the bill doesn't offer much of a break for middle-class home owners, and it doesn't help poor people in gentrifying neighborhoods who bought their property within the last ten years. And of course, the home owner's exemption does nothing for owners of commercial, industrial, or multi-unit rental properties.

Bottom line, whether it passes or not, most folks -- renters included -- are going to get hammered by August's property tax bill.

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Were NBC's ethics perverted?

Posted By on 05.30.07 at 05:31 PM

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Indignation is the table wine of journalism. It goes with everything, and the cheaper the meal the more of it you swig. NBC hits the indignation hard in its evening news show Dateline, which for the last three years has teamed up with a citizens' group called Perverted Justice to produce the feature known as "To Catch a Predator."  NBC boasts that Dateline has "exposed over 200 potential child predators in its stings," and host Chris Hansen, in addition to running a blog that offers an "inside look" at his creep-nabbing, has written a book, To Catch a Predator.

But has NBC itself climbed into bed with the wrong company--Perverted Justice and its mysterious leader, who goes by the nom de guerre Xavier von Erck? Here’s a commentary that thinks so. And here’s a lawsuit that thinks so too. It was filed May 24 in federal court in Chicago by Marsha Bartel, a veteran NBC producer who was assigned to the Dateline series last August. Bartel says in her suit that she was fired in December because she insisted that NBC obey its own ethics policy, but the network "was more interested in sensationalizing and dramatizing the Predator series for profit than news reporting." According to the suit, Bartel once expressed her concerns about von Erck to her executive producer, who replied, "We all know they're nuts."

Bartel alleges that NBC "unethically pays Perverted Justice to troll for and lure targets into its sting, thereby giving it a financial incentive to lie to and trick targets of its sting." She alleges that Perverted Justice refused to identify the 50-some volunteers working for Dateline or to provide her with transcripts of online and telephone conversations that might have assured her no entrapment was going on. She also alleges that NBC entered into an "unwritten quid pro quo" with local law enforcement officials, giving them video equipment that could be used to make cases against the suspects and getting in return "dramatically staged arrest scenarios and video taped police interrogations to capture audience attention, increase ratings and ultimately revenues for NBC."  

Singling out Hansen, Bartel says he "knowingly and falsely claimed 'at any given time, 50,000 predators were on the Internet prowling for children' even though a transcript of a video taped interview with his source, a former FBI agent, contradicted Hansen's claim." 

Thanks to radaronline.com for spotting the lawsuit. 

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Two great bike-friendly ideas

Posted By on 05.30.07 at 05:19 PM

Tribune health blogger Julie Deardorff brings up a couple good ideas for making the city more bike-friendly: encouraging companies to pay workers to bike to work and developing a bike-sharing program. The latter sounds a lot like the iGo car rental service, a company that (hint, hint) could be a prime mover behind such a service.

Subway Series -- set in Oklahoma City?

Posted By on 05.30.07 at 05:02 PM

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Chicago could be facing its first subway series since, well, since almost before there was a subway. It's just that it will be transplanted -- if it does happen -- to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. That's where both Northwestern and DePaul begin play Thursday in the Women's (softball) College World Series. Among all the top-seeded teams only DePaul, at 14, is an interloper among the final eight, having beaten No. 3 Oklahoma in the super regionals last weekend. DePaul is riding a hot hand in pitcher Tracie Adix, 21-2, who beat Oklahoma in the first of three games, then came on to preserve a lead in game three with a hitless relief appearance for a 7-2 final Sunday. She hasn't been scored on in 21 postseason innings -- a performance worthy of Orel Hershiser, if not Whitey Ford or Babe Ruth. And with her low-bending delivery and late-breaking screwball, she's been fun to watch on ESPN. On Sunday, Linda Secka made a catch reminiscent of one of the best I've ever seen: Dave Martinez backhanded into short right-center field at Wrigley. Secka, who like Martinez is a left-handed center fielder, made her grab in the same area, and when she came off the field her teammates greeted her as if she'd hit a game-winning homer. That's what collegiate sports at this level is all about. The Blue Demons play Thursday at noon against Washington, with second-seeded Northwestern following at 2 against Arizona State; both games will be carried on ESPN. If both win, they'll play Friday; if both lose, they'll play Saturday in the double-elimination tournament, with the loser going home. And if one wins and the other loses, they'll perhaps meet down the road, maybe in the championship.

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