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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Chains vs. Locals, round 17

Posted By on 12.31.06 at 06:16 AM


BALLE, an international alliance of 39 independently operated local business networks, opens its December newsletter to the "naysayers." More advocates should have the guts to do this.

One sharp if predictable naysayer is Virginia Postrel, libertarian journalist and self-described "dynamist," who writes in praise of chain stores in the November Atlantic. Key points:

"Stores don’t give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do."

"The idea that America was once filled with wildly varied business establishments is largely a myth."

"Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals. Chains make a large range of choices available in more places.... When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler [Arizona]—or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles—didn’t have much in the way of bookstores."

Surely she's wrong about Philly and LA, but in smaller towns (I grew up near Peoria) the chains undoubtedly made books easier to buy.

Of course, one could agree with Postrel and still prefer to shop locally whenever possible. Local First Chicago, a BALLE affiliate, now has an online marketplace where you can view the individual profiles of 80 LFC members, find each by zip code, map its location, and visit its Web site.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

11 myths about Iraq

Posted By on 12.30.06 at 06:33 AM

Juan Cole of the University of Michigan finishes up the year with the top ten myths about Iraq.  Here's one:

Myth: "The Sunni Arab guerrillas in places like Ramadi will follow the US home to the American mainland and commit terrorism if we leave Iraq."

Cole: "This assertion is just a variation on the invalid domino theory. People [sic] in Ramadi only have one beef with the United States. Its troops are going through their wives' underwear in the course of house searches every day. They don't want the US troops in their town or their homes, dictating to them that they must live under a government of Shiite clerics and Kurdish warlords (as they think of them). If the US withdrew and let the Iraqis work out a way to live with one another, people in Ramadi will be happy."

He also notes, "The Iraqi 'government' is barely functioning. The parliament was not able to meet in December because it could not attain a quorum. Many key Iraqi politicians live most of the time in London, and much of parliament is frequently abroad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki does not control large swathes of the country, and could give few orders that had any chance of being obeyed. The US military cannot shore up this government, even with an extra division, because the government is divided against itself. Most of the major parties trying to craft legislation are also linked to militias on the streets who are killing one another."

American troops continue to make a bad situation worse. "In my view, Shiite leaders such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim are repeatedly declining to negotiate in good faith with the Sunni Arabs or to take their views seriously. Al-Hakim knows that if the Sunnis give him any trouble, he can sic the Marines on them. The US presence is making it harder for Iraqi to compromise with Iraqi."

Read the whole thing (scroll down to December 26).

The eleventh myth is that the country's full of good news that's not reported. Columbia Journalism Review has multiple eyewitnesses on that one. Here's Rajiv Chadrasekaran of the Washington Post: "You’ve got public information officers saying, 'Sure, we’ll take you there, but you can’t say where it is, and you can’t name anybody, and you can’t take any pictures, because if we point out the location of this, it could be a target for the insurgency, and if we name people, they could be subject to retribution.' Is that really progress when you can’t go and report basic facts of something because they’re too worried it’s going to be attacked?" (Hat tip to Beachwood Reporter.) 

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Children of paradise

Posted By on 12.29.06 at 09:38 PM


It occurred to me while watching Mel Gibson's Apocalypto that if the indefatigable padre ever made a film of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, he'd give us shot after shot of Madame Defarge knitting as tumbrels roll and the guillotine falls: chop, chop, another name for the embroidery, our summary witness to massacre. So what's the equivalent here, the iconic ur-cliche? Obviously the lopped-off heads skipping down temple steps, which remind you somehow (or at least remind me) of the sinister basketball in Wes Craven's Deadly Friend bouncing along the subdivision asphalt: double dribble, anyone? ... or maybe it's only a traveling violation. Or the "still-beating hearts" (and what's with the ritual rubric? is everyone quoting from the same pulp authority?) yanked from the innards of newly dispatched corpses, a bloody figuration that Father Mel's presumably imbibed through countless boy's life fictions and potted histories of the Maya (H.G. Wells et al), the Argosy magazine serials of his youth ... But that's how it is, more often than not, with Gibson and the bloodletting: not as connotatively focused as one might hope or expect, meanings ramifying in every which direction. (Like that flying squirrel Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, limbs splayed in agony as he soars above the stationary camera in absurdly extended slo-mo: the product of knotted whips and chains or some tres hip variant of electroglide in red?)

But there's more to Apocalypto world than Father Mel's violent obsessions, though I'm not sure he's fully attuned to whatever it's all about. Where the movie succeeds mainly, whether advertently or not, is in its exposing the tacit pressures of ordinary social relating, the enforced camaraderie and unspoken conformity that keep this tribal subsistence engine humming at full-bore efficiency, as it should and as it must, the kind of subliminal lubrication you'd find in films of the 30s and 40s--the taken-for-grantedness of things, of kinder, küche, kirche, the infamous social triad (the last spread liberally around the emerald forest floor, no hard locus for the sacred here)--albeit much less frequently today. In fact from the padre's point of view, these post-Edenic primitives are pretty much the utopian beau ideal: sure their lives are "dull, brutish, short" in the classical Hobbesian sense, but hey, that's how things oughta be, the best we can ever hope for in our compromised fallen state. So if there's roughhousing and menace to keep everyone in line--to the extent that initially I thought Jaguar Paw, nominally the hero, was actually villain of the piece, ragging on comrades, threatening every hapless intruder with xenophobic extinction, etc--well, it's just for everyone's own good, right? Except how are these prickly tribalists any different from the more heavily armed thugs who want to snuff them out, offer their "still-beating hearts" to implacable, angry gods? No way out of this dilemma, I guess, except for Father Mel it's not a dilemma at all.

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Anatomy of a rubber stamp

Posted By on 12.29.06 at 09:27 PM

There aren't many nays heard in the chambers of the Chicago City Council.

That’s clear from looking at the analysis of council voting records put together by Dick Simpson (pictured) and his research team at UIC. The poli-sci professor (and former 44th Ward alderman) keeps an ongoing tally of so-called divided roll call votes—votes in which at least one alderman votes against the majority.  

These instances are pretty rare. Since the current council term began in 2003, only 45 out of hundreds of votes have failed to be unanimous--on average there's less than one a council meeting. Just 13 of the divided votes had more than five dissenting aldermen. Toni Preckwinkle, alderman of the Fourth Ward, has shown the most independence, voting with Mayor Daley 55 percent of the time. She's followed by Third Ward alderman Dorothy Tillman and the 20th Ward’s Arenda Troutman, at 63 and 65 percent, respectively—though it should be noted that each took Daley’s side on the big-box minimum wage ordinance and, more significantly, skipped the vote on a resolution calling for the Daley administration to stop fighting the Shakman decree in court. With a 70 percent score, 28th Ward Alderman Ed Smith is the only other council member who sided with Daley less than three-fourths of the time. 

On the other end of the list: 43rd Ward alderman Vi Daley, agreeing with the mayor 90 percent of the time; 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke and 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers, both at 93 percent; and James Balcer, alderman of the mayor’s old 11th Ward, who sided with Daley 95 percent of the time. 

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Reader Restaurants on WGN Saturday

Posted By on 12.29.06 at 06:34 PM

On Saturday night I'll be at an undisclosed location in the woods near the Wisconsin border, but assuming I have cell phone reception I'll be jawing with Nick Digilio on WGN Radio, 720 AM, about the Reader restaurant critics' best bites of 2006. If my signal fails, Bayne has my back. The show starts at 8 PM and and they tell me our segment will come after the 10 PM news.

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Posted By on 12.29.06 at 04:06 PM has posted a video clip of me naming my top five movies for 2006. I clean up nice, don't I?

Borrow like there's no tomorrow

Posted By on 12.29.06 at 02:13 PM

Voters didn't seem much interested in Republican Judy Baar Topinka's fiscal-responsibility message in the November governor's race (perhaps because her party's president hasn't shown much interest in it either). But the dire consequences of Rod Blagojevich's spend-and-don't-tax regime can't be ignored forever. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability issued a report on state pension funds November 28. We've been skipping payments again. Full report here (PDF). The gist from Illinois Channel:

"'Illinois public pension liabilities are growing out of control, and the state's failure to pay keeps making them worse,' said Chrissy Mancini, Director of Budget and Policy Analysis for CTBA, a bipartisan fiscal think tank based in Chicago. 'If lawmakers don't act to meet these obligations now, the cost of catching up later will force cuts to education, health care and other essential public services.'

"The report concluded that, because Illinois has the nation's fewest state employees per capita, ranks 42nd in state spending per capita, and offers public pension benefits no richer than the national average, the pension debt can only be solved by adding revenue. The best available option is to fix 'the state's poorly designed tax system [that] doesn't grow with the economy' or produce enough revenue to fund both state services and pension obligations."

You can argue with 'em here or attend CTBA's annual fiscal symposium in Chicago January 17.  John McCarron's Chicago Tribune column is also relevant.

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Top 40 of 2006, part 2

Posted By on 12.29.06 at 11:08 AM

21) Rhymefest Blue Collar (J) Maybe not the smartest or most original hip-hop album of the year, but something intangible kept me coming back. And while I usually prefer a degree of lyrical sophistication, I can’t resist the silliness of “Hot like hot sauce” in “Fever.”

22) Ab Baars Quartet Kinda Dukish (Wig) The great Dutch reedist Ab Baars applies his improvisational mindset to the repertoire and arrangements—not to mention the glorious solos—in this fantastic program of Duke Ellington tunes, where his band engages in a continual act of reinvention.

23) Romulo Froes Cão (YB Brasil) This young Brazilian singer uses the hushed articulation of bossa nova within the dance rhythms of samba on this stunning collection. Lovely harmonies, original arrangements, and wild dynamic variation—to say nothing of some killer lead guitar from one-time Tropicalia instrumentalist Lanny Gordin—suggest the emergence of a major new voice.

24) Boban Markovic The Promise (Piranha) The giant of Gypsy brass-band music returns with his best, most direct album in a decade, focusing on propulsive tunes written by him and his son Marko. No campy covers, no jacked-up beats, no celebrity guests—just full-on Rom soul music.

25) Von Freeman Good Forever (Premonition) 84-year old tenor great Von Freeman shows no sign of slowing down on this razor-sharp, emotionally generous collection of ballads and slow blues featuring drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Richard Wyands.

26) Lupe Fiasco Food & Liquor (Atlantic) My colleague Miles Raymer has copped to sitting through the nine minutes of shout outs in “Outro” twice, which I think says more about his masochism than Lupe's talent. But this is a treasure of post-Kanye big-think, a strain of hip-hop with wide ears that doesn’t need to prove itself with foolish ambition.

27) Candi Staton His Hands (Astralwerks) Lambchop associate Mark Nevers helms his second killer comeback project—the first was for Bobby Bare—crafting a warm, intimate setting for southern soul singer Candi Staton, whose maturity infuses these tunes (including one by Will Oldham) with a gripping assuredness and full-bloodedness.

28) Marcus Schmickler Demos (A-Musik) This brilliant composer and electronic musician from Cologne has made a habit of shifting radically between artistic models—including techno and electro-acoustic improvisation--and here he presents three stunning pieces with a choir, a chamber quintet, and rigorous electronic manipulation.

29) Vijay Iyer & Rudresh Mahanthappa Raw Materials (Savoy) This pair of Indian-Americans has been working together for 25 years now, so it’s natural that they anticipate one another’s moves as if they shared a brain. This striking, austere set of duets employs certain facets of their ancestral traditions, but ultimately they find a sound all their own.

30) Kayhan Kalhor & Erdal Erzincan The Wind (ECM) The great Iranian kemence (spike fiddle) player meticulously connects his own tradition with another, that of Turkish baglama master Erdal Ercincan. The compositional framework is slight, affording extended, beautiful improvisation.

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It's not warming! It is warming!

Posted By on 12.29.06 at 10:58 AM


Global-warming denialism, June 11, 2005: "Professor Fred Singer, president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project based in Arlington, Virginia ... told the BBC News there was no firm evidence of global warming. He claimed the data was contradictory and there was no consensus within the scientific community. He said: 'There is simply no consensus. That's a myth. Even if there were a warming, it's a question of how much. Obviously, the greenhouse effect is real; the problem is the data do not show a significant warming since 1940.'" (BBC News found at the SEPP Web site.)

Global-warming denialism, October 2006: "The Earth’s recent warming trend isn’t a product of human activity, but rather caused by a solar-linked cycle that creates harmless, naturally warmer temperatures approximately every 1,500 years, write Dennis Avery and Fred Singer in their controversial new book Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years." (Press release at Avery's Hudson Institute.)

I look forward to reading the book and finding what striking new research finding led to this dramatic turnaround.

More 2006 climate highlights and lowlights at Realclimate.

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A simple transitory pleasure

Posted By on 12.29.06 at 10:52 AM

By far the happiest square inches of Christmas-dinner real estate for me this year were in a block of just slightly unpuffed Yorkshire pudding, soaking in hot flavorful prime rib juices tipped right off the meat platter. Absolute heaven.

Perhaps you've made Yorkshire pudding before, but if you haven't you might be surprised at the sheer simplicity of it. It's a transitory pleasure--Yorkshire pudding is at its absolute best for about two triumphant minutes right out of the oven--and usually requires spending major Benjamins on beef to have the 1/4 cup of drippings you need (actual YP ingredients cost maybe $1). But those two minutes are definitely worth the minimal effort. 

In my family we use a variation of the recipe in the New York Times Cook Book:

• Once the roast is out of the oven and resting, crank the temperature to 450° F. Take 1/4 cup of the drippings, swirl them around a clean 11 x 7-ish pan, and pop it in to heat. 

• Combine 2 eggs and 1 cup milk. Sift 1/2 teaspoon salt into 1 cup of flour and add to the eggs. Beat as long as you want, at least until well-incorporated--this isn't pancake batter. It's Christmas--maybe there's a fight you're trying not to have? Or some tight-lipped silence to endure? Either way, batti, batti!

• Take the pan out of the oven (with a mitt) and pour the batter in, being careful not to splatter yourself. Return pan to the oven for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350° and bake 15 to 20 minutes longer, until the YP is satisfyingly puffed and golden.

• The trick at the end is to make sure the YP doesn't get too brown on top before the batter in the bottom of the pan (where it can stay a yummy but flat, dense, eggy thing) has a chance to cook all the way. This has to do with the size of the pan, too. Don't be afraid to let your pudding get high and dramatic--it increases the chances of it being done all the way. And don't worry if it doesn't--the best YP is thwacked into pieces right out of the oven and immediately soaked in meat juices that hasten its collapse anyway. YUM.


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