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Sunday, September 30, 2007

So long, and thanks for all the doughnuts

Posted By on 09.30.07 at 11:22 AM

Wednesday's always been my favorite day at the Reader. With a rolling press deadline of that afternoon/evening, all the writing, copyediting, fact-checking, proofreading, and headline punning has historically been done by Tuesday night, so all that's left to do on the editorial end is check page layouts--a blessing because at that point we were too fried to do much else.

What's kept us going every Wednesday for the last however many years is the time-honored Reader tradition of "donut duty"--a once rigorously administrated system in which two people are deputized each week to bring in fuel for the final sprint. That means a lot of doughnuts, coffee cake, and bagels, sure. (And a lot of spiking blood sugar around noon.) But it's also meant, variously, quiche,  salami and cheese, Jenni-O brown 'n' serve sausage, desultory boxes of dry cereal and jugs of milk, peanut butter and jelly, fruit salad, Hello Kitty-imprinted waffles, homemade muesli (complete with an informational handout explaining its Swiss provenance), hotly debated Vietnamese pastries, and some weirdly ubiquitous apple bread.

All that's changing now--as of September 27 our production department is gone.* So for their last Wednesday, we had to throw the best doughnut duty ever: bacon and sausage hot off the George Foreman grill, tissue-thin prosciutto and coppa, brie and talleggio and gouda, bagels and lox. But the piece de resistance was this beautiful tomato-cheddar pie, topped with a basil and cherry-tomato corsage and a scattering of tiny autumn leaves made out of dough. (Click on the images link below for more pix.) Outgoing art director Sheila Sachs stayed up all night Tuesday to make it as well as to sew herself a special new dress to wear on her last day. Her pie skills are obviously only one of the reasons she and her cohort will be horribly missed by everyone still on staff.

Over the weekend she sent us the recipe in an e-mail headed "YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY Tomato-Cheddar Pie YUMMY."

And that pretty much says it all.

Tomato-Cheddar Pie

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
3/4 cup milk

2 pounds plum tomatoes (about 10), peeled and sliced
1/4 cup fresh basil or oregano leaves, chopped
3 scallions, chopped, or 1/4 cup chopped chives
1-1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded sharp Cheddar
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

For the crust, place the flour, baking soda, salt and butter in a food processor fitted with a knife blade. Pulse until the butter is cut into small bits. With the motor running, slowly add the milk through the feed tube until the dough comes together and sits on the blade. Remove and divide in half. On a lightly floured counter, roll half the dough into an 11-inch round. Use it to line a 9-inch pie plate.

Layer the tomato slices, basil and scallions in the pie shell. Top with half the cheddar. In a small cup, combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Pour over the tomatoes and top with the remaining cheddar. Roll out the remaining dough and place it on top of the filling, folding the edge under and crimping it to seal. Cut three or four slits in the dough so the steam can escape. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until bubbly. (Cover lightly with foil if the crust begins to get too brown.) Remove from oven. Cool 10 minutes before cutting into wedges.


* Several members of the editorial staff are also gone--including me, though I'll continue to contribute to both the paper and this blog as a freelancer.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

The closest iTunes can get you to actual murder

Posted By on 09.29.07 at 02:23 PM

I was in the shittiest mood all day, and then I got the new Xasthur record, so now I'm in the shittiest mood, but with an appropriate soundtrack. The press release for Defective Epitaph says that the album is "steeped in contempt and white-hot hate", which I'd call a pretty accurate reflection of my current emotional state. Nothing says "I'm having a bad day" like inchoate shrieking and cheaply-recorded black metal sludge. Malefic—the creep behind Xasthur—refuses to deliver either the turbo-shred virtuosity of more palatable black metal or the spooky soundscaping of atmospheric acts like Spektr. Defective Epitaph is fuguelike ugliness, devoid of anything resembling pop conventions. Half the guitar lines aren't even in tune. It is brutal and fuck-nasty and, in its own way, absolutely perfect. I'm considering spending the rest of my day getting drunk enough to get the title of one of Defective Epitaph's tracks tattooed on my neck—maybe "Funerals Drenched in Apathy" or "The Only Blood That Pours Is Yours". 

Thank you, Malefic. Your music makes me think that you are made primarily of hate and evil, and you're kind of my hero right now.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

More ammo for Santo backers

Posted By on 09.28.07 at 07:50 PM


The debate over whether Ron Santo belongs in baseball's Hall of Fame goes on -- mainly because the Veterans Committee of his supposed peers hasn't deemed anyone worthy of joining them the last few times they've voted. Bill James long ago pronounced Santo the best player not enshrined at Cooperstown. Last week Santo got more statistical backing from Baseball Prospectus's Nate Silver in his online column "Lies, Damned Lies." Silver was writing about the best player in the game each year from the origins of professional baseball in the mid-1800s through the present day. When he got to 1966 and '67, whom did he give the crown to but Santo. The columns ran on BP Premium, a subscription service, so while I can't link to it -- all I can say is I find it well worth the $5 a month -- here's the passage on those two years:

"The first question on the Keltner List* is 'Was [so-and-so] ever regarded as the best player in baseball?' I don’t know whether Ron Santo was ever regarded as the best player in baseball, but he probably was the best player in baseball for a couple years during the late 1960s. All that Santo did between 1964 and 1968 was win five consecutive Gold Gloves while posting an OPS of 150+. A 150 OPS+ is very good—that’s about the number that Alex Rodriguez has averaged over his past five or six seasons—and Santo was saving an additional 15 or 20 runs a season in the field. He did not have that one signature season, though; he never hit better than .313 nor did he ever hit more than 33 home runs, but he was third in baseball in VORP** in 1964, sixth in 1965, third again in 1966, and fifth in 1967.

"The Cubs, it should be pointed out, were not the megabrand during the 1960s that they are today. Between ’64 and ’68, they averaged less than 10,000 fans per game (9,964 to be exact). The White Sox, on the other hand, were a frisky club that consistently drew in the top three in their league in attendance. Playing on the North Side of Chicago in the 1960s was not much better than playing in Omaha. Santo’s one potential moment in the sun came in 1969, but he did not help himself by hitting .245 over the season’s final two months, contributing to the Cubs’ famous collapse."

Silver also said Santo was side by side with Willie Mays as the best player in the game in 1965, and was in a three-way tie with Hank Aaron and Bob Gibson in 1968. Yet that's not so surprising. In The Baseball Encyclopedia, Peter Palmer and Gary Gillette found Santo led the National League in batting and fielding wins (their version of James's win-shares formula determining how many actual wins a player is responsible for) in 1964, '66, and '67. Now it's just a matter of getting the Veterans Committee to recognize what they've been slow to acknowledge.

By the way, Silver has a new column on greatest team chokes in baseball history that's available to non-Premium subscribers. If the Cubs somehow failed to make the playoffs, they'd only place 12th. The '69 team blew a 98 percent chance of making the playoffs, to place fifth all-time. But, really, that topic is for next week -- if then.

 *The Keltner List is a series of questions James developed to weigh the Hall credentials of Ken Keltner -- and, by extension, anyone else. Being the best player in baseball, for any length of time, makes a good start for belonging in the Hall.

**Value Over Replacement Player 

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Razing "Little Arizona"

Posted By on 09.28.07 at 07:22 PM

Mark J. Konokol has a wonderful slice-of-life piece on Harbour Point Estates in Hegewisch, a trailer park built on an old landfill that residents call "Little Arizona." It sounds pleasant, actually, which is why it's going the way of "houses, condos, a mini-mall and new parks."

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Gery Chico, can-do guy

Posted By on 09.28.07 at 05:51 PM

Gery Chico was back in City Hall Thursday, and aldermen greeted him with warmth and extensive wish lists.

Chico, a bright, well-connected attorney, once served as Mayor Daley's chief of staff and then as president of the Chicago School Board. In 2001, though, the mayor decided the pace of school "reform" wasn't happening fast enough. Chico quit the board just before Paul Vallas was ousted as the Chicago Public Schools CEO.

Chico returned to practicing law with several high-powered firms; he was the chairman of Altheimer & Gray when the firm strangely and abruptly dissolved in 2003. In 2004, Chico ran a thoughtful campaign for U.S. Senate but was soundly defeated by Democratic machine support for Dan Hynes, oodles of cash at the disposal of multimillionaire Blair Hull, and the groundswell of passion for Barack Obama. Then he went back to lawyering and making money.

Few would have been surprised if Chico stayed out of politics and public policy after that. Over the last 18 years, a game plan has developed for former aides and allies of Mayor Daley. Top city policymakers are typically hardworking, loyal people whose ideas and long hours the mayor relies on to run the city, and whose names, reputations, and jobs he feels free to offer up as sacrifices when scandal strikes. Basically, commissioners and aides get zero credit when things are working right and take the blame when someone's been naughty, even if they really weren't responsible. They exist, in part, as mayoral insulation. 

This happens in politics everywhere, but Daley has shown particular skill at it, surviving one embarrassment after another by letting onetime star underlings become fall guys. In exchange, they're usually set up with comfortable gigs in the private sector if they can't find one themselves. The list of these people is long, but it includes former planning and development commissioner Alicia Berg, canned for being caught up in a backroom political mess involving some aldermen, public housing redevelopment, and mayoral friend Oscar D'Angelo, who became a vice president at Columbia College Chicago (where, I should disclose, I am an adjunct faculty member); and onetime environment commissioner and budget wonk William Abolt, a Hired Truck scapegoat who went on to a position with an environmental services firm.

But earlier this month Daley dusted off Chico and decided he was worthy of leading the board of the Chicago Park District. 

In confirming the appointment yesterday, aldermen praised Chico's smarts, commitment to public service, and concern for children. "He is an outstanding asset for government," said finance committee chairman Ed Burke. "Gery Chico has never accepted an assignment he did not do well and complete successfully." 

Such as dissolving a once-powerful law firm. 

It was 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett who brought up the most likely reason Chico's been recruited again. "Gery knows how to get the money from Springfield and also from Washington, D.C.," Burnett said. "And I think that's very, very important for us." 

Chico pretty much confirmed that analysis after he was confirmed. "I plan to spend some time trying to develop capital," he said in the lounge behind council chambers, in between handshakes and pats on the back from aldermen eager to hit him up for help with projects in their wards. "[Parks Superintendent] Tim Mitchell's done a very good job, but he'd be the first guy to tell you we've got to do even more. People want things done, they want projects, and we've got to pay for it."

The Park District has an annual budget of about $400 million, but as Chico acknowledged, there's not a neighborhood in the city that isn't desperate for additional green space, better recreational programming, and facility upgrades.

And let's face it: aldermen and the mayor can talk about how important the Park District is to city kids, but if Daley's going to get the Olympics here, he's got to confront decades of lackluster investment and planning in the parks and make some major facility upgrades--really freaking fast.

"You've got the best steward you could have to get the Olympics to come to the city, and that's Mayor Daley," Chico said Thursday. "And [I'll do] anything I can to help and to get the district to help."

That's why Chico's here: he'll try to get it done, and even if he doesn't, he'll never stop playing the good soldier.


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Louisiana musical melting pot

Posted By on 09.28.07 at 05:31 PM


It's no secret that Louisiana is the cauldron where so many of the ingredients of what has come to define American music were first boiled, but too often the credit seems to go to New Orleans. In the Cajun backwaters, country and French Acadian music intermingled in ways that paralleled what blacks were doing in the Crescent City. The Red Stick Ramblers, a young outfit from Baton Rouge, do a bang-up job of conveying this musical sprawl; on the band’s new album, Made in the Shade (Sugar Hill), they zip effortlessly between old-fashioned honky-tonk, Cajun jams, western swing, zydeco, blues, and even straight-up jazz, without ever sounding like glib dilettantes or overambitious pretenders. Their repertoire features both original and standard material, but the execution is unfailingly high energy and crisp, without a trace of sentimental hokum. The members clearly love the stuff they’re playing, and though the liner notes suggest that these guys might be uptight record collectors, they sound utterly natural when they’re tearing it up. They play tomorrow night at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Today’s playlist:

Emilie Simon, The Flower Book (Milan)
Maria Bethania, Ciclo (Universal, Brasil)
Charlie Hunter Trio, Misitico (Fantasy)
Georgia Anne Muldrow, Olesi: Fragments of an Earth (Stones Throw)
Zein l’Abdin, The Swahili Song Book (Dizim)


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Just as we suspected!

Posted By on 09.28.07 at 11:31 AM

Media Matters for America, has just done something herculean and, I suppose, useful -- it scoured the nation's op-ed pages, counted noses, and reached a conclusion it hadn't been alone in suspecting: "In paper after paper, state after state, and region after region, conservative syndicated columnists get more space than their progressive counterparts."

Media Matters' inventory of 1,377 dailies -- 96 percent of all there are, it says -- led it to 201 syndicated columnists. And though it categorized 79 of them as "progressives," 75 as "conservatives," and 47 as "centrists," it advised: "The truth is that conservatives have a clear and unmistakable advantage. Conservative columnists appear in more papers than progressive columnists do, and conservatives reach more readers." Here are the numbers: 60 percent of the dailies publish more conservatives, 20 percent publish more progressives, and 20 percent strike an even balance. When columnists are multiplied by circulation to get an abstract figure that this survey calls the "total ideological circulation," that TIC is 48 percent conservative, 38 percent progressive, and 16 percent centrist.

Media Matters identifies itself as a "Web-based, not-for-profit . . . progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." I wouldn't expect an outfit that's happy to label itself to have a problem with labeling everyone else -- though Media Matters says it tried to do this as objectively as possible, whenever possible choosing the pigeonhole chosen by a columnist's own syndicate in its promotionals. 

But still . . . Nat Hentoff, progressive? Hentoff actually rates a qualifying footnote that concedes "he holds conservative stands on a few issues, including abortion [but] he is progressive on most issues." Steve Chapman, conservative? Actually, Chapman's a libertarian, and -- for whatever it signifies for his place on the ideological spectrum -- as fierce a critic of the war in Iraq as you'll find. Pat Buchanan, conservative? Well, he is, of course, but he despises the war too. Maureen Dowd, progressive? No, she's snarky. She doesn't care whose head she bites. Garrison Keillor, progressive? He's a humorist, and I'm not sure humorists believe in progress. Do you think Keillor thinks Lake Wobegon has a prayer of becoming a place where the kids don't grow up and leave?  Hah -- not even if Nissan builds a plant there. Bill O'Reilly, conservative? Try nitwit.

Media Matters has broken down its findings by states, so let's look at Illinois.  It's the same story: "Illinois Op-Ed Pages Dominated by Right" says the report. The Media Matters survey was taken from mid-2006 to mid-2007, and when it reports that 87 percent of the Sun-Times's op-ed voices are conservative, it's obviously missing  the paper's recent Road to Damascus conversion to old-fashioned liberalism -- strike that, progressivism. One of the survey's big failings, in my eyes, is its failure to take local columnists into account. Carol Marin wasn't counted. Dennis Byrne wasn't counted. Neil Steinberg wasn't counted -- I dare them to put him into one of their categories anyway. In Chicago, around Illinois, and all across the land the local news columnists weren't counted -- sharp populists like Bill McClellan at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Phil Kadner at the Daily Southtown, Mark Brown at the Sun-Times.

Then there's John Kass at the Tribune. You might think of Kass as a conservative, but you'd be wrong. He's conservative on a dozen issues that no one reads him for. But like every local news columnist anywhere worth his or her salt, he stands for cleaning up the mess in City Hall. He believes in honest government. So he's a progressive. 

Needless to say, Media Matters had no place for Roger Ebert. Yet a couple of days ago Forbes named him America's most influential pundit. "Unlike political pundits who bring a liberal or conservative voice to the table," Forbes explained, "his strong opinions are generally confined to individual movies. Hence, he's not drawing cheers from half the population and jeers from the other half." Don't sound naive, Forbes. Ebert's a liberal -- a smart, open-minded, eloquent liberal -- and by writing about movies he's managed to write about everything on his mind. A survey that weighs Oliver North and Ann Coulter on the one hand but not Ebert on the other didn't go about its business quite right.

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Green art and green science

Posted By on 09.28.07 at 07:10 AM


The Notebaert Nature Museum is looking for artists to present, perform, or otherwise communicate something about lawns. "What does the lawn mean to you?" writes strategic projects manager Shane DuBow. "Tyranny of the suburbs? Nostalgic recollections of the lawn-mowing business you started in your youth? A metaphor for.... what? We're open to any and all of your inspirations and we've also included some ideas we're looking to assign." Read the whole request for proposals here or here (both PDF).

If you're too literal-minded or too lazy to make their October 31 deadline, you might still enjoy peeking in the new book Lawn People: How Grass, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are by former midwesterner Paul Robbins, now associate professor of geography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I haven't seen the book, but Robbins's website (scroll down) mentions a counterintuitive finding:

"This research explores the social and economic motivation of lawn owners. Initial conclusions suggest that wealthy well educated people use chemicals most frequently and that people who claim concern for the environment are disproportionately likely to use chemical inputs."

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Daily You Shoot: 'If only he had feet'

Posted By on 09.27.07 at 11:22 PM

Photo by Jeffrey Horvath

Photo by Jeffrey Horvath

My favorite things: Lurie Garden

Posted By on 09.27.07 at 03:42 PM

Millennium Park's Lurie Garden--as an artistic work--is especially poignant during the controversy over Grant Park's "open, free, and clear" status. Chicago's motto, "Urbs in Horto," is meant to highlight the city's commitment to parkland, but it's basically PR. When the city was given the motto, our metropolis was more of a slaughterhouse in a mud puddle; now it's a TIF in a grid. 

And Millennium Park, for all its attraction and wonder, is an aesthetic expression of the triumph of urbanity. It's no less a simulacrum than Washington Park, Garfield Park, and the city's other sylvan, continental green spaces, but it is hugely different, notably in its lack of green space. It's crazy futuristic (the Bean, the Gehry bandshell) and its most significant humanizing touch, the Crown Fountain, is the glitziest light sculpture between Times Square and Vegas.

In the midst of all this is Lurie Garden. According to the official site, the fenced-in hedge is meant to symbolize Sandburg's "city of big shoulders," but to me it looks like an internment camp for brushy little trees, a symbol of victory over the prairie. It questions the city's motto and the aspirationally Euro aspect of Olmstead's parks, but also suggests the delicacy of the open land we have left in the city and its environs. It's worth thinking about while the Children's Museum comes in for a crash landing.

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