Monday, August 22, 2016

The curious increment of the blog at the right time

In 20 years working on the internet I’ve never stopped being an editor. We’re playful creatures, always mining what we know and trying to make new connections. Headline writers especially draw from everything around them – quotes from the musical “Hamilton” seem to be all over the New York Times these days.

Our ability to make connections accounts for our success in whatever we fall into – and very few of us are able to stay in journalism. I’ve kept fairly close – I develop an association’s website and do freelance ghostwriting. I start every weekday morning writing a newsletter subject line. Even as a designer I can’t resist a visual pun.

Fans of the Mark Haddon novel shouldn’t draw too many parallels here. Editors still have a fairly conventional way of viewing the world. But editorial work is a good starting point for representing the user experience. Service designer Richard Verne brought a few of us together for a panel this fall, and got me thinking about how my editorial experience helps in my current role.

Content management. We all stumble onto what we want to do. I spent a summer in college working in a law library, updating binders full of legal opinion. This was my first job in content management. CCH published its Federal Tax Reporter and other textbooks in binders, and as legislatures and court rulings made new law it would print new sections, or even just single pages with a sentence or two changed.

I can’t say this summer job led me to a career in law, though I do work for the bar association. As a journalism student, it wasn’t what I envisioned in a publishing career. But 20-plus years ago, when the internet seemed like a fad, I knew better from my summer of minding binders.

Human-computer interaction. Editors were the original disruptors. Word processors replaced typesetting machines like this one. Early in my career I sped up the process working as a typesetter. Note that there’s no screen on this one. You saw just the line you were typing, because that’s all you could change. I wrote whole articles that way. For an editor, I was unusually comfortable with technology.

Full-stack development. As a suburban copy editor at the Sun-Times I was writing business stories and Atex compilers – “set variable 7 at system variable 16.” At any Sun-Times terminal you could type “GET fan,” and it would print the word aficionado. Steve was having fun with macros. Knowing my way around code led me from the pagination desk to the internet and databases.

Information architecture. The Tribune hired me away from the Sun-Times before my desk turned into a Trump Tower parking space. I built a real estate website that incorporated photos, median prices and school scores into the listings – all radical at the time, but the template for Zillow. After starting the breaking business site and doing reports for CLTV, I returned to data visualization and taxonomy.

The Tribune website was expanding in a hurry, and as a business and technology reporter I had a good sense of what the sales and development staff needed. So I tracked projects on a spreadsheet, studied the project management body of knowledge, which was called the PMBOK, and managed the backlog in what we called the BAQ, which stood for the Big Ass Queue.

My boss gave me a copy of “Project Management for Dummies” and said don’t be offended, it’ll help. Later I worked with the head of the project management office, who recommended a book that conformed more closely to the PMBOK.

I was no longer a dummy, I was doing “user experience.” I wrangled XML feeds from a new CMS, built mapping apps and redesigned the Tribune website every 18 months or so. It didn’t faze me that I was replacing systems I built. After all, part of being an editor is the rewrite. And I wanted more proposals to get green-lighted, but newspapers can be cheap. Maybe I was being a dummy after all.

That leads me to my freelance career. Editorial work saved me. I latched onto work as a radio producer and blogger before I started getting design and UX assignments. And my technology reporting led me to the open source community, where I updated my development skills at Chi Hack Night and other tech events.

Newspapers are righteous places to work. They’re businesses with a First Amendment charter. Their code of ethics starts with “Seek truth and report it.” And the user experience is part of the DNA. The business model has its challenges. But serving the customer and the community come first. That’s a good pattern for all of us.

So there you have it – a career figuring out new technology. People my age know how to do it. If you’re hiring, think about that.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Keep the unemployment line moving

Picture the number of construction workers. The workforce includes about as many involuntary part-timers.

Looking for confidence in the year ahead? Take heart in unemployment holding at 5 percent. Still, as statistics skeptic Ken Harrelson says, "Don't stop now, boys."

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen told Congress yesterday to expect "further improvement in the labor market." The unemployment report this morning doesn't quite back up CNBC's Fedspeak translation, "close to full employment."

One in 4 unemployed people have been searching for more than six months. For each of the nearly 8 million stories in the unemployment office, there are another 8 million tales of hanging onto the edge of the job market, settling for part-time work or abandoning the search entirely.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Lessons from a neighborhood dairy

The Leona's restaurant at 1938 W. Augusta Blvd. is due to be razed, and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks today recommended that the city allow the demolition. A staff presentation suggested the 1920s dairy did not fit the East Village district, showing slides of my Victorian block as proof. The building's piecemeal construction also counted against it.

I've lived for 17 years in East Village, but I grew up in Milwaukee, and my grade school was a converted dairy. Like this building, it was built in sections over time. The dairy was actually the school gym: I played basketball there, I had band practice, I tried to learn the foxtrot. It served well as a school, and taught me something about city history.

This building is remarkably similar in structure. It stands as a lesson in Eastern European settlement of the West Town community and the commerce that kept it running. When I go to Leona's I look at the bones of the building and I see more than a restaurant. To my to mind it contributes greatly to the East Village landmark district, and I encouraged the commission (in just these words) to keep it in place.

Our new alderman, Brian Hopkins, also spoke for preserving the building. He'll have another chance in the City Council to defend a local landmark.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Woodstripper's Ball [and Chain]

Jazz Age musician Bix Beiderbecke, patron saint of woodshedders and woodstrippers (Cliff Wirth / Chicago Sun-Times)

At the Chicago Sun-Times, I talked myself into taking over the Around the House column. After coming into the office every Monday morning with remodeling stories, my boss thought I should put my research to better use.

The great Les Hausner set the feature's first-person format, plus the frequent dashes and paragraph breaks. This installment is a sentimental favorite. It's for serious rehabbers: An out-of-town friend read the piece and asked me, "What was that all about?" But I still giggle over Cliff Wirth's illustration.

It's back to Sundays with Bix.

Bix Beiderbecke, the young man with a horn, on the radio. Bix woodstripper slowly melting the plastic tuning knob.

Like the Paul Whiteman Orchestra cornetist, this stuff could just about cut through brass.

On and off for a year, I would get fidgety feet long before the first downbeat of Dick Buckley's Sunday afternoon as program on WBEZ (91.5 FM). I'd be off the davenport and scraping paint off the woodwork in our pre-Beiderbecke rowhouse.

The stripper calls again this summer, like the trumpet trio in "San." A clothes chute that we liberated from behind a wall needs to go naked. Same for the white sheets of paint behind our bedroom doors, and the weathered green window frames that look like an alligator's backside.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Let them tweet cake: 'Marie Antoinette' at Steppenwolf

Ericka Ratcliff, Tamberla Perry and Alana Arenas in "Marie Antoinette" (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité" is just another meme in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "Marie Antoinette." We're invited to think of the Enlightenment as the start of our unenlightened age. Seems like a daft notion, but then again how can rebels still see beheadings as all the rage?

The production starts with the Capet queen and her ladies-in-waiting decked out in wide-contour crinoline, but engaged in the idle girl talk of reality television: Marie Antoinette as Kim Kardashian. Alana Arendas has the task of reigning over a Moulin Rouge court, a pastiche that makes Antoinette only 1% aristocrat, or places her in the aristocracy of the 1%.

David Adjmi's play sets her in a tourist Versailles, a hall of scratched mirrors. It's not a vast palace but a small jewel box of family and friends, with not much to the lot of them beyond their aloof, over-the-top image. Louis XVI is not playing a delicate game of empire and reform. Tim Hopper's king is mostly distracted, the inheritor of the family business; his fall, a few convocation missteps. Axel von Fersen (Ariel Shafir) is a flirtatious count on his grand tour, not Rochambeau's aide in the march on Yorktown. There's not much revolution in this rarefied air.

It's a small world after all, and one that reflects back on itself. Marie Antoinette sees her calling as the fashionista, setting trends with her loosened bustle, her pouf and of course her brioche. If she gives a second thought to her reputation as the loose woman, the flit, the tart of the libelles, it's mostly to seethe at how the scandals spread within her court.

This diva plays out this graphic-novel role like she's born it, with little coaching beyond Alan Wilder's sly turn as an Absolutely Fabulous sheep. Marie Antoinette is tone deaf to her proto-hashtag as L'Autrichienne, not an Austrian other but an outré bitch. When the revolution comes, she's unaware she's stoked the reign of terror. "I was built to be this thing; and now they’re killing me for it. But you’d be the same. You’d make the same choices I did.”

This is all too meta for me: Perhaps all revolutions end in a chorus of slogans, but no one's oonstage to sing the whole bloody ballad. Adjmi's royals merely court public opinion, and make no attempt at shaping the narrative. And their subjects bring no revolutionary ideas to the Paris Spring: Their politics are a mere change in fashion. There's a story in how big ideas get reduced to headlines. Adjmi gives us the headline feed.

Again the Steppenwolf actors stretch their material and show it as threadbare. Arendas gives the queen more nobility in her fall than she summons in her equally oblivious reign. Robert O'Hara's direction fixes the cast as creations of privilege and absolves them as co-conspirators. Clint Ramos' traverse stage in the Upstairs Theatre is a theatrical mirror, glaring at both actors and audience, with scenery projected at a distance.

The French monarchs deserve their historic place as manipulator of events, rather than victim of pseudo-events. I left the theater rewriting the play in my head, with Louis XVI as George W. Bush, spoiling for a fight with Britain. He seizes on the American Revolution as his excuse, only to bankrupt his nation and turn popular opinion lethal; the queen struggles rebrand herself as the royal mother of us all. Who'll abdicate their role, the ruler or the public? Pulling that off would be no piece of cake.