Thursday, December 29, 2005

Field trip: A museum to museums

Perhaps it's proof that life is short but art is long. While every period piece hung at the Art Instutute appears timeless, Field Museum displays all seem to bear an invisible time stamp, they're such products of their time.

On a holiday visit, Underground Adventure had enough squirming giant ants to frighten small children, yet with all the stasis of Indian village dioramas. A video monitor tracked the bugs' simulated process, but with no game console attached. George Catlin's warrior chiefs at the Field never presented this problem, which is probably why the paintings could fetch $15 million last year at Southeby's.

The historical parallels, intended or not, were fascinating. I lingered at the Rove beetle, not a dung beetle but a predator that aimed for the soft underbelly. I had the same feeling I was seeing current events when at Philadelphia's Philosophical Hall I discovered a portrait of one of John Adams' Supreme Court nominees, George Washington's cousin Bushrod.

Led by the curator's invisible hand, we continued upstairs on our Field trip. Mummies made uncomfortable parallels between religion and social status, and hieroglypics bore a patron's message with the postmodern attitude of commercial art. (My nephew on break from art school kept his nose in a book throughout.) A factory-housing exhibit took residence next to the Maori meeting house, and an earthenware display ended with a 20th century turkey platter from Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Best self-help books

Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. — Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

After Carnegie's advice was quoted by speaker Tom Weber at the office Toastmasters meeting, a run of self-help books have come up in work conversation, from Primal Leadership to Project Management for Dummies. Currently I'm reading You're in Charge—Now What?, which give new executives tips on both listening and communicating.

One of my favorite motivational books is Phil Jackson's Sacred Hoops, in which the L.A. Lakers coach recounts some of the techniques that made him the Chicago Bulls' "Zen master."

Coach Jackson gave the Bulls reading assignments. What would be yours? Leave your recommendations for best self-help books here.

Friday, December 09, 2005

East Village other

Laura Putre of Chicago Journal is correct in a Dec. 8 Viewpoints piece (not available online) that the name East Village is of fairly recent vintage. When University of Chicago sociologists knocked on doors in the 1960s, residents south of Division and east of Damen told canvassers they lived in Wicker Park. Polonia also was common coinage; a residence on Winchester Avenue north of Iowa Street has Polonia Dairy Co. carved into the stone, a relic of another day.

However, the name East Village dates at least to 1984, when the East Village Association was organized. Likely the founders of the community improvement group wanted to identify the area more closely with tidy Ukrainian Village than with troubled Wicker Park. The blue street signs with the East Village logo, which appeared on lamp posts across the group's boundaries from Milwaukee to Damen avenues and from Division Street to Chicago Avenue, have fallen victim mostly to rust.

South of Chicago or east of Milwaukee, as the seniors Putre interviewed recalled, you were in West Town, or perhaps Noble Square, a name that survives in the co-op apartments on Milwaukee Avenue. As crime receded and vacant lots were developed throughout West Town in the 1990s, real-estate ads started to spread the East Village name beyond its original boundaries.

It's good that Chicago Journal has moved into the neighborhood. It won't be long before Chicago Journal will be seen as a local fixture, or perhaps as another creation of real-estate developers.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Cold reception

The new owners of 1056 N. Damen, the former tavern with the gangster cartoon sign, invited the neighborhood to cozy up to a space heater tonight at the vacant taproom, notwithstanding the hot buffet awaiting a few blocks away at the monthly East Village Association meetup that usually mediates zoning issues.

Attorney Lawrence M. Lusk promised in handbills to explain the proposed use for the space (the rumor was there was restaurant interest). But he told the chilly crowd the new owners had no plans, except that the bar had reverted to residential zoning and they wanted consent for business zoning. The bar space was impossible for residences, Lusk claimed, because the building's maximum allowable seven apartments were already upstairs.

I did the geometry in my head while my wife did the arithmetic, and neither way did the math add up: Investors buying into Condo Central, who didn't see residential potential in seven shoebox apartments with adjoining vacant space, did not seem ready to take on much development work. A landowner across the street, who seemed to be thinking along the same lines, observed that the street hadn't been shoveled till today,

We went on to spell out how the owners had much more yet to spell out. Ald. Ted Matlak leaned against the bar in a hooded parka and took in this "Fargo" scene. After an hour in the chill he was asked if he would put off the owner's zoning request. The answer sounded something like, "You betcha."

Too much source code, too little validation

I entertain the fantasy of making more frequent posts, but the longer I live the more distractions arise.

Students I've never met write with queries such as, "I hope you could answer a basic question for me on what it takes to be a journalist." My first impulse is to suggest that it requires the ability to do basic research before conducting interviews. But that's not very helpful.

There are many widely available references on journalism careers, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook. Journalism job postings are widely available via the Internet, including the Job File listings maintained by the Society of Professional Journalists' Chicago chapter.

A colleague asked what books could teach her Web design. I learned HTML eight or 10 years ago in the age of stone knives and bearskins. The O'Reilly series is now better than the books I used then. (BTW, over Thanksgiving my more mechanically minded brothers were poring over copies of Make, O'Reilly's hacker take on the digest-size Popular Mechanics of the 1960s. I enjoyed "The World's Biggest MP3 Player."

Most Web folks learn not from books but from other Web sites, such as Webmonkey. I found the basics in a Web tutorial by journalism prof Mindy McAdams, who shares my background as newspaper factotum.

Setting up a home page (with resume!) is a good Web design exercise, but a blog really does not require a lot of coding skill unless you want to trick out the standard-issue templates. However, one motivation to starting this blog was just to stare at the source code, which is how I learned a good deal of HTML.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Your ad not here

When newsrooms are seeing layoffs it's hard to argue that this is a good time for the news business. But the opportunities lie one step beyond the challenges.

Start with changes in news habits. Just a decade ago surveys from the Pew Research Center said network news broadcasts were a habit for 6 out of 10 people. Now it's 3 out of 10. For newspapers, it's 4 out of 10.

A newspaper or newscast might not occupy the same part of your day, but no one now needs a set time. Cable TV has more news than ever. And news is always online. The Web site that employs me didn't even exist 10 years ago. Now one-quarter of adults say they check online news at least three days a week.

How does this play out? In 1994, just under half of adults, 49 percent, said they read a newspaper the day before. In 2004, that figure was 42 percent. But almost invariably, they meant a newspaper in print. That 24 percent reading news on the Web were talking mostly about newspaper Web sites.

Combine newspapers, broadcast TV, cable TV and online news, and the total news audience, which was 90 percent 10 years ago, hasn't changed much. Surveys show us devoting more time to shopping, excercising, watching DVDs, and keeping up with the news too. So journalists remain very much in the news business. Just not necessarily in the newspaper business.

If the media universe is expanding, there has to be more money in it, right? Not exactly. When the economy is sluggish, there's less advertising money floating around. And newspaper web sites don't draw the ad dollars of the newsstand version. Print advertising brings in $1 a day for every reader; online ads, 6 or 7 cents. With that sudden influx of online readers, whoever reverses that online revenue ratio will make a ton of money.

For now, newspapers are still stuffed with ads. The Web, not so much. And it's a more competitive arena. Your newspaper dot-com reading may start at Google or Yahoo or your favorite political blog. All of them, even the blogs, are looking for advertising. Not this blog of course. If you're looking for news, what are you doing here?