Archive for 2012

Canning the “smart cans” for a while (if not longer)

10 April 2012
Categories: Chicago

Vanishing actEarlier this week, the trash can disappeared from the street corner near my office. The only sign of its prior existence: two quartets of severed bolts protruding from the darkened pavement, their shiny tops a bright testament to their recent rendezvous with a reciprocating saw.

Chicago Tribune article explains the disappearance: it was a BigBelly “smart can,” and it was deemed a potential hazard to next month’s NATO summit.

This raised all sorts of questions for me.

Are the BigBelly cans a good idea?

Yes, I think so. They’re solar-powered, so they require no infrastructure to install: just plant and go. Their internal compactors mean that they have much greater capacity than ordinary cans, and their output will take up less space in a landfill, which is a huge issue for the city these days. Also, according to the Trib, they send an email when they get full, a system that appears to result in quick response—in addition to its labor-saving benefit to workers that only have to empty cans that need emptying. Fuel savings and reduced air pollution are other positive factors. This is a technology that works.

How much of that labor-saving benefit is now being negated by having to remove the BigBelly cans, and later re-install them?

A lot, I’ll bet. Most of it, maybe—the cans were only installed a year ago. And yes, the work is being done by city workers so we’re all paying for it. Meanwhile who knows when, if ever, the smart cans—which cost nearly $4,000 each, part of a $2.5 million deal—will return to Chicago’s downtown streets. (“When the city’s public safety departments have deemed it appropriate to do so,” says the Streets&San spokesperson. Uh-huh.)

But isn’t the city right in thinking them less easy to check “for anything dangerous”?

Are we safe yet?Well, yes, I suppose so. With their drop-box hatches it’s not all that easy to view the contents of BigBelly cans. But aside from that, they’re not all that much more opaque than old-fashioned wire baskets, as the photo at right shows—the wire baskets house solid plastic inserts. Let’s be realistic: it is, unfortunately, not that difficult to make an effective, er, “dangerous anything” that can be readily camouflaged as innocuous-looking garbage, such that any wire basket more than half-filled with trash will conceal it from all but the most thorough checks (i.e., dumping everything out and sorting through it).

So, if it’s not likely to make much of a safety difference, why do it?

Here’s the rub: if something hidden in a wire basket goes bang and hurts people, the word is that it was hidden “in a trash container.” If it goes bang in a BigBelly can, that brand name is splashed all over every headline—right above a big colour photo of mayhem and destruction. In short, this is all a matter of pre-emptive face-saving on the part of the city, which has an option to buy many more BigBelly cans in the future.

I don’t blame the city for doing this; I really think it’s in our best interest, although I’m still a little disappointed to see these neat pieces of smart tech vanish from the streets. But let’s not pretend it’s going to make anyone any safer. It’s no substitute for what’s really needed, which is for every member of the public to take personal responsibility for public safety: to maintain awareness, to report suspicious activity, to “see something, say something.”

And finally, the big question few in this town ever seem to see fit to ask…

Which of former Mayor Daley’s friends and/or family made a buck off the BigBelly deal?

Come on, you know that’s what makes this “The City That Works.”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, et al, by John le Carré

20 March 2012
Categories: From the armchair

I have of late become totally obsessed with the spy novels of John le Carré.

I started with his classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a paragon of the genre, then went straight into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—wanting to finish it before checking out the latest film adaptation starring Gary Oldman. That book was so riveting that I don’t think I’ll be able to stop at least until I finish the entire “Karla Trilogy,” and as such I am now well into The Honourable Schoolboy and have Smiley’s People waiting in the wings.

The thing that so fascinates me about these books—aside from the mere fact of their high literary quality—is this: I think we’ve all gotten used to the notion that a “spy thriller” is what we get from James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. To wit, a contiguous sequence of action set-pieces; squealing tires and machine gun staccato and elaborate fisticuffs and a massive explosion at the end. But le Carré uses almost none of these tropes. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is bookended with brief moments of violence, but that’s it for “action” as we’ve come to expect.

His actors aren’t supermen, nor indestructible forces of nature; they’re real people, human, fallible, prone to doubts and fears and errors. The stakes are high, so they tread carefully—and when a colleague dies, they feel the loss deeply. They don’t steel their jaws and move on in vengeful stoicism; they cry.

What happens in these novels is, for the most part, people sitting in rooms talking. Or walking together and talking. Or just… thinking about things. Much of the action takes place off-stage, while we learn of it through someone (usually George Smiley) sitting at a desk and reading the pages of an agent dossier or case report.

And yet—it’s all so gripping. There’s tension on every page, and the build-up to the climax (albeit often a quiet, sitting-in-rooms-talking kind of climax) keeps the pages turning. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is almost a mystery novel, rather than a spy novel, as Smiley gathers the clues that allow him to expose the mole within the Circus. As a protagonist, he’s closer to Jane Marple than James Bond. When, toward the end of the novel, he carries a gun, it’s almost shocking. You don’t want him to have to be so uncouth as to have to arm himself, let alone squeeze the trigger. But you root for him all the way nevertheless.

On top of that, there’s the fact that the author himself worked for the British intelligence services for many years. The sense of reality contained in his tales is so deep that I have to remind myself that these books are not historical non-fiction; that George Smiley didn’t really exist; that MI6 was not infiltrated by Soviet moles in the 1970s and very nearly brought to its knees (at least, so far as we know).

And it’s clear to me that the real world of spycraft is much more like the world of le Carré and George Smiley, all research and information-gathering and thinking, than it is like James Bond or Jason Bourne. And that makes these novels all the more interesting and exciting.

How to make the perfect grilled cheese — without killing yourself

3 March 2012
Categories: Uncategorized

In Episode 45 of the ever-entertaining, always-informative podcast How To Do Everything, guest contributor McKay Marshall gave his technique on “How to make the perfect grilled cheese.”

I found his method to be dangerous and scary. Not saying it’s wrong, but it is for experts only. Grabbing ingredients on the fly, using a pan that’s “as hot as you can get it,” his inversion technique for flipping—these all need someone who knows what he or she is doing and can work at a short-order cook’s pace, not to mention a spatula that is shaped to allow you to invert a pan over it without the risk of burned fingers.

One of the How-To guys (Ian, I think) said this “high-action method” was “making [him] tense.” It did me, too. They likened it to mixing a drink à la Tom Cruise in Cocktail. But when you screw that up, you spill booze and break bottles. Screw up Marshall’s grilled cheese method, and you’re throwing around scalding hot oil and melted cheese. Next stop, burn unit.

My method takes only slightly longer, but anyone can do it with very little kitchen expertise. To paraphrase “The Tortoise and the Hare,” low and slow wins this race.

Start with your mise en place—a French chef’s way of saying “get your shit together.” Butter one side of bread, set it butter-side up on your work surface, then butter the next slice and set it on top of the first, buttered sides facing each other. This back-to-back layout keeps you from getting butter on everything, and now you have an open-faced area on which to put your cheese—grated cheese will melt better than slices—and any add-ons. (As an aside, my favorite addition is roasted green chiles from a can.)

Meanwhile, heat up your pan at a setting only one or two notches above simmer at most. I highly recommend a cast-iron pan, which does the best job of grilling and also avoids the health risk of dry-heating a non-stick pan. If you must use a non-stick pan, either put the sandwich into a cold pan, or use Marshall’s butter-in-the-pan-not-on-the-bread method.

When everything’s ready, and the pan is hot but not searing, pick up the entire back-to-back sandwich and place it into the pan as if you’re cutting a deck of cards: take the top slice with its cheese and put it on the bottom, and the bottom slice and put it on top, so your sandwich is now fully assembled as it starts to grill.

Cover the pan very loosely with a lid—enough to trap some heat and speed the cheese-melting, but not enough to trap steam and make the bread soggy. By the time the bread is nicely grilled, which will only take a few minutes, the cheese will have begun to melt—this will allow you to flip the sandwich normally. Grill the second side uncovered. While this is happening, you’ll have time to clean up without risk of overcooking the sandwich.

Ten minutes, start to finish, and with any luck no calls to the fire department.

Bigger is Not Better

10 February 2012
Categories: Music appreciation

WXRT (93.1 FM Chicago) is my favorite radio station. Its morning team in particular, Lin Brehmer and Mary Dixon, are the best in the business: informative, insightful, and erudite, and hilarious without ever resorting to the blaring, obvious comedy of other morning shows. It’s a regular part of my weekday-morning routine—and to be frank I find my day a little off-kilter whenever anyone else stands in for Lin or Mary at the mic.

Every year XRT runs a listener poll, which is a great way for the station both to generate listener involvement and to get feedback on its programming. The results are pretty good: of course “Best Albums” and “Best Songs” are not necessarily the best of all the year’s music—they are the year’s best releases that XRT has been playing. Still, that is to be expected given the responder base—XRT’s regular listeners—so there is nothing inherently wrong with the results in those categories.

I have a major problem, however, with one of the other categories: “Best Concerts.”

The problem is simply one of volume: the bigger the show, the larger the potential number of voters for it, and therefore the more likely it is to make the list—regardless of quality.

Take a look at the 2011 results. I think we can take as a given that people who didn’t see a particular concert are unlikely to vote for it; but that everyone who attended a concert is a potential voter for it. If we assume that each of the top 10 concert events on the list were sold out (a safe bet), we can determine each event’s potential voter base by multiplying the capacity of the venue by the number of shows/nights in the event. When we do this, not one of the events listed has a vote potential of less than about 4,000. (Well, okay, the smallest is 3,880—the capacity of the Chicago Theatre.) The average vote potential for those ten events is over 60,000.

Multiple shows, such as Wilco’s 5-night, venue-hopping “residency,” are lumped in together as a single event, regardless of whether a voter meant the incredible first-night show with Mavis Staples at the Civic Opera House, or the intimate final-night appearance at Lincoln Hall. This is about the only way smaller venues will appear on the list. (Last year, Buddy Guy’s 16-night residency at his own Legends took 3rd place: a very small venue—550 capacity—but a lot of shows.) Meanwhile Lollapalooza has placed in the top 5 every year (except 2009, when it took 9th) since it arrived in Chicago in 2005; regardless of how terrific the Coldplay or My Morning Jacket or Foo Fighters sets might have been, Lolla’s 3rd-place finish this year was surely not harmed by having a vote potential of more than a quarter million.

“I put on shows at the Saturn so that the kids can see the stage, afford the tickets, and hear the music. So screw stadiums.” — the immortal Max Wolfe, in Get Crazy

In an interview celebrating Lin Brehmer’s twenty years with XRT (as an aside, congratulations to my “best friend in the whole world”), he stated that among his favorite places to see live music are: Metro, Park West, Old Town School, SPACE, Lincoln Hall, Schubas. As he so concisely and forthrightly put it, “Small is usually best.”

And yet, because of the vote potential of the bigger shows, not one show that played at any of those venues made the “Best Concerts” list—even though four out of Brehmer’s six made XRT’s list of “Best Venues.” That’s because these smaller venues lack vote potential. The most incredible, once-in-a-lifetime show in the history of the universe, appearing for one night at, say, Metro has at most a vote potential of 1,100—and the other venues Brehmer mentioned are smaller still. There is simply no way for that to compete against any show, good or mediocre, at Soldier Field (65,000), or Wrigley Field (42,000), or Alpine Valley (37,000).

I think XRT should weight its “Best Concerts” results based on vote potential. That, or make it clear to its listeners: these might have been the biggest shows of the year, but they weren’t necessarily the best.

Given that my proposal could undermine Lollapalooza’s dominance of the list, and XRT is a major promoter of both the main event and many of its affiliated “secret” after-hours shows, I have no expectation that XRT will do anything other than utterly ignore this argument. 

Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “little friend”

8 February 2012
Categories: Film buff, Star Wars

Like many Star Wars fans, when I first saw Episode I – The Phantom Menace, I hated it. For all the usual reasons, of course. But there was one plot point that bugged the hell out of me, made me feel like the newer films were horribly anachronistic and non-canon with respect to the original trilogy. In Episode I, Obi-Wan Kenobi meets up with Artoo Detoo. Later, particularly in Episodes II and III, they go into battle together.

I was appalled. “If they have such a long history together,” I asked no one in particular, “why the heck doesn’t Obi-Wan recognize Artoo when the droid arrives on Tatooine in Episode IV?”

Turns out I was wrong about this. The simple answer: he does.

Imagine it from Obi-Wan’s perspective. He’s been in exile on Tatooine for years, hiding from the Empire and keeping watch over young Skywalker, acting as Luke’s mostly unseen guardian and protector. Some day, he hopes, the Rebel Alliance will gain enough strength for the remaining Jedi to resurface, join the fight and, with any luck, defeat the Empire. Until that time, he’s going to lay low.

Then one day, he hears a ruckus: a landspeeder roaring through the Jundland Wastes, and Tusken Raiders coming after it to attack the driver and loot the speeder. Obi-Wan might already be on his toes, if he spotted the unlikely sight of a space battle just beyond Tatooine’s atmosphere a day or two before. He arrives on the scene to find his unwitting protégé—and his longtime comrade, companion, and fellow Hero of the Clone Wars, Artoo Detoo.

What’s Obi-Wan to do? Right away he knows the cat’s out of the bag, but he doesn’t yet know just how far out it is. He doesn’t know if Luke knows anything more than Uncle Owen’s lies, and he certainly doesn’t know (though probably suspects) why Artoo is there.

So he plays it cool.

He keeps a straight face, feigning zero recognition of the droid. When he hears Luke say his real name—Obi-Wan, not Ben—he’s a little shocked, and resigns himself to telling Luke that he’s Obi-Wan… and soon Obi-Wan is giving Luke his father’s old light saber, cluing him in on the existence of the Force, and admitting to having fought in the Clone Wars. He takes it as a given that Luke will accompany him to Alderaan. The cat is well and truly out of the bag.

Even his denial of Artoo is not, in itself, a lie. Obi-Wan speaks quite truthfully when he states, “I don’t seem to remember ever owning a droid.” As far as I can tell from extensive online biographies, Obi-Wan Kenobi never did own a droid—and he definitely never owned Artoo Detoo. (I’d also like to think that Obi-Wan considers droid “ownership” to be slavery, and owning a droid to be antithetical to both his nature and theirs.)

So yes, I believe that Obi-Wan recognizes Artoo instantly, and it’s only the fact that we don’t understand what Artoo is saying that this is not revealed in the scene. Of course, it’s not that I’m saying the scene was written that way at the time, because it probably was not, but the way Alec Guinness plays Obi-Wan with such inscrutable mannerisms definitely could be interpreted as such.

Now, had Artoo managed to reach Obi-Wan’s home without Luke catching up to him, the reception might have been different:

Obi-Wan: (Opens the door, looks only slightly surprised, as if he’d been expecting this) Hello there, my little friend. It’s been a long time. Come in, come in! What brings you to this quiet corner of the galaxy?
R2-D2: (Beeps once or twice, then rolls Leia’s distress message)
Obi-Wan: (Frowns) Looks like we’re headed to Alderaan.
(Scene.)

(Some time later…)
Luke arrives at Obi-Wan’s home, finds the door locked and no one home.
Luke: Well, we might as well go to Anchorhead and get your memory wiped.
C-3PO: Oh, very good, sir.