Lions, lambs

You know, the cougar-in-the-alley thing was funny, in a too-surreal-to-really-be-dangerous sort of way. Of course it was a serious situation — as having any alpha predator in your midst would be — but when you receive community news bulletins that start with “no doubt by now you all are aware of the 150-pound cougar that was on the loose in our neighborhood yesterday” you have to chuckle.

Well, the chuckling is over with the latest newsletter.

Tuesday afternoon, police officers brought to my attention a letter that they have received threatening the safety of Audubon’s students and community. The letter appears to have been written by someone angry about the shooting of the cougar in the neighborhood. The letter threatens the safety of Audubon students and makes threatening statements regarding the Spring Gala and the Audubon Family Fun Fair.

My children don’t attend Audubon, but it is right around the corner. It is being targeted because the first report of the lion in our neighborhood came from the school.

There’s been a minor kerfuffle since the shooting about whether the police acted rightly in killing the lion instead of trapping it or tranquilizing it. The city says that a wild lion in an enclosed area is a threat to public safety and that they did what they felt they had to do. Tranquilizers, they say, take time to act and require very precise insertion. And besides, they were not equipped for that.

It is true that there were dozens of shots fired, only a few of which hit the lion. And I admit that I don’t have a hard time envisioning a phalanx of adrenalized Chicago cops shooting with more abandon than perhaps warranted. But I have a fundamental problem with the criticism of what happened.

Cougars track humans in the wild. This is a fact. Cougars are predators; they’re strong; they can kill a man easily. Moreover, a cougar wandering through a city is clearly addled to begin with. Roscoe Village is a couple dozen square blocks full of hundreds of children under six-years-old. This is a very real threat.

To now have someone threaten the safety of children as retribution for killing the lion seems not only evil and stupid, but deeply ironic.

I’m kinda done with the cougar. Can we just enjoy the fact that it isn’t snowing outside?

Hakuna Matata in the Village

So it’s big news back home that Chicago police shot and killed a cougar in the alley not two blocks from my house. Coverage here.

A few years ago I was dropping some friends off and I am certain a coyote ran across the road. Others have claimed to see game like that in the city too, something about hungry animals following railroad tracks and the smell of human trash from the forest preserves.

But a cougar?! In the alley. God DAMN. Looks like I have trash duty from here on out, says thelovelywife.

So, Roscoe Village needs to capitalize on this, don’t you think? First thing to do is print up some t-shirts. Some slogan ideas.

Roscoe Village: Not All Our Cougars Are Middle-Aged Tramps

Roscoe Village: We Don’t Have a Rat Problem

Roscoe Village: Our Trash is Part of the Circle of Life

Submit yours today! And look twice in the alley.

Shattered lakefront

A fractured floe along the shore of Northerly Island in Chicago. Obviously the scene of much upheaval, but it was completely still the whole time I was there. My son asked if the waves themselves just froze in place.


Does anyone know what process causes this? Is the west coast of Lake Michigan where Mother Nature tries to sweep the shards of winter under the rug?

Snapshot of a summer day

Looks like Google Maps just did a refresh of Street View. Chicago proper has been available for a while, but they’ve just added most of my neighborhood, Roscoe Village. The shots were clearly taken on a beautiful day this summer. A little gift as we hunker down for even more winter weather. I haven’t seen the sidewalk through the snow in weeks.

View Larger Map

Let’s start at the west end of my street where the Four Treys Tavern announces “Hey This Is a Party Block” to entrants (also the scene of the flaming garbage truck). Apparently the Four Treys has been on this spot since 1887. It’s a bit out of whack with the style of other bars in the area, a throw-back to earlier incarnations of the neighborhood. Part biker bar, part karaoke bar, part never-really-left-the-1970’s bar. Why the “Four Treys”, you ask? Location: 3333 N. Damen. (Took me, oh, two years to figure that out.)

Proceeding eastward down Henderson you encounter a typical streetscape of mostly single-family homes, part of the urban grid of 25′ x 125′ lots. My neighborhood restricts height to three stories except in a very few special cases. Basically no one towers over anyone else, sunlight is equitably distributed (or, more accurately, equitably not distributed) and the scale of the street stays mostly in line with the tops of the trees. It’s a charming block, a mixture of homes, a condo building or two, and renters. Jane Jacobs would be proud.

Interestingly, it is possible to date this panorama almost exactly without leaving the block. This is first because of the presence of MySweetRide on the south side of Henderson. (A dark blue/gray Honda Accord. Who can spot her?) Using my car’s Twitter archive I see that she was parked in this exact spot on Sunday, July 1 and then again on Monday, August 27. My first thought was that it had to be July 1 because of the number of American flags hung out in from of houses and the fact there are so many cars on the street (i.e., not a work day).

But the proof is at the other end of the block. Two flimsy roadblocks lean against the last house on the north side of the street. These barricades were loaned from the alderman for our annual block party, held on Sunday, August 26. (Other evidence confirms that the GoogleMobile was in town in late August.)

It’s kinda fun sleuthing about various lifestream data points on the web like this. In all I consulted Street View, Twitter, Weather Underground, Google Calendar, and my own blog and archives to figure out merely when a photo was taken. (I could have told you what music I was listening to when this shot was taken, but it was not, in itself, relevant to the problem at hand.) It’d be great to have some kind of meta-aggregator for the data-wake one leaves moving through time.

But mostly the new view is just a comforting reminder of a lazy summer afternoon. I suspect I will be returning to it for the smile it brings a few more times this winter.


A couple of notes on Street View itself:

Never noticed this before, but there isn’t a single readable license plate I can find. I think Google has deliberately blurred every one of them. Amazing.

Would be great if you could link to specific orientation of the panorama like you can to a specific address.

How soon until you can annotate Street View like you can the maps themselves?

Aural decoration or, further adventures in filtering one’s music library

Last Saturday was our school fundraiser, an elaborate auction/party. One of those things you just don’t think as being a big deal until you have children in school. The amount of planning required is only slightly less ridiculous than the amount of money raised.

Last year when planning began I was appointed in absentia to be the “entertainment chair”, meaning the music guy. Naturally I envisioned myself on the decks slamming beats late into the night. But no, that wouldn’t do. Couldn’t really, as the focus needed to be on getting people to make outrageous bids for items, not crowded on a dance floor.

So I hired a band. Working with them put me right back in high school when playing keyboard in a band was pretty much the most important thing I had going. (You might remember such acts as The Jerks, Big Green Milk Truck, The Young Republicans, and Relativity. Wow, now there’s a blog post that needs writing.) I had to resist every urge not to rent a smoke machine, ’cause, I mean, who can rock out without a smoke machine?

Anyway. There was also the issue of “interlude” music, what to play from my iPod during times the band was not on. Easily the most challenging playlist I’ve ever put together. What exactly is the mood that you want to set at an auction? Classical, too stuffy. Country, wrong demographic. Classic rock, too retro. Jazz, maybe, but either you like it or you don’t. It was so much more difficult than I imagined. I needed an angle.

The city of Chicago helped me out. Apparently our local airports will soon play only music from bands from Chicago. They’re covering all the genres, but leaving out really upbeat stuff. No Pumpkins or Ministry, probably no R. Kelly. The reasoning is that people are already on edge at an airport and don’t need 160 BPM to push them off the cliff — a similar problem to my own, in a way.

So I sliced my music library by Chicago-based bands. There’s no tag for this, of course, so it was all manual.’s tags helped out immensely — but wouldn’t it be cool if could actually add biographical data to MP3 headers? I added “chicago” to the grouping tag for all this music and put together a smart playlist to segregate it.

Andrew Bird
Chicago Underground Trio
Exploding Star Orchestra
Kanye West
R Kelly
Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Smashing Pumpkins
Styx (huh?)
Sufjan Stevens (honorary, only for Illinois)

OK, fine, but that includes everything from Sir Georg Solti to Alain Jourgensen, neither appropriate. So, using Tangerine I generated a new playlist of Chicago-related band tracks between 100 and 145 beats-per-minute with medium intensity.


Lastly, I removed stuff that would, you know, upset those of fragile sensibility. Like, say Ministry’s Stigmata: “School families, silent auction table three closes in — cutting my face and walking on splinters, I lost my soul to the look in your eyes!!! — whoops, sorry. Next track.”

So what did I end up with? 239 tracks became 59, far more music than I needed. Full track list after the jump.

The method was dorky, both horribly imprecise and overly complex, and unknown to anyone that night. Yep, just right.

Next year: embedded subliminal messages. Bid more, you will bid more now!

Wintry remix

I notice that almost exactly one year ago I had a similar urge to post about how miserable winter had become. Well, it just got miserabler.

It started OK. We’ve had a snowier January than I can remember in many years. Which makes the several days of bitter cold at least aesthetically pleasing.

“Daddy, my eyelids are frozen shut.”

“I know, son, but if you could open them you’d find the streetscape very beautiful.”

The other upside of this dose of winter is learning the seemingly endless forms that water can take. Snow, ice, liquid, of course. Add to that list the intermediate states of sleet, slush, sneet, and snush. (Can’t forget thundersnow either.)


Photo by santheo

This morning as I went for a run I witnessed — indeed experienced — the most diabolical form yet. It only occurs when the thermometer is all over the place, warm enough for liquid water to stick around close to the ground yet cold enough for the water to freeze when exposed to the air.

What happens on the sidewalks is that certain squares of concrete that are askew and lower than grade fill with near-freezing water. A very thin layer of ice non-uniformly covers this water and looks distressingly like the textured surface of the sidewalk itself. So you never quite know if what you are about to step in is solid or liquid and (here’s the kicker) how deep it all is. To make it a real gauntlet-run the edges of the sidewalk are piled high with snow. So you get shoes soaken with water that is trying desperately to become ice. And a bonus: windblown ice pellets that impact the face like a fragmenting comet hitting the moon.

The ultimate indignity comes only on the coldest runs though. I wear a little hat with ear flaps that fasten under my chin. Even on subzero days one sweats when running and the sweat from my head channels down the flap-straps ending at the fastener. Slowly this saline sweat freezes and, as more and more pours off my head, a little icicle comes to form. By the end of, say, a six mile run I have an icicle several inches long swinging from side to side from my chin. Quite comical, a cross between Frosty the Snowman and Fu Manchu.

Did I mention we’re expecting the heaviest snowfall today in nine years?



Though I am not the author of this particular graffito I do agree. Typically when anything goes wrong in my life I blame house music.


In English graduate school my main focus was on technologies of writing, specifically the printing press. Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that I live right around the corner from the nursery (if not actual birthplace) of another such technology: the mechanical pencil.*


Our neigborhood of Roscoe Village in Chicago has seen its ups and downs over the decades. The latest up-cycle was begun in 1980 when the huge Eversharp Pencil Factory at Ravenswood and Roscoe was converted to residential condos, the largest industrial transformation of its kind in Chicago at the time, galvanizing re-development of the area. The Pencil Factory Lofts is an anomaly in our neighborhood of relatively low-density single-family homes, but I’m a little prouder of it each time I walk by now that I know its story.

In 1913 a chap from Bloomington, Illinois named Charles Keeran came up with the idea of fitting a metal stylus with replaceable lead inserts. This became the Eversharp mechanical pencil. He allied himself with Wahl Adding Machine Company (of Wahl clipper fame today — apparently someone else took the adding machine market around this time). In 1917 this partnership turned ugly when Wahl forced Keeran out and began marketing the pencils as Eversharp, a brand which continues to this day. Nearly all of these Pencils of the Future were churned out of the factory at Ravenswood and Roscoe.

In homage to the former life of the factory the developers of the loft painted giant pencils on the side of the water tank atop its roof. Actually they painted regular #2 pencils up there, presumably because mechanical pencils look a lot like pens and that would, you know, defeat the homage. But the tank isn’t there anymore. I went out to take a picture of it yesterday and I could not see it. Either I’m snowblind or it has been removed.

So, next time you use a mechanical pencil please pause to thank my humble neighborhood. Actually, does anyone use mechanical pencils anymore?

* It would have changed the world, too, if not for corrective paper fluid. Curse you Wite-Out!

How not to run a marathon

And I don’t mean the kind of running that takes two legs and an iron will. Yesterday the Chicago Marathon fell apart.

Among people who submit their bodies to long-distance running, the Chicago Marathon is consistently a favorite. Flat as a pancake, super-scenic, lined with cheering throngs, and great weather … well, usually. Yesterday the thermometer topped 88°F and it was disgustingly humid. A terrible day to run a marathon. An even worse day to run a marathon filled with first-timers and novices.

My wife ran about ten miles of the 26.2 as a unregistered supporter for a friend. Those ten miles were not continuous as she, like thousands of others, had to bow out at various points because the conditions were so brutal. People were dropping like flies. The omnipresent cheering that makes this race so much fun was accompanied almost the entire route by the sound of ambulance sirens.

The race organizers had a number of tough decisions to make yesterday. Run the race at all? When is enough enough? And, hardest of all, what to do for the runners who could clearly make it to the end?


Photo by BrokenBat

They let the race go off. The heat climbed fast. Discussion forums are alight with charges of empty water stations along the route* (and just as many saying they were stocked just fine). But clearly it was dangerous to let the race go on. At the halfway distance at about 11:30 (3.5 hours after the race started) runners were told to stop and were re-routed back to the start. Huge bummer for the participants, I’m sure, but if you’ve only run 13 miles in 3.5 hours something is clearly wrong so I don’t have a huge problem with this decision.

But then, shortly thereafter, around mile 20 police got on bullhorns: “Attention runners, the marathon has been canceled. You can stop running, now.” Can you imagine? If you’ve made it this far you’re going to want to finish. And can they really make you stop? They could close the course, but they can’t make you get off the sidewalks.

The organizers say this was done because of fear of the runners’ safety. Others are claiming that it is because the city was out of emergency service vehicles (402 people were hospitalized as of last night) — which of course is the same thing with a twist.

Either way, this is hugely disappointing to anyone who cares about a Chicago Olympics bid. If I were Mayor Daley I’d be livid. Every sporting event this city hosts from now until 2009 needs to be organized and run with laser-precision. We need to show the world that we can run a massive event and protect our athletes.

[*] And before you ask, no, my wife was not contributing to the water shortage. She was a bandit, but a bandit with her own refreshment.


On my stroll home with coffee today I was greeted by a paving truck and steamroller right in front of our house. I figured the city had finally sent a crew out to fix the gaping sinkhole in the street whose maw was slowly enlarging from Vespa-sized to VW Bug-sized. But no. They were there to pave over a small correction to a manhole.

All three of my kids (in pajamas) ran out to see Men Working With Construction Equipment and we had ourselves a little morning entertainment. Over the clamor, I gestured towards the sinkhole to the crew in the international sign language of “Um, you aren’t going to repair that obvious hazard?” They ignored me. So we brought them some bottles of Propel. The foremen yelled back “You didn’t see nothin’ here” and proceeded to back the dumptruck up to the hole and fill it in. Now, of course, there’s a structural problem under the street. The hole will simply degrade over time and suck in the new asphalt. But, hey, it is fixed for now with no extra bitching to the city to get it done.

This is how things are done in this city. Not saying it is right, just how it is. But I can imagine worse ways of getting things done.

This episode reminded me of a similar, though much more exciting, street scene from a few years back. I blogged it on another, private site, but copy it here for your pleasure.

Boys like trucks. Especially when it is a garbage truck on fire that is being doused by a fire truck right in front of our house. Oh the joy! My son and I were returning from breakfast and saw a garbage truck — in fact our garbage truck with our garbage men on it — with smoke pouring out of the back. A fire engine had just pulled up and the crew was unravelling the water hoses. Luckily this was right at the bar three houses down from us so we perched on the sidewalk bench and got a front row seat to a spectacle way cooler than anything we could have Tivo’ed.

Img 5984

But it got better. They started hosing down the truck, but seemingly could not find the source of the fire. What to do? Dump the entire load of trash on the street of course! YES! My son’s eyes were platter-sized as it all came crashing onto our street in a soaking, stanky, smouldering heap. This necessitated opening the fire hydrants. I think we might have applauded. You just can’t describe the feeling of watching smoking refuse wash down the gutter of your own street. They really started hosing the pile off and it seemed to work.

The best part was the coming together of such a fine group of Chicago Guyz. Firemen, Policemen, Garbagemen, and other city officials with no real role congregated and shot the breeze like this was an everyday occurence which, perhaps, it is. You just wanted to grab your crotch and say “fuck” watching these guys do their jobs.

To top it all off, one of the firemen beckoned my son to approach the Engine. Nevermind that there was still a fire in the middle of our street. Engineer Joe plopped hime in the driver’s seat of the truck. I was as happy as my boy was. Driving a fire truck is simply cool.

The only thing that would have made it even better is if a “scoop” — those of you with children who watch Bob the Builder will know what this is — arrived to clean up the crud. In fact after we took my son to camp, a scoop did arrive. Thelovelywife noted at the time that given the number of Union-mandated coffee and cig breaks for the city workers he might well make it home in time to see the scooping.

Ah, city life.