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February 2010 Archives

A tsunami of e-books?

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Independent bookstore owners are tracking the arrival of e-books the way geophysicists and meteorologists in Pacific nations spent the weekend watching for tsunamis from the earthquake in Chile. Their fear is that cheap electronic titles could wash away sales of traditional books.

"I am afraid of the e-book," says Allison Platt, who owns Bookie's Paperbacks & More on the Southwest Side.

"Be very afraid," echoes Leslie McLean, who works at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka.

Property tax bills get later and later

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On Tuesday (County offices are closed Monday for Casimir Pulaski Day), the first installment of Cook County property taxes is due.
In Cook County, property taxes are paid twice a year. The first deadline is March 1, unless that falls on a weekend or holiday.

Trashing teachers online is trashy itself

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Disrespect by students toward teachers -- and, for that matter, toward other students -- is a big enough problem in our schools. Sun-Times columnist John Fountain made just that point on Thursday.

The last thing we need now is students setting up Websites and Facebook pages to carry the disrespect that much further, organizing entire cyberspace campaigns of ridicule toward a teacher.

And to those defenders of such students who say they're just exercising their constitutional right to free speech, please. We're guessing they've never been teachers.

We're all for free speech. Without the First Amendment, this newspaper and every newspaper would be Pravda, the old Soviet Union rag that never dared to venture beyond the Communist Party line.

But we're talking about high school kids. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed, in numerous cases usually involving a principal's censoring of a student newspaper, that free speech for minors works best with training wheels.

Neanderthal rights? Send in the clones

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While the rest of us are debating who has a right to free CTA rides, some scientists are struggling with a more esoteric question: What rights do Neanderthals have?

Lori Andrews, a professor of law at Chicago-Kent and an internationally known expert on biotechnologies, says the question is becoming more relevant as technological advances bring closer the day when cloning Neanderthals would be possible, if not necessarily wise or ethical.


The Associated Press had a great story this week about General Motors employees who, rather than lose their jobs and health insurance when their hometown GM plant closed, now commute hundreds of miles to out-of-state plants.

For instance, there's Michael Hanley, of Janesville, Wis., who drives more than 1,000 miles to and from his job in Kansas every weekend. During the week, he shares an apartment with other GM workers. Hanley says he does it so that his wife won't lose her health insurance as she battles a medical condition that will likely evolve into cancer. But the trade-off is being an absentee dad to his kids.

Vignettes about Hanley and the other GM workers who followed their jobs out of town highlight the extraordinary sacrifices people are making to avoid joining the ranks of the unemployed and uninsured.

Read the story here.

Real story of pearls worth going Gaga over

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Pearls were in the news recently when Lady Gaga showed up at a New York benefit decked out in hundreds of the luminescent orbs.

A more interesting story of pearls, though, can be found in Iowa author Stephen G. Bloom's new book: Tears of Mermaids: Tracking the Secret of Pearls (St. Martin's Press).

To research the book, Bloom worked as a pearling deckhand in the Timor Sea and tromped through Philippine jungles, tracking the hopscotch world pearl route from creation to consumption.

Poetry magazine Free Lunch ends its run

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There's sad news in the world of poetry: the twice-a-year magazine Free Lunch: A Poetry Miscellany has printed its last issue.

Free Lunch, published in Glenview by the nonprofit Free Lunch Arts Alliance, had two great ideas. One was that it attempted to give all serious poets in the United States a free subscription (at last count that number had passed 1,200). The other was that the editor, Ron Offen - a poet who knows how discouraging an unexplained rejection can be - tried to comment on all submitted poems, even if he didn't have space to run them.

Among the many poets who had a forum in Free Lunch's pages during its 21 years were Stuart Dybek, David Hernandez, Neal Bowers, Jared Carter, Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn, Dave Etter, Donald Hall, Lyn Lifshin, Eve Merriam, Robert Peters, David Ray, F. D. Reeve, Cathy Song and Barry Sparks.

Some help for exonerated inmates

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In recent years, things have been getting a little bit better for prison inmates who are suddenly released because they are innocent, although it's far from enough.

Loyola University Chicago, for example, has set up the Life After Innocence Project. It's headed by Laura Caldwell, who is both a lawyer and author of popular crime mysteries (her latest trilogy features Izzy McNeil, a sassy red-headed lawyer from Chicago). The project helps people like Dean Cage, who was falsely imprisoned in 1996 for rape. He spent 14 years in prison.

Shani Davis and hometown pride

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There's nothing like a hometown win.

Chicago got a huge one last night -- a repeat gold medal for South Sider Shani Davis in men's 1,000-meter speedskating.

A few weeks ago, in preparation for the Olympics, I went to the Robert Crown Center rink in Evanston to channel a little Shani. Though a South Sider, Davis grew up skating at that public rink and the sight of a banner honoring him -- "Home of Shani Davis" -- helped me feel, in a small but powerful way, a part of the Olympics.

Normal people, not just superstars, can make it the Olympics.

So last night, when Davis captured his gold, this normally reserved and impartial observer of the world shouted with glee -- "Way to go, Shani!"

It's parochial, maybe even small-minded to root for a guy just because he's from your town.

But when you've got a winner on your hands, how can you possibly hold back?

Thanks for the victory, Shani.

More people check out their libraries

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Richard E. Combs, onetime chief librarian at the Northbrook and Gary public libraries and head of the Chicago Public Library's Cultural Center, used to call libraries, "the people's university."

Combs meant that even for people who didn't have the time or money to study on a campus, libraries offered a great opportunity for learning.

On Tuesday, Chicago Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey told us that libraries in the metropolitan region are busier than ever.

"As the economy has become more and more difficult, more and more people are coming to public libraries, and certainly we are seeing that in Chicago," Dempsey said.

And it's not just for books. Last year, the Chicago Public Library provided 3.8 million free one-hour Internet sessions. In all, the library served more than 12 million people.

That was last year. This year, Chicago library use was up 6 percent in January over a year earlier, Dempsey said.

"We are seeing higher numbers already," she said.

Sarah Long, executive director of the North Suburban Library System, told us people are using libraries "in record numbers."

Patrons are saving money by checking out books instead of buying them, unemployed people are using library resources to help in their job searches. Children are showing up to do their homework. A 2009 American Libraries Association report found 76 percent of Americans had visited their public library in the past year compared with 65 percent a year earlier.

For years, some people have predicted that the library's importance to a community would wane as more people got their information electronically.

Someone forgot to tell the libraries - and their patrons.

When is good fun just plain mean?

The event of the month in Chicago for fans of really bad movies was the midnight screening last weekend of a new cult classic, "The Room," at the Music Box theater.

"The Room" is a "freakish mesh of incompetencies," in the words of Sun-Times film critic Bill Stamets. It's the unintended joke of a strange dude with an indecipherable accent, Tommy Wiseau, who is the film's producer, writer, director and star -- or, as he has described his character -- "the stud."

"The Room, first screened in Los Angeles in 2003, originally was billed as a serious film about a bank employee, Johnny, who is betrayed by his girlfriend and his best friend. But when critics mocked the movie, Wiseau and his marketing team repositioned it as an intentional "black comedy." It's not. It's just one of the worst commercially-released films ever, with wooden dialogue, horrible acting, plot lines that go nowhere and characters that come and go.

Now "The Room" is playing the midnight theater circuit, like "The Rocky Horror Show" and even "The Sound of Music," where the whole point for the audience is to openly mock and jeer what's up on the screen.

This can be fun when the film is "The Rocky Horror Show," which is supposed to be campy and silly, or when it's "The Sound of Music," a big fat corporate blockbuster with a celebrated soundtrack and plenty of sincere fans, even if the film hasn't aged especially well.

But "The Room"? Here we have something different. Here we have a small-budget film by a would-be serious artist, Wiseau, who honestly believed (and may still believe) that he had created something not just good, but profound. And when we, the fans of bad movies, showed up at the Music Box last weekend to revel in its incompetence, we actually were reveling in Wiseau's incompetence.

Which does not make me proud.

Adding to my squeamishness (I soon was sliding down in my eighth-row seat), Tommy Wiseau was there in person. He deflected the audience's mocking questions ("Tommy, why are you characters wearing tuxedos when they play football?") with a strangely misplaced laugh and a string of passive-aggressive non-answers (such as, to paraphrase: "Read the papers. There's your answer.")

Granted, Wiseau's making money on the movie, if not for any reason he intended. And he's semi-famous now, which seemed to delight him.

He reminded me of Rod Blagojevich -- happy to be famous, even if only for screwing up so publicly.

How sad for him.

And how sad for all of those snarky anti-fans, myself included for a night, who turn out to revel in his failure.

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