The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

No one wants McMansions

People who thought moving to far suburbs made economic sense in the 1990s and 2000s can't seem to sell their ugly, too-large houses:

"For most of the 1990s, if you looked at the geographic center of jobs in the Chicago area, it was moving steadily northwest, out from the city toward Schaumburg," homebuilding consultant Tracy Cross says. Like the corporate campuses that popped up in that era, the houses were often built big.

A generation later, tastes for both have faded: Corporations have shifted their offices to downtown Chicago in unprecedented numbers, and once-stylish suburban luxury homes are derided as McMansions. Affluent people now show a well-documented preference for living in or near the city, a preference that's fueling the vigor in the high-rise condo market downtown as well as in Bucktown and in Wilmette, among other places.

Phil Chiricotti felt the double-barreled blast when he sold his home in Burr Ridge. Chiricotti, who was a retirement-planning executive, built the four-bedroom, 6,800-square-foot home on 77th Street in 2002, "when Tuscan-style homes were what everybody was doing," he says. The house has arches, columns and balconies made of stone.

"I had murals painted in that house, I had exotic Romanesque stenciling done," Chiricotti says. "Everyone told me my taste was spectacular. But the operating costs to live in that house were $25,000 a year." He put the house on the market in 2009, asking just under $2.7 million, and sold it almost six years later at a real estate auction for $1.47 million.

("Exotic Romanesque stenciling?" Yes, that would qualify as spectacular taste, just not good taste.)

Schaumburg, Ill., is about 50 km northwest of the Loop in western Cook and norther DuPage Counties. It spreads west from I-290 along a spiderweb of ugly strip-mall-encrusted stroads, and contains a giant mall and a huge IKEA. The village adopted, without irony, "Progress Through Thoughtful Planning" as its motto when it incorporated in 1956, and then thoughtfully planned winding residential roads without sidewalks that appeal to people who drive to their mailboxes.

I've joked before that "Schaumburg" is German for "Why would anyone live in this town." (It actually translates to "foam town," which amuses me.) Schaumburg epitomizes Suburbistan to me: a place that tries to take the best parts of rural and urban life and, missing the point entirely, creates something entirely horrific instead. A place where no one really wants to live.

These sad people paid millions for houses so ugly they don't so much rebuke good design as represent the antithesis of design itself, in suburbs so soulless just writing about them makes me want to clap on one and three. So this news fills me with a feeling described by another German word: Schadenfreude.

In other news...Therexit!

Burger King's brand implosion aside, other, more important news came out in the last couple of days:

  • This morning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced she would step down on June 7th, having lost the confidence of the right-wing crazies holding her majority together. The likely outcome of this will be Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is actually less popular than May, forcing a general election through incompetence by the August bank holiday.
  • The heads of NOAA and NASA have raised the alarm that the proposed 24 GHz frequency band proposed for 5G wireless will mask the existing 23.8 GHz frequency of passive microwave energy which weather forecasting systems need to actually forecast weather.
  • Since February 2017, when he took his first of over a hundred golf trips as president, Donald Trump has cost us more than $100 million playing golf.
  • San Francisco's KPIX-TV Broadcast Operations Manager Eliot Curtis apparently gave himself an LSD trip while repairing a 1960s-era synthesizer.

Must be Friday.

What. The. Fuck?

Burger King has decided to embrace the suck:

Sir, this was a Burger King commercial. Part of a partnership with the nonprofit Mental Health America — as well as an unsubtle dig at the McDonald’s Happy Meal — the nearly two-minute “short film” promotes a limited-time, select-city product called “Real Meals,” which correspond to a customer’s “real” mood: Blue, Salty, Pissed, DGAF and YAAAS. In place of information about where to seek help if you’re experiencing feelings of depression, which would usually appear at the end of a public-service announcement, title cards explain: “No one is happy all the time. And that’s O.K.,” followed by an image of each of the Real Meals, jarring pops of color after the gloomy video. (No matter which mood you announce to the cashier taking your order, or to the touch screen that has replaced her, each box contains the same thing: a Whopper, fries and a drink.)

Insulting both the customer and the product might seem like a bad strategy for selling stuff. But it’s consonant with a broader shift in advertising, fueled by social media, whereby brands have felt compelled to veer dramatically off-script and imitate the most attention-seeking people online: Netflix recently ranted on Twitterabout the sexist connotations of the term “chick flicks”; inspired by a negative comparison, Vita Coco threatened to send one hater a jar of urine; Steak-umm has cultivated a bizarre, meme-fluent Twitter presence that breaks the fourth wall to discuss the difficulty of social media marketing and refers to the company’s core product as “frozen beef sheets.” All this antiadvertising has succeeded in doing is making our world feel yet more corporatized. Even our friends’ cheerful recommendations for miracle skin-care products or life-changing apps can sound as if there’s something in it for them. Everywhere is an Arby’s, sir.

“Life sucks — you might as well eat Burger King” is a reasonable attitude for an individual to espouse in this situation. ... [But] Burger King is not a person; life sucks at least in part because of Burger King.

I hope this trend stops soon. Of course, having studied marketing in a data-oriented school, I can tell you that no one really knows if marketing works. So Burger King and the other brands taking these bizarre turns in marketing will continue to do so because they won't have any data telling them not to.

I keep thinking of Robert Heinlein's novel Friday, in which Heinlein's own expy says this: "A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot."

Who we honor

In a move that surprised no one but disappointed millions anyway, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told Congress yesterday that the Treasury has put on hold plans to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 note until President Trump leaves office:

Plans to unveil the Tubman bill in 2020, an Obama administration initiative, would be postponed until at least 2026, Mr. Mnuchin said, and the bill itself would not likely be in circulation until 2028.

Until then, bills with former President Andrew Jackson’s face will continue to pour out of A.T.M.s and fill Americans’ wallets.

Mr. Mnuchin, concerned that the president might create an uproar by canceling the new bill altogether, was eager to delay its redesign until Mr. Trump was out of office, some senior Treasury Department officials have said. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump criticized the Obama administration’s plans for the bill.

When Republicans and other propagandists say that the "media" frame perfectly innocuous behavior such that it makes President Trump look like a racist asshole when in fact he isn't, things like this remind us that the facts have an anti-Trump bias.

So, to recap, the administration won't go through with plans to change the portrait on the $20 note from a slave-holding, genocidal, ignorant hick who cheated his way into public office, to a former slave who led hundreds of other slaves to freedom and helped drive slavery off the continent. And the best reason Mnuchin can give for the decision is that Treasury "was now focused on enhancing the anti-counterfeiting security features of the currency."

Let's all do what we can to make sure the President and Mnuchin all leave office in January 2021.

Newest national park is closest to Chicago

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, just 50 km from downtown Chicago, became Indiana Dunes National Park in February:

Supporters of the switch, who have watched the proposal ebb and flow like Lake Michigan along the shoreline over the past few years, said they are excited by the change and hope the already popular attraction draws even more people, particularly those who make it a point to visit designated national parks.

Operations at the park, other than a change in signs, won’t be any different, said Paul Labovitz, park superintendent.

“There’s no real budget implications but perceptually, the change will probably result in more attention and more investment outside the park,” he said, adding the National Park Service also may invest more in the park’s infrastructure over time.

Also upping its marketing will be the South Shore Line, which is working on plans to encourage more people from Chicago, Michigan and Indiana to come check out the park using commuter rail, Nicole Barker, director of capital investment and implementation, said in an email.

“Thanks to the South Shore Line’s Bikes on Trains program, which allows bicycles on select off-peak trains, it is easier than ever to come visit the dunes by bike,” Barker said.

Trains from Chicago's Millennium Station to the Dune Park station take about 80 minutes and cost $9 each way.

Not Norway's best export

Due to climate change and gentrification, rat sightings in North America have gone up:

New York has always been forced to coexist with the four-legged vermin, but the infestation has expanded exponentially in recent years, spreading to just about every corner of the city.

Rat sightings reported to the city’s 311 hotline have soared nearly 38 percent, to 17,353 last year from 12,617 in 2014, according to an analysis of city data by OpenTheBooks.com, a nonprofit watchdog group, and The New York Times. In the same period, the number of times that city health inspections found active signs of rats nearly doubled.

Milder winters — the result of climate change — make it easier for rats to survive and reproduce. And New York’s growing population and thriving tourism has brought more trash for rats to feed on.

Chicago — crowned the nation’s rat capital in one study — has more than doubled its work crews dedicated to rats, who set out poison and fill in burrows in parks, alleys and backyards. It also passed ordinances requiring developers and contractors to have a rat-control plan before demolishing buildings or breaking ground on new projects.

Yah, thanks for that "rat capital" thing, New York Times.

Rats don't bother me, despite their urine often containing deadly bacteria. They clean up after us, feed crows and coyotes, and spread disease less than other local rodents. (Rabbits have made Parker sick a lot more often than rats.) And squirrels? Just ask a moose.

A road trip in search of perfect weather

Meteorologist Brian Brettschneider has figured out a road trip route that keeps you at a (normal) temperature of 21°C for a whole year:

For his data, Brettschneider pulled daily “normal” high temperatures from the National Centers for Environmental Information and Environment Canada. “Normals are a smoothed average of all days between 1981 and 2010,” he explains. He took temperatures from every weather station in the U.S. and Canada and “just connected the dots,” he says. “There were some decisions I made to maximize area and connectivity.”

Forging a route was no easy task, as weather stations hit normal high temperatures of 70 degrees over vast amounts of time and space. This visualization gives an indication of how America’s daily 70-degree highs shift throughout the year:

Might be a fun retirement trip. And it only requires driving 21,295 km.

More Game of Thrones commentary

The TV show's finale even got political commentator Ross Douthat to comment:

Two of the most successful completed sagas of the last 20 years, Robin Hobb’s Farseer novels and Tad Williams’s “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” balance political machinations that would be at home in Shakespeare’s histories and larger world stories about the death and life of magic. And the promise of George R.R. Martin’s saga was that it might, in its somewhat pulpy way, offer the most successful integration yet, with a political and social world rich enough to feel like a piece of 14th- and 15th-century history they forgot to teach in school, with a chivalric order breaking down and a commercial and technological order waiting to be born … except that in this world, the dragons and the prophecies and fair folk won’t go gently into the good night.

Martin has not delivered on this promise, of course, because he hasn’t delivered a new novel in his saga in eight long years. But now, in the disappointment with the show’s finale and final seasons, he has an example of what not to do.

In its rush to finish, the show effectively lost sight of both reasons for fantasy’s appeal. The showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, seemed bored with and embarrassed by the magical element of the saga, hustling through the supernatural stuff and declining to explain crucial motivations and purposes, in order to get back to the political material … but then their haste also deprived the political plot of its sociological complexity, its ripped-from-the-pages-of-history plausibility, that was necessary to make the horror and catharsis of the early seasons work.

They either didn’t understand what made Martin’s books distinctive, or they found the synthesis of genre elements too difficult once they went beyond his finished books. And so the show’s ending embodied many of the dismissive clichés about fantasy, rather than representing the genre come of age.

A knowledgeable insider I spoke with yesterday provided a different take. He said that DB & D (as people in the industry refer to them) had an entire writing staff who, one assumes, read the Internet. And they also had GRRM in the room. And they had a budget. And they still managed to land the most epic television series in history without crashing the plane.

And what about the books?

Winding up a story takes a lot of effort. Getting one on TV takes even more. I think even the haters will miss this one soon.

On the other hand, next week brings us the Deadwood movie on HBO, Good Omens on Amazon, and...one hopes...summer in Chicago. So I think we'll survive.

How to get rid of religious nutters

Short answer: use their medieval beliefs against them:

Ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel have held protests against the scheduling of the Eurovision Song Contest on the Jewish Sabbath.

At one point, a small number of women held a counter protest, showing their bras.

You see, Jewish crazies believe in modesty to the point where women can't even show their real hair in public (they wear wigs). Their rules also prohibit them from touching members of the opposite sex not related to them, leaving open the option of a small group of women approaching them Romero-style with their arms out threatening to touch the zealots. I expect that's the next counter-protest.

Closer to home, production companies have started to flee the previously-burgeoning film industry in Georgia after the state passed a 19th-century anti-abortion law, and Missouri's new law has forced me to reconsider my planned trip to Busch Stadium in September.

Speaking of unexpected rulers...

As interesting as Game of Thrones has been, yesterday's news at City Hall actually has more relevance to the world we live in. Lori Lightfoot took office as our 56th mayor—and our first black, female mayor, and our first openly gay mayor:

Lightfoot bluntly promised to restore integrity to a city government and City Council that has at times been hobbled by allegations against some of its highest-ranking members. Her fiery speech drew numerous standing ovations from a raucous crowd, but also potentially set the stage for future conflict with aldermen as they prepare to jointly tackle some of the city’s other lingering problems — massive budget shortfalls and endemic violent crime.

“For years, they’ve said Chicago ain’t ready for reform. Well, get ready because reform is here,” Lightfoot said in her inaugural address. “I campaigned on change, you voted for change, and I plan to deliver change to our government. That means restoring trust in our city’s government and finally bringing some real integrity to the way this city works.”

During an approximately half-hour speech, Lightfoot drew from Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks and called for citywide unity in addressing public safety, education, financial stability and “integrity” — a reference to Chicago’s infamous corruption.

Lightfoot also drew a standing ovation when she noted that the election of Melissa Conyears-Ervin as treasurer and Anna Valencia as clerk marks the first time Chicago’s three citywide positions are held by women of color.

“Children who look like me and come from families like mine shouldn’t have to beat the odds to get an education, pursue their passions, or build a family,” Lightfoot said. “Black and brown kids, low-income kids, every kid in this city should grow up knowing they can pursue anything, they can love anyone — that’s my Chicago dream.”

I'm looking forward to her administration. How will she deal with the Council? Will we get an elected school board? How high will my taxes go? It'll be an interesting four years.