Discover more from Eric Zorn: The Picayune Sentinel
My grandfather was fired, and we couldn't be more proud of him
& What's the point of a suburban newspaper that doesn't cover its own suburb?
6-1-2023 (issue No. 90)
Eric Zorn is a former opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Find a longer bio and contact information here. This issue exceeds in size the maximum length for a standard email. To read the entire issue in your browser, click on the headline link above.
Happy June, the consensus choice for best month in Chicago.
I’m using the above logo this week in honor of the publisher of the original Picayune Sentinel, my grandfather, Max Zorn, who died 30 years ago. Tuesday, June 6, will be the 117th anniversary of his birth.
Back at my parents’ house over Memorial Day weekend, my father and I unearthed this mid-1933 item clipped from a German newspaper shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power.
With the help of some Facebook friends who can read Fraktur — the German typeface seen in the image above — I offer this rough translation:
Announcement from the State Teaching Authority
Department of University Education
In compliance with the Law of Reestablishment of State Workers, the following professors of science will be removed from their positions after July 31: Prof. Dr. Plaut from the Socio-economic Seminar, Prof. Dr. Türkheim from the Dental Institute, Prof. Dr. Werner from the Psychological Institute & Philosophical Seminar, and Dr. Estermann from the Institute of Physical Chemistry.
Also to be removed at the same time is the scientific support staff member Dr. Zorn from the Mathematical Seminar.
Max’s firing from the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg where he was a professor of mathematics was as honorable as firings get. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service had been passed by the Nazi regime in April of that year, and it targeted for dismissal those who held government-funded positions but who were not of Aryan descent, as well as members of the Communist Party who had opposed the rise of Hitler, such as my grandfather.
The purge at German universities affected “around one fifth of their academic staff,” according to “The Expulsion of Academic Teaching Staff from German Universities, 1933–45,” a 2021 article in the Journal of Contemporary History. “Approximately 80% were driven out on anti-Semitic grounds, even though less than a third belonged to the Jewish community. … Not until the second half of the war did leading German politicians and academic leaders recognise a further effect of this policy, namely that the emigration of numerous influential scholars had provided the Allies with a ‘considerable gain in potential’, including in highly significant military research.”
Max, my grandmother Alice and my father, then 3, fled the country a year later. He served a math fellowship at Yale University before taking professorships at UCLA and Indiana University. It was at IU that he began publishing the Picayune Sentinel, a mimeographed newsletter for his friends in higher mathematics which was not only the world’s smallest newspaper but also possibly the most arcane.
Here, for instance, is the impenetrable table of contents from the Oct. 27, 1988, edition published under the subheading “Festina lente,” meaning “make haste slowly.”
Statistician hunts event of probability zero / Splendid spontaneous reaction by Swain Hall Library / Wichita misses steak, does not know what to do without / Andrew teaches old horse exponential map.
And here is the lead sentence: “About the Blaschke invariant, which, for all I know may be the Blasche-Terheggen invariant: It is an affair of PU; points of a space are rays.”
At the bottom: “Read Picayune Sentinel! The cheapest sanity test there is.”
In that spirit, here is this week’s table of contents for the revived and hopefully less obscure Picayune Sentinel:
Value signaling — I would never call this “virtue.”
Land of Linkin’ — Where I tell readers where to go
What not to get the father who has everything— A wallet or a tie (or a butter churn)
Race to the slop — An update on the possibility that the Oakland A’s will have a historically awful record this season.
Re:Tweets — Featuring the winner of the visual tweets poll and this week’s finalists
Tune of the Week — “Keweenaw Light”
Mary Schmich is off this week
Last week’s winning tweet
A week ago my mother-in-law began reading “The Exorcist.” She said it was the most evil book she ever read. So evil she couldn’t finish it. She took it to the beach and threw it off the pier. I went and bought another copy, ran it under the tap and left it on the bedside table in her room.
A reader blasted this tweet, which is of unknown origin, as a joke at the expense of often unfairly reviled mothers-in-law. I disagreed — our exchange is here.
Oak Leaves leaves Oak Park
I sent the following letter to Rhonda Gillespie, the news editor of the Oak Leaves, a suburban weekly newspaper.
My eye was caught by a May 25 Facebook post from Chicago Public Square editor Charlie Meyerson of Oak Park:
“This makes me profoundly sad, because it has been a great resource—staffed by wonderful people (including (my son) Ben Meyerson!)—over the decades, but: I’ve just canceled our roughly 40-year subscription to the Tribune-owned Oak Park Oak Leaves—which, by my count today, contains NOT ONE news story about Oak Park. .. … but lots of recycled stories from the NYT and the Tribune—to which I also subscribe.”
Charlie uploaded the entire 40-page issue to me so I could see for myself, and indeed he was more or less correct. One out of the 14 items in the “How to celebrate summer” feature lists an Oak Park event (the “A Day in Our Village” event June 4) and two out of 51 items in the “Community Calendar” listing highlight events in Oak Park.
I count 14 Oak Park listings in the agate type real-estate transfers and 19 entries in the police blotter column (including a report of the theft of a polo shirt valued at $15). But that’s it.
What’s the argument you make to Oak Park residents to subscribe to the Oak Leaves?
Wisely, Gillespie referred my question to “higher-ups,” so I forwarded my letter to Tribune Publisher Par Ridder, the name above hers on the masthead. Ridder typically ignores my emails, and this was no exception.
Support local journalism, yes, but only when it supports you.
If I lived in Oak Park, I’d read the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, which offers many stories about the village and not a lot of stories from Buffalo Grove and Arlington Heights, as featured on the Oak Leaves cover above.
Community journalism and the threat of AI
Speaking of local publications, Chicago Public Square last week highlighted an extraordinary essay by Justin Kerr, publisher of the McKinley Park News. In “Why I’ll Quit Publishing the McKinley Park News” Kerr wrote of ways in which artificial intelligence threatens his and other community news outlets.
(For reference, McKinley Park is a neighborhood about 5 miles southwest of downtown, and the McKinley Park News is an online news site that gets 100,000 page views from 30,000 unique users every month.)
From our beginning, I’ve rigorously protected our original content and service from unauthorized use: everything from ejecting attempted spammers from our membership rolls to placing on every page of our website a copyright notice and link to our terms of service, which clearly define what’s allowed and what’s not.
One explicitly prohibited use is unauthorized access to and employment of our service for training of automation systems, informing machine learning or algorithms, integration into large language models, or any of the other technologies currently falling under the rubric of “AI.”
Imagine my despair — but perhaps not my surprise — when I discovered the McKinley Park News had seemingly been hoovered en mass into multiple large language models, all without asking permission, providing notice, or offering any remuneration.
In case you don’t know, large language models (or “LLMs”) grab monstrous amounts of content from the Internet to build human-seeming responses based on the statistical chances of word relationships. They’re the basis for a new way users will interact with interfaces, as well as the seed for an arms race among the biggest players and upstarts in the tech industry, supported by billions of dollars in profits and funding.
However, not a cent of this money is going to local news publishers like the McKinley Park News, despite the reliance on our content to build and power these commercial products and services. It doesn’t matter that we’re just a tiny part of the whole: Given the uniqueness of our content, I’ll bet any McKinley Park neighborhood AI query will rely on the McKinley Park News to provide an answer.
We won’t even get any web traffic, eyeballs or audience benefit from AI’s theft of our content, since its users stay inside its interface. There’s simply no reason to visit a local news website anymore: “Hey AI, tell me all about the top stories the McKinley Park News reported on this week.” …
I’m infuriated about the current state of affairs, and I’m ready to fight! I hope that other publishers and creators want to as well. Please reach out through this website’s communication channels or via my contact information email@example.com (312) 560-1115). I’d like to start getting like-minded publishers, creatives and other allies together for action.
If this situation is not remedied, there will be simply no reason for me to continue publishing the McKinley Park News, writing neighborhood journalism, or trying to launch my own local news business. Everything I publish will be stolen and used against me in rival interfaces and products I’ll never be able to compete against.
Kerr posted a follow-up news release Wednesday — “Chicago Newspapers Join Fight Against AI’s Theft of Local News” — noting that Inside Publications and the Illinois Press Association have expressed solidarity with his view.
News & Views
News: Protesters from the left and the right are threatening boycotts of stores and brands that don’t or do express solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
View: The antipathy with which many on the right regard members of this too-often marginalized community is baffling. A Pride display at a Target store or a rack of
”You Are Loved” rainbow dog toys at PetSmart isn’t going to alter the sexual orientation or gender identity of anyone, but it just might increase their acceptance and understanding of innate differences in people, differences that do others no harm.
Sure, there are debates on the margins about trans girls in sports and the wisest course of medical treatment for trans kids, but we ought to be able to have those debates without the overlay of hatred, fear and mockery.
Boycotts are seldom effective, but businesses that knuckle under to anti-LGBTQ protests don’t deserve your patronage.
News: Several area community groups have cancelled their summer festivals fearing a repeat of the mayhem that struck the Tinley Park Armed Forces Weekend Carnival in mid-May.
View: I understand the impulse, but it’s a mistake to let marauding teens win. An estimated 400 kids formed a flash mob at the Tinley Park event and sowed so much chaos that officials shut the event down one day early — but the long-term answer to this problem is not surrender but better security.
News: After one of the most contentious City Council meetings in recent memory, the alders voted 34-13 to spend $51 million to aid asylum-seeking immigrants from Central America
View: What choice do decent residents of a decent city have? Let these desperate people who are not in Chicago by choice go without food, shelter or medical care? Of course not. But I sympathize with those who argue that scarce city resources ought first be directed to at-risk people and struggling communities who have lived here for years and whose needs have not been met with nearly such alacrity.
Providing for asylum seekers should not be a city problem or even a state problem, but a national problem addressed with federal dollars.
*AB stands for Anheuser-Busch, brewers of Bud Light, Stella Artois and other varieties of suds. Bud Light has been the source of right-wing protests over its partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney.
Land of Linkin’
Stephanie Zimmerman’s Sun-Times feature “‘Shrinkflation’ still hitting store shelves: Many food and household products have shrunk in size — and aren’t likely to get bigger.” has links to two bookmarkable sites, ConsumerWorld and Mouseprint, that expose marketing shenanigans and offer consumer tips. Both are run by former Massachusetts assistant attorney general Edgar Dworsky. “Mouseprint” refers to the fine print that often contains consumer-unfriendly information.
“Chicago cops with histories of lying, making false reports, remain on the force. Why?” is a strong editorial in the Tribune: “These aren’t little white lies. These officers were lying about police brutality, about racist treatment of Black youths, and doing so on police reports and to officials with the department’s internal affairs division along with COPA and the Police Board. Officers who lie compromise prosecutions of criminal cases and make the city even more vulnerable to lawsuits and multimillion-dollar settlements and judgments.
Most of all, officer untruthfulness erodes the already fragile trust that communities, particularly those in Black and brown neighborhoods, have in law enforcement. When that trust fades, violent neighborhoods become even more unsafe.”
Should teachers and other public school personnel have parking reserved for them on public streets? An overwhelming percentage of PS readers share the same opinion on this question.
The Wired article, “How Google Docs Proved the Power of Less — The software transformed the field of word processors by eliminating features, not adding them. But it never mustered the will to truly dominate,” does not address my biggest beef with the program and the reason I still rely mostly on Microsoft Word: It’s lack of a simple, graceful, intuitive outlining feature.
“This Reddit Thread Of Camouflaged Insults Will Replenish Your Supply Of Snark.” Including, “It's impressive how you manage to stay so confident,” “It's hard to underestimate you” and “I will give your suggestion all of the consideration that it deserves.”
“Ever wonder what the rest of the Mona Lisa looks like? … Here's what the backgrounds of the most famous paintings in the world look like with AI”
“The Rise of the Newsletters: Never mind the digital media bloodbath — journalists are ditching legacy brands in favor of subscriber newsletters and independent start-ups.” (Women’s Wear Daily) “With modest overhead — skeleton staffs, few brick-and-mortar offices and a paucity of health insurance plans — and seed money from venture firms or friends and family, (journalists-turned-newsletter writers) have set out to entice like-minded readers to pay for their work.”
The Picayune Sentinel preview: Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. I talk with WGN-AM 720 host John Williams about what’s making news and likely to be grist for the PS mill. The WGN listen-live link is here.
Please, family, no wallets or ties on Father’s Day
Former Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel posted this to Facebook last week:
Wondering why my feed is filled— I mean filled — with ads for wallets that allegedly will hold all your credit cards in a non-bulky fashion.
First, only Luddites carry more than a couple three cards. Most people I know pay via apps anyway. In a few years, your driver's license can be stored on your phone; No physical card required.
If you're running out of Father's Day gift ideas, trust me, this isn't it. You might as well get dad a butter churn.
True. My wallet is stuffed with cards that carry information that could far more easily be stored digitally and increasingly can be. I carry a wallet primarily because Illinois is not yet one of the states where police accept digital replicas of driver’s licenses.
The only downside to having everything stored on your phone is that phones are frequently the target of thieves and will be until our tech gurus create a system in which a stolen phone is worth no more than the metal and glass used to make it.
To Phil’s advisory I will add a warning about neckties as Fathers Day gifts. Most men have dozens more than they will ever use again. Ties were already fading from common use before 2020, but the dramatic rise of working from home during the pandemic accelerated the trend, as Atlantic writer Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell observed in 2021:
Many men who once felt bound to wear ties have shown up on Zoom each day wearing polos or even T-shirts. Now that they have tasted freedom from the necktie—and have seen their colleagues, clients, and bosses doing the same—how can they ever go back to working with their necks encumbered? …
Ties as an everyday accessory have certainly taken a hit, from which they’re unlikely to recover fully. The deeper functions that ties have long provided—such as social signaling and personal expression—will be absorbed by other garments. But ties will continue to be worn on the most formal occasions, and as quirky accoutrements for the self-consciously old-fashioned or whimsical. In other words, neckties are the new bow ties.
Race to the slop
Update on the Oakland A’s chances of being the worst team in big-league baseball’s modern era (since 1900). That mark currently belongs to the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who finished 36-117 — a winning percentage of .235.
After Wednesday afternoon’s 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, the A’s were 12-46 — a winning percentage of .207 a little more than a third of the way through the season.
Last Thursday, the team stood at 10-41 — a winning percentage of .196. So I guess they’re trending up!
Journalists: Stop these usages immediately!
I cringe whenever I read a passage like this in a news story “Joe Btfsplk could not immediately be reached for comment.”
There is a suggestion of petulant impatience in the notion that people should be waiting around by their phones or constantly checking their email in case a reporter is seeking comment. It prompts the reader to ask, “Who the hell do you think you are that someone should be available immediately to talk to you?”
Better to put the information in the active voice and strike a more neutral tone, as in, "The Bugle reached out to Joe Btfsplk for comment Wednesday afternoon but did not hear back by deadline.” Maybe even specify the nature of the outreach — “by phone, email and text” or “through intermediaries.”
U ought to know better
It’s been some 40 years that the University of Chicago has preferred “UChicago” over “U. of C.” as a shorthand way of referring to the school, yet headline writers and higher-education reporters continue to use the old terminology.
The change dates from 1982, when University of Illinois at Chicago Circle became University of Illinois Chicago and it became too easy for listeners to confuse “UIC” with “U. of C.”
Austin Berg, Brandon Pope and I joined host John Williams for this week’s episode of “The Mincing Rascals.” I responded with skepticism to the importance of the claim that Memorial Day weekend was the most violent since 2016. Austin referenced “What can we really learn about housing from Vienna? Mostly that it's good to build more housing,” by Matt Yglesias, and “At Chicago’s City Council, Committees Are Used to Reward Political Favors and Fund Patronage,” by Mick Dumke.
Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. Or bookmark this page. If you’re not a podcast listener, you can hear an edited version of the show at 8 p.m. most Saturday evenings on WGN-AM 720.
In Tuesday’s paid-subscriber editions, I present my favorite tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the classic Tweet of the Week contest in which the template for the poll does not allow the use of images. Subscribers vote for their favorite, and I post the winner here every Thursday:
The new nominees for Tweet of the Week:
Never say never. Unless someone asks you when you want to go camping. — @AbbyHasIssues
Taylor Swift: Hey, could you make dinner tonight? Taylor Swift’s Boyfriend: Aw, babe, I’m really tired. Taylor Swift: (making direct eye contact, slowly reaching for her guitar). Taylor Swift’s Boyfriend: I’ll go check the fridge. — @PopeAwesomeXIII
A good relationship is when she is by your side during bad times to tell you that none of this would've happened if you had just listened to her. — @TheRealDudish
Stages of plant ownership: 1. I’m going to take such good care of you. 2. Oh no. — @mommajessiec
To be accurate, bears do pretty much everything in the woods.— @complete_tripe
Shouldn't it be outsane? — @FuturePopop
Instructor: "Welcome to salsa class! Who's ready to learn how to dance?"Me, hiding tortilla chips bag: "There's been a misunderstanding."
Even if it’s not cursed, a monkey’s paw is a terrible gift.— @claudefacade
Bro... are you seriously trying to make me confront my whiteness right now? At my wife's funeral? — @camerobradford
Men’s pants: Your waist is 30 inches, therefore you are a size 30. Women’s pants: Your waist is bad inches, you have wide hips, a small butt, short legs, a prehensile tail, and we don’t like your face. Therefore you are a size whatever the fuck we want, but only at this store. — @OhNoSheTwitnt
Tune of the Week
I wish I’d known Craig Johnson better. He and I lived in Ann Arbor in the mid-1970s where he was a budding star in the old-time music community and I was a wide-eyed fan five years his junior. He moved on and developed into a widely admired fiddler, singer and songwriter who played in several bands. It was a gut punch to learn in 2009 that he’d died at age 56 of esophageal cancer.
I recently came across this new recording of one of Johnson’s old songs, a tribute to the Keweenaw Peninsula, that long appendage of land that juts north into Lake Superior:
And the stars will shine bright on the south shore tonight And the Keweenaw light swings over the bay And if dreams could come true, I'd still be there with you On the banks of cold waters at the close of the day.
I like the harmonies by AJ Srubas and Rina Rossi so much that I didn’t feature Craig Johnson’s version of the song, but his melancholy baritone isn’t to be missed (and I will be featuring it in two weeks when I present his stunning Father’s Day song).
The Srubas/Rossi version is on their new album, “Sweet Bunch of Daisies.”
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