Saturday, August 30, 2008

Memo to Sen. Obama

Nice speech the other night, and liked the Biden pick.

Just one teensy thing. Next time you're texting your followers about your VP choice, could you please not do it several hours before my DVR is set to record Olympic table tennis on MSNBC? Because your announcement bumped the Olympics coverage and I'd have preferred the novelty of ping-pong on TV over a bunch of talking heads droning about Joe Biden. Mmmk? Kthx muah luv u!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Never gonna give him up

For this week's Friday performance, you've been Barackrolled.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bad things come in threes

It's been a tough month for big, likeable black guys.

Rest in peace, Bernie Mac, Isaac Hayes and Kevin Duckworth.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Quote of the day

Even the leaders in the oil industry know that Senator McCain has it wrong. We can't simply drill our way to energy independence. If you drilled everywhere, if you drilled in all of John McCain's backyards, even the ones he doesn't know he has...

—Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, speechifying at the Democratic National Convention

Monday, August 25, 2008

Literacy: try it

I'm one of those snobs who won't watch the local news.

Pretty people reading (or misreading) fourth grade-level copy from a teleprompter, imparting no insight, frequently betraying little familiarity with the stories they're "reporting?" No thanks.

The headlines I can get elsewhere, and analysis interests me more than headlines anyway. The sports? Whatever, I can live without seeing the highlights. The witless banter? Please.

About all I miss out on is the weather forecast. I can always check it online in the morning. If I don't do that and get caught wearing the wrong shirt or jacket, I'll survive.

Lately, though, I've caught my share of the local news, if only inadvertently. Due to my casually following NBC's Olympics telecasts plus my standing TiVo recordation of Conan O'Brien's timeslot, which has marched on despite that show's hiatus, I've seen a few minutes here or there of newscasts on the Chicago NBC affiliate over the past two weeks.

To no surprise, this smattering roundly justified my ongoing disdain for the local news. I'm not even complaining about the content, which would be pretty easy to do given that the evening newscast is a 30-minute break from blanket coverage of the Olympics and its first five or six minutes are a recapitulation of Olympic headlines and highlights.

No, what offends me is the careless butchering of the English language. Within a 24-hour period, I saw the following onscreen graphics:

1. A caption identifying sportscaster Bruce Wolf as a member of the "NBC5 SPOTRS TEAM."

No wonder Bruce, my fellow Northwestern alum, attorney and an old acquaintance of mine, usually looks mildly embarrassed onscreen. His best work is on radio, where his fecund mind and sharp sense of humor get free rein. But for what they're paying him on TV, I suppose I'd lower myself too.

2. A caption reading "COURETSY NBC OLYMPICS" that remained onscreen for a full minute as Olympics highlights rolled. I couldn't take my eyes off the screen the whole time, or for that matter stop cringing. I'm pretty sure I wasn't being told to curtsy at the NBC Olympics.

Do they even need a credit graphic for their own network? Isn't the "courtesy" thing a polite acknowledgment of video from networks owned by someone else? Isn't WMAQ an "O and O" station, i.e. owned and operated by its network? Do they think anyone doesn't know at this point that NBC is the exclusive American broadcaster of the Olympic Games (so much so that ESPN has been showing still photos rather than video)? Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody care?

3. A caption reading "BEARS VS. 49ER'S."

The apostrophe up front I could live with as a noble failure, since the 49ers' team name commemorates the 1849 California gold rush. But before the S? No. That would only be correct as a possessive, perhaps in a headline such as "49ER'S 320 ON SAT VERBAL SURPASSES SCORE OF NBC5 COPYWRITER."

Sadly, we have been conditioned to expect as much on hand-lettered signs in gas stations and downtrodden cafes. But the NBC affiliate in the third-largest city in the United States? That kind of thing might play in the sticks, but this is Capital City.

How hard is it to find someone with a basic mastery of English (or, failing that, a spell-checker) to write your onscreen graphics? They're only the most visible evidence of the intelligence, or lack thereof, of your work product. I take back what I said earlier about fourth grade-level copy. A fourth grader can spell "sports" and "courtesy."

If I can sweat every comma, clause and word choice on a blog that reaches fewer than 100 people on a good day, our local "journalists" with an audience numbering in the six figures should be able to fix their typos before they hit the airwaves. And they wonder why people get their news elsewhere.

Memo to WMAQ-TV: Get it together. You're embarrassing yourselves.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Made in China

In honor of the Beijing Olympics, a tip of the cap to China's most notable current cultural export.

For this week's installment of our Friday performance series, here's Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang playing Chopin's "Black Key" étude, Opus 10, No. 5, with an orange:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The real world series

Americans, provincial as we are, call our major league baseball championship the World Series. What world is that? The one between Maine and La Mesa?

Despite the longtime Latin presence in the game and the recent influx of Japanese and Korean ballplayers, our big leagues have never really reflected the world at large. At least we used to have two Canadian teams in our big leagues, but now we're down to one. Apparently it's true what they say: the world keeps getting smaller.

There are, however, two baseball tournaments going on right now that can fairly be called world series: the Little League World Series and the Summer Olympics baseball medal competition. Each of these events determines its contestants by dividing the globe into regions, all of which are represented in the main event. End result, a truly international tournament.

For example, to qualify for the Olympics, USA Baseball had to make it through a regional tournament set up for the Americas. Two Olympic spots were on the line; the United States nabbed one, Cuba the other. Similarly, the Little League World Series draws its international field from nations around the globe, which stage tournaments themselves to choose qualifying teams.

Little League World Series players occasionally grow up to play in the American major leagues. The latest hot prospect, Jesus Sauceda of Mexico, pitched the LLWS' first perfect game in 29 years yesterday, striking out all 12 batters in a mercy rule-shortened 12-0 win over Emilia, Italy. He also went 3 for 3 at the plate with 6 RBIs, including a grand slam. That's all you got, kid?

As for the Olympics, there's more than national pride at stake. Baseball and softball have been dropped from the 2012 Olympics and it's unclear whether they'll be reinstated for 2016. So the medals now up for grabs will be the last ones for quite some time, and a particular urgency underlies the tournament.

The USA doesn't send major league players, so once again our squad consists of top minor leaguers and college players. Cuba, winner of three gold medals and a silver in the last four Summer Olympics, is the team to beat.

If you'd like to learn more about the international baseball scene, check out a great new website called the Global Baseball Company. Among other reportage, it recently profiled the various teams in the Olympic baseball tournament.

There are baseball fans, and there are baseball fans. My buddy Charles Fiore, who writes the Global Baseball site, is in the latter camp. He knows and cares more about the game than anyone this side of Bob Costas. The guy goes to Florida every March to scout spring training for his fantasy teams. Charles has also worked with stats guru Bill James, a leading expert in the field.

Charles grew up in Cincinnati and I look forward to learning something from him tomorrow at Wrigley Field as he and I catch his visiting Reds. Until then, in both Beijing and South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, go USA.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Monday, August 18, 2008

Giants walk among us

The stars are shining in Chicago lately, even during the daytime.

For many years I've felt like Forrest Gump or Leonard Zelig, continually bumping into well-known actors, athletes, politicians and other people who generally fall into the "we know who they are, but they don't know us" category.

Sometimes this happens in places you'd expect it (when you go to Aspen for the HBO Comedy Festival, running into famous comedians in the airport or at your hotel is not a big surprise), but it also happens with some regularity as I just live my life.

Take the last few weeks, for example:

1. I sat down to dinner at the Athenian Room in Lincoln Park a few hours after a Cubs day game at Wrigley Field. I looked up and there was Kerry Wood at the next table with his wife and kids. 

2.  Last Wednesday afternoon I was walking through downtown Evanston and bumped into Tim Kazurinsky, Second City and Saturday Night Live alum and Evanston dad.

3. On Friday evening, after dinner with some friends at the Pizza Art Cafe in Ravenswood Manor, I jumped on my bike and hadn't ridden 200 feet when I ran into Kevin Dorff, Second City alum and longtime writer/performer for one of my favorite TV shows, Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

Kerry Wood I don't know so I didn't bother him. Tim and Kevin I know a little bit (they each addressed me by name) so I enjoyed a friendly chat with each of them.

Tim starred at Second City in the 1970s with the likes of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and George Wendt. These days he works as a screenwriter, banging out funny scripts for TV and the movies from his office in downtown Evanston. Tim is a warm and hilarious guy who's been around the comedy block a thousand times and has a story to tell for each trip.

Kevin was in town because the Conan show is on hiatus due to NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics. He's a true Chicagoan, a South Side Irish kid who made good at Second City and moved on to the big time but still loves this city and gets back here whenever he can.

Oddly enough, this was not the first time that a Conan show Summer Olympics hiatus played a part in my running into one of their writers around Chicago. During the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, I was enjoying an al fresco lunch at a popular Italian restaurant around the block from my Lake Forest office when Brian Stack and his wife, Miriam Tolan Stack, Second City alums both, were seated at a nearby table. They were enjoying the Olympic break, bringing their daughters for a visit to their grandparents.

Brian performed at IO and Second City with Kevin, and they're now stablemates on Conan's all-star comedy writing team. He started his comedy career performing with Chris Farley at the Ark Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. After they moved to Chicago, Brian was a roommate of Noah Gregoropoulos, the improv guru and resident genius who still teaches at IO. Less comedically, our moms are friends in the Lake Forest garden club.

Casual Conan viewers might know their faces: Brian plays 1930s crooner Artie Kendall, the fast-talking traveling salesman and The Interrupter, and Kevin often appears as Jesus Christ, a porn star and the angry bartender at Joe's. But in Chicago comedy circles, they're as big as Kobe and LeBron are to NBA geeks, and also known by one name (say "Stack" or "Dorff" to a few thousand Chicagoans and they'll know who you mean).

The purpose of this story is not to drop names but (i) to share the latest chapter of my Zelig-like life and (ii) to alert you, my faithful readership, to the fact that Kevin Dorff will be performing at the Armando Diaz show tonight at the IO Theater.

To hardcore local comedy enthusiasts, this is a minor cause for celebration. In the Chicago comedy hierarchy, where many are called but few are chosen, getting hired by Second City and promoted to their ETC theater or Mainstage is a big deal. Those rare talents who make the jump to careers in comedy are generally excellent comedy writers and skilled improvisers. When they return to town, it's part vacation, part family reunion and part special guest appearances at Chicago comedy shows.

"Armando," as the kids call it, is already the top improv show in town, a Monday night showcase for Chicago's best and brightest improvisers akin to the ASSSSCAT show at the UCB Theater in New York. A beloved favorite for years now, it only gets better in the summertime or around the holidays, when IO and/or Second City alums like Stack, Dorff, Tina Fey, Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer, Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sanz, Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler blow through town for a return visit. Those shows are like when your uncle Eric Clapton sits in with your garage band for a night.

Between Dorff and the already excellent regular cast, tonight's show is as guaranteed to be hilarious as any improv show can be. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh no you di'n't

In this week's Friday performance, Ernie and Bert explore the thug life.

[via Kate James]

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My new favorite comic

Strip, not comedian. I recently happened across a web-based cartoon, xkcd, by a guy called Randall Munroe.

Apparently xkcd is not an acronym, just the name of the comic.

Some of it is smart, observational material for a general audience.

Other panels are for hardcore computer programmers, biochemistry PhDs or online gamers, which makes those of us who have no clue what he's talking about feel that much less like geeks. When he lightens up the science quotient, he can at least get a chuckle out of those of us who took physics in high school.

Other times it's not so much a joke as evidence of the relatably weird ways people think.

It's interesting to discover you're not the only one who occasionally sees the world through an odd prism. Many will recognize their own foibles in his depiction of his own, though we rarely discuss such minutiae.

Besides the dorky stuff, there are also broader ones like this song chart.

The state of syndicated comics is pretty terrible these days, with unfunny pap larding up America's newspapers (which are themselves getting killed; causal relationship?).

But who needs a syndicator? In today's world, anyone can distribute their work easily online.

With Gary Larson long gone and Bill Watterson having hung it up in 1995, it's a happy surprise to happen upon a smart, original cartoonist who can make you laugh.

Some of the cartoons are pretty conceptual, and others are art sketches without a comedic point. I'm just posting a handful of the ones I found amusing.

I don't have much else to say about it but I keep writing filler sentences like this one to provide more room to post examples.

The cartoonist also provides additional commentary for each cartoon at his website, which you can read in a popup text box by hovering over the panel with your mouse. Check it out at

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Name changes

Beijing was Peking, but now it's Beijing. So what am I eating, Beijing duck?

One by one, the distinctive place names of the 19th Century are slipping away. Saigon had a better ring to it than Ho Chi Minh City. Bombay became Mumbai. Persia became Iran. Burma became Myanmar.

Congo declared itself Zaire, then changed its mind and went back to Congo.

A friend of mine in Calcutta tells me it's now Kolkata.

What's with all the name changes? Pick a name. Own it. Love it.

(formerly Ben)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

You don't say

"So important in synchronized diving to be in the same place training."
—Insightful NBC diving analyst Cynthia Potter

Pixar is awesome

Here's a true story about how awesome Pixar is.

[Metafilter sideblog]

Monday, August 11, 2008

Friday, August 8, 2008

American masters

On Fridays we post live performances.

Regular readers of this space may have noticed our preference for harmony, for beautiful songwriting, for artistry; generally, for things that are awesome.

Here, from fall 2003, visiting David Letterman to promote their first reunion tour in twenty years, it's Simon and Garfunkel.

And speaking of "good to great," as I was the other day, the first song is good and the second is great:

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Good to great

That's the title of a bestselling book on American business, but it also describes my experience reading two recent magazine pieces about the early political career of Barack Obama: Chicago magazine's take is good and the New Yorker's is great.

It exemplifies the difference between a decent city magazine and an outstanding national one.

Judge for yourself:

The Friends of O [Chicago]

Making It [New Yorker]

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Saturday, August 2, 2008

I'm bored

If only there were some sort of superhero movie or rock concert I could go to.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Friday with Randy

On Fridays we post live performances here. Usually it's music, but it doesn't have to be, and today it isn't.

As many of you know, Randy Pausch died last weekend. He was the Carnegie-Mellon professor of computer science who in spring 2007 delivered the school's Last Lecture, an annual tradition in which a faculty member delivers a valedictory oration of life lessons and sage advice for graduating students.

In Pausch's case, the "last lecture" thing wasn't just an idle conceit: he was at the time diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a particularly virulent organ cancer that proves fatal to over 90% of its victims. Professor Pausch knew he was dying and delivered his goodbye lecture in the truest and saddest sense.

And what a lecture he gave. He chose to spend his final months not dying but living, embracing life, enjoying every day, and preparing his family for the inevitable. His speech reflects his singularly undaunted personality.

Prof. Pausch's Last Lecture was recorded for posterity, but after it was posted on YouTube, it became an overnight sensation. Millions have watched it and drawn inspiration from his wise words, upbeat sense of humor, lack of interest in anyone's pity, and incredible human spirit. It also led to the bestselling book The Last Lecture, cowritten by Pausch and Carnegie-Mellon alumnus Jeff Zaslow.

It's all a lot like Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom's graceful paean to a dying professor, but in Pausch's case there is also the urgency and poignancy of a vibrant young man cut down in the prime of his career, contending with a fatal disease while raising three small children with his beloved wife.

Unless you're off for the summer, self-employed or exceptionally unsupervised at work, this hour-plus clip might be a little long to take in today. But you can watch it a bit at a time, or over the weekend.

Once you start watching, it will be hard to stop. I found it engrossing and moving as so many others have, and I know you will too.