Friday, November 27, 2009

Tiger Woods

After all these years playing par 5s on the PGA Tour, he finally drove into a tree.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Now that my spinach and mushroom puff pastries are turning golden brown in the oven, I take a moment to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be thankful for.

And in the spirit of the season, enjoy this.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

OK by me

What are you giving thanks for this week?

Me, I've got an enviable bounty: wonderful family, hilarious friends, health (decent), youth (fading) and a comfortable life that's continually interesting, at least to me. My horn of plenty overfloweth and I am constantly grateful for my extraordinary good luck.

And there's one more blessing on my list as of this morning, when NPR Weekend Edition Sunday puzzlemaster Will Shortz was kind enough to use another puzzle I wrote as this week's listener challenge on his weekly radio puzzle segment.

I've always liked puzzles, mysteries and trivia. I like the New York Times crossword, Cox and Rathvon's "Puzzler" cryptic crossword in the Atlantic, Will Shortz on the radio, Donald J. Sobol's Two-Minute Mysteries and Agatha Christie when I was a kid, Trivial Pursuit, Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, early 1980s Games magazine (whose then-staffers would go on to edit the WSJ, NYT and NY Sun crosswords), Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune as both viewer and contestant, the "radio game," baseball trivia, word puzzles, the challenge of competitive poker, card tricks, number tricks, mind-reading tricks, memory tricks.

I like solving things, knowing things, learning things, amazing people by remembering things, stumping people, being stumped, teaching things, being taught. I like breaking out a deck of cards and taking 20 seconds to blow someone's mind. I like when someone tells me an interesting piece of trivia, and if it's good enough I'll never forget it. There is so little wonder in banal, prosaic everyday life that I take pleasure in the small moments of awe and discovery we can all choose to engage in.

Taking it to a meta level, I've discovered in recent years that I don't just like solving and posing puzzles, I like creating them too. Happily, there are forums like Weekend Edition where we can share them with others. It was a thrill when Mr. Shortz used a puzzle I wrote on the radio last July, and it's a thrill again today.

Here's my new puzzle:

Think of a word containing the consecutive letters O-K. Remove the O-K, and you'll get a new word that's a synonym of the first word. What words are these?

Solved it? You can enter here for your chance to play a different puzzle with Will Shortz on the radio next week. Good luck.

One of the abiding blessings of the Internet is its uncanny knack for bringing like-minded people together. I frequent several blogs about the New York Times crossword and the NPR puzzle, and also post a standing offer on this blog to provide a hint for the latter. Between these blogs' communities of adherents and my own regular email correspondents who ask for (and, I'm not ashamed to admit, provide) NPR puzzle hints, I've got a nice circle of puzzle people around me. Some of them I've met in person, others I know as email pen pals and many more just as fellow blog commenters.

One of them, a brilliant MIT alum and ace crossword solver known as "Bob Kerfuffle" on the popular Rex Parker crossword puzzle blog, sent me the following email today, which he has given me permission to post here:

Dear Mr. Bass,

I feel that I know you from Rex's blog, so I am emboldened to share my thoughts on your Sunday challenge with you.

I am disqualified from sending in an answer since I have played the on-air puzzle with Will. (More than 10 years ago, but it seems once is enough.)

If you take the word OKAY and drop the OK, you get AY, which my dictionary says is a variant of AYE, or in other words a synonym for OKAY.

Taking things a step further, if you take the word "O.K." and drop the OK, you get "______", and since according to the Latin, “Qui tacet consentire vidétur,” or Silence gives Consent, that would be synonymous also!

And I will faint if either of those turns out to be your intended answer!

Thank you for your contributions to Puzzledom.

"Bob Kerfuffle"

Not my intended answers, but you gotta love it. My dad also came up with a funny guess: HOOKER and HOER (pronounced "whore").

So this week I'm giving thanks to Will Shortz for yet another fun adventure in puzzling. It started every week on the radio and every day in the newspaper, then his Wordplay movie was released on my birthday, then I went to his American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, then I competed in a Chicago crossword tournament, and now I'm gradually joining his stable of puzzle contributors. Perhaps someday I will try to conquer the obvious final frontier, i.e. constructing a New York Times crossword puzzle, but it's already been an entertaining ride for which I feel thankful.

Or to put it more succinctly, as Ali G might say, "Gratitude."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Setup, joke

Like the New Yorker? Pretend to like the New Yorker but just flip through the cartoons?

Either way, you might enjoy this report I wrote on the recent Chicago Humanities Festival, which featured a number of New Yorker staff writers and artists.

Of particular note, cartoon editor Robert Mankoff joined fellow cartoonists Roz Chast, Ed Koren and Pat Byrnes for a freewheeling panel discussion on their ongoing contributions to a great American tradition.

I wrote the story for Emdashes, a website all about the New Yorker, founded by the casually brilliant Emily Gordon and edited by the literate jet-setter Martin Schneider.

Though their love for the New Yorker is pure and their knowledge of its history commanding, they have serious publishing cred: Emily is the editor-in-chief of Print magazine and Martin is a professional book editor.

If you like the New Yorker, you'll love their site.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Here come the Pixies

A rock band without peer, underappreciated in their time, the Pixies have steadily grown in renown and acclaim since their acrimonious breakup in the early 1990s. Their 2004 reunion tour was a hero's return, a hugely successful series of live dates that triumphantly and resoundingly confirmed their status as one of the top rock acts of the past quarter-century.

Five years later the Pixies are back on the road, this time celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their landmark 1989 LP Doolittle. They're playing that record in its entirety on this tour along with its related B-sides including "Bailey's Walk," "Dancing the Manta Ray" and "Weird at My School."

The Pixies' Doolittle tour hits Chicago for three shows this weekend at the Aragon Ballroom (does anyone still call it the Armageddon Brawlroom?).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poster child

Even if he were neither a FOBB&B since high school days nor one of the cooler people you'll meet, though he is both, Jay Ryan would deserve mad props for his insane poster-making skills. A leader of Chicago's thriving screen-printing community, Jay is as talented an ink man as he is a brilliant freehand artist, plus he knows his way around the indie music scene as a bass player for Dianogah.

Rock musicians play music with him, they like him, and they want to hire him to make a cool poster for their band. Or they never even meet him, but they see or hear about his work, then they really want to hire him to make a cool poster for their band.

Then they get their posters from Jay, love them and tell their friends. Meanwhile their fans go nuts over the posters and clamor to buy them. This raises Jay's profile, more work comes in and the whole cycle continues. Thus are posters, and poster-making careers, made.

Add it all up and you've got a singular national talent who's created original poster art for untold hundreds of concerts and events, and in so doing helped keep his art form alive and thriving. He also does his part to bring along the next generation of poster makers by speaking to art students around the country.

Jay has written a new book collecting his recent efforts, entitled Animals and Objects In and Out of Water. He'll be appearing at Quimby's Bookstore at 7pm tomorrow evening (Wed. 11|11) to sign copies and discuss his work. This event is as recommended as Jay's work is collectible, i.e., highly.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Who broke the Bank?

During my recent trip to the New Yorker Festival I heard some grumbling from habitués of the Cartoon Bank, the online repository and marketplace of New Yorker cartoons. They complained that it was recently overhauled for the worse, to the detriment of its customers, cartoonists and even ownership.

I visited the site to see what all the fuss was about and it turns out they're right. The site redesign did indeed work to its detriment and the Cartoon Bank is now a far cry from what it used to be.

For starters, the search functionality is less robust than it was before. It is no longer possible to search cartoons by popularity, which means a user looking for consensus wheat must sift through a lot of chaff.

The removal of popularity search also adversely affects the artists themselves, who get commissions on each sale. This is important. The vaunted New Yorker cartoonists, though beloved by millions, are in fact an endangered species; their many admirers rarely stop to consider their precarious position. There are fewer outlets than ever these days for gag cartoons (flipped through Punch or Judge lately? me neither) and the New Yorker jokesters have come to depend on secondary sales as an important source of income. The "greatest hits" search method was a crucial means of driving traffic to their best-loved New Yorker works, one they would like to see restored. Admittedly, there are three static "Best Sellers" shown on the right side of the Cartoon Bank page, but this is a pale imitation of a popularity search. Also, one of them is a New Yorker wristwatch.

Another fundamental problem: the Boolean search algorithm is out of whack. Searching "Sipress tennis" would not generate the "Sipress AND tennis" search result you might expect i.e., any and all David Sipress cartoons about tennis but rather, a "Sipress OR tennis" result of any cartoon either drawn by Sipress or about tennis.

Meanwhile, a search for "Alex Gregory cartoons" would produce not just a list of Alex Gregory's cartoons, but also cartoons in which a caption included the word Alex or Gregory. A Matt Diffee cartoon in which a Jeopardy! contestant says, "I'll take Presidential Haircuts for $200, Alex" might be funny, but it's hardly an Alex Gregory cartoon.

Upon the site's relaunch, in fact, it initially offered to display search results in a somewhat absurd A-Z or Z-A order, by the first letter of the caption. Why would anyone want dozens or hundreds of search results arranged arbitrarily in reverse-alphabetical order rather than in order of relevance or popularity? It makes no sense. The alphabetical arrangement has since been removed from the site, but more revisions remain necessary.

Check out this screen shot of search results for a standard request, business cartoons:

The results are ostensibly sorted by "most relevant," but that doesn't look like the case to me. One of the top eight results is set in a bar and another on a sandy beach. They just happen to use the word "busy" or "business."

On a lesser note, they also seem to have axed the Cartoon Channel, a popular feature in which a new cartoon would display every ten seconds or so in a slideshow format. It was cute and fun. Why get rid of it?

Then there's a final issue, one not immediately apparent to the casual observer: the search results are inaccurate! Despite The New Yorker's reputation for precision, the item count can be way off. Cartoonists who've drawn hundreds of dog cartoons are shown to have only a few dozen, despite the Cartoon Bank's ostensibly representing the entire New Yorker cartoon history. That might not sound like a big deal to you, but I hear it's driving the cartoonists crazy.

Here's hoping the powers that be restore the Cartoon Bank to its former glory.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2009

This is not a post

1. Do you like R.E.M.?
2. Do you live in Chicago?

If you like rock music but said no to question 1 above, you might consider seeing Los Lobos tonight at Symphony Center.

Or if you said no to either question, find yourself a Sirius satellite radio and tune in to the "Jam On" channel this afternoon to catch Phish live from the third and final day of their Festival 8 in Indio, California.

Speaking of Phish, every Halloween night the touring veterans "go as" another rock band and play a classic album in its entirety live on stage. This year Phish let their fans choose the album they'd play, making it a fun guessing game by posting a list of dozens of albums on their website and gradually killing titles off the list in gory Halloween style as fans voted them down. Eventually it boiled down to a handful of finalists from which the band made its choice, unveiling the surprise live on stage last night when they tore into "Rocks Off," the opening song on the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. I would have tuned in for that one but I was out seeing other bands cover yet other bands.

Back to R.E.M. If you did say yes to both questions above, you'll enjoy this.

From the promoter's press release:

Chicago fans of R.E.M. will get a Halloween treat a day late this year. On November 1st fans will get a one-night-only opportunity to see an advance screening of R.E.M.’s “un-concert” documentary film “This Is Not A Show – Live at the Olympia in Dublin” at the city’s newest music venue - Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave - absolutely free.

(Editor's note: Lincoln Hall, on the site of the old 3 Penny Cinema, is a new music room from the Schuba family, owners of the venerated rock club Schubas.)

In their acclaimed 2007 “working rehearsals” in Dublin, R.E.M. set up camp at the venerable Olympia Theatre in Ireland’s capital city and tested new material over five nights before passionate capacity crowds. Music at the show was produced by Dublin native Jacknife Lee who, along with R.E.M., co-produced Accelerate, the album that emerged from these shows.

“Live at the Olympia” gives fans an opportunity to hear those songs at their earliest stages of development. In addition to the new material, the band also served up several songs from across their nearly thirty year career - from Chronic Town to Accelerate and all stops in between!

Screenings begin at 7:00pm & 9:00pm. Ages 18 and over welcome for both screenings.

Free admission, first come first served – limited to venue capacity.

For more information fans can contact Lincoln Hall at 773-525-2501 or visit

Trailer and clips for the film may be viewed here:

Tell them Ben Bass and Beyond sent you!