Sunday, March 28, 2010

On the boards

The Sweet Sixteen shook itself out this weekend and now we're down to the Last Quartet. Congratulations to former Glenbrook North High School standout Jon Scheyer, who led the Duke Blue Devils today to their umpteenth, and his first, Final Four. A deep, poised Baylor team gave his crew all they could handle before Duke ultimately remembered it was Duke.

On an almost personal note, Scheyer is my aunt's neighbor and a big name around here since his days as a local prep prodigy. I like the way he's capably represented the Chicago area, and Reform Judaism, with his expert marksmanship. The guy is a freakishly talented scorer who once poured in 21 points in 75 seconds during a high school tournament game.

This year's tournament has once again proven to be the greatest show on hardwood, putting the comparatively tiresome NBA to shame with entertaining thrillers aplenty, the drama of the single elimination bracket, and whatever innocence is left in big-time college sports.

The college hoopsters aren't the only ones working the boards these days. A Red Orchid Theatre, for example, has been running Mike Leigh's 1970s stage drama Abigail's Party. I covered it for Flavorpill Chicago here but you're too late to RSVP as Abigail's Party wrapped its monthlong run today.

However, you still have time to catch Trust at the Lookingglass Theatre, co-written and co-directed by one David Schwimmer. To his credit, he's currently working on more challenging material than the facile sitcom that made him a household name and relieved his eventual grandchildren from having to work. Trust runs through April 25; my Flavorpill preview is here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Talking Tolk

What are you doing this Thursday night with no more Thursday March Madness left? Watching The Office? Tape it.

The cutting-edge Chicago standup comedian Prescott Tolk has a new one-man show, High Jinxed, playing Thursday nights at the Gorilla Tango Theatre. It's a warts-and-all retelling of his boyhood misadventures and scrapes with the law while growing up Jewish in the primarily Latino suburb of West New York, N.J.

I caught a preview the other night and enjoyed it. You will too.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Instant-runoff voting

Why did "The Hurt Locker" win the big prize?

Here's one possible explanation from Rik Hertzberg, the New Yorker's resident expert on instant-runoff voting:

[New Yorker]

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Brave new world

I recently posted here about a highly creative music video by the rock group OK Go. The song is a catchy accompaniment to the visual mayhem of an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that topples lines of dominoes, sends metal balls rolling down tracks, destroys a piano and a television set, plays a musical sequence by clinking silverware against glasses of water and sprays the band members themselves with primary-colored paint from an air cannon.

Stunningly entertaining and heartwarming in its DIY triumphalism, the video has become a huge Internet sensation, with tens of millions of online views. What's more, it's become emblematic of the new world order of the music business as bands increasingly turn to sources like YouTube to promote themselves even as old-school record labels and mainstream rock radio continue their death throes.

The OK Go video has been so spectacularly successful, and so representative of the emerging disconnect between the financial interests of labels and their bands, that it led OK Go and their label amicably to part ways altogether.

The following NPR feature uses the OK Go video as an example of the seismic shift in the way aspiring bands must now do their thing. It also describes the engineering all-star team that worked for free on the Rube Goldberg project and explains why I can't embed one version of the video on this blog.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The construction zone

Of the many different creative activities one could pursue, I am aware of only one that tests the following:
  • patience,
  • vocabulary,
  • foreign language skills,
  • mental dexterity,
  • the ability to mislead,
  • verbal panache,
  • a tolerance for being found quaint,
  • and an ornate, almost mathematical approach to word analysis.

So what is this pastime, recently called "possibly the most addictive and rewarding hobby on the planet" by Ben Tausig of The Onion?

It is crossword puzzle constructing. (Writing puzzles is known as constructing.)

Solving crosswords, of course, involves a lot of the same areas of expertise. But constructing and solving are two different things. Constructing is concealing; solving is revealing.

Constructing requires you to put the grid together. It's an intricate process, more art than science. You often get a section almost where it needs to be, but then find that neither STUO nor STEO is a word, so you have to backtrack and try another angle.

Until I tried constructing, I'd never understood the random happenstance that is an ingredient in a finished crossword grid. Many of the words in a puzzle are there simply because they fit. I found I had to abandon words and clues I wanted to use because there was no good way to squeeze them in.

Also, of course, a constructor has to write clues. For someone who likes to write, this is the fun part, or rather, the second and more consistently fun of the two parts.

Despite conventional wisdom, your better crosswords these days don't have particularly obscure words, as was more common decades ago. (Ancient Peruvian coin? Papal vestment? Don't know 'em, don't want to.) While it may test your knowledge of trivia or the occasional oddity, a modern puzzle is likely to include mostly commonplace words as answers. It's the clues that tend to be clever, oblique, or misleading: "It turns into a different story" (SPIRALSTAIRCASE) or "Latin quarters" (CASA) or "It can make you a new person" (SEX).

My journey toward constructing puzzles has been "1970 #1 hit penned by Paul McCartney" (THELONGANDWINDINGROAD). I got Games magazine as a kid, but I preferred the brain-teasers and contests in the glossy color pages to the newsprint pencil puzzles in the middle. I never really did their crosswords, but the pencil section did give me the great gift of learning to solve cryptic crosswords.

A cryptic is a special type of wordplay-oriented crossword. For years I preferred cryptics over ordinary crosswords, especially after discovering the great Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, an endlessly creative pair of puzzlemaking virtuosi. Their decades-long run of stunningly good cryptic crosswords in The Atlantic is over, but to widespread celebration they have resumed constructing cryptics for the Wall Street Journal.

Still, regular crosswords were always around. My college newspaper carried the syndicated L.A. Times puzzle, which proved to be a boon during the occasional boring lecture. In one class my friends and I would often race each other through the grid, each solving on our own copy of the school paper. The competition was friendly and I was known as a dependable source of help for anyone with the courage to stage-whisper "14 Down" in a smallish classroom. One woman even found it cute.

In law school, too, there was usually a New York Times floating around thanks in part to a tight-knit older handful of my classmates who'd all attended Ivy League colleges and/or New England prep schools. When they weren't spending weekends back east, their reverse provincialism was such that they'd never be caught dead with a Chicago Tribune; it was all about Harper's, the New Yorker and of course the paper of record. Their quick wit and world-weary patricianism made them entertaining company in the atrium of our school and I summarily dubbed them the East Coast Establishmentarians Society. My midwestern roots notwithstanding, I'd regularly help an E.C.E. or two finish a New York Times crossword.

I particularly remember one NYT puzzle from my law school years, the ingenious November 1996 Election Day crossword from Bill Clinton's reelection bid against Bob Dole. Across the middle of the grid were two seven-letter answers jointly clued as "Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper (!)". The answer worked as either CLINTON ELECTED or BOBDOLE ELECTED, with the crossing words making sense either way.

For example, crossing the first letter was _AT clued as "Black Halloween animal," which worked as either CAT or BAT. Crossing the second letter was "French 101 word," which could be either LUI or OUI. Law school was pretty intense and I rarely did puzzles in those days but I did do that one (in Constitutional Criminal Procedure, I believe) so I had the pleasure of discovering the remarkable gimmick for myself. Years later it is still fondly remembered, and stands as an example of the freshness and originality of the Will Shortz era at the Times (1993-_).

I should mention for the record that I did pay attention to class from time to time in both college and law school.

For much of my adult life I didn't do a single crossword. If I felt like doing a puzzle, cryptics provided a stimulating mental workout compared to which regular crosswords were too straightforward to hold my interest. The New Yorker had a small cryptic for a while; I always did that. The November 2004 death of my grandfather, a great man in so many ways, and one who relished a good crossword, only further attenuated my affection for the black-and-whites. We shared an appreciation for them when I was a kid and without him around they weren't the same.

But somehow, a few years after he died, I started doing them again after happening upon the syndicated New York Times puzzle in our local Murdoch-owned tabloid, the Chicago Sun-Times. The Times puzzle is considered the gold standard and I knew it was easiest on Monday and got harder every day. I discovered to my surprise that I could get pretty far into the week before I had trouble with the Times puzzle.

It soon became a skills test. My confidence increased as I found that Thursday no longer stirred fear in my heart. Friday became my new frontier. Then Saturday. I liked doing them with a pen so I'd work ahead in my mind to prevent mistakes and end up with a nice clean grid.

I soon realized that regular crosswords could be just as entertaining as cryptics. The key was to seek out the ones that were interesting to me, which in my case happened to be harder puzzles.

Some weeks I found the Friday tougher than the Saturday. Some puzzles I found grindingly difficult, but the challenge was highly enjoyable. Others I found difficult, but only annoyingly or boringly so. A puzzle could be funny, or novel, or informative, or humdrum. I gradually learned that although crosswords look more or less the same at first glance, there are in fact many different flavors.

I found myself looking for copies of the Sun-Times on my commuter train or picking them up on non-commuting Saturdays at Starbucks, where I'd celebrate the end of the week by methodically dismantling a dastardly puzzle.

Occasionally someone would leave a Friday or Saturday New York Times laying around the coffee shop, and I'd have a tricky decision to make. The syndication puzzle runs on a five-week delay, so by doing that day's puzzle in the Gray Lady, I'd deny myself the fun of doing the same puzzle five weeks later in our local paper. It was the classic battle between instant and delayed gratification.

Experience taught me that I didn't much like the deflating feeling of tracking down a puzzle only to find I'd already solved it. Thus I generally exercised will power in these moments, preferring to have one steady source. I made exceptions only during my (not infrequent) weekend trips to New York City, where doing the New York Times puzzle, in the New York Times, in New York, was too tempting to pass up.

After a year or so in the newsprint jungle, I simplified my life by subscribing to the NYT puzzle online. Where the Sun-Times omits names of NYT puzzle constructors, the Times itself and its online version give them due credit. I found myself learning the styles and personalities of different constructors, enjoying for example the grueling tests of Bob Klahn and the fresh fill of Mike Nothnagel.

The next thing I knew, I was in New York City playing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. And the Chicago tournament that happened a few months later. And commenting regularly on a crossword puzzle blog.

And now I've taken the obvious next step. After years of solving other people's puzzles, I constructed my first puzzle the other day. It took me a few hours to create, a process I found surprisingly interesting and satisfying. Like Mr. Tausig says, I could see getting more into this hobby, one so similar to and yet so different from solving.

Constructing is, of course, a higher commitment of time and effort than solving. It's also a good deal easier to solve a routine puzzle than to construct it. Something like 50 million people a day solve a crossword puzzle, while there are thought to be only several hundred living, published constructors at any given time.

So how's my puzzle? The fact that it exists is, to me, the most exciting thing about it. Since I wrote it, I have no perspective as to either how good it is or how hard it is. However, I think the average crossword solver would probably get a kick out of it.

I can't share it with you yet because, like many delusional people, I would like someday to see my name in the New York Times. However, after my puzzle has been rejected by that paper, and Newsday, and the L.A. Times, and the Weekly Reader, I will post a copy here.

For now, I will just say that it looks a lot like the grid above. In fact, exactly like it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

In appreciation of Françoise Mouly

Speaking of the New Yorker cover, I once saw current New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly give a speech on the history, distant and recent, of the magazine's vaunted cover. It was one of the three or four most interesting lectures I've ever attended, and I've taken Civil Procedure.

During the presentation my friends and I happened to sit near her husband, Art Spiegelman, a New Yorker contributor and the Pulitzer-winning illustrator of Maus, and their kids. It was her day, though, and she held an audience of hundreds in rapt attention.

Mme. Mouly evinced a deep appreciation for and knowledge about the magazine's history, speaking with the authority of the curator and expert her job requires her to be. She took us from the Jazz Age roots of founding editor Harold Ross through midcentury decades of sedate still lifes to the feisty Tina Brown era. That editor's arrival was marked, fittingly, with an Edward Sorel illustration of a leather-jacketed punk rocker taking a carriage ride through Central Park.

The Mouly-Spiegelmans come from the underground comic scene and infused its modern sensibility into the staid New Yorker upon their arrival. For example, where the magazine once shied away from addressing current events on its cover, it has more recently tackled them, and not always quietly. After the unarmed Amadou Diallo was gunned down by New York City police officers, a primary-colored cover illustration showed one of New York's Finest happily squeezing off rounds at an arcade shooting gallery whose sign read, "29 Shots, 10 Cents." Offended NYC policemen picketed the magazine's offices.

Spiegelman, in fact, contributed the deeply moving cover of the first issue after the September 11 attacks. The issue at first looked all black, in memoriam. But the white words "THE NEW YORKER" were not completely intact; a closer inspection revealed that crossing the W in the nameplate was the antenna from one of the fallen World Trade Center buildings. The "black" cover was in fact a subtle tribute, the haunting image of the two towers on a dark gray background.

Also apparent from Ms. Mouly's remarks were the great care and painstaking effort she devotes to its current covers, working closely with contributing artists and developing new ones. That the magazine's cover artists so perfectly capture again and again the gestalt of current events, seasonal themes, and city moments is no accident; she hires the best, but they must benefit from her gentle guidance.

Her remarks explained a great deal about how the New Yorker cover stays so fresh and poignant in an age when illustration and painting are often overlooked. To someone who knows little about art but cares about the New Yorker, her ongoing tenure as art director feels like an era all its own.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Eustace the man

The New Yorker magazine first hit newsstands in February 1925. Its first cover, by founding art director Rea Irvin, featured a society swell named Eustace Tilley whose folly was typified by his inspecting a passing butterfly with a monocle. Tilley at once celebrated and skewered the new magazine's target demographic of literate, connected urbanites.

His image, meanwhile, has grown iconic over the decades; even non-subscribers recognize the fanciful fop from twenty paces. The magazine has long since adopted him as its logo and keeps the Rea Irvin flame burning too, often celebrating its own February anniversary by reprinting the original cover. At right, for example, is the February 20, 1960 issue, looking pretty much exactly like the first one.

The New Yorker doesn't just reprint the original cover but also takes occasional artistic license with the template, depicting Tilley as a woman on a 1970s feminism issue, Tilley as a skate punk in a 1994 cover by R. Crumb, Tilley and the butterfly as Weimaraners in a William Wegman photo shoot, etc.

More recently the magazine has also sponsored a contest in which artists submit their versions of the noted dandy. At left, for example, are two 2008 finalists, one distilling Essence of Tilley into the New York City subway map, the other imagining him as Mr. Burns and the butterfly as Bumblebee Man.

This year's anniversary issue features a four-part cover by noted indie comic artists Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine and Ivan Brunetti. The four panels tell an origin story of the first Tilley cover. What's more, if you arrange them correctly in a two-by-two layout, they contain a secret image of Eustace Tilley himself.

You can check it out here thanks to a nifty crossfade graphic by artist Adam Kempa. Drag the slider to reveal Eustace Tilley, then back again to hide him inside the four covers.

Tip credit: Emdashes

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The other Super Bowl

My buds in the advertising world call the Oscars "the Super Bowl for women."

Of course, there are plenty of women who watch the Super Bowl, and men who watch the Oscars, but their point is well taken. Advertisers consider the Academy Awards the best way to reach a huge female audience. All those Clairol ads aren't aimed at me; my hair has long since achieved maximum fabulosity.

The Oscars and the Super Bowl are two peas in a pod. They're
  • annual American traditions
  • with the two most massive television audiences of the year,
  • featuring women in revealing clothing and hunky leading men,
  • breathlessly promoted for weeks in advance by a dutiful press,
  • handicapped exhaustively by experts and
  • wagered on in living rooms, with
  • tickets unavailable to the general public and
  • industry insiders seated according to clout; in each case,
  • the whole thing is a profit-driven promotional exercise
  • dressed up as a competition
  • whose winners then earn more money; each event, though
  • considered glamorous and
  • surrounded by exclusive parties like a cruise liner's tugboats,
  • rarely lives up to the hype but
  • occasionally pulls off a memorable surprise and
  • provides water cooler chitchat for the few of us who still have jobs.

Me, I'll be watching in my signature "1995 Lands' End sweatpants" couture despite having seen, I think, a grand total of zero of the ten Best Picture nominees.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wait Stop

Enjoy this remarkable video from OK Go.

(The "RGM" in the title stands for "Rube Goldberg Machine.")

While we're at it, check out the heartwarming marching band version:

Outstanding videos aside, the song is quite catchy too. I heartily approve of these good works. Won't OK Go be pleased?

Tip credit: N. Safari.