Friday, July 30, 2010


...if you're more into the summer heat, groove to this sultry new single from Shawn Mullins.

His new Vanguard Records LP, Light You Up, drops on October 12th.

Beating the heat

One way is to get indoors, enjoy some air conditioning and laugh at everyone who's being sunburned outside.  I'd particularly recommend Heat Stroke, the new summer show from FOBB&Bs Creepy Hug Productions.

As their press release puts it...

"Need a way to beat the summer heat?  Why not try Heat Stroke, a blast of refreshing sketch comedy that will help you endure what’s left of this sweltering season.   Heat Stroke provides laugh-quenching satire and musical numbers that poke fun at the dog days between Memorial Day and Labor Day.  Heat Stroke is the tenth original revue from the Creepy Hug comedy team that met in The Second City’s writing program in 2003."

Sounds good to me.

Heat Stroke opens tomorrow night in Donny's Skybox Theatre at The Second City, Pipers Alley, 1608 N. Wells St., Chicago.  Saturdays at 7:30pm through August 28.  Tickets are $13 general admission, $10 for students with ID and $6 for Second City students; or (312) 337-3992.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Marshall Crenshaw

Speaking of American greats, here's another one:

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hawk in the Hall

Getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame is a fairly straightforward process.

First you put together an illustrious career worthy of enshrinement among the 200-some players in the Hall, a tiny number relative to the over 14,000 who have played in the major leagues, let alone those who have suited up at all levels of professional baseball.

Then you sit back and hope that the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America take note.

From time to time a deserving player gets the cold shoulder, year after year falling short of the required 75 percent of votes cast. These candidates would do well to enlist the aid of this blog.

Take Andre Dawson, the five-tool outfielder who finally got his ticket punched yesterday in Cooperstown, N.Y. "The Hawk" was a National League Rookie of the Year, certified All-Star, eight-time Gold Glove winner and 1987 MVP whose worthy candidacy did not get its due during his first eight years of eligibility.

One of just three players with 400 home runs and 300 stolen bases (Willie Mays and his godson Barry Bonds are the others), Dawson could have used a World Series ring or two to bolster his case. His two decades toiling for the Chicago Cubs and Montreal Expos, plus the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins in their fallow periods, did not help.

Last summer, when the relatively limited Jim Rice was ushered into the Hall, a friend suggested that I write in this space about Rice's induction in light of Dawson's ongoing exile. And so I did (Andre Dawson and Jim Rice, July 30, 2009).

In the unlikely event that the Hall voters don't all read this site every day, I also lobbied a buddy of mine with a Hall vote. He writes about sports for the Chicago Tribune when not playing tennis or poker with yours truly.

And wouldn't you know it? In the first Hall vote after I took up his cause, Dawson got elected to the Hall of Fame (The power of the press, January 7, 2010). Bert Blyleven, you're next.

In yesterday's induction speech, Dawson displayed class and humility typical of his distinguished career. A transcript of his remarks is here.

Congratulations to an exemplary ballplayer and outstanding person on a well-deserved honor.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mad Ben

Season 4 starts tonight.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies

I recently attended the opening night of The Second City's 98th mainstage revue, Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies, and found it satisfyingly silly.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Memo to Chicago Tribune

<- One of these things is not TV.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Englishman in Highland Park

Sting made his debut last night at Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony.  Fittingly, he appeared with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.

After the sun went down it was "Bring On The Night" time, otherwise known as "Moon Over Lake Cook Road."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

From NPL to NPR

Spoiler alert:  If you haven't solved last week's NPR puzzle and still want to, stop reading here.

Last week Will Shortz used a puzzle I wrote as the weekly NPR Weekend Edition Sunday listener challenge.  But just as he rewrites roughly half of the author's clues in a typical New York Times crossword puzzle, so did he do a once-over on this puzzle to get it fit for the air.

When I submitted it to Will over breakfast on July 4th at the annual National Puzzlers' League conference, it went like this:  "Take the letters in the phrase Space Needle, and rearrange them to name a popular weight loss technique."  The intended answer was Deep Cleanse.

It was timely since we were in Seattle at the time, and the wordplay was fine, but there were two problems with the puzzle.  

First, not everyone has heard of the Deep Cleanse, certainly fewer people than have heard of the Space Needle.

Second, a puzzle whose answer is the phrase Deep Cleanse probably fails the so-called "breakfast test" known to crossword constructors. The idea is that many people solve the crossword in their newspaper every day over breakfast, and would prefer not to see distressing words in the grid. This is why you will not see HITLER, CANCER, RAPE or VOMIT in your crossword puzzle.

The Deep Cleanse, without being too graphic, is a liquid diet designed to flush the contents of your digestive system and rid the body of impurities. Some people consider it revolutionary, and others consider it hokum, but many will agree that it's kind of gross.

Enter ace editor Will Shortz, who immediately found an elegant solution to salvage the puzzle. He gave Deep Cleanse as the starting point, defining it unobjectionably as a way to rid the body of toxins or clear the pores. This in turn leaves Space Needle as a more pleasing destination for those who solve the puzzle, and since everyone is familiar with it, it's a more fair answer.

A brilliant bit of editing, I would say. And that is why Will Shortz is Will Shortz.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bravo Juliet Bravo

That sounds like something you might yell from the balcony after a performance of "Romeo and Juliet" if you were a well-meaning theatergoer who didn't quite get the distinction between actor and role.

But it's also my initials in the International Radio Operators Alphabet. (In case you ever wondered why Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has that odd ring to it, this is where it comes from.)

The whole alphabet looks like this:


What are your initials?  Papa Romeo? November Whiskey? Hotel Uniform?  One of these?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

More comedy jokes

Last night I attended the opening of The Second City's new sketch comedy revue, Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies.  Great title, and not a bad show either.  My Flavorpill preview is forthcoming.

On a related note, I also caught the recent premiere of The Second City e.t.c.'s new production, The Absolute Best Friggin' Time of Your Life. I found it aggressively confident, an attitude generally justified by the material.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Poetry corner

Oh, the weather outside's unpleasant
I was steamed like English pheasant
Now enough poetic stupidity
But can someone please do something about this 190 percent humidity?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Radio, radio

Will Shortz has once again paid me the compliment of using a puzzle I wrote as the NPR Weekend Edition Sunday listener challenge. (He also did me the favor of mentioning this blog on the radio, which is adding a number of first-timers to my literally tens of readers.)

The puzzle aired this morning. If you missed it, you can listen to it here or read a transcript here.

I presented Will with the puzzle last Sunday over breakfast at the annual convention of the National Puzzlers' League. For the full story, scroll down a couple of posts to the NPL convention trip report, entitled "Enigmarama," or click here.

Since the NPR challenge is open for business until Thursday afternoon, I won't say anything else about the puzzle for now, other than that Will Shortz is the same in person as he is on the radio: smart, friendly, and fun to be around.

Now get solving, America.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bass vs. Salmon

It's Northwest Week in the Bass family. While I was in Seattle, my brother Justin was visiting friends in Boulder, Colorado.

Meanwhile my other brother Ari just checked in from wildest Alaska, where he and his buddies are spending ten days fishing the Yukon River and other bucolic spots. (He's far out of BlackBerry range but someone on the trip brought a satellite phone, whose brief delay and echo I forgive in light of the fact that it apparently involves, like, outer space and stuff.)

Ari reports that on the first night of the trip, after something of a battle, he hauled from the chilly waters a 30-something-pound king salmon, which he and his crew then enjoyed for dinner.

Bass 1, Salmon 0.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Spent a memorable weekend in Seattle at the National Puzzlers' League convention, my first, the organization's 171st. See right for historical precedent, published in the New York Times on February 22, 1936.

Regular readers of this space may recall that I solve the occasional crossword. I also like other kinds of baffling puzzles, your cryptics, your KenKens, your diagramlesses, the Chicago Cubs.

Thus, after hearing its praises sung last winter at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I decided to join the NPL, and last week made the somewhat spur-of-the-moment decision to check out its annual throwdown.

I'm so glad I did. It was three days of entirely indulgent and highly enjoyable puzzle solving, trivia playing, cryptic decoding, megapuzzle-team-competing, people-meeting, elbow-rubbing, M&M-eating, drunk-getting, sleep-not-getting. In short, fun.

National Puzzlers' League members see puzzles everywhere, and where none exist, create them for their own amusement. For example, everyone in the NPL goes by a nom de plume, or "nom," of their own choosing. These can be anything, but tend to be puns or wordplay on the person's own name.

New York Times puzzle editor and NPR puzzlemaster Will Shortz, for example, goes by WILLz. ("Will short Z," get it?) A game industry veteran named Mike Selinker is known as Slik, since those letters appear in order in his last name; a statistician goes by Witz, the last four letters of his surname.

Other noms reflect attitudes (Rock*), interests (Expelliarmus), appearances (there's a toweringly tall Titan), talents (an actress named Lorinne spells her name backward, Ennirol; she'll play "any role"), professions (a music critic goes by Trazom; his is backward too) or simply insouciance (Fuldu, pronounced "fooled you"). For my part, I thought about last-name puns like Profundo or Treble, but ultimately had to go with Beyond.

The nom thing levels the social playing field (you'd call a distinguished professor "Zigzag" rather than "Professor Friedman"), reveals a bit of personality, gives you something to talk about with people you've just met, and adds yet another note of creative levity to the already lighthearted proceedings.

Like any convention, this one was all about the people who were there. In this case, we're talking about 150 of the brightest, most interesting people on the planet, and for some reason, also me.

The NPL rank and file includes neurosurgeons, puzzle editors, software savants, NSA codebreakers, linguists, game designers, and more PhDs than you can shake a dissertation at. There are also plenty of just plain folks, armchair puzzle solvers whose attendance at the convention takes their love for word games and trivia from the two-dimensional television screen or NYT arts section out into the real world. Whichever camp they fell into, I found my fellow NPL members deeply nice and invariably fascinating.

Talented too. Because I decided to attend the convention at the last minute, I'd registered too late to receive an official nametag (or in this case, nomtag). They were handsome badges with the noms printed in white on a dark red background. I grabbed a blank one and was about to write "Beyond" in black ink, which would have looked pretty terrible between the minimal contrast and my handwriting, but still, better than nothing.

Before I could deface it, someone suggested that I find a guy called Dart, which I did, whereupon he coolly produced a white-ink pen and summarily inscribed the word Beyond, same size as everyone else's, in matching font complete with serifs. Not to get too excited about a nametag (gateman spelled backward, by the way) but this thing was gorgeous. It also gave me a story to tell here.

Not only did Dart save the day, he also apologized for not making two of them, for a double-sided nametag, since he was running out of ink. Au contraire, Dart, one was plenty and thanks again. You're a true artist.

And smart? Oh, are the NPL people smart. Having spent several days as a Jeopardy! champion (he said modestly), I found winning on that show to be a cakewalk compared to playing Jeopardy!-type games against any randomly chosen handful of NPL members.

For one thing, the NPLers know their trivia cold, certainly better than some of my TV opponents. Plus, unlike J! and more like College Bowl, you don't have to wait for the moderator to finish reading the question before you're allowed to buzz in.

I knew my share of answers but was just too slow, constantly ringing in a fraction of a second too late. These folks were so fast it was ridiculous. "This well-known American--" Bzzzt! "Who is Amelia Earhart?" "Correct." I felt like guessing, "Chocolate Babies?"

It took me several games to finish somewhere other than dead last with a negative score. I did however get to make productive use, for the first and presumably last time, of the important knowledge that Tori Spelling starred in a melodramatic TV movie with the somewhat amazing title Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?

The one area where I could dominate was sports trivia, not that I know that much, but this was a sports-anodyne crowd. At one point I was seated at an eight-person table for an excellent trivia game in which I had to play both offense and defense in a round robin series of head-to-head matchups. One question asked which player was involved in the notorious 1980s baseball "pine tar" incident. As many casual baseball fans know, it was George Brett, but maybe half of the people at my table guessed Pete Rose.

Another question asked which college basketball team Pete Carril had coached to longtime success with his motion offense and unselfish team concept. Harder than the pine tar question but pretty well known; I'm not a big basketball guy but I knew it. The NPLers wildly guessed all the usual suspects of college hoops -- Duke, UCLA, North Carolina, even Notre Dame -- but only a couple of them knew the correct answer, Princeton. It wouldn't surprise me if a few of the wrong guessers were alums.

Someone jokingly said to me at one point, "Baseball. That's the one with the bat, right?"

Of course, there was a lot more to the convention than trivia, although Jeopardy! virtuoso Ken Jennings did give an after-dinner speech. We feasted on all sorts of live-action games and paper puzzles to solve individually or with a partner. Will Shortz hosted something called Team Hangman, in which at least 15 players from either half of the hotel ballroom had to solve one of his NPR-type brain teasers to earn the right to guess a hangman letter.

There was a cryptic crossword tournament, a Shakespeare-themed poetry puzzle competition, a hidden contest, umpteen informal games and puzzles, and on Saturday night, the big culmination: an all-star-written, multifaceted team puzzle race called simply "the extravaganza." It was breathtaking in its complexity and its elegance.

On Sunday morning, I had time for a quick bite from the breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. I grabbed a seat at a mostly empty round table with two gentlemen whose work I have long enjoyed and admired, former New Yorker cryptic crossword editor (and talented magician) Fraser Simpson and Wall Street Journal puzzle editor Mike Shenk. As we ate and chatted, another puzzler asked whether the seat on my other side was taken. By all means, join us, Will Shortz.

Being surrounded by these luminaries of the puzzle world reminded me of the first time I reviewed a Second City comedy show at an opening night, when I was seated for some reason between the theater critics of the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune. In each case it was a "Why am I sitting here exactly?" moment, not to mention a pretty interesting place to sit. But in the NPL, as at Second City, everyone is treated as an equal with something to contribute.

Speaking of which, Will occasionally uses my puzzle contributions as NPR Weekend Edition Sunday listener challenges. As we ate I quietly handed him my latest submission so I wouldn't have to email it to him later. By then the table was full of our fellow puzzlers. Someone noticed me handing Will the piece of paper, which I'd folded in half since he hadn't solved the puzzle yet, and asked what it was.

The next thing I knew, the whole table was working on my puzzle, just the latest and possibly last in a weekend full of them. Here it was at 9:45am on a Sunday, a time when I have happily puzzled along with Will Shortz for the last 15 years, but now I was puzzlemaster to the puzzlemaster, plus a table full of his fellow puzzle geniuses.

Watching (and helping) America's leading puzzle pros work through my brain teaser, seeing how their minds worked, was a rare treat. If I may drop yet another pair of names, it reminded me of the time I was lucky enough to sit in front of Jerry Seinfeld and Matthew Broderick at the Broadway opening night of a new David Mamet comedy. Listening to which jokes made those two guys laugh, and which ones didn't, was so interesting that it distracted me from watching the play.

As for Will, ace editor that he is, he found a shrewd way to improve my puzzle moments after the group had solved it. And it sounds like he might use this one on the radio next weekend, so for now I won't repeat it.

Serving as puzzlemaster to Will Shortz provided a satisfying sense of closure, that and the fact that the first puzzle I ever sent him ten years ago, via snail mail to the New York Times, involved wordplay on the word "Seattle." When I walked down the aisle of my plane two hours later and saw a lady with a Will Shortz sudoku book in her lap, I knew I was back in the real world.

Still, my banishment from puzzle heaven is merely temporary, because I intend to see Will and everyone else next year at the NPL convention in Providence.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Raise the Titanic

This Seattle parking garage appears to be rising from below the Earth's surface, in keeping with our Seattle Underground tour that just ended across the street.

Seattle has 30 or 40 downtown blocks that were abandoned after a 19th Century fire. The city filled in the streets and rebuilt over them, leaving a catacomb network of subterranean storefronts that serve as a ghostly reminder of frontier days past.

It's all somewhat confusing, so this seems like a good city for a puzzle convention.


I'm in Seattle attending the 171st Convention of the National Puzzlers' League. I joined the NPL last winter after spending a lifetime in simpatico spirit. More to follow.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Listen and you'll hear

Remember dada?

They should have been huge: catchy tunes, fiery guitar work, pretty harmonies, and tight as a drum. Heck, they even named their LP Puzzle. What's not to like?

Here's the no-hat, all-cattle '90s three-piece with a live rendition of a song I always liked, "Dorina":