Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Celebrity Autobiography

Nice show at the Royal George this weekend.  In Celebrity Autobiography, professional comedians read aloud from the memoirs of famous people.  Hilarity ensues.

After drawing critical raves and steadily selling out off-Broadway for the past two years, it now hits Chicago for the first time.

Who's it for?  Pretty much everyone immersed in American celebrity culture (read: everyone not in Al Qaeda), particularly those of us prone to wondering whether the world needed books from the likes of Miley Cyrus and Mr. T.

Although many of the true Hollywood confessionals make a pretty weak case for their own existence, that case gets inadvertently strengthened, for all the wrong reasons, in the hands of old pros like Scott Adsit ("30 Rock"), Laura Kightlinger ("Saturday Night Live"), Tim Kazurinsky (ibid.) and Harold Ramis (need I even list his credits? I didn't think so).

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bonus puzzles

As you may have noticed (assuming you don't follow this site on a news reader), I am in the habit of posting the weekly brain teaser from National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition Sunday" on the sidebar.

As you may have also noticed by my obnoxiously posting a few celebrity photos, not to mention writing about puzzles several times a day for the last few months, I am also casually acquainted with the puzzle editor of the New York Times and NPR's puzzlemaster, Will Shortz.

Every once in a while Will uses one of my puzzles on the radio.  Sometimes I send him puzzles that randomly occur to me.  Other times they relate to his on-air puzzles:  either I stumble upon Puzzle B as I try to solve Puzzle A, or else I'm inspired to play off one of his with a new one of my own.

Last week, Will aired the following puzzle:

Name a country in six letters. Change two consecutive letters in it to one letter to get the name of another country. What countries are these?

As I do on the sidebar, I'll white out the answer so you can solve it yourself if you like.

Highlight for answer: Guyana, Ghana

So after that exercise in reviewing the countries of the world (I used the Wikipedia list; did you?), I was inspired to write a puzzle using a similar old NPR standby, world capitals.  Returning to good old Wikipedia, I scoured the list of world capitals until I came up with the following gem:

Name a world capital in two syllables.  Change the fourth letter to the next letter of the alphabet, then rearrange the letters to spell another world capital.  What cities are these?

I thought this thing had "radio puzzle" written all over it.  Short(z), sweet, elegant.  Unfortunately for me, Will replied that he thought he'd heard this particular bit of wordplay before.

Upon reflection, this doesn't surprise me that much.  There are only so many ways to reshuffle the finite list of world capitals, which gets even shorter once you discard the cities too obscure to be fair game for the average radio listener.

AMMAN and MANAMA, for example, would make a nice "remove the last letter and rearrange," but many people can't tell you the capital of Jordan, much less that Bahrain is a country, much less name its capital.  Me, I just had the first two of these, and I wrote the puzzle.

MANAMA/PANAMA fails for the same reason, and PARAGUAY/URUGUAY, not good enough wordplay and too interchangeable.

Actually, the likely best world capital puzzle already aired on NPR years ago, so nifty it's stuck in my mind ever since:

Name a world capital. Remove a letter and rearrange the rest to name another major city.  Then remove another letter and rearrange the rest to name a second world capital.

Nice, eh?  I wish I'd come up with that one.

So it's back to the drawing board for me.  Meanwhile, my friends, get solving!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dept. of What's the Difference

Oklahoma Tea Partiers Consider Creating Militia
[CBS News/Associated Press]

What the hell.  Go for it!

Monday, April 19, 2010

The 2010 Chicago crossword puzzle tournament

The second annual Chicago crossword puzzle tournament took place on Saturday afternoon at Marbles the Brain Store.  Here's a recap.

The event was a rousing success. Where last year's tournament drew a crowd of around 25, this year's roster was up to 45, which forced the Marbles staff temporarily to dismantle the store's office to provide overflow seating. The price of popularity.

Participants warmed up for the tournament by tackling Marbles' in-store April puzzle.  I felt like a proud yenta watching people solve it, as I was the matchmaker who delivered crossword constructor and FOBB&B John Cunningham last year when Marbles czarina Lindsay Gaskins asked me to recommend someone to write a monthly crossword. John does a great job and everyone enjoyed his handiwork while he and I chatted before the tournament.  I gradually solved it between tournament puzzles.

The Chicago tournament's three opening rounds are races through, in order, still-unpublished Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday New York Times crossword puzzles. The first correct finisher in each round advances to the final round, where the first correct finisher of a Thursday puzzle is the champion.  (For the record, our puzzles were this week's Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, and next week's Tuesday.)

At first I grabbed a seat in the overflow room, but then a tournament staffer asked that fast solvers sit in the main room. "Fast," of course, is all relative. At the national tournament in Brooklyn I'm not particularly fast, but I was among the leaders in the Chicago tourney last year.

This reminds me of a silly question I hear surprisingly often from tennis non-players who ask, upon learning I play the sport, "Are you good?"  I'll generally reply "Compared to whom?", a more polite way of saying, "Compared to Roger Federer or you?"

Tournament organizer Amy Reynaldo clarified things by saying, "If you can solve a Monday New York Times crossword in under five minutes, sit in the main room."  I don't generally time myself, or do a lot of Monday puzzles for that matter, but I did remember finishing the Monday puzzle in 4:25 at last year's tournament (which was good for second place, and a finals seat because the first finisher made an error).

So although it felt self-aggrandizing I moved, and barely justified the relocation by completing the first puzzle in 4:58. Unfortunately for me, this was only good for 5th place.  Whoa!  Who brought the ringers?  Fastest was Marty Howard, who finished in a speedy 3:59.  He was our Roger Bannister.

On the Tuesday puzzle I again set a fairly brisk pace by local standards — and benefited by starting in the southeast corner of the grid, where I learned the key to the puzzle's theme before having to tackle any theme answers — but my 5:15 time was only good for 4th place.  William Hall, whom I met at the Brooklyn tournament this year, finished in a tidy 4:54.

One last finals seat was up for grabs, so I had to step it up on the Wednesday puzzle.  I raced through it at breakneck speed, discerning the theme immediately and deducing the 15-letter theme answer across the middle of the grid while it was still blank.  I wrapped it up in 5:44, but my neighbor Scott Orman was better at 5:22.  Scott was error-free so second place was no good this year.

If I had to lose, I was happy that I lost soundly; 22 seconds is a long time. (Missing the finals by two seconds would have been a drag.)  But I honestly didn't mind not making the finals.  I squeaked into the final round last year from a field of strong solvers and it was fine with me that three new people got the chance to be finalists this year.  There were a lot of deserving players in the room and I've already had a turn.

At least I managed to edge my friendly rival Kent Brody for bragging rights among Chicago attorneys (assuming none of the finalists or other almost-finalists was an attorney, which I have no reason to assume but will until proven otherwise).  Kent has finished solidly ahead of me during my two visits to the national tournament, but I finished second in Chicago last year and outpaced him during every Chicago round this year. You're tougher east of the Hudson, Kent!

Relative to the room I did better with each passing round, but I ran out of time.  Perhaps I was gradually warming up, or more likely it's that I am more competitive on tougher puzzles.  I would feel a lot more confident in a tournament with Wed-Thu-Fri rounds and a Saturday final.

But this tournament's final was a Thursday puzzle, and all three finalists put on some speed.  William finished first in 8:14, with Marty just behind him at 8:20 and Scott taking third place in 9:02.  I finished the grid about ten seconds after Scott, but then again I wasn't a finalist so I wasn't racing as hard during the finals.  The three finalists received $25 Marbles gift cards and the winner another one worth $50.

Yes, it's a contest, so I feel obliged to discuss the tournament in terms of times and finishes, but more than anything the Chicago tournament is an afternoon of camaraderie and enjoyment.  Crossword solving is a generally solitary activity, so it's fun to rub elbows and compare notes with fellow enthusiasts.  In that sense, everyone who showed up won.

Congratulations to William Hall, Marty Howard and Scott Orman.  For the trivia file, William had a cast on his wrist when I met him in NYC last February.  Apparently it was on his puzzle hand because when the doctor removed the cast she unleashed a monster.

Thanks go to the friendly Marbles staff for hosting the tournament; to Amy Reynaldo, Bob Petitto and Anne Erdmann, and the other volunteers whose names I didn't catch, for running it; and to Will Shortz for generously providing the puzzles.

Anne and Bob's further contributions should also be recognized.  Bob is an avid puzzle constructor and collector and brought some of his impressive collection for everyone to peruse.  He also donated a rare puzzle book as a prize for the tournament winner.

Anne, meanwhile, effectively donated a finals seat by graciously sitting out of this year's event, instead choosing to help run things after a trip in from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  She is a superstar solver who took third place in this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn and eighth place last year, in fields of 600-plus.  Not surprisingly, Anne won the Chicago event in a rout last year, and she generously took pity on the rest of us this time around.

Although you might not know it, we're in a golden age of crossword puzzles right now.  With today's excellent computer software and powerful online resources, crossword construction is no longer an esoteric skill, and indeed there are more good puzzle constructors than ever.

Teenage kids are writing puzzles for the New York Times.  Tournaments are spreading like weeds with the assistance and sometime participation of Will Shortz and other top editors from the newsprint world.  Crossword clubs are popping up at high schools and colleges around the country.  In turn, the Internet has erased the barriers of time and geography, making a wide range of puzzles immediately available.

Heck, it's even helping me distribute my stuff.  I posted my first-ever crossword puzzle in this space last Friday and was flattered when this year's top three Brooklyn finishers were among those who emailed to ask for electronic copies.  Their interest says a lot more about the days we're living in than it does about me.

So it's a good time for cruciverbalism.  If you enjoy doing the 15-by-15 in your daily paper and are curious what more is out there, dive in.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The late, lamented Lakeshore

Nice Trib feature by FOBB&B Steve Johnson on the demise of the Lakeshore Theater:

Lakeshore Theater says goodbye
[Chicago Tribune]

Friday, April 16, 2010

Hot cross words

I recently started constructing crossword puzzles (ladies).

After completing my first grid, I sent it off to a few expert friends whose puzzles are regularly published in America's leading newspapers.

I was gratified by the warm reception it got -- apparently it's pretty respectable for a rookie effort -- and yet the consensus was that, for various technical reasons, it's not newspaper-worthy.

Still, it is blogworthy, assuming I can get the approval of the editor of this blog. (Done.) So I thought I'd share it with you, my literally tens of readers. It's not an easy puzzle, but you might get a kick out of it. Feel free to email me for help (benj23@gmail.com).

I've made the black squares gray to save you some toner. Or if you prefer not to kill a tree, I can send you a .puz file so you can solve it on your computer with the elegant crossword software Across Lite, available free online.

Without further ado here's my first crossword entitled, appropriately enough, Primary Colors:



And speaking of crosswords, the second annual Chicago crossword tournament takes place tomorrow afternoon at Marbles the Brain Store on Grand Avenue. More information here.

Edit: Don't open (or scroll down to) the comments below if you want to solve the puzzle, as certain answers are mentioned there.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chicago crossword tournament


As noted above, Chicago's second annual crossword puzzle tournament is going down this Saturday in River North. Click the image if you have trouble reading the fine print.

Various big shots from the local and national crossword puzzle scenes will be running the tournament and taking part. For some reason they are also letting me. But if you're a beginner, or unsure about your black-and-white skills, don't let that stop you from coming out. It's more about fun and camaraderie than it is about competition.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

America's continuing decline

Buzz Aldrin: You know how many followers I have on Twitter?

Howard Stern: How many?

Aldrin:
830,000.

Robin Quivers: Wow!

Stern: And you're busy tweeting?

Aldrin: Well, I have a mission director. She used to work for John Tesh. She and my stepdaughter harmonized for the rap song with, uh--

Stern: You did a song with Snoop Dogg, right?

Aldrin: I did this song with Snoop Dogg and Kweli.

Stern: Did you smoke chronic with him?

Aldrin: No, but he's a very brilliant guy. He's able to come up with comments in a big hurry.

Stern: Let me hear a little of this song. I didn't know you were into the whole rap scene.

Aldrin: I wasn't a dancer either. I forgot everything Arthur Murray told me fifty years ago.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Guess who's back


Not Eminem, but Rebecca Gilman (Spinning Into Butter, Boy Gets Girl). The power playwright's latest, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, is now playing at the Goodman Theatre. It explores art's role in the wake of tragedy, through the parallels between Hurricane Katrina and a deadly 1889 deluge that devastated Pennsylvania.

A True History of the Johnstown Flood runs through Sunday. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Scoring

Congratulations to Phil Mickelson on winning The Mistresses... uh, I mean The Masters.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Friday, April 9, 2010

Condolences

I received the following press release on the evening of April 1:



God, did I hope it was an April Fool's Day prank. Unfortunately, it was not.

The Lakeshore Theater has grown into an important part of Chicago's comedy scene, booking big national acts and offbeat niche artists alike, taking interesting chances and supporting any number of rising newcomers. The quality level has stayed admirably high, their every move suffused with an aspirational quality born of considering comedy an art form, not a mere commodity.

A lot of people appreciate how hard the Lakeshore crew tried to move live comedy away from the tired "two drinks and a cover charge" model. Working in a converted movie theater, the Lakeshore physically had more room to operate, and took advantage by booking a wider range of acts than just standups, though they had plenty of those.

One night was a rock band, the next a burlesque variety show, the next a touring event like Cinematic Titanic, the live stage show from the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" crew. From day one the Lakeshore's manifesto was: "You can just show up here and find something interesting. Trust our judgment and come on out." It was an ambitious philosophy but one they lived up to with more hits than misses.

Playing in a legitimate theater rather than a cramped downtown club, their shows felt like events. Catching big-time headliners (Louis C.K., Dave Attell, Patton Oswalt, Todd Barry, Janeane Garofalo) and hotshot upstarts (Jamie Kilstein, T.J. Miller, Hannibal Buress, Prescott Tolk, Nick Thune) in a packed Lakeshore made for many a memorable night.

Along the way, the Lakeshore Theater grew into a beloved institution around town. Second City is considered the gold standard here for sketch comedy; IO Theater is the home of long-form improvisation; ComedySportz plays short-form improv games. The Lakeshore, in the minds of many, is the place for everything else. Its closure is a big loss.

Here's to Chris Ritter, his wife Jessica, and the capable crew who built the Lakeshore into a major force in the Chicago arts community. I've enjoyed my many visits as both Flavorpill writer and comedy fan (on a good day, the two roles are barely distinguishable) and always found the Lakeshore staff to be complete pros. They'll surely get snapped up quickly by other theaters but I'll miss seeing them over at Belmont and Broadway.

It's not too late to stop by the Lakeshore one last time. Their run wraps up this weekend with the Australian comic Jim Jeffries, whose outrageous act I caught at the Lakeshore late one night during last summer's Just For Laughs Chicago Festival. He's a fitting way for the Lakeshore to go out because he typifies their credo: talented, unapologetic, hilarious and real.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Winning isn't everything

...but it beats losing. Just ask West Virginia and Michigan State, who were excused from the Final Four last night without playing in the championship game.

I got a brush with the victory laurels this week when I was among ten people randomly chosen as March 2010 winners over at the MGWCC. You say you don't know what that is? Why, it's Matt Gaffney's Weekly Crossword Contest.

The MGWCC got its start when its creator decided to start a new website and name it "MGWCC." He then did the best he could to figure out some content that would fit that name. By a series of happy coincidences,
  • this person happens to be named Matt Gaffney. He is
  • a professional crossword puzzle constructor,
  • a creative and prolific one to boot, with both
  • the inclination to administer a crossword contest and
  • the talent to create a new grid and embedded puzzle ("metapuzzle") every week.
Thus was Matt Gaffney's Weekly Crossword Contest born.

I learned about it last April at the first annual Chicago crossword puzzle tournament. (The second annual is around the corner, by the way: 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 17 at Marbles the Brain Store, 55 E. Grand Ave., Chicago. More information here.)

Matt Gaffney started the MGWCC in mid-2008 and it's grown steadily ever since. People like me hear about it via word of mouth and stop by crosswordcontest.blogspot.com to check out the latest puzzle and read about other people's misadventures in solving the most recent challenge. There's a new puzzle every Friday; you can subscribe to a free weekly email reminder.

Then we mention it to friends and they get into it too. Thus has Matt amassed, in under two years, over a thousand participants. It's sort of like the way I started this site in late 2007 and have built my readership up to nearly five people.

The challenge in each week's contest isn't exactly to solve the crossword correctly, though of course that helps. I mentioned a "metapuzzle" above; this is the brain-teaser puzzle that Matt builds into the crossword, a separate bonus question whose answer is informed by the crossword and its clues. So first you solve the crossword, then you work on the "meta." If you can figure that out, you email Matt the answer and you're entered in the contest.

As you may know, the New York Times crossword is easiest on Mondays and gets progressively harder through the week, culminating in many people's personal Everest, the Saturday puzzle (which was more like a Thursday this week, but I digress).

Matt structures the MGWCC with a similar progressive buildup, starting the month with a Monday-level crossword and ending the month with a Saturday-type grid. The metas get commensurately tougher too: each month starts with a gimme and ends with an often brutal test. The numbers bear out Matt's skill in spreading it around, as each month generally sees a steady drop in correct answers from week to week.

As a frequently published author of puzzle books, Matt is in an excellent position to give out prizes. Each week he gives one randomly chosen correct solver their choice of his bookshelf full of titles. He also rewards consistency at the end of each month by randomly choosing ten players who ran the table and sending them a MGWCC pen, pencil and notepad set. These are functional trophies akin to green jackets from Augusta: you have to earn 'em.

I don't think I've gotten through too many months with a perfect record because the last week or two often knocks me out. Some of those things are crazy hard. As for March 2010, there were a few tricky moments but I was one of 52 people who managed to cross the finish line unblemished. From that group I was among the ten randomly chosen winners. I was happy to see that another of the ten was FOBB&B, New York Times crossword constructor and man-about-Boston Joon Pahk.

Click here to read Matt's writeup of the March 2010 contest, where you'll also find the latest crossword and meta. Put on your thinking cap and who knows, maybe you'll be the next person Matt sends a prize.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Being There


I have this old friend from the Chicago comedy scene. Let's call him Miles. He and his wife moved away years ago so he could attend grad school in New England. They later settled in greater Washington, D.C.

Miles and I have kept in touch and are regularly reconnected by a surprising number of mutual friends and common experiences. And though I started this site long after he left, he's been a loyal reader since day one.

Miles has great taste in, impressive credentials in, and deep knowledge about, the American arts scene. Among other things, he's a big Wilco guy. Having seen Uncle Tupelo repeatedly back in the day, I like them too, but Miles knows their stuff cold.

The other night, Miles caught a Wilco concert at a stately theater in Bethesda, Maryland. (He and I once joined a high school friend of mine at a Jeff Tweedy show at the Vic Theatre, after which a drunken ping-pong war ensued in my friend's basement, so this was the latest refraction of a shared experience.)

Miles wasn't the only Chicago expatriate at the show; he sat near my neighbor, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. A photographer for the Washington Post snapped a photo of Emanuel in the crowd (see above), inadvertently also documenting Miles' attendance.

Miles reports that Rahmbo seemed particularly excited about the song "Via Chicago."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

For my next trick...

I baked a pie yesterday.

No I didn't.

That is all.