Archive for April 2011

Chicago’s 311 system needs to call 311

28 April 2011
Categories: Chicago, Rants

Chicago’s 311 service is not that bad.

Really.

I’ve put in requests over the phone, and I’ve put in requests using the online forms, and with both methods the problems (graffiti, street lights out, etc.) have been handled within about a week.

That’s a fine response time for a city with 2.7 million potential requesters. Yet I find the system, in particular the online system, to be untrustworthy. Or rather, I feel the system is trying to make me not want to trust it.

It starts by asking for your address, which makes sense. But then, after filling in the specifics of the request, you have to enter your entire address all over again—including the city and state! For some reason the form is unaware that it’s for Chicago residents only. That’s a weird disconnect, giving me the sense that clicking the “submit” button is tantamount to tossing a pebble into the ocean: good luck ever seeing it again, nor any result from your action.

That sense of perceived futility is compounded manyfold by the response you get after submitting. The completion page reads, in part:

Thank you for reporting your city service needs. You will receive a confirmation E-mail with your service request tracking number and a link to the status query page once your service request has been added to the primary service request tracking system.

If you would like more information or further explanation regarding the completion of your request, please call 311 and reference your service request tracking number.

Cool—that sounds great. Trouble is, when the confirmation e-mail arrives, it reads, in its entirety:

Thank you for submitting your service request.

If you would like more information or further explanation regarding the completion of your request, please call 311 and reference the type of service you requested and the location where the service was needed.

Again, thank you for doing your part to improve the quality of life in your community. We will continue to do our part by providing all residents with the best possible level of service. Should you have any questions about the types of services the City provides, or would like to check the status of other requests, please call 311 Chicago’s Other Help line or (312) 744-5000, if calling from outside of Chicago.

No tracking number, no link to the status query page. And no, I’m not going to call 311 to check on the status—precisely what I was trying to avoid by using the online form. (I found the supposed status query page via Google, only to be told, “No service requests have been created within the last three months for the address you queried on”—a statement I know to be false.)

Yes, the city has taken care of the problems I’ve reported in a timely manner. But if Mayor-elect Emanuel wants to improve the transparency of city services, as he claims, that’s a quick and easy place to start.

That other show “set in Chicago”

27 April 2011

So as I ruminated on The Chicago Code and lamented that it’s almost surely about to be cancelled after only its first season, and pondered why Chicagoans are so unwilling to embrace it—and spotted the tip of the iceberg, at least, of that lattermost topic—it occurred to me that there is one other truly Chicago-based show in existence.

The Beast, starring Patrick Swayze.

Okay, well, sort of.

[An aside: The Beast aired more than two years ago, so any reveals that may follow can no longer be deemed spoilers. Nevertheless, you’ve been warned.]

If I modify my previous statement to say, “The Chicago Code is the only major-network show to be truly based in Chicago ever,” then the statement is very much true, without exception. There are no others. The Beast aired on cable channel A&E, quietly, in January–April 2009. Being a less-than-frequent A&E watcher, I was completely unaware of it airing—and would have been unaware of its existence, if not for several scenes of it having been filmed in the vicinity of my work. (In fairness, part of the reason it flew under the radar was the unavailability, due to illness, of its lead actor for press tours.)

Moreover, although it was filmed entirely in and around Chicago, The Beast could take place in almost any American city, for this reason: the stylish cinematography, lighting, camera angles, etc., seem geared to conceal the location, the sometimes-surprising appearance of the ‘L’ notwithstanding.

In one of the “behind-the-scenes” clips, director Michael Watkins compares filming The Beast to his previous work on The X-Files. He says that the city where they filmed X-Files was “the third character,” that its mood and appearance were significant elements of the show. And in the same way, The Beast definitely benefits from the look, the style, the grit of Chicago. Chicago definitely comes through as the “third character” of The Beast.

And yet, just like X-Files’ Vancouver, The Beast’s Chicago is Everycity. I’m not saying that they should have thrown in landmark clichés like Navy Pier or Wrigley Field just to signify “hey, we’re in Chicago.” But with only a few exceptions, the overly generic urban locations all look alike—and in many cases, they are. Four completely different scenes take place in a single block of Monitor Avenue. Nefarious stuff always seems to be happening in dark alleys—and if there’s an ‘L’ track nearby, it’s surely happening within a two-block radius in River North. Barker and Conrad’s usual meeting place is an old factory space that I’m pretty sure is on the “backlot,” what there is of one, at Chicago Studio City. And there’s a three-block stretch of West Roosevelt Road, just a stone’s throw from the studio on the border between Chicago and Cicero, that’s used time and again as the show’s go-to urban street.

So even with the verity of using the actual vicinity of the FBI’s Chicago field office—the Federal Plaza on South Dearborn—as itself in a couple of early episodes, The Beast hides its Chicago-ness. So much so, that when the nuclear physicist in episode 5 tells Barker that her husband is “right here in Chicago,” I thought to myself—“oh yeah, this is taking place in Chicago.” That fact had completely slipped my mind.

And that’s coming from a viewer who was watching specifically because the show was filmed in Chicago.

That gripe aside, I enjoyed the thirteen-episode run of The Beast, even though it suffers from typical rookie-season foibles. Along with some fairly cheesy lines delivered with earnest intensity, the show’s biggest issue comes in the form of crime-show clichés, which are rife throughout. They use the “pull the trigger on an unloaded gun to freak out the suspect” gag twice, and even resort to the tired old chestnut, “‘How did you know?’ – ‘You just told me.’” The bad-guy son of the foreign diplomat uses “diplomatic immunity” as protection from prosecution for his nefarious schemes. One episode involves a doctor with a God complex who thinks his murders are “mercy killings.”

But that’s okay. As I said, that’s typical for a show’s rookie season—the writers and actors are still getting a feel for the characters and their world. Even the best shows are lucky if they have that settled in within their first thirteen episodes.

The Beast definitely gets it together by the end of its first season. Unlike most critics I enjoyed Travis Fimmel’s portrayal of Barker’s partner, Ellis Dove, whose deadpan smirk and flat delivery show a certain wisdom: better to underplay it when working opposite Patrick Swayze. The star of the supporting cast is Chicago’s own Kevin J. O’Connor, sporting one of the most awesome mustaches on television in recent memory, and bringing a complex, nuanced depth to his role as Barker’s handler, Harry Conrad.

In the end, I can honestly say I’m disappointed that The Beast wasn’t able to continue.

The final two episodes did it for me. A tip about a counterfeiting ring leads to a meeting that goes sideways and turns out to be a frame-up on Barker. He goes to ground and by the end of it, it’s clear that all his paranoid trust-no-one attitude has been justified, that everyone outside his tiny coterie (Ellis, Conrad, and—maybe—Ray Beaumont) is either corrupted, or unwittingly co-opted by the corruption.

Suddenly all the pieces of the long arc, set up over the course of the season, fall into place. The characters are developed and the universe of the show is established. Meanwhile that thirteenth episode finally embraces Chicago as its location in a way that the show hadn’t done since its first few episodes. For the first time, an aerial shot runs along Lake Shore Drive; the Sears Tower appears prominently over Ellis’ shoulder; several scenes occur alongside the main branch of the river with Chicago’s distinctive skyline all around. Sure, there are several instances of West Roosevelt Road, The Beast’s Everystreet, in this episode too, as there have been throughout. But for what feels like the first time in several episodes, we escape the claustrophobic back alleys and factory lots and really see that what’s taking place is happening in a very specific place, the city of Chicago.

Most of all, what makes every episode of this show worthwhile is Patrick Swayze, for he plays such a delightful bad-ass. But the eternal legacy of The Beast is that it was Swayze’s final role, that it’s a document of a man powering through the pain of the cancer that was killing him. He’s so pale and gaunt, his eyes hollow and dark and filled with acute awareness of his own mortality, and yet he brings a fiery intensity to the role that enables even the silliest lines to ring true. It may be the best performance of his career.

Even when the final episode ends with Barker taking down a sniper and then silently calling out, with the point of a finger, the FBI assistant director responsible for ordering the hit, I could shrug off the implausibility of why she would be anywhere near the scene, watching through binoculars. Because then Swayze walks off into the sunset—well, actually toward the amber-lit archway of a pedestrian underpass—and I was saddened. Not just for the loss of Patrick Swayze, cut down before his time—but also for the loss of The Beast, and its leaving one of Swayze’s most dramatic and interesting roles unfinished.

The entire run of The Beast, disingenuously packaged as “Season One,” is available in a single DVD set from Amazon.com.

A book in the hand…

20 April 2011
Categories: From the armchair

I will never own a Kindle.

Nor any of the other electronic readers on the market, of which the Kindle seems to be the most popular (and is definitely the best named) option. Even though it’s all too easy to use its name generically—like Kleenex or Band-aid—I’ll refrain and stick to “reader” for the remainder of this post.

Too many arguments against readers are aesthetic: they’re flat-out hard to read, or sunshine causes screen glare, or they lack the feel of a real book in your hands.

Whatever. Those arguments are all too easily dismissed as the carping of Luddites. “I cannot manoeuvre this horseless carriage with its newfangled round steering wheel. Give me the tiller of my flivver any day!”

I’m all for new gadgets, new ways of receiving information. I read enough on a computer screen, day in day out, that it’s much more habitual to me than, say, paging through a newspaper. And there is a lot of stuff out there that is out of print, and hard to find, but which has been digitized and placed online, and that’s a Very Good Thing. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with a reader, at least in principle, as a medium for the printed word.

But here’s why I will not purchase a reader.

A few weeks ago, I got onto an Apollo kick, spurred in part by my recent reading of Moondust by Andrew Smith. I wanted to re-watch the brilliant HBO series From the Earth to the Moon under the contrary-to-popular-opinion mindset, proposed by Smith, that President Kennedy’s famous challenge “killed ‘manned’ Deep-Space exploration, stone dead, for at least the next four decades and probably many more.” At the same time, I decided to re-read the primary source for the HBO series, Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon.

coverAs I pulled Chaikin’s book from my shelf, I noted my handwritten imprimatur on the flyleaf, which stated that I bought the book in December 1994. I’ve read this book all the way through a few times since then, and used its appendices as a reference many, many times more. I have certainly gotten my money’s worth (a $15.95 cover price) from this book.

Then I thought about that time span. In the sixteen-plus years since I bought that book, how many times have I replaced my desktop computer, my laptop, or their operating systems? A very rough estimate: 7. Technology changes, hardware obsolesces.

If I had a reader, and bought this (or any) book today… how easy would it be, sixteen years from now, to read that book again or even pick it up for a quick fact-check? Would my old reader still work? Would I still have it? Would I be able to load that old digital file into my current reader? How long would it take to find the file, much less upload it? By the time all that was done, would I still care about the fact I was attempting to check, or would I have already resorted to Googling the darn thing and hoping to find an accurate answer elsewhere?

Or—might I have to buy the book all over again?

Instead, I walk into the room that doubles as my home office and library, pull the book off the shelf—it’s right there, easily found under the “C”s—and get the answer I need following a quick riffle through the pages. No waiting for an upload to finish, nor any need to reboot.

In short, it’s all about time—both mine, and the book’s. I’ve spent enough time in my life waiting for computers to do what I’ve asked them to do, that I’m no longer willing to wait for them; besides, a real book never needs a reboot. And while with just a modicum of care a real book will last well beyond my lifetime, I’m skeptical that an e-book will last even long enough for me to get around to reading it a second time.

But yes, sure, I have less tangible reasons as well for liking this book in its old-fashioned, physical form—and moreover, personal ones.

On a wintry day in December 1994, I’m reading this book for the first time, sitting in the fondly remembered Bagel–Fragel deli. In walks one of my bosses, Professor Brian Silver, chair of the political science department. He says hi, and asks what I’m reading. I show him the cover.

He snatches the book out of my hands and starts flipping quickly through the pages. What’s he up to? I wonder. He’s paging through too quickly to read anything, he’s not trying to get the gist of the book. It’s almost like he’s seen it before…

He gets to one of the photo pages between pages 430 and 431, stabs his finger at the top photo, and hands the open book back to me. “That’s my uncle,” he says, with a hint of pride.

I look at the photo, read its caption: Standing on a mountaintop in Colorado amid the primary and backup crews of Apollo 15 is Professor Lee Silver, Cal Tech geologist extraordinaire, the man most responsible for turning a bunch of type-A fighter jocks into able field geologists. (He was portrayed with delightful, eccentric earnestness by David Clennon in From the Earth to the Moon, one of the standout roles in the series.) His nephew’s familial pride is well-earned.

I remember that moment so distinctly because it was the first time in my life that I’d had an inkling of my own connection, albeit tertiary, to some of my biggest heroes—the men who walked on the moon. All at once they were real people, not just faceless spacesuited gnomes humping around a lumpy grey lunar landscape in old NASA footage, nor smiling, aviator-glasses-wearing, crew-cut-sporting military men in grainy photo reprints in a book. And I knew someone who knew someone who knew them.

And that moment, that spark of recognition that everyone in the world is interconnected in some way, is tied to this book, this particular copy of this book, the one I hold in my hands now.

Could an electronic reader ever be able to duplicate that?

Record Store Day

16 April 2011
Categories: Music appreciation

Today is Record Store Day—a somewhat new, um, international holiday. Surely conceived as a backlash against the impersonality of iTunes and big, corporate-owned, online retailers, Record Store Day celebrates the independent, locally owned, bricks-and-mortar record store. This is a good thing, and I hope these businesses can continue to survive in the digital age.

I’ll admit, however, that I myself have not been much of an actual, fiscal supporter of the local record stores in my neighbourhood in recent years. The reason is simple, and as my wife put it, succinct: I’ve gotten old. When I walk in and find the music piped through the store’s stereo to be unwelcoming, if not off-putting; when I peruse the stacks and not only find nothing I want, find that ninety percent of it is completely unfamiliar to me; it’s clear that yes, I’m old.

That’s okay; I’m cool with that. The record stores in my neighbourhood are not for me. I’m still happy to know they’re there, pleased to see (as I did yesterday) a young woman on the bus clutching a shopping bag from one of them.

The record store is a land of escape and discovery, in a way that no online store can be. In my student days it was a frequent ritual: Flip through the stacks, pause at an interesting title, read the liner notes and song list, track down that one elusive item to fill a gap in my collection, or find something utterly new to my knowledge, weigh the cost of my desire and the cash in my pocket against the need to buy groceries that week, and at the end of the day take home one or several prizes—or none, if it came to that—and cue up a magical musical realm.

Once, when I was a sophomore in college, it was the first Saturday of spring break and both campus and the city were a ghost town. It was early-spring cool, windy and overcast, with everything still a little grey around the edges.

The sidewalks of the main drag were almost deserted when I walked into the secondhand record store Wazoo Records. I was only partly in a mood to browse; partly I wanted a refuge against the chill for a little while.

Nothing in the stacks really appealed to me, but one thing kept catching my eye. It was an LP, sitting on a high shelf behind the counter, protected by a clear plastic sleeve. The almost-naked woman on the cover was the eye-catcher, in a prurient way. It took several intermittent sidelong glances before I finally read the title.

Moontan, by Golden Earring.

MoontanThat clicked in my brain: Of course! That crappy cover on the CD issue that I owned was a fig leaf, a replacement for the much more risqué original. I had to have it, and not merely for the naughty cover art. I was willing to bet it also contained an inner sleeve and liner notes also missing from the CD, stuff from an era when records were albums, not just collections of songs, in which the music was the centerpiece of a larger, complete package.

The price, however, was daunting. It might have been as much as twenty bucks, which now doesn’t seem like all that much but in those unemployed-student days meant the difference between eating out, and eating ramen. If I bought it, it certainly would be the only record I could afford that day, and would preclude another record store visit for the next few weeks as well.

So I dithered about it, and continued to wander the stacks, hoping something equally appealing—and significantly cheaper—would pop up. But nothing did, and ultimately I walked up to the counter and told the owner I wanted to buy the Moontan LP. He smiled, took it down, held it gently by its edges for a moment as if regarding an old friend for the last time, peered at the price tag, looked up at me, and said, “Nah, I can’t sell it to you for that—”

He paused for half a beat, just long enough for me to start to think, “shit, now I’ll never afford it.”

“—how about ten bucks?”

I was dumbfounded. It took me a moment to realize he’d cut the price, not raised it. I stammered, then agreed, and he bagged it up and sent me on my way.

I don’t know why he did it. Pity on a long-haired hippie kid? A vague sense that it was going to an appreciative home? A camaraderie across the generations, a sharing of a great slice of rock-’n’-roll from one music lover to another? Or just tired of having it on his shelves, taking up space?

I’ve no idea, and no matter. Whether it was his ploy or not, he certainly gained a regular customer for the remainder of my years there.

Wazoo Records closed its doors in 2006 after 31 years in business, surely one of a multitude of victims of the digital age. Here’s hoping other record stores may continue to thrive, and that Record Store Day remains a celebration of a vital industry, and not a requiem for a dying breed.

Brainiac by Ken Jennings

7 April 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Here’s a bit of trivia you might not know: Ken Jennings is a very funny guy.

Like many Jeopardy! viewers, I watched Jennings’ 75-game marathon in 2004 with decidedly undecided feelings. I never really rooted for him, nor against him. To be frank, I usually don’t even care about the contestants at all. As I have for years, even long before my own appearance on the show when I routinely taped (yes, taped, on a VCR) the episodes, I time-shift my viewing not only to skip the commercials, but also to bypass the contestant introductions and chats. This enables me to view a full three episodes in an hour, and makes the show all about the trivia, and not the trappings.

Besides, the contestants are really just a never-ending series of interchangeable trivia geeks. Unless one stands out as particularly charismatic or attractive—or on the rare occasion I recognize a face, such as that of Matt Ottinger, host of WKAR-TV’s QuizBusters and one of many victims of the Ken Jennings buzz saw (game 14)—they’re all the same. Myself included.

And Ken was certainly no exception. That’s not meant as a slam on him, it’s just stating a fact that Jeopardy! is hardly an ideal venue for anyone’s personality to shine. He was just an ordinary, clean-cut, “Opie-looking guy from Utah” (his words, not mine), and the fact that he kept showing up behind Podium #1 was, from a purist’s point-of-view, a distraction from The Game. And he was so damn good at it, and yet so overtly milquetoast, that it seemed the only way to make him interesting was to believe he was some sort of replicant, or android. So while it was fun to see his streak continue on the basis of witnessing quiz-show history, both of those facts—his persona and his prowess—made it awfully hard to root for him.

With that bias firmly in place, imagine my surprise when Ken showed up last month on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview, under the pseudonym “Watson’s Bitch”—a self-deprecating reference to his recent on-air drubbing at the “hands” of a specialized IBM supercomputer—responding off-the-cuff to dozens of questions, big and small, with witty jibes and candid good humour. Some of his replies were snarfing-coffee-out-the-nose funny. And somewhere in there he mentioned his blog, which I found contains much more of the same.

And, shockingly, he’s got a taste for the occasional dirty joke. I suppose we should have figured that out from game 53, given his response to the clue “This term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker”—although maybe that particular example is more of a pun. But if your idea of “what Mormons are like” comes from a certain HBO series, you might be surprised by his reprinting of a typically smutty old Spy List on his blog, or this response in his Reddit AMA:

TheCrimsonKing: You’re a little too funny, did you hire writers with your winnings?

WatsonsBitch: Bruce Vilanch is hiding under my desk right now. Unfortunately he’s not writing jokes for me, if you know what I mean.

Or this exchange with a friend while they toured Stevens Point, Wisconsin, during that city’s annual three-day trivia event:

Earl and I decide to spend the day visiting as many trivia players as possible, and so we pore over a list of all 435 registered teams. “Shall we just go by team name?” asks Earl. “I want to visit K-Y Jelly Doughnuts and Drain Bamage.”

“Some of these names are pretty dirty,” I notice. “Let’s just visit every team where the name is an oral sex reference.”

“I don’t think we have that kind of time.”

Ken Jennings’ 2006 book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, is a must-read for any trivia buff, dilettante, or even neophyte. The narrative is excellent; through the course of the book Ken takes us through his complete Jeopardy! experience, from audition to post-defeat interviews. Some of the behind-the-scenes action, while never dishing any dirt or revealing Sony’s top secrets, does give prospective contestants a good general idea of what to expect with the show.

Meanwhile, Ken takes us on a journey through trivia. He presents us with a thorough rundown of trivia’s history from (not-so) ancient times. The scandals of the 1950s, and the birth of College Quiz Bowl in the 1960s. The amazing surge of trivia popularity in the 1980s, fueled by the blockbuster sales of Trivial Pursuit. The bar-trivia NTN network, a.k.a. Buzztime, and the annual temporary insanity of Stevens Point (which, by the way, begins tomorrow evening). And much more.

It’s a terrific book for trivia junkies, not least because he slips trivia questions into each chapter (usually ten, although the chapter about the general types of trivia questions and how to compose them triples that total). Just like a good game of trivia, there are plenty of “aha!” and “I didn’t know that!” moments. Without overreaching, he explains how trivia is a pervasive and positive force in modern life, its most obvious benefit being the way in which it brings people together.

On his website, Ken Jennings is hawking copies of Brainiac, which he offers to autograph and personalize, and still sell at a steep discount off the cover price. Although this has led to a spate of “high maintenance” signing requests, I suspect it’s a good ploy to unload a case (or three) of books that he likely got for free from the publisher and might otherwise sit in his garage forever.

I ordered a copy for myself, making a (low-maintenance, I hope) request for him to “feel free to make any witty-if-disparaging remark you like about my one-day appearance on Jeopardy!” Ken’s response was absolutely typical Ken Jennings—humourous, upbeat, and not the least bit mean-spirited: