Author Archive

Puzzling solo

13 June 2014
Categories: Rants

The New York Times overhauled its iPad crossword puzzle app a couple of weeks ago, and perhaps the biggest change in this new version is that it’s no longer tied to a third-party social media game center. This means the elimination of the leaderboard, which appeared to rank the puzzle-solving speed of thousands of puzzle solvers around the world.

The competitor in me was a bit upset by this change. Not to brag (okay, bragging a little), I had doggedly maintained a Top 25 ranking on the leaderboard for 258 consecutive days, a streak that would have been much longer had I not spent two (refreshing) days off the grid last Labor Day weekend. I clawed my way into the Top 10 a few times, and enjoyed the challenge of taking on not just the clock but the wits of my fellow puzzle solvers.

Except—that’s not what was really happening.

About two weeks before the new release, by chance, I discovered a nasty little secret of the old app. The answer key to a puzzle was screwed up (as can happen, often when the grid contains rebuses), so I hit the main page’s reload button to get a fresh download. This fixed the answer key and cleared the grid—and it also reset the clock. I filled in the grid quickly, since I’d already figured out the clues, and this time the checker routine popped up the familiar “Well Done” sign.

As a result I scored my fastest time ever for solving a puzzle. The game center credited me with the third-fastest solution among thousands of solvers.

I immediately realized that a very simple cheat was to solve the puzzle at leisure—but leave one square blank so as not to trigger the checker routine. Pop out to the main menu, reload the puzzle, then fill the grid in as fast as the keyboard allows. Result: a very fast time (and high score) regardless of how much grief the puzzle might have given while actually solving it.

No wonder the daily leaderboard was full of names who consistently posted times right around two minutes, no matter whether the puzzle was a simple Monday or a difficult Saturday. And who appeared to be able to plow through a big Sunday grid in only a few minutes more.

I’m thoroughly convinced that the old app’s all-time leaderboard was topped by several persons that had no interest in true competition, who were willing to exploit this flaw (and fill in the grid twice) every day simply for the ego trip of seeing their username top the list. That the leaderboard—I should say, cheaterboard—was a ranking not of the fastest puzzle solvers, but rather of the fastest grid fillers.

So in the end, although it has a few quirks that need to be ironed out, I’m glad of the overhauled app. As much as I would like to know how well I’d fare against the puzzle solvers of the world, the old app wasn’t providing that—even as it purported to. Now it’s just me against the puzzle’s author, the ticking clock only a fleeting indication of how well I’ve done since my time is not even recorded on my own “completed puzzles” page.

To the cheaterboard: good riddance.

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Ballpark, in Six Easy Steps

14 June 2013
Categories: Chicago, Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

Step 1: Acquire a professional sports team that plays in an aging but hallowed and much-beloved stadium.

Step 2: Declare the team incapable of financial solvency if it doesn’t receive a new stadium.

Step 3: Threaten to move the team out of town if it doesn’t get everything it wants.

Step 4: Hire a top-dollar design firm to create a stadium plan that pays lip service to “tradition” and “history” but satisfies neither.

Step 5: Demand millions of dollars in public funding to build the new stadium.

Step 6: Overhaul—or raze—the old stadium, replacing it with something that is both an architectural monstrosity and a soulless fan experience.

Am I joking? Let’s see…

Comiskey Park, built in 1910 for the Chicago White Sox. A classic of the early modern era albeit with its share of obstructed views. Itasca and Addison, Illinois are among the threatened move-to cities. The replacement, U.S. Cellular Field, is built at a cost of $167 million by the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, a government agency. For supposedly historical reasons, the new stadium puts home plate nearest 35th Street—since that’s where it was in Comiskey, which stood a block to the north. As a result, the view toward the outfield faces some of the city’s most notorious housing projects (now razed and vacant lots) instead of the spectacular skyline to the north. A dozen follow-up renovations in as many years can never fix that.

Soldier Field, originally built as a memorial to fallen American servicemen following World War I, and home of the Chicago Bears since 1971. After a proposal for a domed replacement tanks, Hoffman Estates and Aurora are floated as options. The Chicago Park District, which owns the stadium, pays about 62% of a $660 million renovation. The resulting transformation retains the original colonnades but dwarfs them beneath an enormous and incongruous silver alien-spaceship-looking structure. Meanwhile inside, the stadium *loses* 5,000 seats, so that after a two-thirds-billion-dollar reno it is the smallest in the NFL.

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule… that being Chicago Stadium, home of the Blackhawks since its opening in 1929, and the Bulls since 1967. A grand old edifice and site of many historic events—but really not much more than a glorified barn. You know, the kind of place hockey is meant to be played in. Owners Reinsdorf (Bulls) and Wirtz (Blackhawks), neither one a saint, nevertheless do not (so far as I have found) threaten to pull out of town. They build the United Center without using public funds, getting only various tax breaks in return. I say “only” because the estimated $5 million per year in property tax savings seems a pittance compared to… say, Soldier Field’s cost to the rest of us taxpayers. And the UC is not a bad arena, though it’s much, much better for sports than it is for concerts.

So be prepared for the worst, Cubs fans. Because the Ricketts have already completed steps 1 through 5 like clockwork, like they’ve read the Chicago Stadium Handbook cover to cover. Step 6 is inevitable. And as much as they want to pretend that their Wrigley Field overhaul will be sympathetic to the landmark structure, that it’s a “restoration” to some supposed (but unprecedented) historic ideal, that it’s all for our benefit, nothing about a massive Jumbotron is meant to improve the fan experience—it is purely for profit.

This for a team that is “incapable of financial solvency” (my words, but strongly implied by numerous public statements by the owners), despite having the highest operating income—and fourth highest revenue—in Major League Baseball.

The Trib’s Cheryl Kent wrote a well-reasoned overview of the Wrigley Field plan from an architectural and urban-planning standpoint, revealing that despite including several good improvements it suffers from a severe lack of authenticity and a shortsightedness that runs counter to any claims by the owners of being “in it for the long run.”

 

“Be Alert for Foul Balls!”

19 September 2012

Sunday, September 16, Cubs versus Pirates at Wrigley Field, bottom of the 7th inning. Chris Leroux pitching, Luis Valbuena at the plate. On a 2-1 count, Valbuena hit a screaming foul ball down the right field line and into the stands just beyond the visiting team’s dugout. WGN briefly showed a woman sitting in her seat, shocked, surprised, quite still, surrounded by people all looking her way with concerned looks on their faces. Then the television cut away, and Len Kasper made the usual-yet-earnest comment about “we hope that fan is all right.”

Umpire crew chief Joe West, stationed at first base, called “time”—and for a few minutes Kasper, Bob Brenly, and “guest conductor” Lee Smith vamped about the wisdom of suspending play momentarily while the fan could be checked out, and more importantly while everyone around her was distracted by the activity. It is a smart decision, and no surprise it came from West, whose 34-year tenure makes him the most veteran of active umpires in the majors. After all, no one wants to be the umpire that called “play ball” only to have another fan get hit by a ball because they were watching the stadium crew help someone else. Meanwhile WGN, like most sports broadcasters, took the courteous and privacy-respecting route and did not show the (possibly injured) fan again.

Of course there is no mention of the incident in any coverage of the game, no way of finding out what happened or if she’s all right.

There’s nothing unusual about any of this, but what set me to thinking about it was a moment an inning or two earlier. As a left-handed batter approached the batter’s box the television showed, in the background, a family in the front couple of rows just to the home-plate side of the visitors’ dugout. Mere feet from the short brick wall—and beyond the protection of the backstop safety netting—were two little kids. Each about three years old, goofing around, having a blast at the ballpark, their elders amused by their antics, just a little scene of pure, “take me out to the ball game” joy.

And yet—both of those children had their backs to the field. They had not the slightest clue of what was happening there. If the foul ball blast that hit the woman an inning or two later would have gone toward one of those kids, no one would have been close enough or have had time enough to react. That ball at that velocity hits a kid in the back of the head, that kid is dead. Period.

It raises a question that has been raised by many before me: how prevalent are spectator injuries in baseball? Among the big-league sports I suspect that baseball and hockey are the two most dangerous with respect to spectator safety, and I’ll wager that baseball is more dangerous than hockey due to my anecdotal impression that more balls than pucks leave the field of play.

How dangerous? Hard to say. Major League Baseball has never undertaken a study of this—or at least never made one public—and for good reason. For MLB to pay close attention to the phenomenon it might give the impression that the league thinks there’s something of an epidemic, and that could cast a harsh light upon MLB’s “assumption of risk” defense.

Warning sign at Wrigley Field. I am not a fan of these signs; in my opinion the levity of the image undermines the seriousness of the warning. Photo by wallyg.You see, MLB ballclubs (and minor-league and independent ballclubs too) engage in what’s generally considered to be a reasonable level of spectator safe-keeping: backstop netting; plexiglas shields atop low, close-in walls; signs and public address messages warning about the risk of foul balls, etc. But beyond that the assumption of risk all lies upon the fans. It’s even printed on the back of every ticket, in boldface albeit extraordinarily tiny letters: “Holder assumes all risk incidental to the game of baseball… including (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by or in connection with any broken or released bat or any thrown or batted ball. Holder agrees [ballclub, et al.] are not liable for any resulting injuries.” In other words you enter the ballpark at your own risk, and your use of this ticket constitutes agreement to those terms.

Personally, I think that’s fair. I know the risk, yet consider the entertainment value of attending a live game to be worth that risk. On those (rare) occasions I get seats close to the field, I am acutely aware of the danger and make sure to maintain a high level of attention to the game. If I wanted to go to the game more for the social aspects, to hobnob with friends and shoot the breeze and enjoy Wrigley’s vaunted “huge beer garden” atmosphere, I’d prefer seats much farther from the action so I don’t have to worry about high-velocity foul balls (and broken bats, another issue altogether).

But back to the question: How dangerous? Well, one frequently cited study—which everyone cites but I cannot find online—“gives the incidence of injuries to MLB fans from foul balls as 35.1 injuries per every million spectator visits.” One site that mentions it equates this to 350 injuries in one season for a ballpark with 10 million total visitors, but I think this figure is—aside from dumbfoundingly obvious math—as disingenuous and obfuscating as the original. No ballpark, not even Yankee Stadium, comes close to even half of that 10-million total.

How about this, instead: at Wrigley Field, with a typical near-sold-out attendance on the order of 40,000 fans, there would be an average of 1.4 injuries PER GAME.

In other words, every game that’s played at Wrigley results in an injury to a fan. On average, that is; and assuming that study is accurate.

But who knows? Because MLB isn’t saying, and the broadcasters are keeping mum, purportedly out of politeness to the injured. (A cynic might point out that the broadcasters undoubtedly want to play nice with their teams with which they have such lucrative contracts, and I would not be surprised if there was some kind of gentleman’s agreement there, however tacit, like the good old days when newspapers refrained from printing photographs of FDR in his wheelchair.)

Which is not to accuse anyone of some sort of evil collusion. Like I said, in my opinion the ballclubs are doing what’s appropriate with regard to fan safety, and it’s encumbent upon us as fans to take some personal responsibility for our own well-being.

That said, I would most definitely subscribe to a weekly newsletter that published a run-down of all the fan injuries in Major League Baseball. Something simple, not too detailed or privacy-invading… “Sunday, 9/16, Pirates v. Cubs at Wrigley Field, bottom 7th, Luis Valbuena batting; woman struck in arm, refused treatment.” Or (and this is for real), “Friday, 7/6, Reds v. Padres at Petco Park, bottom 2nd, Will Venable batting; man struck in shoulder WHILE UPDATING FACEBOOK STATUS, nothing broken.” (That guy’s lucky not to be in the hospital or worse, and he knows it.) Heck, even just a stats line would be interesting: “This week: 95 games played, 3028 foul balls, 6 minor injuries, 1 injury requiring treatment, 0 deaths.”

This is not something meant to call out MLB for a possible epidemic it’s ignoring—serious injuries are, it seems, relatively uncommon, and deaths are exceedingly rare. Instead it would be meant to raise public awareness of the need for alertness while at the ballpark. Best of all, maybe it would save us all from the day when we find ourselves watching and enjoying a game, only to see some family’s day turn instantly from joy to tragedy as their little towheaded lad’s skull is crushed by a ball that would otherwise, under better and more attentive circumstances, be merely a “line drive out of play,” and a game-day souvenir.

 

Canning the “smart cans” for a while (if not longer)

10 April 2012
Categories: Chicago

Vanishing actEarlier this week, the trash can disappeared from the street corner near my office. The only sign of its prior existence: two quartets of severed bolts protruding from the darkened pavement, their shiny tops a bright testament to their recent rendezvous with a reciprocating saw.

Chicago Tribune article explains the disappearance: it was a BigBelly “smart can,” and it was deemed a potential hazard to next month’s NATO summit.

This raised all sorts of questions for me.

Are the BigBelly cans a good idea?

Yes, I think so. They’re solar-powered, so they require no infrastructure to install: just plant and go. Their internal compactors mean that they have much greater capacity than ordinary cans, and their output will take up less space in a landfill, which is a huge issue for the city these days. Also, according to the Trib, they send an email when they get full, a system that appears to result in quick response—in addition to its labor-saving benefit to workers that only have to empty cans that need emptying. Fuel savings and reduced air pollution are other positive factors. This is a technology that works.

How much of that labor-saving benefit is now being negated by having to remove the BigBelly cans, and later re-install them?

A lot, I’ll bet. Most of it, maybe—the cans were only installed a year ago. And yes, the work is being done by city workers so we’re all paying for it. Meanwhile who knows when, if ever, the smart cans—which cost nearly $4,000 each, part of a $2.5 million deal—will return to Chicago’s downtown streets. (“When the city’s public safety departments have deemed it appropriate to do so,” says the Streets&San spokesperson. Uh-huh.)

But isn’t the city right in thinking them less easy to check “for anything dangerous”?

Are we safe yet?Well, yes, I suppose so. With their drop-box hatches it’s not all that easy to view the contents of BigBelly cans. But aside from that, they’re not all that much more opaque than old-fashioned wire baskets, as the photo at right shows—the wire baskets house solid plastic inserts. Let’s be realistic: it is, unfortunately, not that difficult to make an effective, er, “dangerous anything” that can be readily camouflaged as innocuous-looking garbage, such that any wire basket more than half-filled with trash will conceal it from all but the most thorough checks (i.e., dumping everything out and sorting through it).

So, if it’s not likely to make much of a safety difference, why do it?

Here’s the rub: if something hidden in a wire basket goes bang and hurts people, the word is that it was hidden “in a trash container.” If it goes bang in a BigBelly can, that brand name is splashed all over every headline—right above a big colour photo of mayhem and destruction. In short, this is all a matter of pre-emptive face-saving on the part of the city, which has an option to buy many more BigBelly cans in the future.

I don’t blame the city for doing this; I really think it’s in our best interest, although I’m still a little disappointed to see these neat pieces of smart tech vanish from the streets. But let’s not pretend it’s going to make anyone any safer. It’s no substitute for what’s really needed, which is for every member of the public to take personal responsibility for public safety: to maintain awareness, to report suspicious activity, to “see something, say something.”

And finally, the big question few in this town ever seem to see fit to ask…

Which of former Mayor Daley’s friends and/or family made a buck off the BigBelly deal?

Come on, you know that’s what makes this “The City That Works.”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, et al, by John le Carré

20 March 2012
Categories: From the armchair

I have of late become totally obsessed with the spy novels of John le Carré.

I started with his classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a paragon of the genre, then went straight into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy—wanting to finish it before checking out the latest film adaptation starring Gary Oldman. That book was so riveting that I don’t think I’ll be able to stop at least until I finish the entire “Karla Trilogy,” and as such I am now well into The Honourable Schoolboy.

The thing that so fascinates me about these books—aside from the mere fact of their high literary quality—is this: I think we’ve all gotten used to the notion that a “spy thriller” is what we get from James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. To wit, a contiguous sequence of action set-pieces; squealing tires and machine gun staccato and elaborate fisticuffs and a massive explosion at the end. But le Carré uses almost none of these tropes. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is bookended with brief moments of violence, but that’s it for “action” as we’ve come to expect.

His actors aren’t supermen, nor indestructible forces of nature; they’re real people, human, fallible, prone to doubts and fears and errors. The stakes are high, so they tread carefully—and when a colleague dies, they feel the loss deeply. They don’t steel their jaws and move on in vengeful stoicism; they cry.

What happens in these novels is, for the most part, people sitting in rooms talking. Or walking together and talking. Or just… thinking about things. Much of the action takes place off-stage, while we learn of it through someone (usually George Smiley) sitting at a desk and reading the pages of an agent dossier or case report.

And yet—it’s all so gripping. There’s tension on every page, and the build-up to the climax (albeit often a quiet, sitting-in-rooms-talking kind of climax) keeps the pages turning. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is almost a mystery novel, rather than a spy novel, as Smiley gathers the clues that allow him to expose the mole within the Circus. As a protagonist, he’s closer to Jane Marple than James Bond. When, toward the end of the novel, he carries a gun, it’s almost shocking. You don’t want him to have to be so uncouth as to have to arm himself, let alone squeeze the trigger. But you root for him all the way nevertheless.

On top of that, there’s the fact that the author himself worked for the British intelligence services for many years. The sense of reality contained in his tales is so deep that I have to remind myself that these books are not historical non-fiction; that George Smiley didn’t really exist; that MI6 was not infiltrated by Soviet moles in the 1970s and very nearly brought to its knees (at least, so far as we know).

And it’s clear to me that the real world of spycraft is much more like the world of le Carré and George Smiley, all research and information-gathering and thinking, than it is like James Bond or Jason Bourne. And that makes these novels all the more interesting and exciting.