The board game (1860)

I was visiting my brother and his family last weekend, and after dinner we played a game my sister-in-law had salvaged from a thrift store: Go to the Head of the Class. The board reminded me of Around the World, which you probably remember from such high school romps as “Learn Your Spanish Verb Conjugations” or “Master the Names Associated with the Holy Roman Empire.” The game, while fun, is actually quite complicated and took us about two hours to complete, mostly because of the bizarre affinity in the question bank for musical composers (Irving Berlin’s name came up an abnormal number of times) as well as the stiff penalties associated with a lack of enthusiasm for musical theater popular to 1967 board game aficionados.

I joked to my niece that board games were the internet when I was growing up, an observation that produced the proper level of eye rolling (excessive).

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I realized that I didn’t even know what the first board game was. It is The Checkered Game of Life by Mr. Milton Bradley himself, ca. 1860. It’s preceded by any number of checkers varieties, which it undoubtedly copies (“checkered” as in “game board resembling a checker board”), but it includes such quintessentially upbeat American outcomes as “Prison,” “Ruin,” and “Disgrace” (see also “checkered” as in “marked by periods of varied fortune or discreditable incidents”). The perfect game for the city on the hill.

The first version of Monopoly was an anti-capitalist teaching tool co-opted by Parker Brothers. I’m not sure it comes across with the same message now, having just played a Star Wars version with my nephew last Christmas. At least you learn math; does Fortnyte teach you that? I think not (but I know not either, nor am I sure I spelled the name of that video game correctly).

I owe countless hours of childhood happiness to Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, playing games like Axis and Allies, Fortress America, Shogun, and Conquest of the Empire. I still love Risk, but find little opportunity to play it having few friends (grad school).

I occasionally see people playing European-style board games that emphasize cooperation, but for me the American board game emphasizing ruthless dominance, backstabbing, and arbitrarily complex rules (though Euro games have made headway there) have a special place as the games of my youth. If only we could take out our frustrations via a board game about Feudal Japan instead of endless rage spirals on Twitter.

Mars Pathfinder Rover (1997)

The term “break the internet” gets used for stupid, vain, idiotic purposes these days, but it was not always so. The Mars Pathfinder Mission and its Sojourner rover really did break NASA’s website in 1997. Now that we have reliable internet access at high speeds and 24/7 access to any content we want, the luster of something like “photographs from the surface of Mars” seems laughably quaint. Nevertheless, we’re still all captivated momentarily by scientific wonders (remember the “heart” on Pluto anyone? — or the discovery of the Higgs Boson?).

In 1997, people went ape shit over pictures from the Mars Rover. I didn’t even own what we now consider a modern computer until winter 1997, but I rode my bike to the public library to use their slow-ass Compaq whatever with a 28.8k modem to make it to this site:

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The “Load Capacity” seems similarly quaint (measuring hits in the tens of millions — with an “m” — as opposed to billions — with a “b”). Perhaps anticipating a small number of astronomy enthusiasts, NASA greatly underestimated the way in which the American public and world would react to photographs from the surface of the red planet. How nice it is to think that there were so many people filled with curiosity and so little skepticism (or worse, phony conspiracy bullshit) that they broke down NASA’s doors in a feverish attempt to get a glimpse. And even by today’s standards, it’s quite a glimpse:

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How satisfying it must feel to say “this is the best we had, and this is what we produced,” and have the effort produce astronomically (pun intended) more interest than expected.

The images loaded in strips like a digital telegraph, and the screen resolution was so low that it probably looked like an orange blur, but it was Mars, and we made it happen. For those of us not born when the Apollo moon missions were a shared collective achievement, and old enough only to remember the bitter tragedy of Challenger, the Pathfinder mission was a scientific redefinition of NASA as the people’s window to discovery and innovation. Posting photos on the internet was genius: publicly-owned content posted for anyone to view at their leisure. Judging by my students, private companies inspire a similar sense of wonder, but NASA didn’t try to sell anyone anything in 1997, and they don’t do it now. It’s just there for you to see.

“We’ve been smart” – Better times in American History / 1988 Moscow Summit

Lately I’ve just been so down every time I put the news on, and when I heard Trump’s comments at the joint news conference with Putin, it really came across as a low point in American history. I’m not talking about the substance of the comments necessarily (though those were disturbing to me), but more the way he disparaged the country with the toss off line, “I think the United States has been foolish.”

This country really has been foolish and wrong throughout history, and in the past I’ve written about the lack of historical understanding around Labor Day (it was a capitulation to labor leaders after a violent crackdown against unionization), antebellum Irish immigration (they were worked to death, as opposed to slaves who cost money), and the myth of Columbus (his troops were genocidal rapists that enslaved the native population).

But we’re far from foolish about everything. In fact, we do a lot of things right. I decided to counterprogram the stream of invective and bitter resentment that is current news and social media by writing once a week about something Americans did alright with. I, like many others, can’t stop watching the news, but I need some good stuff (and I’m not talking about soft-news interest pieces). I’m planning to write about great moments in culture, communication, and yes, maybe even some science.

This week: a timely reminder of diplomacy we could all be proud of.

***

1988 Moscow Summit

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan attended a special screening at the White House of a film called The Day After, which depicts in graphic detail the effects of a nuclear attack on the United States. In his diary that night, he wrote that he found the film “very effective” and that it left him “greatly depressed.” Four years later, the U.S. and Soviet Union would agree to ban intermediate range nuclear weapons at a summit in Washington D.C.

I don’t think, growing up as I did during the tail end of the Cold War, that I fully understood the prior animosity towards the USSR. I knew that they were the enemy, but I also didn’t understand why. This seems natural to me now. It was another generation’s war. My parents used to joke that they got a great deal on their honeymoon hotel because they went to New Orleans during the Cuban missile crisis (it was true), but on their bookshelf they had a title called A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union that I used to page through. It certainly has pictures of soldiers and state buildings, but it also depicts ordinary folks doing the same things we do, walking the same beautiful landscapes that we have here. It’s a photographic overture to detente.

In 1983, did Ronald Reagan even think that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire”? I imagine there were a lot of hard liners that this message resonated with, but the 1988 Moscow Summit wasn’t about hard-line tactics. The summit itself was something of a failure, with no “substantial progress on strategic arms control issues” resulting from the meeting. Nevertheless, Reagan had the opportunity to visit cultural sites and interact with the Soviet leadership in a more relaxed setting, having just pinned down that major arms ban treaty the previous year.

During the trip, Reagan and Gorbachev walked around Red Square with a group of security agents and press standing around them. At one point (about 10:00 in this video), they discuss the potential of a student exchange program; after Reagan gives a broad outline, Gorbachev remarks that they will meet each other while they are still young. The tail end of the remark is unintelligible due to background noise. Someone then points to an onlooker holding his child, and Gorbachev takes the kid and holds out his hand for Reagan to shake. The onlookers seem like plants, and it is pretty convenient that there’s an adorable child just as they come to the topic of student exchange, but the sentiment surpasses the artificiality of the setting.

Later, when a reporter asked Reagan if he still thought the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” he replied simply “no.” His reaction shows that he’s a bit uncomfortable in that moment. Perhaps he was thinking about the infant and the average folks that wanted nothing to do with nuclear war, realizing that the hard line approach was something of an awkward hanger on in the current atmosphere. Gorbechev starts to say something, and the reporter follows up with a “why not.” Reagan comes up with a truly great response: “I was talking about another time, another era.”

Bullshit, you might say, as that era was theoretically only five years prior. But the pace of change was picking up. Reagan viewed the Cold War as essentially over after the summit, but the major symbolic end really was only a year away with the fall of the Berlin Wall, called for by Reagan in 1987.

His comments weren’t exactly an apology or a capitulation, but they effectively brushed aside mistrust and hostile rhetoric in favor of a future focused on peace and arms reduction. I remember being in middle school in the 90’s and laughing when a teacher tried to tell us that we still needed to learn “duck and cover,” just in case nuclear war broke out. The optimism and diplomacy that those leaders demonstrated at that summit may not have resulted in any nuclear weapons being destroyed, but that spirit enabled an entire generation of children to think the prospect of a nuclear war was a relic of “another era.”

Updates to my personal website

I recently updated the structure and look of my personal website. The old site (shown below) was starting to look a bit dated. It had actually been in good condition for a long time, but Twitter decommissioned their API v. 1.0, which broke the only source of dynamic content on the site. I also started falling behind on updating my CV in the last couple of years when I was writing my dissertation.

2013website

Probably the biggest update was changing the markup to HTML5 and actually taking advantage of the transition property afforded by CSS3. The structure of HTML5 is a much better fit for documents like a CV.

I tried to showcase dynamic content throughout the new site. The home page has a section that imports the most recent post on this blog and grabs my Twitter feed. The CV has better formatting for the headings, a “sticky” navigation bar for the CV sections, and (most importantly) up-to-date information. I also added a portfolio page that better showcases some projects that I’ve been working on recently. It only has a video section right now, but I plan to add a graphic design section soon.

2017website

I made 56 57 total commits to my GitHub repository over the course of four years, but apart from a brief effort over the summer, most of the work was done in the last few weeks. In the meantime, I’ve guided hundreds of students on making their own websites. I’m reminded of an old adage: the electrician’s house has the most burnt out light bulbs.

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Update: This blog post actually broke the spacing on the home page since the last post had a longer, two-line title. Nothing like one more commit!

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Dir. Fede Alvarez, 88 min., City North 14

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Mr. Alvarez’s bona fides at creating an exquisitely suspenseful situation are established when our “protagonists” (slightly ennobled theives) are up against the blind burglary victim after he cuts the lights in the windowless basement of his house: the tables have been delightfully turned as the burglars grope around attempting to avoid his line of fire. While the film thrills in that moment, it fails in it’s attempt to carry that sense of exquisite tension throughout the entire film, and it struggles when moralizing and (eventually) demoralizing the actions of each party: robbers and the robbed.

With horror master Sam Raimi listed as a producer, the physical beatings and gross-out comedy are upped to the max. Some characters take such a pounding that it’s beyond any strain of credibility that they could arise and function, regardless of any adrenaline (which has probably faded given the somehow long-seeming run time of 88 minutes). A single robber is punched in the face repeatedly by the blind robbery victim (a former marine, no less), whacked over the back with a shovel, grazed with a bullet, thrown out a window, and nearly choked out twice. Like the living dead, he is resurrected again and again to suffer more punishment. Perhaps if this were a Die Hard-esque protagonist, or even an unkillable villain (also represented in this film), his repeated reinvigorations would fit the genre mold, if not the threshold of disbelief.

As a heavy, Stephen Lang (credited, simply, as “The Blind Man”) cuts an ominous presence, partly through his imposing frame lurching from room to room and partly from the fact that he seems to magically appear around every corner of the dilapidated Detroit house where he hoards his million dollar cash fortune (discussing how he obtained it would be too much of a spoiler). He comes across as a monster of Greek myth: the Minotaur lurking behind the corners of his Labyrinth in the ruins of a great city. The setting is innovative, but, given the resurgence of Detroit, it seems like the idea came five or six years too late. While a great concept, the maze-like nature of the house made following the action a bit confusing; the irony and tension is only palpable when you can see the route of the protagonists on the way to their final mistake.

Most horror stories dispose with the cell phone, which could solve almost any horror movie problem, and this film is not the exception. Once the technology is dispensed with, Don’t Breathe becomes a reverse home invasion horror story where the invaded terrorizes the invaders. Although there were endless avenues that the advertised “twist ending” could have followed, the most obvious route was unfortunately the direction the director chose. Nevertheless, it’s a solid home invasion genre piece that has some suspenseful moments.

RT: 87%
AV Club: B+
Me: C+

The best songs of 2012

Unfortunately, 2012 was another hard ass year after a hard year before. Fortunately, I was a better music listener this past year, so it’s time to announce my picks for the best songs of 2012, albeit very late as it is now well into 2013.

I listen to and critique about half of the albums that appear on my two sources of rock/indie/rap music reviews: the A.V. Club music reviews and the Sound Opinions podcast. Anything on local radio is also game. I don’t read music sites other than that, except occasionally Pitchfork and The Reader, so I don’t know any obscure/underground shit. Out of that, I have to say that I also get too busy due to work assignments or research requirements to listen to new music on a regular basis, so take this list for what it is.

Last year I tried to identify one song per week that I thought was fabulous, but I failed to keep vigilant on my list-making duties, and there were also a lot of weeks this year where I thought nothing particularly good was released, so I only ended up with 43 finalists. Note: I considered songs released starting in November 2011 provided I haven’t heard them until the year under consideration.

I picked 15 songs. Without further justifications, here they are (my list also available via Spotify):

15. “Thread” – Now, Now [listen]

14. “Myth” – Beach House [listen]

13. “Dog Days” – Arms [listen]

12. “The Full Retard” – El-P [listen]

11. “I Bought My Eyes” – Ty Segall Band [listen]

10. “No Future/No Past” – Cloud Nothings [listen]

9. “Hey Jane” – Spiritualized [listen]

8. “About to Die” – Dirty Projectors [listen]

7. “Midnight City” – M83 [listen]

6. “Tiny Arrows” – The Jayhawks [listen]

5. “My Eating Disorder” – Titus Andronicus [listen – sort of]

4. “Endors Toi” and “Apocalypse Dreams” – Tame Impala [listen and listen]

3. “My Revolutionary Mind” – Jay Farrar, et al. [listen]

2. “Younger Us” – Japandroids [listen]

1. “Gun Has No Trigger” – Dirty Projectors [listen and look]

Not selected, but my honorable mentions:

* “Around My Way [Freedom Ain’t Free]” – Lupe Fiasco [listen]

* “We Can’t Have Nice Things” – Kelly Hogan [listen]

* “Might Find It Cheap” – Blitzen Trapper [listen]

The Untold History of the United States (2012-3), “Chapter 3: The Bomb”

Dir. Oliver Stone, ~59 min., free screening at Illinois Institute of Technology

Based on the book of the same name by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, this series is a revisionist history of pivotal American historical events in the same vein as Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Loewen’s Lies my Teacher Told Me. The episode screened at IIT concerned the United States’ development and use of nuclear weapons against imperial Japan at the tail end of World War II.

Stylistically, the film barely stops to take a breath. The tapestry of period footage (including battlefield footage) and newsreel films (including both implicit and explicit propaganda) paired with Stone’s rhythmic narration give the film a perpetual motion. The narration pauses only briefly for Stone’s own selection of culled scenes from period films, which (often humorously) comment on period culture and provide a respite from the dense, fact-filled narration. Those clips are a much needed break and feel like a look inside the director’s private film vault. Unlike the sometimes stuffy and static style of Frontline or documentary films that overuse the Ken Burn’s effect on still shots, this film represents the history of World War II as fluid and intertwining streams of historical reporting and pop culture; as Stone said in the Q and A following the film, he applied “his style” to the project.

Stone, Kuznick, and someone’s head at the Q and A after the screening

From what I could gather at the Q and A, Kuznick brought the historical research and he and Stone revised the book and film as they went (similar to Kubrick and Clarke). The overarching goal of the series is to question the dominant narrative of American exceptionalism, reexamining history from a global perspective and turning the critical lens on our treatment of fellow humans. Chapter 3 was certainly successful at that, bringing to light evidence that calls into question the true motives of the United States for using nuclear weapons in wartime (a show of force to deter Soviet expansion rather than a peace-bringing strike to force an unconditional Japanese surrender).

For as much as you might call this film a documentary, however, it presents a distinct viewpoint which it overtly advocates; it’s more of a historical essay than a documentary. Stone remarked that he hoped people would recognize the points where the authors are expressing opinions, and indirectly stated that their prerogative as filmmakers allowed for such insertions: as he said at the Q and A, “We can do it because it’s our film.”

At one point during the film, Stone unabashedly cuts to a review of the HBO film Truman, stating that portrayals of Truman’s aides were “wrong” and that Truman himself was depicted inaccurately in the biopic. I personally found the film to be refreshing in that the agenda was displayed quite prominently. Other so called documentary films I have seen in the past have tried to hide the filmmaker’s agenda behind the deceptive screen of objectivity or a “balanced” perspective. This film lays it all out, though it was troubling to me that Stone referred to the film as a documentary.

I purchased the companion book and I will comment more after I have read it. On a related note, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick were quite affable and Stone even signed my DVD copy of Platoon which I have shown to many students over the years. This was by far the best organized and most enjoyable speaker series event at IIT that I have attended.

Blackhawks Tickets: A $uccess $tory

Blackhawks 2012-13 tickets go on sale this upcoming Monday and they are probably the most expensive tickets in town of any kind. Separate of any success on the ice, the price of tickets is the ultimate validation of a five year plan by management to transform the organization. According to their new pricing plan, rear 300 level seats (where you definitely need to know your player numbers) are $54. Standing room only tickets are $27 (where you are basically paying for the privilege of attending the event, but you really shouldn’t hope to make out most of the action on the ice). Sitting anywhere other than the 300 level will cost you in excess of $120.

To put this in perspective, the United Center seats somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,500 spectators and the Hawks play around 42 home games per season. Theoretically, you could top 850,000 in ticket sales in a given year if you sell out every game, which the Hawks have done for a few seasons now.

By contrast, Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears NFL franchise plays, holds 61,500 spectators and the Bears play eight home games each year; if the games sell out (which happens frequently) the Bears will never exceed 500,000 tickets sold, the fewest possible among major sports teams in Chicago.

If you consider the potential for selling tickets only, the Bears tickets should be many times the value of the Hawks tickets, but they aren’t. Cheap seats for the Bears tickets are only about $100 dollars, and all but the most expensive tickets are under $200.

Five years ago, before the Hawks were marketed by John McDonough, you could only watch a handful of home games on television because their much maligned owner, Bill Wirtz, wanted to drive up the market for ticket sales. It was an idiotic and greedy strategy that only discouraged fans from attending. Bill Wirtz was so hated in Chicago that during a eulogy before the 2007 Hawks home opener which I attended—a ceremony, mind you, where his recently bereaved family was present—fans actually booed during the moment of silence, loudly.

Keep in mind you could literally show up to the box office with a student ID the night of a game and get $8 seats; not standing room tickets, actual seats.

I agree that Bill Wirtz was a money-grubbing fool, but I also remember that tickets to that 2007 game were $25, less than half the current price. Poor sales accounted for some of that low pricing, but keep in mind you could literally show up to the box office with a student ID the night of a game and get $8 seats; not standing room tickets, actual seats. There’s something to be said about frugality when it keeps the cost of tickets down.

What we’ve exchanged with the new ownership (the much-loved Rocky Wirtz) and new president (John McDonough, formerly employed by the Cubs) is a more talented team with bigger salaries that wins much more often. However, regular season wins came for Hawks teams in the past under “Dollar Bill” Wirtz (the 91-92 team went to the Cup finals) and there is no sign that the Hawks will be in prime contention for a Stanley Cup championship this season unless something changes significantly. While the Cup win was extraordinary, the Hawks are not the Yankees and any chance of a dynasty era was crushed the minute the salary cap driven fire sale started post-championship. In a way, we can thank Bill Wirtz for that fire sale as well, since severe public backlash to his policy of trading top echelon players directly influenced management to adopt the reverse policy of paying top dollar for current fan favorites.

McDonough’s policy was always to make the Hawks into the Cubs of the west side of Chicago, with tickets sold to wealthy urban professionals and suburbanites who can afford to bring their kids to the game. People pay for the generic experience of going somewhere to drink and possibly keep their kids mildly entertained; the quality of the team and facilities becomes optional, as do the wins (eventually).

Tickets to sit in the first row on the glass are now $450, more than the most expensive Bears ticket and, in all likelihood, the most expensive ticket of any kind in town. By way of comparison, first row opera tickets at the Lyric, on opening night, when the show is sold out, go for $400. I can’t think of anything more expensive, can you? Possibly there is some kind of secret society of billionaires who gather to watch two men fight each other to the death.

In any case, the enduring success story for Blackhawks was not the turnaround of the team and quality of play, but the way they were able to take a franchise desperate to sell tickets and use brilliant marketing to jack up prices and sell out games. The Cup win was, in some ways, the ultimate marketing ploy as it will continue to fill seats long after the team disintegrates.

Driving in Chicago

I don’t usually clog up my blog with personal anecdotes (I find them tedious to write about), but I have been reading the really excellent blog written by Dmitry Samarov (Hack: Stories from a Chicago cab) and it inspired me to share some recent stories of mine about driving in this city.

I used to bike and take public transit for the most part, but I hurt my right knee bicycling a few years ago and I have never really been able to recover (my cheap-ass student health insurance does not pay to fix things like this). As such, ever since my knee injury a few years ago I have been mostly a driver, sometimes taking public transit. To get to work, I have to take the green line on the CTA, and, due to my late hours, there are a lot of interesting characters (some drunk, some violent) on the trains when I go home. As such, I have pretty much settled into a much loathed routine of driving to work.

This summer, Nicole and I are both teaching six-week summer session courses. She teaches on the far north side, and I teach on the south side. We settled on trying to car pool on days when we teach, even though her class is later than mine so there is a lot of time spent waiting around. The sad fact is that with our Ultralow Emission Vehicle (which is consequently very fuel efficient at around 32 mpg city) it is cheaper to drive than to take any other travel option. Consider the following:

Nicole Drives and pays to park, I take the CTA $7 + $5.00 = $12.00
Nicole and I both take public transit $5.00 x 2 = $10.00
I drive Nicole to work, drive to my office, pick her up later and drive home (~15 mi. [max] / 32 mpg) x $4.59 (avg. gas price/gal) = $2.15

Anyway, now that I’ve justified my laziness and ruining the planet, here are my stories:

***

I almost hit a pedestrian yesterday. I was driving up Loomis from the south side on my way home and I was passing through Pilsen. As I was going north through 22nd street, I saw a girl with a huge fro dart behind a car stopped in the opposite lane of traffic that was waiting for a pedestrian to clear the crosswalk before executing a right-hand turn. Luckily I had my full attention on the intersection (there is a school nearby and there are usually a lot of kids crossing the street) and I caught her out of the corner of my eye as I was in the intersection. I was probably doing about 30 mph (the speed limit) which, given the length of the intersection, gave me about 2-3 second to react. I thought she couldn’t possibly decide to run in front of my vehicle, but she did, and I jammed the breaks, screeching to a halt and narrowly missing her. Judging from her pace she was either late or trying to make a bus. She didn’t even look at my car or seem to notice how close I came to hitting her.

***

I almost ran over someone’s dog today. I was up very late last night and as I was driving home, I missed my alley so I had to circle back around onto a street that is midway between two arterials. Chicago has major arterial streets (with two lanes in each direction) spaced roughly every eight blocks (or about one mile). In between those arterial streets are halfway streets, which are wider and could thus still accommodate a street car (or trolley as some might call it: Chicago once had the largest network in the world).

The street was torn up. I had seen a large number of vehicles yesterday when coming home from work (the street was closed) but I thought it was someone shooting a movie, which seems ridiculous given where I live (East Village). Judging by the strip of pavement ripped up down the middle of the street and filled with quickset, it must have been a water or sewer issue.

I weaved in an out of the massive potholes and construction equipment and pulled in the H-shaped alley from the side street just south of where I missed the first entrance. As I turned the corner of the H, I saw someone’s dog almost run directly into my car. A long-haired man with no shirt on came out and shouted, “I got him, I got him!!” I couldn’t tell if he was mad at me, but he couldn’t have had cause as I was probably going less than 5 mph (the alley hasn’t been paved since I moved in almost 5 years ago, and the hard winters have disintegrated it). After I passed I noticed in the rear-view mirror that he released the collar on his dog and let him run down to the end of the alley where cars regularly gun it.

***

I saw someone being a dick to a bicyclist today. Driving up Sheridan Road towards the far north side I was stopped at a traffic signal in the left-hand lane. The road is two lanes in either direction and it’s an urban feeder that carries traffic flow from Lake Shore Drive, Marine Drive, and Broadway up to Uptown and Edgewater after Lake Shore Drive ends.

In the nearest lane opposite me I saw a bicyclist with his left arm outstretched, properly signaling a left hand turn. This area of Chicago is home to the petite bourgeoisie: a lot of people too old or too poor to live in the Gold Coast or Streeterville. The numerous condominium buildings on the east side of the street have circular driveways (the bicyclist was trying to turn down a street that runs to the lakeshore parks).

When the wealthy retirees want to turn in from the southbound side without any left-turn lane, they back up traffic on Sheridan for miles. The bicyclist happened to be blocking a motorist who wanted to go through the intersection, and in less than half a second after the light turned green (the cyclist had appropriately waited for his traffic signal) the lady in her black Mercedes laid on the horn with a look of utter contempt, probably angry she couldn’t make headway two blocks further south where she would jam up traffic for a mile trying to turn into her luxury condominium circle drive. To his credit, the cyclist was patient and stoically posed with his left arm outstretched.

***

The last vignette seems a bit vitriolic rereading it, but if I haven’t seen the worst driving, I’ve come close.

I worked for two summers as a manager at a state-funded traffic study organization, collecting traffic data in suburban Cook and the collar counties. I alternated between taking the CTA to my loop office and driving 4-6 hours a day visiting field sites, collecting data, and checking up on interns in the field to make sure they weren’t drinking on the job or otherwise endangering their lives or wasting company time.

In that occupation I saw a lot of silly behavior and one death on the road. However, in the past few years driving to and from work in Chicago I have never seen such anger in other drivers to the point where one wonders about the sanity of their fellow motorists. Take this bit of old-man sounding advice from me Chicago motorists:

I’ve seen a lot of accidents and even been in a couple, and I can assure you no one ever thinks that he or she is going to be the cause of a life-ending maneuver on the road. It sadly happens every day. Recognize that you are operating a lethal weapon when you drive, and remain vigilant. Most accidents happen because of the complaisance that we are all guilty of (including me).

Watch for pedestrians and respect their right of way in the crosswalk, no matter what the dick behind you starts honking about. Stay off your mobile phone, especially when making a turn (I almost bought the farm down by Union park four years ago when a motorist executing a left turn nearly hit me while talking on his phone).

Remember that bicyclists have the same right to the road as you, and give them a break as you are driving a half-ton or better machine and a collision with them will most likely be fatal.

No one lives to get out on the road and drive. Everyone just wants to make it home (even people who drive for a living). Pay attention, remain calm, and give the non-drivers a break.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

posterDir. Drew Goddard, 95 min., In theaters

Before seeing this film, I suggest you watch the trailer, then prepare to seriously adjust your expectations for what you are about to see.

In my mind, a serious problem with most trailers is that they give away far too much. When I was waiting to see this film, I saw the trailer for the upcoming Sacha Baron Cohen film, The Dictator, where I witnessed what will likely turn out to be fully 75% of the funny moments in the film.

You will not have that problem with The Cabin in the Woods.

From the trailer, you can tell that five college students will end up at a cabin in the woods that is mysteriously controlled by suits in some kind of bunker, but that’s all you get. What you will actually watch is a meta-commentary on the horror genre, a deconstruction of the archetypal characters of said genre, and what can only be described as a comedy.

Because much of the delight in this film is in not knowing anything going in, I can’t really discuss the plot other than what I said above. The characters heading to the woods include a jock, a ditsy blonde, a stoner, and the matched pair of an a nerd (with glasses) and “virgin.” The reasons why there is one person of each type in this friendship clique are flimsy (much like every horror film), but their inclusion becomes readily apparent by the end of the film.

Similar to Cabin Fever (2002), this film smartly invokes cannonical entries in the horror genre, and it manages to avoid the problem of having to finesse in awkward meta-discussion (see the Scream tetralogy). This film is more of an exercise in analysis, culminating in an orgiastic merger of every type of horror film into one; as Ebert puts it in his review, “This is like a final exam for fanboys.”

It’s hard to believe you could stumble into such a great find, but it happened. If you are a lover of horror films, you will be able to appreciate the multitudinous references (as Nicole did when we were watching). Can this film be considered a success outside of a meta-commentary on the genre? Yes, but not as a horror film. While it approaches horror tangentially at points, the scares and gross outs dwindle as the plot progresses and there is no real sense of terror: they do not succeed in making the subject of the film strange or disturbing through atmosphere or exposition.

It’s not hard to imagine why this film sat on the shelf for two years before release. It doesn’t fit neatly into either the horror or comedy genre, but films that successfully combine the two are often instant classics. I’m not sure if this film will enter the pantheon of cult horror, but after leaving the theater I immediately wanted to watch it again.

Metacritic: 72
RT: 93%
IMDB: 7.7

Me: A