Monthly Archives: May 2014

Read Me At Halfstack Magazine


I have joined the blogging team at Halfstack Magazine.  I will continue to post here, but there will be more Chicago entertainment and nightlife content from me over there.  My first post, a review of the Goodman Theatre’s production of The White Snake, was posted yesterday.  Go read it, comment, and if you’re in Chicago, go see the show before it closes on June 8.

I’ll post links here to any Halfstack articles I have coming up.  Stay tuned.

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Support Solar Roadways


This video has made the rounds on social media lately.  The idea to replace all existing American roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and driveways with smart, durable solar panels is an ambitious one.  It may even be ingenious.  It’s certainly worth more investment, which you can do at the engineer couple Scott and Julie Brusaw’s Solar Roadways Indiegogo page.

For all the entrepreneurial spirit described, and the gigantic, world changing effects of approximately tripling the United States’ energy output from non-carbon sources, this is not likely to be the silver bullet that solves climate change.  It will take years, maybe decades, of political wrangling, extreme investment from private, local, state, and federal funds, and it will face fierce opposition from people who stand to lose profits — namely, those in the carbon emission industries like oil and coal.

But, as should always be kept in mind, the good can not be the enemy of the perfect.  This will be a tremendous pain in the ass, with unprecedented construction, cost overruns, bitter and petty disputes, and any unforeseen consequences my small mind can’t currently fathom, but the benefits outweigh the headaches.

People like me in the polar north (Chicago) will no longer worry about the roads collecting traffic-slowing snow and sleet.  Expensive paint will no longer be needed to create medians because of the LED lights installed in the solar roads.  Power lines will be buried underground rather than subject to weather-related damage.  Electric car refueling ports can be installed at even intervals so nobody runs out of electricity on long road trips.  Other industries, like fiber internet, could join the effort to speed communication lines across the nation.  The job gains would be humongous for the initial construction and many could be sustainable for upkeep and repair.  Those repairs could be electronically monitored by the roads themselves, which would then alert repair crews.

And the big one: 100 percent energy independence from foreign oil and carbon (industries, not counting things like cattle flatulence) in general.  The United States would be world leaders in energy and our technologies and manufacturing would again be the most in demand in the world.

I’ve put down a meager investment, and you should, too.  It’s the best climate change solution I’ve seen for its utilization of economic growth, Jetsons-style futurism, and flexibility in helping to improve other industries.

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Gordon Willis Is Gone


Much will be written about the passing of cinematographer Gordon Willis in the coming days, about his contributions to cinema, his impeccable sense of lighting and composition, and the legends he helped create.  But none of it will do his work justice.  It won’t properly contextualize what he meant to the visual medium.  His greatness can only be experienced viscerally.

Perhaps his best known work was on The Godfather.

He caused a sensation throughout Hollywood with his lighting techniques in Klute.

He shot Woody Allen’s most beautiful film, Manhattan.

He changed film forever.  He darkened it, yes, but also made it a place where the austere could be more beautiful than the busy.  Understatement became overwhelmingly gorgeous in his eye.  The way a low-watt lightbulb’s glare filtered through his lens lent more to a scene’s power than any performance.  His figures were relatable but unknowable, lit just so to give them the power of myth.

And now that talent is gone.  It will be missed, but the transformative body of work that is left will forever be dissected, studied, beloved by cinema lovers.

Thank you, Prince of Darkness.

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No, the Blackhawks Will Not Win the Cup Because Patrick Kane Won an Earlier Series


Comcast Sports Net Chicago’s website ran an infuriating piece yesterday entitled “Why Kane’s game-winner may foreshadow another Cup for Hawks.”  Consisting of only 115 words of copy, it suggested the Chicago Blackhawks might be primed to repeat as Stanley Cup champions because their most talented player, forward Patrick Kane, scored a series-clinching goal in overtime against the Minnesota Wild the night before to send his team back to the Western Conference Final for the second straight year.

Their evidence was thus:

In 2010 Kane scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime of game six against the Philadelphia Flyers.  In 2013, he completed a hat trick in double overtime against the Los Angeles Kings to send the Hawks back to the Final.  And on Tuesday night, he did this.

CSN stupidly adds, “Notice a trend?”

No.  It’s not a trend.  If it were a trend, there would be more than two pieces of evidence.  Also, Patrick Kane is a top 10 player in the NHL, maybe even top three.  He is not some good luck charm who magically creates a universe in which his team is guaranteed its league’s highest achievement for something he did weeks before.  He is in almost all cases, the best player on the ice, juking, faking, spinning, and able to score seemingly at will when he’s at his best.  If he continues his career in a Blackhawks sweater, it stands to reason he will score several more series clinchers on top of the normal boatload of scoring he provides.

But to suggest that a goal scored in one series means the team will win it all is asinine.  It’s fan baiting.  It creates a delusion to suggest that, because it’s in the media, it must be true and that the CSN staff are experts on the subject when they clearly don’t understand the fundamentals of logic.  It must always be repeated that correlation does not mean causation, but in sports writing, that logical fallacy is everywhere.  “They did it before, so they’ll do it again!”

That’s the same as saying, “I sneezed the day my grandpa died.  Achoo!  Quickly, go check on grandma!”  It’s lazy and people get paid to do it.  They get respected by fans because they have the cloak of legitimacy provided by their position at a network with “Sports” in its name.  But it’s not legitimate to throw false information to people, pat yourself on the back, and call it a day.  It’s misleading, bad journalism.

Now, sports journalists being misleading about the correlation-causation problem isn’t the same as spreading propaganda about real problems like, say, climate change, but it takes the fun out of talking about hockey with other people.  If they don’t have a Woody Allen-style tendency to overthink every aspect of life, they are more likely to ignore the slight cognitive dissonance given them by a writer who didn’t think for a second about what they were writing.  As a journalist, if you mislead people — be it willfully or because you’re stupid — in any milieu, you’re doing a disservice to the job.  You make yourself look like an idiot, or, more likely, you are one.

So please, CSN staff, do your job better.  Or hire someone who can do it better for you.  Either way, stop spewing drivel to the masses that ends up in my Facebook feed without my asking for it.

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Evangelicals Probably Aren’t the Ones Climate Advocates Need to Worry About


Chris Mooney at Slate has a feature on Katharine Hayhoe, an Evangelical Christian who happens to be a climate change advocate and science advisor on the new Showtime global warming series, The Years of Living Dangerously.

Her research today, on the impacts of climate change, flows from those early experiences [with her scientist father]. And of course, it is inspired by her faith, which for Hayhoe puts a strong emphasis on caring for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. “That gives us even more reason to care about climate change,” says Hayhoe, “because it is affecting people, and is disproportionately affecting the poor, and the vulnerable, and those who cannot care for themselves.”

Hayhoe mentions five strategies she has used to convince Christians like her to become stewards of the environment, including the linguistically obvious “Conservation is conservative” — a line of thinking that has always screamed “blatantly evident” to me that I’m shocked it is not used as a starting point in every argument over what strategies to employ for any climate policies.

But the money quote comes at the end:

“If you believe that God created the world, and basically gave it to humans as this incredible gift to live on, then why would you treat it like garbage? Treating the world like garbage says a lot about how you think about the person who you believe created the Earth.”

Throughout the piece, Hayhoe reminds Mooney and readers that Evangelicals are capable people with minds, able to discern data in front of them.  Blasting them for thinking differently than you is not a way to get them to listen to you.  These are people who believe the world is a gift from a powerful, benevolent being, but one with a penchant for some wrath if He/She/It sees His/Her/Its creation being messed with by those gifted with the power of free will.  Climate change is as biblical as you get in that sense.  If you frame your conversation in a way that fits their worldview, like Hayhoe’s showing them climate data from only the last 6,000 years, they will eventually accept your premise a majority of the time.  There will always be a portion of any group that falls into the trap of epistemic closure, but after a certain point, you can no longer worry about them so long as you have a majority accepting the overwhelming evidence in front of them.  One should never, ever forget that 97 percent of people who dedicate their professional lives to studying the climate agree that it is changing due to carbon emissions from humans; they’re not out to cause alarm, just report on the data they find.  When you keep hammering that point home, reasonable people, a group not mutually exclusive with Christians, will look to help in any way they can.

Accepting this, though, leads to the question: Why do only 44 percent of Evangelicals accept climate change?

Mooney points out that, on the whole, they are politically conservative on top of their social views.  This puts them firmly within the Republican coalition.  The problem with the Republican coalition as currently constituted — and all gigantic coalitions (the Democrats are far from exempt here), which brings up the need for more than two parties, but that’s a discussion for another time — is that there are four main, sometimes competitive fixtures.  You have the libertarians (excuse me for being brief, but they essentially boil down to fiscally very conservative, socially liberal people with a strong aversion to governmental surveillance and a relaxed foreign policy; retired Texas congressman Ron Paul is the stereotype here), the business people (the Mitt Romneys of the world who probably don’t care as much about social issues so much as running a tight fiscal ship), the neoconservatives (you’ll recognize the strong defense, muscular foreign policy with less regard for fiscal restraint from the previous administration), and the social conservatives (Evangelicals like Mike Huckabee who are focused on fixing perceived social ills derived from the Bible).

One can see that these fixtures are not necessarily compatible with each other.  It’s impossible to be all things to all people at all times, and yet that’s what politicians of any expansive coalition must do to preserve their support.  As one might expect, none of them do it particularly well when examined with any critical eye.  A Republican senator who denies climate change may be trying to help any number of people.  Maybe he represents a state rich in the oil or coal industries, which, as carbon-based pollutants are the primary cause of climate change.  They have a financial stake in what happens, so the senator has a duty to serve his constituents.  But as money is not the only motivation in the world, serving that part of his constituency is not enough.  He must bring in other supporters from other parts of the coalition, and this is where the Evangelicals can be called upon.  If the senator can get people with preaching experience to start talking about how God wouldn’t want to hurt the world or wouldn’t let us hurt it, it makes his job a lot easier in trying to appease everyone he represents.

Of course, when the lives of billions of people, animals, and entire ecosystems are at stake, appeasing one state’s — or collection of states’ — constituents is not of primary concern for humanity as a whole.  When people like Hayhoe start convincing Evangelicals, people just trying to be good in their God’s eyes, of the dangers of climate change — she mentions in the interview that the number of Christians whose acceptance of climate change has risen 10 percent in the last six years — they can raise their objections to their elected officials.  If those officials have strong parts of their coalition against the business side, those oil and coal company officials, perhaps they will convince the oil and coal people to start diversifying their businesses by experimenting more with nonpolluting energy sources like solar, wind, biofuels, or, fingers crossed, fusion one day.  Climate change is a problem that requires all hands on deck, and the free market — that supreme tenet of conservative ideology — will have a field day figuring out how to make money from saving the world.

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Silly Human Nature: Bat Your Best Hitter Second


FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine wrote a great piece on the underutilization of sabermetric data in Major League Baseball lineup construction.

Traditionally, the two-hole was the domain of contact hitters with good bat control, with premiums placed on the ability to hit behind the runner, to sacrifice bunt, and to generally move the leadoff man over (even if it meant making an out). You can see this statistically: During Major League Baseball’s expansion era (1961-present), the No. 2 slot has the highest aggregate contact rate of any batting order position.

But research by Tango and his compatriots suggests teams have been doing it wrong. After examining how important each batting event (single, double, walk, etc.) is to each lineup slot — based on factors such as how many runners are likely to be on base and how many outs they’re likely to hit with — the data says a team ought to bat its three best hitters in the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 slots, with the most balanced hitter occupying the two-hole. That’s a far cry from the conventional wisdom of slotting the best hitter either third or fourth, and putting a weak contact specialist at No. 2.

Essentially, given the likelihood of positive outcomes in a given lineup spot, say, Miguel Cabrera should never move from the second spot in the Detroit Tigers’ order.  But since he’s The Guy in Detroit, that doesn’t happen.

Which leads to the question, why does being The Guy matter?  Couldn’t he be just as important — and the data suggests, more potent a threat — batting second in the lineup?

Historically, the numbers three and four hitters are the ones expected to drive in the majority of a team’s runs, and this leads to enlarged egos for those players who earn that distinction.  They’re important.  They matter as the most valuable players of the team and sometimes the entire league.  The guys who bat second have “always” been more slap hitters, bunters, and grinders willing to sacrifice their own statistics in order to help the team move their leadoff men into scoring position.

But the longer data analysts look at hitting production, they learn things.  Bunting over a runner and sacrificing an out actually diminishes the likelihood of the team scoring a run because the more outs you have to work with, the better your chances of getting more hits, walks, and earning a base by getting hit by a pitch.  That data alone suggests putting a bunter in the two hole is a less than productive idea.

Yet teams still do it.

And in doing so, it keeps them from optimizing their run scoring potential.  With people like Paine writing pieces like this, one would expect teams to take notice, especially with their own proprietary data systems that are likely lightyears ahead of what is publicly available via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs currently.

So, again, why do teams perpetually succumb to history and ego over what has been discovered empirically to help them win?  It could be as simple as human stubbornness.  “This is how it’s always been done,” the managers think, upholding tradition.  And tradition is important in life, because it’s also a form of gained knowledge about what works.

But when new information becomes available, particularly in a competitive business such as professional baseball, shouldn’t everyone do what gives them the greatest chance of winning?  If tradition is shown to be not as effective as what the current data suggests, it would behoove every manager to utilize it to its fullest.

I fully understand the notion that it’s hard to take a guy out of his comfort zone, particularly an MVP like Cabrera.  But if his manager, Brad Ausmus, were to sit down with Cabrera and explain why he should hit second every night, I’d be willing to bet he’d understand.

“See, Miguel, we have evidence that you’d be even better batting second and we’d win more.  You could add another ring to your hand,” Ausmus could say.  Perhaps Cabrera’s personal runs batted in total would diminish slightly, but he would create more runs, which is more valuable to winning, which, again, any professional competitor should strive for at all costs.

Eventually all teams will follow the Los Angeles Angels’ lead — their best player, who also happens to be the best in the game, Mike Trout — by batting their best hitter second.  Right now it’s a silly adherence to the past for adherence to the past’s sake, but sooner or later teams will want to win more than they want to protect ego and tradition.

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More From Me At The TV Addict


Yesterday Daniel Malen at the TV Addict ran my second piece for them.  The idea I pitched was a game for readers and site contributors alike, which we called “Play Fantasy TV: Choose Your Own Adventure.”  Everyone wants to think they’d be able to make great art, no matter the medium, so I wanted to put that to the test.  I pitched a TV show I’d love to see, explained the main influences, wrote an outline for a pilot, and a vaguer direction for the rest of the first season.  I want the TV Addict’s readership to chip in with comments to act as a virtual writers’ room, and I want friends and family to pitch their own ideas using the rules I listed in the piece.

Here’s a quick look at the article, but click here for the whole thing.  And keep coming back for more, because I have other ideas brewing, and Daniel’s regular television coverage is phenomenal.

The Show: P.I.

Reductive Combination Comparison: Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE meets THE THIN MAN film serials of the 1930s.

The Concept: A fun-loving drunk/private detective aims to take on the lower stakes cases (a tier above cheating spouses but not CHINATOWN-level regional power plays) other fictional detectives shy away from, but of course always finds himself embroiled in labyrinthine plots. Each season will focus on one main case and the odd jobs he takes to support his drinking. They’re usually connected in some way.

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