Independence Day Roundup

Fireworks at Arlington Park


To say we had a busy Fourth weekend would be an understatement.

We started on Saturday with a day of racing and fireworks at Arlington Park, followed by outdoor work on Sunday.  On Monday, we started with breakfast at Village Grill of Arlington and then walked in the Arlington Heights Parade with the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre. Afterwards, we walked to Peggy Kinnane’s for a post-parade refreshment and then lunch at Superdawg Wheeling.  The evening of the Fourth found us walking up Central Road to watch the fireworks at the Mt Prospect Lions’ Club festival at Melas Park.

And that was just the beginning.

I got back on my road bike and made it through the Busse Woods trail in record time on Tuesday morning, and it seems the rest of the week is going to shape up just as busy.

Happy Fourth, everyone!

Silent Summer 2011

Greta Garbo - Mysterious Lady

The Silent Film Society of Chicago just announced its 2011 Silent Summer Film Festival, one of our favorite summertime traditions. Running for six Fridays at 8 PM from July 22 to Aug. 26 at the Portage Theater, this year’s festival brings a great cross-section of classic silent films to the big screen.

Here’s what’s coming up:

  • July 22: A Girl in Every Port (1928) starring Louise Brooks, with organ accompaniment by Jay Warren. Pre-show music provided by Renee Baker and The Chicago Modern Orchestra Project.
  • July 29: Why Change Your Wife? (1920) with Gloria Swanson. Organ accompaniment by Tim Baker.
  • August 5: Heart O’ The Hills (1919) with Mary Pickford. Organ accompaniment by Jay Warren.
  • August 12: Sunrise (1927) directed by F. W. Murnau. Special event night! Live photoplay accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
  • August 19: The Cardboard Lover (1928) with Marion Davies. Organ accompaniment by Tim Baker.
  • August 26: The Mysterious Lady (1928) with Greta Garbo. Organ accompaniment by Jay Warren, with pre-show music by the Rajiv Halim Sextet with vocalist Linda Collins.

Complete details and ordering information are available at the Silent Film Society of Chicago’s website.

We’ll see you there!

Streaming Media: WDTV Live Plus Review


We got rid of cable TV in November of 2009. Since then, we’ve been watching over-the-air TV and zipping through our Netflix queue, as well as spending a lot more time participating in non-passive entertainment. This means we’re a lot healthier and less zombie-like. Of course, we still have internet connectivity so the cable company still gets a check from us every month– it’s just not as large as it used to be.

I’ll say again that we don’t miss cable TV one bit: this was one of the smartest decisions we’ve made.

For a long time, our primary media source was the Sony BDP-S370 Blu-Ray player, which has connectivity to Netflix, Amazon, and a few other online services. The player has generally served us well, but it comes up deficient in a couple areas, specifically its inability to talk to other devices on my home network, where I have other media files stored on a FreeNAS device.

(Aside: FreeNAS is an open-source file server program that essentially turned my old Windows XP box into a giant file storage device where I store movie and music files as well as back up the data on all the Macs in our house. It’s free, and it works beautifully.)

Sony claims the Blu-Ray player supports the DLNA standard, as does FreeNAS. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an absolute “standard” protocol so these two pieces of equipment don’t talk to each other, which I find aggravating and a nuisance.

A few months ago, I read a review of the Western Digital WDTV Live Plus, a device that’s about the size of a McD’s Quarter Pounder box that plugs into your network and TV and, as you will learn if you Google it, will “play just about anything you can throw at it.” I picked one of these up through Newegg when a sweet coupon came through that made the deal irresistible.   You can usually find this device for just under $100.

In short, the WDTV Live Plus delivers exactly what it promises: not only does have access to several online media services, including Netflix and Amazon as well as a couple others including Blockbuster, but it immediately found my FreeNAS server on my network and all the files I have stored there– and it played most of them flawlessly. It can play movies, audio, and photos on your TV screen as long as they’re formatted in a way the box can understand, which is a pretty long list.  Here’s a list of the online services currently supported on the device, and here are the complete specs showing the formats it can read.

I typically use Handbrake to make iPod Touch-compatible movie files from the DVDs in my collection: this way I can watch movies on my commute without having to break out my computer on the train and running down my MacBook’s battery. Over the years I’ve ripped much of my collection and stored the files on my FreeNAS server.   I also have a PC running SnapStream’s BeyondTV acting as a DVR to record over-the-air programming, which I store on the FreeNAS server:  the WD Live plays these all files on my TV just fine.

The device also understands VIDEO_TS files: this means I can use a program like RipIt on DVDs that I own to pull the DVD contents to my computer, then copy those files to my server. When I want to watch the movie, I go to the file on the server and click– and the entire DVD’s contents, including special features, commentaries, etc., are all available to me as if I put a DVD in the player.

This came in really handy recently when I was recovering from surgery and wasn’t supposed to move a lot: I hooked the WDTV to the bedroom TV and ripped a bunch of movies from my collection that I’d been meaning to watch. Those, along with what was available from Netflix and Amazon kept me entertained for those few days.

I should also mention that two other features I enjoy are a page that’s connected to AccuWeather that gives the current conditions and 5-day forecast, and an interface to TuneIn Radio, which happens to be my favorite streaming-radio web site and iPod Touch app. This latter feature allowed me to get the latest news from WBBM and WBEZ as well as checking in on Kermode and Mayo on BBC 5 Live, right from my TV.

In addition to accessing media on the Internet and a local network, you can also attach a flash key or portable hard drive to the unit’s USB port: this not only allows access to the media, but it turns your WDTV device into a media server for your network, meaning you can play movies and music from the WDTV on your computer.

When playing music or photos, it doesn’t use as elegant an interface as Apple’s iTunes or iPhoto: you have to navigate to the appropriate directory to play or show the media you want. This is where something like an AppleTV has an advantage, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

Some people who know I’m an Apple fan asked why I didn’t just go for an AppleTV. While the AppleTV interface is nice and intuitive, the main reason is that I wanted to break out of the Apple/iTunes ecosystem: with the AppleTV you can only watch or listen to what you have in your iTunes library. This means that if I wanted to watch something that’s not available in the iTunes Store or on Netflix– I’ll use Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful 1991 movie Night on Earth as an example- I would still have to get the DVD off the shelf and put it in the player. This in itself is not a big deal, but if my goal is to simplify how I access my media, it seems more directionally correct to have a media player that is flexible, which the AppleTV doesn’t seem to be.

I recently looked at some of the newer boxes by Roku, but it seems they’re lacking in the ability to use a local network for source material as well. There are several other, cheaper boxes out there that seem to come close, but none of them have the feature set of the WDTV Live Plus.

For now, I’m very happy with the WDTV Live Plus as an internet media hub– and I’m hoping for its continued success to keep the competition trying to come up with something even better, since we’ll all win!

Snoopy *Used* To Be a Dog, You Know


When I was growing up, I collected Peanuts comic paperbacks. And now that I think about it, I can’t remember a single kid who didn’t collect them. I had a couple dozen of these books, and I memorized every single frame.

It seemed these books were everywhere: bookstores, drug and grocery stores, and the monthly Scholastic catalog always had the latest collections. Even at a young age, I thought it was pretty cool that Charles Schulz was able to recycle his work for the daily newspaper into paperback collections, coloring books, etc. It led me to create my own comic characters and dreams of fame and merchandising.

In 2004, Fantagraphics books began a (wonderfully) ambitious project to publish every daily and Sunday Peanuts strip in an anthology series, called The Complete Peanuts. The series covers the entire history of the comic from its inception in 1950 to the author’s retirement and passing in 2000. Each volume features two years’ worth of strips, many of which have not been seen since their original newspaper publication. The latest edition, released yesterday, covers 1979-1980.

A couple months ago I found the series in my local library, so I started checking out volumes in chronological order. I discovered that I remembered many of the strips from my earlier collections, and I also realized something else: these comics– especially the early ones– are really funny.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the gang were just part of the landscape by the time I gave up my collection of books as a teenager, and the then-current Peanuts strips in the paper didn’t seem all that funny. The distance of time and, likely, the experience of being a parent seem to have given me a new appreciation for Schulz’ work. I also noticed how (a) Snoopy acts like a dog; (b) all the kids are actually much younger than they appear to be later on; and (c) Charlie Brown hasn’t yet developed the neuroses that turned him into kind of a “Sad Sack.” (In fact, in the earlier strips it seems Charlie Brown is a bit more mature than the other kids.)

Around the time I started reading the series, I also discovered an excellent blog called “Roasted Peanuts” by John Harris. Mr Harris posts a Peanuts strip every day and offers a brief analysis of the characters, the artwork, and the humor that makes me appreciate the strips even more. If you’re not up for going through The Complete Peanuts, you should absolutely subscribe to this blog. Right now, he’s covering early 1954 which, in my opinion, is one of the great periods in the comic’s history.

This is another great way to see and appreciate something we started to take for granted.

American English at Peggy Kinnane’s 3/19/2011

We spent most of the day Saturday at the Peggy Kinnane’s 10th Anniversary Music Festival, where we saw, among other bands, Beatles tribute band American English.

Here they are performing “She Loves You” …

And here’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

If you’re reading this on Facebook, you can click “View Original Post” below or click here to link to my blog for the full posting

Crowd Pleaser


While watching Superbowl XLV this weekend, I was watching the comments fly by on Facebook and Twitter, the topics starting with Christina Aguilera’s national anthem performance through the halftime show with the Black Eyed Peas, Slash, and Usher.

I was a little surprised by the huge wave of annoyance– and downright indignance in some cases– at the halftime performances. I won’t get into a debate about the show, and I’ll only say this: it was the Black Eyed Peas, Slash, and Usher. They all delivered exactly what was expected of them.

Looking at the list of halftime performances over the years, especially the last 15 years or so, I don’t see a single one that had universal appeal or didn’t elicit complaints of “lamedom.” That said, I propose the following:

The producers of the Superbowl should go back to having marching bands and/or drum corps performances at halftime, as they did in the early days of the game. After all, we’re talking about a football game, and in every other context– high school, college– football games include marching bands, not celebrity performers. The shows would be fun, and wouldn’t cost the producers nearly the amount they pay today.

There would be no complaints about lip-syncing or accusations of shameless self-promotion, and the only opportunity for a wardrobe malfunction might be someone losing his or her hat on the field.

Watching the hour or so that leads up to kickoff, it’s clear that the Superbowl is pitched as a uniquely American event. With all due respect to the artists, why then Phil Collins (2000), U2 (2002), Paul McCartney (2005), The Rolling Stones (2006), and (what was passed off as) The Who (2010)? (Sharp observers will note I left off Canadian Shania Twain’s 2003 performance, but that’s because I used to have a crush on her.) The point is: why not do something uniquely American? There are dozens of semi-pro and professional Drum and Bugle corps in the US, so why not run a national contest and have the winner do the halftime show?

I’m sure the producers of the Superbowl like to think they’ve created an event, and I agree that they have: I just think the game and the commercials pull in so many viewers that the halftime show isn’t that much of a draw– or maybe it is a draw for people who want something to criticize. I just don’t think they need to keep paying top dollar for celebrity appearances when something much more appropriate is out there.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that this idea started out at Lisa’s suggestion, who wielded a mean alto sax in high school and marched at Disney World.

A friend of mine is a director for a DCI-member drum corps, and when I proposed this to him he thought it was a great idea, and one that’s been pitched before. (I say this in case someone actually decides to go with this idea, and I don’t want to claim I said it first.) I hope one day someone in the Superbowl offices listens.

In the meantime, we get what we get. Next year, I’m turning off the computer during the game.

Hardrock Coco and Joe

The Three Little Dwarfs
If you grew up in Chicago, you’ll remember the neat little stop-animation films they used to show on WGN-TV at Christmastime.
I’ve ripped the audio portion of these films to MP3, and they’re attached for your enjoyment. Click the links to hear them:
Susie Snowflake
Hardrock, Coco, and Joe
Frosty The Snowman
(A Crosswalks to Nowhere classic repost from 2002… and the single entry on this blog that’s had the most hits since I first posted it.)

No man can be a genius in slapshoes and a flat hat

(A repost, originally published here on October 4, 2005. The documentary referenced here, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, is available in several parts on YouTube, with part 1 at this link.)
Today is Buster Keaton’s birthday. Those are his words in the title of this blog entry, denying the “genius” title given to him by people who discovered his work long after it was made.
When most people think of silent film comedians these days, they think of Chaplin’s Little Tramp and maybe Harold Lloyd, hanging from the face of a clock. Buster Keaton’s comedy was far more inventive and, despite the slapstick, it was more subtle.
One of the keys to Keaton’s character was the fact that no matter what unpleasantness befell him, he always found some resourceful way around it. Jumping through a window or over a ledge would always result in Buster’s getting away from a chase or into the arms of his leading lady, and through it all keeping the legendary “stone face” expression.
My introduction to Keaton was when the local PBS station ran the series Buster Keaton: A Hard Act To Follow, and my view of silent film, especially silent film comedy, changed forever. Since then, I’ve seen (and collected) several of his films, and during last year’s Silent Summer Festival I saw The Navigator on the big screen with accompaniment by a live organist.
Wikipedia has an excellent biography of Buster here, and you can also spend a lot of time surfing the International Buster Keaton Society’s site.
Finally, a piece of Keaton history/folklore: he was supposedly buried with a rosary in one pocket and a deck of cards in the other, just so he’d be prepared for wherever he wound up in the afterlife.
Happy Birthday, Buster!