From the archives: August 2004

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One who is bitten by a swan

Monday, 30 August 2004 — 10:54am | Scrabble

Last Friday I got two rounds of Scrabble in with Dan Lazin of The Edmonton Journal, formerly of The Gateway. I will let him tell the story when the time comes (and direct you all to it accordingly), but know this: I still can’t believe I let him get away with SWANEES* for 80 points. The convenient excuse is that we were both thinking of SWAMIES. Fortunately, that was not the game that was photographed.

There is a word in that rack, WAENESS, but I do not recall there being a place for it at the time.

Remember Vote Out Anders? Leave it up to none other than Steve Smith to top it with a guerrilla campaign of his own: Defeat Jung-Suk Ryu. Do not be fooled, citizens: Ryu, an occasional reader of this blog (at some point or another, anyway) who has accumulated a few headlines by being the token nineteen-year-old running for Edmonton City Council in Ward 5, bears no relation to the dragon-punching, ha-do-ken-throwing karate champ of the same name – and that is the least of his hoodwinkings.

As mentioned on the site above, one thing that falls under scrutiny is Mr. Ryu’s frequent claims to have won university debating awards at the national level. This appears to be in reference to the Top Novice lamp awarded to him at the 2003 Hugill Cup, which I recall to be the direct consequence of both a Chris Jones judging decision in Round 5 and the disqualification of the actual highest-scoring novice at the tournament, Sharon’s pink rubber duck Bismarck. Sometimes I think debating should follow Scrabble’s example and award a prize for the Most Outrageous Phoney.

Unfortunately, Jung-Suk has removed his own campaign weblog, which is a tragic loss to those of us who derive hours of wild amusement from the obliviously shameless self-promotion of others. But replace a thoroughly guilty pleasure with a dissection akin to a Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I’d call that a net gain.

Lastly: I know I pointed this out last time, but is this the greatest blog ever or what? When the linguistics professors there are not busy busting malaprops they cover everything from lie detection to the phonetic sexual attraction of names. Just what advantage does ‘Nick’ confer?

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Generic literature by generic names

Thursday, 26 August 2004 — 1:13pm | Literature

Last night, on a whim, I decided to whip up a Google search for “Dan Brown” and “prose” to see if others find his narrative style, if you can call it that, as irritatingly bad as I thought it was. As it turns out, this is exactly the search string you should punch in if you are exclusively looking for negative reviews.

My favourite one of the bunch – at least, in the first few pages of results – comes from the linguistics journal Language Log, which is the best weblog I have discovered in weeks, if not months. Geoff Pullum eviscerates the first page of The Da Vinci Code in a level of detail so meticulous that it captures down to the very word exactly what it was that bothered me about the biggest publishing hit this side of The South Beach Diet – the first page, at any rate. It is still a good indication of what the entire novel is like.

It was high time I found a new blog to satisfy my linguiphilic tendencies, now that Adam Pauls learning Japanese is winding down. There is some fascinating material on that site, and knowing the readership that regularly drops by here, many of you will probably want to read about gender-neutral word choice and the Persons Case, then follow it up with a contrary opinion, which results in debate.

Returning for a moment to the subject of Dan Brown, I think he is fast becoming my second-favourite outrageously successful author to pick on relentlessly, for the same deserved reasons as the one ranked first. By the way, that would be Robert Jordan of The Wheel of Time infamy, whom I like to call “the Bill the Butcher of fantasy literature” because of how he hacks away at his craft with abandon.

At first glance, Brown and Jordan could not be any more different. Brown writes chapters that average two or three pages in length; Jordan spends ten pages at a time describing what a random ageless Aes Sedai wizard-chick from the Plaid Ajah is wearing on this fine evening. Brown keeps a breakneck pace going by going from event to event with only the odd longwinded pseudo-historical lecture in between, whereas the only thing breakneck about reading Jordan is what happens if it makes you fall asleep on something sharp.

But fundamentally, they have the same bad habits. Both of them binge on perspective-hopping in addition to italicized passages of internal monologue that justify everything writing instructors say about the technique being outright cheating in the face of the limits of the third person. Neither of them have any regard for the old adage “show, don’t tell.” Both of them write characters that are the spitting image of what fan fiction circles refer to as “Mary Sues”: the heroes are fantasies of self-insertion that regularly cross paths with beautiful and intelligent princesses, and invariably make out with them at the end of the day.

Both of them use a device that is almost identical in its respective implementations, which are therefore identically annoying. It always involves a master and his servant, typically belonging to a Generic Fanatical Organization (GFO), with the master telling the servant that he is about to reveal his evil plot and assign him a whole new set of nefarious orders. Sometimes it even ends with an ellipsis; i.e. “Now I will tell you about my evil plot, dot-dot-dot.” We, the readers, never actually hear the plan, but we are subjected to a sentence along the lines of, “As the servant listened to the evil plot, he smiled, for it would be an honour to serve his ingenious master and the GFO’s noble faith.” End of chapter.

It’s cheesy enough as it is, and these guys do it all… the… smegging… time.

And despite all this, both of them are good enough at dropping breadcrumbs of unsolved mysteries that one is compelled to keep on reading, just to see if the authors could answer some burning questions already. To Brown’s credit, he drags the reader through the mud at a hundred knots by dropping these unanswered puzzles and revealing them bit by bit. As for Robert Jordan, there is a clear explanation out there of why anyone ever stuck with him after the first few volumes. It is because he ends the fifth Wheel of Time volume, The Fires of Heaven, with a shocking and anonymous murder that contains all the excitement that was lacking for much of the preceding eight hundred pages of fluff. It’s last-minute, last-chapter desperation plays to keep the audience’s attention like this one that compels people to keep on buying his books. Jordan is through ten now, and from what I hear, he has yet to even mention the incident again.

With these two authors, we have two major arguments at the ready for any aspiring English teacher to emphasize the value of revision. If anything, The Da Vinci Code and the books in the Wheel of Time series (the ones I’ve read, anyway – I quit after seven) feel like first or second drafts, refined and admittedly intriguing plot summaries that go completely unsupported by any semblance of storytelling ability.

They also have generic names, though ‘Robert Jordan’ is a pseudonym.

This is itself a point of interest, as Dan Brown is also the name of a CBC Viewpoint columnist who writes about much the same kind of things I do – movies, comic books, Dan Brown, you name it. Of the two Browns, one is an excellent writer. I would recommend his article entitled “I am not Dan Brown” over The Da Vinci Code any day of the week.

On a completely different note, I saw Garden State last night. It is one of those movies that is difficult to write about, and not because I am at all uncertain as to how good an impression it left. Zach Braff’s self-starring directorial debut is marvelous, which makes it very hard to criticize, but what makes it so great has a lot to do with how it unfolds and tells its own story, which makes it very hard to praise to high heaven without robbing a reader of some of the pleasure that the movie offers on its own. Not a week ago I was complaining about how devoid of truly amazing movies this year has been with the exception of a few key sequels (though to be fair, I regret never getting around to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I am told is wonderful). After seeing Garden State, that simply isn’t true anymore. I implore you to go and see the movie while it is still in relatively wide release, so I can talk about some of the very specific things that struck me about it without spoiling the experience.

But I will stop for now, as Garden State is very well written indeed, and has no business dawdling around in this post.

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Positively dashing

Monday, 23 August 2004 — 3:38pm | Video games

Back in June when the title of the sixth Harry Potter book was announced, I inquired: “Who is the Half Blood Prince – and is there, or is there not a hyphen?” At long last, we have an answer to the second question, and it will indeed be Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “half-blood” hyphenated as it is in the books themselves.

While on the subject of correct punctuation, I am aware that I do not practice it on this site. I refer not to the placement of periods and commas, but how I do not differentiate between em and en dashes, or curly quotes and primes. Part of it is because I have enough trouble remembering web-ready identities like & (&) and é (é) to even begin using the numerical ones on the fly. In fact, I see the misuse of dashes, apostrophes and quotations marks as a larger problem within society as a whole that can only be corrected via better keyboard designs. Add quotation mark and em dash keys, I say. Make them mappable to HTML identities. Take Microsoft’s automatic entry of em dashes, curly quotes and correct apostrophes and have them default to Unicode characters rather than proprietary Windows ones, not that this will ever actually happen, given Microsoft’s predilection to all things proprietary.

At some point or another, I might correct the non-ASCII extended characters littered throughout the site to their corresponding identities so the blasted thing validates properly, but the day I find time to comb through every post to do this will also be the day I do a table-free redesign and move to my own server; in other words, not for a while.

Interesting scoop on the Nintendo DS today, stating that it has a square port with an as-yet-undisclosed secret purpose. Nintendo is also reportedly considering releasing the device in multiple colours, in which case you can expect me to head straight for the purple (sorry, ‘indigo’) model, unless they release a retro-styled NES gamepad design like the one that graced the Game Boy Advance SP.

One minor detail requires clarification. I quote: “The stylus pen is going to be connected to the back.” Does that mean it merely slides into a stylus-holding slot at the back of the unit, as one would assume, or is it physically attached to the device itself – say, by a retractable cord? If it is the former, I can guarantee that Nintendo is going to be receiving a lot of warranty calls for replacement styli. Not to make overly sweeping generalizations, but the target consumer that will be purchasing and playing the Nintendo DS is more likely to lose a stylus than a Palm-piloting businessman. A stylus connected to the DS would make a lot of sense as long as the cord is long and flexible enough to not impede gameplay, yet short enough so as to avoid getting all tangled up.

The Sign of the Apocalypse du jour comes courtesy of the official website to the video game BloodRayne:

Rayne Makes Her PlayBoy Debut

If you felt teased by her sexy Girls of Gaming cover, then this new feature art is going to blow your mind! Rayne is 100% topless and smokin’ hot in the October issue of Playboy magazine. This is a first in videogame history and trust us when we say that Rayne does not disappoint. The magazine hits newsstands in early September so here’s a great excuse to get a copy!

Keep in mind that this is an imaginary computer-generated vampire chick we are talking about. Who is in direr need of getting out more, the BloodRayne team behind all this or the kids who will go out and actually buy the issue? (And yes, I said ‘kids’.)

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Gymnasts and syntagma

Monday, 23 August 2004 — 9:09am | Scrabble, Tournament logs

You know you are behind schedule on the path to being someone important in the world when your peers include Olympic gold medallists.

Yesterday – as almost the whole country should know by now, even Summer Olympics hermits such as yours truly – gymnast Kyle Shewfelt claimed Canada’s first gold medal in Athens. This came as a surprise, not in the sense that I didn’t expect the representatives of my dear country to ever get back on their feet, but because Mr. Shewfelt was one of my elementary school classmates at Queen Elizabeth. (Queen Elizabeth Jr./Sr. High, that is, not the adjacent Queen Elizabeth Elementary… it’s complicated. Suffice to say, that was back when GATE was all housed in one school, not eight.) We never knew each other very well, and it is unlikely he remembers me, but he looks pretty much exactly the same today as he did eleven years ago, aside from having hit puberty sometime along the way. Back then he had a reputation for being the resident gymnast, much like how many of the other students had reputations for their respective special hobbies and super powers à la Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, only they haven’t won Olympic medals, now have they. Somewhere in this paragraph lies the moral of the story, that indeed, real people around you can be national heroes. Then again, they could also go into politics.

The closest I’ve gotten to winning an Olympic gold in the past few days, or an award of any sort, is the Most Outrageous Successful Phoney prize at an eight-round tournament I played yesterday, in which I finished second place in my division with a 5-3 (+381) record. At big events like the Western Canadian Scrabble Championship, this earns nothing less than a statuette of a horse’s ass, but all that one-day mini-tournaments bestow are bragging rights – and what bragging rights they are. I played BETRAYS for 99 points just the turn before, but it was challenged off because I tacked it onto an ill-advised hook in a desperation play, putting the S on CAW to make SCAW*. Then my opponent opened the triple line by playing PEES, but it was too low for me to play BETRAYS with the E making EPEES, so instead I confidently dumped the other word I spotted. No, not BARYTES. At 97 points on a triple-word score, BREASTY* is a horse’s ass of a play if I ever saw one.

The great thing about Scrabble is that unlike gymnastics, it is one of those things that you can master without having to start at the age of six. Athletics are not alone in differing; despite not being quite so intertwined with physical conditioning, the visual and performing arts are harder to get into than one would think, should one have no experience prior to leaving high school. The stars we hear about in all these fields invariably started early with a premonition of a destiny to fulfil and pursued it from the beginning. As somebody who is drawing-impaired but holds private aspirations of a brief foray into animation someday, I challenge thee: just try to get into an art college that does not expect you to come in fully armed with a portfolio at the ready. Entry level it ain’t.

There are a few exceptions, of course. The film trade, with the considerable resources that it demands, offers next to no opportunity to get hands-on experience as a child or adolescent. Novelists almost exclusively start late in life, though who knows how many years they spend trying to nail a breakthrough manuscript. And correct me if I’m wrong, but a few sports – curling, for instance – are more amicable to latecomers, though playing a few bonspiels in youth clubs undoubtedly offer a head start.

In most cases, though, it is already too late to shift gears into a new pursuit. Now go do something useful in your life before it’s too late.

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Related articles, thrice removed

Friday, 20 August 2004 — 3:09pm | Scrabble, Video games

This is going to be one of those entries where I step aside and let the more qualified do the talking.

Throughout the week, Slate has been running a five-part feature on the National Scrabble Championship by Division 1 player Dan Wachtell. It’s more of a bird’s-eye-view, or at least a Division-1-player’s-eye-view, of the action in New Orleans and covers a great deal about the Scrabble culture that I did not. For example, I have yet to defeat Scrabble legend Brian Cappelletto, still considered by some to be the best player in North America. Wachtell also imparts some wisdom about the strength of second-language players, the world-class Thai contingent in particular. Naturally, one of the entries also concerns the LEZ scandal. If you liked my Scrabble coverage earlier this month, get reading, because this is even better and a lot more accessible.

For those of you interested in where video games are headed with Nintendo and Sony’s new portable systems, right now there is no better analysis than the “State of the Handheld Industry: DS vs. PSP” feature at GameCube Advanced. It features interviews with some of the biggest names in both electronic gaming journalism and software development, some heavily favouring one system, the others undecided. At times the views and predictions about certain issues are so disparate that the only certainty is, somebody will turn out wrong.

This isn’t the only fight Sony has been picking lately. It is one of the companies that has pledged support for the Blu-ray disc format (BD-ROM), one of the two competing specifications vying to succeed DVDs as standard optical media. Regardless of who wins, format wars are always a headache for consumers; every now and then, what we really need is a side-by-side comparison of state-of-the-art technology.

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