From the archives: August 2004

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Put a chain around my NES and lead me anywhere

Thursday, 19 August 2004 — 4:16pm | Video games

There is a hilarious visual gag in Finding Nemo so subtle that I never caught it until I watched it for at least the fifth or sixth time just yesterday. Pay close attention to the ornaments in the saltwater tank where Nemo ends up; among them is a human skull. Next to the skull is a sign that appears in only two or three quick shots in the entire movie. Read it, and remember, the tank is in a dentist’s office.

A week ago at the Ziff Davis Electronic Gaming Summit, Reggie Fils-Aime of Nintendo delivered a speech about the company’s portable gaming strategy; IGN has the transcript. It clarifies a lot about Nintendo’s controversial philosophy that higher specs and better graphics are a technological dead end, and new frontiers in interface design are the way to go. “While we’ve steadily improved the technology of the Game Boy,” he says, “Nintendo has never considered itself in the technology business. We are in the entertainment business.”

This guy is right on the money. Observe:

On the other hand, if we are talking about a hard core 20-something gamer, the question of consumer desire becomes more pertinent – just what, exactly, does that avid player want? The initial thought is pretty obvious – if they love Grand Theft Auto on their PlayStations… they should love it just as much on the PSP, right? Well, leaving aside the issue of specific content not jumping platforms very well, game developers have to consider how these older consumers will play. The vast majority of older hard core players have made a leisure time commitment to gaming. Your mother may play solitaire or hearts for ten minutes at a time. Your most passionate gaming buddies probably play for entire nights or weekends at a time… because that’s what they love.

Now, consider those games they play to immersion – Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Madden, Zelda – and ask yourself this. Are they away from home for sufficient blocks of uninterrupted free time to repeat that immersion on a handheld device? How many 20 year olds really take regular three hour plane flights? Eleven-year-olds spend half-day car trips in the back seat, playing Game Boy. 21-year-olds spend half-day car trips in the front seat, driving. Even if those blocks of time were available to them, how many older gamers wouldn’t really rather wait and play those games at home, lying on the couch, blasting away on their big screens?

I give the Nintendo DS a fair amount of coverage here and virtually none for the PSP, and there’s a reason why I am excited about one and not the other. It is because the PSP is and fully intends to be a Game Boy that plays PlayStation games (albeit on an absolutely gorgeous display). There is nothing that it offers that cannot be done with a home console, except for additional features like music playback. Now, it’s no secret that part of why the PlayStation 2 sold so well is that it doubled as a DVD player at a time when most consumers did not have a DVD player, but were about to purchase one. Portable music players, on the other hand, are really nothing new. Nokia discovered this last year with their game-playing phone, the N-Gage: people would much rather buy a superior phone and a superior game system as separate, specialized units. This is why a hardware-driven approach falls flat on its face.

One may point out that the Game Boy is subject to a similar criticism: that in terms of pure gameplay, there is nothing that distinguishes it from what home systems can do aside from its inherent portability. That is only half true, because here, the innovations are driven by software developers. These range from using the unit as a control pad with a private screen in Four Swords Adventures and Crystal Chronicles to, say, monitoring and tuning your car. Still, it is quite correct that some Game Boy titles are just as playable on a TV screen, if not moreso. Take the phenomenal Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, for instance. As a traditional RPG where you have to play in long stretches to get from one save point to the next, it’s far more playable on the Game Boy Player accessory that puts it on a television and routes control to the wireless GameCube controller. Most of the biggest titles on the GBA are re-releases of NES and SNES classics, but they are still more playable on the old systems for which they were designed. (Part of it is because of the GBA’s lack of X and Y buttons, but that’s a different story.)

The thing that makes the DS so exciting is that almost everything about it takes advantage of the fact that you can take it with you and hold it right in your hands. You cannot implement two independent screens and stylus control on a console that plugs into a television set, any more than you can use a Duck Hunt Zapper gun on a cell phone. That means we are going to have new software that takes advantage of PDA-style features, like touch keyboards to replace that age-old method of scrolling with the directional pad to select each individual letter. At the same time, it sports the most effective button design of any system in history, the diamond/shoulder layout of the Super Nintendo controller that is simple enough to be intuitive, but consists of just enough buttons to play Street Fighter II.

Heck, you can play Scrabble on this thing, so long as Hasbro doesn’t screw up the software license. Put the rack and board on the touchscreen with a drag-and-drop interface, and use the other screen for scores, timers, tile tracking and the whole gamut.

There is one little problem, though: Hasbro doesn’t own the software license.

Since the acquisition of Hasbro Interactive in 2001, Scrabble has been owned by Infogrames, which has since renamed itself Atari to fool the unsuspecting into feeling nostalgic. As was pointed out at the Nationals town meeting, this is the major stumbling block that has prevented the rise of an online Scrabble network tied directly into the competitive world of the National Scrabble Association. Instead, the independent Internet Scrabble Club reigns supreme.

The other problem with the official distributions of Scrabble software is that they use the censored dictionary. While on a PC there are ways to edit the dictionary data under the table, cartridges are a different story. With the biggest dictionary revision in ten years just over the horizon, it is not the best time to buy a Scrabble program anyhow. But this is the part where in a stroke of genius, one suddenly recalls that the DS is Wireless LAN-enabled. Why not connect to a central server, download a dictionary update and flash it like a game save file?

The possibilities are fascinating, and it would take a lot to stop the DS from being the next big thing. Underpromotion and overpricing of software are culprits to watch. As Fils-Aime points out in his speech, software is the one determinant of success when you boil things down. The Game Boy sold because of Tetris, and the Game Boy Color sold because of Pokémon. Build the hits, and they will come.

I still think the DS version of Animal Crossing is the one to watch. The original for the GameCube is a niche title with a word-of-mouth cult following, but almost everything in its design would work even better on a portable system with a touchscreen that you play in bursts. But one area where Sony has consistently beaten Nintendo is promotion and marketing. Advertisements like the Santa Claus commercial for the PlayStation 2 are the ones that get the public to spend. Right now, the Nintendo DS is almost unknown outside of circles that read game industry news or University of Alberta student blogs. This needs to change.

Final note goes to Square/Enix: get your act together and work on Chrono Trigger DS already.

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Find the best play in LZTYBRN

Wednesday, 18 August 2004 — 11:25am | Scrabble

I’ve watched the feature-length Pixar movies several times apiece, and just when I think I’ve caught everything, they continue to surprise me with the sheer depth of the artists’ care and attention to detail. Most of the hidden Easter eggs that I came across for the first time in this week’s pass are fairly common knowledge as far as obscure trivia goes, like how the bookshelf behind Woody when he delivers his “moving buddy” briefing in Toy Story sports several hardcovers entitled after Pixar’s pre-Toy Story shorts, Tin Toy and Knick Knack among them. But while watching A Bug’s Life again last night I noticed something that, as far as a quick flip through the major search engines and film sites I’ve found, nobody has made a point of catching before.

You know the scene where the circus bugs, freshly fired, are all having a few drinks in the empty Low Fat Lard can that serves as a bar? Listen carefully. In the background is the faint and familiar sound of a honkytonk piano playing “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. That, my friends, is the Pixar difference.

Hypothetical question for the experts: your opening rack is Al’s all-consonant license plate from Toy Story 2. How many tiles do you exchange, and which ones?

Back at the Scrabble tournament earlier this month I mentioned a new game board design that I procured for beta-testing purposes. Before I comment on the board itself, I want to go into a little bit of background, as the story of how this board came into being is an interesting one.

Right now the most upscale Scrabble set commercially available in North America is Hasbro’s Deluxe Edition. For all competitive purposes, it’s useless. If you go to a typical Scrabble tournament, everybody brings their own gear, and under optimal circumstances you would be hard-pressed to find anything from the Deluxe Edition box. Nationals, however, operates differently; out of logistic concerns, the tournament employs a standard board at every table fresh out of the box.

This raised the ire of many a player back at the 2002 Nationals in San Diego, as these boards are clearly inadequate for tournament play. The ridges around the individual letter spaces, designed to hold the tiles in place, don’t hold the tiles in place; turn the board, and they are in for a slip-slide ride. Spinning the board is also a problem. With about an inch-wide bevel around the square board, it is all too common for a corner to inadvertently knock over your opponent’s rack, should he place it too close. This is not an issue for casual players, because the Deluxe Edition comes with a storage ring that doubles as a turntable support, which raises the board high enough that toppling racks is not an issue. Tournament players cannot do the same, as it is against the rules. Yes, there is indeed a rule that says the board must be low enough so the number of tiles on your rack is visible to the other player, so one can spot overdraws or plan out-plays in the endgame.

The fallout of these complaints was that the National Scrabble Association talked to Hasbro and consulted on the design of a new tournament board to eliminate some of the problems with the Deluxe set. It was scheduled for a surprise unveiling as the board that would be used at this year’s Nationals in New Orleans.

That did not account for shipping delays en route to New Orleans from the manufacturers in China, and the boards arrived on the last day of the tournament.

Instead, a board was bestowed upon every winner of Round 30, the last game of the tournament aside from the Wright-Gibson final. The new design’s debut in tournament play was in the best-of-five final itself, and you can see a photo of it here as it looked after the deciding Game 3.

In the two weeks since the tournament I have had the opportunity to play a few casual games with the new board. While Victoria player Thana Kamabanonda covers pretty much what I think in this post, I have a few things to address.

The new design is a huge improvement on the Deluxe set. The ridges are high – perhaps too high, as I observed that it took longer than usual to slot the tiles into place when making a play. But once they are in, they stay in. The turning mechanism is stable and avoids raising the surface too high. The board is thin enough for easy transport in a tote bag, though the wooden framing adds some weight and makes it heavier than it looks. Gone is the outer bevel of the Deluxe Edition, though there is a wide margin on one side sporting the Scrabble logo and the tile count, so it does feel big enough for a square board that knocking racks over is still something to be cautious about.

The set comes with two wooden racks that match the frame, but these are just asking for trouble. They are too narrow and too steep, and tiles look like they might fall off at any moment. At Nationals a lot of people will bring their own racks anyway, but if Hasbro is actually planning to sell this thing, they need better racks now.

I am unsure as to the look of the board – specifically, how the plastic surface is the dull grey of a Civil War ironclad. Let’s be honest: it’s ugly, and it doesn’t match the frame. Aesthetically, it looks unfinished. Now, in the context of a game, this does not matter so much, and the fact that the background is as dull as it is actually evades excessive glare and other distractions. But if Hasbro wants to send this to store shelves, it is in serious need of colour coordination.

I still prefer my personal board, a circular wooden one with a green marble-pattern finish made by Calgary player Ross Stevenson, which I keep in a padded Sabian cymbal case. Round boards are an indispensible comfort once you play with them frequently, though they are a bit difficult to lug around. Also, if Hasbro wants to sell a line of boards geared towards competitive types, they might as well make it a complete out-of-the-box experience. Right now, the woodcarved tiles in every Scrabble set on the market are against tournament regulations, because the grooved surfaces are an invitation to cheat. The tile bags are also poorly made; mine ripped at the seams not long ago, but I replaced it with a more spacious flock bag with a cylindrical bottom, far less prone to wear and tear. If you are going to sell a tournament board, sell it with flat plastic tournament tiles, stable racks and a better bag. Omitting the clock I can understand, as a standard digital timer like the SamTimer or Adjudicator is by far the most expensive part of a complete tournament-ready Scrabble set, but everything else needs to be there. There’s no point in targeting competitive players if after buying the set, they still have to run over to Word Gear and replace half their equipment.

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Cake, candles and celluloid

Tuesday, 17 August 2004 — 3:25pm | Film

It’s that time of the year again. I refer not to my birthday, which I am commemorating throughout the week by watching all five Pixar features back-to-back, but that mid-year mark in late August when the summer movie season is effectively over, and we are halfway from one Oscar season to the next. You can always tell when it hits, because if you go to the cinema in late July and August, all you see are uninspiring trailers for the dud-dumping that goes on in September and early October, one of the two perennial droughts where studios release the films they are not particularly proud to back (the other being late January to early April). Now that the release date lineup for the next few months is falling into place and we are finally seeing trailers for potential contenders, it is high time to finally get excited about movies again. As was the case last year, columnist David Poland is the Oscar heavyweight in the prediction game with his 30 Weeks to Oscar chart, and’s Kris Tapley is a pundit to watch.

This is another back-heavy year in the making, because so far, the year has offered practically nothing in the way of Oscar contenders. Remarkably, the three best films I saw this year were all sequels – Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Spider-Man 2. I’m not sure if this speaks to the increasing quality of sequels, which is only the case with Spider-Man given that Kill Bill was one movie sliced in half and Azkaban was based on an established marvel of a literary follow-up, or the generally lacklustre performance of original pieces this summer, but what is certain is that none of them are in contention. The only film released this year that may clinch a Best Picture nomination is The Passion of the Christ, and that depends on the extent to which the November-December crop meets expectations. It stands virtually no chance of winning.

Rather than delivering my own predictions about awarding films that are weeks or months away from hitting theatres, I will offer a brief guide to the remaining 2004 releases that I am most anticipating, the ones that I think have the most potential to be permanent five-star additions to my personal hall of fame. These are the ones I will see on the opening weekend, if not the opening day. There are six of them; in order of release, they are:

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (9/17) – This was originally slated for a June release right in the path of Spider-Man 2, and was wisely bumped to September, where it is the only film on the schedule that even remotely piques my interest. I’m unabashedly a sucker for movies that take a genre and explore it to the farthest corners, and Kerry Conran’s special effects extravaganza looks to do just that with the same pulp sci-fi serials of yore that inspired George Lucas. The only thing I am a little concerned about is that everything I’ve seen of the film looks a little soft and feathery, so hopefully the blending between live actors and animated backgrounds is more seamless in the final product. Sequels aside, this year has yet to see a great effects-driven popcorn movie, and Sky Captain may be the one to step up to the plate. The advance screening at Comic-Con reportedly brought down the house. Killer robots, flying aces and 1930s costumes? Just my type.

The Incredibles (11/5) – I have long made it clear, and by “long” I mean since I saw the footage attached to Finding Nemo fifteen months ago, that if at the beginning of the year I was told I could only go to the cinema once until 2005, this superhero blockbuster in the making would unquestionably be the one I chose to watch. Pixar, more than any production studio in history, commands total brand loyalty from this here writer. The studio is five for five when it comes to knocking projects out of the park (or in the case of Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, well into the stratosphere). Directed by Brad Bird, who worked on The Simpsons and is best known for his wondrous but largely unnoticed The Iron Giant, early word on The Incredibles is that Pixar might have outdone itself again. As a perk, as if it needed any, it will likely sport the first teaser trailers for both Revenge of the Sith and Cars, the biggest blips on my 2005 radar.

Alexander (11/5) – The Incredibles gets opening-day priority, but I will likely also be watching Oliver Stone’s latest on the 5-7 November weekend. It’s been a full nine years since the last truly classic historical hero epic, Braveheart. (I’m ignoring The Lord of the Rings here because while I consider Middle-Earth a part of our history, most do not; Gladiator, while a lot of fun, was itself an entirely fictional piece in a historical setting.) Alexander may be the breakthrough picture that reminds us that the legendary period costume dramas about larger-than-life historical figures never rested on spectacularly bloody battles and casts of thousands, but on a thorough interpretation of what made these people tick, what guided their actions and decisions, and what consequences they had to face. See Lawrence of Arabia for details.

Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (11/26) – I’m a huge admirer of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s previous collaboration with Audrey Tautou, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, and still find it to be one of the most imaginative and endearing comedies in recent memory. Un Long Dimanche (to be released here under the title A Very Long Engagement, I hear) is something completely different, a war bride drama based on a World War I novel, something that on the surface might sound like a familiar premise to those of you who saw last year’s Cold Mountain. This is shaping up to be a must-see, and the chief concern is whether and when the local arthouse screens will pick it up.

The Aviator (12/17) – Martin Scorsese’s second film starring Leonardo DiCaprio (the first being the disappointing Gangs of New York), a biographical picture about aviator and film director Howard Hughes, is considered to be this year’s favourite for Best Picture. Judging from the footage and the pedigree of the people involved, I cannot disagree. The problem is that word on the street indicates it is behind schedule and may be delayed to 2005. DiCaprio convinced me in Catch Me If You Can that paired with the right director, he is a delightful actor to watch. As long as this movie avoids the trap of being two-thirds classic, one-third nosedive as was the case with Gangs, it’s almost guaranteed to be a high-quality masterwork.

The Phantom of the Opera (12/24) – As I have professed on many an occasion, it is important to me on a very personal level that this film be good. But let’s be optimistic for a second: other than the fact that Joel Schumacher’s been a marked man among movie buffs since Batman and Robin, Phantom has yet to raise any early warning alarms, and is actually shaping up to be what I imagined. And this is a case where just being what I imagined is more than sufficient to place it in the pantheon of everlasting classics, as was the case with The Lord of the Rings, the last adaptation I cared about this much. I know I am not alone when it comes to being sentimentally attached to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s finest work, and this is one chandelier nobody wants to see crash to the floor.

In addition to these six, there are a number of upcoming movies that I will probably see, though I do not consider them exciting priorities. As an animation aficionado I cannot miss Shark Tale or The Polar Express, and while I am highly sceptical about both of them in different ways, I will at least see them out of curiosity. I’m hearing good things about Ray, the impeccably timely biography of the late Ray Charles starring Jamie Foxx, who allegedly underwent a procedure that rendered him temporarily blind in order to fit into the role. Being busy over the past few weeks I also have to catch up on the late-summer releases that have garnered some acclaim, among them The Bourne Supremacy, Collateral and Napoleon Dynamite. Garden State has not hit theatres here yet but is set to expand on Friday. Once those are out of the way, I may compose a more comprehensive recap of this year’s summer stable.

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Disney, Da Vinci and Dumbledore

Monday, 16 August 2004 — 4:18pm | Animation, Film, Harry Potter, Literature

Ain’t-It-Cool News has a lot of production art from the post-Chicken Little Walt Disney Feature Animation pipeline – American Dog, A Day With Wilbur Robinson and Rapunzel Unbraided. I heard about these upcoming projects two weeks ago by way of a recent article on one of my daily stops, Jim Hill Media, which was highly critical of the new WDFA policy that prohibits animators from working on a production until it had an approved screenplay, contrary to how animation actually works.

American Dog is from Chris Sanders of the delightful but perhaps slightly overrated Lilo & Stitch, and the preliminary art boasts a charming, edgy aesthetic. Of course, what makes animation great is not the individual frames but how they connect to one another to tell a visual story, so let’s cross our fingers that it all comes together. A Day With Wilbur Robinson, slated for 2006, is an adaptation of William Joyce’s children’s book of the same title, which I have never read, but have heard is fantastic. The story reel, the animation equivalent of the storyboarding and pre-visualization that goes into live-action, is reportedly phenomenal.

The art for 2007’s Rapunzel Unbraided is enchantingly beautiful, but the content itself is a big question mark; I know very little about the film at this stage, but it looks like Disney is trying to pull it closer to the Shrek end of the spectrum like they once tried with the never-made Frog Prince. To which I say, go ahead and make it satirical (The Princess Bride, anyone?) but please, for the love of Mickey Mouse, don’t try to make it all hip and contemporary. PDI’s approach is already showing signs of overstaying its welcome; no need to imitate it further. The Disney reputation was built on timelessness, not the cheap temporal appeal that has reduced many a feature from great to good. Case in point: regardless of whether or not you like the music of Phil Collins, he has absolutely no place in Brother Bear, and I am quite serious when I say that his inclusion takes away from the movie.

I really do hope Disney digs itself out of its hole with these three projects. Hopefully they are as daring and creative as they look, and escape the executive-level mismanagement that has led the Disney brand down a path of decay. Unfortunately, scoring box-office hits with these upcoming features will have the side effect of further convincing Michael Eisner and his cronies that traditional animation is dead, and we may have a long wait ahead of us until Disney returns to its roots.

There are few things the movie industry needs more than a kick in the pants to remind studio execs that 3D computer animation does not a better film make. Or, considering the success of the outstandingly funny Chicken Run and next year’s anticipated hit The Wallace & Gromit Movie: Curse of the Wererabbit, 2D traditional film does not equal a bomb. So maybe the dollar figures say, “Yes it does,” but that is an oversimplification. What we really need are distributors who recognize a great film when they see one and know how to promote it properly, unlike how Warner Brothers completely dropped the ball with The Iron Giant, which will hopefully see a revival as its upcoming DVD re-release rides the hype around The Incredibles. We don’t need people releasing Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal masterpiece and the biggest box-office hit in Japanese history, dubbed over in English when foreign films have demonstrated a record of doing better when released properly – that is to say, subtitled. We don’t need more grounds for marketing conspiracy theories like the ones surrounding Home on the Range.‘s feature, “Killing Traditional Animation”, says it better than I do.

While on the subject of Disney films, I want to say a few words about a book that mentions some of them in passing: Dan Brown’s mega-hit novel The Da Vinci Code.

Normally I don’t review the novels I read, and there are a number of reasons for this. Foremost is that if I afforded each and every one of them the analysis I wish I could, I would never get through my extensive reading list. Then there’s the matter of personal pride, in the sense that I do not wish to reveal the full extent of how much I haven’t read. Following that is the fact that I spend most of my time reading established classics instead of current releases, and in most cases have nothing to add to the volume of discourse that already exists around them.

Once in a blue moon, though, I get a little curious about just what it is that has propped up authors like this Dan Brown fellow into the #1 slot of The New York Times for such an extended period of time. Besides, it is always good to get an indication of what it is that the public is consuming at large.

So my question is this: is it just The Da Vinci Code, or is the prose in all contemporary pop literature so juvenile?

I’m not saying Da Vinci is bad – far from it. The plotting is tight, the puzzles are clever, the premises are a conglomeration of outlandish but intriguing theories that run contrary to all conventional wisdom, and are proud of it. It’s just badly written. The two protagonists that carry us through the mystery, symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu, are not characters so much as they are physical manifestations of their respective -ologies. At times, we see every tired prosaic cliché worthy of a loud and sonorous groan – among them, childhood flashbacks and italicized internal monologue up the wazoo. It’s like the entire thing was written with the prospective movie rights in mind, because if anything, The Da Vinci Code feels like a detailed screenplay treatment.

The apologists undoubtedly say, well, plot-driven thrillers don’t need characters, tone and style, or thematic resonance, and only the most pretentiously snobby Ulysses-wielding literati would presume to demand such literary luxuries. Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and Ian Fleming beg to differ. To name a few.

Full marks for plot construction, though – well, aside from an obvious villain with a concealed identity and a few puzzles that should not have posed our heroes as much trouble as they did. I won’t deny that this is a book that kept me turning the pages to find out what happens next. It’s easy to see why The Da Vinci Code has attracted so much discourse: whether by accident or design, Brown often diverges into passages where he dumps a lot of detailed information geared towards supporting his ideas about revisionism in theological history, and presents them with a non-fictional authority that sends people straight to their search engines in an attempt to separate what is real from what is not.

The downside is that when you do this in front of people who know their stuff, they see right through some of the more frivolous contortions of truth. I’m not referring to the theological debates about the Council of Nicea and the deification of Jesus Christ, but the small things, the details that make the book seem really clever in the eyes of a layman. Observe how in one instance, Brown claims that the Romans referred to the wonders of anagrams as ars magna, the Great Art. Nice try, Mr. Brown. Ars magna is a clever anagram of “anagrams”, but the English word itself was derived from the Greek word anagrammatismos, which lacks the same connection. Such a claim is like saying the Eastwoods dubbed their son Clint deliberately because they could rearrange his name to spell “Old West Action”.

This is also where the Disney connection comes in. Brown has obviously been reading a lot about the surreptitious symbols and malicious metaphors in Walt Disney’s secret destructive agenda, or something to that effect – without much regard for who does what in the development of an animated feature. He claims how Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty is concealed under the name “Rose” as an extension of Disney’s purported agenda to spread the truth about the Holy Grail and goddess worship that lies at the centre of the novel – neglecting to mention, of course, that the name is taken directly from Briar-Rose, Sleeping Beauty’s name in the original text of the Grimm fairy tale. Then he leaps forward to make a connection to the modern era of The Little Mermaid, over which Walt had no direct say, being dead and all. Sometimes it is hard to tell if Brown is intentionally mistaking memetics for conspiracies.

In spite of these misgivings, I do think The Da Vinci Code is worth a read, if only to catch up on the controversial things it has to say. But this may be a case where the movie, currently attached to Ron Howard, may very easily eclipse the book.

On the subject of bestselling literature: J.K. Rowling delivered a reading of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in Edinburgh this weekend, and followed it with a question-and-answer session about a number of things, The Half-Blood Prince among them. The book itself is halfway to completion, and Rowling draws attention to some unanswered questions to consider. Very interesting indeed:

There are two questions that I have never been asked but that I should have been asked, if you know what I mean. If you want to speculate on anything, you should speculate on these two things, which will point you in the right direction.

The first question that I have never been asked – it has probably been asked in a chatroom but no one has ever asked me – is, “Why didn’t Voldemort die?” Not, “Why did Harry live?” but, “Why didn’t Voldemort die?” The killing curse rebounded, so he should have died. Why didn’t he? At the end of Goblet of Fire he says that one or more of the steps that he took enabled him to survive. You should be wondering what he did to make sure that he did not die – I will put it that way. I don’t think that it is guessable. It may be – someone could guess it – but you should be asking yourself that question, particularly now that you know about the prophecy. I’d better stop there or I will really incriminate myself.

The other question that I am surprised no one has asked me since Phoenix came out – I thought that people would – is why Dumbledore did not kill or try to kill Voldemort in the scene in the ministry. I know that I am giving a lot away to people who have not read the book. Although Dumbledore gives a kind of reason to Voldemort, it is not the real reason. When I mentioned that question to my husband – I told Neil that I was going to mention it to you – he said that it was because Voldemort knows that there are two more books to come. As you can see, we are on the same literary wavelength. [Laughter]. That is not the answer; Dumbledore knows something slightly more profound than that. If you want to wonder about anything, I would advise you to concentrate on those two questions. That might take you a little bit further.

Now there’s an author of bestselling literature who knows a thing or two about presenting elaborate mysteries under the cloak of witty wordplay and a dramatis personae worth volumes of character analysis.

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Like endless rain into a paper cup

Monday, 16 August 2004 — 2:03pm | Scrabble

It just so happens that I leave for a week and come back to discover that my coverage of the LEZ fiasco landed me a link at Crescat Sententia and a resulting surge of hits – which promptly dissipated in short order, presumably because I wasn’t updating, or maybe because the place looked very much like a blog dedicated exclusively to Scrabble. Will Baude writes:

So, the “purity” of the game was being violated a little by the rule, yes, but it is already necessarily violated all the time in semi-friendly play. Just try explaining to your less-Scrabble-savvy friends that, “well, I know it’s not in the “Official” dictionary, but it’s one of a group of semi-secret special words, that…”

Anyway, the list of Scrabble-banned words is here, and it includes such nasty, unspeakable stuff as “POPISH,” “REDNECKS,” “JEW,” “COMSYMP,” “FATSO,” “FART,” and “FRIG” (“FRIG” was presumably banned under some anti-circumvention rationale that will eventually be used to ban “screw”, “F***”, “SH**”, and “$%#!” from broadcast television). If I recall correctly, “frotteur” remains Scrabble-legal, athough the distinction bears out a logic I cannot fathom.

But the very crux of the debate is that for all competitive intents and purposes, the OSPD isn’t the “Official” dictionary. It’s still a misnomer for a book that is specifically labeled in small print as being for “recreational” use, a volume drafted for the sole purpose of not offending the kiddies. Ironic, considering that the prodigies who actually play the game seriously will and do use the expurgated words on a regular basis where they are strategically appropriate. The lexicon for tournament play is, no ifs and no buts, the amalgamation of the OWL (Official Word List) and LWL (Long Word List). This has also been adopted outside of tournament circles where people play the game seriously – the Internet Scrabble Club, for instance, uses the OWL and not the OSPD when you select the North American lexicon.

Now, ordinarily the situation wouldn’t have been as much of a calamity had it worked the same way as a simple challenge. By the telecast rules by which all participants agreed to abide, LEZ would have been treated as a typical nonword. In a tournament match, the window of opportunity to challenge a word off the board follows a specific procedure. Let’s say I play the phoney word FHQWHGADS*. I announce the score, hit the clock to mark the end of my turn, and then my opponent has the opportunity to call “Hold”. This is to signal that he is considering a challenge, and until he has made his decision, I may not draw replacement tiles from the bag. If he challenges, I take my letters back and lose my turn. If he doesn’t, I draw my replacement tiles as soon as he indicates I am no longer on hold, and the word stays on the board in spite of the fact that it is disallowed.

The scenario in Game 3 of the final was somewhat different. Gibson did not call a hold on Wright, who proceeded to draw two tiles in place of his L and Z. Here we diverge from normal challenge rules, because according to the television agreement, an expurgated word such as LEZ could not stay on the board even if no challenge was attempted. Things were further complicated because ESPN’s director on set, under deadline pressure and not involved in the ESPN-NSA negotiations, said he had no problem with LEZ and wanted things to continue running on schedule.

This was no time to debate the merits of the censorship agreement, to which the players had already consigned, and as per regulations, the word was removed. In spite of my misgivings about the principles behind and implementation of the telecast rules, if you set out some rules for yourself you have to follow through, and I believe this was the correct decision. My understanding is that things took as long as they did because there was no procedure to deal with the fact that Trey had already drawn his tiles, and the entire fiasco did not follow challenge procedures. The question at this point was no longer whether or not to remove the word, but whether he should lose his turn or have the opportunity to make another play. The other thing to consider was that by drawing two tiles prior to the ruling, he ascertained knowledge of the unseen tile pool that his opponent did not possess – yet another stumbling block that challenge procedures were designed to overcome.

Some have mentioned a compromise solution for future tournaments, and one that I think is sound: if ESPN’s adherence to FCC broadcast regulations is the real issue, they should be the ones to draft a list of words they consider unacceptable. This is because the list of what is or is not omitted in the OSPD is, in a word, silly. To answer Mr. Baude’s question about the guidelines that scratch out FATSO and inexplicably leave FROTTEUR intact: as far as I am aware, the omissions were determined on the basis of whether or not the words in question had an alternative context or definition not considered vulgar. A famous example mentioned in several books and documentaries on the subject is that TUP (v. to copulate with an ewe) was on the verge of being removed until it was pointed out, as Joe Edley said, that “it refers to the ewe, not a couple of farm boys.”

On another note, check out some of champion Trey Wright’s piano recordings.

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