From the archives: September 2004

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Sunday, 19 September 2004 — 9:17am | Scrabble

With less than two weeks to go before Western Canadians and just as thoroughly unprepared as I was before New Orleans, I can use all the help I can get when it comes to word study. As far as study aids go I still swear by the freeware flashcard program LeXpert, though if Mike Wolfberg’s WHAT is everything it promises to be, I would consider shelling out a few bucks for a copy.

I glanced over Mohan Chunkath’s Daily Scrabble Puzzle Blog earlier this week, but promptly forgot about it in spite of its bingo stem exercises. It’s a great idea, mind you, but because it comes from one of the directors of the club in Chennai (Madras), India, the whole thing is in SOWPODS. Given that I am not preparing for the World Championships, nor does it seem I will be moving to England at least until my education is finished, this makes it rather useless for my purposes. It would probably serve to confuse me more than help.

Of course, today I realized that the bingo puzzle solutions do indicate the words that are unplayable in North America with the standard pound symbol, so maybe it could come in handy. But that only applies to the bingo stems, and not the Java-powered anagram crossword puzzles. A pity, really, as an OWL edition of that puzzle blog would be of much utility.

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Docking Bay 327

Friday, 17 September 2004 — 10:14pm | Film, Star Wars

I’m not going to get anything done this week.

I know this because I just came back from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I can say with absolute certainty that the five hundred words I’m doing for The Gateway are not going to be sufficient. Were it not for the fact that I almost have a responsibility to enacting a meticulous scene-by-scene deconstruction of the Star Wars Trilogy DVDs when they come out later this week, I could be writing about Sky Captain for weeks. (Well, that and how I have yet to get around to explaining exactly why it is that I have been telling everybody to see Garden State lately.)

Let’s put an embargo on the specifics of my opinions about Sky Captain itself – you can read that in print later this week, and I have no intention of treading on the GSJS’ freelancing policy. I do, however, want to make you aware of one little detail before you go see the movie this weekend, which you really should, because it was one of the coolest moments in a movie full of really cool moments. When Sky Captain docks with the mobile landing platform in the clouds, his plane touches down on docking platform 327.

If I actually make good on my threat to deconstruct Star Wars scene by scene – and it’s not like I’ve never done it before – you can expect to hear the number 327 a lot. It appears several times in both trilogies, but most significantly as the number of the Death Star docking bay into which the Millennium Falcon is pulled by a tractor beam. The appearance that is perhaps even more relevant to Sky Captain, however, is that the Falcon is cleared for the exact same platform number yet again when it docks with another flying base, that being Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back.

If what I just said made you squeal in delight, Sky Captain is for you.

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Play it again, Nick

Friday, 17 September 2004 — 2:58am

Meine Damen und Herren, Mesdames et Messieurs, Ladies (and Gentlemen): for your enjoyment this morning, evening, noon or night, I am proud to present PianoBlog.

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I beg to propose

Wednesday, 15 September 2004 — 8:45pm | Debate, Journalism, Studentpolitik

I do a number of things for the University of Alberta Debate Society over the course of the school year, one of which is the maintenance of the website to which I just linked. I put it together over the course of a few afternoons back in the summer of 2003, and the only real change I have made since was changing the typeface from the now thoroughly out-of-fashion Verdana to the slimmer, more scalable Lucida family.

Looking back at it now, there are a number of things I would do differently. In fact, when I have time, I want to give it a complete overhaul. I did that site after about two years of dormancy from the wild, wild world of web design, so it represents a kind of blend between old and new. By “old” I refer to the liberal use of <table> as a layout device in the old three-panel tradition; by “new” I mean that it was with this site that I swore off <font> tags for good and used CSS for all my formatting. As is the case with this weblog, I eventually want to redesign it with a pure-CSS layout and pretty it up with some glitzier, more flexible design elements.

Good debate society websites are hard to find – on the CUSID circuit, I see Carleton as the role model, which is no real surprise since it is by Wayne Chu, who runs and served as CUSID’s Executive Director before I took on the job. (He also plays a mean trumpet – or did, anyway, back when we were both in the Sir Winston Churchill Symphonic Band under the direction of Judy Wishloff.)

The other big project I do for the Debate Society is a quarterly newsletter entitled The Times Tribune. I spent most of last night working on the latest one (split into two PDFs about a megabyte apiece, here and here), which features an, er, interesting comic strip on Page 2. I do all of the layouts in QuarkXPress, but its handling of image scaling is becoming an increasing source of irritation, as is evidenced in part by the girth of the resulting output files. Cost-related prohibitions notwithstanding, I would ideally get a hold of something like Adobe InDesign, just for the smoother integration with other Adobe tools.

The first UADS meeting of the 2004-2005 season was earlier tonight, and I was one of the participants in the annual demonstration round, arguing in favour of negotiating with terrorists. There was some serious head-eating going on, only part of which was alleviated by a reference to Star Wars. No more will be said of this.

On a Gateway-related note, yesterday’s issue featured a Letter to the Editor from Gary Wicentowich, whose turn it apparently was to deliver the ritual explanation of why it is the Engineering end of campus sees so much in the way of development, facilities and cash. This is one of those issues that pops up in the Letters page rather frequently, probably because the complainants never read the responses. I’m beginning to think the Engineering Students’ Society should just prefer a standard draft statement on the subject, they’ve had to explain it so many times.

I do, however, wonder about a slightly tangential remark on Gary’s part:

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to give Mr Sobchak a good old-fashioned sack beating, because believe it or not, very few engineers are “huge nerds.” Continuing to perpetuate the idea that people who are good at math and science are nerds is not only outdated and unjustified, it’s also rather offensive.

To which my immediate reaction was: really? I wasn’t aware that this commonly-propagated sterotype was either a) inaccurate or b) derogatory. More than any period in contemporary cultural history, now is the time that wearing the geek subculture on the sleeve is becoming a chic thing to do. Are the films of The Lord of the Rings not enough of a flagpole? Be proud of being absorbed in the high romances of intellect, I say.

Of course, take this here online writer’s word with a grain of salt; he’s not exactly speaking of this as an outside observer.

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Following the paper trail

Monday, 13 September 2004 — 5:02pm | Journalism

A number of major newsmagazines routinely have an inset with plusses, green arrows pointing up or some other graphic connoting positivity interspersed with minuses, red arrows pointing down or what have you. They place them next to the names and organizations that have done something worthy of recognition of late – or at the other end of the spectrum, shot themselves in the foot.

If I were to make value judgments of such generality on this here column, my biggest green arrow this week would go to one Angela Thomas, last year’s Engineering Students’ Society President. This year she is the Editor-In-Chief of the ESS publication The Bridge, which has returned to a broadsheet format for the first time since I arrived at this institution. I finally picked up a copy of the September issue earlier today, and by and large, it is praiseworthy in many respects.

The quality of the layout is the paper’s most immediately striking feature. While the type design is in itself nothing special, it comes off as clean and professional without being overly tight or roomy; in a word, legible. None of the photography is out of place. The attention-grabbing headlines contrast well with the wall of text on every page. That’s the other thing: The Bridge is packed with content. Part of it is the absence of advertisements with the exception of the events and services that fall under the ESS, such as the tutorials that are affectionately known in the faculty as the Carmen & Markus seminars.

The section headings are easily my favourite design element in the whole works. In keeping with the Engineering theme it is styled like a measurement that stretches across the page from one margin to another, where the caption box in the middle has the ESS insignia in the background and a tidy small-caps section heading taking centre stage.

Content-wise, there is a piece on Page 2 that deserves a mention. Every paper on campus has tried to tackle the Universal Bus Pass issue in one way or another, but leave it up to the upstart Engineering student publication to get it right thanks to an exclusive contribution from Chris Jones of Points of Information, who is an alumnus of the faculty.

The comics and crossword on Page 7 are all syndicated from the Web, but my, what a crossword. This comes from a whole set of technical crosswords at RF Cafe – and Mr. Christie, these are tough cookies. Even industry professionals are in for a puzzle that will rack their brains for acronyms galore.

Page 8 is a very effective use of the back page, with a visual calendar of events in the bottom half and an alphabetized one on top. There is a blurb there on Talk Like A Pirate Day, today’s excuse to link to a Language Log post. (I should start a fan club, honestly.)

I do have a few gripes about this issue of The Bridge, and most of them will rightly come off as nitpicky. On the first page, Will Helary offers “Seven Steps to a Better Degree” and writes as one of his subheadings, “Don’t *just* meet other engineers.” I’m not sure why an asterisk was used there for emphasis when making it a bold-oblique would have done perfectly well, as it reeks of “chatspeak” and is a bit of a distraction on the printed page.

Line-spacing is consistent on the cover page but not so much on Page 2, where Jessica Mueller’s “Students Deserve More Than Half-Ply” is a little cramped while the Jones article above it has more room to move than it needs. The paragraph indentation is also a tad inconsistent between the two. I also see two mistakenly doubled Is on the page; one is the acknowledgment of one “Mustafa Hiirji” for his design assistance, and the other is more ironic: “Thiink this issue sucked?” reads the volunteer call.

Additionally, writing in all caps for emphasis is unacceptable in a print publication. Please avoid that from now on. The only person who gets away with doing that is J.K. Rowling, and even then I do consider it one of the blemishes in her otherwise commendable writing style.

But as I said, these are all minor qualms – mistakes, as it were – that are entirely avoidable in future issues. The Bridge has made a strong debut, and I wish it the best of luck as the year progresses.

Now, for that other student paper.

I checked the DemocracyNow website today and was pleased to see that there is indeed a functional site there, as opposed to the “Coming soon” that greeted any visitors who might have accessed it after seeing the address in their Clubs Fair pamphlet. What I was looking for was the answer to this question: what’s up with The Independent, anyway?

Right now, an assessment is tricky. I still see a whole lot of ambition and not a lot to show for it. I also see one change of plans after another. After reporting just last week that their brochure spoke of The Independent as an online publication, their About page calls it “a new and refreshing University of Alberta weekly student newspaper.” This really belongs in the future tense, as their plans according to this page are to publish once every three weeks in 2004-2005. I’m still waiting for the first one.

Hacks take note: they are aiming for a dedicated fee referendum.

I know I pick on The Independent a lot in this column, not out of prejudice so much as frustration that they have so many bullet points about what an inspiring and necessary forum for discourse their publication is, and hardly anything to prove it. I like to think of this as constructive. A few words of advice: Fix your logo. Fix your typography. Fix your grammar. Solicit contributors not named Rob Anderson. Stop getting ahead of yourself when it comes to marketing how big, important and objective you supposedly are. End this shroud of anonymity and attach some names to yourself so you can make yourself accountable, which is supposedly something you value in the political process. You are not The Economist, so stop pretending to be.

The first issue of the revitalized Bridge was a pleasure to read. As for the first issue of The Independent… let’s just say I’ll begrudgingly give them a second chance, and leave it at that.

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