From the archives: August 2005

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Afternoon endostea

Wednesday, 24 August 2005 — 3:46pm | Scrabble

It’s Dave Wiegand in five. Going into the best-of-five ESPN final, it couldn’t have been closer by much – Wiegand stood at 21-7, +1074, while World Champion Panupol Sujjayakorn snagged the second spot with the same victory count and a +1000 spread.

Panupol took Game 1 with a calculated bingo-out, the 86-point SABERING – final score, 467-388. An early lead propelled him to another huge win, 463-349, in Game 2. Both were great games, the first in particular: I’m sure heads turned when Panupol closed up and grabbed a triple with DUPER in Move #10, instead of opening wide with the bingo UPREARED. A miss, or an example of inscrutable n-ply genius? I don’t know, but THERMOS was one hot-looking play.

Then Dave pulled a threepeat. Check out the beautiful find in Move #5 of Game 3, EULACHON on a double-double – the best of only two possible bingo words and a very limited number of positions to play them. (Actually, play through all the games if you can – there’s some overtly championship-level Scrabble on display from both sides of the board. Not many would spot all the minute strategic considerations at work, but the obscurity of the word-slinging is a sight to behold.)

I found Game 4 to be the most interesting, in part because it was the closest battle yet – step through it, and look at how the two players leapfrog each other in seventy-point bounds, both stopping only to dump and reload their racks. There’s a dramatic moment in Move #17 when Panupol, holding ILORTT?, sees the unplayable seven – TRIOLeT – and, according to the commentary, lays it on the board before pulling it back, realizing it made the SOWPODS-only TE#. How much of a strategic advantage it provided Wiegand, I’m not in a position to know, but the Oregonian held a lead to the end.

That was more of an evenly matched deciding game than Game 5, which was a huge run of luck for Dave; with two blanks and three bingos in his first four moves – LENSMEn, REENTERs and PARTING, all he had to do was shut down the lanes and grab the bonus squares, which he did in style. 539-331 and the 2005 National Scrabble Championship go to Dave Wiegand, though apparently the players scored it as a 529 without a recount (as clearly, none was necessary).

I’m wondering how much of the final will make it into the ESPN broadcast; last year’s matchup between Trey Wright and Dave Gibson only went to three, and I hear a good chunk of it was trimmed to make it into an hour with commercials. Here’s hoping Game 4 is the one they show in full, although I’m looking forward to seeing any of those televised should I manage to do so here in ESPN-less Canada, so as to get a sense of the pacing in this incredible series.

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A thousand tiles away

Monday, 22 August 2005 — 9:12pm | Scrabble

Subtract one or two divisions, and this is my life. It’s also an excellent Wall Street Journal piece by Scrabble’s patron journalist Stefan Fatsis. He captures the travails of losing game after game in Division 3 far better than this guy did in the same category last year when he, too, plummeted faster than a coyote in an Acme bat-suit. But for him, the real punishment came on Days 3 and 4 of the tournament, whilst Stefan is holding up well – breaking even at 9-9, +229 and ranked 59th of 135. He needs to be a lot further in the black to keep his rating, but if he doesn’t, more’s the chance I’ll get to play him come 2006 – that is, if I dig myself out of the hole without being too terribly befuddled by the gargantuan lexical overhaul that is moving in over the next few months.

In other news, this was a terrific story while it lasted, but I found the ending to be a little anticlimactic. I suppose we’re all in the mood for a melody. I’ve also been told that Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” is the most frequently requested cocktail piano tune, which is a reasonable hypothesis, but one that I have yet to test on a sufficiently large data set to substantiate with experimental observation.

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Nameless novels and bountiful bingos

Sunday, 21 August 2005 — 9:24pm | Literature, Scrabble

As possible as it remains that I will be eating some fresh-plucked import crow from the Village of Fowl Devotees two months from now, I’m going to place some chips on the table: I can say with almost total conviction that Book the Twelfth will be entitled The Nameless Novel.

Those of you who haven’t read the Lemony Snicket series should do so immediately. Those of you who have know by now that at the end of every volume is a teaser for the next, which always hints at some of the objects and locations to appear and includes the alliterative title for the volume to come; all except the piecemeal fragments at the end of The Grim Grotto, which revealed no succeeding title at all. It would be very much in keeping with the self-referential nature of the books, and the fictitious scenario that the author is an elusive man on the run who sends his editor the manuscripts telling of the Baudelaire children’s misfortunes by a host of unconventional means (coupled with his failure to send the editor a new title), if the absence of a title was played upon.

Last month, HarperCollins unveiled an activity website, The Nameless Novel, designed to market the book by presenting a day-by-day calendar of puzzles that fall into the theme of discovering the title of the twelfth book. The assembled solutions so far have revealed a full page from the book and a handful of new Helquist illustrations; the latter “investigation” is, at the time of this writing, still ongoing. That leaves time for a third set of clues beginning in mid-September, with the book’s publication due 18 October.

That seems like an awfully short lead time to announce the title to the general public, and The Nameless Novel is such a perfect fit that – given the little we know – it’s hard to imagine that it is only the moniker for a promotional website that only a fraction of all readers will actually visit. (Yes, J.K. Rowling revealed the title of The Half-Blood Prince via a website puzzle as well, but that’s quite a different scenario – and besides, it was well before the book went to press.)

The lack of a new title to follow The Grim Grotto can’t simply be leveraged towards this limited a purpose; I see it as significant enough that its resolution will be projected at the readership in its entirety. What I’m saying is that the launch of this website was itself the title announcement, albeit one that fell right into the meta-fiction of the Snicketverse. Keen observers will also note that each title alliterates a different letter, and ‘N’ is not yet taken.

In the end, this isn’t that substantive a matter to be speculating about. It is nonetheless exciting enough that such a phenomenal series – largely an exercise in style, but with a progressively meatier plot – is pulling up to its conclusion.

And now, for something completely different: you might have noticed that my finding the time to post this is probably a good indicator that I’m not fatigued out of my mind in the middle of Nevada right now, which would be the case if I were playing in this year’s National Scrabble Championship in Reno.

Call me a vicarious spectator, and an elated one. It’s two days and fourteen rounds into the premier Scrabble competition in North America, and Calgary’s very own Paul Sidorsky – former club co-director and developer of LAMPWords – is in fifth place of eighty-seven in Division 1. Not bad for the eighty-fifth seed. His 10-4, +458 record makes him the top-ranked Canadian halfway into the event, and puts him sandwiched right between Wiegand and Cappelletto.

This is, to don my verbal scuba gear and dive into the vernacular, freakin’ awesome. I’ve hardly played at the Calgary club for the past year for geographical reasons, the result being that my word knowledge is declining faster than your run-of-the-mill British sea power, but back when it was a weekly stop for me, Paul was always a challenging and humbling opponent – that is, whenever I earned a spot on the ladder high enough to face him. The first time I played him, he landed five bingos to my one and racked up 594 points, the most anybody has scored against me to date as the tile gods have mercifully spared me from the thunderous bludgeoning inflicted by the Mjollnir that is the 600-point Scrabble game.

I’ve since won a few games against Paul, but it’s been an uphill battle every time. This is a game where you come to appreciate the uphill battles, because they teach you a thing or two by way of glorious negative reinforcement. Downhill tumbles are not so fun. What you come to realize, though, is that even the toughest opponents are mortal when you draw all the blanks, though mortality makes little difference when not knowing how to deploy decent tiles is about as effective as clubbing someone with the blunt end of a very sharp pencil. And deification is one of many things called into question when you see one of your mentors ranked among and above the gods of the game, the characters you hear about in books and documentaries.

This is my way of sending a remote congratulations and wishing Paul the best of luck in the second half of the tournament – where, after all, anything is mutable. May he cleaneth the proverbial house.

Currently in first place with a 13-1, +653 record is 2003 World Champion Panupol Sujjayakorn from Thailand, who bears an age equivalent to mine and a vocabulary greater by several orders of magnitude. I have a clipping of a prominent newsprint congratulations offered him by the Bangkok papers months after his victory. If he stays on track, this will be his best performance yet under the North American dictionary, though he was already one of the undisputed luminaries of the game to begin with.

No announcement about the OWL2 yet, but I expect it will drop in very, very soon.

Now, excuse me while I go back to two-stepping through the playable live coverage on the tournament website. My board vision is rustier than the Tin Woodman; if it only had a heart.

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The more things stay the same

Thursday, 11 August 2005 — 10:41pm | Debate, Journalism

As a leisurely passe-temps I pore over the search queries that lead the weary journeyman to this homepage, nay, cabinpage of mine in the digital woodlands that shroud the alleged superhighway. I follow them as a ranger would track the dungheaps of a bear that had made off with some unhappy camper’s trail mix of dried apricots and extended metaphors. The webmaster is a territorial specimen, master of his subdomain.

The polluted realms of the Internet, dumped on what was virgin soil not a decade ago, bear witness to little history; so it is not often that the hunter stumbles on the relics of the ancients. Yet today’s sojourn saw better fortune, for I discovered one such relic. Come, children, and let us share this great treasure of antiquity by the afterglow of the starlit bonfire. Tillikum, how-how.

I bring forth, from the online archives of the University of British Columbia Library, a PDF scan of an issue of the student newspaper The Ubyssey dated 17 January, 1936. This may be the classiest thing you see today, and a lot of the readers who regularly traverse this place will know why from the top story, “U.B.C. and Manitoba Meet In McGoun Debate Today.”

“The number of cars on your campus gives us an impression of latent wealth. We think it would be a great place for Aberhart,” stated William Palk, visiting debater from Manitoba who, along with Cecil Sheps will meet Peter Disney and Dorwin Baird today in the McGoun Cup debate.

Mr. Sheps also wished to know whether U.B.C. stood for “University of Beautiful Coeds.”

The debate, admission to which was a whopping ten cents, was on the resolution “That Canada’s Foreign Policy should be one of Isolation,” with “isolation” agreed upon beforehand as withdrawal from the British Empire and the League of Nations. Read on, you crazy diamond.

But wait! There’s more! And astonished as I am already to see a second-page report on fiercely competitive auditions for a student production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”, turn to page 3 for this very model of a modern major headline:

Alberta News – Dance Interferes With McGoun Debate – Dates Clash

University of Alberta, Edmonton, Jan. 14 – “It appears that all the king’s horses, not to mention his men, will not be able to get the debating and Engineering societies together on the matter of which should have the sole rights to the evening of Jan. 17 for the Inter-Varsity debates and the “Undergrad” respectively. Last year’s Council argued for 1 hour and 17 minutes last Wednesday evening before peace was restored by appointing a committee with full power to look into the matter.”

It’s not quite Function Room ’36, but I see our student legislators were once as efficient as ever.

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From hero to zero

Sunday, 7 August 2005 — 5:37pm | Animation, Film

As of today, the Save Disney experiment is not only merely dead – it’s really most sincerely dead. In a way it’s been over since Stanley Gold and Roy Disney made amends with the House that Walt Built a month ago, if you can really call it a mutual armistice and not a conditional surrender once you examine the details of the agreement, as Jim Hill does in this article. It’s a raw deal for Roy and Stanley, and they’d be even worse off did Roy not bear the good fortune of the Disney name.

For my part, as a Save Disney wellwisher from the beginning, I’m glad to see that at the time of this writing the website is being left online, if no longer updated. Since the movement started to wane last year after falling just a few percentage points short of ousting Eisner (coupled with his surprise resignation not long after), a lot of the articles have taken on a more positive spin, reminiscing about the Disney legacy and leveraging it as a more oblique criticism of what the Eisner regime carelessly discarded.

So what are we going to see under Bob Iger now that this very public check and balance against the Disney boardroom is out of the picture? I expect some positive change, but I think a lot of it will be forced by market circumstances.

Now, I don’t know or care much about the Disneylands and licensing mania – I’m all about the films. So let’s take a look at the problems Disney needs to address from the perspective of an avid motion picture consumer.

First of all, Disney’s DVD strategy is not working, unless it was specifically designed to irk the serious collector. As far as availability goes, it’s atrocious. Sure, there have been some good moves, like finally restoring Song of the South for next year, but most of the classic Disney library is under wraps and schedule for one-a-year Platinum Edition releases that are promptly pulled off the shelf to make room for the next one. You can imagine the consternation when I lost my treasured two-disc Beauty and the Beast last year only to discover that it had been out of print since early 2003. I did eventually hunt down another copy, but life need not be so difficult.

I’m a latecomer as far as Disney fans go, in spite of being a child in the midst of the studio’s Renaissance of the early nineties, smack in the middle of their target demographic. I never initially took to The Little Mermaid and especially not Aladdin, which I thought mistook caricature for archetype on far too many an occasion (or however it is a seven-year-old would phrase an equivalent critique). But that’s what happens when you grow up exposed to a universe ruled by Don Bluth and his Three Laws: 1) There are no cats in America. 2) Three-horns never play with long-necks. 3) All dogs go to heaven (corollary: goats go to hell).

In retrospect, I missed out – hence the appeal of going back and realizing that it was in this era that Walt Disney Feature Animation was at the top of its game, the best it had been since its namesake passed away. Certainly the threepeat of Mermaid, Beauty and Aladdin represented some of the very best direct musical writing for film in decades, and I wonder if Disney ever truly realized what a treasure they had in Ashman and Menken. I’d love to go back and watch all the Disney features again, all forty-four of them from Snow White to Home on the Range, because I know but a third of them and only comfortably remember a quarter. But they’re making it very, very difficult.

Kids these days don’t even have a Disney to grow up on. They can’t even see The Little Mermaid on anything but shoddy full-frame VHS, because it’s not scheduled for release on pristine DVD until 2008. There was a brief DVD edition printed around Christmas 1999, but it was pulled two months later.

Disney has the Platinum Edition line charted out all the way to 2010. Something’s wrong with this picture, especially when you consider that the first wave of DVD-killer formats arrives less than a year from now, with Sony pushing the Blu-ray high-definition standard in the PlayStation 3. Which means that if Disney switches gears, and comes to see DVD as a stepping-stone format, a good chunk of their films will never make it to the medium. While I think studios are putting the high-definition cart way before the horse and punting it down the hill, Disney is missing boats. I know restoration work takes a lot of time and effort, but this is ridiculous.

Next grievance: Pixar sequels. I don’t side with Disney’s interests here. I think the most important bargaining term in any talks with Pixar – and I think Steve Jobs is on the same wavelength here – is that Pixar acquires all sequel rights to their film library.

Disney would be crazy, batty, nuttier than Chip ‘n Dale to make that concession. But speaking as a moviegoer, it’s a non-negotiable deal-breaker. Because right now, I’m very concerned about what Disney thinks it’s up to with Toy Story 3. For a while now, the persistent rumour has been that this is all a big power play to bring Jobs back to the bargaining table, but with increasingly tangible evidence that this is moving ahead – promotional posters, pre-production art, testimonials from excited animators working on it – read this article, also by Jim Hill, for details – I think they’re serious.

The concept they have for a third story – the Buzz Lightyear product line being recalled to Taiwan – isn’t in itself a bad one. And I don’t think that the people working on projects like these ever actively seek to make anything less than a good movie, though I think the record shows that there are limitations to working on a board-driven franchise-milker, especially in recent years when Disney has been shunting projects like Return to Neverland out of direct-to-video and into theatres. But I have a problem with a Toy Story 3 without Pixar involvement the same way I’d have a problem with someone acquiring the rights to Star Wars and doing something ridiculous like making Episodes VII, VIII and IX. It doesn’t ease my mind one bit that the man with directing credit, Bradley Raymond, comes straight from the DTV sequel production line.

I’m going to be very clear about this: I want Pixar to intercept this project before it gets too far along. Whether it cancels it or reworks it into something that tastes of the true hopping-lamp vintage is their decision. If the Pixar properties fall back into their own hands, I would sleep better at night. I have a lot more confidence in the discretion they apply in terms of when sequels are necessary and when they aren’t. You don’t have the board-level micromanagement that Disney did under Eisner and may yet have under Iger, and the folks actually working on the movies have a more direct hand in the decision-making process.

On traditional animation (i.e. not all-CG): I think Iger’s going to be forced back into approving it sooner or later, and I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if the first project greenlit to follow Rapunzel Unbraided is not a CG production. The overcrowded CG market is beginning to show some exhaustion, and it just isn’t smart business for Disney to make their films look and feel like everybody else’s.

The wildcard at this point is what kind of box-office reception Chicken Little gets when it opens 4 November. For my part, my opening-night commitment that weekend is V For Vendetta, even though I don’t have total confidence in that film either. But staying on topic: if Chicken Little is anything less than a roaring success – that is, if it ends up under the $200M mark, which even Madagascar is struggling to hit in spite of opening in DreamWorks’ treasured late May slot – Disney has something to worry about.

But as much as I want them to awaken to the fact that traditional animation is still very viable given the right coordination of good ideas and marketing support, both geared towards an interest in making, you know, classics. I’m not saying that I want Chicken Little to fail; in fact, I hope there’s a lot more to it than the hyperactive craziness that has been sold in the trailers so far, the kind of attempts at pop appeal that have hampered many a Disney film in the past ten years because at the screenplay level there isn’t a delicate boundary between the amusing and the outright silly. Let’s remember these are just the trailers, and even Pixar’s trailers have gone for the same approach at times, which might be why the movies pack such a wallop when they reveal themselves to be fugal exercises in unfettered genius.

Regardless of whether or not Chicken Little tanks as either a moneymaker or as a movie worth watching at all, we still have a lot to look forward to. I’m positively stoked about American Dog (and you would be too after seeing some of the shots from SIGGRAPH), curious about A Day With Wilbur Robinson and delighted to hear that Rapunzel Unbraided is going to have a completely different visual style modeled after oil-on-canvas, though I hope it doesn’t try too hard to be all hip and Shrek-like. See, I don’t mind one bit that Disney’s producing CG features, as long as they try to be something different, and not play catch-up with other studios who have already carved out certain stylistic territories for themselves.

I want to see Disney go back to being a leader, not a follower. I want to see these movies succeed, but I don’t want their success to send Iger the message that ditching traditional animation was in any way the right decision. It wasn’t.

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