From the archives: March 2006

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The Long March

Friday, 31 March 2006 — 9:00pm | Jazz, Music, Scrabble

March is usually a busy month for me, and correspondingly, a quiet one. Spring, as the song goes, can really hang you up the most.

So, what news from the secret lab?

One thing I have not been doing is playing Scrabble. Having missed the Calgary Spring Tournament on a last-minute cancellation, I won’t be formally tested against the new word list until the Sherwood Park tournament on the weekend of 22-23 April. Casual bystanders new to (and curious about) competitive Scrabble should note that this is a very good choice of a first tournament, since the expected pool of players is fairly low-rated, and the divisional cutoffs reflect that. Know all your two-letter words and be comfortable with a good chunk of the threes, and you should coast.

I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the choir I play with had a great performance at Choralfest, but it was a unique and unreliable aural experience. On a stage like that, everything is a little out of balance where the piano guy sits, especially if you put him right in front of the kit. But the gig was still a blast.

In fact, it was such a blast that my pages flew off the piano and onto my hands while I was playing, and I had to shake them off. As I would have it, my solo was henceforth wicked as the Witch of the West. There’s nothing like being spontaneously forced to listen; jazz, after all, is a social activity. I’d liken it to the uncoupling braces of the young Forrest Gump breaking into his first exhilarating run, but even I have my analogical limits.

Our next performance is at Convocation Hall on Saturday, 8 April. 8pm, I think, but I’ve been wrong before. In addition to the typical standard-bearing, there will be Paul Simon aplenty – and maybe, just maybe, a smidgen of Koji Kondo.

In the tail end of my lukewarm review of Inside Man, I take a parting sideswipe at acclaimed trumpeter Terence Blanchard for the mishmash that is his score to the film. I nearly forgot to mention it, but it’s an important point. It’s quite literally all over the place. Figuratively, too, in terms of style. While I admire genre-bending versatility, it needs to have some kind of rhyme or reason, and it needs to fit the film. Here, it just distracts.

I didn’t see Letters (Thursday, 23 March 2006) reprinted in the online edition of The Gateway, so I’ll reproduce another response to the Scrabble article I was moaning about last week. It comes from Tony Leah, who unlike me, is one of the best players in Canada, and unlike me, is polite and eloquent about it. I don’t know how he came across our campus paper all the way out in Ontario, but I’m glad he did:

New words doing nothing but improving Scrabble, Fedio

I play Scrabble competitively, and I think you should know that the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary is not an arbitrary collection of words and non-words (Re: “New words ruining game of Scrabble,” 21 March). It was compiled by referencing four major North American Collegiate Dictionaries. Only words that are listed in one of these dictionaries are included in the OSPD. Even so, the OSPD, with about 83 000 entries, is a tiny fraction of the complete Oxford English Dictionary, which lists some 616 500 words.

I am also not sure how you can so confidently set yourself up as arbiter of what is, and what is not, a “real word.” Anyone who has been to Hawaii will have likely seen aa and pahoehoe (different types of lava), and will find the words familiar, not strange. Even my Canadian Oxford lists aa. (By the way, aa is not a new addition to the OSPD. It has been included for years.) My Canadian Oxford also lists qi, and most well-read people will be familiar with this spelling of the word.

Serious Scrabble players would strongly disagree with your contention that the recent update, which added about 3000 words, diminishes the skill involved in playing at a high level. And, to draw comparisons with steroid use is ridiculous. Everyone has access to the new words, if they possess the skill and determination to learn them. In fact, the very best players have the ability to master different lexica for different tournaments – one for play in North America, and a much larger dictionary for the World Scrabble Championship.

I’ve been spending a great deal of time following the discussion on the All About Jazz forums about why jazz is so unpopular, and you should too. It reduces to a crowd of jazz evangelists strategizing about how best to save the heathens, but that’s a cause worth fighting for.

I buy that it comes down to a fundamental gulf in musical cognition between those who know how to listen to the stuff and those who don’t. The running conjecture is that most people who think they are listening to music aren’t actually listening to music.

More on this later. Suffice to say, if you are one of those people who reduces a listening experience to lyrics and “the beat” – and there must be a lot of you out there, because apparently you’re driving the recording industry – I don’t understand you.

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At least try to know what you’re talking about

Wednesday, 22 March 2006 — 1:38am | Scrabble

This is going to sound like an excessively vitriolic pants-in-a-twist rants-in-a-twist from some pretentious chap who thinks he’s the only student on this campus qualified to write about Scrabble. But guess what, Chloé Fedio: I am the only student on this campus qualified to write about Scrabble. And I can say from my position of authority, your article sucks. The facts are wrong, the premises are false, the logic is absent and the conclusions are trash.

Since I am an occasional (if dormant) volunteer on the decks of the leaky deathship, I can’t submit this to Letters, so it’s going here instead.

Ms. Fedio’s fundamental misunderstanding (not just about the storied crossword game, but dictionaries, and the English language in general) is in her assertion that the dictionary, and the expansions thereof, are too permissive. They are not. Because they are standardized rulebooks, and restrict the lexicon to a finite functional vocabulary as a subset of an infinite language, Scrabble dictionaries are inherently prescriptivist. In other words, they are overly restrictive, and that has always been the leading motivation for the adoption of expanded dictionaries, be it the OSPD4/OWL2 in North America and Israel or SOWPODS everywhere else. Is this a problem? Yes, if you want to correlate Scrabble-English with practical, meaningful English. But the discrepancy is in the other direction.

Officially-sanctioned Scrabble dictionaries do not apply to living-room players who would rather pander down to some lowest common denominator of words found in “everyday life”. If you’re going to play like that, there’s absolutely no point to playing by the book. The book is there for people who place an importance on consensual, unambiguous adjudication. It is irrelevant to everybody else, and all parties involved in its creation realized that. I’ve spoken to some of them, and I know.

The spurious claim that “the Scrabble dictionary is unique in its acknowledgement of words that most people wouldn’t even consider to be words” is simply bunk. The word list is a proper subset of the union of its authoritative sources. There isn’t a single word in the Scrabble dictionary that you can’t find in the most recent edition of a “real” dictionary (if not several of them), and I’m not talking about your fifth-grade pocket reference abridgment of Webster’s. Validation by existing dictionaries and the lexicographers that worked on them is a necessary precondition for inclusion.

Ms. Fedio asserts that “these additions aren’t contributing to the betterment of the game, or adding to the advantage of skilled players.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Only two posts ago I posited that the dictionary update will have a long-term impact on encouraging risk-taking in the absence of perfect word knowledge. It’s beneficial to all players because they all have equal access to the same augmented arsenal. While specific changes do negate some of the defensive aspects of strategy, the revision is a boon to everything else. There’s no upset balance between word knowledge and strategy, because word knowledge permits strategy. You can’t make parallel plays until you know the twos. You can’t identify a good leave on your rack until you know what kind of high-probability bingos are available. You can’t play unless you are willing to learn, and the first thing you learn is humility in the face of the language.

This sort of “you’re not allowed to know what I don’t know” all amounts to rank anti-intellectualism at its most insidious. It’s not up to some backseat driver with a tragically limited vocabulary to define what makes something a “fake word”. A phony is anything that is not in the accepted edition of the tournament dictionary. That’s the only rule that matters. And you’re not obligated to obey the rule – unless, of course, you want to play with the big boys. The adoption of the OWL2 only affects the club and tournament players, who have already accepted (to paraphrase Edsger Dijkstra) that Scrabble is no more about words than astronomy is about telescopes. The philosophy of the official dictionary – inclusive, but never inclusive enough – has been in place for decades.

Learn how to play the goddamned game and then we’ll talk.

Now, I’m rather busy for the rest of this semester and I don’t have much time to blog, so will Gateway writers please stop baiting me? I appreciate that we’re getting away from the sophomoric ego-stroking of narcissistic sub-apprentice wordsmiths entranced by the sight of their own headboxes who have nothing better to say apart from stomping about in colloquial slop in thick and muddy boots of hyperbolic profanity, but could the ones that have taken the baby step of selecting coherent subject matter do some elementary research before jumping to vacuous conclusions? Or is that too much to ask?

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Northern lightbulbs by the millihelen

Monday, 20 March 2006 — 12:15am | Insights, Science

It occurred to me, as I observed a balletic display of aurora borealis at 28,000ft on my flight back from Ottawa, that the aesthetic beauty we assign to natural phenomena is not a response to the elegance of organized expression in the space normally occupied by chaos. In reality, the acknowledgment of beauty is triggered by the impossibility of reconstruction. In the eyes of the conservative aesthete, artistic merit is for better or worse measured by the perceived difficulty of producing the work, be it a challenge of technique and craftsmanship or a challenge of human imagination.

Contemporary interpretation dispenses with the subjective value judgment of beauty, opting instead to locate meaning in an incubating social context or history. But it is not invalid to isolate a work and study the system that pervades it, and the most isolable works of art are those that speak for themselves. We are in awe of the cosmos because it speaks to us and begs for a descriptive system of construction as elegant as its singular and holistic illusions, and all the while it knows with a playful cheek that we will never find a total order to our satisfaction.

This is one of the great paradoxes of science. An imperfect approximation is a factually distant imitation. Yet there is the lingering feeling that even a perfect reproduction, which one already admits is unachievable, is incapable of capturing the subjective element that this was something assembled without the aid of man.

The moment we give up on making an aurora happen is the instant we call it beautiful. And in this sense, natural beauty is the upper asymptote at the unattainable limits of human achievement.

On arriving at this epiphanic juncture, some find God. Others find the Disneyland fireworks and say, good enough for me.

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Endorse me, my sweet endorsable you

Wednesday, 8 March 2006 — 11:38pm | Studentpolitik

Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine.

Look, if you care, you’ve probably already voted. As such, and given that most of you won’t get around to reading this before the polls close, this isn’t really an endorsitorial. As I was starting to write something along those lines on Monday night just before I got wind of Chelli’s unfortunate disqualification, I came to the realization that this year didn’t offer me a whole lot to endorse. There were several races to the bottom, and at the time I hadn’t quite decided how well None of the Above would fare on my ballot. Besides, I figure that if you’re smart enough to read this blog, you’re smart enough to not vote for Greg German.

So here’s how I ranked the candidates (as far as I can remember), with minimal disclosure of supporting rationale:

President: None of the Above, Samantha Power, Greg German. I would have voted for Michelle Kelly were she still in the race. Though Sam came off as the most knowledgeable, professional and prepared candidate, I have too many fundamental disagreements with her on principle and too little admiration of her accomplishments to date to justify a clear first. In a two-horse race a #1 for NOTA works out to a vote for her anyway, and my rankings are both a protest and a Stop German. Sam would serve as both the better President and the better placeholder.

Also, Stephen Kirkham should have gone ahead with the Bear Scat joke campaign. This year, it was fully winnable. Potential to be the greatest joke candidate since Space Moose? Absolutely. What a shame.

VP Academic: Amanda Henry has earned my rubber stamp.

VP External: None of the Above, Dave Cournoyer, Blythe Morrow, Damini Mohan. It was a race to the bottom. Dave lost me with the fetish for political policies. Blythe lost me with her seething (and moreover, undirected) anger at the Myer forum. Damini lost me twice the moment I saw “ATA” and “CFS” converge on her handbills. Lesson learned: when in doubt, even the Liberal with the crappy blog may end up on top.

VP Operations/Finance: Chris Cunningham, None of the Above, Theresa Chapman, Cameron Lewis. Cunningham doesn’t have a clue about the SU, but the more I heard him exude his businessman’s idealism, the more I liked him. Here’s a man who would invest in zeppelins in the wake of a Hindenburg out of patriotic ambition. He really doesn’t have any idea what he’s in for, but I’m dying to see what he’d manage to do with the position. (However, if he wins, I’ll have to apologize to him personally.)

As for the other two, I don’t for a moment doubt Theresa Chapman’s enthusiasm and commitment, or that she works hard and pays her taxes. I do doubt her understanding of the position, her naïveté about everything, and her ability to write coherently (see the Webboard for details). As for Cam, who somehow ran a fluffed-up paper-credential-driven campaign with less presence than Samuel’s run for BOG…

“I will. Take care of your money. We’re not making this up.”

(Tired? Uninspiring? So was his campaign.)

VP Student Life: Sarah Kalil, Omer Yusuf, None of the Above, Amanda-Leigh Hanson. Figures – the only race of conventional strength, and it has to be the bogus seat on the Executive. Sarah’s the best: she knows the limitations of the SL position, both necessary and crippling, and she also recognizes that students are best served through decentralized programming and Student Groups in particular, which I will say without reservation is the SU service with the most direct and relevant effect on students short of Bear Scat.

Omer would be an acceptable victor, but he doesn’t quite fit the portfolio as a character quite the way Sarah does, and I think he would be more useful elsewhere. Hanson didn’t race to the bottom like some of the candidates in other races, but she struck me as somebody impractical in all the ways that are best holed up in APIRG.

Board of Governors: Of course I approved Chris Samuel. To me, the question isn’t whether or not running a $0 campaign should speak ill of him – it’s about how far up he’ll go. I want to see him break 80% for fun and sport.

Physical Activity Complex: No. This plebiscite asked a stupider question than half of the Jones referenda.

Campus-Wide Tobacco Ban: Yes, and it’s in spite of Shereen Kangarloo’s every effort to lose my vote. Chris Samuel is the first argument for running a zero-dollar campaign. This is the second. We’re talking about a hot-button debate as topical as the prohibition of tobacco, and that’s the best she can do? Her money would have been better spent as a drop in the bucket to fight lung cancer.

As for my vote: I do not make any money from campus tobacco sales. I do not have any intention of making money off campus tobacco sales. I have no interest in there being smoking, or smoke, on campus. I do have an interest in cutting through shortest paths in the Main Quad without having to trace a curveball trajectory around a cloud of stink. The personal benefits outweigh the costs.

And there goes ten or twenty minutes I’d rather have spent writing about Crash.

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