From the archives: March 2007

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Aargh! Aarrgh! Aarrghh!

Thursday, 29 March 2007 — 1:36am | Scrabble, Tournament logs

I don’t think I’ve ever been this upset about winning a game of Scrabble.

You can tell this post is going to be about Scrabble, because its title consists of three playable ways to spell a certain interjection used to express disgust. But I digress. On to the story, then: as you can see from the results of last weekend’s tournament in Calgary, my division played out dans un mouchoir de poche. I placed second with a record of 10-4 (+454), behind a record of 10-4 (+457). There exists self-incriminating photographic evidence.

In order to place first, I needed to not only win my last game, but win it by at least 31 points. I had it handed to me, and then I proceeded to subconsciously do everything I possibly could to methodically twist a rusty bayonet in my foot prior to firing the armament to which it was attached, and win by 29.

On my final rack, I held a 405-380 lead and AEERSU? to my opponent’s AEELOS. In spite of the fact that I couldn’t find any of the five bingos through the G at the bottom (AUbERGES, REGAUgES, lEAGUERS, pUGAREES, REArGUES), with the blank in hand – and no place for my opponent to go out in one turn – a 31-point win should have been a piece of cake for any even remotely competent novice player. Yet somehow, I did all of the following: a) not score nearly as many points as I could have; b) not block the natural spot for my opponent’s S, the hook on the end of JOLT; 3) play off my blank for a zero-point gain on the same play without the blank. The first two sins were suboptimal. The third was anti-optimal.

In case you’re following the photograph, the play was ERASErs, hooking onto the blank S in WARTIEsT with the other S on the end of TAV. That’s how you use the blank if and only if you’re trying your darndest to lose a game you’ve already won. I’m fairly certain it is the worst play I have ever made.

Why did I do it? I was tight on time (under half a minute), and the spot where I played it was a location where I was looking for potential bingos. It was a panic move based on the typical instinct to play off as many tiles as possible at the end of the game, a usually sound endgame principle that does not at all apply if a) you know your opponent can’t go out in one turn, or b) one of said tiles is a blank.

It’s been four days now. I’m still not over it. I could have forfeited the tournament by headbutting my opponent in the chest, and suffered less regret.

The mouldy icing on the flea-infested cake, though, was that this didn’t lose me a shot at first place. I still held a U, which would have fit in nicely at 4D (between R and IN to make RUIN) for a 33-point win. Nope! With under ten seconds left, I played UP for half the points. By that time, I’d realized what I’d just done with my blank, and the subsequent horror may have blinded me to the winning play. I still won the battle, 427-398, but the war was so acutely a self-inflicted defeat that I initially handed my opponent the tally slip for recording the final score, a duty that falls upon the victor. It was a mite confusing.

Sometimes, people ask me if playing Scrabble competitively is just a matter of knowing a lot of words. I tell them about how you need an intuitive grasp of probability and board geometry, and a strategic mindset in general, in order to succeed. But it’s more than that. Surviving a tournament requires a degree of mental fortitude that verges on the absurd. I’ve plateaued at the 1200-1400 ratings zone over the past two years, and while much of that is due to lack of practice, I wonder how much of it falls upon a lack of discipline and self control in moments of extreme panic. You don’t have what it takes to be an expert until you can lift stones with your mind while standing on one hand with Yoda balanced on your foot. Maybe that’s why Joe Edley does Zen.

On the upside, in Round 10 I finished with my first triple-triple in a long time: BUSTLING for 158 points. An expert opponent would never have given me the opening created by STUMpER: even upon failing to see MURkEST (making FE, ES and ATT and not opening any new lanes), he or she would have blocked. Every available bingo that opens the A column would have begun with either S or M, permitting BUSTLING or TUMBLING. I’ll take the points and like’em.

Sigh… poor little blank. I threw it away like an unwanted child. Like it was trash. Like it meant nothing to me. And after all we’d been through together. I’m sorry, little blank. I won’t do it again.

Okay, I’ve had enough. I’m going to Disneyland.

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Judging songbooks by their covers

Wednesday, 21 March 2007 — 2:26pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Confession: I’m not entirely sure, but I think I played with six-time Grammy nominee Mark Murphy last night and had no idea who he was. Consider the circumstantial evidence and decide for yourself: he was a singer, he looked like Mark Murphy (now that I’ve sifted through some recent publicity materials and am in a position to say that), and Mark Murphy happens to be headlining two shows at the Yardbird Suite this weekend. I won’t be able to attend, as I’ll be busy playing Scrabble.

Did you know he wrote the effectively canonical lyrics to “Stolen Moments”? Neither did I. I was too busy dreading having to play in a jam band with a vocalist. Of the jams at the Yardbird I’ve been to this year, there have been at least two or three nights where I had to say to myself, “Why did I have to get the band with a singer?”

See, I’m really glad I play for a choir of fun and agreeable individuals. If it weren’t for them, I suspect I’d have an unrestrained hate-on for singers right now, which is saying something, considering how it was primarily vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald who got me into jazz in the first place. Virtually every jam-session set I’ve played where there was a singer involved has been an experience somewhere along the spectrum between minor irritation and full-on Rocky Mountain trainwreck, and only so much of it could be my fault.

Last night’s set went a lot better. We only had time for one tune with vocals (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” for those of you keeping score), but most of the usual problems were absent. It was in a reasonable key. It stayed at a reasonable tempo. The chart was readable enough that the form was reasonably clear. Nobody got completely lost. These might seem like pretty basic expectations, but I’ve learned not to take them for granted. I’ve learned it the hard way.

The only hiccup was a bit of a miscommunication to the band in terms of whether or not we were supposed to give the vocalist an intro, and if so, for how long – so we just hit some chords for about eight bars, wondering why he hadn’t come in. Then he came in.

Decent singer, the guy who upon reflection may or may not have been Mark Murphy.

Decent singers are considerate of their bands. If you ever show up with charts marked in some ridiculous sharp key and ambiguously defined solo sections, then count us off in a tempo you can’t handle without letting us know when you want to come in – all of which I’ve seen happen, while onstage, no less – we’ll take you for a prima donna, and we will break you. More accurately, you’ll break yourself.

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Deadlines, lifelines and the Canadian Dream

Monday, 12 March 2007 — 7:42pm | Music, Pianism, Studentpolitik

I am in the middle of what is and probably will remain my busiest week of the academic year, which might explain why I’ve logged as much time as I have engrossed in Fire Emblem, shedding nostalgic happy-tears for the Disneyland fireworks, not winning the McGoun Cup in spite of only having to argue for abolishing animal “rights” (by the way, a thanks to my partner Sharon and congratulations to Brent and Marek), and dumping a few words on the Internet where they won’t be marked for credit. In the parlance of Ferdinand de Saussure, I’ll just assume my homework assignments will synchronically emerge all at once as the articulated difference of each other.

First of all: no complaints about the SU election. I know I gave Board of Governors Representative-Elect Paul Chiswell a bit of a drubbing in my endorsements, but after listening to some convincing arguments that I should reconsider, my ballot ended up reading: 1) Eruvbetine, 2) Chiswell, 3) Guiney. Given that Chiswell topped Guiney by a mere nine-vote margin on the second ballot, I think we can safely say that little last-minute decisions like mine tipped the balance. This is one example of where it is okay to change your mind about something at the last minute without telling anybody until much later. It’s not, you know, a disingenuous betrayal of fundamental ethical principles, an act of complete disrespect for your friends, or anything like that.

Moving right along, then. I never did write about how this month marks the 50th anniversary of Edmonton’s very own Yardbird Suite, which means they’re running a terrific concert series until the date on the calendar rolls back to 1. If I ever make it as a credible musician (by the standards of the best musicians, whose opinions are the only ones that count), I’ll owe a debt to this place, if only because their Tuesday jam sessions are one of the best opportunities that exist for youngsters who think they can play jazz to prove it (and subsequently realize in variously-proportioned equilibria that in some ways they can, and in some ways they can’t).

Naturally, I attended the opening show on 2 March featuring Chris Andrew, Tommy Banks and Ken Chaney five feet away from me on the Yamaha grand. (The one they pull out on Tuesdays is a Baldwin.) Needless to say, I managed to get prime seats by showing up right when the doors opened, partly because I learned my lesson the last time I tried to see the good Senator play and the Governor-General took my seat.

The curious thing about leaving your coat and Bacardi on your table so you can order a bowl of popcorn at the bar is that everybody presumes your entire table is occupied by an invisible power elite with so much confidence in its muscle, it doesn’t even see the need to guard its drinks. So the fine establishment on 11 Tommy Banks Way filled to capacity, but the table right by the piano looked effectively reserved. I didn’t keep all the seats to myself, of course. A family of four walked in a few minutes before the fashionably-late-as-always commencement of the show, and the when-will-my-popcorn-be-done roulette wheel determined them the lucky winners.

Nice folks. Impeccably nuclear: a sax-playing father in the employ of the Anglican Church, a singing mother undergoing a perpetual shoulder massage, a teenage daughter who plays the piano at a performing arts school, and a younger son with his feet up on the edge of the stage who had never seen a jazz combo before. And a couch-to-television distance away, Senator Tommy Banks playing “Misty” for me. I’d reserved a table for the American Dream. Or something very much like it, but with a certain element of neighbourly charity that Canadians like to think of as their national characteristic, so long as they’re not affiliated with opposing hockey teams, or didn’t ask and didn’t tell. If you’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying the music that speaks to you right next to an equally enthusiastic father explaining the show to his son in the same way an Shakespeare aficionado would initiate someone new to Elizabethan drama who is captivated by the ghost-conversing, madness-feigning, spy-killing, pirate-escaping, the-rest-is-silencing action onstage without really understanding the words, try it sometime. It’s great blogging material for those long nights when you have too much work to do.

Apparently they have three pianos in their house, and I’m invited to play them. In retrospect, I should have jotted down the address.

On a final note, watch this video of my kid brother skating, and tell me, at 0:54, if he is not a gentleman.

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Vote like Nick and win: SU Elections 2007

Monday, 5 March 2007 — 8:42pm | Studentpolitik

I apologize to those of you expecting a clever and indirect post title akin to my Students’ Union endorsements in years past. This post is being syndicated on Facebook, see, and I need people to take notice.

So, in case you attend the University of Alberta and are at all taken by surprise: polls are open Wednesday and Thursday, 7-8 March. Ballots are preferential: you rank your candidates from top to bottom until you hit “none of the above,” which actually means “none of the below,” as a vote for NATB means you would rather have an invalidated election and a subsequent by-election for the vacancy instead of one of the remaining candidates. I exercise this option often, and so should you.

While I’m not as up to the minute on SU issues as I used to be, which means I won’t be quick on the trigger to call out the candidates for lying about the extent of their accomplishments, I’ve done my share of research and you should listen to me. Without further ado, I’ll begin with the referendum/plebiscite questions and then proceed to the electable positions.

Coke Plebiscite: I’m no fan of monopolies, but I will be voting Yes in support of a renewal of the SU’s exclusivity agreement with Coca-Cola. On principle, when a company gives you stuff in exchange for a concession that’s going to happen anyway, take it. For example – to be (only somewhat) hypothetical – if some diamond company wants to buy us a new engineering research lab with their conflict diamond money for the price of putting their name on it, the result of saying Yes is that you get the building, and the result of saying No is that you don’t get the building. There is no ethical impact either way, unless you really, really put a lot of stock in making yourself feel better at the material expense of the student body. Similarly, with the Coke plebiscite, a No vote has no effect on Coca-Cola’s corporate practices, or even its presence as a campus monopoly. It does mean that the SU’s access to a whole lot of money disappears. Is this organization here to serve students or not? Vote Yes.

I’m going to do something very unorthodox here, and direct you to the thorough coverage already provided by Ross Prusakowski, who has kindly saved me the effort of doing the research on what the relevant numbers are and how the money is spent. Given the disingenuity and misconduct of the No side throughout (and preceding) the campaign season, they’ve earned a slap in the face.

U-Pass Referendum: I am voting Yes. I voted No to the U-Pass plebiscite in the 2004 election, but circumstances have changed, and it is time to go back and evaluate all of the relevant questions. Will a Yes vote produce binding results? Yes. Is the exemption scheme sufficient? I believe so. Is the price acceptable? About as much as it could be: I don’t imagine that they could ever get it under $75/semester, so one should only vote against this to throw out the deal altogether, not to hold out for a cheaper fare. Is public transit in Edmonton and the surrounding area worth paying for? Actually, it’s a shambles, but the added revenue and incentive for investment will only serve to establish better transit service for all Edmontonians.

The only reason to oppose this would be on a matter of principle: if you are fundamentally against the idea that the many should pay for something for something that will only be used by the less-than-many. While I typically hold that position myself, this is a special case simply because of the sizable benefits, and because of a certain circularity that would be broken: individuals are primarily as dependent on vehicles as they are because the transit system does not meet their needs. Solve the latter, and you address the former. If you’ve already paid for a U-Pass, that’s a positive incentive to get your money’s worth. Consider this: I estimate there is already massive fare evasion on the LRT on the part of students who just need a quick hop down a few stops, especially those who live in residence and are already overcharged elsewhere. ETS may as well be empowered to cover the costs. Vote Yes.

President: There are no fewer than four joke candidates for President: Chuck Norris, Ursa Minor, the disembodied voice of George Rho, and Cody Lawrence. With one exception, none of them are substantial enough, or even funny enough, to merit a rank preceding None of the Above. (I am rewarding Ursa Minor with third place for effort, a formidable Myer Horowitz performance, and my personal vested interest in a robot-friendly campus.) We are left, then, with a choice between two candidates of considerable experience and erudition.

On one hand, we have Michael Janz, who is, on paper, the model populist imported from Lister Hall (who will, therefore, probably win) – and that quick description perhaps disguises the fact that he has been, over two terms, without question the most effective LHSA President I have seen in my five years on campus. Moreover, his skills are transferrable. Lest anyone mistake him for a token Student Life-centric residence candidate à la Jordan Blatz, Janz is not an outsider to the SU’s operations: he has the relevant breadth of experience on Council, committees and student groups.

On the other hand, we have Amanda Henry, who has two years of SU experience in the Academic portfolio and all the requisite connections and bargaining positions already in place. Her year as VPA has been, to my knowledge, unproblematic. I don’t question her grasp of how the SU works, or her willingness to take a strong bargaining position in relation to the University to ensure student initiatives and ideas get through the hoops.

So it comes down to platforms. I don’t expect all of Janz’s initiatives to unfold: TA language proficiency comes up every year and nothing has been done, and I don’t see that we’d be much closer to a usable, profitable Powerplant even with a massive study space conversion, as much as I like the idea. At the same time, I don’t think anybody ever expected headway to be made with respect to the Aramark contract either, and Janz was the guy who managed it. His commitment to student groups is a major point in favour, and his focus on small, achievable initiatives instead of idealistic lobbying is understandable.

Henry, however, has shown that advocacy at the University level can work. Her platform is nothing if not robust, and acknowledges that many of her opponent’s more local initiatives can be delegated to the SU’s hired staff. She is experienced in navigating the apparatus above the Students’ Union in the capacity of a representative and negotiator, not only in relation to her opponents, but even most of the past Presidents I can remember. I am wary of her being the more confrontational of the front-running candidates, but it may just be part of the election rhetoric, and I do believe she will produce results where others have failed in the past. A Henry-led SU may be a status quo SU, but an improvement nonetheless in practical terms.

My ballot: 1) Amanda Henry, 2) Michael Janz, 3) Ursa Minor, 4) None of the Above/Below/Others. With one of those three, the SU is in good hands, and I hope whoever wins incorporates the ideas of the other two.

Vice-President Academic: Wow. I’m not sure what to say. I knew my elementary-school busmate Bryant Lukes was throwing himself on the hot coals crotch-first without any pants on, and I suspected he would deliver the standard speech about how having no SU experience is an asset because he’s a fresh face with an outside voice (there’s one every year). Fine – that kind of error is usually remedied by a crushing loss in the election followed by a disillusioning year or two on Students’ Council.

But when he started blithering about, well, virtually everything outside the VPA portfolio up to and including the survival of the human species, and did so with utter seriousness and conviction, his speech gravitated beyond the surreal and into the domain of the legendary. Identifying his primary credential as being a Dion delegate at the Liberal leadership convention was the icing on the cake. I feel sorry for the guy: The Gateway is going to eat him alive.

Bobby Samuel’s Myer speech was not as strong as it could have been, but from his campaign materials, goals and SU experience, I can tell that he is a typically deserving, if not spectacular, VPA-winning candidate. I also admired his tact in not burdening (dignifying?) the Lukes campaign with a question at the forum. He even managed to take his opponent’s oddball question (“How will you address climate change?”) and bring it back on topic. He knew what he was running for, and he knew why he was there. Here’s a hint: it wasn’t because some ex-hack he asked thought Pierre Trudeau might have been good in the position.

My ballot: 1) Bobby Samuel, 2) None of the Above (i.e. not Lukes). I expect this to be settled on the first ballot, and I’m really curious how big the margin will be.

Vice-President External: Dollansky has the experience. Under preferential balloting I’m willing to throw my vote at the joke candidate as long as it’s good enough, but Dollansky also took on his opponent directly, and delivered Soundwave a decisive defeat. He would be a winner any year.

1) Steven Dollansky, 2) Soundwave. And I’m curious as to how the margin of victory will compare to that of the VPA race.

Vice-President Operations/Finance: So let me get this straight: a guy named Gamble runs for the Finance position, and doesn’t leverage the obvious. For shame.

That said, the VPOF race is relatively straightforward: if you know what the hell you’re talking about, and you know what the budget looks like, and you don’t seem to have an established record of stealing money from student groups, you might just be qualified. By this metric, one of these candidates is not like the other. Eamonn Gamble knows what he’s dealing with, even if he doesn’t have a clue what to do with it; Jesse Hahn doesn’t. I’m going to park my vote with experience. I know I did exactly the opposite last year when I voted for Cunningham over Chapman and Lewis, but let’s ignore that for the sake of this argument. If Jesse Hahn doesn’t know enough about the SU to respond to questions about his lack of experience with a simple “see Chris Cunningham,” he clearly hasn’t done his homework. I should note, however, that I have extreme reservations about Gamble – as with Janz, his Powerplant plan forays deep into the woods of let’s-try-this experimentation – and I’m only placing him first because I still prefer him to the other guy. Even if Gamble doesn’t get anything done, he would be the preferred status quo caretaker.

1) Eamonn Gamble, 2) None of the Above (i.e. not Hahn).

Vice-President Student Life: Like Steven Dollansky, Chris Le would probably make a solid run for my vote even if this election were properly contested, making this an easy acclamation. Chubby Puff Ball didn’t show up.

My ballot: 1) Chris Le, 2) None of the Chubby Puff Balls. (The real race, as we all know, is between Chubby Puff Ball, Soundwave, and Bryant Lukes.)

Board of Governors Representative: I’ve been given assurances that Prem Eruvbetine’s past performance on Students’ Council has been stellar, if sporadic. Of the three candidates, he is the one with the most credibility in terms of his background in student politics. To me, this race is between him and Adam Guiney. Whereas Chiswell doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and his grasp of the position extends to the usual clichés about how as an undergrad rep he’ll cheer for undergrads over research, Eruvbetine and Guiney have specific ideas about what to bring to the Board level and how to bring it.

I was tempted to give the edge to Guiney, in spite of his horrific posters: he came off at the Myer forum as the better spoken and better researched of the two, which bodes well considering what the position entails. I also have concerns about Eruvbetine’s passive stance on how the Board of Governors rep should communicate with students, which came up in a forum question: it seems to be reducible to website feedback and an open-door policy in his office. But after sifting through the campaign literature, I remain convinced that Eruvbetine is the one with the more comprehensive record and the one most likely to show up prepared to be effective. The initiatives he intends to bring to the Board are also broader in scope, yet achievable. To him, student advocacy is more than just a money issue. Guiney won the Myer Horowitz, but after looking at his limited campaign materials, I’m not convinced he’s even wholly literate. Chiswell isn’t a factor.

1) Prem Eruvbetine, 2) Adam Guiney, 3) None of the Above (i.e. not Chiswell).

And just for the heck of it, I’m going to rank Myer forum performances: 1) Chris Samuel (U-Pass Yes) for possibly the best speech since Mustafa Hirji’s eviscerating U-Pass No in 2004; 2) Steven Dollansky, for answering Soundwave’s challenge in style; 3) Ursa Minor, for one of the more elaborate joke candidate performances I’ve seen, though the stilted and incomprehensible question to an absent Chuck Norris fell flat. Honourable mention to the memorable Bryant Lukes, because if this was all some kind of sick joke, it was brilliant.

Between Chris Samuel’s speech and Chris Jones’ public admonishment of the forum questioners for being so blatantly planted, I think we’ve seen the last hurrah of the legendary Hack Club 7. For the first time since its inception, it wasn’t quorate at the Myer Horowitz. Next year, it is likely that its only attendee will be Gateway Business Manager Steve Smith, who sat in the shadows today and presumably manipulated the proceedings from afar. They went out with a bang, though, and it’s a fitting end to an era.

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