From the archives: October 2008

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Wednesday Book Club: The Rest Is Noise

Wednesday, 29 October 2008 — 11:03pm | Book Club, Classical, Literature, Music

This week’s selection: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) by Alex Ross.

In brief: Less a textbook history of twentieth-century classical music than a supreme work of historical criticism, The Rest Is Noise is a persuasive treatise on how tumultuous political landscapes shape artistic production. Ross walks a fine tightrope straddling analytical detail and popular accessibility, but nonetheless conveys a continuous lineage of ideas threading the persistent revolutions and counter-revolutions of twentieth-century composition.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Rest Is Noise, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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The songs of Sarah Palin

Saturday, 25 October 2008 — 7:37pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

From New York jazz musician Henry Hey comes a pair of piano settings of this year’s Republican ticket—musical transcriptions of speech not unlike the technique that motivated Steve Reich’s Different Trains.

It appears Ms. Palin has a confident flair for the flowing rhythms of natural speech that would make Thelonious Monk proud. Her recitative on the economy, as sung to Katie Couric with impeccable enunciation:

And here she is with John McCain in a bright, vaudevillian demonstration of their appeal to down-home real America:

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Wednesday Book Club: The Ruby in the Smoke

Wednesday, 22 October 2008 — 10:42am | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The Ruby in the Smoke (1985) by Philip Pullman.

In brief: The first novel in the Sally Lockhart thriller series is an engaging caper, if a rickety one. The Victorian flavour is authentic and never descends into parody or kitsch. There’s a great story hidden beneath the tangled web of opium smugglers and London thugs, though the way it comes out into the open is at times haphazard; the plot depends too much on the cherry-picked concealment of information from the reader to cast a fluid line of discovery.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Ruby in the Smoke, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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The xkcd opening: CILORST

Wednesday, 22 October 2008 — 3:04am | Scrabble

I beg to differ from the caption: I don’t think a veteran player would consider OSTRICH down to the H (leaving an L) an option. Playing off the S for 13 points? No way. The available bingos, apart from the suggested CLITORIS, are COISTRIL, LICTORS, and TROCHILS. The highest-scoring play is LICTORS for 71 with the C hooking onto HI to make HIC, but don’t forget that placement matters, and that the greedy strategy may not get you very far.

CLITORIS (in either position) is not only one of the lower-scoring plays, but puts the O right next to a TLS—leaving ample room for OX for 52 points, or a less devastating but still competitive response using the F, H, M, or P. It’s probably the easiest of the bingos to spot, but the least strategically sound.

Naturally, I thought it would be fun to simulate the position. After 1000 iterations, Quackle equally favours LICTORS with the T hooking onto HI for HIT (69 points): LICTORS/HIC has a win percentage of 67.00%, and LICTORS/HIT is at 66.92%. (Compare CLITOR(I)S at 62.77% and CL(I)TORIS at 61.59%.) LICTORS/HIT has the advantage of opening two double-double lanes instead of one: if your opponent takes one, you can capitalize on the other. But that kind of wisdom—and most competitive wisdom, for that matter—only applies to two-player situations. In a four-player game, wherein one’s control of the board position goes out the window, I’d go for LICTORS/HIC and take the 71 points. It’s a safe play, and neither double will be open by the next turn anyhow. Besides, HIC is not as vulnerable as HIT to a certain family-unfriendly front hook.

Also worth noting: CLITORIS is not one of the offensive words expurgated from the home/school/ESPN-friendly Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. In the ever-squeamish OSPD, it is defined somewhat ambiguously as “a sex organ”.

What I’d really like to see is Scrabble on a roller coaster.

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Purloined letter scores

Monday, 20 October 2008 — 11:22pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

9-12 (-289), 19th place out of 26. The main event of the Western Canadian Scrabble Championship expanded to 21 rounds this year, up from the heretofore typical 17. I still only won nine games. I have now finished with nine victories in Division 2 for four straight years. That, my friends, is consistency.

Day 1 (Rounds 1-8) was a right drubbing. I lost three rounds by margins of over 150 points, one of them because I went four minutes overtime. In those three games, I played no bingos while my opponents notched 11. Sure, there were the usual issues with time management, and a few crippling decisions with respect to rack management and defensive positional play; but as reluctant as I am to blame the tiles, a lot of it was dumb luck. What’s the use of a good, balanced leave if the bag is going to spit out EEE or UUU?

Apart from that, I let my opponents get away with too many yucky phonies, some of which sealed the fates of their respective games. Some, like PANTLESS*, I didn’t consider challenging at all. If someone without a shirt is SHIRTLESS, what do you call someone with no pants?

I only finished with a reasonable spread because Day 3 (Rounds 17-21) came along and finally gave me a shot at clobbering my opponents when I was already well out of contention for any prize money. And I did find my share of nice plays, my favourite being WHISKED with the K on a DLS, the S hooking onto BOO to make BOOS, and the E turning ZIN into ZINE, for a whopping 115 points—easily my highest-scoring single turn of the tournament. I also fulfilled one of my longtime Scrabble ambitions: to draw a challenge with CALENDER, which looks like a misspelling of CALENDAR but is actually something to do with papermaking. I also made some good decisions to play words I was uncertain about, like DIGITALS, instead of shying away from the risk. (What kind of watch do you have? Mine’s a digital. I really should have known the noun form of the word, though: the Scrabble dictionary’s abbreviated definition tells me that a digital is a piano key.)

In other adventures: on the Friday and Saturday, the Scrabble tournament shared the host hotel with an Alberta Teachers’ Association professional development event, a jolly sort of pow-wow for the public stewards of your children replete with sessions about adolescent culture and information-age learning strategies in addition to a well-stocked flea market of picture books. One of the delegates, a young gentleman who has a posting as a band teacher in Airdrie, thought it would be fun to commandeer the hotel piano for some good old-fashioned ragtime over lunch. I joined him for an improvised duet.

I played better after that.

My measly 23 bingos: ENErGIEs, ADORERS, cLOSERS, READIER, ATOnIES, SiNUATE, CALENDER, LINTERs, ENHAnCE, GOAlIES, ATONIES, LANDINGS, ReCLINE, JELLIES, DIGITAlS, TELERANS, GOLfERS, WHISKED, DELIvER, AEROBIc, INVADES, SCoLDING, SCORNeD. After the anemic Day 1 (only four bingos—four!), I finally remembered how to score, and the bag remembered how to let me.

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