Archive for January, 2013


i not only waste time playing Scrabble, now i write about it, too

January 16, 2013

In between the non-profit jobs, the travels, the radio stuff, owning a dog, getting suits made, there’s a lot of waiting around. So naturally, I play Scrabble to pass the time. And over years, I’ve gotten better at it, because I play it competitively, even won some money along the way. At one point, I was the best player – in Burundi. And the only reason I’m not anymore is because I moved to New York.

So a couple friends forwarded me this article yesterday asking what I thought.

A researcher named Joshua Lewis suggested we modify the tile values in Scrabble. The argument goes that we use certain letters differently today than when Alfred Butts created Scrabble about 75 years ago. One cited example is that the Z is used more frequently and so should be worth fewer points, especially now that there is a two-letter word containing the Z (‘za’). Lewis is an American researcher but it’s interesting that British media picked up on this story in greater numbers and with more gusto – almost as if they had more at stake. Well, certainly the British use English differently these days – they sound more like Americans.

Blasphemy? I apologise – no wait, I apologiZe.

But this is a classic case of something being what it is and someone coming along, saying, “Well, ‘what is’ is different than ‘what was’ so we should make changes.” There’s a logical disconnect there. The former doesn’t really imply the latter. Let’s say we don’t change the tiles. The only consequence I can see is that scores will be slightly higher (maybe) compared to older scores. Serious players know you really score in Scrabble by playing all seven letters off a rack at once, which results in a 50-point bonus. I mean, come on, every real Scrabble player knows that. So it’s less important how much each individual tile is worth and more about how they function together to achieve a collective score, and it’s still darn hard to make a seven-letter word with a Q or a Z, no matter how much they’re worth.

The other big point why there is no need to change is because you are playing against an opponent, who is subject to the same scoring and same conditions. Scores in Scrabble are a bit like scores in basketball: you might know how to score points and can amass a lot but matched up against a solid defense and your score will obviously go down. It’s entirely possible that two masters of the game cancel each other out and both score below 400. Even when I score 400, that doesn’t mean I’m a better player than they are.

I know I’m shooting myself in the foot with these arguments. Potentially, I’m shooting many other people at the same time – these are the sorts of arguments that the gun lobby uses to justify owning M-whatever-heat-seeking-deathray-bubble-blasters instead of plain old muskets (hey, they were good enough for the Founding Fathers!). But this is Scrabble – the stakes are higher, the pressure more intense. It’s in every living room, every school. We can’t let the Brits’ funny language influence our quirky antiquated ways. Next would be the metric system, and before you know it, we’re a colony again.

(The simple solution: issue new editions with titles like ‘Original’, ‘2010 Edition’, etc., sort of like Trivia Pursuit.)


it’s not about you. it’s not even about me.

January 14, 2013

So. I am in New York now, after four years in East Africa. I have a dog that I brought back with me from Burundi. I am attending Columbia’s School of Journalism. I started a new photoblog. And the first thing I really want to write about after the long lay-off relates to a few threads that have criss-crossed in my last few years: identity, privacy, cultural appropriation and, of course, the media. And all of these themes sort of crashed together last night at the Golden Globes when, shockingly, a celebrity named Jodie Foster revealed herself to be a wildly independent and hyper-intelligent human being with a lot on her mind. We are all still reeling with this fact. Here goes. (And yes, I’ll get back to blogging about my life-events sooner than later but there’ll be more articles like this, too.)

The way the media has seized on Jodie Foster’s speech last night at the Golden Globes reveals a desperation to appropriate the world around us, as if a pageant of Olympian celebrities congratulating themselves was not enough of an artificial media ploy. Foster is probably gracious enough to answer follow-up questions to her speech but sharp enough to realize we have all missed the point.

This sample ( in particular jarred me into a frothy indignation. I haven’t seen an article so quickly and resoundingly get it all wrong. It begins, “OK, we need to walk through what just happened.”

Actually, no, we don’t. It’s her private life.  That’s the point. She will reveal as much or as little of it as she wants, in whatever way she wants.

The article’s suggestion of a “refusal” to come out is particularly baffling. It reminds me of the speculation with Anderson Cooper before he came out. One simply has to make a personal declaration in the way others have done – with the same words, looking straight into the camera. It is the tyranny of the collective with its Own Way. It might be important for a community to hear those exact words (“I am [fill with proper designation].), in that format, but that’s not how personal choices are made or communicated. As Foster suggested, we arrive at these choices in our own way and share them with the people around us: friends, family, colleagues. Funny enough, activists and fans aren’t on that list.

What is more important here is the tone, which hints at a larger cultural trait. The public, whether it’s one person or an audience, demands more and more to be addressed directly, with a clear pronouncement, squeezing out the words that we/they want to hear. The media happily feeds that obsession. The whole routine has the feel of a confession, in the way we push for an apology – from a child who refuses to say ‘sorry’ to a sibling to evasive politicians to governments demanding accountability over wartime atrocities. Except, of course, Foster has absolutely nothing to be sorry about.

So why is this speech so provocative? Is it because she has peeked out from behind the mask that we have placed on her? More than most she has had to live in a crystal-clear media-obsessed fishbowl since the 1970s (!), and – I’m confident in saying this – she is more intelligent than most in Hollywood (or anywhere). Maybe this speech grabs our attention because, for once, here is a real conflict without a script between vastly different adversaries: the personality-less celebrity we all want to possess and the unhappy and fiercely intelligent consciousness that refuses our labels. We are always shocked when someone disagrees so fundamentally with our desires.

Every time I have seen her on a screen – during an interview, in a film, at an awards show in France (presenting in flawless French, but with an American casualness), she has immensely impressed me. And I think that can easily translate into a desire to learn or know more about a person. If I step back and ask what is this chase really about, the answer would be simple: me. Us. But if we really want to appreciate a spirit like Foster’s, we might do better with the second person. You are out there. You have a (deeply) personal identity. You are in a world vastly different than mine. You speak faster than I can think. For the brief moments where you share your thoughts and presence, I’m glad for that. Let’s leave “us” out of this.

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January 2013