Book Report: Alphabet Juice

This book is a sort of lexicon, except that instead of definitions there are riffs. These are some of the author's favorite words, or at least words that he wanted to write about. He likes to pronounce words, and reflects on words whose pronounciation seems to reflect their meaning.

This sounds like a self-indulgent book, but Roy Blount Jr wrote it, and it so happens that I am curious to know what Blount thinks about word sounds because he has a better writer's ear than I do. I care what he has to say about these words. He also writes about letters. He writes convincingly and charmingly about these words. Here's an example:

agenda Why is this a perjorative term? What's wrong with having an agenda? I wish to hell I had more of one. (Is that good English? "More of one?" I think it is, but it doesn't look printworthy.) Politicians play on the word's souding sort of dirty, like ...pudenda?

It comes from the Latin plural for "things to be done," but in English, it's singular.

He has some agendas himself. He just wishes you'd stop misusing just. He wishes you used literally to mean what it literally means. He argues his cases well. He's so convincing that he almost got me putting the hyphen back in e-mail before I realized what was happening. Keep your wits about you.

He cites dictionaries, friends, Yogi Berra, The book, published in 2008, is already dated. He claims he googled [cancan "no panties"] and got no results. Today, there are about 150 though most of them, as you might expect, are not very interesting results, automatically-generated nonsense "dancing girls cancan no panties florida's top ten attractions" yeah whatever. He's aware of this advance of information. In the entry for "Google", he wonders "Has Google rounded up a googol of data bits yet? Depends on when you read this." (But he's exaggerating--there aren't a googol particles in the universe; storing a googol bits is thus technically difficult.) Blount is modern, of course. He outs himself as an UrbanDictionary contributor. (He has a feed, you can subscribe to it.)

(I should also point out: this book can go on for several paragraphs without mentioning pudenda or panties or a lack of panties. The book's not filthy. But it doesn't tiptoe around the dirt, either. That's a good thing--when this book says that the "buck" in "the buck stops here" doesn't refer to filthy bribe money, I believe it.)

So what you have here is a series of short essays in alphabetical order. Belles lettres? Sure. Great words, great words... "mnemonic" "Moebius statement" "monkeys". If you love words, this can be a slow book to read. Swann had his cookie; but words have associations, too. You can get lost in nostalgia. Like the entry for tallywacker. It's not enough to read Blount's opinion. I had to dig through my old comic books until I found issue #3 of "When My Brother Was God" so I could re-experience this quote, this rant by a dorm resident annoyed at what she hears through thin walls: "Mommy raised me a nice girl; I didn't go to twelve years of Catholic school simply to shout Jesus Christ his talleywhacker [sic] must be ripping out her esophagus at random intervals, oh no." The entries for tmesis and zeugma--each left me giddy. He mentions Morse (in the entry for wrought, and has entries for dash and dot.

He's not familiar with software development. He doesn't understand our sense of recursion, though he understands that he has used it to excess. (But, in his defense, who hasn't?) He mentions that weevil comes from the same root as "wave", which might suggest a naming convention to folks working on a certain software project but maybe it's a bit late to point it out. He has an entry for truthiness. I was talking with Matt L. at work about software development, about the demo that looks good, but has rickety underpinnings. Matt coined a term that needed coining, the software-scheduling equivalent of truthiness: done-iness. I guess my point is that we can't expect Blount to take care of everything for us.

But he does plenty. This book is a fun read; check it out.

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Site: Tauba Auerbach / The Alphabet Variations

You may recall that I went to a gallery a couple of weeks ago. It was some art by Tauba Auerbach, including two that featured an alphabetload of overlapping letterforms. I'd wondered what they would look like rendered in other fonts. It turns out that's pretty easy to automate; last night I did so. Check it out: T.A. Variations

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Book Report: How to Spell the Alphabet

A while back, I pointed out some not-exactly-puzzle-ish-but-not-exactly-not-either images by Tauba Auerbach. I finally broke down and sent away for a book of her work, How to Spell the Alphabet.

Today, that book showed up and I looked through it on the bus ride home. It's making me think. It's giving me ideas for puzzles. Unfortunately, I do not have the artistic talent to render these puzzles. This book makes me want to drop what I'm doing and practice calligraphy for a couple of years.

I got home and, being an internet nerd, checked my feeds. One of those feeds is a blog search feed on Tauba Auerbach. And it just found mention of a Tauba Auerbach gallery show opening in San Francisco tomorrow evening. I'm not really the kind of person who goes to show openings. I have to wake up early on Saturday. I'm not sure whether I'm trying to talk myself into this or talk myself out of this. I guess I'll find out tomorrow.

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Park Challenge

Today Team Unwavering Resolve (a.k.a. Steven Pitsenbarger, Paul du Bois, and I) played in Park Challenge, a puzzle hunt game organized by the Desert Taxi folks. It was a fun stroll in Golden Gate Park. The puzzles were elegant. What more could you ask for?

Anyhow, I'm now going to brain dump about the game here. No detailed game report this time. No attempt at organization here. I guess it's true, I'm turning into a blogger. Anyhow...

Also there was Team (Something) Monki, friends of Paul's: Bret Mogilefsky, Kelly, Matt, and Julia. They were fun to hang out with. Alexandra was there with Dwight and Rachel Freund. Anna Hentzel with some folks.

The first activity was a bingo game for which teams were allowed to fill in the numbers on their cards. The smart teams filled in cards that looked like

 1 16 31 46 61
 1 16 31 46 61
 1 16  * 46 61
 1 16 31 46 61
 1 16 31 47 61

...that way, if any of those numbers was called, you had an immediate bingo. Our team did not have that insight. When the numbers were called, I was pretty confused when someone called out "bingo!" on the first number.

But eventually we had our bingo, which meant we received our first packet of puzzles. The solution to each puzzle would be a word. Each word keyed to a location on the map.

There was a deck of cards and a Scrabble Board. Which did Paul and Steven like? They both liked Scrabble. I went for the deck of cards, which was accompanied by the diary of someone learning to be a Blackjack dealer. The diary gave a strong clue about what to do with the cards--strong if you've played a lot of these games, I guess. Chatting with Greg de Beer, Team Desert Taxi's puzzle-design guru, afterwards, I heard that plenty of recreational teams used a hint on this one.

Meanwhile, Paul and Steven were finishing off the Scrabble puzzle. This had the transcript of a Scrabble game with words and scores. The challenge was to reconstruct the game board by placing the words in the right places. They had placed all the words but one. I looked at the board and saw the word "REMOVE", and declared it the solution.

So we thought we walked to the solution of the Blackjack puzzle (actually, we walked to the solution of the Scrabble puzzle) and then walked across the park to the fly-casting pools, thinking that was the destination of the Scrabble puzzle. There was a guy with a big stack of chessboards at the fly-casting pool. He wanted to check our answers--teams had been showing up early--we weren't supposed to see him until we had solved four puzzles.

I had been quick to spot the word "REMOVE" and declare victory. But really the secret message in the Scrabble board was "REMOVE AS SAEVAEAN": "seven". When we thought we'd gone to our first goal, we'd really gone to our second. And we'd skipped our first, at the "seven" location. So we walked back across the park to the location "seven" marked on the map. There, a little past a group of people doing wu xia with shiny swords, was a locked box. We'd been given a locker combo at the start. Now we knew what to do with it. We grabbed the puzzles. There were a few teams that walked past the box without spotting it, and seemed distressed. Some of them thought they were looking for a person passing out puzzles. This allowed me to put on my veteran smirk and point out the locked box, taking some of the string out of having misled my team to the fly-casting pools.

So we had puzzles three and four. Puzzle four was photos of the six pockets of a pool table, each with some balls sunk. Thanks to some cues that had been left on the table, you could figure out which pocket was which. There was also a shot of the balls laid out, grouped into clusters. We figured out that the six pockets mapped to the six Braille dots, and and that the cluster of balls meant to consider those four balls as a Braille letter, noting which pocket they were sunk in. Nice.

Puzzle three kicked our ass. Halfway. It kicked one of our ass-cheeks. This was a sheet of paper dotted with colored triangles, numbers, and colored dotted lines. We figured out that we could fold this sheet of paper to make triangles line up--this was the right approach. But it didn't seem more right than any of the several wrong approaches we tried. Eventually, with one copy of the puzzle snipped apart, we gave in and took a hint--we should have done more folding and less cutting. So OK, we did that and soon we were on our way to the fly casting pool, this time after a legit solve.

There we got three more puzzles.

Puzzle six was a chess board and some chess pieces. Paul grabbed this one. The chess board squares were labeled with piece names or with letters. Putting the pieces on the appropriately labeled squares gave you a white king facing a board scattered with black pieces: a maze for the king to move through the maze, avoiding getting in check. As he moved, note the letters that he goes over.

Puzzle five was Taboo Word Search. Steven grabbed this one. In this word search, the word list didn't give you the list of words to find. Instead it would give hinty words, as in the game of Taboo. So the words "February", "Winter", and "Punxsutawney" would give you "GROUNDHOG" which was in the puzzle. But the hints weren't clumped together--all the hints for all of the words in the puzzle were in one big list. So you had to scan the list for related terms, figure out what related them, and then find it in the puzzle. After Steven and Paul had done the hard work, they didn't know what to do. My big contribution: I'd solved enough word searches to know that the "leftover" letters often spell out a message. So soon we had that one. Though I hardly saw this puzzle, I strongly suspect it would have been my favorite.

Puzzle seven was a set of five partial dart boards, each showing four wedges of a dartboard. Some wedges had darts in them, sometimes in the double- or triple-score ring. Below each partial dart board was a score. The wedges in each partial dartboard weren't numbered. But by looking at the score and trying different rotations, you could figure out the numbers in the wedges. So then what to do? I fixated on the empty wedges: I could map their number (1-20) to letters in the alphabet. D K Q M... this did not look promising. But I couldn't stop fixating on those empty wedges--why include them if they weren't used? Someone pointed out that there were different colors of darts. Maybe we should ignore the empty wedges, use the 1-20 values as letters, and figure that the red-dart letters spelled one word, yellow-dart letters another word, etc? This gave didn't lead to anything promising. Eventually we took a hint for this one, too--ignoring the empty wedges was smart. We were on the right rack with the red-dart, yellow-dart approach--but instead of using just the (1-20) values, we should have noticed darts that were in double- or triple- score ring and doubled their value. Whoops.

Soon we were back at the start/finish. We had just missed the (Something) Monki team--but a quick phone call and we found out that they were eating lunch in the Haight. Paul asked: What was your favorite puzzle?

Julia liked Scrabble and Taboo--she likes word puzzles. Most folks thought that the folding puzzle was very creative and elegant--but it had kicked all of our butts. Someone (Matt?) liked the blackjack puzzle best.

Someone talked about his student experimentation with LARPing. Wait don't laugh--it turns out that LARPing is not as dumb as you (okay I) have been led to believe. It's not just SCA stuff with a plot. There are puzzley aspects. You don't whack people with sticks. You only virtually whack them. But you really have to run a lot if a King of the Undead is after you. (Maybe the hierarchy needs a re-write. Or maybe not--I talked with a furry once and he wasn't a complete dork. Actually he was funny--intentionally so. Whatever.)

We talked about what happens if you get whacked in the head by a paddle if you're pregnant. You want to know: do you have a concussion? But it's tricky--many symptoms of concussion are normal life for a pregnant woman.

Along with puzzley things, I learned that the Golden Gate Park fly-casting pools have a relatively clean restroom.

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