Friday, May 29, 2015

IT'S A THINKPIECE ABOUT A TERRIBLE SITCOM STRUGGLING WITH ITS OWN LIMITATIONS IN THE HARSH FACE OF POPULARITY: Did you know that ALF had a surprisingly lucrative recording career in Germany, including releasing a single titled "ALF Will Be Our Chancellor?"
The encore was better — “City of Blinding Lights” into “Beautiful Day” into “Where the Streets Have No Name,” a trilogy of screamingly epic songs that evoke the sort of extraordinary, larger-than-life existence that’s only possible in the space of a U2 tune. The cynical music critic in me is supposed to scoff, but I wouldn’t even like music if I didn’t buy wholeheartedly into songs like this. I’m reminded of something Taylor Hawkins, the surfer-haired classic-rock true believer in the Foo Fighters, told me: “You go see U2 and you will see your life pass before your eyes.”
IT'S A THINKPIECE ABOUT A MID-LEVEL DIRECTOR STRUGGLING WITH HIS OWN LIMITATIONS IN THE HARSH FACE OF STARDOM:  Scott Tobias writes about the decline of Cameron Crowe's battered idealists:
His films are fundamentally about the pursuit of happiness, and without the abiding optimism that goodness is rewarded and happiness is achievable, Cameron Crowe would not be Cameron Crowe, and Hollywood would be poorer without him. But Crowe’s unwillingness to rethink his “battered idealist” character is stubbornness of a more self-destructive kind. ...
EVEN-STEVEN:  The 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a tie. So did the 2014 Bee.

Whether this is a problem, to me, isn't for folks like me to decide, because I remain perfectly comfortable saying that we finished with two equally-matched spellers, neither of whom was demonstrably better than the other, and that the only thing which could have determined a sole "winner" last night would have been arbitrary luck—a random, root-less word (Fijian? Welsh?) which one of the pair just hadn't seen before.

To me, it's up to the elite spellers, those of you who once had (and those still competing with) realistic aspirations of winning this thing: is a tie satisfying for you? Would you rather have extended the competition until one speller won, and one lost?  Because if the spellers are fine with ties, so am I.

Let's suppose we wanted to yield One True Winner, however. Obviously, one option is to have a longer, even unlimited Championship Words List. Have them spell-til-they-drop, all night long, until one random word trips someone up.

But I also want to point to two ways in which the Bee's structure may now be making ties more likely, and which could be modified:

The use of written tests to eliminate spellers, rather than additional live rounds in the afternoon, increases the likelihood that the best-of-the-best are the ones who make it through to primetime, while affording said students some margin for early error. Twenty-four was a perfect score in the semifinals multiple choice tests;  Vanya and Gokul scored 18 points each. (Heck: every student spelled at least one word wrong in the spelling semifinals, including two errors from Vanya; twelve kids did better than Gokul on the vocabulary questions.)  The competitors only had four live words to spell in front of a microphone to make it to primetime, one of which was essentially a gimme for every student.

It broke our hearts in 2007 when Samir Patel was eliminated around noon in his final competition on a word like clevis, as it does every time a four-or-five-timer goes down before primetime. (It looks like it was a harder round 5 than yesterday's.) But I do have to wonder if a Bee structured less around written tests and instead posing  more difficult live afternoon rounds would yield fewer super-spellers in primetime, and less likelihood of a tie.

More controversially, the Bee could consider whether the existence of such super-spellers is itself the problem  -- that students competing the national Bee four or five times, in addition to multiple North South Foundation and other events, are just too good for the Bee. (Put another way: that we all would have guessed Vanya and Gokul would be the final two is a bug, not a feature.) What if the rules restricted the National Bee to 6th-8th graders only, or to no more than 2-3 opportunities per student? You'd have finalists who were spending fewer years preparing for the Bee altogether (which may have other salutary effects), and a slightly lower caliber of competitors making its way to National Harbor. Again, I think you'd be more likely to see one winner through this path than the status quo, but whether this is actually a good thing (overall, or even on this specific question of reducing ties) is reasonably disputable.

But on this point, and on salutary effects, I want to go back to something Samir wrote for us in 2011 which has stuck with me -- the flipside of being Vanya and Gokul this morning. What if you're Samir, or Dylan O'Connor, or Katharine Wang?
The Bee, in general, was a lot of fun. There were a lot of 'first' experiences for me -- Scripps does a great job of making Bee Week revolve around socialization and fellowship between the spellers....However, as I kept returning, it definitely did become more 'stressful' and less 'fun' each year. [In either '06 or '07, during the actual competition days, all I ate -- for ALL of the competition days -- was a bag of Doritos and a can of Coke. That's how stressed I was.] That's definitely a result of me growing up and the media paying so much attention to me, not because of anything Scripps did. ... 
[I]n the spelling bee, there are words you do know and words you won't -- in '05, '06, and '07, I knew every word in the Bee except for the ones I missed.... Having all this pressure on me to perform definitely affected my enjoyment of the bee. In the first three years, I was sort of just riding the wave, enjoying the experience and the attention and the success. Even in '04 when I went out in the 5th round, I wasn't too terribly disappointed. But in '06 and '07, I was under a tremendous amount of pressure -- from myself, from the media, from even my family and friends. As I'd grown up a bit, I was taking the whole Bee more seriously -- you can easily see my personality change from watching the '03 and '07 bees.   
In '07, after I missed on 'clevis' and met my dad in the comfort room, I was actually okay -- I'd gotten so fed up with the whole thing that I was just glad it was over. I desperately wanted to win, but at that point in time, I was honestly just relieved I'd never have to study spelling again. 
Something to think about.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


O-U-T-R-A-G-E-D:  Look, there was a lot of tsuris in 2010 when the Bee hacked an afternoon round in half to have a suitable number for primetime. It was worth exploring ways to fix it.

But this is worse.  Much worse. Because (a) once you get to Thursday, all decisions should be made based on how kids do at a live microphone, and (b) even if you were to use some additional test to make a final cut, publishing its results before the spelling is done robs so much suspense from the rounds, especially for those kids (and their families) who know that not only do they not control their own destinies but they have no ability to make the finals no matter what.

A superior solution is simple: keep having afternoon rounds until you finish a round with 15 or fewer spellers.  

Bee organizers have enough experience with word difficulty to know how to titrate a round to eliminate a particular percentage of spellers, more or less. It's not rocket surgery. We know what a Bloodbath rounds looks like. And whether you have 15 kids in primetime or start the evening with 8, it's fine: because they will be the best kids in spelling words in front of a live microphone, which is what the Bee is.  Or was..

Instead, about 176/283 spellers were eliminated without getting a word wrong in front of a microphone.  The kids don't get that drama, and moment, and we don't get to see it. Nor do we get the flipside: while the finalists have now spelled/defined 54 words in making their way to the finals, we've only seen four of them.  We don't know who's the most impressive the bunch, and we don't get to know the kids as well as we used to, back when 6-7 live rounds were held on Wednesday-Thursday before the primetime finals.  Instead, just four rounds, with today's having weird, icky inevitability hanging over them.

This can, and must change.
ROUND SIX:  Here we go.

12:01 PM--Ouch--more-PHIL-axis takes down a competitor on a tough double consonant.

12:06 PM.  Pretty sure Jenna-May could have gotten that one if she weren't up against the clock.

12:07 PM.  Is there a worse origin for a speller than "From a ____ name?"

12:10 PM.  Difficulty here seems all over the place.  RAY-all-pahl-e-teek seems a little easy for this round, right?

12:21 PM.  Vanya is just an absolute pro.  Never loses her cool.

12:43 PM.  Does Dr. Bailly's use of "selfie" legitimate the word?

12:50 PM.  Who had "reference to Sbarro" in the pool?  They just made out like a bandit.

1 PM.  "From a native name in Australia" might be even nastier than a normal "from a ____ name" origin.

1:17 PM.  Ankita's excitement is infectious, isn't it?
GOOD MORNING, VICTOR SUTTON:  And welcome to round 5. 49 spellers remain; two rounds of spelling today before the second, and final test-based cut.

The Bee has published the semifinalists' scores; those who aren't in the top twelve here do not control their destiny, but need others above them to err.  Sigh.

10:20am: gla-SWEEJ-uhn, gla-SWEE-jee-uhn, oh, I am a sucker for adjectival forms of places.  4/6 so far.

10:37am: And the Jamaican goes down!  10/14 through so far, but, again, anyone not on the front page of the scoreboard likely isn't advancing no matter what.

10:40am: Vanya gets ... consomme? Really? (And after pistachio and balletomane.) The Dominic Errazo Award is very much in play here.

11:11am: Marsha helps us track the scoreboard in livetime.

11:51am: I cannot complain more loudly as to how much publishing the rankings table robs these rounds of suspense, as we know who the no-hope kids are.  (And, for what it's worth, they're the ones who are erring this round.)  I hope this is a one-year experiment, never to be repeated.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

DAILY BUZZ:  Some bullets:
"The Semifinals Test has 26 multiple choice items divided in four sections, with spellers identifying their responses on Scantron test forms. A speller receives one point for each of the 12 items identified correctly in the Round Four Spelling section, one point for each of the 12 items identified correctly in the Round Four Vocabulary section, three points for a correct answer to the single item in the Round Five Vocabulary section, and three points for a correct answer to the single item in the Round Six Vocabulary section. 
"During the morning of Thursday, May 28 the Bee will email Semifinals Test score reports to Semifinalist spellers and their parents."
added:  Vox talks to Nupur Lala, Uncle Spike, and three former winners who don't sometimes show up here to talk about the Bee.

      THE 2015 SPELLING BEE POOL: Forty-nine amazing spellers remain.

      Our rules are similar to those in years past -- we have one remaining five-timer (Vanya Shivashankar), and three spellers returning for their fourth year (Gokul Venkatachalam, Dylan O'Connor Katharine Wang). The use of these veterans will be restricted.

      So: pick two spellers, only one of whom can be one of the four spellers above. While individual spellers can be used more than once, you cannot repeat the same pairing that someone else has already submitted. First come, first served, and you cannot choose a speller once s/he spells tomorrow morning.

      You will get one point for each word your spellers correctly spell during tomorrow's rounds of the Bee, which resumes at 10am eastern on ESPN2. In addition, each speller will receive an additional point for reaching primetime, to account for the computer-based cutoff after tomorrow's three live rounds. Most points wins; tiebreaker will be whoever has the individual speller going the furthest. Do not edit your entry after you've made it; if you need to make corrections, reply to your original comment.

      It's my blog, so I go first: Gokul Venkatachalam, the vet who went the longest last year, and Sara-Beth McPherson, the 26th and final Jamaican national champion coached by the late Rev. Glen Archer. [I came really close to picking Tejas Muthusamy, but I cannot bring myself to picking a sixth-grader.]

      Previous pool winners are Elicia Chamberlin in 2006 (Close/Hooks), Professor Jeff and Amy tied in 2007 (O'Dorney and Thomas/Horton), KJ in 2008 (Mishra/K Shivashankar), Cagey (K Shivashankar/Pastapur) in 2009, Bob Loblaw/Jenn tied in 2010 (Veeramani and Chemudupaty/Denniss); 2011's winner was Nupur Lala (the Roy/Ye Keystone combo); Bobby in 2012 (Nandipati/Mahankali); Sara Miller in 2013 (Mahankali/Sivakumar), and Bobby again in 2014 (Venkatachalam/Hathwar).
      ROUND 3: We are back, and I expect things to get a little tougher now.

      1:31pm: cryptoporticus, escritoire, rutabaga. They're not messing around.

      5:05pm: And yet some kids get Pickwickian, haberdasher, (tales of ) ribaldry, and Pythagorean. It's execrable!

      5:17pm: Fifth grade is too early to see The Godfather, so "kahn-sihl-YARE-ee," is a problem even when Dr. Bailly adds "kahn-SIG-lee-air-ee" as an alternate pronunciation.

      5:41pm: CONTROVERSY!  We go to instant replay to see if JoJo Widi stopped himself short enough in trying to correct himself on 'gamboge'.  He didn't.  He went g-a-m-b then briefly said 'a' before going 'o' and asking to restart with g-a-m-b-o. It was a really close call.

      214/283 remain for the cutdown.
      VICTOR SUTTON OF AUBURN, ALABAMA, COME ON DOWN!  Two rounds today, streaming online on ESPN3, and both are ding-and-you're-out.

      There are two preliminary rounds today in which all 285 spellers will face the microphone, Dr. Jacques Bailly, and the cameras of ESPN3 online (in both "play along" and more aggressively chyroned versions). Spellers receive 3 points for each word spelled correctly today; add that number to yesterday's written round score, and the top up-to-50 spellers advance to the semifinals tomorrow.

      You can follow along in a few places (in addition to here): the Bee website, and a few places on Twitter worth noting: @ScrippsBee, @PeterSokolowski @APBenNuckols, and hashtag #SpellingBee. And join our Hive on the Buzzworthy app --  the access code is 7EFA53.

      [Last year, 223/281 of the spellers aced the first two rounds.]

      8:27 am:  31/32 through so far, on words that all these kids should be acing.  No one's saying sayonara upon receiving ... that word, and our triumvirate of Spellers From  The North has survived. As for the one child who has erred so far, the story of how he got to National Harbor will break your heart.

      8:47 am: 61/63.  Marieke Western is given 'maraca'.  Really? she asks Dr. Bailly. Yep. Nailed it. These are generally easy words -- flamboyant, philanthropy, samaritan, paradox. As usual, I hope the afternoon words are harder.

      9:25 am: 115/118. "Zander Worm" sounds like the name of an extra in Starship Troopers, but he's through with 'bayou.' And our Yiddish Watch has begun: 'kishke.'

      9:40 am: 137/141: Halftime. Dev Jaiswal asked Dr. Bailly, "Do you have an amusing sentence?" for 'bravura'. Also, he's wearing a bowtie. Awesome.

      10:07 am: Two spellers have withdrawn from the competition.  (HT: Amy Goldstein.) We are not going to speculate as to why.  These are children. We wish them well.

      10:33 am: 185/189. An eclectic mix of words for the erudite, as we accommodate an act of altruism with an AHN-tuh-rahzh plug.

      11:35 am: The last 200+ spellers have been correct. I'm fine with that -- for one round. They all schlepped to National Harbor, often at considerable family expense, and deserve to have one shining moment each at the microphone. (One.)

      11:40 am: Round's over.  279/283 advance to the afternoon.

      Tuesday, May 26, 2015

      WE HAVE SPIES. EVERYWHERE:  Here's the twelve words on today's preliminary spelling round.  (Vocab separately.)  They could do it via multiple choice, but y'all can do it without that assistance, right?

      • RITH-mih-kuh-lee, RITH-mihk-lee: Have you seen me on a dance floor? The opposite of that.
      • kuh-LAH-tuh-ruhl: underrated Tom Cruise film.
      • jih-BOOM: my daughter's been to sailing camp. She knows this I don't.
      • kap-SAY-uh-sihn, kap-SAY-sin:  what gets you on the Scoville scale
      • puh-ROOSH: literally, the color of a parakeet (in French)
      • tar-SOAR-uh-fee: stitching up eyelids, oh-ho-ho-ho!
      • cher-tuh-SEE-nuh: "a Renaissance Italian style of elaborate inlay of bone, ivory, light-colored wood, metal, or other material in stylized designs against a dark background"
      • gore-guh-NE-ahn: Medusa pictures used to scare away bad things
      • muh-NYEHR, muh-NYEH-uhr: cooked in brown butter. Filet of sole, maybe?
      • RAHN-duh-vel: a South African hut.
      • tah-BLEE-tuh: Pueblo headdress.
      • SCHMEAR-kayz, SCHMEAR-kay-zuh:  cottage cheese.
      WEE, BEADY EYES:  Kentucky Fried Chicken is trying to rebrand, again, resurrecting The Colonel (as portrayed by Darrell Hammond) but, um ...
      Perhaps KFC's biggest gamble: Reviving the long-dead visage of Colonel Sanders himself, "the brand’s greatest asset," with a handful of increasingly odd "web, broadcast, social media and in-store experiences." 
      "Young people all have this idea that everyone can be a star on social media. Well, the Colonel was the consummate American showman," said Kevin Hochman, KFC's chief marketing officer. "People see him as an old person, because we haven't talked about him in a while. But he was the person with bling before bling was even a word."
      Sounds like a totally outrageous paradigm to me.  Is the new Colonel edgy? in your face?  Does he get biz-zay, consistently and thoroughly?

      [I also question the reporter's describing it as a "Cersei-Margaery-style battle with Chick-fil-A." There's got to be a better GoT analogy.]
      PAMPOOTIE:  Right now in National Harbor, Maryland, 285 incredibly talented children are sitting down for a four-part spelling and vocabulary test which will help determine their fates at the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee, and for the 13th year* we will be trying to cover all of the joy, agita, and triumph. If you're not a regular here, welcome aboard; if you only come here this one week per-year, welcome back.

      For newcomers trying to get their bearings, here's a short list of things we do and don't like about The Bee:

      • Smart kids being awesome. Smart kids being awesome.
      • That part late in the Bee when we get to words of Finnish, Mayan, Welsh, Afrikaans, and Egyptian origins.
      • Jamaican and Canadian spellers, except the 2008 Canadian Bloodbath round which was really unfortunate.**
      • Foodie words, because it's the only time in the competition many grownups feel smart.
      • Dr. Jacques Bailly 
      • Sardoodledom.
      • When Bee veterans, coaches, and parents come here and share their wisdom and experience. If you go back to our archives for the last week of May, every year, you'll find some great stuff.
      Don't Like
      • Use of computerized competition to impose artificial elimination checkpoints for tv purposes, especially in the cutoff from Thursday afternoon to Thursday night.
      • Interviewing kids in the middle of the competition
      • Interviewing kids right after they've been eliminated
      • Cutesy filler pieces which demean how hard these kids work
      • The fact that the bulk of the first hour of primetime will be dominated by filler, and not spelling.
      • Yiddish words capable of multiple correct spellings (otherwise known as The Marsha Special), and capable of igniting Bee controversy.
      • Amateur psychoanalysis of the kids and their parents. As I've written before, which is as close to a mission statement as we've got:
      "What we won't do is mock the kids, or presume we can learn anything meaningful about them or their parents based on the brief slices we see on tv. As my favorite line from Frost/Nixon goes, 'The first and greatest sin or deception of television is that it simplifies, it diminishes. Great, complex ideas, tranches of time. Whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot.' We will try to be modest about what we believe we're seeing; the only thing we can know for sure is whether the word is spelled correctly, and what we learn from former spellers thereafter."
      Or, as Shonda explained in 2013: "What I love about the Bee is its celebration of intelligence.  The Bee at its best is a dance party for braininess, a nerdgasm for smarty-pants. The Bee is home for those of us who maybe can not throw a ball or run without our inhalers. The Bee is a place for people who like to read, who enjoy math, who love science and art and geography and words, words, words.  The Bee is for people who have plans that do not include being a Real Housewife of Anything. The Bee is the only way our people will ever be on ESPN. And that makes the Bee awesome. The Bee is a celebration."

      Come celebrate with us this week.

      * Yes, still blogging after all these years. I kinda feel like we're the last people using rotary phones, dot-matrix printers and WordPerfect.

      ** Described here as, by various commenters, "The worst Canadian disaster since Glass Tiger broke up," "the worst Canadian disaster since Thicke of the Night," "must be like what it was like when the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets left the country," "like when Neil Young moved to Topanga Canyon," "like when Vince Carter started mailing it in so that he could get traded to New Jersey," "like Eric Lindros insisting to the Nordiques that he wanted to play for the Flyers," and "the worst day for ONttN this year, even more so than Steven Page's leaving Barenaked Ladies."

      Monday, May 25, 2015

      The [premlimary] test scores will be announced and spellers will be ranked heading into the [Thursday] semifinals. 
      Tim Weinkauf, the lead producer of ESPN's coverage, said he'll take advantage of that change by showing golf-style leaderboards and highlighting the spellers who can work their way into the finals if someone ahead of them falters. 
      "I think it allows for more dramatic moments because there will be those certain kids that are on the bubble," Weinkauf said.
      I'm assuming that after the written round, everyone's checking the words anyway such that the kids who did perfect (or close) already know it. It's the rest who won't otherwise know how far back they stand: now, basically, there will some kids who know that they've got no realistic chance to advance absent a miraculous decimation of the other kids, no matter what. Why? Because ESPN is again imposing an artificial cutoff on the best kids rather than letting them spell-til-they-drop as in the past. Boo.

      As previously discussed: I think it's fair to use a written to cull the group from the initial 285, after two live rounds on Wednesday, down to a reasonable number for Thursday morning. But from there, it should solely be decided on what happens at the live microphone. However long it takes. The kids deserve that chance.
      I'LL TAKE NON-DESULTORY PHILLIPICS PHILIPPICS FOR $1000, ALEX:  Art Garfunkel still thinks Paul Simon gets too much credit:
      “George [Harrison] came up to me at a party once and said “my Paul is to me what your Paul is to you.” He meant that psychologically they had the same effect on us. The Pauls sidelined us. I think George felt suppressed by Paul and I think that’s what he saw with me and my Paul. Here’s the truth: McCartney was a helluva music man who gave the band its energy, but he also ran away with a lot of the glory.”
      Oh, there's more.