Saturday, December 31, 2011

Beware Ben Bass

Texas A&M led the nation this year with 44 sacks thanks in part to my favorite Aggie, the 6'5", 295 lb. senior defensive end Ben Bass. At approximately the same height and weight give or take a hundred pounds, we're basically identical twins. The guy even has the right middle initial, J.

True to form, the blue-chip pass rusher out of Plano West High School sacked my law school alma mater Northwestern's elite quarterback Dan Persa in the first quarter of today's Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas in Houston. Good old #90 and his crew were up in Persa's grille all day.

Although I support all Ben Basses on principle, I wasn't too excited about the fierce game he played. Neither were my hundreds of fellow purple-clad Northwestern fans in a jammed North Side bar, a boisterous crowd including former quarterback C.J. Bacher (still protected by his teammates on the O-line) and former university president and basketball junkie Henry Bienen.

Above is a screenshot of my namesake in today's game, complete with not just Bass but "B. Bass" on the jersey because his brother Justin Bass is a freshman on the team (not to be confused with my brother Justin Bass). I'd have liked to get the "and Beyond" on there but I couldn't reach the Aggies' equipment manager before game time to offer a generous bribe.

With today's loss, Northwestern ran its unfortunate streak to 9 straight bowl game losses since beating Cal in the Rose Bowl after the 1948 season. On the plus side, NU has made it to postseason play 9 times in the past 17 seasons, including the past 4 in a row.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Strictly personal

Happy 70th birthday, Mom!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

'Tis the season

The Allegro Handbell Ensemble plays a noontime concert of holiday favorites in the lobby of 131 S. Dearborn, Chicago.

Day 7: One that got away

On Match Day 7, for the first time, I let one slip away.

1. Homer's Iliad ends with the burial of what Trojan prince and warrior?

I've read The Odyssey but not The Iliad. Knew Odysseus was a Greek hero and strained to think of his counterpart Trojan warriors; the best I could do was to think of various USC (Trojan) Heisman Trophy winners. Finally I went with Ajax, who might have been a good guess had he not been a Greek warrior himself. I should have guessed his archrival and Trojan counterpart, Hector.

2. Identify the two largest businesses -- both London-based -- of the type that also includes Dorotheum, Bonhams, Phillips de Pury, Lyon & Turnbull, and MacDougall's.

None of the given business names meant a thing to me; they could have been clothing stores, casinos, gas (I mean petrol) stations, fast food places, department stores, insurance companies or china shops. But the names said upscale to me, so I figured they weren’t, for example, fast food places. My first thought was insurance companies, as Lloyd’s of London was obviously a London-based business, but I couldn’t think of another one, and although Lloyd's was old I didn't know it to be one of the two largest insurers.

All I could do was try to think of a classy, high-end industry whose two leading players were British. Rather than make a bad knee-jerk guess, as I had repeatedly over the previous Match Days (Blake Edwards, The Clapper, Olivetti, Robben Island, West Bank), I mulled it over for a while. Before long I thought of the auction world, where Sotheby’s and Christie’s were the two major names, and felt reasonably confident they were both British. The other given names seemed British or otherwise European, which made sense to me since those countries are so much older than ours; they’ve probably been auctioning art, antiquities and rarities for centuries. And try as I might I couldn’t come up with anything else. So I said Sotheby’s and Christie’s and it was correct.

3. What is the common name for the scalinata that connects the Piazza di Spagna with the Piazza Trinità dei Monti in Rome?

Another one I had to grind out. I’ve been to Rome but I didn’t know the two Piazzas and none of the given Italian words meant much to me. What might connect two piazzas (plazas, town squares) in Rome? My first thought was a road or a bridge, but I couldn’t think of anything, so I thought further. They were asking for a common name of a functional part of the physical plant of the city, one well enough to be known around the world and have its own nickname. And it had to be in modern-day Rome, not what remains of ancient Rome. I kept thinking of the Trevi Fountain, which is in a piazza, but I needed something more connective and less destinational. The Roman Road was more likely a road into and out of the city than within its borders, if it even still existed.

Suddenly it occurred to me: the Spanish Steps, one of the famous landmarks in the city, might connect two piazzas. I didn’t think of them as doing so, but who knew? I'd visited the Spanish Steps 14 years ago and remembered the steps themselves better than whatever was around them. I seemed to recall the bottom of the staircase was a major pedestrian artery, not a piazza, but it could have been both, i.e. a piazza along a roadway.

Rereading the question confirmed that my guess was solid. I don’t speak Italian but I speak French, and scalinata worked as a staircase since escalier means staircase in French (and both were something you scale). That was good enough for me. I guessed the Spanish Steps and it was correct. I didn’t even notice a second clue hiding in the question: the Piazza di Spagna was named for Spain.

4. What were the first names of the co-hosts of the 1960s/70s sketch comedy television series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In?

I suffered a brain freeze on this question that cost me a tie in the match.

Knowledge is complicated; there are shades of gray. In this league, for example, there’s knowing the answer and confidently providing it; not knowing the answer and scoring with a well-reasoned educated guess; not knowing the answer and making a lucky random guess; and not knowing the answer and proving it with a wrong guess, an unfilled answer blank, or the capitulation of not even answering the question but instead trying to be funny.

The ugliest shade of gray is knowing the answer but not being able to say it, and that was my lot on this question. I’ve said it before, and it sounds like an excuse, but if you had shown me a list of 20 possible answers I’d have easily selected the correct one. It was on the tip of my tongue and I just couldn’t spit it out.

I think the “same first letter” thing screwed me up. I kept thinking “Dick Rowan and who, Dick Rowan and who,” when the answer was in fact Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. The crazy thing was I had just been thinking about these two guys’ names in the previous month or so, maybe in reference to Goldie Hawn or something. In any event, the harder I thought about it, the more I didn’t come up with the answer. Eventually I gave up and guessed Dick and Allen in frustration knowing it was wrong, and it was.

5. Of the chemical elements known as the noble gases, which is the only one that has only radioactive isotopes (and is in fact responsible for the majority of public exposure to radiation)?

This felt like the gimme of the day. I knew from both my career in real estate and as a casual follower of the news that radon gas was an ongoing issue in home inspections and buildings around the country. I also knew from having taken chemistry and AP Chem in high school that radon was a noble gas. Another element I knew offhand was a noble gas, neon, was also in widespread proximity to the public, but I’d never heard of a health threat due to leaky or aging neon signs. I thought xenon might be a noble gas but I couldn’t think of its general application other than maybe in high-end auto headlights, nor did I think of it as a threat. So I guessed radon and it was correct.

6. Named after a character from an obscure 1953 film, this stock sound effect has appeared in hundreds of instances across various media (including all Star Wars and Quentin Tarantino films). What is the effect known as?

You either knew this or you didn’t, and I didn’t. I guessed Screamy Joe. The answer was the Wilhelm Scream.

Defense: I gave my opponent 1 2 1 2 0 3 and he gave me 2 2 1 3 0 1 (boldface are correct answers), so I lost 6(4)-3(3).

This one should have been a tie.  We both knew, played identical defense on, and canceled each other out on three of the easier (to us at least) questions. He knew the one I thought was hardest, the Wilhelm Scream, and earned a 3; I knew the one he thought was hardest, Rowan and Martin, but I couldn't manage to spit out the correct answer to earn a 3.

So what would have been a tie was instead a painful loss. But it was still early in the season, and I was surely not the only player with a hard-luck anecdote.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 6: Playing like a player

Another pretty good day at the office:

1. This is the work of what contemporary American artist? 

I got past the momentary distraction of the word Red, which made me think of Mark Rothko due to John Logan’s Broadway hit that recently played the Goodman Theatre here in Chicago. The contemporary timeframe worked but the painting itself didn’t much resemble Rothko’s work. I wasn’t familiar with the canvas in question but the splotchy motif reminded me of Jasper Johns’ flag and target paintings. I used to have a print of his Green Target in my office, for example, and the weathered look was reminiscent; his American Flag could also plausibly share a creator with the mystery painting. And words painted in colors different from the colors the words themselves represented, shared a playful quality with targets consisting of identically colored concentric circles and alternate takes on the American flag.  So although I knew little about his other work I guessed Jasper Johns and it was correct.

2. The West Indian (but not Caribbean) Lucayan Archipelago consists of the Turks and Caicos Islands, along with what nation?

On this question I made the best educated guess of my LearnedLeague career to date. I had never heard the word Lucayan in my life, so all I could go on was the other given information. The two keys, pun unintentional, were “(but not Caribbean)” and the fact that the answer was one of two nations in an archipelago. So I was looking for, possibly an island nation, but more likely a nation that was itself an archipelago, since I was hard-pressed to think of an island nation adjacent to a nation that was a group of islands, like Australia just south of Indonesia (or for that matter the Philippines), but somewhere near the Caribbean.

My knowledge of geography in general is pretty shaky. About all I could confidently say about the island geography of the greater Caribbean region was that Haiti and the Dominican Republic are the two modern nations that share the island that was once called Hispaniola. So I started thinking about what “(but not Caribbean)” could mean. To me that meant somewhere that was generally thought of as Caribbean, but technically wasn’t.

I vaguely remembered that the Bahamas and maybe Jamaica were southeasterlyish from Miami, close enough to visit by a short flight or boat ride. Maybe they weren’t exactly in the Caribbean since they were on the Atlantic side. Lacking a better guess, I decided to go with one of those. I wasn’t sure whether Jamaica had more than one island to its name, but the Bahamas clearly did. So I went with the Bahamas and it was correct.

3. The television station S4C, based out of Cardiff, was the first television channel to be aimed specifically at a Welsh-speaking audience, and now broadcasts exclusively in that language. The S stands for Sianel (Welsh for channel); what does the C stand for?

No clue. I would have been fine if they were asking how to refer to Finland in its native dialect (Suomi), but they weren’t. I don’t know the first thing about the Welsh tongue; had you told me the Welsh traditionally spoke Old English, I’d have believed you. I guessed Cardiff on the thin hope that it was a trick question with the answer in the given information, even though I knew that was not the league’s style. The answer was Cymru, a word apparently familiar to viewers of BBC programming such as Doctor Who that originates in Wales.

4. The derivative of the equation 3x3 + 4x2 + 6x + 2, when plotted, is what geometric figure?

Mike Markovich and I sat in the last row of calculus our senior year of high school and quietly cracked jokes back and forth the entire school year, so I might have learned more about “The Calculus of a Single Variable something something,” as our textbook's title put it, had we not found each other and ourselves so hilarious. But I did know that the given math term was not an equation, it was an expression; that with the implied y= it would indeed be an equation; and that the answer was a parabola.

5. While the kilogram is the International System of Units (SI) base unit for mass, what is the SI derived unit for weight?

Probably should have gotten this one. I also took physics in high school and had I thought about this in physics terms I might have remembered the newton, a shockingly common standard unit in physics circles considering how it pretty much never comes up anywhere else. Looking for a non-metric equivalent to the kg I said the pound, ignoring the SI (which should have implied physics to me) at my peril.

6. What is the name of the meadow, along side the River Thames in the Royal County of Berkshire, where King John of England sealed the Magna Carta in 1215?

Like Cymru, you either knew this one or you didn’t, and I didn’t. Inspired by Hogsmeade, the town nearest Hogwarts Castle, I tried to picture a bucolic meadow along the banks of a river. I guessed Sheepsmeade, not a bad guess in light of the answer: Runnymede.

So I went 3 for 6 thanks to two good guesses. Playing defense, I gave my opponent 2 2 1 1 0 3 and he gave me a very similar 2 1 2 1 0 3. Unfortunately for him he went 0 for 6, so I won 4(3)-0(0). The victory gave me a 4-2 record and lifted me to 13th place of 44 on our still tightly packed division ladder.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Day 5: Keeping it going

Filled with newfound confidence, I had another decent trip around the bases on Match Day 5.

1. The term dog days (as in dog days of summer) originated in ancient Greece, and came from the belief that the hot weather was associated with, and caused by, what star (please provide proper name)?

Like so many LearnedLeague questions, this one was replete with ways to get the answer. Put more simply, the question here was “Which star is nicknamed the Dog Star?” Careful readers of the Harry Potter books might recall that Sirius Black can transform into a dog (summer 1999 spoiler alert!). And the logo of Sirius satellite radio is a dog with a star for an eye. As I knew, and was reassured by those supporting facts, the answer was Sirius.

2. Moon River, the Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini-penned Academy Award winner for Best Original Song for 1961, was first sung in what film?

Have never seen the movie, but I'm familiar with its basic facts. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, George Peppard, Truman Capote wrote the book, Moon River, Henry Mancini, regrettable performance by Mickey Rooney. And the movie is: Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

3. The individual depicted in this painting is named Dora Maar, but the painting itself is better known by what accurately descriptive name?

No clue. It was pretty obvious who painted it, and I assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that she was one of his mistresses, but I certainly couldn’t name the painting. I said “Woman with a Veil,” but the correct answer makes sense if you’re looking at the image properly: “Weeping Woman.”

4. Provide the two words that fill in the blank from Section 1 of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified on December 6, 1865: Neither slavery nor _____ _______, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. 

Having studied the Constitution, though not particularly the Reconstruction Amendments, in law school, I should probably have gotten this one. My problem was the numeration of spaces in the answer blanks: 5, 7. This fit perfectly with the phrase “human bondage,” which worked as a synonym to slavery. Maybe I was led astray by Somerset Maugham (yet again!). The correct answer was involuntary servitude.

5. In the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, the letter B is assigned the codeword Bravo, and the letter Y is Yankee. Using the codewords of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, spell the word cat.

Argh. I couldn’t think of the C word. I guess that’s because I am such a PG-rated kind of guy. I guessed Conga Alpha Tango, but the correct answer was Charlie Alpha Tango.

6. Who is the father of the child in this picture?

Perhaps due to the intimation of extramarital intrigue, I thought the woman looked kind of tabloidy-mistressy, so I guessed John Edwards. And I was right!

Defense:  I gave my opponent 0 1 3 1 2 2; he gave me 2 3 2 1 1 0 (boldface are correct answers).

Interestingly, I thought Sirius was a 0 (the easiest question), and John Edwards was a 2; my opponent, vice versa.  We each got both of them right. Thanks to his feeling that Breakfast at Tiffany's was the hardest question, I won by the narrowest of margins, 5(3)-4(3).

The victory gave me a 3-2 record and moved me up to 20th place in my 44-player rookie division, or "Rundle." I was one of 10 players tied with 6 points in the standings (like NHL hockey, you get 2 for a win and 1 for a tie; unlike the NHL, you also get -1 for a forfeit). But I was 9th of those 10 due to my poor performance in the tiebreaker, with only 1 more match point than my collective opposition.

Still, after two pretty good days in a row I was on my first winning streak. The best part was, win or lose, I was enjoying the experience.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day 4: Finding my mojo

On my fourth day in LearnedLeague trivia, I finally got it going.

1. What was the stage name of Dutch exotic dancer Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, who died of a gunshot wound at age 41 on October 15, 1917?

A wartime femme fatale who wasn’t Tokyo Rose? Had to be Mata Hari. And it was.

2. Journalists Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper, Norah O'Donnell, Jessica Yellin, Peter Baker, Carol Lee, and Don Gonyea all serve in what specific position for their respective news organizations?

A gimme thanks to Jake Tapper’s ongoing tenure as White House correspondent for ABC News. I'm not much of a TV news watcher but I'm also dimly aware of Norah O’Donnell. Even though I haven’t heard of several of these people, and even though Brit Hume’s no longer covering the White House (also for ABC News), the familiar names on the list made this question pretty straightforward.

3. Name the man, one of the earliest and most influential professional rock critics, who served from 1974 to 2006 as music editor for The Village Voice.

Not too many people in the league knew this one but I did: Robert Christgau. I’ve always appreciated the analysis of insightful critics and observers. I’d just as soon read Posnanski or watch Costas interview Feller as actually watch a baseball game. In the world of rock journalism, Christgau’s one of the key figures. You’ve got your gonzo genius Lester Bangs, who died too young; Robert Hilburn, late of the L.A. Times; Cameron Crowe, boy wonder of Rolling Stone; Richard Meltzer, whose A Whore Like All The Rest I’ve given as a gift; the professorial Greil Marcus. More recently, Nick Tosches, Michael Azerrad, Bill Wyman (not that Bill Wyman), Neil Strauss. The pioneering, prolific Christgau made the most of his bully pulpit during his long tenure at the Voice.

4. Tiny Robben Island, notorious today for its legacy as an island prison, lies 4.3 miles (7 km) off the coast of what nation?

On the flip side of Christgau, most of the people in the league got this one but I didn’t. Had I thought about a legendary spiritual leader who was imprisoned offshore for decades on specious political charges, only to be freed to universal acclaim, I might have guessed South Africa. I guessed Ireland, perhaps thinking instead of self-important rock stars who hied to kiss his ring and bask in his halo.

5. It is commonly held that deep-dish Chicago-style pizza was invented in 1943 by Ike Sewell at what restaurant, where he was a co-founder?

Knew this one in my soul. I’ve lived in and around Chicago pretty much my entire life, and Pizzeria Uno is iconic. I used to stop by there on the way home from Bears games when I was in high school to pick up deep-dish pies. Had they asked for the intersection, I would have said Wabash and Ohio.

6. An April 15, 1985, middleweight championship boxing match, known today simply as the The War, is considered one of the most thrilling matches in history, pitting the incumbent undisputed champion against a challenger who was junior middleweight champion at the time. Identify either of the two combatants in this historic bout.

No clue. To me, “1980s middleweight” says “Sugar Ray Leonard,” so that was my guess. The actual boxers were Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns.

Defense: I gave my opponent 1 0 3 2 1 2; he gave me 1 2 1 0 2 3 (boldface are correct answers). So I won 6(4)-3(3).

For the first time I felt like I acquitted myself fairly well on a full set of questions. Probably should have sussed out Mandela, but made a respectable guess on the boxing question.

Winning with four correct answers was a much-needed shot of confidence as I improved to a .500 record and got back up to the middle of my division in 23rd place of 44. Life was good.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Day 3: Sliding into oblivion

As I entered Match Day 3 of my rookie season in the LearnedLeague trivia contest, my confidence was low after two shaky efforts. Unfortunately my third go-round did little to right the ship.

1. What is the specific common name for the government of France that existed from 1870, upon the collapse of the Second French Empire, until 1940, and the Nazi invasion and subsequent Vichy regime?

This was one of those topics I faintly remembered from a long-ago world history class in high school. Unfortunately we studied the French Revolution at great length and pretty much glossed over the post-Napoleonic era; it was all Robespierre, all the time. I speak French and spent the summer in La Rochelle, France when I was 16, but those weren't doing much for me either. I guessed “parlement” with little confidence, and sure enough, the correct answer was the French Third Republic. It sounded vaguely familiar.

2. During the third verse of the R.E.M. song It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), the instruments stop abruptly and briefly while the band shouts the name of what man?

The good news was that I knew the answer. The bad news was that so does everyone else:  Mstislav Rostropovich. There are few questions about R.E.M. they could have reasonably asked that I wouldn’t have known in my sleep, but they flattened it out so much they erased any Stipe-based advantage I might have enjoyed. As you know, the answer is actually “Leonard Bernstein! (Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs, birthday party cheesecake jellybean boom.)” At least my knowledge of Lester Bangs and his fellow grandees of rock criticism would soon pay dividends.

3. Identify the tabloid-style German newspaper whose name translates to English as Picture, and which is -- by far -- the largest circulation newspaper in Europe (and in fact the largest outside Japan). Its policy of showcasing a topless woman on every front page may have some effect.

I didn't know there were topless women in any European tabloids outside of England; maybe that's not why the U.K. sat out of the whole euro thing. I knew that the German word Spiegel means mirror, not picture, and I knew Der Spiegel was a German magazine, not a tabloid newspaper. But I didn’t know the word for picture or the names of any other German periodicals, nor did I have a plausible guess, so I guessed Der Spiegel in honor of my buddy Matt Spiegel. The answer was Bild, which seems like a somewhat prosaic name (“Picture”) for a publication that features words and pictures.

4. There are two generally established classifications in French cuisine for clear soups: bouillon (simple broth), and what other, which is essentially clarified bouillon?

Continuing the French theme, much like the French Third Republic, I knew the correct answer would sound familiar when I heard it, but I also couldn’t think of it. I guessed bouillabaisse, a thick fish soup so far from bouillon I might as well have guessed the Beastie Boys. The correct answer was consommé.

5. The short films What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963), It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964), and The Big Shave (1967) are among the very early works of what Oscar-winning film director?

This one I regret because I could have made a much better educated guess. A few years ago I attended a screening of the first full-length feature by this filmmaker, Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, his senior film project at NYU film school from the mid-1960s. That would have been consistent with short films made in the previous few years, and also with a predilection for the use of questions as somewhat lengthy film titles. And, for that matter, with a director who burst into prominence in the ensuing decade. But I rushed through this one a little, not giving sufficient thought to any of those things. I focused only on the era in question and the fact that the shorts sounded more or less comedic, and guessed Blake Edwards pretty much knowing it was wrong. Sure enough, the answer was Martin Scorsese.

6. What was the eventual name of the product which was first marketed in the UK as the Stowaway and in the US as the Soundabout?

I made a terrible guess here, not really thinking about the ramifications of the word Stowaway and instead trying to think of what a Soundabout might do. I guessed The Clapper, but the correct answer (which 65% of players leaguewide got, fully as many as Leonard Bernstein) was the Sony Walkman. In hindsight, this looks fairly guessable.

Another brutal 1 for 6 day. I was starting to dread being sent down to A ball, where I would be asked to name any two of the four Beatles.

As for defense, I gave my opponent 1 0 2 1 3 2 and he gave me 2 0 1 1 2 3.  We both knew Leonard Bernstein and received 0 points for it. My opponent, living up to his Gallic-sounding surname, also knew the French Third Republic and consommé. So once again I played perfect defense, giving away the minimum number of points, but so did my opponent, and good defense can absolve ignorance only so far.  In LL terminology, I lost 2(3)-0(1).

Now I was 1-2 and plummeting fast. In three days I'd dropped from the traditional Opening Day tie for first, to 32nd place in my 44-player division. It wasn't even clear yet who our better players were, but I wasn't looking like one of them.

What was clear was that I had little room for error. With just six questions per match, even one mistake or giveaway could be ruinous, and the LL seemed to go for the jugular every day with just one or two easy questions in the mix. Hell, even Jeopardy! starts with the simple stuff and only gradually turns up the heat. Few of their questions are this hard.

They were not asking things I felt confident about, and I'd squandered several chances to guess some crooked numbers onto the scoreboard. This was not going well. But as Robespierre said, it's always darkest before the dawn...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 2: Not in my wheelhouse

My strategy was better on Day 2, but the questions were harder and I took another psychological beatdown:

1. In soil science, this word refers to the stable and fully (or mostly) decomposed organic matter of soil, characteristically dark brown or black in appearance.

I could think of only mulch and compost, despite my sinking feeling that neither of these was scientific enough to be a word in "soil science," and guessed mulch. The answer was something I have not heard of, unless spelled differently in the context of a shawerma plate: humus.

2. What is the full name of the antiheroic protagonist of 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', who also plays an important role in 'Ulysses' and serves in both novels as author James Joyce's literary alter ego? 

Although I was an English lit major, I’ve never read either of these. I did faintly remember that the protagonist of Ulysses was Leopold Bloom, and only thought of that name after (w)racking my brain to unearth it. Good old Leopold didn't feel like the right answer because he was more than just "an important role" in Ulysses, he was the guy, but that was all I had so that was my guess. Unfortunately, the answer was Stephen Dedalus, who I assume was the father of Stephen Icarus.

3. Identify this woman.

She looked vaguely familiar, but I’d have needed a few Castrol and STP logos on her outfit to place Danica Patrick. I wrongly figured a photo of a generically pretty, presumably famous woman in a sleeveless dress was probably a paparazzi shot of an actress at an event, so I guessed Anna Kendrick even though it only looked a little like her. They didn’t even give me partial credit despite the existence of a NASCAR racing team called Hendrick Motorsports. That sort of sounds like Kendrick.

4. Alejandro Jodorowsky is perhaps today best known for directing and starring in what 1970 Spanish-language cult film, whose title translates to English as The Mole?

NAFC. The closest I could get to this question was that I once met Stephen Tobolowsky. Plus I speak French and not Spanish. I did know that Boca Raton translated to Mouth of the Rat, so I extrapolated to a smaller (?) animal and went with El Ratonito. Incredibly, this was not correct. The answer was El Topo.

5. The Renaissance in Italy was fostered by the patronage of a small number of familial dynasties, including the House of Gonzaga in Mantua, the House of Este in Ferrara, Sforza in Milan, and Montefeltro in Urbino. Most prominent of all was the House of Medici, in what city?

Figured this had to be Florence, but given the difficulty of the other questions it seemed too straightforward. I started wondering whether the Famiglia Medici were associated with Florence despite being actually based somewhere else. But eventually I just guessed Florence and it was correct. For this, my only correct answer of the day, my opponent showered me with zero points.

6. The catchphrase 'Bazinga!' was first popularized on what television sitcom (and, as a result, subsequently trademarked by Warner Bros. Entertainment)?

NAFC. I guessed It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The correct answer was The Big Bang Theory, a show that I have yet to watch despite actor Jim Parsons’ two consecutive Emmy awards.

So my strategy was better than Day 1, but the questions were harder (to me at least) and I dropped from two correct answers to one. My opponent also had just one correct, Danica Patrick, but I gave her a 2 for it so she won the match. Maybe I should have given her a 1 for it, but I usually know my celebs and I figured if I didn't know it, it might be kind of difficult. In any case there was no way Florence wasn't going to be my 0, so I was doomed.

In order, I assigned my opponent 1 2 2 3 0 1; she in turn gave me 2 1 1 3 0 2. She didn't know Florence but to her credit she knew I would know it. And unlike most of my opposition, whom I'd never heard of before the season began and still haven't met, we happen to be friends outside of the trivia league; if I have to lose a match, it might as well be to an official follower of this blog.

With just three correct answers in the first two days, I was lucky to have a 1-1 record. At least I was starting to put more thought into my answers before submitting them. Now that I was getting the hang of it I was all, can we please get some baseball, Shakespeare and pop music trivia up in here?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 1: Off to a bad start

My first day of warfare on the LearnedLeague trivia battlefield was far from my best effort.

1. The Italian corporation known today officially as Olivetti S.p.A. was founded in 1908 as a manufacturer of what?

I spectacularly blew this question.

First of all, I felt like I knew the answer. I couldn't think of it, but I'd definitely seen Olivetti products over the years and with enough time I might remember what they were. Some LL players use the "KGN" metric (Know/Guess/No Idea) to describe how much they know about the six questions they play each day. On this one, give me a K-. I knew the answer, but it wouldn't come to me. If you'd shown me a list of 20 possible answers, I would have picked out the right one.

There's no shame in not being able to spit out a fact you know, and  in any case I can't always do it. (I had fairly instant recall of even the most random things I knew into maybe my late 20s, but those days are gone.) But it is a shame when you have a 24-hour window to answer a question, which is how this league works, and you just knee-jerk a half-assed answer first thing in the morning without giving yourself a chance. Even worse, there was a huge hint in the question I foolishly ignored, that the company no longer makes what it was once known for.

My horrible guess was tires, even though I knew I was thinking of Pirelli and not Olivetti. The correct answer was typewriters, which I knew was right when I saw it, as I've seen old Olivettis (and their American equivalent, old Underwoods) over the years. And it totally makes sense as a product eventually rendered obsolete.

A rookie mistake, or more accurately a first-day mistake.

2. This culinary term, which is specifically a particular type of miniature lobster, has evolved etymologically into a style of preparation, which involves sautéeing the entrée in garlic butter and white wine (and often, topping with bread crumbs).

All I could think of was scampi, since the preparation style sounded a lot like shrimp scampi, and sure enough, scampi it was.

3. What nation won the 2011 Rugby World Cup, outlasting France 8-7 in the final on October 23?

NAFC, as they say in LearnedLeague circles. Not A F-ing Clue. I only read the newspaper intermittently, and even then it's often just NYT headlines on my BlackBerry. I didn't know the traditional powers in this sport, and I sure missed the recent Rugby World Cup headline if indeed there even was one. I figured England would be good at rugby but that seemed too obvious, and briefly considered guessing the USA. Then I thought, isn't Australian rules football kind of like rugby? So I guessed Australia. I should have guessed something nearby, New Zealand.

4. In human anatomy, the 'supraspinatus', 'infraspinatus', 'teres minor', and 'subscapularis' muscles, along with their connecting tendons, are known collectively as what?

I was stubbornly locked into trying to name a specific body part even though the question pretty much indicated that it was a more general term, and overlooked that guidance at my peril. I knew the scapula was the shoulder blade, so not knowing what the spinatus was (something spinal?), I guessed shoulder. The correct answer, which like any baseball fan I have heard of a thousand times, was the rotator cuff.

This was getting ugly.

5. What is the common name for the area highlighted in red here?

Another strikeout after a 3-0 count. Like Olivetti, I made a guess I knew for a fact was wrong. I guessed the West Bank, even though I knew the West Bank was further south on the map (on the, duh, western bank of the Dead Sea). I felt like the correct answer had to be the Negev or the Golan Heights, but for some reason I just didn't want to believe the league would be asking for less frequently newsworthy parts of the nation of Israel.

Not only was there no reason to believe that—I'd already gathered that the league trades in and thrives on far more obscure trivia than this—I knew for a fact I was guessing a wrong answer, indeed the only Israeli region I knew could not be the right answer. Other than that, I was all over this one. The correct answer was in fact the Golan Heights, so I'd have had a 1 in 2 chance if I'd listened to my instincts.

6. The television network VH1 Classic declared and celebrated November 11, 2011, as National Metal Day, a date selected in indirect and implicit honor of what 1984 film?

I salvaged a small measure of my pride with this gimme, This Is Spinal Tap. "This one goes to eleven," as Nigel Tufnel proudly explained to Marty DiBergi. "Eleven... eleven... eleven."

So I got just 2 out of 6, and there's nothing wrong with that, but I had reasonable shots at 3 of the other 4 questions and didn't even give myself any time to think about them and make educated guesses. (Chalk it up to first-day jitters and a still unrefined sense of how to play my best game. It was already becoming clear on the first day that when you don't know the answer, you have to take what the question gives you and let the murky answers you used to know bubble slowly to the surface.)

Happily for me, my opponent also had a rough go of it, answering only Spinal Tap correctly. I gave him a 0 for that question, and though he too played perfect defense, my 1 point for scampi gave me the ugly victory.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Knowing is (just) half the battle

I was recently invited to play in an online trivia contest called the LearnedLeague.

You play a six-question head-to-head match against a different opponent every day in a season comprising 25 such matches. After each season, depending upon performance, players may be promoted or relegated to higher or lower divisions, and at the highest rank, an overall league champion is crowned.

The unique element of LearnedLeague is that a match includes both offense and defense. The offense part is straightforward: you try to score points by answering the questions correctly.

The defense part is both elegant and strategic: you assign points to the questions for your opponent to earn (or preferably not earn). Each day you distribute a 3, 2, 2, 1, 1 and 0 based upon what you think your opponent will know. You'd give your opponent 0 on a gimme, and 3 where you're sure they won't know it.

It works like this:

Defense can and often does decide matches. It's routine to get the same number of answers correct but lose a match, or get one more correct and tie; also possible to get one more correct and lose; and even possible, although rare, to get two more answers correct and still lose due to catastrophically bad defense (known as "Bucknering" a match). On the offense side, answering all six questions correctly is known as "drinking the beer," i.e. scoring a six-pack.

My rookie season started several weeks ago and I've been having myself a time playing it, so I've decided to write about the daily ups and downs in this space for three reasons:

A, it's interesting, at least to me;

2, it gives me something to write about, which turns out to be a big thing for people who would attempt to write regularly. Hell, Hemingway moved to Europe, with its bullfights, moveable feasts and café expatriacy, so he'd have something more interesting to write about than Oak Park, Illinois, the hometown whose "broad lawns and narrow minds" he derided.

I tend to be one of those people who have a lot to say, and yet I wouldn't presume to blog most of it. There are a great many blogs on specific topics (sports, crossword puzzles, politics, border collies, public transportation, restaurants; insert your list here) and I have always felt a measure of envy toward those bloggers for whom the world supplies an unending supply of new fodder. Those of us in the unfashionable category of general interest blogs are left with our wits, thoughts and such parts of our lives as we wish to share (insert up to three jokes here) to fill the white space. Writing about a daily trivia league provides a small but fresh measure of new grist for the mill each day;

and C, as regular readers will have noticed, there has been a marked decline of late in the frequency with which I update this blog. After four years of dedicated banging away, I've been feeling increasingly burned out over the past few months, and my annual fall busy season at work has been more than reason enough to take a break. Now that things are quieting down and I've had a little time off, I'm ready to get back on the stick.

And so—with apologies to FOBB&B Eric Berlin, who has been blogging about the daily LearnedLeague experience for some time, and to any other LLer who has been doing likewise unbeknownst to me—I now undertake to do the same.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011