Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 14: Battle of the bloggers

Today I had to face my fellow LearnedLeague blogger, the noted puzzle writer Eric Berlin. You might know him from his popular Winston Breen puzzle novels for kids, or from the Sunday variety crosswords he creates for the New York Times. He’s gentle and lovable, not unlike a certain road manager of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem we both wrote about yesterday.

I like Eric and didn’t much feel like “strapping on the leather,” as the league commissioner likes to say, and getting my game face on today. (But maybe years of being the nicest guy around were just Eric's disarming strategy!) In any event, the questions were mostly within reach:

1. One of the best known classical composers who worked with the technique of composition known as fugue is what German, whose The Well-Tempered Clavier is a collection of preludes and fugues in all 24 keys, and whose The Art of Fugue was unfinished at his death in 1750?

Even before I took a music appreciation class in college, where we learned our share about J.S. Bach, there was a Well-Tempered Clavier CD floating around my house when I was in high school. Someone had given it to my dad in the early days of CDs. Still remember the maroon cover made of cardboard, not even a jewel case, with a portrait of old Johann. Still not sure what a clavier is, but I know his was well-tempered, so this one was a gimme for me.

I seem to remember from that college class that Bach was a Romantic as opposed to a classical composer, having mostly done his thing before the classical era — please feel free to correct me in the comments if I have this wrong — but he’s clearly more in the general realm of classical music than is, say, Sheena Easton. And I knew for a fact who composed The Well-Tempered Clavier, so I wasn’t going to not guess Bach over that minor objection.

By the way, speaking of (D) minor, even if you don’t think you know any Bach fugues, you do. This one, for example.

2. This work of art, once attributed to Praxiteles but now widely believed the work of Alexandros of Antioch, was discovered by a peasant on a small Greek isle in 1820, and now is on permanent display at the Louvre in Paris.

I haven’t been to the Louvre in 15 years, but I can readily tell you its two most famous works of art: the Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as it is known in France, and the Venus de Milo. I didn’t know anything about the V de M being discovered by a peasant, nor was I too excited about the apparently Greek provenance of a statue that is not known as the Aphrodite de Milo, but it didn't matter; I was guessing it anyway. Of the thousands of priceless art treasures in the Louvre, I can name only two of them, and the Mona Lisa was definitely painted by either Leonardo or one of the other turtles.

Another reason I liked this guess was that I didn't know who had carved the Venus de Milo, or the first thing about its backstory — all I could confidently say was that Will Rogers had once quipped that it depicted someone who couldn’t stop biting her fingernails — so all the given information in the question was plausible enough. Happily, Venus de Milo was correct.

3. One of the best remembered speeches in American history was an inaugural address — famous for its indirect reference to a particular phobia — which happens to be the last to have taken place on March 4 (due to the recent passage of the 20th Amendment). Which U.S. President gave this address?

Another question that pretty much gave away the answer. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” intoned the great Franklin D. Roosevelt, as I heard a thousand times in the closing seconds of Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality.” I was pretty sure it was from one of his inauguration speeches but wasn’t sure whether it was prewar or wartime. The 20th Amendment thing reassured me that FDR was a solid guess; I knew the Prohibition and Repeal Amendments were the 18th and 21st (easily remembered if you associate them with drinking ages) so a president first elected in 1932 felt about right for the 20th. Plus the guy presumably gave more inaugural addresses than anyone else. I felt confident that Eric would nail this question so I gave it the 0.

4. In December of 2010, an arrest warrant was issued against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to extradite him to what country, for questioning on charges related to alleged sex offenses?

This was a huge story that I read about in both the NYT and the New Yorker. Plus it was more or less contemporaneous with the other big juicy story out of Sweden from the past few years, namely the intrigue over whether it was the late Stieg Larsson or his longtime lady friend who actually wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. A gimme.

5. At a latitude of 6 degrees south, this city is the only Asian national capital below the equator.

This was my best play of the day in that I did the best I could to work it out but had no idea whether my guess was right when I turned it in. That is why my neighbors may have heard a handclap that sounded like a gunshot.

My reasoning was, what is the furthest south part of Asia? I would have guessed that a bunch of Asian capitals were south of the equator. But having been to Australia, I knew that Indonesia was immediately next to it, as I have alluded to on this blog before. I knew the Philippines weren’t too far away either, but up closer to Japan. Since any other country next to Australia had to be by definition not Australian, Indonesia felt like a good guess. I knew for sure that Jakarta was the capital.

There were two minor problems with guessing Jakarta: 1, I knew there were other island nations not too far away from Indonesia, any of which could have a more southerly capital; and 2, I remember from a few months ago that the island of Java (which includes Jakarta) is the most populous island in the world, and I didn’t think the league would ask another Java/Jakarta question so soon. Actually, I couldn’t remember whether the Java question was a LearnedLeague question or a Final Jeopardy question on TV, but just in case, I stopped to think about other possible answers before I went with Jakarta. I knew Korea was on a peninsula, felt pretty sure that it extended south, and South Korea had to be south of North Korea. But there were other national capitals in that vicinity and I couldn’t say with any confidence what was south of what. I felt like southeast Asia was more southerly than India, Pakistan, etc., but I was at a loss as to what was the southernmost part of mainland Asia.

Ultimately, I knew the major cities of southern Australia were well south of the equator, and that even tropical North Queensland was safely in the Southern Hemisphere. Therefore, assuming all the nearby island nations were Asian (and how could they not be?), and since only one of their capitals was south of the equator, the answer had to be either Jakarta or some capital not too far away. Lacking a better guess, I went with Jakarta. To my mild surprise and great satisfaction, it was correct.

I figured this one might be as hard for Eric as it was for me — his stats are not unlike mine, plus he just remarked on his blog that geography and world history are his least confident topics, echoing something I have said here repeatedly about myself — so I gave this one the 3. This marks the first time I have used someone else's blog to scout them, as opposed to my usual shrewd approach of using this blog to tip my hand to my opponents.

6. Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo... Thus begins what semi-autobiographical novel?

If I may allude to the title of a beloved podcast: WTF? A moocow coming down along the road? Who wrote this novel, Timmy from preschool? Between the “nicens little boy,” the moocow, the baby tuckoo and the precious writing style, I couldn’t get past the idea that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote this. However, no matter how nutty his life was hanging out with C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, I couldn’t very well consider The Hobbit even semi-autobiographical.

I had nothing on this one. Speaking of Australia, the tuckoo felt Australian, but I was at a loss to say what novelist that would point to. The most Australian book I could think of, Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country, wasn’t even a novel. I ended up guessing a semi-autobiographical novel I’d read in college that came to mind due to its colloquial, downhome style, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Unfortunately, the correct answer was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a title that did have a certain autobiographical slant to it even for philistines such as myself who’ve never read Joyce. (By the way, capitalize your name, baby tuckoo. You’re not e.e. cummings.)

Eric's probably typing about this one even as I am, taking our usual navel-gazing to a weirdly mutual new level. As I write this I don't know how the match came out, but once again it's been fun playing against someone I know; last season that barely happened, but I know a bunch of people in my current division. See you in the crosswords, Eric.


Martin said...

I did pretty well on this day. 5 out of 6, and the one I missed I wasn't gonna get anyway.

1. Klavier is the German word for piano, so the word "Clavier" must be some variation of the piano. Fugue, well-tempered clavier, and the date conspired to indicate Bach to me.

2. My only hesitation here was wondering whether Venus de Milo was actually a Renaissance work, like Michelangelo's David.... I decided the missing arms screamed "ancient ruins" as well as anything else could, so I guessed Venus de Milo.

3. Because we nearly entered a second Great Depression recently, I feel like I've heard a lot about this particular phase of history lately. I happened to know the thing about March 4, and ... it had to be FDR. I gave this one the 0 too.

4. Assange, Sweden.... I remember that.

5. I restricted myself to the Asian landmass, so I guessed New Delhi. I wasn't ever going to get Jakarta, so no harm done.

6. "moocow" jumped out at me as a particularly Joycean word, so I just had to remember what book. I know the first lines of Ulysses, and I'd recognize the first lines of Finnegans Wake if I saw them; then I realized that the question was signaling Bildungsroman, and went with Portrait.

My 7(5) edged out my opponent's 4(4) for the nice win.

D. G. Malizola said...

On the first question: "classical music" is an umbrella term describing lots of genres of music over the last few hundred years. It's maybe best characterized as *completely notated* music-- music where every note is written out (although there are plenty of counter-examples to this characterization).

The principle generes, in chronological order, are Baroque (totally dominated by Bach), Classical (e.g. Mozart and Beethoven, concerned with balance and structure), Romantic (e.g. Chopin, more heart-on-sleeve) and Modern (beginning w/ the 20th century: anything goes).

Note the two uses of "classical", one capitalized and one not. It's a fine term for the Beethoven-dominated genre, but it's a terribly stagnant and non-relevantizing term for the music as a whole. As the great Alex Ross says, "I hate 'classical music': not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past... The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity."

Martin said...

That was an awesome note, D.G., thanks. My mother was a lifelong fanatic of Mozart, Schubert, Handel, Haydn, and most operas you'd be likely to name, but I didn't really know any of that.

Is it fair to say that if the term "classical music," strictly speaking, denotes music that covers, roughly, the late 18th century, that we need a term for "music that is played by large or small orchestras in concert halls and chamber music settings"? We all know what is intended by "classical music" -- we mean music that begins with Bach and his forerunners (maybe a century or two of them) that stretches up to about Richard Strauss and not many people after him. Music that uses terms like symphonies, concertos, and so on. Surely there must be some term that would accurately describe that group? "Orchestral music"? I'm not sure playing with capital letters will get us very far here, especially in spoken discourse.

D. G. Malizola said...

Hey Martin--

The term "classical music" is perfectly accurate for describing the music you mean-- starting with Bach and his forerunners, as you say, up to the present. (There are lot of people after Strauss, though. :) Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, Ligeti and Messiaen, to name a few. Though the fact that I can't name many *living* classical composers (even though there are, in fact, a lot of them) is a symptom of a real problem.)

It's true that there is also "the Classical era", meaning the music from roughly 1770-1820. So the term is being used in two ways, but that doesn't make its lowercase usage less accurate. Anyway, the ambiguity rarely winds up being confusing, for some reason. You can make statements like "My favorite genre of classical music is Classical", or "I think I like most Classical composers more than Chopin", and it actually sounds fine to my ears.

I do think there's a problem with the general term "classical music", but it's not its accuracy: what I hate is that this term makes this glorious music, which is still being written with sweat and tears every day, seem like a thing only of the past. I welcome suggestions for an alternative. "Notated Music" is the most accurate description, but it's not a nice phrase. Your suggestion "Orchestral music" isn't general enough, because the music encompasses solo piano, string quartets, choirs, and many other forms. Alex Ross suggests simply "the Music". Possibly pretentious and certainly not descriptive, but I do like it.

(p.s. embarrassed of course to misspell "principal" on my previous comment, especially here in this court of language Kings.)

Joshua said...

The question about the Asian capital is flawed. The capital of East Timor (which I admit I had to look up) is also south of the equator, and East Timor is also in Asia, albeit further south than 6 degrees south.

Ben said...

This question was modified on the league website later in the day to include East Timor, but I posted it on the blog in its original form to reflect the question that I played.