Thursday, August 30, 2012

Day 8: Fail Whale


Today I discovered a new and exciting, that is to say an old and tiresome, way to lose: inferior defense.

My opponent was Amy Reynaldo, a fellow Chicagoan, noted crossword blogger and author of How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. She also authored a narrow victory over me that went like this:

1. Provide the two words that fill in the blank in the following full title of a novel as it was published in the United States on November 14, 1851: Moby-Dick; or, ___________

The answer was The Whale, which I know from reading this book during my junior year of high school in Mrs. Huggins’ class. (I also knew there was a hyphen after Moby, which you often (don’t) see omitted.) Probably my favorite chapter, for the wrong reasons, is the one where Melville spends about 10 pages rattling off the provisions and supplies aboard the Pequod.

2. Saint Eustachius and Saint Hubertus, the patron saints of hunters, are referenced in what liqueur brand's logo, which consists of a glowing Christian cross between the antlers of a caribou?

I had never heard of Sts. Eustachius or Hubertus, never having paid attention in church because I grew up Jewish, nor did I know about the glowing cross or the hunters, but it didn’t matter. As with my man Yuri Gagarin the other day (“Russian … cosmonaut ... whom?”), this question boiled down to “blah blah liqueur logo antlers caribou?”

I don’t even drink, but I have a black Soul Asylum t-shirt (still!) from college for which the Jagermeister logo is the artistic inspiration. Rather than "Jagermeister," "Soul Asylum" is spelled in forbidding Germanic calligraphy under the minorly famous caribou antlers. Underneath the band name are the words GUITAAR – LIQUEUR. It's a pretty sweet t-shirt, dudes, but so menacing that I was afraid to wear it for several years after I bought it. Frankly, I also knew that I was not yet cool enough. But I eventually wore it and was immediately hired as a Motörhead roadie, plus it helped me nail this question. 

3. In 1978, who won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress -- Miniseries or a Movie for her work in the miniseries Holocaust, which would be the first of a vast multitude of nominations and awards this actress would receive in her career?

Another giveaway from the details. “blah blah Emmy Award … Lead Actress … vast multitude of nominations and awards…” Who could it possibly be but Meryl Streep? It wasn’t Susan Lucci. I didn’t know the first thing about the Holocaust miniseries and it didn’t matter. I also knew Kramer vs. Kramer was 1979 and Manhattan was no earlier than 1978, so neither of these would necessarily have preceded the TV miniseries even if she’d earned nominations for them.

78% of players knew or correctly guessed this gimme. Incidentally, “in miseries” is an apt anagram/container for many miniseries.

4. According to their official wedding registry of April, 2011 (and per the surnames of the bridegroom's parents), what is the surname of William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge?

This question was a problem area. I thought the answer was Windsor and so obviously so that I gave this one the 0. The answer was in fact Mountbatten-Windsor, and my answer was properly deemed incorrect. When I saw the correct answer, I did recall hearing something about a hyphenated name during the royal wedding, by which I mean the marriage of Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

"This is the most stirring display of gallantry and sportsmanship since Mountbatten gave India back to the Punjabs."
British-accented commentator at a miniature golf tournament championship match between Bart Simpson and Todd Flanders

Amy and I got the same four questions correct today, but she gave this one a 1 while I gifted her a 0 on this Gordian knot. A mere 7% of players in the entire league got this one.

5. As defined in classical mechanics, speed is a scalar quantity defining how fast an object is moving, while velocity is a vector describing the object's speed and direction. Likewise, as distance is a scalar quantity of length, what is the term for the vector describing distance and direction?

OK, I’m going to embarrass myself here in front of all the science nerds, experts, PhDs, Nobel Prize winners (I assume), etc. who play in our league.

First of all, as I quickly scanned the question, I felt confident that the correct answer was Vector. When I saw that word twice in the question, I had a sinking feeling, a downward vector if you will. Reading the question more carefully, I also learned to my surprise that speed and velocity are not the same thing. Velocity is directional?!  (I did take physics as a junior in high school but apparently I was reading Moby-Dick that day.)

My hope of salvaging a correct answer started out dim, then faded further the more I thought about this. I briefly considered guessing Thrust, but that felt like power and acceleration, not merely distance and direction. I also thought about Force, but I recalled that was Mass x Acceleration, so it too involved derivatives and integration and stuff, and was more than a mere directional (tips cap). But I still didn’t have a good play until I came up with what felt like a decent guess: Momentum. It was pure bullshit, but maybe if the Commissioner was drunk when he graded my paper, I could get away with it.

The correct answer, however, was Displacement/Position. I take strong exception to the term Position as a correct answer, as that connotes to me a zero-dimensional location, not a relative measure as Displacement seems to be; Position only seems directional and distanced relative to an origin. Richard Feynman would surely agree with me, except for the part about me being completely wrong and clueless on this whole subject.

The only good thing that happened here was that Amy missed it too, so I didn’t take a huge bruise by giving this the 3.

6. The White Sea, off the northwest coast of Russia, is the fourth-largest sea in the world (in area) whose name in English is a color. What are the three largest that fit this description?

Black Sea is an XTC album. Wait, what?

God, do I suck at geography. In this case, I thought the Red Sea was too small because I constantly confuse it with the super-salty (so people easily float) Dead Sea in Israel, as opposed to what it actually is, a big sea between Africa and the Middle East. Black Sea sounded good, and I was pretty sure there was a Yellow Sea to go along with the Yellow River. I (w)racked my brain to think of other colorful seas but came up with nothing, so I went with Red after all, along with Yellow and Black, and it was correct. Coral would also have been accepted and I don’t even know why.

Not knowing I can’t find Yemen on a map, Amy gave me the 0 for it. Thanks, but I actually got this one. A whopping 86% of players got this one and few of them were as worried about it as I was.

Although we both had four correct answers, Amy allowed one point above the minimum to my two and handed me a 6(4)-5(4) defeat. ETTU, Amy?

Exigencies and eventualities


Will have Day 8 match report posted by the end of the day.

Until then, with apologies to Paul Baldwin, talk amongst yourselves.  Here is a suggested topic:  The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. Discuss.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Day 7: Christmas morning

...not because anyone gifted the match, but because I received an unwanted tie.

As an initially nervous but increasingly confident young rookie, then a brash sophomore, then a self-assured veteran, I used to win matches or salvage ties with defense. The opposite is the case lately, as I turn wins into ties and ties into losses (note foreshadowing for the Tuesday match, as I write up the Monday match on Wednesday morning). I am also finding ways to make Ws evaporate with spectacularly bad decisions on questions where I have to guess, as I did today for the second time in seven matches.

Around 100 people stopped by here yesterday looking for a writeup; apologies to my loyal readers for the delay. I spent Tuesday playing tennis — an 8-6 victory that, including a few chitchat breaks during changeovers, took 2 ½ hours — and, for the first time in six months, poker, in a lengthy session that I should have ended earlier for reasons both temporal and financial. Tennis and poker are my personal biathlon, but during outdoor tennis season I rarely play cards.

OK, you didn’t come here to hear my life story, so let’s get this painful match summary over with:

1. In the field of geography, the term cordillera (e.g. American Cordillera, Arctic Cordillera, Cordillera Central) refers specifically to a connected chain of what?

If there is one thing about the gameplay in this league that makes me want to throw up, it's when I'm pretty sure I have a good guess, then convince myself not to follow my instincts and go with a lesser guess, only to find I was right in the first place, and it costs me a win or a tie.

That was the case here. It felt like mountains were the right answer. That made complete sense and was the only thing I thought of at first. But then, in a fit of unjustified arrogance, I decided that if a connected mountain chain were called a cordillera, I would have heard the word before. Never mind that whatever the answer was, I had still never heard the word. Never mind that it was screamingly obvious that connected chains of islands, which I went with, would be far too small to justify names like American Cordillera and Cordillera Central.

The two points I gave away on this one would have given me a win rather than the tie I ended up with.

2. The actor James Dean is credited with appearing in exactly three feature films, all in leading roles. Of the three, which was the only one widely released during his lifetime?

This one I played just right with a combination of knowledge and analysis. I knew for a fact that Giant was released after he died. So it was a coin flip between Rebel Without A Cause and East of Eden. I went with the latter for two reasons: (a) I felt like it was less likely that he’d get such a huge, iconic lead role in his first movie, and (2) East of Eden is somewhat more obscure and thus a more likely LearnedLeague answer. I didn’t see the league rewarding players who could name only the most famous of James Dean’s movies when a more interesting curveball was available. Sure enough, only 23% of players got this one.

3. A series of oil paintings by American artist C. M. Coolidge, which was commissioned in 1903 by the publishing company Brown & Bigelow to promote cigars, is best known today for featuring what?

The only decent guess I could come up with for a famous oil painting from a century ago was Uncle Sam. There were problems with this guess — it seemed likely either to go back further, like to the Civil War, or not that far, like to WWI or WWII, as the country probably didn’t need an oil painting to recruit soldiers for the Mexican War; and why would Uncle Sam “NEED YOU” to smoke cigars? — but I couldn’t come up with a better guess.

The only other thing I thought of was “Pittsburg” baseball star Honus Wagner’s insistence that his likeness be removed from tobacco-sponsored trading cards, creating a rarity that helps explain why they now sell for over a million dollars; but that involved a photo, not an oil painting, and it was later than 1903.

So I went with Uncle Sam, and the answer was dogs playing poker. Compounding the problem was that I gave this one the 3 and to his credit my opponent nailed it. Like me a lot of people thought their opponents would miss it (average defense 2.0, highest of the day) but 46% of players managed to get it. Just not my week for anything involving poker.

4. What is the name of this athlete? 

McKayla Maroney (aka "that cute one"), which I not only knew but could spell, having taken note of her parents’ non-use of the more common Michaela. As the world saw during the recent Summer Games, her vault skills are both amazing and clutch, which I can say with the expertise of someone who spends about six minutes every four years thinking about the vault.

My opponent and I each gave this one the 0 and knew it, and leaguewide it was defensed the easiest at 0.9, yet only 52% of players got it right.

5. Most commonly, the chemical hydrolyzation process called saponification is used in the production of what?

I pulled this one out of thin air. Once again my AP Chem failed me, as I don’t know what hydrolyzation is, or whether it is the same thing as hydrolysis, or for that matter what hydrolysis is (and I am only fairly certain it exists). All I knew on this one was that savon is the French word for soap. Since I figured there was some chemical process involved in making soap, and because I had no other guess, I went with soap and was shocked that it was correct. But I defensed it wrong, giving it a 1 because my opponent was good in science, only to have him miss it.

6. On December 8, 2004, during a performance by the heavy metal band Damageplan in Columbus, Ohio, guitarist Dimebag Darrell was shot and killed by an audience member while on stage. Darrell was a founding member of what other band, with whom he first achieved fame?

Much like during a previous season, when I was able to identify both the Michael Jackson song Scream from an audio clip, and the preposterously named album on which it appeared, I was more embarrassed than proud to get this one. Dimebag Darrell played in Pantera, which I learned from the coverage of his hedonistic life and unfortunate death on the Howard Stern show. I’m not too proud of the time I spend on that either but its redeeming facets justify the more base segments, which I don’t even listen to.

I got 4 questions correct to my opponent’s 3, but as I have already boasted, my inferior defense let him catch up and earn a tie.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

BWA ha ha

A subtly entertaining facet of the LearnedLeague trivia contest is that the best wrong answers are honored as, well, Best Wrong Answers. These tend to be funny and intentionally so; in fact, players often shoot for this coveted honor when they can’t — or even if they can? — come up with the correct answer.

Since we’re in a break right now from live action, here are the Best Wrong Answers from the first six days of match play:

What was the name of the middle and long distance runner, one of the most famous individuals in the history of sport in Finland, who won nine Olympic gold medals during the 1920s, and was known during his time with countrymen Hannes Kolehmainen and Ville Ritola as the 'Flying Finns'?

Elvira, Bobby Sue, and (I'm Settin') Fancy Free are among the hits from what country music vocal group?

Of the 13 feature films released by Pixar Animation Studios since 1995, which is the only one -- not including 2012's Brave -- to receive no Academy Award nominations (befitting its critical reputation as the studio's worst release)?

Heartless by Dia Frampton, Fix You by Javier Colon, Roxanne by Juliet Simms, and I Believe I Can Fly by Jermaine Paul, all singles that reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart, were studio versions of performances that first appeared on what television program?
  • STAR WARS CHRISTMAS SHOW (I find this particularly hilarious because it's so random)

What is the most common informal name for the skyscraper at the center of this photograph?

Though his hometown was Rutherford, New Jersey, the epic Paterson was the crowning achievement of what American poet and physician?

Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, Craven Cottage, Anfield, and, formerly, Highbury, are all names of what?

We resume play tomorrow. Whoever's playing me, try to be funny!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Day 6: Correctapalooza

Today’s questions were easy. Too easy. So easy, in fact, that they compressed the field, resulting in a slew of high scores, ties, and wasted strong performances. Even the harder questions had few possible wrong answers, so players like me could score points even where we weren’t entirely sure.

Of the 26 players in my division,
  • 9 of us got all six questions correct 
  • 13 got five correct 
  • 3 got four correct 
  • 1 got three correct 
That is kind of ridiculous. We are a B division, not the elite championship tier.

Judge for yourself:

1. Aldo, Avia, Naot, and Sebago are all companies best known for the manufacturing and selling of what? 

Shoes (official answer: footwear). I’ve been in Aldo stores in Chicago and New York, I’ve known forever that Avia makes running shoes, and my mom had Sebago(e)s when I was a kid. Naot was the only brand I had naot heard of. On a day when almost every question could have merited the 0, I gave this one the 0.

2. The protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which establishes a structure of rolling commitments of greenhouse gas emissions reductions for its ratifying nations, is commonly named after what city, where it was adopted initially in December, 1997? 

The Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto. Gave this a 1, would have liked to give it the 0.

3. In geometry, a tetrahedron is a regular polyhedron with four faces (a.k.a. triangular pyramid), and a cube is one with six faces. How many faces does a regular dodecahedron have?

This one, admittedly, was not a gimme. If you didn’t know a dodecahedron was a 12-sided figure, as childhood D&D nerds like me did, then you might have guessed either 12 or 20 based on the word itself.

4. What is the name of the imperial dynasty that ruled China at the start of the first millennium (roughly from 200 BC to 200 AD), and gave its name to what today is China's majority ethnic group? 

Neither was this a gimme. Everyone knows the Ming dynasty from its vases, but I felt somewhat sure that the Han dynasty was a bigger deal, dynasty-wise. It felt more central to Chinese culture, not that I know much about it. Although I wasn't positive, it felt like Han was a stronger guess, even though Han shot first.

Sure enough, Han was the correct answer. I gave this question the 3, as did a lot of other people; its average defense of 2.1 was the highest of the day.

5. St. Moritz, Gstaad, and Verbier are major ski resorts in what country? 

Switzerland. Gstaad, you may recall, is one of the cities whose current times are simultaneously shown by the wristwatch of Louis Winthorpe III.

I gave this question a 2 only because I could only give so many 0s and 1s.

6. Of the 40+ animated television series that have aired on the Nickelodeon channel and produced by the network, which one has been, by far, the longest-running? Over 330 original episodes have aired since the May 1999 premiere, where the title character first landed a job at the fast food restaurant central to much of the series. 

I don’t have kids but I knew that SpongeBob SquarePants is the longtime signature character of the Nickelodeon network. I only hesitated at the fact that he was a fast food restaurant employee, which I didn’t know. Then again, I don’t really know anything about the guy other than the shape of his pants.

My division’s performance on today’s questions pretty much tells the story, but it was more of the same all around the league. The “hardest” question of the day was the Han dynasty at 61% correct. Going up from there, it was Aldo etc. (70%), Dodecahedron (75%), Kyoto (80%), SpongeBob (82%), and Switzerland at a whopping 86%.

The Commissioner is entitled to ask whatever questions he wants, whenever he wants. I guess the reason I’m complaining about having so many easy questions on the same day is that usually I’m spoiled. Although I’m nothing compared to the true rock stars in this league, I’m generally competitive because I tend to know an answer here or there that my opposition doesn’t. While the converse is also true at times, I benefit from the random differences more often than not, plus I usually play pretty good defense.

So on a day like this, when I run the table and so does my opponent, we each get a tie and are effectively penalized for being unlucky enough to play each other. Our good performances cancel each other out and go to waste, and the whole exercise turns into a crapshoot based on who’s playing whom (and, less objectionably, which players among the many who answered five correctly were lucky enough to have their opponents assign a 0 to the one question they missed).

It’s not the end of the world, but it does feel like a waste of a day.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Even as our league's Commissioner is taking a few days off, so too must I pause in my intrepid efforts to document the various and sundry ways I screw up this LearnedLeague season.

I will be spending the day driving around Lake County, Illinois looking at real estate, then attending a fundraiser for a local elected official, so I will not post my writeup of yesterday's leaguewide cakewalk until probably some time tomorrow.

If I can't handle a two-day LL week, God help me when we hit the 14 straight weekdays in September, but I'll deal with that when we get there.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Day 5: Running the table

The pendulum continues to swing from “no chance” to “no problem.”

1. With her husband Pierre, Marie Sklodowska-Curie is generally credited with discovering two elements of the periodic table, one named after her homeland, and the other named after its notable scientific attribute. Identify them both.

The element most closely associated with the Curies is radium, which I assume is named for its radioactivity. I vaguely remembered the other was polonium, and the telltale inclusion of Mrs. Curie’s maiden name left no doubt.

2. A New York socialite, daughter of a Titanic victim and niece of a famous museum founder, is herself best-known today as a preeminent collector of art (and perhaps also, of men). What is her full name (first and last)?

I’ve visited Peggy Guggenheim’s enormous house on the Grand Canal in Venice, which is now a well-known museum that houses her personal art collection. The American heiress was renowned for the many relationships she cultivated with leading artists of her day, whether as art patron, paramour or spouse (she married Max Ernst).

3. Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, Craven Cottage, Anfield, and, formerly, Highbury, are all names of what?

Wasn’t too familiar with the middle part of the list, though Anfield faintly rang a bell. But I knew that Old Trafford is the home of the world’s most famous soccer team, Manchester United. Highbury Stadium used to be the home of Arsenal, which I know from personal experience after catching a Champions League game there in 2003 against Dynamo Kiev.

The stadium was built right into a city block, so we entered by walking between rowhouses to the source of the lights behind them. Although Arsenal’s detractors  derided Highbury as “Library” for not being raucous enough, it was sold out and pretty lively the night we were there, particularly when the Gunners broke a scoreless tie in the final minute or so by scoring the game’s only goal right in front of us.

The official answer was “(English soccer) stadiums” and I got credit for “Soccer (football) stadiums.” Gave this question the 3.

4. What country was formally recognized by the United States government on November 13, 1903 (although not by the government of Colombia until 1921)?

Or put another way, “which country probably located near Colombia made major news in the first few years of the 20th Century?” It had to be Panama and its eponymous Canal. I wasn’t entirely sure it was adjacent to Colombia, but I felt fairly confident this was correct and in any case didn’t have another guess. (Republic of) Panama was indeed correct.

5. Hitsville U.S.A. was a nickname given to the first headquarters of what American company?

Knew this one cold: Motown Records (the official answer was Motown Record Corporation). I’ve read Berry Gordy Jr.’s autobiography, To Be Loved, plus my buddy Bill Wyman (not that Bill Wyman (click that link; it's a must-read)) wrote a music column called Hitsville for the Chicago Reader. The Hitsville house is now a museum in Detroit.

Mr. Gordy’s book explained how a then-unknown Motown artist named Rockwell scored a major hit with “Somebody’s Watching Me” thanks to its background vocals by Michael Jackson, then the world’s leading pop star. Rockwell was in fact the label founder’s son, Kennedy Gordy, and a childhood friend of M.J.

Memo to the Commish: write a question at some point about the Hitsville house songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Everyone knows their songs but many people don’t know their names.

6. This American would probably prefer to be remembered for her time as one-half of a Grammy-winning comedy duo of the 1950s and 60s, and not as the writer and director of the colossal cinematic flops Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar.

Pretty easy if you're a comedy nerd who grew up in Chicago and spent a lot of time at Second City. Mike Nichols and Elaine May got their start in the Compass Players at the University of Chicago. I also knew that Ishtar was her (stillborn) baby. Gave this one the 0 because my opponent was strong in film.

Unfortunately, despite a lifetime correct answer percentage of over 60%, today's opponent has answered only two questions correctly in five days this season, with one forfeit. She got blanked on today’s questions so I walked off the field with a disappointingly easy win.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Day 4: Batting practice

Having pounded everyone into submission yesterday, the Commissioner threw us some softballs today.

1. Name the university, founded in 1693, which is the oldest institution of higher education in the state of Virginia, and second-oldest in the United States after Harvard University.

Knew this cold. I have a number of friends who went to the College of William and Mary. Although I couldn’t have told you the year of its founding as I could have with Harvard (1636), nor mention a past president or two (Derek Bok, Neil Rudenstine), I would have known it was America’s second-oldest college even if I hadn’t been given the state of Virginia.

2. The installments from this series of action films were the #6 top grossing film of 1987, #6 of 1989, #5 of 1992, and #10 of 1998.

It might have been Die Hard, but the fourth Die Hard movie took way longer than 11 years to see the light of day. It might have been Terminator, but the first one was in 1984 and the sequel took a lot longer than two years to come out. It might have been The Princess Diaries had Anne Hathaway not held out for more money after the second one. That left the Lethal Weapon series. I gave this one the 0.

3. In what European city is this room located? 

Went there when I was 16. It’s the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, known in France as the Galerie des Glaces. Quoi d’autre voulez-vous savoir?

4. Brassie, Spoon, Jigger, Mashie Niblick, and Cleek are all obsolete items formerly used in what sport?

You either knew these or you didn’t, and I did. Sometimes you see a mashie or a niblick referred to as such, other times you see the term in the question. There is a golf course development not far from my office where the street names include these beautifully evocative terms (Mashie Ct., etc.). My opponent gave me 3 points for this one, which I happily took.

5. Though his hometown was Rutherford, New Jersey, the epic Paterson was the crowning achievement of what American poet and physician?

I would have drunk the beer today, but this one wasn’t a twist-off and I didn’t have a bottle opener. I’d heard of Paterson, just couldn’t remember who wrote it. As an English lit major, I probably should have known which major American poet was a medical doctor, but I didn’t (I believe Dr. Seuss was merely a PhD).

I guessed Robert Frost knowing it couldn’t be right. The answer was William Carlos Williams, or as they say in Spain, Guillermo Charles Guillermos.

6. What was the stage name of the DJ of the hip hop group Run-D.M.C. (and the only non-eponymous member), who was murdered in a Queens, New York recording studio in October of 2002?

Maybe if I had spent more time in college reading books in the library and less time playing Nintendo Tecmo Bowl football and listening to rap music, I would have gotten question 5 instead of question 6. But these are the choices we make in life. 

The correct answer, as I well knew, was Jam Master Jay, not to be confused with Beastie Boys supporting player Mix Master Mike. I didn't even have to go to the well, i.e. my fading memory of the short conversation I once enjoyed with Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels.

To his credit, my opponent nailed the hardest question of the day, Wm. Carlos Wms., which only 26% of players knew and which the league defensed at an average 2.3. Jam Master Jay was the second-hardest question at 36% correct. At least 49% of players knew each of the other four Qs, with William and Mary the gimme of the day at 78%.

My opponent played better defense, giving up 1 point above the minimum to my 2, but by getting one more correct answer I squeaked out a 7(5)-6(4) win.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Day 3: A brutal slog

How you do on any given day of LearnedLeague — and by extension, how you feel about the game and yourself — is all up to the Commissioner, a shadowy figure at the helm of the whole enterprise. Although we know that the questions are written by an intelligent polymath in Seattle, it feels like they’re handed down to us mortals by a mercurial supreme being.

Today was one of those cruel Old Testament God days:

1. The words pizda, yebat', khuy, and suka are profane words, or mat, in what language?

The problem here was that I couldn’t find a consistent trend. Two words ending in -at (one with an apostrophe, admittedly) said Tagalog. The z in pizda felt Russian. The word khuy felt southeast Asian to me, to the point where I wanted to guess Vietnamese. This despite the embarrassing fact that I was not entirely sure that Vietnamese was a language. But then, the kh- also had a central Asian feel to it, like the Kazakh roots of the most fully realized comedic film character of the past ten years.

I waffled among Russian, Tagalog and Vietnamese for a while, trying to ignore the sinking feeling and mild dread that whichever one I picked was going to be wrong. Sure enough, I went with Tagalog (in hindsight, the worst guess among the three) and the correct answer was Russian.

2. What is the most common informal name for the skyscraper at the center of this photograph?

Not only did I not know the nickname, I wasn’t even sure I’d ever seen the building. I didn’t think I could take a wild guess that had any shot at being correct, so I went with “Some Guess I Will Not Be Embarrassed About When I Blog About It Tomorrow.” Given that the question was asked on Thursday and I am writing this on Saturday morning, I was even wrong about my own prediction. That is how hard the questions were today.

The correct answer was the Gherkin, a London financial district office building that opened in 2004. I have actually been to London since then, but since those cheerleaders and I stayed in Mayfair across from Hyde Park during my trip to Wimbledon 2009, I didn’t take note of the additions to the skyline since my previous visits.

3. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, enacted by the U.S. Congress primarily to reduce the cost of voting by incorporating voter registration into other citizen/governmental agency transactions, is best known by what rhyming name?

Thanks to this gimme, I was spared my first-ever goose egg in 3+ seasons of LL competition. Once or twice before I have flirted with the dreaded 0 but managed to get a single correct answer. It is humbling that there are plenty of smart people in this league who fight that battle a lot more often than I do.

The answer was the Moter Voter Law (my terminology, Motor Voter Act, was forgiven). As I recall, this was the primary legislative means by which I, along with other members of my generation, Rocked the Vote.

4. The traditional five-kingdom hierarchy of biological classification, first proposed by ecologist Robert Whittaker in the 1960s, includes Monera, Fungi, Plantae, Animalia, and what else?

Let’s see… there’s Qarth, King’s Landing, Winterfell… oh, wait, this question dealt with kingdoms I don’t take particular pleasure in thinking about.

This was deeply frustrating. For starters, I’m nearly useless in biology (future opponents take note). When I think about biological categories, I think “living things.” The categories Plantae and Animalia seemed to pretty much cover it. Even if one of those was going to be my guess, I probably wouldn’t have come up with the word “Animalia” for animals, and no chance I would have picked “Plantae” out of thin air.

The only other living things that felt like neither plant nor animal were some kind of paramecium or other microscopic creature, yet those still felt sort of like animals, or the slimy lichenish plant-animal hybrid that we were asked about a season or two ago. Yet Fungi seemed to cover all that creepy stuff that quietly oozes in the forest. And Monera? No clue what that was. As far as I was concerned it was the next town over from Pavarotti’s hometown of Modena, or maybe a Billy Idol song.

Like a high school student who played Xbox and smoked weed in his garage rather than study for his biology test, I tried to come up with a respectable-sounding guess that might fool the teacher. On the very questionable theory that trees might somehow be categorized separately from other plants, I went with “Arborea.”

The correct answer was Protista, and if my guess is right that this refers to some kind of protozoa, then at least I was on the right track with our tiny microscopic friends. I’m not going to compromise the purity of my abject ignorance by looking this up now, but even if I was on the right track, it didn’t matter; there was no way I was going to come up with Protista. Don’t know much biology, and doth protist too little.

5. This term, derived from the Greek for a reciter of epic poetry, is used to describe a free-flowing, irregular, and often improvisatory musical composition, characterized typically by emotion and spontaneity.

This was like the recent question about a school of British poets whose name meant something like breezy and nonchalant. I couldn’t come up with it and knew I would feel foolish when I saw the answer, which indeed I did: the Cavaliers.

In this case, the word “reciter” put me on “orator,” so I went with “Oratorio” even though I had no reason to think an oratorio was in any way spontaneous; if anything, I would think it was the opposite. But I didn’t have a better guess or a willingness to spend the time thinking of one. The correct answer was Rhapsody. Much like the Cavaliers, it looked both correct and, with the benefit of hindsight, guessable.

I gave this one the 0 because I figured that my classy opponent would nail it, marking the second time in three days that I gave the 0 to a question I missed.

6. Identify the French artist and chess journalist who worked on the piece of art pictured here from 1915 to 1923.

I didn’t recognize the painting, nor did it remind me of any other work, so to me this question was “which French artist and chess journalist (!) was active in the early 20th Century?” For reasons both temporal and artistic, it clearly wasn’t Chagall or Matisse. I went with Georges Pompidou, eponym of the French national modern art museum in Paris.

The correct answer was Marcel Duchamp, in a departure from his more urinal-based oeuvre. And Marcel, nice painting and all, but this took you eight years?

My opponent was the author and New York Times editor Daniel Okrent. He is a solid LearnedLeague player but that didn’t mean much today; the whole league struggled on these questions. At 55% correct, hardly a high number, Moter Voter was the “easy” one of the day, and every other question punished the field in the 18 to 28% correct range.

Mr. Okrent also managed only a single correct answer, the same one I got. Yet he gave me a 0 for Motor Voter while I gave him a 1, figuring he’d get Rhapsody for sure, so I got outpointed and lost due to inferior defense.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Day 2: Escaping with a W

Sometimes LearnedLeague players get out the gift wrap and hand each other victories. Day 1 was my opponent’s personal Christmas; Day 2 was mine.

1. The primary facility in Russia dedicated to the preparation and training of cosmonauts, located in the community of Star City (Zvyozdny gorodok), is named after whom?

No clue. All I had was what anyone with a passing interest in trivia would have when faced with “Russia … cosmonauts … whom?” That, of course, was Yuri Gagarin. The word gorodok hardly looked to me to mean “Gagarinesque.” It is only now, upon more careful reading, that I realize gorodok probably means star, or else city; surely if I’ve got that wrong, someone will correct me in the comment section.

Not wanting to be the Jeopardy! player who was dinged for saying “Art Buckminster Fuller,” I omitted the Yuri from my answer lest for some crazy reason it was not the correct first name; the way I gagged on the Paris question yesterday, anything was now possible. But it was indeed Comrade Gagarin, and he was indeed Yuri.

2. Of the 13 feature films released by Pixar Animation Studios since 1995, which is the only one -- not including 2012's Brave -- to receive no Academy Award nominations (befitting its critical reputation as the studio's worst release)?

This was pretty easy, to me at least. Cars 2 represented a low point for the venerable Pixar. Critics saw it as a subpar, cynical, merch-driven money grab; I remember the NYT review for one said so. It was hard to imagine that any of their more modest hits (A Bug’s Life, say) fared worse than that. Sure enough, it was Cars 2.

3. Name the Polish dish (and centerpiece of an annual Krakow summer festival) which is roughly the equivalent of the Japanese gyoza, Tibetan momo, Turkish manti, and Korean mandu.

I live in Chicago, home to the world’s largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. I was fortunate to grow up nearby in a household with a string of live-in Polish housekeepers, many of whom cooked. Every time Letterman or Conan brings his show to Chicago, there are obligatory jokes about this foodstuff. It is the only Polish food I can name. Need I even say the word pierogi?

I gave this one the 0, and indeed at 69% correct a lot of people knew it, yet by a narrow margin, Gagarin was the gimme of the day at 71% correct. Interestingly, players felt that questions 2 and 6 were the easiest questions of the day (at least for their individual opponents), assigning them 1.1 and 1.2 average defense, respectively.

4. The badge pictured here was used for a time in the 1960s and 70s on automobiles manufactured by what maker?

WTF? Was this spelling Sino? Sina? Dina? Maybe it was Dino, after the car that Fred Flintstone powered with his feet?

I took a stab with Audi, hoping that maybe it was a rare model anagrammed to Diua. The correct answer, however, was “Ferrari/Fiat.” Of course! Although to me those aren’t even the same thing!

I gave this one the 3, and indeed my opponent missed it. At average defense of 2.3, it was considered by far the toughest question of the day. None of that surprises me. What surprises me a great deal is that 39 percent of players in the league answered it correctly. I would have guessed more like 10 or 12.

5. 'Heartless' by Dia Frampton, 'Fix You' by Javier Colon, 'Roxanne' by Juliet Simms, and 'I Believe I Can Fly' by Jermaine Paul, all singles that reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart, were studio versions of performances that first appeared on what television program?

My first thought was Glee. They sell a lot of music first heard on that show and it routinely features covers of existing hits. But wait… none of those people is an actor on (or at least a star of) Glee. Then I thought, of course, it’s got to be American Idol, a hit factory that also manufactures pop stars I don't pay attention to. So I went with that, whereupon I learned to my regret that the correct answer was a show I have actually watched a few times because I watch Smash, the series it's paired with: The Voice.

6. There are four U.S. states whose largest city contains the name of the state in the city's name. One is Indiana (Indianapolis); name the other three states.

The dreaded “name them all” multi-answer question, tougher by far than the more forgiving “name any one of the three” type (e.g. Galahad).

Just as obvious as Indianapolis was New York City. It didn’t take much longer to come up with Oklahoma City (Norman is a major college town, but OKC is the state capital and big enough to support an NBA franchise).

The problem was coming up with the third one. Much like two seasons ago, when I had to surf the periphery of the world’s continents in my mind to come up with the island of Madagascar, I literally pictured the map of the United States in my mind and worked my way around the nation. It was somewhat easier than a question about state capitals, as that facet was off the table, yet there were still judgment calls to make. For example, Kansas City was big in Missouri, but the Kansas version was surely smaller than Topeka and maybe Manhattan.

The tricky one was Iowa. The biggest city had to be either Iowa City (home to the enormous University of Iowa) or Des Moines (insurance hub, state capital, Drake U.). Wasn’t too worried about Ames (Iowa State U.). I suspected Des Moines was larger but Iowa City was a contender. Ultimately, because I couldn’t come up with anything better, I called Iowa up to the big leagues and batted it third in my lineup.

Unfortunately, and somewhat incredibly, the third correct answer was Virginia. Hiding in plain sight was Virginia Beach, which is apparently nearly twice as large as Roanoke, to say nothing of state capital Richmond, Arlington or Newport News. With a population of over 400,000 people, Virginia Beach has to rank as the largest American city that no one ever talks about, ever, including many of the people who live there.

As generous as I was yesterday, my opponent was today. Although he got 4 correct answers to my 3, his defense was somewhat catastrophic and showered me with 6 points. He was way too respectful of my mediocre geography knowledge, giving me a 0 and a free pass on “name all three states,” the toughest question of the day at 19% correct leaguewide. (In fact, he missed it himself, though I can hardly criticize this as I did the same thing the day before when I gave Paris the 0 and shanked it.) Also, he gave me the 3 on Cars 2, which I thought was pretty straightforward.

I played my usual fairly solid defense, allowing one point above the minimum, so thanks to my opponent’s shaky defense I escaped with a one-point win, 6(3)-5(4). After losing a match I should have won on Opening Day, I’ll take it.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Day 1: An inauspicious debut

Ugh. Although I enjoy both the exercise of writing about the LearnedLeague knowledge contest and the concomitant feedback it generates from fellow players and sideline observers, I am less than wildly enthusiastic about — nor therefore was I, up until the last minute literally seconds ago, even committed to — typing about trivia questions for an hour-plus every weeknight for the next month at the height of outdoor tennis season. Nor do I particularly care to make a permanent public spectacle of the epic choke I pulled off today.

So with that, here we go!

1. Among the various phase transitions in thermodynamics, melting is the transition of a substance from a solid to a liquid. The process known as deposition is the transition of a substance from what to what? (Two answers required, in correct order.)

I liked my guess on this one: “Gas to solid.” Although I took AP Chem in high school, attentive readers may recall that my inability to identify element #4 on the periodic table — beryllium, or Be, but of course you knew that — once nearly cost me a promotion to a higher division. But I digress. (See why these take me over an hour?)

I did remember from chem class all those years ago that the “sublimation point” was where a solid turns directly to a gas without first becoming a liquid or even passing Go. The question itself told us the phase transition that every S’more chef already knows: that melting is when a solid converts to liquid. That left “gas to solid” as the third leg of the triangle, which sounded OK for deposition. (We attorneys define deposition as “a frequently useless aspect of the discovery process.”) And sure enough, “gas to solid,” or as the official answer more accurately worded it, “Gas, Solid,” was correct.

2. What was the name of the middle and long distance runner, one of the most famous individuals in the history of sport in Finland, who won nine Olympic gold medals during the 1920s, and was known during his time with countrymen Ville Ritola and Hannes Kolehmainen as the 'Flying Finns'?

I didn’t know this and knew I was not going to guess it either. So I gave a shout-out to my two favorite Finns, awesomely named orchestra conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and touring tennis professional Jarkko Nieminen. I went with “Esa-Pekka-Jarko Salonen-Nieminen.” I was wrong for reasons far more fundamental than my careless misspelling of Jarkko (which would have been forgiven anyway (and which embarrasses me further in that I have always found that spelling incredibly cool)).

The correct answer was Paavo Nurmi. I’ve heard of him. Gave this one the 3, a good move as it also stumped my opponent.

3. Book VI of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur chronicles the quest of the Knights of the Round Table to achieve the Holy Grail. Ultimately, only three achieve the Grail; name any one of the three.

I read my share of folklore and mythology as a kid (Hubris! Pre-fall pride! Foreshadowing!), including Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I’m reasonably familiar with the Knights of the Round Table and have also visited the ruins of King Arthur’s legendary home, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, England. I felt pretty confident that of Lancelot and Galahad, the Jordan and Pippen of the Knights of the Round Table, only Galahad reached the Grail. I wasn’t sure but liked Percival as a Horace Grant who got there with Jordan. No clue who was the Steve Kerr.

Sure enough, it was Galahad, Percival and Bors.

4. Since 2008, the Miss Teen USA beauty pageant has, oddly, not actually been held in the United States, but rather at a vast mega-resort and waterpark complex in what country?

My fellow Jeopardy! alums, and for that matter many of its viewers, will know what I mean when I say that sometimes the question answers itself. Scan down the blue screen next time you watch the J! show, as shrewd players do throughout the game, and you’ll see how often this is true:
  • “Blah blah this second president of the United States.”
  • “This longest river in the world blah blah.”
  • “Blah blah this noble gas that provided a nickname for Deion Sanders.”
  • &c.
In this case, although I had no clue where the pageant was held and “Donald Trump’s inappropriately libidinous imagination” was not a country, “a vast mega-resort and waterpark complex in what country” could only be referring to the ginormous Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, and therefore the correct answer was the Bahamas. And so it was.

5. Elvira, Bobby Sue, and (I'm Settin') Fancy Free are among the hits from what country music vocal group?

Didn’t even know the other two songs, but I know Elvira and that it’s by the Oak Ridge Boys. Incredibly, they were not from Oak Ridge Drive several blocks east of my childhood home in Glencoe, Illinois.

6. What is the name of the apple-offerer in these paintings? 

Annnnd this is where I choked the match away. Had I stopped to think about this for more than 0.6 seconds, I would have remembered that it was Paris who offered up the apple at the Judgment of Paris, offending Aphrodite, who in turn kidnapped his hot girlfriend, Helen of Troy, launching the Trojan War, inspiring the Iliad and more importantly a Brad Pitt movie, etc. But I didn’t read the question carefully, thought I had the answer, and quickly answered this sixth and final question so I could play defense and move on to whatever in my life was next. I was stunned but not surprised when I saw the answer was not Aphrodite, which I guessed, but in fact Paris.

I thought this question was so easy — as indeed it was, to me on a good day at least, but to my mild surprise, not to the LL in general (21% correct leaguewide) — that I defensed it with the 0. My opponent gave me, that is to say would have given me, 2 points for it, so I ended up losing by 1.

A giftwrapped victory for him, and a bitter memory for me that, given my accursed trivia memory, should take approximately 16 years to forget.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Let's do this

For those who have expressed interest:
  • I have heard your cries of woe.
  • I have succumbed to the underwhelming pressure.
  • I am advised that Eric Berlin is not doing it, and someone has to.
  • I am grudgingly willing to sacrifice a measure of my admittedly copious free time.
  • At the Commissioner's recommendation, I have already strapped on the leather and am holding on tight for the madcap excitement that the LL will deliver with hellbound fury upon my mortal soul anyway, so why not. 
  • In short, I am blogging LearnedLeague Season 54.
Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 9, 2012