Archive for the ‘LearnedLeague’ category

SwanShadow Gives Thanks 14: As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

November 23, 2017

Each year, since this humble (in the classic sense of “low to the ground”) blog began in 2004, I’ve paused on Thanksgiving Day to take stock of the many things in my life and in the world about me for which I’m grateful. If I took the honest measure of my blessings, I’d be typing nonstop between Thanksgivings, and I’d never get much life lived. (Plus, these posts would get even more unbearably lengthy than they already are.)

So I hit upon the idea of choosing just 26 items, sorted alphabetically, to represent by means of metonymy the countless people and things for which I am grateful.

It’s been an interesting year. The Pirate Queen began a new job, which she enjoys, and where she is appreciated and fulfilled. I landed one of my most daunting voiceover projects this summer, survived a hectic busy season with my largest client, and checked a box off my career bucket list by booking a gig for one of the most recognizable companies on the planet. We traveled a bit, as we are wont to do.

The Daughter hit a pair of milestones: she, like the Pirate Queen, began a new job — one that she’s been chasing hard for a few years — and she and her beloved (formerly The Boyfriend, now The Fiance) got engaged. They’ll be married next May, prompting yet another nomenclatural change. The Daughter is  thrilled to begin these new chapters in her life, and I am thrilled — with a father’s wistful trepidation — for her. She wishes her mother was here to share her joy. I wish that too. But as the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. So walk on, we shall.

2017 will be forever remembered in the North Bay as the Year of the Firestorm. If you live hereabouts, you know — and perhaps lived through — the devastating wildfires that destroyed thousands of structures across Sonoma and Napa counties. The Daughter and her Grandma were evacuated from their home for a week. Many longtime friends and acquaintances don’t have homes to which to return. The city of Santa Rosa and the other hard-hit communities will rebuild, but the lives that were lost will never be restored, and the precious possessions of thousands of people will never truly be replaced. I can’t put into words the sadness I feel for those I know — and so many others I don’t know — whose lives were irrevocably altered, even as I also can’t express my relief that my precious Daughter’s life was spared.

Walk on, we shall, indeed.

But enough preamble. Here’s the fourteenth installment of my annual Thanksgiving list. Next year, should we all live to see it, I’ll have to add a whole new table in the Word document where I keep track of each year’s offerings. (The chart is seven columns wide, and this will fill out the second chart.) For now, here’s what I’m grateful for… among so much else.

Almond butter. The Pirate Queen brought a jar home the other day from Trader Joe’s. In a world awhirl with chaos, the simple pleasure of an almond butter and blackberry jelly sandwich is an amazing comfort.

Blue Öyster Cult. This year on LearnedLeague (the world’s toughest online trivia league, and why haven’t you asked me for a referral yet?), I was privileged to write a quiz about a band whose music I’ve grokked since my high school days. (Yes, we had music then, you young punk. With electric guitars and everything.) I’ve still got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.

Cabo San Lucas. Neither the Pirate Queen nor I had ever been to Cabo before our weeklong vacation there in February. We enjoyed our stay immensely. It’s not Hawaii — this was the first year in the last five that we didn’t visit my childhood home — but it’s lovely nonetheless. We’ll return, no doubt.

Draymond Green. He may be the third or fourth best player on the Warriors. He might also be the most irreplaceable. No one plays defense at a more intense level than Money 23. The Daughter has a picture of herself with him from a photo op before he rose to NBA All-Stardom.

Electricity. Thank you, Ben Franklin. (I’m still annoyed about that $100 bill question from Millionaire, though. Just so you know.)

Firefighters and First Responders. They couldn’t save every home and storefront in the North Bay, but they worked tirelessly and valiantly to save as many as they could, and to rescue and help as many people as possible. The community will never forget their efforts and dedication.

Gal Gadot. As a lifelong fan of Diana of Themyscira, I wasn’t fully convinced when the little-known Israeli actress landed the role. I’m convinced now. I’m glad Gal is our Wonder Woman. Change our minds, and change the world.

Hamilton. We had the opportunity to see the smash hit musical in San Francisco this summer. We did not throw away our shot. Few popular entertainments live up to their hype, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece gets as close as you’d imagine.

Ice hockey. I know, I know. I’m the guy who refers to hockey as “soccer on ice with sticks.” But thanks to the largesse of a good friend who’s a San Jose Sharks season ticketholder, we saw our first in-person game last season. It really is a heck of a sport to watch in person, in ways that don’t translate well on television. I’m a believer.

Jetways. I’m old enough to remember… okay, slow down; not the Wright brothers — but the days when you actually had to walk out onto the tarmac and climb a mobile staircase in order to board a plane at many airports. Give me the stretchable hallway any day.

Kilimanjaro. She rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.

Linseed oil. Also called flaxseed oil, it’s the stuff that keeps the insides of my cast iron skillets silky smooth and nonstick. Liquid gold, it is.

Monet and Munch. We toured a pair of spectacular art exhibitions this year: Claude Monet: The Early Years at the Legion of Honor, and Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at SFMOMA. In general, I’m not especially partial to Expressionist art, but seeing the work of these two great masters up close was powerfully impactful. I’m already looking forward to the next Monet exhibition here in two years.

NextDraft. Every day, I check in with several news sites and aggregators to keeptrack of what’s going on in this crazy world. Dave Pell’s NextDraft stands as one of the best curated aggregators I’ve come across. Dave skillfully mixes links to the day’s hard news with items that are merely fascinating. Always topical, always informative.

‘Oumuamua. “Strange visitor from another world” used to just mean Superman. Now, it’s the first object officially identified by astronomers as having traveled into our solar system from interstellar space. A cigar-shaped asteroid estimated at around 500 feet in length, its Hawaiian name means “scout” or “messenger.”

Patek Philippe. I narrated the first-ever full-scale North American exhibition by the world-renowned Swiss watchmaker this summer. In the process, I learned a ton about the craftspeople who design and build these incredible (and incredibly expensive) timepieces that can not only tell time, but in some instances play symphonies, display lunar cycles, and calculate dates hundreds of years into the future — all using mechanical, analog functionality. No microchip, no battery, just precision clockworks.

Quesadillas. Because hot, melty, delicious cheese.

Red Special, the one-of a kind guitar built by Brian May in his garage when he was a teenager, and which has lent its unique tone to Queen albums and concerts for more than four decades. I recently saw Brian wield his legendary axe in person for the first time in 35 years, and both guitar and guitarist amaze me still as much today as they did back then. If Brian and the Red Special had never given the world anything besides “Fat Bottomed Girls,” it would have been gift enough.

My Steel Will 1505, a.k.a. the Gekko, has featured as my everyday carry pocket knife for most of the past year. Solid, sturdy, and wicked sharp, with its maroon Micarta handle scales and black D2 steel blade, it’s both a workhorse and a creature of quiet beauty.

Thumbtack. The online service offers access to all kinds of local professionals, from electricians to mobile disc jockeys to personal trainers. Plus, they keep the Pirate Queen gainfully employed, for which we are enormously thankful.

“Unwritten”
Feel the rain on your skin.
No one else can feel it for you —
Only you can let it in.
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips.
Drench yourself in words unspoken;
Live your life with arms wide open;
Today is where your book begins —
The rest is still unwritten.

Vision. Last night, I stood on a BART train next to a blind man accompanied by his golden retriever guide dog. Even with my acute myopia and astigmatism — easily remedied by contact lenses — I am blessed that, unlike that unfortunate gentleman, I can open my eyes and see the world. Today, I’m not taking that for granted.

Women — and I have some wonderful ones in my life: the Pirate Queen, The Daughter, her Grandma, and more treasured friends and colleagues than I can list, along with the memory of KJ and the three decades we shared together. Our culture is currently awash with a tsunami of women finally feeling emboldened to speak out against the abuse, harassment, and disrespect they’ve experienced, and I applaud and support them. Be heard, sisters. Your voices matter.

XTC. Quirky, edgy, and impossible to categorize, Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, and company formed one of the most underrated bands in the history of pop music. “Generals and Majors,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “The Mayor of Simpleton,” and the controversial “Dear God” — even if you didn’t understand all of the ideas (or didn’t agree with them), you had to admire the style.

Yeast — fueling bakeries and breweries for thousands of years. Except during Passover.

Zapper — that’s what I call my racket-shaped electric wand that strikes fear into the hearts of flying pests that dare disturb the sanctity of my abode. I’m perfectly content to let buzzing bugs buzz outdoors in their own environment, as long as they don’t attack me. But if you come into my airspace, critter, I’ve got some voltage waiting for you.

And as always, friend reader, I’m grateful for you, and the time you take to peruse my rambling prose. May you and yours find much for which to be appreciative on this Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

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A song of LL65

June 23, 2015

The 65th season of LearnedLeague — the Internet’s most auspicious ongoing quiz competition — has concluded. More to the point, LL65 marked my 10th season in the league. So, it’s a good milestone to look backward from, and consider how I did.

In LL65, I placed eighth (of 26) in Rundle A Frontier, my home for the past five seasons. This is my highest finish since I placed seventh in A Central back in LL60, and ties for my third-best standing historically. (I finished first in my rookie Rundle during LL56, and was also eighth in A West in LL57.)

In statistical terms, this felt like a return to form after my disappointing LL64. Although my match play record sagged a bit (10-8-7, after a 13-12-0 LL64), my correct answer percentage rose from a worst-ever .767 to .820, which is on par with my 10-season average of .814. Best of all, I posted my best-ever defensive efficiency score with a .721. I used to play dreadful defense — I had three consecutive seasons of sub-.600 defensive efficiency between LL61 and LL63 — but I decided two seasons ago that I was going to spend more time each match day on my defensive strategy, and the extra thought seems to be paying off.

I thought the questions this season seemed a little bit easier than the last several seasons. This reflected not only in my overall batting average, but in the fact that I scored eight perfect match days this season after only two in LL64. My opponents apparently found the material easier also, as the total number of correct answers posted against me was the highest since LL61.

It’s worth noting, however, that on Match Day 24, the penultimate day of the season, I had my all-time worst single-day regular-season performance with only two questions correct. Let’s take a look at that set of six, and examine why I found them so inscrutable.

Q1. The aggressive, condescending, and arrogant Yankees are the victors at the end of what rowdy and vulgar 1976 film comedy? Okay, that’s not so hard. Add up “rowdy and vulgar,” “1976 film comedy,” and baseball (suggested by the team name Yankees), and there’s only one possible answer: The Bad News Bears, starring Walter Matthau, the insufferable Tatum O’Neal, and future character standout Jackie Earle Haley.

Q2: The jihadist group in northeastern Nigeria known officially as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad) is better known internationally by what name, which translates loosely into English as “Western education is forbidden”? This one’s a process of quick elimination born of ignorance. I can only name one jihadist group from Nigeria, and even though I have no idea what Boko Haram means, or what the group’s full official handle might be, I’m going with that.

So far, so good. But here’s where things went downhill.

Q3: El Grito de Dolores, the anniversary of which is celebrated as Mexican Independence Day, was a famous speech calling on the Mexican people to rebel against peninsulares and the Spanish colonial government. Name the Roman Catholic priest and revolutionary who gave this speech on September 16, 1810. Although I know when Mexican Independence Day is (and no, my fellow yanquis, it’s not Cinco de Mayo), I’m not familiar with this speech nor with the priest who uttered it. I put down Junipero Serra, who’s pretty much the only famous Mexican priest I can name, even though I know he had nothing to do with Mexican independence, and I’m reasonably certain that he was dead well before 1810. (A post-quiz check of Wikipedia confirms that Serra died in 1784.) The correct answer is Don Miguel Hidalgo, whose surname is familiar to me only as (a) the fictional Latin American country whose gold mines finance Doc Savage’s exploits, and (b) Viggo Mortensen’s horse in the film of the same name.

Q4: According to the lyrics of Billboard magazine’s No. 1 country song for 2013, “In this brand new Chevy with a lift kit, would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it, so baby you a song, you make me wanna roll my windows down and…” what? By this late stage, my antipathy for all things country is firmly established. It will therefore come as no surprise to you, friend reader, that I’ve never heard this song. The correct conclusion to the lyric in question is “cruise,” which I could never have guessed given a thousand tries, as it doesn’t rhyme with anything in the stanza provided. My answer was “kill myself, because I’m in a country song.” That had not a prayer of being right, but at least accurately represents my feelings.

Q5: The MacArthur, Julia Tuttle, John F. Kennedy, Broad, and Rickenbacker Causeways all span what bay? This was a complete stumper, as none of the names appeared to have any connection to the others, nor any common connection to any body of water that came readily to mind. MacArthur took me immediately to Manila Bay — naturally, since I lived in the Philippines for two years in the mid-1970s, and am familiar with the general’s historic significance in that part of the world. I didn’t remember a MacArthur Causeway in Manila Bay, nor did any of the other names make particular sense in that context (one might think that if Manila Bay was crisscrossed by multiple causeways, at least some of the names would be in Tagalog, or those of Filipino dignitaries), but with no other guess coming to mind, I made Manila Bay my answer. Alas, the correct answer is Biscayne Bay, as any Floridians in the room probably know. Coincidentally, the Pirate Queen had been in Miami just the previous week. Had I only looked at a map of the city while she was there, I might have gotten this one.

Q6: Jack Sock, Sam Querrey, Donald Young, Steve Johnson, and Tim Smyczek are among the highest-ranked Americans internationally in what sport? Sports buff though I am, not one of these names rang a bell. I therefore reasoned that the sport in question had to be an obscure one, as well as some individual competition in which Americans might not be the most famous participants. Confident that I would have heard of these gentlemen if they were golfers or figure skaters, I entertained such options as badminton and archery before deciding to go with chess. The correct answer is tennis, which just goes to show you the miserable state of disrepair into which American men’s tennis has fallen over the past few decades.

Good thing that Match Day wasn’t indicative of my entire season. Hopefully, I will get my kicks in LL66 in August.

Go Central, young man! (Rundle A Central, that is.)

March 27, 2014

LearnedLeague season 60 (hereafter, LL60) has concluded, with a grand time had by all 1824 trivia mavens who participated.

For the benefit of those new to the conversation, the greater League is divided into eight (soon to be nine) smaller leagues (formerly known as subregions). Within each league is a tiered system of player groups called Rundles, consisting of between 22 and 32 players. (The ideal Rundle size is 26, which allows for each player to face every other player in the Rundle exactly once during the 25-game season.)

The eight A Rundles — one in each league — form the top level of competition. Before LL60, only four A Rundles existed, with the most lethal being A West — nicknamed “A Murder” for the frighteningly high skill level among its members, many of whom were Jeopardy! all-stars, crossword puzzle superstars, and world-class quiz champions. For the season just concluded, in an effort to spread the best players around a bit more, each of the previous A Rundles was split into two. The former A West morphed into A Central — my new home for LL60 — and A Pacific.

I finished 7th in the newly established Rundle A Central, with a record of 13-4-8. That’s a significantly improved showing over my last season in the late, unlamented A Murder, when I ended up 26th of 30 players, with a record of 3-9-13. (Two of those three wins came on the last two Match Days of the season. It could, therefore, have been even uglier than it was.)

Or is it?

As interesting as it is to follow the head-to-head match totals that determine one’s standing within the Rundle, as a trivia purist I’m far more interested in that most basic of statistics: How many questions did I answer correctly? In this case, the answer is not as many as last season. In LL60, I scored 124 (of a possible 150) correct responses, for a batting average of .827. That’s not at all shabby. But in LL59 — the last season of A West — I notched 133 correct, a percentage of .887. This means that, with nine fewer correct answers this season over the previous, I gained 19 places in the standings.

It’s worth noting that I had the same correct answer total this season as I did in my first season in A West (LL57). That season, I finished in 8th place. In each of the next two seasons, my level of accuracy went up slightly — I had 125 correct (.833) in LL58, then the previously mentioned 133 (.887) in LL59 — even as I plummeted in the Rundle rankings: 17th in LL58, 26th in LL59. You can see the reason for this by looking at the ever-growing number of correct answers given by my opponents: 115 in LL57, jumping up to 122 in LL58, then a stratospheric 135 in LL59. Over the three seasons, even while my accuracy was getting marginally better, my competitors were consistently getting even better still.

Now you see just how freaking difficult it was to play among the monsters in A Murder.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining. A Central is plenty tough just as it is. But I’m under no illusion that my season-to-season record improved in LL60 because I suddenly got a lot smarter. I have the newly diluted competitive environment to thank.

It’s certainly not my defense. My defensive efficiency dropped this season to .671, from .692 in LL59. (We’ve already seen how well that latter number worked out for me. Which is to say, not much at all.) I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will probably always be a mediocre defensive player, given that I have little desire to spend hours poring over my respective opponents’ question histories in an effort to more effectively divine what they may or may not know.

Anyway, the bottom line is that I managed to avoid relegation to the B level for yet another season, granting myself at least one more go at the A level.

LL61 begins on May 12.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: 10th Anniversary Edition

November 28, 2013

If you do something ten years in a row, it’s definitely a thing.

Every Thanksgiving beginning in 2004, I’ve paused here in my little corner of the World Wide Wackiness to express my appreciation for 26 people, places, and/or things, one for each letter of the English alphabet. Truth to tell, there are so many people, places, and/or things sharing my universe for which I am grateful, that if I seriously attempted to make an exhaustive list, I’d be typing from now until next Thanksgiving, by which time my fingers would long since have snapped off. Therefore, this has become my yearly exercise in gratitude, with its arbitrary format allowing me both room to range and boundaries at which to stop.

The list you’re about to read marks my 10th annual Thanksgiving post. (You are going to read it, aren’t you? You might as well; you’re here already.) Much has changed in my life during the decade since I composed the first one. No doubt, much more will change if I’m privileged to write others in Novembers yet to come. If I’m granted those opportunities, I promise to be as grateful — for everyone and everything listed, and for so much more — as I am on this Thanksgiving Day.

On this particular Festival of Turkey, I am thankful for…

Auditions. I have a weird job. The overwhelming majority of my working life is spent performing for free, in hope that someone will pay me money instead. Most workdays, I spend hours standing or seated (I switch it up a lot) in front of a microphone, auditioning for voiceover projects. Once in a while, I book one. As much I live for those latter moments, I also can’t help but appreciate how cool it is that for a few hours every day, it’s my task to just play.

Bay Bridge. We got a new one this year, finally — nearly a quarter-century after the original was horrifically damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, and three years after the not-yet-in-existence suspension span became the logo of the Golden State Warriors. The upgraded Bay Bridge will probably always play second fiddle to its more famous younger cousin around the corner, but it’s a beauty — and a treat to drive — nonetheless.

Crustaceans. Tasty giant insectoids that live underwater. I’m fond of all the edible species — lobsters, crabs, shrimp, langostines, crawfish, you name it. During our spring vacation in Australia,  the Pirate Queen and I dined on yet another variety that neither of us had ever tried: Moreton Bay bugs, prehistoric-looking creatures that resemble lobsters whose claws were snapped off, then were run over by a truck. Like their relatives worldwide, they sure were delicious.

Down Under. Speaking of Australia, we spent three incredible weeks touring the Island Continent and its next-door neighbor, the North Island of New Zealand. We saw a play at the Sydney Opera House, marveled at the mysterious sandstone monolith known as Uluru, explored a tropical rain forest north of Cairns, watched tiny penguins scurry ashore on St. Philip Island, enjoyed the view from two of the tallest towers in the Southern Hemisphere, and saw where the hobbits live. A spectacular adventure, and one that I should write much more about.

Enter the Dragon. The only motion picture to which I ever memorized every single line of dialogue. Throughout my teenage years, a poster depicting Bruce Lee in the film’s climactic fight scene graced my bedroom wall. In 2013, we lost Jim Kelly, who costarred alongside Lee as the irrepressible Williams. When Han, the villain of the piece, insists that Williams must prepare for defeat as well as victory, Williams replies with consummate cool, “I don’t waste my time with it. When it comes, I won’t even notice. I’ll be too busy looking good.”

Fountains of Wayne. When I need a quick pick-me-up, I throw on a tune by this power pop quartet from the Big Apple. Songs like “Denise,” “Maureen,” “Hey Julie” (my personal favorite), and the ubiquitous “Stacy’s Mom” never fail to put a grin on my face and some extra pizzazz in my step. The band’s name, incidentally, was cribbed from a garden ornaments store in Wayne, New Jersey.

Grandma. Not my Grandma, but The Daughter’s. With boundless patience and good humor, she shares her home with KM and her hyperactive canine companion Maddie. She graciously lets me drop in for visits, keeps me posted on goings-on in The Daughter’s life, and even hems a pair of pants for me on occasion. She’s not my mom, but after many years of dutiful service as my mother-in-law (she was my late first wife’s mother), she might as well be.

Heroes and heroines. Regular visitors here know that I own an extensive collection of original comic book superhero art. I started reading comics at age five, and from that time forward, the costumed characters who starred within those colorful pages became my fantasy friends. If you ask me why I love superheroes and superheroines, I can rattle off a litany of reasons. But the one that trumps all the others is this: It just feels good to be reminded that there are heroes in the world. The real ones don’t usually wear costumes. You know who you are.

iPad. It’s the device that serves up my VO scripts, delivers the news, keeps me in touch with friends and colleagues, and provides the occasional stress-alleviating game of virtual pinball. Thanks, Steve Jobs, wherever you are.

Jupiter Jones. The leader of the Three Investigators proved to my boyhood self that a smart chubby kid could be a hero. He proved it to Alfred Hitchcock, too. You could look it up.

KM, referred to more often here as The Daughter. The brightest, funniest, most thoughtful offspring any father could ever ask. I continue to be shocked and awed by the young woman she’s become. It’s unfathomable to me that she’ll be 25 next year. That’s the same number of years that I spent married to her mother KJ, who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2010, but left an indelible legacy in the daughter she birthed, raised, and continues to inspire.

LearnedLeague. It’s described by its creator and Commissioner, the honorable Thorsten A. Integrity, as “a creed, an ideal, a Weltanschauung.” I call it the universe’s greatest online trivia league, where some of the finest quizzers on Earth —  from Jeopardy! champions and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire winners to The Beast and The Governess from both the American and original UK versions of The Chase — assemble to do daily battle. An experience of knowledge warfare both adrenaline-pumping and humbling. Lately, more the latter.

Monterey Bay Aquarium. Endlessly fascinating and dazzlingly educational, it’s one of my favorite spaces to wander. Filled to bursting with phenomenal displays of ocean life, it’s as though Aquaman invited you to hang out at his house for the day.

Navigation apps. How did the directionally challenged among us get around before GPS? Maybe we didn’t. Some of us might still be out there, lost in the boondocks without a clue how to get home.

Oracle Arena, or as we like to call it during the NBA season, Warriors Ground. The oldest active arena in the Association is also the loudest, wildest, and — thanks to a long-overdue ownership change, leading to an influx of top-flight talent over the past couple of years — most exciting home court in basketball. With Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson bombing away from downtown Oakland, All-Star David Lee maintaining a seemingly nonstop streak of double-doubles, center Andrew Bogut finally healthy to anchor the middle, and key acquisition Andre Iguodala completing the puzzle, the boys in blue and gold come ready to rock the house.

PayPal, for making it quick and easy to do business online, and for keeping the Pirate Queen gainfully employed.

Speaking of whom… all hail the Queen of Pirates, who shivers my timbers without ever threatening to make me walk the plank. (I think she’s thought about it, though.) We are at once the classic Odd Couple and a perfect match. It would be impossible to envision the second chapter of my adult life without her.

Renaissance Faire. Seriously, who doesn’t love spending a day surrounded by merry folk in Elizabethan drag, spouting in pseudo-Shakespearean patois like the mighty Thor? (Which raises the age-old question: Why did a supposed Norse quasi-demigod talk as though he’d wandered in from a road company of Hamlet? Discuss.) I totally get into the RenFaire atmosphere — it’s among the best venues for people-watching to be found anywhere. Park me on a hay bale while blackguards and wenches regale me with sea chanteys and bawdy songs, and I’m as giddy as Puck on a midsummer’s night.

Solvang. Remember: Copenhagen is Danish. Solvang is Dane-ish.

Tropicana Las Vegas. After burial in the bowels of the cavernous MGM Grand, followed by drowning in the screaming miasma of Circus Circus, TCONA — that’s the Trivia Championships of North America, for the uninitiated — finally found a fitting home in its third year, at the Tropicana. Laid-back, comfortable, user-friendly, and conveniently located, the Trop provided the best experience yet for our annual Continental Congress of quiz nuts. I was thrilled to hear earlier this month that we’ll be back there again next summer.

Uluru. The emotional highlight of our Australian expedition, nothing prepared me for the power and majesty of what Westerners formerly dubbed Ayers Rock. Scientists describe it as an inselberg — Uluru is to the Australian Outback what an iceberg is to the Arctic Ocean, albeit on a far more imposing scale. As immense as the rock we can see is, there’s a good 80% more of it under the desert surface. It’s as though God were holding this ginormous stone at the creation of the world, set it down in the center of Australia while He busied Himself with other creative tasks, then left it there. You should go see it. But be warned — billions (and I do mean billions) of obnoxious flies share the site.

Vermeer, Johannes. The legendary painter’s masterwork, Girl with a Pearl Earring — sometimes referred to as “the Dutch Mona Lisa” — made a tour stop in our fair city this summer. I’ve seen the image dozens of times, but standing before the actual canvas in all its luminous wonder shook me to my shoes. I literally had tears welling in my eyes as I looked upon this sublime beauty. A true representation of the power of art.

The Walking Dead. Both the TV series that the Pirate Queen and I have grown to love, and the video game series that keeps many of my talented voice acting friends employed. I haven’t scored a role yet. But I’ll keep trying.

Xhosa. How can you not love a language that sounds like humankind communicating with dolphins?

Yams… because it’s Thanksgiving, and they’re yummy.

Zite, the news aggregation app that puts all the cool stuff right at my fingertips. What’s great about Zite is that you can give it feedback on every article it offers — I like this or I don’t like that — and it adjusts future filtering based on your input. You can also set specific subject categories, from ocean-broad (“Politics”) to pinpoint-narrow (“Hunter Pence”), and the app will make sure you get a bounty of content on that topic. There are plenty of apps that function similarly, but I’ve yet to find one that does the job as efficiently and as effectively as Zite.

And as always, friend reader, I’m thankful for you, who take the time to stop in here from time to time and peruse my drivel. I don’t use that word “friend” lightly. I appreciate your kind attention, and hope that my words continue to prove worthy.

May you and the people you love have much to be grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day… and may we all be here for the next one.

A LearnedLeague update: LL58 postmortem

September 25, 2013

LearnedLeague Season 58 concluded this week, and in the immortal words of Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive.”

After a grueling 25-day campaign, I managed to finish 17th in Rundle A West — without dispute, the league’s most talent-loaded bracket. By placing above the bottom 10 in our 32-player Rundle, I avoided relegation (the LL euphemism for “demotion”) to a lower bracket for next season. Not escaping that fate were several esteemed competitors whom I consider superstars in the trivia world.

Sometimes, it is indeed better to be lucky than good.

It’s worth noting that my placement in A West plummeted nine slots between last season (when I finished 8th) and this, even though my statistical performance in both seasons was similar. (My head-to-head matchplay record in LL57 was 11-9-5; this season, LL58, I went 10-9-6.) The primary contributing factor here was the disbanding after LL57 of the League’s previous top level, Rundle Championship, and the redistribution of its participants into the four A-level Rundles. A West inherited several former R-Champ members, raising the difficulty factor of our bracket exponentially. (Not that it needed to get more difficult. Rundle A West has long borne the nickname “A Murder” with good reason.) I would have to check name by name to be certain, but I’m pretty sure that every A West member who was in R-Champ in LL57 finished above me in LL58. So, there you go.

Now that I’ve completed three full LL seasons, the last two in A West, it’s a good time to analyze my overall performance in the League to date.

My win-loss-tie record stands at 42-21-12. That’s significantly skewed by my rookie season, in which I went 21-3-1 against other rookies and won my Rundle. None of my fellow R Central competitors had yet advanced to A-level as of LL58 (I believe one or two just earned promotion to A for next season), so it’s fair to say that I compiled that gaudy rookie record against less-stiff competition than what I’ve faced in A West the past two seasons. So, let’s call that first season’s 21 wins an outlier. In A-level competition, I’m a just–over-.500 hitter.

It’s also important to understand wins, losses, and ties in the context of LearnedLeague’s unique method of match play. In LL, defense — that is, the point values assigned to each day’s questions by each player, based on his or her estimation of that day’s opponent’s likelihood of answering each question correctly — plays a critical role. Quite frequently, a player wins or ties a match in which his or her opponent offers more correct answers — simply by virtue of more effective defense. Here’s an example: Player A gets four of the match’s six questions correct; Player B assigned those four questions values of 3, 2, 2, and 1. (Player A therefore missed two questions, valued at 1 and 0.) Player B gets five out of six, earning the following points: 0, 1, 1, 2, 2. (Player B missed the sixth question, valued by Player B at 3.) Player A’s score is 8(4) — that is, 8 points on 4 correct responses. Player B’s score is 6(5) — 6 points on 5 correct responses. Since only the match points, and not the number of correct answers, determines the outcome of the match, Player A wins, despite getting one less question right than Player B.

As a hardcore trivia guy, I sometimes find that system less than satisfying. Ideally, every trivia matchup would be decided purely on the basis of “who knows more stuff.” But the fact is, even Jeopardy!, the venue from which whatever minuscule trivia street cred I possess is derived, works the same way. I’ve certainly won games in my Jeopardy! career where one of my opponents answered more questions correctly, but I happened to get more of the high-dollar-value questions, or a Daily Double or two, correct. It’s how game creators make games competitive and exciting. I get that, and I’m cool with it.

I do, however, like to keep track of my own performance based strictly on my percentage of correct answers. When it comes to LearnedLeague, I’m pleased that I’ve continued to improve in this regard. In my rookie season, I notched 118 correct responses for a .787 batting average. In LL57, my first season in A West, I got 124 answers right, upping my average to .827. In the season just concluded, I scored 125 correct answers (.833). Some of that is pure luck, of course — you happen to get asked things that you know, or can figure out — but I’ve also been working on upping my game by reviewing material in categories where I could use a boost. I also spend at least a bit of time each evening playing quizzes on Sporcle. You just never know when knowing, say, the capital of Burkina Faso will come in handy. (It’s Ouagadougou, in case you were curious.)

Speaking of categories where I could use a boost…

To help facilitate defense, LearnedLeague publishes extensive statistical background on each player’s performance. At a glance, you can survey an opponent’s track record in every category, and see where his or her weaknesses lie. (You can — if you’re really into it — review every question your opponent has ever played, and discover which specific items he or she got right or wrong. I’m not quite that anal-retentive.)

Were you to review my statistical profile, you’d find few surprises if you know me well at all. After three seasons, my highest correct percentages are in Current Events (100%), Television (96.9%), Film (96.7%), Theatre (92.9%), Lifestyle (a catch-all category that encompasses such diverse areas as religion and fashion — 91.7%), and Games and Sports (90%). You’d have predicted that, yes?

Conversely, my nemeses are Art (60%), Classical Music (58.8%), and of course, Math (16.7%). Again, if you know me, you know that my ineptitude in mathematics rivals only my distaste for country music. In fact, I believe that Hell is an eternal algebra class with country music playing at ear-splitting volume over the loudspeakers.

I’ve been doing some brush-up reading on art, and trying to memorize some basic facts about the most notable classical composers. I think it’s helping. Nothing will help me get better at math. If you find yourself facing me in a future LearnedLeague match, and there’s a math question in the day’s sextet, you might as well slap a big fat 3 on that one. (Then again, I do pull one out of thin air 16.7% of the time. So, you never can be too certain.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve also attempted to work on my defense. I’m consistently a subpar — although not altogether horrible — defender, which means I do a mediocre job at assigning points based on my opponent’s perceived strengths and weaknesses. I could probably win an extra couple of games each season just through better defense, so I’m trying to take more time with that portion of each day’s quiz. My defensive efficiency rating improved to .672 this season, from the previous season’s .651, so I suppose I’m doing something right. Or at least, less wrong.

LearnedLeague 59 begins November 11. I’m looking forward to the next challenge.

TCONA 3: Most of my pursuits are trivial

August 16, 2013

I just flew in from Las Vegas, and boy, is my brain tired.

Actually, the Pirate Queen and I flew back from Bright Light City two days ago, and I’m mostly not tired any more. I’d headed to Vegas last weekend for the third annual Trivia Championships of North America — henceforth, TCONA, or I’ll be typing all day. The Pirate Queen joined me on Sunday following the festivities, and we spent a blissful three days checking out the sights and sounds of one of my favorite vacation destinations.

But let’s talk TCONA.

What began two summers ago as a largely informal gathering of game show champions, Quiz Bowl veterans, and pub quiz mavens has ballooned in this third installment into a real live media event. Not only were crews from two nationally televised game shows — NBC’s Million Second Quiz, and The Chase, GSN’s new Stateside version of the UK hit — on site to conduct in-person auditions, but the stars of both the US and UK editions of The Chase also participated in several of the weekend’s competitions. The Experts, easily the best weekly quiz program on YouTube, taped four episodes before a live audience. And of course, there was in attendance the usual assortment of trivia geeks from all over the continent, and beyond. (I met at least one fellow who’d come all the way from Sweden. Or maybe Norway. Somewhere in Scandinavia, anyway.)

A summary of one attendee’s highlights follows.

The weekend commenced on Friday morning with a multi-part written quiz. This opening salvo serves not only to start the neurons firing, but also to provide an initial gauge of one’s level among the competitors. My first thought after completing the test was that I should have ingested more coffee before we began. I was relatively pleased, once the scores were published later that day, to discover that I hadn’t fared as poorly as I feared, and in fact, I’d outpointed several folks whose names are far better known in the trivia world than my own. With another triple latte in my system, I might have performed even better.

One of TCONA’s primary individual events is 5×5, a buzzer battle whose gameplay bears distant similarity to a certain television quiz program with which I am intimately acquainted. Despite the aforementioned acquaintance, I never seem to do very well at 5×5, and this year’s contest was no exception. I lost my first match thanks to a foolishly aggressive final wager — I was leading up to that point — on a question about Celebrity Apprentice, a program with which I am clearly not as intimately acquainted as I thought. I was never a factor in my second game, and thus lost any hope of advancing to further rounds.

I had high expectations for myself in another individual event, LearnedLeague Live. At TCONA 1, I won my first round against seven other competitors, despite never having played the game before. Last year, I held my own at an eight-player table that included several seasoned LearnedLeague veterans; I didn’t win the table, but I felt that I acquitted myself decently. This year, I made the critical error of playing at a table featuring two of the greatest (and two of my favorite) players in Jeopardy! history, Jerome Vered and Dan Melia. Note to self: Next year, instead of sitting with people you like, sit with people you might stand a chance of beating. Assuming there are any.

For the main team event, Quiz Bowl, I reconnected with two other members of last TCONA’s silver-medal-winning squad for a run at fresh hardware. Our team captain, Dave Legler, who once bagged $1.7 million on the game show Twenty-One, recruited as our fourth player a trivia host from Chicago, Jeremy Cahnmann. Combine that with our not-so-secret weapon, Jonathan Hess, a soft-spoken grad student from South Carolina who knows more arcane information than I’ve forgotten — and I’ve forgotten a lot over the years — and little old me (you remember that I’ve won eight games on that TV quiz show with the Canadian ex-pat, right?), and we liked our chances going in. We galloped off to a tremendous start, going undefeated in our first three games and winning our four-team bracket. Then, in our first elimination match, we ran into a tough crew led by Anne Hegerty, one of the “chasers” on the original British version of The Chase. As coincidence would have it, the game commenced with a battery of Anglocentric material that Anne leaped all over like a wolf attacking a Porterhouse. Our side rallied, though, making up ground furiously as the game progressed, only to lose in the end by the value of a single question. It was a hard loss to stomach… but there’s always next year.

Luckily for me, redemption came in the other team event, the Pub Quiz Mashup. Another Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions veteran, Dr. Shane Whitlock, invited me to team up with him and his charming bride. We added three other players to fill our roster, which Shane dubbed (in the time-honored pub quiz tradition of quirky team names) “Natalie Portmanteau.” After seven often-hilarious rounds of play, we walked away with the silver medal. Except… well… we didn’t exactly. An apparent scoring error, uncovered between the end of the event and the medal presentation the following day, resulted in our being bumped from second place to third. So we got the bronze medal instead of the silver. I don’t care — it started out silver, and I’m sticking to that. It’ll always be silver to me.

Having the two hottest new game shows in television making their first TCONA appearances generated considerable buzz. Both Mark “The Beast” Labbett, the “chaser” on the US version of The Chase, and the show’s producer came in for Q&A sessions. (Not only is Mark a smart fellow, he’s also ginormous. They don’t call him The Beast for nothing.) Quite a few folks auditioned for Million Second Quiz; it’ll be interesting to watch the show and see how many people I know who made the final cut.

Speaking of game shows, if you aren’t already watching The Experts every Monday (or whenever you choose — it’s on YouTube, so tune in when it suits you, but the new eps post on Mondays), you should be, doggone it. Produced by my Jeopardy! colleague Alan Bailey, it’s consistently as entertaining a 20 minutes as you’ll spend. Alan and his crew shot four new games on Saturday night, including an all-star slugfest between The Chase‘s Anne Hegerty (whose subject specialty was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) and Jeopardy! superstars Brad Rutter and Roger Craig (experts on Mad Men and Prince, respectively). All four games offered action, suspense, brain-shredding trivia superiority by the contestants, and abundant joviality for all. I won’t spoil the outcomes for you — you’ll just have to hie yourself over to YouTube when the new shows post, and check them out for yourself.

There were, as usual, plenty of ancillary events in and around all of the above. Quiz hosts and trivia producers from all over North America bring their favorite material and stage impromptu games throughout the weekend, which anyone can drop into and play. TCONA is also the home of the World Championship of Kno’dgeball, an amusing yet bizarre hybrid of trivia and dodgeball. (Your Uncle Swan declines participation in the latter, preferring not to combine mental challenge with risk of bodily injury. But the Kno’dgeballers do seem to enjoy themselves.)

Of course, TCONA’s most memorable highlights are always the connections and reconnections with my fellow trivia mavens. TCONA is the one place each year where I run into some of the many amazing people I’ve met via Jeopardy! — Bob Harris, Roger Craig, Brad Rutter, Steve Chernicoff, Dan Melia, Shane Whitlock, Alan Bailey, Jerome Vered, and I’m probably forgetting others, for which I’ll apologize in advance. (Yes, all of those people are as intelligent as they appear on TV. More, even.) It’s also a chance to meet up again with my Quiz Bowl teammates Dave and Jonathan, as well as many other new acquaintances I’ve made over these past three events, including such quiz show stars as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire winners Ed Toutant and Joe Trela, whose exploits I’ve admired from the other side of the tube. It was fun to put faces to many of the names with whom I compete in LearnedLeague — I think at least half of Rundle A West, my current LL bracket, was in attendance this year, several of whom I met for the first time.

Kudos to the TCONA team for lining up an infinitely superior venue this time out. The Tropicana met the event’s needs as well as anyone could have hoped after the horrors of Circus Circus last year. The Trop’s not perfect — in particular, its dining options are limited, especially in the budget-friendly/quick-service areas (there’s neither a buffet nor a true food court). Still, it’s an easy stroll across the street to the MGM Grand, New York New York, or the tram-connected Excalibur/Luxor/Mandalay Bay trio, so ample eating choices are right nearby. On the positive side, the conference center is easily accessible, and eminently convenient if you’re staying in the Trop’s Club Tower — basically, step off the elevator and you’re there. I couldn’t have been more satisfied with my room, which was large, well-appointed, clean, and comfortable. The in-room high-speed wifi worked splendidly. (Don’t get me started about the execrable Internet access situation I encountered when I moved over to Excalibur after the convention ended.) And, if you like to while away your free time and dollars in the casino, I found the Trop’s blackjack dealers as friendly and helpful as any I’ve encountered anywhere in Vegas.

Speaking of the Trop, TCONA shared the hotel’s weekend hospitality with another niche convention: the National Pole Dancing Championships. (Yes, that’s a thing. I kid you not.) I can assure you that, for the most part, you’d have had scant difficulty determining which guests were there for the trivia, and which for the pole dancing. Let’s just say that, were you to draw a Venn diagram depicting quiz nerds and pole dancers, there would be precious little overlap between the two sets. Maybe none.

Before I departed, I registered in advance for TCONA 4. You could join me in Vegas (probably at the Trop, but that’s yet to be negotiated) next August 8-10. But I’ll warn you: You’d better bring your A game.

A is for Eighth (phonetically, anyway)

June 18, 2013

Until the 57th season of LearnedLeague concluded yesterday evening, it hadn’t occurred to me that I had completely neglected to update here, not only about the season just ended, but the outcome of the previous season as well. Permit me herewith to remedy these omissions.

In LL56 — my debut season as a LLama (that is, a member of LearnedLeague) — I managed to narrowly win my rookie Rundle (read: bracket) with a record of 21-3-1. By finishing in the top three, I earned advancement for the next season to a “B” level Rundle, the second highest division aside from Championship level. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that I had instead been bumped all the way up to Rundle A West, the top tier in my region. Apparently, a Rookie Rundle winner can qualify for a “battlefield promotion” to “A” level given an arcane combination of scoring and circumstances, and my first-season stats met the necessary criteria.

Thus, I was thrown into one of the toughest groupings in the entire League for LL57. To give you an idea of just how tough, this season’s A West competitors included at least six Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions veterans (including four of my colleagues from the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005), a million-dollar winner from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, several high finishers in the World Quizzing Championships, and a guy who writes trivia questions for a living.

In a word… yikes.

Needless to say, I did not match sheer-beginner’s-luck success from the prior season. I spent most of the 25-game run languishing at or slightly below the middle of the pack — falling as far as 20th on Match Day 17 — before rallying to win my final three games to finish in 8th place. The last game of the season could easily have gone the other way, as my opponent and I both got four of the day’s six questions correct. I just happened to assign defensive points in a fortuitous (read: blindly lucky) manner, eking out a one-point victory. If I’d lost the match, I’d have ended up 14th. My final record: A far more down-to-earth 11-9-5.

Here were the questions from the concluding match of LL57.

  • Question 1: Give the last name of the man who was a pioneer in the development of sound effect techniques used in the production of motion pictures — and after whom the art of post-production sound effect creation is now named.
  • Question 2: Bob Wills and Milton Brown, with their bands The Lightcrust Doughboys, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, were pioneers in a musical style, a subgenre of country music, that is known today by what name? It was born in the Texas-Oklahoma region in the 1920s, was popularized in a second wave in California in the late 1940s, and reintroduced in the 1970s in bands such as Asleep at the Wheel.
  • Question 3: What was the name of the official proclamation, issued in April of 1598 by King Henry IV, which granted historic concessions to the Protestant Huguenots of France?
  • Question 4: Which is the only element in the halogen group on the periodic table which presents as a liquid at room temperature and pressure?
  • Question 5: Kaizen (“continuous improvement”), Genchi Genbutsu (“go and see yourself”), and Nemawashi (“laying behind-the-scenes groundwork”) are among the management principles first made famous by what manufacturer?
  • Question 6: What is the best-known and most critically acclaimed novel written in the English language centered on the subject of hebephilia (it’s fourth on Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century)?

Got your answers ready?

Are you sure?

Okay, then. Here come the correct responses.

Answer 1. As an actor, there’s no way I’d better miss this one. The talented people who create ambient sound effects in movies and television — everything from footsteps to rustling leaves and shattering glass — are known as Foley artists. FOLEY is the last name of the fellow who pioneered the art form. (For bonus points, his first name was Jack.)

Answer 2. I’d never heard of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, much less the Lightcrust Doughboys. Heck, I might have thought the latter was the house band at the Pillsbury Bake-Off. I did, however, know that Bob Wills is considered the father of WESTERN SWING. (Hey, the fact that I detest country music doesn’t mean I’ve never heard of it. I nearly ran an entire category about Willie Nelson on Jeopardy! back in the day.)

Answer 3. I had no clue on this one. The minutiae of European history has never been my strongest suit. And apparently, there was no such item as the Magna Huguenota, which is the facetious answer I submitted. My opponent, on the other hand, scored three huge points for knowing all about the EDICT OF NANTES.

Answer 4. This is one of those little science factoids that pops up in trivia quizzes fairly frequently. BROMINE is the lone member of the halogen group that’s liquid at normal room temperatures and pressures. If you can remember the five halogens in periodic table order from top to bottom, it helps: the top two (chlorine and fluorine) are gasses, so they rise; the bottom two (iodine and astatine) are solids, so they sink; bromine is liquid, so it floats in the middle. If that gets you points at your next pub quiz night, you’re welcome.

Answer 5. I thought about this long and hard, and still muffed it. As soon as I submitted my answers, I remembered the movie Gung Ho, about a Japanese company that takes over a vacated automobile plant in the U.S. Had I flashed on that sooner, I might have gotten my brain around to TOYOTA. Or I might have said Nissan or Mitsubishi, and still been wrong. For the record, I put down Sony — that was the Most Common Wrong Answer, so at least I wasn’t alone.

Answer 6. It probably helps if you know that hebephilia is the sexual fetish for children at the age of pubescence (say, 11 to 14 years old — as distinguished from pedophilia, the fetish for prepubescent children, or ephebophilia, the fetish for postpuberty adolescents). It would also help if you’d been in my English literature class at San Francisco State, in which we studied Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA. Or maybe you just like The Police.

LearnedLeague Season 58 begins on August 19. I’ll be back in A West for that one.

Let’s hope I survive.