Archive for the ‘Listology’ category

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Triskaidekaphobia Edition

November 24, 2016

Welcome to the thirteenth installment in my annual outpouring of gratitude. Each Thanksgiving since 2004, I’ve devoted this space to a reflection on some of the many people, places, and things that have graced my life. Because counting my blessings can become an infinite task once I get started, I’ve developed the device of choosing 26 representative items — one for each letter of the English alphabet — to stand as testament to the overwhelming abundance that I can only begin to address.

Without further ceremony, here are the things I’m thankful for on Thanksgiving 2016.

Antenna International. If you’ve ever toured a museum or other public attraction and used the audio guide, you’ve heard the work of this fine company, which specializes in the production of said audio guides. I recently had the privilege of narrating Antenna’s audio guide to Vikings: Beyond the Legend, an exhibition currently on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center. If you’re in southwest Ohio or the vicinity, go check it out.

Beef Jerky Store. A highlight of my annual trip to Las Vegas is a pilgrimage to this downtown establishment adjacent to the Fremont Street Experience, where I load up my suitcase with tasty snacks. When I was a keiki (that’s “child” to your mainlanders) in Hawaii, we called a place like this a crack seed store — “crack seed” being the Hawaiian term for various kinds of dried fruits, nuts, and other dehydrated edibles. Visiting the Beef Jerky Store takes me back to those long-ago childhood days.

Comixology. This year, I officially transitioned my comic book reading from paper to digital. Comixology is the app for that. (It’s been an adjustment, but I’m resolute.)

DubNation. What a year we’ve had as Golden State Warriors fans! Our team set an NBA record for success with an unprecedented 73-9 record; missed repeating as world champions by an eyelash; then in the offseason added Kevin Durant, one of the greatest players in the game, to a roster that already featured three superstars in two-time MVP Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. After decades of wallowing in mediocrity and worse, it’s a grand time to be a citizen of DubNation.

Evernote. I don’t know where I’d be without this app. Certainly dinners at our house would be far less interesting, because Evernote is where all of my recipes reside.

Family. As always, I’m grateful more than anything for those who love me most — the Pirate Queen, The Daughter, Grandma, Studio Assistant Tazz, and KJ, whose memory lives forever in heart and spirit. My extended ohana also includes numerous friends and connections, both nearby and far away.

Graboids. That’s our household nickname for reach tools. They come in handy for picking up dog toys and other items that middle-aged backs and knees hate bending for.

Hillary Clinton. The election didn’t go her way, but I’m still proud that she earned my vote.

Inkwell Awards. Founded by longtime comic book inker Bob Almond, the Inkwells annually acknowledge some of the most important — but least heralded — artists in the field.

Juice. Because who doesn’t love juice? Make mine cranberry.

Kamala Harris. California’s attorney general will make an outstanding impact as our new junior Senator. I was honored to voice several of Ms. Harris’s campaign ads this season. I don’t think she got elected because of my work, but I’m not saying I didn’t help a little. Maybe.

Luke Cage. Just when you think that Marvel Studios and Netflix couldn’t possibly outdo themselves after the stellar Jessica Jones, they follow up with a series that takes street-level superheroics up yet another notch. Terrific performances by Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, and Mike Colter as the titular Power Man made this a must-binge.

Mcusta. Two of the most attractive specimens in my folding knife collection come from this Seki City, Japan bladeworks. I could admire my Mcusta Katana and Tactility all day long. Some days, I do.

NewPark 12. The glorious IMAX theater in our new local multiplex even enthused the Pirate Queen — generally not a fan of the cinema experience — about going out to the movies. It’s the first time I ever sat in a theater seat that I wanted to take home to my living room after the film ended.

OtterBox. I dropped and shattered my iPhone this summer. (Thanks, AT&T, for the speedy and relatively hassle-free replacement.) The sturdy case on my new device will, one hopes, prevent future mishaps of a similar nature.

President Barack Obama. Thank you, Mr. President, for eight years of honorable service. I truly believe that history will be far more kind to your legacy than the obstructionist Congress of your second term has been.

Quatermass and the Pit. One of my all-time favorite weird sci-fi classics. You’ve probably seen it here in the U.S. under the title Five Million Years to Earth. Basically, we’re all the descendants of giant grasshoppers from Mars.

Ray’s Crab Shack. A local spot serving up mass quantities of delicious seafood. Don your plastic bib, glove up, and get your crustacean on.

Steely Dan. Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend, that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen got me through college, and many melancholy hours since. There are 66 songs on the Dan’s seven classic-period albums (beginning with Can’t Buy a Thrill and concluding with Gaucho), and not a single one of them sucks. I don’t know any other musical act about whom I can make that statement. 1977’s Aja ranks as one of the finest albums in the history of recorded music.

Treebeard. In my studio-office stands a gnarled walking stick that I acquired at a Renaissance Faire many, many years ago. It’s outfitted with a wrapped leather hand grip and bears the carved face of a bewhiskered wizard at its head. I call it Treebeard. I believe there may be magic in it.

Universal Studios Hollywood. I spent a week there early this year, as an alternate contestant for a TV quiz show that ended up not requiring my services. But I got to stay in a nice hotel, tour a theme park, preview the then-unopened-to-the-public Harry Potter attraction, see a couple of movies, hang out for two days in the soundstage where The Voice is taped, and make several cool new friends — all at a TV production company’s expense. You could have a worse vacation.

Van Jones. The CNN commentator kept it real in the midst of insanity on Election Night 2016. Thanks for eloquently saying what many of us were thinking, Mr. Jones.

Waimea Canyon. As has been frequently noted in this space, I spent a goodly chunk of my childhood in Hawaii. Until this spring, however, I’d never visited the island of Kauai. If you’ve never stood on the edge of “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” you owe it to yourself to get there at least once before you die. (Going after you die probably won’t have the same effect.)

Xenozoic. Mark Schultz’s sumptuous adventure comic — best known to non-aficionados as the source material for the fondly remembered animated series Cadillacs and Dinosaurs — remains a classic of the medium. The collected omnibus volume is the closest book to my desk on my office-studio bookshelf.

Yoda. “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Live by these words, should you.

Zuckerberg. Thanks for keeping the Pirate Queen gainfully employed for the past year, Mark.

I am eternally grateful to you, friend reader, for your ongoing support of these random ramblings. May your life overflow with reasons to give thanks.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Now 100% Punkin Chunkin Free!

November 26, 2015

Here’s something I’m not thankful for this Thanksgiving: Punkin Chunkin, a staple of my Turkey Day TV viewing, was canceled for the second consecutive year. Some silly folderol about liability or some such foolishness cost the annual event, which involves people hurling pumpkins incredible distances using homemade machines straight out of the Rube Goldberg instruction manual, its venue, and organizers haven’t been able to locate another suitable site.

The bottom line is that some lawyers are making a pot of money arguing, and I’m denied my Punkin Chunkin.

Anyway… I still have plenty else to be grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day 2015. Therefore, as has been my tradition in this space since 2004, I’ve made an alphabetical list sampling 26 of the thousands of people, places, and things that make my life worth living.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for:

Adele. The British songstress released her first new album in four years this past week, and it’s as lovely and haunting and emotionally riveting as anything she’s done before.

Bruce Lee. My boyhood hero would be celebrating his 75th birthday tomorrow, had he not been taken from us far too soon way back in 1973. Lee was the only movie star whose poster hung on my bedroom wall amid the Star Trek glossies, comic book cutouts, and Runaways album covers throughout my teenage years. Enter the Dragon remains the one film to which I can turn off the sound and voice every line of dialogue. (At least, I used to be able to do that. I haven’t tested myself in a few years.) Rest in peace, Little Dragon.

Clients. Here’s a shout-out to the folks who buy the skills and pay the bills. I’ve worked with and for some really cool people this past year. I hope they — and many others — will continue to hire me. Please.

Dumbarton Bridge. The least famous, and by far the least sexy, of the San Francisco Bay’s crossings, it’s about to become critically important to us because we’re moving within a stone’s throw of its eastern anchorage. The Pirate Queen starts a new job on December 1, and her daily commute will span the Dumbarton. Although, when she’s on it, it will immediately transform into the Smartbarton.

Education. I’m a firm believer that when you stop learning, your brain dies. And you start voting for Donald Trump.

Ferrett Steinmetz. The Ferrett, as he likes to be known, was one of the first bloggers I followed on a regular basis. This year, I got to meet him in person, as he toured the country promoting his first science fiction novel, Flex. Its sequel, The Flux, came out last month.

Grilled lobster tails. If I were writing the menu for my last meal on Earth, I’d start with a few of these, served with Cajun spiced garlic butter. You know you want some.

Houses. For the second year in a row, the Pirate Queen and I find ourselves (for the moment, at least) with two — one we’re moving out of, and another we’re moving into. The new one closed escrow on the Pirate Queen’s birthday. I’m grateful every day to have a roof over my head when so many people have none.

Idina Menzel. Because someone who knows how to say her name correctly should be thankful for the former Mrs. Taye Diggs. We’re seeing her in person Saturday evening in the road company of If/Then. It would probably be too much to ask for her to just throw in a random chorus of “Defying Gravity,” just because I love that song, and her voice on it.

Jessica Jones. I just finished the final episode of Marvel’s latest Netflix series yesterday. As good as I’d hoped the show would be, it exceeded my expectations by a Hell’s Kitchen block. Krysten Ritter, who’d never really impressed me in anything before, absolutely crushes the role of the downbeat ex-superheroine-turned-private-eye. And her chemistry with Mike Colter as the unbreakable Luke Cage flat-out sizzles. I’m already salivating in anticipation of the Cage series.

KM, for being the greatest Daughter any dad could wish for, and to the memory of her mom, KJ, for all of the shared history.

Lucille, the legendary axe of pioneering blues guitarist B.B. King, lost her master this past May. The thrill indeed is gone.

Masterpiece, the PBS vehicle by which Downton Abbey comes to us Yanks. Downton‘s final season premieres here in the States in January. I’m sure going to miss the Crawley clan.

NBA Championship, won this year for the first time in 40 seasons by my beloved Golden State Warriors. Given that they’ve begun the sequel season on a 16-0 run thus far, I have high hopes that the Dubs might bring a second Larry O’Brien Trophy home to the Bay. To Steph, Klay, Draymond, Bogues, Barnes, Iggy, Mo Buckets, Shawn, Festus, and the rest of the dudes in blue (slate on Saturdays): Thanks for all the thrills. You make DubNation proud.

Oysters. Because delicious.

Panama hats. I have a nice one from Goorin Brothers for sunny East Bay days.

Quizzing. Whether it’s my nightly session of LearnedLeague, or my annual trip to Las Vegas for the Trivia Championships of North America (that’s TCONA to you), or teaming up with a couple of buds at the Project READ Trivia Bee (a hard-fought second place this fall, behind the team we narrowly bested to win last year), quizzing is my jam.

Rush. As Geddy Lee once wailed in his inimitable helium-on-steroids voice: If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Slippers. Or sleepahs, as we say in Hawaii. Without something on my feet, I might fall down. Nobody wants to see that.

Tsunami Brainz. Did I mention that my improv troupe had a name, at long last? We do, and Tsunami Brainz is it. We’re gearing up for our first show, possibly in January.

Us — the Pirate Queen, the Studio Assistant, and me. I am thankful every day for our little family. I feel the love in the room.

VocalBooth. My gorgeous new-to-me workspace is a Diamond Series Platinum Edition. I’m still getting used to its finer points and tweaking the acoustics, but it’s an amazing place to play.

Waikiki. The Pirate Queen and I spent a week in March in my childhood home, and enjoyed a fantastic time touring, beaching, dining, shopping, and just relaxing. I often forget how much I miss Hawaii until I’m there.

Xi, the Greek letter for which there is no direct equivalent in our Latin alphabet. Not to be confused with the letter chi, which corresponds to our X.

Yukon Outfitters. I own several of their Tactical series carry bags. They make excellent stuff to put your stuff in.

Zillow. When you need to find a new house quickly — as we just experienced such a need — it’s the place to look. I found our new place in a single search session.

As always, friend reader, I am also thankful for you. May you and those you love enjoy a thoughtful and festive Thanksgiving. And stay home tomorrow, for pity’s sake.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Live From the East Bay

November 27, 2014

Well, it’s that time again: the day we Americans celebrate turkey, football, and sharing a friendly repast with indigenous people as a prelude to overrunning their entire continent. (Okay, maybe we don’t really celebrate that last part. Still happened, though.)

Here at SSTOL, it’s become an annual tradition to reflect for a moment on some of the many people and things for which we have been made grateful over the past year. Because counting one’s blessings can be an overwhelming task without some parameters, in 2004 I developed the device of an alphabetical Thanksgiving — one item per letter.

So, without further ado, here’s my 11th holiday sampling of what’s best in life. (Aside, of course, from crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentation of their women. That goes without saying.) On Thanksgiving 2014, I’m thankful for…

Apogee MiC. This handy-dandy gizmo served beautifully as my travel microphone on several out-of-town trips this year, including a week in Hawaii that proved to be one of my busiest audition weeks ever. Plug it into my iPad, open my Twisted Wave recording software, and I’m good to go. A sturdy pillow fort helps too.

Battle of the Decades. Even though I lost the Fan Favorite vote to participate in Jeopardy’s 30-year retrospective tournament, I had a blast watching 45 of the show’s greatest champions — including many old friends and more recent acquaintances — return to the stage. It doesn’t always happen this way, but the three best players of all time (Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings, and Roger Craig) emerged in the finals. I’m pleased to say that I’ve gotten to know all three gentlemen over the years, and each is as good a guy as you’d want your heroes to be.

Comets. Dude, we landed a probe on one this year. How awesome is that?

DVR. Sometimes, multiple TV programs you want to watch come on at the same time, or at times when you can’t be parked in front of the flat screen to view them as broadcast. I know, I know, it’s a First World problem. But it sure is nice to have a solution that works.

Elton John. We saw the Man with the Million Dollar Piano live in concert this summer. His voice isn’t quite the instrument it once was, and he’s toned down the outrageous showmanship of his Captain Fantastic days. Still, Sir Elton is one of the legends of modern music, and he still puts on one heck of a performance.

Frontier — my current League within LearnedLeague. When I look at some of the big-time quiz mavens who inhabit Rundle A Frontier, I’m humbled and honored to play among such estimable company.

Gail Simone, one of my favorite current comics writers. I don’t find as much to interest me in today’s comics as in decades past, but when I pick up a book with Gail’s byline on it, I know that I’m in for an entertaining read. She’s also one of my favorite folks to follow on Twitter.

Hilton Hhonors. Here’s an example of quality customer service. I signed up for the Hilton hotel chain’s loyalty program a while back. I don’t travel all that often, but I make at least a couple of trips each year, and I frequently stay in a Hilton-associated hotel. At my request, the Hilton Hhonors folks went back and credited me for points earned for stays I made before I signed up for the program. They could have said, “Sorry, no,” and been perfectly well within their rules. Their positive consideration, however, makes it much more likely that the next time I travel, I’ll bunk in at a Hilton property.

Improvisation. Always looking for ways to up my acting game, I took an introductory improv class at American Conservatory Theater this year. It helped, I think.

Jellied cranberry sauce. Because it just isn’t cranberry sauce unless it comes out in the shape of the can.

Ka’anapali Beach. Our base of operations for our vacation junket to Maui. From here, we drove up to the summit of Haleakala on Super Bowl Sunday, cruised the Hana Highway, saw some spectacular sunsets and scenery, and dined in fine style.

The Ladies in my life — specifically, the Pirate Queen and The Daughter. My existence would be far less beautiful without them.

Madison Bumgarner. The lefthander from Hickory, North Carolina threw the Giants over his shoulder and carried them almost single-handedly to their third championship in five years. He pitched a shutout against the Pirates in a one-game wild card playoff to start the team on its postseason road. He threw 7-2/3 scoreless innings at the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS, in the process setting a major league record for consecutive shutout postseason road innings. Then, in the World Series, MadBum pitched in three of the seven games, winning Games 1 and 5 and pitching five scoreless innings of relief in Game 7. Many baseball watchers, myself included, rank Bumgarner’s achievement as the most outstanding postseason by any pitcher in major league history.

The Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas. For someone who loves Vegas glitz and history as I do, a nighttime tour of the place where old signage goes to die is like a pilgrimage to Nirvana. (Not the one with Kurt Cobain.)

OpenTable. All restaurant reservations, all the time.

Project READ Trivia Bee. For the 25th annual contesting of this popular charity event, I teamed up with two of the smartest people I know for an evening of Q&A. To our utter surprise, we came away with the championship trophy, against some extremely tough competition.

Quadratini. The Pirate Queen loves these little wafer cookies. I gave her a bag for her birthday. When the Pirate Queen is happy, I’m happy.

The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Here in the Bay Area, where we have no shortage of spectacular spans, the utilitarian Richmond-San Rafael often gets overlooked. The fact that the R-SR launches from our most famously crime-ridden communities and terminates alongside the state penitentiary housing California’s Death Row inmates probably doesn’t help. But that isn’t the bridge’s fault. It didn’t ask to be built there.

The Splash Brothers. Sharpshooting Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have the Golden State Warriors off to their best NBA season start in… well… ever. After two decades of mediocrity, it’s exciting to see the Dubs maturing into one of the Association’s premier franchises. You can thank the Human Torch and Kavalier Klay for most of that excitement.

Tazz, my Studio Assistant, who joined our little household in March. He’s half Chihuahua, half rat terrier, and all Tasmanian devil. Hence the name.

USB. Whether it’s my recording gear, my printer, my scanner, or my backup drive, I’m grateful every day for those tiny rectangular ports that allow my computer to interface with the peripheral equipment I need to get stuff done.

Va de Vi, a nifty dining spot where we celebrated the Pirate Queen’s birthday earlier this week. To borrow a line from a former governor, we’ll be back.

Walnut Creek, our new home. As most of you know, we moved this summer, across the Bay from San Francisco to Walnut Creek. There’s yin and yang to life in relative suburbia, but all in all, it’s growing on us. We hosted Thanksgiving dinner today at the Kasbah — as we’ve named our new house — and had to admit the advantages of more living space. It’s not The City, but it is The Creek.

X-rays. I’ve become acutely aware of the importance of imaging in the maintenance of sound dental health. Of course, I’m now radioactive.

YapStone. Meet the YapStones. They’re the modern payments family.

ZippGo. To facilitate our move, we rented reusable plastic totes from a company called ZippGo. They delivered the totes to our previous residence, we filled them with our worldly possessions, the movers loaded them onto a truck and unloaded them at the new abode, we unpacked our material goods, and the ZippGo truck hauled the totes away again. No boxes to acquire or dispose of, no cardboard waste, no muss or fuss. I’m a believer.

As always, friend reader, I’m thankful for YOU. I appreciate your stopping by here periodically to read whatever it is I’m babbling about. I hope you find your visits here entertaining, and perhaps occasionally even thought-provoking. May you and yours experience gratitude for the blessings in your life, and value those special people and things all the more.

Happy Thanksgiving.


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.

Comic Art Friday: There’s no “I” in “Superteam”

June 28, 2013

I’ve commented a few times recently about the inventory I’m conducting. I’m roughly a third of the way through the process: Common Elements and the book dedicated to Supergirl art are completely done, as is the book in which I keep miscellaneous odd-sized pieces that don’t fit well into the 14″ x 17″ Itoya Profolios I use for storage. At the moment, I’m halfway into the Bombshells! theme group, and will probably work on the Wonder Woman portfolio next.

Two Fridays ago, we considered a piece I rediscovered as I delved through that miscellaneous stack. Here’s another I’d forgotten was in there.

Justice League preliminary pencil sketch by Barry Kitson

It’s a preliminary sketch by Barry Kitson, the British superstar who first made his mark in the UK on Judge Dredd. On this side of the Pond, Kitson’s pencils have elevated numerous properties for both major comics publishers, including noteworthy runs on Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man and The Order, and DC’s Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes, Batman: Shadow of the Bat, and Adventures of Superman.

When I bought this sketch a few years back — and still more recently, when I stumbled upon it again — I had no idea why Kitson had drawn it. Thanks to another collector who posts to Comic Art Fans, however, I now know that it was a preliminary study for a mini-poster Kitson created for the late, more-or-less-lamented Wizard Magazine to promote DC’s then-upcoming JLA: Year One series, which Barry penciled. I found this image of the finished piece online, so you can see how it turned out once fully penciled, inked, and colored.

JLA: Year One mini-poster by Barry Kitson, published in Wizard Magazine

I still don’t know who “Pete” is, to whom Kitson inscribed the prelim. Based only on the note, I’m guessing that “Pete” was a collector who bought some of Kitson’s JLA: Year One pages, and Kitson included the sketch as a bonus. Unfortunately, I didn’t record the identity of the person from whom I bought the piece, and given that I’ve slept several hundred times since then, I no longer remember. Somehow, I don’t think that person’s name was Pete, but I could be wrong.

On the other hand, I remember quite well why I wanted the item in the first place, aside from the obvious fact that I don’t own anything else by Barry Kitson. My favorite comic series have always been supergroup and team-up books. I always felt I was getting more for my money when multiple heroes and/or heroines appeared on the cover of a comic. Thus, I gravitated toward books offering that benefit.

Which leads me into a bit of Listology…

Uncle Swan’s Top 12 Favorite Superhero Teams of All Time

12. Metal Men. This unusual bunch consisted of six sentient robots invented by the brilliant scientist Will Magnus. Each robot was constructed primarily from a different chemical element, and manifested the unique properties of — and personality traits suggested by — his or her constituent metal. Gold, the team leader, was brave and noble, and could stretch his robot body into any imaginable shape. Iron was strong, both in physical power and in attitude. Lead was dense, literally and figuratively. Tin was weak and emotionally unstable. Mercury was — wait for it — mercurial. Platinum, usually called Tina, was a beautiful female robot with a passionate crush on her creator Dr. Magnus. (More recent reboots added a second female member, the sharp-tongued Copper.) The Metal Men’s adventures played as much for comedy as for drama, which was probably why I enjoyed them so much back in the day.

11. The Champions. Remember when you were a kid, and you had access to a self-service soda fountain? There was always the temptation to mix all the different flavors together in one cup, just to see what it tasted like. If you did that same thing with superheroes, you’d get the Champions. In the mid-1970s, Marvel writer Tony Isabella had the idea of putting together a bunch of second-tier characters who had nothing in common, just to see what would happen. Thus, we had Angel and Iceman from the original X-Men lineup, teamed with the demigod Hercules, the demonic motorcyclist Ghost Rider, and the Russian spy turned superheroine Black Widow. Yeah, that made no sense at all. And ultimately, it didn’t work — the Champions folded after just 17 issues. They were fun while they lasted, though.

10. New Warriors. Despite the name, there was never an “Old Warriors” or “Original Warriors” team. Which begs the question, Why not simply call this group “Warriors”? I dunno. Maybe they wanted to distinguish themselves from the street gang in Walter Hill’s classic movie, or from my favorite basketball team. And how long can you call yourselves “New Warriors” before you stop being “new”? Whatever the case, the New Warriors came together as a band of rebellious young heroes under the leadership of high-tech urban ninja Night Thrasher. Founding members included human rocket Nova, flame-wielding Firestar, aquatic Namorita, energetic Speedball, and Marvel Boy, who quickly realized how lame his code name sounded and started calling himself Justice instead. Today, the New Warriors are best known as the catalysts for Marvel’s epic Civil War crossover event.

9. Heroes for Hire. As is typical of Marvel’s superteams, the all-about-the-Benjamins Heroes for Hire have undergone more lineup changes than you can shake a no-prize at. Originally, the team consisted of Luke Cage, a.k.a. Power Man, and his martial artist pal Iron Fist. The Daughters of the Dragon — Misty Knight and Colleen Wing — often worked alongside the duo. Over the decades, the ever-shifting roster has mostly centered around Misty as de facto leader — sometimes in partnership with Colleen, but lately without — with support from a variety of morally ambiguous types, including most frequently the mercenary Paladin. Shang-Chi (Master of Kung Fu), the Black Cat, Silver Sable, and the Punisher are among the more prominent characters who’ve wandered onto and off the team at various times. Always an entertaining assemblage.

8. Suicide Squad. Similarly to Heroes for Hire, Suicide Squad has served as a focal point around which to gather some of DC’s more questionably heroic characters. As originally conceived, the Squad consisted mostly of former supervillains who agree to serve as covert government agents in exchange for clemency. At the head of the organization is the powerful and ambitious Amanda “The Wall” Waller, who manipulates the team to further her own shadowy objectives. In addition to out-and-out baddies as Deadshot and Captain Boomerang, the Squad also enlisted more typically heroic members, including Bronze Tiger, Nightshade, and Vixen. A noteworthy event in the Squad’s early history involved the death of its field leader, Rick Flag.

7. Legion of Super-Heroes. My comics-reading friends and I often referred to these far-future Superhero Scouts as “the Legion of Stupid Heroes,” for their propensity toward juvenile code names (male members were typically designated as “Boy,” “Lad,” or “Kid,” while females were “Girl,” “Lass,” or some similarly ridiculous feminine identifier) and ludicrous powers (illustrated most notoriously by Bouncing Boy, who was basically a human Spaldeen, and Matter-Eater Lad, who… well… I’m killing brain cells just thinking about him). But I loved the Legion in spite of their silliness, because their adventures were fun, their youthful enthusiasm and camaraderie were endearing, and you could tell that the writers didn’t take the whole business too seriously. Hey, remember that? When superheroes didn’t always have to be so depressingly serious? Man, I miss those days.

6. Justice League of America. DC’s all-star super-squad raised the bar for all who would follow their 1960 debut. I still like the expanded original lineup the best: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, the Flash, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, plus early additions Green Arrow, Hawkman, and the Atom. Basically, all the major superhero food groups are covered right there. (Don’t get me started on the proliferation of random spinoffs — Justice League International, Justice League Detroit, Justice League Dark, Justice League of Their Own… okay, I made that last one up. But you get the idea.) The JLA always seemed a bit superfluous — if you have Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, do you really need any of the others? — and its stories worked best when the Triumvirate were marginalized or absent altogether. Still, I have to give them credit for being the first superteam of the Silver Age and beyond. Which brings us to the original superhero conglomerate…

5. Justice Society of America. From the day I first discovered the JSA, I liked them better than their modern-day counterparts. For one thing, the original constituent characters are just so weird and loopy in that retro sort of way that you can’t help but dig them. I mean, come on — Hourman? A superhero whose powers run out in an hour? Who advertises that weakness to every villain he faces by making it HIS NAME? How do you not love that guy? Put him alongside the Spectre (a reanimated corpse who loves killing people in bizarre ways), the Sandman (“I’ll put you to sleep with my gas gun!”), the original Atom (who had no powers at all, aside from a heavy-duty case of Short Man Syndrome), and Doctor Fate (basically, Mandrake the Magician with a cool helmet), and you’ve got a recipe for comic greatness. The JSA’s present-day incarnation, with its ginormous cast featuring such stalwarts as Power Girl and the current Mister Terrific alongside holdover founders such as the original Flash and Green Lantern Alan Scott, has been fun too.

4. The Defenders. Billed as Marvel’s “non-team,” the defenders started with an unbeatable three-star core: the Hulk, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Doctor Strange. The big three were soon joined by the cosmically powered Silver Surfer, plus a motley array of supporting players — most notably Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and Hellcat — who eventually came to dominate the stories. Unlike the aforementioned Champions, a cut-and-paste crew that never quite gelled, the Defenders’ nonsensical admixture of heroes pretty much always worked, even as the roster evolved to include such ill-fitting pieces as the Gargoyle and Damian Hellstrom, the Son of Satan. The former Justice League creative team of writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis and artist Kevin Maguire reconvened the first four Defenders for a hilarious seriocomic miniseries in the mid-2000s.

3. X-Men. I still have a soft spot for the original roster: Angel, Cyclops, Beast (pre-blue fur), Iceman, and Marvel Girl (the not-yet-Phoenix Jean Grey), plus the wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Xavier. The first tears I ever shed over a comic book came with “The Death of Professor X” in Uncanny X-Men #42 (March 1968). I remember how sad I was when Marvel relegated the team to reprint stories for several years in the early 1970s. However, I remember with equal vividness seeing the cover of Giant-Size X-Men #1 on the comic rack at Subic Bay Naval Base in 1975, and being introduced to the second-generation team starring Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and former villain Banshee alongside returnee Cyclops. The early issues of the revived run, written by Chris Claremont and drawn first by Dave Cockrum, then by John Byrne, remain among my favorite comics of all time. (I’ve enjoyed the various animated series and live-action films, too, though not as much as those amazing comics.)

2. The Fantastic Four. A squabbling family of superheroes — super-intelligent, emotionally distant dad; romantic but exasperated mom; brash kid brother; and gruff-but-lovable uncle — unlike anything that preceded them. The first comic book I can recall reading was a hand-me-down copy of Fantastic Four Annual #3. I was immediately addicted, as though the ink on the pages was suffused with crack cocaine. And it was the FF (quickly followed by Spider-Man) who sealed that addiction. They seemed so much like real people — unlike most heroes in juvenile fiction of the time, they fought and argued and teased and lovingly poked fun at each other, all while saving the world from galactic menaces. I wanted to be Reed Richards more than I wanted to be any other comic book hero until the arrival of the Black Panther: he was a super-genius with an insufferable ego and an answer for everything (hmm… know thyself?), who saddled himself with the lamest code name in comics (“Mister Fantastic”? Really?) and got stuck with the least useful superpower on the team.

1. The Avengers. For me, the Avengers really came to life once the founding lineup — Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man (who soon changed code names to the more impressive Giant-Man), and the Wasp, plus the Hulk, who took off after the first issue — dissolved. Captain America, thawed from his icy suspended animation in Avengers #4 and granted “founding member” status in the Hulk’s stead, was tasked with rebuilding the team from scratch, and made what seemed like incomprehensible choices for “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”: Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch, all reformed villains. The new mix of quirky, often conflicting personalities gave the stories more emotional heft. With the return of ex-Ant/Giant-Man Hank Pym (now called Goliath, and eventually Yellowjacket) and the Wasp, and the additions of Hercules, the android Vision (who married the Scarlet Witch) and the Black Panther, the Avengers developed into a premier team. The roster would change almost constantly from then on — I think practically every hero and heroine in the Marvel Universe has been an Avenger at some point or other — but the tradition was now firmly established.

And that, superteam members, is your Comic Art Friday.

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.

Tie goes to the runner

March 19, 2013

I earned my first tie score in LearnedLeague yesterday.

Considering that this was my 20th match of the season, that’s remarkable. Ties are relatively common in LL. (At the Championship level, in fact, ties are almost as frequent as wins and losses, since the majority of the players on any given day will answer all six questions correctly.) My first tie kept me solidly in second place in my Rundle or bracket, behind (coincidentally) my opponent in this particular match.

Want to play along? Here were the questions for Match Day 20. Answers will follow below.

  • Question 1: Johannes Brahms’s Opus 49, No. 4, which he titled Wiegenlied, is most widely known today in English by what name?
  • Question 2: Identify the country in this photograph.
  • Question 3: Kix and Ronnie are the first names of what country music duo, who had a total of 20 number one and 39 top ten hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart before splitting in 2010?
  • Question 4: The Baltusrol Golf Club (seven-time US Open host and 2005 & 2016 PGA Championship host) and the Pine Valley Golf Club (which frequently tops lists of World’s Best Golf Courses) are both located in which U.S. state?
  • Question 5: In the history of the Oscars, the only film to receive four acting nominations for women is 1950’s All About Eve (two for Best Actress, two for Best Supporting Actress). Name any two of the four women who received these nominations.
  • Question 6: This is a screenshot from what popular (and seminal) video game?

I’ll give you a moment to jot down your responses.


All righty then. Here’s the answer key.

Answer 1: I thought this was about as close to a “gimme” as LearnedLeague offers. Even if you know nothing at all about classical music in general, or about Brahms specifically — and if you do, I don’t know an awful lot more than you do — you’re probably familiar with the piece commonly called “Brahms’s Lullaby.” Indeed, I suspect that for most people, “Lullaby” is the first word that springs to mind upon hearing the name Brahms. You might not know that this familiar ditty is formally titled Opus 29, No. 4, or that Brahms referred to it as Wiegenlied (“Cradle Song” in German), but if I said, “Name a musical composition by Brahms,” I’ll wager you’d guess “LULLABY” if nothing else came to mind. I did, and was correct in so doing.

Answer 2: Picture clues are among the most difficult, because often you either recognize the image immediately, or you don’t. There are probably ways to suss this one out — it’s a black-and-white photo, which might suggest age — but I’m betting that if you got this one (as did my opponent), it’s because you recall seeing this picture before. If so, you recognized it as one of the photos used at the height of the early 1960s missile crisis to purportedly show where the Russians had installed nukes in CUBA. I, on the other hand, didn’t find it familiar, so I took a random stab that it might be an aerial shot of the compound where Osama bin Laden was taken down, and answered Pakistan.

Answer 3: Regular visitors to this site know of my unrepentant antipathy toward country music, a term which I contend is an oxymoron. Still, I do own a television, so I’ve at least heard of most of the more popular artists in that genre. Besides, if you run across a guy whose parents named him after their favorite breakfast cereal, you’re probably going to remember that. The name Kix led me straight to BROOKS & DUNN. Although I’ll admit that until reading this question, I was not aware that Brooks & Dunn were now Booked & Done. But now I know.

Answer 4: Like classical and country musics, golf is not among my areas of expertise. I only care about the game when Tiger Woods is in contention and the Giants aren’t on. Speaking of Tiger, one of the more notorious incidents in his career (before we knew he was picking up waitresses at the Waffle House, that is) occurred during the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol. Tiger finished his final round on Sunday at two under par. Rain, however, stopped play in the early evening while several other golfers — notably Phil Mickelson (at the time -4), Steve Elkington and Thomas Bjorn (both -3) — still had multiple holes to complete. Apparently figuring that at least one of the three players ahead of him would hold score, Woods packed up his gear and went home to Florida on Sunday night, despite the fact that if Mickelson, Elkington, and Bjorn fell back when play resumed Monday morning, Tiger might be forced into a playoff — or might even win outright if all three completely tanked. Luckily for Tiger, all three played even the rest of the way. Mickelson won by a stroke, with Bjorn and Elkington one shot behind him and one ahead of Tiger and Davis Love III.

If you remember that story, you probably remember that Baltusrol is in Springfield, NEW JERSEY.

Answer 5: “What’s the only film in Oscar history to garner acting nominations for four women?” might be among film trivia’s most often cited questions. I was therefore a bit surprised that my esteemed opponent — who had been stellar in the film category going into this match — didn’t come up with two of the names involved. The film, of course, is All About Eve — a movie so legendary that I once named our family dog after it. (Our late, beloved Pembroke Welsh corgi was registered with the American Kennel Club as Tams All About Even. I devised the moniker to combine her chosen call name “Abby” with her breeder’s request that the word “even” appear in her registry name. The movie’s title provided a perfect vehicle, with just a little tweak.) In a feat yet to be duplicated, All About Eve notched Best Actress nods for BETTE DAVIS and ANNE BAXTER, and Best Supporting Actress acclaim for CELESTE HOLM and THELMA RITTER. Ironically, none of the four women won; their male costar George Sanders nabbed the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. (For you minutiae fanatics, I knew all four actresses, but answered with Davis and Baxter.)

Answer 6: We all have bugaboos. You know, that word you just can’t spell correctly, even though you’ve written it a thousand times? Or that phone number you always miss by a digit, even though you call it all the time? Well, when it comes to video game history, King’s Quest and THE LEGEND OF ZELDA constitute a bugaboo for me. I can’t tell you how many times over the years the correct answer to some trivia question was “The Legend of Zelda,” and I blurted out “King’s Quest” instead. I’m not sure why these two games are so completely conflated in my memory banks, but they are. Here again, the bugaboo stung. I even challenged myself before I submitted my answers: “Are you sure this isn’t The Legend of Zelda?” “Shut up, fool! It’s King’s Quest! I know what I’m doing!” One of these days, I’ll learn.

My esteemed opponent on this day answered five of the six questions accurately to my mere four, but we tied at 8 points each due to defensive assignment. His one miss was on a question I had assigned one point (Question 5); my two misses were questions he’d given one point and zero, respectively (Questions 2 and 6). This demonstrates how it’s possible in LearnedLeague to tie or even lose on a day when one’s opponent nails fewer right answers.

Defense is all — well, almost all — in LL.

Everybody’s got to lose sometime

March 7, 2013

It was fun while it lasted.

I made it all the way to Match Day 12 of LearnedLeague Season 56 before losing a match, exceeding my initial expectations by roughly a factor of 11. The fact that my opponent on MD12 “drank the beer” — answering all six of the day’s questions correctly — made my first loss inevitable, given that I only went four-for-six. (My opponent, a six-time Jeopardy! champion and 2010 Tournament of Champions finalist, will run the table frequently, I suspect.)

Let’s review the set of questions that wrought my first crushing defeat.

  • Question 1: The 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro, is the third volume of a mammoth biography of what American?
  • Question 2: The 32-song soundtrack to what film, released in July 1994 and filled with American artists such as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas & the Papas, Bob Seger, and Aretha Franklin, peaked at #2 on the Billboard chart, and was ultimately certified 12x platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America?
  • Question 3: The only blemish in what thoroughbred racehorse’s 21-race career was a place at the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes in Saratoga Springs, New York, behind a horse named, appropriately enough, Upset?
  • Question 4: The scientific field of nuclear physics was born, one could argue, in 1896, when radioactivity was discovered by what Frenchman, for which he shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with his doctoral student Marie Sklodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre?
  • Question 5: Name the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran who was ousted in August of 1953, in a coup d’État orchestrated by intelligence agencies of the United States and United Kingdom.
  • Question 6: What is the most common term in mathematics for the type of number that is the sum of a real number and an imaginary number, typically expressed as x + iy, where i is the square root of negative 1?

Got your answers ready?

Okay then, let’s check them off.

Answer 1: A fair chunk of my pleasure reading consists of biographies. Although I’ve never read any of the books in Robert Caro’s series on President LYNDON JOHNSON, I’ve certainly heard of them. Caro is probably one of the three or four best-known biographers of this era, and he’s won pretty much every award that one can win for writing such books. Although, why anyone would want to write four thick volumes about LBJ (with a fifth and final still to be published) is beyond me.

Answer 2: I have a difficult time remembering numbers — I have to look up our home phone number every time I order a pizza — but the two categories of numbers I do well with are the sequence of U.S. Presidents and the release years for movies. The key to this question is the year the film was released — 1994. The two biggest Hollywood hits of that year were Disney’s The Lion King, whose soundtrack consists of several now-famous show tunes written by Elton John and Tim Rice, and FORREST GUMP, whose soundtrack boasts a wealth of classic rock songs. Clearly, the latter was the correct response here.

Answer 3: Here’s another of those questions for which The Daughter, a horse-racing aficionado, would never forgive me if I didn’t know the answer. It’s also a familiar etymology factoid. One of racing’s most legendary horses, MAN O’ WAR, lost his only match against a little-regarded challenger named Upset. Prior to this event, the word “upset” only meant “angry” or “irritated.” Afterward, sports fans started referring to an overwhelming favorite’s loss to an underdog as “pulling an Upset,” and the word gained a new meaning — one that’s almost as common in usage today as its original ones.

Answer 4: This is where the first wheel fell off for me. I know about the Curies, of course — Marie Curie remains to this day the only individual to win Nobel Prizes in two different fields of science. (A frequently handy nugget of trivia, that.) But the name of her mentor? I hadn’t a clue. After assuring myself that this snippet of information wasn’t in my memory banks anywhere, I typed in the name of the only French scientist from the relevant time period that I could think of — Louis Pasteur. Yes, I know Pasteur had nothing to do with radioactivity, but at least I filled in the blank. My esteemed opponent, conversely, had no difficulty in coming up with HENRI BECQUEREL, whom I might have thought invented one of the mother sauces in French cuisine.

Answer 5: There’s only one reason I knew this. Just last weekend, the Pirate Queen and I finally got around to viewing Argo, the reigning Best Picture Oscar winner. Without that very recent hot dip into modern Iranian history, I’d have never known that the Shah’s predecessor was the duly elected MOHAMMAD MOSSADEGH. I still didn’t know how the man’s surname was spelled, but the Commissioner of LearnedLeague took pity on me and gave me credit for a correct response despite the mangling.

Answer 6: I probably shouldn’t admit this in print, but my future opponents will quickly figure it out anyway: Math is not my element. I need the calculator on my iPhone to figure out the tip on a restaurant check. Algebra and other higher mathematics? Please. When I see a question with an equation in it, like this one, my eyes glaze over. I put down one of the terms floating about randomly in my skull — irrational number — which proved to be incorrect. (I felt better after learning that my response was the most common wrong answer to this question. At least a number of other players knew as little about math as did I.) My esteemed opponent, who apparently has no gaping holes in his knowledge base, accurately identified the correct answer as COMPLEX NUMBER. Me, I only have a complex about numbers.

Having been soundly thumped for the first time in LearnedLeague, I’m off to lick my wounds. But before I dash, here’s a bit of bonus trivia for you:

What was the name of the British one-hit wonder whose song title I parodied in the heading of this post?

The first person to answer correctly in the comments wins… well… nothing material. But I’ll give you my undying admiration, which you’ll have to admit is priceless.

With six, you get egg roll

February 27, 2013

Before I get into the meat of today’s post, I want to throw a word of congratulation to Colby Burnett, winner of this season’s Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. As winner of the Teachers’ Tournament this past year, Colby becomes only the second player to graduate from winning one of the show’s special-interest tournaments (College, Teachers’, Teen, and the long-defunct Seniors) to also winning the TOC. (Back in 1989 — the year after my own TOC experience — a guy named Tom Cubbage won the College Tournament before advancing to and winning the TOC. Tom was in my taping group for the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005. I’m pleased to report that he’s done quite nicely for himself, despite having become an attorney.)

Colby blazed through the field in both his tournaments, in both instances going into the last Final Jeopardy! of the two-day final round with an insurmountable lead. He displayed quick buzzer skills, a broad range of knowledge, and a quirky sense of humor throughout. Way to represent, Colby!

Speaking of knowledge and quirky humor, it’s time for an update on my rookie season in LearnedLeague. (For the backstory on this online trivia league, and my participation therein, check out this post.)

Six games into LL56, I’m astounded to find myself in first place in my bracket (or Rundle, as it’s called in LL). Match Day 6 also afforded me my first “six-pack” — that is to say, I answered all six of the day’s questions correctly. (LearnedLeague members — “LLamas” — refer to a six-for-six Match Day as “drinking the beer,” or “downing a six-pack,” which accommodates the soda-swilling teetotalers equally.) I’m not sure that says as much for my prowess as one might suppose, as MD06 appears to have been the easiest day of the season thus far, based on League-wide accuracy statistics. But it sure was nice to get that perfect-score monkey off my back at last.

My opponent for the day earned seven points for his four correct answers, against my nine points and six correct. So I needed a flawless card, or nearly that, to get the victory.

If you’re curious whether you could have “drunk the beer” on this particular round, these were the day’s questions. I’ll give you my thought process after you’ve had a chance to answer.

  • Question 1: This sturdy young woman is the work of what Dutch master? (Click here to view image.)
  • Question 2: Give the term from economics, a portmanteau coined in a 1965 speech to the British parliament, used to illustrate a scenario where prices are increasing at a high rate, economic growth slows, and unemployment remains at a steady high level.
  • Question 3: The most produced variety of sweet cherry in the United States is a cultivar which goes by what name, after the Chinese foreman who worked for the orchardist who created it in 1875?
  • Question 4: Which is the only NFL franchise to have won championships in three different cities? The first two were won in Cleveland and Los Angeles, the third in the team’s current home city, in 1999.
  • Question 5: A collection of figurines kept lovingly on the shelf of an introverted young woman named Laura Wingfield provides the title for what classic play of American theatre?
  • Question 6: A pair of wars were fought in the mid-19th c. between China and the British Empire over restrictive Chinese trade laws, and specifically the trade of what product, in very high demand in China at the time?

Done? Excellent.

The answers follow.

Answer 1: Given that he’s her favorite artist, The Daughter would never have forgiven me if I didn’t immediately recognize this as the work of JAN VERMEER. The title of the painting is The Milkmaid, and it’s probably Vermeer’s second most famous work, after Girl with a Pearl Earring. (The latter, incidentally, is currently here in San Francisco at the DeYoung Museum, as part of a rare North American tour of artworks from the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands. I’m looking forward to seeing “the Dutch Mona Lisa” in person soon.)

Answer 2: I’m far from an expert on economics (just ask the Pirate Queen, who holds both an MBA and a Master’s in Financial Engineering), and I’ve never heard of the 1965 speech mentioned in the clue. However, the conditions sound a lot like what I’ve heard described on news-talk programs as STAGFLATION, which is definitely a portmanteau (a word made by combining two or more existing words). And in fact, it’s the right one.

Answer 3: The only varieties of cherry I can name off the top of my head are Bing, Montmorency, and Maraschino. The last two don’t sound even remotely Chinese, and I’m pretty sure that Montmorency cherries are sour rather than sweet anyway. So BING it had to be.

Answer 4: This was an instaget for me. The NFL franchise now known as the ST. LOUIS RAMS began life as the Cleveland Rams before a lengthy stint in L.A. (1946-1979) and Anaheim (1980-1994) as the Los Angeles Rams. The team moved to St. Louis in 1995, following the Cardinals’ departure for Phoenix. The most common wrong answer to this question was “Oakland Raiders,” who did play in L.A. for a number of seasons in the ’80s and ’90s, but never in Cleveland.

Answer 5: Another instaget. The combination of “collection of figurines” and “classic play” could only mean Tennessee Williams’s THE GLASS MENAGERIE.

Answer 6: This was the only question on this Match Day that I struggled with even slightly. My first thoughts were “tea” and “silk,” but I couldn’t recall any wars being engaged over those commodities, at least not between the British and the Chinese. As I was mulling that over, I thought, “The only wars I can even remember those two countries ever fighting were the Opium Wars… oh, yeah… OPIUM. Duh.” Sometimes, it really is that simple.

How did you do with this set? Did you drink the beer (or soda, if you prefer), or were you a bottle or two short of a six-pack?

I’ve already submitted my answers for Match Day 7. Alas, I won’t be drinking anything but my own sorrows today.

If I had a ballot…

January 8, 2013

…I’d ballot in the morning. I’d ballot in the evening, all over this land.

And assuming that ballot were for the National Baseball Hall of Fame (“the Hall” for the remainder of this post, because I’m not typing that entire name over and over again), here’s who’d be on mine this year.

  • Barry Bonds
  • Roger Clemens
  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Mike Piazza
  • Jack Morris
  • Lee Smith

Tomorrow, the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (hereafter “the BBWAA,” because, well, see above) will announce their selections. I fully expect, based on the electors who’ve already publicized their votes, that Bonds and Clemens will not make the Hall in this, their first year of eligibility. Indeed, I would not be surprised if Bagwell doesn’t make it either, though the case for his election or omission is more easily argued from either side, in my opinion. (I doubt that Morris, who’s on the ballot for the 14th year, and Smith, who’s on year 11, will ever be elected, for different reasons than the aforementioned players.) Piazza? Hard to predict.

But let’s get this on the table right now: If Bonds and Clemens — the greatest offensive player and pitcher, respectively, of their generation — are not elected to the Hall tomorrow, as I suspect they will not be, it’s a travesty.

Most, if not indeed all, of the electors who left Bonds and Clemens (and possibly Bagwell and Piazza) off their ballots will say it’s because they cheated the game by using performance-enhancing drugs (“PEDs,” because… you know). Here’s the first problem with that: We don’t know whether they did or didn’t.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: We do know. Game of Shadows, and all that. Well, I read Game of Shadows right after it came out, and it impressed me at the time as the work of two muckrakers trying to make a name for themselves. There’s a ton of speculation in the book, and a lot of “he said, they said” scuttlebutt from sources the writers declined to identify, but not a great deal of what folks in the legal profession call “evidence.” The fact remains that we’ve never seen the results of a positive test for PEDs that Bonds failed, and I’m not sure we ever saw one from Clemens either. Bonds was tried in federal court, and was not convicted of perjury regarding PED use. (He was convicted on a single count of obstruction of justice, which may yet collapse on appeal.) The last time I checked, our legal system still operated on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

But what about the evidence of our own eyes? Bonds grew from Bill Bixby (or Eric Bana, Edward Norton, or Mark Ruffalo, take your pick) into the Incredible Hulk right practically in front of us. Don’t get me wrong — I think he used PEDs. I don’t know whether he took anabolic steroids, but I’d guess he at least took human growth hormone (HGH). But what I think and guess is essentially irrelevant. My inferences, deductions, and suppositions are not proof. Like most people, I believe in a lot of things I can’t prove, and I’m entitled to those beliefs. I can’t, however, prove that someone is guilty of something simply because I believe it to be so. Two years ago, I was the foreman on a jury that convicted a man of murder. My fellow jurors and I convicted the defendant on the basis of evidence, not because we looked at the guy and said, “Yeah, I think he did it.” I believe Bonds, Clemens, and every other player suspected of PED use deserves the same consideration.

There’s another factor in this that frequently gets brushed aside. PED use, while clearly contrary to the spirit of fair play and integrity, was not against the rules of baseball during most of what today gets referred to as “the Steroid Era.” Make no mistake, using those substances was against federal and state laws. But unlike, say, cycling or the Olympics, baseball itself did not explicitly prohibit their use, nor test for said use, until well after PEDs were epidemic in the sport. Was that a loophole? Sure. But you can’t penalize people for taking advantage of a loophole if one exists. All you can do is close the loophole, and say, “No more.” Baseball has now done that — we might argue about how effectively — but that creates no retroactive license to go back and slap the wrists of players who might have engaged in activity that was not prohibited by the rules of the sport that then stood. If San Francisco starts metering parking on Sundays (which, not coincidentally, the city did on January 1), the meter reader can’t send me a ticket for not feeding the meter on a Sunday before the law changed.

One more point, and I’ll stop the ranting. People inside the game, whose expert opinions I respect, have estimated that at the height of the Steroid Era, as many as 75 to 80 percent of MLB players may have used PEDs to some degree. That means guys like Bonds and Clemens — and what the heck, throw Bagwell and Piazza in there too — were not outliers if indeed they used. They were part of the flow of traffic, just as you or I are when we nudge our cars upward of the posted speed limit to keep pace with the cars around us. (And we do. Let’s not be all sanctimonious here.) Does that make it right, if they did it? No. But it does mean there was a clear majority of players who were equally in the wrong. Which, to my mind, levels the playing field. It’s no longer “cheating” — and again, as noted above, it actually wasn’t cheating under the then-prevailing rules of the game — if everyone, or nearly everyone, is cheating. Ask the NFL Players Association, which turns a consistent blind eye to the widely intimated idea that perhaps 75 to 80 percent of its membership uses HGH to this very day, even though such usage is currently against the rules of their sport.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love baseball. It has been part of my life for more than 40 years, a part that I now love sharing with my daughter. And I consider myself a purist in a lot of ways — I prefer the National League style of play in which pitchers came to bat, and I enjoy seeing the fundamentals of the game practiced at the highest level. It makes me sad that we had a Steroid Era (assuming we’re not still having a PED Era in some fashion, which may be another example of assuming facts not in evidence). But let’s not kid ourselves: We did have such an era. We did not have a period in which a random handful of players — Bonds and Clemens included — used PEDs. We had a period, probably 20 years or more, during which the majority of major league players “juiced.” The idea that “everyone did it” doesn’t make it right, but it does need to influence how we view those who might have done it, and especially how we evaluate them within the timespan in which they played. Are we going to pretend, from the standpoint of the Hall, that those 20 years didn’t happen? That the statistics don’t count? That the games weren’t played? Ridiculous. We watched, even attended the games. We saw the achievements. They happened. And what’s more, we as fans of the game supported them, with our ticket-buying dollars, with our eyes on the television set, and with our ears to the radio. Let’s not act as though we didn’t. It’s hypocritical to harass the prostitute after we’ve paid for the services.

To those writers who take the holier-than-thou position that Bonds and Clemens, and others of their generation, don’t belong in the Hall because of the PED scandal, I say, “Take a good look in the mirror.” If you covered the game during the PED Era, and made your living by doing so, you were part of the problem too. You could have washed your hands and walked away. But you didn’t. You continued to draw a paycheck from a sport filled with guys dosing up with whatever BALCO and other pharmaceutical factories cranked out. You kept telling the stories, and selling the game. And don’t say you didn’t suspect, because if you didn’t then, why do you now? If you closed your eyes and held your nose all of those years, why can’t you do the same now, and acknowledge the accomplishments — within the context of the game as it was being played during their careers — of the men who provided you the means of your livelihood? Don’t act as though you’re better than they are. You are not.

If I had a ballot for the Hall of Fame, I’d check the boxes next to the six names listed above. Barry Bonds was the most amazing hitter I ever saw. Roger Clemens was one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. Mike Piazza ranks among the best to ever play behind the plate, both defensively and offensively… even if he was a Dodger for a lot of that time. Jeff Bagwell is a borderline call for me, but I’d vote for him. As for Jack Morris and Lee Smith, the former was the best starting pitcher in the American League for an entire decade, and the latter was one of baseball’s first and finest true closers.

In case you’re wondering, my exclusion of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire has nothing to do with whether I think they did or didn’t use PEDs. McGwire was a one-trick pony — a player whose only tool was power. He rarely hit for average, had no speed, and for most of his career was a subpar defensive player. He was a beefed-up Dave Kingman or Dick Stuart, to put it another way. Sammy Sosa wasn’t even that good — a pretty solid mid-level star who had a couple of spectacular seasons. I wouldn’t vote for either of them, not because of PEDs, but because to my mind, they weren’t Hall of Fame-caliber players. (Craig Biggio? Tim Raines? Please. Very good, but not great players, whose stats are at least partially inflated by longevity, especially in Biggio’s case.)

You’re welcome to disagree. I won’t argue with your opinion, or your right thereto. But this is my ballot, and I’m sticking to it.