Archive for the ‘Trivial Pursuits’ category

Comic Art Friday: Let’s make some REAL news

August 11, 2017

I’m just back from my annual junket to the Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA) in Las Vegas, and man, is my brain fried.

I’ve attended every TCONA since the first one in 2011, and it seems as though it’s even more of a blast each successive year. It’s my one opportunity every summer to interface in person with fellow quizzers (including many other former — and some yet future — Jeopardy! champions) from all over the continent (and in a few cases, from other continents), amid the diz-busting, face-melting heat of Vegas in August.

Once again, I managed to keep my six-year medal-winning streak alive, with a bronze in the Team Trivia Championship (shared with five of the nicest and smartest people you’d meet anywhere). When you can’t be the brightest bulb in the room, it’s good to be one of the luckiest.

Best of all, the Pirate Queen joined me as usual at the end of the convention for a few days of Vegas-style R&R, as we are wont to enjoy.

But you’re here for the comic art, aren’t you?

All righty then.

Starman and The Creeper, pencils and inks by Tom Derenick

Today’s featured artwork is this tremendous effort by Tom Derenick, a leading contender in the Why Isn’t This Artist More Famous? sweepstakes. Our latest dip in the Common Elements theme pool matches The Creeper, one of Steve Ditko’s less prominent creations, with the Golden Age hero Starman. What in the wide world of DC Comics might these two have in common, you ask? Perhaps more than you’d think.

When we first encounter the man who would become The Creeper in Showcase #73 (March 1968), he’s Jack Ryder, an obnoxious blowhard TV personality. Starman in civilian life is Ted Knight, who shares his name with an actor (sadly, no longer with us) best known for playing… wait for it… an obnoxious blowhard TV personality. There’s your first common element.

I say “first” because sometimes when I devise a new Common Elements concept, I’m so focused on the idea I have for the project that I miss entirely plausible alternate connections between the characters involved. My good friend and colleague, the legendary commission collector Damon Owens, was quick to point out one here that I didn’t even think about.

The alter egos of these two characters go together to form “Knight Ryder,” a title differing only in spelling from that of a popular action-adventure program from the 1980s. That series, coincidentally, starred David Hasselhoff, a man who also fits the description of… wait for it… an obnoxious blowhard TV personality.

(Incidentally, any additional connection, real or imagined, to an obnoxious blowhard TV personality currently in national public office is 100% serendipitous. *cough*)

So, there’s another common element — one you’d suppose that a self-professed trivia maven such as your Uncle Swan would have picked up on from Jump Street.

Alas, no. Therefore, my thanks to Damon for sweeping the glass and snatching the uncontested rebound.

Back to our spotlight heroes for a moment. As noted previously, The Creeper sprang from the fevered imagination of Steve Ditko — probably best known as the artist co-creator of Marvel’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, but also the source of such characters as The Question, Hawk and Dove, and Shade the Changing Man.

In his debut adventure, Jack Ryder becomes The Creeper through the most unlikely of circumstances. In his capacity as a security expert for the television network that recently fired him from his talk-show-hosting duties, Ryder hunts down the subversive agents who kidnapped a famous scientist. While tracking the kidnappers, Ryder crashes a high-society masquerade ball wearing a costume he threw together from random items — the costume that later becomes The Creeper’s signature look. When Ryder finds the missing scientist, the man gives him a serum that speeds healing from injury, along with a device that enables Ryder to transform his apparel from his everyday clothes to his Creeper garb in the blink of an eye. The scientist is soon murdered, leading Ryder to devote himself to battling evildoers.

Starman’s history dates back to Adventure Comics #61 (April 1941), wherein astronomer Ted Knight invents a device he dubs a gravity rod. This handheld implement allows Knight to fly and to fire blasts of energy at his opponents. Almost a year later, in All-Star Comics #8 (January 1942 — the same issue in which Wonder Woman makes her debut appearance, although in a separate story), Starman and blind crimefighter Doctor Mid-Nite join the Justice Society of America, the original superhero team.

Starman faded from the scene (like most Golden Age superheroes) in the late 1940s. In the intervening decades, several other DC characters have used the Starman identity — some connected by legacy to the original Ted Knight version, others completely unrelated. A cynic might opine that DC keeps creating new Starman types merely to keep its trademark alive… but we’re not cynics here, are we?

Returning to our artwork: Not only does Tom Derenick draw with classic style and razor-sharp precision, but he also employs a brilliant twist of perspective here. If you look closely at the background, you’ll notice that the “bottom” of the scene from a real-world point of view is actually the right-hand side of the frame (in other words, that’s where the “ground” is). Thus, in portrait orientation — which is clearly how Derenick expects the viewer to see the image — it appears that The Creeper is jumping down onto an upwardly rising Starman, in attack mode. But when we adjust the angle, and put the bottom of the frame where it would actually be, we observe that it is in fact Starman who has the upper hand, and The Creeper is leaping (or falling) backward, away from his opponent. (See the rotated image below.)

Starman and The Creeper, pencils and inks by Tom Derenick

It’s a masterful shot, perfectly designed and executed. When Tom sent me his preliminary sketch early on in the project, the background was merely suggested by a handful of lines. Only when I saw the finished piece fully rendered could I understand and appreciate what the artist envisioned. I was completely blown away. You might be too.

As with so many things in this life, it’s all in how you look at it.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Things are about to get hairy

December 2, 2016

millionairelogo

Hey, did I mention that I’m going to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on Monday, December 5?

Now I did.

I’ll have more to say after the show airs. But for the time being, make sure to set your DVR. (Check your local listings for time and channel.)

It’s fair to suppose that if I walk away from my latest foray into television gaming a millionaire, I will probably spend at least a few shekels on new comic art. (My art collection may even rate a mention on Millionaire… but you’ll have to wait and see.) In the meanwhile, I can still admire the pieces I already own — including this one, commissioned earlier this year at San Francisco Comic Con, by the talented Casey Jones.

The Cat and The Beast, pencils and inks by Casey Jones

On a Comic Art Friday a few months back, we discussed Greer Grant Nelson’s transformation from the costumed heroine known as the Cat into the half-human, half-feline Avenger Tigra. It occurred to me that Greer wasn’t the only character to undergo a similar makeover.

In March 1972, just a half-year before Greer first donned her Cat-suit, founding X-Men member Henry “Hank” McCoy — a.k.a. the Beast — was starring in his own feature in the anthology series Amazing Adventures. From his debut in Uncanny X-Men #1, Hank’s mutant abilities had manifested in overly large hands and feet, combined with superhuman strength and ape-like agility. Aside from his impressive appendages, Hank looked pretty much like a normal human.

But in Amazing Adventures #11, Hank’s self-experiment in hormonal therapy pushed his mutation to another level, enhancing his powers (making Hank even stronger than before, and adding a Wolverine-like healing factor), covering his body with fur (initially gray, later blue), and giving him a vaguely simian appearance. Subsequent changes would alter his image into a more cat-like mold. In time, Hank’s more feline attributes faded, and he morphed into something closer to a furry, blue approximation of his original self, albeit retaining the fangs and claws from his second mutation.

Amazing Adventures #11, cover art by Gil Kane and Bill Everett

As much as we’ve grown fond of Greer and Hank in their lovably hirsute forms, we still remember the way they looked when we first met them — and it’s those original appearances that Casey Jones enshrines for us in this fine Common Elements commission. Because they may be gone today, but hair tomorrow.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Remember: Catch me on Millionaire this coming Monday!

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.

Michael Rankins. Jeopardy! 1980s Fan Favorite. Vote. Yadda, yadda.

September 30, 2013

Choose Michael Rankins as your Jeopardy! 1980s Fan Favorite!

So, here’s the deal.

I’m Michael Rankins — you knew that, right? nobody’s real name is SwanShadow, for crying out loud — and way back in 1988, I was a five-time undefeated champion on Jeopardy!, America’s favorite quiz show. You can see how young and serious I was then, in the graphic above. (You’d think they’d have found a pic of me smiling, wouldn’t you?) I was also a semifinalist in the 1988 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions; a participant in the first prime-time Jeopardy! tournament, Super Jeopardy! in 1990; the winner of the Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains in 1998; and a Round One winner in the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005.

Okay, résumé over.

Now, I’m competing for the chance to go head-to-head against other 1980s Jeopardy! champions in the show’s 30th Anniversary Season Battle of the Decades! The Battle of the Decades is bringing back former Jeopardy! champions from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s to compete in a multi-level tournament, that will begin airing in February 2014. The show’s producers have already selected 14 champions from each decade, but the 15th and final spot in each tournament is up to Jeopardy! fans — this means YOU — via an online voting campaign. I’ve been selected as one of five candidates for the 1980s Fan Favorite slot in this mega-event.

To get there, I need your help!

Here’s how you can throw me your support starting today, and continuing daily until 6:59 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Monday, October 7.

  • If you’re on Facebook, you can go to the Jeopardy! Facebook page (a.k.a. Facebook.com/Jeopardy) and use the Battle of the Decades voting tab. Just like on the Jeopardy! site, you can choose me as your Fan Favorite, and click “Vote Now!”
  • If you’re a Twitter user, you can vote for me by tweeting: Michael #JeopardyVote. (Be sure to include both my first name and the hashtag.) One such tweet per day counts as a vote for me.

It’s that easy! You can vote for me once each day in each format — that’s one vote on Jeopardy.com, one vote on the Jeopardy! Facebook page, and one vote via Twitter using my first name and the special hashtag: Michael #JeopardyVote. Again, voting starts today, and continues until next Monday morning, October 7, at 7 a.m. PDT.

I’m not the sort to ask folks for much — if you know me, you know that. But if you would take a moment each day this week to vote for me — once per day in all three locations, if you have Facebook and/or Twitter accounts — I would be eternally grateful. (Well, for this lifetime, anyway.) And I’d especially consider it an honor and favor if you’d invite your friends, family members, and other contacts to vote for me too.

By the way, each of the other four nominees is a worthy champion also. Some of them I’ve come to know at least a little over the years, and they’re all cool people. Any of us would do you proud in representing our Decade of the 1980s as your Fan Favorite. But if you’re inclined to give me your votes, please know that I treasure your generous support. (And please, vote fairly. No spambots. I want your help, but not that kind.)

Thanks for your time, friend reader.

Now, please… go vote for me as your Jeopardy! 1980s Fan Favorite!

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.