My opponent was Joon Pahk, my colleague in the puzzle world and teammate at the MIT Mystery Hunt. He became something of a folk hero in my house during his tremendous run on Jeopardy! My daughter’s admiration is generally reserved for the fairies in Pixie Hollow who collect the most morning dew or whatever. (“She’s a super Water Talent Fairy, Daddy! I hope I have that much water talent one day!”) So watching her become impressed with Joon and his amazing breadth of knowledge was definitely a step in the right direction.
It didn’t take psychic ability to know that Joon was going to be a tough opponent, and things got tougher still when I saw the questions. Am I allowed to count it as a personal, minor victory that I only lost by one point?
1. Ten youngsters tell ten stories each over ten days in what 14th c. allegory, whose name comes from Greek and alludes to the nature of this peculiar frame story technique?
Absolutely. No. Idea. Nothing about this question rang any bells for me at all, and yet I couldn’t stop rummaging through the English-major part of my brain, hoping against hope that I might find the answer in some dusty, forgotten corner. Nope, wasn’t going to happen. And because I had never heard of this, I also did not know how to rank the question: Was this a legitimately tough question, or was it something semi-famous that I just happened never to have heard of? I ultimately assigned this a 2, and thus sealed my own doom.
Oh, the answer? The Decameron. I guess I should have paid more attention to my friend Mark Halpin’s annual puzzle extravaganza.
2. The Haber process is used industrially to react hydrogen and nitrogen (using a catalyst) for the manufacture of what?
Despite not having even a trace of the background necessary to answer this question, I ran myself like a hamster in an exercise wheel, trying to come up with possible answers: Fuel? Coolant? Helium? Oxygen? Sunshine? Chocolate? Lincoln Logs? Nail polish remover? Bad pulp fiction? Yarn? Rogaine? Polenta?
Obviously, this was hopeless. I went with “coolant,” zeroed the question in deference to my opponent’s awesome science background, and moved on. Correct answer: Ammonia.
3. In addition to the tenuous Muslim Dervish state in inland Somalia, at the turn of the 20th c. (early 1900s) there were only two independent states on the continent of Africa. Name them both.
I thought I had half a shot at this absolutely impossible geography question, and that turned out to be exactly the case: I named one of the countries but muffed the other. Liberia was the easy one, since I knew it to be a state founded by former slaves. As for the second one, I felt mighty good about my answer of Egypt. That country was mentioned in the Bible, yo. But I guess at the start of the 20th century, Egypt wasn’t fully independent. So they were a colony of some other country? Really? What’s the story here?
Anyway, the other country I wanted was Ethiopia. Joon is 11/11 in World History, but I nonetheless wasted no time assigning this a 3. Naming one country, sure, but both? Major kudos to anybody who got this one.
4. The historical region of Transylvania is located within what modern-day European country?
Gimme. Romania. Why can’t that be the difficulty level of all the geography questions?
5. The 2000 Year Old Man is a comedy skit created by what two comedy writers and performers?
A gimme even more gimmeable than the previous gimme. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
6. Chevon is a term used in culinary circles occasionally to refer to the meat of what animal?
I first looked at this question through half-shut eyes in the middle of the night, after my dog woke me up for a 1:00 a.m. walk. I saw the word “chevron,” and thought… huh? Pass me a slice of that chevron? When I looked again later, the R was gone, but the symbol of the chevron remained large in my mind. What possible animal could that symbol represent? It doesn’t look like anything! What the?
And then while taking my morning shower, some part of my mind chimed in, like an important special news report interrupting an idiotic television show: “Chevre” is the word for goat cheese. Oh, right. Ergo, goat. Okay, then!
Joon and I both went 3/6, but he defended perfectly and I did not. I sure am looking forward to my first victory…