Feb 292012

Wow, I’m so happy I do these public writeups of my experience in the Learned League, so that when I make an INCREDIBLY STUPID MISTAKE, I get to share it with all of you. For my next trick I shall strip naked and go stand on the town green.

My one consolation is that if I hadn’t made my gaffe, I would have lost anyway. (I guess it’s a bit of a stretch to call this a “consolation.”) In two out of the four days so far, there has been a question in my opponent’s strongest subject… and yet placing the zero on that question turns out to be poor defense. Maybe I should start assigning defensive points at random.

All right, let’s do this…

1. Identify the American Neo-expressionist artist and filmmaker responsible for this work.

Art questions for me are consistently know-it-or-you-don’t: There is no gray zone containing hidden knowledge that might get dredged up with a little more pondering. I’ve heard of Julian Schnabel, but that’s about all I can say about him. This question was a no-hoper. Impressive piece of work, though.

2. In modern usage, the term “bulge bracket” refers to a group of investment banks considered the world’s largest and most profitable. During the financial crisis of 2008, three bulge bracket members ceased to exist as independent entitites — name any two of the three.

Bah, guessed wrong. Apparently Michael Lewis’s very enjoyable writeup of the financial crash, The Big Short, didn’t stay with me as much as I thought. Lehman Brothers I got right, but I thought Smith Barney was another one. Nope. Should have gone with Bear Stearns or Merrill Lynch.

3. In 1994, three films were released starring Jim Carrey which became box office hits: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and what other film, which was also Cameron Diaz’s feature film debut?

Of those three films, The Mask is the only one I’ve seen. Jim Carrey is a decent actor when he’s not trying to prove to us how far over the top he can go — but man, when he takes his foot off the brake, the results are downright painful. At least the title character of The Mask is supposed to be a cartoon character, so it kinda works.

4. What is the term in geometry, Latin for arrow, which is defined as line segment drawn perpendicular to a chord in a circle, between the midpoint of the chord and the circle’s arc?

My opponent today is Jackie Anderson, who for a few years I knew only as the quiet girlfriend of my friend Dan Katz. A few months back, I was able to amend that to quiet and very smart girlfriend (not that I hadn’t suspected this). I joined Dan and Jackie’s team for the Boston Area Puzzle Hunt, and watched Jackie solve a mindbending puzzle involving cryptograms and math and logic, a puzzle I hadn’t been able to get the smallest possible fingerhold on. Add in her 11/11 Learned League record in math, and what you wind up with is a pretty easy decision about which question gets the zero. And she missed it.

That should give you a pretty good idea how much hope I had on this question. Personally, I do not believe I have ever heard the word “sagitta.” I answered “radius,” knowing it was wrong.

I’m still taking that online class in the American Revolution. After that I hope to take a series of math classes, including geometry. At which point, look out, Learned League! (Maybe.)

5. This is a promotional photo of the cast of what television series?

First thought: Uh-oh.

Second thought: Wait, look: They’re on a stage. So this must be that new show about the making of a Broadway musical. Smash, that’s it.

Elapsed time between “Uh-oh” and “this is a gimme”: 2.7 seconds.

6. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are also the five countries recognized as nuclear-weapon states under the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Russia and the United States are two; name the other three.

And now we get to it.

I knew one of the countries immediately: China. Russia and China have been much in the news lately, because they have blocked any attempt by the Security Council to do anything regarding the horrors in Syria — not allowing the council to so much as waggle a reprimanding finger. (On top of that outrage, you’ve got Venezuela sending supplies to Syria in support of Assad. Is it me, or are the major villains of the world — Putin, Chavez — becoming more and more cartoonish? They are to statesmanship what Jim Carrey is to acting.)

All right, so. China — that’s one. What are the other two? I wasn’t entirely sure. I jotted down a few possibilities: Japan. England. France. I was leaning heavily toward those latter two countries but I wanted to think about it some more.

Unfortunately, the place where I jotted down my possible answers was the answer blank on the Learned League submission page. I then wandered away from the page so I could mull it over. I read some blogs, I answered some e-mails. When I came back and looked at my answers, I saw that everything was in place… AND HIT SUBMIT. Really.

I can’t entirely explain the complicated mechanics of my thought process here, but somehow I simultaneously (a) had confidence that I knew this answer AND (b) failed to notice I had not actually put in the answer I believed I knew.

It didn’t cost me the win — my loss was sealed long before question 6. But, wow. A goof like this is an excellent way to feel like you’re made out of high-grade dumb.

Feb 282012

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…

Feb 252012

Answered four questions correctly to my opponent’s three. Lost by two points. I’m glad this doesn’t happen to me terribly often.

Looking back, I don’t think you can say I defended myself irrationally against GottschlichA. Sometimes perfectly rational defenses don’t work out. Come along and see if you would have done anything differently.

1. In late 1982, this rock band, which won the Grammy for Best New Artist for that year, became the first (and still only) Australian act to have a simultaneous #1 single and #1 album in the United States.

I paused before entering my answer, because I thought Men At Work came a couple of years later. But really, what else could it possibly be? That group was a phenomenon and a half, and I for one played their debut album, Business as Usual, absolutely to death. (Perhaps it was because one of the songs was entitled “People Just Love To Play With Words.” They’re speaking my language!)

“Down Under,” the #1 single from that album, still holds up, unlike so much music from that era. And Colin Hay, the lead singer, had (and still has) a strong, distinctive voice.

Wasn’t sure if this would be easy or hardish for my opponent. Ultimately, I assigned this a 1, but GottschlichA missed it. Picked up a point for myself, though.

Score: 1-0

2. Since September of 1982, there have been only two productions hosted at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre, both of which are now among the top ten longest-running musicals in Broadway history. Name either one.

I wouldn’t have come up with the more recent musical, Mamma Mia!, but I was one of the millions who went to see Cats in that theater. What I recall now of that evening was the set, the unforgettable costumes, and the fact that one of the cats remained on stage during intermission — kids were allowed to go up and chat with him, which I thought that was pretty cool. What I do not recall is any sort of story or any of the music, beyond the omnipresent “Memory” and “The Rum Tum Tugger,” which for some reason was made into a music video and actually got airplay for a little while.

(Is that Terrence Mann? I believe it is.)

I assigned this a 2, and so did GottschlichA. I am 100% on theater questions, so that was a little surprising. We both got it right, though, so scorewise it was a wash.

Score: 3-2

3. The highest frequency of visible light, at about 8 x 1014 Hz, is perceived by a normal human eye as what color?

What’s this? A gimme science question? I believe I feel faint. ROY G BIV is ordered from the lowest frequency to the highest frequency, and the V stands for violet, and that’s the end of that. (I admit I considered red for a short while nonetheless.)

Here’s where the house of cards begins to lean to the side. GottschlichA is superstrong on science (24-34, second on his stats list behind math, on which he is a perfect 7-7). If this match was played in a thousand parallel universes, I am sure I zeroed this question in every single one of them. But GottschlichA missed it. I also expected more than one lousy point for my own efforts, given that science is near the bottom of my stats list.

Score: 4-2.

4. The name of Dr. Bruce Lambert, a UN expert in geodesy and cartography and director of Australia’s Division of National Mapping, lives on today as the name of what is widely believed to be the world’s largest what?

Given his credentials, my first instinct was to say “globe.” But that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. First of all, why would anyone want to make a gigantic globe? The average globe remains accurate for about a month. (Source: My imagination.) For another thing, even the largest globe imaginable would still be… a globe. No one would call it a “Lambert” or even a “Lambert Globe.” You would just say, “Wow, that’s a darn big globe. Aww, look, it still has Sudan as a single country!”

So. If not a globe, then what? A geographical feature. A body of water. The world’s largest… well, not ocean, obviously. Lake? No, surely not.

…Pond? No. Forget about water.

Oh! He’s from Australia, right? Then how about “coral reef!” Once that answer took hold, there was no shaking it. Despite the fact that I was starting from a base of complete ignorance, I still managed to be a little surprised when this turned out to be wrong. Correct answer: Glacier. Well, at least geographical features was the right train of thought.

This seemed like a tough question, and for a while I had it marked with the 3. Ultimately I decided to make this a 2 so I could reserve the 3 for the sports question. GottschlichA was wiser. Goodbye, 3 points!

Score: 4-2

5. Name either of the NBA teams that waived New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin before he was picked up by his current team on December 27, 2011.

I am not unaware of Linsanity, but things would have to get much, much more Linsane before I would be convinced to sit down and watch a basketball game. I know that Jeremy Lin attended Harvard; on the strength of that one fact, I guessed the Boston Celtics. Actual answers: The Golden State Warriors, and the Houston Rockets.

And what can I say? Ultimately my loss comes down to assuming that my math-and-science heavy opponent would not know this. There may well have been a little math-nerd stereotyping involved, but it was backed up by GottschlichA’s middling games-and-sports statistics. I assigned this the three, and GottschlichA had himself a meal.

Score: 4-5

6. The Angel Moroni is a pivotal figure in the theology of what religious denomination?

This could easily be classified as a theater question, given the success of “The Book of Mormon,” which deserves every accolade it has received, and I say that only having heard the soundtrack. Moroni pops up here and there in the lyrics, and thus this was a gimme.

GottschlichA has only the zero left to assign, and I had a 1 left. We both got this right. Final score: 4(4)-6(3).

Feb 242012

On the first day of competition, neither my opponent, HutchinsAB, nor I could get a firm grip on defense: He misassigned his zero (to the science question! Someone didn’t look at my stats!), while I handed him three whole points for celebrity identification. The result, a tie, may not be the best possible way to kick off the season, but neither is it a reason to complain.

1. Of the 46 women who have held the position of First Lady of the United States, how many of them are still living?

So let’s start with the five definites: Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, and Rosalynn Carter. (Right? Carter? Okay, four definites and a pretty-darn-sure.) On top of that we have three other possibilities: Nancy Reagan, Pat Nixon, and Lady Bird Johnson. Jackie O is obviously out of the picture, and I think we can safely exclude everybody from Mamie Eisenhower straight back to Martha Washington.

My sense was that Mrs. Reagan is still with us, Pat Nixon is not, and as for Lady Bird Johnson… she had an amazing streak of longevity, but surely she too has passed by now, right? And so, my answer: 6. Correct!

2. The character from Shakespeare (and from earlier English folklore) named Robin Goodfellow is nowadays better known as what?

The day’s gimme: Puck. I would be fine if there was a theater question every day.

3. In 1862, an American company named Chase & Sanborn became the first to pack and ship a now common form of what food commodity?

The day’s no-idea-where-to-begin. Went through a bunch of possbilities but never even considered the correct answer: Coffee. I don’t think I would have selected the right answer even from a multiple-choice list. 1862 seems awfully late for coffee to first make its debut; I assumed that milestone took place a good 100 years earlier. Ah well. Ultimately I went with sliced bread.

4. “Tahoma” is the name of a computer font developed in 1994 for Microsoft Windows, and also an original Native American name for what mountain?

The first day’s most satisfying question. I stumbled around for a little bit — Oh no! Geography! Indian words! Save me! — before I came to my senses. The font was developed for Microsoft; Microsoft is based near Seattle; what mountain is famous up thataway? Why, Mount Rainier.

5. Identify the actress in this photograph.

Nope, don’t think so. I went with Mia Wasikowska, or as I put it, “Mia Wasilowicz.” Actual answer: Rooney Mara. Oh. This was either know-it-or-you-don’t, and my opponent knew it, and got three points for it. It’s a miracle, really, that I didn’t chalk up a loss over this.

6. While most steel is manufactured using carbon as the alloying material, stainless steel is formed by alloying iron with what other element (at a minumum 11% content by mass)?

Couldn’t even come up with an intelligent guess, so I went with the rather non-intelligent guess of tin. Sturdy, sturdy tin. Correct answer: Chromium. I don’t think I would have come up with that even if we were allowed five guesses on each question.

Feb 232012

Yes, it’s been almost eight whole weeks without the sight of me blathering away about the things I know and, far more often, do not know. But now Learned League is back for its 52nd season, and for some quixotic reason, I’ll be right here with commentary on every single trivia question.

Last time around, I spent this preview post scoping out the competition in Rundle C Coastal, my home in the Learned League — and I even went so far as to accurately predict who would come out on top (Hi, Gary!). Naturally, I am honor-bound to break out the crystal ball once again.

The task is harder this time. Last season I personally knew a large percentage of the competitors in my division. This time around, that number has dwindled. There are still some familiar names, of course. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be facing off against…

– Avram Gottschlich (who I can’t say I know, per se, but he’s on my Facebook friends list, so, you know, close enough)
– Jeopardy champ Joon Pahk
– crossword champ Dan Feyer
– yet-another crossword champ Tyler Hinman
– fellow National Puzzlers’ League members Jackie Anderson, Ben Bass, John Chaneski, and Marc Spraragen
– Avram Gottschlich (who I can’t say I know, per se, but–

Wait, what? Yes, it seems that my rundle has a mere 24 competitors. And because the contest lasts 25 days, this means we all have to go up against somebody twice. This seems a little odd, considering that the next rung down on the ladder, the Coastal D rundle, has 28 members — surely someone there might have been given a field promotion to the C division, to even things out a little.

Well, it doesn’t appear that this is going to happen. The competition has begun, and the lineup is now engraved in stone. And so it’s time to ask the question: Who’s going to take the C Coastal honors?

Looking at the stats from last season, Mr. J. Craft was tops with an impressive 18-4-3 record. I have no doubt he will do well this season, too. Ben Bass and J. Crick-Smith had mighty good records as well. Any of these three are worth a moment’s consideration. But a glance slightly lower on the list shows a fellow named T. Nissley, who had a not-at-all-bad record of 16-6-3 last season, and he did it by answering 104 questions correctly, more than anybody else in our rundle. He’s pretty good on defense, too — not at the top of the stats (that honor goes to Tyler Hinman and, er, me) — but he’s in the upper half of the pack. Yes, I think I’ve got my prediction. T. Nissley, whoever you are, you’re my guy. Except when we’re going head to head, of course.

Best of luck to all of you, across the League. I look forward to kibbitzing with you over the next few weeks.

Feb 142012

Apparently MIT has started offering certificates of completion for some of its online coursework. (So far, just one class.) Is this the beginning of a sea change in the world of college education? Megan McArdle has some interesting thoughts about where this might all be going.

(I’m still very much enjoying Yale’s course on the American Revolution. It turns out that Schoolhouse Rock glossed over a few things.)

Feb 122012

Winston Breen tried and failed to maintain a Twitter account. It turns out he’s more of a visual person, and thus better suited to Pinterest. Come follow along! I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some original puzzles were posted there before too long.