My Learned League opponent on Friday was none other than game-show demigod and one-time Winston Breen blurber Ken Jennings. I don’t usually talk about how I assign points to the various trivia questions, but on this set I spent EASILY as much time on that as I did answering them. No arrangement of numbers seemed right. What was I supposed to do? The guy knows everything.
1. What was the first name of the only woman in history to have married separately a king of France and a king of England (Louis VII and Henry II, respectively)?
No idea, so I tried to pull a Lucky Johnson: I plucked from the air a random royal-sounding woman’s name — Catherine? Anne? Catherine! Real answer: Eleanor.
Ken Jenning Point Value: 1. I figured this is one of those unique historical things that trivia mavens adore.
2. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. This is the epitaph of what American author, who died in 1940 (and also the last line of his best-known novel)?
I got this right, but I’m ashamed to say this was closer to an educated guess than an oh-that’s-so-easy. How many times have I read The Great Gatsby? A half dozen times? And still I stared at this and said, “Hmm… maybe the answer is Fitzgerald? Yeah, let’s go with that.”
KJPV: Zero. Even though I wasn’t sure, I was sure that KJ would be sure. Sure sure sure. Now that word looks silly.
3. Which of the four nucleobases present in the nucleic acid of DNA is not present in RNA, where it is replaced by uracil?
Took me a while just to come up with the four letters, ACGT. Couldn’t remember what they stood for, much less which was the odd man out. My answer on this was “C” — my hope was that I’d picked the right letter and that the letter alone would be good enough. Correct answer: Thymine.
KJPV: 2. I can’t give a low value to everything, and while I had no doubt KJ could name the four bases, maybe he didn’t know which one was replaced.
4. Name the country which is the world’s sixth-smallest in land area, and one of only two to be doubly landlocked (i.e. requiring the crossing of two international borders to reach a coastline).
I headed off for Africa, and while I can name a fair number of countries there, I’m on less firm ground comparing them by land area. Finally I just said Zimbabwe. Correct answer: Liechtenstein. Oh, that would be a different continent altogether.
KJPV: 2. “Doubly landlocked countries,” like women who marry kings of two different countries, seems like something a trivia champ would just know. (Especially a guy who just wrote a book about maps!) But this still seemed harder than the questions that I assigned my 1s and zero.
5. On June 16, 2010 in Warsaw, Poland, a group of bands known as the “big four” of thrash metal, who all gained initial prominence in the mid-1980s, performed together for the first time. Six days later, their show was recorded for theatrical release and DVD/Blu-Ray titled The Big 4 Live from Sofia, Bulgaria, with DVD sales peaking at #1 on the US, UK, and Canada charts. Name any two of these “big four”.
How many ways are there to be stupid on a single question? First, I got discombobulated by the term “thrash metal,” which I decided must be distinct from “heavy metal.” Did I know any thrash metal bands? I could not imagine that I did. Well, I had to say something, so I went with the biggest metal band I know, Metallica. And it turns out this was exactly right. Oh. This is an easy question. Yay!
But wait, what am I seeing here? Name any two of these “big four.” I just named one. And, yes, having already gone with Metallica, I definitely would have said Anthrax if I had just read the question properly. (The other two are Slayer and Megadath.) Kee-rist.
KJPV: So of course I assigned this 3 points. KJ has been comparatively weak on pop music (a mere 50% correct), so with that in mind and with the notion that thrash metal was a semi-obscure sub-genre, I gave this the big number.
(Highly recommended: Some Kind of Monster, a documentary that follows Metallica around for two years as they try to make an album… and go through group therapy. Even if you hate heavy metal, you’ll come away recognizing these men as artists, struggling to produce something good and worthwhile, albeit loud and obscenity-laden. The doc goes on a little longer than it needs to, but it’s fascinating.)
6. Name the prolific Swiss mathematician who, in addition to numerous contributions in the fields of mathematics and physics, is responsible for much of the mathematical notation used today, including f(x) to denote the function f applied to the argument x, modern notation for the trigonometric functions, the letter e for the base of the natural logarithm, the Greek letter S for summations, and the letter i to denote the imaginary unit.
I have no idea why I know this. But apparently Euler is one of two mathematicians I can name. (Godel is the other, and I knew Godel wasn’t Swiss.)
KJPV: This sounded easy for smart people, so I gave it a 1.
And the result of all my strategizing? Ken got all six questions right, so I might as well have assigned the point values randomly and called it a day.
Well, at least that’s over — no more game show champions for me. Who do I have coming up next? …oh, right. My friend Chris Morse, who is one of the editors of the trivia Web site Sporcle. That should go well.