Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


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Syllabus: The Allusive Stevie Nicks

I got both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English Literature, and for quite a while there I thought I was going to become an English professor, one of those new media and popular culture types combined with a wide swath of 19th century novels and poetry. Then I watched Laura go through her Ph.D. process, and thought, “There have to be less excruciating paths to travel — maybe I’ll pursue this computer thing.”

I don’t regret for a second my decision to abandon academia, but sometimes my brain starts to spark, and I think of the classes that might have been. Recent such sparkage has been inspired by Stevie Nicks’ new album, which I’ve been listening to many times over (as should surprise few who know me.) I’ve been wanting to write about all these flying thoughts, and suddenly I realized the perfect form. It allows me to gesture grandly towards a bunch of broad themes, without having to apply any actual rigor to discussing them. Hooray! Plus, since it’s imaginary, I don’t have to try to engage with some of the more irritating (to me) aspects of what the field has become, or rather what it was 17 years ago, the last time I read a syllabus. It’s my party, and I don’t have to invite Julia Kristeva if I don’t want to…

In Her Dreams: The Allusive Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks’ 2011 album In Your Dreams serves as a capstone to her 35-year career as a singer/songwriter. Its songs both build upon and comment upon many of the themes, poetic modes, and even specific lyrics that emerge from her considerable body of work. Beyond that, they draw from a rich variety of sources — literary, cinematic, musical, autobiographical, and more. As is typical of Nicks, their meanings are layered and their referents not always clear. This class will explore issues of allusion, intertextuality, and influence both external and internal, using the work of Stevie Nicks as a lens and the structure of In Your Dreams as a frame.

We will meet once per week, with each session dedicated to exploring a different aspect of Nicks’ work, as highlighted by a particular song or songs from In Your Dreams. Naturally, these themes enrich each other, so we’ll bring them together more and more as the class goes on, with a couple of sessions at the end devoted to synthesizing what we’ve learned. Class sessions will be focused on discussion, and participation will comprise a key part of the course grade. The other elements of the grade are a final paper and two Chain Links projects, explained below in the Grading section. For each class session, course material will be assigned along with supplementary reading, viewing, or listening of interviews and documentary programs.

Your grade will be based on the following components:

1) Regular attendance and active, engaged participation in class discussions. Students are expected to have paid careful attention to that week’s assigned material, be it words, music, or video, and to arrive in class having already thought through some of its implications and interconnections. I encourage you to do further reading and listening beyond what’s assigned — the more you know, the better you’ll be able to recognize important connections.

2) Two Chain Links projects. As we’ll see in this course, Nicks’ work is deeply engaged with a panoply of sources, works that resonate and harmonize with each other. Together, these works form a web of influence, “the web that is my own” as she sings in “Edge of Seventeen.” The purpose of Chain Links projects is to add to this web. The nature of what you create can be fairly free-form: songs, films, essays, stories, poems, paintings, plays, and computer games are all examples of viable projects. However, while their form is flexible, their content must meet some specific requirements. First, all Chain Links projects must be engaged with Nicks’ work, either directly or on a clear thematic level. Secondly, all Chain Links projects must be approved by me in advance. Meetings will be scheduled during my office hours for these approvals. I also strongly recommend that you bring works in progress to me for coaching sessions, to ensure that you’re on the right track. Because of the flexible nature of these assignments, grading is highly subjective — let’s be sure we’re on the same page.

3) A final research paper, 12-15 pages in length. This is a thesis-driven paper on a topic of your choice, due at the final exam session for the course. As with the Chain Links projects, you are required to discuss your topic with me before turning in your final paper. I expect a research paper to be original in its conception, rigorous in its argument, and polished in its execution. Remember, an “A” paper is one that teaches me something.

Final evaluation components are weighted as follows:
20%: Participation
20%: First Chain Links project
20%: Second Chain Links project
40%: Final paper

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Fleetwood: My Life And Adventures In Fleetwood Mac, Mick Fleetwood
Storms: My Life With Lindsey Buckingham And Fleetwood Mac, Carol Ann Harris
Complete Stories And Poems, Edgar Allan Poe
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
Interview With The Vampire, Anne Rice
The Vampire Lestat, Anne Rice
Reading Packet: Selected articles and interviews

New Moon, Chris Weitz
The Dance, Fleetwood Mac
Selected interviews and program excerpts

Fleetwood Mac – “Angel” [Tusk]
Fleetwood Mac – “Destiny Rules” [Say You Will]
Fleetwood Mac – “Dreams” [Rumours]
Fleetwood Mac – “Everybody Finds Out” [Say You Will]
Fleetwood Mac – “Eyes Of The World” [Mirage]
Fleetwood Mac – “Freedom” [Behind The Mask]
Fleetwood Mac – “Gypsy” [Mirage]
Fleetwood Mac – “Illume (9/11)” [Say You Will]
Fleetwood Mac – “I’m So Afraid” [Fleetwood Mac]
Fleetwood Mac – “Not Make Believe” [mp3 provided]
Fleetwood Mac – “Silver Springs” (1997 live version) [The Dance]
Fleetwood Mac – “Sisters Of The Moon” [Tusk]
Fleetwood Mac – “Storms” [Tusk]
Fleetwood Mac – “Sweet Girl” [The Dance]
Fleetwood Mac – “That’s Alright” [Mirage]
Stevie Nicks – In Your Dreams [full album]
Stevie Nicks – “After The Glitter Fades” [Bella Donna]
Stevie Nicks – “Battle Of The Dragon” [Enchanted]
Stevie Nicks – “Bella Donna” [Bella Donna]
Stevie Nicks – “Candlebright” [Trouble In Shangri-La]
Stevie Nicks – “Desert Angel” [Timespace]
Stevie Nicks – “Edge Of Seventeen” [Bella Donna]
Stevie Nicks – “Enchanted” [The Wild Heart]
Stevie Nicks – “Fire Burning” [The Other Side Of The Mirror]
Stevie Nicks – “Ghosts” [The Other Side Of The Mirror]
Stevie Nicks – “Have No Heart” (demo) [mp3 provided]
Stevie Nicks – “I Can’t Wait” [Rock A Little]
Stevie Nicks – “If Anyone Falls…” [The Wild Heart]
Stevie Nicks – “Lady From The Mountain” (demo) [mp3 provided]
Stevie Nicks – “Leather And Lace” [Bella Donna]
Stevie Nicks – “Long Way To Go” [The Other Side Of The Mirror]
Stevie Nicks – “Love Is” [Trouble In Shangri-La]
Stevie Nicks – “No Spoken Word” [Rock A Little]
Stevie Nicks – “Rooms On Fire” [The Other Side Of The Mirror]
Stevie Nicks – “Rose Garden” [Street Angel]
Stevie Nicks – “Secret Love” (demo) [mp3 provided]
Stevie Nicks – “Sleeping Angel” [Enchanted]
Stevie Nicks – “Sorcerer” [Trouble In Shangri-La]
Stevie Nicks – “Stand Back” [The Wild Heart]
Stevie Nicks – “Street Angel” [Street Angel]
Stevie Nicks – “Touched By An Angel” [Sweet November Soundtrack]
Stevie Nicks – “The Wild Heart” [The Wild Heart]
Selected interviews

Supplemental interviews and articles will be assigned each week along with the scheduled reading, listening, and viewing.

Week 1: Introduction — A brief history of Stevie
In-class listening: “The Chain”, “Dreams”, “Go Your Own Way”

Week 2: “Must secret loves secretly die?” — Clandestine romance and veiled autobiography
Reading due: Fleetwood: My Life And Adventures In Fleetwood Mac
Listening due: “Secret Love”, “Stand Back”, “Everybody Finds Out”, “Secret Love” (demo)

Week 3: “Part of a great romance” — Retrospection and introspection
Reading due: Storms: My Life With Lindsey Buckingham And Fleetwood Mac
Listening due: “For What It’s Worth”, “Rose Garden”, “Love Is”, “Sweet Girl”

Week 4: “Always in and out of your light” — Power struggles and regrets
Reading due: Jane Eyre
Listening due: “In Your Dreams”, “Dreams”, “Silver Springs”, “Bella Donna”
Viewing due: The Dance

Week 5: “In the smoke and the fire” — Fiction and reality
First Chain Links project due
Reading due: Wide Sargasso Sea
Listening due: “Wide Sargasso Sea”, “Fire Burning”, “I Can’t Wait”, “No Spoken Word”

Week 6: “I stare at my city” — Permeable roles and the general maternal
Reading due: Interview With The Vampire
Listening due: “New Orleans”, “Illume (9/11)”, “Ghosts”

Week 7: “The candle burns bright” — Rock and roll vampires
Reading due: The Vampire Lestat
Listening due: “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream)”, “Candlebright”, “Lady From The Mountain” (demo), “Sorcerer”
Viewing due: New Moon

Week 8: “The moon never beams without bringing me dreams” — American gothicism
Reading due: Selections from Edgar Allan Poe
Listening due: “Annabel Lee”, “Gypsy”, “Have No Heart” (demo), “Storms”, “Edge Of Seventeen”

Week 9: “I am a soldier’s mother” — Permeable roles and the specific maternal
Listening due: “Soldier’s Angel”, “Desert Angel”, “Eyes Of The World”, “Battle Of The Dragon”, “Freedom”

Week 10: “But you’re so alone” — Isolation within adulation
Second Chain Links project due
Listening due: “Everybody Loves You”, “Sisters Of The Moon”, “Not Make Believe”, “Enchanted”

Week 11: “Like a ghost through the fog” — Closures and hauntings
Listening due: “Ghosts Are Gone”, “Angel”, “Long Way To Go”
Listening to revisit: “Sweet Girl”, “Silver Springs”, “Ghosts”

Week 12: “Love was everywhere, you just had to fall” — Storybook romance
Listening due: “Italian Summer”, “The Wild Heart”, “If Anyone Falls…”, “Destiny Rules”, “Rooms On Fire”

Week 13: “I used to dream that you were an angel” — Resonance of recurring themes
Listening due: “You May Be The One”, “Sleeping Angel”, “Touched By An Angel”, “Street Angel”, “I’m So Afraid”

Week 14: “Deeper than a deep well” — Country music and love songs
Listening due: “Cheaper Than Free”, “Leather And Lace”, “After The Glitter Fades”, “That’s Alright”

M-m-m-my TCONA! [Days 2 and 3]

On day 2 of TCONA, the first trivia event was scheduled at 8:30am, but it was the Quiz Bowl Seeding Test, which I co-wrote. So I wouldn’t be taking it, which was all for the best, since I’d had a late night. I left my sister asleep in our room and toddled on down to the conference room around 9:45, as the test was breaking up.

The next event was “LearnedLeague Live!”, hosted by Shayne Bushfield, or rather his alter ego, Commissioner Thorsten A. Integrity. If you’re not familiar with LearnedLeague, it requires a bit of explanation. The game is played over the Internet, six questions per day in a variety of categories, and with varying levels of challenge. The twist is that each 6-question match places you head-to-head against another player. You must not only answer the questions, but also play defense against the other player by assigning a point value to each question — a zero, two ones, two twos, and a three. The points are how much the other player will score upon answering the question right. Consequently, you’re required to both assess the difficulty of each question and also guess your opponent’s chances at getting it right, depending on his or her skills in the category. And LL provides zillions of stats, so you can make this analysis just as painstaking as you like.

When I first heard about the game, it sounded a bit overwhelming, intimidating, and time-consuming. I stayed away for a while, and then even after I was ready to join, I had to wait to be invited by a trivia buddy. Now that I’m in it, I love it. The questions are excellent, the format is fun, and the whole thing is quite addictive. The live version of it was a lot of fun too. The group was seated at a bunch of tables, 8 people to a table. Each player was assigned a number and given a packet of questions. Then we faced off in a series of 7 four-minute matches — you’d turn the page to reveal the questions, scribble down your answers and assign points to them, then the Commissioner would read off the answers. You’d compare notes with your opponent to learn your scores, and figure out who won the match. Here’s a sample set of questions, along with the point values I gave them and whether I got them right or wrong:

  1. Name the three yellow properties in the standard American version of the board game Monopoly. (1 point, wrong)
  2. This 1942 Aaron Copland ballet tells the story of a young woman, accomplished in all the skills of a cowpoke, who hopes to attract the attentions of the head wrangler on a ranch; commensurate with the pre-feminist tradition of the day, he is unimpressed by her skill but succumbs to her charms when she trades her cowboy duds for a dress and shows a more “womanly” side at the ranch dance. (3 points, wrong)
  3. Among other things, this film is known for G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C. (0, right)
  4. The holiest city of Zoroastrianism, Rhaga, is today known as Rey, a suburb of what western Asian city? (2, wrong)
  5. What is the mode in this number series? 1,2,2,3,3,4,4,4,5,5,5,5,13,17,17 (2, right)
  6. This word can be used generally to apply to any appendix or supplement, but when used as a legal term refers specifically to an amendment to a will. (1, right)

It was a whole lot of fun. I ended up with a record of 3-2-2, which is pretty comparable to how I tend to perform in online LL (I ended my first season 13-11-1, and I’m 18-15-3 overall.) That meant that I didn’t advance to the championship round which was held later that day. My teammate (and tablemate, and the guy who actually invited me to LL) George Doro did, though, and ended up taking the silver medal overall! (Did I mention that TCONA gave out actual medals to event winning individuals and teams? It was pretty cool.)

After lunch was one of my favorite parts of the entire event: a panel featuring Ken Jennings, Bob Harris, and Ed Toutant, talking about Jennings’ match (with Brad Rutter, who bailed on TCONA in the 11th hour) against IBM’s Watson computer. This, as you may know, was an event that I found fascinating, so a live panel on it with Jennings himself was catnip for me. Even better, it turns out that Toutant, in addition to being rich and famous (well, game-show famous), spent his career as an IBM engineer, and served as a consultant to the team that built Watson. He observed the computer’s behavior in its middle stages, and wrote a report that provided his insights as both a software designer and a game-show expert. After that, he played against Watson in its final practice matches before it went in front of the cameras. Toutant’s report is available online at I particularly enjoyed his entry on gamesmanship, which not only has very insightful tips about Jeopardy! strategy, but finally explains why Watson chose such bizarre dollar amounts for its Daily Double wagers!

The panel explained that there are four strategic elements in Jeopardy:

  1. Daily Double wagering
  2. Picking a square
  3. Buzzing or not
  4. Final Jeopardy wagering

Watson was programmed to take advantage of all these strategic elements to the best of its ability. It picked squares to maximize its chances of finding a Daily Double — these generally occur in the harder clues (the bottom 3 clues of each row), and I was fascinated to discover that according to the unbelievably comprehensive J! Archive, the first column on the board has by far the highest percentage of Daily Doubles found. Watson based its buzz on its confidence level — a delay was intentionally built in on answers where Watson was less confident. And the reason why it wagered such peculiar numbers for Daily Doubles was basically to increase its chances of screwing up an opponent’s mental math. As Toutant wrote, “One of the most challenging parts of Jeopardy! for many players is the need to do quick math in their head under pressure, especially when making a bet. It is always easier for humans to do math that involves only round numbers. Unlike humans, Watson can’t get flustered and forget to carry the one during addition. So Watson should exploit his inherent math superiority by never using a round number on a Daily Double wager… This may give viewers the impression that Watson’s thinking is very precise, but the real motivation is to make the math more difficult for his opponents when they have to make a wager.”

Another great aspect of this panel, and of TCONA in general, was the opportunity to spend some time with Jennings. I wasn’t watching Jeopardy during his run, so he isn’t an icon to me at quite the level he is to some people, but he’s still the closest thing the trivia world to has a rock star. How cool it is, then, that he is down to earth, funny, and personable. In a roomful of trivia nerds, social skills stand out, and Jennings excels in this arena. Interestingly, he didn’t dominate every competition. He held his own, but was beaten in some events. I ended up convinced that his knowledge is very strong, but what made him so hard to beat in Jeopardy was his extraordinary touch on the buzzer — he’s just about peerless in this physical aspect of trivia. Well, unless he’s competing against a computer. Jennings’ own account of TCONA is here.

After the panel were the quiz bowl matches. If you’re not familiar with the quiz bowl format, I explain it here. I think it is still my favorite trivia format. It combines individual challenge (in the toss-ups) with team synergy (in the bonuses), and it encourages that zen trivia flow state that I love. This time, unfortunately, the fates were not with my team. The six-person Anti-Social network added a couple of friends and split into two four-person teams. In addition to that, our team took on an extra person, a Las Vegas native who had shown up solo at TCONA and was seeking a team to join with. He was knowledgeable, but a bit eager, and not terribly accustomed to the format, so there was a bit of a breaking-in period there. Unfortunately, once that period was over, we only had a couple of games left. We played five games in a round-robin format, and ended up doing well in the later ones, but it wasn’t enough to advance us to the finals. On the plus side, I got to spend some time with Dave Gatch, who wasn’t participating in TCONA as a player, but who came out to Vegas to serve as a reader for the quiz bowl portion. (Dave and his mom come to Vegas a lot, so apparently it wasn’t a big sacrifice.)

After flaming out in the quiz bowl, that was pretty much it for my trivia day — the only other events that day were playoffs for which I hadn’t qualified. So that meant that my sister and I got to hit the town! We took the monorail to the Bellagio, saw the fountains, gambled a bit. She took me to a fancy dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Olives, where we had so much delicious food. Once again, we wandered around gambling and hanging out. I taught her a bit more about video poker and she taught me a bit more about slots. At the end, we headed back to Bill’s room for a little more pseudo-Jeopardy, then gambled into the night. It was a great, great time, and a great close to a second day of Vegas and trivia.

Day 3 was playoffs and championships, and I wasn’t much involved. I stuck around to watch the quiz bowl finals, but for some inexplicable reason they chose to repeat a set of questions for the semi-finals — not a lot of fun to sit and watch the same questions asked twice. So I bowed out at some point and went to a final buffet lunch with my sister before she caught her plane for home. I still had one more night at the hotel — I had tickets to see The Beatles’ LOVE (Cirque Du Soleil show) at the Mirage that night. I decided after hearing the album that I had to make a pilgrimage to see the show, so there was no question that if I was in Las Vegas, I’d be going.

And I’m so, so glad I did, but that experience deserves a post all its own. For now, let’s revisit those Learned League questions:

  1. Name the three yellow properties in the standard American version of the board game Monopoly. Atlantic Avenue, Ventnor Avenue, Marvin Gardens
  2. This 1942 Aaron Copland ballet tells the story of a young woman, accomplished in all the skills of a cowpoke, who hopes to attract the attentions of the head wrangler on a ranch; commensurate with the pre-feminist tradition of the day, he is unimpressed by her skill but succumbs to her charms when she trades her cowboy duds for a dress and shows a more “womanly” side at the ranch dance. Rodeo (You’ve probably heard its most famous song, Hoe-Down).
  3. Among other things, this film is known for G, A, F, (octave lower) F, C. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (This.)
  4. The holiest city of Zoroastrianism, Rhaga, is today known as Rey, a suburb of what western Asian city? Tehran
  5. What is the mode in this number series? 1,2,2,3,3,4,4,4,5,5,5,5,13,17,17 5 (Mode means the number occurring most often.)
  6. This word can be used generally to apply to any appendix or supplement, but when used as a legal term refers specifically to an amendment to a will. Codicil

I ended up tying my opponent in this match, with a score of 5 points each.

Good Answers

I said before that I was all out of question-writing advice. That’s still true. And I did miss the Basement Bowl, which was a bummer. (Though the trip to Estes Park was very nice.) But the trivia fire is not extinguished! Far from it. I’ve got my tickets and hotel squared away for TCONA, and I’m midway through my rookie season in the Learned League, thanks to a friendly invitation. (Mixed results thus far — I’m 9-8-1, currently ranked 16th in a field of 34.)

So I’ve come up with more to say, but this time from the player’s perspective. Here are some of my rules of thumb as a trivia player. As with all advice, your mileage may vary.


I see this mistake happen at all levels, from friendly games of Trivial Pursuit to contestants competing on Jeopardy!, where it can have a devastating effect. And heaven knows I’ve been guilty of it myself plenty of times — all the more reason it’s worth keeping in mind. Simply put, you should seek to provide the minimum amount of information necessary for your answer to be considered correct, based on the game’s format.

The most common example: if the answer is a name, and the game’s rules say that the last name is sufficient, do not provide the first name. Oh sure, most of the time it won’t cause you a problem. You know that the guy who wore number 23 for the Bulls was Michael Jordan and not, say, Herman Jordan. But if you are in the habit of providing first names when only last names are required, at some point, that habit will eventually bite you. I guarantee it. Your brain will mix up similar names, or swap two famous people with the same last name, and when that happens, you’ll have just missed a question that you did not need to miss. Far better, then, to be in the opposite habit — provide only last names for all name-based answers. If more specificity is required, you’ll have the chance to provide it. (Unless, of course, the game’s rules say otherwise, in which case, fairly warned be thee, says I.)

Hubris in general is dangerous in the trivia world. Not as dangerous as it is in questions of who to marry and who to kill, of course, but still… dangerous. It’s so easy, when you feel confident, to want to show off just a little. Take for instance this Learned League question from a few days ago:

Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of _____ and _____, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write “however” or “than me” or “was” or “which,” but can’t tell you why. This quote comes from a recent critical analysis of a book first published broadly in 1959. Name either the work being reviewed, or both of the names redacted from the quote.

When I read this, I didn’t know the answer for sure, but the one that made the most sense to me, given the other data in the question, was “Strunk and White.” I felt about 85% certain that this was the right answer. If I was thinking of the right book, I was dead certain about the names of the authors, and about 95% certain that the book in question was called The Elements Of Style. And I came very close to answering the question with “Strunk and White (The Elements Of Style).” But then I got a tiny little bell ringing in my ear. The question asked for either the authors or the title. How dumb would I feel if I was misremembering the title, and got the question wrong despite knowing enough to get it right? So I simply answered “Strunk and White.” As it turned out, I was right about both, but I felt pleased that I’d exercised the correct discipline in answering.


It’s probably reaching to call this one “advice.” It’s more of a personal preference. From time to time, I’ll hear a question, and an answer will pop into my head, but without much accompanying certainty about its correctness. So I’ll start to doubt myself, and think of another answer that seems plausible, but about which I’m equally unsure. So now I’m faced with a choice: do I go with my first guess, or my second guess?

My teammate George Doro recently wrote, “I’ve given up on having a rule of thumb about going with my first instinct. I estimate my success rate is in the neighborhood of 50% when it comes to deciding to keep my first answer or going with another.” For me, I’m not so sure that the split is quite so even — I think my first answer is correct slightly more often than my revised answer — but there are certainly plenty of times when the first answer is wrong and the second answer is right. However, in this situation, my preference is to go with my first answer, for two reasons.

The first is psychological. Naturally, in this situation it’s annoying to choose the wrong guess and gratifying to choose the right one. However, for me, the annoyance I feel is greater when I’ve wrongly abandoned my first answer for a self-doubting second, as opposed to the other way round. Correspondingly, it’s even more satisfying for me to get a question right when I’ve stuck with my initial instinct than when I’ve gone back on it. Second-guessing myself doesn’t feel good, and it’s irksome to do it and be wrong about it. So in the interest of maximizing my personal mood state, I prefer to take my first choice.

There’s another, deeper reason, though. It has to do with part of what I find so pleasurable and satisfying about trivia, which could be an essay in itself. (And, let’s face it, probably will be at some point.) So brace yourselves, because it’s about to get a little philosophical up in here.

Trivia, like music and dreams, engages the unconscious. It has a meditative, zen quality, in that if you can get your ego out of the way, it’s possible to achieve a flow state in which you can find answers you didn’t know you knew. This is far, far from easy. Much more often, at least for me, I find myself reaching for things I know that I know, but unable to retrieve them. But I am constantly seeking that state. When I’m in it, that answer popping into my head is very likely to be the right one, because I’ve unblocked the channel between the deep reserves of the brain and the surface world of moment-to-moment experience. (Ego, distraction, and self-consciousness are almost always the blocks.)

That’s one of the reasons I love answering toss-up questions, especially pyramid-style toss-up questions. Often, at some point in listening to the question, the answer will appear before me, and all I need to do is let it out. Yes, there is the risk that I’ve got it wrong and will incur a 5-point penalty and block my team from answering, but more often, allowing that answer through is the right thing to do. So I try to cultivate in myself the ability to reach that flow state, and therefore I prefer to allow that first instinctive answer to take precedence, rather than override it with second thoughts.

Of course, when I think of a second answer and it feels much more instinctively right than the first answer I thought of, all bets are off.


Different games call for different strategies, and sometimes being acquainted with that strategy can make the difference between winning or losing, or between a high score and a middling score. For instance, there are games on Sporcle that call for a bunch of names (last name sufficient), which don’t have to be entered in order. Take, for instance, a quiz about naming Supreme Court justices. Obviously, the first thing to do in one of these is to name the ones you actually know. Nobody’s ever going to guess “Sotomayor” or “Rehnquist” just blindly stabbing.

But once you’ve run out of knowledge, and there’s still time on the clock, start working through the list of common last names in your head. Fun fact — according to the 1990 census, the top 15 most common last names in America are these: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore, Taylor, Anderson, Thomas, Jackson, White, Harris. Working through this list in the Supreme Court Justices quiz yields 9 hits out of 15 (which works out to 6 correct answers, since they’re grouped by first letter.) Learned League even has a term for success with this technique: “Lucky Johnson”, defined as “Giving a very general answer as a guess on a question, and getting it right. ‘Johnson’ is derived from the practice of giving the same common last name (e.g. Johnson) for every unknown person-related answer, and discovering an occasion where the name is correct.”

Another example of working the format sometimes comes up in a Geeks Who Drink game. Generally, the third round is a 50-50 format, meaning that there are only two right answers. This can be true or false, but it can also be plenty of other things — one I remember was all South Park questions in which the answer was either “Timmy” or “Jimmy.” When your team has a clue on the answers, of course you should put down the answers you think are correct. However, when you do NOT have a clue, as sometimes happens, it is to your advantage to write the same answer for every question. If you wildly guess at Timmy or Jimmy when you’ve never watched a South Park episode in your life, you could easily end up with zero questions correct. However, if you put down Timmy for every single answer, you’re inevitably going to get at least 3 or 4 points.


I said earlier that trivia is like music in that it engages the unconscious. Well, another way it’s like music is that practice is essential to becoming a virtuoso. There are plenty of ways to get that practice in. It’s probably clear at this point that Sporcle has become one of my favorites. Another is watching Jeopardy!, or Millionaire, or any other trivia-oriented contest. And of course, actually playing trivia games is a great way to practice, but that opportunity may not always be available, especially if your leisure time is constricted like mine is.

I find that when I’ve been practicing my trivia mind exercises, a great cross-pollination starts to occur, like tapping into a zeitgeist. Suddenly Jeopardy starts asking the same questions I just answered on Sporcle yesterday, and the Learned League is rehashing topics that just came up at the Basement Bowl.

Of course, the greatest method of practice I’ve ever found is to write questions. When you’ve written a question about something, you’re much more likely to remember it than any other way of acquainting yourself with it, including answering questions about it. There’s an amazing confidence that comes along with getting asked a question that you yourself have written to ask someone else. Which I suppose brings me round to the beginning of this series. I want to be a good trivia player, and a good trivia writer, and I find that these practices nurture each other, twining into a braid that’s much stronger than either would be by itself.

Good Questions, part 1

Now, it’s true that I’ve had some trivia experience. However, I wouldn’t exactly claim to be an expert on question-writing. Compared to many of the people I know from that world, I’m a raw newbie. Not only that, there are people out there in the world who actually make their living (or at least a side income) from writing questions, like for example Paul Paquet, who penned just about the best article I’ve seen on writing good quiz questions.

Nevertheless, I’ve been writing trivia questions for a number of years now, and along the way I’ve contracted some opinions on what makes a question good or not-so-good. And what is a blog for if not to toss your unsolicited, inexpert opinions out to a disinterested world? So without further preamble, here are some of the principles I’ve found important in question-writing.


This is one of those pieces of advice that really applies to any kind of writing. It’s even more crucial in writing for a game, though, because when you’re writing something static like a novel or (say) a blog post, your reader can walk away with impunity. Interaction increases audience investment in the experience, giving you a bit more of a captive audience, especially when the interaction is of a social nature, like trivia. Be a good captor. Write questions suited for your, um, prisoners. Okay, I’m walking away from this metaphor before it turns into an extended meditation on Stockholm syndrome.

I’ve primarily written trivia questions for two sets of people. One set is the Basement Bowl regulars, trivia enthusiasts (and often champions) whose collective knowledge is astonishing. The other set is my co-workers — for several years I published a weekly trivia quiz at my job to promote social mixing, have fun at work, and raise morale. (It worked great until I got too isolated, overworked, and demoralized.) The trivia came in different formats, but the differences were deeper than that. I pitched the questions differently, because the two groups have different ideas of fun. For instance, I might write a question like this for the Basement Bowl:

Some directors’ first films were huge, memorable hits. Others… not so much. I’ll give you a director’s first film along with its year of release, you name the director, for ten points each. The films I’m choosing are feature-length, theatrically released in the U.S., and solely directed by that person.
1. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
2. Hard Eight (1996)
3. Eight (1998)
4. Cars That Eat People (1974)

When I posed that same question for my co-workers, I gave the director’s first three films:

1. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), Catch-22 (1970)
2. Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999)
3. Eight (1998), Billy Elliot (2000), The Hours (2002)
4. Cars That Eat People (1974), Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), Black Rain (1977)

[Answers at the bottom of this post]

On my co-workers’ quiz, I also provided 26 more questions, including people with a very recognizable first few films: Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Moore, David Lynch, Woody Allen, etc. Why? Because your basic group of office workers, who are doing trivia as a fun break, are not likely to be the sort of film fiends who would recognize a lot of obscure early work from now-famous directors. If they don’t have a clue on any of the questions, they’re likely to roll their eyes and never take one of these stupid quizzes again. Nobody likes to be completely stumped over and over again. Which leads me to my next point…


Trivia is supposed to be fun, and there’s nothing fun about feeling like an idiot. A good trivia game should leave you feeling smart, not stupid. That means that you should pitch your questions to a range with “fairly easy” on one end and “fairly difficult” on the other. Actually, “pitch” is the wrong metaphor — a pitcher is trying to prevent the batter from getting a hit, but a quizmaster should not be trying to prevent players from getting right answers. It’s not very hard to stump trivia players, even the greatest trivia players. In fact, I’d say that anybody can write a question that will stump a given person. All you have to do is ask for obscure enough information. Nobody knows it all, nor should they need to. The experience you should be trying to provide is one of success mixed with challenge.

I aim for about a 70/30 ratio between these two, but of course I rarely hit that. Gauging difficulty is one of the hardest things to do in writing questions, especially in areas where you either know a whole lot or very little. In the former case, all the information feels so familiar that it’s hard to get a sense of what a regular person might know. For instance, I’d have difficulty writing a full Simpsons quiz without a little feedback from somebody who hasn’t watched the show for ages. Is asking for the Simpsons’ address a hard question or an easy question? Seems easy to me, but I don’t trust my perceptions about it.

By the same token, when you know very little about a subject, all the questions seem hard. One of my running jokes in the Basement Bowl is that I always apologize for my sports questions in advance, because I very frequently have only a dim sense of how easy or hard they might be. I look at each one and think, “I sure would never have known that without looking it up!” Knowing I’m going to err, I try to err on the side of success.

So if kicking ass is more fun, why not make all the questions super easy? Well, because if you’re answering questions that practically any literate person could get without effort, you don’t feel like you’re kicking ass. Consider this question: “This network is home to Good Morning America, Cougar Town, Grey’s Anatomy, Nightline, and The Academy Awards. It also shares its name with the first three letters of the alphabet. What is it?” The first sentence is a fair question for general audiences, but the second sentence makes it into a terrible question for almost all audiences. What’s fun about being quizzed on things that a four-year-old would know? (Unless you are a four-year-old, of course — see “Know Your Audience.”) The one situation in which I could see this question working is a buzzer-beater game, in which the questions start out giving an advantage based on knowledge, but if nobody can capitalize on that advantage, it turns into a “fastest thumb” challenge.

On the “fairly difficult” side of the spectrum, as I said, the goal shouldn’t be to stump people. There are some questions in every game that a player just isn’t going to know, and that’s fine. What’s important is to avoid asking questions that nobody would know. Ideally, you want players to look back on the questions they missed and think, “I should have known that!”, not “Who on earth would know that?” The other good reason to have fairly difficult questions in the mix is that sometimes they give players the opportunity to reach out and clock an unexpected home run, which is the most kick-ass feeling of all. (Wow, the baseball metaphors sure are offering themselves to me tonight.)


Here’s a sample question from my “Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Trivia Challenge” calendar:

In 1965, Leo Fender sold his Fender Guitar Company to CBS for what price?
a. $13 million
b. $19 million
c. $22 million

Remember when I said that you don’t want players to look at a question and think, “Who on earth would know that?” Well, an even worse reaction to generate is, “Who on earth would care about that?” Which is exactly what I think when I see this question. The sale amount for a guitar company is a very banal piece of information. About the only person who’d have an emotional attachment to the difference between these numbers is Leo Fender himself. Trivia calendar, Leo Fender is not your audience. In general, this calendar feels like the product of somebody combing through a book of “This Day In Rock History” facts. Which means that you get some pretty good and interesting questions (“Which album by Johnny Cash was the first country album to top the U.S. pop chart?”) but a lot of questions like the one above. If I were this person’s editor, I would emphasize the fact that we’re supposed to care about the answer.

What could make this question better? Well, if it were actually an interesting amount of money, that’d make it reasonable. For instance, if the multiple choice answers were “a) $1,300 b) $13 million c) $130 million”, that’d be a step in the right direction. Each of those answers tells a pretty different story about what that sale might have meant to Fender, and whether the company was valued properly, which is likely to be more compelling information. Of course, it’d be even better if the answer were one of the outliers, but it isn’t.

Another way to improve it might be to switch around what the question is actually asking about: “In 1965, who sold his guitar company to CBS for $13 million?” That doesn’t quite get us there, though, because (in my opinion) it falls outside the realm of something the average music fan could reasonably be expected to know. So we’d want to inject a hint or two in there: “In 1965, what designer of the Telecaster and the Stratocaster sold his guitar company to CBS for $13 million?” Now we’re asking for an association that is fair game for music fans, and we’ve got ourselves a reasonable trivia question.

I’ve got more, but it’ll have to wait, because this post has gone on long enough. Meanwhile, how about some answers?

First films:
1. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966) — Mike Nichols
2. Hard Eight (1996) — Paul Thomas Anderson
3. Eight (1998) — Stephen Daldry
4. Cars That Eat People (1974) — Peter Weir

The Simpsons live at 742 Evergreen Terrace in Springfield, which is famously vague about what state it’s in.

According to the calendar, Ring Of Fire was the first country album to top the pop chart. Wikipedia doesn’t seem to want to corroborate that today — it says the album only reached #26, though it was “the first #1 album when Billboard debuted their Country Album Chart on Jan. 11, 1964.” Not that Wikipedia is an authoritative source or anything, but neither is the RRHOF calendar.

What is “the future”?

That post about the art of the trivia question is still brewing, but I got sidetracked this week by another event in the trivia world. You may have heard about it. Watson, an IBM supercomputer, played two games of Jeopardy! against that show’s most famous champions, and thoroughly trounced the both of them.

A number of friends who watched the match complained that it was boring. If what you were looking for was a tense, movie-like contest with the drama of close scores or a come-from-behind victory, I can certainly see why you’d be disappointed. It had all the drama of the 49ers annihilating the Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. On the other hand, if what you were looking for was a glimpse of the world to come, in the form of a breathtaking technical achievement, this match absolutely delivered the goods.

See, some people tend to think computers are smart, and that of course a computer could beat a human at Jeopardy!, given a sufficiently broad knowledge base for its answers. But really, that’s a case of misplaced signifiers. Many human brains find rapid mental arithmetic of large or complex numbers difficult, and therefore associate it with intelligence. Computers happen to be fantastic at this kind of thing. The chess club is full of smart kids, and therefore chess must be a smart person’s game. Knowing that a computer could defeat the chess world champion must mean that computers are smart, right?

Here’s the thing, though. Computers are great at one thing: computing. Arithmetic is computation. Chess, at a sufficient level of abstraction, is also computation. The further away from numbers you move, the dumber computers become, meaning that for the vast majority of tasks our brains do each day, computers are extremely stupid. “Natural language”, aka the way we humans talk to each other, is an enormous challenge for a computer to deal with, as anyone playing interactive fiction for the first time could tell you. (Though the idea that better parsing of natural language will automatically make for better IF is another case of misplaced signifiers — better understanding of language is great and everything, but the more important part of IF is its model world. Advancing the parser just means the model world’s seams show more quickly.) Because computers lack human experience, they are stunningly bad at dealing with linguistic context, and are therefore capable of spectacular misunderstandings when faced with any language outside the very limited domains for which they’re programmed.

Watson is no exception to this, but it has a few advantages that other machines lack. For one thing, there’s an enormous amount of processing power behind it: some 90 servers, over 21 terabytes of data, 15 terabytes of RAM, and 80 teraflops of throughput. More important, though, are a couple of its conceptual approaches to knowledge.

First, through a paradigm called machine learning, Watson learns by example, getting better and better at the game as he sees more and more Jeopardy [leaving the exclamation point off from here on out] clues and their correct answers. It would be ridiculously impractical to try to construct a set of rules that would allow a computer to recognize every possible Jeopardy question, so instead Watson’s creators gave it a framework for recognizing associations between question words, answer words, and source texts, then fed it tens of thousands of Jeopardy clues as examples. This technique enabled Watson to make a huge leap in its Jeopardy prowess.

The other key aspect of Watson is its embrace of uncertainty. Watson doesn’t deal in right answers and wrong answers. It deals in answers that are more likely to be right vs. less likely to be right. Thus, when faced with the clue, “The parents of this 52nd governor of New York immigrated to the United States from Salerno, Italy,” we see its top three answers thus:

Three responses in a vertical list, each one with a confidence score and a bar indicating the score. Mario Cuomo is listed first, with 98% confidence and a nearly full green bar. Motorcycle club and Marine Corps are the next two answers listed, each with 8% confidence and a mostly empty bar with some red at the left edge.

Watson was quite certain that “Mario Cuomo” was the correct answer, but hadn’t entirely ruled out the far crazier answers “motorcycle club” and “Marine Corps.” Indeed, if what you’re seeking is comedy, look no further than Watson’s runner-up answers.

Laughs aside, though, it’s this uncertainty which makes Watson so formidable. In a frequently-cited example, Watson can look at the name “Alice Cooper” and weigh the evidence that Alice is a woman’s name against the evidence that Alice Cooper is a man, give each pile of evidence a score, and come to its own conclusion. A strictly rule-bound computer would have to be given a specific exception to handle this case. Watson can generate its own exception, thereby improving its knowledge base. As a co-worker of mine pointed out, isn’t this a hallmark of intelligence? The capacity to allow for the possibility that we may not know everything or fully understand the world is an incredibly powerful tool in the search for truth.

So as a computer, Watson rocks. But Jeopardy is an entertainment program, not a science program. Is it fun to watch Watson play Jeopardy? George Doro, my teammate in the Anti-Social Network, called it “more fascinating than exciting,” and that’s right on target. IBM branded the hell out of this show, and it would have been a black eye for them had Watson lost. Consequently, a few gameplay decisions were made which helped Watson win, but made the show a little less fun.

First off, Watson was allowed to be lightning-fast on the buzzer. People think of Jeopardy as a purely mental game, but unlike chess, there’s a physical component of Jeopardy. People (and computers) with faster reflexes do far better on the show — it doesn’t matter if you know 100% of the answers when you’re getting outbuzzed 80% of the time. Trying to play buzzer-beaters against a computer is like running a 500-yard dash against a car. Watson didn’t have to be this quick — just subtract a little of that processing power until the computer’s average buzz-in time equals the average human’s buzz-in time (or even Ken Jennings’ average) and you’ve got a fairer battle, but instead, when Watson was certain enough of its answer, no human thumb could possibly outrace its mechanical plunger. (There were a few exceptions, but overall it was clear that Watson’s buzzing speed was what allowed it to dominate the match.)

Secondly, there’s the fact that each human had not only Watson to contend with, but also another top-notch Jeopardy player! Consequently, anytime Watson doesn’t pick up a clue in time, the two humans tended to split the points between them. I know Jeopardy is traditionally played by three contestants, but there was plenty about this match that was non-traditional. I would be very interested to see how Jennings would do against Watson by himself, especially if the buzzer advantage were corrected. As he put it in an NPR interview: “It’s the worst of both worlds, you know? The ideal scenario would be to have a human versus a computer, or maybe a computer versus a very good human and a lousy ‘Jeopardy!‘ player. I don’t know if you saw Wolf Blitzer on the show, but I’d like to have Wolf back.”

That’s not to say that Watson was flawless. One of its major weaknesses was its inability to see or hear. Instead of listening to Alex Trebek read the clue, Watson was fed the clue via (essentially) a text message, so it saw and started processing the clue at the same time as Ken and Brad saw it. The show neutralized the most obvious disadvantage of this blindness and deafness by eliminating the audio or visual clues it often features. Jeopardy has made this sort of accommodation before, to serve disabled human players, and while it’s certainly true that Ken and Brad could have whomped the computer on those clues, that’s really not what Watson was built to do, so it would rather miss the point. A more pertinent disadvantage was that it could not hear what the other contestants were answering. It was told whether its own answer was correct, and told the correct answers provided by humans, but was not told of wrong answers, leading to this exchange:

Ken: “‘Name That Decade’ for a thousand.”
Alex: “The first modern crossword puzzle is published & Oreo cookies are introduced.” [Ken buzzes in] “Ken?”
Ken: “What are the ’20s?”
Alex: “No.” [Watson buzzes in] “Watson?”
Watson: “What is 1920s?”
Alex: “No. Ken said that.”

[The correct answer was “The 1910s.”] Trebek’s schoolmarmish correction of a machine that had just that moment proven it can’t hear him was amusing, and perhaps reflexive. Watson’s error was the kind of mistake that humans rarely make, though it’s not unheard of. When a human does it, though, it’s a sign of frazzled nerves. With Watson, it’s an Achilles heel. Well, maybe an Achilles toenail.

Another major weakness Watson displayed was its difficulty leveraging the category title to come up with the answer. Humans completely dominated that “Name The Decade” category — Watson was having trouble processing quickly enough to outbuzz them, and at one point its top guess for one of the clues was “2002,” even though it did come up with decades for the others. Most famously, in the Final Jeopardy round of the first game, it encountered the category “U.S. Cities,” and the clue, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” which it answered thus:

An image of Watson, showing the answer, "What is Toronto?????"

(This inspired the funniest Watson joke I’ve yet seen: “Me: Hey Doc, I’ve got this pain in my left arm and an awful headache. Doc: What is Toronto?????”) The answer was in fact “Chicago,” but even if a human didn’t know the answer, he very likely would have guessed an actual U.S. city based on the category, rather than a Canadian city.

As some of the IBM guys pointed out, Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy are a tough area for Watson, because it has to guess something, and therefore risk looking stupid. When it’s not sure about its answers on a regular clue, it can just refrain from buzzing in. Watching the show, I thought perhaps that Watson’s creators forced it to simply focus on the question, more or less ignoring the category. Turns out this isn’t quite true. In fact, it considers the category in its approach, but it’s learned from its thousands of Jeopardy clues that category is often only weakly tied to the answer. For instance, that Chicago question could have been reworded, “Chicago’s O’Hare airport is named after a World War II hero; this airport, its second largest, was named after a World War II battle.” The question still would have fit the category, but the answer would have been an airport, not a city. Watson has seen that scenario play out many times, and is thus wary of assuming that the answer in a “U.S. Cities” category will always be a U.S. city.

In the end, Watson defeated the humans soundly, with a score of $77,147 to Jennings’ $24,000 and Rutter’s $21,600. A lot of the press coverage has focused on the “man vs. machine” angle, and of course the match was set up to emphasize that. In fact, it was rather poignant to see Watson beat one of its human practice match opponents on the clue, “This African-American folklore laborer: ‘Before I let that steam drill beat me down I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.'” I guess there’s this sort of pastoral vs. industrial thing that gets set up when machines attempt a traditionally human activity, even though people holding buzzers and answering trivia questions doesn’t exactly fit neatly into the pastoral mold.

I don’t feel much solidarity with the OMG SKYNET IS HERE!!!!! response. As somebody who works in IT, I’m fascinated by the achievement. I think about how satisfying it must have been to have worked on the team that created this. Those people just finished a massive four-year project, and the result was an incredible leap forward in information processing, with a world-famous, historic, televised, wildly successful debut. I just finished my time as a team member on a three-year project, and the result is a shakily implemented student system whose portal is currently driving everyone crazy with how incomplete and slow it is. I’m sure there is mental, emotional, and physical damage associated with both project teams, but wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been on the one whose final product worked so well?

In his Final Jeopardy answer, Ken Jennings wrote, “(I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.)” It’s a reference to a hilarious moment on The Simpsons. And interestingly, it may not have been one Jennings thought of himself. Here’s an excerpt from his NPR interview with Neal Conan:

Mr. JENNINGS: Maybe it’s just my own ego, but yeah, I feel like I’ve somehow, through some weird coincidence, been elected as the champion of carbon-based life on Earth against, you know, our new future oppressor.
CONAN: Silicon, yeah.
Mr. JENNINGS: And I would like to strike a blow while I have the chance.
CONAN: I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.
Mr. JENNINGS: You may have no choice, Neal.

Then again, it’s quite possible that this interview was taped after the Jeopardy challenge was taped, so who knows? But whether Jennings was lifting a joke or simply making a reference, isn’t this the skill for which we celebrate him? He gathers knowledge from various sources, and retrieves it quickly, using it when it can make the most impact. His graciousness and humor in that final moment certainly set him apart from his predecessor in IBM challenge history, Garry Kasparov, who famously stalked away in an enormous huff after being beaten by Deep Blue. But in that graciousness and humor, he also subtly made the point that for all Watson’s skill and speed at information retrieval, humans can still wield that information with a precision and effect that Watson could never hope to achieve.

Giving 110%

This is something I sent out at work, and it got a good enough reception that I decided to post it here as well. We’re in the midst of a massive project at CU, replacing the student system and a bunch of peripheral systems with Oracle PeopleSoft products. There is a lot of pressure, a lot of intensity… and a lot of status reporting. Some of that, especially as it travels up the chain, takes on a glossy, nonspecific quality. In talking about it with Laura, we were reminded of another place where that kind of status reporting happens…

My ESPN-loving spouse started this train rolling, and it became unstoppable. Now I just have to write it all down. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

Project Status Report, consisting entirely of clichés from sports interviews. (With substitutions, where appropriate.)

  • It is what it is.
  • There were factors beyond my control.
  • We came to code, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a tough match so far.
  • This time around, the software problems just wanted it more.
  • But I’m just gonna settle down, focus on doing my best. I can only control myself, you know what I mean? I’m gonna step up, and from this point forward, I’m just gonna focus on my game. I mean, work. That’s what matters, sticking with my guys, doing my work. I’m gonna do everything I can to get this project to the Superbowl. I mean, completion.
  • I’m a team player. It’s not about me, it’s about the whole team. We have to pull together.
  • It’s been tough out there, but we’ll get our game back. It’s still early in the project. We’ve got a lot of go-lives after this one, and we’re just gonna take it one go-live at a time. We’ve still got a long timeline ahead of us. We’re not circling any go-live on the calendar. Every go-live is important.
  • Replacing student systems is a professional business, you’ve gotta understand that. Stuff that happens out there, it’s not personal.
  • It’s easy to see the things that went wrong in this go-live, but there were things that went right. Anyway, this go-live is not over. We’re gonna get back out there and give it our best, stay focused, and take it to the next level.
  • We’re gonna get back into the office next week, practice the things we need to practice, take another look at the PeopleBooks, and keep working hard.
  • I’m only thinking about the next go-live on the schedule. It’s not about momentum — the project happens one go-live at a time.
  • I’m just glad to be here. I want to help the project any way I can.

A for enthusiasm, C- for style

Okay, I’m glad that Women’s Basketball magazine exists. Really, I am. But man oh man, does it ever have some bad writing. Check out this recent article opener:

As the 2009 NCAA women’s basketball campaign gets under way, “change” is in the air.

Yep. That theme is not limited to aspirants who have been seeking residency at a house bathed in white at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, in Washington, D.C.

“A house bathed in white”? Such a poetic turn of phrase, but whatever do you mean? Oh, I see, you’ll be qualifying that further. But wait, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave [That’s “Ave” as in “Ave Maria”, given that the abbreviation for avenue has a period at the end] in what city? You could mean any bathed-in-white-house that happens to have that address!

Or how about this one:

“You can’t turn it on and turn it off. You have to play your best all the time.”

That coaching cliché has been accepted as gospel truth since the first Olympics back in 776 BCE, if not the first mammoth hunt, and every player has heard it pronounced over and over again as though it is written in stone in some secret, sacred cave.

I love how the mammoth hunt part is presented as conjecture but the 776 BCE part comes across as straightforward fact. Thanks, time-traveling reporter! Oh, and I cheer for “secret, sacred cave”, not just because of the wonderful sound of it, but because it’s just the sort of place you’d expect to find something that’s repeated over and over again to everyone.

This article also goes on to explain that the Detroit Shock have definitively disproven this eternal gospel truth. Talk about making history!

These articles remind me of nothing so much as some of the lamer student papers I’ve received. I’m just waiting for one to begin, “Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘winning’ as…”

Word Power: The Top 5

To top off my fortnight of word-related posts, I am channeling Rob Gordon and making a Top 5 list of my favorite words, either learned or relearned, from my recent trip through a small thesaurus. I love these words either for their sound, or simply for the fact that they exist.

5. niminy-piminy: Affectedly dainty or refined.

4. rejectamenta: Things thrown away or dismissed.
[I have got to incorporate this one into my repertoire. Though I suppose I should be careful, since it apparently has an excretory connotation — not that most people hearing it would know that!]

3. absquatulate: To leave in a hurry; depart.

2. hemidemisemiquaver: In music notation, a sixty-fourth note.
[Every time I think of this one, I feel like shouting it out a la Zippy The Pinhead: “Hemidemisemiquaver! Hemidemisemiquaver! Hemidemisemiquaver!”]

And of course, the Number One favorite word has to be:
1. sesquipedalian: Having many syllables; given to the use of long words.
[I have to love something that so perfectly and beautifully enacts what it describes.]

Oh, and as I mentioned in the comics post, honorable mention goes to “defenestrate.”

Words I Learned From Elsewhere

Welcome to the miscellany bin. This post holds all the words that I’ve learned from various places, ones whose categories couldn’t gather enough critical mass to merit a post of their own.

  • auto da fe: The ceremony accompanying the Spanish Inquisition’s execution of a heretic.
    [This one comes courtesy of Mel Brooks’ History Of The World, Part 1, in which there’s a rousing musical number about the Spanish Inquisition: “Auto da fe, what’s an auto da fe? / It’s what you oughtn’t ta do, but you do anyway!”]
  • ewer: A pitcher.
    [I owe my knowledge of this — and several other entries in this list — to crossword puzzles. If you get (basically) the same clue for a word from one puzzle to another for long enough, you learn it!]
  • indemnity: Compensation for a loss, e.g. the payout on a life insurance policy.
    [This one comes from a movie as well, in fact a movie title: Double Indemnity. In addition to being an absolutely great film, it’s a word teacher as well. Thanks, Billy Wilder!]
  • oleo: Margarine.
    [It’s another crossword puzzle special, a word for margarine that I have never heard or seen used outside of a crossword puzzle.]
  • olio: A mixture or collection; a hodge-podge.
    [Or, as it’s known in my mind, the crossword puzzle one that isn’t margarine.]
  • sword of Damocles: A constantly impending jeopardy. Based on a legendary Greek courtier who learned the joylessness of a ruler’s life when he was allowed all the king’s privileges but noticed a sword hanging over his head suspended by a single horsehair.
    [For whatever odd reason, two of my three movie vocabulary words come from songs sung in a movie. This one is from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in which Rocky sings, “The sword of Damocles is hangin’ over my head / And I’ve got the feeling someone’s gonna be cuttin’ the thread!”]
  • tableau: A theatrical depiction of a still picture, performed by silent, motionless actors.
    [I learned this word from a stage play, The Fantasticks, which makes a big point of the fact that its first act ends in a tableau, and its second act begins with the same tableau.]
  • verbatim: Word for word.
    [It’s not often that I learn a new word from a computer component (although computer people are constantly repurposing words in ways that wrench them away from their original meanings.) However, in the 7th grade or so, I started noticing these 5 1/4″ floppy disks in envelopes that read “VERBATIM VERBATIM VERBATIM.” Some friendly teacher clued me into the fact that it was an actual word, not just a nonsense company name, and when I looked it up I decided that it was a pretty clever name for a magnetic media company.]
  • windfall: An unexpected gain or bonus.
    [I was quite the board game enthusiast growing up, so much so that I had a closetful of them, and even when I couldn’t find anybody to play with me, I’d set up a board anyway and run through a game with imaginary opponents. One of the games in that closet was Parker Brothers’ Pay Day, a money management game. One of the events that could happen in that game was a windfall, my first introduction to that all-too-infrequently-encountered term.]

Words I Learned From Television

I don’t tend to watch a lot of TV, but the shows I do watch, I tend to cover pretty thoroughly. There must be something in that habit that explains why almost all my TV vocabulary comes from two shows: M*A*S*H and The Simpsons. Turns out you can learn a fair amount from M*A*S*H and The Simpsons!

  • autoclave: A device for sterilizing surgical instruments with water pressurized to high above its boiling point.
    [The autoclave at the 4077th features into several episodes, most prominently in “Operation Friendship”, in which Klinger saves Winchester from an exploding one.]
  • fustigate: Beat or cudgel.
    [When Moe maneuvers Homer into a boxing career, he’s approached by Lucius Sweet (a thinly veiled Don King character), who asks him to have Homer fight Drederick Tatum (a thinly veiled Mike Tyson character.) Moe has misgivings: “Tatum’ll fustigate him!”]
  • mountebank: A quack or charlatan.
    [The greatest vocabulary-building Simpsons episode of all time has got to be “Bart’s Friend Falls In Love”, in which the B story is that Homer orders a subliminal weight-loss tape but instead ends up with a subliminal increase-your-word-power tape. (Marge: “Homer, has the weight loss tape reduced your appetite?” Homer: “Ah, lamentably no. My gastronomic rapacity knows no satiety.”) When he discovers that he’s actually been gaining weight, he has a fit of pique: “Those disingenuous mountebanks with their subliminal chicanery! A pox on them!” Surprisingly, there were no combo scores in this episode — for some reason I happened to know all the other words they used.]
  • potable: Drinkable liquid.
    [Okay, there’s one more show that made it to this list: Jeopardy! Vocabulary is the least of what Jeopardy! has to teach, but it definitely taught me this one, due to its frequently-featured category “Potent Potables,” all about drinks.]
  • scapula: Shoulder blade.
    [Sometimes, for reasons I can’t explain, a little moment will stick in my head. So it was when Hawkeye, in the midst of surgery, asked a nurse to scratch his back, “just under the left infra-scapula.” Maybe it stuck in there because I’d never heard the word before?]
  • slugabed: Lazy person; layabout.
    [“Look at them, Smithers. Goldbrickers, layabouts, slugabeds! Little do they realize that their days of suckling at my teat are numbered!” Thus speaks Mr. Burns in “Treehouse Of Horror II.” Incidentally, I’m certain I first heard goldbrick on M*A*S*H, from Margaret or Frank in reference to Klinger.]
  • tontine: A group agreement concerning shared property, in which the final surviving member of the group inherits the property.
    [This word has the sparkling distinction of appearing in both M*A*S*H and The Simpsons. It showed up in M*A*S*H first, the episode “Old Soldiers”, wherein Col. Potter learns that he is the final surviving member of a tontine and inherits the bottle of brandy they’d all found together during WWI. On The Simpsons, it was Grandpa Simpson who was in the tontine with Mr. Burns, as they were allegedly in the same squadron in WWII. They fought over the booty, a cache of paintings from a German castle, in “The Curse Of The Flying Hellfish.”]
  • tracheotomy: A surgical procedure in which a hole is opened in the trachea to allow the patient to breathe, when the windpipe is blocked higher up.
    [This one was burned onto my brain by the outstanding episode “Mulcahy’s War”, in which Father Mulcahy performs an emergency field tracheotomy with instructions radioed from Hawkeye. We get to hear the steps of the operation in explicit detail, as he uses Radar’s Tom Mix pocketknife to make the incision, and the shell of a fountain pen as a breathing tube. It’s rather IF-like, really. Then, in a later episode (“Point Of View”), we saw the 4077th through the eyes of a soldier who’d undergone a tracheotomy and couldn’t talk.]

And finally, one of my favorite COMBO SCOREs of all time is spoken by one of my favorite Simpsons characters:

  • arglebargle or foofaraw: Argument or disturbance over nothing
    [In “Last Exit To Springfield”, in which Homer leads a power plant strike, newsman Kent Brockman asks: “Tonight, on Smartline, the power plant strike: arglebargle, or foofaraw?”]

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