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


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Good Answers addendum

I had a very fun and slightly uncanny trivia experience last week, which reminded me of one more principle I forgot to include in the trivia players advice post:


Now, naturally this advice does not apply to trivia games whose format penalizes wrong answers. In Jeopardy!, for instance, I would never advise someone to guess every time, since getting a question wrong costs you the dollar amount of the question. However, there are plenty of formats in which wrong answers incur no penalty, and in those games, I make it my policy to guess even when I have absolutely no idea of the answer. Learned League is such a format, and last week it posed this question to me:

What was the name of cartoon mouse Speedy Gonzales’ country cousin, described as “the slowest mouse in all Mexico”?

I have a vague memory of seeing a cartoon that featured this slow mouse, and I mean very vague. I’m sure I haven’t seen it for at least 30 years. If it were a Jeopardy! question, I would surely not buzz in. But in Learned League, getting a question wrong doesn’t hurt you in any way, so I tried to piece together an answer. I figured that this mouse would probably have a name that is parallel to Speedy Gonzales, but opposite. So instead of Speedy, he’d be something like “Pokey.” And although he’s Speedy’s cousin, I guessed that he wouldn’t be named Gonzales, but rather some other common Hispanic name with a similar rhythm, something like “Rodriguez.” So the answer I submitted was: Pokey Rodriguez.

The actual answer: SLOWPOKE RODRIGUEZ

This totally blew me away. I could not believe that my wild, out-of-the-blue answer came so close to the actual, correct answer. It felt like a combination of tapping the unconscious (like I talked about in the previous post), solid logic, and pure blind luck. I was thrilled. Now, this story has a less than satisfying ending — the commissioner decided that “Pokey” was different enough from “Slowpoke” to constitute a wrong answer. However, it totally confirmed my policy of always venturing a guess, because you just never know when you’ll strike gold.

This is a story I’ve told before, but I have a strong early memory of competing in the trivia bowl and venturing a guess on this toss-up:

HOST: “Who has the record for most guest appearances on The Love Boat?”
ME: [After a long pause in which it becomes clear that nobody is going to attempt this.] BUZZ. “Uh… Charo?”
HOST: “Yes, it is Charo!”

That is the moment that cemented my love for the wild guess.

Good Questions, part 4

Sad to say, I just found out I’ll miss the next Basement Bowl, due to vacation. Drat! On the plus side, I’m scheming to attend the Trivia Championships of North America, a weekend-long trivia explosion scheduled for Las Vegas in July. In any case, it’s time for one more installment of this series. Previous posts have focused more on the philosophical aspects of question construction, but in this one, I’ll get a little more technical — more about the craft than the art, as it were. I think I’m about out of gas after this, so let’s call it the season finale and get rolling.

Good Questions, part 2

As promised/threatened, here’s another installment of “Paul’s Random Thoughts About Trivia Questions.” Carrying on with question-writing principles:


In my last post, I spent some time harping on the fact that trivia games are supposed to be fun. Your job as trivia question writer is to provide an enjoyable experience to your players, and humor is a crucial tool for that job. On its most basic level, it can liven up a somewhat bland question, like this bonus from the 2005 TRASH regionals:

Given clues, name the subjects of the following celebrity biographies, all of whom share a favorite hobby, for ten points each.
1. A Paper Life details her adventures with her allegedly abusive actor father, with ex-husband John McEnroe, and with heroin.
2. Don’t Try This At Home, his chronicle of the year he decided to turn his house into a crack den, details his struggles with bandmates, his record label, and heroin.
3. Scar Tissue recounts his life from toddlerhood and his drug dealer dad’s felonious additions to his mashed bananas, through forming a band with best friend Hillel Slovak, to his long standing affairs with Ione Skye, Sinead O’Connor, and sweet, sweet heroin.

This question boils down to, “Name the celebrities based on the titles of their autobiographies and maybe some clues about their connections to other famous people,” which is just fine, but when you tie them together by their heroin addictions, dryly understate that as “all of whom share a favorite hobby”, and hurl a fastball zinger punchline at the end like “long-standing affairs with Ione Skye, Sinead O’Connor, and sweet, sweet heroin,” a run-of-the-mill question turns into one of the best ones in the game. (Though in my opinion the second part needs another clue or two.)

The other thing that the humor in that question does is to tone down a fairly dour topic. There’s a bit in the crosswords documentary Wordplay in which puzzle creator Merl Reagle explains that there are some words that you don’t see in crossword puzzles, even though they might be very useful cruciform words, just because their content is too distasteful. He calls this “the Sunday morning breakfast test”: “They’ve waited all week for this. They’re sitting there relaxing…and here comes RECTAL? I don’t think so.” Trivia games allow a wider latitude, especially when written for an informal event like a Basement Bowl, but still, you don’t want to offend, disgust, or annoy your audience. So when you find that question that you just have to write but whose subject matter is a little questionable, a little humor smooths the way.

Something about being in a Billy Wilder movie frequently makes people want to kill themselves. Fortunately, they rarely succeed. I’ll give you an actor and a suicide method, you tell me the Billy Wilder-directed movie, for five points each, 40 points for all 7:
1. Audrey Hepburn, carbon monoxide poisoning
2. Shirley MacLaine, an overdose of sleeping pills
3. Gloria Swanson, slashed wrists
4. Ray Milland, handgun
5. Marthe Keller, jumping in front of a train
6. Carol Burnett, jumping off a building
7. Jack Lemmon, hanging

That’s a question I wrote for the Basement Bowl a couple of years ago. I’d just come off a Wilder-watching jag and was amazed at the number of suicide attempts in his movies. It was great trivia fodder, except that quizzing about suicide after suicide is kind of heavy. Thus, I lead with a joke to lighten it up.

Perhaps the best reason to joke liberally is to relieve the tension that can sometimes build in trivia competitions. Relaxed players not only have more fun, I think they play better too.


Trivia games can and should be more than memory and speed tests. Yes, of course, those two skills (in varying proportions, depending on the format) constitute the backbone of a trivia game, but crucial to the art is creating opportunities to connect recall with thought. One of my favorite recent examples of this was invented (as far as I know) by Bill Schantz:

I’ll give you the year and the first letter of each word in its title, you name the 80’s pop song, for 10 points each:
1. (1983) E.B.Y.T.
2. (1983) O.T.L.T.A.
3. (1984) W.M.U.B.Y.G.G.
4. (1984) O.N.I.B.

You may have awesome recall of 80’s songs, but that by itself won’t get you very far with this question. Instead, you have to use part of your brain to generate plausible strings of words based on a breadcrumb trail of letters, while another part of your brain tries to connect those words to song titles that you know from that era. Even better is when you hear the letters, feel a moment of instantaneous synthesis, and just know what the answer is. Hitting this answer is even more satisfying than the average trivia pull, because of the additional solving effort necessary. Of course, in any kind of timed competition, it’s imperative to balance the time constraints (and attendant pressure) against puzzle elements in your questions. If they require too much thought, they’ll bog the game down.

Puzzle questions like this make regular appearances on Jeopardy!, and that show’s writers are particularly good at coming up with clever new ways to keep contestants on their toes. Generally the twist is in the nature of the category. Some recent examples, courtesy of the J! Archive:

Clue: Riesling, Syrah
[A fairly gentle example, in which the puzzle is to figure out how the category is working. The first clue in any Jeopardy! game is usually easier than its successors, but in a category like this, there’s generally a pointedly clear indicator in that first clue.]

Clue: In Romania they say “da”, in Japan, “hai”, & in Panama, this
[Here’s the flip side — a clue that can be answered on its own, but the category narrows down the set of possible answers. Jeopardy! does this all the time with its “quotation mark” categories, in which some piece of the category is in quotes, meaning that correct answers must start with or contain the quoted string of letters. A clueful category like this, though, is much more fun to discover.]

Category: GOD SPELL
Clue: Vulcan is the Roman equivalent of this Greek fire god (10 letters)
[There’s no puzzle element to this one — Alex makes clear at the beginning that contestants will have to spell their answers. It’s notable, though, because it exercises a different sort of recall than the average trivia question.]

Clue: Of presidential surnames
[This is an example of a question in which contestants must recall a set of data and then do some kind of processing on it. And because of the high-pressure nature of Jeopardy!, they must do it very quickly, leading to the sort of intuitive pulls that supply the pleasure of answering this style of question.]

Category: OF ORDER
Clue: U.S. cities, from west to east: Newport News, Milwaukee, New Orleans
[In this one, they provide the set of data, but the answer is still the result of some processing on the part of the contestant.]

This could go on and on, and does, but I trust the point is made. Finding new angles from which to challenge the player is a great way to increase the fun of the game.


Another surefire way to make your game more fun is to write questions that step outside the typical text format and engage some of your players’ senses. This is one of my favorite things to do, and consequently my Basement Bowl games have been littered with visual clues:

Logo design is an art, and sometimes it takes a few tries to get it right. Given the defunct logo, tell me the NFL team it represents for five points each.
Four different old-timey NFL logos. The first shows a football player towering above a stadium, the second shows a football player in front of a football with the image of a bison on it, the third shows a football player standing atop a horse, and the fourth shows a spear with a feather hanging from it.

I find images via Google Image Search, copy and paste them into a Word document, resize as necessary, then print out a couple of copies on the color printer. I hand these out to players before I read the clue. A couple of things I’ve learned: make two copies (since in the Basement Bowl missed bonus answers can transfer over to the other team), and make the pictures large enough that they can be seen in a dimly lit basement.

Then there’s the audio. I’m a huge fan of the audio. For instance, I’ve written a couple of all-audio games of one-hit wonders, another one of mellow gold tunes, and another couple of all female artists. Thanks to the wonders of digital audio and the fabulous Audacity, it’s extremely easy to create mp3 song clips and burn them onto a CD. I bring my nifty mini-boombox to the basement, and play the game as all tossups, no teams. Each person has a buzzer, and they score points by buzzing in first to correctly identify a song, generally both the title and artist.

Sometimes I’ll even go a little more complicated. For instance, with my female artists game, I recognized that for a number of the clips, someone might be able to identify the artist even if they couldn’t name the song. So the rules were that if you buzzed in before the clip ended, you had to identify both the title and artist. Correct answers scored two points, with a bonus point for naming the singer in the case of groups (e.g. if I played The Pretenders you could get a bonus point for naming Chrissie Hynde.) If you buzzed in after the song was over, you could name the artist for one point.

One thing I learned for my second round of this type of game was to end the clip with a distinctive sound, like a ding. The first time, nobody was sure when the clip would be over, so there was some hesitation from people who didn’t want to get penalized for buzzing too early.

I’ve done audio toss-ups in regular games too, and not just music. There’s plenty of great fodder in movie clips, comedians, interviews, and miscellaneous distinctive sounds, such as the sound of Pac-Man dying. And there is further sensory fun to be had. I once wrote a bonus in which I handed out soda-pop flavored Jelly Bellies, and had players identify the soda from each one. I’ve had players get up and dance the Batusi. Another quizmaster had people do 4 different dances from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I thought was brilliant.

The point is that you can add a lot of variety and excitement to your game by creatively extending your questions into nonverbal (or more-than-verbal) realms. Not only that, these kinds of questions can bring out hidden strengths in your players, allowing them to have more fun by kicking ass in new ways.

That’s enough for tonight. More installments to come. But never fear, I would never sign off without providing the long-awaited answers:

Sweet, sweet heroin:
1. A Paper Life: Tatum O’Neal
2. Don’t Try This At Home: Dave Navarro
3. Scar Tissue: Anthony Kiedis

Wilder suicides:
1. Audrey Hepburn, carbon monoxide poisoning: Sabrina
2. Shirley MacLaine, an overdose of sleeping pills: The Apartment
3. Gloria Swanson, slashed wrists: Sunset Boulevard
4. Ray Milland, handgun: The Lost Weekend
5. Marthe Keller, jumping in front of a train: Fedora
6. Carol Burnette, jumping off a building: The Front Page
7. Jack Lemmon, hanging: Buddy Buddy

80’s initial songs:
1. (1983) E.B.Y.T.: “Every Breath You Take” by The Police
2. (1983) O.T.L.T.A.: “One Thing Leads To Another” by The Fixx
3. (1984) W.M.U.B.Y.G.G. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!
4. (1984) O.N.I.B. “One Night In Bangkok” by Murray Head

Clue: Riesling, Syrah
Question: What are grapes?

Clue: In Romania they say “da”, in Japan, “hai”, & in Panama, this
Question: What is “si”? (Homophone with “C”)

Category: GOD SPELL
Clue: Vulcan is the Roman equivalent of this Greek fire god (10 letters)
Question: What is H-E-P-H-A-E-S-T-U-S?

Clue: Of presidential surnames
Question: What is Wilson?

Category: OF ORDER
Clue: U.S. cities, from west to east: Newport News, Milwaukee, New Orleans
Question: What is New Orleans, Milwaukee, Newport News?

Olde-tyme NFL logos:
1. New York Giants
2. Buffalo Bills
3. Denver Broncos
4. Washington Redskins

Oh, and finally: Each heading in this edition is a cultural reference.
“Be more funny!” is a classic Simpsons gag.
“Cudgel thy brains” is from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
“Senses Working Overtime” is a song by XTC.

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.

Trivial Matters With a Vengeance

Okay, so some of this is covered in my review of Wordplay, but here it is from a slightly different angle. But before we go there, answers to the last entry’s questions:

Following in the footsteps of Anthony Michael Hall and Jason Lively, he played Rusty Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. More famously, he appeared as David Healey, Darlene’s boyfriend and eventual husband, in 92 episodes of Roseanne. Name this actor who currently stars as Dr. Leonard Hofstader on The Big Bang Theory.
Answer: Johnny Galecki

In the 1960s, Marvel Comics loved to liven up its titles by throwing in an extra adjective. I’ll give you a comic book title, you fill in the missing adjective, for five points each.
1. The Incredible Hulk
2. The Amazing Spider-Man
3. The Invincible Iron Man
4. The Uncanny X-Men
5. The Mighty Thor
6. The Astonishing Ant-Man

During CU‘s 2001 revival of the Trivia Bowl, I heard rumors of this thing called a “Basement Bowl.” I gathered it was some kind of trivia-oriented deal held in somebody’s basement. As you may recall, I had the epiphany in 2001 in which I realized that these are my people, so I wanted in on this Basement Bowl thingy. Sadly for me, it’s not easy to invite yourself to somebody else’s event, at least not for me it isn’t. So I asked around about it, discreetly, and got vague answers that sure, the Bowl’s always looking for new blood, and I’ll pass your name on.

I never heard back.

The next year (the final year of the revival), the same scenario played out. This time, I was more direct, asked more people, and was once again assured that my name would be given to Leonard, which I learned was the name of the guy in charge of the Bowl. I even went so far as to send email to Jason Katzman, who I knew as the film critic from CU’s unofficial newspaper, the Colorado Daily, during my student tenure. He’s part of the trivia crowd, and has a day job at the CU Bookstore, meaning that we sort-of-kind-of share an employer. I had briefly talked with him at the Bowl, and sent a follow-up email saying how much I love the trivia thing and how I’d love to be a part of any other trivia events he knows about.

I never heard back.

A couple of years later, the much much smaller-scale bowl began. That year, I once again participated, and made a connection with a guy named Dave Gatch. Dave is a wonderful guy, extremely bright and very funny, like a lot of trivia people. He’s also interested in reaching out to relative outsiders such as myself, and so that year he started taking me under his wing. In the summer of 2006, he invited me to attend the Basement Bowl at last.

And now, a bit of background. Leonard Fahrni is one of the true characters of the trivia world. Like Gatch (like all of them, really), he’s quite intelligent — he has four undergraduate degrees [3 of these simultaneously, from a triple-major] and three master’s degrees. I dunno, maybe four by now. Going to school is kind of his hobby. He teaches math at Metro State College. Plays trumpet in the National Guard’s 101st Army Band. (Actually, I know he retired from the military recently, so this may no longer be true.) He can be acid-tongued and caustic, but he can also be amazingly hospitable and generous. Oh, and he lives in his parents’ basement.

This basement is the home of the Basement Bowl. Leonard is a longtime fan of the trivia bowl, and during its heyday he watched for several years before forming his own team. When he did, they got blown out. He decided that practice was needed, and inaugurated a habit of getting some like-minded people together to write trivia questions for each other as practice for the yearly Bowl. He even got some mad scientist friend to build a buzzer set, just like the real thing.

In time, the habit morphed from practice into just a friendly event, a chance for friends to get together and do something they love. Basically, a bunch of trivia geeks descend (literally) on the place, bringing packets of toss-ups and bonuses with which to quiz others. If someone is moved to create one, there can also be multimedia quizzes, with sound clips and video clips and so forth. It’s not required that you create a game to come to the party — it’s just that most of the time at the party is spent playing these games, so the more games, the more fun.

Leonard sets up the buzzer system, but there are no set teams — everybody just sits down kind of free-form at the beginning of each new game, and a general social etiquette makes sure that everybody gets a chance to play some. Whoever wrote the game moderates it, and people just sit themselves down on sides, 4 to a team. It is very casual and non-competitive. It starts around 1:00, and goes until the questions run out. Leonard serves lasagna and salad around dinnertime, and guests generally bring drinks and snacky stuff for everybody to munch.


My first time there I felt a bit overawed by the whole thing. These were people who had known each other, many of them, for upwards of 30 years. They are very tight and very bright. Some of them have actually won life-changing amounts of money on game shows. I brought a game to my first Basement Bowl and acquitted myself reasonably well, but boy was I blown away at the speed and knowledge of the people in that room. It was amazing.

Well, I must have done something right, because I got invited back. And last Saturday, I attended my 10th one. Laura is always awesome about these, taking on Dante for the day. I try to pay her back in various ways, like when she wants to climb a 14er or attend a meditation seminar or something, but I definitely appreciate how supportive she is of my fun.

For my part, I’ve tried to keep improving in the material I create for the Bowl. I’ve created at least one regular game each time, as well as some other stuff — a music game and a geek game (covering stuff like D&D, Buffy, Internet memes, etc.) I print out sheets with visual clues for bonuses, like TV screengrabs, film stills, album covers, etc. I’ve done all-audio games, like a disc of 55 song clips from one-hit-wonders. Games like that are played as an all toss-up round, often with the top scorers getting some sort of prize. I’ve also branched into video, thanks to the wonderful DownloadHelper, and integrated quite a bit of multimedia into my regular games.

And that, three blog entries later, is what “Basement Bowl” means. Now to start writing the entry I intended to write in the first place. But first: The Geek Bowl!

Trivial Matters 2: Electric Boogaloo

In my last entry, I explained the structure of the trivia bowl, and talked about its history at CU. Before I continue, let me provide some answers to the questions I posed there:

Q: James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot were the writers behind what song medley, which won Record Of The Year, topped the charts for six weeks in 1969, and was the biggest hit in the 5th Dimension’s career?
Answer: “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”

I’ll name a fictional computer from a movie, you name the movie, for ten points each.
1. MU-TH-R 182 model 2, the ship-board computer on the space ship Nostromo, known by the crew as ‘mother.’
Answer: Alien
2. Deep Thought, a computer created by a pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent race of beings who look to us exactly like white mice.
Answer: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
3. EMERAC, a room-sized computer recently acquired by the Federal Broadcasting Network, whose worth is advocated by inventor Richard Sumner and doubted by reference librarian Bunny Watson.
Answer: Desk Set
4. WOPR, or War Operations Plan Response, a military simulator housed at NORAD.
Answer: Wargames

Now for my trivia autobiography (a redundant phrase, perhaps.) I grew up loving music, movies, and to a lesser extent, TV, as well as comics, theater, and the other sorts of topics that show up in the trivia bowl… except for sports. I was always a casual Bronco fan, but never somebody who could quote statistics or even name all the players. I enjoy seeing the games, but I never mind missing them either. I had a fling with baseball fandom for a couple of years, but then they went on strike and I got thoroughly disgusted with the whole thing.

As for basketball, hockey, NASCAR, golf, etc… don’t care. Never cared. I don’t mind watching tennis, and a bit of Olympics, but I only know the most surface facts about any of this stuff, if that. I do know a little about the WNBA and women’s soccer, thanks to Laura, but now that we have the Dante Distraction, soccer has left the limelight, and many of the WNBA games have moved over to some silly premium cable channel, so even that knowledge is pretty patchy.

Anyway, when I came to CU, I was only dimly aware of the trivia bowl, pretty much as “that thing that sounds kind of interesting but that I’m way too busy to do.” Finally, in 1993 my friend Robby told me that he knew a couple of teachers from our high school who wanted to field a team for the bowl, and asked me if I’d be interested. Robby was/is a total sports guy, as well as music and movies. Our mutual friend James covered TV, as well as some knowledge in all the other areas, and one of the teachers, Ron Hoover, was an absolute monster on old movies. So I said sure, and when we played our first game, wow. I still remember a visceral thrill from buzzing in on toss-ups before the question was finished, because I had such a strong feeling about the answer:

HOST: “Enya has had multiplatinum success with albums like Watermark, but before she–”
ME: BUZZ! “Clannad.”
HOST: “Clannad is correct.”

Whoo! Man, it was exciting. The other thing I remember is the fun of guessing on answers after the question had been read, if nobody else was buzzing in. Sometimes it even worked out:

HOST: “Who has the record for most guest appearances on The Love Boat?”
ME: [After a long pause in which it becomes clear that nobody is going to attempt this.] BUZZ. “Uh… Charo?”
HOST: “Yes, it is Charo!”

Our team actually won a game or two, but got blown out in the later rounds by more experienced and knowledgeable teams. There was a ceremony after the final game, and I was named Rookie Of The Year! Sadly, I had to work, so wasn’t able to accept in person. Even more sadly, 1993 was the final year of the trivia bowl. It is really a bummer to be Rookie Of The Year in the final year of something.

The whole event was dormant for a number of years, but when the CU Program Council brought it back in 2001, I knew I wanted to play. I got together a team of me, Robby, our mutual friend May from high school, and my friend Trish from work. Again, we did well in the early rounds and got stomped later, but that year I had an epiphany: these are my people. I attended every game I could (which was a lot — the tournament went all week, starting with 64 teams and narrowing down to two) and soaked the whole thing in. That was the year I officially fell in love with the trivia bowl.

Unfortunately, I was in the minority. The revival lasted one more year, in which our loss came to the team who went on to win the whole thing… a team led by Ed Toutant, the second biggest winner in the history of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. But attendance was anemic, and while the whole thing was super DUPER fun for me, it was a losing proposition for the Program Council, who pulled the plug in 2002.

After that, the event was held for a number of years in a much, much more scaled down form every fall. It was little conference rooms rather than the Glenn Miller Ballroom, with maybe 6-10 teams competing, no audio/video questions, and a more regimented quiz-bowly format which values strategy over entertainment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — I made sure to play every year, and it was one of my favorite things, but it was a far cry from the heyday of it all. Now even that is gone, or at least it hasn’t been held for the last couple of years.

That smaller scale, though, enabled me to forge some relationships with trivia bowl “royalty” — the various Hall Of Famers who now moderate games and form a coterie whose history stretches back 30 or 40 years. One of these people, David Gatch, sort of took me under his wing a few years ago and got me invited to a very kooky event called the “Basement Bowl.”

…and that’s where part 3 will begin. But just to keep the trivia power flowing, here’s another toss-up and bonus.

Following in the footsteps of Anthony Michael Hall and Jason Lively, he played Rusty Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. More famously, he appeared as David Healey, Darlene’s boyfriend and eventual husband, in 92 episodes of Roseanne. Name this actor who currently stars as Dr. Leonard Hofstader on The Big Bang Theory.

In the 1960s, Marvel Comics loved to liven up its titles by throwing in an extra adjective. I’ll give you a comic book title, you fill in the missing adjective, for five points each.
1. The _____ Hulk
2. The _____ Spider-Man
3. The _____ Iron Man
4. The _____ X-Men
5. The _____ Thor
6. The _____ Ant-Man

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 3 revisited

Early in my Buffy-watching project, I swore off both DVD extras and Television Without Pity recaps, because they were just way too spoiler-laden. Now that I’ve finished watching all episodes of Buffy and Angel, I’m (slowly!) going back through the whole saga, reading the recaps and watching the extras.

I just finished season three of Buffy for the second time, and am amazed anew. What a marvelous achievement. It’s just such great television, and this time through I found myself appreciating a couple of things that had passed me by the first time:

*** Spoilers after this point ***

1) I liked the Mayor the first time around, just because his milk-and-cookies qualities made such a great contrast to his evilness and batshit insanity. What I appreciated about him this time, though, was the fact that because he really didn’t care about them, he was able to speak the absolute truth to Buffy and Angel. I loved the scene in Choices where he tongue-lashes Angel for selfishness in relation to Buffy. Everything he says is absolutely dead-on, and highlights the fact that even though they don’t look it, Buffy and Angel are a ridiculously May-December relationship. There’s a strong argument to be made that Angel is taking advantage of her — whatever she’s had to go through, she’s still an 18-year-old (if that) girl. The mayor’s genuine disgust with Angel in that scene is a fantastic way of completely dooming their relationship from an unexpected direction.

2) The resonance of the classroom scene in Earshot is just a thing of beauty. The Othello discussion serves the purpose of showing Buffy’s sudden classroom smarts, and her peers’ reaction to it, of course. The teacher’s explication puts focus on Buffy’s anxiety about Angel and leads us in to the attempted mind-reading scene, of course. But let’s take a look at what Buffy actually says about Iago:

“Well, he, um, he sort of admits himself that his motive are… spurious! He, um, he does things because he, he enjoys them. It’s like he’s not, he’s not really a person. He’s a, the dark half of Othello himself.”

The dark half of the protagonist? Doing evil for the joy of it, with spurious motives? Ring any bells about anybody from this season? Oh, right: Faith. Of course.

And listening to the DVD commentary from writer Jane Espenson reveals that this scene was heavily rewritten by Joss. Of course it was.

Angel Season 5

Oh, it’s a sad, sad day. It’s now official: I’ve seen every episode of every Joss Whedon show. I suppose it’s a happy day, really — it’s been a very satisfying journey since the day I saw Serenity (October 1, 2005, as it happens.) Still, I can’t help feeling a little grief at the fact that I’ll never watch another new episode of Buffy or Angel.

Well, at least I had a good sendoff. I was quite pleased with this season of Angel. Like season 7 of Buffy, the show found its feet again after a dreary and depressing previous season. It was both funny and thrilling, with a solid premise that was low on the endless angst and high on the superheroics of old. Not only that, it had a lovely elegiac quality, bringing back moments and characters from previous seasons like some kind of victory lap, or maybe a greatest hits album.

*** Spoilers after this point for all seasons of Angel, and lots of Buffy as well. ***

1. From the first scene of the first episode, we get good news: this show is funny again. Hallelujah! In previous seasons, the humor would drop off for long, long stretches, making the whole exercise feel rather dank. This time, though, bright moments of comedy sparkle all the way through. There’s Conviction, of course, which sets the terms. Damn, that Joss is funny. He would be a great comedy writer if that were all he did. Oh, and of course Life Of The Party, the obligatory everybody-gets-mind-alteration episode. Like Spin The Bottle or The Shroud of Rahmon before it, mystically changing people’s personalities leads to hilarious results. Oh, and then there’s Harm’s Way. Harmony is consistently funny to me, and this episode got some great laughs out of her character, even while telling a solid story. I was pleased to see Mercedes McNab appear in the opening credits halfway through the season, even though she never did really emerge as a major character. It was great to see Tom Lenk, too, in Damage & The Girl In Question. I really loved him as Andrew in season 7 of Buffy, and he didn’t disappoint here. Speaking of The Girl In Question, Angel and Spike as nerds getting shown up by the cool kid is a funny premise, executed well.

2. I think this is the first season of Buffy or Angel to have no real “Big Bad.” I suppose it could be argued that the situation itself is the Big Bad, which is a rather ingenious turn of events. The ongoing difficulties of trying to do good from inside the belly of the beast made for a satisfying conflict. It opened up more space for superheroics, without losing complexity.

3. Speaking of superheroics, this season boasted a pleasant abundance of superhero stuff, in both overt and oblique references:

  • The Fred/Spike dynamic at the beginning of the season is a bit like the Reed Richards/Ben Grimm dynamic in the first several years of The Fantastic Four, minus the guilt. She keeps trying to cure him of his condition, and despite her brilliance she continues to fail. In the end, she never succeeds — the solution comes from a left field deus ex machina.
  • There’s a trope in superhero comics, wherein via flashback (or sometimes an entire series), we learn about the adventures of superheroes who fought one or more generations before the ones we’re used to following. The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco felt like an entertaining riff on that “Superheroes of the Golden Age” theme.

Then there were the overt references, all of which were fun:

  • Why We Fight — Hodge: “I’m telling you, he’s some sort of super soldier, l-like Steve Rogers or Captain America.” Spinelli: “Steve Rogers is Captain America, you eightball.”
  • Smile Time — Knox (upon seeing pictures of comatose smiling kids): “Right. Could be the Joker. From the comic books? Just trying to think outside the box.”
  • Shells — Gunn (about Illyria’s time-slowing trick): “Yeah, like she was pulling a Barry Allen. (Angel looks at him, not recognizing the name; Gunn looks around at the others) Jay Garrick? Wally— Like she was moving really fast.”

As in the final season of Buffy, we’ve now collected enough continuity that it’s time for that tried-and-true plot mechanic, the returning supervillain! I quite liked Lindsey’s arc this season (though Lindsey himself was highly irritating), and it was also fun to see Sahjahn again, even if just for a moment.

4. Lindsey and Sahjahn weren’t the only callbacks to earlier points in Buffyverse history — this season was rife with them:

  • Nods to the sappy sides of our bloodthirsty heroes in Hellbound — Angel: “I never told anybody about this, but I… I liked your poems.” Spike (frowning): “You like Barry Manilow.” Oh, and the return of Spike’s poems in Not Fade Away.
  • Beyond the appearance of Lindsey himself, there’s the fact that he calls himself “Doyle”! We even get a bit of Glenn Quinn on the monitor in You’re Welcome.
  • Speaking of You’re Welcome, I’d say the return of Cordelia qualifies as nostalgia at this point. I was less than satisfied with the way said return was handled, about which a bit more later.
  • The Connor guest shots (in Origin and Not Fade Away) were better — it was refreshing to see how appealing the character could be when he wasn’t constantly in a snit.
  • I loved the way that Damage built on the continuity established in season 7 of Buffy. The idea of Spike and Angel encountering one of the many newly minted Slayers was crying out to happen, and having her be a reflection of the victims in their guilty pasts was an excellent twist.
  • Fred’s parents reappearing in The Girl In Question was the best thing the show could have done to make me feel sad about her death.
  • In that same episode, it was fun to get one more whirl with Darla and Drusilla, albeit only in flashback.
  • Same goes for Andrew, minus the flashback part and plus Damage.
  • Then in Not Fade Away we get one more look at Julia Lee as Anne Steele (and I am always more than happy to have another look at her!) and a little shout-out to Gunn’s old crew.

I ended up feeling quite pleased with all these reappearances. Cycling through these touchpoints gave this final season of Buffyverse TV a real sense of closure.

5. I quite like the way that the season kept returning to its unifying theme of “defending innocence.” In the last episode of season 4, Angel warns that if his gang decides to take the Wolfram & Hart tour being offered by Dead Lilah, “before the ride’s even over, before you even cross through their doors, you’ll be corrupted.” Then they do so anyway, and spend all of season five trying to prove that statement wrong. That’s a great tension upon which to base a season, and many individual episodes revisited the question from various angles.

Once again, Joss sets the terms in Conviction. That episode does a brilliant job of interrogating the idea of innocence, choosing to set its main story in the very battleground of innocence, a courtroom. That the gang must keep justice at bay from a man who is clearly guilty, in order to protect the world from the danger posed by that man’s innocent son, is a perfect start to their slog through the moral morass that is Wolfram & Hart. Angel’s vigorous crunch into Eve’s apple is a lovely symbolic moment, setting off an arc that ends in Not Fade Away with his comment to her about being thrown out of the garden.

Eve herself displays an intriguing set of developments, seeming at first to be the snake in the garden, contrary to her name. Bit by bit, though, we learn that she is not nearly as worldly as she at first appears. We get our first glimpse of vulnerability at the end of Life Of The Party — she’s just dismissed any emotional consequence to her mystically-influenced coupling with Angel, but as she turns away from him and towards the camera, her face twists in anger. That vulnerability flowers in her attachment to Lindsey, and in that moment of the final episode, as she (apparently) sacrifices herself to despair, it is clear that she has become the naive one, and the power is with Angel once more.

Speaking of Angel’s “groin buddies”, Nina the Werewolf is trying desperately not to become a destructive monster, mirroring the struggle of our heroes in this season. She also wants to stay closeted from her family, protecting them from the frightening world that has claimed her. In this way, she reflects Angel’s decision to alter reality, erasing the memories of his son and his friends — he decides on their behalf that they are better off not knowing. I appreciated the fact that the show revisited this decision in Origin, and that it never fully resolves the question of whether innocence must be tied to ignorance. For Connor, we suspect (and get confirmation in Not Fade Away) that he is able to integrate the truth about himself without losing his soul to the darkness. With Wesley, on the other hand, I get the sense that once he uncovers the mystery, he wishes he could have remained in the dark.

A number of Little Bad episodes also rung changes on the theme, none more piercingly than Damage, which links the shredded innocence of deranged slayer Dana to that of Angel and Spike themselves, who were, after all, once victims of a horrific fate. Like them, Dana lost her innocence long before the heroes could jump in and defend it — all they can do is deal with the consequences of horror. We get a more hopeful parallel in The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco, in which Numero Cinco represents not only a more innocent time in the fight against evil, but also a parallel to Angel’s essence, on a journey where both rediscover hope and purpose. Smile Time ends in success, too — the demons who are looking to sell the “100% pure innocence” of their victims fail in their gambit, thanks to Angel and company. Why We Fight is closer to Damage — Lawson sacrificed his soul heroically, but there is no way to avoid the consequences of that sacrifice. All Angel can do is euthanize him.

When we see Angel give up the baby to the Fell Bretheren in Time Bomb, alarm bells start ringing. Here, in a season all about the defense of innocence, we see the ultimate symbol of innocence seemingly defenseless against embodiments of evil. Luckily for us, Angel has “gone dark” so many times that now the way to confound the audience’s expectations is to have him actually remain a hero. Thank god! I was getting very tired of that particular groove, and was relieved to see this final season skip it. (Even the surprise-by-staying-good trick was more powerfully done in Enemies, the season 3 Buffy episode.) Still, Whedon never lets us off the hook that easily. Fred’s essence is destroyed for good by Illyria, despite every possible effort being made to save it. Wesley dies too, but he’s shown us plenty of darkness in his heart. Really, the greater loss of innocence happens to Lorne, who finally must turn his back on the “unsavory” (albeit heroic) work of the gang when Angel asks him to commit murder. Although Angel does much to protect the souls of many, including his own, his fight isn’t always successful.

6. Doesn’t it seem like the show is kind of playing fast and loose with the question of whether or not Angel can have sex? It kind of seems like it keeps changing its mind on the topic. I mean, early on (in Untouched, from season 2), Cordelia is all about warning Bethany, “Don’t bone my boss.” Even as late as Origin, Spike says, “Keep in mind, he can’t get laid without maybe going crazy.” Yet not only does he do it with Eve (which, arguably, he didn’t have a choice about), but he also has entirely-consensual-no-mystic-influence-whatsoever sex with Nina in Power Play. Sure, they reference the “happy but not perfectly happy” thing, but it still seems like a lot of slippage to me. Er, as it were.

7. I like seeing Gunn with brains, and I really like that he develops a dependency on them. His position as “the muscle” never made a huge amount of sense to me, what with a superpowered vampire standing right next to him. J. August Richards takes on the “human encyclopedia” persona quite ably, and his panic at losing that power made perfect sense in light of his long history of insecurity about his place on the team.

8. Lindsey with muscles and bad snark is way more annoying than the Lindsey I remember. (Not that the Lindsey I remember was a joy.) His patter is especially bad in Not Fade Away — so much so that I think it must be intentionally irritating, though whether the intentionality is on the part of the character or the writers I’m not sure. It was quite satisfying to see Lorne dispatch him, and I loved Lindsey’s crushing disappointment at being killed by “a flunky.”

9. Gosh, it was fun to see Adam Baldwin again. Hamilton was a great replacement for Eve, and Baldwin is terrific in the part. (And would you believe, I just today learned that he’s not one of the Baldwin brothers? I always just sort of assumed he was. Thanks, Wikipedia!)

10. The “Fred taken over by Illyria” plot is a bit of a rehash of the “Cordelia taken over by Jasmine” plot from last season — the show even acknowledges this in Shells. The fact that it is rehashed is troubling to me. Whedon is certainly known for his strong heroines, but now twice in a row, he has used the violation and destruction of a woman as a central plot point in Angel. Once, okay, but if you’re going to use the same basic motif, did it really need to be Fred as the victim? It seems to me that Gunn, Lorne, Wesley, or even Spike would have been more interesting, less hidebound choices. I don’t like the fact that twice in a row, the show had to build its dramatic capital by having a bunch of men freak out about saving a damsel in distress, not to mention the fact that they fail both times, and the women involved have virtually no agency in the process.

One thing I did notice in the Fred plot is that unlike in previous seasons, where Angel would always, without fail, choose personal attachment over the good of the world, here he allows Fred to be sacrificed in order to avoid the disastrous consequences of saving her. The good of the many outweighing the good of the few, as it were. Is this a different, more evolved Angel? Well, I’m not sure. He’s certainly ready at first to say, “To hell with the world.” In fact, he does say that. But somehow, in a way that the episode never quite makes clear, he either backs off or doesn’t pursue hard enough. Is it Spike that changes his mind? No, I think that he realizes he’s about to do the wrong thing, and stops. What’s still not clear to me, though, is whether he’s grown into a new moral compass or whether the “tens maybe hundreds of thousands” of people who would have been killed rescuing Fred pass some sort of threshold that’s always been there. Given the behavior he displays in the final episodes, where he only pretends to turn into Ends-Justify-Means-Guy, perhaps it’s not too hopeful to think he’s learning from experience.

11. Episode-specific comments:

  • Lineage — I was really pleased when it seemed like Wesley was going to have a reckoning with his father. It seemed like a pivotal moment that his character needed in order to shed some long-held baggage. I was quite disappointed that the reality of it was overturned at the last minute. I wonder — was he easier to kill because this crucial incident was only a fake-out?
  • Destiny — Again, what is with the business of Spike claiming that he fought for his soul? That is revisionist history, is it not? It seems as if the show has accepted this version of events, but that is surely not how I read his behavior at the end of Buffy season 6.
  • You’re Welcome — Okay, maybe I am dense, but this episode made no frickin’ sense to me. So Cordelia is corporeal, seemingly herself in every way except that she doesn’t sleep. So she’s a… what? Not a vampire, clearly. A zombie, except fully alert? A ghost, except totally corporeal (unlike ghost-Spike) and functionally not a ghost in any apparent way? A higher power manifest on earth in a way we’ve never actually seen her be before? I take it that we’re supposed to figure out that she drew the curtains over her own dying body at the beginning, but if that’s so, what body is she walking around in? Then she transfers the visions to Angel, seemingly, and somehow he knows it was a “one-shot deal.” The whole thing was just a big “Wha…?” to me. Or is this supposed to be one of those The-Mysterious-And-Never-To-Be-Explained-Powers-That-Be-May-Alter-Logic-And-Reality-At-Their-Whims-Woo-Woo type of deals? Because, thumbs down to those types of deals. When Angel got that call, it felt like somebody lowering a sign into the frame reading “Note: Poochie died on the way back to his home planet.”
  • Smile Time — At first, I thought I was really going to hate this episode. Ever since I became a parent, I find stories about the seduction and destruction of children almost too upsetting to tolerate. However, once Angel became a puppet, it just got great. I absolutely loved the bit about him having the relative excitability of a puppet.

Favorite moments:
Conviction — Gunn: “We can switch if you don’t like the—you know, the kung pao or whatever.” Wesley: “Feng shui.” Gunn: “Right. What’s that mean again?” Wesley: “That people will believe anything. Actually, in this place, feng shui will probably have enormous significance. I’ll align my furniture the wrong way and suddenly catch fire or turn into a pudding.”
Conviction — Phone menu voice: “You have reached ritual sacrifice. For goats, press one, or say ‘goats.'”
Conviction — Angel: “What? I’m not allowed to hit people?” Wesley: “Not people capable of genocide.” Angel: “Those are exactly the types of people I should be allowed to hit!”
Just Rewards — Spike: (as the remains of a former employee are carried in by the bucketful) “Ol’ buckets here was right. You guys are doing a bang-up job.”
Just Rewards — Angel: “Yeah, well, sharing’s not something Spike does very well.” Harmony: “Preaching to the horse’s mouth.”
Unleashed — Lorne (to Angel): “No, it’s talking you need… or maybe a shoulder to—” Angel: “I’m not gonna cry either.” Lorne: “I was going to a leaning place.”
Life Of The Party — Knox: “And how do you know your spell-casters didn’t screw up the payload?” Wesley: “Because I went over the work and I got that knowing feeling you get when you know something.”
Life Of The Party — Angel (in the midst of making out with Eve): “I mean, do you even have a last name?” Eve: “Do you?”
Life Of The Party — “Positive attitude Spike” is totally hilarious throughout this one. I especially love it when the angry demons burst through the door and he exclaims, “What a fantastic entrance!”
Life Of The Party — Eve: “Angel, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve had sex under a mystical influence. I went to U.C. Santa Cruz.” Also, her abrupt shift of expression as she walks out is very good.
The Cautionary Tale Of Numero Cinco — The whole running gag of the devil’s robot, especially Wesley’s automatic knowledge of it: “El Diablo Robotico.”
Lineage — Wesley: (to Fred, after being “comforted” by Angel and Spike) “If you’re here to tell me about how you killed your parents… perhaps it could wait for another time.”
Soul Purpose — Gunn: “We open a can of Machiavelli on his ass.” Harmony: “It’s Matchabelli, Einstein, and it doesn’t come in a can.” I had to Google it, but once I did: very funny!
Soul Purpose — Harmony: “Also, any time something comes in with runes on it, I’m supposed to tell Angel immediately… and not try and read the runes myself… ’cause that can cause a fire.”
Damage — Andrew (to Spike): “No problem, brother. You’re a troubled hero. Creature of the night. El creatro del noche.”
Damage — Andrew (to Angel): “Think we’re just gonna let you take her back to your evil stronghold? Well, as they say in Mexico… No.”
Smile Time — Angel: “I do not have puppet cancer!”
Smile Time — The whole Angel puppet thing is very funny. I especially liked it when he took his nose off.
Smile Time — Gunn: “These particular devils have a fairly distinctive M.O.” Fred: “They’ve done this before?” Gunn: “You see the last few seasons of ‘Happy Days’?”
A Hole In The World — Gunn’s prank on Wes (and us): “Fred and I are getting back together!”
A Hole In The World — Fred: “Cavemen win. Of course the cavemen win.” A chilling windup to what was just a few moments ago a joke. How very Joss.
A Hole In The World — Spike’s annoyed fusillade of questions towards Drogyn.
Shells — I love that Illyria believes (as do we) that she’s a big apocalyptic monster with an army of doom and she turns out to be wrong.
Shells — Angel’s noble speech about how he would protect Knox interrupted by Wesley, shooting Knox.
Underneath — Illyria (reminiscing about her dimensional travel): “I traveled all of them as I pleased. I walked worlds of smoke and half-truths, intangible. Worlds of torment and of unnamable beauty. Opaline towers as high as small moons. Glaciers that rippled with insensate lust. And one world with nothing but shrimp. I tired of that one quickly.” Awesome Buffy callback.
Origin — The scene of Spike “testing” Illyria is very funny.
Origin — Connor (to Angel): “Do you spend all your time making out with other vampires, like in Anne Rice novels?” Angel: “No. Uh — I used to, but…”
Origin — Lorne (about Cyvus Vail): “He’s powerful. Heads up a large demon empire, has tendrils stretching throughout L.A.” Angel: “Tendril-tendrils?” Lorne: “Metaphor-tendrils.”
The Girl In Question — I quite enjoyed the CEO of Rome’s W&H branch.
The Girl In Question — Demon butler: “Oh, look. The Americans are relying on violence to solve their problems. What a surprise.”
The Girl In Question — Final scene, with Angel & Spike. “Movin’ on.” “Oh, yeah.” “Right now.” “Movin’.”
Not Fade Away — Angel solving the Hamilton puzzle.

Favorite episodes:

And thus it ends. But hey: only 74 days to Dollhouse!

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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