Searching For Sugar Man

One of my favorite books as a teen, and a huge influence on me during that time, was a novel called The Armageddon Rag, by the then-little-known George R.R. Martin. The book is about… well, it’s about many things, including loss of innocence, the metaphorical end of the Sixties, the rewards and regrets inherent in revisiting the past, and the enormous power of music. The way it is about those things is that it follows a journalist investigating a murder, one that seems inextricably bound to the music of a fictional Zeppelin-esque defunct band called The Nazgûl, whose lead singer died on the same date as the murder. As the journalist investigates the story, he is startled to discover that the band is getting back together, and somebody who looks and sounds a whole lot like the singer is fronting them…

The documentary Searching For Sugar Man is about many things too, and the way it is about them is that it follows a journalist investigating how a beloved artist died. The artist’s name is Rodriguez. A Detroit singer-songwriter in the Dylan mold, he released a couple of albums in the early 70s — good albums, beloved by producers and critics, but completely ignored by the American audience. He quickly faded into total obscurity. Well, almost total. By some quirk, the albums became wildly popular in South Africa, their protest lyrics credited with awakening an anti-apartheid generation to the possibility and power of questioning authority. One South African describes Rodriguez’s popularity there like so: “If you went into any white, middle-class, liberal home in South Africa and started flipping through the record collection, there are three albums you’d always find: Abbey Road by The Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel, and Cold Fact by Rodriguez.”

But while there are reams of information available about The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, South Africans could learn almost nothing about Rodriguez. They couldn’t even find out how he died, though many seemed to agree it was grisly in some way. Did he immolate himself on stage? Blow his brains out right after the encore? Nobody seems to know, so in the 1990s, South African music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Styrdom starts researching an article whose premise is: “How did Rodriguez die?” He followed the money, made a lot of phone calls, and also made use of this nifty new tool called the Internet. With fan Stephen Segerman, he created a website called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt”, casting far and wide for leads on the mystery.

I don’t want to reveal what he found. It’s best learned watching the film. Quoth Roger Ebert: “Let me just say it is miraculous and inspiring.” For me, it was like a mirror image of The Armageddon Rag: where the story of The Nazgûl is dark and apocalyptic, the story of Rodriguez is redemptive and luminous. Even better, the story of Rodriguez is true. I spent pretty much the entire movie thinking it was a hoax, along the lines of Dave Stewart’s Platinum Weird stunt a few years ago. Nope. It’s not a hoax. It is one hundred percent true, and it shone a light on a couple of things that really moved me.

The first of these is about mystery and music. Not to sound like a village elder, but I am old enough to remember a time when you could hear a song, or an album, and love it, but have almost nothing more than the song or the album. If you heard it on the radio, you might not even know the title or the artist! I once taped a lovely Robert Plant song off the radio, and it took me years to find out the title of the song, and that it was solo Plant rather than Zeppelin.

Even if you owned the music rather than hearing it on the radio, you might have an album cover or some liner notes to peruse, but those could be sparse or willfully obtuse, and in any case they were merely snapshots in time. You could subscribe to Creem or Rolling Stone and get up-to-date news, but only for the artists they chose to showcase. You might be able to find some historical info at the library, for well-established artists, but again, that would be up to the caprice of your library’s collection. Even the albums themselves could be elusive — I remember driving all around Aurora, searching fruitlessly for a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut.

This atmosphere gave rise to wild rumors and legends. I suppose the poster child for this would be the Paul is dead phenomenon, but these legends lasted well past the Sixties. I remember someone confidently asserting to me that Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant had a daughter together. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when there is a vacuum of information, human beings will fill that vacuum with speculation, and doubly so for the things we’re passionate about. Thus were many hours spent trading ridiculous stories of our pop idols.

That’s all different now. Don’t get me wrong — the age of rumors wasn’t golden, and I wouldn’t want to go back to it. I absolutely love that we have Google, and Wikipedia, and Shazam, and even horrible ad-splattered lyrics sites. The trade wasn’t something for nothing, though. What we lost was a little bit of that mystique, that sense of the unknowable. Having information at our fingertips about the musical pantheon brings them a lot closer to earth with the rest of us. It’s a mixed blessing.

The other aspect of this film that really spoke to me was about recognition and arrival. The filmmaker speaks to Rodriguez’s daughters, who knew their father as someone who had put his music out into the world, only to see it immediately sink beneath the surface. When they learn that it finally found its home in South Africa, that those songs were deeply loved by an entire nation of people, the revelation is immensely powerful. They see that their father’s spirit, his true self, has been kept alive for all those years. Did the news come too late? Maybe, but I don’t think so. See the movie and judge for yourself.

This part of the movie felt allegorical to me. We each have our core, our essence, and as bravely as we can, we express it to the world. Sometimes the world embraces it, sometimes not so much. But it never goes away. It is there, still waiting to be seen and heard. Sometimes, it gets seen and heard in the most unexpected ways, and when that happens, the resulting illumination is a wonder to behold.

The Avengers

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled IF reviews for this topical superhero discussion. That review of Mentula Macanus is coming soon– er, on its way.]

I’ve been reading a lot of 1960s Marvel comics lately, letter columns and all. I did this once before, with just Spider-Man comics, which was a lot of fun. This time I’m skipping around more from title to title, getting a feel for the way the universe gelled, and how the constant stream of feedback from readers contributed to that process. It’s really given me a sense for what Marvel did differently back in those early days. For a while there, they could almost do no wrong — “what they did differently” was more or less synonymous with “what they did right.”

Know what else I’ve been doing a lot lately? Seeing Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie. Well, okay, just twice, but that counts as “a lot” in my movie-watching book. The movie is everything I wanted it to be. It was even more satisfying the second time around. Like those early Marvels, it makes the right call pretty much every time. Really: just like those early Marvels.

Continued stories
In 1961, when the Marvel Universe as we know it began, comic books were disposable, not collectible. There was no expectation that whoever bought issue #41 would necessarily have bought issue #40 or have any intention to buy issue #42. Consequently, each one was required to be self-contained, with one story, or even multiple stories, that began and ended within its covers. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the general expectation was that a comic book contained at least one complete story. Sure, there were motifs that continued from one issue to the next, but they were more or less in the form of an established status quo. Clark Kent always works at the Daily Planet. Lois Lane never gets any closer to figuring out his secret identity. Jimmy Olsen is always just as young and eager and boneheaded as he ever was or ever will be. Stories that deviated from this status quo always made sure to return to it before the issue was over.

Many early Marvels followed this pattern too, though their internal status quo was a fair bit more interesting. However, it quickly became apparent that the stories they wanted to tell were too complex to be contained within a single book. Not only that, they seemed to be attracting older, more sophisticated readers, who might be more reasonably expected to buy a title consistently. So, in many books, “continued stories” became the rule, and whoever read issue #41 might in fact need the previous one or the next one, or several iterations thereof, to get the full tale.

Oh, the complaints that readers sent in about this! The company was accused of greed, insensitivity, poor storytelling, and more. In fact, the hue and cry was so great that at one point Marvel actually abandoned continued stories and tried to keep all issues self-contained. The (predictable) result? Duller, more superficial stories. In fact, it may have almost been a calculated move on their part — by the time they did it, the Marvel Universe had already been established as an enormous tapestry of characters whose lives regularly interwove, collided, and separated again. To write the very kind of stories they had made obsolete may have been their way of saying, “Oh, this? Is this really what you want?” Needless to say, continued stories returned soon afterwards.

In 2012, the majority of movies are self-contained, but there are plenty of franchises in which each sequel moves the characters along a larger arc. However, what we hadn’t seen yet is a movie that ties together multiple franchises in the way that The Avengers does. There are four different lines of movies, each with its own sequel trajectory, that come together in this one. Four sets of stories feed in, and this story will resonate along at least three lines in the future. (I’m not sure if there are going to be any more Hulk movies, though no doubt the success of Avengers makes that outcome more likely. Heck, maybe even Black Widow and Hawkeye will get their own franchises.)

This is an immensely powerful position for a movie to occupy. In the comics, a shared universe gets you several great things:

  • If you’re following multiple lines that come together, you get to feel like an insider when the collisions happen. The more lines you follow, the more satisfying this can be.
  • The coherency of each strand is enhanced by its participation in a greater coherent whole. When Spider-Man bursts into Stark Industries, he may wonder why Iron Man isn’t showing up. Those of us reading Iron Man know that he’s trapped by a villain in another part of the factory, and knowing this lets us feel that both Spidey and Stark are a legitimate part of a larger, grander story.
  • When personalities do come together, especially if they clash, the drama of the encounter is greatly enhanced when each character is fully fleshed out with a detailed background and a story of his own.The Avengers movie inherits each of these advantages, along with the sheer pleasure of seeing a bunch of great actors thrown into an ensemble cast, and an enormous sense of payoff from the most elaborate setup ever.

These people do not get along
As I said, Marvel set up a fictional universe in which its superheroes were constantly running into each other. And when that would happen, inevitably, they would fight at least once. Fans loved seeing the good guys square off against each other, if only from the geeky desire to take the measure of each hero. And so Stan Lee would contrive some sort of misunderstanding or unusual circumstance that would force the heroes into conflict. Letter columns were always full of people eager to know who would win in a fight: Hulk vs. Thor? Thing vs. Iron Man? Spidey vs. Black Widow? Hero vs. hero conflict gave those fans a little satisfaction, though not always as much as they wanted, given that the story often took a left turn before either hero suffered a full defeat.

The Avengers takes this cue and runs with it. And, uh, now it’s probably time for the SPOILERS ASSEMBLE! warning.

The movie gives us so many awesome hero vs. hero matchups:

  • Black Widow vs. Hulk, twice. She dominates him strategically as Banner, he dominates her physically (of course) as Hulk
  • Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America
  • Hawkeye vs. everybody, which was a great way of establishing Hawkeye’s badass credentials. (Casting Jeremy Renner didn’t hurt either.)
  • Stark, Banner, and Cap piercing Fury’s subterfuge, leading to a great 6-way argument and a lovely Whedonesque camera move, inverting the heroes and placing the Staff Of Bad Influence in the foreground
  • Thor vs. Hulk
  • Black Widow vs. Hawkeye

And that’s all before they team up to fight the Big Bad! No wonder this movie had to be 143 minutes long. These matchups do several things for the movie, besides their obvious Big Action Thrill value. I mentioned how turning Hawkeye against everyone, and having him nearly take down the whole shebang, was a great way of establishing him as a powerhouse to be reckoned with, despite his lack of superpowers. Really, that’s true for all the inter-hero fights. In order for us to believe in the enormous victory the Avengers pull off in the movie’s climax, we have to believe in their powers and abilities. Having them establish these against each other is both efficient and effective. This way, we see more heroes in action more of the time, and our belief in one reinforces our belief in the others.

Moreover, the physical conflicts help the movie express the characters’ underlying philosophical conflicts. Superhero stories, at least when they’re done well, are metaphors writ large. So when Thor fights Iron Man, it isn’t just Thor fighting Iron Man — it’s the Mythical/Ancient/Pastoral at war with the Modern/Scientific/Technological, and it’s not accidental that the image of Idealized Patriotism and Selfless Heroism is defeated by neither and brings both together.

Finally, the conflicts move the plot along, which is far from a given in modern action movies. Heroes fighting each other does everything from achieving key turning points (such as when the Widow administers a “cognitive recalibration” to Hawkeye, switching him back to the side of the angels) to subtly filling in explanatory details (such as when Banner finds himself holding the Stick of Psychic Malevolence as he’s getting angry.)

How do you solve a problem like The Hulk?
In fact, this last one helped me understand something about the movie that puzzled me the first time around. I’ve mentioned before that although the Hulk exists in a world of superheroes, he’s not a superhero himself — he’s a monster. Unlike everybody else on the team, he’s not necessarily here to help. This is a hard problem to solve for any story that includes him as a protagonist, and the first time I saw The Avengers, I thought the film hadn’t quite solved it. Why is he all “SMASH BLACK WIDOW!” the first time he appears and then all “SMASH ONLY BAD GUYS AND CATCH IRON MAN AND GENERALLY HELP OUT!” the second time?

Then my friend Tashi suggested this interpretation to me: Banner’s revelation during the climactic battle (“I’m always angry”) indicates that he has figured out that suppressing his anger is the wrong way to go. So instead, he lives with it all the time so that it doesn’t blossom into rage, and tries to atone for his past damage by helping the helpless. (Boy, sounds Whedonishly familiar, doesn’t it?) He believes that he might be able to control “the other guy” now that he’s learned to live with his anger, but he’d rather not take the chance if he doesn’t have to.

Then he gets tangled up with the whole SHIELD thing. He finds himself aboard a massive airship — as he comments when it takes off, that’s a worse place for him to be than even a submarine. Loki’s whole plan is to get the Hulk to wreck everything once he’s aboard the Helicarrier. Well, that and also get Hawkeye to wreck everything from outside the Helicarrier. So, using the remote magic of the Nasty Pointy Spear Of Malefic Intent, he manipulates Banner’s mind (as indicated by the “put down the scepter” scene), weakening his mental control so that when Hawkeye strikes, the Hulk is in rampage mode rather than “I’m at peace with my anger” mode. Then, later, when Banner motors up for the final battle, he’s himself again, and can drive the beast enough to be a hero.

I love this explanation, and I think it’s supported by the film. It’s certainly better than anything Stan Lee figured out in the 60’s. His Hulk was constantly hunted, and his Banner was far from reconciled with his anger. (That is, once it was established that anger is what triggers the change. At first it was actually nightfall that did it, like a werewolf. The anger/stress thing set in pretty early, though.) He tried pills, and he tried locking himself away. He tried staying out of stressful situations. You can imagine how well all that worked out. The comics Hulk was often well-intentioned, but always misunderstood.

There wasn’t a trace in this movie of Thunderbolt Ross-esque anti-Hulkism — on the contrary, the government is looking for Banner to enlist his help, despite knowing he could potentially Hulk out. You don’t get much of that in the early comics, though they repeatedly attempted to cast the monster as a hero. In fact, he was even a charter member of the original Avengers… but he was out of there by the third issue. He’s really not much of a team player.

Homage and better
Having the Hulk be present for the founding of the movie Avengers is just one of the many lovely ways this film pays respect to its source material. Just as in the comics, Loki is intimately involved with the Avengers’ formation. Just as in the comics, the early Hawkeye and Black Widow are a couple, albeit one frequently beset by misfortune. Just as in the comics, the Avengers bicker and argue and crack wise, although the players and personalities are a bit different in the film from how they work in the original stories.

The movie is far from a literal recreation of those early Avengers issues. Instead, like the first Iron Man movie, it faithfully absorbs the spirit of the comics, but compresses, abridges, and enhances to make a coherent story that fits together like an exquisite puzzle. Thank you Joss, for mining the gold from an enormous vein, then shaping and polishing it so beautifully for us. And by the way, that really long sequence shot that went from hero to hero during the third act was JUST AWESOME. Mmmm, I think it’s time to see this movie again.

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

DESCRIPTION
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.

COURSE PLAN
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.

GRADING PLAN
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

ASSIGNED READING
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

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

ASSIGNED LISTENING
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

CALENDAR
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 “Learned League Live!”, hosted by Shayne Bushfield, or rather his alter ego, Commissioner Thorsten A. Integrity. If you’re not familiar with Learned League, 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 edtoutant.blogspot.com. 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 qusetions 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 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.

HEDGE YOUR BETS

Good Questions, part 3

I had another great trivia day last Saturday, this time a “Clubhouse Bowl” — just like a Basement Bowl, except held in a guy’s apartment clubhouse rather than a basement. There were trivia bowl-style games along with a bunch of Jeopardy! games run on a magic Jeopardy! simulator created by one of the gang. There was even “Trivia Battleship” — a wild cross of quiz-bowl questions with the classic strategy game. Correctly answered toss-ups would earn one shot against the other team, while bonuses could earn up to four more shots. Very fun.

Predictably, the whole thing primed me to whip up another episode in this series. Since I am apparently an endless font of opinions about good practices for trivia question-writing, let’s get started:

CROSS THE STREAMS

If you’re a Ghostbuster, crossing the streams is a bad thing. If you’re a trivia question writer, crossing the streams, by which I mean mixing the broad categories to find interesting hybrids, can be a very good thing indeed. There are plenty of sports questions, and plenty of movie questions, but how about sports movie questions? How about athletes who played bit parts in movies? How about movie-related nicknames given by Chris Berman to various athletes? The intersections between trivia categories can be fertile ground for some appealing questions, and can allow people who are normally weak in a category to kick ass in unexpected ways.

A great example of this came up at the recent Clubhouse Bowl. Dave Gatch handed out a sheet of movie stills, and asked us to tell him what song was playing during that point in the movie. Sound tough? Take a look at these examples (not the ones he used) and see if you can’t do exactly that:

1.

2.

3.

4.

Combining two categories (in this case movies and music) opens up new avenues of fun, activates players’ brains in new ways, and gives your game a feeling of greater unity.

STRETCH

I am no good at sports questions. Whenever I hear a sports toss-up begin, my hand relaxes on the buzzer, and I know there is very little chance that I will have anything to contribute. I start looking over at our team’s sports guy (yeah, it’s nearly always a guy) with hope and gratitude. I know the basics, but I just do not follow sports enough to know much beyond that.

Nevertheless, I include sports questions in all my regular (i.e. non-specialized) trivia games. Why? Writing sports questions helps improve me, both as a writer and as a player. Writing questions that are outside my comfort zone forces me to research things I don’t already know, some of which I may even remember later on down the line. This research also turns up unexpected gems of information which are quirky enough both to make a great question and to make the piece of information it concerns memorable enough to stick with me. Like, for example, did you know that Guy LaFleur, all-time leading scorer for the Montreal Canadiens (hockey team), recorded a disco album?

Incidentally, I do the same thing on Sporcle, a great site for trivia quizzes. I like to take Sporcle quizzes in areas where I’m strong, like music, movies, and literature. But I also like to take them in my weaker areas, like geography, history, and sports. Generally, I like to take a new random quiz, and then retake an old quiz. I pick which one to retake by sorting the list of quizzes I’ve taken, and identifying the one with the lowest percentage of right answers. Consequently, I’ve taken the NHL all-time team leaders quiz about 10 times so far, and my best score is 26 out of 120. That’s a huge improvement on my first score, though, which was 8 out of 120. And now I can tell you about a bunch of hockey players I’d never heard of before I started in on that quiz. (Which is how I learned the weird fact above.)

Another way to stretch is to try broadening your knowledge of areas in which you’re already strong. For instance, I love movies, and I know some Oscar trivia, but there is so much more for me to learn, and the Academy Awards are a very common trivia topic. So I write Oscar questions in areas I don’t know well, both to challenge players and to make me a better player and writer. (Just as an aside, if you want to improve as a trivia player, be on the lookout for creative ways to strengthen your knowledge. For instance, Windows 7 has a feature which lets you rotate through a set of images for desktop wallpaper, changing automatically at an interval you select. So I went out and snagged an image of every Best Picture winner, dropped them all into a folder, and have the wallpaper machine circulating among them. Now when I use my computer, I also get a little help remembering which movies have won the Best Picture Oscar.)

SPREAD THE LOVE

Something that makes trivia games great fun is their ability to point you to wonderful corners of culture that you never knew existed. I’ve been introduced to lots of great movies, music, TV, and other stuff via trivia, and I try to do the same for others. It’s great fun to write questions on topics you feel passionate about. At the same time, at least for me, that’s too narrow a field. I’m a white guy who grew up in the 80’s, and I have an endless well of questions I could write about cultural artifacts I got attached to in my time. But while I want my games to be fun for me, I also want them to be fun for people other than me. Consequently, I try to include questions about areas of culture that don’t mean as much to me, sometimes even things I actively dislike. As I sometimes point out, inclusion does not imply endorsement. I suppose this might seem like a restatement of the “stretch” point, but there’s a slightly different intention behind it. I try to spread the love among all different kinds of knowledge not just to make myself a better player, but to remember to include a diverse variety of topics so that my games are fun for a wide variety of people.

Okay, that’s all for now. How about those movie songs?

1. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen plays during that scene from Wayne’s World.

2. The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” is the music behind that scene from Ghost.

3. Any boy who grew up in the 80s (see, I told you that was my wheelhouse) is likely to remember The Cars’ “Moving In Stereo” as the soundtrack to Judge Reinhold’s fantasy sequence about Phoebe Cates in Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

4. Before Tom Cruise was famous for being crazy, he was famous for dancing around to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” in Risky Business.

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:

BE MORE FUNNY!

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 felonius 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 Burnette, 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.

CUDGEL THY BRAINS

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:

Category: FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
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.]

Category: ALPHABET HOMOPHONES
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.]

Category: ALPHABETICALLY LAST
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.

SENSES WORKING OVERTIME

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.
4 different old-time logos for NFL teams

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

Jeopardy!:
Category: FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Clue: Riesling, Syrah
Question: What are grapes?

Category: ALPHABET HOMOPHONES
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?

Category: ALPHABETICALLY LAST
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 Wiliam 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.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

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…

KICKING ASS IS MORE FUN

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.)

BORING INFORMATION SUCKS

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.

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.)