A Set of Informal Heuristics for Winning “Bluff the Listener” on Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me

Abstract

After listening to the NPR news quiz show, Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, one begins to notice certain patterns in the featured game, Bluff the Listener. I have collected a list of informal heuristics to aid listeners at guessing the answer. I consider these “informal” because I have not gathered supporting metrics, merely guessed at patterns.

The Rules of the Game

A guest introduces themself by announcing their name and location. After a brief period of witty banter, led by the host, Peter Sagal, and abetted by impromptu comments from the panelists, the theme of that week’s game is introduced. For instance, on the show of Sunday, May 17, the theme was “Things people have done to get back at Russia”. Each panelist then reads a purported news story on that topic, one of which is pulled from the week’s news. The other two are fictional and written (presumably) by the panelists themselves. It is never explicitly stated that the panelists (rather than, say, Mr. Sagal or a staffer) wrote the fictional stories, but they seem to reflect the panelists’ interests.

After each story is read, Mr. Sagal briefly recaps all previous stories. After all three are recapped, the guest guesses which is the true story. Mr. Sagal then asks them to confirm their guess. Sometimes he will imply by tone that they would be wise to change their guess. Once their guess is confirmed, an audio clip is played revealing which is the true story. If the listener’s guess is correct, they win WWDTM’s only prize, Karl Kassel’s voice on their device of choice. The panelist whose story is chosen, whether or not it is the correct one, is awarded a point.

Heuristics for Guessing

  1. Longer stories tend to be fictional. The made-up stories tend to be longer and more convoluted than the true stories. The panelists put a high premium on being amusing, sometimes more than being plausible. Plausible is often rather dull. [Note to future researchers – data needs to be collected correlating length of stories with their veracity.]
  2. Non-American stories tend to be true. If two stories take place in the United States, and one elsewhere, the foreign story tends to be the true one. [Again, I have not collected data to confirm this. Feel free.]
  3. PJ O’Rourke is utterly transparent. The presence of Mr. O’Rourke on the panel gives the guest better odds of winning. When he writes a fictional story, it tends to be both utterly implausible and centered on his wheelhouse of “oh, those silly politicians.” If the story is about martini-swilling, rich Republicans, or overly-sensitive, improvident Democrats terrified of offending, then it is fictional. If his story is even slightly plausible, or concerns any other area of life, it is likely to be the true one. [While I have not actually collected data, come on – you know this is right.]
  4. Look for jokes. Almost all the panelists are comedians or humorists. They enjoy writing jokes. Jokes tend not to happen in real life. If the story features a clever joke, it is less likely to be true.
  5. More as I come up with them…

Conclusion

Lest this researcher be accused of sucking all the fun out of the show by exposing its workings so ruthlessly, I wish to say in my defense that one may enjoy a blue sky even if one knows that the color derives from the light-scattering properties of nitrogen, or a rainbow even if one is aware of the refractive characteristics of clouds of water droplets. WWDTM is a brilliant show, and Peter Sagal has the highest WEQ (Wit/Elocution Quotient) of anyone in broadcasting, or indeed in show-business. Bill Kurtis’s voice is like a comforting, protective blanket, if that blanket were also muscular (I know, a disquieting image). The panelists feel like old friends, even PJ; especially when he is hurt or sad (as he was when Amy Schumer was the celebrity guest), I feel like mixing him one of my White Manhattans and reminiscing fondly about William F. Buckley, Jr.

Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation by Eric Kaplan

I first read an op-ed piece by Eric Kaplan in the New York Times, called What Role Do you Want to Play? I thought it was charming and funny. And he’s a writer on the Big Bang Theory, so that’s a hell of a credit. I went looking for his other writing, and found his blog, and his book, Does Santa Exist?

Simultaneously, I was discovering the Overdrive Android app, which enables you to borrow library ebooks and e-audio books. Since I have library cards for Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena/Glendale, there’s a trove of stuff out there to borrow without the chore of actually visiting a library (I love visiting libraries – I think they’re probably the single best thing in modern civilization, after, perhaps, the closed sewer). And I found Does Santa Exist? in audiobook form.

Here’s what I learned. Eric Kaplan is not just smarter than I am, he’s so much smarter than I am that I am actually moved to base feelings of envy. I’m reasonably smart, but I lack certain qualities such as energy and drive. One thing I’ve learned, working around people compared to whom I am slightly below average (JPL/Caltech) is that they are marked not just by processing power but by focus, drive, and energy. If you can work through fatigue, and stick to a goal without regard to immediate payoff, you are wayyyyy ahead of the game, even compared to a smarter person who needs a lot of sleep and can’t seem to get going.

Eric Kaplan is out there with the likes of Atul Gawande (surgeon and professor at Harvard, writer for the New Yorker, and, if you go by his articles, fine human being), Amanda Hesser (food writer for the New York Times and just ubiquitous and prolific), and a few others who I can’t even remember (my fault, not theirs).

There are wonderful writers out there who don’t make me feel small and inadequate; Tim Kreider and Heather Havrilesky, both of whom have been featured in the New York Times. They are funny, expressive, humane writers, but they’re not also surgeons, astrobiologists, TV writers, or bestselling authors.

Okay, back to Does Santa Exist? Very exciting book, though I recommend the written version over the audiobook. It takes some focus, and the whole idea of audiobooks is that you can do something else. If I’m going to sit quietly and listen to an audiobook and not do anything else, I might as well read a damn book. So there are certain portions, particularly about formal logic and the kabbala, of which I missed pieces.

There is one part toward the end, where he asks about why there is such a thing as a “point” to life, which I think makes too much of what amount to certain thoughts. He says (I’m paraphrasing here, so, sorry) that some people believe that matter has no point, that people assign points to things (this is what I believe). He argues that this fails because it implies that the universe is dualistic – made up of things without point and other things, people, with a point. I disagree: “points” are just thoughts, and thoughts are computational, and based on material brains. They are higher-order aspects, or products, of people and no more magical or esoteric than the color blue or happiness or envy. Which are all wonderful, and part of life, and so on, but not anything other than any other thoughts.

Anyway, Happy Mothers’ Day!

Spam comments…

I assume that nobody reads this blog, so I don’t worry about making it entertaining (which pretty much guarantees that nobody will read it). So imagine my delight when I got an email offering me comments to curate! [not “curate”… what’s the word? There went my brain… I could feel it deliquesce…]

It seemed to be some anodyne comment like, “Good information! keep up good work! Hope to read more!” from someone named Christian Louboutin.

Further comments, equally boring, came from Timberland, Rolex, and Tag-Heuer (Wow! They’re reading me in Switzerland?).

Then, finally, came the comments from someone who had techniques for changing the size of my organ of generation.

That made me suspicious. This is a clean blog.

Then I finally realized – my audience were the Deadly Sins! I had heard from Envy, Pride, and Lust. Then Greed wrote in with exciting information on how to work from home.

Haven’t heard from Anger or Sloth yet. Looking forward to that.

Passivity…

I was in a situation last night that I’ve been in many times before – surrounded by comedy sharks. “Comedy shark” is not a derogatory term. It describes a person who does not let an opportunity to make a joke pass them by. They voraciously attack any incongruity, absurdity, self-importance, righteousness, and flip it into a joke. Of course, not all of the jokes work, but if the pace is swift enough, a lot do. That is a fun evening.

I love being around comedy sharks, because I love to laugh. And I contribute too, though I usually feel slow – the opportunities pass by, and while I’m going “umm…” someone else has grabbed it.

Then the check came, and I let them all decide how to divvy it up. I don’t like to be parsimonious, or to seem parsimonious, so I just agree. Which is fine. Ten bucks here, ten bucks there, it’s not going to break me. I’d rather have harmony.

Then today, I was mulling it over, and realized, my god, I’m passive! And I’ve been passive since early childhood. And being passive has led me to situations where I feel dissatisfied. Not always, though – sometimes being passive has led me into wonderful relationships with more active people which would otherwise have been acrimonious.

I used to pursue an acting career, and being passive scuttled that. I waited for the phone to ring – I saw my career as dependent on others, rather than as something to build. I saw it as dependent on my talent and training, when any idiot watching TV or going to the theatre knows that isn’t the only thing, or even the main thing. Being active is cousin to being persevering.

I work in a place noted for its brilliant people. A standout characteristic is not that they seem to quickly know the answer, but that they work at knowing the answer, they grapple with the problem until it’s solved. For hours – starting early, working late, over weekends.

I know! It sounds horrible! But they are at the top of their field, and admired by all. There may be smarter people who lack that will or ability to keep going, who don’t make it here.

Anyway, if you Google “how can I be less…” or “how can I be more…” you’ll encounter a well of dissatisfaction and sadness. I don’t recommend it. Just made me feel like a sick person, which is not how I typically feel.

I’m starting an improv class tomorrow (at UCB) and maybe I can tease out some of the strands of this mental state, even at this late-ish stage of life.

Last nights dream

I dreamed last night that I was looking at the moon, and saw, to its right and a little closer to the zenith, a fantastically bright spot of light. I thought at first it must be a supernova. The point of light moved toward the moon, taking only a couple of seconds to move what to my view looked like about an inch. The object landed on the moon with a tremendous momentum, spewing up a mushroom cloud of regolith. In a second installment of the dream, I saw an explosion on the moon, obviously of tremendous force, throwing up huge gouts of dust and smoke.

Quite literally, a disaster, or “bad star.”

Definitions, and “Growing Christian”

I have a great job, and I feel lucky to have it – and I hope I keep it as long as I can work! Or until I find something as good, but much closer. So I check job boards… semi-regularly. Maybe Rand will post something for a Technical Writer Editor. If I got that, I could bicycle to work, not to mention work near the beach!

A recent job posting for a related job was to work with Reasons to Believe, which turns out to be a Christian apologist (apologetic? doesn’t sound quite right…) site, focusing on scientific questions and how they justify, or at any rate fail to contradict, Christian tenets. The focus seems to be on emphasizing that no matter how small the Gap seems to be (from God of the Gaps), there still is one, and it will always be there. A statement with which I don’t think any reasonable person would argue, by the way. In fact, with better and better instrumentation, the gaps, namely questions and the unknown, seems to grow. (And how wonderful is that, by the way!)

I thought that would be an interesting job (though an atheist, I am interested in religion as I am in other human cultural products). But one of their criteria for applicants is “Growing Christian.” Sort of confusing phrasing… if I already had that job as editor, I would ask, did they mean “having had a Christian childhood”? Or maybe “becoming more and more Christian every day”? Hints at a lot of things, doesn’t mean anything much – but maybe it’s a sort of jargon that is used in Christian communities, and is intended to exclude me.

So that disqualifies me. I was raised in a secular, half-Jewish and half-lapsed-Catholic household, and I am a stone atheist today. In fact, for anyone who cares (and why should anyone, but this is a blog post), here’s my “statement of faith” – I think a Biblical God is vanishingly unlikely; moreover, I find it surprising that anyone would turn to ancient texts to explain phenomena at all. Turning to those texts, or any texts, for moral guidance, historical interest, or insight into human nature, makes perfect sense – I’m not sure what else one would turn to but human cultural products (part of my statement of faith is that the Bible is a human cultural product, and a central one, right along with other great literature, Beethoven symphonies, and Monet’s paintings) to determine what it is to be human and how to live a good life. Along with introspection.

But to determine what life and death are? To probe the beginnings of the universe? For anything phenomenal at all? Might as well read Moby Dick – you’d learn something about the ocean and whaling, but not enough to crew a ship. On the other hand, you’d learn quite a lot about hubris, humility, and what it is to be human in extremis.

So, just as an interesting article on Reasons.org probes various meanings of the word evolution, I thought I would probe the word “Belief”:

Phenomenal Belief: Say I believe that matter bends space, and makes light waves curve. I do the math, and decide that, if that is the case, a star which one would expect to appear at a particular point in the sky (from many prior measurements) will appear at a different point in the sky due to the intervention of a massive object. I publish this prediction. Others point their telescopes to that point in the sky and, lo and behold, they see the star at the spot I predicted. From then on, they start to believe what I have written as the explanation – namely, that mass bends space, and that light takes the shortest distance, which in curved space isn’t exactly a straight line. This belief, contingent as it is on observation of phenomena, I’ll call phenomenal belief.

Situational Belief: A softer version of the above. I believe day-to-day things that I expect to happen because they happened yesterday – this belief is often upended as products I buy vanish from shelves, businesses close, people move or die, etc. Until they are gone, I have a convenient belief that they will continue.

Allegiance Belief: People believe what their team believes. If your community – ethnic, religious, familial – has a credo, you’ll tend to claim belief in it, which strengthens the bonds in your community. Either we’re better for some reason, or we have a task to perform, or we have certain characteristics (favorite food; weakness for certain sins; resistance to certain other sins). These beliefs are generally partly true, partly silly. Random chance indicates that there will be individuals all over the map vis-a-vis stereotypical characteristics. My childhood exposure to a “nice Jewish family” with a violent, drinking father inoculated me to the Allegiance Belief that Jewish men didn’t drink or beat their family. Maybe they cheated on their wives, certainly they gambled, but no hitting or boozing. Where these stereotypes are concerned, we have strong confirmation biases, supporting our belief that the “vast majority” of whoever conforms to the stereotype, and those who don’t are “rare exceptions.”

More later… have errands to run.

More NPR Watch…

In a previous post, I expressed my unease at the state of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me. Peter Sagal and his new partner Bill Kurtis didn’t seem to be getting along, and I found that very distressing! I depend on them every Monday morning to start off my week. I’m happy to say that everything seems fine with them. Bill has toned down his rather over-hilarious (in the sense of boisterously merry) delivery, and Peter isn’t subtly putting him down in his scripted ripostes.

All is once again love and light, and I can relax.

On the other hand, I’m detecting a little subtext in Warren Olney’s To the Point and Which Way L.A., shows which ought not have any subtext. Like Shakespeare, they are their text, right there on the surface.

Thankfully, the subtext is not in the show proper, but in the promos for other podcasts, which apparently all NPR podcast hosts have to do now. Planet Money does it for the Ted Radio Hour, even This American Life does it. Warren has been tasked with promoting DNA, hosted by Frances Anderton. Warren pronounces it “Fraunces” (like New York’s famous Fraunce’s Tavern), which seems odd. Maybe she’s English and he’s deferring to her own pronunciation? But what I noticed in his promo is the strange stilted delivery and writing. He says the podcast is called “DNA, which, as the name suggests, is about design, art, and architecture.”

The name doesn’t suggest that at all. It suggests microbiology. I have to say, “huh?”

Further, he insists, in a strained voice, that, “she’s wonderfully qualified” and “you’ll really enjoy it.” I feel about that the way I feel about restaurants that have “Wholesome” in the name – if they have to say it, I have to wonder what’s going on in the kitchen.

Also, he says that she edited an architectural magazine, but doesn’t say which one. A quick google reveals that it was probably London’s Architectural Review. Why not say that? It sounds impressive to me.

The thing about Warren (can I call him Warren? Uncle Warren? Mr. Olney?) is his utter straightforwardness. It so cheers me up when, after one of his guests has utterly demolished another guest, Warren turns to them and just says, “Well, what about that?” This curt query is followed by a pause, as the guest waits for waffling or equivocation, but they won’t get that from Warren. Not ol’ Uncle Warren. He just asks the question and lets the guest try and dig their way out.

Doesn’t always work. The guest will often be evasive and jump to a preferred topic, and Warren doesn’t always insist on a direct answer. He does sometimes, which is bracing, but I suppose in the interest of time, he lets the answer stand on its own, and allows the audience decide whom they want to believe.

So hearing him do this awkward promo cuts into my mood. Sorry Warren, I love your shows, and I’m sure Frances’s podcast is terrific (actually, it seems that it isn’t called DNA, but rather DnA – hard to get that distinction across on the radio). But someone needs to take a look at rewriting those promos.

Note – there is a second version of the promo which is much more direct, and in which he doesn’t insist on how much we’ll enjoy it, or how “wonderfully qualified” she is. Better.

Best regards.

What’s up with Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me?

I drive about two hours a day, and I feel like the people on the NPR podcasts are a kind of parallel family. My wise uncle, Warren Olney, who is interested in everything, and is always calm and never lets anyone argue. My super-smart cousins on Planet Money, who talk to me about the economy several times a week; they may be a little Pollyanna-ish in their stubborn political centrism, but I learn a lot from them. Then, of course, Ira Glass and the crew of This American Life – the cool kids at whose table I long to eat.

And the hilarious Algonquin Round Table that is Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me. I have a routine – every Monday morning, I listen to a Planet Money, and then to WWDTM. Starts my week off on a light, smart note, and makes Mondays so much easier. But things at Wait, Wait are starting to get a little tiny bit strange.

It started with Carl Kassel’s retirement, and replacement with Bill Kurtis. The balance was thrown off… Nothing against Bill Kurtis, who has the most amazing vocal apparatus: he can go from velvet to stentorian, and he’s preternaturally expressive. But the balance between Karl and Peter had been set for years – Peter was the show, and Carl was the counterpoint, rarely talking on his own volition, participating in a ritualistic fashion. You were never surprised by Carl, and that was part of the charm of the show.

Bill is a bigger personality than Carl, and he seems to want to make his mark on the show. He ad-libs more than Carl did when announcing scores, and it’s not… quite right. Of course, I don’t know any of the people involved, but I can’t help, as I listen while I’m on the 10 (then the 110, then the 5, then the 2, then the 210…). I can’t help but make up a story of what’s going on with them.

I have a recurring fantasy where I phone in and participate, and I’m so funny, and such a hit that they ask me to be a panelist. I hobnob with Roy Blount Jr, and Paula Poundstone (in my fantasy, she and I become good friends). But the core of the fantasy is that I’m incredibly witty and funny, like they are (for the record, that <em>is</em> a fantasy; I can be pretty funny, but, unlike professionals, it depends on circumstances). Let’s just say that Bill Kurtis is as funnier than many people, but not as funny as the panelists. I mean, Faith Salie is a bonafide genius. Bill Kurtis is a great guy and a great voice, but I suspect he’s at his best when he’s reading what his producers have put in front of him.

Anyway, a few weeks ago Bill had a joke, clearly scripted by Peter, which was not brilliant, but ok-funny: something about how he might look like he’s wearing a chalk-pinstripe bespoke suit, but it’s really his skin. And Peter’s response, also scripted, was something like, “that’s just gross.” Not funny at all, kind of hostile and on the nose. A better line would have been something like, “that’s disquieting…” Understating the response would have let the absurd setup stand on its own.

I started to fantasize that Peter was mad at Bill, and I felt like shouting, “Mommy and Daddy! Don’t fight!” I may actually have shouted that, in the privacy of my Prius.

A week after that, they started doing replays. and then, two weeks ago, my podcast queue filled up with four or five replays, all on the same Sunday. The break in the routine worried me! Was the show being revamped? Was Peter sick? Was Bill being fired? Had they come to blows?

As if to confirm my fears, last week’s show featured a chastened, quieter Bill, more like Karl. His voice was toned down from its usual World-Wide Wrestling pitch of hilarity, to a subdued NPR seriousness. He almost sounded sad, and I wanted to take him aside and ask what had happened. Did mean Uncle Peter yell at him?

On top of this, Peter Sagal was featured on The Moth, and the setup of his story is how his marriage broke up. Now I felt bad for him! Perhaps if I had them both over for cocktails… I make a very nice White Manhattan…

Talking about your dreams…

This is well-known as one of the most self-centered, rude things to do – nobody wants to hear your dreams. Absolutely nobody. Maybe my mother did, for a little bit when I was about ten. That’s it.

You can pay people to listen to your dreams; that’s true. But aside from that, it’s the ultimate conversation killer.

Which makes it the perfect subject for the InvisiBlog.

I’ve been taking an antibiotic for my nose (never mind… long MEDICAL story; another thing you’re not supposed to talk about in company), and I think it’s been affecting my dreams. I’m now having epic, action-packed dreams, full of meaning and portent, teeming with characters, rooms that lead to other rooms that disgorge onto sunbaked, weed-strewn outdoor stages amid cliffs and tumbled stone walls.

Last night (here we go) I was making a movie, but it seemed more of a play. I think I was acting in it. My wife was there, I think she was directing, but she wasn’t my wife. I was younger and better-looking than I really am, and there was a beautiful young WASP woman, reminiscent of Catherine Blanc (remember her? First grade? No? Both Eric and I wanted to sit next to her… who knows why; we were six!), but in her mid-20s. She seemed strangely available to me. Events would happen, like I would be in a scene in a white costume, on a stage in what looked like a run-down 18th century theater, partly outdoors, with just a few audience members; or I would be on a concrete platform outdoors, in the country, with colleagues, and I was so happy to be working with them all again (the implication was that we worked together intensely on projects, then didn’t see each other for months, but had a great time every time). And between these events, I would wander down halls, go into a room, and she’d be there, lounging about, with a wry smile, and dressed for a regatta, or a tennis tourney.

There were parts of this dream I can only remember impressionistically, where I am asked to explain a bit of text, and it seemed to me that in our, regular, world, the text was meaningless, but in this, parallel, world, it had the deepest implications. I wish I could remember the words – it was only two words. The kind of magic word, like Shazam, that if you could remember it and invoke it in the waking world, something crazy might happen.

Anyway… now it’s out of my system, I suppose. I’d like to see those words again.

Working in the SM Library

I had to put in a few extra hours on an editing job, so I got permission to work remotely, and on the weekend. Lucky! I decided to try out the new Santa Monica Library Pico Branch, behind the Saturday Farmers Market. Very nice, clean, new, with just a few too many noisy families in the children’s section. Still, lovely library.
So I decided to switch up and move to the Main Library, on Santa Monica Blvd and Fifth St. This is a very well-stocked library – Ellen uses it all the time – and I booked a study room.
Much quieter – wherever the children’s section is, it’s not around  here, which is great. On the other hand, there is a definite funk…. the kind of smell, worse than an odor, not as bad as a miasma, which is common around those of no fixed abode. Men with bushy, yet non-ironic, beards, women with a fierce look and a number of bags, people who need a safe clean place to go.
I get that, and if the smell isn’t too bad, I don’t mind. I do kind of draw a line at personal grooming in the stacks. Someone applying spray sunblock, for instance, behind a wall of books.
One more thing – every few minutes there is a brief, 7 second, sound of a stream of liquid hitting a metal plate. No idea what it is… I thought at first what you’re thinking, but I don’t think it is someone peeing. For starters, it’s too regularly spaced and timed. For another, it’s audible everywhere, as if it is happening in the air ducts. I expect it is some kind of unexpected side-effect of HVAC.
Who knows.
All I can say is I’m grateful to be a member of the libraries of Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena/Glendale. Not to mention, of course, New York, the last vestige of my being a New Yorker.