English Challenge 14

I.  Article

A. Death by Scrabble (A short, short story) – Link / Excerpt and Questions /

B. Excerpt to Read and Record

It’s a hot day, and I hate my wife.  We’re playing Scrabble.  That’s how bad it is.  I’m 42 years old, it’s a blistering hot Sunday afternoon, and all I can think of to do with my life is to play Scrabble.  I should be out, doing exercise, spending money, meeting people.  I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone except my wife since Thursday morning.  On Thursday morning, I spoke to the milkman.

My letters are crap.   I play, appropriately, BEGIN.  With the N on the little pink star.  Twenty-two points.

I watch my wife’s smug expression as she rearranges her letters.  Clack, clack, clack.  I hate her.  If she wasn’t around, I’d be doing something interesting right now.  I’d be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.  I’d be starring in the latest Hollywood blockbuster.  I’d be sailing the Vendee Globe on a 60-foot clipper called the New Horizons – I don’t know, but I’d be doing something.

She plays JINXED, with the J on a double-letter score.  30 points.  She’s beating me already.  Maybe I should kill her.

If only I had a D, then I could play MURDER.  That would be a sign.  That would be permission.  I start chewing on my U.  It’s a bad habit, I know.  All the letters are frayed.  I play WARMER for 22 points, mainly so I can keep chewing on my U.  As I’m picking new letters from the bag, I find myself thinking – the letters will tell me what to do.  If they spell out KILL, or STAB, or her name, or anything, I’ll do it right now.  I’ll finish her off.  My rack spells MIHZPA.  Plus the U in my mouth.  Damn.

The heat of the sun is pushing at me through the window.  I can hear buzzing insects outside.  I hope they’re not bees.  My cousin Harold swallowed a bee when he was nine, his throat swelled up, and he died.  I hope that if they are bees, they fly into my wife’s throat.

She plays SWEATIER, using all her letters.  24 points plus a 50-point bonus.  If it wasn’t too hot to move, I would strangle her right now.

I am getting sweatier.  It needs to rain, to clear the air.  As soon as that thought crosses my mind, I find a good word.  HUMID on a double-word score, using the D of JINXED.  The U makes a little splash of saliva when I put it down.  Another 22 points.  I hope she has lousy letters.

She tells me she has lousy letters.  For some reason, I hate her more.  She plays FAN, with the F on a double-letter and gets up to fill the kettle and turn on the air conditioning.

It’s the hottest day for ten years, and my wife is turning on the kettle.  This is why I hate my wife.  I play ZAPS, with the Z doubled, and she gets a static shock off the air conditioning unit.  I find this remarkably satisfying.

She sits back down with a heavy sigh and starts fiddling with her letters again.  Clack clack.  Clack clack.  I feel a terrible rage build up inside me.  Some inner poison slowly spreading through my limbs, and when it gets to my fingertips, I am going to jump out of my chair, spilling the Scrabble tiles over the floor, and I am going to start hitting her again and again and again.

The rage gets to my fingertips and passes.  My heart is beating.  I’m sweating.  I think my face actually twitches.  Then I sigh, deeply, and sit back into my chair.  The kettle starts whistling.  As the whistle builds, it makes me feel hotter.

C. Comprehension Questions

  1. Who are the players in this game of Scrabble?
  2. What was a nervous habit of the man?
  3. Who do you think knew first that this was no ordinary game of Scrabble?
  4. What is one or two central themes playing throughout this short story?
  5. Who do you think was the “nicer” person of this couple?
  6. Did the wife try to warn him?
  7. Describe the man’s mental state throughout this short story.
  8. Describe the woman’s mental state throughout this short story.
  9. Were all of these events really happening or was all of the supernatural stuff happening only in the man’s mind?
  10. Do you think she can read her husband’s mind?

D. Grammar Analysis

  1. List as many words as you can find that relate to heat or hot weather in some way.
  2. In this clause: If it wasn’t too hot to move,
    there is a grammar mistake. What is it?
  3. In this clause: As the whistle builds, it makes me feel hotter.
    what is the rule that requires the comma.
  4. In this clause: She asks me if I cheated.
    what grammar construction is “if I cheated”?  This is an example of what type of speech?
  5. What does “she slept through an argument” mean?
  6. What does “That’ll show her” mean?
  7. What does “coming true” mean?
  8. What does unambiguous relate to misinterpret?
  9. What emotion do you think of when you read this phrase: “My wife just sits there, watching.”
  10. What are two names that we associate with the dark figure wearing a black robe and wielding a scythe? (idiom, personification)

II.  Song

A. The Unicorn Song – Link / Lyrics and Questions /

B. Story

This song is based on a Christian Bible story called “Noah and the Ark“, but it is told — or rather sung — in a fun, humorous way, like a kid’s story.  In the Bible story, God grew saddened by how wicked and evil the human race had become, so he decided to wipe out the human race except for a few good people and begin the human race again (to “reboot it”, so to speak).  He told Noah to build a great ship, called the Ark, and to load it with two of every kind of animal — a male and a female — along with his family.  God told Noah that He (God) would soon make it rain for 40 days and 40 nights to wash away all the evil in the world so mankind could make a clean start.   At the end of the torrential rains, the rain stopped, the floodwaters receded, and Noah unloaded the Ark animals onto dry land once more.  God displayed a beautiful rainbow on the horizon and said it was His promise that he would never flood the Earth again in this terrible way.

C. Lyrics

  1. A long time ago, when the earth was green
    There were more kinds of animals than you’ve ever seen.
    They’d run around free while the earth was being born,
    But the loveliest of all was the unicorn.
  2. There was green alligators and long-necked geese,
    Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
    Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born,
    The loveliest of all was the unicorn.
  3. Now God seen some sinnin’ and it gave him pain,
    And he says, “Stand back, I’m going to make it rain.”
    He says, “Hey, brother Noah, I’ll tell you what to do —
    Build me a floating zoo.”
  4. And take some of them green alligators and long-necked geese,
    Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
    Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born,
    Don’t you forget my unicorn.
  5. Old Noah was there to answer the call.
    He finished up making the ark just as the rain started fallin’.
    He marched in the animals two by two,
    And he called out as they went through.
    “Hey, Lord!”
  6. I’ve got your green alligators and long-necked geese,
    Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
    Some cats and rats and elephants, but Lord, I’m so forlorn,
    I just can’t see no unicorn.
  7. Then Noah looked out through the driving rain.
    Them unicorns was hiding, playing silly games,
    Kicking and splashing while the rain was pouring.
    Oh, them silly unicorns.
  8. There was green alligators and long-necked geese,
    Some  humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
    Noah cried, “Close the doors ’cause the rain is pourin’,
    And we just can’t wait for no unicorns.”
  9. The ark started movin’; it drifted with the tide.
    Them unicorns looked up from the rock and they cried.
    And the waters came down and sort of floated them away,
    And that’s why you’ve never seen a unicorn to this very day.
  10. You’ll see green alligators and long-necked geese,
    Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees,
    Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born,

    You’re never gonna see no unicorn.

D. Comprehension Questions

  1. Summarize the Bible story that this song is based on.
  2. What is a unicorn?  Have you ever seen one?  Why or why not?
  3. Using your own words, retell the story told by this song, including the details about the unicorns.
  4. What was the loveliest animal in the world, according to the singer?

E. Grammar Questions

  1. What does “two by two” mean in Paragraph 5?
  2. “Unicorn” is formed from two Latin root words that means “one horn“.  Explain how these Latin root words relate to the following English words:  unicycle, unit, cornucopia, Capricorn.
  3. Is the English used in this song formal or informal?  Justify your answer.
  4. Is the singer in this song well-educated (i.e., a town or city dweller) or somewhat uneducated (i.e., a farmer or someone living in a rural resident)?  Justify your answer.


A. Trolley Problem – Would You Sacrifice One Person to Save Five? Link / Excerpt & Questions /

B. Read and Record – Full Article

  1. Imagine you’re watching a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks straight towards five workers who can’t escape. You happen to be standing next to a switch that will divert the trolley onto a second track.  Here’s the problem.  That track has a worker on it, too, but just one.  What do you do?  Do you sacrifice one person to save five?
  2. This is the trolley problem, a version of an ethical dilemma that philosopher Philippa Foot devised in 1967. It’s popular because it forces us to think about how to choose when there are no good choices.  Do we pick the action with the best outcome or stick to a moral code that prohibits causing someone’s death?
  3. In one survey, about 90% of respondents said that it’s okay to flip the switch, letting one worker die to save five, and other studies, including a virtual reality simulation of the dilemma, have found similar results.
  4. These judgments are consistent with the philosophical principle of utilitarianism which argues that the morally correct decision is the one that maximizes well-being for the greatest number of people. The five lives outweigh one, even if achieving that outcome requires condemning someone to death.
  5. But people don’t always take the utilitarian view, which we can see by changing the trolley problem a bit. This time, you’re standing on a bridge over the track as the runaway trolley approaches.  Now there’s no second track, but there is a very large man on the bridge next to you.  If you push him over, his body will stop the trolley, saving the five workers, but he’ll die.
  6. To utilitarians, the decision is exactly the same, lose one life to save five. But in this case, only about 10% of people say that it’s OK to throw the man onto the tracks.  Our instincts tell us that deliberately causing someone’s death is different than allowing them to die as collateral damage.  It just feels wrong for reasons that are hard to explain.
  7. This intersection between ethics and psychology is what’s so interesting about the trolley problem. The dilemma in its many variations reveal that what we think is right or wrong depends on factors other than a logical weighing of the pros and cons.  For example, men are more likely than women to say it’s okay to push the man over the bridge.  So are people who watch a comedy clip before doing the thought experiment.  And in one virtual reality study, people were more willing to sacrifice men than women.
  8. Researchers have studied the brain activity of people thinking through the classic and bridge versions. Both scenarios activate areas of the brain involved in conscious decision-making and emotional responses.  But in the bridge version, the emotional response is much stronger.  So is activity in an area of the brain associated with processing internal conflict.  Why the difference?  One explanation is that pushing someone to their death feels more personal, activating an emotional aversion to killing another person, but we feel conflicted because we know it’s still the logical choice.
  9. “Trolleyology” has been criticized by some philosophers and psychologists. They argue that it doesn’t reveal anything because its premise is so unrealistic that study participants don’t take it seriously.
  10. But new technology is making this kind of ethical analysis more important than ever. For example, driver-less cars may have to handle choices like causing a small accident to prevent a larger one.  Meanwhile, governments are researching autonomous military drones that could wind up making decisions of whether they’ll risk civilian casualties to attack a high-value target.  If we want these actions to be ethical, we have to decide in advance how to value human life and judge the greater good.
  11. So researchers who study autonomous systems are collaborating with philosophers to address the complex problem of programming ethics into machines, which goes to show that even hypothetical dilemmas can wind up on a collision course with the real world.

C. Comprehension Questions

  1. Summarize Paragraphs 1, 2, 3, and 4 in one summary paragraph. Call this the “Classic Version” of the dilemma.
  2. Summarize Paragraphs 5 and 6 in one summary paragraph. Call this one the “Bridge Version” of the dilemma.
  3. Summarize Paragraphs 7 and 8 in one summary paragraph.
  4. Summarize Paragraphs 10 and 11 in one summary paragraph.
  5. What accounts for the difference between the classic and bridge dilemmas that changes the results from “90% would” to only “10% would”?

D. Grammar Analysis

  1. In Paragraph 1, what are the subject and verb of the main clause of the first sentence?
  2. In Paragraph 1, what does “happen to be” mean?
  3. Define utilitarianism.
  4. In Paragraph 11, explain the meaning of the “collision course” metaphor.




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