Ken Jennings

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September 27, 2016

peoplesalmanacIn my new “Debunker” column posted today on Woot.com, I track the lineage of the bizarre trivia factoid that holds that “arachibutyrophobia” is a medical term meaning “the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth.”

I can find no evidence for this in any clinical literature, but was able to track the word back to 1970s pop-reference classic The People’s Almanac. The almanac’s author, David Wallechinsky, tells me that the phobias list came from a writer named Robert Hendrickson, who assembled it from extensive research and even interviews. But the paper trail here is a set of notes that was recently donated by Wallechinsky, with the rest of his papers, to Claremont University.

Is anyone in L.A. dying to spend a day at Claremont in order to find out if those files contain the provenance of “arachibutyrophobia”? Science needs you.

Posted by Ken at 9:09 pm     

September 23, 2016

brains
Hey, here’s another thing that I never blogged about because it launched during the great summer blog drought. My friend Rob Kutner, who wrote for The Daily Show and is now at Conan, had an idea for a comedy podcast in which my silicon arch-nemesis Watson and I were forced to go on the lam after our Jeopardy! encounter, and had adventures! Watson’s giant brain, you see, is full of secrets that could bring down any number of powerful institutions. And I’m carrying him in our backpack! We’re both in big trouble from the U.S. government, hackers, Freemasons, aliens, the Build-a-Bear Workshop, and all the other shadowy forces that control the world.

My creative consultancy was pretty much limited to suggesting the title: Runaway Brains! Like “runaway trains,” get it? It’s a pun.

I would never list “voice acting” as the top strength on my résumé, but luckily Rob talked “Weird Al” Yankovic into voicing Watson, and he’s hilarious. IBM should probably look into hiring him for the gig full-time, for the accordion chops alone. Guest stars include beloved comedy names like Mayim Bialik, Michael Ian Black, Adam Pally, David Koechner, Joshua Malina, Lauren Lapkus, and Frank De Caro.

The whole thing turned out great, and it’s a fun, quick listen. Here’s a Splitsider review backing me up on this. The first few episodes are, I believe, free from Howl. If you like ’em enough to want to hear the final fate of me and Watson, there’s a cheap one-month subscription available.

Enjoy! And watch out for the Lizard-men!

Posted by Ken at 3:02 pm     

September 7, 2016

Blogging again, because why not.

I dimly remember that I used to run word puzzles here sometimes on Wednesdays. How about this one, which came to me in the shower this morning?

There’s a certain company that introduced one of its most successful products in 1998. Take that brand name, and insert a new letter into it: a ‘p’ between the third and fourth letters. You’ll get a tagline that this company used in a popular TV ad campaign beginning in 2006.

What’s the company, the product, and the ad line?

Edited to add: First solved by SMWinnie…answers here.

Posted by Ken at 10:43 am     

September 6, 2016

This site, like a lazy Frenchman, took the summer off. That was partly due to some database crashes and spambot attacks that happened when I was out of town, and which I’m just getting around to fixing now. Thank you for your patience.

I write a weekly Monday column called Maphead for Condé Nast Traveller, where I (virtually) visit the world’s geographic oddities. Here’s a special bonus “Maphead” that got vetoed over the summer by Condé Nast, because the photo editor (quite reasonably!) has a “no swastikas” rule.

This blog, while definitely not pro-swastika, is willing to take them on a case-by-case basis. Here’s the geography lesson that was too edgy for Big Content!

zernikow


The Zernikow Swastika

In 1992, a landscaping intern in northeastern Germany was given a boring task by his bosses: to scour aerial photographs of the region for irrigation lines. But then he came across photo 106/88, showing the Kutzerower Heath northwest of the village of Zernikow, and his jaw dropped. “Do you see what this is?” he asked his boss. Günter Reschke had just uncovered a previously unknown chapter in the history of Nazi Germany, hiding in plain sight.

A ghost of the Third Reich makes its yearly return.
The photo quite clearly showed a giant yellow swastika, 200 feet on a side, in the middle of a dense pine forest. Forester Klaus Göricke, dispatched to check out the site, found that the Nazi symbol was formed from 140 larches, planted with typical German precision. For most of the year, the trees were invisible. But for a few weeks every autumn, before the larches lost their leaves, they turned a bright yellow, in stark contrast to the surrounding evergreens.

For half a century, no one saw the forest for the trees.
From the size of the larches, Göricke deduced that they’d been planted in the late 1930s. Every year for more than half a century, a yellow swastika had faded onto the map here north of Berlin, then disappeared a few weeks later. In East Germany, low-flying private planes were forbidden, so no one had noticed. When pressed, locals remembered different stories about who had planted the trees: Was it to thank the government laborers who had worked on a street in town nearby? To disavow a local villager who’d been taken to a concentration camp for listening to the BBC? To celebrate Hitler’s birthday? Nobody is sure to this day.

It took eight years to fix the problematic landscaping.

With the swastika making worldwide headlines, the German government acted quickly, sending in local forestry workers to chainsaw the trees out of existence. They cut down forty larches, but to no avail. When fall came, the swastika was still visible, if a little ragged around the edges. Since the Brandenburg region was seeing an uptick in neo-Nazi violence at the time, this didn’t look good. On December 4, 2000, the fascist trees were hacked to bare stumps.

The Nazi trees are everywhere! Keep watching the leaves!
But the Zernikow larches were only the beginning. Armed with better imagery in the digital mapping age, Germans began finding arboreal Nazi artifacts all over. A deciduous forest in Wiesbaden was discovered to have a swastika of Douglas firs hiding in it, which emerged every winter, a sort of of reverse of the Zernikow grove. The most puzzling find was an entire swastika-shaped forest in remote Kyrgyzstan, of all places. Was the forest planted as a show of German-Russian solidarity in the days before the war? Or by German POWs a few years later? Or by some pro-Nazi nutjob during the Cold War? The mystery of the forest swastikas still has journalists…stumped.

Posted by Ken at 9:32 am     

May 26, 2016

A reader named Anthony writes:

I hope this message makes it to you. My friend and I are debating how one might estimate the number of trivia questions that exist. Or more precisely, how many distinct questions could be asked to the American participants on Jeopardy or in any trivia game, where the reaction is neither “that’s too easy to be considered trivia” or “no one except an academic in that field should know X”.

We tried several different statistical arguments like how often questions repeat themselves on Jeopardy and how many things a person learns in a day versus what % of trivia questions do they know. However, neither of us are really trivia experts, and we found ourselves challenged making a reasonable back of the envelope estimate. My best guess is half a million distinct trivia questions, but I could be off by orders of magnitude.

If you find this question interesting, I’d love to hear your take on it.

Are you kidding, Anthony? I’m probably one of the six or seven people in America who would find this question interesting!

Even boiling down your question to “askable on Jeopardy!” doesn’t quite solve your definitional problems here. Jeopardy! tends to keep its material fresh by adding cosmetic second clues. Are these two the same “trivia question” or not?

The oldest subway system in continental Europe is found in this Hungarian capital city.

In 1242, this city replaced Esztergom as the capital of Hungary.

I would say yes, for these purposes: they are both restatements of “What is the capital of Hungary?” But that underlying uber-question might not always be obvious to the layperson. And there are probably much trickier edge cases.

There’s also the problem of Jeopardy! clues where the response isn’t really something that anyone KNOWS-knows, but smart players should be able to intuit. These are especially common as Daily Doubles or in Final Jeopardy…take a clue like

He was born in 1728 in Yorkshire, England and died in a skirmish February 14, 1779 in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii.

Now, the birth and death dates of [this historical figure] aren’t really knowable facts. It wouldn’t be fair game to ask “What were the birth and death dates of [Historical Figure]?” But the writers have carefully put in just enough information to trigger a well-informed guess from a smart player. I suppose you could restate all questions of this form as “What 18th-century Englishman was killed in Hawaii?” but there are endless variations, even here. Subtract the dates and add a quote from his diary. Withhold the place names but add more details about the cause of death. Are those really tests of the same fact? [Historical Figure]’s death, which took less than a minute of real time, can spawn almost endless trivia material in subtle shades of difficulty and variety.

Problems of definition aside, what is the order of magnitude here? Are there tens of thousands of facts that Jeopardy! can ask? Hundreds of thousands? Is it over a million? Thoughts?

Posted by Ken at 3:10 pm     

May 3, 2016

slatequiz
Since 2012–almost four years!–I’ve been writing a weekly news quiz for Slate magazine. But I told Slate last month that I was giving up the assignment. Last week, for the first time ever, the Slate Quiz was written by someone else.

I was sorry to have to step away, because the quiz is always a lot of fun to write, and spending hours reading about the news every week means I’m an unusually well-informed citizen, especially about weird animal rampages and dumb criminals. Did you know that ten people tried to file their taxes from Coachella this year? That was the officially the last week I’ll know about stuff like that.

I was starting to have two problems with the quiz: I’m behind on a book, and having to spent a big chunk of every Wednesday on an unrelated deadline wasn’t helping. A news quiz can’t be written in advance, you see. Even if I was traveling or on vacation, I’d have to figure out when to research and write and file the quiz.

The other problem was, the more experience I had with the quiz, the longer it seemed to take to write! I chalk this up to perfectionism. This earthquake question is sort of boring…is there a way to make this destructive earthquake in Ecuador seem a little more, well, fun? (Without trivializing it, of course.) Is this Donald Trump joke really as funny as last week’s Donald Trump joke? You’d think I would have gotten more efficient at this, but it just seemed like I was always trying to get every question to capture some elusive perfection I may have glimpsed at one time on a past quiz.

I’m sorry if you were a fan of the quiz…it’s continuing at the moment, written collaboratively by Slate staffers, and I think they’re circling another writer they want to take over. When the book is done, maybe I’ll suddenly decide I’m bored every Wednesday afternoon and ask if Slate is hiring quizmasters, who knows. I certainly have more “Slate quizmaster” experience that any other applicant they’ll get. I like my odds.

Posted by Ken at 9:46 am     

April 28, 2016

Let’s face it: the seven Junior Genius books I spent the last few years writing would have been maybe one-quarter as good without the funny, charming artwork of Mike Lowery. You know what kids don’t want? Big unbroken blocks of text about 19th-century presidents. You know what kids do want? Funny cartoons of Andrew Jackson hitting some dude over the head with a cane.

But despite our two-year collaboration, which sometimes included detailed back-and-forth on illustration ideas, Mike and had never met! I live in Seattle; he lives in Atlanta. It’s harder to get farther apart than we are and still live in the continental United States.

A couple weeks away I was invited to visit the headquarters of Mailchimp, the company that helps deliver 17,000 Tuesday Trivia e-mails for me every week. MailChimp is in Atlanta! I e-mailed Mike immediately (not with MailChimp, just the regular way) and at first he thought he was teaching a class that morning and wouldn’t be able to meet up. Ships in the night. But look who I ran into in the MailChimp elevator that morning!

mailchim

Mike even sketched something quickly for me while I was talking, what a guy. Pretty lame of me to ask, I guess, since he draws for a living. That would be like him asking me to write him some trivia for free.

kenthegenius

Larry Gelbart used to say that he never met Murray Schisgal, with whom he shared a co-writer credit on Tootsie, until they began accepting statuettes together at awards ceremonies. I’m happy that I no longer have to tell children that I’ve never met Mike! Instead I can say that he is a very nice man, and carries Chinese hotel stationery around with him for some reason.

Posted by Ken at 7:24 pm     

March 21, 2016

lastbookstore

Reading: I recommend it! In fact, I specifically recommend the books I’ve been reading recently. They are not new books. (Wait, with one exception.) Here’s the last month or so:

The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty. Did you know Welty’s first novel (well, short novel) was a Southern update of the Grimm’s fairy tale, along the lines of Joy Williams’s The Changeling, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, or Neil Gaiman’s Anything Ever Written by Neil Gaiman? I sure didn’t. Cameo guest appearance by Mike Fink.

The Intutionist by Colson Whitehead. Yes, it’s a (powerful) racial parable. But it’s also an amazing feat of urban fantasy invention, about a powerful guild of elevator inspectors and their competing philosophies of elevator inspection. A Ben Katchor strip come to life.

Patience by Daniel Clowes. I can’t honestly tell if this is his masterpiece or if I just think it is because it’s a murder mystery and a time travel story. This was virtually laboratory-engineered to be my favorite thing ever.

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond by G. K. Chesterton. I loved the Father Brown stories, but didn’t know that Dover has a bunch of thin paperbacks keeping Chesterton’s other mystery series in print–many with Martin Gardner introductions! This one features a quiet bureaucrat prone to sphinx-link contradictory utterances, each leading to a mystery. The first story in this collection was a particular favorite of Borges.

The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff. This is now the book on 20th-century American funny business. So many great stories here, from burlesque houses up to podcast garages.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter. Why did nobody tell me this book existed? A hard-boiled Beat novel, Pelecanos in Portland.

Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello. Like Dylan’s book, this is told out of order, which should be required in rock memoirs as far as I’m concerned. Not quite great enough to recommend to non-fans, but if you’ve followed Costello’s remarkable career, this is indispensable. Cameo guest appearance by Geraldo Rivera.

Family Grandstand and Family Sabbatical by Carol Ryrie Brink. Drudge Report siren! These charming 1950s children’s books, about the close-knit family of a university professor, are back in print thanks to the good graces of Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl. I’m reading them to my daughter now and they’re timeless.

The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector. What a talent. I’m recommending this even though I’m pretty sure you will be left angry/baffled by at least every other story. I sure was.

Sneaky People by Thomas Berger. The Little Big Man guy, it turns out, wrote at least a dozen other very funny books, unknown outside his little cult. This was my first.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald. Part novel, part travelogue, part throwback Victorian commonplace book. Like nothing else I’ve ever read. If all the nutty trivia ephemera stuff is made-up, please don’t tell me. Cameo guest appearance by Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi.

(I was also in The Last Bookstore last week, downtown L.A., as pictured.)

Posted by Ken at 12:17 pm     

March 16, 2016

I don’t usually link to the steady stream of stuff I’m writing elsewhere instead of on this blog, but here’s a quick recap:

This week, I also wrote a short thing for Slate about Lee Se-dol, the Korean Go grandmaster who lost to Google’s “deep learning” algorithm AlphaGo. Welcome to the club, Mr. Lee!

With Nancy Reagan’s funeral last week and the most entertaining/existentially terrifying primary season in recent memory going on around us, I thought it was a good time for this Wordplay Wednesday.

Take the three uncontroversially greatest, most universally beloved presidents of modern times. That’s right, I’m talking about Nixon, Reagan, and Obama. Can you think of a common English word that has these three strings of letters, in consecutive order, hidden inside the word?

RMN (2 answers)
RWR (3 answers)
BHO (4 answers)

Posted by Ken at 11:46 am     

March 7, 2016

I found this photo today while looking for something else. I wish it had turned up earlier–it’s perfect for the new Junior Genius guide, about Dinosaurs!

KidKen08

That’s right, millennials. We had a pet T. Rex when I was a kid. As was the style at the time.

Posted by Ken at 8:19 pm     

March 2, 2016

Take a common English word, and then advance its first letter one step later in the alphabet. (Like turning “rap” into “sap,” or “dither” into “either.”) These two words, in order, end one of the most famous TV ad slogans in history.

Advance the first letter yet again (“sap” into “tap”) and you’ll get a brand name that was also famously represented by the same star of the ad above.

What are the three words, and who’s the mystery celebrity?

Posted by Ken at 10:38 pm     

February 9, 2016

I’m pleased to announce that the 500th installment of my weekly “Tuesday Trivia” quiz went out over the email last night. Five hundred weeks of free trivia, appearing in 16,000 inboxes every Tuesday morning without fail. I’ve wasted my life.

If you want to play next Tuesday, and for the next 500 Tuesdays, you can sign up in the sidebar at left. The quiz is free and we don’t sell or use your e-mail address for any other purpose. The seven questions usually have no theme at all, but today is an exception.

  1. What author lived for thirty years on Cotchford Farm in Surrey, on the edge of the 500 Acre Wood?
  2. Who had 500 euros sewn into his clothing when he was shot during Operation Neptune Spear?
  3. In France, the “livre usuelle” is defined to be 500 of what SI units of measurement?
  4. What was James Forrestal looking at on February 23, 1945, when he said to “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, “The raising of that…means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years”?
  5. According to the chorus of the Proclaimers song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” how many miles would the singer be willing to walk to “fall down at your door”?
  6. What current head coach is the only player in NBA history to shoot three-pointers above .500 in three different seasons?
  7. What unusual distinction is shared by these Fortune 500 companies? Apple, Chevron, Family Dollar Stores, John Deere, Land O’ Lakes, Liberty Mutual, Lincoln National, Target, Texas Instruments, Whirlpool.
Posted by Ken at 9:18 am     

February 8, 2016

Here’s a geography question if you have a few minutes to kill, and want to spend them thinking about geography for some reason.

The fifty U.S. states vary widely in area, obviously. Even if you list the states in descending order of area, there are some big gaps. The largest state, Alaska, has 2.2 times the land area of the runner-up, Texas. Texas, in turn, has 1.7 times the land area of #3, California.

But the biggest gap in the list comes further down, where two states are adjacent in the ordered-by-area list, even though one is a whopping 2.5 times bigger than the other. Even weirder, they’re real-life neighbors as well. (They share a border.)

What are these two states, which make up the biggest proportional gap in the otherwise fairly smooth curve of U.S. state areas?

Posted by Ken at 3:44 pm     

February 2, 2016

dinosaursI’m very happy to announce that the seventh Junior Genius book is available online and in bookstores today! The official Junior Genius Guides website has some preview pages to peruse and various retail links for when you decide just how many copies you want to buy. Ten? Twenty? It’s up to you. I’m sure you want the dinosaurs to know you love them, right?

This was a particularly fun book to write, because dinosaurs have so much built-in good will with kids, and because I think prehistoric life is pretty funny for some reason. For example, the new book has a running feature called “Ask a Trilobite” that, in hindsight, is probably way too silly for an “educational” book. But hey, they said Socrates was corrupting the youth too, and nothing bad ever happened to him!

Dinosaurs is also the last Junior Genius book for the foreseeable future, because I have two books to write for Scribner (an imprint for grown-ups!) and one of them is already late. So no more craft projects and no-bake snack ideas for me. My second childhood is over, back to the salt mines. I hope you enjoyed the detour.

Posted by Ken at 11:09 am     

January 6, 2016

Happy new year, everyone! My resolutions for 2016 do not include blogging here more, but they do include wistfully looking back at a distant time when I didn’t really have a job and just the one vague writing deadline and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram didn’t exist and I posted something here every day. 2005! Good times! (I also weigh ten pounds more than I did then, which isn’t related to blogging frequency so much but does factor into my new year’s resolutions.)

Wordplay Wednesday! Take an adjective for something that’s very hard to kill. Reverse all its letters except the first one (as you would to turn TSETSE into TESTES) and you’ll get the name of a fictional adversary that was notoriously hard to kill. What are the two words?

Posted by Ken at 11:31 pm     

December 7, 2015

parthenon

Paul Bailey asked me a few months ago if I wanted to captain the U.S. team for the inaugural Quiz Olympiad, to be held in Athens next fall. I had a great time at the European Quiz Championships the one year I got to go, and TCONA is a blast every year. But this is something bigger! Olympian! I’m going into training immediately under the strict tutelage of a gruff Romanian coach who will hoist me onto his shoulders at the slightest pretext.

Full announcement here. I’m not sure if that subhed was really supposed to say “Insert clever Jeopardy! quip here” or if that’s an accidental placeholder, but it’s pretty funny either way.

Posted by Ken at 2:06 pm     

December 3, 2015

treelot

A quick beginning-of-December reminder: I have ten books in print, each one better than the last! (Except for the one really disappointing one that stands out like a sore thumb. Not going to say which one.)

They are exactly the kind of light non-fiction sort of thing that makes an excellent holiday gift for hard-to-shop-for friends and family!

Some are for kids, others for grownups! Topics range from trivia to maps to parenting to Greek mythology! Basically those are the four main categories of book there are, so I wrote one for each of them.

Most importantly: if you would like a signed and/or personalized copy of one of these books for that special someone…I will make this happen for you! Contact my friends at Third Place Books, one of my favorite Seattle booksellers, and they’ll sell you a book and make me sign it the way you want, unless you wanted racial slurs or something.

Happy holidays!

Posted by Ken at 5:21 pm     

November 19, 2015

lappsI’m newly fascinated with the Skolt people of Lapland, and the (apparently well-accepted) idea among 20th-century sociologists that they were all telepaths! See this wire-service story from April 5, 1952, for example.

I feel like there’s a book in here somewhere, but this is the kind of thing that’s so great that I have no desire whatsoever to dig into it because I’m afraid actual facts will ruin the thing. I just want my mind-reading, caribou-herding northerners to be out there somewhere in the snow.

I first heard about Lapp ESP through a passing reference in Alan Fletcher’s design text/coffee table conversation piece/commonplace book The Art of Looking Sideways, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Just now, I reopened Fletcher’s book at random, and found another great story: William Holman Hunt’s classic Pre-Raphaelite painting Il Dolce Far Niente depicts the body of his mistress and the face of his wife. (!!!)

But when you look it up online, the story isn’t as great as it sounds. The painting’s not a nude, for example. And Hunt wasn’t created a super-sexy wish fulfillment mash-up of his wife and lover (far niente in the streets, dolce in the sheets, as it were). It’s just that he started the portrait when he was engaged to one woman, and tweaked the face later because by the time he finished it, he was married to another.

Not quite as good, right? Stupid Internet. I wrote an article this week about the New Madrid earthquake, mentioning the old story about the church bells in Boston ringing a thousand miles away. A Twitter buddy corrected me: the story about the bells did appear in the Boston papers that week, but it was just a too-vaguely-phrased account of something that had actually happened in Charleston. Look too closely and all the great trivia evanesces away. But in the dark all women are beautiful.

Posted by Ken at 10:54 am     

October 9, 2015

boxsetGood news, I’m releasing more endlessly repackaged material than George Lucas or the Beach Boys!

First up, there’s a new boxed set of the first three Junior Genius books (Maps and Geography, Greek Mythology, U.S. Presidents) available now at a discount price! It came out on Tuesday and actually I think I didn’t hear about it until a couple months ago.

ME: Is this just to get rid of extra stock of the early books?
EDITOR: Boxed sets actually do a few things! They attract readers who like to buy series together. They appeal to box stores who might not have stocked the individual books. (Aaaaaand also, they get rid of extra stock.)

If you never checked out the Junior Genius books, this is the way to go. (I linked to Amazon for the sake of convenience, but obviously you’re going to check out your local independent bookstore first if that is an option for you!)

almanacAnd coming soon: I’m told Barnes & Noble will eventually be stocking a new jacketed edition of my Trivia Almanac from back in the day. When I heard about this deal, I asked if this was a chance to update errors in the text, and Random House said okay! So good news, there’s going to be a new printing of the Almanac with dozens of angry-reader-spotted errors corrected! (Yikes, I really need to update that page with the latest crop.)

While going through the almanac, I was shocked to discover (a) how unnecessarily hard it was in spots, and (b) how poorly some of the questions have aged. I fixed the second thing but not the first. Begone, questions about Cindy Sheehan, Footballers’ Wives, and Mystikal! Why were you there in the first place? There were probably a hundred or so questions whose answers were correct in 2007 but no longer (sports records that got broken, political terms that ended, Subway spokespeople who were disgraced, etc.) and those got fixed as well.

Please burn your old copies of the Almanac and rush to America’s last chain bookstore for your last chance ever at a (momentarily) up-to-date version!

Posted by Ken at 11:25 am     

September 30, 2015

Words with three consecutive letters of the alphabet in them are a dime a dozen. HIJinks, caNOPy, aFGHan. You get the idea.

Four is a lot rarer. The canonical examples are…well, if you want to take a second to think about this, here’s a blog post I Googled with the answer.

But I just realized the other day: there’s a common two-word phrase that also has four in a row. That’s remarkable, since the phrase is only eight letters long!

In fact, when this subject is taught as a course or emphasis at a university, the resulting three-word phrase has TWO four-consecutive-letter runs in it! What are the phrases?

Edited to add: Solved by Neel Mehta in this thread.

Posted by Ken at 1:15 pm     

September 21, 2015

Hey, this is nice. There’s a new Junior Genius Guide on store shelves, and I just found out that the first book in the series, the Maps and Geography one, is a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards!

jgegypt1 jgmaps1

You probably follow the Washington State Book Awards scene pretty closely, so you don’t need me to tell you this, but I’m one of three finalists for the Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for Middle Readers.

One of the other nominees is the adorable comic strip Phoebe and Her Unicorn, so I assume I have no chance, but still. It’s nice to make state!

Posted by Ken at 10:25 am     

September 15, 2015

ancientegyptonshelf

For the first time in seven months, there’s a new Junior Genius Guide on bookstore shelves today! The Junior Genius introduction to Ancient Egypt costs just a few bucks and it’s jam-packed with cute illustrations and crazy trivia about the land of the pharaohs.

Did you know that, in ancient Egypt…

  • Kings were sometimes buried with their toilets?
  • Kids drank beer with every meal?
  • Sad pet owners would shave their eyebrows when a cat died?

ancientegyptandmeYou know who does know all that? Some kid. Some kid who paid like $7 for this book and is now way smarter than you. Do you really want that smarty-pants kid to know more about pyramids and stuff than you do?

I don’t have my author copies from Simon & Schuster yet, so I wandered over to a nearby bookstore owned by none other than my friend Tom Nissley of Jeopardy! fame. He let me buy a copy of my own book. Odds are, your local bookseller or Internet behemoth will allow you to do the same.

May the light of Ra smile down on you, Junior Genius readers!

Posted by Ken at 7:08 pm     

September 10, 2015

mentalkennections
For almost three years, I wrote a quiz for Parade magazine called “Kennections.” The format was simple: five not-too-tough trivia questions and one final gimmick: guessing what the five answers have in common. But last year the beloved Sunday supplement was bought out and jettisoned its editorial team and most of its regular features. Without a publisher, “Kennections” wasn’t a fun puzzle. It was just an annoying pun.

Earlier this year, mentalfloss.com offered to publish “Kennections” (and Parade was nice enough to hand over the trademark, which they had registered!) I love mental_floss (and even wrote a column in its newsprint version back in the day) and couldn’t think of a better home for the quiz.

Today, months later, the first quiz is finally live! I’m sorry about the long wait, but the time was spent getting the snappy new interface running right, as more of a Sporcle-style thing, and it is indeed very cool. Kennections 2.0 is truly interactive in a way it never was on Parade.com.

The plan is for new quizzes to appear on mentalfloss.com twice a week, just like in the Parade days. We are back!

Posted by Ken at 1:35 pm     

September 1, 2015

COLOUR PLEASE SpermNoooo, today’s “Tuesday Trivia” e-mail went out with an unfinished sentence. Luckily, the missing information was one of last week’s answers, not this week’s questions. So it was more of an unfortunate cliffhanger than a fatal glitch. Still, first time I’ve straight up omitted an answer in almost ten years.

The missing word in the answer to last week’s question 5 is “sperm.” Sorry I forgot to add the “sperm.” (For the record, the question concerned the type of whale that’s the world’s largest toothed animal.)

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Posted by Ken at 10:00 am     

August 31, 2015

maltin

Apologies for the weird formatting on this blog for the last week or so. WordPress did me the cool favor of auto-updating, but for some reason thought I’d want my old site theme deleted. Thanks hosting company!

Speaking of lack of updates: I learned (belatedly) a few months ago that Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide is dead. The venerable paperback reference book (first published in 1969!) was once ubiquitous, but sales had declined sharply in recent years, and Leonard says last December’s 2015 guide will be its final edition ever.

It’s tempting to call this karma for Leonard giving Blue Velvet ★★ stars (out of four!) and Blade Runner only ★½, but the timeline strongly suggests that IMDb and other online resources are the real culprit. Today’s pop culture geeks don’t expect to pay for a fat paperback to answer quick questions about pop culture. They have phones for that.

It was a shock to realize that a whole genre of once-indispensable reference books along those lines has presumably seen its last update as well. Brooks and Marsh’s Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Shows had been reliably updated every four years or so since 1979; the Ninth Edition in 2007 was likely its tombstone. Ditto Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of Number One Hits (b. 1985, d. 2003) and Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits (b. 1983, d. 2010). These books were labors of love painstakingly compiled by lonely bearded men in paneled basements, and I loved them all and bought every update.

The death of pop reference shouldn’t surprise me in a world where even Merriam-Webster and OED have a hard time selling updates of dead-tree dictionaries, but it does sadden me. Something has been lost. A lot of Boomer and Gen-X buffs who owned these books probably spent as much time pleasure-reading their narrow columns as they did actually looking things up in them, but IMDb and Wikipedia and the like are singularly ill-suited to casual browsing.

The real victim here, however, is comedian Doug Benson, whose popular Doug Loves Movies podcast (full disclosure: I am sometimes a guest) is heavily Maltin-dependent. “The IMDb Game” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Posted by Ken at 11:29 am     

August 19, 2015

Making its long-awaited return!

Tough one. What do these words have in common?
CASH
IKE
LOLA
LUCINDA
NARCISSUS
SODA

Updated to add: Neel Mehta solved this first, as you will see if you look up the answer here.

Posted by Ken at 11:32 am     

August 11, 2015

To match Feature BHUTAN-TOURISM/
I didn’t mean to take the summer off from the blog. It just happened, mostly because we were traveling a lot. Sorry.

I got an email over the weekend from an 8-year-old named Riley who wanted to fact-check something in the first of my Junior Genius Guides, the “Maps and Geography” one. I had written that Thimphu, Bhutan is the only world capital without traffic lights. Instead, busy intersections there are controlled by policemen who direct traffic with graceful, dance-like movements.

This factoid came straight from Bhutan’s official national tourism bureau, so I felt good about it. But not Riley! Riley had just been in Belmopan, Belize, the smallest capital city in the Western Hemisphere, and he hadn’t seen a single traffic light.

Riley was correct! It looks like Belmopan will get its first traffic light in 2015 as part of a national push for road safety–but when my book came out in 2013, Belmopan was traffic light-free, just like Thimphu. Ken Jennings’s Junior Genius Guides regrets the error.

In retrospect, this fact was slightly silly pro-Bhutanese propaganda anyway. Vatican City is the official capital of, uh, Vatican City, and I don’t think it has any conventional traffic lights, since it’s not open to traffic. I guess there may be a red light at a VIP parking lot gate or something. But it’s been many years since I was in Rome, can anyone confirm the traffic sitch in the Holy See?

(Incidentally, the sixth Junior Genius Guide, about ancient Egypt, hits stores at the beginning of Akhet! In our modern calendar, that’s mid-September, just a month away. Pre-order now!)

Posted by Ken at 10:45 am     

May 28, 2015

neesontaken
A couple weeks ago, I linked to David Goldenberg’s piece on FiveThirtyEight.com analyzing the likelihood (or not) of another long Jeopardy! streak like mine. The article must have gotten plenty of clicks, because less than a week later, FiveThirtyEight ran a Slate-pitchy counterpoint follow-up by Benjamin Morris: actually, Morris argues, my streak is more beatable than it seems.

This may very well be. Morris’s most convincing point is that we only have a decade or so of post-five-game-limit Jeopardy! data, whereas we’ve had more than seventy years to realize that Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game baseball hitting streak is untouchable.

True, but! In the ten years following DiMaggio’s streak, three players at least made a run at it, getting more than halfway to his total: Tommy Holmes in 1945, DiMaggio’s own brother Dom in 1949, and Stan Musial in 1950. (The past decade has seen six such mini-streaks, so there hasn’t necessarily been a decline.) By contrast, in the last decade on Jeopardy!, nobody’s made it even a third of the way to the record. Let me emphasize here that, in my opinion, this has little to do with any DiMaggio-like dominance on my part. As I told Goldenberg, unlikely-to-be-repeated dumb luck and a smaller, less rehearsed contestant pool were my real secret weapons.

Morris also correctly mentions that I’m no one-of-a-kind Trebek-terrorizing talent. Brad Rutter has a 19-game winning streak (if you don’t count the Watson games) against champion-caliber Jeopardy! competition, which is arguably a more impressive feat. And he’s beaten me twice in championship play! Who’s to say there’s not another Rutter-sized talent in the Jeopardy! contestant pool right now?

Not me! I’ve played enough different kinds of quiz games to know that there are many, many people out there with comparable trivia chops. But it’s worth noting that Brad’s remarkable tournament streak is full of just as many unlikely close calls and comebacks as mine. (I personally had the chance to knock Brad back to 18-1 last year, and couldn’t quite seal the deal on the final question. He’s had at least two other similarly jaw-dropping escapes in his tournament career. Maybe more?) My guess is we are both pushing the probabilistic limits of Jeopardy! streaks to their breaking point.

Posted by Ken at 10:08 am     

May 12, 2015

andyrichterI was a guest on this week’s episode of LiveWire Radio, discussing life and times with host Luke Burbank. I don’t know if it made the final broadcast, but I also played a few quick rounds of the “Question Game” from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with my celeb crush Andy Richter. As far as I know, this is the first ever battle of wits ever held between a Jeopardy! uber-champ and a Celebrity Jeopardy! uber-champ. Historic!

(An aside from my son, who happens to be in the room while I’m typing this: has the same person ever appeared as a Celebrity Jeopardy! contestant and as an SNL Celebrity Jeopardy! contestant? The latter either as performer or character? I honestly have no idea.)

(Edited to add: Reader themanwho informs me that Martha Stewart is the only CJ celeb to also appear on SNL as a “character,” while David Duchovny and Martin Short have both appeared on SNL CJ as performers. Duchovny played Jeff Goldblum and Martin Short played Jerry Lewis.)

Here’s your occasional reminder that I also write a weekly column for Woot.com, debunking popular misinformation (this month: myths about American literature) and another one for Conde Nast Traveler, about geographic oddities (this week: the island that India and Bangladesh fought over for forty years–only to have it disappear just as the issue was being settled!)

Finally, I heard this week from Eric Williams, who made a documentary called Unforgettable, about his hyperthymesiac brother Brad. He’s been working on it for many years, but apparently the finishing touches are now all, er, finished, and the movie is available to buy via Kickstarter or watch on Vimeo. There’s one fun sequence where Brad and I hang out at a bar and I take on his amazing memory at a trivia game. Big mistake. Anyway, highly recommended for fans of weird brains.

Posted by Ken at 8:52 pm     

May 8, 2015

hrb
FiveThirtyEight.com ran a smart analysis this week on the probability of another 75-game Jeopardy! run. On the whole, I agree with David Goldenberg’s main conclusions: the run is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon because

(a) the competition is better curated and better prepped today, and
(b) 75 games was an incredibly lucky run in the first place.

(I don’t actually think that Goldenberg’s contention that strong players are playing more aggressively today, and therefore are less likely to build long streaks, is actually a thing, even though I think he’s largely basing this on a conversation I had with him about Roger Craig. But I’d be interested in data that says different.)

The most interesting (and controversial) part of the analysis is the finding that my odds of winning any Jeopardy! game during my run were 97.9% (based on my average score going into Final Jeopardy, my average accuracy at Final, and the historic overall Jeopardy! accuracy at final.) Goldenberg’s simulations expect a player with those stats to win 47 in a row, on average. So there you go: finally, a mathematical answer. My streak was 64% skill and 35% luck.

Except, as commenters point out, that 97.9% number is a little suspect. It doesn’t take into account games where my lead is narrow enough that I can lose to a small wager even if the second-place player doesn’t answer the Final correctly. (For the record, of my ten non-lock games, five were close enough that a wrong answer and $0 bet would have beaten me, including my first and last games.) That 97.9% inches downward somewhat if you consider that. Anyone want to do the actual math? I don’t.

(Another commenter points out that Final Jeopardy correct answers aren’t independent events: a question that the leader gets wrong is more likely to be missed by other players as well, because it’s probably hard. I think this is a real but fairly small factor. Of my wrong Final Jeopardy responses, 58% were answered by at least one of my competitors. 42% were correctly answered by the player in second place. In other words, I missed plenty of answerable Finals.)

In my opinion, the most important factor not addressed by Goldenberg is what happens over the length of the streak. My clear sense at the time was that playing Jeopardy! got easier the longer I was on, especially after the nerve-wracking first few tape days. The ever-snowballing advantages for the long-term champion are obvious: his or her increasing comfort at playing the game, and the psychological effect that playing a long-term champ has on his or her opponents. That would produce the “long tail” you see here: lots of short streaks because nobody gets over that hump, one long one for the player lucky enough to stretch the odds and pass it.

In the article, Julia Collins opines that there is such a fatigue-related threshold that might explain the gap between the 5-7 day champs (63 of them since the “no 5-day limit” rule change) and the 8+ club (just ten of them). There might be a second comfort-related threshold that explains that big gap between Arthur Chu (12 games) and David Madden and Julia (20+). But I wonder if the most pronounced threshold isn’t somewhere north of 20, a place where the game suddenly gets a lot easier. If I had lost after a 20-game run, like Dave and Julia did, my lock game percentage would drop from 87% to a much more vulnerable 75%. But after those first 20 games? Twenty-eight locks in a row.

So maybe there’s a second wind up there in the fourth week. Hang in there, Jeopardy! hopefuls. The record may be much more beatable than FiveThirtyEight thinks.

Posted by Ken at 12:10 pm