Ken Jennings


April 16, 2014

Been traveling for the last couple weeks, so the blog has been dark. Sorry for the inexcusable lapse. This week has been so crazy that Tuesday Trivia was even a few hours later, which never happens. Get it together, Jennings.

This one is fun. “Girlfriend in a Coma” is one of my all-time favorite songs. By changing the first letter in the title–the ‘G’–into the last letter–another ‘a’–and anagramming the result, you can get the title of another classic rock song, this one with a two-word title. What is that hit, which I am 110% sure you will never hear Morrissey cover?

Posted by Ken at 9:29 pm     

April 2, 2014


(This is something I wrote for the launch of the first two Junior Genius Guides that we never ended up using. The first two are available now, and “Presidents” comes out in a month!)

A couple years ago, I wrote a book about geography nerds, called Maphead. From what I can tell, the book elicited two very different responses from readers. A small but vocal minority would send me mail or seek me out in public to tell me how happy they were to read about other weirdos like me who read maps for pleasure. These reactions usually ended with the sentence, “I thought I was the only one!”

But 99 percent of the response was something along the lines of “Maps? What’s fun about maps?” Usually with pursed, disapproving lips. I learned quickly that the vast majority of us have unpleasant association with maps. These are people who only look at maps when they’re already lost: pulled over at the side of a highway, frantic in an airport parking lot, annoyed to be at the opposite end of the mall from Sbarro. It’s sort of like how Imodium is a wonderful invention, but no one loves looking at a bottle of it. If you’re looking at a bottle of Imodium, your day has already gone terribly, terribly wrong.

I realized that grown-ups were the wrong audience for a book about maps. Famously, Americans suck at geography. Last September, at the height of the tensions with Syria over chemical weapons, a website called UsVsTh3m put up a simple game called “Where’s Damascus.” About half of all guesses were more than 200 miles off the mark. The Department of Defense didn’t do much better; the success rate from Pentagon IP addresses was only about 57 percent. Luckily, no bombs were ever dropped.

Who’s the right audience for a book about geography, then? Children! Kids look at maps and see not headaches but adventure! Little blue lines are rivers to ford or lazily raft down. Steep hachure lines are mountains to climb. The empty expanses of Siberia or the Amazon rainforest: terra incognita to explore.

That’s why I started out my new series of nonfiction kids’ books, the Junior Genius Guides, with a book on Maps and Geography. I have middle-grade kids of my own, and I know how weird their little sponge brains are. Kids can master feats in hours or weeks that take adults years—as you know if you’ve ever called a child over to help you fix the DVR or the iPad.

Some parents leverage this freak mutant ability in oddly specific ways: Mandarin immersion schools, two-hour daily cello lessons. The goal of the Junior Genius Guides, on the other hand, is to turn ten-year-olds into little generalists, interested in everything. The first two volumes, “Maps and Geography” and “Greek Mythology,” are on sale now. There are going to be books on presidents and space and Egypt and dinosaurs and the human body and a bunch of other stuff. The official Junior Genius Slogan comes from Blaise Pascal: “It is much better to know something about everything than everything about something.”

Look: the contestants you see on Jeopardy! every night aren’t Rain Man-style savants. They just happen to be people who are curious about everything. When you’re interested in a subject, it takes no effort at all to remember it in incredible detail. Facts just stick. The amazing thing is that kids come out of the box like that, always asking “why?” about everything. If they outgrow that, it’s out fault, because we were impatient, or didn’t make the answers seem fun.

What’s fun about geography, you ask? What about the goofy time zones of Treriksroysa, Norway, where you can travel back in time four hours just by stepping across the Russian border? Or Batman, Turkey, the city that tried to sue the Batman movies for stealing its name? Or Monaco, a country so small that its national orchestra is bigger than its army? Or Thimpu, Bhutan, the only world capital without traffic lights? (Instead, traffic is directed by the choreography of dancing policemen!) The lesson of geography should be “This planet is a strange and wonderful place! Get out there and find stuff out about it!”

The local morning show hosts and drive-time radio deejays who have interviewed me about the Junior Genius books seem, on the whole, mystified. “Greek mythology? Maps? Why would you write children’s books about boring stuff like that?” But they’re grown-ups, and they’ve just forgotten. Kids can spend hours lost in a book of stories about gods and heroes, or just staring at a map. Do you remember?

Posted by Ken at 4:08 pm     

March 26, 2014

I don’t think I ever posted the cool Spanish cover for Because I Said So!, copies of which I got in the mail a few months ago. It’s called Manual para Padres Quisquillosos–literally, “Manual for Fastidious Parents.” Or Guide for the Persnickety, I guess, in honor of another great thinker who published in Spain.


I never thought this book would make it in foreign markets, because parental harangues and superstitions seem to be so culture-specific. Apparently, they’re more universal than I thought. Ariel, my Spanish publisher, only had to cut a handful of entries that they thought would be incomprehensible to Spaniards.

The illustration has the boy peeing blue, which probably reinforces one of the myths debunked in the book. Ah well.

On another note. Western Washington! I will once again be helping out with the Whatcom Literary Council Trivia Bee this Friday in Bellingham. I’ll be signing book around 6 and the trivia gets underway around 7. It’s always a good time and raises some money for local literacy efforts.

Wordplay Wednesday! Verbs ending with a silent ‘e’ in English typically lose the ‘e’ in the present participle: “live” becomes “living,” “ululate” becomes “ululating.” An exception is often made for words where the ‘e’ is preceded by another vowel: “toeing,” not “toing”; “eyeing,” not “eying.” But as far as I can tell, there is only one verb where Merriam-Webster insists on leaving on the extra ‘e’ before the “-ing” even though it’s preceded by a consonant. What’s the word?

Edited to add: After a few near-misses, Bill got this one first. So far, no one has suggested an alternative.

Posted by Ken at 1:20 pm     

March 21, 2014

wordplayStan Newman and Eric Berlin both sent me copies of a new Penny Press magazine called Will Shortz’s Word Play. Edited (at least in part) by the famed New York Times/NPR puzzle guru, Word Play seems to hearken back to old school “Pencilwise” material from pre-decline Games magazine: specialty word puzzles from top creators. No vanilla crosswords, but plenty of other grid-based stuff and other novelty puzzles. There are a few non-word games (nonograms, some spatial/maze/sudoku stuff) but for the most part it’s word stuff by big names (Patrick Berry, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Francis Heaney, etc.) Based on the first issue, definitely worth a look.

And map nerds may want to bookmark this “Comic Cartography” Tumblr, which features maps of all things comics, from Metropolis to Asgard to Beanworld to Obamacare.

Have a great weekend, my friends. Stay thirsty. (For “marching bands” variety crosswords and maps of Asgard.)

Posted by Ken at 5:01 pm     

March 17, 2014

Do you live in the great city of Seattle or surrounding environs? If so, take note of the following events.

This Thursday, March 20, I’m participating in “Film Court” at Central Cinema. Specifically, I am prosecuting Forrest Gump for crimes against humanity. It’s time to end the suffering. Local funny guy Doug Willott will be defending this travesty of an embarrassment of a movie for reasons known only to him. Should be a good time. Show starts at 8pm. Buy your tickets now and join the jury. Stupid is as stupid does, and I intend to prove it.

Then the next night, Friday, March 21, I’m guesting on Jackie Kashian’s awesome Dork Forest podcast, live from the Rendezvous at 6pm. Tickets on sale now. Which of my dorky obsessions should I drone on about? 1980s pro wrestling? Little Lulu comics? The Dewey Decimal System? Orphan Black? Come find out.

Posted by Ken at 8:35 pm     

March 12, 2014

I don’t think I ever linked to this goofy “Are You Smarter than Ken Jennings?” BuzzFeed quiz from last week. They took fifteen questions I got wrong on Jeopardy! back in the day and turned them multiple-choice. Beat my score of zero and you are smarter than Ken Jennings! Even if you flunk, you get a reassuring “You are just as smart as Ken Jennings!” message.

For the record, I am smarter than Ken Jennings, having gone for 15-for-15 on the BuzzFeed challenge. Nothing to cement a fact in your mind for all time like getting it wrong on national television!

Wordplay Wednesday! There are four U.S. states whose names rhyme with the name of a world nation. As a hint: two of the states also rhyme with each other, so there are really only three “rhyme sounds” to come up with.

Can you name all three rhymes? Ground rules:

  1. Rhymes must be exact, according to the first listed pronunciation in Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary.
  2. Rhymes must go back to the first stressed syllable. “Tennessee” doesn’t rhyme with “Haiti,” because it’s “HAY-tee,” not “hay-TEE.” “Wisconsin” doesn’t rhyme with “Benin”; an exact rhyme for “Wisconsin” would have to end in “-onsin.”
  3. Normal brief English country names. “France” with a short ‘a’, not “La Fraaance” or “French Republic.”
  4. No trivial cases. “New Mexico” does not rhyme with “Mexico.” “Georgia” does not rhyme with “Georgia.”

Edited to add: Answers (and some near misses!) in this thread.

Posted by Ken at 2:12 pm     

March 11, 2014

smithsonianmarchJeopardy! turns fifty this year, and the Trebek version turns thirty. (I’ll be back on the show in a few weeks for my turn in the “Decades” tournament, observing the big event.) I was asked to write about Jeopardy!‘s birthday in this month’s Smithsonian magazine, and took the opportunity to speak with Julann Griffin, who dreamed up the game with her then-husband Merv back in 1963. She’s now eighty-four — and still inventing games. (She also bakes a mean pumpkin bread.)

Ken Jennings: Where did I reach you today, Julann?

Julann Griffin: I have a plantation in Virginia. It sounds more elegant than it is. It’s over two hundred years old. I love it. But it’s a simple plantation, with the bricks made on the property and things like that. I love it.

KJ: And you were actually pulling a pie out of the oven when I called? That seems so Southern and perfect.

JG: Well, I was actually putting it in. I’ve got to watch it.

KJ: Is it in fact a pie?

JG: No, it’s pumpkin bread.

KJ: I’m sure you’ve had people ask you about Jeopardy! over the years, but since you were there when the whole thing started, I’d love to hear about the fateful first conversation that led to Jeopardy! Do you remember that?

JG: Oh, I do. I do. Merv and I were coming back from my folks’ place in Ironwood, Michigan and we were going to our home in New York and he pulled out a paper with some clips and notes and things on it. And I said, “What is that, another game show?” and he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “I’m getting so tired of these game shows with people jumping around and doing pantomimes and acting like fools. What happened to the knowledge-based games?” And he said, “You know, since The $64,000 Question, the network won’t let you do those anymore, because they suspect you of giving them the answers.” So I said, “Why don’t you give them the answers and make people come up with the questions?” And he said. “Like what?” I said, “Okay, the answer is ’5,280.’” He said, “The question is ‘How many feet in a mile?’” I say, “The answer is ’52 Wistful Vista.’” He says, “The question is, ‘Where did Fibber McGee and Molly live?’” I don’t know if you know about Fibber McGee. Of course you do, you know everything. Fiber McGee and Molly was a radio show and they lived at 52 Wistful Vista and evey time they opened the closet everything fell out for about five minutes.

I said, “Okay, the answer is ‘Kathy Fiscus’?” and he said, “What is the name of the little girl that fell in the well in the 1940s?’” It was a big event because it was on radio and people stayed up and listened to see if she was being saved. She wasn’t, incidentally. But it was one of those stories of the little girl who fell in the well. So anythow, we kept going and I kept throwing him answers and he kept coming up with questions. And by the time we landed the plane, we had an idea for a show.

KJ: All on the airplane?

JG: It was just coming back form a visit to my parents. He was very good about that. We went up to see his mother and his relatives and my parents all the time. He was very into games and I wasn’t, which is interesting, because now I have a company I just started and I do games on the Internet. Anyhow, that’s a long story. He was interested in doing games. I wasn’t, but my sisters were. They used to play games with him. And for some reason or other, because I used to do the cooking and the knitting and sitting in the background, I would see what would happen with these games, so I could see the structure better than they could, because I wasn’t trying. So everything turned into a game. Even when he was late for dinner, I would talk into the eggbeater, you know, and do a game show in the kitchen.

Anyhow, that’s how it started. Well, after that he went right down to his office, got the guys working on it, building some sets, which I helped him build, and then they had meetings at the house and I’d cook the dinner and come in and out, you know. I did all the “wifely” work. That’s the story of those days, you know. The wife was the one who stayed in the kitchen. The men were the ones who did the games.

KJ: So they were all sitting around your dining room table spitballing early Jeopardy! games?

JG: Yes. And then my sisters Sally and Maureen, they did writing when the show originally went on. A lot of the writing. Then they got some really good writers too. When we first went to NBC with the idea, they said it was too difficult, so we had to dumb it down a little so the big men at NBC could play it.

KJ: It was obviously a very smart show when it went on the air. Was that the easier version, or did it get bulked back up once the contestants weren’t network executives anymore?

JG: Once it wasn’t brand new, it got a little harder. And then people started to watch from colleges, and even Nixon in the White House used to take his lunch at that time. So they felt like it was okay to do some of the harder stuff. And it was interesting because the first, oh, what do they call it? The champion of the year? I’m 84 now, so my filing cabinet on my words doesn’t always work.

KJ: The Tournament of Champions?

JG: Yes, the first champion was a black taxi driver from Chicago who kept winning and winning, because he knew a lot of trivia. So he beat a lot of professors and everything else. It was kind of fun.

KJ: Did you say you helped build the first sets?

JG: Yes.

KJ: For the mock games you were do around the table.

JG: Yes.

KJ: So you had a little makeshift game show set in your New York apartment dining room. That’s great.

JG: And then, after my divorce, I went into my own game company. I had a game company with my sister and we called ourselves JAM, because it was Julann and Maureen, and then we teamed up — this was in 1999 — we teamed up with two guys from the University of Virginia here who did the programming. And we had a company called Boxerjam and we did kind of well until — it was during the bubble — they went through all the money and all our games and we went bankrupt. The games are still up. They were bought by the bank. But I lost everything that I’d put in it. So we decided not to do that anymore. Until a couple years ago, my sister — she’s in her 80s now, and I’m 84 — we decided to go back into business. So we just started up, we’re getting some apps ready now, and I’ve got about 20 games in the pile waiting to be programmed.

KJ: Are these trivia games like Jeopardy!?

JG: They’re different kinds. Some are information games, a couple are gambling games, some are just, you know, the kind that you play over and over when you have nothing else to do. One of them is on foreign languages, and the one we’re coming out with now is called Move Your Vowels. I’m sorry. It begins with a ‘V’. SO they’re all different.

KJ: What’s your new company called?

JG: Right now we don’t have anything up on our website. It’ll probably be a couple months. But it’s Jam and Candy.

KJ: I love the idea that you say you’re not into games, but here you are fifty years later and still working on games.

JG: Isn’t that funny? I think that happens to a lot of people. What you don’t realize you’re doing on the side, you know. You’re spending so much time trying to succeed in one thing and — I don’t know, it’s just kind of strange.

KJ: The fact that Jeopardy! is still around fifty years later is amazing as well. That’s just unheard-of in TV. What do you attribute that success to?

JG: It’s a bunch of things. First of all, Bob Rubin, the original producer, was very strict, and I think they’ve done very well now too. I think the writing; they get good writers. There are just so many rivers and countries that you can put on Jeopardy!, unless we go to the Moon and get some more, so the writing is intriguing. They have to find another way around it to make it interesting. And I think they’re doing a great job.

KJ: Do you like Alex Trebek? Is he a good fit for the format?

JG: I like him very much. Very much.

KJ: I am also a big fan.

JG: Well, he’s getting up there but he’s held it together very well. And he’s strict too. That thing came up about the young kid that lost because he did something — I didn’t see the show. And I thought, you know what? These kids today are poor losers. They’re poor winners! You know? You’ve got to be strict. Otherwise it isn’t a game!

KJ: Do you ever still watch? Do you find yourself flipping to Jeopardy!?

JG: You know, I do. I watch it a lot. Unfortutately, Chris Matthews comes along at the same time right now, so I go back and forth.

KJ:How does that feel, to have been there for the creation of this American institution?

JG: It’s amazing when I think about it, but I don’t really connect it when I watch it. I watch it because I enjoy the show. And I watch Wheel of Fortune too. You know, Wheel of Fortune was Merv’s idea, and that has evolved a lot. They used to have some crummy prizes in the beginning. But if you look at the way the show is constructed, it’s very well-constructed. I used to watch that PBS show where they built houses and everything, and I guess that’s how I got interested in doing games. Because I like the structure you don’t see underneath something. You know, you walk into a house, you have an idea what somebody went through with the basement and in between walls and things like that.

KJ: I think that is part of the appeal of game shows for a lot of people. They’re very tightly structured, carefully designed. You know what they show is going to be every day. People expect it. It’s like a part of their life.

JG: And I think another pull about games, especially information games, is that you learn a lot of things through life that you never have a chance to use, and now you have a chance. Not just to use them, but to maybe even be smarter than somebody else! I’ll bet you were frustrated when it came to the IBM — what was its name again?

KJ: Watson?

JG: Yes, Watson!

KJ: That was a lot of fun, but Watson was just too fast. A human doesn’t have the same precise reflexes that a computer has.

JG: Exactly. If I were in trouble, I would call on you before I’d call on Watson.

KJ: You know what, I appreciate that. This has been a real pleasure for me. Thanks so much for taking the time.

JG: It’s been a pleasure for me as well. I’ll have to tell my sister I talked to you, because we were big fans. We thought, my God, he’s really something else. Do you have a photographic memory?

KJ: I really don’t. I guess I was just one of those irritating kids that’s a sponge for information, and curious about everything. And I would run home from school every day to watch Jeopardy! That was a huge formative thing for me, watching these smart people on Jeopardy!

JG: Well, your curiosity is great. That’s whwat keeps the world spinning around, I think. So many people just put one foot in front of the other and don’t even know what’s happening. I think it’s good to find out about how everything works.

KJ: I’m also a big believer in learning your whole life. Well, thank you for Jeopardy! It changed my life.

JG: No, thank you for Jeopardy!

Posted by Ken at 5:27 pm     

March 10, 2014

Arthur Chu is back on Jeopardy! tonight…and now in double digits, win-wise. I call him Art Chu, as in “Art Chu glad Twitter wasn’t around back when I was on that show?” I recently chatted about Arthur with my friends at Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, and was asked about the perils of game show fame for this New Yorker blog post.

But enough about promoting that guy who doesn’t even have anything to promote yet! What about my needs? I’m glad you asked. The Junior Genius Guides just got a very nice starred review from Booklist, which I am nowhere near modest enough to not quote below:

The new Junior Genius Guide series kicks off with a stellar collection of facts about climate, national flags, maps, and more, all in an engaging, arch tone. Jeopardy! champ and author Jennings, making his foray into books for children, arranges the trivia in chapters that lightly satirize a school-day schedule, including a “lunch period” offering an ingenious and easy recipe for an edible map, a craft project in “art class,” and an official certification exam before the “dismissal bell.” Cartoon illustrations, inset boxes, and Jennings’ jokey patter break each fact-stuffed page into delicious wonder-bites, each as satisfying as the next: Papua New Guinea’s flag was designed by a 15-year-old; a fear of maps is called cartophobia; the largest country with no permanent lake or river is Saudi Arabia; and so on. This is no mere list, however: games, pop quizzes (including an encoded answer key and cipher to solve it), jokes, mnemonic devices, and even suggestions for field trips will pull in any young trivia fan. Lowery’s black-and-white spot illustrations help explain concepts, such as cartographic projections, and add the overall levity, making this a successful nonfiction package as well as pure reading fun. Published simultaneously with the second in the series, Greek Mythology.

If this sounds like the kind of “pure reading fun” you want for you or a loved one, shop for the Junior Genius Guides at a local bookstore, or online here.

Posted by Ken at 8:42 pm     

March 5, 2014

Amazon just put up the cover of the fourth Junior Genius book, about space, so I assume that means I’m allowed to debut it here.


Is that a young Sandra Bullock before everything hits the fan? It might very well be!

Outer Space, with a galaxy full of amazing facts and fun projects to do right here on Earth, hits shelves October 14!

Posted by Ken at 2:23 pm     

March 4, 2014

velmaParade magazine wanted to promote the new Mr. Peabody & Sherman movie for some reason. I wanted to promote my new Junior Genius books. An editor had an idea: I would list the five smartest fictional characters ever, in order. Go.

Fun, quick assignment. I spent a few days batting it around with pretty much everyone I met. Obviously, some indisputably worthy choices (Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon, Watchmen‘s Doctor Manhattan) were a little too esoteric for Parade. I remember at one point becoming very convinced that E.T. should make the list, because he learns to talk after watching about eight seconds of Sesame Street, and can make an interstellar transmitter out of a Speak & Spell, a table-saw blade, and an umbrella. “But he’s not human,” a friend pointed out. “He could be the dumbest E.T. You don’t know. He’s the only one who wandered off and got left on Earth, right?”

The final list was chosen more for joke potential than for actual IQ, but I wasn’t really happy that the list was 100 percent guys. It was worse than that: of the dozens of iconic smarty-pantses we had batted around as candidates, exactly zero were women. A few people on Twitter agreed. What’s going on here? Where are the fictional female geniuses?

It’s hard to write genius; invariably, the creator isn’t as smart as his or her creation, and has to fake it. So, instead of actually writing super-intelligence, writers use shorthand: they leverage a few tired archetypes. There’s the Mad Genius (Dr. Frankenstein, Hannibal Lecter), the Coolly Competent Computer (Sherlock Holmes, Spock), the Precocious Prodigy (Doogie Howser, Jimmy Neutron), the Absent-Minded Professor (Emmett Brown, Cuthbert Calculus) the Maladroit Nerd (Leonard and Sheldon, Urkel). And most of those archetypes, unfortunately, date back to an era when it was unthinkable that they would be anything but male.

And so I had a hard time coming up women candidates that wouldn’t seem like tokens. Lisa Simpson and Hermione Granger are very well-known (and welcome) variations on the tired “boy prodigy” trope…but can you really put them on a list with Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock? They’re kids. Lisa still plays with Malibu Stacy dolls. Same problem with Penny from Inspector Gadget–though I like the postmodern twist of the smart young thing who quietly solves the mystery herself while the vaunted male crimefighter bumbles.

This Entertainment Weekly list grappled with the same diversity problem, and took pains to include a handful of fictional geniuses of color and even a few with no Y-chromosome. But Temperance “Bones” Brennan and Gabriella from High School Musical (really?) also would have looked a little odd on a five-person list full of math savants and time travel inventors. The choice of Jane Craig, Holly Hunter’s hyper-competent Broadcast News producer, is a revelation. Not a household name, but at least a newer, less male-centric archetype: the Workaholic Who Wants It All. (Liz Lemon is a better-known example–iconic enough for the list for sure–but comedy writing and showrunning don’t quite have the world-saving gravitas of, you know, Tony Stark or whoever.)

You’d think there’d be more juicy nerd parts for women nowadays, but the only A-list name I could come up with was Chloe from 24. Even in the detective arena–a genre kept alive by women!–none of the all-time greats are women. The few that are big brand names–Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher–always get their man, but not in the show-offy, mental-gymnastics manner of a Holmes or a Poirot.

With one exception! In hindsight, I can think of one woman who’s perfect for the list, and I wish I’d included her: Lisbeth Salander from the Dragon Tattoo books and movies. She’s a top-shelf brain in all regards: photographic memory, world-famous computer hacking skillz, crime-solving chops. She’s an indomitably tough survivor who overcomes impossible odds over and over. She’s essentially a super-hero and she should have made the top five, because she could kick Will Hunting or MacGyver’s ass any day of the week.

We regret the error.

Posted by Ken at 11:20 am     

February 24, 2014


Polarizing Jeopardy! champ Arthur Chu returns to the show tonight after being sidelined for three weeks due to tournaments. A couple weeks ago, Slate asked me to write about the ginned-up “controversy” over Arthur’s play, and so I reached out to the man himself to get his thoughts. The article I was supposed to write turned into an appreciation of the Daily Double (mostly because I’d already seen every conceivable take on Arthur Chu online) but Arthur said he wouldn’t mind if I ran our interview here on my blog. It’s been lightly edited for coherence–mostly mine. Arthur has given exactly one billion e-interviews over the past three weeks and is now a master of the form.

So have you been watching your games? Anything you’d do differently now having seen them? I definitely have some goofy mannerisms I’d take back…

I have–in fact, I think all this hoopla started because of my impulsive decision to “live-tweet” all my games as I watched them from home. This was mainly because I wanted to have a really big watch-party with all my friends but lots of them ended up not being able to come because the Tuesday on which my first game ran was also a day with severe weather warnings all through Cleveland (not uncommon in these parts).

So I started live-tweeting my reactions to the first episode on Tuesday, and I guess this isn’t that common a thing for people to do because all of a sudden I started getting followers and mentions and people saying “The middle guy is live-tweeting!” And that’s when I started seeing the negative tweets–which my wife oh-so-helpfully and supportively retweeted, thus goading me into responding to them and getting this whole ball rolling.

I think there isn’t much I would change if I could go back–I mean, the very fact that the “haters” are the reason for me to, bizarrely, become a national celebrity means that if anything I owe the haters a favor for broadcasting their negative impression of me.

That said, I would probably buy new clothes and get better at tying a tie–you can probably tell how often I dress up to Jeopardy!‘s “business-casual” standards in real life by how adept I was at making sure everything was pressed and straight when I was on TV. Either that or try to negotiate with the producers to dress in something closer to my usual style rather than trying and failing to rock the clean-cut look–only after I was on the show did I find out their “rules” requiring jackets and ties for men are more like “suggestions” and that guys have gone on before wearing sweatshirts and the like.

And yes, I’m aware that I come off as kind of robot, flat-affect and hyper-intense about the game on Jeopardy!. It’s not something I can really help, or at least not something I would be able to help without a degree of concentration that would throw me off my game (the game that I keep reminding everybody we’re playing for thousands and thousands of dollars). It’s the same thing that got me so mad about the hate-train on Colby Burnett for being “arrogant” or “smug”–you absolutely can’t judge what someone’s real personality is like based on playing a game show like Jeopardy!. It’s the most unnatural, contrived, high-stress situation imaginable. The fact that Colby involuntarily gives a huge pleased grin after he gets an answer right doesn’t prove that he’s a “cocky arrogant person” and the fact that I bite off the answer really fast and then jump right back into spitting out clues for categories doesn’t mean that in real life I’m an abrupt, callous person with nothing but contempt for my surroundings.

The one thing I do think is a negative thing where I wish I hadn’t done it was “cutting off Alex,” which is what I think gets people most riled up–but of course that’s what you’re likely to do when you’re in the zone and already thinking about jumping to the next clue. Problem is Alex kind of chooses the points at which he makes a little comment or joke about a question at semi-random, sparse intervals so it’s hard to predict when he’s going to do it– people accidentally “cut him off” on the show even when they aren’t all hyped-up and intense like I was. It’s something I would be more careful about if I could do it again, though, because I do think interrupting/talking over someone truly is rude in a way that just being intense and abrupt isn’t.

I feel like I’ve now read more secondhand reports about you being hated than actual instances of people hating on you. What have I missed? What terrible things are people saying? The more appalling, the better.

At this point it almost is a fake controversy–the comments on nearly every single article about how I’m a “hated villain” on Jeopardy! are 99.9999% people supporting me, defending me and calling out the “haters” for being jerks and hypocrites.

I say “almost” because I among all others probably know best how this hoopla started because at the beginning there really was a huge anti-Chu backlash and how the reason people latched onto it was my wife’s and my openly responding to the backlash.

There’s a blogger, Kevin Clancy, who writes for a kind of crude sports fandom blog, Barstool Sports, who kind of wears it as a badge of pride that he stirs the pot with “controversies” especially involving Jeopardy!. He was the one to start trolling the Colby Burnett haters last year, get them to come out of the woodwork and turn that into a phenomenon, and I suppose I have to give him credit for doing the same for me.

The reason this appears asymmetrical is that the haters obviously aren’t as public about their hate as the fans are about their fandom and a ton of them actually recanted, deleted their tweets or otherwise disappeared when I started getting into conversations with them. But the sheer volume of anti-me tweets on that first night was crazy, and the best place to see it is Kevin Clancy’s blog post about it:

(My sister, who takes these things more personally than I, said she found the “penis pump” girl’s Facebook, LinkedIn, home phone, work phone and address before she realized she was going off the deep end and backed down.)

Here are some others, many of which I responded to. (Ed.: Clicking on the timestamps to see Arthur’s responses will be worth your while.)

That should be enough to give you an idea, lest you think I’m obsessed or anything.

I’m pretty sure that the haters are still out there, just careful not to openly mention me on Twitter because they know I’ll descend on them bringing the #ChuChuTrain with me.

That said, there probably are other pockets of commentary out there, not obviously publicly viewable, where there’s people mad at me. I have to say the stuff about me being a “bad sport” or being an unpleasant, dickish person definitely bugs me way more than the obviously ad hominem stuff about my appearance or nerdiness or whatever.

For examples, here’s a dude on Reddit:

And here’s a huge discussion ripping into me on Television Without Pity. I used to enjoy the “snarky” tone of that site, but I’ve been really turned off on it now that I realize they consider it their sacred right to speculate about and tear into random people on shows like Jeopardy! in order to get their jollies. It starts here and goes downhill from there.

And yeah, one of the things that embitters me is that the entire Television Without Pity “brand” is now tarnished for me. I got especially incensed when they started ripping into my story about buying my wife the meteorite, and referenced it in a post on the JBoard here. And I guess that’s all I’ll really say about that.

I remember being surprised at how wounded I got with random drive-by Internet abuse when I was on Jeopardy!. Like, it shouldn’t hurt to have StewieGriffinFan46 say “This guy on Jeopardy IS THE WORST”…but somehow it does.

It’s natural and human to care what other people think about you. If I’d not been playing for enormously high stakes on Jeopardy! my natural instincts to try to be nice and make a good impression probably would’ve taken over, I’d've been shy and reticent and afraid to speak up, and as a result I would’ve lost horribly in my first game. As it was a ton of my “training” was just getting myself into the head-space where winning the game and taking home lots of money mattered more to me than what people might think seeing me on TV.

So on the one hand I was kind of expecting it and shouldn’t complain. But on the other hand, yeah, it’s really hard to see someone disrespect you like that and not react to it. To the extent that real celebrities have been exposed enough to it that they become numbed to it I imagine it’s a bad, dehumanizing experience for the celebrities involved–it’s a good thing about our nature that whenever there’s another person in front of us our instinct is to empathize with them, get along with them, apologize for offending them.

I have to give my wife credit for this because she’s a strong believer that dragging trolls into the sunlight to name and shame them is better than ignoring them, and the way she was kind of goading me by retweeting all the offensive tweets and getting me to reply to them got me to see that there were two choices–retreat behind a rock and wait for the trolling to blow over, or consciously engage the trolls, take control of the conversation and own my image as a nerdy rumpled “Jeopardy! jerk” and embrace it. And the latter has turned out to be a lot of fun–and in the end generated a lot more positivity and negativity, though it would’ve been hard to believe that’s how it would’ve ended up that first night of angry people calling me out.

Probably the only piece of your gameplay I would quibble with is “bet for the tie.” I’ve heard people defend this as a “bring back a player I know I outplayed once” strategy, or a “encourage big bets from trailing contestants in future” strategy. Can you talk about why you like the tie bet?

I dunno if you’ve seen Keith Williams’ discussion of this but I more or less agree with his math. The first and most important point is that the “bet for the tie + $1″ wager makes it possible to lose by that $1–it’s actually happened multiple times on the show that someone’s gone below their opponent by that $1 because the opponent anticipated exactly that bet and made the Maximum Safe Bet. Rani Peffer almost lost that way (and was saved because she got the question right and her opponent got it wrong) just before I went on.

The most important concept in Final Jeopardy is the Maximum Safe Bet, and the really key thing to get is that the “shutout bet” is not the Maximum Safe Bet–it is the Maximum Safe Bet plus one and therefore means that among rational wagerers you will lose if you and the 2nd-place player both get the question wrong.

So it’s not just “betting for the tie” on a double-get but also “betting for the tie” on a double-miss. And that’s the other part of it–because I’m making a pattern of betting for the tie on a double-get I make going all-in on a tempting category a potentially rational choice for a 2nd-place trailer, whereas if it’s known I always go for the shutout and therefore no second-place trailer can possibly beat me if I get the question right then planning for a double-get as opposed to a double-miss is a pure waste of time. And that means that if 2nd place happens to be confident on the category, I’ve just guaranteed myself a win if it turns out they’re overconfident and we both get the question wrong.

That it, really. The most important thing is ensuring that you do come back the next day. Questions about who you’d rather face after you come back, a new challenger or a known quantity, are, as Keith put it on the J Board, figuring out whether you’re in the end zone before you’ve caught the ball.

That said, I wasn’t relying purely on “buzzer mojo” the way some people do and the idea that my overwhelming advantage came purely from not being new to the buzzer never really dominated my thoughts. It seemed to me that my primary advantage came from the Forrest Bounce strategy and from aggressively strategic Daily Double wagering, neither of which my opponents were prepared for–and Carolyn, while not a “weak” player in terms of actual knowledge and of buzzer technique, definitely wasn’t prepared to match me in terms of aggressively hunting DD’s and category bouncing.

So yes, I was fairly confident that having her come back wouldn’t be a horrible disadvantage for me. The only time I’d consider betting for the win would be if I were facing someone who really was a lot better than average–I’d peg Julie Singer from my first game as an example of this–and we were facing a FJ category that felt like a “gimme” (like I commented “Capital Cities” felt like, since it’s a finite category of things you can and probably should memorize with flashcards before coming on Jeopardy).

In that situation I’d be so confident of getting the question right that the question of what happens after I get it right–do I bring my opponent back with me or not?–becomes relevant. But going for the shutout–which entails basically planning that you will get the question right, period–is pure hubris unless you can justify exactly why that category is an “easy” one. Capital Cities is easy because I had literally memorized all the world capitals–Comedic Actresses was not “easy” even though I know a lot about TV because it has the potential for surprises, as we saw happened with the actual Comedic Actresses category.

Yeah, I know Keith Williams’ thinking about the tie. I don’t like the end zone analogy because his tie strategy also involves thinking about the next game, i.e. creating a pattern of behavior that may (in a not-super-likely set of circumstances) lead to a future wagering advantage. But in the process, you’re getting rid of the returning champ’s #1 advantage: playing someone who’s never held a live buzzer before. If we’re already thinking about the next game, I’d take the second advantage over the first every time. I guess I could be convinced if Keith’s scenario started to happen in actual games more than zero times.

How do you explain the fact that dozens of “game theory” types, like David Madden and Roger Craig, have plied their strategies unnoticed, only to have you become Public Enemy #1 for doing the same thing over fewer games?

Madden and Craig actually were hated in their time, is the thing. I was somewhat prepared for this because when I was obsessively Googling Jeopardy history I found that there was a gigantic hate-on for Dave Madden at Television Without Pity for precisely the same reasons–they found him unsportsmanlike, they found him unpleasant to watch, he ruined the experience of “playing along” with the game…

If anything it was this conversation that cemented my desire to follow in Madden and Craig’s footsteps, because I was just overwhelmed at how amazingly crazy it was that people actually were mad at a guy for winning lots and lots and lots of money by playing within the rules of the game because they were so completely focused on their own pleasure watching it.

And yeah, I am a little weirded out by this becoming a meme now, since it mainly shows what a short memory America has. It’s not like Madden’s achievement becoming the #2 regular-season player of all time (after, of course, your most esteemed self) wasn’t big news, though it was before social media really took off.

But then you have the fact that Craig made an embarrassingly huge pile of news stories talking about his “computerized algorithm” for studying for Jeopardy! and proclaiming him the “game theorist who solved Jeopardy! and all that nonsense once he broke the one-day winnings record. And that was only a couple years ago.

So what probably explains it is that even though a lot of people hated on Craig and Madden for being “nerds”, and a lot of people were in fact offended at people “breaking the purity of the game”, the world has become even more interconnected through social media than it was even in Craig’s era a few years ago and I, unlike Craig, was sitting in front of the TV with my iPhone live-tweeting at the same moment that millions of Americans were seeing me on TV.

“Viral” stories usually have to do with a feeling of interactivity and mass participation in a story, and the fact that I was right there, on Twitter, willing to be talked about and willing to talk back is what caused this to turn from just people griping into a genuine conversation, and from a conversation into a narrative with a protagonist.

Could it also have anything to do with you being Asian, and them not?

Well, 100% of the Asians who’ve talked to me about it have been extremely positive and extremely convinced that the haters are motivated by racism.

Obviously some of the most offensive tweets are openly and unabashedly racist, so you can’t argue with that. That said, I’d avoid playing the race card too openly–I’m sure if I were Asian but I otherwise looked like a “good guy” out of central casting, I was thin, and charming, and smiled easily and all of that, that the narrative would be somewhat different. (No offense to you personally, Ken, but I think you may have seen the quote where I said that as talented and charming as you are on TV you were also kind of lucky that you look like a cherubic boy next door from a Hallmark card.)

I do. I am America’s sweetheart.

That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice.

So yeah, it is a fact, I think, that I was a bit off-putting in my Jeopardy! apperance–hyper-focused on the game, had an intense stare, clicked madly on the buzzer, spat out answers super-fast, wasn’t too charming in the interviews, etc.

But this may have taken root in people’s heads because I’m an Asian and the “Asian mastermind” is a meme in people’s heads that it wouldn’t have otherwise.

Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view–and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X.

So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel”–look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis.

So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah.

Okay, here’s one more comment from the Internet that kind of encapsulates it. The kind of un-self-awareness of what someone is saying when they say they’d prefer I not win because I try too hard at the game, work too hard at it, care too much about it, and that they’d prefer that a “likable average Joe” win.

This is disturbing because it amounts to basically an attack on competence, a desire to bust people who work very hard and have very strong natural gifts down in favor of “likable average Joes”–and it’s disturbing because the subtext is frequently that to be “likable” and “average” you have to have other traits that are comforting and appealing to an “average Joe” audience, like white skin and an American accent.

Here’s something I haven’t seen you talk about: I was watching your fourth game last night and noticed you trying to make a run with an unusual strategy: powering through the $2000 clues early. It wasn’t the Forrest bounce, it wasn’t optimal Daily Double hunting, and it totally worked. Anything you want to say about your thinking there?

Yeah, part of it is just if you can rack up lots of money quickly you should do that–build a lead that’s tough to recover from, put a little fear into your opponents, etc.

My “strategy” is basically a mix of principles that center around trying to build the lead to a locked game as fast as possible while keeping opponents off balance–Forrest Bounce is part of it, starting at the bottom is part of it and DD hunting is part of it but it’s mainly an ethos opposed to the “slow build” that’s the standard progression of Jeopardy!

As far as why I did what I did at any particular point that’s mostly a blur now, and a lot of it acting on instinct–as you can tell I don’t like to spend a lot of time mulling over what the next clue to jump to will be. What I mostly remember in my mental highlight reels of these games are the points where I messed up–so now in retrospect it’s weird to see how well I did.

Thanks so much for your time, Arthur. This is great stuff. Oh, one other thing. In the Wall Street Journal interview, you ask what the equivalent of “Linsanity” would be. The answer is clearly “Chu-phoria.”

Posted by Ken at 11:24 am     

February 19, 2014

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it here before, but my friends at OtherWise Games recently released (finally!) the long-awaited sequel to their hit movie trivia game MovieCat. It’s called MovieCat 2 (catchy!) and it’s only $1.99 for over 1,000 puzzles. (Also available for Android.)

Wordplay Wednesday! This is unnecessarily complicated; please pay attention.

Someone who is very per____ed might, by definition, _____.

____ is, by definition, a product similar to per____.

The second blank in each of these sentences is filled with the same word.

The first blank in each of these sentences is filled with the same word…but it’s spelled backwards in the first sentence.

What are the two sentences?

Edited to add: This one was admittedly a bit of a stretch, but alklunzinger was not deterred, and posted the answer here.

Posted by Ken at 11:35 am     

February 18, 2014

sljI really am trying to get into the habit of getting more content onto the blog. Even if it’s just self-serving Junior Genius hype like this. Got some cool stuff coming over the next couple weeks, though. No fooling. Sometimes I still have thoughts that are more than 140 characters long–EVEN WITH ABBREVIATIONS!!!–and have no place to put them.

The new kids’ books seem to be doing well. The week they came up, I saw them atop Amazon’s “Mystery and Wonders” bestseller list, which I thought was cool mostly because I didn’t know Amazon had a “Mystery and Wonders” bestseller list. Pretty good place to start if you like books about mystery and wonders!

Today, I found at that School Library Journal has run a very nice review!

Jeopardy legend Jennings scores a win with this title in his new middle grade nonfiction series. Chapters are divided up into parts of the school day (“First Period,” “Recess,” “Lunch,” etc.), and though each is fairly long and covers a great deal of material, the book moves quickly because of the conversational writing style, bits of trivia thrown in among paragraphs, and humorous drawings. Lowery’s sketches are a big selling point; the silly tone they evoke matches the lightheartedness of the text perfectly. One of the strengths of this book is that Jennings is able to sneak in important geography concepts through what will feel like a series of interesting facts. For instance, when he discusses the Dead Sea, readers may be surprised to learn not only that it is not the saltiest body of water in the world but also that there is enough gold in the ocean to give every person on earth five pounds of it, if it could be extracted. The book concludes with a fun final exam that would be an excellent and inconspicuous way to test reading comprehension, as well as some suggestions for how to keep learning about maps and geography in real life. A great addition to middle grade libraries, both school and public.

My mom is a school librarian, so this is the review that means the most, because it *sniff* comes from my peers.

Posted by Ken at 10:22 am     

February 17, 2014

Happy Presidents Day! (Incidentally, not a bad time to think about pre-ordering this. Less than three months away!)

Except for a couple Seattle events over the next week or so, the Junior Genius book tour is over and I’m still in one piece.


Talked to a lot of kids in bookstores, libraries, and elementary schools, but I think my favorite was the school that actually built a Jeopardy! set out of paper and cardboard. And out-Trebekked Trebek by staging a balloon drop after the game.


On more of a “Senior Genius” note: I have a new gig writing the “Where Are You?” quiz for Conde Nast Traveler. The idea is to identify a cool destination somewhere on the Earth’s surface based only on one oblique photo and a cryptic bit of travelogue. Essentially it’s a travel-and-tourism version of GeoGuessr. (I have some experience writing Google-resistant trivia, but this is still a very interesting challenge.) The archive of past quizzes is a lot of fun; geography nerds may want to take a look. In the past, this quiz has been a contest with trips as prizes…there’s no big prize this month, but look for that to return in upcoming contests.

Posted by Ken at 11:14 am     

February 9, 2014

I am very proud of how the first entries in the Junior Genius Guides have turned out, thanks in very large part to the hilarious illustrations by Mike Lowery and the charming book design of Liz Doyle. (Thanks, guys!) And I’m smack in the middle of a whirlwind two-week book tour bringing the whole Junior Genius lifestyle TO YOUR FRONT DOOR. Next week: Salt Lake City, San Francisco, L.A..

So much fun to sign at great bookstores like Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, with its four cats, ferrets, lizard, tarantula, cockatoos, chinchillas, underground rat enclosure, etc. Only bookstore I’ve ever been in that had to get a pet store license. Sadly the chickens died recently. (RIP Ethel and Carl Sagan.)


I like to do a little trivia contest at book signings so I can feel smart like Alex Trebek. Now that I’m a children’s book author and tower over most of my readers, I feel like GIANT-SIZED ALEX TREBEK.


Touring on a children’s book is a little different, I’ve learned. You still sign at bookstores in the evening, but you spend the day hopping from elementary school to elementary school putting on assemblies for the kids. The clever, clever bookstores have sent home flyers asking if parents want to buy the book for their student, so the author can sign it while he’s there! This weird commercial arrangement strikes me as a little odd as a parent, but as a newly minted children’s author, it seems ingenious!

Sometimes the vibe in the library is straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds.


Other times I feel like the Pope Francis of children’s trivia books.


It’s cool when the kids make posters for the auditorium!





The best: the kids who actually baked the Trojan horse cookies (complete with secret compartment) from the Greek mythology book! They made them star-shaped because, quote, you’re such a superstar, Ken. Awww. Also they couldn’t find a horse-shaped cookie cutter.


Overall, it’s been a blast. Maybe a grown man shouldn’t talk about how much he likes hanging out at elementary schools, but the kids’ energy is always contagious. Even when I’m trying to keep the chaos in check at an assembly at 2:15 on a Friday afternoon, I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple weeks on the road.

Posted by Ken at 3:41 pm     

February 4, 2014

This is the big day! After almost two years of work, the Junior Genius Guides are finally appearing in stores. Between Super Bowl weekend and the start of my book tour, I haven’t had much time for liveblogging the excitement, but trust me: it’s a rollercoaster of fact-filled fun and you are missing it if you haven’t ordered the first two books yet. Go! Order! Get copies for kids and nephews and nieces and friends. Get copies for yourself because if you’re reading this blog, believe me, you are the target audience here. Even if you’re all grown up on the outside.

I’m moving west across the country, following the snow and doing as many school and bookstore events as I can squeeze in. Heads up, Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. I’m headed your way. Here are a few of the highlights so far:

  • Talking trivia with Charlie Rose et. al. on CBS This Morning. I also got to be in the green room when one of Elon Musk’s tinier kids asked the random stranger he was sitting next to–Sarah Jessica Parker– to explain Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death to him. So blessed.
  • Reviewing the addictive QuizUp app for NPR. Also: getting my butt kicked at Twilight trivia.
  • Starting my new blog on, where I’ll be writing about maps and mythology for the next few weeks.

Go Hawks and I hope to see you at a signing soon. JUNIOR GENIUS OUT!

Posted by Ken at 8:47 pm     

January 27, 2014

Between my grueling “12th man” responsibilities as a Seahawks fan (FUN FACT: the team actually retired my number in 1984!) and my Junior Genius Guides book-hype-a-thon that begins immediately after the Super Bowl, I am just scrambling to keep up.

Here’s the latest on all things Junior Genius-related:

  • The Junior Genius Guides are a series of super-fun fact books for middle-grade readers. Let’s say 8 and up, though if you have the kind of kid who likes this thing, this is the sort of thing they will like regardless of age. At least seven guides are planned; the first two (Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology) hit stores in a week!
  • This Simon & Schuster page for the series should give you a flavor of the proceedings. Also quizzes, excerpts, bonus materials, etc. Starting next week I’ll be blogging there on both geography and mythology.
  • You can find more details on the new Junior Genius page right here on this very Internet site.
  • I’ve updated the Appearances page with my February book tour dates. Take a look if you are in New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Seattle. Touring on a children’s book means doing a bunch of daytime events at elementary schools, coordinated by bookstores who specialize in such things. As a result, a lot of the afternoon/evening events are in suburban spots that you might not expect. But please drive out anyway. I will make it so worth your while. (Not in a sex way but with other worthwhile things.)
  • I tried to make these books exactly what I would have wanted to see as a pint-sized quiz kid, under the assumption that somewhere out there are other kids as odd as I was. Here’s your boilerplate reminder that up-front book sales are more important than ever these days. So if you think you know someone who might like the series at some point, it would really help to make that purchase now instead of at some indeterminate time in the future. Besides, the illustrations are very cute.
Posted by Ken at 12:48 pm     

January 16, 2014

jgauthorcopiesHey, look! Here’s an interview in Publishers Weekly about the [BOOMING ANNOUNCER VOICE] Junior Genius guides. I just got my first copies and these books look pretty as hell. Tomorrow I’m turning in book five, about the weird and wonderful human body. As a result, I spent all day learning about the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine. Honestly, if you don’t have a fantasy football or pub trivia team called Jumping Frenchmen of Maine, you are wasting your life.

Wordplay Wednesday! I was looking at today’s list of Oscar nominees, and saw a word in the title of one of the Best Picture films that shows up in a lot of movie titles. It’s found in the title of a 1990s Best Picture winner, and was in fact the working title of the best movie of all time. If you mix up the letters in this word, you’ll get another movie word, this one a Hollywood product of the 1950s. What are the two words?

Edited to add: You can find the answer, and several interesting follow-up questions, on this thread. Congrats to braggtastic for the first correct reply.

Posted by Ken at 4:42 pm     

January 9, 2014

jgmapscoverSo cool and exciting that, after years of work, the first two books in my Junior Genius series are due out in three weeks! Cool and exciting for me, anyway. I can’t imagine you guys X-ing off days on a calendar, unless, of course, you have an eager middle-grade reader at home who urgently needs the scoop on “Maps and Geography” or “Greek Mythology.”

I’ll have more to say about this as we get closer to the release date, but right now I’m scrambling to finish the fifth Junior Genius guide (“The Amazing Human Body”) and choosing topics for the sixth and seventh ones! Expect to have a shelf full of these handsome, charmingly illustrated troves of information.

I’m also going out on tour in early February to talk about the series at schools and bookstores…I’ll have a final schedule posted on my site next week, but last time I checked, my itinerary included New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Oh boy!

Item! I’m going to be on CNBC’s Closing Bell this afternoon to talk about my old friend Watson, who’s been making news today. (This seems to be a canny move on IBM’s part to get a do-over on yesterday’s news cycle.)

Item! (Seattle readers only.) On Monday night, I’m a special guest of Sandbox Radio LIVE, some kind of theater/podcast thing I don’t fully understand but should be a lot of fun! If you’ve been to Sandbox Radio before, please note: they’ve moved from their West of Lenin space in Fremont to ACT downtown. This is their first show at the new venue, so plan accordingly. Tickets here.

Posted by Ken at 10:26 am     

December 30, 2013

I just found out that tonight CNN is airing Anderson Cooper 360°‘s “All the Best, All the Worst in 2013″ special in which random talking heads reminisce about the events of the year. Or at least the courtroom trials and celebrity scandals. Anyway, they do this every year, but this year I am one of the panelists for some reason! I taped this weeks ago and have no idea what I said that was usable, if anything, but here’s your chance to find out.

CNN, 10pm, Monday, December 30. Or, if you’re on the East Coast, right now.

Posted by Ken at 7:01 pm     

December 24, 2013

Last year I was invited to play the annual year-in-review news quiz on a CBC radio show called Day 6…and got my “eh?” kicked. Newsman Peter Armstrong won the coveted “I Beat Ken Jennings” t-shirt. Tens of thousands of unneeded “I Beat Peter Armstrong” T-shirts were distributed to poor African children, who didn’t want them.

This year, they had me on again…against Peter’s wife, the CBC’s own Piya Chattopadhyay, and one of my favorites, The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead. Here’s how it went down.

Merry Christmas, everybody! (Christians.)

Posted by Ken at 1:01 pm     

December 19, 2013

I assume most of you have signed up for my “Tuesday Trivia” email quiz, now in its eighth year of delighting and annoying over 15,000 subscribers every week. In the past, we’ve had intermittent issues with the mass-mailing of the quiz (providers mistakenly blocking it as spam, etc.) but last month I switched over to a service called MailChimp and since then everything has worked without a hitch. You can subscribe to the quiz using the “Tuesday Trivia” box in the left sidebar of this very page.

Wordplay Wednesday! Returning after a couple week’s absence. I’m thinking of an author, one of the all-time greats. Sold hundreds of thousands of books in 2013, his best year in some time. Interestingly, the first four letters of his name (as it appears on his books) are the same as the second set of four letters–that is, letters 1-4 are the same as letters 5-8. Like if “John-John Kennedy” was a best-selling author. Who is the author?

Posted by Ken at 12:13 pm     

December 13, 2013

No blog updates all week because I spent a couple days on beautiful Sanibel Island, Florida, speaking at a library. The local foundation that brought me in pulled out all the stops. They must have enjoyed my book about maps, because I got a bunch of local maps, a map-themed pillow, and the library had been decorated with these amazing paper flower sculptures. Ingredients: pencils and topo maps.

Speaking of maps, I was interviewed a few months ago for “Where Am I?”, an episode of the CBC documentary series The Nature of Things. The show is, unfortunately, not currently available outside of Canada–at least, to anyone who doesn’t know a little bit about VPNs or web proxies. But a longer interview segment with me is available here.

Also, my friends at Team Marco Polo reminded me of this Maphead video that I’ve never linked before. It’s a gloves-off geography duel between me and one of the world’s greatest explorers. What happens next is…a little hard to watch.

Maphead is probably the best “reliable Christmas gift for Dad” type book I’ve written. Please buy several this holiday season, especially if you’re not sure who your real dad is.

Posted by Ken at 5:01 pm     

December 9, 2013

I am criss-crossing the country this week to give the holidays gifts of LAUGHTER AND LEARNING to the American public.

On Wednesday, I’m speaking in Sanibel, Florida as part of the Sanibel Public Library’s Author Series. I’m looking forward to the possibility of thawing out. Things get underway at 7 p.m.

Then on Friday, I’m back on Doug Benson’s beloved “Doug Loves Movies” podcast. I cruised to victory in my last appearance, but this time I’m up against two of Doug’s most experienced contestants, Sean Cullen and D.C. Pierson. If you’re in Seattle, we’re taping at the Neptune at 8 p.m., and DLM is hilarious in person. Get your tickets now!

Posted by Ken at 3:22 pm     

December 6, 2013

I know men AND women like maps, but Amazon just put the Kindle version of Maphead on sale for $1.99 (!!!) as part of their “Eight Books He Will Love” sale of the today. If you have a Kindle, this is a pretty screaming deal. Put gender politics aside and buy now! Today only!

Speaking of selling books, I had a great time playing bookseller last weekend as part of Sherman Alexie’s “Indies First” campaign. Third Place Books, a Seattle-area independent bookstore that my family likes very much, had asked me to come in on “Small Business Saturday” and sell my favorite books for an hour. What were my five favorite books?

For a compulsive, High Fidelity-style listmaker like me, this wasn’t a question to be taken lightly. What’s the right approach here?, I wondered. Choose little-known books that could really use a boost? Choose well-liked books that might make someone say, “Oh, okay, I’ve heard of this. Sold!”? Fiction only or not? Newish books only or not? Not to mention the problem of boiling down hundreds of books that have meant a lot to me down to a list of five. Help!

I stalled for time by sending the nice bookstore lady a list of five Ron Paul books. While she tried to figure out if I was joking, drafting a careful e-mail reply that would work either way, I talked to some other authors and tried to figure out best practices. In the end, I asked for copies of these five books, which I hope struck a good balance between old and new, obvious and not, long and short, fiction and non. So here it is, apparently. A list of my five favorite books for holiday shoppers. In no particular order:

  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The first book I ever read from the guy who is now my favorite living writer, Haruki Murakami. His prose style is so sweet and smooth I want to freebase it. Actually I want to move in with one of his underemployed, jazz-loving, pasta-cooking protagonists, just scoot around Tokyo in a small American car having mildly puzzling adventures. That would be the life.
  • Tales Designed to Thrizzle. The first collection of Michael Kupperberg’s Dada-meets-woodcut-meets-psychedelics comic book classic, which probably has more belly laughs per page than any prose book I’ve read lately (except possible Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu.) Mark Twain and Albert Einstein team up. So do a snake and a piece of bacon. You’ll also meet new favorites like Cousin Grampa, Fireman Octopus, and Jesus’s evil pagan half-brother Pagus. This one’s got it all!
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. If I had just seen the “National Book Award Finalist” medal on the cover and the blurb about how it’s the “first great novel of the Iraq War” or something, I would never have picked this book up. Seems too daunting. Luckily a friend couldn’t shut up about how perfect and funny it is. Billy Lynn is a Catch-22 kind of a thing that mines its military absurdities not just from the never-ending “War on Terror” but from a furlough weekend Stateside that includes a big flag-waving Dallas Cowboys halftime appearance. Special guest star: Destiny’s Child! I also love that Ben Fountain wrote his genius debut novel at fiftysomething. At my age, I get pretty tired of young phenoms.
  • Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. I’ve never met anyone who loved Douglas Hofstadter’s possibly-even-more ambitious follow-up to Godel Escher Bach as much as I do, so maybe it’s just me. Maybe this book, which uses the problem of poetry translation as way to think about what makes human and machine intelligence tick, was written expressly for someone of my exact interests and tastes. I’m honored!
  • The Tenth of December. I thought short story god George Saunders was the only person who could do the exact strange thing he does. Then I read this new collection and realized he’s just been toying with us all along and can in fact do just about anything. This collection runs the gamut from crazy high-concept Vonnegutian flights of fancy like “Escape from Spiderhead” to suburban slices of life like “Victory Lap” and the title story. My wife listened to the audiobook and he is also a great performer, which doesn’t seem fair.

There you go, fodder for your Christmas lists. Go! Buy buy buy! It’s what Pagus expects from you this time of year! HA HA HA!

Posted by Ken at 10:30 am     

November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving, non-Canadian readers! Assuming you survive Thursday’s calorie orgy and Friday’s consumerism orgy, might I draw your attention to “Small Business Saturday”? Seattle’s own Sherman Alexie has suggested an annual celebration during which authors swap places with booksellers on the day after Black Friday, showing up at local independent bookstores to enthuse about their favorite books. What are my favorite books? Find out at the Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park at 3 p.m. this Saturday. (Manning the table after me: Garth Stein of The Art of Racing in the Rain fame, followed by Mr. Alexie himself!)

Speaking of this fine local bookstore, this seems like a good time to remind everyone that Third Place Books sells signed and personalized copies of all my books! In fact, unless I come through your town to sign books in person, this is the only 100% guaranteed way to get me to write on your possessions. If you would like to put a signed book on your holiday shopping list for the geek-book fan you love, now is the time to contact Steve Winter at Third Place Books: He will happily sell you a copy. Yay independent bookstores!

Posted by Ken at 1:42 pm     

November 22, 2013

I spent part of the afternoon digging the message boards out from a spamalanche that I didn’t notice as quickly as I should have. I’ve updated the anti-bot measures for user registration, and hopefully that will do it.

I also noticed a question from user SMWinnie a couple weeks ago that I’d missed:

Ken, you narrated the Because I Said So audiobook, right? Did Tantor come back to get you to read the new-for-paperback chapter of viewer mail?

I’ve been wondering about updates like this since 2006. Like a chump, I bought the hardcover of Freakonomics when it came out in 2005. When the revised and expanded edition and the paperback came out, I felt like I had not just paid for a beta version but paid extra for a flawed beta. I literally haven’t bought a new release since then unless it’s a Kindle edition.

Hmm. Apparently, I’ve been trusting that Mr. Bezos will comp me the new/corrected stuff when the paperback comes out. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I’m sure. Since it would be essentially free to push the correction, it seems like it makes sense for eBooks to update automagically.

This is a question I’ve thought about a lot lately. Because I Said So! is the first one of my books for which I went back and added a substantial amount of new material to the paperback release, and I did so with misgivings. The idea, of course, isn’t to screw people who bought the hardcover, or force them to double-dip. The idea is to make a book shopper see the paperback and think, “Oh, I remember hearing about this book, which I didn’t buy. But hey, this version is even better!” It’s like the “NEW AND IMPROVED!” sunburst on a box of Tide.

But as a side effect, it does lead to a book’s most dedicated readers missing out on a bunch of content, and (eventually) incentivizes readers to skip hardcover versions altogether. No, there’s no new audiobook supplement for the paperback. And I suspect that Amazon and other eBook providers consider a book’s hardcover and paperback versions to be two separate texts, and don’t push updated versions except to correct technical glitches. (If anyone knows differently, I’d love to hear.)

I feel like the right thing to do here is probably to post the new chapter free to the web in some form, but this is something I’d have to work out with Scribner. Anyway, if you’re annoyed that you missed out on a chapter by buying the hardcover (and reading the new chapter via a bookstore browse or library visit hasn’t mollified you)…well, we’re working on it. Watch this space.

Posted by Ken at 2:35 pm     

November 20, 2013

USA Today has a new interview feature called “Where Is He/She Now?” and as their very first subject, they chose…me! Wow, so flattered. I’m always dreamed of being in the where-are-they-now file. I just saw Willie Aames in here! He looked f’ed up.

Anyway, you can read the interview and/or watch the video here.

Wordplay Wednesday! It’s not hard to think of one common word with the six letters “nother” found together inside it. But can you think of a”nother”?

Edited to add: Solved by SMWinnie (with two slightly less common alternatives suggested by Neel Mehta) on this thread.

Posted by Ken at 7:28 pm     

November 13, 2013

Last week’s Wordplay Wednesday post, about foreign capitals, was inspired by traveling in Central Europe last summer. My wife and I were in Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, and we enjoyed all three cities very much.

I don’t speak Hungarian, Czech, or German and don’t even have the first pronunciation clue when it comes to the first two. So, like most Americans abroad, I relied on the kindness of strangers. I assumed, with the implicit optimism of a young nation, that the millions of people I was visiting had all taken the time to fluently acquire my native language, since I hadn’t done jack about learning theirs. I don’t like traveling that way, but there you have it.

I spent lots of the trip looking at phrasebooks, trying to master a few conversational phrases so I didn’t seem like the worst kind of Ugly American. (Just the second worst.) I noticed that, among the phrases these guides list, one of the first is inevitably “Do you speak English?”

But take a moment to consider: that is the only phrase you will never need to learn in a foreign language. If someone can speak English, they don’t need to you to hear your (creaky, laughable) attempt at their native language. And if they can’t speak English, that will soon become apparent no matter how you start the conversation.

Now you might argue that starting off with a “Do you speak English?” in the local tongue is, at minimum, a polite gesture, even if it’s not strictly necessary. But that’s where you’d be incredibly, embarrassingly wrong. It’s misleading to tell someone you don’t speak their language while speaking their language. It leads to confusion. If someone on the street asked me “Do you speak Spanish?” in English, I would reflexively answer in English. I might say “Sure, a little, what do you need?” and they would have no idea what was going on. I would prefer they ask “¿Habla Ud. español?” because that way they’ll be sure to understand both answers: either a friendly “Sí” or a confused squint.

The same goes for English-speakers abroad. Don’t chat someone up in Danish or Korean or Urdu if you know you’ll never understand the reply. That space in phrasebooks could be more profitably filled with a phrase like, “Will this give me diarrhea” or “Please give me the real price and not the rip-off tourist one” or “Ha ha no, I swear, I’m actually Canadian!” Or, best of all, “I’m so sorry this is the only sentence I can say in your beautiful language.”

Wordplay Wednesday! Take the name of a basketball player who, though a famous name, never played in the NBA. Switch the final letters in his first and last names. Now you have a kind of person that’s well-represented in many basketball organizations–but, again, not the NBA. Who is the player?

Edited to add: Hints and answer here. gwynn1984 was the first responder.

Posted by Ken at 2:54 pm     

October 31, 2013

…has been delayed by one day, obviously. I think this has something to do with Daylight Saving Time.

Two questions about world capitals.

  1. What world capital is a homophone for two different letters of the Greek alphabet, put together?
  2. What world capital becomes a traditional food from a nearby country if you remove the first and last letters?

Edited to add: Solved (with alternate possibilities for B, even!) on this thread. SMWinnie got in first.

Posted by Ken at 4:20 pm