Ken Jennings

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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 performer.)

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     

May 7, 2015

“To one interested in furnishing the mind, the monotonous thing is to drop in one fact after another until it fills up from the bottom like a barrel of potatoes. To fit new items into a growing pattern of knowledge is an exciting occupation.”

–Max Eastman, 1936

I’m going to remember this one the next time somebody asks me (and this happens a lot) whether schools should be teaching kids what to learn or how to learn, like this is an either/or thing.

Posted by Ken at 3:55 pm     

May 6, 2015

I spent part of this afternoon going over the fact-checker’s notes on the seventh Junior Genius Guides book, which will be about dinosaurs. Finally, after years of dinking around with presidents and maps and other things that kids don’t care about, we are actually getting to the good stuff.

It also reminded me that I saw a cover concept for Book Six over a month ago and never posted it here. I’m not 100 percent sure my publisher wants me putting this online yet, but why not? It looks amazing.

Coming this August! Pre-order now!

ancientegypt

Also, Wordplay Wednesday! Why not? Two not-so-hard puzzles to try at home.

1. Take the title of a popular entertainment property about cooking. Move a two-letter chunk from the middle of the first word to the middle of the second word, and you’ll make a popular kind of home cooking. What are the two-word phrases?
2. I’m looking at one of the smallest pieces of office electronics on my desk. Two words, twelve letters. Turn the seventh letter from an ‘o’ to an ‘r’, and you get one of the largest pieces of office electronics on my desk. What are the two-word phrases?

Edited to add: These were first solved by MadMolecule and Neel Mehta on this thread. Answers there if you’re stumped.

Posted by Ken at 12:05 am     

April 7, 2015

Two things of minor interest if you’re minorly interested in this sort of thing.

Here’s a new TV ad that I made for American Online. It’s only airing in the market(s) where the company is testing this new “Assist by AOL” product. Minnesota, I think. The room where actress Megan Duffy and I are standing is actually a single set, complete with a half-clock, half-vase-of-flowers, etc. MOVIE MAGIC.

This one will take a little more explanation. Here’s a popular web video of a 20,000-mile straight-line sea route between Pakistan and Siberia.

After this video made the rounds, everyone assumed that was the longest possible oceangoing great circle on Earth. Not so fast! A guy named David Cooke recently sent me a new discovery: an even longer great circle between Quebec and British Columbia, over 22,000 miles without once touching land! Amazing.

I wrote up the full story for Conde Nast Traveler here.

Posted by Ken at 9:55 pm     

April 2, 2015

NaturalishistoriaIt’s somehow been ten years since I was putting together my first book, Brainiac. Much of the book is an attempt to reconstruct the secret history of trivia from all kinds of disparate sources: Victorian “commonplace books,” U.S. Army intelligence testing, the crossword puzzle fad, Baby Boomer nostalgia…the ancestors of trivia come from all over the place.

But maybe I didn’t go back for enough. This week I’ve been reading selections from the Natural History of Pliny the Elder. This Roman work, a summary of all of Pliny’s scholarly understanding about the natural world, is usually viewed as the first encyclopedia, given the breadth of its content (everything from agriculture to mathematics to zoology). But actually reading the book gives a different impression today. Natural History reads less like an encyclopedia than it does like the very first AMAZING FACTS!!! trivia book.

In the book’s preface, Pliny boasts that, from two thousand books he has diligently read, he has compiled “twenty thousand facts that are worthy of consideration.” The cream of the crop! Twenty thousand amazing things to know–just like the fact-count trumpeted on the gaudy lenticular covers of today’s children’s books!

And maybe it’s just because scientific knowledge was less systematic back then, but it sure seems like Pliny is choosing not the most academically important facts, but the aesthetically best–the most interesting ones, the hardest to believe. Whether he’s discussing the Astomi of India, a tribe of people who can live on the smell of food alone, or the twin springs in the Canary Islands that, respectively, cause and prevent laughter in bathers, he seems mostly intent on wowing the reader with the surprise and the strangeness of life’s rich pageant. He’s a Julio-Claudian Robert Ripley.

Random facts from Pliny as I flip through the book:

  • An octopus in Carteia once learned to climb fences and trees!
  • A 60-foot statue at Tarentum can be rocked by hand, but it’s so carefully balanced that no storm can blow it down!
  • When tourmaline gems are heated by the sun, they will attract straw and papyrus!
  • On the day Emperor Nero’s wife died, he burned more spices than Arabia produces in a year!
  • The more walnuts one eats, the easier it is to expel tapeworms!

BELIEVE IT…OR NOT!

Posted by Ken at 9:01 pm     

March 25, 2015

Lots of words begin and end with the same pair of letters, like “eraser” and “metronome.” Can you name a major world city–one of its nation’s largest–that begins and ends with the same pair of letters, and has that same pair somewhere in the middle?

Edited to add: I was surprised there was one city like this…and in fact, there are two! skullturfq and Neel Mehta came up with them first on this thread.

Posted by Ken at 10:15 am     

March 13, 2015

Here’s a silly video where I’m a wrestler!

We made this a while ago when Trivia Death Match with Ken Jennings was new in the App Store, but for whatever reason I just saw it for the first time last week. Definitely a modern classic. “The Challenger” and I have very similar physiques but in case you’re confused, I’m the one in the red-and-yellow tights.

Get in the ring with me, iOS device havers! Bring it on!.

Posted by Ken at 11:20 am     

March 4, 2015

Wordplay Wednesday! It’s been a while.

There is only one common, uncapitalized English word that matches each of these patterns. (Though readers with expansive vocabularies may be able to think of a less common alternate or two.) Can you name all four words?

W A _ _ A _
W E _ _ A _
W I _ _ A _
W O _ _ A _

Edited to add: Answers provided by eoyount on this thread.

Posted by Ken at 8:00 am     

February 27, 2015

I’ve been annoying Twitter all day with some favorite Spock screencaps, in honor of the late great Leonard Nimoy. But you might not know that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy teamed up in prime time one not one but three different series.

Through an odd coincidence, they were both guest stars on “The Project Strigas Affair,” a 1964 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

manfromuncle

You may recall their second collaboration, Star Trek.

madmag

And in 1983, Nimoy guested on “Vengeance Is Mine,” an episode of Shatner’s cop show T. J. Hooker.

tjhooker

He’s not really dead as long as we remember him.

Posted by Ken at 6:08 pm     

February 3, 2015

Look, the fifth Junior Genius Guide is in bookstores today! I have photographic proof!

humanselfie

My author copies haven’t actually showed up in the mail yet, but I wandered over to my friend Tom Nissley’s bookstore and grabbed a copy.

This one covers The Human Body from head to toe. And it’s not a dull anatomy lesson, no. It’s crammed with amazing physiological feats and firsts, unbelievable facts about our weirdest internal workings, and, because it’s squarely aimed at ten-year-olds, lots of stuff about boogers and farts and the like.

But honestly, is there an age when boogers and farts aren’t funny? Recommended for kids of all ages, and a bargain at twice the price. Buy all five.

As I have in the past for the other five books, I’ll be blogging bonus “outtakes” from the book all month at JuniorGeniusGuides.com, if you want a free sample before you take the $8 plunge.

Posted by Ken at 10:53 pm     

January 29, 2015

I’m spending the weekend in Salt Lake City, which means I get to see a Sundance screening or two, for the first time since we moved to Seattle eight years ago!

Which reminds me: I’m actually in one movie that premiered at Sundance last week: the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, about the future of education. It’s by Greg Whiteley, who has made successful documentaries about subjects as diverse as the New York Dolls, high school debate, and Mitt Romney. I show up early in the film to talk briefly about the implications of Watson’s Jeopardy! win. I’m in the middle of watching the documentary now and it’s very slickly made and thought-provoking…look for it when it makes its inevitable debut on TV or Netflix or whatever.

Also, someone over on the message boards asked why my Kennections quiz hasn’t been appearing in Parade magazine or on Parade.com this month. My reply:

I wish I had an answer myself. Parade was sold late last year to a Tennessee-based sports media company called Athlon, which immediately fired 100% of editorial. I have yet to receive a definitive answer on Kennections, and “no answer” + time usually = “no,” but I think things are still pretty hectic over there, so who knows.

If you like Kennections, I’m sure contacting Parade to tell them so wouldn’t hurt.

So there you go.

Posted by Ken at 6:02 pm     

January 27, 2015

It’s relatively common for game shows (how many can you name?) but rare in the rest of the TV wasteland. What do these series have in common?

eight

eleven

five

four

nine

one

seven

six

ten

two

If you can name them all, what are some that I missed? Can you name a Schrodinger’s sitcom of the 1990s that both fits the category and doesn’t?

Edited to add: First solved by themanwho over on this (very entertaining) message board thread.

Posted by Ken at 5:20 pm     

January 9, 2015

Breaking Bad aired its last episode well over a year ago, but I just got the Blu-rays for Christmas and am currently doing a massive binge-watch. So pardon the nostalgia, but…

As you no doubt remember, whether you were a fan or not, the show’s protagonist is Walter White, an Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher turned meth lord. As a nod to Walt’s two jobs, the show’s credits design is based on the periodic table.

breakingbad

Every single person credited at the top of every episode has part of their names boldfaced as an IUPAC chemical symbol.

macdonald

At one point, I noticed, the show accidentally invented a chemical element (chimerium?) for the credit of DP Michael Slovis. This was soon noticed and fixed.

slovis

Slovisgate got me thinking: are there people who could not be cast/hired by Breaking Bad because their names contain no chemical symbols? And not trivial cases like Mr. T or RZA. Actual, plausible names.

There are thirteen elements with one-letter symbols, so half the alphabet is out right there. ‘A’ and ‘E’ are the only eligible vowels. But remember that many names with A’s and E’s are verboten as well. Someone named “Alex” might seem like a perfect candidates, since all four of those letters are unused by any one-letter elements. But Alexes, rejoice! Your name is Breaking Bad-eligible after all, because aluminum is Al.

Are there names that would break Breaking Bad? Bonus points if someone with that name has an IMDb entry.

Posted by Ken at 12:10 pm     

December 8, 2014

Here’s an actual photo of me taking care of today’s most important business: preparing holiday gifts for friends and loved ones!

kennyrogers

I always wear my favorite sweater for this, as you can see.

Quick reminder that signed and personalized copies of all my books are available from Seattle’s Third Place Books. What a delightful surprise under the tree! If an autographed BOOK BY ME would help with your holiday shopping list, shoot Third Place an email at booksense@thirdplacebooks.com with the details. But act quickly! Only 16 more shopping days until Christmas.

Posted by Ken at 12:58 pm     

December 1, 2014

Over on the message boards, a reader called ore read last week’s post about estimating the number of people you know using one of America’s most disgustingly ubiquitous resources: people named Mike. He or she has a concern:

One weakness of this method is that the people you know are not a random sample of the US population. For example, the people you know may (or may not) be disproportionately Utahn, college-educated, within about 10 years of your age, etc. If Michaels are more common in those groups, then a higher proportion of people you know are likely to be named Michael.

Yes! I was going to get into this in the post and didn’t for time/laziness reasons.

I’ve lived all over the U.S. and grew up overseas, so in my case the most problematic variables are probably not geographic: they are generational and racial. The 11.6/1000 “Michael ratio” is an American average, so I should expect my number to be higher if I’m not in a group that knows an unusually low number of Michaels. I imagine these people are in two groups:

1. Old folks (who mostly know or knew other old folks). Michael was not a popular name for non-Irish-Americans until the post-World War II “baby boom.”
2. Latino Americans (who mostly know or knew other Latinos). Michael is not a Hispanic name, so you’d expect many Latinos to know more Robertos (for example) than I do and fewer Michaels.

But are there cohorts with an unusually high Mike rate that might balance these out? White Catholics? African-Americans? I’m skeptical that there’s a meaningfully high-Michael-acquainted generation, since so many of the Mikes on my own list are either a generation older or younger than me. Our peer group tends to be a bell curve surrounding our own age, of course, but a pretty gradual one for must of us.

Suggestions welcome if you know a good way to estimate the result these intervening effects would have on my non-Latino, Gen-X numbers.

Update: my phone list is up to 33 Michaels I have known socially or professionally. Maybe this should be a contest.

Posted by Ken at 12:24 pm     

November 23, 2014

This article I saw last week on FiveThirtyEight.com estimated that 11.6 out of every 1,000 Americans are named Michael. That’s considerably more than any other first name, the runners-up being James (10.2 per 1,000) and John (9.7 per 1,000).

The first thing I thought of when I saw this article: if I can calculate how many Michaels I know personally, I can figure out how many total people I know! (I have no idea how meaningful this metric actually is. Feel free to chime in here, statisticians.) I’ve been keeping a list on my phone for the last week, and have managed to remember 23 different Michaels. So far. Third-grade classmates, old bosses, uncles, in-laws, neighbors.

If that number holds, I know about 2,000 people. Counting Michaels was much easier than counting everyone. It’s the Michael Method.

Posted by Ken at 7:32 pm     

November 13, 2014

WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE, REGIS PHILBINHere we go, at the last minute, and mostly because I’m feeling very guilty about deserting this blog for Twitter most of the time: I’m going to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire tomorrow, Friday! It’s a special Guinness record-holder week and they invited me on their show on the basis of some game show-related record I notched on Jeopardy! back in the day. I have dreamed of being on Millionaire since back in 1999 when I used to call the phone line every evening after work. It took fifteen years but it’s all happening!

I know what you want to ask, and I probably shouldn’t spill in advance, but okay, here goes. Terry Crews smells so nice.

BuzzerBlog just put up an interview with me (and a very pained-looking picture of me). Seriously, Millionaire, that was the best photo? We took so many photos.

Other belated news: my fourth Junior Genius Guide is in bookstores now and it’s my favorite of all of them: Outer Space. I’m such a space nerd that all this stuff came spewing out of me like ice from the cryo-volcanoes of Enceladus. If you know a junior genius, or a space case of any age, please pass one along with my compliments. (I mean compliment them on their good taste and scientific acumen. You still have to pay for the book. (But it’s so cheap! (And beautifully illustrated.)))

Posted by Ken at 8:31 pm     

October 8, 2014

We used to do more picture puzzles on this blog. BRINGING IT BACK.

Here are nine people you may or may not recognize.

one two three

four five six

seven eight nine

The question is: based on what they all have in common, you might not be surprised to learn that all these people in fact live together in the same house. What kind of house would that be?

Edited to add: You can see the answers over on the message boards. Hats off to jbenz for spotting the theme first and Lalock for figuring out the answer.

Posted by Ken at 12:03 pm     

September 17, 2014

This poor neglected blog! We moved houses over the summer and everything’s been chaos. I just got the blog unpacked. It was in the last box.

On the other hand, you didn’t really miss much. Trebek grew the mustache back.

I fulfilled my greatest lifelong dream (sorry Jeopardy!) by appearing on the cover of The Costco Connection magazine.

costcoconnection

You can read the whole interview here. Study tips!

knodgeball

I learned that I can’t think and have things thrown at me at the same time! My friend Nephi Thompson and I teamed up for Kno’dgeball at the Trivia Championships of North America last month in Vegas. Kno’dgeball is, as the name sort of but a little infelicitously implies, a combination of trivia and dodgeball played (in this case) in a very tightly restricted hotel conference room. As the father of Kno’dgeball, Bob Harris, has pointed out, it’s amazing how you can get so dumb so fast when things are flying at your head. Unless I go into some serious training, your Grandma could probably beat me at Kno’dgeball.

(TCONA 4 was a blast, by the way…great to see my Jeopardy! frenemy Brad Rutter and so many other quiz luminaries in one place. It’s not too early to get TCONA on your calendar for next year…there’s a discount for early sign-up.)

spacecoverI wrote two more Junior Genius Books! (Well, I’m in the middle of the last one now. HOW WERE THERE SO MANY DINOSAURS.) Outer Space comes out in less than a month! Pre-order now!!!!

Wordplay Wednesday! Geography, shocker. There’s a well-known island whose names is an anagram of a nearby (well, 1,000 miles or so) world capital. What are the island and the city?

Edited to add: at8ax was the first to solve, nicely done.

Posted by Ken at 11:39 am     

July 31, 2014

TCONA4-Logo-V2.svg_

It’s getting dangerously close to the very last minute to register for TCONA, the Trivia Championships of North America, to be held August 8-10 in sunny Las Vegas! You won’t know it’s sunny. You won’t even go outside. There will be so many different kinds of quiz games going on you’ll barely have time for basic bodily functions.

I will be there! (I have tickets to the Cirque de Soleil Beatles show with my kids.) Brad Rutter will be there! (He likes blackjack and strippers.) Many, many other familiar faces from the world of game shows and trivia will be there! If you have enough of an interest in quiz stuff to be reading this website, you should probably be there too.

Here’s what I said about the first TCONA way back in 2011. (Short version: I said it was a blast.)

Sign up now at the Quizzing North America website. I’ll see you there…don’t forget to come up and say hi at a urinal or something.

Posted by Ken at 9:18 pm     

July 22, 2014

Okay, we are finally back from a month in Spain and Britain that kept me away from the blog pretty efficiently. On the plus side, lots of time in planes and cars meant I got to catch up on some reading. Here’s the full log:

  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. Seriocomic account of a fictional kid riding through Kansas and Virginia with abolitionist John Brown. McBride obviously takes great pleasure in the colorful way Americans talked then, or at least they way we would like to believe they did.
  • A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. I saw Dave Eggers speak a couple months ago and I guess they’re filming this with Tom Hanks? Nice.
  • Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. A DeLillo-like explosion of things happening on both sides of the Atlantic on the same day in 1974 that that French guy tightroped across the World Trade Center.
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s great strength is his insight into the inner workings of a great alien mystery: the minds of little children. Love that this is framed as a memoir, like a couple of his early comics.
  • The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. What would suburbia be like three years after the Rapture, or something very much like it? Better than the subsequent HBO series.

I can recommend all five of these books unreservedly, but if I had to pick just one it would probably be the Perrotta. We are lucky to have that guy.

Continuing my recent streak of playing literary chronology cop: I noticed an anachronism in the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin: as her kids watch Sesame Street, a mom and her lover joke about characters like “Elmo” and “Grouchy.” The problem: this conversation is dated specifically as taking place the Thursday before the World Trade Center tightrope act. It’s August 1, 1974. Elmo made his Sesame Street debut using that name over a decade later, in late 1985. He slowly grew into a breakout franchise character over the following decade. Once again: authors of 20th-century historical novels, I beg of you, show me your manuscripts. I can help.

When I got home, I also had two books waiting for me in my mailbox because I liked them very much and wrote cover blurbs for them. Geography nerds (and true-crime nerds, but mostly geography nerds) should definitely read Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief, a profile of Forbes Smiley, the crooked map dealer whose case was mentioned briefly in my book Maphead. And please read Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price whether or not you’re interested in old blues 78 records. Believe me, by the time you get done, you will be interested in old blues 78 records. At least a little.

Posted by Ken at 12:31 pm     

June 30, 2014

Hey! I finally got ten seconds to breathe and decided to spend it giving the ol’ blog its annual update. Here’s something new from the Internet this morning: Smithsonian magazine has a section this month about games and play and asked me to put together a little puzzle on the subject. It’s fun!

What about an even littler puzzle? It’s time for an early round of Wordplay Wednesday! I’m traveling this month with my family and this was inspired by a recent visit to a favorite city.

There’s a major world city whose name, when spelled backward, can be split into two words that are both animals. In fact, both are cold-blooded little creepy-crawlies that might leave you with a sore finger if you’re not careful around them. What’s the city?

Posted by Ken at 12:54 pm     

May 29, 2014

I saw this chart on the Internet a couple weeks ago, and realized it made a pretty good trivia question if you removed the caption.

What is being graphed here?

graph

Edited to add: Correctly solved by econgator over on the message boards. Linky here.

Posted by Ken at 5:25 pm     

May 24, 2014

I had to fly to New York this week, and that’s a long flight from Seattle, so I got to finally finish some books I started over a month ago.

Both were very good, and I recommend them to your attention if you’re looking for a novel. But I noticed a weird anachronism in both.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: In 1910, a character makes a joke about The House at Pooh Corner, a book that came out in 1928.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. In 1981, a character nicknames her boyfriend “Chia Pet.” Chia Pet wasn’t a widely available brand (i.e. well-known enough to be in the cultural vocab) until 1982 at the earliest, probably later.

I feel like I have a weird talent for this. I have Spider-Sense that goes off if a character in a book or TV show says “It’s all good” five years too early. Publishers should hire me for this. Ken the Kronology Kop.

Posted by Ken at 10:27 am     

May 21, 2014

At long last: the return of Wordplay Wednesday!

What do these words all have in common? Which one doesn’t quite belong?
ACHIER
CANNY
GOOP
HOSE
OIL
RAINBELL
RHOMBOIDAL
RUSTIC
SOUP
UNTAPES
YACHT

Edited to add: UNTAPES is the one that doesn’t belong, as eoyount and others explain. Then Bill pointed out that skullturfq came up with the exact same puzzle idea back in 2008! Oops.

Posted by Ken at 11:34 pm     

May 17, 2014

albrightriceSo I had a great time at the 30th anniversary Jeopardy! tournament that just wrapped up. Such a pleasure just to spend the day with Jeopardy! elite like Brad, Roger, Chuck, Pam, Colby, et al, not to mention getting to play some of them as well. It only happens once in a great many years, so I try to enjoy when I can.

The brain-hiccup on the final question that lost me the million wasn’t my favorite moment, obviously, but there was something even worse to come: filling out the questionnaire for the Jeopardy! press release! But my loss is your gain, because here are my answers, roughly zero percent of which probably made the actual press release.

Please confirm your full name, age, occupation and hometown (originally from and current location if you have moved to a different city, town, state, etc)

Kenneth Wayne Jennings III, 39, writer, Seattle (“Salt Lake City” when I was first on)

Ken, how did it feel to step back onto the Jeopardy! stage and to hear Johnny Gilbert announce your name again?

It’s funny–I was really nervous that morning and even when Johnny Gilbert was doing the intros, but then during the game it was just like riding a bike, I picked it right up. “Oh yeah, this thing. I remember this, this is fun!”

Since we last spoke from our telephone interview – did you end up studying or doing anything special to prepare for this main competition?

I brushed up on a few things I was rusty on, like presidential dates and classical composers. Mostly I just started watching the show at home VERY seriously, trying to really get inside Alex’s timing and rhythm.

Regarding strategy: did you have one coming into this competition or did your strategy change as you started to advance in the tournament, especially during the finals with Brad and Roger?

Strategy has to change in different rounds of a tournament like this one. Early on I wanted to get out of the gate so strong that opponents would never get on their games. Big Daily Doubles wagers, that kind of thing. But in a final against players like Brad and Roger, all bets are off. The buzzer timing that beats everyone else won’t beat them, so you have to tighten up. You can’t count on being the only one in on the hardest clues. You’re really just scrambling and hoping you survive.

Two things I noticed about both you and Brad is how quick you two are with the signaling device and when it comes to the Daily Doubles, you both bet huge $$ amounts. Can you explain a little bit about both – for example, do you practice buzzing in? Do you get nervous betting such a huge $$ amount during the Daily Doubles?

It’s nerve-wracking to bet big on Daily Doubles, so you rarely see it on the show unless someone is trying to catch up from second or third. But even if it’s stressful, going big is usually the right play. Daily Doubles are typically much easier than Final Jeopardy, so you’re choosing: do I want the game to be decided by this clue, or the hard one at the end? I do practice buzzing when I watch the show at home, just trying to get Alex’s timing into my system so that it’s almost unconscious. When I’m on set and I have to stop and think about the buzzer, things go badly. It’s a Zen thing, I can only do it when I’m not thinking about it.

How did it feel to win your first Jeopardy! quarter-final match against Rachael Schwartz and Tom Cubbage?

I felt like I dodged a bullet by getting some breaks. I found a Daily Double that I didn’t know, but it came so early that I didn’t lose much. Rachael, and not Tom (who could have caught me) found the second one–which I also might have missed, I think. Then I had to bet big on the third one and the answer came to me at the last minute. Once the Daily Doubles were gone I remember feeling so relaxed, like “Okay, now we can just play Jeopardy.” Technically that game was a runaway but it felt pretty close to me. Tom and Rachael are the real deal.

Ken, what impressed me the most about you throughout this tournament was in the category “INITIALS TO ROMAN NUMERALS TO NUMBERS.” I mean mere mortals like me – I didn’t even understand the category to let alone guess the correct response! I believe even other Decades contestants who were watching your match were equally impressed. I mean you swept that whole category! This category came so easily to you…please explain.

I always liked word games and stuff like that as a kid. My dad and I used to do the “Jumble” in the evening paper when he got home from work, I remember that. To this day I do an occasional crossword and sometimes design puzzles for magazines. So I’ve always liked Jeopardy! categories where you have to figure out a set of rules. It’s just a puzzle and the puzzle is the category. Solve the puzzle and the clues are almost automatic. Also I like these categories because I know Watson sucks at them.

How did it feel to win your semi-final match against Chuck Forrest and Russ Schumacher? Because, after you missed on a Daily Double question, it ended up to be a very close game between you and Chuck. I believe I was on the edge of my seat to see what would happen next in the Final Jeopardy! round.

After that early lead at the second commercial, I remember being really relieved. Good, I don’t have to worry about losing on a hard Final! Then there was that Daily Double where I had a 50/50 choice and guessed the wrong Antarctic explorer, and then Chuck found his buzzer timing in Double Jeopardy. That guy is amazing, unstoppable in 1985 (!) and he can still turn it on. That would be like Jimmy Connors coming back to tennis today and making a run at the US Open. Chuck is ageless.

What were you feeling/thinking when you realized that you will be competing against Brad (which I believe for the 3rd time in a tournament setting – besides UTOC and Watson) and Roger during the 2-day finals?

In my head, that was the nightmare match-up, the hardest possible final. Roger’s very dangerous because he’ll bet so big that he can blow out anybody, no matter how good, if he gets some breaks. Brad is Brad: a Jedi on the buzzer, and the best Final Jeopardy player I’ve ever seen. Never loses his cool in Final. I couldn’t believe nobody had knocked off one of those guys for me. I’m sure they were thinking the same thing about me.

I know viewers are going to be very excited to see you and Brad compete against each other, however what viewers don’t see is how well you two get along off camera. Can you describe your relationship? I believe you guys follow each other on Twitter and possibly Facebook? And how did you get along with the rest of the Decades contestants?

I had so much fun at the Decades tournament because, believe it or not, it was my first time getting the whole Jeopardy tourney ride and hanging out with the other players all day. They are just exceptional people. There’s a million bucks on the line and you keep expecting SOMEONE to be a jerk, but then everyone is so nice. It almost restores your faith in humankind. Brad and I in particular have been through the Jeopardy! wringer together before and have bonded. It’s weird because we’re sort of different (I’m a boring suburban dad in Seattle who hates L.A., Brad enjoys the debauched single L.A. lifestyle made popular by TV’s Entourage) but on a Jeopardy! set we are the same guy: we love playing the game more than anything else, win or lose. He’s a class act.

What were you feeling or thinking during your 2-day finals? I know during the Final Jeopardy! portion of day-two of the finals – there was a lot of strategy & calculation involved, especially between you and Brad. What went into your betting strategy? And will the Final Jeopardy! clue regarding “Secretaries of State” haunt you?

By the end of the second game, it was a mad scramble. I didn’t even know until I started crunching numbers during the break that I had the math advantage going into Final. That final will haunt me, because it’s the first time I’ve ever lost a tight game like that on a question I feel I should have known, which is a tough way to lose. It took me a few seconds too long to come up with James Buchanan, and then I rushed the math on the second part…knew it must be one of the women, picked the wrong one. Brad’s so good that you don’t get too many chances like that…I had him where I wanted him and I let him slip away! The guy’s got nine lives.

With your $100,000 cash prize – you have now accumulated approximately $3,270,700! And your 74-game record will most likely never be defeated. How does that feel? And what are you going to do with the $100,000?

It’s easy to say when you’ve already won the money, but I can honestly say I have never once thought about the money while I was playing Jeopardy! It’s all about the game, seeing what you can do out there, and I’d play for car-wash coupons, honestly.

What did you do to celebrate after your Decades win – besides attending the J! after party?

Feel free to send this one to Brad. Actually, I know where he was: sitting in the hotel lobby shooting the Jeopardy! bull with me and the rest of the runners-up and putting their drinks on his tab. Like I say, class act.

Did any particular category give you a hard time or vice versa? And, how much more difficult was the game material during this competition?

These were very difficult boards, especially the two-day final. I remember just being exhausted at the end of the day, when back in 2004 I would get done with game 5 and still be so amped, like “Let’s do five more!” But maybe that’s just me getting old. The hardest category was probably one about popes where I think I legitimately knew, like, one of five. Yikes. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a COOL pope like you kids have today.

What was the highlight or your favorite moment during the Decades tournament?

Weirdly, it was probably about midway through my very first game, when I knew I had it locked up. It was my first time playing real (non-Watson) Jeopardy! in almost a decade, and I’m older now. Also I was the only person there never to play in a Tournament of Champions, so I always sort of wondered if I could play my game against really elite players. This isn’t false modesty, I genuinely didn’t know, because I’d never tried. But ten minutes into that game, I remember thinking, “Win or lose, I know I can play at this level now.”

How did it feel to face Alex Trebek face-to-face all over again?

Back in 2004, Alex was an enigma to me. I often wondered if he liked me or if he was sick of me not getting off his set. (He was always perfectly polite, this was just me projecting.) But when I come back now, I feel like it’s a warm welcome from Alex, which is a real honor. He always seems genuinely glad to have me back, like it’s a real highlight for him. I guess what I’m saying is I have a little crush on Alex. Did you ask him this same question? Wait, what did he say? Tell me exactly what he said.

How do you think your family members, friends and your hometown of Seattle will react to your success on the show?

I had a lot of family in-studio that day and they were so excited. Despite the tough loss in the final, they really had a great time. I imagine they were fondly reliving their own memories of the first time I was on the show. I know I was. Then when the games aired, people on social media seemed so excited to have me back, like it was real event television for them, even ten years later. Twitter blew up. It might sound weird, but I was really touched by that.

How did it feel to have your son in the studio audience watching you play in the Decades tournament? I’m assuming your son will want to tryout one day as an adult? I remember you mentioning it to Alex that he wants to tryout as an adult – not during Kids Week or etc.

My 11-year-old was in the studio audience and he was so excited. It was bigger than Disneyland for him. He was too little to remember my first go-around on the show and I’m glad he got a second chance to make some Jeopardy! memories. Will he ever go on the show? He talks very seriously about it. I hope he knows that it’s not like being King of England, he doesn’t get to do it just because his dad did. He better study up.

Any advice to future J! contestants on how to be a successful J! player?

The main thing, which no one ever talks about, it to have fun with it. I’ve won on Jeopardy! and I’ve lost on Jeopardy! and winning is better, but any time you’re on that show, it’s a blast. So if you’ve been thinking about trying out for Jeopardy! (a) you should totally do it, and (b) don’t get all caught up in winning or losing, but just enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of it. It’s a great ride. If you’re loose and having fun, you will also play so much better.

Please confirm your major(s)/minor(s), degree(s) and where you went to school once more.

University of Washington and Brigham Young, double major, BS in Computer Science, BA in English

A fun question for you – if you ever end up competing against Brad Rutter again in another tournament – what should it be called?

“In the Gutter with Rutter.” Brad and I play a vicious two-man game of street Jeopardy! around the clock until one of us collapses. Anything goes. The loser must retire from game shows forever. Terry Crews hosts. (TV-MA)

Why do you think Jeopardy! matters?

Jeopardy! matters because it’s such a ritual for millions of people. I mean, it’s nice that there’s still such a smart show on the air and kids get to see people succeed for knowing things, blah blah blah. But the REAL value of Jeopardy! is the families that watch it together every day, the people who plan their evening around it. It’s their little tradition. You can’t put a price on having some little thing like that in your day, when everything else is so unpredictable. It’s a constant in their lives, they know it so well. How many other things from 30 or 50 years ago are still around unchanged in our culture? Almost nothing.

Any fun facts or hobbies you can tell me about that would be interesting to include in the release? A hidden talent? Etc.

A secret about me: I make my living as a writer but you can get me to knock out almost 2,000 words for free if you call them “press release questions.”

Posted by Ken at 11:58 am     

May 15, 2014

You’re probably already aware, but tonight we begin the long-awaited finals of Jeopardy!‘s 30th anniversary “Battle of the Decades.” There’s a notable lack of upsets among the finalists: Brad Rutter, Roger Craig, and I all won out (though not without suspense). I have to say this surprised the hell out of me. With all the luck that goes into a Jeopardy! win (believe me, I’m speaking from experience here) I thought the results would be a lot less predictable at this level of play.

This was my Jeopardy! tournament cherry (I can’t really count the abbreviated finals of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions or the Watson match) and it was as great as everyone says, just hanging out with everybody, meeting all my favorites from back in the day, etc. It was nice to see for the first time that (a) I could compete against top-level players and (b) I hadn’t lost too much of a step in the ten years since I was first on the show.

The two-game final is a doozie, by the way. Tune in.

But here’s a much more important game of Jeopardy! I got asked last week to host the announcement party for the music lineup at this summer’s Bumbershoot festival here in Seattle. With a little time to kill between the two music acts, I suggested a music-themed game show. We ended up playing a little mock game of Bumbershoot Jeopardy! with three contestants drawn randomly from the crowd. One lucky winner would receive a pair of coveted Platinum Passes to Bumbershoot!

bumberdy

The categories were pretty Seattle-centric, but I still thought you might have fun playing along at home.

board

The announcement show was called the “Pink and Purple Party” for reasons of both alliteration and branding, which hopefully explains a few things. The “Last Year’s Model” category focuses on the lineup for Bumbershoot 2013. (At the time we played the game, we hadn’t unveiled the video with the 2014 lineup yet.) “Seattle Venues,” a video category, will probably be pretty opaque to non-locals.

NORTHWEST MUSIC

$100: LEGEND HAS IT THAT SOUNDGARDEN’S BIGGEST HIT IS NAMED FOR “BLACK SUN,” THE ICONIC DONUT-SHAPED STATUE IN THIS CAPITOL HILL PARK

$200: IN CONCERT, BRANDI CARLILE OFTEN COVERS “CRAZY” AS A TRIBUTE TO THIS COUNTRY SINGER, HER IDOL, WHO DIED IN A 1963 PLANE CRASH

$300: BY ITSELF, THIS WORD NAMES A ROCK DUO FROM BELLEVUE; WITH “THE HEAD,” IT’S A 6-PIECE FROM BALLARD

$400: THE ADVICE THAT MODEST MOUSE OFFERS ANYONE WHO BACKS INTO A COP CAR OR GETS CONNED BY A JAMAICAN

$500: THIS SEATTLE HIP-HOP COLLECTIVE IS NAMED FOR AN AFRICAN TRIBE IN NATION OF ISLAM BELIEF

LAST YEAR’S MODEL

$100: LAST SEPTEMBER, THIS “WE ARE YOUNG” TRIO WAS EVEN YOUNGER, BUT NO LESS lower-case.

$200: THIS GOOD KID, M.A.A.D. CITY MC GOT THROUGH HIS SATURDAY MAINSTAGE SET WITHOUT MACKLEMORE TEXTING HIM ONCE

$300: YOU COULD REFER TO THIS DUO AS THE QUIN SISTERS FROM CALGARY, BUT YOU’D BE “CLOSER” IF YOU BILLED THEM UNDER THIS NAME

$400: DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE PLAYED THIS 2003 ALBUM, NAMED FOR AN OCEAN-WIDE GAP BETWEEN 2 LOVERS, IN ITS ENTIRETY

$500: 2013 WAS THE “TIME OF THE SEASON” FOR THIS BELOVED BRITISH INVASION BAND TO RISE FROM THE DEAD

SEATTLE VENUES

$100:
crocodile

$200:
tractor

$300:
chopsuey

$400:
showbox

$500:
tripledoor

“PINK”

$100: THE PACIFIC SCIENCE CENTER LASER DOME SHOWCASES THIS BAND NO LESS THAN 6 TIMES EVERY WEEKEND—THANKS, WEED LEGALIZATION!

$200: THIS PSYCHEDELIC FURS HIT INSPIRED THE 1986 FILM OF THE SAME NAME—BUT ITS LYRICS NEVER MENTION DUCKIE

$300: THIS NICK DRAKE SONG “CRATERED” COMMERCIALLY IN 1972, BUT WAS REVIVED IN A 1999 VW CABRIOLET AD

$400: A NICKI MINAJ DOLL WEARS A WIG AND STILETTOS OF THE TITLE COLOR ON THIS, HER DEBUT ALBUM

$500: “PINK TRIANGLE” APPEARS ON THIS SOPHOMORE SLUMP OF A WEEZER ALBUM, NAMED FOR A SAILOR IN MADAME BUTTERFLY

PURPLE

$100: “EXCUSE ME WHILE I KISS” THIS GUY, THE SEATTLE GUITAR GOD WHO GAVE US “PURPLE HAZE”

$200: THIS REFERENCE BOOK CERTIFIED DEEP PURPLE AS “THE GLOBE’S LOUDEST BAND” IN 1975

$300: WHEN THIS 5’6” THA CARTER RAPPER WAS HOSPITALIZED LAST YEAR, THE MEDIA BLAMED “PURPLE DRANK”

$400: HEY, JEROME! THIS LEAD SINGER OF THE TIME WAS PRINCE’S NEMESIS IN THE MOVIE PURPLE RAIN

$500: THIS NOISE-POP DUO BEHIND “RILL RILL” & “COMEBACK KID” PUT PHOTOS OF DEREK MILLER’S GRANDPA’S PURPLE HEART IN THEIR CD REIGN OF TERROR

No Daily Doubles or Double Bumberdy round. We went straight to Final Bumberdy…in this category!

fjcategory

fjclue

You have thirty seconds. (Answers for the whole game can be found here, by the way.)

Overall, the game material skewed a little bit rock-snob, so I was worried when I found out the contestants were going to be randomly selected audience members. Through the luck of the draw, one of our three players turned out to be a College Jeopardy! semi-finalist from 2005, who waltzed off with the game. Congrats, Amanda!

Seattle: I’ll see you at Bumbershoot!

Posted by Ken at 2:25 pm     

May 13, 2014

When I was ten or eleven years old, I watched Jeopardy! pretty religiously. The first contestant that ever made me say, “Whoa, wait, who is this guy?” was a law student named Chuck Forrest. He played innovatively (he was the first to consider unorthodox clue selection order for strategic reasons, and his signature move is still called the Forrest Bounce), he played effortlessly, and he was unstoppable.

Before Chuck, the people on the show seemed completely interchangeable to me. He made me want to be a Jeopardy! contestant.

Through one of those weirdnesses of life, I got to play Chuck on Jeopardy! last night and it turns out he is some kind of ageless wizard and still a top-notch Jeopardy! player almost thirty years later. Also: a real funny, genuine guy.

I got him (and co-author Mark Lowenthal!) to sign their book for me backstage before our game.

secrets

Lots of great memories from the tournament, but that’s clearly the best souvenir.

Posted by Ken at 10:17 am