Ken Jennings


October 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ken at 11:25 am     

September 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ken at 1:15 pm     

September 21, 2015

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

jgegypt1 jgmaps1

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

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

Posted by Ken at 10:25 am     

September 15, 2015


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

Did you know that, in ancient Egypt…

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ken at 7:08 pm     

September 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ken at 1:35 pm     

September 1, 2015

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

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

If you don’t receive the weekly Tuesday Trivia email, it’s fun and free. Sign up in the box at left.

Posted by Ken at 10:00 am     

August 31, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ken at 11:29 am     

August 19, 2015

Making its long-awaited return!

Tough one. What do these words have in common?

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

Posted by Ken at 11:32 am     

August 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ken at 10:45 am     

May 28, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ken at 10:08 am     

May 12, 2015

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

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

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

Here’s your occasional reminder that I also write a weekly column for, 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 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!


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!


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.


You may recall their second collaboration, Star Trek.


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


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!


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, 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 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?











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.


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


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.


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!


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 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 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.


You can read the whole interview here. Study tips!


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