Ken Jennings


February 25, 2011

I imagine public interest in the idea of IBM software winning a quiz show is starting to wane–and remember, I taped these shows a month in advance, so I’m thirty days ahead of the attention-waning curve. Here, while anybody might still care, are six Watson stories I never told.

1. IBM research labs have no dressing rooms for some reason! As a result, Brad Rutter and I took over two HR conference rooms to change clothes, get made up, etc. I’ve already emailed the HR department a little chart showing which parts of their desks I sat on naked. Sorry guys! Hope the basket of muffins made up for it. Also, the whole place was designed by superstar midcentury architect Eero Saarinen…but it’s got like two men’s rooms in it. What, in Finland nobody needs to pee? Because Brad and I were supposed to be strictly sequestered from the Watson team, keeping IBMers out of “our” men’s room became a full-time job for the contestant coordinators. One guy who got yelled for trying to use his own restroom turned out to be senior vice president John E. Kelly III. “I don’t think anyone’s said no to him in years!” said one white-faced IBM employee.

2. Watson is mostly written in Java. After one of the practice games wound up, I sat down in the auditorium behind Watson’s operators, hoping to sneak a peek at what they were up to. The first thing I saw was a whomping Java error trace someone was trying to debug. As a Java programmer for many years, this was both exciting and horrifying: my own tools had turned on me! Luckily, like any good craftsman, I choose not to blame my Yogi Berra.

3. Garry Kasparov didn’t make the cut. In the first game, Watson nailed a clue about Garry Kasparov’s defeat at the “hands” of Deep Blue, eliciting a burst of applause from the deeply-in-the-tank studio audience. Unfortunately, home viewers never got to see this IBM bloodlust in action. The Kasparov clue, like maybe half a dozen others over the course of the taping, had to be tossed out for technical reasons. The Jeopardy! crew’s 26 years of experience doing their show means they normally run a pretty tight ship, but the added complications of (a) doing the show on the road, and (b) connecting to a computer opponent for the first time meant endless glitches. I think Brad and I both wonder if I we could have eased into a better buzzer rhythm if we hadn’t had to stop tape every category or two.

4. Jerome Vered was pissed. I wrote in Slate that I was the first human made obsolete by Watson, but that’s not strictly true. Jerome Vered has that honor. You may recall that the last time Brad and I played Jeopardy! was the finals of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions, in which the third man was L.A. gadabout and quiz show veteran Jerome Vered. One of the Jeopardy! contestant coordinators said that, just hours after the lineup for the Watson match was announced, she got an email from Jerome: “So you replaced me with a computer?!?” For some reason I like to imagine him saying this with gloomy equanimity, like Eeyore.

5. Alex Trebek was pissed. Between the practice rounds and the televised game, Watson switched up its strategy dramatically–most notably, it started hunting for Daily Doubles instead of marching down the categories in order. The reason was simple: Watson comes with a practice mode and a game mode, and it wasn’t playing in game mode yet. I don’t think Brad or I felt like this was unfair–after all, we could have concealed strategy from Watson in the practice rounds as well–but some of the Jeopardy! powers-that-be felt the change-up was a bit of a hustle, since presumably one of the reasons for the practice rounds was to let us see Watson’s gameplay in action. “Alex is pissed,” Stephen Baker told me the weekend after the taping, right after he got off the phone with a still-hot-under-the-collar Trebek.

6. Alex Trebek was messing with my head! Jeopardy! “Clue Crew” stalwart Jimmy McGuire stood in for Alex as host of the practice rounds, so that audiences seeing clips wouldn’t assume they were watching the actual match. Alex, though, was so interested in watching Watson in action that he drifted into the crowd in his shirtsleeves and watched the practice rounds from the front row. This was oddly disconcerting! “Alex, I can’t play with you watching!” I shouted to him. “You’re in the wrong spot.” It was, I thought, exactly like trying to pee at a urinal with someone watching you. Or with a Jeopardy! contestant coordinator kicking you out of the men’s room, I suppose.

(Watson likeness by Matt “Matsby” Page.)

Posted by Ken at 12:48 pm     

February 23, 2011

Another ten-week total-point challenge has ended in Ken Jennings’s Tuesday Trivia, our weekly email trivia quiz. (See sidebar at left if you haven’t signed up yet.) I just posted the final scoreboard over on the message boards. (Thanks for grading, Lilly! Lilly sells fleece diapers here, by the way.) The “what do they have in common?” Question Seven questions must have been a bit harder than usual this time out, as the top scorers are Keith Moser and Paul Sheppard, both of whom notched eight out of ten.

I believe Keith was our last winner, so in a totally arbitrary and unfair tiebreaker, I’m awarding the signed copy of a Ken Jennings trivia book to Paul Sheppard. In ten weeks, could you be our next winner? Shoot your Tuesday Trivia answers to tuesdaytrivia this web domain and find out.

Posted by Ken at 2:37 pm     

February 22, 2011

Really, grocery vandals. You can summon up the strength to scratch the ‘H’ off of the HASS AVOCADOS, but can’t think of anything funny to do with the adjacent SHISHITO PEPPERS?

That is just lazy work.

(PS for word nerds: I took these pictures at a New York establishment that is sort of interesting…you can transform the name of the market into the name of its famous owner by getting rid of two little lines and adding two little curves.)

Posted by Ken at 12:18 pm     

February 21, 2011

Much of the conversation about last week’s supercomputer smackdown on Jeopardy! has revolved around Watson‘s prodigious buzzer advantage. In the second game, for example, Watson answered 23 of the 30 clues on the board. I’m not really sure if I ever had a 23-answer round while I was on Jeopardy!, but if I did, it sure as hell wasn’t against Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. Watson was very, very fast.

Some have called this an unfair advantage; I’m inclined to think of it as a fair one. (The headline writer at the Daily News didn’t get the memo.) Obviously, computers have faster reflexes than humans do. Why should Watson have to handicap its greatest advantage? That’s the nature of the beast if you’re playing a computer. I compared it once to Deep Blue beating Kasparov: no one ever suggested that Deep Blue should limit itself to a three- to five-move lookahead, just because human brains are incapable of consistently doing better than that. To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin: let Watson be Watson.

But it’s certainly true that Watson needed that speed advantage to hang with top human players. Over on the message boards, IBM’s Chris Welty points out that a buzzer-free version of Jeopardy! would have been less computationally interesting to Big Blue, since it removes the computer’s need to rate its confidence in its own answers. (He doesn’t mention that a buzzer-free game would also have been suboptimal for IBM in that (a) it would have made for boring TV, and (b) Watson would have lost such a game essentially every time.)

I don’t like the suggestion that Watson’s speed should have been handicapped by, for example, introducing a random delay. And the much-bitched-about fact that Watson received the clues electronically is a red herring; there’s no advantage to be had there, because the Jeopardy! buzzers aren’t activated until Trebek finishes reading the question anyway.

But I can think of two better approaches to leveling the playing field buzzer-wise, should anyone want to try a Watson-like challenge in their basement or garage sometime.

  1. Remove the Extra Human. Jeopardy! viewers know that there are four humans involved in each clue: the host, and the three players. But in fact, a fifth human is just as important: the anonymous staff member (I think it might still be researcher Ryan Haas) who manually activates the buzzer after Trebek finishes reading each clue. If you buzz in before Anonymous Human activates the buzzers, you get locked out for a fraction of a second and are pretty much doomed. When A.H. flips his switch, less than a syllable after Trebek gets done reading the clue, some lights around the game board turn on to let you know it’s time to buzz. In theory you’re supposed to wait for these lights; in practice, the really good contestants try to anticipate them. A.H. is very good and very consistent, but he is human, so there are tiny variations in his timing. These variations never affected Watson (who can pounce so fast it doesn’t need to anticipate) but could submarine its human opponents (who will never beat Watson if they don’t anticipate, and rarely even if they do). If the A.H. were replaced–say, by voice recognition software keying precisely off of Alex’s voice–then humans could try to master that now-fixed interval. We might even have a fighting chance against Watson.
  2. Make Watson “Anticipate the Lights.” Alternately, you could have Watson anticipate as well, rather than pouncing. Get rid of the in-studio lights and the electronic “go” signal for the computer. Feed Watson the clue electronically, but also give it speech-recognition capabilities. It would be able to track Trebek’s voice as the end of the question approached, just like Brad and I were doing, and then try to time its buzz a split second after Trebek got done. Because of A.H.’s slight variability, it could buzz as optimally as possible but it would still be a little early sometimes and a little late at other times–just like a good human buzzer.

I figure either of these fixes would do the job: human superiority would be rightfully established on game shows, just like God intended. Alternately, I guess you could level the playing field like this.

Posted by Ken at 3:22 pm     

February 17, 2011

After the Watson match ended–in the thrill of victory, everyone at IBM agreed–I walked into the celebratory reception, only to be greeted by ex-IBMer and Millionaire megachamp Ed Toutant. “How does it feel to be the only consecutive five-game loser in Jeopardy! history?” he asked.

Some might have been annoyed, but I had to laugh pretty hard at this. Also, I think it might be six consecutive losses.

I’m flying home today, so I don’t have much time to recap the match, but in the meantime you can check out my behind-the-scenes look at the game on Slate and my Kasparov-lite anti-computer bile in the Daily News.

Posted by Ken at 11:24 am     

February 15, 2011

I’ll be talking Watson today on MSNBC’s Jansing & Co., CNN’s American Morning and Newsroom, and NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Oh, and a live chat at from 11 to noon Eastern.

Updated to add: The Newsroom hit got moved later to during my TotN slot, so Newsroom is just Brad now.

Re-updated to add:. Also the CBS Evening News, just added.

Posted by Ken at 7:47 am     

February 14, 2011

For the first time in history, a player with no pulse will take the podium on Jeopardy! tonight. (Well, for the second time if you count Wolf Blitzer.)

On Twitter, Watson (okay, his human handlers) have said that video will be posted on Watson’s website on Thursday, for those unable to watch one or more of the games live. You know: non-Americans, the gainfully employed, the Tivo-less, those with significant others expecting a romantic night out tonight instead of a quiz show, etc.

Fellow carbon-based lifeforms: Brad Rutter and I appreciate your support. Consider every clue we answer another blow against your most hated machine: that copier that always paper-jams, that video driver that Windows won’t recognize, the waffle iron light that only comes on once breakfast is burned, the super-intelligent movie computer that goes nuts and tries to launch the missiles.

WE ARE ALL OF YOU! The tyranny ends here!

Posted by Ken at 1:22 pm     

February 11, 2011

With just hours to go until next week’s historic man-vs.-machine Jeopardy! match (Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, check local listings), the venerable quiz show is experiencing a burst of media “it”-ness to dwarf even the summer of 2004, when a young computer programmer from Salt Lake City taught us how to love…again.

There are pieces on Jeopardy! and IBM’s Watson computer in USA Today and and The Washington Post this morning, with dozens more to come. I should know, I spent all week doing the necessary interviews. (As celebrity interviews go, Watson is right up with there with Harrison Ford, so Brad and I had to take one for the team here.)

But I knew everything had really changed when I heard a few minutes ago that Mubarak had stepped down in Egypt. I hopped over to to check out their latest Cairo coverage. The top two pieces on Slate at the moment were both profiles of the “J-Archive,” an on-line database of Jeopardy! clues. (I admit I wondered if the J-Archive’s probably-not-fair-use of 25 years of Jeopardy! IP really wanted this kind of scrutiny…hopefully the Sony lawyers doesn’t mind.)

Welcome to planet Jeopardy!

Posted by Ken at 10:58 am     

February 10, 2011

What do “Murder Mystery,” “Etropolis,” and “Trek the Motion Picture” have in common? Take a second to think about it. I’ll wait.

Movie geeks may have realized that these are each a movie title by a certain director, with another movie by the same director removed. “Murder Mystery” is Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery minus Manhattan, “Etropolis” is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis minus M, and “Trek the Motion Picture” is Robert Wise’s endless Star Trek movie minus his endless Julie Andrews musical Star!

Can you add to the list? (Sequels don’t count, obviously.) Are there other pairs involving the same actor rather than the same director?

Posted by Ken at 11:20 am     

February 9, 2011

Public service announcement: IBM’s Watson is being profiled on PBS’s Nova tonight (at 10pm most everywhere, I think, but check local listings).

As you can see from this preview, I’m interviewed on its chances.

Posted by Ken at 2:16 pm     

February 8, 2011

Ed wants to know:

I have a question I’d like to ask, if I may. When Alex tells you the category for Final Jeopardy when you make your wager but before the question, are you also able to write “What is” to begin your answer? Or do you have to wait until you get the question to begin? It seems like that would be a few seconds longer to think if you’re having a difficult time with the answer.

During the commercial break before Final Jeopardy, the show stops tape so that the contestants have all the time they need to make their wagers. Once wagers are locked in, contestants are instructed to write the correct question word (“Who” or “What,” depending) on their panels. (No “is”/”are”/”was”/”were” though! No hints on era or number are forthcoming.)

It’s true that this gives you more time to think/write once the clue is revealed and the music starts, but I think the real rationale behind the rule is to keep a nervous contestant from accidentally omitting the “who” or “what” in Final Jeopardy. I’m hazy on the details, but I believe that at least once in the early Trebek days (before contestants were instructed to pre-write the question phrasing) someone lost a game despite a correct Final Jeopardy answer because they didn’t PIITFOAQ. (This acronym, pronounced “pit-folk,” is how in-the-know Jeopardy! types abbreviate “phrase it in the form of a question.”) To avoid another audience-aggravating event of that kind, they started prompting for the “Who” and “What” off-camera.

Oh, just kidding about PIITFOAQ. But I wish that was a word.

Grainne is from the UK, where appearently people can be named “Grainne.”

I wondered if you could help me at all. I am trying to find out more about a gameshow called Runaway which I believe you starred in? I just wanted to find out more about it in general. For instance what network made it? Who produced it? How long it ran for etc… I hope you can help as I have read that you were the official Chaser on the show.

I’d never heard of Runaway when I received this email, which led to more head-scratching than you’d find in an early-’80s Head & Shoulders ad. Finally a Google search turned up this remnant of a long-fixed bit of Wikipedia vandalism.

I’m afraid there was no US pilot of the British game show The Chase, at least not one starring Jon Bon Jovi as the host and myself as the bounty hunter type.

But wouldn’t it be a better world if there had been? That sounds awesome.

A correspondent named William submits the following story:

I was on the subway in San Francisco yesterday and overheard four teenage girls talking in extremely excited tones about the upcoming match between Watson and yourself. One was explaining to the other loudly that they had made a computer for the sole purpose of playing Jeopardy. And that the computer would be matched up against those really good Jeopardy players. “Ken Jennings?” one girl interjected. “YES!” said the other.

You are a teen idol.

It’s true. Check out the sizzling poster of me in Tiger Beat this month. Watson’s spread in Popular Mechanics PALES IN COMPARATIVE HOTNESS!

Posted by Ken at 11:33 am     

February 4, 2011

As you have probably noticed if you’re reading a post entitled “Wordplay Wednesday: weekend edition,” it’s sometimes possible to place one word inside another to make a third. For example, you can put BERLIN inside of TIME to get TIMBERLINE.

The challenge here is to make the surname of a popular writer by placing one word inside another. By a strange coincidence, the outside word is one of the title objects in this author’s most recent novel. The inside word is a kind of animal that appears prominently in all this author’s novels.

Who is the author?

Edited to add: Solution proffered by econgator (and carping about kiddie lit plot points proffered by others) on this thread.

Posted by Ken at 12:17 pm     

February 3, 2011

I saw this remarkable satellite photo of the uber-blizzard a couple days ago…

…but only realized this morning why it looked so familiar. These storms are clearly being caused by the volleyball-wielding whale probe from Star Trek IV!

If Chicago just had more humpback whales handy, all its problems would be solved.

I also noticed, while reading some accounts of the Senate’s kabuki “repeal attempt” of the health care bill, that conservative news outlets tend to “camel-case” the word “Obamacare” much more than leftie ones do–that is, they capitalize the ‘C’. ObamaCare. I’m not sure why this is, but have three theories, in decreasing order of likelihood:

  1. The medial capital C changes the word from Obamacare (a signature policy, like Reaganomics!) to ObamaCare (a cheesy brand name, like BlackBerry or RadioShack).
  2. The capital C represents the bold Randian hero, standing unbowed despite the tyrannical oppression of the word’s first five letters.
  3. Tea Party types are so used to capitalizing the ‘C’ in words like Constitution, Communist, and Collectivism that they just do it by accident sometimes now.

I can live with the camel-cased C, I guess. But we’ll know the disintegration of American political decorum is complete when they borrow the corresponding liberal spelling trick and replace it with a Teutonic-slash-Soviet ‘K’.

Posted by Ken at 12:36 pm     

February 2, 2011

My four-year-old, at lunch yesterday in a crowded cafe.

Caitlin: Mom, I’m hot so blow me. I’m really hot, blow me! MOM, BLOW ME! BLOW ME! I’M HOT! BLOW MEEEE!

Posted by Ken at 11:29 am     

February 1, 2011

Sure, jillion-dollar IBM supercomputer, you’re a big shot at regular Jeopardy!, but how would you do at second-grade Jeopardy!?

My son’s class is going to be playing mock Jeopardy! later this month so each kid had to write a certain number of questions. I mean answers. Mindy is in charge of this for some reason, so last night we were going through the submissions together. This was my favorite.

My guess is Leah could stump Watson, no problem.

Posted by Ken at 5:25 pm