Ken Jennings

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September 29, 2010

In the old e-mailbag this week, under the subject line “jeopardy controversey” (sic):

Hi. I didn’t know who else to contact, so after a brief search I found you. Of course, you are my all-time favorite Jeopardy player and a legend to boot.

However, I had high hopes for Roger Craig and was, frankly, aghast at the way he was eliminated. I’ve heard of unfair advantages before but giving a sportswriter the category of “Sports and Media”. seems to take the proverbial cake!

I’ve complained to Jeopardy itself, but of course have received no reply. Isn’t it obviously unfair what happened?

P.S. Although a life long Jeopardy viewer I cannot in good conscience watch that show anymore!

I don’t think Alex Trebek is going to be personally writing this guy back anytime soon, so I thought I’d answer his question in this forum. I’ve heard some variant on this complaint from a couple of places ever since Roger Craig, last week’s record-setting Jeopardy! champ, lost to a sportswriter on a “Sports and the Media” clue about the New Orleans Saints. I can’t tell if my correspondent thinks there was some conspiracy afoot to unseat Roger, or if Jeopardy! should remove clues in every game that seem to favor one contestant over the other.

Either idea is silly, of course–and, more to the point, would be illegal. It’s been a felony to rig a game show since 1960, a result of the scandals on big money shows like The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One. As a result, Jeopardy! takes fair play to an almost comical degree of seriousness on its set. I once inadvertently caused a full-scale meltdown just by changing my necktie at the wrong mirror.

But even if Jeopardy! was rigging its games that day, wouldn’t the default conspiracy be “They want that nice Roger guy to keep winning, so they can have another Ken Jennings story”? The paranoid “zomg they wanted him to lose!!1!” idea doesn’t make much sense.

And the more benign version–that Jeopardy! should have removed that football clue once it found out it had a sportswriter behind one of the lecterns–seems sensible at first but is actually sort of silly when you think more about it. What if one of the contestants has mentioned he’s a casual NFL fan? Do they have to remove the clue then? What if one of them is from New Orleans? From the South? What if one is a young fratboy/jock type and the other two are nice middle-aged cat ladies? Where does it end?

The fact is that if Jeopardy! removed all the sports clues because it had a sportswriter or a sports fan on the show that day, it would actually be an unfair (and, hence, illegal) disadvantage to that contestant. If you wanted to, you could find an agenda in every game, because, with sufficient knowledge of the contestants’ lives, there will always be categories that will favor one of them over the others. In my 75 games, I saw clues about computer software and Mormons and Korea and all kinds of things that you could have guessed from my bio sheet that I might do well on. I also saw many categories on things that you could take one look at me and know that I would be clueless about. Like, uh, “Fashion.”

Here’s how Jeopardy! gets around this problem: a “compliance” person (that is, an outside arbitrator not affiliated with the show who monitors its play for fairness) randomly chooses the week’s game boards, and their order, at the start of each taping day. A separate staff decision chooses the two challenger contestants in each game. If game material happens to favor one contestant over the other–and it always will, at one point or another–that’s dumb luck. Each selection is blind to the other.

So stand down, crackpots of America! Re-direct your huffy letters to your local paper, complaining about the speed limits in your neighborhood or the cancellation of the comic strip Cathy! You can once again watch Jeopardy! in good conscience.

Love, Ken.

Posted by Ken at 10:22 am     

February 24, 2014

arthurchu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For examples, here’s a dude on Reddit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do. I am America’s sweetheart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ken at 11:24 am     

January 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ken at 10:26 am     

October 28, 2011

Wednesday’s blog post (“I am the 99 percent”) sort of went viral, almost entirely without controversy. It seems to have been claimed joyfully both by Occupy Wall Street drum circles (“He’s with us!”) and their opponents (“Ha ha, he’s making fun of them.”)

For the record, I saw it as an absurdist joke along the lines of these. In other words, it has nothing to do with what I really think of income inequality or the political clout of the financial industry. But for the record: yes, I think these are actual problems in America: huge problems, ones that we wouldn’t we talking about without the protestors. So good for them. If you don’t think so, if you are parroting opposition like “They don’t want anything coherent!” or “They think it’s ‘fair’ to take MY money!” then your head’s in the ground.

Oh, and also, if you are one of the people scoffing online about how I (or any other starry-eyed OWS type) clearly doesn’t understand “basic economics”…my guess is that your economic knowledge is pretty rudimentary and/or drawn from cable news, or you would know there are very, very smart economists on both sides of almost any debate, including the ones on income inequality and corporate influence.

A few Maphead links I haven’t posted yet:

Here I am giving random advice on public radio’s How to Do Everything podcast.

Here I am at Amazon HQ being interviewed by the great Tom Nissley, Jeopardy! megawinner returning to the program for next week’s Tournament of Champions.

Here’s an interview I did for a Pacific Northwest book blog.

And here’s my talk about Watson at the Singularity Summit a couple weekends ago.

It’s been a long, busy October, but I’m actually leaving for the Albany airport in an hour, flying home.

Posted by Ken at 9:07 am     

May 6, 2011

Ken Denmead, who heads up Wired magazine’s GeekDad website, has a new Geek Dad book collection in stores this week.

I wrote a guest section for the book, on the occasional Jennings family pastime of PhotoShopping our kids into their own Lego creations, like so.

So check it out! The previous Geek Dad books have been treasure troves of nutty ways for you and your much-wedgied children to make robots, learn emacs commands, etc. together. I’m sure this one is just as great.

Speaking of the ubiquitous Danish building blocks! We now have an elaborate shelving system in place for sorting our Legos, which have until now have been jumbled together in an industrial-sized plastic vat. (If you are about to email me about how the correct plural should be “Lego” or “LEGO brand building blocks,” please see the many previous conversations on this point).

But the million-dollar question is: how do you sort? There appear to be two schools of thought, the ones you’d expect: the Sort-By-Type party and the Sort-By-Color party.

Why Sort By Type instead of color? Well, the argument would go, if you have a group of one type of bricks (4×2 blocks, for example, or roof pieces, or whatever) you can pick out the color(s) you want at a glance. Whereas, looking in a box full of light gray legos, the 4×2 blocks or roof pieces might not exactly leap out.

BUT! The Sort-By-Colorers might argue. When you’re building something, you most often need many pieces of different types but the same color. So having bricks sorted by color would be exceedingly convenient.

I am paralyzed with indecision. Can anyone convince me, preferably with personal testimonial and/or photos?

Posted by Ken at 7:00 pm     

December 10, 2010

I finished Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Solar, on an airplane last week. Not his best book by a long shot (“by a long chalk,” as one of his very British protagonists would say) but it has its moments.

It has its odd moments as well. Midway through the book, its Nobel-laureate-physicist protagonist addresses a conference on global warming and illustrates Earth’s plight by telling a story which, he says, just happened to him on the train in from Heathrow. The man sitting across from him, without comment, took every other salt-and-vinegar crisp from his open packet, sitting on the table between them! What gall! What effrontery! Et cetera. On his way off the train, the physicist discovered (da dum!) his own packet of crisps sitting safely in his coat pocket! The whole time, he had been the one stealing the “thief’s” crisps!

The only problem, as McEwan learned when he read an early draft of that chapter at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in 2008, is that this snack-trading story is at least thirty-eight years old! It’s a popular British urban legend.

McEwan is not the first best-selling British author to be caught stealing the biscuits. Douglas Adams included the same story in his 1984 novel So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and went to his grave protesting that it had actually happened to him years before (but after the story was already circulating). I love Adams, but that’s just silly. Did a hook-handed man also pursue him to make-out point when he was a teenager? He undoubtedly lifted a friend’s story, thinking how lucky he was to get such great comic material, and not realizing that his friend’s story was actually a friend-of-a-friend story of dubious origin.

McEwan’s response to being called out has been even more bizarre than Adams’s! He had just weathered his own (not entirely unfounded) plagiarism controversy in 2006, and couldn’t afford another one. He told the Wales audience that he had overheard the stolen-snack anecdote in someone else’s conversation, and would edit the chapter.

But did he drop the story? He did not! Something even more bizarre happens. After the physicist gives his speech, a folklore expert in the audience (at a global warming conference?) approaches him and lets him know his story isn’t original. (Note to McEwan: that is an excellent point. Your store isn’t original!) The bewildered physicist shuts down the urban legend scholar, insisting that the stolen-crisp thing did just happen to him on a train, that life often imitates art, etc. etc. The Douglas Adams defense, only from a fictional character! The folklore expert is over-earnest and supercilious, clearly a figure of fun for his odd obsession with these niggly matters of provenance, and he is swallowed up by the crowd in the next paragraph, never to be seen again in the novel.

So McEwan tries to have his crisps and eat them too. “Yes, I’m way ahead of you, I’m aware that I’ve retold an old story. But if you notice that and call me on it, you’re a weirdo. This silly sitcom thing really happened to my character.” It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how urban legends work: everybody protests that they know the guy it really happened to–how should I know why some similar story is also going around? These people are always wrong. They got fooled.

But mostly people don’t parade their ignorance in an internationally best-selling novel. Why didn’t McEwan rewrite the chapter, or have his character later admit that he was retelling an after-dinner story he’d once overheard? (This would be very believable coming from his flawed, over-the-hill protagonist.) Instead, more readers than McEwan suspects are going to be pulled out of this scene–a crucial setpiece in the novel–and say, “Hey, he lifted this bit from the BBC/Douglas Adams/whoever!” Imagine suddenly coming across the old “THE CALLS ARE COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!!!” horror story in a new Stephen King novel, told with a straight face, full of the joy of discovery even. Odd, all around.

Posted by Ken at 12:53 pm     

December 1, 2010

Take the name of a famous character who originated in a book, best known for running around the jungles of southern Asia and somewhat controversial, especially from a leftish point of view.

Move the first letter of the character’s name forward one step in the alphabet (turn “OATH” into “PATH,” for example) and you’ll get the name of another famous literary character. Remarkably, the new character is also someone best known for running around the jungles of southern Asia and being fairly controversial from a leftish point of view.

Who are the characters?

Edited to add: Answer (and lots of speculation about “Nowgli” and “Mr. Lurtz”) here.

Posted by Ken at 11:22 am     

August 18, 2010

The new issue of mental_floss magazine should be out shortly, and page 70 contains the twenty-third (I just counted!) installment of my 6 of Ken Jennings column. Here’s a sneak preview in original-draft form…but the rest of this issue is fantastic, particularly for Beatles fans. Check it out.

Chai Tea to Tai Chi

Dont call it chai tea if youre ordering the trendy aromatic brew in its native Indiachai is just the Hindi word for tea, so youd be asking for tea tea. Tea vendors called chai-wallahs are ubiquitous on the streets of South Asia, and in the days before paper cups, theyd sell their drinks in little clay pots called kullarh, which drinkers could just shatter on the ground when their tea was gone. The title character in the movie Slumdog Millionaire was a lowly chai-wallah before his big game show break.

In the ten-year history of the American Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, only one contestant has ever missed the million-dollar question. In 2009, Harvard law grad Ken Basin wasnt sure of his final answer, but but he wasnt about to let that stop him! He decided to risk $475,000 on a hunch that Lyndon Johnsons favorite soft drink was Yoo-Hoo. Give me a million dollars! he confidently told host Regis Philbin. Sadly, Regis couldnt oblige, because LBJ actually preferred Fresca.

The strategy board game Risk was originally called The Conquest of the World when it was invented by Frances Albert Lamorisse in 1957. But Lamorisse was a lover of more peaceful pursuits as well: the year before Risk was released, he won both an Oscar and a Palme dOr at Cannes for his classic childrens short film The Red Balloon, which starred his own five-year-old son Pascal as a balloon-loving Parisian boy.

In 1959, Air Force captain Joseph Kittinger volunteered for Project: Excelsior, a series of parachute test jumps from a helium balloon at the edge of Earths atmosphere. In the third and final test, he jumped from a height of almost twenty miles, enjoying four and a half minutes of free-fall before pulling his chute. And that isnt even the scary part yet! During the jump, the right glove on his pressurized suit failed, and for three hours his hand swelled up to twice its normal sizegiving us our first ever look at what might happen to an unprotected human in the vacuum of space.

At the Mexico City Olympics, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos decided to follow their medal-winning performances in the 200m by supporting the civil rights movement with a black power salute on the medal stand. But their protest was almost derailed when Carlos realized hed forgotten the black gloves hed planned to wear. Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist, suggested a solution: each man could wear one of Smiths gloves. Smith took the right glove, Carlos the leftwhich is why, in the famous photo of the controversial protest, Carlos is giving a black power salute with the wrong fist.

The Mandarin words for supreme ultimate fist are tai chi chuan, the name of the Chinese martial art that the West calls tai chi. Last year, Purdue University professor Henry Zhang invented the tai chi scooter, a sort of hand-free Segway that you steer by striking tai chi poses on the platform. If your yin and yang are out of whack, youll fall flat on your face, so you might want to try a soothing glass of chai tea before you climb on.

Posted by Ken at 11:22 am     

February 8, 2010

Does Abe Vigoda do his own stunts? You know Betty White does, because she is some kind of ageless robot. Come on, do you know any 105-year-olds who are pretty good Password players? When I play board games with people a generation older than me, it becomes clear that the “game neurons” in your brain all die off at the same time the day you turn fifty.

Wow, the controversial Tom Tebow ad is the softest sell of all time. I guess Focus on the Family figures they got their money worth with all the meta-hype around the ad, so they didn’t even have to mention abortion in the ad itself. (In that sense, it’s sort of like those content-free “We wasted millions!” Super Bowl ads that popped up during the first dotcom bubble. The point is the price of the ad, not anything in it.) I wonder if Focus on the Family remembers that most Americans watching the game have never read a paper or news website in their lives and will have no idea that the meta-controversy even happened. I wonder what those viewers thought the ad was for. Some kind of MLM product that the Tebows are hawking?

I don’t care what Phil Simms says: Payton’s going for it on fourth and goal was a terrible call. You’re only down 10-3! And wow, are Nantz and Simms the most boring team in broadcasting or what? They are Wonder Bread in sportscaster form.

Have to admire Simms for sticking with his approval of the gutsy call, though, even after it didn’t work. Typically football commentary is all about 20-20 hindsight. This is a good call, because it worked! That identical call was bad, because it didn’t work! All these guys should have to take some undergrad econ and statistics courses.

If the Leno-Letterman shocker was the ad highlight of the night for you like it was for me, check out this astonishingly detailed New York Times piece on its top-secret making. Uh, couldn’t this have been put together digitally for a fraction of the time/cost that all these corporate jet trips cost? The Times doesn’t go into Leno’s possible motivations for recording a high-profile ad for his competition, but it isn’t hard to guess: he wants to be perceived as “Nice Guy Jay” again despite his recent antics. Uh, that ship might have sailed, Jay.

Dylan, during the anemic-sounding halftime set by The Who: “When does the Super Bowl start again? Because this…is terrible.”

Okay, love the onside kick call. But only because it worked! Otherwise it would have been a terrible idea.

These GoDaddy ads are sapping my will to live. So they don’t hire an advertising agency? They just let the boss’s son (or some other untalented person with a Danica Patrick fetish) write and shoot the spots? Super Bowl ads are all about the high-concept twist, you idiots. Like if you set up that Danica Patrick’s going to come out in a tight T-shirt…and then Dan Patrick comes out instead. Now that’s an ad!

Holy cow, Tracy Porter is fast. On my screen he shows up like a blurry drybrush tornado, a la the Tasmanian Devil. That is ball game, ladies and gentlemen.

Posted by Ken at 12:12 pm     

December 7, 2009

Hey, this was going to be a post about my secret plan to bring a new level of perversion to schools, but then there was late-breaking news at the end of last week. I opened the mailbox on Thursday and discovered…a speed camera ticket! The first one I’ve ever received!

I was so happy. “What are you smiling about?” Mindy wanted to know. “It’s a $120 ticket.”

“But it’s going to be so perfect for the blog!”

I inadvertently stirred up a hornet’s nest of incomprehensible libertarian rage with last week’s innocent “What’s the big deal with traffic cameras?” post. I was mostly interested in the odd intensity of camera opposition–what a weird cause!–but tried my best to handle the actual arguments as well. The crux of much opposition–that cities are just in it for the money–strikes me as obvious and irrelevant, since of course cities need revenue. Unless you’re the fringe-iest of libertarian types, the idea that cities should actually spend the money that lawbreakers pay as fines isn’t really controversial.

Look, even if it’s a cynical money-grabber and nobody really cares about the children, that just makes it the equivalent of small-town speed traps that pull over highway speeders from out-of-state. Nobody loves getting caught by those either, but I haven’t seen some grass-roots movement to illegalize them.

The argument that these cameras can actually cause new accidents (which has been established by some researchers, though others disagree) seems more rational to me, but think about it this way: if there turn out to be side effects from enforcing a law strictly as written, it seems to me the smart moves would either be to

  • reduce the side effects (in this case, the rear-enders are caused by drivers who don’t think about following distance enough, and any number of measures, or the simple passage of time as people get used to camera enforcement, could help with this), or
  • simply change the law, now that we know it doesn’t work somehow when enforced as written.

It cracks me up that so many people seem to think the only option is a bizarre third one: we must at all costs go back to enforcing the law inconsistently and half-assedly!

The first time I wrote about the cameras, I noted that there might be sane reasons to worry about them–namely, civil liberties one. You might have the vague idea that cameras everywhere are Big Brother-y, and that’s fair enough, I guess. I don’t think suburbs monitoring the white lines at intersections is going to put FBI cameras on your bedroom ceiling anytime soon, but I’m not going to dispute the slippery slope too much with you, because that way lies madness

But the longer the conversation went, the less compelling the arguments got: that mailed camera tickets are unconstitutional because the state is making you prove yourself not guilty. (Yes, just as unconstitutional as parking tickets.) That the system doesn’t have enough recourse for all the errors that automated cameras are bound to produce. (This is just anti-technology paranoia, the kind of thing that makes old people terrified to use credit cards on-line, even though they’ll happily give them to the 16-year-old server at Denny’s. Look, they have you on still camera and video. You can watch it yourself. Seems to me there’s less margin for error here than there is with a radar gun, cop’s eyewitness account, etc.) That good drivers need to run red lights all the time to stay safe, and the cameras take away their option and make them do unsafe things like stop on yellow. (Uh, okay.)

My theory all along has been that most camera opponents didn’t fall into their stance by a well-argued piece in Car & Driver. They weren’t neutral on cameras until they saw a study on the accident numbers, or something. These are people who got a ticket in the mail and didn’t like the impotent, I-just-got-screwed-somehow feeling that accompanies it. Nobody likes getting pulled over by a cop either, but there you just feel bummed: aw, they got me. Our lifetime experience with human-only traffic enforcement means we think about mailed tickets like this: wait, they didn’t get me–why should I have to pay?

But I did see that camera foes could just as easily argue the converse: that camera no-big-deal-ers like me were just people who hadn’t received one yet. This is the bad driver’s version of the “a Democrat is just a Republican who hasn’t been mugged yet” school of political theory.

So am I anti-camera now? Not in the slightest. (I guess this could be proof that I’m stubborn, not principled, but oddly enough I choose not to see it that way.) I think I have every reason to be suspicious of the motives behind this particular ticket. It’s from an out-of-the-way suburb with almost no commercial district, and therefore little business tax revenue. They can cynically put up cameras in every school zone, jack up ticket prices unreasonably, and know that few will still complain, because who wants to argue that speeding in school zones is okay? (If I remember right, this school zone isn’t even marked by flashing lights or “WHEN CHILDREN ARE PRESENT” signs: they just post the times when the speed limit drops to 20mph on this road: pretty much all daytime hours. I didn’t read the fine print and was still going 30. Click!)

But look: the signs were still posted. I still wasn’t paying enough attention to them. I broke a law I agree with, and I can’t in good conscience fuss just because we now have the technology to enforce laws we all agree with (“Resolved: it’s better to stop at red lights that to just go right through them”) with greater efficiency. You can bet that I’ll be thinking more about school zones as I drive during the day now–especially around this one suburb, sure, but everywhere else as well. For people who think the cameras just make bad drivers smarter about their bad driving–well, I’m your living counter-example. I will change my ways! I will keep Christmas in my heart all the year round and go 20 in all school zones from 7 to 4. God bless us every one.

Posted by Ken at 12:33 pm     

November 20, 2009

I kept seeing headlines yesterday like “Harry Reid Moves Massive Health Care Bill to the Senate Floor.” For crying out loud, the guy’s gotta be in his sixties–can’t they get him a Congressional page or at least a hand-truck or a wheelbarrow or something? Lift with the legs, Harry!

I don’t really have anything to write about today. Maybe I should keep mining the headlines, like a hack Jay Leno writer about to be fired because his show is in fifth place!

For example, here are two sports stories I saw yesterday that I didn’t understand.

Apparently Ireland isn’t going to the World Cup because Thierry Henry is a big cheater. See, this is a huge difference between American and international sports culture that I don’t understand. I gather that Henry used two surreptitious hand-touches to score some crucial French “goal” (they have “goals” in soccer, right?) against Ireland the other day.

Now, granted, if something similar had happened in a big U.S. game–baseball, football, basketball, whatever–it would also make headlines. But the headlines would all be something like “Questionable call dooms Ireland!” (Assume for a moment that Ireland has an NFL team. The Pink Hearts or the Orange Stars or the Yellow Moons or something.) But this is soccer. And so every postmortem of the controversy seems to focus not on the refs missing the infraction, but on why Henry would do something so shockingly illegal. Even the defenses of Henry seem to confess his moral bankruptcy. From WorldCupBlog:

If you were fighting to get your team to World Cup 2010, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to make it happen? Even if it meant bending or breaking the rules? I’m not excusing what Henry did, and he’s definitely (to quote Kevin Keegan) gone down in my estimation tonight. But I can definitely understand why he did it.

This is crazy talk. Can you imagine this kind of navel-gazing in U.S. sports coverage? “Wow, Kobe just laid a shoulder into that guy to clear the lane and grab the rebound! Doesn’t he know the rules! I can’t believe he would break the rules!” Or “Look at that replay–Pujols didn’t touch the plate! But he just headed for the dugout like he had! Doesn’t he love the game?!?” There seems to be some understanding among American athletes and fans that (a) players are going to try to win, (b) it’s the officials’ job, not the players’, to sort out infractions they make along the way, and (c) not every broken rule in sports is a result of deviousness of malice–sometimes games just move pretty fast.

Is there something special about soccer that I’m not getting here? Or is it all non-U.S. sport that works this way? I’ve never seen anyone call their own fouls at the Olympics. “Oops, my bad, I totally got your arm as you were shooting. Here, take it from the top of the key.”

In other sports news: Tony Gwynn is no longer the whitest guy in baseball! A weirdly pale Sammy Sosa finally copped to using skin-lightening technology, after people starting asking if he’d been cast in a Tim Burton movie or something.

When Mindy and I were in Thailand, we saw ads for skin-lightening creams everywhere. Some of them had before-and-after color strips, like teeth-whitening toothpaste does in the States. Coming from an American background of finding colorism distasteful (the “brown paper bag test” et. al.) it was a little uncomfortable.

I don’t need to be the privileged white guy tsk-tsking over other cultures valuing that same privilege. That’s a little uncomfortable too, from my sheltered never-had-to-be-the-darkest-guy-in-India viewpoint. But look: I’ve always cheered on lots and lots of interracial gettin’-it-on on the theory that racism won’t die until everyone is the same beautiful cafe con leche color, right? Well, for every Thai or Indian or Brazilian skin-bleaching cream, there’s probably a Caucasian-aimed cream with additives to darken/”tan” the skin. So skin creams like Sammy’s (and their faux-tanning “opposites”) are just bringing on the post-racial utopia a little faster, right? I guess some marketing genius could mix the U.S. and Thai products together to get a skin cream that doesn’t change the color of your skin at all! Think of all the money there is to be made there.

Posted by Ken at 12:43 pm     

October 21, 2009

Look for a new copy of mental_floss magazine in your mailbox or newsstand soon. (Wait, did I bold the wrong word there? Is it mental or floss? I always forget.) I just got my copies and the cover is something about miracle cures. But who cares about curing cancer when there’s a new edition of 6° of Ken Jennings on page 72?

Here, as usual, is the slightly longer pre-edited version of this month’s piece, for your reading pleasure. Eddie Haskell warning: warning, may contain Eddie Haskell.

6° of Ken Jennings: Straitjacket to Yellowjacket

Controversy erupted in 2005 when the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. unveiled a special Valentine’s Day item: the “Crazy for You Bear,” who wore a straitjacket emblazoned with a cute little heart and even came with his own commitment papers! Psychosis had never seemed so adorable. Opponents protested that the bear stigmatized the mentally ill, since straitjackets are rarely used in psychiatric care anymore. (They make patient vital signs hard to monitor and can cause overheating). A simpler modern restraint is the “wrist belt,” which attaches each of the patient’s hands to a buckle on a belt around the waist.

A belt buckle once saved the life of Ken Osmond, best known for playing the unctuous Eddie Haskell on TV’s Leave It to Beaver. After the sitcom went off the air, Osmond served for 18 years as an LAPD cop, retiring only after a bullet from a car thief’s gun ricocheted off his belt buckle during a foot chase. The bullet might have killed him, but instead earned him a commendation for valor and a disability pension he receives to this day. As Eddie Haskell might say, “That’s a lovely belt buckle you’re wearing, Officer Osmond!”

North America and Eurasia once had hundreds of millions of beavers, but populations have dwindled over the last thousand years, as the large rodents have been hunted for their fur, meat, and a valuable substance called castoreum. Castoreum, a smelly secretion from a beaver’s anal glands, has long been prized in medicine—the Roman naturalist Pliny listed no fewer than 66 uses for the stuff, insisting it would cure everything from epilepsy to vertigo to flatulence. But in our enlightened modern era, we’d never take something that came out of a beaver’s backside and rub it on our skin, right? Guess again. Castoreum is still used to add musky notes to many popular perfumes.

The fragrance whizzes at Omega Ingredients have been tasked by NASA with creating an unusual perfume: one that smells like outer space. NASA wants to train astronauts using the authentic aromas they’ll be breathing in orbit. Space-walking astronauts have claimed that the vacuum reminds them of fried steak, hot metal, or the welding of a motorbike. And the Apollo astronauts agreed that space smelled like “spent gunpowder” while they were walking on the moon.

Walking on the Moon” was a reggae-inflected 1979 hit for the rock trio The Police, their second #1 song in their native Britain. But would the tune have become a classic under its much-less-glamorous original title, “Walking ‘Round the Room”? Frontman Sting wrote the song while wobbling around a Munich hotel room, trying to shake off the previous night’s schnapps bender. Now we know what “I hope my legs don’t break” means!

American entomologist Justin Schmidt is best known as the inventor of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a kind of Richter Scale of bug attacks. The Index goes from a 1.0 (the barely-there sting of the sweat bee) to an excruciating 4.0 (the South American bullet ant). The common North American wasps called yellowjackets earn a solid 2.0 for their sting, which Schmidt describes with the panache of a wine connoisseur: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent…imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” Wow, he gives yellowjacket stings two thumbs up—way up!

Posted by Ken at 11:38 am     

October 5, 2009

A quick series of Google and Twitter vanity-searches reveals that lots and lots of Internet righties think I am President Obama’s embattled “safe schools” czar. (This Heritage Foundation post originally carried my name, for example.) That’s Kevin Jennings, people. I, TV’s lovable Ken Jennings, am rarely called upon to advise 16-year-olds on their bus station liaisons. By court order, in fact, sigh.

The left isn’t guiltless here: this Kos article apparently originally misidentified the controversial advisor as former Bears tight end Keith Jennings!

On another note, puzzlemeister Trip Payne has a suggestion:

I don’t know whether you know the name Sarah Bunting. She was one of the founders of Television Without Pity and has been involved in many other cool websites, such as the dearly departed Fametracker. Her blog is always good reading, whether it’s her advice column, or complaining about bad television, or running a bracket-style tournament where her readers determine the greatest breakfast cereal, or what-have-you.

During the month of October, she gets involved with Donors Choose, which is very possibly the coolest charity setup around. (For a brief overview, see here; basically, teachers from poor schools put in requests for funds for specific items, be they microscopes or art supplies or copies of The Westing Game or whatever, and people can look them all over and decide which projects they want to donate to.) Sarah challenges her readers to come up with a certain amount of money for these projects every year; last year, her readers raised an astonishing $111,352. Their reward for meeting the challenge, aside from the sense of accomplishment and the thank-you notes from the teachers and students (and randomly drawn prizes donated by Sarah and her readers), is to see Sarah make a fool of herself in some way.

The first year, she shaved off her hair.

The second year, she dressed as a tomato and danced around Rockefeller Center.

The third year, she dressed as a tomato and went all around the sites of Washington DC.

I’m telling you all this because I think you might appreciate (a) Donors Choose, which is probably the most fun way to give to charity ever created; (b) Sarah’s blog; and (c) the quirkiness of the way Sarah is getting people to raise an astonishing amount of money. And if I’m right, I’m hoping you might think it worth a blog entry, because if some portion of your readership went to Donors Choose and gave to these great causes, it would help an awful lot of kids.

I for one have no interest in indulging what is apparently the odd vegetarian exhibitionist fetish of a minor Internet celebrity, but Donors Choose is a great cause. Please consider chipping in.

Posted by Ken at 1:40 pm     

September 22, 2009

Have you heard the age-old idea that somewhere, out there in the world, each of us has some fairly exact double walking around, unbeknownst to us? Even as a kid I remember being fascinated by this idea and its Twilight Zone-y implications (what if we met?), but also by its essential unprovability. What if my doppelganger is in Alabama or Newfoundland or Estonia? No matter where he is, we will almost certainly never run into each other.

Even the world-shrinking effect of the Internet doesn’t necessarily disprove the one-exact-double theory. Maybe Estonian Ken (sounds like a Mattel product!) is out there and he even has a Facebook page. But is there any reasons to think I will see it? Will any of my friends see it? Is there some efficient way for me to search on the Internet for other people who look like me? No, no, and no.

But it occurred to me while reading this awesome Slate piece on presidential impersonators that the weird world of celebrity look-alikes is the smoking gun that disproves this theory. If Marilyn Monroe or Elvis or Ronald Reagan really does have an exact duplicate running around somewhere (and I don’t know why they’d necessarily be running around now as opposed to during the Renaissance or the Great Depression–is there always one lookalike at a time, like the Dalai Lama? “Master, he chose the mascara! He will be the next Carol Channing!”) then they would know it and make a living at it. Instead–well, you’ve seen celebrity lookalikes, right? Even when they have work done, they look great only in their posed 8x10s, with exactly the right lighting and makeup and glasses. In real life, it’s more like, hey, that guy looks slightly more like Brad Pitt than he looks like other celebrities! Amazing!

Read the Slate piece. The two guys competing for the fauxBama crown both look–let’s be frank–almost nothing like him. I wondered if Slate had missed an interesting angle by not looking into the possibility that the nation’s best Obama impersonator might be much, much worse than, say, the best Bush or Clinton. Why? Because this country has many, many more white people than it does biracial people of (plausibly, anyway) Obama’s racial makeup. Hundreds of times more, maybe. Mathematically, the odds of there being a good Barack are much, much smaller than any other president in history. (Even SNL has, controversially, had to go with a white/Asian Obama.)

On the other hand, this might be compensated for by the awkward fact that people tend to be better at differentiating facial appearance within their own race than outside it. In other words, the “all you people look alike” syndrome. Would your average white American be more easily persuaded by a lousy Obama impersonator than a lousy Clinton impersonator just because, hey, he’s got that distinctive “somewhat African-American” look? Oooh, and he also looks a little like Floyd Patterson and Luther Vandross! And that nice Charlie from West Wing!

I’ve been sent links to plenty of Facebook pages and Flickr sets because hey, you’ve just got to see our friend J.R., we call him “Jeopardork” because he looks just like you! Spoilers: none of them look much like me.

I’d say the “one exact double” theory is completely blown. Thank you celebrity culture!

Posted by Ken at 11:09 am     

June 25, 2009

I have another “6° of Ken Jennings” piece in the new issue of mental_floss magazine, on sale soon. Hey, a friendly postman might be sliding the magazine into your soft yielding mailbox as you read these lines. For all I know.

To tempt you, presumably, into buying your own damn subscription to this fantastic trivia periodical, the fine folks at mental_floss let me post my column to this here blog. I don’t have the full text of the publication draft, so here’s what I originally turned in. Do not read if connecting the Blessed Virgin to a cell phone provider strikes you as blasphemous in any way.

Virgin Mobile and Virgin Mary

Virgin Mobile, the U.S.’s first cell-phone provider to offer only pre-paid service, is a joint venture between Sprint and the Virgin Group, the British multinational founded by eccentric billionaire Richard Branson. Today, Branson may be the world’s 236th richest person, but he wasn’t always so successful. His first two business ideas, at age fourteen, were both fiascos: rabbits ruined his Christmas-tree farm, and the budgerigars he was breeding were killed by his mum while he was away at boarding school.

Budgerigar is the correct scientific term for the common pet parakeet, which has lived wild in the Australian outback for millions of years. In fact—and don’t tell your bird-lover friends this, though it may come in handy in this tough economic climate—some etymologists believe the word “budgerigar” comes from the Aboriginal Australian word “betcherrygah,” meaning “good eating.” Parakeet: it’s what’s for dinner!

In 1935, a Chicago salesman was sick of having to put up with lousy food when he traveled, so he self-published a slim paperback listing his favorite roadside restaurants around the country. Adventures in Good Eating went on to sell a million copies, making a household name of author Duncan Hines. Hines licensed his name to a packaged-food company in 1953, and today the name “Duncan Hines” is mostly associated with its namesake line of mixes for cakes, cookies, and brownies.

In Scottish myth, a brownie is a helpful household sprite. Whenever a family churned milk, they’d sprinkle a few drops into every corner of the house in hope of appeasing their brownie. (Note: do not try this at home, unless you hope to appease that helpful American household sprite, the cockroach.) Brownie the elf was an early mascot for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, who even flirted with adding the pixie to their classic orange helmets. But when Art Modell bought the club in 1961, Brownie didn’t stick around long. “My first official act as owner of the Browns will be to get rid of that little (expletive deleted),” he told friends.

The “Turnpike Rivalry” between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers is one of the greatest rivalries in professional sports. The Browns dominated the division for two decades, leading 34-12 before 1972. But since that season, the Steelers have turned the tables, beating Cleveland in 51 of 68 contests. What happened in 1972 to turn things around for Pittsburgh? The team finally won a playoff game, a controversial last-second comeback over Oakland. The bizarre winning play in that game, the so-called “Immaculate Reception” from Terry Bradshaw to Franco Harris, has been voted the greatest play in NFL history.

Who was conceived in the Immaculate Conception? Non-Catholics often use the phrase to refer to the virgin conception of Jesus, but that’s not correct: according to Pope Pius IX, who made the Immaculate Conception official dogma in 1854, it was the Virgin Mary herself who was conceived “immaculately”—that is, utterly without sin. If you’ve been using the phrase wrong, don’t feel too bad. It’s a common, uh, misconception.

Posted by Ken at 9:43 am     

September 29, 2008

Obviously, the Emmys sucked, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a pretty cool part of the show’s ad campaign: a big-ass collage!

In fact, the show’s website refers to this as the anniversary show’s “historic collage.” Historic? If you got all these people to actually pose together, from Bart Simpson to Tony Soprano to black-and-white early-1960s Johnny Carson, that would be “historic.” Any ad that looks like the inside of the locker of a handier-than-average-with-scissors high school sophomore probably isn’t “historic.”

But it is sort of cool. A disclaimer below the ad in my copy of Entertainment Weekly says, “The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences thanks all collage participants and apologizes to those who, regretfully, could not be featured.” So apparently the “participants” or their estates had to sign off on their inclusion. Which probably explains some of the odd omissions. No less than four cast members from Full House (sorry, Kimmy Gibbler) but no Steve Carell or Mr. Spock or George Costanza? Who else is oddly absent? You tell me.

The ad is also a treasure trove for potential trivia questions. Here, I’ll go first. Who’s the only pair of real-life siblings in the shot? (I think…I wouldn’t be surprised if I were missing others though.) What TV show has the most cast members depicted? (I haven’t done a full count, but I think it’s Cheers. Though Friends and Lost look like they’re close.) Suggest your own questions over on the message boards.

Posted by Ken at 4:24 pm     

September 17, 2008

Every so often there’s a big media blow-up because of bad etymology. You might want to stay away from “squaw” and “niggardly,” for example.

Up next on that list, apparently: “fecund.”

A couple weeks ago, my Tuesday Trivia e-mail quiz asked, “What bay, for whom a recent newsmaker was named, is the easternmost arm of the Bering Sea?” The answer was eventually given as “Young, fecund Bristol Palin is named for the salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay.”

Yesterday, in reply, I got this angry email. Does it make me a classist a-hole snob if I point out that it came from an AOL address? Well, it did.

FECUND?

That was a really unnecessary and ugly description of Bristol Palin.

Please unsubscribe my name.

Ugly? I was offended. I think my attitude toward Bristol Palin’s extreme non-ugliness is a matter of public record. Why, if I were a little younger and more mulleted, oh, the “Meet Me at the Pole” gatherings we two could have shared. If you know what I mean.

So I replied:

From Merriam-Webster’s:
“fecund: capable of producing offspring in abundance; fruitful; fertile.”

Don’t Republicans have dictionaries?

Worry not, AOL users! “Fecund” is a-ok. It just sounds like a combination of “fecal” and, um, something even worse. But it’s not. Honest.

Posted by Ken at 4:41 pm     

August 19, 2008

I just got my comp copies of mental_floss magazine in the mail, which means the new issue is about to hit “newsstands,” whatever those are.

It also means the new issue must have an installment of my 6° of Ken Jennings column–otherwise they don’t send me copies! Researchers who have been working for years to discover a connection between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and coleslaw can rest easy. It’s all taken care of, and–spoiler warning!–it involves extinct dwarf elephants (no extra charge). Here’s the original draft, if your curiosity is whetted. (If, on the other hand, you’re just hungry for coleslaw now, I can’t really help.)

Coleridge to Coleslaw

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a great Romantic poet, but maybe a lousy role model: he produced some of his best work while blissed out on a once-popular opium-and-alcohol mixture called “laudanum.” (Kids: just say no to 18th-century drugs!) In 1797, for example, he woke from an opium-induced dream and scratched out the famous opening to his poem “Kubla Khan”: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree…” but was only 54 lines along when he was called away by a nameless “person on business from Porlock.” By the time Coleridge got rid of the unwanted visitor and returned to his work, his memory of the dream had vanished, and he had to leave the poem unfinished.

In 1274, the explorer Marco Polo visited the real Kublai Khan in China, staying for seventeen years and bringing back fabulous tales of the emperor’s great wealth. In one (possibly exaggerated) story, he records that the Khan became fixated on a ruby owned by King Sendernaz of Ceylon, a ruby nine inches long and as thick as a man’s arm. Kublai offered the king an entire city in exchange for the ruby, but the king wasn’t selling.

Ruby was also the name of a celebrated painter whose bold abstract canvases sold for as much as $25,000 apiece and put eager collectors worldwide on 18-month waiting lists. But, as it turns out, Ruby would have painted for peanuts: she was a four-ton Asian elephant at the Phoenix Zoo. Zookeepers noticed that Ruby, as a teenager, liked to doodle in the dirt with a stick, so they replaced the stick with a paintbrush and were amazed by the work that resulted. By the time Ruby died in 1997, the zoo had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling her art.

Insular dwarfism is a genetic phenomenon that causes members of an isolated population to shrink in size from generation to generation. The most famous examples are the skeletons of dwarf elephants that have been unearthed on Crete and other Mediterranean islands. These Pleistocene pachyderms look just like modern elephants—except that they’re roughly the size of a pig. The 2003 discovery of miniature human-like remains on the Indonesian island of Flores has raised no small controversy—are these the bones of regular old Homo sapiens with a medical condition, or could prehistoric Indonesia have been peopled by a whole new species: tool-using little people the size of hobbits?

In 1976, a Georgia artist named Xavier Roberts first crafted the needle-molded fabric dolls he called “Little People.” In a stroke of genius, he started selling the little soft sculptures, complete with personalized adoption certificates, from a Cleveland, Georgia store he made over as “Babyland General Hospital.” By the time the toys were licensed to Coleco in 1982, they’d been renamed Cabbage Patch Kids, and by Christmas 1983, their adorably puckered little faces were causing riots in department stores nationwide. Xavier Roberts’s name is still stamped on the left buttock of every Cabbage Patch Kid sold.

Shredded cabbage salad is eaten all over the world, from the Dutch koolsalade, which lent American coleslaw its name, to spicy Easy African kachumbari. One place that coleslaw hasn’t caught on, however, is China. When KFC was expanding into China in the 1980s, they found that their traditional American side dishes didn’t sell there, so they replaced mashed potatoes and coleslaw with local faves like bamboo shoot salad, spinach soup, and rice porridge. Of course, they also found out that they’d mistranslated their slogan, “Finger-lickin’ good!” into Chinese as “Eat your fingers off!” so that may have been part of the problem.

Posted by Ken at 11:04 am     

July 14, 2008

We liked Wall·E, and the kids liked Wall·E, and I’m a little surprised at all the on-line blowback. I don’t mind the cynical anti-environmental posturing from TV blowhards who haven’t even seen the film, but I didn’t expect the weepy “Et tu, Pixar?!” protestations from beleaguered fatties, now propped up by this Slate piece from Daniel Engber.

Very slowly now, plus-sizers; it’s not hard. Wall·E says nothing about the percentage of American obesity currently caused by genetics vs. other causes. Wall·E is completely silent on whether or not high fructose corn syrup will somehow lead to environmental disaster. Wall·E doesn’t care whether or not fat people will cause health-care costs to skyrocket. Most of all, Wall·E isn’t about the kids who called you “Jabba” in ninth grade.

Wall·E makes just one statement about weight, and I wouldn’t have thought it’d be a controversial one. The movie suggests that, if thousands of people lived a completely sedentary lifestyle cocooned in giant Eero Saarinen chairs and drinking liquid cupcakes for every meal, for 700 years, that they might put on a little weight. That’s it. To further placate the powerful Fat Lobby, there’s even a little script nod to the damage that space “microgravity” is doing to the humans’ bones. Don’t worry, guys. The weight gain of the future is a bone density issue. It has nothing to do with the Hostess Fruit Pie you have in each hand right now.

Contra Engber, Wall·E never links the fatties in space to the ravaged Earth either. Note that Fred Willard and co. are perfectly svelte as they rape the environment. It’s the later space exodus, once the Earth is already unlivable, that has Earth’s entire population punching new holes in their space-belts. And, although the movie is mostly about the robots, it also goes out of its way to make the roly-poly humans heroic and proactive, once they’ve broken out of their consumerist shackles.

And that’s what you’d expect, right? Isn’t Pixar staffed largely by cartoonists and computer engineers? If there are two fatter demographics in America than cartoonists and programmers, I’m not aware of them. I’m sure that plenty of different body types worked on the movie and helped shape its viewpoint. They’re not the nasty popular kids laughing at you again, you with your jumbo popcorn in the third row.

Ob:trivia, since this is theoretically a trivia blog, not a cheap-fat-jokes blog. Wall·E and some of the other robots in the movie are voiced by longtime movie sound innovator Ben Burtt. Burtt has won his share of technical movie awards, dating back to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. What this means that Wall·E is, I believe, only the second theatrical movie ever made whose leading actor has four Oscars! (It would be the first and only, except for a crappy movie called Grace Quigley that Katharine Hepburn made in ’84.) And it’s not likely to happen again anytime soon, unless Nicholson wins a fourth Oscar pretty quick. (The only other three-Oscar actors, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman, are, uh, not working so much anymore.)

Thanks to the 60-year-old Burtt, Wall·E is also one of three big action movies this summer where the lead character is played by an actor born in 1950 or earlier. What are the other two?

Edited to add: Answers quickly provided here. And I forgot Clint! Eastwood will join the four-Oscar-leading man club this winter.

Posted by Ken at 11:46 am     

March 28, 2008

Continuing our interview with 1980s Jeopardy! researcher Carlo Panno. Today Carlo reveals some of the tricks of the clue-writing trade, and outs himself as a bit of a Disney geek. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I would guess that gauging the difficulty/”gettability” of material would be one of the hardest parts of that job. How did you determine how easy or hard clues were?

It’s from the gut, mostly. You use your instincts and your knowledge of your knowledge. One of the rules that the producer who succeeded Alex used was “You take it away on the fours, you give it back on the fives,” so sometimes the number-four clue in a category was tougher than the number-five.

I was very good at selecting Daily Doubles from the clues on a board. (Remember, the board I was looking at had all the clues and all the responses on it.) Often I would look for something that required two elements in a response (“Who are Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau?”) but when pressed I admitted that a good Daily Double is like pornography: I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.

Were the writers given production quotas or specific topic assignments, or was it a looser, more creative process than that?

It was pretty loose under Alex, with everybody playing to their strengths (I wrote a François Truffaut category right after he died, and stuffed it in a drawer until we were desperate for material. Alex approved it, and then wondered where the hell it had come from when he saw it in a game. It turned out that Truffaut had died almost exactly a year before, so we had our hook.) and creativity pushed to the limit. When the new producer (and the new Associate Producer) got on board, it became more of a quota system.

What was the best, most rewarding part of life as a Jeopardy! writer? The worst/hardest part?

The best part was working on a show everybody had heard of. As a previous staffer on Card Sharks – I found myself saying “You know, the one with the big cards…? You have to guess whether the next card is higher or lower?” – it was a pleasure to say “I work on Jeopardy!” and have people know what the show is. Once I was at Disneyland wearing a Jeopardy! sweatshirt and a Disneyland band improvised the Jeopardy! theme. None of them knew how it ended, which we all found out together.

The worst/hardest part was prepping the Tournament of Champions. These were people who had beaten us before, and I lived in terror that we would be caught in a mistake. The rest of the year, we can apologize and bring ‘em back, no problem. This time, the prestige of the show and $100,000 is at stake. And all of these contestants had beaten us five times already.

Once we had a Final for the very last Championship game. Category: Presidents. HE SAID, “I AM THE LAST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES”

Response: Who is James Buchanan? Facing the Civil War, you know….

I verified the clue easily enough, but I saw a problem: What if they say Richard Nixon? The crisis those days in August 1974 was pretty heavy, and I could not prove that Nixon did NOT say “I am the last President of the United States” and if anybody said “Who is Richard Nixon?” we were in deep trouble.

The category was changed to “18th Century Democrats.” Not quite so elegant, but it was at least pinned.

I’ve heard that quiz show writers work behind a pretty impressive veil of secrecy. Was that true of Jeopardy!?

Not when I worked there. At the beginning of every season, we got a paper to sign with the language of sections 508 and 509 of the Communications Act but most people read it cursorily and didn’t pay much attention. Although we knew that letting show material out was not to be done. I once stopped a couple of visitors from looking at unplayed games by asking their host “Are they cleared to look at material?”

Once, I was looking at a list of upcoming contestants – by sheer chance, we were hanging around the reception area and the list was near my chair – and I saw a familiar name. I turned to Susanne and asked “Do you have a picture of her?”

She had a picture. I knew she had a picture. And she knew that I knew it. Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Let me see the picture.”

We went to her office. There, on cards on her wall, were that week’s upcoming contestants. She showed me the picture.

“We might have trouble.”

By now her eyes were slits. “Why?”

“This is an old girlfriend of mine.”

We went to the producer’s office. We told him the situation, he asked me a couple of indiscreet questions, I answered them, he contemplated for a moment and then said

“Lose her.”

Susanne was very mad at me. This woman had tested higher than any woman had in several years. “I finally get a good woman, and Carlo disqualified her!”

She was supposed to play on a Tuesday, and my wife and I were at a party that weekend, and a hand clapped down on my shoulder. “I’d like to kick your ass from here to Woodland Hills and back.”

“Hi, Ellen.”

If I hadn’t blown the whistle, it could have been very bad: “So Ellen, you just won on Jeopardy!, and Carlo, you work on Jeopardy! What a coincidence.” I could hear the Club Fed doors clanging shut.

What, for you, separated a bad Jeopardy clue from a good one, or a good one from a great one?

The leaner and more elegant, the better I liked them. I learned the value of action verbs and modifiers writing for Jeopardy! because you just don’t have room for verbiage. The board was demanding: No matter how good the clue was, if it didn’t fit the screen, it couldn’t be played.

Almost every clue has a hint in it, and often the hint is a lot of the fun, for the writer as well as the viewer.

Dull: IT’S NEW MEXICO’S STATE NICKNAME

Better: LEAPIN’ WIZARDS! IT’S NEW MEXICO’S STATE NICKNAME

The hint sometimes makes the clue gettable.

Obscure: MILLARD FILLMORE DIED IN THIS CITY

Better: MILLARD FILLMORE “SHUFFLED OFF” THE PROVERBIAL MORTAL COIL IN THIS CITY

Do you have any clues you wrote that are still particular favorites?

My all-time favorite has to be in a South Africa category. In the middle of the boycotts and tension, I set out to write a non-controversial South Africa category, and a tourist guidebook told me that men’s restrooms were marked “HERE.” I found that amusing, and wrote the clue: OF GO IN OR GO ELSEWHERE, WHAT TO DO IF YOU SEE A RESTROOM MARKED “HERE”

When it played, the first contestant, a woman, said “What is go in?” Nope. Anybody else?

The second contestant, a man, grinned and said “What is go elsewhere?” The grin faded pretty fast when Alex called him wrong.

The third contestant didn’t want any part of it. There were two choices on the board, and they have both been called wrong. No thank you.

They realized what had happened when Alex called the “Restroom” business to their attention.

Movie Directors: DIRECTOR OF “WINGS” AND “HELL’S ANGELS”, HE DIED IN 1976 LEAVING AN ESTIMATED $1.6 BILLION ESTATE

I wanted the reaction “Howard Hughes directed movies?” I got it.

Sometimes we got good ones by accident. Steven wanted to get a lady friend a Minnie Mouse watch, and he asked me for the phone number for Disneyland. (I am notorious among my friends as “the Disneyland expert.”) He got connected to the Fantasyland Toy Shop, and he asked about the Minnie Mouse watch. The clerk put him on hold, and a moment later, somebody picked up the phone and said “I saw a mouse, and when you see one there are probably more and I think we need an exterminator.”

Steven latched on to it immediately: “I was asking about a Minnie Mouse watch, but do you really have a mouse problem there?”

The clerk rang off pretty quickly after that.

Steven went back to his typewriter and started working on a category he called “Vermin,” with the mice-in-Disneyland clue as the centerpiece. In order to get a verification of the clue, he called the Fantasyland Toy Shop again the next morning, right after the park opened, with me listening in. When they answered, he said “This is Steven. Did the exterminators come last night?”

“Yes, they did. I was supposed to call Patty and tell her.”

“Okay… You better call her when she comes in.”

Confirmed. It played a couple of weeks later.

Another found clue involved a clue that said HE SIGNED A 30-YEAR CONTRACT WITH NBC IN 1951. Response: “Who is Milton Berle?” In the Round Table, I asked “What if they say Bob Hope?” and was told “Find out.” I called Bob Hope’s office and was put in touch with Hope’s publicist, Ward Grant. I told him the clue, and the response, and I asked him “What if they say ‘Bob Hope’?”

He replied, “Bless your heart, Bob Hope has been under contract to NBC continuously since 1938.”

I saw a Final immediately. Category: Broadcasting. HE HAS BEEN UNDER CONTRACT TO NBC CONTINUOUSLY SINCE 1938. Unfortunately, somebody decided that it was “too tough” and it needed a hint to make it easier. It played as Category: Broadcasting. THOUGH BORN IN ENGLAND, HE HAS BEEN UNDER CONTRACT TO NBC IN THE U.S. CONTINUOUSLY SINCE 1938. I complained “That isn’t a hint, that’s a mystifier. Who remembers that Bob Hope was born in England?” but to no avail. It played, but nobody got it.

Do you remember any clues you wrote that were noteworthy in some sense on the show, in terms of deciding a well-remembered game, leading to contestant protests, etc.?

I felt pretty good about getting all three contestants to get it wrong on my NBC DIDN’T CALL IT “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE” FOR TWO YEARS BECAUSE OF A 18-WEEK “SNL” ON ABC STARRING HIM but it was called to my attention that everybody getting it wrong is a bad thing.

Another time, I wrote a Double Jeopardy! Disney category, with harder-than-usual Disney clues. It was put in two different games, and only the first clue played each time. When the Editorial Associate Producer was setting up a Tournament of Champions game that would have all J-round categories start with “A” and all DJ-round categories start with “T” as a sort-of tribute to Alex Trebek, I offered to write a new top clue for what we were by then calling “Tough Disney.” Fortunately, a Disney scholar played that game (a coincidence, I assure you) and when he got ACCORDING TO THE 1953 CARTOON, THESE FOUR SOUNDS ARE “WHERE THE MUSIC COMES FROM” he replied “What is a toot and a whistle and a plunk and a boom?” not only responding correctly, but in the words of the cartoon itself!

Next time: the end of the interview, including how Jeopardy! got Carlo married. All responses copyright 2006 Carlo Panno and used with permission.

Posted by Ken at 10:55 am     

March 17, 2008

obamasurf.jpgSince Slate.com is headlining in unusually Cosmo-esque fashion, this morning, “The Sex Dreams Americans Are Having About Barack Obama!” I was reminded that I had an Obama dream a couple nights ago. No, honestly. I wasn’t getting a piece of the Barack, though. I was giving him weekly Italian lessons, for some reason, and I was worried that he wasn’t going to show up that night because of the Mississippi primary. “But Barack showed up for Italian the night of the Ohio primary…” I reasoned in my head.

Google News also informs me that Obama’s church is now saying its reverend’s controversial comments have been “taken out of context” in the press. In case I’m not the ten millionth person to make this joke: maybe they are now claiming that Reverend Wright didn’t actually mean “God damn America!” It’s all intonation. Instead he said, “Goddamn, America!” Like, “You so awesome!” I can see that.

I just noticed that Obama’s name often appears in the press followed by a little (D-Ill.), since he’s a Democratic senator from the state of Illinois. This makes him seem a little like the lost fourth member of Run-DMC (yo, it’s D-Ill!) but it also happens to spell out the common English word “dill.” Similarly, I suspect that Joe Lieberman might have left the Democratic party not from political conviction but because he knew he’d never be an icon, so he might as well be an (I-Conn.). In the interest of completism, I can only think of two other Congressional abbreviations also spell common words. Dick Lugar of Indiana is (R-Ind.) (“rind”) and Marion Berry of Arkansas is, uh, (D-Ark.) Thankfully, this Marion Berry is white, or that would look a little awkward.

And that, my friends, is as close as we ever get to a political post hereabouts. Hope to see some of you in Burbank tonight.

Posted by Ken at 11:26 am     

December 18, 2007

Ed Toutant reminds me that Anyone Can Play, the Internet quiz show that he and I (along with Kevin Olmstead and Nancy Christy) are going to be appearing on, begins airing tonight at 9 pm on Shokus Internet Radio.

My brother pointed out that yesterday was the thirtieth anniversary of Elvis controversially getting banned from a TV variety show. Not that Elvis. This Elvis. You can watch the clip on YouTube–my brother noticed that the band (the Attractions, not SNL house musicians) is pretty clearly in on the switch in advance. Look at how unsurprised–almost bored–bassist Bruce Thomas seems at the sudden break.

In hindsight, this whole incident makes Costello look good and SNL producer Lorne Michaels, who banned him from the show for twelve years–look small. But is that only because “Radio Radio,” then unreleased, went on to become one of Costello’s signature songs, while nobody’s all that crazy anymore about the plodding “Less Than Zero”? Elvis got lucky.

At the store this morning, I was appalled to feel deeply conflicted saying “Merry Christmas” to the cashier. I was suddenly seized by the suspicion that it’s starting to be impossible to wish someone merry Christmas without sounding like a good ideological soldier. I love Christmas–sometimes I say “merry Christmas.” Sometimes I say “happy holidays,” especially if I suspect the recipient is more likely to be celebrating Hanukkah or Ramadan. But I’m not going to say “merry Christmas” at all anymore if Bill O’Reilly and his fellow “War on Christmas” blowhards on Fox News are turning “Merry Christmas” into some coded “Screw you if you’re Jewish/agnostic/atheist/other!”

If this idiocy continues, we’re going to need a new phrase every December, something that means, “Merry Christmas, including in the secular peace-on-earth-good-will-toward-men sense if that’s all you’re into and if the stupid Wiccans want to put dreamcatchers or whatever next to the nativity and the menorah in the park then that’s fine and I think it’s a disgrace to make Christmas-loyalty a battleground when you don’t really mean it anyway and it’s just a cynical ploy to rile up ratings in the red states.” Suggestions? I’ll make a T-shirt.

An ESPN crew just showed up at the house to film a short clip–for Kenny Mayne’s piece on this weekend’s Sunday NFL Countdown, I think. Gotta run.

Posted by Ken at 3:29 pm     

November 26, 2007

Last week, the Seattle Times picked up this article from the Easton, Pennsylvania Express-Times. The headline is “School officials unite in banning Wikipedia,” which caught my eye…until I saw that the story really has little to do with any outright “ban.” Instead, it’s just a lot of scolding quotes from local high school and college librarians about how Wikipedia use is lazy and sometimes inaccurate and in my day we had to zzzzz….

There is one sentence in the story about an actual Wikipedia ban, though you have to go five paragraphs down to find it. It turns out a neighboring school district (in Warren Hills, New Jersey) actually does bar all Wikipedia pages from school computers.

That’s it. The story doesn’t tell why this decision was made, if it was controversial, what other kinds of sites are also banned in school, etc. The lone person quoted from that district is a librarian who mentions one inaccuracy and one act of vandalism she’s seen on Wikipedia. One! Wow, no wonder it got banned.

I wanted more about Warren Hills, because I was shocked by the headline. Yes, teachers should be discouraging kids from relying on Wikipedia. Teachers have been telling kids not to write reports from encyclopedias since Diderot. But this isn’t because Wikipedia is some “Won’t someone please think of the children!” menace. It’s because teachers want students to learn to use different kinds of sources, which will, they imagine, serve them well in the future when they’re writing about topics (and at lengths) that aren’t really suited to a crib of an old World Book entry.

But guess what. In the real world, writers and journalists use Wikipedia all the time, whether they talk much about it or not. Sure, it’s got big holes and you have to double-check content back to primary sources. But it’s great for getting an up-to-date big-picture overview of a new topic, or any introduction at all to a topic (a pop-cultural one, or a recent trend, or whatever) not well handled by more scholarly reference.

The message to give kids about Wikipedia is “Here’s what it’s good for, and here’s what it’s not. Oh, and we’re going to be Googling randomly chosen phrases from your papers, so don’t just steal from the Web.” An outright ban, frankly, reeks of desperation and career self-preservation. How much of this Wiki-terror is really just flop sweat from well-meaning middle-aged librarians, who only have jobs right now because they know the Dewey Decimal System and nobody else at the school does, being terrified of something that can do their job faster and better, using new tools they don’t want to have to learn?

So you support the Wikipedia ban because you found one inaccuracy and one act of vandalism, Ms. Dawn Moore? Do you think there might be other resources in your library with a single inaccuracy or act of student vandalism in their pages? What percentage, do you think? Half? More? I’d like to think there’d be an outcry if a school district pulled all those books off their library shelves. So where’s the outrage over banning Wikipedia?

Take Brainiac, my book on trivia nerds. In some unlikely scenario where students are researching American quiz culture, Brainiac is the kind of book these old-media librarians would probably push: original, primary research, scrupulously endnoted, on a subject largely undocumented elsewhere. I’m a pretty anal guy, so I think the research behind Brainiac was as solid and as careful as that of most books of the genre, if not more. But after it was published, readers pointed out a handful of factual errors to me. Thanks solely to that process, most of those errors have been corrected in the paperback.

Ironically, that kind of reader feedback is the very process that powers Wikipedia. These new tools have their own set of advantages too. Educators: you can’t discuss and encourage those advantages when you’re banning an omnipresent seven-million entry reference work like it was porn. Get those heads out of the sand.

Posted by Ken at 11:32 am     

September 6, 2007

Everyone loves sequels! Well over a third of this summer’s record movie box office came from five sequels: The Bourne Ultimatum, The Shrek Ultimatum, Harry Potter and the Ultimatum of the Phoenix, Spider-matum 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Ultimatum of the Ultimatum Ultimatum. So here’s what you like, America: rewarmed, pre-chewed follow-ups to some old blog standbys.

Bewildering Conversations with a Four-Year-Old returns! Dylan, in the car the other day: “Yowch!!!” Me: “What happened, guy?” Dylan: “I bit my tooth!” That takes some doing.

The LEGO/”Legos” controversy returns! We went to Legoland California during our L.A. trip last month, and Mindy caught one of the tour guides saying “made out of Legos.” Official Lego employee approval for the bastardized American usage! On the other hand, another employee said to us, as he let us off one of the kiddie rides, “These doors are supposed to open by themselves, but we’re too poor to get them fixed.” So maybe Legoland “cast member” training isn’t quite up to Disney standards.

Wordplay Wednesday returns! The answer to yesterday’s stumper, as well as some entertaining wrong answers, can be found in this message board thread.

Other People’s Birth Announcements returns! If you know me or my family at all, you’ll be pleased to know that my youngest sister and her husband had their first baby yesterday afternoon. (If you don’t know us, no shower gift is required.) Mom and little Liam are doing great. I’m an uncle again! Ken Jennings, now 20% more avuncular.

Posted by Ken at 11:15 am     

May 1, 2007

southpark.gif

I was outed in The New York Times over the weekend. In the crossword, in fact.

As 52-across, I was (along with 41-across, DONNYOSMOND) part of a mini-theme about famous Mormons. So, yeah, everyone knew I was Mormon anyway (even if everyone didn’t assume that a dorky-looking white guy with a Utah address was Mormon, I mentioned it a couple times on Jeopardy!), but still. My religion is weird enough that it can make me a New York Times crossword theme. Is yours? Nyaah.

For a long time, I sort of felt like Mormons were assimilating pretty well into the fabric of American life. It was hard to get a grasp on this, living overseas and then in Utah, but that was how I saw it, judging from media treatment and private conversations. Being LDS made you a minority and a conversation-starter at dinner, maybe, but it wasn’t going to curl any lips in disgust. It was an interesting oddity, like being a vegan or a hockey fan or something.

But that’s changing. Maybe it’s just the general rudeness of the Internet age, but it seems like knowing sneers and pot-shots at Mormonism are actually becoming a currency of cool now. Did Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which puzzlingly portrays the mild-mannered Mormon West as a seething American underbelly of violence and fundamentalism, start this off? Was it the South Park episode? (That’s Mormon founder Joseph Smith at left in the picture above.) Or Big Love?

Mitt Romney’s run for president sure isn’t helping. If Romney somehow gets the nomination, we’ll probably start to see more of this anti-Mormon bigotry from the evangelical right, but right now, Mitt’s taking most of his op-ed heat from the left. But the bashing isn’t generally politically motivated–Mormon political or social views aren’t getting picked at much (which would be fair enough). I guess you did get The New Republic raising the laughable JFK-era boogeyman of a Presidential pawn taking his orders straight from Rome Salt Lake City. (If that’s the concern, hasn’t anyone noticed that the top-ranking Democrat in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, is a devout Mormon?)

But substantive political argument in these hit pieces is rare. Instead, otherwise rational people have straight-facedly taken the position that LDS theology itself is too outlandish to deserve any respect whatsoever. Religious discrimination is wrong, sure, and people should be allowed to believe what they want. Unless you’re Mormon, of course. Eww. They’re just weird.

Take Jacob Weisberg or alcoholic gadfly Christoper Hitchens in Slate, for example. Or this Boston Globe op-ed. Andrew Sullivan declared “Mormon week” on The Daily Dish a few months ago and spent days guffawing over those dopey Mormons.

Look, I don’t expect opinion writers to write about the LDS church, or any religion not their own, from a believer’s point of view. That wouldn’t make sense. But you don’t get any class points in my book for turning somebody’s sacred beliefs into punchlines just to jazz up your prose. I’m sure we’re going to see more of these things until the Mitt-ster drops out of the race, so here are a few points of advice to the would-be bashers.

  1. After you get off a particularly good zinger at those gullible Mormons, try recasting your sentence so it refers to “those gullible Jews” or “…Catholics” or “…Muslims.” If, Wonkette, you think Mormon temple garments should be called “magic underwear” throughout your post, try substituting “magic beanie” for “yarmulke” or “magic Nilla wafer” for “Communion host” in a similar context and considering whether that’s journalism, or whether that’s even funny anymore. If you’re horrified by the result, it’s because bigotry is bigotry, no matter the target. Mormons are no strangers to religious discrimination–after all, Missouri had its 1838 extermination order against Mormons on the books until 1976. Discrimination against Mormons isn’t any more of a laughing matter than anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic feeling, or any other religious prejudice.
  2. Realize that pretty much all religious belief is fundamentally irrational. Weisberg write that the founding myth of the LDS church–unschooled 19th-century farm boy claims that an angel led him to buried metal plates, which he then translated through miraculous means into a book of scripture–is so a priori stupid that he should be allowed his pot-shots. Sure, he allows, this is no weirder than what lies beneath any other religion–virgin birth, the parting of the Red Sea, Gabriel’s delivery of the Qur’an. “But a few eons makes a big difference,” he says, waving his hands. “The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor.” So a patina of age is what makes it okay to laugh at Mitt Romney about Joseph Smith, even though you’d never make Muhammad jokes to Keith Ellison? That’s just dopey. I don’t know how many churchgoing Americans Weisberg hangs out with, but let me assure him: most of them are just as sincere about their faiths’ improbable divine origins as Mormons are. Does he think modern Baptists and Catholics and Jews read scripture and think to themselves, “Wow, I’m sure glad my splintered, moderated religion doesn’t believe these nutty metaphorical miracles ever really happened”? I’ve always thought the modern American context of Mormonism’s story is what makes it special and uniquely fascinating. Weisberg et. al. just seem to think it makes it a better punchline.
  3. Finally, do your @#$% research. Pieces like Weisberg’s and Hitchens’ seem to be based on a single viewing of that one South Park and perhaps dim memories of a 1976 undergraduate reading of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. So they feel no compunction about calling LDS church founder Joseph Smith a “charlatan” who whipped up Mormonism L. Ron Hubbard-style as a “racket” to gratify his own ego and sexual libertinism. There’s only one problem with this caricature: you’re not going to find too many scholars of Mormonism, believing or not, who buy it anymore. When it comes to Mormon history, Brodie is out; Richard Bushman’s considerably more nuanced Rough Stone Rolling is in. Smith is still an enigma, and you’ll find a broad spectrum of scholars willing to explain his remarkable life with varying shades of piety or cynicism (or, if you’re talking to a Mormon, as a genuine visionary). But it’s certainly not good enough anymore to assume in your very first graf that everyone knows Joseph Smith was just a con man and let’s take it from there. Again, try this out with “Buddha” or “Joan of Arc” or “Muhammad” and see how your piece sounds.

PBS has just aired a thoughtful four-hour Frontline doc on “The Mormons” (check local listings if you missed it; maybe it’ll re-air). Some LDS folks will probably blanch at the series’ straightforward look at polygamy, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and other historical controversies of Mormonism. Nonbelievers might blink at how seriously and respectfully many of the doc’s talking heads treat the LDS church’s surprising origins and evolution. They shouldn’t be surprised. Not every look at a major American religion has to be a clueless five-minute hit piece. Sometimes there’s more to see.

Posted by Ken at 12:10 pm     

April 30, 2007

A few nights ago, in honor of last week’s Tuesday Trivia Question Seven (movies whose titles end with exclamation points), we watched That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks’ pitch-perfect, underrated 1996 paean to early-’60s rock and roll. Which means two things: one, I still have that @#$% song going through my head, and two, I was reminded that I can’t stand fictional movies that resort to “Where are they now?” capsules for the entire cast at the end.

Oddly, I really like these little text cappers in movies based on real life, where they’re almost de rigueur nowadays. There’s a sense in which the “end of the story” in a biopic is the final fate of the main character(s)–i.e. retirement or death–and that’s usually hard to show dramatically. So you get a little crawl at the end saying that Ray Charles or Ed Wood or Henry Hill or whoever went on to do such and such. Often, these are places for great little real-life trivia or ironies that didn’t or couldn’t make the shooting script. “But she never returned to Tallahassee, Florida!” “Eddie, his manager, became a Buddhist monk. Today he lives at a lamasery in Nepal.” Recently, the text at the end of United 93 caused controversy while it was still being fine-tuned.

These I like. I always leave biopics and other factual movies wanting to know more about the real-life history anyway. But somewhere along the line, the convention got borrowed for fiction films, and that really annoys me for some reason. When I read, “Twenty years later, Bobby and Janet met once more, by chance, at a Christmas party. They remarried and now live in Portugal,” I want to stand up and yell at the screen, “No, they don’t! They don’t exist! If that was part of the story, you would have shown it to us in the actual movie! Cheat! CHEAT!” Typically I only do this when I’m watching at home.

That Thing You Do! is a good example, because the where-are-they-now montage is just as sleepy and innocuous as the rest of the movie. Quick, do you remember which of the cast is still a bachelor? Which lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington? Of course not. Because it doesn’t matter one bit to the actual events you cared about. The little fillip at the end was completely unnecessary, and actually weakens the movie.

No exemption for movies that do this to be funny (A Fish Called Wanda), because they’re never funny. No exemption for movies that do this for a sudden sucker-punch of gravitas (not even the great American Graffiti–maybe the first movie ever to use this gimmick?) because it’s still a cheat, even where it’s effective. Occasional and reluctant exemption for movies that do a literary-style text finish that actually ends the story (Unforgiven), rather than just giving you a journalistic whatever-happened-to update on six different characters.

Thank you for your kind attention and good day.

(After leaving the Marines, Ken Jennings became a celebrity chef in Manitoba, Canada, where he raises emu. He and Rhonda have eleven children.)

Posted by Ken at 10:56 am     

April 3, 2007

I happen to have a complete book of world national anthems sitting next to me this morning, for something I’m writing, so here’s some funny anthem trivia, Millionaire-style. Take your best guesses; I’ll run answers tomorrow.

What’s the only country that still proclaims allegiance to another country’s king in its national anthem?

A. Andorra
B. The Netherlands
C. Brazill
D. Samoa

What country has no words at all to its anthem? (No more on-camera mumbling by ballplayers who don’t know the words.)

A. Spain
B. Thailand
C. Vatican City
D. Bhutan

What’s the only architectural feat named in a national anthem?

A. The Great Wall of China
B. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
C. Machu Picchu, Peru
D. The Pyramids of Egypt

What’s the only country whose national anthem trumpets the hotness of its women?

A. Costa Rica
B. Tonga
C. Denmark
D. Italy

What two countries have national anthems written by the same person, a Nobel Prize winner?

A. Norway and Sweden
B. Chile and Peru
C. India and Bangladesh
D. Venezuela and Colombia

What country stole “God Save the King” as the melody to its anthem?

A. Haiti
B. Liechtenstein
C. Central African Republic
D. South Korea

Speaking of mumbling ballplayers, whatever happened to the movement a few years back to officially replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” with “America the Beautiful”? I would be all for that. First, it doesn’t have “The Star-Spangled Banner”‘s octave-and-a-half range. Second, “America the Beautiful” is actually, you know, about the country, and not about some minor skirmish of the War of 1812 that no one cares about today. Third, “America the Beautiful” extols America’s non-controversial virtues (national beauty, pioneer spirit, hope for the future) rather than threatening our enemies. (“Their blood has washed out their foul footstep’s pollution,” according to “The Star-Spangled Banner”‘s little-heard third verse.)

What’s holding this up? The state of Maryland doesn’t want to let it go? Much as I want Congress to get on this, I’m glad they didn’t make the change before 1969. “America the Beautiful” on Jimi Hendrix’s guitar at Woodstock just wouldn’t have been the same.

Posted by Ken at 10:50 am     

January 19, 2007

You may recall GOP strategist Ed Rogers making headlines a few months back for pointedly sneering, on Hardball, at “Barack Hussein’s Obama”‘s possible presidential candidacy. The implication of using Obama’s Arabic middle name may have been to suggest that (a) Obama is unelectable, (b) Obama is a terrorist, or (c) both.

But I’d like to point out that Obama isn’t the first person with a problematic middle name to seek the presidency. Here are ten others who actually won (make sure to read the middle name in Rogers’ acid-drenched tones):

  1. John Quincy Adams: elected in 1824, despite Thomas de Quincey’s controversial addiction novel Confessions of an English Opium Eater having been published only two years before. De Quincey definitely inhaled.
  2. Ulysses Simpson Grant: during debates, Democrats Horatio Seymour and Horace Greeley took the high road and never taunted Grant with cracks like “Don’t have a cow, man!” or “Found the ‘Real Killer’ yet?”
  3. Harry S Truman: come on, what does it really stand for? Sssssoviet? Sssssocialism?
  4. Dwight David Eisenhower: just like Obama, his middle name also names a corrupt Middle Eastern tyrant, in this case one who sent men on dangerous military assignments in order to diddle their wives.
  5. John Fitzgerald Kennedy: bore the name of a dissipated Jazz Age alcoholic who plagiarized the best bits of his novels from his mentally ill wife.
  6. Gerald Rudolph Ford: couldn’t quite overcome having the same name as the editor of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s deputy
  7. James Earl Carter: same first and middle names as Martin Luther King’s assassin. Only Democrat to sweep the Deep South in forty years.
  8. Ronald Wilson Reagan: jeez, take your pick. AA co-founder Bill Wilson? Famed courtesan Harriette Wilson? Violent Scottish revolutionary James Wilson? Beach Boy/coke-vacuum Carl Wilson? Ziggy cartoonist Tom Wilson? The infamous possibilities are almost endless.
  9. William Jefferson Clinton: won two landslides, despite reminding voters of blustery, quick-tempered dry-cleaning entrepreneur George Jefferson.
  10. George Walker Bush: fought off inevitable comparisons to soldier of fortune William Walker, who led several ill-advised attempts to conquer Latin America in the 1850s. (If that’s a little too on-the-nose for you, there’s also Norman Walker, the inventor of carrot juice. Ewww.)
Posted by Ken at 4:12 pm     

July 15, 2006

tvguide.jpg

One common knock against “trivial” knowledge is that it’s not as deep or substantive as “real” knowledge. You know a little about a lot, but a lot about very little.

But one plus to knowing a little about a lot is the ability to make interdisciplinary connections that other, overspecialized minds might miss.

Here’s an example: in the first-year psychology course I took in college, we learned that personality types were often measured along four main axes: introverted-vs.-extroverted, abrasive-vs.-agreeable, conscientious-vs.-impulsive, and neurotic-vs.-stable.

Everyone in the class dutifully noted this down, but I’m sure I was the only one to immediate notice that these four personality extremes were brilliantly captured by the four changes made in the cast of M*A*S*H during its 11-year run! So I formulated a little test that actually seemed to work pretty well on friends. Do you prefer Radar or Klinger? This clearly demonstrates whether or not you’re an introvert or extrovert. Who’s funnier, the uptight Frank Burns or the pompous-but-harmless Winchester? (Abrasive vs. agreeable.) Do you like the tight ship run by Colonel Potter or the loose, zany Colonel Blake? (Conscientiousness vs. impulse.) Who’s a better Hawkeye sidekick, Trapper or B.J.? (Neurotic vs. stable…this one’s a little iffy, but I always felt like Californian family man B.J. was better adjusted and more easy-going than Trapper.)

Go ahead, try it out on friends (who remember M*A*S*H, I guess). It’s ingenious. It could make personality testing obsolete.

But you know what? I just looked up “personality types” on Wikipedia, and it turns out my Psych 101 textbook lied to me. There are five personality factors now, and I don’t have a M*A*S*H way to measure the “openness to experience” axis. Oh well. I guess deep, substantive knowledge of a subject still trumps trivia sometimes.

Posted by Ken at 11:51 am