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Updated: 2017-12-08T00:36:02Z

 



Omnibus, take all of us

2017-12-08T00:36:02Z

I almost managed to vanish from the ol’ blog for an entire calendar year! In part that was because I was working overtime on a book deadline; in part it was just an effect of my unhealthy and all-consuming Twitter addiction, which is not a problem I ever had with blogging. So I didn’t update […]I almost managed to vanish from the ol’ blog for an entire calendar year! In part that was because I was working overtime on a book deadline; in part it was just an effect of my unhealthy and all-consuming Twitter addiction, which is not a problem I ever had with blogging. So I didn’t update this blog in April when my episode of The Simpsons aired, on which I played quiz show champion “Ken Jennings.” I didn’t update it in May when Fox and Friends was coming after me for a pretty solid Twitter joke about the president. It was an irritating couple of days, waiting for a million of the dumbest people and bots in America to get bored with hating me and move on to someone else. I didn’t update it in June when I finally turned in a draft of my next book, on shelves next May. This is not a final cover and I’m not 100% sure I should be showing it to you but oh well. I didn’t update it in the fall when I made a couple ads for FleetWit, the real-time trivia app I consult for, including one in which Seahawks cornerback and future Hall of Famer Richard Sherman schools me on sports trivia. width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Y-yF8_9gFHs" frameborder="0" gesture="media" allow="encrypted-media" allowfullscreen> width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Rxv1a_rHx6M" frameborder="0" gesture="media" allow="encrypted-media" allowfullscreen> But today, I’m ending the dry spell to tell you about Omnibus, a new podcast from musician John Roderick (the Long Winters) and myself that launches today. John and I are both tireless and determined polymaths, curious about just every field of human endeavor. We are also increasingly convinced that the end of human civilization looms in the near- or medium-term. Will it be global warming that finishes humankind off? Nuclear war? A zombie pandemic? A meteor? Hard to say at this point, even for hard-thinking futurists like ourselves. But we have a plan! John and I are compiling a massive, authoritative reference work called the Omnibus, which will catalog and explain everything that was once valuable and interesting about human history and culture. We don’t know if the post-collapse inhabitants of Earth–the fish-men, the cockroaches, the robots, the sentient moss, the alien colonists, whoever–will discover and decrypt our recordings. It’s a time capsule, a podcast-sized message in a bottle. But we hope someone finds it. Every Tuesday and Thursday, John and I discuss some weird and fascinating footnote from the “Before Times” of human history, culture, or science for Future Earth. We might explain the Defenestration of Prague in one recording, then try to visualize four-dimensional geometries in the next, and then jump over to take a closer look at “the Rachel,” Jennifer Aniston’s ubiquitious 1990s hairstyle. Explaining these phenomena to people (???) of a different era allows us to see them through fresh eyes. Whether you’re a mole-man, a super-intelligent coral reef, or the villainous global computer network that launched the missiles in the first place, we hope that you are somehow seeing this blog post and will do whatever it takes to unearth the Omnibus. It’s the last podcast you’ll ever need. [...]



(W)ΟΡΝΤΠΛΑΙ (W)ΕΝΤΝΕΣΝΤΑΙ

2017-03-09T19:06:08Z

(W)hy not? I was in Athens in November for the first international Quiz Olympiad. The hotel that hosted the event was just a short walk away from the marble Panathenaic Stadium, built in 330 BC, which has hosted events for the modern Olympic Games twice. A monument out front lists the host cities of every […]

(W)hy not?

I was in Athens in November for the first international Quiz Olympiad. The hotel that hosted the event was just a short walk away from the marble Panathenaic Stadium, built in 330 BC, which has hosted events for the modern Olympic Games twice.

A monument out front lists the host cities of every subsequent summer games, but it’s written in Greek script. So the first entry carved into the stone is not “ATHENS” but “AΘHNAI.”

But there was one and only one Olympic city on the list whose Greek spelling looked identical to its English one. Which city was it?

Edit: If you’re looking for the answer, Neel Mehta‘s guess was correct.




Hits within hits

2016-12-24T03:12:00Z

The final question on my weekly Tuesday Trivia email quiz a couple weeks ago was one of the hardest in the quiz’s ten-year history. Only two respondents guessed the correct answer. The gimmick was: artists who had two well-known songs, one of which contains the full title of the other. The examples on the quiz […]

The final question on my weekly Tuesday Trivia email quiz a couple weeks ago was one of the hardest in the quiz’s ten-year history. Only two respondents guessed the correct answer.

The gimmick was: artists who had two well-known songs, one of which contains the full title of the other. The examples on the quiz were:

The Beach Boys “Surfin'” “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
The Beatles “Help!” “With a Little Help from My Friends”
The Bee Gees “Alive” “Stayin’ Alive”
Janet Jackson “Again” “Together Again”
Joni Mitchell “Blue” “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”
Elvis Presley “Don’t” “Don’t Be Cruel”
Bruce Springsteen “Fire” “I’m on Fire”
U2 “One” “One Tree Hill”

As far as I know, I’m the first person in the history of the universe to care about this, so that list was built from the ground up, mostly by looking at one-word songs in old Billboard charts. In all cases, both songs were singles, hits in most cases. In Elvis’s and Janet’s cases (Miss Jackson’s if you’re nasty) both went to #1. The lone exception is “Blue” by Joni Mitchell, which was never released as a single, but I let it through since it’s the title track off her best-known album.

My question is: what other song pairs did I miss? My brother came up with a few options that weren’t necessarily hits: the Rolling Stones’ “Think” and “Do You Think I Really Care” and R.E.M.’s “You” and “You Are the Everything.” Ignore trivial cases like sequel songs (“Freedom” and “Freedom ’90,” though technically those are from two different artists).




The worst man in the world

2016-12-14T08:03:21Z

When Time magazine named President-elect (!!!) Donald Trump its “Person of the Year” last week, I tweeted Trump is the only Time Person of the Year who was also Spy magazine's worst person of the year (1995). — Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) December 7, 2016 That’s not a joke, as you might have guessed if you […] When Time magazine named President-elect (!!!) Donald Trump its “Person of the Year” last week, I tweeted Trump is the only Time Person of the Year who was also Spy magazine's worst person of the year (1995). — Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) December 7, 2016 That’s not a joke, as you might have guessed if you recall the steady stream of Spy magazine nostalgia on this blog over the years. The late, lamented satire magazine always ran a year-in-review piece called “The Spy 100,” a rundown of the “most annoying, alarming, and appalling” people, places, and things of the year. I felt confident that Trump was the only person to earn both magazine honors, but wanted to double-check that Spy never anointed George H. W. Bush, on whom they were always way harder even than they were on Reagan. So I hit the back issues to make sure. At first I was surprised to see that Trump never topped any of the ’80s lists, during the magazine’s early “funny years.” Even though he wasn’t in the #1 spot, though, he was ever-present. Spy loved hating Trump. He appears no fewer than five times on the 1988 list, for example (in different roles, including–presciently!–“Donald Trump, Candidate”). And on the 1989 list, Trump never appeared, but the 100 other entries were each assigned a TrumpScore, measuring the closeness of their relationship to Spy‘s great orange whale. (The TrumpScore, T, was added to the official Spy 100 equation, alongside other variables like L, Inherent Loathsomeness, and M, Misdeeds.) I had pretty much given up when I got to 1995, and was surprised to find Trump, at a low point in relevance, for some reason topping the list! I assume Spy‘s new bosses were trying to recapture the glory days of their 1980s Trump feud. Since there’s no online list anywhere that I could find, here as a public service are the “winners” at the top of the Spy 100 during every year of the magazine’s lifespan. You can really see the 1992-1993 dividing line when new editorial took over and the magazine stopped being good. 1987 Ivan Boesky 1988 Al Sharpton 1989 Lee Atwater 1990 “S & L Hell” (the savings and loan crisis) 1991 “New World Disorder” (post-Cold War and -Gulf War mishegas) 1992 H. Ross Perot 1993 Jerry Seinfeld 1994 Forrest Gump (though O.J. Simpson merited a special entry as “Off the Scale”) 1995 Donald Trump 1996 Friends 1997 Ellen DeGeneres [...]



To the fleetest

2016-12-05T21:41:11Z

Jeopardy! plows through two new contestants every weeknight, as implacably as a shark. But that means your odds, as a random American, of getting on the show this year are still no better than 1 in 800,000. Sad! Enter FleetWit! It’s a mobile “brain race” site where players compete in live quizzes testing a mix […]

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Jeopardy! plows through two new contestants every weeknight, as implacably as a shark. But that means your odds, as a random American, of getting on the show this year are still no better than 1 in 800,000. Sad!

Enter FleetWit! It’s a mobile “brain race” site where players compete in live quizzes testing a mix of trivia know-how and general mental agility. I’ve tried a few of FleetWit’s race over the past month and always enjoy them…they’re fast-paced, accessible, well-designed. Real-time gaming seems to be the Next Big Trivia Thing, and FleetWit is the digital platform that comes closest so far to capturing the real-time thrills of playing on a game show…partly because they actually award cash prizes to top finishers! (No Rice-a-Roni or copies of the home game for runners-up, however.)

(image) (image)

I’ve been consulting with FleetWit on trivia content and designing special “Genius Questions” for their site on occasion. But this weekend we’re going to try something a little different: I’m going to compete in a live race on Sunday at 8:30pm EST against anyone who’s up to the challenge. It’s free to enter and more than bragging rights are on the line: there’s $1500 in prizes up for grabs, plus a $25 bonus for anyone that can beat me! You can sign up here.

If you haven’t checked out FleetWit yet, you might want to get a few practice races under your belt before Sunday night’s big event. I’ll see you at the races!




Where are they now?

2016-12-05T20:30:32Z

Jeopardy! is running a series of stories this season called “the J!Effect,” about how the quiz show has changed lives over its 30-year-plus run. This is very exciting to hear because it means Jeopardy! is embracing the hip millennial-friendly abbreviation “J!” for its brand, replacing its ’90 attempt, “Jep!” But it’s also exciting because it […]

Jeopardy! is running a series of stories this season called “the J!Effect,” about how the quiz show has changed lives over its 30-year-plus run. This is very exciting to hear because it means Jeopardy! is embracing the hip millennial-friendly abbreviation “J!” for its brand, replacing its ’90 attempt, “Jep!”

But it’s also exciting because it means the show checked in with me, to see how my eye-bags and jowls are getting on now that my streak on the show is more than twelve years in the rear-view mirror!

width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gk9ILVmxRTc" allowfullscreen>

There are more excerpts from the interview here. My joke about how you have to win for six months on a quiz show to afford a house in Seattle these days was a big deal locally, by the way, making the Times and nightly newscasts. For the record: it was just a joke! You can still buy a fixer-upper in Seattle with a 20-game streak, easy.




Citius Altius Trivius

2016-11-20T23:38:49Z

I just got back from the first ever Quiz Olympiad, organized by the International Quizzing Association and held in the Olympic cradle of Athens, Greece. It was an historic weekend! Some background: the IQA has been holding these European and international quiz tournaments for many years, but I’ve only attended one: the 2007 European Quiz […] I just got back from the first ever Quiz Olympiad, organized by the International Quizzing Association and held in the Olympic cradle of Athens, Greece. It was an historic weekend! Some background: the IQA has been holding these European and international quiz tournaments for many years, but I’ve only attended one: the 2007 European Quiz Championships in Blackpool, England. That event was held in a cheerfully rundown Basil Fawlty-style holiday hotel on a chilly November weekend, but we were warmly welcomed by our British hosts. I was completely charmed by the international flavor of the proceedings and the bewildering difficulty of much of the material. The 2016 Quiz Olympiad, by contrast, was held in an upscale five-star hotel in central Athens, and was attended by over two hundred competitors from all over the world. Twenty nations were registered in the flagship event, the international teams quiz. I was there as the captain of Team USA, which brought over our largest-ever complement of sixteen players. Some were quiz show champs you might recognize from TV: Ed Toutant and Dave Legler, seven-figure winners on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; Brandon Saunders from Million Second Quiz; Jeopardy! college champion Shane Whitlock; and Raj Dhuwalia, the all-time winner on GSN’s The Chase. Others, like Mark Ryder and Tim Polley, were just mild-mannered civilians who play IQA events remotely from the States, but are every bit as good as the names you know. Here’s the thing to know about top-level European quiz: it’s an uphill climb for Americans. Our trivia canon privileges domestic history and culture to such a degree that it can be a shock to the American system when we’re suddenly expected to have an equal familiarity with Uzbek road cycling, Croatian medieval history, contemporary Iranian poetry, Cameroonian jazz-funk, and Monegasque oceanography (all actual examples from the Olympiad, by the way). The specialty quiz on history had maybe five questions out of fifty that covered American history, roughly the same distribution given over to the Scandinavians or the Balkans. Don’t get me wrong, this is the canon that makes sense for a mostly European field! But for America ever to really compete, we’re going to have to suck it up and watch some soccer or something. Still, Team USA acquitted itself well. We only finished in the middle of the pack on the team quiz, but then two of us medaled in the specialist quizzes the next day (Brandon Saunders’s bronze in Digital Technology and my silver in Film). Shane took third in the knockout quiz, and Brandon and Tanay Kothari were gold and bronze in the speed quiz–evidently a young person’s game. Three of the top ten finishers in the pairs quiz (including Ed Toutant’s bronze with Belgium’s Nico Pattyn) had U.S. players aboard. Maybe the most impressive feat by an American was Raj Dhuwalia’s fifth-place finish in the individual quiz, just a few questions behind England’s big names. Only England, Belgium, and Norway finished with more medals than our six. (Complete information and standings here.) Putting on a big eight-event quiz weekend for hundreds of players in dozens of languages must be a logistical nightmare, but everything went off without a hitch, thanks to the hard work of Jane Allen and her IQA team. Events started and ended strictly on schedule, which is almost unheard of in my U.S. quiz tournaments experience. There was even down time for side trips to the Acropo[...]



Carrying the torch

2016-10-31T17:01:52Z

I’m off to Greece this week for the inaugural Quiz Olympiad. (Cue NBC Olympics anthem! But only in your head so we don’t get sued.) Here’s the press release I just got sent about the event. Wish us luck! Team USA competing at Quiz Olympiad, Nov. 3 – 6 in Athens, Greece Author and Jeopardy! […] I’m off to Greece this week for the inaugural Quiz Olympiad. (Cue NBC Olympics anthem! But only in your head so we don’t get sued.) Here’s the press release I just got sent about the event. Wish us luck! Team USA competing at Quiz Olympiad, Nov. 3 – 6 in Athens, Greece Author and Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings is captain of Quiz Team USA Boulder CO, October 28, 2016: Author and game show champion Ken Jennings has been named captain of the American team by the USA Chapter of the International Quizzing Association (iQa). He will lead a group of 16 trivia players, academics, and other know-it-alls to take on adversaries from across the globe at the Quiz Olympiad in Athens, Greece during November 3rd – 6th, 2016. The national team includes Shane & Lee-Ann Whitlock of Arkansas; Les Chun, Raj Dhuwalia, Julie Ghanbari, Tanay Kothari, Mark Ryder, and Kathryn Verwillow of California; David Legler of Illinois; Tim Polley of Mississippi; Chris Goheen of Pennsylvania; Jean Cui and Brandon Saunders of New York; and Ed Toutant of Texas. Ken Jennings represents the state of Washington, and Paul Bailey of Colorado is the team manager. Members of the team hold a variety of advanced academic degrees, are champions as individuals or on teams from a variety of quiz & trivia competitions, and have won a combined total of over $8 million on television game shows. The Olympiad will see individuals and teams from 26 nations answering questions in categories including business, culture, entertainment, film, geography, history, lifestyle, literature, media, performing & visual arts, science, sport, and technology. “I always have a great time when I get to attend one of these international quizzing events, mostly because I love the idea that trivia is a noble, global pursuit. Quizzing should absolutely have its own Olympiad, with all the attendant pomp and prestige and geopolitical pressure and wild shenanigans in the ‘Olympic Village.’ I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” said Jennings. All Team USA members will compete in individual, pairs, and four-member squad events. The top USA squad will be Jennings, Dhuwalia, Ryder, and S. Whitlock. The top USA age 30 and under (30U) squad will be Cui, Kothari, Polley, and Saunders. The Quiz Olympiad will be the largest and most diverse competition of its kind ever, with players from all over the world contesting titles and participating head-to-head for the first time. Since 2003, the International Quizzing Association has organized a variety of events worldwide to stimulate mental competition at the local, regional, national and international level. The next World Quizzing Championships take place at over 200 locations across the globe including 20+ locations in the USA on Saturday, June 2, 2017 (see www.worldquizzing.com). The next Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA) take place August 4-6, 2017 in Las Vegas, NV (see www.tcona.com). [...]



To the map we go

2016-10-24T17:58:56Z

In this week’s Maphead piece for Condé Nast Traveler, I write about the weird history of Westwego, Louisiana, which bills itself as the only town in America whose name is a complete sentence. I was unable to find any other burg making a similar claim, so I let it slide. But then, checking out Westwego […]

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In this week’s Maphead piece for Condé Nast Traveler, I write about the weird history of Westwego, Louisiana, which bills itself as the only town in America whose name is a complete sentence.

I was unable to find any other burg making a similar claim, so I let it slide. But then, checking out Westwego in a road atlas, I noticed a possible competing claim just on the other side of Lake Ponchartrain: Uneedus, Louisiana. (Sure enough, the history checks out. Uneedus comes from “You need us,” the slogan of a nearby lumber company.)

If there was another candidate just a few parishes north, I’m now skeptical that the rest of the national map is entirely bereft of complete sentence towns. Just because I couldn’t find Let’s Dance, Oregon or God Saves, Arkansas in any gazetteer doesn’t mean they (or, more likely, similar examples) don’t exist.

So let’s crowdsource this. Does anyone know of any American toponyms that are complete sentences? They have to originate as a complete sentence, not just grammatically resemble one. “Wichita Falls” doesn’t count.




Captain America

2016-10-11T23:09:08Z

Way back in 2014, when gay marriage was illegal in half the country, True Detective and the iPhone 6 were brand new, and Donald Trump was still just a reality TV punchline, my friend Paul Bailey asked if I might want to represent my country in the first “Quiz Olympiad,” an international quizzing championship scheduled […]

Way back in 2014, when gay marriage was illegal in half the country, True Detective and the iPhone 6 were brand new, and Donald Trump was still just a reality TV punchline, my friend Paul Bailey asked if I might want to represent my country in the first “Quiz Olympiad,” an international quizzing championship scheduled for the end of 2016.

Sure! I said. I’ve always wanted to be an Olympian, and my best pole vaulting years are probably behind me.

Fast-forward to 2016 and IT’S ALL HAPPENING! Teams from four continents are headed to Athens, Greece in less than a month to compete in the International Quizzing Association’s very first “Quiz Olympiad.” Joining me on Team USA are some of the best American quizzers I know, including some you might recognize from their big wins on Jeopardy! (Shane Whitlock) or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (Ed Toutant).

I’ve only been to one of these European quiz tournaments before, and it was a daunting challenge. But Team USA is ready to answer the call. My shirt even showed up in the mail today!

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Paul Bailey notes that you can support America’s nerdiest Olympians by buying yourself a team shirt, one just like mine except it doesn’t smell like the Costco hummus I spilled on mine earlier. More details here; orders for the next run of shirts are due this week.

In November, the Quiz Olympiad website will have updates on how we’re doing against the Brits and Belgians and the other titans of international quizzing, the ‘roided-up East German swimmers of this particular Olympics. A nation’s eyes will be upon us. We won’t let you down.