Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Insights from a Master of Trivia

Review: Brainiac, by Ken Jennings

On my British Airways flight across the Pond, halfway between the free wine and free cappuccino, I started to read Ken Jennings' book. If you haven't heard of Ken Jennings, here's a quick primer: In a nutshell, he's the guy who won Jeopardy! seventy-four consecutive times and raked in over two and a half million dollars. His book integrates three "spheres" of trivia culture: his own Jeopardy! experiences, various depictions of the American trivia scene (mostly focusing on college quiz bowl teams), and actual trivia questions to be answered by the reader.

It's a wonderfully entertaining book, and I'm not surprised. Looking at Jennings' demeanor while he was on Jeopardy, he's easygoing, conversational, and clever. In fact, Jennings reminds me of myself... granted, a somewhat more knowledgeable and much more successful me. He writes a lot like I do, too, with the critical distinction that he actually has something worthwhile to talk about.

One of the main themes of the book is the relationship between intelligence and success on Jeopardy. A cursory look at the situation would probably suggest that of course a smart person is going to succeed at Jeopardy because he knows lots of things. Jennings disputes this, saying that there is indeed a link between intelligence and Jeopardy success, but that it has comparatively little to do with knowing stuff. He himself knows a lot of stuff, and he's a smart man. But knowing stuff doesn't exactly translate into being intelligent, or vice versa. Jennings admits to being a "pretty mediocre computer programmer," acknowledging that his success in trivia and his mastery of information doesn't necessarily make him good at anything except knowing things.

Knowing things, of course, is a valuable skill to have on Jeopardy. But it's not the only skill. Another skill, the one that does have a direct connection to intelligence, is knowing how to play the game. It's things like knowing what time to press the button, how to wager well, and what the questions are going to be about. This last one was particularly important to Jennings: the most-asked topics on Jeopardy include US presidents; opera, ballet, and 19th-century poetry; and alcohol. The first was an old standby from college quiz bowl days, so that was an easy one. The next three didn't naturally appeal to Jennings as a computer programmer--who knows what the differences between Wordsworth, Keats, and Longfellow are? The last presented a problem as a Mormon--after making mixed-drink flash cards to study from, Jennings says that he could make a hell of a bartender even though he hasn't actually tasted any of those drinks.

Anyone who's ever planning to go on Jeopardy should probably read this book to follow Jennings' advice (look at the number of records on that Wikipedia page). But even if you're not a Jeopardy aspirant, this book is entertaining, insightful, and absorbing. Test yourself as you go through the book (there's even a question about Georgia Tech!) and allow yourself to be amazed by the utter trivia obsession of some of Jennings' contemporaries.

Currently listening: "Run," Snow Patrol

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I Just Can't Wait to be (Deputy) King

Tanna, obscure island in Melanesia. Part of Vanuatu and famous for cannibalism, resistance to modernization, and John Frum cargo cults. And I have a tenuous connection to its royalty.

I know a guy (Forrest) whose dad knows a guy (Dr. Heinz Egli) who may or may not be king of Tanna. He's deputy king at the very least. On this island, there was a legend of a white man who would appear on a raft after an earthquake and a volcano eruption. Enter a man whose name I forget, who is clever enough to sit on a raft during an earthquake and wait for the volcano to erupt (as it does every few minutes). Sailing up to the island, he is hailed as King. Things are happy in Tanna for a while.

Now enter the British, who colonially own the island. They're afraid of an armed rebellion--as well they should be, with the one rifle on the island. A detachment of one hundred soldiers lands on the island to seize its rifle and flag, but the King will have none of it. He gives the British a day to withdraw and return the rifle and flag or he will declare war on them--and on the French for good measure. And after a day of noncompliance, the King of Tanna writes a letter to the Queen of England, the President of France, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations to declare war.

The war is ended in a day when British troops arrest the king and imprison him.

Now enter Dr. Heinz Egli, international activist and advocate for Tanna's traditional movement. He manages to get the King out of jail and help the natives a bit, and for this, he is rewarded the title of Viceroy. A bit of a snag here: he's Swiss, and like the Americans, the Swiss can't accept foreign titles. But a loophole presents itself: the Swiss government wouldn't object to a title that they didn't know the significance of, and English not being an official language of the country, Dr. Egli can accept the title of Deputy King.

Sadly, the King passed away a few years ago, and astonishingly, lines of succession aren't clear in Tanna. Should the Deputy King become King? The King's son? Should an entirely new legend be written to predict the next king? Until this matter is resolved, Dr. Egli is content to be Deputy King.

His duties? Go there once a year and help them to advance while still maintaining traditional customs. Oh, and have songs composed and pigs slaughtered in his honor. Sounds like a fine job to me.

Pictures of Dr. Egli's castle/current home can be found at the Photobucket page: Those interested are encouraged to check the page repeatedly, as new pictures should show up at least weekly for the whole summer.

Currently listening: "Piano Concerto in F," George Gershwin

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Transalpine Gaul

Naturally, if I'm going to be blogging from Europe, I'm going to use the most pretentious terms possible to describe what's going on. And technically, Lyon and Grenoble are not in the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul, but close enough. A few scattered impressions to start things off:

France is energy-conscious, it turns out. Obsessively so. You can't leave the lights on in the hallways, no matter how hard you try: most of them are equipped with 60-second timers. Now, turning off the lights when you leave the room is one thing; not having air conditioning is another entirely. The only building in GTL that's air conditioned is the computer lab, from whence this entry originates. Dorm rooms? Nope. Classrooms? Out of luck there too.

I also don't know how these people stay hydrated. Water fountains are as rare as air-conditioned rooms, and a bottle of water is something extortionary like 2 euros. That makes old water bottles and sinks very valuable things.

The Decemberists have it right: Orangina is an amazing beverage.

The Brits, on the other hand, have some very bizarre tastes in beverage. Here's a new one. The guy next to me wanted tomato juice with his pretzel snack (I got Sprite). I thought that was a little weird, but whatever. The thing is, the attendant, without missing a beat, asks "Worcester and lemon?" to which the guy responds "please." She then proceeds to shake in a few drops of Worcester and put in a slice of lemon and hand it to the guy. Then the same scene repeats with a woman two rows behind me.

On my quest to become a wine snob, I've bought one bottle. It was a Pinot Gris from the Moselle (the river that runs through Metz), a white that was really good chilled. I don't know how to properly use words like "crunchy" or "refreshing minerality" yet, but I'm sure it was both those things too.

The French, for some reason, really like their pizza. But it's bizarre pizza, like Roquefort cheese and onion pizza. As for food, apparently Lyon is the cuisine capital of France, or something. So at the restaurant we went to, I decided to have a Lyonnaise specialty of "(word I can't read) sausage (words I can't read)." This turned out to be tripe sausage, which I believe to be rolled up intestine in a sausage casing. It was chewy and a little bitter, but not terrible.

One of the weirdest things is the cars you see, like Renault, Peugeot, and Citroen. It's almost a breath of fresh air to see good American cars like Toyotas and Mercedes.

And I'm going to be staying in a castle for the weekend.

For those interested, here are some pictures from the first week:

Currently listening: "My Slumbering Heart," Rilo Kiley

Thursday, May 10, 2007


Review: Spiderman 3

I don't know how spoilery I want to get here, but some of this is just too amusing not to talk about. First of all, Spiderman 3 is not a great movie. You probably weren't expecting it to be, granted. It's one of those movies that couldn't possibly be released in any month other than May (except for maybe June), one that probably cost five hundred million dollars to make but will rake in two thirds of a billion, one that has virtually no cinematic artistry to it but is based off a character and setting that were successful in another medium and so will be successful here, one that people who otherwise aren't movie people will go in droves to watch because it's the Summer Blockbuster.

I seem to remember talking about one of these around a year ago. Coincidence?

This one was in the previews, so I don't feel too bad about discussing it. At some point, Spiderman gets some black gunk over him, which of course makes his suit change colors too. In turn, this leads to a Personality Change and an Internal Conflict. The payoff here is awesome, not for any rhetorical or artistic purpose, more for the amusement. Peter Parker is usually this happy-go-lucky kid, but now we get Emo Peter Parker. And Spiderman is usually good, but he becomes pretty damn neutral in the middle of the movie. Neutral Spiderman is a sight to behold. Can we say "retribution"?

As usual there were special effects, and as usual I didn't care. We've seen it all before.

If there's some attempt at moral message here, it's most likely something along the lines of "Revenge is bad, mmmkay?" The symbolism is stifling here: when Spiderman has the need for some good old fashioned vengeance, he puts on the black suit; when he puts on the black suit, he gets less good. I liked it better the first time, when it was called Star Wars. (Although Harry did bust out a rather lightsaberish dagger during one fight scene.) On a whole, the plot was predictable. Of course Spiderman is going to have his Spiritual Redemption and become good again. And of course he's going to win the Final Battle.

Finally, where's the vaunted Spidey Sense? It didn't tingle once this movie. And boy, would it have helped in more than a few situations.

A bit of commentary on Mary Jane. That girl is ridiculously needy. Poster child for "high-maintenance." Not to mention jealous and mentally unstable... Peter Parker would to well to break up with her. I mean, if he's going to be busy being Spiderman and saving the world, the last thing he needs is some overdependent girlfriend to weigh down on his emotions. Evidently the man's got no trouble picking up girls... why settle for a mental case?

Currently listening: "Red Oyster Cult," Guster