Authors at Google: Ken Jennings | "Because I Said So!"

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 20.12.2012


MELISSA: Please welcome Ken Jennings.

KEN JENNINGS: Thanks, Melissa.
Well, thank you all for coming out.
It's a pleasure to be here.
I flew out from Seattle just to see you guys.
It's not a big tech town.
So it's exciting to be someplace with a few software
engineers for a change.

I'm now an author pretty much full time.
I was a software engineer before, but
not a very good one.
Unlike, I'm sure, anybody who gets hired at Google.
So I'm much happier in my second life as a freelance
writer, where I can work from home in my pajamas.
And the book that I have out today, I guess sort of has
something to do with the modern information age.
It's called "Because I Said So!" The idea is to debunk or
possibly prove all these cliches that parents are
always harassing their kids with, don't go swimming until
half an hour after you eat; or don't pop your knuckles,
you'll get arthritis; or don't swallow watermelon seeds,
it'll sprout in your stomach and you'll die.
We don't all hear all of these as kids.
But speaking only for myself, I know my parents were always
threatening us with dire things that would happen if we
did any of these behaviors that really seemed sort of
harmless to us.
And I realize now that I have kids, that I was starting to
do the same thing.
I have a 10-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl and I realize
that when you're a parent, I guess I'm now aware of this,
you lie all the time.
You have to.
You have to lie all the time.
And the lies are not malicious.
They're in fact, quite the opposite.
You feel like it's a benevolent lie to tell your
kids that Santa is going to bring them presents if they're
good, or that their hamster actually went to live on
grandpa's farm, or that really you love them
both exactly the same.

I feel like these are pretty useful lies actually.
There's some utility to this.
But often I would find myself lying out of more
self-serving reasons.
Just because I felt like I had to be confident.
I couldn't show any sign of weakness.
Kids are like bears, I guess.
If your kid asks you, really?
You to say yes, that's right.
Do what you're told.
Finish your vegetables.

And more and more often I realized--
in fact, I know when it occurred to me.
This is how the book starts.
My son comes careening into-- we're in my parents' house.
My son comes careening around the corner in the
kitchen with a--
kids, if there's some place in the house where they can run
in a circle, they'll do it.
I don't know why.
He comes running in with a Tootsie Pop
sticking out of his mouth.
And I'm like whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down.
Like what if you fell?
That lollipop could like go through the back of your soft
palate in the back of your mouth and like
jab you in the brain.
And he was an eight-year-old boy, so of course he's
Like this doesn't scare him.
This is like, really?
Is that true?
Could that really happen?
And I realized when he asked that, I had no
idea if that was true.
Like I have done research on oral trauma?
Like, I have no idea.
I'm just repeating some thing that my mom randomly told me
in the late '70s, probably on the basis of no information as
well, and assuming it's going to be correct.
And luckily, we're at my mom's house.
So I asked her.
I was like, is this true?
You always used to tell us that.
And she was like, oh, I don't know.
That's just something grandma used to tell us.
I think it happens in a Chaim Potok novel.

So this is how I'm disappointing my kids.
Based on my mind vaguely remembered notions of my mom's
hazily remembered memory of a Chaim Potok novel?
Like I understand he's a rabbi as well as a novelist, but
maybe this is not how I should be choosing the
things I tell my kids.
And I realized these things do sort of, just sort of turn up
Like I'm sure when my son has kids, now he's going to tell
them don't run with a Tootsie Pop in your mouth.
It'll give your brain damage if you fall.
And again, he will have no idea.
And I thought, well maybe there's a--
I'm sort of a full-time trivia author now.
Somehow I'm in this weird niche, thanks to Alex Trebek.
Like maybe there's a book in this.
So I started gathering these myths, gathering from memory
my own childhood.
What did my parents tell me?
Don't eat the cookie dough.
You'll get worms.
Don't run outside.
You'll get worms.
I guess worms were very big in the late '70s.
Like no matter what it was, we'd get worms.
And every time I saw a friend, I'd ask them, hey, what were
these cliches that your parents were always
threatening you with?
I want to see if these things are actually true.
And one person would remember their mom said that you lose
10% of your body heat through your head.
Or somebody else would remember their dad saying that
if you swallow gum, it'll sit in your stomach undigested for
seven years.
And he was fascinated by that.
And so I started there.
I started to collect a little spreadsheet of these things.
And I was getting close to having enough for a
book, and not quite.
So I did what I'm sure any of you would do and I had Reddit
crowd-source the rest of this for me.
Hey Reddit, what are some of the weird things your
parents told you?
P.S., write my book for me.
And in with all the goofy bacon jokes and screeds about
marijuana legalization, a lot of people suggested great
parental cliches that I had not thought of, that were
really, really good fits for the book.
And I started to research these things.
And it turned out that surprisingly, maybe I'm
jumping the gun a little here, but surprisingly there's
actually a lot of good scientific
research on some of these.
I guess enough kids were told that there's a five-second
rule between when you drop food and when you can pick it
up in the shopping mall food court, enough kids are told
this, that many of them have gone to college.
And there are now four or five good academic studies on
whether or not the five-second rule exists.
Spoilers, it doesn't.
Food gets contaminated when it lands on something.
So if you drop it and there is rat poison or bleach or
salmonella or something on the floor, it's contaminated then.
You don't get some magical window where the microbes
wait, three, four, five, go.
But by the same token, they can only get these results
when they pretreat the floor with salmonella.
When they do that, the food comes back contaminated.
Every time they run these experiments on regular dorm
cafeteria floors, it's perfectly fine.
And in many cases, a surprising number of these
were coming back false, which is what I wanted.
The book is no good if all these things are true.
And by the same token, there were some selection bias.
Obviously if something turns out to be surprisingly false,
in the book it goes.
I found out that that thing your parents told you about
having to drink eight glasses of water a day, it's bogus.
It's actually dangerous.
It's possible to over hydrate your brain and people have
died from this.
Whereas, the body's thirst mechanism actually kicks in
long before dehydration.
So you're actually good just drinking water when you're
thirsty and not trying to get to some number that was forced
on you by a seventh grade home ec teacher.
But there was some selection bias.
Obviously, I would pick the ones that were
interesting to debunk.
If it turns out that it really is good advice to not play in
the street, that was a less interesting
section in the book.
Here's sort of one sample entry that I'll read, which I
already mentioned, about swallowed gum sitting in your
stomach undigested for seven years.
It's just a threat if you swallow your gum.
Did you guys hear this as kids or is just me?
My parents were firm believers in this.
So from the book, could this really be true?
If I swallow a piece of gum today, will it really emerge
Rip van Winkle-like into some futuristic Japanese-style
toilet in the year 2020?
Is there a possibility that tonight I will poop the piece
of gum that I accidentally swallowed during "Big Momma's
House 2?"
When pondering these questions with my friend Raj, he
remembered that as a child, he wondered what would happen if
he swallowed two pieces of gum?
Would they be trapped for seven years or 14?
In other words, would they serve their sentences
consecutively or concurrently?
I hate to pop your bubble, but the answer is neither.
Swallowed gum routinely gets furloughed within 24 hours,
like a diplomat or a Kennedy.
It's true that about a quarter of chewing gum is the gum base
itself, a completely food-free substance made up of latexes,
resins, waxes, and emulsifiers.
Your gastrointestinal tract could work on that for seven
years and have no luck digesting it.
But that's not what happens.
Quote "That would mean that every single person who ever
swallowed gum within the last seven years would have
evidence of the gum in their digestive tract," Dr. David
Milov told "Scientific American." "On occasion, we'll
see a piece of swallowed gum in a colonoscopy.
But usually, it's not something that's any more than
a week old." Your intestine eliminates gum the same way it
eliminates half-chewed corn kernels and anything else
that's too tough to digest, out the rectum
within a day or two.
I guess I didn't realize people were going to be eating
lunch during this.
I apologize in advance, especially for the thing
that's about to happen in two paragraphs.
If you're almost there, you may want to finish up.
However, Dr. Milov also led the team that published the
landmark study, "Chewing Gum Bezoars of the
Gastrointestinal Tract," in a 1998 issue of the medical
journal "Pediatrics." A "bezoar": is a clump of
undigested stuff that gets trapped in
the stomach or intestine.
The wonderful name comes from the Persian word for antidote,
since animal bezoars, sort of like those owl pellets you had
to dissect in eighth grade, were anciently thought to have
remarkable health properties.
Most bezoars are boluses of food or pills.
Sometimes in rare cases of Rapunzel syndrome,
they're made of--
KEN JENNINGS: Swallowed hair, ugh.
And sometimes, very rarely, they can be
made of chewing gum.
Dr. Milov's team found three cases of young children whose,
this is a quote from the report, "means of discarding
their gum (swallowing) was well known to the families and
was a source of levity." Well, nobody was laughing when the
gum swallowing led to chronic constipation and, finally,
surgery when laxatives proved powerless.
If you want your kids to quit swallowing their gum, here's
the money quote.
"This clean-out regimen produced no results after four
days." In other words, the laxatives.
"On the fifth day, the child was brought in for manual
disimpaction under conscious sedation and rectal suction
biopsy." On removal of the-- here's the money quote, "On
removal of the leading edge of the fecoma, a taffy-like trail
of fecal material remained in the rectum.
The mass was eventually manually withdrawn and was
primarily made up of chewing gum."
Wow, I hope these parents kept the rectal suction biopsy
video on hand to show future prom dates.
But keep in mind, this was a kid who was swallowing five to
seven pieces of gum per day.
Other cases only got serious when stuff like coins got
swallowed and trapping in the Wrigley's brand butt plug.
So don't worry, the occasional accidentally swallowed piece
of gum isn't going to do any harm.
You'd have to be the Hunter S. Thompson of gum swallowing to
get into medical trouble.
But prepare to be embarrassed, if you're caught.
Dr. Milov writes that, quote, "The rainbow of fused
multicolored gum fragments in the removed fecoma is easily
recognized by physician and family as old gum." In the
end, maybe I'm just weird that that actually sounds sort of
beautiful, other than the part where it gets pulled out of
somebody's butt.
And then the verdict is false.
All the myths and the cliches in the book are given a
verdict on the scale of true to false.
And many of them do fall somewhere in the middle.
Some of them are true with a nyeh, false with a-- but.
On some of them, the research is ongoing.
For many years, for example, researchers were pretty sure
that cold weather did nothing to make people
susceptible to colds.
They knew that there was a cold season.
But there's still not widespread agreement on what
causes that.
Is it just people packed indoors together during the
winter, sharing germs?
Is it because school is in session?
Is it because the cold lowers your immunity?
Is it because the virus does better in cold conditions?
Nobody is 100% sure.
They were pretty sure it wasn't temperature.
Because they would dab infected mucus on people--
again, sorry if you're eating-- on people's noses, at
different temperatures.
And they would find no relationship between who got a
cold and who was cold.
But there's some new research out of a university in Wales,
where they tried to model how people catch colds in a more
organic way.
During cold season, they would have people sit in a lab, with
their feet in buckets of cold water, and then compare who
caught a cold, just in the next month of running around
Wales, to the control group that was not sitting with
their feet in cold water.
And they found a pretty strong causal link.
Something about having cold feet actually made these
people catch colds.
So as crazy as it sounds, your mom was right.
These people might be catching cold because they didn't put
on galoshes, or because they went outside with wet hair, or
all the things your mom was freaked about.
So I think there is some comfort here for parents who--
there is some vindication for parents who have been saying
that breakfast is the most important meal
of the day or whatever.
Some of these things are true.
But the vast majority are not.
And that's trouble in our house.
My son read a galley, an early copy of the book.
And now he is way over-informed.
It's gotten to the point where my wife will be like, Dylan,
you're sitting to close to the TV.
Get back on the couch.
And he won't even look up.
He'll be like, no I'm not.
Dad says it's fine.
It's just temporary eye strain.

I think this is hilarious.
If my wife were here, I don't think she's such a fan.
And you realize what the utility is to a
lot of these myths.
Not only does it make the parent look wise and
authoritative, oftentimes I am sure these things arise out of
the need to--
you want to shut down some annoying behavior.
You don't want your kids popping their knuckles,
because if you hear that sound one more time, you're going to
go crash the car or something.
And so you tell your kid that causes arthritis.
And it's not really true.

But kids fall for a lot of this.
And I'm sort of concerned that one effect of this might be
that as these parental paranoias sort of accumulate
over generations, that we sort of forget how they started.
That they started as well-intended ways of
protecting your kids.
And we start to think there is some terrible threat if your
child swallows a watermelon seed, or picks up a dirty
feather at the playground, or looks at the microwave while
it's running, or whatever these things are.
Writes on his skin with a ballpoint pen.
I had a seventh grade biology teacher freak out because I
was drawing something on my hand with a pen and that was
going to cause cancer or something.

And over time, you get this gradual accumulation of these
parental paranoias.
And the result is our kids start getting more and more
cushioned, more and more bubble-wrapped for any kind of
experimentation or fun.
And before long, you get the kind of helicopter parents you
read about in scary "Time" magazine cover packages of
these parents who never let their kids do any of the
things that--
I got to ride my bike to school as a kid.
But no, you can't do that today.
Kids who can't climb trees.
You see crazy examples.
I read a "Dear Abby" column, where she told parents to take
a picture of their kids every day leaving the house in that
day's clothes, because that way if they got kidnapped,
she's got something to show to the cops.
This is like a serious well-intended solution.

this is great.
I've actually heard about universities that now have
sort of mommy cams in the dorms so that your mom can
like keep an eye on what's going on in the
old residence hall.
Companies are preparing parent packets, like big accounting
companies are now preparing parent packets for their new
job interviews every year because often a concerned mom
or dad will come along.
And so I'm sort of worried that in our well-intended
desire to keep our kids safe, we're actually making kids
unhappy, unable to cope with the modern world, unconfident
about the modern world.
The perfect example is like don't talk to strangers.
What could be a less controversial piece of advice?
And of course, your kids shouldn't talk to strangers.
Actually if you talk to child safety advocacy groups now,
they say that's like the worst thing you could say.
Never tell your kid not to talk to strangers.
Kids don't understand that.
It just makes them insecure about adults.
There have been cases where a kid got lost and then tried to
hide from all the people that were looking for him because
they were strangers.
And instead, they say what you need to do is
teach kids to be confident.
If they get in that kind of situation, they need to know
which adults they should be looking to for help.
Go to somebody in uniform.
Go to somebody who works for the store.
Try to find another mom with kids.
There's actually good, practical advice you can give
kids that doesn't scare them.
And instead, we've created this whole industry based
around stranger danger.
This idea that some creepy guy in a white van is going to
grab your kid, when really the idea of a stranger kidnapping
a kid is something that only happens like on the order of a
few dozen times every year in this country.
Most of the, a child vanishes every n minutes, stats you
hear, it's all people the family know, it's a
noncustodial parent or something.
But it's how we create the method
of this random kidnapper.

So hopefully, actually debunking some of these things
will let parents breathe a little easier and let their
kids be kids.
The cool thing about writing this book today is it's
actually possible to be written today.
We live in an age where information is much more
available to the lay person, public
interest writer like me.
If I don't know whether or not apple seeds are poisonous, I
can Bing it.

I'm just kidding.
I would google it.
When I was a kid, I was sort of a trivia nerd kid you'll be
shocked to hear, when I was 10 or 11 years old.
We did not have Google.
We lived in this strange internet-free world where the
real scoop on myths like this, if they got delivered at all,
came in the forms of often out of print paperbacks that you'd
have to find in a used bookstore.
And I remember knowing, to this day I know which of these
books held which things.
I know that back before the internet, if you wanted to
know a best guess as to what the secret herbs and spices in
the Colonel's chicken was, that's in a book called "Big
Secrets" by William Poundstone.
And if you want to know the scoop about the fact that in
Columbus's day, nobody really thought the world was flat,
contrary to popular belief.
That was in Tom Burnam's book, "The Dictionary of
There were all these sort of pop reference books where
people knew this stuff.
Of course today, we don't need that.
All this kind of stuff is well handled
by Snopes, by Wikipedia.
It's well-indexed by Google.
All this stuff should just be a click away.
And the experience of fighting and getting my ass kicked by
Watson sort of made me think what are the implications of
living in this world where our search engines or our
smartphones can do lots of our stuff remembering stuff for
us, a lot of our stuff remembering for us?

I realized after losing to Google--
or to Google, Freudian slip, after losing to Watson, I'm
someone who always drew a lot of I guess self-esteem from
being the guy who's good at remembering stuff.
It used to be a valuable thing in the workplace to know who's
the person in the office you go to when you can't remember
the name of the bassist of in that band?
Or what's the name of that character actor
on that one TV show?
And I was always that guy, at school, or in the dorms, or in
the office.
And today, nobody needs that guy.
That guy is out of work.
If you don't remember the name of some guy, you look it up on
your phone.
And it's super easy.

And in effect, when I lost to Watson, I sort of felt like
the first person in America who'd lost his job to this new
generation of thinking machine, just like a 1970s
Detroit factory worker getting pushed off the assembly line
by the robot that can do his job much faster and more
reliably than him.
And I felt like I was the first one of those guys for
the information age, which was a great honor.
And the more I read up on this, I feel like I'm not
going to be the last one.
There's lots of other sort of--
I don't want say menial, but sort of low-level information
gathering jobs where Watson or technologies like it are
becoming very good.
I'm sure there are probably people in this room working on
these technologies.
Pharmacists, almost all that job can be automated.
In fact, lots of medical kinds of lab work and diagnosis is
now getting to the point where it can be automated.
IBM has been very clear that Watson is going
into health care now.
I assume that's less controversial than Homeland
Security or something.
Really, our mass information collecting and processing
software, it's just going to cure cancer.
Don't worry about government contracts at all.
And paralegals, for example.
There's lots of jobs where people doing low-level
information collection that really a pretty short Shell
script could probably do your job now, sir.
And what does that mean for us?
What does that mean in a world where we don't have to know
stuff anymore?
What's going to happen our brains?
The book I wrote before this was called "Maphead." It was
about my love of maps and geography.
There's a chapter on--
anybody here from Google Geo?
There's like a whole chapter on Google, ayeh.
There's a whole chapter on the new digital mapping
technologies and what that means for us.
And I talked to quite a few researchers in the book, who
sort of felt like the new maps have the potential to be a new
golden age for mapping.
There's also the downside of what GPS is doing to us.
If we outsource the part of our brain that navigates and
does sense of direction to a little talking voice on our
dashboard, this is the reason why you always read in the
paper about people driving into lakes and driving onto
railroad tracks.
They just obey the little talking voice.
How I was supposed to know that was a lake?
It's like how we all used to be able to--
15 years ago, we were all really good at memorizing
seven digit numbers.
And now like, I don't even know my phone number because
there's no use for it anymore.
So what if our phones and our search engines can do
all this for us?
I hope that our ability to remember facts doesn't atrophy
in the same way that our ability to remember phone
numbers and our ability to not drive into lakes has sort of
changed in the past few years.
I believe there is still some utility to knowing a fact off
the top of your head.

We were actually talking about this earlier.
It's great that when there's something on the tip of our
tongue that we don't know, thank goodness we can google.
And it's not just idle curiosity.
Often that Google search might be for something more urgent.
But imagine what it means to us that we know facts.
What does that do for us?
In education, I guess now there's sort of an emphasis on
knowing how to think rather than knowing what to think.
There's less of an emphasis on making sure that kids are
chock-full of dates and so forth, dates and
formulas, and what not.
Because ahh, they can look that up.
I think there is still virtue in knowing facts.
If there are two advantages to knowing something off the top
your head versus having to whip out your phone or on your
console, I would say it's probably the advantage of
scale and the advantage of time.
The first is an advantage of volume.
The fact that we live in a information age means that
it's easier to get a hold of information.
It also means there's exponentially more information
coming at us at all times.
Sure, there have been great Renaissance men in history,
Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci.
But notice how they lived sort of close to the Renaissance.
There was a lot less to know back then.
You put Jefferson on "Jeopardy" today, and he's
really going to be struggling at nuclear physics or '70s
sit-coms, or hip-hop.
I mean he's going to get his butt kicked.
There's just more to know more, more to know today than
there was for the guy in the 16th century or the 18th
century, who could know everything.
And it's global.

My vacation plans could get affected by a volcano in
Iceland, or on the darker side, a terrorist cell in
Pakistan, or the Greek economy.
Little things happening a world away, can really affect
my day-to-day life, in a world that wasn't true in Leonardo's
time or in Jefferson's time.
And to make good decisions based on all these facts, we
need to synthesize them.
And that only happens when we have these facts, I believe,
at our fingertips.
Let's say I'm trying to decide--
we'll go back in time a month.
I'll trying to decide who to vote for.

I learned already, my map work, that less than a quarter
of Americans can find Iraq and Afghanistan on a map.
It's closer to 10%.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is who's voting on
your foreign policy.
And it strikes me that for me to even make a well-informed
decision as a citizen on which candidate I'm going to vote
for in that arena, I should know more than that.
Not only should I know the relative locations of Iraq and
Afghanistan, I should have some idea of what I think the
conditions are there, what I think the right plan is going
forward, and so forth.
And that's true not just for foreign policy, but for dozens
of other arenas as well.
And if I am literally going to sit there and have to goggle
every one of those questions before I vote,
we know what happens.
People don't sit there and google thousands of questions
before they fill out their ballot.
They just end up doing a really half-assed job, based
on really poor knowledge.
Whereas I believe if more of those facts were literally in
their heads, those would be the building block to more
informed decisions on a daily basis.
Not just voting, but better informed decisions about where
to go to eat, or what's quickest way to drive from
here to there, or what should my major be, should I
interview here or there?
The decisions we make fairly regularly, but can have a big
effect on our lives.
The other advantage I would say to knowing stuff in our
heads versus on our phones would be an advantage of time.
The story I always think of here is a little British girl.

She's about 10 years old.
So that would be the fourth grade.
Do they have that there?
Well, what would be a fourth grader in our system, on
vacation with her parents, in Thailand.
She is at the beach one day with her parents.
And she comes running up in the morning and says, mom and
dad, I think we should get off the beach.
And I'm like, what do you mean?
We just got here.
And she said well, look out to sea.
The level of the tide has gone down quite a bit.
The tide's gone way out since we've been here.
And now there's starting to be like big, churning waves and
bubbles further out to sea.
And their parents are like, what does that mean?
And she said well, we just learned two weeks ago and Mr.
Kurney's geography class, this is the
first sign of a tsunami.
This is what you see before the wave hits.
And their parents are like, are you sure?
Like are you saying there's going to be a tsunami?
And she's like, that's what we learned.
And somehow this little girl convinces her parents that
this really is a early warning sign of a tsunami.
So they get off the beach.
They tell the life guard.
The life guard clears the beach.
And within less than an hour, sure enough, the beach is
under water.
This was the day after Christmas, 2006.
Is that right?
The big--
When was the big Boxing Day tsunami on the Indian Ocean?
And this girl literally saved a hundred lives by remembering
the right fact from her geography teacher, at the
right time.
You know, one fact, well deployed, in the right place
and at the right time, was all it took.
Most of the examples are not going to be so dramatic.
But I still believe that that's true in general, that
one fact, well deployed, in the right place, does have the
ability to change lives.
And thank goodness, in our generation we have tools that
are just revolutionizing the way we can
retrieve these facts.
But I also feel like we need to have them on hand.
We need to not outsource the part of our brain that knows
stuff, to our devices, no matter how user friendly they
are, how amazing their holiday doodles, the level of snacks
in their cafeteria.
As much I love Google, I hope that we still know things and
it becomes a tool and not a replacement for our memories.
I wanted to take questions because I know we have a
little bit of time left over and I didn't know if I was
going to cover what people were interested in.
So if you have questions about whatever, books, information
in general, Watson, "Jeopardy," feel free.
If you'd use one of these mics at the side, that helps with
the sound I guess.
Because this is all being taped for posterity and Watson
is watching us right now.
So yes, please feel free to step up to a mic
if you have a question.
I feel like a shareholders' meeting.
AUDIENCE: Greetings.
Do you know any cheesy computer science jokes?
KEN JENNINGS: Ha, ha, ha.
Cheesy computer science jokes, wow, I feel like I did.
The joke I always think of now is the joke that made me
switch to computer science.
Which is, what's the difference between an English
major and a large pepperoni pizza?
At least the pizza can feed a family of four.
I was an English major who got a second degree in computer
science, pretty much on the strength of that joke.
And now, I'm a writer.
I don't know.
Do you have a great tech joke you want to share here?
AUDIENCE: I'll share my favorite one.
Eight bytes walk into a bar.
They go up to the bartender and say, make us a double.
KEN JENNINGS: Man, that would kill.

You've got to take that to the clubs.
That is a pretty good joke.
Thank you.
That was better than my joke.

AUDIENCE: Given what you just talked about in terms of like,
I completely with you, you've got to still know facts.
You got to have stuff at the tip of your tongue.
Do you still think a show like "Jeopardy" is
relevant and useful?
I was sort of wondering if I should get into that.
Obviously, "Jeopardy" had to answer that question many
times during the Watson games.
And they would always say, no, no, "Jeopardy," fact
remembering is still a very human task.
And people still watch the Olympics, even though a car
can go faster than a sprinter and has for a long
time, and so forth.
And I guess it's a good point.
I'm sure computers have been able to play "Wheel of
Fortune" at near grandmaster levels for many years now.
And yet, we all still love Wheel.

But I actually do sort I wonder that.

As it becomes less remarkable to know where it stops just
because nobody needs to anymore, what happens?
Does it become more remarkable that there weirdos like me who
could do know all the presidents in order or does it
just become sort of old-timey and weird, like those people
that watch railroad trains go by at particular times?
Like why do you have that hobby that my grandpa had?
I honestly don't know which way it's going to go.
I hope that there remains something heroic about the
nation's proud know-it-alls and that you will bear us on
litters to your feasts in an age when nobody
knows anything anymore.
AUDIENCE: Thanks so much for the talk.
That was great.
I have your almanac, which I love.
I actually host a quiz night and I've ripped off or
borrowed lots of ideas from it.
Just wondering if you have any ideas for tomorrow night's
quiz that I'm hosting?
KEN JENNINGS: Ideas for tomorrow night's-- like you
want a question?
What have you got, rounds, questions?
KEN JENNINGS: I have talked to lots of pub trivia guys who
use that book.
And I always sort of worried because I'm sure somebody in
your audience might have that book too.
AUDIENCE: They do.
But there's so much in it, you'd never be
able memorize it all.
KEN JENNINGS: It does have over 9,000 questions.
But remember who you're dealing with.
I'm trying to think if there's something great I just heard.
The funny thing is when I hear a great piece of trivia, I
immediately have like a thing in my phone for it because I
write a few trivia things.
And I want to make sure I use them.
This was pretty good.
I just heard this.
In that new movie, what's it called, "Rise of the
Guardians," where like Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny,
and the Tooth Fairy all gang up to fight crime or whatever
it is they did.
So Santa has two words tattooed on his two biceps, in
the vein of the love and hate guy.
What are the two words on Santa's biceps?
AUDIENCE: Naughty and nice.
KEN JENNINGS: Naughty and nice, very good.
AUDIENCE: That's a good one.
KEN JENNINGS: Feel free.

My question is related to what you were talking about earlier
with knowing facts.
I got into a discussion with someone recently where they
were saying that there's no point in us knowing, an
average person knowing about current political affairs
going on in China or just things like that, that aren't
directly related to our daily life.
I was wondering what your thoughts were on that?
KEN JENNINGS: I guess I don't really buy that
argument any more.
Maybe that was true 50 years ago, that nothing happening a
world away could really affect your life that much.
But I think we've seen so many examples of
how that's not true.

I had to cancel a vacation a couple years ago because of
the volcano in Iceland.
And we saw the price of gas spike like $0.40 in many
states a few months ago, just because of one refinery fire
that was, I'm sure, thousands of miles away from most of the
people affected
I think there's lots of evidence now that the stuff
happening half a world away really does affect your life
on a day to day basis.
I guess the better question is, is there so much happening
that there's really no hope that the well-informed lay
person like you or me can actually understand the
financial situation in China well enough to make wise
decisions based on that, so why bother?
I don't have a better rebuttal for that.
I'm afraid we're getting to the point where that is true.
And does democracy have less value in a world where a voter
really can't be well informed about all the important issues
that matter?
I don't know.
It's an interesting question.

Yeah, go ahead?
AUDIENCE: So thank you for coming.
I actually remember watching your historic run on
"Jeopardy" with my roommate at the time.
We would tune in every day and watch and kind of like hope
that we're going to watch the day that Ken Jennings gets
defeated, finally.
KEN JENNINGS: So let me get this straight.
I've got like the best job I've ever had.
I'm making like $50K an hour or something.
And yet kids all over college campuses, all over America,
are hoping I get fired.
AUDIENCE: We were fascinated, yeah every day.
I remember there was like an internet rumor that today was
the day that Ken lost.
And then the H&R Block question came up and we were
like no way, he knows this.
KEN JENNINGS: So not only are you hoping I lose, you thought
it was a super easy question?
AUDIENCE: Well, to be fair, we did.
Anyway my question is, I've always wondered this, does
Alex Trebek actually know the answers to the questions?
You know, it's funny.
I think "Jeopardy" is really, the core viewership is college
students and old people.
I get the feeling nobody with a job actually watches
"Jeopardy." And it's great because the fact that the
audience skews to old means that I don't get
recognized any more.
Most of the people who saw me on the show are now dead or
they graduated.
Alex is a smart guy.
He's a big reader.

I've talked to him.
And he hosts the National Geographic Bee.
And that's because he's a true believer.
He's got a basement full of "National Geographic"s going
back 50 years.
And basically he's your grandpa watching History
Channel documentaries about World War II.
He's a smart guy.
When people ask him that, he says back in the day I could
have run the table.
I could have held my own in "Jeopardy." But it's a young
man's game.
And I'm past my prime now.
So I think Alex feels he has missed his chance at
"Jeopardy" starting.
Instead he gets to look like a genius and be like
oh no, no, I'm sorry.
It's, what, is Tajikistan, as if he knew?
And he'll do the phony pronunciations too.
He'll be like, what is Nicaragua?

He loves doing the foreign pronunciations.
I think he's a smart guy.

I was curious.
So I have an awful memory.
I was wondering if you've got any memorization techniques
that you use?
KEN JENNINGS: People ask me that a lot.
And I feel bad, but I don't have a trick.
But I don't have a method or an ancient Chinese herb or
whatever it would take for me to write a self-help book or
make a billion dollars on this.
I read a book about trivia nerds.
And what I found out is that most of these people
apparently came out of the box that way.
There's something chromosomal that makes some people
information sponges, almost from birth.
Nothing you can do about it.
And I think it's relatable.
I mean we all are this way about the things that we love.
You take some kid that's terrible in school, but he
knows every word of every song on his favorite album.
He knows every stat of his favorite athlete or team, even
if he doesn't know his times tables.
So it seems to me that interest is the key thing that
makes people either able to remember stuff or not.
If you care, you'll remember it without even trying.
If you don't, almost no amount of effort will get
it to stay in there.
And these trivia people tend to be interested in
They're just curious people by nature.
And I guess this sort of goes to what I saying about the
utility of information.

Because they are curious about everything, they'll find that
their knowledge has a social utility.
They find it easier to meet new people.
They'll sit next to somebody on a plane and they'll be like
oh, you're from Fargo?
Do you know that baseball player, Roger
Maris was from Fargo?
Have you ever been to the Roger Maris museum?
The fact that they have this wealth of seemingly useless
facts actually, bizarrely makes it very easy for them to
get to know people.
But getting back to your question, I feel like when I
was studying for "Jeopardy," there were things I tried to
cram on and I just did terribly.
Like I had to memorize all the presidents and their dates.
That's a "Jeopardy" stand by.
I had know cocktails.
I don't drink.
But "Jeopardy" always has the "potent potable."
So I have all these flashcards.
I had two sets of flashcards.
One have the presidents on the front and the
dates on the back.
And the other had like on the front it would be like, Harvey
And the back it would be like, whatever is in a Harvey Wall--
I don't even know, vodka, orange juice.
It's like a screwdriver with Galliano or something.
Is that right?
Who's like a functioning alcoholic?
Yeah, there you go.

So for weeks, all we would talk about in our house was
like the presidency and cocktails, presidency.
It's like going to college with
George W. Bush, I imagine.
But thank you for laughing at my very cheap political joke,
cheap and out-of-date political joke.
But I found the same thing you did.
When these things were not interesting to me, they were
incredibly hard to remember.
And I would make up a little mnemonic stories, like I'm
sure you do for hard to remember facts.
Like I had a hard time remembering that John Quincy
Adams was elected in 1824, for example.
So I had to like make up this very circuitous story in my
head about Quincy, the 1970s, late '70s, early '80s, TV
medical examiner, working a 24 hour shift.
OK, Quincy working a 24 hour shift.
I can picture that.
1984, or 1824, John Quincy Adams, for some reason that
would help me.
And these things were always more complicated than the fact
I was trying to remember.
But something about them was more helpful to me than the
fact itself.
And there are techniques that you can do.
I mean have you heard about this memory palace stuff?
The part of our brain that does geography is very good.
So if you need to remember a bunch of facts in order
quickly, you set up this mental geography where you
wander through your childhood house and you place the memory
sparking objects in a certain order within the house.
And there are people who can use techniques like this to
memorize all 52 cards in a deck as fast as a dealer can
turn them over.
Like the guy will get done with the deck and the person
can then recite the deck by re-walking through the place
in his head.
And these are people with ordinary memories, but they've
trained themselves to do this parlor trick.
So yes, there are parlor tricks.
And I'm terrible at them, I guess is the short answer?
AUDIENCE: Thanks are coming.
Like you, I grew up in a pre-Google world of Birnbaum's
books and--
KEN JENNINGS: They're old, huh?
AUDIENCE: And Poundstone and the "Book of Lists." And
you've just published a book of myths and trivia like
these, in that tradition.
Watson clearly demonstrates that parsing and searching
structured knowledge, that someone has structured,
has structured for them, is possible and can be made
There's still the thing that Birnbaum does, that
mythologists do, that people who discover new facts and
structure them.
Given that you've just published this book, could you
speak a bit about that and where that's
going in the future?
Because there are more facts being produced in
more ways every day.
We all know, we work at Google.
What are your thoughts on that?
KEN JENNINGS: I mean this book almost is sort of a throwback.
I mean a lot of this stuff in this book, it was published in
academic journals.
These questions are less googleable
than you'd think today.
But many of them, all it would take is a parent visiting
Snopes or Wikipedia and they're going to see the pros
and cons of all these.
But it's a good point.
When they talk about Watson as a diagnostician for example,
in Watson's new health care adventures, yes it's going to
be very good at recommending--
you get a list of symptoms and it'll recommend treatments and
pharmaceutical possibilities and suggest diagnoses.
But it's not going to be doing original work.
It's not going to find the new drug that
will treat these things.
It'll just tell a doctor which of these three options you
already knew about, is mathematically slightly more
likely in this case.
And that's the same thing it was doing when it was
answering "Jeopardy" questions too.
If you watched the show, you could see the little
probability meter at the bottom of its screen.
Sometimes it would make incredibly naive errors.
In the category of US cities, it would say, what is Toronto?
Realizing that even though some pattern-matching had
worked, it had missed the most important detail of all, that
a human never would have missed, which is that Toronto
is not part of the US until we invade it.

But yeah, that distinction still remains.
I think a lot of lay people would watch what Watson is
doing and give it a little too much credit.
Wow, it understood the question.
And it didn't really understood.
It just could, in parallel, weigh billions or trillions of
textual relationships in a very efficient and smart way.
Now, what's interesting is that it could do that and get
as good of results as a human, doing what I would consider
high-level work.
So, we'll see.
But the creative part of those jobs is still around.
When Trebek got asked about this, he'd always say I'm not
worried until Watson can host "Jeopardy." I don't care if it
can win "Jeopardy," I just wondering whether
or not it can host?
Do you have a question?
AUDIENCE: I'm curious about your relationship with your
son with respect to facts for instance.
I think all of us probably grow up pre-Wikipedia.
So my relationship with my father was very much, he was
the source of truth for many, many years, until he stopped
being the source for any truth.

And he did a pretty good job.
He's a very smart guy and he's trivia focused.
He kicked our ass in "Trivial Pursuit" for years.
And I grew up in--
KEN JENNINGS: I think you dad is trivia focused by the way.
Like, that'll be on his grave stone.
AUDIENCE: His resume, yeah.
So once Wikipedia came up, I sort of like fact-checked
things when they came up.
I'm like where do I know that?
I think my dad just made that up.
And he was right.
He was a pretty admirable job.
But now you can do that from the age of five.
So you can't get away with just pulling something out of
your ass when your son asks, as my dad did fairly
successfully for 16 years.
So how has that changed for you?
You have a unique perspective.
KEN JENNINGS: Are you a parent?
AUDIENCE: No, I'm not.
KEN JENNINGS: Because when you have kids you realize it's
another volume problem.
You can't keep up with the volume of why questions.
And every time you answer a why question with a "because,"
there'll be another well, why that?
So you just get a higher level thing and it becomes an
endless recursive.

I like to think that I'm pretty good at saying I don't
know, let's look it up, as opposed to, I'll just make up
for you how rainbows work.
Why not?
How are you going to know any better?
But the temptation is certainly there, because it
takes longer.
It takes longer to look it up and explain it.
There's a "Calvin & Hobbes" cartoon where Calvin asks his
dad why pictures are black and white?
And his dad says that's how the world used to be then.
Those are color photos of a world that was black and white
before you were born.

And kids would we believe that.
But at some point, they're going to
realize that's not true.
This is the first Christmas where neither of my kids
believes in Santa, so it's very sad for us.

But yeah, I do feel like the right
response is, I don't know.
Let's look it up.
Rather than ahh, stop bugging me.
Let me just tell you something short.
AUDIENCE: So he still comes to you before
seeking it out himself?
KEN JENNINGS: He actually does.
And I like to think that's laziness.
It's like the upside of the lazy computer for our
generation, is that as easy as it is to do something online,
like asking the person there in front of you is easier than
going to the computer and having to type something in.
That feels like homework.
In fact, it is homework because these kids are getting
assigned to answer these questions with Google.
And so they don't see this as fun anymore.
So I guess that was very clever of teachers to make it
seem boring to actually have to look stuff up, so that they
still need their parents.
That was good.
Thank you.
Do you have a question?
First of all I wanted to state for the record, I also
followed you when you were historical in on "Jeopardy."
And I was rooting for you.
KEN JENNINGS: Well, that's what we need.
AUDIENCE: It was reassuring, that $75K run-away at the end.
So my question actually was about the show.
It seems like there are multiple shows taped per day.
So I was just curious a little bit about that, logistics?
And given your long run, how many times did you have to go
shopping in California?

KEN JENNINGS: The logistics in "Jeopardy" are interesting.
What's the time on these.
Is this the last question or, do this and one more?
If you're a fan of the show, you might get the wrong idea
about how it works.
Alex will come out every day and pretend it's a new show.
But really, they do five in a day.
So a full week's worth of shows is an afternoon.
And that's a long afternoon.
Dick Clark I understand used to do 10 shows of "Pyramid,"
every day, which blows my mind.
Because I got so exhausted after doing five "Jeopardys."
So you show up in the morning, get an orientation.
They sort of walk you through the tricky "Jeopardy" buzzer
and what to do when you're on stage, and don't freeze up,
and let's rehearse your anecdotes.
Believe it or not, they do rehearse those terrible
anecdotes they tell all about their cats.

And I guess I shouldn't say they, we tell about our cats.
But as soon as the game is over, the contestants come
down stage.
There's this little awkward chat down stage, which is
really a terrible social dynamic.
Because two of you have just lost, seen your
lifelong dream shattered.
One of you has just realized he or she is going to go back
and do the whole thing again in like 10 minutes, as soon as
you put on your tie or skirt.
And the fourth one of you just wants to get out of there in
time because he's got Laker tickets.
Alex is always in a hurry.
And as soon as they say we're clear, you
get hustled off stage.
The losers have to sign a piece of paper accepting their
consolation prizes.
The winner and Alex get hustled off to change their
jacket, different dressing rooms mind you.
And as soon as you got a new tie, you come right back on,
it's like, "on yesterday's show."
The real hitch for me was they tape like three or four months
in advance.
So if you think about it, that's not normally awkward.
Somebody can be on the show, they can either choose whether
or not to tell their friends how they did.
And then a few months later, they have a big viewing party
and everybody cheers or whatever.
In my case, my show started airing while I was still on.
So I had 42 shows in the can before one even aired--
or 38?
I think 38 shows in the can before the
first one even aired.
So I was having to keep this ever more momentous secret.
I was having to fly back secretly from Salt Lake, where
we lived, down to LA, twice a month.
Stay there for 48 hours, win, as it turned out, 10
"Jeopardy" games at a head.
Fly back.
My boss was covering for me at work.
She was only one who knew.
I hadn't told anybody else, except my wife.
My boss covered for me at work.
I'd fly back.
And she'd tell everybody oh, Ken's son was sick or Ken is
painting his basement or whatever.
If you think like computer programmers are smart, yeah,
nobody ever figured it out.
And I'd have to come back to work the next day and like
pretend I cared about the morning
staff meeting or whatever.

You feel like you have a secret identity.
You're jetting off to do something glamorous.
I mean you got to come back to the Daily Planet and be like,
Lois, Superman was here?

I can't believe I missed it again.
It really did start to become very confusing.
You start to have the Spiderman problem of all the
little lies you have to tell.
If your parents call, you have to pretend you're at home and
not on the 405 driving to Culver City to do a game show.
And you don't have enough changes of clothes,
so what do you do?
How do you get a sitter for the kids, if my wife wanted to
come out and watch a show?
Do we do even have enough money in the bank to cover
like the hotel?
Because "Jeopardy" does not cover your travel
You fly out there on your own dime.
So yeah, it got logistically, surprisingly complicated.
And it was a relief when I could actually sort of tell
what was going on.
I didn't have enough clothes.
I was a computer programmer.
Like I don't have like 75 changes of business casual.
Like if I wore the shorts without the ketchup stain,
that's like dressing up.
So my brother is a lawyer and he knew.
He and his wife had been in the audience on
the very first game.
So they knew what was going on.
So I would just borrow-- we're about the same size.
So he would lend me clothes.
And really, you can rotate the same cheap, JC Penney's
clothes, over and over on "Jeopardy,"
and nobody ever notices.
That's what I learned.
I'd like to thank you all for coming today.
It was a real pleasure.
If you want a book, I'll be happy to sign
them, up there I gather.
But, thank you so much.