Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blog blast past: But will the computer know what Stan the Man hit?

There is overlap between sports nuts and trivia nuts, so some of you lot probably heard about Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings challenging a computer.

The notion of a computer trying to buzz in and answer questions before Jennings has already been Gawkered"But what if they only ask abstract, soul-searching questions?" Levity aside, there is a serious issue about how well the computer will handle any sports question.

The sports trivia nut is a breed apart from one of your church-picnic trivia buffs, but not a superior breed. It is a joy for them to meet up with one of the similarly afflicted who gets why your PIN for your bank card is 4256 or understands why Bob Costas once left a $3.31 tip when he ate at St. Louis restaurant owned by baseball legend Stan Musial.

However, the kicker is that it takes no ability or creativity to be sports trivia nut, just a real good memory. They can't forget this stuff even if they tried, so there is no pride in knowing it, and no desire to share that gift/curse with the world, since it is the only thing people will associate with you for the rest of your days (especially if you show up for an event that's for teams of four with only three people and still win going away, like someone associated with this site most definitely did not do at The Toucan in Kingston one night in late 2002).

This sense of shame can manifest itself in jealously lashing out at Ken Jennings, as it did back in the wild and nutty days of late 2004. Read on.

(Simcoe Reformer, Dec. 3, 2004)
This soft-spoken software engineer pulled off one of the most overrated feats in recent memory.

Who is Ken Jennings?

As you probably heard, Jennings' record run of 74 days as Jeopardy! champion ended Tuesday. By all indications, Jennings captured the public imagination. Ratings for Jeopardy! were up. As the wins mounted, rumours and reports percolated across the Internet about when Jennings would be defeated. On Wednesday, Jennings was the top Hot Search on Netscape, a pretty impressive feat for someone who has never publicly exposed a nipple.

Yes, Kenny is a smart cookie, if not a smart dresser. Before he came along, who knew there were so many possible bland shirt-and-tie combos?

But as a 19th-century British prime minister — who was Benjamin Disraeli? — said, there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

So what if Ken Jennings was on Jeopardy! for 74 days? Until recently, the show limited contestants to five appearances. Given the chance, wouldn't a few of those know-it-alls and lucky guessers have kept winning and winning?

Sure, he won $2.5 million. That's a lot of cabbage, even after the IRS takes its half out of the middle.

Of course, Jeopardy! doubled the dollar values for each question a while back. Does anyone claim Mike Weir is a better golfer than Jack Nicklaus since Weir is 15th on the PGA's all-time money list and Nicklaus isn't in the top 100?

The most damning indictment against Ken Jennings, though, is that he handled sports questions like a live cobra. Around Day 25 or 30, Alex Trebek lobbed up this softball: "This team won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983."

You could hear crickets chirping as the contestants groped for an answer.

Jennings: "Who is New York?"

Trebek: "Be more specific."

Jennings: "The Rangers?"

If that's correct, what were the decades of "Nineteen-forty!" chants and the guy back in 1994 waving the "Now I can die in peace" sign about?

Thus the curtain was pulled back, revealing the wizard was just a man. Jennings had a lot going for him, namely his DSL-fast buzzer-thumb and producers who fed him cupcake contestants to keep the streak going. By Day 60, some of his opponents seemed straight from Saturday Night Live's Celebrity Jeopardy sketch.

He knew his potent potables, but on all things sporting, Jennings didn't know his elbow from second base. Put in a room full of sports nuts who can rhyme off Ernie Whitt's birthdate (June 13, 1952), jersey number (12), given name (Leo), the year he played in the All-Star Game (1985) and his career high in RBI (75), the dude would have been eaten alive.

Many of these same sports nuts can't pick their member of Parliament out of a police lineup, but that's neither here nor there.

Is Jennings the genius he was hyped up to be? No, he's just a guy who cashed in on his knack for buzzing in quickly on questions which aren't all that hard.

Those of us who are steeped in sports and other essentially unhistoric trivia — like knowing the same guy played the sportswriter in Slapshot and the diving coach in Back To School — knew it all along. (Who is M. Emmet Walsh?)

Collectively, we're on guard to keep the word "genius" from being abused. As ESPN's Joe Theismann once said, "The word genius isn't applicable in football. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein."

The story behind Theismann's oft-quoted malaprop is the ex-Washington QB had a high school classmate named Norman Einstein.

If you actually knew that, chances are you might end up on Jeopardy! as the answer to this:

"Who needs to get a life?"
(Writing this today, mocking Ken Jennings' wardrobe would be out of bounds. Other than that, every single word stands.)

Jeopardy! Smackdown (The Atlantic)
A Computer That Answers Questions! What Will They Think of Next? (Gawker)


Andrew Bucholtz said...

Sorry, I can't agree on this one, partly because I'm a huge Jeopardy geek. Jennings is the most impressive contestant I've ever seen, and not just for his buzzing skills; the man has an incredible amount of knowledge across a wide variety of fields. Yes, sports isn't one of them, but so what? Not everyone cares about sports trivia, just like not everyone cares about historical or artistic trivia. I'm sure I'd give just as embarrassing answers if I was asked about 18th-century painters. Not everyone has to revere Jennings, but criticizing him just because he doesn't know a lot about sports seems like a flawed argument to me; I'd venture that most sports trivia buffs have nowhere near as much knowledge in other fields as Jennings.

sager said...

Andrew, I missed the part where it's my duty to write stuff for you to agree with. You didn't get it.

The point all along was that it is irrational for a sports buff, like myself, to not give the guy his due. Hence, the self-piss takes about needing to get a life, or not being able to pick one's MP out of a police lineup.

And the sports questions on Jeopardy! do tend to be very pedestrian, which is frustrating for the sports guy who wants to show off his big brain. At the same time, you don't want to go on Stump The Schwab and have the awareness it's kind of pitiful to spend time memorizing sports statistics staring at you in the face, in the form of a pasty 300-lb. guy wearing a replica jersey.

(Or am I projecting?)

Ian Gray said...

Lemme get this straight: the only trivia questions that count are sports questions?

If it's so easy to run off the sort of streak Jennings did, then why has no one even come remotely close to his run? I mean, the second longest streak is 19 games. That's just over a quarter of Jennings' run. After that, the longest streak is nine games. Nine. They've played 800 regular games since Jennings lost, and the pattern's pretty clear-really good players win five games, six or seven if they're lucky, then lose. Jennings did that ten times in a row. And the thing about Jeopardy is that there's no margin for error-you lose, you go home, and you don't come back no matter how good you are. Pretending that Jennings' streak wasn't amazing in the context of Jeopardy, simply because you know more sports trivia than him, is churlish and makes you sound, as you say, bitter.

I mean, great, you know more sports trivia than him. If you're playing him in a game of Jeopardy, you now have an advantage in one of twelve categories, if you're lucky. I'm going to bet on him in the other eleven.

I actually agree with the main point here, which is that facility with trivia does not make a person a genius. As someone who's been fighting off the genius tag because of a weirdly good memory all my life, you're entirely correct to say that it doesn't actually mean anything at all about someone because they have a good memory. As I suppose is obvious, I'm a fan of Jeopardy, and I think the show is pretty good at rewarding actual thought in addition to pure recall, but it's obviously a quiz show. So yes, people who were going around saying "Ken Jennings is a genius" and meaning it literally, as opposed to the sloppy colloquial way, were wrong. But that's an unbelievably trite point.

Also, your arguments are pretty specious. They doubled the prize money, yes. So we'll spot you that one, and halve Jennings' winnings. He still has more than double what anyone else has won in regular play, even if you don't halve the guys who came after him. The guy who set the pre-doubling five day record, if he'd kept that pace up week after week at the doubled clue values, would've won as much money as Jennings did after winning...73 to 75 games. There's no way you can look at what Jennings did and not say that he's the best player ever to get on the show. And this: "producers who fed him cupcake contestants to keep the streak going. By Day 60, some of his opponents seemed straight from Saturday Night Live's Celebrity Jeopardy sketch" is just ridiculous. If you were to look it up, which you evidently didn't, you would see that Jennings had some comparatively close runs in his last few weeks. He also had some blowouts, because he's the best player ever to play the game. How do you think you'd do if you flew in, jittery as all get out, and found out you'd be playing a guy who'd won 62 straight games? And how exactly do you figure that the producers rigged it? They passed Jennings over twice before they picked him, and he'd have won about 25 games before they'd have even started making calls for his next round of opponents. Also, they couldn't have just assumed he'd keep winning, and picked duds intentionally-if he loses unexpectedly, you're looking at some terrible lineups. Finally, if it got out it would sink the show, and for what? They had gigantic ratings by the time they'd have been making the decisions-there's no reason to take that kind of risk, and game shows are pretty careful about avoiding the appearance of rigging these days, let alone actually doing it.

I suppose I should say that Jennings was lucky as well as good-he missed his second Final Jeopardy question a day after he had to get Final jeopardy right to win; had the writers decided to switch the questions before taping that day, no one ever would have heard of Jennings. But no one says that Joe DiMaggio wasn't a great player because luck was involved in his hitting streak; you don't do what these guys do without being both lucky and very good.

Is Jennings good, in this case, at something socially valuable? Of course not. But who cares? Trivial knowledge is at the very least socially neutral and I would argue a well run quiz show fills a very minor niche in encouraging its viewers to be a little more curious about the world. And I would think that the proprietor of a sports site, of all bloody things, wouldn't object to someone being very well compensated for excelling in entertaining competition.

Finally, you've got the causation wrong. Jennings hasn't challenged anyone to anything. IBM's made this computer, they're negotiating with Sony about putting it on Jeopardy, and for some reason people on hearing that it'll be going up against great former champions want to know what Jennings thinks. I can't imagine why.

On preview: Boy, does your stated point ever not come across. You write an article slamming a guy to make a point about your own irrationality? Mission accomplished, I guess, but not in the way you say you wanted to do it. You are right, however, about the simplicity of the sports questions. The show generally keeps it fairly simple across the board-the challenge of the game is that it's an extremely wide board, and it comes at you really quickly.

sager said...

Mr. Gray,

You're not giving enough consideration to context (and you do realize this was a reprint of a 5-year-old column, and that people aren't trees, they can move?).

As I recall, when I wrote that, almost five years ago, the two notions running through my head was one, that Ken Jennings wasn't so hot handling sports questions, which yes, I am territorial about. Two, was the stereotype of the cranky columnist, the typical opinionated knee-jerker, who thinks it's her/his job to wake up in the morning, spin the wheel and decide what they're an expert about on that particular day.

So I set out to kind of fuse the two, and I wrote it in much less than 45 minutes to a hour, which was all the time I got write columns. Surely as a veteran journalist, you could relate, presuming that Baby Boomers actually know how to relate to anyone who's not like them.

I was making a knowing reference to a subculture, satirizing a journalistic convention, commenting on something topical and I did in conversational English, to boot.

You're right, there is probably a lot in there I would disavow today. But it worked then and apparently it works on many levels that are beyond your grasp. Good day, sir.

Ian Gray said...

"There probably is a lot in there I would disavow today."

Which, of course, is why you capped the column-today, not in those golden days of the summer of 2004-with "every single word stands." I realize you had a caveat, but I didn't criticize your fashion judgment.

I like your assumptions about me, which happen to be about three quarters wrong. I'll let you figure out where you've hit the target. And don't blame me for picking apart a five year old column-you're the one who put it up, after all.

Furthermore, it's not the first time you've made an offhand reference to Jennings making a mistake on that question-I thought about piping up then, but figured it was too petty to bother. Then you decided to give us the full monty, so I figured, why not? I know I'm a geek, who cares if everyone else knows?

As I say, I don't think you got your point across. Perhaps you're right, and it's going over my head. But I think you're underestimating the extent to which the column's a slam on Jennings, and I certainly think you're overestimating the extent to which the self-deprecation comes through.

But at the end of the day, if you want to think it's a brilliant piece of satire, have at it. It's entirely possible that you're right.

Have a good one, man.

sager said...


Fair enough; I'm straight up about being a geek, and really, this all comes back to shared experience. That column, looking back on it, maybe doesn't reflect shared experience.

We have nothing to hide (full monty, indeed).
I would probably take back that comment about the producers, but what's done is done. I remember a lot of people saying that about Jennings' record run (oh, where was Stephen Colbert with the term Wikiality? Wisdom of crowds, eh?)

The great thing about the Internet is it is this instantaneous fact-checker anyone can use. Maybe I should have said it explicitly, but that column kind of reflects a media world where people figured they could say whatever without being corrected; i.e., no sense of shared experience.

That mindset is still around, but it's in decline and we will be better off in the long run.

I didn't put it up because I feel the exact same way today. Blog Blast Past is a regular feature. It's meant to show what I was thinking, right or wrong, at a particular point in time.

Maybe it needed to be spelled out, "look how much dumber I was in 2004." However, it's better to just put it out there and let readers make up their minds. You did so and I'm grateful for the feedback, especially coming from someone of obvious intellect.

Sorry for the long reply, but I wasn't going to give you the "I must have been right if you were moved to write such a long reply." Knowitalls the world over have done for many years.

I don't know for sure it's brilliant. All I know was it worked on that particular day. It got an acknowledgement in The Best American Sports Writing 2005, which rare for a Canadian newspaper, let alone one in Simcoe.

As for Jennings, one factor in his success, which was not so apparent to me at the time, was that he was comfortable being in the studio with the buzzer in his hand than the first-time contestants he was facing. Maybe, since I'm reading Outliers, that would occur to me a lot quicker today than it did 5 years ago.

Again, that's the shared experience. Thanks again, Ian.

Ian Gray said...


All right. Obviously, this is a subject of trivial importance in more ways than one, and I'm sure that you intended the piece in the way that you've stated here. The fact that this wasn't immediately evident to me isn't evidence of anything in particular; I don't pretend to be an omniscient reader or anything.

Certainly Jennings' comfort with the environment played a major role in his streak; a five-time champion, Bob Harris, wrote a very good book a couple of years ago in which he said that he felt he had a distinct edge a couple of games into his run. The producers were aware of the edge Jennings was accumulating, and apparently started giving the challengers extra buzzer practice about half-way through the streak in an attempt to give them a fair chance. It obviously didn't work, at least not for a long time.

I'm sorry if my initial reply was overly strident. As I've said, I'm a fan of the show, and I hope one day to compete on it. I understand why it gets some stick from Canadian commentators-I don't think myself that it makes a great deal of sense for it to be on the public broadcaster, given that it's clearly an American show notwithstanding Alex Trebek being from Sudbury and occasional Canadian contestants-but I do think that it's clearly the best quiz show out there, and as I've said I think that good quiz shows are a perfectly good form of TV entertainment. I will admit to being a little anxious about the show's timeline, given that it's been on for 25 years, Alex Trebek is a 68-year old heart attack survivor and the aforementioned Canadian carping about it being on the CBC, not to mention the revolution underway in TV and the financial crisis, so I can be the slightest bit sensitive about criticism of it. I stand by the substantive parts of my first reply, but I'd dial back the invective now.

In any event, I certainly wouldn't want to play you in a sports trivia contest, given your terrifying grip on Ernie Whitt knowledge-Ernie was my favourite player as a kid, and I knew maybe half that stuff. A wider spread of questions, though, and we'd have to see...

sager said...


I'm sure you'd kick my butt six ways to Sunday. I would leave the studio/bar wearing a barrel.

If I'm writing something that can be taken as a swipe at a topic of interest, I have to expect people to defend it vociferously.

That's a good point about CBC having Jeopardy!. They used to have The Simpsons and Arrested Development, two U.S. imports, in the 5-6 p.m. time slot, and I didn't have a problem, so I would be a hypocrite to carp about them bringing in Jeopardy!. Of course, that's my bias ... I'm not nuts about them having Wheel of Fortune since it's not up to the CBC's intellectual standard.

Anyway, when you get to the Tournament of Champions, you're going to have to tell this story.