Let’s all save ourselves some time. Organized and hotlinked by subject:
Prisoner of Trebekistan and Jeopardy!
Who Hates Whom
Are you the Bob Harris who (choose at least one)…?
(i) wrote Fatherland
(n) etc., etc., etc.
Sadly, I have neither Colombian brides nor buttery spreads.
Despite what one may read in news stories written by people too dim to guess that "Bob Harris" is a common name and too lazy to work the Google, the correct answer is (z), none of the above.
We realize that you choose from a variety of Bob Harrises in your surfing day. Thank you for your patronage.
Do you read all of your email?
Eh. Not so much, I’m afraid. I tried to read everything for many years, but it’s just not practical anymore. So names I recognize get first dibs, and beyond that, it’s hit or miss. One in three, maybe. Sometimes none for weeks. Sorry.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that names I don’t recognize are often either spam, long-lost “relatives” asking for money, etc. Delete, delete, delete. If that sounds harsh, well, imagine what emails you might get after you've won a few hundred grand on national TV, written for a top-rated TV series built entirely around morbid crimes, or released a book trying to summarize all the world's major conflicts in impossibly (even foolishly) short essays. My inbox is a real festival sometimes, lemme tell you.
Plus, I’ve also gotten a bit mercenary about blocking addresses. Ways to get me to ignore your email for good:
- Spam, obviously (I’m looking at you, virgilio.it!)
- Adding me to your mailing list without asking, no matter how much you’re sure I’ll adore your pet cause
- Repeated emails of the same content (why do people do this?)
- Unexpected large inbox-hogging attachments (bigger than a couple of Mb, say)
- Misguided if frequently amusing rage at a total stranger
- Be someone who treated me badly at some point, then decided maybe I don't remember. Oh, I remember.
How come you don’t write as much political stuff as you used to?
I wrote a lot in the ‘80s and ‘90s, much of which was pretty decent, but some of course was complete crap. Looking back, sometimes I was more interested in finding facts that fit my conclusions and not the other way around. That’s a pretty common thing, and totally human, incidentally — if you’ve ever been in a family quarrel, or heard talk radio of any kind in the last decade, you know the deal — but usually only obvious to yourself after some time passes. (There's a little about why this might be in Trebekistan.) Then I wrote almost nothing political at all for a while, especially during the year I was working at CSI:, although being a low-level staff writer I did manage to slip some unusual stuff into the show occasionally. (Ever see the episode where a poker player drops dead, and the ultimate cause was pollution in West Africa? Hi there.)
I did a slew of political blogginess for for a couple of years over on This Modern World where I guested for cartoonist Tom Tomorrow. Back in those faraway days of 2003 and 2004, believe it or not, there were not yet hundreds and hundreds of liberal-leaning blogs getting significant traffic. A few dozen, tops, I’d guess. So it seemed especially worthwhile, what with the 2004 elections coming up.
Lately, though, there are lots of blogs that write about politics in a way that’s either funnier or clearer or better-informed than anything I’m likely to churn out. Many are all three. Plus, there’s this whole making-a-living thing, and that takes considerable time.
Where did the Sopranos finale analysis go?
A few days after the Sopranos finale ended, I put up a post pointing out about a dozen clear signs that maybe (note the word "maybe") Tony had been whacked — everything from a previous episode's explicit description of what death would look like (matching the end of the show perfectly) to choreography clearly inspired by the killing of Solazzo in The Godfather to elaborate set design in an establishing shot that strongly resembled the Last Supper.
I didn't think it was particularly insightful — frankly, it was all so obvious I originally figured somebody else probably had noticed it all, too — and more importantly, I didn't actually care. It was a freakin' TV show. It is not important.
But try telling that to the millions of fans who were left with no idea what happened. Within days, the Internet found my post, and I suddenly had hundreds of thousands of visitors within the next few days — few of whom, judging from hundreds of emails, were interested in anything but either worshipping what I'd written as the Truth or tearing me a new one despite being unable to contradict the factual content of what I'd written. (I did make a few minor factual errors, which I acknowledged and corrected in the first couple of days the post was online.)
All this muddle-headed energy over the death of a fictional character, while real wars raged and our own government was still butt-deep in serious human rights abuses, made me want to throw up.
I regretted my own part in the damn thing, and for the first time in the history of this site, I yanked the post.
What happened to the daily polls you had for like a year or two there?
The answer is in the question. Daily polls. For like a year. Then they became kind of twice a week, then weekly, then sort of monthly…
I’m glad people liked them – we used to get hundreds of responses every day – but when the contract to write Trebekistan came up, I just didn’t have time anymore. I just ran out of gas.
Aren’t you worried about terrorism/crime/exotic parasites, etc.?
Nah. Most of the world is pretty safe. Some pretty big chunks are much safer than Los Angeles.
Stop watching the news, which is usually at least half rubbish. Get yourself to the airport. I've been to 63 countries now on six continents, eating everything from caviar in Monaco to goat brochettes in Rwanda, and sleeping in everything from the richest hotel on earth (the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi) to a tin shack in Dominica.
Loved it all, too.
How can you afford to travel so much? Aren’t you just rich from (choose one) game shows, TV residuals, wealthy paramours, selling your organs, etc.?
You’d be surprised. Round-the-world, round-the-Pacific, and similar airpasses can be way affordable with planning. Many are even less expensive if you buy them in London, Bangkok, and other places where there are large and competitive markets. But even without leaving the chair you're in right now, you can find some pretty amazing deals.
When I went around the world in 2003-04, I bought a one-way from LAX to London for about $350 (this is easy unless you’re flying in the peak summer season), then bought a pass offered by an alliance of Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Air, and Air New Zealand for something like $1900, including taxes and stuff. Same ticket would have cost me $6000 or more (possibly much more) here. That got me to four more continents, with the bonus being a final LAX-Heathrow leg left over to start the next trip with.
Granted, even with cheap airfare, if you insist on the classic first-world tourist places (Rome, Paris, etc.), you might still pay through every orifice you have. But if you’re heading to other places, which are often waaaaay more interesting anyway, Americans and other industrialized types usually find most things ridiculously cheap, for the same reason Nike makes shoes in Vietnam and not downtown New York. The difference, of course, is that if you’re careful about it – staying and eating at locally-owned hotels and restaurants, for example, and using the trip as a chance to learn to how others live instead of trying to be an American everywhere you go – you’re often helping the locals by your visit. So everybody wins.
I think finding the time and the willingness to really just go! are much harder to come up with than the cash. I’ve known people who spent enough on lottery tickets in three years to pay for a trip they think they’d need to win the lottery to take
OK, I want to try this. What do I pack?
As close to nothing as possible. For me, it’s usually just extra socks and undies in quantity, plus a limited amount of outerwear I can layer. Sunscreen, toothbrush, floss, basic travel meds, and a thermometer. Lamisil. Digital pocket camera with extra battery, memory cards, and recharger. All-in-one international electrical adapter. Duct tape. (Extremely versatile.) T-Mobile cell phone with international dialing. (I mention T-Mobile because their deal is best, or was when I last looked into it in 2005.) Passport and vaccination card. ATM card and a couple of VISA or MasterCards. (Capital One was the best for avoiding surcharges for international transactions last I looked; they might still be the best deal, but check.) Travel health insurance info. Earplugs and sleep mask for air travel. Pages from relevant guidebooks, ripped out to save weight and space.
Might be missing something, but top of my head, I can’t think of much else.
Where to next?
Good question. Changes constantly. Check the main blog. I'll probably post pics here and there.
What’s the deal with pudus?
Um… they’re cute as hell. And while they’re endangered in the wild, they flourish in zoos, so if enough people like them, they’ll probably be all over the place pretty soon. So they’re this site’s mascot. It makes people happy, it makes zoos happy, it makes pudus happy. Everybody wins.
That’s the deal.
I don't post pictures nearly as frequently as I used to, but they're still as cute as ever.
What, exactly, is a pudu?
Smallest species of deer in the world. Full-grown, they come up to your shins. The full species name is, believe it or not, “pudu pudu.” So that’s extra cute.
Almost completely defenseless. Placid little creatures. Affectionate in their way, given half a chance. One in the Jacksonville Zoo, where they run loose in the aviary, came right up to me and let me scratch its head once. People in Paris once tried to keep them as pets in apartments. Other people thought they were a cute kind of dog.
Their habitat in Chile and Argentina is being encroached upon by larger red deer, and as I understand it, both species are getting pushed around by human development. So pudus are now getting killed off by people’s dogs and stuff. It’s not a good deal.
Where can I see pudus?
Zoos, mostly, unless you suck it up and visit the island of Chiloe, off the coast of Chile, where they seem to do OK in the national park there. Or so I'm told. I went, and I didn't see any. So instead I went to Fernando's Hideaway in the Lakes District and saw a ton of pudus.
What’s the proper plural of the word pudu?
I’ve seen both “pudu” (like “deer,” not “deers,”) and “pudus,” which I’ve always used, and was at one time quite convinced was right. Now I’m not sure. It’s remotely possible I may have spread my own mistake so much that it’s becoming accepted usage. Language nazis, it’s all my fault.
Why are so many of your pudu entries not, um, actual pudus?
Too many wonderful animals in the world, not enough time.
What’s up with all the cricket, soccer, rugby, etc.?
Like any native Clevelander, I’ve been a sports junkie since birth. Lived and died with the Browns for decades. Mostly died. Same with the Indians, whom I still follow closely. Baseball is still my favorite sport, and I’d blog about it more if it wasn’t so redundant, being the national pastime and all.
As to soccer, I started following Arsenal about four years ago, when a Londoner friend turned me on to Thierry Henry. The guy can move a football through traffic the way Michael Jordan used to move a basketball. Even if you’re not a soccer fan, it’s cool, trust me. Then I started traveling more, and once you’re out of the U.S., soccer and basketball are usually the biggies. Soccer stuck more.
I got hooked on rugby three years ago when I was sick one night and the only cool thing on TV at 2:00 a.m. was this weird game between two teams called the Sharks and Stormers on the old Fox Sports World. I got my mind off my discomfort by trying to sort out what the hell was going on. Eventually, aha, rugby in Cape Town. Then I went back to bed. A few months later I visited Cape Town, and passed the giant stadium where I’d seen this odd game. I stopped out of idle curiosity — the South African Rugby Hall of Fame is right there, and that seemed interesting — and believe it or not, a security guard gave me a 90-minute private tour of the whole place, including a walk through the locker rooms and out through the runway onto the field. (Imagine that happening at Yankee Stadium.) It turns out that rugby people have an informal code of general civility toward each other and especially new fans. Nice counts for a lot with me. So I started loving the game before I even understood it fully.
That same security guard then called a coworker, who then gave me another tour — this time of the nearby ground where the Cricket World Cup had recently been played. This was meaningless to me, but the sheer damn friendliness made an impression. Now I lose whole stretches of my life marveling at this baseball-like game I’m still trying to learn. Makes me feel like a kid again.
Anyhow, I blog sometimes about it (a) because sports are a direct route to moments of simple joy, and that’s neat, (b) to ingratiate myself to any Aussies or Kiwis who might be in a position to offer me a writing gig, which I'd take in a heartbeat, as I enjoy both countries immensely, and (c) as a reminder to myself of how much of the world I haven't seen yet.
I think I figured out who the Jane/David/Danny/etc. character is, and it's someone I've heard of from TV. Am I right?
For the record, "Jane" is Jayne Mansfield, "David" is David Rockefeller, and "Danny" is Danny Gans, Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year every year since the invention of the billboard, apparently.
And I am lying through my teeth right there. If your guesses seem more reasonable, then they probably are. Rest assured, yes, if you think you know one of the characters from TV, then you probably do.
What kind of a car is Max?
Can't tell you, because I still drive him, and I value my privacy. But people apparently imagine him most frequently as a 1960s VW bug, the kind that sounds like a small aircraft taking off when it struggles to get on the interstate. That's close enough for me.
What’s Alex really like?
That’s certainly not for me to say, since I’ve only spent a few hours around him, usually in the middle of an oddly one-sided conversation while trying to keep two other people from butting in. So I can’t pretend to know, at least in any way glib enough to toss off in three sentences on a website.
That said, I like him a great deal, and I do believe that if you read Prisoner of Trebekistan, you’ll probably feel like you have a satisfying answer to your question by the end.
Isn’t it true that (choose one)…?
- The players get something to study in advance
- The tape is edited, and players really have more time to think than it looks
- Producers tweak the categories to players’ various strengths
Nope. I’d never heard any of this crap until I’d actually been on the show and people started asking me this stuff. The game is exactly what it looks like, as roughly (considering studio audience members plus contestants) 200,000 independent witnesses over the years will happily verify.
Did you study? What kind of stuff?
Yes. Lots. And everything which seemed like it might come up.
I invite you to imagine just how insane that might have been, or whether I actually learned anything out of it, or how. But I think if you read the book, you'll still be surprised at the answers to all three.
What’s Ken Jennings like?
Happily married, loving father, nice to people, way more humble than anybody who did what he did has any right to be. I don’t presume to call him a friend yet, but we’ve emailed a bunch of times, what with our books coming out at the same time, and we hung out a couple of months ago when he was in town. Great guy. I know it's a little craw-sticking for some people that this guy can be smarter, richer, nicer, and funnier, all at once, than about 90% of the population. But there it is. We just have to live with it. And hope he doesn't turn evil.
But didn’t Ken go off on Jeopardy! and write a bunch of nasty, ungrateful stuff?
Nah. That rumor was started by some newspaper reporters too lazy to bother reading what Ken actually wrote. If you go read the actual thing Ken said, he was obviously kidding. But once the idea was out there, it spread around the world in less than two days, apparently because some reporters might feel a lot better about themselves if Ken were a jerk. Too bad for them.
Is Ken the greatest player ever?
Hard to say. Him or Brad Rutter, I'd say. Brad beat Ken pretty soundly in the 3-day final of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions. But then again, Ken had a bye to the finals and thus hadn’t played in months, while Brad was already in fighting shape from several rounds of competition. So who knows? Either way, there are probably about another twenty or thirty players (Chuck Forrest, Frank Spangenberg, Jerome Vered, Dan Melia, Pam Mueller, Mike Rooney, Leslie Frates, Robin Carroll, etc.) who are about as good, just half a notch behind at most, with everyone capable of beating anyone else on a given day.
Incidentally, every single one of those people I just listed is incredibly nice. So are almost all of the ones I didn’t. Honest.
Where do you rank in that list?
Notice that I didn’t mention myself. I might belong in the half-notch down group. Might not. Not really sure, honestly.
Why were you in the 2002 Masters tournament at Radio City Music Hall, and not, say, Dan Melia or Jerome Vered or a dozen other equally deserving folks?
The producers’ decision, not mine. I’ll probably never know for sure. There’s a bunch about how that felt for all concerned in the book, incidentally.
The author's note says that some of the names in Prisoner of Trebekistan are changed. Which ones?
I changed the names of everyone except Jeopardy! personnel, Jeopardy! players, and people in my personal life who are recognizable actors or writers whom you would be able to easily identify anyway. My family, ex-girlfriends, and other friends in the book are portrayed as accurately as I can manage, but their names and many other details are mangled enough to protect their privacy.
Did Jeopardy! vet or approve the text in any way?
Not one word crossed their desks before it reached stores. I kept waiting to come home and find the Sony Law Ninjas waiting for me, but they just seem to have decided to let me do my thing. Pretty nice of them, too, given that as a business the show is worth hundreds of millions, most likely, and they've spent over two decades building the show's reputation.
I guess they’ve been around me enough to know that I like them and wasn’t going to write a savage tell-all. Also, I’m just a contestant, and hardly close enough to the show to write a savage tell-all in the first place. Not to mention that doing so would destroy any chance I’d have to get back on the show and maybe get my shot at Brad someday.
Did you get permission from Alex to bend his last name in the title?
Kind of, but nothing in writing or anything. Last time I was on the set, I mentioned that I had this book deal, and I was thinking of this particular title. Alex fixed me with an amused but measuring look and asked simply, “is it funny?” I mumbled something back like “maybe,” since I hadn’t written a word yet. Then I recall he kind of nodded and half-smiled, which I took as approval. That was the extent of the interaction.
What does Alex think of the book?
I have no idea. I’m not sure I’m even allowed to know. The Sony Law Ninjas might come for me in the night. But he seems to have a really good sense of humor.
Is there any good Jeopardy! gossip that isn’t in the book?
Hmm. Well, I hear Alex still has his old mustache. He keeps it suspended in a vacuum-sealed frozen jar. Sony built him sort of an airlock thingy near the soundstage, and everyone who enters the studio usually genuflects. Some people leave flowers.
Incidentally, if you’re the New York Post or Fox News, I am kidding. Please do not write fake stories about me the way you did to Ken.
Are you Jeopardy! guys really all friends?
Not all, of course not. But groups of us do hang out, clustered in Los Angeles, NYC, the SF bay area, and a few other clots. Some of the local guys and I go up to CalTech every year for a QuizBowl tournament. That’s fun. Every now and again we sneak in unannounced at bar trivia nights. And Dan Melia and his wife Dara were over here for dinner just the other day.
I am incredibly fortunate to have such extremely knowledgeable and yet lighthearted people in my life to call and rely on.
Best game show prize ever.
As I say in the foreword, positively nothing. I'm just some guy. (Then again, so are nearly all of the talking heads setting the terms of public debate in the United States, sad to say.) It just seemed like a book like this should exist, and as far as I could tell, it didn't. As to whether the content is credible, that's your call, of course. But, my occasional fallibility aside (see the errata page for that), you should be able to verify pretty much everything in the book in a couple of Googles.
When were the essays completed?
Generally speaking, about six months before publication, give or take. Which, given the nature of war, is a bit like doing an oil painting of a fireworks display. For high-flux situations like Iraq and Afghanistan, I tried to squeeze in updates as late as possible in the process. (My editor can tell you how much extra work I kept making for him.) But even those had a lead time of months. Still, as I write this on the eve of publication, as far as I can tell, most of the thing holds up pretty darn well. Much better than I expected, to be honest.
Why isn't [insert your favorite civil war / insurrection / international stand-off here] included?
Believe it or not, my publisher originally wanted the book to be only 30,000 words long. Which was, of course, impossible. As it is, most of the essays are short enough to read on the can, which seems a bit unjust, given that we're often describing situations in which countless nice human beings have lost their lives. The risk of trivializing anything haunted me every waking minute while writing this thing. Ultimately, we convinced the kind publisher to extend my word and page limit up by about fifty percent (which costs money out of their pocket, mind you), and then I spent most of the month of March 2007 cutting and slashing every spare word, and in a few cases, entire chapters.