CLOSE

Double Jeopardy! with Ken Jennings and Bob Harris

Who are Bob Harris and Ken Jennings? If you get that corny little joke, you already know -- they're both super-smart and slightly obsessive Jeopardy! stars, they both just wrote books about the experience, and they both like mental_floss (maybe you've seen Ken's column in our magazine). Today we're running interviews with both of them. First, let's hear from Bob, whose hugely funny new book is called Prisoner of Trebekistan:

While practicing for stints on the show, Bob Harris often referred to this as the "Jeopardy Weapon."
What is "the buzzer?" It's officially called a "Signaling Device," but that's not a name, really, just a placeholder for where one should go. So I tried to find something better: Clue Zapper, Palm Hoopty, Mr. Smartyhands, the Mervulator. I settled on the Jeopardy Weapon because when you've got the rhythm of the game, it's like you're holding the Hammer of Thor. You're crushing your opponents with your thumb.

Tell us about your training regimen "“ I hear you only ate the food you could get in the studio cafeteria.
It was the same reason why there's a home field advantage in sports. Basically, when your environment for recall is congruent with your environment for encoding, it's easier to recall your memories. Taken to the extreme, in my case, I wound up essentially turning my apartment into the Jeopardy! studio. I put bright halogen lights overhead and placed the TV as far away as it would go. I would study standing up. My girlfriend at the time thought I was out of my mind.

But she put up with it?
Define "putting up." She's a teacher and her experience was with conventional rote learning techniques, which for me amount to placing the book against your head and beating yourself unconscious. I think it was an insult to the way she makes her living. When I then came home after winning five straight games, that was even more of an affront.

What did you think of the brouhaha over Ken Jennings' recent comments about the show?
Ken got a bad rap. He was clearly kidding around. A lazy reporter took a playful, friendly tease and blew it up and the next thing you know it was in the North Korea Times. "¦ It was virtually the same grim joy that [the media] brought to the Mel Gibson story. We often as a society seize on fallen stars, Icarus stories. And the persistent message sent by these stories is that no matter hot or rich or successful the subjects are, they're not better than you.

In your book, you lay out a strategy for winning that starts with "obvious things may be worth noticing." Can you take us through it?
Seeing the obvious requires you to actually be present in the moment, to not be busy in your head. It sounds like the most elementary thing in the world but I think it's the most difficult, particularly for intelligent people who are always thinking. Sometimes there are problems that need to be solved not with faster or harder thought but with calming down. In Jeopardy! there's a hint in every clue, and sometimes it helps to you slow down and look for the hint. My Eightfold Path of Enlightened Jeopardy actually began as an unserious reference to Buddhism, and then what I ended up writing really was a lot like the actual Eightfold Path. Cool, huh?

So how did "seeing the obvious" work for you on the show?
Once in a big tournament there was a Final Jeopardy clue in British literature. I didn't know anything about British literature -- and the lady in second place was a librarian. So the clue comes up -- p-TING! -- "The 5th edition of this work, published in 1676, included an addendum on fly fishing by Charles Cotton." I panic immediately. My Jeopardy! career's about to end in 30 seconds. But then I take a breath and look for the hint. "1676?" I free-associate and come up with nothing but the movie "1776," involving a bunch of dancing middle-aged men in revolutionary garb. Nope. "Edition?" All I could come up with was New Edition "“ singing kids in music videos. Okay, I've got way too many people dancing in my skull. "Fly fishing?" OK, old book, big fish... Moby Dick! Then it dawns on me that you really can't fly fish a whale. Running out of time: Fishing, rods, reels, casting, ice fishing, angling "“ hey, there was a Beatles documentary once called "The Compleat Beatles" and that was a reference to "The Compleat Angler," which might be an old book about fish. Ta-da! At home it must have looked like I was a guy pondering his deep knowledge of literature. The truth is I found the obvious, then caromed off the walls until I found the answer via R&B and bad musicals.

That's one of the funniest arguments I've ever heard for interdisciplinary education.
Thanks! But we're taught to think that science and history and so on are unrelated. Hardly. In some ways my book is almost a 104,000-word act of prayer, hoping that people will see that everything really is connected. If we can't see how a piece of information is useful, that doesn't mean it's useless. A glass of water would be completely useless in a waterfall, but it could save your life in the ocean. All information has to be seen in its context. And you can't understand that without a broad general approach to stuff.

How did you get hooked on Jeopardy! to begin with?
My mom and dad had it on from the time it premiered in 1984. It premiered when I had just left college with an engineering degree that I quickly realized I never wanted to use. I went directly into a Dilbert job and then a depression. The show was a way my folks could make me feel like even enough I had no idea what I do would do next, I was still a modestly intelligent person. Of course, I then failed [the qualifying test] between four and six times. I actually lost count. Most people would have given up after the first, second, third time. I bet some stalkers probably give up more easily.

Why didn't you quit?
What kept me going was mainly an unconscious desire to please my mom and dad. Also, I was pretty broke.

Would you want to go back now?
Once you've been on the show and had your run, you're not going to come back unless they have some special invitational tournament. Which I've been lucky to be asked to a few times, but I'm probably never picking up a buzzer again. I'm retired, I'm out to stud. But if they did call"¦ It's like "The Godfather III" "“ you try to get out, but they keep dragging you back in.

Do you watch the show now?
Sometimes, sure. If it's on at a friend's house, I can get talked into playing so they can, I dunno, test themselves against me. As if that's a measure of anything.

What about the friends you've made as a contestant "“ what ties them together? Who tends to go on this show?
A certain level of intellect and education is useful, of course, but I think modesty is a wildly underappreciated Jeopardy! asset. The game dramatically rewards the ability not to guess. If you're not 90 percent sure of a response, the best thing you can do is put the buzzer down and wait for the next clue. And that is a rare skill. Jeopardy! is often less a test of knowledge than it is of self-knowledge. Also, good players tend to have really great listening skills, just to be able to play the game well. So basically, the same skills that work in Jeopardy! can also serve you well in life. Now, keep in mind that I've never won a tournament. So I may not be someone to listen to. But then again, of course I'd say that.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
Yes, You Can Put Your Christmas Decorations Up Now—and Should, According to Psychologists
iStock
iStock

We all know at least one of those people who's already placing an angel on top of his or her Christmas tree while everyone else on the block still has paper ghosts stuck to their windows and a rotting pumpkin on the stoop. Maybe it’s your neighbor; maybe it’s you. Jolliness aside, these early decorators tend to get a bad rap. For some people, the holidays provide more stress than splendor, so the sight of that first plastic reindeer on a neighbor's roof isn't exactly a welcome one.

But according to two psychoanalysts, these eager decorators aren’t eccentric—they’re simply happier. Psychoanalyst Steve McKeown told UNILAD:

“Although there could be a number of symptomatic reasons why someone would want to obsessively put up decorations early, most commonly for nostalgic reasons either to relive the magic or to compensate for past neglect.

In a world full of stress and anxiety people like to associate to things that make them happy and Christmas decorations evoke those strong feelings of the childhood.

Decorations are simply an anchor or pathway to those old childhood magical emotions of excitement. So putting up those Christmas decorations early extend the excitement!”

Amy Morin, another psychoanalyst, linked Christmas decorations with the pleasures of childhood, telling the site: “The holiday season stirs up a sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia helps link people to their personal past and it helps people understand their identity. For many, putting up Christmas decorations early is a way for them to reconnect with their childhoods.”

She also explained that these nostalgic memories can help remind people of spending the holidays with loved ones who have since passed away. As Morin remarked, “Decorating early may help them feel more connected with that individual.”

And that neighbor of yours who has already been decorated since Halloween? Well, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, homes that have been warmly decorated for the holidays make the residents appear more “friendly and cohesive” compared to non-decorated homes when observed by strangers. Basically, a little wreath can go a long way.

So if you want to hang those stockings before you’ve digested your Thanksgiving dinner, go ahead. You might just find yourself happier for it.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Lists
11 Black Friday Purchases That Aren't Always The Best Deal
iStock
iStock

Black Friday can bring out some of the best deals of the year (along with the worst in-store behavior), but that doesn't mean every advertised price is worth splurging on. While many shoppers are eager to save a few dollars and kickstart the holiday shopping season, some purchases are better left waiting for at least a few weeks (or longer).

1. FURNITURE

Display of outdoor furniture.
Photo by Isaac Benhesed on Unsplash

Black Friday is often the best time to scope out deals on large purchases—except for furniture. That's because newer furniture models and styles often appear in showrooms in February. According to Kurt Knutsson, a consumer technology expert, the best furniture deals can be found in January, and later on in July and August. If you're aiming for outdoor patio sets, expect to find knockout prices when outdoor furniture is discounted and put on clearance closer to Labor Day.

2. TOOLS

A display of tools.
iStock

Unless you're shopping for a specific tool as a Christmas gift, it's often better to wait until warmer weather rolls around to catch great deals. While some big-name brands offer Black Friday discounts, the best tool deals roll around in late spring and early summer, just in time for Memorial Day and Father's Day.

3. BEDDING AND LINENS

A stack of bed linens.
iStock

Sheet and bedding sets are often used as doorbuster items for Black Friday sales, but that doesn't mean you should splurge now. Instead, wait for annual linen sales—called white sales—to pop up after New Year's. Back in January of 1878, department store operator John Wanamaker held the first white sale as a way to push bedding inventory out of his stores. Since then, retailers have offered these top-of-the-year sales and January remains the best time to buy sheets, comforters, and other cozy bed linens.

4. HOLIDAY DÉCOR

Rows of holiday gnomes.
iStock

If you are planning to snag a new Christmas tree, lights, or other festive décor, it's likely worth making due with what you have and snapping up new items after December 25. After the holidays, retailers are looking to quickly move out holiday items to make way for spring inventory, so ornaments, trees, yard inflatables, and other items often drastically drop in price, offering better deals than before the holidays. If you truly can't wait, the better option is shopping as close to Christmas as possible, when stores try to reduce their Christmas stock before resorting to clearance prices.

5. TOYS

Child choosing a toy car.
iStock

Unless you're shopping for a very specific gift that's likely to sell out before the holidays, Black Friday toy deals often aren't the best time to fill your cart at toy stores. Stores often begin dropping toy prices two weeks before Christmas, meaning there's nothing wrong with saving all your shopping (and gift wrapping) until the last minute.

6. ENGAGEMENT RINGS AND JEWELRY

Rows of rings.
iStock

Holiday jewelry commercials can be pretty persuasive when it comes to giving diamonds and gold as gifts. But, savvy shoppers can often get the best deals on baubles come spring and summer—prices tend to be at their highest between Christmas and Valentine's Day thanks to engagements and holiday gift-giving. But come March, prices begin to drop through the end of summer as jewelers see fewer purchases, making it worth passing up Black Friday deals.

7. PLANE TICKETS AND TRAVEL PACKAGES

Searching for flights online.
iStock

While it's worth looking at plane ticket deals on Black Friday, it's not always the best idea to whip out your credit card. Despite some sales, the best time to purchase a flight is still between three weeks and three and a half months out. Some hotel sites will offer big deals after Thanksgiving and on Cyber Monday, but it doesn't mean you should spring for next year's vacation just yet. The best travel and accommodation deals often pop up in January and February when travel numbers are down.

8. FOOD AND SNACK BASKETS

Gift basket against a blue background.
iStock

Fancy fruit, meat and cheese, and snack baskets are easy gifts for friends and family (or yourself, let's be honest), but they shouldn't be snagged on Black Friday. And because baskets are jam-packed full of perishables, you likely won't want to buy them a month away from the big day anyway. But traditionally, you'll spend less cheddar if you wait to make those purchases in December.

9. WINTER CLOTHING

Rack of women's winter clothing.
Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash.

Buying clothing out of season is usually a big money saver, and winter clothes are no exception. Although some brands push big discounts online and in-store, the best savings on coats, gloves, and other winter accessories can still be found right before Black Friday—pre-Thanksgiving apparel markdowns can hit nearly 30 percent off—and after the holidays.

10. SMARTPHONES

Group of hands holding smartphones.
iStock

While blowout tech sales are often reserved for Cyber Monday, retailers will try to pull you in-store with big electronics discounts on Black Friday. But, not all of them are really the best deals. The price for new iPhones, for example, may not budge much (if at all) the day after Thanksgiving. If you're in the market for a new phone, the best option might be waiting at least a few more weeks as prices on older models drop. Or, you can wait for bundle deals that crop up during December, where you pay standard retail price but receive free accessories or gift cards along with your new phone.

11. KITCHEN GADGETS

Row of hanging kitchen knives and utensils.
iStock

Black Friday is a great shopping day for cooking enthusiasts—at least for those who are picky about their kitchen appliances. Name-brand tools and appliances often see good sales, since stores drop prices upwards of 40 to 50 percent to move through more inventory. But that doesn't mean all slow cookers, coffee makers, and utensil prices are the best deals. Many stores advertise no-name kitchen items that are often cheaply made and cheaply priced. Purchasing these lower-grade items can be a waste of money, even on Black Friday, since chances are you may be stuck looking for a replacement next year. And while shoppers love to find deals, the whole point of America's unofficial shopping holiday is to save money on products you truly want (and love).

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios