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A.J. Jacobs - The Ultimate Guinea Pig

If you enjoy my posts on this blog, you have A.J. Jacobs to thank. Yes, Mr. Know-it-All was the guy who recommended me to Will Pearson and Mangesh about a year before we all started blogging here. In fact, A.J. was planning to do some more regular blogging back in the early days, too, and was on a lot of our early conference calls as we plotted to take over of the blogosphere!!!! [insert maniacal Austin Powers laugh] (Did you read Jason's post last week? Clearly we're well on our way now!)

Anyway, A.J. is one of the few people I know who really follows that Randian philosophy: "There is no competition among men;" we should all be so selfless and upstanding. We should all be so talented, too.

Chances are, you already know a lot about A.J. and his amazing quests to read the entire encyclopedia, or live his life according to all the commandments in the Bible. (If you missed the latter, check out one of A.J.'s own posts on this blog about the experience.)

Today, we're thrilled to help A.J. promote his fantastic, new book, The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment "“ just out in stores now. And tomorrow, we'll be giving away 5 brand new copies of the book in a fun contest you're not going to want to miss. But, as always, you'll better your chances in the contest if you read the whole Q&A below, and really get to know this unusually talented, hilarious mouth breather [his words! not mine!].

DI: I haven't read the whole book yet, but I really loved all the experiments I read, especially the one where you posed as your nanny and picked up men online, and the one where you outsourced your entire life to Bangalore. I also dug the one where you had to obey your wife's every whim and command; that one was especially close to home for me. But certainly there must have been one or two experiments that got cut from the book. Talk a little about them, and why they were left out.

AJ: Well, I get a lot of suggestions for experiments from friends, family and readers. One reader suggested I do all the positions in the kama sutra. My wife shot that one down pretty quickly. So not all of them make it out of the planning stage.

Check out this hilarious teaser for the new book!


DI: Which was your favorite experiment to conduct?

AJ: One that I loved was the quest to become the most rational person alive. Sort of a "˜What Would Spock Do.' Because it made me realize just how irrational human behavior is. And how many of our life decisions are made based on inertia and laziness. Like something as simple as what toothpaste we use. I've been using Colgate for 30 years. Why? Because some guy at my sleepaway camp used Colgate, and he seemed cool, so I started using it and never stopped. But for this project, I scrutinized every single decision, and I realized"¦.I HATE the taste of mint Colgate. It's medicinal. So I tried a whole bunch of different toothpastes. And it was a revelation! I now use Tom's of Maine orange/mango-flavored toothpaste. And it's delicious. It's like eating dessert. Those little decisions make a huge difference in quality of life.

DI: If you weren't married, weren't a well-known, respected author out there doing book tours and such, if you had no living family left on earth, what kind of experiments might you have attempted? Go ahead, unleash your inner-nerd, we won't hold these against you. We know"¦ these are just *hypothetical* experiments.

AJ: At one point, I wanted to do an experiment where I interacted with people exclusively through technology "“ Facebook, email, IM, etc. My wife nixed that one too. She said, you're NOT attending our niece's bat mitzvah via Skype. You are showing up there in person.

I'd also love to read the entire Wikipedia. I'd consider that time well spent. I feel a bit guilty saying that, since my first book was about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. But I find the breadth of Wikipedia alluring. I spend hours a week Wikitunneling (hopping from one wiki-link to another). I'd never get to write a book about it since I'd never finish.

DI: People have called you a modern-day George Plimpton. Even you refer to the master in your book. Okay, so Plimpton was a great journalist. We all know that. And not such a bad actor. Right? Right. But I'll still always remember him as the classy face of Mattel's Intellivision, which I owned (still own!) and worshipped, cradled, slept with, dusted vigrously"¦ What about you? We're about the same age; were you an Atari guy? Intellivision? What was your favorite game? What cartridge did you wear out first?

AJ: I loved an Atari game called Adventure. You ever see that one? You had to get the chalice and kill the dragons and trap the bats. It was particularly exciting because it contained a secret room "“ according to Wikipedia, it's the first video game Easter Egg in history. Players had to pick up an invisible gray dot and bring it below the golden castle, where it would open a room that had the words "Created by Warren Robinett." And then the gray dot would have sex with a prostitute. Or maybe I'm misremembering that last part.

DI: There will probably come a day when you've put yourself through every test there is, and written adroitly about it—or maybe when you grow bored with this wonderful niche you're creating. Have you given any thought to what you'll write about then? Do you have any aspirations to pen a novel?

AJ: I don't think novels are in my future. I love non-fiction too much. Plus I don't think novels come naturally to me. Though I do think that there should be a novel about Belle Boyd. Hers was an amazing tale I learned about in the encyclopedia. She was a beautiful female spy for the confederacy during the US Civil war -- who ended up falling in love with a Union soldier and eloping. A real Romeo and Juliet story. A novel waiting to be written.

DI: Besides Plimpton, what other writers do you like?

AJ: I love Bill Bryson. And Mark Twain. I love Victorian non-fiction, like Confessions of an Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey. And also David Israel, even though he's not Victorian. [DI note: AJ, can I use that as a blurb on the back of my next book?]

DI: Talk a little shop for a mo. What's your process like? I know in one of the chapters you talk about writing 2 hours each day, in the morning. But is that your norm?

AJ: I actually write a lot from 10 pm till 2 a.m. It's the quietest time of the day for me. I've got three young kids, so the mornings are category five storms.

DI: Do you ever get writer's block? How do you deal?

AJ: I once did some research on writer's block. If I remember correctly, Nabakov wrote standing up. Ben Franklin wrote in the bath. And the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller used the smell of rotten apples to get him in the writing mood.
So that's what I want to try: Standing up in a bath filled with rotten apples.
Instead, I usually start writing sentences about any old thing "“ about my socks, about a glass of orange juice. I know I'm going to delete these passages, but it's a way to get warmed up.

DI: Many writers say they find the writing process more rewarding than the actual
publishing process. What about you? What's the best part for you?

AJ: I actually love the research process best. I love diving in and reading all the literature. And I love interviewing people and hanging out with scientists and professors and George Washington impersonators and so on. When I was researching The Year of Living Biblically, I think I became the first person to out-Bible talk a Jehovah's Witness. He came over to my house and after three hours he looked at his watch and said, "˜I have to go!'

DI: What's the best thing about being A.J. Jacobs?

AJ: I recently got an iPhone and I now listen to Podcasts on double-speed. So I can ingest an hour of Fresh Air in just half an hour!

DI: What's the worst thing about being A.J. Jacobs?

AJ: Well, I have trouble breathing through my nose, so I'm a bit of a mouth breather. Mouth breathers get a bad rap, you know?

DI: If you could go back in time and live your life as an experiment with a historical figure, how would that go?

AJ: One idea: I'd ask to be Goethe's apprentice. He was an 18th century German writer (Faust), but he was more than that. He was the most well-rounded man in history. He was a master of all trades. He was, among other things: a lawyer, a painter, theater manager, botanist, statesman, alchemist, biologer, soldier, astrologer, novelist, songrwiter, mine inspector, clothing designer and irrigation supervisor. I'd love to try to be mini-Goethe.

DI: You talk about your three boys a lot in the new book. If one of the comes to you one day and says, "Dad, I want to be a journalist," what advice would you give him?

AJ: Have genuine and deep curiousity. Notice the details "“ how people talk, what places sound like, what they smell like. And don't misspell the name "˜Wayne Gretzky,' because his fans will write you angry letters.


DI: Lastly, what's on deck for you?

AJ: My next project is the final part of my self-improvement series. I've worked on the mind (The Know-it-All). I've worked on the spirit (The Year of Living Biblically). Now I'm going to work on the body. I'm trying to become the healthiest person alive. No more junk food, not even Graham Crackers "“ which mental floss readers might know were originally designed as health food in the 19th century by a wacky diet guru named Sylvester Graham who hoped the crackers would, among other things, discourage self-pleasuring.

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Creatively Speaking: MeetingBoy

Read on to win a new Meeting Boy wall calendar!

We have a nice interview/contest today with someone you need to know about if you don't already. PC World named him one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. Like Racer X, no one really knows who MeetingBoy is, but whoever is behind this madness is one hilarious, talented fella. Tweeting out quips and one-liners, he's amassed close to 80,000 followers on Twitter as @MeetingBoy. I first got to know him (well, as much as you can know a masked-man) after he re-tweeted a Twaggie (illustrated tweet) we did off one of his tweets over on my start-up, www.twaggies.com.

Then one day, MeetingBoy asked me if I'd like to give away one of his new MeetingBoy wall calendars in a contest. I said sure, under one condition: he do the following interview. So read the interview and follow the contest rules at the bottom of this post. We'll pick one tweet/comment at random and send you the calendar in time for Christmas! Good luck!

DI: First of all, where do you take your meetings? Tell us about your day job.

MB: I work in a glass & steel high rise in New York with lots of lazy idiots. The managers spout buzzwords to impress each other, and my boss is a clueless, bullying hypocrite more concerned with covering his own ass than getting things done. Does that narrow it down?

I am stuck in 3-5 meetings a day, so if there’s a way to waste someone’s time, I’ve seen it. And I’m sick of it. I must have really bad karma to deserve this. I must have been something truly awful in a former life, like maybe a manager or CEO.

@MeetingBoy: 125 PowerPoint slides? Well, I hope you're not presenting a case for how efficient our department is.

@MeetingBoy: Definition of insanity: holding the same meeting with the same people every week and expecting different results.

@MeetingBoy: Four meetings today. And then later, no doubt, a meeting with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done.

@MeetingBoy: I'm confused by this article about Bernie Madoff. I thought "white collar prison" was just a euphemism for my office.

@MeetingBoy: 7 hour conference call, though my lawyer says I'll be paroled in 6 with good behavior.

DI: How’d all this Meeting Boy stuff get started? Walk us through the early days.

MB: Since my biggest pet peeve in meetings is people who ramble on and on, Twitter was the right place for me to vent. The forced brevity was just right. If only I could force the people who write PowerPoint presentations to stick to 140 characters instead of 140 slides!

I’d been on Twitter before, but mentions of work had become a problem once people knew I was tweeting and started following me in the office. After I got a new boss last year, I created the MeetingBoy account so I would stop hearing about it. Since then I only tweet under my own name after hours.

@MeetingBoy: I'm married to my job. I don't love it. It was a shotgun wedding; I had knocked up my credit cards with all sorts of debt.

Early on as MeetingBoy, I was getting positive responses. People identified with my complaints-- in fact the most common response to MeetingBoy is “do you work at my company?”

Of course I hate buzzwords, and so many of my rants result from sitting through an hour of them. The word I hate the most is “robust”:

@MeetingBoy: At the end of the day I think we can all agree how tired the phrase "at the end of the day" is.

@MeetingBoy: When the revolution comes, I'm shooting everyone who says "robust". Well, except the coffee roasters.

DI: When did your first little break happen?

MB: Last October, PC World named me as one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. My following increased dramatically as a result. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea I had broken out of the Favstar community of internet jokers. After that my friends who weren’t on Twitter insisted I start cross-posting my material to Facebook and MeetingBoy.com so they could follow along too.

DI: And then your big break?

MB: Earlier this year someone at Twitter added me to their Suggested Users - Funny list. I was pretty excited; after all, as my friend said, “It sure beats being on the Suggested Users - Not Funny list.”

Though some people would say my “big break” was when I got a boss that didn’t get my sense of humor, forcing me to put more of it on the internet. Speaking of my boss:

@MeetingBoy: We have high expectations for him - he got his MBA in business jargon from Wharton.

@MeetingBoy: You're right. It was wrong of me to question how another layer of paperwork would speed up the process. I apologize.

@MeetingBoy: Hey, everybody! My boss is running a special on poorly thought out, unworkable ideas today. The discount code is YESSIR.

@MeetingBoy: "Dumb it down. Remember, you're presenting it to management."

@MeetingBoy: "I didn't read the executive summary you sent. Can you just put the idea in a few quick sentences and send it to me? Thanks."

@MeetingBoy: New line on my job description: "maintain high morale". Told HR I could do it, but not if my boss keeps trying to motivate me.

@MeetingBoy: My boss is very susceptible to food poisoning. Apparently this occurs when he stays out late drinking.

@MeetingBoy: The boss sent an email at 11:30 "reminding" everyone that he's working from home today. He sent it from his Blackberry.

DI: Did you set out to achieve Internet fame or did the idea sort of take over by itself?

MB: I set out to vent about work in an amusing way, in part because I was so annoyed at how people in the office reacted to my being on Twitter. I certainly had no idea how to get people to write about me or who at Twitter to sweet-talk to get them to recommend me.

Being famous and anonymous is a little odd though. None of the benefits of fame have come my way. I’m not getting a better table at Sparks or celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. And no matter how many followers I have, I’m still stuck in the same meetings every day.

I would like to see a MeetingBoy calendar make an appearance on The Office. Seems like something Jim Halpert would have (though since he gave up his office, I’m not sure where he’d put it). Or maybe Michael Scott because he’s a “cool boss” and none of it applies to him..

DI: Talk about the tweets themselves. Mostly they are things you think up in these meetings every day?

MB: They are responses to things that happen in meetings. Or things I wish I could say. In a few cases I’ve actually said these things. Of course the names have been removed to protect the boring, the rude, the jargon-spewing types, the lazy, the bullies, and the people with “bad grammer”.

@MeetingBoy: I know, I know, but if your idea is so good, why hasn't some VP passed it off as their own yet?

@MeetingBoy: Sorry, I have to leave your meeting. I have something I need to do. I need to not be bored to death.

@MeetingBoy: This PowerPoint needs an art director? Wow! I never thought I'd say this to you, lady, but you're overthinking this.

@MeetingBoy: That email you claim I never sent you? Here it is. Along with your REPLY TO IT.

@MeetingBoy: No, I wasn't playing Devil's Advocate. I really think your idea is stupid.

@MeetingBoy: You are mean, incompetent, and ignorant. Life did not hand you lemons; life handed you CONSEQUENCES.

DI: But other times I see you attributing the tweets to other authors/publishers. How does that work?

MB: Sometimes I see a tweet that I wish I wrote. Other times my followers send me one I missed. Either way, if it’s something I think my audience would appreciate, I share it. After all, I don’t want to be like that guy in my office who thinks the only good ideas are the ones he thinks of.

For example, some of my favorite tweets that someone else wrote are:

@swimparallel: I've recovered from my death sickness. Now I'm back in the office. It feels like a lateral move.

@summersumz: Evaluating data, making conclusions. LIVING THE DREAM!

@kerissmithJA: Your cc list doesn’t scare me. I still refuse to respond to your email.

DI: So now you have this cool wall calendar. How’d that come about?

MB: A friend makes up a calendar with photos of his family, which I dutifully hang in my cube. I thought it would be cool to have a MeetingBoy calendar. I’d hoped to make a 365-page-a-day calendar, which I think would really work for my short quips, but I couldn’t find a way to publish it. So I went with a wall calendar, and asked for illustrators among my followers.

Of course once I had printed the calendar, I realized I couldn’t possibly put the calendar on my desk. I can’t have my boss or coworkers know that I’m MeetingBoy, and it’s probably better if they don’t even know he exists. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through.

I think the calendar makes a great Secret Santa gift. I think coworkers across the English-speaking world would love to get one.

Calendar available for sale online at http://meetingboy.com/calendar

DI: Have you learned any profound lessons going through the self-publishing process?

MB: I’ve learned that self-publishing isn’t very profitable. I’ve been very happy with all the illustrations I got, though paying for them before I sell the calendar has made money tight.

I was going to try to sell them directly myself over the internet, but I couldn’t be sure that my secret identity would be safe. Luckily one of the illustrators owns a comic shop and they agreed to carry it for internet sales.

And I’d still like to make a 365-page-a-day calendar if anyone knows how to go about that.

DI: What’s next for you and what’s your ultimate goal?

MB: Next up I’m starting to do regular illustrated tweets on MeetingBoy.com. Of course I can’t draw, so I’m using some of the same illustrators from the calendar, and any new ones I pick up along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be the boss on The Office after Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season. Though I would also accept President Obama declaring my birthday, June 23rd, to be a national holiday, maybe National Out-of-the-Office Day. Write your congressman to make it happen.

DI: Will you always hide your true identity Meeting Boy? Or will we one day find out you’re actually Racer X’s older brother?

MB: I can’t reveal my identity without losing my job and potentially risking never working again. After all, who would hire MeetingBoy? A surly, sarcastic person who will mock your every shortcoming on the internet to tens of thousands of people. Even I might balk at hiring that guy. He kind of sounds like a loose cannon.

Okay, contest time! Of all the tweets mentioned in this post, by MeetingBoy or someone else, which would you like to see illustrated on Twaggies.com? RT it with the hashtag #twaggies and we'll pick one of you at random to get the calender. If you're not on Twitter, leave your vote in the comments below. The tweet with the most RTs will also get twagged on twaggies, too!

For my interviews with Jason Alexander, Monty Hall, Mitch Albom, xkcd and more, browse through past Creatively Speaking archives here >>

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A chat with Jeff Garlin

Jeff Garlin co-stars and executive produces the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. The unique comedy, which is one of the rare television shows to become part of the national zeitgeist, stars Seinfeld creator Larry David, with Garlin portraying his loyal manager. Born and raised in Chicago and then South Florida, Garlin studied filmmaking and began performing stand-up comedy while at the University of Miami. He has toured the country as a stand-up comedian, is an alumnus of Chicago's Second City Theatre, and has written and starred in three critically acclaimed solo shows. I was fortunate enough to get this interview with him when he spoke at an event a charity I work with produced.

DI: Which do you prefer: writing, directing, or producing?

JG: I prefer to direct what I write.

DI: If you were to retire, what would you do with your time?

JG: Nap and eat puddin'.

DI: What's your favorite food?

JG: Puddin'.

DI: Of all the comedians and actors you've worked with over the years, who has been the most enjoyable.

JG: Larry David.

DI: Is Larry David as obnoxious in real life as he is on the show?

JG: See my answer above.

DI: What's the biggest difference between Chicago and L.A.?

JG: Human contact. In Chicago you get it on a regular basis.

DI: What's one of your favorite films?

JG: Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JG: My grandfather Harold.

DI: Who's your idol?

JG: My wife.

DI: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JG: A comedian.

DI: Where do you like to go to unwind when you're not working?

JG: Wherever my wife tells me.

DI: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?

JG: The street names.

DI: Shakespeare wrote: "Brevity is the soul of wit." What do you think the essence of comedy is?

JG: A plate of fresh cornbread.

DI: I heard you studied law in college and almost graduated before deciding to pursue a career in comedy. Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?

JG: That's on Wikepedia.com and it's not true. I studied film.

DI: What's more difficult: performing stand-up comedy before a live audience or performing on camera?

JG: Actually, my personal life is harder.

DI: Do you own an iPod? If so, what's the most unusual music you've got on it?

JG: Chin Ho soundbites from Hawaii Five-0.

DI: Who is the funniest comedian of all-time?

JG: Jack Benny.

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