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Braniac by Ken Jennings

Okay, yes, I'm about to review a book by Ken Jennings, who won 74 games of Jeopardy! in a row, the longest winning streak in the game's history. But here's what you should know first: Ken Jennings might just be the coolest guy on the planet. I didn't know that two months ago. I didn't know much at all about Jennings two months ago, only that he was on Jeopardy! for a long time and was Mormon. I thought he was your typical nerdbrain egghead, because back when Jennings was on his long run on Jeopardy! I was, I don't know, getting drunk on the Force in the garage of my sorority house or something. But now that I'm an "adult" I DVR Jeopardy! every night and watch it with my roommate, and a month ago, we all got a nice Valentine's Day present in the form of Jeopardy!: The IBM Challenge, a.k.a. Jeopardy!: MAN VS. MACHINE!!!!, in which Ken Jennings and Jeopardy! all-time money winnings champ Brad Rutter (who has gotten HOT since he was first on Jeopardy!, but is kind of rough to listen to when he's talking--be quiet and just look pretty, Brad!) faced off against IBM's supercomputer, Watson, who was built to do one thing (for the moment): beat humans at Jeopardy!.

I don't know if any of you guys caught that game (or, really, it was two games over three days, with the gaps filled in by an extended IBM commercial a bunch of really interesting clips explaining how Watson works and was created), but the humans got CREAMED! Like, Watson won by a lot. And his swirly thinking avatar thing was really adorable, so he got extra points for that, which is UNFAIR, but anyway. There are lots of reasons why Watson won, like because he was really well programmed, and also because so much of Jepoardy! strategy involves buzzing first, which is actually much harder than it looks (actually, from all the flailing around people do on that show, it looks pretty hard to me), and to paraphrase Ken Jennings it's hard to have better reflexes than a supercomputer.

But anyway, we're not talking about MAN VS. MACHINE!!! We're talking about this book, which came out in 2006 and thus has nothing to say about the 2011 game in which Ken and Brad got their asses kicked by a computer. Moving on!

It turns out that Ken Jennings is actually the awesomest (not an exaggeration). First, he has a funny blog that he updates sometimes (probably more than I write reviews for this site, actually), and also he recently did an IAmA post on Reddit that is far and away the funniest thing I've ever read. He wrote a few interesting articles about the Watson experience, and he wrote this book, Braniac, almost five years ago in 2006 (holy shit you guys, 2006 was five years ago).

Braniac is a memoir/nonfiction hybrid that takes the reader on a journey through the back rooms of the Jeopardy! studios and also gives you a rundown on all the various geeky ways you can be a trivia buff in this day and age (and days and ages past). The whole thing is incredibly pleasant to read, and even the driest bits are still peppered with the affable Jennings' notable quotables. I vastly preferred the portions where Jennings talked about his Jeopardy! experiences, not least because every once in a while he told a little story about the human metronome Alex Trebek, with whom I have a love/hate relationship. "A riddle wrapped in an enigma dressed in a Perry Ellis suit," as Jennings would say. But Jennings is such a likable guy that the best parts are the ones where he just talks about his life.

But buyer beware: this book is for trivia lovers. There's a lot of the history of trivia in its pages, including the interesting fact that trivia crazes often preface economic disasters, and the text itself is peppered with trivia questions that are answered at the end of each chapter. I picked up about 100 shiny new-to-me facts without even trying. I just dare you not to read this book and be utterly charmed by Jennings. My first sign that he might be the real deal was when he wrote "I for one welcome our new computer overlords" beneath his (correct) FInal Jeopardy answer at the end of the second game of MAN VS. MACHINE!!! I said to myself, "Self, that is a man you could have a beer with." If he drank beer. Which he doesn't. So maybe cheese fries instead.

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