Saturday, March 03, 2012

Brainiac - An Unnecessary Review

Reviewing Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings Brainiac, about the worlds and history of trivia buffs, is unnecessary.  If you like that sort of thing, you will read it if it crosses your path whether it is well-written or not.  If you don't, only the knowledge that it brings something else to the table - neuroscientific research, anthropological connections, startling political or religious tendencies of the breed - would attract you.  A negative or positive review will only move the book up or down on your list a limited amount.

It's fine.  It's funny but not uproarious, solidly informative, and touches all the bases you want it to.  Our recently-discussed family culture being what it is, I have friends and relatives who keep occurring to me while reading this, who will have it lent to them when I'm finished.

The structure is similar to Jennings's Maphead, each chapter discussing a single aspect of triviadom exhaustively: college bowl quizzes, radio history, or Stevens Point, WI all threaded loosely together with his discussion of what it's like to apply, get selected, compete on Jeopardy, and return to regular life.  Rather like "I'll take geocaching for 600, Alex."  So Jennings has learned to think that way, in lists and categories. Update: On p 136, Jennings makes the association between 50's black-and-white photography and morality contrasted with 60's color, realistic, more complicated world. I've been harping on this for years. There is a powerful association here that completely overwhelms logical thinking and further solidifies the narrative for emotive, aesthetic reasons. Not to mention that for boomers, the primary perpetuators of this nonsense, they are describing the morality they were told when they were eight years old versus the one they were told at eighteen, and drawing Important sociological and cultural understandings from this. Ah, this is perhaps my one contribution to understanding the times, and thus I am Likely annoyed simply because it has never caught on.


Texan99 said...

We have a friend who put herself through law school on Jeopardy. Later, though, she went pretty nuts and dropped out of sight.

I'm not sure if this is the same guy I read about in a recent book on neurology, who practiced performance under pressure by doing things like reciting the presidents in reverse chronological order while standing on a street corner with people staring and jeering at him. He said you learn best when you memorize under conditions similar to the ones under which you'll have to do the recall. He also had several tiers of memory: things he outright learned by rote, but many more than he simply scanned quickly, knowing they'd percolate through when he needed them. He could often land on the answer by what felt like instinct rather than conscious recall. It sounded similar to the process I use to solve crosswords -- the author of some obscure work sometimes will float up in your mind though you didn't know you'd ever heard of it, almost as if you'd dreamed it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Not the same person, though many of the champions have similar techniques. Jennings is the one who kept winning so many weeks in a row a few years ago.

It is true that there is some state-dependent learning, that recall is better when one learns in an environment one will be retrieving in. As for intuition and percolation, we all do that somewhat, but it is more pronounced in some. When playing the dictionary game decades ago, my wife thought she did not know the word "wherry," but when she wrote a false definition to try and fool the other guessers, called it a canal boat. Which is what it is, so she must have run across it somewhere.

It's things like this that make it less fun to play word games with Tracy, as she seems to know all words, with retrieval and use being variable.

Texan99 said...

What has surprised me in working crosswords is how much the intuitive retrieval process responds to practice. You can't exactly do it on purpose, but you do it better if you do it often. There's a kind of mental clutch-slipping you can learn to do. "Use the Force, Luke."

I suppose lots of people have the experience I do upon quitting a tough puzzle late at night, then returning to it in the morning. Some kind of unconscious retrieval process has been going on all night; a dozen answers will appear instantly obvious that eluded me for an hour the night before. The more I do it, the more pronounced the effect.