TERRY GROSS, host: Our next guest, Ken Jennings, appeared as a contestant on "Jeopardy!" in 2004 and discovered he was pretty good at it. In fact, he became the longest-running champion the show ever had, winning 74 games and two-and-a-half million dollars, an American game show record. That led to TV appearances and a book called "Brainiac," about trivia in American culture.
In his new book, Jennings reveals that since he was a kid he's been fascinated with maps and geographical curiosities, like how the shapes of Wisconsin and Tanzania are practically the same, and where towns like Scotsguard in Saskatchewan got their names. The book explores the history of mapmaking and the many ways map lovers and geographers affect our lives and indulge their obsessions. It's called "Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks." Ken Jennings spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Ken Jennings, welcome to FRESH AIR. I have to say, I was drawn to the book in part because I like being geographically oriented. Whenever I go visit some place, even if I'm driving around with a friend, I like a map to know where I am. And whenever I read a book especially a nonfiction book, in which the author starts referring to places, you know, cities, shorelines, rivers, other features, and there's no map to tell me where they are, I get really annoyed. So, am I one of you guys?
KEN JENNINGS: I think so. That sounds like, I don't want to diagnose you here on the air...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JENNINGS: ...but that sounds like the symptoms to me. It almost seems like a form of OCD, where I'm the same way. If I go to a new city I sort of need to know which way is north. I need to get that crappy map they always have in the hotel room magazine to tell me, you know, which way I'm walking. Otherwise, it just sort of nags at me. And as recently as last night, I was reading my son, we're reading the "Lord of the Rings" as a bedtime story, and we kept flipping back and forth between the map and the narrative just because that's the best way to do it, you know, if your brain is wired like that, I guess.
DAVIES: You visit some interesting places in the book. One of them is the map division of the Library of Congress. You want to describe this place?
JENNINGS: It's a vast basement. It's the lowest possible floor on what I believe is the largest building of the Library of Congress. And the librarian there told me that it had to be in the basement because the holdings were so heavy that, you know, if you tried to put the maps and atlases on the top floor, they would fall through to the basement anyway. It's a library straight out of Jorge Luis Borges. It's, you know, a football field's worth of shelves just as far as the eye can see - full of maps and atlases - and it seemed like at any point the librarian could open any of them and just pull out some amazing historical treasure. You know, some surveying map of Virginia hand drawn by George Washington or the maps from the Versailles conference at the end of World War I or maps that Teddy Roosevelt drew when he was exploring South America after his presidency. It's just amazing. It's just like a walk through history to look at these maps.
DAVIES: Now in this book you introduce us to many different species of geography nerds, for a lack of a better term.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: One of them...
JENNINGS: I'm not offended.
DAVIES: One of them are road geeks. Tell us about them.
JENNINGS: Road geeks are obsessed with roads of all kinds, and specifically the interstate system. This seems to be the catalog by which they organize their love of place and maps. They like to clinch roads, which means to drive on every, you know, inch of a certain highway. They're interested in minutiae as far down as the kind of - the company that makes the streetlamps on a certain length of road, or the typefaces on the signs. They notice when the government changes fonts to a new typeface called Clearview, which the government's rolled out for the interstate system. They're scholars - they drive around on these roads, taking pictures of nothing but road signs and hoping to find mistakes to write their congressman about, or taking pictures of road construction projects as they develop. This is their life.
DAVIES: I want you to tell the story of this character Richard Ankrom and what he did on this particular highway.
JENNINGS: This is a remarkable story. I don't know if he would consider himself a road geek, but he's sort of a patron saint for many road geeks, I think. He got so annoyed by this signage in downtown L.A. that didn't make it clear where to get from one freeway to another that he decided he would do a little bit of performance art. And one night he and some friends dressed up in orange jumpsuits and clipboards, you know, in case they were caught so they looked plausibly like a road crew, and they broke into the, they broke onto the sign, climbed out onto it and replaced the confusing sign with a new entirely convincing sign of their own devising, which actually labels the lanes and the exits correctly.
And the great thing is the California Transit Authority didn't notice for months and months. You know, hundreds of thousands of travelers were able to navigate to the leftmost lane and get the right off-ramp without anyone noticing. It wasn't until a local alt-weekly broke the news that the California Transit Authority, you know, issued a stern public statement about the dangers of vandalizing public signage. But the guy is a hero. He's like a Robin Hood of the 405 or whatever it is.
DAVIES: And even after the authorities reacted it stayed that way for years, right?
JENNINGS: That's right. The sign stayed that way for years. And when they finally replaced it a few years ago, they replaced it with a sign that looked essentially just like Ankrom's illegal performance art sign.
DAVIES: One of the interesting things about maps is that they connect us to places that we haven't been. I mean, you know, we can show a connection between my house, my street, my city to faraway places that I could only imagine. And one of the interesting things you point out in the book is that maps in past centuries included places whose existence we couldn't even be sure of, imaginary places right?
JENNINGS: Yeah, and they often turned out to be imaginary. You look at these old mapa mundi from the 14th, 15th century, whatever it is, maybe even earlier, and you'll see real explored places just side-by-side with the Garden of Eden, for example. If they drew a map of Turkey, they would draw Noah's Ark still sitting on a mountain. If they were drawing the Middle East, they'd find a way to squeeze in the Land of Gog and Magog from the "Book of Revelations," including a - and they would draw a wall - which according to legend, Alexander the Great built a wall around the land of Gog and Magog. And, of course, these places don't exist, but old habits die hard.
You know, once something is on a map, it gets that sheen of authority. I know that, you know, as late as this decade in the mid, you know, around 2005 or so, the latest edition of Goode's World Atlas included in the Ivory Coast a mountain range called the Mountains of Kong, which do not exist at all. They've just been passed down on maps through the century. And as time goes on these nonexistent islands sort of get swept farther and farther towards the edges as, you know, actual explorers find out they don't exist and they finally disappear altogether. And it's sort of sad, you know. It's like, you know, all these wonderful imaginary places swept to the dustbin and then gone.
DAVIES: One of the wonderful stories that you tell in here is how we got numbered highways. It was really because of mapheads at Rand McNally. Is this right?
JENNINGS: Yeah. You know, we don't realize how hard it was to drive anywhere outside the major cities just less than a century ago. After World War I, the U.S. government ordered a tank convoy or a, you know, an armored vehicle convoy of jeeps and whatnot to cross the country, and it took them months. You know, there were casualties. You know, there were injuries and, you know, a huge percentage of the jeeps that set out couldn't make it across the country because the roads were so terrible. And, you know, Rand McNally, looking for a way to map these roads, you know, all they - there was no signage, there was no numbering system, all they could do was give you directions, you know, turn left at the red barn, or turn right at the stand of poplar trees, or whatever. And this was not working out. So...
DAVIES: So if you wanted a map back then you would get in effect a booklet of narrative descriptions of what to do when you...
JENNINGS: Often they'd be photographs taken from the hood of a car. It would be like Google Street View 100 years ago, you know. You'd get these street auto guides that would show you, this is what it's going to look like from, you know, from the road when you need to turn left, so it would be like a flipbook. And wanting to have easier-to-read maps, Rand McNally held this in-house contest for suggestions. How do we do this? And I guess one of their designers said, there is no way to make the maps match the territory. We need to make the territory match the maps. So Rand McNally decided to just unilaterally create their own numbering system for roads in the U.S., and then they sent out groups to paint their numbers alongside every highway that needed one. They called it the, I think they called it the Blazed Trail System. They were blazing a trail just like frontiersmen and explorers.
DAVIES: So they paid to put up signs with numbers on them or...?
JENNINGS: Yeah. They would actually paint little flags with colors and numbers all along these highways. So that the roads would actually match the road atlas. The road atlas came first, and they had to change the roads to match it. It's a remarkable story of, you know, the mountain coming to Mohammed.
DAVIES: And eventually the government picked up on the idea and...
JENNINGS: Yeah. It became a hit, states started to do it, and finally the government imposed the system we have today.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Ken Jennings. He is the longest running champion on "Jeopardy!" and he's written several books. His latest is "Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks."
Well, you became a celebrity in 2004 when you appeared on the show "Jeopardy!" and won 74 straight times - an all-time record, winning, was it $2.4 million? Is that right?
JENNINGS: Sounds about right. It's a very minor kind of celebrity. You know, everyone's grandma recognizes me, that's what "Jeopardy!" does for you.
DAVIES: OK. So you get on the show, and one of the things that people watch the show, observe is that more than one person often knows the answer. And an important part of the game is being the one who buzzes first. What are the rules and how much of winning is handling the buzzer properly?
JENNINGS: I feel like telling people there's no Santa Claus here. But yeah, the buzzer is huge. The buzzer is as important as knowledge. Because as you say, every player every night has passed the same hard test to be there, so most of the players know most of the answers every single time, and it just becomes a matter of figuring out your timing. You can't buzz as soon as you know it. The button is disactivated until Alex actually finishes reading the question. And at that point, some human somewhere flips the switch and then you can buzz. But if you buzz too early, you lock yourself out for a fraction of a second. So it becomes this very delicate balancing act between what's too early and is going to lock me out, and what's too late and is going to get me beat by the guy next to me? You know, there's one right, you know, fraction of a second and you have to find it. You have to get into a rhythm.
DAVIES: Right. And to do that, you can't be listening to Alex read the question, because actually you need to read it yourself and then find the answer. But then you have to pay attention to at least the end of his answer. That sounds a little tricky.
JENNINGS: It's true. You sort of have to be multitasking. You've got to be aware of the score, aware of the situation, aware of the category. Then you're reading the clue as fast as you can, you know, hoping to give yourself enough time to come up with an answer. Once you have an answer ready, you've decided whether you are going to buzz, then you're listening to Alex's voice trying to get into the rhythm of it, waiting for that last syllable. There's a little discernible pause and then you're just, you know, your thumb is buzzing as hard as you can. It's amazingly fast-paced doing that, you know, 61 times in just 20 minutes of show.
DAVIES: Now, you were on the show from June to November of 2004 - 74, well, 75 straight episodes, 'cause the last one you lost. And...
JENNINGS: Thanks for rubbing that in, by the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: It happens to everybody.
JENNINGS: Lo these seven years later.
DAVIES: Well, since I brought it up, what question did you lose on? Was there a "Final Jeopardy!" that you lost?
JENNINGS: There was. I didn't know it. If I had known it, I would've won. It was a business and industry question about, I don't know how it was phrased, some company that, some firm that hires most of its white-collar workers for just a few months out of the year. And I had no idea. And I could hear the woman next to me writing away to immediately. And I thought oh, she knows it. And she did. It was H&R Block.
DAVIES: Right. For tax season.
JENNINGS: Tax preparation.
DAVIES: You were thinking probably the holiday shopping season or something.
JENNINGS: Yeah. I'm sure it had to be some Christmas thing. I wrote FedEx, but unfortunately not true. Although I did get a nice FedEx and an H&R Block endorsement out of it. So if you're going to lose on "Jeopardy!" lose on the corporate questions, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JENNINGS: If the answer is who is Isaac Newton and you get that wrong, you know, you don't see a dime.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: No payoff for Isaac Newton.
JENNINGS: That's right.
DAVIES: Now you were eventually brought back to face off with the IBM computer Watson in a, you know, highly publicized match. I guess it went over three nights, three shows. How did competing against the computer differ from competing against a human contestant?
JENNINGS: The game felt about the same. You don't have a foreboding sense of evil when there is some HAL-like supercomputer standing next to you like I thought you might. But the big difference is the buzzer. The computer has just flawless buzzer time. It receives an electronic signal to tell it when the buzzer is activated. Just like the players, you know, we see a little light that tells us that as well. But the difference is, you know, it has just millisecond-precise reflexes every time, which no human can cope with. So, you know, maybe the computer didn't know quite as many answers as a good human player would, but that didn't matter, because every time it did, it got in first. It was remarkable.
DAVIES: Do you still watch "Jeopardy!"? Is the experience different for you?
JENNINGS: You know, I can't relax and just, you know, sink back in the couch and watch "Jeopardy!" the way I used to. That's sort of the one regret I have is that now when I hear that music or I hear Trebek's, you know, Canadian accent, I, you know, I used to get excited and now I just get panicky. It's like an adrenaline rush - I have post-traumatic game show stress disorder or something.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JENNINGS: I just cannot relax into "Jeopardy!" the way I used to.
DAVIES: So, what, do you leave the room?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JENNINGS: If it's on and, you know, if it's on in a restaurant or a bar or something, you know, the voice will - the Trebek voice will just cut through everything else like a knife, you know, I'll be hyperaware of it. But I don't leave the room, but it's no longer, you know, sort of pleasurable experience where you can just spit out answers at the screen through a mouthful of Pringles like it used to be.
DAVIES: Well, Ken Jennings, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
JENNINGS: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me, Dave.
GROSS: Ken Jennings spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Jennings' new book is called "Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, John Powers reviews Roger Ebert's new memoir. This is FRESH AIR.