Friday, July 23, 2004

a longish post expressing confusion about something many of you perhaps know more about

As some readers know, I do not watch television. I don't cop an attitude about or anything, but I don't.  Not surprisingly, then, this blog does not provide commentary on current television shows. What I can provide commentary on, however, is commentary on television shows. Consider it akin to pieces you read about what seems so confusing and odd about America from the standpoint of someone who's never been to America but instead knows it only through its various depictions (or has just arrived from a very different place--Yakov Smirnoff, how we miss ye.) 

So, as everyone is presumably aware, there's this guy on Jeopardy! who has won however many hundred games in a row. I did watch Jeopardy! in a hotel room during some trip I made last year, but before that I have no idea when the last time was I saw it somewhere.

I do know the guy's name, and even the cute little abbreviation many are using for it, but referring to him as "the guy" seems more to emphasize my complete insulation from any first-hand witnessing of his performances.   I know all of what I know exclusively from text on my comptuer screen.

Anyway as I read some of the coverage about this guy's winning streak, I'm having trouble understanding the public awe over the feat. Certainly: winning once on Jeopardy! once is quite impressive. Winning the five times in a row that used to be the maximum number of times was very impressive. But as this streak goes on, why does it become more and more impressive? I mean, there's a story on it on that tries to impress upon readers exactly how tough Jeopardy! is, in a way that is supposed to increase our sense of astonishment and marvel at the guy's feat but actually does exactly the opposite to my non-starry eyes:
"Jeopardy!" in particular, is much harder than it looks. I was lucky enough to appear on one show back in 1988, and though I'd been a longtime quiz bowl player and trivia-book fan, nothing prepared me for standing on that set, in front of a studio audience of 300 and a possible TV audience in the millions, my heart beating so hard it felt like it was hammering off the opposite wall.

And it's not just the atmosphere. "Jeopardy!" is a game of timing. Players are prevented from buzzing in until Alex Trebek finishes reading a question, at which point a neon light -- not visible at home -- signals the circuits are open. So buzz too soon and you're locked out; buzz too late and, well, you might be too late.

That's why you see players getting in a rhythm, going into a category and running it from one end to another....
Doesn't all this convey that being on Jeopardy! is a tricky and nerve-racking experience that is easier once settles into a rhythm? Doesn't this suggest that it's probably especially unsettling for people the first time they appear on the show, not to mention the first minutes of the first show. Every day this guy wins, he gets one day more experienced and comfortable, and then he gets to face two absolute neophytes again the next day.

Remarkably, the column on seems to stroll right up to this observation, but rather than see it as perhaps suggesting some massive advantage to experience on the show, instead it is chalked up to the virtues of the champion:* 
He's hard to knock off balance, even when thrown a tough question. And when the Jennings steamroller gets going, the other contestants are knocked out of the game before they can even begin.

I saw one show in which Jennings, starting from the top-left hand column, ran off 12 straight correct answers before his opponents even got settled in. By that time Jennings was up something like $6,600 to $0 to $0.
Again, as I read this, it kinda sounds like an only-slightly-less-extreme version of a TV show where you get to watch somebody who bowls every day compete against two new foes who've only ever watched other people bowl, and then everybody in the world is amazed and astonished that the person thrashes the novice competition day in and day out. I mean, I'm sure the guy can really bowl. Is it really that entertaining? Would America be enthralled by a show that pitted a kid who plays video games all the time against continually new groups of kids who've always thought it would be so awesome to get to play a video game just once? It's fun for the kid, maybe, but is it really that fun to watch?

I know, I know, Jeopardy! is a Test of Knowledge. You don't get more trivia knowledge just from practice, except for the specific questions practiced, which is just wasted practice from a knowledge standpoint since those are questions he's guaranteed never to be asked on the show again.

But, at least back in days when I did watch it, before the Final Jeopardy round it always seemed at least as much a game about timing (as the reporter says above) and about quick, confident recall; the latter, incidentally, seems exactly the kind of cognitive dimension you'd expect to exhibit strong negative effects for nervousness and task unfamiliarity. And my understanding is that very few of this guy's games have ended with him not being more than the clinching 2x ahead for Final Jeopardy.

Presumably, I'm missing something vital to the appeal here. What?** From the seat of ignorance I'm sitting, however impressed we should be with this guy, we should be many times more impressed with the person who finally beats him. Unless he gets bored and tanks it, or Jeopardy! producers decide he's plateaued and they should rig things to purge him. 

* Two references to the fundamental attribution error in two days: if not public sociology, at least give me credit for public social psychology.

** I know it's annoying when I pose questions that ask for reader help but then don't have comments enabled for a response.  E-mail me!  I know you don't get to present your views to the world this way unless I post it.  I have plans either to enable comments or writing a post explaining why I don't have comments enabled, but like many promises made on this weblog, there are many competing obligations that make its time to fulfillment unknown. 

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