• Remembering Alex Trebek and the Jeopardy! wedding
    1998 Tournament of Champions winner Dan Melia marries Dara Hellman on the Jeopardy! set. Their vows were on the game board, they rang in to say their vows, and the ceremony was performed by fellow 5-time champ Bob Harris. Alex Trebek was on hand as the official witness.

    Bob Harris is an author and screenwriter who appeared on Jeopardy! fourteen times between 1997 and 2014. His book about the show is Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!

    My friend Dan was the winner of the 1998 Tournament of Champions. I got to know him while he was beating me soundly in the two-day final. This was no surprise, given he'd actually read all the books whose titles I'd merely memorised for the show.

    But we became good friends, and a few years later, Dan and his girlfriend Dara had an idea.

    We were laughing at dinner after competing separately in another tournament in 2005, and Dan and Dara told me they were getting married.

    A minute later, their idea came, insanely, "Hey, let's do in on the Jeopardy! set — and Bob, you can officiate!" I said sure, even though I'd never done a wedding, because yeah, I'd be honored. But I didn't quite imagine the Jeopardy! part was gonna happen.

    Little did I know how generous the people at Jeopardy! would be.

    Fast forward a few months, and after a long day of taping five games, the entire Jeopardy! crew stayed late for the evening, and Alex and Jeopardy! gave Dan and Dara the wedding of their most lighthearted dreams.

    At Alex and the producers' behest, the studio was decorated with flowers, the show's production company tossed in photography and catering, and friends and family settled in while lovely music played on the speakers.
    The game board was set up with categories something like (this isn't precise, after 15 years, but it's close) —








    "I" DO

    Dan and Dara stood at the center podium, with the Best Man at the left podium and the Matron of Honor on the right. We did the ceremony in the form of a game, with the vows in the form of questions. (What is, "I do," Bob? etc.)

    I'd done stand-up and other shows hundreds of times, and I'd been on that set maybe a dozen times before, but backstage, as we were about to begin, I was SO nervous. This was my friends' wedding! I'd never officiated a ceremony like this. Plus, y'know, um, the whole Jeopardy! thing going on, doing your first ceremony while standing at Alex's podium while the entire show was watching.

    But just as I got to Alex's mark and was about to speak, I spotted Alex.
    He was to my right, offstage, on the audience side of the game board. And he gave me this delighted, fatherly smile.

    If you knew Alex Trebek, or if you were just a fan, you know EXACTLY what that smile looked like. And you know exactly why it felt so reassuring.
    So we began. I turned to the friends, family, assorted loved ones, and the entire Jeopardy! crew — this Venn diagram overlaps greatly — and welcomed them to this lovely little chapel.

    Alex Trebek and Bob Harris

    That's what the Jeopardy! set was right then, truly.

    Dan started out with control of the board, rang in — yes, of course we used the buzzers — revealing the clue: A MAN SAYS THIS IF HE TAKES THIS WOMAN TO BE HIS LAWFULLY WEDDED WIFE Dan gave a correct response.

    Then Dara seized control of the board, and she rang in, "I'll take Weddings for $400, Bob."

    Dara gave a correct response, too.

    This was the most fun I ever had being part of a game of Jeopardy!

    Pretty soon came my favorite moment in all the times I was on or around that stage: from the authority of Alex Trebek's podium, I got to tell two dear friends that I could now pronounce them husband and wife.

    I glanced over at Alex, and he was looking at Dan and Dara with a mix of what I'd describe as joy, a sort of gentle, affectionate amusement (again, you know exactly what that looked like), and obvious happiness that this whole thing had come together.

    It's that moment — the way he was just beaming at Dan and Dara — that I'll remember most, when I think of Alex.

    A few minutes later, Alex came over to his podium and signed the wedding certificate as Dan and Dara's official witness. You should have seen how delighted he was.

    We both walked over to congratulate Dan and Dara (that's the moment in the screengrab), who then danced at center stage while friends and loved ones looked on. (Notice I'm no longer separating out the producers and crew; the Venn diagram collapsed for the evening.)

    None of this was for broadcast, mind you; the only thing the public ever saw was the tiny clip now on YouTube. This was just Alex and everyone at the show being generous for its own sake.

    Whether you're a Jeopardy! fan or just know Alex Trebek from pop culture, I want you to take a moment to consider the generosity required to host that show. It's a lot more than I think most people realize.

    Once the game starts, the players are in charge of the show, not the host, who is really half traffic cop, half waitstaff: "I'll have WWII for $1600," they command, over and over, hopping around the board while Alex smoothly delivers each order. Amid all that, I want you to watch sometime, especially during Alex's last episodes about to air, just to count how many times the man encouraged people in every game.

    It's not all in the words. Listen to Alex's tone of voice with right and wrong responses, clue after clue after clue. Encouraging, nearly always. Alex did this five episodes every taping day, twice a week, for 37+ years, so constantly that I've never seen it even mentioned, much less appreciated. I think that's part of what millions of viewers sensed without realizing.
    So yes, people have asked me since 1997, when I was first on the show, what Alex is really like. (Was, now, and we will not get used to that soon. And people are asking me today. My answer has changed, of course, in 23 years, as everyone has grown.

    The first thing I used to say: he's surprisingly funny and friendly off-camera. After being around the show longer: he really actually did know an awful lot of the answers but was humble about it. When I wrote a book about the show, I learned how trusting he was, letting me use his name in the title, asking only "is it funny?" and then just letting me write whatever I wanted. (Years later, the book itself became a clue on the show, which felt more validating than any review.)

    Today, I could point out that in 57 years in the public eye, no great scandal, no controversy—and how many of us could do that, across all the cultural changes from the 1960s to now?

    I could tell you that his delight in hosting the show's Teen Tournaments was palpable at their briefest mention; he loved seeing young people flourish. Or I could go on about Alex's enormous donations to education, or his charity work—his favorite charity was WorldVision, for its efforts to help children in the developing world. Alex travelled overseas many times to speak on their behalf.

    Ultimately, though, only his family could really tell you who Alex really was
    To his family and loved ones, again, deep condolences for your loss. Somebody wise once said that grief is just love that no longer has its normal place to go, and feels lost. Thinking about that has always helped me through my own losses.

    When I notice my own grief, I can recognize the love behind it, and it helps. Sometimes it helps me push the feeling over into gratitude. Sometimes.
    To everyone else who loves Jeopardy! and what Alex Trebek brought into our living rooms for decades, I can only share the Alex I saw. My fondest memory, of many, was the day he gave up his podium so two sweet people could vow their eternal love. Alex smiled at them exactly the way you imagine right now: generous and gracious as always.

    So today, of course, I'm working on gratitude. I want to thank Alex again.

  • Bike Zambia to fight HIV/AIDS

    My friends at Bike Zambia have been working for months to raise both funds and awareness for local HIV/AIDS prevention with their 300-mile cross-country bike ride from the capital of Lusaka to Victoria Falls.

    I assume BB readers are well-informed on how the disease still ravages parts of sub-Saharan Africa, even if the urgency has faded in the Western press.  The numbers in Zambia are particularly shocking: one in 7 adults is HIV-positive. Life expectancy at birth is among the lowest on earth, with most reputable sources currently placing it at under 50 (and some as low as 39). Nearly half of the population is now under the age of 15. Without education and prevention, this next generation may face even greater trouble.

    Bike Zambia's goal isn't just to raise cash, although that's neat. The ride has already raised awareness among Zambians themselves about condoms, testing, antivirals, and local wellness programs, done sustainably with locally sourced bikes and active local participation.  This should save lives even aside from any funds raised—and Bike Zambia has already cleared their goal of $150,000, which is probably even more than it sounds like in a country where the per capita income is about $4/day.

    The riders arrived at Victoria Falls yesterday, but you can still chip in here.


  • The fish pedicure: a foot-holder's-eye view

    Had a long layover in the Singapore airport the other day. What to do? Why, I visited the Fish Spa, of course, where for just S$30 (about US$23) I could let hundreds of hungry doctor fish feast on my dead skin cells while I filmed the results and tried not to freak out.

    I've only had one human-hands pedicure for comparison. This was every bit as efficient.  And way, way ookier.

  • What Watson might do after crushing humankind on Jeopardy

    Now that Watson has predictably used his inhuman buzzer skills to romp on non-inhumankind, what does the big lug do for a follow-up?

    Stephen Baker, who has written a whole book and this blog about Watson, explains:

    Consider Watson as a research assistant on a medical diagnostic team. A patient comes in with a puzzling set of symptoms. Watson launches a search through hundreds of thousands of journal articles and case studies. It returns with six possible diagnoses and its level of confidence in each one — along with links to the evidence it studied. Let's say two of those six are far-fetched… [d]octors know enough to rule out a few others. Still, if even one of those six possibilities leads the team toward plausible answers they hadn't considered, the machine will have done its job.

    I'm sure that's the rationale the maniacal cyborgs use in some sci-fi movie, too, back when they're first verging on sentience. But until the replicants destroy us all, it does sound pretty cool.

  • IBM's "Watson" Jeopardy! computer: it's all about the digits

    hal-90001-253x300.jpgThanks to my own 13 games of Jeopardy! and the book about it and all, lots of people (including the New York Times) have asked my opinion about the whole IBM computer vs. Ken Jennings vs. Brad Rutter cage match, airing next Mon-Wed (check local listings). Let's be clear: I have no inside knowledge, and while Ken and Brad are both friends of mine, we haven't discussed the games. I'm just a former player doing color commentary before the big game.

    Here's what you might not see at home: at the top tournament level, every player can figure out nearly all of the correct responses, no matter how arcane. When I was in fighting shape for the Masters tournament at Radio City in 2002, I could usually suss out at least 50 of the 61 clues in a game, and sometimes up to 55 — and I was hardly the strongest player. (The trick isn't actually knowledge — obviously! if you know me — but getting in the fast-lateral-thinking groove.) I got my butt handed to me, in fact, by a guy who eventually got his butt handed to him by Brad.

    IBM wouldn't unveil their spiffy new buzzerbox unless they were sure it could solve a similar number of clues. And they definitely have a good idea of Watson's ability, after many months of honing its skills in mock games against progressively more successful real-life Jeopardy! champs. (Full disclosure: I was invited to play in the final round of mock games, but I had to drop out due to illness. Damn, that would have been fun.) (more…)

  • iPhone confession app for sinners on the go

    iConfess.pngFinally! A way to confess your sins with one hand while possibly still committing them with the other: Confession: a Roman Catholic App comes with "a personalized examination of conscience for each user, password protected profiles, and a step-by-step guide to the sacrament," all given an official imprimatur by the Bishop of Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

    The gallery of user images makes it seem easy to use — just click radio buttons to select your sins, then humbly Submit. And if someone hails you while you're hailing Mary, just put the Almighty on call waiting, re-engage with the secular and profane, then get back to your eternal soul. Pretty spiffy.

    (And no, according the National Catholic Register, this isn't a joke.)

  • Round-the-world with no bags for 90 days for charity

    nobaggagefolks.jpgScotteVest, tech- and travel-friendly clothing makers mentioned here periodically since 2001 ("nerdwear of the first water" it was called then), started something called the "No Baggage Challenge" last year. Travel writer Rolf Potts went around the world in six weeks with no luggage whatsoever — just the items he could slip into the mazillion pockets of his SeV jacket and clothing.

    Yes, it's a publicity stunt, but if you share the daydream of running off to see the world on a whim with only the clothes on your back, it's a darn appealing one.

    The NoBCs are continuing this year to raise funds for various charities. The guys at Gear Diary did one for Haiti, Matt Browner-Hamlin did an abbreviated 10-day trip to Japan to benefit schools in Tibet, and now a sweet young couple named Jen and Marcus are going round-the-world for 90 days to benefit the microlending platform (and my favorite charity) Kiva.

    The kids are in Buenos Aires now, about to head for Iguazu Falls. Traveling light, happy together, seeing the world. Let the flooding with envy (and support for their lending team) begin.

    Neo-minimalism and the rise of the technomads

  • Hollaback: fighting street harassment, one uploaded nimrod at a time


    The folks at Hollaback! came up with a novel solution for combatting public sexual harassment of women: just grab your phone, take a picture of the chump, and upload it to their site with a description of what he did and how it felt.

    This public-shaming-2.0 may not be preventing a lot of jackassity quite yet, but it already has enormous healing and empowerment value to women made to feel victimized for daring to be born female. Since the original 2005 launch in NYC, local sites have sprouted worldwide, including ten new ones starting today from Buenos Aires to Houston to Prague to Mumbai, and there are even iPhone and Droid apps to expedite the Holla-ing-back.

  • Poster-sized map of BSG/Caprica 12 colonies


    Given the recent mournful Caprica love here, this should gladden a few toaster-loving hearts: former showrunner Jane Espenson and science advisor Kevin Grazier (a JPL astronomer who works on the Cassini mission) have teamed up to release a spiffy annotated diagram of how twelve inhabited planets could hypothetically exist in one star system.

    The map also includes short histories of all twelve colonies drawn in part from my own tiny contribution to BSG/Caprica lore. (The word "tiny" is not false modesty. It's really tiny.)

  • Glenn Beck believes in four insane things before breakfast


    Missed in the brouhaha over Sarah Palin's verbal flub about our North Korean "allies," and much more telling:

    According to host Glenn Beck's own transcript, Beck's very next utterance was to proclaim that the "mystery" jet contrail recently seen in California (explained weeks ago (even by Fox News online) as almost certainly an optical illusion created by still air and a jet contrail from a known UPS delivery flight) was in fact a secret two-stage missile launch by the Chinese government to assert their power over America, "sending a signal that the world has changed."

    Beck then went on to state that the Chinese "control the world."

    Did Sarah Palin, would-be leader of the United States, disagree with any of this?  Nope.

    Palin's verbatim response: "Well, that's right."

    For Beck's (and apparently Palin's*) version of reality to be accurate, of course, these four logical conditions must also be true:

    (a) China can launch missiles in or near U.S. waters in broad daylight without provoking any American response; (b) the Pentagon either does not know this, and therefore cannot defend our shores, or they do know, and are now engaged in a massive coverup (either one of which must be sufficient for both Beck and Palin to question their avowed support of the Pentagon); (c) for the missile to have any meaning, China must have assumed that the Pentagon would understand the source and significance, something even Americans ourselves apparently cannot assume, according to (b); and (d) China must have also either assumed that the Pentagon would be cowed and not respond, or been eager to start a hot war with massive loss of life for no explicable reason.

    Beck's assertion — with which Palin showed no disagreement whatsoever — requires belief in no less than four different insane things — and that's even if the contrail hadn't already been fully explained. 

    And this gets virtually no comment anywhere.

    Apparently we've all been numbed by stupidity for so long that while the media can still grok an obvious up-is-down screw-up, the presence of mind-blowing nests of illogic immediately adjacent to the famous gaffe… that's just dismissed as normal. 

    *Some may suggest that Palin was agreeing only with Beck's unique notion of Chinese global dominion. After all, Beck's assertion about a Chinese missile occurred a full eight seconds before her statement of agreement. One can defend Palin simply by insisting that eight seconds is an unreasonably long time to retain information. 

  • A trip to the Peruvian Andes

     Users Mark Library Application-Support Ecto Attachments Juliacagiantslide

    (As part of his research for a book he's writing on microfinance, Bob Harris took a trip through the Peruvian Andes, including Cusco, Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, where he studied the architecture, refused to try corn-and-human-saliva beer, imbibed in coca tea ("maybe the best damn thing I ever drank"), and visited with people who live on floating islands made out of reeds. His photos and comments are fascinating. — Mark) (more…)