Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Who's the REAL Mr. Know-It-All?

One of the highlights of my daily public transportation commute is the opportunity to work the puzzle page of the Examiner, one of the freebie tabloids available to commuters on Metrorail. Two Sudokus, a Kakuro, and a crossword, to boot.

I'll always tackle the Kakuro first, then move on to the Sudokus. If I'm having a really good morning early in the week (when the Sudokus are rated as 1* or 2* on the 5* difficulty scale), I can get well into the crossword.

A few weeks ago, a "perfect storm" of circumstances turned me into the puzzle king for a day. Two 1* Sudokus. A nice delay on the Red Line lengthened my commute by 10 minutes. 54 milligrams of Concerta allowed me to focus and tune out the various concerto coming from the supposedly "personal" audio devices across the train. (Here's a hint, folks. If I can hear what's playing from your headphones halfway across a noisy subway car, my guess is it's too damned loud and you'd better learn how to work the closed captioning on your TV).

So, for the first time in my personal commuting history, I finished all four puzzles. Okay, I didn't quite finish the crossword--but I fully evaluated every single clue, and there are some things you simply don't know, or only know from being a crossword fanatic (which I'm not). So sue me for the five squares I left empty.

Then, I noticed something at the bottom of the puzzle page—a new feature, or new to me at least, since I'm usually engrossed with the puzzles. "Mr. Know-It-All."

"Mr. Know-It-All," it turns out, is a syndicated column appearing in newspapers nationwide. MKIA, as I'll call him, answers trivia questions that apparently are keeping folks awake at night or causing huge rifts in their closest relationships.

MKIA's biography gives his qualifications as a Know-It-All. I'm not sure how a career stocking shelves at Kresge's is somehow relevent, but from the looks of it, he's just an average guy with an above-average interest in trivia. A guy being fed questions that may be 102 mph fastballs when you need to provide an answer off the top of your head, but become slow-pitched softballs when fed through a search engine like Google.

In two weeks of reading MKIA, I've found no questions that couldn't be answered by viewing one of the top two returns on Google, more often than not the Wikipedia entry. Often, the answer is shown in Google's brief blurb, and you don't have to actually open the link.

MKIA apparently provides a valuable service by saving his readers (who've apparently been living on Mars since the mid-'90s) the trouble of doing the heavy lifting for themselves, often giving answers and insight remarkably close in content to sites like Wikipedia in the process.

Just for smiles, let's look at a few examples.

Q: My grandfather loved baseball. I'm told that, in his youth, he was an incredible player who was destined for the major leagues, but a farming accident ended that dream. When he passed on a few years back, I inherited many boxes of baseball memorabilia, including 100 autographed baseballs and bats mostly from the early 1920s to the late 1930s. His favorite was a baseball signed "Hack Wilson 1930." I'm not sure about the first name. What can you tell me about him? I know little about early baseball. — W.B., Madison, Wis.

A: His name is Lewis Robert "Hack" Wilson (1900-1948), and he roamed the outfield from 1923 to 1934 for the New York Giants, Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. In 1930, he drove in 191 runs for the Cubs — a record that many believe will never be topped. He also hit 56 home runs, led the league with 105 walks and had a batting average of .356. This was possibly the best season ever by a hitter. Sadly, alcoholism cut short his playing career — and his life.

Okay, W.B. from Madison, Wis. Try putting "Hack Wilson" into Google (or ask your grandson to do it), and see what comes back. Real tough, huh? I'm sensing Wilson isn't the only "hack" involved with this column. Let's try another.

Q: Many years ago, there was a major earthquake in the United States. I believe it was in the Midwest. Do you have any idea where and when this occurred? — O.E., Bangor, Maine

A: Between December 1811 and February 1812, four earthquakes, estimated at 7.0 to 7.9 in magnitude, hit the area of New Madrid, Mo. These earthquakes were among the largest ever recorded in North America.

Google query: "major midwest U.S. earthquake."

Q: I just received an e-mail trivia list stating that Dick Clark’s wife gave Chubby Checker his stage name. Is this true? — B.H.L., Flagstaff, Ariz.

A: It’s true. Ernest Evans (1941-), who popularized the song “The Twist” in 1960, was raised in Philadelphia. He attended South Philadelphia High School and called future teenage heartthrobs Frankie Avalon and Fabian classmates. At the time, Dick Clark hosted the incredibly popular TV show “American Bandstand,” which originated in Philadelphia. Clark’s wife suggested the stage name Chubby Checker as a spin-off from another popular singer of the era, Fats Domino.

Hello, Wikipedia.

Q: A long time ago, I read a book about the life of Marcel Marceau, "the master of silence." Marceau was not his real name, which is not unusual for performers. What I'm trying to recall is whether there was a reason he changed his name. Do you know? — B.H.L., Flagstaff, Ariz.

A: Marcel Mangel (1923-2007) was born in Strasbourg, France. At the outbreak of World War II, he changed his last name to Marceau to hide his Jewish heritage.

Wait a minute. Marcel Marceau was Jewish? As my Nana might have said, "Who knew? To me he doesn't say a word."

Here's a Wiki for you Nana, wherever you are.

So here's what I envision as MKIA's typical day. He's up 'til 3 a.m. partying. At 10 a.m., his private secretary, Susan Camille McNamara, calls to wake him.

Phone rings. MKIA rolls over, badly hungover, knocks the receiver off the hook.

Susie: Wake up, sleepyhead. Max is looking for this morning's column, it was due at 9:30.

MKIA: Uh, oh, yeah. Where is it? I left it around here SOMEWHERE. [hacking cough] I was up all night doing some major editing, let me get right back to you.

By 10:02, MKIA has opened his e-mail, and randomly selected the first few questions.
10:03, the keywords have been selected, Googled and Wikied.
10:05, links opened, copied and pasted.
10:07, a few sentences are restructured and synonyms employed to disguise any relationship to the source material.
10:09, the day's column is sent to the editor, and a call is placed back to Susie.

MKIA: Tell Max this one was a major chore, but it's done and in his inbox. I'm seriously thinking Pulitzer on this one. [Takes a drag off a Marlboro, muting phone so she can't hear him snickering.]

Susie: You know, there's an editorial staff meeting at 1:30 today, they're expecting you.

MKIA: Uh, yeah. Can't make it. Max'll understand. L.R.S. from St. Cloud, Minn. wrote in and needs to know the state motto of Nevada. Can you call travel desk about the tickets to Vegas? I think I can wrap this one up in three, four days, tops. I've got a guy there with some inside information.

Susie: You got it. Word just came down from corporate, you'll have to fly economy. And the Bellagio is out, you've got to do the Palace Station. Per-diem only, no "entertainment" this time.

MKIA: I guess you do what you gotta do. You're the best. Can you transfer me to payroll? They screwed up my direct deposit.


There was a time before the 'Net was readily accessible to most homes when I was a genuine know-it-all, the guy in the bar or over the phone who could tell you off the top of his head the name of Lumpy Rutherford's little sister, Archie Bunker's street address, or Gerald Ford's golden retriever. Granted, my know-it-allness was limited to certain specific areas of interest, but these generally coincided with the general interest trivial things folks wanted to know—movies, television, U.S. history, geography. Classic literature, ancient Greeks, Picasso's blue period, not so much so. So while I may not be able to quote Cyrano de Bergerac word-for-word, I can easily tell you off the top of my head of at least a half-dozen sitcoms that borrowed the plotline in the '60s and '70s.

None of this is to say that the supposed MKIA couldn't have given me a run for the trivia money in the '80s and early '90s. But it is to say that MKIA's "talent" is incredibly unimpressive if he's not demonstrating it in front of Alex Trebek or sitting at a barstool, untethered to technology.

What I find most astonishing is that MKIA even encourages folks to send him questions via email in addition to snail mail. Listen up, folks. If you have the ability to e-mail, you most likely have something on that computin' machine you're using that's known as a "web browser" and access to the "Internet." Before you go looking for Mr. Know-It-All, ask the real Mr. Know-It-All—the kid next door—to show you how.

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