Tuesday, May 06

The Debunker: Did George Washington Chop Down a Cherry Tree?

by Ken Jennings

In a series of “Debunker” columns from a few years back, Ken Jennings shattered a few beloved myths about the presidency—Abraham Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on an envelope, JFK didn’t kill the hat. So why take on four more White House whitewashes this month? It’s a matter of some urgency: Ken has a fun new book out this month about such matters. So get ready to whistle along to “Fail to the Chief” as KJ blows up everything you thought you knew about the leader of the free world.

The Debunker: Did George Washington Chop Down a Cherry Tree?

It’s the most morally edifying story from American history involving a hatchet. (Distant second place: Lizzie Borden.) A six-year-old George Washington, “immoderately fond” of his new present, uses it to chop down a “beautiful young English cherry-tree” on his family estate. His father is angrily trying to track down the culprit…when master criminal George walks into the room still holding the hatchet. “George, do you know who killed that cherry tree yonder in the garden?” Dad asks. “I can’t tell a lie, Pa,” says young George. “I did cut it with my hatchet.” Of course his father is so proud of his son’s guileless honesty that George suffers no consequences for his vandalism.

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Friday, April 25

 

Tuesday, April 22

The Debunker: Did Elizabethans Really Talk Like Americans?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did Elizabethans Really Talk Like Americans?

The great Shakespearean stage director Trevor Nunn opined a few years ago, after directing Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic theater, that he’d like to see Shakespeare done only in American accents from now on. “Today's American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing,” he said. Specifically, it’s been claimed since the late 19th century that parts of Appalachia still speak in an accent that’s a virtual time capsule of Elizabethan English. Gadzooks! Hillbillies talking like Hamlet? Can this in truth be so?

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Tuesday, April 15

The Debunker: Did King John Sign the Magna Carta?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did King John Sign the Magna Carta?

In 1215, a group of feudal barons had enough clout to get King John on board with the Magna Carta, a document that for the first time limited the powers of the English crown. The charter enshrined rights like due process of law, making it the direct ancestor of the many future constitutional documents both in Britain and abroad, including the U.S. Bill of Rights. So powerful is the symbolism of the Magna Carta even overseas that in 1957 the American Bar Association placed a monument to the Magna Carta at Runnymede, the meadow near the Thames where the document was signed.

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Friday, April 11

The Trivial Eye: Mad Boys & Girls

by Jason Toon

The period costumes and hairstyles of Mad Men are so perfectly done, and the '60s production design so pervasive, that it's startling to be reminded that the cast members have lives outside the show. And that some of them have the same history of ludicrous hairstyles and inadvisable outfits that the rest of us do. As Mad Men begins its final season (or next-to-final half-season? or whatever) this weekend, can you recognize these eight cast members in their pre-Sterling-Cooper days?

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Tuesday, April 08

The Debunker: Do Londoners Check the Time on Big Ben?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Do Londoners Check the Time on Big Ben?

When I got married back in 2000, we spent our honeymoon in London. A friend of my wife’s asked her, “What are you guys going to do all day, besides look at Old Ben?” I was a little aggrieved at this description of my anatomy, until I realized she had meant to refer to “Big Ben,” which as everyone knows is the clock tower at the north end of the Houses of Parliament, right? Wrong. Yes, the clock tower is an iconic symbol of London. But no, it’s not called Big Ben.

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Thursday, April 03

The Trivial Eye: Young Adult Novels

by Jason Toon
Today, the day after International Children's Book Day, seems like a good time to celebrate Young Adult novels. Of course, in a better world, they would just be called novels. Those who judge a book by which section it's shelved in are missing out. The best YA fiction can be as serious, as funny, and as moving as anything on the latest prize shortlist - and I'm sure at least one of these classics has left an indelible impression on you, too.

 

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Tuesday, April 01

The Debunker: Did Henry VIII Divorce Any of His Wives?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did Henry VIII Divorce Any of His Wives?

“Divorced, beheaded, died, / Divorced, beheaded, survived.” That’s the mnemonic rhyme we used in school when we were studying the life of Larry King. Oops, that’s wrong. Just dug out my old notes. King Henry VIII of England.

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Thursday, March 27

 

Tuesday, March 25

The Debunker: Are There Super-Smart People with Photographic Memory?

by Ken Jennings

Did you know that the second week of March is Brain Awareness Week around the globe? You didn’t? You weren’t aware of your brain? Conscious of your consciousness? Well, get with the program. March is perhaps the brainiest month of the year—it’s also when we celebrate the 1879 birthday of famous smarty-pants Albert Einstein, and the 1946 beginning of Mensa intelligence testing. But it turns out people will believe just about anything they hear about what’s going up between their ears. We’ve asked Ken Jennings to fact-check some particularly lame-brained misconceptions about gray matter.

The Debunker: Are There Super-Smart People with “Photographic Memory”?

When people recognize me from my streak on the quiz show Jeopardy!, it’s one of the most common questions I get, right up there with “What is Alex Trebek really like?” and “Why do you still dress so badly?” People always want to know, “You have a photographic memory, right?” I don’t! What a useful thing that would be, to be able to casually glance at a page of text, or a map, or a painting, and remember it forever. I think the NSA would pay for that skill.

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