Actor and humorist John Hodgman isn't some kind of human computer, although he plays the PC on Apple's popular "I'm a Mac" ads. He does qualify as a font of obscure knowledge and "fake facts" in his recurring appearances as a "Resident Expert" on "The Daily Show" and through such books as his latest, More Information Than You Require, which he'll be signing at the Buckhead Barnes & Noble on Nov. 19.
Thanks for calling.
Before we start, I should say that right now, I'm on the coastal Starlight Express passenger train in the Pacific Northwest. It's a remarkable train, completely unlike the trains we have in the Northeast. It's a double-decker and I'm in the train's movie theater at the moment. There's actually going to be a wine tasting on the train at 2 p.m. I imagine there will probably be some fencing lessons here shortly. After the falconry demonstration.
Will your public appearance involve a lecture on fake facts?
It'll be "An Evening with John Hodgman". First I'll talk for 30 or 40 minutes on subjects of my choosing from the book, like how to gamble and win, how to rid your house of small pets like mice, rats and Scottish terriers, or how to become famous. The new book has more of a "how to" aspect than my previous book, because I found out that readers like to learn how to do things. In fact, I think that's where the term "How To" originated. I thought it was Japanese.
Then I'll take questions for a while. I'm willing to answer questions on any subject, including my life and work; the mole-men who live beneath the earth; if you're having problems of a personal or professional nature; if you have chronic knee pain, anything. My friends will tell you that I'm a good source of unasked-for advice.
One of my favorite jokes in the book is one of the daily facts, where you say that Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities is about Orthanc and Cirith Ungol, which are actually from The Two Towers in The Lord of the Rings. Is there any reference you find too obscure in your humor? [Note: I pronounced it "Sirith Ungol."]
First of all, just so you know, it's "Cirith" Ungol – all of the "C"s in Tolkein names are hard "C"s. Does that answer your question? In an indirect way, I suspect it does. I use references that I understand and recognize, or come across in the little research I do to find real facts to develop into fake facts. If someone doesn't recognize a reference, they may think it's just a non sequitur and I hope will enjoy it on the level of "Oh, that guy's crazy." Or they can Google it, find out what Cirith Ungol is and get a second burst of pleasure, like the old chewing gum that has the liquid inside.
Do you have a favorite fake fact?
There's something I couldn't include in the book that I'm very disappointed about. The new book is a page-a-day calendar. There's a fact on every page that matches the date. On one of the pages, I commemorate the time that William S. Burroughs appeared as a celebrity on "Match Game." Not only was he strung out on heroin, he got Gene Rayburn to shoot up using his long, pointy microphone.
What I could not use was a photograph from "Match Game" of Gene Rayburn collapsed holding his microphone in laughter, because I couldn't ascertain who had the rights to the image. Also, on another page I noted that Bill Clinton, Tipper Gore and Jonathan Frakes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" all share a birthday in real life, so I noted that Jonathan Frakes played Bill Clinton and Tipper Gore in a TV special called "Jonathan Frakes is Bill Clinton and Tipper Gore." I needed to get a photograph of Tipper Gore that I thought was safe and free from copyright restrictions, so I went to Wikipedia, which has lots of permission-cleared images, and there was a picture of Tipper Gore. Only after I downloaded it and put it in the book did I notice that there was Levar Burton, also of "Star Trek," sitting next to her. So I made a reference to that which took the joke even further into esoteric Nowheresville.
Will there be a page-a-day calendar edition of the new book?
There doesn't need to be. The new book is a page-a-day calendar. There's a fact on every page that matches the date. You can read it and tear out the pages each day. I actually recommend buying three copies: one for the archives, one to destroy every day, and one to destroy as you destroy all of your books. I should say that it's not the most useful page a day calendar, since the daily information is printed on both sides of the pages. So you might need to buy two books for use as a calendar, one for tearing out the even-numbered pages, and one for tearing out the odd ones.
Incidentally, I always thought that my book, because of the needlessly complex design, would never have a Kindle. I was at Amazon yesterday and saw that it actually does have Kindle. It's not very effective as a page-a-day calendar, though. I tried to tear a page out, and only succeeded in breaking the Kindle in half.
You'd have to get hundreds of Kindles.
You could buy 366 Kindles, if you wanted the convenience of the book in electronic format, but it might be easier and cheaper to buy three copies of it.
By the way, does the complexity of design – like footnotes and the fact that the page numbers start around 230 instead of 1 – reflect your previous career as a literary agent? Did you know how much complexity you could get away with, or did you want to get back at your former industry?
I won't lie, I did take some pleasure at annoying my publisher by tweaking some of the conventions of publishing. When I published my first book, they priced it at $21.95, and I said "No, charge $22 even." They asked, "Why?" Did I want the extra nickel? And I said no, because 22 is my lucky number. It annoyed them but I made them do it. The design was also an opportunity for me to work with my old friend and designer Sam Potts. It's inspired by the innovative design of Dave Eggers in McSweeney's – I'm very proud to have made some small contribution to that magazine. Sam Potts was able to find the solution to every deranged question I asked him.
What do you think of Microsoft's "I'm a PC" ads, which aren't just a response to your commercials, but, in a way, to you?
My life has gone through a number of surreal twists since going on TV. My tolerance for the strange is high. My understanding that the guy playing me, or "The PC" at the beginning of the ad, is someone who works at Microsoft. The idea that someone who's not another actor is going through the same ride as I am – that's funny to me.
In your previous book you wrote a lot about hoboes, including 700 hobo names. In the new one, you write a lot about the mole-man and ask, "The Mole-Men: Are They The New Hoboes?" I was wondering if you thought, with the state of the economy, that hoboes might have a resurgence?
People need to learn to get on with their lives. I am very proud in my section on "Hoboes of the Great Depression" in the previous book, and am completely thrilled and excited by the "700 Hoboes Project" of illustrations. I did not appreciate the communal level of hobo fascination. But there is no new hobo information in this book. When I started working on the new book, I realized that there need not be new "hoboes," who represent chaos and revelry and wearing the same pair of pants every day. The mole-men are almost literally the antithesis of hoboes, since they live under the earth and represent order, enlightenment and digging through tunnels and secreting luminescent ooze. I should say that at public appearances, I will not talk about the mole-men unless I am asked.
I almost hate to ask this question, since I'm sure everyone asks it, but what kind of computer do you use in real life?
I use a Mac, and have since 1984. I did spend a brief period in the wilderness with a Windows machine in the late 1990s and early 2000s, because the literary agency where I worked had them, and I reviewed video games that wouldn't play on Macs. But it did not go well in exile. I can't really remember details about those Windows machines, but I can tell you the specs of every Macintosh I've ever owned.
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