Arthur Chu

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Back in February, Arthur Chu had one of the most dominant runs in the history of Jeopardy.

I watched every game. It was like nothing I had ever seen on Jeopardy before. There was a palpable excitement when Arthur’s shows started. Oh sure, there had been big winners before, but Arthur was … different. He was monotone. He was intense. He was awkward, but in a way that seemed very real and very human. He bet big and he searched for daily doubles and he gathered a cult following. He openly talked to his fans and his enemies. Some lauded his ruthless pragmatism. Others called him the Mad Genius Who Destroyed America’s Favorite Game Show.

Arthur won 11 straight games and took home $298,200, the third highest total in regular season play. I was delighted when he agreed to do an interview, and I am thrilled that he will be back in action in the Tournament of Champions this fall. Here, he talks candidly about his run on the show and his life since. Arthur, welcome to the blog.

Arthur, you’ve gotten pretty famous since your run on Jeopardy. I can imagine that your newfound fame is exhilarating but also terribly frightening. Are you comfortable with fame? Do you enjoy having a platform to say things?

Well, it’s not really the same kind of fame as being a real celebrity. It’s almost as if there’s this divide between my online life and my real life. People don’t recognize me on the street. But online I get tons of people commenting on stuff I’ve written. It’s kind of fun because I don’t have to engage with them if I don’t want to, but when I do want to, I have the ability to get feedback much more than I did before.

I don’t worry about it. I see it as a responsibility. You sometimes see people get a lot of exposure and then they flame out because they’re not used to being criticized. I’ve been lucky so far because I have a lot of people who have my back, but I also have to keep in mind that there’s no shame in admitting you’re wrong or backing off from a position.

I think being willing to accept that not everyone might like you is part of not going crazy with this stuff.

How did you get on the show?

Jeopardy has an online test. If you score high enough on the test, then they call you back and invite you to an in-person audition. They hold the auditions at various times through the year in different regions of the country. When I was living in Washington DC, I took the test in Baltimore, and I actually had to drive out to Baltimore on the day my wife and I were moving into our apartment. I went without her. She was pretty mad about it at the time. In retrospect, she thinks it was the right decision.

The in-person auditions are pretty chill. You show up at a hotel or a convention center. They take your picture, and then they make you take a paper version of the online test just to make sure you didn’t cheat the first time. Then they ask you the same questions they would on the show, like tell us a good story about yourself. Then you play a really quick mock game just to see how you look and how you interact. It takes a whole day, but you’re only on the spot for a few minutes.

After that, it’s just wait and see. You’re in the pool for a couple of years. I’ve taken the test twice. The first time was in LA before I was living in DC, so I got in on my second try. I had actually forgotten all about it, but I got a call and they asked if I could come out to LA in a month to be on Jeopardy. That’s when I started preparing.

What did you do to prepare?

There’s a lot of information out there. I read a lot about Jeopardy strategy. Roger Craig was a champion awhile ago, and he was my role model through all of this. He was on the tournament of champions and he talked about how he used Anki, which is this flashcards app that keeps track of how well you’re doing and forces you to bone up on stuff that you’re not doing well on. So I used that to cover subjects that are important on Jeopardy.

I spent a lot of time practicing, just watching the show, doing the flashcards, trying to get myself in that headspace where I was ready.

I can imagine that no matter how much you prepare, no matter how much knowledge you accumulate, it must be a complete adrenaline rush when the music starts playing and Alex Trebek walks in and you start your first game. 

It’s weird because you spend so much time preparing and watching the show, but when the game actually starts happening, you just have to let it go. When I came on the show, I just told myself that I am playing a character. I’ve done theater before, and the easiest way for me to handle it was just to say, I’m playing this character, I’m not really me, I am playing the role of someone doing this. That really helped me and left a lot of the anxiety behind.

My roommates and I watched your entire run on Jeopardy. I think we enjoyed the run because a) you were absolutely dominant, b)  you didn’t take yourself too seriously, and c) you tweeted along with the show (since the episodes had been taped a few months prior). What was it like interacting with your fans and your haters during the run of the show?

Twitter is a platform that is really addictive because it’s so real-time. It’s not like the feeling of publishing something and then waiting for a reaction. You’re just in an ongoing conversation with people. Live-tweeting Jeopardy was just a natural choice for me. It was a contrast between the person I was on stage and the person I was on the internet. On Jeopardy I was hyper-focused and ruthless and not that personable, but I had to be that way. But on Twitter I could riff on it, make jokes about it after the fact. I think that spoke to a lot of people.

And, of course, the fact that I was talking to a bunch of haters on Twitter helped spread the controversy and give the story some legs. I would like to think it started a trend. After I live-tweeted my episodes, the college championship kids all live-tweeted their episodes. It’s just become a way to engage with the show.

I think a lot of the appeal of Jeopardy is not just watching the show, but also having reactions to it, or talking about it. One of the things I think Jeopardy is starting to do is integrate that a little more. I wouldn’t be surprised if they encouraged second-screen interaction in the future. That’s how a lot people in my generation watch game shows.

You received a lot of criticism from Jeopardy fans about your style of play, specifically the Forrest Bounce. As a baseball fan, it reminded me of the outlash against moneyball and sabermetrics. Like, for the first time people thought, “Hey, you know, maybe we should look at this differently.” And because it was so new and different, there was an outcry against it. But your style of play seemed wholly pragmatic.

David Madden, who until recently was the #2 regular season player, used a very similar strategy. He bounced around from category to category and hunted for Daily Doubles. This was very unpopular, and he actually made a public donation to charity afterwards to sort of apologize to the American public. Which is funny because I always thought the point of the show was to get the most money for me and my family. So I never saw any reason to apologize. I’m acting inside the rules.

People have actually said that I have a responsibility to make the show entertaining for the producers and the audience. If I were an actor being hired to do a job, that would be one thing. But I’m not. The whole idea of anti-rigging laws in game shows is that they want to see something real, they want to see how real people react when put into this situation.

I understand why people were upset about it. People really enjoy playing along with the show. They flatter themselves because they’re doing well and spitting out answers – well, technically questions – when they hear the clues. But if you’re just playing the category top to bottom, you’re making it easier on the people watching at home and on your fellow contestants. So the point of bouncing around the board is to make things harder for them.

A suggestion that was thrown out was to have the category names on the screen when the question is being read, so people remember what category it is. Because on the set we can see the category, but people at home can’t. I think that would be a pretty simple fix.

For my part, I get excited when games are harder or more unpredictable. I find it boring to watch the show when someone isn’t Forrest Bouncing. I watched my own episodes and I was like, hey, this is fun, this is exciting, because you don’t know what question will come at you next.

What has happened since Jeopardy?

I’ve always been one of those people who posts their thoughts to the internet. I’ll make like page-long comments on discussion forums. And when I was in New York on Good Morning America the day after my last appearance on Jeopardy, I met Sujay Kumar, an editor at The Daily Beast. He wanted me to start writing for him because he liked my voice. I had done a lot of long interviews that showed the type of person I was. So I started writing for The Daily Beast, and lo and behold, I wrote this thing after the Isla Vista shootings about misogyny and nerd culture, and it went viral.

I’ve been able to write about stuff I care about and have an audience. I wrote a piece for NPR’s Codeswitch about the Chinese-American accent. I recently wrote about Ferguson. A lot of people have shared that. So it’s a good feeling.

You will be back for the Tournament of Champions this fall. Excited?

The funny thing is that when I was first on Jeopardy, I didn’t have that much going on, so I could focus on the show. But now I have all these distractions, all this other stuff happening.

There’s a lot of stress, there will be a lot of eyes on me, more so than if I had just done okay. There’s also some pressure because there’s this documentary film-maker named Scott Drucker who wants to do a documentary about me and my story. And it’s sort of unprecedented – not since 1989 have they let an independent film-maker onto the Jeopardy set. But he got permission from Sony to do this. So there’s a lot of pressure there. We’ll see what happens.

Five rapid fire questions:

Last book you read: The Divide, by Matt Taibbi

You do a lot of voice over work. Three best voice over artists of all time: Jennifer Hale, Troy Baker, Mel Blanc

Craziest thing someone has tweeted at you: Well, there was the time someone said ‘I hope your wife dies.’

Three words to describe your style of play: Unpredictable, High-speed, Pragmatic

This blog gets about four readers. So, to the four of them, would you like to promote anything?: The Kickstarter for the documentary, you can search for my name on The Daily Beast, and I’m also doing audio book work for a webcomic called Erfworld.

And, finally, the world wants to know. What does Alex Trebek smell like?

You know, I’ve always had a very weak sense of smell. I did get a static shock when I was on the set, so I treated that as a good sign.

Sean Forman

I am starting a new thing on the blog, an interview series of sorts, where I reach out to people I have always wanted to have a conversation with. I don’t expect to hear back from Barack Obama or Derek Jeter, but there are a lot of interesting people out there with good stories to tell. I hope to pick their brain and learn some stuff about life.  I am excited to share their stories with you.

Last week I spoke with Jerry Dale. I am proud to say that my second interview is with Sean Forman, owner and developer of Baseball-Reference.com.

Baseball-Reference is the best source for baseball statistics on the internet. It has stats on every player, full box scores going back to 1919, and an amazing tool called Play Index where you can, like, search for anything that has ever happened in baseball. You could find the all time leaders for triples by a switch hitter that was taller than six feet from the San Diego Padres between the years 1976 and 1999. Or the top 5 leaders in sacrifice flies by infielders that are still alive and played before 1980. I don’t know why you would search for those things, but you could.

As a proud baseball nerd, Baseball Reference is one of my favorite things about the internet. So much information is available in an instant. I try not to take it for granted. Sean is the man behind it all, and I’ve always admired his work and the dedication he puts toward the site.

I am pleased to welcome Sean to the blog.

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What is your background and how did Baseball Reference begin?

Well, I grew up in Iowa, and I’ve always been into statistics. My dad was a football coach, and in junior high I would keep track of charts for him and compile the statistics after the games. It’s always been an interest of mine. And then in graduate school, right at the start of the internet, I got into web design. I had the Baseball Encyclopedia text edition and thought it would translate well to the web. You could look at Rogers Hornsby’s stats and then go quickly onto his teammates and look at their stats. So I thought the web would be a much more useful format than a large reference book.

At the time, there was a database out there with baseball stats called The Baseball Archive, and I used that to build the initial site. We launched in March 2000.

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I’m the type of guy that can get lost on the site for hours on any given night. Like you, I’ve always been drawn to numbers. And, I think the reason I’ve always been drawn to baseball is because of how much numbers and math intertwine with the game.

Oh yeah. Numbers have always been interesting to me, and it’s just grown over time. I didn’t grow up reading Bill James, but every Sunday I would look at the newspaper and check out the batting leaders and the pitching leaders. This was in the early 1980’s when newspapers were really the only place you could get the box scores or stats for players.

I also have an interest in presenting data in useful ways. So part of it is analyzing the numbers, but part of it is also wanting to create as useful an interface as I can.

How many employees do you have?

Across all the sites, we have five, including myself.

How much of the site is automated, and how much do you update manually?

It is very automated. For instance, today I haven’t done anything to update the site. The stats come in each morning and are parsed in an automated way, and then the pages all run automatically. If everything works right, I get a text message that says it’s updated. Because we are a small workforce, we aren’t watching the games, we aren’t entering the data ourselves. We just write programs that can do it.

There are a few things we do manually, often when we’re dealing with historical datasets. In those cases, there is going to be a certain amount of clean-up and correction. But usually what we do has already been produced by someone else who really enjoys baseball or their company does it. I think one of the things we do well is merge a wide variety of sources of data together into a cohesive whole.

How many visits does Baseball Reference get each day?

We’re over a quarter million per day. On a good day, we’ll get 300,000 or even 400,000. Our biggest day of the year is usually the trade deadline.

What are the stats you look at to evaluate a player?

WAR is a stat that we have been very involved in producing and generating, and I think it gives the best overall view of player value.

For hitters, I also look at on base percentage, OPS+, things like that. On the pitching side, I tend to stick with ERA and WHIP and strikeouts per nine innings. I know what FIP is, and we just added it to the site this year, but I prefer the others.

You mentioned Wins Above Replacement. I love the stat, but I think a lot of people don’t understand it, because it’s not intuitive. You can’t calculate it in your head. And I think some people are wary because it doesn’t have a consistent formula, and it can change over time.

About a year ago, I wrote a fairly long post on our blog that compared WAR to gross domestic product. Economists look at those numbers to determine whether we are in a recession, but you can’t possibly compute it yourself. They don’t know exactly what the formulas are that go into it. And like WAR, GDP gets adjusted retroactively on a fairly regular basis.

I understand the frustration with feeling that WAR is not very transparent. We try to show all of the components, and we have a very detailed tutorial on how it is calculated. But obviously, it isn’t something that you’ll be able to calculate on your own.

I do think it is the best all-inclusive number. You can make the case that Mike Trout is better than Miguel Cabrera without reverting to WAR, but it can show you exactly how much better he might be.

In college, my friends and I would sit around and try to name the most random baseball players we could think of from the late 90s and early 2000s. Some examples: Rick Helling, Desi Relaford, Jay Witasick, David Segui. Any other suggestions?

Let’s see … Arquimedez Pozo. The problem is that if you think of them they’re not necessarily random. Wayne Gomes would be a good one. Brook Fordyce.

Occasionally I’ll come across guys and I’ll have, like, no recollection of the player. He’ll have played for four years from 2001 to 2005. You have about 100 star players, and then you have the vast majority of everybody else.

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You’ve been on MLB Network, you’ve interacted with some high profile people in the game, you have a few thousand followers on Twitter. It’s not exactly Bill James level, but you do have, I guess, some semblance of fame. People in the game, certainly many fans, know who you are. Do you like that?

You know, last night I got to go to a game with the Phillies’ head analytics guy, which obviously I wouldn’t have been able to do without the site. It’s fun to get to talk about baseball with those kind of people.

It’s funny, when I was in graduate school, my wife was a better mathematician than I was. She had written more papers, she finished her dissertation much more easily than I did. And one time went to a conference, and people came up and started talking to me, and she’d be like, why are they talking to him? And it’s invariably because of some baseball stuff that they had heard about. So we have a running joke that I have name recognition within a very small, dedicated group.

It’s fun – I sponsored my son’s little league baseball team this year, so they had baseball-reference.com on the back of their jerseys. And one of the parents came up to me later in the season and told me that their son had gone to a Baltimore Orioles game wearing that shirt. And he got several comments from people in the stadium.

It is very gratifying to know that people enjoy the work that you do, that they rely upon the work that you do. It’s certainly satisfying to know that you’ve done a good job and people want to use it.

What’s been the coolest moment for you since you started the site? And, have you ever had an ‘oh crap’ type of moment?

Oh, I’ve had many oh crap moments. I have a bad habit of trying to edit things live on the website and occasionally breaking it. It’s a bad feeling when you know that people are coming to the site looking for, let’s say, Derek Jeter’s splits and can’t get them because you broke something.

Probably the coolest moment I’ve had was a few years ago when Zack Greinke hit Carlos Quentin. Quentin charged the mound and started a brawl. And they were discussing it afterwards, and Vin Scully of all people said: well, you better get on Baseball-Reference and see if Greinke has ever hit Quentin before. To know that Vin Scully uses your site is probably the apex of what I’ve done. We might as well just shut it down because we’re never going to top that.

5 rapid fire questions:

Favorite type of music: My favorite singer is Greg Brown, who was living in Iowa City when I was there.

Last book you read: R Graphics Cookbook

3 favorite baseball players of all time: Rickey Henderson, Pedro Martinez, Wade Boggs

Where do you get your news: I still subscribe to a newspaper. I obviously look at websites as well, but I still read the paper.

Last time you kept score at a baseball game: Probably four or five years ago

And, finally, what are your long-term goals for the site? What would you like to add over the next five, ten, twenty years?

One additional thing that is coming along is the tracking data that MLB collects. We’ll see whether that is available to the public or not. Beyond that, getting a grasp of people’s mobile use of the site, and making it as convenient as possible for people that are looking at it on a tiny screen.

I don’t think there are any big statistical additions or analytical additions. We’ve already hit a lot of the high points. More generally for the company, we’re looking at expanding into soccer and other new sites as well.

Jerry Dale

A few months ago, I wrote about a baseball game in 1974 where the Pirates’ Dock Ellis tried to hit every player he faced. And, mercifully, he was removed from the game after five batters. It is a fascinating story, though certainly not a proud moment for the game’s integrity.

I did some digging and found that the home plate umpire that night was a man named Jerry Dale. I wrote that I wanted to track him down. I wondered, why didn’t he eject Ellis? What does he remember from the game? What is he doing with his life in 2014?

Well, the internet is a beautiful thing. I tracked him down. Yes, Jerry Dale is still alive, he remembers the game quite well, and he graciously agreed to answer some questions.

Jerry has led a unique life. And, I must say, when I set out on this journey to find the man behind the plate that night, I did not expect to travel down this rabbit hole. Jerry has led one of the more unique lives of anyone I have ever had the pleasure of talking with. After his umpiring career ended, he became an adjunct professor of business and social science at Maryville College. And then he became an African safari tour guide. And he still gives tours! Jerry currently resides in Hermanus, South Africa, and one can visit his website here.

It is an honor to welcome Jerry Dale to the blog.

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So I guess the way this all started was that I heard a story about a baseball game in 1974 where Dock Ellis started a game against the Cincinnati Reds, and from the first pitch he tried to hit every player. And then I did some digging and I came across your name because you were the home plate umpire that night. What do you remember about that game?

When I got your note, the memories came back. I remember the game quite well. The game was in Pittsburgh. Dock was an independent-minded young man, and when he hit Pete Rose to start the game, Rose picked up the ball and tossed it back to him. That’s how Pete was, you know. I didn’t think anything about it. And then he threw at Joe Morgan. And I just thought, wow, he can’t even get close to the plate.

It was when he threw at Perez, the fourth guy up, that I knew something was going on. I walked out to the mound and gave Dock the ball and I hollered at him, Hey Dock, you OK? And he said, Yeah! And I’m thinking, damn, I’ve never seen anyone this wild before. And then after the next batter, Murtagh (the manager) took him out of the game.

I had no idea about Dock’s intentions. I came back to do some umpiring in the Winter League in 1990, and Dock was a player-coach for one of the teams, but I never even talked about the game with him. I always got along with him, even though he had a mind of his own.

I couldn’t imagine something like that happening today. Ellis would have been ejected immediately.

Yeah, they would probably eject him after the third guy. It would have been easier, even then, if you had known of a previous encounter earlier in the season. But I had no idea. Normally, if there is some friction among the clubs, you know about it ahead of time, or even the office might tip you off about it before they play. But in this case, nothing. It was just out of the blue.

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Jerry, you umpired in almost 2,000 major league games over 16 years in the National League, including a World Series, two All Star games, and three NLCS’s. What are some games and moments that stand out?

The 1977 World Series, Game 6 when Reggie Jackson hit three home runs off three different pitchers. I was the left field umpire that night. You never expect something like that, and I don’t think it will ever be equaled. He hit a home run off three different pitchers on the first pitch, and they were entirely different types of pitchers, and he hit the longest home run off a knuckleballer, Charlie Hough.

I was behind the plate in Game 4 when Guidry beat the Dodgers 4-2. When I grew up as a teenager, I would throw a tennis ball off the steps at home, and I would pretend I was either the Dodgers or the Yankees. And I’d think about DiMaggio and Henrich and Charlie Keller and Rizzuto and Coleman and Stirnweiss. And Snyder and Campanella on the Dodgers. So when I walked out to home plate to do the game, I was very emotional. I had tears in my eyes because this is what it’s all about. I started out when I was ten, eleven years old throwing a ball pretending to be the Dodgers and Yankees, and here I am. There was nothing like that.

Another game that was strange was when Ted Turner managed. The Braves were on a 10-game losing streak, and they had fired Dave Bristol. In our locker room we had to walk down the same hall to go through the visiting dugout, and I saw Ted in uniform before we went out for the national anthem, and I couldn’t believe it. And when he came out to home plate with the lineup card, I thought: holy smokes.

The Braves lost the game, and they wouldn’t let Ted manage after that. But I saved the lineup cards and the newspapers because I thought, hey, this is something special, it will never happen again. And then they brought Bristol back.

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It seems like a lot of umpires today are very aggressive and have a quick trigger when it comes to ejections. I’ve always thought that umpires should stay out of the way and not bring attention upon themselves. It seems like you were more mild-mannered and calmer than a lot of your peers.

I was a minor league player for five years, so I was used to being on the ball field. You can incite an argument very easily by what you say and how you respond. Fortunately during my career in the National League, we had very good managers. The only guy that could be a pain in the butt was Bobby Cox. He got worse as time went on. I only threw him out once, when we were in Atlanta. We also had Leo Durocher and Tommy Lasorda and Chuck Tanner, and I never had to eject those guys.

The National League seemed to me to be more professional. We didn’t know much about the American League because you wouldn’t play them in the regular season. We always felt our league was better and we had better umpires. And I knew most of the managers because I played in triple A ball and the Pacific Coast League.

Do you still follow the game?

No. I was born and raised with baseball. From the time I could walk, baseball was all I could think about. But it always has to end. I had other things in life I needed to do.

I used to notice that guys would retire, and sometimes you would get to a city where an umpire used to live or was nearby, and they would come to the locker room and they’d tell war stories. I used to think, Jesus, it’s over. You have to get a life. I thought, you know, when I finish, I don’t want to be sitting around in visiting locker rooms telling war stories.

I have only been to two games since I retired, one in Cleveland and one in Chicago. I haven’t kept in contact with any of the other umpires, except one, Gary Darling. I met Gary before he got to the league in spring training, and I know he’s still around. Joe West is still around, Bob Davidson is still around, there’s a few guys still around from when I was there, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to say hello to them. I don’t want that. It’s a totally different life now.

After you left baseball in 1985, you became an adjunct professor of business and social science at Maryville College. And then you became an African safari tour guide. I’m fascinated by this type of life course. How did this happen?

I had been going to Africa for a number of years before I started giving safari tours. But I was flying over so much that I was like, hey, this really wears you out. So I just upped and moved here in 2002. The biggest thing is that I’m close to where I’m working. To go to Nairobi is a six hour flight, I can drive up to Botswana in eight hours, and I’ve cut my cost of living in half.

I am very comfortable here. I have no desire to leave.

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What does one do on an African safari?

We generally go for two weeks. We’ll go to different camps, depending on the country. In my last safari, we did two days in Victoria Falls, six days in Botswana at three different camps, and then we went to Tanzania, through Nairobi, into Kenya and the Serengeti for four days. We were able to catch the last migration that was headed into Kenya, because the migration starts in July, and it won’t come back until October or November. From there, we went to the Ngorongoro Crater, and then the group left on a flight back to the US.

What we try to do is give the people an option of what country they want to visit, and then we’ll stay three days at different camps in different locations. A lot of people want to see the migration in Kenya, or the giant elephant herds in Amboseli near Mt. Kilomanjaro, or the Okavango Delta in Botswana. On Tuesday I am heading to Zambia, which is one of the top places for wild life. You’ll see leopards every day.

We’ll do four hours in the bush in the morning, from 5 o’clock to 9. Then we’ll go again in the afternoon from 4 o’clock to 8. You gotta enjoy the bush. Most people do. I have seldom had anyone not enjoy the safari.

Five rapid fire questions:

Favorite type of music: Country. I was brought up on country music. I also studied classical music because I played the piano and the flute.

Three favorite baseball players of all time: Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Tommy John

Four greatest umpires of your lifetime: Doug Harvey, Augie Donatelli, Chris Pelekoudas, Tom Gorman. The old-time guys were much more dedicated and strict. Tom came up to me when I started and said, Hey kid, you’re in the big leagues now, you wear a coat and tie every day. That stuck with me for my entire umpiring career.

Favorite baseball stadium that you umpired at: Wrigley Field

Most painful moment as an umpire: One of my fingers is still not straight from a foul ball.

And, finally, why should one make Hermanus, South Africa his/her next vacation destination?

This is the number one land-based whale watching location in the world. The whales started coming a month ago. And they always say if there’s no whales in the harbor, which is only down the street from me, then they haven’t arrived yet. They’ll be here until late November, and then they go back to the South Pole. You can drive along the shoreline and see whales all the time.

It’s a small town – you can walk from one end to the other in about ten minutes. But we have all the major shops and a small mall and three big supermarkets, so you have everything you need. The airport in Cape Town is an hour away. We also have some super wine in this area.

Thanks so much, Jerry. It was an absolute pleasure to speak with you. 

Of course. You know, when I lived in Tennessee, I would get notes from people wanting autographs every week. I’d always sign them and send a little note back. But when I moved over here, it’s like, you don’t hear from anyone. And I saw your note and I just thought, how the hell did you find me? I guess that’s what Google is for.