Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Begging the question

(The Bengal Post now has an online edition.)

Online profiles are revealing. In their omissions. For some unfathomable reason, I don’t see young people proclaiming on Facebook that they are quizzers. Amateur film-makers, yes. Adventure bikers. Music connoisseurs. Even tattoo artists. But quizzers? No. Why so? Could it be because the common image of a quizzer is of an adolescent male with bottle-bottom glasses and body odour , and perhaps a cranium enlarged like Amitabh Bachchan’s character in “Paa”? A strange species who only emerge from their subterranean burrows in the dark of the moon, to gibber about “directs” and “connects” and “infinite bounce”? This, of course, is totally untrue. The average quizzer is actually a veritable Adonis, with long wavy blonde hair, rippling muscles and the suave charm of Remington Steele to go with his omniscience. (And the moon is made of green cheese.)

For a long while I was a little ashamed that I enjoyed quizzing. It seemed a little juvenile. Grown men (and a few women) sitting in a circle to show off how much they know. Like the obnoxious brats in the first row who squeal “Miss! Miss!” and raise their hands when a question is asked in class. But I could not forego the guilty pleasure. Dammit, quizzing is fun! Especially when the quiz is run by somebody who can keep it interesting. Which made me think. Obviously there are good quizzes and bad quizzes. What’s the difference, then?

Quizzing at its worst deserves the term it’s known by in the western world – Trivial Pursuit. This includes the kind of question that fills tupenny “quiz books” churned out for the delectation of fond parents who want to mentor their little prodigies. What is the currency of Vietnam? What is the capital of Upper Volta? Who appeared in the 23rd episode of “Coronation Street”? In other words, disparate nuggets of information that have little relevance to one’s knowledge of a subject, trivia that is (sadly) often swotted up and regurgitated without any interest other than scoring points.

It gets better (in my humble opinion) when it throws up facts that pique one’s interest and make one want to know more about a particular subject. In other words, it can lead to bridging the gap between information and knowledge. For example - Mīrzā Mohammad Tāregh bin Shāhrokh compiled the Zij-i-Sultani, the greatest star catalogue between the times of Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe. By what name is he better known? This was Ulugh Beg, grandson of Timur, ruler of Samarkand, astronomer and mathematician, whose bones were placed in Timur’s tomb by their descendant Babur. Now that is a slice of knowledge, a smorgasbjord of facts that entice one to read up more about the history of Central Asia, a region totally neglected by our Anglo-centric view of history. A good quiz question introduces one to a fascinating cast of characters or a new knowledge-scape. It is not just informative, it is interesting. It is to Trivial Pursuit as Madame de Stael’s salon was to housewives’ gossip.

The best kind of quiz question, however, is a kind of brain-sport. It is the question that gives all the clues and leaves the quizzer to work them out. It makes the quizzer rummage through the recesses of his memory and put things together to arrive at an epiphany. And this often requires teamwork, a pooling of thoughts and deductions that justifies the formation of a quiz team. One example that I recall with particular relish was a question about the iMation logo – a wand tracing an arc of dots that turn to stars. Apparently it’s inspired by a quote from a famous science-fiction author. One of us latched on to the wand and stars and said there must be a reference to magic. Another said that all wise things in science fiction can be traced to Arthur C. Clarke. Then we decided that, given the company (iMation), it must be something about technology. All this in the space of about ten seconds. Then the fourth member of the team, who had been vigorously rubbing his chin, put it all together with the actual quote from Clarke – “Technology is progressing so fast that it will soon be indistinguishable from magic.”

A most satisfying moment. That is the kind of joint deduction that renews my interest in quizzing. And my faith in Calcutta, where this pursuit is still valued for its own sake without regard for the rewards. Just the satisfaction of knowing one got it right.

There are other nuances to a good quiz that can only be understood from the other side, when one has to set and run a quiz. It’s all too tempting for me to set a series of questions on Kishore Kumar or the Great Game or Clint Eastwood, to indulge my personal interests. This is not fair to the quizzers. The questions must cover as wide a range as possible, while at the same time maintaining an even standard of difficulty. The quizmaster’s primary aim must not be to stump the teams and the audience. Quizzes are enjoyable when questions can be answered, they are not meant to showcase one person’s abstruse knowledge. Above all, like any good show, a quiz has to hold the interest. But for that, it should know when to stop.

And since I am reminded of brevity, here endeth the first lesson.

P.S. For all those who're asking whether I'm doing a quiz at the DI on the 3rd of October, the answer is "NO". It's been postponed indefinitely. You'll know when I know.


Anonymous said...

You generally outdo yourself when you write about food, but this was as good...:)

anish said...

so true and well said.

Harish Kumar said...

Good post - summed it up nicely. And yes, it was great to see a mention of the venerable Mr. Steele in a blog post.

km said...

a smorgasbjord of facts that entice one to read up more...

Hear, hear. A love of quizzing is linked to a love of reading (and the love of showing off.)

Since I'm a dedicated quizzer AND a hopeless pedant, I'm deducting 3 points from Team JAP. The actual Clarke quote is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

arindam said...

..interest in quizzing appears wanning coz of loss of appetite and lack of inculcating the glory of reading !!

Partho said...

Actually the best question is where nobody in the team has any clue to the answer but knows enough of the periphery to be able hit the bulls eye. Generally Neilda was the master of this genre. Many years ago. Not lately alas.

Anonymous said...

Heard thru the grapevine a rather old story about an even older ( almost a relic) QM being stumped with the answers of James Bond and Bebbinca till he ready to burst into tears of indignation....
QMs comes in all shapes and sizes(no pun intended)

Anonymous said...

As an American, I find this post somewhat depressing. Quizzing sounds like great fun, but brings to mind the atrocious inadequacy of my country's educational system and our national propensity for reading all the wrong things.

Anonymous said...

Quizzing still enjoys great respect in Bangalore and Chennai. Interestingly there is a twitter handle which conducts quizzes almost 24 * 7 and it is conducted solely for fun and not for money.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Anon, food is not ALL I enthuse about.

Anish, thank you.

KM, thank you for the correction. You ever quiz in Cal?

Arindam, waning? A quiz on the 25th of September had 192 entries!

Partho, I thought the iMation question illustrated your point.

SB, that should make a post by itself.

US Anon, I actually admire many things about your system of higher education.

SN, I know @kweeezz, but it needs a fast connection (pun intended).


bitsofchocolate said...

Your post brings back memories of memorizing the World Atlas, poring over various volumes of Bournvita Book of Knowledge and CSR during marathon multi-week quizzing sessions at school. Who cared about monetary or other rewards ? The bragging rights alone were totally worth it - I guess in today's Google-Wikipedia world, quizzing is considered quaint and quizzers a rather endangered species

shrill said...

every bit of it was just so true