Saturday, 25 April 2009

How would you connect Flamingoes to Maths via sport?

I've been sitting in the dark at home for the last half hour because it rained a fair bit here in B'lore and the damned electricity has gone out on my street. Since it is still to early for me to go to bed, I figured I'd finish up this post I drafted a pretty long time ago. In case it comes out incoherent or idiotic, please, blame it on the lack of electricity.
Somewhere in the deep recesses of Nanavati Studios in Juhu, or possibly in some archive of Big Ideas Pvt Ltd, there (probably) exists a tape that shows a geeky young boy, all spectacles and toothy grin, sweaty from wearing his school's full winter uniform including blazer and tie in the heat of Mumbai, trying to lip-synch to Toni Braxton's 'Un-Break My Heart', and actually getting the lyrics wrong, only to have it pointed out to all and sundry by Derek O'Brien. That was the Bournvita Quiz contest, 1997, and the boy was me, uncharacteristically exuberant because I actually knew the answer to an audio question. Thankfully, this was in the days before YouTube, so it's unlikely that too many people saw it then or remember it now. Besides, I won the quiz that year, so that was some solace. This post, however, is not about that story.
It is, instead, about quizzing in general, and what I've learnt about,and from, being a (fairly successful) quizzer since the age of 7. Of course, back when I started (the Maggi Quiz, 1990, I think), school quizzing was far more about knowing absolute facts than about being able to figure stuff out (the old BQC as it used to come on radio, for example, had Ameen Sayani hosting it and asking stuff like, 'What is the common name for calcium carbonate?'). It wasn't the most exciting stuff, but given that I was a shy, geeky kid, it was all good, since it allowed me to create a niche for myself.
Around then was when I learnt what to me is one of the basic tenets of quizzing, told to me by a senior who was pretty good in his time and, who I was told I bore a striking resemblance to (basically we were both dark-skinned and wore glasses, which is really all that everyone looks at). His insight was this: quizzing is all about educated guesswork. You can't know everything so you have to guess, but random guesswork won't help much either. The important thing is to relate whatever information you get with whatever you already know, and see what plausible answer you can make from it. That sounds pretty obvious, but for most school quizzers, it's not that simple - most limit themselves to what they know, passing on anything outside what they've learnt/mugged up. That, I think, is partly why so few school quizzers end up going on to become decent college-level quizzers.
At the same time, for educated guesswork to be successful, one also needs a basic level of knowledge on which to base one's guesses.That's another failing that a lot of school quizzers have (or at least used to): sticking to only certain sources of information and not being open to picking up cues in anything else they may see, hear or read in the process of getting along with their daily lives. One of the questions I remember answering from a school quiz is that the Yezdi 250D Roadking was the only production bike (in production at that time) which had the front and back wheels inter-changeable because they were of the same diameter. I picked that up from an Auto India article on which motorcycle would be perfect for the Indian Army. At another time, I remember kicking myself for not answering that the Beatles were the band that performed in Germany before hitting the big-time in England, although I'd read that in Frederick Forsyth's 'The Odessa File'.
A corollary to the above can be found in Sherlock Holmes' maxim: when you have eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth. Quite often, once youve' arrived at an answer, you hesitate or second guess yourself. The link seems tenuous, or you cant' remember for sure what your source was, and then you botch it up. Consider this question that was asked in a quiz in 2004 (note: its' a Pornob question, so the provenance may be a little suspect):
'When 'Gandhi' was being filmed in Porbandar, the makers wanted to do an aerial shot of the city around the area where Gandhi was born; however, most houses had TV antennae sticking up out of them, which ruined the period effect. The makers therefore turned to someone who convinced the residents to remove their antennae for the shot within a day, in return for which this person gets a special note of thanks in the movie credits. Who was this person of influence? A name is required, not just a description'

(Murthy, remember this?) The best way to tackle a question like this, is to work out who would wield such power in that area, but would also be famous or infamous enough to make this an interesting question.Power-wielders can be of various sorts - politicians, bureaucrats, gangsters, moviestars, what-have-you. The fact that the person got an immediate response from the residents would indicate that they either really respected the person, or feared them. The final clue lies in the fact that most people may not remember the name: politicians and movie stars whose names are easily forgotten do not make interesting quiz questions. That leaves an interesting possibility: a gangster. Which then leaves the question of which gangster was around in Porbander in the 80s who might be remembered in 2004. Well, there was this movie called Godmother that came out around then... Yep, that gives you: Santokben Jadeja! Ok, not everybody will get that, but I hope that helped to clarify the thought process that goes behind getting an answer like that.
Having mentioned Pornob, I come to the last of the points I feel like mentioning today: namely, the quizmaster. The fact is that most quizzers are incredibly cocky, self-absorbed pricks, who like to prove they are in some way smarter than everybody else. The cockiest of the lot become regular quizmasters, since it stokes their ego to stump their fellow quizzers . It is possible, therefore, to expungu that ego. There are mainly two ways for a quiz master to prove that he or she is better than everybody else: by becoming an expert in a narrow field and asking questions related to that field, or by asking questions that are tricky to figure out, but which seem fairly obvious once you know the answer. Therefore, knowing what a quizmasters' supposed area of expertise is can help: for example, there was this guy who mainly listened to Jim Reeves and other similar stuff as far as Western music went; therefore, for any audio question that had involved recognizing a voice singing vaguely cowboy songs I'd always answer Jim Reeves. Not only would I be right most of the time, the quiz master would be kicked to find someone else who (he thought) listened to the same music that he listened to! As for the second point, of making things work-out-able, it means that the simplest answer is usually the right one. This is especially true in TV shows and such-like, since the larger audience would get bored if the answers get too complicated.
This is why any question that Derek O'Brien asks which involves a number as the answer will almost surely be a trick one with an answer like zero or one.
Now, on to the question in the title of this post. I'm guessing a fair number of you would have figured it out, but for those who haven't, heres' more context: this was asked to me in a Sports quiz by a guy who was studying English (Hons) at that time. Go ahead, put your guesses in the comments (extra points for guessing the quiz master). As Holmes might say - you know my methods...


  1. finally a post on quizzing!

    i dont get the flamingo-maths-sport connection

    figure 8's in a ballet? too obvious i think..

  2. intriguing answer, on many levels. How do you connect flamingoes to ballet? Since when was ballet a sport. and how do you do figure 8's in ballet?
    I'll explain the funda in a day. Let's see if anyone else reads my posts or will bother to comment.

  3. Flamingo is a sort of dance, ballet is a sort of dance.

    There are competitions in ballet, I know this because there's a girl in our program who once was in the San Francisco Ballet which is apparently one of the best ballet society's in the world, and she's been to Russia to perform.

    So therefore sport.

    Figure 8's...well...presumably you spin around a bit...


  4. Dude!
    Flamingo= birdFlamenco=danceAren't figure 8's what you make on ice with skates?

  5. Flamingoes to sport is University of Rugby renowned for Maths department? Dhruv.

  6. And I will say this....quizzing is also about discerning which answers will be beautiful and which pointless...u give benefit of doubt to QMs that they'd ask questions whose answers would be, in a subjective way, nice answers for quizzers. For e.g take the following question:

    Which city hosted Pakistan's first home Test match?

    Asked in a quiz, If the answer were Lahore, Rawalpindi, Karachi etc. it would be greeted universally in the quizzing fraternity with a "Really? So? Big deal....shit question!"

    The answer, as it turns out and as Joe has already cracked by now, is Dhaka....To which quizzers will almost certainly give a round of applause.

    Similarly, asking opening lines of poems or stuff like that only makes for meaningful quiz questions if the answer is the name of a film or book that's famous or in the quizzing has most certainly got it's subjective valuation.

  7. Good comment, Dhruv. I didn't actually figure out Dhaka immediately.
    As for Flamingoes and Rugby, well, that isn't the answer either.Once I tell you the answer you're probably going to think it's a really sucky question. However, the whole point was to illustrate how to work out the answer based on what oyu know about the QM as well...

  8. ah ha ha ha

    well you could always say that there's a phonetic connection


    (I hope now you know why I never considered membership to any quizzing society)

  9. Alright, so here's the answer. The main thing to remember here, is that the QM is an English Hons student trying to conduct a sports quiz.
    What that tells me, or told me then, is that this could be linked through literature. But that's got to be a reasonably strong link. If you think of it that way, the first thought of flamingoes in sport that comes to mind is 'Alice in Wonderland': They're used instead of mallets in a game of croquet. Which fits in rather well with the link to Maths, because old Lewis Carroll, was a mathematician as well, and he even wrote a book on Euclidean geometry.
    And that's the answer.

    Now I know that's actually a pretty shady question. I put it up because it really brings up something that very few quizzers consciously think about when it comes to quizzing: figuring out answers based on who the QM is. It's a little like one of those games of incomplete information in game theory: I guess based on what I think the QM knows, but the QM will also set questions based on what he/she thinks the level of the audience's knowledge is.
    Thanks for commenting, you guys!

  10. Nice! Your approach to quizzing is very different from my (admittedly far less successful) way. I never thought about quizmasters or anything, but you're right about free-associating around the available facts. That's the only kind of quiz I like. Sadly, in the US trivia quizzes (in pubs) are totally non-workable. (I do well in the Hollywood and music rounds, but all of us suck at sports.)

  11. I don't always factor in the quiz-master, but it does help to know about his/her biases when you're a little short of other information. This was especially true of college quizzing, though Of course, for larger events where there's a team of people coming up with the questions, you may not know about all the biases.
    Overall, however, it's worthwhile to remember that most decent QMs are usually looking for the sort of effect that Dhruv's comment above refers to. That helps in choosing between alternative options.

  12. Yo,

    I am a firm follower of the JC way. Nailed the Gujarat National Law University Quiz, a first for anybody from NID.

    The other part of the story is that it is the first quiz I have ever won. Ever. I have a string of seconds and thirds, but never won anything.

    Eat your choclate.



    Nice work with the flamingos. The quizmaster knowing bit is very true. I got all your audio questions at the last quiz you ever did in Stephens because I had been to your room to borrow some tapes the previous week.

    The answers were 1.When the Levee Breaks by Kansas Joe
    2. Noel Gallagher is playing the guitar for Cornershop
    3. Damn! I forgot.

  13. Salil!Good to see you in the comments. And even better to see that you're still quizzing.Well done!
    BTW, 1. was When the Levee breaks by Memphis Minnie, not by Kansas Joe. I don't remember no.3 either.
    And eating chocolate on an empty stomach for the sugar and caffeine rush was my secret technique which I wasn't planning on sharing...
    As for the quizmaster, any guesses on who came up with the flamingo question?

  14. Come, come - I did say English Hons. Your batch. FWIW, I like to think of him as 'Oinker'...

  15. Omkar it is! Well done. Must give him credit - it's the most convoluted question I've ever answered in a quiz.

  16. hey great post and great thinking! :)

  17. Hi Bastet welcome to the blog and thanks for the feedback!

  18. loved the post.. the question was a bit shady though... I almost tore of a fistful of hair out of my head thinking I would be kicking myself if i didn't get it... this K Omkar character doesn't sound like my type of QM.

    The "workability" thing is the main factor in making a quiz worthwhile... I had gone for a quiz to KMC with Tirthankar (I think) where we managed to work out the name of some Latin American capital by virtue of knowing the names ok Columbus's sponsors... then the QM went on to two rounds on "Elections in India".

    Knowing that the self-satisfied prick was studying for the IAS exams did not help me in working out the number of constituencies in the 1961 election...


  19. Tawakley! How's it going? Is this the first time you've landed up here on my blog?
    Yeah I know it's a crappy question, but that was partly the point - illustrating the fact that a crappy question like that can only be worked out by knowing something about the QM.Must you admit that you went for quizzes with Tirthanker? My favourite memory of him is of single-handedly beating him and Omkar as a team in a quiz that was sponsored, for some weird reason, by him...
    So were you taking about Port-au-Prince, btw?