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...

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Hep Aunties of Khan Market

It is a well-documented fact that Khan Market is amongst the most expensive places to rent real estate for retail in the world. Going by what I've seen over the intermittent visits to the place over the last couple of years, I can add two other metrics in which Khan Market probably tops the rest of the country - the maximum number of hep aunties per square foot of retail space and the maximum number of stores selling overpriced bric-a-brac within a single complex (in fact, the density of hep aunties peaks in the bric-a-brac stores, so one might even be able to construct some sort of combined metric based on that). South Mumbai might come close in terms of absolute numbers, but Khan tops in density. It's almost impossible to walk around the place without seeing at least one woman somewhere between the ages of 30 and 45 in oversize shades, heels and tight jeans on her way into or out of a shop with scented candles in the display window.
Of course, this was not always the case. Many years ago, back in the mid-90's when liberalization was still in its first flush, we used to live in a government officers' colony a few kilometers down the road from Khan Market (more on that in a later post, hopefully). Back then it was a quiet, little market, with a sprinkling of bookshops- Bahri Sons, Faqir Chand etc - some random sari shops, a bunch of grocery stores and a couple of bakeries and small restaurants. A treat would involve eating Chinese food at China Fare or picking up pastries from Pat-a-Cake. Most of the crowd there would be other civil servants and their families, occasionally punctuated by the odd expat or two coming around to pick up meat and breakfast cereals and stuff and, for the lower rung expats, a cheap haircut at the saloon in the inside corner. By the early 2000's, when I was in college, the boom had just started in Khan market, with international franchises setting up shop and the civil service crowd replaced by what seemed like people who had turned up because they couldn't find parking at the M-Block market in GK. 
And now it's come to this - hep aunties all over, more faux continental cafe/bistros than you can spend a moderate monthly salary in, and kids who look like they went to sleep with wet gel in their hair so the just-out-of-bed look has additional hold. I suppose it could be worse, though. They could have torn down the whole place and turned it into a mall.