Training to be a quizzer

Eleven days before our daughter was born in September 2016, the wife and I attended the annual Family Quiz organised by the Karnataka Quiz Association. We ended up doing fairly well in the quiz, and placed third.

Unfortunately, despite the quiz having been described as “for teams of three and under from the same family”, we only got two book coupons as a prize. If they had given us three prizes instead, I could’ve claimed that our daughter won her first quiz even before she was born.

Two years and four months on, I’ve greatly disappointed my wife in terms of how much I’ve taught our daughter. According to some sort of an agreement we had come to ages back (maybe even before we were married), I was supposed to have taught our daughter calculus by now. As it happens, she can barely count to twenty, and still hasn’t fully got the concept of counting objects.

However, there are other areas of development where, despite me not putting any sort of effort whatsoever, she has done rather well in terms of her learning. I had written last month that she had proved adept at showing off her Quantum Physics for Babies in front of visitors. And before that she had shown promise by reading bus number boards.

Now, an anecdote from last night suggests she is already gearing up to be a quizzer.

Back in May, a friend and business associate gifted her this illustrated book of nursery rhymes (I don’t have the copy with me as I write this, but it was possibly this one). Since each page contains a full rhyme and maybe one or two illustrations, we don’t use the book too much – the daughter prefers books that have a higher picture-to-word ratio.

In fact, the fact that I’m not even sure what the book precisely looks like should tell you that we don’t use the book too often. Once in a while, my wife reads out poems from that just before bedtime, but I normally don’t read from it.

Anyways, last night as I was putting the daughter to bed, she picked out this book and asked me to read it to her before she fell asleep. And then she showed off her prowess as a quizzer.

Being two and a third years old, she can’t yet read (she knows the numbers and a few letters of the English and Kannada alphabets, but not much more). However, the way she was recognising the poems from the illustrations suggested that she was actually reading!

Guessing “Humpty Dumpty” by looking at an egghead sitting on a wall was rather easy. Some of the other poems she guessed correctly were, however, stuff I surely wouldn’t have  gotten from the illustrations. In fact, this included poems whose existence even I wasn’t aware of before I saw them in the book. I was so impressed that I didn’t really mind that she didn’t go to bed until it was eleven o’clock last night!

Now, this might be a false alarm. In the past she seems to have answered arithmetic questions correctly which later turned out to be a fluke. The sheer proportion of poems she got correct last night suggested this is not the case. The other doubt is that she might have seen the book elsewhere, and thus mugged up the picture-poem associations.

The way she was guessing, however, suggested to me that she was simply recognising the objects in the pictures and the actions they were exhibiting, and then working out the name of the poem from these figures and actions (obviously she knew it’s a book of rhymes, so the sample space was finite). And that is exactly how your mental process goes when you’re attempting a (good) quiz.

Now I don’t mind so much that she still has a long way to go before she can learn calculus.

The trouble with quizzers

Quizzers are fundamentally interesting people. At least they are supposed to be. They have above-average skills in connecting things, and “working out” answers to quiz questions. And the fact that they have attended so many quizzes means that they will know lots of “fundaes”. And have knowledge of lots of interesting “stories”.

Above-average skills in connecting stuff, and above average knowledge of the world and how it works should naturally make you more interesting than most people. And I’m sure most quizzers have the potential to be supremely interesting. But the sad fact is that in general conversation they seldom exhibit such interestingness.

The trouble with quizzers is that when you put a bunch of them together in a room, they naturally gravitate to discussing quizzes, and quizzers. Now, if they were to discuss specific questions and expand the discussion around the topic of interest to the question, it would still be interesting – for most quiz questions (of the Bangalore variety at least, not sure about Kolkata) have the potential to be great conversation seeds.

However, quizzers don’t discuss that. They instead discuss about how the quiz progressed in terms of relative standings – like they were discussing a horse race. They discuss stories around quizzes – which is more about the people involved in the quiz rather than the fundaes involved. They bitch about fellow-quizzers (this blogpost falls in that category, perhaps?) and talk about why this quizzer is an asshole and that quizzer is a copycat. And go into expositions on why a certain kind of quizzers are better than the other. You get the drift.

Now, from my (forced – I’d rather discuss fundaes with these guys than quizzers) participation in such bitching sessions, I understand that some of this lack of interestingness is strategic – quizzers don’t want to discuss fundaes because they are afraid that they might “give away” some of their hard-earned knowledge which might help a competitor in a subsequent quiz! One prominent quizzer who had once-upon-a-time been my regular teammate once apparently (I got this info from one such bitching session) set an entire quiz based on the last one week’s newspapers – the logic being he didn’t want to give away fundas that he might use to answer in a quiz sometime later!

Thinking about it, it’s not just quizzers who indulge in such behaviour. Such conversations are a staple at “tweetups” also, I’m told. People who know each other mainly through twitter get together, bitch about other people on twitter, and talk about what they’ve already tweeted (this is from hearsay). But then they can be forgiven for the median tweetup-attender is not anywhere as potentially interesting as the median quizzer!

Then again, it is known that a large number of “successful” quizzers are “database quizzers” – who rely on their prowess for mugging up entire fundaes which they can then spit out in a quiz, rather than actually knowing them and using them to work things out. Perhaps the fact that they talk inanities in general conversation is an attempt to cover up the fact that they’re actually uninteresting? And to not get found out that they’re database quizzers (database quizzing is “anti-big data” in that a lot of people do it but no one claims to do it!)?

From here on, any quizzer who in a group of quizzers talks more about quizzes and quizzers, rather than talking fundaes, is prime suspect in being a “database quizzer”. Hopefully this will be deterrent enough for non-database quizzers to show their interestingness!

Sponsorship Cannibalism

Back in 2004 Shamanth, Bofi, Anshumani and I started the IIT Madras Open Quiz. In some ways it was a response to critics of IITM quizzing, who blamed our quizzes for being too long, too esoteric, too disorganized and the likes. It was also an effort to take IITM quizzing to a wider audience, for till then most quizzes that IITM hosted were limited to college participants only. An open quiz hosted by the institute, and organized professionally would go a long way in boosting the institute’s reputation in quizzing, we reasoned.

Shamanth had a way with the institute authorities and it wasn’t very difficult to convince them regarding the concept. We hit a roadblock, however, when we realized that organizing a “professionally organized” quiz was a big deal, and would cost a lot of money, which means we had to raise sponsorship. And this is where our troubles started.

The first bunch of people we approached to help with sponsorship were the Saarang (IITM Fest) sponsorship coordinators, who had so successfully raised tens of lakhs for the just-concluded Saarang. Raising the one lakh or so that we needed would be child’s play for them, we reasoned. However, it was not to be. While the coordinators themselves were quite polite and promised to help, we noticed that there was no effort in that direction. Later it transpired that the cultural secretaries and the core group (let’s call them the Cultural Committee for the purpose of this post)  had forbidden them from helping us out. Raising sponsorship for an additional event would cannibalize Saarang sponsorship, we were told.

When we needed volunteers to run the show, again we found that the Saarang “GA Coordinators” (GA = General Arrangements; these guys were brilliant at procuring and arranging for just about anything) had been forbidden from working with us. The Cultural Committee wanted to send out a strong signal that they did not encourage the institute holding any external “cultural” events that were outside of its domain. It was after much hostel-level bullying that we got one “GA guy” to do the arrangements for the quiz. As for the sponsorship, we tapped some institute budget, and the dean helped us out by tapping his contacts at TCS (for the next few years it was called the TCS IITM Open Quiz).

One reason the quiz flourished was that in the following couple of years, the organizers of the quiz had close links with the cultural committee – one of the quizmasters of the second and third editions of the quiz himself being a member of the said committee. This helped the quiz to get a “lucrative” date (October 2nd – national holidays are big days for quizzing in Chennai), and despite being organized by students, it became a much sought after event in South Indian quizzing circles. Trouble started again, however, after the link between the quizmasters and the cultural committee were broken.

The Cultural Committee once again started viewing this quiz as a threat to Saarang, and did their best to scuttle it. The quiz was moved around the calendar – thus losing its much-coveted October 2nd spot, and soon discontinued altogether. Despite significant protests from the external quizzing community and alumni, there was no sign of the quiz re-starting. Finally when the cultural committee accepted, it was under the condition that the quiz be a part of Saarang itself. After significant struggle, finally a bunch of enterprising volunteers organized the quiz this year after a long hiatus. It is not known how much support they received from the cultural people.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you have one lucrative product (in this case Saarang), it is in your interest to kill all products which could potentially be a competitor to this product, which explains the behaviour of the IITM Cultural Committee towards the Open Quiz. And it is the same point that explains why Test cricket in India is languishing, with bad scheduling (Tests against the West Indies started on Mondays), bad grounds, expensive tickets and the likes. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) now has one marquee “product”, the Indian Premier League (IPL). The IPL is the biggest cash cow for the BCCI, and the board puts most of its efforts in generating sponsorship for that event. And as a side effect, it does its best to ensure that most of the premium sponsorship comes to the IPL, and thus the stepmotherly treatment of other “properties” including domestic cricket.

Last evening, I was wondering what it would take for the BCCI to make a big deal of the Ranji trophy, with national team members present, good television coverage and the kind of glamour we associate with the IPL. And then I realized this was wishful thinking, for the BCCI would never want to dilute the IPL brand. Have you heard of a tournament called the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy? It is the domestic inter-state T20 competition. A potential moneyspinner, you would think, if all national team members are available. But do you know that last year the final stages of this competition coincided with the World Cup? I’m not joking here.

I’m sure you can think of several other similar examples (Bennett Coleman and Company’s purchase and subsequent discontinuation of “Vijay Times” also comes to mind). And the one thing it implies is that it’s bad news for niches. For they will begin to be seen as competition for the “popular” brand which is probably owned by the same owners, and they will be discouraged.

 

Indoctrination methods

I’m suddenly reminded of some “competitions” I took part in back when I was in school, which in hindsight seem like indoctrination methods. The basic structure of the competition is this. An organization announces an inter-school competition – either a quiz or an essay writing contest, or even a debate. These weren’t “normal” quiz/debate/essay competitions, though. All of these had a pre-requisite, and that was reading a certain book that was prescribed and marketed by these organizations. I don’t know if one had to pay for these books – if I remember right, they were given away “free” once you paid the nominal fee to register for these competitions.

It was an easy way to indoctrinate over-enthusiastic kids, or kids of over-enthusiastic parents, who wanted to win every competition in town, and gather as many “bullet points” as one could (though this was far before anyone really thought of careers and the like). All you had to do was to announce a competition, with the promise of a certificate and nominal prize, and thousands of kids would sign up, and do anything in their capacity to win the contest.

I remember two such competitions well. One was organized by the Ramana Maharshi Ashram, where we had to mug a book about him, and then had to write an essay. I remember the topics well. It was something of the kind of “my thoughts after reading about the life of Bhagavan (sic) Ramana”. I don’t remember reading the book too well (I’d forgotten to collect it, I now remember) and wrote some random stuff. I didn’t come close to winning that.

The other was by ISKCON, and this included both a quiz and an essay, if I remember right. Again we had to mug a standard-issue ISKCON book. I remember less of this than I did of the Ramana Maharshi thing (I don’t know why), and again I didn’t do too well, and that hurt my pride as that was around the time when I used to be pretty good at quizzing (and still didn’t know to distinguish between a good and bad quiz, and not worry much about my performance in the latter).

Organizations like ISKCON or the Ramana Maharshi Ashram are incentivized to get more “followers”, and one way of gaining followers is to feed impressionable young minds of material that shows the organization in positive light. And then make them undertake activities that hammer in that message. In that sense, events such as these that tap in on students competitive spirits are a big win for these organization. It’s an easy way to reach a large unsuspecting audience, and even a “small” conversion rate is enough to drive “membership” signficantly.

On a similar note, I remember Gaurav Sabnis writing about debates that the VHP used to organize in Pune in a similar sort of effort. The only difference there was that there you didn’t need to mug any boooks.