Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why there are so many chestnuts in quizzes

Look at any of our reports, and chances are that you will find a few complaints about "chestnuts". Since this is a quiz blog, a question before we proceed:
In “The Broken Sword”, a forgotten melodrama by William Dimond (1816), one of the characters, Captain Xavier, is forever telling the same jokes, over and over, with slight variations.

As he repeats a certain joke involving a tree, this time making it about a cork tree, Xavier is corrected by his companion Pablo, who says, “A ---. I have heard you tell the joke twenty-seven times, and I am sure it was a ---.”


Question from Amnesia 2006

BTW, apart from being the answer, the above question itself has become somewhat of a 'chestnut', i.e. an oft repeated question. Since most people think of chestnuts as nice questions that simply show up from time to time, let us also expand the scope to ordinary "repeats", which true to their name, have a nasty habit of showing up at the very next quiz.

1. Roach quizzers
Like international cricketers, the average age of local quizzers has gone up considerably. Earlier, most participants would be in college and once released into the real world, the concerns of a livelihood would ensure their graceful withdrawal from the scene. However, these days, quizzers keep coming back for more, and some are into their 2nd or 3rd decade (of quizzing). This means that many participants are very experienced and have accumulated quite a bit of memory trash. Most complaints of repeats would emanate from this lot. They are not dinosaurs as they can still be fleet-flooted and also possess a sharp set of teeth, and can make life tough for the newbie quizmaster.

2. Newly evolving quiz-setters
On the other hand, the number of first-time quiz-setters remains steady, which means that the number of people discovering a chestnut for the first-time remains constant. It reminds me of the first time I did a quiz at the BC. Scarcely had I uttered 3 words that people gave out the answer, and to rub it in, they also predicted the rest of the question and told me exactly what was wrong with it. Just a routine matter of history repeating itself. There's an easy way of getting around it (which is what I did): attend as many quizzes as you can, especially when you're young and willing to expose yourself to the rubbish that passes for many quizzes, and you will learn what to pick and what to leave behind in the shell. Unfortunately, it has been my observation that not enough quiz-setters do this. It is fine if you aren't crazy enough to want to travel to Tristan da Cunha for a quiz, but it may expose you to the risk of repeating questions when in your audience is the crack team of "Tryst of the Cunhas".

3. Too many open quizzes
Allied to problem 1. Open quizzes leave the door open for ancient riff-raff to hobble through. In Pune, most decent quizzes tend to be open quizzes, which is nice for the avid quizzer who no longer commands a frayed identity card, but can be difficult for newbie quiz-setters who just don't have the range or experience to keep these geriatrics at bay. Most open quizzes, locally, started off life as college quizzes and evolved into opens since quizzers wanted to keep coming back and also because quiz-setters do want to have these so-called "good quizzers" attempting their quizzes. This can be a mixed bag.

4. Laziness
Admit it: when it's 4 am in the morning and you have just 5 hours left (assuming sleep is an optional accessory) before your quiz begins, what do you do? You filch. Or else, you scrape wikipedia. With the former, seeing why repeats happen doesn't require borrowing neurons from Holmes. With the latter, I think the chances that you will search for something about which you are are already aware of is pretty high, unless you really get lucky with Random Page. You end up on something interesting which a few millions (ok, tens) of people have just heard last weekend. The solution is simple: finish setting your quiz well in advance and don't treat it like any average academic assignment.

5. Just don't have the range of interests
Similar to 4, but more pardonable. Many quizzers, especially in a given circle, share very similar tendencies, either by virtue of being quizzing-oriented or by picking up and sharing interests. As a result, their questions tend to swim in the same part of the ocean, leading to a lot of inbreeding (sometimes leading to the birth of freak connects!) As a result, their quizzes are liable to stagnate in repeats or variants there of. Breaking out is not easy and may require a conscious effort to genuinely broaden one's horizons, while deepening one's knowledge of familiar ponds.

6. Culture and geography
Over a period of time, certain quizzing circles become fond of certain subjects. People from outside these circles may not, therefore, share the depth of common knowledge that ages into chestnuts, and could therefore unsuspectingly inflict a repeat. This is hard to avoid and unless you can visit quizzes in other lands, or at least get hold of those questions, there isn't much to cover your rear here.

7. Weak sources
If you set a lot of questions from current affairs or use similar sources to others, you're setting yourself up for deja vu. It's easy to see why. Like in 5, go find other things to ask, different avenues to pursue, newer aspects to explore. New and interesting pieces of trivia are born each week, but I've seen some people waste them by asking them too early. I tend to hang on to these, and try asking them when they've aged a bit and started to sidle out of people's heads. I've noticed that the older it is before people discover them, the more interesting it seems to get - because that piece of trivia has been out fanning itself in the sun under everyone's noses, you may provoke that rare expression of joy: "darn, I didn't know this about that!"

8. Not enough creativity
It is possible to ask a known piece of trivia if you can be a little more clever with how you "remix" it. There are many possibilities: connects and visual forms, to name a couple.

9. Sheer bad luck
Almost every quiz-setter who has been hugging an interesting question close in anticipation of asking it next week has felt the deflating emotion of seeing the question show up today. One even groans unfairly: I could have done it better. This happens all the time and sometimes there just isn't an explanation. It's like all those scientists who wait a thousand years before figuring out a new theory within minutes of each other and spend the next millennia squabbling over credit. The worst case that I have known was when we had a BC session a couple of hours before Niranjan's Mensa quiz in 1999. About two or three questions from that session showed up in the finals to everyone's (perhaps apart from the quizmaster's) amusement.

The same happens when people feel that the questions seem to suspiciously emanate from a source. Even if there isn't a conscious effort to filch, perhaps the source for both was the same. If indeed there is no smoke without fire, don't worry about this one.

In summary, without repeating myself, repeats will happen. A fundamental trait of quizzers is that they also tend to be cribbers. The cribbers, especially experienced ones, could probably show some leniency if some of the reasons are traced to pardonable offences. The quiz-setters could, in turn, take every possible pain to avoid the common pitfalls listed above if they are really serious about avoiding repeats. I hate going to quizzes where most of the quiz is reincarnated, for one does not get anything out of that experience. Furthermore, it turns the outcome into a lottery, depending on which team gets a chestnut to swat away directly. I strongly feel that several open quizzes, especially those done by colleges, should not be "open" to all - less experienced college quiz-setters should joust with their counterparts instead of having to contend with the more experienced. One could argue that the better quizzers do come out stronger but I think it also affects the development of others, including the sometimes scalded quiz-setter. But I don't see it changing any soon. So if your quiz is open, then be prepared to be measured on the same scale as other open quizzes.

(Written with not-so fond memories of the COEP first year workshop, where the threat of the nightmarish "repitt" cast a pall over the semesters. Also, I have also surely indulged in the kind of 'cribbage' criticised above.)


Yasho said...

Pt 9. refers to the ESOTSM effect , eh!
I would also like to add the issue about proper presentation. This is a result of a personal experience.
Me and Aniket had gone to PVG for a quiz.
The questions for both the written elimination round contained quite a few chestnuts. Still, decent questions.
The finals were another story though...won't go into details about questions.
They had no monitor and had connected the projector directly to the CPU.
This created a huge problem in the audio round where they were playing clips with the file name on the taskbar..
Also no hyperlinking in Powerpoint meant that they went through unasked questions...and alas! also through there answers.
This are issues that happen at various places...
And these can be controlled..unlike the notorious "Finger Of God"..

Kunal said...

Minor nitpick:

>>some are into their 2nd or 3rd decade

Quizzers in their 2nd and third decade is the natural scheme of things. I think you mean 3rd or 4th decade.

Kunal said...

Pt. 4 is spot on, I have been guilty of that for all my quizzes save Inquizzition V.

Pt. 5 is universally true, I see this kind of thing even at NYU College Bowl. The guys here all watch college football, see the same movies, listen to the same music and read the same books. Its crazy how many questions on obscure questions on Indiana University football coaches from the 70s get smacked down as too easy. Of course, since these guys outsource their questions, chestnuts are a problem no one has control over.

Ramanand said...

ESOTSM effect: have been harsh on you on that :-). BTW, though valid in a general sense, why the presentation point in an article about repeats? How does that cause repeats?

Kunal: decades of quizzing, I meant to say. Not mere rings on the trunk.

Yasho said...

i knw the placement of my comment is wrong...But it is one of those non_question related issues....
and connected to new QM's..
Hell even older ones for that matter...
And BTW i assume i hav also screwed up the O My Darling Clementine angl now,, :)

And the chestnut saga continues--
We were asked a question about the non flying dutchman today at MIT...
4 th time i am answering the same question...
And again kinda wrong placement but there was this unbelievable question(this is for everyone)
A 10 pt direct
We are given an ans and we have to give the question.
our answer was "Cheryl Tweedy" ... :)

Anonymous said...

Partly relating to point 5 & 6(and 4, of course):

A conscious policy/unconscious trend (as the case may be) to come up with "new" questions by linking old fundas. Remixing is fine, but it shouldn't become the dominant/a major method of question setting. Remixing is also a major source of what I like to call Pharaonic quizzing. I refer you to ancient Egyptian views on royalty and need to maintain the purity of bloodlines.

Imho the toughest, but possibly most fruitful(in terms of originality), method is to simply sit back(with your broadband connection switched OFF), develop a concept for a question, switch the net back on and then google/wiki/youtube away. "Repeats" are the bane of every quizzing circuit, but I do believe it *is* possible to set original, good quizzes- and I've seen many such in the last year or so. Sadly, I missed Niranjan's quiz last year, but the last Odyssey was a very good example of a challenging, original (for decrepit veteran quizzers) but audience-friendly quiz.

As for cribbage- guilty as charged.


Abhishek said...

I'm totally against rehashing old stuff. Twist/new angle questions on stuff that is famous for being an answer for some other "old chestnut" is unfair to newbies.

And yeah, we need a chestnutDB. But the whole problem stems from intellectual property and unwillingness/laziness to share questions. I think, Open Source Quizzing is yet to arrive ;)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ramanand said...

Anonymous: I have deleted your comment because it was a mildly offensive comment made by an anonymous commenter. If you put your name to it, I'll run it back as it was.

Harish Kumar said...

Are we confusing chestnuts with direct repeats?
In my book, chestnut is a fact which is repeated whereas usually we see the questions being repeated. I remember Samrat sir asking me once to ensure that I have chestnuts in the elims so that the old fogies do get some advantage. I don't go by the 'advantage' reason but I think there should be some standard trivia(not repeat qs) in every elims because people ought to know those facts. Those who miss them get penalized for it because almost everyone would have got those.
People should not be able to qualify by simply answering the chestnuts.
I also agree with Rishi's SOP for making questions.

Samrat said...

Excellent article JR. You brought out so many facets of the chestnut issues.
Personally I do not mind seeing a few chestnuts scattered here or there.because
firstly I dont have a perfect memory with quiz ques, sometimes i do have to work on a chestnut, the "oh i heard it somewhere" syndrome, and on occasions i get it right or maybe wrong.
secondly one old man's chestnut could be another young man's almond.
thirdly rather than watch a movie like jaani dushman for the first time, i would prefer watching forrest gump reruns :)

harish u r maligning my fair name by suggesting these sort of hanky-pankyies like influencing the QMs :) . reminds me of some interesting shenanigans during my college days. but those things are better taken offline ;)

Ramanand said...

Rishi: true. it's easily possible to start with kernels of ideas gleaned from one's readings/viewing etc. and then work outwards from it. People will realise it if they throw away the crutches and find out they can indeed run without them (treading into Gump territory here). Pharaonic quizzing: :-))

Abhishek: an allied problem of chestnuts is the failure of us to sometimes skip the answer because the most vocal in the audience know the answer. Constant vigilance needed. ChestnutDB may also happen.

Harish: I include both (refer post for my inclusion of plain repeats). Asking Heisenberg's grave is a chestnut in any form, unless masked somehow. Once asked in dry form, then visual form, then in sign language, in Braille, it ends, it ends. However, there is a time aspect. Things can be revisited a decade since debut unless kept alive at informal sessions.

Samrat: your association with AIT, whose glorious tradition of trying to avoid hanky-panky was commendable, shall save you this time :-)

Yash Marathe said...

I don't mind chestnuts as long as they are worded differently or show up in connects. It becomes a problem when they are Ctrl C-Ctrl V'ed from another quiz or worded similarly. The same answer can provide multiple questions as long as the clues provided change from question to question.

Don't slag Jaani Dushman. It's the greatest film ever made (or 3rd at least, after Mr.Prime Minister and Goonda).