Friday, January 09, 2004

This had to be one among the opening posts of this blog - this text, put together by Niranjan is a compendium of what some of us have considered the best ways of creating good questions. It also describes the driving spirit behind the BC style and offers a glimpse into its philosophy. (The lawn quizzes apart from being a crucible for experimentation helped hone and perfect these ideas). It is also my personal tribute to the best quizzes I've ever participated - the four Mensa quizzes from 1998 to 2001.

This appeared originally on the Inquizitive egroup on 15 Feb 2001 and a redux version appeared later that year on 29 Oct. BC Alumni will have great fun re-relishing these words.

How to set a quiz or sweet scorn soup for the quizzical soul

My qualified abilities may restrict me from making me qualified to provide advice. Furthermore, being a consultant, I cannot stand the thought of advising without being paid. so, all I can do is to share my trivial experiences in setting (as in preparing, not as in 'fixing' - since we have seen some examples of 'setting' quizzes that way) quizzes.

Following are the things i say to myself standing in front of a mirror <excluding 'aainaa hamen dekh ke hairaan saa kyuun hai?', if you have seen the film 'gaman'>, while doing the following:


1. Never ever refer to a quiz book, a quizzing site, past quizzes and so on for finding questions (I have become wiser following my own experiences in this regard). the quizzers, these days, are a busy lot. They keep on scanning the net day in and day out to look for readymade questions. Some of them have been reported to cite the site, the quiz number and the question number just based on olfactory stimulus emanating from your mouth, even before you begin asking a question. the only way to counter such organisms is to devise your own questions.

2. Look for abstraction. look for commonalities in facts. try lateral thinking to link different things together. Think about the commonest things that you know, and try to explore the dark, unknown territory that surrounds the facts.

e.g. Please refer to this question:

"Make a small cross of two light strips of Cedar, the arms so long as to reach to the four corners of a large thin silk handkerchief when extended; tie the corners of the handkerchief to the extremities of the cross, so you have the body of a ____." What is the significance?

If you visualize the objects mentioned in the question, you may think about a kite. That may lead you to Benjamin Franklin's famous lightening experiment. And that is the answer. The question is derived from the well-known experiment, but little is known about the background of the experiment or tinier details such as Benjamin Franklin's own description of the experiment. There you have a possible question before you, standing in the dark, enticingly inviting you to explore more about it. You hack the net (or a library!) in and out, till you get to something like above and derive the satisfaction of having set a decent question.

A triangle and a square, a flowering reed and a noose, a lion and two vultures, a hand and a mouth. What do these constitute together?

Pure lateral thinking. These are the picture alphabets used to spell Cleopatra's name on the Rosetta Stone.

3. Use old trivia only as building blocks. Hack the surrounding knowledge space to construct new trivia.

'I don't especially like it, at least not raw. And second, I found it impossible to chew, swallow, and be ready for the next stuff. We tried substituting other vegetables, including apples and celery, but with unsatisfactory results. The solution was to stop in between so that I could spit it out into a wastebasket and then proceed.' An explanation that dispels a myth. What?

Most of us who have been visiting the boat club lawns on saturdays for a considerable amount of time must be remembering a very likable question which went like:

Mel Blanc was allergic to carrots. What is he famous for? Well, he was the voice of Bugs Bunny! That is a question which has been repeated here for n number of times, n being a very large number, rivalled only by a googol. But, this itself forms a good foundation for a new question. So, one searches the net for Mel Blanc and finds about his career, likes, dislikes and stumbles upon a gem of a fact that blanc himself has recorded in his autobigraphy, about the origin of the myth of he being allergic to carrots.

4. General knowledge, to some, is about how much you know and how much you can reproduce (no, not that way). Isn't such one-question-to-one-answer task a mechanical activity? According to me, the amusing part of the whole deal lies not in 'knowing' and 'reproducing' the answer, but in 'locating' it.

Keeping this in mind, an important guideline can be stated as - make the questions:

a) Workable - there should be a hint regarding the answer hidden in the question (which, of course, should not make the answer obvious). If half the answer lies buried in the heap of the question, the fun on the part of the quizzer lies in detecting the first half from the question and finding a complementing fact to complete the puzzle.

e.g. Centigram (formerly Speech-Plus Inc.) is working on the British version of its program 'Prose-2000'. What has been one of the chief motivations?

What are the hints? Computer software, speech, british. these are enough for some members of the new generation of cunning quizzers to surmise that the question is regarding the software that was built to enable the great stephan hawking to communicate. In fact, he said about the current system: 'the only problem with it is that it gives me an American accent!'

Another one. What is so significant about Zyclon-B, a commercial pesticide patented by IG Farben (a DuPont subsidiary) as a remedy on typhus-bearing lice? Typhus is a disease that appears when people live together for long periods without bathing. It is carried by lice that infest hair and clothes.

Hints are in the statement about many people living together for long periods. The name Farben is distinctly german (if not gujarati..;-) that may lead one to concentration camps, but Zyclon being a pesticide may even lead a few enlightened (at that time) brains to discovering the fact that it was the gassing agent used by the nazis to exterminate jews in the notorious gas-chambers.

b) Inverted - 'who did ...' with the 'who' being a relatively unknown variable, does not guarantee amusement. The '...' deed of the 'who', which, hopefully, is a much more known fact, should be a part of the answer. In a nutshell, keep the answer easy and well-known and the question relatively obscure, so that, on missing such an answer, one feels like hanging oneself to death by a suitable stringlike object available nearby. (Avoid keeping such objects in the vicinity, if you want to miss the fun part.)

e.g. Mehrab Hussain Opee c Khaled Masud b Saifulla Khan 21;
February 20, 1998. What was peculiar to this?

This question could also be framed as 'how did Raman Lamba die?' but then that takes out the whole punch of the sad but true fact. Instead it could be framed as above, with reference to the date, the players (with distinctly Bangladeshi names)

This product was originally called 'Bib label linthiated'. To rename it, six alternative names were considered. What is it called now?

Seven names up, so it was called 7-up. 'what was 7-up called initially?' would not qualify as an exciting question to any sane quizzer.

c) Interesting - you cannot have a quiz without participants and would certainly prefer to have an audience. So make each and every question interesting to involve the audience. Even if the scores indicate a massacre of sorts, the audience should still feel that they should have been sitting in place of the participants, rather than stretching their faces and concealing their yawns (they are not so polite, believe me.)

e.g. 5 petals, 3 petals, 4 petals, a pipal leaf. Justify the series.

Makes one think about the question. Requires a lot of lateral thinking with some factual knowledge to come up with the answer that these are the shapes of the awards PADMA SHRI, PADMABHUSHAN, PADMAVIBHUSHAN,BHARAT RATNA. Most won't get it, but they would be happy to have come across an interesting fact.

d) Truthful - as much as possible, let there be some element of truth in the fact that resides in the question. verify each and every question from 2-3 sources (and hopefully, not Sandhyanand).

5. Conducting a quiz is not about posing difficult questions. One is better off not assuming a posture of a sadistic exterminator, who is as elated at the sight of helpless victims suffocating under the virulent cloud of incomprehensible esoteria. At the worst, it could be a rollercoaster ride, where everyone knows that the scare is not going to last long.

6. There is no excuse to a failed question, if you wish to really feel good about your own quiz. To a real quizzer who sets questions, a question is not a formality, it is a part of himself. it is his/her own representation on paper. So, if you have a hundred questions in a quiz, let at least 90 satisfy the above criteria.

7. Try to cover as many fields as possible. This may not be possible, if you lack the manpower to cover all the fields, but try to be as generic as possible.

8. A very good way of setting interesting and cryptic questions is setting 'connect' questions. This is one sure-shot way of combining different fields and letting the quizzers engage in some lateral thinking. It is extremely satisfying on part of a quizzer to crack such a question, since it, many a time, ends up being the high point of a quiz rather than the final victory.

Some examples:

What's common to Winemaking, Tailoring and Wife-beating? ;-)

The term 'Thumb rule' originates from these. Temperature measurement in a barrel for winemaking, a unit of proportions for tailoring, and 'If a stick is used, it should not be thicker than the man's thumb.' with respect to wife-beating..;-)

What is common to Shammi kapoor, Oracle and Gulliver's Travels?

Yahoo! (junglee, Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle, tribe from gulliver's travels)

What is common to the following quotes?
A) "Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel."
B) "How about this for a headline for tomorrow's paper? French fries."
C) "I'd rather be fishing."

Last words before execution on electric chair by George Appel, James French, Jimmy Glass respectively.

A visual one. A painting of sigmund freud in brown and the famous shower scream scene from hitchcock's psycho. connect.

Uses the well known trivia that the blood used in the scene was in fact chocolate syrup, the movie being black and white. in fact, the painting is made by using the same brand of 'bosco' chocolate syrup. incidently, it happens to be of Freud.

This was very much related to the then current affairs.

Connect the following: Padosan, McDonald's, Breathless, Watson, Kansas City / Red Indians. bhola (sunil dutt from padosan), burger, shankar (mahadevan), doctor (watson) and chief (of a red indian tribe). These were the nicknames of the hijackers of the IC 814, a very current event at the time of the quiz.

Many of us have generated a good amount of connects on the bc lawns and have witnessed some memorable connects during Chakravyuuh, BCJ and Mensa quizzes. Thanks to Chakravyuuh for coining the original terms 'radial', 'cascading' and 'meshed' connects.

Next week: Niranjan on CONDUCTING A QUIZ

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