Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Question one: Where's my phone?

The end of the year at NAG is always celebrated with a rather splendid Christmas lunch, which is generously paid for by the company as an acknowledgement of the hard work its employees have put in over the previous twelve months. Accordingly, it provides an occasion for some much-needed relaxation and refreshment before the Christmas break. It's also the time for the NAG Christmas Quiz which, whilst not necessarily contributing to the participants' relaxation, usually provides some entertainment or diversion for those who care about such arcane matters as the number of hearts an octopus has or Paul McCartney's middle name. One of those tortured souls is the present author, who cleverly realized some time ago that the only way to be sure of knowing all the answers to the questions was to set them.

Setting quiz questions in the connected age - particularly for a technical-savvy band such as the employees of NAG - can present a few challenges, however. For example, anyone with internet access (via, say, a smartphone's web browser) would be able to find the answers to the questions indicated above in a matter of moments. More direct questions, such as

  • Who wrote "A Child's Christmas In Wales"?
  • What kind of logs did Good King Wenceslas ask for?
  • When was "Merry Xmas Everybody" number 1 in the UK?

are even easier to answer, though some skill and judgement may still be required in the selection of the correct response to an ambiguous or ill-posed question such as the first one on this list (does it refer to Dylan Thomas's prose piece or John Cale's song?). Whilst this is clearly a valid and imaginative use of technology, I wondered whether it would provide an unfair advantage over those participants who wouldn't be using their phones in this fashion (or texting more knowledgeable friends for answers) and started wondering about ways to obviate their effectiveness.



I realized fairly quickly that confiscating all phones on entry to the restaurant didn't fall within my powers as quizmaster (chiefly because I didn't have any) and, for a similar reason, there were no funds in the quizmaster's budget for the purchase of a mobile phone jammer. My suggestion that we should move the location of the Christmas lunch to the interior of a Faraday cage in order to attenuate the phone signal wasn't looked on too kindly by senior management (or the restaurant) either. Accordingly, I began thinking about using questions that were more indirect, which might make searching for an answer more difficult. For example: what's the connection between these three things?

  • Queen Jezebel
  • The Regents of Prague
  • Chopin's piano

This type of query is - very roughly - analogous to a so-called inverse problem in science, in which we're asked to use observed data or results to deduce something about an underlying system or model. It can be harder to answer because there may be several models that are consistent with the observations - for example, one thing that connects the three things is that each contains the letter 'n', but that's not necessarily the right answer (which is ever-so-vaguely computer related, lest I be accused of straying too far off-topic).

Another type of problem that might present more challenges in the search for an answer is image recognition. Whilst mobile tools such as Google Goggles are already trying to make this easier for specific examples (e.g. in the identification of labels and landmarks), it's still either very difficult or impossible to recognize arbitrary objects. In the context of the quiz, this means questions such as: identify these people:






or name these films:






I'm not sure how effective my preparations were, but the quiz appeared to provide the usual amount of stimulation, along with a certain degree of exaltation and frustration (only for those who care about this sort of thing, naturally). Some of the participants have even started talking to me again, but that might be just the supervening effect of the Christmas break, and all the goodwill-to-all associated with that happy season.

PS If you'd like to answer any of the questions above, please feel free to add a comment below, although I regret to say that the unbelievably fabulous prizes have long been consumed by the winners of the quiz. Don't use your phone, though.

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