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Fantasy Section

Our prime minister has his own special place on the bookshelves…

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This is a video from an incredible day on the Skellig Islands two weeks ago. These rock stacks off the coast of Kerry are home to huge numbers of sea birds including gannets, puffins and razorbills. Skellig Michael hosts a small monastery built in the 700’s, while Little Skellig is the world’s second largest colony of Northern Gannets. Both islands are astounding in their beauty.

If you are ever in that part of the country I would urge you to check it out. Trips are arranged over the phone by contacting the operators in advance. The boat trips are weather dependent.

Simon Singh

Some of you may have seen the “Support Simon Singh” banner on my blog.

So, what’s the issue?

Simon is a highly respected author and journalist in the UK, who has produced some of the best science books in the last decade: Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, Big Bang etc. Well, it so happens that Simon wrote an article in The Guardian that was very critical of the British Chiropractic Association. The BCA, a group of out-and-out quacks, decided to sue him personally. It so happens that the British libel laws are framed in favour of the accuser, so Singh has found himself having to defend his article in the courts. A recent preliminary hearing ruled against him, and thus a battle royal has commenced within the UK and around the world to get Britain to revise its libel laws.

The issue is this. In Britain, if you accuse someone of libel, it is up to them to prove that they are innocent. The burden of proof is on the accused, not the accuser. This is a complete perversion of natural justice and in other times it would have gone by another name: a witch hunt. In almost every other country, the accuser must prove beyond reasonable doubt that they were libeled.

This is a core freedom of speech issue. Singh was using the public media to highlight an issue of intense public interest, and instead of presenting the alternative case, the BCA sent in the lawyers. They were too chickenshit to debate the issue in public.

Irish legislators should take note! Ireland’s libel laws are just as bad as Britain’s. Actually, they are even worse. At least Britain isn’t trying to fine people 100,000 euros for blasphemy.

(For more information on this case, click on the banner image).

Update: For a hilarious retelling of this tale in Monty Pythonese, check out Crispian Jago’s blog.

No Googling

The table quiz is under threat. For many years, table quizzes (or pub quizzes) have been a terrific way to raise funds for good causes. However the format needs an urgent rethink, otherwise this source of evening enjoyment will die very quickly. The immediate reason? Cheating. The root cause? Google and Smartphones.

If you are not from Ireland or the UK, you may be unfamiliar with table quizzes, so here’s the skinny.  A large group of participants meet together in a pub. They are split into teams of four people. A quiz master reads out a series of questions that the teams must answer in a short period of time, 2 to 3 minutes usually. Usually the questions are batched together in rounds – maybe 5 questions at a time so that the teams can get an indication of how well (or how badly) they are doing. There are typically 10 rounds overall. The team that gets the most answers right wins. It’s good fun – a combination of teamwork, competitiveness and perplexing problems to while away many a dark Irish winter (or summer) evening.

Enter the smartphone. Smartphones make it pretty easy to cheat. Just log on to Google over a mobile network – ask your question, and the answer will be shown to you within seconds. It’s quick, it’s covert, and it gives those who possess an iPhone or comparable device a huge advantage over less technologically savvy (or more scrupulous and honest) teams.

Almost any what, who, why, where and how question can be answered immediately through a Google search, but it doesn’t stop there. Google translates into multiple languages, it performs simple arithmetic, it can give you synonyms and dictionary definitions, unit conversions and it will tell you what happened on a particular date in time. Most table quiz questions should be answerable in less than half a minute through a quick search of the Internet. 

Yes, yes. Quizmasters will ask that mobile phones are not used, but it’s increasingly unlikely that such requests can be effectively enforced, particularly if you have a large group involved. Access to the mobile internet is extremely easy these days. It’s better instead that quizmasters adapt their questions to the new reality.

Here are a few ideas that will help to limit the power of smartphones in table quizzes.

1) Use more picture questions. Picture rounds are already a staple of most table quizzes, but it becomes more important when hidden smartphones are being used. While words and descriptions can be easily googled, photographs of faces, objects and places are less easy to look up (for the time being). 

2) Use more audio soundbites. Again, sounds are common in table quizzes, and again they are difficult to google. Be aware though! Music, particularly if it is played for a long period of time, can be identified using applications like Shazam. Also be aware that common soundbites, like “One small step for man”, or “I have a dream” can be easily googled. You need to keep your soundbites relatively difficult to uncover, so that people have to concentrate on the sound and the voice, rather than the content. Also consider non-human sounds, such as birds, animals or machinery.

3) Get them to solve puzzles. Examples include:

  • Odd One Out. Give people three or four names or words and ask for them to identify the odd one out. Yes, people can google for more information, but the chances are that they will soon run out of time. It’s one of those things that you either get immediately, or you will have difficulty resolving.
  • Complete the sequence. Try some simple sequences, based perhaps on simple formulas or less obvious sequences like [7,4,1,8,5,2]*. . Just make sure that your sequence isn’t too obvious! Offset it by a fixed number perhaps. For instance [2, 4, 8, 16, 32..] is pretty obvious, but [5,7,11,19,35..] is less clear, even though it’s the same sequence offset by 3.
  • Maths problems – Yes, the ones we were subjected to when we were yinglings. Jim has 70 squaggles. Each squaggle is composed of 13 mirdles. Jim gives 10 squaggles to Bill who only wants 25 mirdles and who gives 3/5 of the remainder to Bob. How many mirdles does Bob have? It’s simple algebra but it will drive the smartphone cheats crazy.
  • Lateral Thinking Problems. These are the type of stories that have a very easy answer if you question your assumptions. For instance “A man who was not wearing a parachute jumped out of a plane. He landed on hard ground and yet was unhurt. Why?” (OK, that one was easy, but more difficult questions are available in books such as this one, and will keep the audience thinking)

4) Go Local. Although general knowledge is likely to be prominently displayed on the Internet, often local knowledge is more patchy. What is the name of the pub on the corner of Main St and High St? Who is the former principal of the local school? What club won the local athletics contest in 2005? Just check that such information is not already available on Google or Wikipedia before setting questions.  

5) Rapid-fire rounds. Give people more questions than they could possibly handle in a short period of time. Ask 20 or 30 questions in a single round. (It can be provided to them on a piece of paper). Yes, people could use a smartphone to answer the questions, but the entry of the questions alone will lose them time. This will put them at a disadvantage compared to more knowledgeable teams. 

6) Individual rounds. Nominate a member of each team to walk up to the platform and answer a series of questions in full view of the audience. Not so easy to use  a smartphone when every other team is looking at you!

Can you think of any other ways to keep Google out of the table quiz? Let me know!

* By the way, how did you get on with this sequence?

And now, the weather forecast…

Irish Summer

Don’t you just love it?

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