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A few years ago, the Irish National Archives digitised the census documents of 1911 and put them all on the Internet for us to see. Long-forgotten grandparents and great-grandparents were suddenly transformed into young fathers and mothers, small children and teenagers. New names were introduced to us. We were given a feeling for their occupations, their family circumstances and their positions in society. Limited though the census documents were, these people who lived a hundred years ago came to life in front of our eyes. This was the Internet at its best, providing us with a window into history.
I’m reminded of this because Google Inc. recently opened Street View to the country of Ireland. Almost every road and boreen has been mapped and it all now comes to us in full 360 degree panoramas, each image no more than 10 metres apart, covering 80,000 kilometres of roadway; terabytes upon terabytes of information freezing the Ireland of 2009 and 2010 in perpetuity.
What a treasure trove of information for the future historian. It is now possible for our children’s children to see Ireland exactly as it was during this time. They will see our dress, our cars, our gardens, our farms and our workplaces. They will witness history in the making as the Irish boom economy shuddered to a dramatic halt: the newly constructed motorways and bridges alongside the empty buildings and ghost estates; the Polish and Lithuanian shops that signified a new era of multiculturalism and the wind turbines making their appearance over the landscape as we began the painful process of weaning ourselves off the seductions of fossil fuel.
Presumably these Street View images will be updated regularly, so not only will it be possible to see Ireland as it once was, but also how our country changes gradually throughout the century. I’m assuming, of course, that all these records will not be erased; a reasonable assumption should Moore’s Law continue to hold sway over the coming years.
If there is a snag, it is that all this data is the property of a successful private company whose primary interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the citizens of a sovereign state. Although there is no sign that Google are carrying out this mapping effort with anything other than the best of motives, whether they will continue to act benevolently and responsibility with such information is a difficult question to answer. A hundred years is a long time – long enough for industries to grow and disappear and for companies to change utterly from what they once were, if they exist at all. Public information – photos of many the roadways throughout the world – has been privatised. Governments should now be thinking about how that information should be placed, eventually, back into public hands.
With Street View, Google have created a resource of unimaginable value for future historians. Here’s hoping it’s there for all to see in the years to come.
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?
This is the last of my 2019 time capsule postings, where I look at how the stories of 2009 might pan out in the next decade. This entry looks at two successful companies, and asks if they will still be around in 10 years time.
From out of nowhere, Google became one of the great corporate success stories of the noughties. Originating as the first search engine that actually worked properly, it went on to corner internet advertising and to deliver such gems as YouTube and GMail free of charge to the rest of us. In the process it became a very rich company indeed. The first of it’s kind to profit hugely from the new economics of the Internet. The word “google” is even a verb, for heaven’s sake! But will they be so powerful ten years from now? Will they end up fighting endless court battles over privacy or copyright or abuse of a dominant position like Microsoft? Or might new technology from left-field beat them at their own game? It’s really hard at this remove to see any threats to their reign, but monopolies (even the good ones) rarely live forever.
Ryanair is the airline we Europeans all love to hate, and yet despite it all, we keep flying with them. Originating in Ireland in the 1980’s it has since gone on to become one of the biggest airlines in the world by passenger numbers. The secret? An obsessive attention to low airfares resulting in full flights all the time. To their credit, they shook up a stagnant airline industry and brought huge efficiencies into air travel. More people than ever are flying routinely thanks to the likes of Ryanair. However the branding and advertising stinks of the brash Celtic Tiger “up yours” mentality, and customer service is a joke. And it’s not such a cheap way to travel anymore, with extra costs being charged for everything except breathing and going to the bathroom (no, wait)… So what is the prognosis? Will they go from strength to strength, or is there a possibility that passengers will abandon them en-masse should a half-decent alternative jump onto the stage? Well, it hasn’t happened yet despite numerous predictions to the contrary. One thing is for sure: Ryanair is lead by some very clever people and they will not give up their position readily.
I’ve just noticed that if you type a phrase such as this into a Google search bar :-
convert 189.54 euro into GBP
it comes back with an answer for you straight away.
Pretty handy for an international jet setter like me, I would say.