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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?


Wikipedia is one of the most surprising hits to arise out of the Internet age. The proposition, when it was introduced back in 2001, sounded ludicrous. “What if, instead of having an encyclopedia compiled by a small group of experts, we open it up to millions of people and let them write it up instead?” It sounded preposterous. Letting non-experts provide and monitor the content sounded like a recipe for pure anarchy. Few restrictions were imposed. A few seeder articles were written by the in-house team, and then control was handed over to the mob. Despite trenchant criticism, it has been an incredible success. Now, 6 years later, it has 6 million articles in 250 languages, greatly overshadowing physical offerings such as Encyclopedia Brittanica and the World Book. And the thing is, somehow it works. It has evolved into a huge self-correcting, authoritative, dynamic organism. False, biased and slanderous entries do get written, but in general the work is quite accurate, and when errors do occur they can be corrected pretty quickly. One view on it is that in general it is an excellent repository of information even though many specifics might be flawed.

This idea that “mob rule” can evolve into something vibrant, self-correcting and comprehensive is intriguing to say the least. It’s a good example of the Wisdom of Crowds idea that I spoke about some time back.

So, what about applying the same rules to democracy, then?

Even though many people equate “democracy” with “freedom” and tend to think of the prevailing Western system of government as the best possible system, a debate still rages as to whether it is true democracy at all. If we go back into history (and indeed to many countries around the world today), the elites have been in power – people who have been educated, guided and born into privileged positions tended to take the reins of government when the chance arose. They often had exclusive authority over the “little people” and indeed sometimes asserted a “divine right” to rule over them. In the last 300 years or so, the populace started to demand a greater say in how things were governed, and the hard-won result is a compromise between the elites and the mob. This is parliamentary republicanism, or what many people call “democracy”.

In a republican system, the elites still rule, but us plebs can now attempt to throw them out every 4 years or so. Power is centred in the hands of a very small number of people, and that power is then tempered by the judicial system, the parliament or congress, international agreements, and the press and public opinion generally. It’s quite robust and certainly highly successful. A possible factor in its success is that change is possible in the medium term, without violence or coups d’etat, thus leading to greater stability and security. The addition of innovations such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and property rights etc have given people a lot of latitude and freedom in their personal lives.

But it’s far from being a perfect system. Legislation tends to lag the issues of the times, sometimes by many years. People who have experienced injustice often feel that no-one is listening. Corruption and cronyism persist. People with ties to the elite tend to be treated more leniently than those further down the pecking order. The same old names continue to rule over long periods. Many people feel disenfranchised, and this is evidenced in part by the decline in the number of people voting in elections all across the Western world.

So, it’s interesting, even as just a thought experiment, to imagine a world where legislation can be changed by professionals and amateurs alike, in much the same way as in Wikipedia. Normal citizens become the lawmakers, or law refiners, or critics, or whatever they choose. The public debate the issues and collaborate in the drafting of the laws of state. Where problems are found, these laws are then amended quickly, again though participatory discussion and collaboration. No one group has a monopoly on power – laws arise through the mechanisms of debate and consensus. Flawed legislation can be corrected or removed quickly. Everyone who wants to can have a say.

It seems perverse. It seems anarchic. And yet, as we are finding out with Wikipedia and its offshoots, it is possible to create something beautiful and workable by simply providing a framework and letting people get on with it.

Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried”. Could Wikidemocracy lead us to a less worse form of goverment perhaps?

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