Hello and welcome back. When we left off last week, Yogesh was saying that he couldn’t really – in good conscience – encourage the next generation of quizzers to expand the breadth and depth of their general knowledge, given the current television quiz show climate…
SH: Well, that’s a pretty bleak picture, isn’t it?
YR: Am I the one painting the picture? Or am I just describing it?
SH: Yeah, no, I’m not saying you’re misrepresenting anything at all. This is a thought I’ve long held, about the death of general knowledge. General knowledge is more unnecessary than ever, because we have all the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hand at all times. And I remember learning about, I think it was Henry Ford, and ‘the mastermind principle’, where he didn’t need to know everything about everything, because he had this guy who knew about this and this guy who knew about that and this guy knew about that. And he’d just call them in. And that was that that was a radical idea back then – that was the exception to the rule. Back then, everyone was just expected to have general knowledge. But Henry Ford turned it on its head by having access to experts in the specialties. And now it’s completely the other way around, where no one has general knowledge, and everyone can – and does – just go to their mastermind group on Wikipedia. If I need to know piece of information, I’ll find that piece of information, I’ll use it and then I’ll forget it. In Australia, we had Sale of the Century, which ran for a long time, which is, I think, a bit analogous to Jeopardy. And it was very successful for 20 years, and it celebrated ordinary people with wide-ranging general knowledge. But there’s nothing like it today. It doesn’t exist. Quiz TV shows have morphed into a more competitive, dumbed-down product, nowhere near celebrating general knowledge. And I just think it’s a societal thing that we used to celebrate learning and intelligence and curiosity. But I think that’s dying out, sadly.
YR: I’ve been in class – even in graduate seminars – where people will say things like, “Well, there’s no need to really know things anymore, right? It’s all just a Google away.” And there are some very obvious counterarguments to that. First of all, the act of creativity has always been something that takes place in the human brain. Machines have never been able to reproduce human creativity. At most, they can reproduce the mechanical act of throwing different things together. But a human still has to step in and say, “Oh, but these things thrown together are creative. And these are just weird and useless”. But for anything you type into Google, you will get pages and pages of results. Generally, if you have a general idea of what you’re looking for, your mind naturally filters out all the stuff that’s useless and zeroes in on the stuff that’s actually useful to you. But imagine you didn’t have that background in whatever it was you were trying to research. You would have no idea how to differentiate what was useful from what wasn’t useful. And more broadly, something that machine intelligence has repeatedly struggled to do is differentiate useful from not useful, and it’s because they’re missing that thing that I mentioned earlier, right? When you see something interesting, there is a click in your head, you feel it. A psychologist would say that you have an affective system that works more quickly than a cognitive system. You could try to apply rules and reason to whether or not something is interesting, but generally, people don’t. Machines might try to do it, but it’s because they lack that much quicker shortcut that evolution placed in humans, which is a feeling. ‘Affect’ is the technical term, but it’s a feeling – you feel when something is interesting. And when people try to make the case that general knowledge or “trivia” is becoming less and less relevant in the age of machines, I would argue it’s actually becoming more relevant than ever.
SH: I hope so.
YR: Yeah, it’s the thing that machines have repeatedly struggled to do, and that we’ve repeatedly been not able to teach machines to do, which is to find things interesting.
And labelling it “trivia” overlooks the fact that what makes it stand out is that it is fundamentally not trivial, right? Trivial information is the material everyone forgets because it doesn’t serve any purpose. Interesting material is the material that is useful, because even though you can’t necessarily point to a practical use for it in a capitalist society, it nonetheless stimulates something inside of you. It makes you think, ‘Oh, the world is a more interesting place than I thought it was a second ago’. I could create a blog that just randomly writes three pieces of information every day and I wouldn’t need to put any kind of humanity into it – I could automate it. I could write a script that just pulls Wikipedia articles and so on. And that’s not what I do because what I do is not accumulating random trivia, it’s finding things that I think are interesting in some regard, or can be presented in an interesting way, and sharing them in the hope of connecting with people and in the hope of giving them something that makes their lives richer.
SH: And finding connections – that’s the thing. we’re talking about The Wronger Box now, aren’t we?
YR: Yeah, I had a previous blog that was called The Wrong Box and when I shut that down I just made the next –
SH: “It’s even wronger than before!”
YR: Yeah. A woman I was dating once asked me, “Oh, is it a play on “ writer/ righter”, to change to “ wronger”? And I was like “That’s so much more clever than the actual reason – I wish that were the case!”
SH: Go with that! go with that!
YR: (LAUGHING) Yeah.
SH: I’ve had a browse through it and I love the way you connect apparently disparate facts. And of course as humans, we are all pattern-making creatures, and this is why we enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles and reading whodunits. How long does it take you? How much time do you spend on The Wronger Box?
YR: It varies. When it started and it was kind of novel I didn’t know how long to spend and I would write really long essays. Now I’ve got it to kind of a – I did a lot of research on expert cognition and how the expert mind works differently, and your mind makes processes more efficient, the more you do them.
YR: Now that I’ve been doing it so long there’s a certain point at which I have an intuition – an affect-based intuition – about what makes a good fact. I used to be like “OK whatever,” but now I feel like I have more standards I try to hold myself up to. I try to avoid things that are just flat one-sentence things. I try to say “Is there a context? Is there a story? Is there an unexpected connection that can be worked into this?” but now that I’ve done it for so long my mind very quickly notes facts, and I have a file on my hard drive with a bunch of very short notes… And when it comes time to write an entry I just go back in and select a few of them to drill down on. But there’s a certain point where I don’t have to read every single word of the Wikipedia page – I can kind of say “Oh this is the interesting thing and here’s something that maybe connects to a prior entry I can mention,” and so on. It’s not an automatic process, but it’s a routine–ised process.
SH: I know what you mean.
YR: Yeah, it’s called “chunking”; the ability to turn what had been a series of effortful tasks into one big task that requires the same amount of effort. And doing that in some ways allows you to take more creative risks because now that I’m confident that I can write an entry about X, Y and Z, I can say “Okay well let me build on that – let me see if I can do something a little less conventional with it.” And in many ways, my blog is like a first draft, because then I’ll rewrite that information and I’ll turn it into questions that are on one of my Super Hard Quizzes or my podcast. And now I have the basis to be even more creative if I want to.
SH: Sure. I listened the other day to Recreational Thinking, and that particular episode was about DC Comics. And three people from all over the world were competing! I really enjoyed it… But man, they’re hard questions! You must put a lot of research into those questions because you were even stumping the experts there. How much time do you spend on that?
YR: Yeah, I worry sometimes because I’m such a perfectionist that if I start it a month in advance, then I’ll work on it for a month. Whereas if I start it a week in advance I will work on it for a week. And sometimes I have to force myself to not start until it’s just a week in advance. And you’re a person who works in a creative field; you understand the apprehension of the blank page.
YR: When you start and you don’t have a finished product in front of you – you just know that you’re going to be called upon to deliver a finished product – there is an anxiety that sets in. And it doesn’t entirely go away, but once you’ve done it successfully, it lessens a lot. Once you’ve done it successfully multiple times, it lessens a lot more. Because now that anxiety is no longer telling you “you’re not going to be able to do this,” now it’s telling you “you have to keep doing this at the level at which you have been doing it, or better”. It’s telling you to push yourself, in other words. I didn’t necessarily have a thought of what my questions would be like when I started, but as I went through, I realised that people are not really listening for the competitive aspect. There’s a score that’s kept, but it’s not really important who wins or who loses. They’re listening, fundamentally, for the craft.
The decisions I make when putting together the questions are always relative to a goal. Since the contestants are generally people who enjoy thinking (hence, Recreational Thinking), they’re not looking for a sort of ‘you-either-know-it-or-you-don’t’. There are other outlets where they can show off that kind of knowledge. Ultimately, on my show they’re looking for something that’s a meaty puzzle to chew on.
SH: It takes them on a little journey. You hear their thinking out loud and you hear their consulting… And there’s fun (well for me just as a listener, listening in) there’s fun in learning the new thing that you didn’t know before (“Gee-whiz, I didn’t know that”) but there’s also fun in seeing the craft that’s gone into it; he put this fact over here, with this fact over there, by way of this fact, and it’s taken me from A to B to C. There’s craftsmanship to be admired there, but it’s also just fun to learn the new stuff. And it’s also fun to hear the experts enjoying themselves and scratching their heads.
YR: And also, this is a way for me to connect with other people by giving them a platform – including people I met while taping Jeopardy. The next one that’ll be released is with people who I met and became friends with during the taping of Jeopardy.
YR: And I solicit the topics from the contestants. Often they are topics that aren’t in my wheelhouse, things that I don’t know a lot about or have an interest in. Especially things like comics, which I did not grow up with at all. And there was a time when I would have shied away from that challenge, but now I know I’m capable of doing it. Now that I’ve put together episodes on things like soccer, which are just not my passion at all, I have the confidence. It’s a challenge because it means immersing myself in someone else’s passion and opening up my mind to try and see what other people are finding in it that I – just because of the way my life has gone – haven’t found.
SH: With the added bonus of learning new things!
YR: There is certainly a moment when all I have is the topics in front of me and no questions, where I have that little moment of, like, “Can I do this?” But I’ve done it enough times that I know that the answer is “Yes, I can”. The worst that will happen is that it won’t meet my standards; I’m not going to completely fail to produce something that’s acceptable. The worst that could happen is that I have really high standards, and then I won’t meet them. But once you do it, you start to sniff out what could potentially be a good question. And you make notes about it, and then you return to it, and you just say, “Well, now what can I shape it?’ I always quote that anecdote about Michelangelo being asked, “How do you make a statue?” and he says “you start with a block of marble and you remove everything that doesn’t look like a statue”.
SH: Yes, indeed. Iterative work is the way to go; I do everything like that, where you just add a little bit more and a little bit more, and it’s a big patchwork quilt. An idea will come to you at four in the morning, so you jot it down… I do a podcast as well, called The Funny Thing Is… where I – and a fellow comedy aficionado – bring two Funny Things to the table each month. And so I’m constantly adding to my list, and I’ll find that this will fit well with that, or that that will be an interesting juxtaposition against this. I think that’s part of the fun of quizzing and, and putting together things like that podcast, too; the joy of discovering a fascinating new fact and sharing it with people. It’s like sharing a joke.
YR: Yeah! You know, I do that through my quizzes, through social media, through the friendlies that I write for OQL and Pop Solos, and so on. And at this point when I say that I’m not in it to compete and to beat other people, but to connect with other people, I’m not just saying that – I put my money where my mouth is. Especially with the podcast, I think a lot of the thrill of it is that you can start with an idea of where you want to end up, and then keep being pleasantly surprised by the things that you figured out about how to get there, but it’s never complete until you bring it to an audience. And I don’t just mean the audience of the listeners. I mean, the people playing when the actual game is run. I write the questions in isolation; I have no idea how they actually will play. Sometimes the players are complete strangers to me. And it’s recorded as if it is a live event, it’s recorded like a game show. The contestants don’t know in advance what I’ve written. And there’s no retakes.
SH: It all unfolds in real time.
YR: Right. And that’s the thing, because, for me as kind of a perfectionist, in my mind the ideal should be to have total control over everything. But what I’ve discovered in this is that the most rewarding part of it is acknowledging you don’t have control over it. You work and you work and you work over the script, and what the questions will be, and so on. But you have absolutely no idea how they will play and how people will actually react when you present them with it. And there’s simply no way of controlling that in advance. You just have to accept that you can make educated guesses about how people will react, but you don’t know that those educated guesses are right until the rubber hits the road, until you’re actually doing it.
SH: And that’s part of the fun of it too.
And that’s where we’ll leave our chat for today. We’ll see you back here next Tuesday for the next instalment, but until then, a quick reminder that you can find Yogesh’s blog The Wronger Box right HERE, and his podcast Recreational Thinking is right HERE.
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