Monday, April 16, 2007


Welcome to the FAQ page. This was actually posted in November 2007, once I realized I'd not yet posted one, but I put an artificial date on here to prevent the post from appearing chronologically when that wasn't necessary.

I'm going to abandon the tradition of doing the Q&A format for all but one question, as there's really only one true frequently asked question I get to be perfectly honest. Everything else gets a declarative title.

How to get me to run a quiz at your party or bar

Just contact me using the info on the upper right-hand portion of this page; call or email. We can work out a very reasonable payment, or I'd consider doing your event pro bono or at cost if you have a darn good cause.

"Where do you get the questions?"

... is the only genuine FAQ. More commonly this is rendered Where'dya get the questions from? I have an extraordinary collection of a few hundred reference books, and most questions are drawn from those. A minority are things I check up upon on the internet, but as we all know that becomes dodgy and often takes more time than a book as I feel the need to double-verify almost everything. More often than not the reference book has things correct, what with editorial procedures and such. Even then books sometimes get things wrong. Even with two or more sources, they can all be flat out wrong or technically incorrect, although this is extremely rare. When in doubt I drop it and write another question.

Some sources I only trust for surface information and others for more detailed or technical information. I'd trust Wikipedia to tell me how old Ted Danson is, but I'll stick with with a college biology textbook for the biology (unfortunately high school texts are sometimes shady). Just about anything that raises your eyebrows in The Book of Lists series or The People's Almanac series needs verifying. Trivia question books that ask for the "only" someone or something to do or be something else are usually wrong or outdated. Anything statistical usually needs to come from a trusted source on the web (for currency) that also publishes stats on paper (for reliability). You get to know these things after a while; you can also read about my research-oriented day job life below.

Just about everything I ask has roots in a need I feel to include a certain amount of questions from a particular topic. I'll say to myself, "I need an easy TV question," or "I need a hard 6-point science question," and then I go find it. Rarely I read something cool in a magazine or see a particular movie on TV and figure that'd be good fodder for a game, but this doesn't happen often. Of course I have to "work backward" from Secret Theme rounds, and need to find questions with at the very least 12 correct answers for the Speed rounds. Sometimes I go after info on Speed round ideas only to find that there aren't even 10 items on the list and I drop it. Most of the time I generate a Subject round subject almost randomly, with no preconceived notion of what its questions will be. Some weeks of course they are holiday-related and that's just automatic.

I believe I've made outright errors in questions 3 or 4 times in thousands of opportunities, and most of those were in not accepting enough answers to questions which have multiple correct answers.

The main reason I don't do as many visual identification rounds is that usually those end up being poor photocopies of half-toned images in an already dark room. No fun at all. When I have done this, it was with sizable icons or when having unfettered use of someone else's photo-quality color printer.

How I became a quiz host

The simple answer is "from being a quiz player." I've been playing Philadelphia pub quizzes for 12 of the 14 or so years they've existed, with regularity for various periods of time in 6 different venues. I now run the quizzes in two of those, in one case because the old quizmaster got lazy and got fired, and in the other case because I resurrected the quiz in a venue that had one on and off for years but never had a firm commitment to a particular day, time or strong promotion effort.

I played the first quiz ever at Dirty Frank's in 2000, played there over 200 times over the next 6 years, and dropped out of playing when I no longer found it enjoyable.
I was a natural replacement when they made the switch. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say I've played other people's games over 500 times. I've even played quizzes in California, Guatemala and Estonia; one gets to know what one likes.

My qualifications as a researcher and quizmaster, such as they are

The primary qualification, to be honest, is the pathological interest in trivia/facts and the will to do the prep work regularly. Most people could do this job, most people aren't driven enough by the material itself to do it well consistently. I also lack a fear of public speaking, which is half of the battle.

I'm a native Philadelphian and speaker of English who grew up here watching TV, following the local sports teams and so forth. I'm in my mid 30s, and attended Philadelphia public schools. Most of my audience is similar and therefore I can assume that the pop culture stuff I grew up with, much of which, especially on TV, was Baby Boomer hand-me-downs, is also what you were passively exposed to.

On the academic end, I attended a science magnet program in high school and ended up with a Poli Sci degree from Penn. I'm the kid who always tested well without having to work too hard, as facts stick in my head easily. I grew up with the self-generated notion that all adults knew much of the content of any given reference book, and set about reading all the ones I could from a very early age. My lower-middle class upbringing included sets of Time-Life and Reader's Digest reference volumes that lower-middle class people bought for Christmas and stuck on shelves in hopes that their progeny would therefore eventually drop the "lower-." Unlike most of those kids, I actually read them, with the absurd belief that I'd eventually appear stupid if I didn't know the flag of Panama, atomic number of oxygen and year Alaska joined the union. What's more, I enjoyed it.

It wasn't long into my formal education that it became apparent that I'd read more than I'd need to get into (and even through part of) college. In fact most of what I'd read never even came up. Not until I found the pub quizzes in my mid 20s did much of that darn work pay off.

I've held several jobs as a professional researcher. Setting aside the time spent autoclaving pipette tips in a botanical physiology lab, the first was as a fact-checker for Dr. Ed Herman's defunct magazine Lies of Our Times. I was hired a year out of college as the Research Manager for the now-defunct NGO the World Game Institute, the all-encompassing, "Dymaxion" mother of all generalist information clearinghouses. There I put together the world's largest database of economic, environmental, military, energy, food, industrial and other data which was used in Microsoft's CD-ROM atlas product and was later released as a WGI CD-ROM. I also annually updated and later conducted dozens of the Institute's global simulation games. These featured 200 people simulating humanity on a laminated world map the size of a basketball court. I ran probably about 80 of these, mostly throughout the US, but also in 5 or 6 other countries.

When WGI went under I worked as an educational video writer for Fabian-Baber Productions, writing video series about worldwide cultural differences, the Bill of Rights and contributing to a series on "History Through Literature." When they laid me off, twice (the second time they were furiously busy making duplicates of thousands of video tapes they didn't own the rights to!), I became research manager for (the site appears to be getting squatted upon by a weird hybrid of the actual site content and a spamming email address collector's drug ads), a for-profit spin-off of ICOM (still with us), heading a team of 40 putting together a database of information on about 40,000 cultural institutions. When they laid us all off, I became a trolley tour guide in Philadelphia, a job from which I was eventually fired after the seventh written complaint about my sense of humor. These thing happen. I spent one and a fraction seasons as a tour guide at Eastern State Penitentiary, where sense of humor was a better fit. ESP eventually replaced us all with near minimum wage earners handing out digital listening wands that didn't work well. Progress marches on.

I also worked on gathering social sciences links and content for (now the property of some Christian homeschooling people), which sought to replace textbooks. You'll note textbooks are still with us, as is evolution. Shortly before they laid everyone off, which they did, I wised up, quit before I could get canned, and went to work as an English teacher in the Arabian Gulf. By sheer coincidence my contract there ran out September 12, 2001.

Sometimes I do research and writing work for the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a Philadelphia based think tank/consulting firm which uses human culture and biology to help improve and sell products and services.

Somewhere in there I also worked as a pharmaceutical study translator (German and French to English), a dead boring job I left to do a stint as an election coordinator in Bosnia. In total I've visited almost 40 countries, few of them comfortable to poke around in, and can and will assault you with stories about the Sahara or the Andes or some monkey, llama or camel. Somewhere else in there I also badgered my friends into helping me collect over 3,000 signatures to attain ballot access for the 2004 US Congressional race as an independent, won a court battle with Pennsylvania over my right to be on the ballot, then got trounced at the polls.

In short, I've done a lot of different things, some of them well, and I think you need that sort of generalist to write some heap good trivia. I also own a practice guitar amp and a microphone.

How well I would do on my own quiz

Let's call this an infrequently asked question, as I have actually been asked it. Short answer: "Pretty well."

Long answer: I'd get a 10 every Easy round because it wouldn't be in there if I didn't already find it easy myself. I figure that, everyone having different interests than everyone else, a team comprised of a few reasonably intelligent people should get 7-10 of those right. Believe it or not that's the hardest round for me to write; what does "easy" mean in a room of 50 people? Obviously, at some level, anything is easy if you know it and hard if you don't. Perhaps the round should be called "Things I Think You Should Know."

I'd usually get a 9 or 10 in the 50/50 round because I likely wouldn't have chosen a category I know nothing about. The Speed round is usually something I have a hunch about, and sometimes is something I was just curious about and looked up, so I'd get 5-10 right depending on the week. The research on the answers to those always surprises me the most. The Subject round is dependent upon the subject in question. I try to stick one or two hard questions in there every week, and two creampuffs to balance that out and let people earn points. I'll say I'd get 7-8 right administering the quiz to an unprepared self, 9-10 if it's one of those subjects dear to my heart.
Usually 2-4 of those questions are things I learned in writing the game.

I have no way of evaluating whether or not I'd figure out the Secret Themes. That's my mind at work in a non-linear fashion and I can't stick myself in someone else's. I do know that it's rare for no team to get that correct any night, and also more rare for all teams to get it correct, so I figure that I'm doing a decent job with the round based in that. The Unreasonably Difficult round? I'd probably average 4-6 correct if I played by myself. That's because it's a mixture of things I knew already, things I could give a decent educated guess for and things I just researched which I doubt are common knowledge to people without a deeper interest in subject area of the question. Usually 5-6 of those questions are things I learned in writing the game.

What's up with the hat

I live around the corner from a Mummers String Band HQ. They were going to toss a glittery top hat a few years ago and I asked to keep it, sensing it would someday become necessary. When I started doing quizzes I drew the question mark on it (blame Matthew Lesko and the Riddler) and the rest is history.

My favorite question

Thus far it's one from the Unreasonably Difficult round I asked recently. "What are the three huge words on the Wizard's hot air balloon in The Wizard of Oz?" I love that because we've all seen the movie many times, the words are massive, they're on screen for a few minutes so you won't miss it if you blink, yet no one even recalls them ever being there. I'm afraid you'll have to look that one up...
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