26 July 2009

"The importance of being trivial" by Mark Mason

I have been a quiz buff from early childhood till about a dozen years back.

In the seventies, at 11 am on Sundays we used to stay glued to the radio to hear Amin Sayani conduct the Bournvita Quiz Contest; and get the printed list of questions and answers by mail midweek.
In the eighties, “Book of Lists” by Irving Wallace and “Book of Facts” by Isaac Asimov augmented the love for trivia. Then, it was the monthly quiz event organized in Muscat by "trivia diva" Sushi Natraj. We all took turns hosting them at our homes.

Later, it was the annual Dunhill Quiz contest; the questions were tough and prizes very modest. But the champions were held in high esteem.

Dunhill was replaced by the annual Times of Oman contest conducted by Derek O’Brien (held in a Soccer stadium holding an audience in excess of 10,000). The questions were probably only a shade above the average intellect of the crowd to keep the crowd engaged. Boy, the prizes were very attractive. (Dr Satish Nambiar, Nitin Khimji and I won the first championship. It was twice joyous since even the three of us did not think we would make it given the quality of competition. I guess it was the prize amount that motivated a practising doctor, a billionaire businessman and an oil company executive to team up and go gung-ho).

I have often wondered what drives folks to pick up, store, recall and regale trivial information? What explains the joy in doing all this? How does one counter the seemingly innocent and cleverly crafted enquiry of a life partner and friend on what is the use of all this information? Is there a limit to the number of facts we can store and recall? Why do we remember something forever; and forget others quickly?

Mark Mason provides a brilliant analysis in his book.

Some snippets:
1 Our brain has several billion neurons. When a new fact “hits” you, some neurons connect and form synapses (excitatory neuronal feedback systems). A brain of hundred million neurons could trigger a hundred trillion synapses! These connections help you store and recall. (“Cells that fire together wire together”).
2 Male brain (53% of males and 42% of females have this) is “systematic”. It organizes details bottoms up to strive toward the big picture. Female brain (yes, lots of males have them too) is “empathetic” and feels the big picture instead of going after the details.
3 Mark Mason meets several people to understand what makes a fact “perfect” enough to be “stored and recalled”. Several tests are proposed. The fact should be true; should be charming; should be surprising; should help you understand; should be good enough to pass on to children; should link unlinked stuff; should relate to a system etc. In the end, Mark finds his own conclusion. Read the book to know what it is.

Hey, forget the analysis. Mark Mason has several “bombs of delight”. Did you know that:
1 When you stand near the Big Ben tower, you can hear Big Ben chime on the radio (live broadcast by Channel 4 in London) earlier than the real chime itself (because light travels faster than sound)
2 Sleuth is the only film where the entire cast was nominated for Oscar (the film had just two actors: Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine)
3 Chicken tikka masala is not an Indian dish. It was invented in Britain to suit British tastes.
4 Monopoly prints more US money every day than US Treasury (over 200 times actually)
5 Elephant and Castle in London got its name from Infanta de Castille, the Spanish princess who lived there (and was engaged to Charles I).
6 When Woodrow Wyatt, the journalist/diarist, was asked by a receptionist in a French Hotel to spell his name, he responded: Waterloo, Ypres, Agincourt, Trafalgar and Trafalgar!
7 The Grand Canyon is big enough to store every human being in the World. Not like canned sardines. We all could have a small room to ourselves!
8 European Union exports more to Switzerland than to China!
9 My favorite: Dustin Hoffman stayed up all night, in true method-actor style, to simulate the exhaustion of his character in “Marathon Man”. Hearing this, Laurence Olivier responded: “Dear Boy, Why don’t you just act?”

Read for more snippets. Read for insightful analyses: by Mark Mason and by the various folks he meets who share his (your and certainly my) interests in joyous facts!

1 comment:

T R Santhanakrishnan said...

Wikipedia says the bit about "Elephant and Castle" is not true! I wish it were! It sounded so nice!