Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Nec Scire Fas Est Omnia

You must acquire the best knowledge first, and without delay; it is the height of madness to learn what you will later have to unlearn. - Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) (clouds over Stonehenge, September 2014)

The quiz show is American in origin, but these days it seems as if its foreign-born descendants are the ones upholding the early tradition of actually testing contestants' knowledge and memory. Since it has been many years since I've owned a television, or regularly watched programs in the US, I could be wrong, but it seems as though "Jeopardy" is about the only game show that could still be called a quiz show today, at least one that tests general knowledge as well as trivia. Maybe it's due to the cultural shift over the last 50 years, now even more openly supported by the theopolitical class that would prefer people to remain as ignorant as possible, unless they're learning a particular version of facts and events. "Ideological bias is deeply entrenched within the current university system ... We call on State officials to ensure that our public colleges and universities be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the Left" states the 2014 Republican party platform, unironically.

Here in Britain, millions of people tune in each week to watch "University Challenge". Last night's questions were on Cicero's De Legibus, Russian penal colonies, the probability theory named after an English theologian, quotes from Nobel laureates, species of tapirs, cricket batsmen in the 1950s, authors born in 1914, top-selling music in Berlin in 1989, and English national parks containing prehistoric sites.
Her name can be translated as
"giver of delight" - who is she?
(St. George's Gardens, London, August 2014)
There is much pleasure to be gained
from useless knowledge.
- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Eight top quiz show winners make up a rotating panel of five every weeknight on the show "Eggheads," competing against five-player teams from around the country; last night's team was a group of social workers from Hampshire. It's a multiple-choice format, with questions like these:

1973 Nobel Prize for Medicine winner Conrad Lorenz was an expert in which field? A - animal behavior; B - blood diseases; C - the digestive system

Fansipan is the highest mountain in which country? A - Thailand; B - Cambodia; C - Vietnam

In Germanic folklore, who punishes naughty children at Christmas? A - Badalisc; B - Krampus; C - Perchten

The Rock of Gibraltar is made up of what material? A - granite; B - marble; C - limestone

Geography, history, art, books, sports trivia - you might be asked anything at all. If the challengers beat the Eggheads, they take home the cash prize, which increases by £1,000 with each Egghead victory. (It's A, C, B, C, in case you were wondering.)
What is the nickname of this building in London? What year was it completed?
(City of London, August 2014)
To be conscious that you are ignorant
is a great step to knowledge.
- Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)
I like the show called "Pointless" because not only do you have to come up with the right answer, you have to come up with the most obscure right answer. Here's how it works: the show's researchers ask a group of 100 random people somewhere to answer a question, or come up with a list of answers in a category. Here are some of last night's categories:

- names of darts world champions
- people buried in Highgate Cemetery (London)
- songs that share titles with TV shows
- things you find in the kitchen
- 2013 World Premier League teams

The contestants have clues to help them find answers, and they need to find the answer that the fewest number of those 100 people listed. Actually, they need to find the "pointless" answer, if the show's producers have put it there - that's an answer that none of the 100 came up with. The clues helped me correctly respond that Douglas Adams is buried in Highgate Cemetery, and I also learned that Karl Marx is buried there. The clues for the "songs" category were the initials of the song paired with the artist who released the song; the "kitchen" category clues were the names of the things, but anagrammed.
At the end of Queen Anne's Walk in London, you'll find a small park containing this statue. Who does this statue depict?
(Queen Square, London, August 2014)
All things I thought I knew; but now confess
The more I know, I know, I know the less.
- John Owen (1616–1683)
The first category last night, and one that truly stumped the contestants, was "largest city in any US state." Of the eight contestants, four were unable to come up with a correct answer at all, one said "Detroit, Indiana" but was credited with the right answer anyway (the co-host did point out it's in Michigan), and the other three picked from the fairly obvious answers: New York City, Honolulu, Seattle. When the co-host mentioned that the population of Seattle is only about 600,000 the host said, "Six hundred thousand? That's weeny!" Only 5 of the 100 people knew that Portland is the largest city in Oregon. "It's got quite a bohemian air, Portland," commented the co-host. I won the round by guessing Billings, Montana - a pointless answer.

I wonder how well people in the United States would do listing the largest city in each English county, which I suppose would be the equivalent. I certainly don't know what most counties are, much less what cities are in them, but now that I have been living here for a few months, maybe I can make some educated guesses. I'm in Devon now, and I think that's either Exeter or Plymouth; I'll say Exeter. Last month I was in Yorkshire - going with Leeds for that one. The month before that I was in Wiltshire, but Salisbury's fairly small; on the other hand I can't think of any other cities there, so Salisbury it is. And London is huge, but it's in ... Londonshire? Richard, how did I do?
What is the degree of refraction of sunlight through water that produces what we see as the red band of a rainbow?
(Muswell Hill, London, August 2014)
Is then thy knowledge of no value, unless another
know that thou possessest that knowledge?
- Aulus Persius Flaccus (34–62)

Devon: Plymouth. Damn.
Yorkshire: Leeds. Yay!
Wiltshire: Salisbury. Whew!
Londonshire: Doesn't exist. "Greater London" is the administrative county.

Two out of four is as well as the UK contestants did on US cities, which makes sense. Though technically York, North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, and East Riding of Yorkshire are all separate counties for administrative purposes, so I might have gotten that question wrong as well. Yet after doing research for this post, I know more than I did when I started (not enough to get me on "Mastermind" however). That's one of the reasons I like writing this blog. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake may not buy me any groceries, but I feel richer anyway, in the end.

The languages, especially the dead,
The sciences, and most of all the abstruse,
The arts, at least all such as could be said
To be the most remote from common use,
In all these he was much and deeply read.
- Lord Byron (1788-1824)

1: Euterpe, the muse of instrumental music
2: "The Gherkin," completed in December 2003
3: Queen Charlotte, wife of George III
4: 42 (the answer to all the big questions in life)

Jardin de Pali-Kao, Paris, May 2014. This small public square was created in 1989 at the foot of the sloping Parc de Belleville and commemorates the 1860 victory by the French and English armies over the Chinese forces defending the Eight Mile Bridge (Bālǐqiáo) leading into Beijing. With the Anglo-French occupation of the city, the Second Opium War ended, and the Chinese were forced to accede to British demands. Shortly after Beijing fell, the Chinese emperor Xianfeng fled the city, and died less than a year later. His concubine became Empress Dowager Cixi, who was the power behind and later on the throne for almost fifty years. Her successor, Emperor Puyi (the last emperor), didn't have any power; he became emperor before he was 3 years old, and was forced to abdicate five days after he turned 6. The Kuomintang ruled the Republic of China in Beijing from 1912 to 1927, when the administrative capital was moved to Nanjing. In 1949 the Communist Party defeated Chiang Kai-Shek, who reestablished the Republic of China in what is more commonly known as Taiwan. Current president Ma Ying-jeou only gets treated as an actual head of state by the Pope and 21 of the 193 UN member nations, all of them former colonies and perhaps therefore more sympathetic. One of them, Swaziland, is currently ruled by King Mswati III, the only remaining absolute monarch in Africa. Apparently he has 15 wives. One in four people living in Swaziland have HIV. Except for a hundred-kilometer stretch bordering Mozambique, Swaziland is surrounded by South Africa. The country of Lesotho, where King Letsie III plays only a ceremonial role, is completely surrounded by South Africa, and you can pay in rand there as well as with maloti, which have the same value (about ten cents). The population of Lesotho is about 2 million, and there are also 2 million sheep and goats there, as well as the more traditional cattle and the horses to herd them up and down the steep slopes. Wool is the main agricultural export, and Lesotho is the world's second-largest producer of mohair. European colonists brought the sheep and goats into the country in the 1800s, and they've provided meat and wool since then, but there's not a real tradition of dairying in the country. Over the last few years, the government has been promoting the development of dairies and encouraging the large-scale production of milk for use in dairy products, or even the commercial sale of milk, rather than individual household consumption only. Delegations from Lesotho have visited goat dairies in New Zealand, looking for advice and inspiration. Although the government has established rules for milk and cheese production and sale, there is very little organization at a local level, and the place is obviously crying out for someone like me to go in and get them up and running with making cheese. I would need to get vaccinated for yellow fever first, but I don't need a visa to stay there for six months - surely enough time to teach people how to make goat cheese. I generally don't like hot countries but no place in Lesotho is below 4,000 feet, so it's much cooler. I could stay at the Malealea Lodge and sleep in a forest hut for about $17 a night, and go trekking on a traditional Basotho pony. Wait, how did I get from the middle of Paris to the top of Pitsaning? Time to stop wandering around and get back to work.

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