Wednesday 5 July 2023

Distinctly average

Our underfloor heating collapsed several years ago, so in Winter we tend, of an evening, to huddle in the living-room round the Waterford 104 wood-burning stove. IF we were civilized, we'd use a dining table and sit round that . . . having covered it with a damask table-cloth, the second-best silver and a wine in a cut-glass decanter. BUT we're the kind of people who use their dog to clean their hands when they get too greasy to hold the crubeens. SO we usually sit in a row on the sofa watching the YT equivalent of licenced TV. Almost all the cooking and absolutely all the screentertainment is the wheelhouse of Dau.II our currently resident scion.

The choice / rotation has been:

  • Highbrow: University Challenge - the last season under the control of St Paxo of Tetchy
  • Lowbrow: Richard Osman's House of Games - when you know none of the "celebs"
  • Brobrowbeat: Taskmaster - with its peculiar dynamic of ha-ha-ha bullying in the workplace by Greg Davis

for me, the best thing about House of Games is when they have a round of Distinctly Average. The conceit is that the contestants have to estimate the number of real-world countable things. I think this is a really important skill and should be, like, taught in schools. I've gone on [and on] about this on The Blob - Bigger than a Breadbox - Bigger than your head - Bigger than a house.

Another aspect of Distinctly Average is that the 4 contestants are paired off, estimate the number independently and their score depends on the average [arithmetic mean]. The estimates can be wildly, several orders of magnitude, different. In such cases an geometric mean is often more informative.

  • Two guesses: 10 vs 1,000
  • Arithmetic mean answer: (1,000 + 10 ) / 2 = 505
  • Geometric mean answer √(1,000 * 10) = 100 - exactly splitting the orders of magnitude

But that concept would be a bridge too far for both contestants and viewers and I'm not pushing it. It is interesting how often the average of several guesstimates is close to the true answer - even when the punters have no expertise or inside knowledge: just common sense and experience of the human condition> Darwin's coz Francis Galton once famously asked ~800 villagers to estimate the weight of a tethered ox. None of these crowd-sourcees got the right answer but the average of all their attempts was pretty damn close to the true weight. This finding has been widely replicated and acquired a name - The Wisdom of the Crowds. Which in turn spawned a 2000 book of that title by James Surowiecki.

Now here's a weird insight into the mechanics of making House of Games. The programmes come in a batch of five going out at 1800-1830 hrs Mon-Fri on BBC2. Obviously, for something that gives the appearance of being shot in real time, it would be a huge drain on everyone's schedule to spend a week . . . in Glasgow . . . to compile 2.5 hours [say a day's work with bloops, fluffs, outtakes and re-shoots]  of material. I'm told that all five episodes are shot back-to-back in a single day's studio-time. So when Osman wraps up Tuesday's prog with a rhetorical flourish "Today's winner is Jason Minor-Celeb. Shall we play again tomorrow and see if the winning streak continues?". What he means is "listen up everyone,  you have 45 minutes to shrug into a different set of clothes, refresh your studio make-up, have a cup of tea and a pee and sink back into these same chairs for the next episode".

Osman is one of the comperes of the fondly remembered "Pointless". I was reminded of this when I caught him chatting with Michael Rosen on the latter's podcast Word Of Mouth. Osman and Rosen have both had long a varied careers in British Broadcasting often on the edge of the actual British Broadcasting Corporation BBC. They both came from un-privileged backgrounds in SE England but were smart, committed and supported enough to make their own luck and get to Oxbridge. What comes from working widely in media is that you meet a lot of people. Osman and Rosen's experience is that a lot of the people in the inner circles of the BBC "wouldn't have gotten there if they'd been at my school". Rosen and Osman rising to the top of their profession doesn't make it easier for their class [both senses] mates to do the same. Dullards with privilege and connexion otoh? they seem to sail up the corporate ladder.

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