The Opti Interview: Clive the Flying Ostrich

1 Conversation

A magic biro

Opti: So in one sentence: what does QI stand for?

Clive: Well QI is actually an abbreviation of two words: Quite Interesting – which our society strives to be at all hours of the day or night. In Taoist Mysticism of course, 'Qi' is a character that is pronounced 'chi' - and is the animating life-force. And* so it is with us: we can be interesting even in our slippers, with a cup of Horlicks. And this is because the QI Society attracts the sort of mind that finds the world itself interesting. It also attracts the sort of mind that can think its way through a corkscrew in the dark or – being slightly more Machiavellian – getting someone else to do the thinking while you enjoy your Horlicks. To describe it all in one sentence though...

QI stands for the recognition that what we know of the world, nay, the universe that we inhabit; the near infinite delights and mysteries of the various spheres of life and non-life on this planet; our collective histories; the myriad of cultures (both extant and extinct); the, by turns, odd and perplexing, not to forget to mention, the downright barking behaviour of some members of various species (our own definitely included), as well as some of the most brilliant and awe-inspiring of natural phenomena, and even some of our own bodily functions – are weirder and more peculiar than you might otherwise imagine.

Opti: What does it involve?

Clive: We take our inspiration from the QI Television series, hosted by Stephen Fry and regularly featuring Alan Davies as well as a host of regular comic talent. The show is a panel game; everyone competes to get the most points for correct and knowledgeable answers and to avoid the booby-trapped answers.

We've taken that idea and adapted it for our own purposes.

We have an active roster of about 60 players ('QI Minions') this year. In practice, I estimate about 2/3 of that are regularly active and a final third occasionally active, but new people turn up all the time. Anyone can join in if they stop by and ask Bob to be added to the scoreboard.

The game works by Researchers devising and setting questions, then moderating their own forums to steer people in the right direction, award points and crank up the dreaded klaxon.

Anyone who joins can set a QI question about pretty much anything they like.

There are a few conventions like all our forums start "QI – XXX" to make them easier to find on our conversations list. (If you scan the most popular threads on the Front Page, there's usually a "QI – XXX" in and amongst them. Occasionally I try to put clues in my subject titles and the idea is the questions are supposed to be challenging and interesting in their own right.

Use of Google and Wikipedia and other search engines is forbidden. But if you happen to have a mass of encyclopaedias or a well-stocked bookcase to hand, we encourage that sort of thing. Everyone tends to bring their own interests, special knowledge, hobbies and professions to bear so there's a real eclectic mix of topics and styles. This is a guessing game, clues are provided, but there are forfeits, so think before you leap!

Opti: When did the game first come about on h2g2?

Clive: Well somewhere around April 2007, would be my guess, looking back at the earliest forums. ('What nationality are James Bond's parents?) – a classic – but we are but halfway through our third and most glorious year. I've been at my most productive in writing questions, Malabarista is still way out in front, Taff's record negative score of -170 is improving steadily – I think he might break even by December, provided he can avoid a few of my tiger traps. All in all things are good.

Opti: What is your role within the QI group?

Clive: I play along like everyone else but the majority share of my participation is in setting and devising the questions. Anyone can do that, of course, but with me it's become something of a pre-occupation and I really enjoy the intellectual challenge of hiding a solution in a bunch of words and having other people pick at the stitches of my riddles. I also tend to be quite liberal with hints and clues. There's no fun in it if it's completely insoluble or intractable.

What I've found is that the questions people enjoy the most and get the most out of (myself included) are the ones which aren't the simple 'either-you-know-it-or-you-don't' type but where the solution lies in being discovered, provided you come at the problem from an unusual direction, that I try my best to make well-hidden.

It's an approach I try to pioneer in writing questions which is to seize on a detail and work backwards through layers of complexity to a broad question, sort of like an inverted pyramid. Inspiration, I find comes from pretty much anything I'm exposed to, usually books or TV documentaries but also just little bits of unexpected information that come along or that I remember. The TV show we model ourselves around has 'lettered' and 'themed' episodes that it would be senseless to replicate. As the society page says, h2g2 is a vast storehouse of knowledge, expertise and dedicated Researchers; there's simply no limit to what topics h2g2 Researchers and QI together might cover.

Personally, I've written questions about the vagaries of 12th century English coinage; the tomb of Dante Alighieri, three-and-a-half centuries after he died (he moved around a lot); Jelly-fish; The Morse Code (both kinds); Ancient nuclear fission reactors in Africa; exploding whales; war memorials; penis theft (a case of mass delusion); and The North Pole in West Australia (there really is one).

In order to find the detail it takes to craft a really good question, I often find myself doing a fair bit of research for each one.

I've expanded my own knowledge as much as I imagine anyone else has in doing this; my only hope is I've taken them along with me and it's been fun.

A recent development: I'm trying to turn a few of my QI questions into entries for The Edited Guide. Watch out for Telegraphy in 1850's America and Explosive Decompression in a Vacuum and the effects on the Human Body.

They are 'in development'. The London Beer Flood of 1814 was one of my QI questions but I cannot take credit – Matt did a superb job of turning that into a Guide Entry.

When it comes to the mechanics of the game, I had a big hand in devising the scoring system we use:

  • 3 points for the "correct" answer or answers
  • 6 points for "Quite Interesting" answers.
  • 1 point for "nearly right" guesses.
  • 2 points for question setters.

We also use the trusty QI Klaxon for punishing 'being obvious'.

This deducts 5 points from your score. So the aim is to be first of all interesting and right! I extol all those who attempt my riddles to first of all be bold, preferably interesting but never obvious. Because the chances are I'll have got there first and a klaxon awaits! I set the klaxons in advance of posting the questions so you only stand to lose points if your definition of interesting, and my definition of obvious, coincide.

Opti: How many minutes have you been a part of QI?

Clive: Less than enough but far fewer than too many.

Opti: Why was h2g2 picked to host such a game?

Clive: It just sort of evolved organically; there wasn't really a reason behind it, but I blame SWL – it was all his idea.

There is something of an historical connection between h2g2 and QI, however.

John Lloyd devised the series and produces the show, developing his own company – QI Productions – in the meanwhile, but to fact aficionados everywhere he is perhaps better known for co-authoring the fifth and sixth episodes of the Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy radio plays as well as 'The Meaning of Liff' and 'The Deeper Meaning of Liff' with our very own progenitor and founder, Douglas Adams).

If he knew, I'm sure John would be pleased that the global community of what is one of Douglas's many legacies is constantly seeking to keep things interesting and factually correct, for the gaiety of the nation, as it were.

Opti: What is it about Stephen Fry that you all like so much?

Clive: I can't speak for everyone, but I do remember in series B there was this exchange:

Stephen Fry: Beetle-fanciers, as you probably know, are called – ?
Bill Bailey: Er... Coleopterists
Stephen: Very good! Coleopterists.
Bill Bailey: Well, thank you very much.
Alan Davies: Press him on how the hell he knows that!!
Sean Locke: Yeah!
Bill Bailey: Well, when I was a child, I –.
Stephen:In Alan's world, knowing something is a kind of freakish, weird thing.

Which I think kind of sums the spirit of QI in a way. Knowing things is neither freakish nor weird, but there are plenty of freakish and weird things to know about, and from which we ply our trade.

Simpliciter, quis ignoratio delenda est!

Opti: Finally, how will Stephen Fry move the h2g2 QI society forward?

Clive: If he keeps making them, we'll keep imitating them. Though our QI Society has rather taken on a life and an identity all of its own. They are six letters down on the TV show – a potential of a further 20 series; but the universe is a vast and quite interesting place. I can't think of a good reason to stop. Can you?

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