Stumping the Erudites
Vasiliy Krivtsov has made Ann Arbor famous in Russia - by being a whiz on a Russian quiz show.
by Jan Schlain
From the September, 2014 issue
Krivtsov, fifty, earned a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Kharkov in Ukraine, then came to the U.S. on a postdoctoral exchange program. Ford hired him right after he finished his second PhD, in applied statistics, at the University of Maryland. "Since then I started climbing," he says. "My job is to investigate [reliability problems] statistically."
It's an important job that only gets noticed if something goes wrong, like GM's ignition switches. Ford's been spared anything like that debacle, so Krivtsov gets no publicity for his work--but he's famous in Russia for his prowess on the TV game show whose name translates as "What? Where? When?"
He describes it as "something between Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Jeopardy," but adds "it's still totally different."
Two teams of experts are given a question and one minute to answer it. They might be engineers, doctors, or lawyers, says Krivtsov. "In Russian, [they're] called erudites."
Krivtsov isn't an erudite--he tries to stump them. He began sending questions to the show as a student in Kharkov, but says the producers only started to use them "when I moved to America. You know why? Because I got this advantage of being in a different country and having a different layer of culture and history!"
He always mails his questions in a manila envelope with a prominent Ann Arbor return address. When one gets used on the show, he says, "You can recognize the American envelope--yellow. Everyone else's is white."
When one of his questions is chosen, he'll sometimes make a video to introduce it on the show. "Here is one I taped at the University of Michigan Musical Society," he says, pulling up a recording on his Russian-language website (www.ru.krivtsov.net). He translates: "I tell them,'My dear friends, I am sitting in the University of Michigan opera house, which is the Power Center. As I'm sitting here, right before the show starts, I notice that behind my back there is some TV
screens ... One screen, second screen, third screen ... The question is, Why?'"
The erudites guess that actors use them to see how they look from the audience's perspective. In fact, Krivstov explains, they're used by singers: a camera in the orchestra pit projects the conductor's cues onto the screens behind the audience, a kind of musical Jumbotron.
That question won a cash prize for stumping the erudites and a bonus when they voted it their favorite question of the show. It earned Krivstov the ruble equivalent of $1,000.
In December, the show flew him to Moscow to play the game in its studio. He showed the experts a set of cards with the name of a color in Russian printed in text of another color. His question was, "Where and why and who, in the United States of America, was using exactly this test?"
One expert thought it might be used to test pilots' color vision. Someone else guessed astronauts. Another said psychologists. Then, at the last second, one came up with the right answer: it's used by the CIA to test suspected Russian spies! Even if they deny knowing Russian, Krivstov explains, they'll hesitate when asked what color the text is, as their brain struggles to sort out the contradictory messages. "Isn't that a clever test?"
Krivstov gets back to Russia regularly to visit his family and sometimes for work as well. When he's there professionally, "We have a formal interpreter. I speak English, as my colleagues do. But then during the meeting, if I start speaking Russian, everyone is like, 'Oh my God. Are you a CIA agent?'"
[Originally published in September, 2014.]
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