Friday, March 20, 2015

Brain of Britain meets Brain of China

Check out today's edition of China Super Brain! Part 1, featuring Robert Fountain versus Roy Lam and Katie Kermode versus Li Wei:




And part 2, featuring James Paterson versus Liu Jian and Ben Pridmore in a cool cravat versus Li Lu:





What a completely awesome show. I hope we get to do it again!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Get back to where you once belonged

Nine years ago, almost to the day, I posted about 30-minute binary training, and said "I've recorded my score every time I've practised since I started properly training again, and it's gone 2545, 2715, 3005, 3195, 3355, 3650, 3865, 3980"

I've done two training sessions in the last week or so, and they were 2140 and 2475. So if I keep training a bit more I might get back to the level I was when I started training in 2006. It's depressing how far I've sunk away from the levels I used to be at - I've resolved not to go to the world championship this year if I'm going to get the kind of abysmal scores I managed in 2014, so I really need to get memorising regularly...

Thursday, March 12, 2015

My brain is better than EVERYBODY'S!

Among the playful banter on the Superbrain TV show, the panel of Chinese celebrities compared me to Sheldon Cooper, which I think is a great compliment. Sheldon genuinely is the only TV character I can truly identify with, he's a wonderful creation and I can't help thinking he's partly based on my own life - I assume Hollywood spies have been watching me for years. Maybe I'll make a point of coming across even more Sheldon-like on TV in future, it'll give everyone a good laugh...

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What a week!

Well, where to start? I've just come back from a week in China, filming an episode of the popular and awesome show 'Superbrain' in which contestants are pitted against each other in exciting brain-related competition. They're doing a series of international shows, Team China against Team Another Country, and this was Britain's turn. It says something about the organisation of mental sports in this country that the whole Team Britain was organised by the German TV company that did Die Deutschen Meister last year, since apparently there's nobody in Britain who could arrange this kind of thing, but never mind.

I was the captain of the British team (I didn't volunteer or get elected or anything, it was just decided that I was the captain, and the duties of the role only extended to announcing that I was the captain, without actually doing anything) which also included a strong lineup of James Paterson, Katie Kermode and Robert Fountain. We'd had cool video introductions filmed in London previously, to give us a taste of how the whole thing was going to be presented. Mine included magically summoning an umbrella into my hand, and jumping off a building to land on the pavement below. Also, buying comics.

Those wonderful TV people arranged for me to fly out a day early and visit my brother in Harbin, which was amazing. I hadn't seen him for a couple of years, since he's so settled out there now, so we had a lot of catching up to do (this involved staying up all night drinking beer and talking about Thundercats), as well as meeting the people he works with at the university who were all very keen to arrange for me to come back there in term time (Chinese new year holidays when I visited) and give a speech or maybe get a permanent job as a teacher there too.

Having slept about two hours in three days, I then flew off to Nanjing, where I was warmly and enthusiastically received by the TV people - I basically had my own personal attendants for all the time I was there; the director of my particular segment of the challenge and an interpreter who spoke really excellent English. There was also a steady supply of Chinese junk food - McDonalds, pizza and Chinese working lunch boxes - which was more than enough to keep me happy.

My challenge involved delivery boxes - each one had a 12-digit code number on it, and the audience members wrote down their mobile phone numbers on the receipts. I and my opponent then had two hours to memorise the numbers, and then one random code number would be shown on screen and the winner was the first to remember and dial the correct phone. My opponent was Li Lu, who as well as giving me a new teddy bear (Briar or Xiongda from the cartoon Boonie Bears) spent the week talking as if it was a great honour to even be in the same room as a super-brain like myself. In reality, she's the world number 36, and you don't get to be that without being pretty darn brainy yourself, and she was actually quite a bit better and faster at this challenge than me.

The Germans had already filmed their clash with Team China a few weeks previously, and despite Boris and Simon both sporting stylish beards (I've started a real trend there), China triumphed, so it was important to get revenge on behalf of Europe. On the other hand, the Chinese team then consisted mainly of double world champion Wang Feng, and he wasn't in this one, so perhaps we had it a little easier. The most important team task, though, turned out to be deciding on a slogan for us all to chant at the start of the show. After objecting to "Veni vidi vici" on the grounds that it's singular, past tense and all about conquering Britain, we settled on "To victory!"

And certain team members who shall remain nameless had great trouble remembering that two-word slogan, so I have to admit our rallying cry wasn't as good as our opponents'.

I had some quite extensive makeup before appearing in front of the cameras. Normally it's just a case of plastering a lot of powder on my bald shiny skull to stop the reflections of the studio lights dazzling everyone, but they really made a big deal of painting my face orange (on Chinese TV it's apparently the done thing for people's skin to look as pale as possible, and this makeup compensated for that) and fiddling with my eyebrows and everything. They even styled my hair, including hairspray, which is quite a feat when you consider my hair consists of just a few sparse strands on the sides of my head.

I had brought along my black turtleneck, thinking it'd look suitably smart and stylish, but although they did try filming with it (and even sewed up the big hole in the shoulder), they eventually gave up and picked me out a new suit - navy blue trousers and jacket, white open-necked shirt and colourful silk cravat. It looked frankly magnificent! I am so going to wear that kind of thing as part of my regular rotation from now on.

I won't spoil the results of the challenges, since it'll be available for the world to see on the internet when it's broadcast, but I'm sure it'll look awesome and be well worth the two solid days of rehearsal followed by about 14 hours continuous filming. I would love to do this kind of thing every week now - anyone else want me on their TV shows?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Let's have a party with Charlie Brown and Snoopy

Some people, when they find themselves with a huge list of things that really need to be done over the course of a weekend, prioritise the most essential tasks and use effective time management techniques to make sure the best job possible is done. Others give up on the whole thing and decide to devote their time to something reassuringly completely unnecessary and yet entertaining enough to distract them from all those other things they were meaning to do.

With that principle in mind, I hereby rectify the shocking absence from the internet of a really good visual analysis of the relative prominence of characters in the early years of the Peanuts comic. The following graph is a moving annual total of appearance in the daily comic strip; each point shows the number of strips that character has been seen in for the year up to and including that date.

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When the strip launched in October 1950 its three regular human characters - Charlie Brown, Shermy and Patty - shared the spotlight, and it's actually Patty who makes the most appearances in the first couple of months. Snoopy, who at this point is an entirely normal dog, plays a supporting role. By the start of 1951, though, Shermy's appearances have already started to dwindle and Charlie Brown becomes established as the star of the series. Shermy never gets any real kind of personality, strangely enough. He's one of life's straight men whose job is to stand there and listen to the punchline once in a while.

The introduction of Violet in February doesn't change the dynamics very much, as there's not much difference between her and Patty, who still features more often. More interesting is when Schroeder makes his debut in May, as a baby who can't yet walk or talk (or even play the piano). He grows up surprisingly quickly, and by the time of Lucy's debut in March 1952 she and Schroeder both are just slightly smaller than the other characters.

Lucy immediately zooms to prominence in the daily strip, mostly at the expense of Patty, although it takes her several months to transform from the baby of the group into the kind of personality she eventually settles on. Linus, when he makes his debut in September, is much more of a slow burner; he remains a baby for a much longer time and settles into a pattern of only occasional appearances for the best part of three years, seen more often only than Shermy (who at one point in 1954/55 shows up only twice in nine months, but doesn't quite get forgotten about altogether).

We settle now into a pattern of Charlie Brown featuring in the majority of strips, with Lucy the other central character and Snoopy gradually getting more anthropomorphised as time goes on (his thought bubbles make a debut around this time and he starts to dance on his hind legs on occasion). Schroeder, Violet and Patty are the supporting players, and it's interesting how closely the lines for Schroeder and Violet stick together on the chart - it's unusual for them to appear together, but they each alternate in strips alongside either Charlie Brown or Lucy.

The other supporting characters of the 1950s don't get much exposure - one-joke character Pig-Pen is used sparingly and Charlotte Braun, although introduced as a new main character, is dropped completely after just a couple of months. There's an almost complete and total lack of other characters, even in the background nor even as passing mentions.

In July 1955 Linus suddenly becomes much more interesting - armed with security blanket and unique philosophy he ages to just a little smaller than the others and starts to play a central role. With Patty and Violet fading to near-Shermy levels of obscurity, the more familiar main cast of Peanuts is in place. We're still a long way away from Snoopy's eventual domination of the strip (in 1957 he'd just started to walk on two legs from time to time), and the sixties add some more major characters to the mix, but I thought seven years was about as far as it was worth going with this. All those other things to do, you see...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Wedding vows

I heard "Uprising" by Muse today for the first time in quite a while. It's not the best song in the world, obviously, and whenever I listen to it I always tune out the mumbled lyrics of the verse and only notice it during the cool bellowed chorus, "They will not force us! They will stop degrading us! They will not control us! We will be victorious!"

And every single time I hear the song I expect the second line to rhyme with the first, and when it gets to "They will stop de-" I mentally complete the line to say "They will stop divorces!" and start imagining it's singing the praises of some militant group who are out to uphold the sanctity of marriage by any means necessary. That might actually be a cooler song altogether.