Thursday, June 23, 2022

Tape is not an easy prop

I was somewhat surprised this morning to receive a parcel through Amazon, containing four rolls of black tape. The reasons for the mysterious delivery were eventually explained to me four hours or so later, but my only immediate thought at the time when I opened the package was "I seem to be having Baxter's Bad Day."

I left the tape on the sofa for my brother to find when he came in from work, and sure enough, as soon as I came downstairs at lunchtime, he immediately asked "Are you re-enacting Baxter's Bad Day?"

Does everybody else think of that when they unexpectedly see black gaffer tape? Or do you have to be of a very specific generation and background? I mean, this is actually the only time I've received unexpected black tape in the post, and it's been well over thirty years since I read or thought about the book in question, but it's obviously one of those things that sticks permanently in one's mind.

A Read-and-Play Storybook, published in 1983. American, and very conspicuously and strangely foreign to a young British reader in the 1980s, it was written by Jean Marzollo and drawn by Shelley Thornton. We must have acquired it through one of the primary school book clubs, or something like that. It was a great work! The important thing is that it came with push-out figures of the characters in it, and a series of clothes to dress them up in. There may even have been a stage you could assemble, with multiple backgrounds and slots to slide the characters into, so you could stage the entire story at home! As best I can recall, this is how the story went:

Baxter, the bear on the cover, is having a bad day. I forget exactly what series of things made it bad - from the cover, it's obvious that it was raining on his way to school, but there were other things that happened to him too. Maybe someone had thrown a heavy object at him and broken four of his ribs, or possibly I'm mixing it up with our father's copy of Dr Fegg's Encyclopaedia of ALL World Knowledge, which I also enjoyed reading at around the same time.

Anyway, after a great deal of badness one way or another (did one of the other things relate to his packed lunch being in some way deficient?) Baxter and his four classmates, who may also have been bears but might possibly have been other animals, are told that they are each to pull an item out of a bag and create some kind of costume and performance based on that random prop. The other classmates all pull good things like a magic wand out of the bag, but Baxter is left to last and ends up with a roll of black tape.

He continues to lament his bad luck overnight, but then has some kind of inspiration involving a bee, and creates himself a bee costume using the black tape and probably his yellow raincoat as seen on the cover. The following day, he gives a spectacular performance, and although it's one of those everyone-gets-a-prize competitions, Baxter doesn't have to be contented with 'funniest' or the ribbons his classmates get; his accolade is 'best of all'. He concludes that it turned out not to be such a bad day after all - so maybe the book's action didn't actually cover two days, and he created the costume during school hours; I don't know.

Anyway, the gaping plot hole that everybody who read the book always felt ruined the whole suspension of disbelief came near the end, when the teacher apologised for Baxter getting a roll of tape, saying it wasn't supposed to be in the bag, and must have fallen in there accidentally or something. And yet when Baxter pulled the tape out, it was explicitly said to be the only thing left in the bag! If the tape just accidentally fell into the bag, what happened to the fifth prop that should have been in there? This, along with the peculiar Americanness of the whole thing, led a whole generation of primary school children to conclude that the writer had no idea how to write a coherent story!

Despite this, it was a great book. And maybe I'll use any leftover black tape to create a bee costume of my own!

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Beano does what I tell it to do

 Whenever I complain about something on the internet, I always like to check a couple of days later to see whether the powers that be have fixed everything that's wrong with the world. Somewhat to my surprise, a mere four weeks after my cutting critical dissection of the Bash Street Kids, I looked in this week's Beano (number 4141, and let's stand back in awe at a weekly comic that's long since notched up its four thousandth issue and is now thundering towards the big 5K!) to find there have been more changes to the Kids' cast of characters!

Not only are there three new Kids in class 2B, two of whom are definitely female, Teacher is sporting an artist's beret that evokes memories of his classic mortar board! Obviously the sheer force and eloquence of my rhetoric (I seem to have used the word 'style' five times in one simple sentence) has convinced the Beano bosses to implement exactly the scheme I was talking about, of gradually adding more characters to equalise the demographic mix. So, good job, Beano people. Carry on. You have my approval.

In all fairness, Andy Fanton is actually a really great writer of comics, so I shouldn't sound so scathing about the whole thing. He not only writes this Bash Street Kids story, but on the page before it there are mini-strips devoted to the three new classmates (plus Pup Parade, which doesn't seem to have acquired five new dogs yet. Or for that matter a Cuthbert analogue - I don't think the Pups ever had one of him, did they?)

Harsha is long-established by now as appearing every week, along with her family, in Har Har's Joke Shop. There's also a Summer Special on the shelves, in which the new bugs appear in the Bash Street Kids story, but not in the title banner, so obviously they're here to stay (for a while, at least. I mean, we don't talk about Wayne, do we?)

I hope they really do continue to add characters at this kind of rate! It would take things back to the earliest days, seventy years ago, when the cast of When The Bell Rings were a vast, mostly unnamed, horde of Kids, rather than having a well-defined roll-call. They DID have more than one girl in the earliest days, even for a little while when all the characters had got names, you know. So really, we're just moving back to the classic era! I approve!

But again, that joke at the bottom of the page! One that the average Beano reader's great-grandparents might possibly find funny! A quick internet search reveals that there was a disastrously unsuccessful Lone Ranger movie in 2013; it passed me by completely, and I doubt that a nine-year-old movie has made much of an impact on the typically nine-year-old Beano reader. If you're going to tell a joke that needs the Lone Ranger to be common knowledge, you really need to beam it back through time to the 1950s. They might have laughed at it then. You could get Leo Baxendale to illustrate it!

Friday, June 17, 2022

Just to make myself feel better

 Memory league training tonight started with a cards in 29-point-something seconds with a very ugly recall; I got them all in the end, which is better than I've done the last several times I've tried it, but it took a lot of thinking about. Then I had an almost entirely unsuccessful images trial, but then tried a quick numbers that I recalled with perfect ease, absolutely flawlessly! Barely any conscious thinking at all, the numbers just flowed from my fingers!

And then I got 35 in words, which is pretty awful. But all in all, it makes me feel a little better about my match with Kevin tomorrow afternoon, and the upcoming Pan-American Open qualifier...

Thursday, June 16, 2022

It's the PAO

In the memory world, PAO always used to mean Person-Action-Object, a system which I half-heartedly tried once but gave up on very quickly; I can't tell the difference physically between different people, so it's very much not the right system for me. Other people have made it work very successfully, but I think it's maybe gone a little out of fashion nowadays. Anyway, I'm not talking about that kind of PAO here. Nor am I talking, loudly, about the cannons (pao) in Xiangqi; that's a different competition entirely. No, to all the cool people in the mind sports world, PAO means the Pan-American Open in Memory League!

If you remember the drill from last time (how long ago was it? It feels like absolute ages!) there are three online tournaments, each taking place in different time zones eight hours apart, so that everybody gets at least one in a halfway convenient time of day, wherever they live. Sixteen competitors in each, with the top ten in the world qualifying automatically if they choose to enter, and the other places filled with the winners of a qualifying competition...

I'm ranked 15th of the competitors who entered this one. This is an improvement on last time, when I was 16th, I think, or maybe even lower. That means I get a bye through to the last round of qualifying, where I'll probably play... Sayaka Hokazono. Who thrashed me in a match just yesterday. Great.

Although I was a long way from my best yesterday, so if I can improve before then, and she remains at the less-than-her-best level she needed to beat me, I might have a chance. And then, not being 16th seed, I avoid having to play the top seed in the first round of the tournament proper, if I qualify! Woo!

So instead of being beaten by Alex, I have the chance to play Simon! Who's also much better than me at everything and will beat me easily! But at least it'll make a nice change!

Now, let's think - WHY have I been on such poor form at Memory League just lately. I haven't completely neglected my training, but I haven't got good results whenever I've sat down to give it a go. Could it be a side-effect of the other thing I'm doing, which I was asked not to talk about all over the internet? That'll just have to remain a mystery, but I tell you - the readers of this blog have missed out on a LOT of witticisms already about the whole thing! I just hope I can remember them all when I'm finally free to discuss it!

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

No spoilers

 I've been decidedly remiss at finding cool new cartoons to watch just lately. I found myself watching the third episode of Infinity Train last night, having never seen it or even heard about it before, and wow, it's both funny and intriguing, and madly creative and different every week! I love it. And so now today I've watched the first four episodes - because I wanted to find out firstly what on earth the series is about, and secondly what happened next. And I've had to force myself not to plough straight on to the rest of the episodes (ten in a season, and each season is apparently about different settings and characters but with the same general theme), because these things really work better if you put some time in between viewing each one. I firmly disapprove of this modern tendency of releasing a complete series all at once; 'episodic' is a good thing to be, if it's done right! Not everything has to be a movie!

So nobody tell me anything about Infinity Train, ever, please. Even if it comes up in conversation, which to be fair it never has before in my life. Also, I've got a terrible cold, so you're allowed to tell me how sympathetic you are about that.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Kids aren't alright

Unlike yesterday's blog, nobody has even vaguely hinted that they want me to write extensively about the most recent changes to the Bash Street Kids in the Beano, but I'm not prepared to let this complete apathy on the subject from my friends and acquaintances stop me from going on about it at length.

Here's an example of what good looks like:

This is taken from the Bash Street Kids Book 1984, but it would have originally appeared in the Beano at some point in the mid-1970s. Probably almost exactly fifty years ago, in fact; it seems to date from shortly after Cuthbert was added as a regular character (he might well have been added in after the comic was drawn, actually - note the front row of desks, which at that point usually went Wilfred-Danny-Smiffy-Spotty-'Erbert, while here Cuthbert has been stuck in the middle with a conspicuous white space behind him. When he was fully established in his position in the class, it normally went Cuthbert-Danny-Smiffy.). And I really think it's a classic example of how to draw slapstick comedy in a static medium like comics! Just look at Teacher destroying the hut with the out-of-control saw!

And I love the little details - hats, bow, glasses and even Sid's hair flying off in shock. The mice infesting the school feeling the cold too. Smiffy covering the back of his head when everyone else covers their eyes. Little silly things like that are what make comics great!

Now here's the latest adventure of the Bash Street Kids:

I mean, it's not terrible, by any means. Danny's awesome plan makes me laugh. And this week's story is actually a bit more of a throwback to the traditional style than they have been of late, although the humour is in the more ironic modern style. But the art is lacking the energy and motion that it used to have - I was going to make a crack about David Sutherland deteriorating in his old age, if this actually is him drawing this one, but I think it's more that he's been forced to move to a different drawing style that doesn't work quite so well.

And then there are the subtle changes to bring the Kids into the twenty-first century - you know, the kind of thing old people like me always moan about. Teacher stopped wearing his mortar board quite some time ago, which I think is a terrible shame. Even when the Kids first started, it was a rather outdated concept, and it suits the idea of Teacher being hopelessly old-fashioned, which has been played for laughs consistently over the years.

Fatty and Spotty, meanwhile, have been renamed Freddy and Scotty. I don't approve of this. Toots, however, remains Toots, and if anything I disapprove of this even more! Could you not give the girl an actual name?

But then, the most significant change is that Toots is no longer the only girl in the class - we've got two extras who have been imported in to redress the balance. A little. Sort of. I'm sorry, but if girls only make up 25% of the cast, it looks even weirder than only having one girl in the series! Maybe they've decided to address things in easy stages, and in another couple of decades we'll have achieved gender equality?

And while we're on the touchy subject of representation, there's the question of skin colour. As you can see from the first comic above, fifty years ago the concept of skin colour didn't exist in the Beano, quite literally. Some strips, like the Bash Street Kids, were in full colour, and others were still black and white line drawings, but nobody's skin was coloured in - everyone had a chalk-white complexion. When colouring techniques advanced, everybody became a uniform pink, which makes things rather a lot worse. I think they've missed a good opportunity to vary the skin tones of the existing kids a little and make things not quite so glaringly incongruent when they introduce other characters drawn in a more modern style. Don't be afraid to vary the classics, just a tiny bit, to keep up with current trends!

And finally, what on Earth is with that joke at the bottom of the second page? It's not only ancient, it's probably incomprehensible to almost every reader who's not familiar with both balls and reels! Maybe it's a teaching experience - modern Beano readers can just go and ask google, after all!

Friday, May 27, 2022

A different league

There are people out there who don't understand how the English football league system works, you know. Or the 'British premier league soccer' system, but that's just the whole two-nations-separated-by-a-common-language thing. It's the kind of thing that needs diagrams to explain, as well as a conscious mental effort to put yourself in the mindset of someone who doesn't understand the concept of promotion and relegation, so here's a detailed blog entry explaining all those things that are universally known to 99% of the world.

I mean, really, it's like having to explain what roast beef and yorkshire pudding is! Or steak and kidney pudding, or rice pudding, or sticky toffee pudding, or "the concept of hundreds of different foodstuffs being called 'pudding' and nobody thinking that's at all strange". It's something we think of as completely normal and self-explanatory over here, and the idea of someone not understanding it is incomprehensible to us.

(Another universally accepted thing over here is talking as if people from countries with different customs are stupid and wrong, as long as we say it in a way that shows we're only joking. I consider myself to have full permission to do that, and intend to indulge to excess. Anyone reading this is welcome to do the same to me and my country in return! That's the way to forge good international relations! Americans tend to have strange customs like 'politeness' that prevent them from doing it, which is a terrible shame.)

So, as everyone knows, the Premier League looks something like this:

A couple of important points of terminology here - it's not the British Premier League, it's the English Premier League. With a sort of asterisked footnote that Welsh teams are allowed to play in it too, but it's still definitely English. Scotland has its own football league, and Scottish people don't like it if you don't know that.

Also, it's "PREM-ee-er", not "pre-MEER".

So, there are twenty teams in the premier league, and they each play all the others twice in the season - once at each team's home ground. This system must seem strange and unfathomable to Americans - I don't understand American football at all, but as far as I can gather, each team plays seventeen games a season; two against some teams, one against others, and none at all against the rest. I find it difficult to comprehend who could have invented an arrangement like that, or why.

It's three points for a win, one point for a draw. A draw is what some people call a 'tie'. When both teams score the same number of goals in a game. Or no goals at all. Yes, match results of 0-0 are not uncommon - why would anyone think that's weird?

Anyway, you can ignore the colours at the top of the table; that's about European qualification, which is a whole different essay for another time. The interesting thing is the bottom three teams, highlighted in red. The teams that finish in the bottom three places won't play in the Premier League next season; they are relegated to the division below. 

Another important point about how to talk about football - a team is plural, not singular. "Manchester City HAVE won the league this year," not "Manchester City HAS won the league this year." Likewise, Burnley ARE going to play in the Championship next season.

Also, if you're talking about Wolverhampton Wanderers, it's "Wolves", not "the Wolves". Wolves have finished tenth.

Wait, "the Championship", you say? Yes, I'll admit this is a bit confusing. The Championship is the name of the league that sits below the Premier League. This is what the Championship table looks like this season:

There are 24 teams in this one, so they play more games in a season. And next season Burnley, Watford and Norwich will be playing in the Championship, and the Premier League will have Fulham, Bournemouth and the winner of the playoff tournament held between the four teams who finished below them. The final's on Sunday, between Huddersfield and Forest.

And the three teams that finished at the bottom of the Championship are relegated to the division below that, which is called (and I admit that this is rather confusing) League One. And they're replaced by the teams who finished at the top of League One this season, in the same way.

The structure looks like this:

These four divisions are still generally described as "the league" - it's a leftover from the days when all four were run by an organisation called the Football League (the Premier League is a separate entity nowadays), they were much more sensibly called Division One, Division Two, Division Three and Division Four, and the whole thing was more of a closed shop. There were more leagues underneath, but only on rare occasions would a team from them be allowed to join the 'league'.

But the 'English football league pyramid' in modern times keeps on going down, with automatic relegation and promotion to the levels below. Two teams are relegated from League Two, into the top of the 'non-league' divisions, which is called (again, rather confusingly) the National League.

And below that, we start to see why it's called a 'pyramid' (although some might say a 'triangle' would make more sense. It's not like it's three-dimensional.)

At level six of the pyramid (which is also called "Step 2" of the non-league league system. Yes, really.) it splits into a North and South. Each division has 22 teams (or should have - when we get down this low in the pyramid, we start to have issues with teams going out of business, so the numbers aren't always the same), and every year four teams are relegated from the National League and replaced by two from the North and two from the South.

If for example all four relegated teams are from the far north of England, then those all fall into the National League North next season, and two of the more southern teams from there are moved across to the National League South to keep the numbers even. And of course there's also relegation from the National Leagues North and South, down to the level below...

And now it gets a bit more confusing. At this level, there are three different governing bodies. They're called (for reasons owing as much to tradition as geography) the Northern Premier League, the Southern League and the Isthmian League. The latter basically covers the south-east of England, including London. It's not an isthmus.

Until very recently, each of these three leagues had one 'premier league' at level seven, and two regional divisions at level eight. But the Football Association, which is in overall charge of the whole pyramid, decided it would be better if the number of divisions at each level went in a more logical 1-2-4-8-16 progression, and so the Southern League created an extra premier division, and the other two each created an extra 'division one'. And a lot of teams were shuffled around from one league to another so that they could all have roughly twenty teams in each - it's entirely possible for a team to move from Northern Premier to Southern, for example, in order to keep the distribution equal, even though there are three different leagues with their own bosses and staff in charge.

And below those three leagues, it all gets a lot more local...

Yes, fifteen different governing bodies run the 33 divisions at levels nine and ten of the pyramid. Most of them have one division at each level, but there are various exceptions. There are 17 divisions at level ten instead of 16 - the two run by the South West Peninsula League (which covers Devon and Cornwall and is the only remaining league to be in level ten but not level nine; there used to be a couple of others) promote only one team at the end of the season, while all the other level ten divisions promote two. And of course each of these divisions has roughly twenty teams in it, just like all the ones above and below.

The pyramid keeps on going beyond that level, naturally. By this time we're well into the part-time amateur game, and teams and leagues down this low are prone to breaking up and re-forming as brand new ones, but there's still promotion and relegation going on. At level eleven there are a whole FIFTY divisions, and I don't think anyone could really want to keep track of them all. But they're very important to the people who play in them, against all the other small teams in their local area!

How far down does the pyramid go? It's really hard to say. It disappears into a morass of small local leagues, in a way that no American could ever hope to understand. Some people say it goes down to level 23 or 24, and try to track the potential route a team could take to reach the Premier League in a quarter of a century's worth of promotions. But I'm fairly sure I've lost everyone's attention by this point already, and I'm certainly not going to try to compile them all into a diagram.

So that's how football works! Simple, isn't it? Why can't American Football be so straightforward and common-sense?