Sunday, December 31, 2006

The most powerful man in the universe!

The whole New Year thing, as well as Auld Lang Syne, fireworks and Jools's Annual Hootenanny, means the annual World's Strongest Man competition on telly. The first heat was tonight, and I was watching it avidly as usual. In many ways, you know, strong man contests are very like memory championships - they have a small core of regular competitors who all seem to be good friends, they involve a range of specific disciplines that the competitors have to train for and that aren't just about pure strength, and the British competitors never win it nowadays. Yes, I just compared myself to Geoff Capes.

It came as something of a surprise to me to see that Mariusz Pudzianowski is 29 years old. I hadn't realised it until I saw the statistic on screen, but I instinctively think of strong men as being older than me. Probably because they're generally a foot taller and twice as heavy as I am, making me automatically think of them as grown-ups. I don't know if that's a universal syndrome, or just something for those like me who have difficulty remembering they're actually adults.

And incidentally, if I see one more advert for Barbie's dog Tanner with genuine excreting action (seriously), I'm going to have to stop watching the cartoon channels quite so much, or possibly just keep a brick handy to throw at the TV screen. Which seems like a good note to end the year on. Happy 2007!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Persistence of Memory

I was practicing memory today before I was fully awake (I'm turning into a very late riser just recently - with not working, I seem to be shifting into a 25-hour day pattern and not getting tired until later and later at night), and getting on quite well - slightly slower than my best times in memorising, but recall much closer to 100% than usual without needing to think about it. After finishing with numbers and binary, I had a go at some speed cards, and only as I got to the end of the pack did I get a slight sense of deja vu. The last six cards were two fives, two sevens and two tens, and I thought to myself "didn't I memorise another pack a while ago that ended like that?"

Thinking back over the past minute or so, I suddenly realised that I'd picked up the pack of cards from the pile on the right-hand corner of my desk, where I keep the cards I've used in previous memorising sessions but haven't got round to shuffling yet, rather than the pile on the left of shuffled and ready-to-memorise packs. How can I remember the sequence of a pack of cards without too much effort, but forget an instinctive thing like picking up the pack from the left side (which is how I've ALWAYS kept my cards)?

Makes me wonder if I've done that before without even noticing it. As a side-effect of learning to memorise cards, I've developed the ability to instantly forget them after I don't need to recall them any more (so that I can reuse the mental journey they were on), and it was only that distinctive run of cards right at the end that rang a bell. Perhaps I'm actually just a big giant fraud, and whenever I think I've memorised a pack of cards in training, it was actually just the same pack over and over again.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Go stop

Neopets have just added their version of godori to their extensive library of games. It's one of those games that I've heard of before but never played, but there's something insanely addictive about it. I think I might have a gambling problem.

Neopets, all in all, is an amazingly good website - the only website I know that has its own functioning economy, although there are probably plenty of others out there somewhere. But Neopets is so overwhelmingly vast, unashamedly cute and unexpectedly clever that I can spend hours or days on end wandering around it when I'm in the mood. The rest of the time I neglect my poor pets, of course, and feel terribly guilty about it.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Clip show

It's nearly the end of the year. There's nothing on telly but shows about what's happened in 2006, nothing in the blogosphere but posts about what people have posted about in 2006, and on top of this I've spent the day writing emails, writing an article for the British Othello Federation newsletter that I suddenly remembered promising to write, not writing my book, and writing a big blog post tonight seems like more tap-tapping of keys than my fingers can cope with.

So in the spirit of doing something a bit different, here's something I found while dredging the depths of my huge cardboard box that contains all my important paperwork, looking for my CIMA registration number. It's an exciting story that I wrote on a particularly boring long plane journey a long time ago, and at first I thought it might be a good idea to type it up and put it on the blog. Then I realised that that would be even more work than actually writing a big long blog post, so I thought it would be even better to scan it and post it in that way. Hope it's more or less legible. I can read it, but then I'm used to my handwriting. There should be more handwritten blogs, don't you think?



Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Piper of poppy

I've just been watching "The Ruby In The Smoke" on BBC1. It was very well done, but there's just too much plot in the Philip Pullman book for a 90-minute TV adaptation. Even having read the book, it was hard to keep track of what was going on on screen. What happened to the days when the BBC would make this kind of book into six half-hour episodes or more, and show it as a serial? That kind of treatment would work much better for the Sally Lockhart books, because we need a bit of downtime here and there to show her, for example, settling in with the Garlands and becoming part of the family and business. To cram everything into the feature-length adaptation, they had to cut out all the scenes that didn't have a direct bearing on the multiple intertwined plot threads.

That said, Billie Piper was surprisingly brilliant as Sally. I really have to get over my prejudice against her, I know, but when I first heard about it I thought something along the lines of 'tchoh, why do the BBC insist on believing she can pass for a teenager?' And she very nearly did, this time! Not just from the makeup, but her acting too. I was impressed. The makeup was a bit excessive in one case at least - David Harewood plays both Bedwell twins, and yet they didn't look anything like each other, despite what the script said. And it was an interesting decision to cast black actors in a couple of parts, at least one of whom is required by the plot to blend in with the people in the Victorian London streets - but then, historical accuracy tends to just get in the way if you take it too seriously, and they never get it entirely right however hard they try.

I'm looking forward to the others - apparently they're planning to do at least the other two Sally books, which has to be a good thing. And here's another claim to fame of mine - Philip Pullman, before he was famous, was my good friend Fat Andy's English teacher. Apparently he was really great, too. Perhaps if I'd had him instead of Mrs Slater, my own writing career might not have been quite so entirely unsuccessful...

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Big black horse and a cherry tree

I love that song. I wanted to come up with a good excuse to use it as a blog title, but couldn't, so I decided to just let it be a non sequitur. Anyway, Christmas is over, the goose is getting digested, penny for the thoughts under the famous black hat? Well, I've got Plans for what I'm going to do with my time from now on. Maybe not quite big enough Plans to really merit the capital P, but I like to make things sound important. I've got a proper schedule of book-writing, memory-training, working on this memory performance, learning to play that darn piano, things like that. I've got another TV producer to talk to, and I'll make an effort to see that this one goes somewhere. All in all, I want to make sure I'm busy enough to justify not working. If I ever confess here that I've been doing nothing all day, everyone reading this has to shout at me.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Absent friends

I'm really going to miss my dad phoning at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning, incoherently drunk already, to wish me a happy Christmas.

Hope everyone out there in internet land and beyond has a magical day! Happy Christmas, merry wishbone, happy Holiday, pleasant Festivus, anything else you might care to celebrate, do it with style.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ain't it thrilling, though your nose gets a chilling

There are few things on Earth quite as inspiring and comradely as turning out to watch your team of underdogs get a well-deserved draw against the league leaders in freezing temperatures two days before Christmas. The result doesn't flatter us at all - there really was nothing to choose between the two teams, and we could easily have won. What's more, it was a clean, sporting kind of game, with no Boston players booked, for only the second of their 23 league games this season! Although Andy Marriott did his best to tempt the referee with some ludicrous time-wasting near the end.

With our new star striker Drewe Broughton suspended again after his second red card in his six games for the Pilgrims so far (to be fair, they were both reportedly very dubious decisions), Dany N'Guessan got into the starting lineup, and after a first half full of half-chances for both sides, opened the scoring on 55 minutes by catching the Walsall defence napping and classily tapping it past their goalie. It looked for a while like we might hold on for a win, but they equalised from a corner. Still, in between goals there was plenty of time for our fans to launch into the most popular Boston Utd chant - "We're shit, and we're one-nil up!" The Walsall fans didn't seem to have heard this one before, and took a minute to confer before retaliating with "you're fat and you're Chelsea fans". In fact, the banter between fans was very good-natured all through the game, it must have been the Christmas spirit at work.

This leaves us with a very symbolic 24 points from 23 games at the half-way point of the season, and the dizzy heights of 19th place in League Two. It's definitely starting to look like we might survive another year in the league at this rate. It's the local derby at Lincoln on Boxing Day, and I think we're well capable of winning it, although there'll be riots if we do. But to be fair, there are always riots after Boston-Lincoln games.

There were notices at Nottingham station to warn passengers that all Central Trains services on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day have been cancelled due to strike action. I mean, come on, conductors. You could at least pretend that there's some motive to the strike other than wanting the holidays off work! Since I'm not going anywhere, I admire their cheek.

Friday, December 22, 2006

We now return to Force Five

As promised, this is part two of the gallery of Krypton Force video covers. You can see part one with a simple click here, but if you can't be bothered, these are 1980s collections of American translations of Japanese cartoons from the 1970s, with wonderful artwork by the maestro "Marc". Without further ado, let's begin the show:

This is the one I just acquired recently - volume one of Krypton Force's Videotoons series, with lots of KF's hallmarks on it. There's the baffling tendency to describe Bugs Bunny as "the double B", the guesswork as to what the cartoons' titles should be ("The Chemist" is the classic "Bottles"), and of course an unusually atmospheric Marc cover, in which he has a creditable stab at drawing Bugs and Daffy but doesn't quite make them recognisable.

This is volume 1 of "The Protectors", which was Krypton Force's name for GaiKing. And, probably by coincidence, it contains the first two episodes of the series. Krypton Force's approach to volume numbers was delightfully random, as you'll see if you have the patience to read through this entry, so it was probably just by luck that it worked out like this. The cover features a particularly bad Marc rendition of the GaiKing robot - look how misshapen the lion mask chest piece is, in particular (there are plenty of screenshots to be found on the internet for comparison). And Darius (the red-faced bad guy) has his mouth (it's on his forehead, because he's an alien) drawn much too small, so it just looks like a little blemish of some kind. The futuristic city in the background is probably stolen from somewhere else, I doubt it's Marc's own work.

One thing I'd forgotten, with my brother having all three of the Protectors tapes in our joint collection, was that they have a sort of link-fence background pattern instead of the usual Krypton Force hexagons. Also of interest on this one is the first screenshot on the back cover - it's the head of the GaiKing robot, upside-down. They haven't actually stuck the picture on the box the wrong way up, it's a freeze-frame of a moment where the robot loops-the-loop and flies towards the camera that way up. It's still a strange choice for a picture, though, as are the others - a frame of annoying kid sidekick Bobby drinking a glass of juice, and a close-up of the baddie's head. Couldn't they have used a scene from one of the big robot fights or explosions? The first episode on this tape also contains the truly wonderful line "Our enemy has applied the reverse space cross theory to some sort of space bazooka." I admire the actor who had to deliver that statement in a fake Scottish accent, with a straight face.

One more Protectors tape (this is volume 3, but the sequence of KF volumes bears no relation to the order the episodes were originally broadcast. A Marc cover with fewer disembodied heads than usual, and a pretty decent stab at the Skylar robot and dinosaur.

Part one of "Sci-Bots the movie", as described in my previous post. The front cover is a classic Marc collage of poses swiped from the episode and stuck together with no regard for scale. And on the back, we have two more exciting scenes cut from a Ladybird Transformers book. The white flash you can see of the one of Galvatron actually contained the title of the story it illustrated. The blurb on the back also demonstrates the first of two spellings of the name of the first bad guy the Spaceketeers encounter - he's Tri-Ax-Con on this one, but Tryax Khan on other video boxes.

Back to the full-length episodes of Sci-Bots/Spaceketeers here. You've got to love the way they title the video "Snark & The Diamonds" and then write on the back cover about "Dr Snork".

The packaging doesn't mention it, but this tape is described onscreen as Sci-Bots volume 6. Sci-Bots, unlike the other series, has long continuing storylines, so you can follow the heroes' adventures from one tape to the next, as long as you're not watching them in Krypton Force's sequence. The story in this one continues into volume 3, and then the next part is volume 9. Tryax/Tri-Ax is the big blue and white furry guy on this cover, by the way. Check out his hand - I think that's swiped by Marc from a different source, possibly a Transformers comic, because Tryax wears black gloves in the cartoon and they're not shaped like that.

The decision to write the back cover in pink lettering on a purple background was a slightly strange one - it makes this very difficult to read. But just to take a break from poking fun at Krypton Force's packaging (I think it's great really, as I'm sure you know), this tape contains a good example of the American translators' occasional attempts to make the Japanese originals a bit more child-friendly, usually by pretending that nobody dies. The big purple leopard man shown on the cover here collapses at one point, Porkos checks for a pulse, shakes his head and says "He'll be okay." And that's the last we see of him. The 'movie' version of the saga is a lot less inclined to do this kind of thing, interestingly enough, but this scene is one of the many chopped out of the movie entirely.

The last Sci-Bots, and I've exhausted everything I can say on the subject. But what does "No surrender no return" mean?

You may recall me saying that I'd only ever seen one Orion Quest/Grandizer tape. Turns out I was lying - I'd forgotten all about this one, which if memory serves I actually bought for my brother years ago. More flying-saucer-based fun and excitement, yay. Actually, for one reason or another, this is the Force Five series I'm least in to. It might be the bad voice acting by the American cast as much as anything else - it's set in a rural area, so the characters have sort of yokel accents which get on the nerves a little bit.

On to the Formators or Starvengers, and isn't this a classic Marc picture? I think he preferred heads to bodies, and he's especially unwilling to draw legs, as this cover clearly shows.

Quite a few of Marc's earlier cover pictures don't take account of the caption flash in the top right corner. Although it's difficult to put them into date order, the kind of problem we see here does seem to have been avoided in the later works. Also, that dog is a darn good drawing. Did Marc really do that? The colour scheme is wrong and it seems a bit hairier than the dogs in the episode - possibly it was stolen from somewhere else and had a horn drawn on its head (all the bad guys have horns in Starvengers, even their dogs).

Now this is a classic. To add to the excitement value of the cover, we have, up in the top left corner, two Transformers, copied from the comic (Highbrow and another one whose name escapes me at the moment), and down in the bottom right another stolen comic scene, with Divebomb lying on the floor and Grimlock towering over him with rock in hand - but the top half of Grimlock's body has been replaced by an approximation of the robot from this tape's contents. Cut and paste some explosions and clouds, add a few of those famous floating heads in the air, and you've got the Marc formula for a great cover!

And this one's possibly even better. It's the box art for the Transformer Hun-Grr, expertly traced by Marc without the aid of a ruler, and the Dragon formation Starvenger robot's head drawn on top. The robot on the video looks nothing like the one drawn here, obviously. And yes, this is Formators volume 2, but it contains the first episodes in the series. Volume 1 was the final episodes of another series entirely - see my first post on this fascinating subject.


This one comes in two parts, because it's a cheap cardboard cover rather than a plastic one with removable paper inlay. Not so easy to photocopy. It's also the only Danguard Ace episodes I've ever seen with the Krypton Force label, and the first two episodes in the series. I suspect this was the last Force Five series they turned their attention to, and only started releasing it when they'd almost entirely run out of money. But maybe I'm wrong - the exact details of KF's business is something I'm completely ignorant of, much as I'd like to know what they were all about. The comic-strip approach to the back cover is also something unique in my experience, but the front cover, although unsigned, is classic Marc.

And that's that. I would love to find some more Krypton Force tapes out there, but as I said before, it's years since I came across a new one. I have it on good authority that there are at least a few more of them out there somewhere, so you never know.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mmfrfl

I've basically spent the whole day in bed today. You should all consider yourselves very lucky that I've dragged myself out of bed to write this, really. Actually, I'm feeling a lot better this evening than I was earlier on, although I'm still all bunged up in a not at all appropriate for Christmas kind of way. Wow, and there was just an advert on TV for 'Sudafed vapour plug', which apparently you plug into the mains and it releases soothing vapours at you. Frankly, I find that thing kind of scary. I'm sure there are cold remedies that don't need electricity.

Anyway, tomorrow, assuming I feel better, I'll have the long-awaited part two of my illustrated guide to Krypton Force videos - I've got my brother's collection here now, and I just need to scan them. And watch them again because I haven't seen a lot of them for a while. Which, come to think of it, might be something I don't get round to for a while, so promising to do this tomorrow might be a bit on the optimistic side. Still, I'm confident (despite a complete and total lack of evidence supporting this belief) that there are hundreds of readers out there who are really looking forward to this, so I'll do my best.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

But the wind blows right through you, it's no place for the old

It's turned really freezing cold around here overnight, just in time for Christmas. I've also had a really rotten cold for the last few days, so any messages of sympathy will be gratefully received. Achoo. Sniffle.

But in fact, I'm in a wonderfully happy mood, because I've just watched 'My Neighbour Totoro'. It's an absolutely fantastically good film. Admittedly I'm a sucker for anything that suggests there's magic just round the corner, but even looked at objectively, this is a masterpiece. I would advise everyone to see it, it's a real feelgood movie, and it's got a catbus. I should look at the Film 4 schedules more often, I only noticed it by chance today.

Also in the news, I think I should record that Boston Utd are on a winning streak at the moment - they've just won an absolutely crucial relegation six-pointer away at Torquay, even though there's still talk of the players not being paid this month and it was only through a generous local businessman that they could afford a hotel down there (Fawlty Towers, probably). They've got a home game on Saturday against the league leaders Walsall, who are having a bad run of form just lately. I might go down and see it, if the weather's not too bad. They need support. And money.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Grunch

Sorry for not posting anything last night and not mentioning why. I was at Ed's 25th birthday party, disguised as a horrific demon from the darkest depths. Coming in disguise was compulsory, you see, so I wore sharp and stylish clothes rather than my usual slobby stuff - my funeral trousers and jacket together with a black turtleneck like some kind of beatnik, plus the new and extremely uncomfortable shoes - along with the Brazilian Mystery Cloak and my fantastic full-head-covering rubber horror mask of a monster with a mohican. I've had said mask since I was 15 or 16, it was a birthday present and I recall my schoolmates not being nearly as impressed with it as they should have been. This was only about the fourth time I've ever worn it for any period of time, and it rather started to fall apart by the end of the party. It was definitely a big hit, though.

Getting there was half the fun. I got the train down to Oxford in the afternoon without too much difficulty, and met Jenny there. But the electronic displays at Oxford station didn't so much as mention the 7:24 train that was supposed to take us to Hanborough, ten minutes down the line. I asked someone at the station about it and he assured me that the train was running, the screens just weren't showing it for some reason. Immediately after this, it did appear on the screens with the information that it had been cancelled. They had to announce repeatedly over the tannoy that the train was in fact running normally. You'd think a big place like Oxford would run its own electronic displays, but obviously not.

Anyway, I got into costume before getting on the train, just so as to conceal my identity properly. Jenny also put on her butterfly mask, so we made an interesting couple. Then another train pulled into the platform and about 25 Santa Clauses got off. It was all rather surreal. A few people on the train were convinced that Death was stalking them when I got on, but I refrained from claiming anyone's soul, seeing as it was Christmas. Then it was simply a matter of getting from the station to Ed's place. Which you'd think wouldn't be a problem - we even had directions.

There were five more costumed partygoers on the train, so we all got together to follow Ed's instructions - his suggested route involved crossing the railway track, climbing an embankment, getting over a barbed wire fence, and trudging across two very muddy fields in pitch darkness. We ended up phoning him to say "we're in a field, and there's a hedge. How do we get to your place from here?" It turned out that another alternate route would have been to walk along the road from the station, but the assault course approach at least served as a nice ice-breaker. Three of Ed's friends among our group all assumed that I was someone called Bill. Apparently we have exactly the same voice. I find this quite intriguing - obviously my fellow Flowerpot Man is out there somewhere, and I've just never met him.

Anyway, we made it in the end to the Cooke family home, which covers roughly three-quarters of Oxfordshire. The extremely cool and enormous house had been further enhanced by being converted into a series of tunnels made of sheets, cushions and tables. With Ed's sisters on makeup duty with orders to forcibly disguise anyone who turned up looking recognisable, Ed himself greeting the guests dressed as a buxom woman, and large vats of sangria available, a merry time was had by all. From the memory world, the party had also attracted Josh, as Captain America, and Lukas, as a nineteenth-century swashbuckler, plus a huge range of Ed's friends, acquaintances and complete stranger gatecrashers. There was a whole sheep roasting merrily on the bonfire outside.

Josh (to a prep-school friend of Ed's): Ed seems to still be friends with a surprising number of people he was at school with.
Me: Oh, that's how these public-school types are. Sorry, I'm a northerner with working-class pretensions.

I do tend to feel a little bit self-consciously proud-to-be-common when I'm in the vicinity of the upper classes. I was all prepared to be secretly contemptuous and scathing when faced with drawled anecdotes about people's fathers and the troubles they had with the big chunks of western Europe they owned and the wealthy and influential people they associated with, but it turned out that Ed's friends, like Ed himself, are a great bunch of guys. They did come out with a few anecdotes like that between them, though.

After a feast of mutton, pheasant and chicken which turned out to be not only edible but actually quite nice, Ed announced that since we had in attendance two of the world's best speed-card memorisers, there was going to be a challenge of me against Lukas, everyone had to pick a side to back and the losers had to go out and build up the bonfire. Lukas in particular was unwilling to do it, since he hadn't memorised a pack of cards for more than a year, but despite our insisting that we'd only do it if Ed could remember the names of everybody in the room, the challenge went ahead. People picked a side based largely on which side of the room they happened to be sitting on, and Ed gave us a minute each to memorise a pack. Lukas announced that he couldn't do it, so it ended up as me against Ed instead. And, to my deep shame, I couldn't remember the 17th card in my pack, so Ed's side won. I passed it off as a birthday present.

We adjourned outside for fireworks and dancing around the bonfire (I refrained from joining in - I have a history of knee injuries in Oxford, and didn't fancy mud-frolicking), then people scattered around the extensive house and estates. I was dozing on a beanbag in front of one of the two log fires when the lure of brilliantly-played guitar and piano music from upstairs overcame any tiredness, so I went and joined in a singalong around the grand piano. Ed's friend Ross is one of those staggeringly-talented pianists who can play anything you care to hum to him, and I'm wildly envious of people like that. When he had finally been allowed to stop playing, and after Ed had responded to the suggestion of a cup of tea by insisting that we compose theme tunes for each variety of tea that might be available, we played increasingly surreal games around the kitchen table, ending with 'amusing binary numbers', before I went off to get an hour or so's sleep at six in the morning, somewhere without too many people in sleeping bags scattered around.

When I got up again around eight, Jenny (who never goes to bed at this kind of party) was tidying up the kitchen with Ed's mum. If upper-class contemporaries inspire peasants'-revolt kind of feelings in me, upper-class parents just terrify me. I always feel like some kind of intruder, sitting in the kitchen under false pretences when I should be out tending to the livestock or sleeping in the barn or something. They've got an aga and a teapot and go out to feed the hens in the morning. Still, we had a friendly chat and listened to the cricket on the radio as people started to emerge.

I'm probably confusing things more than necessary by calling Jenny Jenny here, seeing as everyone at the party knew her as Katy (it's her real name, after all), except for Ed's parents who thought she was called Beth. Anyway, Ed's dad gave us a lift down to the station, where we eventually got the train - it had been delayed by striking a bird and cracking its windscreen, forcing it to be taken out of service at Oxford. My connecting train up to Derby also wasn't appearing on the screens, but it turned out that it genuinely had been cancelled and I had to get a rail-replacement bus to Banbury. But apart from that, I made it back to Derby safe and sound. Now I just need to catch up on some sleep and go to the supermarket and tidy up the flat before my brother comes round tomorrow. Hectic social life.

Oh, and 'Grunch' is the name of the horror mask.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Because tomorrow, maybe you'll be gone

I've been rereading Runaways today. If you haven't heard of it (and you should have done, because I only mentioned it here the other day), it's an absolutely fantastic sort-of-superhero comic about a gang of teenagers who discover that their parents are supervillains. It occurred to me the other day that of all the comics I read every month, Runaways is the only one that leaves me thinking 'oh, wow, what's going to happen next?' And that's something that all comics should do, in my opinion. It's quite deliriously well-written by Brian K Vaughan, with a wide range of compelling and likeable characters (even the bad guys) and storylines that are sheer genius. Everybody should read it, and you're welcome to borrow my copies any time you like.

I've also been rereading Commander Kitty, which hasn't been online for a long, long time now. I wouldn't particularly recommend it to people in this format, since (and this is fairly typically eccentric of Scotty Arsenault) it's been set up so you can only read random episodes rather than seeing them in order, but you've got to love anything that can come up with dialogue like:

"Don't you care that there's a ferret in the turret?"
"I was unaware that there was a ferret in the turret! Mouse, next time just say 'beware, there's a ferret in the turret!'"
"I swear, if you ensnare another ferret in the turret..."
"His name is Socks, okay?"

It also coined the phrase 'a metric buttload', which to this day I work into conversations wherever possible.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Perhaps they're made of magic

I've finally caved in to public demands and the difficulty of walking in my old boots, and bought some new shoes from the cheap shoe shop in Derby. What fascinated me the most about these £7 bargains was the sticker inside listing the parts of the shoe and the materials they're made of. It goes "Upper: other materials. Lining and sock: other materials. Outersole: other materials."

I've seen some pretty uninformative labels in my time, but this has to be high on the list. Admittedly I'm not an expert on shoe material labelling - the last pair I bought was in 2003, and I don't think they had any such information inside them. But a quick internet search (you can find anything on the internet nowadays) tells me that this kind of detail about a shoe is standard, and that the alternatives to 'other materials' are leather and textile. But am I alone in being tantalised by the 'other materials' label? What's the big secret? What, just what, are these shoes made of?

They smell of something that's very evocative, but I can't quite remember of what. A sort of plasticky smell, not leather or shoe polish, but exactly like something non-shoe-related I've smelt in the past. In fact, I've just taken a deep noseful (checking first to make sure no tabloid photographers are around to snap a pic of the former world memory champion's shoe-sniffing fetish) and I'm fairly sure that they smell of Hero Quest. The role-playing-game-cum-board-game for young people who were into board games but not RPGs and might be interested in something to bridge the gap. Do they still make Hero Quest? I haven't seen it around for ages and Games Workshops seem to have drifted even further off into their own world since I last paid any attention to them. I just checked that on the internet too, and they don't. Shame.

Anyway, why would my shoes smell like Hero Quest? The board and box always had exactly that funny kind of smell. I think, anyway. Unless I'm confusing it with something else. But assuming I'm not, maybe they used the same cheap glue or paint? Hmm, the more I sniff these shoes, the less certain I am about that Hero Quest identification. But something made me think of it, for the first time in years, and I'm sure I didn't use to sniff shoes while I was playing it.

Damn it, now I'm not going to be able to wear these shoes until I've worked out what they smell like. And it'll just turn out to be a previous pair of shoes, I'll bet you. Good grief, how much have I written tonight about sniffing shoes? Maybe it's some kind of mind-altering narcotic smell. That would explain the purple lizards climbing the walls and exploding into patterns of rainbow caterpillars...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It CAN be done!

I'm a great pianist. Admittedly my repertoire is limited to 'On Top Of Old Smokey', but I can play it almost perfectly, doing arpeggios with my left hand and everything. And while I appreciate that some people might not see that as a great achievement, they just don't understand how fantastic it is to hear music and actually be the one producing it. I'm wildly excited, although I won't be booking the concert hall just yet.

What I will be booking a stage for (or at least James will be booking a stage for) is a memory performance in Stamford Arts Centre on January 20th, in association with James Kemp and Daren Denholm. With local people, newspapers and things in attendance to generally learn about memory and things. This will be the ideal opportunity to see if I'm capable of doing any kind of live show - I haven't quite worked out what to do yet, but it needn't be anything particularly amazing, so I can just play around with presentation and try to look cool. I think I'm going to go with something involving numbers I've memorised in advance, rather than memorising live, because that's never really worked for me. And maybe as an encore do calendar calculations. Those are always cool.

Who knows, a bit more practice and maybe I could amaze everyone there with my ivory-tinkling ability too!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

We are so young

That post of mine the other week asking whether having a hot water bottle made me an old man has proved to be very popular. It's got even more comments than the world-famous contents-of-my-pocket one! So I think it's official, I'm not old. And I can continue to warm my tootsies without a care in the world.

Of course, if I wanted a care in the world, I could fret about my book-writing, which is harder to get into than you might think. Certainly more than the NaNoWriMo thing, because this one is supposed to be readable, intelligent, educational and fun. Particularly the 'fun' part. But now I come to read the bits and pieces I've written over the past couple of years, I find that they need heavy rewriting to pass muster, and I hate rewriting. Ah, the tribulations of a writer. I'm sure I'll survive.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Oh God

Yes, a bonus extra post tonight because I've been self-googling again and found this on a white-supremacist forum:

"The people with the greatest Memory are white - the world record holders are all white, no blacks in this category, hehehe - surprise surprise!! You can tell this to some lefty or black person if they argue with you on the subject of intelligence, and definately memory.

WE CAN DEVELOP OUR MEMORIES, How can having a great memory usefull though? What would you do if you had a super memory, how would it benefit you?

The man with the greatest memory in the world is from the UK and the top few, I think 3 or so are from Great Britain whcih makes me proud, but prouder still all white. He can memorise 22, yes 22 packs of playing cards in 5 minutes and then recall all of them in order, WOW!!!! Unbeleivable!!!

He also has other feats under his belt, truly remarkable, anyway YOU too can have a super memory.

I will supply links on the above feats later on today but I leave with some questions, how can we use SUPER MEMORY POWER to our advantage? Please let me know your thoughts guys, thanks speak to you later."


Maybe I should post a reply and tell him I'm Jewish?

It can't be done

No human being can play the piano with both hands at once. It just isn't physically possible.

Anyway, on Saturday night there was a poster up on the bar from a group looking for a drummer. Kitty, who knows about musical matters, tells me that good drummers are in short supply these days, and lots of bands have to make do with drum machines just because they can't get one. So with that being the case, why am I wasting my time trying and failing to get harmonious noises out of my electric keyboard when I could be hitting things rhythmically with sticks, the big time and the jackpot?

Other things that I can't play, as revealed on Saturday, are pool relatively sober and darts extremely drunk. I really need to acquire some new abilities - there's a limit to how often I can memorise a pack of cards and make people go woo. Another thing I'm meaning to do is plan out a memory-based stage show I could do. There are plenty of ways to make memorising a few numbers seem like an impressive performance, I just need to work on my patter and stage presence.

Also in the news, either I had a dream last night about telling someone my internet banking ID number or it's something that really happened that I can only half remember due to a course of amnesia drugs or hypnosis.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Zzzzz

Just four of us at the get-together in the end - me, Ace, Jenny and Kitty - but we go for quality rather than quantity at these things. And I'm much too tired tonight to write anything lengthy, partly because we were in the pub till 2am playing a drunken game of darts in which hitting the board was considered a great shot and then wandering the streets for another hour or so looking for a taxi, and partly because the BBC Sports Review Of The Year is on telly and I'm too tired to turn the boring thing off. I'll write something properly tomorrow.

Friday, December 08, 2006

London Nights

Going to the big city tomorrow for the Big VPS Christmas Meet - well, I'm not sure how Big it'll be, but there'll be half a dozen of us having a festive drink, anyway. This is also an opportunity to wander around the shops and think about what to buy people - probably a bit early to actually buy presents, we don't want to go mad here. Besides, it's fun to frantically run round the shops just before they close on Christmas Eve, adding to the burden of the poor overworked shop assistants.

Also, I'm getting back into memory training quite well now. Did a pack of cards today in under 30 seconds for the first time in a while, and I've got not only a proper routine, but plans to expand it in the new year when I won't be so busy all the time. Who knows, I might manage another world championship yet.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

All Things Must Pass

My favourite webcomic, Newshounds, ended yesterday. Which is very sad. What's more, my favourite superhero comic, Runaways, is coming to a sort of end in January - it's going to continue beyond then, but written by someone else, and although the someone else is Joss Whedon, who's great, it won't be the same without Brian K Vaughan. Along the same lines, Fabian Nicieza is leaving Thunderbolts, to be replaced by Warren Ellis. Which is going to be terrible - Ellis is capable of writing good stuff, but not anything that's remotely like Thunderbolts.

Why can't these people consider the feelings of those who spend most of their lives immersed in other people's fantasy worlds? We're easily disturbed, you know.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Death of Time

My stopwatch has dropped dead. And I have no idea why, because it's practically brand new. It might just be the battery, but I've trawled through my piles of old junk and I can't find a single other item that takes those little silver disc things (my calculator is a freakish kind of calculator that takes big silver disc things), so despite my efforts in digging up a tiny screwdriver to unfasten the tiny screw that holds the stopwatch's battery in place, I can't put a replacement in to check it.

I also can't find the other stopwatch that I was sure I had - Ferdinand Krause's that he left behind in Cambridge and I haven't had an opportunity to return to him yet. Unless I gave it back to him and forgot about it, but I'm almost certain I didn't, because I remember not bringing it to Stuttgart with me. But it's disappeared now, along with the countless small-battery-powered items I know I must have (my dad was always buying me useless trinkets like miniature calculators). Some malevolent force out there just doesn't want me to be able to time things.

Also, if you mishear a trailer for "Law and Order" and think it says "no underwear", what does that say about your subconscious mind?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade into my own parade

So, I quit my job. Well, as you know, I quit it a long, long time ago, but then they asked me to keep working as a 'consultant' part-time for November and December (so basically, doing exactly the same job but in less time). But having thought about it at length, I came to the conclusion that working in December would cause me much more stress and inconvenience than could be made up for by the minimal financial rewards of working eight more days, or the good feeling of not inconveniencing my colleagues. My replacement should be starting next week, assuming there aren't any more delays, so no doubt everything will be running smoothly before long. And if it isn't, what the heck does it matter? We're talking accountancy, after all - nobody really needs accountancy, it only exists to provide work for otherwise untalented bean-counters like me, who without it would be doomed to a life as unproductive members of society.

This of course means I need to get on with doing useful things. I'm already easing back into the memory training, which I haven't done much of for the last month or so, and for the remainder of the month (the bits not fully booked by festive activities) I'm already planning what I'm going to do with the long-postponed How To Be Clever - I want to at least have a proper structure for the book written down with real words and everything, and bits of it composed, researched where necessary and typed up by the end of the year. Ah, the joys of being self-employed. Or, to phrase it more accurately, idle.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Also on Saturday

During the last round of the othello, an accordionist set up shop outside the window and serenaded us with the Tetris theme tune. Sort of confusing if you're the kind of person who automatically starts to visualise differently-shaped blocks falling onto an othello board when that happens.

It reminded me of the first world intelligence championship at the MSO in 1997, when the final day was accompanied by a surprisingly large jazz band playing outside the Royal Festival Hall. That's another example of how much the MSO has gone downhill these days - the only background noise this year was loud hammering and drilling from the builders working in the room next door. Of course, that was also the case with the WMC this year - perhaps next year if we're lucky these competitions will be able to afford a venue that's already been built.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The return of the non-prodigal son!

Here's another VPSer who has a blog that I was completely unaware of until today - my dear adopted son Mythril Knight! Which is doubly exciting, because I genuinely was just thinking about him today on the train on the way home from Cambridge. Go on over and say hello. If you know him already, anyway. If you're one of those readers I keep forgetting about who aren't one of my circle of friends from years ago, then you don't have to.

Anyway, it's been a fun weekend. There were twelve of us at the Christmas friendly othello tournament, plus Aubrey too wrapped up in interviews to play but dropping in for all the parts of the day that involved pubs. I got off to a cracking start in the first round, beating Imre 35-29. Regular readers will recall that beating Imre is a big deal in othello circles, and that I also beat him at the same tournament last year. That makes four times in total, I forget how many times I've played him and lost because I don't tend to remember statistics that don't make me look good, but I still think I've got a pretty darn good win-loss ratio against him.

Anyway, I soon came back down to earth with a thud when I played Geoff in the next round and got well and truly thrashed, although the scoreline of 39-25 makes it look like it was a lot closer than it really was. Still, regular readers will recall that he beat me 63-1 last year, so I'm obviously improving radically. After that, things progressed in the usual way, with me winning some and losing some, and I ended up with four wins out of seven and joint third place with most of the other competitors. Graham won with 7 out of 7, Imre second with 5.

My scores had a rather pretty symmetry in the first five rounds - 35-29, 25-39, 58-6, 15-49, 45-19. It occurred to me that if othello scores work in the same way as poetry, and I don't see any reason why they shouldn't, I was due a 8-56 drubbing in round six, but as it turned out I only lost 42-22. Which was much more satisfactory.

Apart from the actual playing of othello, there was the committee meeting too, in which I volunteered to organise the national championship next year in Derby. So now I'm on the lookout for a cheap and pleasant location for disc-flippers to descend on for a weekend next September.

Also this weekend, I had time for a quick buzz around the charity shops and found a few cartoon tapes that may or may not contain a Looney Tune or two - you can't really tell from the packaging in most cases, but it looks hopeful. Among them, brilliantly enough, is the Krypton Force Videotoons volume 1! I had deduced its existence from the fact that I own volumes two to five, but it was nice to actually find it. There's a Marc cover featuring his representations of both Bugs and Daffy!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Does this automatically make me an old man?

I've got a hot water bottle. It's rather a cool one, it's semi-transparent plastic so you can see the water in it, which I think is groovy, but nonetheless, I can't help thinking that the really trendy young people don't have hotties in their beds. But then, I like something to singe my toes in when I go to bed at night, so nyah to the lot of you. And thank you, Slavoljub Eduard Penkala.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

To work or not to work

I was thinking of going into the office tomorrow. The agreement is for me to go back on Friday and get on with the November accounts, and possibly show things to my replacement, depending when he's starting, but it would probably avoid a lot of stress and unnecessarily long working hours if I went in before the month end and got some stuff done. Besides, I'm going down to Cambridge this weekend for the Christmas othello tournament, so I'd like to knock off early on Friday if at all possible.

On the other hand, I'm not keen on the idea of getting up early in the morning - I've been lying in bed rather later this last couple of weeks, and I'm pretty sure that's good for you. Maybe I could go in for the afternoon? Or maybe I could not bother and just stay in bed all day. I feel like staying up to watch Match of the Day tonight, anyway.

Growing a third hand and being on that, I have half a mind to not go back to work at all. There are plenty of things I could be doing with my time that don't involve working another half a month at a job I decided to leave months and months and months ago. I'm only doing this so as not to make extra work for my boss, who works too much already, and it probably wouldn't put her out too much if I wasn't there after all this month.

If you were wondering "but what about that NaNoWriMo thing? Has he completed fifty thousand words with a day to spare, so that he can glibly speculate about going to the office and accounting when he would be expected to be frantically trying to churn out the closing chapters?", then don't. I've given up on the thing, I'm afraid. Found that I'd got through all the interesting parts of the story with 20,000 words to go, and just couldn't force myself to drag it out to the required length.

Nonetheless, I choose to see this as a life lesson rather than an abject failure - it's taught me some interesting things about how to go about writing, it really has made me stretch my imagination a bit and brought home the realities of writing something lengthy and cohesive. Not to mention the pressures of deadlines. And even the importance of going back and reading what you've written, noticing that a Thursday morning is followed directly after lunch by a Friday afternoon and fixing the timeline of half the book so it makes some kind of sense. It was a fun experience, and I think I'm going to do it again at some arbitrarily-set time period in the near future, rather than waiting till next November.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

This is what I love about this blog

It really is true that however weird or obscure your interests, you'll always find someone on the internet who's into the same thing. Be it Ken H Harrison versus Peter Davidson, My Own Genie, Coco Pops adverts or even Krypton Force videos, I'm always delighted to get a comment from fellow enthusiasts. I've been collecting these things for ages, at charity shops and car boot sales, but it's years since I've seen a new Force Five one. I'd love to hear from anyone else who's got one.

Well, since I now know these late-eighties video releases have such a big fan following, they deserve another blog post devoted to my collection. I have eight Force Five tapes (the American translations of five Japanese anime series from the seventies), four Videotoons (collections of American public domain cartoons from the thirties and forties) and one other tape that isn't a Krypton Force release but does have art from the inimitable "Marc" on the cover. So here's a gallery of the thirteen, with brief comments. Apologies for the plethora of pictures, making it hard to skip this post if you're trying to get to the interesting ones, but it's my blog and I'll do what I like.

My brother's got about ten more Krypton Force tapes, which I'll borrow, scan and narrate here when I get a chance.

This is two GaiKing episodes, normally called "Protectors" by Krypton Force but here labelled "Formators" like Starvengers. Whatever you call it, this one is probably my favourite of the Force Five series - there's a really great Star Trek feel to it, a team of heroes who fly around in the Space Dragon fighting the evil alien invaders the Xelans. Unlike the other series, which focus on three or four characters, this one has eight main characters, most of them with their own cool mecha vehicle and a big support crew of nonentities. Oh, and an annoying kid. There's always an annoying kid. They use weapons like the Miracle Drill and Giant Cutter. This tape has the final two episodes in the series, and good ones too - the first featuring a super-powerful robot in the shape of a young boy who has to find the courage to sacrifice himself to save the team, and the second an all-out big-explosions fight between all the good guys and the bad guys' most powerful robots and the Xelan leader Darius himself (he has a mouth on his forehead and is fifty feet tall). Plus the line "What's that? Xelans on Mount St Helens?"

The front cover, signed by Marc, is a fine example of his work. The central giant head is a Quintesson from a Transformers book, cut-and-pasted (literally, not computerishly) onto the drawing. The other characters are Marc's usual renditions of still-frames from the episodes, and done quite well, too. The two pictures on the back are more cut-outs from a Ladybird Transformers book, if I'm not mistaken. Remember, the key to Krypton Force marketing was to convince gullible children that they were buying Transformers videos, by fair means or foul.


Moving on to the real Formators, or Starvengers, this series focuses on three heroes, each piloting a plane that combines with the others in three different ways to make three different giant robots. Their enemies are the Pandemonium Empire, who try to steal the source of the Starvengers' power, the Star Energizer, on a regular basis. It's very entertaining stuff.

The cover of this one describes it as volume 4, but these numbers seem to be completely randomly assigned to collections - they certainly don't reflect the order the episodes were originally shown. It's another great Marc collage on the front cover, and on the back we have (on the left) the box art from the Transformer Hun-Grr with the head of one of the Starvengers robots drawn on top of it. This same picture was used as the cover of another Krypton Force video. The other two pictures on the back are screenshots - the right-hand one shows Colonel Fuhrer. That's right, he's Adolf Hitler with horns.


More Formators, and a good example of Krypton Force's bizarre titles for their tapes. One of the episodes on this tape does feature a symbol, I suppose, as a minor part of the plot, but why that suggested the title "Havoc Symbol", I can't imagine. As for the subtitle, they seem to have misheard the name of the robot Star Arrow as "Star Erin". Perhaps they were trying to appeal to the Irish market? There's no signature on the front cover, but it looks like a Marc to me.


This one's probably the best of the Starvengers stories - a thrilling two-parter with a great big fight against the Pandemoniums as they finally launch a full-scale invasion of Earth. The Krypton Force approach to packaging these cartoons makes for interesting viewing here - they chop off the opening and closing credits so the two episodes on each tape are joined together without a pause. In this case, we get part one of the story which immediately jumps to a recap of the first part, then part two.

The Marc cover has two heads, three full-body figures, a spaceship and the Earth! I wonder if he got paid extra? And Europe seems to be shaped very strangely. Must have been damaged by the Pandemoniums.


Now we come to Sci-Bots, known in America as Spaceketeers. It's a very lengthy space quest story in which Princess Aurora and the three musketeers-style cyborg heroes travel through the universe trying to save it from the effects of the Dekos energy and the mutated evil creatures it has created. There are two different American translations of the series, strangely enough - this tape is volume two of what I call "Sci-Bots The Movie", which is basically edited highlights of the series all combined into one short-ish storyline. It has different dialogue and voice actors than the regular episodes, it's not just a director's cut. It's also almost unwatchable, because they cut out about 75% of the storyline and what was left doesn't make a great deal of sense.

No signature on the cover picture. I do wonder if they were all by Marc or if there was another, more modest, artist involved in the process too. Or else they just covered up his signature with little captions like the "Sci-Bots fight on" on this one. On the back, we have some pretty pictures of the Transformers Megatron and Ravage.


This one is two of the normal episodes of Spaceketeers/Sci-Bots. Most notable for the Marc cover featuring... a big demon thing of some kind, in the background. It's not anything that features in the cartoon, and judging by the shading it's not something Marc has drawn himself, but I don't know where it was stolen from.


Most Krypton Force videos are organised enough to have two consecutive episodes of the series on them. This one, in the Force Five series with most continuity from one episode to the next, has one episode from early on, followed (without pause or credits, as usual), by a much, much later one. Another unsigned cover, but that's got to be Marc.


Hey, where did those trademark Krypton Force hexagons go? This is the only KF tape I've seen with this unusual background pattern, and the only one I've found with Grandizer (or Orion Quest) cartoons. It's more giant-robot adventures, but with a central theme of flying saucers. Everyone and everything in this series turns into a flying saucer. The enemies here are the Vegans, and this release probably takes the grand prize for Most Incomprehensible Title. What, exactly, is "The Youngest Eclipse" supposed to mean?


Now we come to the Videotoons branch of the Krypton Force VHS empire. This one, volume 2, is the best if like me you're a fan of old Warner Bros cartoons - it has four of them, and rather good ones too. It has a cover in which Marc valiantly attempts to draw a world-famous and recognisable character in Bugs Bunny, and, well, nearly gets it. The titles listed on the back are mostly correct (the cartoons on these tapes have the title cards cut out and probably came to Krypton Force in that state, so they couldn't check the titles just by watching them), except the third one down. "Clubarable"? The real title is "The Unbearable Bear". What did they think "clubarable" meant?


I'm not sure if the rest of the Videotoons are Marcs or not. The style seems a bit different, and there's no signature.


I haven't actually got the tape that's supposed to be in this box - when I bought it, I didn't check the tape inside, which is actually volume 5 (see below). So I'm just having to take a guess at the cartoons on it. I'm still drawing a blank as to the one they call "Porky & Co" - there isn't a Porky Pig cartoon with that name, and I can't work out from the description or the picture which one it would be. Those pictures, by the way, are home-made by Krypton Force. Several of their tapes feature unbelievably primitive title sequences made on what looks like a BBC micro. These next two Videotoons are notable for featuring unusually hi-tech title graphics.


Not much to add here, but how's that for a Freudian slip? The character's name is Betty Boop, people. Boop with a P on the end. And they sold this to children!


One last Marc masterpiece as the bonus feature in this post. I love this one, because he's drawn the whole background by himself. And although he's just copying a still-frame from the cartoon, the perspective is very wonky indeed. Still, I shouldn't criticise. It's not like I can draw that well...

Monday, November 27, 2006

Dogdyke, Tumby Woodside and Trouble House Halt

Part two of the when-I-were-a-lad reminiscences from yesterday - Tumby Woodside railway station, of all things, has a page on Wikipedia. Now, I grew up in Tumby Woodside, and I've never quite understood why it gets listed as a funny place name quite as often as it does. Not when you can walk a mile down the road and find yourself in No Man's Friend or New York, anyway. Lincolnshire is full of sillier names by far. Mavis Enderby, Claxby Pluckacre, Norton Disney, Anton's Gowt, dozens of them.

A book review here of Bill Bryson's book that I haven't read, "Notes From A Small Island", lists the following strange English place names: "Great Shagging, Coldbath Square, Little Puking, Old Toejam, the Buggered Ploughman, Ram's Dropping Bypass, Tumby Woodside, Shepherd's Bush, The Butts". Now, to me at least, good old Tumby Woodside sticks out like a sore thumb from that list. Perhaps there's some double meaning that people who have lived there are just automatically oblivious to?

Not that I'm not grateful to Flanders and Swann for picking the station out of the list of Beeching victims, it gives me another great claim to fame. And speaking of fame, thank you to the person who updated my own Wikipedia page last night and even added a link on the QEGS page. I really wasn't dropping a hint in yesterday's entry, you know. And though I don't want to seem ungrateful, I'm not sure I can allow the assertion that I'm 'one of England's best othello players' to stand. Not to mention the line that I recently quit my job and started a career as an author - that really does suggest much more coherent forward-planning than I can honestly take credit for.

Of course, I'm too modest to amend my own entry to, for example, include my other world records (hour cards and ten minute cards). Not dropping a hint, there.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Those were the days, my friend

I've been feeling a bit nostalgic this weekend. It started out as a more looking-at-wikipedia mood, because I've been increasingly staggered by the weird people and things that have got pages on there nowadays. It turned out that even my old school has a proper page to itself - check out Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Horncastle. It occurred to me that I don't think I've ever mentioned QEGS here before, which seems terribly unfair on the old place. After all, it probably wasn't all bad, despite what I might have thought at the time. Looking at the official website, it seems that it's now got a new Arts Centre with Performance Studio, that looks like a sort of avant-garde garden shed. I'm trying to work out where it is, looking at the buildings in the background, but I'm drawing a blank. Maybe that's a picture of a completely different building, in Basingstoke or somewhere, that they're trying to pass off as part of the school in order to lure thespians.

Until a few years ago, there used to be a bit on the school website about the chess club, mentioning that "doubles chess" was still popular there. That was my contribution to school history - or mine, Noddy's, Jimmy's and Slosh's, anyway, so I hope the young folk are still playing it.

I did consider adding my name to the extensive list of alumnus on the Wikipedia page, but that would probably just make it look even more ridiculous. And it would give the impression that I think I'm as cool and successful as Robert Webb (who was a brilliant comedian even as a schoolboy, by the way). But still, my poor little stub could use some more links to it. I've been meaning for ages to write a page for the memory competition scene (or at least just translate the extensive German version), but I've never got round to it.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Kill Christopher Biggins

It became necessary to assassinate Christopher Biggins, and so the celebrated murderer Richard Higginbottom was employed for the task. He went about the job in his usual professional way, disguising himself as a librarian in order to research Biggins' life and establish important facts such as how tall he was, whether he was bulletproof and how often he checks his food for poison before eating. Many murderers skimp on this kind of preparation and just end up making fools of themselves. In this case, Higginbottom discovered that Christopher Biggins is immune to all conventional forms of assassination unless he is in an unusually distracted state of mind.

Accordingly, Richard Higginbottom set about constructing an elaborate scenario to mentally disorient his victim. Disguising himself as a schoolteacher, he recreated the most traumatic event of Christopher Biggins's past - the time when as a five-year-old he had successfully persuaded his primary school's board of governors to allow a ravenous Bengal tiger to wander freely around the school, with the result that several dozen children were severely upset. Higginbottom ensured that his reconstruction of the events was accurate in every way and issued a press release alleging that the whole incident was Biggins's fault. Unfortunately, however, Christopher Biggins was at that time on holiday in Barbados and didn't hear about it.

Disguising himself as a man, Richard Higginbottom travelled to Barbados armed with several tons of explosives and a seahorse with extensive psychological problems. Obviously the plan was to stuff the latter with the former and introduce it to Christopher Biggins at a party. From that point onwards, things should have flowed automatically - Biggins would offer the seahorse a cigarette to take its mind off its problems, it would light it and explode in a cataclysmic conflagration, Biggins would be momentarily perturbed by the possibility that he had provoked a suicide, and Higginbottom would be able to run up and hit him over the head with a sledgehammer.

Unfortunately, however, Christopher Biggins died of natural causes immediately after Higginbottom's plane touched down in Barbados, obliging him to murder Ringo Starr instead. The worldwide outpouring of grief at this tragedy forced the laws on murder to be changed, several pantomimes to be cancelled and a horse to survive a heart attack that would otherwise have killed it. If there's a moral to all this, then I sure as heck don't know what it is.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Freshwater perils

I've just seen a trailer for Happy Feet, which I might possibly go and see if I can summon the energy, that warns that it contains 'very mild danger'. Don't they rate films by the levels of peril any more? I always appreciated the enormously weird use of the word 'peril'.

Other things in peril at the moment are this alleged novel I've been trying to write. I need to do another nearly 2000 words today if I'm going to stay on schedule. And I can tell you now, I'm not going to. I'm sorry I've been writing about writing so much just lately, by the way. It's just that I really haven't been doing much else this week apart from writing and finding excuses not to write. Mainly the latter.

I have set foot out of doors once or twice, though, and I'm quite infuriated by the fact that the Eagle centre seem not to have got the singing tree this year. They've got Santa's grotto instead, which I think is a disgrace. What's more Christmassy, Santa Claus or a singing deciduous tree with an inexplicable raccoon sticking its head out the top and joining in with high-pitched harmonies? There should be a petition. I'd write to my MP, only it was probably her idea to get rid of the tree in the first place.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Man of the year

I looked up in the city centre today, and noticed a little statue in an alcove on the exterior wall of a shop, up on the first floor level. It's of a guy called Jedediah Strutt. So I researched him on the internet, and it turns out he was an 18th-century inventor who made an improvement to the process of stocking manufacture, and owned a lot of cotton mills in Belper. They'll build statues of anyone nowadays. His grandson was an MP and became the first Baron Belper, a title that apparently still exists - I should pay more attention to the local aristocracy in case I ever need to line them up against a wall when the revolution comes.

But then, there are statues of all kinds of weird people. Back in Boston, in the market place there was a great big statue of Herbert Ingram, who founded the Illustrated London News. And later drowned in the Lady Elgin disaster while on a trip to America, although that part wasn't mentioned on the statue. Which is a shame, because it's the most interesting thing he ever did. Absolutely nobody in Boston ever so much as noticed that the statue even existed, let alone knew who was on it. That's how I'd like to be immortalised - on a statue somewhere out of the way that nobody pays any attention to. That'd be cool.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tappity tap

And as the bleak hopelessness and futility of Lavinia's life overwhelms her one cold, rainy night in a waiting room at Grantham train station, the author wonders why he didn't pick a more cheerful kind of book to write.

But at least I'm nicely ahead of schedule still. All I have to worry about as the story thunders towards the half-way point is that it's going to finish before 50,000 words at this rate. It might not, though, we'll see how it goes over the next week or so. And I can always go back and add a few more scenes here and there without it looking too much like blatant padding to my inner editor and critics.

I'm re-watching this week's Torchwood ("Countrycide") at the moment - it was a very good one. The plot doesn't come close to standing up to any kind of scrutiny, but the atmosphere it creates is so brilliant that you barely notice. It's tense and scary and full of nice character interaction between the five leads. Big thumbs-up from me, anyway.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The sweet smell of success

Fond as I am of this little flat, I had come to the inescapable conclusion that it pongs a bit. So, taking matters firmly in hand, I decided to get some more air freshener and today, about a year after running out, got some. I also on a whim decided to get one of those things that you plug into the socket and it spreads smelly stuff around the room. The end result is that the flat still stinks, but in a different kind of way. I'm undecided as to whether this new stench is an improvement, but we'll see what someone less numbed to unpleasant odours thinks when they next set foot inside the place.

Anyway, I don't care because for once I'm satisfied with my NaNoWriMo output for the day. After all that slacking off over the first twenty days, I was left needing to write 3500 words a day for the last ten. Well, day one and I've managed that and a little bit more on top, so I'm delighted! It's utter drivel, obviously, but I don't care. I've got forty minutes till Torchwood comes on, I'm going to do a bit more now and get nicely ahead of myself in anticipation of a creative slump in the next few days.

The really cool part is that I'm not at all sick of Lavinia, Jake, Mike and all the rest of my cast yet, even though I've been writing about them long after the initial burst of excitement has worn off. Yay!

Monday, November 20, 2006

La di da di dum, la di da di dum, what's the name of that song?

I had an email today to say that the Chinese Memory Championships will happen in Shanghai on December 23rd, and asking me if I want to come. Christmas in China - the idea is eccentric enough that I'd seriously consider it. But is it possible to arrange a trip to China in a month, or do you have to mess about with getting visas and immunizations and things in advance?

Anyway, have you see the TV show "Raven"? It's a brilliant children's adventure game show, sort of along the lines of Knightmare or The Crystal Maze, except that the six competitors are all competing against each other. It's set in some very scenic forest surroundings, with a wide range of physical and mental challenges, all hosted by Raven - a man who turns into a bird occasionally, complete with feathery cloak and hair done to make it look like feathers. James Mackenzie, in the title role, is fantastic, he's got real presence. And the whole production has some very nice special effects that don't get in the way but do add to the air of magic in the whole thing. I love it, and I'm going to have to add it to the list of cool children's game shows that I never got to go on (Knightmare, Funhouse, etc). I bet I'm the only person in the world who's still accumulating childhood traumas at the age of thirty.

Oh, and while we're talking about people who've spent years of their lives entertaining children, let's hear it for John "T-Shirt" Hasler. He's great, and needs to be on TV more than he is, if any producers are reading this.

One more link, and then I'll stop it and go back to just wittering on about whatever comes into my head for the future. This is the theme tune for today's blog. It's stuck in my head, despite my best efforts to mentally transmogrify it into the strangely-similar-when-you-think-about-it Chelsea Daggers. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

So, plans

I don't have to go back into work until December 1st (although I might go in one day before that so as not to be unduly stressed when I'm there), and I need to get on with things. I'm a quarter of the way through my fifty thousand words, so there's a lot of scribbling needs doing over the next eleven days. There's memory training to catch up on, because I need to stay in mental shape over the winter even if there aren't any competitions, and over the next fortnight I want to properly plan out "How To Be Clever" and get some kind of schedule sorted out for writing it.

Or I might just stay in bed the whole time. I'll see how I feel. It's November, after all, and kind of gloomy outside.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Elves and the Zoomy

Someone's fixed my bike! The rear brake was broken, and I was going to take it to get it fixed this morning, but someone has rather ingeniously cobbled it back together while it was sitting in the front hall. I have no idea who - I haven't seen any of my neighbours or landlord around today to ask them, so I can safely assume it was a roving gang of magic pixies. It really does give you a warm fuzzy feeling to be on the receiving end of a Random Act Of Kindness, though - I'm going to have to be more assiduous about performing them every Friday like I'm supposed to.

I do still need to get the bike fixed professionally, of course, the repair job is only a temporary kind of affair, but since I could ride down the hill without dying today I didn't bother, and went to Nottingham instead. While there, I was grabbed by someone conducting market research and, being in the mood to do someone else a favour, agreed to it. It involved going to a room nearby, watching adverts on a computer screen and saying whether they were effective or not. So if a hopeless Bradford & Bingley advert ever makes it to the screen it won't be my fault - I gave it a real critical panning.

But what if the advertising executives who produced this advert are the same people who fixed my bike? I'd feel like a real heel.

Friday, November 17, 2006

And there's more

Okay, I was just going to do a quick cloak-related blog entry tonight and get back to writing "Sympathy", but then I felt I had to say something about the sheer silliness of the situation I find myself in. Why am I writing about my characters having an eventful day trip to Bath to watch a rugby match in 1981 when I know little or nothing about the town, the game or the year? Yes, writing a thinly-veiled autobiography is probably the worst thing you can possibly do for a first "novel", but I could have stuck to what I know just a little bit more. Ah well, that's where inspiration has led me, we'll just have to see what happens...

Cloak and dagger

It occurs to me that since bringing my black cloak back from Brazil in July, I haven't found a single appropriate occasion for wearing it. The poor thing's been lying on my bedroom floor, buried under the rest of my junk, all this time. You'd think there would be plenty of events for which you'd want to dress up in a big black cloak. I'm going to have to start wearing it to go out to the shops, although it'll get caught up in the wheels of my bike if I'm not careful with it.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A soap impression

I stayed up late last night to listen to Virgin Radio playing the "new Beatles album" Love, in full. Now, as I've mentioned here before, I'm a very big fan of the Beatles, and listening to them for an hour and a half last night was a wonderful experience, but I don't honestly think I'm going to buy this album. I have trouble seeing what the point of it is, other than making another pile of money for everyone involved (does Paul McCartney hate it so much when his bank balance drops below a billion pounds?)

If you're not up to date with what the middle-aged kids are listening to these days, "Love" is basically George Martin and his son rummaging through all the old Beatles master tapes and putting them together in new and exciting ways. It's a strange selection - some songs sound identical to the originals, some are enhanced by funny noises in the background. Most have intros composed of patched-together snippets of intros from four or five other Beatles songs. The highlight is George Harrison's unspeakably beautiful acoustic demo version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", but there are other little-known bits and pieces in the mix too. But really, who is this aimed at? Ardent fans like me who've got the albums and Anthologies already? There's a bit of fun to be had in spotting which tracks each little bit of sound or music comes from, but personally I prefer to listen to them as they were originally created. Yet the whole project is too fanboyish to be of much interest to non-fans. And I honestly don't think the new mixes have any objective artistic merit.

Which segues nicely into another topic - I'm really stalled on this "novel" of mine. I just find it very, very difficult to write something over a long period of time. I have the attention span of a hyperactive butterfly when it comes to writing - if I can churn something out over one writing session, two at most, I'm fine with it, but having to work on something piece by piece, a thousand words or so at a time, really snags my creative impulses somehow. After the initial burst of creativity, what I'm writing gets ever more dull and uninspired. Even when I know what's meant to happen in the bit I'm writing about (I do have the whole structure of the book at least vaguely sketched out in my head), it's hard to put it down on paper without it seeming forced and flat.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of problem this whole exercise was designed to force me to get my head round, so I'm certainly not giving up on it. And I still think I can manage 50,000 words by the end of the month - it's just going to be hard, and it's most definitely not going to be pretty. That said, I've been lazy today and done nothing at all, unless you count going out to the corner shop for some sweets. It counts as a legitimate writer's expense, because I thought a sugar rush might stimulate me a bit. Either that or it was a medical necessity on account of the diabetes.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

So sweet I'd kill a diabetic

I had a phone call from the head HR person at the office this morning - "Hi Ben, just a quick question, hope you don't mind. Do you take insulin for diabetes?"

Me: "...No."

Her: "Oh, sorry, I must have been misinformed. Bye."

Now, obviously it's part of some nefarious plot against me that someone is spreading rumours about me being an insulin-dependent diabetic, but I can't quite work out what the plan would involve. I suppose I'll just have to wait until it runs its course and ends up with someone taking over the world.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Vile acts of base treason!

There are three flagpoles out the front of our office building. I assume they're relics of the car dealership days. But rather than letting them go to waste, we have a Union Jack on one of them, and at the moment a Chinese flag on another, to celebrate our latest big deal involving schools in China. But I just noticed this morning that the Union Jack is upside-down. I don't know if it's always been like that, or if someone's just done it today - probably the latter, because I always check flags to see if they're the right way up. I pride myself on knowing how to spot an upside-down Union Jack, and you'd be surprised how few of them you see.

I didn't tell anyone about it, because it never really came up in the conversation. I think I'll leave it till the Queen next comes to visit and is mortally offended, and has the chairman's head chopped off.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Life is hard

I find myself in the rare situation of not having the faintest idea what to write about tonight. Nothing really new or exciting has happened in any of my favourite subjects, as far as I can recall. Am I being unreasonable in feeling hard-done-by because the universe hasn't thrown anything more spectacular than a dull day at work at me?

Never mind, I'm just working till Friday, and then I've got very nearly two weeks of freedom before I have to go back again. I think I'm going to need all that free time to write this "novel" (it really needs the quotation marks right now) that I'm grinding out slowly but surely. Not to mention I need to do some solid, lengthy memory training sessions. Just to get back into the swing of things and keep my eye in before I get distracted by December and Christmassy things...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

In his fancy chapeau, he's a leader with taste

I've got a new hat! I saw it in M&S and quite liked the look of it, so I thought I might as well give it a try and see how it works. It's a bit different from the old one, it's a fedora, made of pure wool apparently (seems like a strange thing to make a hat out of, but that's what the label says), and it's black, of course. The brim isn't as wide as the old one's, so we'll have to see just how well it works at hiding my eyes while playing othello. It works fine in the important function of propping up my stopwatch on my desk.

Rather than doing anything useful this afternoon, I've been reading guides to Pacman. It fascinates me that people have gone into such depth analysing how the ghosts move, planning the optimum routes to run around each level and relentlessly playing it for hours and hours to get all the way to the end. And what reward do you get for all this effort? A bug in the program means that it crashes when it gets to level 256. And all the levels from 21 to 255 are identical. This is a task that takes real dedication and resistance to boredom. Possibly even more so than winning a memory competition!

Did you know there's a little spot in the maze where you can 'park' Pacman so that the ghosts just leave him alone? Top players use it to take a break now and then during marathon sessions. If I had unlimited money and space, I'd track down and buy as many old arcade games as I could and keep them all in my own private arcade. And by 'private' I mean inviting everybody to come and play on them as much as they like, obviously. Modern arcades aren't a patch on the way they used to be.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

3706 down, 46294 to go

And I worked that out in my head, too. And then corrected it when I realised I'd got it wrong. Anyway, I promise that this is the only time I'll start a blog post with "x down, y to go", seeing as everyone else who's doing NaNoWriMo is doubtless doing exactly the same thing in their own blogs (all of which are no doubt much more worth reading than mine). But anyway, I've got started. Not a huge amount, but enough for me to be happy with.

I'm not saying it's good writing, but I am secretly thinking it. It's not as bad as I thought it would be, anyway. And I think I have cracked the whole writer's block thing, anyway (thanks Josh for the advice!)

I'm still not going to let anybody read the finished product, though. It's not THAT good.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Act Naturally

Okay, check THIS out! "Paramount Pictures has acquired screen rights to the Joshua Foer book "Moonwalking With Einstein" in a preemptive deal and will develop it as a potential directing vehicle for Nacho Libre scribe Mike White.

Variety says the book is set for publication by Penguin in late 2009, and the rights to it were auctioned on the basis of a proposal.

Foer is writing his own story. A young journalist who discovered there was a world of competitive memorizers, Foer spent a year learning the techniques and became a competitor who won both the U.S. and World Memory Championships."


Now, if we ignore for a moment the involvement of the Nacho Libre guy, who would presumably interpret it as a hilarious gross-out comedy subtitled "War of the Nerds", I think there's definitely potential in turning that (future bestselling) book into a movie. Obviously, as the paragraphs above suggest, we'd need to make a few alterations to the way things actually happened, such as changing things so that Josh in fact won the World Memory Championship last year, and to make it more realistic there'd have to be a bit of added action, drama and sex, of course. And I'd have to be the bad guy, because in American movies it's the law that the Englishman is the villain. So I think it would go something like this:

Intrepid reporter Joshua Foer (Brad Pitt) uncovers evidence of a major terrorist conspiracy within the World Memory Championship. To investigate, he enlists the help of eccentric scientist Edward Cooke (Eric Idle) and gorgeous Austrian memory expert, swimsuit model and part-time secret agent Astrid Plessl (Nicole Kidman) to train as a memory master. [I don't think Josh has ever met Astrid, but every movie needs a love interest] After a variety of high-speed car chases, naked wrestling and reciting pi to 100,000 places, it turns out that the villain isn't sinister cult leader Tony Buzan (Ian McKellen) or macho German mastermind Clemens Mayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), but snide nasty English memory man Ben Pridemore (Alan Rickman) who has memorised the zillion-figure code to hack into the world's nuclear arsenals and blow up the President of the USA. Fortunately, in a tense finale, Joshua recalls that during training he memorised the zillion-and-three-figure code to turn the nuclear missiles back off again. He recites it flawlessly, and in the process wins the World Memory Championships as well as saving the world.

I expect royalties for this.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I can't write!

Dagnabbit, this whole NaNoWriMo thing was meant to be a fun little exercise in breaking down my inhibitions and forcing myself to write a serious book, but I've got a terminal case of writer's block. Or do you have to actually have written something before it counts as writer's block? Okay, possibly I've got non-writer's block, but whatever the diagnosis, my muse is clammed up like... well, like a clam, I suppose. When did you last see a book written by a clam on the Sunday Times bestseller list? 1997, I think it was. And that was only at number six.

See, I can write things like that with no problem, but the idea here was to write something in a different kind of style, to broaden my interior horizons and make me a more well-rounded writer. And it's not working. Okay, technically it's only the 9th of November and I've got plenty of time to get cracking and still churn out the required word count, but the outlook is pretty bleak at the moment.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Other things I did on my holiday

I woke up on Monday morning realising that I'd composed a truly beautiful tribute song to Peter Cook, to the tune of "Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs" as background music for a dream. I should maybe record it and make millions, although the lyrics I can remember didn't actually make any sense and certainly didn't relate to Pete Cook's life in any way.

Also while I was in Germany, I found a couple of minutes to write a side and a half of A4 of my NaNoWriMo novel. Narrow ruled paper, and I write quite small, but it's still quite a way behind schedule, especially since I haven't written anything since I got back home. I'll start on it properly once I've written this blog entry, I promise.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What I did on my winter holidays

As best I can recall, the whole adventure started last Thursday. The flight was at 9:20, which meant getting up early in order to get down to Birmingham in good time, but not excessively so. For some reason, I was unusually nervous about getting on the plane, and I have no idea why. On the train, I was contemplating going back home until a magpie persuaded me otherwise (I'm superstitious about magpies in a way that I've made up myself - if I see a single magpie while I'm thinking of doing something, I don't do it. If I see two, I do it. You'd be surprised how many major decisions in my life have been influenced by magpies. But apart from that, I'm perfectly normal). At the airport, there seemed to be a lot of announcements calling for people who hadn't got on the planes and were about to have their luggage taken back out of the hold and dumped somewhere, so perhaps nerves about flying was being caused by a virus going around. Anyway, I did get on the plane and nothing happened, so nyah.

I travelled down to Gießen with no problems - as I've mentioned before, I love German trains, and especially the multilingual ticket machines that tell you not just which trains to get, but even which platform they'll all leave from. It's just so much cooler than the British system of just pulling into a random platform and leaving the passengers to guess. I had the afternoon to look around, and concluded that Gießen is a really great city. It's small but has a big university, which presumably accounts for the disporportionate number of bookshops. And yes, I like German bookshops. I can read the language quite well, I just can't speak it. Discovered the most absolutely hilarious series of books - "Nichtlustig", by Joscha Sauer. There's a website too. What there isn't, and really should be, is an English edition - I'm going to make it my mission to translate all the cartoons and try to get it published over here. It wouldn't be too difficult - only a handful of them are based on untranslatable plays on words, and I think people the world over need to be introduced to the stark raving mad Herr Riebmann and the unfortunate man whose wall he lives in, the mad scientists, the creatively suicidal lemmings, the yetis and Frank the octopus, the poodle of Death and the array of other characters who populate it.

But I was talking about what I did in Germany, rather than what I read. And I thought it was a lovely city, very pretty and scenic. I seem to be in the minority in this, because even the tour guide the next day seemed to think it was some kind of concrete nightmare. I obviously have no taste for architecture - I like Coventry too, if it comes to that. Anyway, I was staying in a pleasant hotel called the Hotel Köhler, as were pretty much all the other competitors in the Mental Calculation World Cup. Three of them said hello to me when they saw me, forcing me to have a cheerful conversation with them without giving away the fact that I couldn't remember their names. Things got a lot less socially awkward when we got to the Mathematikum and got our name badges.

The Mathematikum is something that the city of Gießen apparently takes great pride in - it's a mathemuseum, I suppose you'd call it, basically full of exhibits designed to persuade children that maths is fun. I liked it, but then I've always liked maths anyway (and a lot of the exhibits were only very tangentially related to anything mathematical). There's a very cool chaos pendulum. Also, there's a big conference room, where the World Cup was to take place. It started with a meal on the Thursday night, refreshingly not consisting entirely of potatoes this time, then a magical mystery tour of the city on Friday.

This tour was long and often surprisingly interesting. We circled the town centre a couple of times in the bus while the tour guide pointed out the few bits and pieces that weren't destroyed in the war (I felt like I should apologise on behalf of the Allies), then went out to the ruined monastery and castle on top of two of the surrounding hills. Those were extremely cool. Although the most entertaining part of the tour was Beate Bischler's guide dog, who is the work hard, play hard kind of working dog and spent the tour running wildly around with a stick the size of a small tree, daring people to try to take it from him.

Then it was back to the Mathematikum for Ralf Laue's lecture on memory techniques (preceded by me trying, and spectacularly failing, to memorise 270 binary digits in a minute), and then the Freestyle Show, where various brave competitors and visitors demonstrated a trick involving calculation or numbers. I had another go at the one minute binary, and didn't do any better this time round. There were about thirteen other performances, including Boris Konrad (who was there as a judge in between organising the memory competition for Sunday) doing speed stacking, Matthias Kesselschläger doing calendar calculations faster than is humanly possible, Ulrich Voight demonstrating pi memory and finishing with Rüdiger Gamm doing by far the most impressive act.

I've seen it before, at the last WCMC, but it's still darn cool. He asks the audience for a two-digit number and raises it to the tenth power. Then another one to the 13th, then another to the 20th, then another to the 50th. By which time we're talking dozens of digits in the answer. It always goes down well with the crowd. What's more, it's something I could do - and by that I mean it's something that I couldn't possibly do, but could do if I had the time, dedication and attitude you need for something like that, because it's not a calculation trick like it looks, it's memory. And it involves memorising fewer digits than I did of pi, it looks a lot more impressive, and it's the kind of thing I should look at doing when someone next asks me for a performance, rather than live memorisation in front of an audience, which I quite clearly can't do.

There was a prize for the best performance, based on audience applause. Rüdiger being there made it easy for the spectators - since everybody in the room was clearly in agreement that he was best, they could just give everybody a big hand and then double it for him.

That just left the actual competition to do, on the Saturday. I overslept and missed the photo session at the start, but got there in time to catch the first round. I wasn't the only memory guy competing this time - there was also Melik Duyar from Turkey, who competed in the WMC in 1994 and 1999, and Alexander Drygalla, who like me was doing the insane two competitions, two cities, two days thing. Also there were Robert Fountain, the only other British competitor (like last time - we really need to get more British people out to these things), plus Gert Mittring and Jan van Koningsveld, who between them are pretty much the elite of the mental calculation competition world. 26 competitors in all, which is a lot more than the first one. Hopefully it'll continue to grow.

I did really badly, but then I hadn't been practising as much as I did in 2004, so I've got a sort of excuse. An interesting thing about mental calculation competitions like this one is that it's expected that there will be 'suprise' tasks, where you don't know what kind of mental calculation will be involved. Compare that to memory competitions, which always lay out in advance exactly what will be memorised, and in what format. The first surprise task this year was addition and subtraction of fractions (very uninspired - that's one of the examples of surprise tasks listed in the rules!), but the second was a cool idea - you're given random four-digit numbers and have to name the lowest prime number higher than each. I liked it, although I wasn't any good at it.

Mental calculators, much more than memorisers, like to wander around talking to each other about their own particular speciality, and can often be seen scribbling numbers on pieces of paper to illustrate their point. Everyone has a different area of interest, but there's enough overlap that everyone else finds it fascinating too. It's a very social kind of thing.

Anyway, I ended up 13th out of 26 - top half, which is the kind of thing I was aiming for. Alexander was 12th, Robert won again (and said he was just lucky, presumably for the second time in a row). So after the prizegiving it was straight down to Stuttgart for part two of the weekend's entertainment. Well, almost straight down - one of the trains was late by about ten minutes! I was horrified. The Holiday Inn is about fifteen minutes out of town by the local trains, in Weilimdorf. The S-Bahn ends in "Weil der Stadt", which makes me think "Because the town what?". I got there at a reasonable kind of time and got a good night's sleep.

The first MemoryXL Open Memory Championship, as opposed to the German Open Memory Championship which didn't happen this year (politics), had twenty competitors, including Clemens, Gunther, Boris, Cornelia and Johannes, which has to count as a world-class field. Also Corinna from Austria, and my regular blog-readers Mike Smauley and Simon Reinhard, among others. Actually, as it turned out practicallly all of the mental calculation and memory people are avid readers of this thing now. Fame at last.

Boris had set everything up, but because he was competing himself the task of creating the stuff to be memorised, and generally running the show, fell to Phil Chambers and Gabby Kappus, who did a fantastic job, aided and abetted by a team of volunteers. We had some major delays towards the end, just when I was thinking we were doing really well for being only an hour behind schedule, but nothing out of the ordinary. My performance was surprisingly awful. I was never really in contention, and ended up a long way behind the leaders. I don't seem to be able to bring out my best in a competition any more. That's something I'll go into more detail about at a later date, because I think it merits a whole post to itself (I like talking about myself, you see).

The real excitement of the competition was Cornelia versus Clemens - although in fact Johannes took the early lead in five minute words with 81, Cornelia had 80, which after she'd done a really impressive 751 in five-minute binary gave her a clear lead. Gunther wasn't on his best form either, but he did 726. Clemens struck back with names and faces, one of his specialist subjects, and a new world record of 71, followed by a 680 in 15-minute numbers. Cornelia was right behind him in both though, and still safely in the lead. This isn't the kind of thing Clemens is used to lately, and maybe the pressure affected him for once in ten-minute cards, when he only got two packs. In ten-minute cards I produced my only good score of the competition, doing six packs without any difficulty. That actually pushed me up to third place, but it didn't last. I had a disastrous 140 in speed numbers (Clemens got 260 and Cornelia 258, with Gunther top-scoring with 320), then Clemens had the top score in abstract images, and again outpointed Cornelia in historic dates (although Johannes notched up a fantastic 86 to steal the show), before getting the best result in spoken numbers, albeit with a low-by-his-standards 100. That left Cornelia a mere 50 points or so ahead with just speed cards to go.

While I was faffing about trying 33-second packs and making a mess of it both times, Clemens did 49.8 seconds to really throw down the gauntlet, and although Cornelia managed a one minute pack in the second attempt, it still wasn't quite enough to keep up with him. So Clemens's winning run continues unabated, Cornelia's second place suggests that she might be a candidate to finally end it next year, Gunther came third, Boris fourth and Johannes fifth. I was sixth, which gets me a medal with a 6 on it (there's always lots of prizes at German competitions), but not a trophy to squeeze into my rucksack. And Boris said they'd got small ones just for my benefit, too. Ah well. Simon was just fractionally behind me in seventh. It could have been worse, I suppose.