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.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Proper travelogue or disorganised ramblings?

That's the dilemma facing me at the moment. It's ten past nine and I've just found out that South Park is on telly for the next hour, and two episodes I haven't seen before, too. Balanced against that is the fact that I really need to write about what I've been doing for the last five days, and if I'm going to do it justice I really ought to spend some time actually writing, rather than letting my fingers bounce randomly around the keyboard while I've got both eyes on the idiot box.

Nope, sorry, TV too compelling, got to get up tomorrow morning and go to stupid work. Tomorrow I'll write proper stuff. Rather than writing that book that I'm already so behind on.

Anyway, coming back today the woman at the security bit saw something suspicious sticking out of my badly-packed rucksack - a cheap detective kit that came free with a Fix & Foxi comic I bought (I always like to check out what Fix and Foxi are up to whenever I'm in Germany, and I bought the latest ones this time mainly because I wanted to make fun of the rather badly-translated English-language story included in one of them. That's another thing I'll do tomorrow). Anyway, this detective kit contained a cylinder of some unidentified grey powder for dusting for fingerprints, so she confiscated it. I mean, I'm all in favour of preventing people from blowing up planes, but a Fix and Foxi detective kit? That's just mean.

Oh, and if you were reading this in the hope of finding out what happened in the competitions I was in at the weekend, good has triumphed over evil. But only because I'm not allowed to refer to other people as evil any more - I came 13th out of 26 competitors in the mental calculations, which could have been a lot worse, and 6th out of 20 in the memory competition, which is absolutely awful. Still, the whole experience has given me a new perspective on the whole memory thing, which I think is quite significant. I'll tell more in due course.

Sorry if anyone feels just slightly short-changed by this blog entry.