Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hootenanny!

Note: The following has been slightly edited, much as this goes against my stream-of-consciousness principles, in case I get sued by the person I originally named in Resolution 4. He has been replaced by Wilson, the Space Aubergine, a character I just invented who bears no resemblance to any human or aubergine living or dead.

Happy New Year, everyone! My resolutions:

1) To develop a new kind of trousers that are somewhere between the full-length kind and those weird three-quarter-length ones that cool people wear nowadays, and become a millionaire by selling them. The secret to this will be to buy lots of normal trousers in bulk and sell them to people who are one-eighth of a leg taller than the people the trousers were designed for.

2) To encourage people to wear skirts on top of their seven-eighths-length trousers, thus doubling the profits of my clothing company and making me a millionaire.

3) To start up a clothing company of some kind in order to facilitate resolutions one and two, and encourage gullible people to invest hugely in "Memory Clothes plc - the only clothing company endorsed by a World Memory Champion as far as is known", thus making me a millionaire before I even sell any trousers or skirts.

4) Consult someone like Wilson, the space aubergine for advice on how to encourage gullible people to invest in manifestly unprofitable schemes like the above, but present the request for help in such an exciting way that instead of me paying him for the consultation, he gives me lots of money as well as the advice, thus making me a millionaire before I even act on the advice received.

5) Set some lateral-thinking expert like Edward de Bono the challenge of re-ordering my resolution list in such a way that I don't have to do the resolutions in sort-of-reverse-order-except-for-the-first-two, because that would just be confusing. Also require him to pay me an entry fee sufficient to make me a millionaire, for the privilege. And also, while he's at it, to rewrite resolution number four so that it doesn't look like some kind of scathing Private-Eye-style satire of Wilson, the space aubergine's business dealings (about which I know nothing), because that wasn't my intention at all, but now when I come to look at it... well, I'm too lazy to change it, anyway.

6) Having become a millionaire, five times over, give the money away to someone else, picked at random from the world's population, because being a millionaire would be no fun at all. And besides, what would I resolve next year?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 2000s

You know, this decade has been generally memory-themed for me, starting with my first competition (and simultaneously my first introduction to the basic principles of memory techniques) in 2000. I sort of feel like the 2010s should also involve some entirely new challenge for me. I should make an effort to enter as many new and unusual competitions next year as I possibly can, in the hope that one or more of them will click for me in the same way as memory has. That way, in December 2019, I can sit back and say 'Yep, now I'm the undisputed world champion snail-shell-rotator [or whatever my new hobby turns out to be], I can move on to the challenges of the 2020s without feeling at all like I've already achieved everything I'm going to be remembered for in this life...'

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rain is rubbish

I'm fed up of living in the part of the country that never gets the snow. I realise that I hate snow when I have to go out in it, but I don't really need to go out for the next few days, so I'd like to be able to look at it from the window. So yes, I'm going to have to move somewhere arctic. Or just anywhere else in Britain.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Barton in Fabis?

Hey, I've just noticed there's a village called 'Barton in Fabis' really quite close to here, over on the unfashionable side of the River Trent. That's probably what the street I live on is named after. And I always assumed it was just somebody called Barton. Maybe I'll go there and see what it's like, but I probably won't.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happy That-Bit-Between-Christmas-And-The-New-Year!

I don't know why I never blog on Christmas Day, even if I'm at home in the evening, nor why I didn't blog last night either. Perhaps my latest new year resolution will be to actually blog something every night, like I always intend to. Anyway, yesterday I was helping out in the big Boots store in Nottingham, and today I've been devoting my time to doing absolutely nothing at all. And now I've got seven more entirely work-free days before I have to go back to the office in the far-distant future world of 2010.

I've got plans for this next week. I'm going to learn to speak both Japanese and Chinese, get back into the routine of memory training again and also clean up my flat and do all kinds of productive things. At least, those are the plans. We'll see what happens in reality.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Number One

I'm reliably informed that Current TV called me the number one geek-we-all-love last night, and played my 'pod' (which is what they call programmes on Current TV, because Current TV is 'cool' and 'down with the kids') from several years ago. You can watch it here if you haven't seen it before. Disturbingly, I had a lot less white in my beard back then, and it was only, what, three years ago?

The really entertaining bit about that page is the comment-threads. Because Current TV is all about viewer-created content (or, as they call it, 'VC-squared', which to my obviously uncool ears sounds just about the squarest phrase it's possible to make up), everybody who commented did so with some bland 'hey, this is a good pod' thing (although at least they all made some specific reference to the content, to prove they're not just spambots) and followed it up with 'please check out my pod at the following link...'.

This is still quite flattering, because obviously they think that this 'pod', and its creator (who's almost a real TV person, not a member of the public) are among the coolest things on Current TV, and they can achieve fame by attracting its many viewers to come and see their own efforts.

In all seriousness, though, it's completely and totally groovy to be adulated as the coolest geek of them all. As I said in an uncharacteristically snappy soundbite in a newspaper interview at the WMC, "I'm absolutely a nerd, and I'm very proud of it. I'm the nerd who all the other nerds look up to and want to be like, and that's a wonderful thing to be." If that's how I'm remembered by history, I'll be delighted!

Also, Happy Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

RIP Top Cat

There was an article on the BBC News today announcing the sad news that Arnold Stang, the voice of Top Cat, has died, aged 91. It's a good innings - I'd sort of assumed he'd died years ago, to be honest. Anyway, fanatical cartoon fan though I am, he's not an actor who figures very prominently in my consciousness - Top Cat used 'real' actors, not cartoon voice specialists, and none of them really saw the job as anything other than a one-off, fun little thing they did in between films and TV shows. With one exception...

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John Stephenson, playing Fancy (the orangey-brown one with the white scarf, who has one line per episode if he's lucky), was a 'real' actor too, until he was given that minor voice part in 1961, on the grounds that he could do a good Clark Gable impression. But from then on, he became a regular name that would pop up in the credits of EVERY cartoon series you might happen to watch. Always in minor roles who didn't say much - Mr Slate in The Flintstones, Luke in Wacky Races, Thundercracker in Transformers, Beef in Galaxy High... wherever Frank Welker was voicing six or seven lead characters, there'd be John Stephenson in the background, chipping in a "Yes, Boss!" every now and then. He's a hero to fans of minor cartoon characters everywhere, and he's still voicing them even today, every now and then, though he's in his late eighties now.

I'm hoping that he gets a big write-up in the media as and when he eventually passes away. Anyone who gives fifty years' service to an industry that makes millions of people happy deserves recognition!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ice Ice Baby

I HATE icy pavements! It takes me ten times longer to get from A to B, even if I don't slip over and cripple myself. I'm going to start carrying a flamethrower around with me so I can melt the ice. I'm not sure where you go to buy a flamethrower, but I'm sure they're available on the internet.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Monopolopoly

I'm getting quite sloppy about blogging every night, just lately. I was very tired yesterday, that's my excuse. And I'm working in the Boots store in Newark for the next couple of days, so I'm probably just going to get tireder. Still, on the plus side, I've now got a monopoly set of my very own! (see my post on the subject a few weeks ago if you wonder why that would be a good thing) It really is a fun game. And it also seems like the kind of thing it would be good to spend a drunken evening playing with a whole mob of friends. Anyone fancy a drunken monopoly evening?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas is coming, the Zoomy's getting fat

The whole diet thing seems to have gone out the window this last month or so. I'm eating sweets and junk food more or less constantly at the moment, and I really ought to stop. Maybe I'll make a resolution. Or, and I think this option might be more fun, I'll try to find a way to make everybody else in the world over-eat to a much greater extent than I do, so I can still eat whatever I want, but I'll look comparatively thin!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pretty smart

I tried to find a link to watch tonight's Central Tonight online, but it doesn't seem to be working at the moment. Still, if you do manage to watch it somehow (my bit is around the middle, fifteen minutes or so into it), you'll have the pleasure of seeing me in my suit and tie (plus hat), since I filmed it very early this morning before going in to work. And the sight of me memorising things in my work clothes really doesn't happen very often, so Zoomy-collectors will really treasure this one.

Tonight on Central Tonight

If you're in the Central TV region, watch the local news at 6pm for more fun with me and Sainsbury's. Also, while you're at it, go and watch that old clip of me on Central Tonight a couple of years ago, on YouTube. That's my favourite one on there.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Central aisle

I'm getting up at some time before the crack of dawn tomorrow, to film some more supermarket-themed memory fun with Central News. And possibly an interview on Radio Nottingham, but I'm not sure about that - I spent most of this afternoon emailing the Sainsbury's person and the Radio Nottingham person on the subject (I didn't want to do it, because I've got a real job that I've been neglecting lately, but Sainsbury's begged and offered me food hampers) until I finally asked them to please sort it out among themselves. I should really have added "... and tell me whether or not I'm going to do a radio interview tomorrow morning", but I didn't, and they didn't, so I don't know. Never mind.

And after that, I'm going to stop blogging about memory and Sainsbury's every single night. It's time to move on to other subjects, I'm sure you must all be as bored with this theme as I am.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's the sound of Lincolnshire, that special place to live

... It's the sound of Lincolnshire, with so much more to give. Radio Lincolnshire!

I grew up listening to that catchy jingle, although I don't think they still use it nowadays, and they almost certainly don't play it on Radio Solent, which serves Hampshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight. But despite this, my appearance on Jon Cuthill's morning show was good fun. Click on that link to hear it, about two hours and ten minutes in (you're allowed to fast-forward if you want). He even had me memorise a pack of cards, live on air (which doesn't sound terribly impressive when you're doing a phone interview on a radio show, but I really didn't cheat. I did only memorise the first dozen or so cards, because I knew he wouldn't ask me them all, but I didn't cheat!). And he gave me thirty seconds to memorise it, thirty seconds of dead air, which I didn't think radio presenters were really supposed to do. Most radio people don't want me to do cards at all...

I do enjoy this kind of thing, though - perhaps I should try to spread the word to local radio stations that I'm available for interviews, free of charge, if they want. They don't have to wait until Sainsbury's tell them to interview me. Radio Derby always tell me to tell them when I win a memory competition, and I never do because I disapprove of self-publicity, but perhaps I'll change that policy.

Also, the producer said we were only allowed to mention Sainsbury's a maximum of two times, otherwise he'd have to fill in a BBC form of some kind, but in the end we only mentioned it once. I feel like I'm not completely living up to my contract with Sainsbury's (especially since they were hoping to get me on national TV and in all the newspapers, name-dropping them left, right and centre, but seriously overestimated how big a draw I am to the media), so here's a bit more advertising, courtesy of Zoomy's Thing: Sainsbury's, Sainsbury's, Sainsbury's. It's the place to buy things. Sainsbury's, Sainsbury's, Sainsbury's. Something something something wings.

Okay, writing advertising slogans isn't my forté.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

You're listening to BBC Radio Solent

Well, in all likelihood you're not right now, but if you do tomorrow at 11:40, you might hear a brief interview with me, as a follow-up to the Sainsbury's thing.

I can't actually remember right now exactly where the Solent is. Should I look it up before tomorrow, or just hope nobody tests me?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Inside the head of Zoomy

This is a picture of the screen of the brain-scanning machine in Tokyo:

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Actually, that's the outside of the head of Zoomy, but you could slice cross-sections of it by careful clicks of the mouse, to examine the brain inside. The marks around my eyes are the space-age goggles I was wearing instead of my glasses, by the way.

The Japanese TV people want me to go back there in January, to do some more memory things in the studio! Hopefully it'll be possible to arrange it - I've only got two more days of holiday left after my Christmas break, but that's probably enough to make a flying visit to Tokyo. I have also supposedly won a trip to Bahrain as a prize in the WMC last month, but nobody's replied to my email about the details of that, so I assume there's no time limit on the invitation to go out there and be shown historic buildings. I was thinking of sending someone else, disguised as me, anyway - it can be my Christmas present to anyone out there who looks a bit like me and likes the idea of historic buildings in Bahrain.

As everyone knows, I'm also bad at replying to emails myself, so I've spent this evening catching up with all the various queries about memory techniques I've had in the last couple of weeks. There have been a lot of them, which serves me right for winning the world championship, I suppose, and most of them have been about how to use memory techniques to pass exams at university and things like that which I know nothing about, so replying to them is a bit difficult. I also had someone today asking for memory tips for her toddler.

Tomorrow, I will devote my time to typing up my transcripts for the Cambridge Christmas tournament, three weeks late, before Geoff summons his Viking hordes from Denmark and pillages me. And then email my brother, which is a full evening's work because we write long emails to each other, but at least that's fun rather than a chore...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Comparisons

Boris, in response to last night's blog, commented that it would be interesting to compare developments in athletics with those in memory sports. The fact that the winner of the 100m sprint in the first Olympic Games in 1896 did a sensational 12 seconds, for instance. Actually, there are other similarities apart from the gradual change in what is considered an exceptional performance - at the first modern Olympics, the athletes paid their own way over to Greece, the competitors were drawn from only those people who could afford the trip and who knew the event existed (C. B. Fry, probably the foremost British athlete at the time, didn't find out about the Olympics until after it had happened), and a lot of the rules and regulations were made up on the spur of the moment as and when they were needed. Memory sport is still very much in this kind of state at the moment, but if the Olympics can go from such humble beginnings to a really big thing, who knows?

Also, the 100m in those days was run from a standing start, on a dirt track, wearing rubber-soled boots and baggy shorts. The way they've improved on the basic principles of running in a straight line as quickly as possible is very much like the way we've improved on the way to memorise a pack of cards.

Actually, the comparison with swimming is even more similar. In 1878, when the first "world records" were published by the Amateur Swimming Association, the world record for the 100 yards freestyle was 76.75 seconds. The modern 100m record has knocked 30 seconds off that - helped by the development of "techniques" like the crawl (which was a brand new thing, distrusted by most Victorian swimmers, in 1878), swimming trunks instead of full-body bathing suits, holding swimming races in pools rather than the sea, modifications to the rules about diving starts, all the way up to the modern day and Michael Phelps's bionic body-suit (without which I suspect he'd drown if you pushed him in a swimming pool).

If there's one way in which memory sport is different (apart from the fact that it's a pointless mental exercise for people with too much time on their hands rather than a display of the awesome physical prowess of the human body at its peak), it's that the developments have been much more rapid, and the records have tumbled down much more dramatically. Who knows what will have happened in a hundred years? I hope I'm still around to see it, anyway...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In 1994, scientists predicted...

I'm genuinely thinking about writing a huge long account of everything that's happened in the world of memory sports between 2000 and 2009. And calling it "Noughty Memories", but you can ignore the title if you think it's silly. The second decade of competitive memory has been crammed full of a whole book's worth of events, after all. And 2000 was sort of a starting point for lots of things, not least Gunther memorising 400 digits spoken at a rate of one every two seconds, confounding those scientists' predictions that nobody would ever memorise more than 30, and giving Tony something to talk about in every speech at every memory competition ever since. Usually twice.

Being in the mood for this, I found an entertaining discussion about the revised championship points standards issued in 2005 (back in the days when there wasn't even any kind of rule about when or how the standards would be updated, it just happened whenever the powers that be thought it was necessary and the standards were altered to whatever seemed sensible to Phil - nowadays, in these more enlightened times, there's a rule about when and how, although everyone ignores it), which included Boris's reaction to setting the historic dates standard to 100 dates: "The standard of dates is much too high. No-one will ever come close to it."

The world record, four and a half years later, now stands at 118.5, and frankly I think the championship points standard needs increasing beyond the 100 mark! It just goes to show how far we've come since those dark and distant days. Maybe we should all mention that in all our speeches at memory competitions from now on.

We also don't seem to argue about the rules as much as we used to. Maybe the 2010s will be the decade when the World Memory Championships has a consistent set of rules from one year to the next, and nobody complains!

Well, that's interesting...

The other day, while drifting aimlessly around the internet, I was reminded of Krypton Force videos (as described in my blog a few years ago here and here). I looked for them on eBay and as luck would have it, there was someone selling off a big video collection, including one Protectors tape and THREE Sci-Bots that I haven't got. 'Splendid!' I thought to myself. 'I'll pick up a few more of those poor-quality British bootlegs of American dubs of ancient Japanese giant robot cartoons!' So I bid 99p each on them and left eBay to work its wonders.

With an hour to go before the end of the auction, just now, I got a trio of emails telling me I'd been outbid on the Sci-Bots tapes. 'Hey, check it out, one of the other three or four people in the universe who like these things has discovered these auctions!' I thought. 'Well, we'll see about that, let's have us a bidding war!'

So I put a maximum bid of £5 in, and when it turned out that wasn't enough, went up to £10, which is way more than these things are worth, but hey, I'm rich. Turns out that was my rival bidder's maximum too, so I went with £10.50 and wondered if he/she wanted these videos (which have probably been taped over with something else long since anyway - Krypton Force often forgot to remove the copy-protection tab from the second-hand video tapes they used) badly enough to outbid me again.

Turns out that he/she did, and is willing to go up to £25 and beyond, on all three auctions! Now, that's just silly. It's not like these videos are valuable. 'Downright awful' is the kind of words most people would use for them, indeed. Only a handful of weirdos, like me, could possibly derive any enjoyment from the things. Well, I've got the bit between my teeth now. I'm wealthy, foolish and curious, which is a very bad combination for circumstances like this. I'm going to see just how high we can make these bids. 38 minutes to go.

If I don't blog again, it'll be because I've had to sell all my posessions, including my video recorder, to pay for a cheap and tacky video of a cartoon series that I don't really like all that much anyway.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday feeling

It's nice to have a weekend of doing nothing. Or of catching up with all the things I've been meaning to do for weeks, anyway. I've also decided to use up what remains of my holiday from work to take the whole week between Christmas and the New Year off, and just stay at home, lounging around and doing nothing. I haven't done that for much too long!

I'm sorry that doing nothing and planning future occasions when I'm going to do nothing doesn't make a terribly exciting blog, but maybe tomorrow I will have done something after all and will be able to write about it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Oh, sorry

Sorry I didn't post anything yesterday, but I was busy doing something staggeringly important - or at least that's my logical deduction from the fact that I can't remember why I didn't get round to blogging.

Anyway, I've been meaning for a few days to mention that I was pleased to see the Popeye-themed Google logo recently. It did confuse me at first, making me think "Wait, is it a Popeye anniversary of some kind? It was January he first appeared, not December. And the cartoons were 1933, surely, so it's not 75 years of those..." It turned out that it was to commemorate Popeye's creator E.C. Segar's 115th birthday.

Now, it's not that I'm complaining, since any Google logo featuring Popeye has to be better than a logo that doesn't, but that seems like a bit of a stretch to me. It's like something that might happen in one of Segar's own comic strips - they decide to do a Popeye-themed logo and have to come up with an excuse for it, so come up with a ridiculously tangential justification. This would be followed by someone exclaiming "Good night!" and fainting.

Anyway, since now we don't need a good reason for this kind of thing, as a continuing tribute to the sad fact that Segar is still dead, from now on whenever I win a memory competition I'm going to let his slightly less well-known creation Professor Wotasnozzle announce the fact for me:

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I like Wotasnozzle. I'm going to look like that when I'm a little bit older.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Taffy

While doing my reading-volunteer thing today, I flicked through a book of nursery rhymes at the school and was surprised to find that it contained "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief". I would have thought that that poem would be out of fashion with modern educational theories, but maybe not. Possibly we're trying to encourage the young folk nowadays to distrust the Welsh and to deal with persistent thieves by flinging a poker at their heads.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Memorising London

The Sainsbury's support office is really very like the Boots one, so it was an interesting experience to be there in my memory-man clothes rather than the suit and tie, being a visiting memory-trainer rather than whatever it is I normally do for a living. My presentation was rubbish, but hopefully they got some good pictures for publicity. Tune in to the Sunday Telegraph... no, wait, I mean the Independent (some memory man I am, I can't even remember what paper I've been talking to) on Sunday to read all about it. Probably. It might still not be in there after all, I can't promise anything.

I'm going to bed. I couldn't get to sleep last night, and I had to get up early this morning to catch my train, so I've been feeling tired all day. That might have been a contributing factor to my presentation being rubbish, but it's probably just because I'm generally rubbish at memory presentations.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Day trip

London tomorrow, teaching people to memorise the locations of Christmas products in Sainsbury's. Rather than preparing my presentation, I've spent the weekend watching the Alan Bennett season on BBC2. This is justifiable, you see, because Sainsbury's is mentioned in passing in "A Chip In The Sugar", which was on today. However, the practical upshot of this is that I'm only just now finishing the tedious preparation work. This is a really good example of why people who say I should do memory stuff for a living don't know what they're talking about.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Scary picture

I finally got round to getting some new passport photos taken today, and...

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Okay, I'm not used to seeing myself without glasses (you're not allowed to wear them in passport photos nowadays, and you're also not allowed to smile, which makes me look like some kind of psychopath), but this really isn't a good photo. Is it me, or is one of my eyes higher than the other? Or is my head just tilted? I look quite freakish. Never allow me to see myself without glasses again! See, now I've got another reason not to wear contacts!

Friday, December 04, 2009

The history of othello

Othello was invented by James Othello, a Lancashire coal miner and barrister, in 1937. The invention of the game was a happy accident. Othello, who in his spare time was a board game designer, had been working on a game involving an 8x8 board and 64 discs, but it wasn't working out very well as all the discs were white, so it was hard to tell which belonged to which player, and it wasn't possible to move them, because there weren't any free spaces on the board to move them to. Othello, who was also a talented amateur artist who sold watercolours to local and national galleries whenever he had a spare moment, decided to relieve his frustrations by painting a picture of himself throwing a pot of black paint over his unsuccessful board game. However, he accidentally upset his pot of black paint over the game while reaching for the green, and found that it had half covered all of the discs, so that they were black on one side and white on the other. Furthermore, while picking the newly-painted discs up to examine them, he hit upon the idea of a game in which the aim was to put discs down on the board in strategic positions.

Quickly, he ran to his study, put aside the novel he'd been working on in his spare time, and typed out a set of rules to his newly-invented board game, which he decided to call "Othello's Game" (named not after himself but after the Shakespeare character whom James Othello mistakenly believed to be the hero of a play about board games). The book of rules was published the following week and became a best-seller. With the proceeds, James Othello was able to buy a new house in Aldershot for one of his wives and their three children, thus making his bigamous life a great deal easier, as up until this point he had been maintaining two different families in neighbouring houses and lived in fear of his two wives becoming friends and comparing notes about their husbands.

The only problem encountered by the billions of people who bought the book of rules was the unavailability of othello sets to play on - the rules specified that the only "official" set was the one owned by James Othello, and he refused to allow anyone to play on that in case they got dirty fingerprints on it (somewhat germ-phobic, James Othello spent up to six hours a day cleaning his house from top to bottom and back up to top again). It fell to Goro Othello (no relation) to re-invent the game in 1972, removing the rule about the official set and renaming the game "Othello", after his mother, Mrs Othello Othello.

James Othello was somewhat embittered by this, but was never able to prove to the satisfaction of the courts that he had ever invented othello in the first place, as all copies of his book had been lost. He spent the rest of his life, when he wasn't coal-mining, trying to invent a better game, but it kept turning into the exact same game as chess, only with no knights, and everyone hated it.

In tribute to James Othello, everyone nowadays refrains from typing up their transcripts and sending them to Geoff until at least a week after the Cambridge Christmas tournament, in accordance with a strangely specific provision in his last will and testament.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Following in footsteps overgrown with moss

It was our department's Christmas do, at a restaurant with decent food and all the usual trimmings, but with crackers containing not jokes but extremely strange trivia, mostly about dogs, but also such fascinating information as (and I'm not making this up) "Question: How many dwarfs are there? Answer: Seven (7)"

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sometimes I can't resist the obvious

I'm sorry, I just have to observe that the headline on the front page of the Sun this morning was "I Had Two-Year Fling With Tiger", while the front page of the Mirror went with "My Three-Year Affair With Tiger". Both about the same woman, as far as I can see. Honestly, it's almost enough to shake my faith in the ability of tabloid newspapers to accurately report celebrity gossip.

I would love to know which paper gained the most sales from its headlines. Perhaps the Sun appealed to people who like Tiger Woods more, and who wanted to read the story that suggested he'd cheated on his wife for the shorter period of time, whereas the Mirror sold to the people who prefer Nick Faldo, and want the maximum possible infidelity from his rivals. The BBC News website, I notice, describes it as a 31-month affair. That's the kind of accuracy you get from a classy source like the BBC. It would be even more classy of them to concentrate on reporting the real news, rather than the celebrity adultery, but I suppose we can't have everything.

Ooh, but here's something I've only just learned about the BBC News website - did you know that all of its headlines are between 31 and 33 characters in length? I'm hugely impressed. That's so horribly restrictive, and yet they do it so naturally that I never noticed! It's because, apparently, 33 characters is the maximum that can fit on a line on Ceefax (and, apparently, the BBC website thinks that people still read Ceefax), and because someone somewhere calculated that the minimum possible to convey a good headline without looking abridged is 31 characters.

I mean, this is really brilliant. Look at the headlines right now: "Taliban defiant over Obama surge": 32 characters. "Yacht skipper speaks of 'mistake'": 33 characters. "Woods admits letting family down": 32 characters. There are some really talented writers at the BBC! Tragically, though, the powers that beeb have just heard of the concept of search engine optimisation, so now when you click on the 31-33-character headlines, you go through to the story page and find it's got a longer headline featuring as many keywords as possible. Perhaps soon they'll allow Ceefax to fade into the history books and those headline-compressors will be out of a job. I wonder what they'd do if Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink cheated on his wife? He's got 22 characters just in his surname. 23, because you'd have to leave a space after it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Balaclava Story and other stories

You know, it's a shame that balaclavas are out of fashion these days. On a cold winter's morning, that's exactly the kind of thing I need to wear when I'm cycling to work. Maybe I'll buy one and to heck with fashion. Or get someone to knit me one - it will need to be in bright colours and patterns, so people don't think I'm a terrorist.

I do also need to buy a cycle helmet. People keep telling me to, and my only real excuse for not getting one is that I'm too lazy. Maybe I'll kill two birds with one stone and get a sort of super-strong balaclava that protects my head from all possible injury. I do need to keep my superhuman genius brain safe, after all...

Monday, November 30, 2009

Floppy ears and curly whiskers

"The Book People" periodically come to Boots and set up shop, flogging reasonably-priced but not-very-good books. Today, however, they had a complete set of Beatrix Potters for a very reasonable kind of price, so I snapped it up. Well, if people ask me often enough to buy things, I always give in in the end. So now please excuse the brief blog, I'm off to read about Timmy Tiptoes.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Chicken Licken

Grandma is knitting woolly jumpers for hens. She mentioned this to me in the course of a conversation about how everyone else in the world thinks she's going barmy, but it turns out that there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. So please do go to that website and support this quite genuine need for woolly hen-jumpers.

On an unrelated note, there's a new rule of Zoomy's Thing - any comments that have absolutely nothing to do with the subject of today's blog will be remorselessly deleted, like I've done with most of the comments on the last couple of weeks' bloggings. No, that's too strict. I mean, any comments that have nothing to do with the subject of today's blog will be remorselessly deleted unless they entertain me in some way. Actually, even that goes rather further than I intended. How do you tell one specific person that you're going to delete all his comments without making it look like you're victimising one specific person?

Seriously, please note that I get the comments anyone makes on any blog post, any time, emailed to me. So you don't have to comment on today's post if you want to make sure I see it. I like to look back through my blog occasionally and see what people replied to particular posts, and it irks me if I find a comment about something else entirely that ignores whatever strange subject I was blogging about.

There, that's the serious business out of the way (hens and victimisation). Everybody have a nice day, and normal niceness will be resumed tomorrow. And hey, it's December on Tuesday!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

It's Christmas Day

Or at least, it is in othello terminology. Today was the traditional "Christmas tournament", traditionally held some time around the end of November. I was meaning to get the very early train down to Cambridge this morning, and so set my alarm clock last night for some time before the crack of dawn, but then forgot to turn the alarm on. I did wake up in time - I generally wake up just before my alarm goes off, whatever time it's set for - but decided that since the alarm hadn't gone off yet, it must not be time to get up, and just lay around dozing until I finally decided to look at the clock and noticed that the train I was meaning to get had left five minutes earlier.

Still, I got the quarter-past-seven train with no problems, trusting that the half-nine starting time would really mean ten o'clock or a bit later, as it usually does, and I got to the Junior Parlour at Trinity College (the traditional location) just after ten. I was greeted with "Well, that buggers everything up, doesn't it!" from Aubrey, who'd just finished inputting everybody's name into the computer and pressed the button to generate the pairings for round one. Still, it turned out to be easy to fix.

The tournament itself went reasonably well - I lost to David Beck and Helen Starkey, then went on a sort of winning rampage, beating Roy, David Hand, Adelaide and Aidan before finally losing to Imre. Four out of seven is sort of what I aim for at this kind of thing, so I'm quite satisfied. I also surprised everyone by consistently playing the diagonal opening, which I never do - I'm very boring in my choice of openings normally, so I'd decided to make an effort to do weird and unusual things in this competition. Whether it helped or hindered me, I'm not sure. I was white in four games, in one of which I forgot I was playing the diagonal today and went perpendicular without thinking, and the other three games were my losses to David B and Imre, who generally beat me whatever I'm playing, and my win against Roy, who I generally beat. So it's hard to really analyse, and the only conclusion we can draw is that I'm a mediocre othello player.

Still, getting home tonight was unusually easy, given how hard it is to travel to and from Cambridge by train - I got to the station at exactly the right moment to catch the 18:12, and only had to sit around at Ely for twenty minutes or so to get on the Nottingham train. So, that's all the othelloing until next February, and now we're into the long winter mind-sports-free closed season. It's terribly boring.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Postscript

I've just noticed that I'm prejudiced against American sudoku-solvers. I noticed that while I was writing about the national sudoku championship, I was automatically assuming that American sudoku competitions would be really easy to win for someone from this country, because we do much more complicated and difficult sudokus than them as a matter of course.

This prejudice is based on crosswords, I think - I have absolutely no idea how difficult the average sudoku puzzle is in the USA and no reason at all to assume that it's easier than the ones in newspapers over here. So I apologise to any American sudoku-solving mind-readers who were offended by what I was subconsciously thinking. I'm really sorry about that.

Cheat!

I'm not sure whether this violates my rule about not passing comment on news articles on the internet (because everybody does that in their blogs, and I like to be different), but I notice that Evil Eugene Varshavsky (as he's probably known in Philadelphia mind sports circles) has been stripped of his third place and $3000 prize in the US National Sudoku Championship, according to this article. The cool thing is that Eugene was also caught trying to cheat his way to victory in a major chess tournament, also in Philadelphia, a couple of years ago. Which makes me wonder how long it'll take him to expand his sphere of evil operations into memory competitions.

Okay, probably not until the WMC a) moves to Philadelphia and b) has prize money, but still, the US Championship in New York should probably watch out. It's been quite a while since we had a really interesting accusation of cheating in memory competitions and wow, it's ten years now since Yu Zhang's famous performance at the WMC (I wonder what he's doing now?). Of course, maybe everybody's been cheating all the time and they just haven't been caught yet. I suspect some competitors have been using secret techniques to help them memorise cards more easily - converting cards into mental images, visualising them along a journey, that kind of thing. It's disgraceful, and something should be done about it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

普里德莫尔

Okay, I admit, I haven't touched my Teach Yourself Chinese course since trying the first lesson a week or so ago and deciding it was too hard. But hey, I've still got a year before next year's World Championship. Well, nine months, because it's planned to move back to August after a few years in the autumn/winter, which will mean my current reign as World Memory Champion will be the shortest one in history, probably. I haven't checked, but that sounds right. I've been too busy finding out that the title you see above is apparently how you write my name in Chinese news articles about the World Memory Championship. Now that's something worth remembering!

Anyway, speaking of the history of the WMC, I was thinking that I should write a huge long epic article of some kind about "Memory Sports in the Noughties" - the history of competitive memory's second decade. It's been a pretty eventful ten years, from 2000 to 2009, all in all, and as the person who competed in the second-most world championships and other competitions in that decade, I'm uniquely qualified to write about it if Gunther doesn't. I think it's a work that needs to be written, although I'd probably only offend someone in the process - unless I leave out all the fun but controversial bits, and that would just make it boring...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How to win the World Memory Championship

I need some kind of new strategy if I'm going to win it again. I haven't really improved at all over the last couple of years, or not by enough, anyway. I didn't even beat a single personal best at this year's WMC. I've still got the edge over everyone else in the cards and binary, but that's just because my system is so much better than everyone else's (I'm trying not to be modest, because it's non-English), and when other memorisers have successfully adopted a Ben-style-system and practiced it a bit, they'll catch up with me.

I could get better scores if I practiced some more, but I lack the motivation. I really need to develop new and better techniques - a four-digit-per-image system would really boost my scores on the numbers, but I can't get my head around a good way to do it. And what clever things could I do with cards to make my system even better? There must be something, I don't claim to have come up with the greatest system it's possible to have... (just the greatest system that anybody's got right now! To heck with modesty, let's call it the Ben System with capital letters and boast about how great it is, while I still can! I'm the best!)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Englishness

An anonymouse asked me in a comment today "Ben, from where are you originally from? You dont look like british..."

I asked why not, and got the following reply:

"I think you are not British for the following reasons:

1.Your First name and Surname are not typical for someone from Britain.

2.You are much smarter than the average Englishman. Here I don’t mean memory and stuff.

3.Then, you are too modest. That is not typical for an Englishman as well.

4.You don’t get drunk and go outside to make some damage (at least I think so), which is common for some English guys.

5.When you wear the hat it reminds me of someone who has cultural backgrounds from southern countries.

That is what I think, and I did not mean to offend anyone."


I'm fascinated to learn that I don't fit the traditional English stereotypes as held by foreigners, but I think we should examine these points in more detail. At least it's my behaviour and not my appearance that strikes the anonymouse as being non-English - I was worried that I'd need to pose for my new passport photo wearing a top hat and gnawing on a joint of roast beef, like all English people do.


1. Pridmore is, according to a website that's almost certainly wrong, the 5171st-most-popular surname in Britain. Okay, it's not exactly top of the charts, and it's not a name that most people have heard of, but it's a genuine English name, like most or all names ending with 'more'. Well, some people suggest that it's Welsh, and others that it might be French (derived from 'Prudhomme', since 'Pridham' also exists, but I don't think that's a very plausible theory), and the origin of the name is unknown. It's a name that has only ever been used by working-class nonentities, and so has never featured in literature, court reports etc, but it's got a long (albeit mostly unrecorded) history, and I'm quite proud of it.

Incidentally, type Pridmore into Google, and you get Pridmore Bookmakers, then johnpridmore.co.uk (John Pridmore, "an ex-London Gangster, turned Christian" whose website describes how God has changed his life. He's no relation. And I assume the "ex" relates to his gangster career, not just to London, but you never know.), then pridmore.co.uk, which belongs to a Shaun Pridmore who as far as I can see has never done anything of note but who presumably was the first Pridmore to discover computers and bags the domain name for his family photos, then the Google Maps location of Alan Pridmore Entertainment, then the Surname Database entry for 'Pridmore', which boldly asserts that the name is a lost place-name (an assertion apparently based on complete guesswork), and then, finally my blog. See, anonymouse - I'm world-famous, and I'm only number six on Google's Pridmore listing!

As for Benjamin, I owe that to my mother's fondness for Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat back in 1976, but it's not an uncommon name in Britain. Lots of famous Bens in this country - Benjamin Britten springs to mind for obvious reasons, but there's lots of others too.


2. I always thought English people had a worldwide reputation for cleverness! What, we're a land of dunces to the world outside? Well, that's disappointing. Anyway, I'm not 'smart'. Not in any sense of the word. Thick as two short planks, me. So obviously I fit right in to the mass of oafish English!


3. And I'm sure that modesty is a quintessentially English trait! Come on, don't we all like to hide our light under a bushel, at least compared to those boastful, swaggering foreigners? The tradition of British understatement? I can see that we need some better ambassadors for the country. And anyway, I'm not modest. I ceaselessly brag about my accomplishments, I just do it in a subtle way, by saying that I'm modest and following it up with "Here's an impression of what I would say if I wasn't modest: I'm really great, for the following detailed and lengthy reasons..."


4. Yep, the English reputation is rather worse than I thought. Can't really argue with this one completely, but we're not all football hooligans over here. Quite a few English people practically never get drunk and damage things. My grandma, for instance, is practically never drunk and disorderly and hasn't assaulted a policeman or carved her name into a public monument for weeks. And while I have been known to damage things when drunk, it's only shot glasses that I tried to juggle to impress my friends, or the ligaments of my knees. Ahh, that was a great weekend...


5. Hey now, there's one thing I'm most emphatically not, and that's southern! My hat's not a southern hat! It's northern, like me! It's probably a Yorkshirehat!


For the record, I am as far as is known an entirely English person. As I've mentioned once or twice before, my family tree is the most boring in the universe, it's full of Yorkshire/Midlands labourers and absolutely nothing else. On the other hand, my strikingly semitic appearance and instinctive fondness for beards and black fedoras leads many people to guess, possibly correctly, that there's a touch of the Jewish in my family history, and I hope there is. It'd make my background ever so slightly more interesting...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Extra post

Because some things can't wait until tomorrow's blogging. I take back everything I've ever said about Wikipedia. You've got to admire the kind of article-writing skill that, in the page about Japanese young children's cartoon Anpanman, describes Anpanman and his enemy Baikinman as "physical representations of moral dualism".

The computer screen that displayed the numbers and things for us to memorise in the MRI machine in Tokyo had a starting display of Anpanman saying "Please wait". I surprised the scientists by knowing who he was.

Of travel I've had my share, man

It's, sadly, passport renewal time. If I want to go abroad next year, my trusty passport will be past its expiry date in June. Just look at all those stamps in it, too - I wasn't sure if I was ever going to use the thing when I first got it. Now, if they gave you a stamp when you went to Europe, the passport would be full to bursting with exotic ink colours. Even so, it's still pretty cool.

The first page has Malaysia, 01 Oct 2003 arriving, 06 Oct 2003 departing. World Memory Championship, I came third and took a lot of people by surprise with how much I'd improved since the previous year (that was the year I debuted the "Ben system"... ahhh, happy memories). Next page has the USA, 26 Feb 2007 - Las Vegas, during my unemployed-waster phase, justifying it to myself by saying that it'd help me write my book if I had a change of scene. The page after that has the USA again, 01 Jul 2009, my recent jaunt to Pittsburgh, and Bahrain in 22 Oct 2008 where I triumphed in the World Championship last year. Blank page, then Japan, 24 Oct 2009 - I never realised it was exactly a year after the WMC - to have my brain scanned and sing karaoke. Six more blanks, then we come to the middle pages, which a lot of passport-stampers seem to favour. USA, July 02 2002, was a trip to Chicago to hang out with Jimi and the gang, wow, seven and a half years ago, and Brazil 09 07 06, for that brilliant TV-star holiday in Rio. The other half of the middle-page spread has two more American stamps - Jan 17 2002 was Las Vegas for the first time, Nov 16 2002 was back to Vegas for the second time because I'd liked the first time so much. Six more blanks, then again with the USA, Mar 05 2009 - New York this spring. Next page is a mostly faded black stamp of some kind, I don't know what, and USA for Feb 21 2005, which was another Vegas trip. I do love Las Vegas, although on that trip I caught the flu and spent the whole time ill in bed, so it wasn't the best holiday I've ever had. Four more blank pages, then we get Bahrain, 29 Aug 2007 to 03 Sep 2007, where I spectacularly failed to win the World Championship but still had a great time. And then on the last page, US Immigration on Oct 21 2000, my first ever trip abroad, visiting Washington DC just for the hell of it. There had been talk of having a housewarming party for CV when he moved over there, that didn't happen, but I eventually resolved to go to Washington anyway, because who says you need a good reason and I'd never been anywhere before. And I'm glad I did!

You don't need to get the renewal form and photos countersigned if you're still recognisable from your previous photo - I think I just about qualify, more or less:
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Just look at that young stripling with the naive smile, the smooth chin and the last vestiges of a trendy hairstyle on top of his head. 23 years old, never left the country, never competitively memorised anything, never spontaneously quit his job for a life as a waster... and wearing a cool Zenith badge ("Never trust a hippy") that I wish I still had. I'd try to picture myself looking back on now, ten years in the future, but I really can't imagine getting any older than I am right now. 43? I'm never going to be 43.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

We're with the bear

I tell you, there's nothing like staying up till three in the morning when you've got a cold to make you feel all the worse the next day. Actually, I was feeling so yucky last night that I almost decided to skip the phone-answering, but I'm glad I didn't - not only was it fun, it's so mild outside at the moment now that I think a couple of late-night bike rides to work and back made me feel a lot better than wallowing in my germs at home would have done.

Anyway, enough whining. What with going out last night, I didn't have a chance to write a blog and tell you about my day on Friday. The highlight, among all the various fund-raising activities going on at the office, was entering a guess the name of the bear competition and winning it! Well, it was obvious, really - the options were Bartholomew and a lot of stupid modern names that people call their children nowadays. So Bartholomew, an extremely cool giant teddy (he'd come up about to my waist if he stood up, which he can't do since his legs are stuck in a sitting position) is now making friends with all my much smaller cuddly toys in my bedroom. I hope he's not bullying them.

There was also a second, less cool, part of the prize - a pair of "designer sunglasses". Funnily enough, they look exactly like my cheap Specsavers prescription sunglasses that I rarely wear, except they've got "Police" written on them in small letters. I don't really need these designer shades, and there doesn't seem much point in going to the effort of getting prescription lenses put in them so I don't have to wear them on top of my normal glasses, so somebody can expect them as a Christmas present from me.

Not somebody I like all that much, obviously, seeing as I've just spent the last paragraph deriding them. I'll give them to one of my enemies, assuming I manage to make any enemies between now and Christmas.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Does a lot of work for charity, doesn't like to talk about it

Remember that thing with helping children learn to read in schools? I am still doing it, it's just taken a little while to get everything arranged. But as of next Tuesday lunchtime, I'm having infants read Magic Key books to me on a one-to-one kind of basis. The school is really keen to get men doing this, because they've got a shortage of male role-models for the kids, apparently. I don't think I'd make a very good role-model, but I suppose beggars can't be choosers.

Also, I'm manning the phones for Children in Need again tomorrow, 9pm until 2am. So call in, and maybe I'll take your money!

And in non-charitable news, here's a memory statistic: If I'd got my 25.97-second pack and Simon had got his 20.93, I would have won the World Championship by 35 championship points. 8058 to 8023. Now that would have been a great finish! We would have had to have demanded a recount...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stooges and sneezes

I've got a cold and need sympathy, but on the other hand a comments-thread on my blog inspired me to look into the Three Stooges in more detail and watch some of their shorts on YouTube, so now I'm completely hooked on their antics. Heehee, I do love slapstick, I don't know why I've never watched them before. I'm impressed by the remakes and reused footage in their later films, too - I've never seen that kind of thing done outside cartoons...

It's a great comfort to my sore red nose. More of a comfort than these Kleenex Balsam tissues "with protective balm", certainly. I think the whole protective balm thing is just a lie.

Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I met a guy called Rudolf Reinders? Well, if I didn't, that's basically the whole story right there, but I really did. He's German and old and was born before the Red-Nosed Reindeer became a celebrity, so it's just a coincidence. He plays Chinese chess really well.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Allemagne

While making announcements at the WMC, Tony regularly referred to China as what the internet tells me is written Zhōngguó. A couple of times, he also felt that he should do the same for Germany, so described them as Allemagne. But this made me think that if I don't even know how to say 'China' in Chinese, and if I'm probably going there for the WMC next year, and seeing as my brother now lives over there, I really should learn how to speak the language.

So I bought myself a "Teach Yourself Beginner's Mandarin Chinese" course from Waterstone's on my way home one night. While serving me, the man behind the till said something Chinese, possibly "You're welcome" or "Good luck", but I wouldn't know. Enough to demonstrate that everybody speaks the language but me, anyway. However, having started the course, I'm now convinced that I'm never going to be able to speak it. Or even half-attempt to speak it, like I can with Japanese. I'm pretty sure my tongue is too fat and useless to deal with proper Chinese pronunciation, and my voice is too generally silly to cope with intonation. Maybe I'll just concentrate on learning German and assume that the China deal is going to fall through.

In more positive news, thanks to Ray Keene, I can confirm that the WMC trophy is the work of Louis-Ernest Barrias (although this website calls him Eugene), and it's "Fame", or possibly "La Renommé". But how do you say that in Chinese?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Well, I think it's cool

I don't think I've mentioned yet that I've now accomplished that statistic that I was aiming for - I've now won the last eight memory competitions I've competed in, which is a new record. Woo, and hoo, and hooray for me!

In more visually exciting news, I'm sure most of my readers have already checked this out, but there are lots and lots and lots of photos on memory-sports.com - click here and here to see just about everybody who was at the WMC, in the middle of memorising, recalling and generally hanging around. Great work, Florian!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ahhh, Doctor Who

What better thing to come home to than a new Doctor Who? It's been much too long. And, well, it wasn't an all-time classic, but it was riveting and fun to watch. I'm hopeful that the new series, new actors, new producer next year will move away from the very formulaic stories we've had for the last few years (It's an isolated group of eight ordinary humans facing attack from weird aliens! It's an everyday item (water!) becoming our enemy! It's humans being posessed and turning into eerie aliens! It's a geeky American genius, too!), but sometimes there's nothing wrong with telling the exact same story over and over again if you can still do it well. And tonight's special, being 45 minutes of standard-new-Doctor-Who-plot-#1 followed a little jarringly by 10 minutes of foreshadowing for the upcoming climax, was one of the better base-under-siege stories we've seen. The human characters were less annoyingly written and had distinctive personalities, for one thing. And I love David Tennant, and I don't want to see him leave. Let's hope he gets a good send-off at Christmas...

The London Charivari

Just a lot of random things of interest that have happened over the last few days:

As I mentioned earlier, the competitor briefing on Wednesday night went very smoothly indeed. There weren't nearly as many questions and debates about the rules as usual. This is mainly a testament to the organisation of the event, but possibly also due to most competitors' minds being distracted by questions about paper flowers. The briefing being held on November 11th, all the vast contingent of foreign visitors, newly arrived in the country, sought out the rather more scarce British representatives to ask what the poppies were all about. It must be a bit strange, really - you come to a foreign land for a competition, you've read all the guidebooks telling you about everyday life for the average Brit, and then you step off the plane to find everybody wearing a paper poppy in their lapel. Foreigners may want to click here for an explanation.

Foreigners were certainly abundant at the World Memory Championship, as usual. There were 63 competitors, or 64 if Rich Bowdler was in fact there - he was listed on all the score printouts and even had points credited to him in the Hour Numbers, but I didn't see him all weekend. Was he there, or was he a figment of someone's imagination? I never had the time to ask. Twenty of these competitors were German, sixteen were Chinese, whereas Team England could only muster seven or eight entrants, depending on how Bowdlerised it was. The rest came from an eclectic mix of globetrotters, most notably Sweden and Norway, who had a real tussle for fourth place in the team rankings. There was also James from Wales, who probably doesn't count as a foreigner, but was his own one-man national team since Dai wasn't there.

All the articles in newspapers and on the internet (of which here are a few) say there were 74 competitors, but that's presumably what the early press releases said, before everybody had arrived and they'd actually counted the number of people there. Even so, 63 or 64 is nothing to be ashamed of - it comfortably beats the all-time record for the number of competitors, and in terms of average quality too, this championship was light-years ahead of the previous record-holder (2003, 46 competitors but most of them being young Malaysian beginners).

The prizegiving ceremony was as much fun as usual, lots of medals and certificates and applause, and it was interesting to see a wider assortment of competitors sharing the medals between them this year. I was only first place in two of the ten disciplines, second in another three and third in one. I didn't even end up with the top score in Speed Cards - Wang Feng beat me by half a second in the second trial! Just a few years ago, a time under 40 seconds was a remarkable achievement, now it's a pretty commonplace kind of thing.

The head honcho of next year's World Championship in China gave a speech - very impressively, since he apparently speaks no English and was reading from a script - telling us all what a great event it was going to be. It does sound like it'll be a good one, although I need to improve a LOT if I'm going to have any chance of winning again. I can't keep relying on scraping through with a good speed cards.

I got some great souvenirs, too - check it out:
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A cool knotty-thing from China, and a pack of My Neighbour Totoro cards from the Japanese film crew! I've said it before and I'll say it again, the Japanese team are by far the best documentary people I've ever worked with (and I did really like quite a lot of the other ones I've worked with before). I can't wait to see the final product, although I will have to wait until January.

There is also a new permanent trophy for the World Memory Championship - a hefty great bronze statuette by some 19th-century sculptor who, in Ray Keene's words, was regarded as better than Rodin in his day. I can't remember his name (and nor could Tony Buzan when he presented me with the trophy), and I'm not much of a sculpture expert - if there are any such people out there, could you suggest who it might have been? I think it started with B. And could you tell me whether 'regarded as better than Rodin in his day' is actually a good thing to be? Wasn't Rodin a classic example of unappreciated-in-his-lifetime?

The statue is of a winged woman, possibly Mnemosyne but probably just some woman with wings, and I only 'won' it in the sense that I was allowed to lift it up and show it to the TV cameras. It's like the Wimbledon trophy, Ray explained, although I think the Wimbledon trophy is on display at Wimbledon all year round, whereas this one presumably just goes back to wherever it normally lives - Ray's house? Some museum somewhere? Some other championship for which it also serves as the trophy? Anyway, in all seriousness, it is a very nice piece of work, and I can see why Mr B the sculptor was so admired by Rodin-haters.

I did genuinely win (and was allowed to take home) a very tasteful and stylish glass trophy, much nicer than last year's, proclaiming that I'm the World Memory Champion. I also collected my UK Championship trophy which I'd left behind in August when I went home early. And that one is a really beautiful work of art, I really love it. Trophies nowadays are so much cooler than the ugly tin cups I won in memory competitions in the olden days, and I'm very grateful to the organisers.

So, for those who haven't been paying attention, I'm now the World Memory Champion for the third time, equalling Andi Bell's achievement and second only to Dominic O'Brien's eight titles. And without meaning to detract from Dominic's genuine awesomeness, it was so very much easier to win the World Championship in his heyday that I don't think anybody's ever going to equal that record now. There are just so many very, very, very good memorisers out there now!

Numerologists might be interested to note that my wins follow exactly the same pattern as Andi's (1998, 2002, 2003) - the second win was four years after the first, and then the third was the year after that. Andi never won it again, of course, which might be seen as a bad omen for me, but then Andi by that stage of his memory career was publicly calling the organisers corrupt, dishonest and suchlike and trying to set up his own breakaway championship, and I haven't quite gone that far just yet, so maybe I'm still good for a couple more world titles.

I would like to win a team title too, though. We need more English memorisers! When the top ten in this year's championship came up on stage at the end, I was flanked by five Germans and four Chinese. England was a distant third in the team standings - there are Englanders out there who are quite good at the whole memory thing but who didn't come this year, like Andi, Ed, Katie, James Ponder and so on, but still, let's recruit some more people this year and stop the newspapers talking about the Germans and Chinese taking over 'our' sport!

That will do for now, I think. I'm sure you're all getting tired of world memory championship news by now. Let's just finish by saying a big thank you to all the other competitors for making this the toughest and most exciting competition ever (it's replaced 2003 as my favourite WMC of all time), a huuuuuge thank you to all the arbiters and organisers, especially Chris Day because I called him 'Phil' while giving my speech at the end of the prize ceremony (it was late and I was tired) and Phil Chambers because I confused him with Chris Day. Names and faces will never be my speciality, I'm afraid.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

And we'll keep on fighting to the end

Sheeeeeeeesh, that was close.

In brief, because I'm just snatching five minutes in an internet cafe before the prizegiving ceremony, I only ended up with 167 words, and then in spoken numbers it turned out I'd got the ninth digit wrong, so I just ended up with my score of 67 from the first trial. When they read the scores out, I shouted "Damn it!", quite loudly. I get stressed at these events. So going into the speed cards, I was 368 championship points behind Hannes, with Simon and Gunther no more than a few hundred points behind me.

That meant I had to go for a fast time - there was no point doing a safe 1-minute pack and guaranteeing 4th or 5th place. So I went for, and got, 31.55 seconds in the first trial. Simon managed a 54.81, Gunther 66 seconds or so and Hannes attempted a time of about a minute, but didn't recall it correctly.

So then it was calculation time, scribbling with pen and paper. Who says you never need long division after you leave school? I calculated that if I didn't improve my time, Hannes would win with a pack in 51.5 seconds. And if I managed a 25-second pack in the second trial, Hannes would need about 36 seconds.

What about Simon, somebody asked me. "He's too far behind," I confidently said. There was a chorus of no-he-isn'ts, and I sat down with my pen and paper again and confirmed that if I didn't improve my score, he could still win with a time of 26.2 seconds. He's done 28-point-something before. So great, more pressure.

Anyway, I whizzed through my second pack in 25.97, and the recall went very smoothly, except that I'd memorised the ace of diamonds twice and the ace of hearts not at all. Drat, I thought to myself, but I bet where I went wrong was right at the end. The last two cards were ace-of-diamonds, jack-of-diamonds, and I only gave them a very quick glance as I was putting the pack down, I must have mistaken a heart for a diamond. Turns out it was the other one, near the start, that I got wrong.

Luckily for me, though, Hannes didn't manage to get his 40-something second pack right - he would have won it if he had. And likewise, Simon, having intended to do around 25 seconds, actually stopped the clock at 20, but didn't quite recall it correctly. So I win the world championship, slightly by default rather than brilliance, but even so, wowee. This has been the most thrilling competition I've participated in - I think it's replaced Kuala Lumpur 2003 as my all-time favourite.

I feel a little dissatisfied, still, because I wasn't quite at my best and I could easily have blown it. But I didn't, and woo, I'm still the World Memory Champion! Woo!

Now I need to go to the prize ceremony and then to bed for the next week. See you all when I wake up.

If I do this and he does this and he does that...

Boo, Bahrain lost their all-important game against New Zealand. That's probably a bad omen, but it would have to be a bad omen for memory competitions in general rather than for me in particular, and since it's unquestionably worse for the mind sport of memory to have the same old boring world champion win it again, I'm taking this as a good omen for me.

Plus my brother emailed to say he's arrived safely in Harbin, China and is settling in nicely, and that's something that's been concerning me just slightly in amongst all this memorising, so that's a good omen too. And just for me, not for any of the others, because few if any of them have even met my brother.

Anyway, I ended up with 22 packs of cards when we got the results this morning, and Hannes got something like 15½, or maybe it was 17½, I don't know. Go and check memory-sports.com or worldmemorychampionship.com. What this meant was that I'm 89 championship points behind Hannes, and about 350 ahead of Gunther in third place.

This morning we had random words, in which I fervently hope I got all 187 words I attempted right. Hannes reckons he might have got 210. And then spoken numbers, in which I think I got 135, and Hannes something a bit less than that. So there are various permutations, but what it's going to all boil down to is of course the final discipline, Speed Cards. It's great when a memory championship ends like that. Except that this means there's a sporting chance that I'll make a mess of everything and maybe not even finish in the top five or six. Still, fingers crossed, eh?

This morning, while we were waiting for the start, I looked around me and wrote what I could see:

Gunther makes sure his little German flag (with eagle) is standing up on his desk, while his juggling balls sit next to it. Simon has a big green pepper on his (during the morning, he munched his way through a green one and an orange one - presumably the red one is for the afternoon). Ruiqiao is late (lateness in the morning is his 'thing', obviously). Boris has his printed plan for the competition (what score to attempt in each discipline, what result would be good, acceptable or great and what total scores that would give him...) Cornelia's desk is cluttered with jacket, bottles of water, carrier bag and little cuddly lobster. Hannes has a sandwich, bag of some kind of snack food and lots of apple juice. I've just got my hat, watch and a bottle of water on mine.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hoo-boy

I'm tired. The kind of transcending-all-other-experience-of-tiredness tired that I only get at the World Memory Championship. It's great.

What isn't great, though, is my performance. It's okay, but it's not great. We've just finished the Hour Cards, and I only attempted 23 packs, because I kept getting distracted and wasn't quite with it, and when I got to pack 23 and realised I'd missed out a big chunk of my journey (confusing room 5 at QEGS with room 2, for any former schoolmates who might be interested), I decided to give it up as a bad job and just try to make sure I got those 23 right. And I think I did, barring the inevitable stupid mistake here and there. I'd be happy-ish with a final result of 20.

I finished second to Hannes in Speed Numbers and Historic Dates, which is about par for the course, and nowhere to speak of in Names and Faces (which Simon won). Haven't got the results of the Hour Cards yet (those poor arbiters have to stay up all night marking them - I must remember to thank them all tomorrow), but after six events, it goes:

1 Hannes 5171
2 Me 4782
3 Gunther 4559
4 Simon 4232
5 Chuanwei 4007
6 Feng 3981
7 Boris 3965
8 Cornelia 3709
9 Ruiqiao 3634
10 Dorothea 3454

Worrying, because I'm ALWAYS in the lead after Historic Dates. Even in the years when I'm doing badly. Still, I probably beat Hannes in Hour Cards, so it's going to be tight tomorrow.

There's a good article in the Times today, incidentally, although the title "Britain tries to regain lost glory in memory sports" is a bit misleading. I would have said we're still hanging on to a little bit of glory, seeing as how I'm still the world champion and everything...

Very quick update

I got a disappointing 1756 or something like that in Hour Numbers, but it was still the third-best score, narrowly beating Gunther. But Wang Feng, who I've never heard of before this competition, got a record-beating 1980-something and Su Ruiqiao got 2080. That leaves me in second place overall after three disciplines, behind Gunther (who, as I've said before, is always in the lead at this point) but only fractionally ahead of a whole gang of other people.

Names and faces went as badly as usual for me, speed numbers I got 360, which was the second-best (after Hannes) in the first trial - Ruiqiao, attempting 680, got 52 or something bad like that, so hopefully no sensational new record there in the second trial. Historic dates I got 90-something. Hour Cards this afternoon, I need to do something cool if I'm going to win this competition. Now I've got to go and talk to CBS. I'm not even sure who CBS are - Americans? The man who wants to talk to me is English...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Latest news

Well, I did worse than I expected in Abstract Images, ending up with only 159 and joint 13th place (I think last year that score would have put me in the top five - the scores are going to be scary this year, I suspect). Gunther broke the world record with something like 318. But then I made up for it in the Binary, getting a better-than-expected 4105 (just short of the world record but since when I'd finished I reckoned I'd got somewhere in the high 3000s, I'm not disappointed), while Gunther had a disappointing-by-his-standards score of around 2500. That leaves Gunther in the lead after two disciplines, as he always is, but it's very close behind him - I'm in second, but only just.

When we get the Hour Numbers results tomorrow morning, then we'll be able to see who's really on form and start speculating about the end result. All I can say is that if I didn't make too many stupid mistakes, it's possible (not probable, but possible) that I got a score of over 2000. Gunther, Hannes, Chuanwei, Ruiqiao and probably some others too are also saying they might have beaten the magic 2000 that's eluded us all for so long. I might quite possibly not have made the top ten in this discipline either, we'll just have to wait and see. Boris summed it up nicely just now - "I'm in ninth place, and I think this is the highest score I've ever had after two disciplines!"

Now I'm off to eat something unhealthy and get an early night. Tomorrow, it's Names and Faces (yay), 5-Minute Numbers, Historic Dates and Hour Cards. Stay tuned to memory-sports.com!

London blogging

Written last night in old-fashioned pen-and-paper style:

Evening of day 0. Got to London okay, even enough time to drop my bag off at my cheap-and-nasty hotel before making my way to the expensive-and-nice hotel on the Strand for the registration and competitor briefing. I also stopped in a couple of shops along the way, looking for a towel - unsure whether the cheap-and-nasty hotel was nice enough to provide towels and shampoo, I decided to bring the latter and not the former. A strange decision, but it seemed sensible at the time, as my big towel wouldn't have fitted in my little rucksack. Interestingly, gift shops don't seem to sell Union Jack towels, the M&S on Edgware Road doesn't sell towels, and the useful-household-things shop on the Strand sells pretty much everything except towels. So I bought a cheap 3-pack of teatowels and made do.

Nothing too exciting happened at the briefing. The Japanese crew insisted that I sit right at the front of the room, next to the aisle, but I would probably have sat there anyway (the top ten competitors get big desks at the front, the rest crowd into smaller partitioned cubicles at the back - it's a good turnout, probably record-breaking, and although the room is too small, it's not excessively so). No Tony Buzan, who's not been well lately, but who will be there tomorrow. There was a Ray Keene, which is unusual - his work for the WMSC is normally so far behind the scenes that a lot of competitors don't know he exists. Otherwise, it was Phil, Chris, Jennifer and Dominic with a very impressive computerised presentation explaining the rules. The projector broke down halfway through, but otherwise it went without a hitch, and there weren't even very many questions. No arguments, either!

The most interesting part was the revelation that Su Ruiqiao has requested 4000 digits in Hour Numbers and 680 digits in 5-Minute Numbers. The world records are 1949and 405 respectively, so this seems a little excessive, to say the least. And 680 is a very specific big number to request, don't you think? I suspect mindgames. Or an Andi-Bell-esque approach of trying to memorise enormous amounts and getting 60% of it wrong. We shall see.

Day 1 brings Abstract Images, Binary and Hour Numbers. Gunther is very good at all three and usually expects to take an early lead. But we shall see about that, too.


Scribbled this morning while waiting for Images to start:

Day 1 - Bakerloo line closed, but I managed to get here on time. Left my hat in the hotel room and didn't realise until I was half way there. The usual opening ceremony, Tony's standard speech. Ruiqiao, having picked the seat behind me, was late, but still in time for the Images. Chuanwei keeps moving desks, he's settled somewhere in the middle of the room now. We're just waiting for the start...


Live blogging right now:

It's lunchtime, I've escaped the camera crews for a little while and headed straight for the internet. I'm a geek. After Tony's exciting announcement that in 1994, scientists predicted that nobody would ever be able to remember 30 spoken numbers etc etc, we got into Abstract Images, followed by Binary. Both went pretty well for me, I think I got fairly decent scores, but the fun comes when you see how everybody else has done. Nobody has been going around boasting that they've shattered world records, but nobody seems terribly depressed about their performance either. Time to head back to the Strand Palace to hear the first scores and then see what I can do in Hour Numbers. I would really like to beat 2000 in that, but I never quite seem to achieve my best in this one. We shall, as the saying goes, see. Keep reading memory-sports.com for the latest!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

This is why I'm not a writer

Yes, I still haven't finished that appraisal of the top contenders for the World Memory Championship. And it's pretty unlikely that I'm going to finish it now, seeing as I'm working tomorrow and then quickly scurrying down to London for the competitor briefing in the evening, without so much as an hour or two to spare for sitting around blogging. In brief, if I don't win, place your metaphorical bets on Simon Reinhard, who's generally good at everything and doesn't tend to make mistakes, but just maybe lacks experience of the hour-long disciplines. Failing that, Johannes Mallow is a whiz with numbers, unbeatable at historic dates, has reportedly been training very hard and scared everyone last year by being better than expected. Gunther Karsten is always a force to be reckoned with, so don't rule him out, expect world records in names and words from the inevitable Boris Konrad, beware of Guo Chuanwei and Liu Ping and the underrated Su Ruiqiao coming from the mysterious East (where, incidentally, my brother is finally emigrating to tomorrow), hope for surprises from someone completely unexpected, because that's always fun, and wish everyone the best of British luck!

In other news, I had the Japanese film crew briefly filming me at work today. You know, these guys are by far the most likeable TV people I've ever dealt with (and I did actually really like some of the others I've worked with in the past), and they really know how to keep things brief and not waste time - they promised to only be there for an hour, and in the event they were even quicker than that! This is going to be a great documentary, I can't wait to see it.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Bumbershoot

It occurred to me, mainly as a result of reading Chris's annual Mindzine blog post, that I've never actually played monopoly, ever, in my life. I feel like I'm missing out on something here. Actually, I only had a vague idea of what the rules were, so I found them on the internet and read them tonight. Sounds like fun, I must have a game with someone, some time when I've got a few hours to spare.

Actually, I must confess, it's only a few years ago that I discovered that monopoly is actually an American game. Despite it not featuring in my childhood at all, I'd still managed to acquire the impression that it's an original English invention, and the London-based version was the first one. First impressions being hard to shake off, I still find it quite difficult to believe that it's a foreign game.

Oh, and the title of this blog is an old American word for 'umbrella', which many Americans inexplicably believe to be a British expression. You see, my ego can't cope with admitting that I spent the first thirty years of my life mistakenly attributing something American to Britain without compensating for it by jeering at the way those foolish transatlantic types (like the writers of one episode of Frasier, for example) are always mistakenly attributing American things to Britain. What a bunch of oafs they are over there. They all think we measure distance in kilometers, too.

Also, just to reassert how clever and knowledgeable I am (that ego of mine is terribly fragile, you know, especially in moments of stress about upcoming World Memory Championships), can I point out that although this website speculates that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is to blame for the bumbershoot confusion (understandable, seeing as so many Americans do think Dick Van Dyke is an authentic Englishman), there was in fact a character in the popular 1960s war comic "Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos", four years before Dick Van Dyke sang that song, called Percival 'Pinky' Pinkerton, who was the token English character, and who always carried his trusty bumbershoot around with him on his commando missions. Seriously, he did.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

It's the final countdown

Okay, I've done a last bit of cards practice today - it's a bit closer to the competition than I usually keep training, you have to rest your brain and your journeys for a few days at least, but I still don't feel completely like I've done enough training, and I wanted to experiment with slowing down a little on the second viewing (I've taken to doing that with numbers, and I think it helps, a bit). But now I'm all done, except for a bit of abstract-image and random-words practice I'm planning to do over the next few evenings, because I'm operating on the dubious theory that it's good to keep practicing those right up to the start of the competition.

I've also devoted a tedious amount of time to shuffling cards and writing labels for them, and realising that I forgot to buy rubber bands (to hold the cards together and stop them falling out all over my bag or the floor). I'll have to see if I can pilfer some from the office, but getting stationery there can be a bit like borrowing gold from Fort Knox. I've got to work on Wednesday, hopefully knocking off early enough to get to the competitor briefing in London at 6pm, and I'm probably not going to have time to pop to the shops and find rubber bands...

It's the trivial little things that cause people to lose the World Memory Championship, you know.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Entertainment like it used to be

I'm listening to the boxing on the radio. Not something I've ever done before - officially I disapprove of boxing, but I like to watch it on TV from time to time - and it seems a strange thing to do, seeing as boxing is such a very visual thing. You'd think that boxing on the radio would be the equivalent of memory competitions on the telly - nobody can see what's happening. But old cartoons, comics etc are absolutely full of scenes of people crowding around a radio to listen to the big fight, so this is my sort of tribute to that, and also to the fact that there's nothing good on TV. I hope Valuev wins - I hate it when a plucky underdog beats the hot favourite.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Interlude

While we wait for me to finish writing that WMC competitors analysis I promised you yesterday (that's a weekend job if ever I saw one), let's keep up the memory theme by telling the world that Sainsbury's want to use me in some kind of "PR story", helping staff memorise the location of their products so as to help customers. It sounds like fun, although in the email they asked me to 'please let me know your rate for PR activity', which is a question I never enjoy being asked. It's sort of embarrassing to reply that I haven't got a standard rate, because I very rarely do that kind of thing, and when I do I normally don't get paid. I'd do this for free Sainsbury's own brand groceries. This is why I really need an agent, you see. They could price me right out of the market and reject all this kind of offer without even telling me about it! That would give me so much more free time!

Also, I notice we haven't got any British people in the semi-finals of the World Othello Championship. It's another nearly-all-Japanese affair again, including one Japanese player who pretends to be from Singapore nowadays, and also Matthias Berg, who probably counts as an honorary Japanese player by now, since he always gets to the semi-finals of the world championship. Maybe next year I'll qualify and show them all how it's done.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Runners and riders

Well, it's a week until the World Memory Championship 2009 kicks off, I've just spent the evening experimenting with a new approach to memorising binary digits (which is, of course, a ridiculous thing to do a week before a world championship, when you might argue that it's a bit too late to be trying new things, but hey, I'm a ridiculous kind of person), the WMSC have just made an announcement about prizes, interestingly not mentioning the prizes that Memory XL have promised to provide on top, and I'm feeling like this would be a good time to do that run-down of the top competitors in this year's event, so all my faithful blog-followers know who to look out for. Well, it's that or go out and watch the fireworks, and I'm doing that tomorrow. I've written part of it already, the finished article will be with you at some point over the next seven days.

(Incidentally, you probably also want to know where to look out for them - up to the minute coverage will hopefully be available on the ever-awesome memory-sports.com. Sorry, everyone who keeps asking me this question, it's not going to be on telly. Not even on some obscure cable channel.)

But let's talk about those prizes before we start - in the absence of a sponsor for this year, the coolest prizes are the promise of free trips to next year's championship, in China. Free hotel rooms for places four to ten, free flights and hotel suites for the top three (hotel SUITES? Okay, not all the competitors are working class heroes like me, but I'm sure all the potential top-three would be happy to take a normal room, and have the spare cash go back into the prize fund for everyone. The entire German team this year are crowding into about three rooms, last I heard, we're used to non-luxurious accommodation!). Still, these prizes are extremely groovy, and I hope they do come about. It's generally a good idea to be sceptical about plans for future world memory championships at this stage, but the Chinese organisers seem very keen to put on a good show.

There's also a promise of lots of prize money for 2010, but I'm not going to be making plans for that money just yet. A lot of things could happen in the next twelve months.

Anyway, the point of memory competitions really isn't the prizes - it's the fun of the competition. Prizes are a nice bonus, but we'd all compete if there never were any, and we'd still have a good time doing it. (Well, unless there was a wealthy sponsor spending lots of money, but the organisers were pocketing it all. Then we might complain a bit.) But I'm completely in the mood for an exciting World Memory Championship now. Roll on next Thursday!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

WOCaday

The World Othello Championship kicks off tomorrow in Ghent. In accordance with tradition, the draw for the first round has been made the night before, and you can see it here if you want. Our British contingent (and our Australian chairman) mostly seem to have drawn opponents in the good-but-beatable-players kind of range (Miroslav Voracek, Marcel Peperkamp, Henry Aspenryd), while David Hand and Helen Starkey are up against players I've never heard of before, so there's a chance of a good start for our lads (and ladette) if everyone's on form.

It really is high time we had a British world champion, or even just a British runner-up again. Come on, you Brits! Flip those discs!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Who's going to win?

I am, that's who! You know, I'm just now finally starting to feel confident about the world championship. It's going to be close, but I think I can do it...

Monday, November 02, 2009

A bit more Japan

Remember that "Windows 7 Burger" I mentioned? Boris found pictures! Pictures from the very same Burger King we were in, in fact!

Also, you know how American lightswitches are weird (you flick them up to turn the light on and down to turn it off, as opposed to the normal way of doing things)? Well, Japanese lightswitches are sideways! It really is a strange and scary country, and I think I'm going to have to avoid international travel in future, because things like this really do alarm me.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

It's funny what you think of at odd moments

I own a hacksaw, or possibly a coping saw, I'm not sure what the difference is. Anyway, I've got one, in one of my old cardboard boxes. It just occurred to me today, apropos of nothing, and I dug it out just to make sure I wasn't imagining it. But I can't for the life of me remember why I bought the thing. I'm not a DIY kind of person and I'm sure I've never used it. I can't think of anything I've ever done that would have required a hacksaw, but I know there was something once upon a time. I wonder if I made a good job of it...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Positive thinking

I'm almost certain that by far the biggest problem with my preparation for the World Memory Championship this year is that I just don't feel like I've done enough training. I'm sure if I could just snap out of that mindset, I would do much, much better at the competition, without actually doing any more training. I've often wondered whether hypnosis would help in this kind of situation - as I always say (usually to justify eating junk food at memory competitions), if I'm in the right frame of mind, I can always memorise a lot better. So having someone wave a shiny watch in front of my eyes and tell me that I believe I am fully prepared and confident that I can win the world championship... might actually make a huge difference.

Where does one find a hypnotist, anyway? I've never looked for one before. Blimey, there's about a million hynotherapists in the Nottingham Yellow Pages alone! Maybe I'll give one of them a call...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Techno-toilet go!

Yes, the toilet in my hotel room in Tokyo had a huge electronic control panel and a variety of hi-tech functions. When you sit down on it, there's a great gurgling sound of water and a green light marked "Preparation" starts flashing. You can then control the seat temperature and spray strength of the "bidet" and "shower" functions. I'm not sure what the "shower" one does, I didn't dare to try it. The toilet at the university we went to for our experiment on Monday had another function as well, marked "Flushing sound". Yes, when you press it a recording of a flushing sound plays from a speaker. I'm not sure exactly what the point of this function is. For those moments when you want to pretend to flush a toilet, but not actually flush it? Perhaps it's one of those cultural things that you have to be Japanese to understand.

Anyway, going to the toilet was only half the fun of the trip, so let's do a more chronological account of what I've been up to for the past week. As I whined in my last blog, my flight was three and a half hours late taking off, and when it's a twelve-hour flight anyway, you really want to minimise the amount of hours you spend sitting around waiting for it to start. Also, it was an overnight flight, and I can never sleep on planes, even though I got upgraded to a slightly nicer still-economy-class-but-better-than-normal-economy-class seat. Still, there was a reasonable range of in-flight entertainment - I got to see Bolt for the first time, and although the 'kids' section of the videos was very sparsely populated, it did contain the downright awesome (and not at all intended for kids) animation "La maison en petits cubes", which was fun.

I did finally arrive in Tokyo at about 7pm, Japanese time (after half an hour spent waiting for my luggage) to be greeted by the very friendly film crew - director Naoko and the camerman and soundman, whose names I can't remember, and there was also a driver who generally just stayed with the minibus and didn't join in with our various adventures. We drove into central Tokyo, checked into my very nice hotel right in the city centre, met up with Boris (who'd arrived a day or so earlier, despite missing the plane he was originally supposed to get, and had got upgraded to a really luxurious business-class seat as a reward) and we went out to eat. At the cameraman's suggestion, we had okonomiyaki, which I was very enthusiastic about, and explained that I was familiar with the concept because it featured prominently in the popular Japanese comic "Ranma ½". The camera crew already knew I was something of a comics and cartoons nut, but hadn't quite realised the full depths of it until I came to Japan and couldn't shut up about them, my tongue having been loosened by the lack of sleep and surfeit of sake (our Japanese hosts were all drinking beer, but I insisted on having a 'real Japanese experience' and drinking sake - it's possible I didn't make the best impression overall, but they all seemed entertained). By the time we'd got to the end of the evening, at about midnight, I had moved on from discussing comics and showing off my ability to read the katakana parts of the menu and had taken to loudly singing songs from Japanese cartoons I enjoy.

You'd think that I would have slept well after all that, but actually I woke up at about four o'clock and couldn't get back to sleep. Throughout all the time I was there, in fact, I had really terrible jetlag, even worse than when I went to Malaysia six years ago and famously missed the start of the final day of the world memory championship. Still, that gave me an opportunity to walk around Shibuya before the shops opened (most shops there don't open till ten or eleven in the morning, but stay open very late), then go back to bed and sleep until two in the afternoon. This set something of a pattern for my stay there, of going to bed when I felt tired, sleeping for three or four hours then getting up and going out again. Probably not good for me, but it seemed to work.

There are plenty of great sights to see in Tokyo, even if you don't go to the temples and museums and stuff and prefer to just tour the city centre. I did go to see the statue of Hachikō the faithful dog at the train station, but that was all the traditional sightseeing. I preferred to admire the many video game arcades (the buildings tended to be taken up mainly by pachinko machines, but there were also some cool places with a wide range of games - the arcade as a concept may be basically dead in Britain, but it's still surviving over there), bookshops (including the invitingly-named "Book Off", which has more manga than I thought even existed in the world) and department stores. All of these were great fun!

In the evening, Boris and I went for a traditional Japanese meal in Burger King, where they were selling a "Windows 7 burger", with no less than seven giant-size meat patties in them. Didn't have one myself, but I saw some people eating them. It's the kind of meal that would probably kill you, but in a fun way. Incidentally, despite the metric system, a quarter pounder is a quarter pounder in Japan.

The following day, it was time for "the experiment". We added a translator to the gang of us in the minibus (not really necessary, since Naoko's English was actually a bit better than the official translator's) and went out to the university, where we were greeted by the very mad-scientist-esque professor who had arranged to scan our brains while we memorised things. This procedure involved being strapped into a big, scary MRI machine, which was quite an experience in itself, complete with mirrors so we could see a computer screen on which were displayed names and faces and then numbers. Being famously bad at names and faces, I was worried about disappointing the professor, but it turned out that that part of the test was really easy, involving multiple-choice answers, and I breezed through it with only one mistake. I even got the same score as Boris, which shows how easy it was!

The lab assistant responsible for strapping us into the machine, incidentally, looked quite strikingly like my brother. Not so much so when you saw him standing up, being more than a foot shorter, with a rounder face and also being Japanese, but when you can only see his face while he's leaning over you and strapping your head down in a very scary plastic cage, the resemblance is quite uncanny. I did wonder if possibly I was having some very strange freudian dream about my brother strapping me to a bed and sealing me in a tubular coffin. Anyway, the next bit of the test was numbers - 30-second numbers, with 50 digits to remember and a fill-in-the-blanks recall test. It was going to be 20 seconds, but Boris thought that wasn't long enough, the big chicken. Actually, even with thirty seconds on the clock I had a few mistakes, but all but one of them came from forgetting which button was which digit (not being able to see a keyboard due to being strapped into the machine, we had control panels with one button under each finger, and it took a bit of getting used to).

It'll take them a week or so to analyse exactly what my brain was doing and whether it's different from what normal people's brains do, but they did generate an extraordinarily groovy 3-D model of my head on the computer screen, which you can sort of slice open to see a cross-section of my brain. I tell you, it was very cool to see. I didn't realise I even had a brain, let alone one that you can analyse with computers.

After that we had another free day, which I spent travelling around all the different parts of Tokyo. It had been raining for the whole time I was there, but the sun started shining that day, and I completely wore myself out walking around the big city.

Next day was part two of the filming, but this was the rather more fun kind of filming that involved playing, eating and singing. We went to Odaiba, where an officious person told us that we weren't allowed to film documentaries without permission, so we spent the day disguised as tourists, with a hand-held camera. We went to Joypolis, the big Sega indoor theme park kind of place, and had a great time. There's a 3-D animation called "Dark Chapel" which is by far the best 3-D I've ever seen - things jump out of the screen and bite you! And lots of fun rides and attractions too!

Then we went back into the city and ate lots of sushi, while trying to memorise the names. As memory performances go, it wasn't very good, but the food was mostly nice (personally, I don't think that paying a surprisingly large amount of money for an octopus tentacle on a little pile of rice is a good idea, but I wasn't paying, so it was okay. Didn't taste good, though).

And then, because you can't go to Japan and not do this, we went to a karaoke bar in the evening. Not the kind of karaoke bar you get in this country, but a place with private rooms and electronic ordering of songs and drinks and foodstuffs. And also a book literally the size of the yellow pages containing nothing but karaoke versions of songs from cartoons. This really is my kind of country.

I am going to have to improve my singing voice if I go there again, though - I do like a bit of karaoke, and normally when I go out singing, people say I'm quite good compared to some of the people who go up on stage. In Tokyo, though, I was completely put in my place by the director and cameraman, who are both really amazingly great singers. And they even performed the Gatchaman and Evangelion theme tunes for my benefit, and did it really amazingly well! I had a stab at singing "Konya wa Hurricane" from Bubblegum Crisis, which went down well even though I can't read Japanese fast enough to sing it and I could only remember half the words.

And that, sadly, was that. Back home again the next morning, another much-too-long plane journey and then back to work today (I should have been sleeping all day, really, but I had to go in because practically everybody else in the company had the day off and they booked it first). This has been a hugely abridged account of my stay in Tokyo, missing out lots of fun adventures, but I hope it gives you an idea at least. I wish I was still there! Somebody give me another free trip, quick!