Sunday, August 12, 2018

Natural Memory

On the morning of Monday 20th, at the Mind Sports Olympiad, we have the Natural Memory Championship - the second part of the big MSO memory event. There's still time to register!

Possibly "natural" isn't quite the right word for this; it doesn't give enough credit to all the hard work and training that the memory masters do in these disciplines, but it's true that these ones are the bits of any memory championship where complete beginners have the best chance of getting a score that comes somewhere near to the scores achieved by the experts.

 Do the N and M look like some kind of natural field of grass, with the other letters floating above them? Because that's the kind of effect I was going for...

 Names - and the names attached to these pictures of people's faces might not be ones you've ever seen before; they're randomly selected from all over the world, and will very probably be a first name from one country and a last name from an entirely different culture, attached to a face that looks like it comes from somewhere entirely different again. But unlike the numbers and cards, you don't have to remember them in any particular order - you just have to remember which names went with which face, and then fill in the names under the faces (presented in a different sequence) on the recall papers.

 Words, on the other hand, you do need to remember in the order you're given them. Read down the columns; each one has 20 words in it (mostly concrete nouns, with a smattering of more abstract words added to the mix), and you need to get them all right to get a score of 20 for the column. One error reduces the column score to 10, two errors and it's zero. But a simple spelling mistake just loses you the point for that word, so reducing it to 19 as in the first column above. For the last column you complete, you can fill in a partial list, and for example score 9 points for writing correctly the first 9 words.

Images, which will be random pictures like the ones above, come in rows of five, and you have to remember the sequence of each row. The recall page will show each row with the images in a different order, and you have to fill in the numbers 1 to 5 underneath them to represent the original order. Five points if you get a row correct, you can leave a row blank without penalty, but if you fill one in with a mistake, there's a penalty, minus one point. So in the picture above, someone's scored 9 points from the first four rows.

They've also forgotten to fill their name in at the top of the page - everyone should always make sure to do that.

Now, I still can't 100% promise we'll do this next bit. But I hope, fingers crossed, that we'll have enough internet access and laptops to use Memory League for the super-fast equivalents of the three disciplines above!

In all three, the time is a maximum of one minute to memorise, and then four minutes to recall. The aim is to remember the full amount of data (30 names - first names only - 50 words and 30 images) as fast as possible, or else to get the highest number of them right that you can. All being well, we'll have two attempts at each, with the highest score counting. But as I said, I'll need to know what the situation at the venue is before we can definitely do this. It'll be fun, anyway!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Marathon Memory

We're just over a week away from the three-in-one memory competition extravaganza at the Mind Sports Olympiad, and it's not too late to register, if you want to join the fun! There are three separate competitions, each with their own theme and medals to fight for, and if you want to compete in all three, they add together to make the overall MSO Champion. Tonight, I'm shining the spotlight on the first competition, which takes up all day on Sunday 19th - Marathon Memory.

It's going to be a long day, with not much time to rest in between long-term memory tasks. And we start with 30 minutes to memorise as many binary digits as possible, after which you then have 60 minutes to write down what you've memorised. As you can see from the hopefully-comprehensible diagrams above, they come in rows of 30 ones and noughts, and you have to get a complete row correct to get 30 points. One mistake, or blank space, in a row gets you 15 points, two or more errors and there's no score for that row. The last row, and only the last row, that you memorise can be partially filled in - as above, our competitor got to the 19th digit of the 20th row, and scored 19 points.

Then we'll go into a comparative rest interval, with our first trial at spoken numbers. You'll hear 200 digits spoken aloud (on a recording) at a rate of one digit per second. And you have to recall the lot - you score points for each correct digit, but only up to the first mistake. So be careful, but there are three trials at this (with an increasing number of digits each time), and only your best score from the three is counted.

Then we go into our 30-minute decimal digits, which work exactly the same way as the binary digits up above, only this time they range from 0 to 9, and they come in rows of 40. The scoring works the same way again. After that, we'll take our only significant break of the day (assuming we managed to start fairly promptly at 10:00, it'll be about 2pm by now), to let people get some lunch and cool their brain down a little, and then we get back into the swing of things with some more spoken numbers.

It's just the same as before, except now you have to sit through 300 spoken digits, a whole five minutes' worth, before you get to recall them. Even if you lose track after six digits, you still have to patiently sit in silence until they've all finished playing, I'm afraid.

And then we get into cards. Real, physical packs of cards, shuffled randomly of course (do bring your own if you prefer; most people do), and 30 minutes to memorise as many as possible. The 60 minutes of recall is done on papers like the ones above. For example, if the first card in the first pack is the two of spades, write a 2 next to the spades symbol in the first row. Then a 4 next to the diamond in the second row, and so on until the whole pack is filled in. Once again, for the final pack you looked at, you can fill in a partial one and score the number of cards you wrote down; for all the others, it's 52 for a complete pack, 26 for one mistake, zero for two or more errors (which includes switching the order of two cards).

And finally, although everyone will certainly be exhausted by now, there's a final chance to improve your spoken numbers score, with a mammoth 550 digits. After the recall of that, we'll have come to the end of an eight-hour day of arduous memory, but it'll all be worth it for the prizegiving ceremony straight afterwards - there'll probably be a podium to stand on, and everything!

Thursday, August 09, 2018


I just saw Ant-Man and the Wasp - two visits to the cinema in a year, I'm definitely a movie-fanatic now! And I'm still completely in love with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Do I really have to wait until next year for the next one?

Anyway, here's another thing I do, thanks to Joe and Nick in the office - HQ Trivia. It's fun! Anyone else who plays the British version want to be friends and share answers? I only occasionally know things, but it does sometimes happen.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Return to the scene of past glories

Remember eleven years ago, when the UK Memory Championship was in Highley, and I thought it would be a cool and appropriate tribute to my then-recently-deceased father to travel there on the Severn Valley Railway on a steam train? Only for it to turn out that the railway line had been destroyed by floods a little while before, so I had to go there in a (shudder) taxi, probably, unless someone gave me a lift. Someone probably did give me a lift, come to think of it. But it would still have been a lot better to have gone there on an actual steam train. Anyway, I got over the disappointment the next day when I became the first person to ever memorise a pack of cards in under 30 seconds, and so never did think about the Severn Valley Railway ever again, even when I moved to Redditch, which is really not far away from it at all.

Until a couple of weeks ago, that is, when a friend from America said he was coming over here and wanted to see the Severn Valley Railway, and would I like to go along with him? So that's what we're doing tomorrow.

Kidderminster, where the steamy railway meets the normal railway, is close to Redditch, but on a different train line, so it takes ages to take the train from one to the other. It's a lot like living in Boston and wanting to get the train to Spalding, if that analogy makes any sense to anyone. Lincolnshire people, maybe. But there is a station on Redditch's little branch line, Barnt Green, that the main line from Birmingham to Worcester thunders through, and commuter trains stop there once a day in each direction to allow people who live in Barnt Green to go to and from work in Bromsgrove and Worcester if they really want to. It's like the train from Derby to Sheffield that stops at Belper once a day for the same reasons, if that analogy makes sense to anyone at all. Wow, I'm becoming some kind of train nerd.

So I can get to Kidderminster tomorrow by switching tracks at Barnt Green, rather than doing what you have to do to get anywhere else from Redditch, and go all the way into Birmingham and out again. That's fun, but it's not nearly as fun as the return journey. Just once a day, you can get from Kidderminster to Redditch by going Kidderminster-Droitwich Spa (13 minutes), then another train from Droitwich Spa to Bromsgrove (9 minutes), another one from Bromsgrove to Barnt Green (6 minutes), and a fourth train from Barnt Green to Redditch (10 minutes)! Four short hops, and the journey time is reduced to only about twice as long as it takes by car! I've got to try that tomorrow, and see if all four trains are running on time...

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Teenage wasteland

Still the best superhero comic on the shelves at the moment, Runaways is now up to #11 of the latest series, and (impressively, considering how Marvel comics do things these days), will be continuing past #12, although the sales figures aren't spectacular. Which they should be; it's really that good. It is selling better than my other favourite comics, Squirrel Girl and Astro City, but they're more kind of niche things, while Runaways is something that really should be read by everyone. In fact, I order you all to go and read it. I do realise that American comics nowadays are so expensive that only the four richest kings of Europe can afford them, but they do come in very slightly cheaper compiled paperback editions, and there are some really cool oversized volumes of the early Runaways stories, 18 issues to a book, that I'd recommend checking out!

Someone on the internet has kindly summarised all the Runaways' appearances here, if you want to know exactly what I'm ordering you to read, but the only bits that I would call essential reading are the 42 issues of the original series written by Brian K Vaughan, and now this new series by Rainbow Rowell. I mean, there are other good things on that list too - Avengers Undercover really should be on everyone's must-read list, it's brilliant, but from the perspective of Runaways readers it's as well to skip the characters' appearances in that period; they're all mentioned when necessary in the new series, and smoothed over as much as possible where people are acting wildly out of character.

It's a problem with lesser-known superhero characters when their comic gets cancelled and they start showing up occasionally in other people's comics. Anything that happens to them is inevitably going to be reversed when next someone wants to write them, and everything they do inevitably doesn't feel right when it's not written by their original writer. That's why this new series is so fantastic on many levels - not only does it perfectly feel like the Vaughan-era originals, grown a couple of years older, it acknowledges and treats as important everything that happened to them in other comics, even when busily reversing them.

Besides, it contributes nicely to the general theme of the comic - teenagers who've gone through traumatic experiences and bonded. It all started when they discovered their parents were secretly super-villains, and escalated through a series of adventures on the run until the gang had the added burden of (indirectly) killing the parents and many another crisis to try to come to terms with. This issue, #11, is a 'downtime' kind of story where they all just hang around and talk through things. Which is a bit unusual for an eleventh issue (comics tend to come in six-issue storylines), but then Runaways has never really been about heroes fighting bad guys - in the previous ten issues, the worst enemy they've faced has been Molly's mad scientist grandmother. It's a great place to join in and get to know the characters; otherwise, please go out and buy the collection of the first six issues, and then add the upcoming paperback of 7-12 to your shopping list too. You won't regret it!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"Churchill" (in an appropriately contemptuous voice)

The BBC make you create an account if you want to listen to the radio online now, which I think is quite shocking. They'll be making me buy a TV licence next. But it's worth it anyway, to listen to The Quanderhorn Xperimentations. It's really brilliant, and exactly the kind of thing there should be more of on the radio. Go and listen, if you haven't already!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Everyone's a winner

Or at least Novak Djokovic and the French football team are. And for that matter, so is John Graham, who's just won the US Memory Championship! This is very cool, because he's another new, up-and-coming memory star from America who might well go on to do great things in future. The days when I was too polite to say how very low the standard at the US Championship was are long ago now, it's definitely one of the focal points of major memory cleverness even in the absence of Alex! Plus, since the competition resolutely sticks to the principles of being an entirely different format from any other memory competition in the world, it's always fun to follow! I must go out there and watch it again some time; it's been way too long since I did that.

Also, here's what I would do if I had lots of money and resources - run an international Memory League team championship! Each country has a team of five players, there's something like four countries involved, and everybody competes simultaneously to get the best score they can at each of the five disciplines. Each team nominates one member to be a specialist in each discipline, so everyone gets their moment in the limelight, and you get three attempts at each one.

The seating would be arranged like this - imagine a big TV studio, lots of lights and things, and an audience watching. Centre stage is one big seat for each cards specialist, sitting at a computer screen, not able to see each other or the big giant screen overhead for the audience. The four cards specialists come out (to cheers from the audience), and stats about them are shown on the big screen. Four more sets of seats are to the sides, further back, for the rest of the teams, and all the players sit down simultaneously and memorise a pack of cards as fast as possible. The audience watch along on five quartered split-screen displays. At the end of each attempt they all get up and see everybody's scores, then sit down again and try to beat it. The 20 competitors are ranked in order of their scores, 20 points for the best, 19 for the next and so on. Specialists get double points in their specialist discipline.

Repeat for images, names, numbers and words! Throw in some expert camera-work and commentary from the likes of Florian, put the whole thing on YouTube, and I'm sure the TV people around the world will come running with wads of money in their hands! And even if they don't, it'd be a lot of fun for everyone!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The four corners

I'm officially going to Seoul in August, which is really extremely cool. I've even resolved to do some proper practice, although that was a week or two ago and I haven't actually done any yet. But good intentions can take you quite far in this world.

And speaking of going far, there was a thing going around the internet recently about the furthest north, south, east and west you've travelled. My north is Gothenburg, east is Tokyo, south is Rio de Janeiro, and west is San Diego. Which took a bit of checking on maps - I thought Westlock was more north than it actually is, but it's not really into the proper north bit of Canada, it's just above the line where everyone in Canada actually lives.

So now I need to beat those records, naturally. I should go to Sydney and beat the south and east (or west, if I go the other way) records in one fell swoop. Or to a different part of Sweden, or Norway, because Gothenburg's only just fractionally more northern than Aberdeen!

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Clash of arms (or of small discs, anyway)

One thing I didn't mention yesterday about our room in the castle keep, was that it's full of swords and shields, various torture devices, helmets, and a lot of dressing-up clothes. All of which, Marie assured us, we were allowed to play with, because they were only replicas. But we mainly contented ourselves with playing othello instead, and although my own performance was spectacularly rubbish, the whole thing was an absolutely thrilling tournament!

After round 6, in which Imre lost to Bruce, Imre was still the leader on 5 wins, but there were a whole five people in joint second place behind him on 4! And I wasn't one of them, but never mind, I'll spend the next year practicing and win it in 2019.

The way it all shook out in the end, Roy (who'd unexpectedly beaten practically everyone) played the grand final against Imre, but couldn't stop his continual UK-championship-winning streak, now on four years and counting. Iain and Bruce played the third-place playoff match, which ended up an especially exciting draw, so Iain finished third on his disc count in the round-robin.

Also, happy 372nd birthday to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man

It's the othello nationals, in the scenic location of the confusingly-named Newcastle Castle. Which is, of course, a very old castle.

You can see how it must have happened, obviously. "Why-aye, man," one of the founders of Newcastle must have said, for that is how people from Newcastle invariably start a conversation, "let's name our 'toon' [for that is how people in Newcastle pronounce the word 'town'] after this lovely new castle of ours!"

"Jolly good idea!" the other founder of Newcastle must have replied, "for while the castle will inevitably grow old in time, it won't be until long after the pair o'wers [meaning 'the two of us'] are dead and gone, so it won't be US who get jeered at for living in a 'toon' called Newcastle with a very old castle!"

In any case, the whole thing's gone on for about a thousand years too long for them to change the name now, so we're stuck with it. As for the othello playing, interesting features included a pre-competition excursion to see a were-rabbit that lurks nearby, and me generally playing badly but getting more discs than I really deserved. We have nine players overall, a nice number for a nine-round competition (though ten would be even better), and played the first four games of the round-robin this afternoon.

I started out against David Stephenson, playing his first tournament for about 25 years, and lost 34-30, then in the second round lost 33-31 to Roy. But I regained the momentum by scoring a point in the third round against that perpetual loser, 'bye', and finished the day off with a (rather fortunate) 36-28 win over Bruce.

And it's finely poised on the leaderboard, with Imre and Iain on 4 out of 4, then a whole five other people on 2, including me. So if I was to somehow win all my games tomorrow, I'd be entirely possibly in the top two, who contest the grand final! But I'd probably have to remember how to play the game first.

We had dinner this evening in the Herb Garden restaurant, notable for having a giant horse statue, wearing roller-skates and leg-warmers, outside the door. It just needs a horn, and you've got Marigold Heavenly Nostrils.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


What I really want from the World Cup is for England to beat Brazil in the final, because that would just be really cool. So it would make more sense for us to deliberately lose to Belgium tomorrow in order to end up in the bottom half of the draw, rather than getting the less-impressive quarter-final match-up with Brazil.

But then, on the other hand, we'll inevitably lose to Spain in the semis if we end up in their half of the draw, so we'd probably better just beat Belgium and get it over with.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Another place I'm going

Newcastle, this weekend! For the national othello championship! The nationals are always cleverly arranged so that they start after lunch on Saturday, giving people time to get an early train, so I've got no excuse for not going. I really should play more othello online; the only times I play the game nowadays are when I go to actual competitions...

Monday, June 25, 2018

Around the world

Should I go to Korea in August? I think I should, actually - there's a memory competition in Seoul on August 25-26, and I like the idea of going to it. It clashes with the MSO, but I wasn't all that enthusiastic about going there this year, and I've already got the week off work - I could run the MSO memory competition at the weekend, then fly straight from London to Seoul, and be back again to go back to work on the Tuesday. It all works quite nicely.

I mean, it'll cost a lot of money, but I could do the whole thing for not much more than a thousand pounds, and it's nice to travel. It's not completely 100% in line with my resolution not to spend money to excess until I've paid off my remaining debts, but, you know, it'll only be two intercontinental holidays in the year, and I really have been good at not spending money unnecessarily when it comes to small things...

They pay me too much at work, that's the trouble. I keep telling them.

Another thing I would like to spend money on, but I'm really not going to, is Sonic Mania Plus - it looks like the coolest video game since the 'real' Sonic games back in the early nineties. Almost enough to convince me to buy a PlayStation, or whatever the cool kids are buying these days. But I won't do that, I'll just go to Korea and otherwise be frugal with my money.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Let women not try to turn themselves into men

In honour of 100 years of women's suffrage, here's just one of the many brilliant treasures you can find if you read through the archives of The Argosy, the Victorian magazine edited by my favourite underrated writer, Mrs Henry Wood. In March 1873, she devoted five pages to Alice King's essay on why allowing women to vote would be a terrible idea all round.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

It has a lot of zeroes, but no other digits

If you type my name into Google, one of the searches it suggests is "ben pridmore net worth". As in, somebody has tried to search for that at some point. I like to think it was the writer of the Sunday Times Rich List, just checking to see if I need to be on it.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Here we go again

Remember all the UK-based TV-wrestling excitement a year and a half ago, around new year 2017? ITV ran a really cool World of Sport Wrestling special and intended to make it into an ongoing series, and so the WWE organised a rival UK Championship special on their internet network?

Well, the whole thing's happening again now - after the ITV series plan all fell through, they've apparently managed to work something out now and produced a ten-week series, and so the WWE are proudly announcing the "second annual UK Championship special" on the Network.

And I still don't really see why they're acting like rival productions, when they're aiming at entirely different kinds of audience - ITV is for casual Saturday night viewers who want a bit of fun; the WWE Network is for people who take wrestling REALLY seriously. In other words, the one is for people who think TV wrestling is real; the other is for people who also think TV wrestling is real, but in a more complicated way involving doublethink. Couldn't everyone just work together and produce both?

But speaking as a person who thinks everything is real and likes watching wrestling, I'm looking forward to both. I see that WWE have stolen a large chunk of the wrestlers who did the ITV show last time, including Dave Mastiff, which is good for them - last year's UK Championship contenders were all a bit on the wimpy side for wrestlers. But ITV retain Grado, who's the best actor of the lot by far, so the ITV show should still be more fun to watch for the casual viewer.

And they're probably just pretending to think they're rival productions, anyway, for the benefit of people who think everything is real.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

World Cup fever

It really doesn't feel like twenty years since Fat Les, but perhaps that just shows how old I'm getting. I might have to announce my retirement from international football after this World Cup.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Return to the Glass Cube

Just over ten years ago, we had a memorable memory competition in the Wolfson Seminar Room North at Trinity College, Cambridge. You can read all about it here! Today, I ended up back in that big glass box, for the Cambridge Regional othello tournament.

The air-conditioning is working now, which is good because it's lovely and sunny again today, but there are lots of signs on the lift, saying it's working again now but was out of action for a long time because people were holding the doors open. Anyone who does that in future will get in big trouble, but in my defence, those signs weren't there ten years ago and we needed to keep the thing quiet for a minute or two in order to do the spoken numbers.

In any case, there was a small and select group competing today - me, Imre, Steve and Roy. Imre won  the double round robin comfortably enough, but the interesting thing was that both of my games against Roy were draws! Draws are unusual in othello; to draw both games against the same opponent in a tournament is Ripley's Believe It Or Not kind of stuff, to othello players at least.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Happy birthday Sam Selvon

He's today's google doodle, because it's his 95th birthday, apparently (though he died in 1994). We had to read a book of his short stories for GCSE English, back in the ancient times when he was still alive, so he has my undying gratitude for actually being quite a good writer, unlike some of the people poor GCSE students were forced to read the works of.

The thing is, though, having clicked on the doodle and seen google's array of photos of him... he looks absolutely nothing at all like I thought he did. I must have seen a picture of somebody else at some point, and thought it was Sam Selvon, because my instant reaction is "hang on, why did I think he looked completely different?"

I wonder who I've been thinking is Sam Selvon all these years?

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Behold... the universe!

In many ways, I am Groot. By which I mean, I'm somebody who refrained from watching Marvel movies, on the grounds that superhero movies generally aren't very good. I might just have been mistaken about that, but be fair, I'm old now, and I stand by that opinion as it relates to all superhero movies made before 2008.

Even so, it took a combination of circumstances to persuade me to give them a try. For one thing, I really loved Infinity Gauntlet and its many sequels when the comics first came out. I was hugely into Warlock and the Infinity Watch for a while, even if with hindsight it was pretty rubbish. Possibly you just had to be there. Possibly I hadn't read enough GOOD comics at that time. After reading Thunderbolts in 1997, Warlock definitely lost his (orange) lustre. But to a teenager with a limited experience of good superhero comics, it was pretty awesome, so I'll always have a soft spot for it.

And then I saw someone share a hand-drawn flow-chart on Facebook showing how the 19 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies connect together, and it stimulated my nerdy impulses. With all appropriate credit to "Geek Out Huntsville" and whoever doodled this thing... here's a shining example of how to persuade me to do something:

Seriously, how could anyone resist something like that? So I bought seventeen DVDs, and every evening for the past three weeks, I've watched a superhero movie. Except last Saturday, when I was doing something else. And I capped it off today by going to the cinema for the first time in years and watching Avengers: Infinity War.

[Yes, Black Panther isn't available on DVD in this country yet. Yes, I illegally downloaded it. Sue me. I'll buy the DVD as soon as it comes out, in a couple of weeks. I feel entirely morally justified in this.]

And, in summary.... wow. Big letters. WOW. In fact, WOW!

Yes, I really really love the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Even despite occasional clunkers (Thor: Ragnarok), the whole wonderful system of interconnecting adventures totally blew me away. It's genius, pure and simple, and I can't get enough of it. Every new movie from now on, I'm first in the queue, probably having watched all the previous DVDs again to refresh my memory for it. Heck, possibly even buying new copies of the DVD and/or sending any spare cash I find lying around the place in an envelope to Hollywood, because I don't feel like I'm rewarding the awesome people who make these films enough by just paying for them the once!

It's a good thing, really, that I wasn't watching them from the start. Iron Man is okay, Hulk is pretty good, Captain America is fun, but it was a sort of slow and uncertain start for the interlinked universe - it really only came together properly with Avengers Assemble [note to foreigners - that's what it was called in this country, so as not to offend John Steed and his partners. They're easily offended.]. That's where we really start to get the sense that not just the world, but the whole universe is one big picture, and we can get to see a little bit of it at a time with every new movie. That's the point where at least two movies started coming out every year, too, because who could bear waiting a whole year or more before the next one?

The universe really moves from good to great with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 - hilarious, brilliant and thrilling and exciting too! And a fine example of how the whole thing can move away from adapting old comics - just pick a bunch of forgotten space-themed characters from Marvel's long history, put them together and do something fun with them!

And then we get Avengers: Age of Ultron, which might still be the best movie of any kind I've ever seen, ever. But then, I've always been a sucker for Joss Whedon. And the MCU kept up the pace with Ant-Man, and then Captain America: Civil War, which was especially gratifying, because it was so very good when the Civil War comics were pretty atrocious. But this treatment of the same basic idea really made sense, and produced a masterpiece!

Doctor Strange didn't really capture my imagination very much, but Guardians 2 was that rare thing, a sequel just as good in every way as the first, if not better. And Spider-Man: Homecoming was nothing short of awesome! Never yet has anyone managed to capture the essential feel of the early-sixties Spidey comics that made the character so popular in the first place, until this film finally gets it right! I love it. An inspiration to teenage heroes everywhere.

As I said before, Thor: Ragnarok is the one that really didn't work - you just can't help wishing for the serious drama it was obviously originally conceived as, buried beneath some laboured attempts at comedy. Still, we all make mistakes, and Black Panther (deadly serious, that one, maybe even a little bit too much so) gets things right back on track again, all building up to Avengers: Infinity War.

And (slight spoilers coming, by the way - now that I've seen it, everybody else has no excuse for not having watched it yet), this is the whole universe in one film. I'm pretty sure nothing so epic has ever been attempted before. Despite my aforementioned nerdishness and compulsive desires to count things, I can't even enumerate how many established characters show up in this one, all contributing something significant and playing their own part in a galaxy-spanning adventure! The way it cuts between different conflicts going on at the same time, all part of the same whole, is breathtaking. Few people will get the reference, but it's Space Thunder Kids, only a real movie that makes sense!

And the ending is genuinely awesome. What's going to happen next? I'm a fan now, anyway. Without the extensive baggage that the comics have, and the ability to apparently do absolutely anything with special effects nowadays, it's official - superhero movies are better.

Monday, May 07, 2018

The answer to the ultimate question

That most famous of (former) British othello players, Aubrey, has apparently published a paper proving that the answer to the Hadwiger-Nelson Problem is not 4. Since I don't understand the question, let alone the answer, I'll have to take his word for it, but I do rather like the idea of there being a mathematical problem to which it was previously thought the answer might be 4, but is now known not to be. It's either 5, 6 or 7, the clever mathematicians now agree.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Memory League May!

May is the coolest month, if you like playing on Memory League! If you play at least three games (against an opponent or in training) on at least 28 days of the month of May, you get a free three months' subscription!

The way it works is that you can play for free, three times a day, but if you have a subscription you can play unlimited games. It's a good thing to have, because three matches or training sessions is really just enough to whet your appetite - they only last a minute, after all.

I'd advise everybody to do "MLM", as the cool kids are probably calling it, unless that already means something else, which I have a feeling it does - because at the start of June, we're going to kick off with the next season of the Online Memory League, and it helps if you have a) a full subscription and b) plenty of practice if you want to compete in that!

 The Online Memory League Championship is a competition open to everybody. Competitors are divided into divisions of around twelve players - new players this season are put into divisions based on their leaderboard position, so you will be playing against people at the same kind of level as you.
 In a season, each competitor will play each of the others in the division once, with one match per week, on a schedule drawn randomly at the start of the season. Players can be flexible about when they play their matches, depending on availability and circumstances, but should try to stick to the schedule as much as possible. You will need to communicate with your opponents - leave messages on the Memory League website, or the Art of Memory forum, or the Facebook group "World Memory Championships". We can help you get in touch with people - just send me a message if you need help!
 Matches will consist of six games - each player chooses three different disciplines, with the choice alternating. The first player on the scheduled match list chooses the first discipline; the schedule will be arranged so that each player gets a roughly equal distribution of 'home' and 'away' matches. Draws are possible, both in individual disciplines and in the match as a whole.
 If the match is a 3:3 draw, the players can (if they both agree to it) play a one-game 'decider', which can be any discipline they choose. If they don't both agree to play the decider, then the match is a draw.
 The league table gives two points for a match won, one for a match drawn. Players on the same number of points are ranked by number of disciplines won.
 At the end of the season, the bottom two in each division are related to the division below, and the top two in each division are promoted to the division above. There are play-offs between the 10th-place in the upper division versus 3rd-place in the lower, and 9th-place in the upper versus 4th-place in the lower to determine promotion and relegation.
 The top four in the first division go into play-offs for the grand title. 1st versus 4th and 2nd versus 3rd, followed by a grand final to determine the League Champion!
 Seasons last three months. We hope to get everything completed after 11 weeks, but it's okay if there are some minor delays. :-)

Friday, April 27, 2018

Wow, that was good

It's been nothing but memory-talk here on the blog for the last couple of weeks, so let's move to the physical side of things - WWE offered former subscribers like myself three months of the WWE Network for 99p with no commitment, so I availed myself of it to watch the Greatest Royal Rumble. It's their big showpiece to sell the whole wrestling thing in the Middle East, I assume (live from Saudi Arabia), but as a sideline, a good way to entice European viewers too, with a five-hour spectacular starting at 5pm on a Friday night, British time.

78 "superstars", by my count, if you include not-really-wrestling-but-participating people like Paul Heyman, were all shipped over to Jeddah along with Mr McMahon and the usual crowd of commentators, referees and so forth. No women, obviously - the WWE's idea of presenting women is sort of diametrically opposed to Saudi Arabia's, but perhaps one day they'll both find some kind of mythical middle ground between the two and join the halfway-sane parts of the world. In the meantime, without the traditional abysmal women's match, it was non-stop action from start to finish! And I was very impressed by how much character the many wrestlers managed to put across in a show with a minimum of talking!

You can forgive the occasional bad bits, like the hopelessly confused ending to Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar, because for the most part it was enough to keep me entertained all the way through, which is saying something for a five-hour marathon. It's enough to get me back into watching WWE, or at least it would be if the WWE Network allowed you to watch Raw and Smackdown replays in this country - Sky TV keep a jealous hold on them. So I guess I'll have to wait until I start paying for normal-TV again before I become a full-time wrestling fan. Great 50-man Royal Rumble, though! If you didn't watch it tonight, at least check out that part, if you can.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

No, good sir, I'm on the level

While watching the action from Gothenburg on Sunday, I entertained myself by creating a spreadsheet to quickly calculate IAM levels when you copy the scores from the stats website. Having added everyone to the list, I think there are 15 illustrious people who have reached level 20:

Memory legends, one and all! It'll be interesting to see who else gets up that high or higher over the next few years...

Sunday, April 22, 2018

All hail to the champion

Finishing off with a perfect 50 words in 52.70 seconds, Simon wins the Scandinavian Open! Followed by a great second place performance from Sylvain, with Jan-Hendrik winning a thrilling third-place match against Marcin!

All in all, it sounds like an amazing event, in the unusual surroundings of a shopping centre in Gothenburg! Count me in, next time!

Record collection

One thing I forgot to mention yesterday (I'm really not good at remembering things about memory competitions) is the new world records and amazingly great results at Memory League disciplines - Simon blew people away with 17.77 seconds in cards and 16.85 in numbers; Jan-Hendrik did an astonishing 45.09 seconds in names; Marcin topped the charts with 16.81 in images, and though we didn't have any perfect 50s in words (it's very difficult to do), those three each did a 46 in the course of the first day.

They're currently at lunch on day 2 - when they resume, the semi-finals will Simon against Jan-Hendrik (could be epic - if J-H is the names/words master then Simon is at least the vice-master, if there is such a thing, and definitely the master at cards and numbers), and Marcin against Sylvain (also epic, because Sylvain's definitely got the beyond-expectations-underdog vibe going now)! Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The league of memorisers

One thing I forgot to do yesterday was put a link to the Memory League website, where you can watch everything that's happening in Gothenburg this weekend. The group matches have been played today, and the format of the competition is I think ideal now - 16 competitors, with Idriz taking the place of the goldfish, in four groups. Everyone plays head-to-head matches against the other three in their group, with each match consisting of one go at each of the five disciplines. Then the finals tomorrow start with the people who finished second in a group playing off against someone who finished third in another group, for the right to play the winner of a third group in the quarter-finals.

Our matches tomorrow will be Simon against Konsti or Selim; Jan-Hendrik against Florian or Martin; Sylvain against Niklas or Hordiy; and Marcin against Jan or Paweł. So a lot of exciting games to look forward to!

In other news, since the summer's suddenly here, I cycled up to Birmingham today - first time I've done that this year. I've got a new bike, too, which I haven't mentioned (even though I know you all care so deeply about the trivial details of my life) - the old one fell to bits irreparably, and now I've been trying to remember how long I've had it. It wasn't particularly new when I moved to Belper at the start of 2014, I know that much. I should have written it in my blog. Perhaps I did, but I can't be bothered to check. Still, I'm confident that this blog entry will help Future Zoomy when he wants to know exactly when (give or take a couple of weeks) I bought this latest bike!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Next stop Scandinavia!

Well, not for me, but for international memory competitions - this weekend, the Scandinavian Memory League Open Championship is happening in Gothenburg, Sweden. I wish I could be there, but it was that or Canada, and I've already been to Gothenburg. But 15 competitors are coming to the championship organised by Idriz Zogaj and Sylvain Estadieu, and they've just held the draw for the group stage, conducted by special guest, former World Memory Champion and all-round awesome guy (no, not me), Jonas von Essen! It looks like this:

Group A:
Simon Reinhard
Florian Minges
Hordiy Ostapovych
Daniel Andersson

Group B:
Jan-Hendrik Büscher
Konstantin Skudler
Paweł Milczarek

Group C:
Jan Zoń
Sylvain Estadieu
Selim Aydın
Rickard Liu

Group D:
Marcin Kowalczyk
Niklas Månsson
Martin Nilsson
Ceyhun Aydin

There's a lot of memory league talent and experience in there - most of the competitors are regulars on the Memory League site and online league. Niklas goes by BurningDesire or Niklas Hendrik, incidentally - I had no idea his name was actually Månsson, which just goes to show what happens when you only know people on the internet.

You can never bet against Simon in these things (although apparently there'll be a dummy player, "maybe a goldfish", in group B, who might spring a surprise), but keep an eye on Marcin - he's very dangerous! It's going to be an epic contest, all weekend.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Happy birthday, Superman!

DC Comics are celebrating Superman's 80th birthday today, and I suppose it's as good a time as any (the copyright date of Action Comics no. 1 is April 18 1938, though it probably didn't hit the stores until a couple of weeks later - and of course the story had been written and drawn years earlier, and repeatedly rewritten and redrawn as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster tried to get someone to publish it), so let's all take a moment to cheer for the world's greatest superhero!

A lot of people talk about Superman as if the guiding creative philosophy behind him is "Wouldn't it be nice if I could fly?". That's a long way off beam - if you read the earliest comic stories, it's obvious that Superman is all about "If I could hit people without them being able to hit me back, I could make the world a better place!". Which is a worthy kind of view too, I suppose, but it's not what most people think of when they think of Superman.

He's not about saving the world from natural disasters, let alone Lex Luthor's evil schemes, at first. In that first published story (which reads like what it is; a chopped-up newspaper comic strip arbitrarily cut down to size to fit in a comic book - most comics were like that at the time, the only difference here was that Superman had never been actually published in a newspaper strip; they'd all rejected it!) he applies his ability to hit people to save a woman wrongly accused of murder, beat up a wife-beater to teach him a lesson, rescue Lois Lane from the unwelcome attentions of a thug, and get half-way through exposing a crooked senator. It's almost comically rough around the edges, but you can still see why it was such a sensation right from the start!

Where would the world be today without Superman? And why can so few people write good Superman comics nowadays? Any old idiot can (and regularly does) write Batman, but the modern approach to Superman all too often takes the Batman approach of "have him be beaten to a pulp but still somehow win in the end", which requires a flood of enemies of ridiculous power-levels. A good Superman story has Superman be by far more powerful than the bad guys, but still keeps the reader's interest by being clever and exciting! You can't really get away with the 1930s approach of him making the bad guys confess by threatening to kill them (it's surprising that that ever stood up in court...), but you can still make him the unequivocally-moral-and-good hero who's entirely indestructible and tell a good story if you really put your mind to it!

Monday, April 09, 2018

On the way home

I really wish I didn't have to go home today. Is there a way I can stay in Canada that won't cost me a) any money or b) my job?

It's great here - even the cold weather feels nice and bracing now, rather than bone-chilling. I could quite happily live here. And it's been a good opportunity to catch up on the latest cool cartoons I haven't seen, what with not watching telly back at home. Can you believe I hadn't seen The Loud House before this holiday? It's great.

Anyway, it's time to leave the land of maple leaves and possible coyotes, but I'm sure I'll be back just as soon as time and money allow...

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Canadian Memory

I'm here on Westminster Bridge and there are dinosaurs. No, hang on, I'm in Edmonton, and there aren't enough dinosaurs, but there has been a really cool memory competition, which I'll tell you all about after this interlude.

Brilliant song by Jay Foreman, and absolute genius video by Bec Hill. And not enough people seem to appreciate just how wonderful this video is, so please do watch and appreciate it!

Anyway, here in Alberta, it's cold and snowy and the only dinosaur to be seen at the IAM Canadian Open Memory Championship was a superannuated former world champion testing his hopelessly-rusty memory skills against the cream of Canadian cleverness!

I got a lift to the venue (Westlock Elementary School, something like 55 miles to the north of Edmonton and so considered a quick drive by the people in this very big country) courtesy of Hua Wei Chan, along with Francis Blondin. "We've met before," Hua Wei pointed out when I said it was great to meet him in person, "the Mental Calculation World Cup in 2008, remember?". Of course I didn't remember, this is me we're talking about, but never mind. Everybody else at this competition was someone I've only talked to online, so there wasn't any danger of being laughed at for not remembering what they look like.

We drove through the snowy fields, and not for the first time in North America someone expected me to be impressed by large, flat, open agricultural spaces, because we don't have landscapes like that in England. I need to bring all these people to the part of Lincolnshire where I grew up; believe me, it's exactly the same. But we arrived at the definitely different and non-English-looking little town of Westlock, arriving in good time at the school and meeting the competition organiser, Darren Michalczuk. He's a teacher there, and so was able to provide the awesome venue and a group of his pupils to take part in the competition too!

Having the whole school to play with, we had a venue possibly better-equipped than any memory competition I've ever been to - the competition was in the music room, the arbiters were in Darren's classroom down the hall, and there was something that all competitions need but very few have, a breakout room (the staffroom) where competitors could go and chat out of earshot of the competition room, AND another room (the surprisingly enormous school library) where people could go and prepare themselves in silence. No clustering in the hallway outside the competition room door for us here!

Apart from Darren and Hua Wei, there was a vast army of arbiters, whose names I was told but can't remember - Darren's wife and her brother and sister kept things ticking over smoothly, lots of other people were around too (most of them parents of the kids, I think), and Big Brother was watching them and us in the form of Florian Dellé in Costa Rica and Simon Reinhard in Germany, via video links.

This competition was a guinea-pig for several IAM innovations, you see, and one of them was the 21st-century miracle of remote arbiting. With multiple laptop cameras scrutinising us around the room and live communication with the inexperienced arbiting team, the experienced arbiter Florian was able to see that things were done the right way. It's all very hi-tech, and to the best of my knowledge it worked out okay. The whole thing was conducted in an efficient and correct way with no more than a minimum of chaos and confusion, thanks to Darren and the team keeping it all under control nicely! We had a timer on the big screen as well, which isn't a totally new innovation but impressed the Canadian competitors so much that I thought it was worth mentioning.

We started with 5-minute names, which is always a good thing to start with, because it gets it out of the way early and I can safely forget about it. I used to be mediocre at names, but not having done any training outside the "American" names on Memory League, I'm worse than ever at the "International" names we get in competitions. It's probably worth mentioning that the photos had backgrounds, which they're not supposed to (unless they've changed the rules again), but it didn't really help me much, and I got a score of 12.

So now we could start the 'real' memory disciplines, with 5-minute binary. Again, I'm rather out of practice at this, but I've done a couple of trial runs in the last few weeks, and got a little bit faster and better each time. I got a 625 here, attempting 820, which is a fair way short of my olden-days best, but not a disaster. New IAM innovation number two made its debut here - people can now request pre-drawn lines on their memorisation papers. I preferred not to; drawing the lines myself is a part of my whole routine, I think it would just confuse me to have them already on the paper.

After that came the quarter-marathon that is 15-minute numbers, and again I'm too out of practice. I went through three journeys' worth of digits, 702, reviewing them several times, and it felt like they were sinking in perfectly fine, but then I had a lot of gaps in recall - this was something that happened all through the day, and it's really down to nothing but lack of practice. I ended up with a score of 487. Then we did the all-new 5-minute images, which I still haven't trained at enough and got 104 - most of the other competitors, having done some practice with it, were significantly faster and better than me at this one. And then it was 5-minute numbers, and I got my ironic comeuppance for complaining that the new pre-drawn-lines idea was a recipe for disaster and something was sure to go wrong with it, by being the one and only person who something went wrong for - I accidentally got a memorisation paper divided into two-digit groups, which is really confusing for a person with a three-digit system. But never mind! Teething troubles happen, and we did get two trials of this one! In the second trial, I went for a should-have-been-safe 240, blanked on one image and ended up on 200.

Darren was low-key about announcing scores, in a deliberate strategy to keep the kids motivated - the scoring system is extremely harsh on complete beginners, and he's planning to focus on how good it is to remember lots of numbers, even if you end up with no championship points because of blanks and mistakes - but Simon was updating the world via Facebook with a running commentary. I was in a closely-fought contest with Braden Adams, who matched my scores pretty neatly all the way through, setting new Canadian records (this being the first "official" Canadian competition, it was easy pickings) with every discipline! Our other adult competitors, Francis Blondin and Ezequiel Valenzuela, had also travelled the length and breadth of Canada to be there, and put in some great performances too, as well as getting to experience the wonders of live competition, so rare in this part of the world!

The kids, meanwhile, also had a lot of fun - leading the pack was Mackenzie Michalczuk. From personal experience, I can definitely say that having your dad for a schoolteacher as a ten-year-old is an essential ingredient to set you on the road to becoming the World Memory Champion, and it's probably even more so when he's a memory-competition enthusiast as well! So we all need to watch out... unless it works out like me not being interested in my dad's Young Ornithologists Club, and Mackenzie going on to become the world champion birdwatcher.

Anyway, the afternoon session gave us spoken numbers, and I did half-way okay at it, getting 39 in the first trial and 63 in the second. Still all those blank spaces that shouldn't have been there, though. But then we went on to 10-minute cards, and not a problem this time - attempting a safe six packs, I managed to get them all right, though a couple, including the first, were full of blanks again that I managed to fill right at the very end of the recall time. I always do okay with cards, even if I'm out of practice.

That just left the comparatively relaxing dates and words, before the grand finale speed cards. Dates went okay, I got 68, but it was infuriating how many of them I nearly sort-of remembered, but couldn't quite place. Practice would fix that. And words was a complete shambles - huge amounts of blank spaces, and it's harder to run through a mental list to jog your memory there. I ended up with a score of 13, which I was probably lucky to get. Half of one column, and half of an incomplete one.

So then speed cards, and in the first trial I did 33 seconds or so, but didn't really come close to getting the recall right. Francis took the Canadian honours here, with just over a minute, while Braden did a 1:23 that put him on top of the leaderboard. So I had to come back with a decent time to take the overall win, and I somehow managed to cobble together a 33.96-second pack, with a two-seconds-to-spare relocation of a rabbit (ace of diamonds, nine of clubs) when I realised I'd put it in the wrong place entirely. So I just barely ended up the winner, but this is the kind of event where scores don't really count (to me), and it's all about having a good time. Which I think we all did!

We came away loaded with goodie-bags and good wishes, from a wonderful, friendly competition! I even saw a possible coyote on the way back to Edmonton! (Hua Wei: "There's a coyote in the field there," Me: "Oh, wow, that's awesome! I've never seen a coyote in the wild before!" Hua Wei: "No, actually, I think it's a fox. Coyotes are smaller." Me: (thinks) "Well, I'm going to count it as a coyote. I've seen foxes. I saw a coyote!")

This result will have the effect of dramatically lowering my position on the (to my mind slightly flawed) IAM Active Rankings, but I suppose it's motivating because I could theoretically improve it again by going to another competition and getting a better score...

Additionally, this competition was the first one to give out certificates for the all-new IAM Levels system! Check it out, I'm Midnight Blue!

This is due to my past achievements rather than anything I did at the IAM Canadian Open Memory Championship, despite what the certificate says. It counts the best score you've ever got in each discipline, and your level is the average of your best ten individual-discipline levels, with at least one and no more than four from each of the five sections, as below.


It's still hoped that Memory League competitions (of the type where people get together in the same place and compete, rather than playing online) will get more widespread and frequent, and this system is sort of based on that assumption, but I'd expect they might have to change the standards if they do.

It's possibly more exciting for people who are improving and achieving new personal bests in competition, but in any case, assuming I could get back in shape, mentally speaking, how could I get up to the slightly darker blue heights of level 21? Or even to the lofty purple levels above? I'd need to gain an extra 7 deci-levels (because each individual discipline level counts as a tenth of an overall level) from somewhere...

I could gain 3 if I improved my 5-minute numbers score to the 468 that was my "no good reason why I shouldn't achieve it some day" optimum score back in the days when I was in training. I should aim for that, definitely. 32 packs in hour cards was also well within my grasp back in the old days; there's another 3 deci-levels there. Speed cards, too, I could do a 23-second pack and get the one more deci-level I need to level-up. So it's entirely possible, even without Memory League. And if we do get more ML competitions and they don't change the standards, it'd be easy to bump myself up a few levels in images (gain 2 deci-levels with 15 seconds) or names (it's not beyond me to get a freaky 21 or so; 4 more deci-levels in the bag there).

So that can be my new goal. Well, one of them. Another is to create an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the IAM levels, because I just like creating Excel spreadsheets with complicated formulas for the fun of it. It's all good.

Christopher Clark, BBC News, Westminster.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Codex canadensis

Here I am in Edmonton, Alberta! It's VERY cold, but also nice and sunny and a really great city! There's a truly excellent comic shop just around the corner from my hotel, and a West Edmonton Mall full of things that I've spent the morning wandering around. I'm extraordinarily jetlagged and sleep-deprived, but I'm sure I'll catch up with the dream schedule before Saturday's competition.

Anyway, among the things to be found at Happy Harbor Comics is Runaways #8, so let me just remind you all at length that you should be reading it. The eighth issue of a modern comic is sort of the difficult second album - nowadays, the first six issues generally have to compromise the first trade paperback, and so the seventh will have a lot of recapping of what's gone before, so it's hard to judge how good or bad the second arc will be until you get to #8. And it's generally bad. Pretty much all the writers of superhero comics today are perfectly capable of writing a six-part story introducing the characters and setting, but often really quite terrible at the doing-something-with-it part that comes next. I don't mean to sound like one of those comic fans who says all comics suck, but, well, they sort of do.

Rainbow Rowell, though, is quite possibly an exception to that! I can safely say that after the getting-the-gang-back-together story that took up the first six issues, it's continued on in an entertaining and well-written way that still has that much-appreciated feel of genuinely 'getting' the characters without just rehashing the old stories. I still like it! And maybe, if the TV show gets renewed for a new season and Marvel doesn't mind the comic's low sales figures, it won't be cancelled after #12! It really shouldn't be; it's actually a great comic!

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Live from Gatwick Airport

And a very boring airport it is too, hence the blogging. But still, I'm on my way to Canada!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Hardly worth getting out of bed

But even though tomorrow's a whole hour shorter than the average day, I'm going to do some more extensive old-school pen-and-paper memory training. I'll be on something approaching half-decent form by the time I get to Canada, hopefully!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Wilkie Collins's missing person

Here's a fun trivia question for anyone who's as big a fan as me of the works of Wilkie Collins - he was strangely fond of giving supporting characters in his novels a title of distinction coupled with an unusual surname starting with "Ben". Scattered among his books you can find Father Ben----, Doctor Ben----- and Captain Ben------. Anyone who can fill in the blanks and name the books deserves a special prize, which I'll provide once I've looted it from a revered Indian idol. I'll provide the answer below, after a brief spoiler-space filled with ramblings about 1860s English literature, so if any genuine Collins-lovers happen by this blog, look away now, until you've remembered the answer.

When it comes to Victorian fiction, I think I'm what the people back then would call "modern" in my tastes - I can do without Charles Dickens, in fact, but if I'm ever exiled to the Desert Island Discs island, I'd have to take some kind of mega-compilation of the entire works of Wilkie Collins and Mrs Henry Wood. The two of them comprise everything you really need to read if you want the best writing of that particular era. I don't know if either of them would have wanted to be grouped together like that - Mrs Wood especially, who in her late-1860s editorial reviews in the Argosy magazine was repeatedly rude about Collins and the "sensation" writers he inspired. She certainly didn't consider herself to be one of that breed, and is probably turning in her grave at the way most modern commentators (if they mention her at all) lump her in with those types. And of course, those reviews couldn't have been anything to do with the way her own brief star was in decline at that point, while his was shining ever brighter and brighter. Anyway, one thing I'm going to do one day, maybe, eventually, is a fully detailed analysis and commentary blog dedicated to the Johnny Ludlow stories. Look forward to it, if I ever have the time and energy to write it!

But to return to Wilkie and his Bens, the answers are the scheming Jesuit Father Benwell in "The Black Robe", the horrible (but strangely likeable) vivisectionist Doctor Benjulia in "Heart and Science" and the entirely nice and benevolent Captain Bennydeck in "The Evil Genius", who comes back at the end of the book and marries the wayward girl.

In that respect, Captain Bennydeck is another of Collins's recurring themes. He shares more than just a rank with the unfortunately-named Captain Kirke in "No Name"; they both also share the extremely common plot function of the good man who is absent from the main action of the story (for virtuous, self-denying, heroic reasons, of course), only to return at the climax and sweep the heroine off her feet. Bennydeck, in fact, is at least a presence throughout the book even when he's not around; Kirke makes just a brief token appearance early on, before popping up at the end and providing the happy ending. The whole trend started with Walter Hartright in "The Woman in White", but Collins revisited it over and over again in later years.

The one I find particularly strange, is the good man who doesn't return! There's something a bit strange about the novel "Man and Wife", and I don't mean Wilkie Collins's obsession with marriage laws or the evils of sports (a subplot in the book repeatedly asserts that anyone who participates in athletic events will inevitably die young of complete physical breakdown and also become an evil, immoral villain), it's the disappearance of Mr Kendrew.

To summarise the story briefly, it starts with a prologue - two women, Blanche and Anne, swore eternal friendship as children despite the difference in their social class. Blanche married the baronet Sir Thomas Lundie and had a daughter also called Blanche; Anne married the horrible cad Mr Vanborough and had a daughter also called Anne. The prologue describes an eventful evening's conversation between Vanborough, his friend Mr Kendrew and a lawyer, Mr Delamayn. Delamayn confirms that due to a legal loophole, the Vanboroughs' marriage is invalid. This pleases Vanborough, who wants to forge a parliamentary career for himself and wants a wife with better connections, who'll help him attain his eventual goal of a peerage. He heartlessly discards Anne and their daughter without any compunction, much to the horror of Kendrew, who ends their friendship immediately. How Kendrew, a decent, moral, principled man, became friends with Vanborough in the first place is unnarrated, and just has to go down as one of life's mysteries.

The second part of the prologue then briefly summarises what happens to everyone over the next twelve years. Anne dies, naturally - a broken heart was always a fatal condition in Victorian novels. Blanche (Lady Lundie) takes young Anne into her household as young Blanche's governess and companion. Lady Lundie later dies, leaving Sir Thomas to remarry before dying himself and thus giving the rest of the novel a comic-relief supporting character in the second Lady Lundie. Vanborough marries Lady Jane and enters parliament, but doesn't prosper simply because nobody likes him. Delamayn also enters parliament, prospers wonderfully and eventually is made Lord Holchester. Vanborough eventually commits suicide.

And as for Mr Kendrew, the prologue goes into detail about him too.

"How the husband’s friend marked his sense of the husband’s treachery has been told already. How he felt the death of the deserted wife is still left to tell. Report, which sees the inmost hearts of men, and delights in turning them outward to the public view, had always declared that Mr. Kendrew’s life had its secret, and that the secret was a hopeless passion for the beautiful woman who had married his friend. Not a hint ever dropped to any living soul, not a word ever spoken to the woman herself, could be produced in proof of the assertion while the woman lived. When she died Report started up again more confidently than ever, and appealed to the man’s own conduct as proof against the man himself.
He attended the funeral—though he was no relation. He took a few blades of grass from the turf with which they covered her grave—when he thought that nobody was looking at him. He disappeared from his club. He travelled. He came back. He admitted that he was weary of England. He applied for, and obtained, an appointment in one of the colonies. To what conclusion did all this point? Was it not plain that his usual course of life had lost its attraction for him, when the object of his infatuation had ceased to exist? It might have been so—guesses less likely have been made at the truth, and have hit the mark. It is, at any rate, certain that he left England, never to return again. Another man lost, Report said. Add to that, a man in ten thousand—and, for once, Report might claim to be right."

And then we go into the real action of the book. It can be summarised pretty quickly - Geoffrey Delamayn, second son of Lord Holchester, grows up to be a celebrated sportsman and unspeakable cad. He gets young Anne, virtuous governess who just has that one little moral lapse, "in a scrape". She insists that he marry her; he doesn't want to; she threatens to kill herself; he grudgingly agrees to a private marriage. She goes to take a room in an inn nearby, presenting herself as a married woman in order to get a room. Geoffrey is supposed to join her there and make an honest woman of her, but is suddenly called away by news that his father is ill. He sends his friend Arnold (also young Blanche's fiance) to the inn to explain things. A storm forces him to spend the night there, claiming to be Anne's husband. When Geoffrey finds out that this maybe, possibly, means that Arnold and Anne have got married under Scottish law, he's delighted and uses this as a good excuse to abandon her.

The main characters - Geoffrey, Anne, Blanche, Arnold and Blanche's uncle Sir Patrick Lundie - then fill the required length of a Victorian three-volume novel by running around at cross-purposes for ages and ages, always telling each other everything except the one important piece of information they need to know in order to take a sensible course of action and resolve everything. The novel then redeems itself at the end with an absolutely wonderful climax, real edge-of-your-seat stuff of the type that only Wilkie Collins could produce, following which the good end happily and the bad unhappily, and Sir Patrick marries Anne. Old men marrying young women was a good thing in those days, except in the works of radical moaners like George Eliot.

But where's Mr Kendrew? Surely the prologue is setting things up for him to be the one who comes back to marry poor Anne in the end? He's never mentioned again after that prologue, and instead Sir Patrick (who isn't mentioned at all in the prologue) fills that role. I think Wilkie Collins just made a mess of the prologue somehow, assigning the wrong roles to the wrong men - in the main story, Sir Patrick's legal knowledge and background is an essential part of the plot, while Lord Holchester (the former Mr Delamayn) shows no traces of ever having been a lawyer, being just a grumpy old peer with a scoundrel for a son. I'm convinced that he intended the lawyer of the prologue to go on to be the lawyer of the story, only to realise after the prologue had been published (the novel was serialised in Cassell's Magazine) that he'd somehow turned the lawyer into Geoffrey's father and the layman into the potential future husband of Anne. What an unfortunate cock-up, but never mind. Take another draught of opium, Wilkie, and invent someone new. Sir Patrick.

I know this isn't the kind of writing Wilkie Collins is famous for (indeed, he was widely derided by his fellow authors of the late 19th century for actually knowing how his novels were going to end before he started to write them!), but he was still a Victorian writer, and he wasn't above making it up as he went along if he had to. "Armadale", as John Sutherland explains at length in one of his wonderful essays, was obviously written on the fly without the extensive planning that Collins preferred. "Jezebel's Daughter" is even more glaring - he tries to write it as the personal witness testimony of the narrator, but after half a novel of David being present at every important event and conversation, seeing and hearing everything on both sides of the villain's schemes but telling nobody what he's witnessed, Wilkie seems to realise how stupid the whole thing is and packs David off back to London, saying that the rest of the novel he knows from reading people's diaries in later years. It's not very good, that one - we could even leave it out of my Collins/Wood compilation if we wanted to save a bit of paper. "Man and Wife", though, I recommend to everyone - if you haven't read it, do check it out and see if you agree with me about the strange case of Mr Kendrew...

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturdays like they used to be

What do you think I've been doing all day today? Well, I'll tell you, we won't make it a guessing game (because you'd probably guess no end of appalling things, I know what you're like). I've spent all day doing practice runs of each and every discipline from the upcoming Canadian Open! Yes, all ten of them! I shudder to think how long it's been since I did a full national-standard memory competition in one day. It's the kind of thing that doesn't happen much nowadays; people tend to split the real events over two days, unless they're very cool people like the organiser of my Friendly Championships.

But in days gone by, I used to happily spend an entire Saturday doing memory training. It would more usually be the hour disciplines, but let's take things one step at a time. My scores were pretty terrible, and by the time I'd got to the spoken numbers my brain was absolutely good for nothing, despite which I'm happy about today. I haven't actually done any paper-based memorising since the French competition last year, not even in training. In fact, looking at my handwriting in the words discipline, it occurred to me that I never write with a pen any more! Paperless offices, emails, phones, they take away your ability to write. I need to practice my penmanship a little before I get to Canada, just to make sure my words are halfway legible.

Once I get to Canada, incidentally, I need to find a way to get from Edmonton to Westlock. It's 45 miles, apparently, but Westlock doesn't seem to welcome visitors who use public transport - the internet suggests the best thing to do is get a bus to a middle-of-nowhere place nearby and then a taxi the rest of the way. I'll see if I can hitch a lift with a competitor or passing lorry-driver. I don't really want to go to the trouble of hiring a car and having to remember what side of the road they drive on in Canada.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Back to school again

I don't mention nearly enough that I went to school with Robert Webb. It's an important claim to fame, you know. Nobody's heard of any of the things I've done, but everyone knows the one from Peep Show who isn't David Mitchell. But the point is, I've just been binge-watching "Back", starring Mitchell and Webb, on 4OD, having discovered at the weekend that the series exists (I don't watch telly nowadays, you know), and I absolutely love it! It's absolutely hilarious, and I urge anyone who hasn't yet heard of it (ignorant fools though they obviously are) to go and check it out!

I went to school with that one there, you know.

Sunday, March 11, 2018


As well as splashing out on plane tickets this month, I treated myself to something I really should have bought long before now - the collected edition of "Meltdown Man", the under-appreciated series that appeared in 2000AD in 1980-81. It came up in conversation with my brother recently, and I just had to get it to remind myself how cool it was. It's a real classic - tough SAS sergeant Nick Stone (remember the SAS-worship of the early eighties? Comics were jam-packed with tough SAS sergeants!) is caught in a nuclear explosion and finds himself flung into another world, where humans rule with eugenically-enhanced animals as their slaves. He gets straight to work setting things to rights.

For fifty consecutive issues, writer Alan Hebden handled the difficult task of fitting a weekly adventure into just four pages of comic (you have to get a lot of action into each page to do that!), aided by the downright awesome artwork of the type that only Massimo Belardinelli could produce. Two hundred pages of this kind of thing, all under one cover!
Honestly, it's that good, you can stare for hours at the artwork, even after getting through the epic storyline (complete with extremely weird and unsatisfying ending) - just look at the effort that's gone into that bottom panel!

 Belardinelli, seen here eating his synthetti while drawing Tharg's latest commission, was probably the greatest art robot ever to grace the pages of 2000AD. It's only in recent years that people have started to really rave about how good he was; maybe it's just the unappreciated-in-his-own-lifetime effect - he died in 2007, had retired long before the internet came along, and at his peak he never got the praise that some of the other droids did. Maybe it's because he was part of the furniture of 2000AD from the start, but took a while to warm up - he's there in the very first prog (indeed, the only creator credited in the first issue, having had the sense to write "Art - Belardinelli" on his artwork!), drawing the Dan Dare strip that was intended to be the main feature. He got the job not by being particularly good, but by being Italian; it was a lot cheaper to hire European artists than British ones back then. His first work is quite bland, but on Meltdown Man he really came into his own, and showed what a flair he had for drawing weird creatures!

There's Nick Stone on the far left, with the eyepatch, along with just a few of the other characters Belardinelli drew over the years! But his real talent wasn't characters themselves, it was the insane amount of little details he'd cram into every single picture - some artists only look good in colour, but Belardinelli was the old-fashioned type who was at his best when just using a whole lot of black ink on newsprint.

Splundig Vur Thrigg!

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Whither Canada?

As I've mentioned once or twice before, Alpha Flight is an all-time favourite comic of mine. And the localities the superheroes visit in the course of their adventures have always been on my "I must go there some day..." list.

So when there's a memory competition announced in Westlock, Alberta (not too far away from Edmonton), I can't help jumping at the opportunity to go there and meet the rapidly-growing Canadian memory community! The championship is on April 7th, I'm going to fly out there a few days before and see the sights of Edmonton, it'll be great! It's been quite a while since I did this kind of thing with the competitions in New York, not to mention quite a while since I went anywhere exotic and expensive, but my paying-off-my-debts campaign really has reduced them to minimal levels by now, so I don't mind splurging this once and taking another month to get totally financially stable.

I can't believe I've never been to Canada before. I've been all over the place, you'd think I would have found a reason to visit before now.

Friday, March 02, 2018

The path the others wish to go has been obscured by drifting snow

Wow, twice in one winter we've had huge deep snow! It's the kind of thing that gives me a good excuse to say "when I were a lad", because when I were a lad you could count on getting days like this once a year, and in really exceptional years it would stick around for weeks. Nowadays, it's much more exceptional.

I don't mind snow so much when it's thick and soft underfoot like this - the problem is when it's packed solid and icy, so you can't walk anywhere without falling down. On my way home from work on Wednesday night, before it had really started coming down thickly, I was walking down the hill and pushing my bike rather than trying it the faster but more lethal way, and slipped on the ice and fell down in a heap. But my knees, which I can usually rely on to do horrible things any time I move them unexpectedly, were perfectly okay with it, so maybe I should be a bit less careful of falling down in future.

I've been working from home the last two days, anyway, which is a very boring way to spend your time, especially if you're trapped in the house with no snack foods. I've got plenty of real food, but if I haven't got a bag of sweets in the place, I feel well and truly starved. So I've been out to the corner shop tonight to stock up, and it's a real wade-through-the-snowdrifts kind of a walk.

Still, the BBC weather solemnly promise me that by Monday it'll be 5°C and not a snowflake in sight, so maybe I'll be able to go to work in the morning without too much ice and mayhem.