Saturday, December 03, 2005

That's better

Ahh, a day sitting at home doing nothing. You can't beat it. Well, nothing with a side order of memory-training, but I've talked about that more than enough here already.

Let's talk about my brother, instead, Doctor Joseph Pridmore. He passed his viva yesterday and got his PhD, which comes as no surprise to anyone but him - he's one of those genius types who goes through life assuming everything he does is going to be some kind of abject failure even though it never is. It's a good way to be, really - you're always sure to be pleasantly surprised. Anyway, I'm terribly impressed. I sometimes think about going back to university and trying to get at least a degree, just so as not to feel quite so inferior to everyone else. I know too many doctors already - lots of othello players and memory people have PhDs too, and there's only so much satisfaction you can get from boasting about being an unusually young university dropout (I went there at the age of 17 and gave up on it after a few months).

Still, now I get to introduce my bro to people as "This is my brother, the doctor." And I can always add under my breath "(albeit only a doctor of English literature, which isn't a real kind of doctorate)" if I get too envious.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Green Grow The Rushes-O

The poohsticks gang are meeting up tomorrow in a pub called the Seven Stars, in London, but I'm not sure whether I want to go or not. I feel like I haven't been at home here for years, what with being away last weekend and the last two weeks in Cheadle (surprisingly enough, the new building in Burton still isn't ready, so I'm back in the hotel next week too), and I feel like I need to recharge my batteries, rather than having another late-night drinking session.

It's been quite a fun week, though - we went into Manchester on Wednesday night to see the football. There were six of us, proudly walking from the car park to the Old Trafford stadium for the George Best tribute and a quite good game too. The tickets were very cheap by Man Utd standards - £19 each, and in the front row, right behind the goal, and everyone got a free George Best poster, to hold up during the minute's silence. 50,000 people being silent in a big stadium like that is quite a thing to experience. The game itself was enjoyable, too - for the benefit of non-football-liking readers, it was a Carling Cup game, which often means one or both teams aren't actually trying to win (the Carling Cup is not seen as an important trophy, so teams who want to concentrate on doing well in the league, FA Cup or European competitions traditionally field teams made up of reserve and youth players). But Man Utd, realising it was the first home game after Best died, played not quite their best team, but a team that most clubs would be happy to have playing for them in any competition. West Brom took the game seriously too, but they were outclassed, and lost 3-1.

You get a great kind of mob psychology going at football games - we were sitting with the Man U supporters, and so even though I'm cheering for West Brom this year (they survived a great relegation battle last year and I hope they can stay up in the premiership now they've got through that difficult first season) I was yelling for United on Wednesday night. The day before, we went to a pub to watch Doncaster playing Aston Villa. Villa are one of the rare top-level teams who always try to win the Carling Cup, so it was fun to watch them get comprehensively thrashed by Doncaster (who are two divisions below them in the league).

Anyway, I'm back home at number five now (although the 5 symbol at the door is still missing - someone really needs to get a new one) and I don't feel like leaving it for a weekend out in London. I might change my mind tomorrow, I'll see how I feel. But I'd quite like to do a bit of memory training this weekend (beat 30 seconds in the cards for the first time this week, now I need to practise the longer events that I don't have time to do at the hotel), with just a quick walk into Derby for fresh air and a bit of pre-Christmas shopping. I need to get a new book to read next week. After forgetting to bring one the first week and having to make do with Gideon's Bible (which, with the greatest respect to the Gospel makers, isn't an enthralling read), I've been making do with re-reading Stephen King and Flann O'Brien since then, but I could do with something new. I have to read something for twenty minutes or so before I go to sleep - it's a tradition.

Anyway, I need to have a think about memory things - Aubrey de Grey suggested not one but two great ideas for me to work on last Saturday. The first was an offhand remark about my ideas for memorising othello games - I'd said that the problem was there being so many possible moves to remember, to which Aubrey replied "I didn't think that would bother you." And he's right, of course - I've been trying to think of ways to minimise the amount of information I'd have to take on board, but why would I care about that? If I can memorise 50,000 digits of pi without batting an eyelid, why would I care how many othello moves I need to cram into my brain? I'll just do it the long-winded way, and see how far I can get! The other suggestion was for names and faces - apart from the idea a lot of people have toyed with over the years, classifying faces according to things like shape, hair colour and so on and converting that information into something that can be memorised, he suggested memorising a list of faces, and a separate list of names - and that way if both lists are in order, you don't need to associate the name with the face at all. It's food for thought.

Also in memory news, Boris Konrad's Speed Cards Challenge looks like it's definitely going ahead next year - a whole day of people memorising packs of cards, head-to-head against an opponent. It'll be great fun, and great TV - we'll have to see if we can get someone to take an interest. It'll be in Germany, during the World Cup, so there'll be press interest in an 'alternative sport' like that. There'll even be prize money! I might win it, although I'll have at least three rivals who stand a very good chance - Clemens is very fast with the cards, Lukas is great and Andi might just come along to this kind of thing too if we're lucky.

I can't think of any topic to discuss that might involve a reference to lily-white boys clothed all in green-o, so I'll give up on the ingeniuously themed blog and just observe that anyone who's ignored my previous advice to read Ozy and Millie needs to know that the last couple of week's comics have been on the subject of blogs. They answer a lot of important questions about what a blog should be like and why. And I hope my blog comes close to the obvious perfection achieved by Timulty's. Read it here!

Oh, and I've got another documentary-maker calling me tomorrow. I gave her my number especially so I can practice saying no to people over the phone. I do have a very good excuse for not wanting to get involved in this one, after all...

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Christmas in Cambridge

Having finally got home from Cambridge after an adventure that involves missing one train, having the next one cancelled and trying to get back to Derby by an ingenious and circuitous route that took roughly three times as long as the original journey would have, I find myself needing to pack for next week's (hopefully) final jaunt up to Cheadle, but feeling like I'd rather spend the time recounting the fun I've had this weekend while WZebra (the othello program) chugs away in the background analysing my games from Saturday and telling me what I did right and wrong. I only ever pay attention to the things I did right, having no interest at all in being told I'm not a brilliant player. This is why the vast majority of my analysis goes into the ones I've won. And why I'm actually not a brilliant player, of course.

Before that, though, I should transcribe the conversation I had at dinner-time when Jenny and I went to a cafe in Cambridge city centre. There was quite a long queue, probably because while there were three women serving food to the customers, one man was entrusted at the end of the line with serving drinks and then working the till. Although a charming, friendly kind of chap, he didn't seem entirely focused on what he was doing, and the following is an extract from the dialogue that passed between us:

Man: And what would you like to drink, sir?
Me: Coke, please.
Man: Small, medium or large?
Me: Medium, please.
Man: There you go. Oh, I've done you a small one there. I'll only charge you for a small one, don't worry. That's £7.70 altogether, please.

[I gave him a five-pound note and three pound coins, and he gave me 30p back, then put my money into the till. He paused and looked at the note in his hand.]

Man: Oh, wait, that's only a five, I gave you change for a ten.
Me: No, I gave you a five and three ones, and you gave me 30p back. That's right.
Man: Oh yes, sorry. [Turning to Jenny] And what would you like to drink, sir?
Jenny: Um...
Man: I mean madam, sorry. I'll get my head working right in a minute...

Anyway, going back in time a day and a half, I got up on Saturday at the ungodly hour of 5:15, in order to catch the 6:00 train down to Cambridge. It turned out that 5:14 would have been a better time to set the alarm for, because I was seconds too late to catch it. That left me to get the 6:53 and still get there more or less in time, although it put a dent in the plans of Nick, who had come down to film me at it and had wanted to tape me arriving and talking a bit about memory in scenic surroundings before the tournament started. So he went off to a meeting and came back later, and everything worked out fine.

The traditional Cambridge Christmas Friendly was a little unusual this year. Not because of the date, it's traditionally held at the end of November, but because of the unusual number of people there. Apart from Nick and his camera, there were three new players (very rare at othello tournaments), and two people lurking outside the door armed with giant waterpistols. It turns out that they were lying in wait for one of the aforementioned new players, who's a student at Cambridge and part of the 'Ring of Death', in which students try to assassinate each other with waterpistols, poison (vaseline) and other such nefarious means. My best friend in days gone by, David 'Noddy' Page, was involved in that in his Cambridge days too. Aidan, the assassinee, spent the first round hiding in the toilet, arranging with friends via his mobile phone to get rid of the assassins.

I beat one of the other new people in the first round, which is always a nice way to start. Although we probably should encourage new people to come back to future tournaments by not beating them, I don't feel too guilty, because I at least had the decency to beat Fran 45-19, whereas Aubrey wiped out the other new bug, James. Other people probably beat other people too, but I haven't got all the results to hand - the ever-reliable Roy strangely hasn't posted the final scores on the mailing list yet, which he normally does via his mobile on the train home.

Anyway, after round one, we paused for a quick filming break. Nick had roped in Aubrey, who is very very good at interviews, to come over to the Trinity College quad with me and walk around talking about science and memory. I think it went very well, mainly because I was able to just name-drop some technical-sounding words like 'anterior cingulate' and let Aubrey talk about them at length. Incidentally, there's further proof to my theory that Nick is secretly evil and planning to make me look bad - he made a point of advising Aubrey to wear his hat because it was spitting with rain. Which might be quite innocuous, obviously, but Aubrey's hat is a crotcheted woollen bonnet that does look a little silly. He does have the accompanying genius that makes things like that and his yard-long beard qualify as 'eccentric', rather than just 'weird' like my own silly hat, so it's quite alright.

With Nick buzzing around with his camera, we went back to the Junior Parlour for round two, which put me up against Imre Leader, one of the absolute-tippy-top players in the country for the last twenty-odd years, British champion and the kind of guy the mention of whose name produces awe and respect from anyone with a basic knowledge of the othello world. And my win against him was duly captured for posterity, which is nice. Hope it makes it into the final film. I then beat Aubrey (also an othello legend) in round three, also under the watching eye of Nick's camera. The game was scintillatingly complicated, and I look forward to having Zebra's opinion on whether some of the weird moves I played were brilliant or awful, and what I should actually have done in the endgame when time-pressure forced me to cut short my calculations and just make a best guess.

Having thus made myself look much better at the game than I actually am, we adjourned to the pub for lunch and the committee meeting, which was quite productive. We settled on a probable venue and date for the Nationals next year, made at least one or two other decisions that were probably important, and the sausage, egg and chips were both cheap and delicious. Aubrey discussed his work in detail for Nick, who it turns out runs an annual charity event in which a scientist and an artist debate some fascinating issue. He felt that bringing Aubrey together with Damien Hirst to discuss aging would be a dream combination, and Aubrey wholeheartedly agreed, as did everyone else there. I'll certainly be going to see it if it happens.

Nick went back home after that, and it became clear that the presence of the camera had either spurred me on or put off my opponents, because my fourth-round game against Geoff Hubbard (who had also beaten Imre, and was the only other player on three points) was a complete disaster. It went wrong for me somewhere around move 20, which meant Geoff had the last two thirds of the game to contemplate at leisure the best way to go about completely thrashing me. Neither of us could quite work out a way to wipe me out, and he had to settle for winning 63-1 in the end.

My camera-inspired abilities didn't really come back to me in the remaining three games either - I did beat Yvette Campbell, but lost to Jeremy Dyer and Roy Arnold, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but I don't think I was playing half as well as I had been in the morning. Geoff won his first six games to make sure of winning the tournament with a round to spare, but then lost his final one to Aidan, which must have been some consolation for missing the first round and still ending up being assassinated after all.

All in all, it was a tournament that had everything. And as I said a few days ago, if anyone reading this likes the sound of it and wants to come to future tournaments, we could always do with more players. Check out the British Othello Federation homepage for more details - the next one's not till February, so there's plenty of time to make your mind up. And remember, othello is the same thing as reversi*.

*Footnote: Othello isn't the same thing as reversi, if you're going to be really pedantic about it. I've explained it here before somewhere, but it's really not important. For all practical purposes, anything you see called 'reversi' is exactly the same thing as anything you see called 'othello'. All clear?