Saturday, January 21, 2006

How to tell the difference between horses and cows

When horses were introduced to Britain in 1873, there was great public outcry. Among the protestors were every member of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Royal Family, but nobody was able to prevent Jason "Horrible Martin" Waterfield importing five thousand of the creatures by ferry from Hungary. Taking advantage of the fact that none of the police and army officers stationed at the docks with the express purpose of keeping horses out of the country had ever seen a horse before, Waterfield was able to convince them that his large wooden boxes contained an unusual kind of land-based porpoise.

Even though Wilberforce, whose knowledge of equine biology was limited to hearsay and a badly-translated Latin text, had imported almost exclusively male horses (as well as three cats, eight trees, a Bulgarian woman and, ironically, an unusual kind of land-based porpoise, believing them all to be horses), they still managed to breed and spread around the country, causing most confusion among cattle-farmers who found it difficult to distinguish between their cows and the stray horses that wandered into their fields and climbed into cowsheds through the skylights.

To ease this agricultural crisis, the government issued a book entitled "How to tell the difference between horses and cows", and passed a law making its purchase compulsory for everyone in Britain over the age of nine and a half. The first edition of this book was of limited use to anybody, although it is now a very desirable collectors' item. Written by junior minister for colonial development Hamish Zmed, who had never in his life dared to leave London and had had little experience of either horse or cow as a result, the book limited itself to recounting anecdotes about parliamentary life and the activities of Zmed's next-door neighbours.

Following a series of public protests and assassinations of authority figures, a second edition of the book was issued. Although it again provided no help to anyone wishing to tell the difference between horses and cows, it provided a comprehensive list of the ways in which the two animals are similar. There is some repetition (the fact that both have four legs is mentioned twenty-seven times) and no sense of structure or order to the lists, but the information is entirely accurate, and remains popular today among those who for whatever reason need to enumerate ways in which horses can be compared to cows.

The author of this second edition can not be definitively identified. It was published under the pseudonym "Of Plaintive Griven", which may be a printing error, some kind of code, or the unusual real name of someone who otherwise made no impact on history. Every Prime Minister for the past century has claimed to be the author, but none of these assertions can be given any real credence. The most likely answer is that there was in fact no author, and the book was not in fact written at all.

A third edition is to be published next year, promising to answer at last the much-vexed question of how one can tell the difference between horses and cows. Although modern technology and more than a hundred years of experience have made it possible to do so with ease, the publishing house Gossamer Tripe believe there is still a market for a volume describing in detail the ways in which the species can be told apart. Parliament is currently refusing to answer any questions on whether this new edition will have government backing or whether it is a private enterprise. The identity of the author is also unknown, from which it must be assumed that the book will be written by a trained octopus, as happens all too often nowadays.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Edited to add

Two posts in one night? Well, it's Friday. Anyway, I just went back and edited a post from a couple of days ago so it says "I disagree quite violently with that", like it was supposed to, rather than "I disagree quite violently like that".

I don't really like having the ability to edit my previous posts - it's all a bit 1984, being able to change past ramblings whenever I feel like it. I've only done it three times before today, I think - twice to correct embarrassing spelling mistakes and once to insert a word in the thrilling story titled "Adventure" (which was the one post here that I've written on paper first and then typed up when I next got to a computer). And I wouldn't have bothered with that, only it was the word that made the sentence actually funny (well, I found it funny, I make no promises that anyone else would) - "Wigginsford-on-the-Sands, which while it isn't actually at the seaside does have the world's third-largest artificial pebble beach!" It took me a couple of months to notice that I'd omitted the word "pebble".

But that's the absolute limit that I'm prepared to go to with editing previous posts. I have to be careful, do it once and the power will start to go to my head, and soon I'll be rewriting past entries wholesale to reflect my new opinions, or make it look like I predicted something that has just happened so that people will think I'm cool. That way lies madness.

Does that star-spangled banner still wave?

There are times, if you're me, when a thought comes into your head and you can't get rid of it until you've sat and thought it through at length. In this case, for no reason whatsoever (except maybe that the Simpsons was on telly), the question occurred to me "How would they arrange the stars on the US flag if they added another state?"

Fifty-one stars is kind of awkward, you see. They like to do it in a pattern that's more or less square, in rows of roughly the same number of stars. The current one goes 6-5-6-5-6-5-6-5-6, from top to bottom, or 5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4-5 from left to right. It's pretty. But you can't do that with 51 and make it work out evenly - the best you could do is six rows of alternately nine and eight stars, and that would look more rectangular than is really desirable. Well, I wouldn't find it aesthetically pleasing, anyway, and I think my opinion is the most important one to take into account here.

And while I'm looking at old flags, good God that 31-star flag is ugly. Who the heck designed that thing?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Twenty-eight point three four

Am I good or what? Sorry, I'm just extremely happy with myself tonight - I just beat my personal best time at memorising a pack of cards by more than a second. Which is a big deal to me, because I've been struggling to get under thirty seconds for the last couple of weeks - it's really hard to cut down on split-second hesitations coming up with the right word for the right combination of cards. Also, I was having trouble physically turning over the cards fast enough, but I'm definitely improving with that now. I think a couple of other people have got down as low as 25 seconds in practice, which is the kind of thing I'm aiming for, but as long as I keep very gradually improving, it keeps my interest. I'm determined to break the 30-second barrier this year.

Back in the real world, I got an email at work today saying I'm coming up to the end of my three-month probationary period, after which I'll be a proper employee, needing to give a month's notice and everything. It seems to have come round fast, but at the same time it feels like I've been working there forever. The job sort of feels like an actual part of my life, which I suppose means I'm going to stay there. I'm not particularly good at it, but good enough to keep my reputation of a genius anyway - as I say in that book I haven't written yet, it's not actually about being good at anything, it's about giving the impression that you're brilliant.

So this really means I should move to Burton. Just to save the hassle and expense of the trains, really. Although it's not too bad, commuting at the moment, and it'll probably be even nicer in the summer (although it's been very warm and pleasant today). So I'm not in any desperate hurry to move, but if I see something nice in Burton, I might take it. I'd quite like a little bungalow or something, if there's one up for rent that's not too extortionate. God, I must be getting old...

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I seem to have been "tagged"

I'm not sure exactly what that involves, because I'm hopelessly uncool, but I think it boils down to Sam wanting me to answer the following questions. Now, this isn't really the kind of thing I normally do, since it falls into the category of "things that everybody else does in their blogs", but on the other hand Sam's blog is always a lot more interesting to read than mine, so what the heck.

They're not really questions, if we're going to be picky, so much as things that I'm expected to list four of, so here we go:

4 jobs I have done - no real choice here. In a life of staggering lack of variety, I've had four paid jobs in all. All as an accountant or something similar - six and a half years at a cooked meat factory in Frampton, near Boston, six months at a sweetie factory in Skegness, two years with a recruitment company in Derby and two and a half months and counting accounting for various learning services in Burton-on-Trent. Or Burton-upon-Trent, different people and signposts seem to call it different things. I must find out what the town is actually called some day.

4 films I watch again and again Hmm, more difficult. First ones that come to mind are Grease, Transformers: The Movie, Reservoir Dogs and 12 Angry Men. Don't ask me why they particularly appeal to me, but I never get tired of watching them.

4 places I’ve lived I do have a bit more choice with this list than with the jobs, but only a bit. My life has been so... settled. A little house in Tumby Woodside, a tiny village in Lincolnshire, about ten miles from Boston (and just a mile down the road from New York. No, really. Look it up on a map if you don't believe me!) is where I spent my formative years. For a few months I lived in Kingston Bridge House, which was then a brand-new hall of residence in Hampton Wick, just over the river from Kingston Uni. My favourite ever home was my lovely little flat in Boston where I lived from 1998 to 2003. And just for a change, I lived for a month in a rented room in Cambridge while I was taking my TEFL qualification. That was quite nice too.

4 TV shows I love Pocket Dragon Adventures, Maggie and the Ferocious Beast, Thundercats and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

4 places I’ve been on holiday Butlins in Skegness, when it was still a great place to go on holiday. Center Parcs in Sherwood Forest. Las Vegas (can't beat it). Butlins in Filey, the year before it closed down.

4 websites you visit daily Sam's blog, the memory sports forum, Neopets (I'm a stock market millionaire) and Virtual Pooh Sticks (which I don't visit daily just at the moment, but I will when it's back online. If it ever is.)

4 favourite foods Spaghetti bolognese. I've heard it said that Italians don't eat spaghetti bolognese, and that therefore only stupid people would eat it, but I disagree quite violently with that. When I eat spag bog (as my dad likes to call it), I'm not thinking "wow, I'm eating what people in Bologna eat!", I'm thinking "mmm, this stuff tastes good!" Chicken pie and chips from the chip shop. Mint humbugs. Death By Chocolate. There are many, many other favourite foods that should be on the list too. I'm a gourmet. Or a gannet, I can't remember which it is.

4 places I’d rather be right now Hmm. Very difficult. Maybe I'm happy with my current situation after all? The Gold Coast casino and hotel, Las Vegas. At the final day of the World Memory Championships. In a cartoon. In bed.

That's all, folks. I'm not going to "tag" anyone else, but anyone reading this can feel free to list their own fours if they want to. I'm not going to stop you. And for those keen on following my television career, by the way, the BBC people emailed me today (maybe they've been reading my blog?) to tell me that my Child Of Our Time appearance will indeed be on programme four, Sunday 5th February. I must repeat that I don't think I come across very well. I'm certainly not telling anyone at work about it, but you blog readers are privileged.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Pygmies, budgies, Kuala Lumpur

It's been officially confirmed that the World Memory Championships will be in Malaysia again this year. Well, as official as these things get, anyway - last-minute drastic changes of plan are part of the tradition, and you can't really start making travel arrangements based on what has been announced as early as January, because it might all fall through yet. Still, presumably someone there is offering money to someone in order to get the championship there, which is always a good sign.

The problem with Malaysia is that all the best memorisers are German or Austrian, and several of them are young and not particularly wealthy. Being old, and rich enough to buy my own plane tickets if need be, I'd hate to win the WMC because someone else couldn't afford to go there, so I hope everyone important will get their flights paid for them one way or another. We'll have to see what develops.

This, in conjunction with New York, will mean I'll be visiting three continents in 2006. That's really very cool and jetsetterish, isn't it? And yes, I'm counting a trip to Germany as a trip to a different continent. We're not in a continent, we're on an island floating next to one. I'm pretty sure I haven't done this before - the previous time I went to Malaysia, in 2003, I didn't go anywhere else that year, mainly because I was unemployed for most of the year and financed it with horrifically huge loans that I'm only two-fifths of the way through paying off now. Ah, the follies of youth.

Still, it makes me wonder if I can get an Australian holiday into my schedule somehow. They do have a memory championship over there, and I could always drop by and watch. Nah, that would just be silly.

Monday, January 16, 2006

He's in the best selling show

I'm really enjoying Life On Mars. It's a TV series with a really weird and complicated premise, which it mostly ignores as much as possible. John Simm plays Sam Tyler, a police officer who finds himself back in 1973 after a near-fatal accident in 2006. He's a police officer in 1973 too, and nobody believes he's from the future. Occasionally, TVs and radios talk to him, he hears voices talking about him as if he's in hospital in a coma and he has nightmares where the girl from the TV test card chants ominous cryptic rhymes at him while he screams and hides in the corner.

But for the most part, it's a 1970s cop show, with Sam as the by-the-book copper, horrified by his boss's willingness to break the rules if it gets the job done. The combination of genres and themes shouldn't work, but it really does. John Simm never quite looks like a policeman to me, but that really just adds to the weirdness and makes it work better. He was also great in that fantastic drama series from a few years ago, The Lakes, so it's good to see him with another starring role in a well-written show.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Avengers Assemble!

I've just realised that I passed the 150-posts mark a few days ago - the 150th was the brief ramble about the memory test on the BBC website. So hardly a highlight of this thing, but never mind. I wonder how much of my life I've wasted typing unimportant gibberish like this so far? But rather than worry about that, I'll do something I haven't done for a while - talk about the superhero comics I've bought lately.

Just one book, actually - Essential Avengers, volume 5. The 'Essential' giant paperbacks are wonderful for fans of old comics. They compile around 25 old comics from the sixties and seventies, printed in black and white on cheap paper, and sell for somewhere in the region of £10.99 - not bad for 500+ pages of reading, really. Okay, you could get a novel with probably more words in it for less money, but that's not the point. In a world where the American publishers can justify charging the equivalent of £2 or more for a 20 page comic, it's nice to get a bigger volume of story on the cheap.

If you don't know who the Avengers are (or if you're thinking Steed and Peel), a quick history lesson is in order. In 1961, after years of publishing nothing of interest, Marvel Comics released a new superhero comic called The Fantastic Four, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. It caught on. It had something that those mainstays of superheroics, Superman and Batman, didn't have - fairly realistic characters who argued among themselves and were a lot more human and flawed than godlike and wonderful. Stan Lee put his thinking cap on, and over the next couple of years dreamed up a lot more superheroes, all with their own unique twists on the established formula, and Marvel Comics was suddenly a major rival for DC (whose Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman-Flash-Green Lantern based dominance looked like taking over the universe of comics until then). Stan Lee followed up FF with the likes of Thor, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men and so on, and they were all very big. Except Ant-Man, who was very small, and also very unpopular.

So in 1963, Stan Lee was told by his bosses that since DC's Justice League of America (in which Superman and co formed a super-team to battle bad guys) was so popular, he should do something similar and make a team out of Marvel's popular characters. And thus were born the Avengers - Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man and his sidekick the Wasp. They hadn't realised just yet that nobody liked Ant-Man and the Wasp. The Hulk was just there to show how different this was from the Justice League - he didn't like his teammates, walked out on them after the second issue and fought them on and off after that whenever he was in a bad mood.

It wasn't the best of Marvel's 1960s comics, but it was still a lot of fun. The adventures were a bit more traditional than most superhero comics, until Stan Lee, who I get the impression had never liked putting the stars all together in one team like that when they had their own comics too, wrote out the other founding members and replaced them with heroes without their own titles (Ant-Man's own title had been cancelled by then, but few people cared when he was written out of Avengers too).

Anyway, back to Essential Volume 5, we're now in the early seventies. The collection starts with the 98th issue of Avengers. The spell of creativity that launched the company ten years previously has pretty much come to an end, and Avengers is more concerned with keeping the stories ticking along and celebrating the upcoming 100th issue. The previous issue was the end of the acclaimed Kree/Skrull War story, about the Avengers caught up in an intergalactic war, and it was a hard act to follow. Roy Thomas, who had replaced Stan Lee as writer a few years previously, fills time in this issue with an unexceptional story about Ares, the Greek god of war, stirring up violence in ordinary people and causing chaos in the city. This is just to give the Avengers something to fight until the final two pages, when their missing member Hawkeye reappears in an awful new costume (which seems to include a miniskirt), accompanied by former member Hercules, who's lost his memory and is uttering rhyming prophecies of doom. With Thor and Iron Man having rejoined the team to help out with the Kree/Skrull war, we're gathering everyone who's ever been an Avenger together, slowly but surely. The artwork, from Barry Smith (now known as Barry Windsor-Smith - presumably he didn't want to sound too posh back then) is excellent, like the art throughout this collection. Nowadays, an ability to draw a coherent story doesn't seem to be a requirement for Marvel's artists, but back then there were lots of talented artists out there who could produce a good story in the house style to a monthly deadline. And most of them, like Smith, could do it very well.

Issue 99, then, is unashamed setup for something big to happen in issue 100. Hawkeye explains where he's been and how he hooked up with Hercules, the Vision calls up a couple of other former members, the Black Panther and good old Ant-Man, to ask them if they can help (they're both all-purpose scientists, so it's not too much of a stretch to think they might be able to help someone with amnesia), and then we get the requisite couple of pages of soap opera (Hawkeye tries to chat up the Scarlet Witch, who's in love with the Vision, Quicksilver (SW's brother) interrogates her about it (the Vision's a robot, and Quicksilver wouldn't want his sister to marry one) and the Vision agonises to Jarvis the butler about his feelings). Then two bad guys attack, to provide the requisite fight scene, grab Hercules and escape. It's all by-the-numbers stuff, but very nicely done.

So then we're into the Big Hundredth Issue! Everyone who's ever been an Avenger converges at the Black Knight's castle in England (because everyone in England owns a castle, everyone knows that), including, for no adequately explored reason, the Hulk, who doesn't like them but decides to help them out anyway, and the Swordsman, the bad guy who joined the team under false pretences back in issue #20 only to betray them and try to kill them all. But now he's decided to give them a hand, just for the heck of it. This is typical Roy Thomas thoroughness - he's going to put every Avenger ever in the story, by hook or by crook, whether it makes sense or not. Barry Smith provides some unbelievably beautiful artwork showing all the heroes arriving - it really is a delight to behold, and somehow even better in the black-and-white Essential format than in the original colours. The rest of the story is unexceptional, though - the Black Knight has seen in his magic cauldron that Hercules has been kidnapped by Ares in Olympus, the heroes go there and sort things out. The end. Oh, after a bit of merry banter with a policeman back in England - Thor: "A moment, now... for silence." Policeman: "And I'd like to respect that moment, yank, but I'm afraid I got me a sergeant down at the station who'll be wantin' a report on what happened here. So if you'll just be tellin' me where that hole-in-the-air led to... or what all the to-do was about..." Thor: "My badge-wielding friend... in the words of an armor-clad philosopher... don't ask!" That's the punchline.

Issue 101 is a bit of filler while Roy Thomas works out what to do with his heroes next. It's adapted from a Harlan Ellison story, and it's not very good at all. All the ongoing plotlines are dropped to fit in the somewhat complex but repetitive plot, and the pacing is all wrong - it drags at the start and is very rushed at the end. Rich Buckler takes over as artist, and he's perfectly acceptable, but a step down from Barry Smith. The story, for what it's worth, is about an ordinary man who develops amazing powers and is told by a horribly out-of-character Watcher that he has to kill five people to prevent a future disaster. This ordinary man concocts a ludicrously convoluted plan to kill the first one - a Russian chess player who the entire Avengers team happen to be working for as bodyguards (not the kind of thing they normally do) by putting poison on a pawn and rigging the chess computer he's playing against so that he will touch the pawn at precisely the moment when this strange poison becomes deadly. How he does this we can only guess, since the rest of the story portrays him as a man of normal intelligence without access to rare poisons or anything like that. But then he races around the world and just zaps the other four with laser beams from his hands, with the Avengers getting there just too late to stop him each time. Then the Watcher shows up, with an explanation that doesn't really make sense, and takes the bad guy away for good.

Back to normality, the next few issues give full rein to the soap opera that made the comic so cool - the Vision and the Scarlet Witch continue to agonise about their feelings for each other, Hawkeye begins to get the idea that SW doesn't fancy him after all, and the Vision meets up with his supervillain "brother" the Grim Reaper. The Reaper is the brother of Wonder Man, the dead superhero whose brain patterns are the basis for the Vision's artificial intelligence. It turns out that the Reaper is keeping his brother's corpse (he's been dead since #9) in a frozen food locker, and he offers to put the Vision's mind in that human body, if the Vision refrains from stopping the Reaper killing the other Avengers. The Vision promises to think about it, and leaves the looney to whatever he does with his brother's dead body in a freezer. Then the giant robots called the Sentinels come flying out of the sun and cause troubles for the Avengers. They kidnap the Scarlet Witch and take her to their base in Australia, where they're using her 'mutant energy' to power a weapon that makes solar flares.

This is all a sequel to an X-Men story that Roy Thomas wrote a couple of years previously, and it would have fitted better in X-Men if the title hadn't been cancelled. Mutants in the Marvel Universe are people who are born with superpowers, and the Sentinels are robots whose mission in life is to rid the world of mutants. But most of the Avengers, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch excepted, aren't mutants - they got their powers by other means - and so there isn't really the personal touch that there should be in this story. But it's a good one, and the Sentinels' plot is wonderful - they're not allowed to harm non-mutant humans, so they've developed a plan to render everyone in the world sterile and then, when the human race has died out from natural causes, genetically create new humans, only without the mutants. Brilliant. Needless to say the Avengers beat them, but it's worth mentioning the strategy Quicksilver uses to beat one of the giant robots. Knowing that it can match his super-speed exactly, he runs headlong towards a wall. The Sentinel taunts him, noting that if Quicksilver can stop in time, so can it, but it turns out that Quicksilver can't, and deliberately crashes into the wall, breaking several bones and nearly killing himself, so that the Sentinel will do the same. I worry for the guy's sanity. He then disappears under mysterious circumstances, to provide a sub-plot for future issues and to write him out of the series (he goes on to show up in Fantastic Four).

That brings us up to the end of Roy Thomas's run as writer. It was never worse than bland, and usually excellent. Steve Englehart takes over after this, and soon launches into that epic storyline, the Avengers/Defenders War, which I might write about some other time. But Roy Thomas's work is a major reason why Marvel comics continue to be so popular today - Stan Lee started it off, but it's from Thomas that we get the traditions of referencing old stories, recurring characters from the past and tight continuity between the many different titles. Stan Lee could have passed his characters onto any old hack when he got bored with writing them, but instead he gave them to a fan who loved the superheroes he was writing about, and cared about making the comics great. It's a shame the current writer of Avengers is so terrible, but these things go in cycles, and I'm sure some day we'll get another Lee, Thomas, Englehart, Busiek etc chronicling their adventures. 42 years and they're still going strong!