Saturday, March 18, 2006


I've just noticed that I passed 200 posts on here a couple of weeks ago, without even noticing. Maybe I'll throw a party when I get to 250. Or save it for the one-year mark, perhaps. It's really fun reading through old entries here, actually. I'm just amazed that I've kept it up, but it's still enjoyable trying to think of something to blog about every night. And as an unexpected side-effect, I'm told that a few other people enjoy reading this thing too!

Anyway, I haven't had quite as industrious a day as I was planning. I did do a half-hour binary numbers practice this morning, and very nearly broke the 4000 barrier (the four-minute mile of memorising 1s and 0s), but just had a couple of mistakes too many, ending up with a score of 3980. I'm definitely happy with the way my training's going in this - I've recorded my score every time I've practised since I started properly training again, and it's gone 2545, 2715, 3005, 3195, 3355, 3650, 3865, 3980! The sky's the limit!

I was going to do an hour numbers this afternoon, but I couldn't be bothered. I did shuffle a few packs of cards and get halfway through compiling the names and faces papers for Cambridge (got all the faces, I just need to come up with a suitably multilingual selection of names to give them). Also spent a lot of time watching Tom and Jerry cartoons - I recall saying here before that even I couldn't spend a whole day doing that, but I've come to the conclusion that I can, if I'm in the right mood.

I need to do something about my sofa. All the springy things that hold the cushions up have broken. I need to either do some makeshift repairs with spare bits of wood, or persuade the landlord to replace it with a new one - preferably one comfortable enough for someone to sleep on, so as guests don't have to sleep on the floor when they came over. Or I could just move to Burton-on-Trent and furnish the place myself. It's not like I couldn't afford it...

Friday, March 17, 2006

Guessing games

So do I get any clues as to who's posting comments here and calling themself "Dominic O'Brien's Liver"? I suspect Step, but the weird thing about being me is that I have several friends who might do something like that...

Anyway, the weekend's here, I've got it all to myself, and I'm going to use it very productively. Honest. Lots of memory training for the long disciplines, lots of the tedious preparatory work for the Cambridge memory competition (Clemens is definitely coming, and loads of Americans promised at the weekend to make an effort to come over, which is great!), lots of book-writing. I'm really going to try to do something about How To Be Clever. I realised the other day that it's been in the planning stages for a good three years now, which is just ridiculous.

I wonder how long this resolve will last before I spend the rest of the weekend slumped in a chair watching telly?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Gentile Ben

Sometimes in this world of blogging, a subject just pops into my head and I just have to write about it. And then again there are times when a brilliant title for a blog post comes into my head and I have to contrive something to fit it. Luckily, these are few and far between, but this afternoon at work a strange train of thought led me to think "If I wrote in my blog about someone mistakenly thinking I'm Jewish, I could call it 'Gentile Ben'!"

You know, like the TV series 'Gentle Ben', about the bear, that most of my readers probably won't have even heard of. Maybe it isn't so brilliant after all. But it's too late to stop now. Anyway, it has happened to me on a couple of occasions, for whatever reason. Possibly my insistence on wearing a black hat and beard, although you'd have to be kind of short-sighted or ignorant to mistake that for a Hassidic getup. The last time I can remember was in a pub with my brother some time last year - we were loudly trying to remember the lyrics to all the Don Williams songs our father always used to force us to listen to on car journeys. Unusually, rather than clearing the room like it usually does, this motivated a guy to come and join us, and the drunken conversation went on for some time until he mentioned that he was assuming we were Jewish. Apart from the vaguely semitic appearance, he pointed out that we're called Ben and Joseph, which had never occurred to me before. It comes from our mother being a fan of 'Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat', believe it or not.

Another occasion, because I'm determined to pad this ill-advised contrived theme out to a full blog entry, was at the World Memory Championship in Malaysia in 2003. In fact, twice over the weekend. One of the organisers asked me on the Friday night whether I observe the shabbat, and offered to try to arrange things around that for me. I'm not sure what that would have involved, exactly, since the competition runs over three days, one of which was a Saturday, and I'm pretty sure any strictly orthodox Jew would consider taking part in the competition at all to constitute work. And Jan Formann also mentioned that Jewish people have a great sense of humour, which I tried to take as a compliment anyway despite the misunderstanding.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Change of career

Going back to work after a memory competition is always a drag. Particularly when on my first day back I'm dragged into a meeting with my boss, and her boss, and his boss - a whole food chain of accountants with me at the bottom explaining why the figures look like they do. I suppose I could have got my own assistant in and blamed him, but I don't expect it would have worked. Still, I more or less managed to give the impression I knew what I was talking about, as usual. It's a gift.

It does make me think I should take all these people seriously when they say I should write books and things - it would probably be less stressful all round. But as soon as I click back into accountant mode, I don't want to leave it and look for something new and scary...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Realising that I was leaving, the temperature dropped sharply and it rained all day. When I went up to McDonald's for breakfast, I got soaked, particularly in the feet (those holes in the shoes are a bit of an inconvenience, I realise whenever it's wet). A very fat man was berating two people carrying goods into a shop for working on a Sunday. I did a bit of last-minute sightseeing before having to check out of the hotel, came back and let James interview me at length about memory and film me memorising a pack, then turned back fully into a tourist rather than a semi-celebrity. Tomorrow, of course, I've got to turn back into an accountant, which is a much worse thing to be.

I went up to Grand Central Station to admire the architecture (not really - to get lunch and go to Midtown Comics which is right next to it). The pizza there was delicious - for some reason they're all named after movie characters and celebrities, I had a Mr Pink, which is basically garlic chicken and tomatoes. Maybe there is something in this New York pizza idea after all. At the comic shop I got Squadron Supreme: Death Of A Universe, the new trade paperback collection, which I've been looking for for a while. It reprints the Death Of A Universe story first published as a graphic novel in 1989 and for some reason never reprinted, Mark Gruenwald's sequel to his acclaimed original Squadron Supreme series, and his last SS work before he died. It's a classic that I've really resented not being able to read, over the years, and I'm delighted to have got it now. Also included in the new collection are a smattering of other comics featuring the Squadron - the absolutely awful Thor #280, which should have been left to gather dust in limbo somewhere; the excellent Kurt Busiek issues of Avengers starring the Squadron; the less excellent sequel to those stories from the Avengers annual in 1999, which involves the mass ranks of the two superhero teams joining forces to act monumentally stupidly and fail to beat a single, non-super-powered man; and the Squadron Supreme: New World Order one-shot by Len Kaminski, which I criticised very harshly when it first came out and never re-read, but now find to have actually been rather good. My main complaint - that it very contrivedly regresses the Squadron to a straight copy of the JLA - is still entirely valid, but the writing is in fact very nice, and it's a good story if you overlook that detail.

By that time, it was about time to head back to the airport (or, as I called it in conversation with James earlier, the... plane... station... what's it called... airport. Probably dented my image as a master of memory there). Changed my socks a couple of times in an attempt to dry my feet out a bit, with minimal success as the boots were soaked through.

The flight back went by in no time. In economy class this time, I was absorbed in the lives of Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, with occasional pauses for a doze (I can't sleep on planes, but I was too tired to keep my eyes open either, so lay there with them closed for a while before I couldn't resist going back to the book). The temperature back in England hit me like a very cold hammer - it was freezing compared to what I'd been enjoying in New York!

And so that was the end of the latest American adventure. It was a lot of fun for me. If only I was independently wealthy enough to do it all the time...

Further Saturday thoughts

So, was the TV-style competition a good thing, and what does the future hold for US memorisers?

I liked the championship a lot. It was fun to watch, and hopefully would make very compelling TV (it's going to be broadcast in April, on a very obscure channel). I'd like to take part in a championship run along those lines. I emphatically don't want to change the world championship in any way to make it more TV friendly - as I told Giles the reporter and he repeated in his article, my ideal for a memory competition involves a lot of people in a room staring at a piece of paper for hours on end - but I would like to see these more flashy tournaments becoming a regular part of the schedule too. The two different styles can co-exist perfectly happily, I'm sure.

But there are problems. Firstly, the standard of information recalled was not high. A lot of people watching at home would be thinking that the achievements demonstrated was unexceptional. Whether that's such a bad thing, I'm not sure - the aim of this is surely to entertain and get people interested in the subject, not to make them think memorisers are a world apart from them. But shouldn't a memory championship be a real test of memory, rather than relying very much on luck and sitting in the right seat in the final?

Also, as Maurice and others pointed out, it could have been a lot less impressive than it was. The format could easily have left two people with no card-memorising ability at all in the final. How impressed would viewers have been with two people who could barely remember half a dozen cards contesting the grand final of a national memory championship?

As for the future, Josh is the new champion and I'm sure he'll be a worthy one. Asked if he thought he had a chance in Malaysia (he won two tickets courtesy of British Airways, longtime sponsors of the US Championships - I don't know why they're still involved now the WMC isn't in Britain, but I'm very grateful), he replied that he had none whatsoever, categorising the top competitors as 'extraterrestrials'. Thanks, Josh! But I was impressed with his performance, considering how short a time he's been training, and I think he might just be the person who takes American memory competitions to new heights. He's learned his techniques from Europeans, he's been to the competitions over here, and he's not restricted like the others by the low standards necessary to make it big in America. He's got a genuine passion for the 'sport', and I think he could go on to be not just a grandmaster, but maybe the first American to get into the top echelon of memory competitors. And when he does, no doubt his countrymen will up their game to keep up with him. It only takes one person to inspire others.

I've been looking back at how well I did when I'd been learning memory for as long as Josh, maybe a little longer, in the MSO competition 2001. I tried to memorise a pack of cards in just over a minute, but failed. I seem to recall that I rarely managed to do a complete pack at that time. I managed 750 in hour numbers, which isn't at all bad, and something poor in the binaries (which I hadn't really practiced at all), but did well enough at the poem and words to end up in third place in a five-discipline competition. I was still very much a beginner, and somewhere around the level Josh is now.

So I think the future looks bright for memory in America. If only we could say the same for Britain!


The big day of the competition was even hotter than the day before, but the auditorium on the 19th floor of the ConEdison building (where the US Championships have been held for years and years) was nice and air-conditioned. The building's on Irving Place, just south of Union Square, in a very scenic part of town.

I got there a bit early, with the day's events scheduled to start at 8:30, and there weren't many people there yet. Maurice Stoll was already on the scene though, and greeted me as I came in. I've known Maurice since the World Cup in Weinheim in 2004, he's a German-born American from Texas and very keen to be the US Champion some day. He also competed in the world championship that year, and going into the competition held the national record in the two US championship events that involve actual memory techniques, speed numbers and speed cards. Both these records were set in 2004, when he narrowly lost to Scott Hagwood - in the 2005 championship, a low-scoring competition, he was very disappointed with his performance, attributing it to lack of sleep and too much beer. He was very fired-up about the 2006 event.

Other people I knew arrived in short order - Ram Kolli, who won the 2005 championship and came to the worlds in Oxford, Emmanuel Mercado who competed in the world cup too but had disappeared from memory competitions since then, unable to fit one into his busy schedule, Josh Foer, worried that despite my advice he'd taken something to get him to sleep the night before and pessimistic about his chances, and Scott Hagwood, unbeaten four-times champion who I first met at that most memorable world championship in 2003. Scott wasn't competing this year, he was the 'color commentator' for the TV people covering the event. He's a very good choice for the role - as well as his acknowledged status as the USA's only grandmaster of memory and a multiple former champion, he's big, handsome and just oozes charisma. If you want to convey the message that memory competitions aren't just for geeks, Scott is the best man for the job. He was also promoting his new book - I got a copy autographed with a very flattering message about how great I am.

There were also people there with names I knew well but who I'd never met - Chester Santos, third place in the previous two years, Mykie Pidor, who came to the world championships the year I missed it, in 2001, and whose name is memorable enough for me to remember that fact when I came to actually meet him, Tony Dottino the organiser, who's the American equivalent of Tony Buzan (who normally comes to the US Championship but didn't this year) and Frank Felberbaum, memory trainer, author and coach of several of the young competitors. Frank is particularly famous for entering the world championship one year and doing so spectacularly badly that people have been known to suggest he hasn't the faintest idea about memory techniques, but his students seem to do all right for themselves, and he turns out to be a nice, friendly guy in real life.

And there was a large contingent of people I'd never heard of but had the pleasure of meeting over the course of the day - Marshall Tarley, who doesn't ever seem to get mentioned in writing about the championship but is Tony Dottino's loyal sidekick, Karen and Ed Pinson, who were in charge of the judges (all of whom were very well-organised and knew what they were doing - not something you could say about a few other memory championships in the past) and a whole bunch of other competitors, some old hands at it, some brand-new memory enthusiasts. As is always the case at the US championships, a good number of the 37 participants were high school students, but this year three schools had sent teams - one from the weirdly-named Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania joining the fun along with the two New York-based regular entrants. But a good dozen of the people taking part were just regular American people interested in testing their memory in competition. It's been a long time since Britain managed to produce so many.

Other notable competitors included T Michael Harty, a Lutheran minister, Paul Mellor, professional memory trainer who competed in a suit and tie rather than everyone else's T-shirts and jeans and 12-year-old Christian Kalinowski, whose older brother had competed in previous years but wasn't there this time round because, as Tony Dottino put it, "he has a girlfriend now." When the laughter at this had died down, Tony continued with the explanation that it was her birthday on that day - he wasn't really meaning to imply that only those with no girlfriend would take part in something like this.

The format, as I've mentioned here before, was very different this year. The morning was more familiar-looking, though. People sat at desks, memorising the information put in front of them and recalled it by writing it down, just as normal. But this was qualifying for the afternoon's TV-friendly finals, not the whole competition. First off we had names and faces. It's the first time I've been to a memory competition I wasn't actually competing in, and I was expecting to be bored. But it's actually quite fun to sit in silence for 15 minutes, watching the looks of concentration on everyone's faces. After the recall, it took a long, long time to mark the papers and announce the results, but the organisers insisted on doing that before the second round. The time-filling exercise of having people stand up and talk about why they were taking part was good fun, though, even if it did mean falling about an hour behind schedule after round one.

When the results finally came out, the winner of the discipline was Erin Hope Luley, a seventeen-year-old swimmer and member of the Mechanicsburg High School team. Josh had the second-best score and Maurice the third. Erin has a natural knack for memory, it seems, but no real techniques for things like numbers and cards. This prompts a lot of discussion about the specialists in names and faces, the poem and words, because these people seem to be invariably female - Tatiana Cooley, the multiple American champion of years gone by, was in very much the same mould, and so was Astrid Plessl before she got good at everything else, too. Erin's score of 120 was a new US record, and one that would put you high up the rankings at a world championship too.

But the real tests of memory skill would be the next two disciplines. Speed numbers was first - two attempts of it, and with things being so far behind the timetable already, no announcement of the first trial's results before the second. But Maurice won the event, beating his own record by four extra digits, with 148. Chester was the only other competitor to top 100 (a very low score by world standards - the Americans are still quite a way behind us here), and Paul Mellor had the third-best, with 89, just ahead of Josh.

On to the speed cards. Only a few years ago, it was unheard of for anyone to be able to memorise a whole pack of cards at the US Championships. Things have turned around a bit since then, and times of under two minutes were expected. Watching this one from the sidelines was a lot of fun! Josh stopped his clock at 1:40, and then Chester at around 2:15, and Maurice at 3:15. Josh's recall was all correct, making a new US record again, but Chester's had errors. Maurice was correct, but disgusted with how long it had taken him. Ram, I noticed, had spent the whole five minutes looking at his pack, which would leave him out of contention for the first three qualifying places (which went to the three highest total scores after this round). On the second trial, Josh didn't touch the cards, happy with his first time. Chester did a more cautious 3:04 and got it correct, and Maurice, who had been complaining about being distracted by people moving around him, tried for a faster time but didn't get it.

But he'd still done enough to be top of the table after three events, with Josh and Chester behind him, so those three won the right to skip the poem competition and go straight to the afternoon's finals. I decided to get some lunch with them, rather than watch the final qualifying round, mindful that Nick wanted to film me and seemed determined to make me miss the most exciting bits.

Chester skipped lunch, due either to nerves or needing some last minute-preparation, I don't know. Nobody specifically said that spectators weren't supposed to help themselves to the buffet, so I did, and invited along a couple of other fans I'd just met - one of them was called Jim, but I can't for the life of me remember the woman's name. Nothing personal, if you're reading this! I really am that bad with names. They'd seen Josh's Discover article and decided to come along. Genuine spectators with no connection to the competitors! This is unheard-of at memory competitions!

In the cafeteria we met an enormous English reporter called Giles. I know I describe everyone taller than me as enormous, and I know that most of the world's population fit into that category, but this guy is very, very tall. When he stood next to me to talk later in the day, I had to crick my neck back at an alarming angle just to look up at his face. We talked shop enjoyably for a while, impressing Giles, Jim and friend with tales of memory competitions and techniques in general, until Nick turned up to take me away.

Out in Union Square and Park Avenue, we did some very brief and enjoyable filming in the sun, leaving me with plenty of time to get back to the competition and not miss a thing. This very much put Nick back on my good-people list. I even had time to wander into the Barnes & Noble, where I found a copy of the best book ever written, "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie", by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated with genuine genius by Felicia Bond. This masterpiece and its sequels are quite popular in the USA, but for some reason don't seem to have been published in Britain. I discovered them on a previous American trip a few years ago, but had forgotten about them altogether. I bought a copy, to make sure I remembered them in future.

Back at Con Edison, it was time for the televised portion of events. The first three finalists had been joined by Erin (who had set another new US record in the poem), Ram and Paul, and they took their places at the six desks in front of the stage for "Words To Remember". All the afternoon's events had TV-friendly titles, but this was basically just the normal 'random words' event - they were given 15 minutes to remember as much of a list of random words as possible.

But the recall was different - sitting on six chairs on the stage in a random order, they had to take it in turns to name the next word on the list. For the first time, I really wished I was taking part - this looked like fun and I was pretty sure I'd be good at it. When I'm recalling random words, I tend to blank on a whole sequence, so if someone was saying the previous word before me, I'd be just fine up to about 180 words, I think. The first two to make a mistake were eliminated, and the first turned out, surprisingly, to be Erin. About twenty words in, she blanked on the word 'numb'. Shortly after that, Paul confidently announced 'operation', master of ceremonies said "Um, clarification, Ed?", Paul corrected himself "Operate!", but the judge was strict about it. So the round was over, without more than 30 words recalled in total. I thought to myself that this wasn't going to flabbergast TV viewers with the amazing achievements on show. But on the other hand, if it made people think "I can do that!", maybe they'd give it a try and take part next year?

On to the second championship round, and this one was all-new and a lot of fun. Now I really, really wanted to be up there - I genuinely wanted to test my abilities against the others on this one, and wasn't sure how well I'd do. It was called "Tea Party - 3 Strikes, You're Out". One at a time, five people came onto the stage and chatted about themselves, listing their name, date of birth, home town and zip code, work phone number, pet's name, species and colour, three hobbies, favourite car's colour, year and make, and three favourite foods. The memorisers had this information on pieces of paper in front of them, and had the choice of studying this paper of listening to and watching the person. Then they had 7.5 minutes of silently studying the paper. Then the four of them came back up on stage to recall, as the 'party guests' came back in a random order and had to be told their information one at a time. As the title suggested, you were allowed two mistakes, but the third put you out of the competition.

The guys struggled with it. Maurice especially, who had been practicing with photos on top of the printed page of information, found that his preparation wasn't as helpful as he'd thought. Josh, who still struggles with memorising numbers, had decided to ignore the difficult phone numbers and trust to luck that he wouldn't get asked too many of them. The first phone number to come up, in fact, stumped Chester, Maurice and Josh in turn, but Ram got it. Ram was in fact the star of this round - while the others built up multiple strikes with little details on the first guest, he sailed through with ease. When we went onto the second guest, Maurice got his third strike on her birthday and was eliminated. It worked out so that again Chester was the first one to be asked her work phone number. "Oh man, why do I always get the work numbers?! That's the hardest part!" He scribbled on his pad for a moment and confidently announced "148..." "No, it starts 323," said Tony. Chester, who had memorised all the numbers in a long string, had forgotten to cross off the zip code that Ram had just said, but he'd got the phone number written down perfectly after it. But that was his third and final strike, and Josh, who wouldn't have had a clue about the number, thanked his lucky stars. He and Ram were through to the final and Chester had to be consent with a third consecutive third place in the US Championship.

Again, we'd only recalled one-and-a-bit of the five guests' information. But it was compelling viewing! I went up to Josh in the few minutes' break before the grand final and assured him that he'd got it in the bag now, Ram wasn't much good with the cards. He raged at me for saying something like that - I was trying to improve his mental attitude, but he saw it more as bringing down some seriously bad karma. I apologised and wished him luck, and did the same for Ram. Nick had reappeared to film me watching the last bit of the competition, and positioned me at the front of the spectators, rather than at the back where I'd been hanging out with Michael Harty, Aaron O'Brien, James Jorasch and other competitors.

The final competition started - "Double Deck'r Bust". They had five minutes to memorise two packs of cards, and then they would recall them, taking it in turns to say one card at a time (order to be decided by the toss of a coin). In a last minute clarification of the rules, Josh was alarmed to be told they had to memorise the pack from the top card down - he memorises from the bottom up. When the memorising time started, he turned the pack over a couple of times, racked with indecision, before memorising it bottom-up in his usual way and deciding to reverse the order in the recall. I had a tap on my shoulder - Nick, positioning himself where he could get me, Josh and Ram in shot, was getting in the way of the real camera crew and they wanted him moved. I tried to convey this to him with gestures, without success, and had to tiptoe over to him and drag him away. He came and sat next to me, right behind the memorisers, and asked me to whisper to him what was going on. I tried to do so as quietly as possible, until Tony Dottino waved to me to shut up. I hate people who whisper during memorisation, I don't know what I was thinking.

Anyway, the memorisation came to an end and the two of them went back onstage for the final time. At the all-important coin toss, Ram called tails and it came down heads. Josh thus got to choose who would name the first card. It took a long time and a lot of very visible mental cogitation, before he said "I will. No, wait! He can." It turned out later that he'd realised he couldn't remember the last card in the pack, and wanted to arrange it so that Ram would have to say it. Then at the last moment, he realised he didn't know the first card either, so changed his mind hastily.

They got about twelve cards into the deck before Ram couldn't remember one. A little anticlimactic, but Josh was the new US Memory Champion! With the pressure off, Tony invited him to try to recall the rest of the pack, which he reluctantly did. It was very entertaining for the crowd - at one point he got going so quickly that Tony couldn't keep up with turning the cards over, and a couple of times Ram helped him out when he got stuck, but they got through the whole first pack in some style. It did make good TV, I'm sure.

And with that, it was just time for the prizegiving, some more general chit-chat with the competitors and the dinner in a Chinese restaurant over the road. To which I also came along, still not sure whether I was technically invited, but nobody seemed to mind. I should say that I was very conscious all day that I didn't want to say or do anything that looked like showing-off - I had come there at least partly because I knew everyone there would think I'm great and tell me so at length, and I would have hated anyone to realise that, and think "look at him, thinking he's so great because he was the world memory champion and we're all a bunch of schmoes." Americans, as I understand it, say 'schmoes'. Actually, nobody gave me the slightest hint that they thought this, so maybe I was just paranoid, but as I say, I was very careful to play down any achievements of my own when someone else mentioned them, and never to mention them myself. But everyone there told me I should write a book, that they'd buy it if I did, and I really should try to make a living out of it.

At dinner, James Jorasch expounded at length on the many ways in which I could help him make millions or maybe billions of dollars from various schemes involving basically being paid for being clever. He seems to be a multipurpose businessman, who's involved in practically everything. In the other ear, Aaron O'Brien was regaling me with his unusual theories about memorising pi, which I was doing my best to explain just wouldn't work, but couldn't put my finger on exactly what was wrong with them. I should introduce him to Mike Curtis, whose theories make my head spin round in exactly the same way - their minds are obviously on the same wavelength. All in all, it was a very enjoyable meal, although the food was pretty unpleasant. I said my goodbyes and congratulations to everyone, agreed to let James film me memorising cards for some website - either the US Championship one or his own one, whoever wanted it - the next morning, and went back to the hotel. It was still hot outside, even late-ish at night.


I woke up early, 3am in fact. Adjusting to time differences is always difficult for me. Deciding that I wasn't going to be able to get back to sleep, and not feeling like reading the book I'd bought the day before, I turned on the TV and flicked through the channels. No cartoons at that time in the morning. Then I fell asleep again without meaning to and woke up at a much more reasonable half past six. Jetlag cured! I had a shower and went out for a walk around the big city before meeting Josh for breakfast at nine. I was delighted to find that paper copies of the Onion not only exist in New York, but they're given away free. And just walking down Broadway is kind of a thrilling experience if you've only heard about it before.

And it was hot! I've mentioned before that the weather is always lovely when I go to America, and this visit was no exception. In fact, Friday and Saturday were the two freakishly hot days of the year so far, and the weather reverted to normal NY March temperatures the day I left. Why can't I have this kind of atmospheric effect on England? I was wearing my leather jacket for this early-morning constitutional and I had to take it off because I was sweating.

Met Josh in the lobby bang on time. Leading up to the meeting I was trying to remember what he looked like (always a problem for me, even with people I know quite well, and I hadn't seen him for six months) and not getting very far. I'd like to think I would have recognised him even if he hadn't said hi as he came through the door, but I can't be quite certain. We went to a very nice little cafe round the corner and talked memory competitions. Josh, since writing an article on the US Championships this time last year, has been completely hooked on 'memory sports'. Following the competitors around in Germany and Oxford last year has given him a good idea of what goes on, and some useful training tips, and competing in this year's US championships is going to be the final chapter of his book on the subject. Ed Cooke has been providing most of his training and techniques, but I've been offering advice here and there too, and he was feeling pretty hopeful of doing well.

The rest of the conversation was pretty typical of whenever two memory people get together - what's happening with the world championships, is it a good thing that they'll be in Kuala Lumpur this year, is there going to be any money in it, who'll be going, who'll be winning (hopefully me, but with Clemens, Astrid and Gunther all hopefully there, who knows?), what's up with Tony Buzan and co, what's up with Andi Bell, who's coming to the Cambridge competition, the German championships, the Speed Cards Challenge, and so on. There's a lot to talk about considering it's such a minority 'sport'. Then there's the next day's competition - will it look good on TV? Is it an aberration or the future of memory competitions? But I'll leave the answers to that one for the Saturday post.

After breakfast we stopped the shop talk and moved on to serious sightseeing. Josh lives in Washington DC, but he's moving to NY soon to further his freelance writing career, and one of his writer brothers lives there already, so he made a good tour guide. I find it quite fascinating, incidentally, that the three Foer brothers are all writers, considering that my brother and I have scrupulously specialised in different things all our lives, and every time I write something I feel kind of guilty about muscling in on his turf. Did they not have sibling rivalry in that family?

Anyway, we wandered aimlessly around downtown Manhattan in the best sightseeing way. I always deliberately avoid the famous places when I go somewhere, because I prefer to see the real people and things (if I don't wander into a bookshop and spend the whole visit browsing there, of course...) We found a gallery selling cartoon-inspired art which I could have happily spent a fortune in if I wasn't still feeling guilty about that seat upgrade. There was a particularly good semi-3D Pepe le Pew picture that would look great on my wall, and some wonderful original Dr Seuss art. In the famous Strand bookstore Josh pointed out his brother's book "Everything Is Illuminated" and looked quite alarmed when I decided to buy it for a bit of holiday reading matter. In Forbidden Planet just down the road, he was positively appalled to learn that I'd never read "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay", and ordered me to buy that too, promising that I wouldn't regret it. I certainly haven't. I don't know why I haven't read it before, it's been recommended to me many times and it's exactly my kind of thing. He also ordered me to buy some new shoes, noticing how I had to avoid treading in puddles because of the huge hole in the sole, but I just ignored him on that as usual.

By then it was getting on for lunchtime, so we went to meet up with filmmaker Nick at his borrowed apartment (his artist wife had no fewer than three exhibitions opening that weekend, so he was in town anyway). The lengthy walk up from Union Square to 9th Avenue pretty much killed Josh off - I was still too caught up in the excitement of the big city to spare a thought for my feet. Nick, on finding out what Josh does for a living, immediately tried to enlist him in another film project of his. He does that every time I introduce him to someone - do I just have interesting friends or is he determined to make a documentary about everybody in the world? After popping into a Barnes & Noble to check out Josh's articles in this month's Discover and Esquire magazines, we went for pizza. Apparently you haven't lived until you've had New York pizza, so I was prepared to give the place we went to the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a particularly bad example. It's fair to say I've had much better pizza elsewhere.

Around this time, I noticed that one of the buttons had come off my stopwatch (which I also use as a pocket watch to tell the time). Deep sympathy and compassion failed to emanate from either Nick or Josh, but this is quite upsetting for me. That stopwatch has been with me since around 2003, when my previous one broke. It's been through three world championships and a whole lot of hard training, sitting propped up against my hat on the desk in front of me, and I'm really going to miss it. It won't be the same with another one.

After lunch Nick and I went back to his place, and he impressed me by saying without so much as a hint from me that he didn't see any need to film me that day, leaving me free to do a bit more tourism in the afternoon. So I spent the rest of the day tramping the streets of New York until I quite literally couldn't walk any more and was on the point of collapsing in the unseasonal baking sunshine. It's an amazing city.

Monday, March 13, 2006


I got up earlyish, knowing that I'd have to finish (not to mention start) packing before leaving to catch the 8:34 train down to London. I'd sort-of-calculated that that would get me to Heathrow in plenty of time for the flight at 1:20pm. I haven't flown anywhere from London for a while, but on this occasion it was somehow much cheaper to go from there than Birmingham. So having thrown all the important things into a bag, leaving only a couple of other things to sort out at some point in the journey (finish writing a letter to my brother - we keep up an old-fashioned correspondence so we can draw silly pictures - and pick up a new book to read, to go along with "Sex And Other Changes" by David Nobbs which I was re-reading. My strategy on plane journeys is to get something new and exciting, plus something I've read before and know I'll like in case the new and exciting one turns out to be terrible). Things didn't go entirely to plan. I'd forgotten to write my brother's new address on the envelope and couldn't remember what it was, so when the train got into St Pancras I tried emailing him and phoning my grandma to find it out, but got no reply in either case. I ended up carrying the letter around with me all weekend, and just posted it today.

I took the tube from St Pancras to Heathrow, and I'd forgotten how long it takes. My vague calculations had told me that I'd get there in plenty of time for the suggested two hours before takeoff (I get paranoid about missing planes, I think I've mentioned that before, so I always like to get there very early. Besides, I like hanging around departure lounges), but in fact by the time I got there there was only a bit over an hour's leeway! Still, I only had carry-on luggage, so check-in wasn't a problem. I used the machine and it presented me with an interesting option. Upgrade to business class for £330? What the heck, I thought, and decided on a whim to do it.

I hate having money to waste on things like this. My new job pays me frankly much more than I want or need. So I felt guilty all through the flight, thinking of all the people in the world who could really have benefitted from that £330, if I hadn't wasted it on an imperceptibly more comfortable seat, lots of legroom and complimentary cocktails if I'd wanted them (I don't drink when I'm on my own, so I didn't). Still, the legroom was nice. I'm five foot eight and I feel cramped in economy class, so I dread to think what it must be like for big people.

The guy sitting next to me wore sunglasses throughout the journey, even though it was quite gloomy in the cabin. He spent his time making notes about a treatment for a movie, and flirting with the stewardesses, but my worries that he'd be the type to talk to me (I hate being trapped for long periods next to a sociable person) were unfounded - talking with men didn't seem to interest him at all. The other passengers in business class seemed to mostly consist of business types. A couple of men wearing suits and ties and tapping on laptops, and that was it, there were plenty of empty seats. I was trying not to mentally criticise them for being pretentious, since I'm obviously the kind of person to waste money on seat upgrades myself. It was nice to avoid all the queueing at security, boarding and getting off the plane, though.

The journey was not one of those that went quickly. I hadn't had time to buy a new book, the movies were all awful, bland, American family entertainment and the Disney channel was just showing American teen comedy rather than cartoons. Thinking this to myself, I realised that I only use the adjective 'American' to describe the things I don't like, and resolved to make a real effort not to do that in future, especially while I was a guest in the country. The audio entertainment was good, though - there was a sixties station and a seventies one, both of them with a great range of songs from their respective decades. But I was still sufficiently bored that I had to pass the time with a bit of memory training, something I don't like doing in public with people wandering around. Nobody asked me what the heck I was doing, which I was sort of hoping for.

Anyway, we finally arrived at JFK airport. The immigration guy was a very friendly sixty-something man who was making jokes with everyone whose forms he was stamping and fingers he was scanning with those scary devices. I still decided not to risk making jokes back, just in case, and got admitted into the country without any difficulty. I bought a book to read while I was there - 'Black House' by Stephen King and Peter Straub. You can't normally go wrong with Stephen King, and I did like 'The Talisman', their previous collaboration, but I haven't really got into this one. My tourist schedule didn't leave me much time for reading, and I've still only read the first couple of paragraphs.

Public transport turned out to be surprisingly easy, I got to Penn Station in the heart of the Big Apple in no time and without any fuss. I was marvelling at all the cool buildings I saw in the suburbs from the train on the way. There's always something fascinating about foreign architecture, I love those wooden houses they have in American, and even the brick ones were somehow distinctly different from the ones you see in Britain. And the skyscrapers! Woo! I absolutely adore big shiny buildings, and New York is (unsurprisingly enough) absolutely packed with them!

The walk from the station to the hotel was also very easy. The numbered streets really do help you find your way from A to B. The Carlton hotel on 29th and Madison (I got really into the habit of giving US-style street addresses) turned out to look much posher than I'd expected considering it was fairly cheap. The room up on the 9th floor was very nice, but I just dumped my bags and went out to look around. I'd deliberately not arranged to meet anyone on the Thursday night so that I could wander the city in the dark and go to bed when I got tired, and that's just what I did. Lots of shiny lights and exciting city streets, it was great! Ate in McDonald's, which is perfectly acceptable because it counts as sampling the local cuisine.

Anyway, the really interesting things happened over the next couple of days, which I'll fill you all in about tomorrow. I went to bed as late as I could manage, which turned out to be about 9pm, local time.

I Heart New York

I'm back! And it's true, I heart that city to little bits. I was sort of planning to find an internet cafe while I was there and blog about how great it was, but I decided I'd rather spend the time actually seeing the sights rather than writing about them. But now I'm home and have just had a lengthy afternoon nap to try and make up for the missed sleep (overnight plane journeys are a killer), I'm going to share my thoughts with the world. Instead of sticking to my usual format of one entry per night, I'll do a separate post for each day's adventures, some time between now and tomorrow evening - I've got tomorrow off work to recover, and I think I'll need it.