Saturday, May 10, 2008

Doctor Doctor

Let's talk about Doctor Who again. Well, I haven't done anything else today, so we might as well. And what with last weekend's excitement, I only got to watch last Saturday's episode yesterday, so I've had two in two days and I thought I'd share my thoughts on them.

"The Poison Sky", the second part of the Sontaran story, was a real rip-roaring, thrilling episode, with no end of action and entertainment. I looked at the clock half an hour in to it and thought "Cripes, we've had at least two movies' worth of things happening so far and it doesn't even feel rushed!" Great writing, and mostly great acting too. It's always fun to see Rupert Holliday Evans, and I hope he shows up again, he works well with the Doctor.

It was also a very good episode for a New Doctor Who Drinking Game - it ticked all the boxes for the plot cliches that keep on showing up. We had modern technology in the form of GPS systems and cars turning against humans; the entire world coming under attack at once with maps displaying affected areas and British and American news reporters commenting on it; the companion's mother being at odds with the Doctor's approach to solving the problem; the Doctor being briefly separated from the Tardis and lamenting that he was going to have to live like a normal person now; a whiny American genius bad guy... but despite all this, it was fantastically fun to watch. The Sontarans were great, so were Martha and Donna and the Doctor, and the plot made some kind of sense too. Only the final resolution was a bit flawed - okay, hindsight is always 20-20, but I bet the Sontarans were really kicking themselves about the way they didn't bother to go after Rattigan and kill him, even though they knew he had a device that could thwart all their plans.

Some really great moments from the Doctor ("People with guns are usually the bad guys"), and I hope we're going to see the Sontarans and UNIT again.

Tonight's episode, "The Doctor's Daughter", on the other hand, I think suffered from being a single episode. It had the kind of plot that would have worked spread over four 25-minute episodes, using as it did the old sci-fi cliche of a war between two factions that's been going on so long nobody remembers how it started (with a nice and very Doctor Who twist that I genuinely didn't see coming). It would have gone down very nicely in the Tom Baker era, and not just because of the similarities to "The Face Of Evil", but it felt like the pacing had been compromised to fit all the action into 35 minutes (with the final ten minutes being a lengthy epilogue). It felt rushed and disjointed, although it did avoid clunky exposition in setting the scene nicely.

I take issue with a couple of details of this society of people bred for the sole purpose of fighting the war and discovering the holy grail they've been searching for all their lives - firstly, having decided that the Doctor and Donna are threats to their society and of no genetic use to them, why do they lock them in a cell rather than just killing them? And why, having discovered the map to the thing their entire lives revolve around finding, do they decide to go to bed and set out to find it in the morning? I mean, I know a good night's sleep is important, but I'm surprised at the patience they're showing here.

Still, it was a good story, introduced an interesting character (although the silly handsprings-through-the-lasers bit is so not what Doctor Who is all about), making intelligent use of sci-fi staples (great costumes on the Hath too). It was just a bit bland and ordinary.

Still, I'm loving new Doctor Who, even half way through the fourth series. David Tennant needs to stay in the role for the rest of time. Best Doctor ever.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Nobody wants to play with me

Okay, so the situation for the Derby championship is like this. There will be certainly one, possibly two, TV crews filming the event, half a dozen competent arbiters, nice scenic location, admirable organisation of the whole weekend... and, if we're lucky, three competitors.

This is not a good thing, all in all. The whole thing is going to look a bit silly. 66.7% sillier than the UK championship last year, assuming that silliness is inversely proportionate to the number of competitors who turn up for an event. Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted that Gaby is coming from Germany and Dagfinn from Norway, just to take part in the championship, but I would be more delighted if the entire population of Britain didn't have better things to do that weekend. Or if the entire population of Derby wasn't happy to point me out on the street (even the Big Issue salesman in the city centre) but reluctant to try their collective hand at memorising a few numbers.

Okay, we might also have the likes of Nikita from possibly Russia or possibly Stoke-on-Trent, I've never asked, and other-Ben from down south somewhere and Nico from London-I-think-but-I'd-have-to-check-up-on-that and make a half-respectable turnout, but I'm still very worried that I'm going to end up looking extremely silly here.

There's a £100 top prize, remember, people - and I'm not eligible to win it, so you have a decent chance of covering your expenses if you want to come along. But I'm seriously considering taking a full census of exactly who's coming, and if the silliness level is below UK Championship 2007 levels (possibly using a more sophisticated assessment method involving world rankings), I might cancel the event while it's possible to escape with some dignity and my deposit for the room.

Please come to the Derby Memory Championship! Or give me a good excuse why you can't!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Mapped into abstraction

I'm embarking on a campaign of getting to grips with abstract images. The memory competition discipline, you know, I'm not turning into a modern artist. Although that would be cool.

No, what I'm doing is finally putting aside my dislike of the whole event and trying to work out a good system. So I'm going through the quite tedious process of identifying all the different background patterns - I think there are about a hundred of them, although I've never examined them in detail - and associating each one with one of my images. Then I think I'm going to memorise the images by reading them DOWN the columns, rather than across the rows. I don't know if that'll work, but in theory it should make recall easier, because I'll be able to pick one of five options for each image at each point on the journey. I might be able to just go through all the images once, and if that does turn out to be possible, 250 images in 15 minutes should be very easy.

I wonder if that's the system Gunther uses? I'm still going to call it the Ben-Images-System anyway, if it works. BIS for short. Like the extremely cool pop group.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The cake is a lie

As you know (or as you would know if you'd memorised every detail of my life like I expect you to), I disapprove of basically every new computer game developed in the last fifteen years or so. Consequently, I'm a little out of touch with what modern games are like. However, someone made a passing reference to the game "Portal" today, which intrigued me enough to look it up. And, well, I've seen unanimously raving reviews, lots of screenshots and youtube clips, no end of buzz about it, and now I really, really want this game! Enough to abandon my long-held belief that video games reached perfection with the Sega Mega Drive. So, before I spend a lot of money that I really can't afford on a game that the most enthusiastic reviews concede will only take about five hours to complete, I thought I'd ask my loyal blog-readers if you've played it, and if it really is as clever, funny and entertaining as the masses of internet people make it sound?

It really seems worth the £15 it costs in HMV just for that brilliant song at the end...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Non-interview-related post

As I might have mentioned once or twice before, I'm not going to say anything at all about the job interview I went to today, in case I accidentally say something that would prejudice my chance of getting the job. But please keep your fingers crossed for this one, because I still hope I get it.

Instead, let me announce that before going to the interview (it was a late afternoon one) I did a half-hour binary practice in the morning and a half-hour numbers in the afternoon, and despite the fact that my brain was working significantly slower than usual - I didn't quite get to the end of my sixth journey in binary, and I normally come close to completing seven in 30 minutes - I ended up with pretty accurate recall and scores of 3715 and 1222. The latter would be a world record (just barely) if I did it in competition, and the 3715 would be an entirely acceptable and almost certainly winning score in any championship. I'm happy with myself for being able to keep the mental concentration going for two 90-minute sessions, and hopefully I can expand further on that and get really up to peak performance by the time the German championship comes round. I'd really like to win that one this year.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Well, I managed to get home, laden with my big heavy rucksack and four bags of miscellaneous othello-related equipment, without losing anything that doesn't belong to me, my hat or my only posession of any monetary value (my laptop), but (and brace yourself for a tale of tragedy here) somewhere along the way the rucksack or the bags slung over my shoulders must have knocked the Blue Peter badge off my lapel! I'm afraid it's really lost and gone forever this time.

I'm going to buy another one on eBay.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

CMC '08

That's Cambridge Memory Championship 2008. I don't think anyone's ever called it the CMC before, but I think we should start. Anyway, the day was fun. I got to Trinity College a bit before our optimistically scheduled starting time of 9:00, carrying two tons of memorisation and recall sheets, packs of cards and timers in my big rucksack, plus Adelaide's handmade "The MSO Is Nigh" sign to wave around at anyone who looked like they might be looking for the MSO. It even worked, luring in all our newcomers to the memory competition world (and there were four of them, too) while we waited outside for Imre to bring the keys to the room. We got into the room just fine, which is more than can be said for the go players in the Junior Parlour, since the stratego players yesterday hadn't returned the key. Everything was sorted out in the end, I gather.

Our room, on the other hand, was one of the Wolfson seminar rooms, nicely away from the street in the middle of the campus, and which I thought would be an ideal, quiet location. It nearly was, with just a few minor exceptions, the major one being the lift just outside the room which bleeps very noisily whenever it goes up or down. The room is basically an enormous glass cube - all windows, even half the floor is glass, allowing you to look down at the concrete two storeys below. Not a room for vertigo-sufferers. The room also didn't have an openable window or working air-conditioning system, so at first we decided to move over the corridor into the room allocated to the shogi players, planning to invoke the time-honoured law of first-come-first-served, but found that the electric sockets weren't working and I couldn't plug in my laptop. So we decamped back to the original room and put up with the hot, sweaty, airtight surroundings.

The seminar rooms are oddly positioned on the second floor of a building that otherwise serves as a hall of residence for Trinity students. There are rooms either side of the seminar rooms, kitchens, showers and toilets at the far ends, and people occasionally wandered back and forth during the day, able to look in through the entirely glass wall of the room as they passed by. The competitors didn't mind the goldfish-bowl feeling, except possibly when a young man wearing nothing but a towel strolled by in the middle of one event. There were only occasional noisy distractions, such as when another pair of students dragged a double bass and cello over to the lift and tried to work out how to fit them both inside, with all our competitors watching.

As for the competitors, we had, as I've said, four newcomers, which is excellent. We also had two Jameses and Gaby from Germany lending the beginners the benefit of their experience. Katie Kermode, however, clearly wasn't in need of much experience - she started off with an excellent 68 in the 5-minute words, and followed it up with a new world record in 5-minute names and faces, of a pretty staggering 82! That's about the score I normally get in 15-minute names and faces... Katie also has the honour of being the first British woman to take part in a memory competition since the early days of the world memory championships. Dagfinn from Norway has the honour of being the first Norwegian to come to the Cambridge championship, which I think is something to be proud of, whereas John and Dave have the honour of joining the very select group of British memory people, and I hope to see them all again soon!

I'd planned to go to the Mitre for lunch, but it turned out not to be open when we got there a bit before twelve (the schedule for Cambridge calls for an early lunch, working on the assumption that there will be major delays. Today, there weren't), so we went into the pub next door, which has a strange name like the Duke of Beef, or something along those lines, I can't really remember. The food was very nice, unless you ordered the Kentucky Burger like James Kemp did and expected a chicken burger like the menu promised. Due to a confusion in the kitchens, he got a fish burger with salsa and the usual chicken-accompaniments. He still ate it.

For the spoken numbers, we took drastic precautions - Jenny went and stood in the lift, holding the doors open, to stop it beeping in the middle of the recitation, and Phil and Rosie took up positions down the corridor to try to head off any noisy or nude students who might be heading our way. We just about managed an acceptable background noise level.

Gaby won in the end, with a just-over-one-minute speed cards to finish off with. I also had a go at the speed cards, joining in on the second trial, but got distracted by some noise right at the start, could only manage 34 seconds and got the recall mixed up. But Gaby's 3963 points bumps her up to 32nd on the rating list, knocking James Ponder down a place, which will serve him right for not being able to come today. James Paterson's third-place score, contrary to what he was saying this evening afterwards, does move him up a place or two too.

Thanks to Science House, our kind sponsor, there was prize money for Gaby and Katie, which is always nice for morale-boosting among competitors. I dutifully plugged the website to all the competitors, or at least I suggested that they check out ", or is it Just type 'science house' into google and you'll probably find it". During the course of the day I also discovered that I am completely unable to say "seventh place" without it coming out as "seventh plathe".

After the competition we escaped the glass cube and fled back to the pub, where Gaby gave me a wonderful gift of a German Hagar the Horrible comic and Jenny introduced me to raspberry gin fizz, which is delicious and might become my regular drink of choice from now on. And now I'm back in my hotel and have to lug all my cards and timers, plus all the BOF's othello boards and clocks, back to Derby in preparation for the competitions there in the coming month. It keeps me fit, probably.