Saturday, July 19, 2008


Potatoes, which also have a Latin name, are made in factories in the West Country, by a secret recipe which involves beetles. They have been a popular accompaniment to many meals since being reclassified as a vegetable (as opposed to a vehicle) in 1932. Unsubstantiated rumours have it that many celebrities eat potatoes, among them Dennis Waterman, John Travolta and Dutch international hockey player Wouter Jolie.

There are three different ways to cook potatoes - baked, grilled or eaten raw. True connoisseurs of potato-eating believe that washing them beforehand spoils the taste, and indeed often pour handfuls of dirt, mud and worms over the vegetables before cooking and eating them. Baked beans can be eaten with potatoes, but broad beans can not, due to a law passed by Margaret Thatcher's government in 1987 aimed at preventing "unwholesome eating practices".

When not being eaten, potatoes can be used as paperweights, doorstops, tennis balls, DVDs (when sliced to the correct width) and antelopes. Some cheeky bus drivers have been known to take a crafty day off work by dressing a large potato in hat and tie and having it drive their buses for them. A poll of Austrian socialist early-20th-century aeroplane enthusiasts in 2003 listed potatoes as their third favourite thing, after vacuum cleaners and Pakistan. Early-20th-century aeroplanes were ranked a disappointing 27th.

The legends associating Sir Walter Ralegh with potatoes are entirely false - he in fact invented the tomato and the geranium, and sometimes wore a hat that looked somewhat potato-like, but the potato was in fact invented by Rotisserie Vasquez, by accident, in 1657 while he was preparing for the World Memory Championship. Vasquez remained unaware all his life that he had invented the potato, noting in his diary that "my basement is full of strange brown things these days" shortly before his death in 1660.

A new kind of "space potato", launched in 1983, is expected to land on Jupiter in August 2010.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Luxury apartment or stonking great house?

Luckily, all the people who failed to advertise Beeston flats in the paper a couple of days ago have all decided to start putting properties up for rent now. There's a staggeringly expensive "luxury apartment", a slightly cheaper three-bedroomed terraced house, and a reasonably-priced nice-sounding one-bedroom flat in a very handy location. I'm going to see the latter tomorrow, although I'm a little tempted by the luxury apartment. I mean, I quite like the idea of living a life of luxury, and hey, I've got a new job and haven't been fired after my first week, I can pay more than twice my current rent for a really nice place, right?

Nah, I'd become fat and decadent. I'll just go for the non-expensive and doubtless very pleasant one. I hope it's not secretly luxurious too.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ah, the fun of talking memory with people who are more or less interested in the subject

Today was quite fun. I forgot to ask whether the gathering at the Tamworth Travelodge was officially called a seminar or a convention or a get-together or what, but whatever it was that I was speaking at, it seemed to go down well. People were left with the impression that I know something about memory [or, if you want to look at it a less self-centred way, people were given some useful tips for how to teach schoolchildren to use their brains] and I had the fun of making up a way to remember the workings of the body's circulatory system, which included a digression about how Fat Andy went to the school where Philip Pullman was a teacher.

I had also prepared a snazzy way of remembering that speed equals distance divided by time, which involved Speedy Gonzales and Daffy Duck, but didn't have the time to show it off. Which is a shame, really, because it was cool. Ah well, I'll save it for the next time I'm talking to teachers. I'm sure it'll happen again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Subtle advertising

In your latest British Othello Newsletter, when you're reading my article on how to win tournaments, cross out the words "during lunch" in the London section and add "before each round", please. That was what I'd intended to write, but I seem to have forgotten it when I sat down to type it up, ending up with outlining a strategy that works perfectly well at every tournament rather than a Bath House-specific one. This occurred to me late one night in bed, a couple of days after I'd sent the article to Adelaide, but I decided it probably wasn't worth emailing her and asking her to stop the presses and change it, especially considering I missed the deadline for submitting it in the first place.

What, you're not a member of the BOF? Well, go and join, right now! £6 a year and you get to read the entertaining newsletter articles of me and others, you get to come to tournaments on a regular basis and hang out with a lot of very nice and entertaining weirdos, and an ability to play othello isn't essential. It's easy to learn, and I'm sure you'll like it. Go on, join the club, even if you're reading this blog in the hope that I'll talk about memory stuff for a change.

Anyway, I've got the day off work tomorrow. Kind of bad form to take a holiday on your fourth day in a new job, but I'd arranged long ago, while I was unemployed and thought I'd probably need the money, to be a guest speaker at the annual convention (or something along those lines) of Maximize Your Potential, up in Tamworth. Not the kind of thing I normally agree to do, I know, but it might turn out to be fun.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The commuter's lament

I'm working in Beeston now, I don't think I mentioned that, which means travelling there by train. Which isn't so bad, but tonight the train was cancelled for no adequately explained reason, so I got the bus instead, which takes longer, and the whole thing cut into my sitting-around-at-home-doing-nothing-of-importance time. I bought a local paper while I was in town to see if there are any nice flats to rent in the town, but it seems there aren't any, nice or otherwise, within a ten-mile radius. I did walk past a four-bedroomed house for rent, but I thought that would probably be a bit excessive.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hello, I'm the new Jeremy

It's fun being the new bug in an office. You know you've settled in when people stop introducing you as the replacement for your predecessor, but until then you remain a semi-anonymous New Jeremy. In my time I've been a new Kevin, a new Phil, a new Dave and a new Natasha - jokes about that one lasted the longest; it varies proportionately to the physical differences between you and the person who did your job before. One of these days, maybe I'll be the new Ben. That'll keep an office full of people rolling in the aisles for weeks!

Office workers are easily amused, as a rule.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

In which I postulate a mediaeval memoriser

You know what there isn't enough of in blogs these days? Poorly-researched theories about 14th-century poetry, that's what.

I'd like to rectify that with a summary of my opinions about the two different prologues of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Legend of Good Women". The Legend is a collection of lengthy accounts of the lives of great women of ancient times, in rhyming couplets, and it's not Chaucer's greatest work. It probably went down better among his circle of poetic friends in the 1390s who wanted to see a new English-language summary of the story of Hypsipyle or Ariadne or Hypermnestra than it does with the casual reader today. The problem with the exercise is that all the great women of ancient legend did nothing of interest - they either nobly refrained from having it off with other men while their husband went out and had adventures, or killed themself because their lover cheated on them. It gets a bit repetitive when you put them all together.

The only bit really worth reading is the Prologue, in which the God of Love takes Chaucer to task for his past translations of antifeminist writings and orders him to make amends by writing about all these Good Women. It's got some funny bits, some beautiful poetry of the kind that only Chaucer could do with an ugly language like Middle English and, to the puzzlement of literary critics of the past six hundred years, it comes in two distinct versions.

The two versions of the Prologue are known as the F version and the G version - the F appears in all but one of the surviving manuscripts (Chaucer lived before the invention of the printing press, when books were all hand-written and thus a lot more scarce. All the surviving manuscripts of the Legend are clearly copies of copies, dating from the 15th century, and none of them is exactly the same), and the G version exists in only one manuscript, MS Gg 4.27.

As an aside, I really feel sorry for old Gg 4.27 (Gg to its friends). It's a really important manuscript - dating from no more than twenty years after Chaucer's death, it was the first known attempt to combine all his works into one volume. It's hugely significant to Chaucerian students, and yet unlike the Fairfax manuscript (after which the F prologue is named), or the Ellesmere, the Hengwrt or dozens of other snappily-named documents, Gg hasn't got a real name, and we just have to know it by the code it was given by the Cambridge University Library.

Anyway, the G prologue is found only in Gg, which is the earliest of the eight manuscripts that contain the prologue, and critical opinion until the 20th century held that G was the original draft, and F was Chaucer's revised version. Victorian editor the Rev Walter Skeat said in his edition that he wasn't aware that anyone had ever suggested otherwise (which probably means that someone had and Skeat wanted to deride their theory in a public forum - Skeat was a very cool guy who thought nothing of describing other editors' editions as "worthless" and much of the subsequent work on Chaucer seems to have mainly been aimed at getting back at Skeat for his opinions). But since then, there has been a lot of writing on the subject arguing that G was the revision, done some years later. A hundred years of heated debate of the kind only academics are capable of and the question is still up in the air.

It's a tricky question, and my theory on the subject is that everybody's wrong. I reckon that the G prologue is nothing to do with Chaucer at all - he wrote the F version, and G came about by virtue of a manuscript being produced by memorial transmission. It looks to me like the scribe of an ancestor of the Gg manuscript had access to the text of the legends, but his exemplar for the Prologue had been reconstructed from memory. I've been known to memorise poetry myself - not many people do this in these modern times when you can record a poem in millions of different technological ways, and modern editors tend not to believe that such a thing was ever possible - and I can see the signs of a not-quite-perfect recall.

The main differences between F and G are rearrangement of various passages, changes to a word here and there, and some pieces omitted in one or the other - most of these appear in F but not in G.

The rearrangements are an easy mistake to make when you're trying to memorise a long text. You remember individual sections, but forget exactly what order they came in. The story does seem to flow better with the sections in the F order - at least one of G's rearrangements seems to break a sentence in half and continue it a couple of dozen lines later.

Where words are changed, the F version is normally more poetic-sounding (lines 12-15 in F go "...Men shall not ween every thing a lie/ But if himself it seeth or else dooth;/ For, God woot, thing is never the less sooth/ Though every wight may it not see..."; in G, lines 13-14 become "For that he say it not of yore ago/ God woot a thing is never the less so..." . I suspect the G-memoriser was no poet himself, and just came up with something that fitted the meaning without thought for how it sounds when you read it out loud. Of course, a lot of differences in the G prologue are probably the fault of the Gg scribe, who was pretty rubbish, so it's hard to say.

The bits that G has and F doesn't are mainly an extra couplet here and there which doesn't add anything to the meaning, except for one lengthy digression on the subject of books. This is entirely Chaucerish in tone and relevant to the discussion at hand (although it slows down the action more than it needs to) - maybe it's from another, lost, poem of his and the memoriser mentally joined them together because they were about the same thing?

Anyway, I could go on at length about this poorly-thought-out theory, which I'm quite fond of, but I probably shouldn't stay up all night writing about it. I should probably go to sleep and wake up refreshed early tomorrow morning for my new job...