Saturday, April 07, 2012

Fantastic Dan

I'm really impressed by the way Dan Evans plays in the Davis Cup tennis for Britain. Granted, he lost yesterday, but he did play extremely well, a lot better than his lowly world ranking would suggest. Possibly he likes best-of-five-set matches better, and the lower ranked tennis players very rarely get a chance to play those.

Davis Cup matches only count for the world ranking if you're playing in the top level, the World Group, so his ranking would probably jump up if we managed to qualify for that. We're pretty unlikely to do so, since Britain's only good player thinks the Davis Cup is beneath him, but you never know what might happen one of these days.

Another cool thing about Dan Evans is that I saw an article on the BBC website or somewhere like that in which the writer alleges that he sometimes acts like someone who isn't sure he wants to be a professional tennis player at all. This is cool, because more than any other sport, the top players in tennis all do it because their parents decided that's what they'll do, usually before they were even born. It's really disturbing how many of the big names have spent their entire lives taking orders from their mother and father and never seem to question it. Anyone who shows a bit of independent thought now and then gets a thumbs-up from me.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The end of the new 52

Comics again! Here's a rundown of the world of modern superhero comics. Which, to be fair, nobody really buys any more, although everyone knows at least some of the heroes who feature in them. For the uninitiated, Marvel Comics publish the adventures of Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and others, while DC Comics own Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, the Justice League and their friends. DC is the publisher that produced the New 52.

As of next month, it'll be the New 46 plus six new series. DC Comics is fond of the number 52 for some reason, and although I obviously sympathise as a card-memoriser, I'm still not sure why it has to be mentioned in every publicity stunt or press release. They do release more than fifty-two comics every month - there have been various mini-series and not-part-of-the-main-DC-universe comics that brings their monthly total up to about eighty, but I'm only talking about the 52 core series that were launched last September and which reach their eighth issues in April.

The fact that each of these 52 comics has released an issue every month is actually noteworthy in itself. It's generally accepted that artists can't draw a full twenty-page comic every month any more - it's true that comic art is a lot more detailed now than it was back in the days when a good artist could churn out fifty pages or more in that time, and the standard of some of the drawings in these comics is such that you'd think a solid month or more has been spent on each page, but there's still a sense of disapproval and laziness inherent in not meeting a monthly deadline. A few years ago it had become the norm for comics drawn by the 'cool' artists to only come out once every three months or so, whenever they'd finished an issue, but that seems to have been unprofitable for the big companies. Now, DC has gone back to the old tradition of fill-in artists coming aboard for an issue or two to allow the regular artists time to catch up. By contrast, Marvel has taken the approach of rotating regular artists every three or four issues, allowing them to publish two issues a month of their biggest titles.

Jim Lee, the co-publisher of DC, is apparently allowed more leeway in this 'publish or perish' philosophy than a normal artist; the fifth issue of Justice League was a week late, and then the sixth issue was two weeks behind. Everything else has come out when they said it would, which makes a nice change.

Then there's the interesting idea of 'story arcs' - in the olden days, an average monthly comic would have three different stories, eight or nine pages each, in which the hero would be confronted with a problem and would solve it in short order, having time for a chat with his girlfriend who doesn't know he has a secret identity along the way. Now whether it's that all the stories have been done before or that modern writers just don't have that much imagination, a single story runs over several issues. There was a time, again, a couple of years ago, when every single story arc was six issues, the right size to fit in a paperback collection, but DC have varied that a bit with the New 52, obviously realising that it wasn't a good policy to have all the stories end with #6 and provide readers with a perfect moment to stop reading. Even so, some of the ideas in these comics seem to be stretched out a lot thinner than is good for them in order to fit a pre-defined number of pages.

Speaking of pages, DC have decided that the standard number of pages in a comic should be twenty. There hasn't really been an official page count before this, but around 22 was normal for most comics. While the first issues of the New 52 sometimes exceeded the twenty pages, after that they've almost all stuck to that total quite rigidly - comics are made up of 36 pages including the cover, which leaves sixteen spare for adverts, but paid ads don't normally cover more than half the available pages, leaving room for DC to advertise their own products on what's left over.

As for price, DC have coined the soundbite "holding the line at $2.99", which is a bit silly, really, when you consider that not too long ago the standard price for a superhero comic was $2.25 or $2.50. And of course four of the New 52 are in fact $3.99 - your extra dollar gets you an extra eight pages of "content", which is sometimes an extra mini-story, but sometimes filled in with artists' sketches or some hastily-written and widely-spaced text. Detective Comics and Batman have also increased to $3.99 from this month; DC kept an impressively straight face while insisting that it's entirely 'for story reasons' that their two best-selling three-dollar comics are going to cost more in future. Still, DC still have rather more three-dollar comics than Marvel, who sell most of theirs for $3.99 now, and that's the point they're trying to make.

So here's a brief and entirely subjective look back on the comics from the first week of the month - four cancelled comics and nine selling well enough that they're almost certainly going to be around for the foreseeable future:

Action Comics

Brief summary: Superman's early days as a superhero.

Gripes: The fourth issue ends with an announcement that the story will be continued in #7; the two issues in between are an entirely different story, which isn't as good. The back-up strips (which fit between pages of the main story but are printed at the end as if to tell everyone that they can be safely ignored if you want) are pretty obviously just churned out and stuck in there to justify the higher price.

Good bits: The story is very nice, taking the original idea of Superman as some sort of defender of the downtrodden masses and mixing in the modern concept that he can be in some kind of physical danger and even meet someone stronger than him. However, he still resolves the situation by essentially punching the bad guy very hard, which is a bit of a let-down.

Should you start reading it? It's more aimed at people who are familiar with Superman comics (rather than films or TV shows) of the past, but I think there's something there for everyone. It's certainly entertaining stuff that's worth a look.

Animal Man

Brief summary: Animal Man's young daughter manifests extremely scary powers, and the family are drawn into a nightmarish world.

Gripes: The artist (Travel Foreman) can draw scary monsters extraordinarily well (the imagination and sheer horror of this comic is in a league of its own) but can't draw real people, so the contrast isn't what it should be. More seriously, he seems to have had personal problems preventing him from drawing more than a couple of pages of several issues, leading to the story grinding to a halt and several months of the family basically just driving around saying they really ought to find Swamp Thing and talk about stuff. One issue consists entirely of a film in which Buddy Baker (Animal Man) once starred. Foreman has announced that he's not comfortable with drawing scary monsters any more and has been re-assigned to Birds of Prey for the future, which doesn't suit his style at all.

Good bits: As mentioned above, some seriously awesome aberrations of nature appear in the comic. The story, with a married hero accompanied by his normal wife and son as well as his scary daughter, is something different and cool (the prevailing wisdom is that married superheroes don't work, so the big companies have undone pretty much every marriage in modern comics). Animal Man himself is also a much more likeable character than most heroes.

Should you start reading it? It's hard to recommend a comic that seems to have been marking time and doing nothing for such a long time, but the likelihood is that it'll kick back into gear in the near future, and might be fun. Wait until after the upcoming crossover with Swamp Thing is done with, and then see what happens.


Brief summary: Batman franchises his image to a Congolese policeman, who becomes the Batman of Africa. But someone's killing off the previous generation of superheroes.

Gripes: Ben Oliver's artwork, which graces five of the first six issues, is abominable and makes it very difficult to see what's supposed to be happening in the story. The writing is also surprisingly inept in the revelation of Massacre's secret identity - when the hero repeatedly asserts that he's almost certain it's one person, that leads the reader to assume it's not, and that by a process of elimination it must be the only other possible suspect. And sure enough, it is.

Good bits: The story itself is quite good, if a bit on the thin side.

Should you start reading it? Not really. It's okay, but there's nothing really special about the story other than that it's set in Africa - and a very generic American view of what Africa is like, at that. Not a bad comic by any stretch of the imagination, but there are better ones out there.

Detective Comics

Brief summary: Batman fights the bad guys.

Gripes: The series was apparently written with the intention that it would chronicle Batman's early days like Action Comics does for Superman, but then at a late stage the dialogue was changed to make it contemporary with the rest of the DC Universe. The alteration is really obvious and jarring. #8 justifies its increased price with an almost completely incomprehensible back-up story about the origins of Two-Face.

Good bits: Nice artwork, and an entertaining storyline, particularly the part involving the Penguin. It's conventional superhero comic drama, but done extremely well.

Should you start reading it? If you're relatively new to comics and want to see what Batman's up to, this is the one to get. It's always going to be fun and readable.

Green Arrow

Brief summary: The arrow-wielding hero tries to juggle his business life, his superhero activities and his womanising.

Gripes: In its eight issues, the comic has gone through three different writers, with a striking change of tone every time. The only consistency in the way the character's written is that he remains an annoying jerk throughout.

Good bits: It's quite hard to find any good bits here - the first story has some interesting villains, killing people in order to make popular YouTube videos and thus look cool.

Should you start reading it? I would have to say no. There are worse comics out there, but there are plenty of better ones too.

Hawk and Dove

Brief summary: The chalk-and-cheese heroes try to save the world.

Gripes: The writer was sacked by editors apparently looking for a change of direction, meaning that the Condor story was very abruptly ended, following which the series was almost immediately cancelled. The last few issues, written by artist Rob Liefeld, seem to be just filling pages until the series ends.

Good bits: There's some nice art and some fun banter between the two characters, but it never quite clicks like it should.

Should you start reading it? It's finished now - the previous issues are certainly readable, but maybe not enough to justify the price of buying the paperback (the first storylines of all the New 52 are coming out in collected form over the next eight months - this includes the full eight-issue runs of the six cancelled comics).

Justice League International

Brief summary: The UN decides to create its own controllable and public superhero team.

Gripes: The opening storyline stresses that there are lots of other heroes in the world, but then when a world-threatening emergency arises (with lots and lots of time for people to stand around discussing what to do about it) everyone acts as if these nine characters are the only heroes out there. It's often necessary to ignore the shared-universe concept for story reasons, but competent writers don't shove it in the readers' faces like this. There's no attempt to reconcile the appearances of Batman and Guy Gardner with their roles in other comics.

Good bits: Excellent artwork, and some likeable characters who interact in interesting ways. The central character, Booster Gold, is particularly well written.

Should you start reading it? Yes, I think you should. It's good stuff, although it's one of those series that works better in isolation, unlike most of the rest of the New 52 which has the exactly right amount of interaction between different comics.

Men Of War

Brief summary: An anthology of various war stories.

Gripes: The main story for the first six issues is just about the worst comic story ever written and drawn, which can't make up its mind whether it's a realistic war series or a weird superhero comic and shifts wildly back and forth between them. The backup stories are mostly throwaway silliness or just plain bad. The last two issues are just filling pages of a cancelled comic - #8 is a story about Frankenstein in World War 2, written by Frankenstein's regular writer, which will look rather out of place in the collected edition of Men of War.

Good bits: I honestly can't think of any. Even the Frankenstein story isn't that good.

Should you start reading it? It's been cancelled, but it'll be replaced by what seems to be the exact same comic with a different title, G.I. Combat. I certainly wouldn't recommend that.


Brief summary: The hapless Kevin Kho is turned into a giant monster under the control of Brother Eye.

Gripes: There's no real connection between the sequences in which Kevin is OMAC and the sequences in which he's Kevin - he doesn't have any control over the monster at all, so we just repeatedly switch between the fighting plotlines and the plot of Kevin trying to live a normal life.

Good bits: Really great over-the-top artwork and a really fun plotline which indulges in all the inherent silliness of the idea.

Should you start reading it? It's been cancelled, but it'll probably be worth buying the paperback edition and seeing the insanity for yourself.

Red Lanterns

Brief summary: The rage-fuelled equivalent of the Green Lanterns indulge in a lot of rage.

Gripes: Bleez features quite frequently on websites deriding the way women are drawn in comics (I recommend Less Tits n' Ass, More Kickin' Ass and Escher Girls), and with good cause. The second issue is a fill-in with no mention of the subplots introduced in the first issue. These subplots take a very long time to develop into nothing in particular.

Good bits: Bleez aside, the artwork is excellent, with a lot of extremely interesting-looking characters and some great, detailed scenes. The story explaining the origins of two of the lesser Red Lanterns characters is extremely good.

Should you start reading it? There's not much of a story here, so unless you buy a comic just for the artwork (or for Bleez's ability to display her bum in every picture), you should probably skip this one. Alternatively, if you want undemanding action, this might be the one for you.

Static Shock

Brief summary: Teenage hero Static faces all kinds of problems, including his sister being split into two people.

Gripes: Original writer John Rozum quit after five issues, very publicly announcing that he didn't actually get to write anything, and all his ideas and dialogue were rejected by artist Scott McDaniel, with the support of editor Harvey Richards. New writer Marc Bernadin's contribution to #7 and #8 seems to consist of a bizarre introductory caption asserting that Static has been changed by past events and 'in many ways Virgil Hawkins ceased to exist', which is wildly at odds with what actually appears in the comics. The final issue takes the strange decision to recap his origin at length.

Good bits: A lot of fun superhero action, and a very likeable central character always made this a very readable comic. I seem to be in the minority there, but I've liked this series a lot.

Should you start reading it? Cancelled. Static is now going to join the already rather large cast of Teen Titans - there's no logical in-story reason why he hasn't been a member right from the start, it's one of those things the writers have had to just ignore while he had his own comic, so there won't be any problem fitting him into the story. The collected edition of his solo series is certainly worth a look.


Brief summary: The Stormwatch team defend the Earth from all kinds of terrible things, with little hiccups along the way like various team members trying to kill others and so forth.

Gripes: Writer Paul Cornell quit for some reason after #6 - he's still writing Demon Knights, which isn't anywhere near as good - following which Paul Jenkins fills in for two issues, but for the future it's going to be taken over by Peter Milligan, who I'm not a fan of. I can't really complain about anything in the first eight issues, though.

Good bits: There are some brilliant characters in here - the team's leader, Adam, has been alive since the universe was created, but isn't actually a particularly good leader. Jack is the God of Cities, Jenny represents the 21st Century, Harry is the Prince of Lies but everyone thinks he's on the team because of his amazing sword-fighting skills. The members with more boring super-powers are also given distinctive personalities by the writers, and the things they get up to are original and brilliant. Miguel Sepulveda's work on most of the first eight issues is brilliant, Ignacio Calero's art on the others is less so but still good stuff. Apparently Sepulveda returns for #9 and then Calero seems to be the permanent artist from #10, so the comic's going to stay readable.

Should you start reading it? This is probably a bad time to start reading - with a comic like this, it all depends on whether the writer can do interesting things with the characters, and although the first two writers certainly achieve that, it remains to be seen whether Milligan will do the same. It's a comic that might well change from great to terrible in a heartbeat. Buy the collected edition and you certainly won't regret it - ask me in a couple of months about the later stories.

Swamp Thing

Brief summary: Alec Holland eventually becomes the Swamp Thing again and fights the powers of the Rot.

Gripes: Nothing really interesting seems to happen during the whole eight issue series so far. I've read it, but I only have the vaguest memories of the storylines, and I'm not really inclined to go back and read it again. The Swamp Thing himself doesn't really show up until the eighth issue.

Good bits: I can't really think of any, which seems unfair, because it's not a dreadfully bad comic like Men of War. It's just forgettable and bland.

Should you start reading it? Actually, it seems to be popular with just about everyone who isn't me, so maybe you should. I personally would say no, though.

The four cancelled comics are replaced on the May schedule by "Dial H" (man with magic dial that turns him into a hero, apparently dealt with in a dark and gritty way), "Earth Two" (alternate universe shenanigans), "G.I. Combat" (I can't see how this differs in any way from Men Of War) and "Worlds' Finest" (more alternate universe shenanigans).

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Mental competitions!

I've just had an email from the Mental Calculation World Cup, so this seems like a good time to summarise everything that's happening in the mental world of mental skills competitions this year...

- Please help to circulate this call for registrations -
Mental calculators from all over the world are invited to the 5th Mental Calculation World Cup 2012!

[Apologies if you receive this e-mail more than once]

Mathematikum, a science museum in Gießen, Germany (

29 September - 1 October 2012

Contest Details:
Calculators will have to solve tasks in different categories (addition, multiplication, extracting roots, day-of-the-week calculations) and various surprise tasks.
Only strict mental calculation (no tools, no writing down of intermediate results) is allowed.

There will be several prizes and trophies for the best participants.
In particular, the MEMORIAD Association will sponsor free flights to the MEMORIAD 2012 competition in Antalya, Turkey ( for the winners in the categories addition, multiplication, square roots and calendar calculation.
(does not apply for participants who have already won a free flight in the MCWC 2010 event and for participants who are not allowed to enter MEMORIAD contests according to decisions of the MEMORIAD Association)

The registration form can be found on the MCWC website (
Please download the entry form and send it by airmail to the address given in the form.

Deadline for Registrations: 1 June 2012

More information can be found on the web site:

If you have any questions on the MCWC, please contact

I am looking forward to meet the world's best calculators in Gießen!
Ralf Laue

Is it really the fifth bi-annual competition? Wow, I suppose it must be, it started in 2004. I'm really getting old. Anyway, it's a fun competition, the Mathematikum is a great venue, and as usual I'll be going as long as I've got the money. They let me take part in it if they're weeding down applications to a maximum number because I'm a memory champion, even though I'm not all that great at mental calculations, so it'd be rude of me not to take advantage of this slight silliness.

And as Ralf mentions in that email, there's also the Memoriad - the second every-four-years competition encompassing mental calculation and memory. Long-time readers will remember I didn't go to the one in 2008 because getting out of bed after the world memory championship immediately beforehand was too difficult, but Boris, Andi and Gunther all say it was a fantastic competition. There's also lots of promises of big money and free flights and accommodation here and there. It happens on 24-25 November, in Turkey.

Making the convenient transition to memory competitions, here's what we've got planned so far:

The South German Memory Championship happens on April 21st - unlike the North German, which had an extra Open part, I think this is just for South Germans, and only a regional-standard (seven discipline) event.

The German Memory Championship moves back to its traditional summer spot in the schedule, on July 27-28, still at the very nice Experimenta in Heilbronn. Open to everyone, even if they're not German, and with translations into the language of your choice now available, I do really recommend this to everyone. As I've said many times before, this is the biggest competition with the highest standard of memorisers outside of the world championship and it's a great competition to go to. Let's have more non-Germans there this year, please!

The UK Memory Championship will happen in August, in London - details aren't finalised yet, but I'm sure they'll be coming soon. Presumably it'll be like the last couple of years, a two-day, International Standard, open-to-everyone-even-if-they're-not-British, kind of competition, exactly like the German.

The Swedish Memory Championship happens on September 29th, in what now counts as the 'usual' place (three years in a row is actually quite unusual for memory competitions) at the Gothenburg Book Fair. National standard competition, still open to everyone regardless of nationality.

The World Championship hasn't got a place or time as far as I know just yet, but I'm assured it'll be happening too. Probably late in the year, after all the above competitions.

Oh, and the Cambridge Championship? I'm getting on the case, I promise. I'm back in the mood to do something about memory competitions, I've been practicing cards for the last three days and I got below 30 seconds again today. Next step is working up to concentrating on numbers for a whole five minutes. It's an arduous process, believe me.

I notice now that the Mental Calculation World Cup takes place on the same day as the Swedish Memory Championship. That's annoying. I'll choose between them at some point in the future. That sounds like a decision that Future Zoomy will be great at making, I'll leave it up to him.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Not to be confused with Llandrover

This year's Welsh Memory Championship was in the village hall in Llanover. I find it impossible to write that name without accidentally sticking a D in there and calling it 'Llandover', which makes Google maps redirect me to Llandovery, which is a different place entirely.

I got there by the unusual but healthy method of taking my bike on the train to Abergavenny and cycling the four-mile distance to the venue. I'd sort of assumed there would be road-signs, but there weren't, so I just relied on memory and knowing I was headed in roughly the right direction. When I saw a sign saying that Upper Llanover was half a mile away, I was pleased, and headed in that direction, only to find that 'Upper' means 'On top of a mountain' (I was hoping for 'to the north, and down a hole'), and when after about a mile of steeply uphill road I came across another sign saying Upper Llanover was half a mile ahead, I turned around and free-wheeled back to the road I was originally on. The real Llanover was about a hundred yards away if I'd kept going without turning off.

Anyway, I got there at about ten past nine (the competition was due to start at nine o'clock prompt), so I wasn't all that late, and found everyone else already there. The venue was perfect for a memory competition - spacious, quiet and with a little side-room for marking papers, plus a kitchen where people made sandwiches for us to have for lunch. The only problem, like the equally awesome venue in Highley, and for that matter the smaller and less-ideal (but still very nice) nature reserve where I held my own competition last year, is that it's quite difficult to get to. A quiet village hall in the middle of a big city would be a perfect location.

We had five competitors, me, rival Welsh memory-masters James Paterson and John Burrows, Joachim Andersson all the way from Sweden and small boy Alexander (whose surname nobody mentioned to me as far as I can remember) all the way from Denmark.

All I can say about my performance is that it was very obvious I hadn't done any training since last year. I couldn't even keep my concentration going for five minutes without my mind wandering, so I had to reduce my expectations sharply. I still won, just barely, but it was very close. James won the War of the Welsh to become the Welsh Champion.

The whole competition ran perfectly smoothly with no hiccups or delays at all! And it's not often you can say that about a memory championship, so kudos again to Dai Griffiths and Phil Chambers for running everything so well!

Now that I'm back in more of a memory-competition mood, I should organise a Cambridge Championship (something I've completely neglected so far this year). But when? The German Championship is at the end of July and the UK in August, so is there time to get one in before then?

And on a related note, would people want to come here for two days rather than one, and have some fun and different events as well as the 'real' competition?