Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Cave Of Skulls

I was in a hotel on Saturday night, so I'd probably have to pretend I missed Doctor Who. But we're only pretending it's fifty years ago, so let your mind slip back to half past five on Saturday November 30, 1963, and we'll watch the second episode of this new science-fiction series that was fun last week!

Actually, first, we get to watch the first episode again - repeated for the benefit of everyone who was distracted by John F Kennedy or power cuts last weekend. But now we get that spooky opening sequence again (since it was on twice in the repeat already tonight, we're getting very used to it by now), and then we pick up where we left off, with the TARDIS in a barren, rocky wilderness and an ominous shadow approaching it.

The shadow turns out to be a caveman, looking mystified, as well he might. Then we cut to a cave where a whole lot of cavepeople (wearing appropriate unidentifiable-animal-furs) gather around a man who's trying to start a fire. The camera focuses for quite some time on a woman with very 1960s-looking permed hair, for some reason, before panning up to an old woman who contemptously mocks the firemaker, Za - between them they deliver the appropriate exposition.

It really is gripping stuff, right from the start! The cavepeople talk in BBC English, rather than the usual grunting, but their dialogue and actions really capture a primitive mindset - Za's father knew how to make fire but didn't pass on the secret before he was killed, so now Za tries to recreate his actions by rolling a bone between his hands and glaring at a pile of twigs. The old woman thinks fire is a bad thing, because they didn't have it in her day. There's real personality here, it's great writing.

Will the outsider, Kal, replace Za as leader and get the most attractive woman, Hur? But back in the TARDIS, Barbara and Ian wake up among the knick-knacks. The Doctor and Susan are looking at the instruments and the scanner screen to see where they are. And when - although the yearometer is broken, so they're not sure on that point. The Doctor doesn't answer to "Dr Foreman", and is unhelpful to Ian's demands that he open the door. Still, he knows he's gone back in time and wants to establish the year with the aid of a few rock samples and his geiger counter.

Out they go, much to Ian's astonishment (Barbara takes it all in her stride, comparatively speaking). It's cold outside, there are unseen birds squawking off-camera, and the Doctor's most concerned by the fact that the police box is still a police box, rather than having changed shape to match their surroundings. He wanders off, followed by that caveman. Ian, Barbara and Susan investigate an animal skull, then Barbara tries to reassure Ian that they'll just have to put up with all this insanity.

The Doctor lights his pipe - an amazingly huge thing, is it a pipe of the future? But he's attacked by the caveman, and the others can only find his hat and smashed geiger counter. "He may have been taken," Ian intones. Susan, meanwhile, demonstrates that her acting range has two modes; deadpan and hysterical screaming. She finds the Doctor's precious notebook, which he'd never leave behind. As they go off to look for him, Ian notes that the sand is freezing cold. This gets a burst of dramatic music, as if it's important.

But we cut back to the cave, where cavechildren are playing, and the cave politics plays out between the adults - Kal has been boasting that he's seen people make fire and will probably learn how to do it if they make him leader ("Orb" will tell him). Za vows to make everyone follow him instead. Then in comes Kal, carrying the Doctor. Excellently, he describes the TARDIS as 'a strange tree', and praises his own bravery in approaching it when Za would have run away. The exchanges between the cavemen are just awesome.

Kal promises to get the Doctor to make fire and insists that the others acclaim him as leader - they live somewhere where tigers and bears are a problem, incidentally. The Doctor wakes up and tries to talk his way out of it by promising to make fire, but then it turns out he's lost his matches. Za takes advantage of this by denouncing Kal as a liar and getting the tribe back on his side. They display a talent for sarcasm as they laugh at him.

Then Ian, Barbara and Susan come in and stage a hopeless attempt at a rescue. The Doctor insists that there'll be no fire if they kill Ian, so Za reaches a compromise and announces that they'll be killed the next morning as a sacrifice to Orb. Meanwhile, they're imprisoned in the cave of skulls. While caveman-politics plays out between the various characters, our heroes are in a cave full of skulls, and do their best to get out of the bonds holding their wrists together. The cavemen seem to be good at knots. And also at splitting skulls open. Next episode, "The Forest Of Fear".

This was fun, although you would have expected a bit more focus on the four time-travellers. Instead, it's the cavemen who are the really interesting ones...

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Remembering the world again

I'm actually quite pleasantly surprised by how well I did at the world championship - I went into it with the intention of just getting okay scores in everything and not trying for any big results, and I achieved that quite admirably. 500 championship points in each discipline is a respectable target to aim for, and I did it in nearly everything (names and faces doesn't count, of course).

The good thing about the current schedule for the WMC is that names and faces comes first, so we can get it out of the way. One of these days, I'll work out a good way to do it, but until then a score of 53 or so will just have to do. It was close at the top of the leaderboard, though - Boris Konrad won with 106, just barely ahead of Jonas von Essen and James Paterson on 105. Boris was hugely delighted with the result, jumping up and down and celebrating (the Germans have always liked to use lofty titles like "World Champion of Names and Faces Discipline") and James was just as thrilled with his silver medal, having achieved in one stroke his aim for the whole competition.

We got the results of the names and faces at the usual time, after lunch, incidentally, despite the WMC's strict new schedule of not announcing anything until the following morning. Scores, though, were uploaded in a timely manner onto the statistics website (at those times when it wasn't broken or the wifi at the conference centre wasn't dead - as I've mentioned before, memory competitions have an amazing talent for breaking the internet) and the top ten announced with a minimum of confusion by Tony. It was still necessary to print out pieces of paper and stick them to the walls for everyone to crowd around, but that's all part of the fun of the world memory championship!

One thing we did have on the big screen was Andy Fong's timer, showing how much time was left for memory and recall, and a traffic-light graphic telling competitors when they could and couldn't leave the room during the recall period (stay in your seats in the first and last five minutes, please) - it really worked, too!

Binary digits came next, and bearing in mind the UK Championship, when I went through them at my normal speed and only got a score around 2000 (and not having done a single bit of training since then), I was extra-slow and careful, reading them once then closing my eyes and trying to make sure I remembered everything. I got through about 3700 digits in that way, and was hoping for a score a bit above 3000 (which I've always seen as the minimum 'cool' score in binary), but ended up with 2810.

Other people were rather cooler - I fondly remember the days when only Gunther and I ever scored over 3000, but this year we had a winning score of 3841 from Jonas, and three more 3000-plus results from Johannes Mallow, Ola Kåre Risa and Christian Schäfer. I think of that lot as the 'new generation' of memory, although there's a new new generation now who'll be winning championships before long. I must be getting old.

And we finished with hour numbers. I was again super-careful with this one, reading each journey three times and trying to be certain I got it fixed in my head. I spent about six minutes on each journey before moving on to the next, when my normal time to aim for is two and a half. Probably a good plan, because when I eventually moved on to the seventh journey I felt that my brain couldn't take any new information, so I gave it up half-way through and just concentrated on the 1521 digits I'd looked at. And I got a final score of 1360 (you lose 40 points for making a mistake in a row... wait, did I get that final one digit wrong, or did they forget to mark it? I want a stewards' enquiry!) Of course, 2000 is the 'cool' score nowadays, and three people surpassed that once-unthinkable level - Jonas, alarmingly good Mongolian newcomer Namuuntuul Bat-Erdene (who also beat me in binary) and Christian top-scoring with 2351. I've never ever done 2000 in a competition, even when I was top of the world.

Also on Saturday I had my first interview with the Telegraph. On the two following days I was interviewed by two more people from the same newspaper, leading me to think that they've got a serious over-staffing problem. They've got an accuracy problem as well - Tony Buzan was very keen for me to sue them for misquoting me in Sunday's article, to get memory sports that extra bit of publicity, but I don't think I really want to become the kind of person who sues newspapers. Although it might be a good way to raise some extra cash...

Day 2 started bright and early - the weather was really nice, incidentally, dry and sometimes sunny, and never particularly cold. I was staying in the Travelodge just down the road, and it's got my recommendation if you're ever visiting Croydon. And we launched straight in to the abstract images. I haven't looked at my images flashcards (bits of paper) for months, so I decided to be extra extra careful with this one, and just attempt 200. The big names do well over 400 now, and so although I got a perfect score of 200, it was way behind Jonas's 459, Johannes's 425 and Christian's 418. Those three were clearly the hot favourites after the first day - Hannes had been unwell on the Saturday afternoon and hadn't got a good score in hour numbers, but you can never rule him out.

And this was amply demonstrated in 5-minute numbers. I went for a safe 240 (which used to be my 'safe' score donkeys' years ago, before I bumped it up to a safe-ish 360) and got it right, but Johannes either threw caution to the wind or is hugely confident in his abilities (or else he's a daredevil who does the 'risky' score in the first trial and then a safe one in the second if that goes wrong) and produced a new world record 501! That proved unbeatable, even by himself in the second trial, with number-whiz Tsogbadrakh Saikhanbayar (remember him from the memoriad last year?) in second with 440, and the much-improved-all-of-a-sudden Marwin Wallonius third with 360.

Marwin is of course the second part of Team Sweden - if they add a third top-level competitor, maybe they'll be challenging Team Germany's monopoly of the team championship?

In between the two trials of speed numbers, so that the first could be scored and announced before the second, came historic dates (why did it take so many years to realise that doing it this way would save a lot of time?) I used to be awesome at historic dates even without doing any training for it, but I suppose I was benefitting from the general mindset of having practiced, because I'm not nearly as good when I'm mentally out of shape like I am at the moment. Still, a score of 72 would have been awesome in the old days, so maybe it's just that everyone else is getting better. Anyway, Johannes won what has always been one of his specialist subjects, with 116, but Jonas was close behind on 106 and Christian on 92.

And then in the afternoon it was hour cards. I'm always confident of getting a good result here, even without any training, but I played it safe and went for just 21 packs, hoping to make sure I got them all right. Despite which, to my annoyance, several of them just didn't feel quite right when I came to write them down - I ended up with a respectable 18 packs, 936 cards. Jonas was top of the tree again with 1266, followed closely by my protegé Ola with 1224. In third place was the third Mongolian to get a top-three-in-a-discipline medal, Sengesamdan Ulziikhutag, with 960.

I had been hovering alarmingly around tenth place all weekend - my stated aim being to finish in the top ten and still look like a half-way competent memoriser, it was looking worryingly like I might not even achieve that. I had to step it up a gear or two on the final day.

Along comes random words, and either they were easier than usual or my mind was in a more relaxed kind of state without the stress of being good at memorising numbers, because I breezed through 181 words without any kind of problem, head-scratching or having to mentally run through the list of every word I know to try to remember the one I've forgotten. That was the fifth-best score, the kind of position I'd be happy with even if I was at my best, since I've never been all that great at words. Someone who always has been that great is James Paterson, who scooped the gold medal with 224! Is he our new always-wins-at-names-and-words guy? Johannes was just behind with 222 and Jonas with 211.

Jonas seemed to be safely in the lead by this point, but the thing about spoken numbers and speed cards is that it's easy to score little or nothing if you really make a mess of it...

But all fears in that direction were allayed when he got a perfect 200 in the first trial. So did Tsogbadrakh (who was awesome in the 'flash numbers' in the memoriad) and Mark Anthony Castaneda (who was awesome in the spoken numbers last year). As for me, I was delighted to have remembered 141 digits perfectly, and then hugely annoyed to find that I hadn't - one of the earliest groups of digits was 675, and I'd somehow heard and memorised it as 765.

As I told a journalist between trials, maybe it was because the story at that point worked better with a person, rather than a lizard. But that theory was shot down in the second trial when something almost identical happened - I mis-memorised 075 as 095, even though 095 is an inanimate object and at that point I was thinking "this is a lot of objects in a row, I hope something alive comes next..." So when I eventually got 72 in the final trial, it was a relief.

Those two good results had kept me in contention with all the other much-too-good opponents I was facing, but I was still only in tenth place as we went into the speed cards. I was only fractionally behind three people, though, so a good time could easily bump me up the rankings. So first time I did a safe run, which went surprisingly slowly and awkwardly and ended up with 44 seconds or so. Jonas did a safe minute-and-a-half, enough to guarantee a World Championship victory even despite Johannes's 27.55 seconds. He joins the under-30-seconds club with that, I think!

I renewed my membership in the second trial, with a delightfully trouble-free 28.08! It's good to know I can still do something right. Ola got 29-and-a-bit as well, proving that sub-30-second times are becoming old hat these days.

That time bounced me all the way up to 5th place overall! That was a bit of a surprise, actually - since I had to leave early in order to get back here for work the next day (the championship was awkwardly scheduled at the month end, which is a time when I'm not technically supposed to take time off work), I'd worked out the final scores in my head based on what I thought everyone had scored and told everyone on Facebook that I'd come seventh.

The people who've been complaining that it took so long to put the results online need to remember that in my day all you got was a spreadsheet emailed to you a week later if you were lucky. Now in this advanced era, you can see all the results here or here, according to preference. The Memocamp results page is good for a laugh - scores are highlighted green for a personal best, yellow for a national record or red for a world record, and my line is a colourless desert in a sea of yellow and green!

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Let him sedition hush

I feel I should point out that that Telegraph article makes me out to be a lot more seditious that I actually am. He turned a statement that was a masterpiece of tact, along the lines of "I get in trouble if I sound like I'm saying these techniques are completely useless, so let me be clear that I'm just saying I don't use them myself for anything except memory competitions..." into practically denouncing everyone who says memory techniques are good things as a charlatan. Oh well, if that's what sells newspapers. I'm not friends with any Telegraph readers, anyway.

Keeping with the theme of this blog post's title (and forcing you all to go to Google to find what I'm talking about), we now have rebellious Scots to crush in the memory world! His name's Hugh, and although he was originally registered as English, he pointed out that he is in fact from Scotland (English accent notwithstanding) and so now forms team Scotland all by himself! How long before we have a Home Nations Memory Championship with us all competing against each other?

I've just got back to the hotel after an interview with an English television crew, following which I forgot I'd taken my jumper off and had to go back and get it, and then an Italian crew, following which I had to go back and give them the microphone I was still wearing. The Italians also shone incredibly bright lights in my eyes, so I'm just hoping I'm touch-typing this into my laptop, and not an old brick or something.

Hard Thought

There's an article in the Telegraph today about the world championship. I'm shockingly misquoted - I didn't wonder whether I'd met the journalist somewhere before, I had absolutely no recollection of him and told him so, even though he said he'd interviewed me a few years ago!

I do remember another Telegraph interview, but not the person who talked to me - I think he must have got new glasses since then, because I would have remembered the big round ones he was wearing yesterday.

The paper does redeem itself by including accurate little featurettes on the ten disciplines and the world records, which most media coverage doesn't. This is the kind of thing that will actually encourage people to take part, so I approve - even if it repeatedly calls me the first person to memorise a pack of cards in under 30 seconds (true, but old news nowadays when plenty of people have done better...)

Nice use of that old picture of me in the Brazilian Mystery Cloak, though!