Saturday, August 27, 2016

A bit about me

Because, let's face it, I've rather neglected this blog just lately. I'll try to get into the habit of blogging every day again and deluging you all with trivia related to my life! Here's all the trivia I can think of right now.

I've developed a huge liking for stilton cheese just lately. How can something full of blue mouldy stuff taste so good? It's a bit worrying, really, because my normal diet consists of junk food and sweets, so maybe I'm secretly acquiring cultured tastes? What's next, caviar?

Tomorrow I'm going to go down to London and check out the tail end of the Mind Sports Olympiad. I haven't done the whole week this year, because I'm trying not to spend money to excess, but I found my 1997 official competitor badge while I was moving house, and I need to wear it to this year's event. I'll go along for the whole week in 2017, I think, just to celebrate the 20th anniversary. Wow, that makes me feel old.

Speaking of money, Barclaycard have written to me today to say they're increasing my credit limit by another £4000 unless I tell them not to. They're clever, are Barclaycard, they've obviously got me on their list of 'people who if we periodically increase their credit limit will continue to use it to the full', but I've got one over on them - the chip on my card is broken somehow, so it doesn't work in card readers. Thus the only way I can use my Barclaycard is online, I can't impulse-buy things from shops or nights in hotels with it, which works out nicely for me.

And speaking of moving house, I haven't got a television at the moment. Well, I have got a television (two televisions, actually; I've also got my brother's portable among all his possessions squeezed into my small new flat), but not even so much as a freeview box to allow me to watch live TV with. I figure that my infinite supply of video tapes and video games, and the existence of YouTube and things are more than enough to keep me entertained. Who watches live TV nowadays, anyway? There's never anything on.

British Memory Competitions 2016!

2016 is the tenth anniversary of the first ever memory competition I organised, with the aim of doing something to fill out what was then a minimal calendar of memory events and make a few more people aware that there's such a thing as competitive memorisation of numbers, cards and more - maybe even getting a few more regular competitors their first introduction to a lifelong obsession!

It's been quite a success, in a small way, over the last ten years, and I had been thinking at one point that now we live in an age where there are memory competitions all over the world practically every week, I might give it a rest and save myself the cost and trouble of running an event like this in future. So how I've ended up persuaded to do the following list of things in the tail-end of 2016 is beyond me, but there you go.

On Saturday November 12, at the scenic Broneiron Lodge in Wales, we'll have something new and, in a way, old as time:
A competition all about system-based memory - numbers and cards, the classic memory tests! Memory competitors with good memories might recall the Memory World Cup in Weinheim in 2004 - this is a similar kind of beast. With a 'marathon', 'short' and 'speed' discipline of each, the winner will be the one whose all-round grasp of memory technique is the best!

A tentative schedule might look like this...
9:00 - Five-Minute Cards, trial 1. Five minutes to memorise, 15 minutes to recall. Best of two trials in the day wins.
9:30 - Five-Minute Numbers, trial 1. Five minutes to memorise, 15 minutes to recall. Best of two trials in the day wins.
10:00 - Half Hour Numbers. Thirty minutes to memorise, followed by one hour recall time.
12:00 - Lunch break
1:00 - Five-Minute Cards, trial 2. Five minutes to memorise, 15 minutes to recall. Best of two trials in the day wins.
1:30 - Five-Minute Numbers, trial 2. Five minutes to memorise, 15 minutes to recall. Best of two trials in the day wins.
2:00 - Half Hour Cards. Thirty minutes to memorise, followed by one hour recall time.
4:00 - Speed Numbers. A 100-digit number, memorised as fast as possible (5 minutes max), with 5 minutes recall time. Best time of two trials wins.
5:00 - Speed Cards. A single pack of cards, memorised as fast as possible (5 minutes max), with 5 minutes recall time. Best time of two trials wins.

Scoring is based not on 1000-point standards, but on the classic model of 100 points for the best score in each discipline on the day, with everyone else's score proportionate to that.

This championship will happen if enough people are interested in taking part, so please let me know if you want to come! It's something I've been talking about doing for many years now (people call it "Ben's Baby") and I would really like to see it catch on as a new part of the ever-growing memory world. Please give it a try, it would make me very happy!

You may then want to stay overnight at Broneiron, because the following day, Sunday 13 November, we have our much-loved...

It's a Sunday this year, to facilitate any brave competitors who want to jet back from the Memoriad in Las Vegas (November 8-10) and try their luck at the Friendly Championship too!

So as not to fill up this blog post with the details, I urge you to look back on previous years' posts on this blog for full and extensive descriptions of the ten disciplines involved in the competition - I will dedicate a separate post to this year's Friendly when I get a chance.

However, the main, most important thing about the competition is the sheer unadulterated Friendliness of it all! This is the one to come to if you're new to memory sports or if you've been around for sixteen years or more, just for the sake of getting to know everybody and having fun!

Entry fees for the two competitions above will be £20 (each, I'm afraid), with the usual dispensation of free entry for brand-new people who've never competed before. There have been a couple of very generous people who have offered to chip in for the costs of running these things, so if so they will have my enormous gratitude and praise, and prices may yet drop! And the very next weekend, something exciting is happening, too.

On November 19-20, in central London, there will be a competition that may or may not be called...
The logo needs to be made a bit more extreme, but you get the idea. It's pronounced Brex-M-T, and my obsessiveness about capital letters is being deliberately subverted in extreme ways!

If you don't know about the Extreme Memory Tournament yet, click on that link!

Anyway, the point is, I'd like to officially publicly announce that there's probably going to be an event in the style of the XMT, using the same software, here in Britain, later in the year. It's fully approved, authorised and designed by XMT creators Nelson Dellis and Simon Orton! The date will be Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 November, 2016. It'll be invitation-only and limited to sixteen British competitors, but it'll be a prototype for other events of that kind around the world, and a whole lot of fun! Here's how it will work:

The first order of the day will be to sort the sixteen competitors into four groups. Seeding for these groups will be determined by a qualifying session - all at the same time, the sixteen competitors will have one attempt at each of the five disciplines, trying to record the best score they can. Just like the Big XMT qualifying, only this time you only get one try at it!

With scoring based on 100 points for the current world record, this will give us a ranked list of our sixteen players. They'll be sorted into four pots - 1-4, 5-8, 9-12 and 13-16, and one drawn from each pot to form the four groups!

Group stage
Now that we have our groups, each player will play their three opponents in turn in a best-of-five match, like the knockout stages of the Big XMT. The first discipline will be randomly chosen... but each competitor gets up to two vetoes, so the discipline they eventually settle on will be a compromise between the two of them! The loser of that discipline gets the choice of the next, and after that it alternates. Three points for a won match, one for a draw, and the top two in each group qualify for the quarter-finals.

Knockout stage
Quarter-finals, semi-finals and final! The first two are best of five, the final is best of seven - all three start with a surprise event. Just like the Big XMT, this part, just a teensy little bit smaller.

And that's not all. The same venue, on December 3-4 will host...

The As Yet Untitled UK-based Memory Championship!

 It'll have a name once details of sponsorship and so on have been finalised, I promise. It'll get its own blog post and Facebook page and international publicity and everything!

This is, by popular demand, an international standard event, the same format as the UK Memory Championship which has just happened in London (congratulations to new UK champion James Paterson and overall winner Pan Ziqi!) Disciplines are the same as the Friendly Championship, but in many cases longer in memorisation and recall times.

This will be the second time I've organised an international-standard, two-day competition, and I'm assured that the time is right for it now (the world just wasn't ready for it the first time round, obviously, since it only attracted about four people) and we will be positively deluged with enthusiastic and world-beating memory folk from all around the world! Absolutely teeming with world champions past, present and future, it'll be! Stay tuned for more details soon, and let us know if you want to be there too!

Is that all? Yes, I think so. I mean, I have got a real job as well. It's lucky I've got a lot of holiday days still to book, really, because I'm going to have to use them all in November...

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Memory Competitions!

Lots of them! Coming soon! I will 100% definitely announce anywhere up to four memory competitions at the weekend! Stay tuned! Something for everyone! Maybe even a special "Tall German People With Cool Beards" prize for Simon, since I seem to have spent a lot of time taking the opposite side to him in various memory-themed debates lately, and arranging competitions on dates that are inconvenient for him, so I feel like I should apologise with some kind of special trophy. But then I'll feel like I have to get trophies for absolutely everyone else, too, and my original resolution for this year was to save money (which I still haven't got any of) and hassle, and it's all turned out quite the reverse somehow...

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Premier League 2016-17 predictions

Everybody got the pre-season Premier League predictions so totally wrong last year, I can safely do my own soothsaying act without fear of looking any more stupid. And since last season proved that anything can happen and probably will, as long as it's totally unexpected...

1. Bournemouth - hey, if Leicester can do it, why not?

2. Liverpool - no Europe to distract them, it'll be another good year that they'll make a mess of at the end.

3. Man City - splashing out lots of money without any concrete plan in mind is good enough for third place.

4. Leicester - see, nobody's expecting them to get into the Champions League again, but they'll do it anyway.

5. Southampton - 8th, 7th, 6th the last three seasons, and I know a pattern when I see one.

6. Tottenham - a disappointing season always follows a good one, but the silver lining is...

7. Arsenal - people have been expecting the mythical 'bad season for Arsenal' for so long, it might take us by surprise when it actually happens.

8. West Brom - due for a good year.

9. Burnley - the newly-promoted side who'll do better than expected.

10. Swansea - safe but boring season.

11. Watford - settling down to a role as the mid-table team.

12. Chelsea - it'll be a confident start followed by a calamitous crash, this time.

13. West Ham - caught up in a Europa League campaign, their league form suffers.

14. Stoke - flirting with relegation most of the season, they pick up at the end.

15. Man Utd - headline-grabbing disaster, all season long!

16. Middlesbrough - just about stay out of danger all year.

17. Sunderland - it's traditional now, under 40 points but staying up.

18. Everton - they've lost their way quite a bit of late, but this year's results will be unexpectedly terrible and down they go.

19. Crystal Palace - never look like being in it.

20. Hull - even worse than Palace.

Wonder what kind of odds I could get on that?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Get your kicks on Cycle Route 5

Remember when I lived in Beeston and National Cycle Route 6 went right past my front door? Well, now I'm in Redditch it's a whole different ball game. Now I work in an office that's on Route 5, so while the weather's nice, I'm going to have to spend some time exploring its twists and turns! I've already been down to Alcester, and up to Birmingham (via the short-cut route 55 that avoids going via Bromsgrove), I think tomorrow I'll go to Stratford-upon-Avon, and see if Shakespeare's still there.

The route goes all the way to Reading, where I'm actually planning to go next month, but I probably won't cycle the whole 90 miles or so. In the other direction it ends up in Holyhead (and has to stop there because otherwise you'd end up in the sea), which might be a fun place for a holiday. I should really get my brakes fixed before I do too much more biking, but on the other hand it does get me where I'm going all the quicker...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Killed by a bad review

You see a lot of negative criticism on the internet nowadays. I think people need to learn the lesson taught us by Mrs Henry Wood in her 1869 novel "Roland Yorke" - bad reviews can be very harmful to the health of sensitive creators.

Hamish Channing writes a wonderful book (the narrator explicitly assures us that it is objectively very good, and that Hamish has a rare genius for writing), while Gerald Yorke writes a very bad one (again, there's no question of personal preference coming into it here; it's a terrible book) but takes advantage of his career as a literary reviewer to fill the newspapers with good reviews of his own work and scathing criticism of Hamish's. The shock of this ruins Hamish's health, and he dies a long, lingering death as a direct result of the bad reviews.

Mrs Wood (generally known nowadays as Ellen Wood, which seems a little unfair of modern literary types - she herself firmly believed that a married woman writer should be credited under her husband's name) might just possibly have been speaking from experience when she wrote this particular subplot; she was one of those writers who peaked too soon, never again reaching the heights of her first and best novel, "East Lynne". Popular though she was throughout the 1860s, her follow-up novels always had 'by the author of East Lynne' as their major selling point. Let's look at the two novels in particular that probably led to the tragedy of Hamish Channing, "The Channings" and "Mrs Halliburton's Troubles".

After the huge success of East Lynne (much deserved, too, it's a really great book) in 1861, readers didn't have to wait long for more Mrs Henry Wood novels; early the next year, they got The Channings. Set in Helstonleigh (thinly-disguised Worcester, Mrs Wood's home town), it chronicles the lives of the virtuous and hard-working Channing family, who suffer hardship and unjust accusations of stealing a twenty pound note but eventually end happily, and the Yorke family, wealthy but proud, lazy and unvirtuous, who eventually come to no good. It's not up to East Lynne's standards, but it's a good read, largely thanks to the breakout character Roland Yorke, who's much more likeable than he was probably originally intended to be. A scant few months after that, out came Mrs Halliburton's Troubles, also set in Helstonleigh, also involving one virtuous and one unvirtuous family, but without the charm and subtlety of The Channings. While the Channings are rounded and human (the reader is invited to suspect Hamish of stealing a twenty pound note, although of course he's innocent), the Halliburtons are nauseatingly perfect (when in a very similar subplot a cheque goes missing and William Halliburton is the only one who could have taken it, nobody considers for a second that he might be guilty). The Yorkes aren't entirely a bad lot, especially Roland, while the Dares are uniformly repellent and evil-spirited.

Not that Mrs Halliburton's Troubles is an especially bad book, but it's such an obvious hasty re-write of The Channings, there's a real sense of deja vu in reading it. Readers must have started compiling a list of Mrs Henry Wood idiosyncrasies - not just her strange fondness for surnames starting with Halli, but the repeated plot points that will go on to feature in all her later novels too. There'll be a woman who suffers terrible shame or hardship and has to bear (italicized and intransitive) and trust in God to sort things out in the end, which He always does. There'll be at least one character who has a protracted illness (usually consumption) and eventual death, which they meet with pious patience (in adults) or beautiful simplicity (in children) and an unwavering belief in the blissful afterlife to come. Issues of rank and status will certainly come into play, as will a lack of money and the need to work hard at demeaning jobs below one's station in life.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I would imagine that the reviews of Mrs Halliburton's Troubles were the first that Mrs Wood found hurtful. There's a lot in the book that she clearly cared about - the Halliburton family are shining moral examples in every possible respect; the book lays out a detailed proposition for how to prevent the working classes from falling into evil ways; there's a huge amount of fascinating detail about the glove manufacturing industry (Mrs Wood's father's trade), and so on. She might well have thought it a masterpiece, and been surprised that not too many readers agreed with her. I would expect that there were more than a few people in 1862 who came to the book hoping for the scandal and sensation of East Lynne, only to get a hefty helping of moral improvement and gloves, and went away disappointed.

That's the background to the writing of "Roland Yorke", a direct sequel to "The Channings", chronicling the further adventures of Roland, last seen giving up his office job and setting sail for Port Natal with two dozen frying pans (having vaguely heard that it's possible to make a fortune selling them out there), despatching a letter along the way confessing that he was the one who stole that twenty pound note all along (after having spent the entire second half of the book passionately defending his good friend Arthur Channing, who is accused of the crime and suffers extensive shame and hardship as a result). Roland is a truly wonderful character, so unlike most Mrs Wood heroes - he's not even religious, barring a last-page resolution to live his life in a more Christian way from now on, and he cares nothing for his station in life, gladly taking a job as a clerk for twenty shillings a week (with selling pies on a street corner being his backup plan) and dreaming of earning three hundred pounds a year (if his prospective wife doesn't mind working as a governess or whatever to bring in a hundred or so). Roland's idea of work is to get to the office, put his feet up on the desk and chat with his colleagues all day, occasionally stopping to complain about how hard the bosses make him work. He's a real joy to read, the best of the many examples of Mrs Wood's wonderful gift for character and personality.

As a subplot to the book, we have Roland's younger brother Gerald (who has grown and developed from the smarmy, annoying, unpleasant schoolboy of the first book into a smarmy, annoying, unpleasant adult) and Hamish Channing, and their book-writing careers. At the end of "The Channings", Hamish revealed that he had made a little extra money as a writer, but he has spent most of the intervening time between the books as the manager of a bank, which had recently failed. As the narrator is at pains to explain, this is not in the slightest way Hamish's fault: "Had a quorum of the wisest business-men in the world been at its head, they could neither have foreseen its downfall nor have averted it." He has moved to London (like a surprisingly large number of Helstonleigh residents) and started to write his wonderful book. The contents of the book are never described in any detail, we're just told, over and over again, that it is wonderful. "Hamish possessed in a great degree that rarest of God's gifts, true genius." His wife Ellen (a strange thing about "The Channings" is that the minor characters include a sister and brother called Ellen and Henry) worries that he's working too hard, but loves and encourages him faithfully. Gerald, meanwhile, has a talent for writing book reviews, but none at all for writing novels; the one he's working on is terrible in every way, although once again we're not given any details. Believing it to be a work of genius, he gives it to Hamish and asks for an honest opinion - when Hamish tells him the truth, Gerald secretly vows a horrible revenge.

Hamish, model of goodness that he is, has secretly been helping out Gerald's wife with money to pay off Gerald's enormous debts, and otherwise depriving himself of all but the barest essentials, so his health is already not the best, but it's Gerald's reviews of his book that finish him off. He's forgiving - when on his deathbed he finds out that Gerald was to blame, he's only anxious to make sure Gerald knows he forgives him. He's sorry to be leaving his wife and daughter, but knows he'll see them again in Paradise, and so on. But let's look at what we know about the two books, and see if the narrator is right to so rigidly tell us that one is genius and the other is awful...

Gerald's book is "full of mistakes and faults," which is a little vague. The most concrete accusation against it is that there isn't enough content to fill a three-volume novel (when published, it uses very large print). The massive, lengthy, Victorian three-decker has long since gone out of fashion - the length of Gerald's novel is probably much more to modern tastes than Hamish's (which, we're solemnly informed, is lengthy even by three-volume standards). Maybe in 1869 it was "utterly worthless and terribly fast," "offending against morality and good taste," but perhaps it was just ahead of its time! Hamish's book, meanwhile, is "rare, excellent, of unusual interest; essentially the work of a good man, a scholar and a gentleman." It sounds suspiciously heavy on the Victorian morality - "While enchaining man's deepest interest, it yet insensibly led his thoughts heavenwards." It is "one that a man is all the better for reading," it has "not a line that, for purity, might not be placed in the hands of a child." It's very like Mrs Halliburton's Troubles, I suspect.

The writers get their just deserts at the end of the book - Hamish, we assume, gets his eternal reward in Paradise; Gerald, we're more concretely informed, ends up in debtor's prison - but I have a sneaking suspicion that when the BBC are next looking for a book to make into their latest costume drama, they would go for Gerald's worthless book and leave Hamish's languishing in obscurity. So don't give anything a bad review, whether the thing you're reviewing is good or bad! And go and read the works of Mrs Henry Wood, even Mrs Halliburton's Troubles! You won't regret it!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Another XMT recap!

Make sure to check out Alex Mullen's blog for his account of the XMT and the US Open (which didn't even get a mention from me, since it falls into the category of "things I can't afford to go to"). It's great reading!

There's been nothing but memory on this blog lately, so I apologise to the people who tune in for other things. I feel like spending time at the weekend talking about little-known Victorian novels, if that interests you more, so stay tuned. And there'll also be some kind of announcement before long about what I'm calling the 'brexmt'...

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Talking to Americans

If you long to see me rambling on YouTube about memory competitions and things, there are two recent chats with two former US Memory Champions out there for you to watch. Here's me having an extensive chat on Skype (I'm no good with modern things like Skype) with the always-awesome Nelson Dellis:

And please also check out Nelson's blog, where he says nice things about me and also talks about a wide range of much more interesting subjects! I wish I remembered where that photo of the top half of my head in front of a brick wall came from, too, it's really cool!

That one was actually done a little while ago, while this next one was a chat with Ron White at the Extreme Memory Tournament:

Ron also said some excessively nice things about me, including saying that my number one piece of memory advice ("don't keep thinking about each image until you're sure you've got it fixed in your head; move on to the next one and you'll probably find you remembered the first one just fine") really actually helped him! When I come to think about it, I don't get much positive feedback like that, and it's very much appreciated!

The thing about this pair of Americans is that they're both really good at self-publicity and memory-sports-publicity, and making themselves and others known to the world. I totally suck at those things. I haven't even watched the two videos above, just because I really hate hearing myself talk (and also, I always find that I unintentionally said something horribly rude and unfair about someone I actually really quite like - I have serious problems with that kind of thing). I quite urgently need a publicist/agent/something, but nobody seems to want the job...