Sunday, April 22, 2018

All hail to the champion

Finishing off with a perfect 50 words in 52.70 seconds, Simon wins the Scandinavian Open! Followed by a great second place performance from Sylvain, with Jan-Hendrik winning a thrilling third-place match against Marcin!

All in all, it sounds like an amazing event, in the unusual surroundings of a shopping centre in Gothenburg! Count me in, next time!

Record collection

One thing I forgot to mention yesterday (I'm really not good at remembering things about memory competitions) is the new world records and amazingly great results at Memory League disciplines - Simon blew people away with 17.77 seconds in cards and 16.85 in numbers; Jan-Hendrik did an astonishing 45.09 seconds in names; Marcin topped the charts with 16.81 in images, and though we didn't have any perfect 50s in words (it's very difficult to do), those three each did a 46 in the course of the first day.

They're currently at lunch on day 2 - when they resume, the semi-finals will Simon against Jan-Hendrik (could be epic - if J-H is the names/words master then Simon is at least the vice-master, if there is such a thing, and definitely the master at cards and numbers), and Marcin against Sylvain (also epic, because Sylvain's definitely got the beyond-expectations-underdog vibe going now)! Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The league of memorisers

One thing I forgot to do yesterday was put a link to the Memory League website, where you can watch everything that's happening in Gothenburg this weekend. The group matches have been played today, and the format of the competition is I think ideal now - 16 competitors, with Idriz taking the place of the goldfish, in four groups. Everyone plays head-to-head matches against the other three in their group, with each match consisting of one go at each of the five disciplines. Then the finals tomorrow start with the people who finished second in a group playing off against someone who finished third in another group, for the right to play the winner of a third group in the quarter-finals.

Our matches tomorrow will be Simon against Konsti or Selim; Jan-Hendrik against Florian or Martin; Sylvain against Niklas or Hordiy; and Marcin against Jan or Paweł. So a lot of exciting games to look forward to!

In other news, since the summer's suddenly here, I cycled up to Birmingham today - first time I've done that this year. I've got a new bike, too, which I haven't mentioned (even though I know you all care so deeply about the trivial details of my life) - the old one fell to bits irreparably, and now I've been trying to remember how long I've had it. It wasn't particularly new when I moved to Belper at the start of 2014, I know that much. I should have written it in my blog. Perhaps I did, but I can't be bothered to check. Still, I'm confident that this blog entry will help Future Zoomy when he wants to know exactly when (give or take a couple of weeks) I bought this latest bike!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Next stop Scandinavia!

Well, not for me, but for international memory competitions - this weekend, the Scandinavian Memory League Open Championship is happening in Gothenburg, Sweden. I wish I could be there, but it was that or Canada, and I've already been to Gothenburg. But 15 competitors are coming to the championship organised by Idriz Zogaj and Sylvain Estadieu, and they've just held the draw for the group stage, conducted by special guest, former World Memory Champion and all-round awesome guy (no, not me), Jonas von Essen! It looks like this:

Group A:
Simon Reinhard
Florian Minges
Hordiy Ostapovych
Daniel Andersson

Group B:
Jan-Hendrik Büscher
Konstantin Skudler
Paweł Milczarek

Group C:
Jan Zoń
Sylvain Estadieu
Selim Aydın
Rickard Liu

Group D:
Marcin Kowalczyk
Niklas Månsson
Martin Nilsson
Ceyhun Aydin

There's a lot of memory league talent and experience in there - most of the competitors are regulars on the Memory League site and online league. Niklas goes by BurningDesire or Niklas Hendrik, incidentally - I had no idea his name was actually Månsson, which just goes to show what happens when you only know people on the internet.

You can never bet against Simon in these things (although apparently there'll be a dummy player, "maybe a goldfish", in group B, who might spring a surprise), but keep an eye on Marcin - he's very dangerous! It's going to be an epic contest, all weekend.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Happy birthday, Superman!

DC Comics are celebrating Superman's 80th birthday today, and I suppose it's as good a time as any (the copyright date of Action Comics no. 1 is April 18 1938, though it probably didn't hit the stores until a couple of weeks later - and of course the story had been written and drawn years earlier, and repeatedly rewritten and redrawn as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster tried to get someone to publish it), so let's all take a moment to cheer for the world's greatest superhero!

A lot of people talk about Superman as if the guiding creative philosophy behind him is "Wouldn't it be nice if I could fly?". That's a long way off beam - if you read the earliest comic stories, it's obvious that Superman is all about "If I could hit people without them being able to hit me back, I could make the world a better place!". Which is a worthy kind of view too, I suppose, but it's not what most people think of when they think of Superman.

He's not about saving the world from natural disasters, let alone Lex Luthor's evil schemes, at first. In that first published story (which reads like what it is; a chopped-up newspaper comic strip arbitrarily cut down to size to fit in a comic book - most comics were like that at the time, the only difference here was that Superman had never been actually published in a newspaper strip; they'd all rejected it!) he applies his ability to hit people to save a woman wrongly accused of murder, beat up a wife-beater to teach him a lesson, rescue Lois Lane from the unwelcome attentions of a thug, and get half-way through exposing a crooked senator. It's almost comically rough around the edges, but you can still see why it was such a sensation right from the start!

Where would the world be today without Superman? And why can so few people write good Superman comics nowadays? Any old idiot can (and regularly does) write Batman, but the modern approach to Superman all too often takes the Batman approach of "have him be beaten to a pulp but still somehow win in the end", which requires a flood of enemies of ridiculous power-levels. A good Superman story has Superman be by far more powerful than the bad guys, but still keeps the reader's interest by being clever and exciting! You can't really get away with the 1930s approach of him making the bad guys confess by threatening to kill them (it's surprising that that ever stood up in court...), but you can still make him the unequivocally-moral-and-good hero who's entirely indestructible and tell a good story if you really put your mind to it!

Monday, April 09, 2018

On the way home

I really wish I didn't have to go home today. Is there a way I can stay in Canada that won't cost me a) any money or b) my job?

It's great here - even the cold weather feels nice and bracing now, rather than bone-chilling. I could quite happily live here. And it's been a good opportunity to catch up on the latest cool cartoons I haven't seen, what with not watching telly back at home. Can you believe I hadn't seen The Loud House before this holiday? It's great.

Anyway, it's time to leave the land of maple leaves and possible coyotes, but I'm sure I'll be back just as soon as time and money allow...

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Canadian Memory

I'm here on Westminster Bridge and there are dinosaurs. No, hang on, I'm in Edmonton, and there aren't enough dinosaurs, but there has been a really cool memory competition, which I'll tell you all about after this interlude.

Brilliant song by Jay Foreman, and absolute genius video by Bec Hill. And not enough people seem to appreciate just how wonderful this video is, so please do watch and appreciate it!

Anyway, here in Alberta, it's cold and snowy and the only dinosaur to be seen at the IAM Canadian Open Memory Championship was a superannuated former world champion testing his hopelessly-rusty memory skills against the cream of Canadian cleverness!

I got a lift to the venue (Westlock Elementary School, something like 55 miles to the north of Edmonton and so considered a quick drive by the people in this very big country) courtesy of Hua Wei Chan, along with Francis Blondin. "We've met before," Hua Wei pointed out when I said it was great to meet him in person, "the Mental Calculation World Cup in 2008, remember?". Of course I didn't remember, this is me we're talking about, but never mind. Everybody else at this competition was someone I've only talked to online, so there wasn't any danger of being laughed at for not remembering what they look like.

We drove through the snowy fields, and not for the first time in North America someone expected me to be impressed by large, flat, open agricultural spaces, because we don't have landscapes like that in England. I need to bring all these people to the part of Lincolnshire where I grew up; believe me, it's exactly the same. But we arrived at the definitely different and non-English-looking little town of Westlock, arriving in good time at the school and meeting the competition organiser, Darren Michalczuk. He's a teacher there, and so was able to provide the awesome venue and a group of his pupils to take part in the competition too!

Having the whole school to play with, we had a venue possibly better-equipped than any memory competition I've ever been to - the competition was in the music room, the arbiters were in Darren's classroom down the hall, and there was something that all competitions need but very few have, a breakout room (the staffroom) where competitors could go and chat out of earshot of the competition room, AND another room (the surprisingly enormous school library) where people could go and prepare themselves in silence. No clustering in the hallway outside the competition room door for us here!

Apart from Darren and Hua Wei, there was a vast army of arbiters, whose names I was told but can't remember - Darren's wife and her brother and sister kept things ticking over smoothly, lots of other people were around too (most of them parents of the kids, I think), and Big Brother was watching them and us in the form of Florian Dellé in Costa Rica and Simon Reinhard in Germany, via video links.

This competition was a guinea-pig for several IAM innovations, you see, and one of them was the 21st-century miracle of remote arbiting. With multiple laptop cameras scrutinising us around the room and live communication with the inexperienced arbiting team, the experienced arbiter Florian was able to see that things were done the right way. It's all very hi-tech, and to the best of my knowledge it worked out okay. The whole thing was conducted in an efficient and correct way with no more than a minimum of chaos and confusion, thanks to Darren and the team keeping it all under control nicely! We had a timer on the big screen as well, which isn't a totally new innovation but impressed the Canadian competitors so much that I thought it was worth mentioning.

We started with 5-minute names, which is always a good thing to start with, because it gets it out of the way early and I can safely forget about it. I used to be mediocre at names, but not having done any training outside the "American" names on Memory League, I'm worse than ever at the "International" names we get in competitions. It's probably worth mentioning that the photos had backgrounds, which they're not supposed to (unless they've changed the rules again), but it didn't really help me much, and I got a score of 12.

So now we could start the 'real' memory disciplines, with 5-minute binary. Again, I'm rather out of practice at this, but I've done a couple of trial runs in the last few weeks, and got a little bit faster and better each time. I got a 625 here, attempting 820, which is a fair way short of my olden-days best, but not a disaster. New IAM innovation number two made its debut here - people can now request pre-drawn lines on their memorisation papers. I preferred not to; drawing the lines myself is a part of my whole routine, I think it would just confuse me to have them already on the paper.

After that came the quarter-marathon that is 15-minute numbers, and again I'm too out of practice. I went through three journeys' worth of digits, 702, reviewing them several times, and it felt like they were sinking in perfectly fine, but then I had a lot of gaps in recall - this was something that happened all through the day, and it's really down to nothing but lack of practice. I ended up with a score of 487. Then we did the all-new 5-minute images, which I still haven't trained at enough and got 104 - most of the other competitors, having done some practice with it, were significantly faster and better than me at this one. And then it was 5-minute numbers, and I got my ironic comeuppance for complaining that the new pre-drawn-lines idea was a recipe for disaster and something was sure to go wrong with it, by being the one and only person who something went wrong for - I accidentally got a memorisation paper divided into two-digit groups, which is really confusing for a person with a three-digit system. But never mind! Teething troubles happen, and we did get two trials of this one! In the second trial, I went for a should-have-been-safe 240, blanked on one image and ended up on 200.

Darren was low-key about announcing scores, in a deliberate strategy to keep the kids motivated - the scoring system is extremely harsh on complete beginners, and he's planning to focus on how good it is to remember lots of numbers, even if you end up with no championship points because of blanks and mistakes - but Simon was updating the world via Facebook with a running commentary. I was in a closely-fought contest with Braden Adams, who matched my scores pretty neatly all the way through, setting new Canadian records (this being the first "official" Canadian competition, it was easy pickings) with every discipline! Our other adult competitors, Francis Blondin and Ezequiel Valenzuela, had also travelled the length and breadth of Canada to be there, and put in some great performances too, as well as getting to experience the wonders of live competition, so rare in this part of the world!

The kids, meanwhile, also had a lot of fun - leading the pack was Mackenzie Michalczuk. From personal experience, I can definitely say that having your dad for a schoolteacher as a ten-year-old is an essential ingredient to set you on the road to becoming the World Memory Champion, and it's probably even more so when he's a memory-competition enthusiast as well! So we all need to watch out... unless it works out like me not being interested in my dad's Young Ornithologists Club, and Mackenzie going on to become the world champion birdwatcher.

Anyway, the afternoon session gave us spoken numbers, and I did half-way okay at it, getting 39 in the first trial and 63 in the second. Still all those blank spaces that shouldn't have been there, though. But then we went on to 10-minute cards, and not a problem this time - attempting a safe six packs, I managed to get them all right, though a couple, including the first, were full of blanks again that I managed to fill right at the very end of the recall time. I always do okay with cards, even if I'm out of practice.

That just left the comparatively relaxing dates and words, before the grand finale speed cards. Dates went okay, I got 68, but it was infuriating how many of them I nearly sort-of remembered, but couldn't quite place. Practice would fix that. And words was a complete shambles - huge amounts of blank spaces, and it's harder to run through a mental list to jog your memory there. I ended up with a score of 13, which I was probably lucky to get. Half of one column, and half of an incomplete one.

So then speed cards, and in the first trial I did 33 seconds or so, but didn't really come close to getting the recall right. Francis took the Canadian honours here, with just over a minute, while Braden did a 1:23 that put him on top of the leaderboard. So I had to come back with a decent time to take the overall win, and I somehow managed to cobble together a 33.96-second pack, with a two-seconds-to-spare relocation of a rabbit (ace of diamonds, nine of clubs) when I realised I'd put it in the wrong place entirely. So I just barely ended up the winner, but this is the kind of event where scores don't really count (to me), and it's all about having a good time. Which I think we all did!

We came away loaded with goodie-bags and good wishes, from a wonderful, friendly competition! I even saw a possible coyote on the way back to Edmonton! (Hua Wei: "There's a coyote in the field there," Me: "Oh, wow, that's awesome! I've never seen a coyote in the wild before!" Hua Wei: "No, actually, I think it's a fox. Coyotes are smaller." Me: (thinks) "Well, I'm going to count it as a coyote. I've seen foxes. I saw a coyote!")

This result will have the effect of dramatically lowering my position on the (to my mind slightly flawed) IAM Active Rankings, but I suppose it's motivating because I could theoretically improve it again by going to another competition and getting a better score...

Additionally, this competition was the first one to give out certificates for the all-new IAM Levels system! Check it out, I'm Midnight Blue!

This is due to my past achievements rather than anything I did at the IAM Canadian Open Memory Championship, despite what the certificate says. It counts the best score you've ever got in each discipline, and your level is the average of your best ten individual-discipline levels, with at least one and no more than four from each of the five sections, as below.


It's still hoped that Memory League competitions (of the type where people get together in the same place and compete, rather than playing online) will get more widespread and frequent, and this system is sort of based on that assumption, but I'd expect they might have to change the standards if they do.

It's possibly more exciting for people who are improving and achieving new personal bests in competition, but in any case, assuming I could get back in shape, mentally speaking, how could I get up to the slightly darker blue heights of level 21? Or even to the lofty purple levels above? I'd need to gain an extra 7 deci-levels (because each individual discipline level counts as a tenth of an overall level) from somewhere...

I could gain 3 if I improved my 5-minute numbers score to the 468 that was my "no good reason why I shouldn't achieve it some day" optimum score back in the days when I was in training. I should aim for that, definitely. 32 packs in hour cards was also well within my grasp back in the old days; there's another 3 deci-levels there. Speed cards, too, I could do a 23-second pack and get the one more deci-level I need to level-up. So it's entirely possible, even without Memory League. And if we do get more ML competitions and they don't change the standards, it'd be easy to bump myself up a few levels in images (gain 2 deci-levels with 15 seconds) or names (it's not beyond me to get a freaky 21 or so; 4 more deci-levels in the bag there).

So that can be my new goal. Well, one of them. Another is to create an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the IAM levels, because I just like creating Excel spreadsheets with complicated formulas for the fun of it. It's all good.

Christopher Clark, BBC News, Westminster.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Codex canadensis

Here I am in Edmonton, Alberta! It's VERY cold, but also nice and sunny and a really great city! There's a truly excellent comic shop just around the corner from my hotel, and a West Edmonton Mall full of things that I've spent the morning wandering around. I'm extraordinarily jetlagged and sleep-deprived, but I'm sure I'll catch up with the dream schedule before Saturday's competition.

Anyway, among the things to be found at Happy Harbor Comics is Runaways #8, so let me just remind you all at length that you should be reading it. The eighth issue of a modern comic is sort of the difficult second album - nowadays, the first six issues generally have to compromise the first trade paperback, and so the seventh will have a lot of recapping of what's gone before, so it's hard to judge how good or bad the second arc will be until you get to #8. And it's generally bad. Pretty much all the writers of superhero comics today are perfectly capable of writing a six-part story introducing the characters and setting, but often really quite terrible at the doing-something-with-it part that comes next. I don't mean to sound like one of those comic fans who says all comics suck, but, well, they sort of do.

Rainbow Rowell, though, is quite possibly an exception to that! I can safely say that after the getting-the-gang-back-together story that took up the first six issues, it's continued on in an entertaining and well-written way that still has that much-appreciated feel of genuinely 'getting' the characters without just rehashing the old stories. I still like it! And maybe, if the TV show gets renewed for a new season and Marvel doesn't mind the comic's low sales figures, it won't be cancelled after #12! It really shouldn't be; it's actually a great comic!