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!

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Live from Gatwick Airport

And a very boring airport it is too, hence the blogging. But still, I'm on my way to Canada!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Hardly worth getting out of bed

But even though tomorrow's a whole hour shorter than the average day, I'm going to do some more extensive old-school pen-and-paper memory training. I'll be on something approaching half-decent form by the time I get to Canada, hopefully!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Wilkie Collins's missing person

Here's a fun trivia question for anyone who's as big a fan as me of the works of Wilkie Collins - he was strangely fond of giving supporting characters in his novels a title of distinction coupled with an unusual surname starting with "Ben". Scattered among his books you can find Father Ben----, Doctor Ben----- and Captain Ben------. Anyone who can fill in the blanks and name the books deserves a special prize, which I'll provide once I've looted it from a revered Indian idol. I'll provide the answer below, after a brief spoiler-space filled with ramblings about 1860s English literature, so if any genuine Collins-lovers happen by this blog, look away now, until you've remembered the answer.

When it comes to Victorian fiction, I think I'm what the people back then would call "modern" in my tastes - I can do without Charles Dickens, in fact, but if I'm ever exiled to the Desert Island Discs island, I'd have to take some kind of mega-compilation of the entire works of Wilkie Collins and Mrs Henry Wood. The two of them comprise everything you really need to read if you want the best writing of that particular era. I don't know if either of them would have wanted to be grouped together like that - Mrs Wood especially, who in her late-1860s editorial reviews in the Argosy magazine was repeatedly rude about Collins and the "sensation" writers he inspired. She certainly didn't consider herself to be one of that breed, and is probably turning in her grave at the way most modern commentators (if they mention her at all) lump her in with those types. And of course, those reviews couldn't have been anything to do with the way her own brief star was in decline at that point, while his was shining ever brighter and brighter. Anyway, one thing I'm going to do one day, maybe, eventually, is a fully detailed analysis and commentary blog dedicated to the Johnny Ludlow stories. Look forward to it, if I ever have the time and energy to write it!

But to return to Wilkie and his Bens, the answers are the scheming Jesuit Father Benwell in "The Black Robe", the horrible (but strangely likeable) vivisectionist Doctor Benjulia in "Heart and Science" and the entirely nice and benevolent Captain Bennydeck in "The Evil Genius", who comes back at the end of the book and marries the wayward girl.

In that respect, Captain Bennydeck is another of Collins's recurring themes. He shares more than just a rank with the unfortunately-named Captain Kirke in "No Name"; they both also share the extremely common plot function of the good man who is absent from the main action of the story (for virtuous, self-denying, heroic reasons, of course), only to return at the climax and sweep the heroine off her feet. Bennydeck, in fact, is at least a presence throughout the book even when he's not around; Kirke makes just a brief token appearance early on, before popping up at the end and providing the happy ending. The whole trend started with Walter Hartright in "The Woman in White", but Collins revisited it over and over again in later years.

The one I find particularly strange, is the good man who doesn't return! There's something a bit strange about the novel "Man and Wife", and I don't mean Wilkie Collins's obsession with marriage laws or the evils of sports (a subplot in the book repeatedly asserts that anyone who participates in athletic events will inevitably die young of complete physical breakdown and also become an evil, immoral villain), it's the disappearance of Mr Kendrew.

To summarise the story briefly, it starts with a prologue - two women, Blanche and Anne, swore eternal friendship as children despite the difference in their social class. Blanche married the baronet Sir Thomas Lundie and had a daughter also called Blanche; Anne married the horrible cad Mr Vanborough and had a daughter also called Anne. The prologue describes an eventful evening's conversation between Vanborough, his friend Mr Kendrew and a lawyer, Mr Delamayn. Delamayn confirms that due to a legal loophole, the Vanboroughs' marriage is invalid. This pleases Vanborough, who wants to forge a parliamentary career for himself and wants a wife with better connections, who'll help him attain his eventual goal of a peerage. He heartlessly discards Anne and their daughter without any compunction, much to the horror of Kendrew, who ends their friendship immediately. How Kendrew, a decent, moral, principled man, became friends with Vanborough in the first place is unnarrated, and just has to go down as one of life's mysteries.

The second part of the prologue then briefly summarises what happens to everyone over the next twelve years. Anne dies, naturally - a broken heart was always a fatal condition in Victorian novels. Blanche (Lady Lundie) takes young Anne into her household as young Blanche's governess and companion. Lady Lundie later dies, leaving Sir Thomas to remarry before dying himself and thus giving the rest of the novel a comic-relief supporting character in the second Lady Lundie. Vanborough marries Lady Jane and enters parliament, but doesn't prosper simply because nobody likes him. Delamayn also enters parliament, prospers wonderfully and eventually is made Lord Holchester. Vanborough eventually commits suicide.

And as for Mr Kendrew, the prologue goes into detail about him too.

"How the husband’s friend marked his sense of the husband’s treachery has been told already. How he felt the death of the deserted wife is still left to tell. Report, which sees the inmost hearts of men, and delights in turning them outward to the public view, had always declared that Mr. Kendrew’s life had its secret, and that the secret was a hopeless passion for the beautiful woman who had married his friend. Not a hint ever dropped to any living soul, not a word ever spoken to the woman herself, could be produced in proof of the assertion while the woman lived. When she died Report started up again more confidently than ever, and appealed to the man’s own conduct as proof against the man himself.
He attended the funeral—though he was no relation. He took a few blades of grass from the turf with which they covered her grave—when he thought that nobody was looking at him. He disappeared from his club. He travelled. He came back. He admitted that he was weary of England. He applied for, and obtained, an appointment in one of the colonies. To what conclusion did all this point? Was it not plain that his usual course of life had lost its attraction for him, when the object of his infatuation had ceased to exist? It might have been so—guesses less likely have been made at the truth, and have hit the mark. It is, at any rate, certain that he left England, never to return again. Another man lost, Report said. Add to that, a man in ten thousand—and, for once, Report might claim to be right."

And then we go into the real action of the book. It can be summarised pretty quickly - Geoffrey Delamayn, second son of Lord Holchester, grows up to be a celebrated sportsman and unspeakable cad. He gets young Anne, virtuous governess who just has that one little moral lapse, "in a scrape". She insists that he marry her; he doesn't want to; she threatens to kill herself; he grudgingly agrees to a private marriage. She goes to take a room in an inn nearby, presenting herself as a married woman in order to get a room. Geoffrey is supposed to join her there and make an honest woman of her, but is suddenly called away by news that his father is ill. He sends his friend Arnold (also young Blanche's fiance) to the inn to explain things. A storm forces him to spend the night there, claiming to be Anne's husband. When Geoffrey finds out that this maybe, possibly, means that Arnold and Anne have got married under Scottish law, he's delighted and uses this as a good excuse to abandon her.

The main characters - Geoffrey, Anne, Blanche, Arnold and Blanche's uncle Sir Patrick Lundie - then fill the required length of a Victorian three-volume novel by running around at cross-purposes for ages and ages, always telling each other everything except the one important piece of information they need to know in order to take a sensible course of action and resolve everything. The novel then redeems itself at the end with an absolutely wonderful climax, real edge-of-your-seat stuff of the type that only Wilkie Collins could produce, following which the good end happily and the bad unhappily, and Sir Patrick marries Anne. Old men marrying young women was a good thing in those days, except in the works of radical moaners like George Eliot.

But where's Mr Kendrew? Surely the prologue is setting things up for him to be the one who comes back to marry poor Anne in the end? He's never mentioned again after that prologue, and instead Sir Patrick (who isn't mentioned at all in the prologue) fills that role. I think Wilkie Collins just made a mess of the prologue somehow, assigning the wrong roles to the wrong men - in the main story, Sir Patrick's legal knowledge and background is an essential part of the plot, while Lord Holchester (the former Mr Delamayn) shows no traces of ever having been a lawyer, being just a grumpy old peer with a scoundrel for a son. I'm convinced that he intended the lawyer of the prologue to go on to be the lawyer of the story, only to realise after the prologue had been published (the novel was serialised in Cassell's Magazine) that he'd somehow turned the lawyer into Geoffrey's father and the layman into the potential future husband of Anne. What an unfortunate cock-up, but never mind. Take another draught of opium, Wilkie, and invent someone new. Sir Patrick.

I know this isn't the kind of writing Wilkie Collins is famous for (indeed, he was widely derided by his fellow authors of the late 19th century for actually knowing how his novels were going to end before he started to write them!), but he was still a Victorian writer, and he wasn't above making it up as he went along if he had to. "Armadale", as John Sutherland explains at length in one of his wonderful essays, was obviously written on the fly without the extensive planning that Collins preferred. "Jezebel's Daughter" is even more glaring - he tries to write it as the personal witness testimony of the narrator, but after half a novel of David being present at every important event and conversation, seeing and hearing everything on both sides of the villain's schemes but telling nobody what he's witnessed, Wilkie seems to realise how stupid the whole thing is and packs David off back to London, saying that the rest of the novel he knows from reading people's diaries in later years. It's not very good, that one - we could even leave it out of my Collins/Wood compilation if we wanted to save a bit of paper. "Man and Wife", though, I recommend to everyone - if you haven't read it, do check it out and see if you agree with me about the strange case of Mr Kendrew...