Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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Seventeen observations

1. "Being off LiveJournal" is the new "being on LiveJournal". Can't say I've received as many messages for quite a while as I have when I gave LJ up; I shall have to try this more often, starting with this Friday. (Admittedly I've been typing parts of this message on Tuesday and Wednesday night, which means that my cold turkey stint has been one-directional alone, but I regard this as sort of productive in a way that reading LiveJournal is not.) I would conclude that I have been slightly more productive than usual over the last two days, but not significantly so. I did manage to keep off LJ throughout, but I did sneak a quick look at Static Zombie.

2. The fifth iteration of PQRST, the solve-ten-rated-puzzles-quarterly-but-STRPQ-sounds-silly hard puzzle contest, took place last week. It was interesting to see the name of Luke Pebody as one of the participants.

You all know that I am a chess fanboy and a puzzle geek (see following entries too). Before that, while I was at school, I was a maths competition geek.

There are both individual mathematics competitions and team mathematics competitions aimed at school students these days. We'll deal with the individual ones second. The team competition was a local north-east England one, between teams of three from around 32 schools. Matches tended to have four rounds of competition, some of which featured problems to be solved individually, others featured problems to be solved as a team. I was part of the school's team for two years. This was a lot of fun because we sometimes travelled to other schools and had their hospitality, which was pleasant and ego-boosting. The first year, we won the whole competition (technically, we won all three matches in our group of four, then all three single-elimination matches between the eight group winners) and each team member picked up, I think, a £10 book token as a prize. The second year, I was team captain, and we won the first match, lost the second and had the third defaulted to us, but it wasn't enough to qualify for the knockout stages. More about that some other day, maybe. Americans in particular should note that such academic team competition is rather more rare in the UK than it is in the US, but getting less so.

The individual competition is organised into three age groups; Year 7-8 (nominally up to age 13), Year 9-11 (nominally up to age 16) and Year 12-13 (nominally up to age 18, or essentially all pre-university students). Each of them are organised along similar lines. There is a short (60/90 minute) 25-question multiple choice paper, with points deducted for incorrect guesses. Each time, The first 15-20 problems cover material that can be tackled by the top 35% of the age group and the rest of the questions tend to be more demanding, so stretching and challenging your more gifted pupils. Over 200,000 kids take part in each of the first two challenges each year, over 50,000 kids take part in the senior challenge each year. Pretty big numbers.

From there, the top several hundred go on to perform a follow-up round called the Junior, Intermediate or British Mathematical Olympiad, in which you are set proper mathematical questions in which you have to prove things. There's a great deal of difference between the problem-based style of pre-university mathematics and the proof-based style of university mathematics; the Mathematical Olympiads were the first exposure I ever had to the latter. Now the British Mathematical Olympiad has subsequent competitions again for high scorers, the ~100-person BMO Round 2 (formerly known as the Further International Selection Test, mm-hm), a 20-person training camp and eventually a 6-person UK team for the International Mathematical Olympiad. Each time the level of difficulty goes up what feels like an order of magnitude.

Now the level of difficulty of the British Mathematical Olympiad is deliberately such that the median mark is somewhere around 10%; many contestants score nothing at all. (This is mostly due to the unfamiliarity of the style.) I took part in it in each of three years and managed to score something like 20%-30% each year, which was enough to put me in the top 100 each time. I managed to get into the top 60 once, which qualified me for Round 2, where I spent 3½ questions scoring (I think) 2/40 and finishing something like 61st out of 62 - so that was a fairly hard limit of my progress. (You can find past round 1 papers and past round 2 papers if you like.)

Nevertheless, not being able to foresee what might happen about the World Puzzle Championships, I thought at the time that this would be the not-particularly-close closest I would ever get to representing my country. Accordingly, I took a lot of interest in the team, its progress and its personalities. One of the consistently hottest participants in the UK was a gentleman named Luke Pebody. Luke participated in the UK's 1993 team and scored 27/42, enough for a silver medal. By way of comparison, one Wei-Hwa Huang scored 23/42 in the same competition. So when Luke appeared as a PQRST contestant, the name snapped right back to mind after a few years' gap. (Incidentally, I think I got to meet Luke once, when the Oxford University maths society went to the annual problems drive held by our Cambridge University counterparts. Seemed like a nice enough guy, with a big sense of humour.)

Now the interesting thing was that Luke had listed himself as representing the USA in the PQRST. My first thought was that it was possible that it could be a different Luke Pebody, but a bit of research revealed that Luke is every bit the hot-shot maths researcher as he was a hot-shot maths pre-university student. He's a College Research Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge - and, for maths, Trinity College is to the rest of Cambridge as Cambridge is to the rest of the country - and is represented at the Institude for Advanced Study (which isn't situated at 1 Einstein Drive, Princeton, NJ by accident) in connection with the University of Memphis. He gets around. If he chose to quote himself as a USA representative in the PQRST rather than a British one, then maybe he thinks of himself as such these days.

Nevertheless, he did very well in the PQRST, getting nine of the ten questions correct, stumbling only on one of the optimisation ones. One wonders whether he will be taking part in the online qualifying test for the World Puzzle Championship on May 31st this year or not. (Register by May 29th, folks!) If he does then, well, he looks very dangerous to rack up a huge score. If he chooses to rack one up for the US then he'll find making the top two difficult (for this year there are two qualifying spots for the US team, not one as in the past - could this be because the aforementioned Wei-Hwa had a cold-ridden shocker at the last WPC and so needs to qualify like the rest of us?) but if he wants to represent the UK then I wouldn't bet against him being able to make the team.

My thoughts on the latter prospect are a little mixed. I'd really love to see the UK team have brilliant brains on it (the Huang-beating Pebodys of this world, even!) and go on to do far better than ever before at the WPC. On the other hand, I'd like to be one of those brilliant brains myself. :-) So much to do, so little time, apparently so few "doing useful things"-trons, but I guess the message is as ever; practice, practice and practice some more.

3. Potato salad is nice. Potato salad with diced spring onion and a hint of mint is even nicer.

4. Very interesting meeting of the Middlesbrough Gamers Club on Tuesday night. Last week's attendance of 77 was reassessed and rounded up to 80 upon further analysis. This week, our large committee (nominally 17 - 4 executives, 4 deputies, 9 non-executives; in practice, the line between committee and not is very blurred) had a large committee meeting. A large part of it was chasing up on actions agreed at previous meetings, much of this being banging our heads on the same topics over and over again. The most usual suspect here is the requirement, or otherwise, of police checks for public safety because we are a club with members aged both under 18 and over 18.

Accordingly, this meeting ran for almost two hours - a very significant chunk of time when the club only meets for four hours weekly - and tempers started to get a little worn. In fact, some of the club members even started to leave before the committee meeting had finished, so we didn't get money from them. Today's final totals were 77 paying members plus 8 getting free attendance for their first meeting, so 85 on the books, but we suspect there were at least five others (four to pay, one first-timer free) who got away scott-free. Total: nine-zero, blind ninety. Now considering that I was pleased that we were tending to draw around about 45 at the end of last year, and that we were regularly drawing somewhere around 60 in February, 90 is another major step forward again. It's starting to get scary.

It's also starting to get a little sad; tonight there was a feeling that something big did change tonight. Maybe it's because we really are finally about to start our first subsidiary satellite club and we really have got a second weekly meeting of the main club booked for Thursdays from September onwards. Ideally, the goal has to be to eventually get a games club somewhere in the region every day of the week, and with these three weekly sessions (plus our occasional Saturday eight-hour "Megadays") we're about half-way there. Not bad for a club aged, as far as I can tell, about four years.

However, maybe it's also because tonight was the first real signs of a bit of a kerfuffle between committee members, a feeling that maybe we're not all pulling in exactly the same direction any more. I don't regard the specifics as the business of the club at large, let alone the world outside the club, but let the personal record show that this was the week where some committee members started talking about being very close to quitting. (Not me, though.) To quote Shooting Stars' noted pre-pubescent philosopher-poet George Dawes - "he's the man with the scores" - both teams have large egos!

Incidentally, if you're wondering how to get your games club up to an attendance of ninety, here are the tips.
    • Try to cater for all types of games: RPGs, CCGs, war games, board games.
    • Be prepared for lots of your members to be very young. I think 20-30 of the 90 are aged 18-40, the others were children.
    • Have children who are seen as cool in their school attending. These cool children will then start to attract others to follow them. Some of these may be girls who seldom play anything and just use this as a venue to sit and chat. I don't want to get into gender politics here, but there's at least a little intake of breath at this point and there have been some implications on standards of behaviour experienced recently.
    • Serve hot and cold meals from a canteen. You can expect to sell about half a hundredweight (exaggeration, but not much) of confectionery to this quantity of kiddage every week.
    • Get the staff at the local Games Workshop and the local independent games shop to plug the club to all their customers.
    • Get staff from these shops to turn up on a regular basis. If they can promote their games there then it's probably good for their business as well as for the club.
    • Get to the point where you hold a Magic: the Gathering tournament every week. Sorry, I don't know the parameters.
    It's a games club, Jim, but not as we know it. Watch this space; if we don't kerfuffle ourselves to death, watch the front pages.

    5. The BBC have a self-help course so that we can all teach ourselves to get confident. It might be easier to take seriously if they didn't have Dr. Sandra Scott as an expert, for she was "the scary one off Big Brother" - not a contestant, but an analyst poring over the contestants' motivations. TV psychiatrists are the new TV chefs, apparently.

    6. 23rd April is my 27½th birthday, so exactly half-way to 55. How did the first half of my 28th year rate? Really pretty well on the friendship and self-discovery side, less well otherwise. The BBC pointed out that I am exactly 7½ years younger than the introduction of 5p and 10p coins.

    The move from pre-decimal currency to decimal currency is one of the parts of Britain's history which fascinates me; the BBC have an interesting article about the feared problems of implementation at the time and they link to an interesting external document about the change to decimal coinage. I did not know that they were seriously considering having a pound being equal to a thousand pence (or somesuch...) rather than a hundred; given that originally a pound was equal to 20 shillings and hence to 240 old pence. I'd have thought that the concept of "1 new penny = £ 0.001 = just under a quarter of an old penny" would have been significantly easier to grasp than that of "1 new penny = £ 0.01 = 2.4 old pence", but evidently not. Mind you, one of the reasons why I'm reluctant about the Euro is because the EUR 0.01 unit is called "a cent". For me, that's a lousy name in every language. I'm not wedded to the pound, but I do have an irrational attraction to the penny.

    7. Ice-cold drinks are nice. Ice-cold drinks in a warm mug fresh from the dishwasher are even nicer.

    8. I can't find a list of the candidates for the upcoming council election anywhere, so I might be inspired to go and look at a library or somesuch. Many of the wards in Middlesbrough have changed boundaries, frequently gaining more euphonious names in an attempt to ameliorate the rougher areas' reputations (old map, new map) but I don't believe that Acklam ward has. The 4,400 on the electoral roll in the ward shall be electing two councillors. Not quite sure why we don't have two smaller wards electing one councillor each, but a step away from one-member FPTP is a step in the right direction as far as I'm concerned. Some demographics on our ward (.xls file, needs Excel) are available, but I don't trust 'em. Our ward does not have 2217% joblessness, I refuse to believe that simultaneously 5882% of pupils achieve 5+ good GCSEs while 147% of them achieve none and the ward certainly does not have 790% obesity. (Are all these consistently exaggerated by 100x throughout? Maybe.)

    (Ooh look, I've just discovered that our local MP has his own web site. It's very dull; none of Nick Palmer MP's weekly local-ish bulletins, let alone Tom Watson MP-style shenanigans. Oh, and look at the web site of Spen View Publications Ltd., who publish a number of books by a single author, one Stuart Bell MP. I'm not sure quite how this is dodgy, but it's so suspect that it must be dodgy somehow.)

    Anyhow, from memory, I think we have received four communications from either five or six candidates. Last time, I voted for the two successful candidates, Ron Lowes (Independent) and Gwen Popple (Conservative). I feel the latter needs justification; she was very good at dealing with an enquiry that mother had about the trees in our street, so despite my dislike for her party, I voted for her as being good in her role. Ron Lowes has been an Independent on the council - the only Independent on the council - for about twelve years, I think, and is reportedly as mad as a bag of spanners. On top of that, he's always been pretty proactive at getting his name about in the newspapers, judging "best Indian restaurant in Middlesbrough" contests and the like. However, he has worked his way onto Mayor Ray Mallon's executive board ("cabinet") of six (er, apparently seven) with responsibility for "Liveability & Environment". Accordingly, I have e-mailed him a transport question which he ought to be able to knock out of the ball park. If he can get a halfway satisfactory reply back in the next week then he's got my vote again.

    I digress. This time we have Ron standing and we have one Conservative candidate who isn't Gwen Popple and so who isn't getting my vote. We have exactly one Labour candidate (possibly two?) but strangely we have two candidates from the Christian People's Alliance. Now normally I'm pretty good at keeping up with the existence of the fringe parties, but this was a new one on me. Interestingly the paper flier that the CPA sent out did mention harmony with and support from religious leaders from other faiths, but the preamble to their constitution is overtly and directly Christian. I was hoping that they would send someone round to the door so that I could pretend to them that I was a member of the National Secular Society, but unfortunately would-be councillors from all the parties seem to be too chicken to come round any more. Perhaps this is why the council elections get such tiny turnouts these days.

    Unfortunately, no communication has yet been received from any Liberal Democrats, any Greens or any sundry Socialists. I shall look into this to see whether they are standing or not, but I fear not. I'm particularly disappointed that we don't have anyone from the People's Alliance as well as the Christian People's Alliance, but only mostly because it would let me do a joke about the "bong game" on "The People's Alliance Versus" which about 3½ of you would have got.

    9. More cheap flights available from the UK, this time with British Airways. NY £199, Baltimore/Boston/Philly/DC £209, Chicago/Detroit/LA/Miami/San Fran £239, Houston £241 (!!??), Denver/Phoenix/San Diego £269, Montreal/Toronto £279, Seattle £339, Vancouver £399. (Poor old Vancouver!) Better-than-usual prices for the rest of the world, too, other than East Asia. Apparently this is a special offer with limited availability, but it looks pretty bookable to me. Offer open until 15 May, which is also the date you must leave by (so, alas, no cheap tickets to Nimbus). Just for the record, you can normally get AAdvantage miles for flying BA except for flying BA transatlantic, to the best of my knowledge. Wacky but true.

    10. The electronics chain Maplins have a special offer on 1 Farad capacitors at the moment - half-price down from £100 to £50. What would any home electronics fan need a one Farad capacitor for? I thought that even light industry tended to use ones which were of the order of tens or hundreds of milliFarads. Nevertheless, if you ever wanted a capacitor of considerable, impractical capacitance (and one which has little 7-segment displays on the front to indicate just how much havoc it can wreak) then now is the time to buy - go knock yourselves out, quite possibly literally. Apparently it's for "demanding in-car audio systems". Ow.

    11. Chicken Tikka Bhuna Balti from Birmingham is nice. Chicken Tikka Bhuna Balti at the Baltic art gallery in Gateshead ought to be even nicer.

    12. Someone phoned me up and offered me a free mobile phone today. The line quality was terrible, the caller had an Indian accent and offered an Indian name. Annoyingly, they hung up on me while I was half-way through asking them to put me on their "do not call" list, which I thought was particularly rude. Time to sign up with the Telephone Preference Service, I suppose. I'm not against the work migrating around the world according to where it makes most economic sense, but I don't think it's too much to ask for callers to be able to understand simple instructions to go on a "do not call" list. Anyway, I have decided that when I get a mobile phone, I will change the ring-tone from the default Grand Valse (you know: "DEEDLE-ee-dle, DEEDLE-ee-dle, DEEDLE-ee-dle ee") just ever so slightly. Maybe I'll change some of the intervals from major to minor, or maybe if I get a polyphonic phone then I'll add a slightly jarring, faintly discordant harmony or something. I think that would be the best way to maximise the evilness of the ring tone.

    13. The world and their dog have by now discussed the famous "Cog" Honda Accord advert, which is indeed very cool and groovy. massive: middling (syndicated as mssv_middling) pointed out you can order the DVD for free (might be UK-only, I suspect). I did. It came today. We watched it tonight. It was cheerful. Not completely convinced I believe the "no tricks, only one bit of CGI, 606 takes" story, but it's still cheerful all the same.

    14. Thursday morning: didn't get the job at Spotlight Guides Ltd. Meh, fuckers. The last person they interviewed had directly relevant experience that I did not. The guy who interviewed me said he would be happy to consider me for other positions in the future and that they expected to have other positions to which I might be even better suited. I still like the guy and I think he still likes me, so maybe something will happen later. I was as pushy as I dared be while remaining polite and hopeful that something might happen later. There was always the downside that the company is at what would be a tricky place to get to (I reckon 20 minutes walk to get to a stop on the bus route, a 20-30 minute bus ride and then another 10 minute walk at the other end) and that they are set to establish some very long shift patterns, but I'd still have liked to have got the job. Oh well. Keep going.

    15. Can't end on a low note. Have just enjoyed spending three hours catching up on the last 58 hours' worth (c. 400) Friends page entries - I perceive the general mood of the flist to be as positive as it has been for a while, which is excellent. Best link was from thegamereport, which I shall blockquote:
    I've heard from a number of TGR subscribers who were enthralled by my account of The Game, an over-the-top 36 hour puzzle hunt and road rally held in Las Vegas this past October. The organizers have put together a web site chronicling the event, with photos of many locations, copies of all the puzzles and solutions, behind the scenes information, and loads of other extras. The event, called Shelby Logan's Run, was easily the most exhilirating and flat-out coolest thing I've ever done, and you can get a taste of what it was like by following the chronology and story there.
    I note that Peter Sarrett, the quotee, has appeared on syndicated WWTBAM? (don't know how he did yet - his ep should air in a couple of months' time) so the "flat-out coolest" accolade is a high one. The web site is even better if you read it in context of the article that he wrote about it in his so-named printed zine, which goes into detail about the game's aborted conclusion that the web site treats very lightly. A must read for anyone who has ever played a capital-G game, has wondered what they might involve or even just likes reading about people doing wacky things.

    16. Just had an afternoon nap. The last dream ended with me watching a tape of an Australian quiz show I didn't recognise. The host and the contestant (who looked like someone I didn't like much from university) were standing alongside each other, shoulder to shoulder, in front of a gold-coloured car. The host deliberately held a pile of question cards so that the contestant could see what was written on them. Evidently this contestant had won this quiz two days running and had come back on a third day to try to win the car. The host asked the contestant two questions about parts of a car, and each time, the quiz had a slick reveal where they showed the host peeling off the top question card from the stack, so that host and contestant saw the card underneath which bore the answer to the question at the same time. Anyway, the contestant got the questions right and celebrated winning the car extremely vigorously. The host shouted "You've just won the Gryffindor car!"; I think they pinned a red-and-gold skirt around his mother as well. It was a pretty bizarre dream (no obvious HP connection other than redness and goldness) but in a good way. :-)

    17. I bet I'll never be able to find half of this stuff ever again. Perhaps if I used sensible subject lines and split my posts up into smaller chunks it might help...
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