Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Me and Quizzing right now - Brain of Mensa

If you were with me with my previous post, then you’ll know what’s been going on with me for the last few months. Reading it back, I can see that it might give you the impression that I finished with quizzing completely during this time. That’s not true, at least, not quite true.

I said that I made up my mind during that time that I was going to step down from playing in the Bridgend Quiz League after the end of the 2016/17 season. That is actually true, and I still have no intention of playing next season. It’s a little bit complicated. I’ve already written in the blog about things which happened in the 2016 AGM, which led to my decision not to play in the league in the 2016/17 season, a decision I had to renege on due to the sad passing away of our mate Brian. I didn’t want to leave the team in the lurch mid season, so I played, but enough is enough now. Put simply, my heart isn’t in the league any more, and so I’d rather say that by and large it’s been a fun 7 years, and I’d rather me and the league part as friends.

I also said that I’d begun missing Thursday night quizzes in the Rugby Club. That’s true, and may well happen again. I suppose that one way I’ve changed a bit in the last couple of months is I’ve stopped doing things which I don’t have to do out of a sense of duty. I’ll try to explain that. Prior to 2017, if there was a quiz in the rugby club, and I wasn’t out of the country, or at some work business I couldn’t get out of, then I’d be there. For most of the 20+ years I’ve been going to the Thursday night quiz I really wanted to, anyway. There have been times in the last couple of years when I haven’t really wanted to go, but I’ve gone anyway out of a sense of obligation to the people who’ve taken time and trouble to compile a quiz. (Yes, I do appreciate you all, even though I may moan like hell while the quiz is actually on. Can’t help it.) Since my treatment started, though, I don’t go if I don’t feel like it. The nice thing is that most weeks, I do feel like it, and I do want to go. We still don’t win that many, but when we do, it brightens the whole week for me.

And so to Brain of Mensa. Ah yes, Mensa. That’s a word which tends to put some people’s backs up, and in a sense I can understand why. I’m sure that you already know, but basically Mensa is a society founded in 1947 as an organisation for people who can demonstrate that they have an IQ in the top 2% of the population. The whole idea of intelligence, and how accurately any IQ test can measure whatever intelligence is, well, that’s a whole can of worms which is not best opened here. It’s difficult to argue against the idea that Mensa is an elitist organisation, however much we might like to think differently. It’s also difficult to respond in any meaningful way to the assertion – ‘I don’t need any organisation to tell me that I’m intelligent’ - . So maybe Mensans are the insecure and pitiable figures that certain individuals and sections of public opinion think we are. Personally, when I’ve been involved in a Mensa event, I’ve found that the people involved are a pretty wide cross section of society, and the only characteristic that links all of them is that they are members of Mensa. I’ve yet to see two people swapping IQ scores for that matter.  OK, so I guess what I’m trying to say here is, yes, I know that Mensa as an organisation is something a lot of people take a very negative view of, and that’s fine. If that’s your view, nothing I say is likely to change your mind, and I can live with that.

So – Brain of Mensa. When I first heard about the competition in about 2008, I filed it away in my memory as something to come back to in the fulness of time. I took the test and joined in the summer of 2013, and entered the 2014 competition, where I reached the final and came third. I enjoyed the competition, and very much wanted to win it if I ever could. Back in 2014 I gave myself 10 years to win it. I didn’t enter in 2015, then last year I entered, got to the final, and the questions fell my way. Not being modest here, they did. The great thing about winning last year was that I don’t have to worry about winning now. Seriously, having won it once, everything now is just for fun, and if I never win it again – and let’s face it, that’s the most likely prognosis – that’s fine by me.

Still, I never enter a quiz without wanting to win it, and so I was pleased to get through my first round heat on Saturday just gone.

If you’re not a member, or you are and you’ve never played in the competition, you might be interested in the way that it works. There are three rounds – first round heat, semi final, and final. One winner from each heat goes through to the semi finals, and the winner and second placed in the semis contest the grand final. One of the features of the competition that I really like is that each heat and semi final is hosted by one of the competitors. In theory this doesn’t have to be at anyone’s home- it could be at another venue arranged by the nominated organiser. In practice though it’s usually the organiser’s home. On Saturday I played host for the first time.

I don’t know, but I imagine that the Geographical aspect of the competition can make organisation tricky. To give an example, I live in Port Talbot South Wales. The other two competitors in my heat were from Rhyader in mid Wales, and Wexford, in the Republic of Ireland. Geographically, we were the latter’s closest competitors. I imagine that there’s probably a lot less travel involved for participants living in the South East of England. I’m lucky. Living in Port Talbot I know that I’m probably going to have to travel, and I love it. I’ve been to heats and semis in Chard in Somerset, in Stevenage in Herts., in Marlborough in Wilts. , and in Derbyshire. That’s not counting the two finals, one in Birmingham and the other in London.

As for the quiz itself, well, I think that it’s the hardest individual quiz I ever play in. The breadth and depth of the questions are a real challenge, and that’s the way it should be. The way it works is probably best explained if we take a round involving 4 players, the final or semi. There are 120 general knowledge questions. The questions are set by the estimable Brian Daugherty, who is also question master for the grand final, and they are far above the level of your local pub quiz. They are asked in rounds of 20 questions. Each player would be assigned a letter, A,B,C or D, and a seating position – A 1st, B 2nd and so on. In round 1, A would be asked first question, then B and so on. Should A answer his or her question incorrectly, then B gets a chance for a bonus, if he answers incorrectly then C and so on. Then B would be asked his or her first question, and should he/she answer incorrectly, then it would be offered to C, then D, then A. You see how it works, I’m sure. Each correct answer is worth a point.

Now, after the first 20 questions, seating positions are changed. So while A might remain in seat 1, B,C and D would all swap. This is done in the interests of fairness. In any group of 4 quizzers, while they might all be strong quizzers in their own right, some are going to be even stronger than others. So there is a distinct advantage to coming immediately after one of the comparatively weaker players, in terms of the chances to answer bonuses which you may receive. So after each set of 20 questions the seating arrangements are changed, with the idea being that every player gets a fair crack of the whip with regards to bonuses.

It’s a terrific quiz, and over the years it has been won by some very well known quizzers, whose blushes I’ll spare. Suffice it to say, though, that in the last ten years, the competition has been won by either a Brain of Britain Champion, a Mastermind Champion, or an Egghead 7 times, while the player who won on the other three occasions is easily good enough to win BoB or MM.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Where Have I been? - Good Question. . .

The King of Hearts told Alice to begin at the beginning. That’s good advice, but it presupposes that you actually know where the beginning is. So for convenience’s sake, let’s take up the story from after my last post in LAM. 

I left off Lam abruptly right at the and of March after posting about the UC semi final. A few days prior to writing that I made a visit to my GP, during which he diagnosed me with depression.

Since being diagnosed, I’ve been hugely surprised by the number of people I’ve met who have also gone through it. If you’ve been through depression, then you’ll know that any description I try to make of it is likely to be inadequate. If you haven’t, well, I will try my best to describe it for you.

From January onwards I had become (more) moody and irritable, and started losing interest in, well, pretty much everything. I fought against it, because I’ve felt like this before a few times in the last few years. You may be aware yourself of my long periods of silence in the blog in the last two or three years. That was bad enough, but this was something different, or worse. 

By March I found that certain things, many concerned with work but not all of them, left me a quivering wreck of anxiety. For example, in certain situations I was finding that I just couldn’t make a decision. And I was scared, many days absolutely terrified of God only knows what. Many days I would drop one or other of my daughters into work, then drive to work myself gripping the steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles would go white, trying very hard to stop myself from crying. For no reason that I could put my finger on. I started missing the quiz in the rugby club on a Thursday night, and I announced that I would be retiring from the Bridgend Quiz League when the season came to an end. No matter how early I went to bed I was waking at 4 am every morning on the dot, heart thumping and a feeling of dread and terror wrapped around me like a cloak. 

I didn’t go to see the doctor, though. I tried to just carry on as if nothing was wrong. I don’t think I was making a brilliant job of it, mind you, since I had a growing number of colleagues telling me to please go and see the doctor. 

It finally came to a head over my diabetic check up. I knew full well that I had to take a party of children from the school to Swansea University on the day that I had my appointment, yet could I bring myself to tell the Deputy Head? No. What made it worse was that I didn’t go to my GP’s surgery to cancel the appointment until the day before. That was the last straw. Pretty much failing to hold back the tears as I apologised to the practise receptionist, and tried to explain the inexplicable convinced me that I had to make an appointment to see my GP – well, that and the wife beating me over the head with a frying pan until I agreed to go. Joke. That’s another thing too – I lost my sense of humour. Some would argue I haven’t got it back yet. 

I was in such a state going to see the doctor that my youngest daughter, Jessica had to accompany me. To cut a long story short, I was diagnosed with depression. I found myself admitting to my GP that while the thought of the effect that it would have on my family had stopped me going so far as making plans for suicide, I certainly went to bed every night hoping that I wouldn’t ever wake up again after falling asleep. In fact the real thing that stopped me was imagining my eldest daughter having to explain what had happened to my grandson. That chokes me up now even thinking about it. The moment the doctor suggested a month off work I could have kissed him. He also prescribed a course of fluoroxetine, which I’m informed is either a type of Prozac, or similar to it. He also told me not to expect improvement for a few weeks. 

What brought this on? To this day I have no idea. It would be easy if there was one traumatic event I could point to, but there really isn’t. I suppose that the most traumatic thing had been changing schools. We were first told of the plan to merge our school with two others in a brand new school way back in October 2010, and the school opened in September 2016. The school is 3 times as big in terms of numbers as my last school ever was, and frankly, some of the worst groups are awful. In many ways, it’s like being a brand newly qualified teacher all over again. The worst thing about this was that I was 23 last time, and I’m 53 now. So yes, probably moving schools brought it to a head. But I think it has been building up for several years. I just don’t know exactly why. Maybe I never will. 

There were only two weeks left in the term before the Easter holidays. The best thing I can say about those weeks is that there were only two of them. In addition to the huge anxiety and gloom I’d been feeling everyday, I now had a shedload of guilt over missing school to deal with. In 30 years the longest consecutive absence I’d had so far was 3 days. For those two weeks and a little bit more it was as if there was a little invisible demon sitting on my shoulder, whispering all the worst things I have ever felt about myself before, constantly, and what is more, in my own voice. 

I’d booked a short solo sketching trip to Prague for the second week of the Easter holiday, the 4th since my diagnosis, and my family were adamant that I should still go. When I was there, I found that the whispering demon had gone, but he’d actually left a huge void. It was like it wasn’t me – or indeed anyone. It was a little bit like somebody walking around in my body – I was doing all the things I had planned to do, but it was like somebody else was doing them and I was watching the video. The only people I spoke to for three days were the hotel staff, and hot dog vendors. I made some great sketches though. 

I had a telephone consultation with my GP, and I said, and he agreed, that I didn’t feel ready to return to work yet. In truth, I thought that I’d never feel ready to go back ever again. He gave me a paper for a further month. The first sign that I was improving came about a fortnight later, when I found myself actually hungry, and actually enjoying a meal. Don’t get me wrong, I’d been eating meals previously, but this was because it was something I thought I should do rather than something I actually wanted to. I started to take myself out on visits to places in Wales I’d always wanted to visit but had never got round to, places like Dylan Thomas’ boathouse in Laugharne. I sketched constantly. My sleeping became better than it had been for years. More than that, after the sixth week of being on medication, I could face phoning the school to discuss my return. When I had a meeting with the school’s business manager I surprised myself by saying that although she offered me to start after the half term holiday, I’d like to come back for the two days before. Where did that come from? Well, those days were the first two days after my second sick paper ended and. . . I felt ready. 

We agreed that we’d do the Thursday, and then talk about whether I could do the Friday. Both went well, and (whisper this quietly) for the first time in I can’t remember how long I actually enjoyed some of the lessons. I started back full time after the half term holiday, and the only day I’ve missed since was for my diabetic eye check up (had the results, all fine, no change thanks for asking).

I don’t kid myself for one minute that I’ve bid a final goodbye to the little demon on my shoulder. I wasn’t as bad two years ago, but looking back, I can see that I was on the way at the time. So I know that he could be back, and that’s something I have to live with, and something I find I can live with. At the moment, then, I’m taking it one day at a time. Well, as much as I can take one day at a time – at work there are times when you have to look forward to later in the week, term etc when you have events coming up which need to be prepared for, but ok. So far, I can handle it. 

So I’m back. For today, at least, I’m back. Whether I’ll have anything worth saying in the blog now, well, that’s something which will only become clear as time goes on. One post at a time.

Friday, 31 March 2017

University Challenge Semi Final - Emmanuel Cambridge v. Wolfson Cambridge

I think that it’s probably fair to say that this was the most highly anticipated match of the series so far. The excitement on social media about a match many people billed as Seagull v. Monkman was palpable in the days leading up to Monday’s semi. That billing is a little unfair – after all as well as LAM reader captain Bobby, Emmanuel could boast the talents of Tom Hill, Leah Ward and Bruno Barton-Singer. On the other side, as well as their iconic captain, Wolfson’s Justin Yang, Ben Chaudri and Paul Cosgrove should never be underestimated.

It looked good for Emma at the start as Bruno Barton-Singer was quick to recognise an example of deus ex machina for the first starter. Bonuses on the German born art historian Erwin Panofsky sounded tricky, but we both managed the second and third. Now, I’m sorry, but you can’t sit and wait when you hear the name Robert Catesby. Both teams let the name sink in for a second before Eric Monkman buzzed in with his first answer of the night – the gunpowder plot. It wouldn’t be his last. This brought up bonuses on property  of which they managed one. Ben Chaudri recognised that the two probes NASA sent off on their merry way in 1977 were called Voyager. Their bonuses were all terms beginning with ‘apo’, and they managed 2. Tom Hill buzzed in with the term Naturalistic fallacy for the next starter. No, me neither. Davis Cup tennis provided them with a timely full house, a fact which seemed to surprise Bobby a little – in a good way, of course. A starter about a French physicist caused Eric Monkman to buzz in with “De Broglie”. Gesundheit! – I shouted at the telly, but he was right. This brought Wolfson a set of bonuses on scientific units used to measure constants. How many of these do you think I got right? How dare you? You’re right, mind you, I didn’t get any of them, but Wolfson managed a full house. A nice picture starter showed us two cities marked off a map showing Africa and South America. The South American one was Bolivia, so presumably La Paz. Asked which name element they have in common, I went for peace – guessing that Dar Es Salaam was the other. Eric Monkman buzzed in with the same suggestion, and we were both right. The picture bonuses showed more of the same and after confusion with the first they failed to take any of the bonuses. So, at some way past the ten minute mark, Wolfson just looked to be establishing control of the contest with a lead of 70 – 45.

You had to wait and wait and wait with the next starter, and then as soon as you heard ‘designed for world fair in Brussels’ slap that buzzer through the desk. Justin Yang won that buzzer race with “The Atomium”. A set of bonuses on stained glass in North West England promised but little, but general history knowledge enabled both of us to take a full house. Leah Ward struck back, recognising three titles of novels by Georgette Heyer. Be honest, ‘Lady of Quality’, ‘Venetia’ and ‘Regency Buck’ could have been anything – fishing flies, roses – marital aids . . . apologies. Bonuses on silent comedy saw Emma drop two out of a gettable set, and for the first time I started to worry about their chances of pulling this one off. Mind you, Bruno Barton-Singer had a fantastic early buzz on the next starter to identify the super-continent Pangaea. Criticisms of Marxism were not easy – I only had Bakunin, and Emma failed to add to their score. Now, for the music starter, when I’m asked for a modern British composer I usually plump for Benjamin Britten. Nobody was buzzing in, so Bruno Barton-Singer used the same tactic, and with success. More Britten songs, setting poems to music followed, and Emma identified Donne and Blake, but missed out on Wilfred Owen, which they probably should have had. Harsh, but this was a very tight match, where only 5 points separated the teams at this stage. Every answer counted. The speed of Eric Monkman, recognising a definition of the DMZ – Demilitarised Zone – was apparent when he won the buzzer race for the next starter. Early Nobel Laureates provided a further 10 to stretch the lead to a full set. I know nowt about C. elegans but it brought another starter to Justin Yang. Mathematics brought me nothing, but took Wolfson to 130 against Emmanuel’s 90. Still all to play for, considering how we’d seen Emma powering to the line in previous matches.

Another great buzz from Eric Monkman saw him identify the word ‘zany’ from Love’s Labour’s Lost. Hill forts escaped them completely. For the second picture starter I had a feeling that we were looking at the work of Franz Hals, but neither team had it. Tom Hill won the buzzer race to spell the capitals of firstly Senegal and then Bangladesh. The picture bonuses showed more works which featured in Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, of which Emmanuel identified 2, to narrow the gap to 30. I thought Hilbert was a cartoon character, but apparently he was a german mathematician. Eric Monkman knew him anyway. Contemporary figures who appeared in Byron’s Don Juan only provided a single bonus. Eric Monkman made a rare miscue for the next starter, and I thought that it was a bit of a harsh adjudication when JP would not allow Bruno Barton-Singer apposite for apposition – they’ve often accepted answers this close in the past. Nobody knew Derek Parfit for the next starter. Some maths thing escaped both teams but then Tom Hill recognised a series of caves and stuff in the Yorkshire Dales. Galilean Moons of Jupiter gave me a full house, and when I completed my lap of honour I saw that 2 correct answers had put Emmanuel just 15 points adrift. The Wolfson skipper immediately stretched that lead again, knowing the Rashomon effect. Impressive shout. Latin terms including verbs in the present subjunctive were a bit of a gift, and they duly accepted that windfall to take th lead up to 40 points. Again, Emmanuel, through Tom Hill, came back, knowing that Monet painted more than 30 views of Rouen Cathedral. Had he never heard of postcards? The second South African War – with answers commonly found in UK street names, was a great little UC set, but the gong sounded after the first. Wolfson had won by 170 - 140

It had promised to be a terrific match, and it was. Not quite the closest we’ve seen this series, for once Wolfson got ahead they always seemed to have that tiny bit more in the tank. These two teams know each other well, and the congratulations from the Emmanuel team were genuine, and I have no doubt they’ll be cheering on their fellow Cambridge team in the final. Indeed, both Bobby and Eric made it clear that they’re mates in their appearance on Tuesday’s One Show. Congratulations to Wolfson, and best of luck in the final.

Jeremy Paxman Watch

Rather a forebearing JP again tonight. When asked for the picture bonuses, Eric Monkman got rather the wrong end of the stick, offering up “Vladivostock” rather than a name element. All JP said was, “That isn’t what I asked you for, “ and repeated the question. Mind you, that did enable him to refuse to accept the right answer when they gave it, since they’d already given a wrong un.

I think Jez, a Cambridge man, was a little bit emotional by the end of this all Cambridge semi, for I don’t recall him ever saying anything like his final oration to both teams in this show, “Well, I will say that all of you guys, of whatever gender, you’re very very clever.”

Interesting Fact That I Didn’t Already Know Of The Week

Belgrade translates into English as White City.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

University Challenge - Sudden Death Quarter Final - Corpus Christi v. Balliol

Corpus Christi, Oxford v. Balliol, Oxford

Yes, dearly beloved, we have reached the last of the quarter final matches, the last round of drinks in the last chance saloon if you like. Tom Fleet, Emma Johnson, Adam Wright and skipper Nikhil Venkatesh had impressed for Corpus Christi throughout all of their matches until their second QF, where they were outbuzzed by Emmanuel. Opponents Balliol, represented by Freddy Potts, Jacob Lloyd, Ben Pope and captain Joey Goldman were beaten by last week’s qualifiers Wolfson in their first QF, but slaughtered Birmingham in their sudden death match. Who would win this one? Well, it’s been an unpredictable series, with a good half a dozen strong teams in the quarters, and as we all know 6 into 4 doesn’t go. Something’s gotta give. We’d soon find out just who.

If you’re asked for a King of Bavaria, Ludwig is always going to be a decent shout. It worked out that way for both me and Joey Goldman on the first starter. Chatham House earned them one bonus – the only one I knew was that Pitt the Elder was given the title of the Earl of Chatham. Respect for Jacob Lloyd for ascribing the Shakespeare quote about imagining death by drowning to Richard III – wouldn’t have been my first – or second, or third – choice, that one. Bonuses on squandering saw Balliol take their first full house, and these were by no means all easy either. The term Eutrophic gave Balliol their third successive starter and Ben Pope his first. Pairs of Scientific terms differing by only one letter were a good old UC special set, and Balliol took two. According to Harold Macmllan no sensible man challenges The Brigade of Guards – and two other bodies. I guessed the Church – it turned out to be the Catholic church,  and the other was the National Union of Mineworkers. Neither team had that one. The next was a real UC special. Concatenate the regnal numbers of all the monarchs of the UK since Victoria and the resulting 5 digit number is closest to the area of which country of the UK? It was crying out for a contestant to hit the buzzer and hope, and Joey Goldman was rewarded for bravery when his guess of Scotland turned out to be correct. Questions on Mary of Guise brought 2 more correct answers to Balliol, and my first full house of the night. A flag picture starter! I love a flag picture starter, and knew straightaway that this was Greenland’s. So did Adam Wright, who put Corpus Christi’s score into the black, and earned bonuses on flags of indigenous peoples that have co official status. The only one I knew was the Aboriginal flag from Australia, but Corpus managed two of them. Nikhil Venkatesh won the buzzer race to answer Marie Stopes for the next starter, and they correctly answered two of a set on panopticons. Incidentally this set disgracefully ignored the fact that the Panopticon is probably the most important building on Gallifrey, the Doctor’s home planet. So this rally meant that the score just after the 10 minute mark was 80 – 35 to Balliol.

Right, the next question asked for shared values of something or other, and I did what I always do when asked for a value I haven’t got a clue about. I answered 0. Not for the first time, it was right. Ben Pope had that one as well. Mesons, leptons, muons and the like gave me nowt for the bonuses, but Balliol lapped them up like cream, gaining a full house. Emma Johnson buzzed early to supply the words mediate and meditate for the next starter. This gave Corpus a set on South Korean cinema. Respect to the whole team for not one of them saying “What the . . . “ Despite never having knowingly watched a South Korean movie, I took a full house, and Corpus took two bonuses of their own. Really and truly these were GK questions – and nowt wrong with that either. Freddy Potts knew the Gini index. Pun overload warning. A fantastic UC special set followed on sets of books in which the shorter title was also the beginning of the longer title, eg Cormac McCarthy and George Orwell giving us The Road – To Wigan Pier. Alright, it was easy to get a full house on these which Balliol duly did, but that wasn’t the point. These were fun, and kudos to the setter. Adam Wright recognised candidates for the southernmost of the Pillars of Hercules, and earned Corpus a set on South America. They took a couple, but at this stage they really needed full houses to start closing that gap on Balliol. Now, I have a tactic for answering who composed American operas for the music starter. If it sounds like music I say Copland. If it doesn’t, I say Glass. This time I went for Glass, as did Joey Goldman and we were both correct. Bonuses on other composers who had day jobs only provided any of us with one, the old chestnut Borodin who was a chemist, although presumably not as in Boots the. Emma Johnson buzzed in with the next starter with the answer of Blastocyst. Gesundheit, I thought, but it was right, anyway. Rapidly orbiting moons, being about my only area of any scientific knowledge – astronomy – promised my best chance of a lap of honour in this show. I actually had two, which meant the lap of honour followed by the Mexican Wave. It was the same two that Corpus managed. The first and greatest masterpiece of modern art could only be Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, but it took a while before Joey Goldman buzzed in, earning bonuses on writer’s block. The two that Balliol managed meant that the score was 160 – 95 in their favour on the cusp of the 20 minute mark. Game over? No not yet, but it would need an almighty effort from Corpus Christi.

Emma Johnson knew Force Majeure, and obscurely named administrative districts of England gave one bonus which reduced the gap to 50. Now, for the second picture starter I immediately recognised the original costume design for L’Apres Midi d’Un Faun, since exactly the same picture is in the Chronicle of the 20th Century. Emma Johnson, a star player for Corpus at this stage of the game, knew it too. More original designs for ballets failed to add to their score. Joey Goldman stretched the lead back out, knowing the sign for a glottal stop. I gave myself a small round of applause for knowing that atropine comes from deadly nightshade for the first of a set of bonuses – alright, I only had one on this set, but it was one more than Balliol managed. I didn’t know that Clara Wieck married Schumann, but Jacob Lloyd did. Postwar works on the shortlist of academic books that changed the world offered me but little and indeed delivered me nothing, while Balliol had a full house. Don’t care – I knew atropine. I loved the next starter – three European capital cities gave their names to elements of the periodic table – name two. Paris – Lutetium, Stockholm – Holmium, Copenhagen – Hafnium – I answered. Some time later once again it was the Balliol skipper who had the guts to buzz in, and bravery was rewarded as he gave the 2 Scandinavian capitals. This took them through the 200 points barrier, and the Danish Colonial Empire brought them to 215 and a 95 point lead. With the clock running down, Balliol were now as good as through. I think that Ben Pope probably knew that the closest national capital to Vienna is Bratislava, and he supplied its first three letters for the next starter. Here’s one of those annoying things. If you go to a pub quiz, and the question master asks which two European capital cities lie closest together, if you answer – Rome and the Vatican – you will be told you are being silly. If you answer Bratislava and Vienna you will be told it’s Rome and the Vatican. Anyway, this brought bonuses on the name Angel. A lovely set, Balliol were never going to pass up a full house on these. Fair play to Nikhil Venkatesh, the Corpus skipper must have known that they were out, but he still buzzed in with the Paradox of Hedonism for the next starter. Again, this brought up a great UC special set. Given words which appeared alongside their dictionary definition, the team had to identify capital cities – for example – airlift and wall give Berlin. Great set, and Corpus took a full house. Adam Wright knew the newly discovered moon Nix of Pluto. Sadly there was only time for one correct bonus on English and Sanskrit. At the gong, Balliol had won by 160 – 240.

I’m sure that it’s scant consolation, Corpus Christi, but there’s absolutely no shame in reaching the quarters of such a competitive series of UC – in other years I fancy you would have been semi-finalists. Many congratulations to Balliol, an impressive performance against a very good team. Best of luck in your semi.

Jeremy Paxman Watch

On the Henry VIII question about Mary of Guise, JP observed “He was a real charmer, wasn’t he?” Dare I say it, takes one to know one?

Oh, Jez, you do like your little joke don’t you? Pronouncing glottal stop as glo’al stop – a little obvious, don’t you think, though?

Interesting Fact That I Didn’t Already Know Of The Week

Greenland’s flag is called “Erfalasorput” which translates as ‘Our Flag’ – love it, does exactly what it says on the tin.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

University Challenge - Sudden Death Quarter Final - Warwick v. Wolfson, Cambridge

By the time we get to this stage, the sudden death quarter final, the chances are that we’re going to lose a good team, with maybe one of the stars of the series so far. Which brings us to Warwick v. Wolfson, Cambridge. Both Sophie Rudd of Warwick, and Eric Monkman of Wolfson could claim to be amongst the best buzzers of the series so far, but the reality of the situation was that we were going to be losing one of them – but which one? Warwick were represented by Jamie Keschner -Lycett, the reserve player, in for Sophie Hobbs,and regulars Sophie Rudd, Thomas Van and skipper Giles Hutchings. As for Wolfson, they fielded an unchanged team in Justin Yang, Ben Chaudri, Paul Cosgrove and their irrepressible skipper Eric Monkman.

Given a quote from Queen Victoria about an author, Thomas Van came in too early, ad even as he offered the answer of Disraeli he was apologising, knowing it was wrong. Given the detail that he died in 1870, Eric Monkman took the points by suggesting Charles Dickens. If you’re asked about a Victorian author and you don’t know the answer, then Dickens is the equivalent of backing the favourite in a greyhound race. You won’t always get your money back, but you’ll do so far more often than if you back the outsider. This brought up a set of bonuses on railway architecture. Yum yum, thought I. Full house to me – 2 to Wolfson. We were then asked for the Italian title of a painting which was described by JP. First in was Justin Yang with Primavera. The words of William Hazlitt describing the Romantic poets brought us both a full house, and gave Wolfson an early lead of 50 points. Sophie Rudd might not have been feeling stress and strain, but she gave them as the correct answer to the next starter. Some physics thing I think. 2 bonuses on China served to reduce the gap somewhat. Eric Monkman knew that petition principia equates to the English phrase – begging the question. Good shout, that one. Physics and astronomy terms containing the word black brought neither of us any points. For the picture starter we saw a latin phrase – num custos fratris mei sum? – which even my latin O Level was enough tell me meant – am I my brother’s keeper? Eric Monkman took starter number 3 with that one. More quotations brought a full house for both of us. Sophie Rudd managed her second starter, and was in very quickly for a set of words whose only consonants were c and d – as in cad. Here’s a question - How often do we see UC teams undone by relatively easy sports questions? This is what happened to Warwick, as a relatively gentle set of tennis questions beat them in straight sets. At just past the 10 minute mark Wolfson led 85 – 25, and Eric Monkman was having the better of his buzzer arm wrestle with Sophie Rudd.

I was surprised that neither of such able teams knew that Sir John Vanburgh designed both Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. I’ve never heard of the Narrow Road to the Deep North but Giles Hutchings had which brought him the next starter. Two timely bonuses on sea birds followed. Now, when you hear ‘dancer’ and ‘choreographer’ and any reference to America, you’ll not go far wrong by throwing caution to the wind and buzzing in with Isadora Duncan. That’s exactly what Justin Yang did to win the next starter. A difficult set on Celtic kingdoms brought just the one bonus, enough to bring up a triple figure score. Lord John Russell’s definition of a proverb brought Eric Monkman starter number 4. A full set on psychology meant that the gap between the teams had stretched to 80, and was looking ominous. Now, coming to the music starter, I do wonder if Wolfson had agreed before hand that if they got an opera, one of them would hit and hope with Carmen. Hat’s what Ben Chaudri did. Poor old Giles Hutchings knew it was Verdi, and knew it was a famous chorus, but zigged with Nabucco, while it was clearly the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. The next starter was a gentle Geography question about the straits formerly known as the Hellespont. Eric Monkman won his 5th starter with that unconsidered trifle. This earned the music bonuses on operatic choruses. They made short work of these. For the next starter Sophie Rudd knew that pebbles fitted into the classification of grain sizes, and this gave Warwick 2 bonuses on Nobel Peace Prizes. Asked for an American poet usually known by his initials and his surname, Eric Monkman’s answer of T.S.Eliot sounds a decent shout. Not when JP finished the question, though, with the details that these are usually represented in lower case. Jamie Keschner -Lycett accepted that windfall. River gorges in France provided just the one correct answer, but at least Warwick were now within striking distance of triple figures. VICE magazine brought Eric Monkman starter number 6. Battles of the Wars of the Roses saw Wolfson only score the one correct answer, in a very gettable set. Nonetheless it restored an 80 point lead of 160 – 80 as we rounded upon the 20 minute mark.

Now, I knew that Delbert Mann directed Marty, so all of the films given by JP for the next starter were directed by men with that surname. Nobody knew that one. The Rhani of Jhansi was remarkably enough to give Eric Monkman his seventh starter with the Indian Mutiny. A full set on the Emperor Trajan brought a triple figure lead. Starter 8 for Eric Monkman followed swiftly as he identified a portrait of the young Napoleon Bonaparte for the second picture starter. For bonuses Wolfson were asked to identify the painters of three other portraits of Old Boney. They answered Jacques Louis David for the first two – which weren’t – and Delacroix for the third – which was David. C’est la vie. Eric Monkman wasn’t in particularly fast for the next starter, knowing that Jimmy Carter was president at the time of the three Mile Island accident, but he was still faster than any of the Warwick team and claimed starter number 8. They took the same bonus on currency crises that I took, with Zimbabwe. Didn’t matter that they only got the one – that lead was growing, and the clock was ticking down. Nobody knew a series of towers in Moscow. I got a bit frustrated when the words history of the French Revolution were given in the next starter, and nobody buzzed for ages. Almost reluctantly, it seemed, Thomas Van gave us Carlyle – eventually. Physical Chemistry provided one bonus, which was one more than I managed. Sophie Rudd now won a buzzer race, knowing that the South American River upon whose banks are two capital cities is the River Plate – Rio del Plata. Ages – mulitples of 13 – of political figures brought a timely full house, but by this time the game was over as a contest. Nonetheless Thomas Van took the next starter on Hemingway. Bonuses on taxonomic ranks in zoology brought 2 bonuses. Nobody knew the next starter about the atlas bone. It seemed that perhaps the Mighty Monkman had decided to take a breather at thus tail end of the match, because now it was Giles Hutchings who won the buzzer race to identify Richard Strauss. Bonuses on astronomy had the effect of reducing the gap to 50 – two full houses. Was there time? Well, there was time for Wolfson to lose 5 for an incorrect interruption, and time for Sophie Rudd to identify the Dukedom held by the eldest son of the reigning monarch as Cornwall. There was time enough for one bonus on Prime Ministers. That was it, though. Wolfson had won by 205 – 175. That sounds relatively close, but this was due to a splendid belated fightback, and was not really a reflection of the dominance of Wolfson, and Eric Monkman, for much of the contest. Hard lines Warwick, but well done for what you’ve achieved in this series.

Jeremy Paxman Watch

Getting into the spirit of the thing, Eric Monkman offered a very dramatic reading of the quotation – He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword -. In years gone by JP might well have slapped him down verbally for such a performance, but in this show he merely chuckled and observed that Mr. M. would have made an excellent revivalist preacher. You’re becoming positively avuncular, Jez.

Interesting Fact That I Didn’t Already Know Of The Week

In China the festival called Tomb Sweeping Day is celebrated in April.

Friday, 10 March 2017

University Challenge - Elimination Match - Birmingham v. Balliol, Oxford

Birmingham v. Balliol, Oxford

Yes, dearly beloved, last Monday was a visit to the last chance saloon. Drinking for Birmingham were Elliot Jan-Smith, Fraser Sutherland, Chris Rouse and skipper George Greenlees, while the drinks for Balliol were on Freddie Potts, Jacob Lloyd, Ben Pope and captain Joey Goldman.

Now, if you hear “town” and “shares its name with an 18th century painter” then don’t hesitate – it’s Gainsborough. Joey Goldman won that buzzer race, and this brought Balliol a couple of bonuses on places with similar names to Westeros. I’ll be honest, I interrupted incorrectly with Herodotus for the Greek historian required for the next starter, as did Freddie Potts. The answer, supplied by Chris Rouse, being Thucydides. Bonuses on world History proved elusive, but Birmingham managed one of them. Joey Goldman was very quickly in with the term Anthropocene for the next starter. Mendelian genetics frankly did not seem very promising, and indeed I managed narry a one. Balliol took none of them either. SKY is an acronym named for the top universities in South Korea – as Joey Goldman knew for the next starter. Ida Lupino only provided a single bonus, and this brought us up to the first picture starter. Being a massive Beatles fan of course I recognised Komm, gib mir diene hand – and – Sie Liebt dich as I wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You. The Beatles did actually record these German versions of their own songs. Poor old Freddie Potts gave us I wanna Hold Your Hand, but then offered is – She Loves Me , adding a hopeful yeah-yeah – yeah. No, no no, to coin a phrase. This allowed Chris Rouse in to steal. The titles of three more tracks rerecorded by 60s artists for release in Europe. Brimingham only took the one, although they were only just outside the bullseye with both of the other two. This meant that the score at the ten minute mark stood at 40 – 25 to Balliol. On the surface there didn’t seem to be much in it. However both of Birmingham’s starters had come from incorrect Balliol interruptions. Early indications were that Balliol was winning the buzzer race hands down.

Perhaps self-employed taxi driver was the biggest clue to Noddy for the next starter, but neither team managed it. Fr the next starter Jacob Lloyd finished off a great quote from Ronald Hutton about the English Civil War. This earned Balliol a set of bonuses on Australian Deserts. I knew the Simpson, so I had one, but Balliol didn’t. For the next starter, it was one of those long winded things which suddenly becomes clear, and when it became obvious that the words ‘pathetic fallacy’ were what the question was driving at I saw at least four hands fly to the buzzers. It was Jacob Lloyd who got there first, though. My heart sank as JP announced physics as the subject – still, my policy of always answering neutrino to any question about a particle paid dividends with the first bonus. Yes of course I did a lap of honour . That was me done for this set, but it brought a full house to Balliol. A cantata from Prokofiev went begging for the music starter, and so the bonuses rolled over.  I don’t blame George Greenlees for flying into the next starter, but sadly Esperanto is not the only constructed language, and this starter wanted the lesser known Volapuk. Balliol couldn’t capitalise. Nothing daunted, George Greenlees knew that the word Gloria usually precedes In Excelsis Deo – while deo itself usually precedes daylight com and me wanna go home. Sorry. This earned music bonuses for Birmingham in the shape of three more excerpts from scores by composers known for their association with a particular film director. They took the one I knew as well, Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone. The next starter was about the physicist Stokes, and the impressive Joey Goldman added to his starter tally with that one. Now, when you hear English poet and Catholic convert, it doesn’t necessarily mean Gerard Manley Hopkins – but you can bet your life that will be the answer. Bonuses on him brought a full house to Balliol. It seemed inevitable that it was skipper Goldman who won the buzzer race to answer the next question about Lady Hamilton. The solar system brought another couple of bonuses, and Birmingham were, frankly, looking down the barrel of a gun. Freddie Potts guessed that a series of periods in a specific country’s history belonged to Brazil. A lovely UC set on palindromic surnames gave Balliol a lead of 140 – 30 just after the 20 minute mark.  The game wasn’t necessarily over, but the engine was already on Birmingham’s minibus of despair.

I didn’t know Giorgio di Chiricho for the second picture starter, but the irrepressible Balliol skipper was in like a whippet for it. 3 more examples of architectural capricci brought another full house. George Greenlees managed to get a toe in the door by knowing that melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland. Psychology bonuses added a much needed 10 points. Freddie Potts knew the Germa poet Heinrich Heine for the next starter after an incorrect Birmingham interruption. A UC special set on pairs of words where a few letters have to be added to the first to make the second brought an easy full house to the Balliol juggernaut. Nobody knew a set of different types of hedgerow for the next starter. For the next starter Joey Goldman knew that Citizen’s Broom toppled the leader of Burkina Faso. French ministers of finance gave me nowt, but Balliol took 2 to take them through the 200 point barrier. Let’s be honest, if you’re asked about an architectural historian – it is going to be Pevsner, isn’t it? Certainly Joey Goldman thought so with a very early and correct interruption. Verb moods brought a full house in very short order. I was surprised how long the teams took to get feldspar from the next starter, but eventually it was George Greenlees who snapped up that unconsidered trifle. Geography bonuses pushed them a little further onwards, but triple figures still looked like something of a tall order. Unstoppable, Joey Goldman added to his set of impressively early buzzes knowing the story of an horu had something to do with Chopin. Pharmacology only brought the one bonus, but that was of no significance. Now, I don’t know how I knew that Gibraltar Point is in Lincolnshire, but I did. Joey Godlman looked as if he was guessing, but his answer was right. Pairs of people and the full decade in which they were both alive brought up the 200 point lead for Balliol, at which point the gong brought the contest to a conclusion. Balliol won by 265 to 65. Hard lines Birmingham – beaten by consistently superb buzzing, and there’s nothing you can do when that happens. This sets up a fascinating shoot out for Balliol.

Jeremy Paxman Watch

Here’s a funny thing – Jez can’t pronounce ‘nomenclature’, Seriously – he says it about 6 and a half minutes into the show, and he tries to say the first couple of syllables missing out the vowels – nmnclature. Most bizarre.

When the Balliol team failed to answer any questions about Australian deserts an exasperated JP expostulated “What is the point of having an Australian if you can’t answer things like that?” Well – at least Ben Pope can probably pronounce nomenclature properly, Jez.

Interesting Fact That I Didn’t Already Know Of The Week

Quickset, Devon and Cornish are all different types of hedgerow

Saturday, 4 March 2017

University Challenge - Qualification Match - Edinburgh v. Wolfson Cambridge

Qualification Match – Edinburgh v. Wolfson, Cambridge

Yes, we’re getting through the quarter final stage at affair old rate of knots now. This was our second match with automatic qualification the prize for the winners. Edinburgh, represented by Luke Dale, Euan Smith, Emily Goddard and their captain, Joe Boyle saw off Birmingham in their first quarter final match, while Wolfson College Cambridge, represented by Justin Yang, Ben Chaudri, Paul Cosgrove and their skipper Eric Monkman, defeated Balliol, Oxford in their first quarter. An interesting match on paper, this one. In previous matches both teams had demonstrated buzzing throughout the team, and in Messrs Smith and Monkman, two of the most impressive performers on the buzzer of the whole series so far.

Eric Monkman showed an impressive turn of speed on the buzzer for the first starter, but didn’t quite get the right definition of HDI and lost 5. Small margins can make a difference. Euan Smith came in with Human Development Index to earn the first points and a set of bonuses on Thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. I would have answered David Hume to all three until it was right, but it was right on the first and that was me done. Edinburgh took two. Nothing daunted by the first question, Eric Monkman came in to answer that Geoffrey of Monmouth had written that Stonehenge had been brought to Britain from Ireland by Merlin. Wonder what he was on when he wrote that? Bonuses on French territories were not easy and both of us only managed the one. I love Angela Carter’s definition of comedy as “tragedy that happens to other people”, and that one went to Mr. Monkman’s able buzz lieutenant, Ben Chaudri. Astronomy yielded just one correct answer, but you could see there were a couple where had they zigged rather than zagged they’d have had them. Now, had you asked me what P-value was I’m afraid my answer would have shown nothing other than my penchant for schoolboy humour. Joe Boyle knew it though, and earned bonuses on the architectural style known as Brick Gothic or Hanseatic. Didn’t sound that promising , but it yielded a full house. The picture starter showed a map of India , with a state highlighted, and basically shading to indicate the highest proportion of speakers of a given language. Phew. Nobody – apart from me – had it. A good shout from Paul Cosgrove saw him identify an alloy of platinum and iridium as making up the international standard kilogram. This brought up the picture bonuses – more Indian states and languages, and 2 correct answers meant that both teams were dead level on the cusp of the 10 minute mark, having scored 45. This was looking as good a contest as we had expected it to be.

The next starter was a cryptic refence to Washington Crossing the Delaware. Didn’t faze Euan Smith at all, and this earned a set on matrices. When I switched my mind back on again, Edinburgh hadn’t added to their score. I knew who founded the Boys Brigade, as did Emily Goddard. Florentine Churches seemed to be to Edinburgh’s liking, and they took a full set. A UC special on words followed – basically you had to quickly figure out which two consonants produce words which have specific different meanings if you stick each vowel in turn between them. Winner of that particular buzzer race was Emily Goddard with a superfast answer of S and T. The astronomer Lassell provided Edinburgh with a further 2 correct answers. Now, you had to wait and wait and wait with the next question, then as soon as JP uttered the words ‘Russia’s best loved writer’ go like Billy-o for the buzzer. That’s what Euan Smith did with Pushkin, and he was right to do so. Pushkin once wrote a poem about my great, great, great, great uncle. True story. Bonuses on Western Europe  as defined by the US  statistics office brought them another full house. Dearly beloved, we have noted in the past that in a University Challenge match both teams will have their periods of ascendancy, their purple patches, if you like. It’s imperative to make the most of it while it’s happening, and Edinburgh were certainly making hay while the sun was shining on them, having by now powered through the triple figure barrier and put on 80 unanswered points. The music starter saw a rare wrong buzz from Euan Smith, allowing Eric Monkman to identify the Danse Macabre of Saint-Saens. Three more dances of death all escaped them, but at least their score was climbing again now after the Edinburgh blitz. I’ll be honest, ignoring all of the stuff about the periodic table for the next starter, after I heard ‘Latin subjunctive form’ I went for fiat, being about the only one I can remember. When, goaded by JP, Ben Chaudri offered the same, it proved to be right too. Susan Sontag promised me but little, and delivered me but the one bonus, as it did for Wolfson. I think I watched a TV show at least part of which was dedicated to Dorothy Hodgkin, as she gave me my first – and only – Science starter for the week. As I set off on the lap of honour Eric Monkman too supplied the correct answer.  The human skeleton provided a couple of bonuses. That Wolfson fightback, led by the efforts of their inspirational skipper meant that Wolfson had reduced arrears somewhat, and coming up towards the 20 minute mark the score stood at 125 – 90 in Edinburgh’s favour.

Mind you, Edinburgh’s own skipper was leading from the front as well. Joe Boyle buzzed in early to identify panther onca as the jaguar. Film titles including the name of a food grain did nowt for me, but Edinburgh managed one. For the next starter about an African river, Ben Chaudri zigged with Congo, allowing Euan Smith to zag with Niger. South America brought them two more correct answers. I was impressed with the speed with which Eric Monkman identified Mendeleev for the second picture starter. 3 more scientists with chemical elements named after them brought a much needed and well deserved full house. I thought both teams sat on the buzzer a little bit after the words – awakenings – and  - neurologist – were spoken in the next question, but Ben Chaudri chanced his arm with Oliver Sacks and was right to do so. Oh great – thought I – chemistry bonuses now. When I came out of my chemistry induced catatonia, Wolfson had narrowed the gap to 30 points. 10 points of which were immediately knocked off by Eric Monkman, knowing that the Crito de Delores was the starting point for the Mexican Revolution. Books about language reduced it by a further 10 points. Less than 4 minutes to go, and all that separated the teams was a single starter. Nobody knew that Edward VIII abdicated in December 1936. Ben Chaudri was the first in with the term larvae for the stage in many insects which comes immediately after egg. We had a tied game. Words ending in the letters za provided 5 points, but all three were, I thought gettable. Would they regret dropping those couple? Maybe, but on the other hand maybe not. They had retaken the lead, and it was now down to Edinburgh to play catch up. This they did as Euan Smith knew that the novel The Betrothed was originally written in Italian. A gift of a set on English counties saw them gain a full set at top speed. Syrinx could possibly have given Eric Monkman the idea of a flute – unluckily he plumped for clarinet, allowing Euan Smith to claim a vital starter for Edinburgh. Medical conditions affecting the spine brought nowt, but crucially Edinburgh led by 30. One visit to the table would not be enough for Wolfson now. It was so unlucky for Eric Monkman that he knew the right answer to the next starter, but blurted out the wrong answer having brilliantly recognised the answer to a question which had only started to be asked. He said ‘sand’ knowing that the place name component wich refers to the production of salt. Well, that one couldn’t go across, but he lost five, such a shame considering he had played so well all match. It wouldn’t have made a difference. We were gonged straight afterwards, giving Edinburgh a 195 – 160 victory.

Huge congratulations to Edinburgh – best of luck in the semis. As for Wolfson, well, whoever faces them in the last chance saloon will have a hell of a job on their hands. Very well played as well.

Jeremy Paxman Watch

I think that the Paxman tongue was firmly in cheek when he remarked that both teams’ reluctance to engage with a latin subjunctive form was “getting embarrassing”. Still, that’s a step in the right direction Jez – give us as much of that as you like. Warmed up he went on to mock Susan Sontag’s description of watching TV as a creative pursuit. When Edinburgh identified Peru and Bolivia as the countries sharing Lake Titicaca they chuckled and immediately the great man took them to task – “Why is it so funny?” Oh, come on, Jez – it’s maybe a long time since you were a school boy, but Titicaca is just a funny word. End of. Then finally there was poor Eric Monkman blurting out ‘sand’ – and then correcting himself with the correct answer of salt. JP was not pleased because it denied Edinburgh a run at the question, and rather took him to task. Not quite the vintage Paxman of a few years ago, but definitely more entertaining than in most of this series. Well done sir.

Interesting Fact That I Didn’t Already Know Of The Week

The suffix – wich – in place names denotes the production of salt.