Friday, 30 June 2017

The pitfalls of connections

It is possible to know too much, and this little vignette from last night illustrates this idea, and one of the pitfalls of using questions with connected answers, an idea which I actually introduced to the rugby club more than 20 years ago. The way it works is that the QM will ask 3, 4, 5 or more seemingly unconnected questions, and then ask you what connects all of the answers. It’s good fun, and it always makes compiling a quiz more enjoyable for me, since there’s the challenge of making the connections. OK. So, last night, we were asked this question. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but this is a pretty good paraphrase : -

“The Western Wall, otherwise known as the Wailing Wall, in Jerusalem, is the last remaining part of a much larger structure. By whom was it built? “ or words to that effect. The question, though, distinctly asked who built, or who ordered the building, of the Western Wall? Now, I was certain that the Western Wall is a remnant of the expansion of the Second Temple, built by Herod the Great. Answer given – Solomon. No, sorry, incorrect. Solomon’s Temple was the first temple, and destroyed in 586 BC. And yes, I did google it when I got home to check. 

OK, mistakes can happen. I don’t know, but I can see how the QM might have come up with this. He needed the word Solomon for the connection. Maybe the thought process was something like this: -

- I need the answer Solomon. What can I ask about Solomon? King Solomon? Yes, what can we ask about him? Well, he built the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple in Jerusalem? Ah yes, the Western/Wailing Wall is the last bit still standing. Lovely jubbly, question sorted.-

Maybe. However, had he googled “Wailing wall built by” he’d have seen the mistake. Moral of the story, even when you think you know something, sometimes you don’t, and it doesn’t hurt to check.

As I say, mistakes happen. Once you’ve set enough quizzes you can pretty much guarantee you’ve done something similar sooner or later. The trouble was, this stumped us for the connection. I won’t bother you with the other questions, but the answers were Chatham – Long John Silver – Monserrat Caballe. I bet you’re already working out what the questions were, aren’t you? You can probably see the connection already – islands or island groups. However – if you substitute the right answer to the Wailing Wall question– Herod the Great – for the answer given – Solomon – then try to get the connection. Herod Island ? Great Island? Doesn’t work, does it? Please feel free to suggest in a comment what connection you think that we came up with for Chatham – Herod the Great – Long John Silver – Monserrat Caballe.


All of that having being said, we still won, and it was still great fun. I’m thinking in terms of work particularly, but generally after I started feeling better, for the first 4 weeks after my return to work I think I was just on a bit of a high from the sheer relief of being back in work, and not feeling a) truly awful – or b) zombified. Reality has bitten a bit this week – but in a good kind of way. I’ve had some great lessons this week, and I’ve also had some hard ones, and some frustrating ones. But, and this is important, no harder or more frustrating than I had for donkey’s years in the old school. It’s easier to keep yourself on an even keel when everything in the garden looks rosy, but being able to take things in your stride when it’s more difficult, that for me is a sign of progress. And where the quiz comes into it is that even though I’ve now come down a bit from my post-depression little ray of sunshine phase, I still thoroughly enjoyed last night’s quiz.

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.