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My 5 Minutes Of Geek Fame


Everybody gets their 5 minutes of fame don’t they? Well I’m no exception, although unfortunately it’s not the sort of fame you’d use as a chat-up line when attempting to court young women at a local pub. Well, not the sort of real-ale serving pubs I like to go to at least!

The sad fact though is that despite getting my photo in the local newspaper (they spelt it wrong as is the custom), despite being flown down to London for an awards ceremony, despite earning the respect of my peers, despite earning the kudos and admiration of the teachers at my school (there you go, I’m giving it a time-frame now) it seemed that my 5 minutes of fame was to disappear into oblivion. Googling for this momentous achievement – my crowning glory if you will – never returned anything relevant. There’s no Wikipedia page for it (speaking of which, where’s my Wikipedia page?!). Even my award certificate had vanished (assuming I’d ever been presented with one). No, all I had were my memories and I was going to have to bury them and recant the tale to my poor grandchildren in decades time starting with the line “Have I ever told you about my 5 minutes of fame…?”. Like a true grandparent I’ll ignore the moans of despair from them (as they’d heard it a hundred times before) and tell the story anyway. Of course by then I’ll wonder if it ever happened at all or if I’d just imagined it…

Guess which one I am!

However my father is moving house soon and while clearing years of rubbish out he came across my hallowed award certificate. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have indeed had my 5 minutes of fame and yes, despite attempting to join the Royal Marines (and coming damn close), despite playing tough, physical sports like football, despite climbing many mountains and competing in several endurance events, despite having a crew cut for many years (although not at this particular time) – underneath it all I’m a complete geek. I’ve hidden it well but must finally hold up my hands and tell you the truth…

I (and some classmates) won THE TIMES TOURNAMENT OF THE MIND!

My winner's certificate!“The Times Tournament of the what?” I hear you ask? Well back when I was a kid at school the national newspaper (The Times) ran a competition set by brainiacs Mensa. My memory is vague but I believe that each week a set of questions would be printed and teams of schoolchildren around the country would try to solve them and by some iterative process one team would win outright and earn a prize for their school. If you’ve ever done an IQ test then you’ll know the sort of brainteaser questions they set. You’d get a set of shapes and have to work out what the next one was. Or some puzzle whereby two cars are moving towards each other accelerating by a certain amount to certain speeds and you have to work out where they pass. That sort of thing. They’d get more fiendish and tricky every week to the point where even the teachers (who weren’t supposed to help) would get stumped.

Fortunately myself, 9 of my classmates (who I’m sure were all much smarter than me) and our maths teacher – Ken Nisbet – managed in 1989 to get all the way through to the final and win it! It was quite an experience and considering we were competing against children much older than ourselves I think we did rather well. We won a computer for our school which was a big deal back then along with a trip to London (which seemed a million miles away from St. Andrews at the time).

And that, for the record, is my 5 minutes of fame. 🙂

As an aside, Ken Nisbet (who I believe still teaches at the school I went to – you can see him in that photo of the team above) was and no doubt still is quite a character. He had a real enthusiasm for maths and managed to make learning about triangles, calculus and all sorts of other aspects of maths actually seem interesting and entertaining. I really looked forward to his classes. The fact that I’ve managed to build a successful career as a software developer – which at its core is all about maths and problems solving – is thanks in no small part to the way he managed to capture my imagination. It’s easy to live your life and forget the people who actually got you where you are today – but to people like him I owe a great deal of gratitude. Thanks Ken, you’re a star!

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

13 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Ha ha! If I did I’d have stayed on for a PhD in advanced Tandoori cooking!

    Of course I could argue that by moving to Yorkshire near near the curry capital of the UK (Bradford) I’ve continued my studies well beyond degree level! 😉


  2. Well, I’m the rather sheepish looking lad third from the left with the yellow label thing on my jacket!

    Sadly I have no idea what happened to any of the other people in the photo… Maybe in years to come if they search for ‘Times Tournament Of The Mind’ they’ll come across this page and let me know!


  3. Point of order: how come no-one has picked up on “..I’m a complete geek. I’ve hidden it well…”?


  4. I remember the Times Tournament of the Mind. It ran for four years from 1988-1991. I was the first ever individual winner.

    In the first three years of the competition, the questions appeared in The Times on 20 consecutive days. The top 100 individuals and the top (six?) schools got through to the finals. By 1991, the competition was relegated the Times educational supplements (TES & THES).

    The questions were set by Harold Gale who was, then, executive director of Mensa. Mr. Gale was subsequently thrown out of Mensa because he used Mensa (and the Tournament of the Mind) to promote his own business interests. Sir Clive Sinclair instigated his ejection from Mensa but Mr. Gale did have his supporters (notably Carol Vorderman of Countdown fame).

    Harold Gale died shortly afterwards in a car accident that was rumoured to be suicide because of his failed bid to set up a Mensa rival and the death of his mother.


  5. Well well well. First of all, congratulations! That’s a very impressive achievement (at least I could stand on the shoulders of my classmates). And secondly, thanks for the information – I was beginning to wonder if I’d imagined the Times Tournament of the Mind, there are very few references to it out there on the interweb!


  6. I have been looking for references to the competition for many years but most of them come in publications by Harold Gale!

    Some years ago I did look on the Times website and found reference to the competition but there now seems to be a gap in the Times archive from 1985-2000 and I can no longer find it.

    I must admit that, like you, I do not consider myself very clever but I just happened to have a copy of the MacMillan Encyclopaedia that Harold Gale used for the general knowledge questions. Eventually I realised that, over days 1-20 of the competition, he had gone through the encyclopaedia alphabetically and that he only chose questions that had pictures associated with them in the encyclopaedia!

    So, when I did not know an answer to a question I just went through the pages (between two questions I knew the answers for) looking for entries with pictures!

    This gave me some insight into the mentality of Mr. Gale and made me question his bona fide. A few days after the competition was over, every entrant received an invite to take a Mensa Test and also subscribe to a publication from Harold Gale Associates!!! It was then that I realised that Mr. Gale was of a dubious (possibly fraudulent) character.

    I note that you are a computer programmer. At the time of doing the competition, so was I! So, for most of the puzzles I wrote programming solutions (in BBC BASIC) on my BBC Micro. I have to say that Harold Gale also wrote programs to create the puzzles but there were some serious problems with software writing skills – as evidenced by his publications – some of which contain up to 15% errors in answer to questions.

    Luckily, one cannot defame the dead!!!


      • Well you could call it cheating, or you could call it intelligent research (which I would). The idea was to find the answer by any means possible, so if you happen to stumble upon where the author got his information then using it is the only option and shows the intelligence the tests were supposed to measure. Kudos!


        • If you still have the newspaper cuttings with the rules, it actually says what source they used for the general knowledge questions – at least it did in 1988, maybe not in 1989 when you were a winner.

          Most competitors, not even finalists, ever bothered to read the rules. Just shows how important the small print can be!

  7. Re Harold Gale; it is hard to find out ANYTHING about him (most searches lead to Gale Harold, an American actor). It seems that while he may have behaved in a dubious manner (what successful businessman doesn’t?) – those who hounded him (to death?) behaved WORSE. A certain inventor comes to mind.

    But despite all that, what is certain is that Harold put Mensa on the MAP. He was responsible for bringing Mensa’s member ship up from a few thousand to around FORTY THOUSAND. Since his loss – that figure has dropped to HALF. The numbers speak for themselves.

    Which is a pity – Mensa has VALUE; it links up men with beards that cannot find each other any other way.

    I mean, it’s okay for intellectually-gifted (or -cursed) people who spend their lives surrounded by others of their kind – but those born to average parents who find themselves surrounded by carrots (!) the organisation is ESSENTIAL for showing them it is not THEY who are stoopid.

    As a young man, I discovered by accident that I was brainy (not a genius – at best a borderline intellectual) – and found someone else who was similarly gifted/cursed, who kept me SANE by showing me I wasn’t wrong – it was everyone ELSE!

    Then I joined Mensa and belatedly (at 42) became a writer – but THAT would never have happened had it not been for Harold. Thus, despite any dodgy dealings he might have indulged in, the man also helped provide an invaluable service to folks like me – THOUSANDS of us.

    For me, he is a hero – and that INVENTOR is a carrot!


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