Project Pickled Egg - Part 22

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On the subject of difficulty...

One posting on the PPE Facebook group which I am going to explore in this article was by Robert Wood, who asked “Does anyone know of a more difficult Surprise Major method than Nimrod Surprise Major?” Earlier discussion had concluded that Project Pickled Egg would have one or more difficult methods to give a target. But what makes a method difficult? After all, Bristol is difficult if you only know Cambridge. Does difficult mean the same to everyone? How difficult is difficult enough?

Nimrod is certainly above-averagely tricky. For starters it is not symmetrical around the half lead as we expect our methods to be, but has rotational symmetry. This definitely makes it harder to learn (nearly twice as hard probably) – many of us can see one place bell being the reverse of another, but seeing one place bell as another one upside down and starting at the half lead would be beyond most! It also has its fair share of the features or ‘motifs’ associated with more difficult methods, such as points, fishtails, Stedman whole turns, wrong hunting and wrong places. However it was not long before Nimrod had been classified by the cognoscenti as “not very difficult really”, and suggestions of greater challenges ensued.

So what makes a difficult method? When we learn methods, we make it easier for ourselves by recognising structures we have seen and rung before. There is less to learn if you can identify and define chunks such as Yorkshire places, a five-pull dodge, or even a method being the same above the treble as something else you know. The more methods you ring, the more structures become familiar, and the easier learning becomes. The features of London or Bristol that look so difficult the first time you see them are very commonly used, and whereas familiarity doesn’t breed contempt exactly, it does breed comfort.

The second half of the lead of Nimrod is the same as Bristol, and the first half is largely made up of features found in other known methods, so this was what lead to its dismissal. Chris Adams’ Method Master programme includes a ‘difficulty score’ which he says “is a balance of several factors” and includes the number of changes of direction in its algorithm. Chris says it was only a bit of fun and a rough guide, however just picking a few examples of the scores it gives highlights issues with measuring difficulty:

Bristol 2016 v London 1084 (I would say Bristol is actually easier)

Glasgow 2512 v Belfast 4340 (Glasgow generally considered to be much harder)

The most difficult methods tend to be the ones that are unlike anything else you know. They have short structures, single places that cause you to hunt differently, isolated points, odd starts. Sam Austin’s band that set itself a goal of ringing quarter peals of all the 100 surprise methods rung in the record all the work peal found the most difficult method to be Sir Isaac Newton. Take a look at it and it doesn’t look scary, but the devil is in the detail.

I think probably the most difficult composition of 23 Spliced ever rung was Peter King’s composition of 23 Treble Bob methods, with names such as Crazy, Loathsome, Diabolical and Killer. I wasn't in it, but know people who were in it whose view on the subject I respect. The longest structure you can have in a TB method is a fishtail so there is not a lot to hang onto and a lot of detail to learn. The fewer internal places in Treble Bob methods (by definition) means more movement, and this composition took it to extremes.

Different ringers see difficulty slightly differently depending on what they are used to, what they have seen before, or how easily they can mentally convert one structure into another. The relatively few ringers who just learn grids will see patterns that the pure line learners do not, they may see sections of method that are the same as something else that is not readily apparent from the line. This is one of the reasons that awareness of the grid is useful – it can throw up patterns and give clues as to how bits of line fit together.

Generally though we all sing from the same hymn sheet in terms of what is found difficult, and given we don’t ring alone, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. For less experienced bands, harder methods tend to cause the most problems. Interestingly though for very experienced bands ringing lots of methods in Spliced, the hardest methods are often rung the best and the trips come when people relax in the easy ones!

Finally, how difficult is difficult enough? I have heard it said that the best bonus scheme for sales people is one that 70% of the sales force will attain. Targets that are too far away are more likely to demotivate than incentivise, but the challenge needs to be enough to spur on the majority. Maybe the same is true here. We could actually come up with some real stinkers of methods to provide a target but they wouldn’t get rung and wouldn’t serve the Project’s purpose. In looking for one or two more methods to join our larder’s ‘spice rack’ alongside Glasgow, we don’t want “Ring of Fire Hot Sauce” (which looked liked a good idea when I bought it), we just need something like Nando’s Medium Peri-Peri.

Sir Isaac Newton isn’t going to make it, neither are Crazy, Loathsome, Diabolical or Killer. They are not tests anyone will enjoy taking. Maybe we need something a bit like Belfast after all …