Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Story: The Glove, VII [OBSOLETED x2]

What a Star Trek movie marathon! Yesterday the first three and today the final three, and now we're done. And so is 2013, that partly accursed year that saw much progress but a kick in the teeth for every thing that went well. So, farewell 2013. I foresee great things for next year including otters and a giant bouncy castle.

You can't beat a bit of Star Trek in the mid-Winter, enlivening events and thrusting a bit of colour, character and story into the grey dreariness of it all. Once you get past Star Trek I, that is, which has a greyness all its own. It's astonishing how every single one of those six original cast Star Trek movies meets a high minimum level of quality. Every single one, even Star Trek V which is underrated, has redeeming points at the very least. None are unwatchable, and some are great. It is utterly unprecedented. No other unplanned film series can claim that honour, none. Of course I stand open to suggestions to the contrary, so please comment below if you have any ideas.

Now, without much further ado let's settle in to the task at hand. Before ducking into the latest instalment of 'The Glove', let's pause for a moment and recap what has happened so far.

On the moon of Troos, orbiting the planet Ganymede, the colonists have been separated over time into two main regions: Edin and Burgh, representing the sciences and arts respectively. A young piper called Steffan passes his initiation exam into the Guild of Pipers with honours and is offered meritorious promotion to high rank in exchange for taking part in the Guild's apparently traditional intelligence gathering activities. Steffan turns down the opportunity and leaves, leaving his would-be benefactor Master Octavius unsettled. One night passes...


Story: The Glove, VII [RETCONNED OUT]
(Part I , VI , VIII)

Several days later, a figure could be seen walking happily down a dusty road to parts unknown. The dusty roads of Troos were an artefact of the colony's tendency to reserve higher technologies for the purposes that truly required them. The old Earth's eventual fate had left a major influence even hundreds of years since Last Contact.

The figure ambled along, leading a pony which it rarely rode, passing through villages and settlements and chatting with the locals as it went. One afternoon the figure entered Little Muckly and entered the pub. It pushed back its sun sheltering hood to reveal former apprentice piper Steffan, with the beginnings of a beard and an ironic countenance.

The vagabond stayed for many hours, chatting idly with the locals and their piper, before taking a room and sleeping the sleep of the innocent. Some time before dawn he left, and began to roam once more. Some days the wry fellow never encountered a village and slept in the wild with his robe for a pillow, and on others the grand sweep of events pulled him into one of the rare towns between Edin and Burgh. Every day he followed a meandering path leading away from the city of the arts toward the city of the sciences. He grew scruffier and scruffier.

A plan was forming in his mind, becoming more and more clear as he learnt from the locals and the guildsmen he subtly quizzed. That plan twisted into an entirely new shape when he met his first dissident.

To be continued...

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Rathbone and Bruce

Ah, Christmas and New Year, that time when you really look for things to do with the family. This time I broke out the dvds of the Rathbone and Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies, and we all enjoyed them to our limits. They are a marvelous sequence of distinctive and bizarre cinematic gems, each weirdly faceted in its own little way. There have also been lots of games. We're big gamers, the parents and I. Your family is there to be treasured after all, and finding the best way to do that is half the battle. I may never win 'Ticket to Ride Europe'.

Now on to Rathbone and Bruce, the first mainstream and prolonged acting team to play Holmes and Watson. I had no idea until the advent of the new 'Sherlock' series, and the dvd commentaries therein, that this pairing was so influential and that their films originated the idea of an updated 'contemporary' Holmesian adaptation. They were the films to break that barrier, not 'Sherlock' and definitely not 'Elementary'. They started off with two traditional Sherlock movies, but after that Universal flung their hats over the fortress walls of (admittedly expensive) convention, climbed into the airy (and cheap) skies above and did something unprecedented: They took Holmes and Watson to the 1940s and pushed out twelve 'B' movies in five years, restoring them to the niche they originally prospered in: The pulp magazines. Of course the film equivalent of the Strand magazine would be second rate movies; it makes perfect sense. And they were great 'B' movies, for limitation breeds creativity. Those twelve productions were full of fascinating angles and photography, noir overtones, and bizarre new plots.  Moriarty got to die three times, and femme fatales drifted around in shadows, attempting to outwit the Great Detective. Or seduce him.

If there were shortcomings in these bizarre little gems, it was that the intelligence of Holmes was built up not so much by great deductions and demonstrations of genius but more by the sheer dumbness of his friends and partners. Nigel Bruce adored to play Watson as a total ignoramus, and he was funny and wonderful, but he did undermine the character of Watson for decades, and the comic ineptitude of Lestrade was often overplayed to the point of possible mental impairment. Had Lestrade been clubbed to the head a few too many times by 1942 perhaps? Still, Basil Rathbone's Holmes would often save the day by planning for their incompetence, often using Watson as little more than a pawn. Rathbone as Holmes is a tough casting choice to judge. He was certainly detached, seemingly intelligent, and gentleman enough for the role and pulls it off brilliantly on many occasions, but you don't always get a specifically Sherlock experience, which is mainly down to the material. When he got something genuinely Sherlock-like to do, there would be no doubts.

Oh, Rathbone and Bruce, you pioneered the modern portrayals of Holmes and Watson for all who followed you, and although you are the last of the screen combinations I have encountered so far you do not disappoint. For many you were the first to do it right and on multiple occasions. While no-one will probably ever topple Merrison and Williams for me personally, you were without doubt quintessential.


Friday, 27 December 2013

Extemporise or Die!

Hot on the heels of successive games of 'Jamaica' and 'Dixit' it is time to crash into the keys and mash out something barely intelligible and hopefully interesting on a theme randomly chosen in as little time as possible, which of course it easy as I will choose Sherlock Holmes. That's hardly random at all in fact.

I'll get to Mr Holmes and Dr Watson in a moment, but begin instead by revealing that I feel much happier and healthier. The goop is subsiding and sleep is resuming, and suddenly normal patterns are back. The days are even getting longer! You wouldn't think that Christmas had just struck, destroying all in its path and reminding us all of just why holidays are the most dangerous times of the year. And we'll be out of chocolates soon, eliminating one more terrible danger.

<Makes a note to lose weight: First option is to leave gold on ferry>

Bullion is such a terrible encumbrance in the grand scheme of things. Thank goodness for paper money and diamonds. Welsh diamond mines are a phenomenon best kept secret.

Now, are we ready for Sherlock Holmes yet? Perhaps not. The last week or so has been a haze of Patrick O'Brian novels, Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies and much much reading. There has also been a ridiculous amount of minestrone soup, and the inherent relief of having a good excuse to stay in for a week with no responsibilities and recover. The Patrick O'Brian books in the Aubrey-Maturin sequence are utterly fascinating, intricately researched and detailed but simultaneously almost pulpish in their plots. In many ways they're far more easily approached than Forester's Hornblower series, if more adult in tone. Right now I'm up to 'The Surgeon's Mate', which is in danger of becoming a kitchen sinky, but let's hope it picks up as they always do. The O'Brian novels are certainly better on average than Bernard Cornwell's historical novels, which started well but then descended into almost routine potboilers. However, I would certainly recommend Cornwell's 'Starbuck Chronicles' and point out that lots of people loved the Sharpe books even I did get bored with pretty quickly after a promising start.

Finally edging back to the nominal topic, there are things to be said about the Rathbone and Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies, things which shall be said in the next post as it's becoming rather late here in South Wales. Soon, it would be nice to write about the old time radio show 'Richard Diamond: Private Detective' and eventually hopefully its television successor 'Peter Gunn'. It has to be fun too as Blake Edwards made it!

So, old time detective shows to be talked about in the future, and it shall be fun!


Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Story: The Disappearance (XVII)

(Part O , XVI , XVIII)

Someone was shaking me, and not at all gently. It was worse than being shot out of the bowels of the Earth via volcano, or at least it was to my battered brain. I dared to open my eyes and saw time running forward and backward depending on where I looked. There seemed to even be a null time event under the desk. Slowly the disparity in time streams began to equalize toward what we thought of as normal. Plainly something bad had happened and passed by. Everyone was here, sprawled around the out of kilter flat. How far out of synch could we all be?

Carter groggily looked at me from where she was lying prone by the doorway. Agnes was still out cold on the floor where she'd been knocked out. Why had Carter knocked out Agnes anyway? Getting back to myself - my favourite person - I was hanging halfway off the bed and being shaken by the shoulders, by person or persons unknown. Dragging my eyes upward it was almost a non-surprise to see myself. And there I was over by the window as well. I could even pretend to be groggy still any more, so I pulled myself out of my own grasp and stood up unsteadily. Somehow I had to fix all this so it would make sense. Stepping on a now-wobbly board I tottered over to one side and that must have been required as the helpful alternative me ambled out the door looking satisfied. That was one time loop that could be closed pretty easily.

I stepped into the only reverse time zone that was still running, around the grandfather clock and jumped out again as quickly as I could. Duly and deliberately I went over to the me half sprawled on the bed and shook him like a string of comedy sausages. He fumbled up to a level of unconsciousness and then looked about blearily. The eyes widened suddenly at the bizarre time zones scattered about the room, and the light diffusions around their edges. He stood up, tottered on a floor board that had never been wobbly before and I set out the door into the hall, and wondered what on Earth to do next. How would I get back to the window?

I kept on walking down the hall, went up the stairs to the roof, and surveyed the city. Nothing was visible beyond the confines of our own abode. Even the roof was clear of disturbances. A dishevelled Carter emerged from the interior and tied back her hair. We looked outwards in opposite directions and waited for the ice to cool. I broke finally, never being one to let a good partnership run to dust. "What's she done, Danielle? Why'd you deck the kid?"

Danielle Eloise Carter coloured slightly in the mid-afternoon sunshine. Her nose wrinkled. "Well, now I think about it, I did it because the super told me she was rotten." Beads of perspiration of began to bead out on her forehead. "I had to go and ask for someone to cover me when you sent your invitation. No overtime left. But something happened..." Carter blinked, frowned, quaked a moment, and then gasped before doubling over. "That skunk hypno-gassed me!" Carter became messy for a while and then wobbled over to a handy bit of wall to have a lean.

Comforting the suddenly shocked Carter successfully took a few minutes but I managed it before bouncing off some kind of paradox temporal horizon and ending up outside the window to my flat an hour earlier. Settling in, I wondered what I had to do to break the loop and restore time. Looking in my pockets I found a piece of paper and bizarrely a green pen and knew at least one thing I'd need to do. Listening at the window, all seemed quiet. I peeked in and there was Carter waiting beside the door, prepared to deck Agnes. With nothing else coming to mind I decided to help out Danielle and wrote a little note explaining everything as I knew it. The door inside my flat opened, Carter swung and Agnes went straight to the ground. Time flaked into a haze of crystals and through the merry diffractions I watched as I ended up unconscious on the bed, Carter slumped onto the floor and normality began to fade back in. Opening the window - it recognised my key card - I slid in and moved around quickly avoiding the worst distortions.

The note was put in Carter's pocket, then a green pen and a sheet of paper moved from a lesser-used desk drawer to unconscious me's pockets, a floor board was summarily ruined and then I slipped back to the window. Waiting seemed to take an eternity, probably due to some pocket of slow time, but finally I appeared in the middle of the room, shook me to consciousness, and then when I was finally spotted by myself I flipped out backwards through the window and walked to the pub to have a drink and think things through.

Every reason for my leaving academia in the first place had just come back to bite me. Even the local pub, where the beer had unaccountably become even worse.

To be continued...


Merry Haddock Day, everyone!

Monday, 23 December 2013

An Omnibus of Bizarre and Unrelated Topics

Going on holiday leads inevitably to getting a bit sick, which I have duly done. It may have been contracted from my leaf daughter's playgroups, from spending twenty or so hours hiking around chilly Edinburgh over two days, or indeed in the grand total of eighteen hours spent on trains or in train stations over the course of six days. Now the sickness is fading from general ickiness and sleep deprivation to annoying lingering symptoms and a tendency to stop and begin randomly staring into the middle distance, muttering about how the world is not like a great big onion and how the gold is hidden under the third flagstone under the barn. In short things are getting back to normal, apart from the disconcerting idea that Christmas has crept up on us all once again, and it's just as dishevelled as usual.

Oh, Christmas, you are a worrying time for those of us who hover around not believing in anything on principle. Actually, that's not entirely true, as there's a warm spot somewhere in the old broken heart for ideas of self-expression, karma and destiny. But they are just ideas, ones which would be lovely if true and lovely if not. We might all be pre-incarnations of future people, souls slowly edging back to the beginnings of the universe with each death and rebirth instead of the end, becoming ever less wise and ancient with each passing generation. I forgot about preincarnation for ages, but now it's back. What fun!

Apart from being inevitably sick, it was an interesting holiday. Glossing over the private time spent with the leafdaughter and her family, the following trip to Edinburgh was a classic illustration of why cities leave me so regularly cold. Edinburgh is a handsome city, full of interesting buildings, an ancient Old Town, and many attractions. However, it is also just a bit squalid in all the ways I've seen in other cities. The speck of dirt of humanity runs deep, in a way I've seen in every town and city except perhaps for Barcelona. In any case, Edinburgh has fascinating things to go and visit: A castle, a national museum, a national library, some galleries, a camera obscura, many old monuments, Calton Hill, the scenic splendour of somewhat distant Arthur's Seat and lots of lots of pavements to pound. I had the best time at the Vortex Tunnel and Mirror Maze in the camera obscura's associated 'World Of Illusions' but my soul is simple and entertained easily, as many of you are no doubt aware. To be fair, Edinburgh is probably slightly less grubby away from the Christmas season and the endless rounds of festive parties and booze that dominate at this time of the year.

Mirror Mazes are lovely. So far I've found two, one in Longleat and the other in Edinburgh. There might also be another at the prohibitively expensive Wookey Hole but there's never been opportunity to find out. I wonder if there are more vortex tunnels out there too; There must be, yes?

Of course, journeys which were once made better by the travelling are now spoilt by it instead. I miss being able to breathe on trains, to find an openable window and suck in some air. Instead it's cramped, noisy, stuffy, and horrid. Then there are the bad trains, the ones with insufficient seats running on Saturday evenings from Cardiff to Swansea and chock full of people you wouldn't want to meet even if they weren't beered up, sweary and so thoroughly unpleasant as to be barely human. Of course, in all reality they are more human but that's not something to be contemplated happily while maintaining still some shreds of sanity. It's nicer to think about lemon cake and the world of Beatrix Potter and hope everything else is a dream. It was a long, long train ride from Edinburgh to Llanelli, and there the matter shall be laid to rest.

Out of all the current modes of travel, it seems that the ship voyage is the only one to maintain some level of comfort. You can toddle around the ship, go outside, stare at the wake and not feel as if the free world has contracted to a centimetre of space surrounding you. Oceans and seas are vast, after all, and lovely. The next holidays will involve grand sea voyages and probably be stupidly expensive, however they will at least be airy. And if there are still some nice trains out there, then they'll come into action too.

Welcome back to the Quirky Muffin. Service is now resumed. We don't do duvets.


PS Let's celebrate 250 Quirky Muffins in style, by saying nothing about it at all! Next time: Quirky Muffin 251, "The Grand Rutabaga of Bismark".

Friday, 13 December 2013

Story: The Disappearance (XVI)

(Part XV , XVII)

A Recap

Hmmm... where were we? A man was vanished from a pavement, with only a cooling heat shadow to indicate his once presence. The Plain Chocolate Digestive Detectives went in to investigate the disappearance as one of the strange phenomena connected to those twice baked confections. Evidence was stolen from the lab. Our protagonist went to McGonagle Biscuits to quiz their new president Agnes McGonagle and see if she was more willing to talk than her uncooperative predecessor and uncle Rolf.

This is where it got complicated. The Detective received a secret message to meet Agnes at the Rusty Bucket but actually ended up meeting a future (or alternate) version of Agnes and himself. Then after the revelation of a future temporal explosion based in McGonagle Biscuits, a future detail emerged that the strange phenomena were linked to cheap biscuit deliveries from the future, and that everything was about to go a little ca-ca.

Using information from future Agnes, the Detective and Current Agnes hitched a ride either into a future or some other McGonagle biscuit factory, and were confronted with a bizarrely not dead but rather malevolent Rolf McGonagle. Unexpectedly employing surprise (and the shear stupidity of all fictional villains), the Detective knocked out Rolf and the three escaped via a teleporter. They ended up a few days before their own time and unbeknownst to them the fabric of space time began to quake in its shoes like a fish in a department store.

The Detective, knowing that overlaying time streams was dangerous, whisked Rolf and Agnes off to his unexpected digs in the Old University, where Rolf gave up his story and the Detective's partner Carter eventually turned up to play guard while our hero and Agnes went to meet an old friend of his at the university, and that old friend Lily dished the dirt on some our protagonist's surprising academic history. Lily was eventually packed off to ask a millennia old Mesopotamian super-computer what to do, and hasn't been seen since. The computer thinks she's a high priestess.

Space time continued to quiver, and then shake violently before it became as tense as a kitten in the presence of gift wrap. Future Detective and Future Agnes appeared in our time stream just as Carter knocked out present Agnes for reasons as yet unknown. Unfortunately this time when they arrived, they caused a three layer temporal overlap instead of a double and at that point all of space and time took a nap to try and recover.

What will happen next? What does it all have to do with biscuits in the end? Why did the story derail in a sudden knot of time travel? Is Elvis really dead? Does the author have the faintest idea of where to go next? Why did giant newts not feature in this tale at all so far? And finally, why did Carter knock out Agnes? Feminine rivalry or the first attempt to avert the time singularity predicted to occur?

Some of these question will be answered, some not, and more will be placed in the oven until baked a lovely golden brown.


--- Retroactive Note ---

Holiday Interruptus:

The Quirky Muffin is down for holidays. Normal service will resume in about a week, barring unexpected story segments.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Christmas Lunch

It's hard to write about a Christmas party in specific. No individual Christmas party has all the characteristics of the essence extracted from every party ever, mushed up together and distilled. And of course an afternoon Christmas lunch for a Mathematics department is rather sedate in contrast to some of the extreme things you encounter in television, film and prose. There were not fistfights, foodfights, or vendettas leading to champagne cork wars. No, by anything other than normal standards it was quite dull!

However, if we condense the world down to the standards of what really goes on aboard this fair planet and between the folks you meet from day to day, it was a rather pleasant proceeding. The food was broadly edible, especially for people who actually like roast dinners, and the dessert didn't disappoint. People are strange, though, all with different levels of island-qualities. I'll never get people entirely. And I can't write about the people without breaking the Rule of Names or the Protocol of Description, either, blast it!


We begin
The apprehension was clear. Some people anticipated the event and the probable enjoyment to follow. Others worried about their role in the dangerous trials to come. Knives were sharpened in critical places. Dresses were smoothed down deliberately. People banded together to meet their fates, and set times to meet.

"Bing bong, the time has come, go forth in song, it's no time for glum."

Four floors of people emerged from their offices blearily, pulled on their coats and trudged or scooted to the stairs or lifts. Someone went a little frantically from door to door looking for unspecified personages. The first few people to be ready got bored and wafted up and down the stairs, surveying matters as they stood. Someone else looked totally unconcerned as lunch was something he had already done. That person was a little too smug.

As the tribes headed off to their destination, a few were left behind, unwilling to take the risk of that most social of occasions. A few others were lost, but in the spirit of great adversity were left behind presumably to never be seen again. This wasn't fair play and a swift adventure but a Christmas lunch, blast it! Safety could not be guaranteed! The band of celebrants sloped up the hill and settled into the staff club, deliberately doing their best to secure happy table-mates and trying to avoid trips to the bar.

Wolves howled outside, scenting turkey and beer.

The meal passes happily with no major problems and a mercifully short speech. Strange brown meat is identified and classified with the turkey, before being eaten or discarded according to the bravery of the respective diner. Profiteroles are sadly not flung across the room in a prelude to a full on food fight, and the pavlova is sadly insufficiently messy for that purpose. On the other hand no awkward mistletoe incidents are forced by the existence of that evil weed and toasts are averted. Isolated diners are made into part of the whole and inter-discipline rivalries mitigated by determined ignorance, avoidance and a lot of reclusiveness. Politeness is pushed to the limit as the long minutes pass before everyone is in a position to begin eating in unison.

There is no chocolate cake.

As the end approaches, and another Christmas dinner passes by without undue incident people relax and begin to wonder what is next. Some forget about the football that had dominated their minds and other fret about the duties that follow in the morning. A few wish the meal had been in the evening and that there had been much more beer. Those few stay a while longer and fulfil their dreams. One thing is true for all, though, and that is that something has been gained in the sharing. Let's hope it isn't just fat and a tendency to dribble.

We carry on



Monday, 9 December 2013

Let's Cry Us A River

Finding an outlet for the emotions can be difficult in times of solitude. It can be even more difficult when you've forgotten that you need to. It's a battle familiar to lots of people, especially ones who are recovering from addictions. The key is to remember the problem, and never forget, when every ounce of neural matter is trying to relax into the lower energy state of forgetting. Vigilance is the hardest thing to maintain when the natural human state is complacency. We must struggle to remember, and in my case it was 'The West Wing' that reminded me.

So, if you remember to let out your emotions - and that is hard - then what to do to actually express them? On this particular occasion, given that I had forgotten and gotten a bit fogged up, it was 'The West Wing' ('Inauguration: Over There') and not air conducting or that one magnificent episode of 'Due South' that was 'Letting Go', or Henry Blake's last episode on 'M*A*S*H'. It's strange how some people need levers to work their outlets, although I am quite good naturally on the old happiness front. Incidentally, let's all sing on Aberystwyth beach, if you happen to be around this week. So, anyway, on to more acceptable topics.

There's only one week of lecturing left, and then effective unemployment once again. How bizarre that it's gone on so long but feels so short. It's also strange that my techniques have gone against the obvious best methods for teaching mathematics. It's hard to 'write and wipe' when you only have a whiteboard in one theatre. That would have been so much better than making up all those slides in LaTeX! (Don't look up LaTeX, as it's dull.) Whiteboards/blackboards more fun for the students watching too. Next time, if there is a next time, it will be markers and chalk for the whole thing even if stuck with a slightly loathsome electronic whiteboard. Electronic whiteboards are too small, and rather fiddly but good in principal.

This post is meandering like a river in Central Europe; It's probably something to do with the season. True to form, I'm splitting my attention with something audio-visual, in this case 'Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall'. The second season of 'Sherlock' was strange; It began with a wonderful, stupendous Moffat episode before subsiding a little into forcedness. I suspect that Sherlock's abrasiveness was deliberately and unnaturally upgraded to make the season arc more graceful but that that upgrade rather grates on my nerves, and of course the second episode 'The Hounds of Baskerville' was personally a bit rubbish. That's the way of things in the wide world of everyone being different. Maybe those last two episodes of 'Sherlock' also suffer from being a bit lacking in fun too. Fun is important in these things. But Molly is tremendous; I adore Molly. Someone bring Lou Brealey to me now please. 'The Reichenbach Fall' is such a mixed experience, but it's better than I remember.

This thing is coming out in wild squirts to one side and another. Random bursts of content splashing all over the place, and all apparently disconnected. Although a theme is emerging; one of forced traits and techniques. How strange.

Apparently the mad squirts have stopped for now. More shall follow soon, and stories galore...


PS Best add 'Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang' to the great tv shows list:
> Doctor Who: 'The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang'
> Due South: 'Letting Go'
> M*A*S*H: 'Abyssinia, Henry'
> The West Wing: 'Noel'

PPS  I know 'forcedness' isn't a word, but what is the word needed?

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Book: 'Bridge of Birds' by Barry Hughart (1984)

Now this is a little gem, a book I heard about a little while ago and finally got around to buying and reading and enjoying immensely very recently. 'Bridge of Birds' is a 'Novel of an Ancient China that never was', a darkly comic but enthralling short fantasy that grabs you and finally only lets you go after a quest hundreds of years long is coincidentally cracked by our merely mortal protagonists. You see, it's a story about a quest for elderly sage Li Kao (who has a self-confessed slight flaw to his character) and his youthful client Number Ten Ox, as they desperately try to find a cure for a plague that has struck the children of Ox's village. Unfortunately the plague has but one cure, a mythical great root of power, that Li and Ox set out to find.

The double quest structure is fascinating, as it combines the secondary but higher mystery/puzzle with the primary simpler adventure, where the mystery itself is slowly being unveiled and then unravelled over the course of the narrative. The second hidden quest is of grand, epic and heavenly scope but is constantly counterbalanced by the earthly objective of the first. And if the second quest involves murdering evil immortal and invulnerable dukes, restoring long lost amnesiac goddesses to heaven, and at least one axe wielding (but lovable) maniacal killer then all the better. The twinned quests are beautifully intertwined, to the point that I didn't even see the puzzle solution coming, even though other readers probably do.

It's always nice to find a book that's funny and yet manages to tell a story. There aren't that many. Comedic classics like 'Three Men In A Boat' and 'The Ascent Of Rum Doodle' don't have this level of plot and story, nor the wicked sense of wit that Hughart instills into the project. Apparently he became disillusioned with the publishing process after completing the two sequels of 'Bridge Of Birds' and never wrote again. At least he stopped before polluting the legacy of this little masterwork as so many authors do, although I can't be definitive on that without reading the sequels.

This piece has run rather short, as if the swift reading time has eliminated a lot of the detail I could have written about. Perhaps 'Bridge of Birds' is a classic example of my 'Little and Big Principle': The theory that stories and films that capture both small- and large-scale ideas are inherently more appreciable and fascinating than things that only focus on one. This novel is simultaneously entirely about its narrator Number Ten Ox and his travails in saving his village, as well as an epic heavenly tale spanning centuries of time, several ghosts, numerous coincidences and an epic mislead of the first order.

You're probably better off reading it for yourself. Everyone, go and read 'Bridge of Birds' if you can. It's a bit sexist, but it's also a surprising first novel and something quite unprecedented in my own experience. I'm hoping Robert Sheckley will be just as good.


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Fun and Adventure and Homage

Sometimes you just have to be brave and do the adventurous thing. It's different for every person, but for me travelling is the most startlingly traumatic thing. That sudden shift in location is shocking, and applies to repeated trips as well as exploration and visiting places you haven't been. It's exciting and strange and scary and taxing. 'Taxing?', you might think. 'Taxing'? Travelling is taxing if you're a picky person. You don't get to eat your own cooking, there's a change of locale, it can be a very isolating experience, and the travelling itself can be very wearing indeed. So why do it?

I choose to travel to pay homage, and there is usually a reason to every trip. When last I went on holiday, it was to Orkney, and that was part of my Alan Plater homage, specifically to his fittingly named television mini-series 'Oliver's Travels'. And that homage was what really made the experience worthwhile, for there were Italian chapels and magnificent cathedrals and runic inscriptions and stone rings and more... My next journey is also a homage, both to my lovely leaf-daughter in Nottingham and to the historic city of Edinburgh. Now Edinburgh has two points of homage, one again to Alan Plater and his 'The Beiderbecke Tapes' and to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That makes a more than worthwhile trip. And it's all happening at incredibly short notice which is wonderful!

My most successful trip without a homage aspect was my first venture outside of Britain - it was to Barcelona - for which I had no reason except that there was a 'Font Magica' and a seaside. Barcelona in Autumn was lovely, and of course they serve ice cream on Las Ramblas up until midnight so it's always worthwhile! Places that do that get special points on the Oliver scale of places to visit. Ultimately, though, the Barcelona trip did acquire a sense of homage in the Gaudi-ness of it all. Gaudi built things, including the iconic never-completed cathedral Sagrada Familia. A sense of history and homage seems to be an essential part of going anywhere in my personal sense of being, even to the point of ritually paying homage to the sea here in Aberystwyth every week I come up. How can everyone not go and stand on the beach at some point each week, and smile?

So where does that leave the sense of fun and adventure implied in travelling and exploration? It's hard to say, really, as it seems like those are things that have really fallen prey to the way travelling doesn't happen spontaneously any more. Everything gets planned weeks or even months ahead, because it's too scary to just hope that there will be a room at the other end, or that there will be trains. I can only organise a trip to Edinburgh with less than two weeks warning because travelling singly is simple. Spontaneity for the most part seems to be something associated with a sense of individuality. Is that a wrong thing to think in general? Is it a personal prejudice on past events? Or is it just an axiomatic generality? Surely there are matched couples out in the world who can be just as free and spontaneous? Two halves of the same whole being able to act spontaneously? Is that maybe a myth too?

If we travel to make homage does that mean we have neglected something? What about the future? All exploration is homage to the future, for it is the true physical parallel to what we do everyday. We're travellers in time, exploring a new world every instant, and one that can be appreciated at every instant if we might only remember.


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Story: The Disappearance (XV)

(Part XIV , XVI)

I slept, and while I was sleeping the string of time became ever more tangled about the swinging and bouncing yo-yo of fate. Space-time was nearing its breaking point unbeknownst to us as we overlapped multiple times into one three day period. No-one was there to stop the inevitable consequences should the sharp-edged yo-yo cut through the string like scissors through ribbon on a badly wrapped birthday present.

The next twenty four hours went by quickly, as Carter arrived to take Rolf-watch off my hands and I took the curiously quiescent Agnes to meet Lily Snooks. Lily had been my doctoral student once and was now a respected academic in the school of Archaeology with plenty of contacts and cross-departmental work with the School of Mathematics. I let her blab every secret I'd ever wanted to hide and thanked the world that Carter wasn't there. She would laugh enough at the bow ties in the secret wardrobe compartment she'd probably found by now.

The string became ever more entangled around the yo-yo but we didn't realise.

Agnes had accepted my theory that we should stay out of the way with more poise than I had expected. We passed through the Smedley Gallery, and while she was examining Nineteenth Century Dutch I explained to Lily the bizarre events of the last few days and the difficulties ahead. She seemed more concerned by what we hadn't done.

"Why aren't you back there? Isn't it possible that you are supposed to be the future you you met in your past? Oh, palooka, the grammar is always so difficult. You could be breaking the space-time continuum by branching history even further! We know what happened to the Egyptians and that the Grand High Zorps disappeared completely after trying to mess with the timeline. What if you cause a temporal base nine cataclysm?"

"It had occurred to me, kid, but the problem is that that version of me was telling stories about cataclysms and disasters and I've seen nothing to indicate any of that being real. That information has to have come from somewhere so I'm betting that that was a me who'll never come to be, or a plain fake. Then what we have here is temporal artifact plus a two-stream redundancy. The only question here is the guy I brought back. Something stinks to high heaven about him and it's not easily narrowed down amongst all the defective personality traits and cheesy stories."

"Yes, but what if..."

"Lily, there's a reason you're here and it's not just to tell Agnes - and don't give me that look right now - all my past as a professor and dig merchant. You're going to have to go down to Abbot and get a scenario run for me, and then bring me the results."

"Abbot? You want me to talk to a Mesopotamian super-computer who thinks I'm a high priestess and all-around super-woman? And now don't you look at me like that either!" (The stories we could tell would light up bars from here to Tokyo, but they'll live for another day and another story.)

"If you wouldn't mind. Punch in this card and then explain the situation as much as possible." I handed over the punch card, which had represented the highest forward compatible data input for Abbot for many years. "Please, Lily. Abbot will know what to do."

Agnes reappeared and saw our fingers touching over the yellow punch card. Her eyes narrowed a trifle and wrong conclusions visible set in her eyes. I would have to explain later if I ever wanted to share a lunch with the lovely Miss McGonagle in the future. Lily took her leave and headed off to consult Abbot and I walked Agnes back to the flat, wondering if any more wrong conclusions could possibly come my way.

Carter knocked Agnes out cold as we entered. That's the way days go sometimes. Then the string of time tightened to the brink and snapped, and we all took the sleep of the utterly bewildered.

More? There might be more. There's no plan any more!

Sunday, 1 December 2013


Now that was a rough old week. The twin pressures of producing worked solutions and lectures and the performing of actual research do not happy bedfellows make. It seems as if it will always be a struggle, but what's life without a bit of a torment or two? Paradoxically only having one course to teach is much harder than having several. Variety is the spice of life but monotony is the key to a fevered obsession.

It's December, the month of shopping madness, endless dark nights and the spectre of things long left behind. Is it better to have Christmas as it is or as it used to be? Is its future an ever-evolving study of mercenary consumerism or is there still an underlying layer of the social family times that used to prevail? There's a way to shift from exclusive religious event to secular community-centred festival that doesn't have to be divisive or controversial, or involve unprincipled exploitation of the people at large.

I have a friend - I hope! - who has had trouble thinking of gifts as her family aren't appreciating books any more as they're preoccupied by their tablets. Isn't that sad? I had a Kindle for a while and was fascinated by it, but when it broke I felt no need to replace it. Paper books are just better, for undefined and vague reasons.

December is the month of 'pushing through the T', of doing things you're unsure of and trusting to the best. Is that a good gift? Is it too much or too little? You won't know until afterwards. Is the winter going to go on forever and is there any point in carrying on through the gloomy misery? Well, keep on going anyway until you reach the other side. Can we take yet another vaguely hypocritical Christmas party despite our own deeply felt agnosticism? The turkey will tell the tale in the end.

Rough weeks: Lectures while on the edge of sickness, eyes that can barely focus any more, a seeming eternity without anyone to play a good game of 'Thebes' or 'Fluxx' with, dehydrating and overly hot hotel rooms and dusty offices, and far too much uncertain Christmas shopping!

Oh, December, you'll try to break us down, but we go on anyway. Let's push through the 'T' to January, and make the 50th Film Bin Commentary to boot. At the moment it's looking like 'Bravestarr' or 'Murder By Decree'.


Story: The Disappearance (XIV)

(Part XIII , XV)

I may have appeared uncaring about exposing my past to Agnes and my ever curious partner Sharon, but it was actually the worst thing I'd ever had to do. For all my time in the Force I had sheltered this remnant of another life I kept going in the wee small hours from the storm of bureaucracy, as if I could negate its importance with its secrecy. Now, well, could both go on?

Rolf's statement had been verbose but quite short. He had dictated it with witnesses and now the tape was under lock and key and the digital version encrypted and hidden in the flat above. The resident of the flat above was away on her own new professional and secretive life and we had exchanged door keys for those occasions of professional interest that popped up from time to time. Once Carter turned up we could take turns watching the prisoner under a slightly less tense and demanding regime.

It was a long, long night and I wiled away the guard duty over the restrained Rolf by editing a few articles that had been on the back burner for a while and following a trail of references on some obscure Hittite markings just to keep myself awake. The prisoner didn't make any trouble. For a while he almost seemed at ease with his situation, which was in itself quite disturbing, but some hours before dawn silent sobbing racked him from head to foot and it seemed some dam had broken.

The problem overlapping yourself in time is that you have to almost hide from the events of the world in order to not end up changing them. It was tempting to be out there, trying to change what would happen, but in actuality it would be crass foolishness to venture out of this flat, let own the old university town I loved, before the overlap was over. Also, there were other reasons to not get out too much, one in particular I hoped to never meet again. It would be stupid enough to go out and meet Lily in the morning but she was an expert and an old friend, and the risk was minimal. Once she had been an even older friend but she wouldn't know it for another twenty to thirty years.

Dawn approached and the sleepless night began to catch up with what was already an exhausted man of dubious vitality. Light began to leak through the curtains, stripey as they already were, and noises crackled through from the guest room. Reviewing my work I realised that most of it was nonsense trailing back into antiquity, but what could be expected when distracted by the outside world and its madnesses. We still had about thirty hours of this to get through, and Carter couldn't get here fast enough, if only to stop me from a sleep-deprived fall into Agnes McGonagle's arms.

A wash and a shave never hurt, so after letting the prisoner go about his own business I freshened up and prepared for the gathering storm. Returning to the living room, Agnes was sitting there reading an introductory textbook on complex analysis. I fell asleep on the sofa. Such was life.

Excitement shall ensue

Friday, 29 November 2013

The Friday Lecture

The time approaches, and is filled with the portent of great danger. Students ramble dazedly about campus, thinking about what is to come. Yawns and stretches cross from horizon to horizon as the grim reality of the Friday five o'clock lecture approaches. Over Hugh Owen Building a great row of vultures sits, waiting for the wreckage that will ensue.

Oh, Friday night lecture, why do you torment us so?

The tumult begins, as students cascade down the hill toward town, all except for those precious few, destined to spend a further hour deep in academic purgatory. For those few a lecture in a darkened lecture theatre awaits, with only the faint possibility of reprieve before the due time is up.

And so it goes, as it always does, the presentation continuing and the lecturer's throat drying out even under the heavy assistance of a few pints of water on hand. Dazed and tired faces look on, as the voice begins to falter, until finally it peters out completely. The students become amazed at their luck and tumble out until the speaker stands alone with a register and a pile of leftover pages to lug back to his office.

The throat stays dry until hours later, and the headache lingers until the wee small hours of the morning, when rowdies can be heard in the streets outside and finally the world expands to enough of the cosmos to encourage sleep. For a few hours now there shall be sleep.

It goes like this every Friday afternoon, until finally the end of term approaches and everyone concerned breaths a sigh of relief. One last Friday night lecture and all concerned can relax and the cycle begins one last time. Release always comes if you wait long enough, at least until the next academic year.


Dedicated to everyone with a last thing lecture on a Friday.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Blank Page

Every thing that gets written starts with what can only be described as the blank page. Sure, there might be a template or a pattern to fill in, but it's still ultimately blank. My amazement lives in the idea that there are people out there who can fill blank pages so well, people who can construct plays and novels that seem to effortlessly entertain and divert and illuminate. I wish I could do the same, but I know that I write experiments and exercises more than triumphs. They are far more valuable personally than aesthetically or creatively, but they are still valuable, and the Quirky Muffins lives on in its state of permanent disarray.

Some people can fill the pages magnificently. Steven Moffat, for example, just landed a wonderful fiftieth anniversary episode of 'Doctor Who' squarely in the park and made it look easy. I'm sure it was utterly blindingly difficult, as were his two episodes of 'Sherlock' so far and all the great 'Press Gang' and 'Doctor Who' and 'Coupling' shows he wrote. The man is a wizard. Long live the Great Moff. He's a man who got to write two of his favourite characters in the history of literature, and they're both icons to boot. He's also a man who gets ridiculous amounts of petty criticism from the audience portion of the media-sphere, and keeps on going despite it. In the short term, the Internet has all the critical value of a drunken mob of yobs dissatisfied that their free lump of gold has a picture of a yak instead of a mango engraved upon it. Long term reaction is all that reflects accurately.

For sheer diversity not many people leap into the mind as quickly as the Moff. Perhaps another example is the bearded wonder Terry Pratchett, who wrote in so many genres and tones in the grand era of his Discworld novels that he could well be one of the most magnificently skilled authors ever to wield a pen, and yet they're all fantasy so no one will ever really take him seriously. It's bizarre how that works. Long time correction will win out again, just more subtly.

Perhaps the blank page is really an invitation instead of a challenge. Perhaps my research would fare better if it began on a blank page again, a new invitation to investigation. It is so frustrating to be blocked by what seems to be a minor problem. Every system of differential equations has to be completed by boundary or initial conditions so that we can work out specific solutions instead of general ones, so why can't we concoct a compatible set of conditions for our problem? Obviously there's a fundamental lack of understanding going on somewhere. There's a blank page unfilled, an improvidence deep in the works only now wreaking havoc, and general rethinking and restart is in order. Yet, we are so incredibly close as it stands...

On good days, especially on real paper, the blank page is a fantastic thing to have in front of you. You can do amazing things with a piece of paper, a pen, and no computer or Internet to distract. Long bus journeys back and forth to Aberystwyth have yielded lovely long letters as well as bizarre odes to joy and some of these posts. What more can come of the blank pages to come? And what of your own blanks?


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Book: 'Dust And Shadow' by Lyndsay Faye (2009)

I've been trying to get back to Sherlock Holmes for a while now, looking for an avenue to sneak back onto the topic that would hold its structure enough to not collapse inward into 'Gosh! Sherlock Holmes!', so the novel by Lyndsay Faye (Baker Street Babes!) was as good an excuse as any, and will also feed into the post being written on 'Murder By Decree'. You see, this book and that movie are connected thematically, both being about Holmes investigating Jack the Ripper and both being unusual in that Sherlock gets emotional.

No story by any author other than Conan Doyle is canonical, and most aren't even true to the style. In truth, of those that I've read only Nicholas Meyer's 'Seven-Per-Cent Solution' comes close to being eminently Doyle-ian in style and then perhaps unintentionally. So, 'Dust and Shadows' approaches the story via the characters rather than by some stylistic apeing. It does so wonderfully but somewhat grimly as the tones of Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper do not easy bedfellows make. They clashed awkwardly in 'Murder By Decree' and again here. There seems to be a temptation to mix the infamous real world maniacal serial killer and contemporaneous fictional Master Detective, and -- Oh boggle! Of course there's a temptation! It's like mixing chocolate chip cookies with ice cream! Except that in this case we can't tell which is which. If you see sensationalist fact and sensationalist fiction conveniently set in the same time frame then who's going to not think about it?

Stop. Recoup. How I loathe critics. We can make up our own minds about what's good and bad; We don't need elitist snobs setting themselves up to favour us with their barbed shafts of critical wit. Humbug to them, and then make them watch Fleischer Popeye cartoons and work out what's really going on in the world. I rather like those cartoons, by the way. Fleischer were cool. Very fluid.

Back to 'Dust And Shadow', and perhaps it's best to avoid traditional criticism as it becomes destructive if used widely or for too long. My reaction was generally positive but in this case the cookies and the ice cream don't go together as well as we thought they might. In fact, we already know this to be true from 'Murder By Decree', which inspires shudders of dissonance in recollection. The character of Sherlock Holmes is not the one who can react to the outrage spectacularly enough to fulfil the role of the hero in this story. Sherlock Holmes is a man, a fictional man, of such steely resolve that he'll live through the case and perhaps even catch Jack, but then lock the horror up within himself as fuel to carry himself onward. That's not the hero of the story we need. In fact, if anyone should be the hero it is Dr Watson, and he is the one to resolve it all in the end. We sometimes forget Watson is a soldier, and the one out of the two who has experience of doing terrible things for good ends. Indeed that's often the lot of the doctor as well as the warrior. Interesting. Doctors fight wars just as much as soldiers, but theirs are eternal and never ending.

It's a staggeringly well researched book, full of little details and a clear love for the canon and the characters - are the characters part of canon or does that refer to the stories only? Canon is a fuzzy word, like chamomile or marshmallow - but the central twinned cores of the story can't coexist and remain true to themselves. You can have Sherlock Holmes being taken to see Sigmund Freud, or even trash everything and have 'Young Sherlock Holmes', but the Ripper is too real. It's a shame as I have nothing but admiration in every other sense of the work. There was another Holmes pastiche - 'pastiche' is the word they use for non-canonical Sherlock stories - recently, called the House of Silk, and that had similar problems in that the ultimate resolution of the story was too grim and too real to fit into the world of Sherlock Holmes. Also, it just wasn't as well written as 'Dust and Shadow', or 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution', or 'All Consuming Fire' or the majestic canon itself. It's like trying to light a candle and pass it off as a bonfire. I can't believe I haven't mentioned 'All Consuming Fire' before this, by Andy Lane. If you know what that is then you get a gold star, a pat on the head, and then a giant glass of milk. Hmm, three pastiches here and not two...

Having said all that, I'll keep 'Dust And Shadow'. It's a well written beast, but just a trifle too inevitably grim. How could it be otherwise?


PS Oh, and on this day of Doctor Who mania, I have only two words for you: Sherlock Lives.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Home Strait

We made it into the home strait, my students and I, and now I only need to get them through seven more lecture hours before they are finally rid of me and get to sit the exam I nominally wrote. And then what will happen to them? Well, they'll go on to their next courses and classes and I'll go on to whatever my next port of call might be. It's just hard to know where and what that might be. Probably there will be a lot of work as post-PhD rebuilding goes on.

Life after being a student is rarely what it was before, or what it was planned to be, or so I perceive from the people around me those I used to know. It's a strange and hectic time. Where one would expect a degree of stability with a PhD after one's name instead we find insecurity and pressure. It's tough, and would be better with a publication or two, but that's the touchiest subject of all.

To get on in academia you have to justify yourself and your research with publications. In principle and in practice that would appear to be fine, but in actuality we end up in the worst kind of quagmire. For my part, it's reasonable that I don't have publications as I really haven't worked hard enough. This will have to be made up for in the worst ways imaginable - working, blast it! - but in the meantime I'm pretty much unemployable as an academic. It's time to buckle down and examine every possible combination of boundary condition possible until death or glory beckons, and then convert to Statistics and founder there as well! Or bizarrely succeed, of course.

So seven lecture hours to go and three or four topics left to stretch into the time... It's not as hard as it could have been, even if the content of the module is woefully insufficient. Tomorrow's lecture has been naturally extended just by adding a clear throughline, and talking about the individual steps. The only danger is that students can get put off the things they need to know for the exam by the things they need to know to succeed. Teaching to exams is a dangerous business, after all, and one best to be avoided. Hopefully I've added enough to make the lectures coherent and linearly stronger while not obfuscating the issue overly.

obfuscate: to confuse or make unclear

'Obfuscate' is a lovely work, the antonym for 'explain' or 'clarify'. If we only knew how much some of the people in charge obfuscated we would be much much harder on them. I've often been tempted to obfuscate in times of utmost stress just to escape a tedious social occasion. Usually I just left instead. Why obfuscate when you can just be rude?


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Story: Oneiromancy, IV

(Part O , III , V)

This time he was flying, high - far too high - above a desert that was shimmering under the heat of a relentless sun in the pale blue sky. The dunes were barely perceptible from this height, merely smudges on the otherwise featureless expanse from horizon to horizon. The speed was incredible as he knifed through the air, and if it weren't for the inevitable dreamland physics in action he felt he would have fainted due to lack of breathing mere moments into the experience.

It was calm up there, in the great expanse, and for a while he forgot about it all and enjoyed the experience. Where he was going, he knew not, nor where he had flown from. Between a few minutes and a few days later the man slowed and then stopped high above what seemed to be a featureless hill of sand projecting from the arid plains. The world convulsed.

The shaking went on for ages, and the sky itself seemed to shudder. The sun vanished and the moon rose, and the moon vanished in turn to be replaced by three new moons and a ring of cosmic debris emitting a ghostly light. The convulsions settled and in startlement the flier saw a face in the hill of sand beneath him. Defiantly feminine nose, eyes and mouth could be seen in the dunes and valleys beneath and the suggestions of ears and a noble brow and chin.

The eyes opened and for a moment looked about wildly before seeing the man. Disconcertingly, the blue of the pupils had no tinge of sandiness and a sense of serenity settled into them as she gazed upwards and he down. The mouth opened, but only a mighty wind emerged, and then a horrid void pulling the man down in a great wave of suction. All power of flight faded and he plummeted down, down, down into the abyss that was the sandy mouth until finally he vanished from all Earthly sight and was gone.

The great sandy face wept sandy tears and seemed to shiver and quake in its own feeble structure, looking for a way out back to reality. A way to tell what she was trying to tell. The blue eyes of sand blinked, faded to yellow, and then the whole facade crumpled back into the desert, as if no-one had ever been there. The sandy desert continued, an archetype buried in the great common unconscious of the people dead, born and waiting.

The dream time faded into nothingness and somewhere out in the wide world of space and time a man awoke - and a woman - both confused and disoriented, and both with a nagging sense of things badly awry. If only the man had had time and thought in their own private shared desert to look up, and gaze upon a now sculpted debris ring, he would have seen something extraordinary: "Help me".

And then they went about their business for yet another day.

To be extended...

Sunday, 17 November 2013


Hitting my head against a wall. Mathematics getting in the way of real writing. Giant concepts flying around and messing with the concept of reality. Logarithms jumping up and down and waving noxious plain yogurt around menacingly. Oh good grief, it's so hard to be analytical and so tired, and still trying to write prose. Tired because of locking myself out of my hotel room for six hours and not sleeping a couple of days ago, and analytical because I am a mathematician. Today I was thinking about how they determined the value of the exponential constant e and am still wondering. The exponential function is incredibly interesting. Presumably they estimated e from some graphical concepts first, or one of its limit definitions, and then realised that it was the same number that kept popping up elsewhere before connecting all the dots and shouting 'Barnaby Jones'!

My hotel has very interesting carpets, by the way. Oh, the tedium!

Anyway, back off topic we go. What is the topic? I don't know, and I'm determined to stop having such things in general as they ruin the intent of the whole thing. It doesn't have to be about anything, not least of which the way the little Shakespeare head patterns in the weave would skip pattern halfway up each flight of stairs as they changed rolls. No, it shouldn't even be about carpet! Oh bother, that might be too hard, but carpet is certainly off the table. No more carpet talk. That reminds me that one of the most annoying things about living in Hungary was the lack of carpet and the insistence people would have on you removing your shoes when you visited them. It was bizarre. There were lots of good things about Hungary but this wasn't one of them. I wish they had had carpet instead of trying to make me wear communal slippers. Oh, and the green men lie. Strange places and silly times. That was not carpet talk, but rather 'absence of carpet' talk and so no rules were broken, especially if you look away now and pretend to be examining that cloud that looks like Clement Atlee.

One night's sleep isn't enough to make up for working too much. My head is so full of cotton wool that is even this nonsense has twinges of sense to it. Hopefully the trend of people not reading this will continue so as to leave this all unknown. Hmmm, but hopefully the stories will continue to get enhanced viewership. We're due to have the next episode in 'Oneiromancy' soon, and it's proving tricky as convincing dream imagery can only really be concocted while in a less than lucid state. In short, you have to be in a truly weird state of mind to come up with things which can actually be realistic as dreams. <breaks> I just wrote some due to being utterly sleep deprived and thinking that camels might be covertly comedic on purpose. There could be an academy somewhere that teaches them. Oh, and you are all sand dunes.

What? Oh! Um, the second season DVDs of 'The Six Million Dollar Man' are waiting for me to get to them. TSMDM is an interesting television show. It's camp and cheesy but also good hearted and was also a massive shift forward for genre television at the time. The dramatic standards were high and they made the best of what they had. It's fascinating. It's even more fascinating to realise how few years lay between the end of TSMDM and 'The Fall Guy'. Suddenly the words are making sense, just when it's time to stop. It was actually more fun to be fighting through the block in a way, but the lunacy has gone. Humbug!


Friday, 15 November 2013


The Phrontistery states that a 'paranym' is an obsolete term for a 'euphemism', those beloved terms we use in place of things considered crude or inappropriate. The vast majority of euphemisms, as a consequence of their function are related to scatological and sexual issues, those twinned topics that make people uncomfortable the world over.

I like the word 'paranym', it being a word that can be used in place of 'euphemism' and unknown enough to be a euphemism itself. The Phrontistery is a treasure trove of little known terms that faded out of the language, and yet when you browse through the lists it becomes apparent why some of them went to begin with. We just don't talk that much about donkeys in detail anymore, or tiny details of churches, and people don't seem to want the extensive vocabularies of days past. It's sad, but I digress from my original intent, which is for now lost to time as much as 'paranym' or 'tetradarchy'.

Euphemisms don't seem to be as common now as they were in the past, a legacy of a bygone era when people were less open and all things scatological and sexual proscribed from the language at all cost. Now, it somehow feels quaint to use a paranym. Perhaps that societal change is one of the reasons why spoken English has become rather less colourful as time goes by and more and more things become acceptable to the population at large, if not for prudes such as myself.

There are lovely words that could be used again in my world at large. For example, the word 'xerostomia' is far more interesting than 'excessive dryness of the mouth'. Next time I'm trapped in a parching hotel room, gasping for air and wondering when the night will finally come to an end I will cherish my xerostomia even if it is worrying in the extreme. You should all cherish xerostomia when it occurs, but not preserve it for time immemorial. That would be the insane option, as favoured by game show hosts and people of dubious reality.

And now, for a mild diversion, last night was the last night for 'Thor: The Dark World' at the local cinema and so I duly toddled the twenty sideways steps to get there and was ultimately a bit bored. Previously mentioned somewhere was my apprehension at this year's movies as among them were three essentially corrective sequels or reboots to movies I liked but apparently very few other people did, name 'Iron Man 2', 'Superman Returns' and 'Thor'. 'Thor: The Dark World' is fine, but it has had its predecessor's soul sucked out of it and replaced with generic action. If you want to make a film interesting then the characters are what is needed, not fighting. Fighting just makes a movie like every other fighting movie. What was a neo-Nordic-Shakespearian romp was converted to spaceships and cataclysmic events with really far too many jokes. They were good jokes, of course, but there too many. Also, filmmakers, if you're going to use Christopher Ecclestone then you'd better give him something interesting to do underneath the rubbishy makeup! In the end 'Thor TDW' was the only one of the three relaunches I saw, and in a perverse way I'm glad to have skipped 'Man of Steel' and 'Iron Man 3'.

Perhaps we'll get back to paranyms one day, and start babbling incoherently again, as only the use of euphemisms permit, smoothing as they do the dark potholes of narrative stream and denying dalliances with subjects best left for another conversation. Here's for encouraging euphemisms!


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Television: 'M*A*S*H: Abyssinia, Henry' (Episode 3x24)

There is conceivably no other television show that I will write two episode articles about, barring possible original Star Trek. I could easily pick two or three more to write about, even, which is unprecedented. The series was so good and original and funny in its first four seasons that it transcends the limits of its own format to be spectacular.

The man behind it all was show creator and leader Larry Gelbart, who with the great assistance of the crack directors and cast managed to produce a series both heartfelt, socially aware, critical and utterly human. The only downside to the show's first three seasons was the unhappiness of Wayne Rogers and McLean Stevenson, who played Trapper and Henry, and the perceived (and real) priority given by the show to Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce. Clearly there was a degree of 'second banana' syndrome but the show really did bias heavily and unfairly at times toward Alda at their expense and so independently the two finally decided to leave. Wayne Rogers was written out more absently in the fourth season premiere but here the beloved Henry gets a full and unexpected sendoff, Stevenson leaving in a presumably more planned and less acrimonious manner than Rogers. Even Frank Burns got a nicer sendoff than Trapper!

On the other hand, they killed Henry Blake.

It wasn't unprecedented for a character to die in a television show, but here it was a surprise, and came hot on the heels of twenty minutes of reminding us why the character was well-loved. The closing sequence was shocking: Radar walks into the OR and reads out a report that Henry Blake's plane was shot down, and that he was lost on his return home to the US after his trials in Korea. The actors themselves had only had a few minutes to prepare and it shows. There's a rawness to it all that is quite, quite jarring. The producers were vowed to never do anything so shocking again, and they didn't, but they didn't have to. You only have to throw the elbow once, after all, to show that you can and will. There was an episode of 'The West Wing' about that.

The main point about this episode is that it put MASH aside, into a whole other category of television show. For the rest of its run it wasn't the 'sitcom called MASH' anymore, but simply MASH. It may never have done anything so extreme as 'Abyssinia, Henry' again, which is extremely funny as well as sad, but it set a bar. In many ways no-one else has ever even made it close enough to see that bar. It's a quality mark to be able to do drunken shenanigans, a hearty farewell to a character flying home, and then a grim moment of terribly bad news. You can tell 'Abyssinia, Henry' is a good episode because it's hard to watch. Even while the fun is going on, the spectre of what to come refuses to budge, and so any viewing other than the first is permeated with an almost vicious melancholy. I'll even avoid the couple of episodes preceding it just to try to forget it happens. Blast you, MASH writers.

Rest in peace, Henry Blake, you were loved.

PS For commentaries on every single episode of MASH, check out Rob Kelly's AfterMASH podcast. So far he's almost halfway through season six.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Doodling On

Random reflections. My weeks tend to be rather schizophrenic, split between Aberystwyth and here in picturesque Pontyates. There's never any time to get settled, and the two hour bus journeys allows time only for reading huge tracts of lovely novels and getting rather travel sick. It's all quite the slog but there is reward in it, of the more abstract kind. An opportunity to lecture has been invaluable and as the remaining weeks dwindle away it's fun to think about what has gone right and what has gone wrong.

It's surprising how well the overall process of lecturing has gone. I surely could have been better prepared for every single lecture, the early ones being particularly catastrophic, but the lectures have been mildly successful. It's true that they laugh at me rather than listen and learn but that's the way of life as I have learnt it. There have always been people laughing at or dismissing rather than being interested. I think I must put out some kind of 'buffoon' aura or miss some cues. Ah well, 'tis life, and we do what we do to get by. Now if I could only get these lectures to be long enough I would be delighted!

As I continue to doodle here I remember how strange the latest 'Due South' commentary for Film Bin was, all kinds of hesitations and garbledness pushed together to make a big mess which sometimes seemed more concerned with director Lyndon Chubbuck than the episode itself, which was rather good but part two of a story whose part one was bizarre. As a result the whole thing was bizarre but Mr Chubbuck saved part two heroically.

So many novels on the go at the moment, thanks to the (lonely) awesomeness of living away from home four nights a week. Even if I wanted to work I couldn't, as there is no laptop and I refuse to buy one. In this frantic and frenzied world I am amazed, utterly astounded even, that people buy gadgets so that their work and entanglements follow them even on holiday! Isn't it bizarre? Humans are so confounding! It was probably less stressful when we all used sign language and the occasional grunt to communicate. I hypocritically use my primeval phone to check e-mail but really wish that habit hadn't grown.

The Patrick O'Brian novels are rather good. I'm enjoying them much more this time. Mark Twain is also proving to be much better than I expected as I plunge into 'The Prince and the Pauper', while remaining bafflingly stuck on Dorothy L Sayers' 'Five Red Herrings'. It's noticeable in the Sayers novels that she employs extremely accurate dialects and the Scottish verbiage in 'Five Red Herrings' is extremely annoying. Sometimes realism can be taken so far as to sabotage the intended effect of the story itself. It's entirely possible I'm the only one who has ever been bothered by such things though, so I'll refrain from further comment. I think the book must be missing a hook of some kind or that I'm just jaded with mysteries.

It's time to stop, and think about the stories to come. What will come down the Dream Line?

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Story: The Glove, VI [Obsoleted]

(Part I , V , VII)

Steffan stood outside the Piper Hall for a moment and wondered at the madness of what he had just done. Then, without looking back even once he walked down the road and submerged into the throng of people going about their business.

Inside the Pipers Hall, Master Octavius sat with steepled fingers and thought about the events of the day. He had not considered for a moment that the apprentice would refuse and now there was someone unprecedented out there in the world, someone aware of the purpose of the Guild but also apart from it.

The Apprentice sat in a cafe and wondered what to do with his life. After refusing the honour of joining the Masters Council he had also requested and been granted a suspension of his Guild Membership for the purposes of sabbatical. Sipping from a hot mug of coffee he realised that he had no purpose in his life for the first time since being little.

Octavious had two meetings after Steffan had gone and his duties had reasserted themselves: One with the other members of the Council, and then another with the second choice for the mission. The reserve Piper was experienced, steady, and incredibly well known. The very presence of Master Lambo would not fail to make itself known in any location for very long. It was not an ideal situation at all.

The coffee ebbed away to nothing in the mug, and Steffan wondered at what he had learnt. The Pipers functioned as a surveillance agency for the whole world, gathering and collating intelligence in a way he had never realised before. During training he had been told a little about listening to people and to always be on the watch for new material for ballads but this new information took that idea several steps beyond anything. The piles of papers and maps on Octavius's world indicated something major in the works, and a huge trust in the man who had rejected his offer.

Octavius sent Lambo on his way at the same time that Steffan left the cafe for home. As the suspended apprentice went into his kitchen to tell his mother and father the news, new piles of intelligence collapsed onto the Master's table as well as an in-depth study of Steffan himself. The study was the same as it had been the last time he had read it, but now the conclusions twisted about and a nagging anxiety about the boy would not abate, even as that boy lay in his bed and wondered at the supposed rise in anger amongst the population at large.

The night rolled in and Burgh settled to sleep, or as much to sleep as a bustling city could. For most, anxieties faded away as blissful repose put their minds to ease, but 'most' is almost never the same as 'all'.

To be continued...

NOTE: After re-reading 'Dragonflight' and 'Dragonquest' it is obvious that the Pipers are are inspired by the Harpers in those classic Anne McCaffrey novels. If you haven't read the pair, then you really should.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Far too easy

It's far too easy to forget that you care about things sometimes, and if you do remember it can become a bit fuzzy as to why you care. I've been back in Aberystwyth for extended periods twice now since finishing my undergraduate degree and only two nights ago did I remember just why I love it so.

On the first occasion I was here, I was on a short postdoc and it took place mostly over late February to June and it was all quite summery. The area was beautiful and the weather was dry and I just didn't reconnect to why it was awesome. Yes, there are lovely walks across the hills and bike trails but that's not the heart of living in Aberystwyth.

There is a key experience to being here, which I only am a few nights a week, and that is to walk along the promenade on a cold wet windy night, to get splashed and catch mist in the face from water slapping against the great containing wall. To smile ridiculously into the night and wait to catch some more. That's how I remembered I loved Aberystwyth on Fireworks Night and it will stick with me now until I have to leave again, for parts unknown. It is sublime for someone of my perverse nature, and was compounded with some student fireworks going up from Constitution Hill. Then I got splashed some more. It was lovely.

The only equivalent experiences I can came is far more touristy and schlocky but just as enjoyable. If you go to Barcelona in Spring or Autumn, eschewing the horrors of the summer, there are two experiences of a most enjoyable nature. They both involve rain. I really love rain. First of all, if you are walking down Las Ramblas and the tiniest speck of rain falls from the skies, everyone runs for cover like scared little children, and then they look at you like a mad person if you don't. Madness! Secondly, you can visit La Font Magica - the Magic Fountain - and watch its illuminations as the day transitions through dusk, and somehow move on to another plane. The music, the gathering gloom, and the lights conspire to make some other experience of it all, and one to be cherished.

Still, given the choice between a magic fountain and a wet, cold, windy night on the seafront the choice will have to be the seafront. What an awesome place!


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Story: The Disappearance (XIII)

(Part XII , XIV)

The story according to Rolf McGonagle:
It all started out very innocently. As I sit here held captive it all seems quite unbelievable. My father, the great Zod McGonagle called me into his office and said that he was going to retire but that first there was a secret that had to be passed on. He put on his most solemn and pompous expression. "Rolf, my boy," he said to me, "we have a secret partner in the business. You'll come to know them as you go forward in running this place. For now I shall simply introduce you to your cousin Dabney Sheldon."

I looked at Dabney Sheldon and saw someone utterly unprepossessing. He was of nondescript years and a little hard to pin down. Over the following years though, he exposed and used a will of iron on numerous occasions. Dabney's involvement was to bring an extra source of unbelievably inexpensive and reliable ingredients from an unknown origin, which he would not reveal for obscure reasons. And it was impressed upon me that we could not reveal said source without unbelievably bad implications for all concerned. I would not be assuaged and probed further, but the methods by which Dabney enforced the secrecy of the project first appalled me, and then beguiled me. The disappearances of detectives and innocent bystanders became less of an outrage and more of a price that had to be paid.

Dabney would discover someone had been asking questions and after a few questions of his own would then calmly order they be 'slipped the biscuit', and a few bystanders too for camouflage. His eyes never seemed to change as he gave the order but his lips did twitch. I suspect my lips twitch a little now too, as that responsibility has devolved unto me. Dabney left us many years ago. One day he was simply gone, and there was an order left on my desk to 'carry on and keep the schedules'. I gather now he was a transitional advisor sent to help me when I took over.

Even though the dirty tricks had long ceased to be a problem to me, the mystery of it all was too intriguing so as I followed the schedules I tried to learn more about what was going on. One evening on a routine walk around the tertiary supply dump I saw the supplies materialising from thin air and then never looked back. Ha, the future! Who would ever have thought it! Every time we sold something now with cheap food from the future we made a profit and became exponentially richer as a family fifty years from now due to the wonders of compound interest. Eventually I hitched a ride to the future and got the whole story, and then slowly took charge of both ends of the operation, taking over from a ruined and ancient version of myself there of course. The timeline would take a battering but who would care as we were getting richer!

My niece Agnes may look at me as if I were dirt, but money is power, and we need to be powerful in the future. It was worth it. It's always worth it. And if not, then the white knight always need someone to tilt at. And you'll never be able to stop us. It's all in place now. You'll never stop us, and if there's a singularity that kills thousands of people then that's worth it too, and from my point of view... Well, it's neither here nor there.

More will follow...

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Television: 'Sherlock' 2x01 - A Scandal In Belgravia

As I sit, trying and struggling to get into the pilot episode of 'Elementary', I'm more and more forcibly reminded about this superior example of the original contemporary Sherlock show in this phase of Holmesian adaptations. 'A Scandal In Belgravia' is by far the best example of the BBC television movies, written by the ever excellent Stephen Moffat and directed by the now moved-on Paul McGuigan.

The joy of the BBC 'Sherlock' is in the sheer joyful blending of the modern canonical details with present day Britain, and the modern substitutions that it possible to be so authentic. Text messages are an automatic replacement for telegrams, while the Internet is an easy substitute for tabloid papers. Finally, it was possible for modern Watson to be returning from service in Afghanistan just as the canonical Watson did. It's an easy fit now, after decades of adaptations being not quite right. Even the lauded Rathbone and Bruce Holmes films struggle in the imperfect calendar setting.

Looking at 'A Scandal in Belgravia' specifically, we see an intricately constructed film that integrates elements from the story 'A Study In Scarlet' with a massive number of original elements, and the prevailing loneliness of the Holmes brothers. The massive enlargement of the role of Mycroft Holmes is one of the most endearing aspects of 'Sherlock', allowing massive insight into the background of Sherlock without ever spelling it out explicitly. The surest way to kill an iconic character is to explain them, and that is never done here. We see the things that motivate them without understanding the reasons why. Also, Mark Gatiss is brilliant in the role, a far better performer than he is writer in fact. The epic nature of the story, spanning months, and the entirely new character of Molly also allow access into Sherlock's development without really explaining any of it.

The other thing that elevates the marvellous 'Belgravia' is the usage of Irene Adler, known forever to Sherlock and his fans simply as 'The Woman'. Here she is woman amped up to the extreme, powerful and vulnerable, and the only one to crack through the imbalanced mentality of Sherlock. She is the Woman, and defeats him at every turn until the end. The underlying story of 'Sherlock' is that he is a man missing a part, that he will never become fully normal, but this is an interesting waypoint on the way to his ultimate destiny. The final reveal at the end, motivated as it is by Sherlock having been told his own earlier undoing at Adler's hands, is all the sweeter in combination with what is perhaps the most sumptuous music to ever be scored on a television show. He wins, but destroys himself in the process.

When we look back at 'Sherlock', after its full run of twelve or fifteen films has been completed, it is very likely that this episode will stand as the pinnacle of the bunch. No-one writes Sherlock Holmes like Moffat, unshackled as he is here by the content restrictions he normally has on 'Doctor Who'. The other writers pale in comparison, even when they turn in solid examples. Strangely the next film, 'The Hounds of Baskerville', was critically lauded while being deplorably bad. It's sad, really, that glitz can overrule judgement so thoroughly and in direct contrast to 'Belgravia'.

It's time to stop, as the pilot episode to 'Elementary' winds down without ever really winding up. Strange and mercenary thing to do, manufacturing a second updated Sherlock Holmes television show. Maybe it will become more engaging? But never as much as 'A Scandal In Belgravia'.

Roll on, series three, it's long past time!


Friday, 1 November 2013

Verne and Wells

It doesn't always feel that I do subjects justice on the Quirky Muffin. Sometimes something promising gets shrunk or cranked out due to time constraints or just wanting to go to sleep and be done with the day. Not this time.

Jules Verne pioneered science fiction in a few of his Extraordinary Voyages stories. He did it unwittingly and comparatively seldom but he travelled to the centre of the Earth and sent ships around the moon. His influence was enormous and his most famous stories are clearly adventures as opposed to horrors or tragedies. Years after Verne's prime and death, John Dickson Carr declared adventures impossible to write as the World Wars had made the planet too small for anything or any journey to be romantic, but he forgot that stories didn't need to be realistic to be stories, and that adventures could still work in other more speculative kinds of fiction. Adventure would go on, and they would be repopularised by Star Trek of all things, a clear successor to the wanderlust of Jules Verne's novels as well as the daring exploits of Horatio Hornblower. Star Trek was positive where so much other science fiction was dystopian and that was why it was popular. In America they freed science fiction from the shackles of horror and it prospered.

How had science fiction become so shackled to horror and dystopian visions of the future? Perhaps one of the main reasons was the grand success of H.G. Wells, who coupled fantastical ideals to catastrophic events. His journeys inevitably saw the protagonist go too far and retreat stumbling while the problem either crumbled away of its own causing or simply ended in tragedy as in the case of 'The Invisible Man'. These landmark stories coupled horror to grand speculative ideas and they remain coupled to this day. In Britain we never had Star Trek of our own, but instead had Doctor Who, which of course is steeped in rich layers of body horror and monsters almost every episode. We were never really liberated, and nothing has ever challenged Doctor Who as THE British science fiction program.

In Star Trek and Doctor Who do we essentially see the duelling spirits of Verne and Wells, grappling over how we should approach stories and ideas ahead of their times? I can not even attempt to disguise my lack of interest in the Wells stories, being as they are so dismally pessimistic. Why read along to the desolation of Britain under alien invasion when you can travel under the oceans for twenty thousand leagues or discover the Lost World with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Is this the juvenile and immature choice to make? Perhaps, but it is definitely the most enjoyable choice.

It certainly feels as if Wells is felt everywhere except in Star Trek, as if those bold voyages are the only place for some kind of Verne-ian ideal to prosper openly. Perhaps the 1960s were the only time when such a series could launch into the popular culture and become an archetype to test time itself? Only the primal idea of Superman even seems to approach that optimism, defeated though it has been in recent incarnations.

Despite all this, and the dreariness of the sci-fi landscape as a whole, you can't help but admire HG Wells for the impact his style and works have had, from The Twilight Zone to Doctor Who to Farscape and beyond. He created modern science fiction. Jules Verne inspired Star Trek though, and for that he's the winner in my eyes.


Thursday, 31 October 2013

Book: 'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth' by Jules Verne (1864)

Jules Verne is effectively the origin point for all science fiction. His pioneering blends of speculation and real world science of the mid-Nineteenth Century struck a resonance perhaps unparallelled in the history of fiction. His influence is incredible and yet mostly forgotten as the dystopian and dark science fiction of HG Wells currently prevails. More on that tomorrow, for now we are going to talk about one of Verne's most legendary works.

'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' was first published in 1864. For a moment please consider that year. 1864. Wow. 'Journey' was the third in his series of Extraordinary Voyages novels, during which his readers would travel beneath the sea in a magnificent submarine, be shot to the moon inside a massive artillery shell, or travel through interstellar space while trapped on a comet. In this one, the discovery of a centuries old runic document sends famed geologist Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel on a subterranean journey ostensibly to the centre of the world. Entering the underworld via an extinct Icelandic volcano, in the footsteps of Arne Saknussem of ancient fame, the adventure reveals underground seas and primeval monsters galore. They're saved from an eventual unpleasant demise only by being shot to the surface via an eruption and finding themselves near Bologna.

It's charming, it really is, and so unlike the science fiction that would follow. In the new terrain forged by HG Wells and Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, unbounded optimism is almost the antithesis of science fiction. Excepting only the Verne influence on Star Trek, we are faced with monsters and mutations and disasters galore in the years ahead. Only badness can come of science and space, is what they say, and that's what we watch and read and listen to.

The optimism of 'Journey' is in the journey, in the idea that these things are possible and can be lived through, and in the naivete and originality of the writing. 'The Lost World' of Conan Doyle was written in 1912 but living prehistoric life appears here first. Axel almost dies of starvation several times, suffocation and heat prostration a few more, is trapped alone in the labyrinth and all the while is missing his fiancée Grauben who he will marry upon returning home a hero with her guardian the professor.

'Journey' is my favourite of the Verne stories that I've read, lacking as it does the moodiness of Captain Nemo from 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea' and the sheer madcap and breakneck pace of 'Around The World In Eighty Days' and replacing it with... geology. The geology is cool. Any story that features some basic geology should be lauded up into the clouds and beyond. The impetuousness of the journey is staggering but it does harken back to a time when being able to do something almost demanded that it be done, and that without the inevitable nasty consequences. Yes, that's a symptom of the mindset that has left us in environmental crisis now but it didn't have to end up like that.

For every mad adventurer like Lidenbrock or Phileas Fogg there was a stalwart companion like Hans or Passepartout. The human race would work it out, even lacking the feminine half of the species who were rather passive back in those times. Now woman is emancipated but not in time to be in Jules Verne books equally; We'll file it under 'Sometime life just stinks' and move on. Indeed there are some questionable (or plain outright wrong racial stereotypes) in some of the Verne novels but we're dealing with a nineteenth century man here, and in many ways a progressive one.

What is the best part of 'Journey' and what is the most challenged? Personally the most interesting and fascinating part is the introduction and the runic puzzle, simple though it may be, which is only challenged by the storm sequence on the subterranean sea. For bad parts, and remember we're dealing with translations for the most part, the least engaging portion is the ride back to the surface through the volcano and most scientifically wrong is the whole concept of disproving the central fire of the planet. But still, it is at heart a children's story and an excellent one at that.


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Perils Of Lecturing

There are many things that can go wrong while lecturing. First of all, you can discover that your prepared notes for the display are riddled with errors. Secondly, you can get panicked when you see the room full of apathetic faces staring blankly back at the screen. Thirdly, you can have talkers, which is the worst thing of all, for talkers force you to make a decision. If you let them go then you obviously don't care enough about the whole thing, but if you shush them then you need to succeed in shushing them or face total disaster thereafter. But this is all beside the point.

It is a Tuesday and Tuesdays mean travelling. Part of the problem of a temporary job is the lack of motivation to move properly and so instead for a couple of months I have forced myself to commute for four nights a week. For the most part it is fine except for this week where I am forced to move halfway through the sting, from my plush self-catered hotel to a bed and breakfast over Halloween. I blame Halloween for it all of course. The travelling isn't too bad, as good as a two hour service bus ride can be, but it does leave little time to prepare for the Tuesday lecture.

Ah, Halloween, the one night of the year you don't want to be in a Halloween town. The very though is terrifying in the extreme. Despite eight years of university education I have never actually been out on a Halloween night. The active parts of social evenings start so incredibly late! As someone who tries his hardest to fall asleep at the natural time of nine o'clock (morning or evening, it doesn't matter), it's dispiriting to have to wait until eleven o'clock or midnight for people so I almost never did, apart from when held at the threat of blackmail.

Blackmail... Slipping back into a Sherlock Holmes frame of mind for a moment, that last passage reminded me of the second greatest Sherlock Holmes villain of the stories: Charles Augustus Milverton, the master blackmailer. In many ways he was a far more defined character than Moriarty ever was, and it will be interesting to see what they do with him as the presumably ongoing antagonist for the next series of 'Sherlock'. Which reminds me in turn that the episode 'A Scandal In Belgravia' deserves a blog article all of its own, representing as it does the very best of the series.

Presumably the last lecture I give here will also be my best, as there is an upward trajectory to my successes so far. The real challenge is in addressing the differential in the group, comprising as it does people with very little of mathematics and people who need their mathematics rubber stamped to progress and who know most of it already. It's very hard to make everyone happy in those circumstances, especially when you have too many errors in your presentation, and a magic whiteboard to maneuver around. Or I could just be making excuses. You decide.

Oh, magic whiteboard, you are wonderful but also so so useless.


Sunday, 27 October 2013

Real Time

It's nice to be back on real time. It is a liberating experience to finally not be involuntarily keeping two time zones in the mind simultaneously, the clock time and the 'real time'. There's no point harping on it though. As stated previously, British Daylight Savings time is a nightmare for some people with inflexible body clocks.

Now to state the obvious: Writing an exam is hard. I honestly thought it would be easy but it seems that finding a new set of numbers for an existing question type, that will produce a nice answer all the way through, is quite fiendishly difficult. Obviously details can't be entered into at this time - my students might look me up - but there are still questions to finalise, and they are proving recalcitrant. Not as recalcitrant as the salmon in the kitchen, but indomitable never the less.

Lecturing has been quite an experience so far. From the first faltering steps of finishing twenty minutes early (at least) three times in a row, my typing up is now so far advanced that I can occasionally just load up the next lecture and keep going and filling up any slack time that occurs. It will cheer my lovely students to no end to know that there is no reserve material for this Tuesday so the dreaded worked examples could come into force with a vengeance. Actually it's nice to do worked examples, but not when you're without a marker whiteboard and stuck with the dreaded magic electronic version instead. Electronic whiteboards are great for straight lines but horrible for writing. <Imagine a great sigh in this space, building to a crescendo before dying out in apathetic fashion.> Graph sketching will be a tour-de-force, no doubt.

Real time. For a few brief months that are unfortunately in the dead of winter, the clocks will make sense and gibe with everything once again. It will be glorious. Christmas is coming, hot on the heels of the ever disappointing Halloween, and then lengthening days before Daylight Savings Time again.

Mutter mutter.