Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Long Bus Journeys

Long road journeys tend to induce a bit of mental woolliness. They're not exactly pleasant while they're in progress but I enjoy them mightily in retrospect as viewed through the brain wool. I don't like to fly, so in the past I've spent incredibly long periods of time - twenty four to thirty six hours per trip - crawling across the face of the Earth to places like Bratislava and Barcelona and it helps fight the time lag.

Some people can travel and adjust really quickly, but I'm not one of them. I even have problems adjusting to daylight savings time! I've said before that living in Hungary was a constant source of timezone lag and my temporal inflexibility is still there. How strange it to be alive, full of quirks that strive.

Of course the magic of long bus journeys is that you appreciate the distances journeyed. Psychologically it allows you to understand you've travelled, and if that doesn't add magic for you then imagine how thirty six hours without sleep will make everything magical! The only things better are long ship voyages and train journeys, both of which are more expensive than buses, with trains being far more involved as an offset against the comfort.

Moving on, it's still amazing to me that the dolphins turned up over Aberystwyth Carnival. It's almost as if it's a sign, a warm goodbye or a sign of grateful acceptance and welcome. The environment gathers up its intangible energies and touches you, as if there's a greater over-soul to it all. Hence there were dolphins and a glorious drizzly early Sunday morning on Constitution Hill with never a soul in sight, where an hour could be soaked up into meditative thought. It was lovely.

On a second unrelated topic, we posted the Film Bin commentary for 'Fish Story' today, completing the cycle that was begun by my stumbling onto the film after Adam Quigley recommended it on the Slashfilmcast, and continued by my blog on the film. The circle is closed. It's an awesome film. There's been enough movie talk now, it's time to get back to books! And Greek learning...

O.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Movie: 'Supergirl (Director's Cut)' (1984)

'Supergirl' was the fourth movie in the first Superman franchise, sandwiched between 'Superman III' and 'Superman IV'. It's almost automatically categorised in with those two inferior sequels but it's actually an odd little beast all its own. Yes it's campy nonsense still, but it's also a very innocent and naive little film, and shares very little creative personnel with the Superman films. The theatrical version is a bit fuzzy in my mind so comparison would be futile but the director's cut is actually a pretty consistent and coherent story. Apart from bizarre magic clothing changes it's quite logical. Or I'm completely insane. It's a pretty tricky decision to make.

The story is the usual 'girl in pocket dimension city loses power source and comes to Earth to find it and save her home' idea, as we see in so many movies. This time the girl is Helen Slater as Kara the eponymous Supergirl and the villain is a witch called Selena who gets boosted by the power source. While you might think that's hokey, it does mean we can skip a lot of the exposition and just have bad things happen because of magic, and Faye Dunaway really doesn't chew up the scenery too much. It's definitely a better choice than the fairly disastrous happenings of 'Superman III', which film's failure apparently stopped 'Supergirl' being theatrically released in the US at all. As a consequence, perhaps, 'Supergirl' has been forever tainted by it's failed predecessor and it's quite unfair especially when the Director's Cut is a vast improvement. At least I hope it is. I wonder if Helen Slater would have got more jobs if it had been released there. I miss Helen Slater; She had a lovely innocent eyes thing going on. I think 'City Slickers' is due a rewatch.

As with 'Real Steel' the value in this movie is in its self-consistency and reasonable targets. Also in common with the other movie is that it's in no way a masterpiece. It's just an enjoyable and silly romp, albeit one with an impressive Jerry Goldsmith score. It doesn't have the dramatic under-story of 'Superman' and 'Superman II' that presumably originated from Mario Puzo's original treatment but it does have a fairly interesting and novel female coming of age tale. There are reasons to suggest this movie be better thought of simply because it's a uniquely female-led superhero movie. There's not really anything else like it anywhere, especially with the atrocity that was 'Catwoman' and the mediocrity of 'Elektra', admittedly neither of which I've seen.

It's strange to have a movie where Faye Dunaway doesn't rub me up the wrong way. Normally I can't stand her but somehow she's unrecognisable here. Perhaps it's the wig that's dulling her powers, allowing her to quite good. She's no Gene Hackman but who could be really? This movie has been roundly criticised for campiness and over-acting but I don't really see it, not even in Peter Cook's role as the mathematician (yes!) turned warlock Nigel. The worst that can be said is that there are stupid jokes. Helen Slater is fairly good if a little vacant as Supergirl, and the supporting cast supports competently. The worst acting performance is the handsome bloke that Selena and Supergirl end up nominally fighting over in addition to the vital power source 'The Omegahedron'. He starts off as really terribly dumb but improves slowly. His improvement may have been due to the precision coconut strike to the head from the clear blue sky, and I really didn't make that up. There are precision coconut strikes in this film.

One of the main questions that pop into my mind is 'Is cuteness and naivete acceptable in movies?' and it's quite divisive. I say yes, it's totally acceptable. You can make movies like 'Real Steel', 'Speed Racer' and 'Supergirl' and it's fine because I enjoy them. To the world at large, though, it doesn't seem to be something that people want any more. There's no time to be innocent any more, which is why Superman is a problematic characer. It's all so cynical and the people who like these things are organised into little cells, resisting the tide of fist fights and rampant and gratuitous destruction and hoping for better times. Rampant destruction just isn't a Superman thing.

Lingering notes: Peter O'Toole is pretty good as Supergirl's oddly unmotivated or badly written uncle Zaltar. The cheapness of the titles is kind of disappointing. The cinematography is midway between the awesomeness of the Donner cuts of the first two movies and the cheapness of the Lester films. The whole thing has a very European movie vibe to it which is interesting. It's such an odd film. The effects are better than I thought they would be.

To summarise, the director's cut of 'Supergirl' is a lot better than people would have you believe, and it's certainly not as bad as 'Superman III' or the lamentable 'Superman IV'. It's coherent and not a complete mess although it does very much depend on your personal taste. I can imagine people hating it for not having fights or gratuitous violence and too many teenage girls wandering about being girly. It's... cute and small-scale. You might like it.

O.

PS I'll take that precision coconut strike to the head please.
PPS For people that care, you do see Comiskey Park from the air in this film.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Movie: 'Real Steel' (2011)

This movie and the director's cut of 'Supergirl' will always be inextricably linked to me as I watched them in succession and liked them both against the expectations of their critical reactions. 'Real Steel' is either a derivative family sports/boxing movie with little original to add or a solid movie about a guy who operates boxing robots, his estranged son and their new bond via a robot called Atom. The reaction and judgement is up to, and depends on how many similar movies you've seen and how cynical you are. I score well both on non-cynicism and not having seen many sports movies and so I rather liked it.

The strange thing with 'Real Steel' is that it very steadily gets better as it goes on. At the beginning it's a bit dull. At halfway it's half-good and at the end it's very good and it's a simple progression. It's not groundbreaking. Of course Atom will defeat the champion somehow and the dad will connect to the kid, but here it's only a moral victory and the kid still goes away to stay with his new adopted parents. Yes, there's a character shift in Hugh Jackman's father figure Charlie as he stops wasting his time trying to keep his old boxing lifestyle alive, but at the end he's still a robot boxer. Or we assume he is.

'Real Steel' does exactly what it says it does on the box. It's a classic example of a simple story told well. It's probably time for the clich├ęd plot synopsis. Here we go. Charlie is a failing robot boxer guy who used to be a real boxer before the robots wiped out the traditional sport. He's failing because he's not thinking things through or applying his own innate analytical skills to his fights. While on the verge of total financial ruin he learns of the death of his old girlfriend and sells his parental rights in his son Max to Max's aunt and uncle. As part of the deal he has to take custodianship for the summer and from hence it boils down to: Rocky relationship, found robot, Max fights it well, slow battle uphill, corporate champion, upstart challenge, final fight and eventual moral win as well as final reconciliation.

This movie does what it does well. Normally I would not appreciate such a film for its simplicity, but there is an undercurrent of something there, and it builds well to an excellent and emotional and oddly uncynical climax. The bad corporate guys win and presumably aren't ruined. Max doesn't go to live with Charlie. Charlie presumably goes back to his girlfriend Bailey in a more settled state of mind. Pretty much everything goes on as it did before. The performances are all solid. Hugh Jackman takes a long time to find his charisma as Charlie but it does come eventually as the character thaws, so it's probably deliberate but does make the beginning problematic. Dakota Goyo isn't anywhere near as irritating as he could be as little Max and actually grows well through the film in much the same way the Jackman thaws. Keeping those two apart really seems to reinforce the thematic emptiness that underscores the whole thing. Everyone else does a good job, where there is nothing specifically remarkable, but a good ensemble cast still wins the day.

Finally there is one thing more I really appreciate about this movie, and that is the non-overbearing special effects. The robot sequences are well integrated into the movie as a whole and don't go on any longer than you want them to. If they were pandering or overstuffed I would not like this film. The fact that I do like it means something, for I do not readily like violence in films. There's something here. Atom is a battered looking sparring robot who mirrors Charlie's woes, and only really is used successfully when Charlie connects back to his old boxing skills as a tool to fight the ugly brawling tactics of every other robot. It's discipline over indiscipline.

There you go, 'Real Steel'. I really shouldn't like it but I do. That should tell you something.

O.

Carnival!

It was carnival day today in Aberystwyth. There were floats, fancy dress, loud music, too many people cluttering up the place and... dolphins! I spent three years here doing my first degree, and then several weekends and finally six months of working here and I never saw the dolphins. But here and today, there were dolphins, and they didn't even need to be sought out as they were right there off South Beach. I've waited years for those dolphins! The semi-mythical summer donkeys were also out and giving rides. It was all rather festive in a commercial tawdry kind of way.

Aberystwyth is very much a town of two distinct personalities. In university time it is the best student town you could ever find, scenic and upbeat, with a lively culture and lots of facilities for people to keep themselves busy. Outside of term time and in the school summer holidays in particular it's a tourist wasteland and nowhere near so nice. Still, this how the locals stay in business so it's best tolerated. Or you can leave for two months of every year and then sneak back into town as the bulk of tourists slide back home. The combination of hear, noise, people and never having the beach to yourself is really quite the nasty one. It's much nicer in the off-months when you can stand on the beach, throw pebbles into the waves, and hear the sound of silence and feel it quelling your stress, or you can sit on top of Constitution Hill and eat a picnic, basking in the view over the ocean. You can even read and work in a scenic wonderland if you're sick of the office.

However, there is one exception to the summer annoyances, and that's when it rains. It's raining now after the sunniness of the carnival and it is gorgeous. That warm wet smell is really the most gorgeous thing, unless it rains for weeks on end as it used to do frequently. If you deny climate change, then all I can say is that you're mad. The climate has certainly changed here, and the only question is whether it's man-caused or a natural cycle. (Hint: It's man-caused.) It's a wonderful time to be here, and I'm glad to have popped up for the weekend.

Oh, dolphins, you made my day. The parade was nice and all that, but the dolphins were the best. They were only silvery shapes hooping out of the water too far away for my puny camera to capture but they were memorable. Finally, the dolphins made an appearance. This isn't a shadowy backup Earth like that in the 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy' but the real deal.

Earth: The real deal. Unless this is a very long dream of course. Or a computer game. Or we're all characters in a book.

O.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Story: The Glove, II

(Part I , III)

Spectators continued to wander over to the Circle. An hour passed without an examiner heaving into view in their regalia and Steffan started to worry. He had heard tales of pipers waiting days for their exams on occasion, as a test of their courage and determination.

Troos remained high in the sky and the circle heated. A jingling was heard from the west as people approached. Steffan barely moved from his ritual waiting stance. Over the last two hours he had become welded to the spot, trapped in an almost meditative state as the world span overhead, mirroring the memories surging up from the bottom of his heart.

Six years ago, his parents had sponsored him for entrance into the Pipers Guild. He hadn't passed the the assessment exam but eventually got in on the third attempt. Something must have happened after that success as he had progressed quickly in his craft. And now, one year ahead of schedule, it was time to pay the pipers with a song.

Long ago, the founders of Burgh had design the Circle as the grandest outdoor arena on their world, and still it was spectacular. The jingling was still there and nearing. The crowd split apart to allow the judges through and closed respectfully behind them once again. The three Masters approached and with them came the peril of failure. As per tradition, one opposing Master in red, one supporting in blue, and one to moderate in mildest grey.

The three Masters came to a halt and saluted Steffan. They took their places against the three Stones of Mastery and indicated the beginning. Steffan raised his pipes, and began to play.

Overhead, Troos continued to turn as the music rolled on and on...


Plan formed, so there shall be more...

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Take The Hard Road

I would love to be able to say that I always the high hard road, that my ethics are unbending and that everything is always squeaky clean. Of course I'm human, and none of us can say that we always do the righter thing no matter what. You'll have to trust me when I say I end up bowing to my splendid conscience in the end on almost all occasions. Or you can distrust me, a stranger on the Internet. That might be wiser.

Why write about this? I have no idea, but it could be connected to the fact that I'm currently spending a bit of time learning Greek and it's hard. Teaching yourself a language - and I'm really only barely beginning - is hard. It's a hard road, and to do it successfully you have to take that high and hard road. You have to start off and learn the alphabet, dig deep and read the grammar books and finally just try to write in that language. It's so hard as to be ridiculous but at the same time it's challenging.

It's strange that doing things right is almost always so much harder than doing things the cheating way. You would think that every so often there would be some circumstance that is easier in the short term to do right. Sometimes, somehow, for some reason. If anyone has any examples I would be very pleased to read about them. There must be some! Even my villainous and fictional alter ego 'Clomp von Clomp' occasionally does things the right way, just to insure that the scheme doesn't blow up immediately. It will blow up, though, just after a dramatic pause for the best effect. Oh, I love Clompie, even if he is a sick and twisted omnipotent blue being of dubious poker skills.

I remember what brought on this piece now. Someone accused me - ME! - of having integrity. Of course they're wrong but these kinds of impressions seem to stick, and integrity is several steps on from relentlessly being called 'nice'. Sigh and double sigh. So that's why I started frothing on in such a pretentious way. Pretentious is really the only way to segue nicely from maths mode to reality, and I was deep in Maths mode to begin. It's actually really interesting that second language mode has the same problems as maths mode. Have you ever tried to write a meaningful passage in a second language you're still learning? It's like trying to stretch wood or melt a concept. Impossible! Of course at some point the language becomes familiar enough to make it possible but it takes years.

The hard road often takes years... But the view is awesome...

O.

PS Coming up we have items on: 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', 'Real Steel', the problems of a Batman/Superman movie, and the reason why 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' isn't completely terrible.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Epistle

There's something magical about writing a letter, a full paper-based epistle that you seal and address and then put in a little slot to be physically conveyed to its recipient. I used to send lots of letters to a once-girlfriend overseas and it truly helped maintain the connection in a way no other means of communication does. Skype doesn't help, the phone doesn't help, but letters do as they maintain the connection but also allow you to continue your life fairly functionally. Also, and more importantly, the effort is meaningful, far more meaningful than turning up next to a computer. The writer of a letter has sat down somewhere, away from the soul-destroying machine, and has written with a pen and ink thoughtfully. It's a wonderful thing.

However, the rarity of letters in this time period means you have to use them wisely or extravagantly, lest people wonder at your intentions. They are the atom bombs of communication and are best used for devastating effect. For everyday epistles we've shifted onto e-mail, because it's fast and free! I love e-mail, despite the increased chance of imagination throwing a spanner in the works and distorting what you meant to say all along. It's easier to read incorrectly between the lines of an e-mail than a letter, because the spaces are so very uniform and spacious. The very worst media are short messages on Twitter and Facebook. If ever a service was designed to be misleading...

My voracious correspondence takes place mostly in e-mail, with a horde of variously themed and moderately lengthy messages flying out into the world every week, and a horde returning in response for the most part. As they always used to say: "You have to send them to get them." It's true. Contact is something that you must initiate in the most part in the hopes that both participants will then sustain the link. It's easy to be proud and wish that other people would contact you, but it doesn't work that way. Obviously by this principle a small number of people get a massive torrent of e-mails and letters and have a luxury in responding but in the most part you have to send them to get them.

It's probably very noticeable that I write this blog as an open e-mail most of the time, a message to an anonymous and theoretical reader out in the wilderness of outside reality. Hopefully sometimes it connects with someone and causes a spark of happiness or incredulity, as is its secondary purpose. As always the primary purpose is self-expression. If more people wrote blogs and expressed themselves, perhaps the world would be a less stressed place. That's food for thought. Maybe we should all have pen friends?

O.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Movie: 'Ladyhawke' (1985)

It's hot here in Britain, and here in Wales it's about to get even hotter. That, and the fact that I'm working like a somewhat laboured lunatic on my article makes everything rather strange, sweaty and tense. But it could be worse. Let's talk about a movie. That movie was going to be 'Sneakers', one of my all-time favourite movies, but then I realised I didn't want to spoil it by spelling out it's more egregious flaws so instead it shall be 'Ladyhawke'. 'Ladyhawke' too has flaws but has become beloved far more recently.

This is a movie that has to be put in context a little. Its director Richard Donner and one of the writers Tom Mankiewicz essentially created 'Superman: The Movie' and most of its sequel before power plays forced them out and 'Superman II' to be finished in a somewhat hacky fashion. To be honest, to this day I'm not convinced that the dodgy tacked on ending to 'Superman: The Movie' is entirely their fault either. After spending years of his life on Superman, Donner pulled off a number of smaller movies (everything is smaller in comparison) and this is my favourite.

'Ladyhawke' is somewhat of a fable, a fairy tale made in the modern age, and is delightfully silly at many points while still being painfully heartbreaking at others. It has its flaws and it has its strengths, as do many films. As do all things in fact. In plot, a couple are cursed by a vengeful Bishop who has made a pact with dark forces. By day she becomes a hawk, and at night he a wolf. They will forever be together, but always apart except for perhaps a few brief moments at sunrise and sunset. With the help of a thief called 'The Mouse' and a dusty old monk who betrayed a confidence years before, can the curse be broken or will circumstances render it inviolate forever more?

It's hardly a surprise to learn the curse is broken at the end. I hope not at least. This movie has a very strange tone: It is by parts funny and dramatic in plot and contains some exciting and impressive battle scenes. The special effects available ruled out complex shapeshifting but in a sense the compromise we get is far more effective; Isabeau and Navarre's altering of forms are not the reason to see the movie, as it's the story that's important. Special effects often get in the way, so it's better to do what we see here and have it be quick and out of the way. If I had to pick one best reason to watch 'Ladyhawke' it would be Rutger Hauer's performance and one best reason to be critical it would be the score. The score is very strange, a synth 80s pop score over a medieval fantasy. It does kind of work once you get used to it, but is that a good thing to say about any score? Hauer is excellent in his only benevolent leading role that I'm aware of. There's one sequence of anguish that is heart-rending and a few moments of pixie-ish humour in the other direction to make him a well-rounded character, as well as much in the middle. His Navarre is a being of some mixed emotions. Everyone else operates solidly. Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick both do well without burning down the house and John Wood is suitably creepy as the evil clergyman. It's Hauer's show, although theoretically Broderick is the lead character as The Mouse.

I should really say again that it is an odd film, an acquired taste to be sure. The music initially confuses the intended effect, and the transitions from light-heartedness to seriousness are jerky in places but the ending is so brutal in both execution and joyful in the narrative conclusion that it makes up for everything, even the utterly daft reluctance of Navarre to believe the monk's plan for ending the curse, which reluctance does somewhat artificially raise the tension of the film. We forgive it all at film's end. The dialogue is witty, maybe even too witty at times, but it does serve to make the film distinct from some of the other woefully grim fantasies that have graced the silver screen. I like it. It may be the only fantasy film I like.

It's a witty film, with an original (!) story and a strong ending, and it's a one-off. If you can get over the music and don't mind fairy tales then it's for you. And then you should go watch 'Superman: The Movie' and the Richard Donner cut of 'Superman II' if you liked 'Ladyhawke'.

O.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Story: 'Triangles', X

(Part IX , XI)

Crossing the barrier between realities is confusing or distracting enough without being diverted. Especially if you've landed in a working fountain. Looking on the bright side, at least the fountain was of the water variety.

Suddenly the sheer weirdness and the coolness of the water began to have an inexplicable effect upon her. She began to laugh, and to cry and to do both very loudly. She splashed water, waved her arms about jumped up and down, and finally sat down with a mighty, silly, calm wallow. It was a surprisingly deep fountain so she stood up again and looked at the man in a rather abashed manner.

The man looked at her in a thoroughly shocked manner. Then he spoke.

"My name, for the purposes of this discussion, is Ernest. I am an interdimensional guardian of the cosmos. I have watched time wind in and wind out innumerable times and can fathom every physical process in the world. Typhoons and whirlwinds are mere simple playthings to me, black holes a bauble on the fabric of space-time, each universe a shred of reality flying through the inter-dimensional void. And yet, despite all that, I have no idea why you did that."

"What?"

"It's true that I'm a little disappointed. Here I am - blithely throwing out exposition like a trained wolfhound - and you respond with a mostly inarticulate 'What?'. I've been alone for countless multiversal cycles, gone mostly mad on several occasions, played solitaire with whole planes of reality on occasions and never once bothered any of the tiny infinitesimal and short-lived life forms for fear of disturbing their development. I have no idea how I came to be, how anything came to be, and blankly fulfil my function as best I can. Finally, in a moment of direst crisis, I seek out someone who seems to have some inkling of what's going on, who has traversed the membranes of reality in fact and I get this. A wet young woman in a fountain, splashing and saying 'What?'."

The man paused. "Am I making sense? Correct language and species? Yes?"

"Yes. You're making sense in every way except I don't understand any of it. Not a clue. I may still be having hysterics about having been dragged through a 'magic circle' into a massive hole in the world and ending up in a fountain in a strange place with a beardy man who likes monologues. All this after being stranded in a batty place where everything is based on triangles and slowly starving to death while surrounded by pointy food."

"Monologues?"

"Never mind. Did you say guardian of the multiverse? I picked out something about a direst crisis while I was staring in a wide-eyed fashion too."

Beardy Ernest collected himself and set up for another run at it. "Your universe is on a cycle of expansion and contraction. Each Big Bang is eventually followed by a Big Crunch, a reset, and then another Big Bang and so on. On each iteration things begin differently and history unfolds in utterly new ways. Now try to imagine that at the moment of the Big Bang, there are innumerable other Big Bangs happening in every other plane of reality. There is a moment, as the dimensions return back to their origin, that every plane of reality touches every other... And in a touch of utter beauty death and birth combine into one. I am the person, the entity, that watches over the different levels of the multiverse. I do it alone, and have forever done it thus. And now there is something else out there."

"Something else? But you're the only one. You just said so. I don't understand."

"Something else is there. Something that is threading connections through all the planes, building tunnels and bridges, fixing the structure of the realities. Even in my madness, I would not do this, this mangling of the natural order. If the structure is rigid then the dimensions will never be able to collapse in toward one another and the cycle will be broken. And if the links are soft, springy, then one tug could cause the collapse away from the origin. And if that happens, then we are all truly lost, for there can be no renewal. The renewal is a function of the place as well as the event. And the renewal is essential; Without it every level of reality would crumble into dust from which nothing could ever recover or rebuild."

Delores wondered. "So we're dealing with not the end of the world, not the end of time and space as I know it, but the ending of time and space not as I know it as well?"

"Yes."

Her belly rumbled menacingly. "Can it wait until after food?"

To be continued...

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Story: 'Triangles', IX

(Part VIII , X)

Was this a step she should take?

Delores knew she could be at the portal in one step and then through to a whole new world, maybe even her home. It would take longer to say 'Ping Hippopotamus!' than to take that step. Could she afford not to? Probably not. The food seemed to be edible but wasn't sustaining her well. In this land of slightly different physics the food was not QUITE compatible. She was getting weaker and weaker. Or was that why the locals were dead? Was the food poisoned? Was that thing in 'her' bed even the local Delores? Was there a local Delores?

Her mind shifted its pieces and she realised the thing in her bed wasn't a local at all. The man in the National Library's video recording had looked human. The thing in the bed had not. It was something else entirely, and didn't belong here any more than she had. A fellow traveller which hadn't made it? From some dimension or just some other planet? Or maybe here there weren't just humans but other sentient species. Who knew what could happen when triangles were somehow more important in the grand scientific scheme of things?

Whatever happened, she wasn't going to expire in a bed not her own, in a deserted town far from the world she knew and loved. So far that the distance was measured in millimetres rather than miles and spanned galaxies.

Delores took the step, reached out to the circle, and nothing happened. She passed through as if it were just an illusion, just as she had so many times before in her own world before that one touch that changed everything. That was her one trip and she'd be stuck here forever? Maybe it would be best to take her chances in one of the whirlpools or find a bicycle and try to make it to Lampeter--

Delores's thoughts were interrupted as a hand reached out of the portal, grabbed her by the shoulder, and yanked her into the portal. Delores Grey crossed the boundary layer and twisted into somewhere else entirely. Within the world of the Transition, that strange existence between realities, all you can do is observe and try not to panic. Your atoms twist and turn as you cross through into a labyrinthine pocket of space-time and speed up to many times the speed of light before popping because there is no light. You can see anyway, the great swirls of non-space trying to break into your little gap of existence which is somehow shielded from all the most obscure forces. We know what a town looks like, and a continent or a planet. We even know what a galaxy looks like and that the universe is unfathomably big. We can see it from the inside after all. The words for how a universe looks from outside haven't been invented yet.

Our traveller reached the mid-point and felt the intangible slowing down and realignment. All round her she could see the rippling sheets of space-time vibrating in the void. It was enthralling. And there were little filaments connecting them all, that she could see now on this second journey. It was all so incomprehensibly beautiful... and then it was over as she was squeezed through an aperture smaller than anything she could possibly know and landed rather ungracefully in a fountain in a large room which was far more desolate than what she had seen through the portal.

"What?" Her voice still worked. The fountain was actually quite comfortable, like a shower.

"Behind you, miss."

Squirming around in a watery mess, our traveller saw someone unexpected. "You?!" It was the kindly bearded man.

"I'm afraid I diverted you. I rather need your help. Plain chocolate biscuit?"


All that follows is of course bizarre...

Sunday, 14 July 2013

It gets harder and harder

I always say it gets harder to summon the crazy and write this thing. It must be a function of time or experience. My waffling ability is in the trough again or there's simply a lack of input to balance the output. I would love to reel off another 'Carrot Man' or a treatise on invisible ink. Oh, invisible ink. There was something about invisible ink that I wanted to write about. I wonder what it was.

Invisible ink... the ultimate in secret communication as long as the spies don't know the paper isn't blank. It's an interesting and lateral method: Don't mess with the message but with the medium instead. Very interesting. Maybe it was devised by someone trapped in a horrendous heat wave as we are now here in Wales. Even though I'm too pale to go out in high summer sun in any case it is also ridiculously hot. Outsiders must think we are so soft here in Britain, not coping with either the cold of winter of the heat of summer, but please remember that our extremes are so far apart, and widening. I wonder if any other country has such extremes?

This blog seems to have become a ragtag compilation of bits and bobs, a rogue collection of things that have been surfing my mind as I feel a bit lonely and sorry for myself. I don't know if was harder before I had a girlfriend and was ignorant or after and knew what I was missing. I suspect the earlier situation was better, as the phenomenon of a housemate taking two years to get to know me past my terrible first impression is very unlikely to repeat itself. In fact it verges on totally impossible that I'll ever have another housemate or flatmate for that long! Still, hope is not something to be given up, even in the throes of the most silly lonelinesses. And I've only gotten weirder with time.

Have you ever wondered how an orange actually develops. I have. Consider the lack of structure inside the fruit, and the apparent absence any kind of conduit. The segments are all sealed so how does the extra moisture get into them as they grow? And the pips just appear inside? It's all very suspicious, although I think I have a working theory for the pips at least, and the mechanism of the growing orange could be a very interesting model mathematically...

As an eclectic 'fruit salad' blog that wasn't so bad, but I hope to have an inspiration for next time. Or a huge fruity pineapple slice of story. I love pineapple. There has to be a branch of lunacy based around pineapples.

O.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Giving a Talk

Rule one of being unemployed is to keep working. Rule two is to look for jobs. Rule three is not to write on the walls. All the other rules are about chocolate moose and are best left unstated. It's a strange time, especially when you're half-set for a job in September that you MIGHT get but can't be certain about for a while. It's like floating on a little cloud halfway between Wile E Coyote and the ground he's hurtling toward, and as he falls you're slowly... drifting... to an uncertain fate. Oh, Wile E Coyote, you're a rare one for physical comedy.

So what do you do in the interim period? You apply for jobs, work on regardless, and think about the odder parts of the profession that's chosen you, almost by default it seems. What you don't do is drift into a reverie on the bizarre experience that is giving a talk. I think some people like giving talks, but I am not of that persuasion despite it being a fundamental part of an academic researcher's career. For me, it's a magnificently scary experience, and it goes something like this:

1> Someone suggests you give a talk.
2> You think about briefly and agree.
3> Hey no stress, it's still weeks away.
4> Make a little plan on a piece of paper divided up into squares for each slide.
5> Realise you actually have to do some work to fill the slides.
6> Panic a little!
7> Go through a few weeks of escalating stress and preparation.
8> Reach the day of the talk.
9> Forget to practice what you're actually going to say.
10> Make some light notes on what to say.
11> Enter bunny-in-the-headlights mode for talk.
12> Give talk.
13> Answer questions in a haze.
14> Stumble to chair and collapse.
15> Lose memory of the whole talk-giving experience.
16> Sleep.
17> Return to step 1.

It really shouldn't be that scary an experience, but it is. You can tell, as well, because I talk so quickly that I can in finish in as little as half the time I was supposed to take! And I might start talking about donkeys in minarets, great satellite based custard-bombs, the loss of triangles as a design staple in the world, the proper usage of plain chocolate digestive biscuits as construction materials and, if I'm still running, a treatise on the correct way to structure a movie script. Oh, films, you can be so terrible. When will people learn to make it feel like the story was going before the film starts and will continue long after the film is over. That's how you establish a reality, not by artificial beginnings and endings, people! It's all about continuity!

O.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Story: Oneiromancy, O

(Part I)

Oneiromancy: Divination by means of dreams

Can you tell the future from dreams? Some people say you can, that the world of dreams is a medium through which we can escape the linearity of time. And through that medium thoughts and visions can shuttle back and forth and perhaps entire souls can fleet looking for their homes or being sent back to the great sorting house for some karmic justice in their next dwelling. Maybe visions are just information imparted by souls bouncing back along their timelines and touching themselves at earlier points? If that were true, then psychics and seers are truly people who can deliberately access this dreamline and send messages back and forth, investigating what it is they need to know 'after the fact'.

What would happen if this medium, this 'dreamline' were understood and captured by the blue sky researchers toiling away in their self-funded pursuits or operating under the secretive auspices of mysterious benefactors? What would happen to the people who would suddenly become useful when before they merely made ends meet or exploited their own talents mercilessly? And what would happen to the frauds who claim to do it all but really just guess and waffle while looking for the inside line to financial success?

It seems impossible that anyone could control the passing of information through the dreamline, that any of this could be real. It seems unlikely that a message from the future, or the past, or even from a whole other present, could move through the intangible dimension of timeless to touch that one person who needs the information most. In most data passes through the dreamline, in fact in the vast and overwhelming majority of cases, the connection is missed and a lady in New Jersey will sit up straight in the bath and wonder what on Earth to with the bizarrely simple but mundanely incomprehensible Grand Unified Theory in her mind before getting back to washing her hair. Of the remaining connections that are successfully made, the cryptic coding of dreams themselves defeats the purpose. Still, what if that connection were made in one vital case, and a message made it through?

What if it did? Well, then it would be oneiromancy. And we'd have a whole new story to tell, wouldn't we?

Monday, 8 July 2013

Reinvention is the Key

I'm finally making work progress again. It's not paid but it is working out. It's like a little summer present of long overdue competence. At least one thing is on the beginning line of real writing up. Madness!

So far in the Quirky Muffin I've talked a lot of nonsense, written stories, been meditative, stared moodily out the window, talked around things that really no-one wants to know and been quite bemused on many levels. What I haven't talked about is my work, something which no-one in their right mind would find interesting anyway. I have a PhD in Applied Mathematics and spend most of my research time applying continuum fluid mechanics models in thinly applicable approximations of physical problems.

What does that mean? Well, I have two principal projects which I'll try to explain. The first is my PhD and ongoing project, which is on approximating granular material moving through and being crushed by cone-type rock crushing machines. It turns out that there are models which approximate rocky granular assemblages as continua. After a year or reimplementing slip boundary conditions and redoing the whole of my thesis calculations it's now done and only the publication is left (publications are the equivalent to money and prestige in research).

Here in Aberystwyth I've been on a little short project on the modelling of foamy fluids flowing through constrictions, and how to visualise the results you get. And there has been progress - although it had to wait until after they stopped paying me! It's amazing what you can do once no-one is expecting you to do it any more, and as a result: Double progress! In this case we were and are assessing whether foams can be approximated via elastoviscoplastic continuum models.

On top of those two principal works there's even a third project on the back-burner and collecting dust. And that's on the modelling of blood flow in elastic walled arterial vessels and building mathematical occlusions and blockages to see what happens as the vessel gets closer to total disaster. That's exciting and is hampered by only one thing: If you solve a problem over a blood vessel, and the shape of the blood vessel is part of the thing you're finding, well that's difficult. And finally I want to model plants!

So, as time wanes on and the world shivers in its boots I'll be spending this hopefully short period of unemployment on my pet projects, keeping the Job Centre happy, tutoring a little and of course keeping the Quirky Muffin rolling along. It's reinvention time as I look sadly toward leaving Aberystwyth and hope fervently to return once again one day.

Reinvention is the key.

O.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Story: The Disappearance (VI)

(Part V , VII)

Meeting yourself is one of the more bizarre things you can do. I say this with the sure experience of having done that same thing four times to date. This was the first time and counter-intuitively also the least shocking.

"Hi. How's it going?"

"Fine. Average day?"

"About usual."

We both paused.

"Want to spill on what's going on here, pal?"

"Time travel, doofus. I've come from the future. It's a crummy future and we want to change it. It's like that movie with the robot-thing."

"'Shakey Davies and The Robot Gladiator from far-off Future Fascist Rome, Part II'?"

"Always the quip, always the slam."

"Look, just spill the information."

"Fine. McGonagle Biscuits will implode into a dense chronal singularity in three days and we have to stop them. I'm from six days in the future, when three tenths of the nation has been sucked into the singularity and the rest is holding on by its fingertips. If we stop them I should stop existing. Well, I should have stopped existing already but here I am. Those rules are still just as fuzzy as all time travel tends to be."

"Super singularity? What about Agnes?" I looked at the stunning Agnes and was displeased suddenly at the idea of her being sucked into a singularity.

"She's sticking with me. I'll keep her out of trouble."

Agnes maintained a level silence. I had a feeling there were things being left unsaid. Probably things I would be extremely interested about. "I want to know where to start, I want to know how you got here, and I want to know why McGonagle here is keeping her lips clamped so tightly together."

Agnes finally broke down. "I'm not your Agnes. I'm future Agnes. All this happened because I withheld the truth from you when I met you the first time. Originally I would have met you here and filled your head with flirtatious nonsense and muddled your case, but now I've come back to tell you the truth about what's going on. The reality of it all. I didn't know myself to be honest. The Higher-Ups don't tell me everything. If you're curious then you'll find the first me gagged behind those chairs over there. And I haven't vanished either."

I dug out my old theoretical physics. "You guys have caused a separate timeline now, and you're trapped and persistent. If not then you would have evaporated as well. 'Temporal inertia' and 'bubbles on the surfaces of time' are just movie gibberish. Fantastic. Twin brothers after all this time, and mom never told me. The shame of that woman. You have to have worked this out already?" That last shot was pointed and pointed at my doppelganger.

He sighed. "If this were a novel, Agnes and I wouldn't live to the last page and would go out fighting the good fight."

"And..."

He knew what I was asking. "The singularity was caused by a time travel effect. McGonagle biscuits got sucked - will get sucked - into a collisional time vortex. It's all to do with time travel."

"We've inspected for weird equipment. There's nothing. I don't get it."

"There doesn't have to be anything there now, but in one hundred years there will be, and they use that technology in the most ridiculously stupid way, send future biscuits here to this time and to that factory, and the residual energy is what causes the anomalies. As it turns out, it's cheaper to make the stupid things after you've sold them. It's the scummiest reason to lose people in the bizarrest of ways."

Money! At least Agnes had enough conscience to look ashamed.

To be continued...

Thursday, 4 July 2013

When is magic magic?

It's a rational world that we live in. Everything gets explained somehow and mysteries are assumed to have solutions we will eventually discover. As a scientist, I can understand that as a framework in which to do business, but at the same time it formalises mystery and the unknown into some discrete quality. It robs everything of magic.

What is magic? Drawing just on today, magic is standing by the sea and talking to oneself, or watching and listening to tonight's band in the Prom Bandstand. Magic is seeing a wave foam up to within a centimetre of your feet but not quite reaching, before swarming your position on the next attempt. Magic is an instantaneous quality, a throbbing in the fabric of space-time that can't be quantified. As a mathematician that should be anathema but really I quite like it.

The world of nature, of the environment at large, is large and chaotic and impossible to ever fully understand. That's what makes it special. Carrying on from our most distant intelligent ancestors we supernaturalise it, and enjoy it for the stories it conceals and the marvels it contains. It is not to be imagined that someone can walk down a beach and not have poetic or lyrical thoughts, or that the relaxation they seek will elude them. Or in a forest, or alongside a river, or on a grassy hillside.

For millennia people have been returning to nature in attempts to shed worldly concerns and for brief periods be meditative and happy. It's invaluable, and that deeply held attachment to nature, to the natural world, is something so primitive that it cannot help but be supernaturalised or spiritualised. It's sacred in the human sense not the more specific religious manner. We shed our worries at the door and go out to be happy.

So, what can we make of all this? For most of civilized history people have been drifting away from their roots, from the environment, and that dislocation has resulted in stresses and miseries, and hordes of diseases and malnutritions and things even worse. It would be impossible for us all to retreat to the country and walk around the woods and prowl the coastlines but we can make our day to day lives easier. It may sound stupid, but you can lean on that tree for a moment, or walk home along the river, or even lie down in the park at lunchtime.

You never know, you may find a piece of magic?

O.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Movie: 'The Birdcage' (1996)

The worst prejudices are often your own, as they're the ones you should really be able to do something about. As part of Film Bin we've recently done a commentary for 'The Birdcage' and I have to admit that it was a big struggle to make myself watch it. I don't hate anyone or wish social groups ceased to exist, but I can be a little unsettled by effeminacy and sexuality in general and was just unwilling to put myself through it. I did watch it though, as new experiences and open minds are partly the purpose of Film Bin. Oddly I ended up being bored more than anything. Weird, isn't it? My prejudice could have been blocking me, but it didn't feel like there was someone to connect to in the movie for me personally.

So, against this reluctant backdrop I watched this movie and my main fears were unfounded as they normally are. Sure, I was a little put off by house-boy Agador and Nathan Lane but they weren't major problems at all. Actually I've skipped ahead a bit. Let's talk about the plot a little. Val (a boy, to ease name confusion) and Barbara are a young couple who want to get married. Barbara's dad is a super-conservative Republican senator (Gene Hackman) while Val's dad Armand (Robin Williams) owns a gay club in Miami and lives with his drag queen partner Albert (Nathan Lane). Val manipulates Armand into pretending to be non-gay when he meets Barbara's parents and therein lies the plot of the movie.

Technically the film is excellent, the casting is well done with every important role thought out and filled wonderfully. The excellence that is Gene Hackman feels wasted in a role that is underwritten. The sets and colours and costuming is all appealing and comparatively simple. Where I think that the movie falls apart is that it doesn't fall into being either a screwball comedy or a gushy Robin Williams movie. Williams is excellent in this film, held firmly in check, and driving every scene he's in with his huge manly moustache. I think the director may have had him in a virtual headlock the whole movie. It's also a little set-bound, which is fitting as it's a remake of a Franco-Italian movie that was itself an adaptation from a French play. Some more scenes could really have been moved outside, but perhaps they didn't have the budget? And finally the character Val is not particularly likeable so you never feel behind this plan of pretence that should power the film until the moral message at the end.

It's strange to not be able to connect to such a good movie. The performances are in the main excellent. Nathan Lane is wonderful as Albert and probably could not be bettered but the Hackman character is simply a caricature and never makes it to full depth, even after the final reveal of Val's parents. Perhaps it's okay to be a warm-hearted mildly funny movie with no message but I would have loved it to be screwball. Instead it does reach a level of farce in the closing half without ever reaching for the sky and is a bit muddled. I don't know what to make of it except that maybe I missed the point? Did the Senator overcome his prejudices or was he a jerk to his daughter and son-in-law thereafter? Did Val learn anything. Was there a consequence beyond that they did get married?

Ultimately I see where it's funny to other people and can see how good it is technically, so I say it's a good comedy drama that's just a bit too long and insufficiently motivated through the young couple being fairly unsympathetic.

Prejudices can be overcome, but it's hard if you don't you have them!
O.