Saturday, 31 August 2013

Story: The Disappearance (IX)

(Part VIII , X)

It was a long cream corridor. Suspiciously normal strip lights were hanging from a ceiling, and certain thoughts were speckling through my ever suspicious brain. It was a not unexpected corridor at all.

Agnes McGonagle of the ever surprising name was creeping down the corridor away from our arrival room, having chosen for some reason to go to the right. I took a moment to memorise the door and glance in the other direction before following her with all the sneakiness at my disposal. So many years of police work and before that in the halls of the university had left me with a certain nimbleness and sense of stealth.

At the end of the corridor we reached a set of double doors which were mostly transparent glass. Through those doors a large work space was visible, where dozens of routinely garbed workers were supervising biscuit production of what appeared to be plain chocolate digestives. Plainly this was the source of all that was wrong in our own present. Apart from the biscuit manufacturing there didn't seem to be anything else of interest. We retreated and started checking each side door.

The first side door was an office with a map of the world on one wall and an array of stars shared out across some of the more prosperous cities. At a glance the correlation with PCD-linked incidents was plain. There was no computer or technology visible beyond the light switch. The second room was a factory library, and this too was deserted. I pinched some very specifically selected. technical manuals and moved on. The third was our arrival chamber and the fourth was the jackpot. A large and complicated gizmo sat in the middle of the floor, quietly running on what was probably standby. On an old-fashioned clipboard hanging on a hook on the wall there was a list of coordinates, dates and times. Some of them were initialled and checked off, all of them in mine and McGonagle's pasts. I wasn't familiar enough longitudes and latitudes or other coordinate systems so the locations were meaningless. In three days time on the clipboard there were three assignments in the space of one hour.

"Those three deliveries could be linked to the cataclysm.", Agnes prompted me.

"I know. It's looking mighty fishy."

"What do you mean?"

"Look at the list. There's one date and one time for each shipment. Either they push out the product as soon as they finish it or this thing is not a time machine at all. Look around you. If this is the future then I'm Rodney the King of Hats. This is a teleporter and we're in the same timestream we've always been in."

"Not time travel?"

"No, this is not time travel." Then I was reminded of something. "But if not time travel, then who were the other you and the other me?"

From the doorway a familiar voice said the following: "They were the bait." A mock sinister laugh followed and then, "My name is Rolf McGonagle, and this is something quite, quite unexpected."

To be continued...

NOTE: No more Quirky Muffins planned until next weekend due to family holiday in Burnham upon Sea. OB.

Thursday, 29 August 2013


There's a small pile of topics and works in progress that linger and linger, and then linger even longer. Either they're too important to be tackled lightly or frivolously, or they are just too silly to be written in anything but the exactly correct frame of mind. This is one of the former as it is important or personal for practically everyone. What am I going to waffle on about with great abandon? Fear.

At some point I became scared, and it's hard to know why. It wasn't knowledge of mortality kicking into action (apparently the last major brain/personality development that occurs) but something else: A fear of exposure, of doing new things or even old things done many times before. It spread to everything like a malaise of the spirit magnified many times over. Books that I know and love suddenly have an attached stigma, movies that are personal heirlooms become ever so slightly scary and every trip to the swimming pool begins with shedding the nerves that should have stopped long ago. It's a madness, but a very human one.

Fear lives within us all. For some it's so small as to be ignored while in others it's trampled deliberately underfoot as they try to conceal it with arrogance and over-confidence. The fear remains though, as it always will. My own method has taken a long time to mature but it essentially consists of doing whatever it is anyway, either extremely thoughtfully and methodically or spontaneously when fear is looking the other way. Why did it spring up the way it did? Bad things must have happened and that's enough said as I don't really know what they were.

What is it that people are scared of though? Death? Failure? Mutant wheels of cheese rolling around the landscape in the far future? What is it? For me it is exposure and to a lesser extent failure, an inbuilt layer of insecurity and a void of self-confidence that revels in hiding itself away and persisting. There's only one way to remove a void though, and that is to expose it and watch it slowly fill in from the atmosphere all around it until it is barely a scratch on an admittedly uneven surface. Just go out and do the things you need to do, if you know what they are, and then rest.

One day there won't be so much fear around; there won't be so many wars of politics and ideologies, but we will all still fret a little personally. Perhaps the best thing to remember is that all of the greatest successes are preceded by dozens of ridiculously overblown failures, and it is those failures that set the context for how great a success is. So fear not, every fear but that of death is magnified and out of proportion, and death itself is out of our control and we don't have to live with the consequences. It is manageable.

Fear is also a powerful tool for action at pivotal moments or destruction if it's not properly harnessed. More on that on another day.


Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Story: 'Triangles', XII

(Part XI)

Delores was alarmed to begin with at the shear naivete of Ernest the Universe Minder. A whole eternal lifetime alone had left him unable to cope in any practical manner with things a human being adapted to in childhood. It was exasperating! His concentration seemed to drift in and out at random as if being distracted by falling motes of dust or passing photon packets. Finally, not being able to explain tactics or the nature of opposition she realised it was no use.

"You can't give up, Delores, the destiny of all the worlds is at stake. Please go on."

"I don't think I can. You don't seem to understand anything of the concepts but all of the words. It's as if you can recognise a bucket but not the usefulness of the water within." A long silence. "What is it you want, Ernest?" she asked again, quietly.

The man, for it easiest to refer to him as that, looked deeply inward and replied from some deep well of being, "I wish to understand. To comprehend why anything would try to do what is being done. And to know how to fight."

"It doesn't make sense really. How can there be something as vast as you, but so much more capable of deceit to make you look like an innocent barely born?"

Ernest sat with troubled expression for many long minutes, before finally releasing words with most reluctance and confusion. "I was not always like this, I think. Long ago, there was an incident before which I can not recall. The memories I possess are for the most part reconstructed artefacts, all except for my role in the grander scheme of things; That alone I recalled those three or four cycles ago." The bearded man sat with eyes closed and then opened. "If you cannot help me here then you must help me here. Please, take my hand."

"What? Why?" Suspicion flared in the mind of Miss Grey.

"I'm going to take you to my realm and there you will instruct me as you will temporarily see all that I see and feel all I feel. Physically you will of course remain here, but I shall secure a mental link. Perhaps with that connection and a new sympathy between us, we could examine what to do."

Of course it was total nonsense, or so Delores thought. How could a human being possibly comprehend what it could be like to be a vast and intangible entity that lived outside of time. It would be comparable to understanding a God or Destiny or Writer of all that stands in each of our fictional worlds. "I don't think that can really work, can it?"

"Take my hand, and let us see. You need not fear."

Delores, daunted but not broken, took the hand of the Shepherd of the Planes of Reality.

And so ends Phase One of 'Triangles'. Phase Two may take a while to appear.

Thursday, 22 August 2013


Ffiesta time means Quirky Muffin is on hiatus until Tuesday, 27th August. It's just as well as I've run out of material!


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Three Faces Of Cultdom

When a character (or series sometimes) can last for fifty years or more of active use or adoration, something happens to them and they become icons and sometimes even de facto real people. There are people who still believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real person, such has been his impact over more than one hundred and twenty years. Holmes and Watson and of course James Bond are the most important and widespread examples of the perennial character, but they're about to be joined by two sixties legends which will hopefully last just as long.

To explain, this year is the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, and in three years we will see the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek and there don't seem to have been characters waiting to become the next icons that rival these archetypal figures. What has been created since Star Trek and Doctor Who that has appeared in practically every entertainment medium, lived on in print after cancellation on television, and still inspires people as did Sherlock Holmes and to a lesser extent James Bond?

I do question James Bond, since the character has on many levels been artificially prolonged in its life due to the sometimes ridiculous and often formulaic but financially successful movies. In terms of our subject he's much more of a zombie icon, no longer under active development or adoration, but rolled out for the same story still over and over. That's true to some extent of original Star Trek, except that there are still novels being written and that it's important just as Sherlock is as the founder of a new genre, of smart science fiction. James Bond is a fairly regular secret agent in comparison. Also, Star Trek blossomed from its beginnings to a huge and somewhat mercenary franchise that declined, and in its decline the original form is the one that's remembered. The original Star Trek has survived unaffected by its consequences, and despite the (frankly dubious) re-interpretation we have seen in the cinemas.

Where are the female icons? That's a tough question, and one I can not really answer. Has there been a female character who will live on in such a manner? There's a hard truth somewhere, perhaps, that audiences are reluctant to accept women as protagonists in adventure stories since by virtue (and vice) of peer pressure and tradition women were not supposed to be adventurers or travellers for any significant length of time. That attitude persists today and continues to annoy. Even worse for the likelihood of a female cross-medium icon is the fact that the Internet and non-traditional television suppliers have diffused entertainment consumption to the point where no one thing receives as much attentions as it used to and the entertainment landscape is homogeneous to a fault. There may not be new icons from here on in, just as there may not be sufficiently important presidents to go on Rushmore. Those times are done, or are dormant.

Doctor Who, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, and Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Are there any other comparable icons?

Monday, 19 August 2013

Name that Fruit?

There's an event coming up on the horizon, my sole social event for the whole remainder of 2013, and something so unprecedented in my personal experience as to be a landmark. This coming weekend sees the occasion of the Jasper Fforde Ffiesta 2013! I've never been to anything even remotely like this before, with the closest event perhaps being an academic conference. I'm hoping it will be a fun and entertaining event. Hopefully there will be Sherlock Holmes meetings in the future as well, as I wonder how best to expand social connections. Without going into too much detail, there shall be fancy dress for which I am utterly unprepared, 'Name That Fruit', 'Hunt the lobster', an angst poem contest and many nefarious other activities. What fun shall we have? Well, you'll have to wait until next week.

'The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes' is running as I write, proving to be a more than adequate distraction, although somewhat disjointed. Originally this Billy Wilder movie would have had two additional stories crammed into a running length maybe an hour longer than its theatrical version, but pre-release editing struck - and harshly! - much was lost and now we have a two hour movie which works, sometimes very well, but feels as if there are missing components of which we may never know. It many ways it's much like the long-lost Richard Donner version of 'Superman II' but without the hope of the true version ever appearing, or the cataclysm visited upon Patrick Troughton' and William Hartnell's years in the TARDIS in the BBC wiping debacle.

So, the Ffiesta is coming and I must remember how to speak once again, after a stretch of willing hermitude. Hopefully they'll realise that demented Mathematicians can be rather strange, especially when stranded in future Swindon. People are smart; It will surely be a good time. Except for 'Name That Fruit', of course. For those not in the know, Jasper Fforde is the mind behind the Thursday Next stories, Nursery Crimes mysteries, The Last Dragonslayer tales and Shades of Grey. Allowing some margin for erraticness these are some of the most imaginative, amusing and entertaining stories written in the last ten years.

Between now and Swindon there seem to be a few days left to fill, days of text and coding. Recent leads have led me to believe that there's a great chance of resurrecting the arterial model problem that was in progress last Summer, and that means there's much coding in prospect. And air conducting, of course. There must always be air conducting. And Greek learning.

It's all such fun.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Television: 'Due South: Letting Go' (Episode 1x22)

The first season of the television show 'Due South' was a marvel. It grew from a shaky beginning as an offbeat buddy cop series to a touching comedy drama adventure and never looked back. At the heart of that was the development of the second lead character Ray from a buffoon to a credible police officer and tender hearted tough guy, and the mini-arc surrounding first lead Benton Fraser and his soul-destroying love for bad seed criminal Victoria. Victoria casts a shadow comparable to a far more famous villain in Sherlock Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty, another character who only appears once but almost collapses the show with their own departure.

The power of Victoria is that she almost turns the true blue and noble mounted policemen Fraser to her side of the law, so besotted is he by her. Fraser has a huge simple-minded blind spot in dealing with women in any case - he would rather talk to his wolf Diefenbaker - and Victoria blind-sides him. She almost tears asunder the brotherhood between Fraser and Ray, so strong is her hold on him. And that's where we get into 'Letting Go', as it's the resolution or the epilogue to the whole thing and awesome in its simple resurrection of our leads as heroes. It is also surely one of the best single episodes of a show ever. At the end of 'Victoria's Secret': Fraser is about to jump onto a moving train to leave with his jewel thief lover but is hit by a bullet from Ray's gun, and one intended for his lover, who may have been about to kill him in any case. We open 'Letting Go' with Ray anxiously walking beside trolley as Fraser goes to emergency surgery. The setup is love, injury, betrayal and disappointment.

The essential core of the show is a void; The emptiness left behind by the woman who almost ruined everything and tore apart the dynamic Due South duo forever, and rendered Fraser dark and heartbroken in the bargain. That absence, that unspeakable pain that leaves Benton bed-ridden and Ray traumatized by guilt is the guiding force behind the show, and the recovery of the two and their friendship, slow and halting as it is, is really the best thing the show ever did. Did I mention I love 'Due South'? The second season was not as good, purely because there wasn't a comparable story to be told. They had shot their golden bullet already, and then poor ratings saw it cancelled and the game was done. The revival series really isn't even vaguely as good and shall not be discussed further.

It seems an insurmountable task to put things back on the footing they were on before Victoria. The obstacles are numerous and enormous: Fraser is bed-ridden with self-pity and resentment even subtly toward Ray for not letting him leave, Ray is racked with guilt over what he has done and some anger at what almost happened to Fraser, Victoria is gone, and the world is an uninviting beige place. Even Fraser's dad is worried, whether he be a delusion or a ghost, and being in turn beleaguered by his own delusional or ghostly dead mother. That just boggles belief as does the spectral sight of Fraser senior floating on his back in the therapy pool in full RCMP dress uniform. There's something very strange in the Fraser genes. Thank goodness he was usually too terrified of women to breed. He's not the only one!

The power of Due South lies in Paul Gross's sincerity. He can give single lines and monologues better than any one else, bar none. The whole character of Victoria was set up in one monologue delivered to a room full of sleeping people, and it was devastating in its sincerity. Fraser may be strange but he believes in what he says, and that's what he almost loses, while caught in the trope of heroes being destroyed by love. You have time to be a lover or to be a hero but not both. Throughout this episode, Fraser is slowly coming back to terms with being who he used to be, a role he has renounced almost terminally in the previous episode. Of course, as a mountie very much in the Sherlock/Kirk mold, what brings him back is a case and a woman. Not The Woman, but a woman, representing the fact that not all women betray and plot to kill their lovers. And television being what it is, she's blonde and therefore nice, and not brunette and therefore evil.

Fraser's recovery is the more tangible but it's Ray's desperate attempts to make amends and bring his friend back from his heartbroken apathy to real life that help to sell the episode. Of course he finally has to get shot saving Benny's life, taking a bullet for the one he gave, and rubbing out Fraser's buried animosity in the process.

Ultimately the glory of 'Letting Go' is in the idea of a whole episode on someone recovering from heartbreak and friends making up. It is unprecedented. It is wonderful. It is simple. A transition from passive apathy and heartbreak to active participation and recovery.


PS Alternatively it might all be lightweight pap from the 1990's. It's just a question of taste.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Story: The Glove, III

(Part I , II , IV)

On the Scottish moon Ganymede, orbiting the planet Troos, an apprentice piper called Steffan is awaiting his final exam for entrance into the ranks of ordinary pipers. The chosen Masters of the Guild were finally approaching the Circle in the centre of the great artistic capital of Burgh and Steffan's nerves were finally beginning to shred. He had worked for years...

The Master of the Blue nodded reassuringly and asked him to take his place, while the Master of the Red merely scowled. The Master of the Grey was a study in neutrality as was required by tradition but seemed to be harbouring a small smile nonetheless. Steffan was surprised not to recognise any of the three examiners; Normally at least the Blue was chosen from the local Guild members, and often from the teaching staff, but they were all strangers. Something odd was going on, or was he just being paranoid.

The Blue spoke, in a fairly blunt manner: "Mr Steffan, we'll have 'Troos in the Shadow of our Moon' to begin, please." A moment passed. "In your own time." The Red Master looked disgusted at this easy starter, but that was the purpose of the Blue getting first choice normally. Steffan played the requested song, the horrific sound of the pipes driving away a large portion of the audience, and finally puffed to a halt. The audience clapped, as the remaining people were aficionados and aware of what was going on.

The Red pulled off a mightily evil grin, and then quite urbanely: "Twinsen's Rampage. And get a move on with it." Steffan was not surprised; He had come to see many a piper perform for his life in the Circle and 'Twinsen's Rampage' was a common choice for really putting someone through their paces and giving the examiners some idea of their victim's abilities. He put himself through the exercise with some gusto and tried to not get too winded in the Gamut sequence, which often tripped people up if they weren't careful. Audience members covered their ears in the most traumatic parts, where the pipes were most in danger of complete structural failure. The Rampage was truly a technical challenge rather than an artistic masterpiece.

The Blue and Red alternated choices for another rounds before the Grey took his place and examined the notes he had taken. His was the most vital role, the assessment of the strengths and merits brought out by the Red's and the Blue's choices. He would make informed choices of songs that would challenge the specific candidate. "You may drink and repose for two minutes." was all he said to begin, probably due to the heat of the day and energy demanded by that early Rampage. Normally the Grey was a highly ranked local Piper Master, not a stranger to the city. It was frustratingly unprecedented.

Steffan recollected himself and sat on the grass as the two minutes sprinted by. Arising moments before the Red could invoke demerits he posed once again. The Grey, again, with a nondescript grin, proclaimed "'Lord Smedley's Hearse', if you please." loudly and then retreated back to his Stone and leaned there nonchalantly. People in the know muttered urgently in the audience. Say, was that his uncle in the giant blue fez? Was he distracting himself from the ordeal of Smedley's slow, slow tempo and miserable measured chords? Probably, he felt, his weaknesses were about to show, as he pumped up and then bawled out the piece.

Finally, as the Hearse pulled out around the corner, the candidate was free to think once again. The Masters stood silently, and then conferred briefly. Again the Grey came forward and called out "You threw the badger, Molly.", which was an almost uncommonly common song sung out in backstreet taverns about town after football and lacrosse matches. It had never really been officially transcribed for pipes but Steffan made his attempt anyway. He'd never seen such a thing done before on such an occasion.

Again the Grey: "Play us something new. We need cheering up." The candidate wasn't supposed to speak in the exam, otherwise he would have moaned in utter shock. This was ridiculous! He played 'Donkeys are so sad on Thursdays' and looked aggrievedly at the examiners. They didn't look in the least ashamed. In fact they looked rather pleased. The Blue removed his ceremonial robe and proffered it to him, then the Red, and finally the Grey. He had passed. It was time to go and sleep and celebrate. He went forward to shake the hand of the Grey but instead was handed a gold scroll, sealed by an incredibly old-fashioned wax seal.

"Master Steffan, we have a lot to talk about with you. Indeed more than we thought. The instructions are in the scroll." The Examiners shook Master Steffan by his hand and then walked off, chatting across the park as Troos passed overhead and began its fall.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Story: The Disappearance (VIII)

(Part VII , IX)

I had a heat at the back of my head that just wouldn't quit. It was as if a troop of penguins were setting a bonfire back there and getting ready to party. As we shifted through the time rip, the heat moved down my body until it passed my feet and then I was the normal fridge temperature once again. I guess that's what happens when your atoms get tuned up for life in a whole new time period.

The other end of the time rift was disappointing. It was just a room housing the machinery that had lifted us out of the warehouse. There was no sign of the time travel generator. Not even a flashing light above a small control panel. That must all take place elsewhere.

A note for the unwary: Time travel is a notoriously tricky business and the worst part of it is that even if you travel in time the world is still going to move on in its stately orbit around the sun, the wiggle in the planet's axis will continue to wobble, and anything but the most deliberate of jumps is going to see the time traveller land deep in space, wondering where that old planet of theirs has gotten to as they suffocate. Yes, time travel is hard, but all it took was for one successful jumper to put down a beacon in a target period and everything became so much easier. Apparently, that had happened here. It had to happen eventually.

You might ask how I know all this about a technology that hasn't happened yet? Ask away, people who tell their secrets rarely get to use them later, do they?

We hung from the hook as the time rift closed beneath us, revealing a bare concrete floor and leaving us to the plain electric lighting of the future. To be honest it didn't look very futuristic. Agnes opened her eyes and let go her hold. When a woman like that lets go of you you miss it for a few seconds. I let go too and dropped to the floor. It was solid.

"Any ideas, McGonagle? They're your people, after all."

"They're not my people at all." Agnes trembled, maybe a little from self-pity, and maybe a little from anger. "As soon as I found out about all this, I contacted you and here we are. All I know is that my parents couldn't resist the profit margin of free biscuits from the future, even with unknown strings attached."

"Yeah... I'm sorry, Agnes. Ack, do people call you anything over than Agnes? McGonagle is actually preferable."

"Agnes will do, Agent." She was back in control. "What on Earth was your plan? Did you mean to get us stuck in the future?"

"We may be stuck in the future but all our problems originate here, the only chance we have of stopping any of them is here, the man who disappeared and started this all is here or nowhere, and as a deputised agent of the law my job is here. I didn't ask you to come and sacrifice your life."

Agnes just looked thoughtful. And then, "So your plan is to find the people responsible and arrest them?"

"My plan is to find the people responsible and deal with them. And to keep you safe." I put one hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eyes as I had so many times before, with people in the deepest of unknown dangers, the knight whose reluctant sword protected more than himself. "There is a plan, but we really need to know where we are first. We're going to go. Pay attention to our surroundings. If we get separated, try to come back here. We have no idea where we are on Earth, or when. Ready?"

"Yes. Remember this, Agent. I'm a certified genius, so maybe you need me more than I need you." With that, Agnes slid open one of the double doors a little, peaked out and then slinked into the corridor. I cursed silently and followed. It was going to be one of THOSE adventures.

More shall follow...

Monday, 12 August 2013

Destiny? Or predestiny?

Some days take a little wriggling into to fit comfortably, like a beanbag. You start off planning to do one thing, get diverted, and then before you know it you're on a plane for Bermuda with only a sack of potatoes in the hold and the address for a man called Jericho. Well, that is quite an excessive wriggle but it does demonstrate the power of destiny. Or is that predestiny?

Destiny and predestiny are quite different things. They both concern their ultimate fate, but if James Kirk is to believed in the novel 'Best Destiny' then the second is unavoidable but the first... That you make for yourself. The notion of a destiny is an ancient one, perhaps more ancient than any of us can know. If there is a giant predestiny guiding the universe then it's as old as time and unavoidably linked to divine agencies of myriad varieties.

It seems that over the ages the distinction between destiny and predestiny has become almost vanishingly small. If it weren't for the aforementioned Star Trek novel I would never even have questioned it, but it does make sense that they would have different meanings. So, do we have destinies or predestinies? Is all set out in some cosmic order somewhere or can the course of future history be changed if we work for it?

Perhaps both can be true. If you're unaware of destiny, then surely there is some chain of events that will happen irrespective of all the chaotic distractions and interferences of life? No, it doesn't make sense as all it would take would be for one person to take a hand and pioneer his own path and then chaos would take over with the side effects of that one aware person's actions. Either it's all predestined or it's chaos. The major problem with predestiny from a human perspective is that firstly it removes all personal agency and responsibility, and secondly that in the absence of time travel it is utterly true. We do all have predestined paths that we will tread over time from birth to death and whatever may have been before and may be after. At least now our predestinies aren't governed by fickle gods and goddesses playing games atop high mountains, even though said pantheons would have eased the boredom a little.

The more humanly acceptable (for our sanity at least) option is destiny, that concept that we can make a difference and that our futures aren't all laid out in advance. We can make a difference, if we care to, if we have the awareness to make the change. Everyone in the world could set their cap for higher hills if they had but the ability to step aside and assess what they've done in the past, what they're doing now, and set their sails for different actions in the future. It's not impossible but it is hard, for we're all trained to accept what we know rather than what can be.

Nonsense? Maybe. However, when given the choice between destiny and predestiny I would take the latter every time. Because that's the one we make for ourselves.


PS 'Best Destiny' is actually a very fine Star Trek novel. It has flashes of fire. Check out Diane Carey's other masterwork 'Final Frontier' while you're at it. I personally like 'Dreadnought!' and 'Battlestations!' even more but I've been proven to be very strange.
PPS Booga booga booga.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Weird Worlds

'Write and the world shall write with you.' That's not a true statement, but it helps to start a blog which you have no ideas for; Running a loose thread of consciousness can be hard but it is always possible. You don't need inspiration if you can tap into what's going on around you.

Out there in the world people get randomly wacky and do mad things. Not mad as in the ideas that come to mind when you play 'Balderdash' but in other stranger and queasier ways. You only need to turn on the news to see it, and it's sometimes very scary. Obviously it's very tempting to hole up in your home and never venture out. Should you?

Learning about the world from the Internet and the media is a mistake. You only ever get the extreme opinions and the crazy people. You only ever get the terrible news and over-hyped populist news. Do I care that the Royal Baby was born? No. Do I want to know it was called George, in deep detail? No. It's just silly.

You have to go out into the world and make up your own mind. The key is finding some excuse for doing it; That's the hardest part.

Do you think that when the early humans started eating vegetables and other plants, allowing for significant mental development and the creation of a new potential for culture and civilization, that they thought all this would happen? The heights we have reached are amazing, but they did they think it would all go into a bizarre retrograde in so many places? That intelligence and civilization would go under in a wave of brain numbing burgers, sausages and fries? Of course not, they were busy looking for the best animals to rear and then kill for steaks. It's all about balance at the end of the day; Vegetables for the brain and meat for the muscles.

I played 'Balderdash' today, and it was as fun as usual. Nothing allows for such creative runs of lunacy as that game. You can go from writing a film synopsis about cold wars surrounding immense mutant potatoes to defining false meanings for acronyms and creating funny word definitions. It's awesome. That's what all those vegetables were for, and the meat is for the swimming lessons.

Rant over. Bring on the essay about preternatural abilities. And the fun. Gosh, I need fun!


Thursday, 8 August 2013

Soul Sick

Everyone can be soul sick. It doesn't matter if you believe in souls or not; It's a universal condition. Past decisions and ideas can niggle at us and sap our spiritual/mental self until we don't know what's going on any more. It is quite the sad thing, and is unsurprisingly becoming more and more prevalent.

'Soul sick' is not a term you hear much any more. It means something slightly different to 'heart broken', which is very much connected to romantic woes and broken ambitions. To be soul sick is to be fundamentally lacking something or be aware of something you really don't want to know.

Whenever I think of 'soul sickness' I think of the much underrated film (it's always a film!) 'Joe Versus The Volcano', where the third character played by Meg Ryan makes a terrible confession to Joe. She has broken her word to herself and agreed to work for her manipulative father in exchange for the boat she so wants from him. The knowledge that she has a price is making her soul sick and she just has to explain her angry behaviour. Joe can't really do anything but listen as one of the best little speeches in film history goes on, and we learn the knowledge that has taken her will to live.

I've been soul sick a few times, and it's always because at heart I know I've done something wrong or that something is missing. The worst thing is that you can get used to the second variety, that gnawing sense of always being in the wrong place or the wrong time or simply not knowing what it is that you need to feel complete. It seems like a huge thing at the time but really... you have to believe me here... it's inside you all along if you can just relax and accept yourself. We're all capable of being self-aware and happy as individuals; It just seems like we must have partners to be happy. Society has a great habit of pressuring everyone to be the same and pushes people who don't cooperate to the back of the line.

Still, soul sickness is a terrible thing. Maybe if you've feeling a bit afflicted you should go see 'Joe Versus The Volcano'. It's good. I love that movie. There's a bit of 'soul sickness' in the latter stages of 'Cities in Flight' by James Blish, although that's also more of a malaise.


PS James Kirk in Star Trek II is another good example.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Story: 'Triangles', XI [Revised]

Power has returned to my fingers and the juice is flowing once again. Welcome to the Quirky Muffin, my friends, the land where nothing remains the same but also never changes. I'm your host, the perennially lost mathematician Oliver and this is the land of make believe. Today we see the latest episode in what may turn out to be something special (for some definition of the word 'special'. As part of the James Horner score for 'The Rocketeer' soars around the room, it's best to get down to business.

It always pays to write them fast!


'Triangles', XI
(Part X , XII)

The food was delicious, and Delores could hardly get enough of it as Ernest retrieved it from a little empty alcove in the wall. It was just a little reminiscent of Star Trek. That brought on a pang of nostalgia and she examined Ernest anew.

"You can't see it. It's well hidden." Ernest tried a smile but kind of flopped into puzzled half-grin instead.


"I'm just as you are, a mortal on this plane of reality, such as it is." Ernest gestured around at the statuary and grandiose surrounding. They were in a yellow stone square, that smelt faintly of honeysuckle and wine, and was utterly deserted. There were buildings facing all around, seeminly deserted.

"'Such is it is'? You are going to tell me where we are, aren't you?"

Ernest shifted in his seat a little. He had dragged a couple of folding chairs from what seemed to be a little bazaar a little further around the fountain to the left. He was monumentally unused to the ways of such mobile furniture. It wobbled a little dangerously. More like a scene out of 'Doctor Who' than 'Star Trek', after all.

"This is not the easiest thing to explain." More thought seemed to tear through the impassive mind buried deep in Ernest's brain. "Perhaps an analogy is in order. Observe. No, hang on a moment." He ducked back into the bazaar and emerged quickly with a small sack of juggling balls and a determined expression. "Observe." He began to juggle eight or nine balls effortlessly and started to talk. "I'm juggling in three spatial dimensions, and the balls are following a circular path as well as I can manage. You can perceive the centre to their motion. Now I'll do this!"

Delores was shocked to see that the balls were now spitting in and out of view in a small shower of water droplets. Little rainbows shattered on a moment by moment basis. "What...?"

"I'm now juggling in four dimensions - don't look at my hands - about a new centre of motion that means nothing to your perceptions. And this... five dimensions... means you hardly see the balls at all... No matter how many dimensions we go to there's always a way to juggle around a common centre of motion in what is equivalent to a circle. You just can't see it." The juggling balls vanished and didn't return as he ceased his efforts. "I put them back in the bazaar in a much easier manner."

"We are in the Junction, the ancient nexus by which life forms - of whom we shall not speak right now - from all over every dimension came together to exchange goods and ideas. It has been neglected for several long cycles now, but shall inevitably be discovered again one day, perhaps by you. You have great intelligence and perceptivity, much more so than I thought initially. You observe all."

Delores finally had her turn to speak but chose not to.

"While the Other bonds all the dimensions together in his mysterious ways he may not know about the existence of this place, if it is a place at all. In many ways it is more of a state of mind. A home away from home. It's strange to be so small, so far away from my own home. Even as I juggled my balls, all the known planes of reality gravitate around a common point, the Junction."

"In reality you're a vast entity, no more a person than a God, something else entirely. What are you doing here? Why talk to me? What is it you want?" Delores stood up, suddenly a little angry. "Why are these things happening to me? Why am I here and not back at home in my little flat, wondering what to do with my holidays? Alone again."

"I don't know. I was hoping by meeting you I could deduce why you were chosen to cross the thresholds and become a leader in whatever the Other was planning. This... Junction... has existed since time immemorial and I created a temporary bridge just to get you here without their noticing. I had hoped you could tell me what to do. This idea of conflict is unknown to me as crossing into whole new worlds is to you."

What would happen if you were alone over all time eternal, with no equals and only one task to be performed? Would you know what to do if a rival appeared, seeking to pervert the course of things that must be? Could someone who had never been faced down by the school bully and stood up to tell the tale even conceive of the ways lesser beings lived their lives on a day to day basis. It all became clear.

"Ernest - What a name for such a being! - you're saying you don't know how to save everything?" Delores looked the once omnipotent being in the eye. "You've been alone for your whole existence?"

The earnest Ernest hesitated a moment. "Let's say 'yes'? There are parts I don't remember to be honest, moments of abandon inevitable in a sojourn so long amongst hyper-stars and cosmic ribbons."

"I think I'd better give you some schooling in how to do things the down and dirty lesser being way. And then I'm going home. After helping save everything, including ice cream and apple pie. And after you've told me how people could get to this Junction without building tunnels and bridges that you said were dangerous."

Ernest nodded, winced, and waited. There had to be more.

"And you have to explain to me why this has to be the work of an enemy, an adversary. Why can't it be the way things are supposed to be? Why can't it be the result of something bigger than even you?"

<faint to black>

You all have to wait too... for the conclusion to Phase One of 'Triangles'!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Story: The Disappearance (VII)

(Part VI , VIII)

So far, so twisty. Carter and I had been called out in our capacity as Plain Chocolate Digestive Detectives, fearless and peerless investigators of bizarre occurrences linked to those baked goods, and now I was on a mission to prevent a temporal rip at the heart of McGonagle Biscuits that would ultimately engulf most of the country and have me meeting myself in dingy pub back rooms. Truly, I had got the girl in the end apparently, but a death toll exceeding three is not a price worth paying for loving walks in the park.

The worst part of the whole mess was that there really wasn't much to be done about a time travel problem when the travel was taking place in the future. It would be like trying to stop a cannon by putting cardboard over the target. Thinking about that option, it didn't seem that bad, and that scared me even more than a temporal schism. Cardboard over a cannon target? Pshaw!

Why hadn't future me vanished? He didn't remember meeting me so he was from another timeline. His report on the events of the next few days was troubling and complete. Agnes had calmed down considerably upon being untied and left to talk to her future self for a few minutes, which led to where we were now: Deep in the heart of McGonagle Biscuits awaiting a shipment of super-profitable biscuits from the future. That wasn't the most unlikely thing I had ever written on an activity report, sadly.

Throughout all our inspections of the McGonagle plant we had never discovered a single discrepancy or evidence of shady misdeeds in the company; They were  squeaky clean and yet they had the highest incident rate of every company. Now it all made sense, as the new president Agnes explained it. We were hidden in a corner of the warehouse at one o'clock in the morning, holding hands as people do in the dark, and when she squeezed I knew something was about to happen. A great prism like effect shimmered with sickly yellow light above the crates and a suspiciously empty patch of floor. From out of the effect a crate was lowered by wire and people bustled about in protective clothing that sparked in contact with the cargo. A second was lowered and then a third, and finally what I knew to be the final one began to be moved into our time frame.

There was no reason to do what I did next, nor even for Agnes to follow me. As the crate was released I dashed forward and grabbed the hook end of the rope and we were raised up toward the effect and through.

Only in the future could we save our present, and maybe even the people who had all died or disappeared in the past. That shadow on the sidewalk of the street that began this incident could be avenged at last. Some people talked about biscuit futures, but we knew the real saviour would be in future biscuits.

Some times awful jokes are necessary in the face of the unknown. Wherever we were going, the reception was going to be interesting to say the least.
To be continued...

Friday, 2 August 2013


I'm toiling away on corrections and have learnt from long experience that I'm much better at rewriting passages than fixing individual problems so the joy of rewrites is upon me. Sending off texts for appraisal and feedback is never a pleasant experience, as normally one of two cases is true: 1> You know you didn't try hard enough and are about to get a shed load of comments, or 2> The carefully wrought piece of high art that you had thought to be perfect in every respect is about to be shredded and used for critical fuel.

Rewrites are what publishing is all about, even in the case of academic articles, although perhaps 'especially' is a much more accurate word to use rather than 'even'. The path to a publication is a long and tortuous one and here I will try to explain it as succinctly as possible. The stages, in this case for a scientific article, are:

1> Do the science
2> Draw useful and relevant conclusions
3> Work out what would be next
4> Write it all in publication form
5> Send to co-authors and get feedback
6> Incorporate feedback
7> Repeat 5,6 until all satisfied
8> Send to journal referees (via journal) and get feedback
9> Incorporate feedback
10> Repeat 8,9 until conclusion reached
11> If positive conclusion go to publishing, and if negative return to 1.

If that seems like a lengthy process to you then you aren't wrong, and of course it is even more arduous if there's something contentious or extreme in your work.

"I say, that chap Einstein was talking total cobblers, don't you think? Here's how you do it the right way!"

The system is logical and quite sane but it's also slow. James Blish had it in 'Cities in Flight' that at some point in the future conventional science would lead to a dead end and that then crackpot theories would be the place to find the next breakthrough and I can rather see that happening. My, that's a good book; You should go out and read 'Cities In Flight', my demented readers. And 'A Case Of Conscience' after that if you liked it.

Returning to the beginning, rewrites are an arduous process and one I take willingly over corrections, but ultimately it is all worth it as rewriting a section will ultimately produce something even far far stronger and better written. I shall plug through it and produce something even better than the last version, and then it will come back and... more rewrites.

Oh. Good grief. Help, world, help!


Thursday, 1 August 2013

Book: 'The Hollow Man' (1935) by John Dickson Carr.

The Golden Age of detective fiction - mainly between the two world wars of the twentieth century - was populated by a ridiculously large number of detectives. It was the age of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and a myriad of others but how many of those others can you name?

John Dickson Carr was a notable 'other' and with his sleuth Dr Gideon Fell he loved to examine impossible situations and locked room mysteries. He tackled other styles using other detectives and adventurers but rationally decided that simple adventures had become obsolete with the advent of the Second World War, that the world had become too small and in my opinion probably too wearied. In retrospect he was proven right as adventures then moved on to the next broad canvasses supplied by science fiction and fantasy. The old canvas had become too small as he said.

Expertise in the field is not something even vaguely within my experience but this is probably the best known of his mysteries and encapsulates his mighty abilities as an intellectual puzzle maker adroitly and exactly. It's a macabre mix of old Transylvanian mythology, locked room murder, invisible people, and red herrings aplenty. Transylvanian mythology come in that the primary victim actually hails from the Old Dark Country and coffins feature heavily in the narrative, as does as a heavy dose of mysterious magical goings-on.

I'm not going to talk about the plot much, beyond the fact that Dr Fell is a very well developed character at this point. His worries about the cost of revealing truth recalls some of the best moments of Poirot and Holmes, but with added weariness at the motivations of the culprits. Fell also does something very unusual in this story which none of the other detectives I've read ever do and gives a lecture on locked room mysteries directly to the reader. The idea of the fourth wall being directly breached in 1935 is quite astounding, and rather profound. The speech itself feels rather out of place, and not only because of that meta-awareness, but rather because this is not exactly a locked room mystery, but really only pretends to be. It is actually a supposedly supernatural or magical murder which is solved in the most simple of ways once you realise the truth of it all. There aren't that many climaxes or revelations that are more pleasing in their simplicity, and it seems to have been something unique to Carr. He was a puzzle man.

The Dr Gideon Fell stories aren't easy to obtain in print any more and I read this on Kindle, but that's not how I first experienced this story. If we journey back in time a younger Oliver listened to a Radio 4 dramatisation of 'The Hollow Man', featuring the sumptuously voiced British national treasure Sir Donald Sinden. As far as I know you can't listen to it anymore and it's a shame as he did wonderfully. No-one else could have harrumphed in the required manner! If only the Radio 4 dramatised archive could be accessed for such things like this: It would be an amazing thing. There's a version of 'The Murders In The Rue Morgue' in that archive I would love to find and purchase forever more. Come on, BBC, there has to be a way! I'd collect the whole little series of Dr Fells you produced and a mass more!

Moving back to the origin of this piece, I can recommend this book highly to people who appreciate mysteries from that Golden Age. Dickson Carr was underrated then and is seemingly forgotten now but there is material there that is well worth perusing. There are ways and they are legal.