Thursday, 27 February 2014

Book: 'The Store Of The Worlds' by Robert Sheckley

The short version: This was a ball to read. A fantastic set of deeply funny and thoughtful science fiction stories from a long forgotten master. Now for the long version...

Robert Sheckley was writing 'funny science fiction' long before Douglas Adams kicked off the 'Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy phenomenon'. 'The Store of the Worlds' is a fascinating modern collection of the most memorable of his stories. They're all brilliant, and I'm on record as disliking short fiction! I was introduced to Sheckley by the discovery that the film 'Condorman' (I don't care what you say; It's awesome!) was loosely based on his novella 'The Game Of X', then I read his novella 'Dimension X', and then 'The Store of the Worlds' hovered on my book list for ages before finally shuffling into its full papery splendour on the book pile. And then I put off reading it, because it was full of short stories. That was the wrong move as even now there are five or six people who will probably have a chance of getting this book for their next birthday or Christmas.

So, what's good about 'The Store Of The Worlds'? It's irreverent AND idealistic. Some of the stories are plain cynical and some are ultimately optimistic. Sheckley seems to have an eye for a realistic and funny view on love. In fact, the story that has been most sticky in my mind so far is called 'The Language Of Love', wherein a man who finds 'I love you' a too mundane way to convey his feelings to his girlfriend, studies for months on a world which perfected the language and understanding of love, just to come back and realise he is only 'mildly fond' of the lovely lady. It loses much in the translation, but is actually very very funny. It seems strange that his is a name that doesn't appear more often in reviews and recommendations. Perhaps that is because very few novels successfully appear in the usually humourless and arid genre of science fiction? Only Sheckley and Adams spring to mind, with Jasper Fforde staying firmly off in his own little playpen of obscure delights. If Roger Zelazny had written more science fiction he would be firmly in the club too.

Short review? One of the problems with lighter stories and novels is that the enjoyment is going to be more ephemeral than substantial. I could go on at length about the stories contained, but that would be doing a subtle disservice to the material. The stories contained in 'The Store of the Worlds' are not intended to be analysed deeply, much as lots of pulpy stories weren't. They were intended to entertain and sell magazines and books. However, the breadth of stories is fascinating. As an author Sheckley knew when to pull out the twist 'Twilight Zone' type bittersweet ending as well as the occasional hopeful denouement. You're never entirely sure what you're going to get. 'A slightly less predictable and horrific version of 'The Twilight Zone'' is probably a good description to give 'The Store of the Worlds', a rare short story collection that was hard to give up until it was over. Every story seemed meticulous and thoroughly well-conceived. Good job, compilers, and good job to you too, Mr Sheckley.

Now it's time to dig deep and find a way through 'A Tale Of Two Cities' again. It too is wonderful but the knowledge of the ending weighs upon every page.


Tuesday, 25 February 2014


It is wonderful to have spent bonus time here in Aberystwyth, a marvel I could never have predicted. If only it could go on forever more with extra innings for wandering along the prom and cliffs! The only unfortunate aspect is the being stuck on Llanbadarn between lectures, feeling ever so slightly homeless. Now, Llanbadarn campus is lovely but it's also ever so slightly remote. It's possible that there are gulags closer to this place than the main campus. The manic travelling of Tuesdays does however make a layover in Llanbadarn more tolerable, especially with a lecture theatre all to oneself for two hours between lectures. It allows for a certain amount of relaxation after more than hour of hiking on top of two hours of bus time. Scoff though you may, but travelling is rather more tiring than anything else in the world, even if you can distract yourself with the working of examples for later in the day.

Having a lot of solitary time can work to your advantage of disadvantage. In recent times I've thought a lot about 'Star Trek', for my nerdiness is without bounds, and there aren't many people to talk to on buses or in the middle of the night after a trip to the theatre or cinema, or while eating lunch al fresco while batting away criminal seagulls with a laser loaded baseball bat. I miss Star Trek, but how can you make any more when the essence of the show has been run into the ground by more than four hundred (Deep Space Nine doesn't count) episodes already of a ship flying through space and encountering problems? Perhaps the answer is to embrace the weird? When Star Trek The Next Generation finished, it ended with the intimation that the larger adventure was only just beginning and then Star Trek fizzled into Voyager and Enterprise, which were mostly the same show over and over. A new Trek show should perhaps go to the really strange places in the galaxy, where humanoid life is rare, and first contacts are more difficult than shaking hands and having cups of tea. Maybe the next one should be odd with a generous portion of crazy mixed in. Maybe the grander adventure is ready to kick in? Maybe?

As the two hour gap gets close to finishing and I prepare to face the ordeal of explaining the Spearman rank correlation coefficient (it's a number that says stuff) to undergraduate economists, this blog must wind down to a conclusion, hodge podge as it was. Rain showers continue to roll in and roll out, and moods continue to rise up and cast themselves down. Lectures line themselves up to be written, as well as practicals and example sheets, marking accumulates somewhere deep in the bowels of the central office, and the world spins on its axis. Out there the vastness of the universe, defying understanding in its very existence, continues to move on. Stars, planets, nebulae, black holes and all kinds of things we don't even know about yet are waiting. We don't know everything, and maybe we never will. That's all part of the fun, and that's the more meaningful thing we can think about on the bus. Aren't Tuesdays wonderful?


More 'Wordspace' soon, and coming sometime soon the return of 'Triangles'.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Story: Wordspace, IV

(Part I , III , V)

The Wordspace theoretically existed infinitely and flatly in all directions. The ever brilliant and witty Sky shimmered above thinking flighty and witty thoughts as Cloud and Air spread out beneath her according to their whims and mighty Ground spread out over the underlying landscape of petty punctuation and unused nonsense syllables that formed the substructure of the world. At the limits of the explored world there had been placed a frontier of great antiquity, which formally divided the known from the unknown. And now there was a hole in that frontier: An entirely inexplicable patch of nothingness with foundation showing through beneath. Bizarre!

Mystery perambulated about the hole and pondered the great - aha! - mystery of what lay beyond the frontier. Once the mighty explorer Indignation had set off, somewhat grumpily of course, to find the edge of the world and had been gone for five years. It had been a much more peaceful time without him and people were stunned to see long forgotten word stumble back into the known world so many years later looking gaunt and lettered to the point of crisis. Many weeks of recuperation had passed before his story could be heard, such as it was. He had stumbled for ages beyond this now breached symbolic frontier, and had found nothing more than an endless expanse of nonsense and drivel. The current idea was that there was no edge to the world.


"Great Shades!" said Wimsy, as the syllabic dust settled. Something had fallen from the sky, from a great height, and now they could see what it was. Or who. The visitor straightened up and twisted around on his unfamiliar letters before looking at the Council of Lesser Abstracts, who looked back at him in total incomprehension. His landing had punched another hole of nothingness into the foundation. "Hola!" said the arrival and Mystery was astonished. A word that no-one knew, an extra-lexical visitor, speaking a language unknown to the Wordspace. This was an alien life form, from some other alphabet far far away. Unprecedented as far as most words were concerned, but not to him. He held up a few digits and saluted the visitor, "Welcome. We welcome you in peace."

"No comprendo... Hay una problema... Me llamo Sorpresa..." The foreign word gestured toward himself and repeated "Sorpresa" a few times.

As the others looked on in a befuddled state, Mystery stepped toward Sorpresa, motioned to himself and told him: "My name is Mystery. Mystery."


"Close enough." Mystery realised things weren't as hard as he thought and looked up at the sky. "Yes, Mystery." Relations could be established now but despite the monumental events of the last few moments he couldn't help from raising his head and looking up into the muddied letters of the now confused Sky. "Where did you come from, though... And what's up there, beyond the Sky?" He had never been up high enough to talk to Sky, but now he realised it was long past time. He returned to the issue at hand. "Come along with me, Sorpresa, we have to try to make some sense of you!"

There shall be more...

Friday, 21 February 2014

Miscallaneous: 'The Thirty Nine Steps, 'The Lego Movie', great moments of relief and a giant blue die?

My head hurts a bit too much to be creative. It throbs in its tiredness after far too much expenditure of nervous energy and far too little sleep. It has been a week of events, all good and none bad, but tiring in their very existence. Four events: A hospital trip (good outcome, enough said!), a trip to the cinema to see 'The Lego Movie', a community theatre production of 'The Thirty Nine Steps', and a lecture given which should have lasted far far longer.

Being happy with being busy is an acquired ability, and this week was the busiest I've been in a fairly long time, possibly since perhaps the grand days of Aberystwyth period I, or some of the more dubious portions of the Nottingham interregnum, or perhaps some weeks in the Hungary inhabitation. It's easier to be busy when someone wants you to be busy with them. Now to be busy by oneself is paradoxically harder, as sleep and books can be so, so seductive!

So, to events, wherein we find a play (good) and a movie (good). Of the two, 'The Thirty Nine Steps' was far more enjoyable in that way that small scale theatre always is. Minimal sets and paraphernalia make a production far more interesting than glitz and glamour and decorations galore, and the incredibly simple and obvious but to me unexpected option of using a projector to display in text the current location and time on the backdrop was utterly brilliant. I wonder if they do it that way in the big old London productions. Do they instead teleport people back in time to Scottish moors? Is that farfetched? Anyway, it was a good production, with some kooky aspects and the only flaw being an overly shouty lead performance. I think that last part might actually be encoded into the script though. Oh, and there were dancing girls, which utterly stunned me.

In the alternate world of cinema, 'The Lego Movie' was pretty good superficial fun. There was no great depth, no excellent aspect, just general competence and a certain amount of stylistic panache. It's hard to think that a movie which is also the very essence of product placement could be made any better. Seriously, how can you make an advert with any more credibility than this movie has? The story is predictable, but the film itself points that out on several occasions so that isn't a problem. The voice cast are excellent - Chris Pratt was born to play 'Ordinary Joes' - and the animation is jerky but enjoyable once the audience has adjusted. Overall a good movie, but probably not one I'll ever see again. Why on Earth was Lego Batman so ineffectual? I don't understand.

The best part of the cinema trip was the fact that Sam the Eagle has a non-trivial part in the next Muppets trailer. Sam The Eagle will get things to do, and he has a badge. This can only be good. Sam the Eagle. If they continue to highlight the Muppets who were mostly neglected post-Henson then I will be overjoyed. Oh, and yes, that single thing was the standout of the whole movie experience. That might mean something.

Laziness calls. The computer is doing all the work with eight consecutive heavy workloads to punch through by Tuesday. The end of the week has struck!


Wednesday, 19 February 2014

"How appropriate, you fight like a cow!"

So far in the Quirky Muffin, I've jabbered away mightily on the subjects of books, movies, television and the world at large but I've never touched computer games in any depth, apart from some throwaway mentions of the excellent world of interactive fiction, also known as text adventures. You should all go and check out interactive fiction, as its awesome and still free in its current non-professional state. The world of puzzles and riddles is still out there.

Not all adventure games were purely textual however, as there were also graphical adventure games, a whole subgenre of puzzling and storytelling that is for the most part now gone. The king of the graphical adventure publishers was LucasArts and the its crown was mounted with spectacular gems mined from deep beneath Monkey Island, the setting for its greatest games.

"Look behind you, it's a three headed monkey!"

The 'Monkey Island' games were events, as were 'Grim Fandango' and 'Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis'. The first play through of each being by turns hilarious as well as endurance puzzling events. I spent days trying to work out how to turn off a mechanical waterfall in the historical Caribbean before finally looking up that we needed to use the 'monkey' wrench! Yes, there was a monkey in lead character Guybrush Threepwood's capacious inventory-holding pantaloons! You'll just have to live with that knowledge. It was awesome.

On this day of monumental happiness - look, world, out the window... Isn't it lovely? - it's natural to remember happy things and this whole genre forms a satisfying and fulfilling little corner of entertainment. In many ways the death of graphical adventures has drawn a line in the sand computer games between the era of non-violent PC games and the following age of combative console games. Advances in graphics killed the graphical adventure ironically, and the ubiquity of strategy games like 'Civilization' too. Oh, 'Civilization', you monumental time waster, you magnificent historical epic. You shouldn't need a good PC to play Civilization, it should run on everything! You should be able to put it on your calculator and run your world with function keys! Take away those animated heads, blast it and I could play it now!

Ahem. "Soon you'll be wearing my sword like a shish kebab!"

Everything I learnt from computer games I learnt from Monkey Island. The game was a funny little microcosm that you could even play multiple times and still do new things you had missed before. It was fascinating, right from the insult swordfighting to the voodoo dolls in the second game to the repeated 'deaths' of the third and even Monkey Kombat from the fourth. And the puzzles were always great. The followup from 'TellTale Games' is actually pretty good too, although it is split into five standalone episodes instead of one monster game, resulting in an overall loss of maximum complexity. It makes up for it with the Pirate Pox though. More green women in the world is always good.

For jokes, for story, for characters transcending crummy 80s graphics, and even for just plain goofiness there was really nothing to beat Monkey Island. Or 'Grim Fandango', or 'Fate of Atlantis', or 'Day of the Tentacle', or even 'Zak McKraken' and 'Sam and Max'. Was it a Golden Age for a now moribund genre? Certainly. Is there no activity in graphical adventures now? Mostly, although Telltale Games did followups to 'Sam and Max' and their 'Tales of Monkey Island'. Much as did text adventures ultimately went to the world of the Internet and the people, maybe this genre should too, although I wish Telltale would refocus and make some more quality adventures.

To 'Monkey Island'. It actually was good, and it's not just nostalgia.


Monday, 17 February 2014

Lost threads of surprising antiquity

(On 'Slade In Flame', shreds of Arabian Tales, and first mutterings about Peanuts by Schultz)

This week's Film Bin commentary is for the 1975 film 'Slade In Flame', which forms the accompaniment to this burst of furious writing. It's a funny movie, very disjointed, and purely a string of pearly anecdotes. Tom Conte is very good though.

It's hard to connect to the lives of popular musicians though, citizens of that bizarre and somewhat seedy industry where success is so fleeting and the fall from grace is so shockingly far. The intensely social and hedonistic lives of rock stars are so opposed and antithetical to mine that it's far more akin to watching laboratory specimens than real people, or being the one looked out upon. Really, it's yet another example of how easy it is to be judgemental over people in other walks of life, far away from the hollowed walls of academia.

Don't stare too long into the abyss, for that abyss can swallow you whole.

In board game news, 'Tales of the Arabian Nights' is proving a considerable success. It's surprising how out of print that game was for so long, an absent giant in storytelling games. I think I rather love it in its twisty little roads to victory. Inevitable victory was wrenched from my grasp after an unacceptably long stint in miserable prison and someone else's teleportation by a treasured hairless ape. Blast you, hairless ape, you cost me everything! It's a seriously good game, drenched in theme, and far more about the journey than the final result, although we did all get strangely invested. Excellent game.

<break to record 'Slade in Flame' commentary>

It's easy to react badly to things from outside your realm of experience, as they often touch the nerves of things we've never considered. 'Slade in Flame', for example, barely touches the raucous lifestyles of rock stars but does just enough to make a contrast to what we other people experience. Fortunately the characters in the movie retreat from the alternative lives briefly presented to them, but how many didn't in the real life movie industry, and how many were ruined? It's really rather alien, and utterly opposed to something else I've been delving into recently: 'Peanuts' by Schultz. The first twenty years of 'Peanuts' sits close by in Canongate 'Complete' hardback editions and represents one of the greatest achievements in comic strips. It's so innately human that you can't help but wonder how Schultz did it for fifty years at any degree of quality. There is no comparison.

"I'll get you yet, Red Baron!"


Saturday, 15 February 2014

Television: 'Star Trek' (1966-1969)

There can be no nerdier post of the Quirky Muffin. This is the one. The one about 'Star Trek'. That show forms one of the primary texts of my existence and probably always will. I started off with the diluted 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' and then fell in love with the original, as it truly is an iconic show.

It has been said - but not by me - that 'Star Trek' was an analogy for the West exploring the barbarous rest of the world and imposing its own values, but that's really nonsense. If that were true then the crew would never bump into even more advanced cultures like the Metrons or Trelane or the Organians, all of whom are quite happy to not impose their own values on the Federation or the Klingons or anyone else. 'Star Trek' is actually the opposite of that, and above all it's optimistic. Repeating from elsewhere on this blog, 'Trek' broke the link of science fiction to horror and then danced off into the world of adventure, chuckling on the way. And then they came back and made a number of excellent films too, as well as some debatably bad ones. It's actually freakish that a 1960s television cast could transfer so well en masse into a film series, a fact which becomes even more impressive when we consider how badly the next cast did on the big screen.

None of the spin-off Treks can really claim to do anything as legendary as the things the original series did. 'The Next Generation' can to some extent claim to bring a certain maturity to science fiction in the 1980s and 1990s but apart from that mainly succeeds despite its own flawed structure instead of because of massive virtues. It was a show that would have collapsed into a small black hole of dreadfulness without Patrick Stewart holding it all together with a classy grip of iron.

One of the wonderful things about Trek is that optimism, personified in the crew of the ship, and their attitude to the adventure ahead. We can have an alien on the bridge and have him be 'one of the guys'. We can have a black woman have a responsible role and never even raise an eyebrow, nor question the Asian eyebrow or the Russian navigator or any of the crew from all around human parts of the galaxy. This was unheard of in the institutionally racist network philosophy that dominated most of the twentieth century. There's a grand Federation of sentient races that gets along in a grand alliance and that is fascinating although almost untouched by the series itself. Another important thing about Trek is the fusion of character humour with serious allegorical plots. Oh, allegory, the grandest thing about the original series and I almost forgot! This was a series that tackled important issues by couching them in allegory and for the most part succeeded. In fact, it was only when it overtly tried to do things that it got into trouble (see inter-racial kisses and so on), and that was with the caretaker creative team of the doomed third and final season.

Anyone can recite the story of 'Star Trek' so largely this is all redundant. Gene Roddenberry created a wonderful template for something in the vein of a 'Wagon Train To The Stars' and then Gene Coon added the character nuances that made it fly into a stratosphere of greatness, that wouldn't be recognised until after it was all over. That's easy to find elsewhere. What you won't find is the love that a person can have for the oddest things: Dr McCoy has the best taste in women, Spock is a great big fraud and would sacrifice himself almost gratefully, Kirk is ultimately insecure, and the crew tolerates Uhura's singing over the intercom as they're secretly very scared of her. Uhura can be creepy sometimes...

Finally, the show was in colour, glorious colour and none of them wore green cardigans like Captain Crane in 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea'. That point can not be overstated enough. And Kirk loved destroying super-computers, as much as I would love to after years of coding and frustration. Go, Kirk, go! Talk that thing into self-destruction.


Thursday, 13 February 2014

Boo boo be doo

The first practical is done and even now a small tribe of trainee Economists are running for the hills, traumatized beyond belief by their first experiences with R. Oh, R, you are quirky in your eccentricities... The interesting thing about practicals is that you can be interactive and instruct rather than lecture, and that change in status from passive to active is extremely empowering both for students and teachers. It's almost an argument to become a teacher instead of a lecturer, except that teacher training requires high mobility, and teaching itself is one of the most time-consuming professions out there. And I'm lazy.

Still, practicals are nice if only so I can do comedy runs down the aisles as part of the continuing campaign to be put away somewhere warm for the Winter. My students are either lucky or cursed, and the verdict switches from encounter to encounter. Still, at least the jokes go well, and they seem to be adapting well. I wish they could do more Statistics in the future though as this almost a waste of a module if they don't follow it up.

The run of freak weather continues here in Aberystwyth, as my rogue weather deity powers continue to malfunction. Oh, I know I'm not really a god but my presence does seem to go in tune with freak weather. No snow this years but instead freak hurricane force winds, forcing people out of the university and making work planning just a touch more difficult. Yes, in case you were wondering whether the last few lines were correct, we have had hurricane force winds! (And yes, I am a god, but please don't tell anyone as it would ruin the days off.)

This is becoming the portmanteau posting of 'things that have happened', from the guy just emerging from an epic tunnel of gloom. Look, gloom, you come in bucket quantities at the slightest of whims but you shall not prevail for now. You are being defeated by realism, pragmatism and Doctor Who soundtrack CDs. My plan for completing the set of Troughton and Pertwee 'Doctor Who' has reached the point of filling in the 'lost serial' problem via the soundtrack CDs, and they are fascinating! They're like classic radio, with narration to fill in the gaps, and all the power of the imagination being brought to bear upon the story. In many examples finding the visual components of some of these Troughton stories would ruin them. Sadly, most of the CD versions have been out of print for ages now, and it's taking some effort. Blast you, BBC!

Note for next time: Establish some non-nerdy credibility. Don't talk about the Film Bin 'Incredible Hulk' pilot commentary we all did or 'Star Trek'. Oh, 'Star Trek'... how I miss 'Star Trek'... Okay, forget it all, because it is time to talk about 'Star Trek'. I can't believe it never happened before.

Coming next: The grand 'Star Trek' entry into the 'Quirky Muffin', or maybe it will be the time after. There might be a story.


Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Story: Wordspace, III

(Part I , II , IV)

The mighty Cloud passed over the great plain of the Wordspace, gently swooshing from side to side to add effect to the passage. His letters slowly rearranged under Mystery as the collection trip continued until finally our gallant protagonist was sprawled syllable-length on the amorphous surface. Cloud slowed to a halt at the prearranged point halfway between Sea and Ocean and ascended to a quiet layer where the Council could meet in peace.

Around the circle, and not including Cloud who was an honorary member, the Council of Lesser Abstracts had been gathered to deliberate. Running clockwise around the Ring there were: Mystery, History, Deliberation, Revolution (always bumptious!), Curiosity, Regulation (armed with a clipboard), Wimsy, Speed, Innocence (reading poetry), Medicine and Playfulness. Those eleven were the current members according to the rotation and they would debate what to do with Revolution's news, once he had finally given it coherently.

Mystery was reminded of the last time that Incoherency had given a speech at the Council in his presence, a massive shambling effort on his part about the importance of maintaining a guard on the Zone of Dangerous Jargon which unfortunately segued into a long and rambling joke about the Large Numbers Reunion before falling apart into a broken apology about the loss of the punchline and having been trapped in a whatever all the night before. It had been rendered even more confusing by the presence of Night, who as a representative of the Greater Absolutes was rather confused by the whole sequence. Night really didn't like get involved in things when he could distilling down captured syllables from the Zone for analysis in his dark laboratories.

Revolution - who was surely up to something apart from the disaster - raised himself up and began to speak. "Reports are coming in from Scout and Explore that we are suffering some jargon-loss at the edges of the known Wordspace. They state that locals have seen unknown words swooping in from beyond the frontier."

Curiosity and Mystery rushed to get in the obvious question but Curiosity won out. "Could they describe the interlopers? How much of the jargon has gone?"

"Composition was out there and recorded a very lengthy description which boils down to 'Alphabet unknown, lexically incomprehensible'. They appear to be from an entirely different form of life. And we must mobilize to meet them should anything terrible occur!" Revolution threw his inevitable proposal upon the Council: "Who's for a new and totally benevolent tyranny until the problem has been settled!?"

The catcalls were sarcastic but once they were over and Revolution had settled down to a quiet haze in his part of the Circle, Wimsey suggested that Cloud take them to the scene of the action so they could observe awhile. Speed seconded and Cloud set off at a swift float towards the edge of the known Wordspace from whence the troubles had been reported. Deliberation, checking her own clipboard, revealed that she had agents in that region, namely the Kangaroo, the Dragon and the Quark, and that the Snaggle was on its way.

Cloud roared through the space that Sky left for him and reached the edge in record time. There beneath them, and around them, and above them was the edge of known space. And there was a hole.

To be continued...

Sunday, 9 February 2014


So, you're stumbling through life and everything seems to be going fairly well, and then you get hit by news or change, and your being is... perturbed. And then everything seems to fall to pieces all around you. It's a curious thing when it happens, isn't it? It's happened to me a few times, that feeling of almost total disaster falling upon you and forgetting how to sleep, or how to know what to do all through the day, and a sudden loss of appetite for what is to come. A grand sense of dislocation as your place in the universe get shifted a little back and to the left.

The life of a solitary bachelor holds little perturbations of its own so mostly one gets hit by the changes in others, in the loss of things once thought possible, and the happinesses and tragedies of others secondhand. But this is merely self-indulgent folly. Back to the broader theme.

There are various ways to get through perturbations to your reality, but in general it's best to express your shock as fully and non-destructively as possible. Draw a picture, air conduct, distract your mind enough so that it doesn't get in the way of your heart and let the elation or the tears flow in great torrents of emotion. Mentality is a great tool for dealing with physical and political problems but it has no place in the mending of hearts or reconciliations with altered realities. So many people have tried that way, and so few have succeeded. Just let it out.

The association of the heart with emotion is one of those semi-puzzling links that have persisted through the ages. It actually seems quite clear in retrospect that the heart is associated with emotion because it pounds so much faster and harder when we're happy or upset, and so much more sluggishly when depressed or in some cases of shock. As a result peoples have assumed the heart to be one with the origin of emotion rather that its behaviour to be a symptom of those emotions. The brain as the seat of all consciousness is an idea that has been endlessly contested over history as it seemingly clashes with religious teachings, specifically that idea that the soul is an indefinable but separate entity from the more refined intellectual person, independent and living on after the brain has passed to a moribund state. What would Jung say?

The brain will win you through puzzles, professions and doctorates galore but it is the heart that sets you free to persevere against the perceived hardships and those endless perturbations in life when what you think is becomes what you thought was and everything to come takes on a slightly darker and more ominous cast.

Yes, this is a creepy looking week ahead already. Prepare the storm drains, and splice the mainsail, we're going in.


Friday, 7 February 2014

Muffin Fodder

Question: What makes a good idea for an entry into the Quirky Muffin? Answer: Almost anything under the sun!

By now there must be an uncounted number of duplicate Muffins, repeating fleeting thoughts that have slipped through my mind from time to time quite regularly. (Yes, I am forever thinking about twirling and tilting at windmills, and the various ways to use cheese to power the great civilizations of the planet Earth.)

It's hard to say what goes on in patterning what pops out of the fingers, but in the most general sense it's useful to return to 'Rhapsody' and the ideas of irregular pieces of music that express great emotion. It's helpful that this is all intended to please no-one in particular. The Quirky Muffin can be literally anything within the confines of taste and decency, and if serves to express something in the meantime then all the better!

Note: There have been far too many self-referential blog posts here of late. Must stop wasting space.

The Winter Olympics opening ceremony of 2014 is going on as I write this, amidst all the scandals of homophobia, corruption and prejudice. The pavements all around the Arts Centre were chalked with protest slogans and solidarity slogans and it all seems somehow bizarre in contrast with the fact that this is going to be another one of the Olympics that I will see very little of when all things are considered. That's not to belittle the human rights issues at all - Russia is terrible on human rights especially with respect to homosexuals - but it's very much a problem with a group unconnected to me at an event I'm not seeing in a country far far away. In contrast the flooding and weather changes are far more important and immediately far reaching, except for the fact that Russia is that scary country off to the East that likes to glower and menace and so deeply dubious things while waving its missiles around.

It's a scary world. This was never intended to be a topical entry. The recurrent fears over flooding have spooked the town and all involved. There will have to be new segments of 'Wordspace' to cancel out the recurrent gloom and wonder at how oddly things are happening at the moment in this funny time of change and flux. 'Wordspace' posts an interesting question in whether to maintain Mystery as the sole lead character or add someone. The problem is that if the characters are words, and all stick fairly closely to their meanings, then everything that can happen is pretty much pre-determined and nothing can ever change (all of written literature). Essentially for a non-static story there must be agents of change, hence Mystery and perhaps others. Or is it intrinsically wrong to have a static story? In this type of conceit is every character an unavoidable archetype?

There is certainly much to think about. Not the least of which is writing lectures all through the weekend! Knock three times and ask for Svlad Cjelli.


Wednesday, 5 February 2014

To Twirl

Life is like a sequence of twirls through the eddies of time. At the beginning we're sure and steady and at the end a little dizzy and wobbly on our feet but we twirl all the same in homage to our grand and stately world's dance around the Sun. The only question is perhaps whether we choose to twirl around events in an an accepted manner and do all the traditional things or strike out and do something different. I unwittingly chose option B but they both have merits. We continue to twirl anyway in order to maintain movement and avoid the ultimate boredom of being static in a world forever moving.

This semester my main twirling occurs on Tuesdays, when I give both my lectures in Llanbadarn and then collapse in a heap in the Arts Centre on my return from that fabled barren second campus, feebly crying out for food while the waitresses deftly step around and carry on their essential duties and chatting about boys. Well, it's never that bad but over-twirling can cause distress on top of a few hours of bus travel. And the waitresses are actually very nice. Especially the Mystery Blonde.

A Twirl is also a chocolate bar, but we dare not pursue that further as dwelling on the sugary chocolate... lovely chocolate... available in the chocolate vending machine downstairs is a sure path to sugar-reduction failure. Cut back on sugar people, it wrecks your skin makes all your special diets worthless. Except there is a chocolate machine downstairs...

Anyway, to twirl is one of those things we all do instinctively. In the most literal sense I used to twirl around lampposts walking home downhill from university in the rain (go watch 'Singing in the Rain' too) when here at Aberystwyth the first time and it was always exhilarating. Somehow it never felt so good in Nottingham, if only because it never blasted rained there. For rain you have to be here, in Aberystwyth, the sodden jewel of the Ceredigion coast. This town as home to thousands of bedraggled students every day, sends them out soaked to lectures and then home drenched in the evenings, only for them emerge again and return sozzled and inundated in the early hours. Aberystwyth fulfils a vital service, propagating colds and influenzas and occasional pneumonias the year round, and ensures the survival of the fittest in the best way as we watch the most inebriated get swept off to Ireland in the early morning tide. They often laugh as they go, or swear. Swearing is bad.

So, maybe it's good to twirl, figuratively dancing around our problems as we try to comprehend them, spinning madly around the little pockets of foamy time, looping around lampposts and twirling partners in dance. There's nothing wrong with a twirl at all, unless it's chocolate.

Oh blast you, chocolate machine!


PS Ha ha! The pretentiousness is ramping up!
PPS Cancelling birthday this year. I don't want to be 35. I already look like a turnip.
PPPS Insert random message here. It can be about ibises if you like.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Movie: 'Cat Ballou' (1965)

It's probably extremely obvious by now that my fondness lies firmly with the underdog in practically everything. Am I devouring Agatha Christie novels from the Golden Age of Mystery writing? No, it's Dorothy L Sayers who's filling that role and wonderfully. Is it the incredibly overrated Tom Baker who is my favourite Doctor Who? No, it's either Jon Pertwee, whose era built the show up to such a healthy state that it could go to such excesses, or Patrick Troughton whose performance was excellent in an era of little variety in storytelling. And now, after writing up two lectures in a very short time today am I going to lavish praise upon a stalwart icon of a film legendary to all? No. I will talk about 'Cat Ballou', which hardly anyone seems to talk about ever, which is a shame as it's a hoot.

Comedy westerns are a thinly populated little niche of cinema, seemingly consisting almost entirely of 'Support Your Local Gunfighter', 'Support Your Local Sheriff', 'Four Eyes And Six Guns', 'Destry Rides Again' and this charming oddball effort starring Jane Fonda but really dominated by the massively talented Lee Marvin as a washed-up drunken gunslinger called Kid Shelleen. It is bizarre that Marvin didn't make more comedies apart from this and 'Paint Your Wagon' (a very odd movie) as he is pitch perfect, a performer without equal in the film. All the other actors are comically talented, even surprisingly Fonda, but it's Marvin's colossal charisma that takes us from his entrance through to the ending.

The story is simple - and throughout punctuated and narrated by the singing minstrels Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye - wherein Catherine 'Cat' Ballou returns home to her father's ranch after completing her schooling only to find him under horrific pressure from the nearby town to give up his water rights for an encroaching commercial development. The company hires a gunslinger and kills the father, Catherine crosses the line with some outlaws and robs the company's payroll in revenge, and Kid Shelleen bumbles around before cleaning up and falling for Ballou and then falling apart again in the rejection. It's really not about the plot, but more the sharp and punchy dialogue and crisp colours of the mid 1960s. And the minstrels who link the different parts of the film together. Told in flashback from just before Cat being led out to the gallows for apparently killing the company president, the pace continues briskly, before the small collapse that presages the common problem in comedies of having to have the story move in at some point. It's a lovely little movie.

This isn't an in depth review so I can just ramble on about the things I remember, which are a beautiful barn dance sequence amid the musical backdrop of the movie and the balance of a cast which is clearly and vainly trying to hold its own against the mighty Marvin. The latter defies description but the former is fascinating as the director builds a long single take version of the barn dance, moving up and down the structure with Cat and interacting with all the main cast - bar Marvin who hasn't arrived yet - before it finally breaks down into a massive brawl. It works magnificently, everyone strictly in place and ready to interact, even stopping off with Nat and Stubby as they perform with the musicians. It's the centrepiece of a film that isn't too afraid to do things that other movies won't and it elevates the whole thing not to classic status but to great status. It's the underdog of Westerns. The other thing to note is that is one of Nat King Cole's last movie appearances - he was already sick while filming - and that his and Stubby Kaye's interludes are perfectly judged, including some heart breaking moments as Cat rides away from the now-appropriated ranch and the sun sets.

'Cat Ballou' is slight in many ways, but it deserves to be watched and savoured. It's true that the ending is tonally strange as she seemingly (we don't see it) guns down the company president while disguised as a floozy, sitting uncomfortably with the rest of the film, before being rescued by her friends. The ending is offset though by Marvin, the magnificent stunt work of Yakima Canutt, Marvin again in a dual role, and a comedy horse. Oscars were won, accolades bestowed and the movie was quietly forgotten. I remember though, and so does the Quirky Muffin.

We like underdogs.


Saturday, 1 February 2014

Story: Wordspace, II

(Part I , III)

The Wordspace had always been there, as long as any of its residents could remember. The mightiness of Earth had always stood beneath them and the wafting Air had always seemed to waft around above them in a continuing dance with Sky, his lifelong partner. The Council Of Lesser Abstracts had settled long ago on meeting high up in Air's domain, on that most abstract landmark Cloud, who scooted around picked up all the members as and when required. Cloud's many letters slowly settled into place as each word boarded and then he moved on to his next pickup. On this occasion Mystery was picked up early in the run and quickly moved to the centre of Cloud's surface to see who was already there, Club following silently and somewhat on guard.

"Mystery, take care." Cloud's unexpected murmur caught the enigmatic Mystery off guard. "My parents say all is not as it seems and there might be danger." Cloud's parents, Water and Sky and Air were together very wise.

"Cloud, I'm always careful. The unknown is part of my trade, or at least I think it is." Walking on Cloud was always interesting as he was so malleable in in his form. His indefiniteness was one of the things the Lesser Abstracts liked about him. "And thank you. I wish we might have talked before for a better reason."

Cloud was silent for a long time before finally murmuring, "I speak when things must be said. Life is for contemplation." Mystery let the flying Cloud alone and settled his letters in a pose in the meeting area. Only Deliberation and History had been picked up apart from him and he had never got on well with either: Deliberation refused to commit to anything quickly (but often ended up right) and History just seemed to care about facts on every occasion. On the Horizon they could all see the mighty Earth flying by, all his many letters filling the horizon. Suddenly Cloud dipped and picked up someone else, the mighty Revolution it seemed, and moved off in a new direction.

"Did you know this is the fifth meeting we've had since Moon did his last run across poor confused Ocean?" History was trying to be social.

"Really? What confused him?" Ocean was always confused, never certain where to be or where to go. All he knew was to go and jump around in Water from time and splash. Sometimes he and Wave would clash and have a water fight.

Revolution interrupted what would have been a dismal exchange. "Welcome, good fellows!" He slapped Mystery on the back, who jumped up and down to settle his letters again and then settled the alarmed Club down, and then rounded on History and Deliberation. "There are problems afoot and plans to propose. We must go quickly and smoothly if the day is not to be lost."

"All things in due course become known. Why must you always hurry so?" History uttered grumpily. He deplored rash actions, sometimes even more than Deliberation.

"You may change your tune once I've presented the facts to the Council. A full conclave might be in order."

"A full conclave? What on Earth are you talking about, Revolution? You're always getting so mixed up."

"All in good time, all in good time." Said Deliberation, who was absently considering his latest holiday plans.

"All in good time, pshaw! The world is about to fall around us in unholy nightmare! We must act!"

Mystery thought that was quite interesting.

To be carried on...