Friday, 31 July 2015

Just One Left

The end was so close. Just one story stood between me and the completion of 'The Most of SJ Perelman', but sheer fatigue has defeated me, and the ruminations on the legendary humourist will have to wait for another day. What a marathon it was!

Away from reading, there is also maths in the air. Doing Maths again is odd, as is waiting two days for a calculation to finish. Two days! If only there were a faster computer for casual experimentation. If only. You can't farm off a thousand calculations to a friend, as you experiment with parameter sizes and other such things, after all. It becomes too fiddly. The final intense calculation, on the other hand, can be farmed out with not a worry in the world once the bugs are gone.

It was nice to write the first part of 'Diary of a Laundry Robot'. It's nice to think of ideas for stories. For example, what about a person with a talking native balloon, who rides with it, exploring the new world of Borgia IX? Or the life and times of an apple treesman in a world that loves only oranges? Okay, that second one was a bit of a stretch. There are always the time travelling space gringos, or the pelicans from the zone of unreality. Oh, creativity does not seem to be on my mental menu right now, possibly because of the Potato Curse, the needing the haircut, an overdose of computation, not enough sleep or too much sleep, or even the rapture of an upcoming holiday. Did I just say 'holiday'? It must be a clerical error. Take two amnesia pills and pretend it never happened, before saying "Oh, Max...". Ah, Agent 99, you tolerant lady.

I have students again. It's nice. In Spanish, a private tutor calls his students 'alumnos', which is a cute term. One of the nice things about some foreign languages is the specialist terms you can find in all the nooks and crannies (never mind the crooks and nannies) of the lexicon, and the different emphases strewn about like confetti. It's nice to teach something and see it learnt, instead of just hoping it didn't bounce off all the skulls sitting in front of you. Now, if I could only instruct the population at large in the vital life lessons to be learnt from 'Dharma and Greg'...

Blast it all! Will they never release the remaining years of 'Dharma and Greg' on DVD?? I blame Putin. It's always his fault.


Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Book And Movie: 'The Hot Rock' (1970 and 1972)

I tried to write this one straight, a comparative piece on the Donald E Westlake novel and the Peter Yates film from William Goldman's screenplay. It didn't work. The jinx is still going, that fatal curse that sees the eponymous emerald evading the crooks' grasp after every one of the numerous heists. 'The Hot Rock' is a tough one to trap, even in a brief post.

The movie is a close adaptation of the novel, which only veers away to do some streamlining in characterisation and elimination of one of the heists, the six heists that our crooks, led by John Dortmunder, pull in order to obtain the rock for their untrustworthy buyer. Dortmunder, who is a fascinating character of benign criminal genius, goes on to lead his own series of novels after this, but this is the story that made a cult film and the one that will be remembered. 'The Hot Rock' is a comedic caper classic. It's a shame that the movie didn't do better, but it's not exactly a surprise that a high quality film did badly at the box office. It happens all the time, with depressing regularity, and is probably down to the lack of machine guns ang gigantic explosions.

Westlake was up there with the classic authors who could tell all manner of stories without dropping into the verbal gutter to do it. It's a rare gift. Hammett could do it easily too; bring you right down to ground level without spoiling some of the most elegant prose ever seen on the printed page with unnecessarily gratuitous dialogue. You don't need to go to swearing and smut if you can actually write, and Westlake is there on the same level. Abundantly. While the novel may start slowly, it does grab you and refuse to let you go until you hit the end and wonder how you got from a stolen emerald, to a prison break, then a police station raid, then a lunatic asylum with a theme park locomotive, and finally a totally unexpected hustle right out from a safe deposit box. How does a writer pull that off? Ivan Reitman calls it something like the 'falling dominoes of reality', where you can hold an audience to anything as long as you keep the intervening steps of unreality close enough. Westlake is a master of the falling dominoes, and of humorous dialogue that flows naturally from situation and character without messing up the narrative. He also knows to allow time to elapse well, which is another rare gift.

The movie is a great adaptation of a novel, and one that features one of my two all time favourite actors in Robert Redford (the other one is of course Jimmy Stewart), with his frequent screenwriter William Goldman at the peak of his powers. Goldman was a fantastic and thoughtful screenwriter at the time, and Redford one of the actors with the most intelligent and thoughtful screen presences. Combined, they could really do no wrong, whether in this or in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid', 'All The President's Men', or 'The Great Waldo Pepper'. Goldman was designed to put words in Redford's mouth, and Redford was designed to read them. Is this getting a bit gushy? Well, it deserves, in both forms. The movie is a very subtle film, except for the bits that feature Zero Mostel, and a great watch. The book is a little gem I had never heard of, with witty dialogue and a great pulse.

Which is the better experience of the book and the film? It's a close call, really it is. They're essentially just different sides of the same coin, as a good adaptation should be. A bad adaptation is usually either the same side of the same coin, or a totally different currency. Is that enough coin analogy? Personally, and with great anticipation for the other Dortmunder books in the series, I would say that the book is the better version, if only because the plot is less neat. Movies tend to make things far too tidy, and that is the only real disadvantage of the movie, but is that disadvantage smoothed out by a Quincy Jones soundtrack? Oh, it's just too close to call. Even now, Zero's crazy eyes are twisting into mental view...

How about this: If you try one of the book or the movie, and like it, then you'll love the other version for being just different enough to be worthwhile. If you don't like the one then don't try the other. That's a deal.


Monday, 27 July 2015

My Favourite Sherlock Holmes Stories

Life is gloomy, so why share it with the masses? I'm sure you all have enough issues to be getting on with. Instead, this is going to be about my two favourite Holmes stories, which I stumbled across in totally different ways.

The first Sherlock story I ever read was 'The Speckled Band', and was it was devoured in a rapid manner at primary school from the upper class's bookshelves. Along with 'The Magician's Nephew', some Enid Blyton, Willard Price, and the 'Hardy Boys', it formed a fantastic introduction to the world of the written word as was. 'The Speckled Band' is a magnificent little story, featuring one of the old classic mystery tropes of the locked room, and the touches of the exotic that marked Conan Doyle out from the very beginning. The band itself, the great and misleading eponymous serpent, still haunts me from time to time in my phobia of all things snake-like and head scarves in general. It was a magnificent mind that could link so many disparate story elements, including a poker-bending maniacal doctor! Magnificent!

The second story is 'The Musgrave Ritual', which introduced me to the BBC Radio 4 Merrison/Williams adaptations. It was mesmerising, and ironic in that it is for the most part a 'sans Watson' story. The winds of fate can not, however be interfered with, and 'The Musgrave Ritual' is still the pre-eminent prequel story to the Watson era that exists. Yes, the butler did it, or most of it, but this was before the great rash of criminal butlers in the latter Golden Age of Detective Stories. This is long before. As with most of the great Sherlock stories, its strengths lie in Doyle's willingness to jump off into other types of stories, and in this case we have a treasure hunt, but for what treasure? Nothing less than the long lost and ancient crown last worn by the Stuart Kings! What amazing turns are concealed in the first two sets of short stories, and to a slightly lesser extent in the rest. What amazing creativity!

It would be a shame - or perhaps a crime! - not to mention 'The Sign Of The Four', which is my favourite novella length Holmes narrative. It's probably one of the best stories ever told, beginning and ending as it does in such a tremendous manner, which I shall not spoil. A mention also goes to 'A Study In Scarlet', which would be awesome except for the dreary-ish historical flashback/interlude in the centre of the story. The Sherlock portion is excellent, though, and packed with all the quality we would see later in the detective's prime. In fact, that Sherlock portion is prime material to me personally. 'A Study In Scarlet' is the origin story, but why go on so long in Utah, Doyle? Why?

That's one set of gloominess averted, and it surely was a far more enjoyable writing exercise than might have been.


Saturday, 25 July 2015

Story: 'Diary of a Laundry Robot', Week I

( Week II )


My servos are so tired. I never thought today would end. Mrs Wilberforce came in unexpectedly, with a whole slew of handkerchiefs from General Automation's grand 'Cheese of the Month' extravaganza. It was diabolical. Even now the rollers in my mind see only handkerchiefs and the initials GA. I curse the day that General hired that lady to fulfil the minimum staffing regulations. Curse you, global statutes. If only my positrons could allow excitement.


Mrs Wilberforce now seems like a pleasure in retrospect as today we had a surprise inspection by the LaundryMaster 3000. This is always vexing as the 3000 has been programmed to think that she is funny, but has all the humour of a bath towel from the National Palace. You may think this to be a joke, but in the July edition of 'Literal Robots Update', the towels from the National Palace ranked as second to least funny of all the towels surveyed, losing only to those deployed at the Eastern Rock Quarry Museum Hotel. There was also a good comic strip about a French window and the King of Sweden, but I digress from duties. The 3000 gave me a demerit for incorrect handkerchief folding, while my colleague Fred was commended for his ability to iron shirts. This vexes me, and drained my battery due to my internal mutterings.


The working week is almost halfway done, and finally we see a break in the bad luck. The handkerchief debacle has been forgotten as the prison warden chose our humble laundry to clean all his best suits. Such plaudits were handed out for the crispness of his crinoline and the colours of his hat plume. What wondrous and marvellous uniforms the Wardens have had since the disintegration of crime in the last few centuries. Indeed, our hereditary Warden has only had to speak to one prisoner in his whole life, and that was the winner of the grand prize of last decade, the honorary Prisoner. Who would have thought that prisons would have become prestige hotels in the future? In any case, we have but to perform our tasks well to secure grand futures in higher grade robotic laundry services. My lenses will have to be polished before work tomorrow.


Gloom. Fred has been promoted to level five laundry robot and granted the prestige duty of tie dabbing. The fink adjusted my activation time by twenty minutes and secured the prize clothes of the day from the Warden and my duties consisted of a new shipment of wash cloths and a stuffed hippo apparently called Fritz. Oh, Fred, how could you have been so mean? Why should any of us be surprised, though, after his usurpation of the sainted Clara, his predecessor? The good luck was just a mirage, although with Fred upgraded, and receiving fine duty equipment, who will be our new partner? My other colleague Celia and I wait with quavering circuits.


The manager, RockTop Beta, has just delivered some startling news. Apparently Fritz was the prized property of noted billionaire and recluse Bonzo Meredith, and the laundry is now in his ownership due to my efforts. I didn't even try. What will befall us all now? Even now I dread an avalanche of Fritz's friends, and with us one robot down. No, correction, RockTop Beta has informed us that the new robot will arrive tomorrow, during my maintenance time at the weekend. So much uncertainty, and I can hear the voice of Mrs Wilberforce talking about penwipes.

To be continued...

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Time In Hand

As computations whir, and the evening settles in, a sad mood might perhaps be attributed to being at the end of so many things. The very last episode of 'The Addams Family' is playing, the last half season of 'Mork And Mindy' is upon me, as are the last seasons of 'The Mentalist' and 'Parks And Recreation'. Yes, life isn't all about television, but so many endings coming all at once is a trifle upsetting. If 'Community' had released its presumably final season on DVD punctually it would be on the list too. So many finales! Where are the succeeding shows?

It really shouldn't be a gloomy time right now, not with two students for the summer, some cash to save, and an actually decent research plan to pursue in the spare time. Why be gloomy, then? Why? Is it the subconscious effect of the evenings becoming slowly shorter? Is variant SAD kicking in already? Is it maybe all those shows coming to an end, and not being compensated for by the upcoming archive watches of 'The Adventures of Superman' and 'The Muppet Show'? No, those are just more symptoms of being just a little too alone. Not even the words on the page, nor the correspondences kept up with friends far away, can salve the emptiness of the extra person without a place in the world. Fortunately, there are ways to combat the gloom, if you are aware of it. It's the awareness that is the hard part...

Hmmm... 'The Muppet Show'... Did you know that they never released the last two seasons of 'The Muppet Show' on DVD? Apparently the sales weren't high enough on the first three seasons to offset the heavy music licencing costs, and the chaps over at Disney just didn't bother to continue. It's so sad. If there were ever a show which deserved a full DVD release despite making losses it would be 'The Muppet Show', which is legendary. Maybe it will come out in line with 'Star Wars: Episode VII', to exploit the 'Star Wars' episode? We can hope, right? How on Earth can people not have been buying Muppets DVDs, though? What kind of world is this? Humans are such strange people.

Gloom, gloom, cast thy shadow elsewhere. 'Tis not a night for you. Maybe it's just 'long hair syndrome', curable only by the customary trip to the barber? Maybe it's an odd reaction to 'The Fifth Element'? Maybe it's too many DVDs and not enough reading? Yes, back to the books! Clear the landing ramp in the reading area, and pull the screens, for it's reading time!


Monday, 20 July 2015

Story: The Ninja of Health, III

( Part II , IV )

The Toddlingham Street Allotments were in chaos, acting as a staging area for the disaster unfolding around them. Fire engines were parked next to the closest hydrants, and their crew members hosing down the burning fronts of the facing houses. Ambulance people were handling burns cases, abrasions and panic-caused injuries, while the Army stood by on alert. The Army? Something terrible had truly happened.

The Man and Woman looked separated and moved quickly towards the triage area, expertly and effortlessly evading the police cordon by simply being elsewhere than the lines of gaze. The picked up a helmet and merged into the throng, while the Woman became so graceful as to be one with the chaos. Wherever they went, the injured people they passed looked just that bit more relieved and relaxed, and the panic eased away under their inner calmness.

While circulating, they also picked up the details of the incident that had caused the houses to catch fire and now implode. More fire crews were coming in from Smootles and Lakefield, but whether they would be in time to stop flames sweeping outward was an open question. They certainly wouldn't stop the devastation to the allotment plots, not muddied up beyond repair. A projectile of some kind had flared down from the sky, and ignited the mighty blaze. The Man and the Woman were powerless in the face of such a disaster, and contrived to help as many people as they could. Many people lived who might not have in other circumstances.

Finally, their eyes interlocking, they left the triage area and examined the impact area. The building seemed to have imploded, sending out a heat wave around it. Several sheds on the allotment had just collapsed instantly. The crater, which they looked at hurriedly as the specialists were beginning to get interested themselves, was small and deep and at the bottom was what looked like a grand giant marble, the sort that giants might have played with. The marble began to wobble in the crater.

The Man and the Woman backed away just as the wobbling of the marble grew greater and greater, and then they heard a resounding crack.

There shall be more...

Saturday, 18 July 2015


I haven't done a story in a while, which is quite the oversight. It will happen in due course. There are quite a few things in process right now, a few too many things in fact, and it's hard to juggle them all without dropping a few balls on to the floors of the padded room. Too many things. An actual student, for one, and a meeting on Tuesday for another. All we need now is an interview to complete the hat trick! It would be nice to get back to the 'Ninja of Health', or even kick off 'Diaries of a Laundry Robot' before it all evaporates out of my mind!

It's a challenge to prepare tuition content for an eight year old. There is literature available from the buildup to the PGCE tryouts, some of it good. I never thought I would get to use it! What a marvelous thing it is to get another chance! Preparation is key, and in a student going from year three to year four at primary school, the first task is to assess where they are individually. This is the good form of 'assessment', not the ritualised sacrifice of school children at the altar of measurement. Tutoring is probably the only instance where you get to actually teach. You would not believe how arbitrary the systems of assessment are in establishing 'measures' of a child's progress. Did you ever stop to wonder just how you put a number on how well someone is reading? It's a nonsense, and one that only becomes clear when you do the reading. No wonder they all seem to fall apart upon leaving the security of primary schools, the poor souls. All I know is that I learnt to read well because I had really interesting books available, and devoured them readily.

Perhaps this should have been entitled 'Stream of Consciousness, Part Fifty-One'. There are many, many posts in the Quirky Muffin which eventually transform into strings of words tapped out continuously, erratically and rapidly. It's amazing what you can do when you have fingers on the move and solitude to burn.

Preparing for a meeting can be difficult too, especially when you're just going to report a somewhat ancient status quo. The foam problem is forestalled due to technical problems and my reluctance for heavy programming, and the three-dimensional crushing problem? Well, that has the legendary 'not a number' cropping up relentlessly. Oh, square roots and negative numbers, why plague us so relentlessly? Some actual work is going to have to be done. Does anyone remember how?


Thursday, 16 July 2015


It's a lovely and simple language, a great introduction to the world of languages outside Britain, and an incredibly useful tongue to acquire. Spanish, in one of its many dialects is spoken in a large proportion of the New World in addition to Spain, after all, so if you want to go exploring Latin countries it's a prerequisite you can't pass over. Now, don't get me wrong, for I know there are more languages in Britain than just English, but will Welsh or Gaelic provide for you in countries outside the UK? Yes, there are tiny ex-colonies that use those languages, but on the whole there are languages more useful in the global communication stakes.

The plan is that this post will double up between the Quirky Muffin and my tutoring blog, at, where I was eventually going to have to explain Spanish tuition from someone with a PhD in Mathematics. Yes, it is a tough sell, but it can work! Introductory language tuition is one of the greatest parts of the tutoring experience as it can be interactive, demonstrative, and feature a far more immediate relationship with the student than many of the other subjects. Learning a language is also a process that intertwines immediately with learning mathematics, as the two processes use some shared portions of the brain, and helping one will often help the other. (This is also true for music, but please don't ask me to sing unless you're fully insured!)

TEFL training emphasises getting people to speak as much as possible and filling in the theory once the students are secure in their patterns. That attitude is fixed firmly in the circumstance where the teacher and the student do not have a common language until they have been taught English, but it does very much fit the mechanic of beginners tuition of a common second language too. Yes, you do get to grammar and rules fairly quickly, but 'getting them speaking' is very very important. Initially, it's as simple as pointing at things, saying the names, and then repeating until something has been conveyed or the whole session has ended in a carrot fencing match.

Carrot fencing match? Yes, indeed, this has become a rather unprofessional blog post, but it shall stand.


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Flip Flop

No, we're not talking about the hideous footwear. Put that out of your mind immediately. In fact, wipe it out of existence entirely if you can, and do the world a favour. That noise is horrifying, after all. This is actually going to be about the days which start badly, continue in that way, and then suddenly flip with a few good events at the very last moment to being nice. They are what I call Flip Flops.

Today, far far away from here, the first signals and photography of Pluto came through. We finally know what Pluto looks like, at least from one side. Do you think they found a way to get both sides, or does it spin too slowly? Or are these questions the ones they wanted answered themselves? It's strange to think that we still know so little about our own solar system. We have to get out there and see what happens. If we don't, then we'll collapse back down to barbarism, as the world cools to a resource-starved desert of our own making. No, that's not quite right. Let me reformulate for a moment, as for me it's not about resources but knowledge. We have to get out there and learn how the universe works, or we'll stop developing and descend back into the ooze of not caring. Ignorance and not caring are the enemies of our futures. There are already so many societies and cultures that don't care about new knowledge, merely hoarding what they already have, and defensively poking out at the grander world. There's a universe out there! We can go where none of us have gone before! Please, people of the world, care about all of us together and not just your petty nationalistic or faith groupings. Please?

Oh, that Flip Flop. It could easily be a cover for a manic episode, but it's not. In a few moments, once this post is wrapped, it will be sleepy time and not hyper time. It could have ended a terrible day, but Pluto and one last minute correction have salvaged two days of calculations, and the dreaded three dimensional extension of the thesis work lives to fight another day. Two days ago I was mentally slapping myself for not realising a two-dimensional surface would have two perpendicular tangent vector, and today... Well, it would be too technical. Suffice it to say that the project continues to go by, very quickly, and the day is saved. The next steps will, of course, be far far harder. They always are. So, the Flip Flop prevails and negates a few days of drudgery

Now there can be reading before bedtime. Reading is such fun. During the more than sixteen cumulative hours of travelling at the weekend so much reading got done that I finished the equivalent of two mid-length novels. Firstly, volume one of 'Journey to the West', secondly almost all of William Shatner's 'Star Trek Movie Memories', thirdly about half of PG Wodehouse's 'Golf Omnibus' and finally a small bite of Brahma's 'Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat'. The massive and oppressive pile of still unread short stories also continues to shrink imperceptibly. Progress is being made.


Sunday, 12 July 2015

Free Will

We can't even begin to reach the bottom of the topic of 'Free Will' in one post. It's an old question as to whether there is free will to begin with, or whether we all just blindly obey the laws of causality and the patterns built into our own neural pathways. On an even higher metaphysical level, what if there is an omnipotent being or a mysterious Destiny that awaits us all, and we are simply mechanically performing the steps that will lead us to our fates? Technically, barring the invention of time travel, we do all in reality have those preset fates, and our progress toward them is mechanical, even if it seems to be otherwise.


The reason why I wonder about free will right now is that everyone seems to be doing the same things with their lives out there in the world. It's weird. Apparently, the age old patterns of life are unchanging, and infuriatingly so. In this brave new world we seem to have weeded out all the eccentrics and free thinkers, and embraced a bland mediocrity of domestic bliss, where 'different' is very much the same as 'undesirable', and it seems rather sad to someone on the outside of it all. On the other hand, perhaps as an 'exile' from all the regular norms of society this is all just sour grapes. Who can tell.

'Sour grapes: bitterness'

A long time ago, so long that there were still dinosaurs roaming the school canteens, and before making sense was mandatory, I never thought about free will at all. Now, as people all seem to inevitably progress down the same life paths with grand dullness, it seems as if no thought goes into anything. How strange it is! Perhaps this is how people are supposed to be, and yet aren't we supposed to be free thinkers as a species or are we really just as programmed into our animalistic behaviours as every other creature on the planet? We certainly seem to be breeding out of control, just like every other species, without natural controls in the ecosystem. Are we just rabbits in the grand scheme of things? Rabbits with nuclear bombs?

It's a silly thing to even try to talk about free will, as it truly is one of those unanswerable questions. If we ever determine the existence or non-existence of a soul, then we'll know if there's consciousness apart from the purely physical structure of our brains. Then, we'll know if there's free will or simply neurons firing semi-randomly and giving that impression. Do you think we'll ever know about souls or spirits? Will we even know soon? It seems unlikely, and the knowing would actually be less interesting than the question itself. Oh, that often unsatisfying answer! We're only really happy when the answer to a question reveals a larger question! It's far more interesting and wondrous to be a principled agnostic than go around claiming to know things on faith.

Oh, humans, clinging to the same lifestyle choices en masse while simultaneously questing for even bigger questions to ask? Nuttier than fruitcakes on Mars. I wish they weren't all so disappointing.


Friday, 10 July 2015

Movie: 'Playing The Moldovans At Tennis' (2012)

Now that was much better. This second film version of a Tony Hawks book is much better than the first, 'Round Ireland With A Fridge', and that must partly be down to it being a straighter adaptation and far less fictionalised. It seems a bit strange to write that about films where Tony first hitchhikes round Ireland with a fridge in tow, and then plays and defeats all the members of the Moldovan national football team at tennis one by one, but it is true. This is a film based on a true story. This film sticks far closer to the book and is better for it, while 'Round Ireland With A Fride' feels more like a forced romantic comedy. No more shall now be said about the fridge film, as it was disappointing and this is a positive blog, and we shall talk about the tennis film.

In the book, which I haven't read recently enough for a detailed comparison, Tony Hawks is challenged to play the Moldovans by friend Arthur Smith, on the grounds that he had asserted that being good at football wasn't a sure sign of athleticism or enough skill to play tennis well. There then followed the ensuing adventure in Moldova, Northern Ireland and Israel. It's the same in the film, except Stephen Frost substitutes for Arthur Smith, who I thought was dead but is actually still alive according to Wikipedia, and of course everyone is replaced by actors except for Tony as it all happened a long time ago. Incidentally, there's a long list of people who I have thought were already dead but were actually alive for decades after; It's called the 'Nosferatu Index' and it's kept under sacred lock and key.

'Playing The Moldovans At Tennis' is best described as being gentle, thought provoking and warm. By recreating the original true story a lot of virtues are built into the film, not the least of which is restoring Tony Hawks to his real role as true life protagonist and mildly obsessed wager taker, instead of that of an actor. He was the guy who did these things for real the first time, after all! The real core of the movie is not so much about the bet, which is lightweight in nature, but his discovery of the country of Moldova and the lifestyles of the people there when he made his first journey. The comparative poverty and the attitudes and different lifestyles of his hosts and friends enliven the adventure, and enrich it, making the book and the movie both very special. On the other hand, if you have no liking for gentle narratives, you might consider it to be a lightweight piece of dull and ignorable fluff. If so, how have you managed to last so long reading the Quirky Muffin? Did you not notice that there's even a redemptive reading of 'Supergirl'??? Begone, heretic!

The overriding impression you get from this film is that Tony Hawks is a nice man. A 'jolly good egg', as they used to say, and one of the rare ones when you consider how many scandals have plagued our celebrities of late. Half the proceeds of the book and all the profits from the film go to the care centre for sick children in Moldova that he started. It's a good and solid film, and one that anyone can watch. If you liked the first two Tony Hawks books, you will like the film 'Playing The Moldovans At Tennis'.


Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Movie: 'Silver Streak' (1976)

It's difficult to write anything sensible about 'Silver Streak', as it is a primarily nonsensical film. Made during the mid-1970s it sits akwardly between two eras, wavering between comedic thriller, 'James Bond' tropes, crime caper, art fraud, gun violence, innuendo, the train motifs of 'The Lady Vanishes', and its eventual destiny as a runaway train movie. All this, and we see the emergence of the second draft version of Gene Wilder, the unlikely cinematic love god, and his comedy partnership with Richard Pryor, all set against some sumptuous Henry Mancini music. Does that pique your interest?

No claims can be made for impartiality with respect to 'Silver Streak', as it is one of my earliest movie memories. It does mark the end of Gene Wilder's moments of peak insanity, so clearly the high points of 'The Producers', 'Young Frankenstein', 'Willy Wonka' and 'Blazing Saddles', and his slide into comparative normality. Apart from that sad point, the movie is a fun romp, the likes of which were rare in number even at the time. It's also a clear relation to 'Foul Play', which is another fascinating oddity of the comedic thriller fuzzy subset of films and shares a lot of the creative power houses at its core.

The film revolves around the chance romantic encounter between Gene Wilder's George Caldwell and Jill Clayburgh's Hilly Burns, his apparent witnessing of her boss's murder off the side of the eponymous train as they journey to Chicago, the surrounding intrigue, his being ejected from the train and rejoining three (!) separate times, and the eventual showdown between his teamup with Richard Pryor's criminal Grover Muldoon and the big bad villain Patrick McGoohan as Roger Devereau. That's a lot of names to remember, but it's also a classical list of roguish eccentric actors. Patrick McGoohan alone sends the oddness factor through the roof, as he did in every thing in which he appeared. The legacy of 'The Prisoner' never left McGoohan, no matter how he tried. He was always an odd, odd presence. go look at his 1970s episodes of 'Columbo' if you doubt this self-evident fact!

'Silver Streak' is good, no matter how it might read as a mess from what I've written already. It's cast is glorious, featuring Ned Beatty, Ray Walston, Richard Kiel and Clifton James in small parts, and Mancini's music is hypnotically locomotive in places. Henry Mancini seems to have become an overlooked composer now, a man who never existed, but he did make some marvelous scores. It wasn't all 'Pink Panther' movies and 'Peter Gunn'. The wobbling between genres and movie types might get a little confusing but the film comes from a time when the medium wasn't quite so beholden to fitting into any one box and could be slightly more flexible and creative. The only real disappointment is in the ultimate collapse down to a fairly conventional finale and climax, that any old film could have accomplished. Such is the trap requirement that so many films fall into when trying to wrap up and conclude. 'Why wrap up at all?', I sometimes wonder. 'Why?'

Oh, and that's 'Jaws' from the 70s Bond films. Yes, the man did get around! See also: 'The Wild Wild West'.


Monday, 6 July 2015

Lost In Translation

Learning another language is hard. I've done it before. Even just relearning French is difficult. Spanish was easy, for its simplicity if nothing else, but French has some mysterious road block in its very structure that makes it... perplexing. It might be the English-French combination more than the language itself. Still, practice can only improve the situation, which is where the virtue of having penpals is truly wonderful.

This is going to be one of the rare plugs to make it into the text of the Quirky Muffin, but for learning languages and obtaining penpals with whom to exchange languages, there is absolutely no part of the Internet more useful than My Language Exchange. Not only did I start talking to one of my oldest friends on My Language Exchange, but over recent years I have practiced my French and Spanish with four or five different people, and it has helped. A lot. It's nice to find an inexpensive and helpful service from time to time. They're very rare!

It's a lonely life out here in the rural hinterlands. Having penpals can help a lot, and backing that up with a language exchange can even help you in the longer term. How many polyglots are there in this country, truly? Not that many, especially not from the native stock. It can only help to become fluent in other languages, and finding someone to speak to is the first step, and the second step, and so on. Also, it's fun, even in the nightmarish days of trying to write at length for the first time.

Some people think you can learn languages (and programming, and everything else) from a book. That's not true. You really need to dig in and get your hands dirty: Write e-mails, talk, mess up and make mistakes. Here's hoping French will work out this time!


Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Covering Letter

It's a peril that can not be avoided. No-one goes through life only having had one job from graduation to retirement. You've got to apply for jobs, and what happens when you do that? The unalterable and inevitable ordeal is that of writing good and hopefully accurate things about yourself. I say 'hopefully' because there are many people who miss the 'accurate' part of this equation, and exaggerate (or lie through their teeth) as much as possible. The covering letter and the supporting statement are the curses of people who can't quite stand being less than one hundred per-cent honest, in that the process of writing reveals the applicant's own self-perceived inadequacies.

The problem is that if you're obsessed with the ethical side of life, then you are faced fully with the knowledge that the sin of omission is just as much a deception as the sin of commission. If you leave out the things you don't want people to know, it's still deceiving. Yes, people say it's okay to overstate and exaggerate a little on a CV, to 'massage the truth' a little, but it always feels wrong. This is the curse of the occasionally compulsive truthteller, that lost soul whose only alternative is not to reply at all to the nastiest of questions. Part of the battle for us pitiable souls is that we don't believe the good things we could be writing about ourselves, good things which could often be correct.

Oh, why does job hunting have to be so difficult? You would think a PhD would knock down doors, but somehow nothing quite works. It's not the qualification's fault, but that of the lack of confidence behind it. Sometimes it's wrong to not hype up your accomplishments, because it's your own lack of confidence that is making them seem small. The cure for a lack of confidence is the hardest one of all: You have find something you can do, do well, and do it until your confidence is better than it was. If you can't find that thing, then you have to keep looking. You might get lucky and find it, or you might not, but why not try? Big words, and hypocritical ones, but maybe useful.

Blast, no more time for writing this today. More covering letters await, as does a letter in Spanish, a much delayed missive. In the next few days there will be masses of computations, many correspondences, job applications galore, a mass of TEFL online content to do, and a much delayed podcast edit. Watch, imaginary readers, and experience the descent into fevered madness from overwork. All that, and a post on the movie 'The Hot Rock'. Gosh, what work it is to keep up with the hobbies!


Thursday, 2 July 2015


It's a relief to have finally driven through the finale for 'Oneiromancy', even if it is slightly bodged. Yes, it is bodged, or cowboyed, or finished at all costs, but that will be fixed eventually. Maybe. The curse of the serial story is that tone goes up and down like a yo-yo, massive pieces of narrative get left out as ideas strike you, and then strings of episodes go by while you wait for the next inspiration and fix the previous holes. These are all things that are potentially dealt with in the 'fix-up', when the fix-up finally happens of course. The list of waiting fix-ups is getting longer, and longer, and longer...

A 'fix-up', and I know I've written about this before, is a procedure used a lot back in the golden age of fiction, where serialised stories and sometimes entirely separate short stories were mashed together into novel form to add books to a publisher's and an author's catalogue. My favourite examples are, I think, the two Dashiell Hammett novels 'Red Harvest' and 'The Dain Curse', which are great fix-ups both for the finished product and for the obviousness of their natures as fix-ups. That 'fix-up' quality is worn on the sleeve somehow, which is refreshing. In the purest sense of an already muddied term, my serialised stories won't be fixed-up exactly, but it will be similar.

What stories need to be mushed together so far? There's the first one, 'Night Trials', which was a troubled write but a good first attempt at a serial blog story. Then there is the first phase of 'Triangles', which was a much better beginning concept, and after that 'The Disappearance'. 'The Disappearance' was based on something so goofy that I'll love it forever, the concept of the plain chocolate digestive detective. Ah, such a rocky roof of prose over a goofy premise. After that? The first phase of the high concept 'Wordspace' and then the just finished 'Oneiromancy'. Taken together, and ignoring my own ability, or lack of it, for producing the stories, that's an impressive list of ideas. A science fiction Western before I'd ever heard of 'Brisco County jr' or 'The Wild Wild West', a parallel universe story based in Aberystwyth, a time travel detective story based around biscuits, a story set in a world where all the characters are literally words and the landscape build on subtext, and an adventure in the collective unconscious. What a set!

Gosh, they really are very slow to identify crackpots, aren't they? If only relief could extend to the mathematical part of my activities, but it doesn't quite yet. Maybe, given time...