Saturday, 23 July 2016

Galactic

The word 'galactic' is inextricably bound up in the original idea of the Milky Way. Our galaxy was thought to be the only galaxy in existence for a long time, and as a result 'galaxy' is a very milky direct translation. Galactic doesn't just describe things that relate to galaxies, but also a generally milky nature. That's right, whenever you describe anything in terms of the galaxy, then you're just as equally saying they came from a dairy farm! It's amazing what you can find on that Phrontistery site...

Oh, our marvellous galaxy, what a wonderful thing to think about. A massive swirl of stars spiralling out from its cosmic core. What might it look like from the outside? Is it really like the picture of Andromeda we normally use to represent the Milky Way? What imagery to use in naming the galaxy! What on Earth is in that cosmic core, anyway?

Can you imagine what it must have been like, in the time of the ancient Greeks? Can you imagine a land with so little light pollution that you could see the great and dim band of concentrated stars that form the galactic plane, and to call that vast whiteness the 'Milky Circle', which would be translated later into the 'Milky Way'? Throughout history, we have kept that name alive in Europe, while other equally lyrical names emerged from the rest of the world. In China, they called it the Silver Way, while in Georgia the galaxy is called 'The Deer Jump', and in Thailand it has the enigmatic 'Way Of The White Elephant'. Can you imagine such a scope for imagination?

Perhaps our blindness to the galaxy is one of the reasons that exploration has faltered in the twenty-first century. We can barely see the stars now, and so we don't remember they're out there, waiting for the people to go and see them before the end of the universe. We'll have to make some advances, though, and invent most of the technology seen in 'Star Trek' to do it. Who knows? Perhaps there will be other people there, taking a look of their own?

The stars are still there, if you look for them. And they remain more than a little milky.

O.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Board Game: 'Robo Rally' (1994)

It's a great game indeed that makes it into the pages of the Quirky Muffin. This time, the game in question is 'Robo Rally', the programming game that sees you setting out sequences of actions to guide your robot from A to B to C, only for unforeseen circumstances to send it careening from spinner to conveyor belt to gaping pit instead. It's a great game, and one which can definitely be classified in the same way as 'Carcassonne', 'Ticket To Ride' and 'Tales of the Arabian Nights', as the perfect encapsulation of a mechanic. 'Carcassonne' is the archetypal tile laying game, 'Ticket To Ride' embodies set collection and pushing your luck, and 'Tales' is the perfect realisation of storytelling and reading. In its place, 'Robo Rally' is the ultimate in programming and mayhem. I do love an archetypal game!

Now, don't be put off by the idea of a 'programming' game, as it's not really what you think. At the beginning of each round, you choose the five actions that your robot will make, in order, as will every other player, aiming to get to the next check-point on the map. The ultimate goal is to reach the finish line first and win the race. There may be collisions, laser accidents, falls into pits, spins on the turntables or even misadventures on the conveyor belts of doom! There is no knowing beforehand what will go wrong or what you have forgotten, and once you set off there is no going back. It's a wonderful game experience.

It can also be an odd experience, though, if you don't follow the advice of the illustrious Tom Vasel of the Dice Tower. He does sometimes know what he's talking about, especially when it comes to throwing out badly conceived rules. To play 'Robo Rally' well, you have to ditch the 'three lives' aspect, build small and tight courses of no more than three or four checkpoints, and perhaps even remove the pre-inflicted damage to replacement robots. Also, to avoid a lot of fuss, get some eight-sided dice to monitor player progress instead of fiddling with the tiny tiles! If you do all that, and don't take it too seriously, then a great game is there to be enjoyed.

A programming board game... Who would have thought that would be good? Who would have thought that forgetting to include the motion of a turntable would wreak such havoc, or that that tiny little pit would be so hard to avoid after the conveyor belt makes your plans just a little 'kaka'?

O.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Eirenism

The great thing about a weekend away, and a cumulative twelve hours on the coach, is that your mind clears completely of the comparatively trivial things that normally get in the way. Yes, thought occurs in between compulsive page turning of 'No Name' or Mark Twain's 'Joan of Arc', but what kind of thought? It's hard to say, as it drifts away with the miles.

Ah, Quirky Muffin, what are we to do now? Leisure time is over once again, and the gruelling slog that is Summer is upon us, complete with a thoroughly unpleasant heat wave, that threatens to convert the whole country into a sweaty mess. The endless murk and cloud have departed, and for what? Sunburn and a desperate desire to find a cool cave and shelter there for the next three to six years? You can never be too careful.

Perhaps we could now, after a long absence, dip into the Phrontistery once again and review some of the rarer words that don't get used any more. Perusing under the letter 'E', a particular and topical example soon pops out from the others:

eirenism: peaceful state of mind.

Yes, extended coach trips are conducice to eirenisms when you least expect them, except in the most extreme of circumstances. Sometimes, when packed in with too many items in a sweltering heat, and with elbows poking into your ribs, other states of mind might be far more likely! When you think about it, tranquility is one of the most prized and rare states of the modern age, and one often thrown away in the endless quest for things unowned. Maybe we should work toward some form of eirenism instead? Good grief, I hope there's not some implication to the word that I know nothing about...

Runner-up words for the day are the following, with a special emphasis on 'empleomania'. Aren't rare words wonderful and enchanting?

eclipsareon: astronomical toy used to show phenomena of solar and lunar eclipses.
empleomania: mania for holding public office.
euphonism: custom of using pleasing sounding words.

Let's all try to relax, spin and not to swelter. The horrific Summer of news is now over, and we can get back to being deeply decadent. Aaaaahhh... 

O.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Is The Storm Over?

An interruption is coming, as the Quirky Muffin goes down for a long weekend. Yes, it is time to revisit Beeston once again, that grand little town buried in the urban tentacles of the city of Nottingham. It's a lovely little place, packed full of the most positive memories of that postgraduate portion of life. How long ago it seems... Ahem. Putting the false nostalgia to one side, the Quirky Muffin will reopen in the middle of next week, with twelve hours of travel musings to serve as vital blogging fuel. As always, there might be cover posts, if time appears, but expect them not.

The times, they are a changing. It has been a crazy time for domestic politics, so crazy in fact that even the Trump is being drowned out. However, politics is boring, so let us move on to something else. It's hard to remember how this worked back before the bizarre events of 2016 began galloping all over real life. What on Earth happened to the interesting word of the week? What happened to just spinning in place, or air conducting to Jerry Goldsmith music? If the whole readership of this blog didn't consist of web robots, three Belgian waffle makers in Pittsburgh, and a goldfish called Ivan, such a lapse would be unforgivable! As it is, Ivan probably won't notice a difference.

It will be nice to stop worrying about things quite so much, and get back to being moderately silly instead. Yes, moderate silliness is the target tone here, as befits someone who writes stories about ninjas of health, alternate dimensional versions of Aberystwyth, and whole time space continua made out of words. It's time, dear readers from the Phantom Zone, to take the bung out of the bottle and see what words flow. Yes, the worries can stop, and the fingertips can be wafted through the air to feel the currents. The giant pencils can be unleashed for air conducting, and most of all it is time to spin for no reason.

My, 'Garfield and Friends' was a good show. How on Earth did they pull that off for one hundred and twenty one episodes, and three itmes that many segments?

O.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Story: The Ninja of Health, XII

( Part XI , XIII )

The interior or Crane and Nelson's was what you might expect from a maritime store. There were dinghies, ropes, sails, compasses, items so specialised that they will remain nameless, and a marvelous antique ship's wheel stood proudly amongst other valuables in the expensive collectors' area of the store. The Man walked over to it, and held on to it like a dear friend. "Would you ever actually sell this, if someone came up with the extortionate price?" He asked the Oracle.

"Two people offer to buy it every week, usually. I always tell them it's been reserved by someone else. People who come back look at me quizzically and ask again. The wheel remains here." The seer of things to come patted the wheel affectionately. "You can't see the direction of the future if you don't know your own direction." Then, he led them into the back area of the store, and up some steps.

Beyond a perfectly plain white wooden door, lay the Oracle's Room of Seeing. It was a perfectly normal looking room, in fact, except for a simple collapsible cards table, and a few books on fishing on the single bookcase. There were three foldable chairs leaning against one wall, and the Oracle pulled one off for himself.

"Don't you want to know why we've come?" Asked the Woman.

"No, it will only complicate what I have to do. I know already that there has been an incursion from elsewhere, and that you have been contacted. That is more than enough context."

"You seem to have changed your method a little..." Noted the Man, who was beyond curious. No water pool this time, and not even a chalk pile!"

"I've been experimenting with weaves, actually. He held up a small woven multicoloured tablecloth and threw it on the table haphazardly. Then, seated on the little folding chair, he closed his eyes and put his hands on the tablecloth. The two visitors sat down as well and watched, confused. It all became a lot clearer when the weave began to change in front of their eyes. Colours moved back and forth, crossed over, jumbled, and mixed until finally a confused woven picture was visible on the cloth, as complete as it could be under the circumstances.

"What could it possibly mean?" Wondered the Woman.

The Oracle didn't reply. He was fast asleep.

More? Of course there will be more!

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Needle And Thread

The life of an erratic and resigned bachelor holds many extra chores, not the least of which is that you have to incorporate many many more talents within yourself to get things done. There is no backup in the usual sense, so everything broken and everything ripped ends up in the hands of... yourself! It doesn't matter how slow you might be with a needle, nor how many hours a simple job might last! Pyjamas must be fixed, with gusto, and all while endless episodes flash by on the nearby television intended to stop a total nervous breakdown.

In past eras, a history with needlework would have been something for a red blooded man to keep secret, it being not at all manly in the conventional old way of thinking. There is a history, though. You see, if you didn't feel confident doing woodwork or metalwork in design and technology at school, there weren't that many options left. Ultimately, needlework would be the safest option, despite the multitude of sharp pointy metal things. Somewhere around here, a very underwhelming cloth wallet-like object might still lurk. Oh, the horror.

In a week of minimal workload, you end up doing all the chores that have been piling up forever. Fixed pyjamas? Check. Covers for those archive DVDs filled with old files and media? Yup. Typing up of stories in LaTeX? Affirmative! It all gets done, and takes up far too much time. Why on Earth should tying knots in cotton thread be so difficult? Why? Is it a deliberate ploy? Is it related to a knot-tying deficiency, which mainly manifests in having to repeatedly re-tie shoelaces with unprecedented frequency? Is it a conspiracy foisted upon us by the alien inventors of polyester, even now plotting their next outrage from their base on the dark side of the Moon?

It's useful to be able to handle a needle. Men of the world, be not afraid to admit your skills! Skills are manly! Even sponge juggling and pasta making! Unite unite!

Here ends the silliness, except to make a recommendation for the Old Time Radio newbies out there: Check out 'Escape!'. Based on a few episodes, it was amazingly good!

O.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Book and Film: 'The Thin Man' (both 1934), novel by Dashiell Hammett

It's a great book, and a good film. It would be a great film too, but the stars enter just a little too late, and as a result the opening is a bit underwhelming. What are we talking about? What? You didn't read the title? Shame on you, gentle readers of the Quirky Muffin! It's 'The Thin Man' of course! Although the book came out in 1934, this classic story, the last full length novel written by the master Dashiell Hammett, was originally serialised in 1933 so it does predate the movie significantly. The written and screen versions didn't just appear one day, simultaneously, in a basket labelled 'utter class'.

To begin with the novel, the more complex version of the story, we see a fascinating diversion of Hammett's usual style to something closer to a traditional murder mystery, and away from the more familiar stories you might expect from the ersatz originator of the hard-boiled detective story. Dashiell Hammett could write like no other, though, and the story is permeated by his distinctive style. Instead of a tale of the anonymous 'Continental Op' detective, or cynical private eye Sam Spade, or even ambiguous union-man/gangster Ned Beaumont, we get the gleefully retired (due to marriage) private eye Nick Charles and his wife Nora, heir to a magnificent amount of money. The concept of a happy, albeit apparently constantly sozzled, detective is quite a new one. The story is a little labyrinthine, but is essentially a murder case mixed with a massive shaggy dog story, and more smart dialogue than you would find in a dozen novels by any other writer. It begins, and then rolls irresistibly to its conclusion, which will not be spoiled here.

The movie version is a lot simpler than the original prose, and has a lot of the discussions and related events that are at the core of the story instead shoved into what is effectively a prologue, before the advent of Nick and Nora Charles, the heroes and impossibly charming protagonists. It seems utterly unbelievable now that the divine Myrna Loy and impeccable William Powell would have been unknown to me before these 'Thin Man' movies, and it seems even ridiculous that any actress would ever even compare to that former legend. She is the epitome of a female movie star, and more shall not be said. Once Loy and Powell show up, with their indomitable pooch sidekick, the film catches fire. Yes, it may be a simpler version of the story, with a whole subplot excised completely, but the casting allows a wonderful actor-based equivalent to the hard-boiled prose of the written word. The film also manages to conceal the central novelty of the story far more effectively than the story by not elaborating around it quite so much, and introduces the old staple of bringing all the suspects together for the denouement. At least, I assume it was an old staple. In 1934, movies were still comparatively new, after all. In novels, many tropes and clich├ęs had been established, but what about in the movies? I bet they didn't drag in all the suspects under police coercion, at least, for a sit down dinner?

The novel is excellent, and should be read by everyone. The film is great, but you should check your tolerance for old black and white movies first. I loved it, but some people might balk at the lack of colour and dumb action sequences. Of course, there is always the mighty attraction of Astar the dog to drag in the more reluctant people, those philistines who care not for the grace of Loy or the charisma of Powell. Good grief, William Powell could deliver a line like no other. He was supposedly the model for Don Adams' delivery as Max in 'Get Smart' and Inspector Gadget, although the evidence isn't conclusive. Again, how could this writer be unaware of these two beforehand?

'The Thin Man', a classic in prose, and a wonder on the screen. In fact, it was such a wonder that it spawned five more movies in a series that spanned more than ten years, which is a testament to a couple that some would call one of the best screen romances in all of film. Those people wouldn't be wrong.

O.