9 of Hearts: An Introduction to Mathematics.

I do a lot of mathematics in my everyday life. Some of that is due to me doing a climate science PhD, which requires me to be able to handle lots of data, some of it is due to me doing programming and maths problems in my spare time, but a lot of it I think is just part of living in the modern world. Finances are an obvious example, particularly things like taxes and interest that require an understanding of percentages. Another is the constant barrage of statistics and studies that we are surrounded with. Being able to, if not carry out the statistical analysis itself, but at least understand how one would do it can help you navigate the data and hopefully avoid those trying to pull one over on you using manipulated statistical data.

Maths pops up everywhere, but I encounter a lot of adults who are either convinced they can’t do it, or are even afraid of maths. Lots of people have that one bit of mathematics, perhaps percentages or algebra or probability that they could never understand, and that is often caught up in childhood memories of feeling humiliated by not being able to do maths, or not having it explained in a way they can understand, or memories of trying to learn times tables by rote. There’s a lot of different ways that maths as taught in early years can not stick. To make matters worse, maths is cumulative, that is, more advanced concepts use and combine earlier tools and ideas, so if you struggle with those, then later concepts will be an even harder struggle.

Given this, I was thinking about how you might go about explaining basic maths in a comprehensive and non-judgemental manner, trying to take into account common issues with learning maths.

First of all, I think the most important thing to do is to remove as many of the psychological issues with learning maths as possible. A big factor here is the fear of failure, of being judged for not understanding maths, and feeling that “well, I’m not ever going to get it”. Like a video game, where a failure just results in a “Continue?” screen, this would need to be a place where you can get things wrong without feeling terrible about yourself. This also includes avoiding certain stress causers such as high speed mental maths and rote learning multiplication tables, or at least finding a way to make these less unpleasant, whether that’s by encouraging learning through repeated practice or just acknowledging that we live in the modern age and if you do understand how to do them, you can just use a calculator.

Another factor here is giving reasons for why we’d want to do this piece of mathematics, linking it into contexts that people will already understand. If a piece of maths doesn’t directly tie into a real world context, then we need to explain why we are looking at it, and what it leads into.

I think also making this connectivity between different areas of maths clear is important as well. For practical reasons, we are taught maths in discreet sections; here is algebra, here is shape and space, here are numbers. Explaining how all of these can be linked together can often be a key for understanding them, since it lets you address a confusing problem through the lens of something you might already understand.

On a practical level, there are two ways to go about a course aiming for this. One is to be extremely specific; reaching out to individuals with particular problems about maths and working with them. While this is a very good way to handle it for those individuals it would be very work intensive, and I think for an internet based course we’d want to go to the complete opposite end of the scale, at least at first. This is what I mean by comprehensive: it would need to cover as many different ways of learning and understanding maths as possible, essentially trying to solve problems that individuals have by solving every problem we can at once. Of course, the range of issues people may have is pretty wide: some people may only struggle with say, division (a common problem I’ve heard when discussing mathematics with people), while others might find the entire subject just a slippery mess, numbers jumping around the place, so it would need to be navigable enough for the first group to get to the part they need, while complete enough to cover all the ground the second group may want, and it must do this without condescending to or dropping the morale of either group.

Furthermore, particularly for the most basic parts, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, we’d want to cover all the different methods. People often have one particular method of solving these, so explaining how all the different methods come to the same answer and might have different uses is important. Finally, if you are a parent of a young child learning this stuff, they might be being taught a very different method to how you were, so helping those parents understand what their children are being taught is vital.

For this project, I am picturing a systematic series of articles and/or youtube videos, explaining concepts of mathematics with an underlying structure between the articles/videos so we can show how it all links together, and with frequent real world examples of the mathematics, would fit this.

Who would the target audience be? Not young children learning this for the first time I think; the practical examples would be created with things like taxes in mind, that kids learning them for the first time wouldn’t get. I am aware that creating a series defined as being “Mathematics for adults who hate mathematics” isn’t a killer pitch, but I think there are enough people who struggle with a particular part of maths, but want to improve, that such a creation would be worth it.

Obviously there’s a lot of work to be done here. Creating curriculum for mathematics is, of course, a full time job. But I think it this is something I can do, collecting resources and creating lessons that will hopefully help at least someone with that bit of mathematics that has slipping through their fingers for years.

If you have a particular issue you’d want covered, please comment below and discuss whatever issues you may have, or if you have ideas on how to go about doing this, I’d love to hear them!

3 of Hearts: 4:17 am April 2nd

The time in the title is accurate as of when I start typing this.

I suffer from depression and anxiety, and tonight I’m awake at a silly time in the morning in no state to try to sleep, so I guess, given that at least here in the UK April’s Fools day has come and gone, I might look at the various ways that bits of media I’ve followed have decided to celebrate it this year.

There’s two major trends I think are worth looking at. The first is simply the existence of Patreon, a site that encourages a monthly release schedule by it’s very nature. A lot of creators drop their work at the end of one month and the start of another because that’s the deadline if you are using a monthly payment model. Patreon as a site is interesting for me partially because it’s an alternative to the standard method of monitization online, advertising, and partially because it has become another example of a business model that is highly sustainable but not one that’s going to enjoy repeated massive growth which is being torn apart by the demands for constant, exponential growth in the market, but that’s for a time that isn’t stupid o’clock in the morning. For our purposes, the position of April Fools at the beginning of the month simply fits in neatly with this existing timeline, encouraging material that is not simply a prank but is also worthy content in and of itself.

The second trend is the pushbacks against cruel pranks. Online content creators often rely on their own brand, and being unpleasant, even for a temporary joke, will reflect on that brand. Furthermore, the existence of this brand allows for an easy April Fool’s joke by pretending to massively change your brand, using it as a way to explore a style or a topic that you wouldn’t usually touch.

Anyway here’s a top…whatever list of April Fool’s for this year. I’m not even gonna edit that once I’ve finished and know how many there are.

1.) “Folding Ideas Pivots To Fortnite”, on Folding Ideas, Dan Olsen’s youtube channel, isn’t really an April Fool’s video. It sort of dabbles with it at the start, but that only really goes as far as the first five to ten minutes, which is a set up for the final idea about the use of Fortnite as a creative platform, and how it doesn’t really work. I don’t know whether I’d describe it as a pretend April Fools joke, or an April Fools joke where the joke is that you expect an April Fools joke and get instead a discussion on the game Fortnite and how it manipulates players to make money.

2.) A lot of larger corporations and brands go for the “Here’s a product we’d never actually create” April Fools. A stand out this year is probably a tweet from the official Doom account, crossing the violent demon killing shooter with Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting, a program that like Mr Rogers I have never seen but that a lot of American internet users tell me is super wholesome. Ross’ aesthetic, though simple, is iconic enough that even I got it immediately, but this one kind of sticks out because Bob Ross famously became the chill, laid back painter in the show because he was fed up of being a drill Sargent in the military, a job that involves shouting and being unpleasant, making the use of the aesthetic here either be a wink to his history, a humorous juxtaposition between Doom the ultra violent game and the laid back show (probably the intended reading), or kind of an awkward joke dragging the aesthetic of the show back towards the militarisation that Ross created it to escape from. I’m too sleepy to say which.

3.) There’s one advert that I saw which appeared to actually be a product that just happened to come out on April First, so it had to make clear “no this is real, we just had to do it now”. But I can’t remember what it is and Facebook isn’t showing me that specific ad again.

4.) In the “Jokes that aren’t really jokes” category, the insect loving Bogleech wrote a review of creatures called Squisherz, in a similar vein to his reviews of Pokemon and Digimon. The framing of the essay is that Squisherz is a forgotten ‘mon franchise contemporaneous of the former two, and the blog post makes repeated references to the show and more specifically the fandom reaction to it. Halfway through I was getting into it as a parody of pokemon in particular, assuming that Bogleech himself had designed the creatures. I was enjoying it, but some of the gushing about the bits of the designs he loves got a bit weird assuming he made them. Like how the book of the Never Ending Story takes a detour to talk about how fantastic the main character, and thus the author’s, imagination is once he starts to remake the world, it was getting tiresome.

Then at the end, he reveals that the joke was actually entirely different. Squisherz was designed by an artist friend of his for a game called Hyperspace Outlaw, and the piece ends with shout outs slash advertisements for the original creator. It kind of feels like the opposite to Folding Idea’s video; rather that examining how a piece of work is advertised and monitized, it is an advert itself, although yes there is a difference between an indie game on itch.io and what Fortnite has become.

5.) The most depressing April Fool’s joke this year comes from the webcomic Whomp!. The main character, a somewhat parody version of the writer Ronnie, is shown to have lost weight, changed out his colourful shirts for a simple beige pair, and now has a sunny, optimistic outlook on life.

Somehow, despite Whomp being regularly depressing, this is the most upsetting portrayl of Ronnie for me. I should probably ask why.

EDIT: So the next strip after that is the same but with thin Ronnie bleeding from the eyes and covered with glitches. So…make this a multi-part joke, getting steadily darker?

Anyway, that’s my list. If I remember I’ll come back when I’m awake and edit in some links. Happy April Wise day everyone.

5 of Hearts: Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu 32 card pick up.

((Note: X card pick up posts are collections of points I didn’t feel I could, or didn’t want to work into a full article. These tend to just be added as I think of the points, and are not usually edited. I may revisit some of these points later, but for now, this is where they live.))

1.) Somehow I didn’t realise that Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu is actually a remake of Pokemon Yellow, not just Gen 1 in general, with a partner who is constantly out of their ball, Pokemon following you, different distributions of Pokemon habitats ect.

2.) Let’s Go Eevee would appear to be logical, given that Blue’s starter in Yellow was Eevee, but according to this interview another choice was Let’s Go Psyduck.

3.) Let’s Go Psyduck would have been absolutely amazing.

4.) Coming back to the rival, I actually really like Trace, the new rival. He’s the same “friendly rival” character we’ve had for a while, but I just found him really pleasant. When I first played it, Blue tended to annoy me because I felt like he kept popping up right when my team was damaged. He didn’t feel like a rival so much as a bully who waited for me to be weakened. Trace just seems genuinely excited to see me and see how much I’d grown every time, and I liked how he adopted Cubone too. He felt like a rival in the sense of actually wanting me to get stronger, not just seeing me as an obstacle.

5.) Blue is here too! And I also really liked how he was written. He felt very much like a teenager talking to kids who they genuinely like. He was snarky, but I liked how he was handled a lot.

6.) GREEN! GREEN IS HERE! I got really excited when she sent out a Clefairy and then Blastoise, since I thought she might be using her Pokemon Adventures team, but alas no. Still great to see her, and great to see her being super cheeky. *gets hit in the face by a Pokeball).

7.) I haven’t encountered Red yet. I think I haven’t beaten enough Master Trainers.

8.) Speaking of Master Trainers, I was disappointed that you only got a title from beating them. Raising a pokemon to beat theirs is hard and I at least wanted some Pokemon specific candies.

9.) I haven’t beaten one multiple times so I dunno if we get more rewards then.

10.) I like being able to battle the Gym Leaders once a day. I don’t like re-navigating Sabrina’s gym. Please just make the teleporter directly to her active?

11.) I’d forgotten how limited the range of Pokemon in a lot of the areas were with just the gen 1 Pokemon available, and this was after they got rid of the safari zone.

12.) I like that they got rid of the safari zone, it gives more variety elsewhere, and the catching mechanics are basically just the safari zone anyway.

13.) The controls are a bit awkward. My hands are a bit too big for the joy cons by themselves so I use them attached to the Switch, but moving the whole thing around to catch mons is tedious and I feel that it would be really bad for people with less range of movement in their arms.

14.) I haven’t become a Sandslash Master yet despite using two of them in my team (one Kanto, one Alolan). I feel like this is an issue.

15.) I love both my Sandslash.

16.) I was amazed at how quickly I got the Pokedex together compared to other games and the last times I played Kanto based games. I think that’s a mix of the game putting way more focus on catching, me being better at the game, and it not repeatedly only having one way to get a pokemon

17.) I love that Farfetch’d was an only one per game in the original gen 1 games. Farfetch’d. That ultra powerful monster.

Farfetch’d.

18.) YOU CAN RIDE A RAPIDASH

19.) I have a Rapidash on my main team.

20.) YOU CAN ALSO RIDE STARMIE

21.) I traded out my Primape for a Starmie around Fushia City, since Primape was just…not doing enough on the team.

22.) I’d be really curious to see a Pokemon Let’s Go competitive meta. It has the pokedex and sort of the move limitations of the original generation, but with a lot of the particular oddities about Gen 1 removed. I bet Tauros wouldn’t be the top Pokemon, and I wonder if fighting types might get a look in with more anti-psychic moves.

23.) I haven’t been able to find any fishing rods in the game, so I feel that water types, other than Krabbys and the Squirtle you get in Vermillion, come in really late in the game.

24.) Post-game the Pokemon in Cerulean cave lean heavily towards giving defence and special defence candies. I’m finding it difficult to get smart candies for my Venomoth’s special attack.

25.) I LOVE MY VENOMOTH

26.) I’m not really fond of the secret technique ideas. I get the point, but I think it’s a bit like the riding pokemon in Sun/Moon. I kind of feel like my favourite way of handling it would be to return HMs as a way to teach Pokemon any secret technique they can learn, but not have them count as actual moves. They’d be like, extra abilities.

27.) I think I just don’t like how secret techniques are supposed to be learnt by humans? I’ve always really liked the idea of exploring with Pokemon and having all the exploration techniques you used to teach Pokemon being supposed to be learnt by humans feels like it’s removing the magic somehow. I dunno.

28.) I do really love my Pikachu partner though.

29.) Overall, I really enjoy Let’s Go. It streamlines a lot of the extra bits, puts more emphasising on catching, and it is nice to return to Kanto again and really feel like Game Freak has learnt something from the last two decades and more.

30.) And of course, it is great to see Jessie and James back in a game, though I do wish Meowth talked.

31.) This isn’t so much an actual point, I just forgot to link back to my earlier post on the games and wanted to do it here.

32.) I STILL FEEL ROBBED BY THE LACK OF POKEMON LET’S GO PSYDUCK.

4 of Hearts: A short (spoiler filled) discussion of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (henceforth TTGL) is a 2007 anime created by the studio Gainax, most well known for the earlier anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Having written this piece I realise that most of it kind of assumes you have already seen Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, hence why this is a discussion not a review. Honestly I could just link to or paraphrase the Wikipedia article on the series to describe the plot but I’ve already put the 4 of Hearts up there and I don’t wanna spend that much more effort on this piece.

One of the things I have always enjoyed is stories willing to just take their premises and run with it, and TTGL is definitely in that category. It is a series that is willing to just keep accelerating, relying on the vague notion of “spiral power” to just bypass the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It is a anime that relies heavily on spectacle and bombast, and that has enough moments in which that works wonderfully that I could fairly easily just list them here as “THE TOP 5 MOST OVER THE TOP MOMENTS IN GURREN LAGANN”, but I don’t think that would be fair. These are not the only good moments of the series, and, since we’re being fair in the sense that means honest and complete, there are plenty of things in the series that just don’t work.

That being said, the bombastic scenes are an important part of the series and it wouldn’t be fair to not mention them here. Kamina stealing a mecha by just climbing into the cockpit and kicking out the pilot, the capture of the giant battleship mecha Dai-Gurren, the defeat of Guama, the siege of Teppelin and the subsequent duel with Lordgenome that is the finale of the first act. Then in the second arc we have Yoko’s defeat of two mecha while on foot, the spontaneous creation of a wormhole to punch a guy out of shooting himself, the formation of Arc Gurren Lagann, Super Galaxy Gurren Lagann and the titular Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the latter leading into a finale that involves mechas so large they use galaxies as throwing stars against each other. That is quite a lot of iconic moments for a series only 27 episodes long. The animation and the soundtrack carry these well; special shout-outs to the tracks “Pierce the Heavens with Your XXXX” (No I don’t know why it is called that, considering that the XXXX in question is a drill) and “Libera Me From Hell”, a song that takes the most over the top elements of opera and rap and slams them together.

The series also has excellent main villains in the form of Lordgenome and the Anti-spiral. Both have very understandable motives and are powerful enough to enable the ridiculous, fantastic spectacles I mention above.

The final bit of the series that work for me is the emotional core of Simon and Kamina. Kamina in particular is used wonderfully in the short time he remains in the story, and is a surprisingly deep character. While he is most recognised for his massively over the top personality and impulsive actions, my favourite moment for him is the quiet moment he has with Yoko where he explains that he views himself as essentially a cheerleader and source of courage for the far more reliable Simon. Simon’s character arc after his death is essentially Simon coming to realise this for himself, and moving on from his need for Kamina to motivate him, culminating in a very understated moment in one of the final episodes where Kamina’s ghost notes that Simon has finally grown taller than him.

That’s quite a lot of good stuff to write about. If I felt like it I could probably go off on a thousand word tangent discussing how the universe in TTGL, via the mechanic of Spiral Power, responds to depression and feelings of hopelessness verses determination on a level that is literally built into the world, and linking that to the earlier series Evangelion and my own mental health problems.

(Actually, I would like to do that, but I feel that setting the ground work of how I feel about Gurren Lagann is kind of needed for it, but not something I’d want to actually write in that piece.)

The problem is however, despite all of these excellent moments to the series…there’s just so much not particularly good stuff around them that my feelings on the show altogether are kind of neutral, if not negative. TTGL has a very large cast, and it really isn’t sure how to use them, best summed up during the lull that dominates the first part of the second act, when a large portion of the male supporting cast sacrifice themselves en mass in a pointless and not particularly engaging scene.

The female cast members get off even worse; out of the seven female characters, one is a mechanic who at least gets to help out by fixing and over-charging the mechas (a role that could have been used to match with Simon’s arc about how you need both motivation and reliability, but isn’t), three are first defined as being “Kittan’s sisters” and do almost nothing in the second act other than being love interests and one is a member of a pair of twin pilots who end up piloting the titular Gurren Lagann in the epilogue despite doing basically nothing in the series proper. The last two are Nia, who is introduced literally as a throwaway character (she was thrown away by her father Lordgenome), then gets possessed by the anti-spiral, becomes a damsel in distress, and then dies. It is only the last one Yoko who really gets anything to do, and even then the majority of the time she’s being used for fanservice.

It’s much harder to put the failings of TTGL into words than it is to put down the ways it succeeds. It’s just a mess of wasted characters, long boring moments, and tedious moments of perversion. It isn’t that there’s nothing good about it, but rather that they are like choice cuts of meat floating in gruel. If you can rescue them they are great, but I wouldn’t advise eating the whole dish.

On a final note, I think this is part of what made it so popular. TTGL came out right at the same time that video hosting, particular youtube, became popular online. It is a series almost tailor made for youtube; lots of great moments you can cut out of the series itself and just upload on their own. And honestly, I think that might be the best way to watch it. Find some clips of the best moments and enjoy them, divorced of the rather tedious context they are surrounded with.

7 of Hearts: Let’s Go Pikachu and the dichotomies of Pokemon.

The Pokemon franchise has been a long running and consistent companion for me from when it was first released in the UK back in 1998. The first choice of which starter to take (I choose Squirtle), opening my first booster pack of trading cards to reveal a shiny Zapdos, finally leaving Mount Moon after getting lost there long enough to have a Blastoise, first seeing the second generation games when a neighbour down the street had a Japanese copy of Pokemon Gold, first discovering online battle simulators in the fourth generation…honestly, that sentence was originally just going to be three points long but I just kept finding things to add to it.

Pokemon, for those unaware (however many there are left; one of the things I found funniest about the recent trailer for the live action Detective Pikachu movie was how it assumed everyone watching knew the world already), is an RPG game franchise set in a world populated by the titular Pocket Monsters, or Pokemon. It is a mainstay of Nintendo consoles, and is one of the company’s signature games along with the likes of Mario and Zelda, but it isn’t actually developed by Nintendo, being spilt between the companies Game Freak and The Pokemon Company. The player takes the role of a Pokemon trainer, journeying through the various regions of the world, catching Pokemon in devices known as Pokeballs and battling other trainers. The ultimate goal of each game is two-fold; to defeat the Pokemon League, the best trainers in that region (each game being set in a different location in the world), and to complete the Pokedex (an encyclopedia of Pokemon) by catching every Pokemon in the area; hence the tagline “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”. Usually along the way you must battle a team of criminals, with motives ranging from Pokemon trafficking to awakening Legendary monsters to boil the sea, flood the land and/or rip apart space and time, or in the case of the wonderfully pathetic Team Skull, not get beaten up by random children.

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7 of Hearts: Motive – Cosy Murders and their appeal.

This is part one of the theme month for January 2019, focusing on the works of Agatha Christie. For other posts in this series, click here.

If we are going to begin examining the works of Dame Agatha Christie, I feel it makes sense to structure this as one would the summation of a murder mystery. Motive, means, opportunity, and finally the crime itself. The four discussions in this month will follow this pattern, and I shall explain how in turn, but for now let us turn to the first of the four; motive.

In 1945, Edmund Wilson wrote an essay in the New Yorker called “Who Cares Who Murdered Roger Ackroyd?”, arguing that the very genre of the detective story itself to be a waste of time, and to not be literature.

My desire here is not to suggest he is inherently wrong. It is equal parts interesting and frustrating that evaluating any kind of fiction will require a degree of subjectivity, an idiosyncratic response to the piece. We don’t gain anything by denying these responses, saying that such a response is inherently wrong, but nor do we gain anything by pretending we may not disagree with such a response. We will focus on this more at the end of the month.

For now, I don’t want to actually respond to Wilson directly, partially because it has been a while since I’ve read the essay and I haven’t been able to find a copy of it while writing this piece. Rather I want to try and set down why I do enjoy the kind of cosy murders that Christie specialises in, and why, in that rather large genre, I like Agatha Christie so much in particular.

Cosy murders, specifically English cosy murders, tend to be set in places that are otherwise treated as being asperational. The two natural habitats of it are in high society – the first class carriage of the Orient Express, English country mansions, and archaeological digs financed by eccentric millionaires – and the English country village – quaint, quiet villages filled with “very nice people”. The show Midsomer Murders basically specialises in the latter, being set in a fictional county of the UK filled with lovely village fetes and hilariously over the top murder methods, and it is the natural haunt of Christie’s other most famous detective Ms Marple. These are locations that are usually treated as being inherently English, and therefore better. This is the idea of Middle England, a political term used to describe and often romanticise a very particular conservative image of Britain, one that lacks the poor, racial and sexual minorities, and the other countries that make up the UK (note the switch between England and Britain I used there).

And the plot of a cosy murder usually involves ripping this to shreds.

It isn’t just that one of the very nice, very proper people who live in Middle England is murdered by someone else from that community (a community that often initially assumes that it must be an outsider who did it, as they are all very nice people). Rather, the need for red herrings and to have suspicion thrown on everyone requires the entire structure to be rotten. It isn’t just that there’s a murderer in the village, but there’s at least six affairs, two cases of blackmail, and the vicar is smuggling drugs. This is kind of the appeal to the classic Poirot ending, where all the suspects are called into a room while the detective systematically rips apart the facade. Everything is revealed to everyone.

This is a nice trick that gives people two different ways to enjoy the story. If you dislike the idea of Middle England, then you can enjoy it being ripped apart, while if you are an inhabitant of Middle England, you get to see a story set in an environment you know well. I kind of hit both; I grew up in an area separate from Middle England enough for me to resent the way it was treated as an ideal to reach, but also an area with plenty of very nice people with lots of secrets, to the extent that there is actually a book heavily based on the road I grew up in that is basically about this (although the secrets are not murder. Usually)*. There’s a third way, but I’ll get into that at the end of the month.

Moving on from the sociopolitical part, while Wilson may not like the whodunnit aspect of the story, that is definitely part of the appeal. A good cosy detective book should give you the ability to follow along and try and solve the murder yourself. They are puzzle books as well as a narrative, like a crosswords book with characters. It even gives you a variety of puzzles. The difference between motive, means and opportunity is really important to these books, because each is a different kind of puzzle to solve. Want a human based psychological puzzle? Then find the motive. Want a technical puzzle? Work out how the murderer managed to kill someone in a locked room. Want a logistical puzzle? The murderer was supposed to be on the other side of the village, work out how they got to the victim and back in time for the tea and scones to be served.

On the flip side, you don’t need to have to solve the puzzle to enjoy the story. I often have cosy detective shows on as background noise while working because they tend not to be so distracting I can’t focus (unlike a more action packed police procedure), but it doesn’t matter that I miss parts because, well Poirot explains it all at the end. We have again this double appeal; if you want to pay attention and focus on the story, you get the enjoyment of solving a puzzle, while if you simply want to sit back and enjoy it, you get to enjoy the detective solving the case themselves. It even usually manages to surprise your with the answer but don’t make you feel stupid because, well, no one else got it either. The stakes of the story are high; we are trying to catch a murderer, but not too high. The fate of the world rarely hinges on this case.

Following on from this, there is also the fact that most of the detectives are just really fun. Poirot is a fussy, egg shaped dandy who’s intellect is matched only by his ego, while Ms Marple switches between acting as a doddery old dear and a honed mind who seems to take joy in matching wits with murderers. Part of this emerges from the fact that the stories are usually basically stand alone. You can’t spend time reintroducing a deep and nuanced character everytime you do a short story where they foil a jewel theft. Far easier to have one big character you can bring in quickly, and then seed bits of depth in around the main stories.

This also means that you can basically read the books in any order. Some references to earlier stories may be seeded in, but you don’t need to have read the previous book or seen earlier episodes to understand the characters and concepts for this story. This was really good for me when I was getting into the stories, since I wasn’t able to reliably obtain the books or see the episodes in the publication order.

That last point kind of borders onto a final point about Wilson’s essay. Christie’s work are not high literature. Her prose is fairly simple and straightforward, the characters are big and easy to understand, and the books are not really linked together as a series outside the premise and characters. The flip side of this is that her work is still incredibly accessible to new readers. Christie is still one of the best selling writers in the world. The simple writing leans itself well to translation into other language. They are excellent books for younger readers moving into adult writing, but the plots are complicated enough to be worth examining in greater detail. It’s a fun trick of the genre. A constant theme, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, in this essay is the idea that the stories can have seemingly mutually exclusive appeals to different readers. They both appeal to people who dislike Middle England and the residents of Middle England, they both provide a puzzle for those who want to solve it and allow those who just want a show they can enjoy with their brains in neutral to sit back and get carried along. I think that, in many ways, it is precisely this wide appeal that makes them worth examining, if not as literature, but definitely as culture.

5 of Spades: Dark Souls of January

Dark Souls is a series of action RPG games made by FromSoftware and published by Namco Bandai Games. I called it the Dark Souls series but it is more often called the Souls Series, starting with Demon’s Souls in 2009 before moving on to Dark Souls 1 through 3 (2011, 2014 and 2016 respectively). The series was initially released on Playstation and Xbox, two consoles I have not personally owned, so the entire series kind of passed me by. However, I kind of know the basics of the games through pop culture osmosis anyway, and I am going to put what I think I know down here without actually checking them, as a way of seeing how much I think I got right at the end of the month.

1.) The Souls games are set at the end of a period called the Age of Fire. That flame is going out, and correspondingly we are journeying through the remains of a once great kingdom, battling the corrupted remains of it in an attempt to either rekindle the fire or put it out (I’m not entirely sure which).

2.) Mechanically, the Souls games rely heavily on using death as a teaching mechanic, with the expectation that the player is going to die a lot and come back, wiser. Characters are fragile and the world is brutal.

3.) You the player are undead.

4.) You can kill everyone, including friendly NPCs who would usually be invulnerable in games, which makes me think that you might be trying to put out the fire mentioned in 1 by removing everything it has to burn.

5.) The games are known for being incredibly hard, mainly as a result of 2.

6.) The phrase “X is the Dark Souls of Y” means that X is a very difficult or dark version of Y. Ironically, the overuse of this phrase means that comparing things to Dark Souls is the Mario 1-1 of video game analysis.

I’ve wanted to at least try one of the Dark Souls games. Like I said, they have kind of passed me by, at first due to them appearing on consoles I don’t have, and then, once they went onto the PC, just because I didn’t buy them, usually because of the cost. That’s not a problem now, since we are coming out of the annual Steam sale and I was able to pick up Dark Souls 2 and 3 fairly cheaply, so that’s one excuse gone.

I’ve been a long time fan of the Legend of Zelda series, another long running action-adventure series, and Dark Souls reminds me a lot of them, specifically Wind Waker. Besides both being post-apocalyptic settings (albeit due to almost exact opposite reasons: Dark Souls has too little fire and Wind Waker having way too much water, being set on the surface of a great sea that has flooded the land of Hyrule, the setting of most of the games), Wind Waker’s combat is heavily based around dodging and well timed strikes. Admittedly the art style is very different, but just from looking at footage, the mechanical combat feels similar.

The other thing I am curious about is to see if it is indeed as hard as everyone says. The way video games use death and failure as a teaching method kind of fascinates me, and we’re going to get back to that in a future post. Having a game that is has that mechanic as a primary feature sounds really interesting to me.

So, anyway. For the next month, my regular streams will be focused on one of the two Dark Souls games I picked up during the Steam sale, Dark Souls II and III. (Dark Souls I was not in the sale, so while it was my first choice, I don’t have it.) I’m currently thinking I will look at II, not III, leaving the sequel for later.
Given that, on the main blog, we will be looking at Agatha Christie, it would make more sense to be doing a detective series, maybe the Ace Attorney series, but as I said before, the streams and the blog themes will not always match up thematically, so…eh.

The first stream will be in an hour after this post is put up, at 7pm GMT 01/01/2019. See you on my channel then, or, if you want to revisit it later, I’ll edit this with a link to a recording.

update: Here’s the link to the recording. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNmbGIDM4_Q&feature=youtu.be

Mattilda.

4 of Clubs: 2019, Theme Months, and Realistic Goals

It’s the final day of the year of 2018, a traditional time for some reflection and to make some plans for the future.

I tend not to make new year resolutions. Plans on the timescale of a year or longer tend to need to be broken up into a series of steps that I find easier to work on piece by piece, and any resolution that involves setting up some kind of regular routine, such as exercising or dedicating time to learning something, tends to break down because I don’t make suitable changes to the rest of my routine, or at some points in my life don’t have a routine at all for them to slot into.

In my personal and professional lives, I do actually have two things going on this year that would actually work fairly well as a resolution. The first is the long term plan type; I am entering my final year of my PhD study, and so I need to finish my project and hand it in before end of 2019. This is doable but it is going to be pretty difficult, and one of the major ways I am going to try and handle this is the second resolution. This is not really a new years resolution, rather it is a continuation of something I’ve been working on for a while now, which is to reconstruct my daily routine. Part of my current lack of one is my own fault but a large part due to mental illness (something I will almost certainly be commenting on) disrupting me, particularly my sleep cycle. I am hoping to fix this by trying to, one piece at a time, reconstruct my own daily routine, with regular sleeping times, exercising times and work times.

One of the things I often find helpful is accountability, so I will be posting my progress on this, or at least an edited version for internet consumption with important identifying details removed, in a weekly round up on this blog, which will also have links to that week’s posts, and if I do end up with a commentating community, possibly some discussion prompts or an open thread for people to talk in.

While my PhD is obviously going to take a fair amount of my time, it is important to have a separation between work and the rest of your life. I have really enjoyed writing my posts here so far, and I want to continue doing so. This will require some trade offs, obviously, but I think this, along with some other distractions, will serve as a good counterpoint to the life swallowing nature of a PhD; although as we get towards the deadline posts may slow down somewhat.

As I noted above, making long term plans, such as planning the future of this blog, usually requires them to be tackled as a series of smaller plans. At the same time, I would also like a framework for what I am going to write about; have something I can hang things off of and to focus down my range of choices from “anything and everything” to “something related to this topic”. I choose the theme of this blog, the idea of it being a deck of cards, because it allowed me to have a very wide range of topics to discuss, but the trade off there is that, when given infinite options, we tend to return to well worn paths of thought and creation. For me, the greatest weapon I have to focus thought and foster creativity is to give myself parameters that I must be contained in, both to active the problem solving parts of my brain and just to avoid being swamped by choice.

My idea for this is doing themed months, each with a series of posts roughly planned and laid out at the beginning of the month in a spade video. Similarly, I am going to focus my streaming each month on a particular game. I haven’t really linked my streaming to this blog yet, and honestly it is probably not going to directly crossover; I’m not going to be trying to do streaming based on what I am going to write here, although it will be nice when I can.

I have enough theme ideas to fill the year, but I don’t really want to put them out in an explicit order now since I’m not sure what the order will be, and whether I might want to change them, so I will announce the next month’s theme at the end of the previous month. Ideally I will be able to link the posts of one month to the next, to have a bridge, but again, I don’t want to make a promise I can’t keep.

So. That is the plan for this blog going forward, and the plan for my life going forward. With all that, in the short term, what are we going to be looking at in January 2019?

Well, in terms of streaming, I have long been curious about the Dark Souls series of games, so we are going to pick one up and start playing.

For the actual blog…well, I have just written a 3000 word discussion on the recent adaption of a work by her and still have plenty to say so…we’re doing an Agatha Christie month.

See you in the new year.

Mattilda.

9 of Hearts: ABCDEFGH – a sort of review of The ABC Murders (BBC, 2018)

A is for ADAPTATIONS
Looking at an adaptation of a work you are familiar with into a new medium is always a bit difficult, particularly if it is a work you are very fond of. First of all, of course, there are some changes that are required simply because of the new medium; in the case of books being made into visual media, this is often the loss of the narration, whether it is from a character or a general omniscient voice. Beyond that, all manner of changes can be made. Thus, when looking at the adaptation, I find myself torn between evaluating the new work on its own merits, and evaluating it as an adaptation of what I am familiar with.

I try to do both, using three simple questions.
1.) Why adapt this work? What is being gained from the adaptation?
2.) What changes have been made, and what do I think they add or subtract from the work
3.) When examined as a standalone piece, what do I think of the adaptation?

With the first question, we are going to need some background context. I am rather afraid I am going to need to spoil the ending to discuss this, so I advise anyone unfamiliar with the story who doesn’t want to be spoiled to turn away here, and come back once you’re read it. If you either know the story or don’t care, click the more button below and let us continue.

Continue reading

6 of Diamonds: The Visitation of George John Leese Malthan (a first draft of Christmas Carol fanfiction).

Scrooge’s funeral occurred at half-past noon on the twenty first of November 1863, three and score years after his strange change in personality that one Christmas night. Such a change of such a publicly known miser had been a source of London gossip ever since; whispers and rumours and murmurs and burbles and babbles and tittle-tattle spread from the houses he rented to workers to the cosy holes of the middle class to his fellow money lenders in their counting houses, and the words had not followed their subject into the grave.

George Malthan, owner of a large weaving company and an old acquaintance of Scrooge, arrived to the wake clasping a card of invitation, carefully written in the hand of a long time banker. The funeral was well attended, albeit not necessarily by those Gregory expected to be there. Scrooge’s long time clerk and confident Cratchit had spoken at the front of the room at length about his deceased employer, his elderly voice cracking and too weak for Malthus to catch more that one word in three. In the first row of the pews the rest of the Cratchits sat in the seats usually reserved for family, the youngest son Timothy holding himself upright on his crutches even as he sobbed. Behind them, the man’s tenants rubbed shoulders with his fellow landlords, not a single one of them sure what facial expressions which they should wear. Afterwards, over a pleasant luncheon, Malthus and his colleagues discussed, once again, the matter of Scrooge.

George Malthan, it should be mentioned here, thought that Scrooge’s new attitude to be a fine improvement on the man, who George had first met as a young apprentice. George considered himself a reasonable, cheery sort of man, quick with a joke and a smile, a friend to all he met. He hardly ever met the workers of his mills. On a personal level, he had found the reborn (as he had called himself) Scrooge a great improvement on the old, at least until one June day Scrooge had inquired about the conditions at his factories, which George considered perfectly decent; in fact, he considered them excellent, and he told Scrooge such himself. An argument ensued, with Scrooge steadily frosting back over, until George had felt he was not standing in summer but rather some harsh localised winter, Scrooge’s sharp words and frozen eyes scoring over George’s soul and mind. They had not spoken since until Scrooge had written to George in July of this year, asking to meet him again. Scrooge explained, over a meagre meal (Ebenezer had never shook the habit of his personal misery; his home was still as carefully frugal as ever) that he was on his death bed, and would soon be dead. He said this casually while tearing a piece of bread for his soup. George asked him first if this was a joke (he was assured, it wasn’t), and then why Scrooge had called him here. Scrooge raised his spoon to his lips. “To get the measure of you.” And said no more.

A number of other factory and mine owners and landlords had had similar encounters with the man in the months leading to his death. All of them felt that the man had not been preparing for death, but rather seemed to be planning some new venture. A venture, they all agreed, had ended with his death as prophesized. George agreed with them, although there was one detail he hadn’t mentioned. Written on his invitation for the funeral, in shaky but recognisable handwriting was an additional note.

George.

I look forward to seeing you come Christmas.

Ebenezer.

George returned home that evening feeling more confident. He had the invitation disposed of and returned to his work.

November soon ended, and the winter season once again descended over London, snow and soot mixing on the streets. December was a busy time for the looms; much demand for more cotton for winter clothing and blankets, and George was all too willing to oblige. The factories churned and the workers toiled and George carefully watched each column of incoming cotton and outgoing fabric, payments and expenses and profit, the last of which he carefully put aside some of each week for his family’s Christmas feast. In church each sunday advent was rolled out, a red carpet for a baby in a barn. In the haze of numbers (and indeed, the more literal haze of London), George forgot entirely about the strange note from a dead man. Christmas eve arrived, and with it his family. George had no children, but enjoyed playing the host to his kin, his nieces and nephews he enjoyed spoiling behind his siblings’ back. George Malthan thought Christmas an excellent time of the year indeed.

By late evening on Christmas eve George and his eldest brother were alone in the great armchairs of George’s chambers, the fire burning low. With one last enjoyable biscuit, the brother departed, and now Malthan, with a stretch and a yawn, decided to turn in for the night, the fire dying in the grate.

He slept.

The clock hands ticked over past midnight, and it was now the day of Christmas itself. The fire in the grate suddenly relight, and the room was suddenly full of light and warmth. Under his thick winter covers Malthan boiled and sweated, until finally he woke. As he blinked in the firelight streaming through the curtains surrounding his bed, he realised that someone had joined in his chambers, and was sitting in his armchair in front of the fire. He rose, and, after a moment’s pause where he clumsily searched for a weapon, finding none, he peeked out into the room.

Sitting in his recently vacated armchair was Ebenezer Scrooge, warming his hands in front of the fire. The man was dressed in a simple dressing gown and nightcap, looking as old as Malthan had last seen him, but such details were ignore given the strange, unearthly pallor and fading appearance of the man. But what was worse was the chains. Long, terrible chains, circling around Scrooge’s body, lock boxes and safes hanging from them. Some disappeared into the shadows of the room, while others cut across the floor, vanishing under furniture.

The spectre seemed unperturbed by this. “Ah, excellent, Malthan, you are awake. Please, sit down. We have business to discuss.” He raised a hand and gestured to the other seat, sending the chains attached to the limb to rattle and shake.

Malthan staggered out from his bed, surprise carrying him from behind his curtains before he realised it.

“Don’t look so surprised. I gave you notice I was coming, did I not?” Scrooge’s tone was light, but his face was as stern as that June day.

Malthan swallowed, and pulled himself upright, trying to determine how best to respond. His fingers fumbled and touched his Bible’s leathery cover on his bedside table. “You are just a phantom. A trick. You should not be here.” He raised the bible in front of him. “You should move on. Go. Now!”

Scrooge raised an eyebrow, and muttered something about gravy, or possibly graves. “That book will not banish me, if that is what you are hoping. I am here on its writer’s behalf, in a way.” He crossed one leg over the other, the chains rattling and tugging at him. “I am now merely the lowest of a group of spirits you shall be meeting tonight. They will explain their own purposes in time. As for my part, I wish to discuss our chains.”

Malthan clenched his hands, flexing his unbound wrists. “Your chains, you mean?”

“Oh no, our chains. We share a very similar set, you and I, although I worry yours might be crueller.” The phantom rose from the chair, and stared at George eye to eye. “This chains are built by our sins and cruelties towards our fellows.”

“What sins? You were a model of a man for the last twenty years, and I am a kind and generous fellow. Ask anyone who knows me!”

“Ah yes. Anyone who knows you. Or rather, anyone you know personally. Anyone who you have deemed to be worth. Listen!” Scrooge spoke, and Malthan felt the world go silent. “You have played the game of a spider, weaving a thread to connect yourself to hundreds, thousands, who you pretend are nothing but flies! You show kindness to those you know, kindness towards those you deem worthy, a kindness built of the toil and death of your kin on this planet! You celebrate your family’s Christmas while your factory mills still toil and devour! Yours is a chain made in your looms, built of biting machinery, cotton threads and the hands of those who worked on them. It is a cruel chain indeed you wear, and that will tie you to this realm when you die, unless you change now.”

“Then what of your chains spirit, or Scrooge, or whoever you might be. What did you build your chains from?”

“Coins. Pennies ripped from a beggar’s hand. A rather popular chain among the unquiet dead above London. I built my chain over years. It only stopped extending after the meeting with the three spirits you will meet tonight. Listen to them Malthan, and you may not find yourself so tightly bound as you are now destined to be.”

Even in front of the spectre’s icy anger, Malthan scoffed, although it was more from an attempt to hide his fear than actual cocksureness. “And what good did following them do you? All of that good you did, making sure we all saw what a changed man you are, and You stand here, still bound! Perhaps I should call a priest and have you released from your drudgery on this earth, that might be a better favour. Call it a final Christmas Gift!”

Scrooge gave him a look that Malthan couldn’t place. “I was able to break some.” He held up a short chain, attached to his collar. “This was my sin towards the Cratchits. I was able to make amends for this at least. But the rest of them…” He spread his arms wide, the chains rippling and clanking so loudly Malthan had to cover his ears. “This chains I could not remove. Whether because the ones I hurt to build them chose not to let me go that easily, or because I was unable to atone for them, these remain. But, what the spirit’s lesson did do was to strength my soul. I cannot undo these chains because I cannot undo the wounds I made. But my actions since then make it easier for me to move. These chains bind me only because I chose to be bond. I took on the commission of my old partner to allow him to leave to Heaven, while I walk the Earth in search of wretches like you to be saved. Listen Malthan, and listen well!”

Scrooge stepped into the air as if mounting a stage and stared down at George. “Not matter if you heed my warning or not, let this message be clear. You shall be visited by three spirits this night! Without these visits you cannot hope for salvation, or to understand why you must change your ways! Expect the first ghost tonight, when the bell toils one!”

And with a final clatter of chains, Scrooge disappeared, and the clock continued clicking towards an inevitable meeting.