Saturday, 18 August 2018

I Only Know Catch-22

What better way to climb up onto the blogging bandwagon than with yet another crossword video. If you enjoy writhing in pain as other people fail miserably to do the crossword, then you're going to love the next fifty minutes. If that doesn't describe you, I hope that this little effort will get the creative juices flowing again and that this little post will have some new friends soon.

This video contains eventual spoilers for the Friday 17th August NYT Crossword.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Zero Week

Well, this week has been pretty much a write-off, and not just with respect to the series of unfinished and unwritten drafts blog posts. After being sick at the end of last week, followed by putting a brave face on it on the weekend, I have crashed hard and barely managed my minimum working obligations, and have instead been stuck in a seemingly endless lethargic cycle of napping all day, logging in and out of various video games and streaming services, staring at walls and boiling kettles and then forgetting about them.

Thankfully, this isn't a very common experience for me, I haven't had a week like this since the depths of last winter, and more thankfully, this has been a week in which I've been able to wallow rather than having to force myself out of this feeling, something that inevitably leads to me crashing again soon. I'm also relatively sure that I'm on the up, which is just as well, as my flexible free time is about to run out and catapult me back into the land of the living whether I like it or not.

While I've been in my own little world, I have been well looked-after, though. Mrs. Owl has been very understanding and I've been feeling very supported by a number of generous and loving friends, who've provided hugs, brownies, wine, encouraging words and prompts to get out of bed when I've needed them.

When I'm in moods like this I'm not able to engage with new things, so I've been taking refuge in some old favourites.

XCOM: Long War
X-COM, along with Civ II, Cannon Fodder, Pipe Dream, Theme Hospital, Worms and Command and Conquer, was one of the games that I played over and over again on the old family 386.  Its sound effects of distant screams, footsteps on metal and alien voices are as much the soundtrack of my childhood as the greatest hits of Creedence Clearwater Revival or the songs of the Sound of Music. I've spent many a happy afternoon with the remake as well, and back when my laptop Nero was new and able to do things like record graphics I used to have a regular video series playing through it. I've been firing this one up and playing through a mission between naptimes a LOT during the last week. With my recent development of Laser Weapons I'm currently experiencing a short period of easier missions before the aliens ramp up their development to catch me up again, which is a welcome relief, as even on the lower difficulties, this game is kinda hard.

Hot Fuzz
I introduced Mrs. Owl to this one the other night, as she'd somehow managed to never have seen it before. I think she had a lot of fun, but it was mostly due to her laughing at my failed attempts to supress my maniacal giggling than from her own amusement at the film. Still, it passed high enough muster that she's willing to risk another of the Cornetto Trilogy, and since World's End is on Netflix here in the UK and neither of us have seen that, I guess I have that to look forward to sometime soon.

Lupin III
When it comes to brainlessness it's hard to go past the animation, and since I started watching anime after being roped into running one too many conventions, Lupin has been one of those shows that I have some to count on for reliably mindless shenanigans. The current series featuring the philandering master thief and his buddies is on Crunchyroll at the moment and it's a surprisingly good time, so I've also been hitting it pretty hard, though I have a bad habit of falling asleep in the middle of episodes and needing to rewatch them to work out what's going on.

The Intern
I do like me a warm fuzzy when I'm feeling a little down, though I'm not sure what to call this type of film. It's not exactly a Rom-Com since the protagonists aren't romantically linked, and the terms Mom-Com and chick flick have some seriously dubious leanings. Anyways, this is a cute little film mostly because Robert de Niro and Anne Hathaway are good times. I'm pretty sure it's best not to think to hard about any of the things that happen on the themes that it's hamfistedly throwing around, but since I'm not up for thinking right now this is exactly the kind of comfort food that I could do with, and I enjoyed sharing this one with Mrs. Owl too. Sometimes that fact that she never had a television as a child so almost everything is new to her is a great joy to be a part of.

I haven't been doing a lot of reading this week (hence the lack of a weekly literature review and pun-vehicle today), but I have been leaning on the Book of Job quite a bit, as whenever I'm feeling miserable I generally find that if nothing else, Job has a lot better reasons to be miserable than me. Don't get me wrong, I'm not feeling persecuted or tested, because of my sinfulness of lack thereof, just really tired and weepy all the time, but the back and forth in Job usually helps me ground and get perspective on those feelings in the context of my life as a believer, and this time around is no different. Note to self: Jemimah and Keziah may feel somewhat dated, but Keren-Happuch is a terrible name for a daughter.

This is all to say, dear reader, that hopefully normal Blaugust service will be beginning again around here some time soon. I hope you'll forgive me for falling off the bandwagon a little this week and hang about until then.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Riiching New Heights

Post 11 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
As is becoming my habit this Blaugust, this post ended up being almost, but not quite entirely unlike the post that I set out to write.

It's hard for me to believe that just this time last week I was in Surrey for the UK Riichi Mahjong Championships, and the thing that I can most emphatically say that I learnt there is that there are many players here in Europe that are drastically and unattainably better at the game than I am. This isn't a surprise, exactly, I'm not accustomed to being the best at anything in my life and mahjong is one of very casual hobbies rather than a thing that I devote a lot of time to, but the sheer gulf between us was pretty intimidating. And the best European players feel that gulf and more between their best play and that of the Japanese players, who play at a level that I can't hope to comprehend, let alone emulate.

I don't think this gulf is due simply to experience. Riichi isn't big enough in the west to support the range of strategy books, training tools and quality players that can help you get dramatically better. But experience definitely counts for something, and as I play with more skilled opponents more regularly, partially through playing more regularly online through tenhou, and partially because my students are fast becoming stronger players in their own right, I've noticed a number of ways where I'd like to improve my play, which I'm listing here in the vain hope that I'll remember them in the heat of battle and actually follow my own advice.

If you've never played mahjong, first let me congratulate you for braving to read down this far in what is almost certainly going to be a pretty inaccessible post. I'm sorry to say it, but this post just isn't FOR you. If you'd be interested in some kind of video introduction to the game or something, do let me know and I'll try to oblige, there are lots out there but I am yet to find one that I really like in order to recommend it. In the mean time, I give you full permission to skip the rest of the post. Not that you need my permission or anything, but whatever.

Anyway, some ways to improve:

Give up when your hand is dead
At the tournament it was clear that I was doing a much better job of playing defensively and not throwing losing tiles when I was trying to do that. However, I am definitely still chasing hands for too long even after it's evident that they're not going anywhere and leaving off playing defensively for too long. I need to develop some kind of metric for when I should and shouldn't push that is a little bit more sophisticated than my current system.
Keep honours and terminals longer
I identified this one I while ago, but I still tend to throw the honour tiles, particularly single dragons, much earlier than I ought to, and finding that it regularly comes back to bite me when I waste turn after painful turn then throwing precious tiles that I can't keep because they'll put me in furiten.

Think more about safe tiles
One of the reasons that I ought to keep those loose honours and terminals some of the time is that they often end up either being safe tiles, in which case they're worth keeping until I need safety, or they end up being danger tiles that I shouldn't throw under any circumstances. Spending more time thinking about the long-term value of dead tiles (often but not always loose honours and terminals) as safety throws later rather than quickly discarding since they're not useful to my hand has got to help me out.

Don't be scared of more complex weights
I have this compulsion to throw the fourth tile in a run in preference to a lone tile elsewhere that often greatly reduces the flexibility of my hands for fear of placing myself in furiten. I'm unlikely to spend time practicing and memorising good and bad weight shapes like I'd probably have to if I actually wanted to get good at this, so for now I just want to resolve to keep close tiles in preference to loners and inside weights for a while and see if it helps.

Care about the number of tiles, not the types.
I've come to realise that I'm overly reliant on two-tile weights. I sacrifice speed and sometimes even points to be waiting on two different types of tile to win on. However, I need to start trying weigh these decisions more with respect to the number of actual available tiles there are, not just how many types. Too often lately I've been on a "two-tile weight" that was literally that, two or three individual tiles, when I could have more easily been waiting on a single type of tile with a higher chance of coming out in reality. This is tricky, as it requires paying more attention to other players' discards than I currently do, but I suppose I should be doing that more anyway.

Stop declaring riichi when you don't have to
Declaring riichi is a great tool to get a lot of points quickly, the game is called riichi mahjong after all. That said, though, there are plenty of situations where the wise course is to take a smaller potential gain in order to stay safer. I'm getting better at identifying these situations when I'm in the lead, but when it comes to close fights where every point count, I have been finding that the drain of a thousand points here and there in riichi sticks is costing me more often than it should. I need to see these situations before they arise and work a little harder to build hands that aren't going to require me to riichi in order to go out.

If I can do those, maybe I'll get better. Maybe I'll realise that I preferred the way that I play at the moment, too, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see. If nothing else, spending a little more time thinking about the nuances of the game that I enjoy so much can't hurt me, as long as I restrain myself from talking about it everywhere I go. So, anyone for some riichi?

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Friday and my Mind

Post 10 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
Well, that happened. In my slightly feverish state yesterday I completely forgot to press the 'Publish' button so this one's coming to you late.

It's Friday again, and around here apparently Friday means recording myself attempting to finish the New York Times Crossword, so if that's your jam, grab yourself a cup of tea and have a good time laughing at my flailing. Obviously this contains spoilers for the Thursday crossword.

PS. ICE-T. I get it, I get it. In my head, Tracey is a girl's name.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Neither wholly our nor wholly not ours

Post 9 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
It's been a whole week already, and thanks to the wonders of bus rides I've more or less been able to keep up to date with my reading obligations, so it's time for yet another episodes of our 'seven year' reading project, The Great Conversation.

This 'Week':

The History of Herodotus
Book II

Everything that you ever wanted to know about the geography, history, religion and social structure of the Egyptians, as seen through the eyes of a Greek who thinks they're all crazy. What's not to love? There wasn't as many classic stories in this book, but it held together well and made for a fun read that had me repeatedly reaching for an encyclopedia to check Herodotus' facts.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Chapters VIII - X

No drama just yet, just cottage industry. It amazes me that Crusoe can apparently use his ingenuity to complete anything he sets his mind to, but can't come up with a way to build a good boat. It's been fun, but it's time for something to actually happen in this story sometime soon, methinks.

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe

Wow. I thought that this was going to be good fun, but it was not fun at all. I'm sure there's some deep and interesting allegory that Poe was going for with this one, but if it's there I think it's fair to say that I completely missed it. This was an excellent example of I should refrain from recommending titles before I read them, as all I got out of it was a bit confused as to how it even got published in the first place. 

Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus

Epicurus doesn't seem to me to meet the definition of Epicurean that I'm familiar with, which is a little surprising to me. I thought Epicureans were all about enjoying the finer things in life but here he seems to be advocating finding enjoyment in the exact opposite. I guess we're just going to have to read more Greek philosophy to find out.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Volume II - Book I

If you ignore the fact that this is an excerpt from a novel, then this is a perfectly passable musing on the Battle of Waterloo, the loss of national pride and the end of the First French Empire. Inside a novel, though, this is some weird junk.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Chapters III - IV

I found keeping up with these chapters a little tricky after a year away from the characters, as I can't really remember anything about any of them apart from that scoundrel Mr. Tupman, but I think I'm back up to date again now. I'm not entirely sure that I'm 100% on top of everything that's going on, but I daresay it will all work out in the end. 


The Stats:

Twenty weeks down (I declared that prematurely last week because I got a little ahead of myself, I suppose), and we've hit more than 1000 pages of supplementary reading of classics that Mr. Adler didn't see fit to add to the Great Books of the Western World. This is largely thanks to Victor Hugo's Les Mis, which despite barely having gotten started at this point, sent him past Charles Dickens for the most-read author in the project last week. Don't worry, though, I fully expect Dickens to end up on top eventually given the cheer number of his works that we're going to end up reading.

Pages last week: 118
Pages so far: 2344

Week XXI:

We have three novels and the History on the go, and just a couple of little bits and pieces on the side this week courtesy of Dr. J. I've been thinking of condensing this part of the posts in future and just listing the readings, as there's only so many times that I can say 'I've got no idea what I'm about to read but I hope that it's good' without getting a little repetitive. Any thoughts on the topic, dear reader?

The History of Herodotus
#ggb #fiction #english #new
Book III (41 pages)

We've done the Persians and the Egyptians, I wonder where Herodotus is going to take us next. We've got no way of knowing from the chapter title, since like the rest it's just named after one of the muses, so we're going to have to just jump in and see, I suppose.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
#ggb #fiction #english #new
Chapters XI-XIII (24 pages)

Nothing new to say about Crusoe this week, so I'll just repeat what I said last time. "I feel like we're due a little bit of conflict here, as our friend has had life a little bit too easy, but somehow I feel that if that conflict is coming it's still a long way off, as he has a few more cottage industries to get off the ground yet."

Two Friends by Guy de Maupassant
#ggb #fiction #french #oneshot
(6 pages)

Guy de Maupassant has a name like a chess move, so I'm naturally predisposed to like him. I've also been quite fond of our forays into French fiction that we've taken so far, as it's a brave new world for me, so I look forward to finding out if he's the Guy for me. #punachieved (Go on, admit it, you've missed my literature puns)

Immortality by Thomas Browne
#ggb #philosophy #english #oneshot
(6 pages)

All I know of Thomas Browne is that he was relatively prolific and coined a lot of words that we still use today. I feel like that probably means that he's too clever for his own good and that this won't be any fun at all, but how bad can a six-page excerpt from a discourse on funeral rites really be?

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
#non_gbww #fiction #french
Volume II - Books II & III (28 pages)

Can we have a little story, here, Mr. Hugo, please? I understand that you're being paid by the word and all, but this is all getting a little silly.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
#non_gbww #fiction #english
Chapters V & VI (13 pages)

Dickens also has the distinct feeling of being paid by the chapter at the moment, but as long as his asides that don't move the story on continue to have decent jokes I'm alright with it. It's possible that there's an actual plot-line coming along to sweep our heroes along sometime, but then again, maybe it's already happening and I've just missed it. That would be very Pickwickian of me, I think.


I hope you enjoy reading along, or at least a little reading of your own this week.

Through History with the Monday Quiz in Exile: The 1480's

Post 8 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
It's Wednesday, and that means that it's time for yet another episode of our famous* Monday history quiz. This week we're focused on the 1480's. I hope you'll take a couple of minutes to take a stab at the quiz and leave your answers below. If you want to check your answers from last week, please click the button below.

Those brave enough to post their attempts last week did very well. John got the best individual score with seven points, but Adam successfully identified the emperor and Ale recognised an angel, so overall the team managed nine. 

 Let's see if we can do even better in the 1480's

1. This Portugese map must be from after 1488. Why?
2. Also in 1480, Ivan III finally ejected which group of people, who'd been ruling over the Rus for more than two centuries?
3. 1480 saw the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, famously home to papal conclaves as well as Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. But why's it called the Sistine Chapel?
4. The Citadel of Qaitbay, a fortress and mosque in an important strategic location, was completed in 1480. It was built on the ruins of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but which one?
5. One of the most famous cases of missing persons ever known, the 'Princes in the Tower' occurred in 1483. But wait, which princes? And which tower?
6. 1487 saw the introduction in Munich of the Reinheitsgebot, a law that has remained virtually unchanged to this day. What does the Reinheitsgebot impose regulations on?
7. This is Cenobio de Valerón, an ancient granary of the Gaunches, who were conquered by the Spanish in 1483. In which island group might you find it?
8. The 1480s also saw the first publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, a bestselling book that would go on to be highly influential throughout Europe for two hundred years, despite being roundly condemned as theologically and ethically unsound when released. What's the Malleus all about?
9. The first documented cases of red spots, delerium and gangenous flesh leading to death occurred during the War of Grenada in 1489. Which disease, that Charles Nicolle was given the 1928 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering was transmitted by lice, was the likely culprit?
10. The A-Ma temple, dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu, was constructed in 1488. It is thought that this temple gives it's name (via Portugese) to the modern name of which peninsula?

Don't forget to leave your answers below. No guess goes unappreciated.

*Fame not included.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Blaugust: One Week Retrospective

Post 7 of ? for Blaugust 2018.
So we're a week into this daily posting thing yet again, about as far as we managed before completely giving up the ghost last year, so I thought it might be worthwhile checking in on our plans for the month and doing a quick health check.

Have a settled routine
This one took a big hit over the weekend with the mahjong tournament pretty much completely nixing any kind of routine, not just over the weekend but also into the start of this one. I'm yet to find my flow yet (as demonstrated by the fact that I'm writing my Tuesday blog post at 2am on Wednesday morning), so overall, this goal is a complete disaster and I'm going to have to be wiser in finding effective writing time without it getting in the way of my other obligations in the coming weeks, especially as I also have to fit in moving house somehow.

Take Mrs. Owl along for the ride
The boss has been reading the blog and says that she's enjoyed it, so this one gets a pass mark for now. I do hope to be able to lift that mark by sharing some adventures with her to make some posts later in the month, but at the moment the full extent of planning them is contained in this sentence.

Let projects die when I get sick of them
The month hasn't really been going long enough to have abandoned any projects yet, but yesterday's gaming post was brought toward to replace the homily that proved to be too difficult to write. The whole point of programming in a weekly homily was supposed to practice both writing homilies and openly sharing my faith here, so the fact that I failed at the first hurdle is a little discouraging, but I knew that would likely be the most difficult part of my weekly programme, so I'll keep it for now and try a little harder to apply myself next Monday.

Don't bite off too much
In one way, I've failed miserably at this, as despite there being no need or pressure to post every day, I've been pushing myself to do so. That said, I've been more willing to compromise and put up half-baked posts (like this one) instead of my planned content when it's become clear that I didn't have the time or motivation for bigger projects. Maybe I'm learning after all.

Have a varied calendar of regular features
Having an irregular week has not helped with the regular features, but there's the bones of something workable at the moment. The Wednesday quiz got a little audience participation and has a clear plan for me to work towards. The Thursday Conversation is a big time commitment each week, but provided that I can get the reading done is always a lot of fun. The Friday crossword was a bit of an accidental addition but was a surprise hit, so at the moment I'm thinking of making it a regular feature too. The rest of the calendar definitely needs fleshing out, though.

Interact with a community of other bloggers
I've gotten a little behind on the blogroll this week, but I've tried to keep participation in the discord channel going and have had time for commenting on a few blogs over the week. I hope to dedicate a little more time to this too, but I'm going to need to develop a system and maybe cull which blogs I actually plan to read or I'm going to drown in Blaugustinian ink.

Include more pictures!
There's no picture for this post, so there's still work to be done for this one. Maybe I need to source more ties...