New Fangled Gadgets

Why, back in my day …

The height of sophistication!

Trimphone! The height of sophistication!

… we didn’t have mobile telephones. We had one “land line”. In the hall. (Actually, due to Dad being paid “in-kind” rather than in cash for one job he did, we were one of the few families who had multiple phones in the house, but I digress). It had no “speed-dial”, or saved numbers. Just a ring of digits that you could dial individually to make up the required Number. If someone else was using it, you had to wait. If you were using it, you had to endure a parent glancing at their watch, and tutting (especially if it was before the 6pm cheap-rate!). The lack of privacy became noticeable as teenage years arrived. I recall changing my pound notes(!) into 10p coins and going to a local “phone box” in the village, rather than have my family overhear conversations with my friends. Ah, good times …

Or was it? It may sound like the moanings of a pre-Millennial, but we did get by without them. Mostly. Sure, I missed a few good parties because people couldn’t contact me. I failed to talk to a local girl I fancied because both of us were being eaves-dropped on by parents. I annoyed some friends because I missed the bus, and they had to wait around, not knowing whether I was on my way or not. But we got by. Mostly.

These days …

iPhone - new-fangled gizmo

Dang new-fangled gizmo

… I see too many of my generation (and previous generations) bemoaning the very existence of Global Communication Technology. They take that last paragraph I wrote, and turn it into a crusade. “Kids these days are not social” … “they don’t play outside” … “they have no real friends” … “We got by without mobile phones!”

Who do they think kids are talking to on their phones? I understand the dangers of ‘strangers on the internet’ (better than most, my alter-ego being PC Wizard), but mostly, they seem to be communicating with their school-mates. Arranging when to meet down at the local park. Checking who is going to the football match at the weekend. Apologising for being late, and finding out where people will be. Checking that their mate who hasn’t arrived is OK. Swapping gossip, and giving out #spoilers for the latest TV shows (“Netflix”, I think they watch, these days).

Yesterday:

I went to my niece’s first birthday party. It was a wonderful affair, with family and friends gathered to wish my niece and her parents the best for the future.

I got my invite via Facebook, and texted Lucretia to arrange our attendance. I checked the location, and driving directions, from my mobile phone. We kept in touch with everyone, complicated by Lucretia’s recent illness*, via TXT, Facebook, voicemail, and email.

Would I have attended without mobile phones? Probably, but it would not have been so easy.

The Future:

Mobile technology is not going away. People who are new to it will get used to it. The newer generations will have grown up with it, and wonder how we got by without, in the same way that we wonder how the world worked without radio, motorised transport and frozen food.

It seems odd to think that the iPhone is only 10 years old. We have come so far, to be able to carry a mobile computer, capable of linking to the Global Superhighway, and processing data faster than our forefathers thought was possible. The main question it leaves me with is: What next for mobile technology?

3d Printing is becoming more common, but feed-stock currently precludes it from being truly portable. Bio-monitoring (heart-rate, pulse, sugar levels etc) is advancing. Augmented Reality may attempt to surface again, although Google Glass failed to take off, and Pokemon Go is ‘only’ a game. The veil between the “real world” and “cyberspace” is breaking down, and who knows where that will take us!

We should not mourn the loss of the past, but rather celebrate the onrushing Future, and grasp it with both hands, lest it slip past us!

*Another example of how Modern Technology helped us to communicate! Her days at the hospital were greatly eased by being in constant (txt/Facebook) communication with her nearest and dearest, even though they could not be physically at her side.

Fancy Dress Party! (Comic Con Leicester)

(A Little late, I know …)

So, I made a joke about dressing up as Merlin, and before you can say “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha“, Lucretia has bought tickets to Comic Con Leicester, and re-purposed one of her old dresses as a Wizard’s robe!

Details of her crafting efforts are on her Facebook page, and well worth a look!

After all the swearing, and shouting, and throwing glue, plaster-of-Paris, Warbla plastic sheets and silver paint at me, the walls, and anything else in range, and once the blisters from the hot glue had healed, we ended up with outfits that captured if not the exact, “Is that really Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson?” effect, then a good nod towards them. Clad in our fur cloaks, we headed into the 25’C heat and crossed town to the Athena Arena, where all manner of strangely-attired folk were gathering.

A dinosaur having it's photo taken by a masked man

Arriving at the Venue

The first sign that this was no ordinary Saturday in Leicester was the man in a strange mask taking a selfie with a mechanical dinosaur! The Jurassic Park crew were in attendance, but I’m not sure who he was meant to be. Maybe you can enlighten me?

inside the venue, we were greeted by a Pirate, several Star Wars Droids, and a stall selling cold drinks for outrageous prices. We headed into the main auditorium, where various vendors were vocally vending their wares. A sea of Pokemon Plushies, We-Draw-You-As-A-Sloth artists, toy dolls of all varieties (unfortunately, I couldn’t find any Nick Cave ones), and, of course, comics!

On the stage, people were being taught Light Sabre skills, and a side room had talks by authors I had never heard of, on genres I can only wonder about!

And there was cake!

Cakes

CAKE!

After we had nommed all the cakes, and paid HOW MUCH?!?! for a couple of beers, we chatted with a young lad (16? 18? 25? Damn kids! Why, back in my day …) who had only decided to attend three days before, leaving his mother very little time to make his costume! She seemed very supportive of his hobby, and it showed in the details of his outfit (even if the sword across his back did bop her on the head occasionally!).

We took a break from the convention centre, and spent some time outside, surveying the assembled crowds. Lucretia wouldn’t allow me to take photos of the ladies wearing only body-paint, but you can trust my judgement that the Lady Predator, and Poison Ivy were immaculately inked, with much attention to detail!

Morgana and a Jedi

Morgana (Lucretia) taking a break from bat wing and snake skin. Also, a ( very) young Jedi.

Later on was the Masquerade! A chance for the costumers to show off their creations! I was bundled towards the signing-up stand, and quizzed about who we were meant to be! After recommending John Boorman’s movie to anyone who would listen, we were put in a queue and waited our turn for 15 seconds of fame.

Unfortunately, this meant we missed the Kiddies Cosplay. We’d seen several very cute younglings, including a 4 year old Wonder Woman whose tiara kept falling over her eyes!

In the queue, we chatted with our fellow Fancy Dress Folk, including Dr Who (David Tennant version), a proudly-shoddy Batman, and a Warhammer 40k Imperial Guardsman.

A video of the procession (By Dalek Sram) can be found on YouTube (skip to 2:58 for us!), but here is what we looked like:

Merlin And Morgana

Merlin And Morgana

The Best Judge in the World!

The Best Judge in the World!

Apparently, the judges were only supposed to choose the best three costumes, but this lady insisted that they also have three “Honourable Mentions”.

The Big Daddy robot costume was a no-brainer. A huge amount of effort, and well-deserved Mention.

The Imperial Guardsman we’d chatted with was also called up to take a bow.

But the most surprising was when they asked “The Excalibur couple” to take their place on stage! YAY! All of Lucretia’s hard work had paid off! We didn’t win a cash prize, or an all-expenses-paid trip to the Anime studios, but we did have the attention of the entire convention (if only for a few moments!).

To finish, the last couple of pictures:

Lucretia meets Negan

Lucretia meets Negan

Dark Magician Girl

Dark Magician Girl

 

So, yes, we had lots of fun! Chatted with some interesting people, saw some very silly costumes (including non-costumes, if you include the body-paint ladies!), and failed to buy any merchandise! We will be attending next year! Watch this space for our costume ideas!

 

 

Rory, Rory, Tell Us A Story!

Rory's Story Cubes (Fright)

Fright Cubes!

We recently attended a friend’s birthday gathering, and while we were sat celebrating our success at the Ludorati Escape Room, one of the guests produced a handful of what we initially thought were dice. But these were no ordinary dice! These were Rory’s Story Cubes! Sets of dice, but instead of being marked with the traditional ‘pips’ or numbers, these featured pictures. One set (“Fright”, pictured left) had skulls, ghosts, traps and other scary images, while the second (“Clues”) was covered with symbols you might expect from a detective novel, such as Magnifying Glass, Fingerprint, DNA Helix, and Blood-Stain! Each set has three dice, and although there are many ways to use them, we went for the simplest: Roll all 6 dice, and make a story from how they land! Mix the order around to suit. We took turns to explain what our roll signified, each of us telling a more spine-chilling tale than the last, until we felt it best to stop, lest we scare away the other patrons of The Salutation!

There are currently nearly two dozen sets of Story Cubes, each featuring 3-9 dice, in various themes (including Dr Who, and Moomins, to go with the more generic Actions and Voyages!). “Rules” are included with each set, but they are more like guidelines, and the symbols and pictures do not have set meanings. The DNA spiral might mean finding a bio-metric clue, such as hair, or you may feel it refers to a family connection! The Portcullis could indicate a castle, but might be some other protected building, such as a Bank Vault, or even a person acting in a guarded manner!

Story Cubes

What Would You Write?

Here we have one of the stories we told! Shadow-in-Doorway -> Poison -> No Entry -> Microscope -> Television -> Blood!

I’m sure you can come up with your own tale about these pictures! Is the shadowed figure the Hero or Villain? Why is the entrance barred? Who’s blood ends the tale?

No two stories are ever the same! In fact, we had fun taking the same dice, and each telling a different story from them! In one, it wasn’t poison, but a Forbidden Potion that had magical properties!

An excellent way to cure writer’s block, or just while away an afternoon, you can use them solo, or with a group of friends. Mix and match them as you like. Stick to the “Rules”, or make your own! YOU are the author of these tales!

I am tempted to use a few of these cubes to tie in with my #WhatWouldYouWrite twitter feed, asking readers to interpret the minimal cues I provide (often #TodaysTitle), and suggest possible stories. Is that something you would be interested in? Do you search for inspiration? Search no more! Rory’s Story Cubes are here!

Why not tell us about what stories you have told with them? Or what you use to inspire your tales? Or even how you spend your days?

More Redesigns

To try to keep a coherent feel cross the Mad Dwarf brand, I have begun rebuilding the PC Wizard website.

Taking the main Mad Dwarf site as a template (as I have with Crystal Wizard and TechNo Prisoners), I have kept the blue and white of the original PC Wizard, giving a level of continuity.

PC Wizard

PC Wizard redesign

I still have a few details to iron out, but it has been a reasonably easy job, copying text from the existing site into the new template, and tweaking to account for the design differences.

It will soon go live, at which point there will be an announcement, and possibly a Grand Re-Opening!  Watch This Space!

Another New Redesign (Again!)

As you may have noticed, the main site, thecrystalwizard.co.uk, has undergone a redesign.

This is part of the recent re-acquisition of our Mother Site, maddwarf.co.uk. Mad Dwarf Productions (MDP) was the original “umbrella organisation” for all of my projects, but due to circumstances beyond my control, the website fell into disrepair. My recent projects sprang up without the guiding light of MDP to keep them coherent, and the designs all went in their own directions.

Now that MDP is back, I am slowly bringing all of the wayward children back into the fold. TechnoPrisoners was designed alongside MDP, and actually sits as sub-site, befitting its station as the first incarnation of MDP-Online. Crystal Wizard has now been brought in line, and the other sites will soon follow.

While I do not profess to be a Master Web-Designer, I have put no small effort into both the technical and aesthetic sides of this design, and I hope it works for you!

The colour schemes have been colour-matched, using a different scheme for each site, to represent their unique flavours, while relying on a common template. The base concept of using labelled Image Links aims to make the site both visually attractive and easy to use, giving quick recognition to each area. Rounded corners softens the look, giving a slightly more informal feel.

Behind the scenes, files have been tidied, renamed and optimised, stripping away unused clutter. The code for the pages has been almost entirely rewritten, incorporating labelled areas (DIV and SECTION tags), and many design elements moved to separate Style Sheets, for ease of maintenance.

I have tried to follow Best Practices for accessibility, incorporating ALT tags to describe images, and making the pages compatible with screen-reading technology for text-to-speech systems.

The Dark Art of SEO (Search-Engine Optimisation) has featured, but as this Alchemy involves tainting ones soul with the ever-vain search for Impressions, Clicks and Likes, I have kept it to the minimum required.

Analytics are run through Google’s offerings, tracking page hits, entry and exit pages, user flow and interactions. This anonymised data is useful for gauging interest, and locating faults, and can be used to suggest area that can use more attention.

Instead of creating a separate Style for mobile devices, the base theme has been written to automatically adjust, allowing the device to display content appropriately. An important design consideration, as people have a wide range of technologies to view the Web on, with a variety of screen-sizes available.

I hope this will lead to a comfortable, coherent experience for my readers, and welcome any feedback regarding the new design!

Shakespeare Lives

I’m really not sure what to make of Viktoria Modesta‘s new feature: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“.

Made as part of the British Council‘s Shakespeare Lives #2016 programme of events marking 400 years since the Bard’s death, it shows VM as Titania, linked to some kind of digital dreaming machine, playing out part of the famous production in a Virtual Reality.

Titania

Titania Dreaming

The video contains some very striking imagery, switching between the futuristic lab where Titania sleeps and her dark, neon-lit imagined-reality, where she dances, free to live out any fantasy she wishes. In the dream, she is clothed entirely in a white 3d-printed outfit resembling some kind of skeletal structure, contrasting with Bottom’s black leather ‘armour’ (complete with smooth, full-face mask). But beyond the imagery, what else is there?

The original play contained themes of Finding Oneself, Dreams vs Reality, and (of course) Sexual Tension. These themes are well reflected in this  modern telling, if conveyed in a way Shakespeare could hardly have dreamed(!) of. Oberon is concerned that Titania is losing herself in the Dream, and fixating on her idealised self-image. The masks worn in the Dreamed Reality mirror the ones worn by actors, if a little more dramatic(!).

Director Sing J Lee allows VM to explore infatuation, alter-ego overpowering self, and self-presentation, echoing the play-within-a-play of the original and asking questions of all who would stand on stage and perform (and of those of us who would not!).

As I began – I am still not entirely sure what to make of it. But I hope that it fulfils it’s main intention of drawing the next generation towards The Great Bard. And also, towards VM, who, I feel, has only started to make the impact that she is capable of!

VM

VM

#TodaysTitle

For those of you who haven’t been following my Facebook or Twitter, I’ve been running a series I call “Today’s Title (What Would You Write?)”

I have been known to suffer from writer’s block, and lack of inspiration, and i’m sure others of you do, too. So I post some suggested titles of works, to see what people would make of them. I usually offer some alternatives, to get things started.

Stolen Moon

Stolen moon

The most recent post is “Stolen Moon”. Does this sound like a sci-fi epic to you? Did aliens steal the moon, or did humans steal an alien moon? Or does it bring to mind romantic thoughts? Lovers stealing kisses by moonlight? Or has their Moon been “stolen” by a jealous rival? Or a family-member who disapproves of their relationship and thwarts their plans to meet? Is it a heart-warmer, a tear-jerker or a tragedy?

Most of the Today’s Titles are based on the kind of day I’ve been having, as evidenced by “Road Block” and “Cancelled Appointment”, while a few rely on my interpretation of the Random Word Generator.

Once the title is chosen and published, it is always interesting to see what ideas other people bring. So why not follow one of these links, and let me know #WhatWouldYouWrite?

This Is Not Art

This is Not Art

This Is Not Art

Well, it’s not. Its a cheap rip-off of a well-known painting. All I’ve done is replace the text, the better to help you think on what isn’t Art. While the original meaning is not lost, it has taken on a fresh, related, meaning from its new context. Hold on …

But what about this:

Not Art!

Not Art!

Now that can’t be Art! A rushed copy, using whatever materials are close to hand, and an online translation algorithm. Well, I wanted to get this post written today, not next week, when I’d sourced a reasonable facsimile of Magritte’s pipe, and an expert translator who understood the context of the piece. But now I’ve said that, it makes this piece part of the zeitgeist, a perfect example of the Internet Age of Instant Gratification. #Art.

Opium

Opium

OK, lets find something that seriously is NOT Art: Adverts. Surely images produced purely to sell products can’t be Art? I just don’t see the artistic value in making pictures or videos whose only measurable merit is how much profit they bring in for their share-holders. I mean, they are just created to have the maximum emotional impact, whether that be humour, lust, guilt or envy, leading to influenced behaviour … hang on there one minute …

But what about the products themselves? Packaged  to maximise shelf-space and branded to be eye-catching, that can’t count as Art can it? Do designers really put that much artistic effort into what is essentially a disposable container for fizzy sugar-water?

Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola

I’ll admit that some products have gone on to become iconic images, but this cannot have been the intentions of the advertising executives, stuck in their artless offices, scheming about how best to relieve us of our hard-earned crust? Can it?

Adverts often rely on using sex and sexuality to sell their wares. but can Nick Kamen prancing around in his undies really be compared to Michelangelo’s “David”? While The Nude in Art has a long and illustrious history, having a woman shove her ‘assets’ in your face while shouting “BUY MORE STUFF” isn’t really Art is it?

Mr Chad

Wot! No Art?

OK, lets move to the other end of the scale. Graffiti. The puerile scrawlings on toilet walls. Vulgar rhymes and anatomically-unlikely doodles. Even the colourful “tags” that are left on bridges and sidings are usually more notable for their abstruse placement than original, worthwhile content. This vandalism of public property does little to embiggen the World of Art. Pushing your personal or political agenda through anonymous images and slogans, designed to shock and titillate, can hardly be worthy of the name Art, can it?

Politics

Politics!

Food. Food isn’t Art, no matter what Instagram tries to tell you! Food is for eating, not taking photos of and showing the whole world!

Chippy Art

A Study In Colour 3

Salad Art

A Study In Colour 2

Fried Art

A Study In Colour 1

 

 

 

 

 

Do we really care what our food looks like? Would it be just as pleasant in greys and blacks? Surely after the first mouthful we would realise that our brain has been lied to, and shut down the illusion?

I’m not concerned here with Art made from food. Bacon Dresses, carved tomatoes, and that stop-motion video sequence can all be called Art. but food, presented as a meal, to be eaten?

Despite the obvious similarities of colour in the first two examples here, they are different meals. The visual similarities produce no effect on their taste, and certainly not on their nutritional value.

So there we have it. A short summary of what might (or might not) be described as Not Art.

But I am often told (mostly by Lucretia) that Art is subjective. So what subject do you feel is not Art? Where do we find a lack of artistic expression?

I Haven’t Been Reading Much Lately

Well, actually I have.

A fair amount of the conversation at the pub is centred around what novels people have read recently. From the latest Joe Abercrombie to a re-reading of Dune, we dissect the content, opine on our favourite characters, and bemoan the lack of further books (or bemoan the fall in quality of the later ones).

I say “we”, but in general, I am excluded from these talks. In the last fifteen years (since I bought a car, and stopped getting the bus to work), I have read considerably less than one novel per year. I have thoroughly enjoyed the ones I have read,  but I tend to find other things to do with my time. Often (although by no means always) things where I am the creator, rather than the consumer. I have several websites to create/source content for, an ever-growing toy soldier collection, along with the battle-field scenery I have made, multiple half-finished (and a couple of half-started) electronics projects, to name but a few. I also play games of many varieties (computer-based, card and board games, role-playing and other narratives (RPG), and the “augmented reality” Pokemon Go).

Several of these activities inherently include reading. Quite a bit is reference work, such as the W3schools website-tutorials, or RPG Rulebooks. I have had to relearn a lot of electronics, pouring over manuals and discussing projects on web-forums. The rpg.net games forums take up quite a bit of my time, including the speculative-fiction around the settings for the games.

But when the conversation lulls, and someone breaks the silence with “Anyone read anything good recently?”, they do not appreciate my answer of “CSS Tutorials” or “The Exalted chapter-heading stories“. “Someone on the internet had quite a good back-story for their character” doesn’t seem to go down as well as “<published author you may have heard of> has a new book out”. And no-one (except maybe The Ardingthoth) is interested in “I learnt how to reduce the pin-out usage of my Arduino, by adding a series-to-parallel shift-register”!

I have collected a few novels, including actually buying some, but they are still unread. China Mieville’s “UN LUN DUN” looks very interesting, and I was impressed with “The City and The City”, so I should get round to reading it. I got half-way through the first chapter of “The Three-Body Problem” before I put it aside, awaiting a time when I can give it the attention it deserves. They sit, alongside “The Antivirus Hacker’s Handbook”, “In The Beginning … Was The Command Line” and “The Steampunk Bible”, gathering dust as I concentrate on other endeavours. (ASIDE: Also on that bookshelf are a soldering iron, a copy of the “Blood Royale” board game, a stack of printer paper, Fodor’s USA (1991) and Spike Milligan’s “Hitler: My Part in His Downfall”)

It’s not that I don’t like reading. I do like it. I read a lot. But not novels. It’s not that I don’t like novels. I do. Well, it depends on the novel, but I am happy that the medium exists, and have read many a good novel, novella, short-story and 35-book series in my time. But not recently. Ask me about Ray Bradbury. E.E. “Doc” Smith. Tolkien, or Le Guin.

But don’t be surprised if, when asked “What have you read recently?”, that although I have read a lot (possibly more than you), I answer: “Nothing much”.