Monday, November 20, 2006

Tetris Moments

I had to explain to Helen what I meant by the term "Tetris Moments", so I thought I'd try and define it here as well.

The 1980s computer game Tetris involves the player controlling a stream of falling pieces, each made from a random configuration four 4 regularly-connected squares, so that when they land in a constrained silo of previously-fallen pieces, they pack as densely as possible. When densely packed, so that there are contiguous rows of squares from one wall of the silo to the other, that row vanishes, so that there is more vertical room for falling pieces.

If the player is careless, he will leave rows of squares with gaps in, which will not disappear and he will find the messy pile of incomplete rows growing upwards until he does not have time to rotate new falling pieces. He will quickly see the silo overflow and the game end.

I find Tetris psychologically rewarding because it is a fight against chaos, which rewards best practices, and appeals to my compulsive nature. It garnishes this worthy appeal with the spice of recklessness: specifically, it may be possible to allow rows of squares to build up with missing squares directly above one another, creating a long thin vertical space. When this is exactly four rows tall, and is the only space in those rows, the best possible piece to randomly appear next is one with plugs this gap perfectly. By rotating and positioning so that it then does just that, it makes those four rows all vanish at once, and furthermore, takes itself with them, leaving no detritus whatsoever. It is the single most efficient gambit, and combines the potential-to-actual benefit-redemption of a rugby conversion with an undeniable similarity to sexual penetration.

So what is a Tetris Moment? I think it's when you've been biding your time, laying the groundwork, and just hoping that the right opportunity will come along, and it does, by surprise: a combination of good planning and good luck leading to the best possible outcome.

This weekend seemed full of them. I planned to go to the barber's late so that he wouldn't be busy, and as I walked in the only other customer in the shop was paying and leaving. It wouldn't have been a Tetris Moment if I hadn't deliberately left it late, or the shop had been empty, or I'd had to wait at all. I set up my new compost bin just as Helen was repotting some plants, giving me a source of starter compost and dead shrubs to get going with. Best of all, I finally got round to filling in the missing episodes in my collection of Time Gentlemen Please recordings, by capturing the episode and a half needed from VHS, authoring the DVD volumes I was now able to, and then contemplating the complete set on my shelf.

I've been wandering what other people call Tetris Moments or what I would have before the advent of the game (I think I first encountered it on a Sun workstation in early 1989). It's come to me: Game, set and match.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Transcending Convention

I made a collossal error at work today, akin to amputating the wrong limb of a patient, so I am being quietly left alone while the powers that be determine whether they are feeling merely annoyed, or also inconvenienced. If the latter I may be starting my Christmas holidays a few weeks early, but just in case, I think I'd better look busy: hence this entry, which at least generates some audible keystrokes.

L-R Graeme Harper, Eric Saward, Philip Hinchcliffe, (Cassandra), myself

Last weekend, I went to Dimensions 2006, my first Doctor Who convention in three years, and my first ever sober. That even includes my debut in 1979, when surreptitious halves of cider
enlivened my thirteen-year-old diet. Was there really any doubt whatsoever that I would become anything other than a problem drinker? The last one I went to in 2003 really shows where those sips of cider led to - bumming cigs all weekend, wondering around with a piss-stained crotch while hugging alarmed actresses, passing out in the lobby, losing my jacket, wallet, and camera, and classiest of all, renting breakfast for half an hour before returning it to the hotel via the U-bend. AA say you have to hit rock bottom before starting recovery, and that weekend still burns in my memory as almost too painful to recall.

So, it was with some caution that I arrived at the Swallow Hotel, Stockton, a couple of hours' train ride from Edinburgh last Friday night. I took my time freshening up in my room and didn't hit the lounge until around ten. I was greeted by some old pals, some of whom I've known socially, and others who I've worked with. Four and a half hours later, I was still up gossipping.

In my last few years of con going, I felt I was starting to haunt them rather than participiate - I'd linger in my hotel room, drink alone all day, and not really get involved with any of the programmed events. This weekend, I was still alone for some of the time, but quite electively - I'd decided to carve up the homogeneous days of guest interview panels and lounging with quick stints in the hotel's mini-gym and quicker interventions with my laptop, which spent the eekend batch processing radio dramas. If that sounds a bit tragic, do consider that it's a way of ensuring y to-do list gets ticked even when I lose a valuable weekend at home. No, actually, it does sound ncredibly tragic.

I was a bit tense on Saturday, because a few days earlier I'd had my offer of conducting on-stage guest interviews taken up, and been scheduled to talk to Philip Hinchcliffe, Graeme Harper, and Eric Saward on stage on the Sunday morning. Despite keeping a notepad with me all day, I'd come up with no more than a handful of ideas. The on-stage cabaret on Saturday night took my mind off it, starting with Butlins-style entertainment and becoming gradually more subverted to the theme of the weekend until climaxing with Toby Hadoake's Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf, a show which resonated even more with me than Will Smith's Misplaced Childhood at last year's Fringe. A quick introduction handshake with Hinchcliffe and Harper and I was off to bed.

I woke early and practiced some asanas as the sun rose over the Tees, and then (me, not the sun) bumped into Hinchcliffe waiting for the lift. He had produced my favourite Doctor Who stories, when I was exactly the right age to appreciate them, and is now a youthful educated sixty-something. I wasn't quite dumbstruck, but his lack of any kind of frothy bonhomie froze my attempts to make small talk. Panic began to grow, and I beat it down.

Into the green room, where the event staff were being warm and efficient, and made me, a mere guest interviewer feel appreciated and special. Harper came in and, sensing my slight anxiety, helped me feel at home. I'd spent an evening in a hotel bar with him 21 years earlier and I knew he'd be fine, and he was. Finally Saward arrived, even cooler than Hinchcliffe, yet almost amused at what was going on around him. We were escorted to the stage, where I was introduced, walked on through the TARDIS doors (to a round of applause! Oh yes!) and introduced my guests. I'd worked out an opening question and primed them all beforehand, and we were still covering it 20 minutes in, the first time I checked my watch. I felt like Tony Banks after the second song of Genesis' first concert without Peter Gabriel - of course it was going to be alright - how could it not have ever been alright?

I was very pleased with the way it went. I matched Hinchcliffe and Saward's educated tones, moved discussion on with supplemtary questions, and passed the ball between the three of them until they were doing it themselves. I threw it open to the floor fifteem minutes before we closed, and mostly got sharp questions apart from the one I'd been expecting from the convention's pet eccentric, and another from an elderly lady from nearby who'd misapprehended both Hinchcliffe's role (former, not present producer) and agenda (Doctor Who's audience should include adults, not comprise them). I interceded and all was well. In the green room later, Hinchcliffe enthusiastically praised my questions, and in so doing, made my weekend. Wonderful man.

I breathed out. Then I noticed Paul McGann in the room. Eek. At least his sudden appearance wasn't as startling as that earlier of Will Thorp, who essentially played the devil in Doctor Who this year.

The rest of the day involved watching my pals from Big Finish take questions on stage, and a few more of the interview panels, the highlight being Paul McGann and his immediate predecessor Sylvester McCoy on stage together reminiscing about how they had exchanged the keys to the TARDIS ten years ago. And, if I'm honest, enjoying all the costumes being paraded around the lobby, for a variety of reasons, some more noble than others.

Unlike three years previously, I came away feeling optimistic and fulfilled. I'd seen my mates, met some heroes, laughed out loud a lot, stoked my desire for recognition and approval, and tentatively renewed relations with a couple of publishers with a view to maybe, just maybe, getting back into print in the next year or two. I'd finally met face to face a friend I made on-line over ten years ago, completely by surprise. Best of all was spending a weekend with a very old friend, who doesn't drink, and had, I think, almost written me off as a hopeless case. He seemed impressed and relieved by my continuing recovery. That alone made it worthwhile.

Back to normal this weekend, for two days of domestic fun, including setting up our new compost bin, and the new James Bond film. I wonder which I will enjoy most. No, really.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Pigs on the Wave

Earlier this year, my friend Davy opined that the cover of the latest Muse album as "the most Pink Floyd thing" he's ever seen.

One of the new BBC One continuity films seems to be similarly inspired, echoing both the procine mascot of the band and the projection disk they performed beneath.