Consequences Part 19

December 30th, 2011 by Wordsman

“I’ll bet you spent most of the morning trying to figure out what was going on,” she continued.  “Doing whatever you could to find out what had been done to you.”

“I was looking for a cure.”

“You were looking for an answer.  And you won’t be satisfied until you get one.  Suppose the song just disappeared right now and never bothered you again.  Would you really be okay with that?  Being better but having no idea why, or even what was wrong in the first place?”

“Fine,” he snapped.  The woman’s pressing was starting to get almost as annoying as the earworm.  Of course, he could have just walked away, but then he would be taking the risk of having the vile tune return.  More important even than that, though, was the fact that walking away without saying anything would have been equivalent to admitting that he had lost the argument.  Peter Hamlin did not like to lose, and the thing he hated to lose above all others was an argument.

The woman didn’t even smile.  The experience with the police officer had taught her that gloating brought nothing but trouble.

“But how can you teach me, anyway?  You just said you’ve never played the flute.”

“I can sing.”

“That’s it?  You’re just going to sing it to me, and then I’m supposed to play it back?”

“It should work, if you’re any good at listening.  Now, I shouldn’t even have to do that, because you think that you’ve heard the song many times already.  But you can’t remember it, even if you try, can you?  Gee, that’s awfully mysterious, don’t you think?”  As it turned out, the woman was not as good at not gloating as she thought she was.

“Hang on.”  Peter turned around to look at the crowd of subway passengers, which he had all but forgotten were there (they had been ignoring him, too, so it was all fair).  “What if they hear you?  Will they be . . . affected?”

She shook her head.  “It doesn’t work like that unless you’re doing it intentionally . . . uhh, most of the time,” she added when Peter gave her a dirty look.  “And I wasn’t singing that time, anyway!  I just hit you.”

“Yes, that continues to be a very comforting thought.  Let’s just get this over with.”

The woman took a deep breath.  Peter expected to hear an angry, violent noise, like a cross between the buzzing of a swarm of hornets, cannon fire, and a traffic jam’s worth of car horns, but what the woman sang was calm, gentle, even beautiful.  He began to suspect that her claim of “I can sing” had been a significant understatement.  Still, the tune was immediately recognizable as the one that had nearly driven him mad that morning.

“Now you try.”

So he did.  What he played was the Beherrschunglied, in the same way that a toddler can pile a bunch of yellow Legos in a vaguely triangular shape and call it the Great Pyramid.  The woman, who had never been a music teacher, did a poor job of concealing her disappointment.

“I told you this wouldn’t work.”

“No, no, you’ll be fine!” she said, in the voice of someone who knows a project has to succeed only because she has invested too much for it to fail.  “You just need a little practice, that’s all.  Just, uh, try it a few more times until you get the hang of it.  But . . . maybe you should do it outside.  You know . . . there are fewer people out there, so . . .”

Peter walked off, saving the woman from having to come up with a logical ending to her suggestion that didn’t involve telling the truth, which was: “I don’t want to listen to you anymore.”  He glared at the flute.  “I used to be able to play you,” he muttered grumpily as he went up the stairs.

The woman watched him go.  Her spirits, temporarily raised by the thought of actually getting out of there, were slowly sinking back down below ground.  The boy was right, of course; there was no way this plan could work.  The Beherrschunglied was a fearsome weapon, but it was only as good as the person who wielded it.  For example, an above-average rendition would be required to control Peter Hamlin, at least on a day when he was well-rested and in full possession of his mental faculties.  Legends spoke of the song’s ability to sap the will of entire armies, though such a feat would require a performance the likes of which had never been heard on Earth.  The way he had just played, she figured he would be lucky to get a couple of blades of grass to bend.

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December 27th, 2011 by Wordsman

KYPC is off for the holidays. See you next week.

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This Day in History Entry #150

December 27th, 2011 by Wordsman

With its architecture Byzantine
This is something that has to be seen
‘Twas the biggest to come
For a millennium
In a town famously in between

Event: Dedication of the Hagia Sophia
Year: 537
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Consequences Part 18

December 23rd, 2011 by Wordsman

Peter moved to sit down, but then he remembered where he was.  The woman may have been fine sitting on the subway station floor, but she wasn’t wearing a suit (also, she was handcuffed to a garbage can).  He felt bad for her, though not yet as bad as he felt for himself.  He had nothing else he needed to be doing, and that song was still in his head . . . somewhere . . . probably.  He figured he might as well listen to what she had to say.

“I’ve been here for seven months.  All this time, I’ve been trying to get people to go on an adventure.  And you know what I’ve finally realized?  People don’t want to go on an adventure.  No one in this crowd does, anyway.”  She indicated the stream of subway passengers with her nose.  “It’s like I’m a beer vendor, and it took me more than half a year to realize that I had set up shop outside an AA meeting instead of at a baseball game.”

“Yeah, I can think of much better places to look for potential adventurers.”  Space Camp.  The first day of an Introduction to Archaeology class.  Wal-Mart.  “Why didn’t you try asking for help in a more normal way?”

“Because I have an abnormal problem.  And I don’t know if you noticed, but apparently I’m not very popular with the police.”  She rattled the cuffs.  “And how about you?  Are you an adventurer?”

Saying “no” would have felt like a betrayal of the Speech he had given that morning, so Peter did what any good lawyer would: he didn’t answer the question.  “I’m still not convinced that what you’re selling is an adventure.  Waltzing into the police station and trying to make off with a key doesn’t sound like much of one to me.”

“I know.”  She groaned again.  “This just came up today.  Now I don’t even have the thing that no one wants.  That crazy policewoman confiscated my beer and replaced it with week-old fish.”

“But it wouldn’t have been that different, would it?  It still would have involved this . . . crazy music stuff?”  He couldn’t help but be somewhat intrigued by the suggestion of adventure, so long as he wasn’t the one that had to go on it.  For a moment he was slightly glad that the only thing he could use his flute for at that point was to inspire pity.

The old woman eyed him carefully.  Despite her months of practice, she was not at all good at manipulating people.  She was no better at working angles than she had been in high school geometry class.  But even the guy batting .167 gets a hit now and then.  “You don’t believe, do you?  You were actually under the spell of the Beherrschunglied, and you still don’t believe.”

Like 82% of Americans, Peter was not comfortable discussing his beliefs with strangers (those who are, though they make up only 18% of the population, occupy 95% of the volume).  “If you keep saying things like ‘under the spell,’ I’m going to believe it even less,” he replied awkwardly.

“No,” she pressed, all the while thinking, Don’t screw this up don’t screw this up don’t screw this up.  “You’re not the type to be convinced by words.  You need to see it in action.  That’s the only way you’ll know for sure.”

An alarm went off in the back of Peter’s head.  He hadn’t had very good luck with alarms that day.  Or with things at the back of his head, for that matter.  His eyes narrowed.  “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing despicable.”  She shrugged, demonstrating that shrugging is yet another thing you can’t do comfortably when you’re handcuffed to a garbage can.  “I’ll teach you the song, and then you can go out and try it.  If it doesn’t work, then I’m a crazy old woman and you don’t have to worry about anything I say.  If it does, you can command the person to do something completely harmless like wave at you and be done with it.  No keys or police stations involved.  What do you say?”

Peter said nothing.  It sounded like a trick.

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Know Your Picture Characters Entry #84

December 20th, 2011 by Wordsman

A. 蛮 B. 独 C. 蝟 D. 虹

E. 掻 F. 蛇 G. 強 H. 蝋

It happened.  I missed the deadline.  Oh, the shame, the shame of it all!

Okay, I’m over it.  And anyway, it looks like one or two of my regular readers may have missed the deadline too.  Oh well.  This way we can set it up as a straight one-on-one showdown, mano-a-mano, Theoman vs. Shirley: which of the two contestants that actually use their real names (sort of) will emerge triumphant?

Round A: Theoman sees a hedgehog with all those points, but he’s thinking too small-scale; A is actually bristling with spears.  Or possibly just some really uncomfortable goat wool.  Shirley’s got the right idea here: we’re looking at a BARBARIAN.  Advantage: her.

Round B: Both contestants were wide of the mark on this one, so we must raise the age-old question: Which is more like GERMANY, snakes or rainbows?  (I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure this question was on my final exam for 8th grade geography class.)  Maybe we’d better stick to this character’s other meaning, “alone.”  Last time I went to the zoo, a lot of the snakes were piled on top of each other to the point where it was difficult to tell how many there were, while we all know that the double rainbow is an occurrence so rare as to make us doubt our own sanity.  Theoman takes this round, and we’re all tied up.

Round C: Is a draw, because both contestants guessed strength.  Both contestants are thus equally . . . wrong.  Though our friend Sonic the HEDGEHOG thanks you for thinking he looks so buff.

Round D: And now we get the reverse of the “Snakes vs. Rainbows” battle (coming to you soon as an iPhone app from PopCap!)  Here, however, the decision requires no judgment call on my part.  The elegant simplicity here is the RAINBOW, though we feel obliged to point out to Shirley that this is not two characters but one character made up of two parts.  But we won’t deduct points for that.  Shirley’s on top again.

Round E: This one would seem to be a foregone conclusion, because Theoman stayed within the boundaries of the challenge and Shirley didn’t.  But does that mean he’s closer?  Not that I’ve encountered many myself, but I would think that when running into a barbarian you would get a lot more than just a SCRATCH.  On the other hand, if you fail to swat those flies, as Shirley suggested, that’s exactly what you’re going to end up doing.  Let it never be said that I don’t encourage thinking outside the box.

Round F: Germany and hedgehogs.  Which is more like a SNAKE?  For the sake of political correctness and animal solidarity, we’re going to have to go with the latter.  Shirley’s on a roll.

Round G: Another tie.  Don’t scratch that character too hard.  You don’t know your own STRENGTH.

Round H: Theoman attempts a comeback by correctly identifying WAX, but it’s too little, too late.  Shirley wins KYPC this week by a score of 4-2-2 (or, if you’re only counting legitimately correct answers, 2-1).  Congrats to the contestants: you’re all winners, though none of you can read much Japanese.  But you’re not bad at making things up on the fly.

Are you cold?  I’m cold.  Time to heat things up with the fire radical.  After all, it’s only two days from the winter solstice, the official end of AUTUMN.  And then only three days after that is Christmas–better hope you don’t get a lump of COAL in your stocking.  That would be a DISASTER!  Christmas would be RUINED!  But there’s no need to turn PALE: you could simply toss it in the fireplace and curl up in a nice cozy RUG.  After all, things could be much worse.  You could be out working the FIELDS, or undergoing MOXIBUSTION.  Or, even worse, you could be trying to figure out what the heck all these characters mean.

A. 秋 B. 炭 C. 災 D. 畑

E. 灸 F. 淡 G. 毯 H. 滅

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This Day in History Entry #149

December 20th, 2011 by Wordsman

“They’ll destroy the world if they’re let loose!”
“Do these ‘atoms’ have practical use?”
“We could eat ’em, and then
We’d become supermen!”
“Let’s just smash ’em to generate juice.”

Event: EBR-I in Idaho becomes the first nuclear power plant to generate electricity (it powered 4 light bulbs)
Year: 1951
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Consequences Part 17

December 16th, 2011 by Wordsman

“Don’t you just put your lips together and blow?”

“I think that’s whistling.”

“Isn’t it basically the same?”

“No.  Have you ever played the flute?”

“Not that I can remember.”

“Then why are you giving me advice?”

“You look like you could use it.”

Simon Park Station was getting busier.  The people who took off early on Friday afternoons—who made up a significant portion of the downtown workforce—were streaming through, hoping to refresh themselves before going out again or to fall asleep watching TV.  Not a one of them was interested in the conversation between the old woman and a young man holding a flute.

“You could say that again,” Peter told her.  He liked to get things done on his own if he could, but he was not opposed to asking others for advice.  So far that day his only advisors had been the old woman, a variety of semi-reliable websites, and a sleep-deprived Peter Hamlin.  It was no wonder that things had gone so poorly.

“So, can we get started, then?”  The woman shifted awkwardly to remind him that she was handcuffed to a garbage can.  She didn’t see how anyone could forget something like that, but the boy hadn’t yet proven himself to be all that bright.

Peter didn’t answer right away.  He was still thinking about advice.  Unfortunately he couldn’t spot anyone around who looked particularly helpful.  He wished there was a police officer around who could tell him what the deal with this woman was, but there was none to be seen.  Shouldn’t there have been someone on duty?  For that matter, what about the cop that had handcuffed the old woman?  Where had she gone?  Why hadn’t she come back?

He sighed.  “No, I don’t think we can.  I just told you that I can’t really play this thing anymore.”  He looked down at the flute and felt a pang of guilt—guilt for not being able to help the woman, or guilt for losing a skill he had once had?  “And anyway, I don’t like your plan.  I’m not going to force someone else to break into the police station for me.  That’s despicable.”

“You’re going to give up now?  When you’ve done this much already?  You can’t back out!  You’re in too deep!”

“I’m ‘in too deep’?  What are you talking about?  You make it sound like I’m working for the mob.”  He briefly considered the possibility that the woman was part of the mob, which just goes to show how messed up his thought process was.  “What have I done?”

“You stole that flute!”

“I borrowed this flute—which I used to own—from my mother.  I don’t think they’re going to send me to prison for that one.”

The woman groaned.  “God, I’m bad at this.”

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This Day in History Entry #148

December 13th, 2011 by Wordsman

It took way longer than eighty days
And he wasn’t the first anyways
But to circle the girth
Of the entire Earth
Hey, let’s give Drake a smidgen of praise

Event: Francis Drake’s fleet departs from Plymouth. By the time he returned, he had circumnavigated the globe.
Year: 1577
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Know Your Picture Characters Entry #83

December 12th, 2011 by Wordsman

A. 呆 B. 朽 C. 果 D. 床

E. 杯 F. 枕 G. 宋 H. 困

The holiday season is truly here.  You know how I know?  Because Theoman sees an empty box and immediately thinks trouble.  And what self-respecting kid on Christmas morning wouldn’t?  But really, he should think back.  When he first opened that box at the top of A, before he channeled his inner consumer and asked the question every child asks this time of year (“Where’s mine?”), his first reaction would have been one of utterly unmitigated amazement.

Shirley saw amazement in the next character over, but what’s really going on is that this unfriendly character is making a rude gesture, not a rude glance.  Why?  Well, rudeness breeds its like–someone just let off a really nasty smell over there.  Seriously, it’s like decaying flesh or something.  (Theoman knew exactly what was going on here at B.  I don’t mean to name names, but if I had a finger to point at the source of the problem, well . . .)

A Fan, on the other hand, saw decay in C: the ugly Mr. Potter.  But where’s his chair?  He couldn’t take over the town–except in an alternate reality–he couldn’t shut down the Building and Loan, he couldn’t beat the Bailey boys, and now he’s lying helpless on the ground!  Looks like his failure is complete.  (Theoman was in the know here again.  I guess we can thank him for giving the heartless old dinosaur a friendly shove.)

Celebrating his victory over the Scrooges of the world, Theoman decided to head to D to celebrate with a nice steaming cup of hot chocolate, cider, or other appropriately seasonal beverage (can one have steaming hot egg nog?)  Unfortunately, he picked a bad seat–see how it’s missing a side over there?  Now he’s flat on the floor with his old nemesis!  (Before attempting to sit, he really should have talked to Shirley, who knows a floor when she sees one.)

Shirley, ever the Good Samaritan, rushed in to help, of course, but found that she had rushed a little too quickly.  Tired, she lay down at E.  What she thought was a pillow, however, was actually Theoman’s dropped cup.  Hopefully it was no longer steaming hot.

Now at F, A Fan recalled the poor, disturbed Mr. Gower.  Mr. Gower didn’t mean to mix up the pills.  He didn’t know they were poison.  He shouldn’t even be at work at all; he just needs a place to cry.  I recommend a nice pillow.

At G, Theoman’s amazed, A Fan’s feeling just a bit scandalized, and Shirley wants to raise a toast.  To what?  To the Song Dynasty, of course.  Why?  Well . . . because they were so amazingly sexy, apparently.

And now we come to the end, and brother, it shows.  Shirley wants things to be over.  A Fan wants a drink.  Theoman can hardly keep his eyes open.  Sure, it would be nice to close out with children’s heads and the visions of sugarplums therein, but what we’ve got here is trouble.  With a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for picture characters.  Time to go find some more.

You like bugs, huh?  Okay.  Meet the bug radical.  This little critter is responsible for all kinds of disasters, like . . . rainbows.  And, uh, Germany.  Also strength, snakes, scratches, barbarians, wax, and hedgehogs.  Better get your fly swatters.  Or your story-writing pencils.  Either works for me.

A. 蛮 B. 独 C. 蝟 D. 虹

E. 掻 F. 蛇 G. 強 H. 蝋

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Consequences Part 16

December 9th, 2011 by Wordsman

To the right of the door was a closet.  He pulled the door open and was greeted by a rush of wind, smelling of things that are too old to touch.  The closet was dark and expansive; god only knew exactly what had accumulated there over the centuries.  In the center, however, a shaft of light fell from an opening high above, a tiny hole far too distant to see.  All around were innumerable treasures, ranging from the dimly lit to the completely invisible, but Peter saw only the light.  He stepped forward carefully, looking now at his feet, now at his destination, knowing that the slightest misstep could spell doom.  The walk felt like an eternity.  The further he got from the door, the dimmer the light from the exterior became, until eventually it was only him and the pedestal that stood in the column of illumination.

Peter stood there, his goal within arm’s reach, for quite some time.  This was it.  This was what he had come for.  But he was afraid.  Afraid of what?  He couldn’t tell you—though in the murky depths of the ancient temple, being afraid of everything was always the safest bet.  He closed his eyes and thought of his mission.  Reaching down blindly, moving as gingerly as a safecracker, he traced the edge of the stone pedestal, and then his fingers spiraled inward, slowly advancing until they reached the hard plastic case.  With easy familiarity he flipped open one latch, then the other, then he gently lifted the lid.  Then, though they felt as heavy as one of the temple’s great stone doors, he raised his eyelids.

There it was: the flute, glimmering in the beam of light like a treasure worthy of an ancient king.  Before he really knew what was happening it was in his hands.  A tune started to play, seemingly from nowhere, starting softly but growing as he raised his prize up to eye level, and then climbing in a triumphant crescendo as he thrust it skyward, as if the flute could somehow carry him up the beam of light to safety.

And then he turned around and saw a huge boulder rolling toward him.  Yeah, right.

As before, Peter’s fantasy was based on a hint of truth: in this case, the amount of time it took him to search the closet.  It was nowhere near as spacious as an ancient temple chamber—either real or imaginary—but you could still have hired a professional treasure hunter to dig through it and felt that the expense was justified.  Mom and Dad’s opinions differed on many subjects, including cat naming, but one thing they agreed upon was organization.  They agreed it was overrated.

He eventually located it on a shelf, hidden behind a very old sport coat.  He decided to carry out any further investigation elsewhere, because the room still made him a little uncomfortable, partly because it was the place where (presumably) his sister had been conceived and partly because of thoughts of poison-tipped darts shooting out of holes in the wall.  He walked cautiously out of the closet, watching out not for differently colored stones that would trigger traps but trying to make sure he didn’t trip over any shoes or old tennis rackets.

Peter went out to the kitchen.  Sourdough turned his head around to watch.  Sourdough had a curious nature, but he also was smart enough to know what happened to curious cats, so he did his best to act like he wasn’t.  He relocated from the windowsill to the back of the couch and promptly pretended to fall asleep.

Peter opened the case, not as slowly as he would have if he had really found it on a dusty stone pedestal, but not as quickly as when he had been playing it every day, either.  It seemed to be in pretty good condition.  Knowing Mom, she probably dug it out once a month or so to polish and maybe even try a few notes.  Then she would return it to the mysterious morass of the closet.  He wondered how long before she noticed it was missing.

His concern, however, was not with the condition of the flute; it was with the condition of the player.  He hadn’t even touched the thing in six years.  Peter had no idea whether the forgetting curve for instruments was more like the one for bicycle riding (pick it up twenty years later and you’re still fine) or the one for calculus (stop doing it for a month and forget everything you ever learned).  His fingers found the appropriate keys quickly enough, and he raised it up, resting the instrument above his chin and just below his lower lip.  Then he blew.

About the best thing you could say for the performance is that it didn’t cause Sourdough to yowl, leap up, and run down to the basement to join Cicero.  It took him four tries to get any kind of sound out of it at all, and when he finally succeeded the noise was feeble and grainy.  He tried a couple renditions of “Hot Cross Buns,” which was the only tune for which he could remember the fingering.  It sounded like “Hot Cross Buns” always sounds, which is to say, pretty bad, because the only people who ever perform “Hot Cross Buns” are ten-year-olds who picked up their instrument for the first time less than three weeks earlier.

He stared at the flute accusingly, then turned to his audience to see the reaction.  Sourdough stared back, as inscrutably as you would expect a cat to do.  Possibly to himself, possibly to the cat, or possibly to the flute, Peter said, “This isn’t going to work.”

But with the possibility of inquisitive family members returning at any time looming—not to mention the Beherrschunglied—he packed it up and took it with him back to the subway station.

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