What if you had a piece that was a rook sometimes and a knight sometimes? Ooh, that could be good.
As I continue my leisurely stroll through the fallow, yet fertile fields of chess variants, I’m finding a few fascinating oddities. For one thing, the field seems to be a lot less active than it was ten years ago. The Chess Variant Pages is still on the Web, but if you click through to their “Variant of the Month” page, you discover that nobody has even bothered to nominate a variant of the month since 2006.
My guess: smartphones. The kind of geeky guys who think chess variants are cool are mostly the kind of geeky guys who like downloading apps to their smartphones. I guess I’m the exception. The only app I’ve ever downloaded was Pandora, and that’s so I can listen to music while I’m at the gym.
But then, I lost interest in chess variants ten years ago too. Here’s another theory: Inventing variants is easy. Playing them well is a lot harder. And the more variants there are, the less likely you are to master any of them.
Even so, the possibilities are endlessly intriguing. Using a standard chess board — or maybe one that’s 8×10 or 10×10 at most — you can staff the players’ armies with a huge variety of dynamic and mind-boggling pieces. And if you want to try out these pieces in actual game-play, it’s easy — Read the rest of this entry »
Over the course of the last 50 years I have had only three dentists. All of them were Mormons, as it happens, and all three were excellent. Coincidentally, my current dentist bought his offices from the first dentist when the latter retired. Today I get my teeth cleaned in the same room where these fillings were done when I was a teenager.
In a couple of months I’m scheduled to go into the Medicare system. Kaiser Permanente offers supplemental Medicare coverage that pays for a dentist. (At present, I’m paying cash, because I only need the routine cleanings.) The supplemental coverage is through an HMO plan called DeltaCare Dental. DeltaCare has three dentists in Livermore, so this morning I drove around to check them out.
I was not impressed.
The first office I stopped at was closed, although the sign in the window alleged that it’s open on Wednesdays. The third office was also closed, and the sign in the window indicated this was normal. (Closed on a Wednesday?) The third office was in a strip mall, tucked between a hair salon and a donut shop. Not a promising location in which to find a great dentist.
The second office was open. I didn’t have a lot of questions on my agenda, but I asked how long the two dentists practicing there had been in that location. “Since February,” the young woman said. (It’s now June.) “Before that they were down in the South Bay.” I’m thinking, why would they relocate? No patients? But I didn’t ask that.
The office looked and sounded, frankly, deserted except for the woman behind the counter. “How many hygienists do you have working here?” I asked.
“No hygienists,” she replied. “Just the two dentists.”
Okay, so these two dentists have so little business they’re doing the routine cleanings themselves? And the other two offices are closed on a Wednesday morning. I think I need to talk to somebody at Kaiser about this. It smells a little fishy.
For many years now, my slogan for music technology has been, “If this stuff was any more powerful, it wouldn’t work at all.” Malfunctions are as normal and inevitable as tumbleweeds tumbling across the desert. Some of the malfunctions are trivial and easily dealt with. Some, however, are anything but trivial.
I’d like to have a stable computer system for making music. Boy, wouldn’t that be swell? But achieving that goal is about on a par with gazing upon a tantalizing mirage in the desert and then actually reaching the mirage by trekking across the sand dunes.
Once in a while I start thinking I might like to put together an electronic music set for live performance. Of course I’d need to have a stable computer system in order to do that. I have lots of options, but none of them comes close to being ideal.
Probably the most stable music performance software around is Propellerhead Reason. I like Reason a lot, and not only is it rock-solid, it’s cross-platform. I could use it on either a PC or a Mac laptop — a big plus. But there are minuses too. Reason won’t Read the rest of this entry »
When my brain is idling, it sometimes drifts off in the direction of chess. I’m a lousy chess player, probably because I’ve never spent any time studying the intricacies of the game. Studying chess is a cumbersome process, because you have to memorize hundreds of variations on dozens of commonly used openings.
Over the past 200 years, many fine chess players have explored just about every conceivable series of opening moves to great depth. The real game-play begins only after eight or ten moves by each player, when you’ve plodded out past the end of the dock and dropped into the water. Assuming you know where the dock is; if you don’t, you may find yourself plunged into the water early on — not a good thing.
Another reason chess is less than captivating for me is because the computer can always beat me. The computer can beat almost everybody, a fact that’s bound to be at least mildly discouraging if you’re looking for an absorbing pastime.
Chess is not a single game; it’s a huge family of games. Chinese and Japanese chess have long traditions of their own. The original game seems to have been invented in India, from where it spread both eastward and westward. In addition, dozens of modern versions Read the rest of this entry »
Today I have a free tip for anyone who aspires to write novels with plots. But first a little digression.
Ten years ago I wrote a fantasy novel called The Leafstone Shield. It was much too long, and not serious enough. When my agent finally got around to reading it, he said he didn’t see a market for it. I’m sure he was right.
Later on, I created a PDF of the book and made it available as a free download. I’ve since withdrawn it, but at least one person downloaded it. Recently he read it and sent me an email. He agreed with me about the weaknesses of the story. But along the way he suggested that I might want to consider self-publishing it as an Amazon e-book, specifically in the YA (young adult) category.
My story features three strong female characters, and they get into some pretty hair-raising difficulties. By making them just a few years younger, I could conceivably transform the story into a viable YA novel.
Intrigued by this concept, I decided to do a little research into the YA genre. I wandered over to the Teen shelves in the local library, checked out three YA fantasy novels, and read the first few chapters of all three. They’re all pretty good. I might even finish reading them.
Community orchestras are a semi-wonderful thing. Over the past 15 years I’ve played in four or five of them at different times. Served as principal cellist in a couple.
After tonight’s concert, I think I may be done.
Not because it was a bad concert. It was a pretty darn good concert, actually. Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, and a solid piece by a local composer. The orchestra did a very respectable job. The audience obviously appreciated what they heard, and that’s one of the wonderful aspects: For a mere $20, people can hear a symphony concert close to their home.
Most of the musicians in community orchestras are unpaid amateurs. We do it because we enjoy it.
The biggest drawback of playing in an orchestra — any orchestra, no matter how good — is that it’s not a creative activity. You’re a foot soldier. Somebody else decides what you’ll play. You’re told how fast to play, and how loud. Somebody puts a page full of dots in front of you (more like 30 pages, actually), and your job is to execute the dots.
In a community orchestra, there are other issues. There’s never enough rehearsal time, and the quality of the players is somewhat variable. As a result, the orchestra never sounds as good as I wish it did.
I keep thinking this tune is finished, and then I massage it some more. Okay, it’s smooth jazz, more or less — sorry about that. I didn’t mean it, honest, it just happened. And no odd tunings this time.
The working title is “Floogle.” The main instruments are u-he Zebra (main melody), AAS Lounge Lizard 4 (electric piano), Spectrasonics Trilian (fretless bass), and Spectrasonics Stylus RMX (beats). NI Reaktor does a cameo in the introduction, and there’s a bit of Camel Audio Alchemy later on.
I’m trying to learn more about mixing. I tried something new (for me, anyway) in this mix. After comparing my track to those on a few CDs, I decided that the up-close synthesizer sound (which I rather like) isn’t quite what the pros seem to prefer, so I added a touch of global reverb (u-he Uhbik-A).
Today I’ve been poking around on the Web, looking for interesting new music. Hoping to be inspired, basically. No luck, so far. There’s a vast wasteland out there.
Granted, my points of reference are perhaps terra incognita to your average 20-something ambitious pop musician. I’m coming from the far side of eclectic. I play in a symphony orchestra. At home, for recreation, I play Bach and Haydn on the piano. On my iPhone I have albums by Weather Report, Jon Hassell, Paul Simon, Bill Nelson, Frank Zappa, National Health, and the Residents.
More than anything else, I respond to music that’s intelligent. If a piece simply wallows in an emotion for four minutes without any evidence that the composer expects listeners to engage in mental activity, I find the music not just boring but offensive.
But that’s what I’m finding online. I don’t think I could ever write music this stupid. It would drive me nuts. I keep wanting Read the rest of this entry »
Physicists describe the universe, or attempt to, using systems of equations. In order to create accurate descriptions, the equations make use of certain numerical constants — things like the speed of light and the strength of gravity.
What’s odd about these constants is that they seem almost have been fine-tuned so as to allow living beings such as ourselves to exist. If the force of gravity were just slightly smaller, for instance, stars and galaxies would never have formed. The entire universe would consist of a rapidly expanding cloud of gas. On the other hand, if gravity were just a little stronger, the stars and galaxies we see would all have collapsed into black holes. No planets, no sunlight, and perforce no scientists to look through telescopes and think about these things.
For those who believe in God, such a state of affairs is not difficult to explain. God created it that way, so that folks like us could come into being. Appeals to divine intervention are not, however, given much credence by scientists. Yet on the other side of the coin, it seems an awfully big coincidence that our universe should happen to have the characteristics that it is observed to have.
We do know that the universe we observe seems to have had a beginning, or something very like a beginning. About 13.8 billion years ago, our universe was extremely hot, extremely dense, and no bigger than the head of a pin. Since then, it has been expanding rapidly. Our most sophisticated Read the rest of this entry »
I got bored about 2/3 of the way through the first volume of Game of Thrones and never finished reading it. But the series is clearly a Big Deal in the fantasy realm, so this morning I thought I’d skip ahead and try the opening of volume 2, A Clash of Kings, to see if it had something that would spark my interest.
In the course of the first few pages, we’re treated to: an old man with a bad hip who has painfully to climb many castle stairs; a young princess with a serious facial deformity; a half-witted fool who is just pathetic, not funny; a king who is churning with resentment over the actions of his brothers and obsessed with reclaiming his rightful throne, no matter how many thousands of men have to die along the way; an envoy whose left hand has been maimed, by the king, with a meat cleaver; a queen who is tall and thin and has “prominent ears, a sharp nose, and the faintest hint of a mustache,” and who is telling the king he should kill his remaining brother; offhand recollections of a siege in which people had to eat rats; and a blood-red comet providing a nasty omen of things to come.
Given that the story is about Serious Business, we can perhaps forgive George Martin for neglecting to include so much as a trace of humor, though such neglect is bound to make the story somewhat leaden. His failure to present a character we can admire or care about is, I think, a more serious defect.
Clearly he’s doing something right. People are eating this stuff up. To me, though, it reads like gravel.