Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Food for Worms

Posted by midiguru on December 14, 2014

In the course of prepping a couple of obsolete computers for recycling, I discovered I have CD and DVD copies of the entire Myst series games. Unfortunately, I’m unable to play the later ones, because Windows has moved on. I’ve got realMyst (an enhanced version of the original), and for some reason Myst III: Exile runs fine under Windows 8. But IV and V are toast. Or coasters, I suppose.

The sad part about this is that in some sense these games are digital art. And they’re gone. Okay, maybe not as great art as Beethoven’s Third or a Van Gogh painting, but Myst had a real visual style. Arguably, the games have a narrative theme too — or several themes, actually. That the world is vast, lonely, and mysterious. That there are places you may want to visit that are not accessible to you. That you may need to explore hidden places and find unlikely connections in order to solve the basic problems of existence. That the Creator has moved on and left you behind to deal with his inconvenient handiwork in whatever way you can manage.

I happen to have a Windows XP laptop, which is on its way to recycling in a day or two. I hauled it out of the trunk of the car and installed Myst IV. Unfortunately, it’s a MusicXPC machine, built for dedicated audio professionals. As such, it has no soundcard. None. Myst needs a soundcard to run.

So I plug in an M-Audio Fast Track Pro that I happen to have lying around. It’s class-compliant. Windows XP likes it fine — system sounds play. But Myst IV still isn’t happy. It complains that the desktop isn’t in 32-bit mode, even though it is in 32-bit mode.


Posted in random musings, technology | Leave a Comment »

What’s in the Cards

Posted by midiguru on December 14, 2014

Playing cards seem to have been invented near the end of the 14th century. In addition to the precursors of the four suits that we know and love, the earliest decks had a variety of additional picture-cards. Today’s Tarot cards are a systematization of those early decks.

As a hardcore atheist, I don’t have much patience with the idea that if you lay out a spread of Tarot cards for the purpose of divination, the universe will somehow produce a meaningful spread. What cards show up in a spread — that’s random.

Nonetheless, the symbolism found in the Tarot is fascinating. The images on the cards have very little to do with any scientific description of the world, except accidentally. But they have everything to do with human perceptions and human psychology.

The meanings of the images on the cards are anything but cut-and-dried. Some are simply vague and open to interpretation. Others are close to what Jung called archetypes: They represent deeply unconscious tendencies in the human brain. Your interpretations may not be at all like mine, and either of us can change our interpretation from day to day. On Monday, The Fool may represent the Eternal Now. On Wednesday, it may depict childish impulsiveness. And so on.

Once you know the basic (and multi-faceted) meanings of the cards, if you lay out a spread in a calm, attentive manner your intuition may be prompted toward a new realization with respect to whatever concerns you. The cards are not going to give you advice, but your unconscious may give you a nudge that’s prompted by whatever random cards show up in the spread. Or not. No guarantees.

Lots of artists today are designing, printing, and selling Tarot cards. Some hew closely to the set of images in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which has been around for a hundred years now. Others offer radical reinterpretations. Some are visual feasts; others are regrettably amateurish in execution.

One of the things that I like about the Tarot is this cultural free-for-all. The cards seem to satisfy some of the same human cravings as religion, but unlike the Bible or the Koran, the cards are almost entirely wordless. The very few words that are associated with the Major Arcana (The Tower, The Emperor, The Star, and so on) are not infrequently redacted by card designers who prefer other terms, due either to the needs of a new deck with a particular theme or to simple squeamishness. Sometimes the Death card becomes “Transformation.” In a Celtic-themed deck, The Devil is transformed into Cernunnos, the horned god.

I also like the idea that you can carry 78 beautiful paintings around in a small box.

If you’re curious to see what the card designers are up to, a good site to visit is Aeclectic Tarot. You’ll find decks depicting everything from Egyptian mysticism to cats.

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The Rot Starts at the Top

Posted by midiguru on December 5, 2014

According to a Huffington Post story this morning, President Obama’s response to yesterday’s widespread protest marches was this:

“President Barack Obama also weighed in, saying one of the chief issues at stake is ‘making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally.'”

No, Mr. President. People having confidence is not the issue. The issue is, the police are killing unarmed citizens (most of them African-American) as a result of minor infractions or for no reason at all — and getting away with it. That is the issue.

We can read Obama’s comment one of two ways. Possibly he doesn’t even know what the real issue is — but I doubt that. I think he knows. The problem is that he can’t say it out loud. He’s so embedded in the structure of wantonly brutal power in this country that he feels he has no alternative but to support that power structure by consciously, publicly, and cravenly misrepresenting what’s going on.

How can people have confidence in something that isn’t the case? They’ll have confidence only if they’re deluded and benumbed by a barrage of propaganda. What Obama is saying boils down to, “Our propaganda isn’t working.” Well, yeah, it isn’t. You got that right, dude.

What he conspicuously isn’t saying is, “The protesters are right. The system is fucked up, and we need to change it.”

Posted in politics, society & culture | 1 Comment »

Imaginary Games

Posted by midiguru on November 25, 2014

Last night I had a dream about playing contract bridge using Tarot cards. For the rest of the night (mostly while asleep) I was musing about how such a game might actually be played. I have no definite proposal for the rules, just a lot of mildly interesting speculations.

The Tarot deck has 14 cards per suit rather than 13. That’s a fairly trivial difference, although (if there were no other considerations) it would give you 14 tricks per hand, which would allow the bidding to go up to the level of 8 rather than 7. But wait: The Tarot deck also has a set of 22 extra cards called the Major Arcana. The deck as a whole has 78 cards.

The Major Arcana cards (MA for short) could be used as trumps, but that would make the process of bidding fairly pointless. One simple possibility would be to make them “sub-trumps.” One of the 22 could be used to trump a trick in the usual way, but would be over-ruffed by any card in the contracted trump suit. If a MA card is led, the MA would have to be considered a fifth suit, and maybe that’s a better idea. Some special rules would have to apply to this fifth suit, since it has so many cards.

Speaking of which, we’re going to need five players at the table rather than four. Each player is dealt 15 cards, and three are left over. The three extra cards are placed face down on the table. One is turned face up before bidding begins, the other two when bidding ends and play begins. These three cards obviously have some special meaning or utility, but I have no idea what it might be. Certain of the Major Arcana, if they appear, might change the rules for a given hand. The declarer might have the option of swapping one or more of the three cards into the dummy, replacing existing dummy cards.

The fifth player is called the spoiler. She is nobody’s partner. The position of spoiler rotates around the table, which means that the partnerships will also change from one hand to the next. Given five players — A, B, C, D, and E — when A is the spoiler, B and D are partners, as are C and E. In the next hand, B is the spoiler; C and E are still partners, but now A and D are partners. When C becomes the spoiler, A and D are still partners, but now B and E are partners. One easy way to think about this is that in a given hand, the two players to the left and right of the spoiler are never partners. (They will be partners in a later hand.)

Why “spoiler”? One idea (and remember, I was asleep) is that when this player takes a trick, she can choose to give it to the declarer, or to the defenders, or she could keep it. That makes it awfully easy for the spoiler to play favorites, tilting the game in favor of one player or another, but because the position of spoiler rotates, maybe it would all balance out in the end. Even if the spoiler keeps all her tricks, she could still play favorites by deliberately avoiding taking a trick that she could win, in order to give the trick to either the declarer or the defenders.

What role the spoiler would play in bidding, I don’t know. If the spoiler bids and everybody passes, she will have to play against four opponents, and with no dummy, which would make it difficult to make the contract unless she has a boatload of high cards. Maybe a spoiler who wins the contract could choose either of the two players sitting opposite her as the dummy.

Whatever. We can speculate endlessly. Nobody will ever play this game — it’s too cumbersome. But it might show up in a fantasy story sometime. Maybe this is how the gods play bridge.

Posted in random musings | 1 Comment »

The Perversity of Culprits

Posted by midiguru on November 17, 2014

I read a lot of mystery novels. Some are crime stories (Donald Westlake’s very funny Dortmunder books, for instance), but most are whodunits. In a whodunit, the author has to keep you guessing about who committed the murder, and possibly how and why, until the very end.

In real life, most murders are sordid affairs. In a bar fight or a marriage gone bad, there’s seldom any doubt about who did the killing. The authors of whodunits, on the other hand, have to go to great lengths to devise crimes that are mystifying.

As a result, the reader is quite often asked to swallow some strange ideas about human behavior.

John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson, was the master of the locked-room mystery. A corpse is found in a room that is locked on the inside, and the reader is assured that there are no false panels or secret passages. How could such a thing possibly happen? The truth, when revealed, is both astonishing and logical — but with one proviso. You’re asked to accept that the murderer would really have done all that tap-dancing and tightrope-walking in order to rid the world of the victim.

In The Judas Window, a man is found, in a locked room, with an arrow driven through his chest. He’s not, in this particular book, alone, and his companion (who has been drugged and is unconscious while the crime is being committed) is soon arrested and tried for murder, because nobody else could possibly have done it.

If you want to read The Judas Window, you should stop here. Spoilers follow.

The solution to the puzzle, when Sir Henry Merrivale (in one of his less slapstick appearances) eventually reveals it, relies on the construction of 19th century home fittings, as the book was written in the 1930s. The murderer has prepared for her crime by unscrewing the outer doorknob in the door (hours or days earlier) and  tying a long piece of string to the inner doorknob. After the victim has locked the door, the murderer removes the outer doorknob and lowers the inner one down on the string. The victim, seeing the doorknob mysteriously dangling, naturally comes over to the door to investigate and leans forward to look through the hole in the latch mechanism.

At this point the murderer fires the arrow through the hole using a crossbow, driving the arrow into the victim’s chest. She then hauls the inner doorknob back up on its string, removes the string, reattaches the outer doorknob, hides the crossbow — and presto, a locked room mystery.

As we savor the faultless logic of the solution, however, we’re asked to ignore the killer’s blind trust in her own luck. First, the intended victim might not even notice the doorknob dangling from the string. That would leave her in a quandary. Second, the hole left when the doorknob shaft is removed is not more than a centimeter across. It’s bound to be very difficult to aim the crossbow through the hole while also looking through the hole — so how is she to judge when the moment has arrived to fire? Third and most egregious, what if she misses? What if she only manages to shoot her intended victim in the arm, or in a grazing wound across his rib cage? If that happens, her guilt will be obvious to everyone.

No, if this woman were really intent on murder, she would choose a more reliable method. The plot of the mystery hangs dangling like a detached doorknob on the thread of her perversity.


Posted in fiction, writing | 1 Comment »

The Map and the Territory

Posted by midiguru on October 31, 2014

Over on Facebook I fell into a discussion of how scientists attempt to develop intellectual constructs that model the real world. Someone else asked, “What makes a good model?” That set me thinking.

A good model makes testable predictions, that’s a fairly pragmatic criterion. Beyond that, however, physicists like models that are simple and elegant. Underlying the search for the Grand Theory of Everything (GTE) is the notion that we should be able to develop a single mathematical model from which can be derived all known physical processes.

Currently, or so I’ve read (and I’m not an expert), there is no theory that explains both quantum mechanics and general relativity. These two basic theories have both been tested, and the test results indicate that they both accord closely with how physical processes work — but they contradict one another. The hoped-for GTE would unite them.

My question is this: Why should we assume that the universe we live in can be explained by a simple, elegant model? The visible universe is, in fact, extremely messy on almost every level. Maybe it’s messy at the level of basic physical processes too. As Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well — I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Whitman was a poet, not a physicist. But how can we be certain that the universe does not contradict itself? The quest for a simple, elegant model that explains everything is, I would suggest, an aesthetic quest. We like simple models. But of course the universe doesn’t care what we like.

Light is both a particle and a wave. You can set up an experiment that proves light is parceled into discrete quanta, and you can also set up an experiment that proves a single photon is smeared out across space — that it’s a wave. But you can’t do both at the same time, using the same photon. Light itself is a contradiction. But the problem is not with light itself. The problem is that people don’t like contradictions. We seek simple, clear explanations. We feel satisfied when we find them, and when we can’t find them it’s like an itch: We have to keep looking.

This emotional craving is powerful, and has led to some wonderful scientific discoveries. I’m not trying to suggest that the search for understanding is a bad thing. I’m just saying, maybe it’s the nature of the universe that it will forever escape any attempt to understand it in a clear, logical manner.

Maybe this is mysticism. I’m not a mystic, but maybe if you follow your intellect carefully enough, you’ll end up in the same territory. I believe it was Haldane who said, “The universe is not only stranger than we understand — it is stranger than we CAN understand.” Yeah. That.

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Slice, but Don’t Dice

Posted by midiguru on October 28, 2014

This week’s big adventure was a trip to the emergency room Friday night, followed by an appendectomy in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Hey, I thought when I turned 40, appendicitis was one health risk I didn’t have to worry about anymore! Statistically that’s true, but statistics don’t apply to individuals.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the things I’ve learned:

1) The team at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek is excellent. Consistently first-class work.

2) They really do want to get you out of the hospital quickly (because hospitals are where the really nasty germs hang out). I was on my way home within 8 hours after surgery.

3) Health care seems to be a booming field for the non-Anglo job seeker. Most of the staff I encountered, other than the doctors, was Hispanic, Asian, or Pacific Islander.

4) If you aren’t fit to do anything else, watching the World Series is a great way to pass the time!

5) Getting in and out of bed without using my abdominal muscles is all but impossible. I’ve slept the last three nights in my recliner. Next month I think I’ll go out and buy one of those motorized recliners, to be prepared for next time.

6) Being able to let go of attachments (in the Buddhist sense, I suppose) is a handy skill to have before surgery. As an atheist, I have no illusions about surviving when something goes horribly wrong, as sooner or later something certainly will. So what’s the point of fear? If you’re afraid of surgery, all that happens is you mess with your own head. It doesn’t change the outcome.

7) Stool softeners are your friend.

8) Suspenders are great too. I can leave my trousers entirely unzipped, which is handy when you’re bloated.

9) After laparoscopic surgery, the incisions (three in my case) are covered with BandAids. Do not make the mistake of thinking that this means the procedure was minor. You’ve just had your abdominal cavity cut open.

10) You can play the sympathy card a few times after surgery, but try not to overdo it, okay?

Posted in random musings, society & culture | Leave a Comment »

Gatekeepers and Glut

Posted by midiguru on October 19, 2014

This fall I dusted off an unfinished project, the first book in a fantasy epic trilogy, and spent a few weeks finishing and polishing it. It’s aimed at the YA (young adult) market, which is booming. Trying to write honestly and accurately from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl is perhaps a bit tough if you’re a guy and over 60, but I think I did okay. (Naturally, I’m not in a position to be objective.)

So now I have a complete novel sitting on my hard drive, and a detailed outline of the trilogy. The next step is to try to find an agent. And that’s where the plot thickens. Because the market is healthy, agents are inundated with manuscripts from aspiring writers. A conservative estimate, based on no data whatever, would be that as many as 1,000 times more YA manuscripts are hitting agent in-boxes as are ever published.

Think about that. You’re a literary agent. In the email every morning you receive maybe 20 query letters from aspiring writers. The next morning, 20 more. This year you have the bandwidth to take on maybe four or five new clients, total. Granted, 80% of those queries will be garbage. You can drag them to the trash without a qualm. But that still leaves 20 queries every week, among which a hidden gem may be lurking.

To make matters worse, your salary is 100% on commission. If you pick what you hope is a winner and put hours and days of work into pitching it to publishers, but it doesn’t find a home, you’ve been working for $0 per hour. The result is predictable: The agent is only going to take on a book by a new, untested author if the book dovetails in a precise way with what publishers are buying this season. If the publishers think paranormal romance (basically, girl-meets-vampire) is a glut on the market, it doesn’t matter how fresh or wonderful the writer’s paranormal romance manuscript is. Sorry, Mr. or Ms. Author — you’re not going to be able to find an agent.

You can self-publish, of course, and do your own book promotion. In the Internet age, the tools for self-publishing are very good. You may sell a few copies, or even a few hundred copies. But you’re never going to see your book on the shelves in Barnes & Noble. That door is shut, barred, and bolted.

Anyway, I’m not into self-promotion. I’ve always felt, rightly or wrongly, that promotion and marketing should be left to those who have a talent for it. I’d rather spend my limited time on this planet actually creating stuff. My goal is to find someone else who will market my stuff.

In a perverse way, though, I’m starting to get interested in taking on a creative project for which there is no market whatsoever. Not just because it’s one less thing to worry about while writing, but because I’ll have no competition. Whatever I do will be, as the Romans used to say, sui generis — of its own kind.

But in the meantime, I have a list of seven literary agents to query.


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Words with Baggage

Posted by midiguru on October 9, 2014

I have a problem with the word “spirituality.” If you spend much time hanging around a 12-Step program you’ll hear people say, “It’s not a religious program, it’s a spiritual program.” In fact, there are strong reasons for contending that it’s a religious program, but that’s an argument for another time. The question for today is, what do people mean when they say “spiritual”?

We should always be wary of people who attach new, esoteric definitions to common words. (Scientology does that quite a lot.) The word “spiritual” has several common meanings. A spiritual is a type of traditional choral music often heard in the African-American community. The lyrics of a spiritual are typically in praise of someone named Jesus. That’s not a meaning that resonates with me. A hundred years ago, a spiritualist or spirit medium was a con artist who claimed to be able to communicate with the ghosts of the dead. That’s not a meaning I care to embrace either. And then there’s the Holy Spirit, which is one of the three aspects of the Catholic God. Oh, dear.

A slightly better meaning is that someone who is spiritual is uninterested in “worldly” things, a category that would presumably include riches, fame, and 2-pound boxes of Swiss chocolate. But this meaning is slippery. Those whose lives are devoted to the study of mathematics are hardly engaged in a worldly pursuit, yet few of us would say they’re spiritual. The same could be said of philologists and grammarians. If you study ancient Greek and Latin, will people say you’re spiritual? It seems unlikely.

No, when the word is used in this seemingly generic way, it seems to refer to people whose lives are devoted to “higher” things, whatever those are. One would be inclined, for instance, to say that a scholar who studies the Old Testament (and who believes it has some sort of special relevance in human affairs) is “spiritual,” while the mathematician is not.

We might also say that someone who feeds stray puppies is “spiritual,” while a person who kicks stray puppies is not. But does the word just mean “inclined to be kind”? I’m not sure, but I suspect this usage embraces, at least potentially, the idea that the person who feeds the puppies is motivated not by mere kindness but by some sort of awareness, however tenuous, of a “higher plane of existence.”

I don’t feel comfortable with that usage either.

The best I can do is to replace the word “spiritual” with the words “life-enhancing.” If I perform that little mental trick, I can hope to deal with it when people use the word. But why should I have to lie to myself like this? Why can’t people just say “life-enhancing” if that’s what they mean?

Posted in religion | 5 Comments »

Lowered Expectations

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2014

Doing a little research into the YA fantasy novel market. (Don’t ask why. Way too soon to talk about it.) Had to share this delightful bit from an Amazon reader review of Throne of Glass, by Sarah Maas. Calaena is the girl-assassin heroine of the series, but possibly not a character whose appeal will be universal:

“Celaena’s backstory is gruesome. Her parents were murdered when she was very little, and she was tossed out into the streets. Then an assassin adopted her, trained her up, and sent her out to kill people. She killed and killed and killed…until she was captured and sent to a labor camp at the age of seventeen. That’s a series of unfortunate events, right? That’s a grim, grim, grim life. And yet Celaena is a chipper, cheery sort of girl. She’s not troubled or wounded or broody or damaged. She thinks about murder in the bubbly, uncomplicated manner of a cheerleader practicing for the big game, and her primary concern after leaving the labor camp is eating enough to be svelte and attractive again.”


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