Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

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.

 

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

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.”

Zing!

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Ignorance and Bliss

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2014

I get a little testy when someone accuses fervent atheists of being “as bad as religious people.” It’s not the atheists who are trying to shut down abortion providers. It’s not the atheists who are trying to keep gays from marrying. It’s not the atheists who want children brought up in ignorance of science. It’s … oh, wait, who is doing that? Right. It’s the religious people.

Is it the religiously devout who can’t be elected to public office in the U.S. owing to bias against them by atheists? Why, no! It’s the other way around. Atheists can’t be elected to office due to voter bias, yet the most rabid, confused fundamentalists can march off to Congress and freely promulgate their bizarre views, to widespread public approbation.

The accusation that atheists are “as bad as” religious extremists popped up today in a conversation on Facebook, and I fired back. The conversation was dominated, it appeared, by agnostics. Their idea seems to be that we’re supposed to be polite to religious people, because who really knows?

Well, indeed — who really knows? None of us knows. For all we know, the entire universe could have been created ten minutes ago by a gang of giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts and Groucho Marx mustaches. I mean, really. It could have been. That hypothesis cannot be disproven.

It’s just not very likely. And from all the evidence that science has been able to gather over the past 300 years, the hypothesis that there is such a thing as “God” is no more likely than the hypothesis about giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts. The scientific investigation of the God question was conducted, at least for the first 200 years, not by atheists but by scientists who quite definitely believed in God and wanted to find evidence of the existence of God and the soul. Try as they might, they couldn’t find any evidence.

That being the case, to cling to the notion that “nobody knows — there could be a God” is just intellectual ineptitude wearing a fancy suit. Agnosticism is a refusal to look at the complete failure of scientific investigations of the question. It’s an embrace of ignorance.

I am impatient with people who embrace ignorance.

The “God” hypothesis has been used for millenia as an explanation of anything that people didn’t know how to explain in any other way. Love, seeds sprouting, being healed of disease, the movement of the planets in the sky — it was all God’s handiwork, right? But as science has learned about the real physical nature of these phenomena, there has been less and less need for the God hypothesis. The God of liberal religions today, some sort of vague cloud of universal love, is no more than a faint shadow of the God whose supposed acts were trumpeted by the old-time religion.

Liberal religious groups have retreated for a very good reason: The “God” hypothesis doesn’t actually explain anything. It’s a useless and waterlogged piece of intellectual flotsam.

It seems to me that self-proclaimed agnostics want atheists to sit down and be quiet because they want everybody to be polite. Especially, we should be polite to religious people, because, you know, they might turn out to be right after all. Or at least in the name of tolerance.

Given the amount of mischief (a euphemism for bloodshed) perpetrated by religious people over the past few thousand years, I feel disinclined to remain polite. And as a member of a minority that is widely misunderstood and discriminated against in various subtle ways, I can’t help feeling that asking me to tolerate religious people and their views is being a bit one-sided. We know perfectly well that a broad swath of conservative religious people do not and will never tolerate atheists. Every time we open our mouths to express our views, we’re a threat to them. It’s not just that they don’t understand us, or that they fear we’ll force them to question their beliefs. They think we’re evil. A source of social degeneracy and blah blah blah.

Should we be asked to tolerate people who think we’re evil?

You can read a good summary of the atheist point of view here. This article is a little repetitive; reasons 1, 4, 7, and 10 of the ten reasons are a lot alike. And we could debate about reason 9, because the more glaring awfulness of many sects with long histories has in fact been moderated over the centuries. Nonetheless, anyone who thinks agnosticism makes sense should give it a read.

What I think people mean by the “just as bad” comment is not that atheists’ views of social policy are bad, but rather that atheists sometimes express their views of religious questions in terms that are just as uncompromising. Atheists can be stubborn and confrontational.

But why shouldn’t we be? We’re right. We have logic and science on our side. The religious believers have only tradition (poorly understood or selectively cherry-picked), emotion (treacherously fickle), assorted legends (worthless), and the herd mentality (never reliable).

You hand me an empty bushel basket. You tell me, “There might be a diamond in the basket.” I look in the basket. There’s no diamond. I tell you, “There’s no diamond in there.” You tell me, “No, there might be a diamond. Really. Maybe you just haven’t looked hard enough.”

If that’s the kind of intellectual tap-dance you enjoy, congratulations. You’re an agnostic.

Posted in religion | 2 Comments »

One Nation Under What?

Posted by midiguru on September 9, 2014

Sometimes I get a little steamed up. This morning on Facebook, one of my friends posted an item about the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. This led immediately to a diatribe from one of his Christian friends (whose name I will omit, because I’m a considerate person):

“I visited this site and I read all the comments regarding the pledge. You know full well that this nation was founded on religious principles…..specifically the principles of Jesus Christ. To deny that is foolish. All one has to do is read the writings of the founders to know their heart. I was deeply offended by the incredibly noxious comments and vicious screed directed at those of us that are followers of Christ. And all this from a crowd that preaches tolerance. I simply can’t believe that you could align yourself with something this low.”

Another friend of my friend responded to this ridiculous statement as follows:

“With all due respect, you do know that Thomas Jefferson had his own version of the Gospels. He took out all the voodoo and the Hocus Pocus and left the direct words of Christ. This country was not found on religious principles and most decidedly NOT on the principles of Jesus Christ. That is why the Constitution has a provision that mandates that NO RELIGIOUS TEST be required for ANY Constitutionally mandated position in our government.”

I then added my two cents’ worth:

“As a matter of historical fact, you’re wrong. The founding fathers were very careful to keep religion OUT of political life. The fact that you fail to understand this shows very clearly exactly WHY they chose that path. It should also suggest to you why people get a little testy on the subject. To be specific, the Christians in this country fucking don’t get it.”

The Christian guy then fired back with this:

“First of all, my comments were directed to [the original poster], not any of you. Your revisionist view of history is typical atheistic garbage. Jim, I don’t fail to understand anything. I have devoted most of my sixty years to intensely studying the Bible and history and all I can say is that you and your ilk have succeeded in turning this once great nation into a third world rat hole. By the way, don’t use that kind of offensive language when you address me.”

Of course, there are numerous deep-seated problems with this, most remarkably the bizarre notion that the United States would be a wonderful nation today if it weren’t for the atheists. Also, I find myself wondering whether this fellow has ever done a point-by-point comparison between, say, a nice clean suburb in Southern California and an actual “third world rat hole,” such as, oh, maybe Somalia or the slums of Bangladesh. Probably not. The supposed horrifying collapse of the United States is not entirely in his mind — things have gotten pretty bad around here, though they weren’t exactly great in the 1950s, were they? There’s also a whiff of racism about his phrase, isn’t there? Just a little whiff.

In any case, I lost it, okay? Here’s how I responded:

“So you’re an intolerant asshole and an ignorant schmuck. I might have expected better of a so-called ‘Christian,’ but I don’t, usually. And fuck yourself in the ass if you don’t like my language, you piece of dogshit.”

I’m afraid I’m just not very tolerant of religious people anymore. Religious patriots are worse. Ignorant religious patriots … well, that’s a redundant phrase. All religious patriots are ignorant, by definition.

I do think it’s charming that this guy is posting on Facebook and thinking he has the right or can expect to control other people’s use of words like “fuck.” That level of cluelessness is a highlight of the conversation.

But the underlying problem is not that the guy is ignorant. We’re all ignorant about various things. The underlying problem, and the reason I get so tweaked about his brand of idiocy, is this: His religion forces him to be ignorant. His religion is one-size-fits-all. There is no room in his world view for divergent opinions. As far as he can see, Christianity is the One Holy Truth, and because he loves his country (a separate failing, and a topic for another time) he cannot conceive that his country was founded on other than Christian principles.

The logic (if you want to call it that) seems to be this: All good things come from God. Therefore, anything that is not good is due to people’s failure to worship God.

Never mind that the God of the Old Testament was, according to the documentary evidence, a sadistic motherfucker. Pay no attention to the deity behind the curtain.

Last night I was part of a very interesting discussion about tolerance. It seems to me that tolerance is a two-way street. Religious people tend to expect (if not demand) tolerance for their views — but many of them fail to return the favor. Their dogmatic belief is that they’re right — and if they’re right, atheists must be wrong. The stakes being (in their pathetic little minds) very high, they have little hesitation in striding out forthrightly to smite and bring low the evils of atheism. Of course they’re quite willing to love you as an individual … but only after you become a convert to their brand of hoo-hah, whatever it happens to be.

Last night somebody said, “Tolerance is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t mean you have to put up with assholes.” If a religious person demands that you be respectful of their religion, while they’re refusing to be respectful of your secular values as an atheist, and then they accuse you of being intolerant because you ask them to hop off of their high horse and come down to earth — no. Fuck that.

Posted in politics, religion | 4 Comments »

Dumb Bunny

Posted by midiguru on September 6, 2014

A few years back, I bought a mystery by Michael Connelly called Chasing the Dime. I’m pretty sure I never read it, but the other day when I was looking for something to read, there it was on my shelf.

Turns out it’s not a Harry Bosch novel (though an old case of Bosch’s is referred to, sort of but not quite peripherally). The viewpoint character is not a cop or a lawyer, he’s a genius biochemist named Henry Pierce.

My first thought was, “Oh, this is Connelly’s modern take on the amateur sleuth sub-genre.” Amateur sleuths (the prototype is Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple) tend to be found in the “cozy” sub-genre, not in Connelly’s two-fisted, tension-filled corner of the mystery universe, so this could be interesting.

I’m now 3/4 of the way through the book, and it has now become apparent that this is not an amateur sleuth story at all. Henry Pierce is being set up to be convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Dark forces are at work. But that’s not what I wanted to comment on.

The problem with the story is that Pierce keeps acting like an idiot. We’re told he’s a Stanford grad. Not only is he a genius biochemist, he also has enough business smarts to be running his own company with more than 30 employees. He reads patent documents on his lunch break. And yet, when confronted with indications of criminal misconduct, he does everything backwards.

He’s drawn into the mystery by the fact that his new phone is suddenly ringing off the hook with calls for a hooker. The number is on her web page, but somehow it has gotten reassigned to him. This, in itself, is highly suspicious, for two reasons. First, the phone company doesn’t usually reassign numbers for a few months after the old account has closed — but more significant, why was the old account closed? The hooker is missing and has quite likely been murdered, but she seems to have disappeared quite suddenly: Her house has been abandoned for a month or so, but the rent has been paid and the power hasn’t been shut off. So how did her phone number happen to get reassigned?

Read the rest of this entry »

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Nebulaceous

Posted by midiguru on August 30, 2014

A modular synthesizer is really good at making abstract sounds. If you’re seeking conventional tones suitable for melodies and bass lines — well, there are people who enjoy doing them with a modular, but frankly, there are better tools for the job.

The challenge, with abstract sounds, is how to use them in a way that makes some kind of musical sense. Because there’s nothing resembling harmony theory to fall back on, it seems to me it may be useful to be entirely intuitive — to not know, intellectually, what’s going on in a piece, and not to worry about it.

Here’s a modest example:

 

Borrowing a line from a poem by Gregory Corso, I call this piece “Scarlatti goes hip-hop through demented halls.” It was created using the Qu-Bit Nebulae, a few electronic beat loops I had lying around on my hard drive, and very little else. Well, some knob twiddling, and maybe a filter here or there. (I have no idea where the loops came from, but since they’re not recognizable, I’m not too worried about copyright violations.)

I recorded several raw tracks of Nebulae improvisation into Reason as audio, and then copied and pasted bits until I had something I liked. Generally there are at least two separate takes layered, sometimes three. The reverb on one track is Reason; everything else is straight out of the modular.

Oh, by the way — the Corso poem quoted above was published in 1958. The term “hip-hop” is not as new as you may have thought. Not that this music has anything to do with hip-hop.

Posted in modular, music | Leave a Comment »

Support Hose

Posted by midiguru on August 29, 2014

This is a story about how weird the Internet can get.

Last night I finished a mix of a synthesizer piece I’ve been working on. I wanted to upload it so that the six or seven people who wander over to this blog could listen to it and be amazed, disturbed, or just plain bored.

WordPress won’t let you upload audio media. Probably some lawyer has convinced them that users would engage in wholesale copyright violation (a good guess) and that WordPress could be liable (who knows?). What I do is, I upload the mp3 files to the server of my “real” website (musicwords.net) and then link to them from this blog. I call it my “real” website because it’s even less visited and less relevant than the blog. But I’ve had it for 12 years or so. It just sits there. It’s on a server operated by a company called Lunar Pages.

So I launch FileZilla Client, the ftp client that I use for uploading music to the Lunar Pages server. And FileZilla can’t access the server. This is the first time that has ever happened.

My first thought is, I just updated to a new version of FileZilla. That could be the source of the difficulty … or the Lunar Pages server could be down. Sure enough, my web browser can’t get to musicwords.net either. So I contact Lunar Pages tech support (via email, after getting tired of listening to their on-hold music). The tech reports that, working from a remote location, he IS able to get to musicwords. So are a couple of my Facebook friends, when I ask them to try. One of them can reach musicwords from a hotel in Guatemala — and within minutes of when I ask folks to give it a try.

The rest of my Internet connectivity works perfectly, but I can’t reach my own website.

So maybe FileZilla has hosed that particular IP address on this particular computer. But no, I have the same problem on my Mac, which connects wirelessly to the same home router. So the problem would have to be in the router, right?

I phone AT&T. It’s their router. The AT&T tech is unable to come up with a theory as to what might be going on. (I cleverly don’t mention to him that I updated FileZilla Client, because if I do, he will instantly blame them. I know how this game is played.) We try unplugging the router and plugging it back in. No luck. We try turning off Windows Firewall — not that that would help with the Mac’s inability to find the site. That doesn’t work either. I quickly turn it back on.

I post a query on the FileZilla support forum. Someone there suggests that I try pinging the server. That doesn’t work from here, either on the Mac or in Windows. ping (Windows) and traceroute (Mac) can’t find the server. So I locate a web page (wormly.com) that can ping a server remotely. wormly can find the server all right — it gives me the number address of the server. But it fails to connect. Evidently this morning the Lunar Pages server is down.

Sort of. Maybe. Sometimes wormly can get a response to 4 of the 8 packets that it sends (a 50% failure rate). Sometimes it gets no response at all. This is highly suspicious.

Naturally, I’m unable to get through to phone support at Lunar Pages. Their system invites me to register my phone number so that a tech can call me back. I do so. No tech calls me back.

Toward the end of the afternoon, after exchanging a couple of emails with Lunar Pages tech support, I try phoning their support line again. This time an automated message tells me that there’s a conflict between the Lunar Pages servers and the AT&T servers, and that AT&T is working on a fix. Well, what do you know! It wasn’t just me having a screwball problem. I may not have been the first to report it, but then again, maybe I was.

Posted in technology | Leave a Comment »

Nebulous

Posted by midiguru on August 22, 2014

Note: At the moment, the server for my website has decided not to exist, so none of the audio in the blog is going to play. I’m waiting for a reply from tech support….

The latest addition to my modular synth is a Qu-Bit Nebulae, a nifty device that runs Csound code in its own little Raspberry Pi CPU. I haven’t yet tried loading any of my own Csound code; this morning I took Nebulae out for a spin using its default program, which does granular pitch- and time-shifting on samples.

This is a spoken vocal phrase that I happen to have lying around on my hard drive, being played by the Nebulae and processed by a ModCan Frequency Shifter and an Audio Damage Dub Jr. delay. Knob twiddling was employed — this is not an automated patch.

I figured the Nebulae and the ModCan would work well together. I was right.

Posted in modular, music, technology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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