Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for September, 2009

Beastliness

Posted by midiguru on September 23, 2009

On May 4, 1886, a contingent of police marched into Haymarket Square in Chicago, bent on dispersing a peaceful labor rally. Someone (it was never determined who) threw a bomb into the midst of the police squad, killing half a dozen men.

Seven men were condemned to death on account of the bomb-throwing. Four of them were eventually hanged. But no evidence was ever presented showing that they had planned the bombing or knew who did. They were hanged for having exercised their supposed right of free speech. In spite of the manifest injustice of the convictions, an appeal to the Supreme Court did no good.

In the course of a wonderful, if rather hefty, book called The Rise of Industrial America, Page Smith discusses the Haymarket affair and numerous other atrocities. In the chapter on immigration, he describes the vicious treatment of Jews in Russia during that period. He lifts the lid on the sheer terrorism unleashed on former slaves in the South, the murders and beatings and robberies carried out, with impunity, by white men determined to retain their pathetic power and pitiful prerogatives.

When I was a kid, my father had some highball glasses with cartoons inked on them. The caption beneath one of the cartoons (by now I can’t recall the image itself) said, “People are no damn good.” That’s about the sum of it, I think. For every Shakespeare, a hundred demented monsters. For every Mozart, a hundred vile fools. For every Monet or Van Gogh, a hundred policemen swinging their billy clubs.

And you think you’re special?

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Responsibility Run Amok

Posted by midiguru on September 18, 2009

Headnote (not footnote): The analysis of the contract shown below is, for the moment, still accurate, or as accurate as I know how to make it. But today I spoke to an individual at the City Attorney’s office who seemed to be more than willing to make changes in the contract. So for now, I’m very optimistic. To continue where we left off:

Two weeks ago I wrote about being asked to sign a contract that included an indemnification clause. I would have been required to sign this contract in order to be allowed to teach cello at a local music studio. I said no, thanks.

Today we have an even more amazing example of creeping indemnification.

I contacted the local library and volunteered to give a free 90-minute presentation to interested library patrons on the subject of interactive fiction. The librarian in charge likes the idea. She sent me two pieces of paperwork to fill out and return. One is a simple equipment checklist; the other is entitled “Hold Harmless.” (Ominous rumblings in the timpani.) Here’s the text of the latter document, in its entirety:

“The undersigned shall defend, indemnify, and hold harmless the City, its officers, officials, employees, agents, and volunteers from and against all claims, damages, losses, and expenses, herein, caused in whole or in part by any negligent act or omission of the undersigned or anyone directly or indirectly employed by any of them or anyone for whose acts any of them may be liable, except where caused by the negligence of the City, its officers, officials, employees, agents, or volunteers.”

Below this text (which was pasted into the .doc file as a graphic, so that it can’t be edited, thereby saving them, I suppose, the trouble of having to proofread it to make sure the signer didn’t try anything sneaky) is a space for my signature.

By doing a little research online on indemnity and contract law, I was able to spot ten or twelve separate problems in that one seemingly simple paragraph. And it was given to the librarian, for her to pass on to prospective volunteer presenters of free (that is, unpaid) programs, by the City Attorney’s office.

The individual I spoke to today (Sept. 22) said, in the course of the conversation, “That’s a standard form. We’ve been using it for years, and no one has ever asked about it before.” What I didn’t say to him, because he seems a very nice, reasonable person, was, any time someone in an attorney’s office says the language in a form is “standard,” check your wallet.

The biggest problem with this contract is so huge that I read the document a dozen times before I noticed it. Have you spotted it yet? The difficulty is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Interactive Fiction, random musings, society & culture | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

What Was

Posted by midiguru on September 16, 2009

Becoming fascinated by history. Specifically the latter part of the 19th century. It was an amazing period. I started out reading about Chicago, which is fascinating enough, but Chicago was only a microcosm of the whole period, a sort of Petri dish in which the diseases of the time festered and bloomed.

Here’s a lovely quote from the Introduction of The Rise of Industrial America by Page Smith: “Americans, in the absence of any of the traditional ways of authenticating themselves and finding their places in the system — caste, clan, or ‘order’ — had to depend primarily upon money; making money became the validation of personal worth….”

From what I’ve read so far, that description fits Chicago in the 1880s like a glove.

Maybe one of the reasons I’m captivated by the 19th century is that the dominant cultural idiocies of the day are far enough removed from our own (if only barely) that I can look at the unfolding human drama as tragedy and comedy rather than as a struggle that I need to participate in. What happened, happened. Most of it happened because people, with a few happy exceptions, are cruel and stupid. But I can observe the cruelties and stupidities of the 19th century with a pleasant detachment.

Plus, top hats. What’s not to like about top hats?

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Reading: Strangers

Posted by midiguru on September 14, 2009

Stayed up ’til 2 in the morning finishing J. D. Robb’s Strangers in Death, so I may as well admit it was a good story. The plot is borrowed from an old Hitchcock movie, but Robb (Nora Roberts in real life) has the good grace to admit it.

About halfway through the book, police detective Eve Dallas figures out who done it, and of course her gut instinct is on the money. The tricky bit is getting enough evidence to nail the ingenious killer’s hide to the wall.

The packing material, which is plentiful, is less satisfying than the story. Robb is writing exclusively for women: There are at least four long, steamy scenes (one in a swimming pool) in which Eve has enormously satisfying sex with her husband. Male genitalia are referred to again and again and again, in a variety of contexts, including castration with a carving knife. We might imagine the howls of protest from feminists if a male author wrote about women’s anatomy for a male readership with such unabashed gusto.

Eve’s husband is straight out of a romance comic book. He’s phenomenally good looking, extremely rich, macho enough to scare off muggers, sensitive to Eve’s every mood, and — for dessert — an expert computer geek who cheerfully pitches in to help her solve her cases.

The main characters are all more or less romance staples. Most of the men are rich and good-looking (though not as rich or good-looking as Eve’s husband). The women, likewise, tend to be rich, good-looking, and virtuous, except for the murderers, who are suitably creepy. There are two virtuous poor women. One bakes Eve a lemon meringue pie, the other is a hooker who is turning tricks to pay for her daughter’s ice-skating lessons.

Let’s just say Robb’s moral universe is not extremely nuanced, and leave it at that.

The Eve Dallas books, of which there seem to be quite a number, are nominally set in the future — 2060 or thereabouts. But science fiction writers have nothing to fear. Robb isn’t even trying to write SF. Except for a couple of androids stacked in a closet and the notion that the killer will be sent to a prison “off-planet,” the whole book could have been set in today’s world by using a word processor to search-and-replace “link” with “cell phone” and “glide” with “escalator.”

As a sometime SF writer myself, I’m a bit offended by this, but I think Roberts has made a smart marketing move. Mysteries sell better than SF, and the average mystery reader would undoubtedly be baffled by half a dozen elements that SF readers not only take for granted but demand. The future is just another exotic setting to Robb’s mystery fans. It’s entirely on a par with Ellis Peters’s Medieval monastery and Lindsey Davis’s Rome, though not as well fleshed out as either of them.

The main reason I’m reading books like Strangers in Death is not, in any case, for the unalloyed pleasure that it affords; I’m researching the marketing decisions various authors are making. Robb’s decisions (cross-breed the police procedural with the explicit romance novel, stake your claim to an exotic setting that no one has used yet) are entirely sensible.

And on the bright side, there are no vampires.

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The Middle 8

Posted by midiguru on September 13, 2009

In jazz parlance, the middle 8 is the B section in a 32-bar AABA song form. In the middle 8, the chord progression turns a corner and the song moves off into a different space.

I’ve been working on a plot outline for a mystery novel. Like many mystery plots, it has a middle 8.

Or we could look at it as the second act of a three-act play. Crime caper novels and police procedurals sometimes have more complex structures, but a great many mysteries can be analyzed well as having three acts.

In the first act, we meet the main characters, and Something Awful Happens. In the second act, the sleuth Trudges Around, Interviewing Suspects and Following Clues. In the third act, the Truth is Revealed, the Culprit is Unmasked (which often leads to a Thrilling and Suspenseful Chase), and Virtue Triumphs.

Most mystery writers can come up with Something Awful. And Unmasking a Culprit isn’t that difficult either. But watching over the sleuth’s shoulder as he or she trudges around interviewing suspects can be fascinating and fun for the reader, or it can be deadly dull. That distinction is what I’m meditating on this morning.

In the classic Agatha Christie model, there’s not much action in the middle 8, although Christie’s formula relied on a second murder (usually the death of the person you think is the most likely suspect) along in there somewhere. Mostly, Hercule Poirot just asks questions and uses his little gray cells. In Christie’s capable hands, this formula worked well enough, or at least it was viable 75 years ago, when she wrote her best stories.

Another writer of the same period, Erle Stanley Gardner, probably offers a better model for the modern mystery writer. Gardner was, by some criteria, a dreadful writer. His characters were cardboard, his prose bland and pedestrian. But he sold millions of books — by some estimates I’ve seen, more than 100 million. He got his start in the ’30s and ’40s, before television really took off, and he was supplying for readers Read the rest of this entry »

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Idiots Who Vote

Posted by midiguru on September 12, 2009

The practice of using literacy tests to qualify (or, more likely, disqualify) voters got a very bad name in the United States during the years (roughly from the 1870s through the 1960s) when such tests were used to deny the vote to African-Americans. From what I’ve read, even quite well-educated black people generally failed the tests (which were, of course, administered by whites), while white people who could barely write their names were routinely judged literate.

My goodness, do we not want to go back there!

If, however, a literacy test could be administered in a truly color-blind way, with the results tabulated by judges who did not know the race (nor the political affiliations) of the person being tested, would it be desirable, as a matter of public policy, to require that those who are to vote in elections be able to demonstrate not only basic literacy but a basic understanding of the world in which we live? This is a question that I think can legitimately be debated.

If you’re going to cast a vote on matters that affect fiscal policy, shouldn’t you be required to demonstrate that you know how to balance a checkbook? That you understand the manner in which interest on a loan is compounded?

If you’re going to cast a vote on matters that affect foreign policy, shouldn’t you be required to demonstrate that you know the names and locations of, perhaps, twenty prominent foreign nations, the names of the languages spoken there, and the names of the current leaders of those nations?

If you’re going to cast a vote on matters that affect the environment, shouldn’t you be required to demonstrate that you know a bit about water circulation, toxins, microbes, and the role of the oceans in the life cycle of the planet?

Shouldn’t everyone who aspires to have an opinion about public policy (starting with newspaper reporters) be required to demonstrate an understanding of statistics? The science of statistics matters. The “statistics” reported in most newspaper stories are meaningless. They’re gibberish. Why? Because the reporters, even if they understand statistics themselves, know perfectly well that their readers don’t understand statistics and don’t see why they need to. As a result, the level of alarmist misinformation being spread around is just staggering.

And if you’re going to cast a vote on any matter at all, shouldn’t you be required to show that you can read a newspaper and understand the content of newspaper stories? Not only that, but if you’re going to vote in the United States, would it be too much to ask that you demonstrate Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in politics, random musings, society & culture | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

That Windy City

Posted by midiguru on September 11, 2009

Doing a little historical research on Chicago in the 1880s. If you were awake during American history class, you may recall the Haymarket affair, at least vaguely, but the more I learn, the more I want to know.

The labor movement in the U.S. is responsible for little niceties like the 8-hour workday, paid vacations, and paid overtime. Without the labor unions, we’d still be … oh, wait. That all changed, didn’t it? Today you have to work two jobs to support your family, so we’re back to 16-hour workdays. If we still had a strong labor movement in this country, maybe things would be different, but the moneyed classes have managed to tar labor with a broad brush. Exactly as they did 125 years ago, though generally with a little more gentility. The brutal campaign directed against the workers in Chicago in the 1880s left a lot of people (most of them ordinary factory workers) dead.

A lot of other things were going on in Chicago at that time. It wasn’t all riots. The world’s first skyscraper (10 stories tall) was built. And when the police weren’t taking bribes or hitting the unemployed with their billy clubs, they built an impressive city-wide network of dispatch call boxes. If there was a fire, or thieves, you could run down to the corner and pull a lever, and only a minute or two later a police wagon (drawn by horses) would dash down the street to answer your call.

The police force was predominantly Irish. My bet is that that’s why those wagons came to be called “paddy wagons.”

So there were technological innovations, banks, factories, taverns … it wasn’t all riots. Life went on. It’s important to remember that historians focus on the most dramatic incidents. The lives of ordinary people are generally ignored. Except when they’re rioting in the streets because they’re unemployed and starving, of course.

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Advanced Techno-Babble

Posted by midiguru on September 6, 2009

Poking around in craigslist tonight, glancing at ads for writer/editors. A company called Sybase is looking for a writer. I don’t think it’s me, but I was curious about what they do. Their home page is designed with all kinds of little pop-up widgets — very sexy. One of the widgets says “Afaria.” I had no idea what that word might mean, so I clicked on it. Figured I might learn something.

Here’s what I learned:

“Afaria provides comprehensive management and security capabilities to ensure that mobile data and devices are up-to-date, reliable and secure.”

Mobile data — there’s a concept to make your head swim! What I think maybe they’re talking about is, your CEO is using his Blackberry while on a flight to Singapore, and Afaria makes sure he can access an encrypted database. But that’s a pure blind guess on my part.

“With Afaria,” the body copy goes on, “IT has the level of control and visibility required to proactively manage and secure multiple device types, applications, data and communications critical to frontline success, regardless of the bandwidth available. By putting control in the hands of IT, frontline workers are freed from the burden of management tasks, which increases user adoption and productivity. Afaria uniquely combines mobile device management and mobile security from a single console, providing the best protection against security threats and compliance issues.”

I think I’m getting a sense of why they need a writer. Not that I’m tempted to apply. What does any of that goop mean? I have no idea what a frontline worker is, but it seems clear that Afaria is going to ensure that they remain peons, “freed from the burden of management tasks.” And I guess we’re talking about orphaned frontline workers, probably under-age ones, if they’re in need of adoption.

Mobile security, that’s another interesting idea — now your security is here, now it’s gone somewhere else. And compliance issues are something a psychologist would have to sort out, right?

Teaching cello can be frustrating at times, but it has the enormous advantage that I’m dealing with utterly concrete matters. “You used your 3rd finger instead of your 2nd finger.” “You skipped ahead during that rest.” “You’re lifting the bow from your shoulder. You need to learn to use your wrist.” I seem to be on an entirely different planet than Afaria. And frankly, I’m very happy about it.

Posted in random musings, society & culture, writing | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

Author! Author!

Posted by midiguru on September 4, 2009

Both Inform 7 and TADS 3 are very, very powerful authoring systems for interactive fiction (i.e., text-based games). What’s odd, if you think about it for a minute, is that the authoring systems are so far out in front of the work that’s being written. Why don’t we have ten or twenty times as many talented authors laboring away over great new works of IF?

If it weren’t for the hard work of two dedicated software designers, Graham Nelson and Mike Roberts, we’d have no decent authoring systems at all. So maybe it’s just the luck of the draw. I’m not too sure about that, though.

I did a quick, informal survey of the games released by some well-known IF authors during the past decade, and found rather a dearth of gung-ho activity. Yes, new games are being released, and yes, a few authors are very active, but many others release a couple of games and then fall by the wayside.

An earlier version of this post (which I have now completely revised) sparked some discussion on rec.arts.int-fiction. That discussion highlighted several reasons why IF authors may fail to follow up their early successes by writing more games.

First, there’s no money in IF. A novelist whose first work is published, reviewed, and admired will have a big financial incentive to continue. Not so with interactive fiction. It’s a hobby.  And however passionate people may feel about their hobbies, after a few years the passion may settle to a lower level.

Second, writing IF is harder than many people realize. They may tackle writing their first game, buckle down and fight their way through the unexpected difficulties, release a very good game, and then be reluctant to put themselves through the wringer again.

Third, lots of people first try writing IF when they’re in college. By the time they’ve written one or two games, they’ve moved on to a new stage of their life — a job, a family, and so on. Time-consuming, unpaid hobbies tend to take a back seat.

Fourth, some people remain involved in the IF field but devote their time to other activities than writing new games. Mike Roberts, for example, has put a lot of time recently into the Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB).

Fifth, as Emily Short pointed out, developing a game that will unfold as a satisfying story is quite a conceptual challenge. Not that writing novels is a paint-by-the-numbers activity, but the parameters are pretty well understood. Not so with IF. Some authors undoubtedly have games that they’ve been working on for an extended period that they’re not ready to release because something about the project hasn’t yet jelled.

Sixth, some authors may have gone on from IF into the world of paid game programming. Why on Earth would they want to come home and write games for free in their spare time?

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this discussion — and my apologies to anyone who felt that my off-the-cuff survey was ill-considered or overly negative.

The comments contributed to the original version of this post are no longer relevant to the updated version, so I’m deleting them. However, I’ll keep Adam Cadre’s comment on the original version, since it illustrates the issues discussed in the new version.

Posted in Interactive Fiction, writing | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Indemnity We Trust

Posted by midiguru on September 2, 2009

Until today, I was planning to start teaching cello this fall at a sort of high-end private music studio. Unlike the three teaching studios I’ve been associated with most recently (including Ingram & Brauns in Pleasanton, where I still teach), this new place wanted me to sign a contract.

They didn’t bother to tell me about the contract last November, when I initially agreed to teach there; they only emailed it to me two days before my first scheduled lesson. This was perhaps just a wee bit unprofessional on their part, especially considering that the student whose lesson I was scheduled to teach had already paid for a full month’s lessons on the mistaken assumption that the studio had a cello instructor on the roster; but never mind that.

The contract, while sensible enough for the most part, included this charming language: “Instructor shall indemnify, defend and hold harmless [the studio] from any and all damages, claims, liability, unpaid taxes, and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from and related to Instructor’s obligations under this Agreement and any services provided by or activities of Instructor.”

This is pretty typical of contracts drawn up by lawyers. I’ve rejected contracts in the past because of indemnity clauses that the company in question wasn’t willing to strike. The trouble with an indemnity clause is that it asks me to push my life savings into the middle of the poker table and BET that nothing bad will happen. Since my life savings is also my retirement plan, you may imagine that such a wager might not seem entirely prudent to me.

Let’s suppose, for instance, that an insane parent decides to sue the studio because they feel (quite wrongly) that a representative of the studio promised them that little Bobby (who is tone-deaf, dyslexic, and has Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in cello, music, random musings, society & culture | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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