Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for the ‘random musings’ Category

Life Is a Brewery

Posted by midiguru on April 15, 2014

I’m re-reading a couple of science books I read a few years ago — The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean and Microcosm by Carl Zimmer. Both are about cell biology, and while they’re addressed to the intelligent layman, they’re not gee-whiz pop science books. They really do present a fairly clear picture of what happens inside cells, and how we’ve learned about it all. Kean is far too fond of anthropomorphizing; his descriptions of DNA and other molecules give them very human intentions, and that’s bogus. In reality, the molecules are just bumping around at random, but the process happens so quickly that the results (one molecule fitting into another so as to catalyze a reaction) operate as if they were intentional.

Cells don’t reproduce sexually. They sometimes swap genetic material with one another, but that’s not quite the same thing. Cells reproduce by dividing in two. And no new cells are ever assembled from raw molecular ingredients — that hasn’t happened for billions of years, and may in fact have happened only once. All of the cells in all of the animals and plants that are alive today have arisen through the splitting of previously existing cells. And from the point of view of a cell (if we can speak of such a thing), in splitting it has budded off a daughter cell. A daughter cell isn’t a new-born: It’s still the same cell as before.

This fact has a dizzying consequence: That very first cell that somehow assembled itself 3.8 billion years ago is still alive. It’s you. It’s me. It’s all of life on Earth. With the possible exception of viruses, but I’ve read a theory that viruses evolved from the breakdown of more complete cells. They aren’t a separate creation, they’re just efficient parasites. Be that as it may, it’s humbling to realize that every single cell in your body is 3.8 billion years old. For the last 550 million years or so it was continuously an egg cell; each time an embryo differentiated, the cell that became you was one that remained an egg cell. Before that, you were just swimming around, being a cell.

That’s mind-blowing enough, but once we peer inside cells to discover what makes them tick. what we find is a vast array of chemical reactions, a constantly bubbling stew of molecules bumping against one another and catalyzing reactions. All behavior — all human behavior and all of the other behavior of every living thing on the planet — is ultimately a chemical process that occurs when molecules interact. We can’t even say that behavior is the result of chemical reactions. Behavior IS chemical reactions. Unimaginably complex chemical reactions, to be sure, but there’s nothing else going on. It’s all proteins and methyl groups and whatnot bumping into one another. That’s how you get Shakespeare; it’s also how you get a common garden slug. In fact, many of the same chemical processes that happened in Shakespeare also happen in a slug.

Of course, molecules pass in and out of cells all the time. A cell that couldn’t pass molecules in and out through its membrane would soon be dead. No cell is an island. Once you realize this, if you twist the zoom control all the way out and look at life on Earth as a whole, what you discover is that life on Earth is all one ongoing chemical reaction. It has been going on for 3.8 billion years, constantly stirred by energy from the sun. If we say, “That’s a redwood tree,” or, “That’s a sonnet by Shakespeare,” what we’re doing is giving a name to some small part of this single enormous chemical reaction.

This is humbling, but it’s also freeing. You and I are nothing but burbling masses of chemicals. The molecules are going to do whatever they’re going to do. Nobody is in control, so there’s no blame. Just relax and burble along.

Posted in evolution, random musings | Leave a Comment »

More Fun with Software

Posted by midiguru on April 12, 2014

I happen to be involved in two software-heavy pursuits — electronic music and writing interactive fiction. The differences between the two fields may be of interest to nobody but me, but this is my blog, so here goes.

The software in both fields is sophisticated and feature-rich. But there’s at least a hundred times more activity in electronic music than in IF authoring. In IF, we have probably seven or eight developers, total, who are actively maintaining authoring systems. If you want to do creative work as an IF author, you’ll be using the tools uploaded by one of these kind and generous souls.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the audience for electronic music is at least ten thousand times larger than the audience for interactive fiction. Second, writing IF is much harder than laying out music in a digital audio workstation, so the number of people who even consider writing a text game is very small. The number who ever finish and release their games is even smaller.

The audience for IF is small for two reasons: First, if you want to play a computer game, you’ll probably get more excitement out of a game with video and music. Beyond that, though, playing a text game requires that you think. Few people think while listening to music … or at least, they don’t think about the music.

I’m grateful every day to the developers for producing such wonderful tools. On the IF side, Mike Roberts and Eric Eve are my heroes. On the digital audio side, there are too many heroes for me to list them all, but sound designers like Eric Persing and Howard Scarr would be high on the list, as would Ernst Nathorst-BΓΆΓΆs, whose steady hand on the helm has turned Reason into such an amazing music program. Keep up the great work, guys!

Posted in Interactive Fiction, music, random musings, technology | Leave a Comment »

Facebook Follies

Posted by midiguru on March 19, 2014

I tend to use Facebook as a sort of miniature blog. I might post a two-sentence comment about how my day is going, or a link to a news story that I think is interesting. I might share a home-made cartoon that someone else posted, if I think it’s cute and/or pithy. Discussions and comments are sometimes posted in reply.

My Facebook friends are a heterogeneous lot. Some are people I used to work with at the music magazines. Some are music industry professionals whom I may or may not ever have met. Some are people I went to high school with. One is a second cousin I’ve never met.

Here’s the problem: Some of the cartoons I re-post are aggressive take-downs of religion — and some of my FB friends in the music industry are inclined to be religious. In response to the cartoon and the snarky comments from people who agree with me, these individuals may be offended. They may offer comments of their own in defense of religion.

The surest way to get me to slice you to ribbons is to try to defend religion in my presence. If you try it, I’m not going to give you even an inch of slack. I’m going to explain to you not only the precise manner in which you’re wrong, but just how thoroughly wrong you are, complete with chapter and verse. The chapter and verse might include, for example, Matthew 22, a parable in which Read the rest of this entry »

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

The Eye of the Beholder

Posted by midiguru on March 15, 2014

Evolution is rather stingy. It doesn’t tend to produce or maintain functions that have no purpose … and of course the only thing evolution is concerned with is producing babies who grow up to have more babies. Not even survival is mandated by evolution, as witness the species of insects (or, for that matter, salmon) who mate and then die.

I’ve read a couple of good books about the evolutionary basis for religious belief and behavior. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about the evolutionary basis for our sense of beauty. (Here’s a link — well worth watching: http://www.ted.com/talks/denis_dutton_a_darwinian_theory_of_beauty) The sense of beauty is nearly universal in our species. Without it, we wouldn’t be fully human. But how did it arise?

Religion seems to have several precursors. (I’ll leave you to read up on that topic on your own.) In the same way, I suspect, our sense of beauty springs from several sources. Mental tendencies have been reinforced in our species because they were useful — but as with the sex instinct, the actual behavior that results need not always have the intended effect. The behavior can become free-floating; it’s no longer moored to the actual need to make babies.

Very preliminarily (I’m just thinking out loud here), we can talk about the origins of the sense of beauty in the areas of fashion, function, fitness, and the free flow of information.

Fashion first. At some point in our evolutionary past, our ancestors started wearing clothing. We don’t know when or why or how that happened. Quite likely the first garments Read the rest of this entry »

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True Believers

Posted by midiguru on February 24, 2014

Prompted by idle curiosity, I read the first part of Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman. It’s fascinating, in a queasy way. One of the thought-provoking bits is the description of life on L. Ron Hubbard’s yacht, where the inner circle of the “religion” hung out while it cruised the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. By this time, Hubbard had become a strict disciplinarian — a tin pot dictator. Those who failed to meet his expectations were punished by being exiled to a roach-infested compartment in the bowels of the ship, where they slept on pee-stained mattresses.

What’s amazing about this is that everybody who was there put up with it. Nobody (or almost nobody — the book is not specific on this point) said, “Well, fuck this,” and left. This fact gives us a deep insight into the human psyche. Most of us have a deep need to be part of a group, a need to belong. We will put up with almost any sort of treatment, and engage in any sort of bizarre behavior, in order to remain part of the group. Not only that, but our instincts will coerce us into believing that our own group is special. We will feel loyalty to it and affection for it. The thought of not being part of the group will make us nervous.

This is true of people in business settings, in political parties, and indeed in nations. It’s true of the police and the military. It’s true of drug gangs and the Mafia. Being part of the group is more important than being kind. It’s more important than using your intellect to understand what’s going on.

With secular groups, though, there can be a point where the individual says, “Enough. I’m leaving.” When the group is doing bad stuff, the pain of separation eventually becomes Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion, society & culture | 1 Comment »

Where Music Works

Posted by midiguru on February 3, 2014

In the opening chapter of his book How Music Works, David Byrne makes a provocative and insightful observation. In a nutshell, he argues that the type of music composers and performers create depends largely on the type of space in which the music is to be played. The social purposes being served also play a role.

The simplest example of this is to imagine what high-energy funk would sound like if played in a cathedral. A cathedral is an extraordinarily reverberant space. As a result, the crisp rhythms of funk would turn into a dull roar. Trying to play funk in a cathedral would be all but pointless, because nobody could hear what you were doing.

Byrne gives lots of other examples. His underlying point is that our usual fantasy, in which the artist creates something based on an inner impulse toward personal expression, is exactly backwards. What the artist creates will be based, consciously or unconsciously, on how the work is to be delivered to audiences. A small jazz club has entirely different acoustics and social rituals than a concert hall, and neither has any resemblance to a pair of earbuds.

Once in a while I think about trying to take a bunch of my electronic music and turn it into a live concert experience so as to be able to share the music with a few people in small local clubs. One of the things that gives me pause, aside from the logistical difficulties of live performance, is that I’d have to rewrite everything. Long before I read Byrne’s exploration of this idea, I understood instinctively that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in music, random musings, society & culture | 3 Comments »

Head Hurts — Please Stop

Posted by midiguru on January 25, 2014

Today’s most memorable quote (though to be fair, it’s only 10:30 in the morning) comes from Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes for Health. This gentleman is a scientist, but also says he believes in God. In a discussion on HuffPost Live, he apparently said this about evolution: “…if you are a believer in God, it’s hard to imagine that God would somehow put this incontrovertible evidence [for the reality of evolution] in front of us about our relationship to other living organisms and expect us to disbelieve it.” You can read the whole article, if you like, here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/25/francis-collins-davos_n_4635338.html?utm_hp_ref=politics&ir=Politics

The point of his statement was, I think, to suggest that folks who reject the idea of evolution are both ignoring evidence and being disrespectful of God’s motives. However, there is certainly a strain of Christian belief that insists we shouldn’t use reason, because reason is a tool used by Satan to tempt us into doubting the word of God. For folks who really believe that, it’s actually quite easy to ignore the evidence, because the evidence was put there by Satan.

Okay, so the head of the NIH doesn’t understand fundamentalist belief systems, or pretends not to. But there’s more to the story than that. The HuffPost article also quotes Collins as follows: “For me, somebody who is a ‘show me the data’ kind of scientist, but also a believer [in God], I don’t see a discordance there.” In other words, he’s a ‘show me the data’ kind of guy when it comes to science, but when Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion | 1 Comment »

That Big Bang

Posted by midiguru on January 25, 2014

We have no clear idea about how the universe came into existence. Scientists have some hazy theories, but the theories are packed with assumptions that may be wrong.

People who are inclined toward religious belief tend to assume that some enormously wise and powerful entity called “God” created the universe. This idea explains nothing, but I guess it’s comforting.

It explains nothing because, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, in order to create a complex universe — one with finely tuned physical laws — God would have to be complex. A simple God (a God with no internal features) couldn’t do the necessary equations. If God is complex, then we can’t dodge the question of where God came from. It’s an infinite regress. If you’re going to assume that a complex God “just is” and doesn’t need explanation, you might just as well assume that the universe “just is” and doesn’t need explanation.

Still, it’s a fun idea to think about. Let’s assume for a moment that the universe was created (13.8 billion years or so ago) by an unimaginably vast and powerful entity that we may as well call “God.” Sadly, nothing in the physical universe gives us any clue about the nature of this God. We might entertain any number of hypotheses, all of them equally Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion | 2 Comments »

Working Class Hero

Posted by midiguru on January 10, 2014

Most of us have our low-class, guilty pleasures. My friend Bob is a fan of pro wrestling (or used to be), for no reason that I could ever fathom. Me, I have a large collection of paperbacks by Erle Stanley Gardner.

I’ve written about Gardner a couple of times before in this blog. He was a terrible writer, but very consistent and hugely successful. Now that I’ve seen all of the Law & Order reruns that I can stomach, I’ve started re-reading Gardner’s Perry Mason and Donald Lam mysteries.

Having nothing better to do this afternoon, I whipped up a database of titles, and discovered that I’m still missing quite a few. They’re all out of print, of course, although a few are still available as Kindle downloads. But sellers of used books list their wares on Amazon, so with a little luck, in a week or so I’ll have more than a dozen “new” ones, some of which I expect I’ve never read.

There were better writers of mysteries in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Rex Stout was better. Agatha Christie was better. In the earlier period, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were better. Later on, Ross MacDonald was better, as was John D. MacDonald. But none of them ever sold as many books as Gardner. He was prolific and reliable — the Doritos of mystery paperbacks.

I’m not quite sure why I find his cheesy stories enjoyable, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. Some people like Vivaldi; some like Jeopardy; some like Doritos.

Posted in fiction, random musings | Leave a Comment »

Special Pleading

Posted by midiguru on December 11, 2013

A friend on Facebook posted a link to a HuffPost blog piece on religion. My friend introduced the link by saying, “I have been arguing for years that it is not religion, but the misuse of religion, that causes evil….” After a preliminary salvo in reply to his introduction, I had a look at the article. (You’ll find it at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-mcelwee/stop-blaming-religion-for_b_4416137.html). It was written by someone named Sean McElwee, whose only stated qualification as an authority on this subject is that he’s a writer. Well, so am I, so I guess Sean and I are on equal footing. Let’s see how we fare.

My preliminary comment to my friend began, “…but what is the proper use of religion? Does it have one? I’d appreciate an honest and sensible answer to this question.” To my way of thinking, the utility of religion is that it provides social solidarity for a group of people. But then, so does a bowling league. Is religion different in any essential way from a bowling league?

I went on to say, “Beyond this, I would strongly suggest that any attempt to get religion off the hook on all the evil that is done by religious people is doomed to failure, and for a specific reason: Religious doctrine of any kind produces cognitive blindness. Religious doctrine by its very nature renders the believer unable to separate truth from falsehood. This is the essence of religion! Without blind belief, religion would cease (since, of course, there is nothing there to actually believe in). Thus it is inevitable that religious people will, sooner or later, do evil things.” Why? Because when called upon by the leaders of their sect to do evil things, they won’t be able to acknowledge to themselves that they’re doing evil.

“You’re welcome to try to dispute this,” I told my friend, “but I doubt you’ll be able to do anything other than Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion, society & culture | 1 Comment »


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