Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘random musings’ Category

Simply Smashing

Posted by midiguru on June 7, 2014

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the leading thinkers at the beginning of the scientific revolution. Bacon recommended forcing nature to give up its secrets; the Latin term he used was natura vexata (nature vexed).

This technique is immensely useful, of course. But it’s not always the right approach. If you want to know what’s going on in the chemistry of a living cell, for instance, you can squish or burst the cell, thereby killing it, and isolate the various chemical compounds that you find. Having done this, you have a pretty good idea what the cell is made of. What you won’t know is how those compounds operate within the cell while it’s alive.

The interior of a cell is an immensely complicated place. Millions of chemical interactions are taking place every second. While any given molecular interaction may be random — either those two molecules bump into one another, or they don’t — the process as a whole is regulated in an ongoing manner that is both subtle and multifaceted. The process, and its regulation, is what we call life.

Most of what we know about subatomic physics is as a result of applying the techniques of natura vexata. We fire particles at one another at incredibly high speeds, causing them to smash into one another. We’ve learned a lot about subatomic particles in this way. But here’s today’s random thought: Might we be entirely missing how these particles behave in more ordinary circumstances?

The conventional scientific view is, more or less, “Well, they’re inert. They’re just dumb particles. They have no complex features.” But at one time the interior of a living cell was thought of in pretty much that same way, wasn’t it? Microscopes that could inspect the detailed inner structure of cells hadn’t yet been developed. As far as scientists could determine, the cell was just full of goo.

It’s a bit hard to see how the ordinary, unvexed behavior of subatomic particles could be investigated. They’re just too small. When I read about cell biology, though, I find it hard to escape the feeling that something is going on in this broth of molecular activity that we don’t yet understand.

At one time protein molecules were thought of as being rigid structures, a bit like Tinkertoy models assembled out of sticks and little spheres. Atoms were thought of as rather like little tiny billiard balls, bouncing off of one another according to strict mathematical rules. Today we know that’s not a good description of protein molecules. Protein molecules are wiggly. They’re constantly changing shape.

Of course, those shape changes must be entirely random, right? Molecules are just collections of tiny billiard balls, after all, tugging on and bouncing off of one another according to rigid mathematical laws. The idea that the molecules themselves might have an awareness of their surroundings, that they might respond in variable ways as a result of factors that we haven’t yet discovered … that would be just spiritualist nonsense.

I’m not a fan of spiritualist nonsense. I’m not trying to reintroduce the elan vital. But it does seem to me, as a layman, that the level of complexity within a living cell might be due not only to a few billion years of evolution but also to complexities in the behavior of protons, neutrons, and electrons that we haven’t yet discovered, or even imagined.

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The Big Picture

Posted by midiguru on April 27, 2014

Physicists have pretty well established that the way the universe works depends on the values of a small bunch of numerical constants. The strength of gravity, for instance. If gravity were slightly stronger, stars would all collapse into neutron stars, so there would be no planets with life. If it were slightly weaker, stars would never have formed at all; the entire universe would be just a cloud of drifting gas.

That’s just the example that’s easiest to understand. There are other similar numbers. When you look at the big picture, it does appear that our universe has been fine-tuned at the factory to allow our sort of life to emerge.

This is not an argument for the existence of a god, however. If our universe did have a Grand Designer, there are several possibilities, most of which don’t involve anything that would resemble traditional conceptions of “God.” The Grand Designer might have died billions of years ago, for instance. Or might have drifted off to work on some other project, and might have no concern at all with the fate of this one.

Nonetheless, physicists are confronted with a puzzle: Why are things the way they are? One suggestion holds that there’s an infinite supply of universes. At the beginning of each universe, the values of these physical constants are established in a random manner. Most universes, then, would be devoid of anything resembling life. Our own universe might be part of a tiny minority — but only in that tiny minority will intelligent beings evolve who can look around and say, “Wow! Look how perfectly these numbers are set up!” This is called the weak anthropic principle. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in evolution, random musings | 4 Comments »

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.

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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 »

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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 »

 
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