Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘random musings’ Category

Food for Worms

Posted by midiguru on December 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

Phooey.

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What’s in the Cards

Posted by midiguru on December 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Imaginary Games

Posted by midiguru on November 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in random musings | 1 Comment »

The Map and the Territory

Posted by midiguru on October 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slice, but Don’t Dice

Posted by midiguru on October 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Stool softeners are your friend.

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

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

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

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Culture, Creativity, and Copyright

Posted by midiguru on July 29, 2014

The law of copyright is a modern innovation. Copyright protection was developed for an important reason — to enable creative people to earn a living by doing creative work. Before the law assumed its present form, authors and composers routinely saw their popular works pirated. Unless an artist was fortunate enough to have a wealthy patron, the artist’s income was precarious.

As valuable as this legal framework has been to thousands of artists, there’s a downside. Works that captivate the public (and also, for that matter, works that remain little-known) remain exclusively owned and controlled for a number of years by the owner of the copyright. During the term of the copyright, nobody else can make use of the materials in a creative work.

Here’s a neat example of why this is a bad thing. In 1562, a long-forgotten author named Arthur Brooke published an English translation, in verse, of an Italian love story. He called it “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Only 30 years later, Shakespeare recast the story in a play, Romeo and Juliet. If modern copyright law had been in existence in England in the 16th century, we would not be able to enjoy that play today, because Shakespeare wouldn’t have written it. Just as likely, Brooke couldn’t have published his translation either, so Shakespeare would never have been inspired by it.

Technically, Shakespeare could have written the play — and then put it away in a drawer for 50 or 75 years, until Brooke’s copyright expired. But why would he have written it if he couldn’t publish it or have it performed?

Culture is not a private act. It’s a shared public experience, a shared human experience. Culture should not be kept locked away in tight little boxes that nobody is allowed to open unless they’ve checked out an authorized key from the Official Keeper of the Authorized Keys.

The law of copyright turns culture into a commodity. It turns the recipients and beneficiaries of culture (that is, all of us) into passive consumers. We’re allowed to enjoy the hallowed works of culture, but we’re not allowed to participate in them in any significant creative way.

Unless, of course, the copyright holder gives permission, either tacitly or overtly. The world of fanfic (fan fiction) is apparently quite healthy. People write their own Harry Potter stories, their own Star Wars and Star Trek stories. Some authors (such as J. K. Rowling) allow it. Others (such as George R. R. Martin) don’t. It’s up to the author — or, if the author has died or sold the rights, to the current owner of the copyright.

I’m sure most fanfic is dreadful, but that’s neither here nor there. The people who write fanfic are actively participating in their own culture, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Eventually, after the passage of years (and the law differs from one nation to another with respect to how many years have to pass) a copyrighted work passes into the public domain. When that happens, anybody can exercise their own creativity by freely adapting the material. Anybody can write Sherlock Holmes stories or Wizard of Oz stories, because those books are in the public domain.

To be more specific, the L. Frank Baum Oz books are in the public domain. Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books aren’t, so you can use the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, but you can’t use any characters that Thompson created.

As that caveat suggests, you have to be careful. Want to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon? It was published in 1930. The legal situation in the United States is murky, but many novels published since 1923 are still protected by copyright. You might have the makings of a terrific mystery starring Sam Spade rattling around in your head, but unless the copyright owner (whoever that happens to be) is feeling charitably disposed, you could be in for a world of hurt.

This is not how culture and creativity are supposed to work. I don’t have a solution to offer, but there is damn well a problem here.

Posted in music, politics, random musings, society & culture, writing | 4 Comments »

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.

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-Böös, 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 »

 
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