Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

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 »

Tiny Everything

Posted by midiguru on April 13, 2014

A couple of months ago I learned one or two pieces in Book 4 of Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. And yesterday one of the people on the Xenharmonic Alliance II group on Facebook posted a link to a really nice piece for solo piano (digital, of course) in 17-note equal temperament.

Inspired by that piece, I figured I’d try my hand at a Mikrokosmos-style piece — short, melodic, and harmonically modern, in 17et. It only took a few hours to whip something up:

In case you’re curious: No, that wasn’t played in real time. There’s a lot of hand-editing of note lengths and velocities, quantizing, trying different harmonies by dragging the notes up and down, and manually adjusting the tempo here and there. Hope you like it.

I’m still foodling with the question of how best to notate a 17-note scale on a conventional five-line staff. Or even whether to bother. If you look at the Wikipedia article on 17et, you’ll find Easley Blackwood’s method. Easley obviously put a lot of thought into questions of this sort, but I find it odd that his chromatic scale zigzags. The first three notes, for instance, are C, D-flat, and then C-sharp. Also, with his method the interval of a neutral third (which divides the perfect fifth evenly) is spelled either as an augmented second or as a diminished fourth, never as a third.

If I were to try notating this tuning, I think I’d be inclined to use about ten “white keys,” lettered A through K (omitting I, because it would be confusing to read). This notation system has peculiar properties of its own; if you modulate up a fifth from the all-white-keys scale, you’ll find that the key signature has two flats, not one sharp. But we’ll leave that brain-twister for another day.

Posted in microtonal, music | 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 »

Reading the Bible as Literature

Posted by midiguru on April 11, 2014

I just don’t seem to be able to let sleeping dogs lie. Having aroused some contention over the question of whether the Bible qualifies as literature, I bethought myself to examine one of its better known fables in that light. Let’s not dwell on the barbaric laws or the preposterous historical chronicle — let’s look at a story.

How about the story of Adam and Eve? For those who are following along at home, this would be Genesis chapters 2 and 3. The story is too well known to be worth reiterating here, so let’s jump straight into the literary analysis.

The first moral we might draw from the story is this: Disobeying orders is a really bad idea. But in fact this is a corollary of an underlying, implicit idea, which is that you have a superior, a personage who is completely in charge of your life. This personage will give you orders, and the orders must be obeyed.

A second corollary is that your superior may be malicious or simply incompetent, and may in consequence set you up to fail. For no apparent reason, he may put a major stumbling block in your path. No point in complaining about it, though: He’s your superior.

A third corollary is that, as far as you need be concerned, your superior is Never Wrong. The possibility that Adam might have confronted God about the nasty trap that God set, might have asked for an explanation or a second chance — the story doesn’t go there.

The story’s second moral is that the knowledge of good and evil is a Bad Thing. You’re better off by far not knowing the difference between good and evil. The knowledge will cause no end of trouble. As a corollary, even seeking knowledge is portrayed as a mistake. Your superior wants you to remain ignorant. Given that so much of the rest of the Bible sets out detailed rules whose sole purpose is to explain what’s good and what’s evil, this is an odd place to start the book. But that’s what we’ve got. Read the rest of this entry »

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Is the Bible Literature?

Posted by midiguru on April 10, 2014

A friend of mine recently suggested that intelligent people view the Bible not as “the word of God” but as literature. Let’s leave aside the fact that Jesuit priests are reputed to be highly intelligent. I don’t know any Jesuits, so I can’t ask them how they view the Bible, but I suspect most of them probably view it as something more than a work of literature — as do faithful Christians in other denominations. Let’s also leave aside the post-modern idea that “literature” is a subjective construct of some sort; we’ll assume that we know what the word refers to — printed matter like Don Quixote and The Sun Also Rises.

What I think my friend was suggesting was that one can appreciate the content of the Bible as a collection of fables or folk-tales, without being drawn into or distracted by a discussion of its other facets.

The first question that one might ask is, is that how the authors intended their work to be understood? Probably not. Even the most charming or morally uplifting stories in the Bible were probably intended to be read not as works of the human imagination but as fact. But the question of authors’ intentions, while useful as an aid to literary analysis, can be treacherous; it can lead us back in the direction of post-modern literary analysis. So let’s leave it aside too.

If we examine the text itself, we find not only stories but also bits of speculative genealogy, accounts of battles, and numerous sets of rules. Many of the rules are quite explicit — horrifyingly so. It’s difficult to think of a work of literature (or, if you prefer, another work of literature) that devotes so much wordage to telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, much less prescribing severe punishments if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. The most charitable interpretation would be to say that the Bible is part literature, part history (inaccurate history, at that), and partly a really inadequate self-help book.

If we consider the Bible a piece of literature, we might compare it to The Canterbury Tales, or to the Iliad and Odyssey. All are ancient. All contain bits that may be inspirational or morally uplifting. But there are important differences. The Canterbury Tales was definitely written by one person (though he borrowed freely from older tales) and was understood to be a work of fiction. The Iliad and the Odyssey may have had multiple authors, and may have been conceived as history rather than as fiction, but each of them exhibits a unity of plot that is nowhere in evidence in the Bible as a whole. Even the Decameron has a frame-story and an overall structure that give some sense of unity to the collection, in spite of its diversity. Read the rest of this entry »

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Soft Touch

Posted by midiguru on April 7, 2014

Bought a new laptop yesterday, a high-end Toshiba. No particular reason for choosing Toshiba — it has the features I want (wide screen, big hard drive, four USB ports), and the local Fry’s had it in stock.

Unfortunately, the touchpad is a piece of crap. It’s the kind of design that only a techie could love. Innovative! Goes over great in meetings with sales and marketing people! But for actual users — not so nice.

The left and right buttons, you see, are integral to the touchpad. They’re not separate, mechanical buttons, they’re just areas at the bottom of the pad. So here’s the result: You scoot the pointer over to the little icon that you want to right-click on, and then you lift your finger, move it down to the right-click area, and tap. But … oops! As your finger landed on the right-click area, it wasn’t traveling vertically, it was traveling at an angle. Your fingertip moved laterally across the surface as you began the right-click. And that caused the pointer to move somewhere else.

Congratulations — you’ve just right-clicked on the wrong thing. Why? Because the Toshiba Qosmio doesn’t have real click-buttons.

The two-finger scrolling is upside down, and it’s jerky. Annoying, but not a fatal flaw. Also, you dare not rest your finger lightly on what you think is the left button while moving the pointer with a finger of your other hand. In that situation, the Toshiba will think you’re using a two-finger technique. It may start scrolling the window. It may think you’re trying to do a pinch-zoom. Or it may just refuse to recognize that second fingertip at all, because it thinks you’re stationary in the left-button area.

Why? Because the Toshiba Qosmio doesn’t have real click-buttons.

I was looking for an excuse to take it back to the store. Thought I’d found one. But dang it, no. By default, a Toshiba laptop uses the Function keys for OS stuff — changing the screen brightness and so on. If you have any programs that use the Function keys, this is a big problem, because you have to hold down Fn while tapping the Function key to get at the normal behavior.

The User Guide cleverly does not tell you how to defeat this “feature.” But after a fruitless online search, I dug around in the utilities area and found the switch for reversing it. Too bad. If there had been no way to defeat it, I would have had an ironclad reason to take the computer back to the store and trade it for one with real click-buttons.


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Three’s a Crowd

Posted by midiguru on March 29, 2014

Skimming through A. V. Murali’s book Chess Variants & Games, I’m finding lots of intriguing board geometries, some of them deft and some outrageous. Tiling the plane with alternating squares and octagons? Murali’s got you covered. But he seems not very interested in exploring actual game-play.

He proposes a number of three-player variants — on boards of hexagons or triangles, for example. But here’s the thing: Three-player chess flat-out doesn’t work. It’s not a playable game.

A game of two-player chess advances from the opening through the middle game and into the endgame primarily through the process of piece exchange. The board is gradually cleared as bishop is traded for bishop, pawn for pawn, or rook for rook. If you can, you try to get the advantage in an exchange — capturing a knight but losing only a pawn, for example. If you can win a couple of exchanges and otherwise trade pieces of equal value, when the endgame is reached you’re pretty sure to win, because you’ll have significantly more material than your opponent.

In three-player chess, this dynamic process fails. At any point where players A and B exchange pieces, player C comes out ahead. Thus there’s a profound disincentive to exchanging pieces. Nobody is ever going to want to capture anything (other than a piece that’s unprotected, and how likely is that?). The game can’t unfold tactically or strategically, because capturing pieces is a bad idea.

Three-player games such as Chinese checkers, in which material is not exchanged, work well. As far as I can see, a three-player chess variant would work only if shogi-style drop capture was included. Player A, let’s say, captures player B’s rook, and the best player B can get in exchange is player A’s bishop. Player C then gets one move in which he has an advantage, but on their next moves players A and B drop the captured pieces back into play. Player A is now shy of a bishop but has an extra rook, player B having an extra bishop but being short of a rook.

In this situation, player A gains from the exchange relative to player C. Whether a drop should be allowed followed by a move in the same turn, or whether a drop should require an entire turn, is a question that would have to be answered by play-testing.

But what if players A and B each capture one of player C’s pieces in the same turn? Player C has been ganged up on. He can only make one exchange when it’s his turn. What’s worse, if player C has, let’s say, a rook that’s protected only by his bishop, player A could capture the bishop, leaving the rook unprotected, and player B could then capture the rook, in the same turn. The prospect of being ganged up on by your two opponents is clearly a reason not to want to play a three-player variant.

But possibly there’s a way around it. A rule could be added stating that if you have had two pieces captured since your last turn, you get two moves in a single turn, in order to compensate. These two moves might be with a single piece, allowing you to capture one opponent’s king. That would be a powerful disincentive to player B to make the second capture — unless player B thinks (hopes) player C will use his double move to kill player A’s king.

Over-the-board talk and bargaining are also a problem in a three-player variant. I’ll leave you to worry about how best to handle that.

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Posted by midiguru on March 29, 2014

A book called Chess Variants & Games, by A. V. Murali, looked interesting, so I bought it. I haven’t read much of it yet. It strikes me as quite scattered — one of those books written by a bright guy with a ton of off-the-wall ideas, no editor, and perhaps not a great deal of writing experience. Even so, some of his ideas are intriguing.

Playing chess on the exterior surface of a cube, for instance. That’s today’s mind trip. Playing on the exterior surface is entirely different from 3-dimensional chess played in the interior of a cube, and seems like an excellent basis for a variant. Playing on the exterior surface is, in effect, equivalent to playing on three cylinders that interlock with one another. A 5x5x5 cube has 150 exterior squares, a large but not unreasonably large playing surface.

Murali seems not to have spent much time pondering the optimum piece density or movement vectors on such a playing surface. His bishops don’t use a proper diagonal when sliding over an edge to an adjacent face, but his pawns do. He suggests giving each player eight pieces and 16 pawns, but this is probably not enough, as less than 1/3 of the squares will be occupied at the start of the game (compared to 1/2 of the squares in conventional chess). The ratio of pieces to pawns is not very good either.

He gives no suggestions for a system of algebraic coordinates with which to notate piece positions, which makes it tricky even to talk about how the pieces might be set up. I’ve worked out a coordinate system, but it’s actually easier (for me, anyway) to visualize how the pieces move on the exterior of a cube than to discuss it using coordinates. For now, let’s just use generic terminology and diagrams rather than algebraic coordinates.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Chess Refreshed

Posted by midiguru on March 28, 2014

There are lots of ways to mess with the rules of chess. You can play it on a board of hexagons, for instance. But you can do quite a lot to freshen up the game without needing any special equipment. Change one or two rules, and you have a whole new game. Here are my top ten suggestions for chess variants that require no special equipment, just a standard board and pieces.

Berolina Pawns. Normal pawns move straight forward and capture by moving diagonally. Berolina pawns are just the opposite — they move along the forward diagonals, and capture by moving straight forward. I like the idea of “Berolina plus” pawns, which add the ability to capture by moving sideways. Like normal pawns, a Berolina pawn can optionally move two squares on its initial move, and is otherwise restricted to moves of a single square. Berolina pawns are a simple idea that completely transforms the opening.

Scorpion Pawns. In addition to the normal pawn movement and capture, scorpion pawns can make a non-capturing move like a knight, but forward-wide only. A pawn on e4, for instance, would have extra moves to c5 and g5. Scorpion pawns are dangerously maneuverable.

Cylindrical Board. The left and right edges of the board are considered to be joined to one another. A rook on a3, for instance, can move to the left and arrive on h3. A cylindrical board has no center — or rather, the entire 4th and 5th ranks are the center. Advancing the rook and knight pawns in the opening, rather than the king, queen, and bishop pawns, becomes sensible, and castling makes little or no sense.

Contagious Knights. Any piece that is protected by a friendly knight gains the extra ability to move and capture like a knight. This variant can be played either with the knights operating like normal pieces, or with knights that can neither capture enemy pieces nor be captured.

Reflecting Bishops. On reaching a square at the edge of the board, a bishop can bounce like a billiard ball, continuing its move on a diagonal at right angles to the start of its move.

Rook Catapults. During its normal move, a rook can “throw” the friendly piece most nearly behind its starting square “over its head,” so that the other piece lands on the far side of the rook’s destination square. Several variations of this idea are feasible. The rook might be required to catapult the piece behind it, or the catapult might be optional. The catapulted piece might land on the square immediately past the rook’s destination square, or it might travel further along an unobstructed rank or file. The rook catapult would probably have little or no effect on the opening of the game, because a rook has to have made one or two moves before it’s in a position to catapult anything.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Arimaa (Boggle)

Posted by midiguru on March 27, 2014

Discovered a new board game called Arimaa. It’s been around for 12 years. Lots of people are playing it — mostly online, I’m sure, but the inventor is selling a reasonably priced set, which I bought. Being a maniac, I also bought a couple of books on Arimaa strategy and tactics.

Preliminary impressions: It seems to be a very good game. The rules are simple … well, fairly simple. The tactical possibilities are very deep. Arimaa was designed specifically to be easy enough for humans to enjoy, yet too complicated for a computer to play. After reading the introductory book for an hour, my head is spinning. The logical complexities of a given situation on the board pretty much put go to shame, and go is already so complex that computers don’t play it well. One reason for Arimaa’s complexity is that each player gets four moves per turn. In go, you can often do the logic in your head to analyze a position six or eight turns into the future. You can figure out how a given move will play out. With Arimaa, that depth of calculation is just plain not going to happen.

If you want to try playing Arimaa, I would definitely suggest buying the book. Trying to discover basic tactics on your own is likely to be a fairly drawn-out and possibly somewhat frustrating process.

The good news is, you don’t need to buy the commercially available board and pieces. You can use an ordinary chess set, because both the board and the count of pieces (8 of one type, 2 each of three types, and 1 each of the last two types) are identical to chess. But Arimaa isn’t chess.

In fact, using a chess set is probably a smart move. The Arimaa set is not very good. It’s attractive and well manufactured, but the types of pieces are far too difficult to distinguish optically, as are the colors of the opposing pieces. Technically silver and gold, the opposing pieces are actually sort of medium gray and medium brown. In a dim light they’re nowhere near as easy to tell apart as white and black chess pieces.

The Arimaa pieces are called rabbits, cats, dogs, horses, camels, and elephants. Only the elephants are visually distinguished, on account of their extra bulk and curling trunks, but all of the pieces are just animal heads. Okay, the rabbits are a bit smaller and have longer ears, the horses have a ridge that looks like a mane, the dogs have a longer muzzle than the cats, the cats’  ears are flatter than the rabbits’, and the camels have a larger muzzle than the dogs or horses, so technically you can tell them apart. But they’re all much the same size and shape, and when you’re playing a game many of the pieces will be facing away from you, which will reduce the visibility of the distinctions. No, use a chess set.


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