Digging It

Archaeology is how we come to understand who we are. The traces that remain of the distant past are being obliterated across the globe — submerged behind new dams, bulldozed to make way for freeways and high-rises — and that’s a horrifying tragedy. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

Other sites that would have yielded up priceless knowledge were looted in the 19th century, before the rise of modern archaeology. The human race is heedless. Who was it who said, “What we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”?

And of course the soft bits rot. With a pitifully few exceptions, we have not a shred of evidence about what people wore 10,000 years ago. We know what kinds of meat they ate, because they left the bones scattered around. But we don’t know what they may have carved from wood — toys for their children, perhaps? — because the wood is gone. We don’t have their dances, their songs, their stories. All we have, for the most part, are Read more

Down in the Trenches

The trouble with free software is, sometimes you get what you pay for. Today I’ve been trying to get Csound to read real-time MIDI input (from a physical keyboard) and play notes or respond to slider moves. No luck whatever.

Just to be clear — the reason I’m tying myself in knots over this is because Csound is incredibly powerful and produces amazing sounds. It’s just user-hostile, that’s all.

I posted a long “help!!!” message to the Csound mailing list, and got a couple of suggestions from seasoned Csounders, but the suggestions only sent me wading deeper into the quagmire. “Try running Csound from the DOS command prompt,” I was told, “instead of using the GUI front end.” So I tried that. I know barely enough about the command prompt to launch Csound at all, but I managed it. A variety of non-musical events ensued.

With one test file, I could play the keyboard and see messages in the DOS window that indicated the notes were being received — but I didn’t hear any output. And while this file is supposed to run for an hour, allowing uninterrupted real-time input, it closed after a few seconds. Another test file kept running, but failed to respond to MIDI at all. I don’t know what the relevant differences were.

When I went back to the GUI front end, I found I had a new problem. I had created a musical sketch, which played just fine yesterday from the GUI. (This sketch had no real-time MIDI input — it was just rendering to the computer’s audio output interface.) Today, the same file produced only horrible Read more

When Failure Is Not an Option

I’m not at all sure what I’d like to do until the gravedigger comes, but I’d like to be doing something. So I did what any good 21st century geek would do: I googled “setting personal goals.”

Most of the advice that’s on offer reminded me of an old Steve Martin comedy routine. The routine went something like this. “Listen: I’m going to tell you how to make a million dollars and pay no taxes. First, you make a million dollars. Okay, that part’s taken care of. Now, here’s how to deal with the IRS…”. And so forth.

Most of the websites that discuss setting goals start by saying, in essence, “First, set a realistic goal. Okay, that part’s taken care of. Now here’s how to organize your action so as to reach the goal…”. What I’m trying to do is find a worthwhile goal, so that advice is no good at all.

One site, however, asked a possibly useful question: “If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you be doing?” This is an invitation to give your imagination and desire free rein.

After mulling it over a bit, I’ve decided that if I couldn’t fail, I’d start a band. We’d play original music in concerts once or twice a month, in good venues, for appreciative crowds. We’d rehearse every week. Everyone in the group would be dedicated to sounding really good, and they’d all be excellent players. We’d get paid decent money for our concerts. We wouldn’t tour, because touring is a drag. We’d record and sell a few CDs.

If you’re not chuckling already, it’s because you’re not a musician. Starting a working band is very, very difficult. It’s hard enough if your goal is to play covers of crappy pop tunes in clubs. Originals? Who’s going to sign on to play originals, when there’s no money in it? Also, it helps if you’re 20 years old, first because you don’t mind staying up til three in the morning loading out after a gig, second because you look sexy onstage, and third because you don’t care about scuffling around and being poor. Starting a working band to play originals when you’re 60 …

Hey, I have a better idea: If I knew I couldn’t fail, I’d ask Alyson Hannigan to marry me. That’s just about as likely to work as starting a band.

Nailing Down Jello

Having dropped out of college in the Sixties (long story…) I have a recurring fascination with the idea of returning to school to finally get my B.A. Maybe even a Master’s. Why not?

The main reason why not: It would cost a whole lot of money. Tuition and living expenses for three or four years at UC would pretty much wipe out my retirement nest egg. A few years ago I tried going to Cal State EBay, but the drive is pretty awful, and the school itself isn’t much better.

Now, I can learn pretty much anything I care to learn, just by buying books and reading them. I’m an accomplished auto-didact. I don’t need to be a college student to learn about archaeology or calculus or the motets of Palestrina. On meditating about it, I’ve realized that I have two primary reasons for wanting to go to school: I’d love to be part of a community where intellectual accomplishments are valued, and I’d benefit from the structure.

Left to my own devices, I tend to wibble around like a mound of jello. I’m fascinated by this, that, and the other thing, but I tend not to stick with any of my fascinations for very long. If I try imposing a structure and goals of my own devising, I tend to change my mind and lose interest within a few days.

I like being creative and spontaneous, but I do much better when a structure is imposed from without. For 25 years I worked as an editor at a magazine. Every month, someone told me Read more

What’s Old Is Made New

Many years ago, I owned a Serge Modular synthesizer. It was an amazing beast, and I wish I still had it. Purely for nostalgia and sex appeal; I doubt it would still be in working order, and even if it was, I doubt I’d ever turn it on.

It was great fun to play with, though, because it was totally patchable. To make sounds, you connected physical modules with patch cords. One of the modules was a full-featured step sequencer. I spent many happy hours setting up odd patterns on the sequencer that would then play by themselves, producing trancelike variations that never quite repeated.

Being, this week, in a slightly demented mood, I decided to recreate the Serge step sequencer in Csound. Csound is less tactile, to be sure, but it’s also infinitely cheaper (assuming you own a computer) and ultimately a lot more powerful.

After a couple of days of tinkering, I have a musical sketch that isn’t too bad. (The mp3 doesn’t sound nearly as crisp as Csound’s native audio output, which is amazingly clean. But it’s not too bad.) If you’re a Csound programmer and want to know how I did this, here’s the code.

All of the intervals in this sketch are mathematically pure — that is, it’s an example of Just Intonation. Tuning on the Serge was always haphazard at best. And of course it didn’t have a reverb or a delay line. No, on the whole I don’t regret that technology has moved on.

Score for Games

Text-based games are not, by their very nature, multimedia-rich experiences. The developers of various game authoring systems have added, over the years, a few limited bits of media support. Authors can, for instance, clear the screen and show a still image. Or rather, we can do it in the game code, but we’re at the mercy of the end user’s interpreter software, which may or may not be able to display the image.

Macintosh users who want to play games written in TADS have been at a particular disadvantage. But CocoaTADS is a new and viable interpreter for TADS games on the Mac, which is good news indeed.

Better yet, CocoaTADS implements audio fadeins and fadeouts. According to a message posted today by developer Charles Srstka on the newsgroup rec.arts.int-fiction, this is “by popular demand.” I had to chuckle, because as far as I’m aware, all of the popular demand is coming from me.

I’ve been beating the drum (so to speak) for audio fadeouts in TADS for a year or two now, principally because I’m also a musician and composer. If an author wants to include some background music that will play while the player is in a particular room, I feel it’s essential that the music be faded out smoothly when the player leaves that room. Abrupt cutoffs are jarring and amateurish, but not being able to cut off the music when the player leaves the Flower-Bedecked Garden and enters the Dank Crypt would be far worse.

The problem for me is this: Now I don’t have any excuses. I’ve asked for a fairly slick modern feature, and the developers (Mike Roberts and Charles) have done the necessary work — so maybe I ought to write a game that uses music, hunh?

Now all I need to do is think of a story that would benefit from music.

Super Collision

Being at loose ends this week, I decided to take a close look at SuperCollider. I’ve spoken to musicians who love it and use it extensively. These are experimental musicians, you understand, most of them working in university environments. Even though SuperCollider is entirely free and extremely powerful, it would not be a good choice for a pop musician.

Well, let me qualify that slightly. If you’re doing electronic dance music, you want to build a library of unique sound effects that nobody else will have, and you’re already conversant with computer programming, SuperCollider might be well worth looking at. But only an extreme masochist would try to produce a pop ballad with it.

I’ve already spent a lot of time learning my way around Csound, which is also free, extremely powerful, and unlikely to appeal to anybody but programmers and the academically Read more

Cloak & Dagger

I became a 9/11 conspiracy nut when I watched the video. [But see the response from Marco, below.] Okay, there are some facts that don’t add up, but in the real world there are always facts that don’t add up. The real world is messy.

What got me thinking there was something in the conspiracy theory was that the tower collapsing didn’t look anything at all, to my admittedly untutored eye, like a building that had been hit near the top by an airliner and was now losing its structural integrity. It looked a whole lot like a building that was being demolished, suddenly and efficiently, by explosives planted throughout the structure.

Understand — I don’t spend a lot of time on 9/11 conspiracy websites salivating over the latest rumors and theories. I never visit those sites at all, and I’m not going to post links here or rehash the details. I watched the video, read a few thoughtful analyses by people who were obviously bright and not visibly foaming at the mouth, “got it” that the whole operation was a CIA black bag job, was horrified but not really surprised, shrugged, and went on with my week.

The only plausible argument I can think of against its being a CIA operation is, they’re not that good.

I was reflecting on the above this morning after reading some conservative commentary on recent revelations that the CIA was quietly developing a program to assassinate bin Laden and other prominent figures, but had failed to notify Congress of the existence of said program. “The program never became fully operational,” the conservatives point out. “So what’s the big deal?”

I’ll leave that debate to those who enjoy mud-wrestling and other grand but meaningless Washington sideshows. I predict: Congress will hold hearings, the facts will remain in dispute, and nobody will ever be held accountable.

Now here’s an interesting story about spying, which I read recently. It has the ring of truth, and I have reason to believe the author did her homework. During World War II, the British had broken an important German code. They could Read more

Who’s on First?

A guy I know took one of those stupid Facebook polls, the question being, “Would you support Sarah Palin for President in 2012?” He said yes, he would. So I asked him to tell me why. Here’s his response, in its entirety: “She has proven that she will fight against the political establishment. Many more reasons too, but [I] don’t have the time to get into it now.”

I’ve followed up by asking him how exactly Palin has proven to him that she will fight against the political establishment. So far no word on that.

Has she perhaps proved it by running for national office? No, joining the political establishment at the very highest level doesn’t sound like a way to prove you’ll fight against it. Was it because she quit as Governor of Alaska? That’s not fighting, it’s quitting. Did she perhaps refuse to accept campaign donations from the large corporate donors who are ladling money out to the political establishment? Somehow I doubt it.

Has she supported an open-door policy in the executive branch by speaking out forthrightly against the illegal secrecy and illegal surveillance carried out by the Bush/Cheney administration? It seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

Assuming my friend comes up with any explanation for his statement, there’s a good chance it will boil down to Ronald Reagan redux — the doctrine that says, “Big government is the enemy. The way to maintain our freedoms is to shrink, hobble, and dismantle government.” (Except in the area of managing women’s reproductive rights, of course, where active government intrusion is very much on the agenda.)

The fact that so many people actually believe this load of tripe is a tribute to how successful the machinery of fascist propaganda has been in this nation.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Government is messy, inefficient, often corrupt, and not infrequently dead wrong. But government is the only protection we have against the tender mercies of the giant multinational corporations — the AT&Ts, the Chevrons, the health insurance industry, agribusiness, and all the rest of them.

Those corporations, and the faceless men (mostly men) who rule them, are the political establishment. On the day when Sarah Palin stands up and says, “I’m not taking a nickel of corporate money, and I support universal health care. I’m standing up for the little guy” — then I’ll believe she’s fighting against the political establishment. And not a minute before.

Another, more sinister explanation for my friend thinking that Palin “will fight against the political establishment” would be that he thinks the political establishment in the United States is dominated by liberals and progressives. This amazing distortion is popular, I believe, among the worshippers of Rush Limbaugh and similar simian sickos. There’s about as much substance in it as the paranoid idea that the Jews run everything.

The government of the United States is solidly right-wing, and has been since the 1950s. Bill Clinton was not a liberal, and Obama isn’t either. They’re both solidly in the middle of the road. The reason Clinton drove the right-wing-nuts crazy was simple: He was a moderate Republican! He stole the middle of the road from them and left them marginalized and furious. When Obama isn’t kissing the ass of Wall Street, he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth about gay rights or defending secrecy and executive privilege.

The level of cognitive distortion that’s needed to believe the U.S. is being run by liberals is … well, it’s evidence of clinical insanity, what else can I say? If you believe that, you’re a freakin’ nut job.

What gets these people so riled up, I’m pretty sure, boils down to racism and a love of firearms. There are bound to be other factors as well, but those two would seldom be absent.


I wish I had a lot more time to read. I own hundreds and hundreds of books, some of which I’ve been carting around for 30 or 40 years. Don’t remember a thing about some of them except that I enjoyed them. It would be nice to sit down for a few years and just read.

And not just the old books, either. I’d love to buy lots of new ones.

I generally read the Resnick/Malzberg column in the SFWA Bulletin, and this month they were talking about specialty publishers — small houses that are supporting the history of science fiction by keeping classics in print. So today I have an itch to rush out and buy all the science fiction I can find. It’s a mild form of mania — a raw desire to buy thousands of books simply because it would be so cool to own them! Complete collections of Heinlein, Sturgeon, Poul Anderson, and a host of other visionaries. I’ve got most of the Philip Dick paperbacks … but maybe I’m missing a few!

I won’t do it, of course. I wouldn’t have time to read them all, and I’m not rich enough to indulge such whims purely for the sake of having a well-stocked private library. Besides, a lot of the old science fiction wasn’t actually very good. Reading it would be in the nature of a research project — to find out what ideas were amazing or trendy in 1950, and what cultural blind spots the writers wallowed in without knowing it.

Some of the cultural blind spots are interesting. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a lot of SF in which everybody was having happy sex with everybody else (or at least, with everybody else of the opposite sex). STDs weren’t even a blip on the radar, and nor was the importance of long-term pair-bonding to emotional health.

But I’d still like to own all those books!