Stuck in Lodi Again

First a little ancient history, then a rant, and then maybe a vision for the future.

It would have been the summer or fall of 1982, just about 30 years ago today. I had a Kaypro II, my very first computer. Single-sided 5-1/4″ floppy drives and 64kb of RAM. I bought it when the price came down to $1,295, if memory serves. Anyway, my friend Jon Sievert, who had been instrumental in convincing our boss to invest in Kaypros for the office, hung out in his free time and swapped cool software at Kaypro user meetings. This was a couple of years before copy-protected software, and programs were passed around like party favors. So one day Jon showed up at my house and said, “Here, let me make you a copy of this. You’re gonna love it.” And he was right. I did.

What he gave me was, of course, “Adventure.”

“Adventure,” and later, “Zork,” transformed the computer from a rather balky utilitarian device into a magic playground. You didn’t know what might happen.

Another 15 years would pass before I discovered Inform 6 and wrote my first text adventure game, “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina,” but I knew from the very beginning that this was a creative field I would enjoy. Today I’ve written six or seven text games, using three different development systems, so I feel qualified to make a few observations.

The Kaypro ran the CP/M operating system, a precursor of MS-DOS. The user interface was a command prompt. It looked like this: > The screen had one color: green. There were no graphics, no mouse, no sound, and no notion of networking. When you wanted the computer to do something, you typed a command at the command prompt.

Fast-forward to 2012: Computers today have graphics and sound. Many of them have touch-screens, and they’re small enough to fit in a backpack, or even in your pocket. Worldwide networking is a fact of life.

Today there are several full-featured development systems with which to write and deploy text-based games. And yet, the games produced with these powerful tools still use the command prompt as their primary user interface. Does this seem Read more


First the bad news, then the good news.

The bad news is, sometime during the next 50 years or so there’s going to be a worldwide collapse. The end of civilization as we know it. Billions of people will die in messy, painful ways. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. (Hopefully, not within my lifetime.)

This prediction has nothing to do with the Mayan calendar, nor with the Christian idiocy about Armageddon. It’s about overpopulation. We have already long passed the point at which our planet could support its human population. Resources are being depleted at a breakneck pace — and meanwhile, more babies are being born.

If it were just a matter of billions of people dying, that would be good news. But it’s worse than that. What will happen to all those nuclear power plants Read more

It’s a Big, Wide, Wonderful World

Recently a couple of threads have popped up on the interactive fiction forum proposing that interested parties write games set in shared worlds. The worlds to be shared were set forth in some detail. As it happens, I found one of the proposed scenarios rather evocative, the other less so. But that hardly matters; I already have a few ideas of my own that I’d like to develop.

What struck me was how easy it is to spin out phantasmagorical ideas for a shared world — and how much more difficult it is to craft an engaging story.

When she wrote an introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley described the little contest that gave rise to the novel. Lord Byron had proposed that he, Percy Shelley, Mary, and a certain Dr. Polidori, who were cooped up in a house in Switzerland owing to an incessant and altogether fortuitous siege of summer rain, each write a ghost story. “Poor Polidori,” she tells us, “had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady who was punished for peeping through a key-hole — what to see I forget: something very shocking and wrong of course … The illustrious poets, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.”

And then she says, “I busied myself to think of a story.” (The italics are hers.) That sentence has been a touchstone for me for a very long time.

Storytelling is surely one of the oldest of art forms — and unlike painting and music, its essentials probably haven’t changed much, if at all, in the last hundred thousand years. The most exotic and elaborately imagined world will fall flat if it isn’t animated by a compelling story.


I love getting together with other amateur musicians to play the great works of the symphonic repertoire. When you’re sitting in the middle of an orchestra playing a piece by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, or Sibelius you experience the music in a much more direct and detailed way than if you hear it from the audience or on a CD. If nothing else, playing the music requires that you pay attention and listen to every single measure. Listeners’ minds can wander; musicians’ minds … well, that happens once in a while, but you’d better hope it doesn’t happen often.

The problem community orchestras face, and it’s serious, is that there aren’t enough good string players to go around. Here in the Bay Area we have, arguably, too many community orchestras. Good amateur and semi-pro players routinely scurry around playing in two (or even three) groups — and even so, the string sections are often short-staffed.

A standard orchestral roster includes two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three trumpets, three trombones, one tuba, four French horns — and twenty violins, ten in the first violin section and ten more in the second section. When kids start playing instruments in fifth grade, if they choose their instruments at random, it’s easy to see that when they grow up you’ll be ten times as likely to find a good oboist for an opening in your orchestra as a good violinist.

The two players sitting at the front of a string section of a community orchestra are usually comparable in ability to the wind players. The rest of the section tends to be made up of players who are not well enough trained, don’t practice enough, or both.

Violas are a particular problem, because the viola is not a popular instrument. If you have ten violinists in each section, you need eight violas to balance the sound. Chances are, you’ll have three or four.

Right now I’m playing in the Silicon Valley Symphony (not to be confused with Symphony Silicon Valley, which is a different group). At our first rehearsal this week, we had three first violins, three seconds, two violas, three cellos, and one bass. Such a tiny string section simply can’t balance the sound coming from the winds, because winds are inherently louder than strings. That’s why the standard orchestral lineup calls for more strings!

Instead of studying the music or working on publicity, our conductor has to scramble around trying to fill the empty chairs.

Another factor is that conductors like to program major works from the repertoire. These works were written (in the 19th century, for the most part) at a time when the musical culture was radically different. Amateur musicianship was more highly prized than today, because there were no recordings, no TV, no movies. People played music to entertain themselves. And while composers knew that their work would be played by talented amateurs, they wrote for professional orchestras! They seldom made the parts any easier to accommodate less skilled musicians.

As the 19th century rolled forward into the 20th, composers worked harder and harder to provide exciting, stimulating scores. And that meant writing string parts that are harder to play. This is wonderful music, and conductors are right to want to program it — but amateur musicians struggle to play it. The string sound is often messy. A community orchestra that never played anything more challenging than Mozart could sound pretty darn good. But the conductor, the more talented players, and the audiences would soon get very bored.

If half of the community orchestras in the Bay Area simply folded, the rest would have better string players. And larger audiences, too. A better solution would be for all of those miserable second-rate string players to take some damn lessons and practice three hours a day. Not being God, however, I’m in no position to make that happen.

Primate Priorities

This week my eye doctor told me I’m starting to develop cataracts. My hearing is getting a little less acute too. For a 63-year-old I’m still very, very healthy, but time is starting to catch up with me.

My career has been devoted mainly to helping other musicians. That was the mission at Keyboard, where I worked as an editor and staff writer for more than 25 years. Since being laid off ten years ago, I’ve written four books on music topics, plus a couple of hundred more magazine articles. I’ve also been teaching cello privately.

All this has been very rewarding. But in whatever time remains to me, I think I would like to concentrate on my own music, thank you very much. I think I’ve done enough to help others — this is my time.

Our ancestors evolved as social creatures. They lived in small, roving bands. Being part of the group was vital. If you wandered off on your own too liberally, your genes tended not to be passed on to the next generation. Today, we all actively seek social approval, and that’s why. Not being part of the group induces anxiety.

I’ve identified three factors that are keys to my music-making. I need to have creative input, I need a commitment to excellence, and I need some sort of social approval for the activity — some form of social feedback that keys into my instinctive need to feel that I’m part of the group.

Recently I’ve been playing in my local community orchestra. This gives me a very adequate level of social support. I’m part of a large group, we get applause, and because I’m the principal cellist I actually get a small paycheck too. Unfortunately, my creative input is approximately zero, and I would have to say that the orchestra’s commitment to excellence is marginal at best. I could give you some graphic descriptions of occasions on which excellence has not been demonstrated, but out of respect for your delicate sensibilities, I will refrain.

What I’d really like to be doing, with whatever years remain to me, is sitting here at my computer, composing and recording my own music. I have a suite of amazing, exciting tools with which to do this, and I’m proficient in the use of the tools. I have plenty of musical ideas and a high level of understanding of music theory.

This activity would be very creative, and my commitment to excellence is whatever I choose to make it. (Usually it’s very high.) The difficulty, and it’s an enormous difficulty, is that this is an activity that provides no social support whatever. When I’m doing it, there’s nobody else in the room — and when I finish a new piece, nobody cares. Sure, I can put it up on my website, but my website gets no traffic. Nobody will ever hear the music. When I die, it will be just some files on my hard drive, and the hard drive will be hauled off to the electronic recycling center and that will be the end of it.

As a practical matter, my awareness of my isolation produces waves of sadness and loneliness. I end up not producing much music, and it’s because I’m keenly aware that nobody cares. I might as well turn on the TV. If I put hours, days, weeks, months, years of creative effort into creating new music, there will be no applause. I will never get a check in the mail. I will never have anybody patting me on the back and saying, “We appreciate your hard work.”

Please don’t tell me about online self-promotion. I know all about that. Online self-promotion is, in an emotional sense, a way of courting enormous amounts of rejection. You send out emails, you send out demos — and 98% of the time, nobody cares. I don’t have nearly enough emotional stamina to put myself through that wringer.

What I want to do is what I’ve always done: I create the content, and somebody else promotes and distributes it. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to find or create a setting in which I can do that with my own music. So I end up playing in a second-rate community orchestra, because that’s where the social support is. What a fucking waste.