Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Religion and Banjo Playing

Posted by midiguru on January 8, 2015

I’m sure the banjo is a wonderful musical instrument. I’m not tempted to take it up, but I’m pretty sure the world is a better place because there are banjo players in it.

Banjo players don’t get a lot of respect, though. The banjo is on the short list of musical instruments that people like to make jokes about. Banjo, viola, trombone, accordion, and bagpipes — they all get abused from time to time.

Q: What’s the range of the viola? A: About 50 yards, if you have a good arm.

Q: What’s the difference between a chicken crossing the road and a trombone player crossing the road? A: The chicken is on his way to a gig.

I happen to play the cello. I only know one cello joke. (Q: What’s the difference between a cello and a coffin? A: The coffin has the dead guy on the inside.) There aren’t a lot of cello jokes, because the cello just happens to be widely admired.

Nonetheless, my enjoyment of playing the cello is, I’m sure, no different qualitatively from the enjoyment felt by a banjo player or an accordion player. It’s all good.

Here’s the terrible secret that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable: Religion is no different from playing the banjo or the accordion.

If it pleases you to paint yourself blue and dance naked around an oak tree, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to mumble phrases in Latin while sitting in a building with lots of stained glass windows, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to bow down toward Mecca five times a day while reciting phrases in Arabic, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to take peyote and sit in a sweat lodge hallucinating all night long, that’s terrific.

And it’s nobody’s business but your own. If you get tired of taking peyote and decide to start mumbling phrases in Latin, go for it.

If a banjo player got mad and started hitting people when they made banjo jokes, what would we call him? We’d call him an asshole. No matter what your lifestyle choice, you have to expect to get lampooned once in a while. If you’re a mature adult, you roll with it. You force yourself to chuckle politely, even if you think the joke wasn’t very funny.

Anyone who thinks their religion should never be criticized or ridiculed is an asshole. If they try to shut off the criticism, that’s a lot worse — but if you even think for a moment that your religion is so wonderful and admirable that it should be exempt from criticism or lampooning, you’re an asshole.

It’s gonna happen. Deal with it.

Posted in religion, society & culture | 13 Comments »

Writing about Writing

Posted by midiguru on January 4, 2015

I’ve noticed that every time I post a blob/g about writing, I get a few likes and maybe even a follower. This doesn’t seem to happen with my other assorted mumblings. Because I’m tiptoeing back into the fiction-writing maelstrom, maybe I should turn this into a fiction-writing blog.

“April 23: Wrote another 1,800 words!” Zzzzz. Maybe not.

I do think the process of writing fiction is interesting, and worth conversing about with other writers. On the other hand, I’m leery of discussing a work-in-progress. Early on, while reading how-to-write-fiction books (this was in the 1980s), I ran into the observation that if you talk about the story you’re writing, your unconscious mind equates the talking — sharing the story with other people — with writing. Your unconscious will start to think you’ve already told the story, so why bother to write it down? That advice stuck with me.

Also, I’m nervous about looking foolish if I talk about a project and then don’t finish it for whatever reason (like, the plot sinks like a lead coffin to the bottom of the pond, and can’t be lifted out even with grappling hooks).

On the other hand, I love it when I read what other writers say about writing. Holly Black offers some great advice in her blog, for example.

To oil the hinges, here’s a bit of advice for aspiring (or struggling) writers.

While working on my first novel (Walk the Moons Road, long out of print), I had a 3×5 card thumb-tacked to the wall above the typewriter. (Remember typewriters?) The card had two admonitions: (1) Tell a good story. (2) Put the reader in the scene.

That’s the whole secret. If you can do that, you may well have a publishable novel. You’ll certainly have a novel you can be proud of. What constitutes a “good story” — well, that’s a topic for another time.

Putting the reader in the scene is, first and foremost, about remembering to include sensory detail. To do that, you need to immerse yourself in the scene, while writing, deeply enough that you notice those details. Picking the right details, the ones that will evoke the emotion you want the scene to convey, is of course vital.

On a purely mechanical level, if you’re writing a long dialog, and especially a dialog scene where more than two characters are present, it can also mean inserting bits of “stage business” in and around the dialog. If you fail to do this, readers will get confused about who is talking. My rule of thumb is, a minimum of one dialog tag or bit of stage business for every three or four dialog paragraphs. If the dialog paragraphs are short and the characters are arguing, I might stretch to five or six paragraphs, because the attentive reader should certainly be able to pick up which character is arguing what. But if they’re in a heated discussion, they’ll be doing or experiencing things — the fist pounding the table, the grimace of distaste, the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Tell the reader about those things! That’s what puts the reader in the scene.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

The Literary Jungle

Posted by midiguru on January 3, 2015

Moved, no doubt, by some forlorn quixotic impulse, last summer I hauled out a ten-year-old fantasy epic that was, in its original incarnation, quite hopeless. I put new tires on it, reupholstered the interior, considered but rejected dual carburetors, checked the fan belts and the transmission, tightened the bolts on the suspension … and now I have the first volume of a Young Adult fantasy epic ready for submission to publishers.

I happen to like this story a lot. Don’t know if anyone else will. I’m not in control of that.

The thing is, the book business is (a) a business, and (b) extraordinarily competitive. To find a publisher, you need an agent. And literary agents are frankly inundated with queries from wanna-be authors. Those who are not yet blind from reading submissions are lined up to buy flame throwers so they won’t have to.

The good news is, I do actually know how to write. This puts me in the top 10% of aspiring YA fantasy authors. Quite possibly I’ll be able to find a literary agent who is naive or desperate enough to sign on to represent this project. All I have to do (aside from working on the rough draft of Book II) is hide in the duck blind with a great big butterfly net and make noises like a best seller.

Or, I could be a little more scientific. Online I found a long list of websites of agents who sometimes represent children’s or YA fiction. A really long list. I had no idea there are so many literary agents! Plodding through the list, I’ve been weeding out the duds and noting the names of individual agents who might be right for this project. I now have my own researched list of more than 30 possible or likely agents … and I’m only up to the letter H in the scatter-shot list I downloaded.

The average response time for an agent these days is somewhere between 4 weeks and forever. Forever as in, “If we don’t respond, you may take it that we’re not interested.” That being the case, it would be foolish indeed to query one agent at a time. On the other hand, I don’t want to slam all 30 (or 50) of them at once. That would create layers of confusion. It might lead to bad feelings and ill will. And what if three of them all say “yes” on the same day?

Based on their web presentations, I need to go back through my list of possible agents (more days of research) and sift the list into categories A, B, and C.

Alternatively, I could self-publish. But that route has never appealed to me. I know it’s a lot easier these days than it was 25 years ago. I know that if you’re relentless in your self-promotion (and have a good book) you can make just as much money while selling far fewer copies, because you don’t have to cut up the pie, feed the big slice to the publisher, and set aside another slice for your agent.

Possibly my thinking is too negative (it often is), but it seems to me that if 50 publishing professionals think there’s no market for your book, maybe they’re right. So before I contemplate self-publishing, I have to head out into the jungle with my big butterfly net and make noises like a best seller.


Posted in fiction, writing | 1 Comment »

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.


Posted in random musings, technology | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in random musings | Leave a Comment »

The Rot Starts at the Top

Posted by midiguru on December 5, 2014

According to a Huffington Post story this morning, President Obama’s response to yesterday’s widespread protest marches was this:

“President Barack Obama also weighed in, saying one of the chief issues at stake is ‘making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally.'”

No, Mr. President. People having confidence is not the issue. The issue is, the police are killing unarmed citizens (most of them African-American) as a result of minor infractions or for no reason at all — and getting away with it. That is the issue.

We can read Obama’s comment one of two ways. Possibly he doesn’t even know what the real issue is — but I doubt that. I think he knows. The problem is that he can’t say it out loud. He’s so embedded in the structure of wantonly brutal power in this country that he feels he has no alternative but to support that power structure by consciously, publicly, and cravenly misrepresenting what’s going on.

How can people have confidence in something that isn’t the case? They’ll have confidence only if they’re deluded and benumbed by a barrage of propaganda. What Obama is saying boils down to, “Our propaganda isn’t working.” Well, yeah, it isn’t. You got that right, dude.

What he conspicuously isn’t saying is, “The protesters are right. The system is fucked up, and we need to change it.”

Posted in politics, society & culture | 1 Comment »

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 Perversity of Culprits

Posted by midiguru on November 17, 2014

I read a lot of mystery novels. Some are crime stories (Donald Westlake’s very funny Dortmunder books, for instance), but most are whodunits. In a whodunit, the author has to keep you guessing about who committed the murder, and possibly how and why, until the very end.

In real life, most murders are sordid affairs. In a bar fight or a marriage gone bad, there’s seldom any doubt about who did the killing. The authors of whodunits, on the other hand, have to go to great lengths to devise crimes that are mystifying.

As a result, the reader is quite often asked to swallow some strange ideas about human behavior.

John Dickson Carr, who also wrote as Carter Dickson, was the master of the locked-room mystery. A corpse is found in a room that is locked on the inside, and the reader is assured that there are no false panels or secret passages. How could such a thing possibly happen? The truth, when revealed, is both astonishing and logical — but with one proviso. You’re asked to accept that the murderer would really have done all that tap-dancing and tightrope-walking in order to rid the world of the victim.

In The Judas Window, a man is found, in a locked room, with an arrow driven through his chest. He’s not, in this particular book, alone, and his companion (who has been drugged and is unconscious while the crime is being committed) is soon arrested and tried for murder, because nobody else could possibly have done it.

If you want to read The Judas Window, you should stop here. Spoilers follow.

The solution to the puzzle, when Sir Henry Merrivale (in one of his less slapstick appearances) eventually reveals it, relies on the construction of 19th century home fittings, as the book was written in the 1930s. The murderer has prepared for her crime by unscrewing the outer doorknob in the door (hours or days earlier) and  tying a long piece of string to the inner doorknob. After the victim has locked the door, the murderer removes the outer doorknob and lowers the inner one down on the string. The victim, seeing the doorknob mysteriously dangling, naturally comes over to the door to investigate and leans forward to look through the hole in the latch mechanism.

At this point the murderer fires the arrow through the hole using a crossbow, driving the arrow into the victim’s chest. She then hauls the inner doorknob back up on its string, removes the string, reattaches the outer doorknob, hides the crossbow — and presto, a locked room mystery.

As we savor the faultless logic of the solution, however, we’re asked to ignore the killer’s blind trust in her own luck. First, the intended victim might not even notice the doorknob dangling from the string. That would leave her in a quandary. Second, the hole left when the doorknob shaft is removed is not more than a centimeter across. It’s bound to be very difficult to aim the crossbow through the hole while also looking through the hole — so how is she to judge when the moment has arrived to fire? Third and most egregious, what if she misses? What if she only manages to shoot her intended victim in the arm, or in a grazing wound across his rib cage? If that happens, her guilt will be obvious to everyone.

No, if this woman were really intent on murder, she would choose a more reliable method. The plot of the mystery hangs dangling like a detached doorknob on the thread of her perversity.


Posted in fiction, writing | 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.

Posted in random musings | 1 Comment »

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?

Posted in random musings, society & culture | Leave a Comment »


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