Snuggle Up

It has happened before. After finishing a large writing project (that is, a novel), I flounder around for a while trying to organize a new one, get terribly confused about the welter of material I’ve generated, and give up writing entirely. But then a month or two later I start thinking about one of my abandoned projects, dream up some possibly useful changes, and start putting it back together.

Sometimes a project will go through this rinse-and-repeat cycle more than once. Sad to say, I’m not the kind of writer who can crank out a new book every six months. Or at least I never have been. For the project I revived a few days ago, however, I’m setting up some careful guidelines for a series. With the guidelines in place, if they’re good guidelines, maybe I’ll be able to write six or eight books back to back.

I want this project to have legs, because I’m burned out on self-publishing. I would like this book and its sequels to be commercial. As in, pitch it to an agent and the agent says, “Ooh! Please send me the full manuscript!” I don’t need the money, but I do like a nice challenge. If I don’t have a meaty project to work on, I get bored.

To get a positive response from an agent, you pretty much have to hit the sweet spot in a genre. Agenting, as I’ve noted before in this space, is a 100% commission business. If the agent doesn’t see a prospect of placing your manuscript with a publisher (by which I mean, a commercial publisher that pays a hefty advance against royalties), the agent is not going to waste even 30 seconds looking at it.

This project started out as a sort of tongue-in-cheek riff on the cozy mystery genre. I was calling it an anti-cozy. And as someone who heard about it asked me a couple of years ago, “If you dislike cozies so much, why are you writing one?” Good question.

Something about the story wouldn’t let go of me, though. So now I’m re-imagining the material in a way that I hope will hit the sweet spot in this admittedly very competitive genre. I’ve made my sleuth more relatable. I’ve moved the small-town setting inland and renamed the town so that it’s no longer a snide comment on Murder, She Wrote. And I’m thinking as seriously as I can about the parameters of the genre — not just the length (60k to 90k words, average 80k) and the absence of sex, violence, and bad language, but also about things like the clever book titles used in series and the balance between the crime plot and the sleuth’s social network.

Also, I’ve gone back to doing research in the genre. Bringing home stacks of books from the library and trying to be as broad-minded as I can about what I find.

Being broad-minded is difficult. To be honest, the style of writing in cozies ranges from adequate down to dreadful. And the dreadful books are being published by major imprints, not just as one-shots but as series of a dozen or more titles. Flat, stilted dialog. One-dimensional characters. Failure to meet even a minimal standard in setting a scene.

The challenge for me is to avoid being snobbish about what I’m encountering. The right way to look at it is, I’m a better writer than most of these authors. Seriously; not giving myself airs here. I really am. I interpret this as an encouraging sign. If I can get the formula right, I should be able to sell my series, because my manuscript will float feather-like to the top of the pile.

It’s the formula that I need to master. For instance, the typical amateur sleuth in a cozy is a woman between 30 and 40, and she has a career in a field that female readers (the vast majority) will be able to relate to. You will not find cozy protagonists who are motorcycle mechanics; don’t even think about it. A lot of them own charming little bakeries that do specialty chocolate muffins or something. Food is guaranteed to be relatable; there are even cozies that come with a few pages of recipes. Book shop owners and antique store owners are also big. And because the sleuth is the business owner, she has time to run around solving the crime, a crime that has somehow mystified the local police.

For almost any generality that I might mention, there are of course exceptions. In the only series I’ve found so far that I really like, the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley, the sleuth is an insanely precocious and rather nasty-minded 11-year-old girl. My advice for aspiring cozy writers (including myself) would be that you can probably get away with deviating from one element of the formula, and in fact you might be well advised to do so if you can do it in a way that makes your book stand out from the pack. But while deviating from that one element, be doubly sure to keep the other elements well in line. And really, the ban on sex, graphic violence, and bad language just plain can’t be violated.

My sleuth is in her early 20s and has, in the first book, no job at all. So I’m stepping outside the formula. She won’t land a standard cozy job until book 4. But I’m planning that out as part of the long story arc, and since my personal motivation is that I’m rather fond of this character, I’m keeping her. I got rid of her pet rat, though. A friend of mine said, “Oh, no, you can keep the pet rat! Make it a rescue rat.” My friend is wrong. The pet rat was satire, a not very subtle dig at the pet cats that are crawling all over everywhere in the cozy genre. But this series is no longer a satire. The rat had to go. Now her aunt’s next-door neighbor has a golden retriever. See? Golden retriever. Relatable.

I’m still fiddling a bit with how to make the series titles cute. It’s harder than it looks. But I’ll have to nail it down before I pitch the series to an agent. Having a spiffy manuscript is not the only requirement. An agent will want to see the whole package.

I’m aware that there are people who look down their noses at this sort of thing. They want their creative writing to be deeply personal, straight from the heart. Hey, if you can do that and sell it to a New York publisher, more power to you! Or if you’re satisfied to self-publish, you can do anything at all.

Me, I like plotted genre fiction. It’s what I read, and it’s what I write. I’m not ashamed to want to tell a good story. And that’s harder to do well than you may think.

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Balancing Act

I’m a lousy chess player, but I’m endlessly intrigued by the game as a field of far-reaching possibilities. Not just for game-play, but as a source of ideas for game design. I’ve designed a few chess variants, and I’m not alone. On the website you’ll find literally hundreds of variants, some of them quite clever and some not only weird but rather dumb.

No chess variant has made it into the mainstream, however, not in recent years. Distinctly different types of chess were developed in both China and Japan, but that was centuries ago. In the 1920s, world chess champion José Raúl Capablanca proposed a variant, reportedly because he was frustrated that high-level players had no choice but to memorize a couple of hundred variations on the opening moves. Capablanca’s design was a simple add-on, with two new pieces on a 10×8 board. Eminently sensible, but while you can buy handsome pieces (a set that includes the marshal and archbishop) and even a 10×8 board, it has never caught on.

This may be primarily due to the installed base problem. There are millions of chess sets already, so when people want to play chess, that’s what they’re going to use. In that sense, it’s not much different from the tuning system used in European/American music: There are many other tuning systems, and ours has some deficiencies, but musicians already own millions of instruments that are built to use it, so anyone who tries to do anything different faces enormous inertia.

Beyond that factor, though, European chess remains unchanged because it provides an almost perfect balance of complexity with economy. Quite a lot of the variants on the chessvariants website are large. Some of them are very large indeed. Armies of pieces with oddball names and movement types face off against one another, so a game becomes less an intellectual puzzle than an exercise in brute force. It’s too hard to keep track of what’s going on. Conversely, making chess smaller makes it too trivial to sustain interest.

The size problem also rears its head when we consider 3-dimensional chess. The smallest playing area (we can’t call it a board) that makes sense for 3D chess is 5x5x5. That’s 125 cells (can’t call them squares), which is already a lot. And the connectivity among the cells is much greater. On a standard board, each square is adjacent to eight others. On a 3D board, each cell is adjacent to 26 others! Keeping track of what’s going on is a mental challenge because of the extra dimension and the high level of connectivity. Yet the pieces on a 5x5x5 matrix are almost too close to one another for comfort.

A hundred years ago, a German fellow named Ferdinand Maack proposed a 5x5x5 variant called Raumschach. I feel it has some weaknesses, so a few years back I proposed a variation I called Five Up. Both of these can be found on the website. The site is kind of a mess, but it’s a good archive of ideas, if you’re interested in such things.

One possible change in chess would be to make some of the pieces more powerful. Yesterday I ran into a neat object lesson that illustrates why this can be difficult. Let’s turn the bishops into archers, I said to myself. In its travel a bishop can leap over one or more contiguous pieces that are in its path. Sounds spiffy, right? Well, here’s a transcript of a complete game that shows why it doesn’t work.


Yes, the white bishop can now checkmate the black king on the very first move of the game. We could change the new rule in various ways to prevent this. Maybe the bishop can leap over only a single piece. But this illustrates why making changes in a design that is already well balanced can lead straight to disaster. At the very least, a lot of play-testing will be needed to determine whether a proposed change leads to a good game.

When I was in high school (more years ago than I’d prefer to recall), it occurred to me that it would be great to be able to play chess with three players rather than two. I acquired a piece of plywood and painted up the board with white, black, and green hexagons, bought a couple of chess sets, and painted one set of pieces green. Great idea, right?

Nope. Terrible idea. Three-player chess is a complete loser as a game. A game of standard chess proceeds through the exchange of pieces of similar value: You capture my knight, and then I capture your bishop. Later, we trade rooks. Each player tries to gain an edge during the exchange — an extra pawn, for instance — and that’s the basic mechanism of the game. In a three-way contest, however, if two players exchange pieces, the third player gains an advantage. That being the case, there’s a profound disincentive to capturing any pieces at all, unless an opponent has foolishly left one unguarded. The game just plain doesn’t work.

I’ve ordered a Paco Ŝako set. (The Ŝ is pronounced “sh.” It’s Esperanto. Whatever.) This is a new variant in which capture is replaced by “union.” No pieces ever leave the board. Instead, they embrace the opponent’s pieces. This may be a viable new variant, though it requires a special set of pieces. It’s vaguely possible that three-player Paco Ŝako would work, but I’ll want to try out the two-player version before I start dreaming about that.

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Unreality Check

Current events in the real world are so disturbing that I need to check out. Not deal with it, if possible not even think about it. Because what good would it do to think about it? None.

I take refuge in recreational activities, such as (today’s topic) board games. There’s an immense variety of games — simple games and complex games, games for two players and games for four or five players, games with an ancient pedigree and games that were invented last week, games that require special equipment and games you can play with a pencil and paper.

Inventing games is one of the most pleasant and least controversial things that we humans do, and that’s reason enough to devote endless hours to playing games.

Three of the games I’ve bought in the past couple of years are vaguely related to chess.

In Onitama, you move one of your pieces by playing one of the cards from your hand — after which you pass the card to your opponent. Each card specifies a different type of move, so after you’ve used a certain movement vector, it’s no longer available to you until your opponent uses it and passes the card back.

In Thrive, each of your pieces is a flat chunk with a 5×5 grid of holes. After each move, you add wooden pegs to a couple of the holes (in the piece you just moved or in other pieces). Each piece can only move to squares that correspond to its pegs, so each piece has a different and expanding set of possible moves.

And then there’s Hive. In Hive the pieces (ants, beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, and so on) are hexagonal, and each has its own type of move. There’s no capturing, and there’s no board at all. In each turn you can either add a piece from your reserve or move one that’s already in play, sliding it around the perimeter of the hive or possibly hopping up on top of another piece. I suspect Hive is the best of the three, but I need to play each of them a few times to develop an informed opinion. (People with whom to play games have been in short supply during the pandemic.)

Having hauled out Thrive to refresh my memory, I got to thinking about chess variants. A few years ago I bought some handsome weighted variant pieces from House of Staunton and drew up a 10×8 board on a thick piece of poster board. So this morning I set it up and had a think.

I replaced the rooks with elephants, the knights with leopards, and the bishops with hawks. Next to the king and queen I added a pair of cannons. I’m not sure yet how playable this variant is, but it’s definitely intense. Each of the new pieces is rather like a standard chess piece, but more powerful.

The elephants move and capture like rooks, but they have an additional power: When their move starts adjacent to another piece, they can push that piece (if there’s nothing behind it) or pull it.

The leopards can move and capture like knights, and can also move or capture by one or two squares diagonally (leaping over the adjacent diagonal square if it’s occupied).

The hawk moves and captures like a bishop, but it can “fly” over a contiguous group of pieces on its way. The cannon does exactly the same thing, but moving and capturing like a rook. These pieces can threaten enemy pieces “from cover,” which makes them quite powerful.

I’m tinkering with a couple of other ideas. The set includes chancellors and archbishops in addition to queens, so I’m thinking that the queen may be a morphing piece. Each time it moves, when it reaches its destination square it turns into one of the other types. It’s also possible that pawns may be able to make a non-capturing move of a single square sideways.

My best guess, at the moment, is that all of the “minor” pieces are just about equivalent in power. The queen/chancellor/archbishop is more powerful. Now all I need to do is find somebody who wants to try it out.

But wait, there’s more! This morning I learned about a variant called Paco Sako. Had to order it, but it’s coming from the Netherlands, so it may not arrive for a while. The pieces in Paco Sako are exactly like standard chess pieces, but there is no capturing. Instead, the white and black pieces embrace one another. It’s rather sexy, actually, and the special chess set looks to be well designed.

Now I have to figure out whether to splurge on a color printer so I can print out boards and cards and things for games that I design myself. My old printer doesn’t want to print red anymore, not even with a fresh ink cartridge and a head cleaning, so it’s time for an upgrade. I have a couple of games in mind, one a smaller chess variant and the other a multi-player game with a board of square tiles.

I have no ambitions as a professional game designer. I don’t need the hassle, and I don’t need the money. This is all just for fun. I hope you have as much fun today as I’m having!

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From the Ground Up

For any type of fiction that’s not based in our own world in the present day, world-building is both essential and deeply challenging. If you’re writing historical fiction based in our own world you can rely to a great extent on research materials, but the further back you go in time, the less settled the available research will be. Go back even a hundred years and you’ll likely be getting a lot of the details wrong.

Once you venture out into the future, or into outer space, or into a world of fantasy, you’re in utterly uncharted territory.

Consider, for instance, seasons. Here in the northern hemisphere we take seasons very much for granted, though they’re less prominent the closer you get to the equator. In many fantasy novels set in other worlds, there will be winter, spring, summer, and fall, with pretty much the familiar features, snow being one of the more obvious.

Our own seasons are caused, of course, by a pronounced axial tilt. The Earth’s axis is about 23 degrees off of the vertical with respect to the plane of its orbit. As a result, the passage of the seasons corresponds neatly to the length of the year. But this is probably an accident of celestial mechanics. There’s no reason to suppose that any other habitable Earth-type planet would have seasons. Conversely, if the rotational axis of a planet were non-vertical and precessed rapidly, the cycle of seasons might be out of sync with the length of the year.

Or consider the moon. Quite a few fantasy stories, though they’re not set on our Earth, include a moon that is indistinguishable from our own. The best scientific models suggest that our moon is very much an oddity, the result of an unimaginably cataclysmic collision between two blobs of planetary matter during the formation of our solar system. It could be argued that no matter how much a fantasy planet is like our own, it probably wouldn’t have this type of moon.

On the other hand, our moon is likely responsible not only for tides but for the circulation of the molten interior of the Earth, which causes volcanic activity and recycles both minerals and essential lighter elements. In the absence of a large moon, life might not have evolved on Earth at all. We just don’t know. Without a moon, there might not be plate tectonics, and if there are no plate tectonics mountains won’t form. Erosion will flatten all of the land masses — assuming there’s rainfall to cause erosion. Rainfall (and oceans to cause water to evaporate, leading to cloud formation) would seem to be inevitable. You can’t have an Earth-type world without oceans.

Speaking of life, of course fantasy worlds generally have horses, cats, dogs, wheat, flowers, and so forth, none of which could possibly have evolved on another world in anything like the forms we’re familiar with. Neither would humans, of course.

It becomes a real question for the writer how much of this world-building lumber should just be borrowed, without apology, from our own world and how much should be open to reconsideration. In science fiction we can expect to encounter strange animals and perhaps non-human aliens, who are after all only another species of animal (as are we). I mostly write fantasy, and in fantasy the challenge is inescapable. I gave the world in Woven of Death and Starlight two small moons and conventional seasons.

Seasons could be caused by a planet having an elliptical orbit. If this were the case, the whole planet would experience winter and then summer at the same time rather than having winter in one hemisphere correspond to summer in the other. But if the orbit is elliptical, there won’t be any other nearby planets, and what we know about the formation of planetary systems suggests that there will usually be a number of planets, not just one.

How long should the year be? If your fantasy novel features human characters (as it quite likely does), you’ll need to give your readers some idea how old they are, and that will mean using numbers that correspond to years. If the planet’s year is much longer or shorter than our own year, this will get very awkward. A young hero who is now ready for marriage because he’s six years old, or sixty, is perfectly sensible in terms of another world’s celestial dynamics, but there’s no way to explain it to the reader, other than with a messy authorial intrusion.

And I haven’t even mentioned human cultures yet. Maybe I’ll post some meditations on that topic at some point, but it’s only about a hundred times as complex as celestial dynamics, so don’t hold your breath.

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The Fans in the Bleachers

Lurking on my hard drive (and making occasional belching noises) are two or three very decent ideas for novels. By “ideas” I don’t mean a sentence or two; I mean files with 10,000 or 20,000 words of detailed notes.

What I don’t have is the impetus to sit down and write any of these books. Again and again, the question that rises up and smacks me in the face is, “Why bother?”

Writing a novel is a huge job. Almost anybody can slap together an 85,000-word manuscript, but if you set out to actually tell a good story and write in a polished, professional manner — ah, that’s real work. You may discover a big plot hole when you’re 2/3 of the way through your 2nd draft. When that happens, you may need to go back and restructure the whole thing in some basic way so that the story will make sense.

When we’re young, it’s easier and very natural to be motivated by our fond hopes for the future. We can imagine that Oprah will select our heartwarming novel, or that Stephen King will volunteer, unsolicited, to write a blurb for the front cover. That thought process can keep you going for a few rough years. But as we get older, it gets harder to sustain the fantasy of eventual success. Not just because we won’t have so many years to enjoy it, but because the evidence to the contrary starts to pile up.

Depending on whether you count the Leafstone saga (four volumes, one continuous story) as one novel or four, I’ve written either eight or eleven novels, of which either five or eight have been published. The first two were published (years ago) by actual New York publishing houses; the more recent ones are self-published. The three that are unpublished are, I think, artistic failures, though two of them might conceivably be turned into something good if rewritten from the ground up. There’s also a collection of stories, which I self-published last year. And let’s not forget the four non-fiction books, none of which was self-published. There’s also a book-length instructional PDF that I distribute for free.

I don’t think anybody would accuse me of being inexperienced or a shirker. But by this point in my life (I’m 73), I know what to expect, both of my own writing process and of the results that are likely to accrue upon publication.

In the four years since I brought out the Leafstone story, exactly one person has commented on it. He was the very first person to read it, actually, and he made a comment about the ending that caused me to revise the final scene. One person, in four years, and he’s a voracious reader. I’m sure he read cereal boxes when he was a kid.

It’s been more than a year now since I published While Caesar Sang of Hercules, and I have heard not a single comment from anyone. I don’t know if anyone has even read it. A number of months have passed since I released the story collection and Woven of Death and Starlight. One person has now complimented me on Woven. That was very nice of her, and we’ll tiptoe in silence past the fact that I sent her a copy of the book for free.

To be fair, I have had a few nice comments about The Wall at the Edge of the World, but I wrote that 30 years ago. I’ve also had a few nice comments about the non-fiction. I have received supportive emails from Istanbul, Uruguay, and Kuala Lumpur. (I am not making this up.) Nothing from the U.S., however. I think the most positive response I’ve had, maybe enough to count on the fingers of both hands, was for the free PDF on how to use the Inform 7 programming language to write text adventures. That’s heartwarming, but it’s not a niche in which I plan to dwell over the long haul.

It’s not just the dearth of fan mail, though. Before I published Woven, I queried at least 20 agents on it. I didn’t even get a single nibble of interest. I don’t blame agents for this; I understand the dynamics of their job. I’m just saying, I got no support or encouragement from the big bad publishing industry, and I’ve gotten virtually none from readers.

For the record, I had an agent for my first novel (1985). He sold it to Del Rey. I had a different agent for my second novel (1993). He sold it to Ace. In each case, he was the only agent I contacted. It was not a mass query effort. I’m pretty sure my writing has not gotten worse. The market has changed, that’s all.

Let’s return to my initial question. Is there any reason to bother writing another novel, when the response has consistently shown itself to be so very, very dismal? I’m sure some older writers are just stubbornly optimistic, but I’m not one of them. Others may have a supportive spouse who’s happy to act as a cheering section. I don’t have a spouse. Others may be demons at self-marketing and self-promotion, but attempting anything of that sort would make me physically ill. My idea about writing is, my job is to write. Promotion is someone else’s job. Some people are born salesmen and thrive on it. I’m not one of them.

What would give me the impetus to sit down and write would be some concrete (and sustained) encouragement. We’re primates, and primates are social animals. We all need to have the feeling that we’re part of a group, and that our presence in the group is appreciated.

Just to be clear: I don’t need advice. Giving advice to a writer is easy. You don’t have to have read any of their work. You don’t have to know anything about their publishing history or their personal process. You just pop off a comment or two and then stroll away, congratulating yourself on your wisdom and good intentions. Well, fuck that. If all you have is advice, I don’t want to hear it. Get back to me when you’ve read at least two of my novels and tell me how eagerly you’re awaiting the next one. Get your friends to buy copies too, read them, and send me encouraging emails.

If about twenty people sent me an encouraging email that mentioned my books and said what they liked about them, and then maybe one more every month, that would keep me going for years. I don’t insist on being on the best-seller list. I don’t even insist on a contract with a publisher. Having someone send you a check with a few zeroes to the left of the decimal point is certainly a concrete form of encouragement, but I don’t need the money. What I need is to have the sense that there’s some reason to go on writing.

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I have no background in science, but I try to keep up on a few subjects because they interest me. Physics and cosmology, for instance. (Just don’t ask me to do the math.)

I’m aware that there are problems in contemporary physics. The theories of relativity and quantum mechanics both work very nicely within their own domains, or so I’ve read, but they appear to be incompatible with one another.

In order to explain what we see in distant parts of the heavens, cosmologists have arrived at a few ideas that the layman (that’s me) may find a bit of a stretch. The theory of inflation posits that during the first few minutes of its existence, the universe expanded much faster than the speed of light, though such a high velocity is thought, in ordinary situations, to be absolutely impossible.

In order to explain the apparent spin of spiral galaxies, an entirely unknown substance called dark matter is widely thought to exist. Also, at extreme distances the universe seems to be expanding too rapidly, so the idea is that something called dark energy is pushing it apart. Most of the mass of the universe is now thought to be in the form of dark matter and dark energy.

And then there’s quantum entanglement, in which two particles seem to be able to exchange information even when they’re widely separated and nothing at all is passing between them.

Here’s a more humble problem, one that I’m not sure physicists have grappled with, though it seems obvious to me. There are, in the universe, squillions and squillions of electrons. What’s weird is that they’re all exactly alike. Or so we’re assured. But why are they all exactly alike? Why are there no electrons that are maybe 3% heavier, or that have only 91% of the normal electron charge?

Or think about the fact that quarks have a charge of either +2/3 or -1/3, so that when three of them combine to form a proton or neutron, the result always has either a charge of +1 (neatly matching the electron’s -1) or a charge of zero. How could such a goofy, yet utterly tidy system possibly have arisen during the Big Bang?

I’ve head-scratched about this stuff for a while. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’ve found a viable solution, but possibly I can suggest a fresh way to look for one.

In his 1958 book Nature, Man, and Woman, Alan Watts put it this way: “…the political cosmology of the Hebrew-Christian tradition … until very recently was also the cosmology of Western science and in some ways still remains so…. [A] political universe is one in which separate things, facts, and events are governed by the force of law. However much ideas of the laws of nature may have changed, there is no doubt that the idea of natural law first arose from the supposition that the world obeyed the commandments of a ruler conceived in the image of an earthly king.”

To borrow a line from Handel, God is conceived of as the “king of kings.” Modern science began with the notion that since God created and rules the universe, we can best learn about God by studying his handiwork as it manifests in physical forms. To oversimplify only slightly, all of those squillions of electrons are exactly alike because God has ordered (or created) them to be alike. They follow an unbreakable divine ordinance. And while physicists no longer talk about God, the implicit assumption hasn’t changed.

In a logical sense, this idea tumbles straight into an infinite regress. What is it in an electron that compels it to obey an externally imposed law? That would require a separate law — nothing to do with mass or electric charge. We might call it the “electrons must obey God’s law” law. But what compels them to obey that law?

What Watts is suggesting is that when physicists talk about the laws of nature (the law of gravity, for instance), they’re using a Medieval political metaphor in which a law is applied from the outside rather than arising naturally from within. Elsewhere, he talks about the fact that the cosmos is all one thing. It’s not made up of separate or separable things. There is literally no law that forces an electron to do anything, because in an important sense there is no such thing as an electron!

Let’s try clarifying that with better punctuation. There is no such “thing” as an electron. An electron is not a thing at all; it’s a phenomenon or, better still, a description of a process that physicists observe and then interpret. The existence of an electron is entirely mediated by all the other particles in the vicinity. Its electrical charge, for example, exists only with respect to nearby protons. Absent a proton, its charge is not just unmeasurable but meaningless. And vice versa. It makes no sense to talk about the charge of a proton if there are no other charged particles nearby.

But there are always charged particles nearby. Nothing exists in isolation. Also, “nearby” doesn’t mean what you think it means. If an electron in a distant galaxy emits a photon, that photon may travel across millions of light-years only to collide with an electron in one of the light-sensitive cells in your retina, or one of the light-sensitive molecules on a photo slide or a digital imaging device. As far as those two electrons are concerned, they’re “near” one another. They’re interacting directly. In an important sense the distance between them doesn’t even exist.

Everything is connected to everything else. There’s only one thing happening here, and it’s the whole universe at once, resonating with itself in unimaginably complex ways. The electrons are, as far as we can determine, all alike because they’re all manifestations of a single, very widespread form of resonance, a continually pulsating dance of the whole. There’s no “law” to it at all. The pulsations we call electric charge just happen to be what the universe is doing. And yes, what I’m implying is that this could change. But it probably won’t, unless for some reason it does.

Another oddity that has lingered in my noggin is the fact that science relies on logic as a basic method with which to develop an understanding of the universe. It does seem to work pretty well — until it doesn’t. Yet logic was invented by the ancient Greeks without, as far as we know, the performance of a single scientific experiment. It is simply assumed that the universe must be logical. Why should that be?

Physicists have already figured out that the universe is not actually logical. Not all of them seem to have grasped the implications of this, however. The double-slit experiment can be used, depending on how the apparatus is set up, to demonstrate that a single electron is either definitely a particle or definitely a wave. It can be shown logically that during the experiment a single electron passed through only one of the two slits (because it’s a particle) or that it passed through both of them (because it’s a wave).

The usual interpretation of this conundrum seems to be that the scientists’ conscious awareness is somehow (though we don’t know how) influencing the behavior of the electron. But that idea rests on the assumption that the electron must logically be doing either one thing or the other. It must be behaving like a particle, or it must be behaving like a wave.

But why should an electron be compelled to obey the laws of logic? At the level of subatomic particles, logic may not apply at all. Is it a particle at the moment, or is it a wave? Yes.

If physicists acknowledged this, their entire discipline would dissolve into pudding, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see them resist the idea. But really, let’s ask the question again: What would compel an electron to behave in a logical manner?

In biology, we can see examples of what are called emergent properties. For a simple example, we might look at the development of multi-celled animals and plants. If you had dropped in on Earth two billion years ago, you would have found an abundance of living creatures, but all of them would have been too small to see with the naked eye. (The eye hadn’t been invented yet, but we’ll ignore that.) Nothing in your examination of these single-celled creatures would have allowed you to imagine that someday a few million of their direct descendants would have joined forces as a grasshopper or a hummingbird. All of the behavioral and metabolic complexity of multi-celled creatures is emergent. For billions of years, it didn’t exist, and then it did. Life, which as everybody knows is built entirely out of electrons, protons, and neutrons, acquired new and unexpected properties.

Human language is also an emergent property. If you had stepped out of your time machine in Africa six million years ago, nothing in your study of the direct ancestors of chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans would have allowed you to infer that before too very long one set of their descendants would be building chemically powered metal vessels that would take them to the Moon and back. Human language, culture, and technology are an emergent phenomenon.

For that matter (literally), when cosmologists talk about symmetry-breaking in the very early universe, what they’re talking about is the emergence of physical properties that had not existed, and suddenly began to exist.

Here’s a random quote from a web page that purports to describe the process: “With respect to the Universe, a phase change during symmetry breaking is a point where the characteristics and the properties of the Universe make a radical shift. At the supergravity symmetry breaking, the Universe passed from the Planck era of total chaos to the era of spacetime foam. The energy release was used to create spacetime. During the GUT symmetry breaking, mass and spacetime separated and the energy released was used to create particles.”

What I think is interesting about this quote is the phrase “was used,” which the author deployed twice. This is exactly what Alan Watts was referring to. In reality, nothing was used in order to do anything, because there was no user. All that can really be said is that spacetime itself is an emergent property.

An emergent property of what? Don’t ask.

Turning to the problem of dark matter, we have to acknowledge from the get-go that there’s no special reason why the universe couldn’t include matter that doesn’t interact electromagnetically, but only through gravity. That’s not inherently unlikely. And of course such a substance would be basically impossible for us to detect, because we observe things using electromagnetic radiation.

The theory of dark matter is proposed as a way of explaining the observed fact that the outer rims of galaxies seem to be rotating faster than they ought to be, based on what we know about how gravity causes things to orbit.

Obviously, we can’t actually see the rotation. A measurable change in the angular position of a single star wouldn’t pop up for thousands of years. The observation rests on a couple of pillars. First, the Doppler shift of lines of emission and absorption in light coming from those galactic regions allows us to estimate the speed at which the stars are moving. That seems sensible, and I’m not going to quibble about whether the electrons emitting those light waves are functionally the same as our local electrons. That assumption is a freebie. Second, the total visible mass of a galaxy is calculated by estimating the number of stars in it; and the number of stars is estimated by measuring the observed brightness of the galaxy. At that point, a simple calculation based on the law (or do I mean “law”?) of gravitation allows us to figure out how fast stars ought to be traveling as they orbit the center of mass of the galaxy.

The numbers come out all wrong. The stars are orbiting too fast. From this, it’s deduced that the structure of the galaxy must include quite a lot of mass that we’re not seeing. We call it dark matter.

But why should we assume that gravity operates throughout the universe in exactly the way it operates in our own neighborhood? Isn’t it just as likely that a change in the force of gravity is an emergent property of spinning galaxies?

There’s an alternate theory that proposes a reinterpretation of gravity. It’s called modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND). The trouble, as I understand it, is that the MOND equations don’t describe the motions of clusters of galaxies very well. The MOND idea is that beyond a certain distance, gravitation gets stronger, because the equation that rules the law of gravity is more complex than the equations that Newton and Einstein proposed. If the MOND equations are correct, gravity ought to do things to galactic clusters that we don’t see happening.

But why should we expect that gravitation would propagate outward forever through the rest of the universe according to the MOND equations? Or in accordance with any equations at all? Maybe the stronger gravitational attraction is an emergent property that only operates within and near individual galaxies.

Physicists expect the universe to be logical. They expect it to be consistent. What I’m suggesting is that that may be a bad assumption. It may be, at best, a provisional and very inadequate description of the world we live in.

Once you throw that door open, other ways of looking at much more modest things begin to drift into view. I may write about a few of them soon. We’ll see.

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Strike Up the “Band”

Lately I’ve been doing bits of recorded music for the Sunday services at my local Unitarian-Universalist church. Before the pandemic (and before the lovely woman who was our pianist died) I used to play cello in services from time. I even banged out a folk song on piano a couple of times while bellowing tunefully. (Whether our interim minister liked what I did to the Leonard Cohen song, I never dared ask.) But Covid has sent many of us off in new directions.

The church is now equipped with some very nice audio-visual gear, including a large screen behind the pulpit onto which the non-live portions of the service appear. For those watching at home on Zoom, of course, that’s the whole show. I won’t claim it’s an ideal way to present music, but it offers some real advantages, including the opportunity to prepare original music at home, add visual content, and upload the video so it can be Zoomcast during the service.

I’m not the only member of the congregation who presents music from time to time. These performances are called, collectively, Gifts of Music. We have a few talented people in the congregation, but so far I’m the only one whose Gifts of Music are new compositions using synthesizers. Today someone suggested that I make my work available online so that people can return to it if so inclined. So here we are.

This was my Gift of Music a month or two ago. I don’t think the piece even had a title, it’s just sort of a dreamy thing.

I do recommend listening through a good, high-quality stereo system. You’ll hear more detail than was audible in the sanctuary, where the bass doesn’t come through well and the room acoustics tend to swallow some of the quiet counterpoint.

This morning a woman in the congregation read a poem (while physically present, I suppose I have to add) over my recorded backing track. Here’s the backing track:

Next week I’ll be doing a lay sermon on the unlikely topic of Tarot cards. I’ve done a video collage of a bunch of cards, over another piece of my own music. Maybe I should keep it under my hat until after the service, but maybe uploading it a few days ahead of time will inspire a few more people to drop in for the service. (It’s April 24, in Livermore.) I won’t upload the text of the sermon itself until afterward, but here’s the meditation moment:

I’m also doing some hymn accompaniment tracks for the services, but those are less interesting, unless perhaps you have a copy of the UU hymnal handy and want to sing while doing the dishes. I doubt I’ll toss them into this particular potpourri.

What I’ll record next month is anybody’s guess. It’s nice to have an excuse to do some music that someone will actually listen to. I don’t ask for much more than that.

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Rack-It Science

As a retired guy with no family obligations and a pronounced disinclination to do yard work, I have time on my hands. I need a big project to work on. Writing novels is painfully complex, and also very under-appreciated. Instead, I thought I might write a book about VCV Rack.

At the very least, the market is about 10,000 times less less crowded with VCV Rack books than with self-published novels. Also, there’s an identifiable community of VCV users, so finding a few readers would be easier to manage.

A couple of years ago I pitched a book proposal to Oxford University Press on software modular synthesizers. They liked the idea, and they sent me a contract. But their offer included only a $1,500 advance against royalties. I fired back an email saying, “Is there a zero missing in that number? Didn’t you really mean $15,000?” Well, no, they didn’t mean $15,000. My experience with commercial publishers has been that you really have to assume the advance is the only money you’ll ever see. Even for a big advance, it would have been an exhausting project. Such a book would have to include and do justice to VCV Rack, Cherry Audio, Softube, Native Instruments Reaktor, Csound, Pd and Max, and also semi-modulars like u-he Bazille. I should probably have known better than to think the project was manageable. So anyway, that book didn’t happen.

Even limiting myself to one software modular is almost too big a topic to be manageable. My VCV installation contains, at the moment, more than 2,100 modules. Granted, there’s a lot of redundancy, but even so, a book that aimed to be comprehensive would need to discuss literally hundreds of modules, each of which can be used in quite a variety of different ways.

Nor is that the only issue I’d have to wrestle with. These days, most people are learning about music software on YouTube. The major publishers of music tech how-to books have pretty much stopped releasing new books, because print is — well, print isn’t dead, exactly, but it’s pinin’ for the fjords. At the very least, a publishing project about VCV Rack would need to include video, audio examples, and downloadable patches.

I can do all that. My video editing is not professional quality, but I manage. Even so, the size of the work load has just doubled or tripled.

And then we get to the issue of obsolescence. Many of the modules in VCV can be expected to remain stable for the next year or possibly two years, but some of them will be updated. If a new version of VCV is released, some of the existing modules may disappear. (This happened when VCV went from version 1.1 to 2.0.) An actual paperback book would go out of date rather quickly. This happened with my Csound book, by the way. It’s dead.

I’m not convinced that a VCV Rack book would be the right project for me to tackle, but it’s tempting. The software is fun, it’s powerful, it’s well designed, it’s cross-platform, it’s mostly free (!), and there’s an active community of developers and users. One approach would be to do it in the form of blog posts, one or two every week. These would include video, audio, and downloadable patches. The posts could be updated as needed, based on new or updated modules or on comments from readers. And at a certain point I might bundle the blog posts together as a book, either print-on-demand or just a free PDF.

I don’t think an entry-level “this is an ADSR” book is needed. Anyway, I already wrote that book. It’s called Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming, and you can find the 2nd edition on Amazon. Maybe it’s time for something a little more advanced. I could just use this blog, or I could start a new one. I already have a YouTube channel. I have access to a server where I could upload supplementary materials.

Omri Cohen already has a wonderful series of videos on doing patching and sound design in VCV Rack. There’s no need for me to travel down that same path. The question is, what’s missing? What content would users find helpful or inspiring? And what would be fun for me to do, without being a crushing burden? I’ll have to think about that.

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Unholy Rollers

People who are religious typically take their religion quite seriously. Some of them simply bask in the glow of their beliefs, whatever those happen to be. I have no problem with that. People who are secure in their beliefs can be quite broad-minded about other people’s belief or non-belief; it doesn’t threaten them. But there’s also a large contingent of believers who feel it necessary to defend their beliefs against what they perceive as encroachment. Encroachment by non-believers seems especially to incite their ire.

Today Facebook served up a lovely quote from Bertrand Russell. I don’t know why my Facebook feed has so much Russell in it; maybe their algorithm knows me. Anyway, here’s the quote:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

I was rather taken with this, so I posted it to my own timeline, with the headline, “A parable for Holy Week.” Because, why not? There’s a visible connection between the quote and the calendar, and I’m smart enough to notice it.

A couple of my friends found it necessary to upbraid me. The more gently remonstrative of the two, as it happens, is a committed Christian. The more intemperate is a sort of new age spiritual type, or something. I don’t know what she believes, and I don’t much want to know. Both of them were clearly upset by the quotation, by my headline, or both.

For my part, I try earnestly to avoid commenting on Facebook when my Christian friends post messages about whatever it is they’re celebrating. One of my friends (not one of these two) will reliably post, next week, in Latin, the message, “Behold! He is risen!” He does it every year. Another friend (again, not one of these two) plays music in a Catholic church and sometimes posts photos of himself at the altar, or whatever they call it.

Oh, wait — here’s one now. He posted this image this morning. I didn’t respond to it in any way, nor would I do so. I’ve obscured his identity, because it isn’t important. What’s important is that believers and unbelievers enjoy equal rights on Facebook — or should.

If I respond at all to religious posts, I make it a point to be respectful. I might engage in a discussion about Biblical scholarship, for example, but strictly as an academic matter. I would never respond, “Who the fuck do you think is risen? The guy has been dead for 2,000 years! Dead!” I may think that; well, in fact I do think that; but I would never say it, not on a friend’s Facebook post and not in person.

But somehow, when I post a message in support of an atheist view of the world, some religious believers get their knickers all in a twist. I’m not sure what’s behind this. I’m tempted to say it’s a Jungian projection of their unconscious shadow onto me. They’re suppressing their own doubts about their beliefs by projecting the doubts onto me, so as to remain secure (on a conscious level).

But I’m reluctant to use Jungian analysis on people who aren’t in the room. There may be some other explanation. Maybe some people think “God” needs to be defended because he’s weak. No, that doesn’t make much sense. Or maybe they’re hoping to convert me to their way of thinking so I won’t end up in Hell. That’s a slightly better explanation, but I’m not sure it would apply to my new age vaguely pagan friend. It’s very doubtful she believes in Hell.

My Christian friend misunderstood Russell’s statement as an attack on Biblical literalism. It’s nothing of the sort. Russell referred to “ancient books” only as affirming the existence of “God.” That hardly requires Biblical literalism. I mean, the whole of the Bible is pretty much drenched with the Lord from top to bottom. Clearly the people who wrote those texts meant the word to refer to something quite specific, even if neither they nor modern worshipers necessarily agree what sort of something they’re talking about. Russell is bringing the whole variety of beliefs in a higher power under a large umbrella.

I’m inclined to look at it this way: When irrational belief takes root in a person’s brain, the ability to think logically about that belief flies out the window. The believer may be faultlessly logical about other things — but not about the substance of their belief. For that reason, believers are simply not capable of understanding what Russell is saying. They’re forced to confabulate something that they imagine he’s saying, after which they respond to their own imaginings.

His logic is quite clear. His teapot analogy could be read, of course, as rather condescending or insulting, but only if you enter into a purely intellectual discussion with the intention of being insulted. In comparing the supposedly large (that is, “God”) with something insanely trivial, he was aiming to take religion down a notch — or perhaps to ratchet it down quite a number of notches. His point was not merely that there is no logical underpinning to the “God” idea but, beyond that, that this “God” is no more important, morally or any other way, than a teapot.

If this be heresy, make the most of it.

He also suggested that in a society of believers, being a non-believer can be dangerous. History makes this obvious — and oddly, neither of my friends felt a need to dispute it. You could even stretch a point to suggest that they were confirming it.

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Cast Out into the Wilderness

This is about community.

Five years ago I joined the local Unitarian-Universalist church. I’ve never been even remotely religious, but I felt I needed to be part of a community. Several friends of mine had died over the preceding few years. I could see I needed to fill the gap that had opened up.

I got involved. I showed up for the Sunday service every week, played music (usually cello) in at least a dozen services, helped out with the audio system a few times, gave a couple of lay sermons, and served on the music committee. I consider the people in the local congregation my friends, and that means a lot.

But then came the double whammy. First, Covid. Suddenly there were no in-person services on Sunday, it was all Zoom. The services themselves had never been meaningful to me, and Zoom just wasn’t a viable substitute for what I was seeking, which was social interaction. I’ve helped with the Zoom music a few times, but it just isn’t the same.

In-person services have now resumed, but in a hybrid format. The Zoom option has continued. As a result, at least half of the already small congregation isn’t there on Sunday. Maybe 20 people show up. And there’s no live music, not even live hymn singing, because handing out the hymnals would be unsanitary and people would be breathing too hard while singing.

Our congregation is aging rapidly. We’re not attracting younger people. To be honest, I’m not sure what we can offer that would attract younger people. Church attendance is down throughout the U.S., but UUism is a small denomination to start with, so the impact is felt more keenly. And ours was never a large congregation. So the local church is sinking into inertia and irrelevance.

On top of which, during the past couple of years I have become increasingly aware that Unitarian-Universalism itself has changed, and not for the better. Historically, UU congregations have been autonomous, and that suits me fine. Most individual UUs, who tend to go their own way, may not even be aware of what’s going on in the national organization, or may not think it will affect them. But the people who run the denomination through the UUA office in Boston have become quite authoritarian, dogmatic, and anti-democratic. They’re not just pushing through some changes; they’re actively excommunicating a few people and driving members of congregations to leave.

The deeper I’ve gotten in reading about what’s going on in the UUA, the less I like it. As a denomination, Unitarian-Universalism has become toxic. I’ve blogged about this fairly extensively; it will come as no surprise to the five regular readers of this space. I may post some fresh links tomorrow for folks who would like to know more.

It’s all very sad, and from a personal angle not much else can be said about it. I could rant and rave about the awful changes in the UUA, but nothing I say will change anything. From what I’ve read, young ministers-in-training at the two UU seminaries are being indoctrinated with a radical ideology based on critical race theory — and even if they have private reservations about what they’re being taught, they’re surely aware that they had better not voice dissenting opinions. If they look, for even a moment, less than fully committed, their chances of ever having a job as a full-time settled minister will be damaged, possibly beyond repair. The UU ministers’ association quite clearly demands conformity. They’re not even subtle about it.

I’ve joined the Satanic Temple. Their values are similar to traditional UU values. But they don’t have a local congregation here, and for my purposes the whole point of being a member is to meet and engage with local people.

The cultural trend that is tearing Unitarian-Universalism apart is not limited to our own little subculture. It’s part of a broad and ugly movement in U.S. culture, a movement away from tolerance and toward fear, anger, and blaming. I don’t want to try to connect the dots on that today; it’s too big a topic. But it comes home to me because I no longer have the connections to a living community that I was hoping five years ago to establish.

Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

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