Saturday, April 29, 2006

All Cheese Must Be Eaten

Some little while ago there was a thread on the RPGNet Roleplaying Open forum which posed this challenge: photoshop the cover of an RPG that doesn't exist, but should... or but shouldn't. Here's what I came up with:

All Cheese Must Be Eaten

In case you're not familiar with it, the two sources for this image are:

All Flesh Must Be Eaten
All Flesh Must Be Eaten

a creepy roleplaying game of zombies

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

the full-length feature film of the hilarious claymation duo

I was pleased with the idea, but surprised at how good I did at the photoshopping. I had to painstakingly separate the creepy inner image from all other elements of the AFMBE cover including the letters, which took a couple of hours; then make a capital C by extending a lower-case E and chopping it up; then rearrange the letters; then trim and size the W&G image to fit; then airbrush out the "from the creators of Chicken Run" and a few bits of the stem that they sat on; then merge the die and logo images; then align the letters to fit the image; then, finding the original reddish color disappeared too much into the pumpkin, remove them and recolor them and then place them. Total time, about five hours.

(Hopefully you know enough about Wallace to get the joke.)

Friday, April 28, 2006

E. E. Cummings

Generally speaking, I don't "get" poetry, but those few poems I love, I really love a lot. Loving the poetry of Lewis Carroll is a gimme for a math geek. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a little harder to explain. But by far my favorite poetry is all by E. E. Cummings. (The all-lowercase spelling of his name was not his affectation but that of his publishers, one of which he never approved.)

I think most people will hear about Cummings before they actually get exposed to the poetry, so by the time they do, they've already had it trivialized: "he's the guy who does that weird stuff with punctuation, right?" Or they've already been exposed to unorthodox styles in some way or other.

But for me, I was about 10 years old, and in school, and we turned to the next page in our English book, and... there it was.
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did
I was floored. It sounds clichéd now, but all in an instant I was forced to question and re-examine all my preconceived notions about writing and poetry and form and structure and the role of syntax in expressing meaning. I went over the lines again and again in disbelief trying to figure out how they worked. Because every line made images and feelings and sounds come into my head and I didn't even know what they were sometimes, and I kept asking, how can this stuff with its grammatically-wrong structure, not even rhyming (yes, this was my first non-rhyming poem!), and almost sing-song rhythm, how can that be putting images into my head when I can't even figure out what it's saying?

And as I went over it again and again, there kept being more to find. And I kept being more astonished at how this poet had, essentially, discarded and then completely reinvented poetry from the ground up, not bound by any of the old rules but just choosing things solely because of the effect they'd have on me. Every word, every syllable was where it was for a reason, even though the initial impression was chaotic ("up so floating many bells down"?), but there was meaning and order and rhythm and images right there in the chaos and then behind them, even more.

I delighted in sifting through the poem like a puzzle trying to figure things out. Who were these people, why did they have the specific names they had? What did each word and each image represent? Why specifically did the author put each word where he did, not somewhere else? How did the words in this form have this particular effect? No matter how long I went over it there seemed always to be something new to discover.

And when I started looking at his other poems, it turned out this one was perhaps one of the simplest and most immediately accessible ones; others were even more rich and complex, even more afield from conventional poetry, and in every case beautiful. Sitting home with a book of his poems and no one at all to talk to about it, knowing nothing about what everyone else knew about him and his poetry, I managed to fall in love with some of the same poems that, I later found out, were his most popular. In particular, the eternally quoted somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond which is famous almost to the point of being overused and yet very much, in my estimation, deserving of every bit of its fame.

I think I need to go dig through my boxes of yet-unpacked books and find my book of E.E. Cummings poems now.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Be an organ donor or die! (and then, be an organ donor anyway)

I read a news article yesterday that included two points that annoyed me for different reasons. The article concerned the impact of fiction TV on people registering as organ donors.

1: "Surveys Morgan and others have conducted confirm that people very often believe that what happens on their favorite TV show is real, especially medical and crime dramas."

This just makes me want to go up to people and hit them in the head with a stick and say "wake up!" For pity's sake, how can people not realize? Even on the shows which stick to mostly realistic legal or medical issues, they still, very very obviously, have to crank them all up to ridiculously unlikely levels for the sake of drama and entertainment. All "realistic" means is that the events depicted are plausible; they could happen. They are still fantastically unlikely! How can anyone not realize that?

2: "Fewer than 40 percent of Americans have signed organ donor cards and only about half of their families consent to the donation of a loved one's organs. 'If everyone who was eligible to donate did donate, we could nearly wipe out the entire transplant waiting list,' Morgan said."

It's bad enough to know that people who have a full life ahead of them are dying, right now, while you read this, because they can't get the organs they need. It's ridiculous that people with perfectly good organs that they have no use for anymore are not saving those people's lives at no cost whatsoever to themselves. Particularly considering we could end the problem right now if we all just did it. If you haven't signed up as an organ donor, what the hell are you waiting for?

But what really burns my bottom is the idea that people who have signed up still don't get their organs used because their idiotic families override their wishes. Mark my words, if there's an afterlife, and I find out my organs weren't used, someone is going to regret it. In fact, I'm thinking of setting up a trust fund that will deputize some attorney to arrange for my family to be haunted after my death if my organs are not put to good use, in case there isn't an afterlife.

Donate your organs. Don't think of it as giving up your organs to keep someone else alive. Think of it as someone else giving up their whole body to keep one of your organs alive.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Humans as suppressed pack animals

A wolf pack averages about seven or eight members, though they can go up to twenty, including two alphas (most people think it's just one). Alphas are, most scientists believe, born that way, or at least with a propensity to become alphas. To be sure, if the pack lacks an alpha, someone will step into the role, and if there's two with a propensity, one will probably back down; alphahood isn't an all-or-nothing thing, it has gradations. But evolution does seem to have built wolves with a tendency to make about one out of every five to ten pups have a predilection to become an alpha, because that's what works best for wolves -- forms the strongest, most cohesive packs, therefore the packs most likely to take prey and avoid predators and survive to have more pups.

Many mammals have similar structures and similar corresponding tendencies, though the numbers vary as does the intensity of the tendency towards pack structures. Most primates have some sort of social pack-like structure and many of them are, as much as wolves, dominated by alphas.

Anthropologists generally agree that humans share this tendency at a fundamental level. Many aspects of human social behavior are attributed in part to the effects of a natural tendency towards pack formation, hierarchical structures, and similar social behavior. But humans are noted for their large forebrains which possess the capability, to some extent (just how much is widely disputed), of overriding such tendencies. Overriding them does not always produce happy, well-adjusted humans, though.

We have thousands of years of civilization pushing us, more and more, into patterns of living and behavior which go against some of those innate tendencies, often leading to maladjusted, unhappy people and antisocial behavior. You sometimes see a bit of atavistic throwback behavior, though. Watch a football team huddle and tell me you can't see them in loincloths gathered around a fire banging spears in preparation to go drive off the other tribe from their hunting grounds so they can hunt gazelles.

One of the things where we're farthest from our social-animal roots is the more that it's wrong to have alphas. Most of us are expected, in our work and personal lives both, to be strong, confident, decisive. Not to take any guff from anyone. To get out there and to go boldly. We're supposed to act like we're all alphas. And at the same time, to be conciliatory, cooperative, deferential, and non-presumptuous, to respect everyone else's rights to self-determination to an almost pathological level, as if none of us is an alpha.

But millions of years of biology have hardwired us. The simple fact is, most of us are not alphas. Most of us, in some secret part, crave having a decisive, strong alpha somewhere to submit to, freeing us from all the societal pressure to be something we're not built to be. Most of us never express this feeling out loud, and many never even realize it in themselves, never name it. This is one source of the modern existential angst that leaves so many feeling a vague but unshakeable dissatisfaction with life.

And the alphas amongst us don't have it any better. Society is just as quick to call them bossy, pushy, presumptuous, and arrogant, and demand they be conciliatory. Though a disproportionate number are drawn by alpha charisma to positions of authority, many of them cannot because of the vagaries of workplace and politics, and chafe in an unsuited role of compliance and conformity. And they find themselves thronged by non-alphas who find them compelling (pun intended) without, in many cases, knowing why, longing for their strength and company and yet in most cases bent by societal pressures away from accepting either.

The fact is, we're built with this proportion of alphas to non-alphas for good reasons. We'd all be happier if we acknowledged this facet of our natures, and while we might not want to let it rule our lives, we should probably take it into account at least somewhat, rather than structuring our entire society willfully ignorant of it.

The Mind's I

book coverOne of the best, if not the best, books of philosophy of the modern age is The Mind's I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul, edited by Douglas R. Hofstadter (of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid fame) and Daniel C. Dennett. This work is not some dry scholarly dissertation; it is a collection of 27 different writings on a common subject, ranging from scholarly essays to works of science fiction to parables, along with attached comments by the editors.

Together, they comprise a tour de force examination of the question of identity -- when you refer to yourself, to what exactly are you referring? Along the way related topics are addressed, ranging from the unity of the organism to soulism and the relationship of mind to brain, to theories of intelligence and the question of artificial intelligence (including John Searle's infamous "Chinese room" analogy), to epistemology and the question of perception and perspective, to some of the central tenets of transhumanism. Defining works by such greats as Alan Turing, Richard Dawkins, Jorge Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, and Raymond Smullyan are included and analyzed as parts of the puzzle. All sides of these questions are examined.

So thorough and informative and entertaining is this book that it is hard not to start any discussion about any of its subjects without telling people "go read that book first", since it sets up such a thorough grounding in all sides of the various issues tied up in this common theme, and without that, almost any discussion ends up mostly retreading parts of the book.

There is a danger in recommending the book too highly, though. I've had to buy it three times, since the first two copies were borrowed and never came back. So buy your own copy! If any of these topics interest you, you will not regret it.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Our buying strategy

We have a lot of really great stuff. Our house, our car, our computer systems, our treadmill, our TiVo, our DVD player, some of our furniture, our Roomba and Scooba, some of our kitchen equipment, our cell phone, and most recently our TV, for instance.

And yet there are many other areas where what we have is basically cheap crap, or bare minimums. Our lawn tractor is one of the cheapest riding mowers out there. Our kitchen knives are poor quality. Our surround sound system is barely surround and not great on the sound either. Some of our furniture is pretty minimalist. Our barbecue grill is a barely-functioning three-year old cheapie model heavily rusted. Our lawn is nearly devoid of grass and paving stones and anything else, and our lawn and garden care tools are mostly WalMart cheap stuff.

This might seem paradoxical, but it's very much intentional. Like most people we started off very poor. When my wife and I first lived together, we had a net value in the negatives, and cardboard boxes for furniture. Right from the start, we adopted a leapfrog strategy for buying things we needed, and that's what's gotten us here.

Most of the things we have to buy, we buy a cheap version and then make it last best we can. But every once in a while we use the money we saved doing that to buy one thing really good, way better than most of our other stuff, something that'll last a long while. And we make it last that whole long while.

The TV we just replaced, for instance, was about 12 years old. It has a good picture for its size, but it has only a single coax input, which seriously limited picture quality and made it hard for us to have a TiVo, DVD player, and VCR at once without even more problems. But though it was tempting to replace it with one that had more and better inputs, I held out for years and years. Instead of doing a bunch of money-sucking intermittent upgrades, I held off a long time and then leapfrogged ahead to something that's way, way better, and which will still be excellent many years from now.

So eventually the day will come where we'll buy a really fantastic high-quality chef's knife, or a good surround sound system, or a nice barbecue grill, but that's not today. Today was the TV. Putting off getting the good stuff in all those other areas is how we can get the good stuff on the one thing we got today. And doing that over years, decades, is how we got to where we have all the good stuff we have now.

The end of the beginning

Yesterday marks the first full 24-hour period since the founding of this blog that there was nothing posted to it. The first step in the inevitable decline into intermittency and languishment to which most blogs are doomed? Maybe.

When I started the blog, one of the rules I set myself was that I wasn't posting on a schedule, just whenever I felt like posting. (The other two: Every post will have a single topic, not be a stream-of-consciousness about various things going on in the same day; this isn't simply a personal journal. No posts that are just a link to something; every post will have some of me in them, or I won't post it.)

Finding the blog an appropriate venue for lots of speculations and philosophizing and storytelling that's been sitting in my brain for years, I produced a flurry of stuff, but I always knew that the flurry would not go on forever. It's not a matter of losing interest, which is what I suspect causes most blogs to fall off after an initial spurt of Novelty-driven activity. I'm just playing out the backlog at high speed until it's caught up, then working at the slower normal throughput level of how often ideas that are suitable for my blog get to a state of refinement appropriate for posting.

Addendum: Ironically, is having technical difficulties as I write this, which suggest that if I had published something yesterday, it would not be visible anyway. No idea when this post will finally go up, either.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

My experiences on the debate team

National Forensics LeagueI got onto the debate team in my freshman year largely because people told me my college chances would depend on being "well-rounded". (I'd been enjoying being on the math team since 7th grade for the same reason, so why not?) It quickly became my favorite extracurricular activity. I was terrible at the speech side of speech and debate, though I now realize I could have been good at the improv category. But debate was better anyway.

The first two and a half years were spent on what was called "varsity debate", which is very legalistic and structured. Not that that's a bad thing. In varsity, the entire year would be spent on one resolution that governed all debates; for instance, my first year it was "Resolved: that the federal government should initiate and enforce safety guarantees on consumer goods." (Yes, that's from memory.)

There were four people in each debate, two on each team: the positions were First Affirmative (1A), Second Affirmative (2A), First Negative (1N), and Second Negative (2N), and whatever position you were, you were all year long, and very likely in subsequent years as well. I was a 2A and damned good at it. Each debate round consisted of the following sequence:
  • 1AC - First Affirmative Constructive: an eight-minute speech which was prepared ahead of time, the same one all year long. It established the "case and plan" which the affirmative team developed and would argue the whole year. The case had to fit within the resolution; for instance, my freshman year's case concerned the use of antibiotics in animal feeds causing bacteria to become resistant. Everyone knows this nowadays, but back in 1979, this was pretty radical stuff to be arguing for! The plan then proposed a method of dealing with it. I can still, 25 years later, recite stretches of this speech from memory -- even though I never once delivered it, since I was a 2A.
  • 1AC Cross-Examination: three minute cross-examination by the 1N of the 1A, done in a style similar to a lawyer questioning a witness. No arguing, only asking and answering... though of course you could subtly score a point here and there in a cross-ex anyway.
  • 1NC - First Negative Constructive: The affirmative team debates their own case and plan every debate all year (and so typically carry around a single small index card box of evidence). The negative team has to be ready to argue against any case and plan the affirmatives might bring up, so they have several suitcases full of evidence cards and whole systems for dealing with different cases. Later in the year, when they know what everyone's arguing, they're usually better prepared. This eight-minute speech establishes the tone of the debate, generally.
  • 1NC Cross-Examination: The 2A (me!) cross-examines the 1N about his or her speech for three minutes.
  • 2AC - Second Affirmative Constructive: An eight-minute speech, all improvised, addressing the points raised by the 1NC. This is the only chance the affirmative team gets to raise new arguments that aren't in the case and plan, but are needed to counter the negative's attacks. Unless the negative team is very weak, this speech will be crammed full.
  • 2AC Cross-Examination: The 2N cross-examines the 2A for three minutes.
  • 2NC - Second Negative Constructive: The 2N gets eight minutes to bring up new arguments and bolster old ones. This speech is important because it's the last chance to introduce new arguments to the debate.
  • 2NC Cross-Examination: The 1A cross-examines the 2N for three minutes. An odd cross-ex since the 1A won't be doing the next speech.
  • 1NR - First Negative Rebuttal: In the rebuttal speechs, no new topics or arguments can be introduced, only rebuttals of previous arguments. These speeches are all only four minutes. Even though the last full speech was from the 2N, now the 1N speaks, so in essence the negative team gets 12 minutes straight of speech with only a cross-ex in the middle. Which forms a pretty potent barrage to refute, but it does mean this speech is the least important in the debate, generally speaking.
  • 1AR - First Affirmative Rebuttal: Generally speaking the 1A is the position for the weakest debater since 8 of their 12 minutes is reading a canned speech. However, though this is only four minutes of improv, they have 12 minutes of speech to counter, so it's an important speech. Or it should be. Typically it wasn't, because typically the 1A was the weakest player.
  • 2NR - Second Negative Rebuttal: The negative team's last chance to score points.
  • 2AR - Second Affirmative Rebuttal: Last licks! The most important part of the round, usually. As the 1A was usually the weakest debater, the 2A was usually the strongest since he would have to carry a weak partner, while the negatives were a more even team.
So in total, each team would do 24 minutes of speaking and 6 minutes of cross-examining. Your total prep time for this was 3 minutes, for the entire round. I would usually use no prep time. By the time my opponent was done speaking, I was already ready with notes and outlines.

This is great practice for the mind muscles and very fun, even if it does tend to be kind of legalistic, proving ground for those who might become lawyers and legislators and such. In my junior year, though, I heard about another kind of debate, called Lincoln-Douglas, and as soon as I heard what it was like, I said, why haven't I been doing this all along? My varsity team kind of fell apart and my defecting to L-D was part of why it did.

In L-D, you would have a new topic every tournament. You'd not find out what it was until the afternoon before. It'd be something more philosophical than legalistic, like "Strong fences make good neighbors", or "The vision of George Orwell's 1984 has come to pass". You weren't a team, just single debaters. You wouldn't even have, let alone depend on, index cards with bits of evidence to read off. Best of all... you would be arguing affirmative some rounds and negative other rounds in the same tourney on the same subject. That develops some nice mental flexibility, having to switch sides from one round to the next on the same topic. It was great fun.

L-D rounds are much shorter: AC 7 minutes, AC CX 3 minutes, NC 7 minutes, NC CX 3 minutes, AR 4 minutes, NR 4 minutes, if I remember right. Even less prep time, too, which again I rarely used. Very much something where you have to think on your feet. Less structured, but you still have the situation -- lost to most people who engage in what passes for "debate" on the Internet -- where you have to make cogent arguments that actually refute your opponent, you have to take turns, and you can't just repeat yourself louder. I sometimes wish more people had been forced to do this.

I came into it very late, towards the end of my junior year. Even so, in my senior year, I went to the state finals and took 11th place in New York, which is not bad at all -- New York being large and also home to some of the strongest schools in the country (notably, in our division, the Bronx High School of Science, and Sacred Heart Academy, to which my own high school was always a respectable but distant third). If I'd gotten into L-D earlier, I would have, I feel sure, taken a state finals trophy before I graduated.

Once in a while I think back on the mental invigoration of that, and wish I could get involved in something like it again. But I know better than to get involved in political or philosophical debates on newsgroups or fora.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Odysseus and Penelope

Most people who own a Roomba give it a name. Unfortunately, most of them call theirs "Rosie".

Our first one we just called Roomba because, really, that already seemed a perfectly nice name. Wasn't until we got a Discovery model, the one with a charging base it can find its way back to, that we decided on a more appropriate name. Those who are familiar with how a Roomba works (and know a little bit of Greek mythology) will understand the joke of the name: Odysseus.

Odysseus sets out from his home, and wanders around the area, apparently aimlessly. For all his apparent randomness, he has an uncanny knack for finding every mess in the entire area and getting into each one. He takes a lot longer than it would take anyone else, but eventually, just when you think he never will, he finds his way back home.

When we got a Scooba and, after a trial, realized we'd have to keep both, we weren't as sure about a name. However, in the end we had to name Odysseus's partner Penelope, even if it made us worry that whatever she cleaned each day, she might sneak out and dirty back up that night.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Tonal agnosia, Asperger's syndrome, high-functioning autism

It seems that psychiatric science is gradually finding a convergence between a number of phenomena and disorders that have to do with social functioning. What was once seen as a "disease" -- so you either had it or you didn't -- is now being seen as a point on a spectrum. At the far end are people who might need to be institutionalized, but as you progress towards the median of "normalcy", you will encounter people who are impaired, or just quirky, or simply who have a personality type of some sort, all of which are being understood as degrees of the same proclivity.

The natural tendency for language to drift during this process can be tricky. If you take a condition which is so debilitating that it requires special care or institutionalization, do those people have a right to feel offended or upset when the name of that condition is later used for what could barely be called a mild neurosis? People who suffer from clinical levels of obsessive-compulsive disorder certainly have a good claim on being annoyed to find people using the same term to refer to an uncle who simply likes all his tools to face left on his pegboard, while they can't even go out without soul-numbing, health-impairing medication.

That's why I'm hesitant to call my own mild disability by any of the names sometimes foisted on it, listed in the title of this post. Each of those terms refers to a clinical condition which can render someone incapable of functioning without assistance in society. Yet advances in psychiatric science are rendering them variations on one common spectrum of behavior, a spectrum on which I fall more than a few sigmas from the median, but still nowhere near clinical levels.

My condition is not easy to describe because I lack something most people don't realize they have. They say that non-verbal communication comprises some very large percentage of interpersonal communication (most sources say 80% or more). This largest part of the bandwidth of human interaction is something that I perceive only dimly and incompletely.

It's tricky, because even if someone tells you the dry "80%" fact, and even if you believe it, and even if you're trying to see the process at work in your own life, you usually can't see it. It's too subconscious -- so much so that becoming consciously aware of it seems to impair it, so most people do not and perhaps cannot sense themselves doing it. Which means they are often incredulous at the idea that I have any kind of real disability when I talk about it, because they can't shake the idea that what I'm missing is "no big deal". They know there's a gulf between words and meanings, but they so hugely underestimate it that they can't take seriously that it matters.

People sometimes get a vague glimpse of this when they're forced to resort to email or text chat media. Everyone pays lip service to the fact that so much gets lost when you can't see the other person, so it's easy to misunderstand, or to have inappropriate emotional reactions. Entire classes of social behavior are attributed to this phenomenon. But if I tell someone "that's what I'm like all the time" they usually still don't get it.

There's a sublime irony in this, though. Since I don't directly perceive a lot of the "tone of voice" and similar things that make up the majority of human communication, I have had to learn by a conscious process how to pick up on these cues. As a result, sometimes I understand those cues better because I see them consciously while others don't, and in many cases can't. I sometimes do better in understanding people on text-only media because, essentially, everyone else is dragged down to my level. In a chat room, I'm the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. And sometimes I better understand the way people think. If you had to build the engine for your car from scrap parts, it would never run anywhere near as well as your neighbor's off-the-lot car, but you'd understand how engines work a lot better than he does.

It's nigh-impossible to convince people to literally say what they mean, because they think they already are. And if you start poking at the fiddly details of the actual words they're using, they just feel attacked. What's even more frustrating is people back-translating what I say. They're reading cues I don't know very well how to give off, which are therefore inconsistent and unreliable, and using them to translate back from what I said to what they'd have meant if they'd said that, which is not what I meant at all. When they react to that, I'm often flabbergasted -- "but that's not what I said!" whereupon they might insist that I did, indeed, say that, or at least mean it. "Don't be coy, don't play stupid, you know perfectly well what it means when you say that," someone might say. I sometimes wish I could pull out some kind of ID card or medalert tag and say, "No I don't, and here's proof!"

As this is better understood, it's becoming clear that it's just a facet of the classic "geek" personality -- the socially awkward, literalist tone many nerd-types have. In a way it means I'm just a geek to an exaggerated, but not clinical, degree. But this revelation does not help any, because alluding to socially-inept geekhood still gives people miscalibrated expectations of my abilities to understand subliminal cues. Plus, it doesn't come off as much of an answer since so many people still think the geek mindset is a voluntary affectation, not a reflection of something that's either learned early or hardwired or both, but in any case, not readily changed.

The worst part of this, though, is when my inability to understand what other people are feeling or what they're really saying causes them to be hurt. In the social dimension I can be like a clumsy buffoon -- when I trip and fall, someone else is as likely to get hurt as I am. And that in turn pains me greatly. Sometimes the impossibility of avoiding that makes me almost paralyzed with anxiety.

But most of the time I can remember that, while I may be more whatever-you-call-it-like than your average geek, enough for it to have a real impact on my life, I'm nowhere near as bad as those with clinical levels of these disorders, who find social interaction almost entirely impossible, and who cannot, therefore, choose and pursue a life they might wish. I can do most everything I want to do, and I'm doing all right at it. I have friends and people who care about me, who can withstand a few unintended social fumbles now and then. I've got it good.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Van Gogh has tea with Tori Amos

Everyone knows about how genius and madness are so often linked. Especially, perhaps, creative genius, the genius of the arts -- though geniuses of mathematics and science get their share as well.

Vase with Twelve SunflowersTo borrow a page from Douglas Adams, suppose a pharmaceutical company could go back in time and give Vincent Van Gogh some antidepressives to see what he could paint during times he wasn't trying to cut any extremities off. I think most of us would be convinced the result would be the loss of some of the greatest art in history. And yet, perhaps one man would have had a happy life, notably devoid of self-surgery. If it were up to you, how easy would you find it to decide which is more important: one man's happiness or misery, and the contribution to the world of art that has beautified and inspired? For my part, I'd find it a difficult choice indeed. I find myself instead saying, thankfully no one was able to help him... and then feeling awful about it.

When I listen to the music of Tori Amos, I feel the same way, only it's slightly less theoretical. Tori is still alive, after all, and one can't help but wonder, if she got some therapy, rebalanced her chi, whatever it took, whether she'd be happier and less likely to produce heart-wrenching bits of musical genius (about one time in ten -- some musicians are more reliable, it must be admitted). Of course, I doubt I could get her cell number and say, "Hey, Tori, you don't know me, but I can recommend a good therapist," and cure all her anguish and self-doubt. And if I did, it'd still be her free choice (just like it would have been Vincent's choice to take the Prozac -- assuming you explained it to him first, of course), which essentially obviates me of any ethical responsibility.

But that avoids the question. Should I feel guilty about the fact that their agony is so pretty?

The overwhelming HDTV of doooom!

Our new HDTVThe 62" HDTV is now set up in the living room, and boy, is it beautiful. We don't have any HD to feed it quite yet, but it sure makes everything else nice. The screen size is almost more important than HD: that's what gives you that immersive environment. But big screens are what, in turn, make HD nice, because a picture that looks fine at 20" starts looking flawed at 60".

Got a friend and coworker to help us bring it home from CostCo because it wouldn't fit in our Prius -- it barely fit in his Ford Explorer. Bought him dinner at a local pizza place (good New York style, or as close as you can get in Vermont).

Setting up the pedestal (came free with it) took more time than setting up the TV. With my hands and knees alternately aching, I acerbically muttered, "women don't have to assemble RTA furniture, but they do have to have babies, so I guess it all comes out even". (Women, please don't throw things at me. It's a joke.)

Currently connected are: the TiVo Series 2 which has the DISH Network receiver connected to it; our Panasonic DVD player; and an old Sanyo VCR. I'm going to be hooking up the cheap surround sound system tonight.

I can't get the universal remote that comes with it to control the TiVo, though TiVo is on the list of systems it can control, and our TiVo is not unusual in any way as regards IR. If I can get that working, I might buy a second remote of the same type.

Also need a new cable to get better quality from our DVD player (though right now, it's already pretty good -- watched a scene from Serenity and boy, it's so much more engaging than on our old TV). Finally, I've put a TV calibration DVD onto our NetFlix queue.

I keep thinking of visually striking movies that need to be rewatched now. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Contact. Serenity. All the Lord of the Rings movies. All the Star Wars movies -- okay, maybe not all of them. Serenity. Alien. Se7en. Serenity (wheee!).

Hey boss, I need to take the next two weeks off. No, make it a month.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The frustration of releasing your work for free

Make a product and sell it, and one thing you're very likely to get is feedback, more than you want, in fact. Whether it's great or it sucks, people will say so, volubly.

Now make something and give it away free, and not only do you not get the income (which you gave up voluntarily), you, very frustratingly, also give up all the feedback. All the praise, which is always nice to get but especially when it's the only thing left since you're not asking to be paid. All the criticisms that you might better your work with. All the contributions of ideas. All the insight into what people do and don't like about it. All the flaming... well, that part isn't bad, but still.

I've been releasing software into the freeware market for almost two decades now. Some of my stuff is damned good. For instance, Prism Dice is as good as any other dice program out there and better than most, and it's free, but after tens of thousands of downloads, I've gotten maybe five emails. If I'd asked for $5 I probably would have gotten a hundred registrations at least, but all I ask is an email and I get a half-dozen.

The same is true and even more so for roleplaying games. I don't expect a lot of response to something like Prism; it's a very niche market it would appeal to, it's decidedly hard to "dive into", and the version on the web is a decade out of date.

But RealTime, for example, is just the sort of thing that RPG players in online communities like RPGnet should find interesting. Innovative, if I do say so myself; doing something that appeals to a lot of people yet in a way that hasn't been done before. Distinctive, yet with a broad base of appeal. And well done. I dare say well presented, too; no production values naturally since I can't draw, but for all text, an attractive and readable PDF, well organized and well written.

Now, I realize that, as a free release by someone who's never had anything published by one of the major game companies, RealTime dwells in the same pit as thousands of other works, most of which are pretty awful. I accept that that alone means the vast majority of people will never even consider it because it's not worth their time to separate wheat from chaff. Fine, no problem.

But that still leaves room for there to be some people downloading it. And in fact, I have reason to think there have been at least hundreds, probably thousands, of downloads. Maybe half never got read, but even so, hundreds of times someone has read RealTime. How many times do you think that means someone took the time to pop me a quick email or comment about RealTime somewhere, which was literally all I asked? The actual answer: not counting one member of my own group who helped playtest RealTime, the total count of responses to, comments about, or even flames about RealTime: zero.

I am not counting the review because that only came about because I pestered someone to do it, and then reluctantly. And the review, and few messages that got posted in response to it, didn't strike me as being really considering of the game. They mostly hung on the same point that's puzzled me ever since, the idea that "this just isn't possible", which plainly it is, since I've done it. And yet, that's the complete sum total of all the response RealTime has gotten in the whole world.

I look at something like Dogs In The Vineyard and ask, why is this getting dozens of threads in the RPGnet forums and tons of chat and consideration? It's not even as innovative, and its niche is even narrower. What does it have that RealTime doesn't? A glossy cover and a price tag, I can't help but think. I'm almost tempted to slap a price tag on my work and then give the money to a charity (works for Marcus Rowland!) just to get someone to take a look at it.

I just find the paradox annoying: ask for less and people won't even give you that. I don't want to make money off my RPG or freeware work. I don't even want to be famous. I would just like to have some chance of having my work taken seriously and considered and commented on.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Feudalism in Vermont

Today, I am slightly sore and achey from efforts yesterday to pull a few boulders out of what will be our garden. Thank the stars I won't be doing all, or even more than hardly any, of the work of the garden. I'd be a terrible farmer, but hopefully I'll be a fine liege lord.

We have some good friends who don't have any land on which to raise vegetables, but who have both a desire to garden some vegetables, and the ability, skill, and knowledge required for the job. So the arrangement is, we provide the land itself, all the tools and equipment, all the supplies, the seedlings, etc. They provide all, or nearly all, of the actual labor. We split the proceeds come harvest time.

The land is rocky, wet, and quite acidic. It's a pine forest in Vermont, so none of these are surprises. The largest of the boulders we pulled out is about 2' across; there's one we didn't manage to get out, though, but fortunately it's right on the edge of the planned garden.

We'll be sprinkling lime soon in anticipation of tilling in a few weeks. We're also starting a compost bin.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Considering HDTV

Toshiba 62HM15A recent article on HowStuffWorks got me reconsidering the idea of getting a plasma or LCD screen when I finally go to HDTV. Flatscreens are awfully gee-whiz cool, but they are really not the best option for many people. Rear projection systems like DLP are superior in many ways. Better picture quality, better blacks, no burn-in problem, longer life, no maintenance required, bigger sizes available, and most of all, far, far less expensive. The only real advantage plasma and LCD systems have is that they're flat; you can hang them on a wall in a small apartment. But if you already have an entertainment center, a DLP or LCoS system will fit into the same space and give you a better picture for half the price.

We're not quite financially in position to go buy one today, but now that I'm looking at DLP systems instead of plasma, we're a lot closer (especially in light of our income tax refund making a big dent in our debt). So I'm looking at options and doing some budgeting. Still more research to do.

I am pretty sure I've selected the TV we're getting and found a source for it at a good price. It will be a Toshiba 62HM15 (pictured above). CostCo sells this unit with its pedestal stand for about $300 less than BestBuy sells the less featurific 62HM95 (yeah, I thought the 95 would be a better model than the 15, but it's not!) without its pedestal.

So the next step is looking at HD services provided by the satellite providers (there's no cable in my town, and no OTA stations that come in at all clearly, so satellite is it for us). In particular, the sticking point is DVRs.

TiVoI have had a TiVo with lifetime service for over four years now and am desperately in love with it. But TiVo does not have, and has no plans to make, an HD system that works with satellite TV, except the barely-supported HD-DirecTiVo which runs an old version of TiVo software, and doesn't even support MPEG4 (so won't be able to get HD locals in most markets). Since the reason to stay loyal to TiVo is because of the superiority of their software, and going to DirecTV's TiVo offering would lose that anyway, there's no reason to stay with TiVo. I'm still quite annoyed by this and just starting to hit the "acceptance" part of the Kübler-Ross grief cycle.

VIP622 DISH DVRAs we've had DISH Network for a while now, and since they had their own DVR earlier than DirecTV, leaving theirs the more advanced and reliable of the two non-TiVo options, we'll probably get one of their DVRs. I need to call them to find out prices since they don't list them on their website.

So the HDTV and the DVR (with HD service) would comprise the initial purchase. My current TiVo, TV, and DISH receiver would go into another room and become a second, barely-used system. The very next purchase would be ways to replicate the networked-media functions of TiVo on the new system, so I could upload or stream video and MP3s from my PC to the HDTV, and extract video from the DVR to my PC if at all possible. Once that's in place, I'll probably end up moving shows from the TiVo to my PC and then up to the TV or DVR, since we have hundreds of hours of backlogged stuff on the TiVo to catch up on, and that's perpetually true.

Later purchases, which I'd love to make at the same time but financially, that's not realistic, would be as follows.

My living roomFirst, blinds for my doors and windows, with motors so they can be lowered and raised automatically. This is going to be expensive, but necessary. Most of the time, I want to live in this open, roomy space with a beautiful view of the trees outside my deck. I don't want to solve the glare problem by having a whole separate room for TV; that's not how we live and not how our house is designed. So blinds are going to be costly, particularly because of those angled windows, but necessary.

Second, a better surround sound system. I have a cheap one right now that gives me a little bit better sound than stock TV speakers, but not much. And since the volume controls are manual knobs, I have to go to the TV to turn it up and down -- net result being, it's usually too low to really make a difference. I'm going to hold off getting a new sound system until I can get a good one that'll really do the job well, even if that means suffering with this cheap one for a few more years. Probably get someone to come out and analyze the space and install it professionally, even.

I expect the HDTV and DVR parts will happen within the next few months. The other parts not for a few years. It's getting exciting.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The unity of the organism

This is another "building block" post setting up a point of philosophy for later use.

Look around you and find a book near you. For simplicity I'm going to say it's Kiln People by David Brin, because that's what's near me. It's definitely a book, right? What would have to be different to make it not a book? If it were an audiobook, would it still be a book? Large print? PDF? Galley drafts being sent to the printer? Initial manuscript, or author's outline notes?

Suppose I tore off the covers. Is it still a book? Suppose I poured ink on it so all the pages were a uniform shade of black. Suppose I tore out a page. Suppose I tore out a lot pages. Suppose I tore out half the pages. All but ten of the pages. All but one page. All the pages. Where did it stop being a book?

Logic tends to assume that a definition is a set of criteria to determine whether an object fits into a class. In mathematical terms, in the space of all possible objects, "book" defines an area in that space, an area whose precise borders are determined by the definition.

But in real life, language doesn't work that way. Definitions are actually more hueristic and "fuzzy". We define book not by the borders of its space, but by its center: an idealized, "Platonic form" of what a book is. We know that at that center, this is definitely a book; and somewhere far away, this is definitely not a book. But we don't know where, in any given direction, we cross the unseen line between "book" and "not book". Worse yet, not only will this vary from person to person, it'll vary for a particular person from minute to minute. Most people haven't even considered any of the "border" questions I asked before, and if you get them to, they'll come up with an answer that they will not like. Any criteria you develop that uniquely determine book, I can turn around and find a situation where there's something your criteria will call "book" that you don't think is a book, and one where something you think is a book fails the tests you've come up with.

It gets worse, though -- extend it into another dimension. That's not just a book, it's Kiln People by David Brin. Is the audiobook the same book? How about the large print edition? How about a slightly abridged edition? How about a heavily abridged edition? Suppose an early printing had a small error and subsequent printings fixed it. Are they the same book? Suppose a second edition had substantial changes. Suppose someone printed only the first half of it. Suppose someone printed a book that contained Kiln People, Otherness, and Glory Road in one set of covers. Suppose someone did that, but interleaved the chapters of all three books.

And it's not just a book, and just Kiln People; it's a particular instance of the book that came off a particular printing press at a particular moment. Suppose I had two copies from the same day's print run, and I started cutting pages out of copy A and replacing them with the same pages from copy B. At what point do I stop having copy A and start having copy B?

Let's not even get into the fact that in the two days since I popped this book out of its box, billions of atoms that were part of it are gone, and billions of other atoms are now part of it. Because then we'd have to talk about living organisms that might change out all their atoms many times over the course of their lives.

So many arguments about ethics, philosophy, even politics come down to the fact that we all pretend there is some precise defintion that could address all these questions, but there isn't, and thus we don't all agree on what that definition is, but we think we do. We actually go so far as to attach ethical imperatives to these non-existent precise definitions. We have significant ethical rules that differentiate what you're allowed to do to a human, or a person, or a sapient organism, or a sentient organism, or a non-sentient organism, or a non-living thing. Yet none of these classes are precisely defined, and advances in medicine and technology keep producing objects that sit in the fuzzy area near the border -- over the border for some and not for others. This is only going to get more and more so as transhumanism advances.

You can't apply the rules of logic to address these questions unless you're willing to create precise definitions. And then you're forced to accept that those precise definitions are arbitrary. And then your justification for calling these ethical rules anything but arbitrary becomes ever more tenuous.

The cop-out is to try to create a gradiated system: instead of saying whether an object is a book as a yes-or-no question, you assign a score to it, its relative bookness. Seems like a solution, but it's not. Any set of rules you create to calculate an object's bookness will, again, produce scores that disagree with your intuition, and even more, with other people's intuition. And it will be just as arbitrary as the boundary definition, so attaching ethics to it ("this action's badness score can be calculated proportional the victim's personness score") still ends up just as arbitrary.

We don't have a Cosmic Dictionary that includes revealed truth. None of the world's holy books really do any better at giving the kind of precise definitions than would an eight-year-old who's just learned words like "person". We cannot define what makes this a book, let alone Kiln People, let alone this particular printing of Kiln People, in a rigorous and yet universally acceptable way. How can we hope to do so for what makes this a person, let alone a male human person, let alone Frank?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Who is Hawthorn Thistleberry?

Since there's not been any explanation for the title of this blog, I thought it was time.

Like a lot of inveterate geek roleplayers, I have often used the names of characters I made and liked a lot as my handles. Over the years, two in particular have, for various reasons, ended up my primary handles. Oddly, both are characters that barely got beyond character creation. Well, not that oddly, really. If you take out characters I played less than two full adventures from, say, the last 15 years of my roleplaying experience... you'd have virtually all of them. But anyway...

Hawthorn got created a long, long time ago, back when I still played D&D sometimes. I don't have a specific year in mind; has to be after 1988 but probably not long after. Naturally, my roleplaying chops were not nearly as refined as they are now. Even more so, the worlds we played in weren't nearly as complete and fleshed-out as they are now. They were very driven by cliche and stereotype. Since that's what I had to work with, I ran with it -- making a character based around the cliche of the D&D version of the dryad, turned inside out.

The concept itself was, for the time, very unusual, and led to some really interesting roleplay. Though it annoyed the GM: my character turned out to be a more interesting challenge than the adventure, and stole all the scenes. Everyone ignored the hackneyed quest we were being given and spent all their time trying to figure out Hawthorn. But what really struck me was the form his background took. Being visited by a muse, I wrote it in a form that was really beyond my writing skills of the time. Even by today's standards it holds up pretty well (though I have to give myself some latitude in considering the world background I had to work with). So, without further ado, here is Hawthorn Thistleberry.

DRYAD: One of the nature spirits native to the forests of Callaria. The dryad is typically described as an impossibly beautiful female human, typically with dark skin, green eyes, and red hair (the hair of some dryads changes with the seasons). On closer inspection, a dryad proves to have slightly elven features, prompting some scholars (particularly Joseff of Arglenn and other followers of his Divergent Races theory) to conclude that the elf (especially the Sylvan) and dryad are closely related. Dryads, like all nature spirits ("nymphs"), are closely associated with a natural feature, in this case an oak tree. (Rumors of dryads associated with trees of other types have never been confirmed by scholars.) Research suggests that the dryad and the tree are soulmates, or more appropriately, that a dryad and her tree are one being in two guises. Thus, what one feels, the other feels. She cannot bring herself more than a few hundred feet from its roots.
It was midsummer, that time of the year when the little ones of the woods were at their busiest and the sunshine fed the brightest colors of the blooming wildflowers. She liked this time best; better than early spring when not everyone was awake yet, and better than the autumn when the little ones were working so hard and seriously to gather the food that would see them through the Long Sleep of winter. Now there was time to just play.

Each time she had stopped a Man who had been passing by, it was this time of the year. She knew that some of her sisters would take a Man any time one came through their Circle, but she always let them pass if they came too early or late. Like the little ones, Men were too serious during the spring as they came out of the trials of their Long Sleep, and too serious in autumn as they prepared for the next one; it was only during the summer that they really were free to see beauty rather than utility and desire in the things they found in her woods. While she kept a Man within her home, she would love him body and soul, and she didn't like to join herself to anyone as serious as a Man trying to get food for his family for the coming winter.

She felt sure that this day was so bright and full of sun, the air so sweet and redolent with beauty, that a Man must come into her Circle this day. She hoped he would appear soon.

The primary danger a dryad presents to the unwary traveller is not really a danger as much as a delay. Any healthy male, especially one who is handsome and strong, who wanders into the range of a dryad may find himself called by an irresistable desire for her. These victims typically find themselves weeks or even months later wandering out of the area, with only vague memories of the intervening time and little concept of how much time has passed. It is clear that the dryad seduces the male human (only humans are affected) for the purposes of procreation, though it is not clear how the species of dryad can so intermingle with males of the human species without the traits of the human males chosen being infused into the get that results. Many folk tales tell of the wrath of a dryad who has been spurned or resisted by her chosen lover, and of men disappearing into dryad woods never to be seen again, but no reliable account of any such activity has been recorded. Those few dryads that have been willing to speak to followers of the Earth Goddess insist that none of their sisters have ever harmed a man, but their magical nature prevents scholars from verifying the veracity of such claims by absolute means.
A tremor of feeling told her a Man had come into her Circle. The little ones ran into the crannies of her land, timid as always. But the blossoms shone as brightly as ever for the Man. Something was wrong, though. She realized at once that there were three Men, but she often found groups of Men travelling together through her Circle. What was different?

Returning swiftly to the Tree that was her center, she gazed upon the Men and saw that one of them was a Son Of The Mother, a follower of the Earth Goddess, wise in the ways of the woods. Perhaps he would speak to her. She had never answered the calls of such Men, for in her own way she was as timid as the little ones, but perhaps today she would be brave and answer if he called. Or, she mused, perhaps she would call him; he was perhaps not the most handsome Man that had come through her Circle, but neither was he the least.

She gazed upon the other two, to see if either of them was a more suitable candidate, but she was stunned by what she saw. One of the Men had a soul that radiated malice, and more than that, it radiated that incomprehensible feeling that she called the Human Force. Like all her sisters, she was totally unable to understand it; she only knew that she must let her Man go free after a time, or it would grow to devour his soul. This Man's Human Force was strong, but it had become a part of his malice, and the malice had become a part of it. She wanted no part of this Man.

The third was more to her liking; a simple, strong Man. He bore, and wore, more steel than was to her liking, but that was an easily solved problem. But in an instant she perceived the relation between the three men. The armored soldier took orders from the man of malice; he also held one of his weapons on the Son, though it seemed clear that the Son followed the orders of the man of malice for some other reason, which she could not perceive, and the soldier was just a precaution.

Before she could decide what, if anything, to do about these unusual Men, she heard a call she could not resist. The Son was bringing his wisdom to bear, and this was not a call she could ignore; it carried force and pulled at her very roots. Without any of her own will, she stepped forth from the Tree in front of the men. Then she lay herself down on the moss between the roots of her Tree, wrapping her arms around its broad bark, helpless all the while. Though she could do nothing that she was not told to do, she could see and feel everything; the amazement of the soldier, the regret of the Son, and drowning everything else out, the lust, the triumph, and the malice of the one who ruled them. As he tied her hands together around the tree with a piece of the skin of one of the little ones, the intensity of his hideous sense of victory and subjugation, of pleasure at his own power, made her soul want to gag, but her body was rigidly helpless to obey. As he removed his clothes, she could see that the act of love which led to creation was for him an act of destruction, which he intended to carry out on her; and for him the act would mean nothing if it were offered, only if it were stolen. As he lay on top of her, she wondered if she would ever waylay a Man again.

After the dryad has released her consort from his enchantment, the following spring, her tree produces a special acorn. It is easily identifiable; all normal acorns are produced in the autumn, so it is the only one at the time. The dryad then takes the acorn from her tree when it has reached full size, and travels to the very edge of the land she can travel through; she throws the acorn as hard as she can away from her tree, to ensure that the new tree and dryad that are formed will not overlap with her own range. The acorn forms a tree; when it is still a skinny sapling, the newly born dryad coalesces out of it, though she rarely ventures forth before her tree has reached several dozens of years of age. (Shahrm of Montill has recorded a case where he was able to lure a dryad out of a tree that was less than two feet tall; he reports that the dryad appeared full-grown but seemed very sleepy and returned to her tree almost immediately, and was unwilling to answer further calls. This is the only recorded case of a dryad of less than ten years of age being seen by a human.) The mother dryad will communicate with other dryads, but not with the daughter; there is an unspoken reluctance for mother and daughter to communicate or refer to one another in any way, and all other dryads will respect this automatically, knowing in advance which dryad is the mother of which other dryad and avoiding discussions relating to such relations. Therefore, dryad "society" (if it can be called that) always refers to all its members as "sisters" only.
The Long Sleep was over, but there was no joy in the spring. There was no joy in anything anymore. She was consumed with feelings she had never felt, could not describe, could not even conceive of. Many were much the same as those that she had seen in the soul of the Man who did this to her. Though she had never performed any violent or destructive act in her entire existence, she somehow felt sure that if that Man came into her Circle without his captive Son Of The Mother to protect him, she would find a way to bring his painful and bloody death. Strangest of all, she was overwhelmed with the need to go outside her Circle, to find him and -- and what?

So strong was her inner turmoil that a full week passed before she saw the acorn. It had already reached full size when she saw it hanging on a branch of her Tree -- the branch she was under when it happened. She looked into it and saw a reflection of her face, and in it, she saw the Human Force, burning, threatening to consume her Tree, her Self. Was it in her, or in the acorn? She ripped the acorn from the branch with a savagery that surprised her, and distracted her from the fact that, even a single treering ago, she would not have used her physical form for such an act. Peering into it she saw the flame of Human Force was in it. Filled with disgust, and not sure if the disgust was with the acorn or herself, she hurled it to the ground and ground it into the earth. It was not crushed, only buried, but she stopped her destructive act when she realized the flame had not left; it was in her, too. She drew herself within her Tree, and her Tree within her Self, and watched helplessly while her soul shriveled up, and her Tree withered prematurely, and the little ones left her Circle, and the bright ones stopped blossoming with each new spring.

One year like any other year, drab and painful with the self- inflicted tortures of hatred and the compulsions of the Human Force, she felt a presence within her Circle, and roused her Self long enough to look. She was shocked out of the bark she had grown around her heart when she saw another Tree, just a small sapling, growing right next to her Tree! There was something within it... a sister? Not quite. She suddenly realized the obvious: this Tree was the get of the acorn she had ground into the dirt. This Tree was filled with the flame of Human Force, and this Tree was hateful to her. And it, being a dryad she should never speak to or of, was within her Circle! Years of self-inflicted mental wounds turned to rage, and she took the physical form she had not used in years to hurl herself like a rabid little one at the young, scrawny Tree.

But as she reached it she saw another Self step out from it; a sister, but a Man! He gazed at her with wonder, and distantness, and all the brightness and innocence of youth, and behind it all a glimmer of the Human Force, and for just a moment she felt love again. Love, which she had forgotten, which she had not felt for years. Love which had once been the beginning and the end of her heart. Love which had been taken from her, made a stranger to her, by a Man, a carrier of the Human Force. Gazing upon the Man-sister, she found her rage again and bore down on him with a hatred which would have killed a Man due to its intensity.

He knew very little; only that the Tree that stood next to his Self, hardly rooted at all, must stay with him at all times, and that the sister that stood before him should never speak to him or interact with him. He did not understand hate, but it resonated with something inside him he had never explored, and he knew that he, too, could hate, and destroy. The one thing he knew above all else was that there was wrong here. He grabbed his Tree with one hand, gave it a quick tug (pulling its roots easily free of their weak grip on the soil), and ran. When he had gone far enough, he looked behind and she was no longer chasing him. He knew she had gone back inside her Self and was now feeding on her own poisons, destroying herself with the hate, and this curious flame of a feeling which drove him to want to go places, to do things, to accomplish things. He had no word for this, but he knew it was not a natural thing for her and was destroying her. But it was natural for him. It was at the core of his being; it was why his tree's roots were so shallow, but could take root (as they now had) anywhere. He wondered: is this hatred also at the core?

Dryads have been demonstrated to possess many powers and capabilities related to the world of nature around them. Being a spirit of nature they can speak with the plants and animals, and usually enjoy a great closeness with them. They can step inside their tree, leaving their apparent physical manifestation behind; they can also step into any tree within their range and reappear from any other. As their life force is that of their tree, they can draw sustenance from soil and sunlight and rainfall, but they can be weakened by drought and blight and the damage of axes and saws. Their ability to befuddle and, to some extent, control the mind of men is strong, but not like the mental control exhibited by other, more malicious predators; the only sure defense against the charm of the dryad appears to be a thorough understanding of the ways of nature, such as are known by followers of Lenoris, or the simple but rarely useful expedient of being female. A dryad, as has been mentioned, cannot leave the surroundings of her tree, and during the winter she appears to hibernate. Beyond these constants, the powers of the dryad vary considerably in differing tales, but are usually very similar to those of skilled followers of Lenoris.
He learned fast, and he travelled much. Those sisters he tried to speak with shunned him, and in some cases a glimmer of the disease which had consumed his mother seemed to threaten to appear in them if he forced the point, so he took to leaving them be, relying on the discretion of the little ones to allow him to avoid their Circles without them knowing he had passed near. He was amazed that his sisters could spend their entire lives eating only the soil of one patch of land; the variety of flavors in soil was amazing, and he found new types all the time. His favorite was the moist, thick type called clay, but best of all was to try a new one.

He could speak to the little ones easily enough, but he found it hard to hold a conversation with the bright blooming ones, because their thoughts were so slow, he lacked the patience. So he only spoke to them when he could find no other way to gather the information he needed. As autumn came, his hair changed color, as did the leaves on his sisters' Trees and his Treestaff; but as his sisters' Trees lost their leaves and they went to sleep, he stayed, weakened and tired but still travelling. However, during the summer when his sisters were at the peak of activity, he was bright and energetic too, but even so he needed to sleep during a part of each night; his sisters did not seem to need to sleep.

He was careful to use his abilities to avoid disturbing his sisters and managed to avoid them even knowing of his existence as he travelled. But he knew that before he could go much farther, he had to find out what this feeling, this desire, was, that drove him to explore. It seemed like a need, but he knew not for what. In his talk with the little ones, it became clear to him that a similar feeling seemed to be found in the fragile and strange Men that his sisters sometimes called. He resolved to find one of these Men and examine him, and perhaps learn from him, to understand himself.

Other than the occasional waylaying of a man, the dryad poses no threat to humanity, and rarely if ever interacts with humans or other races in any other way. Since a dryad lives in one place her entire life, her woods may well become known for being "dryad woods", but a person can easily pass through without ever seeing her, so it is virtually impossible to figure out which is her tree without the use of magic. Because the dryad poses no threat and has no treasure to offer, she has remained essentially immune to the damages that the expansion of man have wreaked on many other species like her; the only place where she has been threatened has been in heavily logged areas near large cities.
He found at the fringes of the forest were areas where Men lived in crudely manufactured shelters, often made of the bodies of fallen trees (usually not Trees, though). They lived in large numbers and buzzed about interacting at a pace that made him dizzy, speaking to one another in a crude language that seemed to consist entirely of sounds. He knew he was not ready to enter that world, so he wandered its fringes for some time before he came upon the cottage in the woods. There was a Man who lived there, a single Man. His ways were strange; he forced some of the blooming ones to grow in straight lines so he could more easily pull off the berries and fruits, which he brought inside the cottage (made of fallen trees) and, apparently, ate. He occasionally set traps which would catch the little ones. It was hard at first to get used to his casual killing of the little ones, but it soon became obvious that without this and the eating of the blooming ones, he would die. He had no roots and could not take sustenance from the soil directly. The man sometimes spoke to himself, and by listening to these words while watching his soul, he could figure out what some of the words meant. Reading his soul was tiring, so once he'd mastered a few words, he used them to help him understand more, until he felt he knew enough to introduce himself to the old man, pretending to be a lost traveller.

Though he never really felt that he'd made the old man comfortable with him, he did learn much about humans, their limitations and their tendencies, and most importantly their language. When the old man died one night in his sleep, Hawthorn (as he had named himself once he learned what names were for) buried him, then spent many weeks returning the cottage back to the land until there was no trace of it. Then he set out to find a city, confident he was now ready to enter human society and learn how it worked, and what this flame in his heart, which he had now learned to call Ambition, was for.

Losing words from the language

Often, words shift in meaning towards more general senses, often as a result of their use in metaphor, and sometimes just because of a preponderance of people using them without understanding their "proper" meaning. Shifting of meanings of words is a natural part of the evolution of language, and change can be good. There's no point in getting upset about words shifting around. Most of the words you use now used to have a different "proper" meaning, in some cases even the opposite of its old meaning (consider "nice").

But sometimes when we lose the meaning of a word to drift, the language loses expressive power. Suppose a word has a precise definition, and no other word has that same meaning. Now the word drifts to a more general meaning, largely because of misuse by people who don't really understand the original meaning of the word. If you, perchance, need to express whatever the word originally meant, you're stuck with the extremely clumsy option of saying, "so-and-so, only by the older definition", or of using a phrase to explain it, both of which make the whole sentence they're in become awkward and threaten to overwhelm whatever point you're making.

I mourn, amongst many others, the words epicenter, haiku, and fantastic, as well as the phrase quantum leap, a champion of lost words in that it means the opposite in lay use as in its original scientific use (and Merriam-Webster only records the former). Post your own contributions to the semantic graveyard.

On the mirror image of the same topic, sometimes a word or phrase, having been broadened, becomes a point of contention for outliving its original metaphor. These fossil phrases sometimes are just a metaphor that's lost its original analogy: "lock, stock, and barrel", "blowing off steam", "hoist by his own petard", "three sheets to the wind", and more.

But consider how the TiVoCommunity forums kneejerk a reaction to the word "tape" -- there's no tape in my TiVo! Well, there's no dial on their phones, either, and I expect most of them have been using word processors instead of writing for a long time. Should we be recording, "ringing up", and composing instead? Does it really matter? In a way, this is the same situation: there's no longer a word that uniquely means "to record onto tape", since "tape" now just means "to record" -- and I suppose someone, somewhere, needs to make that distinction. I just have a hard time imagining who and why. Am I being hypocritical to object to the loss of the original "epicenter" but not the original "tape"?

The tyranny of a favorite activity

I really, really, really like roleplaying. It could almost be said as a truth that, for any X that is a member of the set of all possible activities, excluding those that take the form "roleplaying and Y" (where Y is a member of the same set), I would rather be roleplaying than X.

The problem with this, of course, is that left to my own devices, every single time I was in a room with such people as create the necessary environment for roleplaying, I would be roleplaying; and thus, I would never do any of many other things that are also enjoyable, and that I would rather not be without, on the whole.

Fortunately, no one I know has quite that extreme a preference, and naturally I can't and shouldn't force my preference on them; thus, they insist, as a matter of course, that I engage in such other activities as socialization, trivia, banter, dinner parties, card games, watching movies, and other pursuits.

What ends up getting lost is the other things that I might be the only (or most likely) initiator of, since no one initiates them because I would always be looking to roleplay instead. I think that philosophizing is one of those. Like many, back in college, I did a lot of it, and then afterwards set it aside in favor of the mundanities of filling out a timesheet. But it's still there; I think things out in the shower, in the car, in the bathroom, while waiting for my computer to reboot, etc. and then I don't do anything with them. They just pile up.

Looks like I should have gotten a blog a long time ago, since it has, apparently, become a place to pour these ideas. And I have a lot more things to expound and expostulate on. I feel sure I'll bore people, but... I'm not sure that matters now. It's just an excuse for me to pour the ideas out and explore them. It's great if someone reads it and posts thoughtful comments about it. But even when no one does, I still think it was worth the trip.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A futurist form of trivia, from the past

While I greatly enjoy trivia, the futurist in me can't help but be drawn to a whole different kind of trivia that might be, in today's world, a more meaningful measure of mastery of knowledge and facts.

Consider the concept of the transhumanist singularity. Put very simply, the idea is, if someday we can make an intelligence which is as general-purpose as a human mind, but more powerful, smarter, than any human mind, that moment when we achieve that is a sort of singularity in history -- a point where everything before it, and everything after it, are separated by a fundamental turning point. Why? Because once you have this, then there's no reason why it can't create an even greater intelligence, leading to a snowball effect.

(I'm vastly oversimplifying and picking out the bits of the idea I need to make my analogy, but you can find more about the transhuman singularity if you're interested. I recommend the original article by Vernor Vinge that started the concept. I'll talk about this in some unspecified future blog article about transhumanism.)

Anyway, the interesting thing is, in a sense, you could argue we have already reached this point. How? Don't look at a person or a computer, but look at the system formed by a team of one smart, well-educated human with good Google Fu, and one computer with fast Internet access and a good selection of search engines and research tools. I and my computer together form a being which is smarter than any human, in a very real and measurable way, right now.

So wouldn't it make sense to invent a new form of trivia that tested that kind of being? And in fact, I have a hazy memory from the misty past on the border between Gopherspace and the Web, in which someone regularly posted a collection of trivia questions whose answers almost no one would know, but that anyone with sufficient Internet research skills could find out. (This in the days before Yahoo, let alone AltaVista, let alone Google.)

I would like to see something like that done today, adjusted to be better suited to the ubiquity of Google. In fact, I'd like to do it, if I had some spare time to do it with. I could see speed questions that could be found in a single search with Google with wisely-chosen search terms, and more challenging, less speed-driven questions that would take a while to find out, to really stretch the Google Fu muscles.

Someone take up the challenge of making that challenge for me. What a great use for a blog, in fact.

Adventures in mobile networking!

As previously recorded, my Linksys WiFi router crashed, and I got a new one to put in its place. Then I found out that the old one might be fine, but only the power supply was bad. I had no AC power supply in the right voltage and couldn't find one to borrow, but lo and behold, I realized I had an auto DC adapter that could do the trick.

So this evening, on the way to shopping, I plugged in my WiFi router while it sat on the dashboard of my Prius as my wife was driving us up Interstate 89 at 70+ miles per hour. The lights came on correctly, but just to be sure, I whipped out my Palm T|X and connected to the WiFi.

I found it very amusing, a working WiFi network with WEP authentication, heading up the Interstate. If only I'd had a GPRS modem hooked up to it. Other people who wanted to go wardriving would have to try to keep up with us!

It's probably a good thing for me that I'm so easily amused by myself.

Your television's got soul!

Everything your TV does -- how it displays images, how it handles operations of its buttons and remote, how it gets power from the wall, etc. -- can be explained in terms of the physical parts and the information stored in and travelling through it, without exception.

Most likely, your TV contains a sealed cathode ray tube. Suppose I were to posit that there's some invisible, indetectable component inside the cathode ray tube. You can't ever see it because the moment you break the cathode ray tube, it escapes. You can't detect it because it exists in a way that is beyond the ability of any of our instruments to detect (though any time something unusual happens with your TV that isn't immediately explicable, I might blame it on this mysterious, ethereal component).

If you ask me what this component does, I will vaguely intimate that it influences the nature of the shows you see. If it were absent or corrupted, the shows would be different, lacking in some quintessential element or altered in some hard-to-pin-down way. "But the show comes from the satellite dish, it's the same for everyone," you dispute, to which I reply with a sagacious air, "No, it varies; some people see it darker, or redder, or with differences in sound." "But those," you retort, "are explicable with differences in the hardware and settings!" With an air of unwarranted confidence, I respond claiming that this ethereal component has an undefinable influence on these things, which cannot be measured.

Years ago, people universally insisted it was this component which decided what the picture looked like, but later examination of TVs revealed how the signal and the action of the cathode ray tube and the phosphors causes the picture, though a lot of people still can't get their head around this -- they have problem with the idea of a complete, moving, colorful picture that conveys meaning arising from the repetition (thousands of times each second) of so simple an action as firing a cathode ray at a cluster of three phosphors. Secretly, these people suspect that, while all that might be necessary, it's this ethereal component that causes the result to form an actual moving image rather than a pattern of shifting colored dots.

There are some people who insist that when your TV breaks down and you get a new one, this component "transmigrates" from the old TV to the new one. There are sometimes fierce arguments between those and the ones who insist that when the TV breaks down, this component finds its way into a huge combination plasma/projection system on another planet, where it gets to display only the best shows. Despite the depths of this dispute, both sides take the attitude that this component is what makes your TV the specific, unique TV it is, what distinguishes it from every other TV in the world.

The most noteworthy point you raise, though, is that there is not one single thing which we can detect which is explained by this component. Everything your TV does can be explained 100% by the interaction of hardware and information, even if you, personally, don't fully understand every detail of all the components and their actions. Yet I insist there's some extra component which cannot be detected, serves no definable purpose (apart from covering up my failure to understand emergence), and which is primarily a sort of "ID tag", a component which gives the whole system a unique identity that in turn has no measurable effect.

Silly, huh? And yet most people believe the exact same thing about your body and mind.

Okay, to be fair, I know that some people ascribe specific characteristics to souls, and the question of what can be "proven" to be attributable to them is still hotly contested; and there are any number of poorly understood things that could be, when better understood, caused by some as-yet-unknown process that gets the name "soul" slapped onto it because we already have it lying around.

However, I think that the majority of Americans, when they refer to a soul, are doing one of two things. Either they're referring to an actual "thing" which doesn't seem to do anything, and to which they attribute a lot of patterns of behavior that are actually perfectly explicable by physical means that they simply aren't aware or, don't understand, or refuse to believe; or they're referring to something so vague, such a "hyperextended rice pudding", that you can't pin it down enough to evaluate its truth or falsehood, and in the end, they will probably turn out to be referring to nothing more than emergence itself. (Though they'll probably refuse to conclude, in this case, that patterns of traffic on highways, or prices in the stock market, or the flocking of birds, each possess a soul.)

Ultimately, I think the concept of a soul is a holdover from a time when we didn't understand very well how the behavior of body and mind emerge from physical things (where hardware and information meet); it is a vestigial concept we haven't divested ourselves of simply because so many people are so ignorant of so much.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

This is all so heavy, how about something trivial?

The last few posts have been pretty heavy and serious stuff. I've got a lot of philosophizing in my mind that hasn't had many outlets for many years; looking over the notes I jotted in my Palm about other possible blog topics, the weather won't be changing for a while, either.

So in an attempt to space that out, I'll natter on about something trivial: trivia.

Twice a month there's trivia at local establishments, alternating two locations. I've been to four of them, and our team has done a little better each time. The competition is stiff and a lot can turn on the random choice of topics, but there's still a lot of room for skill. I've done a pretty good accounting of myself, though there's no question that one particular person is carrying our team.

Last time, we were lagging pretty early, falling to fifth place by the third round and staying there the whole rest of the game. A team that hadn't won recently (if at all) was in first coming into the last round, and when the topic, Geography, was announced, they squealed in joy for one of their best topics. The last round is double jeopardy; while other rounds are +1 for a right answer, 0 for a wrong answer, in the final round it's +2 and -1 respectively. We swept it, but I thought that most of the teams would. But they didn't. From fifth place, we jumped to first place and won for the first time.

Our team name, by the way, is the Browncoats. "I'm thinkin' we'll rise again." (Incidentally, just for fun, I have been writing a quote on the bottom of every round's answer sheet; one week, all from Serenity, another from Firefly. I don't think she reads them, though.)

Tonight is trivia again. (Quotes will be from Wallace and Gromit.) Wish us luck! "Time for some thrillin' heroics." "I know, Gromit, we'll go somewhere where there's cheeeeeeese!"