Sunday, January 29, 2006

Sines and Singularities

Okay, on to more important things...

Bluetech's Sines and Singularities is probably the best downtempo electronic music that I've heard in more than a year. Really good stuff, reminiscent of Single Cell Orchestra, some of the better Tangerine Dream, or Global Communication.

I recommend it highly! Also, I recommend you order it from the guys at Psymbolic, because they'll include a bunch of free shit with your order!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Confirmation Bias

Is it just the skeptics and the scientists who take epistemology seriously?

This question springs from my continued study of The Bible and its prima facie absurdity. Confronted with the Bible's inherent lunacy, Christians metaphorically wave their hands and avert their eyes, and take comfort in those biblical passages that glorify faith. It seems very few of them are truly concerned with the fundamentals of how we know what isn't so. I find it fascinating that religious folk can be so blind when it comes to their own crazy beliefs and yet so rational when it comes to the crazy beliefs of others. Jews laugh at Catholics. Catholics laugh at Mormons. Mormons laugh at Scientologists... ad nauseum. Of course, this tendency isn't restricted to the religious sphere alone. It seems par for the course in any sales pitch for snake oil.

While I was an admissions counselor at the University of Phoenix (really nothing more than a glorified telemarketing position) I had the pleasure of having two "network marketers" on my admissions team. One was affiliated with Quixtar (an Amway offshoot - though they don't like to point that out) and the other was affiliated with some long-distance service reseller called ACN. I was only able to have a couple brief (though animated) conversations with the Amway/Quixtar zombie before he was completely alienated, but they were enough for me to surmise that the guy was completely closed off to rational discourse. For example, he felt it was a huge selling point that Quixtar "pays you back" for the things that you purchase from them. Inexplicably, he thought that this was materially different from if Quixtar simply lowered the prices of the items in question, and he further felt - again, inexplicably - that this was an important demonstration of the truth that he would soon be able to retire and live off the massive residual income - he would soon be living the dream.

Meanwhile, my ACN friend was often privy to these conversations, and he would happily join in the derision. Unlike the Amway zombie, my ACN friend, Mike, was someone I had known for a while. Based on overheard conversations I had always kinda guessed he was in on some sort of get-rich-quick scheme, but I always felt it was none of my business. Subsequent to the Quixtar conversations, I broached the topic with him.

The first thing I asked him was why he was so down on Quixtar. He said it was because that was clearly an unworkable pyramid scheme, whereas ACN was the real deal. This is, of course, the standard sales pitch of every pyramid scheme out there. They all claim that their compensation plan avoids the pitfalls of the "real" pyramids and assures success to those "business owners" who "only have what it takes." Nevermind the mathematical impossibility of this claim. The mental gymnastics that Mike performed, when confronted with these inherent obstacles to easy money, were a sight to behold:

Well, obviously we both look at network-marketing differently. I look at as something you can do part-time, which is fun, where you have no boss, where it is all up to you. If you produce, you get paid if you do not you don't, there is no grey matter. I look at is as sorting through people, looking for superstars and believing in someone who may not ever think they can do something great. I have gone in knowing most who take this ride will fail because of either lack of belief, work ethic, or fear. I know I have to pay very close attention to those who are successful and duplicate what they have done . For what they have and the experiences they have are what I want for myself and my girlfriend.
I'll take the easy pot-shot first and say that I agree with him when he says "there is no grey matter." Of course I'm sure he meant to say "area," but in this instance I choose to have faith that Freud was on to something. The rest of the 'graph reads like Kiyosaki on a three-day speed binge, but when he makes the claim that what he is doing is "fun" I have to call foul. Having been a Realtor for two years, I know how uncomfortable it is soliciting your friends and family for business.

Now, I don't mean to pick on my unfortunate friend (who has, since writing the above, not-so-much come to his senses about ACN as ground to a halt - the way he put it: "I have transferred my time and energy into other areas"). He simply serves, I think, as a reminder that the religious impulse lurks in unexpected places. We have an insidious--though perhaps understandable--tendency to see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe--what the philosophers, skeptics, and scientists call confirmation bias.

Oh, and by the way, check out the real "Secrets of the Rich" here.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

I've been a big fan of Howard Stern since mid 1993, when I lived in Los Angeles, but I was undecided about whether or not I wanted to invest the money in the hardware and the subscription required to hear him on Sirius.

When I heard, though, that he had George Takei on as a guest announcer for the first week, a strange feeling came over me that all was right with the world. If you've listened to Howard's show at all then you know that George Takei has been a target of the Stern show's brand of merciless mirth-making for several years. The fact that George had the considerable cajones to actually sit in as a guest for a full week made a real impression on me, and I felt compelled to plunk down the money and hear it for myself.

I haven't been disappointed at all. Though George's week is long over, the show has been consistently almost unbelievably good.

Here is George Takei's version of things, if you're curious.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Does Anybody Really Read This Stuff?

This stuff, I mean.

I’ve been having some fun trolling over at the Dying In Christ blog for the past few weeks. The woman who blogs there, Maureen, seems to have the perfect mixture of kookiness coupled with a willingness to, at least periodically, respond to criticisms (and, since she does lots of gay-bashing, she certainly attracts a lot of that).

As a direct consequence of this trolling, along with a promise I made to a friend of a friend over a year ago, I was inspired to read the 4 main Gospels, starting with the Gospel of John. My copy of The Bible is the Red Letter Edition of the New International Version. Now, I don’t mean to be insulting to my Christian friends, as I have a couple whose intellect I do respect a lot. However, I honestly have to ask: How the hell do you read this stuff and still believe it?

Aside from becoming disgusted with the figure of Jesus almost immediately, the main thing that jumps out at me about the Bible is how poorly written it is. This is supposed to be the inspired word of God, right? As such, my expectation would be that the prose would be evocative, the plot would be riveting, the characters would be well developed and inspiring, and the polemic would be inescapably persuasive. The Bible is none of these things. A two-bit hack could write better. How do Christians explain this?

I’ll hazard a guess and opine that all the explanation required is the recognition that people have a terrible fear of death, with the corollary fear that perhaps there’s no meaning or value in the universe after all (other than what we give it). I will further conjecture that, in many—and perhaps most—people, this fear is so all-encompassing that they are willing to grasp at anything that might provide even a glimmer of hope, no matter how absurd it is (and the Bible certainly is that).

I’ve got more to say on this topic, but I’ll get to it in later posts. In the meantime, I’m hoping that my Christian friends won’t consider this one to be so judgmental that it doesn’t merit a comment or two, because I would like to inspire some sort of honest dialog about it.


Suddenly I'm sad I can't read Italian.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Why Drugs are Good

I miss my uncle. There was a wonderful man... Always had a funny story. Small town doctor. Entreprenuer. A bit of a show-off. Respected in his community. Loved by all. He was also addicted to pain killers.

I guess you'd call him a "functional addict" or something. He hid his addiction quite well from his family and friends, patients and co-workers, but there was a loneliness about him, which I always figured was the loneliness of a towering genius forced to put up with dolts. A divorcée with grown kids, he lived alone. That, along with a recent break-up of a multi-year romance, a crushing debt, and the responsibilities that go along with a start-up business venture, must have weighed heavily on him. This was certainly the lens through which we in his family interpreted his weariness.

To feed his addiction he was forced to forge prescriptions for fake patients. Obviously this leaves a paper trail. To cover his tracks, he would fill the prescriptions in different towns throughout the state. Unfortunately he wasn't careful enough, and ultimately a nosy, self-righteous pharmacist figured it out, called him up on a Friday afternoon, and informed him that the authorities would be notified on Monday.

It isn't hard to imagine the calculus that my uncle must have gone through that weekend. Doctoring was all he knew - was almost certainly how he defined himself. So, losing that would be tantamount to losing himself. "How is a 50-year-old man going to start over?" he must have thought. What's the answer? How would he pay back all the money he owed for starting a business - a business that he would now probably have to give up? Not to mention, how was he going to get his next fix? These problems, difficult as they are on their own, must have seemed completely insurmountable to a man also suffering from a broken heart. His solution was to kill himself on Sunday.

Now, the question you're probably asking is, "How can this have anything to do with drugs being good?" The answer is that it wasn't the pills that killed my uncle. What killed him was a system that encouraged his death. Why call it a "war" if there aren't supposed to be casualties? And innocents die in war all the time, right? That's just how it goes...

The war on drugs is a sick, sick thing. People die. Others rot for years in jail cells. Police are diverted from actual policing and are alienated from the communities they serve. And for what? What do we have to show for it? A bust every now and again pulls a few kilos off the street, so junkies have to shoot up baking soda until the re-supply? Where is the evidence that the war on drugs has done anything other than destroy lives?

But I digress... Drugs. Good. If I could choose between a dead uncle and a live uncle who's addicted to pills, guess which I'd choose. A non-addicted uncle would be great, but he is not among the choices. Prior to the pain killers, my uncle was an alcoholic for years, so some part of him needed those drugs to deal with life. What of it? They didn't turn him into a pedophilic serial-killer. Why should you or a pharmacist or a cop or a politician have any say over what is or is not "good" for my uncle or the street junkie or anyone else who makes the choice that, today, they're going to take drugs? How is that not an example of profound arrogance - particularly when you offer no alternative, except to destroy their lives if they continue making the "bad" choice?

So this is why drugs are good: because good people take drugs. Sometimes it's just for a fun time and why not? Sometimes, as in the case of my uncle, it's just a fucked up way to deal with the bad things in life, to get through the god-forsaken day any way you can, and if the alternative is death, then, believe me, the cost is too great. Choose drugs. Drugs are good.

What Your Soul Sings

Don't be afraid. Open your mouth and say... say what your soul sings to you.

Your mind can never change unless you ask it to. Lovingly rearrange the thoughts that make you blue. The things that bring you down only do harm to you. And so, make your choice joy, the joy belongs to you.

And when you do? You'll find the one you love is you. You'll find you. Love you!

Don't be ashamed - No! - to open your heart and pray... say what your soul sings to you.

So, no longer pretend that you can't feel it near - that tickle on your hand... that tingle in your ear... Oh, ask it anything, because it loves you dear! It's your most precious king, if only you could hear!

And when you do you'll find the one you need is you. You'll find you. Love you!

-- Massive Attack, 100th Window

Friday, January 06, 2006

"Time Fears the Pyramids"

The Arab proverb goes, "Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids." It's true that the Pyramids of Egypt are the oldest existing human-built structures, but if I had to place my bets on humankind's truly lasting legacy, it would be this:

Barring some chance meteoric impact, the sand in the Pyramids of Giza will have spread to the four winds and been entirely lost to memory before the footprints of the Apollo astronauts even begin to appear differently than they do today.

Apocalypse Now

"I remember when I was with Special Forces--it seems a thousand centuries ago--we went into a camp to inoculate it. The children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile--a pile of little arms. And I remember...I...I...I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out, I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it, I never want to forget. And then I realized--like I was I was shot with a diamond...a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, 'My God, the genius of that, the genius, the will to do that.' Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they could stand that--these were not monsters, these were men, trained cadres, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love--that they had this strength, the strength to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time were able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment--without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us."

-- Kurtz, Apocalypse Now

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

An Ode to Tang

Call me a vulgar man, but this, from Enjoy Every Sandwich, is the funniest thing I've read in a while.

A choice excerpt:

If you have something between your legs that even allows for the possibility of another human being saying, "No, really, you stay at home and I'll bust my ass to pay the mortage," how bad can life really be?
How bad, indeed.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Omni Trio

Ever since my trip to Russia in 1997 I've had a soft spot in my heart for jazzy, atmospheric drum & bass (the Russian DJs called it "artcore," though Ishkur's Guide doesn't mention that as an officially recognized subgenre). I recently picked up Omni Trio's Volume 1993-2003, and it fits the bill quite nicely.

Particularly noteworthy is "Who Are You," from 1995. It starts off humbly enough, but then hits you with a surprise chord progression that changes everything. I can't help but instantly smile and start bopping my head ...and then I have to listen to the track over again.

The price on Amazon is exhorbitant, though, as I found it in a Tower Records bargain bin for under 13 bucks.

This does bring up an interesting point: I've noticed that a record's used price on Amazon is generally a good indicator of the quality of the release, and this is particularly true with stuff that's out of print.

Case in point:

Seefeel's Polyfusia, an absolute classic, ranges in price from $26.99 to $65.94! (IMHO, worth every penny)

T99's Children of Chaos, a flash in the pan, is going for between 1 cent and less than $9.

So, I've learned to, generally, stay away from unsampled artists who don't fare well in the Amazon pricing department.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Dagger of the Mind

Recently I discovered that one of the last two surviving CDs containing recordings of some of my music had become defective. I tried ripping the songs to my hard drive but no matter what I did it would always fail. Luckily the other copy still worked, but the problem there was that every song had annoying pops at the end.

With calculus destroying any chance at a social life, I needed something creative and satisfying to occupy what little free time remained, so refurbishing my old music seemed like it might be a fun project to take on. For example, one of the things that I had always envisioned was combining several of my songs into one epic track, and although the existing recordings don't match exactly what I had in mind, they're close enough that I figured I could at least approximate it.

One of the songs is called Dagger of the Mind, named for one of my favorite Star Trek episodes and the fact that it features a sample from it. Coincidentally, the ladies over at Look at his Butt just did a whole analysis of Dagger that is quite good. Check it out here. Anyway, I've managed to meld the two versions of that track into one long version, preceded by the Rebirth version of a song originally called Titan. Sadly, Titan has been lost, so I'm calling the Rebirth version Titan's Shadow, because it only hints at the original. Dagger of the Mind then transitions, as seamlessly as possible, into A Stream of Ionized Particles, for a nice, 25-minute-long track, Tangerine Dream style (um, good Tangerine Dream, I mean - not that embarassing post-1984 garbage).

As a bonus, though, I've taken some time and worked on a couple of more recent tracks. One was an original done in Rebirth, and the other is based on the tiny shreds - the microscopic filaments that a forensic detective might find - that remain of what was my favorite track out of all the songs I wrote. Luna was, I think, as good as a lot of Orbital's stuff, and if you understand that not only am I hypercritical of my own music, but that I worship the ground Orbital walks on, then you'll realize that I wouldn't say something like that lightly.

Unfortunately, through my own negligence Luna's MIDI sequence disappeared, as did the only cassette recording (not to mention that I sold all my gear to Mike, anyway).

The one tiny bit of luck in all this, though, is that I had managed to put Luna's melody into Rebirth (gotta love Rebirth!), and though the Rebirth version sounds almost nothing like the original, I did manage to turn it into a pretty cool track in its own right. I'd post a link to an mp3 of it, if I could only figure out a place that would be willing to host the file for free.

There are still a couple more things I want to do before I'll be totally happy, but the long and short of it is that I now have a whole bunch of new CDs of my stuff that this time I won't let go to waste!

My Robot Suit

September of 2001 was an all-around undoubtedly shitty month. Aside from the events of the 11th, things were going badly for me on a personal level, as well. I had just quit my job as QA manager in August--a job I had been in for several years. I was still an emotional wreck, and my state of mind was only made worse by a really messed up week in Black Rock City and San Francisco (though hanging out with Kara in Reno for a couple days after was fun).

The one thing I did have going for me was a healthy savings and relatively low monthly expense. This was good, because obviously when the towers fell there weren't many companies in the hiring mood.

Rather than sit and go slowly crazy (or, more accurately, crazier than I already was, which is another story) I figured that a good way to pass the time would be to make a robot costume for Halloween.

When I first got the idea in my head I had only vague thoughts of what it might end up being, but I decided that what I really wanted to go for was "1950s sci-fi", a sort of retro-chic. I headed off to Home Depot to get some ideas.

Once there I was immediately struck by the idea of using one of the round mechanicals and making the robot cylindrical. This design decision was pivotal, in that it dictated all subsequent decisions, and actually made the end result turn out far cooler than I had even imagined was possible.

In the picture the suit is pretty far along in construction. Some of the harder things to do were,

1. figuring out how to design hinges as well as clasps for the "door" (which had to be opened and closed by people other than myself, since once I had my arms inside then there was obviously no way to reach it),

2. figuring out how to cut out holes for my arms that were in the right position and the right size,

3. figuring out how to protect my shoulders from the sharp edges that I had cut, 4. figuring out how to make a clean cut for the "eye hole", given that it needed to look nice. Even in my original conception I had imagined using livewire and LEDs to give it that retro feel, but I didn't think of the grid pattern (that you can just make out in this photo) until right before it was time to come up with something.

I was very happy with how it ultimately turned out.

I ordered a whole bunch of LEDs from AS&S, an awesome surplus catalog, and I had a ton of copper wiring (why? I dunno). When the LEDs arrived I literally spent 3 days soldering the wires to the LEDs--a total of over 25 hours' labor to get them all ready to be put in the suit. One of the guys in my roommate's band thought that I was constructing a bomb. Pretty funny.

It was at about this time that I started thinking that I should maybe enter a few costume contests around town. There were several that had prizes of over $2500, and I figured that I would be a shoe-in with this thing.

I didn't want the lights to blink all at the same time, so I set them up on 8 different circuits, and had my friend Jim generate some random numbers that would give me a direction and a count so that the layout of the LEDs would be as random as possible (i.e., "from the current LED, move 3 spaces left"). The effect, when all was said and done, was striking. The lights would go in and out of phase with each other in such a way that you couldn't tell which lights were on what circuit.

The actual work of doing the wiring, though, was a tedious and frustrating nightmare. I would often lose my place and have to retrace my steps to figure out where I needed to put the next light. Worse was when I would be checking the connections and would accidentally put too much juce through the curcuit, blowing out all the LEDs in the process. At a certain point I just ran out of time. The thing was, though, that by that point it looked so cool anyway that I figured enough was enough.
I had to build shelves to hold all the batteries. You can tell from this picture approximately how many LEDs I ended up using. Since each 9 volt had to power a minimum of 3 LEDs (any less and it would be too much power and they'd burn out), and sometimes I'd squeeze an extra one in there just for fun, that means there were about 95 of 'em.

The red wires you see are some of the el-wire that I used.

The finishing touch, which unfortunately you can't see in the pictures, was a strobe light that blinked every 2 seconds. That really created a subtle, but awesome, effect, like you were in the presence of something dangerous.


Here I am wearing the finished product at my friend Jim's Halloween party. It was actually too tall for me to fit through his front door, and I couldn't bend over or sit while wearing it, so 6 people had to lift me and tilt me back and then carry me into the house.

I stood around in it for about an hour, but this kinda sucked because everyone at the party was out in the back yard, and it was difficult for me to talk through it anyway, so eventually took it off.

But soon it was off to a local bar for their costume contest. I got there a bit early, and the band Dred Zepplin was playing. I didn't know this at the time, but they have the annoying habit of—and this is not hyperbole, I swear—ending every song they do with 10 minute jam sessions. By the end of the show I was nearly crying from the torture. I think at one point I yelled for them to please stop, though of course they couldn't hear me. Anyway, the prize for the winner was $3000. I made it into the finals, and I thought for sure I'd win it, because all during the night people kept coming up to me asking to take a photo with me, but some ass with a terrible grim reaper costume won because he had packed the audience. This defeat soured me for going to a couple other costume contests over the next couple days.

I did, however, wear it one more time for a performance of my roommate's band. During their set they did a cover of "Iron Man", and I came out and wandered up and down the length of the audience area. It was humorous.