Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Bright lights, big geekery

For those times when a fully thought-out post is too much for each topical tidbit, there's the "five things make a post" post!

1. My family and I were lucky enough to be within driving distance of the Great American Eclipse on Monday, so we went on the moonshadow quest.  We didn't spend our precious 2 minutes and 25 seconds taking crappy cellphone pics, since we knew the professionals were out in force.  Here's an example from someone from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center:

If you can wait a bit, you should check out what Dr. Miloslav Druckmüller (arguably the best eclipse photographer in the world) will have to show for his trip to the States this week.  It may be another month or two before he posts his results, but trust me, they'll be worth the wait.

Should I join the thousands of others who are having trouble putting their experience of totality into words?  It was my first one, and I can honestly say it was a hugely different experience than looking at pictures online.  Truly remarkable.

= = = = =

2. I'd been getting out of the habit of reading novels lately, so a few weeks ago I decided to catch up on a reputed sci-fi classic.  I devoured Dan Simmons' Hyperion (and its second half, The Fall of Hyperion), and came out of it pleasantly enchanted by his vision of humanity in the year 2852.  I liked the "Canterbury Tales" framing vibe of the first book, and how he broke out of it in the second.  After hearing that a TV miniseries may be in the works, it got me thinking about a "dream cast" of actors who could portray Simmons' memorable characters.  I'm planning on reviving my YouTube channel and creating a slideshow video to illustrate those choices.  Fun!

= = = = =

3. A little more than a month ago, I was also fascinated by a serialized story posted online, titled "17776: What football will look like in the future."  I'm not a football fan, but this story was about much more than the gridiron.  If you want your mind blown, I won't say another word.  Just click on that link and don't be prepared to come up for air for a while.

= = = = =

4. The internet has allowed many of us to indulge in nostalgia in lots of different ways.  I forget how I came across it, but I found a description of a series of children's encyclopedia books that my Dad had when he was little.  The Vintage How and Why Library was published in the 1930s and 1940s, and I got to read them when I was a kid in the 1970s.

Nothing substantial to say, other than the most memorable bit being the Art Deco style renderings of majestic gods and men.  Also, don't let anyone tell you that elves with those swept-back ears were an invention of 1990s video games!  :-)

= = = = =

5. Speaking of the 1990s, here's some more nostalgia:

Version: 3.12
GS d !s a+ C++ U+(-) !P L+ E--- W++ N++ o-- K w !O M V
!PS !PE Y+ PGP t+ 5+++ X+ R+++ tv+ b+ !DI D--- G e++++
h---- r+++ y++++

The above is my carefully constructed Geek Code, which is supposed to help others size me up in a single glance.  (I'll pass over the well-trodden irony that this gives the once-excluded the tools to become the excluders.  In practice, I think nearly everyone who used this code used it to find kindred spirits.)

I've (kinda sorta) wanted to make this for almost a quarter of a century, but I never did it back in the day.  The above string of identifying marks is brand new, but it's weird that the definition of the code hasn't been updated a long time -- so long that its home page has expired and the above link goes to a saved page at the Internet Archive!  Although most of the items are true for 2017-Cygnus, I did have to scratch my head a bit to recall my fine-grained ideological stances on the VMS operating system, Kibo, and the X-Files.  :-)  On a few of these things, I had to punt.  I used the exclamation point (!) to mean either "this thing is so foreign to me that I have no idea" or "it's just none of anybody's bidness."

Monday, August 7, 2017


“The truth, the human experience of magic -- our ancestral, animistic awareness of the world as alive and expressive -- was never really lost. Our senses simply shifted their animistic participation from the depths of the surrounding landscape toward the letters written on pages and, today, on screens. Only thus could the letters begin to come alive and to speak. As a Zuni elder focuses her eyes upon a cactus and abruptly hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As nonhuman animals, plants, and even 'inanimate' rivers once spoke to our oral ancestors, so the ostensibly 'inert' letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless -- as mysterious as a talking stone.”

- - -  David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


The family and I finally saw Interstellar (2014) a few days ago.  I'm sure this bit is probably the part that gave rise to the most negative hits in the reviews ("oh, great hard sci-fi, great special effects, but what was thaaat?").
Too short a clip to be a spoiler, I suppose.

Forget those reviewers.  Best part of the movie, I say.  Or, rather, I said?  Those specific ideas have been rattling around in my head for the past few years, is what I'm saying.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Mathematical Rebirth

It's been a busy spring, but I want to be sure to post to the blog when there's something I'm excited about.  Given that this something has to do with games, spirituality, and math... I think it counts.

When I was 12 or 13 years old, I became obsessed with a little book in my school's library.  Rebirth: The Tibetan Game of Liberation described a strange cousin of "Chutes and Ladders."  Seemingly originating in the 13th century, this was a game of 104 squares that essentially led you from hell (at low numbers) to heaven (at the top).  You started out near the middle, at square #24, and you rolled dice to determine where you go next.  You can go up or down, of course.  Each square has its own unique set of rules for where the dice take you next.  You can get stuck in some squares for a long time.  The closer you get to Nirvana at the top, the less of a chance you have for going back through the nasty stuff at the bottom...

"Playing" this game is supposed to be a meditative exercise that gets you thinking about your karma, and about how all the ups & downs of life are just transitory distractions from the important things -- well, the important things if you're a Buddhist, anyway.  :-)

I've never been a Buddhist, but I was obsessed with this thing as a kid.  Along with D&D's systematized lists of gods and outer planes, I suppose I was eager to find some mathematical rigor in the often woo-woo world of spirituality.  I copied out the board onto a large piece of cardboard.  I still have it, 40 years later.  Here's a piece...

A few days ago I got to thinking about this game again, and I looked up some details online.  For the fun of it (shut up), I wrote a computer program to simulate the square-by-square rules and was thus able to run thousands of random games.  It was cool to learn that the most probable number of "turns" was about 93.  The shortest possible game I think runs about 18 turns, and the longest ones that my computer churned through were about 430 turns in duration.  Oh, the wheel of karma can sometimes be cruel.

I was also curious about how the game tended to progress from the lower to the higher levels, so I made a graph of 200 random games, with time normalized such that the longer and shorter games all are squeezed into the same start-to-finish range:

I find it interesting that there's such a tight cluster of activity in the lower realms (below about square #26) in the first third of the game, then the probabilities spread out to nearly everywhere.  Once you're about two thirds of the way done, though, you rapidly converge on the higher nirvanas and make increasingly steady progress to full enlightenment.

I also found an article by someone named Jonathan Doner, which proposed that the overall concept of this game could be "reskinned" straightforwardly to other spiritual traditions.  (I'm so doing that.)  The article goes on to talk about how playing the game could be a useful means of general education for an enlightened citizenry -- a possible path to the ancient Greek concept of paideia, perhaps.  For sure, it reminds me of the lofty sacramental goals of my own little slice of nirvana: the Glass Bead Game.  We'll see where this leads....

Monday, February 6, 2017

Whole Earth

This past weekend, we explored a few new antique stores and indoor flea markets around our new (since 2015) home.  I came across something that I'd been sorta-kinda hunting for, for at least a decade.  Of course I knew I could order these things online, but it never rose to that level of importance.

But now... I'm left gibbering "Where have you been all my life?!?"

Click on any of these for bigger, more legible versions.

Seriously, this freakin' thing is amazing.

I've skimmed up to page 19 or so, and found dozens of new insights.  The edition I have is 450 pages long.

I think I've dreamed about reading this, but after waking up I never knew what it was, or whether it was a real thing.

Is it going to change my life?  Still too soon to know.  I'm not about to go living in a yurt or making my clothes from macrame.  That's only a tiny part of what this thing was all about, anyway.  It will help with developing the GBG.

I have so much to learn.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Apollo Mnemonic

Why do I do the things I do?

You won't find the answer to that question here, just one of the things.  :-)

Last week, I was sad to hear of the passing of Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to set foot on the Moon.  That got me thinking that I've always wanted to have the names of the Apollo astronauts memorized.  Growing up, they were always quite important to me, but I think I could have only rattled off the crews of Apollo 1 (whose fatal fire just had its 50th anniversary yesterday), 11 (duh), 13 (because of the movie), and then just Cernan from 17 (for his special final status).

Again, I don't know why I would want to memorize them all, but I've done similar things in the past.  I once could recite the names of the first two centuries worth of Roman emperors in order, and also the names of the 20 divisions of the Mayan tzolkin calendar.  Maybe a few other lists that I've, um, now forgotten about, too.  :-)  It's not like I ever made a public show of that knowledge... it's just that I liked knowing it.

Anyway, I still don't know if I'll try to cram these astronaut names into my memory, but I did have fun creating a one-page "cheat sheet."  If I go ahead and try to memorize, I'll stick this in my pocket and refer to it as I study.  I looked around for something similar, but all the other infographics were either too busy (i.e., wouldn't look nice printed on paper) or didn't contain what I wanted.  I jazzed it up a bit with the mission patches and the informal call-signs for the ships, and I thought I'd share it here:

Clicking on the above gives you a medium-resolution JPG image.  I've also put a nicer PDF version at this Google Drive link.

Hey, if I can't use this blog to share the fruits of my weirdness, what good is it?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Atlas of Oddities, Part Deux

Here's the sequel to the blockbuster prequel...  3 maps down, 3 to go.

In my 2013 April A-Z post on author Somtow Sucharitkul, I mentioned his alternate take on a Roman empire that conquered (or tried to conquer) the New World.  His original "Aquila" short stories were published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the 1980s, then later packaged into novels.  However, the novels didn't contain this gem of a map from the April 1982 issue of Asimov's!

Click to Maximus... er, maximize

I had to dig through a few boxes to find this one, but once I realized it wasn't online anywhere (at least anywhere easily searchable), I was determined to rescue and digitize it.  The map credit at lower left reads "J. R. Odbert."  I think most of the Latin puns are taken right out of Somtow's story, but I wouldn't put it past a crafty cartographer to insert more.  As I remember, a lot of the story takes place in and around the city of Caesarea, which I think is sitting where Omaha, Nebraska ought to be.  This is not your paterfamilias' Terra Nova!

The last two maps are things I've drawn.

Several times on this blog I've waxed on about my love of David Zindell's awesome first novel Neverness and its sequels.  I even wrote a fannish Travel Guide to his intricate and uplifting constructed universe -- which I heartily recommend to anyone about to read the books for the first time.  No spoilers in there!  Much of the action takes place on the largest island on a chilly planet named Icefall.  Zindell didn't include a map of the place, but I did my best to piece together something that could help readers navigate around...

I think my MS Office art skillz have matured a bit since first making this in 2011, but it does the job.  I do need to note that the TV show Family Matters didn't exist when Zindell came up with the name of that southern-most mountain, but I wonder if he found it a minor source of embarrassment when writing the sequels...

Okay (gulp), the final map today is something I drew back in the 1980s.  When my friends and I played D&D, we took turns running the game, and we each took control of a continent on a larger world.  We blithely ignored the realities of such a setup, and each new adventure usually started with something like "As you're disembarking from the ship from Brian's continent, you see...."

Anyway, here's mine.  I did my best to enhance the image, but the original is very lightly-drawn pencil on notebook paper...

I suppose there's a symmetry between my "Ponténar" with the mythical "Poseidonis" that I talked about in the previous post.  I originally designed the coastlines by tracing over a map of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and imagined a whole Greek-themed Atlantis-ish empire in the southern part.  I eventually added some extra land up in the north, because my actual contour of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge just didn't have enough surface area for everything I wanted to squeeze in.

Unfortunately, I never got to tell the stories of many of the places on this map.  Invorum up north was a hidden stronghold of powerful wizards.  The unfortunate dwarfs of Felak-Gizan were enslaved by the Tachyran empire, and were soon going to get their revenge.  See that island in the bay between Tachyra and Yaxaan?  The volcano on that sucker was going to cause trouble for hundreds of miles around.

As I look at the place names in my map, I also see a litany of morphed names of people that meant a lot to me back then.  I'm not going to tell you who Meaghra, Rendin, Gyule, and Kalapis are named after, but each one gives me a lump in the throat.

Ah, well.  I think counter-factual maps like these are tempting vessels for us to pour in our weird, wild thoughts & dreams... and mix them up in ways that sometimes surprise even the mapmaker.