Just finished an absolutely wonderful book (about which, more later); in the notes was a mention of Terry Bisson’s wonderful short story “They’re Made out of Meat”. Studio 360 aired a version a while ago–give a listen:
Bisson’s site has the transcript (or rather, the original story), for those who want. I love it.
… but it has been thirty years since the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game was released. I remember playing it.
A 30th anniversary online version of the game is now available over at the BBC:
A word of warning
This game will kill you frequently. It’s a bit mean like that.
But don’t panic; you can “save” before trying something that ends up killing you.
Thirty years! I swear it was sometime last week… Oh, well–time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so.
Good-bye, all my friends—
It’s been good; it’s been fun,
Ah, but everything ends,
And the end has begun.
It’s the last deadline ever
And not to my liking,
But I know I should never
Cross swords with a Viking
Now Fenrir is pacing
And Odin will die
It’s the end we are facing
And no one knows why
We say now, with sorrow,
Goodbye to the gods…
So, see you tomorrow?
I don’t like the odds.
“Ragnarok is the ultimate landmark in Viking mythology, when the gods fall and die, so this really is an event that should not be underestimated,” comments Danielle Daglan director of the JORVIK Viking Festival. “In the last couple of years, we’ve had predictions of the Mayan apocalypse, which passed without incident, and numerous other dates where the end of the world has been pencilled in by seers, fortune tellers and visionaries, but the sound of the horn is possibly the best indicator yet that the Viking version of the end of the world really will happen on 22 February [this] year.”
Looks like a fun evening, full of contests, drinking, and beards. These people do the end of the world right.
I am A) exhausted from a long day, and B) sick as a dog. Or maybe two dogs. I can’t breathe, I can’t think, I can’t … something.
But it’s Darwin Day today, to I get to link to two earlier bits, both of which deserve it. One is a song addressed to Darwin himself, letting him know how things turned out.
Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, take a look around today—
You might recognize the path we took, cos you showed us the way.
We will celebrate your influence with unabashed delight;
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin, you were right!
The other was my report of a Darwin Day talk (by Daniel Dennett), which turned into the single best comment thread in the history of the interwebs. Seriously. I’d give you a sample, but I’d rather you approach it like the first people to see the Grand Canyon, walking up on foot and finding an astonishing landscape, rather than passing judgment based on a postcard. But yeah, the single greatest comment thread ever.
Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin! (of course, by now, it is the day after his birth in the country of his birth. Oh, well.)
I was delighted, today, to hear from a student from Christ University, in Bangalore. As I have noted before, a bit of my doggerel is included in a textbook used in some English classes in India; these students were tasked with creating a visual interpretation of a poem, and they chose mine.
As I look out my window at snow nearly knee deep, the line “my thermostat’s on ‘chilly'” has a bit of a different meaning than it might in Bangalore–I look at all that beautiful color and (winter person that I am) feel a little longing for the days when I’ll be able to plant my back yard garden again…
With their kind permission, then, “Time To Eat The Dog”:
A puddle full of chemicals
Was baking in the sun
When some combined a different way
And new life was begun
It replicated, once or twice
Till now there were a bunch—
They chanced on an amoeba, though,
Which ate them all for lunch.
Some inorganic molecules
Embedded in some clay
Began a new reaction, and
They sprang to life one day
They started reproducing
Was it brand new life? Well, yup…
Till they found a paramecium
Which promptly ate them up.
It is said, abiogenesis
Is really very rare
Perhaps it happens all the time
Without observers there
The only time we’ll know for sure
That brand-new life begins…
Is when it meets established forms
But this time, new life wins.
I don’t know where this one came from, but it took all of 10 minutes to write itself. A new, successful mutation, I suppose.
Are there any biologists reading this who can tell me if my thinking is off? It seems to me that the various abiogenesis experiments (think Miller-Urey) have one fatal flaw–they are miniscule in comparison to the real world. In the real world, we have the same, or similar, experiments happening all the time. There are theories of life beginning in tidal pools, or in a clay substrate, or in geysers or mudpots, or steam vents… well, why not all of the above, and more? The world is a big place; unlikely events happen all the time, in large enough populations. Of course, any abiogenesis event that happens now has a serious disadvantage: the parking spot is already taken. And so, of course we don’t see abiogenesis happening in the world around us; something else has already snacked on it–probably a bacterium.
But (because time is patient), isn’t it possible that one of these times, Life 2.0 will disagree with that bacterium. Then eat it. And its cousins. And establish a toehold on the planet. Could already be pockets of Life 2.0 v1-vn in places we have not yet looked. (Or maybe not; this is idle speculation.) It took a staggeringly long time for our own ancestors to get beyond that stage, so there is no reason to suspect we will be alive to answer this question… but rare things do happen. Not just a mutation of a current life form, but something altogether different. Wouldn’t that be astonishing? Wouldn’t that just scare you to death?
I gotta work on the screenplay.
Constraining one’s writing
Can make it exciting
Constraints make it better, not worse
It requires more thought
(Or, they tell me, it ought)
To express what you want, say, in verse.
But I’ve just seen an ode
Nearly written in code–
With multiple layers of constraints
Take a look, if you will,
At this beauty and skill…
And the literal picture it paints
So, yeah, I write with constraints. Often. Rhyme and meter are each constraining, and we can add to this the constraint of topic–my verses are usually commentary, first and foremost. Sometimes I am translating a real story into verse, and have no freedom to change crucial details. Choosing a particular verse form, like a sonnet or a villanelle (or even my own, still-unnamed, form) is a further constraint–and since today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, I can also mention my verses based on The Bells and The Raven (both of which tell real stories in a very specific and recognizable rhyme and meter format). Poe also liked to hide names or phrases in the initial (or later) letters of his poems’ lines–I have done that on occasion as well (I can’t remember any examples I have posted on this blog, though)–it is a fun challenge. I’ve written (again, not here) sonnets that were constrained by having the same number of characters in each line. Verses where the number of letters per word just happened to match the digits of pi.
But (Cuttlecap tip to Pierce R. Butler via email) I’ve just seen an example of constrained writing (“The Extra-Constrained Anagram”, by Mike Keith) that puts them all to shame. And it is Poe-related, so it is perfect for today.
Consider. Take a poem written by Poe himself. Use the letters in that poem (and only those) to write an anagram (constraint 1), itself a poem (constraint 2), telling the story of the author’s pilgrimage to Poe’s grave (constraint 3), with the last 13 lines beginning with EDGAR ALLAN POE (constraint 4).
But none of these is the real constraint. Consider the following scheme for turning a piece of text into a grayscale picture:
(1) Break the text up into its sequence of words. This sounds trivial, but some rules have to be settled on to avoid ambiguity or illogical results. I decided on these rules as being the most natural:
(a) Apostrophes do not (of course) cause a string to be split. E.g., “love’s law” is a 5-letter word followed by a 3-letter word.
(b) The hyphen (“-“) is a delimiter. “Half-paid stone” is three words, not two.
(c) All other punctuation is ignored.
(2) Take each word of three or more letters and do the following:
First, sum up the values the letters in the word (with the usual A=1, B=2, C=3, etc.).
Then, reduce the sum modulo 9, giving a value in the range 0 through 8.
(Note that the second step is equivalent to continually together adding the digits of the sum until a single digit is left – i.e., “casting out nines” – except with that method, if the final result is a 9 it is replaced with 0.)
(3) Take the resulting series of 0-to-8 values and arrange them in a two-dimensional grid. The dimensions of the rectangle will in general be ambiguous, so it either has to be specified or you can just try various different possibilities and see if any of them are interesting. The one to try first, we suggest, is the rectangle with the largest possible size in X such that the X size is less than or equal to the Y size. For example, for 396 this would be 18 x 22.
(4) View the result as a gray-scale image, with 0=black and the other values evenly distributed up to 8=white.
That’s right, the entire poem produces a literal picture (constraint 5 through infinity). A very specific, very recognizable picture.
My commenters saw through my evil plot:
I think, for the year, I will write in prose only;
no rhyme and no meter, no scansion, no verse.
Iambic pentameter? Perish the notion!
We’ll see if my writing gets better… or worse.
A year without sonnets, or ballads, or limericks;
a year without couplets or bad villanelles;
a year when my thoughts must be written, unfiltered
by badly-forced rhymes jammed in metrical shells.
I’ve posted in quatrains; I’ve posted in couplets;
I’ve posted a few in a form of my own.
I’ve written more verse than I care to remember,
in forms more diverse than most people have known!
But now, for one year, I will change up my thinking;
I’ll curb my obsession with meter and rhyme.
Or maybe I won’t, cos this “try it a year” bit
is silly, and simply a waste of my time.
This was, in fact, a commentary on the pastor’s year of living godlessly. It seems an honest try, and not a con, but stranger things have happened. We shall see.
The odds of my ability to change, to see the world and not look first for rhymes, are small. I’d have to wholly re-arrange my thoughts (already strained enough, at times). We can, with practice, change our usual ways of doing things; we are not set in stone. But wow, it’s hard—a year’s a lot of days, and who’s to say it’s worth it, once it’s done? So, no, I think I’ll keep on writing verse, pretending it’s a blessing, not a curse.
I think, for the year, I will write in prose only; no rhyme and no meter, no scansion, no verse. Iambic pentameter? Perish the notion! We’ll see if my writing gets better… or worse.
A year without sonnets, or ballads, or limericks; a year without couplets or bad villanelles; a year when my thoughts must be written, unfiltered by badly-forced rhymes jammed in metrical shells.
I’ve posted in quatrains; I’ve posted in couplets; I’ve posted a few in a form of my own. I’ve written more verse than I care to remember, in forms more diverse than most people have known! But now, for one year, I will change up my thinking; I’ll curb my obsession with meter and rhyme.
Or maybe I won’t, cos this “try it a year” bit is silly, and simply a waste of my time.