Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Loud Kind Of Alchemy

 (I have added a neat video at the bottom, so even if you've read this before scroll down!)

You're nursing your drink of choice at a party, chilling on the couch or whatever it is you like to do in a socially-lubricated milieu. There's a wireless media streaming device of some kind hooked up to the TV and/or the sound system, and you're grooving to the fresh beats. You don't think about it too much at the time; it's plug-and-play, touch-of-a-button kind of stuff, right? For that matter, if you're not me (or very much like me) you mightn't give the technology a second thought.

I woke up one morning, though, and I considered the nigh-alchemical transformations taking place. The music you* were listening to was probably on someone's computer. We go, then, to the whirling drive platters on which the information is inscribed in minute magnetic markings**. These are converted by the drive head into electrical pulses, travelling along the wires and circuit traces, recorded, written into memory, repeated, and finally output via cable to a wireless antenna somewhere (a wireless network adaptor or router). Here, the electric impulses become light – radio waves – which radiate and permeate the house. At the receiving antenna, where they are converted back to electricity, and remain in this form as they pass to the processor, to an audio device, to the stereo receiver, and out along the speaker wire to the drivers and tweeters. The electricity once again becomes magnetism in the speakers, driving the paper cones therein to produce waves of compression and rarefaction in the local atmosphere, which spread out from the point source(s) and make their way into your ear, where they are converted into electrochemical signals and finally interpreted by your brain.

If you prefer a more perfect symmetry, consider that the song began in a composer's very own brain meats, and trace the steps from mind to mouth and written page, from recording equipment to CD stamping device to the laser which read the disk when you ripped it. By the time it arrives to settle down in your brain, the music you hear has likely been encoded as every kind of energy we know except for probably gravity (and hey, it's really only a matter of time before we start using that as some kind of interplanetary signalling protocol, right?)

All of this happens at the touch of a button (!). XKCD explored a similar theme a while back as regards the mighty computing power which now serves to furnish us with droll images of domesticated felines. I think I feel a little more godlike when I consider the power that our artifice has over the fundamental forces of the universe than I do when measuring it in our own self-created terms for performance (Ghz, etc). Either way I guess I got poached on this idea. Wouldn't be the first time (Oscaaaaaaar Wiiiiiiiiilde!).

This is post #200. This year will be my blog's fourth anniversary, which means I've posted about 50 posts a year - one a week. I guess that's reassuring, but I wouldn't call it optimal.

So we had yet another visitor come to stay with us this past weekend. This is she:

I have never had an objection to visitors, in fact I always enjoy it when someone comes around to disrupt my daily routine a little. This being said, I feel as though people spend perhaps a little too much to see us (Etarran and myself, for the most part) for not long enough. This is not their fault, as they have only so much time to spare before they must return to their own lives. I might expect the answer to be something along the lines of "well, it's not so much that I want to see 3-4 days worth of your city, but that I would like 3-4 days of your company", and sure my ego is going to be happy that I have such value; I am nevertheless going to question of spending the money to go so far, to go to a different city, and more or less hang around the house with us. Maybe that's more awesome than I quite grasp, but hanging around in a house is the kind of thing when vacations/parental budget result in a fortuitous co-location of the old guard. You may note, of course, that the above picture was taken on the top of Citadel Hill, which should lead you to the conclusion that our esteemed guest did not see nothing of our city here. Indeed, I made sure of that much. Maybe it only boggles my mind because I don't really have "visiting money" to spend. Whatever the reason, suffice it to say that I don't know why you keep visiting, but I sure appreciate that you do, my friends!

This recalls a conversation I had with Etarran before we left for the winter break, in which he stated that his reasons for travelling to other places were predominantly cultural - that he could get more or less every other part of the experience from pictures, etc. By contrast, I think I'm inclined to take more of a visual/tactile approach to travel. It's really satisfying to have been somewhere in meatspace (I am not very cyberpunk, I guess), especially because our present means of replicating the experience are at best limited. Even though I enjoy photography, I never think of it as a replacement for the experiences which it purports to capture. Photography is useful as an aide-memoire, but the limited frame (in both the physical and temporal sense) makes the camera a vessel for art more than for experience. When we acquire the ability to record most everything we see and do for posterity, I think the game will change a little, though.

Telepresence is getting better and better all the time, to the point where laptops are out-of-the-box designed to facilitate videoconferencing. Some phones, even (took us long enough)! I guess we need USB arms next, or something? Thing is, nobody I know really does that. My parents bought me a webcam not so long ago, but it's now on loan to a friend so he could do higher-resolution music videos on the internets. I've heard that you can, for example, play D&D with at least one participant present corresponding via webcam, and it's something I figure I'd like to try. Heck, if you carry around a laptop at head-height, you could address a person more or less as you would anyway (if they were made of plastic and had a keyboard under their face). Maybe you could build a rig to carry the laptop around like that TV trolley that the AI Holly used in Red Dwarf from time to time!

Still, no one I know besides me has really expressed interest in this. Yeah, I've done the "video chat with significant other" thing* a couple of times, but that wasn't even long distance. Etarran's reaction on being informed that the Roomba people were making a telepresence bot? "Great, now we can institutionalize absentee parenting" (paraphrased). Maybe I'm missing all the people who actually use telepresence in their everyday lives (people with real jobs, does this happen for meetings or something?), but maybe we're just not interested. Or maybe I'm looking in all the wrong places.

*Heads out of the gutter, PLEASE.
If you look at online gaming as a whole, from Tribes, to Battlefield, to Team Fortress 2, World of Warcraft, Second Life, EVE online...these are all a vague sort of telepresence, it just happens to be that everyone is connecting remotely and is represented in a virtual environment. It's probably telling, in fact, that the sort of people one would expect to relish this kind of communication do so in a manner which lets them take a form of their choosing when interacting at a distance. And why would I want Steve, my man from back home, to just follow me around in an AV cart all day when we could do our telecommunication in a medium of stylized ultraviolence, as opposed to "let's spend all day staying close to outlets and far away from stairs" (which is not meant as a slight against people who need some kind of electric wheelchair and for whom this is a pretty everyday game. That said, wouldn't they also perhaps relish the opportunity for some virtual ultraviolence as an alternative?)

The logical endpoint (minus a large part of the violence) of this line of reasoning is something like second life. Indeed, the virtual environment does solve the bulk of your interaction problems, and hey if you're going to play D&D anyway, I'm pretty sure that Neverwinter Nights was supposed to have shipped with some pretty extensive editing tools so that one guy could play GM for all of his online friends. Maybe we won't see large strides forward in consumer teleoperational gear simply because we've found (in predictably unpredictable fashion) a compelling workaround.

I guess what I am trying to say in a long and convaluted way is that there are a lot of people that I like to see, but either they don't have the money to burn (and I don't blame them), or I don't. Furthermore, we have developed a technological intermediary which could help us recreate in part the experience of hanging out (that is to say, multiplayer gaming). In conclusion, we (meaning me and anyone reading this who is so inclined) should probably schedule some online gaming times, in order to compensate for our geographical isolation, ESPECIALLY in light of the fact that most people who do come here in person mostly hang out with us anyhow.

I think it's pretty good for a numerically significant post to end with a message of togetherness, so I shall leave you with the wisdom that "Friends who SLAY together**, STAY together"





1 comment:

Not Fenimore said...

Meh, I didn't have much of a problem going down there for a couple of days. I figure it was worthwhile.

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