Friday, September 30, 2011

The Preserving Machine by Philip K. Dick

I've been enjoying a book of early short stories by Philip K. Dick, master science fiction author. These stories, from the early fifties, are filled with mind-bending ideas and less than stellar prose.

The Preserving Machine was published in June 1953. Besides a narrator, the main character is named Doc Labyrinth. The action takes place in Los Angeles.  Dick opens with a description of suburban L.A.
I was standing by the barbecue pit, warming my hands.  It was a clear cold day.  The sunny Los Angeles sky was almost cloud-free.  Beyond Labyrinth's modest house a gently undulating expanse of green stretched off until it reached the mountains - a small forest that gave the illusion of wilderness within the very limits of the city.  "Well?" I said. "Then the Machine did work the way you expected?"
This Machine, the Preserving Machine, is pretty amazing.  It preserves sheet music in a most remarkable manner.  And not just any sheet music, but classical music in particular. 
This is how he came to think of the Preserving Machine.  One evening as he sat in his living room in his deep chair, the gramophone on low, a vision came to him.  He perceived in his mind a strange sight, the last score of a Schubert trio, the last copy, dog-eared, well-thumbed, lying on the floor of some gutted place, probably a museum.

A bomber moved overhead.  Bombs fell, bursting the museum to fragments, bringing the walls down in a roar of rubble and plaster.  In the debris the last score disappeared, lost in the rubbish, to rot and mold.

And then, in Doc Labyrinth's vision, he saw the score come burrowing out, like some buried mole.  Quick like a mole, in fact, with claws and sharp teeth and a furious energy.

If music had that faculty, the ordinary, everyday instinct of survival which every worm and mole has, how different it would be!  If music could be transformed into living creatures, animals with claws and teeth, then music might survive.  If only a Machine could be built, a Machine to process musical scores into living forms.
This being a Science Fiction story, you know that the machine gets built - and in due course music animals are created.  The above quote might lead you to expect animals based on particular works, like a Schubert trio.  Instead, Dick gives us composer animals.  For example:
After that came the schubert animal.  The schubert animal was silly, an adolescent sheep-creature that ran this way and that, foolish and wanting to play.
Once they become animals, their name is no longer capitalized.  The mozart animal is a bird, beethoven a beetle, brahms an insect, stravinsky another bird.
The wagner animal was large and splashed with deep colors.  It seemed to have quite a temper, and Doc Labyrinth was a little afraid of it, as were the bach bugs, the round ball-like creatures, a whole flock of them, some large, some small, that had been obtained for the Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues.
Of course, all these critters escape into the nearby forest and begin to evolve and compete.  Some survive, others succumb.  The Doc feeds an evolved bach bug back into the machine, reconverting it into sheet music which he then performs at the piano.
I listened to the music.  It was hideous.  I have never heard anything like it.  It was distorted, diabolical, without sense or meaning, except, perhaps, an alien, disconcerting meaning that should never have been there.  I could believe only with the greatest effort that it had once been a Bach Fugue, part of a most orderly and respected work.
Had I been writing this story, instead of Philip K. Dick,  the reconverted music would have been very strange but not hideous.  Music as it grows and evolves should try new, unfamiliar ideas, some of which will survive, others not.  Survival of the fittest?  Eventually the musical unfamiliarity ought to fade in our ears, allowing new species to contribute to our enjoyment.  Adaptation and evolution, either of music or animals, ought to be the real reason that they flourish and reproduce.  Of course pieces of music which you never hear will not survive or procreate.

These days classical music already has a fully functional, well-oiled preserving machine - in the form of symphony orchestras and opera companies and classical radio stations only too happy to reproduce the same limited number of works over and over again for audiences eager to hear their favorites one more time.  This machine discourages adaptation but it does a good job of preserving any piece which can claw its way into the repertory.  A new work, which at first might sound hideous, diabolical or alien, will never find an audience if it has to compete against the well-entrenched, machine-preserved herds of beethoven, schubert and wagner animals roaming our cultural landscape.

Animal Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Thousand and One RedHeaders

Today Mixed Meters begins its seventh year.   Itchy.  Here's a short post from that first day, September 16, 2005 (also a Friday), entitled In Which David Rewrites the Pledge of Allegiance.  I was terse then.

You might have noticed that the layout of Mixed Meters has changed. The original version had gotten far too complex.  This is much simpler.   I will continue to tinker with the new look as time permits - until I'm bored.

Mixed Meters is proud to announce another, more important milestone: the number of possible RedHeaders has surpassed one thousand.

You ask "What are Redheaders?" They are the red random irrelevant phrases in the yellow box at the top of each Mixed Meters page, just under "Life Is Too Short To Listen To Ugly Music".  A different one is chosen each time the page is loaded.

The script which picks the random phrase each time was purloined from here.  Thanks to whoever wrote that.

Here are the first ten RedHeaders:

TagLine[0] = "Mixed Meters - now with 25% fewer Olympic Promos"
TagLine[1] = "Mixed Meters - produced in a facility that also processes peanuts."
TagLine[2] = "Mixed Meters - now with three rows of stadium seating."
TagLine[3] = "Mixed Meters - now a Party Of One."
TagLine[4] = "Mixed Meters - watching the world grasp for straws."
TagLine[5] = "Mixed Meters - you could get money back every time you visit."
TagLine[6] = "Mixed Meters - still trying to meet recruiting goals"
TagLine[7] = "We admit it - the weather girl*s sweaters are too tight."
TagLine[8] = "Only a few small animals were harmed producing this blog."
TagLine[9] = "Mixed Meters - Similar to the intersection of two country roads."

I've always liked the one about two country roads - not that I know what it means.  Many of them make no sense.  Some are downright embarrassing.  Some refer to news items extremely far out of date.  Many refer to television commercials.  There are in-jokes for musicians.  And pseudo-clever word play.

TagLine[214] = "Mixed Meters - not recommended if your life is like the Springer Show."
TagLine[215] = "Mixed Meters - Breaking the Endless Cycle of Boom and Chuck."
TagLine[216] = "Mixed Meters - Now With Calming Oatmeal."
TagLine[217] = "Mixed Meters - The Felt Hand of Dog."
TagLine[218] = "Mixed Meters urges you to be a pliant consumer."
TagLine[219] = "Mixed Meters - a Whack-a-Mole from Hell."

There's a joke:

TagLine[277] = "Two Muffins are baking.  One says SURE IS HOT IN HERE.  The other replies HOLY SHIT! A TALKING MUFFIN!"

There are quotes from famous musicians:

TagLine[447] = "Never Leave A Wet One On Your Neighbor's Doorknob (Joe Newman)"
TagLine[449] = "It*s Much Better Than The Prefabricated Concrete Coal Bunker (Bonzo Dog Band)"
TagLine[731] = "Damn, Damn, Damn, Damn, Damn (Alan Jay Lerner)"

And a short science fiction story:

TagLine[629] = "He had awakened screaming, clutching the transport controls in terror, for so many days in a row that hearing birds chirping and seeing sunlight streaming through the studio window caused him to wonder whether he had somehow transformed into a piano sonata by Beethoven or Brahms."

It just goes on and on.

TagLine[1000] = "Life is too short to read Mixed Meters"

Here's a picture of a dragon fly which I snapped this morning in our backyard. (It should enlarge if you click it.)

TagLine[102] = "Mixed Meters - because no one gives a fuck what I think."

ADDENDUM:  Apparently Google's robots are starting to catalog the redheaders along with the actual Mixed Meters' posts.  Here's a result from someone who searched for the terms "mixed meters in music"

The Lifespan of Classical Music | Mixed Meters 12, 2011 – Mixed Meters.
Strange Blog Behavior May Be Caused By Elevated Hormone Levels ...

TagLine[471] = "Strange Blog Behavior May Be Caused By Elevated Hormone Levels"

RedHeader Tags: . . . . . .

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September Eleventh

The fire fighters who died rushing into the burning towers trying to save the lives of other people will surely define the word heroism for a long time to come.

The other victims, both in New York and Washington, were killed doing what most of us Americans do everyday - they were going about their regular lives, mostly at their jobs. In that sense they were no different than any of the rest of us. An attack on one was an attack on all.

I cannot comprehend the horror of such an experience. I can only offer feeble condolences to the survivors and to the families and friends of those who died. Such offerings must seem very inadequate after the millionth repetition.

The September 11 attacks have been compared to Pearl Harbor.  Ten years after Pearl Harbor, however, World War II had been over 6 years and America had moved on to a different fight (with global Communism).  Pearl Harbor had become old news since that attack had been paid back in full.  Today, ten years after 9/11, there is no sense of closure.  We seem incapable of finding a way to reduce the fear of terrorism.  The media is overflowing with every possible angle.  People are still trying to figure this out.

Another thing I cannot comprehend is what would lead an ostensibly intelligent adult into becoming a suicide bomber. What manner of dark faith motivates such behavior?

I do regret some of the decisions made by the United States in reaction to the attacks.  Foremost among these, of course, is the invasion of Iraq.  Many of our country's worst moves were a result of the dark faith of our own leaders, people like Dick Cheney.  A clear-headed United States should have recognized their lies.  Courageous people, like Michael Moore, who spoke against those bad choices at the time were accused of treason and threatened with violence. 

Of course once it became clear that there were no WMDs in Iraq, we needed new excuses.  Popular ones were "promoting democracy" and "nation building".  No one seems to talk much about fighting for God or controlling their oil reserves.

As a U.S. citizen, voter and taxpayer I regrettably must accept my share of responsibility for the bad decisions of my government.  One three-hundred-and-twelve-millionth of the total, if the blame is to be parceled out equally - although in truth, some people are far more culpable than I.

And I must face the sad prospect that I will never see a solution to this conflict.  The September eleventh attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon did not start our war between cultures, between religions, between haves and have nots.  The attacks merely brought the existing conflict to the attention of the United States populace and provided excuses for our leaders to intensify the battles.

Finding an end to the real conflicts - achieving something one might reasonably call "peace" - seems more unlikely to me now, ten years after 9/11, than it ever has.  The sadness of this anniversary goes far beyond the death and destruction caused by four hijacked planes.  This gloom shows every sign of becoming a permanent feature of the American experience.

I recommend an article entitled The Long War by Tom Hayden.  Here's a couple paragraphs:
But 9/11 produced a spasm of blind rage arising from a pre-existing blindness to the way much of the world sees us. That, in turn, led to the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Afghanistan again, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — in all, a dozen “shadow wars,” according to The New York Times. In Bob Woodward’s crucial book, “Obama’s Wars,” there were already secret and lethal counterterrorism operations active in more than 60 countries as of 2009.

From Pentagon think tanks came a new military doctrine of “The Long War,” a counterinsurgency vision arising from the failed Phoenix program of the Vietnam era, projecting US open combat and secret wars over a span of 50 to 80 years, or 20 future presidential terms. The taxpayer costs of this Long War, also shadowy, would be in the many trillions of dollars and paid for not from current budgets, but by generations born after the 2000 election of George W. Bush. The deficit spending on The Long War would invisibly force the budgetary crisis now squeezing our states, cities and most Americans.

The pictures came from here and here.

Sneak Attack Tags: . . . . . .

Monday, September 05, 2011

On Labor Day, Think of the Problems of CEOs

In 1894, when the U.S. government decided on a holiday to celebrate working people, they picked a date in September instead of May first, the existing International Workers Day.  They did this to avoid negative associations with the Haymarket massacre which happened at a union rally on May 1, 1886.

Over the years, of course, Labor Day has come to mean the end of summer and the beginning of school.   In the business world it's the best excuse for a retail sale between the Fourth of July and Halloween.

Meanwhile labor union membership has shrunk and unions have (again) been cast as the economic villains in our society.  There's the recent fight in Wisconsin to rescind public worker union's right to bargain collectively.   A few nights ago there was a noose left at the Orange County Labor Federation.  (Someone is trying to send a message.  But, hey, if they don't like unions, let them go to work on Monday.)

So, in the context of Labor Day, I'd like to present links to several recent interesting articles about our Captains of Industry, the chief executive officers of wealthy, powerful corporations.  These people who get paid a king's ransom to not hire people for menial jobs.  In fact, these are the people who most likely celebrate the high level of unemployment in the U.S. because, if they should decide to hire some workers, they can more easily find desperate unemployed people willing to work cheap.

The four articles are:
  • Beauty Justifies Wealth
  • One in 25 business leaders may be a psychopath, study finds
  • Study: Some US firms paid more to CEOs than taxes
  • How Rich is Too Rich? and follow up: How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying)

Beauty Justifies Wealth is an article in the Democracy in America blog of The Economist. It is credited only to W.W. (possibly someone named Will Wilkinson).  The subject is Steve Jobs, recently retired CEO of Apple, who has been canonized and beatified for giving the world computerized fetish objects and getting really wealthy doing it.  (He's number 42 on the last Forbes 400 list.)

W.W. writes:
It occurred to me that, as lovely as I find Apple's gizmos, Mr Jobs's wealth, like that of other billionaire barons of the information age, was built in no small part upon an intellectual-property regime that I and many others believe to retard progress while concentrating massive rewards upon a privileged few, generating unfair and unproductive inequality.
Most technical writers would never say such a thing.  If they did, Apple probably wouldn't send them any neat drool-inducing free products to review.  Here's a tweet which W.W. wrote:

Class-war fact: Ruthlessly competitive, patent-monopolist, multi-billionaire executives are worth fawning over, if they've got design sense.

One in 25 business leaders may be a psychopath, study finds is an article in The Guardian.  It details a psychological study which reports that some very successful people can hide their psychopathic behavior.
The survey suggests psychopaths are actually poor managerial performers but are adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they can cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates. This makes it almost impossible to distinguish between a genuinely talented team leader and a psychopath.
The study also reports that 1% of all Americans are psychopaths.

Here's a bonus article: Psychologists Explain Why Most Creative Executives Are Arrogant Jerks

Here's the definition of psychopathy from Wikipedia:
Psychopathy is a mental disorder characterized primarily by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotions, egocentricity, and deceptiveness. Psychopaths are highly prone to antisocial behavior and abusive treatment of others, and are very disproportionately responsible for violent crime. Though lacking empathy and emotional depth, they often manage to pass themselves off as normal people by feigning emotions and lying about their pasts.

Study: Some US firms paid more to CEOs than taxes is a Reuters story.  Here's the opening:
Twenty-five of the 100 highest paid U.S. CEOs earned more last year than their companies paid in federal income tax, a pay study said Wednesday. It also found many of the companies spent more on lobbying than they did on taxes.

Remember that this is one out of 4 of highly paid executives.  Only 1 out of 25 is a psychopath.  But it stands to reason that there is at least one CEO in the top 100 who makes more salary than his company pays in taxes and is also a psychopath.

A Democratic representative wants to investigate. He wrote to the Republican chairman of his committee saying he wants  
to examine the extent to which the problems in CEO compensation that led to the economic crisis continue to exist today.
Good luck with that.  The chairman himself is a highly paid corporate executive. Notice that he doesn't want to investigate whether CEO compensation led to our crisis.  That's a given.  He just wonders whether the problem still exists.  (Yes it does.)

Sam Harris is an author who presents a ray of sanity and reason discussing the subjects of religion and morality.  His article How Rich Is Too Rich wondered whether the vast disparity of wealth in our country would be allowed to continue.  This is the context of Warren Buffet, the world's third richest man, who keeps telling us that he pays less percentage in taxes than his secretary. (And we, collectively, keep ignoring him.)

Sam Harris asks:
How much wealth can one person be allowed to keep? A trillion dollars? Ten trillion? (Fifty trillion is the current GDP of Earth.) Granted, there will be some limit to how fully wealth can concentrate in any society, for the richest possible person must still spend money on something, thereby spreading wealth to others. But there is nothing to prevent the ultra rich from cooking all their meals at home, using vegetables grown in their own gardens, and investing the majority of their assets in China
But the article which actually caught my eye was Harris' follow-up How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying) in which he described some of the looney, knee-jerk responses that first post got.

In the discussion of whether taxes are theft, or not, Harris writes:
Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people’s children? It amazes me that such questions require answers.
Would Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, rather have $10 billion in a country where the maximum number of people are prepared to do creative work? Or would he rather have $20 billion in a country with the wealth inequality of an African dictatorship and commensurate levels of crime? I’d wager he would pick door number #1. But if he wouldn’t, I maintain that it is only rational and decent for Uncle Sam to pick it for him.

 Let me repeat the last sentence:
But if he wouldn’t, I maintain that it is only rational and decent for Uncle Sam to pick it for him.

I doubt that the richest people in America, even if they could agree on what should be done, could solve our problems with their money.  I think that a large part of America's problems is their money, the disparity of wealth between richest and poorest.

The twenty richest American's together have about 385.5 billion dollars in wealth  (I quickly added up the figures from the Forbes list.)  Wouldn't it be better for the country to have 385.5 billionaires, each with only a single billion, than to leave all that wealth with twenty people?  (Try a little mental arithmetic to figure out how much One Billion Bucks is.  An awful lot.  Enough to retire on.)

Trust me, these people are never going to give up their money.  They are driven, possibly by dark psychological forces or maybe just by greed, to acquire more and more.  That's why it's my opinion, and a humble opinion because I know how unlikely this is, that the U.S. government should take their money away.  Not all of it.  Leave them a mere billion each, enough to survive with just one yacht and two vacation homes.

The mechanics of this are complex of course - but I'm talking fantasy, not tax code.  Our government really does have the power to redistribute wealth.  After all whoever said “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the Legislature is in session” spoke the truth.

Our government won't do anything like this unless the politicians realize that doing it is the only way to get reelected.  In the era of unlimited political money that's never gonna happen.

Sorry to have bothered you with impossible ideas.  Enjoy your day off.  You get a lot less of them in the U.S. than in other rich countries.  Go back to work tomorrow.  Do your job.  Don't complain.

Other MM rants on similar subjects:

House and Wooster and Income Disparity  (It's not just a saying these days that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer".  Today it's more like an actual law.)

Eli Broad, Masterpieces, Money and Monuments (The fact that these valuable objects of art might be culturally meaningful in some non-monetary sense, if indeed they are, doesn't seem terribly important to him.)

Price Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .