Rest in Peace: Stanislaw Lem

From Reuters:
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Solaris author Stanislaw Lem dies at 84
Mon Mar 27, 2006 10:34 AM ET

KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) – Polish author Stanislaw Lem, one of the world’s leading science-fiction writers, died on Monday in his home city of Krakow at the age of 84 after a battle with heart disease.

Lem, whose books have sold more than 27 million copies and have been translated into more than 40 languages, won widespread acclaim for The Cyberiad, stories from a mechanical world ruled by robots, first published in English in 1974.

Solaris, published in 1961 and set on an isolated space stations, was made into a film epic 10 years later by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and into a 2002 Hollywood remake shot by Steven Sodebergh and starring George Clooney.

“Shortly after 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) Stanislaw Lem died in the heart clinic, where he had been treated over the past few weeks for circulatory problems,” Andrzej Kulig, director of the Jagiellonian University hospital told Reuters.

Lem, born on September 12, 1921 in what is now the Ukrainian city of Lviv, studied medicine before World War Two. After the war, communist censorship blocked the publication of his earliest writing.

After the fall of communism in 1989 Lem ceased writing science-fiction, instead devoting himself to reports on near-future predictions for governments and organizations.

He wrote essays on computer crime, as well as technological and ethical problems posed by the expansion of the Internet.

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As mentioned earlier this month, it is from an eponymous Lem book that I gave this blog the name Imaginary Magnitude.

I can only muster two thoughts:
1) Damn it.
2) Bless him.

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The Best of Bird Flu

A montage of the latest TV network bird flu graphics:

I particularly like the middle image (courtesy of CTV Canada) of the sideways-glancing chicken with the fiery globe behind it. Nice and balanced – no fear mongering here.

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Article: The Man Who Heard It All

I recently came across an article from The Nation that I’d bookmarked not too long ago. On the surface it seems like fanfare for the release of The Oxford History of Western Music (ISBN: 0195169794).However, as journalist Paul Griffiths talks to the man who put the canon together – Richard Taruskin – it quickly turns into a fascinating overview of how we encapsulate our historic understanding of Western musical culture. For example, the death of notation (ie original sheet music), the neglect of female composers, and racism. Fascinating stuff, particularly for those interested in music, history, and cultural anthropology.

Link: The Man Who Heard It All

Excerpt:

 

This is an astounding achievement. The Oxford History of Western Music fills five stout volumes (discounting a sixth given over to the index, bibliography and other such matters), and yet Richard Taruskin can justifiably speak of it as a single book. To be sure, it travels far and wide in pursuing a millennium’s ramshackle production of songs and dances, keyboard suites and operas, sacred chants and church cantatas, symphonies and chamber works, electronic compositions and virtuoso showpieces, a good number of them quoted in music type so that competent keyboard players can eavesdrop on this multicolored parade as it goes along. Meanwhile, however, the surrounding text keeps its steady voice of thoughtful inquiry, painstaking analysis, consistent generosity and courteous address to the reader. Nothing like this book has been attempted since the nineteenth century, and as the author ruefully remarks, nothing like it may be written again.

Taruskin makes clear his reason for this proud pessimism. The coherence of Western “classical” music–the jumble of types only partly enumerated above–lies in notation (though due acknowledgment is given here to what never was notated and so has been lost). Just as we can observe the emergence of clearly legible notation in the eleventh century, so we seem in Taruskin’s view to be witnessing its demise, as some of the composers he treats in his last chapter, from Charles Dodge to Laurie Anderson, go off into territories where notation is no longer of any use, and as the possibility arises with the spread of digital equipment that we may all compose, perform and even disseminate our own music without thought of staves, clefs and quarter notes.

In a sense, this book expresses the magnificence and melancholy of its age. Scholarship–some of it Taruskin’s own, on composers as widely separated in time as Stravinsky and the fifteenth-century master Antoine Busnoys–has brought into view, and often into performance, a vast amount of music that was only dimly known half a century ago. But that expansion of knowledge and experience has been accompanied, unavoidably, by doubts about the universal validity of the central repertory, or canon, that built up around the works of perhaps just a dozen composers from Bach to Mahler, nearly all of them not only dead white males but dead white German-speaking males.

There are many things I love about classical music. I love how, just like the best of our modern music, it can encapsulate history, life, and emotion. It is as if the composition itself is a biometric record of its day, its author.

However, music alone cannot tell us everything. When Solomon Volkov published Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (ISBN: 087910998X) in 1979 which for the first time exposed a completely different picture of Shostakovich than what was assumed at the time (ie not a compliant citizen under Stalin’s reign), it drastically changed our view of both the composer and his music (the debate over this book is still raging today).

Music (classical or modern) paints a picture of lives and cultures past that deserve the painstaking (if admittedly imperfect) work that people such as Mr. Taruskin have committed to it, if only so that we can understand the context behind it.

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CopyWrong

I once watched a PBS-televised lecture featuring writer Clifford Stoll. He wrote one of the first true-life hacker books, called The Cookoo’s Egg (ISBN: 0671-72688-9), about his efforts to track a “telnet” hacker who was using the Berkeley University server hub as a means to tap into the Department of Defense. A very, very good book.

In the lecture he was discussing copyright issues and how it is becoming harder and harder for people to express themselves due to large corporations buying-up the rights and then registering patents for everything from Mickey Mouse to mere phrases/ideas written on cocktail napkins. He said the following (note: I’m paraphrasing due to the fact that it was over 5 years ago that I watched it):

If we had the same copyright protection rules historically that we have now, you know who the richest people on Earth would be? The League of Greek Mathematicians; because every time you used the Pythagorean Theorem you would have to pay a fee.

I cannot have chosen a better way to convey how utterly stupid and self-destructive the current copyright laws have become. I’m not arguing against someone protecting the fruits of their invention, however I neither support legally protecting a concept nor extending the patent protecting an invention for more than a reasonable fixed period of time. Historically the reason for patenting an invention was so that the originating inventor would have unabated means (in the marketplace) to collect the rewards of their work/investment – but it wasn’t meant to last forever.

Strangely, this was thwarted by a man who will probably go down in history as “Cher’s first husband”, Sonny Bono. He involved himself in politics and fought (until his death) to extend copyrights indefinitely. One can only speculate that he was concerned “I Got You Babe” wouldn’t net him any more proceeds. Details of this law (amended and passed) are here.

My reasoning is this: the evolution of an idea is often the result of a collaboration of thinkers over a long period of time. When the Principia Mathematica was published, Sir Isaac Newton – when asked about his breakthrough idea of gravity – said that he was only “standing on the shoulders of giants”, namely the likes of Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus: those who had come before him and provided the necessary groundwork to provide Newton with the tools to complete the picture.

The current environment is simply bad capitalism: dramatically limiting competition and the free evolution of ideas for short term profit. Sad.

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Context: cultural protectionism vs. indigenous identity

An interesting article on The Guardian today highlights an interesting question regarding cultural protectionism.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1734778,00.html?gusrc=rss

Excerpt:

 

Ministry bans export of Spanish writer’s manuscripts

 

Dale Fuchs in Madrid
Monday March 20, 2006
The Guardian

Signed manuscripts by one of Spain’s most influential novelists and philosophers of the 20th century, Miguel de Unamuno, have been declared “not for export” by the culture ministry, days before they were due to auctioned in Madrid.

The decision is part of a mounting effort to keep Spanish cultural treasures at home and follows a move earlier this month to get Interpol to prevent the sale of five 10th-century wooden beams from the historic Great Mosque of Cordoba.

On March 27, the Sala Durán auction house in Madrid plans to sell nine lots of letters and other documents by Unamuno, the author of Fog, Abel Sánchez and Teresa, some of them written during his exile from 1926 to 1930 in the Canary Islands and Paris, during the dictatorship of Primo Rivera. Other letters up for sale were written to his wife, children and other intellectuals and writers of his times, such as the poet Rubén Darío.

News of the sale, however, sounded the alarm at the culture ministry. It said it had declared the Unamuno manuscripts off limits to foreign buyers as “a cautionary measure” to “guarantee this assembly of extraordinary interest for Spain’s documental heritage” remains in the country.

It is the first in what will be a series of legal measures to preserve Spain’s cultural patrimony, the statement said. The Sala Durán told Spanish news agencies the auction would proceed as planned.

An interesting predicament (and I’d be curious to have people who live in Spain give more context to this). I suppose the chief conflict is whether cultural artifacts/icons should be freely subject to export or mandated to remain in-country. Although it isn’t clear who would be bidding on the works of de Unamuno (private sale, museum, university, etc.), there is a strong argument that by allowing fragments of ones heritage to be exported you are also exporting articles of cultural identity which could arguably serve a greater good via public access in an international setting (again, assuming the auction tilts towards public institutions). The world would be allowed to understand aspects of Spain’s culture that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to when these elements are available to them.

One of the problems with cultural protectionism is that the benefits tend to be short-term; if you refuse to allow cultural artifacts to be exported then you deny your culture a necessary life. Culture can neither be created nor destroyed by man; it is an ecosystem unto itself. Logically then, if you close the free export of culture (and I understand there may be very persuasive arguments for holding back) you are effectively cutting off a vine which should necessarily thrive unheeded. I generally feel that the only cultures which require protection are extinct/demised cultures – the Aztecs, for example. There is no way for the remnants of their culture to thrive without artificial means, thus it makes sense to take a protectionist stance.

My question is thus: what is the state of Spanish culture? Is there a need for protectionism? Am I totally off-base (probably)? Has Spanish culture, like Egyptian, been raided by foreign interests?

Have your say below…

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The Vagaries of Vagueness

I would hazard to say, standing in my media-saturated 21st century Western society, that being ‘vague’ is worse than being ‘wrong’. Today, you can be concisely misleading yet never be taken to task by your peers, whereas if you are perceived (even falsely) of ‘waffling’, it is presumed that you are a lower life form and a drag on the sail of civilisation.

Ask John Kerry, the gentleman who ran against the incumbent president of the United States in 2004. Although a confident public speaker, arguably his great shortcoming was an inability to distill his ideas (and, as the campaign wound-down, his reactions) in a precise way. Although he performed well in the presidential debates, off-stage he was generally unable to articulate a clear message at crucial junctures to a large population, many of whom were shopping for a new president. It didn’t help of course that his competitor’s well-funded propaganda machine (abetted by a democratically impotent news media) raised as many distracting peripheral issues as they could. Arguably, by the time Kerry could get back to the task of getting elected, he’d wasted much of his steam as well as the hopes and patience of the US public.

On the other side, the incumbent succeeded in spite of the fact that his administration was clearly contemptuous of journalists, artists, and anyone else who dared to posit difficult questions (being hallmarks of democracy the last time we checked). In other words, in spite of the fact that the administration treated the very people whose job it is to articulate the world around them like rubes, they won. They won a majority. But damn was he clear. Unlike his rival, George W. Bush was firm: cut-and-run, bait-and-switch, flip-flopper. These hyphenated accusations clearly, if inaccurately, conveyed moral and ethical failures within his opponent’s character and ideals. Whether or not his policies were realistic, they were precisely worded: we will not abandon our cause. If you asked what the cause was – easy: democracy.

What I’m saying is that we increasingly reward firmly-stated obfuscations over less impermeable truths.

I often wonder why there is so little true debate in our society, outside of academia. I’ve found that it’s because truth is neither precise, nor is it unyielding. Knowledge is inherently vague – and by knowledge, I don’t mean the concept of knowledge, but rather its practical application in society. Truth is messy; it’s neither red, nor blue, nor grey. Truth is moderated by the lack of absolute answers. The problem of course is that this doesn’t make for nicely-packaged media clips, so what we end up with are endless volleys of increasingly intolerant hyperbole.

When foisted truths are painted in the absolute (some would say fascist) colours of rhetoric the middle-ground of debate is sufficiently suffocated; the public is the loser. And when society’s moderators, the media, are complicit, debate is a moot point altogether. Even a cursory glance at the major news networks (in particular Fox and MSNBC) reveals this partisan implication. Not only is there a lack of interest in debate, but I would dare say that debate is increasingly synonymous with treason. For the last few years, treason has been the word often levelled at anyone questioning America’s involvement in Iraq. Recently, in Canada, the Prime Minister’s office has refused Parliamentary debate of our involvement in Afghanistan, citing ‘security reasons’. We are given the Bush administration’s long-standing argument: we will not cut-and-run. However, I can’t recall anyone initially stating: “Hey, let’s cut and run.”.

There are people, however, who indeed ask necessary questions: the whys, the hows, the whats, etc.. Contrary to the muffling rhetoric from government spokespeople, these necessary questions are not preludes to surrender, nor are they indicative of moral ‘waffling’. They are hallmarks of the very democracy our soldiers are trying (and dying) to instill. When questions that would necessarily draw out a less-than precise response are posited, they are either ignored or condemned. In doing so, our society continues to favour the impermanent solidity of rhetoric. The less solid but more applicable truths wait to be acknowledged, and I fear they will only be addressed in retrospect.

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