The Ghost in the Machine – A Cautionary Tale

June 25, 2009

This piece has been floating around the internet for a while. I decided that I might as well have it on my own site. I’ll also put it under Commentary.

It all started a couple of years ago on a Saturday afternoon. I turned on the radio to listen to the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcast, forgetting that Parsifal was scheduled. Being comfortably settled in a stuffed reclining chair, I was too lazy to turn the radio off. Besides, nothing can put you to sleep faster than Wagner. No sooner had
the music started than I conked out. A couple of hours later, I woke up with a terrible toothache. The first act of Parsifal was still oozing from my speakers. I called my dentist who agreed to see me immediately; the weather was too bad for golf, which explained his availability. A few minutes later, I was in his chair after having had enough
X-rays to cure two cancers.

“Root canal,” he said after looking at the films.

“You always say that,” I opined. He ignored my comment and proceeded to fill a syringe with enough anesthetic to make me numb to the waist.

“Wait,” I said, unwilling to be narcotized for a week. “Turn on the radio.” He did. The first act of Parsifal was still on. “God never made a pain that could stand up to that,” I said pointing to the radio.

The dental work took an hour. I felt nothing. Wagner’s slow, slower, and slowest tempos had turned my brain to Jell-O. I wondered if I shouldn’t have opted for the anesthetic after all. When I left the dentist’s office, the first act of Parsifal was still coming from my car radio which I always leave on.

After entering my house, my jaw started to ache. I turned on my stereo, set the volume as loud as my three amplifiers (1200 watts) and six speakers would reach allowing me to get the maximum anesthetic effect that the first act of Parsifal could deliver. It worked. I was immediately numb. Three hours later, the first act of Parsifal still not concluded, I figured could handle any residual pain sans Wagner. I turned off the stereo and went about my usual Saturday night activities.

On Sunday, I stayed home. Monday morning, I got into my car to drive to work. The radio started up as usual. The first act of Parsifal was still on. Strange, I thought, I don’t remember it being this long. But I really had never paid much attention to the opera, so maybe it was just a little bit longer than the rest of Wagner’s oeuvre. That evening as I drove home, the first act of Parsifal was still coming from my radio. Now I was sure something untoward was afoot. I turned the radio off to allow my brain to clear sufficiently to analyze what had happened. No explanation came to mind.

When I entered my house, I was afraid to turn on the radio for fear that the first act of Parsifal might still be on. But eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I turned the thing on. You can imagine my relief when not a trace of Wagner emanated from my speakers. KOHM was in the middle of a Frank Bridge festival. Thus, the problem seemed solved even if I could not explain it.

I was halfway to work the next morning when I turned the car radio back on, hoping to miss the end of whatever NPR was playing when to my amazement I encountered the first act of Parsifal. It now hit me that my car radio had contracted a persistent infection. I had heard about people being infected by Wagner, but never a machine. What might the cure be? The only thing I could think of was to put the radio at prolonged rest. So I turned it off, planning to keep it inactive for at least a month. Again I was amazed; it wouldn’t go off. Not only would it not quit, but the first act of Parsifal was now coming from every position on the dial. The infection had spread. The only way I could make the thing shut up was to turn off the ignition. That was not a long-term solution, however. In fact, it proved not to be a short-term fix either. When I turned off the ignition upon returning home that night, the first act of Parsifal continued to drone from the car’s speakers. What was I to do now? You could hear lugubrious leitmotifs all over the house. If I moved the car out of the garage onto the street, the neighbors would probably call the police. After a while, my dogs started to howl, the cat ran away, the parrot went permanently mute, and all my tropical fish died. I had to get rid of the car, but who would buy a car that was chronically infected with the first act of Parsifal?

After the worst night of my life, I called the National Kidney Foundation. They have a program that accepts used cars as donations. They were really interested when I described my almost new car, until I got to the Parsifal problem.

“This type of disease is outside the purview of the NKF,” said the foundation’s spokesman. He then hung up the phone before I could beg him to take the car.

The only course was euthanasia. I took the car to my vet and had him put it to sleep. It was a total loss. I immediately bought a new car, but only after trying out its radio. To my relief, the Frank Bridge festival was still being broadcast by KOHM.

When I got home, I turned on the TV to watch Sesame Sweet, but the picture tube was dark while the first act of Parsifal snaked from the set’s speaker. The first act of Parsifal was also on every radio and TV in the house. It was even on the house’s intercom. I had destroyed the car too late to prevent contagion. I turned off every device in the house attached to a speaker and darkened the house. The place was quiet for a few days. I felt comfortable enough to turn the lights on. The calm persisted. At six the next morning, my alarm clock went off as usual, but instead of the electronic beep, I was roused by the first act of Parsifal. Like a string of firecrackers, every speaker in the house took up the first act of Parsifal in a sequence of belching tubas and guttural barks masquerading as singing. I dressed as fast as I could and fled my contaminated house.

What was I to do? Burning down your own home is illegal – I think. Before I could ponder my predicament further, the first act of Parsifal came unbidden from the speakers of my new car’s stereo system like quicksand at a Tupperware party. The revelation of Oedipus’s descent was a mere bagatelle compared to the emotion that this sound provoked in my breast. My old car had infected my house, which in turn had infected my new car. I was in an abyss of despair. I abandoned the car in the middle of the road and walked to work.

The rest of the day passed like the final recollections of a drowning man. I couldn’t go home knowing what was waiting for me there, so I checked into the cheapest motel I could find hoping that it would not have a radio or a TV in it. Even at $12 a night there was a television set in the room. Of course, I didn’t turn it on. In fact, I unplugged it and left it in the parking lot.

I finally fell into a frenzied sleep, seething with primal fear. Then I awoke with a shudder. A sound filled the inside of my head; it was the first act of Parsifal. It was coming from the fillings in my teeth. They were acting like a crystal radio. I had become Parsifal positive. Despite the hour, I called my dentist. He was quite huffy about being disturbed at such a premature time until I told him that Wagner was coming out of my teeth – and not just any Wagner, but the first act of Parsifal.

“I’ve heard about cases like yours,” he said, “but I never thought I’d see one.”

“You haven’t seen it yet,” I said, hoping to encourage him to prompt action.

“Okay,” he said, “meet me at my office in 20 minutes.”

I was there in five.

“I’m afraid there’s only one thing that can be done for you.” The dentist was gowned and gloved; he wore a lead apron and protective headgear and leggings. He breathed through a portable oxygen apparatus. His office music system played Rossini overtures which he felt would protect the place from the infection. “All your teeth have to
come out.

“Will that cure me?”

“Who knows,” he shrugged, “but it’s all science has to offer.”

Two years or so have passed since I last showed signs of the first act of Parsifal.
I’m toothless, homeless, carless, and on permanent leave from my job. I won’t be allowed back until I’m symptom-free for at least five years. My health insurance has been canceled. My friends and family have abandoned me. I am a shell of a man.

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Wagnerians.

Originally published:
Kurtzman NA: The Ghost in the Machine – A Cautionary Tale. Lubbock Magazine (August):34-35, 1997.

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Off With Their Thumbs

March 31, 2009

I propose that the top 2% of earners in the US have their left thumbs amputated under the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services. Of course, this would be done under the proper medical supervision and with all necessary anesthesia and post-operative analgesia. We are a humane country. Left handers would have the option of having their right thumbs removed. Read the rest of this entry »


Americans Addicted to Food

March 8, 2009

The normally sober George Will seems to have lost his marbles over corn. His latest column makes the discovery that America has figured out how to make almost endless amounts of food at a very low price. Mr Will thinks that this is bad because cheap food allows people to eat too much of it. If you eat too much you get fat, If you get fat your health may suffer. Wow! What a discovery. Stop the presses or whatever passes for them on the internet.

Will invokes Tom Vilsack Iowa’s former governor and current Secretary of Agriculture throughout his screed. While he doesn’t come out and say it he strongly implies that the government should do something about overeating and overproducing of food. I’d have thought that he’d value the latter but he thinks we have too much corn and beef and that we can’t be trusted with this abundance. This from a conservative.

You’d better put a lock on your refrigerator and cupboard, not to keep yourself from pigging out but to keep the government inspectors away. What inspectors? Well if George Will thinks the government should do something about overeating what will the current administration do about the fat problem? The FBI will become Fat Bureau of Investigation.

We already have weigh stations for trucks. Why not have them for people as well. If you’re walking down the street the FBI can haul you aside and weigh you. If your BMI is over 25 you’ll be fined $100 for every number over 25. Fines will double at 30 and triple at 35. OK, I know nobody walks, so we’ll put weigh stations on the roads and get the food transgressors on the way to the supermarket. We could even put scales at the checkout counter. Let no pound go uncounted.

Restaurant use obviously needs more government regulation. We could have a free market solution by instituting a cap and trade food coupon program. If you want to go to MacDonalds and have used up all your food coupons you could buy them from some anorexic teenager who still has all of hers. Let capitalism reign supreme.

So we’ve added food addiction to our addiction to energy. The finale of the second law of thermodynamics (the nasty one that requires the ultimate heat death of the universe) can’t come too soon for those obsessed by the latter. What’s next? The answer to that one is obvious. Water addiction.

Most of the world is short or soon will be short of water. Everyone knows, well not everyone – doctors, well not all doctors – nephrologists, that most people drink more water than they need. Typical fluid intake by American adults is about two liters. They could get by on 600 ml if they stayed cool and didn’t exercise too much. Ah, but now we have a problem. We don’t want people to stay too cool. Air conditioning, energy use, greenhouse gases. If they don’t exercise they’ll get fat and will need more government intervention. But if they do exercise they’ll get thirsty and drink more. We might need a blue ribbon commission. Then we can ration fluid intake appropriately.

The 800 pound gorilla that no one dares bring up but which will crush the life out of us if we don’t confront it is — air addiction. Every time you or anything animal breathes it emits carbon dioxide. OK it’s out in the open. Too much breathing and the polar bears die. George Will the ball is in your court.


IRS Should Force Churches to Pray More

February 13, 2009

A new report by the IRS has documented that most not for profit hospitals don’t take care of poor people. The author of the report could have asked his mother and she’d have told him that hospitals only take care of non-payers at the point of a gun and she’d have done so at no cost to the government. An IRS report on whether a tax on love will increase federal revenues is due Valentine’s Day; the year has yet to be specified.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Sen. Charles Grassley is considering introducing legislation that would hold nonprofit hospitals more accountable for their tax breaks, aides to the Iowa senator, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, have said. The legislation would require them to spend a minimum amount on free care for the poor and set curbs on executive compensation and conflicts of interest, the aides have said.”  Some top level executives at not for profit hospitals are making (I’d never say earning) more than $1 million a year. I don’t know how many have corporate jets.

Sen. Grassley, the deep thinking republican from Iowa, has not thought deeply enough. This problem is worse than he realizes. Harvard is a not for profit corporation that has a 12 gazillion dollar endowment that used to generate tax free earning and likely will again sometime this century. It pays some of it’s faculty $500,000 a year and they have tenure allowing them to all hold the same opinions. Harvard’s president makes at least a million. Both these figures seem way too high to me. Grassley should haul some of these freeloaders before the finance committee and tell them about the real world.

After he gets finished with Harvard he can look closer to home. The University of Iowa probably pays its football coach $2 million or more a year. This is a real triple dip. The university is owned by the state, contributions to its athletic department are tax deductible, and it gets federal grants. I’m sure Grassley will be shocked and dismayed when he discovers these outrageous inequities. Even the team’s quarterback makes less than $2 million and he has to take hits by 300 pound linemen while the coach just needs a scowl and a clipboard. See list below. *

Grassley should also look at churches. They’re all tax exempt. They don’t even pay property taxes. This is grossly unfair to atheists. To belong to one of these tax exempt churches you have to be a member of its denomination. They refuse to admit people to membership because of their religion. Not only is this unfair it’s probably illegal. Some pastors are clearly paid too much. They get six figure salaries and plush benefits. The government should set limits on their compensation as a condition of their retaining their tax exemption. Furthermore, if churches want to keep their tax exemptions they should prove they are regularly praying for the souls of atheists. A certified prayer audit should be mandated. You don’t wanna pay you gotta pray.

Professional baseball enjoys an exemption from anti-trust laws. $27 million a year for a baseball player who uses performance enhancing drugs – I’ve already written about Viagra – outrageous. We need more of Grassley here too. The government should direct that no athlete who plays in a stadium that was given a tax break when it was built should get more than $500,000 a year, even if his sport doesn’t get a pass from anti-trust laws. Also no corporate jets for executives or players who’ve gotten any sort of help from government.

Talking about jets, Nancy Pelosi should have to fly on commercial flights just like the rest of us poor jerks. Joe Bidden should stay on Amtrak; he likes it and they need the business. Doing so would also spare the US embarrassment abroad. I’d let the president keep Air Force One as it would be mortifying if he got stuck on American Eagle in Lubbock when he was supposed to be in London.

When you come right done to it, everybody should work for minimum wage. The government should make up the rest with more benefits. What’s attractive about this plan is that no one will be making enough to pay income tax so the benefits will go further. Income tax receipts are now such a small fraction of our national expenditure that we won’t miss them.

As for Congress, their zeal for public service is obviously so great that they won’t mind working for nothing. Finally, if you need someone to blame about anything that’s going wrong don’t look in the mirror – blame George Bush. Bashing him should work for at least two more election cycles and it makes everyone feel so much better.

The following list has just been released – Feb 23, 2009

Top college salaries

Highest earners at private colleges (in millions, not including college presidents –  many president make more than $1 million):

1 Pete Carroll, head football coach, USC $4.4
2 David Silvers, clinical professor, dermatology, Columbia $4.3
3 Michael Johns, executive VP, health affairs, Emory $3.7
4 Arthur Rubenstein, executive VP and dean, School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania $3.3
5 Zev Rosenwaks, professor, Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility, Cornell $3.1
6 David Swensen, chief investment officer, Yale $3.0
7 Harry Jacobson, vice chancellor health affairs, Vanderbilt $2.6
8 Jeffrey Moses, professor of medicine, Columbia $2.5
9 Norman B. Urmy, former executive vice president for clinical affairs, Vanderbilt $2.4
10 James Grifo, professor, obstetrics and gynecology, NYU $2.4

Public Polled on Origin of the Universe

February 9, 2009

The report that the public favors the economic stimulus package now before the congress shows how great is popular understanding of complex issues. According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp survey A slight majority of those surveyed, 54% , favors the bill while 45% are opposed. Sixty-four percent of those polled said the current bill being debated in the Senate would help the economy a lot or somewhat, while 36%  felt that the package would not help the economy much or at all.

A little later CNN released the results of another poll which showed that 52% of 1286 randomly chosen Americans thought that Friedmann’s equations decisively established an expanding universe. Only 28% were in favor of a static universe. The remaining 20% were either undecided or believed in non-standard cosmologies. A large majority, 85%, thought Einstein erred when he introduced the cosmological constant as a modification of his original theory of general relativity in order to achieve a stationary universe.

Soon to be released is a poll of Americans and Canadians which will ask whether the dual resonance model of string theory should be changed to to include any group of related superstring theories. They will also be asked if string theory should be ignored because it has not yet provided quantitative experimental predictions. Only Americans will be asked whether the current stimulus bills should include support for research on hadrons, 11 dimensional M theory, D-branes, quantum chromodynamics, and zero-dimensional horizons.

Vox populi


Everything’s Got a Reason, If Only You Can Find It

January 22, 2008

Also in Commentary

For a decade I’ve been a chairman. Last month I got a new ID card that declared I was now a chairperson. Since I believe in the inexorable march of progress I’m sure that this appellationary alteration will serve a noble end even if I’m clueless as to what it might be. So, like a true academic, I’ve decided to help purge the language of bad words although I don’t why I’m doing so or why the words are bad. While I’ve researched many sources, I am especially indebted to The American Journal of Bowdlerization for much of what follows and which I hope can be expanded into a sabbatical proposal.

Let’s start with the obnoxious chairman. Two alternatives are offered by the AJB, chair and chairperson. Neither is good enough. A chair is an inanimate object, a piece of furniture. Now I readily admit that a lot of chairmen resemble inanimate objects, but it’s not nice to rub our faces in it. That leaves chairperson – person? – SON? No way Jose. That’s as bad as chairman. Persit, that’s the only solution. It will offend no one not given to foolish introspection. Thus instead of being inanimate or gender specific one can be the chairpersit of the department.
Now for some tough ones. What are we going to do with man and woman? The AJB proscribes man, but is mute about woman. Are they mad? Don’t they know that woman means ‘of man’? Besides being linguistically offensive, woman is anatomically incorrect. With the exception of the first couple (I refer to Adam and Eve, not the Clintons), men are of women not the other way around.

So consider woman. The second syllable is obviously outre. If we can’t have policeman or fireman or salesman, we can’t have woman. What to put in its place? Wopersit though inoffensive seems charmless. Wo— admits to lack of imagination. I think we must eliminate all vestige of the hated three letters and use wo – one wo, two wos.

Man, thus, is a snap, duck soup, a cinch. Wowo for man, meaning of woman-oops, of wo. The AJB has good intentions but keeps slipping up. They recommend huMANity for mankind and perSONpower for manpower; these changes are, of course no changes at all. The correct words should by now be obvious. Girl and boy are problems to many thoughtful persits. Just think how offensively these words are sometimes used. Some would replace girl with prewoman, which of course should be prewo and eliminate boy altogether. While I sympathize with this view, I would retain girl and boy provided the persit in question has a medical certificate documenting that puberty has not commenced. We should avoid even the appearance of unreasonableness.

The AJB advises Happy Holidays for Merry Christmas. This is the ‘Put the X back in Xmas’ approach. Sober persit I am, I would allow Merry Christmas provided that a baptismal certificate is available from the persit to whom the salutation is addressed. In addition, I would limit the expression solely to the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Holiday should be avoided since it means ‘holy day’ and might offend atheists.

The third person singular is another thorny issue. He/she and he or she are recherche as is mixing singular and plural pronouns; eg: “Whenever a person (sic) says they are innocent.” We need a new word, a gender neutral third person singular pronoun.

Having come up with persit, I am reluctant to try for a home run again. I suggest a federally funded task force to supply the lacking word. In general, however, I find myself in agreement with the AJB’s guidelines for revised speech. Thinking-impaired for stupid, sex worker for call girl, land-of-one’s birth for fatherland or motherland (naturalized citizens will have to tough it out), height-deprived obstructor for shortstop, etc.

Now there are those who say that all this mucking around with language has to lead to some demonstrable good to be justified and that no one has provided any such evidence. To which I reply balderdash. The search for the mot juste is a justifiable end in itself. On a more practicable level, policing the language provides work opportunities for ability-impaired academics who might otherwise be employably-challenged.

We must not give offense. Therefore the safest course is never to say or write anything. Humming and doodling are okay. Reading should be closely regulated, for obvious reasons.

Aristophanes, Swift, and lesser satirists should be expunged from the curriculum since the purpose of satire is to offend and that’s not nice.

By the way, my editor has just informed me that the last syllable of my last name has got to go and so do I.

Originally published:
Kurtzman NA: Everything’s Got a Reason, If Only You Can Find It. Lubbock Magazine
(Dec):27, 1995.