Friday, November 4, 2011

Machine of Death: The Cat or the Piano

First, a word of thanks to the trio behind Machine of Death, David Malki, Ryan North, and Matthew Bennardo. I promise not to vandalize your Wikipedia articles.

When I was younger and had young fever dreams of being an accomplished and celebrated author, I read lots of books and submission guidelines. All of them were realistically discouraging. This is appropriate and necessary, to dissuade the talentless from fooling themselves and the cliched from, well, being cliched. But for the Nick Drakes of the world, the shy but talented who take the worst toll from rejection, it can sap them of their will to create and rob the world of the chance to experience their gifts. What I found at Machine of Death was the opposite of this, the most open and encouraging process to novice creators imaginable. While I have no illusions that I have anything approaching the talent of Nick Drake, this openess helped me get excited about this project and start writing again, something I haven't done in far too long. Regardless of their rejection and whether or not I actually ever write anything worth publishing somewhere, I'll be grateful for that and glad I was part of this process. Rejection is hard, and usually lonely. But, at least for those of us on Twitter, it was a shared experience, and that was exciting and dulled the blow when it finally came. Maybe we can all start a message board somewhere and keep that sense of shared encouragement going.

The Cat or the Piano

     “Welcome back. I’m Charlie Rose, and tonight we’re discussing what has been colloquially become known as The Machine. We’re here tonight with two outspoken critics of The Machine, Rabbi Moshe Telushkin, ethicist at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and Dr. Randall Dobrzynski, physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Rabbi, you’ve written extensively about The Machine and its implications for free will.”
     “Yes, free will and personal responsibility. Religions have long wrestled with the question of free will in a world preordained by an all-powerful God, and I do not believe that the question we are discussing today differs significantly in its moral dimensions. It has long been a tenet of many religious faiths that despite their actions being preordained by God or another deity, people are still responsible for their moral choices and their consequences. In Christianity, the most notorious example is Judas, who despite his actions being not only preordained but absolutely necessary for Christianity itself to even exist, is still considered responsible for those actions and as a such is universally reviled and condemned to eternal suffering.
     “So,” the rabbi continued, “when confronted with this Machine which identifies your preordained fate, many act as if their actions have been removed from the arena of moral choice and responsibility. They can react in quite an irresponsible fashion: alcohol and chemical abuse, reckless sexual acts, ignoring their physical safety in a myriad of ways. What they also ignore is their responsibility for these reckless choices and the fact that they still remain moral actors.”
     “Dr. Dobrzynski,” Charlie asked, startling the physicist slightly. “You’ve discussed the scientific aspects of the Machine and the issue of moral choice.”
     “Yes, well,” Randall said, before clearing his throat. “The Rabbi and I differ when it comes to the issue of a preordained fate, but like him I’m also concerned about people removing themselves from making moral choices. In a way, they’re giving up their free will. It’s in a metaphorical way, but I’m concerned that they’re also doing it in quite a literal way as well.”
     “A literal way?”
     “Well, instead of just giving up responsibility for their choices, they’re also giving up their choices, or at least one very important choice. I’m not sure that the Machine is telling people what will happen. I think it’s deciding what will happen.”
     “That’s a bold statement. What’s the scientific basis for that conclusion?” Charlie asked.
     “At the risk of oversimplifying: There are, basically, subatomic particles that exist in multiple states simultaneously and you can’t know what state the particle is until you observe it. There’s a thought experiment that helps explain this, a scenario that serves as a kind of scientific metaphor, something we’ve been using in quantum physics for about a century, devised by Erwin Schrödinger, a German– um, I mean Austrian physicist.
     “So,” Randall continued, gesturing along with his words, “you have a cat in a box. In the box with the cat is a lethal gas that’s activated by particle decay. If the particle is in one state, it releases the gas and kills the cat. If the particle is in another state, the cat is fine. But you don’t know which until you open the box. In a sense, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, because that choice hasn’t yet been made.”
     “Maybe we should keep the box closed,” Charlie suggested.
     “That’s precisely my point, Charlie. By not opening the box, the fate of the cat is still an open question. It’s the same with the Machine. By opening the box, so to speak, we’re not only learning our fate, but deciding it as well.”
     “But,” the Rabbi interjected, “if this Machine is literally, as you say, deciding our fate, wouldn’t that decision require some action on the part of the Machine? After all, you need the gas to slay the cat, and the particle to activate the gas. So whatever action the Machine is taking, you could measure that, couldn’t you?”
     “Yes,” Randall agreed, “and that’s part of the theory that we’re investigating. It’s why we’ve reopened some of the particle accelerators at Fermilab. We’re hoping to measure particle activity in some way.”
     “Stephen Hawking has theorized that it had something to do with quantum ‘strings’,” Charlie pointed out.
     “Yes, string theory is a definite possibility.”
     “So,” Charlie asked, raising an eyebrow, “have you measured any activity yet from the Machine?”
     “No. No, we haven’t.”

     “So you’ve come down here to see how real science is done?” Randall quipped when Harvey entered the room. Dr. Harvey Doyle was the head of Administration at Fermilab, in charge of money and grants and paperwork and everything else that Randall hated about the practice of science. By all rights, he probably should have hated Harvey too, but despite his best efforts, he was very fond of the jovial administrator.
     “Nah, I gave that up ages ago,” Harvey said with a grin. “That sort of thing is best left to the experts like you.”
     “Flattery, Harvey? Now I know there’s something wrong.”
     “Well, there’s this thing,” the administrator continued, his smile faltering. Whenever Harvey started a sentence like that, Randall knew there was trouble. Hell, there was usually trouble when Harvey did as little as walk in the room.
     “There’s been a bit of...controversy about your appearance on Charlie Rose,” he explained.
     “Really? I didn’t think anyone watched Charlie Rose,” Randall replied flatly.
     “You’re right, probably nobody outside of pseudointellectuals and insomniacs. But there is a short YouTube clip of highlights that’s proven to be quite popular.”
     “Of course there is,” the physicist sighed. There was a Youtube clip of everything these days. “So what’s happened? Is PETA campaigning to save Schrödinger’s cat?”
     “You know, it’s one thing to sternly disapprove of the Machine in abstract like those mothers in the Anti-MoD League or an old fuddyduddy like that rabbi.”
     “Fuddyduddy? Only fuddyduddies use words like fuddyduddy, Harvey.”
     “What I’m saying is the ‘kids these days’ routine is one thing, but it’s quite another thing to say that the Machine literally is a malevolent force. Fox News is running clips of The Exorcist.”
     “The day I pay any attention to what-”
     “I know,” Harvey interrupted, “but it’s gone a bit beyond the lunatic fringe now. We’ve had thousands of complaints. There are even protests.”
     “When the hell did all of this happen? It’s only been three days.”
     “You’ve been in the lab, Randall. You do tend to get a bit absorbed.”
     “True,” Randall conceded.
     “I’m even hearing grumblings from the grant agencies and insurance companies,” Harvey said, his tone becoming more serious.
     “What? What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
     “Let’s be honest, here. You’re already considered an insurance risk - and a bit of a loose cannon, might I add - since you’re one of about seven adults in this country who hasn’t used the Machine yet.”
     “So that’s what it is. Everyone else is so miserable about the quality of their impending demises that they want me to be miserable too.”
     “That very well may be, but if this thing gets even more out of hand and the money starts drying up...You might have to be miserable, too. You might have to use the Machine.”
     “That’ll be the fucking day.”

     The day came. Randall found himself in the Machine’s room, muttering to himself while rolling up his sleeve and glaring at whatever he could get his eyes on. “You don’t have to do that, sir,” Suresh, the Machine operator, told him.
     Randall ignored him.
     “And all those goddamn grant boards can go fuck themselves. They’ll come back begging to give me cash when I crack the entanglement problem.”
     Harvey just nodded, silently.
     “And those fucking insurance companies that are running our lives a lot more than this fucking Machine does. All those assholes on Fox are gonna crow that I’m going back on what I said, that I’m a fucking flip-flopper. I’m only doing this for the insurance. I want everybody to know that. Harvey, make sure everybody knows that.”
     “We know, Randall,” Harvey replied. “I’ll make sure everyone knows.”
     “My son needs that insurance. My fucking ex-wife sure as hell won’t be able to give it to him.” Randall pointed at the administrator angrily. It wasn’t Harvey’s fault, he knew, but he had to find somewhere to direct his fury. “Makes sure my son gets all of it. I don’t want a fucking penny to go to her.”
     “They don’t make pennies anymore, Randall.”
     “You know what I fucking mean!”
     “Don’t worry, Randall,” Harvey replied, attempting something close to a soothing tone. “It’s all taken care off. The paperwork’s done and the trust fund is already set up.”
     There was silence, before Randall let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Okay, let’s get this over with.”
     Suresh wheeled the bulky black mass of the Machine closer and pointed to a small round opening. “Just stick your finger in there,” he stated and wiped down Randall’s index finger with an alcohol pad. There was a moment of hesitation and then Randall plunged his finger inside. He winced as the needle pricked him and yanked his finger away. The sooner he was far, far away from this goddamn machine, the better.
     All three men were silent as the Machine did its work. A green light appeared in the blackness, and a white card spit out of a slot on the side. Randall glanced at the other two men, and slowly reached for the card.
     “Oh, what the fuck is this?” he roared, resisting the overwhelming urge to rip the paper to shreds by handing it to Harvey. The other men looked at the small, crisp white card, which read in bold black lettering: THE CAT OR THE PIANO.
     “Is that a band name?” asked Suresh. Harvey caught himself before he laughed.
     “This doesn’t even make any fucking sense,” Randall raved, beginning to pace back and forth. “There must be some kind of malfunction. The Machine tells you what happens; it doesn’t give you a fucking choice. That’s the whole point of the damn thing! You get an answer. No one’s ever gotten a question before.” Before he had even finished, Suresh had the back of the Machine open and was already preparing a diagnostic test.
     After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, Harvey spoke. “It’s not a question.”
     “What?” Randall glanced up from the spot on his shoes he’d been studying intently, in an effort to not walk out the door immediately.
     “Look, there’s no question mark. So it’s not a question, it’s a statement.”
     “I doubt the Machine is a fucking stickler for grammar.”
     “Why not? We know that some of the time it issues results that are cryptic, even ironic. Results that are ambiguous enough to be interpreted incorrectly by the recipient– a message with a twist, you might say. Maybe you think it’s a question, but it’s really not. I think it’s a statement.”
     “A statement of what?”
     “I don’t know, maybe it’s identifying a particular cat?” Harvey proposed with a shrug.
     “A particular cat? Who the fuck would name their cat ‘Or the Piano’?”
     “Salvador Dalí?” the administrator suggested, fighting back a wry grin.
     Randall glared. “I’ll tell you who would name their cat ‘Or the Piano’. Fucking liberal arts majors, that’s who. In fact, I bet they’re behind this whole Machine thing. Who the hell else would relish ironic deaths except for people who were force fed a diet of ancient Greek drama? They’re just mad because they can’t get real jobs.”
     “And quantum physicist is a real job?”
     “Real fucking funny, Harvey. Now when Suresh is done hooking this thing up to electrodes, let’s try it again and see if we can get a sane result this time.”
     hey did. The result was the same.

     Randall didn’t visit downtown Batavia very often; there was little to see and even less that interested him. But grant money was still hard to get and he was making little progress in the lab, so he had taken to long walks to see if he could puzzle out things in his head. On one of these trips, about two years after his Machine reading, on a downtown sidewalk he walked past two delivery men pulling on a rope which led to a piano suspended in the air next to a second story window.
     Three thoughts went through Randall’s head in rapid succession. First was a burst of equations he hadn’t used in years, filling his head with torque and strain and vectors. Then, he thought that it was odd that they still delivered pianos this way, like you might see in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. With the third thought, his eyes went wide.
     He was no longer under the piano, but he instinctively turned the other direction and found himself faced with a fat orange cat strolling across the sidewalk as if it were his own little feline kingdom.
     Randall ran straight into the street, cackling both in fear and in pleasure at his own cleverness in rejecting the choice presented to him. There was a third option, one free from pondering the cryptic message on that little white card every time he saw a fucking Steinway or his neighbor’s little grey kitten. He’d be free from the goddamn question the Machine had given him. The Machine would be wrong.
     Randall didn’t feel what happened next, but he heard the screech of tires, the shattering of glass, and the sound of his own body hitting the pavement with a sickening thump. The last thing he saw was that orange cat staring at him from the sidewalk with what he swore was an unmistakable grin.
     You fucking bastard, he thought.