Tag Archives: Rob

A Belated Review of Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

“Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis.” – Ed Finnerty, Player Piano

The following is a selection of articles recently published in well-known publications:

When it is neither possible nor practical to perform an experiment to either prove or disprove a hypothesis or question, one still has an option at his or her disposal: the thought experiment, which involves the theoretical examination of a situation and the use of logic to determine the accompanying results that are possible or even likely.

playapiaNO

In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published his first work of fiction entitled Player Piano that employed the method mentioned above.  Specifically, Mr. Vonnegut imagined a future for the United States in which labor has been replaced entirely with automated machines, a situation that certainly would have required the power of imagination at the time of its publication.  In this imagined future, consumer need for the entire country is determined by a central computer that directs industry accordingly, thus producing the supply that matches the calculated demand.

American society finds itself divided in to two classes: the engineers and managers, a patrician minority that oversees the machines, and the remainder of the population consisting of a plebeian majority that is in the paid service of the government performing menial work.  For the plebs, life has become meaningless and pointless, since they are unable utilize those innate skills and talents that they would so desperately like to use; disillusionment and despondency is universal.

However, although a sequestered elite, all are not true believers among the engineers and managers.  Dr. Paul Proteus, the son of the chief designer of this Second Industrial Revolution that had relegated so many to listless lives, cannot quash his qualms about the state of society and its division of class.  Through acquaintances both new and old, Proteus navigates the ruthlessly competitive world in which he finds himself a part and becomes involved with the “Ghost Shirt Society” and the rebellion that is brewing.

Despite having been published in 1952, Mr. Vonnegut paints a disturbing and visionary picture of what life could resemble in a world dominated by machines, and when one considers the ever-evolving role of technology in every aspect of life today, there is a good deal to consider.

“And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.” – Dr. Paul Proteus, Player Piano

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type), eBook

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

The Lady Vanishes

EmptyMansions

What is it about a mystery that so captivates the imagination and spikes one’s interest?  Hidden histories, concealed conspiracies, and secrets spirited away spur the cogs of the human mind to rotate in double time in an effort to consider and grasp the possibilities that exist.

Empty Mansions: the Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. attempts to shed some light on the mysterious life of an American woman, Ms. Huguette Clark, whose unconventional way of life and veiled existence leaves one with an overwhelming curiosity and a wish to pierce the cloak of her life.

But this is not the typical mystery involving murder, a legendary bank heist, or the disappearance of some person.  It is, rather, the life led by Ms. Clark that would seem incomprehensible to many if not most.  You see, Ms. Clark was born the youngest daughter of one of the wealthiest American men of the Gilded Age, Mr. William Clark, but despite her incredible inherited wealth, Ms. Clark led a quiet and extremely reclusive life.

With estates in both California and Connecticut, lodgings in the Upper East Side of Manhattan that encompassed an entire floor, and an art collection that included paintings by Renoir and Monet and valued in the tens of millions of dollars, Ms. Clark most certainly could have provided herself with every creature comfort available, yet she did not.

Instead, she chose to spend her last years in an isolated hospital room, surrounded not by family or friends, but those persons in her paid service, and what a lucrative service it was, which begs the question: had she in fact chosen this fate?  Therein lies the mystery.

After her death in 2011 at the age of 104, distant relatives, many of whom had never spoken with Ms. Clark, came together to file a suit that contested a recent will that left Ms. Clark’s family out.  With missing jewelry, art being stolen and sold, and large sums questionably spent, many questions abound, and Mr. Dedman has made an admirable attempt to provide possible answers based on his extensive research and investigation.  This is a tale that is sure to hold the interest of the reader and intrigue with its many facets.

Formats Available:  Book, E-book

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill Branch

The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis’ Gilded Age in the Valley of the Kings by John M. Adams

 “This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community – the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”                 - Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth (1889)

The Industrial Revolution represents the primary impetus by which the United States transitioned from an agrarian-based to an industrial-based economy, which resulted in a massive and unprecedented shift in the population moving from the rural country to the urban city. While the wealth of the country significantly increased, much of it was held by a select few, populated by familiar names such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. This group, eventually coined the Robber Barons, led incredibly luxurious lives that were far removed and in no way resembled the existences lived by the vast majority of the rest of the population. Counted among this group was a man whose name today would be recognized by very few and whose story is told in a 2013 biography written by John M. Adams: Theodore Montgomery Davis.

The life of Mr. Davis in many ways exemplified both the American Dream and the Gilded Age. He was born in 1838 to a well-liked minister known for his fire-and-brimstone preaching and was left destitute, along with his mother and two siblings, when his father died of consumption in 1841; Mr. Davis’ oldest sibling, Arthur, would join his father the following year. Despite further challenges and setbacks, Mr. Davis provided himself with education and eventually became a lawyer. While many of his colleagues had aspirations for politics or other public endeavors, it would seem that Mr. Davis’ sole interest was the employment of all means available to him to build a great fortune, and a great fortune is precisely what Mr. Davis acquired – in a rather dubious manner; a true rags-to-riches story peppered with shady dealings.

Now we come to the point that connects the excerpt that opened this short review. Once his great fortune was secure, Mr. Davis could have spent the remainder of his life in the pursuit of selfish desires, and even though he did engage in those activities that were the hallmark of his class at that time, he developed a passion for Ancient Egypt and its antiquities, and he personally funded expeditions in the Valley of the Kings in the early 1900s that employed scientific methods to excavate tombs; he was not a simple grave robber. By 1914, Mr. Davis believed that no tombs of any import were left in the Valley of the Kings, and his concessions were passed on to Lord Carnarvon, whose funding provided the famous archaeologist Howard Carter with the means to eventually locate the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922, totally eclipsing the discoveries of Mr. Davis. Through the efforts and patronage of Mr. Davis, several very famous and important discoveries were made that significantly contributed to Egyptology, and those artifacts that were uncovered by his excavations were donated during his life or bequeathed after his death to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Cairo Museum. As with his contemporaries, it would seem that Mr. Davis felt philanthropy was his duty.

Alternating between archaeological digs and stages in the life of Mr. Davis, Mr. Adams has captured an era in the United States when great fortunes produced a class of Americans of such wealth that the world was literally their oyster. It is fortunate for us, I suppose, that they were willing to share.

-Rob-