Monday, January 15, 2007

Show me your machines

My former mentor Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995] invented musique concrète, which consisted of using equipment such as microphones, audio filters and tape recorders to create music composed of multifarious noises. One might have imagined this graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique as an electronics geek fascinated by machines, but this was not at all the case. I believe Pierre always had more respect for pianos, violins and the human voice than for devices that you plug into an electricity socket. He used to refer mockingly to a Japanese admirer, himself a composer, who turned up one day at Schaeffer's musical research center in Paris and said: "Maestro, show me your machines!" It was like a mindless command from an alien: "Take me to your leader!" Pierre detested the idea that anybody might attribute more importance to equipment than to the humans who manipulated it.

As a longtime computerist, I tend to be fascinated by certain machines, particularly when they seem to be capable of performing interesting tasks in an "intelligent" style. (Don't ask me what the adjective "intelligent" means.) But the anecdote about Schaeffer and his Japanese visitor springs into my mind and interrupts my enthusiasm—like a circuit breaker—whenever I feel myself getting too carried away by impressive electronic equipment. For example, the other day, when I was adding my two cents worth of praise concerning the Apple iPhone, I had the impression that my old friend Pierre was looking down on me from his heavenly research center and softly sneering.

Ah, not a day goes by without my thinking what a pity it is that Pierre is no longer with us to cogitate upon the consequences of the Internet. I'm not sure that he would have actually got around to using the net himself (except maybe for writing a blog), but I'm convinced that he would have invented several theories and written a dozen books about it. And he would have encouraged all of us to produce multimedia accounts about the metaphysics of the Internet, and he would have then shot down our work in flames, concluding that we were all incapable of correctly analyzing this new phenomenon. And, as usual, we would have all agreed with Pierre...

Recently, my daughter gave me this new machine, which is supposed to make such things as toasted sandwiches. It's not, however, the sort of machine that whips up my enthusiasm. Curiously, the appliance doesn't have an on/off switch. So, you have to actually pull the plug out of the socket to turn it off. Worse, during my unique test of the device, it succeeded in blowing the circuit breaker in my kitchen... which also shut down abruptly my Macintosh. So, you might say that this appliance didn't get off to a good start with me. I'd gladly give it away to a needy neighbor, but no neighbor needs a fire to break out in his kitchen.

In any case, as I mentioned in a previous blog, I already have a pair of excellent French machines: one for making bread and the other for toasting sandwiches.

Meanwhile, without becoming paranoid about the possible consequences of power outages or the circuit breaker shutting down my computer, I've taken steps to handle these eventualities... which could arise because of a lightning spike. My latest new gadget is a so-called UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply).

It includes a big battery and weighs over five kilos. As soon as there's a drop in power, or a total outage, the unit goes into action and keeps the computer running, at least up until you can close it down correctly. In fact, I bought two of these UPS units: one for the Macintosh and its peripherals, and the other for my broadband box and phone sets. One of these days I'll buy a third one for my TV, and a fourth one for my hifi system. But I repeat [Do you hear me, Pierre?]: I am not at all an ordinary electronics gadget-lover.

In a recent post, I included a photo of kangaroos intrigued by solar lamps on an Australian lawn. The friend who sent me the photo informed me that these lamps are made in China, and that there's no longer any kind of local manufacturing industry in Australia for such products. One of the pleasant surprises concerning the above-mentioned UPS units is that they're completely made in France, which is a rare enough situation to deserve special mention.

Now, I haven't even got around to describing the electronic peripherals I also purchased to backup my Macintosh correctly, and to burn video DVDs... one of which I intend to send, in the next few days, to relatives out in Australia. But I already have the impression that this is surely the most boring blog article I've written up until now. Pierre Schaeffer was right. That "Show me your machines" stuff is even duller than the dog-eared magazines we're invited to browse through while waiting for a haircut or a medical visit.

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