Man Without Qualities

Thursday, September 04, 2003

The Mensa Workout Video II: Setup*

* With apologies to Woody Allen.

Seconds later, a voice purred the agency name, "Intellectual Exercises" - and then the faux-cheerful slogan, "It's a great day to see the shape of things to come." I held the phone away from my ear and gestured to Arnold to listen in.

"I'm looking for a personal trainer," I said to the voice on the phone. "You got someone who can handle mental gymnastics with class?"

"Sure, honey. What do you have in mind?"

"The big picture. Maybe we start with who owns what - intellectual property, first amendment considerations. I need someone who can help me see the unity of it all. You know - a cross-trainer. I've plateaued and I want some professional help."

"That's what we do. Are you in the market for theory or do you want to relate this to observables?"

"What's the difference?"

"The price. That's all. Speculative categorical synthesis is extra."

"What'll it run me?"

"Five hundred, maybe a thousand for reconciling recent developments.

"The dough's fine." Arnold put his hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, "Tell her you want the observables - ask for Lorraine."

"How about Lorraine? I've heard some good things. Can she do the observables thing?" I said with feigned casualness.

"Sure, honey. You're in luck. She starts in about an hour. "

I gave her the number of a room at the Mondrian and hung up. Arnold wanted something for his nerves, so we drove to the Cafe des Artistes to put away the hour and some drinks at the bar - a double espresso for me while Arnold downed a triple pomegranate margarita. "Hasta la vista, baby," he said raising his glass, "I'll be back!" Yes, I thought, but with that much booze probably not today. A friendly bartender added the sixty buck total to Arnold's tab and promised to put him in a taxi. I took off for the hotel. On the way over a sense gnawed at the back of my brain that this thing had to be a lot bigger than it looked.

Minutes after I reached the hotel there was a knock on my door. I opened it. "Hi, I'm Lorraine." In the hall was a gorgeous Eurasian nerd - enough eye and mind candy to rot the brains of every tech troll at Pixar and Spectrum combined. She swelled out of her blouse like a couple of pneumatic silicone baus and dangled a rutillated quartz pendant between them just to make the point. Bobbed hair and Le Corbusier glasses that made you ache for her to dominate your sensibilities were enough to deck most of your brighter guys on sight. I felt a trickle of sweat on my forehead, but I was determined not to let her get to me. This was work.

She moved confidently into the room, taking in the minimalist, over styled decor with a glance that came to rest fully in my face. "You're cute," she said with a professional's soothing, aggressive smile, "Your eyes are the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

She pulled an aromatherapy candle from her bag and put a compact disc of whale songs overlaid with synthetic Peruvian Indian pipings in the hotel-provided player that she seemed to know would be there. Then she got right to it.

"I think emerging technologies are allowing large corporations to stage an innovation-stifling power grab while we watch idly - n'est-ce pas?"

"Yes, what you say has become so central. In films almost every piece of artwork, any piece of furniture, or sculpture, now has to be cleared before you can use it." I was bluffing. I wanted to see if she'd go for it.

"That's tragically true. The cost for the artist is creativity. . . . Suddenly the world that you're trying to create is completely generic and void of the elements that you would normally create. . . . It's the artist's job to conceptualize and to create a world, and to bring people into it. And if an artist sees this person having a certain lifestyle, having certain art on the wall, and living a certain way, it is essential to . . . the vision the artist is trying to portray. Now artists somehow have to justify using it. And that is wrong." She did.

"Right, right. God, you're right," I murmured.

"I think the common visual elements of our shared experiences are a kind of intellectual commons - don't you agree?"

What a tease! This one, I thought, is shooting real bullets. But I let her go on. She was twenty three, but already had the capacity for gloomy, dilutive abstraction of the veteran pseudo-futurist. Her ideas were frictionless, her face immobile above the full, pouting lips. Her shameless flattery of my intellectual potency was all empty cant: "Oh yes, Robert. Yes, baby, that's deep. In these times, the hardest task for social or political activists is to find a way to get people to wonder again about what we all believe is true. The challenge is to sow doubt - why didn't I see it before?" We talked for about an hour and then she said she had to go. She stood up and I laid ten C-notes on her.

"Thanks, honey."

"There's more opportunity here for you ... if you're up for it."

"What are you implying?"

"Suppose I wanted a little personal information - and had plenty of dough to pay for it?"

"What kind of personal information?"

"You've worked with Arnold. Tell me about him."

"Who's 'Arnold?'"

"Don't get cute with me, sugar. I may not be Nobel material, but I've been in this business long enough to recognize one of these." A quick tug with my hand snapped the tiny gold chain of her pendant, its cabochon concealing the same miniaturized recorder that they'd used to sucker Schwarzenegger - a bit smaller than the ones spreading everywhere like a pestilence.

"It's a crime in California to record someone's intimate intellectual processes, sister. So's blackmail.

"You louse!" She started to tremble. Her eyes darted towards the door.

She began to cry. "Don't turn me in, Musil," she said. "I needed the money after my options zeroed." Her eyes suddenly resembled the tremulous air over a desert highway.

It all poured out. Parents who stashed her for years at the Cal Tech pre-school, San Marino public high - where she was deemed "death in math" by the boys - a kind of adolesent male liebestod. Then Stanford engineering and the inevitable Idealab start-up - selling sushi fixings on the net - that rocketed to a market cap of a hundred million or so and then vanished overnight in a cloud of securities fraud accusations after the SEC discovered that most of the "wasabi" served today is just horseradish dyed green. Yeah, she was every dame you've ever seen penciling 'Yes, very true' into the margin of Feynman's Physics, but she went bad with the easy money of the internet boom.

"I needed cash. A girl friend said she knew a guy in the entertainment industry who was into Popper but didn't want to come out of the philosophy closet. I said sure, for a price I'd talk Popper with him. I was nervous at first. I faked a lot of it. He didn't care. There were others. Eventually, I started working for Heidi. California's has by far the largest technological and intellectual economy in the world - but it's perversely anti-intellectual. Heidi understood she could use that to create a financial perpetual motion machine to separate all these rich brainy guys from their money - "Heidi's Demon" we call it. Look, I've been busted before, Musil. I got caught taping John Travolta dancing to the piano reduction of the "The Firebird." I could have made a fortune on that one, but he slipped executing an emboit and fell through the one-way mirror. Just my luck. And that wasn't the only time things have gone wrong for me. Intellectual voyeurism isn't just a crime in California, it's a strike.Once more and I'm looking at a life sentence."

"Then tell me what you know about Heidi's interest in Arnold."

"I don't know that much. It has something to do with his father."

"You mean that SturmAbteilung baloney? That's going nowhere."

"It's worse than that. His father was a member of the Vienna Circle."

I was stunned, but I tried not to show it. "So what. That was his dad. What's that got to do with Arnold?"

"Some things don't change. Like father, like son. When you get right down to it, Arnold's not just an intellectual - he's a logical positivist. Some people don't like that."

"Heidi's frosted that he's a logical positivist?"

"No. Heidi's just a go-between. She works for somebody else, somebody big. Someone who sees that as a threat. I don't know who. Somebody up north, I think. ... Look, I've told you what I know, now let me go."

"You're holding back on me, sweety." I knew I had her on the ropes - and I needed everything she had. Sure it hurt the both of us, but sometimes that was my job. "And I don't just mean your presenting some bloated criticism of the availability of injunctive relief as a threat to technological progress."

"What ... what ... are you getting at?"

"I think you know where I'm going, honey. That little 'Heidi's Demon' dig. We both know that kind of Demon goes nowhere without quantum mechanics - and the kind of synthesis we're talking here goes way beyond any Copenhagen interpretation."

"This is getting too big for me. You sound like you're talking a real Theory of Everything. You'll have to speak with Heidi," she said.

"Then take me to Heidi."

She bit her lip and said, "The 24 Hour Fitness on Sunset is a front."


"Like those bookie joints that have barbershops outside for show. You'll see."

I made a quick call to headquarters and then said to her, "Okay, sugar. You're off the hook. But don't leave town."

"She tilted her face up toward mine gratefully." I can get you a video of Sylvester Stallone reciting "The Wasteland," she said.

"Some other time."

Next: MR. BIG

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