Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Weird Resurrection

Driving through an unfamiliar city doesn’t allow for much time to appreciate what you’re seeing. Back in February when I was visiting Austin, Texas for the first time, it was 65 degrees outside. Given the irascible temperatures in New Jersey this year, that felt like summer. Of course, the locals were bundled up since it was, for Texans, unseasonably cool. The weather has been off this year. Of course, we know who to blame. Cthulhu. As I was trying to find the University of Texas with an impatient GPS as my co-pilot, I spied someone walking down the street wearing a Cthulhu ski mask. I can’t express how badly I wanted to pull aside and snap a photo, but pulling aside in a strange city can lead to unwanted adventures. Especially when your co-pilot is an opinionated GPS. I’ve been to north Philly and the south side of Chicago. I didn’t want to take any chances that Austin might hide such districts.

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H. P. Lovecraft, like most original thinkers before the computer age, was ignored in his lifetime. I wonder what he would have felt if he had divined that the internet would one day bring him world-wide fame. His writings, of course, had been appreciated before the computer was invented, but the web has nearly as much Cthulhu as it does LOL Cats. Even those who’ve never spent a dark night curled up with the Necronomicon recognize Cthulhu’s octopoid visage when they see it. Davy Jones of the Pirates of the Caribbean fame borrowed his unforgettable face from the Old Gods discovered by Lovecraft. Cthulhu has become a cultural icon of the chaotic, the cosmic, and the somewhat comic.

In a strange way Cthulhu stands for resurrection. In Lovecraft’s mythological world Cthulhu lies under the sea, dead but dreaming. A dying and rising god of utter terror. Lovecraft, an atheist, built his fiction nevertheless around a series of gods. Today his stories are noted for their moody portrayal of improbable worlds, and his storytelling has had an incredible influence on many of those who attempt to generate worlds that are fantastic but somehow still believable. Cthulhu’s resurrection, however, is not to be desired. Even if these he represents life anew, it is a life humans could not bear. In a deeper sense yet it is Lovecraft himself who has experienced a kind of resurrection. A writer forgotten in his lifetime, but rediscovered when it was too late for him to realize just what he’d created, the true master of Cthulhu, I like to believe, lies dead but dreaming, and he has already revealed that he will rise and the masses will tremble.

OMG, MOMA!

New York City can wear you out, spiritually. I suppose that’s why so many people go there, to face the challenge. Thanks to Target, Friday evenings the Museum of Modern Art gives out free tickets for its world-class collection. We knew that Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was there, and had planned on seeing it sometime. Well, Friday of spring break offered an opportunity, so last night, with several hundred, maybe a few thousand, others, we made our way to MOMA. We arrived around 5 p.m. and found the line literally around the block. It wasn’t as cold as it had been, so we braved the hour to wait our turn. Yes, it was worth it. As my wife noted, it was very good to see so many people wanting to see art. Manhattan offers many, many other diversions for a Friday night, but hundreds opted for art. I had long anticipated this. Since my school days I’d seen replications of many of the paintings in the museum, and it was inspiring to be packed in so close with so many people wanting to be close to art. Hoping, somehow, to commune with the emotion in us all seeking such profound expression.

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It was a little difficult to commune, however, with so many other religious seekers. This is a religious experience, to touch the soul of another. Standing inches away from The Starry Night, I could almost feel the desperate, longing hands of van Gogh stroking out a manic sky, surreal and ethereal. I could almost hear the echo of his spirit. Were it not for the many crowding next to the painting to be photographed with it. Fellow spiritual seekers, I hope. Van Gogh was a troubled soul, as we all know. How many artists take their own lives after reaching out to touch what so few of us even dare. A sadness so profound as he climbed down that mountain. The starry night is the photograph of a suffering soul.

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Then there was Edvard Munch’s classic, The Scream. On a limited engagement at MOMA, facing, just across the hall, van Gogh’s Starry Night. Was there ever such depth of soul in such close proximity? It was there that I began to question the faith that I had hoped impelled the countless masses yearning to observe free. MOMA allows photographs, and cameras, cell phones, and iPads were ubiquitous. To reach The Scream was to endure a crunch of strangers’ bodies pressing you forward, cell phones held aloft, illicit flashes popping, worried looking docents. I was anticipating another spiritual moment when I heard a woman say that she had to get close for a picture. “This is going to be my status!” she cried. So this is modern spiritually, the life splayed on Facebook, bragging about bagging Munch. Yes, Edvard, I am screaming too.

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Good, Friday

Riding public transit sometimes turns into a religious experience. Various bus drivers will wish passengers a “blessed day” as they pull into the Port Authority Bus Terminal—not that I can blame them, after the traffic they face daily, for taking a spiritual breather. Lately, though, I have been wished a happy Easter by the driver. Ironically, I must note, because people of many faith traditions ride the bus. Not all are Easter riders. Just yesterday a Rastafari stood before me in line. I’m regularly joined by Hindus, Jews, and maybe even a Mormon or two (who can tell?). Holy Week in New York is a surreal experience. I chatted with some co-workers where the topic changed effortlessly from their experiences of Passover to others’ experiences of Easter. Religion is alive and well in the Big Apple, but it is mostly an afterthought to the real business of making money. That’s what we’re all here for, after all.

Money, according to the good book, is inimical to the lifestyle of faith. I must have a little too much faith, I guess, since I have so precious little money. Nothing throws that into such sharp relief as looming tuition bills. You see, I tried “to fight the good fight” only to learn that there’s no way to win it without playing by the entrepreneur’s rules. Filling out the FAFSA over the smoldering ruins of my “earning years” was a distinctly sobering experience. I went into higher education because I believed in it—there’s that pesky faith again. The things you believe in, however, have a way of turning on you. I suppose that’s an appropriate reflection for Good Friday.

It’s hard to be an idealist in a world where people say, “you just need someone to give you a chance,” and then turn their backs on you. So as I’m walking across town, thinking about my blessed day, I notice that we’re all in this together. Except some of us. In the idealist world, those who want it the most sometimes win it. Those who play by the rules. I had no Harvard aspirations, just a reasonable job in a little college would suit me fine. A place to think that doesn’t have wheels and aluminum sides and seat forty-nine other lost souls. But for those who have less, even the little they have will be taken from them. That’s biblical too. Higher education is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, but it easily joins hands with Judas Iscariot. It is Good Friday, according to some. Others just call it a blessed day.

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A Scream or Two

Scream2A few weeks back, for my weekend fix, I watched Scream. I hadn’t seen the movie when it came out in 1996, but having seen so many references to Ghost Face I felt I was missing out on something. I was disappointed, however, at the relative lack of religious imagery or dialogue in the film. Such motifs are so common in horror films that I’ve come to depend on them. In fact, there was nothing supernatural in the movie at all. This weekend I decided to follow it up with the sequel that many claim is better than the original, Scream 2. It is the same self-aware exposé of horror gimmicks and tropes, providing several clever frights along the way. But this time there was more religion. Not that it was overt or central, but it was clearly there. My thesis was bolstered a little bit since the storyline felt the need to come back and pick up what was mostly lacking from the first film.

Sidney draws first blood in the sequel by comparing a sorority to a religion. Not much, but a start. We find out that Sid has taken up drama in college, where she has been cast in the role of Cassandra, the prophet of Troy cursed with never being believed, although always being right. In the truly disturbing scene from the play we’re shown, Zeus himself comes down and points a godly finger at the frightened girl. The real religious imagery, however, comes toward the end of the movie when Derek is tied up, cruciform style, by his frat brothers for giving away his letters. He plays the role of the sacrificial lamb as Sid comes face-to-face with the Ghost Face duo, and when his dead body is lifted up on the stage prop, the camera angle reveals either an angel or an ascending deity, arms spread out as if on a cross. Life has been laid down for life, a distinctly religious theme.

What would horror be without resurrection? The villain always comes back from the dead, having easy access to that which is denied the regular mortal. This factor alone suggests that most horror films are transmuted religious fulfillment wishes. We live in a time when religion seems to have lost its transcendent power, and yet we long for resurrection. Horror movies tell us it is available, but at a very steep price. Perhaps it is an unintentional motif, but it is a pattern that occurs so often that it feels integral to the very conception of the scary movie. That which we long for the most is the most terrifying. Horror films aren’t for everyone, but their popularity shows, on some level, that our society hasn’t given up on religion just yet. Scream 2, the resurrection of a wry, witty, and somewhat gory original, brings fear and religion together once more. Religion, like the horror villain, never really goes away.

Mind Your Cosmos

MindandCosmosSomething on your mind? How often do we bother to think clearly about our minds? One of the most dispiriting concepts ever invented is the idea that even our minds are merely part of a reductionistic, mechanistic universe. All those beautiful, frightening, sublime, and mundane thoughts are just noise, clutter. An inevitable side-effect of all that electro-chemical activity in the gray matter. Nothing more. It is an idea to which it is very difficult to warm. Philosopher Thomas Nagel, however, doesn’t use a soft approach to the concept of mind in his Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. This is not an easy read, but it rewards the reader well.

Some, I suspect, will accuse Nagel of being a closet creationist, but he addresses that concern up front. Nagel is an atheist, but he recognizes that the creationists have raised some valid points about the explanatory value of a materialistic, reductionistic view of the universe. Nagel, like all careful thinkers, realizes that the fact of evolution is not to be disputed. The mechanism driving mutations, however, is open to some speculation. I’ve read many books that suggest we are but (in a more than angst-ridden Kansas) dust in the wind. Particles and reactions and nothing more. That love you feel when your heart is thumping wildly over that special someone? Mere chemistry. And not the kind that implies a transcendent state. Just lab-coat chemistry. I read Nagel because this kind of reductionism just doesn’t fit reality as I’ve experienced it. I’m no physicist, but I’m all I’ve got. And my reason tells me that there’s something more too it.

Nagel approaches the issue by examining the origins of mind. Whence does consciousness emerge? Using precise, carefully selected reasoning, he demonstrates that there is a chance that consciousness is inherent in this universe we inhabit. Just as bodies are built of cells, and cells are built of proteins built of molecules built of atoms, the mind could be constructed of components as well. I can’t replicate Nagel’s elegance of expression, but his suggestion that we may be part of a universe beginning to awake is as much poetry as it is logic. And that, more than anything else, is a reflection on the complexity of being human. We are meaning-seeking creatures. Being told that we’re mechanistic automatons is like slamming a door in a two-year old’s face. If I am merely particles and tiny jolts of electricity, I’m going to take the particles that make Nagel’s book with me as I try to reconcile myself to a universe where nothing is really what it seems.

Infinite and Expanding

Show me the birth certificate. Whoa! It seems the universe padded the figures by about 80 million years. To you and me that’s 80 million years. To old universe, it’s merely the blink of a cosmic eye. The news has been humming with the results of the European Space Agency’s Planck Space Telescope picture of the microwave background radiation of the universe. From what I can see, the universe forgot to say cheese. Unless, of course, it’s swiss cheese. Further and further science confirms our big bang of a beginning, and, quite literally, it has been downhill from there.

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Cosmology is the most theological of the sciences. I’m sure many cosmologists would demand to differ on that point, but the inexorable draw to find out how it all began had its humble origins in religious thought. The mythologies of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Israelites, among many, many others, explored options for how the universe (as they knew it) might have begun. The curiosity is deeply embedded in the human psyche—we want to know our origins. Physicists, of course, play by the rules. Astrophysicists use incredibly complex formulas that all point to a big bang that nobody has ever heard. The inevitable question is, however, what happened before that? Could it be there was no before? A time before time? It seems to me a religious question.

The Planck telescope tells us that our middle-aged universe also has more girth than it admitted previously. No surprises there, after all the theory of the universe’s growth is called “inflation.” I sympathize. All of this information is wonderful news on an intergalactic scale, but it hasn’t solved many of our problems out here in this corner of the cosmos. Reading the rest of the news headlines, after I wipe away the tears, I see that our universe really is showing its age. We are older than we thought, but are we wiser? Scientists are examining fossilized light with glee, but we still can’t figure out that if a guy loves another guy (or girl another girl) that it’s just another instance of what happens after the big bang. We can’t accept that our industrial greed has messed up the weather—has anybody been outside lately? We know that one percent control almost all the wealth and yet we buy lottery tickets and hope for the best. And these are only a few in a long series of echoes that can’t seem to allow some people to think clearly in this girth-challenged, more-than-ancient universe. It must be a religious issue after all.

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Although few objects are as soulless and mechanistic as robots, I still feel strangely emotional about them. Had my daughter not been interested in them, I would never have become involved with FIRST Robotics, even serving for a year as an officer in the Team 102 foundation to help raise the thousands of dollars needed to run such a club. Like most people with a background deep in the humanities, I would’ve not pondered too deeply how much of ourselves we put into our machines. Right now I’m reevaluating that hypothesis.

No one doubts that an artist or musician puts her- or himself into her or his work. Those who do it best are most highly valued (after we let the artist die off, usually, after having lived a difficult life). We admire those who are able to catch the human spirit in such forms of expression while many scientists inform us that there really is no spirit at all—it is just chemical reactions and electrical circuits in the soft tissue of our brains. When we see the Mona Lisa, or hear Beethoven’s Seventh, however, we know they must be wrong. What we make becomes part of us. And I’m thinking that may apply to robots too.

I’ve just attended my last FIRST Robotics competition. It is difficult to convey, if you’ve never been, what such an event is like. Hundreds of screaming high school students excited about engineering and the thrill of competition. A playing field is constructed to exacting specifications and six teams in two alliances facing off their creations to emulate human—sometimes superhuman—behavior. All the while the thumping rock beat of loud music and the play of colored lights give the event the emotional charge of a football game and homecoming dance rolled into one. Only you really don’t have to move very much at all.

I’m not a robot designer or builder. It is difficult to imagine anything further from my training (except perhaps accounting). Still, I’m a little let down after my last FIRST competition. Four years ago it seemed so novel, and there have been some difficult moments along the way. I’ve seen kids build robots that play soccer, hang inflatable tubes, play basketball, shoot frisbees, climb towers, climb poles, and do many other seemingly impossible tasks. I’ve been up before dawn to ride a chilly school bus across the state to compete, coming home in time to fall in bed to get up early for work the next morning. But most of all, I’ve seen kids putting themselves into more than machines. I’ve seen them putting themselves into a team. Although we didn’t win this year, and next year I probably will be consumed with other concerns, I am proud to have been, in my small way, a part of Team 102. Way to go, Gearheads! Maybe robots do have souls after all.

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