The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?

Whose Computer?

Whose computer is this?  I’m the one who paid for it, but it is clearly the one in control in this relationship.  You see, if the computer fails to cooperate there is nothing you can do.  It’s not human and despite what the proponents of AI say, a brain is not just a computer.  Now I’m not affluent enough to replace old hardware when it starts slowing down.  Silicon Valley—and capitalism in general—hate that.  I suppose I’m not actually paid well enough to own a computer.  I started buying laptops for work when Nashotah House wouldn’t provide faculty with computers.  Then as an itinerant adjunct it was “have laptop, will travel (and pay bills).”  I even bought my own projector.  At least I thought I was buying it.

I try to keep my software up to date.  The other day a red dot warned me that I had to clear out some space on my disc so Catalina could take over.  It took three days (between work and serving the laptop) to back-up and delete enough files to give it room.  I started the upgrade while I was working, when my personal laptop can rest.  When I checked in it hadn’t installed.  Throwing a string of technical reasons at me in a dialogue box, my OS told me that I should try again.  Problem was, it told me this at 3:30 in the morning, when I do my own personal work.  I had no choice.  One can’t reason with AI.  When I should’ve been writing I was rebooting and installing, a process that takes an hour from a guy who doesn’t have an hour to give.

As all of this was going on I was wondering who owned whom.  In college professors warned against “keyboard compositions.”  These were literal keyboards and they meant you shouldn’t type up your papers the night before they were due, writing them on your typewriter.  They should’ve been researched and “written” before being typed up.  That’s no longer an option.  This blog has well over a million words on it.  Who has time to handwrite a million words, then type them up all in time to post before starting work for the day?  And that’s in addition to the books and articles I write for actual publication.  And the novels and short stories.  For all of this I need my laptop, the Silver to my Lone Ranger, to be ready when I whistle.  Instead it’s dreaming its digital dreams and I’m up at 3:30 twiddling my thumbs.

Clean Thoughts

Brainwashing, it seems, does not exist.  Many of us who remember at least bits and snatches of the Vietnam War and the subsequent fear of cults, grew up hearing the term.  Someone’s personality had changed after some kind of trauma—slow or fast didn’t matter, but it had to be slightly prolonged—so that they were no longer recognizable as their former selves.  Scholars began to work on this idea and found it lacking.  Since the 1990s, at least, we’ve known there’s no such thing as “brainwashing.”  When you get right down to it, there’s no such thing as a mind to brainwash since it’s merely an actual brain making up a story to keep itself from being lonely in this cosmic wasteland.  Anyway, there’s no such thing as forcing someone to think something weird.

Then enter Trump.  I know many intelligent, educated people who cannot see the stark, naked contradictions.  Nothing, it seems, can convince them that simply saying “no I didn’t” doesn’t make it all right (alt right?).  The fact that well over a thousand pending lawsuits stood against him before he laid his hand on that Bible and swore—let’s call it swearing—to uphold the constitution, seems not to have registered.  I’m reminded of being a kid and crossing my fingers behind my back and believing that made a temporary lie okay.  Thing is, most of us outgrew that.  As the evidence of criminal activity while in office stacks up until it teeters, the supporters shout that the truth is just a lie and Jesus love me, this I know.  Too bad brainwashing doesn’t exist anymore.  It might help to explain a thing or two.

Following the news is something for which I simply don’t have time.  Or the fortitude.  Faced with blatant criminal activity, the Republican Party launches countersuits saying that investigating a crime is itself criminal.  There’s no such thing as brainwashing, though, so you can sigh in relief.  Still, as I go through the day and headlines pop up, as they will, I pause and wonder.  Not that things were better when we believed in brainwashing—for what good does it do you to believe something that’s not true?—but I’ve become strangely nostalgic for Watergate.  I see the lawsuits piling up behind the intrepid base, unfazed by any baptism in reality, and think about the explanatory value of brainwashing.  Maybe it doesn’t exist, but it sure could explain a lot.

Rescued, Technically

One of the scariest tropes in horror (or other) movies is where the protagonist has to rely on the monster (or antagonist) to be rescued.  All the time the viewer is wondering if the monster is going to turn on the hero since, well, it’s a monster.  The tension builds because the situation is untenable to begin with, but there is no other way out.  So lately that’s the way I’ve been feeling about technology.  The first and only time I drove to Atlantic City (it was for a concert some years back), navigating by GPS was still new.  In fact, I didn’t have a device but my brother did so he brought it along.  I remember not trusting it to know the local traffic rules, but once we got into an unfamiliar city I had to rely on it to get us to the venue.  The fact that I lived to be writing this account suggests that it worked.

I no longer commute much.  Still, I’m occasionally required to go into the New York office for a day.  It’s a long trip from here, and to handle the true monster of New York City traffic, I have to leave the house before 4 a.m. to get a spot on the earliest possible bus.  If I do that I can justify catching the bus that leaves the Port Authority before 5 p.m., the daily urban traffic apocalypse.  The last time I did this, just this week, it was raining.  Rain almost always leads to accidents in New Jersey, where the concept of safe following distance has never evolved.  And so I found myself on a bus off route because the major interstate leading into Pennsylvania was completely closed.  The driver announced he wasn’t lost, just trying to find the back way home.  When the streets turned curvy and suburban he asked if anyone had a maps app on their phone.

Lately I’ve been complaining about smartphones.  Truth be told, I do use mine as a GPS when I get lost.  It’s at that stage in an iPhone’s life when it shows you a full battery one second and the next second it’s completely dead, so I let my fellow passengers—every single one of whom has a smartphone—do the navigating.  People on the narrow, off-route roads might’ve wondered what a bus was doing way out here, but we finally did get to the park-n-ride.  The monster had helped us to escape.  And people wonder why I like horror movies…

Amityville Rehaunted

One of the problems with scarce resources is the desire not to squander any of them.  Time is so rare these days that I keep multiple writing projects going (and growing) and when they’re ripe I pluck them and take them to market.  One of my writing projects had me read Hans Holzer’s Murder in Amityville.  Why?  Fair question.  It was the “inspiration” behind Amityville II: The Possession.  I discuss this film in Nightmares with the Bible, and I’ve been going back and reading those period pieces from the 1970s that formed so much of our culture through the end of the last century.

In case you didn’t grow up with an interest in parapsychology, Hans Holzer was a pretty big name then.  I can assert that with some confidence because I grew up in a small town without access to big city resources (where fame is made) and I knew about him.  Holzer wrote well over 100 books, which might give you a hint regarding their quality.  He was an interesting person.  Like Ed and Lorraine Warren he made a living by investigating, writing, and lecturing.  (I can’t seem to break into that cycle—times have changed!)  A firm believer in ghosts and demons, Holzer was naturally drawn, like other moths around the candle, to Amityville.  Murder in Amityville is his summation of his investigation and all I can say is it’s a good thing he wasn’t a lawyer.  Apart from containing lengthy transcripts of Ronald DeFeo’s trial, the book also contains interviews conducted by Holzer.  Full of leading questions and lacking evidence, it fails to convince even a sympathetic reader.

Still, you’ve got to give Holzer credit for including interviews where his loaded questions get him nowhere.  In interviewing a town historian for Amityville, Holzer kept bringing up allegations about the house at 112 Ocean Avenue only to have the nonplussed historian tell him point blank that his (Holzer’s) allegations are incorrect.  His assertions of an “Indian burial ground” are taken for granted, although no historical records substantiate it.  His interview with DeFeo demonstrates Holzer’s irrepressible faith.  After being told by DeFeo that he’d heard no voices—something he made up for a failed insanity plea—Holzer keeps coming back to what the voices told him to do.  Not only that, when Holzer does stumble upon a good question he fails to follow up, chasing some other notion down another rabbit hole.  There was clearly enough material here to work into a horror movie, but for sorting out the troubled home life of the DeFeo family the critical reader finds her or himself being asked to take a lot on faith.

Home Phone?

I wonder if anyone’s done a study on how cell phones affect our psyches.  The other day my wife upgraded her phone.  What with this being technology and all, the setting up rendered both her old and new phones useless so we would have to go back to our dealer.  Since she has to drive to work and I don’t, I gave her my phone for the day.  I use my phone little on most days.  Soon, however, I began to feel very isolated.  Anyone could reach me by email or landline, but I was without my cell phone for about 10 hours and I grew edgy.  What had happened to me?  Was I experiencing withdrawal from tech?  My smartphone is with me all the time and I’ve come to depend on it being there, even if I don’t use it.  Is this healthy?

That night we were back at the dealer’s shop.  One of the techies was trying to help us and because of the uber-security state in which we live, he had to text me a passcode to get into my wife’s phone (it’s my name on the joint account).  When his text didn’t come through he asked if he could see my device.  I handed him my iPhone 4S and he acted as if I’d just passed him a human-alien hybrid baby.  As if he’d never seen anything so antiquated.  In all seriousness he said, “You have to upgrade.  Soon this phone will no longer work.”  I have to wonder about the extortion of companies that sell you expensive devices then force you to upgrade when your salary doesn’t keep up with inflation.  My old phone does what I need it to do.  A new one will be capable of much more for which I won’t use it.  I work at home and I don’t give my cell number out to work colleagues.

There’s a psychological study in here.  I don’t want people who don’t know me personally calling my cell.  That’s what a landline is for.  Not only that, but my hours are unconventional.  Even people I know forget and send me texts after 8 p.m., waking me from a night’s sleep.  You see, the phone is always present, and those of us who don’t conform must pay the price.  The thought of being out of contact with others feels like solitary confinement.  Tech companies have given us tweeting presidents and bosses that can reach us at any hour.  And we happily comply.  I appreciate the welcome text or call from family or friend, but when it comes to work and other necessities, I still prefer to receive a letter.  Maybe I need to see a shrink.

Local Hauntings

In my on-going research (as I think of it), I watched The Haunting in Connecticut.  I recently wrote about A Haunting in Connecticut, distinguished from the theatrical version by an indefinite article.  Both claim to be based on a true story and the story itself is disputed because it doesn’t fit into a materialist paradigm.  Ah, but that’s another can of worms.  Regarding the movie, it abandons the base story to add an entirely fictional subplot that drives the horror.  Or so the writers and director think.  The tale ends up jumbled and the confusion it generates is not the kind borne of intelligent planning.  The Campbell family, struggling to pay the bills against a case of childhood cancer is real horror.  In our healthcare system that is a true story.

According to the diegesis of the movie, Matt Campbell can see the dead because he’s close to death.  In case you don’t know the story—the family has to move to be closer to the hospital where Matt is receiving his treatment.  Once ensconced in their new house they learn it used to be a funeral home and hauntings ensue.  The writer of the original book claims to have made much of it up, while interviews with witnesses make the claim that much of it actually happened.  Matt ends up in a mental hospital.  In the movie a subplot of necromancy and a young boy medium are added.  Souls whose bodies have been bound are trapped in the house until Matt figures out how to break the spell with the help of the medium’s ghost.  Instead of Ed and Lorraine Warren investigating, a local minister is added.  Also suffering from cancer, he figures it out too, but too late to help the Campbell family.

In Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I do not treat made-for-television movies.  A large part of the reason is that they often lack the cultural impact of a theatrical release.  (Although Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead may have reached a point of familiarity with numbers to rival big screen efforts.)  In the case of the cinematic treatment of the Snedeker (“Campbell”) family, however, the television treatment might well have been scarier than the big-budget studio effort.  Whether fictionalized or not, the Discovery Channel show stays closer to the book (In a Dark Place, by Ray Garton).  Using the Usher-like ending of destroying the house doesn’t seem to offer any release in the big-screen version.  Sometimes reality is scarier than the tales we tell after dark.