Like most people I have a cell phone. If I use it to take a picture, I can send that photo any number of places with a tap, swipe, and tap. It works that way with scanned documents as well. Using a hand-held phone, I can scan important papers, convert them to PDFs, and send them via email, text, “AirDrop” (whatever that is), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—you name it. Except fax. That I cannot do. The other day a company wanted me to send them a document by fax. Within seconds I had scanned it with my phone and was ready to send it, but instead experienced electronic constipation. The company had no email; it had to come by fax.
Now, like most reasonably modern people, we have no fax machine at home. We still have some in the office in New York, but they are clunky, noisy, and seldom actually work. The technology to receive documents has improved beyond the photostatic smear that facsimiles represent. I worked for a company where the warehouse insisted on orders by fax. You’d fax them the order and wait for the phone to ring. They couldn’t read the fax and you had to tell them what it said. Well, this particular company I was dealing with wanted a fax. I downloaded two or three “free” fax apps. They suspiciously wanted my credit card info. Besides, if you send more than one page they wanted at least ten bucks for a “package” deal. I had to send a three-page document. I checked to see if my laptop could do it. The manufacturer’s website said it could, but the menu option it told me about didn’t appear. Who insists on faxes any more?
This is the dilemma of mixed technologies. It’s like those movies where the streets of some exotic city are filled with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. The fax, in this analogy, is the pedestrian. My mother doesn’t have email, let alone the capability to text (or fax). Ours is a telephone relationship. Yet in my hand I hold a device that can send this document anywhere in the world with a tap, swipe, and tap. I recall my first trip to Jerusalem where hand-drawn carts, cars, and yes, camels, shared the streets. This was in the days before the internet. To contact home even by telephone was cumbersome and costly. Yet somehow we survived. I’d arranged the trip utilizing a travel agency and funded it by a letter-writing campaign. The Ektachrome slides I took are now a pain to look at because technology has so improved our lives. Unless, of course, you need to send a fax. Delivery by camel can at least be arranged via the internet.
Posted in Current Events, Just for Fun, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged Ektachrome, email, fax, Jerusalem, Luddite, technology, text, travel agency
A family friend recently died. I was in New York City when I received the news, and I mused how recent a phenomenon this speed of information is. The news wasn’t necessarily a shock—this friend had been experiencing failing health, he was a close friend of my grandfather—but for some reason Samuel F. B. Morse came to mind. The story goes that Morse invented the telegraph because of his experience of being away from home when his wife died. By the time he received the news and was able to get home by the conveyance of the day, she’s already been buried. He set his inventive mind to improving the speed of communication over a distance. In these days of receiving texts mere seconds after something momentous happens, it’s difficult to imagine that for the vast majority of human existence, personal news traveled slowly.
Feeling in a reflective mood I recalled how when I was in college I wrote letters home. Yes, the telephone existed by then—don’t be so cynical!—but long distance bore a cost and college students find ways to save their money for girlfriends or spending a weekend in Pittsburgh. News traveled more slowly. Back before Morse, the swiftest option was the letter. The death of a friend might take days or weeks to reach those close. Distance in time, as well as space, may not have lessened the shock, but the immediacy of a text wasn’t there. The death had occurred days or weeks ago. There was nothing left to do but grieve and get on with life. Like Samuel Morse—perhaps the only point of comparison between us—I was unable to get away immediately. New York City isn’t easy to escape quickly.
We move swiftly and slowly at the same time. I know news moments from the event, but this physical mass I inhabit is sluggish takes some time to get around. Manhattan’s an island, and although it’s not Styx we’re crossing, the Hudson creates barriers enough. Now my journey includes crossing the entire state of New Jersey before I can even reach home. Were I to drive back to my original home, it would add another five hours at least in the car. Sometimes I wonder if the immediacy of knowing is a blessing or a curse. The shock is immediate and visceral. But like an injection, the sharpness is quickly over and the dull ache sets in. Our family friend had been suffering for some time. Now he’s at peace. I like to think he’s with my granddad, and that the two of them together won’t judge me too harshly for moving so slowly.
Posted in Current Events, Memoirs, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged death, Homer Sitterley, Internet, New York City, Samuel F. B. Morse, telegraph, Time, travel
Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations. Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York. Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles. One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York. It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries. What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.
A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock. Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion. People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them. Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events. Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece. But what has it to do with Pine Bush?
Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America. Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary. By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded. There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims. I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it. Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder. I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened. This is the dynamic of pilgrimage. Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice. It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures. They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world. And for that we should be grateful. Even if it’s a little strange.
Posted in American Religion, Holidays, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Monsters, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged Joseph Laycock, Monsters, NY, paranormal, pilgrimage, Pine Bush, Sam’s Point Preserve, Smithsonian, UFOs
The last time we moved internet service was just becoming an issue. When we first came to our Somerville apartment we had dial-up. Do you believe it? Shortly after that FIOS came to town and we decided to give it a try, but at a fairly low speed. We’ve always tried to be responsible with money and I naturally balk at paying for something as intangible and amorphous as “internet connectivity.” I guess I’m a naive realist after all. In any case, one of the top priorities in moving to our new place was getting internet set up. Even before electricity or gas or water. It has become THE utility. The place to pay the bills for all the other utilities. And since I’m now telecommuting, the umbilical cord that connects me to work.
I don’t mean to sound all grandpa-ish on you, but just twelve years ago we struggled for any connection at all. We had one computer (and one work laptop) and only the desktop had internet access. Many of the arcane pieces of hardware found in the attic were from attempts to get us onto the net more efficiently. We even had to draw up a contract for who could use the computer and for how long since all of us wanted that magic window onto the virtual world. Now, like most households, we have wifi and high speed access. When we’re not at the computer, we have our smart phones at hand. The strangest thing about all of this is that now that we’ve got constant connection, our nation has become as polarized as it has ever been. Perhaps we see a little too much of each other? Or too little?
The web has connected us to those we like. Walking down the street it’s rare to find someone not staring at their phone, ignoring all living beings around him or her. We’ve been able to filter out those we don’t like. Those who have different points of view. The net shows us that we aren’t alone, and even those with extreme views can find plenty of compatriots in cyberspace. There’s a reason we used to be told not to discuss religion or politics. Now we know everybody else’s business.
There was a time when moving meant going to where the jobs are. Especially in academia. Colleges and universities exist in set locations. In space-time. Telecommuting isn’t an option (although even that’s happening in some cases now). Moving these days means weighing your internet access options. Satellite is just too slow and unreliable. Who would’ve imagined, for those of us born just after Sputnik went up, that now even space-based connections just aren’t advanced enough? Cyberspace has become more infinite than outer space. And I still prefer pencil and paper.
Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.
Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.
The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Current Events, Literature, Posts, Religious Origins, Science, Sects
Tagged belief, Faithism, John Ballou Newbrough, New York Times, Oahspe Bible, science and religion, Scientology, Zoroastrianism