Internet of Nothings

In the vast internet of things, it’s surprising that you can’t order some specific things.  This became clear to me recently when there were two separate things I was looking for.  I know these things exist.  You can find them on the internet, but they are not available in this area.  One of them is very mundane.  Lath.  You see, the previous owners of the house wired up the attic, which is handy.  To do so they had to break through the plaster and they removed several sections of lath.  Like a squirrel digging for a forgotten nut, they did this several times, leaving holes in the wall with exposed insulation.  One of my projects since moving in has been to plaster over these holes.  The gaps are so large, however, that you need lath to replace the discarded pieces.  

Our local big box hardware stores don’t carry it.  If you find it in a large urban store, they can’t deliver it to a local branch, and shipping isn’t available for this item.  I realize drywall has triumphed—I prefer it myself—but doing the entire attic is a major expense.  I just want to plaster up the holes.  No lath, no how.  At the same time I began to look for Top Ramen soy flavor for quick lunches.  It is the only inexpensive vegan option with the much coveted flavor pack.  I know it exists and that it is available in Ithaca, New York, the last place I bought it.  Although the brand is in our local grocery stores that variety is not.  It’s listed on Amazon, but as unavailable.  (Amazon, by the way, insists that you want to buy a lathe if you type in lath.  If it finally accepts “lath” it’s clear it has no idea what it is.)

So I went to the website of the Top Ramen parent company, Nissin.  They list the product as available.  They don’t ship themselves, not to small customers, but they helpfully tell you stores nearby where you can buy it.  Their vegetarian varieties are “not available in your area.”  Not even Amazon can get them.  This to me seems odd.  Nearly every day I read about the greatness of the internet of things.  Anything can be had in this market.  If you’re looking for something specific, whether it be thin strips of cheap wood or thin noodles without beef broth for your lunch, you can’t get those in an area within about 250 miles of one quarter of the US population.  Of course, I have until lunchtime to sort this one out.


Following Instinct

An article from the Christian Science Monitor a few years back made me think how common knowledge runs ahead of science, but without the rigorous evidence.  The article is “Ravens might possess a Theory of Mind, say scientists.”  Of course they do.  The ravens, that is.  So do many other animals.  It’s pretty obvious when watching them interact on a daily basis.  We’ve over-flogged the idea of “instinct,” using it as a way of preserving the biblically-inspired idea that people are separate from animals.  We can be an arrogant species.  We say we get to determine when other species are intelligent or not.  When they do something smart we say, “That’s just instinct.”  Is it?  How do we know that?  And isn’t “instinct” one of the greatest fudge factors ever invented?

We do not know what consciousness is.  We claim it for ourselves and a few of our favorite animals only.  The ravens in the article show by their behavior that they know, or assume they know, what others are thinking.  I’m always struck how experiments set up to measure this assume a human frame of reference.  Paint a spot on an animal and place it in front of a mirror.  If it shows curiosity about the spot it has a self-awareness, a theory of mind.  Maybe other species aren’t as concerned about zits as we are.  Maybe they consider it vain to fawn over themselves.  Maybe they use sight in coordination with scent and hearing to identify themselves.  No matter what, at the end of the day we must say how our intelligence is superior.  (Then we go and elect Trump.)

Need I say more?

Scientists have to be skeptical—that is their job.  Looking for evidence and coming up with hypotheses and theories and whatnot.  That’s how the scientific method works.  The scientific method, however, isn’t the only way of knowing things.  We learn and animals learn.  We like to think our “theory of mind” makes us unique, but watching how animals interact with each other, even when they don’t know someone else is watching them, shows more sophistication than we normally allow.  Nobody has to be convinced that the corvids are intelligent birds.  Their lives are different from the nervous little finches and wrens, however.  Does that mean wrens and finches have less developed minds?  I think not.  Until we learn how to think like animals we have no business claiming that they have no theory of mind.  Maybe if we could define consciousness we might have a claim.  Right now, though, all we have are instincts to go on.


Souls, All

What is a soul?  Can you lose your job for believing in one?  Well, maybe not lose your job, but be placed on paid leave.  Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about Google engineer Blake Lemoine being put on leave after claiming a soul for the company’s artificial intelligence language model.  Isn’t that what artificial intelligence is all about?  We’ve become so materialistic that we no longer believe in souls, and when we create life we don’t expect it to have one, right Dr. Frankenstein?  One of the sure signs that we are alive is our sensing of the many qualia of biological existence.  We understand that we’re born, we’re biological, and that we will die.  We also sense that there’s something beyond all this, our self, or mind, or psyche, call it what you will.

In our minds the soul has become entrenched with the Christianity that provides the backdrop to our somewhat embarrassing history of repression of those who are different.  How do we redeem one without having to be shackled to the other?  And once we do, can we declare why AI doesn’t have a soul while biological beings do?  Or will we insist that it is solely human?  In this odd world that’s evolved, we view animals as innocent because they can’t know what they’re doing.  Historically there have been animals put to trial.  That’s an aberration, however, from our usual ways of thinking.  We don’t know what a soul is.  We’re not even sure there is such a thing.  To suggest a machine might have one, however, is taboo.  Would we trust a soul made by humans?

Skepticism is good and healthy.  So is having an open mind.  We’ve been a polarized people for a long time.  If it’s not politics it’s elites versus uneducated, materialists versus those who think there might be something more, self-assured versus those who question everything.  The path of learning should keep us humble.  We should be open to the possibilities.  There’s no way to measure the immaterial since all our tools are material.  Even psychology, which utilizes categories to help us understand neurodiversity, often finds chemical solutions to the most cerebral of problems.  Perhaps overthinking is an issue—it can certainly get you into trouble.  Believing in souls can put you in a place of ridicule or suspicion.  Does AI have a soul?  Does a soul emerge from biological existence, whenever a sufficient number of neurons gathers in one place?  Is it the fabric of the universe from which we borrow a little?  We have some soul-searching to do.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

False Focus

I seldom use my iPhone.  I admit that I like having a camera with me most of the time and I don’t look like a tourist.  I don’t text and when I feel like tweeting I do it from my laptop.  I often forget where I put my phone and walk out of the house without it.  What I’m trying to say is that it’s not a distraction.  Now I realize companies (which seldom undertake to comprehend those of us who are anomalous) have to appeal to the lowest common denominator.  In iPhone world this means that they now want you to use “Focus.”  In other words, if you’re behind the wheel or in danger of losing your job for being distracted all the time, you can filter what gets through.  I recently had a request from my phone to send me Focus notifications when I’m home.  Of course it knows when I’m home!

It seems unnerving to me that we need to have our devices remind us not to use them.  What does it say about our love-love relationship with devices?  We use them to guide us when we’re driving—no longer experiencing the wonder of getting lost.  We read on them, forgetting the feel, smell, and non-reflective look of a book.  Some people even smoke their devices.  Many people now protect their houses with devices that allow them to see who’s at the door.  Do we really feel safer with our devices taking care of us all the time?  Perhaps we do.  Perhaps the cyborg revolution has already begun.

When I see how simple things like telling an apple from a tomato still flummox machine sensors (and even if they learn to tell this difference, the point remains the same), I realize just how much life experience teaches us.  We’re constantly taking in sensory data and interpreting it.  Often subconsciously.  I can smell and feel the difference if the same shirt is dried in a dryer or on a line.  I know which is better but I struggle to find the words to describe why.  I can tell the difference between the taste of this peanut and that one.  Some scents can trigger euphoria while others warn that a mustelid is nearby and wants to be left alone.  I know to look around for a skunk, to honor its wishes.  I can infer that the apples that have started to go bad are why that opossum is in our compost bin.  Perhaps I’ll pull out my phone and take a picture.


Smaller Wolves

It was in Maine.  In 1987.  I can’t remember how Paul and I found this place to camp.  I don’t remember making reservations, but we drove along in his 1968 VW Beetle, unpacked a tent along a  rutted logging road, and set up camp for the night.  We were there to try to find moose.  In the middle of the night we were awakened by howling in the woods.  We were many miles from any other humans and nobody knew where we were.  Were there wolves in these woods?  Paul turned to me.  “Wolves don’t attack people, do they?” he asked.  I said no.  He pulled out a very large knife.  “I was in the civil air patrol,” he explained.  “You know what to do with this, right?  If a wolf bites your arm, cut your arm off and run away.” Not the best advice.  As we drifted off to sleep we were awoken again by furious sniffing outside the tent.  The next morning we saw no moose but found tracks all around our temporary home.  We convinced ourselves they were wolf tracks.  They were actually tracks of coyotes.

Most people in America have a coyote story to tell.  I can’t recall how I learned about Dan Flores’ Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History.  I’ve always been drawn to nature writing, but it was probably the “supernatural” that caught my attention.  This is a fascinating book with a rollercoaster ride through emotional responses.  Flores makes the case that Coyote was the first god of America.  Indian mythology is full of this character and his antics.  But the heart of the book focuses on the many decades of efforts—still ongoing—of the government to eradicate coyotes.  Millions of them have been killed for spurious reasons, largely because the government pays attention to ranchers who pay a lot of money to be minded.  Coyotes naturally find their balance in nature, which we insist on disrupting.  One of their survival strategies has been to move east.  Even moving into cities.

I’ve heard coyotes in Wisconsin, and I saw at least one while out jogging in the early mornings there.  Since moving east I’ve not spotted any, but they are, I know, here.  I’m largely on the side of nature, but the first ever documented adult human wolf fatality took place in another place I’ve camped, Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, in 2009.  Reading this made my human pride rear up—we don’t face predators well.  The book goes on to touch on how I, and many others my age, learned of coyotes—through Wile E. in animated form.  This book is difficult to read in many parts, but it is an absolutely mesmerizing journey through many lenses of what it means to be American.  Whether you’re canine, or human.


Soft Wired

A museum of discarded electronics.  I’ve been thinking that might be a good use for all the tech we’ve had to buy over the years that quickly becomes outmoded.  (Useless, that is.)  As I look over these devices I can recall just why they were purchased.  Mostly it was to solve a more immediate problem.  You perhaps overspend so that you can avoid disrupting the tech services you’ve learned you can’t live without.  Then new tech comes along and you need new hardware to do the same thing you’ve always done.  Soon you’ve got a museum’s worth of old tech.  I tried to get my mother on the internet by sending her an old computer that I bought with grant money back in my Nashotah House days.  When it was all set up, it was discovered that it was too old to connect to the modern internet.  I’ve lost track of how many computers are in the attic, but at least now there’s one less.  The thing these all have in common is that they require electricity.

Image credit: Mircea Madau, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago I wrote about our eclectic electric issues.  While our utilities company and electrician try to sort out who does what (it turns out that our house was never properly wired up from the mains), we’ve got a dilemma.  Since we all work from home and we all use computers, how are we going to work on a day when the electricity has to be off?  (Let’s hope it’s after this cold snap is over.)  We depend on electricity in this electronic world.  The solution may be to buy some new tech.  A battery-powered hot spot and fully charged laptops might be able to get us through an hour or two with no electricity.  We’ve become so dependent on the juice that the thought of being without it is scary.

The solution, of course, will quickly become outmoded as 6G and 7G, on to infinity, await in the wings.  They will all need electricity.  A house that was never properly hardwired can be a tricky thing.  Electricians and linemen have to have weekends too.  In a world where constant connectivity has eliminated snow days, such force majeure on a personal level holds no, well, force.  Aligning three employers who say it’s okay to step “out of the office” for a few hours at a time not of your own choosing will be impossible.  So we buy a new tech solution and hope it’s fully charged.  And when we’re fully wired up again the new device can eventually go in the museum of obscure electronics.


Movie Moving?

If you don’t know me personally, you may not realize how frequently I quote movies.  On a daily basis, films I’ve seen—particularly multiple times—are the source of some of what I say.  Films have tremendous impact.  Some theorists have even argued that they are the new mythology.  So imagine my distress when an opinion piece in the New York Times suggested that movies are losing their relevance.  Media comes in so many varieties that we can take our choice.  YouTube and TikTok have given television its first real competition in my lifetime.  Our local CD store is a rather sad place, and does anybody even remember Blockbuster?  But movies—the media of entertainment for over a century—irrelevant?

What of the movie star?  It doesn’t matter which one.  The phenomenon of it.  The person recognized as a household name.  Now we seem to be losing yet one more frame of reference.  There’s no firm ground left for culture, it seems.  Is this why things are falling apart?  Movies weren’t the only glue, of course, but I wrote three books on movies.  The larger implications are sobering.  Media, of course, is always changing.  Movies are but a modern form of story-telling.  Already decades ago the weight for this began to swing towards what we used to call video games.   The younger generation prefers stories where their actions decide the ending.  To a point.  Someone had to program this thing and has predetermined possible outcomes.  Like a movie, it’s a story.

Stories are probably the oldest form of human entertainment.  The nonfiction books that sell the best are those with a narrative arc—they tell a story.  Nonficionados may be reluctant to admit that they’re drawn to stories, but we all are.  It’s human nature.  While I prefer books to movies, there are times I just can’t settle down to read.  And also, horror novels don’t quite scare the same way that horror movies do.  Movies have their place.  They can be tremendously expensive to make and many now have so much CGI that actors are disguised beneath layers of code.  Kind of like The Matrix.  Even so, they are telling stories in a format that has become a huge industry that ties culture together with common references.  Can you image a world where there was never a Star Wars?  The internet has perhaps blurred the line a bit and movies are evolving.  As long as we tell one another stories, however, we’re still human.

Image credit: Georges Méliès

Lenten Friday

I thought something was on fire when I first saw it.  A plume of black smoke rising against a backdrop of lowering, sullen clouds in a late winter sky.  Then I remembered that there’s a pet crematorium in that part of town.  I was witnessing the end, the smudged spirit of someone’s departed companion.  It made me reflective.  We currently have no pets.  (We can barely afford keeping ourselves going without adding another mouth to feed.)  Having grown up with a variety of animals–dogs, cats, birds, fish, turtles, guinea pigs—and having kept fish, a bird, and a couple hermit crabs for our daughter, I know the connections we make with our animal kin.  They teach children about death.  And they have the capacity to make all of us reflect on what it means to be alive.

I’ve buried my share of pets, but I have no idea what happened to the larger ones.  The cats.  The dogs.  It was pretty obvious when a dog died.  The cats, which were outside pets, tended simply to disappear.  There were no dog grave markers and I still have no clue what the grown ups did with the carcasses.  I once visited a pet cemetery; it was an oddly moving place.  Although we’re taught theologically that animals don’t have souls, it feels like part of ours dies when they go.  That strange teaching is courtesy of the Bible and it manages to hold sway in both science and religion.  And so another puff of black smoke rises from down the block.

Religion has a tremendous influence on us, whether we’re personally religious or not.  Since humans have always eaten animals, it’s likely that the earliest religions helped to assuage the guilt of killing something that so obviously has feelings and thoughts and could, in other circumstances, have been us.  When monotheism came in there was a great reduction in souls.  Humans alone made in God’s image learned to dominate other animals.  Today we have feedlots that are animal Hells while we pat Fido on the head and mourn his passing.  I somehow doubt that we’ll ever find ourselves back in the natural world.  We’ll likely go extinct before that happens.  Until that day, however, some of our saddest memories will be from when our beloved companions pre-decease us.  You can never be certain which way your thoughts might turn when lowering, sullen clouds fill a late winter sky.


Reconnecting

Not using the internet for 48 hours isn’t the same as not being able to use the internet for that length of time.  Even politicians (who are notoriously slow at figuring out what people need) have started to make noises about this being an essential aspect of life.  Some (many) things you just can’t do without connectivity.  And during a pandemic taking an entire family to an enclosed space with free wifi (still a rarity) for over a full day so that they can get things done is an issue.  All of this has convinced me of the need to purchase a wifi hotspot, in addition to relying on what Astound Broadband (formerly RCN) is able to provide.  (You see, I’m in charge of a Sunday morning program at a local faith community.  I couldn’t even email anyone to let them know I wouldn’t be able to show up on Sunday without using costly data.)  Now that service has been restored, a kind of nervous normality has returned.

This has been a learning experience.  Of course we’ve got books to read.  I have papers, stories, and a next book to write.  None of those, ostensibly, uses the internet.  All of them do, however.  I’ve been conditioned to look things up on the web while I’m writing.  This is true of both fiction and non; a fact needs checking, a reference requires look-up, a thought occurs to you that has to be dealt with before you move on.  There’s an email you forgot to answer.  Etc.  Etc.  The web is our source of news (what’s happening with Ukraine?), our phonebook, our map, our encyclopedia.  Let’s face it—it’s an addiction.  But a necessary one.

Like many things, our government has the capacity to make internet access available, just like they could do our taxes for us and stop the madness of setting back clocks each year from Daylight Saving Time.  They could ensure universal health care.  They’re too busy “defending” a crumbling, pre-internet way of life and enriching themselves to actually enact any of these things.  And somebody would have to figure out what accountants would have to do if taxes weren’t an issue.  I strongly suspect people would still be willing to pay for more than basic internet connectivity.  But to have a basic signal out there that we could tap into without tapping out our data plans would be a real boon.  I found myself glancing at our neighbors’ houses all around and thinking, “They have internet.”  We pay a lot to have it too, but the only company in the Valley can’t guarantee access, especially on a weekend.  What have I learned?  The ascetics were onto something.

Photo by Nicolas Häns on Unsplash

Outernet

Once in a while (ahem), I interject a note of caution regarding technology.  This blog has been part of my daily routine for over a dozen years.  I try to post every day.  When I experience life outside I often think “that would make a good blog post.”  I make notes.  I ruminate.  One of the things I caution about is the fragility of tech.  In order for me to post these thoughts many different components have to work just right.  Not only that, but if I want to pay bills, or, more importantly, work so that I can pay bills, I have to have internet.  Everyone in my family uses it and they do so all day long.  This weekend is the long anticipated Project for Awesome (check it out at projectforawesome.com) sponsored by the Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green.  If the names are familiar it’s perhaps because I’ve read and commented on their books.  Then the internet went out.

Late on Friday afternoon, of course.  Now we’ve had outages before—most recently after a power outage earlier in the week.  I called what used to be RCN, the only service provider in our area, only to be on the phone for half an hour with a tech.  She talked me through the usual rebooting and system checks.  The router was fine, but the only actual connection to the internet is via wifi mediated by a device called Eero.  There’s no ethernet cable (as if Apple laptops even have ethernet ports any more!), no phone line plug-in (ditto), nothing.  Nothing but Eero.  Apparently Eero had died.  And being a weekend a masked tech can’t be sent until Sunday afternoon.  So Friday night with no Disney Plus and Saturday without the long-anticipated Project for Awesome (you really should check it out).

Then my wife noticed her phone could act as a wifi hotspot.  It felt like we were entering a new world of magic.  (And data bills.)  The laptop could covert the G4 that her iPhone could receive into wifi.  It wasn’t ideal, because we have three people who want to use the internet.  With old tech.  All because one component of RCN’s complex system has x’s for eyes.  We had to play Wordle through her phone.  Watch Project for Awesome (it supports charities!) through her phone.  I don’t know, maybe we are even breathing through her phone.  Once in a while I interject a note of caution regarding technology.  This blog post is brought to you by my wife’s phone, acting as an internet hotspot, before anyone else awakes this Saturday morning.

Ancient history!

Healing Borders

Sometimes you read a book that just gets your head buzzing.  Brett Hendrickson’s Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo is one such book.  It brings together so many areas of fascination: healing based on different belief structures than scientific medicine, the role of community in avoiding cultural appropriation, and the cultural blending that takes place at all borders.  The myth of the “pure” has long created problems, particularly in the realm of religion.  Things blend.  They always have.  And this includes belief structures, faiths, religions.  This is most obvious at borders, which makes them very interesting places.  Officially we police them, wanting to keep what is “ours” and keep “them” out.  In reality we are blending with each other and that’s not a bad thing.

In much of educated society, it’s assumed that scientific medicine is the only valid kind.  There are those even among the schooled, however, who pray for the ill.  Curanderismo is a form of folk healing that involves cures that would be rejected out of hand by science.  In a materialist, chemical world, only this can heal that.  Curanderismo looks at things quite differently.  Its practitioners don’t charge an arm and a leg for their work.  They are extremely popular.  And they heal people.  This is part of what makes Hendrickson so wonderful to read—he doesn’t assume up front that this doesn’t work.  Some analysts treat this kind of thing from a perspective of cultural superiority, as if scientific medicine is the only real way to treat illness.  Cultures, however, can heal.

Culture is something we value because it makes us feel secure and comfortable.  We know what to expect.  We speak the language, know the conventions.  (It would help Democrats, I think, to realize that although we’re trying to dismantle xenophobia, it is still very much intact in most of the world.  People follow autocrats because they’re afraid.)  We all live near borders.  Our personal border may be the wall of our apartment or the front door to our house.  It may be the Protestant/Catholic next door (or Buddhist/Atheist/Muslim/Hindu/Agnostic).  It may be the middle class/working class person who lives across the street.  In one town in which I lived it was literally those on the other side of the railroad tracks.  We draw borders for protection, but what Hendrickson shows so clearly is that they can also be places of healing.  


Routine Change

A certain type of mindset thrives in routine.  Perhaps you’ve noticed that these posts appear each day about the same time.  This happens because the routine states that work comes next and it will be largely the same day after day after day.  After work there’s also a pattern until I fall, exhausted, into bed.  Hit repeat.  In the midst of this routine change has crept.  Partly it’s the pandemic, but mostly it’s technology.  And spending habits.  People don’t buy academic books like they used to.  Overall books are booming—so much so that paper shortages aren’t uncommon.  In order to try to keep up with electronic lifestyles, publishers have to integrate the newest technology and to do that everyone has to learn far more tech than technique.  The pace of change is dizzying.

For those who thrive on routine, such rapid-fire alterations make it feel like we need a personal change manager.  “How do I do this now?”  The way we’d done it for years has suddenly shifted and it is only one of many moving parts.  Meanwhile, outside work, other aspects are shifting even as many people still survive without computers at all.  We’re left, those of us tied to routine, in a haze of uncertainty.  It’s like that dream where you’re driving and you can’t slow down but you can’t see out the windshield either.  To make it through we look for routine.  I type this posts on a laptop.  I prefer to write things out by hand, but there’s no time for that any more.  The routine has been broken and the shop that repairs it has gone out of business.

Perhaps this is a malady of those of us who look to the past.  Technological changes used to be measured in centuries, not seconds.  Ancients thought a spout on a jar was a pretty rad invention.  For a hundred years.  Maybe two.  Now if you don’t buy a new iPhone every couple of years you’re hopelessly outmoded.  What was my routine again?  I still awake at the same time and begin each day with writing.  I’ve learned to do it via laptop.  Then it’s to the work laptop where updates seem to be loaded daily and I’m the dog chasing that stick now.  I wonder whose vision we’re following?  Technology’s in charge now.  The rest of us mere humans should be able to get along, as long as we establish a routine of routine change.


Thinking about Thinking

I’ve been thinking about thinking quite a bit.  My lifelong fascination with religion is part of this, of course.  So when someone pointed out Bridget Alex’s article “The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods” in Discover, I had to ponder it.  The idea, here supported by science, is that people evolved survival traits that lent themselves to religious belief.  That religious thinking was a byproduct that eventually took on a life of its own.  Evolution works by giving a reproductive advantage to one trait over another—which is how we get so many types of dogs (and maybe gods)—and those that disposed people to be religious did just that.  Elaborate religions evolved from these basic traits.  Alex suggest there are three: seeing patterns, inferring intention, and learning by imitation.

While there’s a lot of sense here, the reductionism doesn’t ring true.  The need to explain away religion also seems uniquely human.  Ironically, the idea that we are somehow special compared to other animals derives from a biblical worldview from which science has difficulty divorcing itself.  One of the greatest ironies of the science versus religion debate is that scientific thinking (in the west) developed within a worldview formed by Christianity.  Many of the implications of that development linger, such as the supposition that animals can’t have consciousness, or “souls.”  We watch a chimpanzee in an experiment and deduct points when they don’t do things the way a human would.  We thus confirm the biblical view in the name of science and go home happy.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

I have no doubt that people evolved to be religious.  There are certainly survival benefits to it, not least group building and shared purpose.  I do wonder that science doesn’t address the elephant in the room—that we have limited receptors for perceiving specific stimuli, such as light and sound, but that there are other phenomena we don’t perceive.  We build instruments to measure things like x-rays and neutrinos and magnetism, but we don’t sense them directly.  How can we possibly know what we might be missing?  I suspect the real problem is we don’t want to admit willfulness into any other part of the universe.  Humans alone possess it.  Some scientists even argue that our own sense of will is an illusion.  It’s not difficult to believe that we evolved to be religious.  It’s also not difficult to believe that we pick up hints of forces that have yet to be named.  An open mind, it seems, might lead to great rewards.


Zones of Twilight

The other day I saw a beautiful twilight moon.  This was in the morning twilight.  I suspect many people don’t realize that twilight comes twice a day.  Twilight is when dayglow either begins or ends but either before or after the sun itself is visible.  Most people are familiar with evening twilight since they stay awake until after dark.  Morning twilight, so full of hope, is beautiful to the point of being painful.  The other day it was twilight as work was starting—the days are beginning to lengthen since I’ve been starting work in the dark for months now.  A waning gibbous moon shown through a gauzy cloud cover in an indigo sky.  It was very cold outside, so I went to the window to take a picture with my phone.

The modern phone camera often misses the point.  I zoomed in on the moon—phone cameras are wide-angle, by default—and it kept sliding in and out of focus.  The sky was getting lighter by the second, and I was losing the opportune moment.  I tried moving the phone closer to the glass, then back a little.  Still out of focus.  Then I realized what was happening.  My phone was focusing on the dirt specks on the window.  (Hey, it’s winter, hardly the time to be out with the squeegee.)  It occurred to me that a life lesson was being offered.

Thich Nhat Hahn recently died.  He was a Zen Buddhist master, and his passing reminded me of the old Buddhist saying that the Buddha is not the moon but rather the hand pointing at the moon.  Religions often confuse the hand pointing for the truly sublime realm to which it points.  Worshipping the person instead of following her or his teachings is a standard feature of religions worldwide.  It is the reason for much of religious conflict.  Those who worship the figure soon come up with their own teachings that are unrecognizable when held up next to those of the departed leader.  They focus on the window, not the glowing moon beyond.  The sky was growing too light to capture the image that had struck me.  The moon was blurry in a way that my eye hadn’t experienced it.  The moment of teaching was past.  The lesson was over.  The best that I could do was spend  a long day working then try to recapture a moment that had occurred in twilight.


Making Noise

There’s a real danger, it seems, to having an open mind.  We live in a world defined and classified by materialists.  They hold sway not only over science and commerce, but in whether prestigious jobs are on offer.  Consider the case of William Roll.  Roll was a fully credentialed psychologist with an interest in parapsychology.  His book The Poltergeist is a classic in the field.  He’s now frequently called a “credulous investigator.”  What that means, of course, is that he listened to and sometimes believed the people who reported the paranormal.  For materialists that discussion is already closed.  Anyone who tries to pry it back open is ridiculed and called names.  (We’re all adults here, right?)  Yet his classic book still gives pause.

If you actually read it, “credulous” is not a word to suggest itself.  Could Roll have been tricked by clever pranksters?  Yes.  Most people, even clever pranksters, can.  If someone is caught hoaxing a phenomenon, does that mean the whole thing is a hoax?  Not necessarily.  It’s here the materialists swarm.  Interestingly, Roll acknowledges that there could be good psychological reasons for hoaxing after a genuine event.  The person caught hoaxing perhaps realized the benefits of the attention received when something unexplained occurred, and learned how to replicate, or at least imitate it.  People will do anything for attention.  Roll asked a bit more finely parsed question: does hoaxing discount genuine phenomena?  He even tried to get experiencers to the lab where controls could be put into place.  As this book demonstrates, he doubted some of the cases and did so openly.

I became interested in Roll after watching A Haunting in Georgia.  The Wyrick family maintains that the events happened (I’ve written about a book penned by two of the aunts), and they seem sincere.  The problem is money.  Once there’s potential money to be made the skeptics come out, claws bared.  The problem is we all have to make money to survive.  If that involves “capitalizing”—even that word betrays much—on weird things that happen to you, skeptics claim it’s all made up.  There’s an ulterior motive.  For most of us there’s an ulterior motive for going to work, too.  For me, Roll appears to have been sufficiently skeptical.  Statistical anomalies shouldn’t be simply dismissed.  If they are, it’s possible we’re missing something important.  While this book may not have aged particularly well, it is still worth reading with a mind at least a little bit open.