Geocheating

So, we geocache.  Not as much as we used to, but over 15 years ago my family and I began the sport and really got into it for a while.  Geocaching involves using a GPS to find a hidden object (“cache”) so that you can log the find.  It’s all in good fun.  The organization that hosts the website also offers the chance to log “trackables”—these are objects with a unique identifier that you sometimes find in caches and you get credit for logging your find.  There are no prizes involved.  We started several of these “travel bugs” ourselves, years ago.  If you started one you got an email when someone logged it, and you could see how far around the world your little bug had gone.  For many years we’ve not heard much about any of ours and assumed them to be MIA.

Recently I started getting several email notices about a resurrected travel bug.  It was as if someone had finally found a cache somewhere deep in the Sahara where it’d been hidden for a decade.  Then I had an email from a fellow cacher, in German.  I figured it must be serious.  The message was that a Facebook page was publishing trackable numbers so that anyone could claim to have found them.  One of ours was on that list.  I went to the page to look.  It said, “Let’s face it, it’s all about the numbers.”  And they proceeded to list hundreds of numbers so that you could claim to have “found” the pieces with your posterior solidly sunk in your favorite chair.  This is annoying not only because we had to pay for the trackable dogtags, but also because it was cheating.  I said as much on the page only to have my comment blocked.

How sad is it when people cheat at a game when there’s no gain?  All they do is claim to have done something they haven’t, for no prize or recognition.  A fun family pastime falls victim to the internet.  Ironically, geocaching was really only possible because of the internet.  It required a place where players could log their finds in a common database.  Facebook, continuing its potential for misuse, allows someone to spoil it.  I, along with my unknown German counterpart, reported the page to the powers that be.  But since we live in a world where the powers that be don’t recognize any rules beyond inflating their own numbers, I shouldn’t be too optimistic of any results.  I guess this is how Republicans play games.

Making Memories

I’m a little suspicious of technology, as many of you no doubt know.  I don’t dislike it, and I certainly use it (case in point), but I am suspicious.  Upgrades provide more and more information to our unknown voyeurs and when the system shows off its new knowledge it can be scary.  For example, the other day a message flashed in my upper right corner that I had a new memory.  At first I was so startled by the presumption than I couldn’t click on it in time to learn what my new memory might be.  The notification had my Photos logo on it, so I went there to see.  Indeed, there was a new section—or at least one I hadn’t previously noticed—in my Photos app.  It contained a picture with today’s date from years past.

Now I don’t mind being reminded of pleasant things, but I don’t trust the algorithms of others to generate them for me.  This computer on my lap may be smart, but not that so very smart.  I know that social media, such as Facebook, have been “making memories” for years now.  I doubt, however, that the faux brains we tend to think computers are have any way of knowing what we actually feel or believe.  In conversations with colleagues over cognition and neurology it becomes clear that emotion is an essential element in our thinking.  Algorithms may indeed be logical, but can they ever be authentically emotional?  Can a machine be programmed to understand how it feels to see a sun rise, or to be embraced by a loved one, or to smell baking bread?  Those who would reduce human brains to mere logic are creating monsters, not minds.

So memories are now being made by machine.  In actuality they are simply generating reminders based on dates.  This may have happened four or five years ago, but do I want to remember it today?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends on how I feel.  We really don’t have a firm grasp on what life is, although we recognize it when we see it.  We’re further even still from knowing what consciousness may be.  One thing we know for sure, however, is that it involves more than what we reason out.  We have hunches and intuition.  There’s that fudge factor we call “instinct,” which is, after all, another way of claiming that animals and newborns can’t think.  But think they can.  And if my computer wants to help with memories, maybe it can tell me where I left my car keys before I throw the pants containing them into the wash again, which is a memory I don’t particularly want to relive.

Memory from a decade ago, today.

Alien Ideas

One of the iconic moments in all of cinema, known well beyond the confines of sci-fi and horror fans, is the alien bursting out of Executive Officer Kane’s chest.  The movie, of course, is Alien.  The screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, was also known for contributing to Star Wars, Total Recall, and Return of the Living Dead.  Alien is one of those horror films I was too afraid to watch when it came out in 1979.  I was sixteen at the time, and had been primed by commercials that still haunt me.  I would eventually, in seminary, see Aliens and prompted by curiosity, eventually went back to watch the original.  It has since become one of my favorites, and analysts of genre fiction and religion quite often point to the iconic role of Ridley as worthy of theological mention.  Her self-sacrifice in the third installment has been heralded as one of the many cinematic messianic moments.

Science fiction and horror are closely related genres.  They can be teased apart in Alien only with extreme finesse.  Consider the most famous scene again.  Kane, while on the derelict alien vessel on LV-426, has the unfortunate experience of an alien larva sealing itself to his face.  The crew of the Nostromo can’t get the creature off—whenever they provoke it, it wraps its tail more tightly around Kane’s throat or leaks acid.  Then it falls off and dies.  Everyone, not least Kane, is relieved.  He joins the rest of the crew for a meal, but then shows signs of distress.  Something is eating him from inside.  The alien rips out and the line from sci-fi to horror is irrevocably crossed.  That unforgettable scene immediately became a classic of the genre.

Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter, suffered from Crohn’s Disease.  He attributed the alien-bursting scene to his own experience with the condition, which eventually took his life.  Someone in my family was recently diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a disease similar to Crohn’s.  In response I did something I’d never done before; I started a fundraiser on Facebook.  The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation is a non-profit organization funding research into these debilitating illnesses.  It offers support to those who suffer with the diseases, the incidence of which is on the rise.  I once told my family member about O’Bannon’s use of his own suffering as the inspiration for that cinematic moment.  It brought a rare smile in the midst of a flare, a smile with a little too much understanding for a young person.  If only Ripley were here to take control of a menace far too human.

The Job of Theodicy

Most people, I suspect, don’t think about diseases until someone they know is afflicted.  It’s natural enough to try to avoid thinking of the negative, and I know that I’ve always felt overwhelmed when it came to worthy causes seeking donations.  I surprised myself, therefore, but putting up a Facebook fundraiser for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.  Someone close to me was diagnosed with the disease, and seeing suffering first-hand has a way of changing your perspective.  You want to do whatever you can to help.  Instead of feeling completely at the mercy of chance, I put my fundraiser online and I’m hoping for the best.  A doctor I know informed me that foundations for diseases are among the most helpful websites for those with the condition.

In my mind, as in that of many others, disease is intricately tied in with theodicy—the problem of innocent suffering in the presence of a God supposed to be good.  Theodicy is frequently the first stop on the road to non-belief, as a careful reading of many of the “new atheists” reveals.  No theologian has devised a satisfying theodicy.  The question always comes down to the fact that a universe without debilitating diseases can be imagined by those of us with feeble human abilities, so why not by an almighty being with no limitations?  Human evil can be attributed to free will.  Natural evil, such as diseases not keyed to behaviors that lead to them, is a different matter.  Often we’re left to our own human devices against conditions we don’t fully understand.

Facebook may not be the best place to post a fundraiser, however, it has a reach far greater than this simple blog, and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation page helps to get such fundraisers set up.  For all of its problems, Facebook does provide a way to bring people together for common causes.  Seeing someone we know suffering is never easy.  And there are so many worthy causes out there.  The situation naturally reminds me of the book of Job.  People who turn to it looking for an answer to why innocent people suffer (Job is presented as perfect in the prologue to the story) come away disappointed.  No reason is given and the question of theodicy is left unanswered beyond the claim that human understanding is limited.  God may ask how Job has the boldness to question divine action, but there’s no suggestion that he shouldn’t try to find relief with his broken potshard.  My Facebook fundraiser is my potshard, I guess, although the larger questions still remain.

Linking In

Like many in the internet age, I have most of my “connections” online.  It’s somewhat of a rarity to be invited, for example, to connect on LinkedIn by someone I actually know.  I remember the early dissemination of information from that network—it was strictly for people you really did know in real life, because they could help or hurt your career.  I took that seriously for a year or two, but it became clear that this was another Facebook with a more professional cast.  I’ve been told of authors who try to build their online platform by adding thousands of connections on LinkedIn.  The website, however, is not intended as an advertising venue.  It has, however, become one.

I’m not denigrating LinkedIn.  I’ve found two jobs through it and I’ve had recruiters reach out to me because they found my profile there.  For a religionist that can be quite flattering.  Academia and society tend to tell you that such a skillset is okay but basically useless.  Having others who know the wide diversity of human employment these days can be a sign of hope.  Nevertheless, advertising has crept into LinkedIn.  I’m not talking about the frequent invitations to go professional on the site, which will only cost a small fee that will suddenly show up on your credit card bill when you least expect it and thought you were in the clear.  No, I’m talking about connections contacting you to do gratis work for them.  Advertising their book, or their services.  Letting others know, they ask, that they can provide this or that service.  (Just to be clear, I’m not referring to people who contact me personally because we have an actual connection!)

For those of us working stiffs not in a position to hire anyone—professionally or personally—this is another symbol of how any form of communication becomes commodified.  Fully over half of my email is soliciting money in one form or another.  Hearing from an actual person with an actual message for me is so rare that I’m stunned to find one in my inbox.  Capitalism just doesn’t know when to let go.  And it doesn’t have a good read on what little I actually do buy.  Underwear (and just using that word will color the tailored ads I receive for weeks) vendors seem to think I’m concerned about the fashion of garments others don’t see.  The books Amazon suggests, based on a solid track record, are generally far off from my interests.  What hope do those who don’t know me have of selling me their wares through LinkedIn?  The dream of connection without cash changing hands nevertheless remains alive.

Old school connectivity

Paying Troll

There was a time, should the media of my youth be believed, when a man insulted another man’s wife at his peril.  A barroom fight, or perhaps a sober brawl, would ensue.  Such chivalrous days are likely over and the internet makes nasty comments so easy to disseminate (how terribly masculine!) for all the world to see.  Hiding behind assumed names, avatars, or delusional fictions, you can feel like a big man by saying unkind things to a person you’ll never meet.  Such is the world of Trump’s America.  Although he may think himself divine, Trump didn’t invent Twitter or the internet.  Neither did Al Gore.  Still, the distasteful political rancor leading up to the midterm elections led to a man (I presume) trolling my wife behind a mask of Facebook anonymity.

It’s hard to tell how to react.  Feminism doesn’t always want a man to step in and defend, but we’re all raised with tales of princesses and those who honor them.  Having been raised by a woman with an absentee husband, I have nothing but admiration for strong women.  Although categorized as a “white man,” I can’t see my own brand as better than any other.  We are all human beings, and with some rare exceptions, we deserve respect.  Like all evolved creatures, however, I sometimes reach deeply back into my primate roots and the tropes of my childhood begin to simmer.  Who trolls another man’s wife over politics?  Who doesn’t stop to consider that every woman is a daughter and many are mothers and sisters?  If you want to pick on someone, well, you know how the saying goes.

The midterm elections brought some much-needed balance to a government way off kilter.  There are still trolls under the bridges, however.  The storybooks tell how knights vanquish trolls and even the liberated male can’t help but imagine himself on that proud steed.  What kind of man takes a keyboarded cheap-shot at another man’s wife?  The quality of his discourse speaks volumes.  Those on the left believe in equality and can’t respond in kind.  It is, ironically, a far more biblical response than trolling on the right.

I’ve lost readers of this blog due to politics.  Some of my former readers have even told me so.  I appreciate their candor.  We can’t all agree, I know.  What we can do, however, is be civil.  Those who put themselves in elected office know that they are opening themselves to criticism.  It is very hard to slander a United States president, in the words of the Good Book, “how the mighty are fallen.”  Those with thin skin should think twice (or even once) before running for the most criticized office in the world.  Most, until now, knew that what they said would set the tone for the nation.  We’re all entitled to an opinion, and, for the time being, are free to express it.  Still, I’d think twice before insulting another man’s wife.  But then, I’ve always been a hopeless idealist.

Twitter Me This

Techoncrat I’m not. At least I understand that to be authentic in this world you need to be on social media. I have a Twitter account. Have had for years. I don’t follow it religiously, but then, I don’t treat any social media like holy writ. The other day I noticed a disturbing trend. Donald Trump’s tweets end up on my bird feed. No, I didn’t accidentally follow him—I have a natural aversion to fascists with delusions of divinity—but nevertheless his mug shows up so frequently that I tend not to follow the bird maybe as much as maybe I should. I wonder how someone thinks s/he has the right to buy part of my consciousness.

Tweet or honk?

Tweet or honk?

The world-wide web is without laws, like the subconscious mind. Thoughts from around the world—at least the affluent part of it—milling, swirling about in an electronic soup thickened by irony. It’s addictive. The opiate of the masses. Perhaps it is a religion after all. Tweets are micro prayers. Blogs are sermons. Facebook is coffee hour. All these connected minds have created a consciousness of their own. Like Victor Frankenstein, we too know what it feels like to be God. It’s not a particularly joyous place to be. Does God, I wonder, lack the control that we experience on the Internet?

I like Twitter. It doesn’t demand much. The only problem is that to stay on top of things you have to have it going all the time. I turn it off and when I come back on I’ve missed hundreds of tweets. And then there’s Donald Trump again. I can come up with my own nightmares, thank you. I don’t need Twitter to suggest any.

Perhaps this is the apotheosis of capitalism. The ability to buy anything, including space on somebody else’s bird feed. Buy the most powerful office in the country, if not the world. Buy hatred and distribute it freely. One thing you can’t buy is intelligence. At least, up until now, some universities still understand that. It has taken me years to gather Twitter followers, like Mrs. Partridge the family band-mates fall behind in a neat, technicolor line. I have no money. I have very little influence. I’m really not a very good capitalist at all. I give away for free what universities charge for. Just like in the classroom, few pay attention. What do I expect? Who really listens to sermons anyway?