Positive ID

It’s a little bit worrying.  Not just the GOP’s indifference in the face of two mass shootings on the same weekend, but also the fact that the internet knows who I am.  I am the reluctant owner of a smartphone.  I do like that I have the internet in my pocket, but I’m a touch paranoid that I can be traced to anywhere unless I lose my phone.  Even then the government can probably email me and tell me where it is.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m not important enough for the government to pay attention to me, but what is really worrisome is that the web knows me.  Here’s how I came to learn that.  On my home computer I had done a rather obscure Google search.  (If you read this blog that won’t surprise you, and no, it wasn’t anything naughty!)  When I signed into my work computer—different username, different email address, different IP address—and had to do a work related search, Google auto-suggested the search I did on a different computer over the weekend.

I’m savvy enough to know that Google metrics are all about marketing.  The internet wants customer information to predict what they might sell to us.  Advertisers pay for that.  Assuming that I want to buy underwear and summer dresses online (why?), they tailor their ads to sites I visit.  As a sometime fiction writer I go to some sites from which I’m not interested in purchasing anything.  (As an aside, old fashioned book research didn’t leave such a “paper trail.”)  I’ve gotten used to the idea of my laptop knowing me—it sits on my lap everyday, after all—but the work computer?  Does it have to know what I’ve been doing over the weekend?

Artificial intelligence is one thing, but hopping from one login to another feels like being caught in the shower by a stranger.  Like everyone else, I appreciate the convenience of devices.  When I get up in the morning my laptop’s more sure of who I am than my own sleep-addled brain is.  That doesn’t mean my devices really know the essence of who I am.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that my work computer has any right to know what I was doing on another device over the weekend.  Those who believe machine consciousness is now underway assume that this is a step forward, I suppose.  From the perspective of one who’s being stalked by electronic surveillance, however, the view is quite different.  Please leave my personal life at the door, as I do when I go to work.

I’ll Be Googled

It’s a strange sensation to do an innocent web search only to find yourself cited.  (And no, I was not googling myself.  At least not this time.)  I was searching an obscure publisher and my own pre-publication book, Holy Horror, came up on Google books.  Now, the computer engineers I know tell me that Google remembers your searches, and this has a way of being unintentionally flattering; when I search for my book it pops up on the first page because I have searched for it before.  Still, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself where I had no idea I’d been cited.  All of this drew my mind back to my “post-graduate” days at Edinburgh University.  To how much the world has changed.

One of the first things you learn as a grad student is you can’t believe everything you read.  Granted, most of us learned that as children, but nevertheless, with academic publishing a new bar is raised.  That which is published by a university press is authoritative.  So we’re led to believe.  But even university presses can be fooled.  This prompts the fundamental question of who you can really believe.  Our current political climate has elevated that uncertainty to crisis levels, of course, and the vast majority of people aren’t equipped to deconstruct arguments shouted loudly.  Where you read something matters.   Even publishers, however, are fallible.  So what am I to make of being cited by the web?  And is my book already available before I have seen a copy?

Even credibility can be bought and sold.  Colleagues make a much better living than me with the same level of training, but with more influential connections.  It was just this reason that I decided to try to shift my writing to these who don’t need credentials to impress each other.  Some of the smartest people I ever knew were the janitors with whom I started my working life.  As a fellow post-grad in Edinburgh once said, professors are always ready to fail you for your lack of knowledge but most can’t tell you what an immersion heater is.  (That’s one of those Britishisms that no amount of graduate courses at Harvard will teach you.)  I suppose when it’s all said and done nobody else will ever search for the obscure publisher that brought my book to Google’s attention.  No matter, at least Google will always flatter me.

Aporripsophobia

I’m proposing a new word.  Given that there are lengthy lists of phobias available on the internet, and since fear and I are well acquainted, I was surprised to discover that fear of rejection has no name.  It is simply called “fear of rejection.”  That makes it sound so juvenile that it need not be taken seriously.  Without revealing too much (I don’t know how you might use this information—you could reject me!), this is one of my lifelong fears.  I have theories as to why this may be, but if you want to hear them you have to get to know me first.  In any case, I am proposing the word “aporripsophobia” for fear of rejection.  Before you turn this down, let me assure you that I took four years of Greek in college, and even taught it for a year.  “Aporripsē” is Greek for rejection, and, of course “phobia” is fear.  The standard euphonic vowel before the o in phobia is open for grabs, but since it’s my word, I’m suggesting another o.

Unless it’s a keyboard smash, a web search on Google that brings no results is rare.  Just to be sure, I checked out aporripsophobia and the mighty search engine turned up no results.  One thing I’ve learned about the writing life is that rejection is part and parcel of it.  Almost every writer has a history of rejection slips because, until someone takes a chance on you and makes some money off you, who wants to risk it?  The first few I received nearly solidified my slavery to aporripsophobia.  My advice to other writers, however, should they want it, is keep on trying.  In the past two years I’ve been asked to write two academic articles and a book.  I’ve also been asked to contribute to some online resources.  None of these are big or visible projects, but to someone with aporripsophobia, that’s fine.

Even introverts, you see, need other people.  Many of us suffer from a form of over-stimulation when around too many people.  Some of us are extremely alert to our senses, finding it difficult to ignore strong odors or weak pains.  Lots of people around can be frightening—crowds are loud and there’s so much—too much—going on!  That doesn’t mean, however, that the quiet don’t need others.  In fact, the quiet with aporripsophobia may get into a feedback loop where the need for alone time is translated as snobbery or arrogance when in reality it’s simply a way of handling the stress of being around too many people.  The feeling of rejection then rushes in.  I have probably said too much already, but I wanted to get aporripsophobia out there before someone louder did.  I missed meteorotheology as a coined word, so, like my advice to writers, this is how I keep on trying.  Finding aporripsophobia on Google some day down the road could lead to its opposite, I think.  Its rejection, on the other hand, would be the supreme irony.

APB

It’s disconcerting. Being mistaken for somebody else. I suspect I’m not alone in having shown up somewhere I’ve never been before only to have people mistake me for a local. It’s happened to me a couple of times, and what with the recent Steve Wiggins incident in Tennessee, it’s enough to make me question my uniqueness. I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of undergoing identity theft some years back, and floating myself out here on the internet is something the wisdom of which I sometimes question. If I’ve got enough doppelgängers running around out there, perhaps I should be careful of revealing too much online. Such problems my grandparents never had.

A long time ago I turned off the warning alerts on my phone. It’s not that I don’t care, but rather it’s that I keep odd hours. Without revealing too much, I think I can say that I’m awoken somewhat often by those who don’t go to bed so early, or who don’t think about timezone changes before hitting “send.” We here in the American orient awake earlier than others. So I switched off my alerts. Then I started reading that other people were getting “Steve Wiggins alerts.” Was fame passing me by in the night? While this wasn’t the kind of fame I’d hoped to attain, a few stray visitors to this blog couldn’t hurt. When I searched Google for information on “Steve Wiggins” I found myself listed in the Google box on the right as “other.”

Some people who’ve written only two books are listed as “author” on Google. In my case it seems Google can’t figure out why anybody would be searching for me. “Other.” They say Google knows everything. It certainly knows how to flatter the self-seeker, at least most of the time. What does it mean to be an “other?” The unclassifiable? My work, indeed, falls into the “other” column, like that of many people who’ve made plans only to run into the cold reality that fate has laid out for them. Not being a professor any longer is a source of constant confusion to me. Books I read state that x or y knows about a subject because university z or w has hired them. There are those kinds of experts, then there are the “others.” And because of recent events, there are those instantly famous for killing another man and running away. Who am I? I’m not legend; I am other. What exactly that means I still haven’t sorted out.

Buying Faith

Can belief be quantified? Apparently yes. I’ve spent my life trying to avoid the dismal science, yet it seems that everyone else is pretty much agreed that money is the measure of all things. Higher education has certainly been chasing that rabbit for years. My choice of “careers” has always been aimed at those which downplay finance while paying enough to cover the bills. One has to be practical. My wife recently sent me an article in The Guardian by Harriet Sherwood entitled, “Religion in US ‘worth more than Google and Apple combined’.” At first, I have to admit, a kind of triumphalism overcame me. A vindication that I had chosen a valuable aspect of human existence with which to while away my years here on earth. Then came the troubling implications.

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We tend to hear only the bad news about religion. Religion, we’re told, is only super-sized superstition. It supports prejudice. It capitalizes on fear. And nobody really believes anymore. And so the trite truisms march past like tin soldiers on their way to a real war. You see, if we can’t put a dollar value on religion—or any belief system—then we have no way to assess whether it’s worth wasting our time on or not. Maybe people will begin to pay attention now. There’s gold in them thar hills. Yes, the religious are more likely to open their wallets and keep the economy moving than are the wealthy. Yes, those are antithetical groups, for the most part. When we can start toting up dollars and pence it is time for those with more dismal scientific interest to take notice.

Religions, like all human institutions, have faults. They are prone to takeover by self-interested individuals who look for the angle that will lead to personal power or fame. They do often insist that they alone have the correct interpretation of what life means and how we should go about pleasing a deity that only they truly understand. And they bicker amongst each other. It’s easy to forget that religions are based, without exception, on the belief that human life can be improved. We can do better, people. Takeovers, sometimes hostile, can occur. One sect may take out a contract on another. Love may be recast as hatred. Overall, however, religions are, to borrow a phrase from a sage, “our better angels.” And of course, the fact that you can put a dollar value on that only sweetens the deal. The dismal science has studied the matter and its conclusions are indisputable.

Google Me This

Technology frequently flummoxes me. Although I use it daily, it changes more swiftly than I can hope to. Working for a British company, for example, my computer seems to be a loyalist. It supposes that it is in the United Kingdom even as it sits on my desk in New York. I’m told this has something to do with a mystical key called an “IP address.” When I search Amazon, prices come up in pounds. When I google something, I’m told that European laws restrict certain searches. And, interestingly, I discover that Google’s icons of the day have a British theme.

GoogleI’m assured Google is a fun place to work. One of those enlightened companies that believes reducing stress and increasing enjoyment of employees leads to good results. Were that all companies so enlightened. In any case, the famous Google logo is often decorated with a commemoration of the day. This past week, two such icons appeared on my UK searches. The first commemorated Nessie with something like the 81st year of her appearance. The icon puckishly showed Nessie to be a fake, a submarine actually piloted by aliens. Later that same week, on St. George’s Day, a dragon appeared on the icon. I began to wonder about this reptilian connection. If lake monsters are real, many make the claim that they must be plesiosaurs, their dinosaur cousins that most resemble them. St. George, clearly a character cut from the same cloth as Hadad, slays a dragon—an equally mysterious reptile.

We tend to associate dragons with evil, although in world mythology they appear equally as often as harbingers of good. Human interaction with reptiles has always been fraught. Somewhere along our evolutionary track we must’ve shared a common ancestor with them. Even today some responses, such as fight or flight, are referred to as those occurring in the “reptilian brain.” In Genesis 3 the serpent slithers in. According to Revelation, at the other end of the canon, the snake is still there at the end. It was only happenstance that Nessie and George’s unnamed monster appeared in the same week, I suppose. Nevertheless, there is a deep connection between them and us. We can’t seem to get away from them, even should we flee across the ocean.

Egyptian Afterlife

The day after Maurice Sendak died, Google’s doodle celebrated Howard Carter’s 138th birthday. Although Howard Carter’s name may not immediately ring a bell, his work still affects all of us in the western world in profound ways. An inspiration for both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, Carter is best remembering for discovering the intact tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. This discovery generated a neo-Egyptian revival in western culture, notable in the Art Deco movement and the Egyptianizing architecture it inspired. As Google’s doodle shows, we are still reaching back to ancient Egypt to find some kind of meaning for ourselves today. In a world of gadgets and hi-tech baubles, we still cast an envious eye towards the dwellers along the Nile.

It is difficult to assess why the Egyptians are so enduring. They were, after all, polytheists and occupied a country that is now part of the “Middle East.” It is, however, a mystique that they held even in antiquity. Raiders and invaders who came to Egypt ended up trying to walk like the Egyptians rather than attempting to force them to follow foreign ways. The ideal in ancient Egypt was a stable cosmos. In a perfect world Egypt would be an island of calm and tranquility. For this they had their strong kings to thank, and they spared little expense to build him tombs that would remain the largest buildings on earth until Eiffel began to tinker with steel.

Perhaps the characteristic we most admire about the Egyptians is their unshaken confidence. Assured that they were in the favor of the gods, they took that assurance to the grave. Even as the neighboring Israelites still confined the dead to a gloomy underworld, the Egyptians were constructing an afterlife that would keep the good times rolling as long as time itself survived. A great deal of effort was expended on the pampering of the dead. Funnily enough, in our Christianized nation the confidence of divine pleasure only seems to be enacted in the limiting of the rights of others. And when it is all over, the righteous still fear death. Google has an almost unlimited choice of inspirations for its doodles, but Howard Carter seems especially appropriate on a day when we remember those who are willing to go to dangerous places where the wild things might lurk yet.