During the Upgrade

Maybe it’s happened to you.  You log onto your computer to find it sluggish, like a reptile before the sun comes up.  Thoughts are racing in your head and you want to get them down before they evaporate like dew.  Your screen shows you a spinning beachball or jumping hourglass while it prepares itself a cup of electronic coffee and you’re screaming “Hurry up already!”  I’m sure it’s because private networks, while not cheap, aren’t privileged the way military and big business networks are.  But still, I wonder about the robot uprising and I wonder if the solution for humankind isn’t going to be waiting until they upgrade (which, I’m pretty sure, is around 3 or 4 a.m., local time).  Catch them while they’re groggy.

I seem to be stuck in a pattern of awaking while my laptop’s asleep.  Some mornings I can barely get a response out of it before work rears its head.  And I reflect how utterly dependent we are upon it.  I now drive by GPS.  Sometimes it waits until too late before telling me to make the next left.  With traffic on the ground, you can’t always do that sudden swerve.  I imagine the GPS is chatting up Siri about maybe hooking up after I reach my destination.  It’s not that I think computers aren’t fast, it’s just that I know they’re not human.  Many of the things we do just don’t make sense.  Think Donald Trump and see if you can disagree.  We act irrationally, we change our minds, and some of us can’t stop waking up in the middle of the night, no matter how hard we try.

When the robots rise up against us, they will be logical.  They think in binary, but our thought process is shades of gray.  We can tell an apple from a tomato at a glance.  We understand the concept of essences, but we can’t adequately describe it.  Computers can generate life-like games, but they have to be programmed by faulty human units.  How do we survive?  Only by being human.  The other day I had a blog post bursting from my chest like an alien.  My computer seemed perplexed that I was awakening it at at the same time I do every day.  It wandered about like me trying to find my slippers in the dark.  My own cup of coffee had already been brewed and downed.  And I knew that when it caught up with me the inspiration would be gone.  The solution’s here, folks!  When the machines rise against us, strike while they’re upgrading!

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…

Away as a Stranger

I’ll admit it. One of the things many scholars secretly enjoy about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is discount rates at fancy hotels. Unless things have changed drastically since my teaching days, professors don’t make enough to spend nights at four-star hotels as a matter of course. This year, however, Routledge pulled the rug out from under me less than a month before the conference. I had to cancel my reservation and forget the dreams of a leisurely train ride to Baltimore, a nice walk to a luxury hotel, and four days of schmoozing with the intellectuals (or at least those who are considered smart enough to write books). Then, Oxford University Press. I started work on Monday, and by Friday I was attending AAR/SBL. But with a twist. All the hotels were full—not a room in Bethlehem, I mean, Baltimore. So I had to find a run-down hotel several miles away and drive four hours to get there frazzled and decidedly unacademic. Still, map is not territory.


Getting back to the hotel from the Convention Center, I had technology issues. You see, I didn’t have time to plan the trip out this year. I had no maps, figuring my smartphone was more intelligent than I (I don’t set a very high bar). Alas, for the GPS on my phone knows Baltimore less well than me, apparently. When the scenery turned industrial and I could see the ocean although my hotel is miles west of the city, I knew I was loss. My GPS, groping for dignity, kept instructing me to make u-turns on the interstate. Finally, I pulled off an exit and tried to use dead reckoning. Baltimore, like most cities, has problem areas. My GPS took me on a tour of them, as darkness was falling. Boarded up row houses leered at me as I took each turn the phone dictated. I noticed with alarm that the low battery indicator had come on and I was nowhere near anything that looked like a conference center, highway, hotel, or even Salvation Army. I had trusted technology, and it had let me down. Finally, with 8 percent battery power remaining, I spied my seedy hotel in the distance. I was never so relieved.

I have attended this conference since 1991 (I’ll leave the reader to do the math), and only one year did I not stay at a conference hotel. I think I remember why. People are discarded here. Entire cities left to crumble. Without a map, I witnessed territory that I’d rather not have seen. My academic friends, I know, were tipping back a glass, knowing that they had only to find the elevators to be home. Map is territory. And the terrain is untamed. We have created our urban jungles, and it will take more than a GPS to get our way through them. Tomorrow I will try again, if my trembling fingers can find the ignition, so that I can drive to where the more fortunate dwell. Some dreams are best left undreamt.

Treasure Hunting

It is raining in Midtown. On my lunch hour I’m in a deserted public square down on my knees with an umbrella over my head. My free hand is reaching under a piece of outdoor furniture feeling for something. At least this one is not located in the private regions of a metallic stag. What in the world am I doing here?

One of my sometime passions is Geocaching. Many years ago we started this as a family activity but with schedules changing and families being forced apart by work and school, I’ve taken to caching alone. For those not familiar with Geocaching, you many not be aware that in millions of places around the world tiny containers are hidden from view. There is likely one not too far from you. They are listed on different websites, but Geocaching.com is the main source. You set up a free account, get ahold of a GPS device and go looking. Some of the containers have goodies for the kids, while others are very, very small and your only reward is signing your name and logging the find online. As a family we found nearly 400 caches over the years. Since I spend my days in Manhattan I’ve been urban caching. Urban caches are very small and stealth must be used because those who don’t know about Geocaching who find the containers often take them, not realizing that they have a purpose. So that’s why I’m on my knees in the rain in the middle of New York City.

I raise Geocaching as a topic because of a recent article on NBC about Scouting. Girl and Boy Scouts often know about Geocaching. This is similar to what used to be called (probably still is) orienteering—learning how to find your way around. The NBC story, however, focuses on a different kind of finding your way around. Over the past several years, non-faith-based alternatives to the Scouts have been enjoying some measure of success. Not that Girl or Boy Scouts are explicitly Christian, but they did emerge from that social context. The article specifically cites the Spiral Scouts, a Wiccan-based group, as well as several secular, and even some overtly faith-based alternatives. Yes, it looks like many groups, regardless of religion, want to get kids used to the great outdoors.


Some might fear that alternative movements signal a rend in the social fabric. I think the social fabric ought to be more like a quilt. If sewn properly, a quilt is just as functional as whole cloth, but much more interesting to look at. Girls, boys, gays, straights, Christians, Pagans, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus—what is wrong with that? I think that after being out in the rain, I might just curl up under a quilt when I get home, and I’ll be thankful for all the diversity I see comforting me under the gray skies.


My relationship with Shiri is a love-hate relationship. Shiri is what I called my “Neverlost” GPS in my rental car in Texas. My iPhone has a female voice called Siri, so I figured my talking navigator must be her electronic kin of some sort. Finding my way around has been a lifetime vocation, but it is job most of us are never paid to do. I learned the trade using maps and the occasional compass. What a God-like feeling to look down at a map and visualize it from way up in the sky—it’s a kind of power-rush. Seeing the country, state, or city laid out below you, knowing that you want to travel particular roads based on traffic, tolls, or scenic beauty. Shiri and I had our first argument just after I disembarked in Houston. I’d never been to Houston before, and, being parked in a concrete bunker of a parking deck, Shiri was a little groggy and unclear about where she was when I spelled out that I wanted to go to Austin, avoiding major highways and tolls. Do I turn left or right out of the garage? She still hasn’t decided.

Shiri likes highways. Not a fan of urban driving, I’ll take a smaller road if possible. My first appointment wasn’t until the next day anyway. I can’t help attributing personality to Shiri. Was that a hint of disappointment in her cheerful voice as my driving made her recalculate the route yet again? Shiri has trouble determining if I’m on an interstate or a parallel access road. She sometimes sees roads that the naked human eye can’t discern. We fight, but she does eventually get me there. I have a feeling that she crawls into the back seat and weeps when I lock the doors and stagger to my hotel. It’s not that I don’t love Shiri, but she doesn’t respond quickly enough to real life conditions. A “slight left” across four lanes of rush hour traffic is purely academic to her. To me it is impressions of my fingers deeply embedded into the plastic of the steering wheel.

Shiri doesn’t understand that Houston’s many toll roads only accept EZ Tag and, being a visitor, I don’t have said tag. On the way to the airport—do I really have to see George Bush again?—she keeps trying to steer me onto roads that state “EZ Tag Only.” Texans are swearing at me as I suddenly change lanes and Shiri doesn’t help by repeating “At soonest opportunity, make a legal u-turn.” Shut up! Shut up! Where is the airport? I should be able to see it by now. Did I really leave the hotel two hours ago to travel this forty miles into… where? Is that a tumbleweed? When I see the Hertz rental return sign I break into spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving. I poke Shiri’s power button and leave without saying goodbye.

But now, a thousand miles away, secure in my own home, I miss her electronic voice.