Keypad of Heaven

There are those who celebrate technology, and those who mourn it.  I fall somewhere in the middle.  One of the selling points for our house was keyless entry.  The great thing about it is you never have to worry about forgetting your keys.  The bad thing is that batteries don’t like cold weather.  The former owners of our house seem to have had it even less together than we do,  They had no instructions or emergency keys for these electronic locks.  So it would happen on a cold, blustery weekend morning we would find ourselves locked out of our most expensive possession.  Now, you have to understand that this “well-maintained” house—so claimed by the not-inexpensive inspector—has turned into a money pit.  The list of derelict pieces and appliances grows weekly and we haven’t even paid off the roof yet.  Emergency locksmiths, I now know, earn their keep.

As I stood on the porch in the gusting wind, waiting in a thin jacket (we were not out for a long trip) for someone I would pay handsomely to break into my house, I considered technology.  If you can afford to keep up with it, it must be great.  If, say, electronic keypads were solar, wired to panels on the roof so that the batteries never died, that would be fantastic.  Even a key would be an advance on a day like this.  So once our teeth stopped chattering and we added yet another creditor to our growing list, I thought how that very morning my computer told me it needed a systems upgrade.  “Didn’t you just have one?” I asked, almost out loud.  I know what it is to be a servant.  My thoughts wandered, as they frequently do, to The Matrix.  When the machines take over, their problem is battery power.  Since we scorched the sky, they began using us as wet cells.  

Later in the day, for cheap entertainment, we went to a local parade.  Among the many vehicles on display were old cars and tractors.  Tractors that even I might have a chance of understanding because they were merely open engines on a frame with seats and large wheels.  This was technology that fed people rather than preventing them from entering their houses.  I couldn’t help but notice that they started with keys.  There’s a reason that the key has always been a potent symbol.  Its simple technology leads to hidden wonders.  And on a cold morning those hidden wonders might well include your own house.

“Now, put these where you won’t lose them!”

Traveling Unplugged

Those who pay close attention, or who have nothing better to do in July, may have noticed that I missed a day posting on this blog on Saturday.  That hasn’t happened for a few years now.  I think maybe I ‘m growing up.  Or learning to resist.  Saturday was a travel day—the first I had to make from Pennsylvania, back to Newark in order to fly to Washington state and drive a few hours to the lake.  All in all, it turned out to be a long day in which I didn’t even notice that I was unplugged.  I had a book that I read along the way.  Although it’s against my religion—(call it Moby)—(but I jest)—I even fell into a cat nap or two on the plane.  I didn’t have a window seat and strangers don’t like you staring in their direction for five hours at a time.

Upon awaking, eyes refusing at first to work in tandem, in the chill mountain air, I realized I’d spent the entire day off the internet.  We had to pull out at 2:30 a.m. to meet TSA requirements, and you have to pay for the privilege of connecting to the web in airports and on board jets.  I’ve become so accustomed to being wired that I feel I have to explain why I wasn’t able to post a few thoughts when circumstances were so adverse to getting tangled in the world-wide web.  Yes, it still has a few gaps where one might buzz through without being caught.

It was remarkably freeing to be unplugged.  I believe Morpheus may be correct that they want us to believe reality is otherwise.  I feel guilty for not checking email manically.  What if someone requires something right away?  Some sage response to a communique that just can’t wait until I’m back from vacation?  Some reason that I must ask to be inserted back into the matrix if just for a few moments, to hit the reply button?  We’ve perhaps been exposed to what The Incredibles 2 calls the Screenslaver, the force that draws our gaze from even the beauty of a mountain lake to the device in our hand, whining for attention.  We have wifi here, of course, for the fantasy of living raw is sustainable for only a few hours at a time.  Reality, as you know if you’re reading this, is electronic.  But until I have to reinsert myself at the cost of my soul, I think I’m going to take a dip in the lake.

Illusions Incorporated

illusionsFiction and fact aren’t so different. Long before the Wachowski Brothers came up with The Matrix, Richard Bach wrote Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. I was in seminary when I read it and it seemed, at that time, to change my life. Fiction, or fact, has a nasty habit of getting into the way of things and over the course of decades I forgot. The Matrix reminded me—reminded me multiple times—but Illusions sat on the shelf, gathering dust. I was reminded of this book that refuses to be categorized when playing a family game. Like many games these days it’s a set of pre-printed cards and what makes the fun is the context in which you put the words. In this particular game you have to find the suggested idea in the book you have at hand.

I have to confess that this is just a touch artificial at our house. We don’t have much in the way of things, but we have books. Lots and lots of books. When we play this game, we think ahead of time what books we might bring to the table. You never know what the cards will ask, so books with diverse ideas are a good choice. I saw Illusions on the shelf. As I thumbed through, it was as if the decades were wearing thin. I knew I had to read it again.

Stubbornly refusing to classify itself as fact or fiction, the narrative of what it’s like to meet a messiah is inspirational. I can’t claim to have come to the conclusion on my own—I’ve read Illusions before, and I have seen The Matrix many times—but I recollect the realization coming to me on the streets of Manhattan. This is not real. Standing in the shadow of the tallest buildings in this country, that’s not a comfortable realization. Nobody said reality was comfortable. We easily let ourselves accept what we can’t do and what’s impossible. It’s far more rare to consider what is truly possible. What we can do. These ideas will be a hopeful ebenezer over the coming months. We choose to elect reality. Despite what the loud and angry say, the mind is the arbiter of truth. I read the book before I knew much about the world. If I’d had the good sense to believe it, it might not have taken me decades before pulling it off the shelf to remind myself of what I already knew.

Busyness as Usual

“Time,” Morpheus said, “is always against us.” Such is life in the Matrix. Wake before daylight. Climb on a bus. Stare at a screen for a solid eight hours. Climb on a bus. Sleep before dark. Repeat. It’s a schedule only a machine could appreciate. Since I was a seminary student, I’ve considered time an ethical issue. Take waiting in line, for example. This is difficult to convert to a good use of resources. In circumstances where the queue is anticipated, such as waiting for a bus, one might bring along a book. The unexpected line, however, is wasted time. Paying Agent Smith his due. This all comes to mind because of a recent news blurb about Søren Kierkegaard. The story in Quartz, cites the Kierkegaard quote: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work… What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?”

Kierkegaard

I’m a lapsed Kierkegaard reader. The sad fact is that philosophy takes time. You can’t sit down and whiz through it. You need to stop frequently and ponder. This was the life of the academic that I once knew. Before the Hindenburg. Before capitalism became my raison d’être. You see, you can never give too much time to work. There’s always email. The internet has wired us to that which once wired money. “We are the Borg.” There’s no time for a Danish and a concluding unscientific postscript any more. We willingly comply because the rent is due. What, o Søren am I getting done?

We rush around, it seems to me, because when labor-saving devices were invented they only led to more labor. Our European colleagues look with wonder at our febrile, frenetic pace. They wonder where it has gotten us. Has the final trump indeed sounded? Has the stock market become divine? Has money become the only Ding an sich? Kierkegaard wears a thick layer of dust on my shelf. Once I spent an entire day trying to digest a single paragraph of his writing. Now I brush him off like crumbs from my danish and I don’t have time to finish my coffee since the till is calling. I will get back to you, Søren, truly I will. It’s just that I have this never-ending task to accomplish first. After that we’ll sit down and have a leisurely talk.

Hello, I’m Not In

I recently received two “out of office” replies to my own “out of office” message. Being a fan of futility in all forms, this struck me as a great paradigm for the modern age. Email has made vacation superfluous, of course. I was actually out of town moving my daughter back to college, so email was not high on my list of priorities. When I’ve tried to leave work without putting on a message explaining that I’m not there (I tend to respond to emails quickly for an editor, so I’m told) I’ve been politely informed that it is rude not to let people know you’re away. Or computers. My non-message prompted a non-messages from other vacationers’ email accounts, and when I returned, I had to read them as well as the original email that had received my impersonal reply. Both had sent their replies, despite their out of office messages. This is indeed a brave new world.

It is a world where human interaction is optional, at best. Our industry grinds away making devices and services that people will buy with electronic money sent over a network that no one really controls. And we think nothing of it. Business has blinded us to how meaningless humanity has become. Business runs for business’s sake. Even so, we’re asked to check our email when we’re on vacation, in case something important comes up. I used to think vacation was important. It is the sop we’re thrown for working jobs that lack the visceral appeal of growing our own food and relying upon ourselves. Thoreau on the web.

Benjamin_D._Maxham_-_Henry_David_Thoreau_-_Restored

Science fiction is the great predictor of where we might go. Most of it is completely fiction, or course, but some manages to catch glimpses of the truth. Skynet, or even the Matrix or Hal, have sent messages to us. Machines that think are devices we don’t understand. We haven’t even defined consciousness to a level that satisfies anyone. We know it because we feel it. Oh, I’m not really an alarmist about all that. I do wonder, however, where we are headed when technology races ahead while the humanities are disparaged. All those who emulate Spock seem to have forgotten that his appeal is that he’s half human. We build our aliens to specification. And they now pass polite greetings when they speed past each other on the cyber-highway with no laws.

Night Terrors

TerrorInTheNightNightmares are the stuff dreams are made of. Or maybe I’ve got that the wrong way around. Having grown up subject to frequent nightmares, I still occasionally have them. I suppose it is easy enough to assume someone who reads about monsters and watches horror films should not find this unexpected, however, I’m not sure they’re related. My nightmares visit issues that horror films avoid, and most of my monster reading is, well, academic. Surely the scientific study of nightmares has advanced since David J. Hufford’s The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, but it remains a very important book. As someone familiar with the phenomenon, I found Hufford’s study somewhat therapeutic, and it certainly does raise some interesting questions.

Apart from the unfortunately, inherently sexist, folk-title “the old hag,” Hufford is addressing a universal experience of people of all ages. Using his original setting in remote Newfoundland where his work began, Hufford collected tales of what might technically be called sleep paralysis with a specific hypnogogic hallucination of being attacked. A designation, he acknowledges, that is quite awkward for repeated use. Back in the early 1980’s, when the book was published, these accounts of nighttime attacks—a person waking up, or not having yet fallen asleep, sensing a presence in the room, finding her- or himself unable to move, and sometimes seeing or hearing an entity and feeling it on his or her chest—were rarely discussed. Especially in scientific literature. They seem a kind of embarrassing medievalism related to the ancient concepts of incubi and succubi, and even vampires. Having “the old hag” (a moniker relating to witches) is what the experience is known as in Newfoundland. Hufford, taking these accounts seriously, investigated what the sufferers had experienced. Unwilling to judge whether the event “actually happened,” Hufford’s scientific objectivity is truly admirable. Since the time of his book, the concept has become widely known and the argument is often made that having heard of sleep paralysis episodes feeds those with hypnogogic hallucinations the idea of a supernatural oppressor. In other words, now that we know about it, we don’t have to take it seriously.

Hufford is one of a small number of academics that is willing to engage with the supernatural on its own terms. Religion scholars do, of course, but we are generally dismissed from the starting block anyway. Most scientists disregard the possibility of anything beyond deluded brains and say nightmares are normal. Just deal with it. Those who’ve experienced the nighttime attack know that it feels very different than a garden variety nightmare. You can tell when you’re awake. Of course, we’re of the generation who’ve seen The Matrix and Inception, and we know that, at least in popular thought, reality has become negotiable. Nobody is much surprised any more by the idea of such an attack in the night. Waking nightmares have become as common as the headlines. If only more scholars would take human experience as more than just “old wives tales” we might all be surprised at how just rolling over can change everything for the better.

Quantum Uncertainty

Physics has moved beyond the point of comprehension for the average citizen, if I might be permitted to class myself as that. I got the concept of the atom, although I always wondered about the spaces in-between. No god-of-the-gaps there, but it didn’t fit with experience that everything was full of holes. An article my wife sent me now has me wondering if I’m a hologram. Physicists began to lose me with quarks—I can understand atoms being made of something, but what of ups and downs and leptons every way to Sunday? Then string theory. Then those particles that can be two places at once, until you look. And now I’m being told that The Matrix may be more fact than fiction and quantum uncertainty rules the day. Indeed. Physics tells us what we’re really made of. Religion used to tell us what it all means. That precarious balance seems to have tipped and religion has no other role than to motivate violence and science will save us. Help me, Neo!

I can’t even figure out my taxes any more, let alone what the universe is made of. How we could all be jittery two-dimensional particles is unclear to me. Well, the jittery part I get. I was never really satisfied being limited to three dimensions of motion. Is it ever clear which way is really forward? Height and depth seem terribly geocentric, and even a circle could be divided into more than 360 degrees, a legacy of our Mesopotamian forebears. Spheres—my primitive view of atoms—only touch at the edges. I think there must be something more. Then comes the math. The truth is in the numbers, it seems. Glad I have a calculator.

Although I don’t have the weak nuclear force at my disposal, I have tried to build with marbles many times. You can’t build upward without the bottom row rolling away. Perhaps in our world spheres just don’t balance that way. They don’t hold together. Pixels, however, have edges. They seem to fit together more fully, but leave the universe full of jagged edges. That fits much better with my experience, I guess. Shards of reality lie all around me. Religion used to be the way of putting the pieces together, but, I’m told, that’s all a myth. Instead we have a universe that the average person is incapable of understanding, and that seems to be held together by forces that are fully explainable only by math. Once upon a time, Hell was a mythical, fiery place underfoot. Now it is a universe of formulas and equations that are held together only by quantum uncertainty.

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“HAtomOrbitals”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAtomOrbitals.png#mediaviewer/File:HAtomOrbitals.png