Data Driven

People just aren’t good at thinking things through.  Consider all the data on data.  Everything is data-driven these days, as if there’s no such thing as human spirit.  We do data all day at work and wonder why we having trouble making ourselves get out of bed in the morning.  If we had enough data I bet we could come up with a metric for arousing the soporific before the sun rises.  You could get the precisely correct amount of sleep.  Awake to precision-measured caffeine.  And get back to your data for another eight-plus hours.  There—feeling productive?

I miss the humanities.  There was a time when someone who didn’t give a fig about data could make a decent living pondering what it is to be human.  Even birds and bees know how to count.  Can’t we ratchet it up a bit?  Use our vast imaginations to come up with meaningful employment?  How you gonna measure that?  Some things just can’t be quantified.  How much joy is enough?  Too much?  Precisely how long is any coastline?  Even if we could measure it down to the nanometer, could that capture how it feels to sit on the rocky shore and feel the waves breaking against the cliff beneath you?  Even data has its limits.  Those who want to make a living without it will be sucked into its black hole nevertheless.  No light escapes.  Only numbers.

Companies like Amazon collect data.  Search engines like Google collect data.  All of those autosuggests?  They’re based on past searches.  I’m surprised just how wrong Amazon and Google are about me.  I was only searching dogs because I was curious about what kind the neighbor has, not because I plan to get one.

A wise man once said to a class full of wide-eyed neophytes, “If you want to get a surprise in your marriage just go home and tell your spouse you know everything about them.”  There’s no better way, he intimated, to get a completely unpredictable reaction.  Is that slap, or kiss, or knee to the groin driven by data?  Where’s the passion in that?  No matter whether you prefer Spock or Data, human motivation is emotional.  There are those who actually enjoy looking at data all day.  Dreaming about numbers and their hegemony over the workplace.  Others of us grew up with the classics and we have romanticism deep within our souls.  We nod our heads at Blake’s “dark satanic mills” and start to look for a coastline upon which to sit.  Perched upon this rock with the crashing waves, I suspect, I’ll be better able to think things through. 

The Falls of Lucifer

The Devil is everywhere.  At least if we go by the many places named after the dark lord.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, we visited Lucifer Falls.  Like several of the cataracts in the area, this is an impressive waterfall that exposes the many layers of the gorge it has carved out over the eons.  Part of Robert H. Treman State Park, the falls were impressive after all the rain we’ve been having here in the east.  But why are they called “Lucifer Falls”?  The literature on the park begs ignorance as to the origins of the name, noting that it was likely taken from the original Iroquois name.  If that’s the case, it’s likely been distorted in transmission.  Many such satanic names are.

Apart from the fact that Native American names for geologic features weren’t based on the Christian trope of God v. Satan, early European settlers heard what they wanted to hear.  Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, which we used to visit in my Nashotah House days, was more properly translated “Spirit Lake.”  Since the Christians who encountered the native name believed that indigenous religion was inspired by the evil one, they recast the spiritual lake into an infernal one, at least in name.  People will still vacation there, thank you very much, while retaining the baptismal moniker that an intolerant religion bestowed upon it.  There’s nothing evil about Lucifer Falls.  It is an astonishing testament to what nature can do when left alone.

Well, at least for a while.  Like its more famous cousin Niagara, Lucifer Falls, upriver, was harvested for its ability to turn a mill wheel.  The old mill still stands today in the park as a testament to how the river was exploited.  Mills aren’t naturally evil, of course.  They turn to produce the things people need—in this case flour.  They can also, however, be symbols of corporate greed.  Those who own them can exploit more than just the water, and mills became a name for many other places of industry that eventually stole the lives and livelihoods of those whose work in them was cheap.  William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” remains a memorable phrase testifying to what happens when the wealthy, when corporations—which are “persons” with no feelings—are allowed to make decisions.  Treman State Park’s old mill was the center of a community that apparently didn’t experience such exploitation.  It was just a mill.  It’s picturesque waterfall was just a waterfall.  The name, however, still speaks volumes.

Didymus Haunting

Now that winter is nearly here, the season of reading the autumn books is nearing its end. Each year, in my scant free-time, I seek the perfect book to capture the essence of the dying of the trees, the chill in the air, and the growing length of night. Autumn generates an emotion that is difficult to replicate or even describe. Many people respond by watching spooky movies and those of us old enough to appreciate printed literature turn toward moody books. One of my choices this year was Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. At the constant urging of one of my former Gorgias Press colleagues, I’d read Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife this summer. It was well crafted and left me with enough sadness to want to see if this New York Times bestseller might capture the feeling of the season. I was drawn into the book by reviews that mentioned it centered on Highgate Cemetery in London, the scene of a real-life vampire fracas back in the 1970s.

No vampires graced this novel, but ghosts abound. Often Niffenegger’s characters are either wealthy or have managed to obtain fulfilling jobs, features that make them inaccessible to me. Nevertheless, she is able to draw in the supernatural in a way that makes it seem normal and believable. By tingeing her novels with romance she is able to tap into an inexplicably huge readership, but her story development is intriguing even to those who read books with a paranormal slant. It took me a couple hundred pages to really feel much sympathy for many of the characters, but the ghosts eventually take over the story and it becomes very creepy indeed.

For those who’ve ever wondered about the secret lives of twins, Her Fearful Symmetry will provide hours of fascination. The title may be drawn from Blake, but the story is older than Esau and Jacob. The struggle of twins ranges far back in literature and raises questions of what a soul might actually be. Is it possible to share one? What happens when one twin predeceases another? What is the nature of individual identity? Even the Gospels take pains to inform us that Thomas is a twin. I finished the story last night feeling a twinge of autumn, but still hungry. Perhaps it is good that I completed this bedtime reading just in time to get ready for the more Dickensian ghosts of Christmas.