Sunday, June 27, 2010

Oh, The Humanity

I'm going to be headed to a conference in Oxford in a few weeks. When I was invited, I was told that the topic was religious liberty. In looking at the draft program, the topic seems to be religion and science. I was a little irritated by this ambiguity, but it then occurred to me that the debate surrounding religious liberty these days tended to be dominated by "religion vs. science" discussions. So, it may not be such a stretch.

No one seems to know what to do with religion these days. Thousands of years ago, religious practices were the center of communities. It was the people against the great mystery of uncertainty and the unknown. For all of our scientific and technological advances, we haven't eliminated that in the 21st century. However, the 21st century world is not as provincial as it was in the past. You could have a religious belief system, with a group of priestly interpreters, and that belief system would probably be uniformly accepted and unquestioned in a small tribal community. It was the glue that held the community together.

However, basic group psychology tells us that this is an untenable proposition as the group gets bigger. Human behavior is the factor that everyone seems to idealize in communities. Everyone will be a Christian (or a Jew, or a Muslim, etc.), so therefore everyone will work together, respect each other and authority, and behave decently. Why in the world we think this would be the case just shows how delusional we can be about ourselves.

First--personalities count. In a large group of people, you are likely to have a mixture of passive, complacent individuals and controlling authoritarian individuals. I don't wish to suggest there is a strict line there--often we are a mixture of these types--but the ingredients are there for the establishment of a pecking order. The stronger personalities may display leadership qualities that allow them to take over.

This leads to the second issue of survival and greed ; these two go hand in hand. We only need very basic things to survive--food and water to nourish our bodies, clothing and shelter to protect us from the elements. The more we have, the more comfortable we are materially. Ideally, a community of individuals should share among themselves, so that no one goes without. We know for a fact that this rarely, if ever, happens in large groups. Why? Because people are greedy--they don't want to share what they have. The more they have, the less inclined they are to share. In fact--people often want more, and if it's at the expense of others, so be it.

Money and possessions aren't the only thing people become greedy about--power is a big one. And this circles back to personalities--if you have a controlling personality, and are power hungry, this can be a dangerous combination if you are in a leadership position. The other possibility is that you start out honest and egalitarian enough, but are corrupted once you actually have power. When it comes to the worldly things we desire--money, land, possessions, power, status--having some of it tends to make us want more of it. It's typical human behavior.

Religions are frequently shining examples of good, honest intentions gone bad, and it is because of these basics of human behavior and group dynamics. No matter how carefully you screen leaders, it is likely that someone will get into a priestly position of power and behave in a less-than-holy manner. Taking a holy office does not suddenly nullify one's humanity. Religious discipline, designed to keep those in holy offices holy, is a tool ; like most tools, it's only useful if you take it up and really use it.

So now you take all of this outside the tribe, the village, the nation-state. You throw in the complication of a global community, where everyone comes from different smaller communities with different beliefs--and you're all sharing the same space. You also have non-believers--those who have no religious structure whatsoever. There are different worldviews, and different measures of truth. What this leads to in very provincial and authoritarian groups is a xenophobia. They don't want to deal with this outside world and its influences--it is "us against them", it invokes a myth of good forces versus evil forces, and there is a sense that the outside world must conform or be eliminated.

In order for all these different groups to function together in society, secularism is a must. Religion can't be the center of society, because the ruling government would have to choose the religion--and in choosing one, you disenfranchise others. Those who suggest the U.S. is a Christian nation should think hard about what that means. James Madison is credited with being a fighter for separation of church and state. During his term in the Virginia legislature, a motion arose to provide funding for Christian education. He fought long and hard against this motion--and eventually even the local Baptist congregations that were seeking the funds backed him up. Why? Because he made a very persuasive argument. Madison said, in short, that if the government handed out money for Christian education, they would have to define what "Christian" means. Even at that time there were a huge magnitude of Protestant denominations in the "New World", never mind Catholics. Whose version of Christianity is going to be the accepted one? Being a Christian nation sounds like a great idea to Christians, until they realize the form embraced may not be their own. Then what? And it doesn't even touch on other non-Christian groups, and non-believers.

Furthermore--if the government sanctions a religion, then they become the interpreters of that religion for that country. Just look to governments in the Middle East, and places like Somalia, to see how well that works. Would it make you happy to know that you could be executed for saying the wrong word, or wearing the wrong clothes? You can't cite "theocracy" and "freedom" in the same sentence and not be contradicting yourself, unless you are making the mistake of idealizing human nature.

The thing that is feared most by certain religious groups--certainly by the Catholic Church, and perhaps very conservative Protestant denominations--is the loss of purity of belief. If you open yourself up to a secular world and other belief systems, you run the risk of "diluting" your own beliefs. I've always seen this as a case of idolatry, pure and simple. They are clinging to their book of rules in a way that renders it absurd and invalid--they believe that they are in possession of all the knowledge about the great "Mystery" that they call "God". No one is in possession of that--we don't even know that there's a physical God.

Purity is a myth--unless you're living in a box, you're going to be influenced by others' ideas and beliefs in today's world. Instead of fighting it, these groups should embrace it. Religion would have more credibility in society if it looked at things as they really are, not as they insist or want them to be--it amounts to nothing more than arrogance to non-believers, and the idea that religious people are moronic and deluded. Everyone comes around to their truth in one way or another ; if a religion insists it must be their way, then they simply perpetuate the unnecessary battle between worldviews, and it will never end. After all, if you believe in God, you have faith that God will take care of things, yes? Actually no--the need for control is linked with the need for validation. If you are touting a belief and no one else buys it, you start to doubt it yourself. For some people, everyone must espouse their belief for them to feel validated. That's hardly belief at all. But it is human nature.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Summer is just about here, and it shows. The air has been as hot and hazy as July. In looking at the weather reports, it appears this trend will continue unabated for the rest of the month. Thunderstorms are supposed to clear the air, but they frequently don't. I can't do much on hot summer days; the wet, sponge-like quality of the air soaks up my ambition with it. Even if I have some ambition, I can't think straight much of the time. It makes focusing on projects difficult.

I am one of the handful of people left with a MySpace account. I signed in today, and I'm always confronted by the inane ads they have for different bands and what appear to be television programs. Today's popped up: "Meet the Wests ; a family with different values." Then the family, dressed in dark colors, suddenly turned orange (meaning their clothes, they didn't suddenly get fake tans). Then the name changed from "Wests" to "Scoundrels".

I puzzled over this ad. Why does wearing orange make you a scoundrel? Was the ad-maker Irish Catholic? Did they work for Anheuser-Busch? More non-sensical color coding. Recently, Stephen Elliot of the Rumpus posted a Twitter update that asked why we were at "Threat Level Orange" again. I suspected that perhaps it was a sign that Fall was around the corner, but current weather conditions disprove that theory. Then I saw that a bunch of Dutch women were arrested at the World Cup games for wearing orange. It was believed that they were given the dresses by a Dutch beer company, who were clearly guilty of trying to advertise for a real beer at a game where there was, lamentably, only Anheuser-Busch products. If they'd snuck in any actual Bavaria Beer, I would have seen them as heroes. But advertising a beer that you can't have may have been a form of torture, so maybe the World Cup people were right. Don't remind everyone that they're drinking Budweiser and Busch, when they could be drinking beer that actually tastes good. Interestingly, drunkenness at the World Cup is down this year. Can't say I'm surprised. If someone told me I could drink water or Budweiser at an event, I'd opt for water, even though I hate drinking water.

So, orange is now associated with Protestantism, terrorism, rogue beer companies, and a family of "scoundrels". Does it really deserve that kind of reputation? I've always associated orange with Fall leaves, sunsets, pumpkins, bonfires, and creamsicles. Psychologically, orange is supposed to elicit enthusiasm, energy, and warmth. I've always thought it was a moderate color, tempering the intense effects of the color red with a sunny yellow. Symbolic shifts in the psyche happen slowly, and I wonder if this will be another one. I kind of hope not. But maybe it's just seasonal; we're entering the heart of summer, which in Celtic mythology is the time of the fiery eye of Balour, which is a mythological representation of the sun. When Balour opens his eye, a great fire burns up everything it sees. Coincidentally (or not), the sun is also entering a period of solar storms--which means solar flares have the potential to disrupt many things here on Earth. Weather and climate agencies say that knowing about the solar storms helps us mitigate the effects of them on our planet. But it might make people unconsciously wary of fiery orange.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Haunted Vehicle (Including a GH Parody)

Yesterday, for the first time in 240,000 miles, I started hearing strange noises in my car. They sound a bit like scraping noises. I’ve looked under the car for loose parts, and just had the brakes, struts, etc., checked—nothing. Everything looks peachy. The noises are not connected to steering, braking, or accelerating. To make matters even more mysterious, they come and go—I hear them some days, and not others. Being of Irish descent, and thus subject to Murphy’s Law, you can safely assume that no noises would occur if I let my mechanic take it for a spin.

So, with logical explanations being unsatisfactory, I’ve decided that my car must be haunted. Maybe I should call TAPS. I imagine the episode would go something like this:

On this episode of Ghost Hunters—TAPS heads to New Jersey to investigate a car with a troublesome poltergeist. Will Jason and Grant encounter the mischievous spirit? Hear mysterious sounds that leave everyone baffled. And see what sends Steve running for the hills...

(Cue intro)

(Show Jason and Grant driving) Jason: So, this case is in New Jersey. I hear it involves a car—we don’t get too many cases like that. Kris, do you want to fill us in?
Kris: Yeah, the owner has been driving this really old car—it’s like, 8 years old. Recently she’s been plagued by mysterious thumps, scraping sounds—once she even swears she heard voices.
Jason: How long has this been going on?
Kris: It just started in the last month.
Grant: Has she been to a mechanic?
Kris: She has, and everything has checked out as OK.
Jason: Huh, well, I guess we’d better get over there and see what we can find out.

(TAPS arrives at my house) Jason: Hi, how are you doing—I’m Jason from TAPS.
Grant: I’m Grant—we’re here to help.
Steve: I’m Steve.
Me: Hi guys. I’m Brigid. Thanks for coming. Would you like to see the car?
Jason: After you...

Me: Here it is. The car is very old—about 8 years old, which is probably at least 500 years old in car years. However, it’s always been quiet until recently. All of the sudden, I’m hearing banging and scraping noises coming from the back. And I swear I heard whispering once.
Jason: Now, no one else is hanging out in the back of your car?
Steve: Has anyone else experienced this?
Me: Not really—I usually drive alone. It only happens when I’m driving slowly or coasting.
Grant: Are we going to be able to take the car for a drive?
Me: Sure. I’ll give you the key.
Jason: Okay, thanks for the tour. What we’re going to do now is that Steve will get the rest of the team, set up equipment, and see what we can catch.
Me: Good luck.
Jason: Thanks. C’mon, let’s get out of here.

The Investigation:
Grant: This is a really small area to investigate—it’s a car after all, and a Corolla, for Pete’s sake. So, we’re going to send investigators in two at a time.

(Jason and Grant do a thermal sweep).

Grant: We use a thermal imaging camera, which is one of the most sought-after pieces of equipment by investigators. A lot of investigations involve hot and cold spots, and the camera allows you to see temperature fluctuations.

Jason: Everything looks normal. Let’s take the car around the block.
(They get into the car, and start driving it)
Jason: You know, I wonder if this is really paranormal—this is an old car, after all, maybe it’s just...what the hell was that?
Grant: Did you hear that?

(Cut to commercial)

Grant: Did you hear that?
Jason: Yes, it’s like a scraping and a banging noise.

Jason: We started experiencing sounds like those reported by the owner, so we immediately set out to try to debunk them.

Grant: There wasn’t a muffler or any other parts hanging down, were there?
Jason: Nope, but we should get out and look to be sure.
(Grant gets out and looks under the car)
Grant: Nope, nothing is hanging down that could cause that sound. Maybe we should do some EVP work.

Grant: EVP stands for Electronic Voice Phenomena. This is a phenomena that happens very frequently. It's when you catch a voice on a recording device that you don't hear with the human ear at the time.

Jason: Can you give us a sign of your presence? Can you knock twice if you can understand me?
(They hear two faint knocks from under the car)
Grant: If that was you, can you do it again?

Jason: We did get a couple of knocks in response, but it didn’t happen again, so it’s hard to know if it was paranormal or not.

(Next team goes in—Kris and Amy)

Kris: Now, the owner claims to hear scraping and banging noises.
Amy: Could it just be age? I mean, this is an old car...they do make noises after awhile.
Kris: Could be. What the f**k was that? Holy s**t, that scared me!
Amy: It’s a weird banging noise...did you hear some kind of chattering?
Kris: Maybe there’s a squirrel stuck in the muffler?
Amy: I would think someone would have noticed that.
(Kris, speaking into recorder): Kris and Amy, in the car. Is there anyone here who would like to speak to us?
Amy: You don’t need to be afraid of us. Can you tell us your name?
Kris: Stop being a coward, motherf**ker—if you're here, prove it. I don't really believe you're here. You have to prove it to me.
(Silence. Not even the scraping noise).

Kris: We didn’t really hear anything else during the EVP session. Hopefully we’ll hear something in evidence review.

(Next team: Steve and Dave)
Steve: Now Tango, according to the owner, there are knocks and bangs and even a whisper...
Dave: Really?
Steve: It’s an old car—now, old cars do make noises...
Dave: Yeah, parts get rusty, even if they’re not broken
(They drive the car around the block)
Steve: Did you hear that?
Dave: Yeah, it’s like a scraping noise.
Steve: Let’s test the steering (turns the wheel). Nope, that doesn’t make a noise. I’ll hit the brakes hard next. (hits the brakes). Nope, not that either, though the brakes are a little squeaky. Do you think maybe she mistook the squeaky brakes for scraping?
Dave: It sounds like the scraping is coming from the middle of the car—right under us.
Steve: I have a theory—let me just check this thing on the dash...OH SH**T!!!!! (Stops the car, throws it in park, jumps out)
Dave: Wha..wha..what? What happened? What’s the matter?
Steve: There are f**king SPIDERS in this car!
Dave: Spiders?
Steve: Yes!
(Dave looks) Oh yeah, there are—but they’re really tiny...
Steve: Who cares? They’re spiders! I think we’ve investigated enough, don’t you?

(Jason comes over the walkie talkie): Hey guys, it’s late, I think we’ve got enough evidence to go over. Let’s wrap it up.

Jason: We did experience the phenomena mentioned by the owner, but it’s hard to say if it’s paranormal. We’ll have to see if we caught anything in evidence review.

After evidence review...The Reveal

Jason: Hi, Brigid, how are you?
Me: Hi, guys. I’m doing well, thanks.
Grant: Anything else happen since we’ve been here?
Me: Well, the noise still goes on...
Jason: Well, you know what we did, we took your claims of activity—the banging, the scraping, the voices—and tried to use our equipment to try to capture some of the activity and try to find explanations for some of your claims.
(I nod vigorously, as all good reveal-ees are supposed to do)

Grant: Jason and I took your car out, and we experienced the phenomena right away. We tried looking under the car to see if anything was obviously scraping, but we couldn’t find anything.
Me: Yeah, I’ve gone through that as well.
Jason: Our other team members also experienced the same thing. We even caught it on our recorders. Listen to it and see if this is the same sound you’ve been hearing.
(Jason plays the tape with the scraping noise)
Me: Yep, that’s definitely it.
Jason: The problem is, it’s such an old car, it’s hard to know if it’s paranormal or not. We’re not saying it isn’t, just that we don’t have enough evidence.
Grant: If you do hear voices, you just have to remember—it's your car, dang it. Tell whatever it is very firmly that it's your car, and you make the rules. It can't go around scaring people.
Jason: If you need anything from us, we’re just a phone call away.
Me: Hey, thanks, I appreciate your time.

Me: Jason and Grant just finished the reveal. Basically, they've told me what I already know. So, I guess I either tell off my car or get a new one when I have some money. I think telling it off is cheaper.

(Jason and Grant now driving home):
Grant: Well, I think that went pretty well. I think she understood that we don't have enough evidence to label it paranormal.
Jason: To be honest, it's a really old car. It probably just makes noises. I don't think there's anything paranormal about. Well, good job brother—on to the next...

(They do a fist-bump and drive off into the sunset)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Interim, or, The Obvious

The punctuation in the title of this post is dedicated to my cataloging students.

Last night I dreamt that I was walking around Brooklyn, and kept tripping over writers I knew of who were hipsters. All of them were in conversation with someone about how much they hated hipsters.

I went downstairs, and found my cat staring intently at the gap under my stove. He wasn't even interested in his breakfast. He was rewarded about a half an hour later when he came marching into the living room with a mouse hanging out of his mouth, still alive. He slammed it around like one of those criminals you see brought in for questioning by the tough detective in the movies. I managed to pick up the mouse with a rag, and put him outside. He stood up, shook himself, and then promptly walked into a railroad tie that has a bee's nest in it. Adds to my theory that mice as a group should win a Darwin Award.

While looking through RSS feeds, I saw the following article on vacations. Basically--the idea is that you are happier on vacation than you are at work. I rate the usefulness of this study right up there with last year's study of Santa Claus's health and the effects of HDTV on octopi. They don't even consider variables--such as vacations involving annoying friends, spouses, or relatives. I've been on a few of those kinds of vacations, and work never looked so good. In general, though, these are the kinds of explorations that make you wonder how much spare time and money these newspapers have.

And speaking of overpaid psychologists--I saw this article on Fark about the murder trial of a Manitoba man. A psychologist testified, saying he might have been motivated by "rage". Really? I would have thought anything but that. I've never heard of a murder motivated by rage. Oh wait...

Finally, to round out the conglomerate of the blindlingly obvious, here is an article on "manners that time forgot". How much time has elapsed since we forgot, if you're including such things as Internet flame wars and not answering your mobile phone while out with a friend? But memories are short-term these days as well, so maybe the "time" part is relative. And civility is hard to come by these days. But that doesn't make it any less sad that someone wrote this article.

Anyhow--sorry for being away for more than a week. I'll try not to do it again.

Monday, June 07, 2010

John Foxx at the Roundhouse, June 5, 2010

Judging from my stats on Google Analytics, a lot of people are waiting for this review. I’m surprised and flattered that people are that interested in my opinion of the Foxx events. I am still recovering from a 5-hour time difference within a 72-hour period, so I hope this is coherent.

I arrived at my hotel across from the Roundhouse at around 10:30 pm on Friday. This is always a bit disconcerting, as I usually have to be at Newark Airport at 7:00 in the morning for my flight. Camden Town is obviously a happening place—I couldn’t believe how many people were out. London is not New York—everything closes down by 11:30 or so in many places. By contrast, everything is just STARTING in New York at 11:30. But I digress...

The next day it was HOT. Not as hot as New Jersey—just turn the sauna steam down a few notches, and you have this past weekend’s weather in the south of England. London is also not known for having a whole lot of air conditioning, so it was a sticky affair. I had some errands to run in the West End before heading back to my hotel at around 12:30. I was already tired from walking around. I met up with a friend for lunch around 2:30, and then headed over to what has been dubbed “Foxxgate” at the Lock Tavern in Camden, not far from the Roundhouse. Our friend Brian (Mateybloke), who seems to have become the unofficial Foxx event documentarian, has some video from that event:

I met quite a few people from the forum there, and we chatted until about 7:00, when it was time to head over to the venue. There was quite a long line—I don’t think the show sold out, but there were certainly a few hundred people there, at the very least. I would have preferred to have been front and center for this gig, but I really wanted to hold on to the barricade in the front row—my legs were not doing a good job of supporting my body at that point. Too much walking around when I don’t get to walk around enough at home, I think—my ankles were actually swollen when I got back to my hotel later.

There were DJ sets by Jori Hulkkonen and Mark Jones before Foxx came on around 9:00. Gary Numan was supposed to come on after Jori, but he was delayed, so they swapped the sets around. From what I heard a lot of Numan fans were not happy about this; many had to catch the last train to their destination, and expected his set to be earlier.

Foxx played from about 9:00 to about 11:00. Here is the setlist, which I’ve totally ripped off from my friend Martin (Birdsong), with many thanks to him for putting it together:

Part One - Metamatic
This City
Burning Car
He's A Liquid
No One Driving

Part Two - Gordongate
Shadow Man
A Million Cars
An Ocean We Can Breathe

Part Three - The Maths
(new material here, someone might know the correct titles)
Running Man
In Summer Land (??)
Watching A Building On Fire
Catwalk/Satellite Town (??)

Part Four - Ultravox
Quiet Men
Slow Motion

new track - Ghost Shadow(??)
is this from the sessions with Paul Daley...?
Man Who Dies Every Day

Just For A Moment

As you can see from Martin’s list above, Foxx played material from different albums, with different people throughout the night. He had a full band backing him for most of it—I think it really enriched the sound of everything. Robin Simon (who played on Ultravox's Systems of Romance, John's last album with Ultravox)joined him towards the end, and Louis Gordon also came onstage for a few songs. I really enjoyed the new material with Benge (the Maths stuff)—that album comes out in the Fall, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Here are a couple of videos from the show. One is mine, and another is Brian’s—he had a much better vantage point for filming, and has a better camera:

Brian's video of "Quiet Men"

My video of "Underpass"

(You can see more of Brian's video on Youtube by looking for videos by "mateybloke").

There were 5 cameras recording the event, which may come out on an official DVD. Gary Numan came on afterward, but I couldn’t stand inside the venue any longer, so I didn’t see his set. I went out to see about the aftershow, when Karborn came downstairs and gave me a backstage pass. I wasn’t thrilled about the “rock-starrishness” of this venue—I’m used to John just coming out to chat with the fans in the bar. But, it’s a larger than usual venue, so that’s how it works. Fortunately everyone else waiting to talk to Foxx got to come upstairs as well, so it was quite an aftershow. I talked to Foxx for a little while, though there were so many people, we didn’t talk about much but a potential trip to New York (no details on any New York events at this point). Steve Malins said he was taking next week off, and given the magnitude of the event, it’s obviously much needed and well-deserved. I also talked with Karborn about a number of things over the course of the evening, including his new website, which has some interesting new works—I encourage you to check it out.

I also met some new people during and after the show—lots of folks from the Metamatic forum—it was nice to finally put faces and names together. It was lovely to meet Nicola and Nadiin, and to see Isabelle, whom I didn’t expect to see. I wish we all had more time together. Can you all sign a petition for me to move to the UK or something?

Before I said goodbye to Foxx, he said, “Brigid, I hope it’s been worth it for you to come all this way.” And it always is.