Category Archives: Pop Culture

The singularity as atheist religion

In a talk titled “Dude You Broke the Future,” science fiction author and atheist Charlie Stross takes on Ray Kurzweil and other advocates of the “singularity,” the moment when all our problems will be solved with the emergence of transhuman artificial intelligence:

“I think transhumanism is a warmed-over Christian heresy. While its adherents tend to be vehement atheists, they can’t quite escape from the history that gave rise to our current western civilization. … If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. And if it looks like a religion it’s probably a religion. I don’t see much evidence for human-like, self-directed artificial intelligences coming along any time now, and a fair bit of evidence that nobody except some freaks in university cognitive science departments even want it. What we’re getting, instead, is self-optimizing tools that defy human comprehension but are not, in fact, any more like our kind of intelligence than a Boeing 737 is like a seagull. So I’m going to wash my hands of the singularity as an explanatory model without further ado — I’m one of those vehement atheists too — and try and come up with a better model for what’s happening to us. …”

I find it delightful to see a self-proclaimed “vehement atheist” calling out other atheists for doing religion. This is especially admirable, since those other atheists would doubtless insist that they are not doing religion at all; they would claim that they are doing science. Not only that, those other atheists are doing bad religion — transhumanism is as bad as the Prosperity Gospel, insofar as both types of religion are barely believable, have no redeeming social worth, do not engage in worthwhile cultural production, assert that the vast majority of humanity will not be “saved,” spread fear, and are stupid and hard to believe.

This is just a parenthetical remark in a much longer talk — and the rest of the talk is definitely worth reading, particularly for Charlie Stross’ take on corporations as AIs that are making global climate change accelerate.

Political statement for geeks

You’ve seen those bumper stickers that some political progressives have, right? You know, there’s the word “Resist!” and under it or beside it the circuit diagram symbol for a resistor. (Though there’s a part of me that wants to know how many ohms of resistance I’m supposed to provide.) Now here’s a version of that meme aimed at geeks who are also politically progressive…

The middle two statements are nonsensical (is “capacitate” the opposite of “incapacitate”?). But the last statement is actually my preferred slogan for action in today’s political climate: I don’t want to resist, I want to transform (though let’s be clear that I do not mean this literally: I don’t want to transfer electrical energy through coupled inductors via a magnetic field, OK?).

“We Still Live Here”

Deneva has been researching Thanksgiving curriculum materials for our congregation, and she sent me a link to an online video titled “We Still Live Here: Black Indians of Wampanoag and African Heritage”:

Still from "We Still Live Here" video

This video poses a nice challenge to neat and tidy racial categories: if you look black, and grew up in a Wampanoag family, and speak Wampanoag, and identify more with your Wampanoag heritage than your African heritage, what are you? Obviously, from the point of view of the U.S. criminal justice system, you’d be non-white. But in terms of your racial and ethnic identity, surely you are a Wampanoag Indian. Such a conclusion challenges typical racial categories in the U.S., where there is a popular myth that both White and Indian are recessive genetic traits, swamped by even the slightest amount of non-white DNA — which implies that even the slightest bit of African heritage means you’re of African descent. And many of us in the U.S. cling to that old myth, even if we’ve taken a high school biology class and have basic knowledge of genetics. This reveals the power of myth over rationality.

But the best part about the video for me was listening to the regional accent. I miss speaking Eastern New England dialect.

Non-traditional holiday traditions

This afternoon, after the Sunday services, we had a panel discussion about non-traditional traditions for Unitarian Universalist families celebrating the holidays. As I listened to the other panelists tell about their family holiday traditions, it became clear that your ethnic background has a big influence on how you celebrate holidays. With that in mind, here is my contribution to the panel discussion:

I grew up a New England Yankee, and a Unitarian Universalist. My Uncle Dick claimed that my mother’s family were Unitarians since Unitarianism began in North America, though Uncle Dick was notoriously unreliable on such things. My father’s side was Pennsylvania Dutch, and they were definitely Christian, members of the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB), a German language Methodist group. When my father announced that he was going to marry a Unitarian, that sent his mother into a dither. She was the daughter of a EUB minister, and her husband, my father’s father, served as an EUB minister for two years before he became a newspaperman. So my grandmother was in a dither, and she went to her minister with the news that her eldest son was going to marry a Unitarian. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Harper,” he said, “the Unitarians are weak on doctrine, but they are good people.” This reveals the most important thing about Unitarian Universalists and traditions: we are good people who don’t pay much attention to doctrine.

When I was a child, my family’s traditions were mostly dictated by my New England mother. Dad didn’t stand much of a chance, since we lived quite close to my mother’s twin sister, and my mother’s mother, and they were the ones who came over for holidays; whereas Dad’s family lived way down in New York City and southeastern Pennsylvania, and didn’t drive up for holidays. So many of our family traditions derived from New England Yankee culture.

Thanksgiving provides a good example of how we did family traditions. As New England Yankees, we knew we were descended from the Puritans, which we confused with the Pilgrims, so we felt a direct connection with the Thanksgiving story. As it turns out, there wasn’t much of a connection; our ancestors were indeed religious dissidents, they just didn’t happen to be Pilgrims. The important point is that we thought we were connected to the Pilgrims. Because of this supposed Pilgrim influence, I think we took it for granted that we could do what we wanted with Thanksgiving; nothing was sacred, except what we decided was sacred.

Or maybe that was the Unitarian Universalist influence. We didn’t always say grace before Thanksgiving dinner, and I don’t remember God being mentioned very often. When I was quite young, my Unitarian mother made sure I knew that public prayer was not very nice, and that Jesus himself had told his followers that if they went out and prayed on the street corners, they were hypocrites. By the same token, Mom also taught me that Unitarians don’t have to bow their heads when they pray; in fact, bowing one’s head might be making too much of a public demonstration of one’s supposed piety. We might hold hands while saying grace, but we didn’t have to bow our heads, and the few graces I remember were short and to the point.

Then my eldest cousin started attending youth group meetings at her Unitarian Universalist church, and she brought back a grace from her youth group. She had us hold hands, then she said, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay, God!” So God was mentioned at least once at our Unitarian Universalist Thanksgiving dinner. And humor was allowed and even encouraged. Another time, one of the cousins suggested we go around the table and each say something we were thankful for. This non-traditional grace stuck for a few years, then disappeared. Our family traditions continually changed and evolved.

As we and our cousins got older, several of us experimented with vegetarianism. My mother and her twin sister did the cooking, and I’m sure they rolled their eyes at the fervor with which some of us expressed our vegetarian convictions. I can’t remember any special vegetarian dishes; what got cooked was what got cooked, and you ate it or you didn’t. Besides, we vegetarians knew that if we asked for a vegetarian dish, we might well be told to cook it ourselves; this was more Unitarian influence, straight from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance.” Another result of the Unitarian influence was that we were committed to social justice, and since we had all read France Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet, there was more than one lecture from the vegetarians on the ethics of eating meat: it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef! This was another result of our combined New England Yankee and Unitarian heritages: there was always plenty of guilt to go around.

Christmas for our Unitarian Universalist family was interesting, if somewhat confusing to a young child. When I was young, our Christmases had little mention of God; Jesus was referred to as Jesus, which made some of the familiar Christmas carols sound odd; and I was a little unclear on the Christmas story. We always went to our Unitarian Universalist church for the Christmas eve candlelight service, a service with great music, lots of carol singing, an opportunity to light candles, and a brief sermon which always seemed to focus on social justice rather than a re-telling of the Christmas story.

Back at home, we followed the long-standing New England tradition of lighting a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve, just before you go to bed. Mom said, “A bayberry candle, Burned to the socket, Brings health to the house, And money to the pocket.” One year I asked what this had to do with Christmas. My mother gave a confusing answer to the effect that the candle helped light the way for Jesus and his family on their way to the inn. I’m not sure if she made that story up on the spot, or if that was something her Unitarian mother had once told her. Yet another principle of Unitarian Universalist holidays is that you get to make things up on the spot.

Christmas got more interesting as we children got older. One year I studied the Frankfurt School of Marxism at college, and realized that much of Christmas is a product of consumer capitalism. This Marxist analysis annoyed my family less than you might expect; as Unitarian Universalists, we were used to questioning everything; my sisters and cousins all challenged some aspect of just about every holiday or tradition we had. I guess we were lucky that we were all Unitarian Universalists; I think it must be very annoying for non-Unitarian Universalists when they have to put up with our incessant critiques and challenges. Although for me, such challenges are half the fun of holidays and traditions.

One last thing I should mention: The combination of Unitarian Universalist values and New England Yankee culture has made me very doubtful about all holidays. Those old Puritans thought the only holiday should be Sunday, the weekly day of rest. To celebrate anything else was to be idolatrous; idolatry consists of placing an undue importance on something which is not all that important. As I get older, I am surprised at how strong that feeling is in me. My partner and I do not exchange gifts on Christmas, and the main way we celebrate is we go out for Chinese food. Thanksgiving is a good excuse to have a meal with family. The important part of holidays for me is to maintain connections with family and friends, and to keep alive cultural traditions; engaging in a supernatural or metaphysical interpretation of holidays is placing an undue importance on something that is not important.

To sum up, then, here’s what I know about Unitarian Universalist holiday traditions:
1. we are weak on doctrine, and as a corollary we can make things up on the spot;
2. we are influenced by regional cultures;
3. we challenge everything and are critical of everything;
4. a sense of humor is required.

A theory of organizational analysis

Tucked into some papers that I brought back when cleaning out my father’s condo, I found a handwritten note on which was written a theory of organizational analysis. While this should be considered a theory subject to additional testing, given my limited experience in both the for-profit and the nonprofit worlds, this theory sounds like a pretty good model for larger organizations (more than 20 staffers or employees).

The [Robert] Harper Principle of Organization

Persons with aggressive personalities and big mouths will naturally gravitate into management.

Corollary:

Within any given organization, those persons with the loudest voices and most aggressive personalities will become the managers regardless of their inherent ability.

The Unhappy Cactus

Several of the local Mexican and Central American restaurants near us have their windows painted with a variety of Christmas motifs. My favorite motif is The Unhappy Cactus, as in this window of a restaurant at the corner of Poplar and Ellsworth:

The Unhappy Cactus

Poor guy. it’s just too wet and cold for him to feel happy. Even his cactus mustache looks unhappy. (Photo credit: Carol Steinfeld)

Wheat

Carol’s friend Eva, who is a farmer, stayed with us last night. When farmers check luggage on the plane, what do they bring in that luggage? Turnips, onions, garlic, frozen venison — and wheat berries. The wheat berries are a hard winter variety called “Warthog,” from friends of Eva’s who farm in Essex, Massachusetts. Eva soaked the berries in water overnight, and we cooked them in the rice cooker this morning. We added a bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt: the perfect breakfast.

Hard winter wheat, var. Warthog

More old time religion

More parody verses for “Old Time Religion”:

I will follow my Zen master,
Answer koans ever faster,
Sit in zazen ever after;
And that’s good enough for me!

It is plain that I should be Jain,
From ahimsa I shall refrain*
And allow no bugs to be slain;
And that’s good enough for me!

*Alternately: From meat-eating I shall refrain…

Supercharging Altoids (R)

Back in 2006, when Wrigley bought out Altoids (R) brand mints, they replaced the peppermint oil with artificial flavor. Although they soon resumed using real peppermint oil, the mints have never been as strongly flavored as they once were. So here’s how to supercharge Altoids (R) so they taste as peppermint-y as they did prior to 2006:

Go to your local health food store, and get the peppermint spirits which are sold as a dietary supplement. I got “Herb Pharm” brand “Peppermint Spirits Essential Oil and Whole Leaf Extract”. Note that they have changed the label since I bought mine (a one ounce bottle lasts a long time), and the new label is different than the one you see in the photograph below. Now get a small dinner plate, and spread out the mints on it.

Supercharging Altoids (R)

1. A mint ready for supercharging.
2. Adding peppermint spirits; the typical mint will absorb about three drops.
3. After adding peppermint spirits to one side, let the mint dry out (this could take 15 minutes).
4. A mint flipped over waiting for peppermint spirits to be added to the other side.
5. A supercharged mint drying out and waiting to be eaten.

Once you add peppermint spirits to both sides, the mints are somewhat damp and fragile, and it’s best to let them dry overnight before putting them back in the tin.

(If you want to know more about artificial flavor in Altoids, I wrote about it back in 2006 here, here, and here.)

Old Time Religion

Recently, I heard some new verses for the parody version of “Old Time Religion.” Here they are:

Yoruba religion, a.k.a. Orisha devotion:

Let us pray to the Orishas,
Not the ones who are too vicious,
Just the ones who grant our wishes;
And that’s good enough for me!

Ancient Egyptian religion:

O we sing the praise of Horus
Like the Dynasties before us —
A three thousand year old chorus;
And that’s good enough for me!

Worshiping at the altar of Wall Street:

The mighty Dollar is my Savior,
She controls my ev’ry behavior
Whether I spend her or I save her;
And that’s good enough for me!

BlogDec0915I was particularly interested in these verses because they happened to be about three religions I am currently studying. And lest you think I’m kidding about Wall Street being a religion, you might want to check out Scott Gustafson’s new book At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy (Eerdmans Publishing, Sept., 2015), in which the author “argues that economics functions in our current global culture as religions have functioned in other cultures.”