Parallel Universes and the Singularity

I have never been able read only one book at a time. Obviously not one with each eye, don’t be silly, but I always have several books going at once. Purchasing the Kindle has only compounded the problem since I can carry around a whole bunch without carrying around a stack of books (which I inevitably do anyhow, because the library isn’t fully up to speed with their electronic library.)

Right now, I am in the middle of: Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (e-book, public domain! Free Baby!), Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett, The Turk, by Tom Standage (research), Fortune and Glory, by Brian Michael Bendis (Graphic Novel), Hidden Realities, by Brian Greene, and The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil.

It’s the last two that are important here. Brian Greene is a physicist, the kind that writes books for people who have no business studying physics because math makes their brain hurt, but who (like me) like to be up to date with the latest in theoretical science. You know, because it makes us fun at parties. And the topic this time is parallel universes. Of which, I am now aware, there are six working theories that make them possible, perhaps likely even. Almost all are predicated on the idea of infinity as a mathematical concept. It’s a fascinating book, mostly because science fiction makes me tingle, and this is the petri dish of science fiction stuff, and also because it shows a connection between math and me and the Universe that doesn’t consist of, “and 37 cents is your change, sir, would you like room for cream?”

In short, layman’s terms, when contemplating an infinite universe, it becomes necessary to deal with the mathematical concept of infinity, and with infinity everything is not only possible but necessary. So if there was a big bang that produced us, and arranged its molecules in a fashion that produces galaxies, planets, and stars like Paris Hilton, then in an infinite amount of space, purely necessary would be other universes that contain galaxies, planets, and stars like Paris Hilton only really far away. Of course that doesn’t make sense when I type it, but if you read Greene’s book, it sorta does.

And what it also does, is show you how math has convulsive fits of suicidal depression when an equation asks it divide by zero, and mass explosions of parallel universes when it’s asked to multiply by infinity. The book doesn’t have equations, but refers to them all the time, in sentences like, “and Schrodinger’s probability wave equations accurately predict that an election is sometimes over here, and sometimes over there.” or “this gave fits to physicists using the General Relativity equations of Einsteins to work out whether you can eat ice cream in a Black Hole.”

Which brings me neatly, in my roundabout nonsensical bloggy organization way, to the second book of the last set of books I am reading which in the Singularity book by Ray Kurzweil. Long story short, too late, this book postulates a time in the near future when the electronic interfaces, ie microprocessors that we create will be able to link up with out brains processes and completely blur the line between man and machine. Women are closer to achieving this, but let’s not get vulgar here.

The line of thinking that links these two books for me, is the child’s dream of being able to download knowledge directly to my brain without having to do the work of well, learning. I was always pretty good at math. Tested out of college calculus by scoring a 4 on the AP exam, well done me. So I never touched it again. I was able to let go of the ideas of integrals and derivatives like yesterday’s pizza in a gas station restroom (disgusting). But now, with the intense interest with which I am reading Brian Greene’s work, I want to delve further into the mysteries of the  Universe than my university education in History allows.

Enter, the Singularity. If we can get this process started, I can get to work on these Schrodinger equations and feed them to my maybe dead, maybe alive cat. The daunting task of learning this high level of math in my mid-thirties makes my brain squirm, so I really want some electronic help. And maybe I can learn to play that damned guitar quicker too. I still have a few good years left to be a Rock Star.

And here’s a trippy thought. Because of parallel universes, and I am convinced one of these theories is correct, there is an alternate version of me who knows this stuff already, and I am an inferior Doppelganger in this Universe, like a Coe and Vance Duke from one too many seasons of the Dukes of Hazard. I AM TOM WOPAT!!!

Sorry, but they were cool, especially with the dynamite on the bow and arrow. I could care less about the racist automobile when I could fire dynamite from my bow and arrow. Let’s see you do that Legolas.

Oh boy, these tangents are getting silly.

I want to download shit into my head so I can do math problems. (Blog post summary)

Thanks for listening, in all the Universes.

BRANES, BRANES! I WANT TO EAT YOUR BRANES!

The Sounds of Spring

We have been fortunate this year, blessed with a mild winter, perhaps a divine gift, restitution for the Halloween snow storm from Hell that left me powerless for nearly a week. (That’s without electricity powerless, I still retained my incredible super-human intellect and the ability to read minds) With the early, warm and nearly perfect spring, come the inevitable sounds of the season.

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After a winter that finds nature disturbingly silent, save for the cackling murderous sounds emanating from either a fox den or raccoon coven across from my house. The sounds start just around midnight and the best description I have come up with is it’s what it would sound like if a half dozen witches were murdering a dozen children. All evil laughter, screaming, and painful cries. It lasts roughly five minutes, just enough to unnerve even the most steely listener. But aside from this nightmare inducing display, winter is very quiet.

Not so Spring. Every evening, after dark, I take the Goddess Artemis, my black Labrador Retriever for a walk, so she may conduct her divine business, which I, her acolyte, follow behind to clean up after. On the sidewalk of the main road where our constitutional takes us, there is a bit of a swamp, not a sprawling black magic, Will of the Wisp type of place, but just enough to be wet and full of bugs and frogs. In the last week or two, the chorus from the swamp grew from a few chirping crickets and occasional bullfrog to an entire seventeen million strong orchestra of insects and amphibians. I am not familiar with decibel levels, but it reaches a volume of such level that your mother would tell your teenage self to lower the Nirvana cassette on the boom box. A friend who lives in the condos next to the swamp says no one can keep their windows open at night due to the racket. 

With the purchase of the kindle and the LCD light that allows me to read at night during the walk, I take the music as something of a serenade. Preferable to the music of the iPod or iPhone I’d grown accustomed to listening to on the walk. There’s something joyous about reading about parallel universes, which I have been since downloading Brian Greene’s new book from the electronic stacks of the Enfield library, while being sung to by the denizens of the natural world. A kind of cacaphony of science both in my ears, and in my brain. And Artemis likes it so much she could shit. And does.

 The coyotes, must be a rather large pack of them, live in the field across from my front door, and have taken up their own kind of singing. Beginning usually at the first true darkness after sunset, the wild canines begin their wailing. It’s not proper to call it howling, though some of them approximate that. It is more like the lamentation of women whose husbands and babies have been spirited away by the Orcs of Mordor, or some other silly metaphorical abduction. Again, a creepy sort of music, it keeps up for a good half hour and can start up again at later times in the evening. Under like Zevonic wolves of London, the coyotes need no full moon to break out it their cries. Last night was a moonless night, but I was met with the scavenging sirens. I am glad I don’t have cats. Because I don’t think I’d have cats anymore. There must be dozens of the creatures, though I’ve never spotted on in the day, or indeed, in the dark of night. Artemis will shout a warning bark, and strike a pose for growling periodically. The Goddess doesn’t like rivals in her church.

Finally, the most delightful sound of spring is the birdsong. Who can feel malaise when the birds come out at dawn to announce their horniness to prospective mates? I am not a bird watcher, or indeed know anything about the types of birds and their respective songs, but I love a good tweet medley, and the little chirpers have been happy to oblige this spring.

By far the funniest bird song, however, was not heard directly by me, but rather occurred via my father. We moved from Montreal to rural Granby a good twenty five or so years ago, plenty of time to acclimate from city to country life. Or so you might think.

My Dad announced, as he was leaving the restaurant in the middle of the day for his afternoon nap, “I am off to rescue a duck.”

“What?”

“There’s a duck trapped in the pond. Probably in the drain. Kept us up all night. I am going to free him.”

“You’re going to free a duck?”

“Yes.”

“Shouldn’t you can animal control?”

“I am going to free the duck.”

My friend Manny and I thought it best to give my Mother a call. Not to suggest she call animal control for the rescue of the wild animal, but for a much more selfish purpose.

“Janie,” Manny said, as she picked up the phone, “Peter’s coming to rescue the duck. You better get the video camera ready.”

When my father returned that afternoon, he related to us the story of the trapped duck. Ducks, it turns out. Indeed, not trapped at all. The sounds that kept my parents up the night before were in fact the sounds of two canards in the throes of passion. A married man can be forgiven the confusion of a two birds mid-coitus with being trapped. Fucking Ducks. We roared with laughter.

I love the sounds of spring.

There’s Nothing Quite Like a Really Good Hoax

I am a huge fan of hoaxes. Perhaps it’s a corollary to my love of jokes. Every good joke is a tiny hoax, setup something that looks like it will go one way, then yank the rug out with a great punchline. Very much like a good hoax, because ultimately, every hoax is discovered and people are left holding the bag, though perhaps not laughing, being made the butt of the elaborate prank. There have been some dandy ones throughout history, from the crop circles and bigfoot video, to a couple of my favorites, the Piltdown Man and the Turk, the Robot Chess Automaton of the eighteenth century.

As a chess player, I followed the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue match with a great fascination, and have, over the years, lost many games to chess playing computers and electronic chess boards. I was amazed to discover however, that the first the world ever saw of a mechanical chess player did not come in the age after Univac and computers made the rudimentary artificial intelligence possible. It came much sooner. Before the American colonists told King George to f*ck off in fact, in the year 1770.

The Turk! A replica.

In order to impress a dame (Empress Maria Theresa) Wolfgang von Kempelen introduce The Turk to the world. An elaborate mechanism of clockworks and the like, housed in a fairly large cabinet with a chess board on top, and a life-sized model of a human head and torso behind it. Dressed in the robes and style of an “oriental sorceror.” You can get a better description of the machine here.

As elaborate as the clockworks looked, and the entire design was made to be thoroughly examined by doubters, the Turk had a better than 80 year career as a chess playing robot before the word robot even existed. And it was a complete fraud. There was a guy hidden in the cabinet, running the whole thing. But what a fabulous spectacle this must have been!

Even Napoleon Bonaparte played a couple of games against the Turk. Imagine a pre-industrial world with a chess playing robot. The great French player Philidor played against the Turk, and of course beat the machine, but the fellas running the controls were some fine players, and the Turk amassed quite a record and reputation, beating up on the nobility of the times. An amazing sideshow, with an ignominious end. The Turk died by fire in the middle of the 19th century, but not before making a tour and playing some of the best American players in New York City and Boston.

As far as hoaxes go, this one is pretty fabulous, and on the whole, pretty harmless. Sure, the pride of the suckers checkmated by The Turk were probably hurt, but overall, this is a pretty classy ruse. And will probably make a fine story for a movie someday!

The second hoax, and this one is by far my favorite, concerns one of the great mysteries/debates/scientific endeavors of all time, the evolution of Man!

Seems somebody, the culprit has never been properly identified, took a human skull, and the jawbone of an Orang-utan and doctored them up so cleverly that the scientific community thought “The Pildown Man” was a proper human ancestor. Found supposedly by a group of construction workers in Essex, England in 1908, and further excavated by Charles Darwin an antiquarian. They cobbled together the fossil fragments and proposed the “missing link” head.

Was Arthur Conan Doyle responsible for one of the great hoaxes in history?

While some scientists disputed the authenticity of the find right away, much research was done on the skull, and it proved to be a significant distraction from true paleo-anthropological research. Much of the scientific community accepted the Piltdown Man as a true representative of the species between Chimps and humans. And why not? The basis for any great hoax is the willingness and hopes of the deceived of the facts being true.

Clarence Darrow used the Piltdown Man as evidence in the famed Scopes Monkey Trial, in which he defended a teacher’s introduction to his science students. Further discoveries of fossils as well as more sophisticated chemical testing proved the forgery in the 1940s.

One of the suspected culprits of the hoax was Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, and another was the famed Catholic priest Teilhard de Chardin, author of some controversial works on the descent of mankind, himself.

Unlike The Turk, the Piltdown Man hoax was most certainly devised for much more sinister purposes, in this case, an attempt to befuddle science itself. One of the suggested motives was nationalistic, offering proof that early man evolved in Eurasia, Britain even, rather than Africa.

Though it sounds fairly silly to our modern faith in science that such a hoax could even be scarcely believed at the time, but I think that speaks to a general “coming around” of our society toward accepting science. And let’s not forget how powerful faith in ideas can cloud judgments. Racial stereotyping found a home in “science.”

The literary world is riddled with great hoax stories. With “lost” manuscripts of famous writers abounding. The Richard Gere movie the Hoax was a great story about a manufactured autobiography of Howard Hughes, based a book by the perpetrator Clifford Irving.

As a jokester, I see these stories as the long con. The grand, decades long hoax is to the one liner as the epic poem is to the limerick.

If you know any great hoaxes, please share!

 

Communicating with the Darkness

I remember a time, not so long ago, when Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and the mono-chromatic tie combination of Regis Philiban was the dominant talk of conversation among normal Americans. Well that corner of the Zeitgeist has been seemingly replaced by a similarly heated discussion about the place of religion in society.

While religion will never have the kind of cultural impact of complementary vs. contrasting colors on neckties, it does hold a treasured spot in our society and is worth discussing and contemplating.

Thankfully, the latest religious flare up does not directly concern the Carnival of the Republican Presidential Primaries, though perhaps tangentially since the once, and future front-runner Mitt Romney is a Mormon.

The practice of the Church of Latter Day Saints baptizing the dead into the Mormon Church began under founder Joseph Smith back in the days before Regis was famous in the middle 19th century. Following along with the Biblical experimentation of the times, he found sanction for the practice in the Epistles, and so the proxy baptisms found their way into Mormon practice. Millions of dead souls have been thus baptized over the centuries, mostly flying under the radar.

Church rules state that posthumous baptisms should only occur when submitted by family members of the deceased. Especially true of famous people, and Holocaust victims and their families. Many in the Jewish community objected to the famed baptism of Anne Frank, and more recently, the parents of  Nazi Hunter Simon Weisenthal. I can understand the upset. It is something of an affront to the idea that religion is a deeply personal choice, and the spiritual baptisms do not rely on the individual’s conversion but rather another community choosing to impose their beliefs on the deceased. Which seems preposterous when stated like that.

It seems to me that neither the Mormon Church, nor the family of the deceased has any claim to the religious beliefs of the dead. But also feels to me that it probably makes no difference whatsoever to the immortal soul of the deceased or the transcendent God to whom that soul is now traveling with. No matter how strong is one’s faith, or how certain a religious body is about its beliefs and practices and ceremonies and “magic” (and that is not a denigration of Religion, if sacraments have power, they are magic) there can be no certainty. Because we don’t have a perfect Revelation, no matter how much we may want to rely on Scriptures, history has show that any sentence can be interpreted, often in opposite ways.

Religion is, in my view, an exploration of the human relationship with the mysterious, the Divine, the Darkness from which we, and the Universe itself sprang. I read in college, due to a course in Christian mysticism, the book called the Cloud of Unknowing, written by an unknown author, referred to as “The Author of the Cloud of Unknowing” perhaps a British monk. His mystical experience centered on the concept that everything we know and understand about life, and God is imperfect. The Divine resides in a cloud of unknowing, which can only be communicated with at His whim, and so a divesting of everything we think we know in apophatic prayer is the truest attempt at understanding the nature of God.

It’s basically a philosophical proposition of renouncing everything you think you know and allowing the unknown to show you the way.

The attraction to this, is that it positions every religious seeker in a place of ultimate humility. A place of discovery hopefully removed of all the superstitions, rituals, stereotypes, tropes, repetition, and imposed beliefs of whatever sect or denomination or cult or belief system the mystic might be from. It is a submission to revelation by the Divine. A sharing of His (or Hers, or Its) nature on a deeply personal level.

So under such an understanding, one can be baptized, married, confirmed, bar mitzvahed or whatever by any religious system and the rituals remain wholly subservient to the personal relationship with the Divine Darkness.

Its not nonsense for the family of Daniel Pearl, the latest famous person to be subjected, against the wishes of his family to Mormon baptism. I can sympathize with them. I don’t know Mr. Pearl’s spiritual life, but by what I have read, he lived with a Jewish faith. So there is no doubt an arrogance to the renegade baptism, forbidden by LDS rules. The undertaking of the ritual was no doubt a sincere attempt to bring Pearl into the fold of Mormonism, not for his life here, but for his eternal soul. I don’t see it as malice, but do see it as a little bit disrespectful. But not at all dangerous.

I believe Daniel Pearl is in communion with the Divine. This unknowable power that we all (well not all, but all who believe there is such a thing as God) seek to understand, and who has provided a wealth of symbols, rituals, scriptures, myths, legends, revelations, prophecies, miracles, stories, sacraments, art, literature and whole host of other hints to His nature.

From this viewpoint, I find it difficult to judge or rank on a scale the True religions and the False religions. And certainly this is not meant to forgive atrocities committed in the name of God, which there are many and probably will continue to be many. There’s a humility in exploration, and an arrogance in authority. Nothing in the Church of Latter Day Saints ritual or in the family of the deceased about their dead relative’s beliefs before death in my view will make a lick of difference in the afterlife, and with God’s relationship with his creation.

On the issue of neckties…I still believe that color contrasts work better, despite the prevailing winds of Philibanism. And for God’s sake, never green with blue.

Life on Other Planets

Besides contributing to the outright hilarious final paragraph on any article on astronomy in the mainstream press, the only thing that holds the fascination of the public about space science is the possibility of life on other planets. And so, articles on exo-planets inevitably talk about “Goldilocks zones” (proper distance from the star for a planet to have liquid water), and possible atmospheres, and solid as opposed to gas planets. All with good reason, because if they didn’t dangle worm of life as we know it in the Universe, nobody will read the story. Except the science nerds, and there’s plenty of those, but no enough to click on the Groupon link and make Google money.

It’s cool to think that in my lifetime, we went from not knowing whether planets even existed around other stars (did anybody really doubt it? not Science Fiction readers) to now hundreds of planets being discovered seemingly daily around all kinds and types of stars. Thanks to the Kepler mission, the data is pouring in from around the Universe, planets are everywhere.

Some stars have massive gas planets speeding around them in orbits closer than Mercury. Certainly not hospitable. I remember recently reading about a planet roughly twice the size of the Earth, in the proper distance “Goldilocks” zone. A good contender no doubt, for life like ours to arise. Amino acids have been found on asteroids, further arousing the passions of life seekers, though the leap from amino acid to life is rather huge.

The latest development, is using a possible technique of reading the atmospheric signature of an exo-planet, and determining whether it contains oxygen, methane, ozone, or carbon dioxide, likely gases produced by life forms. A planet teaming with life would have them in different concentrations than a planet void of life.

So all of this is extraordinarily exciting. Except, once we even remotely determine that one of these planets has a proper atmosphere, and is in a likely favorable orbit around it’s star, we have no way of getting there! Sure, there is the possibility that a sufficiently advanced species exists on this planet, and we can target radio signals and communicate with them, but what is more likely, or perhaps equally likely, is that the planet will be loaded with microbial life, quite out of tune with Top 40 hits, and with no way of receiving or interacting with whatever signal we can throw out.

So we will be left with an enormous mystery. A planet, say 100 light years away, with all the signals of containing life would be sitting out there, imaginations here going crazy speculating about what kind of beasties might be living out there.

“Are there animals or merely plant or microbial life?”

“Does the planet have a tilt providing seasons like the Earth, or a different pattern of temperature and weather?”

“Do their women have large breasts?”

Well maybe not the last one. Or maybe so.

Certainly the scientific questions will abound. With little chance of being answered, because the only instruments we have will be reading elemental signatures, and mathematical conjectures about orbits etc…

We might get a boost in interest for building starships, but the distances would be outrageous. A space colony aboard a ship might get there after more generations than in all of recorded history so far. The likelihood of their descendants reaching the planet before technology leap frogged them is probably very slight. And such an undertaking is well beyond our current abilities, so working on the warp drive might be a better option. Though recent news about the speed of neutrinos sets us back in that department. Loose fiber optic cables indeed. For shame, CERN, for shame.

But really, the life is the thing isn’t it? I am not ready to throw in the towel on life in this solar system, if only fossilized on the moon or Mars. Or even in the underground oceans on a satellite of a gas planet. Its probably not likely, but then, life itself seems rather unlikely in the grand scope of things. So why not? Perhaps even a different set of replicating chemicals might have come about and it will be even harder for us to recognize it as life anyhow.

And what of the key theological questions. Does extra-terrestrial life point to or away from a Creator God? When is life considered sentient (or sapient, whatever these words mean)? Is there something out there on our level of evolution, big brains and all? And if so, is there something much more advanced than us, or does evolution truly stop when a species reaches a certain level.

We will never know from a telescope, and unless we crack a law of nature that we’re not sure even can be cracked we may never find out. It would be pretty depressing if he galaxy were populated with thousands of sentient species all unable to reach each other. Trading radio stations might not be so bad. Though I doubt any alien could devise music better than Elvis or the Beatles. But who knows.

And the robots, where the hell are the self-replicating robots? Machines with their own DNA codes just scouring the Universe for raw materials and replication? With creators, like us, seeking to make contact.

Has Anyone Ever Actually Met a Theocrat?

As a political junkie, I must say this Republican Primary season has delivered the goods in a way Hollywood should envy. With a host of rapidly rising stars, and just as quickly falling meteors, this whole bit of political theater could never have been scripted in a way that story editor would find believable.

Scarcely months ago, Michelle Bachmann (I can never feel quite comfortable with the consonant content in that woman’s name, but this is a blog, so let’s go with it) won the Ames straw poll and I think, was riding high on some national polls. Then, some stuff about converting gays to straight, and the American Revolution starting in New Hampshire, and she was gone. And then it was Cain, and Perry, and whoever, up until now when we are down to two. Mitt Romney, the perennial, “oh all right, if I really have to” candidate, and Rick Santorum, by far the most interesting character in the play.

I don’t live in the Bible Belt. I’ve visited there several times, but never for any extended period, so maybe my view of this is colored by the Liberalism I’ve been living in here in New England, but the most fascinating thing about the rise of Rick Santorum, is the unbelievably paranoid view among commentators and the Facebook and Twitter feeds I’ve been reading about establishing a “Theocracy” in America. Granted, being in the “Arts,” my social network friends are on the Liberal side to say the least (no judgment here, I am on that side too, ask my Dad) I’m not surprised to see anti-Rick stuff, he’s way conservative (or at least plays one in a Primary season, I think he’s a much more slick political player than he tries to portray himself now) but what is kind of weird is the fear, which seems to be genuine, that somebody like Santorum could, if elected President, sway this country into some sort of Theocratic state.

Now, all propaganda preys on fears, so I imagine much of this is meant to arouse passionate opposition to Santorum, and why not, that’s what political messaging is all about, but how real is this threat of a theocracy? To my mind, its a farce. Much easier to believe that President Obama is a double agent of the Comintern than Santorum is the ringleader of a merging of Church and State designed to bring a new Inquisition to Keyboard Atheists and Libertarians.

There is no doubt that the lines between Church and State have long been in dispute, especially since the Civil War inspired amendments changed all the rules about Government and Federal enforcement of civil rights and all that legal stuff I can’t go into here. But here’s the question I have. And I have in my travels met some pretty fundamentalist Christian folks. Does anyone really believe in a State governed by the priestly class? Here in America?

This would be a true theocracy, where the civil leaders were also the religious leaders. And I have never, ever, ever come across anyone advocating this. There is a huge difference between trying to align the civil laws to be in agreement with religious laws. This is not only normal, but happens all the time. Much as folks want to advocate for a purely atheistic government, the reality is that an atheistic society does not exist, and frankly cannot exist without probably centuries of purging religious values from a population on the earth. If the Soviet Union was the experiment in atheist government, it did a very poor job in its seventy some year existence of accomplishing that.

And there’s no doubt of the presence of a religious Right wing seeking power in municipal and to a lesser extent State governments, particularly on school board driven primarily by a desire to get Darwinism thrown out, and ramp up the abstinence education. But on the national level, it seems to me the religious right is far more concerned with creating an environment friendlier to these local folks than they do looking to impose Federal standards.

Much of the passion of the religious Right is inflamed by the abortion issue. It is probably one of the only unifying issues between Christian religious sects. And this sectarian nature of Christianity in America is why I find the whole idea of Santorum as Grand Poobah of a Christian Theocracy so damned laughable. Protestants on the whole, still don’t like Catholics. The evangelical ones, even now, again, the one’s I’ve encountered, pretty darn fundamentalist, still look  at the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon, and the Pope as a kind of Anti-Christ. So a Catholic President would be as unlikely a darling of the evangelical right as would say, a Mormon President.

So of the four Republican candidates left, the only one of the Protestant persuasion is Ron Paul. Hardly a darling of the religious right, oh with his Libertarianism and all.

The truth is, American Christianity is about as far as you can get from the kind of political force that would desire a centralized theocracy. They compete for believers in the most capitalistic way possible. Ministries are basically corporations selling different brands of Jesus to attract the followers. There is very little unity of theology, even less unity of hierarchical structures, and a fierce independent streak born of centuries of schisms and re-schisms, making a kind of National religious unity not only preposterous, but frankly insane.

And the fear from the left is exactly that, insane. It is another tool of propaganda, to simplify and sinisterize (awful word, i know) the other side, in the same way the GOP has tried to make the Left appear  Godless, Socialist, and Whacko-environmental. Not a new game certainly, but how far this “theocratic” plot is from reality is really beyond the pale.

The ideals of American freedom have done a great deal to change the very face of Christianity itself in this country. If there was an authority capable of instituting a theocracy anywhere under Christian rule, it would be Catholicism. They are the only ones with a political structure capable of the reach necessary for a theocracy. And over the last decade, they have taken quite a beating.

Protestants value their local control, and creating small enclaves of believers far more than they would ever trust a national theocrat. If there is something to be feared from the religious in politics, it is very much at the local level. In the very town I live in, a prayer is said before every council meeting. It makes me a little uncomfortable, and the ACLU could probably come in and make a stink about it, but these councilmembers (GOP controlled), if I know them as well as I think I do, would not be in the least bit inclined to take orders from a national religious leader.

Frankly, I think a Zombie Apocalypse is more likely than a theocracy in the next couple of hundred years at least.

I hope the rhetoric of this dies down, no matter who wins the Republican nomination and ultimately who wins the Presidency in November. What is ultimately very scary, is a fractured nation who buys into the propaganda that their political rival is actually their mortal enemy. The last twenty years feel like this is becoming the new reality. Which is preposterous on its face, but if enough believe in the preposterous, the preposterous can become a reality. Nobody wants a theocracy people, just like nobody wants Soviet style communism. Let’s build a better America together shall we?

Prophecy and the Flidzani

Of all the methods of divination, tarot cards, palm reading, livestock entrails etc… none is closer to my Greek heart than the reading of the sludge left over after a delicious cup of Greek (some of you may know it as Turkish) coffee in a demitasse cup (hereafter called the Flidzani because it’s a pretty cool word you must admit). The reading of the coffee grounds is a centuries old practice that stands as proof that life before television was pretty shitty. Sitting around a table and divining the fortune of the coffee drinker whittled away the torturous hours left between milking the goats and getting drunk on Ouzo while betting on Backgammon games.

For your viewing pleasure, watch the video above for the flavor of the practice. You won’t understand what she is saying, but its okay, because it is all fabricated anyway.

All right, I sound like a jackass. And I am, don’t be fooled by the charming smile.

Growing up in a first generation Greek household, I was exposed to, but always at a safe distance from the many superstitions from the “Old Village” life. Cool things like the Evil Eye, and spitting on babies for good luck. Most of my family was not particularly superstitious, or really given to taking most of these things seriously, but it made for good entertainment.

One of my favorites is the story of the Nereids, which usually appeared outside your window when the glare was just right, and you were just drunk enough. Sea nymphs they are, like mermaids from Greek Mythology, but the stories I heard made them sound more like kidnapping vampires, set to steal the stupid ones from the village.

I knew about Nereids, the real ones, not by reading mythology, but by countless times devouring the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual Volume 1 as a pre-teen. This was the 1980s, so table tops were actually a better alternative to the Atari (which I also had and played away many hours of my life I’ll never have back, but instilled lifelong Frogger skills in me, so bite me) and because the game was more or less invented for adults, there were a couple of boobs floating around. Simple line drawings, but there were many times the Succubus Demon’s cleavage was the closest to porn a growing boy could get his hands on. And sea nymphs, cool!

These Greek agrarian village Nereids though were a good way to keep you in at night, and cut down on the unwanted pregnancies from midnight trysts with the shepherd boy apprentices no doubt. When abortions consisted of rough use of knitting needles, the fear of a hostile sea nymph becomes utterly advisable and believable.

Greek coffee by the way is made by boiling finely, finely ground coffee, water, and the desired amount of sugar (you can take it a) bitter, no sugar b) medium, one sugar or c) sweet, two sugars) in a little metal pot called a “Briki.” The mixture is brought to a boil over maximum heat, so that a foam rises up to the very tip of the “Briki” and then is pulled off the flame or element and poured into the tiny demi-tasse cups. What results is a very strong coffee, probably stronger even than espresso, which is sipped very slowly, with great care not to drink too much. If you get too close to the bottom, you might sip up some of the chalky mud that’s left over of the coffee grounds.

Take a look at what the sludge looks like:

It is this magic mud that makes the flidzani awesome. After flipping over the contents onto a saucer, and waiting for the mixture to sloppily drip onto the dish, the reside forms patterns and pictures in the cup. This is the weapon of choice for the fortune teller, who at once leaps into a pattern of bullshit that combines the finest improv with a Rorschach test.

I’ve heard people go on about the birds, and roads, and journeys, and love and babies and whatever else was in the fantastic imagination of the flidzani reader, stimulated by the symbols in the mud. I imagine the “professional” reader has a repertoire of common symbols, like the tarot reader, but around the kitchen table in my family, it was pure fantasy And it was fun. The men never partook, they were too busy playing Pinochle. But for a kid already given to liking magic it was spellbinding. Though even then, I didn’t take it seriously.

It was fun.

Incidentally, I do believe in prophecy. I don’t know that you can get in a Psychic Reading at Madame LaConartiste on the streets of the poor neighborhoods, but I totally think its possible to know the future before it happens. And not because I am a sucker.

It is actually a theological belief. I think I first encountered the thought in a C.S. Lewis class in college, but the idea is older than that. At least as old as Augustine and probably much older in the Jewish tradition.

The theory is this. If God created the Universe, he also created time and exists outside of it. So he didn’t just set the Universe into motion, he created the beginning and the end and everything in between, all at once. And it all exists out there. So things that will happen have already happened (or something like that) so being given these revelations “prophets” are not just forecasting what is likely, they are seeing what will be (or already is, just in the future). So within the framework of my Christian beliefs, fortune telling is perfectly acceptable.

Read this if you’re bored. It gets pretty heady, but also fascinating in a way I couldn’t even begin to convince you.

So maybe God, in his infinite wisdom, did implant clues to your future in the grounds of your coffee, and your intuitive Yiayia (grandmother) is able to pull it out. Overall, not a bad way to pass the time before God invented Wheel of Fortune (Ti Rouletta, in Greek/English). This is a bit of culture I am dying to pass on to my children someday.