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For the past few days, I’ve been pondering this idea of an Artificial God. To give a bit of background, this idea comes from a speech by Douglas Adams in 1998. Here is the link to a transcript.

The basic idea is that some concepts, though clear products of the imagination, and as not-real as, well, money, have a definite impact and a definite meaning to us. Money, and the entire system of transacting these pieces of paper–or better, sliding a plastic card through a little device–forms the very real underpinnings of our civilization. So much so that we’d doubtless drop back 100,000 years if the whole system collapsed. Having it in place though has allowed unprecedented advances in art, technology and science to happen. Shakespeare, Heinlein, Apollo 11, the Empire State Building, John Ford, Richard Dawkins, the Beatles, all these people and their works, and so many tangible things exist because at its heart, our civilization depends on a largely imaginary concept, and evolved from that and around that. It allowed the species to delve into philosophy, science, music, learning, in a way impossible otherwise.

The same can be said for God. God as a concept. God as principal creator as envisioned by a species of tool-makers and creators. Such a concept is strictly a product of the human imagination–make no mistake, Douglas Adams was very much an atheist and found the other way of thinking a bit silly. But he saw the need some may have for such crutches, hence his extemporaneous speech.

This comes to mind as I read a book by Becky Garrison called Jesus Died For This? To be certain, I am not her target audience–her disparaging references to the New Atheists are eye-rollingly typical of Christians. Also, her interludes of trying to commune with the spirits of St. Brigid and St. Kevin while travelling in Ireland do read like flights of fancy. However, she is trying to find something authentic and, well, “real” to her–the “risen Christ.”

I can identify with this. I did the same thing for a short time some years back. I was never a born-again Christian. That would be impossible because I don’t believe in the resurrection as an actual historic event. I believe my description of such a thing would be “highly fucking unlikely.” I cannot be a Christian for that reason right there. Also I cannot countenance–let alone actually believe–in the notion of Biblical literalness or (chuckle) infallibility. That I would describe as “bullshit.”

I do love the English language.

So how could I possibly identify with an avowed Christian like that?

Why, the search for authenticity of course. The search for capital-tee Truth. For Garrison it is the search for the “risen Christ.” For me it was just trying to find a way to reconcile my Catholic upbringing with my travels through Zen and the findings of science. The Truth was there somewhere.

Perhaps it was in a more metaphoric reading of the Bible. A reading filtered through human nature and Buddhist thought. The connections between Jesus and Buddha were explored by Thich Nhat Hanh, and I commend you to his teachings.

Trouble with that was, of course, the schitzophrenic nature of God in the old versus new testaments. Not to mention the contradictory views of Jesus in the four gospels. I am not talking Rashomon-style point-of-view errors, I am talking about the sort of depictions that can only come from four separate traditions based on one story, what we call the Gospel of Mark.

So suffice to say there was some serious cherry-picking done by yours truly. In fact, except for Ecclesiastes and Mark (and maybe Romans), the rest of the Bible is completely useless, even as a metaphoric guide to human behavior. Complete and utter shit.

But of course, what all that inspired over the last two millennia! Ah yes, the art and music! Yeah, not all bad, and should each and all be considered on their own merits, and owing to that other imaginary concept, money. Excess time and excess money and someone’s devotion can produce amazing art.

And that is the Truth right there, isn’t it? Devotion. Inspiration. Even the word speaks of the “cool breeze” of the Jesus Sutras. Spiritus Sanctus. Sacred breath, sacred wind. (watch which hole it’s coming out!) Inspiration is the heart of creativity, whatever that inspiration might be. Some of my material in Turboblues comes from the time when I took inspiration from my cherry-picked vision of God. Even at my most starry-eyed though, I knew it was the product of a powerful (albeit sleep-deprived) imagination. God as love, love as the product of devotion, or through the power of sex, sex as the timeless yet long-lost union with the divine. Ikkyu called his brand of lust-infused Zen “red-thread.” It’s the less imaginative, the less daring, the simple-minded, who conflate lust with something bad. Lust is what it is. Used well, it can bring you to quite tangible, almost divine bliss. Used poorly, well, you might understand Hell as it truly is. Hell’s not a place, though I have been there through misused lust.

In any case, that way of thinking, that circular and circuitous route to and through an imaginary god, had to stop. It was the product of a powerful imagination and a lot of thinking. And lack of sleep.

So bring this back to Artificial God, why doncha!

I’m getting there.

Man has a peculiar ability to create, beyond mere problem solving. He creates tools and thinks of processes to solve problems, like how to kill food more efficiently, or to stay warm, or to eat better. He sees the lightning, hears the thunder, feels the wind and the sun, and comprehends this according to terms he understands: Hierarchy. Pecking order. Leadership. Something that makes such mighty forces must be an entity greater than himself. And these things must be “made” by someone, else how did they come to be?

So he combines all this into something he calls, well, one of the billion names of God. Every tribe had its personal name for this being, and make no mistake, it was a human being, only amplified a thousandfold. Fallible, emotional, petty, just like humans. They create totems, symbols, icons, to signify their god, and invent amazing stories to entertain themselves, because this creation of theirs inspired them. In time, as generations picked up, made sense and made use of the concept, it became an institution which was itself picked up and used and understood in differing ways.

Fast-forward through the ages, and God becomes less real, more idealized. More abstract. Terms like infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent become used to describe the god we call God. The world of phenomenon known to the ancients gives way to a world described by something called the Scientific Method. The world this method describes is one of simple processes which, when writ large and repeatedly, shows enormous complexity. Even to the point where a simpler mind would intuit a designer. The ancient concepts die hard, and the world as it truly exists (like, say, at the quantum level) is one that is foreign to our thinking.

Douglas Adams posited an Artificial God as a way of inspiring creative thought while something enormously better becomes more well known. Richard Dawkins wrote a wonderful book on that something better called Unweaving The Rainbow, and I fully commend that book to you as well.

Unconsciously, those who search for a Theory of Everything follow the same path to the divine. Their search may one day bear fruit, and it may not. The Artificial God of their understanding inspires them to push back the darkness, but it is definitely an artifice, and they do not pretend otherwise.

The god of my understanding was always an artificial one and try as I might, I could not pretend otherwise either. But I do love the work I got out of it.

A couple of things at the outset. I love to read. I love books. Depending on what’s going on, it could be an audiobook or something I picked up at a used bookstore (around here at this point there’s just Bookman’s to fill that niche). Also, I have this idealistic vision of portability and versatility offered by electronic books. I worked for almost nine years for a company that did electronic publishing so as a matter of course I saw the inherent strength of reading without paper. It fits perfectly with the same way of thinking that had me transfer my entire CD collection to MP3 many years ago, followed by my DVD collection. Part of it could be letting go without fully letting go, I don’t know. Such is the story of the last five years of my life.

Anyway, back to the point. E-books to me have always made sense. Microsoft’s e-reader format was an early favorite, I read several books on my old Dell Axim that way. And of course there was HTML and plain ASCII (Project Gutenberg). But electronic books could not sufficiently pass the Crapper Test. That is, can you comfortably do it while on the crapper? Ten years ago wireless ethernet barely existed and no one wanted to park a laptop of that era on their lap in the bathroom. Just silly.

It was a matter of time before the technology caught up to the promise though, and it did eventually with Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle a couple years ago. This was all coming in increments of course, the biggest innovation being the e-ink screen which is capable of showing a passable greyscale image while needing only enough juice to create the image and practically none at all to maintain it. Amazing. Add to that faster processors and, of course, a tiny rendering of Linux for the underlying OS.

The biggest innovation that Kindle brought though was its infrastructure. Kindle and especially Kindle 2 take advantage of the iTunes model of transaction, only Kindle 2 makes this tighter by augmenting it with something called Whispernet, basically a cellular modem whose purpose is to send and receive small bits of data, whether its tracking your progress in a book or downloading a book to the unit. Nothing fancy or data-intensive, hence it’s being wrapped into the cost of the unit. That cost has come down a lot in the last year. Currently Kindle 2 comes in two flavors, one with a U.S. Only wireless plan for $259 and one with U.S. and International for $20 extra. Amazon also has the bigger and costlier Kindle DX, designed for the rendering of textbooks primarily and is scaled up in size for that purpose.

Barnes & Noble are trying to one-up Amazon with something called the Nook. At the moment I’ve only seen pictures of it myself, but it is adorable. it has an e-Ink screen like the Kindle, but where Kindle has a hardware keyboard Nook has a color glass touchscreen that can display a keyboard and spiffy bookcovers as well. The price-point is similar to the Kindle, though no international plan is available at the moment. Nook also has WiFi (wireless ethernet) built in where Kindle does not. Nook also has the advantage of being able to render PDFs without the conversion (and subsequent fees) that Kindle requires. Barnes & Noble is also trying to leverage its physical locations to foster Nook use with the WiFi (finally free at B&N and soon also at Borders) and with exclusive content, though they haven’t been clear on what that content will be. Nook will also have all the accessories that Kindle has, though not exactly the same given the structural differences between the two. Nook will also be expandable via micro-SD cards, which Kindle painfully is not.

Both devices feature some form of audio support, though Kindle has the advantage of supporting Audible’s 4 and enhanced formats. This is an advantage if you are a regular Audible user. Which I am.

Of the two I am drawn to the Kindle, mainly because of the Audible-ready aspect, but also because of the Kindle app for the iPod Touch. That was itself a matter of pure timing as it was available with a wide selection of books I wanted when I wanted them, whereas the Barnes & Noble eReader did not. The Kindle app works very basically, and after the enhancements of the latest version is quite workable as an eReader. The Barnes & Noble version, which is a rebranded version of the very robust Fictionwise app, is much more feature-rich than the Kindle app and has the distinct advantage of a well-entrenched e-reader format with a selection of free books readily available online. Kindle is going to port its reader app to Mac and PC soon, and one wonders if a Linux version will appear somehow or someway (without needing WINE of course).

Thanks to the apps and the ubiquity of the iPhone/iPod Touch, I can move from one realm to the other without having to commit to a single format. As I said above though, of the two my leaning is toward Kindle, though I won’t be making a purchase for another few months (here’s to hoping the tax refund is there and reasonably substantial). The closed-in nature of Kindle/Amazon is a concern to me, and the Chump Factor here is immense, especially given the fickle nature of Amazon’s cell providers of late and its disturbing lack of WiFi.

E-Readers are the future, like it or not. Reading is wonderful beyond words (an odd expression sure, but here it is), and books are lovely bulky smelly things. The notion of a library in one spot and within reach is tantalizing and satisfies my habit of reading several books at once. The absurdity of formats and competing devices and gestalts is annoying, as it was with Beta/VHS, HD-DvD/BluRay and Mac/PC, but it will harmonize eventually to be sure.

Just as long as I get my money’s worth out of whatever device I get before it obsoletes on me.

A little time to sit pays dividends as I correct the mistakes of an earlier time.

It’s bugged me how the interior of Turboblues looked. Some of the same stupid stuff I found in Roadside Truckstop happened in that earlier book. I was never able to gather time to make these fixes previously. After all, I assembled Turboblues during a crash session in November, 2005, and revised/added as time went on. The original publication happened one late overnight at a local Kinkos as a result of my having three-day weekends. I was so astounded by the fact that I could self-publish and have it look reasonably OK that I took the beast and smashed it together.

Scanning the material in a quick proofing-editorial read (Roadside Truckstop helped me dust off those old skills), I see the personality of Turboblues more clearly than I did even when I assembled it. One of my most favorite poets is a man called Ikkyu. He was a Zen practitioner/master who lived and died five centuries ago. His was a practice known as red-thread zen. The link will take you to a short essay about him. Reading his material during the time that I did had a strong influence on my writing during that period. A lot of Turboblues is about my red thread, if you will, where the bulk of Roadside Truckstop is about the journey motif, another huge thing in my writing and in my life.

Like Roadside Truckstop, Turboblues has a personality, but is a mix of periods in my life. I was in a different place when I wrote the various pieces in these books and I was in very different places in my life when I assembled them as well.

Taken together  you have me.

I just received the proof copies of Roadside Truckstop tonight and, well, wow.

I made a few real bonehead layout mistakes, but fixed those. Other than that, I am going to be honest with you.

This is a great fucking book.

Sorry kiddies, but I have to give myself props here. Maybe it’s just the swoon from having this in my hands, you’d say, but remember I already went through that swoon a year and a half ago with Turboblues. This ain’t swoon. This is seeing your daughter on stage in her first school play and being smitten because she’s actually good.

Here it is. If you’re reading this, please go buy my book. Thank you.

http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/roadside-truckstop/6606633