The Two Best Horror Stories I Ever Read

The idea of horror has always captured my imagination much more than have actual attempts to use it in art. Most, it seems, appeal to gore, physical pain, weird supernatural stuff–it seems my definition of horror simply differs from that which most use, and others’ approach to it usually repulses me.

Real horror, I think, relates to surprise, and to awe. To the gradual (or sometimes sudden) realization that the world is not what it at first seems, and to the awareness of how little we understand of that world, and of ourselves. The best horror, it seems, is the truest–not about the psychotic killer, the ancient vengeful spirit, or the monster under the bed, but about the monster in your head,  in the society around you, or both. The best horror isn’t effective because the author pulls you into a world of fantasy–it’s effective because the author reaches into your world. Because she grants you a glimpse into the terrifying corners of your own psyche, or reveals for a moment the darkness that your community usually manages to ignore.

The two best horror stories I’ve yet read are both fairly short. M. Rickert’s Bread and Bombs is a relatively recent one, and published online with the author’s permission. Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery was published a few decades ago, and is available in various collections as well as in probably-copyright-violating online copies. Both are well worth reading.

Radical Reformation, or the Anabaptists

I recently came across a great, informative and interestingly-taught sermon series that provides a brief intro to my strand of the Christian Church, the Anabaptists. The Radical Reformation happened in the era of the Protestant Reformation, and the “Anabaptists”, or “re-baptizers” (so branded by other Christians) frequently found themselves tortured, drowned, burned, and otherwise killed or imprisoned by Catholics and Protestants alike. The pastor is Bruxy Cavey, of a Brethren in Christ church in Canada.

Two notes in advance:

  • The sermons are given with the expectation that further processing will happen in “home church” groups, with notes provided to aid discussion.
  • Don’t look at the notes before you listen to the sermons. That’s not what they’re for, and the sermons provide significant context. Just don’t.

The series

  • Radical Reformation #1 – Anabaptists & Us (audio, notes): “This episode kicks off our discussion of Anabaptist beliefs and behaviours with a magical mystery whirlwind tour of the history of the Radical Reformation.”
  • Radical Reformation #2 – Anabaptists & Scripture (audio, notes): “Anabaptists didn’t follow the Bible. They followed Jesus. And that’s why they studied the Bible.”
  • Radical Reformation #3 – Anabaptists & Church (audio, notes): “The Radical Reformers saw the church, not as an institution, but as a family. And that opened the door for more participation from all ages, stages, and statuses.”
  • Radical Reformation #4 – Anabaptists & Peace (audio, notes): “Anabaptists have always rejected the way of violence in favour of Jesus’ way of peace… except when they haven’t. This week we discuss the Munster Rebellion and other Anabaptist failures.”
  • Radical Reformation #5 – Anabaptists & Mission (audio, notes): “How did Anabaptists go from early evangelistic zeal to living in isolationist communities in the country? This week we address this and other challenging questions.”

As with anything, don’t consider posting to be unqualified endorsement or concurrence–but the series is worth your time.

Reflections welcome in blog comments. Or probably welcome. I reserve the right to play the “get off my lawn” card–or, since posts are moderated, to bar the gate. 🙂

Playing Your Own Music In The Cloud

If you don’t know me, my career has been in computer software. I started programming in my pre-teens, took a college programming class at 13, binary-edited executables in DOS for fun, etc.

I think I’m becoming a Luddite.

The cloud is great. Keep all your documents, all your photos, all your data on the cloud. Access it from anywhere. And don’t even worry about what you own–stream video from Netflix or Amazon, music from Spotify or its competitors, and gain access to the world’s library of media!

But you want to put your own music on the cloud? Woe to thee, for thou hast entered The Dead Zone! Amazon used to run a music locker. As did the “legitimate” side of that pirate site whose name I can’t remember. As did a number of others–most of which have folded. Google Music offers some storage, but if you want to set it up on all your family’s devices…woe to thee, for darkness, despair, and error messages await!

All of this is a long path to saying–doubleTwist’s CloudPlayer app is wonderful, a secret I discovered after spending far too many hours trying to solve a simple problem. Basically: put your MP3s in the cloud. Probably on a Google Drive account that you set up on all of the devices that your family uses. And then, install CloudPlayer, and point it to them. It will take a bit of time, but it will index your files, let you view them by album, artist, and all the other usual attributes (even storage location), show you album covers…and let you play them. Simply. Just like any music player. From anywhere with an Internet connection. Exactly as easy to set up and use as a cloud-music solution should be. The link above is to the ad-supported version–but buy the Pro version. They deserve some money for building this.

If you have other great solutions to this problem, I’d be glad to hear about them. I’m unlikely to use them, though, if they involve installing a server on my laptop or setting up a Raspberry Pi or a Linux box somewhere on my home network–or even renting a virtual server to install my personal media server.

The Singer

Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

G. K. Chesterton, “Tremendous Trifles”.

I recently stumbled upon a book that was on my parents’ shelves as I grew up: The Singer Trilogy:  The Mythic Retelling of the Story of the New Testament, by Calvin Miller. It’s an allegory of Christianity, written by a Southern Baptist, published in 1975 . Veeerry promising, right?

Actually, the book’s beautiful: a classic that seems undeservedly forgotten. There are parts, admittedly, that make me wince a bit, for one reason or another–and I haven’t even finished the trilogy in my current reading (the last one was in my teen years or earlier). But Miller knows the language of myth*, the power of story. In transposing into poetry and an alternate Earth the stories that have come to us from Palestine and the Roman Empire a couple of millennia ago, he brings alive the stories followers of Jesus believe: echoing them, reflecting them, illuminating them from new angles.

For a follower of the Singer, one who echoes the ancient star-song, there’s determination, there’s weariness, there’s grimness and tragedy, there’s death. But there’s awe, there’s warm affection, there’s meaning, there’s transcendence. In his allegory, Miller seems to catch, and to play for his readers, some true phrases from the song heard when “the morning stars sang together, and all the angels/[sons of God] shouted for joy”.

I found the audiobook a terrific way to experience this telling. Print would presumably be decent as well (Kindle seems less than optimal), but audio is superb.

* Regarding “myth”: the word as used here refers to the foundational stories by which a group of people define themselves. It includes nothing of the often-assumed “false story” connotation. See Wikipedia for an intro to the subject.

Embracing Advent

Pater noster qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum…

“Our father in heaven, may your name be honored. May your kingdom come…”

We’re entering the season of Advent, a reminder of a world waiting in anticipation, in desperation. Our world was, and is, one that waits for the coming–for the “advent” of a Savior, for the coming of a reign of light, of peace, of justice, of joy.

As far as I can remember, I didn’t grow up experiencing the “church season” of Advent; my closest encounter was an Advent calendar, with cardboard doors we opened each day as Christmas approached. I’m now in the process of learning to embrace the season, as ritual, as commemoration, as anticipation. I thought I’d share a few resources I’ve come across; explore as you wish.

  • I expect the daily-office and liturgical resources in my “Inner space” post to begin engaging Advent-related scripture in this season, part of the magic of a lectionary.
  • The Jesuits in Ireland apparently produce print versions of their resources. An Advent-specific prayer book for 2017-2018 is available here (and, of course, for Kindle).
  • I recently stumbled upon the intriguing Rookie Anglican site. They have a print-ready PDF (using the Anglican Church in North America’s lectionary, not the Revised Common Lectionary) of a booklet of daily offices for the Advent season.
  • Last year, Pray As You Go produced a lovely series of articles on the “O Antiphons”, the ancient worship meditations that have come to us as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. They produced an audio “Advent retreat” to go with it, available on SoundCloud.
  • Forward Movement, from the Episcopal Church, provides another option for the daily offices–together with a nice (paid) Android app.
  • If you’re thus inclined, MennoMedia produces two prayer books as well, for the seasons of the church year. You’ll need the corresponding hymnals. The prayers are also available on Google Play. I may be wrong, but my impression is that they don’t include as deep a cycle of Scripture as I’d wish.
  • And…dive down the rabbit hole of lovely resources that Sarah Bessey has provided here.

Efficiency and resilience

I stood on the sidelines recently of a Facebook debate over online shopping vs. buying locally. The thing is, I sympathize with both sides of the debate–but I think both are incomplete. Two of the biggest considerations are efficiency of a system and resiliency of a system. Other effects, harder to quantify or predict but real nonetheless, matter as well–but let’s stay primarily with efficiency and resilience.

First, let’s consider efficiency. A few questions worth asking include what efficiency means, whether (or in what cases) it’s good, and what tradeoffs it includes.

To be efficient is to accomplish a goal with a minimal investment of resources: time, money, energy, labor, or whatever you consider. Thus, to say a system is “efficient” is always to say that it is efficient in accomplishing [some effect or product]while minimizing the use of [some input], in [a specific environment].  Efficient use of one resource often involves the use of other resources or the introduction of other costs. For example, inter-state travel takes less time than it did in the era of the Oregon Trail, but at the cost of natural resources (petroleum fuel), environmental quality (pollution, paved roads), and even social capital within local communities. The system is designed to work “well” in an environment where energy is relatively inexpensive.

(A disclaimer here: a lot of this article blurs the lines between efficiency as described above and efficacy, the simple act of getting things done without reference to the particular costs. I think it’s a fair “blurring” for our purposes, but it is a blurring.)

Efficiency is in itself amoral, but its goals, costs, and benefits are matters of ethics. The Third Reich, of course, was quite efficient in achieving its deadly goals, which we see as evil. Adam Smith and Henry Ford, in valuing specialization, made manufacture of material goods more efficient (and thus more broadly available), with a culture of “artisanship” a casualty, and substantial changes to societal organization. Facebook and Google are increasingly efficient at targeting ads, again re-distributing influence and power. In farming, capital allows ultra-efficient production of crops with respect to human labor–which in turn empties rural communities into cities across the world. Efficiency may be evil, it may be good, but it’s often mixed.

An “efficient” system is generally efficient in a specific environment. Examples abound from various contexts:

  • Darwin’s revelations about finches arose from their varied beaks, each adapted to the particular food sources available to it.
  • Artificial-intelligence systems gain “intelligence” through training. If you train a system to identify butterfly species by showing it many thousands of images of butterflies, it will probably get better and better at making such identifications.
  • Borrowing to invest in real estate, in an era of increasing real-estate prices, is efficient. It makes money, with minimal research required. The same is true for stocks.
  • In the era leading up to the American Civil War, the North became efficient in its use of human labor, substituting capital. The South, with abundant slave labor, was “efficient” in producing a lot of cotton (and money) with little technological capital.
  • For the average 20-year-old, major health insurance is an “inefficient” expenditure–they’ll probably not need it, and if they don’t need it it’s an unnecessary drag on their financial future.

Efficiency usually comes from specialization, a particular emphasis on some areas and de-emphasis of others. When contexts change, though, “efficient” systems often don’t handle the changes well.

  • A finch with a fine beak that’s terrific at drilling into cactus fruits will suffer if the cactus population falls to disease.
  • If your AI butterfly-ID system has been trained on entomological specimens, it might conclude that anything that doesn’t have pin in it with its wings wide open isn’t a butterfly.
  • Leveraged investments in real estate worked well, until they didn’t. You know how 2008 worked out.
  • In the American Civil War, it turned out that manufacturing capacity mattered a whole lot more in a conflict than did cotton production.
  • For the 20-year-old without health insurance, a major health problem can quickly turn “efficiency” into financial disaster.

Higher levels of efficiency often go with higher levels of fragility. We can tune a system to run really, really well (however we define that) in a given environment–but our environment keeps on changing. It’s worth something to reduce the likelihood that a system will crash and burn–in other words, to invest in resilience.

Warren Buffett noted years ago that his first rule of investment is to “never lose money”. He noted as well that any number multiplied by zero is zero–and he has amply demonstrated a willingness to pass over “great investment opportunities” that offer too high a risk of going to zero.

Resilience has value. It even has monetary value, as demonstrated in the insurance, the options, and the futures markets. But the value of resilience goes beyond that–resilience in political systems and social capital has value of its own, even if it’s hard to quantify or monetize. And resilience, over the long term, is essential to maintaining whatever sorts of efficiency a society wants.

Efficiency has value as well, if its goals are good and its trade-offs are understood and reasonable. And a society that’s “efficient” in offering material, spiritual, social, and psychological “goods” will likely be good at achieving resilience as well.

What does this mean for the Amazon-versus-local-shopping debate? You decide. I don’t have comprehensive answers. I do have a few assorted thoughts, though:

  • I love the empowerment and efficiency that Amazon gives me (along with other online stores), and the fact that everything is available.
  • I love the accessibility of local stores, the chances for people to engage the public in their own right rather than as part of a large corporate system, and the chances for multifaceted personal connection as the same people interact in business, in community organizations, schools, and worship communities, as neighbors…and overall, as people rather than as economic units. I’m willing to pay a “tax” to keep this community thriving.
  • Amazon isn’t evil. Amazon is far from an unmitigated good.
  • Local shopping offers much good. It’s far from perfect.
  • We need to keep on engaging this issue on all sides.
    • Local stores can’t stagnate, or they’re complicit in their own deaths. (I went looking for ways to purchase online–or even browse–stuff from Hutchinson-area stores, and came up basically empty. Bluebird Books, with their online presence built on a national platform for independent bookstores, was the shining exception.)
    • On the consumer side, a constant search for the bottom dollar will make it really difficult for local businesses to succeed, with real losses to a community.
    • As utopian as the idea may seem, the online-shopping giants would do well to figure out how to partner with local communities and businesses, rather than just “disrupting” them.

Your thoughts?