Thursday, October 20, 2011


My hitherto unstated goal of posting a blog every day failed after less than a week, although I can claim an excuse which makes up in veracity what it lacks in originality: I was sick. I had not been bitten by a tick, mosquito, or even vampire; I had, in my lay opinion, simply underslept, resulting in a quite crippling migraine which made this laptop a very unwelcome companion. I am pleased to report I am all better today; I am, on another level, pleased that I have neither resorted to the artificial subterfuge of manipulating the date of this blog nor given up on the whole blogging project in the face of a single setback.

The subject of sickness recalls a lyric:

We all have a sickness, that cleverly attaches and multiplies/ No matter how we try

It comes from a song which I'd like to share with you - Dig, by Incubus. The video was selected from a shortlist by fans of the band; the striking animation is from an artist styling himself "Kaamuz".

There is a particular dig I wanted to discuss, but the hour grows late and I am, after all, not completely recovered. Ask me about the Swabian Venus sometime. It's very cool.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Something lighter

After a couple of blogs dealing in a rather portentous fashion with Occupy Wall Street, I feel this is a good moment to turn to something lighter.

This iconic design - which you may or may not have recognized at once as representing the world's oldest underground railway system, in London, England - depicts, in its most modern form, some 270 different stations, arranged along eleven different lines - some merely subsurface (i.e. "cut and cover" tunnels, dug as trenches from the surface and then covered over) and others deep-bore tunnels (whose circular cross-section inspires the popular nickname "the Tube"). The intricate map was originally designed by a London Underground employee named Harry Beck. It doesn't reflect the distances, or precisely the layout, of the real Underground network; but it does give an accurate depiction of their positions relative to one another - which is of course what travelers on the Underground need to know. Beck's genius was to realize this. Prior to his 1931 prototype map, a more accurate official version existed; however, this version had to devote such attention to the very crowded central portion of the Underground under the City proper that it was unable to encompass the more distant periphery of the network. Beck's model, organized on a system of bright colors, parallel lines, and topological relationships, avoided that problem stylishly.

Beck's version, however, was not officially sanctioned, and the stuffy bureaucrats in command positions of the London Underground were skeptical of its promise; so Beck produced it as a labor of love, shyly offering it two years later for consideration. The public loved it; and, for most of the next thirty years, Beck produced new maps to reflect the evolution of the network.

Every good story needs a villain, of course; in the story of Beck's Underground, that villain was Harry Hutchinson (being called Harry was not a requirement of employment with the London Underground, but it helped). Hutchinson was a publicity officer with the Underground whose lack of design background did not prevent him from producing his own map when faced with the challenge of integrating the new Victoria line with the already complex existing network; Beck, who had surmounted similar challenges for three decades and faced down a rival plan submitted by Hans Scheger in the 1930s, was unimpressed and offered an alternative version. But he had reckoned without Hutchinson's politicking; the London Underground rejected Beck's version, and he never produced another Underground map.

Although the Underground has evolved tremendously since the first Beck map in 1933, the current version still strongly recalls the original - indeed, Beck is formally credited on each new version of the Tube map as the inspiration for everyone who came after. It is impossible to put a price on immortality; the rather feeble recompense provided by the London Underground for Beck's original, unsolicitated, and instantly classic design was... ten guineas.

* * *

One of the many stations on the London Underground was originally planned as Seymour Street, in the London Borough of Camden. It opened to little fanfare in 1907 under the alternative name of Mornington Crescent, and for much of the first sixty years of its history its chief function was to momentarily break up the monotonous view confronting passengers on the non-stop Edgware train. It lies on the Northern Line, which is a dual-branch line; an oddity of this is that taking the Charing Cross branch leads one to Mornington Crescent en route from Camden Town to Euston, while taking the City branch will also allow one to alight at either Camden Town or Euston, and yet find no Mornington Crescent between. The station was seldom used, and indeed by the early 1990s had fallen into such disrepair that significant renovations were needed.

Despite its humble nature - and, in fact, possibly because of its self-effacing now-you-see-it-now-you-don't existence in the mysterious subterranean waste separating Camden and Euston - Mornington Crescent station received those significant renovations, even though they took most of the decade to complete. The reason for this is that Mornington Crescent, too, achieved a form of immortality, featuring prominently on the legendary British radio quiz show I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue from the sixth season in 1978 onwards.

The game of Mornington Crescent combines the pulse-pounding excitement of Cribbage with the athletic demands of Shove Ha'Penny. Its intricacies are difficult to explain to the layman, however I was fortunate enough to track down an episode in which, helpfully, experienced Crescenters Tim Brooke-Taylor, Barry Cryer, and Graeme Garden were able to offer their wealth of expertise to highly-thought-of novice Ross Noble in his very first game:

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Morality of Wealth

Following from my OWS musings the other day...

It occurs to me that the simplest formulation of a message from the OWS protests is the antithesis to Gordon Gekko's mantra of "Greed is Good" - the protestors are making the case that the acquisition of wealth is a moral evil.

To be sure, they are also advocating a certain amount of wealth as a civic right (and possibly as a human right). It is possible to construe this as indicative of a certain underlying confusion regarding either their ends, or the means by which they can be achieved. But it is also possible that their animus is not directed against wealth per se - rather, it is too much wealth that identifies the targets of their wrath.

This raises the question of "how much wealth is too much?" Although OWS spokespersons of varying degrees of authority might venture widely different answers to that question, I'll suggest here that the broader sympathy in society for OWS' position, if not in all its details or manifestations, stems from the sense that "good" wealth is earned; any wealth beyond earned wealth is "bad." People tend to view Social Security as "earned" wealth, and they tend to view inherited wealth as "unearned." These are generalizations, of course; but this hypothesis explains why a person who is wealthy in absolute terms may be perceived as morally justified in their wealth, and why a person in relative poverty may still be considered unjustified even in the meager income on which they depend. People who disparage "welfare" may well feel differently about its provisions for veterans of armed conflict; there again, pacifists who view volunteer service personnel as taking pay for morally questionable purposes may consider this "unearned."

The morality of wealth, then, has two dimensions. It is firstly measured in the raw amount of wealth one possesses; but, perhaps more importantly, it is determined by the manner in which one acquires that wealth. We can go further: we can say, fairly safely, that wealth acquired purely for its own sake will seldom be considered morally justified reward. We can also say that wealth acquired through exploitation will be deemed immoral. In the former case, we identify an aspect of "earned wealth" - that it is a means to some other end, essentially incidental to that end and earned in proportion with the justness of that end. In the latter case, we see further that the means to the end must also be just in order for wealth accrued ancillary to those means to be "earned." We can conceive of a noble end employing morally questionable means; it is unlikely that money acquired in the pursuit of such an end by such means would be considered "earned."

This analysis of whether income is earned or not is complicated by subjectivity. For one thing, envy is a factor that can distort our notion of what is "earned." Unless we have a very clear and objective view of what opportunities we ourselves as earned, we are apt to identify those beyond our reach as "unearned." Resentment is toxic; it clouds our judgement. Neither is this resentment a one-way street - it is quite as easy to contemplate a wealthy man resenting the relative pittance drawn by an unemployed student, as to imagine the reciprocal situation.

Another factor to consider is the human propensity to judge others by the standards and values of our own experiences. It takes an unusual character to form values that are not self-justifying; the wealthy banker who seems exploitative to the protestor who lost his job in the recession will argue that he is reaping the rewards of his own wise investments, and moreover is enabling opportunities for others to make wise investments of their own; he will argue that the failure of others to make decisions that prove as profitable as his should not be blamed on him, and he will reject the possibility that his decisions worked out because of dumb luck and accidents of circumstance, let alone the notion that his decisions enriched himself only by denying others access to their rightful share.

We are all generally much better at recognizing bad luck when it strikes us, than we are at appreciating good fortune. What we call "good fortune," when we do acknowledge it at all, is actually nothing more nor less than a Bowdlerization of "unearned wealth" - by definition we do not "earn" good fortune. Chance operates irrespective of merit, and the distorting effect of human subjectivity makes us, as a rule, incompletely aware of its operation. We equate randomness with equidistribution - the 'cluster effect' illustrates this cognitive fallacy. Another manifestation of this kind of thinking crops up when we consider distribution of wealth; intuition tells us that the fairest distribution is the one dictated by chance, the one that by definition is least tainted by deliberate willed choices and therefore minimizes the likelihood of anybody having more "unearned" wealth than anybody else. Intuition here is quite false, of course; if everybody enters a lottery and buys a single ticket, they each have equal chance of winning, but equality of opportunity will not translate into equality of outcomes. To achieve the intuitively desirable equality of outcome requires a seriously distorted inequality of opportunity, one that exactly counterbalances the random distribution of opportunity among a population of individuals. It should be noted that the intuitively desirable outcome is therefore only achievable by maximizing the distorting effect of deliberate willed choice, and that the operation of this willed choice will necessarily take the wealth that some individuals would have by fortune (and so be strictly "unearned" but not thereby immoral since it was not acquired by choice but by circumstance alone) - this in fact is the textbook example of the noble end (equality) subverted by ignoble means (arbitrary redistribution of property).

The central paradox here was well described by Derek Parfit in his refutation of utilitarian arguments. He was able to demonstrate that, if we consider any two populations, one of which has higher 'utility' (a measure of happiness, or wealth, or "good" by some abstract measure) than the other, and we adjust the 'utility' of the two populations, reducing the greater and increasing the lesser, so as to equate them and increase the total utility of the two - then repeat this process, introducing a further population whose 'utility' is lower than the newly-homogenized population and merging it into another combined population of yet greater total utility - we reach what Parfit calls "the repugnant conclusion:" a very large population whose total utility exceeds that of the original group but whose average utility is barely positive.

The, perhaps equally repugnant, conclusion we can draw from Parfit's thought experiment is that a degree of relative wealth inequality may be optimal. With a nod to John Rawl's model of social justice - in particular, its concept of the "original position" behind the "veil of ignorance" from which its minimax provisions abstract the rules that provide for minimal support standards for the poor in society - we can add that wealth inequality is optimal IFF social mobility is maximal: in other words, wealth is only truly immoral if it is made unattainable to any member of society. Genuine equality of opportunity is the hallmark of a just capitalism.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Of comments, communists, and commixture

For some reason, since I returned belatedly from my sojourn in ports foreign, I seem to be encountering difficulty with commenting on some blogs that I know I was able to comment on before.

Apparently, my google account does not have permission to post comments - but only on some blogs. Is this a new security feature? Something I should know about Google? Something I can fix?

In other news, I've been following the Occupy Wall Street protests with some interest recently. It's interesting to compare with the other significant popular political movement of recent times, both as a phenomenon in itself and as an artifact of media reportage - in the Information Age, of course, the two are inextricably intertwined.

The T.E.A. party coalesced around a single simple (perhaps simplistic) theme - that Americans are Taxed Enough Already, and that government must be spending too much if taxes can't cover spending. Its members by and large supported Republican candidates, on the basis that the Republican party is nominally the party of low taxation. Energizing the Republican base, it claimed responsibility for the 2010 election "shellacking" of President Obama's party.

OWS also takes a single simple (perhaps simplistic) theme - that the richest 1% are prospering in a time of economic trouble at the expense of the 99% that make up the rest of us. The difficulty for protestors here is that their message, while resonant and popular, does not clearly translate into a program of action. The organizers of the original OWS protest were keenly aware of this problem, seeking to identify a specific demand to which protestors could address themselves. Various proposals were made, by various groups, all of which can be seen represented among the crowd at what was once Liberty Plaza Park. Anarchists advocating the dismantling of government join drum circles with communists advocating its enlargement. Campaigners for racial equality share space with neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. Tea Partiers swap billboards with their former detractors. In one sense, there is something wonderfully democratic about the OWS protest - those who derided the T.E.A. party as an "astroturf" rather than a "grassroots" movement would struggle to level the same charge against the chaotic organism that is OWS. In another sense, the protest is dismayingly jejune - and, despite its longevity, it remains representative of a much smaller percentage of the population than it might wish. Neither has the clear rallying cry yet emerged - the general anti-globalist anti-capitalist themes persist, as they have for decades, without translating into the ballot-box power of the T.E.A. party.

Democrats clearly hope that OWS can do for them what the Tea Party did for Republicans, but there are several reasons for believing this will not be the case - not least of which is the significant cohort of OWS protestors who consider Democrats to be part of the problem, and not part of the solution. From a sociological standpoint, the movement remains fascinating; but until a coherent political or economic message emerges, it is unlikely to advance beyond a mere curiosity.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


There is a legend told of a certain king, who with his knights betook himself unto a cave high among the mountains; and there he gathered around him his knights, and there they fell into a long sleep, for they were weary with fighting. Yet they slept, and did not die, for they knew that the day would dawn when their country would once again have need of them.

And long years passed. And at the end of many years, came there unto the cavemouth a shepherd, seeking after a lost sheep. And he saw within the cave the king, and around him arrayed in a circle his knights; and swords were in their hands, and shields before them; and their raiment shone bright in the light of the shepherd's torch.

Then saw the shepherd a gilt horn, set high upon one wall of the cave, and beneath this horn were written the words: "To Awaken The Sleepers." And the shepherd was sore afraid, yet his curiosity was as great even as his fear; and he stretched out his hand, and he took up the horn, and he blew upon it.

And there was a great sound throughout the cave, and then a great silence.

And in that silence came a voice, that was deep and strong and yet oddly cadenced, for it was the voice of the King, and the King's dialect was not the dialect of modern men. And the King asked: "who blows upon the horn that waketh the sleepers?" Then stood forth the shepherd, those his knees trembled, and spake, though his voice trembled likewise, saying: "It is I who blew the horn."

And the eyes of the King opened, and there was in them a terrible lambent fire, and the shepherd fell to the ground.

"Rise," said the King, and the shepherd did as he was bidden. "Tell me," the King continued, while around him his knights continued in their long slumber, "do the ravens yet circle over this hilltop?" And the shepherd, who knew the hills well, said that this was so. Then waxed wrothful the King, saying, "Thou fool! Thou hast wakened us before the appointed time! While yet the ravens remain above, so must we remain below. Begone, fool, and do not return!"

This legend, in its various forms, has existed since early historic times - indeed, the prototypical story concerns the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (Washington Irving was later to borrow from the same theme for his tale of Rip van Winkle), whose miraculous slumber and subsequent awakening is recounted in the Qu'ran, where its telling mirrors early Christian accounts from such writers as Gregory of Tours.

The Seven Sleepers, I should add, have no relationship to the Seven Sisters - unless, perhaps, you're a fan of Gematria.

A more modern Sleeper emerged in the 1990s in the UK, building on a partnership begun in a philosophy lecture between Louise Wener and Jon Stewart. Although they were subsequently joined by Diid Osman and Andy Maclure, making the band a four-piece, the Britpop outfit are remembered for Wener's androgynous, breathy, and confrontational presence - to the extent that the term "Sleeperbloke" was coined as the band rose to prominence, and denotes unremarkable persons making up the numbers in an operation. The original "Sleeperblokes" took this epithet in stride, cheerfully donning interchangeable "Sleeperbloke" T-shirts for live performances, one of which your chronicler caught while the band was on their It Girl tour. The album of the same name, released in 1996, was a Sleeper hit but hardly a sleeper hit, eventually going platinum.

Among the quirky tracks on offer on the 45-minute album was on entitled "Good Luck Mr. Gorsky." Here it is:

The unusual title recalls a legend involving the astronaut Neil Armstrong, who apparently uttered the cryptic eponym when he landed on the Moon. Since I'm not R-rating this blog, I'll be somewhat delicate in recounting it; the gist has a young Neil Armstrong losing a ball over a neighbor's fence and, in going to retrieve it, overhearing that gentleman - a Mister Gorsky - in a heated argument with his wife over a certain recreational activity for which his appetite is markedly greater than hers. As the story goes, the young Armstrong arrives just in time to hear the defiant Mrs. Gorsky aver that she will perform this particular service "when that little boy next door walks on the moon."

Although 20 July, 1969, must have been a sleepless night for Mission Control and the astronauts' families, not to mention excited viewers all over the world, Mr. Gorsky at least may be expected to have slept very well indeed...

* * *

The story is apocryphal, of course. Those killjoys at confirm that no such words were uttered by Armstrong - although John Grunsfeld, a repairman on a Colombia mission to fix the Hubble space telescope, did call out "Good luck, Mr. Hubble!" in reference to this tale. Neil Armstrong was the first of just twelve men to have walked upon the Moon's surface - the last being Eugene Cernan in December 1972, almost forty years ago. At least, that's the official story...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Drops of Jupiter

And did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?

~ Train, Drops of Jupiter

Yes. Yes, I did. Hello, folks. I'm not proud to admit that I hadn't taken a hiatus from writing, or even from writing online; I'd merely gravitated to writing for other audiences. However, this seems more appropriate, even if my inner Diddakoi chafes at the prospect of sitting in one place and putting together a solid body of back-to-back bloggage.

I love that I remembered the word Diddakoi. It refers to a Romani of mixed blood, a gypsy even to gypsies; I encountered it, as I have so much else, through one remove - this dimly-remembered fragment of my childhood was itself a dimly-remembered fragment of my father's when he recounted it to me, himself having been friendly with a group of Diddakoi as a youth. I think my lifelong love both of words and of secrets stem from the snatches of Romany patois he bestowed upon me - Pogadi Chib, more properly, although I didn't learn about that until much later, and for example not until long after I detected the Romani influence on the Polari of Round the Horne's "Julian and Sandy" - recurring characters on a legendary and groundbreaking 1960s radio show who conversed, like the gypsies, like the medieval guilds and priests and peddlars, like the modern-day moneylenders and politicians, in a secretive language, a cant, designed to conceal as much to inform. Julian and Sandy were hilarious; but they were also important to my education.

I'm digressing. This is, of course, what happens when you set out to write with no set plan but a great many words pent-up within you; and I venture to hope that somewhere along the way I touch on something of interest to somebody (even if I don't, I invariably find things that are fascinating to me, and I have a belief that nothing is done well that is not done first and foremost for oneself). This may or may not constitute a much-belated answer to a question Heather posed a while back, one which she must by now have given up hope of ever seeing answered...

But getting back to Jupiter - it features tonight in one of those myriad coincidences that make astronomy such a rewarding pursuit, in this case a close pairing with our own moon and the distant star cluster known as the Pleiades - more poetically, the Seven Sisters; rather less so, Messier object 45 - that is both beautiful and a wonderful excuse to explore some mythological associations. The Pleiades, being a very highly visible star cluster, feature in the mythos of almost all cultures, although I will overlook almost all of these to mention briefly before closing what may be their most recent contribution to memetics.

Billy Meier - his given name is Eduard, which may allow for inferences to be drawn about his choice of nom de guerre - was a Swiss farmer whose adventures included a spell in the French foreign legion and a marriage to a Greek woman named Kalliope (named, of course, for one of the Muses, a group of nine sisters in Greek legend; the muses, as you may already know, were credited with inspiring works of art and inventive fancy). His travels took him around Europe, into Turkey - where he lost an arm - and, by his own somewhat unbelievable account, to the Pleiades.

This famous image, which adorned Spooky Mulder's wall for several seasons of The X-Files, was originally shot by Billy Meier. It is one of many that he took showing a remarkable array of spacecraft, or as he calls them "beamships," by which Nordic aliens traveled the light years between Earth and the Seven Sisters - and by which on at least one occasion he claims to have traveled with them. Among his several Pleiadean (or Plejaren) contacts was a female named Semjase, after whom Meier later named a building where his non-profit ufological organization is headquartered.

Meier is widely regarded as a fraudster. There are numerous discrepancies in his photographs, and "Semjase," like several other obliging aliens who agreed to pose for him, strongly resembles humans of his acquaintance - indeed a dancer, Michelle DellaFave, has alleged that Meier deliberately misrepresented pictures of her in support of his contactee allegations. Perhaps most damning is this image, taken from a scorched negative that Meier clearly attempted to destroy:

This seems to show a model spacecraft on a tabletop, of the sort a hoaxer would need in order to produce lo-tech fraudulent images. Meier weakly claims that he constructed the model, and others like it, having been inspired by his own repeated sightings of UFOs.

Despite the apparent shakiness of his evidence, Meier does have supporters in the ufological field, and the idea of human-like "Pleiadean" aliens is almost as canonical now as that of humanoid "Grays." This support helps him bear the considerable skepticism that greets his claims - beside travels with aliens, he also claims to have gone back in time to meet with "Jmmanuel," whom Meier asserts was the real Jesus Christ, and, most recently, to have foreknowledge of an impending Third World War. This, according to Meier, is expected to commence in November 2011. Before you start hoarding tinned goods and making peace with your God, I should point out that it was also expected to commence in November 2006, 2008, and 2010; perhaps Meier is just another voice craving an audience...

And sometimes you take a swim/Found your writing on my wall...

~ Tori Amos, Hey Jupiter

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Project: Blue Beam

Having just recently launched AgencyWatch, this seems a propitious time to turn attention to one of the more preposterous conspiracy theories to have emerged during the Twentieth Century: Project Blue Beam, an alleged global (indeed, supraglobal) conspiracy by the Masonic "6.6.6" group, involving their traditional puppet organizations, NATO and the UN, and amounting to nothing more nor less than a faked Rapture to bring about a New World Order. Craziness of this sort is so far-fetched, so utterly removed from anything in reality, that it naturally takes hold and develops a following in the fertile soil of the Internet - small wonder its progenitor, the late Serge Monast, published it online in 1994.

Loyal readers may have detected a certain willingness in this author to entertain perspectives that are... unorthodox. This goes with the territory when you set yourself up as a critical irrealist, but it's still important to draw the line somewhere. When an alleged multinational conspiracy has no shred of evidence for it, and moreover makes no sense intrinsically, it's worth taking a leaf from James Randi's approach and asking some sensible questions about it.

To begin with, let's look at the original thesis, and its author.

Serge Monast was a Quebecois, a journalist, a poet, and a beard-wearing loon, in no particular order. He founded the International Free Press Agency (L'Agence Internationale de Presse Libre, or AIPL), which proved more obliging in publishing his screeds than most mainstream outlets - these included such gems as Le gouvernement mondial de l'Ant├ęchrist, The United Nations concentration camps program in America, Le Protocole de Toronto (6.6.6.), and, of course, Project Blue Beam (NASA).

As with most conspiracy theories, the Blue Beam argument is accreted around grains of truth - transnational organizations do exist that attempt to shape the global economy and establish a global currency; that operate as international police and international military organizations with supranational authority; and that seek to establish certain moral and ethical norms worldwide. The uncontroversial existence of these organizations bespeaks a globalist trend in sociopolitics, and there are certainly legitimate concerns of all kinds that can be raised against such a post-national paradigm. But Monast eschewed these relatively mundane concerns over sovereignty, self-determination, equality, and accountability, going instead for the deep-end paranoia of ascribing a specifically anti-Christian agenda to these trends. This agenda he identified with the Masonic/Satanic 6.6.6. group, which he believed had been stealthily concentrating power for decades (if the words 'Bilderberg Group' wandered through your mind there, we'll be getting round to them in a future blog). He described in some detail how 're-education camps' would be established for those Christians who clung to their beliefs and rejected the 'Luciferian' indoctrination into the New World Order. Prisoners here would be color-coded on a rainbow scheme, according to their nature and ultimate fate. Details of this, sadly, were not available when Monast published his magnum opus - it may be noted in passing that if this were all the product of a kind of demented genius, an especial genius attaches to the careful omission of readily-conjured details such as this, thereby lending a spurious air of authenticity to the revelations.

By contrast, the four-step plan of 6.6.6. to bring about Armageddon - to immanentize the Eschaton, to quote Robert Anton Wilson in his magnum opus - was very clearly elaborated by Monast. First, all archaeological evidence of existing world religions would be eradicated in a carefully-orchestrated series of earthquakes. Second, a hologrammatic 'God', mediated by satellites and black technology, would appear unto the peoples of the Earth to preach the New World Religion. In tandem with this, step three would initiate telepathic mind-control of the converted. The fourth and culminating step would be a horrorshow of "electronic and supernatural" illusions, designed to compel obedience or induce madness, or both. This "Night of the Thousand Stars" will see the Antichrist enter into his power, and fulfil sundry ancient prophecies.

Monast mentions Star Trek, directly and obliquely, at various points in this narrative, which is quite appropriate since all the elements he describes occur in various forms throughout the work of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry - himself implicated with the shadowy cryptocultic Council of Nine. Whether Monast was freely adapting science-fiction material to clothe his paranoiac fantasies, or whether he was acting as an unwitting agent of a genuine conspiracy with motives of its own, is a question debated by today's conspiracy theorists without resolution.

Serge Monast died in 1996 of a heart attack. He was 51 years old, and had spent the previous night in jail; he had complained increasingly of persecution by the authorities since the publication of Project Blue Beam. His followers conted he was killed by the kind of "psychotronic beam weapons" he describes in his literature; there is no more evidence for this than for anything else contained therein.

But then, there wouldn't be, would there?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mojo's Mailbox #5

Events in the real world have complicated my schedule, which was already battling the headwinds of my considerable inertia and less than laserlike focus, but I do want to try to maintain something here on a fairly stable basis, so it behooves me to thank the various contributors who give me reason to. Since the last mailbox, I have been inexcusably indolent, but still several of you found reason to drop me comments and thereby earn honorable mentions here. I'm going to try to resurrect this as a weekly feature, which of course requires having something to intersperse mailboxes with. Fortunately, I left myself a laundry list of items in progress last time out, so I at least have the material - it's just a matter of spinning it out...

I begin with the Mindbender, at which Heather gamely attempted an answer, which I can now confirm was incorrect. A future post will discuss the correct solution and pose a new Mindbender for the cryptically inclined to cogitate upon. Heather has been an encouraging presence on this baby-stepping blog, and I'll be speaking more of her later.

Karen was nice enough to thank me for my fortune-cookie-lite offering on her blog, which I find very perceptive and thought-provoking, so really if anybody should be thanking anybody it ought to be the other way around. I encourage anybody reading this to imbibe some wisdom from her if your other commitments so permit.

The "Project" Project - which, like many a Project to be discussed therein, is on official hiatus right now, although persistent rumors suggest it may yet emerge like a B-movie serial killer in the last reel - kicked off with a review of one of James Randi's sting operations, and brought a truly wonderful aphoristic response from Laurie about the scope of "the natural" - Laurie's blog deals with holistic themes that blur the boundary between the scientific and the mystical, and is another I'd highly recommend. Heather, for whose comments I can't express sufficient gratitude - Pirandello wrote about characters in search of an author, and I think many bloggers are characters in search of an audience - spoke eloquently to another aspect of magic: the wonder of it. I agree with her that we can get preoccupied looking for the man behind the curtain, and take the fun out of having our senses beguiled and deceived for a time. I have a few ideas for future blogs that arise out of this comment, and I appreciate the stimulus.

Although I don't get out and about around the blogosphere nearly enough, and I'm going to have to figure out a way to discipline myself into doing that because there are so many talented and interesting writers out there, I still doubt I'll find a title that delights me more than Fabulosity Nouveau. Wendy's blog weaves personal and global narratives and always has something, well, fabulous and nouveau to peruse. We are now clearly engaged in a war of compliments, since she said very nice things about my blog back when I was still writing it - although actually the nicest for me was that she intended to go look something up because I'd mentioned it. The idea that I can serve as a doorway onto something new for a reader is very satisfying for me, and it's certainly true that everybody who's commented on these pages has done as much for me in turn.

Lee, whose multifaceted creativity is partly responsible for what you see here, anticipated one of my blogs-in-progress in referencing 1984; Orwell's examination of the relationship between thought, language, and political action is very pertinent in today's media-saturated environment. I've got a couple more Agencywatch pieces lined up for days when I'm feeling political, and hopefully I'll be able to address the point Lee made in his comment without getting fitted for a tinfoil hat.

And so to the Round-up, which, I was pleased to observe, earned itself a thumbs up from Bryce that I'm happy to return: as a fellow alter-ego, I'm always gratified to see a creative talent married to a personable voice, just like what I'd like to be when I'm growed up. Bryce is the latest in an already uncountably vast sea of gifts from the generous and artistic Heather, with whom this mailbox fittingly ends as it started. She tagged me with questions, which I shall herewith attempt to answer.

1. What's the first thing you do in the morning? This is appallingly soppy, but the first thing I do in the morning, which is also the last thing I do at night, is tell my wife I love her. Sometimes I use those words, sometimes I use others, but that's always what I'm saying (and what she says back, unaccountably). A Cambridge professor found - for such men are always finding such things, presumably in lieu of such other things as fashionable haircuts or matching socks - that we can read words, even if the letters are scrambled, as long as the beginnings and endings are where they should be. I find I can live through days on the same basis.

2. How old do you feel? Ageless, I guess. One of the factoids I like to drop in the path of conversations - much as vandals drop breezeblocks in the path of oncoming trains - is that I was born a blue baby; strangulated by the umbilical cord, and revived only after some time in the infamous blue light by a dedicated team of doctors to whom I am on most days profoundly grateful. This is too convenient a scapegoat to pin all of my oddities on, but prolonged reflection upon the circumstance has left me with an outlook that has elements of the fatalistic acceptance of the very old and the perennial wonderment of the very young. I am remarkably blessed by this, and one of the several side-effects of it as a condition, if it's reasonable to refer to it as such, is that I generally feel myself to be the approximate age of whoever I'm dealing with, although they invariably feel I'm either younger or older than is actually the case. Very occasionally, I'll meet someone who doesn't know Germany was once divided, or that the Challenger was a shuttle that exploded in the sky over Florida, or that music was once recorded on cassettes (I no longer even expect anybody to remember vinyl), and be reminded of my provenance in the linear-time stream; but for the most part I live either in the moment or outside it, and in neither wise am I much troubled by concerns over my age, or lack of it.

3. What's your sign and does the description match your personality? I'm a great believer in the parasimplicity principle - not least for the egotistical reason that I formulated it myself. The parasimplicity principle is itself parasimplistic, by which I mean that it can be expressed in myriad ways all of which mean the same thing in different paradigms: one of the simplest is one adopted, long before my strangulation and subsequent birth, by Oscar Wilde - "nothing is itself alone." There is a neat symmetry in the fact that one of the more difficult expressions of parasimplicity is the reciprocal of Wilde's dictum: that "everything is other than itself." This seemingly irrelevant prolegomena leads to an observation about the descriptions appended to the various zodiacal signs, which are in my experience sufficiently lengthy and wide-ranging that it would be remarkable if I didn't identify with them. That said, I am both a textbook Pisces and a textbook Dragon, to a remarkable degree in both cases. Whether this is an application of the parasimplicity principle, or merely another example of it, I'm not sure; and, happily, neither frame alters the convenience of fit.

4) How do you like your caffeine? I very rarely drink coffee - by 'very rarely,' to qualify, I've drunk perhaps half a dozen cups this millennium - although I drink tea, both in the quaint English hot-with-milk-and-two-sugars and the adopted Southern iced-and-sweet varieties, much more frequently. Almost all of my caffeine, however, comes from Pepsi products. I drink far too many soft drinks, but everybody has to have a vice.

5) Favorite cartoon character? This question made me laugh, because another of those train-wreck factoids of mine concerns my youthful fondness for certain anthropomorphic female cartoon characters (Jessica Rabbit wasn't my style; oddly, Brittany Chipmunk was). But, in a more - shall we say - cerebral sense, my favorite is probably the Pink Panther.

I now need to find some victims to tag in turn with these same questions... and that concludes today's mailbox. Please don't attempt to unbuckle your seats until the ride comes to a complete halt. Thank you.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mojo's Round-Up #1

Herewith a brief culling from recent news items ...

Sports ~ Wimbledon seed Bethanie Mattek-Sands has something of a reputation as an avant-garde fashionista and, despite Wimbledon's famously restrictive on-court dress code, she turned heads at the Wimbledon player's pre-party in this little number:

The dress, designed by Alex Noble - famous for his associations with Lady Gaga and her, shall we say, eclectic wardrobe - certainly got attention. Whether her play on the courts - Bethanie is seeded 30th for the All-England Championships scheduled to start Monday, rain permitting - proves equally eyecatching remains to be seen.

Politics ~ Sticking with a sporting flavor, two heavyweights of the American political scene met this weekend for a long-awaited summit - on the golf course. President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner teamed up on the links against Vice-President Joe Biden and Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich. In an outcome that seems increasingly unlikely to be played out in Congress, Obama and Boehner both won - although victory wasn't assured for either until the eighteenth hole, which may well mirror the protracted contests in the corridors of power over the deficit, engagement in Libya, the lawsuit against Boeing, and a host of other issues great and small. Still, at least the Speaker and the President pocketed $2 each from their five-hour golfathon.

Animal Planet ~ To Montana now, and a macabre task for Northwestern Energy in East Missoula, where a power outage was traced to the unwelcome influence of a deer fawn... resting on a high-voltage power cable thirty feet in the air.

Tasteless college prank? Dry run by Santa Claus?

Apparently not, according to East Missoula resident Lee Bridges, who claimed a bald eagle she had seen around the same time the outage was reported was responsible.

Entertainment ~ They tried to make her go to rehab ... but for Amy Winehouse, whose career held so much promise when she stormed the Grammies in 2008, her very public travails with drink and drugs continued last night in Belgrade, where a shambolic and incoherent performance saw her booed off stage after what the Blic daily newspaper slammed as "the worst [concert] in the history of Belgrade." At this rate, the talented singer seems doomed to become another rock 'n' roll "What Might Have Been" - while successor artists like Adele go from strength to strength in her wake. Winehouse is the subject of an infamous New York sculpture entitled "The Only Good Rock Star Is A Dead Rock Star;" let us hope this doesn't prove prophetic.

Hero of the Day ~ David Lundberg plies his trade in a profession often associated with fairly unsavory activities and pursuits. But even a private eye can rise above the tawdry fare of photographing illicit trysts, and so it was when Lundberg successfully completed a two-month quest to track down a homeless man in Salt Lake City. Max Melitzer had been living rough for years and had drifted out of contact with his family - so, when his brother died of cancer, leaving Max a significant sum in his will, the family hired Lundberg to locate him and give him the news. Although Lundberg has respected the family's wishes for privacy and has not disclosed the amount of Melitzer's inheritance, he did tell the AP: "He'll be able to have a normal life, and be able to have a home, provide for himself, and purchase clothing, food and health care."

Officialdom of the Day ~ Meanwhile, in Montgomery County, Maryland, hosting this year's US Open Tournament, Jennifer Hughes of the county's Department of Permitting Services was acting to restore the karmic balance. Mindful of her duty - "protecting communities and protecting the safety of people" in her own words - she acted swiftly when she saw a threat outside the Congressional Country Club where the world's best golfers are gathered, and issued a $500 ticket to... a lemonade stand.

The six children running the lemonade stand - the oldest was 13 - were dismayed and confused. After a local cameraman spotted the confrontation, the county wisely elected to rescind the ticket. And what will the kids be doing with their ill-gotten gains?

Donating them to charity.

Today is ... ~ Father's Day, of course! The celebrations aren't confined to the United States; Pakistan is one of several countries that dedicates this day to fathers, although apparently the honors don't extend to fathers-in-law. In Chowkazam, Pakistan, an ugly scandal brewed as a cleric accused his son-in-law of tying him up and shaving his beard, a mortal offense in his religion. The son-in-law, Muhammad Imran, had borrowed a fridge from Maulvi Muhammad Hanif; when Hanif asked for it back on Friday, Imran flew into a rage. He said he would get the fridge - it later transpired he had already sold it - and then assaulted his father-in-law, tying him up and shaving off his beard. Hanif was treated for his injuries at a local hospital, but was more concerned about his beardless condition: "I am a cleric, how am I supposed to show my face in society any more?"

Imran is being sought by authorities; he should probably hope they catch up with him before Maulvi Hanif's fellow clerics, who are up in arms over the incident.

And Finally ~ The emergence of swarms of 13-year cicadas inspired Sparky's Homemade Ice Cream in Columbia, MO, to produce an innovative recipe that has attracted the attention of the health department: they boiled the bugs, coated them in chocolate and served them up to customers - apparently, they taste like nuts, which is quite appropriate since you'd have to be nuts to want to eat that stuff.

Whatever next? Steak made from poop?

Is this thing on ...?

Oops. I knew there was something I was supposed to be doing... I hadn't realized just how useful the A to Z Challenge was for keeping my nose to the grindstone, so to speak. There are actually a few bits and pieces I've been working on during my long hiatus away from this blog: if I were sensible, I'd parcel them out over the next couple of weeks to give myself opportunity to get back into the swing of things.

I am not sensible.

Accordingly, I'll be posting up in relatively short order a prototype for a new "Round Up"-format blog; an observation on Weinergate, which came and went while I was away but deserves comment; a second "Project" blog; and a lengthy counterblast against a Time article allegedly identifying five myths about our economic recovery. Plus, we're long overdue a Mojo Monthly Mindbender, and indeed the solution to the one posed previously; and there's a Mailbox to craft.

Hopefully, you'll still be around to read this; even more hopefully, you'll gain something from the experience.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

AgencyWatch #1

Being the first in an occasional series investigating the doings of one of our approximately 666 federal agencies here in the United States. Yes, that's right, 666. If you suspect I engaged in some judicious counting there... you're right.

Today's Agency: HSARPA

The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, created as part of the Department of Homeland Security Act in 2002, is the Science and Technology (S&T)) arm of the sprawling Homeland Security apparatus created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It manages the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, whose focus is more on Research & Development (R&D) as opposed to the S&T brief of HSARPA.

Ever notice how acronyms start piling up when you look at government? Almost like they're trying to hide something, isn't it?

Similar to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), HSARPA differentiates itself by focusing on projects with a realistic chance of producing workable technologies within two years of commission. Their focus is on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, border control, and disaster response; in many ways, HSARPA resembles the 'Q division' of James Bond fame.

They don't express their mission in such gee-whizz terms, of course. According to the HSARPA website, its approximately $1 billion budget is allocated to "push scientific limits to address customer-identified gaps in areas where current technologies and research and development are limited." The agency's Director, Roger D. McGinnis (sounds a bit like "MacGyver" if you say it fast), oversees diverse projects ranging from the extremely popular new screening technologies employed by the TSA, to new cabling technologies that avoid rolling blackouts like those experienced in the early 90s, to cellphone-sized detectors of chemical agents, to inflatable blast plugs that seal off tunnels in emergencies. And these are just the projects Dr. McGinnis feels comfortable talking about in public.

One of the most interesting public facets of HSARPA's work is the Comprehensive National Cyber Initiative (CNCI - yet another acronym), which aims to secure the nation's online activities from attack. Of course, we'd never use the fruits of this research offensively against other nations... that's why we call it the Department of Defense these days, and not the Department of War. Wikileaks has made the vital importance of cybersecurity crystal clear to this administration, as if it weren't already aware. Although work on the CNCI covers many traditional areas such as data provenance and hardware-enabled trust (respectively, tracing where data comes from and building security into the computers used to access that data), HSARPA has a brief to pursue more 'blue-sky' ideas, like: "What if we could design a network that adapted itself to defend against attacks?"

I'm sure John Connor has an idea about that.

HSARPA, of course, fits within President Obama's "Winning the Future" strategy, with its unfortunate Charlie Sheen resonance. Quite why the future should constitute a zero-sum game, when it's clear our foreign policy assumes geopolitics in the present is anything but, is an open question. In any case, Homeland Security makes up a very small part of this "victory", if Federal budget allocations are any measure. The lion's share of research will be conducted - as always - by the National Institutes of Health (NIH); I guess to win the future, you have to be in the future.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Project: Alpha

With the passing of April, and hence the setting aside of the A-Z challenge - I'll be keenly following Lee's review of what went well, and not so well, with that - it's time for me to find some other structural hook to hang my ramblings upon.

In need of a new Project, it occured to me that I could do a Project on Projects - it may or may not be another alphabetical set, but it gives me the kind of theme I can work with.

Today's subject is, fittingly for a first choice, Project Alpha. This was the brainchild of magician James Randi, a man who freely admits that the various illusions and feats of prestidigitation he performed were the result of sustained and practiced cheating: misdirection, fraud, chicanery, and deception. He offers no apology for it - the essence of Magic, after all, is knowing something the audience does not, and most people who attend a magic show understand that the performer is hoodwinking them somehow. The allure is in trying to work out just how he does it.

As his career progressed through the Twentieth Century, Randi increasingly found himself competing for airtime with supposedly authentic paranormal talents like that of Uri Geller. Not perturbed by the competition, Randi was affronted that people - even apparently intelligent scientists in supposedly rigorous experimental laboratories - took Geller and his ilk at their word and believed they produced their effects through "psychic energy." As an experienced stage magician, Randi was by nature and training much more inclined to believe that Geller and Co. were simply tricking people: they were, he felt, no more paranormal than he was, and he took offence at the superstitious and mystical interpretation of acts like Geller's spoon-bending trick. The following video demonstrates some of the evidence for a more prosaic interpretation: Geller is simply a skilled flim-flam artist with a penchant for cutlery.

Randi set out in the 1970s to investigate and challenge Geller and other purported psychic talents, a stance adopted by other self-confessed tricksters and illusionists like England's Derren Brown and the venerable Harry Houdini. He encountered serious difficulties - not because he was unable to replicate Geller's effects; he was, quite easily - but because people wanted to believe in psi. At one demonstration, Randi was angrily accused of being a fraud. He smilingly admitted this was so - everything he had accomplished had been done by sleight of hand, trickery, and misdirection. No, no, his interlocuter angrily replied: he was a fraud because he actually was using psychic powers, and only claiming to be a charlatan!

(Houdini got the same treatment from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of whose propensity towards belief in such matters we shall speak another time.)

Randi might have expected this sort of thing from the rubes who pay to be entertained by magic shows, but he was deeply dismayed to find similar levels of credulity - and dismal levels of scientific rigor - among those parapsychologists who attempted to 'test' the abilities of psychics like Geller. It was this dismay that led Randi to set up Project Alpha, which, in 1979, infiltrated two Randi stooges into a research project, conducted at Washington University and handsomely funded by the board chairman of McDonnell Douglas - himself a believer in the paranormal. Randi also wrote to the researchers warning them to be on the lookout for fakes, and suggesting methodological refinements that might catch such tricksters in the act. He even volunteered his services as an observer; these were declined. The researchers were employing a two-stage approach: in the informal stage, they wanted everything to be as cosy as possible for the putative psychics.

Randi's stooges, Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, sailed through the first stage despite resorting to grossly obvious manipulations of the tests - for example, they 'read' messages in sealed envelopes by simply unsealing and resealing them, and moved objects in 'sealed' containers by blowing through holes in the containers. In one test, they altered the dimensions of spoons by the simple method of swapping the labels attached to spoons of different sizes. Incredibly, these clumsy frauds went unnoticed by the researchers, who proved so obliging in their efforts to facilitate trickery that even Shaw and Edwards were surprised. Although Randi had instructed them to confess their deception if they were ever asked about it directly, they never were during a period of almost 2 years. During the second stage of the process, under more rigorous laboratory conditions, their psi abilities faded dramatically; still, the researchers were unwilling to conclude that they were deliberate frauds, speculating instead that such conditions might inhibit psychic abilities.

Meanwhile, Shaw and Edwards had become minor celebrities in their own right, dazzling other paranormal researchers with their abilities even as the Washington University team cooled on them. Eventually, after two years, Randi pulled the plug, revealing the whole deception in an article in Discover magazine. Many parapsychologists were outraged, much as the fawning courtiers of the Emperor with No Clothes were furious at the little boy who remarked upon the Imperial nakedness; some, however, thanked Randi for his service to their cause.

Does the success of charlatans like Randi, and the suspicions over successful entertainers like Geller, mean there are no genuine paranormal talents out there? The James Randi Educational Foundation promoted a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge to anybody who enjoys a measure of celebrity and the support of a reputable academic for their claimed paranormal abilities; to date, nobody has won the prize.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mojo's Monthly Mindbender: May 2011

I had intended to introduce the Mindbender with a musical/mathematical quiz thing, but it still requires finishing touches, and besides, May is already four - count them - days old. So, instead, and inspired by the cinematic flavor of some of my new blogreads, I volunteer something a little easier. Maybe.

This quiz is just a single question, and it's one of the oldest in the book. Who's the odd one out? For full credit, I'll require an explanation to back up your answer. I have an answer in mind, but any offering that makes sense will earn an as-yet-to-be-determined Mojo Prize.

I'll happily give feedback on any guesses, conjectures, comments, and criticisms in the comments to this blog. The answer will be revealed almost a month hence, on June 1st 2011, at the unveiling of the next Mindbender - unless, of course, one of you clever folks uncovers it before then...

Mojo's Mailbox #4

Completing a thirty-day A-to-Z blogging challenge, after long blogless years, is the internet equivalent of following a four-year stay in a monastery with an all-expenses-paid no-questions-asked weekend at the Playboy mansion: satisfying and exhausting in equal measure.

This explains, without excusing, the hiatus between my last post and this one - a necessary pause for your chronicler, and perhaps a welcome one for his readers, but one that concludes here with a roundup of comments before I embark on the next chapter. I may retain the A-to-Z format, at least for a while (the structure appeals to me) but I'd like to leaven my written contributions with rather more in the way of reading. The little I managed to do during the past month whetted my appetite, and there are at least 15 people to whom I owe it simply as a courtesy. This, plus the surprising difficulty of obtaining dilithium crystals at Walmart and the concomitant unavailability of my time machine, should see a reduction in the number of blogs I produce monthly, but hopefully a compensating increase in the number of comments I bestow on yours. I earnestly hope this proves to be a good thing...

So: to the mailbox.

Heather has been a selfless commenter on my doggerel, with far too little by way of grateful recognition. Consider this a partial recompense for your kind and encouraging words! The flip side is that they have kindly encouraged me to inflict a trivia quiz in the next post that ushers in the Monthly Mindbender series of Mojonalia, for which you may yet have cause to curse my name. Either way, your blog's delightful, and I intend to go back and comment on the posts I missed. Your visuals appeal to my sense of the eclectic, and you quoted one of my favorite songs of all time in your Z post, so it will be a profound pleasure to shower belated praise on your efforts over the last month. I look forward to reading more of you in future!

P.S. Thanks ever so much for my award!!! We never tire of flattery, here at Mojo, Inc. ...

I was pleased that Laurie, whose blog I found full of wisdom and wonderfully open to alternative ideas, enjoys a good Rickroll as much as I do. Mrs. Mojo and I were surfing Youtube the other evening and encountered a Rickroll while perusing the "Duck Song" series - highly recommended by me, which might mark mine as a peculiar sense of humor - which was among the highlights of the day. In my defense, it was a Monday, and those are seldom awesome.

I was also delighted to see comments from new readers - a very satisfying feeling for a n00b blogger like myself, that!

Luana, whose blurb reveals herself to be a high-caliber polymath, earns even more of my admiration by having produced an A-Z of movies. This idea is sufficiently brilliant that I will shamelessly steal it - I haven't decided whether to do so this month or allow a little time to elapse so I can deceive future followers into believing it was all my own creation. The blog of her alter ego Madison is also extremely interesting and entertaining, although I'm not sure what to make of people who create online alter egos ...

Moving on... Nicole was very complimentary about my posts, and I'm delighted to reciprocate about hers. Another cineaste, and an eloquent and entertaining one, I'm happy to add her to my list of followed blogs as well.

Sylvia hosts an entertaining blog that is both informative and demonstrates terrific taste in blog templates.

Well, I liked it... In all seriousness, Sylvia's one of several people I've encountered through the A-Z blogroll who is just a very positive presence - her blog's another that's full of useful and encouraging tidbits of information, and I thank her for doing an exemplary job with it.

Last, but not least, Elizabeth bestowed yet another award for my already-groaning shelf - part of an extraordinarily ambitious and generous journey through the 1000+ blogs on the A-Z blogroll that I cannot sufficiently admire. As soon as I can devise an appropriate award of my own, I shall be sending it your way. You inspire me.

Thanks to everybody who I've met through the A to Z challenge; for those I missed, and for those I didn't follow as closely as I would have liked, I look forward to seeing more in future.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for ... Zeno of Elea

Herewith a culling from my personal archive - an illustrative fable, borrowing heavily but unwittingly from Lewis Carroll's What the Tortoise Said to Achilles, which I didn't actually encounter until later in a linear-time paradigm. The tortoise in my story advances three of the "immeasurably subtle and profound" (thank you, Bertrand Russell) paradoxes of Zeno of Elea, an ancient Greek philosopher hailed by Aristotle as the inventor of the dialectic. It is perhaps appropriate that this fable takes a dialectical form.

* * *

"Let us race," declaimed the tortoise with a loftiness belying his low center of gravity.

The hare left off appreciating the feel of the wind cool against his long ears and regarded the tortoise with leporine indulgence.

"You want... us... to race?" clarified the hare, not unkindly he thought.

The tortoise nodded, an exercise that took long enough that the hare had time to watch a small cloud scud across the sky overhead. It looked like a nice head of lettuce, he thought. His stomach rumbled: his was an active metabolism.

"Each other?" The hare was a thorough if not a very bright animal.

Again the tortoise nodded, and the hare occupied himself scratching at his flank.

"But I'm much faster than you," explained the hare as sensitively as he could. "You racing me would be just pointless."

"Oh, it doesn't matter how fast we go, you know," remarked the tortoise pleasantly. "It's a question of how far."

This seemed a rather odd view of racing to the hare, who felt that he knew a thing or two about racing after his serial adventures with the farmer's hounds; but he kept his counsel, because he felt rather sorry for the tortoise.

"However," the latter was now saying, "you do make a good point. Would you agree to give me a head start?"

"Hang on," said the hare. "A head start to where? A race has to have a start and a finish."

"It does, does it?" The tortoise seemed amused. "Let's suppose a race goes from some place to some other place that's different. Then to move between those places, we can surely agree that at any moment one would have to be moving either from a spot or to a spot between them. Correct?"

The hare thought about this. His nose twitched as he worked it out, and this time the tortoise had the luxury of observing a cloud scud by overhead.

"I think so," said the hare at length.

"And," continued the tortoise carelessly, "at any moment one would have to be in a spot between the start and finish of the race, yes?"

The hare chewed pensively. His feet were much happier with racing than his brain.

"That seems right," he ventured.

"Well then," said the tortoise, "in that case, no matter where the start and finish are, or when we consider one's position, one has to either be in the place where one is and the place one just came from, or the place where one is and the place one is headed."

The hare's ears drooped.

"That can't be right," he said miserably.

"Oh it can," said the tortoise with placid contentment. "Unless of course movement is continuous and it's the instant that's an illusion. But then there's no reason to suppose that it means anything to say that at any moment anything's in any particular place. One might as well say one starts the race at the finish, since no moment's any more real than any other."

The hare hopped about unhappily in a circle. "You're confusing me," he said.

"Don't worry about it," enjoined the tortoise earnestly. "Let's pretend that it does matter and we actually do occupy some coordinate in spacetime."

The hare's eyes were glazing.

"I'm going to walk over here," said the tortoise, starting out on that journey, "and you can wait there."

He sauntered off, while the hare tried to work out if he had time for a snack and whether he might actually already be having one. The tortoise had upset his delicate sensibilities, and he was sorely in need of a radish.

Some minutes later, the tortoise hailed him, from a distance of some ten feet away.

"That should be enough of a headstart, don't you think?"

The hare looked doubtfully at the space between them.

"It doesn't seem very far," he suggested timidly.

"Oh but quite far enough," returned the tortoise. "Because now to win the race, you'll have to pass me. And to pass me you'll have to reach me."

"Yes..." said the hare, with the uneasy feeling that he was about to get a migraine.

"Of course, to reach me, you'll first have to get halfway here."

The hare thought about this. "Of course," he said, but he didn't sound certain.

"And naturally, to get there you'll have to go halfway first."

"... Naturally ..."

"And to get there you'll have to go halfway as well."

"I suppose so..."

"And in fact no matter how many times we divide that distance up, you'll always be able to divide it up one more time. For you to reach me, you'll have to first travel an infinitely short distance."

The hare extended a paw towards the tortoise, and hesitated, and withdrew it.

"Can't I just -?"

"Not logically," said the tortoise firmly. "In any case, even if you could start out, and even if having started out you could move from place to place... there's still the problem that you'll never catch up with me, let alone get past me."

The hare felt sure there was something badly wrong with this, but he couldn't put his paw on it.

"Because," explained the tortoise patiently, "even though I travel much slower than you, I am travelling at the same time as you are and on the same journey, albeit from a different start point. We're going in the same direction, is what I mean to say."

"But," blurted out the hare, "you're only ten feet away! I can cover that distance in no time!"

"On the contrary," sniffed the tortoise. "You can only cover that distance - or any distance - in some time. And in that time, I can cover some distance too. Oh, not nearly as much of course... but enough."

"You'd only go..." the hare struggled with mental arithmetic, "one foot."

"Correct!" said the tortoise delightedly. "And of course you'd cover that distance easily as well... but I'd have moved on..."

"... a tenth of a foot..." whispered the hare miserably.

"Quite so!" went on the tortoise. "And I know you'd cover that distance even quicker... but I'd have moved on another hundredth of a foot. Oh, you'd get very close," he smiled, "but you'd never catch me."

The hare scratched his other side. The smell of radishes was overwhelming.

"You win," he sighed, and hopped past the tortoise to get some food.

* * *

This concludes, only slightly late depending on how one measures these things, my personal A to Z challenge. I want to reiterate thanks to everyone who helped me along the way, and apologies to all of them, and more besides, for not getting out there and commenting more in return. It is my earnest hope that I'll be redressing that balance in coming days.

I also have a mailbox to compile, which I'll be getting around to hopefully tomorrow. I've been honored with an award, from a blogger I appreciate greatly but haven't done much to show that lately, so that needs to go up as well. Busy, busy, busy! PLUS the inaugural Mojo's Monthly Mindbender (which for May will have a musical and mathematical bent, since I might as well milk the alliteration for all it's worth) and perhaps the first tentative steps towards the Mojofesto, in preparation for November 2012. I eagerly await the inspirations and communications the blogosphere has in store for me over the coming thirty days - thanks for the ride so far, guys and gals!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for ... Yak

As a friend to the children commend me the Yak.
You will find it exactly the thing:
It will carry and fetch, you can ride on its back,
Or lead it about with a string.

The Tartar who dwells on the plains of Thibet
(A desolate region of snow)
Has for centuries made it a nursery pet.
And surely the Tartar should know!

Then tell your papa where the Yak can be got,
And if he is awfully rich
He will buy you the creature - or else he will not.
(I cannot be positive which.)

Hilaire Belloc's 1896 poem ascribes to the yak considerable virtues, without troubling to mention the Himalayan bovine is among the largest species in the family - a wild yak can stand 7 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh over a metric ton - or that they are so well-adapted for the harsh high-altitude environment they call home that they struggle in more human-friendly habitats. In Tibet, domesticated yaks - which are smaller than the wild yak - are used as hardy beasts of burden, and for their milk, their meat, their hides ... even their dung makes valuable fuel, for there is little vegetation in the high Himalayas that can serve this purpose. Yaks even provide a tourist attraction, and are employed in bizarre sports like yak polo.

Another use to which the yak has been put is in substituting for another infamous Himalaya native, also known by a name beginning with Y. Hide from yaks has been claimed in the past, wittingly or otherwise, to be residual evidence of the legendary yeti, the cryptid apeman of the Himalayas. Other specimens have been reliably identified as belonging to Tibetan blue bears, or the serow, a species of mountain goat. Cryptozoologists continue to return, however, drawn by a long history of mysterious footprints in the high snowfields, periodic intriguing finds of partial remains - the Panboche hand, a relic that had Neanderthal features but that was stolen before it could be fully tested, is a classic example - and a wealth of eyewitness reports stretching back into history and persisting to the present day. We shall speak more of the Yeti another time.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for ... Xanth

The Xanth novels of Piers Anthony - he claims the partial eponym is coincidental - are a series of works of comic fantasy, originally conceived as a trilogy, that now spans enough books to qualify as a cubic trilogy with some to spare (the 27th Xanth novel was entitled Cube Route, a punning reference to the fact that 27 is 3 cubed).

Anthony has found a gold mine with his Xanth universe - its magical Talents, its population of centaurs and gargoyles and goblins, its tongue-in-cheek Adult Conspiracy to protect children from knowledge that might scar their youthful minds, and, above all, its pervasive puns have made it hugely popular with a devoted following. The author himself has remarked that Xanth novels are all his publisher wants him to produce these days, and if he sounds a little bitter there it's because even the most successful milieu can become an albatross round an author's neck if he's unable to write about anything else.

Particularly in the fields of humor and fantasy, imaginative creativity is the author's mainstay. When that author has spent around three decades churning out sequels set in the same world, there is a tendency for his well of inspiration to run dry. Indeed, for neutrals at least, Xanth novels, taken as a whole, constitute an uneven set; some are sublime, others simply seem to be extended Feghoots whose sole purpose is to fulfil Anthony's contractual obligations and shoehorn puns, almost at random, into a derivative plot.

That being said, even the worst Xanth novel is entertaining - Anthony is a fine writer, and he's been canny enough to supplement his own inspiration with that of his legion of fans. He receives huge amounts of fan mail incorporating suggestions for plot devices, character twists, new Talents - and puns, of course. I myself have sent him almost a dozen puns in the hope that one would show up in a future Xanth novel.

No pun in ten did.

You may groan now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

W is for ... Wendigo

The story of the Donner Party contributes an altogether distressing footnote to the history of Western migration in the United States. Great numbers of pioneers set out in the 1800s to colonize the West; many of these subscribed to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, believing that God had ordained this land for them much as the Bible tells He had ordained Israel for the Jewish people. Of course, these pioneers found that God had already populated the area with humans, just as the first settlers discovered the Algonquian natives already living blameless lives on land they foolishly believed to be as much theirs as anybody else's.

Most of the wagon trains that forged westward from Independence, Missouri, followed the Oregon Trail for a period of several months before reaching safe haven in California, in the vicinity of Sutter's Fort - founded as New Helvetia in 1839. The Donner Party deviated from this trail to take a 'shortcut' through Fort Bridger that took them the long way around the Great Salt Lake and through the Great Salt Lake Desert, an inhospitable and dangerous trek that added a month to their travel time and was to have horrific consequences. This 'shortcut' was proposed to them by an adventurer named Lansford Hastings. The Hastings Cutoff seemed on paper to make good sense as a straighter alternative route to the Oregon Trail; but Hastings advanced it as such without having traveled it, and so the perils of the desert, and of the Wasatch Mountains, were not taken into account.

When the Donner Party, including several other families as well as George Donner, his wife Tamsen, and their five children, arrived at Fort Bridger following after a wagon train led by Hastings, they were assured by Jim Bridger that the route was easy and would cut 350 miles from their journey. This was blatantly untrue, although it encouraged the party to stay at Fort Bridger and enrich its proprietor. One might charitably assume Bridger, not having followed Hastings Cutoff himself, was unaware of how misleading his information was - except that Bridger had been left in possession of letters written by one Edwin Bryant, who had traveled ahead far enough to ascertain that the journey was anything but easy. Bridger never gave these letters to the Donner party, who were hardly survivalists - they were used to comfortable living in Missouri, and included few men with the skills necessary to succeed at an arduous journey through barren terrain. Of the 87 members of the Donner party, only 27 were adult males, and several of these were advanced in years: George Donner himself was 62 years old when the party set out.

The sufferings endured by the Donner Party defy description. They had already lost several members to disease, trauma, and at least one instance of alleged murder when two wagons became entangled and James Reed stabbed a man to death, by the time they came to the Sierra Nevada. The month's delay occasioned by Hastings Cutoff meant the snows arrived at the same time. Riven by dissent, riddled with disease, starving, inexperienced, with the last of their cattle and horses already perished, and trapped by snowdrifts on all sides in bleak mountain country, the Donner Party confronted the horror of their circumstances with a solution no less horrific: they resorted to cannibalism. Efforts were made to keep family members from eating their own relatives, a macabre courtesy to the dead; and there is no unequivocal evidence that anybody was deliberately killed for meat. Certainly, there was no need: the elements did a brutal job of supplying dead bodies to sustain the survivors. Originally trapped on October 20, 1846, the last survivor of the party - Lewis Keseberg, over whom a cloud of suspicion hung for the rest of his life since he admitted sharing a cabin with Tamsen Donner but could not adequately account for her whereabouts - was rescued almost six months later, on April 10, 1847.

Although the desperate plight of the Donner Party renders the desperate measures they resorted to for survival understandable - if still morally murky - to Western minds, the Algonquian people could account for it another way. Hearing how party member Patrick Dolan urged his companions to sacrifice someone so that the others might feed - before this became the inescapable necessity it evidently did become for others - and that when his notion was rejected he tore off his clothes and fled into the wilderness, the Ojibwe Indians would recognize the malign influence of one of the more powerful manitous of their folklore - the ravenous and deceptive Wendigo, a spirit capable of possessing men that hungers constantly for human flesh. According to Algonquian legend, the Wendigo is perpetually emaciated, even when feeding on human meat; some tribes believe that as it feeds, it grows larger, so that it is never sated. Cases of so-called wendigo psychosis - when people become convinced they are possessed by a Wendigo and become ravenous for human flesh - are documented in anthropological research; during times of famine, Algonquian tribes perform Wendigo dances to ward off the spirt. The Oji-Cree shaman Jack Fiddler was imprisoned by Canadian authorities in 1907 as a murderer; he maintained that he was releasing people from the terrible Wendigos that had enslaved them.

It is tempting to bask in our cultural imperialism and deride tales of the Wendigo as superstitious; we can rationalize them as enforcing taboos against cannibalism, and encouraging cooperation during times of hardship and strife. And certainly, the Donner Party were in the direst straits imaginable when they broke that ultimate taboo. But still, the ghoulish fascination with Donner Pass lingers...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for ... Velikovsky

With the end of the A to Z challenge hoving into view - hoving, moreover, at rather alarming speed, given my somewhat scattershot approach to daily updates in a linear-time paradigm - this seems as good a moment as any to write a blog about an obscure Russian Zionist and revisionist historian.

The obscure Russian Zionist and revisionist historian in question is one Immanuel Velikovsky, a medical man who published in the 1930s the first article advocating the use of encephalography as a diagnostic tool in cases of epilepsy. A disciple of Freud who also authored several papers on psychoanalytic subjects, Velikovsky was a well-traveled man, fluent in several languages and educated in Montpellier, Edinburgh, and Moscow. He obtained his medical degree in 1921, and for much of the next two decades lived in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, where he worked with other notable Jewish intellectuals - including one Albert Einstein, later to refuse the Presidency of Israel - on the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a practicing Freudian psychoanalyst, Velikovsky was naturally interested in Freud's own output; as future events were to prove, he shared his mentor's somewhat monomaniac habit of shoehorning all manner of data into a pet theory, and, with war looming, Velikovsky decamped with his wife - the violinist Elisheva Kramer - to New York, there to research material for a book about Oedipus.

The 'Oedipus complex' is one of the better-known offshoots of Freud's comprehensive psychosexual theories of human development - it describes a syndrome in which the son's unconscious sexual attraction to his own mother creates a tension eventually resolved by self-identification with his father, and is named for the mythical king of Thebes immortalized by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex. Freud considered this a universal stage in the development of all males - females passed through a similar 'Electra Complex' in which they fixated on the father - which earned him a devoted following at the time as psychoanalysis flourished, but has since equally drawn criticism from more cautious and more pluralist researchers. Part of Freud's basis for universalizing his theories was the support he sought and found in historical contexts. An example of this was his Moses and Monotheism, which rewrote the Bible and argued that Moses and the Pharaoh - identified as Akhnaton, the first Pharaoh to promote monotheistic worship of the Aten - were one and the same. From this revisionist leap, it was a short journey for Freud to postulate the murder of Moses/Akhnaton as the motivation for the Jewish belief in a Messiah, and thence to characterize the importance of religion in the Jewish identity as a shared guilt complex arising out of the Oedipal murder of the father-figure.

Velikovsky took a different but no less bizarre tack - his psychohistoric theory identified the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaton with the Thebean king Oedipus directly. He was seeking confirmation of his theories in contemporary Egyptian accounts of the Exodus, a task made possible by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 but still fraught with difficulty. He found in the Ipuwer Papyrus evidence that seemed to correspond with the Biblical plagues of Egypt; there was a trifling chronological problem with the centuries these events were believed to have happened, but Velikovsky was equal to that and embarked upon a feat of revisionism that left Freud in his shadow: nothing more nor less than a hybridization of Biblical scholarship with Egyptology into a new Velikovskian history of the ancient world, one in which psychoanalytic theories were consistently demonstrated in the events and personages recorded in the resultant mishmash.

The story takes a turn for the even wierder when, in 1950, we catch up with a Velikovsky now deeply embedded in catastrophic cosmology and hawking his Worlds in Collision around various publishing houses. Despite his track record as a published scientist, and despite the erudition and scholarship of his work, he is turned down by eight publishing houses because what he is writing is deemed to be simply too controversial - too "out there" - for the highly conventional world of academic publishing. Part of their reluctance stems from the unifying thesis of Velikovsky's reimagining of the Bible: he ascribes many of the events of Biblical history to an extraordinary astronomical event, the eruption of the planet Venus from the planet Jupiter, and the subsequent near misses as both Venus and Mars swooped past Earth en route to their current celestial positions. The complete lack of any precedent - indeed, any conventional astronomical evidence - for this remarkable cosmic occurence dissuaded Velikovsky not at all, because he was able to compile all the evidence he needed by selectively culling from widely-disparate sources and, where necessary, guessing.

Eventually, Velikovsky's perseverance was rewarded: the textbook division of prestigious publishing house Macmillan agreed to publish Worlds in Collision. It seemed as though Velikovsky's ideas were going to be aired before the public - but there was a problem. During his research for Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky had corresponded with, among others, Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley - a potential stablemate at Macmillan's scientific division. The problem was that Shapley considered Velikovsky's theory of planetary billards patently absurd, and mounted a vehement, and successful, campaign with the assistance of other scientists contracted to Macmillan to have Velikovsky's book shelved. The success of that campaign demonstrated that Velikovsky's own world was in collision with the monolith of orthodox Science.

Doubleday, a publisher without a textbook division, picked up the book; and the assaults of the scientific community upon it continued. No less a luminary than Carl Sagan used his various bully pulpits, including his PBS show Cosmos, to inveigh against Velikovsky's maverick ideas. He cited the atmospheric composition of Venus, the radioemissions of Jupiter, the physics of celestial orbits, and other established scientific facts to assert that Velikovsky's proposed causal mechanism was junk science - it simply couldn't have happened as Velikovsky asserted it had. Sagan did have the grace to consider Velikovsky's thesis, and reject it on the basis of scientific observations that contradicted it; he criticized others in the scientific community who had simply tried to silence Velikovsky because his proposals were so far outside the mainstream.

This firestorm of criticism came as a surprise to Velikovsky himself, for whom ten years of his life had been devoted to systematically laying out the evidence for something that, to him, had become obvious. In vain, he tried to defend his own claims, pointing out that the vast majority of his evidence was concerned with archaeological and historical matters: what had convinced him of the truth of his assertions was the remarkable concordance between mythologies in places as far-flung as China and Egypt. And he gained a following among the lay public, who were sympathetic to him because of the harshness of the treatment meted out by his fellow scientists. Velikovsky was neither the first nor the last man to have his work ridiculed because its results lay outside the mainstream - Robert Goddard, for example, had been mocked in the New York Times for lacking the knowledge "ladled out daily in high schools" when he proposed the use of rockets in the vacuum of space; a groveling apology was printed when, years later, his theories were employed to put men on the moon.

Science has since moved on from attacking Velikovsky's causal mechanism to attacking the substance of his thesis: the assertion that the miraculous events described in the Holy Bible were actual historical occurences. This transition perhaps illustrates why the reception to his controversial book was so hostile: Science and Religion have always been "worlds in collision." Ironically, the evidence used to undermine the catastrophic theories of Velikovsky was partly compiled to support the catastrophic theories of global warming. Al Gore, a man with no significant scientific background - unless you count his claim to have invented the Internet - earned himself a Nobel Peace Prize, an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Grammy for his advancement of a catastrophic thesis. It's all about who you know, rather than what you know...

Although history will remember Velikovsky as a brilliant but flawed thinker, his years of scholarship did raise questions that remain valid despite his rigorous pummelling at the hands of the scientific community. For example: if there was no Great Flood, as documented in the Book of Genesis... why do the mythologies of Australia, China, Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, India, Zimbabwe, and the Americas - cultures that had no contact with one another until well into the period of historic time - agree that there was?

Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for ... Ultima Thule

U is also for Untimely; V, W, X, and Y posts are all due by Friday of this week. Perhaps the stars will align helpfully...

Thule (rhymes with Julie) was, from antiquity and well into medieval times, the name for a geographical region in the far north of Europe. Believed originally to be an island - the Gaelic name for Iceland is Innis Tile, which literally means "Island of Thule" - it is nowadays commonly accepted that the region referred to by ancient texts as Thule was probably Norway.

Thule was first described by the explorer Pytheas, although even ancient historians such as Strabo and Polybius considered his to be an unreliable account. In fact, information on the historical Thule is remarkably vague; one of the few matters on which all sources agree is its location in the distant North. The Latin expression ultima Thule means - more or less - "beyond the known world", or "off the map." In the context that identifies Thule with Iceland specifically, Ultima Thule is identified with Greenland; but the expression is more poetic than literal. Virgil employs "Ultima Thule" as a symbol for an unattainable goal; Poe cites it as a "Dream-land" in his 1844 poem of that name.

One relatively modern mention of Ultima Thule was in the Dutch manuscript known as the Oera Linda, a collection of mythic, historic, and religious writings purported to date back as far as 2000 BC. Almost certainly, its provenance was much more recent, although as with many esoteric texts the intent of its author or authors is as mysterious as his, her, or their identity; whether it represents an earnest attempt at scholarship, an elaborate hoax, a parody, or a work of imaginative fiction comparable with Borges' fictitious history in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, is an open question to this day. It was presented to a librarian in Friesland, Holland, in 1867 by one Cornelius Over de Linden, suspected by many of being the book's originator - he claimed to have inherited it from his grandfather, although various evidences support the contention that it was actually a product of the 1850s.

The substance of the Oera Linda manuscript is a remarkable if rather unorthodox revisionist history of the world, in which all the modern races of the world are traced back to an Aryan master race whose Frisian culture, a matriarchal society centered on the worship of the Norse goddess Freya, originated in Northern Europe. It mentions, not only Thule, but also Atlantis as centers of this ancient civilization, which is claimed to have fostered both the Greek and Phoenician alphabets. An inspiration for the Theosophists, and thence Crowley's Thelema - although Crowley was more a crypto-Egyptian than a crypto-Nordic occultist - and the modern revival of neo-pagan Wicca, the Oera Linda was also a favorite among the high command of Nazi Germany: indeed, it was referred to as "Himmler's Bible," and was a focus of study at the Ahnenerbe, a Nazi think tank attempting to vindicate the vile Nazi belief that Aryan peoples were naturally superior to all others.

The consensus that the Oera Linda documents - made available in 1933 in a German translation by Herman Wirth - were forgeries, should have prompted a rethink: instead, it was the prelude to a wide-ranging exercise in self-delusion that took Nazi Nordicists to the Arctic, Tibet, and the Ukraine, among other far-flung destinations. Sketchy reports from early visitors to the Canary Islands of blond-haired and blue-eyed Guanche natives were sufficient to spark talk of an investigative trip there, but Generalissimo Franco's uncooperative attitude towards Nazi Germany dissuaded the eager seekers after truth from following up on this lead.

As with so many manifestations of the Nazi regime, the Ahnenerbe combined the ridiculous with the sublimely evil; among its many projects as the war progressed, it absorbed the Institut fur Wehrwissenschaftliche Zweckforschung - the macabre "Institute for Military Scientific Research" that performed unthinkably depraved experiments on human subjects. Of the many horrifying reflections inspired by any sustained investigation into the deeds of Nazi Germany, perhaps the most chilling is the banal ludicrousness of the hoaxes that provided a threadbare rationale for their monstrous activities. Nazism was a particularly gruesome iteration of the endeavor Virgil characterized in his Georgics: a quest for an unattainable goal. Seekers after truth must learn that it comes to them in a form and at a time of its own choosing; we can no more state a truth we have not found than we can describe a country we have not seen.

Sadly, Nazi Germany was not the last nation state to do great harm in the name of a Big Lie...