Sunday, January 26, 2003

On the night Roland signed the pardon, Flagg went to his gloomy basement laboratory. There he donned a heavy glove and took a deathwatch spider from a cage where he had kept her for twenty years, feeding her newborn baby mice. Each of the mice he fed the spider was poisoned and dying; Flagg did this to increase the potency of spider’s own poison, which was already potent beyond belief. The spider was blood red and as big as a rat. Her bloated body quivered with venom; venom dripped from her stinger in clear drops that burned smoking holes in the top of Flagg’s worktable.

Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon (22)

Friday, January 24, 2003

Constantia nods as she continues to play on the konghou, her fingers moving like lemmings over the thirty-six strings. Suddenly her fingers slow down. “Can you make an infinitely rigid rod?” she says as she gently strokes the moist instrument.

Clifford A. Pickover, Time: A Traveler’s Guide (124)

Monday, January 20, 2003

Rand and her followers were, in their own time, accused of being a cult, a charge that, of course, they denied. “My following is not a cult. I am not a cult figure,” Rand once told an interviewer. Barbara Branden, in her biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, stated, “Although the Objectivist movement clearly had many of the trappings of a cult – the aggrandizement of the person of Ayn Rand, the too ready acceptance of her personal opinions on a host of subjects, the incessant moralizing – it is nevertheless significant that the fundamental attraction of Objectivism … was the precise opposite of religious worship” (1986, p. 371). And Nathaniel Branden addressed the issue this way: “We were not a cult in the literal, dictionary sense of the word, but certainly there was a cultish aspect to our world. We were a group organized around a powerful and charismatic leader, whose members judged one another’s character chiefly by loyalty to that leader and to her ideas” (1989, p. 256).

Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (119)

My first day on the patch, I put it on as soon as I woke up at 7 am. I resolved to pack as many hours of analgesia into my day as possible. I got ready for work, ever alert for the first signs of the drug’s effects. In 45 minutes, the first subtle waves of warmth spread throughout my body. When I arrived for work at 8:30 am., I was getting quite stoned. It had been one-and-a-half hours since I applied the patch, and the effects were equal to about two Percodans. By 9:30 am., I was getting a little concerned – the high was increasing dramatically and an unavoidable somnolence was taking hold of me. By 10:30 am., the high has lost some of its euphoria and became sinisterly heavy and stuporous. My co-workers were giving me suspicious glances as my movements became exaggerated and simple tasks like hanging up the phone became a real challenge. My desk, with its usual office accoutrements, became an obstacle course that required a dexterity that I was rapidly losing. By 11:00 am., it felt like I had four Percodans coursing through my bloodstream. Visions of an unwelcome coma coming to claim me became evident and I’d decided I’d better attempt the unsteady expedition to the bathroom to remove the now job-threatening patch. Just then, my supervisor burst in, telling me I was late for the department meeting going on down the hall. I looked in the direction of his voice but found it difficult to focus on his face. I told him I needed to go to the bathroom first and he replied that was out of the question. The president of the company was in attendance at this meeting, and arriving any later would qualify as a serious faux-pas. I lurched to my feet, my head felt like it was full of wet cement, and my body anesthetized. I steadied myself along the desks toward the door, and my supervisor, noticing the difficulty I was having with the simple task of walking, asked me what the hell was wrong.

Will Beifuss, “Sailing the Fentanyl Seas,” in Pills-A-Go-Go, edited by Jim Hogshire (139)

Blacktooth gave up. He was in the abbot’s trap, and to get out of the abbot’s trap, he would have to force Jarad to acknowledge a distinction he knew Jarad was deliberately avoiding. There was a kind of “scholarship” which had come to be a form of contemplative religious practice peculiar to the Order, but it was not the head-scratching work of translating the venerable historians. Jarad, he knew, was referring to the original labor, still practiced as ritual, of preserving the Leibowitzian Memorabilia, the fragmentary and rarely comprehensible records of the Magna Civitas, the Great Civilization, records saved from the bonfires of the Simplification by the earliest followers of Isaac Edward Leibowitz, Blacktooth’s favorite saint after the Virgin. Leibowitz’s later followers, children of a time of darkness, had taken up the selfless and relatively mindless task of copying and recopying, memorizing and even chanting in choir, these mysterious records. Such tedious work demanded a total and unthinking attention, lest the imagination add something which would make meaningful to the copyist a meaningless jungle of lines in a twentieth-century diagram of a lost idea. It demanded an immersion of the self in the work which was the prayer. When the man and the prayer were entirely merged, a sound, or a word, or the ringing of the monastery bell, might cause the man to look up in astonishment from the copy table to find that the everyday world around him was mysteriously transformed, and aglow with the divine immanence. Perhaps thousands of weary copyists had tiptoed into paradise through that illuminated sheepskin gate, but such work was not at all like the brain-racking business of bringing Boedullus to the Nomads. But Blacktooth decided not to argue.

Walter M. Miller, Jr., Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (6-7)

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Over the past century dozens of historians, anthropologists, and theologians proffered theories to explain the medieval witch craze phenomenon. We can dismiss up-front the theological explanation that witches really existed for centuries prior to the medieval witch craze without the church embarking on mass persecutions. Secular explanations are as varied as the writer’s imagination would allow. Early in this historiography, Henry Lea (1888) speculated that the craze was caused by the active imaginations of theologians, coupled with the power of the ecclesiastical establishment. More recently, Marion Starkey (1963) and John Demos (1982) have offered psychoanalytic explanations. Alan Macfarlane (1970) used copious statistics to show that scapegoating was an important element of the craze, and Robin Briggs (1996) has recently reinforced this theory by showing how ordinary people used scapegoating as a means of resolving grievances. In one of the best books on the period, Keith Thomas (1971) argues that the craze was caused by the decline of magic and the rise of large-scale, formalized religion. H. C. E. Midelfort (1972) theorizes that it was caused by interpersonal conflict within and between various villages. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (1973) correlated it with the suppression of midwives. Linnda Carporael (1976) attributed the craze in Salem to suggestible adolescents high on hallucinatory substances. More likely are the accounts of Wolfgang Lederer (1969), Joseph Klaits (1985), and Ann Barston (1994), which examine the hypothesis that the witch craze was a combination of misogyny and gender politics. Theories and books continue to be produced at a steady rate. Hans Sebald believes that this episode of medieval mass persecution “cannot be explained within a monocasual frame; rather the explanation most likely consists of a multivariable syndrome, in which important psychological and societal conditions are intermeshed” (1996, p. 817). I agree, but would add that these divers sociocultural theories can be taken to a deeper theoretical level by grafting them into the witch craze feedback loop. Theological imaginations, ecclesiastical power, scapegoating, the decline of magic, the rise of formal religion, interpersonal conflict, misogyny, gender politics, and possibly even psychedelic drugs were all, to lesser or greater degrees, components of the feedback loop. They all either fed into or out of the system, driving it forward.

Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (103)

The national holiday Yaum-e-Takbeer celebrates Pakistan’s first nuclear test on May 28, 1998. The nuclear test took US intelligence by surprise. Goldberg describes how monuments to the test have been built throughout major cities, complete with eerie lightshow recreations of the fiery blast. Celebrants worship the radioactive fragments as religious artifacts that can bestow their powers upon families and country.

Alex Burns, “A Canticle for Osama bin Laden,” in Everything You Know Is Wrong, edited by Russ Kick (237)

Saturday, January 18, 2003

The day he died, Elvis Presley’s body contained Valmid, Quaalude, and codeine in therapeutic concentrations and trace levels of chlorpheniramine, Demerol, Valium and morphine (possible metabolized from the codeine). Also found were Placidyl, pentobarbital, butabarbital, phenobarbital and several unspecified barbiturates. In 1981, Presely’s doc, George Nichopolous, went before the Tennessee Medical Examiner Board because it was found that during the last two and a half years of his life, Presley received more than 19,000 doses of narcotics, stimulants, sedatives, and anti-depressants. Nichopolous lost his license in 1995 when the state of Tennessee finally decided he had overprescribed not only to Presley, but to Jerry Lee Lewis and other patients as well.

Jim Hogshire, Pills-A-Go-Go (85)

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Do ghosts exist? Do scientific laws exist? Is there no difference between ghosts and scientific laws? Of course there is, and most scientists believe in scientific laws but not in ghosts. Why? Because a scientific law is a description of a regularly repeating action that is open to rejection or confirmation. A scientific law described some action in nature that can be tested. The description is in the mind. The repeating action is in nature. The test confirms or rejects it as a law. The law of gravity, for example, describes the repeating action between objects, and it has been tested over and over against external reality, and thus it has been confirmed. Ghosts have never been successfully tested against external reality (I do not count blurry photographs with smudges on them that can be explained and replicated by lens distortions or light aberrations). The law of gravity can be considered factual, meaning that it has been confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. Ghosts can be considered nonfactual because they have never been confirmed to any extent. Finally, although the law of gravity did not exist before Newton, gravity did. Ghosts never exist apart from their description by believers. The difference between ghosts and scientific laws is significant and real. Pirsig’s Paradox is resolved: all description is in the mind, but scientific laws describe repeating natural phenomena while pseudoscientific claims are idiosyncratic.

Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (33)

Thursday, January 09, 2003

The selection of directors and the control of a nonprofit organization are of particular consequence in a single-purpose organization that is started by one individual or a close-knit group. The people who launch a nonprofit organization do not want to put their blood, sweat, tears, and dollars into the organization, only to watch others assume control over it. Yet these founders usually want a “representative” governing board, which, if created, would clearly put them in a minority, without control.

Bruce R. Hopkins, A Legal Guide to Starting and Managing a Nonprofit Organization (19)

Thursday, January 02, 2003

The two-headed woman and her six-legged dog waited with an empty vegetable basket by the new gate; the woman crooned softly to the dog. Four of the dog’s legs were healthy legs, but an extra pair dangled uselessly at its sides. As for the woman, one head was as useless as the extra legs of the dog. It was a small head, a cherubic head, but it never opened its eyes. It gave no evidence of sharing in her breathing or her understanding. It lolled uselessly on one shoulder, blind, deaf, mute, and only vegetatively alive. Perhaps it lacked a brain, for it showed no sign of independent consciousness or personality. Her other face had aged, grown wrinkled, but the superfluous head retained the features of infancy, although it had been toughened by the gritty wind and darkened by the desert sun.

Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (271)

“Everyone sure is quiet tonight,” Colette said, contorting her head underneath her armpit to look around the table. “Hugo and Kevin, you haven’t talked much, and I don’t think I’ve heard a single growl from Chabo, or heard a word out of either of your heads.”

Lemony Snicket The Carnivorous Carnival (170-71)

An associate of mine named William Congreve once wrote a very sad play that begins with the line “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,” a sentence which here means that if you are nervous or upset, you might listen to some music to calm you down or cheer you up. For instance, as I crouch here behind the alter of the Cathedral of the Alleged Virgin, a friend of mine is playing a sonata on a pipe organ, to calm me down and so the sounds of my typewriter will not be heard by the worshippers in the pews. The mournful melody of the sonata reminds me of a tune my father used to sing while he did the dishes, and as I listen to it I can temporarily forget six or seven of my troubles.

Lemony Snicket, The Hostile Hospital (37-38)

“Don’t be silly,” Mr. Poe said, as if the millions of people who lived in Africa were all ridiculous. “That was the city government on the telephone. A number of villages just outside the city have signed up for a new guardian program based on the aphorism ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Orphans are sent to these villages, and everyone who lives there raises them together. Normally, I approve of more traditional family structures, but this is really quite convenient, and your parents’ will instructs that you be raised in the most convenient way possible.”

Lemony Snicket, The Vile Village (13-14)

The relativity of simultaneity is one of the most important and profound concepts of physics, and a revolutionary insight into the nature of time. The notion of an absolute cosmic time, with absolute simultaneity between distant events, was swept out of physics by Einstein’s equations dealing with the nature of space and time. In fact, it makes little sense to ask questions like “What happened on a distant star at the precise moment President Kennedy was killed?”

Clifford A. Pickover, Time: A Traveler’s Guide (11)