Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Page 39: Radiohead's "Creep"

“Creep,” the first single from Radiohead’s debut album Pablo Honey (1992), is an amazing anthem that speaks to feelings of self-loathing and insecurity. Once I knew that this song was going to be the bonding song for my lonely-on-the-cutting-edge-of-cool hipsters Ione and Piper, I realized that the lyrics dovetailed perfectly with the events of this scene in The Billionth Monkey.

The cover to Radiohead's "Creep," the first single from their
Parlorphone/Capitol debut album, Pablo Honey (1992).
The song is popular enough that I didn’t feel the need to quote it; people would know what I was talking about. Besides, there’s also the legal issue of clearance. If you quote a song, however briefly, you need permission from the artist’s publisher. That takes time and money, and bigger artists can charge more. While I went that route with Yes (page 184–5) and Klaatu (page 189), I really needed permissions to make that scene to work. I didn't feel it was crucial for a song as well-known as “Creep.” Beside, since Chapter Three was the last chapter written for The Billionth Monkey, I didn’t have as much time to go through the legal procedures as I did with Yes and Klaatu.

For an idea of how I was imagining the music and action lining up, I encourage you to re-read this section while listening to the song. To make it easy, here’s the official video on YouTube:

For everything you could want to know about “Creep”—from its modal mixture to cover versions—read the article on Wikipedia.

In that alternate universe described by Don Webb wherein The Billionth Monkey is already a Hollywood blockbuster,  I hope the studio got the rights to use the song for this scene!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Page 35: Chapter Three Is the Last Chapter, or Attack of the Hipsters

Chapter Three was actually the very last chapter I wrote for The Billionth Monkey. After I finished the story and began to re-read it, I realized that the beginning has a lot of silly things going on: missionaries, hermits, insurance salesmen, and kitchen demos, with a lot more silliness still to come. I needed something to remind the reader that these lighthearted events have a very dangerous and dark underbelly.

At that time, hipsters were the stereotype du jour, so having a couple of them in this new scene allowed me to include some wry humor and social commentary. Plus, Ione and Piper let me have two women talk about something other than a man.
Piper's t-shirt in The Billionth Monkey, as found on Behance.
Hipster references abound here. For instance, Pitchfork is a music webzine whose review style and focus on indie music have earned it a reputation as the music news site for hipsters. They’ve reviewed artists like DJ Rashad, Fuck Buttons, Robyn, Mike Patton, Charley Patton, and Patton Oswalt…these last few being how I came up with the fictional columnist Robyn Patton. Given the resurgence of interest in vinyl LPs and the “better on vinyl” mantra—especially in hipster subculture (at least so says the stereotype)—the lowly cassette seemed to me to be the next logical step in the “analog > digital” trend. So I made up the catchphrase “always analog.” Turns out I was a little ahead of the curve: the news media reports that there's now a “Cassette Store Day,” and even Newsweek has acknowledged the format's resurgence.

The third annual Cassette Store Day is just a couple of weeks away, on October 17.
This was a fun scene to write. While I feel very strongly that every scene in a book (at least a book that I write) should connect to the plot in an important way, this scene’s only tether is Lisa Atkins’ car…and even then, Lisa Atkins is but an incidental character. However, this scene not only served the intended purpose of foreshadowing the impending danger, but in retrospect it also has youthful resonance for me with Melf, the Elf with a Gun (created by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema), who cropped up in occasional one-page vignettes in the Defenders comics wherein he randomly killed strangers. The spree occurred across issues 25–46 (July 1975 – April 1977) until Melf was randomly hit by a car. He never encountered the Defenders, and these bizarre scenes thus never turned into anything at all. Yet I—and countless other readers—loved it.

Created by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema, the Elf with a Gun was a random sub-plot
of The Defenders comic books that wrapped up without ever involving the titular heroes.
Image © Marvel Comics, source: Marvel Database,
I’m very happy with how this chapter turned out. It shows that, after writing the other 80,000 words of this book, I was really in the groove. I’ve thought about posting or submitting this as a preview for The Billionth Monkey, but don’t know if it would stand up without the rest of the story for context.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Page 33: How Not To Dry a Cat

The “drying a pet in the microwave oven” urban legend is is one of the more cruel and horrible myths out there. Please please please DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME!

The ubiquitous and world-famous "Grumpy Cat," Tardar Sauce.
Although the first commercial microwave oven was introduced in 1946, successful home models didn't arrive until 1967. They became popular in the 1970s and—ever since approximately 1976—tales have circulated about a witless little old lady (LOL) who attempted to use the appliance to dry her small pet: typically a poodle or cat, but other small animals are also sometimes victimized. The pet naturally dies from this abuse, and in some versions even explodes like a microwaved egg.

People who are cruel to animals suck. Take good care of your pets and love them.
[Image source: Terribly Cute.]
The legend itself actually predates the microwave oven by several generations, with the LOL attempting to dry her pet in her clothes dryer, oven, wood stove, etc. An early version involves the LOL bathing not a pet but her infant; she gets distracted and forgets the baby in the wash pan on top of the wood stove. Another variation involves a babysitter who is so high on drugs that she mistakes the baby for a pot roast and cooks it. Seems to me she’d have to pretty damn high.

Reflecting America’s litigious and sometimes frivolous nature, some variations of the microwaved pet story result in the LOL suing and winning a huge settlement because the manufacturer failed to put a warning label on their product. This version is so popular that a 2011 poll  reported that 74% of Americans and 78% of non-Americans believe the story to be true. This makes it one of the most prevalent urban legends in the world.

Given its prevalence and broad acceptance, it was a natural choice to sneak early into The Billionth Monkey. It didn’t serve to propel the plot, so I made it into surreal background activity for the scene on page 33. I imagined that the sight of a kitten emerging unscathed from a microwave would be adorable and hilarious. That being said, it doesn't work, and it's cruel…so DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME! Thank you.

For more reading, see Barbara Mikkelson, “The Microwaved Pet,”

Friday, September 25, 2015

Page 32: The Nigerian email scam

Whether the “Nigerian email” is an urban legend or merely a scam, it has certainly attained legendary status as a pop culture trope—and also as a meme. You know the email. It goes something like this:
I have been requested by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company to contact you for assistance in resolving a matter. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company has recently concluded a large number of contracts for oil exploration in the sub-Sahara region. The contracts have immediately produced moneys equaling US$40,000,000. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company is desirous of oil exploration in other parts of the world, however, because of certain regulations of the Nigerian Government, it is unable to move these funds to another region.
“You assistance is requested as a non-Nigerian citizen to assist the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, and also the Central Bank of Nigeria, in moving these funds out of Nigeria. If the funds can be transferred to your name, in your United States account, then you can forward the funds as directed by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company. In exchange for your accommodating services, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company would agree to allow you to retain 10%, or US$4 million of this amount.
However, to be a legitimate transferee of these moneys according to Nigerian law, you must presently be a depositor of at least US$100,000 in a Nigerian bank which is regulated by the Central Bank of Nigeria.

These are known as “advance fee scams” or “419 scams”—so called in reference to the section of the British colonial penal code, retained to this day in the Nigerian Criminal Code, against impersonating officials for financial gain. They frequently target emails associated with business and academia. Although originating in Nigeria (hence the name), it has since spread globally and rakes in conservatively $3 billion annually.

The Nigerian email is a modern spin on the sixteenth century “Spanish Prisoner” scam, which involves a wealthy prisoner who has promised a handsome reward to whoever should post bail. The scammer, posing as an intermediary, promises the mark a generous cut if they put up the bail. In another version, the mark is asked to help finance the smuggling out of the country the child of an imprisoned nobleman. In modern times, the ruse has evolved into multiple forms: A distant relative has died and the mark is the nearest living relative that the scammer (posing as a lawyer) could find. Or a rich businessperson has died leaving no heir, and thus there is an opportunity to claim the contents of his/her bank account in exchange for putting up a little cash to file the necessary paperwork; in this scenario, the mark is sometimes asked to pose as the dead person’s distant relative…otherwise the money will just be kept by the undeserving bank. In all these scenarios, the payback for assistance with up-front legal costs is handsome, if not ridiculously large.

The Spanish Prisoner scam illustrated by Star Wars...except Han really does get the reward!
© Twentieth Century Fox, video source: YouTube.

Whatever variation this gambit takes, the process unfolds the same: Complications and roadblocks arise that require more and more money to resolve. It can even escalate to a meeting abroad at a five-star hotel (the Netherlands being a popular destination) where the promised fortune is in a bank just down the street, but another large influx of cash is required to complete the transaction.

Given the scam’s notoriety, it is surprising that this implausible scenario suckers in so many people. Schaffer (2012) proposes that the scammers use a potent mix of
apologies, flattery, attempts to intrigue recipients, and appeals to greed, altruism, trust, and religious feelings, while patterns in writing features include use of attention-inducing buzz words like “urgent” and “secret” in subject headings as well as in the letters themselves, and obvious nonnative English grammar, mechanics, and vocabulary errors.
Once people have made that first investment, they stay on the hook for an average of $2,000. It’s almost like they don’t want to admit to having been had, so they keep playing along in hopes that their efforts will be rewarded. Of course, they never are. (Unless your name is Han.)

Given the ease and low cost of generating huge amounts of spam, there is every incentive for the scammers to persist, as even a miniscule success rate rewards their efforts.

There is, however, one disincentive: The Internet has given rise to counter-scammers, or scam-baiters, as they call themselves. See, for example, 419 Eater. These digital vigilantes seek to turn the tables on the scammers, often luring them into doing silly or ridiculous thing. The most famous example was when a pair of scammers were convinced to recreate Monty Python’s famous “Dead Parrot” sketch with the promise of big grant money in return:

Nigerian email scammers are scam-baited into recreating Monty Python's "Dead Parrot sketch.

The scam-baiters’ goal is to keep the scammers so busy that they don’t have time to rip off others. On September 12, 2008, This American Life aired a story about what is perhaps the most extreme case of scam-baiting known at the time.  I remember listening to the original broadcast and finding it fascinating as the story unfolded into a pathic gray area.

Postscript: Literally as I was typing up this post, I received a 419 scam email. Surely, The Billionth Monkey  lives! It was a rather short exemplar, but the guy even included a link to his Facebook page, which shows him wearing an official-looking a curly white wig.

I want to present you as the Beneficiary and next of kin to my late
client account worth of $10.5 million  Dollars with a bank here in
Togo. Get back to me immediately now for more information this is my
private e-mail address: XXXXXXXX

Barrister James TOSSY .(Esq)
Senior Advocate, International Legal
Practitioner& Financial Attorney
Address: 17 boulevard DE GOLFE Lome Republic of Togo

For Further Reading

Innocent Chiluwa, “The discourse of digital deceptions and ‘419’ emails,” Discourse Studies, December 2009, 11(6): 635–60.

Harvey Glickman, “The Nigerian ‘419’ Advance Fee Scams: Prank or Peril?Canadian Journal of African Studies 2005, 39(3): 460–89.

Barbara Mikkelson, “Nigerian Scam,”

Deborah Schaffer, “The Language of Scam Spams: Linguistic Features of ‘Nigerian Fraud’ E-Mails,” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, April 2012, 69(2): 157–79.

Andrew Smith, “Nigerian Scam E-Mails and the Charms of Capital,” Cultural Studies, January 2009, 23(1): 27–47.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Page 31: Jones & Ford at Marshall College; or, More Monkey Brains!

My mention of an academic paper about monkey brains by “Jones and Ford at Marshall College” refers to Indiana Jones and the actor who portrays him, Harrison Ford. Professor Jones taught at the fictional Marshall College in Bedford, CT. All of this alludes to the following notorious scene from the notoriously bad Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which introduced a whole new generation to the monkey brain urban legend (for the background of which, see yesterday’s post):

This scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) perpetuated the urban legend about monkey brains
by introducing it to a whole new generation. Source: YouTube, © Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm.

The "monkey brain” urban legend, and the corresponding scene from Indiana Jones, are so well-known that there's even a punk/ska/metal band from Tallahassee, FL, called Chilled Monkey Brains.

Actress Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984),
© Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm.
For Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008), external shots of the fictional Marshall College of Bedford, CT, were filmed on the nearby New Haven, CT, campus of Yale University. Interestingly enough, one afternoon in 2007 while returning some books to Yale’s Sterling Library (as I had done dozens of times before), I stumbled upon the filming of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and literally walked right up to Harrison Ford as he exited from the back seat of his Escalade to grab a coffee from one of the caterers. Not until I was already in the middle of it (behind the cameras), with extras rushing up to the man standing next to me and calling out “Mister Ford!” did I realize what I had blithely stumbled into.

The trippiest part about this encounter was watching them shoot a scene featuring antique cars driving on the next block. When the director called “Cut,” all the cars drove backwards to where they started from to reset the scene. It was like watching real life in reverse! #LiberThIShARB.

In Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008), exterior scenes of Marshall College were filmed
on the campus of Yale University...and I was there! © Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm.
For me, the best part about Crystal Skull was watching those early scenes and spotting the familiar campus buildings and storefronts of my now-former backyard.

With all this said..."Jones and Ford at Marshall College" is another #MonkeyReference.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Page 31: Monkey Brains

According to persistent urban legend, a delicacy in some exotic land—typically in the Far East—involves restraining and attaching a live monkey to the underside of a table with a hole in it, through which the unfortunate monkey’s head protrudes. This allows a chef to remove the skullcap so that diners can eat the still-living animal’s brain. (Apologies to the squeamish: I didn’t make this up!)

Although eating live monkey brains is an urban legend, doctors nevertheless advise against it.
This graphic appears as part of a humorous series of pregnancy tips
which have appeared on a number of websites, e.g. here.
This legend plays on people’s fear or dislike of foreigners and a lack of understanding of their cultures. It basically maligns said outside group by associating it with a gruesome and deplorable custom. According to one writer,
Americans say the Taiwanese do it. Indonesians say the Taiwanese do it. Taiwanese say that Hong Kongers do it. Hong Kongers say it is rural Chinese on the border with Vietnam. Historical versions by officials from Beijing (in the North) report that it is Southerners who do it. […T]his classic legend is probably as old as time itself, first told by Java Man to Lucy about the exotic eating habits of barbaric Peking Man.
While all kinds of animals are eaten around the globe, there have been absolutely no documented cases of people eating monkeys alive. Oziewicz (1983) reports that “stories about monkey brain feasts are, if not in most cases fictional, at least greatly exaggerated.” Schreiber concurs that it is merely an urban legend, originating with a cheeky 1948 columnist who also claimed that “the Chinese eat everything in the water except submarines, everything in the air except airplanes and everything with legs except furniture”: the author had no idea that his fanciful invention would gain so much traction as an urban legend.

A notorious yet popular restaurant scene from the 1978 film Faces of Death—in which diners with hammers beat a monkey to death then eat its fresh brain—was later admitted to be faked with harmless foam hammers and a “brain” made of cauliflower, gelatin, and red food coloring. 

In The Billionth Monkey, this myth serves not only as a captivating—if gross—example of urban legend, but the story serves as a #MonkeyReference which gives rise to Niels Belanger’s nickname of “Monkey Boy”…which is itself a #MonkeyReference. It's a twofer!

For Further Reading

“Live Monkey Brains,” July 17, 1998; rev. May 11, 2005. At

Wikipedia article on monkey brains.

Stanley Oziewicz, “Eat the Brains, But Please Don't Hurt the Monkey,” Globe and Mail, Jul 16, 1983, 9.

Mark Schreiber, “Debunking Strange Asian Myths: Part II,” Japan Times, August 8, 2002.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Page 31: Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) refers to a rarely-reported phenomenon wherein a person fatally bursts into flame without any external source for the fire. (SHC is occasionally also reported with recently-deceased bodies, as well.) Although doctors and lay-persons alike have offered hypothetical explanations, the phenomenon’s rarity—there have been approximately 200 cases in the past three centuries—lead skeptics to conclude that this is more likely a case of “unsolved deaths by fire,” and that the cause of the blaze simply has not been identified. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that most instances of SHC involve the elderly, the infirm, the obese, or persons with otherwise restricted mobility. The notable exception to this pattern has been the succession of drummers for the band Spinal Tap, all of whom have inexplicably combusted.

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is a serious problem for Spinal Tap.
(This Is Spinal Tap (1984), dir. Rob Reinder, © MGM. Video source: YouTube

According to Thomsen (1978), the earliest known medical report of SHC was in the 1671 issue of Medical Acts, in which a Professor Jacobsen describes a woman in Paris who drank so much alcohol that, while sleeping in a chair, she burst into flames. Alcohol is a frequently-cited culprit in accounts of SHC: see, for example, Julia Fontanelle’s report to the Royal Academy of Medicine of Paris (Revue Medicale, June 1828). Such speculation reflects the strong temperance-oriented sentiments of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries, and has been met in the medical community with great skepticism (Lancet, 1828; Scientific American, 1869). Despite the lack of conclusive evidence and almost universal skepticism, the subject continued to be addressed now and again in twentieth century forensic and medical literature (e.g., Adelson, 1952; Gromb et al., 2000).

“Spontaneous Human Combustion” also happens to be the name of an instrumental by the group Celestial Serenity, led by my friend Joshua Leon, on which I guest as keyboard player. This is sheer coincidence. Or synchronicity. You can preview and/or purchase the track at Bandcamp.

Richard coincidentally plays keyboards on the instrumental "Spontaneous Human Combustion"
from Celestial Serenity's The City of the Golden Gates (2015).

For Further Reading (some links have paywalls)

Lester Adelson, “Spontaneous Human Combustion and Preternatural Combustibility,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 1952 42(6): 793–809.

Anonymous, “Foreign Department: On Human Spontaneous Combustion,” Lancet 1828, 2: 552–4.

Anonymous, “Spontaneous Combustion of the Human Body,” Scientific American, Dec 25, 1869; 21(26): 404.

S. Gromb, X. Lavigne, G. Kerautret, N. Grosleron-Gros, and P. Dabadie, “Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Sometimes Incomprehensible Phenomenon,” Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine 2000 7: 29–31.

M. Thomsen, “Spontaneous Human Combustion,Burns 1978, 5(1): 54 – 9.

Wikipedia article on Spontaneous Human Combustion

Monday, September 21, 2015

Page 30: Séances and Suffrage

“Séances and Suffrage: The Victorian New Age and Equal Rites” is a paper that I presented at the annual meetings of the Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture/American Culture Association (MAPACA) in Baltimore in October 2006. So if Chapter Two of The Billionth Monkey seems to be poking fun at pop culture conferences, bear in mind that I begin by poking fun at myself first and foremost for a “dry, academic presentation.” Since I’m outing myself upfront as a participant in these conferences, any good-natured ribbing that follows applies equally to me.

The opening slide to what The Billionth Monkey calls a "dry, academic presentation" ( p. 30):
my paper for the 2006 MAPACA conference.
In my academic life I’ve presented at conferences for the American Psychological Association, Gerontological Society of America, American Public Health Association, American Psychiatric Association, etc., etc. But I’ll never forget that MAPACA meeting in 2006. It was my first time attending a popular culture meeting. Looking at the program, I was awestruck by how much it resembled the ultimate version of the sci-fi, comic, Star Trek, and other cons that I had attended in my youth. I use the word “ultimate” in the best possible sense. I had no idea an academic conference could be so fun! When I call it Comic-Con without the cosplay (p. 30), that’s a compliment. So The Billionth Monkey gives a pretty accurate description of the Popular Culture Association’s (and similar organizations’) annual meetings, at least from the point of view of someone encountering it from a background of more conventional academic conferences.

The only other conference that I’ve found to be as much fun is the Association for the Study of Esotericism, where I wanted to attend every single paper session simultaneously.

The idea behind my presentation was that Spiritualism was not only a place where women had unprecedented status and influence in an otherwise disempowering society, but that Spiritualism often served as a gateway for them or their clients to more esoteric organizations such as the Theosophical Society, Golden Dawn, etc. For those interested in reading more about the connections between Spiritualism and women’s rights, these two books are indispensible:

Alex Owen. The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Ann Braude. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Page 28: Key to the Tarot Reading

This wraps up the “Tarot reading” posts that I started on Monday, September 14. Below is the key to Niels Belanger’s Tarot reading. While Bree offers a fairly orthodox interpretation, I selected these cards with more specific and unusual interpretations in mind. If you don’t want spoilers, don’t jump to the page numbers that I provide. Or to be extra careful, you can stop reading here.

The Key to Niels Belanger's Tarot Reading
The Fool: This is straightforward: it represents Niels Belanger. He has no clue—yet—what is going on or what is about to happen.
The Tower: Three interpretations.

1) The literal setting of the prologue (although that wasn’t really my intention.) I was mostly getting at the next two:

2) Referring metaphorically to Belanger. See Martens’s penultimate words to her colleague on p. 34, Chapter 2, and Belanger’s monologue in Chapter 21 esp. p. 150.

3) Literally, see p. 87 (Chapter 11).
Fortune: Compare Bree’s summation of this card on p. 26 to what happens on p. 112 (the last page of Chapter 14).
The Magus: We get a #MonkeyReference with the Ape of Thoth, and this refers to the events on p. 226 (end of chapter 32).
The Devil: This gives us a #DevilReference, and goes with the revelation on p. 231 (chapter 33).
Ace of Disks: This is describing what happens on p. 235–6 (chapter 33).
Death: While it could refer to chapter 33—or, really, any number of other incidents throughout the book—it’s really about p. 251 (chapter 34).

The Thoth Tarot by Aleister Crowley and Frieda Lady Harris is © Ordo Templi Orientis, all rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Page 27: The Robin Wood Tarot

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I moved in a lot of the same Detroit-area pagan/occult/scifi/fantasy/fandom circles as artist Robin Wood. This provided the opportunity to get to know each other casually. I bought some of her artwork, and—when at last it came out—asked her to sign my Robin Wood Tarot and book for me. I chose the Ace of Pentacles (or Disks) because, according to Crowley, “It has been the custom of publishers or designers of packs to set their personal seal upon the Ace of Disks” (Aleister Crowley, The Book of Thoth, 210).

Robin Wood kindly signed the "Ace of Pentacles" for me
when the Robin Wood Tarot came out in 1991.
Artwork © Robin Wood, all rights reserved, used here with permission.
For those unfamiliar with the Robin Wood Tarot, the deck is designed from a pagan perspective. This required reimagining the traditional Judeo-Christian imagery on some cards. The Devil was one such example. I remember sitting with Robin and her husband, Michael Short, at an adjacent vending table at some Con or another listening to them talking about the deck's new take on the card as a monkey jar trap. It’s such a perfect metaphor that I never forgot it. I was happy to see the monkey jar story make it into the companion book for the deck, and I am likewise pleased to reference this unique yet apt take on the card in The Billionth Monkey. As a bonus, their metaphor allowed me to have a #DevilReference and #MonkeyReference simultaneously!

Here is the title page to the companion book for the Robin Wood Tarot,
which Robin was also kind enough to sign for me.
The Robin Wood Tarot deck and book identify Robin as creator and author, but I wanted to sneak in a reference to Michael, too—who is listed as a co-author of the booklet that comes with the deck—to acknowledge those conversations so many moons ago. Since Robin was often busy talking to customers about her art prints, Michael enthusiastically dominated a lot of those conversations.

Michael Short was co-author of the booklet that came with
the Robin Wood Tarot, and he kindly signed my copy.

Bonus entry: This has nothing to do with the Tarot, but is too short to merit its own blog post. The comment on page 28 about the nature of Scorpios is a bit of ribbing about the “traditional” description of that sun sign at my own expense.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Page 26: Vanna White

Vanna White is the famous co-host and letter-turner of the Wheel of Fortune TV game show. She’s been with the show since 1980, and in 1988 a Samsung ad jokingly predicted that by 2012 Vanna would be replaced by a robot:

The ad that got Samsung in trouble.
Image source: The Smithsonian, February 20, 2013.
 Ms. White was not amused, so she sued and received over $400,000 in damages. Contrary to Samsung’s prediction, she’s still going strong after 25 years.

Courtesy of the Wheel of Fortune Graphic Generator.

Niels Belanger’s concern about dating himself refers to the fact that Wheel of Fortune draws on an older demographic for its viewership.

If you want to know more about Ms. White, she’s written a biography, Vanna Speaks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Page 25: Paradigm Shift

Thomas Kuhn—like Freud, Nietzsche, and plenty others—is a person whose ideas many people talk about without ever having actually read his major work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Consequently, the term he coined—paradigm shift—gets misused quite a lot. [pet peeve] It’s similar to the way the term groupthink gets constantly misused by people completely unfamiliar with the work of Irving Janis.  [/pet peeve].

Kuhn’s basic idea starts from the premise that all scientific models are imperfect approximations of the truth. My take on this: Much like Gödel says that any consistent system of axioms in mathematics is inherently incomplete, science will always have some observations that it cannot account for. In statistics, for example, the ideal formula for a line y=mx+b becomes y=bx+a+ε, where ε is the error term, i.e., all those things we didn’t measure that also effect the relationship between y and x. These unaccounted-for real-world influences cause the data pattern to be something like a cigar-shaped scatterplot rather than a perfectly straight line. We can try to get closer to a straight line by measuring more things—y=b1x1+b2x2+b3x3+a+ε—but while we can reduce ε, in practice it never really goes away.

This is the edition of Kuhn that I have.
So back to Kuhn: When enough unexplained data accumulates, science goes through a process of re-evaluation to figure out how to explain these additional data. In other words, a scientific revolution takes places. The old model isn’t thrown out so much as a new model is developed that not only accounts for the data predicted by its predecessor, but also accounts for the new observations. Newtonian and Einsteinian physics are examples of scientific revolutions: they didn’t overturn what we knew so much as radically expand our understanding. The result is a paradigm shift. Such changes in a model or approach to science don’t happen overnight, however: they encounter resistance from the scientific community—which is accustomed to the old way of doing things—until it is reluctantly and gradually swayed by the accumulation of supporting evidence (which Kuhn said was, in part, a political process).

I couldn't resist.
 (With apologies to William Shatner, Gene Roddenberry, and Paramount Pictures.)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Page 24: The Thoth Tarot

Although the Tarot deck in this scene from The Billionth Monkey is unidentified, the card names and images are so distinctive that those familiar with it will immediately recognize the Thoth Tarot by occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) and artist executant Frieda Lady Harris (1877–1962). No big surprise coming from the guy who wrote Crowley’s biography Perdurabo (2012) plus two academic book chapters and a bunch of presentations specifically on the Thoth Tarot (full list below for those who really want to know).

The answer to an unasked question: Niels Belanger's Tarot spread from The Billionth Monkey, pages 24–28.
Images of the Thoth Tarot © Ordo Templi Orientis, all rights reserved.

It was originally Harris who suggested that Crowley utilize her artistic ability to create a Tarot deck, but the project wound up being much more involved than either of them realized at the outset. In the end, their protracted collaboration on the Thoth Tarot spanned the years from 1938 to 1943, with its companion volume, The Book of Thoth, published in 1944. Since Harris was new to Crowley’s magick, during their work he also gave her lessons to help her understand what each card had to convey. Many times he gave her rough sketches of what he had in mind. He often rejected what she painted and had her do another version; one card, “The Magus,” required seven iterations before garnering his approval. While Crowley was very particular about how he wanted the cards to look, Harris enjoyed a degree of latitude with the artistic style and background elements; thus, while the cards have a consistent feel to them, they contain hints of artists from Beardsley (“Adjustment”) to Picasso (“The Tower”), and many cards reveal her fascination with Anthroposophy’s interpretation of projective geometry.

While the deck enjoyed several private and public exhibitions, paper rationing during World War II meant that they were unable to have a deck printed at the time. Crowley’s The Book of Thoth (1944) reproduced a few cards in color, but neither one of them would live to see this remarkable deck published. Crowley died shortly after the war, in 1947. Harris and Gerald Yorke (friend to Crowley and self-appointed custodian of his literary legacy) had several false starts trying to get it out. And while there was interest from publishers in the U.S., Harris was unwilling to ship the cards and the publisher unwilling to send a photographer. Harris would die in 1962 with the cards still unpublished.

Ultimately Grady Louis McMurtry (1918–1985) traveled to London and photographed the cards in color for their first official publication in 1971. The photography was redone for new editions in 1978 and 1986. The colors of these decks varied greatly from the original art—and in one case they all had a greenish cast to them—but despite this the Thoth Tarot catapulted into prominence as an instant classic and one of the most popular Tarot decks in the world. It is arguably (or so I argue) second only to the Rider Waite deck.  My Thoth Sightings webpage documents how its imagery has seeped into popular culture, from television and movies to comic books and rock and roll.

In 2004, Crowley’s estate (Ordo Templi Orientis) began a two-year project of supervising high resolution, color-corrected digital photography of the original artwork, which is held by the Warburg Institute in London. The deck subsequently produced by AGMüller represents the first time these remarkable works have been accurately reproduced. In addition, O.T.O. funded a five-year restoration of the cards from 2006 to 2011. Since this project began, selected pieces have appeared as a part of high-profile exhibitions including Paris (2008), Venice (2013), Sydney (2013) and London (2014).

Papers and presentations that I’ve done on the Thoth Tarot 
(links go to book publishers or conference websites/programs)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Page 24: Tarot and the Popular Culture Association

Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as the Popular Culture Association, though they are more formally known as the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA).  And yes, they do have an annual panel/track each year devoted to Tarot and other methods of divination. Here is the current Call for Papers for their 2016 conference.

I’ve been a conference presenter on popular culture three times:
  • twice on the Tarot panel at the PCA/ACA annual meetings in 2009 ("Examining the Collaboration and Innovation of the Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot") and 2013 ("The Thoth Tarot Deck and Its Appearances across Forty Years of Popular Culture"),
  • and once in 2006 for a general session of the regional Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Association or MAPACA...not to be confused with the similarly-named Mid-Atlantic Alpaca Association.
Here is a complete list of Tarot presentations and presenters at PCA/ACA over the years. My two presentations on the Thoth Tarot are part of the two-volume multi-author anthology Tarot in Culture (2014), edited by the Tarot section’s long-time organizer, Emily E. Auger, who is also the author of Cartomancy and Tarot in Film 1940–2010 (in press), Tarot and Other Meditation Decks (2004), Tech Noir Film (2011), and The Way of Inuit Art (2005).

The two-volume anthology Tarot in Culture (2014) edited by Emily E. Auger contains my paper
"The Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot: Collaboration and Innovation," vol. 1, p. 129-186.
The appendix of my paper, which lists appearances of the Thoth Tarot in mainstream media,
has a virtual and continually-updated web presence at the Thoth Sightings page.

For the record, my colleague Dr. Auger is awesome and I would never ditch her session for a paper on comic books. I can’t say the same for Niels Belanger, though. He’s pretty quixotic.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Page 22: Aleister Crowley vs. the Holy Spirit

On the topic of the mysterious “sin against the Holy Spirit,” I—as the author of Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (2010)—must quote Crowley’s account of how he as a bitter teen decided to rebel against religion after God took away his idolized lay-minister father through tongue cancer. This rebellion consisted of young Alec abandoning his former ambition to be the best-ever Biblical scholar, and naively determining to become the best-ever Biblical sinner.

The darling face of the 14-year-old Wickedest Boy in His Class.
Circa 1889 photo from Aleister Crowley's Confessions (1929), © Ordo Templi Orientis.
As Crowley recalled in his Confessions (1929):
I was anxious to distinguish myself by committing sin. Here again my attitude was extraordinarily subtle. It never occurred to me to steal or in any other way to infringe the decalogue. Such conduct would have been petty and contemptible. I wanted a supreme spiritual sin; and I had not the smallest idea how to set about it. There was a good deal of morbid curiosity among the saints about “the sin against the Holy Ghost” which “could never be forgiven.” Nobody knew what it was. It was even considered rather blasphemous to offer any very positive conjecture on the point. The idea seems to have been that it was something like an ill-natured practical joke on the part of Jesus. This mysterious offence which could never be forgiven might be inadvertently committed by the greatest saint alive, with the result that he would be bowled out at the very gate of glory. Here was another impossibility to catch my youthful fancy; I must find out what that sin was and do it very thoroughly. (p. 67)
There’s something very poignant about a naive and shattered boy wanting to strike back at God for killing his dad, only to run aground on the reefs of Christian hamartiology.

Crowley would go on to conclude that spiritual truths were the only things in life that really mattered or endured, and he would devote himself to systematically exploring them...albeit in ways that many considered unconventional and even shocking. You can read all about it in Perdurabo.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Page 22: Pounding the Duck

This is my favorite scene in The Billionth Monkey. The dialogue follows in the footsteps of Monty Python’s famous “Dead Parrot” sketch, which was a hilarious exercise in seeing how many euphemisms for “dead” they could cram into one routine.

I preferred to run this gambit on idioms for “murder” and “sex” (cue Scorpio stereotypes)...for which there are no lack of colorful colloquialisms. By the end, it all got so silly that I may have made up one or two terms of my own.

Daffy Duck is about to get pounded.
Image source: John K Stuff; original image ©Warner Bros.
 In any event, I would have chosen “pounded the duck” based on the fact that “Kaczynski” comes from the Polish word for “duck”(kaczka).

Polish right-wing politician Jarosław Kaczyński with a duck (kaczka). Image source: Wiadomosci.
Apparently he doesn't like the comparison (even though it's simple etymology and not derogatory),
but I couldn't find any photos of Theodore with a duck.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Page 19: Super Man

Cohor’s repeated use of “super” is an homage to the classic BBC dark sitcom, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and its character David Harris-Jones (portrayed by Bruce Bould). The show, which ran from 1976–1979, was adapted from the 1975 novel The Death of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs, who sadly passed away just last month. Only yesterday, the Spectator proclaimed that his book deserves to be considered a classic in its own right.

The complete Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is available on DVD.

Reggie Perrin was a favorite of mine and my dear high school buddy Linda D. (who also turned me on to Frank Zappa). On the show, the gushingly earnest character duo of Tony Webster and Davis Harris-Jones responded to all conversations with “Great!” and “Super!” respectively.  In tribute to the program, Cohor says “super” five times during this scene in The Billionth Monkey.

The character David Harris-Jones, portrayed by Bruce Bould
in the classic BBC sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-1979),
was quite fond of the word "super." Had The Lego Movie been made in the UK,
its signature song may well have been "Everything is Super."
This YouTube video provides an example of Tony and Davis's banter:

And here's a link the the Official Reginald Perrin Tribute Site.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Page 19: Godco, and of apples and lawsuits

I originally named the salesman in this scene something insurancey like Morgan Lynch, but decided it would be fun for readers to discover that this is what Cohor had gotten himself up to three years after his life-changing experience on the Deep Water Lemuria. Godco is, of course, a pun on that other famous reptile-fronted insurance company. Godco has made inroads with techno-Christians who are born-again (although they prefer the term “rebooted”), and you’ll find Godco’s banner ads at the hippest websites, including the hot new nano-blogging site Tweezer.

An exmple of Godco's online banner advertising.
Original image source: Tweezer.
There have indeed been a number of lawsuits over the years involving Biblical fruit; I’m certainly no patent expert, but my layperson’s view from the outside was that some complained infringements were fairly generic and part-and-parcel of the nature of the device. If anyone was owed compensation, it was the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not that I’m personally all that vested in the legal ins and outs: it was just another opportunity for a joke. And it was a huge news story at the time the events in the book take place. (I haven’t set this in a particular year, but there are enough pop culture references to place it in the 2011–2014  range.)

In this scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation (© Paramount),
Jean Luc Picard holds a possibly-infringing piece of tech that requires the use of fingers.

Here are links to a few stories that illustrate what I’m getting at:

Friday, September 4, 2015

Page 18: Lestat and Sookie

“Lestat” refers to Anne Rice’s fictional vampire Lestat de Lioncourt, famous from her Vampire Chronicle novels, which include Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, The Queen of the Damned, etc. You can see the full list at Anne Rice’s website.

“SUH-kay” refers to Sookie Stackhouse, from Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries series (you can see the full list at Charlaine Harris’s website), in particular the breathless way how the character Bill Compton pronounces it in the HBO television series adaptation True Blood. If you’ve never heard Bill Compton say it (or just can’t get enough), this will help:

These two characters have, of course, never met (except maybe in fanfic). But if they ever did, it would look something like this:

Above left: Lestat de Lioncourt, as portrayed by Tom Cruise
in Geffen's big-screen adaptation of Interview with the Vampire (1994).
Above right: Sookie Stackhouse, as portrayed by Anna Paquin
in HBO's small-screen series, True Blood (2009-2014).

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Page 17: Code ID 10-T

A long-running joke among computer tech support people describes egregiously basic user errors with the code ID10T, because when written out rather than spoken the characters resemble the word “IDIOT.” The Internet-based practice of replacing letters with similarly-shaped numbers and other ASCII symbols became known as LEET or 1337. See page 130, where Destiny Jones says “It’s all L33T to me.”

An example of a snarky ID10T error by evadrekrab.
Original image from Photobucket (be advised the linked site has pop-ups;
but there you can buy prints of this image if you're so inclined.)

In The Billionth Monkey, I parsed the code as "ID 10-T" so that it would naturally be read the way one would say it; and also because ID10T would be too obvious to readers in today's Internet age of tweets and text messages.