Friday, October 30, 2015

Page 74: Pumpkins, sex, and urban legends

For all of Linus’ efforts in It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, belief in the Great Pumpkin never quite caught on with the Peanuts gang nor became the stuff of urban legend. Linus' confusing of Halloween with Christmas is, however, part of our pop culture vocabulary and regular Halloween TV tradition.

"There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin."
Linus, however, seems to be the only one who truly believes.
[Sally and Linus from It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (©1966, CBS, dir. Bill Melendez).]
While Linus is the only one who believes in the Great Pumpkin, there is a racy Halloween-related story that a lot of people believe to be true, and insist that it appeared in the local newspaper of a friend of a friend. This urban legend comes off more like a joke, complete with a setup for the punch line. It took off on the Internet in July 1998 and, typical of urban legends, has undergone various changes of name and location. It goes something like this:
Dixon, IL. Police arrested Jon Terrence McCarter, a 27 year old white male, resident of Dixon, IL, in the Sanderson Pumpkin patch at 11:38pm Friday. McCarter will be charged with lewd and lascivious behavior, public indecency, and public intoxication at the County courthouse Monday.

The suspect allegedly stated that as he was passing a pumpkin patch, he decided to stop. "You know, a pumpkin is soft and squishy inside, and there was no one around here for miles. At least I thought there wasn't." he stated in a phone interview from the County courthouse jail.

McCarter went on to state that he pulled over to the side of the road, picked out a pumpkin that he felt was appropriate to his purposes, cut a hole in it, and proceeded to satisfy his alleged "need". "I guess I was just really into it, you know?" he commented with evident embarrassment.

In the process, McCarter apparently failed to notice the Dixon Municipal police car approaching and was unaware of his audience until officer Brenda Taylor approached him. "It was an unusual situation, that's for sure." Said officer Taylor. "I walked up to (McCarter) and he's...just working away at this pumpkin."

Taylor went on to describe what happened when she approached McCarter. "I just went up and said, 'Excuse me sir, but do you realize that you are screwing a pumpkin?' He got real surprised as you'd expect and then looked me straight in the face and said, 'A pumpkin? Damn... is it midnight already?"
Some squash are sexier than others.
This is a butt-ernut squash that I once found at my local grocer's.
I thought such a Snogworthy legend was perfect to slip in at this point in The Billionth Monkey. And it’s perfect timing for Halloween, too! Not that I’m trying to give anyone any ideas...

For Further Reading

David Emery, “Man Arrested for Having Sex with Pumpkin.” October 9, 2012.

Anonymous, “Peter Peter Pumpkin Pleaser.” February 7, 2007.

“Caught in the Pumpkin Patch” in Thomas J. Craughwell, Urban Legends: 666 Absolutely True Stories that Happened to a Friend of a Friend…of a Friend. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 106–7.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Page 74: Sir Terrence Snogworthy

I’ve seen a statistic that the majority of men have a name for their junk. And not just slang terms like “schlong” or “anaconda.”* I mean actual names, like “Troy” and “Hercules.” I apparently never got this memo, and frankly find the practice to be oddly dissociative or smacking of body integrity identity disorder. Nevertheless, as a good-humored late-bloomer, I decided there’s no time like middle age to play catch-up! So in April 2012 I decided to come up with the most preposterous name possible. What reared its head and spontaneously sprang fully-formed upon my consciousness was “Sir Terrence Snogworthy.” I never meant it as anything but a joke. Then one day I needed a name for a male member that makes a surprise chat room appearance in The Billionth Monkey, so I reached for it…

The hazards of Hangouts, Chatroulette, and 4chan.
* Does anyone other than Sir Mix-a-Lot actually use “anaconda”?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Page 72: The Brady Bunch

Does anyone not know what The Brady Bunch is? Who doesn't know about Marcia being hit in the nose by a football? Or about Peter's voice changing? Does anyone not know that it's a sunshine day?

For the Millenials (once again)…it was a blended family sitcom that aired on CBS from 1969 to 1974: Mike Brady, a widowed architect with three sons, marries Carol Martin, a mother with three daughters. They and their housekeeper, Alice, work to come to terms with the new normal. The iconic split-screen opening theme song showed the cast in a 3x3 grid:

The positions are:

(oldest daughter)
(oldest son)
(middle daughter)

(middle son)
(youngest daughter)
(youngest son)

Thus in the teleconferencing/chat-room/hangout app of The Billionth Monkey, we have:



Aviator lady

Squinty man with
pipe and tattoo

Hockey mask guy
Old scarface guy Parliamentarian
Sir Terrence

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Page 70: Doctor Strange

As with the super-hero posters on page 67, I changed the comic books in this scene at the last minute to Doctor Strange as a thank-you to Steve Englehart for writing a blurb for the book. I was an avid comic reader and collector from age four, and never lost my love for Doctor Strange: a skilled neurosurgeon who lost his fine motor skills in a car crash and subsequently turned to the mystic arts in search of a cure, only to find a higher and nobler calling as Master of the Mystic Arts and Sorcerer Supreme.

The character was created by artist Steve Ditko and green-lighted by editor and script writer Stan Lee. He debuted as a short feature in Strange Tales #110 (July 1963). The character subsequently introduced readers to Marvel Comics’ surreal and heady view of the cosmos: a perfect fit for the psychedelic sixties. The character became so popular that he commandeered Strange Tales (which was usually a double-feature with the continuing adventures of two characters such as the Human Torch or Nick Fury) and its title changed to Doctor Strange with issue #169 (June 1968). After a brief hiatus, the new stories written by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner in Marvel Premiere led to a new Doctor Strange title in 1974.

Here's an excuse for me to show off cover scans taken from books in my collection: Strange Tales 115 (1963) features the origin story of Doctor Strange. With issue #169 (1968), Strange Tales changed its name to Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts. With Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner at the helm, the doctor's appearance in Marvel Premiere led to the re-launch of the title Dr. Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts #1 (1974). All images © Marvel Comics.

The first five issues of this book served as the inspiration for Universal Pictures’ TV movie, Doctor Strange. Englehart went on to plot issues 6–18 on his own.  While the TV movie was pretty forgettable, he will enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a big-screen movie in November 2016. I can’t wait!

Coming to a theater near you in 2016! Image source: the MCU Wikia.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Paage 70: Devil Games!

In this penultimate post about the small details tucked into Nicholas Young’s room, we find even more #DevilReferences in his choice of video games:

Dante’s Inferno
Not to be confused with Dante from the video game franchise Devil May Cry, Dante’s Inferno is a video game that is literally based on Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) vision of Hell. As the poet wrote, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!”
Spring break from Dante's Inferno, © Electronic Arts. Image source:
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
If you play this game in single-player career mode and make it through all of the songs and all of the other bosses, then the last boss battle is playing Lou (i.e. Lou-cifer) for your soul with the notoriously difficult song, “The Devil Went down to Georgia.”
Lou from Guitar Hero III, © Activision. Image source: Wikia.
Silent Hill: Homecoming
This survival horror game involves a section of the story that is called “Hell Descent.” (As disturbing as the Silent Hill games are, I couldn't find a screenshot that shouted #DevilReference...although there is no lack of dark imagery!)

An action shot from Diablo III, © Blizzard Entertainment. Image source: Forbes.
This classic top-down dungeon trawler, currently on its third iteration, was chosen primarily because its title is an obvious #DevilReference.

Friday, October 23, 2015

New review at "The Hidden Left Hand"

Many thanks to Vincent Piazza for his great review of The Billionth Monkey​ over at The Hidden Left Hand! I'm not sure which is more flattering: That my descriptions of New Orleans are the best he's read by a non-native in a very long time; or his comment that the book is "filled with nerd humor, dead bodies, and more pop culture references than you can shake a microwaved kitten at." Read the full review here.

Page 69: High school (with spoiler)


This post isn’t an Easter egg or #Reference of any sort. Instead, it concerns a detail of this scene in The Billionth Monkey that I thought deserved an explanatory post, because I’m unsure whether its significance is clear.

To recap the scene: Belanger’s smug interrogation turns the corner when he asks where Nicholas Young attended high school. At that moment, the formerly-cowed student realizes that his professor doesn’t, in fact, know what is going on. The repeat game of “Do you know who I am?” confirms, to Young’s relief,  that Belanger hasn’t figured out his secret.

Here’s what’s going on (the spoiler is in this paragraph): Belanger has three years worth of college transcripts for Young. What was Nicholas doing before that? The answer lies is in the prologue, which is set three years ago: he emerged from the Deep Water Lemuria. Prior to that, he wasn’t in high school at all. He was in Hell.

My editor didn’t make the connection, so in my final round of revisions I made some subtle changes that hopefully make it slightly clearer. I expect it would be obvious on a second reading at the very least. Fortunately, the story works just fine if the reader hasn’t pieced this together; but I’d be curious to know if anyone picked up on it.

If Nicholas Young had bogus high school transcripts, he would likely have attended Crowley High,
as seen in the X-Files episode “Die Hand Die Verletzt” (Season 2, Episode 14, January 27, 1995 © Fox).

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Page 67: Devil’s Food

Nicholas Young’s taste for hot sauces allows for more gratuitous #DevilReferences…a trait that winds up being important later on, so it’s not entirely gratuitous. I also salted in some non-devil sauces so as not to be too obvious. To summarize, the hot sauces mentioned in this scene are all actual products (no endorsement implied).
  • 100% Pain,
  • Nuclear Hell,
  • Zombie Sauce,
  • Devil’s Bitch,
  • Black Mamba,
  • Bernie in Hell,
  • Fire & Brimstone,
  • Beyond Insanity
Rather than explaining, this is a case where a picture is worth 1,000 words (therefore here are 4,000 words):

A few of the hot sauces found in Nicholas Young’s room.
Top row: Bernie in Hell (left, after Wall Street swindler Bernie Madoff) and Fire & Brimstone (right).
Bottom row: Devil’s Bitch (left) and Gib’s Nuclear Hell (right).

I know a few people—a friend in Buffalo, a colleague in New Haven, etc.—whose food simply cannot be hot enough. My friend in Buffalo has an entire shelf in his kitchen filled with half-empty hot sauces, none of which were up to the challenge. Nicholas Young’s bookcase reminds me of that.

Finally, the title of this post is not only a play on the culinary term "devil’s food," but also a reference to the song of that title from the classic Alice Cooper record, Welcome to My Nightmare (1975).

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Page 67: Devil’s Playthings

Pretty much everything in Nicholas Young’s dorm/apartment is a #DevilReference. Here we delve into the devilish world of action figures for popular video game franchises.

Dante is a silver-haired fighter in a red-duster who is the famous lead character in the Devil May Cry series of video games. The name of the game is an obvious #DevilReference, but so is the character’s name, which can be taken (at least for our purposes) as a reference to part one of Dante’s Divina Comedia (1308–1320): Inferno.

Both games are popular enough that Toy Wiz offers action figures of Kratos (God of War) and Dante (Devil May Cry).

Kratos is a vengeful Spartan ghost from the video game franchise God of War. While the game isn’t exactly devilish (it’s loosely based on Greek mythology, not Judeo-Christianity), it does feature Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. Hades helps Kratos in God of War I, and ultimately becomes Kratos’ opponent in one of the boss battles in God of War III. While the Hades of Greek myth has nothing to to with the devil, his portrayal in God of War is noticeably big, red, and horned.

A screenshot of Kratos fighting Hades in God of War III. Image source: Comics Vine.

Dante and Kratos both have legions of fans, and internet flame wars have been fought over which of them would win in a fight. I think it would be awesome to have a two-player co-op game with both characters on the same side. Before the start button is even pressed, epic battles would be fought over who gets to control whom...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Page 67: Guadians of the Galaxy

Steve Englehart kindly agreed to write a blurb for The Billionth Monkey, and sent me the following:
This book is endlessly creative. If you even think you like weird fantasy, you will love The Billionth Monkey.
 As a thank-you, I made some small last-minute changes to the book. This included the two superhero posters hanging in Nicholas’ room. He originally had Spider-Man and the X-Men, but I changed those to Guardians of the Galaxy and Batman because Steve is connected with both: He created Star-Lord back in Marvel Preview #4 (1976), a character whom other writers would later incorporate into the cosmic ensemble Guardians of the Galaxy, and thence into a fantastic thrill-ride of a movie.

Steve Englehart's character Star-Lord debuted in Marvel Preview #4 (1976) and went on to become one of
the Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a box-office smash in 2014. (Both images are © Marvel Comics.

Steve's classic run on Batman—his storyline in issues 469–476 of Detective Comics from 1977 and 1978 were quickly dubbed “The Definitive Batman”—is credited with reinventing the character as a dark, serious, adult figure, opening the door to subsequent writers penning extensions of this iconic version of Batman, including The Killing Joke (Alan Moore, 1988), The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller, 1986–1987), and Arkham Asylum (Grant Morrison, 1989). In addition, Steve's take on Batman inspired Tim Burton's film adaptation. (You can read Steve's account of the movie here.)

The cover to Detective Comics #476, which concluded Steve Englehart's run
of what quickly became known as "The Definitive Batman." Image © DC Comics.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Richard and "The Billionth Monkey" featured on the latest "Thelema NOW!" podcast

The newest episode of the Thelema NOW! podcast with Soror Lilya finds Richard talking about The Billionth Monkey, magick, creating reality, and his next few writing projects. You can listen to the 15-minute episode here.

Article source: Zero Equals Two

Page 67: Devil Music!

All of the bands at this point in The Billionth Monkey are mentioned because their songs, album titles, or merch contain #DevilReferences.

I blogged here previously about the metal band Behemoth, but to recap they released their tenth album, The Satanist, in 2014, and the official video for the title track on September 15, 2015:

Behemoth’s official video for "The Satanist," released on September 15, 2015.

Avenged Sevenfold uses a lot of Biblical and Apocalyptic language in their songs, and one of their T-shirts features the number 666.  Also, singer, M. Shadows summarized the tracks on their sixth studio album, Hail to the King! (2013) as “there’s a silver-tongued Devil …luring you down and telling you he can make your life better” (“Shepherd of Fire”) and “the dark lord coming to save you and resurrecting Hell to do it” (“Requiem”).

Merch for the band Avenged Sevenfold (AX7) uses #DeviLReferences.
The Devil’s Blood are a Dutch occult rock band whose very name is a #DevilReference. Also, band member Selim “SL” Lemouchi reports that he is heavily influenced by his belief in Satansim.

Finally, Sabbath Assembly is an occult rock band from TX and NY whose discography includes songs like “I, Satan” (2014) and “Ave Satanas” (2015).

Kids these days, with their devil music...

Saturday, October 17, 2015

59: Alma Mater matters, or filthy acronyms

The final collegiate urban legend in this scene in The Billionth Monkey—I tried to work in as many as I could!—is a particularly persistent one about how the names of various institutions of higher education (or their sports teams) form unfortunate acronyms. The best known of these concerns Furman University,  a private school in Greenville, South Carolina. According to legend, its sports team and mascot was originally called the Christian Knights. However, once the school realized that the acronym for Furman University Christian Knights was inappropriate—at least for a Christian university—they purportedly changed the name and mascot to the less offensive “Paladin.” While it’s true that the university’s sports team has been called the Furman Paladins  since 1961, the term “Furman University Christian Knights” has never been used at the school.

Various other examples (all false) exist in the annals of urban legend:
Along these same lines, I made up the Sacred Heart Institute of Theology, thinking it would be funny for Nicholas Young to attend a theological college. I also made up the Wyoming University for Social Sciences, which turns up later in the book (p. 87). In The Billionth Monkey, Belanger can’t figure out why someone would go to the trouble to fake their college transcript yet give themselves such poor grades. While I don’t come out and say it, the implication is that these storied institutions somehow became real…and Nicholas Young attended them, receiving predictably lousy grades.

I had fun making up a seal for the urban-legendary Friends University of Central Kentucky
—including some Latin verbs that suggest less noble English terms—
though I never found a way to use it in conjunction with The Billionth Monkey.
Legends like these are well-known enough that The Simpsons featured the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology in its episodes “Much Apu about Nothing” (episode 151, airdate May 5, 1996) and “Simpsorama” (episode 558, airdate November 9, 2014).

Occasionally, these urban legends become true in places other than novels and cartoons. Take the case of Wakefield High School, whose T-shirts and hoodies for its track and field team garnered national attention in 2010. Evidently “Wakefield Track and Field” is an acronym among Kids These Days for something that, according to school superintendant Joan Landers, is not how she wanted the student body to be represented.

The controversial hoodie for Wakefield Track and Field. Image source: here.
And in a remarkable case of urban legend becoming real—a theme “central” to The BillionthMonkeyNewcastle University raised eyebrows in 2013 when it sought to trademark the acronyms CUNT (Central University of Newcastle upon Tyne) and RUNT (Research University of Newcastle upon Tyne). A university spokesperson explained that they took this step in order to “help students who may be searching for us on the web, particularly international students.” Or is that supernatural students?

For Further Reading
Anonymous, “The Knight Before,” October 12, 2013,

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Page 58: Campus Scares

Continuing our series of campus-related urban legends, another popular student-body rumor concerns a prominent psychic who has predicted a mass murder on campus. The rumor typically claims that the prediction was made on a high-profile TV program, and the occurrence is predicted on some significant date, with Halloween being a popular choice. Details of the upcoming murder scene vary to suit the local campus (a high point or low point, a building shaped like a certain letter, etc.). Brunvand (2001) has documented examples of these scares in “virtually every year during the 1980s and 1990s” (59). One even hit my hometown (Michigan) in 1998.

Could Strunk and White's Elements of Style be the scariest thing on campus?
By moving the rumor scare in The Billionth Monkey to an English composition class, I centered the scare around the rumor-spreader rather than the psychic. As for Nicholas Young’s disturbing short story, I suppose it’s a reflection of the “zero tolerance” expulsions that have been in the news lately. Such as the South Carolina teen who was suspended when, for his school assignment, he made up a story about buying a gun to shoot a dinosaur. Or the nine-year-old from Texas who was suspended for saying his Hobbit ring could make a classmate disappear…which was somehow interpreted as a terroristic threat rather than a way of hiding from danger. Or the seven-year-old from Maryland who was suspended for nibbling his breakfast pastry into the shape of a mountain and making an “inappropriate gesture.”

Relocating the scare to an English comp class also allowed me to pay homage to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which I think is still the best guide to writing out there.

For Further Reading
Jan Harold Brunvand. Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001, 58–9.

David Emery, “Psychic Predicts Halloween Campus Massacre: An Urban Legend,” n.d.,

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Page 51: The Suicide Rule

Jan Harold Brunvand (2001) calls this “more a rumor than a legend proper” (426), but call it what you will: there is widespread belief on university campuses in the rule that “If your roommate commits suicide, you get an automatic A (or a 4.0 GPA) for the semester.” In this sense, it’s similar to common campus rumors such as the “15 minute rule,” which says that if the professor is 15 minutes late, then class is cancelled. The Suicide Rule reflects anxiety about grades and the policy is often attributed to highly exclusive universities where the costs and pressures are perceived to be astronomical.

A 1985 study by Fox found that belief in the suicide rule was very common across campuses, but—like most urban legends—the details varied according to the qualifying conditions and the nature of the condolence compensation (e.g., an upgraded dorm room or getting to take the rest of the semester off). While universities may provide bereavement counseling or other services for students whose roommate has committed suicide, there is in fact no suicide rule anywhere concerning one’s GPA or dorm room.

Although this relatively modern rumor that emerged in the mid-1970s, its popularity has resulted in Hollywood turning it into not one, but two wittily-titled 1998 movies, Dead Man on Campus and Dead Man’s Curve.

Dead Man on Campus (dir. Alan Cohn, Paramount Pictures) and Dead Man's Curve (a.k.a. The Curve, dir. Dan Rosen, Mount Royal Entertainment) are both inspired by the urban legend of the Suicide Rule.
Also, the Breaking Bad episode “No Más” (Season 3, Episode 1) features a scene where students are gathered in the gymnasium after a tragedy and one student, Barry, says
I just find it, y'know, really, really hard to concentrate because of all the horrors, y' know, we perceived. It just really gets inside your brain and, college they have this thing where if your roommate kills himself, like if you come home and find him hanging in the closet or whatever, it's basically an automatic A for you.

The Billionth Monkey offers versions of two of these rumors: the automatic A, and the upgraded dorm room.

For Further Reading

Anonymous. “Grade Expectations.”, June 9, 2011.

Jan Harold Brunvand. Curses! Broiled Again! New York: W. W. Norton, 1989, 295–8.

Jan Harold Brunvand. Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001, 426.

William S. Fox. “The Roommate’s Suicide and the 4.0.” In Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith (eds.), A Nest of Vipers. Sheffield: University of Sheffield Press, 1990, 69–76.

Leo Reisberg. “Hollywood Discovers an Apocryphal Legend.” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 11, 1998.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Page 47: Do you know who I am?

This exam-related legend—slightly altered for plot purposes in its Billionth Monkey incarnation—is very well-known on college campuses. Details vary from place to place, but the question “Do you know who I am?” before the punchline is always there. In this legend, a student foils their professor (who won’t let them turn in their late exam) by asking the key question, then slipping their exam into middle of the stack. On most campuses, you’ll find someone who insists that it actually happened, right there at their very school.

The urban legend may be a reflection of the anonymity that students feel in large lecture hall classes; a reaction to similarly anonymous mass-produced exam booklets; or simply a fantasy about an underdog student cleverly outwitting the big, bad professor. In either case, it is so popular that I’ve located four different video examples of it:

Lottery Instant Kiwi commercial (1999). Source: YouTube.

From the movie Slackers (2002, dir. Dewey Nicks). Source: YouTube.

From the Veronica Mars TV show episode “Hi, Infidelity”
(Season 3, Episode 6, 2006). Source: YouTube.

From the movie 3 Idiots (2009, dir. Rajkumar Hirani). Source: YouTube.

For Further Reading:

Jan Harold Brunvand. The Mexican Pet. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986, 198–9.

Jan Harold Brunvand. Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends. New York: Norton, 1999, 443–4.

Claire Howell Major & Nathaniel Bray. “Exam Scams and Classroom Flimflams: Urban Legends as an Alternative Lens for Viewing the College Classroom Experience.” Innovative Higher Education 2008, 32: 237–50.

Cathy Lynn Preston. “University campus legends: Student tactics and habitable spaces.” Contemporary Legend New Series 2004, 7:137–71.

Lance Strate. “Studying Media as Media: McLuhan and the Media Ecology Approach.” Media Tropes 2008, 1: 127–42.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Page 44: Dissertations and Dothraki

In fairness to the real-life denizens of Newcomb Hall, I’d like to begin this post with an example of an actual flier from its walls. I took this photo on my research visit because “Women and the Sacred in 19th Century French Literature” is a seminar I would gladly have attended if time permitted.

Actual fliers hanging on the walls of Newcomb Hall.
Nothing at all like the ones described in The Billionth Monkey.
In my twisted mind, the fictionalized version of this fascinating talk became the first of three fliers mentioned on page 44 of The Billionth Monkey: “Wax Cylinder Recordings of Early Mime Performances.”

Ads for language tutors—whether for native language, for foreign language coursework, or computer programming—are ubiquitous on college campuses. I liked the idea of a Dothraki tutor for a couple of reasons: First, it was a more modern pop culture reference that the old trope of Klingon (don’t worry, Trekkies, I haven’t entirely dissed our ridge-headed friends!). In addition, the language itself was designed by linguist and alien language consultant David J. Peterson, and currently has its own language guide, learning app, and online coursework. The June 3, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone even ran a story on the availability of Game of Thrones language courses. [While you're at it, check out David J. Peterson's brand-new book, The Art of Language Invention.]

The above meme juxtaposes the Game of Thrones character Khal Drogo
with Monty Python's famous skit, "Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook" (see the video here).
Moving on to the third flier: My undergraduate newspaper, the South End, used to run a classified ad that literally read “Professional to format discertation and these is. And edit.” This was in the days where every student did not have access to a computer or word-processing program, so theses and dissertations were often typed to very exacting specifications. A gatekeeper in the main graduate school (which oversaw all graduate programs and held the reigns to completion and graduation) had the job of taking a ruler to your document and measuring the margins, spacing, font size, and other details; and your document did not meet the rigid requirements, you were sent back to the typewriter. I found this badly-written classified ad to be hilarious, and for years it hung in my Research Assistant cubicle. I'm sure I still have it somewhere, but darned if I can lay my hands on it for this post!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Latest review says The BIllionth Monkey is "like the Da Vinci Code on acid"

The latest (and currently my favorite) 5-star review on Amazon says The Billionth Monkey is "like the Da Vinci Code on acid." Bam!

Here's the full review:

Don't take my word for it, just read it and be grateful
By Wesley K. Long
This review is from: The Billionth Monkey (Paperback)

Really enjoyed this one. Finally able to catch up on some reading due to Information Technology SNAFUs that I have to clean up, leaving me some quality time. A good idea that gets greater all the way until the end, which I have to share, is worth it. So many books feel like the author just ran out of gas or never planned on getting a book published, so the ending is a poorly tacked on sum up or miracle. This ending is satisfying, logical, and made cynical old me smile and maybe even tear up a bit. Wonderfully done. At times it feels like the Da Vinci Code on acid, a suspenseful romance, conspiracy theory, social media critique, inside joke, outside joke, and urban legend. Puns and aphorisms that would make Joyce blush and Robert Anton Wilson proud.

I am reviewing the hardcover edition, which I have in my possession, since I have seen on the paperback, I doubt it's existence (just kidding, it's real, go grab 20).
As the review mentions, the paperback (as well as ebook) are available from Amazon and other booksellers, but there's also a signed and numbered limited hardcover edition available directly from the author..

Friday, October 9, 2015

Page 44: "The thesis full of feces" and "the chalice from the palace"

When Rusty Piquot quips that “The thesis full of thesis has the précis that is pure,” he  is referencing the classic Paramount Pictures movie The Court Jester (1955) and its famous exchange between Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye), Griselda (Mildred Natwick) and Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) about the chalice from the palace:
Hawkins: I've got it! I've got it! The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true! Right?
Griselda: Right. But there's been a change: they broke the chalice from the palace!
Hawkins: They broke the chalice from the palace?
Griselda: And replaced it with a flagon.
Hawkins: A flagon...?
Griselda: With the figure of a dragon.
Hawkins: Flagon with a dragon.
Griselda: Right.
Hawkins: But did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?
Griselda: No! The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon! The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true!
Hawkins: The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.
Griselda: Just remember that.
In The Billionth Monkey, Rusty Piquot riffs on a movie that's older than his parents...
but nevertheless a classic. (Paramount Pictures' The Court Jester, ©1955).
You can watch a clip of this classic scene on YouTube:

The movie is sixty years old this year (it was released on Christmas eve in Japan in 1955; in the US it came out in January 1956). Anyone who saw it when it was new is therefore older than Rusty Piquot's parents.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Page 44: Moderation vs. Wretched Excess

During the late 1980s I was good friends with an artistic couple in Detroit who were leaders in the local Neopagan community. They were the first ones in the area to organize large-scale public Sabbats and host high-profile lectures by people like Margo Adler (Drawing down the Moon) and Selena Fox (Circle Sanctuary). The husband, “Tree,” was writing a rock opera called Gaia. I’ll always remember him as a being of unbridled creativity: what was practical or possible was for other people to figure out, and he was charismatic enough to be surrounded by people eager to help him realize his ambitious visions. Ms. Tree—I won’t name her since I don’t know how public she is these days, but she was a talented artist—I recall saying that her alternative to “All things in moderation” is “Vary your excesses.”

Tree signed my copy of this article featuring him in the Detroit Free Press (June 12, 1988, C1 & C6).
Granted, Ms. Tree wasn’t the first to say this. “Everything in moderation, including moderation” is commonly attributed to Oscar Wilde; and while I can’t find a source for that particular quip, he indeed writes in his Epigrams (1909), “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess” (p. 71). A couple of generations before Wilde, we find “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” as one of the Proverbs of Hell in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1795). And so on.

And let us not forget Albus Weinstein’s Theory of Relativism.

As a statistician, I must agree that both “all things in moderation” and “vary your excesses” do in fact yield Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Consider three sets of numbers:
A: 100, 100, 100, 100, 100, 100
B: 99, 101, 98, 102, 99, 101
C: 199, 1, 198, 2, 199, 1
The average, or mean, of each of them is 100. The difference is in what we in the business call variation and its closely related concept, the standard deviation…which basically tells you how far, on average, your numbers fall from the mean. Set A has no variation at all from the mean: it is “all things” in the cartoon at the head of this post, the line in the middle of the curve. Its standard deviation is 0. In Set B, the standard deviation is quite small because all of the numbers are very close to 100. In Set C, the standard deviation is much larger because the numbers are a lot further away from 100.

If you’re more of a visual thinker, picture it this way: Assume for the sake of argument that your data are in the shape of a normal distribution, or bell-shaped curve. This means that the higher the curve, the more observations you have in that area, and most observations are clustered around the middle and trail off smoothly from there to either side. The standard deviation defines how wide or narrow the bell is. The two figures below show two normal curves with the same mean/average, but differing in the amount of spread, or variation, around that mean.

Both of the above two charts have the same mean (μ=4), but illustrate what happens with different amounts of spread, or standard deviation: σ=0.5 on top results in a narrow bell-shape, while σ=1.5 below gives us something much broader.
Whether you do all things in moderation (as with Set B) or vary your excesses (as with Set C), in the long run the mean is the same.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Page 43: The devil is in the details

This brief snippet of dialogue in The Billionth Monkey is an excuse to geek out over the history and evolution of a figure of speech, “the devil is in the details.” It also introduces readers to Belanger's encyclopedic memory and penchant for spitting out mini-lectures at the drop of a hat.

What Belanger says on page 43 is accurate, and it’s also a #DevilReference! So yes, the phrase is a relatively modern variant on the older idiom “God is in the details.” It isn’t exactly true that the phrase doesn’t appear in print prior to 1975—it was certainly known before then—but a search through Google Books only turns up six occurrences in the 25 years prior to 1975:
  • An issue of Congressional Quarterly from 1956 (“He certainly understands a lot of the details and a lot of the policy issues, and with taxes the devil is in the details”).
  • Newsweek 1965, 65(1): 173 (“’The devil is in the details,” Beitz says.”)
  • A hearing on the House Committee on Appropriations from 1969 (“I found out long ago that the devil is in the details”)
  • A Congressional hearing from 1972 (“But, as you and I know, the devil is in the details”)
  • Socialist Commentary, 1973, p. 26.
  • The Congressional Record from 1974 (“The devil is in the details.”)
This Google Ngram shows that the phrase "devil is in the details"was relatively uncommon prior to 1975,
and only surged in popularity since the 1990s.
By comparison, the phrase turns up 20 times over the ensuing five years (1975-1979). It increases in popularity from there, turning up 20 times in 1991 alone. Its usage peaks fifteen years later, with 67 hits in 2005 and maxing out with 80 hits in 2006. There's even a Wikipedia article on this subject.

Granted, the texts digitized by Google aren't necessarily representative of all published books. But Google is surprisingly thorough, and a fairly good real-world indicator. Good enough for fiction, at least.

And yes, I actually researched all of this—including Flaubert and Decadent literature—just to write one paragraph in The Billionth Monkey. Who says writing fiction is easy? ;)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Page 43: Redshirts

Given his wicked sense of humor, I’m sure that Dr. Belanger’s favorite TA, Rusty Piquot, wouldn’t mind that his name was a bad pun. Are you ready for it?
Rusty = russet, ruddy, from the Proto-Germanic rusta, red.
Piquot = homonym for peacoat, the closest surname-sounding synonym that I could find for “shirt.”
Thus, Rusty Piquot = Redshirt. (Groan.) If that wasn't obvious enough, consider that when we first meet him, he is wearing a “combed ringspun red cotton t-shirt” (p. 43). Consider it foreshadowing!

Many character names in The Billionth Monkey have hidden meanings: some are homage, some are Dickensonian, and some are just bad jokes. We’ll cover them all here, so if you're interested keep reading this blog.

And if you haven’t read it yet, check out John Scalzi’s entertaining Hugo-winning novel, Redshirts (2012).

Two currently-popular memes about Redshirts. The Internet being what it is, I have been unable to find
the creators of these images to credit them, although the bottom one seems to have started on Tumblr.

John Scalzi, Redshirts (New York: Tor, 2012).
No connection whatsoever to The Billionth Monkey,
other than it's also a funny book that's worth reading. And redshirts.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Page 42: Tulane's Newcomb Hall

Everything you read about Newcomb Hall in The Billionth Monkey is accurate, except that it is not home to the American Studies program. In fact, Tulane University doesn’t have a Department of American Studies. (It does, however, have the Roger Thayer Stone Center for Latin American Studies.) Nevertheless, Newcomb Hall seemed like the logical place to house my fictional American Studies program since it is home to the real-world Center for International Studies, School of Liberal Arts, Sociology, and Communication, along with several other departments.

In order to write an authentic description, it was important to me to walk the Tulane campus, and Newcomb Hall in particular. Unfortunately, the day I had set aside for touring Tulane turned out to be intensely downpoury. My itinerary didn’t allow for a rain day before flying back home. Fortunately my intrepid tour guide (and model for Dame Frances Beye-Cohn), Sophia Vera, was more than up for driving, parking and making a mad dash through the pouring rain to walk those hallowed halls. Along the way, we saw students queuing in the rain at the campus auditorium for what we later discovered was a guest lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson. That might explain why we found Newcomb Hall so empty.

Our stealth visit also involved searching the Newcomb Hall high and low for a bathroom...from which we concluded that students and staff don’t actually micturate. However, I got plenty of reference photos of the building's interior. It’s so wonderful to have friends who will humor you by joining in your crazy quests!

My guide Sophia, rain-soaked but in good spirits,waves hello from the warm and dry comfort
of the top floor Newcomb Hall where the academic offices are located.

The hallowed Halls of Newcomb.

Example of a faculty member's door, coincidentally sharing the name of a friend of mine.

A stairwell leading to classrooms on the lower floors.
This photo highlights the building's spectacular windows.
Note flyers hung on the wall.
We didn't bump into Niels Belanger, though. He must have been at the Niel deGrasse Tyson talk.

Friday, October 2, 2015

41: Gators in the Sewers!

One of the best-known American urban legends—the sewergator or “alligator in the sewer”—differs from most other folktales in that it is associated with one place in particular: New York City. This misplaced creature has left its tracks all over modern literature: Psychology Today contributor Jack Horn referred to “blind white alligators that live in New York sewers” as common knowledge. And perhaps this is true, as Thomas Pynchon famously (and succinctly!) perpetuated the urban legend in his novel V:
Last year, or maybe the year before, kids all over Nueva York bought these little alligators for pets. Macy’s was selling them for fifty cents; every child, it seemed, had to have one. But soon the children grew bored with them. Some set them loose in the streets, but most flushed them down the toilets. And these had grown and reproduced, had fed off rats and sewage, so that now they moved big, blind, albino, all over the sewer system. [Thomas Pynchon, V (New York: Bantam, 1964), 33.]
In an effort to trace the origins of this contemporary myth, Coleman compiled a list of over seventy purported alligator encounters between 1834 and 1973. Of these, only one was credible…and actually took place in New York City. On February 10, 1935, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “Alligator Found in Uptown Sewer.”   According to this story, three teens, shoveling the last of the winter snow down a manhole, spotted and rescued a lethargic 125-pound, eight-foot alligator from the sewer, then proceeded to beat it to death with their shovels when it snapped at them.

The sculpture Life Underground by Tom Otterness, commemorating the NYC alligator urban legend, can be seen at the 14th Street – Eighth Avenue subday station. Image source: Wikipedia.
As Fergus noted, the story grew from here like the legendary pet baby alligators when Robert Daley published The World Beneath the City (Lippincott, 1959). This book devotes three short pages to an interview with Teddy May, a yarn-spinner who misrepresented himself as a New York City Sewer Commissioner from the 1930s and bullshitted his way through tall tales about how led squads of hunters into the sewers to exterminate the alligator infestation there. [Images of Aliens come to mind, for some reason.] For more, see here.

"We're here to exterminate the alligators from your sewers."
The Robert Daley account reminds me of James Cameron's Aliens (1986), cast photo © 20th Century Fox.
Ingemark, however, proposes a far earlier origin for this legend than 1935, pointing out that De natura animalum by Aelian (c. 175–c. 235 CE) recounts the tale of a giant octopus which came into an ancient city’s sewers and had to be exterminated.

Although the legend is pretty much synonymous with New York City—so much so that February 9 is “Alligators in the Sewers” day—reports of unusual creatures in urban waterways do turn up elsewhere. See, for instance, Arnold’s article on “a goose-eating monster [that] lurks in the waters of London’s Olympic Park.”

Despite the 1935 Times article, herpetologists Sherman and Minton dismissed the subsequent rumors as “One of the sillier folktales of the 1960s.” [A. Sherman and Madge Rutherford Minton, Giant Reptiles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 34.]

Want to know more? Here's a documentary on YouTube:

For Further Reading

Neil Arnold, “Terror in the Thames,” Fortean Times, August 2012, 290: 32–7.

Loren Coleman, “Alligators-in-the-Sewers: A Journalistic Origin,” Journal of American Folklore 1979, 92(365): 335–8.

George Fergus, “More on Alligators in the Sewers,” Journal of American Folklore 1980, 93(368): 182.

Jack Horn, “White Alligators and Republican Cousins: The Stuff of Urban Folklore,” Psychology Today, November 1975, 126, 130.

Camilla Asplund Ingemark, “The Octopus in the Sewers: An Ancient Legend Analogue,” Journal of Folklore Research 2008, 45(2): 145–70.

Barbara Mikkelson, “Gatored Community,”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Page 40: Alien Big Cats

Reports of panthers, pumas, and other large predatory cats roaming Great Britain have circulated for decades, despite the fact that its largest known native predator is the badger. This lack of large native predators makes Britain the poster-child for sightings of ABCs, which is short for “anomalous big cats” or “alien big cats” (so-called because they are not native). Such sightings are, however, not unique to Britain: Campion-Vincent (1992) describes the phenomenon in France; Italy has its felini misteriosi; and the United States—while home to jaguars, cougars, ocelots, lynxes and bobcats—often has reports of these animals well outside of their known natural habitats.

Internet star "Alien Cat Matilda" isn't the kind of Alien Big Cat we're talking about,
but she's just too cute to exclude. Image source: Alien Matilda website and webstore.
As Goss (1992) points out, most news reports of ABCs are brief, cursory, vague, and rarely followed-up. He identifies twelve general characteristics for these stories:
  1. An eyewitness (usually named) is said to have encountered a species of big cat not native to the British Isles.
  2. The setting for this encounter is likely to be some area of open land. […]
  3. The encounter is usually of brief duration (a matter of minutes) and may occur at day or night. […]
  4. The animal's description varies per report. […T]he only common characteristics shared by these animals are: that they are (in the witnesses' judgement) cat-like and (ditto) larger than normal domestic cats.
  5. One sighting of the cat may be connected (by the media) with reports of others within the same general area. These grouped reports may be separated by days, months or years. […]
  6. In many cases involving recurrent sightings, the animal may acquire a popular label: “the Margam Beast,” “the Thorganby Lioness,” “the Fobbing Puma” […]
  7. Stated or tacit is the assumption that the animals are, or could be, dangerous to humans—especially to children.
  8. Physical evidence of the alleged animals may be cited in the reports: slaughtered or injured livestock and pawprints […] Photographs are seldom produced, however.
  9. The typical report will cite or quote authority figures: the police, zoo officials, environmental managers, menagerie owners, naturalists and occasionally big game hunters. […]
  10. The favourite explanation for the presence of the cats is that they are escapees from zoos or wildlife collections, or perhaps released, unwanted pets. In the 'classic' reports, the owners are never traced.
  11. Organized hunts, official or unofficial, may be conducted. […]
  12. The mystery cat drops simultaneously out of sight and out of the newspapers. (p. 188–9).
There are so many ABC reports that in August 2007 the Fortean Times began a bi-monthly column called “ABCD” (Alien Big Cat Diary) to round them all up, beginning with a cover story summarizing the phenomenon plus three pages in small type filling four columns per page devoted to listing just the British sightings for the years 2003–2006! Yet for all these news reports, no dangerous cats have ever been captured. As Brunvand writes, “the legendary accounts have a consistency of motif and structure that betrays a migratory story rather than an actual displaced feline predator.” (p. 34). Monger (1992) has proposed a prototype urban legend in the seventeenth-century sightings of dragons in Essex and Sussex.

As urban legends, these stories are considered to be relatives of other urban legends about escaped zoo or circus animals, or former pets released to the wild. The “alligators in the sewer” myth is perhaps the best-known example of the latter. Other explanations are more fantastic, involving cryptozoology (e.g., an undocumented pre-ice-age survival; or, some kind of alien-domestic hybrid), teleportation, or even manifestations of negative energy such as poltergeists, daimons, or thought-forms.

Here's a documentary on ABCs that you can watch on YouTube:

For Further Reading

Jan Brunvand, “Big Cats Running Wild” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 34–5.

Véronique Campion-Vincent, “Appearances of Beasts and Mystery-Cats in France,” Folklore 1992, 103(2): 160–83.

Michael Goss, “Alien Big Cat Sightings in Britain: A Possible Rumour Legend?Folklore 1992, 103(2): 184–202.

Merrily Harpur, “Big Cats on the Prowl,” Fortean Times, August 2007, 224: 33–9.

Samantha Hurn, “Here Be Dragons? No, Big Cats! Predator Symbolism in Rural West Wales,” Anthropology Today, Feb 2009, 25(1): 6–11.

George Monger, “Dragons and Big Cats,” Folklore 1992, 103(2): 203–6.

Jen Ogilvie, “ABC Survey 2003–2006,” Fortean Times, August 2007, 224: 40–2.