Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The boom in do-it-yourself psychical research

electric spiral

Do-it-yourself psychical research has taken on major proportions.

It's easy to see why. The few university parapsychology departments are in a rut. Anxious about keeping what little academic respectability and funding they have, they kneel before the altar of experimental repeatability, the essence of scientific method. Unfortunately, by far the greatest number of paranormal events seem to happen spontaneously, or if they are somehow induced, can't be repeated at will. So respectable parapsychologists are pretty much locked into a routine of testing subjects for telepathy and psychokinesis, which give results that can be calculated to see if they score above chance at a statistically significant level.

The trouble is, telepathy and PK have long since been demonstrated scientifically. And while there is still something to learn about the factors involved, this play-it-safe research isn't advancing the field in a way that provides new answers to age-old metaphysical questions, or captures the imagination.

Long-established private organizations are in a bind as well. I'm a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which has a distinguished history, puts on splendid annual conferences, and continues to publish the important Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. But the Society lacks the funding to support very much independent research on its own, so it has to rely on reports by university departments or invididual members.

Thus, the institutional basis for psychical research presents a discouraging picture at the moment, at least concerning questions that interest non-specialists the most: for instance, the nature of apparitions ("ghosts"), hauntings, poltergeist phenomena, and the survival of the individual's consciousness following the death of the physical body. The more official and respectable researchers either reduce such issues to abnormal psychology or throw in the sponge and declare that these phenomena can't be studied scientifically because they won't dutifully present themselves in the laboratory.

But people -- including some of the most intelligent and curious -- still want to know more about the meaning of events that seem to defy ordinary physical laws. And above all, what can we expect when the black camel kneels at our tent? The quest for answers to the enigma of post-mortem survival will not be stopped.

So in a time when electronics permeates daily life as never before, and people are (practically of necessity) getting sophisticated about technological gadgets, it's no surprise that more and more individuals and groups are using modern recording devices to find and preserve evidence of paranormal events and communication. These individuals are amateurs in the original and positive sense of the word, those who study a field for the love of it, not for something to put on their résumés.

There are two main categories of do-it-yourselfers: "ghost hunters" and EVP (electronic voice phenomena) recorders. No doubt there is some crossover among these forms.

Professional parapsychologists and those who have to be one step up from anything popular can object that these uncertified practitioners aren't qualified by background and training, don't have the intellectual discipline that it takes, and so on. But many do-it-yourself psychical researchers appear to have scientific and technical backgrounds, and to make use of advanced software applications in their investigations into the mysteries of life and death.

In some cases, though, the criticisms may be true. Try Googling "ghost hunting" and you'll turn up a startling number of web sites of local ghost-chasing societies. Too many of them don't seem serious-minded -- they're illustrated with comic-book imagery of ghosts and tell their story in language that resembles advertisements for tours of haunted places. Some sites appear to be primarily geared to sales of everything from electromagnetic sensors (a legitimate tool of the trade) to New Age paraphernalia to T-shirts with spooky messages.

I've no doubt that there are ghost hunters who pursue knowledge for its own sake, or for the sake of their personal and spiritual development. As in all aspects of the occult, the jokers tend to give the whole pack a bad vibe.

Bright Resurrection

EVP enthusiasts work from an even more astounding thesis: that disembodied spirits -- either people who have passed through the gate called death, or permanently non-physical entities -- can be heard speaking on ordinary recording media. Although there are computer programs designed to improve the signal-to-noise ratio and otherwise "clean up" the paranormal recordings, it is said that with no special equipment other than a tape recorder anyone can hear the voices once they get used to some peculiarities of the sound and inflections of the voices.

If this can be demonstrated -- and hundreds of apparently perfectly sane people say they are demonstrating it, repeatedly -- EVP could be the Holy Grail that psychical research has always dreamed of, so-called permanent paranormal objects. That is, phenomena that may be borderline spontaneous but of which a permanent record can be kept.

I make no claims about the validity of EVP, not having done any experiments myself. (And often in this field, even when you have the evidence, it's debatable how to interpret it.) But it seems to me a very promising technology.

Moreover, I recently became acquainted with an organization whose integrity I'm inclined to trust on the basis of my judgment and intuition. It is the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena (AA-EVP), founded in 1982 by Sarah Estep and now directed by Tom and Lisa Butler. The web site includes detailed instructions for people who want to try the techniques for themselves and sound file samples of EVP. AA-EVP is presenting a conference next June titled "Life After Death: The Evidence" with an impressive lineup of speakers, including Gary Schwartz, whom I met when I lived in Tucson where he is based, and who has been published (to considerable controversy) in the SPR Journal. I see that another speaker, Alexander MacRae, has also been published by the SPR.

The first book on psychical research that came my way, some 40 years ago, and perhaps sparked a fascination that has never dimmed for me, was written by two psychical researchers of an earlier generation, Eric Dingwall and John Langdon-Davies. The title of their book asked: "The Unknown -- Is It Nearer?" Yes. I think it is.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Eurabian Nights

Norway this year passed a so-called anti-discrimination law that "says in pretty clear words that in cases of suspected direct or indirect discrimination due to religion or ethnicity, Norwegians are guilty until proven otherwise," reports Norway-based Fjordman.
Immigration spokesman for the Progress Party, Per Sandberg, is deeply disappointed and fears the consequences of the new legislation. "This law will jeopardize the rights of ordinary, law-abiding Norwegian citizens. The principle of reverse burden of proof means that Norwegians are guilty of discrimination unless they can prove otherwise. It will lead to many convictions of innocent people. Reverse burden of proof is also combined with liability to pay compensation, which means that innocent persons risk having to pay huge sums for things they didn't do."

"Anti-racist" organizations are given a significant role in the new law. There is a new, state-sponsored Equality Ombudsman who will be responsible for enforcing it, and coerce all employers who refuse to abide by it. A multicultural Inquisition, in other words. ...

This law could open the floodgates for all kinds of unreasonable demands from Muslim immigrants in particular, who will be given a licence for extortion of employers, courtesy of the Norwegian parliament. For instance, it is likely that they can now claim that it is “discrimination” if they don’t have a special prayer room provided. Already, Muslim taxi drivers demand a separate prayer room at Oslo Airport, where they can pray during working hours, but have received a negative answer. The leader of the Somali Taxi Association, Ali Hassan, finds this discriminating and unacceptable, and is planning a law suit over the matter ... .
You can find yourself in trouble with the law in Norway should you be heard to speak out loud against Muslim women wearing the hijab in workplaces.
It is frustrating that Norwegian authorities make it mandatory for all non-Muslims to accept hijab, the Islamic veil, in their workplace. Many non-Muslims find hijab offensive, and even some Muslims, too. The veil is not ”just a piece of cloth”. It serves as a demarcation line between proper, submissive Muslim women and whores, un-Islamic women who deserve no respect and are asking for rape. The veil should more properly be viewed as the uniform of a Totalitarian movement, and a signal to attack those outside the movement. An Islamic Mufti in Copenhagen, Denmark, sparked a political outcry after publicly declaring that women who refuse to wear headscarves are "asking for rape."
Politicians in Europe are voluntarily dismantling the principles of a free society so as to accommodate Muslim plans for sharia law to replace Roman-derived law. When that happens, Europeans who refuse to convert to Islam will become dhimmis, "un-persons" with no rights under sharia, or will have to emigrate -- assuming they are permitted to and can find anyplace to emigrate to. The Eurabianizing has gone farther in Scandinavia than in the rest of Europe only because high Muslim immigration and birth rates have made the greatest inroads there.

What can account for this madness among Europe's leaders? (It is highly doubtful that ordinary citizens accept the situation, but -- like the majority in the U.S. who oppose the de facto "open borders" policy -- they are ignored by "their" government.)

It is nearly unfathomable, but if one must fathom it, the selling out of European populations into dhimmitude probably stems from a combination of naiveté and a desire to carry on breathing. (Several politicians in the Netherlands are under 24-hour guard or in hiding because of death threats from Muslim terrorists.)

Fjordman is planning to close down his blog for "private reasons." In the comments box, he adds, "Maybe I would survive, but I would be walking a legal tightrope with this, and other additional laws ... . Criticism of Islam and Muslim immigration is increasingly being banned by law in Eurabia."

Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary at the outbreak of World War I, famously said: "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." He was very nearly right in his day. I am afraid he will be right in ours.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Dhimmi Britain: No. 1 in a series

And, I'm afraid, this is likely to be a long-running series. The moral cowardice that is settling over the U.K. is profoundly disturbing, and those of us who aren't in a position to do anything about it are obliged to at least call attention to it while hoping that Britain will come to its senses.

The Bristol Old Vic, performing at the Barbican in London, has cut out part of a classic play because it
"would have unnecessarily raised the hackles of a significant proportion of one of the world’s great religions,” the director said.

It was feared that Jewish theatergoers would riot if the role of Shylock were not eliminated from The Merchant of Venice.

You don't believe me? You're right. I just made that up.

Jews have every reason to deplore the Bard's characterization of Shylock. Oddly enough, though, they seem to understand that Shakespeare was playing to the prejudices of his time when creating his cruelly caricatured, but theatrically effective, villain.

Actually, the play that was censored was by Christopher Marlowe. I don't suppose I need to tell you which of the world's "great" religions provoked this onslaught of sensitivity.

Marlowe was, of course, England's greatest playwright before Shakespeare, whose gift for striking and poetic language he shared. (Almost invariably when I look out of an airliner window at cruising altitude, I'm reminded of Marlowe's phrase "the windy country of the clouds.")
Audiences at the Barbican in London did not see the Koran being burnt, as Marlowe intended, because David Farr, who directed and adapted the classic play, feared that it would inflame passions in the light of the London bombings. ...

The burning of the Koran was “smoothed over”, he said, so that it became just the destruction of “a load of books” relating to any culture or religion. That made it more powerful, they claimed.

Members of the audience also reported that key references to Muhammad had been dropped, particularly in the passage where Tamburlaine says that he is “not worthy to be worshipped”. In the original Marlowe writes that Muhammad “remains in hell”.

Farr "reworked the text after the July 7 attacks," The Times wrote. "Mr Farr said in a statement: 'The choices I made in the adaptation were personal about the focus I wanted to put on the main character and had nothing to do with modern politics.'”

If they had nothing to do with politics, why did Farr perform his scriptectomy after the July 7 terrorist attacks in London? It would appear that he not only pandered to political correctness, but lied about his motives.

Other productions in Britain have recently run afoul of religious protest. A play called Behzti was closed down in Birmingham after three police officers were hurt in clashes with about 400 demonstrators outside the theater. Jerry Springer the Opera was strongly condemned by some Christian groups. No one felt it necessary to rewrite or shut Jerry Springer, however.

It would seem that Muslim reactions arouse more -- what's the word -- fear than those of Christians.

Not everyone agreed with the director's decision.
Park Honan, Emeritus Professor at the School of English, University of Leeds, and author of Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy, said: “It is wrong to tamper with the play, wrong to shorten it and wrong to leave out the burning of the Koran because that is involved with the exposition of Tamburlaine’s character. He’s a false prophet. This is meant to horrify the audience.”
The contemporary theater Establishment is not usually reticent about protecting its audience from being horrified. After the Birmingham flap, Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre's artistic director, said: "The giving of offence, the causing of offence, is part of our business."

It's not entirely clear to me what he intended, but if he meant that the theater has some kind of duty to offend its audience, then that sounds like the statement of a juvenile 1960s-era retard. If he was saying that from time to time the theater will inevitably offend some audience members even if that isn't its specific intention, he had a point.

Tailoring a classic to avoid arousing the hypersensitivity of Muslims is a form of dhimmitude, in which the artistic freedom that goes with political freedom is compromised for the sake of an intolerant religious group.

Britain has recently been debating something called the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which would make speech a crime if it was designed to incite religious hatred against Muslims. (There is apparently already legislation to "protect" Jews and Sikhs.) The trouble with all such laws is not only that it's up to prosecutors to decide what forms of criticsm or irreverence would come under the heading of inciting religious hatred. Worse, even if hardly anyone is prosecuted under "religious hatred" laws, they can't help having a chilling effect on speech and artistic freedom.

Self-censorship is the most dangerous kind. Since no external authority appears to be doing the censoring, there is no overt action to react against. As with political correctness in general, people learn to to watch what they say until it becomes second nature to avoid certain topics, words, and ideas.

Artists proclaim, in season and out of season, their right to present whatever they see fit. It's sad when their principles go all wobbly along with an increasingly dhimmified Britain.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

No Monastery for Monk

In an earlier post, I noted that music aficionados are missing out if they don't take advantage of DVD as a medium for musical performances. Straight No Chaser is another example.

As any jazz buff can tell from the title, the film is about Thelonious Monk. It had a brief theatrical release in 1990, although I doubt it played in more than a dozen culturally plugged-in cities (I saw it in Santa Fe). Thanks to DVD, it's available for viewing at your leisure.

Monk had the habit of spinning, onstage and off, like a human radar antenna scanning the sky for alien contact. He wore funny hats, his among them one resembling a yarmulke. Monk's oral communication bordered on incoherence, a hipster's growling drawl. In the 1950s, he fitted perfectly with "Mr. Charlie's" concept of what "Negro" wigged-out musicians were supposed to be like.

As Straight No Chaser points out, though, the image was one-sided. Monk grew up not in Harlem but on the Upper East Side, and studied at Juilliard. The rehearsal segments we see in the film suggest that his groups worked from charts he prepared as meticulously as Gil Evans or Michel Legrand. Unlike many jazzmen of the period, he had no use for heroin. His writing and playing have more intellectual concentration and less frenzy (but no end of controlled energy) than those of anyone in the be-bop realm from which he emerged.

Emerged is the right word. By the mid-'50s Monk had developed his own unique and compelling style. There have been many keyboard jazz players who exhibited more overt virtuosity, but some of them are dull compared to Monk. No matter how often you've heard his recordings, there's always an element of surprise -- not infrequently, astonishment -- in Monk's playing: Where did he get that from? I think it's no exaggeration to say that Monk was one of the few composers who invented a musical language, like Beethoven, Debussy, or the Stravinsky of Firebird and Rite of Spring.

It's puzzling to try to reconcile this highly respected (in the latter part of his own time), world-famous artist with the figure we see in the backstage footage: withdrawn, seemingly almost indifferent to any conversation directed to him, given to off-the-wall and non sequitur replies. Was his head really in deep space, or was the jive-clown act part of a jazz musician's job description in those days? But the sidemen who appear with him in the film seem pretty normal (except, of course, for their prodigious talent). I suspect he was deeply depressed, maybe even a little schizophrenic -- which an interview with his son seems to bear out. Well before Monk died, he simply quit playing and composing.

Straight No Chaser is smartly edited, though its chronology is unclear and jumbled. The concert sequences have good sound for the period. (Besides Monk himself, we getto see and hear players such as Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse, and Phil Woods.) The DVD is essential viewing for Monk devotees and almost anyone who digs modern jazz. Even if your interest in the music is less than consuming, you may find Straight No Chaser interesting psychologically and sociologically. Here, in essence, is what hip meant to the generation of cool cats who took out the patent on it.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The French Correction

Frank Furedi, a regular contributor to the U.K.–based spiked-online, offers some intelligent comments inspired by the warm glow of French firelight.
… Politics seems to be lost for words: public figures and the media struggle to understand or explain the big issues of the twenty-first century. Now, many seem unable to make sense of a situation where relatively small groups of teenagers and children from the banlieues can expose the powerlessness of the French forces of law and order, and of the French political elite itself. How could youngsters with no political aims or objectives call into question the legitimacy of all authority, and expose the feeble sense of identity in one of the oldest and most powerful nations in Europe?

Silence and evasion have dominated the response to the French crisis. Some have sought refuge in economic explanations. Bill Clinton's banal statement 'It's the economy, stupid!' seems to have acquired the status of unquestioned political truth. This is an attempt to use the language of the 1980s - poverty, exclusion and marginalisation - to make sense of the current riots. If the disturbances can be explained in economic terms, then maybe there's an off-the-peg solution to them: if only an EU development grant or training and jobs schemes could do the trick and calm things down!
So far, so good. It was entirely predictable that the international Liberal Establishment would do exactly what it has done — recast the French civil disturbances into the only shape it can understand and be comfortable with. An oppressed minority. Racism. Poverty. Government not doing enough.

Especially that last. In France, as well as in Furedi's Britain, an aggrandizing central government has taken unto itself almost all political and social power; local authority can scarcely enact a parking regulation on its own. Most people have given up trying to sort anything out themselves. That's the government's job. Ergo, Furedi complains that the meaning of the nationwide car-b-ques in France is that they show up the ineffectiveness of France's ruling class.
The most significant thing about recent events in France is not the behaviour of the rioters, but the reaction of the political class and official authority. The Bush regime's response to the flooding of New Orleans looks positively energetic when compared with the sense of paralysis and confusion that seems to have gripped French officialdom.
The cheap shot about "the Bush regime's response to the flooding of New Orleans" is a typical gibe by a citizen of a modern centralized bureaucratic state who can't grasp the idea of American federalism, but he's bang on about the "paralysis and confusion" of the French political class. And he continues with well-spoken criticism of the irrelevant official reaction to outbreaks of multiculturalist anarchy, both in the U.K. and France.

But for all his good sense within certain boundaries, Furedi illustrates just how addicted European intellectuals have become to the assumption that if anything is wrong, "we" (meaning the traditional culture, the government, or both) are the cause. Besides our oppression of minorities, it's our lack of purpose, or the "exhaustion of politics."
Since the end of the Cold War, it has become much less clear what France's global role might be. Its claim to act as the leader of Europe has been undermined by the expansion of the EU and the decline of the French-German axis. …

Somewhere between De Gaulle's aggressive nationalism and the silent, spineless and confused politics of today, France has lost its identity.
Silent, spineless, and confused politics may rule France, but please don't play the naif with me, Mr. Furedi. Islamovandals aren't torching Renaults up and down the land as a protest against a decline in France's global role.

By his own reckoning, the riots are not due to economic hardship or the lack of inter-ethnic group hugs. Nonetheless, he concludes, rather illogically, that "they [residents of the no-go banlieus] simply desire the kind of French prosperity that they see on the other side of the tracks, but without wanting to be associated with any idea of France."

If they don't want to be associated with any idea of France, why is that? Because France has lost its national amour-propre? Phooey. The country has had none since 1914, and until recently there was no teenage wasteland of Molotov cocktails.

Or could the unpleasantness that has erupted in voitures flambées have something to do with … with … Furedi can't bring himelf to say it: religion.

Here the model of the modern European intellectual is at a severe disadvantage in trying to think outside the Liberal Establishment box. To such as they, the very notion of religion is a bit of a joke, really. You politely indulge the occasional believer you meet — not that you meet many in your circle — but it's not something to waste good cerebral neurons on!

So Furedi (and to give him credit, he is far more perceptive than many of his fellow Liberal Establishment pundits) can't bring himself to admit that the first wave of mass civil disturbance by France's North African citizens is supercharged by their religion, a religion that teaches contempt for any institutions except those derived from The Prophet. No, according to the liberal faith, Islam is simply another creed in the Family of Man, not a motivation for violence and the desire of its adherents for separate enclaves.

I'm afraid Frank Furedi is going to have to learn about religion — one religion, anyway — in a very hard school.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Smoking Diaries

Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries is a melancholy farce inspired by the author's life, a memoir darkly tinged with folly recalled in abrasive detail under the shadow of advancing years.

Gray is an English playwright and author of several other books, although he writes as though he has outlived himself. My only previous encounter with his output was the film Butley, which starred Alan Bates and which he adapted from his own stage comedy. Both play and film were popular in the 1970s, but their writer is possibly correct that they have been occluded in recent years. He implies that his other plays, produced for the English stage, have been less than roaring successes; I don't know if that's true or just part of the self-critical mood he adopted, or which adopted him, for The Smoking Diaries.

As this journal of consciousness and (in Malcolm Muggeridge's phrase) "chronicle of wasted time" opens, Gray has just turned 65. Having given over drinking because its pleasures had lured him into alcoholism, he clings lovingly to his remaining vice, smoking. His physical condition is not likely to be an inspiration to others. At the time of writing, his close friend the playwright Harold Pinter has just been diagnosed with cancer. (Pinter is still with us, and received a Nobel this year.) The restaurant, Chez Moi, where Gray and his wife Victoria and Pinter and his wife, Antonia Fraser, have enjoyed one another's company for ages, is about to close down. Gray is starting to have trouble remembering useful things and finding it easy to remember painful events.

No wonder his mood resembles an English weather report.

The Smoking Diaries is written in a kind of diary format, so seemingly casual that some entries stop in the middle of a sentence. Thoughts break off from his intended subjects and he follows them as they drift away. His stream of consciousness repeatedly overflows its banks, sending rivulets into hidden sinkholes.

From many writers, this format could be pretentious, but decades of playwriting craft have taught Gray to bring the audience along through every byway. Minor events in his present dredge up flashbacks, some half a century old, and they become progressively more haunting as the pages are turned. But Gray asks no indulgence; as he muddles along, he makes sure that the language stays tuned up. He's a master at self-mockery delivered with panache, and he can turn a phrase that goes straight to your funnybone … on its way to your heart.

How much of The Smoking Diaries is revelation and how much is an assumed attitude is impossible for an outsider to say — maybe he doesn't know himself as he unfolds his tale of comic decline. But it's the nature of art to pull apart the raw material of life, reshaping actual experiences through imagination, fashioning them into a higher untruth. Gray has given us a work of eloquent despair that wears the masks of both comedy and tragedy — no small accomplishment for a writer of plays to remember, as the curtain slowly descends.

UPDATE 1/16/09: Harold Pinter, of course, passed on a few weeks ago. I haven't heard anything further about Simon Gray.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Talk of the Town

Visiting New York City is something like taking a mind-altering drug whose provenance is unknown and you can count on a trip to Heaven, Hell, or both. For me, it's usually both.

My visit earlier this week was on what is called, in a peculiar expression, "family business" — in this case, my mother's surgery. She was well enough on the following day that I was able to leave her at home in Queens and travel to Manhattan, primarily to visit the Met (see the previous entry).

New York, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways. No, stop me, at least after a few paragraphs of venting.

The subway system is simply horrible. Efficient on some level, I guess, but an experience of such unremitting grime, noise, and congestion that I don't know how any sensitive person can endure it regularly. And the new Metro cards that have replaced tokens are a nuisance and sometimes worse; mine refused to open the turnstile but deducted more money each time I swiped it until my credit was zero. Complaining to the agent in his zoo-cage-like enclosure brought no recompense. It was like dealing with a talking statue.

I tire easily, too, of the all-but-incomprehensible English and dozens of foreign tongues spoken by so many immigrants (call me xenophobic if you want; I'm not, so I don't care) and the gruffness of the native New Yorkers. Now I am well aware that what auslanders think is rudeness by New Yorkers is usually not intended as such. New Yorkers assume you are very busy making money and a name for yourself, and that you want them to get straight to the point. All right, but I still prefer a little graciousness.

And how about those bus ads from an organization called something like "StayClose.com"? They feature celebrities with gay siblings — Cyndi Lauper and her sister, and a gentleman I didn't recognize and his brother were on one — and urge you to be supportive if you are straight and your sibling is gay, or vice versa. If somebody has a lesbian sister and is perfectly comfortable with it, I say that's fine. On the other hand, if said person is not comfortable with it, that's fine by me too. But it's none of my business, or StayClose.com's, or anybody's but the people concerned. This organization is one more group of busybodies dedicated to the proposition that ordinary people are too stupid or retrograde to work out family issues by themselves, so these "experts" have to educate them about what to feel.

Not to make too soft a point of it, the New York environment bums me out.

It can also take my breath away, in a good sense. Because, despite the oppressive crowds and noise, the streetcorner madmen lecturing to the sky and the absurdly costumed fashion victims, somehow an enthralling and even civilized residue remains.

You walk up Madison Avenue in the 80s and every other shop window is a wonderland of individual flair, a treat for anyone used to mall chain-store window displays. You admire the detailing of townhouses, Renaissance revival, Beaux Arts, Gothic revival, French provincial, and wonder that such magnificence still exists in our gritty, pinched era.

Step into the Metropolitan Museum, fork over a mere $15 — yes, I consider that a lot of money too, but still — examples from virtually the entire history of human artistic creation are there before you: take your pick. And I don't think you have to be an art historian or specialist to realize that these are not table sweepings. They are mostly of remarkable quality, and some are among the finest works ever realized in the world of time and space.

Even in the city of restaurants competing to see who can come up with the most outlandish decor and dishes, it is still possible to dine in a pleasant atmosphere, with polished service and imaginative but not crazy cooking, among customers who can talk in a normal conversational tone without bellowing at one another as so many oafs do in public dining rooms these days. It's risky to recommend anyplace on the basis of one visit, but since I have no reputation to lose I'll go ahead and suggest you check out Caffe Grazie on 84th Street between Fifth and Madison if you happen to be in the area.

New York isn't my kind of place, but maybe that is an advantage, because my visits are infrequent enough that its moments of magic catch me unprepared and leave me grateful.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Photography and the Occult" at the Met

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an enterprising and unusual special exhbition. "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult" contains two rooms displaying photographs of allegedly paranormal phenomena, among them apparitions of the dead, "vital forces," physical manifestations such as levitation and ectoplasm, and photo images created by thought. Most of the pictures date from the so-called golden age of spiritualism, roughly 1850 to 1930.

"Approaching the material from a historical perspective, the exhibition presents the photographs on their own terms, without authoritative comment on their veracity," the show's explanatory text says. And for the most part, the curator has kept that commitment. Nevertheless, notes next to the photos of a few of the "spirit manifestations" have a tinge of incredulity, which in those cases is quite justified. But using "Henri Robin and a Specter" as the show's iconic image, reproduced in a poster, is a little misleading. The photo's "specter" looks like a Hallowe'en costume, and the curatorial note acknowledges that Robin was an illusionist who never claimed to be anything else; he was simply demonstrating the "phantasmogorical" entertainment he devised to cash in on the spiritualist vogue.

Most of the "spirit photographs" consist of either a medium or a "sitter" (the medium's client), the translucent form of the departed above or to the side. We smile, knowing all about double exposures. In the late 19th century, though, photography was a specialized craft and few non-photographers had any concept of how the pictures were developed, so we can forgive the naive acceptance that such forgeries met with at the time.

But if we can understand why ordinary people tended to take these concoctions for reality, what are we to make of educated and presumably sophisticated students of psychical phenomena such as Albert von Schrenck-Notzing and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

On view is a photo by Schrenck-Notzing showing a naked medium, "Eva C.," peeking from behind a curtain, while a few feet from her is a supposed ghost. Schrenck-Notzing, according to the annotation, commented on the marvel of the medium's being without a stitch in which she could have concealed any apparatus for faking the ghost, which was captured in the same shot. It might have been marvelous, all right, if the revenant from the beyond did not look so utterly like a cardboard cutout, with features resembling those a child might have drawn. How could anyone, let alone a scientist, have fallen for this? I offer one possibility. Unlike the "ghost," the partially visible disrobed Eva C. is definitely three-dimensional -- and rather shapely into the bargain. Perhaps Schrenck-Notzing was distracted from concentrating too closely on the disembodied spirit by the embodied one.

Now we come to the embarrassing case of Conan Doyle and the famous "Cottingley fairy" photographs, two of which also figure in this exhibition. The creator of Sherlock Holmes developed, as is well known, a keen interest in the paranormal. He wrote quite a few books defending and explaining spiritualism. I've read a couple of them, and they struck me as reasonable in tone, neither dogmatic nor suggesting that the author had gone dotty in his later years. So there's no easy way to account for his being taken in by photographs of "fairies" who inhabited a garden in the village of Cottingley, and who were discovered there by two young ladies. The most, and the least, you can say about these fairies is that they were fashion conscious enough to dress very much in the mode of their time (circa 1920).

This is probably one instance where critics of psychical research are right when they say that an investigator fell prey to his own "will to believe" in the object of his research.

I left the exhibition with no doubt that most of its photographs of alleged paranormal manifestations were fakes, either cynically doctored to exploit people grieving over lost relatives or just for a hoot.

Why most rather than all?

Writing in the July 2005 Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, David Fontana remarks (in a book review, not in connection with the Met's show) that "photographs of materialisations always appear 'stagey' and rarely serve as hard evidence for paranomality ... ." True. But one reason such photos look "stagey" might be that we don't normally see materializations of non-material entities, so they are bound to look unreal when captured by the camera. In pictures (typically rather repellant) of ectoplasm being extruded from a medium, the ectoplasm may resemble cotton strands or cloth; but again, we don't know what ectoplasm, if such a thing exists, looks like. We shouldn't assume too quickly that what appears dubious must be phony.

So it is barely possible that even a few of the shots on view at the Met are what they purport to be, and they look dodgy because our minds don't know how to process what they have never experienced. That is of course only speculation on my part, and not offered as evidence.

But a few of the pictures in the exhibit do have some apparent claim to legitimacy. And, interestingly, they are among the most recent, taken long after the original "tricks of the trade" had been exposed (or double exposed).

A man named Colin Evans is shown in a photo taken in 1938, amid an auditorium full of people. The photo was taken using infrared light in a completely darkened room. Evans has risen into the air -- levitating, as D.D. Home, St. Joseph of Cupertino, and St. Teresa of Avila are said to have done. No means of aerial support are visible. And the audience members, including those right next to him, are looking not at Evans but at the seat he occupied when the lights went out. Supposing he had somehow leaped from a sitting position into the air,where he is shown to be almost vertical, it is hard to imagine that even in a darkened room no one would have heard or sensed it. And to have faked the whole scene would have required the cooperation of dozens of people, which a charlatan photographer could scarcely have expected would stay a secret for long.

For serios evidence -- excuse me, I mean serious evidence -- you should also consider a number of "thoughtographs" produced in experiments in the 1960s. Ted Serios, a boozehound and ne'er-do-well from the American midwest, appeared to have a singular talent: the ability to transfer his own visualized images to Polaroid film. Several examples are shown at the Met. The Serios phenomena, like practically everything else in the history of psychical research, are controversial, endlessly "debunked" and defended.

Whatever you want to make of the Serios "thoughtographs" or any other exhibits in "Photography and the Occult," they do not approach scientifically acceptable proof for post-mortem survival, energy fields, mediumship, or such. That, however, is not grounds for dismissing the paranormal.

In his book The Paranormal, Stan Gooch writes:
... It is not the case that the alternative universe is mysterious in itself. It is mysterious only to us. For our nervous system is poorly equipped to understand the paranormal. ...

The alternative universe -- I should really say universes -- of the paranormal do have their own laws and their own coherent existence. It is the case, however, that these in no way resemble those of the objective universe. They simply bear no relation to the rules of every day. This, in brief, is why the application of science and the scientific method to the paranormal not only produces no results, but rather literally causes the phenomena to disappear.
Although I question many of the conclusions in Gooch's book (and think that last quoted sentence is probably an overstatement), I do believe he is basically on the right track here. When we look for physical proof of a non-physical reality, or one whose "matter" exists in a more subtle realm than what we normally perceive, it's like trying to catch water in a butterfly net.

"Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."

Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)

Saturday, November 05, 2005


I'll be away from home base for several days and expect to do no posting until at least Friday, November 11. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, check out the sites on the sidebar to the right. A number of good books also exist. I'll tell you about one of them when I resume.

Until then, then. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Dumb pleases

DumbJon, who posts at House of Dumb, could easily be an understudy for Mark Steyn and should be better known than he appears to be.

Jon's beat is British (mostly) politics and how the mainstream media cover them. That hardly sets him apart from the crowd, but his style is both venomous and witty (one without the other won't do). He's among the best I've encountered in blogdom for holding the mirror up to the preening, self-congratulatory moralizing of professional conscience dispensers and apologists for wicked behavior by the Oppressed Group of the Week.

Here he is on the U.K.'s equivalent of the ACLU:
The Left’s opposition to anti-terrorist legislation isn’t based on any particular principle, except the principle of throwing their hand in with anyone who hates Britain. This is the sheer nihilism of the modern Left. Everything they ever believed has been proven to be nonsense, so now they don’t actually believe anything more concrete than vague fantasies of the Golden Age that will follow when they're no longer oppressed by the system, man. They’re a bunch of angry losers endlessly shrieking out their hatred for the civilization that seems to get along fine without following their asinine ideology. No wonder they get on so well with the Islamopaths.
On the ever-listing-to-port BBC's coverage of the violence between Muslim Asians and blacks in Birmingham:
Speaking personally, I loved the BBC’s coverage of the Birmingham riots. Plenty of folks may not know any better than to swallow the BBC's line about events in Iraq or Israel but the cat is well and truly out of the bag as far as Birmingham goes, and no amount of Beeboids interviewing each other about these totally inexplicable disturbances between unknown groups of people will put it back in again.

Perhaps sensing a sudden run on their credibility, the BBC has launched a counter-offensive to try and rescue themselves from public ridicule. To sum up their line: we lied because we’re so honest, or as the BBC puts it:

'Journalists at the BBC want to report fact, they want to be accurate. They don't want to be in a position where they report every rumour that springs from the rumour mill.'

Hey, anyone got an up to date body count for the New Orleans flood ?
Even if we assume that BBC policy has suddenly changed since they were reporting 10 000 floating dead in the French Quarter, we’re talking about information that was being reported by virtually every other MSM outlet and which has not been seriously questioned by anybody: just how does the BBC define ‘rumours’ ?
He can be more serious and socially conscious, though, as when he urges his countrymen to drink themelves to death for Britain.

Now if only there were more Brits like DumbJon and fewer scoundrels frozen in their tracks by fear of offending certified victim groups, the U.K. might have a future other than cringing dhimmitude.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The list

Here is a list of acts of wanton violence perpetrated by Muslims in a single year, 2004.

I know, I know — these were carried out by "extremists," supposedly a tiny minority among all the "moderate" Muslims. It's true, by definition: as soon as a moderate Muslim heeds the call to annihilate a few infidels, he becomes an extremist, so no taint of the act attaches to all those moderates.

Scroll down the list, please, reading each item. I know it's long, but I don't think you'll be bored. Shocked, probably, but not bored.

Then come back here and tell me Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia should be inviting Muslims to come and settle so they can be part of the beautiful multi-cultural mosaic. If, that is, you can go through the whole list and the words don't die on your tongue.

Test your Britishness

From today, it will become compulsory for would-be citizens to take a 45-minute Britishness exam of 24 questions to show a basic knowledge of national culture.

The Life in the UK test is aimed at those with a good grasp of English, who will be required to gain at least 75 per cent to get citizenship.

The Telegraph, November 1, 2005

Right, listen up, you lot. You think you've got what it takes to be a modern Brit? Here's your exam. Tick the box for the correct answer to each question. If you don't know, tick them all. It's a fiddle, but there's your first test passed. Right, get on with it then.

1. What time do the pubs open in Birmingham? (a) 9 a.m. (b) never, because they never close.
2. What time do the pubs close in Northampton? (a) 3 a.m. (b) never, because they never close.
3. Who has the best deals on hooded jackets? (a) Marks & Spencer (b) Selfridges (c) Noddy Peckwiths on the High Street, Crumpley
4. When you're served with an anti-social behaviour order, what agency do you call to get a lawyer for your defence? (a) The Discrimination Thought Crimes Board (b) Neighbours for Noise (c) The Social Justice for Criminals Action Group
5. When the magistrate at your ASBO hearing speaks to you, how do you address her? (a) "You wouldn't be half cute if you'd lose the glasses and get a spot of exercise, know what I mean?" (b) "Who asked you to open your gob, you sodding agent of the ruling class?"
6. When picked up for looting, what should your first statement be? (a) "What are you on about, mate? This telly fell off a bleedin' lorry" (b) "Private property's an insult to the underclass and it, like, makes me feel real bad when I see it, so I couldn't help meself" (c) "Looting, my arse! This is a statement of support for the Palestinian people!"
7. What is this country's national sport? (a) Playing the lottery (b) Fiddling tax returns (c) Competing with your mates to see who can drop the most litter on the pavement in 10 minutes (Marquis of Queensbury rules apply)
8. Employment is defined as (a) hanging with my mates (b) something that bloke at the agency keeps banging on about when I go to complain my dole cheque's late (c) not letting anybody mess with my turf
9. What is proper graffiti etiquette? (a) Don't write over anybody else's tag (b) Only write graffiti on walls in good neighbourhoods (c) Only diss white people, we're a multi-cultural country
10. What is the name of the Queen? (a) Er, Kylie? (b) Er, Diana? (c) Er, Camilla?

Applicants who are less accomplished at English can attend a combined language and citizenship class instead. They will be expected to complete the course but will not have to pass the exam to gain citizenship.

"I don't want to set the bar too high to deter people from applying," said Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister. "I believe we've achieved the appropriate balance."

The Telegraph, November 1, 2005