Friday, September 25, 2009

Busy Busy Busy

And here I thought I would have more time to update the blog now that fall is here! So much for that idea.

The good news is that I'm in the process of working out publishing deals for both Operant Magick, my textbook on ritual magick that I've mentioned here before, and Arcana, a fictional novel about magicians. Unfortunately that plus working full time means I have less time to update the blog that I would ideally like. I'm also working on getting the archive stories put together and posted, and hopefully I'll have time to get some of that done soon. In the meantime, here are some recent news stories that touch on religion, spirituality, and in one case just plain Fortean weirdness. Enjoy!

Nepal suffers a goat shortage just days before a major religious festival honoring the Hindi goddess Durga.

"Kathmandu city faces a shortage of goats during the festival, which always brings a high demand for goat meat," Bijaya Thapa, deputy general manager at the Nepal Food Corporation, told AFP.

"We are bringing goats in to ease the supply and to control dramatic price hikes."

Goats and other animals are traditionally slaughtered during the 15-day festival, which begins on September 19, to appease the Hindu goddess of power, Durga.

Officials have been tasked with persuading farmers to sell their livestock in rural areas, where the government has posted adverts calling on people to sell their goats.

Thapa said the price of the animals had risen by around 25 percent in the capital as the festival approached, and the government was hoping to bring in around 6,000 of them.

Here's a question for anyone who might happen to know - how do I go about starting my own banana sex cult?

A cult leader in Papua New Guinea fled naked into the jungle after being confronted by police over allegations that he'd forced followers to have sex in public, with the promise that it would boost the banana harvest.

The man, identified as Thomas Peli, told his followers that the banana harvest would increase every time they had sex in public, according to the Parpua New Guinea Post-Courier - and he reinforced his demands for public fornication with threats of violence.

Maybe this next story means there's somebody in Cameroon who can finally teach me how to cast a lightning bolt!

A lightning bolt that struck a school, killing five children has been blamed on witchcraft by a traditional ruler in northwest Cameroon.

State radio said that 58 other children went into shock after the lightning bolt hit the small village school on Tuesday. A teacher said the bolt hit at the beginning of the school day.

The Virgin Mary has apparently visited Samoa. Unfortunately for believers, it's very possible for normal weathering and thermal effects to create images that vaguely resemble the traditional representation of the Virgin Mary, but since no picture accompanies the story I'll reserve judgment for now.

The image caused by weathering on the outside of the six-storey office building in the capital Apia has been the focus of prayer vigils on Monday and Tuesday night.

Although the image has not been officially recognised by the South Pacific nation's Catholic Church, which especially reveres the mother of Jesus Christ, a church spokesman said it represented an important message.

"This is something people should look deeply into," said Father Spatz Silva, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archbishop.

Forteans want to know: what the hell is this thing?

A slimy, glob-like creature dubbed Gollum has terrified children after it slithered out of a lake and clambered over the rocks towards them.

The young teenagers were playing by the waterfront in a Panama lake near Cerro Azul when the bald beast emerged from a cave behind a waterfall. They started screaming as it shuffled out "as if to attack them".

Locals told Panama news the monster was like "Gollum from Lord of the Rings".

Experts believe that the strange animal could be some sort of sloth, but whether it's a bizarre mutation, a new species, or even the result of some sort of magical experimentation is hard to determine without further investigation.

Finally, Salon has an amusing write-up today listing many of the failed predictions regarding the time and date of the Apocalypse that have been made over the last several centuries. I had heard of most of these previously, such those made by the Millerites, but there are also a few more recent ones on the list that I wasn't aware of.

In a poll from earlier this decade, 17 percent said they expected the world to end in their lifetime. Perhaps that's why, even though Jesus may have admonished that no man knows the day and hour, so many people can't resist making a pseudo-educated guess about the day and hour.

One of the more popular theories making the rounds lately has centered on the Mayan calendar, which runs out in 2012. You get the drift -- don't make any plans for 2013. The New Agey claptrap is popular enough that it inspired Roland Emmerich's upcoming apocalypse-porn blockbuster "2012," due in multiplexes everywhere this November.

With a hat tip to the citizens of New Jersey, Roland Emmerich and the ancient Mayans, we present this honor roll of doomsday panics and false messiahs -- a whole lot of past predictions that didn't pan out, and a few more current revelations that are looking iffy. This is the way the world doesn't end. No bang, lots of whimpers.

I find linking 2012 with the end of the world especially silly. We have very little information about Mayan religion and magick and what we do have doesn't address why they drew out their calendar in such a way that it ends in that particular year. There are no Mayan prophecies, predictions, or anything else associated with 2012 - it just happens to be when their calendar runs out. We can probably blame much of the current hysteria on the Spanish conquistadors who decided that it would be a smart move to burn the vast majority of Mayan codices, some of which might have explained why the calendar was set up the way it was. In my opinion it is this very lack of information that fuels most of the New Age speculation about the Mayan calendar and civilization.

I suppose if the world really does end in 2012 I'll owe somebody an apology for my skepticism, but then if we're all dead I'm guessing the whole question will be academic.

UPDATE: There's this idea that the entire Mayan civilization disappeared, but that's not true. There are still plenty of Maya in parts of the Yucatan peninsula to this day, and according to them there's no apocalypse on its way. If that doesn't settle the question I don't know what will.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Your Own Dan Brown Bestseller

Author Dan Brown unveiled his latest novel, The Lost Symbol, this week. The novel is a sequel to The Da Vinci Code and continues the adventures of Robert Langdon, the "professor of symbology" featured in both the aforementioned book and Angels and Demons. Have you ever wished that you could write your own Dan Brown bestseller? Well, now you can, thanks to modern technology. Slate introduces the Dan Brown Sequel Generator! Just select your city and a nefarious group up to no good and the computer does the rest. It's too bad that it only writes plot summaries, not full novels, since one well-received book of this sort can make an entire writing career, just like The Da Vinci Code did for Dan Brown. I've heard that prior to the media frenzy surrounding that particular novel none of Brown's books had sold more then ten thousand copies, but as we all know that one bestseller changed everything for him. His older books have now sold in the millions as well and Angels and Demons was made into a film. With its pre-Da Vinci sales numbers that never would have happened.

Years ago students at M.I.T. developed a romance novel generator, but I haven't heard anything about that particular technology in many years and am left wondering what became of it. Especially with today's more advanced computers it should be possible to build a much more complex program that could produce something akin to a Dan Brown novel. It's not as if the computer's fact base needs to be all that accurate - Slate also points out that there's no such thing as a "professor of symbology" and that the new novel set in Washington DC gets a lot of things wrong about the city. To be fair to Brown I did enjoy both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons for what they were, so it might be a bit of challenge to program a computer with the necessary language skills to build suspense and keep the story moving along at a brisk pace. As a writer I know there's a lot of nuance involved that very well might still test the limits of artificial intelligence, and as a software developer that strikes me as pretty compelling problem to solve.

By the way, is it just me or does the cover of The Lost Symbol look suspiciously similar to the cover of Rhonda Byrne's The Secret? If the resemblance isn't coincidental, maybe it's a teaser for Brown's next novel in which followers of The Secret and that What the Bleep? movie kidnap a famous quantum physicist and threaten to banish one fundamental particle from reality by the power of concentrated attention each hour unless the National Academy of Sciences issues a proclamation declaring that all objects in the universe are constructed from thought rather than matter. In the climactic scene, Robert Langdon could defeat the cultists by demonstrating that positive thinking can't stop a bullet fired at the group's leader and then taking advantage of the ensuing confusion to escape with the physicist and Marlee Matlin. Matlin could even play herself in the inevitable film, and maybe we could give Byrne and that "messages in water" guy bit parts.

Hey, that sounds like a winner to me! Now where's my royalty check?

UPDATE: I finally came across a review of The Lost Symbol that summarizes the plot, and it sounds like the teaser is for this novel, not the next one. The plot actually does have to with "water memory" and that What the Bleep? nonsense, except with Freemasons. So much for my great idea - but maybe they can still get Marlee Matlin to be in the movie.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Research Idea: The EMF Meter

I've been watching a lot of Ghost Hunters lately and one of the paranormal investigation tools that I find fascinating is the EMF meter. The theory in paranormal research is that the presence of a spirit can be measured by this device, and if an EMF spike is detected in the course of an investigation that has no physical source such as unshielded electrical wiring it can be taken as evidence of the possible presence of a spirit. Paranormal investigators even have a type of EMF detector called a K-II meter that can sometimes be used successfully to communicate with spirits at a haunted location.

One of the issues that we discussed on this blog awhile back is the way in which many traditional evocation practitioners look for some sort of objective evidence of the spirit's presence rather than relying on subjective mechanisms such as intuition or a psychic sense of its manifestation. I'm in agreement that some sort of objective measurement would be useful even though my psychic sense is generally pretty good, but I also am not interested in the spirits I summon burning up the energy that could otherwise be put into manifesting my magical intent on silly parlor tricks like moving objects or making noises.

It seems to me that using an EMF detector in conjunction with a magical ritual might be a happy medium between these two perspectives. So long as you can verify that your temple is free of electrical interference and spirits really do produce small electromagnetic fields, an EMF detector should be able to sense the presence of a spirit when it manifests without the spirit expending any additional energy. This model seems perfect - it is inexpensive and unlike the EMF detectors generally used by ghost hunters it has an external probe connected to the detector that could be placed within the triangle or on top of the Sigillum Dei Aemeth.

If this method turns out to work to detect summoned spirits it opens up a number of new avenues for paranormal research. In particular, the next test I would try is to see if the strength of the electromagnetic field corellates to the probability shift produced by the ritual. If I can show some sort of relationship between the two, it would give the aspiring magician the ability to predict the effectiveness of a spell as it is cast and would also constitute a pretty significant breakthrough in terms of understanding the nature of conjured spirits and how they work.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm going to pick up one of these detectors soon and try it out and I'll keep you all posted on how it goes. In the meantime, has anybody else out there tried this or something similar? If so, did it work?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Deconstructing Harry

In the film Adaptation, Charlie Kaufmann's fictional alter-ego jokingly suggests to his also fictional twin brother that the serial killer in the brother's screenplay should cut off pieces of his victims' bodies until they die, and that he could call himself "The Deconstructionist." If you haven't seen the film that probably doesn't make much sense, but it was the first image that came to mind when I happened upon this literary deconstruction of the Harry Potter series over the long weekend. The author of this little treatise has done an enormous amount of work going through just about everything that could possibly be linked to certain aspects of the novels, and while a number of these associations seem like pretty unbelievable stretches to me the piece still makes for some interesting reading.

The most glaring misconception of the whole thing, to my way of thinking, is in treating the Harry Potter series like serious literature in the first place. As one critic commented, the series is essentially "Tom Clancy for kids," a collection of adventure stories that are mostly plot-driven and involve navigating the main characters through a long series of extreme events interspersed with shallow character development and a bit of comic relief. It strikes me as profoundly unlikely that much thought went into the possible deeper interpretations of the book as it was being written aside laying out the basic plot and integrating various concepts from Western esotericism without much understanding of what they imply. Still, literary criticism does not end with the author's intent, and it may be that a plot-heavy saga like the Potter series actually absorbs more from the surrounding culture than a more intricate and introspective work might.

Our would-be Deconstructionist begins with a Preface that sets the foundation for the literary criticism that is to follow. The basic premise seems to be that the fundamental problem he or she will be examining is that while the Potter series is a work of fantasy it preserves much of what is wrong with the real world and simply "amplifies" those problems by infusing them with the device of magick. My take on this is a little different - in essence, it sounds to me like the criticism here is that the series is not escapist or utopian enough. But is escapism really such a good thing? One point that I think the Potter series does make well is that by itself magick doesn't necessarily fix anything, and if it's used in the wrong way it can make things a whole lot worse.

In CHAPTER ONE – Psychology and Injustice, the author puts forth the thesis that the character of Harry Potter displays many symptoms of what in the real world might be called mental illness. For me this is a real non-starter in that the same criticisms could be applied to just about any action hero. Harry is narcissistic - but the whole plot really does revolve around him. Harry has a tendency to resort to violence - but look at most action stories and you will find a hero who does the same. Furthermore, a number of the examples of this that the author uses involve children of Junior High School age, and let me tell you, I was on the receiving end of plenty of violence at that age and so were most of my nerdy friends. In a lot of cases that really is how kids are. It is true that anyone who believes all the things found in the wizarding world to be real could reasonably be considered schizophrenic, but those things are the reality of the world detailed in the series. In addition, I think that Harry's apparent lack of introspection is due to the plot-heavy style of the books that limit character development rather than some sort of social or political commentary that was either deliberately inserted by Rowling or unintentionally absorbed from the culture around her.

In CHAPTER THREE – Nature and Technology, the author's criticism turns to one of the few things about magick that I think the Potter series gets right. Contrasting the series with the works of Tolkien and Lewis, one of the main differences in the Potter series is that magick is not treated as "natural" and positioned as the enemy of "unnatural" technology. Instead, it goes with the perspective that I consider to be essentially true in the real world - magick is a kind of technology. By limiting the role of consciousness in the casting of spells the Potter series does make a different kind of error, in that spiritual realization has a lot to do with how effective real magick is, but at the same time the division of "natural" and "unnatural" is even more ridiculous. Isn't it true that everything in existence, including both magick and material technology, is a part of nature?

The next chapter, CHAPTER FIVE – Odds and Ends, contain what I consider to be some of the more dubious associations of the whole piece. Tolkien and Lewis are certainly influences on the Potter series, but given the degree to which the series steals from just about every fantasy trope it would be difficult to imagine a similar story which did not. Furthermore, trying to compare Rowling with James Joyce is just plan ridiculous. Granted, a few of the character names are similar between the works of Rowling and Joyce and there also appear to be a few structural similarities, but when you get right down to it the "talent gap" between the two writers is pretty vast, at least from a literary perspective.

In the final section, EPILOGUE, the author notes that whether or not the criticism leveled by this series of articles is correct, it still constitutes a thought-provoking analysis of the series. In this I agree - I wouldn't be responding to it here if I didn't. I furthermore agree that critical thinking is a vital part of childrens' education that is often overlooked in our culture and the lack of it among adults is a real detriment to our society. Where I part company with the author is that I don't necessarily think it to be a problem that a lot of media entertainment doesn't teach those skills. Media, even reading, is to some degree a passive experience and as a student of psychology I have doubts as to whether or not the deepest and most introspective story in the world could really teach such skills. What is necessary for that is to reflect upon the concepts brought up in any piece of entertainment in a dynamic conversation that engages the mind of the reader. Media can't do that, only people can.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Did Witchcraft Spawn Zimbabwe Goatman?

As a few of you know several years ago I traveled to Prince George's County, Maryland, and shot some preliminary footage for a documentary film on the Goatman, a particularly amusing urban legend that sprang up around an agricultural research facility near the town of Beltsville. Supposedly, a scientist working there was somehow partially transformed into a goat, became insane as a result of his transformation, and still roams the countryside with a fire axe looking for courting couples. While there are no reports of any people killed by the Goatman, he is said to be responsible for the deaths of a number of pets over the years whose bodies were coincidentally found near railroads or highways looking more like the victims of speeding cars and trains than an inhuman monster whose very existence defies the laws of science.

Now a report from Zimbabwe suggests that the African nation may have its own infant Goatman. According to the story, a goat in the Lower Gweru region apparently gave birth to a human-like creature. Scientists denounced the claim as impossible, as no goat-human hybrid has ever been witnessed by a credible researcher.

In an interview with Chronicle yesterday, Midlands Provincial Veterinary Officer, Dr Thomas Sibanda, said it was scientifically impossible for a man to impregnate any animal.

“As far as I know it is not scientifically possible for a man to impregnate a beast unless of course it’s a miracle. A sheep and a goat can mate but they will never produce any product out of it,” he said.

Dr Sibanda said it was unfortunate that veterinary officers did not manage to travel to Lower Gweru to witness the strange “goat”.

Sibanda went on to suggest that creature may have been a goat born with some sort of deformity that altered its appearance rather than a half-human monster.

“It is common that an animal can be born with the hydrocephalus condition, a condition that causes an animal to have an abnormally big head full of water. This condition can cause the normal positions of the chin, nose and ears to shift,” said Dr Sibanda.

“We could have confirmed that the creature was a goat if we had seen it since we are experts in animals. To confirm whether it was a human thing you need medical doctors.”

Local residents, however, believe that the strange creature may be the result of witchcraft.

“We have heard stories of snakes with human heads, cows or donkeys that have given birth to goats or chickens. All such things are products of witchcraft,” said Mr Louis Nyathi of Mambo.

An inyanga who refused to be named said the strange goat could either be a product of a man and a goat or a result of witchcraft.

“There is a certain muti that only works when one is instructed to sleep with an animal or even your daughter. We do not know exactly the circumstances surrounding this issue but anything is possible.

Whatever the creature is, more light could be shed on the situation by allowing medical personel to examine it. So far this has not occurred, and no scientist has even laid eyes upon the supposed Goatman. It remains only a story told from one person to another, only a few of whom actually claim to have seen the bizarre beast. Science demands hard evidence, preferably a DNA test to settle the issue once and for all.

Perhaps like the Goatman of Prince George's County this one will survive in the years to come as a legend rooted in oral tradition with no clear basis in fact. First, though, the infant creature will have grow big enough to haul around that fire axe.