Month: October 2011

Pregnant women control birth to avoid Halloween

Fright night just got a little bit spookier. Pregnant women have their own little trick on Halloween – they seem able to time the delivery of their baby to avoid giving birth on this day.

Rebecca Levy at Yale School of Public Health and colleagues examined 1.8 million US birth records from 1996 to 2006, and found that birth rates dropped by 11.3 per cent on 31 October, when compared with the two-week window surrounding the date. The significant declines in deliveries on Halloween applied to natural births as well as scheduled caesarean and induced births….

Levy suggests that Halloween’s associations with death and evil are in direct contrast with the idea of creating life and may subconsciously affect a woman’s desire to give birth.” (via New Scientist).

The lure of horror

Horror eng..

Mind Hacks pointed me to this fascinating article from the current issue of The Psychologist, which explores the psychology of horror, why we like to be scared, and whether a greater psychological understanding could even guide horror writers and directors into even scarier territory. I would welcome that, as long as my cardiovascular health can tolerate being frightened out of my wits. I have always been a fan of horror films and relished the feeling of the eerie, but it has been a long time since I have been truly, disquietingly, scared by a movie-viewing experience.

Day-of-the-Dead-themed sand sculpture tribute to OWS

This is from a Padre Island sand-castle sculpting contest. The artist, Carl Jara writes, “Calavera del Toro… depicts Occupy Wall Street in a Day of the Dead satire. Created last weekend at Sand Castle Days in South Padre Island, Texas. A banker and a politician sit comfortably toasting their overflowing champagne flutes to the skull of their recently slain Wall Street bull, draped in a Golden Parachute.” (via Flickr, with thanks to Boing Boing)

Hallowe’en mannequin prank


“This 2009 video shows off a curiously effective Hallowe’en prank: the pranksters dressed a child-sized mannequin in a skeleton costume, then posed it, holding a candy-bag, in front of houses, rang the bell and ran off. The homeowners opened their door to find a silent, staring, motionless, costumed “child” — creepily clever. ” (via Boing Boing).

Giving the F.B.I. What It Wants

The Seal of the United States Federal Bureau o...

When Maryland educator and artist  Hasan Elahi was erroneously flagged as a would-be terrorist and investigated by the FBI, he decided to cooperate and given them all the information they needed to clear himself… and more, much much more. He found that overwhelming them with irrelevant meticulous edtail about your life protects your privacy as well as trying to hide. It sort of reminds me of what some people did to resist the draft in the ’70’s, trying to paralyze and overwhelm the system by sending tons of data, or even bricks, for inclusion in their Selective Service files. Elahi conceived of it as an art project, and more:


BlogOpen 2011: Hasan Elahi – Identity and Priv...

“What I’m doing is no longer just an art project; creating our own archives has become so commonplace that we’re all — or at least hundreds of millions of us — doing it all the time. Whether we know it or not.” 

(via NYTimes)

Happy Samhain

A reprise of my traditional Hallowe’en post of past years:

It is that time of year again. What has become a time of disinhibited hijinx and mayhem, and a growing marketing bonanza for the kitsch-manufacturers and -importers, has primeval origins as the Celtic New Year’s Eve, Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”). The harvest is over, summer ends and winter begins, the Old God dies and returns to the Land of the Dead to await his rebirth at Yule, and the land is cast into darkness. The veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead becomes frayed and thin, and dispossessed dead mingle with the living, perhaps seeking a body to possess for the next year as their only chance to remain connected with the living, who hope to scare them away with ghoulish costumes and behavior, escape their menace by masquerading as one of them, or placate them with offerings of food, in hopes that they will go away before the new year comes. For those prepared, a journey to the other side could be made at this time. It is fortunate that Hallowe’en falls on a Monday this year, as there is evidence that the pagan festival was celebrated for three days.

With Christianity, perhaps because with calendar reform it was no longer the last day of the year, All Hallows’ Eve became decathected, a day for innocent masquerading and fun, taking its name Hallowe’en as a contraction and corruption of All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints’ Day may have originated in its modern form with the 8th century Pope Gregory III. Hallowe’en customs reputedly came to the New World with the Irish immigrants of the 1840’s. The prominence of trick-or-treating has a slightly different origin, however.

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.

Jack-o’-lanterns were reportedly originally turnips; the Irish began using pumpkins after they immigrated to North AMerica, given how plentiful they were here.

The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.

According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.

Folk traditions that were in the past associated wtih All Hallows’ Eve took much of their power, as with the New Year’s customs about which I write here every Dec. 31st, from the magic of boundary states, transition and liminality.

The idea behind ducking, dooking or bobbing for apples seems to have been that snatching a bite from the apple enables the person to grasp good fortune. Samhain is a time for getting rid of weakness, as pagans once slaughtered weak animals which were unlikely to survive the winter. A common ritual calls for writing down weaknesses on a piece of paper or parchment, and tossing it into the fire. There used to be a custom of placing a stone in the hot ashes of the bonfire. If in the morning a person found that the stone had been removed or had cracked, it was a sign of bad fortune. Nuts have been used for divination: whether they burned quietly or exploded indicated good or bad luck. Peeling an apple and throwing the peel over one’s shoulder was supposed to reveal the initial of one’s future spouse. One way of looking for omens of death was for peope to visit churchyards

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

The Witches’ Sabbath aspect of Hallowe’en seems to result from Germanic influence, and fusion with the notion of Walpurgisnacht. (Familiar with the magnificent musical evocation of this, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain?) Although probably not yet in a position to shape mainstream American Hallowe’en traditions, Mexican Dia de los Muertos observances have started to contribute some delightful and whimsical iconography to our encounter with the eerie and unearthly as well.

What was Hallowe’en like forty or fifty years ago in the U.S. when, bastardized as it has become with respect to its pagan origins, it retained a much more traditional flair? For my purposes, suffice it to say that it was before the era of the pay-per-view ’spooky-world’ type haunted attractions and its Martha Stewart yuppification with, as this irreverent Salon article from several years ago [via walker] puts it, monogrammed jack-o’-lanterns and the like. Related, a 1984 essay by Richard Seltzer, frequently referenced in other sources, entitled “Why Bother to Save Hallowe’en?”, argues as I do that reverence for Hallowe’en is good for the soul.

“Maybe at one time Hallowe’en helped exorcise fears of death and ghosts and goblins by making fun of them. Maybe, too, in a time of rigidly prescribed social behavior, Hallowe’en was the occasion for socially condoned mischief — a time for misrule and letting loose. Although such elements still remain, the emphasis has shifted and the importance of the day and its rituals has actually grown.…(D)on’t just abandon a tradition that you yourself loved as a child, that your own children look forward to months in advance, and that helps preserve our sense of fellowship and community with our neighbors in the midst of all this madness.”

That would be anathema to certain segments of society, however. Hallowe’en certainly inspires a backlash by fundamentalists who consider it a blasphemous abomination. ‘Amateur scholar’ Isaac Bonewits details academically the Hallowe’en errors and lies he feels contribute to its being reviled. Some of the panic over Hallowe’en is akin to the hysteria, fortunately now debunked, over the supposed epidemic of ‘ritual Satanic abuse’ that swept the Western world in the ’90’s.

The horror film has become inextricably linked to Hallowe’en tradition, although the holiday itself did not figure in the movies until John Carpenter took the slasher genre singlehandedly by storm. Googling “scariest films”, you will, grimly, reap a mother lode of opinions about how to pierce the veil to journey to the netherworld and reconnect with that magical, eerie creepiness in the dark (if not the over-the-top blood and gore that has largely replaced the subtlety of earlier horror films).

In any case: trick or treat!

What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?

LONDON - JUNE 15:  (FILE PHOTO) Steve Jobs, Ch...

Writer Steve Silberman, who studied with the same Buddhist teacher as Jobs, reflects on the surprising sincerity and depth of Jobs’ Buddhist practice. In so doing, we have a microcosm of the history of the last several decades of Buddhism in the West. (via NeuroTribes).

all hallow’s read

Scary books for all ages for this Halloween. all hallow’s read. Based on Neil Gaiman’s suggestion here that:

… on Hallowe’en or during the week of Hallowe’en, we give each other scary books. Give children scary books they’ll like and can handle. Give adults scary books they’ll enjoy.

Has ‘Indie’ Become ‘Adult Contemporary’?

The Starbucks store at 1912 Pike Place. This i...

Are we seeing ‘…the evolution of a style of music (and musicians) once beloved for its outsider ethos and “authenticity” into something that has been characterized as, variously, “dad rock,” “for sale next to the register at Starbucks” or, even… “NPR Muzak”…? (via The Record : NPR).

Rushkoff: OWS is not a protest, but a prototype for a new way of living

Photo by Paul May

“…But “Occupy” is anything but a protest movement. That’s why it has been so hard for news agencies to express or even discern the “demands” of the growing legions of Occupy participants around the nation, and even the world. Just like pretty much everyone else on the planet, occupiers may want many things to happen and other things to stop, but the occupation is not about making demands. They don’t want anything from you, and there is nothing you can do to make them stop. That’s what makes Occupy so very scary and so very promising. It is not a protest, but a prototype for a new way of living….” — Douglas Rushkoff (via Boing Boing).

Inside the mind of the octopus

‘Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind. But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals—creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago—have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities. Their findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness itself.’ (via Orion Magazine).

Patriot Act Turns 10, With No Signs of Retirement

George W. Bush

A decade after Bush’s signature, information is sketchy about how the law is being used in practice: ‘…despite its namesake of “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,” the law seemingly is being invoked far more to target domestic crime than for fighting terrorism.

The act, which has remained largely the same since President George W. Bush signed the legislation six weeks after 9/11, among other things gives the government powers to acquire phone, banking and other records via the power of a so-called “national security letter,” which does not require a court warrant.

National security letters, perhaps the most invasive facet of the law, are written demands from the FBI that compel internet service providers, financial institutions and others to hand over confidential records about their customers, such as subscriber information, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and arguably websites you have visited.

The FBI need merely assert, in writing, that the information is “relevant” to an ongoing terrorism or national security investigation. Nearly everyone who gets a national security letter is prohibited from even disclosing that they’ve received one (the automatic gag order provision was struck down in a rare legal loss for the Patriot Act, but they persist in practice). More than 200,000 letters have been issued by the FBI.

Amendments requiring that the letters seek data relevant to a “terror” investigation have failed.’ (via

5 Reasons You Should Make Your Kid’s Halloween Costume

Children dressed up in Halloween costumes.

‘Remember that Target commercial last year that poked fun at homemade Halloween costumes? Some people, including me, were not too fond of the message it sent. This year at New York Comic Con, the GeekDads and GeekMoms hosted a discussion panel and my topic was “five reasons you should build your kid’s costume.”  ‘ (via

Elizabeth Warren: ‘I Created Occupy Wall Street’



‘The Harvard professor has spooked the right. As she begins her high-profile Senate campaign against GOP star Scott Brown in Massachusetts, the consumer advocate tells Samuel P. Jacobs how she created much of the intellectual foundation for the Occupy Wall Street movement.’ (via The Daily Beast).

A panoply of moons and rings

“That stunning shot is from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. The big moon is Titan, and by big, I mean bigger than the planet Mercury. Big enough to have a thick nitrogen atmosphere, clearly visible in this picture. The bright moon superposed right on top of Titan is Dione, its icy surface shiny and white.

On the right, just outside the rings, is tiny, flying saucer-shaped Pandora. And the fourth moon? That’s Pan, the tiny white spot in the gap in the rings on the left, barely visible in this shot. But that’s understandable, since Pan is less than 30 km (18 miles) across, and this was taken from a distance of nearly 2 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) away!

I love pictures like this; they remind me that even after 7 years of Cassini touring around Saturn, there’s still much to see and much beauty to behold there.” (via Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine).

Last Nuclear ‘Monster Weapon’ Gets Dismantled

‘Out at the Energy Department’s Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, the last of America’s B-53s is in storage. Come Tuesday, it will be dissected: The 300 pounds of high explosives will be separated from its enriched uranium heart, known as a “pit.” The pit will be placed into a storage locker at Pantex, where it will await a final, highly supervised termination.

“It’s the end of the era of monster weapons, if you will,” says Hans Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of the American Scientists.

First brought into the U.S. nuclear stockpile in 1962, the B-53 was so big because it was so dumb. With poor precision mechanisms for finding a target — “Its accuracy was horrendous,” Kristensen says — what it lacked in smarts it made up in strength. The nukes that vaporized Hiroshima were a mere 12 kilotons; the B53 provided nine megatons — 9,000 kilotons — of destructive power.’ (via Wired)

When humans play dead

Grass snake playing dead and showing the uniqu...

‘When a rabbit or other animal is trapped by a predator, it will freeze and assess the situation. It might then flee or attack, what we usually call the “fight or flight response”. If that fails, a last-ditch defence mechanism is to go completely immobile, to play dead.

Researchers in Brazil now say that in times of grave danger, this same automatic last resort is also exhibited by humans and is experienced as a terrifying feeling of being “locked-in”. The team led by Eliane Volchan performed what they describe as the first lab-study of “tonic immobility” in humans, and they argue that greater awareness of the response could help our understanding of people’s reactions in real-life situations. For example, rape victims often experience shame after not resisting physically, and in some jurisdictions their passive response is interpreted as a sign of consent. Similarly, police officers and related professionals may be condemned for not reacting proactively in danger situations.’ (via BPS Research Digest).

Steven Pinker: ‘Humans are less violent than ever’

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker

‘Pessimists, anti-capitalists, conservatives and greens, take note – we are much more peaceful now than we used to be, says the psychologist.’  (via  New Scientist).

Sweet-toothed and sweet natured

‘Brian Meier and his team had dozens of students rate the agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism of 100 people, based on pictures of their faces and a strap-line identifying each person’s preference for a particular food, such as “I like grapefruit”. People who said they liked a sweet food were judged by the students as more agreeable, suggesting that we implicitly recognise that a taste for sweet things is grounded in a sweet personality.

Are people right to make this implicit assumption? Further studies suggested so. Students who rated their own personality as more agreeable also tended to have a stronger preference (than their less agreeable peers) for sweet foods and drinks. Among a different set of students, a stronger preference for sweet foods correlated positively with their willingness to volunteer their time, unpaid, for a separate unrelated study – considered by the researchers as a sign of prosocial behaviour.’ (via BPS Research Digest).

Our Fondness for Not Thinking

Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman

Jonah Lehrer on Daniel Kahneman’s New Book: 

‘(Princeton psychologist) Daniel Kahneman’s … disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way that we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents, Mr. Kahneman and his scientific partner, the late Amos Tversky, demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe…’ (via WSJ).

Bill Maher NAILS IT

Bill Maher at the PETA screening of I Am An An...

‘…New Rule: Republicans have to stop calling the Wall Street protesters “hippies”. Yes, they’re peeing outdoors, and having sex in sleeping bags, or as Bristol Palin calls it, “dating”. But they’re not hippies!

The hippies are all gone. Woodstock was 42 years ago. Forget the brown acid, the people who were at Woodstock are now taking the blue Viagra. “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, refers to their hearing aids. Wavy Gravy is 75 years old. He’s making wavy gravy in his pants.

Now, last Saturday, I was in our nation’s capital, and I had the chance to see for myself what was going on when I visited Occupy DC. Everyone was extraordinarily well-behaved, and contrary to reports, I was not offered a single marijuana cigarette. And I’m a little insulted. All right, someone did give me a magic mushroom, and it did blow my mind, and I thank you, Senator McConnell. And sorry about your eyebrows, I’m sure they’ll grow back.

Anyway, the next morning, when I woke up bloody and naked in the woods, I had a relevation… I mean, a revelation. Of course conservatives want to make this about hippies, because they like to live in the past! Rush Limbaugh, who really is too square to be a drug addict, said, “When the free drugs run out, when the free sex runs out, they’ll get bored and move on to something else.”

Oh that’s right, Grandpa. Look at them, strumming their sitars and wearing dungarees. Whatever happened to the good old days of segregation and date rape? But I get it. You’re bitter because we fought a culture war in the ’60s and the Right lost. Rick Santorum is like that Japanese soldier on the island who doesn’t know the war is over, so he’s still fighting against birth control and butt sex.

Plus, Republicans are now mostly a Southern party, and if there’s one thing Southerners don’t do well, it’s lose a war and get over it. (audience applause) But that war is indeed over. The ideals of the youth movement became assimilated into American society. That’s why we have gays in the military now, and pre-natal yoga classes, and tofurkey. And that’s why Rick Santorum will never be President, and a black guy who snorted cocaine is. (audience applause)

It’s also why there’s not going to be a repeat of what happened the last time the hippies were in the streets. Those hard hats that you’re depending on to turn against the lousy hippies? Heh. Here’s what they’re doing now. They’re cheering them on. (audience applause) Because now, the hard hats are just as broke as everybody else.

These people down there, they’re not the counter-culture. They’re the culture. (audience applause) They don’t want free love. They want paid employment. (audience applause) They don’t hate capitalism. They hate what’s been done to it. (audience applause)

And they resent the Republican mantra that the market perfectly rewards the hard-working and punishes the lazy, and the poor are just jealous moochers who want a handout. Yeah, because if there’s one group of people who hate handouts, it’s Wall Street…’ (via Daily Kos).

Toward the first starship

‘…[H]ere in Orlando, not far from the launching site of the space program’s most triumphant achievements, the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, drew hundreds this month to a symposium on the 100-Year Starship Study, which is devoted to ideas for visiting the stars.

Participants — an eclectic mix of engineers, scientists, science fiction fans, students and dreamers — explored a mix of ideas, including how to organize and finance a century-long project; whether civilization would survive, because an engine to propel a starship could also be used for a weapon to obliterate the planet; and whether people need to go along for the trip. (Alternatively, machines could build humans at the destination, perhaps tweaked to live in non-Earth-like environs.)…’ (via NYTimes)


Real ‘Sybil’ Admits Multiple Personalities Were Fake

‘When Sybil first came out in 1973, not only did it shoot to the top of the best-seller lists — it manufactured a psychiatric phenomenon. The book was billed as the true story of a woman who suffered from multiple personality disorder. Within a few years of its publication, reported cases of multiple personality disorder — now known as dissociative identity disorder — leapt from fewer than 100 to thousands. But in a new book, Sybil Exposed, writer Debbie Nathan argues that most of the story is based on a lie.’ (via NPR).

Psychopathic killers: Computerized text analysis uncovers the word patterns of a predator

Strongly supporting the conception that psychopathy is defined by predatory, nonempathic, disconnected self-justification: ‘Psychopaths used more conjunctions like “because,” “since” or “so that,” implying that the crime “had to be done” to obtain a particular goal. They used twice as many words relating to physical needs, such as food, sex or money, while non-psychopaths used more words about social needs, including family, religion and spirituality. Unveiling their predatory nature in their own description, the psychopaths often included details of what they had to eat on the day of their crime.’ (via MedicalXpress.

The Underbelly Project

Illegal Secret Subway Art in NYC: ‘It’s “an elusive pirate treasure of contemporary art” – an abandoned subway chamber under Manhattan that was illegally opened for a year starting in 2009 to allow 103 select artists to paint for one night each. Then it was sealed off from the world, the original entrance to the station removed. The Underbelly Project is a mysterious urban art experiment that seeks to subvert the commercialism that has overtaken much of the street art scene.’ (via WebUrbanist).

Keep It Up

Well, I too am old enough to remember taking to the streets in the 1960s and shaping policy, and I say, “Keep it up! Be the people these people are warning us about!”

The Ben Franklin Effect

Not so smart

I love this weblog, You Are Not So Smart, which explodes our assumptions about why we do the things we do. Here, it is the notion that we behave toward people according to how we feel about them. In reality, it is often the other way around; our feelings toward others will be post facto justifications for how we see ourselves acting toward them. This is because feeling justified, having a plausible explanation for our actions, is so essential. So if you can get someone who dislikes you to do a favor for you, their attitude toward you will change. And, perhaps more important, if you would like to cultivate an attitude of lovingkindness and dissipate your own bitter feelings toward someone, do a favor for them.

Faster than the speed of light? So what?

“If the result is true…, it does change everything. In particular, the likely explanation is that the neutrinos are taking a short-cut through one of the extra dimensions which string theory postulates are hidden among the familiar four of length, breadth, height and time. Measured along this five-dimensional route, Einstein might still be right. (It would not so much be that he made a mistake as that he did not know the whole story.) Indeed, moving beyond four dimensions in this way would also allow physicists to try to integrate Einstein’s work with quantum theory, the other great breakthrough of 20th-century physics, but one which simply refuses to overlap with relativity. A unified theory of everything, including perhaps as many as 11 dimensions, would then beckon.” (via The Economist).

Got War? Blame the Weather

“Climate shifts were a statistically significant cause of social disturbance, war, migration, epidemics, famine, and nutritional status, the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And climate caused famines, economic downturns, and catastrophic human events far more often than did any of the other 14 variables. The most direct way in which extreme climate shifts influence human society is through agriculture, Zhang says; a falling supply of crops will drive up the price of gold and cause inflation. Similarly, epidemics can be exacerbated by famine. And when people are miserable, they are likely to become angry with their governments and each other, resulting in war.” (via ScienceNOW).

Dark Energy FAQ

Everything you need to know about dark energy. How do we know it exists? What might it actually be? What is the “coincidence problem”? All this and more explained in clear, easy to grasp fashion. (via Discover Magazine).

Was Obama Right to Kill a U.S. Citizen?

Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen October 2008, ta...
Anwar al-Awlaki

Not that I agree with this, but it is worth saying:

‘For the first time since the days of Abraham Lincoln, an American president has ordered the killing of a U.S. citizen, far from any battlefield or courtroom.

And like Abraham Lincoln, Obama has saved the constitution and the country by defending it against a nihilistic and narrow reading of the constitution that would prevent the country from protecting itself.

This has shocked the American Civil Liberties Union, Ron Paul, legal scholars, and libertarians, who have long argued that the constitution’s Fifth Amendment, which says that no citizen shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” means that the constitution bars killing non-combatants without a trial. Since Awlaki had not been convicted in a proper court or hasn’t been killed while shooting at American soldiers, they contend, his killing is unconstitutional. A side argument, beloved by the ACLU, is that the method of deciding who goes on the CIA target list is secret and therefore an illegal violation of due process.

These are clever arguments, but wrong.’ (via The Daily Beast).