Ouija boards and what we want to believe

It’s too late for Hallowe’en, but Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Smithsonian Magazine article on “The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board” is worth a read if you’re at all interested in nineteenth-century history, or in the occult, or if you’ve ever played with one. Or if, like me, you’re at all interested in the limitations of science and of scientific thinking and in the ways Americans today think about religion. (My thoughts follow the jump.)

19th-century cartoon of a glutton

Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness

19th-century cartoon of a glutton

A hundred-odd years ago, gluttony was a sin, but fat men could be seen merely as successful. We seem to have reversed the calculus.

Some of the new research on possible causes of obesity is fascinating. New theories emerge continually, many of them at best inconsistent and at worst contradictory. But what interests me more is the debate that research sparks, which seems, at least in the popular arena, to be less about what actually causes obesity than about whose fault it is. It’s a subtle but important difference: the former is (largely, at least) a scientific question; the latter makes it a political or a philosophical one — and is, it seems to me, a thoroughly unhelpful approach.

Raining words and remonstration

The rain falls, and falls, and falls some more. The sky showers invective like a prophet of Israel. The storm lightens and I think it will end, but it has only paused for breath before resuming its tirade. Last night an inch sat in the plastic bin I’d neglected on the porch; this morning an index finger’s depth, three joints, three inches, give or take. By afternoon the bin was full, and still the rain falls: five inches? Six? A rain gauge offers needless precision, a mindless answer to mindless curiosity: did his listeners count Jeremiah’s words? But even Jeremiah nodded off eventually. Meanwhile the chickens, who bear most directly this philippic — as ever the poor and innocent take the brunt of the moralizing while the rich and guilty burrow under complacent roofs and watch through glass — the chickens cower under trees, hunker grumpily in the rising mud and release now and then a desolate squawk that pierces the white noise of the downpour. They too have a house, but the mist and dampness invade it, and they are not overly fond of close company nor, perhaps, sufficiently intelligent to think of it. Worms flee the flooded soil, out of the frying pan into the fire, or out of the sink and onto the plate: from the buckthorn a robin sings of his lunch. The wood is a swamp, my walking path a river in whose current a beetle drifts on a raft made of leaves. The downspout rumbles like a dump truck on the street. And now, at last, as if to compete, thunder — portending what? More of the same? Thunder missed his cue, sometime yesterday afternoon. Who has ears, listen, but no one is listening any longer, only wondering when it will end so we can join the birds for the doxology and go home to dinner.

A cultural sleep

Jessica Gamble describes new techniques and technologies whose inventors would radically reduce or eliminate the human need for sleep:

Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is a promising technology in the field of sleep efficiency and cognitive enhancement. Alternating current administered to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex through the thinnest part of the skull has beneficial effects almost as mysterious as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), its amnesia-inducing ancestor. Also known as ‘shock therapy’, ECT earned a bad name through overuse, epitomised in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and its 1975 film adaptation, but it is surprisingly effective in alleviating severe depression. We don’t really understand why this works, and even in today’s milder and more targeted ECT, side effects make it a last resort for cases that don’t respond to drug treatment. In contrast to ECT, tDCS uses a very mild charge, not enough directly to cause neurons to fire, but just enough to slightly change their polarisation, lowering the threshold at which they do so.

Using a slightly different technique — transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which directly causes neurons to fire — neuroscientists at Duke University have been able to induce slow-wave oscillations, the once-per-second ripples of brain activity that we see in deep sleep. Targeting a central region at the top of the scalp, slow-frequency pulses reach the neural area where slow-wave sleep is generated, after which it propagates to the rest of the brain. Whereas the Somneo mask is designed to send its wearers into a light sleep faster, TMS devices might be able to launch us straight into deep sleep at the flip of a switch. Full control of our sleep cycles could maximise time spent in slow-wave sleep and REM, ensuring full physical and mental benefits while cutting sleep time in half. Your four hours of sleep could feel like someone else’s eight. Imagine being able to read an extra book every week — the time adds up quickly.

The benefits are so obvious that Gamble doesn’t actually argue in favor of all this technological wonder and post-evolutionary glory; instead, she insists that no present-day person can logically argue against it:

The question is whether the strangeness of the idea will keep us from accepting it. If society rejects sleep curtailment, it won’t be a biological issue; rather, the resistance will be cultural…. Such attempts are likely to meet with powerful resistance from a culture that assumes that ‘natural’ is ‘optimal’. Perceptions of what is within normal range dictate what sort of human performance enhancement is medically acceptable, above which ethics review boards get cagey. Never mind that these bell curves have shifted radically throughout history. Never mind that if we are to speak of maintaining natural sleep patterns, that ship sailed as soon as artificial light turned every indoor environment into a perpetual mid-afternoon in May.

Setting aside, for the moment, the matter of sleep, there’s an interesting assumption lurking beneath that paragraph, and I think it’s worth ferreting out, because the opponents Gamble imagines share it.

The insignificance of man in the face of modern magazine publishing

Nothing demonstrates to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy like his inability to unsubscribe from a magazine.

(All right, fine: Lots of things demonstrate to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy. But this one is particularly stupid, and sufficiently banal that I can laugh at it, unlike, say, losing my job, which was less obviously humorous.)

Here’s what happened. I used to subscribe to a hipstery sort of design and decorating magazine called ReadyMade, full of the sort of things I’d have wanted to make and do in my impoverished twenties. I read it in my late thirties out of ironic nostalgia for my own youthful irony. That magazine went out of business with six months left on my subscription, which I had been unlikely to renew anyway, and the parent company (Globo-Zines Inc.) sent me Better Homes and Gardens instead, a thoroughly un-hipsterish and unironic publication and one whose design notions I had even less desire to emulate. I see that the two magazines have ostensibly the same purpose, but the demographics are completely different. The one ran ads for new releases by twee little indy bands; the other shills Campbell’s soup. And where ReadyMade at least pretended that you were actually going to do some of the projects described in its pages, Better Homes and Gardens doesn’t seem to. It seems designed solely to sell paint.

I usually ignore it until my daughter spots it and unsheaths it from its plastic wrapper. (ReadyMade didn’t come wrapped in plastic, but arrived with its cover charmingly, insouciantly crinkled.) She’s a junior art director, so she finds this kind of thing fascinating. Her contribution to Sunday dinner is folding the napkins into boots and butterflies. But even she can’t get anything out of BHG, except for one article in the December issue on tying bows from ribbon. Being homeschooled, and raised in part by me, she makes fun of it mercilessly.

A loss for words

This week I had to deal, second-hand, with someone deeply, personally, angrily offended by the indiscriminate use of vulgar language — not mine, and the circumstances really aren’t all that interesting, but it got me thinking in a meandering sort of way about why someone might or might not reasonably be offended by vulgar and obscene language. There are far more important things to be offended by (poverty, homelessness, random violence, endless war, greed, hatred, sex trafficking, the casual abstraction of human beings for profit, pleasure, politics and convenience), and language formerly known as “bad” is so ubiquitous that I’m not sure where anyone would escape it long enough to remain offended by it.

And yet, on reflection, I decided that that is precisely the problem: that words meant to be extreme are ubiquitous — and as a consequence it becomes more difficult to express ideas that really are extreme, even really important and good ones. I’m not arguing against any word or words, or even against “strong language” that transgresses the limits of what’s allowable in polite society. What bothers me the more I consider it is the normalization of that transgression. It seems to me a problem for two reasons. First, which ought to be fairly obvious, without some common ground of language strangers can’t safely have a conversation without fear of giving or taking offense. But second, and to me more interestingly, because normalizing transgression makes transgression impossible. If “strong language” becomes conversationally standard, there’s no way to express strong feelings. There is now no longer a word capable of expressing the sort of outrage that certain choice words once could.

Take a safely literary example: Victor Hugo’s retelling of the Battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. As the day wanes and the tide turns inexorably against the French a legion under the command of “an obscure officer whose name was Cambronne” sees the end nigh but will give up neither the field nor the Empire:

The vegetable plate as status symbol

I couldn’t cook much at twenty-one, but I knew how to stir-fry. I stopped on the way home for a pork chop, washed my bounty in the sink, and began seeding and slicing. A shame, really, to disembowl such beauty, but poor hungry students can afford to admire their dinner only but so long. Oil in the wok, some rice on the back burner, and into the pan they went. The sizzle! The aroma! The burning in my eyes from the vein-smoke of what I learned only much later was a habañero! Oh, and a glorious meal it was, too, even if it took a fortnight before the nerves in the soft of my cheeks healed. Gorgeous even in death, those peppers, a feast both exotic and rooting.

Area man still not eating his veggies

A school system in New York has dropped out of the federal school lunch program because the fruits and vegetables they’re forced to serve kids are winding up in the trash. The USDA has known for decades what’s needed to build a successful nutrition education program — one that actually changes people’s eating habits. But the confident language obscures just how hard it really is.