The First Dialectic

July 24, 2017

While sitting in a booth at The Deli Llama, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed Dialectical Materialism, a philosophical construct derived from one of their failed comedy routines. Let’s listen in on their conversation that fateful night…

Karl Marx:  Ach! What was up with that audience?

Friedrich Engels:  What was with you tonight?

KM: What?

FE: You had to have audience participation. Did I tell you to ask for audience participation? No. You had to have audience participation. It was your brilliant idea.

KM:  How was I to know they’d throw things?

FE:  And that stupid song of yours – who ever heard of a word that rhymes with “heuristics?” What kind of an idiot asks the audience for a word that rhymes with heuristics?

KM:  It sounded good at the time.

FE:  Moron. And what the hell is the “materialist conception of history?” Where do you get that stuff?

KM:  I was waiting for Sasha to finish her gruel so I could take her to kindergarten. I saw it on the side of her lunch box. I thought it might get a laugh.

FE:  Oh, by the way, genius—it’s “materialist dialectic,” not “dialectical materialism.”

KM:  Since when?

FE:  Since we started. It’s always been materialist dialectic.

KM:  Yeah, and no one laughed. Ever. Look what happened tonight—they were rolling on the floor.

FE:  That was the cheese. Roquefort isn’t supposed to be green.

KM:  You should talk. First it’s “geist”, then it’s “zeitgeist.” Make up your mind.

FE:  I wanted to get some concept of time in there, so I used zeitgeist. What’s the big deal?

KM:  You threw off my timing is what!

FE:  Like you know timing. You were supposed to pause after “thought is a reflection of the material world in the drain.”

KM:  It’s “brain,” you idiot—not drain!

FE:  Well, if you’re going to start quoting me on stage, you nitwit, it’s “ceaseless,” as in “All nature is a ceaseless state of movement and change.”

KM:  What did I say?

FE:  Creaseless.

KM:  It got a laugh.

FE:  We sounded like idiots up there tonight.

KM:  What if we focused more on materialism?  I heard this kid Lenin do a real funny bit on it at the Rathskeller. It was murder!


When House Arrest Really Is House Arrest

February 23, 2017

A Right Turn Into The 4th Dimension

Not too long ago, if you ran afoul of the law, were arrested and deemed a flight risk, you were locked up in the pokey until your trial. Granted, even in the good ol’ days money talked, and your lawyer could probably persuade a judge lenient or dimwitted enough to place you under house arrest. Today, though, when the courts let freedom ring, house arrest means wearing judicial bling – an ankle bracelet – to keep you within police radar range while you hobnob around the neighborhood, visit old haunts and even older friends, and continue to engage in the same illicit behavior that got you arrested in the first place.

But what if house arrest meant you were truly unable to leave the friendly confines of your quaint little crib? Imagine every front, side and back door that once opened to the outside world now only leads you to some other room within your own home. And every window that once held vistas of the Manhattan skyline or the Bronx County courthouse now only lets you peek into some other room of your own home.

Well, all this and more could be yours, penal contestants, if your dream house were suddenly transported from the 3rd dimension into the 4th dimension.

Turn Right

Now, those of you who finished the third grade and are conversant in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity are no doubt saying, “What the hell are you talking about, you idiot? Time is the 4th dimension! How do you move a house into time?” To which I say, Hold on there, Baba Looie. Let’s think of the 4th dimension as the next logical, geometric construct from the 3rd dimension.

For argument’s sake – and I’m writing this, so it’s my argument – let’s define the first three dimensions geometrically by saying that each dimension exists at a 90˚or right angle to the other. Length is the 1st dimension and width is the 2nd dimension. Width exists at a 90˚ or right angle to length; in other words, if length runs east to west (or west to east for those of you in Los Angeles), then width runs north to south. The 3rd dimension is set at a 90˚ or right angle to both length and width – this is height. As an example, consider a flagpole standing at the corner where Broadway and 96th Street intersect; the neon lights are not as bright at this end of Broadway, so the flagpole should stand out. Broadway represents length, 96th Street represents width, and the flagpole represents height, as well as one more thing to walk into if you’re not paying attention. Where length, width and height all intersect at the same point, we have the three distinct dimensions that define our physical world.

Following this logic, then, the 4th dimension would have to be set at a 90˚ or right angle to all of these three dimensions – length, width and height – simultaneously. Huh?

Let’s go back to the first two dimensions for a moment, shall we? Length and width define a plane, which is a flat surface like, say, a sheet of paper (or, perhaps, the top of one’s head). On this sheet of paper we shall draw a three-dimensional object, such as this cube.

cube

Now, a cube is made up of six faces or squares, and a square, of course, has four equal sides. In this two-dimensional representation, however, we actually only see three sides – the front, the top and the right; we cannot see the side on which the cube sits, nor do we see its left side or its, ahem, back side.

In order to give the above cube the illusion of depth, three lines forming part of the top and right faces of the cube are shortened and set at acute angles to the front face of the cube. Thus, the top and right faces of the cube are not really squares (Got that, daddy-o?), they are trapezoids, i.e., only two of the four sides are parallel. What you are seeing is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional cube; your brain fleshes out the parts unseen. Thus, whenever you see this pancaked version of a cube, you are conditioned to accept it as a three-dimensional object. N’est-ce pas?

Your New Home, Minus The Ceiling

Let’s now imagine how a home would be constructed in the 4th dimension. For years builders have constructed typical (typical?) three-dimensional homes by referring to plans drawn on a two-dimensional plane: a blueprint. To imagine, then, how a fourth-dimensional house would be represented in the 3rd dimension, let’s look from our three-dimensional perspective at a house built in a two-dimensional world.

With grateful acknowledgment to Edwin A. Abbott (1838-1926), let us take a look at a 6-room house in the town of Flatland somewhere in upstate New York, where everything, including the town’s residents, exists in only two dimensions. The house would look something like this:

North

untitled31

South

Clearly, the owner is colorblind or the hardware store had a closeout on paint. In any event, the house is laid out like a ranch house with every room on one level. The rooms are numbered 1 – 6. Each room has four walls, and every wall has a huge sliding glass door (Hey, the owner can do whatever he wants!). Each shared wall leads into an adjacent room; walls that are not shared lead outside the house. Thus, room #1 shares one wall, its south wall, with room #2; the west, north and east walls all lead outside the house. Room #2 is an interior room, sharing all four of its walls with the four adjacent rooms – the north wall is shared with room #1, the south wall is shared with room #3, the west wall is shared with room #5, and the east wall is shared with room #6. Room #3 shares two walls, its north wall with room #2 and its south wall with room #4. Room #4 shares only one wall, its north wall, with room #3. Room #5 shares only its east wall with room #2, and room #6 shares only its west wall with room #2. Everybody got that?

You can enter this house through any room that has a wall facing the outside except room #2, which is in the interior of the house. Rooms 1, 4, 5 and 6 have three walls with access into the house; room #3 has two such walls, the west and east walls. Thank goodness the house comes standard with indoor/outdoor carpeting.

Once inside the house, access to each room is somewhat limited. If you are in room #1, for example, the only way to get to rooms 5 or 6 is to pass through room #2; the same is true if you want to get to room #3. To get to room #4, you have to walk through room #2 and room #3, which at 3:00 AM is not likely to win you any brownie points from anyone who might be asleep there.

Well, We’re Movin’ On Up…

Now let’s “fold” this house into three-dimensional space. We do this by folding along each shared wall, just as you would fold a flat piece of paper with six connected squares into a cube. For those whose opposable thumbs leave them all thumbs, this house is in the shape of a cross, which makes this task rather easy.

First, fold room #4 up – i.e., into three-dimensional space – along its shared wall with room #3. Then fold all four sides of room #2 – i.e., along the walls it shares with rooms 1, 5, 6 and 3 – up into three-dimensional space. Finally, connect the south wall of room #4 with the north wall of room #1 and, voila, we have a cube–er, three-dimensional house.

Now, one way to represent our now three-dimensional house in two-dimensional space is to draw it as a cube, as we did above. If we wish to see all the rooms, though, a combination of trapezoids and rectangles is needed to give the impression that we are looking into a three-dimensional cube.

house1 frontback1

The figure on the left is a view of our house looking through room #1 back to room #3, the smaller rectangle; room #2 is the base of the cube; rooms 5 and 6 are the sides; and room #4 is the top.

The figure on the right is the house with the sides stretched to make the relationship of each room clearer, as well as more bizarre. In this figure, rooms 1 and 3 are highlighted, with room #1 in the front and room #3 in the back. Since every side of every face of the cube is actually a wall, every wall then is connected to a wall of another room. What this means is that no wall now leads outside the house. No matter what room you are in, regardless of which wall you punch, walking through its sliding glass door will always lead you into another room.

Stairway To Heaven?

Now let’s put our original two-dimensional owner-occupant in room #1. If he (yes, only a man would let someone fold his two-dimensional house into three-dimensional space) walks through the sliding glass door on the north wall, he now enters room #4. When the house existed in its original two-dimensional state – and the owner was somewhat shy about waking his crazed, knife-wielding cousin snoring away in room #3 – he would have decided to exit the house through the sliding glass door on the north wall, and trudge through the mud all the way to the other end of the house until he finally reached room #4. This could be very disconcerting, especially after a late-night burrito and mocha latte snack, as room #4 had the only bathroom.

When our Flatlander looks through a sliding glass door now, regardless of which wall he chooses, he always sees into the room adjacent to that wall. Remember, in the 2nd dimension there is no concept of up or down because those directions only exist in the 3rd dimension. In the 2nd dimension he reached every room of his house by simply walking – or perhaps gliding – straight ahead, or turning left or right. Now in three-dimensional space, however, every wall is connected to another room, and that other room may well be on another level – the second floor or the basement. But as far as our owner-occupant knows, he is still walking on one level as he had always done, albeit now confused as hell.

With his once two-dimensional house now folded into three-dimensional space, our owner-occupant is unable leave the house, as each wall is now connected to another wall, and there is no wall anywhere leading outside the house. His only escape from his house would be to have it “unfolded” in a lower dimension – in this case, back into two-dimensional space.

§§§§§§§§

Now imagine a three-dimensional house folded into fourth-dimensional space. We here in the 3rd dimension can no more point toward a direction that is at a right angle to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd dimensions than a two-dimensional Flatlander could point to the 3rd dimension, but in theory a dimension outside our world does exist. From our lofty three-dimensional perch we can look “down” and peer into the two-dimensional world of Flatland, just as someone – or some thing – from the 4th dimension can gaze down into our three-dimensional world.

If your gorgeous Park Avenue penthouse were suddenly folded into fourth dimensional space with you inside it, you would find yourself trapped forever within your apartment. Every wall, floor and ceiling would be connected to another wall or floor or ceiling. And if you think of each wall, floor and ceiling as simply another surface on a cube – i.e., the room in which you are sitting and sulking – then you may find that, unless your apartment was folded into the fourth dimension with care, you could exit the sliding glass door on the west wall of your bedroom and find yourself standing on the ceiling of your living room.

Needless to say, 24 hours in this funhouse might well punish you more cruelly and unusually than anything the Supreme Court could have imagined.


A Lesson From The Zen Master

February 17, 2017

A koan  (pronounced: /kuo-an/, Chinese; /mugwump/, French; /boring/, English) is a story, question, or statement etched in wet cement that is used in Zen-practice to test a student’s progress by provoking what Zen masters call the “great doubt” or “Big D.”

The word koan comes from the Japanese mispronounciation of an obscure Tibetan phrase, “Chap sang gawa yo rey?” – literally, “Where’s the bathroom?”

Koans and their study developed in China within the context of open questions posed by Emperor Yong-le (Ming Dynasty) to newly-weds who had forgotten to invite his majesty to the reception. In most instances, the emperor was appeased with a slice of wedding cake, his weight in silk pajamas, and a twirl around the rumpus room with the Missus.

Essence Of Enlightenment

The essence of enlightenment came to be identified with the interaction between masters and students, as opposed to an earlier practice, wherein a master spent hours yelling at his reflection in the mirror. Whatever insight this “Eureka!” moment might bring, its verification was always interpersonal – and very noisy. Thus, enlightenment came to be understood not so much as an insight, but as a way of acting to get out of washing the dishes after dinner.

This mutual inquiry into the meaning of the encounters between masters and students gave rise to a paradigm: one now looked at the enlightened activities of one’s lineal forebears not only to understand one’s own spiritual identity, but to also understand why one looked so much like the milkman.

Literary Practice

Koan practice developed from crafting snippets of encounter-dialogue with the literati into well-edited stories. This interaction often resulted with the “educated class” being relieved of their wallets. Eventually though, the methodology was amended to affect a more literary approach: teachers whose vehicles were stolen found their books left behind on the curb.

There were other dangers posed by encounter-dialogue. An early poetry competition devolved into a free-for-all when a contestant was unable to rhyme “solipsism.”

The style of writing Zen texts has evolved over the years, from the use of exclamation points at the beginning of a sentence – indicating a master’s anger over a student’s temerity to even ask a question – to the excessive use of smiley faces and other emoticons.

Koan Practice, or What’s My Mantra?

A koan may serve as a point of concentration during meditation or other activities, such as pole dancing or dating a pigeon. During koan practice a teacher may probe a student’s ken using “checking” questions to validate an experience, or by surprising the student with an obscene phone call.

Koan practice is particularly important among the Rinzai sect. These practitioners concentrate on qi breathing and its effect on the body’s center of gravity – as opposed to, say, looking for oncoming traffic while crossing the street.

A qualified koan teacher provides instruction in koan practice in private, though some are known to allow viewing through peepholes. In one particular case involving a student named Hu, his teacher wrote:

“Concentrate yourself into this jar of pitted olives, Hu. Make your whole body one pickled inquiry. Day and night, work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations.”

To which, it is recorded, Hu replied, “Are you nuts?!”

Historical Antecedents of Koan Practice

Before the tradition of meditating on koans, the renowned teacher Huangbo Xi (720–723 A.D.) was recorded to have said, “Yours is a clear-cut case, but I will spare you the thirty lashes.” This came as a relief to his students, who had no idea what their diapered master was talking about.

By the Sung Dynasty, the term koan had evolved to describe a teacher who, after advising a student over a cup of tea at a local restaurant, refused to pick up the check. The noted philosopher and teacher Wan-Yu is said to have instructed his students to contemplate the phrase, “Crime doesn’t pay, and neither do I,” while he slipped out the back door.

Modern Western Understanding

Today, English-speaking, non-Zen practitioners use koans to refer to universal truisms, such as, “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the original word you thought of,” or ethereal, often unanswerable questions like, “Does being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, refer to Eastern or Pacific time?”

Although there may be traditional answers to many koans, these are only preserved as exemplary answers by masters who couldn’t come up with anything original themselves.

Appropriate answers to koans vary, since different teachers demand different answers. In most cases though, the master is not looking for a specific answer, but rather for evidence that the student can pay the tuition.


Chairman Mao — The Lost Interview

December 13, 2015

In late August of 1975, Mao Zedong, leader of China’s Cultural Revolution and fashion icon, sat down with this reporter at the Imperial Palace — one of his favorite restaurants — for an impromptu interview.

tony garcia:  I really appreciate this opportunity, sir.

Mao Zedong (through his interpreter): You should. So, what do you think of the suit?

tg:  Pardon me?

MZ: My suit. You like it? I designed it myself.

tg:  Oh, it’s very original.

MZ: How about the collar? I call it the Mao Collar.

tg:  Reminds me of a jacket from the sixties called the Nehru Jacket.

MZ: Don’t mention that running dog Nehru! Guy calls me up and reverses the charges. Says he’s dying to play mah-jongg. So I invite him over and what does he do? Steals my design and eats me out of house and home! I should have invited Gandi over; he eats a little popcorn and he’s full.

tg:  Um, to get back to the jacket, I thought it was created in India in the 1940s.

MZ: Hey, it’s has a mandarin collar, doesn’t it?

tg:  Yes…

MZ: So there!

tg:  Right. So how does one address you? As Chairman Mao? Mr. Chairman?

MZ: Either one is fine. Just don’t call me Bunkie.

tg:  Bunkie?

MZ: I told you not to call me that, you sycophantic toady who suckles at the teats of the bourgeoisie! Zhou EnLai used to call me that back in school. He came this close to getting his ass kicked.

tg:  I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to offend you.

MZ: Yeah, yeah. So tell me, when was the last time you were in Belgium?

tg:  Last year.

MZ: I understand that in some towns there the women can become pregnant by staring at their shadows.

tg: That’s news to me.

MZ: Never happened, huh?

tg:  I don’t think so.

MZ: I knew it. Damn People Magazine.

tg:  Can we talk about your formative years.

MZ: Which ones were those?

tg:  At Peking University.

MZ: Okay, if you say so. It’s all a blur to me.

tg:  I understand in 1917 you moved to Beijing where you worked at the university library. And it was there that you were first introduced to the sociopolitical theory of Marxism.

MZ: Huh? Sorry, my mind was on lunch. You see the waiter around here anywhere?

tg:  No, I haven’t. Getting back to your introduction to Marxism…

MZ: Oh, good grief, not that nonsense.

tg:  Excuse me?

MZ: Come on — a communist society, free from central government, and based on voluntary associations between the workers? Please…

tg:  I’m stunned; I really am. I mean, you’re the architect of the Great Leap Forward, land reform, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries, the Chinese diaspora–

MZ: What was that last one?

tg:   The Chinese diaspora?

MZ: You’ve got a way with words, you know that?

tg:  Mr. Chairman, I’m asounded that you’re calling Marxist-communist ideology nonsense.

MZ: Hey, I’m 82; I get confused. So sue me already.

tg:  Fine. So how were you able to implement such sweeping reform throughout China?

MZ: One night I had this dream: China as the cultural and financial mecca of the world, with the U.S. as a bedroom community. So I initiated a series of open-air forums, brought my vision directly to our Great Mass of People, and they bought into it.

tg:  That’s amazing — winning over their hearts and minds.

MZ: Well, it didn’t hurt that I also had more guns than our Great Mass of People.

tg:  I’m sure it didn’t.

MZ: So tell me, you purveyor of creeping capitalism, what do you think of Barbra Streisand?

tg:  What?

MZ: Barbra Streisand. You know, “People… People who need people… ARE THE LUCKIEST–”

tg:  I got it; I got it.

MZ: Well I don’t get it. How could she have married that putz Elliott Gould? As an actor, the guy stinks.

tg:  He starred in MASH.

MZ: Well, stop the presses! Elliott Gould was in MASH!

tg:  Not one of your favorite movies, I take it.

MZ: You watch that movie you think the Korean War was all about golf and football, big nose.

tg:  I think Robert Altman, the director, might have been trying to illustrate the absurdity of war.

MZ: Absurdity? You want absurdity? I’ll give you absurdity: Peter Gunn, a great TV show and they take it off the air after 3 seasons. Meanwhile, Mr. Ed, a show about a talking horse — a talking horse! — runs for 8 years.

tg:  It was the kind of escapist entertainment popular back in the 50’s and 60’s.

MZ: Ah, bullshit!

tg:  Okay, let’s move on.

MZ: Hey, before we do, I gotta ask you a question. Is it true some Caucasians still tie themselves together to keep from being snatched away by eagles?

tg:  Not where I live.

MZ: Live in a restricted neighborhood, do you?

tg:  Something like that. Now, during China’s civil war, your forces defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists who then retreated to Taiwan. Shortly thereafter, you founded the People’s Republic of China.

MZ: What are you — writing your history term paper? Get to the present, for chrissake!

tg:  Okay then, let’s talk about President Richard Nixon.

MZ: That guy had the worst Chinese accent I’ve ever heard. Bar none.

tg:  I didn’t know that. It’s my understanding that when Nixon told his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger that he wanted to open relations with China, Kissinger told the National Security Council that Nixon had lost his mind, primarily because you yourself had referred to Nixon as a gangster.

MZ: No! I never called him a gangster! I was very sympathetic to Mr. Nixon’s travails. I called him a psychopathic thug. But you know how these things get lost in translation.

tg:  Of course. But it must have come as a shock to you when Mr. Nixon, this staunch anticommunist, sought to normalize relations between the two countries.

MZ: I just thought he needed a fourth for bridge. I heard the guy loved to play cards.

tg:  I see. As I understand it, the subject of detente was first broached at a fashion show in Warsaw, Poland where delegations from the U.S. and China were in attendance.

MZ: Now, that’s true. After the show the American ambassador came running after us shouting in Polish: “I’m from the American Embassy! I saw President Nixon in Washington! He wants to establish relations with China!”

tg:  And how did your people respond?

MZ: They ran.

tg:  They ran?

MZ: Who knew what the hell the guy was saying? We don’t speak Polish.

tg:  Oh. So what did your people do?

MZ: They grabbed this guy who was urinating on a building and asked him to translate. Luckily for them he happened to be the Polish Ambassador to China.

tg:  Okay, okay… In 1969 you declared that the Cultural Revolution was over.

MZ: Yeah. With the Beatles breaking up, I figured it was time.

tg:  Wait — are you serious?

MZ: You trying to start a fight?

tg:   No, it’s just that… The breakup of the Beatles?

MZ: Come on, you couldn’t see that coming? Yoko hanging out at the studio all the time like some nitwit groupie. You hear that album she put out — what was it called, Fly? Sounded like someone strangling a chicken. Speaking of which, here comes lunch! You don’t mind Bird’s Nest Soup, do you?

tg: No, not at all.

MZ: Good. I hope you don’t slurp your soup. I hate that sound. Hate it. Zhou Enlai used to slurp his soup. He came this close to getting his ass kicked.


Leaping Over Tall Buildings In A Single Bound…

February 17, 2013

The Legend Of Spring-Heeled Jack

While riding the Broad Street subway I began musing about a vacation across the pond and searched the internet for the lowest airfares between Philadelphia and London. I found a very reasonable fare of $156 from Philadelphia International to Heathrow on British Airways, but taxes and fees were an additional $385, more than twice the airfare, raising the total to $541, one way. One way. I began to weigh the cost of the trip against my present circumstances – that fellow over there is taking off his shoe just to pick his feet, isn’t he? My outrage and my fears were short-lived, however, when a quick check of my bank balance revealed that my farthest trip would be limited to the last stop on the subway.

So, the next day I was on the Broad Street subway line again, my vacation underway. Like any urban dweller, I was trying to avoid making direct eye contact with potential homicidal maniacs – like that lemon sitting across from me, for instance – and began staring at an advertisement for BBC America. As I began to daydream about riding the Tube at the end of the 19th century, a story I had read about a leaping Londoner came to mind.

Starting in 1817 and peaking in the mid-19th century, newspaper reports in The Times of London and elsewhere described a “peculiar leaping man” who startled and attacked young women. Initially, few people believed these tales, and today English parents consider it a fable, used to control their misbehaving children. This occurred, after all, in Victorian London, where plague and poverty ravaged the city, and rumors were more persistent than diarrhea.

But in January of 1838, the Lord Mayor of London received a letter from a resident of Peckham describing an attack on Polly Adams on October 11th of the previous year by a man that could leap over fences. The writer referred to the assailant as “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

On February 18, 1838, Lucy Scales, age 18, and her sister Margaret were on their way home at 8:30 that evening after visiting their brother in Limehouse. Suddenly, as they passed the entrance to Green Dragon Alley, the terrifying cloaked silhouette of Spring-Heeled Jack leaped from the darkness and exhaled a jet of blue flames from his mouth that blasted Lucy’s face. The teenager screamed; she fell to the ground, blinded, and suffered a fit. Spring-Heeled Jack then jumped high over his victim and her sister and landed on the roof of a nearby house, from where he bounded off into the night — a prodigious leap at any time of the day, mind you.

Talk of a mysterious leaping madman attacking women quickly circulated around London, and further sightings and attacks were reported. In one especially notorious incident, the leaping miscreant tried to snatch 18-year-old Jane Alsop right out of her own home. Ms. Alsop, who lived in the district of Bow, provided the first reported physical description of Spring-Heeled Jack:

He presented a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and white flame from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire… He wore a large helmet, and his dress, which appeared to fit him very tight, seemed… to resemble white oilskin.

Family members who had saved the young woman noted afterwards that the menace did not run, rather he bounced away.

A week after the attack on Jane Alsop, a similar one was attempted. Here, though, a young servant boy witnessed the attack. He described the assailant as tall and thin, with pointed ears and fiery eyes, and wearing a cloak. The boy also noticed a gold filigree ‘W’ embroidered onto the front of the man’s wardrobe. Assuming that it was not a high school letter earned in track and field, the public now had a clue as to the man’s surname, or pedigree. The incident abruptly ended when the boy screamed, alerting neighbors who quickly opened their shutters. Sensing an exit cue, Spring-Heeled Jack rocketed over the roofs on Commercial Road.

When the boy regained his senses, he was interrogated repeatedly by the authorities. His inquisitors wondered what was the significance of the embroidered ‘W’; some conjectured that the glyph was the initial of the Marquis of Waterford, a notorious prankster who in the past had gone to great lengths to perpetrate his hoaxes. The Marquis was also something of an athlete, but even his physical gifts could not equate with a man who could leap 25 feet into the air, as the leaping menace was alleged to have done.

As Spring-Heeled Jack’s infamy grew, more reports appeared in the newspapers. Mary Stevens of Battersea was attacked, as was 18-year-old Lucy Squires in Limehouse, as the leaping menace showed his knack for spotting victims who had reached the legal age of consent. In both instances he tore at his female victims’ clothes and ripped their flesh with hands that felt like iron. Those who saw his feet swore he had springs in his boot heels, meaning that, contrary to Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, they were not just for wandering.

In 1843, Spring-Heeled Jack proved to be an equalitarian menace to society, appearing in Northhamptonshire, Hampshire and East Anglia, where he frightened the drivers of mail coaches by leaping from trees onto their horses. Each time, after riding the spooked animal for a bit and apparently not deviating from the mail carrier’s appointed rounds, he would end the escapade by leaping from the horse into a nearby tree.

Two years later he was seen in West London. Reports came from Ealing and Hanwell of a weird figure leaping over hedges and walls, shrieking and groaning. This perpetrator turned out to be a practical joker from Brentford who spent the next few years shrieking and groaning from Dartmoor Prison.

In November of 1845, Spring-Heeled Jack confronted 13-year-old prostitute Maria Davies in Bermondsy. In full view of frightened onlookers, he “breathed fire into her face” then tossed Ms. Davies off a bridge; she drowned in the open sewer below. Spring-Heeled Jack was now a murderer.

Throughout the 1850’s and 1860’s, the manic leaper was reportedly seen all over England. As fear kept most people off the streets after dark, Londoners willing to take the law into their own hands formed vigilante committees, patrolling the streets at night, trying to track down the miscreant. Not to be outdone, the police put out extra patrols, but no one came close to catching him.

This is not to say, though, that there were no arrests. In 1877, Spring-Heeled Jack appeared at Aldershot Army Barracks. An army officer was arrested on a charge of impersonating the menace, but he was later released. Later, another man was arrested in Warwickshire when he was caught trying to jump to escape; he was wearing a white sheet and a pair of boots with carriage springs attached. The man was later seen in Liverpool jumping on rooftops in September 1904 – being after Labor Day, one wonders if the menace had exchanged his white sheet for a darker one. His last reported sighting had him scaling the steeple of a church before disappearing forever behind a row of houses. That same year more than 100 residents of Everton saw a man in a flowing, non-white cloak and black boots making great leaps over streets and rooftops.

Somewhere along the way, Spring-Heeled Jack gained cult hero status. He appeared in the small theaters of the day, portrayed as a cloaked figure with shiny boots and huge whiskers. He became a star of the cheap weekly periodicals, whose sensationalism amused the working-class. One such saga, Spring Heeled Jack, The Terror of London, by George Augustus Sala, appeared in 48 weekly parts. Mr. Sala’s protean Spring-Heeled Jack reflected the proletarian ethos of the serial’s readers, becoming a superhero who rescued damsels in distress and persecuted those in authority who abused their power. In 1904 the character was revived in another penny-serial novel, The Spring-heeled Jack Library. And in 1946 a film was made about him, The Curse of the Wraydons.

Apparently tiring of the temperate English climate, Spring-Heeled Jack made dozens of appearances in the United States between 1938 and 1945, belching flames and making gigantic leaps, then melting into the darkness. In the 1970’s, perhaps benefiting from the introduction of commercial supersonic flight, he appeared in both the U.S. and the U.K., sporting long hair and minus the cloak – apparently, fashion sense and mayhem are not mutually exclusive. In 1976, at least a dozen residents of Dallas, Texas claim to have seen a ten-foot-tall, thin creature with long ears leap across a football field in a few strides.

Little has been heard about Spring-Heeled Jack since then. Theories abound as to the origin of this urban legend with the bizarre appearance – an alien, a demon, mass hysteria, overheated imaginations. As for me, I prefer to treat the tale with a healthy measure of skepticism, and one eye very wide open.


Cosmic Neighbors

March 28, 2011

28 March 2011 – Collected from the Wire Services:

2200 Hrs., New York – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has announced that from 18 March 2011 continuing through 27 March 2011, shortwave broadcasts containing “burst” messages – a phrase repeated several times over a ten-second span – monitored by the National Security Agency in Bethesda, MD, and like agencies in London, Rome, Moscow, Paris and other world capitols, have been determined to be of extraterrestrial origin.

These messages were apparently announcements that there would be more messages to follow. The second wave of messages were similar in format to the initial messages received, and were described by one high-ranking Pentagon official as “boring.”

A third group of messages, however, announced that there would be multiple landings of interstellar spacecraft at selected sites around the globe. These messages further stated that the landings would be peaceful, and urged interested onlookers to refrain from making any sudden movements.

At 1230 hours Sunday, the first such landing took place at Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ. There are, however, indications that the requirements set forth in the final announcement were not entirely met, as eyewitnesses reported seeing an enormous, cylindrical object land on an outdoor performance of “Hair.” Those holding tickets for later performances of this particular production are requested to return them for a full refund.

Video of subsequent landings outside London, Paris, Madrid, Moscow and Rome has been received, though reports of seeming indifference by the Italians are as yet unconfirmed.

Radio station KTEX in Wichita Falls, TX reported on one such landing: The craft hovered for a few seconds over the downtown district—currently under renovation—before speeding off. It was tracked by FAA radar as it made brief, abortive landing attempts in Sioux Falls, SD; Duluth, MN; Lincoln, NE; and Buffalo, NY, before finally settling in Montego Bay, Jamaica, just outside the popular Sandals Couples Resort.

Mr. Ban, stating the position of the United Nations, has said that it would be premature to assume any hostile intent on the part of the interstellar travelers. And, despite an unconfirmed report from New York Helicopter of a last-minute reservation for its 2:00 PM flight from its E. 42 St. helipad, the Secretary General urged people around the world to welcome this opportunity to meet our “cosmic neighbors.”


Here, There and Everywhere

January 5, 2009

Ever take an online test? Perhaps you took an IQ test online; or a college final; or maybe you completed an anonymous Management Evaluation survey from Human Resources, only to discover a week later Security escorting your epithet-spouting, now-former supervisor and his belongings from the building?

Well, how about a test to retroactively predict a random number or event?

Ok, let’s say you have been handed a sealed envelope and told not to open it for two weeks. You are then asked to choose a number between one and fifty. For the sake of speeding this along, you choose the number ‘28.’ You both then record the number for posterity. Two weeks later you receive a phone call asking you to open the envelope. Inside you find a slip of paper with the number ‘28’ neatly written on it.

“Co-inky-dink,” you say. “Coincidence? Let’s try it again,” replies the caller, who then admonishes you to grow up. So, the experiment is performed again with a new envelope and a new number, but the results are the same. The experiment is retried again and again, and each time the number you randomly selected is, two weeks later, found to be the same number in the envelope. At some point you give in, as the weeks have turned to months now and you still have laundry to do. Something very strange indeed is going on.

This effect is the result of something known as retropsychokinesis or RPK, a phenomenon that lends credence to the notion that all times exist at once. This is not the meanderings of some Eastern mystic, but more like the idea in quantum mechanics that says a particle can exist in a thousand places at once – which sounds great if you habitually lose your keys. Here, the idea is that events in the past and in the future co-exist simultaneously, as opposed to time being an endless series of linear moments.

Retropsychokinesis

Retropsychokinesis has nothing to do with clothing worn in the late-1960’s, or the counterculture from that Age of Aquarius. Rather, it lies within the dubious realm of parapsychology, and is a close cousin to the more generally well-known psychokinesis, which has been studied extensively since the 1930’s when Dr. J.B. Rhine of Duke University began systematically testing claims that seemingly random events such as dice and coin throws were subject to subtle psychic influences. Whereas psychokinesis is the ability to create movement or to affect objects at a distance through the force of one’s will, retropsychokinesis is the ability to affect an event that has already happened.

Mainstream physics does not allow for such an effect, yet serious research into retropsychokinesis conducted by different researchers over the last two decades offers compelling evidence that the probability of their results being purely due to chance is somewhere in the order of one in 630 thousand million – fairly low odds by most standards.

The Experiment

The RetroPsychoKinesis Project, founded by Matthew R. Watkins of the School of Classics, Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury in the U.K. is one of several institutions studying the phenomenon. Using the personal computer, researchers intend to measure the claimed ability of certain subjects to alter random data generated, but not examined, prior to the time the data are presented to the subject on their monitor.

The original design of the experiment was changed due to the surfacing of “Decision Augmentation Theory” or DAT, which argues, “although the phenomenon undoubtedly involves the flow of information from [the] future to [the] past, statistical analysis suggests that it is a form of precognition and does not involve any sort of influence.” Well, the designers couldn’t have that, so they redesigned their model to account for this postulation. The paradigm now reads:

• The first subject, known as the skeptic, is emailed a randomly generated file, ‘Z,’ with instructions to copy it onto removable media, such as a thumb drive, and leave it unobserved until further notice.
• The skeptic should then remove the media from her/his machine and put it somewhere secure.
• The skeptic will then be asked to select a simple “message” to be “encoded” into this file and email the message to the Project.
• The Project then forwards this message, along with a copy of the skeptic’s ‘Z’ file, to a subject who has shown significant RPK abilities in past experiments, with instructions to encode the message into the file.
• On completing this task, the subject contacts the Project, who then instruct the skeptic to look at the contents of file ‘Z’ that have been safely held on removable media for the duration of the experiment.

If the experiment is successful, the skeptic will find the message that she/he chose already on the removable media.

Sounds simple enough, and it seems to demonstrate the rigid controls necessary for this type of experiment. And if the skeptic is somewhat less than honest and sneaks a peak at the removable media, a simple scan of the media contents can either validate the skeptics honesty, or suspend her/his television privileges.

For researchers of this ilk, the Internet seems like a godsend. But Helmut Schmidt, Dr. Rhine’s successor, cautions about its use in parapsychological (psi) experiments, stating that the key to getting results in these experiments may be to “maintain some semblance of personal contact between subject and experimenter.” Charles Tart, well-known consciousness researcher from the University of California at Davis, has suggested that “there is an important experimenter effect in all psi research; some people have the ‘magic touch’ and regularly get results, others don’t and we have little idea as to why.”

It couldn’t be that some experimenters are winking and nodding at their subjects, could it?

Philosophical Implications

The existence of this effect – if in fact it does exist – raises some very interesting questions concerning the nature of time, the relationship between consciousness and physical reality, the concepts of causality and randomness and the idea of “will.” Some have suggested that parallel universes play a role in the RPK phenomenon. Even the supposedly random nature of genetic mutation that is axiomatic to Darwin’s theory of evolution would need to be reconsidered.

More profoundly, the very idea of “similar” measurable events, essential to all theories of probability and statistics distribution, may need serious reevaluation. For if the phenomenon is real, it suggests that simply exerting one’s will can alter these distributions.

Hmm, perhaps it is possible to win at the craps table after all.


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