Friday, 28 October 2011

Sleep Paralysis: Leave Your Comments Here

Following on from the article on Sleep Paralysis at Jourdemayne, here is the section for comments and recollections.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Time to Move ...

Thanks for following me on Blogger. I've now moved to another platform so I can provide a few more bells and whistles. Please some to visit me at

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Heart of Darkness

I grew up in Southall.

It was OK: not much wrong, not much right. I remember listening to a chocolate advert’s jangling soundtrack which proposed we were in the ‘sophisticated 70s’. I wondered how we would remember it in retrospect, and came up with the perfect word: “grey”. I know that seems strange of an era characterised by Marc Bolan, Bowie and Slade.

But the decade went out with a bang. In 1979 the far-right organisation The National Front exercised their democratic right to hold a St George’s Day meeting … in Southall. With the area housing one of the largest Asian populations on the country it was clear and deliberate provocation. The special needs teacher Blair Peach was murdered a short distance from the town centre where police, white racists and young Asian men clashed.

As a thirteen year-old, I was very intimidated by the sight of shops barricading themselves in anticipation. There was an eerie silence, completely out of place during the day. No people, no dogs, no cars, no life at all, except that behind twitching curtains.

Of course, it was hardly the last riot of the era. There was Handsworth, Brixton … Toxteth happened half a block from my cowering grandparents.

I started to pick up how serious things were getting last Monday via Twitter. We switched on the TV and were astonished. And at around midnight, the news started to come in that people were rioting in Ealing. Ealing!

By then, it had been an hour or so since our neighbour’s car had been turned on its side and left in the road. Our neighbours called the police and were in favour of leaving the car in situ, for evidence. But Mr J is a great believer in the ‘broken window theory’ and has plenty of experience turning cars back the right way up again to boot. So with our other neighbour and two groups of young Asian men who appear to have been patrolling the area and who stopped to help us, the car was returned to its normal orientation.

I directed the traffic around the obstruction but, frankly, anyone who can’t see a medium-sized group of men turning a red car over in a well-lit street should probably have their driving licence suspended pending a trip to Specsavers.

The damaged car was put onto our driveway to discourage further mischief and was picked up within the hour by a tow truck arranged by next-door’s insurance – good service! The driver had come via Ealing Common and had had to run a red light to avoid becoming mired in a group of what he estimated at around two hundred fractious people who he felt would have over-run him had he slowed down and stopped.

The Ealing bit was where it all started to go a bit strange for me. While it’s not quite the Elysian suburb with free-running Ambrosia that the media sometimes implied, it does have high property values and not much social housing in the centre. The disaffected underclass would have to bus in, unlike with parts of Islington, Westminster and Stoke Newington (where I have also lived).

The next day, I saw people I recognised being interviewed on the TV. The indignant and traumatised licensee of a bar I used to frequent described how she hid in the kitchen with her sons while people looted her alcohol and till. I think the moment her bar was hit may be caught here. And here is a parallel street where looters tried to break into a Bang & Olufsen shop.

Mr J and I stayed up ‘til about 3, by which time it had been reported that an electrical appliance shop in West Ealing had been targeted too. When we thought it unlikely that anybody else would turn over any more cars outside the house, we went to sleep.

The next day, the streets were heavy with police. Friendly police. But anyone under the impression that they may get another night of free licence would have been emphatically disabused.

Although an officer I spoke to said he was worried that looters may target businesses in Southall, I thought it one of the areas least likely to be surrendered. As somebody put it on Twitter: “Turkish and Asian groups have stood up to & chased off rioters. Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities.” This referred to Turkish and Kurdish shopkeepers who protected their property in parts of north London. This is what looters would have faced in Southall. Plus, as I’ve mentioned, we were assisted by what I’m sure were groups of young Asian men out on patrol.

It’s not that I haven’t seen riots in my lifetime, it’s not that they haven’t been very close by, it’s not that I haven’t been on demonstrations that got scary, and it’s definitely not that I don’t recognise the very serious issues that our poorest neighbours face. I’ve written about it here.

In addition to that, I think we all recognise that the young are being hit disproportionately in this recession. The uneducated young have very few unskilled jobs beckoning and the educated young can look forward to a few more certificates and a lot more debt before a similar (though probably ultimately, less precarious) fate. Basically, there aren’t very many young people who occupy the intersections in the Venn diagram of wages, affordability of debt and affordability of housing.

But while I will talk ‘til I’m blue on the face about those three things: housing expense (due to rarity); less purchasing power of salary for the young; increased starter debt to even get a stake in the game – these riots still seem different.

In the days that have followed, we have seen some of the perpetrators have their five minutes – but in a magistrates dock. Like a demented child’s song, a postman, a Para and a ballerina paraded before us to face the music. No matter how hard my deju vu kicked in the other night, there is something different about his one.

All riots at all times have involved looting. It’s too much to ask that there will be no opportunism at a time of even the most principle-driven protest. But here, the thieving and violence was higher in the mix. All the other riots I can recall had a political heart with a penumbra of criminality. To look at the targets of summer 2011, it seems the other way around.

Is it the stuperous ennui of materialism? Is it hi-tech poverty, where people are philosophical about food inflation running at 4.9% but aspire to a gadget with seventy ring-tones and an app for rating your farts? Did a phalanx of Yahoos, bored in the commercial breaks between ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘X-Factor’ go out to look for pretty stones and come back with a laptop and enough iPhones to draw attention to themselves on eBay? It seems that many eyes were bigger than many bellies on that night, as numbers of large-screen TVs were found the next morning, abandoned at wheezing-distance from their originating shops.

So what should we make of it?

I think the first thing is to remember that summer rioting is not that uncommon, and that it takes a very small number of people to make a very large impact. I think we should also remember that it isn’t just ‘the young’: we turn a generation into an alienated, feared fifth column at our own peril. The streets were full of young volunteers on ‘womble day’, cleaning up with everybody else.

Basically, I agree with those who think that there was a massive criminal component to these events, and the solution for that is normal, measured justice. No cutting off social media, no bringing in the army, no evictions for being a council tenant whose son could probably do with a very strong intervention. Now that the police are actually apparent, they appear to be doing a perfectly good job, and it’s has been pointed out by many before me that Twitter was as much a force for good as evil.

But simultaneously there is a very serious political heart to our present situation and it’s getting worse. The poor are getting poorer and somebody has pulled every other rung out of the ladder upwards.

Joseph Conrad’s seminal ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1899) famously inspired ‘Apocalyse Now’. Its theme was that the dark situations in the world parallel and reflect the darkness inside ourselves. Ideally then, we’ll address both the gripping anomie of those who think it’s OK to break a shop window for designer T-shirts, and those who have been disinherited of any real agency in their own lives.

Because the next time English cities riot, we may be facing both riot-shoppers and a more traditional crowd - people with deep and genuine grievances who are at the end of their tethers. They would be a formidable combination.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Vampires of Rhode Island

Part 1

Watch the podcast first:

If your browser is having difficulty with embedding, just go here, and come back afterwards.

Part 2

So here is a series of historical events, and a title: ‘The Vampires of Rhode Island’.

We should probably start by covering the ‘vampire’ part.

The contemporaries and friends of Mercy Brown, Sarah Tillinghast and the other unfortunate victims never referred to them as vampires: the term has been retroactively applied (perhaps first in 1979 in a local newspaper article) and applied from 'above' (by the writer of 'The Vampire Tradition' and Geroge Stetson - see below for both). Not all supernatural draining creatures are called vampires by the communities which experience them, but we moderns like the word and apply it pretty indiscriminately.

But it’s not irrelevant or inappropriate – although many of the contemporary locals find it annoying.

The original vampire of folklore came from central and eastern Europe. It came to the attention of the west at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but The Austrian Empire had expanded that era. This means the multiple reports may be understood as bemused westerners observing and reporting upon a folk practice that was probably already well-established within its own locale.

The two most oft-repeated vampire accounts are of Arnod Paole and Peter Plogojowitz, both from Serbia in vampire heartland.

The characteristics of a vampire attack are as pretty much as follows:

1 The ‘vampire’ is a person who has died suddenly, or violently, or of a ‘draining’ disease.
2 They are quite often, but not always, disliked in life
3 A series of epidemic deaths follow the death of the original ‘vampire’
4 When examined, the ‘vampire’ corpse isn’t found to be ‘suitably’ decomposed. There may be liquid blood in the vessels, viscera or around the mouth. The corpse may have moved in the grave, or ‘moaned’ when moved
5 The first victims are often the family of the ‘vampire’
6 The victims die in a pattern of what we would recognise as epidemic death

Eighteenth century New Englanders did not use the term ‘vampire’, but a few of them apparently performed rituals which would not have been out of place in Ottoman Serbia. This means one of three things:

1 Under certain circumstances, groups of people will spontaneously create rituals with similar characteristics: it’s a human constant
2 This was a common Europe-wide way of treating the dead in times of epidemic death and we only don’t know about it now because proper records weren’t kept
3 This bit of folklore was transmitted to New England some time around the eighteenth century, and was employed in desperate times.

The first point hits near the mark. Unnatural Predators do preoccupy people who are in extreme difficulty. But the ‘human constant’ theme that arises is the scapegoat. Digging up the dead is a little too specific a meme. Unfortunately, we sometimes blame the living too. Bookmark this site for 'Witch-Hunts', planned for the future.

The second thought is clearly wrong: if digging up the dead was common across Europe, why were the Austrians so repelled by it that they took to writing aghast official documents about Arnod Paole and Peter Plojogowitz? We have records of the most bizarre folk rituals, from throwing toad bones for divination, to marching lines of cattle between bonfires. Here is a fun book, full of them.

It is unlikely that this could have passed so completely under the radar for so long.

The third thought is probably the most likely. The anonymous author of ‘The Vampire Tradition’ (an article in the Arnold Collection of the Providence Public Library) thought that the tradition may have been carried by a group of French Hugenots who arrived in the area of the Rhode Island Vampires at the very end of the seventeenth century (There are more details here p183)

H. P. Lovecraft integrates this idea into his story, 'The Shunned House':

The swarthy Etienne Roulet, less apt at agriculture than reading queer books and drawing queer diagrams, was given a clerical post in the warehouse at Pardon Tillinghast’s wharf. It was freely intimated by old wives that his prayers were neither uttered at the proper time nor directed toward the proper object
The Shunned House
H. P. Lovecraft (1924)

Lovecraft called his character ‘Roulet’ after a man who had been tried and convicted of werewolfism in 1598 in Caude, France.

That would mean there was about a century between the arrival of the Hugenots in Rhode Island, and the first ‘vampire’ – Rachel Harris. It’s feasible that the folkore passed from the immigrant community to the locals in that time.

To be sure that they were the real vectors, it would be nice to know how and why the Hugenots had taken up an eastern European tradition with such gusto, and whether there are other examples of it in Hugenot communities.

If there's no trace of such a thing, there may be a third, as yet unidentified, community which is responsible: the whole subject could do with more research.

So, moving on from the ‘v’ word, we are left wondering why these occurrences happened where and when they did. If the meme had been transmitted to New England by some means, why didn’t it happen everywhere and at all times?

Let’s look at four things: the first is the history of the area, the use of its land and resources.

This part of New England was very prosperous in the late sixteen and seventeen hundreds. The soil is rocky but fertile, and decades of hard labour by slaves, indentured men, tenant farmers and independent locals, so called ‘Swamp Yankees’, led to the stones being pulled from the earth to create the miles of dry stone walls which are still everywhere. To an English traveller, this makes the region seem quite un-American and frankly more evocative of the stony parts of England like Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Cornwall.

The population of the area peaked in the late 1700s. But after that, the young and vigorous left for better prospects elsewhere, either in the towns and cities, or in the expanding territories to the west.

The region referred to, where agriculture is in a depressed condition and abandoned farms are numerous Farm houses deserted and ruinous are frequent, and the once productive lands, neglected and overgrown with scrubby oak, speak forcefully and mournfully of the migration of the youthful farmers from country to town.
The Animistic Vampire in New England
George Stetson (1896)

So by the 1800s, parts of New England embodied the depressed and darkly haunted environment described by the American Gothic Romantics like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe and H P Lovecraft.

Lovecraft even referred directly to Mercy Brown in one of his stories:

As lately as 1892, an Exeter Community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace
The Shunned House
H. P. Lovecraft (1924)

Secondly, there is the specific nature of religiosity in the area. This isn’t Puritan heartland – that’s further north. Rhode Island was characterised by a more frontier, independent religious quality, self-authoring and authorising. Among the sectarians and free-thinkers, the Quakers and the Shakers, there was a spiritual life in which folk-practice coexisted with recognisable, conventional religion.

The independent Rhode Islanders felt free to turn to ancient beliefs, not regarding them as incompatible with either science or religion.

This independent form of living is apparent in the numerous family burial plots, such as that of the Tillinghasts, rather than central town graveyards. That may also mean that there were a great many more exhumations than we know about, as they could have been done free from outside scrutiny.

By some mysterious survival, occult transmission, or remarkable atavism, this region, including within its radius the towns of Exeter, Foster, Kingstown, East Greenwich, and others, with their scattered hamlets and more pretentious villages, is distinguished by the prevalence of this remarkable superstition
The Animistic Vampire in New England
George Stetson (1896)

Thirdly, there’s the issue of epidemic death, specifically death from tuberculosis.

The tuberculosis bacillus was discovered by Robert Koch in 1882. It was, and is, a disease that associated with poverty, and the poor, cramped conditions of industrialisation.

There were no significant medical interventions ‘til the widespread use antibiotics in the 1940s, but by then the disease had already started to decline through improving social circumstances and routine pasteurising of milk, one method of transmission. Even now, it’s not a simple disease to cure or eliminate.

Because of the long, slow draining death process, consumption appears as a central theme with many folkloric Unnatural Predators, including fairies and the vampires of Eastern and central Europe.

Just like many other places at this time, New England was becoming industrial and encountering new public health problems such as TB. Even those who lived rural lives were probably living at close quarters with their family and livestock. They may also have been relatively poor and malnourished.

The fourth issue here is that the bodies had not decayed as one would have thought. They appeared to show signs of ‘life-in-afterlife’. However, knowledge about the massive variability of post-mortem changes is a modern luxury. You and I can Google the effects of temperature, soil pH and micro-organisms upon decomposition. But nineteenth century people buried their dead quickly for the very good reason that they were a source of contagion.

As odd as it seems, liquid blood at the mouth and in the viscera are not as exceptional in corpses as you might think. The relationship between the folkore of the undead and post-mortem processes are covered in this excellent book by Paul Barber. In the particular case of Mercy Brown, as we have seen, she could even have been stored semi-frozen in a crypt.

So, the eighteenth century inhabitants of Rhode Island witnessed an epidemic of a disease against which they were powerless, a disease that passed freely among family members. Death is contagious.

Without modern knowledge about decomposition, specific signs like liquid blood in the heart ‘living blood’ as it was called, were taken as an indication that the loved one hadn’t quite passed over to the other side. They remained in shadowy form, draining the life from those who remained.

Ingesting the blood or body of powerful enemy to placate it is an ancient and reasonably common ritual. Charlemagne even took the trouble to make it illegal, as it was a fairly common measure taken against witches. It’s an attempt at communion. Even established religions perform the same ritual today.

So somehow, maybe via French Hugenots, a meme passed from one community to another.

People aren’t daft, but they do get desperate. I think it would be unfair to think of the participants of these rituals as gullible yokels. George Brown was apparently unconvinced that the exhumations would work, but was persuaded to try it by neighbours. See p21 here. He can’t have been the only New Englander to reluctantly submit to the last resort.

Rest in Peace, Mercy Brown.

She bloom'd, though the shroud was around her,
locks o'er her cold bosom wave,
As if the stern monarch has crown'd her,
The Fair speechless queen of the grave,
But what lends the grave such lusture?
O'er her cheeks what such beauty shed?
His life blood, who bent there, had nurs'd her,
The living was food for the dead!
Old Colony Memorial and Plymouth County (Massachusetts) Advertiser
May 4th 1822

Massive 'thank-you's to:

Karl Derrick. Makeup effects supervisor, successful author and screenwriter. Also cameraman and enthusiastic supporter of Jourdemayne.

Arnie Koch is an awesome New York based techie-bod, logistics guy & pizza homing device. This would have been very hard without him.

John Rael is an LA based actor, director and skeptic. Have a look at some of his hilarious podcasts.

'Reversion' by Stone Idols is an ambient album by Rob Jenkins, Martin Smith & Neil Cowley. It’s my very favourite music to write to. Please support the music by downloading it here.

Further reading:

For more background on the Rhode Island Vampires, I recommend this by folklorist Michael Bell.

I LOVE this book about the differerent waves of immigration onto north America, and the cultures that accompanied them.

A facsimilie of George Stetson's classic essay from The American Anthropologist is available on the 'net here.

It's always worth reading Montague Summers for the purple prose and utterly confabulated extras. He covers the Rhode Island vampires in this book.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Sanity & Violence, or, What Happens in the Courts When Gods Outsource Smiting?

Two news stories have caught my attention this week. In one, four men were jailed for an attack on Tower Hamlets religious studies teacher Gary Smith. There are news reports here and here. And a statement on The Met’s website here.

It was horrific. Mr Smith’s face was deliberately slashed from his mouth corner to his ear. He suffered leg wounds, a fractured skull, bleeding on the brain, a shattered jaw and was unconscious for two days.

It must be harder than I realise to get an attempted murder charge to stick. Akmol Hussein, 27, Sheikh Rashid, 27, Azad Hussain, 26, and Simon Alam, 19 were sentenced for causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

The attack was clearly premeditated and at least one of the assailants had mentioned death as an objective:

On the premeditation: the group succeeded on their third attempt. Superintendent Colin Morgan of Scotland Yard said:

"This was an unprovoked and premeditated attack by a group of men who were carrying weapons. Mr Smith was struck without warning, and was subjected to an appalling level of violence with no opportunity to defend himself.”

And just before the attack Azad Hussein said:

“Does everyone remember the drill? One time, bang, bang, bang, bang”

On the objective of death: Akmol Hussein had been recorded saying:

“This is the dog we want to hit, to strike, to kill.”

Fortunately, Hussein’s car had been bugged in an investigation into a suspected terrorist network. Unfortunately, the police didn’t get any information prior to the assault.

Gary Smith had invoked the gang’s ire by teaching Islam, along with other major world religions, in national curriculum lessons.

Akmol Hussain had said:

"…he's mocking Islam and he's putting doubts in people's minds…How can somebody take a job to teach Islam when they're not even a Muslim themselves?"

And after the assault he had said:

"Praise to Allah. At that time nobody was there...Bruv, I don’t care about prison as long as I’m doing it for the deen [religion] of know what, he's not going to get up"

At Snaresbrook Crown Court, Judge Hand said:

“You believed there was a higher authority to which you were responsible and that authority dictated you must attack Mr Smith"

I was equally fascinated by the case of Lorraine Mbulawa, who had stabbed her mother four times in the arm and once in the face at their home in May 2009. There'a an account here.

Mbulawa had had a dream:

"… that seemed a bit real. It was my grandma and dad's youngest sister, Charlotte. Like they were right at the foot of my bed … my grandmother said my mother was responsible for the death of my father and I had to do the honourable thing to my father by killing my mother"

She had put on some dark clothes, gloves and a makeshift balaclava, and gone into her mother’s room with the intention of killing her.

Mbulawa was cleared of attempted murder but found guilty of unlawful wounding at Leicester Crown Court in February as reported by the local paper on February 5th.

She and her family are Christian and from Zimbabwe, where belief in witchcraft is pretty well endemic. In sentencing last week, Mr Justice Keith reiterated what had emerged in the trial, that Mbulawa and her family believed in the power of the occult, in spirit possession and that she was not responsible for what she had done. He said that her mother:

"… believed spirits can enter the body and make you do things that otherwise you would not have done”

Despite her mother saying that Mbulawa was not “her real self” while conducting the attack, the jury made their opinion known by rejecting the option of finding her not guilty by reason of insanity – an option they did have. As Mr Justice Keith pointed out:

"In convicting Lorraine of unlawful wounding the jury must be treated as having rejected her claim of being in a dissociative state. The jury treated Lorraine as if she knew what she was doing at the time of the attack"

In addition, she had been assessed by a psychiatrist who had found her to be sound.

The sentences handed down in these two cases are markedly differerent. Of Gary Smith’s attackers, three will serve at least five years and maybe more; the fourth will serve a minimum of four years, maybe more. The details are at the bottom of the page here.

Lorraine Mbulawa has presumably been on some sort of remand (I don’t know if it was custodial) since May 2009, as her contact with her mother has been supervised and she is only now allowed to return to the family home to live. She has been given a 12 month custodial sentence suspended for 18 months. She must also do 120 hours of unpaid work and attend supervision to help her understand her beliefs so she could deal with any supernaturally inspired violent urges in the future.

These contrasting sentences may be attributable to several factors.

For one, the victim impact statements each both case will have been very differerent. Gary Smith’s injuries were more severe and he may never completely recover. He is unlikely to be sympathetic to his assailants’ world-view or motivation. Sibusisiwe Mbulawa, by comparison, had lesser injuries and feels she understands her daughter’s behaviour completely.

Another is the likelihood of perpetrating again in the future: Gary Smith’s assailants were united by a life-principle that would be likely to lead to further violence and which will be highly difficult to erase. The judge clearly feels that Lorraine Mbulawa, by contrast, can be taught to deal with her worldview in a way that will reduce her chances of perpetrating in the future.

Remorse will have been another factor. It’s hard to see how the Tower Hamlets four could have plausibly pleaded moral anguish after their celebratory conversation was recorded. Mbulawa, on the other hand, told police of her intention to kill herself after she had killed her mother.

Culpability may have been yet another issue. Despite the jury’s rejection of the notion that Mbulawa may have been insane at the time of the attack, Mr Justice Keith said:

"Lorraine believes she was doing what the spirits told her to do which reduced her culpability significantly …”

whilst also still laying the responsibility at her feet:

“… since she knew what she was doing she should have fought against what she was told to do"

Acting under duress – compulsion from outside – is a defence in law. But the law restricts itself to agents such as blackmailers, people who have kidnapped your granny and so forth. Spirits don’t count, and that’s fine by me.

And I detect yet another consideration, from left of field. Mbulawa is simply more attractive, in every respect. Mr Justice Keith said:

"I believe she's a young woman with much going for her. She struck me as being unusually confident and assured, also not unintelligent with a degree of charm and poise”

She is young, pretty, was an A-level student and, unlike the Tower Hamlets four is not the embodiment of a current much-feared archetype, the regressive jihadist.

Yet for all their differences, these two crimes have one very significant theme at their hearts: people who were judged by the courts to be mentally competent were motivated to potentially murderous acts under the influence of utterly unprovable supernatural worldviews.

I spent an interesting afternoon once with a senior police officer who deals with occult-related killings. His interest in the precise nature of beliefs was limited: his focus was on whether or not an actual crime had been committed. For that, I think he deserved great professional credit: like Elizabeth I, he had: “no desire to make windows into men's souls”.

But clearly, thought processes do matter – and to the courts too. Psychological evaluations that assess culpability and fitness to stand trials must make windows into men's souls. To a certain extent, we can determine culpability and the likelihood of re-offending using those windows.

We choose the parameters of our rationality, and those parameters move from time to time. If we commit a crime under a popular delusion, we are more likely to be judged sane. With a social animal like us, it’s actually quite reasonable: the sharing of a doctrine, a cognitive concensus, is certainly a measure of our integration with our community, if not our grasp of objective physics. A person motivated to murder for Ereshkigal would be ancient Iraq’s religious fanatic, today’s whackjob.

Perhaps this is another area where Mbulawa gets off as being mad rather than bad in the UK. We’re more familiar with jihadism, but the witchcraft paradigm has been under the radar ‘til recently.

James House, for the prosecution, had noted that:

"Her mother has expressed a belief in the power of spirits common in the culture of Zimbabwe … had it happened there, her daughter would have been treated by a medicine man and would have been exorcised"

Gilbert Nyambabvu in ‘New Zimbabwe’ concurred:

“… Lorraine’s story would have befuddled few, if any, Zimbabweans”

So - here are a handful of modern perpetrators who have acted under the influence of bizarre, unprovable tenets. If you look to history, they’re not short of company: witch-hunters, inquisitors and crusaders abound. Few of them were, by the standards of the own times, mad.

It would be wrong, and in any case impossible, to legislate for anti-social supernatural beliefs. But given the potential for harm, we can reasonably stop these beliefs being monetised. The prospect of revenue creates a motivation for promotion. I suggested that payment for deliverance from witchcraft should be illegal here.

And the law already has provision for actual violence, inspired by a variety of motives, rational and irrational. Meanwhile, we are left with cases that leave us horrified ... and bemused.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Thoughts & Theology

On May 13th, Oxford University website posted a press-release entitled “Humans 'predisposed' to believe in gods and the afterlife” and summarised as:

“A three-year international research project, directed by two academics at the University of Oxford, finds that humans have natural tendencies to believe in gods and an afterlife.”

Newspapers had already covered the study’s progress. You can see “Children are born believers in God” from The Telegraph’s religion section here and “Why do we believe in God? £2m study prays for answer” from The Times here.

‘The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project’ was supported by a 1.9mGBP grant from the Templeton Foundation and run by Psychologist Dr Justin Barrett and philosopher Professor Roger Trigg who “directed an international body of researchers conducting studies in 20 different countries that represented both traditionally religious and atheist societies.”

Dr Barrett had been quoted as saying that they were: “… interested in exploring exactly in what sense belief in God is natural”.

And it would be strange, I suppose, if such a thing as belief in the supernatural was not natural, given how widespread it is.

It’s a thought many have pondered: why do we as a species come up with these ideas, again and again. The father of psychology William James wrote about a quality he called ‘religious genius’.

He noted that religious instigators: “have often shown symptoms of nervous instablility … exhalted emotional sensibility .. and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological”

For James those others who follow on from these primary agents have what he called a ‘second-hand religious life’. He seems to have regarded it as a form of intellectual contagion from a concentrated source.

However, the prevailing theories about religiosity have changed since James’ day. Charismatic individuals certainly have shaped some of the specifics of our notions about the supernatural, but a spontaneous sense of it seems to be more evenly distributed among the population than he thought.

There are a couple of ideas about how we’ve become a supernatural-seeking species.

The first is that belief in a transcendent power confers an advantage upon a group. This would make religiosity a primary quality for survival by, for example, enhancing commitment to the group. One of the most notable poularisers of this theory was the father of sociobiology E O Wilson who said: “Men would rather believe than know”.

But there are several detractors to this theory, people who don’t believe that group selection is anywhere near as important a factor in survival as has been claimed. Which would leave the ‘God as an Adaptive Trait’ theory looking a bit wan.

The second – and probably more currently popular - way of looking at the issue is to see superstition and religion as byproducts of evolution.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and population geneticist Richard Lewontin co-opted the architectural term 'spandrel' to define something which didn’t originate by the direct action of natural selection but which later became usefully employed for a different function.

So is god somehow a side-effect of our cognitive machinery, an accompaniment to evolution?

David Hume wrote that: “We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and goodwill to everything, that hurts or pleases us”.

Taking indistinct stimuli from the environment and making them into something recognisable is a phenonmenon know as pareidolia; it’s how the Virgin Mary gets onto so many pieces of toast. Either that, or she’s got a really good agent.

Hume was pointing out what many others have noticed before and since – we see things that aren’t there and then often ascribe personalities and intentions to them.

Dr Barrett’s term for this kind of thing is a hyperactive (or hypersensitive) agency detection device” a HADD.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it that we have an:

‘Intentional stance’ and that means identifying “agents with limited beliefs about the world, specific desires, and enough common sense to do the rational thing given those beliefs and desires”

So, we can realise there are other things in the universe and that they have intentions that may differ from ours. To read someone else’s mind, you need a thing called theory of mind.

This term was created by David Premack and Guy Woodruff who defined it as:

“... the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own”

You can imagine how useful this is: it helps us to predict what others are going to do and want. It helps us to understand that they have a theory of mind about us in turn.

The issue with these agent-detection and prediction abilities is that they’re very hard to turn off. A false positive is probably not often dangerous – whoever got hurt for mistaking tree bark for a face? But a false negative is dangerous – how often do you get to ignore a hungry tiger?

Another way in which we get to see a world of our own making is to have a preference for purpose-based explanations. Psychologist Dr. Deborah Keleman of the Child Cognition Lab at Boston University is the expert here. Her work on children showed they had preferences for what she called teleo-functional explanations.

Why is polar bear fur white? So the bear can blend in with the snow (rather than because it lacks pigment).

What’s more, she found that children displayed what she called promiscuous teleology – that is applying to purpose-based explanations to both living and natural-but-inanimate things alike.

So do we naturally grow out of this kind of reasoning, or do the physics lessons at school have an effect after all?

Keleman’s work on uneducated adults among the Romanian Roma showed that giving up purpose-based explanations as we grow, is a cultural phenonomenon, not a natural event. Left to our own devices, we’d probably all be adult animists, searching for motivations of seen and unseen agents in our environments.

I’ve noticed this a great deal in my study of the folklore of the macabre. People really aren’t stupid. They know that events have proximal causes. It’s the search for meaning which helps to create the agent.

The anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard spent a great deal of time with a central African tribe, the Azande. One day, a house collapsed on someone; villagers knew that termites had undermined house but that wasn’t the question. Why had it happened when that particular person was sitting there?

They weren’t answering the question "how?". They were answering the question "why?". I've covered the kind of encumberances these two very different questions have here.

It reminds me of medieval Europeans who felt leprosy to be a disease associated with moral degeneracy. You could probably have proved the existence of disease-causing micro-organisms to our ancestors, but it may not have stopped them asking why. Why now? Why him? Why here?

This is hardly even a start on the factors which predispose us to intuit the supernatural. If you’re interested in more you could do a lot worse than buy Bruce Hood’s ‘Supersense’.

So if a sense of the supernatural is a side-effect of our biology, will ghosts and gods, phantoms and fairies always be with us?

Dr Barrett, a Christian himself, was quoted as saying that "If we threw a handful on an island and they raised themselves I think they would believe in God."

But I think this is going far too far. For one thing, that term 'god' rather than 'gods' – monotheism is the exception rather than the rule in religion. And perhaps our island-bound handful would have day to day interactions with ancestors rather than gods, in the manner of traditional African religion.

I think it would be fairer to say that they would likely end up with a supernatural model of their environment, as well as a natural one.

As anthropologist Pascal Boyer wrote:
“Having a normal brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it, which is very different”

Monday, 21 March 2011

Mrs. God

This weekend 'The Daily Mail' ran a story which was mined from a ‘Radio Times’ article promoting ‘The Bible’s Buried Secrets’, which is being aired on Tuesday nights on a primetime BBC2 slot.

The article warns us that there are a couple of controversial conclusions about to be broadcast. They include that Eve was not the first woman, and that the ancient Hebrew God had a wife.

“I spent several years specialising in the cultural and social contexts of the Bible and I discovered that Yahweh, the God we have come to know, had to see off a number of competitors to achieve his position as the one and only god of the ancient Israelites” writer/presenter Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou was quoted as saying.

For purposes of even-handedness and apoplexy, Anne Widdecombe was consulted for her comments. Clearly influenced by the "My dad's bigger than your dad" school of dialectic, she said:

"I would guess that most other theologians will demolish her theory in three seconds flat."

For a well-educated woman, she can be a terrible twerp. That is to say, someone ought to tell Miss Widdecombe not to hold her breath for more than three seconds, nor Dr Stavrakopoulou to get too excited about her Services-to-Originality. These ideas are quite old-hat and very well supported.

One of the keys to understanding historical Judaism is to remember that it -unlike its fellow middle-Eastern monotheistic monoliths, Christianity and Islam – was not created, condensed and made canon within a short period of time.

In their respective histories, Christianity and Islam have provided multiple instances of coercive consensus: think of the myriad movements where fellow believers have been outcast as apostates and heretics for espousing a fractionally factional view.

The creation of Judaism was more gradual, the steering of polytheistic peoples through revelation of many prophets who included Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Moses. As Raphael Patai wrote:

“In view of the general, human, psychologically determined predisposition to believe in and worship goddesses, it would be strange if the Hebrew-Jewish religion, which flourished for centuries in a region of intensive goddess cults, had remained immune to them”

(Incidentally, if you think blogging doesn’t cause suffering, just try to write ‘Patai’ without your spell-checker jumping in to change it to ‘Patio’. Three times.)

Eve first:
The text of Genesis 1:27 "male and female he created them", indicated to the early rabbis that both genders were created simultaneously. But since Eve was generated from Adam's rib later on (Genesis 2:22), it seemed that Adam must have had another wife before her. Some even identified her as the Mesopotamian-derived Lilith, who was probably an aspect of the goddess Innana.

This contradiction between paragraphs that rub shoulders with each other in the Old Testament is not unusual. Genesis shows clear signs of being assembled from two or three versions - some say more - to the point where respectable Biblical scholars have identified clear voices and given them names. ‘J’ is the ‘Yahwist’ voice (so called because it refers to God as ‘Yahweh’), concentrates on ancestral narratives and divine promise of land. ‘P’ is the ‘Priestly’ voice which stresses ritual and observance. ‘E’ is the ‘Elohist’ which refers to God as ‘Elohim’ and is concerned with dreams and prophecy.

There’s a good round up of the various theories in here. From what I can gather, there isn’t much debate about whether different people contributed to the books, but whether they were edited together in a ‘block’ or ‘interweaving’ fashion.

This ‘multiple and sometimes contradictory contributors’ factor is one of the most lucid illustrations of why the Bible should not be used as the precise technical manual that it clearly isn’t.

And God’s Wife?

Robert Graves touches lightly on the feminine inherent in the Biblical god here but if you’re really interested, you’re just going to have to spring for this.

Patai (not Patio) considers the Canaanite origins of the female in Hebrew mythology with Asherah and Anath, whom he considers to have influenced the development of the Hebrew ‘Shekhina’ – the palpable manifestation of God’s presence on earth. He then goes on to investigate the ‘Matronit’, a Kabbalistic entity.

These female numinous persons are not explicitly mentioned in the Pentateuch/Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). But that’s not too surprising as the documents, although derived from earlier works, were probably assembled into their modern format at the relatively late date of the end of the fifth century BCE. By this time, if there were any tweaks, they were done in a more Patriarchal environment.

For Patai, the female re-emerges in the Jewish mystical movements of The Kabbala in the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries (not the recent self-help movement which claims inspiration from it). It comes from the inherent grammar in the Torah (Hebrew words have a gender) and the presence of these themes in the ambient culture. It’s not the only time that an earlier theme is carried under the radar to re-surface later. As he writes:

“The best known, though not always readily acknowledged, example of this type of transformation is the re-emerence of the ancient Near Eastern mythological feature of divine triads … in the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity”

Despite the strong wording in the quote from earlier in this blogpost, it would probably be unfair to claim that Dr Stavrakopoulou thinks she’s the first on this territory. It would be a miracle if an academic of her stature wasn’t aware of all the work which has gone before. The DM article is from a Radio Times article, and bears a lot of ‘PR placement’ marks. If I wanted high viewing figures I’d have done exactly the same thing, and a press release is not as considered a document as an academic paper.

In other words, she’s probably more humble than the PR person at the BBC is on her behalf.

Besides which, it’s obvious that God must have a wife. Who else would wash his pants?

PS Just watched this on the BBC iPlayer. Excellent. Really looking forward to the others. Dr Stavrakopoulou does a great job of contextualising the Biblical myths in their historical reality.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Too Many Ghosts Spoil the Broth?

I was one of the lucky people who spent the 5th and 6th of this month at QED, Manchester. Apart from a minor fit of apoplexy trying to decode Manchester’s city centre roads to enter the car park and later being soaked by a bus (I'm serious - I looked like one of those car wash mops) I loved the whole weekend.

It’s been interesting to read people’s online musings on the event. I think we all agree we’d like them to organise it again next year.

But there’s another strand. How many ghosts are too many?

Andy Russell wondered if it was “A little bit too ghosty …

Of the 12 1 hour sessions in the main hall, 2 were about ghosts (maybe 2.25 if you count the bits in Bruce Hood’s talk). I guess ghosts are quite fun and there are some serious issues related to them (e.g. exploitation of vulnerable people) but it felt like a bit too much. Surely there are other issues we should be thinking about?

And Tom Williamson wrote:

I’ve never got the skeptical ghost hunting thing (ghosts don’t exist, move on)

Hayley Stevens replied that:

Skepticism in ghost belief and ghost research is as relevant as any of ‘type’ of skepticism out there, not to mention the fact that skepticism in general DOES think about other issues way more than ghosts. Alt med for example, gets HUGE coverage, as does creationism, anti-vaccination, the list is endless…

There have been apologies all-round which is a great credit to the manners and mutual respect of the relevant parties. It seemed to me that the ghost complaints reflected an enthusiasm for other areas of scepticism rather than just a judgement upon us supernatural-obsessed types.

But it’s a fair point and one that does deserve a reply. Why do we continue to expend so much time and energy on the supernatural when the area has been so well studied and debunked?

Some skeptics like ghost debunking; some like alt-med debuking; some prefer creationism debunking. I suspect that these differences arise from individual personality traits, quirks and preferences. And that’s OK. Those of us who rationally channel our inner-Goth would appreciate a few really high points in a weekend of other sceptical subjects.

But it also strikes me that as much as ghosts and other supernatural phenomena have been debunked, so have many alt-med practices and it doesn’t stop people spending money on them.

Alt-med is a hydra, and its endurance is probably due to the fact that it satisfies people in a certain way. They get something for their money, otherwise they wouldn’t spend it. Buying a feeling is still a commercial transaction.

In fact, I wonder whether current alt-med thrives due to the personality traits of the middle-classes: self-assertion – a certain Protestant self-reliance and independence; a mistrust of authority as being ‘better’ than oneself; a desire for devolvement of power to the patients themselves. These are personality traits which would have gotten you a clip ‘round the ear in a medieval village, but job promotion in a modern commercial environment.

Unfortuately, advanced technology and theory takes the cooperation and resources of many. The results are suitably potent. But that may be unsatisfying to the modern human need to remain, even a little, in control of your own fate. The fact is, you can’t cure cancer by yourself any more than you can get to the moon by yourself.

In this case, our human personality and social traits are worth studying because they apply across the board. Studies of alt-med must eventually come to analyses of why many so people in a modern context keep returning to it.

It’s been useful process for mainstream medicine too, which is now practiced in a far more sensitive, more participatory and less patriarchal way than before.

Do you remember when Blackadder went to the quack?

Because he went in the sixteenth century, he was prescribed leeches. The famous Dr. Hoffmann of Stuttgart was the foremost expert of the age (and also, co-incidentally, the largest producer of leeches in Europe).

Blackadder could have been prescribed magnet therapy in the eighteenth century and ‘The Water Cure’ in the nineteenth. Charles Darwin was an unfortunate recipient of The Waters and the cure sounds considerably more grim than having a few little live blood bags dangling from your nethers.

The nature of quackery changes and several fads have truly been discredited. And as I said, I think the enormous popularity of alt-med may be significantly due to social context, several elements of which are ephemeral.

But religion and the supernatural are slightly different. We’re hardwired for them. Good quality study of the supernatural must endure because, when every other fad has passed, it is the one thing to which we, as a species, always return.

It has been said that the difference between ghosties and ghoulies is that it doesn’t hurt when you get a kick in the ghosties.

But, on the contrary, I think that people are quite resistant to ghost, vampire, werewolf, blood-sucking revenant, kind god, capricious god (pick the belief-type appropriate to your culture) debunking. That’s because it’s a factory setting that requires a great deal of education to de-install. Ghosts et al are simply more enduring than homeopathy, chiropractic for asthma and magnets for menopause. (To complain about fanny magnets – arf, arf - see what Simon Perry has written here.)

In general, we skeptics are united by the desire to perceive our world in the most rational way possible – even though we’re meat-puppets and our impartiality probably has its limits.

But as a species, we do have a preference … and that is to believe in the supernatural. So we’ll always need the tools to discuss this one intelligently and persuasively.

Help one of the next generation of ghost-hunters! - that is to say, a student of the human mind who wonders why we believe in such things. It takes just a few minutes to complete a survey for Goldsmiths student Aaron Shalan who would is studying factors associated with paranormal belief.

Addendum 2:
More on this at The Thought Stash

Monday, 14 February 2011

Trouser Removal & Underwear Inspection: Security for the Modern Traveller

Those of you fascinated at the attempted removal of David Allen Green's trousers at the airport last week may want to know about uninvited strangers rifling through my underwear.

Just before Christmas, I returned from the US. I had a skull in my hand-luggage and the airport security guard swabbed it for narcotics and/or explosives. The lovely security lady's smile barely flickered when I explained that it was Mr J's Christmas present. The whole thing was done in my prescence and I was glad they were taking their responsibilities seriously.

Then I got home, opened my hold luggage and found this:

Basically, it said that my luggage had been rifled in my absence. And what's more, if they had broken the locks to do this, that was my problem.

Anyone else find that really creepy?

I really don't mind them looking at luggage. They should! But since I was waiting in departures for two hours, you'd think they'd have had a few minutes to get me to the Rifling Room to help.

I'd be highly aggrieved to be prosecuted for carrying anything when I'd no proof it hadn't been placed there by a third party. And I'd be really pissed off to buy a new case every time I made a trip because someone had trashed the locks to inspect my toothpaste.

We all know that governments use paranoid times to enact the powers they'd like to have anyway. But this one is really, I'll use the word again, creepy.

I don't mind who rifles through my underwear. But I'd prefer if they had the manners to wait 'til I'm there.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Exorcism: Ancient & Modern

Today, I'm thinking about exorcising. Not running on the spot – that’s a good thing.

I’m talking about dislodging demons.

For the self-sufficient there is the one-day course approach. Very reasonably priced at fifty-nine pounds, this was offered recently by Atlantis Bookshop in London. Their ‘leading expert’ David Goddard has been ‘an authorized exorcist for over 20 years’.

In touch with the spirit world or the spirit cabinet – I really don’t know. I didn’t go.

But I was relieved to discover that the syllabus included how to distinguish between possession and mental ill-health. Absolutely vital that.

This autonomous approach would probably suit the kind of people who crochet their own bedspreads, change their own engine oil and so forth.

On the other hand, if you’re keen on authority, you know, the sort of person who calls in an electrician to change a plug fuse, you can go with a recognised establishment, with training courses and titles, such as the Catholic Church.

In November 2010 Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois organised a two-day conference on exorcism attended by 56 bishops and 66 priests. The New York Times noted that there is a lot of cynicism surrounding the issue of exorcism in the US today and wrote that “efforts to interview the (delegates) on Friday were unsuccessful”.

Not quite as shy, is Father Gary Thomas, the Catholic exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, who has been interviewed for this month’s ‘Catholic World Report’. His previous exposure in the media has included being the subject of Matt Baglio’s book (& now a movie) ‘The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist’.

The piece is entitled ‘Doorways for Demons’ and carries a photo of Father Thomas bearing a lightly constipated grin. He tells us that there were about half a million exorcisms in Italy. Per year, that would be an impressive feat not to mention a significant aspersion upon the moral fibre of a nation of around sixty million souls. Perhaps he means the aggregate of rituals for which the Vatican has records.

But personally in five years, he claims to have met with 100 people and performed 40 exorcisms on about five of them.

Perhaps it's like waxing - perhaps you have to keep going back.

He says:
“… there are more and more Catholics involved in idolatrous and pagan practices. That’s really why there’s more demonic activity.”

“A lot of parents today have no critical eye of faith with which to even recognize the dangers their children are in. A lot of this is going on with the Internet.”

In the study of witchcraft and demon-related beliefs, there’s a great deal of energy put into discussing whether such belief systems are, to use the lingo, ‘bottom-up’ or ‘top-down’. Are the authorities forced to deal with what are actually rank and file experiences, or do they precipitate or interpret such experiences further down the social ladder from themselves by their expectation of them.

I think most historians believe that there’s evidence of both.

Just for the moment, let’s think about witch trials in England, say.

Prior to the eighteenth century belief in witchcraft was probably pretty endemic, but really got out of hand when traditional social structures started to crumble in the Tudor era. Witches were often deeply impoverished people who had asked for charity but had been refused. If the refuser subsequently had some misfortune, they blamed the alleged witch. Let’s face it, the refuser did sort of deserve it. It’s quite a clear case of projected guilt.

Then local constable or magistrate would get involved.

Bottom up. It’s an oft-repeated pattern.

But you can perceive sinister hints in witch-hunting history about top-down phenomena too. A couple of the most celebrated English witch trials had highly educated men at their centre and it’s even questionable whether the trials would have stood, without the educated input and manic focus of these people.

In 1589, ten year old Elizabeth Throckmorton, who had recently moved to Warboys, accused her new neighbour Agnes Samuels of being a witch. Elizabeth appears to have been epileptic and quite ill. But her afflictions, characterised by massive fits, sneezing and channeling demons, were soon communicated to four of her sisters and eventually, several of their extended household.

Elizabeth’s Uncle was Henry Pickering. He was an educated man from a prominent family. And at this early stage in his witch-hunting career he conducted systematic experiments with his niece to demonstrate real demonic possession. He also took Elizabeth to live with him for a spell, made copious notes and eventually gave evidence at the trial of Agnes Samuels, her daughter and her husband.

In the case of the Lancashire Witches of 1612, Justice of the Peace for Pendle, Roger Nowell, interviewed a young woman named Alison Devize who’d been accused of bewitching a peddlar.

Roger Nowell was a Puritan whose professional remit included seeking out religious nonconformists (recusant Catholics, basically).

Alizon talked about her black dog – her family seems to have been fond of animals and this was unfortunately a characteristic attributed to witches. Somehow, in the telling of the story, the black dog became her familiar. Alizon may even have been trying to displace the blame from herself to the dog for the peddlar’s illness which was probably a stroke.

Another of the witches, an old woman known locally as Chattox, told Nowell of a ‘thing like a Christian man’ who had asked for her soul many years ago. In the religious turbulence of her lifetime (bear in mind she was probably in her 70s by 1612) - he could even have been a religious proselytiser of either Puritan or Catholic stamp. But Nowell interpreted him as the devil himself to whom Chattox had sold her soul.

Via Nowell’s questioning, the Lancashire Witches’ accounts conformed to the scholarly beliefs contained in such books as the Malleus Malificarum, William Perkins ‘Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft’ and King James’ ‘Demonology’.

The interviewees inadvertently confirmed a highly evolved metaphysical schema that Roger Nowell knew in detail and which they likely didn’t.

Agnes Samuel, her husband John and their daughter Agnes were hanged in 1593. Ten of the Lancashire witches including Alizon Devize and Old Chattox were hanged in 1612.

Those deaths were caused by, as much any other factor, highly earnest and highly educated men labouring under a gross misapprehension.

As historian Keith Thomas wrote: “men seldom seek a high degree of proof for what they already believe to be true”

He also notes about cunning men – men who found witches, that it was in their: “… interest to diagnose witchcraft, after all, because they had a near monopoly of techniques for dealing with it”

Does that ring a bell given how we started?

In 1602 there was an exchange between Lord Chief Justice Anderson and a Dr Jorden who was defending Elizabeth Jackson against charges of having bewitched Mary Glover. The Lord Chief Justice seemed unsatisfied that Jorden thought Glover’s condition neither fabricated nor amenable to medical intervention.

“Then in my conscience” he said “It is not natural”.

It’s nice that modern exorcists like freelance demonologer David Goddard and Father Gary Thomas take account of the possibility of mental illness before they get the paraphernalia out. Father Gary has a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a medical doctor on his team.

But, despite Lord Chief Justice Anderson’s protestations, just because we can’t cure it yet, it doesn’t mean it’s not natural. And if you were suffering from an as-yet undiagnosed condition which led to mental distress, do you think a man confirming your belief in the dreadful powers of Satan and all his little fiery minions would make your anxiety worse or better?

History clearly shows us that highly educated and sometimes well-intentioned people can precipitate the most dreadful of consequences.

Be nice if it wasn’t still relevant, wouldn’t it?

This blogpost was first done as a podcast for The Pod Delusion at QEDcon