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New column for the CSI: Counterclockwise

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I started to write a new column for the renewed website of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a great honor as CSICOP was one of the initiatives that led me to write, among other things, this very blog (and a major skeptical website in Brazil). And as a Brazilian, I will try to write more about things around here, thus the title, ‘Counterclockwise’, referring to a common misconception. Water can drain counterclockwise in this hemisphere.

For my first column, I wrote about the photo above. The man in sunglasses is Francisco “Chico” Xavier, one of the most respected mediums and religious leaders in Brazil. What seems to be simply someone covered in a white sheet in the center is allegedly the ectoplasmic materialization of sister Josefa. Yes, we had materialization seánces taken very seriously in Brazil in the 1960s. And they are still taken seriously by many.

Be sure to read the whole story about Spiritualism in Brazil: Alive and Kicking.

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Redesigning the Ouija board

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“I enjoy Ouija boards as handsome declarations of the alphabet”, Monte Thrasher wrote me last year. We have since exchanged some ideas and he shared a couple of his fascinating ideas and concepts, such as his “Oracle” project of redesigning the Ouija board.

“It occurred to me that a standard Ouija board is clumsy and labor intensive. For one thing, you use A over and over, but it’s set way off to one side”, wrote the artist. “So why not group all the vowels at the center for easy access? And Q always needs a U, so place those two together, and so on.”

“This lead me to study cryptography statistics. T is the most common consonant, and it groups most often with E, so set them side by side, and so on. I thought of making the common letters larger and the rare ones smaller. What I ended up with was a curious image, something like an oculist’s eye chart gone mad, a seemingly random mishmash of letters. Here’s an early sketch:” Improved Ouija Board

“In the final version the Oracle Board wasn’t much to look at. I realized that my statistical approach to language required, not a graphic approach like these charts, but a statistical one, a sprinkling of little letters across a field; lots of E’s, slightly fewer T’s, and so on, following the well-known set of ETAOINSHRDLU etc., from the most to the least common letters in English.”

“Visually dull but oracularly fruitful. True, its ‘messages’ were full of misspellings and garbled stuff, but any querent using the board is welcome to keep or discard whatever parts of the message he or she chooses, since it’s all equally meaningful. Or, as one clairvoyant said, the Dead make typos too.”

And this was just the beginning. From keyboard layouts to word clouds,  from the Fox sisters spiritual telegraph to the iPad spirit board apps and beyond, we will explore the idea of redesigning the Ouija board.

 

ETAOIN SHRDLU?

Here’s the Wikipedia entry for “ETAOIN SHRDLU”, that is, a nonsense phrase that linotype operators sometimes casted by simply typing the first two vertical columns on their keyboard, much like we may type “qwerty” or “asdfg”, with the difference that old linotype keys were arranged by letter frequency.

That is, “etaoin / shrdlu” are the twelve most commonly used letters in English language.

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Does this linotype keyboard arrangement somewhat reminds of what Thrasher suggested for an improved Ouija board? But let’s leave that aside for a moment.

What about the idea of also having the letters of different sizes according to their frequencies, as in Thrasher’s early sketch… have you not seen something similar on any blog?

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Above, a Wordle of the article “Mind Under Matter”. As a default, the most common English words such as “the”, “you”, etc., are removed, for the word cloud to clearly represent the most used relevant words in the text. And it works beautifully – even without reading the whole article one can realize it refers to the brain, illusions and consciousness quite a lot.

If we on the other hand create a word cloud without removing the “the”, “you” and everything, we get something like this:

themindwordle

Not very useful to quickly capture the gist of the article… but then, as it has all the words arranged by size according to their frequency, such a Wordle would be particularly useful if we wanted to rewrite the text, word by word, simply by moving… a planchette, as in an Ouija board.

And the amazing thing is, this Wordle was created automatically. You could, for instance, create a wordle for the Bible (with or without removing the most common English words) and have some great fun having the “spirits” remixing it.

I can’t express how amazingly cool it is that a novel information visualization technique can be used to automatically create an improved Ouija board following the lines of the original suggestion by a talented artist such as Monte Thrasher.

This interplay of superstition, art and technology is quite beautiful, and as we will see in the next post, actually goes way back.

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Googlism Synchronicity

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“max is here
max is in control
max is probably creating something big for it

max is the solution for you
max is what you want
max is on top

max is cool because despite the fact that his father yells at us every time we’re there
max is so smart
max is not the killer

max is still in control
max is good for that kind of thing
max is no angel

max is useless hahahaha
max is not max
max is down

max is over”

Does that make sense? It’s the story of the rise and fall of dictator Max, by Max Jahnke. If it sounded a little strange, it’s because all the sentences were extracted from Googlism, which in turn extracted them from the web. Those are all unrelated snippets of text from across the web compiled into one story.

The results from Googlism can be hilarious, but most important to us, there’s something here in the fact they can be selected and organized to make a somewhat coherent short story. As it happens, another friend, Murilo Queiroz, also has a son named Max, and he got into it, creating a beautiful and quite long story from Googlisms which is actually related to his son.

A whole lot of meaning from random snippets of text extracted from the web.

If you are into Forteanism long enough, you may have realized a lot of coincidences and mystical synchronicities work like this. There’s a whole ocean of not entirely random things: that’s the web. Then a phenomenon filters this randomness into something less random, but the phenomenon in itself is not expected to produce meaning. That’s Googlism.

Then comes our minds. From Googlisms some quite amazing “coincidences” can be found. We can find meaning where there is none. Or better yet, there was none. We actually created this meaning the moment we think we saw them there all along.

Some of these ideas were discussed previously in Mind under matter, but even if you don’t quite swallow this pill, how about finding what story lies in the Googlisms for your name? Do share them in the comments.

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Amazingly faked hoaxes

Or are they hoaxed fakes? Fact is, they are amazing works by “The Faking Hoaxer”. Keep reading for much more, including making ofs and ghosts.

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Debunking roundup

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I try not to post too many debunking posts in a row as it starts to get boring, but a bunch of images and claims have been circulating these past few weeks and I didn’t comment on them at the time. So I joined all of them into one quick debunking roundup, if you are still not bored by those.

I promise I will try to make the next post about something truly mysterious and wonderful, contrary to exposing some dubious, lame hoaxes.

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