Science of the Magical by Matt Kaplan

Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers by Matt Kaplan (Scribner’s, 2015) 246 pages

SOTM Kaplan

This book starts out with a lot of promise. The whole point is that a lot of the things that we once thought of as magical (the result of magic) are now shown by science to be factual (the result of things being the way they are). But somewhere in the middle, this early promise sort of peters out and readers are left with the feeling that a lot of the material is just there to fill out a book. For me, this happened somewhere between the readings of animal livers in ancient Rome (which was very good) and the investigation of gateways to the underworld (which was sort of “okay, so?”).

The solid science of the first part of the book gives way to a lot of speculation in the second part. Now, none of this book’s content could be written without at least some speculation, of course, but when the word “science” appears in the title, it would be nice to have as much science throughout the whole book as possible. After all, there aren’t any Roman Empire priests still around to ask and have them say “Why, yes, that’s exactly what we were looking for when we pulling those hot, steaming livers from those freshly sacrificed sheep…”

Kaplan investigates nine major areas to explore the current science surrounding certain “superstitious” practices. These are Healing (does praying help?), Transformation (into berserk warriors or the opposite gender), Immortality and Longevity (Holy Grail helps?), Supernatural Skies (does weather bring disease?), Animal and Plants as Omens, Guides, and Gods (do wolves and ravens know something we don’t?), Prophecy (oracles and liver readers), Beyond the Grave (actually, near death more than ghosts), Enchantment (psychedelics and love potions), and Superhumans (fire walkers and towel driers).

Some of this stuff reminds me of things I’ve seen on Mythbusters (can you raise your internal temperature mentally?). But a lot of it was new to me, and rather fascinating. Kaplan has an east style, although he can sometimes stretch a paragraph of real material into a couple of pages. Feel free to flip to the good parts.

Which is what I’m going to do here.

Although it isn’t directly related to praying and healing, the first things I got form the book (page 16) was about the Ancient Egyptians and eye makeup. We all know the kohl-heavy, overly-done-up eyes of King Tut and others, men and women alike. But only priests of Horus and Ra and their good buddies got to wear it. Recently, modern science has shown that the mixture of calcium and lead, if just right, protects against various eye disease common in North Africa and the surrounding deserts (page 17). Who wouldn’t worship a god whose followers were all obviously healthier than the people who worshipped some other (false) deity?

On page 22, we learn that researchers like to keep lab mice in cooler temperatures (room temperature for us: 68 to 72 degrees F) than the mice would prefer (in the mid-80s). This slows the mice’s metabolism; they eat less, poop less, and they have to clean the cages less frequently. But the mice prefer it warmer, and when given a choice, all migrate to warmer cages instead of cooler ones. And, as it turns out, the warmer the mice are, the stronger their immunity systems are. So mice, sick or not, react differently when cool or warm. This fact, of course, has enormous implications for, say, cancer treatment research done on chilled mice (page 24). This result is so new that it hasn’t been widely circulated, but maybe Kaplan’s book will help.

In the next chapter, Kaplan discusses how the “bear-serker” warriors of the Vikings might have spiked their beer with mushrooms or other psychedelics to ward off pain and ignore wounds (page 37). There are lots of hints, like traces of plants in Viking graves (page 40), but no smoking gun has been found yet. I think they were just nuts.

The most interesting thing I found in Chapter 3 on immortality was the new research into ageing and calorie deprivation. It was long known that, within limits, a restricted input of calories—less than 1200 per day instead of 2000 or more—had measurable health benefits. Animal studies showed increased life spans as well. One thing I did not know was that a substance called Rapamycin (page 70) can fool the body into thinking calories are scarce, even when they aren’t. Sounds great: eat all you want and still starve yourself to health and longevity. Ah, but rapamycin suppresses the immune system, and that can offset the supposed benefits. But Kaplan suggests more research might find a way forward, and low protein intake might be the key (page 73).

(As an aside, I’ve always thought that ageing was related to nutrition and exercise. People don’t slow down and eat differently because they age, they age because they stop eating right and aren’t as active as they should be. I am in the midst of a life-long—well, for almost 40 years now—experiment to prove that. I’ll let you know how it turns out.) 🙂

The next chapter deals with things like full moon effects (“lunatics”) and the Viking sunstone that always found the sun, even through thick clouds. This chapter really didn’t drag me in, and most of it was inconclusive when it came to the “science” anyway.

Chapter 5 had a fascinating exploration of the relationship between ravens, wolves, and Odin (yes, I know a lot of this book involves Northern European lore and “magic”). Odin, the big Viking god, had two raven buddies named Hugin (“thoughtful”) and Munin (“mindful”). Odin was so closely associated with these ravens that people called him Rafnagud, the Raven God. He also had two wolves around named Gore (“greedy”) and Freke (“voracious”). It’s clear from the names that the scavenger ravens are the brains, and the vicious wolves the brawn, of the operation. But why the raven and wolf mix?

Page 102 reports studies done in Yellowstone Park, showing that ravens and wolves often cooperate to find game. The ravens would follow the wolf pack, hoping to have some yummy leftovers to feast on when the wolves were done with dinner. In fact, the ravens had a hard time finding kills places by the rangers without the wolves to guide them. Not only that, but the ravens would circle over weak and vulnerable prey, waiting for the wolves to follow them to a good place for dinner (page 103). Odin appears to come in when early humans learned the whole raven-wolf trick and began stealing kills from the wolf pack (of course, the wolves became dogs and had their revenge).

A last word on livers…what could a Roman priest learn about the future by carving up a sheep and examining the liver? Plenty, as it turns out. On page 133, Kaplan suggests that the appearance of the liver could tell an invading army a lot about the state of the food and water in the area. Kaplan goes to a butcher to find livers and see if it is possible to tell diseased from heathy livers, and it is. But again, we really have no idea if we’re on the right track or not. The Roman priests have guarded their secrets well…

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) 280 pages

FM Parker

For the past few weeks, I’ve written about groups dominated not about concerns for government and laws, but about the reaction of their peers and the pressure of the tribe (and I use that term loosely). For example, in The Wandering Falcon, the people are confused by a need to have papers like birth certificates to cross what amount to arbitrary nation borders and in Smile as they Bow, the gay community serves the spirits (nats) by “channeling” the essences of these respected gods to escape official condemnation for their lifestyle. In both cases, the tribe clings together for protection, and individuals break tribal customs at their own risk.

Surely we don’t have tribes in modern America, right? I thought so to, but recently several things converged to make Parker’s book even more relevant than I thought when I read it. First I met Parker at ASU’s annual Desert Night Rising Stars writing conference and he spoke about how his home’s proximity to Camp Pendleton and Marines returning from the Middle East influenced this book. Then this week I went to Changing Hands book store in Phoenix to meet Doug Bradley and hear him speak on his book about how music bound together Vietnam veterans both “in country” during the war and after (the book is We Gotta Get out of This Place). And to top it off, I watched Bradley Cooper in the movie American Sniper again on HBO.

If American military veterans do not constitute a “tribe” as binding as the one who wander the Middle East or haunt the temples of Myanmar, then I don’t know what would be. I can think of others too: police officers (I spent most of my adult life living with two police officers and the chief of police of my town on three of the four sides me), fire fighters, and even motorcycle gangs. They have their own rules, their own talk, their own concerns, and yet they live among us quietly until something happens that draws attention to their otherness.

Which brings me to Full Measure. When speaking about this book, Parker mentioned how the returning veterans he spoke to did not care to be addressed as “heroes” or be constantly thanked for their service. To them, they were doing a dangerous and dirty job and trying their best to keep body and soul together during their tours. They weren’t drafted like many in Viet Nam were: they volunteered and had at least some idea of the risks they would be taking. So it’s no surprise that Full Measure opens with Patrick Norris returning home to his family’s avocado ranch in Fallbrook, north of San Diego, and feeling uncomfortable with people who fawn over him, even his brother Ted (page 4). He’s just glad to see his mom and dad again (page 16).

But all is not well at home. A recent wild fire, which might have been set on purpose, has destroyed acres of countryside and many of the Norris avocado trees. If they cannot be saved and provide a cash crop, Pat’s father will have to sell off the land at a fraction of its worth to developers who plan to build houses on the property. Patrick’s home town has changed as well, and now the poorer families, some foreign and others from Mexico, live and work side-by-side with the older (white) population. There is evidence of an active drug market and street gangs. Many of the newcomers don’t own cars, and a young Hispanic boy has been killed by an unknown hit-and-run driver. He tried crossing between the legally established crosswalks at traffic lights set a mile apart (it’s like that where I live in Arizona too).

The mayor holds a town meeting to determine if a crosswalk with solar-powered caution lights should be placed midway between the lights (page 26). The old-timers rail against the expense because the Great Recession has hit the town hard and unemployment is high. They complain even though the state will help pay and enough local money is available. The people vote the measure down, much to the dismay of young mothers trying to dash across the busy street with a baby carriage and two youngsters in tow. But this delights one element of the town: the “white power” advocates who insist on wearing guns wherever they go and want to unseat the current mayor (page 24). As much as Patrick misses the rush of combat (page 28), he doesn’t miss having to carry a gun wherever he goes and worry about people shooting at him on the streets of his home town.

In other words, Patrick Norris’ home town is facing exactly the same problems a lot of towns and cities in this country are facing. The government is losing its grip and the tribes are restless.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Norris family is increasingly concerned about Patrick’s brother Ted. Ted suffers from painfully flat feet and has the attention span of a gnat. He sits in the old bunkhouse and plays video games all night. When dad has to press Ted into service to try and save the less savagely burned of the trees, Ted immediately screws up and Marine vet brother Patrick has to bail poor Ted out (page 91). Ted drives a cab to help out, but is increasingly drawn to the whole white-power gun-toting crowd when he is mugged by a Hispanic gang-banger. Yet even when Ted tries to take his revenge with the help of his new friends, the result is no better than anything else Ted does.

Patrick, as sympathetic as he is to Ted’s woes, has problems of his own. He tries to connect with a local girl named Iris, and things go well until his PTSD buddies show up at a party at Iris’ place and promptly start a fight that trashes the place. It costs Patrick every penny he has to make things right, but Iris is understandably reluctant to get drawn into Patrick’s orbit.

The end has a twist you won’t see coming, I promise. But not everything gets sorted out with the usual hearts and flowers that books like this sometimes try to peddle. Still, in the end, there is hope.

Let me close my “tribal sequence” with a few last thoughts on this subject. Ted’s problem, as I see it, is that he is shut out of all tribes. The groups that he desperately wants and needs to join are closed to him: war veterans (feet), gentleman ranchers (no head for agriculture), respectable guy with a nice girl (the whole video game obsession, and every girl Ted comes across eventually spurns him as a stalker or someone who is already planning on how many kids they will have). Even the outsiders, the gun guys and the radicals, reject Ted as a hopeless dweeb who can’t even bash someone with a baseball bat in the dark without help. And guns? He’ll probably shoot his foot off sooner or later…

All this rejection drives Ted to increasingly extreme actions which threaten to overwhelm the ability of his brother and parents to protect him. Definitely worth a read, I have to say.

Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi

Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi (Hyperion Books, 2008) 146 pages


(Yes, that’s really how the title is capitalized…)

Before I talk about this book, I want to share my memories of Keith Emerson, who took his own life this week when nerve damage to his right hand left him unable to play the keyboard (and Moog synthesizer) like the maniac genius he was. Unless I go to see Steppenwolf or the Dave Clark 5 soon, Keith Emerson will remain the person I saw perform over the greatest number of years. I saw him at the Fillmore East with the Nice in April of 1969 and then again at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco with Greg Lake in April of 2009. (Carl Palmer wasn’t there: they were saving the official “Emerson, Lake, and Palmer” reunification show for later that summer in London.) That’s 40 years apart, and although Emerson had was 64 in 2009, he still had a lot of the same energy that I remembered from those old Fillmore days.

Let me share one memory of the crazy 1969 Keith Emerson and then we’ll do the book. Bill Graham did the intro: “Ladies and Gentlemen, won’t you welcome please, a most distinguished group, from England…The Nice!” Emerson didn’t have the Moog he used with ELP on “Lucky Man” yet (which he inherited from Manfred Mann by way of the Museum of Modern Art). But he did have a beat-up old Hammond L100 (some places say L102) organ. During most of the show, he just did his usual show: playing organ with one hand while playing piano with the other, playing the keyboard “upside down” while kneeling on the organ, reversing left hand and right hand parts, and so on. But when he did their big hit, “America” from West Side Story, he went completely nuts. First he took out knives (!) and stuck them into the keyboard to produce a droning chord. Then he toggled the power on and off, producing a “weeee-woooo-weeee” wail as the power surged and faded. Then he got up on top of the organ and rocked it back and forth, producing an indescribable booming crash when it hit the floor, splitting his pants in the process (this is even mentioned on the live album that preserved the performance). Finally, and you will not think this possible (I was there, and I still do not believe what I saw and heard), he went around to the back of this moaning, wailing machine (the knives still in place) and pulled some wires out of the back. By crossing them again, he produced the signature dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, DAH-DAH-DAH stutter of Bernstein’s “America.” During some shows, he would topple the organ over, sometimes on himself, then haul it back upright and finish the song. At the end, we all went nuts.

There are lots of videos out there. And audio files. Watch them. Listen. We’ve lost a giant.

His death bothered me, for some reason, much more than others. There is some evidence the Internet trolls got to him after his hand problems. Bottom line, the guy killed himself at the age of 71 when he couldn’t do the stuff he loved anymore. May we all find something to keep us going, always…forever, if we can.

Now, the book: this is the second of my attempts to break out of my conventional science/history/science fiction/fantasy reading material and branch out to people and places I would not have ordinarily encountered. The first book, The Wandering Falcon, took place on the Afghan-Pakistani border. This one takes place in Burma (now Mayanmar), and was suppressed for many years before becoming the first book by a Burmese writer to be translated into English.

The book starts with a nice description of people rushing to the rural Taungbyon Festival. It’s not a Christian pilgrimage, but it resembles it. This is one of a series of festivals for the spirits, the nats, who the people pray to for luck, or jobs, or raises, or love, or all of the above. If you’re poor, you can pray to nats yourself, but everyone agrees that it’s better to have a profession who knows what they’re doing intercede with the nats on your behalf.

One of the best of the spiritual mediums (the natkadaw) in town is a gay transvestite named Daisy Bond. Although he is in his fifties, Daisy Bond has a nice place near the temple for his clients to gather before and after the big processions to the temple to worship the nats, down to the river to bathe their holy images, to bring clothing for their images, and so on. After all, it costs a lot of money get a good slot in the procession (before all the crowds melt away instead of watching the rag-tag groups of less prosperous mediums), even more to feed the hordes who descend on your place, and still more to pay for the costumes you use to dress up and play-act as one of the nats as you foretell wonderful futures for all the people who rely on you to plan the months ahead. Why, it’s a miracle there’s a single kyat left over as compensation for Daisy’s life when the crowds have left. As for the pickpockets, well, Daisy warned them.

And if the wonderful things do not come to pass, it surely must be that the person has offended one of the nats or another. A hefty contribution next time will make it all right…

As the book goes on, the reader realizes that this sacred role is a refuge for gays, who would otherwise be subject to arrest and imprisonment. That’s why Daisy has become known as “Bond.” It took courage to wear makeup and high heels and a skirt in public, and when the police were called, Daisy whacked one of them with a high heel and swam to safety across the river, just like James Bond (p.31-32).

Now Daisy basks in honored glory. Outrageous feminine behavior is fine is you are channeling the great spirit of a female nat, and Daisy is one of the best. Daisy even had a young boyfriend named Min Min, a good-looking young man who has traded his independence (and manhood) for a subsidized existence as Daisy’s lover, sharing his bed and putting up with the abuse that the older man heaps upon the younger (p.58). It’s a game neither can win, and the verbal abuse increases because Daisy suspects (rightly) that Min Min has been enraptured by a young female singer whose family sings at the festival (p. 99).

The more Daisy looks for proof of Min Min’s love and devotion, the more Min Min fantasizes about following Pan Nyo’s financially stressed family from festival to festival as they raise a family of their own. The whole book comes to the point of no return when Min Min lies to Daisy about his “date” with Pan Nyo (p.125). Daisy, confused and rejected, is crushed.

Of course, poor Min Min underestimates how he looks to the rest of the girl’s relatives (and perhaps Pan Nyo herself). What work could Min Min do to support a family? Although well-off, he is, after all, dependent on an older, half-crazy gay guy. At the festival, this might be barely tolerable, but away from the service of the nats, well, it just would not work. I’ll leave it to readers to figure out who nurses Min Min back to health when he falls ill…in the end, the tribes are different, but, like last week’s book, the rules the people follow are still determined by the tribe, even in a dictatorship like Myanmar.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (Riverhead Books, 2011) 243 pages.

WF Ahmad


Before I get into this little gem of a book, let me say a few words about why I hadn’t posted the past few weeks, and something else entirely, which involves the voyage of self-discovery that these essays have stimulated. Two weeks ago, I attended the annual Piper House writing conference at ASU called Desert Nights Rising Stars (DNRS: I keep thinking there should be a comma in the middle). Although the three days ended on a Saturday, the last thing I wanted to do that Sunday was sit and read or write. Last week, we had relatives in from the Midwest that my wife and I had not seen for years, so we spent a full weekend in their company, and even into Monday.

I also learned that I had become so accustomed to writing these essays during football games on the weekends that, after the Super Bowl, I had a hard time sitting down and concentrating without hearing complaints about refereeing. But that’s part of the process. I obviously wrote some of these book essays last spring, without the clash of helmets as a soundtrack. The entity that is Walter reader/writer lurches forward; the path is not always smooth.

And who cares, anyway? The last issue of the New Yorker (March 7, 2016, page 62ff) contains an essay by Nathan Heller about the whole procedure of “reviewing” books, in this case Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott. True, we have professionals who review movies, plays, music, and even food and places (I mean like Rome or Greece), but, as the article points out, “What’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews?” Do books become bestsellers anymore, or movies become blockbusters, because a professional reviewer somewhere says they should? Unlikely, I think.

To be fair, the article starts from just the opposite: professionals have essential skills that “Blogging Bob” does not. Critics “know more,” they “can give a fair encapsulation of a work,” and are “decent writers” (!). But in the end, Heller thinks that organizations which dispense with professional critics in favor of a herd-like response to one work or another are shortsighted. A noble thought, but one not necessarily shared by Blogging Wally.

Then again, this is why I don’t call these things “book reviews.” They are…well, different. Writers don’t create words, I like to say: they create themselves. And now I see that readers don’t just passively absorb the thoughts of others: the very process of thinking about the words changes you in ways sometimes subtle, sometimes radical.

Was this a long way to get to this slim book? I guess. I found it in a list of books put together by another web commentator (I wish I remembered who) around New Years. The intent was to recommend books not set in the USA, but set in places all around the world, in cultures alien to the normal USA-based society based on the Bill of Rights and English Common Law.

But if we take away our rights and civil law, what do we have left? We have tribal rule and religious law, and that’s what many of the books on the list were about. Naturally, in the USA, we see our way of civil life as superior to the old tribal ways. But perhaps it’s not that simple. Our attempts to impose good old American values on other parts of the world have mostly ended in disaster. Are these people just stupid? Or is there something else going on that we just don’t realize?

The author of this book doesn’t think people are stupid, I can tell you that. Jamil Ahmad was born in 1931 (making him 85 in 2016) and spent many years in Pakistan’s Civil Service in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A lot of the tension in the book involves attempts before the Soviet invasion in 1980 to impose modern civil rule on the nomadic tribes that summered with their flocks and camels in the mountains and migrated to the plains to survive the winters.

The story follows a child (the “wandering falcon”) born from the union of the second wife of a tribal leader (a sardar) who is carried off by a wandering member of another tribe because he has fallen in love with her (p. 14). The fugitives seek refuge with soldiers in a border fort, and the first clue we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto, is the distinction made by the local commander (the subedar), as he gives the pair water, between refuge and shelter. Offering refuge would offend the laws of the tribe, and the commander “will not come between a man and the laws of his tribe” (p. 6). Shelter is okay, however, and the couple can stay in an old abandoned building and be fed. However, it’s clear that if the woman’s family shows up, the couple and their newborn son are on their own.

Which is what happens, of course. After a chase, the “lover” kills the woman. Then the woman’s father, a tribal leader, and other tribesmen stone the lover to death (p.20). They won’t kill the boy, however, since he is the leader’s grandson. They leave him with the corpse of a camel at a waterhole. If God/Allah wills it, the boy will live.

The young Falcon is rescued there by a group of seven Baluch tribesmen on four camels (p. 27)who are rebels and outlaws because the “officers” (the government) of the district wanted power over the tribal chiefs, a right previously held only by the tribes themselves (p. 37). As a sign that times are changing, the seven think they have been invited to “talks” to defend their killing of government officials. But this “invite” results in a quick trial to condemn them to death (p.42). Confused because these strangers swear on a Koran instead of by a chief, and stunned that defending their way of life and killing those who challenge it is now taboo, the men regret only that “what died with them was part of the Baluch people themselves” (p. 47). And so the young Falcon ends up adopted into yet another FATA tribe.

One of the most poignant of the tales involves the closing of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the nomads. It sounds so simple to modern ears: you need documents to pass from one country to another. But when the nomads, numbering more than a million in total, try to winter in the warmer and wetter plains, the government turns them back to the cold mountains because they have no birth certificates or identification or health records (they don’t even have counts of animals) (p. 74). Naturally, conflict ensues and the only choice is to die quickly or slowly (p. 79).

These detailed episodes give the flavor of the book. As the Wandering Falcon grows to young manhood and marries at the end of the book, surprises await on every page. The tribes often lapse into violence and killing, true, but there are also built-in safeguards to prevent things from getting completely out-of-hand. For example, to raise money, you and some buddies might go into town and kidnap someone who will pay the $20,000 ransom (in local money), probably a doctor, a schoolteacher, or street cleaner (p. 128). The streetcleaners apparently have a union that will provide the, and how could the town endure being without their prized teacher?

But when my friends show up with only $18,000, there must be a week-long feast while we negotiate. Only then will you decide that $20,000 it must be, but with a $2,000 discount given because you are such a magnanimous spirit and it is a worthy gesture.

By the end of the book, I was convinced that we all, even in the USA, often obey not only civil rules, but tribal and religious rules as well. These can be established by our peers in school, or our circle of friends, or our minister or priest or rabbi, or our motorcycle gang, or our political party. But we break the rules governing our expected behavior only at our own peril.