Monday, July 31, 2017

Political Cartoons of the Week, No. 93















Trump Is In More Trouble Than Any Recent President


This is the first presidential scandal involving a foreign government interfering with our election process and possible collusion by the man who won the election.

Since George Washington Americans have taken pride in electing honest presidents. Whether the chief executive is rated by historians as great, average, or failure, there has been general agreement that honest men have occupied the White House. But in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, five burglars were arrested in Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate Complex. Since then, three scandals have battered the presidency resulting in an almost impeachment that would have occurred had the president not resigned, a possible impeachment that probably would have occurred had that path been chosen by the opposition party, and one actual impeachment. Since Watergate, it has become evident that presidential integrity should not be taken for granted.
Today, yet another presidential scandal is in the making, although we do not know the details or depth of a President Trump scandal and the outcome is anyone’s guess. As a way to discern guidance for witnessing a new presidential scandal and to assess future prospects, it would be beneficial to review the three recent scandals, namely Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Monica Lewinsky.
The Watergate scandal involved a president who took extra-legal means to quiet dissent and stop the leaking of sensitive information to the press. For those purposes, the Nixon White House created a “Special Investigative Unit” nicknamed the Plumbers. The main operation of the Plumbers was the break-in of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The reason for the burglary was to find information discrediting Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
This illegal type of activity continued with President Nixon’s re-election committee. The campaign committee wiretapped telephones at the Democratic National Committee offices resulting in the arrest of burglars in the Watergate Complex. Some of the burglars had been Plumbers. Nixon chose to cover-up the crime by ordering his staff to claim it was all a CIA operation involving national security. He further directed the deliverance of money to those arrested hoping that would keep them from telling the truth. When Nixon’s crimes were exposed by subordinates led by White House Counsel John Dean and corroborated by tapes, support for the President faded away causing his resignation before House impeachment and a Senate trial would have terminated his presidency.
In November, 1986, a Lebanese newspaper reported that the U.S. government had sold weapons to Iran although our official policy was to not deal with the Iranians. That was the beginning of the Iran-Contra scandal that came perilously close to destroying the Reagan presidency.
The story originated with the terrorist group Hezbollah having ties to Iran and holding seven Americans hostage in Lebanon. In an effort to free the hostages, the Reagan Administration through its National Security Council made contact with the Iranians negotiating a sale of missiles in return for the Iranians using their influence to free the hostages. Security Council staffer Oliver North engineered a scheme for the proceeds of the sale to go to the Contras fighting to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
Reagan at first denied that it was an arms-for-hostages deal, but several months later under public pressure and multiple investigations including one by Congress and a presidential commission, Reagan admitted that it was in fact arms-for-hostages.
Laws had clearly been broken. In the period 1982-1984, Congress passed the Boland Amendments, one of which barred the U.S. Government from giving military aid to the Contras. Furthermore, the investigations indicated that Reagan had allowed his National Security Council to go out of control.
The scandal caused Reagan’s popularity to take a severe but temporary beating. However, the Democratic majority in Congress chose not to impeach a 76 year old president who could not remember whether he had committed illegal action or was even aware of illegal activities in his administration. Eleven of his subordinates were convicted of crimes, but Reagan would serve out his term of office as a tarnished president yet honored by many Americans.
The third of the major presidential scandals of this era resulted in the first presidential impeachment in 130 years, but ironically, it had nothing to do with political or public life. It was about an extra-marital affair.
Monica Lewinsky served for two years as a White House intern while engaging in an affair with President Clinton. She was then transferred to the Pentagon where she became friends with Linda Tripp, a co-worker. Tripp secretly taped conversations she had with Lewinsky about the Clinton affair and then turned the tapes and a stained dress over to Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr who was originally hired to investigate an Arkansas real estate matter called Whitewater. Starr however was now investigating sexual harassment charges against Clinton by Paula Jones, an Arkansas state employee. Both Clinton and Lewinsky were subpoenaed to testify before Starr’s grand jury. They both denied the affair which led to charges of perjury and obstruction of justice against Clinton. The Republican controlled House of Representatives impeached Clinton on those charges, but the Senate fell way short of the necessary two-thirds to convict and remove him from office. Clinton served out his term damaged in the eyes of many Americans, although as the years passed, his presidency has been remembered more as a time of peace and prosperity with a budget surplus than as a time of scandal.
These recent scandals can serve as guidelines for assessing the events now unfolding in regard to President Trump. In Watergate and Iran-Contra, subordinates broke the law and each president defended himself by claiming ignorance. Both Nixon and Reagan descended into deep trouble by deploying that defense. In each case, especially Watergate, evidence mounted that each president must have been aware of the work done by his closest staff or he had been grossly incompetent. Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean testified that he had received presidential orders and approval to carry out a cover-up and that was eventually borne out by audio tapes. Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger held notes from meetings indicating Reagan approved the arms sales to Iran.
Trump is following the same path as his scandal-ridden predecessors Nixon and Reagan. In his first press conference on February 6, 2017, Trump said, “Nobody that I know of talked with Russians …” That was just one of many denials made by Trump or his spokespeople. That position is hard for Trump to hold since emails prove that his son, son-in-law, and then campaign manager met with Russians of government influence while Trump sat in his office in the same building and that meeting was initiated by Russians promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Furthermore, scandals become more damaging to the president if the American people believe that they are being lied to by their president. Nixon’s popularity at first during Watergate remained high as he won 49 states in his re-election. But six months later as evidence poured out indicating that Nixon had been lying about his involvement, the president’s standing with the American people plummeted.
Reagan initially gave a televised speech denying an arms for hostages deal. But, six months later with his popularity dropping as evidence revealed the contrary. Reagan relented, admitting to the nation that there had indeed been an arms for hostages deal.
Clinton initially and famously said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman Miss Lewinsky.” As evidence came out to the contrary, seven months later Clinton admitted to an “inappropriate relationship.” An immediate telling of the truth might have forestalled impeachment.
Here again Trump is following the same path declaring total innocence through ignorance and he is in a more tenuous position than his predecessors. Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton were all hit by scandal after handily winning re-election. They began with the good-will of a large portion of the American people. In Trump’s election he did not even win a plurality of the popular vote and his reputation with a majority of Americans is that of man who is “less than truthful” to state it mildly. He begins a scandal with an already low approval level.
Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton all claimed that the crimes involved in their scandals were unimportant, inconsequential or even well-intended. Nixon and his supporters could claim that a wiretap changed no votes in his landslide victory. Reagan could claim that he and his subordinates performed a humanitarian duty attempting to free American hostages. Clinton supporters could claim that a president’s private life should remain just that – private.  Nor, they claimed, did it meet the criteria of high crimes intended by the Founding Fathers who wrote the impeachment clause.
Again Trump is in a more tenuous position. This is the first presidential scandal involving a foreign government interfering with our election process and possible collusion by the man who won the election and is now president. So far, Trump supporters have remained loyal to their man. But that comprises a minority of the American people and convincing others that this does not meet impeachment standards would be an exceedingly steep climb.


In conclusion, facing a scandal, President Trump is doing some of the same things his scandal-plagued predecessors did such as claiming to be unaware of what happened, claiming total innocence, and claiming any crimes if committed are unimportant. But Trump begins his scandal in a position weaker than his predecessors were in given to his family ties, his reputation with the American people, and the nature of the crimes involved. Trump’s prospects are not good so long as he continues making the same mistakes that Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton made.

The History of the Ouija Board




In February, 1891, the first few advertisements started appearing in papers: “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board,” boomed a Pittsburgh toy and novelty shop, describing a magical device that answered questions “about the past, present and future with marvelous accuracy” and promised “never-failing amusement and recreation for all the classes,” a link “between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.” Another advertisement in a New York newspaper declared it “interesting and mysterious” and testified, “as  a Proven at Patent Office before it was allowed. Price, $1.50.”
This mysterious talking board was basically what’s sold in board game aisles today: A flat board with the letters of the alphabet arrayed in two semi-circles above the numbers 0 through 9; the words “yes” and “no” in the uppermost corners, “goodbye” at the bottom; accompanied by a “planchette,” a teardrop-shaped device, usually with a small window in the body, used to maneuver about the board. The idea was that two or more people would sit around the board, place their finger tips on the planchette, pose a question, and watch, dumbfounded, as the planchette moved from letter to letter, spelling out the answers seemingly of its own accord. The biggest difference is in the materials; the board is now usually cardboard, rather than wood, and the planchette is plastic.
Though truth in advertising is hard to come by, especially in products from the 19th century, the Ouija board was “interesting and mysterious”; it actually had been “proven” to work at the Patent Office before its patent was allowed to proceed; and today, even psychologists believe that it may offer a link between the known and the unknown.
The real history of the Ouija board is just about as mysterious as how the “game” works. Ouija historian Robert Murch has been researching the story of the board since 1992; when he started his research, he says, no one really knew anything about its origins, which struck him as odd: “For such an iconic thing that strikes both fear and wonder in American culture, how can no one know where it came from?”
The Ouija board, in fact, came straight out of the American 19th century obsession with spiritualism, the belief that the dead are able to communicate with the living. Spiritualism, which had been around for years in Europe, hit America hard in 1848 with the sudden prominence of the Fox sisters of upstate New York; the Foxes claimed to receive messages from spirits who rapped on the walls in answer to questions, recreating this feat of channeling in parlors across the state. Aided by the stories about the celebrity sisters and other spiritualists in the new national press, spiritualism reached millions of adherents at its peak in the second half of the 19th century. Spiritualism worked for Americans: it was compatible with Christian dogma, meaning one could hold a séance on Saturday night and have no qualms about going to church the next day. It was an acceptable, even wholesome activity to contact spirits at séances, through automatic writing, or table turning parties, in which participants would place their hands on a small table and watch it begin shake and rattle, while they all declared that they weren’t moving it. The movement also offered solace in an era when the average lifespan was less than 50: Women died in childbirth; children died of disease; and men died in war. Even Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the venerable president, conducted séances in the White House after their 11-year-old son died of a fever in 1862; during the Civil War, spiritualism gained adherents in droves, people desperate to connect with loved ones who’d gone away to war and never come home.
 “Communicating with the dead was common, it wasn’t seen as bizarre or weird,” explains Murch. “It’s hard to imagine that now, we look at that and think, ‘Why are you opening the gates of hell?’”
But opening the gates of hell wasn’t on anyone’s mind when they started the Kennard Novelty Company, the first producers of the Ouija board; in fact, they were mostly looking to open Americans’ wallets
As spiritualism had grown in American culture, so too did frustration with how long it took to get any meaningful message out of the spirits, says Brandon Hodge, Spiritualism historian. Calling out the alphabet and waiting for a knock at the right letter, for example, was deeply boring. After all, rapid communication with breathing humans at far distances was a possibility, the telegraph had been around for decades, why shouldn’t spirits be as easy to reach? People were desperate for methods of communication that would be quicker - and while several entrepreneurs realized that, it was the Kennard Novelty Company that really nailed it.
In 1886, the fledgling Associated Press reported on a new phenomenon taking over the spiritualists’ camps in Ohio, the talking board; it was, for all intents and purposes, a Ouija board, with letters, numbers and a planchette-like device to point to them. The article went far and wide, but it was Charles Kennard of Baltimore, Maryland who acted on it. In 1890, he pulled together a group of four other investors, including Elijah Bond, a local attorney, and Col. Washington Bowie, a surveyor, to start the Kennard Novelty Company to exclusively make and market these new talking boards. None of the men were spiritualists, really, but they were all of them keen businessmen and they’d identified a niche.

But they didn’t have the Ouija board yet because the Kennard talking board lacked a name. Contrary to popular belief, “Ouija” is not a combination of the French for “yes,” oui, and the German ja. Murch says, based on his research, it was Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters (who was, Bond said, a “strong medium”), who supplied the now instantly recognizable handle. Sitting around the table, they asked the board what they should call it; the name “Ouija” came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, “Good luck.” Eerie and cryptic - but for the fact that Peters acknowledged that she was wearing a locket bearing the picture of a woman, the name “Ouija” above her head. That’s the story that emerged from the Ouija founders’ letters; it’s very possible that the woman in the locket was famous author and popular women’s rights activist Ouida, whom Peters admired, and that “Ouija” was just a misreading of that.
According to Murch’s interviews with the descendants of the Ouija founders and the original Ouija patent file itself, which he’s seen, the story of the board’s patent request was true: Knowing that if they couldn’t prove that the board worked, they wouldn’t get their patent, Bond brought the indispensible Peters to the patent office in Washington with him when he filed his application. There, the chief patent officer demanded a demonstration - if the board could accurately spell out his name, which was supposed to be unknown to Bond and Peters, he’d allow the patent application to proceed. They all sat down, communed with the spirits, and the planchette faithfully spelled out the patent officer’s name. Whether or not it was mystical spirits or the fact that Bond, as a patent attorney, may have just known the man’s name, well, that’s unclear, Murch says. But on February 10, 1891, a white-faced and visibly shaken patent officer awarded Bond a patent for his new “toy or game.”
The first patent offers no explanation as to how the device works, just asserts that it does. That ambiguity and mystery was part of a more or less conscious marketing effort. “These were very shrewd businessmen,” notes Murch; the less the Kennard company said about how the board worked, the more mysterious it seemed—and the more people wanted to buy it. “Ultimately, it was a money-maker. They didn’t care why people thought it worked.”
And it was a money-maker. By 1892, the Kennard Novelty Company went from one factory in Baltimore to two in Baltimore, two in New York, two in Chicago and one in London. And by 1893, Kennard and Bond were out, owing to some internal pressures and the old adage about money changing everything. By this time, William Fuld, who’d gotten in on the ground floor of the fledgling company as an employee and stockholder, was running the company. (Notably, Fuld is not and never claimed to be the inventor of the board, though even his obituary in The New York Times declared him to be; also notably, Fuld died in 1927 after a freak fall from the roof of his new factory, a factory he said the Ouija board told him to build.) In 1898, with the blessing of Col. Bowie, the majority shareholder and one of only two remaining original investors, he licensed the exclusive rights to make the board. What followed were boom years for Fuld and frustration for some of the men who’d been in on the Ouija board from the beginning, public squabbling over who’d really invented it played out in the pages of the Baltimore Sun, while their rival boards launched and failed. In 1919, Bowie sold the remaining business interest in Ouija to Fuld, his protégé, for $1.
The board’s instant and now, more than 120 years later, prolonged success showed that it had tapped into a weird place in American culture. It was marketed as both mystical oracle and as family entertainment, fun with an element of other-worldly excitement. This meant that it wasn’t only spiritualists who bought the board; in fact, the people who disliked the Ouija board the most tended to be spirit mediums, as they’d just found their job as spiritual middleman cut out. The Ouija board appealed to people from across a wide spectrum of ages, professions, and education - mostly, Murch claims, because the Ouija board offered a fun way for people to believe in something. “People want to believe. The need to believe that something else is out there is powerful,” he says. “This thing is one of those things that allows them to express that belief.”
It’s quite logical then the board would find its greatest popularity in uncertain times, when people hold fast to belief and look for answers from just about anywhere, especially cheap, DIY oracles. The 1910s and ’20s, with the devastations of World War I and the manic years of the Jazz Age and prohibition, witnessed a surge in Ouija popularity. It was so normal that in May 1920, Norman Rockwell, illustrator of blissful 20th century domesticity, depicted a man and a woman, Ouija board on their knees, communing with the beyond on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. During the Great Depression, the Fuld Company opened new factories to meet demand for the boards; over five months in 1944, a single New York department store sold 50,000 of them. In 1967, the year after Parker Brothers bought the game from the Fuld Company, 2 million boards were sold, outselling Monopoly; that same year saw more American troops in Vietnam, the counter-culture Summer of Love in San Francisco, and race riots in Newark, Detroit, Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
Strange Ouija tales also made frequent, titillating appearances in American newspapers. In 1920, national wire services reported that would-be crime solvers were turning to their Ouija boards for clues in the mysterious murder of a New York City gambler, Joseph Burton Elwell, much to the frustration of the police. In 1921, The New York Times reported that a Chicago woman being sent to a psychiatric hospital tried to explain to doctors that she wasn’t suffering from mania, but that Ouija spirits had told her to leave her mother’s dead body in the living room for 15 days before burying her in the backyard. In 1930, newspaper readers thrilled to accounts of two women in Buffalo, New York, who’d murdered another woman, supposedly on the encouragement of Ouija board messages. In 1941, a 23-year-old gas station attendant from New Jersey told The New York Times that he joined the Army because the Ouija board told him to. In 1958, a Connecticut court decided not to honor the “Ouija board will” of Mrs. Helen Dow Peck, who left only $1,000 to two former servants and an insane $152,000 to Mr. John Gale Forbes—a lucky, but bodiless spirit who’d contacted her via the Ouija board. 
After the Civil War, one man decided there was money to be made in contacting the dead. So he invented a popular, occult board game that lives on today.

Ouija boards even offered literary inspiration: In 1916, Mrs. Pearl Curran made headlines when she began writing poems and stories that she claimed were dictated, via Ouija board, by the spirit of a 17th century Englishwoman called Patience Worth. The following year, Curran’s friend, Emily Grant Hutchings, claimed that her book, Jap Herron, was communicated via Ouija board by the late Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Curran earned significant success, Hutchings less, but neither of them achieved the heights that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill did: In 1982, his epic Ouija-inspired and dictated poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. (Merrill, for his part, publicly implied that the Ouija board acted more as a magnifier for his own poetic thoughts, rather than as hotline to the spirits. In 1979, after he wrote Mirabelle: Books of Number, another Ouija creationhe told The New York Review of Books, “If the spirits aren’t external, how astonishing the mediums become!”)
Ouija existed on the periphery of American culture, perennially popular, mysterious, interesting and usually, barring the few cases of supposed Ouija-inspired murders, non-threatening. That is, until 1973.
In that year, The Exorcist scared the pants off people in theaters, with all that pea soup and head-spinning and supposedly based on a true story business; and the implication that 12-year-old Regan was possessed by a demon after playing with a Ouija board by herself changed how people saw the board. “It’s kind of like Psycho - no one was afraid of showers until that scene… It’s a clear line,” says Murch, explaining that before The Exorcist, film and TV depictions of the Ouija board were usually jokey, hokey, and silly, I Love Lucy, for example, featured a 1951 episode in which Lucy and Ethel host a séance using the Ouija board. “But for at least 10 years afterwards, it’s no joke… (The Exorcist) actually changed the fabric of pop culture.”
Almost overnight, Ouija became a tool of the devil and, for that reason, a tool of horror writers and moviemakers, it began popping up in scary movies, usually opening the door to evil spirits hell-bent on ripping apart co-eds. Outside of the theatre, the following years saw the Ouija board denounced by religious groups as Satan’s preferred method of communication; in 2001 in Alamogordo, New Mexico, it was being burned on bonfires along with copies of Harry Potter  and Disney’s Snow White. Christian religious groups still remain wary of the board, citing scripture denouncing communication with spirits through mediums, Catholic.com calls the Ouija board “far from harmless” and as recently as 2011, 700 Club host Pat Robertson declared that demons can reach us through the board. Even within the paranormal community, Ouija boards enjoyed a dodgy reputation - Murch says that when he first began speaking at paranormal conventions, he was told to leave his antique boards at home because they scared people too much. Parker Brothers and later, Hasbro, after they acquired Parker Brothers in 1991, still sold hundreds of thousands of them, but the reasons why people were buying them had changed significantly: Ouija boards were spooky rather than spiritual, with a distinct frisson of danger.
In recent years, Ouija is popular yet again, driven in part by economic uncertainty and the board’s usefulness as a plot device. The hugely popular Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 both featured a Ouija board; it’s popped up in episodes of Breaking Bad, Castle, Rizzoli & Isles and multiple paranormal reality TV programs; Hot Topic, mall favorite of Gothy teens, sells a set of Ouija board bra and underwear; and for those wishing to commune with the beyond while on the go, there’s an app (or 20) for that. This year, Hasbro released a more “mystical” version of the game, replacing its old glow-in-the-dark version; for purists, Hasbro also licensed the rights to make a “classic” version to another company. In 2012, rumors that Universal was in talks to make a film based on the game abounded, although Hasbro refused to comment on that or anything else for this story.
But the real question, the one everyone wants to know, is how do Ouija boards work?
Ouija boards are not, scientists say, powered by spirits or even demons. Disappointing but also potentially useful because they’re powered by us, even when we protest that we’re not doing it, we swear. Ouija boards work on a principle known to those studying the mind for more than 160 years: the ideometer effect. In 1852, physician and physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter  published a report for the Royal Institution of Great Britain, examining these automatic muscular movements that take place without the conscious will or volition of the individual (think crying in reaction to a sad film, for example). Almost immediately, other researchers saw applications of the ideometer effect in the popular spiritualist pastimes. In 1853, chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, intrigued by table-turning, conducted a series of experiments that proved to him (though not to most spiritualists) that the table’s motion was due to the ideomotor actions of the participants.


The effect is very convincing. As Dr. Chris French, professor of psychology and anomalistic psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, explains, “It can generate a very strong impression that the movement is being caused by some outside agency, but it’s not.” Other devices, such as dowsing rods, or more recently, the fake bomb detection kits that deceived scores of international governments and armed services, work on the same principle of non-conscious movement. “The thing about all these mechanisms we’re talking about, dowsing rods, Oujia boards, pendulums, these small tables, they’re all devices whereby a quite a small muscular movement can cause quite a large effect,” he says. Planchettes, in particular, are well-suited for their task, many used to be constructed of a lightweight wooden board and fitted with small casters to help them move more smoothly and freely; now, they’re usually plastic and have felt feet, which also help it slide over the board easily.
“And with Ouija boards you’ve got the whole social context. It’s usually a group of people, and everyone has a slight influence,” French notes. With Ouija, not only does the individual give up some conscious control to participate, so it can’t be me, people think, but also, in a group, no one person can take credit for the planchette’s movements, making it seem like the answers must be coming from an otherworldly source. Moreover, in most situations, there is an expectation or suggestion that the board is somehow mystical or magical. “Once the idea has been implanted there, there’s almost a readiness to happen.”
But if Ouija boards can’t give us answers from beyond the Veil, what can they tell us? Quite a lot, actually.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Visual Cognition Lab think the board may be a good way to examine how the mind processes information on various levels. The idea that the mind has multiple levels of information processing is by no means a new one, although exactly what to call those levels remains up for debate: Conscious, unconscious, subconscious, pre-conscious, zombie mind are all terms that have been or are currently used, and all have their supporters and detractors. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll refer to “conscious” as those thoughts you’re basically aware that you’re having (“I’m reading this fascinating article.”) and “non-conscious” as the automatic pilot-type thoughts (blink, blink).
Several years ago, Dr. Ron Rensink, professor of psychology and computer science, psychology postdoctoral researcher Hélène Gauchou, and Dr. Sidney Fels, professor of electrical and computer engineering, began looking at exactly what happens when people sit down to use a Ouija board. Fels says that they got the idea after he hosted a Halloween party with a fortune-telling theme and found himself explaining to several foreign students, who had never really seen it before, how the Ouija works.
“They kept asking where to put the batteries,” Fels laughed. After offering up a more Halloween-friendly, mystical explanation, leaving out the ideomotor effect, he left the students to play with the board on their own. When he came back, hours later, they were still at it, although by now much more freaked out. A few days post-hangover later, Fels said, he, Rensink, and a few others began talking about what is actually going on with the Ouija. The team thought the board could offer a really unique way to examine non-conscious knowledge, to determine whether ideomotor action could also express what the non-conscious knows.
“It was one of things that we thought it probably won’t work, but if it did work, it’d be really freaking cool,” said Rensink.
Their initial experiments involved a Ouija-playing robot: Participants were told that they were playing with a person in another room via teleconferencing; the robot, they were told, mimicked the movements of the other person. In actuality, the robot’s movements simply amplified the participants’ motions and the person in the other room was just a ruse, a way to get the participant to think they weren’t in control. Participants were asked a series of yes or no, fact-based questions (“Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil? Were the 2000 Olympic Games held in Sydney?”) and expected to use the Ouija board to answer.
What the team found surprised them: When participants were asked, verbally, to guess the answers to the best of their ability, they were right only around 50 percent of the time, a typical result for guessing. But when they answered using the board, believing that the answers were coming from someplace else, they answered correctly upwards of 65 percent of the time. “It was so dramatic how much better they did on these questions than if they answered to the best of their ability that we were like, ‘This is just weird, how could they be that much better?’” recalled Fels. “It was so dramatic we couldn’t believe it.” The implication was, Fels explained, that one’s non-conscious was a lot smarter than anyone knew.

The robot, unfortunately, proved too delicate for further experiments, but the researchers were sufficiently intrigued to pursue further Ouija research. They divined another experiment: This time, rather than a robot, the participant actually played with a real human. At some point, the participant was blindfolded—and the other player, really a confederate, quietly took their hands off the planchette. This meant that the participant believed he or she wasn’t alone, enabling the kind of automatic pilot state the researchers were looking for, but still ensuring that the answers could only come from the participant.
It worked. Rensink says, “Some people were complaining about how the other person was moving the planchette around. That was a good sign that we really got this kind of condition that people were convinced that somebody else was there.” Their results replicated the findings of the experiment with the robot, that people knew more when they didn’t think they were controlling the answers (50 percent accuracy for vocal responses to 65 percent for Ouija responses). They reported their findings in February, 2012, issue of Consciousness and Cognition.
“You do much better with the Ouija on questions that you really don’t think you know, but actually something inside you does know and the Ouija can help you answer above chance,” says Fels.
UBC’s experiments show that the Ouija could be a very useful tool in rigorously investigating non-conscious thought processes. “Now that we have some hypotheses in terms of what’s going on here, accessing knowledge and cognitive abilities that you don’t have conscious awareness of, (the Ouija board) would be an instrument to actually get at that,” Fels explains. “Now we can start using it to ask other types of questions.”
Those types of questions include how much and what the non-conscious mind knows, how fast it can learn, how it remembers, even how it amuses itself, if it does. This opens up even more avenues of exploration, for example, if there are two or more systems of information processes, which system is more impacted by neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s? If it impacted the non-conscious earlier, Rensink hypothesizes, indications of the illness could show up in Ouija manipulation, possibly even before being detected in conscious thought.
For the moment, the researchers are working on locking down their findings in a second study and firming up protocol around using the Ouija as a tool. However, they’re running up against a problem, funding. “The classic funding agencies don’t want to be associated with this, it seems a bit too out there,” said Rensink. All the work they’ve done to date has been volunteer, with Rensink himself paying for some of the experiment’s costs. To get around this issue, they’re looking to crowd-funding to make up the gap.

Even if they don’t succeed, the UBC team has managed to make good on one of the claims of the early Ouija advertisements: The board does offer a link between the known and the unknown. Just not the unknown that everyone wanted to believe it was. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Great Thinkers, Great Thoughts: Denis Diderot

Denis Diderot (a painting)

Denis Diderot, (born October 5th, 1713LangresFrance; died July 31st, 1784Paris, France), was a French man of letters and a philosopher who, from 1745 to 1772, served as chief editor of the  Encyclopédie, one  of the principal works of the Age of Enlightenment.

Youth and Marriage

Diderot was the son of a widely respected master cutler. He was tonsured in 1726, though he did not in fact enter the church, and was first educated by the Jesuitsat Langres. From 1729 to 1732 he studied in Paris at the Collège d’Harcourt or at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand or possibly at both these institutions, and he was awarded the degree of master of arts in the University of Paris on September. 2nd, 1732. He then studied law as an articled clerk in the office of Clément de Ris but was more interested in languages, literaturephilosophy, and higher mathematics. Of his life in the period 1734 to 1744 comparatively little is known. He dropped an early ambition to enter the theatre and, instead, taught for a living, led a penurious existence as a publisher’s hack, and wrote sermons for missionaries at 50 écuseach. At one time he seems to have entertained the idea of taking up an ecclesiastical career, but it is most unlikely that he entered a seminary. Yet his work testifies to his having gone through a religious crisis, and he progressed relatively slowly from Roman Catholicism to deism and then to atheism and philosophical materialism. That he led a disordered and bohemian existence at this time is made clear in his posthumously published novelLe Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew). He frequented the coffeehouses, particularly the Régence and the Procope, where he met the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1741 and established a friendship with him that was to last for 15 years, until it was broken by a quarrel.

In 1741, he also met Antoinette Champion, daughter of a linen-draper, and in 1743 he secretly married her because of his father’s disapproval. The relationship was based on romantic love, but the marriage was not a happy one owing to incompatible interests. The bond held, however, partly through a common affection for their daughter, Angélique, sole survivor of three children, who was born in 1753 and whom Diderot eventually married to Albert de Vandeul, a man of some standing at Langres. Diderot lavished care over her education, and she eventually wrote a short account of his life and classified his manuscripts.

Mature Career

In order to earn a living, Diderot undertook translation work and in 1745 published a free translation of the Inquiry Concerning Virtue by the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, whose fame and influence he spread in France. Diderot’s own Pensées philosophiques (1746; Philosophic Thoughts), an original work with new and explosive anti-Christian ideas couched in a vivid prose, contains many passages directly translated from or inspired by Shaftesbury. The proceeds of this publication, as of his allegedly indecent novel Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748), were used to meet the demands of his mistress, Madeleine de Puisieux, with whom he broke a few years later. In 1755, he met Sophie Volland, with whom he formed an attachment that was to last more than 20 years. The liaison was founded on common interests, natural sympathy, and a deepening friendship. His correspondence with Sophie, together with his other letters, forms one of the most fascinating documents on Diderot’s personality, enthusiasms, and ideas and on the intellectual society of Louise d’Épinay, F.M. Grimm, the Baron d’Holbach, Ferdinando Galiani, and other deistic writers and thinkers (Philosophes) with whom he felt most at home. Through Rousseau, Diderot met Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, the philosopher, and for a time the three friends dined together at the Panier Fleuri.

The Encyclopedie

In 1745, the publisher André Le Breton approached Diderot with a view to bringing out a French translation of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, after two other translators had withdrawn from the project. Diderot undertook the task with the distinguished mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert as coeditor but soon profoundly changed the nature of the publication, broadening its scope and turning it into an important organ of radical and revolutionary opinion. He gathered around him a team of dedicated litterateurs, scientists, and even priests, many of whom, as yet unknown, were to make their mark in later life. All were fired with a common purpose: to further knowledge and, by so doing, strike a resounding blow against reactionary forces in church and state. As a dictionnaire raisonné (“rational dictionary”), the Encyclopédie was to bring out the essential principles and applications of every art and science. The underlying philosophy was rationalism and a qualified faith in the progress of the human mind.

In 1749, Diderot published the Lettre sur les aveugles (An Essay on Blindness), remarkable for its proposal to teach the blind to read through the sense of touch, along lines that Louis Braille was to follow in the 19th century, and for the presentation of the first step in his evolutionary theory of survival by superior adaptation. This daring exposition of the doctrine of materialist atheism, with its emphasis on human dependence on sense impression, led to Diderot’s arrest and incarceration in the prison of  Vincennes for three months. Diderot’s work on the Encyclopédie, however, was not interrupted for long, and in 1750 he outlined his program for it in a Prospectus, which d’Alembert expanded into the momentous Discours préliminaire  (1751).

The history of the Encyclopédie, from the publication of the first volume in 1751 to the distribution of the final volumes of plates in 1772, was checkered, but ultimate success was never in doubt. Diderot was undaunted by the government’s censorship of the work and by the criticism of conservatives\ and reactionaries. A critical moment occurred in 1758, on the publication of the seventh volume, when d’Alembert resigned on receiving warning of trouble and after reading Rousseau’s attack on his article “Genève.” Another serious blow came when the philosopher Helvétius’ book De l’esprit (“On the Mind”), said to be a summary of the  Encyclopédie, was condemned to be burned by the Parlement of Paris, and the Encyclopédie  itself was formally suppressed. Untempted by Voltaire’s offer to have the publication continued outside France, Diderot held on in Paris with great tenacity and published the Encyclopédie is later volumes surreptitiously. He was deeply wounded, however, by the discovery in 1764 that Le Breton had secretly removed compromising material from the corrected proof sheets of about 10 folio volumes. The censored passages, though of considerable interest, would not have made an appreciable difference on the impact of the work. To the 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates (1751–72), Diderot contributed innumerable articles partly original, partly derived from varied sources, especially on the history of philosophy (“Eclectisme” [“Eclecticism”]), social theory (“Droit naturel” [“Natural Law”]), aesthetics (“Beau” [“The Beautiful”]), and the crafts and industries of France. He was moreover an energetic general director and supervised the illustrations for 3,000 to 4,000 plates of exceptional quality, which are still prized by historians today.

Philosophical and Scientific Works.

While editing the Encyclopédie,  Diderot managed to compose most of his own important works as well. In 1751 he published his Lettre sur les sourds et muets (“Letter on the Deaf and Dumb”), which studies the function of language and deals with points of aesthetics, and in 1754 he published the Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature (Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature), an influential short treatise on the new experimental methods in science. Diderot published few other works in his lifetime, however. His writings, in manuscript form, were known only to his friends and the privileged correspondents of the Correspondance littéraire, a sort of private newspaper edited by Baron Grimm that was circulated in manuscript form. The posthumous publication of these manuscripts, among which are several bold and original works in the sciences, philosophy, and literature, have made Diderot more highly appreciated in the 20th century than he was in France during his lifetime.

Among his philosophical works, special mention may be made of L’Entretien entre d’Alembert et Diderot (written 1769, published 1830; Conversation Between d’Alembert and Diderot”), Le Rêve de d’Alembert (written 1769, published 1830; D’Alembert’s Dream), and the Eléments de physiologie (1774–80). In these works Diderot developed his materialist philosophy and arrived at startling intuitive insights into biology and chemistry; in speculating on the origins of life without divine intervention, for instance, he foreshadowed the evolutionary theories of  Charles Darwin and put forth a strikingly prophetic picture of the cellular structure of matter. Though Diderot’s speculations in the field of science are of great interest, it is the dialectical brilliance of their presentation that is exceptional. His ideas, often propounded in the form of paradox, and invariably in dialogue, stem from a sense of life’s  ambiguities and a profound understanding of the complexities and contradictions inherent in human nature.

Novels, Dialogues and Plays

Four works of prose fiction by Diderot were published posthumously: the novel La Religieuse  
(written 1760, published 1796; The Nun); the novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître (written 1773, published 1796; Jacques the Fatalist (Le Neveu de Rameau) (which was written between 1761 and 1774 and published in German in 1805 as Rameau’s Nephew as a character sketch in dialogue form; and Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (written 1772 and published in 1796; Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage).

La Religieuse describes the distressing and ultimately tragic experiences of a girl who is forced to become a nun against her will. In Jacques le fataliste, Jacques, who believes in fate, is involved in an endless argument with his master, who does not, as they journey along retelling the story of their lives and loves. Diderot’s philosophical standpoint in this work is ambivalent, as is his ethical standpoint in Le Neveu de Rameau. The latter work is a dialogue between Diderot and a bohemian musician who is based partly on the nephew of the French composer  Jean-Philippe Rameau. This work may properly be called a satire, since it challenges the cant of contemporary society and the hypocrisy of its morality. Rameau’s nephew is depicted as a shamelessly selfish parasite, an eccentric, and a musician who is gifted yet unable to make his mark through insufficient talent. His dialogue with Diderot is spontaneous and witty, and there are digressions, a lengthy disquisition on contemporary musical controversies, and diatribes  against Diderot’s own enemies. This brilliantly conceived, highly original and entertaining divertissement reveals the complexity of Diderot’s personality and of his philosophical ideas. In the Supplément au voyage de Bougainville Diderot, in discussing the mores of the South Pacific islanders, emphasizes his  conception of a free society based on tolerance and develops his views on sexual freedom.

Diderot’s major plays, Le Fils naturel (1757; The Illegitimate Son) and Le Père de famille  (1758; The Father of the Family), make tedious reading today. His theories on drama, however, expounded in Entretiens sur le fils naturel (1757; Discussion on the Illegitimate Son) and Discours sur la poésie dramatique (Discourse on Dramatic Poetry), were to exercise a determining influence on the German dramatist Gotthold Lessing. Taking as his starting point the comédie larmoyante, Diderot stressed the need for greater realism on the stage and favored the serious bourgeois drama of real life. Characters should be presented against their milieu and belong to specific professions, so that the moral and social implications of the play, which he considered to be of primary importance, should have greater impact. In his Paradoxe sur le comédien (written 1773, published 1830), Diderot argued that great actors must possess judgment and penetration without “sensibility” - i.e., without actually experiencing the emotions they are portraying as characters on the stage. Although Diderot wrote literary criticism, it is as the first great art critic, covering the Paris Salons, or annual art exhibitions, for the Correspondance littéraire that he is best remembered. His analysis of art, artists, and the technique of painting, together with the excellence of his taste and his style, have won him posthumous fame; his Essai sur la peinture (written 1765, published 1796; Essay on Painting), especially, was admired by Goethe and later by the 19th-century poet and critic Charles Baudelaire.

Late Life and Works

The completion of the Encyclopédie in 1772 left Diderot without a source of income. To relieve him of financial worry, Catherine the Great of Russia first bought his library through an agent in Paris, requesting him to retain the books until she required them, and then appointed him librarian on an annual salary for the duration of his life. Diderot went to St. Petersburg in 1773 to thank her for her financial support and was received with great honor and warmth. He wrote for her the Plan d’une université pour le gouvernement de Russie (Plan of a University for the Government of Russia). He stayed five months, long enough to become disillusioned with enlightened despotism as a solution to social ills.

In 1774 Diderot, now old and ill, worked on a refutation of Helvétius’ work De l’homme (1772; On Man), which was an amplification of the destroyed De l’esprit. He wrote Entretien d’un philosophe avec la Maréchale (Conversation with the Maréchale) and published in 1778 Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron (Essay on the Reigns of Claudius and Nero). Usually known as Essai sur la vie de Sénèque (Essay on the Life of Seneca), the work may be regarded as an apologia for that Roman satirist and philosopher. Diderot’s intimate circle was dwindling. Mme d’Épinay and d’Alembert died, leaving only Grimm and Baron d’Holbach. Slowly Diderot retired into the shell of his own personal and family life. The death of Sophie Volland in February,1784, was a great grief to him; he survived her by a few months, dying of coronary thrombosis in the house in the rue de Richelieu that Catherine the Great had put at his disposal. Apocryphally, his last words were: “Le premier pas vers la philosophie, c’est l’incré” (“The first step toward philosophy is incredulity”). Through the intervention of his son-in-law, he was buried in consecrated ground at Saint-Roch.

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Quotes by Denis Diderot

When superstition is allowed to perform the task of old age in dulling the human temperament, we The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.

There is only one passion, the passion for happiness.

When science, art, literature, and philosophy are simply the manifestation of personality they are on a level where glorious and dazzling achievements are possible, which can make a man's name live for thousands of years.

Skepticism is the first step on the road to philosophy.

We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.

The blood of Jesus Christ can cover a multitude of sins, it seems to me.

The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers.

There is no kind of harassment that a man may not inflict on a woman with impunity in civilized societies.

No man has received from nature the right to command his fellow human being.

From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.

Only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things.

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

Evil always turns up in this world through some genius or other.

Although a man may wear fine clothing, if he lives peacefully; and is good, self-possessed, has faith and is pure; and if he does not hurt any living being, he is a holy man.

It is not human nature we should accuse but the despicable conventions that pervert it.
Gratitude is a burden, and every burden is made to be shaken off.

Although a man may wear fine clothing, if he lives peacefully; and is good, self-possessed, has faith and is pure; and if he does not hurt any living being, he is a holy man.

Watch out for the fellow who talks about putting things in order! Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control.

Disturbances in society are never more fearful than when those who are stirring up the trouble can use the pretext of religion to mask their true designs.

Patriotism is an ephemeral motive that scarcely ever outlasts the particular threat to society that aroused it.

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild.