Nov 112009
 

When I was in college in the mid 1980’s, a friend of mine gave me a very odd book. It was an old oversized hardback, entitled The Atlas of Men, by William H. Sheldon. The dust jacket was still mostly intact, though the copyright was from 1954. It may have been the first (and only) edition.

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My friend gave me the book because he knew that I liked weird literature, and this was certainly a weird book. It was mostly photographs of naked men, with their genitals and faces whited out. Along with the photographs were arcane graphs and charts. The text that accompanied the graphs and photographs seemed entirely fanciful and pseudoscientific.

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At the time, I had never heard of William H. Sheldon, and so had no reference as to how this work was received by the scientific community. In the mid 1980’s, I was more fascinated with the strange theories of Wilhelm Reich, and even back then there was more information available on Reich than on Sheldon. It wouldn’t be until years later that the World Wide Web was able to provide me with some sort of background on a figure as marginalized as Sheldon.

If you start with the Wikipedia entry on Sheldon, like many people would do, you get a rather cursory and dismissive overview of his strange theories. Most people have probably heard the terms “ectomorph”, “mesomorph”, and “endomorph”, used as generalized descriptions of human body types. For Sheldon this was just the start. He attempted to quantify each of those parameters, and furthermore made the claim that each human being possessed a certain amount of each of these qualities.

First off, do the terms ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph even have exact meanings? Obviously skeletal structures and proportions are more or less fixed by adulthood, but beyond that, soft tissue proportions are highly variable, and can change because of any number of factors. These terms might be used occasionally in non-technical senses, but they aren’t used in real science for a simple reason; they just aren’t needed.

There are all sorts of physiognomic indices in use, and they are all very specific in measuring single quantifiable characteristics. Real science tends to avoid complex, multivariate, and especially “fuzzy” definitions.

Not only did Sheldon get off to a bad start with ad hoc definitions of intrinsically fuzzy and complex concepts, but he then tried to tie in physiognomy with human behavioral characteristics. Here he fell into the same trap that bedevils astrologers, namely the belief that broad, commonplace descriptions of human character are scientifically meaningful. Here is how Sheldon characterizes males of the “4 1 5 somatotype”:

“In the male the 4 1 5 is one of the weakling somatotypes, and so obviously or conspicuously so that other youngsters usually treat him with a certain deference or neutrality which at one stage in their development they typically reserve for girls. This is not a somatotype that is ‘picked on’, except perhaps occasionally by other weaklings who are not quite so weak”

But it gets stranger still; as Sheldon went on to imbue his “somatotypes” with animalistic metaphors. Now he’s genuinely off the deep end. Here is how Sheldon characterized the individuals pictured in the illustration, the “3 6 1 somatotype”:

BETWEEN THE CATS AND THE BEARS

Somatotype 3 6 1 (Endomorphic extreme mesomorphy, at extreme ectopenia, 10-level) Wolverines. Sometimes called “cat bears” and also as “weasel bears.” Compact, short legged, giant weasels who know no fear. A wolverine can put to rout a hungry bear and can hold his own against any North American animal except man (who perhaps uses unfair weapons).

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Had Sheldon done this once or twice, we could interpret it as a poetic metaphor or even a sly joke, but his animalistic descriptions are included with every single “somatotype”.

The late skeptic Mike Dennett once told me that when a paranormal or “fringe” claim is made, it never goes away, no matter how well debunked it might be. An obvious example is creationism. And so it was with William H. Sheldon. A website called Inner Explorations offers a spirited and lengthy defense of Sheldon. Sheldon also makes a cameo appearance on pages 109 and 110 of Grover Krantz’ book on Bigfoot entitled Big Footprints. Krantz offers the reader a line drawing reproduction of “somatotype 5 6 1” and argues that even if such a specimen were “expanded” to 6’6”, it would not equal the mass and bulk of the Patterson – Gimlin film subject. Krantz argues that the film subject is beyond human proportions. Well, so what? No one but the “lunatic fringe” in Bigfootery argues that it’s a human; even skeptics concede that it’s either the real thing or it’s a guy in a suit. If it’s a guy in a suit, it hardly matters what his “somatotype” is. Given Krantz’ demonstrated gullibility on the subject of Bigfoot, it’s not surprising to find that he would be familiar with, and feel comfortable including, the work of someone like Sheldon.

Sheldon’s work was mentioned some time back when news surfaced of “posture photos” of Ivy League undergraduates had been discovered.

The last tidbit that I think I can extract from the strange saga of William H. Sheldon is the nerdiest one. Considering that each of Sheldon’s “somatotypes” was a three-value datum, the problem became how best to graphically display them as a whole set. Sheldon produced a three-axis map, which upon casual examination, looks like a Reuleaux triangle. Alas, When I broke out my compass to double check, I found that it too fell short; the sides didn’t bow out far enough…
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 Posted by on 11/11/2009 Pseudoscience Comments Off on The Atlas of Men
Nov 082009
 

At the end of November 1999, the World Trade Organization held a conference here in Seattle. The proceedings lasted several days, and generated huge street protests. Some called it “the Battle in Seattle”. At the time I was working as a pharmacist on Capitol Hill, rather removed from the fracas which was occurring mostly downtown. But several protestor-police altercations happened on Capitol Hill as well. As I recall, I was assigned to work the evening shifts for the first two nights of the conference. Our store stayed open until 9:00 pm.

At around 7:00 on both nights, my manager approached me and told me to shut down the pharmacy. Evidently she had received word from the police that protestors were coming up to Capitol Hill from downtown, and that businesses should close to be on the safe side. I was more than happy to comply and get the heck out of there!

As I recall, the third day of the conference I had off. That afternoon and evening I was going to help my friend Kim schlep gear to the Showbox, a venue downtown he was scheduled to perform at that night. It was a one-off performance called the “No WTO Combo”, which consisted of Jello Biafra, Kim Thayil, Krist Novoselic, and Gina Mainwal, a drummer who had previously worked with Novoselic.

I picked up Kim in the afternoon and we drove to Belltown to a practice space to meet the other members of the band. Loud helicopters circled over the downtown area. Jello wasn’t there, but the rest of us huddled around a small TV which was tuned to a local news program. The vibe on the TV news was tense, as was the vibe in the room. On the TV, images of downtown chaos played endlessly. Kim was close to bailing on the whole thing, as one TV camera located near the Showbox seemed to indicate there was teargas still in the air. It seemed foolhardy to walk right into what might be a genuine riot. None of us were sure that we were even going to be allowed to enter the downtown area.

Krist started arguing that it really wasn’t that bad, that he lived downtown, and that what we were seeing on the TV “wasn’t real”. At this point I began to seriously question Krist’s judgment, as it was obvious from the live TV broadcasts that downtown was still in chaos. I began to wonder if Krist wasn’t like some of the Missoula hippies I was exposed to growing up; living in a new-age fantasy land of his own making, oblivious to the harsh reality around him. My mind was tipped more toward Kim’s vaguely paranoid and cynical risk assessment. Yet we all sat around watching the TV, deciding whether to go to the Showbox or not.

Being that this was December 1, the sun set early that day. The practice room had a western exposure, and we could look out the window towards the setting sun. At least Belltown was calm. Suddenly I had a genuine epiphany: As the sun set, the shadows grew longer in the real world out the window. But the shadows on what was purported to be “live” TV coverage were not! The TV stations were “looping” a few minutes of footage shot earlier, again and again, and calling it “live”! Suddenly Krist’s pronouncements about the TV coverage made complete and total sense. I was seeing the truth of his crazy “new age” viewpoint with my own eyes! The local TV news was lying to us after all!

So we set out to the Showbox. Kim and I took a big loop around downtown, and came up 1st Ave from the South. There were no police checkpoints, no tear gas, no protestors, no chaos at all! We parked and moved his gear into the venue.

Soon enough Jello arrived. I had been a huge Dead Kennedys fan back in the 80’s so it was a trip for me to meet him. He had gained a few pounds over the years, and no longer looked like the hungry hardcore punk of his glory days. I chatted briefly with him, and I remember him telling me that Levi’s had made an offer to use “Holiday in Cambodia” in a Dockers ad. I was most impressed at his refusal to sell out for a few dollars.

I helped move equipment onto the stage, thus fulfilling my “roadie” obligations. Soon the crowd began coming in. I recognized a gal I’d spoken to before, and started talking with her. Neither of us could remember where we originally met. As it turned out, she was friends with local Seattle comedian Cathy Sorbo. We had met some time before at Cathy’s baby shower. For a time she wrote a gossip column for the Stranger, a weekly Seattle newspaper, and had done an impression of Courtney Love for the local TV show Almost Live. We met again in early January 2001, where I made the egregious faux pas of telling her that she reminded me of an old girlfriend of mine. Later I read about our encounter in her Stranger gossip column, where she compared me to a dog lapping up antifreeze. I didn’t quite get the analogy at the time, and I still don’t. At the Showbox she was escorted by a man that I believed to be an out-of-town protestor. I spoke to him only briefly, as he had an overwhelming body odor.

Despite all the alleged chaos downtown, the show was well attended, probably because of the draw of three veteran rock stars on the same bill. Eventually the lights dim, and the band hits the stage. Now to my way of thinking, when an act first hits the stage the audience is primed; they’ve been waiting for hours for this moment, and they want action! Think of Led Zeppelin in the movie The Song Remains the Same; they open the show with Rock and Roll, not Going to California.

So the “No WTO Combo” hits the stage, and Jello begins to talk. Kim, Krist, and Gina wait in place while Jello delivers his leftist spoken-word diatribe. In my mind this was a total buzz-kill, a self-centered and narcissistic indulgence, especially considering who he was sharing the stage with!

But eventually the music started, and it genuinely rocked! If I remember correctly the first tune was a new one, a dig at Microsoft, called “Electronic Plantation”. Jello’s play on words was that Microsoft’s employment policies created “serfs” so he “never wanted to hear serf music again”…

And then a Dead Kennedy’s song; Let’s Lynch the Landlord, I believe. At some point someone in the crowd handed Krist a gas mask. Krist put it on and continued playing.

I think the band played only 3 or 4 songs, but thankfully it was all recorded. I remember Kim contacting me later to ask how I wanted to be listed in the liner notes to the forthcoming CD. “Matt Crowley”, “Matt ‘The Tube’ Crowley”, “Tube”, or something else? Eventually I got a copy of the CD, but I loaned it to a gal at a pharmacy shortly before I quit, and I never pursued getting it back.

All in all, the whole experience was genuinely surreal. I’m glad I was there.

 Posted by on 11/08/2009 Personal History Comments Off on The Day I Was a Rock-n-Roll Roadie
Nov 032009
 

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Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I’m more or less obsessed with the movie To Live and Die in LA. Because of the film I became interested in the subject of counterfeit currency in the mid 1980’s.

A recent post on the aag blog reminded me of a similar document that I possessed. I can’t remember positively where I received it, but I think it was given to me by Jan Gregor, author of Circus of the Scars.

Unlike the situation of giving away a “novelty” bill in a face-to-face situation with a trick-or-treater, my bill was clearly intended to be set down for a random recipient to pick up. It was carefully creased to disguise that it wasn’t wide enough to be a real bill. The inside of the crease, or reverse side, contained the text message. Folded with the obverse side out, it could be set down in either of two ways, and the illusion would still work.

I must say, the quality of the counterfeit bill is quite good. It’s clearly been created with an offset press.
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Higher quality scans can be seen here and here.

 Posted by on 11/03/2009 Opinion Comments Off on To Live and Die on Halloween
Nov 012009
 

I can’t remember exactly when I discovered the books of Jan Harold Brunvand. His first book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker, was published in 1981. His second, The Choking Doberman, in 1984. I suspect I may have read The Choking Doberman first. I was in college at the time, at the University of Montana. The notion of “urban legends” was immediately intriguing to me, as by this time I realized that even widely held beliefs could be completely false.

Growing up as I did in the 1970’s, trick-or-treating by children was a tradition as deeply ingrained as celebrating Christmas with gift giving. Back then we didn’t have our parents escorting us from door to door.

Of course by the time we reached about 10 or 11, we became too old to go trick-or-treating. Certain adults would even scold us as when we rang their doorbell: “Aren’t you a little old to be doing this?” A total buzz kill for a child of that age…

Even as children, we would hear stories about “razor blades in apples”, but we were never given apples as treats. The worst “treats” we ever got were Bible tracts… Even in the early 1970’s everything edible was packaged candy anyway.

But by the late 1970’s, and certainly into the early 1980’s, the American cultural tradition of door to door trick-or-treating was on the wane. Over time, the idea that psychopaths were afoot, randomly poisoning or dangerously tampering with candy was taken more seriously. Back then, I had no reason to doubt this, as frankly I had no informational resources to fall back on. There was no World Wide Web, and I didn’t know how to do any kind of sophisticated search in the library.

Perhaps it was through one of Brunvand’s books, or through a newspaper story, that I encountered a rather radical notion; namely that the Halloween Psychopath was a myth! By 1985 I had learned of the Index Medicus, undoubtedly through pharmacy school. I remember using the resources of the Mansfield library, and probably the Index Medicus, to find a citation for a study published in a sociology journal about this topic.

Luckily, the library had the specific journal on the shelves, and I didn’t have to request a photocopy through interlibrary loan. It was just like the Internet, immediate gratification!

The study design was simple and elegant. The researchers assumed that a heinous act like the random poisoning of a child with Halloween candy would become news, at least local news. Surely if the Halloween Psychopath was real, some newspaper would have a story about it! The researchers went into the archives for, I believe, three newspapers; the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and a major Chicago newspaper. They carefully examined the issues of November 1, 2, and 3 for a period of something like 30 years prior to the publication of their study.

And what did they find? NOTHING! Zero, zip, nada! The only case on file in these newspaper archives was where a disgruntled adult had singled out a particular child to harm, hoping that the assailant wouldn’t be identified due to the number of people having given the child candy. But the assailant was eventually identified; he was a relative of the child, NOT a Random Psychopath.

I came from a “hard science” background so it was good to see that sound scientific methodology could be applied to the less-rigorous field of sociology. It was fascinating to me that such an esoteric subject would be investigated, and that a widespread belief was rather definitively shown to be bullshit!

I remember coming home for lunch to my parent’s house that day. I remember rather triumphantly announcing what I had just read. I figured my parents would share my enthusiasm at science having triumphed over urban mythology. My father seemed to be unmoved by this finding. He taught law at the University of Montana, and sensational subjects never seemed to interest him, especially those dealing with “fringe” or even popular culture.

My mother on the other hand had a rather different reaction. I had spent several minutes explaining the historical context of the Halloween Psychopath belief, my amazement that there existed genuine science on the subject, the nature of the test design, and the surprising result. After all that she exclaimed; “yes, but that really did happen”.

It was a sad sort of semi-epiphany for me, like learning that someone you know or like is a creationist, or believes in the divinity of the Shroud of Turin. I knew for years that my mother was irrational, but as I grew older and my critical thinking and research skills sharpened, it became all the more painful for me to witness her displays of intellectual nonsense.

No, the real danger for trick-or-treating children is being hit by a car, not receiving poisoned or adulterated candy. When I was a child, we would practically sprint from house to house in a mad dash to get as much candy as we possibly could. An obvious set-up for carelessly running across the street. So I guess that today’s modern tradition of parents escorting their kids is a good thing, if for no other reason than they can make sure their kids cross the street safely.

Note that I’m writing about events from almost 25 years ago strictly from memory. For a more much more updated and fact-checked take on the same subject, read Ben Radford’s excellent essay.

 Posted by on 11/01/2009 Growing Up In Montana, Pseudoscience Comments Off on A Halloween Post Mortem