Category Archives: Anecdotes

Another minor synchronicity

I was in one of my weekly sessions of English conversation practice with a student of mine who is a surgeon, and he was telling me about another expat English teacher who had just been in the ER with a broken kneecap after a motorcycle accident. Trying to describe the seriousness of the fracture, he said he was not sure of the correct English word, but he believed it was something close to comminuted. Not being familiar with that word, I looked it up in the dictionary on my Kindle and found that, yes, it was the correct word (meaning “pulverized, broken into many small fragments”).

Just minutes later I had a short break between classes and decided to do a little reading. I picked up that same Kindle and opened up the book I am currently reading (William James’s Essays in Radical Empiricism) — and in perhaps the third or fourth paragraph I read, I found this:

In these respects the pure experiences of our philosophy are, in themselves considered, so many little absolutes, the philosophy of pure experience being only a more comminuted Identitätsphilosophie.

I was not aware that I had ever encountered that particular word before — though I have, it turns out, at least twice; a search of my Kindle reveals that it occurs once each in Bacon’s Novum Organum and H. S. Maine’s Popular Government, and of course I have no way of knowing how often I may have run across it in my on-paper reading without noticing it. However, I think I can reasonably assume that comminuted crosses my path certainly no more than once or twice a year, so meeting it twice in a matter of minutes was quite a coincidence.


Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity

A minor precognitive/synchronistic dream

I had a dream Saturday night in which I was walking down a deserted street naked, trying to find a towel or something so I could cover up. Then I saw a person approaching, so I put my hands down to shield my privates from view. After standing in that position for several seconds, I looked down and noticed that I was not actually naked after all, but was wearing a pair of light gray boxer shorts — so there was no need to hold my hands over my crotch.

The next day, my wife was watching the Singaporean film “Taxi! Taxi!” on TV, and I saw parts of it. In one scene, some passengers get out of a taxi and run away without paying, and the driver (played by Gurmit Singh) chases them down. In the altercation that follows, one of the passengers forces the driver to strip down to his boxers — and the driver stands there with his hands over his crotch, as if trying to cover up what is already adequately covered by the shorts.

The shorts I was wearing in my dream were almost identical to the ones worn by Singh in the movie, and quite unlike anything I wear in real life.


Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Dreams

Well, why do birds suddenly appear?

Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!

— Bullwinkle

Many years ago, “Professor Doodles’ Just For Kids Corner,” in our local newspaper’s Sunday comics supplement, ran the following riddle:

Q. What bird is with you?
A. The swallow.

The question was presumably supposed to have been something along the lines of “What bird is with you at every meal?” — but somehow the last few words had been omitted, transforming what had been intended as a lame pun into something more like a kōan.

Naturally, we kids thought this was, by a very wide margin, the Professor’s funniest riddle ever, and we quoted it incessantly. “What bird is with you?” — or just “What bird?” — came to be used as a general-purpose expression of complete bewilderment.


Yesterday, I happened to be thinking about this expression and its history as I was riding back home from my morning classes, when I noticed something odd-looking in the middle of the road. At first I thought it was just some random piece of rubbish and rode right past it, but then the thought registered, “Wait, was that a roadkilled swallow?” I turned my motorcycle around and went back to check — and, sure enough, it was a swallow, though not a roadkilled one. It was a live swallow — to all appearances, perfectly healthy and uninjured — but it was just sitting there in the middle of the road, waiting to be hit by a car or nabbed by a stray cat.

This would not do, so, putting on some gloves, I picked the bird up. It perched on my finger, holding on tight and twitching its tail a bit, and looked at me. This was the first time I’d ever seen a stationary swallow at such close range, and it was really an exquisite little creature. The feathers, which look plain black when you see a swallow zipping past you at high speed, are actually iridescent blue; and the bird blinks with milky reptilian-style eyelids that close from side to side. I set the swallow down under a tree by the roadside, dropped off my motorcycle at home, and came back on foot. It was still there where I’d left it, so I picked it up again, thinking I’d probably take it to an avian vet I know. This time, though, it only perched on my finger for a few seconds before taking off and flying away into the distance. Apparently it could fly all along; I have no idea what it was doing sitting in the middle of the road. (Something similar happened with a little brown bat that showed up on my doorstep one morning. It let me pick it up, and I was quite sure it was unable to fly, but after drinking some milk it suddenly spread its wings and began flying around the living room.)


This is not the first time I’ve been thinking of a particular kind of bird, only to have an actual bird of that species suddenly materialize and walk into my life. Back in 2011 (as described in this post), I had just been reading about a boy who had had a racing pigeon with a number band on its leg show up at his house — when a racing pigeon with a number band on its leg showed up at my house!


More recently — a week or two ago — I pulled off a similar Jumanji-like trick with a centipede. I’m usually in the middle of three or four different books at any given time, and at that time I was reading (among others) C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters and Piers Anthony’s Centaur Aisle. Shortly after having read in Centaur Aisle about “nickelpedes” — described as being like centipedes but five times as big and fierce — I turned to Screwtape and found that I had come to the part where the title character inadvertently transforms himself into a large centipede. I was just about to mention this not-terribly-impressive coincidence to my wife when I noticed something big and black wriggling across the living room floor. It was, of course, an enormous centipede — only the third centipede I’ve encountered in the past decade.

(Years ago I designed a vaguely tarot-inspired deck of picture cards, and one of the cards depicted a big black centipede crawling out of an open book. That card seems a little creepy now.)


Obviously these experiences can’t possibly be anything other than freak coincidences, but — well, let’s just say I’m making a point of not reading any books about cobras these days.



Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity


After that philosophical post, it’s time for a post about — burping. Too many bloggers underestimate the importance of the element of surprise.


My four siblings and I were homeschooled for most of our childhood. (I, the eldest, spent four years in public schools; my younger siblings, less than that. My youngest sister never attended school at all.) Because of that, and because we lived in the middle of nowhere with no real neighbors, we spent a lot of time together. One outgrowth of that was the family dialect known as Lingyo. (It was originally Lingy Lingo, named for the characteristic word lingy, meaning “cool.” The contracted form was created when I typed up a dictionary on the word processor and there was a six-character limit on filenames.)

Quite a lot of Lingyo vocabulary revolved around the topic of burping.

The term that started it all was baked hiccup — which originally just meant a burp but quickly acquired a more limited meaning, referring only to burps which were done on purpose. As a general term for eructations, without reference to intentions, belch was preferred. The word burp itself was then applied only to unintentional or “naturally occurring” eructations. Between these extremes was the baked burp — either an intentional belch which comes out louder than expected, or a natural belch which is deliberately amplified or elaborated. There were also deep fat fried hiccups — farts — but we didn’t use that term much because we just weren’t much interested in bodily functions other than burping. An apple baked hiccup was an exceptionally loud and long baked hiccup produced after eating an apple. The theory was that apple baked hiccups are caused not by anything in the apple itself but by smacking your lips while you eat. Sometimes trying too hard to produce a good baked hiccup would result in a baked sickup, a term which I suppose requires no explanation.

The act of belching intentionally was called “eating a baked hiccup.” As for the baking itself, no one was really sure what that entailed, but it was done by Athena, one of the family dogs. Every now and then my brother would announce that Athena had just baked a batch of hiccups. Then, of course, we would eat them.

There were other, non-hiccup-related terms for burps as well. Burp was modified to brup, which gave rise to the term abrupt ending — as in “That was an abrupt ending. I brupped out the ending.” We also decided to commandeer brachiate — a perfectly good word with no obvious synonyms — and use it as yet another word for “burp.” For some reason this became associated with the catchphrase “No brachiating in the locker room!”


As a way of quantifying how long a particular belch had been, you could try to say something while you burped. Some of our friends would recite as much of the alphabet as they could, but for us the thing to say was “Cranium House Pasta Company.” I don’t think anyone ever managed to say the whole thing in one burp, but we sometimes got as far as “Cranium House Pasta Com–,” which is the equivalent of getting all the way to the letter G. (Cranium House Pasta Company? I think this was originally inspired by a story my brother wrote, in which one of the characters referred to brains as “cranium-housed noodles.” Not that that really explains how it came to be a thing to say during a baked hiccup.)


As I mentioned, we never got much entertainment from farts, only from burps. We completely ignored flatulence.

Later, during my college years, a roommate was reminiscing about the farting contests he had participated in as a kid and asked if I had ever done anything like that. I said I hadn’t, but that I had won the “Tons of Tone” award at the first annual Boy Scout Belch-Off. He was surprised and said something like, “Really? I always thought that farts were funny but burps were just disgusting.”

The exact opposite of what I always thought — but I guess most people would agree with my old roommate, since farting clearly outguns burping in the world of lowbrow comedy. At least Bill Watterson is on my side.


Finally, a classic poem by one of my brothers:


If you gulp glug and slirp
up your pop you release a Big old Burp
then your dad will say don’t Burp
that way it is Just plain Bad
if you try and tell him why
he will say don’t Burp that way it’s Bad


Filed under Anecdotes, Language

Dream experiment postmortem

A couple of years ago I attempted to duplicate the “experiment with time” described in J. W. Dunne’s book of that title. The experiment involves keeping detailed records of one’s dreams for a period of time and noting any resemblances between dream events and waking events which occurred shortly before or shortly after the dream in question. The higher the ratio P:F (the number of past resemblances to future resemblances), the stronger the evidence that apparently precognitive dreams are mere coincidences; the lower the ratio, the stronger the evidence that dream precognition is just as real as dream retrospection.

I posted the dream records I kept during the experiment at Relatively few of my dreams turned out to be discernibly connected to specific past or future events, and none of the resemblances I did notice were sufficiently strong to be truly compelling. Of the 23 dreams I recorded (or 23 nights’ worth of dreams, rather; I made no attempt to separate a given night’s dreaming into distinct dreams), 8 exhibited resemblances to specific past events (6 weak, 2 moderate), and 5 resembled specific future events (3 weak, 2 moderate). Thus my experiment would seem to be consistent with Dunne’s thesis that dreams are constructed from a roughly equal mixture of past and future components. (If all future resemblances were coincidental, we would expect past resemblances to outnumber them by at least an order of magnitude). However, the small number of resemblances noted, together with their overall weak quality, means that my experiment cannot be regarded as conclusive either way.


Apparently I am not a “good” dreamer in the sense that the experiment requires. That is, the raw materials from which my dreams are constructed tend to be integrated to a degree that it becomes difficult to identify the specific experiences on which the dreams are based. Dunne touches on this in his appendix to the third edition of An Experiment with Time.

It is a commonplace of psychology . . . that most structures of the imagination are ‘integration’ — blends of several images associated with several different waking impressions. And it is accepted generally that dream-images are mostly of the same character — certainly, it is very rarely that one comes upon one of these exhibiting an unmixed, photographic resemblance to any scene of waking life. Now, the possibility of discovering in one of these composite structures an element distinctive enough to be recognizable as pertaining to a chronologically definite incident of waking life depends, mainly, upon what may be described as the coarseness of the blending. The more intricate — the more fine-grained — is the integration, the more difficult becomes its analysis. And, with practice in constructing dream-images, just as with practice in waking imagery, the integrations become more fine-grained, more beautifully blended, and, so, less easy to associate with any chronologically distinctive waking incident, past or future (p. 137, Hampton Roads reprint).

I suppose I ought to be pleased that my dreams are so “fine-grained” and “beautifully blended” — that my dreaming self exhibits a high degree of creativity (in the Einsteinian sense of knowing how to hide your sources) — but mostly I am disappointed at my inability so far to evaluate Dunne’s thesis conclusively from my own experience.

Individuals apparently vary widely in the relative “coarseness” of their dreams. In an experiment involving six Oxford students, one of the subjects recorded 21 dreams, of which 18 resembled waking incidents, 6 of those resemblances being judged “good” or strong. Another recorded 16 dreams without finding a single resemblance of any value. It is my bad fortune to be closer to the latter end of the scale.

Another factor may be the regular — not to say boring — character of my day-to-day life, which would reduce the chance that anything in a dream would resemble a distinctive waking event belonging clearly to either the future or the past. Not wanting to burden a holiday with the troublesome task of keeping daily dream records, I ignored Dunne’s advice to carry out the experiment during a break from one’s usual routine — preferably during a vacation in an unfamiliar locale — and instead conducted it during a perfectly ordinary period of time. I shall probably be going to Australia next year for the first time, and may attempt a second experiment during that trip.


Some months after the end of my experiment, I did finally have a dream which bore a conclusively strong resemblance to a specific future event.

In my dream, I had the idea that I ought to write a book entitled Pineapples and Apple Pies. It would be an English textbook for use in Taiwan. The title was perfect because it illustrated the rules of compound formation in English: pineapple and apple pie were made up of the same two components (sic) but in a different order; also, pineapple was written as a single word with the stress on the first element, while apple pie was written as two with the stress on the second. I was delighted to have discovered two such common words which were thus related — much more natural than such strained pairs as songbird-birdsong and housecat-cathouse. As an added bonus, a pineapple was something typical of Taiwan, while an apple pie was a well-known symbol of America. (Upon waking, I naturally realized that the elements of the two compounds were not identical after all, that pine and pie were not the same.)

The day after the dream, I was teaching E., a child whom I tutor privately. At each of our sessions, he has to sign a record sheet, and, with a young child’s normal love of nonsense, he often writes a random word or two (often ghost or pig) on the paper after signing his name. This time, the random “word” he wrote was — applepine. When I said, “Applepine? What’s that?” he said, “You know, like pineapple but the other way!” Of course I had never in my life encountered the “word” applepine before, and the odds of running into it by chance the day after my dream are effectively zero. In fact, E.’s choice of that word is so bizarre and unaccountable that I’m almost more inclined to consider it evidence of mind-reading on his part than of precognition on mine.

Unfortunately, even this does not really count as conclusive evidence, since it occurred outside the formal experiment. The key thing is the ratio of clearly precognitive dreams to clearly retrospective ones, and I wasn’t keeping any records of the latter at the time. However, it did serve to keep me interested in the question, and I shall probably conduct further experiments in the future.


Dunne also describes similar experiments in waking precognition, something I may try in the future, since my dreams seem to be of such poor quality, and since I have experienced some success with waking precognition in the past, before I ever encountered Dunne’s ideas. The following is taken from an email I wrote to a family member.

Here’s an experiment you can try. Go somewhere dark, roll your eyes up and to the side like people do when they’re trying to remember something, and “try to get something.” Just try to pick something up, like tuning a radio — easier done than explained. When I tried this, the first thing I “got” was the nonsense words “wudder-wudder-wudderfly” followed by a rapid succession of mental images: a green parrot viewed in profile; a short, wide, yellow tin; and something else which I no longer remember. Hours later, at work, one of my coworkers who had just come back from abroad (the Philippines, if memory serves) gave me some snack food from that country — in a package decorated with a green parrot in profile. Another colleague, a Japanese teacher, was doing some sort of cooking activity with her students and has brought some kind of Japanese bean paste or something in a yellow tin like the one I had seen. I can’t remember now what the third image was — this was years ago — but it also “came true.” (Nothing came of “wudder-wudder-wudderfly,” though.) I haven’t tried that particular exercise again — partly because I didn’t know what I was “tuning in” to and it seemed a little creepy, and partly because I didn’t want to ruin the magic by trying it again and not getting anything.

Given that, against the background of Dunne’s theories, precognition no longer seems “creepy” to me, I may try an organized experiment in waking precognition in the near future. Of course it will be impossible to calculate a ratio of precognitive to retrospective images, but if the results are sufficiently striking they may be conclusive anyway.


Filed under Anecdotes, Dreams, Precognition / Prophecy

Synchronicity: My birthday

I was born on the Ides — that is, the 15th — of March. (I’ve been told that my grandfather, who died shortly before I was born and whose name I bear, used to say “Beware the Ides of March!” sometimes for no apparent reason, though my father does not remember this.)

Today — my birthday — my wife and I were working in our study. She was preparing for a class with a junior high school student she tutors, looking at a handout from the student’s English teacher at school. She found the following example sentences on the handout and had to show them to me:


“It’s March 16th. It was my birthday yesterday.” The fact that the handout (photocopied from a grammar textbook) just happened to use my birthday as an example would have been coincidence enough — but on top of that it was actually on my birthday that we happened to read it!

But the coincidences don’t stop there. Wanting to give her student some additional material to practice, she asked me if I had any grammar books that covered the same topic. I got out an old grammar book I’d bought some 10 years ago in America and turned to the relevant unit. Here’s what I found:


“Is it the fifteenth today? ~ No, the sixteenth.” The same two dates that had been used as an example on the other handout!

I guess the synchronicity would have been more perfect if this had all happened tomorrow rather than today — but it’s still quite striking enough to be almost creepy.


Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity

Synchronicity: Cats look like slugs

This past Tuesday night I was mopping the floor, and the cats were charging around chasing the mop. Something about the way they were moving made my wife say, “Don’t you think they look like slugs?” Actually, she said that mostly in Chinese — “牠們很像 slugs, 你不覺得嗎?” — but with slugs in English, since the corresponding Chinese word (蛞蝓) is rather obscure.

I didn’t quite see it. “Slugs? But slugs are slow.”

“Well, they look like fast slugs.”

She went on to mention their slug-like appearance three or four more times that night and the next morning.


The afternoon after this, I was tutoring one of my students, who has been practicing his English reading comprehension with a simplified version of Treasure Island. I don’t have a copy of the book, but he brings it to our classes with him and we begin each session by talking about the chapter he has just read. This time, I asked him how far he had gotten in the book, and he opened up to chapter 18 — the second paragraph of which reads as follows:

I could not paddle and I saw that I would be drowned or dashed to death on sharp rocks if I came closer to shore. And I saw what looked like giant slugs on the rocks. These, I later learned, were sea lions, barking in the sun.

So that’s twice in less than 24 hours that I encountered carnivorous mammals being rather improbably compared to slugs — and although sea lions are biologically caniform, linguistically they are lions, a kind of cat.

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity

Synchronicity: Jumpin’ Jack Flash

On Thursday morning, I suddenly felt like listening to the Rolling Stones — specifically to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” I’m not a huge Stones fan and only own two of their albums, neither of which includes “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” so I listened to it on YouTube.

I remembered that when I was a little kid and heard that song on the radio, I had always assumed that “I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash, it’s a gas gas gas” was a reference to Spring-heeled Jack, perhaps with a secondary allusion to the Mad Gasser of Mattoon — Jack and the Gasser being two characters I knew from the “true unsolved mysteries” books I liked to read in those days. Wondering if I had perhaps been right, I looked the song up on Wikipedia and found that it had actually been inspired by Jack Dyer, the gardener at Keith Richards’s country house — not by the spring-heel’d Terror of London. Then I skimmed the Wikipedia article on Spring-heeled Jack for good measure. (It didn’t mention the Stones song, but it did compare Jack to the Mad Gasser.)


That night, I came home to find my wife watching TV. It was a sci-fi program in which the heroes somehow get hold of a velociraptor (not sure how they do this, since I missed the beginning) and, trying to send it back in time to where it belongs, they accidentally send it back to Victorian London instead. The raptor of course starts killing people, but the deaths are blamed on Spring-heeled Jack. Then the heroes go back to Victorian London themselves to catch the velociraptor, and they too are accused of being Spring-heeled Jack!


I regularly go for years at a stretch without ever once hearing, reading, speaking, or thinking of Spring-heeled Jack — so having him cross my path twice in one day — well, it was kind of a gas!

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity

My sign from God

In his book Climbing Backward Out of Caves (pdf), John R. Harris discusses why apparent miracles and other empirical phenomena cannot be used to prove religious claims:

There are no [empirical] arguments for faith, properly speaking, nor can there be. If you could pray to be placed atop the church’s steeple and then, miraculously, your body rose through thin air to the lofty perch desired, what would you have proved to the scientist? He would examine your shoulders for ropes or cords. He would investigate the church’s structure for a small elevator concealed from a certain perspective. He would search the premises for cleverly installed mirrors that project stable images over some ladder or mechanism. If brought to his last resort, he would have his own blood tested for hallucinogens and his own brain for neurological disorders. In a last last defense, he would perhaps found a new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time.

Your miracle, having been perceived, would be scientifically explicable, and hence no miracle at all. The trick would be finding the answer… but the presence of an answer could be presupposed, since causation is not a sight but a way of processing things seen. All that we perceive immediately incurs the possibility of explanation. Those who should choose not to investigate your levitation beyond a certain point — to accept you as a true miracle-worker and prophet — would have made an arbitrary decision to desist from the search. Their resignation would not be justified by any objective evidence: it would only demonstrate that they had grown weary of searching, and perhaps that they were already predisposed to see wonders all around them.

I experienced the truth of this firsthand a couple of years ago (Friday, October 15, 2010, to be exact) when I asked God for a very specific sign, received exactly what I asked for that very same day — and came out of the experience not appreciably less of an atheist than I had been before.


I was living in Changhua, Taiwan, at the time, and working mostly in that city, but twice a week I took a train to Yuanlin and taught some classes at the university’s branch there. One day I was sitting in Changhua Station waiting for the train when something popped into my head and (subaudibly) out my mouth: “God, if you’re there, give me a sign.” Then, realizing that it might be nice to be a little less vague than that, I added, “Make someone give me a cicada.”

I can’t really say what prompted me to say such a thing. It’s not as if I had been particularly wondering whether God existed or hoping that he might. I had been an atheist for nearly 10 years, and I was quite confident in my unbelief. I had recently started reading and commenting on a few blogs by Christians (Bruce Charlton, John C. Wright, maybe a few others), and I suppose that’s what put it into my head. I had also had a few recent experiences where I had thought to myself, “You know, I could really use ___ right now,” and then the thing I had wished for had immediately (but otherwise quite non-miraculously) appeared.

Why a cicada? I don’t know. I had the idea that I should ask for something improbable but not actually miraculous, and that’s what came into my mind. The idea seemed to come from nowhere, and I thought at the time that it might be an inspiration — God telling me what sign he intended to give, rather than the other way around.

The request wasn’t quite as random as it probably seems, though. Those who remember the old header image from this blog will be aware that I’ve made the cicada a personal emblem of sorts, and that Friday morning in the station I was actually wearing a jade cicada pendant around my neck. (I had a second such pendant at home, but the cord had been broken for some time.) Cicadas are a reasonably common decorative motif in Taiwan, comparable to, say, unicorns in America. You don’t see them every day, but they’re not unheard of.

All day I was on the lookout for cicadas and was trying to guess what form the sign might take. (“Give me a cicada” is actually pretty vague.) Maybe I would see someone with a cicada T-shirt on the train. (I’ve never seen a cicada T-shirt before, but it could happen.) In addition to my regular classes in Yuanlin, I also did one-on-one tutoring with a little kid who loved insects and occasionally brought rhinoceros beetles and things to class with him — so maybe he would literally give me a live cicada. (His class was on Wednesdays, not Fridays, but it could still happen.) But nothing like that happened. All day I found nothing even remotely cicada-related, and that night on the train back home to Changhua I scolded myself for even entertaining the idea of a “sign” and said to myself, “Forget it. No one’s going to give you a cicada.”

I arrived home quite late that night, as I usually do. Ordinarily my wife would be waiting for me with dinner, but this time she met me at the door and suggested that we go out to the night market to eat and to get the broken cord on my other cicada pendant fixed. (I had bought both of the cicada pendants from the same vendor at the night market.) Her mentioning a cicada out of the blue (it had been broken for a long time, and it had been months since we had said anything about fixing it) got my attention, but it still wasn’t really the sign I had asked for, since I already owned the cicada in question and wasn’t being “given” anything.

At the market, I gave the jade vendor my pendant for repairs, and she showed me something new that she thought I might be interested in: a small white jade key chain in the shape of a cicada. Now we were getting closer to the sign, but not close enough — because of course I was going to buy the thing, which isn’t the same as being given it.

She needed some time to fix the cord, though, and while she worked and my wife chatted with her I wandered around the market a bit. When I came back, the vendor gave me the two cicadae. I reached for my wallet, but my wife stopped me and said, “That’s okay. I paid already.” So the new cicada did in fact end up being a gift rather than a purchase.

I was suitably impressed. For all the vague things I would have been willing to accept as a sign (seeing a T-shirt with a cicada on it!), what I received was precisely what I had asked for: someone gave me a cicada.

At that point I thought of Gideon’s asking for a second sign to confirm the first, and it occurred to me to do the same thing. Again I asked for the first thing that came to mind, and again I can’t really explain why I chose what I did: “Make someone say the word rabbit” (again I was shooting for something relatively improbable but not at all miraculous).

Within a minute or two of this request, a woman walked past me carrying a live rabbit in her arms. (Had I seem this woman before without consciously noticing her? Is that what put the “rabbit” idea into my head. It’s entirely possible.) Frustratingly, though, no one said anything about it. The word rabbit was not spoken. I felt almost as if I were being taunted, as if the intended message were, “See how easy it would be for me to grant that request? Well, I’m going to make a point of not granting it.”


In the following weeks I made a few half-hearted attempts at repeating the experiment — asking for other specific signs, trying to choose the first thing that came to mind — but nothing came of it — which is not surprising. “We do not satisfy men’s curiosity in that manner.” It’s not as if further signs would have served any useful purpose anyway. Repetitions would have decreased the odds that the original request had been fulfilled by mere chance — but the odds of that are already quite low enough. A billion to one or a trillion to one, what difference does it make? Mere coincidence is not an explanation I am seriously entertaining.


But neither — obviously — did the experience turn me into a theist. I think most people, believers and non-believers alike, would agree that it would be a pretty stupid reason to start believing in God. There are just too many other possible explanations. It could have been subconscious precognition on my part. It could have been subconscious mind-reading on the part of my wife. It could have been the work of some supernormal but subdivine being who wanted either to make me believe in God or to pass itself of as the same. It could have been “synchroncity,” whatever that is. It could have been any number of different things — far-fetched, all of them, but not obviously any more far-fetched than the idea that the omnipotent Creator of the universe decided to intervene in our world to grant a pointless request I had made on a mere whim.

I know I sound like Harris’s hypothetical scientist, founding his risible “new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time” — but the point is that Harris’s scientist, however silly he may sound, is right. An explanation is always possible. There can be no empirical argument for God. And thus asking for a sign is a fundamentally foolish thing to do, since a sign alone can never convince an unbeliever, but can only increase his condemnation should there turn out to be a God after all. Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida!


Filed under Anecdotes, God, Philosophy, Revelation

Not very factual on motorcycles

Robert M. Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance begins with a disclaimer stating that the book “should in no way be associated with the great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice” and that it is “not very factual on motorcycles, either.” I was willing to believe the first part of the disclaimer, since the author shows no special knowledge of Zen, but I always kind of assumed that he really did know what he was talking about when it came to motorcycles.

So when my wife’s motorcycle wouldn’t start and we were wondering if it was because the battery was dead, I remembered an example Pirsig had used to illustrate deduction and hypothesis testing. If “the mechanic knows the horn of the cycle is powered exclusively from the battery, then he can logically infer that if the battery is dead the horn will not work. That is deduction” (pp. 92-93). He can then try to honk the horn as a way of testing the hypothesis that the battery is dead.

I honked the horn, and it worked fine, so I confidently announced to my wife that the problem was definitely not the battery. Probably the spark plug. And then, since I’m not Robert M. Pirsig, I walked the motorcycle to a nearby mechanic’s shop to have it fixed.

He told me it was the battery. I tooted the horn for him and told him he was wrong. He looked at me like I was an idiot, replaced the battery, which was ancient and badly corroded, and sent me on my way with a perfectly good motorcycle.


It seems like there ought to be some deep “Chautauqua” lesson to be learned from this. Always believe disclaimers, I suppose, even when they appear to have been written in jest.


Filed under Anecdotes, Oddities