Hmmm…


A few days ago Violet Towne and I were down on the south coast of Victoria on a short break. On a day too rainy and bleak to be at the seaside we dropped into an antique and junk place for a rummage, as we like to do, and I was delighted to discover, in one of the more secluded nooks of the building, a framed print of one of the Giovanni Bragolin ‘Crying Boys’.

I was surprised to find that VT did not know the story of the ‘curse’ associated with the Crying Boy, and I thought I might take this opportunity to recap it here for others of you who may not have encountered this quirky piece of urban legend.

Giovanni Bragolin – known also as Bruno Amadio – was a trained classical painter and probably painted the original Crying Boy portraits – all variations on a similar theme – sometime in the early 1950s. It is likely that they were created specifically to sell to tourists as a money-making venture. Whatever the case, at some point Bragolin was evidently fortunate enough to secure a deal to have the paintings copied and printed and made widely available in English department stores in the late 1950s. There were probably many thousands made.(i)

For reasons that escape me personally, the Crying Boys were monumentally popular and ended up in households all over Britain (and elsewhere in lesser numbers). And there they hung for decades, doing nothing more confronting than offending the sensibilities of those with good taste. Until…

On the 4th of September 1985, Britain’s popular tabloid, the Sun, ran a story about a fire that destroyed the home of Ron and May Hall, a working class couple from the town of Rotherham in South Yorkshire. The couple put the blame for the blaze on the ‘unlucky’ portrait of the Crying Boy which hung in their living room, which – according to the report – escaped the fire completely unscathed. Not only that, said the Sun, but it was common knowledge among firemen that there had been numerous other instances of this same scenario unfolding in blazes across England: homes devastated by fire, watched over by the completely untouched portrait of a Crying Boy. The picture, the firemen said, was cursed.(ii)

The next day the Sun ran a followup story claiming that their offices had been flooded with calls from readers with pictures of the Crying Boy on their walls, all fearing that they might become victims of the jinxed painting. And so the legend of the Curse of the Crying Boy was born.

Some stories are just made to gather momentum, and this was one. Everyone had a ‘friend of a friend’ who had been affected in some way by the image. Rumours grew that not only did the painting survive house fires, but it could not be burned even if you tried. People who attempted to get rid of the picture fell afoul of bad luck, and some even reported seeing it move on the wall all by itself.

To add kerosene to the flames, it turned out that there were numerous incarnations of the Crying Boy theme painted by other artists – it was a veritable plague of Crying Boys. As I mentioned earlier, they were – puzzlingly – exceptionally popular, and the conjecture must be that in the 70s and 80s in England, if there was a house fire anywhere there was a fair to middling chance that the tenants were in possession of a Crying Boy. This possibly goes at least a little way towards providing some basis for the idea of the curse, but in all probability it can mostly be put down to a case of overactive imaginations and rumour run riot.(iii)

The Sun (perhaps in a moment of conscience, but probably more because they knew how to ride a story to death) did a shout out to readers who were afraid that the picture might bring them ill luck. Send them to us, they said, and we’ll dispose of them for you! The offices of the paper had soon accumulated a staggering 2,500 copies of the Crying Boy, which demonstrates two things clearly, I think: just how popular the damn thing was, and also how frighteningly superstitious the readers of the Sun were.

In an act that just smacks of the British tabloid mindset of the 1980s, on Halloween 1985, Sun employees stacked the prints into a huge pile and they were set ablaze by a popular Page 3 girl. It could only have been more perfect if she’d been topless.

An urban legend isn’t quelled quite so neatly, though, and the Curse of the Crying Boy didn’t simply go up in smoke with the bonfire. Over the next decade it neatly transmogrified from fleeting newspaper titillation into full-blown myth, and lives on today, with many new riffs on the original story. Hang a Crying Boy next to a Crying Girl (yes, they exist too), it is said, and the bad luck will be thwarted. Hang ten copies of the Crying Boy together and the bad vibes are similarly dissipated (you’ll need some good luck finding ten copies these days, though). Whole narratives have arisen around the artist who painted the original picture and the supposed identity of the Boy himself, all with little or no basis in fact. Stories of disasters involving the Boy now come from countries all across the world and he is so embedded in popular culture that he even sports a Facebook page, of sorts.(iv)

But I can sense the question on your minds, Faithful Cowpokes: did I buy the copy I saw? Sadly, I didn’t. I probably should have, but the truth is that I wasn’t totally familiar with the version hanging in the antique shop, and didn’t know if it was ‘the real deal’ as it were. That’s why I snapped the pic of it that you saw above – I wanted to check its provenence (there was no mobile reception, otherwise I’d have done it on the spot).

Oh, and anyway, as if I’d hang it in my house. Are you crazy?

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UPDATE: The Crying Boy spotted on eBay in Israel. Printed on a magnet! (WARNING: May cause your fridge to burst into flames)

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Footnotes:

  1. Actual statistics are hard to come by, with various reports citing quantities from 50,000 to a quarter of a million, but given the widespread popularity of the prints, and the fact that they still turn up in junk shops on the other side of the planet, we can be fairly sure that a large number of them were made. []
  2. No fireman actually said this, as it turns out, but the Sun was very happy to let the implication stick. []
  3. There are many ‘supernatural’ explanations, of course, but they are banal and tedious and probably without any foundation in fact. You can, if you are so inclined, chase them up via the excellent Fortean Times redux of the Crying Boy Curse. []
  4. It’s a bit of a pathetic effort, really, and could be HUGELY more entertaining in my opinion. []

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This is my new assistant. I am about to augment her for my secret project. Hint: she is not a Roman.

Eager to please!

The other day, whilst in a philosophical mood, I got to musing on whether there would be any way for humans to tell if we were being kept as pets by some alien intelligence.

Consider the goldfish that we keep in our kitchen.

Goldfish contemplating sunken treasure chest.

I doubt that they have even the foggiest idea that the glass-walled vessel in which they find themselves is in any way strange. Or even that they have any idea of what ‘glass’ is, or what ‘strange’ is. They are quite obviously accustomed to the large shadowy figures that loom over them from time to time, and have come to associate these figures with food, which makes for obvious excitement for them. Their goldfishy brains probably can’t even encompass the idea of humans, or a kitchen bench, or meatballs and tomato sauce (which is what I happen to be cooking for dinner as I write this).

But what if we are like that? If we were the pets of aliens, how would we even know? Our puny human brains might be to them as goldfish brains are to us. If we are being kept in the alien equivalent of a glass tank on an alien kitchen bench, how could we even know, if we are unable to contain the concept of alien glass, or alien kitchen benches or alien meatballs? If we know nothing other than the circumstances in which we find ourselves – like the goldfish, raised in tanks in an aquarium and transported in plastic bags to a new home – what possible reference point could we have?

As silly as this sounds, I don’t mean it to be a flippant question. It is at least as plausible as any other hypothesis for why we are here, and it is just as unfalsifiable as postulating the existence of God, or alternative universes, or that we are a computer simulation.

If you accept that there are grades of intelligent awareness possible in the universe (and our own experience tells us that goldfish seem to be less aware of the universe than we are, and at the same time more aware of the nature of things than bacterium, say, so that appears to be a fairly reasonable assumption) then putting ourselves at the top of the intelligent awareness ladder seems a tad presumptuous. Is there any way, therefore, to know whether our reality is a ‘natural’ one or whether we are in an alien goldfish bowl?

I suspect not. But the places to start looking would be things in our universe that seem to be a little too ‘convenient’ for us to be here. And there are, indeed, some of those.

CERN, in Geneva, has been holding over the last few days a conference called ‘The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?’

Decoding this for you: it’s a convening of scientists and various religious commentators to attempt to find a way to square religion with the uncomfortable facts that science throws up to challenge it.

After pausing for just a moment to reflect on whether Betteridge’s Law should be applied to the conference title, let’s hear what the first speaker at the conference, Andrew Pinsent had on his mind according to BBC News Europe. Science, he said, risked:

“…trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

Of course, he does not really mean ‘philosophy’ here, because science has always engaged with philosophy, from the very earliest of Greek knowledge at least, and probably before that. No, he has lumped philosophy in there in order to stack it squarely on the side of religion and divorce it from science because he needs to do that to set up his argument. As is almost de rigeur for religious thinkers(i) these days, he starts by depicting science as a mechanical process devoid of any wonder or beauty, so that he can make those things the sole domain of religion; science will make us into machines, religion is the only chance we have to stay human.(ii)

Why do religious people think like this? It’s profoundly offensive for a person such as myself who has no religious belief to hear that I can’t, apparently, experience the world as anything other than cold mechanical processes. Does Mr Pinsent have no clue at all that by voicing this opinion he is saying ‘Those of us who hold religious beliefs are better than the rest of you’?

You can see that I am predisposed already to think that this CERN conference is likely to be a pile of horseshit. Mr Pinsent goes on:

‘Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas’

What a brainless pronouncement. This man is confusing science with industrial manufacture. Why is he speaking at a conference at CERN? What does he even mean by ‘science in isolation… [is] not so good for producing ideas’? Isolation from what? Its ideas maybe??? WTF?(iii)

Further down in the BBC article we hear from co-organiser of the conference Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, who said that the discovery of the Higgs particle:

… raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer.

Yeah, and you know what Canon Dr Wilton? The Anglican Church can’t answer them either. Nor can any other religion on the planet. Making up a story does not count as an answer.

Another of the speakers at the conference, Professor John Lennox from Oxford University, is on record as having taken Stephen Hawking to task for asserting that we do not need to entertain the idea of a ‘God’ setting the Universe in motion:

When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for ‘the blue touch paper’ to be lit to ‘set the universe going’, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?

Who lit the blue touch paper if not God? Oh, how about a rainbow-coloured unicorn, or a jolly green elf? They’re at least as plausible as candidates for holding the matches as the Christian God. The fact is, the beginnings of the Universe are shrouded in mystery. Mystery, as in ‘We don’t know – it’s a mystery’ not ‘It’s a mystery and therefore it’s the God (that I personally believe in) that was written about in an ancient book full of irrational beliefs!’ We’ve had other things that were shrouded in mystery in the past and they’re not now. Many of those things (the Earth-centered Universe; the order of life on Earth; lightning; the processes of human birth, of the cardiovascular system, of the brain; the giant fossil bones in river beds) were once mysteries, in just the same way as religion sees the beginning of the Universe now. It is a constrained mind that can’t make the equation here.(iv)

This kind of nutty religious noodling simply makes me furious. These people don’t want a serious philosophical debate, no matter how they may be couching it. Having a genuine philosophical discussion about these kinds of big questions might be of some value. Having a religious discussion is entirely worthless because they’ve already made up their mind that they know the answer.

Canon Dr Wilton sums up his hopes for the CERN conference by saying:

By the end… we might find new ways of understanding our own positions.

By which he means ‘I’m never going to change my mind, because I hold an irrational belief that can’t be swayed no matter what. But maybe I can get scientists to cut me some slack and stop being such a nuisance with their infernal ‘facts’.’

Canon Dr Wilton has no intention whatsoever of ‘finding a new way to understand his position’ – not in any meaningful way, in any case. Faced with a mystery, he just calls ‘God’ and that’s the end of it. That’s not how science works. Science is able to entertain the idea of a mystery without making a pronouncement. Or, science can contemplate the proposition that an old bloke with a white beard set things in motion. Or that it’s turtles all the way down. Or that we’re in someone else’s computer simulation.

The difference is that scientists just don’t merely presuppose one of those things and set about trying to convince everyone by talking it up. Science needs evidence, something religion is remarkably short on.

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Addendum: As I was writing this over the weekend, the BBC site published an update to the conference. It was refreshing to see, at last, some thoughts from an actual scientist – physicist and all-round sensible person Lawrence Krauss:

One gets the impression from a meeting like this that scientists care about God; they don’t. You can’t disprove the theory of God. The power of science is uncertainty. Everything is uncertain, but science can define that uncertainty. That’s why science makes progress and religion doesn’t.

Contrast that to this further waffle from the Professor John Lennox, who we heard from above:

If the atheists are right, the mind that does science… is the end product of a mindless unguided process.Now, if you knew your computer was the product of a mindless unguided process, you wouldn’t trust it.

I doubt Professor Lennox has even the faintest clue how utterly stupid a declaration like that sounds. It’s just another way of saying ‘But look at how amazing humans are! That can’t just be a product of evolution!’ Well, Professor Lennox, it can be and it is. Your lack of understanding of how things work does not, as I’ve said, imply the existence of a God, no matter how much mystery there is in the process.

Andrew Pinsent also features in the update, once again attempting to create a division between science and philosophy, as if scientists can’t be philosophers. Just look at his language – it is careful and insidious. Lawrence Krauss, by contrast, makes it clear that the issue here is science and religion, not philosophy. If you’ve read any of Krauss’s books, you will know that, like all good scientists, he’s no stranger to philosophy.

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Thanks to acce245 for throwing this one my way.

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Footnotes:

  1. I use the word advisedly, because I actually don’t believe many of these people really think. []
  2. Whatever ‘human’ actually means. We are now completely augmented by the science we have created. We are already ‘machines’. Maybe Mr Pinsent thinks we should go back to the pre-fire veldt. Oh wait, we were using tools even then. []
  3. I’ll allow that Mr Pinsent might have been quoted out of context here – it’s hard to tell in the BBC article. It goes on to tell us that Mr Pinsent says we ‘need to get back to the ideas of Einstein’ – as if somehow there are no great thinkers in science anymore. This is the comment of a person with a profound lack of knowledge of science and scientists. It’s a mark of people who want to seem like they’re talking knowledgably about science to refer to Albert Einstein – the only great scientist they know. Mr Pinsent, you might like to read up on some of the great modern ideas people of science: Richard Feynman; Roger Penrose; Geoffrey West; Stephen Hawking; Garret Lisi – oh, and I could go on for pages… But when you’ve finished, then tell me with any earnestness that science is no good for producing ideas. []
  4. And, aside from that – as I’ve written on these pages before – it is entirely possible that at some stage or another we might run up against the limits of human comprehension. There is nothing that says that we will necessarily be able to understand the Universe. This is no license to presuppose God, however. []

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While we’re on the subject of people misunderstanding science, the Guardian reports that American illusionist and ‘endurance artist’ David Blaine is in the middle of a stunt that has him standing for 3 days and 3 nights on a platform inside a 1 million volt electrical field generated by a Tesla coil.

‘I have a chance of surviving,’ said Blaine in a previous Guardian interview, an observation which, if you know anything about the science involved, is something of an understatement. Yes, he does have a ‘chance of surviving’ – pretty close to 100% chance, in fact, as long as he remains inside the metal suit he’s wearing, which creates for him a perfect Faraday Cage.

The vox pops from the Guardian video once again demonstrate the utter lack of science education in the general public. Says one overly impressed bystander:

They say it’s a million volts? Nobody could take that. Nobody could take more than 300 volts! People gonna die right away. Seriously.

No, seriously Mr Punter, you should brush up on your basic physics. You’re at greater risk of being mugged in the audience than David Blaine is from being electrocuted.

Really, the most impressive stunt being performed here is Blaine attempting to stay awake for 72 hours. That’s not easy. But even if he does fall asleep, he is protected from physical falling by a safety harness, so the biggest damage he’s ever likely to experience is to his reputation.

Tetherd Cow Risk Assessment: you could let your granny do it. It’s at least as safe as letting her pour whisky over her chest.

UPDATE: Here’s a REAL daredevil, doing something actually impressive with high voltage (as part of his job, no less).

Suck on that David Blaine.

I’m seeing a lot of floppy uses of the word ultimate lately, and the above promise from the makers of a massage chair in my local shopping mall is no exception. The Oxford dictionary tells me that, as an adjective, ultimate can either mean:

1. being or happening at the end of a process; final:

2. being the best or most extreme example of its kind:

Now, I don’t really think that the makers of FeelGood Massage Chairs(i) mean to suggest that sitting in this chair might be the last thing you ever do, so we must infer that they are promising to give the sitter the best Shiatsu massage that money can buy.(ii)

Somehow, this does not fit with my mental vision of the ultimate Japanese Shiatsu massage, which goes more like this:

Any other contentious uses of the word ultimate out there, Faithful Cowpokes?
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Footnotes:

  1. I’d just like to point out that this name is strikingly close to the Tetherd Cow Ahead trademarked proprietary process of FeelyGood™. I’d better get Cow Legal onto this. []
  2. Strictly speaking, I guess they are offering the best Shiatsu massage that $2 can buy, which I am pretty sure is never going to get into the ultimate range. []

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