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weirdness

Odd Lots

  • Research shows that ivermectin works. Here’s a paper published this past July in The American Journal of Therapeutics. I’ve read in a number of places that ivermectin is one of the safest drugs known. No, the FDA hasn’t approved its use against COVID-19. The Pfizer vaccine wasn’t FDA approved either until a few days ago. I can’t help but think that people are dying needlessly because of all the government screaming and yelling about people taking horse medicine, when taking horse medicine is a vanishingly small phenom. If ivermectin has no serious side effects, why not let doctors try it? What’s the downside?
  • Here’s a 30-page review of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of ivermectin in treating COVID-19. Again, if it’s a safe drug that’s been on the market and widely studied for 30+ years, why not let people try it?
  • It’s become harder and harder to find evidence of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) in combination with zinc. I’ve looked. The early clinical experience emphasized that the two work together or not at all. I find it weird that nearly all the studies I’ve seen test HCQ either alone or with azithromycin–but not zinc. Clinical evidence shows that the combo doesn’t work well on late and severe cases, but rather when symptoms first appear. Still, if ivermectin works as well as recent studies show, HCQ’s moment may have come and gone.
  • I may have backed the wrong horse. Recent research seems to show that the Moderna vaccine generates twice the antibodies as the Pfizer vaccine does. Now let’s see some research on the rates of breakthrough infections versus vaccine type.
  • Here are some recent stats on the prevalence of breakthrough infections. The real eye-opener would be to know which vaccine is best at preventing breakthrough infections. That said, the chances of breakthrough infections occurring is very low. If you don’t read the paper, at least skim down to find the odds chart. Cancer risk is 1 in 7. Breakthrough infection risk is 1 in 137,698. I like those odds.
  • Ugggh. Enough virus crap. Let’s talk about something else. My pre-2000 pandemic penny jar (a thick glass bottle that once held cream from Straus Family Creamery) continues to fill. Last week I got a 1950-D wheat penny. A few days ago I got something a little odd: A 2 Euro cent coin from Ireland, dated 2002. It’s almost precisely the same size as a US penny, and if I didn’t look closely at coins I might have missed the fact that it was 19 years and an ocean away from home. Getting pennies from the 1980s is an almost everyday thing now. The penny jars are clearly still out there and still emptying into the McDonald’s till.
  • We lived near Santa Cruz for three and a half years and never visited its famous Mystery Spot. It turns out that mystery spots, roads, hills, and holes are all over the place. Here’s another interesting compendium. Yes, it’s bullshit. Yet I get the impression that it’s often very clever bullshit, and I wouldn’t mind getting a look at one or two.

Rant: If It’s Not Aliens…Then What Is It?

If you’re anywhere in the greater nerd universe, you’ve doubtless seen recent reports of Navy pilots spotting objects zipping around the sky and sometimes diving into the ocean. The Feds have declassified three videos of unidentified thimgamajigs doing their airborne calisthenics in the vicinity of US Navy fighter pilots.

So what is a reasonably sane person supposed to think about this?

UFOs as a phenomenon are not a new thing. It’s older than I am, and I’ll be 69 in a few weeks. Early on, the mythos crystallized around the theory that such objects are spacecraft (or aircraft) created by and piloted by intelligent beings from some other star system. There was (and still is) big money to be made on alien-based entertainment. Independence Day is one of my all-time favorite movies. The aliens myth (and I’m speaking in a Campbellian sense of the word “myth” here) is strong. I’m an SF writer. I should be a big aliens guy. I’m not.

I’m actually a Rare Earther. There are so many possible terms to the Drake Equation that I’m pretty sure we as a species are a vanishingly unlikely fluke. There are either hundreds of millions (or more) intelligent species in the universe, or there is only one. I reviewed an excellent book on Enrico Fermi’s question and its possible answers. It’s definitely worth reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question since I read that book back in March. So what I’m going to do in this entry is list all the possible explanations for the Navy sightings that I can come up with, irrespective of their likelihood. Note well that I don’t “believe” in any of them. I offer them as hypotheses. And yes, some of them are batshit nuts. I’m an SFF writer. Batshit nuts is just one more thing we deal with every day.

Buckle up, kids.

Tonight’s question: What are those things the Navy pilots caught on film?

My hypotheses fall into three general categories:

  1. They really are made and piloted by aliens. I cite this for completeness only. I have reason to think it’s not the case, since I have a hunch we are alone in the universe. I won’t discuss this category further. It’s long since been discussed to death.
  2. They are made and piloted by Hungarians. (This is an inside joke. Look it up.) What I mean by it is that the objects were created right here on Earth, as a result of top-secret research into novel physics. (Ok, here’s a cheat.)
  3. They are the result of…weirdness. Patience. I’ll get there.

So. It’s possible that the objects are in fact aircraft of some sort, piloted or drones, created in somebody’s lab somewhere under truly deadly secrecy. Physics is not as complete and airtight as physicists would like the general public to believe. The big glitch in physics currently is dark matter and dark energy, about which I have some quibbles, but set those aside. Darkstuff (my coinage) may be a telltale of novel physics, novel enough to give us “thrusters,” that is, engines that don’t depend on action/reaction; e.g., throwing stuff backwards.

If that’s the case, the apparitions may simply be a show of force by whoever developed the thrusters. Let’s hope those developers are American.

That’s the entirety of Category 2 in a nutshell.

So let’s take a look at Category 3. This is the fun stuff. I’ll give you another list, of explanations that seem absurd on the surface…keeping in mind that we as a species have been wrong before, and we will doubtless be wrong again.

1. They are aircraft from Earth’s own future, piloted by human beings who have figured out time travel. I like this one, as there is a whole series of novels buried in the premise. (Somebody may have already written them.) As I understand the physics, time travel, while difficult, is more possible than faster-than-light travel. It may require some of that darkstuff to make it work, but however it works, those Tic-Tac travelers could be somebody from a few hundred thousand years in our future. What they’re up to is unclear. Maybe they’re just testing their machinery. Maybe they’ll announce themselves eventually. Maybe they’re trying to stop us from making some really bad mistakes. (If so, they should have set their meters to 1900 and prevented us from creating Communism, which killed 100,000,000 people in the 20th century and is still killing them.)

2. They are glitches in the simulation that we here on Earth call The Universe. Glitches–or beta tests of new features. Maybe bugs–rounding errors, or off-by-one errors. Reality-as-software is a scary notion to anybody who’s done any significant programming. Supposedly we could determine if we are in fact existing in a simulation, but I’m skeptical of that claim.

3. They are evolved but not intelligent organisms, originating in our solar system if not necessarily on Earth. (This is a variation on Category 1, but I put it here because it’s way weirder than canonical big-eyed Aliens.) If exotic physics yielding thrusters are possible, they could emerge via evolution from conditions that could be radically different from what we have on Earth. Who knows what could cook itself up in the atmospheres of Jupiter or Saturn? What I mean here is something like an animal, not self-reflective, but posessed of the means to cross interplanetary distances. Maybe they thrusted their way here, zipped around for awhile sampling the local environment, and finally decided it’s not fun and went home. It’s humbling to admit that they may not have noticed our presence at all while they were here.

4. They are poltergeist activity. (Hey, don’t zone out. I warned you!) This is tough to describe, but it’s a scruffy box into which we could place all sorts of “paranormal” phenomena–some of which look suspiciously like reactionless motion. Telekinesis, psi powers, all that stuff. A friend of mine was confronting poltergeist activity fifteen-odd years ago, and Colin Wilson has written about it extensively. Objects fly around the room, appear and disappear, with no known force behind any of it. Peculiar mental powers seem to exist. I’ve experienced a couple of those things that I still can’t explain. But they happened. (I can’t go into any of it here.) Maybe our UFOs are just astral travelers, out for a ride without having any suspicion that they can be seen or perhaps any clear notion of where they are.

5. They are irruptions from the collective unconscious. Some might choose to toss this in the poltergeist box as well, at least those who think poltergeists are irruptions from the collective unconscious. I don’t. I’ve read extensively about Marian apparitions like Lourdes, Fatima, Zeitoun, and many others. There is something called the White Lady archetype in Jungian thinking. Humans have a thing for luminous women popping up in odd places. (The white is their overall color, not their skin color–I have to say that in this race-nutso era.) Christianity shaped that archetype into the Mother of God in Christian visions. However, white ladies were originally a pagan archetype and are still being seen all over the place in contexts without any religious framework at all. Seeing odd things moving around in the sky is also an archetype. It gained strength in the first half of the 20th Century as popular culture embraced predictions of space travel and people from other worlds. In 1947, assisted by movies and TV, the archetype got legs. Note that these aren’t purely mental glitches in the minds of the Navy pilots. These are disturbances in the physical world that generate/reflect light and can be photographed.

6. They are intrusions from higher spatial dimensions. Now, this hypothesis could also be tossed in that scruffy box with the poltergeists, but I mean it in a more rigorously geometrical way: If there are in fact more than three spatial dimensions (I’ve heard people talk about as many as nine) then suppose some four-dimensional being is poking at our planet with a stick. Imagine Flatland here, with a 3-D being poking at the surface of the plane or sphere or whatever 2-D surface you like. Moving that stick will appear to the denizens of Flatland as a cross-section of the stick moving around without any apparent cause. The cross-section of a four-dimensional stick would be a three-dimensional lump. Its motive power would be off in hyperspace where we can’t see it. All we would see are the cross-sections of 4-D objects moving around like crazy, unimpeded by Newton’s laws. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s the hyperspatial equivalent of skipping stones on a quiet lake, done simply for fun. Again, it’s possible that whatever entity is holding the stick has no knowledge of us at all.

That’s what I have so far. If I had to choose one to hold as most likely (and I don’t) I would choose an application of novel physics by human scientists and engineers right down here on Earth. Secrets of that sort are very hard to keep, and I wonder if the leaks have begun, and the Feds are feeling their way toward eventual disclosure of the technology. It would be perhaps the most wonderful “unsettled science” ever discovered, as it would open the solar system to human exploration and habitation.

Remember that this is a rant, and I have my SFF writer’s hat on. I embrace Haldane’s Law: The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine–and I can imagine a lot.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Twitter has gone absolutely off its rocker since Parkland, and now it’s just haters hating anyone who disagrees with them. (No, that’s not new; it’s just never been this bad.) I stumbled across a site called Kialo, which is a kind of digital debate club, in which issues are proposed and then discussed in a sane and (hurray!) non-emotional manner. I myself certainly don’t need another time-sink, but I wanted to bring it to the attention of anyone who enjoys (increasingly rare) reasoned debate.
  • Another interesting approach to political social media is Ricochet, a center-right bloggish system with paid membership required to comment. (You can read it without joining.) No Russian bots, or in fact bots of any kind, and a startling courtesy prevails in the comments. Its Editor in Chief is Jon Gabriel, who used to work for us at Coriolis twenty years ago. Not expensive, and the quality of the posts is remarkable.
  • FreePascal actually has an exponentiation operator: ** That was what FORTRAN (my first language) used, and I’ve never understood why Pascal didn’t have an operator for exponentiation. Better late than never.
  • This article doesn’t quite gel in some respects, but it’s as good an attempt as I’ve seen to explain why Xerox never really made much money on the startling computer concepts it originated back in the crazy years of the ’70s. I worked there at the time, and top-down management was responsible for a lot of it, as well as top management that wasn’t computer literate and thought of everything simply as products to be sold.
  • Japanese scientists found that treating the hair follicles of bald mice with dimethylpolysiloxane grew new hair. Dimethylpolysiloxane is used to keep McDonalds’ deep fryers from boiling over, and given that Mickey D’s fries are one of my favorite guilty pleasures, I suspect I’ve ingested a fair bit of the unprounceable stuff. No hair yet, though I keep looking in the mirror.
  • German scientists, lacking a reliable supply of bald mice, have discovered a species of bacteria that not only enjoys living in solutions of heavy metal compounds, but actually poops gold nuggets. How about one that poops ytterbium? I still don’t have any ytterbium.
  • Eat more protein and lift more weights if you’re a guy over 40. Carbs are no food for old men.
  • Evidence continues to accumulate connecting sugar consumption to Alzheimer’s. Keep that blood sugar down, gang. I want to be able to BS with you all well into my 90s. Try cheese as snacks. It’s as addictive as crack(ers.)
  • If in fact you like cheese on crack(ers), definitely look around for St. Agur double-cream blue cheese. 60% butterfat. Yum cubed. A little goes a long way, which is good, because it keeps you from eating too many crack(ers.)
  • And don’t fret the fat. The Lancet has published a study following 135,000 people, and the findings indicate that there is no connection between dietary fat and heart disease. Ancel Keys was a fraud. Ancel Keys was the worst fraud in the history of medical science. How many times do we have to say it?
  • 37,132 words down on Dreamhealer. It’s now my longest unfinished novel since college. (It just passed Old Catholics, which may or may not ever be finished.) Target for completion is 70,000 words by May 1. We’ll see.
  • On March 17th, it will be 60 years since Vanguard 1 made Earth orbit as our 2nd artificial satellite. Probably because it’s so small (a 6″ sphere, not counting antennae) it is now the satellite that’s been in orbit the longest, including those the Russians launched. The early Sputniks & Explorers have all burned up in the atmosphere.
  • I never knew that the parish church of my youth was Mid-Century Modern, but squinting a little I would say, Well, ok. Here’s a nice short visual tour of the church where I was an altar boy and confirmed and learned to sing “Holy God We Praise Thy Name.” It hasn’t aged as well as some churches (note the rusty sign) but some of the art remains startling. I met Carol in the basement of that church in 1969, and will always recall it fondly for that reason alone.
  • Ever hear of Transnistria? Neither had I. It’s a strip of Moldova that would like to be its own country, (and has been trying since 1924) but just can’t get the rest of the world to agree. It has its own currency, standing army, and half a million citizens. (I’ll bet it has its own postage stamps, though why I didn’t notice them when I was 11 is unclear.)
  • A guy spent most of a year gluing together a highly flammable model of a musk melon (or a green Death Star, if you will) from wooden matches, and then lit it off. He even drew a computer model, which needed more memory to render than his system had. Despite the bankrupt politics, we live in a wonderful era!

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • I get asked several times a year: “What are your politics?” Tough question, given that I think that politics is filth. But now Jon Gabriel has answered the question for me: I do not join teams. I create my own. I’ve been doing this all my life. I’m not going to stop now.
  • Side note on Jon Gabriel: He used to work at Coriolis back in the day. So although I’ve been seeing him online for years, I never realized until very recently that he was our Jon Gabriel. (There is another who does diet books.)
  • Twitter is experimenting with doubling the size of tweets to 280 characters. I wonder if Gab had any least little bit to do with that?
  • Cirsova Magazine posted a short excerpt of something called the Denham Tracts from 1895 on Twitter, with a longish list of British supernatural beings, among which are “hobbits.” You can see the whole fascinating book on the Internet Archive. It was published by the Folk-Lore Society and it’s exactly that: Short notes on British folklore, including local saints, odd little ceremonies, song lyrics, and supernatural creatures I’ve never heard of, like the dudmen, wirrikows, gallytrots, miffies, and loads more. (The list starts on page 77.) Great fun!
  • At last, it looks like a popular treatment of sleep science is coming to us. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep will be released on October 3. This long-form piece provides some background. Walker is willing to say what I’ve been saying for decades: Do not short your sleep. Bad things will happen, including cancer, obesity, Alzheimer’s and who knows what else. Unlike me, Walker is an expert on the subject, so maybe you’ll believe him.
  • Lack of sleep can kill you. So, evidently, can low-fat diets, according a Canadian study of 135,000 adults in 18 countries, published by The Lancet. Note the reactions of NHS physicians, who aren’t convinced. (In their defense I will say that the Mayo Clinic is still pushing a low-fat diet in their newsletters.)
  • Here’s a long, rambling, but worthwhile discussion of how the fake science of fat demonization came about, and how, faced with the spectre of being shown to be wrong about something (impossible!) governments are doubling down on the fake anti-fat message. Government actions cause harm because we can’t throw the responsible parties in a cell and leave them there. The King, after all, can do no wrong.
  • Via Esther Schindler: The history of email.
  • I’d prefer that it be in Pascal, but so it goes: There is a Javascript code baby onesie. My grand-niece Molly is now a month old. Decisions, decisions…
  • In his will, philosopher Jeremy Bentham specified that he was to be mummified, dressed in his ordinary clothes, and put on display. So it was written. So it was done.

Scary Mary and the Bicameral Mind

Well, the bookshelves got themseves full, and I still had three boxes to empty. So once again (I don’t know how many times I’ve done this!) I emptied piles of books onto the floor and flipped through them, in part for charge slips used as bookmarks, and in part to decide what books just had to go. Found a lot of charge slips, business cards, promo bookmarks, and other odd (flat) things tucked between the pages, including a small piece of brass shim stock. I built a pile of discards that turned out to be bigger than I expected.

One thing that went were my Scary Mary books.

Twenty years ago, I was very interested in Marian apparitions, and did some significant research. There’s a lot more to Marian apparitions than Fatima and Lourdes. The Roman Catholic Church approves only a tiny handful of apparitions. The rest don’t get a lot of press, and for good reason: The bulk of them are batshit nuts. The reason I was so interested is pretty simple: Perhaps the most deranged of all Marian phenomena occurred in Necedah, the tiny Wisconsin town where my mother grew up. Although she moved from Wisconsin to Chicago after WWII, she used to go to a shrine in Necedah (not far from Mauston and the Wisconsin Dells) light candles, and pray. She bought the full set of books detailing the Blessed Mother’s conversations with a woman named Mary Ann Van Hoof that began in 1950. As best I know she never read them. (My mother wasn’t a voracious reader like my father.) That’s a good thing. There was enough heartbreak in her life without her having to face the fact that Mary Ann was obviously insane and increasingly under the influence of a very shady John Bircher type named Henry Swan. From standard exhortations to pray the rosary and live a moral, Christ-centered life, the messages became ever more reactionary and eventually hateful. Some were innocuously crazy; Mary Ann dutifully reported the Blessed Mother’s warnings against miniature Soviet submarines sneaking up the St. Lawrence river. But many of her later messages described a worldwide conspiracy of Jews (whom she called “yids”) rooted in the United Nations and the Baha’i Temple in Chicago. Oh, and the Russians were planning all sorts of attacks, most of them sneaky things like poisoning food, water, and farm animals.

The local Roman Catholic bishop condemned the apparitions in 1955, and soon after issued interdicts against Mary Ann and her followers. Still, Mary Ann stayed the course, and continued writing down Mary’s messages (with plenty of help from Henry Swan) until her death in 1984.

The first thing I learned about Marian apparitions is that the Lady gets around: There have been lots and lots of them, most occurring in the midlate 20th Century. This is the best list of apparitions I’ve found. (There was even one here in Scottsdale in 1988.) For every apparition approved by the Church as acceptable private revelation, there are probably fifty either ignored, or (as in Necedah) actively condemned. The second thing I learned is that they’re almost always warnings of dire things to come if we don’t straighten up our acts. The third thing I learned is that the craziness was not limited to Necedah, though Henry Swan did his best to make it a cultural trope. The late and lamented (but still visible) suck.com did a wry article on the topic in 2001, highlighting the Blessed Mother’s ongoing battle against communism. The apocalyticism got utterly over-the-top at some point, with warnings against “three days of darkness” during which devils would be released from hell to scratch at our doors in an effort to steal our souls.

At that point, I figured I knew all that I cared to know, and the Scary Mary books went back on the shelves, where they remained, mostly untouched, until we packed our Colorado Springs house in 2015.

So what’s going on here? There’s a very good book on the subject by an objective outsider: Encountering Mary by Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz . Most of her discussion centers on approved apparitions, but she does touch on the crazy stuff, including Necedah. She takes a sociological approach, is very careful not to be judgemental, and never implies that we might be dealing with psychopathology here, even in the crazy phenomena like Necedah.

I won’t be as courteous. I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with the mechanisms of charismatic religion here, which can be fine until a certain line is crossed. I have a theory about the crazy ones that as best I know is original to me: Visionaries like poor Mary Ann Van Hoof are indeed high-functioning schizophrenics, but more than that, are relics of an age described by Julian Jaynes back in the 1970s as the age of the “bicameral mind.” Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousnes in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is a slog but still worth reading.

It’s complicated (what isn’t?) but Jaynes’ theory is that until around 3000 BC, human minds worked differently than they do today. The left brain was somewhat of a robot, with little or no sense of itself, and the right brain was where everything important happened. The right brain gave the left brain orders that took the form of voices heard in the left brain’s speech centers. Primitive humans first thought of the voices as those of their deceased relatives, and later as disembodied gods. In a sense, Jaynes is claiming that humans evolved as schizophrenics with a much thinner wall between the two hemispheres of the brain. At some point, the left brain became capable of introspection, allowing it to take the initiative on issues relating to survival, and the wall between the hemispheres became a lot less permeable. According to Jaynes, ego trumped schiophrenia in the survival olympics, and the bicameral mind was quickly bred out of the human creature.

I won’t summarize his arguments, which I don’t entirely accept. I’m looking at it as a potential gimmick in my fiction, which is the primary reason I read in the category I call “weirdness.” However, the similarity of Jaynes’ bicameral mind concept and what happens in many ecstatic visions (in Christianity and other religions) struck me. We still have schizophrenics among us, and we may have individuals where schizophrenia lurks just beneath the surface, waiting for a high-stress event to crack a hole in the hemispheric barrier and let the voices come through again. The key is that Marian apparitions are almost always crisis-oriented. Mary never just drops in to say “Hi guys, what’s going on?” In a Marian context, the crises are almost always moral and sometimes ritual, warning against the consequences of abandoning traditional beliefs and/or sacramental worship. The occasional gonzo apparitions (like Necedah and another at Bayside, NY) plunge headfirst into reactionary secular politics as well. A threat to the visionary’s deepest beliefs can trigger apocalyptic warnings through voices that the visionary interprets as Mary, Jesus, or some other holy person.

Whether all or even the greater part of Jaynes’ theory is correct, it’s pretty likely that there are mechanisms in the brain that we have evolved away from, and these “voices of the gods” may be one of them. The right brain is a powerful engine, and it doesn’t have much in the line of communication channels to the left hemisphere right now. Writing can be one of them. I’m what they call a “pantser” on the fiction side. In fact, I’m a “gateway writer,” meaning that I write whole complicated scenes without a single bit of planning aforethought. I don’t outline my novels. I vomit them onto disk, jumbled in spots but mostly whole. How does that even work?

And what else could we do if we could crack that valve a little wider?

My gut (which is in fact my right brain) whispers, “Nothing good. The left brain evolved to protect the right brain from itself. Evolution knew what it was doing. Not all of those voices were gods.”

Kreepy Klown Kraziness

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Attention Mr. & Mrs. America and all the ships at sea! The White House has issued a statement on the Creepy Clown hysteria now gripping the nation. Although the Press Secretary wasn’t sure the President had been briefed on the Clown Crisis, he did say that the White House defers to the FBI on clown issues. A Bay Area paper has an interactive map of clown sightings. Police in Utah have warned the public not to shoot random clowns. (There’s been no mention of polite, orderly, or non-chaotic clowns.) It’s still three weeks to Halloween, and clown costume sales are up 300%.

As Dave Barry used to say (often): I am not making this up.

Ok. I have an interest in scary clowns. I was still in Chicago when John Wayne Gacy AKA Pogo the Clown was strangling teen boys and stuffing them into his crawlspace. In fact, I lived a little less than two miles away from him. (One of Carol’s high school friends lived only three blocks away.) A guy I met once but didn’t know well (he was the friend of a friend) used to go to movies with Gacy, but somehow managed to stay out of the crawlspace. I saw portions of Killer Klowns from Outer Space on TV once, in part because it was filmed in Santa Cruz, California, while Carol and I lived there. I consider It to be Stephen King’s best work; so much so that I’m planning to lampoon ol’ Pennywise in a future Stypek novel.

In 2011, I finally realized a longstanding goal of building a short novel around scary (if not evil) clowns. In Drumlin Circus, circusmaster Bramble Ceglarek has four clowns who are also his bodyguards. In the first chapter we get a very good look at how scary they can be, when they capture an assassin sent by the shadowy Bitspace Institute. The novel can be seen as a sequel to “Drumlin Boiler,” though the only common character is Rosa Louise Kolze, the tweener girl who has a peculiar rapport with the mysterious Thingmaker alien replicators, and the “drumlins” that they produce. It’s available on Kindle for $2.99, and includes a second short Drumlins World novel, On Gossamer Wings, by Jim Strickland. (You can also get a paperback for $11.99.)

So what precisely is going on here? Is it just the latest moral panic? If so, why clowns? Why now? Or is it something entirely different?

There are some theories. One is that our secular society rejects traditional religious images of devils/demons/evil spirits, and somebody had to be the face of Demonic 2.0. Clowns were handy.

Another: Clowns may scare small children because they violate the template of what a human being should look like. We’re hardwired by evolutionary selection to recognize faces (which is why it’s so common to see Jesus’ face in a scorched tortilla, or generic faces in smoke marks on a wall, etc.) and as a consequence we’re repelled by facial deformities. Clown makeup is calculated facial deformity.

Yet another: We’re watching the emergence of an archetype in the collective unconscious. Evil clowns are not a brand-new thing. Pennywise, Stephen King’s evil-incarnate clown from the fifth dimension, got a whole lot of play in the midlate 80s, and started the nasty clown idea on its way to cultural trope. He may in turn have been drawing on “phantom clown” sightings, popularized by Loren Coleman, who wrote several book-length compendia of “unsolved mysteries” and other weirdnesses in the early 1980s. Coleman lent support to the notion that clowns are the new demons, though the whole business (like much else in his books, entertaining though it might be) sounds like a tall tale. He’s on Twitter, and has been covering the clown thing in recent days on his blog. (Coleman figures into this in another, more serious way that I’ll come back to.)

But first, I have a theory of my own: The nature of humor is changing. What most people think of as “clowning” is physical comedy, which goes back to the dawn of time. A lot of physical comedy down through history was hurtful. In our own time, the Three Stooges were considered hilarious, and most of their act was slapping or poking each other in the eyes. Much humor involves pain. “Punch & Judy” goes back to the 17th Century, and a big part of it is Punch slugging people with a club. Tormenting animals (often to death) as entertainment was common in past centuries. A lot of people saw it as funny.

Why? Humor appears to be a coping response to pain and suffering, confusion and disorder. (“Twenty years from now, we’ll all laugh about this.”) At least in the West, we’ve gone to great lengths to minimize pain, suffering, and disorder. At the same time, we’ve achieved near-universal literacy. In consequence, a great deal of humor is now verbal rather than physical, and much of it stems from incongruity and confusion rather than pain.

So the image of guys in exaggerated costumes and facial makeup tearing around being random, honking horns, falling on their faces, and sometimes engaging in sham mayhem among themselves is just not as funny as it used to be. It’s a short tumble from “not funny” to “nasty,” and that’s I think what lies at the core of the fall of clowns from grace.

Now, there’s something else. Loren Coleman published a book in 2004 called The Copycat Effect. It’s not about clowns or Bigfoot or urban legends, but about the media’s ability to take a concept, twist it toward nastiness for maximum effect (“If it bleeds, it leads”) and then be surprised when reports of violence or other crime take on a life of their own, sometimes spawning violence or criminal activity of a similar nature.

I have a hunch that this sort of feedback loop is behind Kreepy Klown Kraziness. The concept has gone pedal-to-the-floor viral, to the point where Penn State students went out on a frenzied nocturnal clown hunt that only lacked torches and pitchforks to be considered a lynch mob. Social networking barely existed when Coleman’s book appeared in 2004. Today, Facebook and Twitter turn the dial up to 11.

Between the transformation of clowns into unfunny secular demons like Pennywise and the amplifying effect of clickbait sites and social media, we find ourselves with a genuine case of national hysteria. It may take some time to burn out, but if #ClownLivesMatter becomes a real thing, the phenomenon may be gone sooner than we think.

In the meantime, leave your rubber nose in a drawer until the heat dies down.

Odd Lots