Since our books are now sorted by color, I spend less time picking things to read before bedtime. I just think, "I'll have a green one." Which is how I started reading The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal. The author, Lynne Kelly, is an Australian science teacher with the best possible attitude for a proselytizing skeptic which is basically, "It would be really cool if ghosts and levitation and telepathy existed, but sadly, there's just no evidence for them. Worse yet, most of the supposed evidence is outright fraud. Believe me, I'm just as disappointed as you are."
One of the few examples that isn't fraud, but just an interesting phenomenon, is spontaneous human combustion. Although it's not spontaneous. Kind of the opposite. In fact, you have to be dead or at least deeply unconscious for it to happen at all. It seems to be the result of a grotesque wicking effect in which a slow-burning article of clothing or furniture draws the fat out of your body and burns like the wick of a greasy, human candle, eventually reducing your body to ash while leaving nearby surroundings (and less fatty body parts like feet and hands) unscorched.
Kelly also describes how paranormal beliefs are reinforced by our tendency to interpret evidence selectively, remembering only positive results and seeing false patterns in randomness. She illustrates this point with a bravura interpretation of Kubla Khan, which not only predicts the war in Afghanistan but reveals exactly where Bin Laden is hiding.
Coleridge's poem is famously incomplete, but I was still surprised that all the versions I found on the Web were missing the section in which the author falls into despair, immortal but frozen in time, ironically trapped inside the paradise he spent his life seeking. Then I realized I was thinking of the song Xanadu by Rush.
Being a Rush fan is pretty much being a nerd and since nerds are now cool, Rush is finally hanging with the cool kids. Yes, the Ayn Rand fixation was almost as tiresome as Rand's novels themselves, but Rush was all about stuff that nerdy teenagers found worth thinking about: technology, freewill, science. The tempo changes were sometimes hard to follow, but what they were saying was always clear and interesting (unlike many of their more proggy brethern who drifted off into vague space imagery).
Rush is the secret nerd handshake. The best research I ever did was a portrait of IT culture for Microsoft. I have a copy of the tape that I still watch today and think, "These are my people. This is my tribe." One of my favorite interviews was with the IT director at a cable network in New York. We were talking about art and music and he mentioned a list of bands, including Rush. I said, "Rush?" He tilted his head to look at me over his glasses, "You like Rush?" It was as if he'd opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle of bourbon and two glasses. "I was in an all-Rush cover band. To me, their music is like beautiful code. Tight. Clean." We both nodded, kicking back at La Villa Strangiato, thirty floors above Times Square.
But music is the secret handshake for almost every teen culture, not just nerds. In another interesting green book, Snoop, Sam Gosling describes how undergraduates consistently choose to talk about music much more than any other topic when trying to get to know one another. He then correlates musical genre preferences with actual personality measures in order to assess which types of music actually tell you something true about the people who listen to it. Based on the resulting chart, it seems safe to say that a shared love of Rush probably does reveal deeper similarities than a shared love of, say, Michael Jackson. Though he could tell you something about spontaneous human combustion.