Old English was closer to German and Icelandic than to modern English.

The book from which I’ve taken the following poem (“Poems from the Middle English”) states that this verse is “probably a love message in the form of a riddle”. I hope so. I like my love messages ambiguous. If it’s not a love message, it’s still a powerful bit of poetry. “The Reed” was clearly written by a masculine hand, and as a love message it possesses a clumsy but endearing quality, devoid of feminine delicacy.

Although “The Reed” was written sometime between the seventh century and the eleventh century—probably around the same time as the most famous Old English poem, “Beowulf”—it sounds very modern. In the last hundred years or so—thanks to poets like T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins—our ears have become accustomed to irregular meter, the lack of a rhyming scheme, and the use of concrete, Anglo Saxon words to express complex sentiments. This poem would have been deemed barbaric (if recognized as a poem at all) had it been written in the more mannered and genteel ages that mark English poetry of the last five hundred years. Power metal bands take note.

Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you enjoy the poem!

Calvin

Riddle #60: The Reed

I grew where life had come to me, along

The sandy shore, where the sea foamed in

Below a cliff. Men came

To my empty land only by accident.

But every dawn a brown wave swept

Around me with watery arms. How

Could I ever imagine a time when, mouthless,

I’d sing across the benches where mead

Was poured, and carried secret speech?

What a strange and wonderful thing to someone

Who puzzles , but neither sees nor knows,

That the point of a knife and a strong right hand

Should press and carve me, a keen blade

And the mind of a man joined together

To make me a message-bearer to your ears

Alone, boldly bringing you what no one

Else could carry and no one hears!

I’ve been working off and on as an instructional designer for a number of years now, and had always assumed that what we call “e-learning” or “online learning” was a fairly recent product of the dot-com boom of the ‘90s. Not so.

Before offering proof of this, it might help to answer the question, “What is an instructional designer?” Essentially, an instructional designer analyzes the learning needs of a group of people (safety for construction workers, for example), compiles information related to closing that knowledge gap, writes the text that will appear onscreen, and details the audio and visual elements which, when produced, are then delivered as lessons or courses to the identified audience. That’s the job description in a nutshell.

I researched and wrote the following article for my employer, but also to satisfy my own curiosity. I hope you find it interesting.

Thanks for dropping by, and Happy New Year!

Calvin

PLATO: The Dawn of Online Learning

The use of the computer as a means of delivering training and instruction came about as a result of two factors.

The first of these was the passage of America’s G.I. Bill in 1944. This legislation, which was intended to reintegrate soldiers returning home from the Second World War, offered low-interest loans for ex-servicemen to buy houses and start businesses. One of the provisions of the bill also provided them with a free post-secondary education. College and university enrollments soared, and institutes of higher learning buckled under the strain of this massive new student body.

The second factor that contributed to the development of computer-based training came about largely as a result of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. When the Soviets successfully launched the Sputnik I satellite in 1957, U.S. government investment in technology soared.

By the time the original G.I. Bill was ended in 1956, 7.8 million veterans had participated in an education or training program. The need for a more efficient means of providing instruction was evident. Fortunately for the University of Illinois, some of that government money found its way into their fledgling computer research lab. In 1952, engineers developed the Illinois Automatic Computer (or ILLIAC), the first computer built and owned entirely by a U.S. educational institution. It weighed over five tonnes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mathematicians and astronomers at the University of Illinois used the ILLIAC to calculate the orbit of the Sputnik I satellite within two days of its launch.

The ILLIAC system continued to evolve, and it was for this platform that Donald Bitzer, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, developed Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO), the first computer platform designed solely for instructional purposes. According to Michael Szabo of the University of Alberta, “The primary function of PLATO was to provide a rich environment in which educators and trainers could create and deliver high quality interactive courseware to students in classrooms, homes, and offices with or without the presence of an instructor.” But that would come later. In its earliest incarnation, a single learner used a specially designed 16-button keyboard to navigate the system’s menus, which were displayed on a standard black and white television set.

An early version of PLATO, including the special keyboard

The development of the more user-friendly PLATO IV marked a significant milestone. It moved the system—and the very idea of online learning—from the rarefied world of the computer lab and into the hands of the layperson. In addition to boasting quality graphics and an infrared touch panel display, PLATO IV also allowed for the connection of peripheral devices. One such device was a synthesizer that provided sound for PLATO courseware. This augmentation is widely considered to be the first multimedia experience in computer-based training. In 1967, the invention of the TUTOR programming language allowed instructors to design their own lesson modules. The rigid structure of the TUTOR language established the e-learning design with which we are familiar today: information is presented and is followed by questions that must be answered correctly before the user can proceed to the next “unit”.

A screenshot from the science courseware, “A Model Planetarium”

In 1976, the company that owned PLATO began to market the system commercially. By the late 1980s, networked installations were connected in over one hundred cities around the globe, with thousands of hours of courseware readily available. Available lessons included Basic Skills for the Real World, Job Skills For the Real World, Math Expeditions, Reading Explorations, as well as a number of science courses.

Although the plug was pulled on PLATO in 2006, the system has been adapted for Windows and Macintosh, and can be downloaded for free from a number of websites.

Poor Peter Pennyman

November 17, 2011

Since I started working at the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB), I’ve had unfettered access to their sizable library. I wrote the following article for the company’s intranet, and have been asked to contribute additional articles about the history of the WSIB. Someone even suggested that I write a book about workers’ compensation in Ontario. Who knows?

Origins of the Workplace Safety Insurance Board

By the end of the nineteenth-century, the full power of the Industrial Revolution had forever changed the way that people lived and worked, while continuing advancements and innovations in shipping, road construction, and railways hinted at greater things to come.  City-based machine manufacturing substantially increased workers’ per capita income. According to the Toronto census of 1911, manufacturing was the single largest employer for the city’s residents. But the grim byproducts of such grand-scale efficiency were often overlooked. Working in crowded and unsafe factories resulted in horrific injuries and sometimes death.

The following passage from the April, 1, 1915 edition of MacLean’s magazine illustrates the dismal fate of the severely injured worker:

In the good-old-days when Peter Pennyman, head moulder of the local stove works had a leg and one arm pried off in the machinery the boys took up a collection. And Peter? Peter—he got better. He had no arm, no leg, but the bon dieu left him a stomach. So the end of the story was that P. Pennyman, injured moulder, sold bootlaces at the busiest corner of the main street for thirteen years and eleven days and when the time came to die was mourned by a wide circle of police.

Prior to the establishment of the Workman’s Compensation Act of Ontario, labourers injured on the job had few options when seeking redress. The existing Workmen’s Compensation for Injuries Act was heavily biased in favour of the employer.  Merely by accepting a job, and thereby “voluntarily assuming the risks of employment”, a worker essentially waived his right to any compensation.

In 1910, at the urging of the emerging organized labour movement, the government of Ontario appointed William Meredith to lead the first Royal Commission to examine existing compensation laws and to make recommendations based on his findings. After studying the various briefs and evidence presented at a series of public hearings, The Meredith Report was released in 1913. Based on the belief that any compassionate compensation law must provide for the worker, his family, and by extension society itself, Meredith presented five basic tenets, which would become known as The Meredith Principles: no-fault compensation; collective liability; security of payment; exclusive jurisdiction; and administration by independent boards.

Manufacturers, eager to preserve the status quo, presented a united front against Meredith’s “radical changes” to the existing Act. A fairly typical objection can be found in one of the briefs submitted to the Royal Commission:

There does not seem to be the slightest shadow of justice in paying these dependants of the injured workmen if the accident was caused through no negligence on my part.

Despite the resistance of industry, the progressive government of the day enacted a law called The Workmen’s Compensation Act of Ontario, which incorporated all of Meredith’s recommendations. The Act became effective January 1, 1915. In that year, more than 17,000 accidents were reported, with benefits amounting to nearly $900,000.00.

This early testimonial from an injured worker provides evidence as to why William Meredith is still held in such high regard:

Now that I am able to write a little, I desire to thank you for your promptness in sending my cheques. I miss my fingers very much but through the Compensation Act it has certainly helped me, as being a soldier for two years a little money now counts.

The Workmen’s Compensation Board building at 90 Harbour St., Toronto, 1953 (Courtesy WSIB Library)

Old Windsor Postcards

September 24, 2011

Here are a few old Windsor postcards that I picked up at the Aberfoyle Antique Market a couple of months back. I’ve been able to confirm that the Detroit/Windsor tunnel postcard was printed in 1949, so the others are likely of a similar vintage. The first three cards really don’t require any explanatory text, but even longtime Windsorites might need a little help with the fourth (and last) postcard.

This last postcard shows the grotto (a “cave-like shrine”) at St. Mary’s Academy. St. Mary’s was constructed between 1927 and 1929 and then blown to smithereens to make way for a new subdivision in 1977. A few friends and I were playing football on the side lawn of my house when we looked up to see it implode. It was like watching some bullies trip an old man. Kind of pathetic. An ignoble end to such a majestic place.

My mother was a student at St. Mary’s back in the ‘40s, and she would tell my brothers and I of her and her friends’ attempts to outwit the Sisters. There are some great photos and more background information about St. Mary’s at http://www.internationalmetropolis.com/?p=96.

The grotto postcard is also the only one of the bunch that has writing on the back:

Hi Mom,

We finally landed. I really like this place. Wouldn’t mind living here. This is the grotto at St. Mary’s Academy. It’s clearly haunted by angry spirits who see the grotto as a sort of portal back into this dimension. Kind of creepy, but no place is perfect!

Lois

Okay, I made up the part about the angry spirits.

Thanks for dropping by!

Calvin

That’s me in the middle

My interview with George Lucas was only tangentially related to Star Wars. In fact, the topic of the interview concerned the influence of an early Canadian experimental filmmaker on Lucas’s own work. Some background is necessary.

In 1958, Arthur Lipsett was hired by the National Film Board of Canada. He immediately found himself a home in the animation department, where he began to collect disused bits of sound track from other people’s films, transforming them into a jarring collage of dissonant sounds. These patchwork auditory assemblies impressed his colleagues, who suggested that he add a picture track. The resulting film, Very Nice, Very Nice, garnered him an Academy Award nomination in 1961. Shortly after, Stanley Kubrick asked Lipsett to produce the trailer for his Dr. Strangelove. The intensely personal artist rejected the offer.

I recently read that someone considers Lipsett to be one of the first “mash-up” artists. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, but it’s a pretty accurate description of his work: stripping found video and audio of their original context to create a film with its own poetic power.

A young Arthur Lipsett

Somehow or other my friend and I (who were contemplating making a documentary about Lipsett) heard that Lucas’s films THX-1138 and Star Wars were influenced by Lipsett’s work (especially the powerful 21-87). Emboldened by the ease and relative anonymity of modern communications, we sent him an e-mail requesting an interview regarding the Lucas/NFB connection. Within a couple of days we received a reply: Mr. Lucas would indeed be willing to share his thoughts on Lipsett, and he would grant us a thirty-minute interview at Skywalker Ranch.

What follows is a partial transcript of that interview, which was conducted in February, 2003. Due to copyright considerations, I hesitate posting the actual filmed interview, or even the entire transcript. I don’t need laser-toting lawyers banging down my door.

George Lucas as he appeared on-camera for the interview

GL: When I was at USC film school we had a lot of people there that really loved the Canadian Film Board, the French part of the Canadian Film Board, and we studied a lot of films from there, right across the board, and one of the films we studied, especially in Film Grammar, was ”21-87.” That’s where I first became acquainted with his [Lipsett’s] work. It had a very powerful effect on me because I had made a student film that was in that similar vein, before I saw his film, and it was very much the kind of thing that I wanted to do. So I was extremely influenced by that particular movie.

CC: Did you have any particular interest in abstract or experimental film prior to seeing “21-87”?

GL: Yeah. Being from San Francisco we have a little underground here—a whole array of underground artists that were functioning in the San Francisco Bay area at that time, and so I grew up in that world, the world that I actually expected to be in. I didn’t really think about going into theatrical films until much later.

CC: Could you describe the circumstances surrounding your first viewing of “21-87”?

GL: Well, it was, as I say, it was in a Filmic Expression class, Film and Grammar. We actually ended up watching it several times, and you know, I was very taken by it, it was a very powerful experience for me in terms of the relationship between picture and sound, which is something I was very interested in at the time. I was just moving from becoming a photographer into editing, and I really loved editing. I was sort of fascinated with everything editing, and I was especially fascinated with the relationship between sound and picture. And, if anything that’s really special about what Arthur is doing, the fact that he was treating the picture and the sound separately, and putting different sound relationships with different picture relationships, which is what creates the power in those films.

CC: How long after you saw “21-87” did you begin to develop “THX-4EB”? Or did you already have an idea for that in mind?

GL: It was a year after I graduated, and I taught as a teaching assistant in a lighting class. And it was in that class that I actually made THX. And the original script was actually given to me by a couple of friends of mine – Walter Murch and Matthew Robins, who had this little short thing. They were going to do it for their senior production workshop, and then they decided they didn’t want to do it, but they had done this little two page outline, and they said, “You do it! Why don’t you do it in this class!” And I said, “Okay.” Because I split my class in half, and half the students were going to make one film, and the other were going to make a different film. So I took this one thing, and we made it into a film. My sort of obsession with number movies really came from “21-87”. And in some of my films, I refer to “21-87”. I use that number. I think it’s actually in Star Wars somewhere. I think it’s in the detention centre with Han Solo. I think he comes in and says, “We are in cell 21/87.” It’s a little homage.

CC: So you were actually given the script. Did Lipsett remain an influence, even though the script was written by someone else?

GL: Well, yeah, the outline was very basic. It didn’t really list shots or anything. It just said, you know, “Unidentified man runs through city, and eventually gets out, and reaches the sunset” kind of thing. So it was very, you know, very short, and the film is obviously very visual. So the style of the film and obviously a lot of the essence of that film is what I learned in the Film Expression class, in which Arthur, and a lot of the other Canadian Film Board people were a huge influence in terms of how we put films together.

That’s all for now. Any questions?

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

(And yes, I did get to see some of the props from Lucas’s films, including an AT-AT model from “The Empire Strikes Back”, an original lightsabre, and Harrison Ford’s signature Indiana Jones fedora.)

The Thief of Words

July 17, 2011


A very short story—a sort of melancholy dream narrative—in which I tried to play with structure in order to create a more impressionistic feel. Constructive feedback is always welcome.

Thanks!

Calvin

The Thief of Words

That’s my memory, kept and clutched as with a sixth sense, that it was a prim Oriental afternoon, with the pink streaks in the sky going God-knows-where down across the park, but very far away. Ghostly, melancholy travellers. Birds met and crashed headlong somewhere up in the trees nearby, breaking branches, and fluttering away, shaken. Now I’m drawing closer to us, where we were sitting. Her eyes, narrowed to slits, alight and, moist and inscrutable, gaze into the ether, as though she is observing fairies. I do not recall how long we have been sitting on this bench, that is at once Autumn-warm and endlessly cold. She does not look at me, though she is always in my sight. She fills my vision. I feel like an infant, knowing nothing else but this face and these beautiful eyes. I watch her lips part again; she has been doing this for as long as I have been watching her, but until now she has not spoken. She gently gasps, and her words reach me before I see her mouth form them. She says the aching words in a soft tone that I could never manage. But that is such a long time ago.

She talks gaily, child-like. She speaks those chosen words just as I pluck them. She has stolen the words from my heart. She is a thief of words. How could she say something so sad with such innocence? Her lyrical voice makes the statement that much more true, that much more brazenly true. For even earthly joys cannot conceal it. Love vanished, and I was left alone with the screaming red sky. The sky above, and the awful clouds knit a rope.

How could she say something like that, this girl whom I have known for how long now? Hours or years? We had travelled on streetcars together, I recall scaling mountains, and was she not with me when I bought my new suit? And somewhere, tucked away and remembered like a lullaby, a summer spent near a decaying lighthouse? She loved that suit. It was this girl, or it could be, though I would never guess it. If not her, then who had I been out with at night, when the air feels so safe and full of promise?

“There’s nothing really wonderful, is there?” That is what she said.

Fade to Black and White

June 29, 2011

At age 14, I developed an interest in photography. My father, ever keen to help, leaped into action, and we were soon plundering what my dad assured me was a deserted and long-forgotten darkroom in one of the buildings where he worked. My spirit was moved by the sight of so much neglected Bakelite, and the pounded metal casing of the enlarger could have been the work of a master Etruscan craftsman. Plunder schmunder. This was a salvage mission. We packed everything into the trunk of the car and peeled out of there, leaving no one the wiser.

One of the first pictures that I took, and subsequently developed and printed, is the photograph above. In time, after much fussing with the temperatures of various chemicals, I became a fairly good amateur photographer. As an adolescent who had yet to develop a rebellious streak, it was good to have a hobby. And the fact that I spent that time in a very dark room also served as a refuge from navigating the new social geography of high school, which, if rendered as a map, would display large flashing clusters representing high densities of girls. Yikes.

What interests me most about this photograph is that it’s really a snapshot of me at a particular time in my life. Like an art historian who can interpret the symbolism of a massive Renaissance canvas, I’m able to study this picture and identify what I was doing. Sure that sounds grandiose, but as a self-portrait, it reveals more about me than any blowing-out-the-candles birthday snapshot. See those egg cartons to the right of the white table? I had asked my mum to save them so that I could build a soundproof housing for my film projector. For this was also the time when I threw myself headlong into making Super-8 movies. You can see some cut film (or “trims”) on the right side of the photo, and a hand-wound editor on the left. And so on and so forth.

I recently came across some old black and white negatives that I’d developed but never gotten around to printing. They show Dillon Hall, one of the older buildings on the University of Windsor campus. Most of my classes were held in this building. When I recall my university days, it is this building that comes to mind. Keggers never enter the picture. Knowing full well that I’d never set up my darkroom again, I decided to scan the negatives and simply invert them in Photoshop. The results are shown below. Their ethereal quality reflects my own dimming memories of the place. 


Thanks for reading!

Calvin

When Prophecy Fails

June 11, 2011

Cover of the 1964 Edition of “When Prophecy Fails”

Cognitive dissonance can be defined simply and with no loss of accuracy as the mind’s attempt to juggle and ultimately reconcile two or more conflicting ideas or beliefs. We experience cognitive dissonance on a daily basis: Yes, I will eat six doughnuts, but I will lose that weight when I begin jogging next week. But the mind is a restless and argumentative thing: Of course, it would be better to exercise some self-restraint and not eat the doughnuts, but I’m certain that I’m going to start jogging next week. Aren’t I? How many times have I broken that promise before? And so on and so forth until a decision is ultimately reached. But at what cost?

Some argue that cognitive dissonance plays the most important role in our psychological lives. Decisions are not always black and white, and we are in constant conflict between deciding what is best for us, versus what is best for our families, our communities, and the poor woman at the doughnut shop waiting for me to make up my mind. Our decisions generate new questions, new conflicts, and new feelings of guilt, denial, rationalization, and justification. Cognitive dissonance is not mental pathology; it simply attempts to describe how the healthy mind operates.

However, the phenomenon can prove devastating when taken to extremes. Dr. Lionel Festinger demonstrated perhaps the most dramatic case of the workings of cognitive dissonance in the realm of social psychology with the release of his book, “When Prophecy Fails” (1956). The book is both case study and riveting human drama.

In the early 1950s, a variety of people from all walks of life began to gravitate toward a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin. While experimenting with automatic writing, she had begun receiving messages from aliens in which they told her that the world would end in a cataclysmic flood on December 21, 1954. At that time, a UFO would arrive to save the true believers, who now spent most of their time in Mrs. Martin’s living room. Due to their increasingly close affiliation with the fledgling group, many lost their jobs, their spouses, their reputations, and everything they owned. With so much at stake, they now had little choice but to believe that “the spacemen” would come.

Upon hearing of the UFO group, Dr. Festinger planned an experiment in which he began to “plant” observers (his students) within the group. Each was to take copious notes, and it is these notes, including direct quotations from the group’s members, that make up the bulk of the book and provide an intimate glimpse into the thought processes of the group members.

Important dates came and went without the promised guidance of the aliens. Although a few members left the group, this only served to strengthen the beliefs of those who remained. As Festinger predicted, they developed something of a bunker mentality. They had simply invested too much of themselves in the belief that the UFO would come to rescue them. After the promised date of December 21 had come and gone without an appearance by the UFO, the group issued a startling press release:

News release issued by the group after the UFO failed to appear.

If you’re interested in the case beyond the barebones treatment I’ve given it here, you can of course find additional, more detailed synopses on the internet. But I highly recommend reading the book. The characters are real people, and the author’s approach to his “subjects” is non-judgemental, even sympathetic. New editions of the book were published in 2009 and 2011, and can be purchased for a very reasonable sum from the amazon.ca/amazon.com website.

Thanks for reading.

Calvin

Am I Romantic? Ha!

May 26, 2011

For years, I’ve been dutifully lugging the same boxes around from apartment to apartment and from house to house, with little real idea of what they actually contain. I knew that my old hockey cards were shuffling about in one of them, and that at least one box was stuffed with old correspondence and fledgling attempts at poetry. I recently decided to unpack my past; and there, amongst the wince-worthy poems and impassioned letters, I found my Swami—a curse gift from my brother some twenty years ago.

Swami

I know nothing of the provenance of this particular Swami (like street-corner Santas, all other Swamis are merely unconvincing replicas), and any hard facts about the “one-penny Ask Swami Fortune Teller Napkin Holder” are hard to come by. I do know that it was made in the 50s for use in diners of the time (the sides hold napkins, and there’s a menu holder on the back).

Swami’s suggested questions

Perhaps because Swami has the power to crush your spirits (“Am I romantic?” “No!” snorts Swami), it’s very easy to use. Simply ask your Yes or No question, put a penny in the slot, and pull down the lever. You will receive a paper reply: one side provides the answer to your question; the flipside is usually reserved for additional chiding and belittling. The following is fairly typical of Swami’s borderline abusive attitude:

Swami offers no shoulder to cry on

In summary, Swami makes a great conversation piece—as long as you don’t include him in the conversation.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

 

SwamiTwinPeaks

Me interviewing Ted Serios. (Photo: Dan Cremin)

Once upon a time, I believed that it might be possible for a man to imprint his thoughts onto Polaroid film using only the power of his mind. Oh, dear.

The following article was published in Skeptic magazine, in an issue that included an article by Richard Dawkins and a whole slew of pieces about artificial intelligence! We also completed the short (30 minutes) documentary film, and I hope to figure out a way to post that before too long.

Thanks for reading!

Calvin

 

Going to Meet the Man With the Camera Brain

While I didn’t exactly soar effortlessly through my teens and twenties, seizing the day and welcoming every sunrise and whatnot, life still unravelled mysteriously and with a charming lack of purpose. And then, at thirty, I wandered into a spiritual wilderness. Where a certain spontaneity had once been a fun if sometimes fickle guide, gray reason now usurped my ideals, and I became mired in a state of solipsistic glumness that was like teenage sorrow without the redeeming passion. With mortality now an increasingly real if distant reality, many in similar straits turn to religion, raising a family, or other similar time-honoured sources of succour. That is, people grow up. But for some of us, there lingers a spark of hope that we have not been entirely abandoned by that more innocent, childish age. And so we enter into a race with that old devil Time — a frenzied determination to find something to believe in again before the clock runs out.

In the early 1960s, in Denver Colorado, psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud was wrestling similar demons. A firm believer in the untapped potential of the human mind, Eisenbud’s frequent forays into the paranormal had nevertheless produced nothing in the way of concrete results. As long as empirical evidence was lacking, he said, no amount of anecdotal evidence could ever budge the stubborn fact that parapsychology would forever remain “the stepchild of science.” Shortly after reaching this gloomy conclusion, he got wind of Ted Serios, an ex-bellhop from Chicago who claimed to possess the remarkable ability to imprint his thoughts onto Polaroid film using only the powers of his mind. The doctor and the psychic met one evening in room 1320-W at Chicago’s ritzy Palmer House hotel. Between double-orders of Scotch (“for my cold,” said Serios), the impish psychic clutched a Polaroid Land type 100 camera, pointed the lens directly into his own face, clicked the shutter and restored the doctor’s faith. Ted’s thoughts seemed to bleed miraculously onto the film. Photograph after photograph slowly came to uncanny life, rendering the impossible in black and white: the Chicago Water Tower, a hotel that had burned down years before, haunting suggestions of other unknown structures. Eisenbud emerged from the meeting convinced that Serios could somehow seize a fleeting thought and materialize it for all to see.

A Serios “thoughtograph”, circa 1966.

Another one from the same period. I still find this one haunting.

Now it was the late 1990s, and for my old friend Dennis and I, merely contemplating the existence of a character like Serios was a salve for our shared spiritual dread. A self-described bum whose humble goals consisted of drinking, womanizing, and (without forsaking the first two goals) obtaining the occasional psychic photograph, Serios was the embodiment of hedonistic surrender. And yet, whether through some fluke of fate or a strange sense of duty, he was also man enough to take on the very laws of nature. And as far as we knew, no one in the thirty-odd years since he first made his mark had anyone successfully debunked his claims. Was Ted Serios living proof that one could stagger through life, stumble on a great discovery, and find fame, all without losing one’s seat at the bar? Was Serios the guardian of a metaphysical miracle that would turn science on its head? With fingers crossed — and possibly while inebriated — we decided to contact Dr. Eisenbud.

“As far as your interviewing Ted, he’s never cared for interviews.” Jule Eisenbud’s ancient voice crackled over the line. He relinquished Ted’s phone number, but balked at surrendering his location. “He doesn’t want to be disclosed. He has a bad police record.” A new layer of intrigue arose. For a man on the lam, Ted was recklessly eager to jump back into the spotlight. In a series of lengthy, often rambling telephone conversations, he reassured us that his powers, dormant for nearly thirty years, could erupt again at any time. And he wanted us to bear witness. With an old Polaroid camera and as much film as we could afford, we hit the highway, determined to resurrect the reputation of the man whom science had so cruelly neglected.

In 1967, Eisenbud published the results of his extensive experiments with Serios in a book entitled The World of Ted Serios: ‘Thoughtographic’ Studies of an Extraordinary Mind. It is wonderfully written, full of humour, thoughtful analysis, and provocative ideas. It is also an unequivocal endorsement of Ted Serios’s wondrous thoughtographic brain. The book attracted legions of both believers and skeptics, and the little man who likely would have languished as an intriguing barfly and sodden supernatural footnote suddenly expanded his circle of influence beyond the local tavern. Soon, the world of Ted Serios counted scores of scientists, skeptics, and other respectable folk among its inhabitants. Thirty years later, that world was little more than a ghost town. Serios’s proponents had been driven underground. The skeptics had long since dismissed the phenomenon. Why?

In the beginning there was the gismo. Perhaps never before has such a fuss been made about something so crude and seemingly innocuous. Perhaps never before has humanity’s understanding of the natural world been challenged by a small roll of cardboard. Ted’s apartment, when we at last met him on a sizzling summer day in 1997, is littered with them. When obtaining a thoughtograph, Ted holds the gismo up to the camera lens to help him focus his psychic energy. I’d always thought of the gismo as a sort of bridge between the supernatural aether and the mundane reality of Ted’s gray matter, but the skeptics were never so broad-minded. They seized upon the gismo as evidence of legerdemain — a simple optical device that permitted any light-fingered charlatan to duplicate Ted’s “psychic photographs.” It was their smoking gun, the undeniable proof that Serios was nothing more than a very talented con artist who had either duped or been in cahoots with the good doctor. In their unyielding leeriness, they saw the gismo as a bridge between wild claims and harsh reality.

Ted turns out to be an amiable host. We’re all a bit awkward. Pleasantries are dutifully exchanged, and the meeting starts out like a visit to the psychic grandfather I never had. And then Ted spots our Polaroid camera. His affected smile transforms into a lusty grin. His eyes flash, and he begins stroking the camera. “This thing brings back a lot of memories,” he says wistfully.

Ted in action, 1967.

Back in Ted’s heyday — when, as he says longingly, “there was no shortage of booze, women, nothin’” — he made scores of converts by capturing thoughtographic representations of images that were tightly sealed from his sight: abstract paintings, famous buildings, historical figures. When Ted got one of these “targets,” another affidavit attesting to his authenticity was as good as signed. He’s happy to hear that we’ve brought along our own targets. “When I want to get a target, I make love to that camera,” he explains, his hands still exploring the old Polaroid. “That’s all there is to it. If I talk nice to the damn thing like I talk to a woman, the thing will give in, you see?” Where Eisenbud got downright esoteric in his analysis of Ted’s abilities, the thoughtographer himself clearly isn’t much for theorizing. Indeed, shortly into our interview, it becomes painfully obvious that peppering Ted with our carefully prepared questions — “How do you explain the slight variations between the target and the image that appear in some of your thoughtographs? Do you feel that you have finally gained the acceptance by the scientific community that you desired?” — isn’t going to get us anywhere. He stares blankly or deflects each question, spinning it into a tale of his bawdy youthful adventures.

Fair enough, I think. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Ted is something of a holy fool — remarkably gifted and simultaneously oblivious to the profound effects that his abilities will have on our understanding of ourselves and the world. We’re here as guests, not disinterested scientific observers, so it only makes sense that Ted should call the shots. After numerous attempts to capture our targets result only in blurry pictures of Ted’s grunting face, frozen in various unflattering expressions of mental exertion, the weary thoughtographer announces that he’ll need some beer to grease the psychic gears. “I work the best when we sorta make a party out of it,” he confesses. “Everybody is having a good time. Then it seems like it comes real easy. Otherwise, it’s a grind. It really is, and that’s all there is to it.” As I get up to head off to the liquor store, Ted jams the camera against the back of my head and takes a picture. This strikes me as a pretty crude way to photograph someone’s thoughts. It’s also irritating as hell. Dr. Eisenbud once told us, “I was actually fond of Ted, but at other times, believe me, I could have taken a swing at him or broken his neck. He was just a pain in the ass.” I understand.

Ted in action during our 1997 visit. (Photo: Dan Cremin)

With a beer in each hand and a fair amount flowing through his veins, Ted’s flagging determination is soon renewed. “I’m gonna get that damn target if it kills me,” he says, lighting up his tenth cigarette in as many minutes. He tries to read my mind, confidently announces that he’s picked up its contents, and draws a quick sketch. With a knowing chuckle, he shows me the scrap of paper on which are scribbled two stick figures and a box. It could represent anything, including my target picture, a photograph showing my friend and his wife walking down the aisle at their wedding. I’m impressed, but then Ted adds a third stick figure. He looks up from his work. “If I don’t get the target, the whole thing’s kaput. It’s a do or die thing,” he says dramatically. I feel uneasy. While I want to give Ted the benefit of the doubt here — he’s always professed to be a Catholic, and that third figure could be God, I think — I’m under the distinct impression that he’s been trying to read my facial expressions, not my thoughts. But Ted is no parlor room swindler. I think at the time that his abilities have been well-documented. He’s been subjected to batteries of tests, all of which have ruled out the possibility of fraud. Some of the brightest lights in academia have testified to his authenticity. And I myself am no sucker, I remind myself, though not without wincing.

At some point during the proceedings, a young woman of indeterminate age (though decades younger than our thoughtographer) wades through the sea of empty cans and seats herself next to Ted. He introduces “this broad” as Arlene, his girlfriend and “America’s next great country and western singer.” According to Ted, speaking now in a slurred though solemn voice, Arlene is also a Christian in good standing with the Lord. He slaps her butt and asks her to pray for him. Apparently heedless of any moral conflict in asking for God’s help in such an unholy enterprise, Arlene bows her head. Ted mumbles an oath to his earthier Lord and silently communes with two more beers. The deity intervenes, and soon Ted is churning out thoughtographs at a truly awe-inspiring rate. He produces more of them in the next hour than in the thirty years since he mysteriously lost his powers. Now that prayer — that most unscientific of variables — has entered the picture, I bid farewell to even the pretence of “controlled conditions.” Her entreaties to the Lord completed, Arlene uses her body to throw interference while Ted fiddles with the camera. For what seems like an eternity of awkwardness, we stare at Arlene’s back. Their barely audible murmuring is occasionally punctuated by Ted’s cursing. The distinctive whirr of the camera is never far behind, and Arlene dutifully hands us yet another thoughtograph.

With the help of beer, God, Arlene, and two increasingly inattentive witnesses, Ted’s thoughtographs are beginning to take on a definite form. “I think it’s Christ,” I say listlessly. Stifling a yawn, Dennis concurs. Our combined will to believe can no longer withstand such blatant chicanery. But the show must go on. The curtain won’t drop until the last beer is finished and Ted has either obtained our “goddamned targets” or forgotten that he’d promised to do so. As he lurches to his feet and launches into a tipsy version of “You Oughta Be In Pictures,” I open one of the few remaining beers and watch as Ted unwittingly lampoons my dark night of the soul. Before he descends into abject drunkenness, I ask him to reveal the secret of his remarkable gift. “You got to have an imagination,” he says. “And that is the gospel truth. If you don’t have an imagination, then you ain’t gonna see nothing!”

As we prepare to leave, Ted approaches us sheepishly, eyes downcast. He’d brushed off earlier attempts to discuss a particular dream that had plagued him for years — the dream of the giant camera — but now seems eager to get it off his chest. “It seemed like the damn thing was walking to me. I don’t know how to describe it. It waddled towards me like a human walking. It was one of those old-fashioned cameras. I’ll tell you one thing: it was as big as a house when it came at me. There’s times when I get scared of the damn thing. If that happened to you, wouldn’t you be scared a little bit?” It certainly seems like a confession — a heavy heart caused perhaps by a certain lightness of the fingers — but I’m in no position to grant absolution. I feel too much a party to the game.

For a couple of years after our meeting with Ted Serios, Dennis and I avoided talking about the incident. And if the subject did arise, we did our best to avoid eye contact. But now we can laugh about how two credulous friends believed they had discovered a psychic Messiah who might turn the natural world topsy-turvy, but who instead spent a day with a strange little man who, if he couldn’t exactly save our souls, could at least save us from the clockwork tedium of a world that never changed its routine.

Postscript: On March 10, 1999, Dr. Jule Eisenbud died at his home in Denver. Whatever secrets he held — or thought he held — passed away with him. During our last phone conversation with Eisenbud, in 1998, he told us, “Ted will outlive anything. He may last to the year 2500.” While speaking to Ted on the phone not long ago, he informed us that he had recently been struck by a car, but had made a complete recovery that baffled the doctors who had treated him. Ted Serios may yet defy the laws of nature.