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Sunday, October 19, 2008 -- 7:30 am

Having read a few books on the anthropology of sorcery and witchcraft, I am inclined to believe that the thinking habits of contemporary Western societies are not so far removed from the thinking habits of African, Asian, Polynesian, and South American societies where notions of witchcraft still enjoy explicit recognition and currency. This is a subject that could naturally benefit from considerable exploration and development, but for now I'll only sketch out a few points. One is that, just as there's a common tendency among some individuals to assume that what they don't know can't possibly be important, there's also a common tendency, which can take root in different individuals or in the same individuals but concerning different subject matter, that there is great power or potential in such knowledge and that the individuals who possess it have extraordinary abilities. This is best illustrated, I think, by referring to the conception that many people have of doctors or computer hackers. The practitioners of such vocations may or may not have considerable skill, but those skills are based on empirical knowledge and the ordinary rules of cause and effect, and the expectations (or fears) that surround them sometimes border unrealistically on the magical. Some people go on to take this one step further, and assume not only that such extraordinary abilities and knowledge are possible, but that they or someone else actually possesses them. Witchcraft and sorcery seem to be closely associated with feelings of powerlessness. Just as people tend not to resort to dowsing, astrology, and fortune-telling if they have access to other, more reliable sources of information, they tend not to engage in fears and fantasies about witchcraft (operating under whatever more respectable label) if they have more concrete knowledge, powers, or defenses at their disposal. I have observed certain individuals to be rather belligerent by temperament, quite independent of the scope of power or authority they may have over their circumstances, and they often try to bully others through appeals to power or authority that are quite non-existent or that they truly do not understand. It's quite natural to understand how such thinking comes about, when the media tend to report dramatic jury verdicts or enormously successful social movements but ignore the lawsuits and social protests that fall flat. But this explanation does not tend to contradict my characterization of the thought process as a magical one, or the practice (of, say, frivolous grievances or lawsuits) as a type of socially-sanctioned sorcery. I actually wonder whether, in certain tribal societies, witches and shamans may have had their origin in charismatic and strong-spirited individuals desperately seeking to some form of authority over their environment, and through belligerence and/or force of personality persuading others, in a triumph of political persuasion over the scientific method, to accede to the mythology of occult power they spontaneously invented. But this is an issue that needs to be handled delicately, because my hypotheses (which are thought-experiments I might decide are incorrect, rather than convictions) could quite easily be misconstrued. I'll try to develop these ideas further as my reading progresses.

Sunday, October 19, 2008 -- 6:58 am>

Recently one of my Synsepalum dulcificum (Miracle Berry) plants bore two ripe red berries, despite a vicious infestation of scale that I blame on the seller, and my own equally vicious efforts at extirpation. Contrary to reports that I've generally come across, the berry itself had a sweet, fruity flavor, somewhere in the flavor space between a sweet blackberry and a rambutan. I suppose it's worth investigating with future (and hopefully more bountiful) crops whether the berry actually contains sugar or, as I'm inclined to suspect, is in fact sharply acidic but uses the miraculin to make itself palatable to nibbling passers-by. Anyway, the effects of eating the pulp off the berry and rolling it around the tongue seemed to last about thirty minutes, and my radiant bride and I used the time to sample a platter of prearranged foodstuffs. The results of our brief investigation follow:

The real winners of the evening were lemon, lime, and cranberry. Though normally quite sour, they truly tasted like candy of their respective flavors. Honorable mentions for interesting results go to cider vinegar, which seemed to taste like a good aged balsamic, and to my preferred brand of hot sauce, which somehow ended up tasting like shrimp cocktail sauce.

Foods which tasted good but where it was difficult to attribute much effect to the miracle berry included Granny Smith apple (which tasted like a slightly better apple, like a Cortland), parmesan cheese (where a hint of sweetness is perhaps normal), and grapefruit.

Foods where there was no discernible change in flavor were unsweetened chocolate, baby carrot, endive, broccoli, and coffee (for me; I hate the taste of coffee and this tasted like water; my radiant bride remarked that it tasted normal).

Foods that tasted worse due to effects of the miracle berry were radish (no kick, and no flavor whatsoever), olive (a little sweet!), grape tomato (very sweet, which bothered the radiant bride more than it bothered me), green pepper (sadly bland), pickle (sweet, salty cucumber), Persian pickled lemon (a little sour, a little sweet), goureh (Persian pickled grape) (sweet pickled grape), yogurt (a slight sour tofu?), and the biggest disappointment of the evening, orange juice, which tasted like a liquid form of children's chewable aspirin.

Drinking a glass of water did not appear to wash the miraculin off the taste buds. Small tasting portions were key in avoiding indigestion. There do not appear, yet, to have been any discernible after-effects.

Sunday, October 19, 2008 -- 6:56 am

Back after long hiatus.