Tuesday, October 28, 2008


It's the time of year for reflections on the fleeting nature of things and all sorts of other deep thoughts. Here in New England, the maple trees briefly – so briefly – flash their stunning incandescent red and orange leaves. Then, of course, the trees shed the leaves on my lawn, where they need to be raked up – a chore that is not at all fleeting.

It's also Halloween, which has a special place in the hearts of the Witches of Agnesi. So, here are a couple of Halloween-relevant legends.

Razors in Apples: Urban Legend
In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath offer some fascinating explanations for why some excellent ideas – say, an earnest mission statement from a worthwhile nonprofit organization – get little traction, while some patently ridiculous urban legends are believed and repeated by millions of people.

The Heath brothers give the example of a wildly “successful” idea that spoiled Halloween for large numbers of people: the belief that evil strangers were putting razor blades and poison in apples and candy and giving them to trick-or-treating children. But in 1985, researchers Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi

“studied every reported Halloween incident since 1958. They found no instances where strangers caused children life-threatening harm on Halloween by tampering with their candy. Two children did die on Halloween, but their deaths weren't caused by strangers. A five-year-old boy found his uncle's heroin stash and overdosed. His relatives initially tried to cover their tracks by sprinkling heroin on his candy. In another case, a father, hoping to collect on an insurance settlement, caused the death of his own son by contaminating his candy with cyanide. In other words, the best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly OK. It's your family you should worry about.

"The candy-tampering story has changed the behavior of millions of parents over the past thirty years.... It has even changed the laws of this country. Both California and New Jersey passed laws that carry special penalties for candy-tamperers. Why was this idea so successful?"

To find out, read the book.

The Devil's Chord
Can a musical chord be evil? The Medieval Roman Catholic Church and modern heavy metal bands think so. The tritone, "a musical interval that spans three whole tones, like the diminished fifth or augmented fourth.... the gap between two notes played in succession or simultaneously, was branded Diabolus in Musica or the Devil's Interval by medieval musicians. A rich mythology has grown up around it. Many believe that the Church wanted to eradicate the sounds from its music because it invoked sexual feelings, or that it was genuinely the work of the Devil. It is a mythology much beloved of long-haired guitar wizards. In the newly-released documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, bassist Alex Webster of death metal act Cannibal Corpse pays tribute to the effect of the forbidden "Devil's note" on heavy metal" (Finlo Rohrer, 2006).

According to Wikipedia,

"Today the interval continues to suggest an 'oppressive,' 'scary,' or 'evil' sound. However, suggestions that singers were excommunicated or otherwise punished by the Church for invoking this interval are likely fanciful."

Examples of music using tritones:
Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze
Danny Elfman, The Simpsons theme song
"Maria," from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story
Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath"
Claude Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Richard Wagner, Gotterdammerung

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. 2007. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House (pp. 13–15). www.amazon.com/Made-Stick-Ideas-Survive-Others/dp/1400064287

Rohrer, Finlo. 2006. "The Devil's Music," BBC News Magazine (April 4), http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4952646.stm

"Tritone," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tritone

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