The Homoscope

At the Skeptics Conference in Christchurch in 1989, Denis Dutton mentioned that women’s magazines offered horoscopes but men’s magazines did not. There were two significant exceptions: the feminist magazine Broadsheet did not, but the gay (and nominally lesbian) Pink Triangle did — a particularly bland and space-wasting one:

“Appeal to the highest motive.” “Stay calm at work.” “The deeper issues of life affect you.”

Pink Triangle folded early last year, and when the fortnightly newsheet Man to Man (which this week attracted the attention of the Rugby Union over its TV advertising) went tabloid in June, I decided to forestall the “real” astrologers by offering them an alternative — a Homoscope.

These undermine conventional horoscopes in three ways:

  • by being preposterously specific:

There will be a power cut on Tuesday and you will spend so long resetting all the clocks you will miss “The Simpsons”.

You will absent-mindedly leave a condom among some papers you send to your handsome but deeply-closeted Chief Executive Officer on August 18. August 19 will be an interesting day.

  • by being absurdly general:

With so many planets in trinary aspect, it would be very unpropitious to lie down in the middle of the motorway on September 15. Your lucky number: 3.1415926535898.

Lucky Leo! Your lucky numbers: 10 20 30 40 39 29 19 9 2 12 22 32 38 28 18 8 3 13 23 33 37 27 17 7 4 14 24 34 36 26 16 6 5 15 25 35 31 21 11 and 1. Six of these could make you very, very lucky.

  • by attributing ridiculous exactness to the stars:

September 17 will be a good day for experimenting with new foods. However, because Sirius will be in the fourth house, avoid chocolate prawns.

Since the moon will be in Saturn on October 27, and it would be inauspicious to use your hairdryer in the bath on that day.

The editor tells me that readers still eagerly check their own signs first. Ah well.

Maybe you too can quietly spread skepticism and undermine gullibility by offering some parody of “the real thing” in your area.

Cold Reading for Fun and Profit

After seeing a demonstration of cold reading at the Skeptics Conference in 1989 I thought this was something I could have fun with, so I boned up on the list of commonplaces provided at the time:

  • most men have an unopened bottle of aftershave in their bathroom cabinet
  • most women have kept one of a pair of earrings after losing the other
  • most people can remember with embarassment being singled out at school, etc…

I tried it out on some friends and they were quite impressed, so I put it to practical use at the annual Lesbian and Gay Fair.

In 1990, I was Signor Momoque (Momoka was a name I was given on an island in the southern Solomons in 1975); in 1991, Madame Momoque; and in 1992. Swami Momokananda.

The Momoques offered gestalt palm reading (using both palms; the patter involved “integrating the emotional and intuitive left and right sides of the brain” — or right and left, whatever). The Swami offered chakra reflexology (the wrist, the ball of the thumb and the five fingertips corresponding to the seven “chakras” spaced along the spinal column.

To prepare the client, I used incense, a “crystal” (glass) ball dimly illuminated from below, a “crystal” (cut lead glass) hanging from a thread, and three stones — agate, quartz and greenstone. I “cleansed” the stones and the seven “chakra points of the hand” with drops of water from an elegant little bottle, and invited the client to choose one stone. (“Ah, you chose agate/quartz/greenstone. This indicates firmness/clarity/that you are close to the land…”) This preparation is an important part of sucking the client in. It doesn’t matter too much just what you do, as long as you do it with some confidence, and what the client assumes is the confidence of a skilled practitioner is really just the confidence of a little practice.

At first, I took myself too seriously, agonising over every statement. I found (as others have) that my greatest ally was the client and their sometimes pathetic, even desperate desire to believe, and to re- interpret what I said in the light of their condition.

Some lesbians thought this presentation was racist (an Indian client did not, and the turban and bindi (“caste mark”) were provided by a practising Hindu), so next year I will give the human race away, and either Morka, the friendly killer whale, will offer lateral line meridian readings, or MOKA-7, the robot, will practice cybernetic phrenology. (By mixing two disciplines, I will protect myself against criticism from “experts” in either).

What turned these into demonstrations of practical skepticism (and not your average fraud) is that at the end I gave each client an interesting-looking spill, with strict instructions not to open it until a particular time (well after the fair was safely over).

Two clients later told me they counted down to the correct moment before opening theirs. One of these is a well-known Wellington naturopath and New Age person who was vastly impressed with the accuracy of my reading.

Inside, the spills said:

You have enjoyed a “cold reading”. I have no special powers, and it was not your hand that told me anything. I used some generalities that are true for everyone, fished a bit, and guessed what I could from your clothes, manner, walk, etc.

The same techniques could be used equally well in the guise of crystal gazing, astrology, tea-leaf reading, etc.

In return, I hope I encouraged you to feel good about yourself (and I hope you go on feeling good about yourself). Isn’t that worth $2 to the Aids Foundation.

By asking clients to “cross my palm with gold” (and thank heaven for the “gold” $1 and $2 coins!) I raised about $30 for the Aids Foundation at each fair — as well as spreading a little light where it is most needed.