Thirteen Things You Hadn't Thought To Believe In

I've always been mildly nervous of popular superstitions, remembering the words of the physicist Bohr, who hung a lucky horseshoe over the door of his laboratory. "But surely you don't believe that stuff?" scoffed friends. "No," said Bohr, "but I understand it works even if you don't believe in it." Sure it does: without the slightest belief in the unlucky power of 13, here I am labouring under the fearful triskaidekaphobic curse of a man writing a piece for Empties 13....

And sometimes it does work even when one doesn't believe in it. Take the case of the fan who on Friday the 13th deliberately tempted fate by drinking 13 pints of beer and driving 13 miles home while the thermometer stood at 13 degrees Fahrenheit. Unbelievers may mock, but after he'd done it 13 times he began to receive fanzines from Steve Green, which makes you think.

But as SF people we expect a constant input of new superstitions to update all those well-worn beliefs about 13, black cats, broken mirrors and the inadvisability of voting Conservative. Even country yokels have a new fund of modern folklore ("Crops do wither and leaves do fade, When EC intervention cheque be delayed"). The dippier hi-fi fanatics have broken much new ground here, tying special knots in power cables, ensuring their speakers' back panels are secured with an odd number of screws and painting the rims of CDs green ... I particularly liked the information that "the level of the point at which the mains supply enters the house may seriously affect one's listening enjoyment. A high entry point produces an adverse vertical polarity. The solution? Invert the sleeves of all LPs which are below the entry point."

Great stuff, but can't we do better? I call on the SF community to experiment by disseminating some new superstitions or odd beliefs, and seeing how far they get. This may entail long and arduous hours gossiping in pubs (anathema to all true fans), but think of the modest pride we'll enjoy if one of the following makes its way into a magazine report on New British Folkways or yet another of Jan Howard Brunvand's books about urban myth:

[1] James Thurber's mother believed that electricity leaked from empty light-sockets. Similarly, data bytes from your computer's hard disk can escape very slowly from floppy drive slots. (Especially when you have raised the hard disk's internal pressure by filling it nearly full.) Safeguard your novel-in-progress by taping up the disk slot or slots when not in use.

[2] If you can truly convince yourself to enjoy preparing and eating any common garden infestation -- ground elder, say, or dandelions or slugs -- the formerly endless supplies will crash into irreversible decline. (Hazel: "I'm not sure this is an answer to the Neighbour's Cat Problem. I think I'll stick to my water pistol.")

[3] SF authors -- indeed, all authors -- have an irrational fear of asking publishers what is being done about publicity for their latest book. In their foolish, superstitious way they believe this question will provoke the response "Oh, I forgot to tell you we remaindered it last month." Usually they are right.

[4] Hazardous emissions from car exhausts can be reduced by magnetizing the exhaust pipe. Repeatedly draw a strong magnet along the last foot of the pipe for about half an hour every Sunday morning. (There is a mail-order gadget consisting of a magnet which you clamp to your water pipes in order, supposedly, to remove internal scale ... so this variant sounds extremely plausible.) For best results, park the car facing magnetic north.

[5] If you draw a solid black circle 1.22cm in diameter on the front page of your tax return form, centred at a point 4.5cm from the top and 1.8cm from the right-hand edge, you will receive Windfall Bonus tax coding when the form is processed by the Inland Revenue computers. This corresponds to a roughly fourteen-fold increase in allowances. Tax returns issued to MPs, senior civil servants and members of the House of Lords are preprinted with this mark.

[6] A lost manuscript of Charles Fort's records the inexplicable falls of dogshit which appear overnight on British pavements even when the entire street population self-confessedly steer their dogs to the gutter or their own gardens. Fort's theory was that packs of dogs caught up in waterspouts frequently pass high over urban centres: as he pointed out, "If you were being hurled uncontrollably through the air by 600mph winds, what would you very likely do out of sheer terror? Well then."

[7] The audio quality of any pub juke-box can be greatly improved by severing the main power cable with a pair of bolt cutters. An ancient Wiccan tradition tells us that it is unlucky not to wear rubber gloves, and that failing to ensure the landlord is in another room may earn you a personal demonstration of the Evil Eye.

[8] Satanic messages can be detected in John Clute's Interzone reviews by extracting all the esoteric words and reading them backwards as a variant acrostic. In recent issues, fundamentalist researchers have uncovered the diabolical, subliminal commands "SUBSCRIBE", "FOR GOD'S SAKE SUBSCRIBE" and "PRINGLE NEEDS MORE LIFE SUBSCRIPTIONS".

[9] When walking up the western side of Tottenham Court Road it is deeply foolhardy not to cross to the opposite pavement before passing the Scientology shop.

[10] Postmen leave coded rubber bands on or near doorsteps as a contemporary version of traditional tramps' marks. For example, an arrangement of five rubber bands signifies: "Householder has good hearing -- make sure you put the 'could not deliver, ha ha ha' card through the letterbox VERY QUIETLY."

[11] If you take the letters of your full name and your birth sign, assign them numbers via the simple numerological code A=1, B=2, C=3 etc, add up all these numbers (a computer, being a soulless machine, must not be used for this mystic process), raise the resulting sum to the power of e times pi, and substitute the answer into the logistic difference equation beloved of chaos theorists, you will magically discover after only a few hundred iterations of the equation that you have a severe headache.

[12] Large accretions of books, especially science fiction books, tend to develop a certain quasi-intelligence and limited powers of mind control. In quantities of over 41 (significantly close to 13 times pi!) they can compel the hapless owner to purchase additional volumes and provide them with company: the more books, the more powerfully they exert this compulsion. Assemblies of over 1681 books (41 squared) are able to dominate the minds of their owner's casual visitors and force them to say in tones of extreme witlessness, "Have you read them all?" Nobody knows why the books' gestalt intellect finds this remark so perpetually amusing.

[13] In the reverent words of Stephen Fry, "It's extremely unlucky to be superstitious for the simple reason that it is always unlucky to be colossally stupid."