Back in the late ’70s I worked for awhile at the Psychical Research Foundation (whoa, it still exists), which lived in a couple of old houses — now long gone — on the campus of Duke University. The PRF was spun off of what was then called the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, or the Institute for Parapsychnology, and since re-branded as the Rhine Research Center. All of it began with Duke botanist J.B. Rhine’s work toward understanding what he called extrasensory perception, or ESP. This work eventually veered outside Duke’s comfort zone, so it spun out in such a way that it was at Duke but not of it.
The PRF’s work had to do with academic study of the possibility of life after death. Far as I know it never found much evidence, but it was fun helping them try, and even more fun writing about it, which was my job there.
In the midst of that work, I produced a fake research paper, as a joke, put a big pile of copies in the midst of other papers offered at a psychical research convention (yes, they had those, and they were quite serious), and waited for nature to take its course.
The paper was called “Psi Burn,” and claimed that psychical research itself caused fun forms of harm. (Psi is a catch-all term for paranormal powers) I wish I had one in front of me, but I don’t. I do remember that the sources included titles such as “Twenty cases suggestive of intoxication” (or maybe it was “Twenty copies suggestive of reproduction”), “A second report on Mrs. Veeble’s smart dog,” and “A wave theory of death.” Somehow (I think Martin Gardner of Scientific American was involved) the paper found its way into the hands of James Randi (aka “The Amazing Randi”), then a famous opponent of parapsychology in its many forms. Randi loved the piece, and caused it to come to the attention of the science fiction writer Ben Bova, who was then on his way to becoming an editor at a new magazine called OMNI. Bova wanted “Psi Burn” for an early issue, and offered to pay me good money ($800, which was 4x my rent at the time). I accepted, and my very brief career as a contributor to OMNI began.
A second humorous piece followed. It was about how NASA budget cuts forced the agency to confine its explorations to the third planet from the Sun, and to job out the rocketry to custom van builders. The only line I remember from it was, “The presence of yeast in the atmosphere suggested not only the presence of life, but of food and drink as well.” After that I got very ambitious about my writing career and hired an agent who managed to get me nothing (shot down by Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon and others) while also screwing my relationship with OMNI. The money that paid for my work at the PRF also ran out, and I decided to pursue a remunerative and relatively stable opportunity: co-founding a new advertising agency where I would be creative director. That agency (Hodskins Simone & Searls) took off and eventually moved to Silicon Valley where it did quite well. That agency work launched me into the tech world, where I still live.
Anyway, all this comes back after reading In 2010, We Will Live on the Moon: Remembering the giddy futurism of Omni magazine, by By Paul Collins, in Slate. “…with equal parts sci-fi, feature reporting, and meaty interviews with Freeman Dyson and Edward O. Wilson, Omni‘s arrival every month was a sort of peak nerd experience,” he writes. Indeed, it was — on the supply as well as the demand side.
What’s weird, looking back on OMNI‘s ambitious fantasies (robots, space travel), is that the less flashy stuff is what really happened. Collins:
|It was in a 1981 Omni piece that William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace,” while the provoking lede “For this I spent two thousand dollars? To kill imaginary Martians?” exhorted Omni-readers to go online in 1983–where, they predicted, everything from entire libraries to consumer product reviews would soon migrate. A year later, the magazine ran one of the earliest accounts of telecommuting with Doug Garr’s “Home Is Where the Work Is,” which might have also marked the first appearance of this deathless standby of modern reportage: “I went to work in my pajamas.”|
I’m not in my PJs now, because I don’t have any. But it’s 2:30 in the afternoon in the attic warren where I write on the Net through a 20Mb symmetrical fiber optic cable, and where I’m finally about to take today’s morning shower. Close enough to utopia, if you ask me.
[Later...] Hey, does anybody know if any of the old OMNI stuff is up on the Web anywhere? I haven’t been able to find any. When I’m back at the house in California next month I’ll see if I can find those two issues, scan them and put my pieces up on the Web. If not, no loss. But it’ll be fun to try.
And thanks to Brian Benz’ comment below, I found omnimagonline.com, including the above copy of the cover of the December 1978 issue with my “Psi Burn” piece.