OMNI: Remembering the Future

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 . 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. Omni 1978_12 - DecemberI 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 via Marcello Truzzi and Martin Gardner of Scientific American) the paper found its way into the hands of James Randi (aka “The Amazing Randi”), 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 . “…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, including the above copy of the cover of the December 1978 issue with my “Psi Burn” piece. Alas, the piece isn’t there. Nor is the second one.

[Later…] Almost all OMNI issues are at (Look ’em up.) But text from the two with my pieces are not, I am told, because of copyright issues involving another writer. Or writers. As for my copies, they’re somewhere in the garage; but I don’t know where and I’ve always got something more important to do. Some day…

13 responses to “OMNI: Remembering the Future”

  1. Thanks, Andrew. Just became a fan there.

    And thanks, Brian. I just added to my post the cover from the issue with my first piece, pulled from the site you mention.

    Still don’t have the text. But I’m pretty sure I can find it in the garage at our house in Santa Barbara.

  2. Kind of interesting that Romenesko at Poynter posted an item about OMNI magazine today.


  3. Well, Doc, there’s no chance of any kind of burn — psychic or otherwise — where I am today. This morning in Laramie, the temperature is zero no temperature at all! And it hit minus 22 degrees last night, causing a serious shortage of degrees at the University of Wyoming a few blocks from my house. (I guess that’s why graduation is held in May.)

    Darned crooked planet. Gotta get out the ol’ toolbox and fix it one of these days.

    In any event, Omni is exactly the sort of magazine to which I’d be pitching articles if it were still around today.

  4. I remember becoming a bit disillusioned with OMNI when it ran a huge feature of artists’ depictions of what dinosaurs would have looked like fuc— I mean having intercourse. I mean, it was an okay idea, but the magazine seemed a little TOO enthusiastic about the subject.

  5. Well, Derek, the magazine was a project of Bob Guccione, spending money he gathered publishing Penthouse.

  6. Both of you would probably love the song “When Brontosaurs Fall In Love,” by Dr. Jane (now Dr. James) Robinson. (True, they’re no longer called “brontosaurs,” but the song was written before that and is hilarious.)

  7. Omni, now there’s a memory from the past. I vaguely recall the dinosaur issue mentioned earlier.

  8. Doc, this might blow your mind, but I could bring back OMNI easily within a month. I’m an artist who’s an extreme perfectionist in website/blog design, illustration, graphic, and video. I have this idea which I’m working on to restore OMNI magazines likeness as a blog, changing the cover art every week and posting submitted articles dealing with science, technology and science fiction stories.

    Magazine subscriptions will come maybe 3 months later, hopefully with enough partnerships worldwide.

    I’m working on a mock magazine and will show it to Bob to get his blessing. If I do, it would be great to have you on board with your experience.

  9. That sounds like a great idea, Tom.

    Love to help. Just bear in mind that I’m spread about one molecule thin right now.

  10. I know how you feel, Doc. I’m surprise I have any molecules left.

    The fan page for my project is up on Facebook. I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes it takes crazy to make things happen.

  11. […] Still, I’ve long appreciated what the human mind could do with math (which is approximately everything, if you want a working civilization), thanks not to any teachers of the subject, but rather to Martin Gardner of Scientific American. He made math fun, even when I didn’t get where he was going with it. He even played a small role, I think, in getting me my first (and pretty much only) writing gig for a major magazine. […]

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