Christmas greetings

December 21, 2014

I wish all my loyal readers a Merry Christmas and peace and joy for the holiday season. See you all in 2014! Here is a festive sketch from Mitchell and Webb:



The honest deceiver: the life and times of The Amazing Randi

December 14, 2014

My post this week will be about one of the people I admire the most – James Randi. Indeed, his photo appears at the top of my blog on the left. Who is James Randi? Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born on August 7, 1928 in Canada. He has had two careers – fist as a magician –The Amazing Randi and then as a debunker. As I have pointed out before, these two activities are in fact related. I looked at the relationship between magic and scepticism in a previous post, Smoke and mirrors. Their training in deception enables magicians to see through the tricks employed by those engaged in the paranormal. These charlatans are often able to fool professional scientists, but find magicians much harder to fool.

Randi’s career as a professional stage magician and escapologist began just after WWII. Initially, he used his real name, Randall Zwinge. But he later dropped this in favour of “The Amazing Randi.” Early in his career, he specialised in escapology. On February 7, 1956, he appeared live on NBC’s Today show, where he remained for 104 minutes in a sealed metal coffin that had been submerged in a hotel swimming pool, breaking Harry Houdini’s record of 93 minutes. He also hosted numerous television specials and went on several world tours. He worked with Alice Cooper on his 1973–1974 Billion Dollar Babies tour, designing and building a number of several of the stage props, including the guillotine. He also played a mad scientist and Cooper’s executioner. And in a 1976 Canadian TV special, Randi escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down over Niagara Falls.

Randi eventually decided that he was too old for this malarkey and began his second career as a debunker. He is the co-founder of Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation. Randi is a sceptic who puts his money where his mouth is – since 1964 he has been offering a prize anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal effect under proper scientific controls. It currently stands at one million dollars. Unsurprisingly, nobody has claimed the prize yet. In this video you can see Randi in action debunking Uri Gellar and Peter Popoff, an American telepreacher. It’s well worth watching.

There are a number of interesting themes raised by Randi’s work. The case of Popoff is illustrative. After being exposed by Randi Popoff went into bankruptcy. You would have thought that his career would have been over. Alas, that is not the case. He has recovered from the scandal and he continues to preach. His website sells holy water. I know that the USA is the land of second chances and reinventing yourself, but this is ridiculous. What fascinates me is the mindset of those who follow him now. What more evidence do they require that he is charlatan? I would like to know how Popoff was able to stage such a comeback. That would make an excellent topic for another post.

The other funny thing is that many of his opponents actually accuse Randi of actually having psychic powers, and using them to perform acts such as spoon bending. One believer in psychic phenomena thought that Randi may be a psychic without realising it. And a professor charged that he was intentionally fooling the public:

“You’re a fraud because you’re pretending to do these things through trickery, but you’re actually using psychic powers and misleading us by not admitting it.”

One of Randi’s most famous stunts was in 1988, when he coached stage performer José Alvarez to pretend he was channelling a two-thousand-year-old spirit named “Carlos”. Even after being shown that it was a hoax, many believers refused to accept that “Carlos” was not real. Such is the power of cognitive dissonance, the way we try to justify or rationalise ideas that have been proved wrong. This seems to be less painful than admitting that we were mistaken.

There is an interesting backstory to “Carlos”. José Alvarez was at that time a 25-year-old student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and Randi’s assistant. He was also Randi’s boyfriend. Randi did not come out until 2010, in a blog post. On September 8, 2011 José Alvarez was arrested by United States Department of State agents. He confessed that his real name was Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga, and that he had come to the U.S. on a two-year student visa after fleeing persecution in Venezuela for his homosexuality. After a complex legal process Peña has been allowed to stay in the country. He is in a kind of limbo. He still has his Venezuelan passport with his birth name, but he has no formal immigration status in the United States. The immigration authorities have agreed not to deport him, but if leaves the country, he will not be allowed to return. Like everything else in Randi’s life, nothing is what it appears. How much he knew about the real identity of his partner is unclear. The couple were married in a ceremony in Washington on July 2, 2013.

James Randi is a national treasure. The BBC recently broadcast a Storyville documentary about him, Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds, which shows Randi debunking faith healers, fortune tellers and psychics. I strongly recommend you check it out.


James Randi Quotes

December 14, 2014

I don’t expect that the million will ever be won, simply because there is no confirming evidence for any paranormal claims to date.

The New Age? It’s just the old age stuck in a microwave oven for fifteen seconds.

Uri Geller may have psychic powers by means of which he can bend spoons; if so, he appears to be doing it the hard way.

Sir, there is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out.

There exists in society a very special class of persons that I have always referred to as the Believers. These are folks who have chosen to accept a certain religion, philosophy, theory, idea or notion and cling to that belief regardless of any evidence that might, for anyone else, bring it into doubt. They are the ones who encourage and support the fanatics and the frauds of any given age. No amount of evidence, no matter how strong, will bring them any enlightenment. They are the sheep who beg to be fleeced and butchered, and who will battle fiercely to preserve their right to be victimized… patent offices handle an endless succession of inventors who still produce perpetual-motion machines that don’t work, but no number of idle flywheels will convince these zealots of their folly; dozens of these patent applications flow in every year. In ashrams all over the world, hopping devotees of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi will never abandon their goal of blissful levitation of their bodies by mind power, despite bruises and sprains aplenty suffered as they bounce about on gym mats like demented (though smiling) frogs, trying to get airborne. Absolutely nothing will discourage them.

Yes, I’m a materialist. I’m willing to be shown wrong, but that has not happened — yet. And I admit that the reason I’m unable to accept the claims of psychic, occult, and/or supernatural wonders is because I’m locked into a world-view that demands evidence rather than blind faith, a view that insists upon the replication of all experiments — particularly those that appear to show violations of a rational world — and a view which requires open examination of the methods used to carry out those experiments.

I want to be cremated, and I want my ashes blown in Uri Geller’s eyes.

The story behind the song #5: Hurricane

December 7, 2014

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was born in 1937 in Clifton, New Jersey, the fourth of seven children. His father may have been a deacon in the Baptist church, but Rubin had a complicated adolescence. At the age of eleven he stabbed a man and was sentenced to a juvenile reformatory. He escaped and joined the Army where he learned to box. After being discharged from the army in 1956 he was once again in constant trouble. Carter was found guilty of a series of muggings, including assault and robbery of a middle-aged black woman. He would spend the next four years in East Jersey State Prison and in Trenton State Prison.

After his release from prison in September 1961, Carter became a professional boxer. He had begun well, but his career was going downhill – his record in his last five fights had been L-L-W-D-L. He clearly lost to Joey Giardello in a 15-round middleweight title bout, despite the film Hurricane portraying the unanimous verdict as a stitch-up.

In October 1966 Rubin Carter and John Artis were arrested for a triple murder that had taken place three months earlier. On June 17, 1966, at approximately 2:30 a.m., two males entered the Lafayette Bar and Grill at East 18th Street at Lafayette Street in Paterson, New Jersey, and started shooting. The bartender, James Oliver, and one customer, Fred Nauyoks died instantly. Hazel Tanis suffered severe injuries and would become the third victim a month later. A third customer, Willie Marins survived the attack. However, he lost the sight in one eye after a gunshot wound to the head. Both Marins and Tanis told police that the shooters had been black males, though neither identified Carter or John Artis. Two new eyewitnesses, petty criminals, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, came forward, and they positively identified Carter and Artis

Carter and Artis had both been arrested on the night of the crime. Though they matched an eyewitness description of the gunmen they were cleared by a grand jury when a surviving victim failed to identify them as the killers. A trial followed. The two eyewitnesses, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, both had criminal records, and it was later revealed that they had received reduced sentences and cash in exchange for their testimonies. In June 1967, Carter and Artis were convicted of triple murder and sentenced to successive life-in-prison terms. In jail, Carter maintained his innocence, defying authority by refusing to wear an inmate’s uniform and vowing to kill any prison official who touched him.

In 1975, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the convictions, and Carter and Artis were freed from prison. However, a year later, Carter was accused of assaulting his former parole officer. He and Artis were then were tried for the murders at the Lafayette Grill for a second time. Once again they were found guilty. Carter was sent back to prison in 1976, and would remain there for almost ten years. It was around this time that Bob Dylan visited Carter in prison. Impressed by the case, Dylan wrote the song in collaboration with Jacques Levy. It became Dylan’s biggest hit in years, rising to #33 on the charts.

In 1985 Carter’s lawyers filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey granted the writ, noting that the prosecution had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure,” and set aside the convictions. The prosecution decided that given that Carter had already served 19 years and that several witnesses were now dead, it was not worth trying him for a third time. Carter, 48 years old, was freed without bail in November 1985. He spent the rest of his life campaigning against wrongful convictions. He

I am not sure what to make of this case. I do think that the song simplifies the case a lot. Carter was no saint he had a violent temper and a criminal history, something which Dylan neglects to mention in his song. When someone becomes a cause célèbre like this alarm bells go off for me. Having said that, there were some worrying aspects of the prosecution case. The use of criminals, who have an incentive to lie, is typical but it does give you concern for the reliability of their testimony. I’m not sure I see evidence of a racist conspiracy. There is no doubt that racism exists in the police, and it must have been worse in 1960s New Jersey, but that doesn’t that every case should be analysed through this prism. Perhaps a piece of popular music cannot be expected to give a nuanced account of a complex criminal case like this, but many people’s perceptions of this case will have been framed by this song and the 2000 Norman Jewison film. What I have been trying to show is that there is more than this case than meets the eye.


If you want an alternative version of the story, journalist Cal Deal has a feature where he provides a verse- by-verse critique of the song.

The Serial podcast

December 7, 2014

In relation with this week’s theme I am going to recommend a podcast. As it is said to be the world’s most popular podcast, you may well have heard about it already. I am referring to Serial. It is the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18 year old student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore in 1999. Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was found guilty of Lee’s murder on February 25, 2000 after a six-week trial. He was given a life sentence despite pleading his innocence. The programme comes from the This American Life stable. The podcast’s twelve-episodes look at the case from every possible angle. I have heard ten episodes so far. It is very hard to decide whether Syed is guilty or not. My own feeling is that he may well be guilty, but the prosecution’s case was rather flimsy. Anyway go to the programme’s website and download the ten episodes that have been uploaded so far. You van make up your own mind.