One of the television landmarks of my childhood involved magicians/dissectors-of-bullshit Penn & Teller, performing the classic splice-the-assistant trick. They then performed the trick once more on a transparent stage with transparent props in order to reveal the gadgetry and choreography that had effectively deceived us. My mother loathed the bit; to this day her stalwart faith in pure magic remains uncompromised. For me, it was an awakening.
I saw Penn & Teller’s commitment to debunkery as an invitation to question the unexplained, and to search for the truth tucked under the throw-rug of perception. This curiosity need not be an omnipresent obsession – I would much rather share in the astounded guffaws of David Blaine’s close-up audience than pry into the secrets of his masterful sleight-of-hand – but when trickery is but a front for a more nefarious purpose, this well-worn skepticism is a handy frock.
James Randi has been an activist for truth and an intrepid explorer of paranormal hucksterism for decades. When Copperfield transformed the Statue of Liberty into furtive air on national television, Randi made no effort to deflate our collective entertainment. But when pseudo-psychics make ludicrous claims of otherworldly powers in their pockets, James Randi is there to reach in and show us the lint of deception.
Naturally, he has pissed off a lot of people along the way.
The Amazing Randi rose to fame as a magician in 1956 when he broke Harry Houdini’s submersion record by having himself locked inside a sealed coffin beneath the surface of a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes on The Today Show. But while Randi was happy to entertain a gawking audience, he was always critical of the mysticism that people would invite into their lives as fact. While employed by the Canadian tabloid Midnight, he penned a recurring astrology column by simply rearranging horoscopes from other publications and pasting them randomly under each sign. Read more…
It is more than a little discomforting to imagine the center of one’s universe of perception, that grey squishy head-gloop that defines for us our life, our world and our being, getting plopped onto a table and poked by scientists in search of some glimmer of truth within the think-meat. Certainly I’m fully in favor of organ donation, either for life-saving or sciencey purposes. But no sense of morality is mighty enough to quash my nagging squirminess about my inevitable demise.
Nowadays it’s easy to feel secure in our medical knowledge of the brain. We count on it. Maybe we aren’t yet equipped with the tomes of knowledge that will eradicate our diseases and prolong our existences until whenever, but we should know how things work up there, right? But to get to this point, a lot of skulls had to be cracked open and a lot of eyes had to squint at what was inside.
Sometimes those skulls belonged to famous people. And sometimes the quest for knowledge was not at the front of the list of ‘why’s. Knowing this only makes me feel that much more squeamish.
This particular slab of beige jelly once bopped along beneath the frantic trademark hair of Albert Einstein. When the great physicist expired in 1955, scientists were swiftly removing this cerebral steak from his dome within seven hours, presumably with Einstein’s prior consent. Even with most of the brain’s topography mapped out in extensive detail, the physical construction of a brain this exquisite was bound to pique a truck-full of curiosity. Was some component of this thing going to be larger or more robust than average? Or did he just master the goods that the rest of us also have? Read more…
The beauty of what some call ‘useless trivia’ is in its ephemeral nature. The facts and statistics under this heading are fleeting and transitory, often surpassed or rendered obsolete before they’ve made their way through the populace. Yet the good ones will merit a raised eyebrow, a muttered “huh”, or – at best – a thousand words of prose from a guy with a deadline. In that sense, such “useless” trivia belies its name. Yesterday’s mention of the Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore topping the list of most expensive buildings held my attention for a period of time greater than a shoe-tie and less than a pint of beer – moderate, yes. But useless? Hardly.
With this feeble sense of purpose I return once again to this exercise in curiosity-poking. What other chart-toppers represent the most expensive in their field? So far the ‘why’ remains mostly elusive (though the massive rooftop infinity pool on the Marina Bay Sands is a pretty solid ‘why’), but I’m not one to speculate on such matters.
I just report the facts; figuring ‘em out ain’t my gig.
The highest-priced books read like a logical list of what the highest-priced books should be: Shakespeare’s First Folio, an original Gutenberg Bible, an original exemplar of the Magna Carta… all rare tomes, all worthy of the prestige of costing as much as it would take to feed a starving African nation for a month. But none are worth more than this baby. Read more…