Sunday, December 12, 2010

The gall of that woman.

We both spent good money to sit in row “P” and had a common cause to see a good show. Seating at the Paramount Theater is less than ideal. I have had more leg room on a cross country coach flight on Alaskan Airlines. My only hope with comfort was to cross my legs.

In the heat of good conversation, I am animated. You would think that I was Italian by the way I use my hands when I talk. The show had not yet begun and there was much to discuss with this supposed “date”.

Penn & Teller hit the scene in the late 80’s. Their “schtick” was to be the bad boys of magic. They made it quite clear that magic was all bullshit and they occasionally exposed the secrets of the art. They would pretend that other magicians hated them for this, but in reality, they had hung out with the likes of David Copperfield in their personal lives. They were smart, funny, edgy, and I gravitated towards this.

Then I read an article about them. How they had come to know James Randi and spoke of their deep skepticism. “Wait”, I remember thinking. “these boys know about James Randi?” I was convinced at the time that nobody else knew about this funny little magician with his personal check of $10,000 for anyone willing to demonstrate psychic abilities under scientific controls. These guys loved Randi, and considered him a dear friend. In fact, it was Randi who introduced them together. There would be no Penn & Teller if not for James Randi. I was their new fanboy.

I went to one show of theirs in Penn’s home state of Massachusetts. Despite their success, they are very gracious and make a point to talk with the crowd in the lobby after the show. They were busy signing autographs and posing with photos so I decided to do something different. I approached the tower of human known as Penn Jillette and handed him my camera.

“Here, take my picture”.

Without flinching, he positioned the camera and snapped a photo of his random fan.

I did the same will Teller (he has no first name). Hesitant at first, but he complied with my request. “We have the strangest fans” he would say while doing so.

Every June I go to Vegas for James Randi’s The Amazing Meeting and geek out with fellow skeptics. It is the one time each year where I can hang out with 1,000 others that are advocates of science, science education, and critical thinking. Every Year Penn & Teller attend the same conference. As a result, I have come to know them as people, more than performers. They are both approachable and social.

“Can you please not cross your legs because your foot is touching me”.

Fuck. Really?

I had no Idea that this was happening, that my foot was touching her leg. I was prepared to see my boys give a great show, and perhaps try out some new things for their Vegas production. This was to be one of my best nights out this winter. I was comfortably resting in my seat, being social, and waiting for the curtain to rise.

“Can you please not cross your legs…”

I know I overacted by leaving, but I could not stand to be in same building as somebody so crass. I respect the personal space of others. I never recline my chair on airplanes, but I suck it up when the person in front of me reclines theirs. Never in 1,000 years would I lean to the person in front of me and ask, “could you please not recline your chair back?”

To be told not to cross my legs, took me back to the middle school in California where that snooty rich spoiled punkass informed me, “we don’t skip in Piedmont.”

Damn it, I am an adult and I will skip, or cross my legs if I want to. Also, I will allow you the right to skip or cross your legs if you want to.

Fuck you lady, I told her “thanks for ruining my evening, and enjoy the show”.

I left.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The early 80's was an especially bad time for science television. Popular shows such as Real People and That's Incredible had no quorums about broadcasting anecdotal accounts of everything from ghosts, big foot, UFOs and psychic phenomena. Also, things such as the Bermuda Triangle, Noah's Ark and Peruvian ground drawings where getting TV specials attributing all sorts of fanciful claims to them. Fortunately however, two televised events would happen that would forever change my world view. One was the PBS broadcast of the mini-series Cosmos, and the other was a guest appearance on That's My Line by a funny little magician.

James Hydrick first appeared on That's Incredible in 1980. I am almost certain that I had seen this episode because this series had been deemed required viewing from my peers in my 6th grade class. Everybody watched That's Incredible, and then we would talk about the amazing things we had seen the night before the in the quad of the middle school.

This was Piedmont, CA, where as the new kid from a nearby Oakland elementary school I was pulled aside by a snooty rich punkass and reminded that, "we don't skip in Piedmont". I digress.

Hydrick was not only a psychic and could demonstrate psychokinetic abilities, but he also claimed it could be taught to others. He even had a exclusive martial arts academy in which he would teach this art to children. It was powerful stuff. He could move pencils and turn phonebook pages, just by using his mind. It all seemed very sincere and genuine to my 11 year old brain. However, all of his self-described mystical training could not prepare him for the likes of James Randi.

It seems like James Randi has always been a colorful little old man with a beard, but his 1956 appearance on the Today Show suggests otherwise. As the Amazing Randi, he was a stage magician, escape artist, and mentalist. In this early live black & white TV appearance, a young beardless, Randi is lowered, underwater, in a small steel-cased coffin for 102 minutes. Although such an exercise does require a skillful command of slow, controlled breathing, the secret of pulling off such a stunt of successfully was mostly in the performance; the vessel easily had enough oxygen to sustain himself for this amount time (more so because Randi was such a small man leaving more room for air). It was essentially a scam. But what separated him from a con-artist was these actions had been cloaked under the umbrella as "entertainment". All parties, Randi, NBC, and the general audience understood this. What really bothered Randi was when some charlatan used these same methods of deception and, then claimed that they where true abilities of mystic phenomena.

Although he always hated the term "debunker", Randi spent most of his life exposing charlatans, con-artists, shady faith healers, and, most notably, a popular mentalist from Tel Aviv named Uri Geller, who claimed he could bend spoons with his mind. Randi had strong convictions. So convinced that that all of these folks that where making claims of physic abilities where either self deluded or downright dishonest, that he decided to put his own money on the line. He carried with him, at all times, a check for $10,000 to anybody that was able to successfully demonstrate their own physic abilities under agreed controls. This would come to be known as the "Randi Challenge", and after years of donations through his non-profit organization (JREF) it would later be called, "the Million Dollar Challenge". This prize remains unclaimed.

Randi must have been less than impressed when he first watched clips of Hydrick on TV. After all these were simple parlor tricks that would have been in the arsenal of a well trained magician such as himself. Randi extended an invitation to take his challenge, and Hydrick accepted.

James Hydrick appeared on That's My Line seemingly confident that Randi's personal check would shortly be in his possession. After a brief intro and some questions about how he came about discovering how he had such powers, he was asked to begin the demonstrations.

Hydrick, wearing a brightly colored Asian jumpsuit, and sporting a mustache that reminded me of Doug Henning, approached a small table. He gently placed a pencil on the table's edge carefully positioning it so that about half of the pencil stuck out over the floor below. After some silly martial arts style stretches, he rolled his eyes up and seemingly began to concentrate. The studio audience fell silent. And then, as if by magic, the pencil rolled itself back fully on the table. The crowd applauded, and I was convinced that I had just seen some kind of miracle take place.

He was even more dramatic after he approached a phonebook that had been placed at another small table. He requested that host of the show inspect the phonebook and then leave it on the table, opened to the page of their choosing. The stretching antics seemed more extreme this time. Finally, he crotched down in front of the table, and again began to concentrate. Again, the studio fell silent. After a few tense seconds, the impossible happened; the page seemed to turn by itself. This time there was a combination of gasps and applause.

I was amazed! He seemed to live up to his promises. Perhaps there was a greater power at work here. Maybe this was something that science could never explain. I fallen for this hook, line and sinker.

Then, James Randi was invited onto the stage. I had no memory of seeing this curious little man before. He was there to perform a simple experiment to determine if the claims of James Hydrick were true. He produced his check for $10,000 out of his breast pocket that he was willing to forfeit if this was actually the case.

Randy himself would not be making the call. He invited a small panel to decide if Hydrick did actually deliver the goods. Two had a background in science and the third was from a psychic institute in LA.

Briskly, Randi approached the first table with the pencil. He immediately discounted the value of scrutinizing this trick too closely. It was too difficult for controls, he explained. It was a large studio with many drafts. He demonstrated how easy the pencil was easily moved by duplicating the stunt himself. So he quickly shuffled over to the phone book.

"We need to rule out the possibility of blowing, see". Randi pulled out a brown paper bag and arranged the contents evenly around the edges of the phonebook. I was amazed. It was too simple, too elegant. Blowing could be the means of the page moving, of course, that makes sense, but what control does one employ to rule this possibility out? Styrofoam packing peanuts.

For the next 50 minutes (it was cut down for broadcast) Hydrick would do his funny stretches, kneel down in front of the phonebook and styrofoam, roll up his eyes and begin to concentrate... But this time, the pages did not move. He would then stand up, give some lame excuse, "the lights and packing material are creating some sort of static electricity field" and repeat this process. The page remained motionless. Hydrick, now frustrated and embarrassed, finally gave up.

As the show was ready to wrap up. Randi approached his panel once again, and one by one asked them if they had seen any demonstration of psychic ability that evening. In turn, each one responded, "no, I have not".

It was 1981 and I was now a skeptic.