Illusionist Turned Disillusionist
October 25, 2020
The Good News
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“The art of life is to show your hand. There is no diplomacy like candor. You may lose by it now and then, but it will be a loss well gained if you do. Nothing is so boring as having to keep up a deception.” — E. V. Lucas
“Magicians are the most honest people in the world: They tell you they’re going to fool you, and then they do it.” — James Randi
Illusionist Turned Disillusionist
(Kevin Winter via Getty Images)
Magicians are often considered purveyors of falsities, selling sleight of hand, illusion, and deception — attempting to warp our perception of reality. However, the passing of one James Randi prompts us to flip this notion on its head. Randi — who spent the first half of his life achieving Houdini-like stunts and mastering classical stage magic — died at the age of 92 on Tuesday with a lasting legacy as a seeker of truth, having spent his later years investigating supernatural and pseudoscientific claims.
Using the intimate knowledge of human perception, Randi helped birth the modern skeptical movement, which sought to debunk “supernatural” scammers using scientific rationalism. His primary targets included dubious mind readers, healers, fortune tellers, and ghost whisperers. His most famous investigation involved Peter Popoff, a religious leader who claimed that God was able to transmit personal information of his followers into his brain during church services. In reality, Randi found it was merely a hidden earpiece relaying messages from his wife. Once renowned for dangling over Niagara Falls in a straightjacket, Randi retired from magic at age 60 and founded the Committee For Skeptical Inquiry alongside Carl Sagan to help rid the world of malicious pseudoscience.
“People who are stealing money from the public, cheating them and misinforming them — that’s the kind of thing that I’ve been fighting all my life,” Randi said in the 2014 documentary “An Honest Liar.” “Magicians are the most honest people in the world: They tell you they’re going to fool you, and then they do it.”
Despite his legendary reputation as a debunker, Randi pushed back against the label, favoring the “skeptic” or “investigator.”
“I never want to be referred to as a debunker,” he said in 1991, “because that implies someone who says, ‘This isn’t so, and I’m going to prove it.’ I don’t go in with that attitude. I’m an investigator. I only expect to show that something is not likely.”
While Peter Popoff was perhaps his most prominent exposè — Randi harbored a special disdain for Uri Geller, a famed illusionist who claims he can bend spoons with his mind using telepathy. These assertions irked Randi to no end, and as he continuously proved that Geller’s tools were manipulated beforehand. As a result, the skeptical savant worked with producers of the Tonight Show to ensure that Geller tried his “powers” on unaltered metals, providing the world with one of the most awkward moments in television history.
All in all, James Randi leaves behind him an expansive and endlessly fascinating legacy. Whether he be remembered as a master of deception or a skeptical steward of reality — his magic will resonate with us for years to come.
Anything You Can Do Thai Can Do Better
(Vachira Vachira via Getty Images)
- Weekend reports out of Thailand are reminiscent of scenes from Hong Kong — or the Hunger Games — as pro-democracy protesters brave brutal treatment from riot police. On both sides, tactics are being ripped directly out of the Hong Kong playbook as Thailand’s monarchical government tries desperately to quell an uprising in the streets.
- What began as a student-led protest on military influence has quickly evolved into a large-scale demonstration calling for sweeping government reform. Despite an emergency order banning large gatherings, anti-government enthusiasm continues to swell But as the number of protesters grows, so does the aggression of the government forces, who recently resorted to water cannons and water-based irritants to break up a largely peaceful demonstration.
- Put on the retreat by such a surprising use of force, leaders of the Thai protest movement have taken the lessons learned from the enduring Hong Kong protests and applied them to their current struggle with authoritarianism. The sharing of tactics has led to an impromptu pro-democracy solidarity movement online, entitled the Milk Tea Alliance. Named after a Southeast Asian beverage that is distinctly non-Chinese, which has come to represent a resistance to all-powerful governments, the Milk Tea Alliance has provided an online platform for protestors to share notes on how to deal with violent crackdowns.
- It appears that not only are protestors sharing notes, but state police as well. Thailand’s imposition of a gathering ban has gone so far as to include a censorship ban on selfies at events, which they believe will inspire others to join and are punishable by a fine or prison sentence. This, along with water cannons and chemical agents are reminiscent of Chinese tactics to squash protests. Another avenue of suppression has been the media, as Thailand has recently imposed extreme censorship on four local media outlets covering the movement.
- At present, the streets are still occupied by protests, which now move sporadically across Bangkok in hopes of avoiding the police. Protestors claimed a temporary victory last weekend when riot police abstained from using water cannons to stop pop-up protests, but only time will tell if Hong Kong’s influence in Thailand grants more favor to the state or the citizens. (Foreign Policy)
Additional World News
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- Sudan formally recognizes Israel in US-brokered deal (NBC)
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- COVID Has Caused Millions to Lose their Sense of Smell—One Writer’s Journey to a Scentless Life and Back (Vogue)
What Makes A Monopoly?
- This week, the internet certainly took notice as the DOJ and 11 states filed antitrust lawsuits against Google, claiming that they abuse their monopoly power as “the unchallenged gateway to the internet for billions of users worldwide.” And while it is certainly true that Google serves as the de facto entry point to the worldwide web, some skeptics of the suit may question who exactly is being harmed by the big G’s search bar hegemony.
- Traditional antitrust lawsuits tend to focus on the direct harm being done to consumers, such as price hikes imposed by unrivaled oil companies. But in the age of technology, these arguments are a bit more nebulous. Just take Google’s defense statement on the state of online competition: “Today, you can easily download your choice of apps or change your default settings in a matter of seconds—faster than you can walk to another aisle in the grocery store.”
- However, the DOJ’s suit comes prepared with a convincing rebuttal. It cites that “by using distribution agreements to lock up scale for itself and deny it to others… all search access points funnel users in one direction: toward Google.” For example, Google has a paid agreement with Apple to make their browser default on Safari and pre-installs its search engine on all Androids. And while this certainly hurts other search engine companies like Bing, how exactly does this harm consumers?
- The answer comes in the form of user privacy, the DOJ argues. Upstart sites like DuckDuckGo and Neeva offer users an ad-free experience that doesn’t gleen consumer data, but such improvements to the internet have struggled to break through given Google’s dominance. While not a Google-specific problem, some see antitrust penalties against Google’s data collection dominance can help make the internet a safer space for users.
- “While Google’s anti-competitive practices hurt companies like us, the negative impact on society and democracy wrought by their surveillance business model is far worse,” said DuckDuckGo’s founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg after the lawsuit was announced. “The endless data collection and behavioral targeting originated by Google and forced onto the world through its search engine monopoly has led to discrimination, polarization, and the widespread false belief that getting privacy online is difficult.” (The Verge)
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Additional USA News
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- Read Ghislaine Maxwell’s Deposition In Jeffrey Epstein Case (NPR)
- US Ice officers ‘used torture to make Africans sign own deportation orders’ (Guardian)
If It Ain’t McBroke…
- You know the saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. At McDonald’s, some may argue the saying goes “if it is broke, don’t fix it.” At least when it comes to their infamous ice cream machines, which never seem to be functioning when you’re struck with an insatiable craving for a McFlurry. Luckily, one software engineer suffers from the same crummy ice cream luck and has decided to do something about it.
- Using a bot that automatically screens all of the McDonalds nationwide, Rashiq Zahid now knows whether he can order a McFlurry before he heads over to the drive-thru. And now you can too. Introducing McBroken, an absolutely groundbreaking site that maps every golden arch in the United States and lets you know if the ice cream machine is running.
- How is this possible? According to Zahid, he used the restaurant’s mobile app to see if he could order ice cream. If the app lets you add it to your cart, the theory goes, then the machine is working. If not, then you’re outta luck. After testing it out on a small scale, he then wrote a code that would test this theory on a massive scale. “I reverse-engineered McDonald’s internal ordering API,” he explained on Twitter “and I’m currently placing an order worth $18,752 every minute at every McDonald’s in the US to figure out which locations have a broken ice cream machine.”
- Surprisingly, McDonald’s doesn’t seem to mind the extreme workaround that customers are using to satisfy their McFlurry cravings, even acknowledging that machine maintenance has been a particular vulnerability for the company. “Only a true McDonald’s fan would go to these lengths to help customers get our delicious ice cream!” said communications and government relations executive David Tovar. “So thanks! We know we have some opportunities to consistently satisfy even more customers with sweet treats and we will.” (Ars Technica)
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- The inventor of the ‘4% rule’ just changed it (Investor Watch)
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