July 18, 2008

Murder as Magic Trick

The Washington Post finally develops some skepticism (after uncritically relaying the suicide theory peddled by attorneys for some of the prison guards in the death of Ronnie L. White:

Five medical examiners from across the country interviewed by The Washington Post said it would have been difficult for White to have broken the hyoid bone in his neck by hanging himself.

Bobby Henry, an attorney for White's family, said that he does not think White committed suicide and that any discussion of such rumors distracts from the homicide investigation.

"The medical examiner's office has already given the cause of death, and that is not going to change," Henry said. White's "neck was broken, and he was strangled to death. There's nothing that can change that, nothing. . . . You can't willy-nilly come up with a convenient explanation three weeks later of suicide."

The medical examiners interviewed by The Post noted that the hyoid, a U-shaped piece of bone and cartilage just above the Adam's apple that helps form the airway, is fairly flexible in young adults and was more likely to be broken by a violent strangulation than a hanging.

This bit could have been presented with a bit more skepticism:

The revelation of additional evidence -- sources said a bedsheet was found in or near White's cell-- appears to lend some credence to the suicide theory. But it's unclear where, when and in what condition detectives found the sheet. If it was removed from White's cell, it could amount to tampering with evidence, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Now, why hasn't the Post published photos of the crime scene? Why hasn't the paper gotten a timeline of what happened after the body was discovered -- who found it, how many people entered the cell, at what point were guards told to preserve evidence, etc? And why is the Post presenting the suicide theory as even being vaguely respectable (White's body was not found hanging from the rafters, but on the floor). Did he hang himself and, with has last bit of strength, pull down the bed sheet and force it through the small opening for food trays in the door to his cell?

Posted by Ideofact at 07:14 AM | Comments (0)

July 15, 2008


Apparently they survived the persecutions of the middle ages.

I've been rereading Norman Cohn's work Europe's Inner Demons, (Amazon link here), which describes their persecution in some detail. I had no idea there were modern Waldensians, let alone American ones. More about them here.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:58 PM | Comments (0)

July 13, 2008

Is there anyone out there?

This is one of the most interesting things I've read in ages -- and while I tend to think that whatever happens I'll continue to sleep soundly, nevertheless here I am at near 2 a.m., suddenly insomniac with my mind rushing to, well, this.

There's been a long standing effort -- largely volunteer -- to listen to space, with the hope of picking up patterns in frequencies suggestive of language, or intelligence -- proof of extraterrestrial life. (It's called SETI, or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life.) Now some of those folks are thinking of trying to get aliens to notice us:

Recently, several groups, ranging from radio astronomers in Argentina and Russia all the way to the web advertising site Craig's List, have declared that they intend to commence broadcasting high-intensity Messages to ETI... or METI... an endeavor also known at "Active SETI". Their intention is to change the observable brightness of Earth civilization by many orders of magnitude, in order to attract attention to our planet from anyone who might be out there.

Let there be no mistake. METI is a very different thing than passively sifting for signals from the outer space. Carl Sagan, one of the greatest SETI supporters and a deep believer in the notion of altruistic alien civilizations, called such a move deeply unwise and immature.

Why is this a bad idea? David Brin, author of the piece I'm linking, gives a very succinct reason:

In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond offers an essay on the risks of attempting to contact ETIs, based on the history of what happened on Earth whenever more advanced civilizations encountered less advanced ones... or indeed, when the same thing happens during contact between species that evolved in differing ecosystems. The results are often not good: in inter-human relations slavery, colonialism, etc. Among contacting species: extinction.

And here we might add: Modern western civilization, with its interest in foreign literatures and languages, its attempts to preserve environments and species, may be entirely anomalous in all the universe. Calling attention to ourselves might be suicide. It seems far more likely than this somewhat self-contradictory bit of ideology:

In Russia, the pro-METI consensus is apparently founded upon a quaint doctrine from the 1930s maintaining that all advanced civilizations must naturally and automatically be both altruistic and socialist. This Soviet Era dogma — now stripped of socialist or Lysenkoist imagery — still insists that technologically adept aliens can only be motivated by Universal Altruism (UA). The Russian METI group, among the most eager to broadcast into space, dismisses any other concept as childishly apprehensive "science fiction".

What's amazing, of course--and I believe this is the main point of Brin's essay--is that such a small number of people, acting in small groups, could make a decision of such existential importance for not only the human race but for every species on earth.

And here I must confess that I'm reminded of a bit from a Woody Allen story -- "[Andre Malraux and I] talk of serious things, and he tells me man is free to choose his own fate and that not until he realizes that death is part of life can he really understand existence. Then he offers to sell me a rabbit's foot." I don't think I believe that aliens are traversing the cosmos -- that real versions of Klingons, Mysterons or even Galactus are out there ready and able to pick up on a signal from earth. But this is merely my gut talking, as well as my prejudice (which serves me just as well when it comes to religion) that absence of evidence for thousands and thousand and millions and millions of years is, in empirical terms, sufficient to conclude there is evidence of absence.

But I really DON'T KNOW, and just as I'm unlikely to, for example, find out if a massive body builder has a bad temper by repeatedly calling him a wimp and a wussy, I'm not sure that advertising earth's location is the smartest way to find out whether I'm right about Galactus. Two rabbit's foots, please.

Posted by Ideofact at 02:20 AM | Comments (0)

July 12, 2008

Only a movie...

...and only a movie review, even if both seem to disappoint (I haven't seen the film, but I trust the review accurately describes it).

We fool ourselves when we believe we live in a rational age, or that we have sloughed off superstition -- that our religious beliefs are grounded in unchanging truths (which our fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers viewed quite differently) or sound rational theology and exegesis (neither exists). Far more grounded than theologians, mystics and other cranks are sleight of hand artists who deceive, but well know how precarious their miracles are. From this, I believe, they derive a certain intellectual rigor when looking at the supernatural. Harry Houdini was such a man:

...in the final analysis, Houdini's great claim to permanent fame lay in his crusade against fraudulent mediums and other charlatans who preyed upon the public. Fearless of hazard or threat, he worked ceaselessly in the exposure and suppression of such fakery. The publicity he gained was tremendous, but it did not compensate for the risk he encountered. Today, many people have forgotten what an important factor spiritism had become in American life shortly after World War I when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other famous personages were conducting an all-out campaign on its behalf. It is now considered as much as a crank phenomenon as was proved by its merely spasmodic revival after World War II.

As a professional magician, Houdini could spot a trick from a mile away, and successfully debunked fakes. For a time, he served as a consultant to Scientific American evaluating and exposing the claims of mystics (but nearly quit when the august publication published an article suggesting that one fake, Mina Crandon, was a real medium; Houdini was determined to expose the "vivacious" Ms. Crandon as a fraud, something he managed to do without much difficulty.

Testifying before Congress, Houdini explained, in part, why he pursued the phony mediums and mystics, and why he favored Congress outlawing psychics in Washington, D.C.:

You will stop people being robbed under the guise of mediumship. It is time to do something in this regard. If you were to die and your wife went to to a medium, they would rob her of every penny by claiming to bring your spirit back.

At that same hearing, Houdini issued this challenge:

I will give $10,000 to any clairvoyant in the world that will do one test. ... Tell me the name my mother called me when I was born. Tell me the pet name my father used to call me.

Houdini issued the challenge in a crowded Senate committee room, well attended by professional mediums, psychics, and clairvoyants. None took up his challenge.

In the Slate movie review, Dana Stevens writes,

Watching a movie newsreel, Mary and Benji learn that the great American escape artist Houdini has offered $10,000 to any self-proclaimed clairvoyant who can guess his mother's last words. (Though this contest is fictional, the real Houdini did have an obsession with exposing mediums as frauds and a fixation on his mother.) Mary decides that when Houdini (Guy Pearce) comes to town for an upcoming engagement, they'll sneak into his hotel room, dig through his personal effects, and piece together the mystery of that final maternal utterance.

Mary and Benji's half-baked scam is soon exposed, but Houdini takes a shine to the scruffy, resourceful pair and even believes (or is he just pretending to believe?) in Mary's paranormal gifts—a faith not shared by his cranky manager, Mr. Sugarman (the ever-welcome Timothy Spall). Houdini sets up the McGarvies in a posh hotel suite near his own, encouraging them to spy all they want, confident that they'll never uncover those last words. Meanwhile, he expensively courts the dubious Mary, who can't figure out the great magician's motives. Surely it's not possible that he's actually falling for her?

Let's hope not -- Houdini and his wife by all accounts had a warm, deep, enduring love. It is hard to imagine he'd fall for a faker. Houdini of course did issue the $10,000 challenge.

Why not a more interesting movie? On Houdini as monogamous hero, exposer of frauds, running against public sentiment which desperately wanted to believe the dead could be contacted -- Houdini, the sane man in a mad world? The sane man who made his money by wrapped in chains and straitjackets and sunk underwater and "miraculously" escaping.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:26 AM | Comments (0)

July 06, 2008

The dreariness of civil rights and progressive taxation

I despair for newspapers. Even when they mean well, even when they try to do real research and reporting, their blinders are billboard sized and they show the same disregard for the news of the past as they do for the present. Here's what mars an otherwise passably interesting account of the election of 1892:

[Independent candidate James B.] Weaver's pledge in Omaha injected an element of drama into what was shaping up as a tedious rerun of the campaign of 1888. With Harrison paired against Cleveland, yet another election fought over the dreary terrain of tariffs, the tired Civil War symbolism of "waving the bloody shirt" and states' rights appeared inevitable. The cynicism engendered by the prospect of another contest between Cleveland and Harrison was so pervasive, one observer joked, "either party would have been glad to defeat the other if it could do so without electing its own candidate."

The bloody shirt, of course, was the bloody shirt of the Civil War--a canard if there ever was one. When Radical Republicans talked about equal rights for former slaves, they were accused of waving the bloody shirt. Robert B. Mitchell, the story's author, seems to know this well enough -- he's just not interested in the subject:

Weaver's campaign was less successful as it headed south. Democrats, recognizing the Populists as a threat to their dominance, demonized him as a Dixie-hating Yankee who abused citizens under his jurisdiction when he was a Union Army colonel stationed in Tennessee during the war. Moreover, Democrats warned white voters that support for the Populists could take enough votes away from Cleveland to put Harrison back in the White House and strengthen federal efforts to protect the voting rights of black men.

"Do you think that self-respecting Southern men can now vote for such a man?" Democratic Rep. Charles Triplett O'Ferrall of Virginia asked reporters. As the campaign continued, Southern Democrats worked hard to ensure that the answer was "no."

Apparently, strengthening federal efforts to protect the voting rights of black men is inconsequential dreariness to this author and to editors of the Post. As for the tariff--it was recognized even then as a form of regressive taxation. The question was whether federal revenue would be derived from a tax on foreign products that drove up the cost of consumer goods to benefit domestic manufacturers (many of which were backed by foreign investment), and which items would be taxed (which manufacturers would be protected) -- the ultimate money-in-politics story of the 19th century. How dreary, indeed.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:32 AM | Comments (0)

July 03, 2008

Hot rod

When it comes to magic, I think I most enjoy doing card tricks and coin tricks, but only when I'm not using a trick deck or some specially made coin. Which is not to say that I haven't been buying self working mechanical magic tricks--I have, but most of them disappoint me. Perhaps it's the ease of performing the trick that disappoints.

Today my crystal cleaver arrived (I got it off ebay for considerably less than Magic Geek sells it, but they have a wonderful YouTube of the effect). It took me about five minutes to master the trick; I showed it to my son and then my wife; both were suitably impressed. After I did it, they examined the components of the trick (in this case, a small sword, a clear box with a lid, a larger box, the base, and my wedding band) and were baffled as to how the trick was done. And yet...

I also got my hot rod, which is a very simple trick (I had one when I was a kid and loved it) but is absolutely naked -- it depends entirely on a visible gesture made by the magician, in front of the audience. The apparatus itself is stupid -- if you let the audience inspect the trick, it's ruined. The entire illusion is in the hands, the voice, and in the mind of the viewer. It is infinitely more satisfying when the object -- the wand with paste jewels, the coin, the cards -- is a pretext, and the subject is the magician's gestures, voice and will.

Posted by Ideofact at 01:26 AM | Comments (0)

Crime, conspiracy

If this is true, why hasn't there been an arrest?

Knowles said officers would probably have had to swipe a computerized ID card to enter the unit that housed White's cell. A log of which cards were swiped, and when, to enter the area should be available, he said.

If there are no swiped cards, why didn't the Post figure that out? And when will we see pictures of the immaculate crime scene?

Posted by Ideofact at 12:26 AM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2008

F is for Falco

When most European bands assumed that English was the only language for Rock 'n' roll, Falco joyously cranked out hits in his Austrian dialect:

Posted by Ideofact at 12:55 AM | Comments (0)

More crime

The description of the crime scene makes it sound almost like a magic trick: the body of a healthy 19-year-old man, sitting in the center of the cell which had been checked a mere 15 minutes before, without a wound or even a mark on him, dead of no apparent cause.

But perhaps it's just that I'm reading the coverage of this extra-judicial killing (as long as we're using antiseptic terminology) in the Washington Post:

Ronnie L. White was pronounced dead at Prince George's Hospital Center about an hour after he was found sitting on the floor of his cell beside his bunk, unresponsive and with no detectable pulse, officials at the county jail said.

A few things I'm curious about: There have been no photos published in the Post (or anywhere else, for that matter) of the crime scene. We learn today that guards are mum, but have reporters tried to interview inmates at the facility? Why does the Post publish sentences like this one: "It wasn't clear why the correctional officers reportedly declined to answer questions. " Only to Post reporters would this be puzzling.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:47 AM | Comments (0)

State of emergency

In Mongolia:

ULAN BATOR (Reuters) - Mongolian President Nambariin Enkhbayar has declared a state of emergency for four days, after Mongolians alleging election fraud clashed with police and set fire to the headquarters of the ruling party, state television said on Wednesday.

The chaos threatens to further delay deals that could unlock vast reserves of coal, uranium and other resources beneath the country's vast steppes and deserts, and are seen as key to lifting the isolated Central Asian state out of poverty.

"The president has declared a state of emergency according to the constitution ... from 11:30 p.m. on July 1 for a period of four days," television said.

The state of emergency means protests are banned and authorises security forces to break up protests using force. Central areas have been put under curfew from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m. and alcohol sales are banned over the period.

A few years ago, I met with a delegation of Mongolian journalists -- they talked about the corruption, coercion, and general lack of accountability of the government. It appears things have worsened. And does anyone think the rank-and-file Mongol will benefit from the country's mineral wealth?

Posted by Ideofact at 12:21 AM | Comments (0)

July 01, 2008


Did it sound different? Instead of the measured footfalls of a solitary guard checking--every half hour--to make certain that the prisoner on suicide watch was all right, did the alleged cop killer hear voices in the shadows which changed to panting, steps quickening as many men rushed the cell? What did they say to the man they condemned?

Or was it the same as it had been for the past 34 hours -- the same monotonous footfalls as the guard approached. Perhaps this time he stopped, offered a kind word, opened the cell door -- your mother wants to see you -- and then put his hands around Ronnie White's neck and strangled him:

A 19-year-old man suspected of killing a Prince George's County police officer was strangled in the county jail two days after his arrest, the state medical examiner's office concluded yesterday.

Ronnie L. White, who was found unresponsive Sunday morning, died of asphyxiation, and two small bones in his neck were broken, according to preliminary autopsy findings. Officials offered no theories about who might have killed him.

An earlier report of White's death noted the apparent lack of a cause of death:

White, of the 9100 block of Tumbleweed Run in the Laurel area of Howard County, had been charged with first-degree murder in Friday's death of Cpl. Richard S. Findley, 39. Two men in a pickup police believe was stolen hit Findley as they fled an apartment complex in Laurel. Police say White was the driver. Findley suffered massive head trauma and died a short time later.

Col. Gregory O. Harris, deputy director of operations for the county's Corrections Department, said he could not rule out the possibility that White committed suicide, but he stressed that there were no visible signs of trauma on him. He also said White had passed a medical and psychological evaluation when he entered the Upper Marlboro jail early Saturday and at that time "showed no signs of suicide or depression at all."

White weighs about what I do -- 140 pounds -- and at 5-10 he's an inch taller than I am. A single powerful man, whom White did not suspect, would most likely be able to subdue and strangle him, perhaps with an implement, perhaps with his bare hands.

It is rather depressing to read the Post's feckless account of White's last hours. Where was he being held? What was the corridor like? What interaction could there have been between White and his murderer?

Posted by Ideofact at 12:26 AM | Comments (0)