Phenomenon

I watched this new show called Phenomenon on Wednesday. Basically, it’s American Idol with magicians (mentalists, to be specific). Criss Angel plays the part of Simon Cowell, and Uri Geller plays the part of Paula Abdul.

First of all, I loved the show. It’s all done live (supposedly), which gives it a realistic feeling that you don’t get with a lot of modern magic on TV (e.g., Mindfreak or David Blaine’s specials). The guy with the nailgun was particularly intense; you know he probably won’t screw it up, but just knowing there’s a small chance he’ll puncture his brain on live television is enough to keep it interesting. The bear trap guy was less impressive. Dude, you didn’t even hide the fact that you switched the trap. And are you in pain or not? At least keep your act consistent.

But there is a degree of confusion in this show that sorta pisses me off. On one hand, there’s Uri Geller there, who claims to have “real” psychic abilities. In the introductions to the contestants, some of them told stories about sensing the death of a loved one, or whatever. The show seems to foster the belief that these people really do read minds.

On the other hand, Criss Angel is there. I think Criss Angel is awesome. If you watch carefully, you see that his approach is actually quite skeptical. On his show, he sometimes reveals how he did his tricks. He refers to his feats as “illusions” or “demonstrations”, and never claims to have any supernatural abilities. I think this was epitomized in one episode of Mindfreak, when he spent the entire episode putting on a seance and freaking people out by having them see and feel ghosts. At the very end of the show, he said something like “so do you believe in ghosts now? I don’t.” Nice. On Phenomenon, these people are illusionists; what they do is amazing, but not supernatural. They can make it look like they are reading minds, but they are not. It’s awe-inspiring in a similar manner to really good special effects in a movie. You almost believe it’s real, but you know it’s not.

Phenomenon can’t decide if it’s trying to amaze us by tricking us into thinking it’s real, or by showing us really good performances by people who we know are trying to trick us. Now, you know I’m not one to completely dismiss psychic phenomena. There’s something to them, and they’re worth researching scientifically. But nobody in their right mind is going to believe that flawless mindreading is going to happen on a reality show (nor any other silly game). I’d be more impressed if the show was up front about that.

My guess is that Uri Geller prevents it. He wants people to believe that stage magic is a genuine demonstration of psychic abilities, so that his own stage magic thrives. The dude does some impressive stuff, but come on, he can’t really bend spoons with his mind. Again, with him, I’d be more impressed if he didn’t put on the whole “everything I do is because I’m actually psychic” act. He did a demonstration of his “abilities” live on the show, by having the audience choose a symbol (one of the five Zener card symbols) that he had sealed in an envelope. It just barely worked out – and hey Uri, any chance you always pick the star in demonstrations like this? How about randomly selecting the symbol next time?

Anyway, like I said, loved the show, but I do wish it wouldn’t perpetuate the myth that stage mentalism and “real” paranormal phenomena are the same, or even related. I have a long standing interest in both, but they are completely separate things.

Bonus fact: Uri Geller designed the logo for *N Sync. It must have taken all his psychic energy to conjure up a star to put in front of the band’s name. Oh hey! Maybe it’s related to the fact that most people out of any randomly selected group will choose a star over other symbols. Well played, Uri.

Capital Idea


I was reading a charming little article at New Scientist, called “How Does it Feel to Die?”, and came across the following passage:

Despite the public boasting of several prominent executioners in late 19th-century Britain, a 1992 analysis of the remains of 34 prisoners found that in only about half of cases was the cause of death wholly or partly due to spinal trauma. Just one-fifth showed the classic “hangman’s fracture” between the second and third cervical vertebrae. The others died in part from asphyxiation.

Michael Spence, an anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, has found similar results in US victims. He concluded, however, that even if asphyxiation played a role, the trauma of the drop would have rapidly rendered all of them unconscious. “What the hangmen were looking for was quick cessation of activity,” he says. “And they knew enough about their craft to ensure that happened. The thing they feared most was decapitation.”

I’m so proud of my school. If it weren’t for this fine Western scholar, we’d all lie awake at night worrying about whether hanging victims were conscious while they were strangled to death.

Hanging ain’t so bad after all. Crime, here I come.

Location Location Location

I started up Google Earth for the first time in a while today. The newest addition is the ability to see what space looks like from any location on Earth, which is pretty cool. So of course, the first place I go to is our new house. The space stuff was boss, but I made an even better discovery:

We’re two minutes away from a clown school! Why the hell am I going to boring old real school?

Also note that London’s representation on Google Earth still isn’t the greatest. It’s a blurry mess, and I didn’t have to censor my road because it’s not even labeled. Come on, I want 3D models of nearby buildings so that I never have to leave the house again.

Stephen King’s Richard Bachman’s “New” Novel

I saw this book in Chapters the other day, and my eye was drawn to Stephen King’s name. Of course, this is exactly what the publishers wanted my eye to do, because everyone knows who Stephen King is, but fewer know Richard Bachman. The funny thing is, the book’s only author is Bachman, whose name you may be able to make out in tiny letters at the top. It’s only the forward that is written by King

Since when does the writer of the forward get a bigger font than the writer of the novel?

Granted, it would be less forgivable if King and Bachman were not the same person, nullifying any confusion about who wrote the book. Still, weird.

I was also surprised to see King putting out another book so soon after his last one. But it turns out that this was written in the 70s as one of the original “Bachman books”, then never released. King only rewrote Blaze recently, in addition to writing like 5 other novels from scratch. He can write books faster than I can read them.

I can’t imagine the time, motivation, and willpower it would take to write 2 or 3 novels in a year. Actually, scratch that; if I was being paid millions of dollars to live in a fancy house in Maine, and all I had to do was spooge my fantasies into a keyboard all day every day, it would take zero willpower. I’d drop everything and do that in a heartbeat. No, scratch that; in a hamster’s heartbeat.

A hamster’s heart beats over 450 times per minute!

And it’s spelled hamster, not hampster. Where does everyone get that P?

Oh, hey, maybe I should go study for my big set of exams coming up in 2 weeks instead of procrastinating by looking up animal heart rates. Unless anyone wants to offer me a novel deal for enough cash to take a few years off of school and write? I haven’t really written anything before, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out. Anyone?

So It Goes

Aw shit, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died.

Celebrity deaths don’t affect me often, but there is something different about authors. My heart skipped a few beats when I heard this. I think many people have a very real and very intimate connection with authors. Stephen King once wrote that writing is like telepathy, and in a way that’s true. An author transmits their thoughts onto paper, then that paper reaches readers who are distant in space and time, who mentally recieve the author’s thoughts through the filter of their own thoughts. It’s necessarily one-way telepathy – author to reader – but it’s still very personal, especially if the author is putting themselves in their work, as Vonnegut did (both literally and figuratively).

I read a few of his books in high school, and they most certainly influenced my thoughts from that point forward. I remember doing my big “ISP” (independent study project) in English class on him. Instead of a boring essay, I wrote a short story in his style. I’ll post it below. It’s not all that well-written (but hey, I was a teenager when I wrote it), and obviously nothing compared to Vonnegut himself, but I still think it captured a bit of his style. And although it makes no sense, I think it has a certain internal logic running through it. Think of it as a tribute.

digital-actors-or-now-were-having-fun.pdf

Reality Television Secrets

So I TiVo’ed American Idol last night and watched it this morning. I discovered that, if you fast forward through the commercials and useless filler, you can watch a 2 hour episode of Idol in approximately 40 minutes. That means about 66% of the show is skippable. It’s not a good sign when you’re watching a show in which the majority of its material can be discarded without detracting from it. Why do I bother?

Still, I’m glad that this season there are TWO funny chubby guys. They’re always good to watch. And one of them is named “Sundance Head”, which is a pretty damn funny name. Though with a last name of “Head”, pretty much any first name is funny. If it were my last name, I’d name one of my kids Richard so he could be Dick Head. Another one would be Harold, so he could be Harry Head, which would become ironically hilarious when he inherited my baldness genes.

You know what show has even more filler though? Deal or No Deal. If you skip the crap, it’s approximately 30 seconds long (i.e., “I pick case #4! *FAST FORWARD* Ohhh, look, your case contained 2 dollars. Should’ve made a deal. *FAST FORWARD* Here are shots of all the models *FAST FORWARD* See you next time! I’m Howie Mandel! I’m mentally ill…isn’t that funny!?”)

I do find the fact that it’s popular pretty fascinating. I have a feeling it’s getting down to basic psychological principles; like the need to resolve uncertainty (i.e. what’s in each case), the reward that results from resolving it (i.e. opening cases), and the fact that people will keep watching what’s, basically, a person playing a giant scratch-and-win ticket, just for these little rewards. It’s sorta like rats pushing levers over and over if it will sporadically release a reward. In some cases, they’ll just keep pushing until they die. Perhaps people aren’t exaggerating when they say that reality TV will bring about the end of the world.

Nine Inch Nails Kickass "Viral Marketing" Stuff

OK this is pretty cool. A new Nine Inch Nails album is coming out pretty soon, and to promote it, a series of weird-ass web sites have popped up in relation to it, such as this one (click and drag), this one, and this one. There is a whole story emerging out of it, involving terrorism and drugs and corrupt governments and all that good stuff.

An image that recurs on these sites is the following:

A hand reaching down from the sky, or something.

Then, recently, an mp3 file appeared on the internet. Apparently, it was found on an abandoned USB drive in a bathroom at a NIN show. The file contained a brand new NIN track, along with some static at the end. The song can currently be heard here, but who knows for how long.

But the weird, and very cool, thing is that when you run the file through a computer program that allows you to see the “spectrum” of the static, you see this:

The same hand. Creepy.

Obviously this is all a marketing ploy, designed to draw attention to the new album. The web sites are created by a marketing company, and the mp3 wasn’t “leaked” at all; it was made to be found. But if an artist wants to draw attention to their work, this is the way to do it. Getting people involved and entertained by using the power of the internet to spread ideas that no individual could figure out (I’d never think to visualize the static like that). This couldn’t have happened a few years ago. I didn’t even know a new NIN album was on the horizon, but now I’m kinda excited about it, so the ploy is working. Good job, Trent.

As a side note, this isn’t the first time a musician has hidden images in sounds. Apparently Aphex Twin did this a while ago:

It’s his own face. Obviously. The dude plasters his creepy face on everything he does, even the music itself. It would be annoying if the music wasn’t so wonderful.

Anyway, just thought I’d share.

Anagrams

Rearrange my name, and this is what you get (from this web site, Sternest Meanings):

  • Mike Battista -> I’m a basket tit.
  • Michael Battista -> Blast it! I’m a cheat.
  • Michael E. Battista -> I am athletic beast.
  • Michael Evan Battista -> Hateable victim Satan.

Nice. I think I’ll just call myself “hateable victim Satan” from now on.

Also:

  • George W Bush -> He grew bogus.
  • Osama Bin Laden -> A damn alien S.O.B.
  • Justin Timberlake -> I’m a jerk, but listen.