Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Turkish President tries to censor accusations of censorship

It seems to be Idiots’ Month right now. There’s the man who thought the best way to be reunited with his ex-wife would be to hijack a plane while wearing a fake suicide vest. There’s the politician attempting to get “down with the kids” by communicating with them “on the Twitters”. There’s the woman who climbed to the summit of Britain’s highest mountain wearing shorts. And there’s Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

For a long time, Erdoğan has been accused of an increasingly autocratic style of rule. A glance at his Wikipedia page is quite sobering, especially the sub-headings in the “Controversies” section: Accusations of antisemitism; Politicisation of the judiciary; Media intimidation and censorship; Electoral fraud; Political polarisation; Mehmet Aksoy lawsuit (in which the President ordered the destruction of a sculpture that called for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia); Crackdown on Academics for Peace.

Quick! Ban this photo!

Now, one of the things that has annoyed and frustrated Turkey for some time now has been that the country doesn’t seem to be eligible to join the EU. Something about Cyprus and “human rights”, apparently. Erdoğan is the latest in a long line of Turkish leaders trying to convince the EU to let his country in.

Earlier this month, some headway seemed to have been made, insofar as Germany had started saying that maybe, if Turkey gets its act together, there may be a case for allowing Turkey in. You’d think, therefore, that Erdoğan might be doing his homework on what European values are.

A few days later, a satirical German TV show called Extra 3 criticized some of the excesses of Erdoğan’s government in the form of a song with accompanying video (activate the “CC” icon for English subtitles). Sung to the tune of an old Nena hit called Irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann, it made reference to allegations of oppression of the Kurds, the use of violence to counter peaceful demonstrations and the highly controversial new presidential palace illegally built in a nature reserve. But it also prominently mentioned government interference in press freedoms, with lines like these:
Bei Pressefreiheit kriegt er ’nen Hals,
drum braucht er viele Schals.
Ein Journalist, der was verfasst,
das Erdoğan nicht passt,
ist morgen schon im Knast.
Press freedom makes his neck bulge,
which is why he needs lots of scarves.
A journalist who writes something
that Erdoğan doesn’t like
will be in jail by next morning.
(“Getting a neck” or “getting something in the throat” is a German idiom that means being roused to anger.)

Now, Erdoğan naturally wishes to repudiate those claims. He’s not a totalitarian dictator, of course not — whatever gave us that idea? When he was Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he managed to solve a lot of the city’s problems with traffic congestion, pollution and crumbling infrastructure. Sure, he was then forced to relinquish his post after his party was shut down on the grounds that it was pushing a fundamentalist Islamic agenda which was at odds with the Turkish constitution, but hey — since when was that ever an issue?

So Erdoğan, anxious to preserve his image as totally not an enemy of press freedom, summoned the German Ambassador and basically demanded that the German authorities ban the video and prevent its distribution.

You have to think about this one to let the full irony sink in here. Turkey wants to join the EU. Turkey has almost won over Germany to the point that Germany’s response to the Turkish authorities storming the offices of a newspaper were fairly muted and cautious.

That might have worked (for Turkey) as long as it remained an internal Turkish affair. When, though, Turkey insists that Germany must suspend a key section of its own constitution just because the President feels insulted, things are unlikely to go quite as smoothly. Members of all the parties in the Bundestag — including many who have themselves been at the receiving end of Extra 3’s skewering wit — have spoken out against the not-dictator’s attitude. The official government response has simply been to state that the Ambassador lectured Turkey on the importance of a free press; but I suspect this whole incident has cost Turkey — and especially Erdoğan — quite a few valuable sympathy points.

Extra 3, meanwhile, as well as naming him “Employee of the Month”, has posted a cartoon showing Erdoğan pointing a fire extinguisher at a laptop and saying, “Either you remove that video, or I delete the internet!”

Sunday, March 27, 2016

I have a problem with Rick Lax

A few days ago, I wrote a post in which I mentioned the British magician Paul Daniels, who had recently died. Like many people for whom Daniels was a part of growing up, I have been spending a bit too much time on the net, reading up on him and watching some of his routines on YouTube. And from there, the internet being what it is, I have been learning more than is healthy about conjuring in general, and also discovering some other fantastic acts. How can it be that I have, until now, remained ignorant of the existence of Penn and Teller?

Yes, this is what the internet is for.

Pick a card. Any card.

But to every silver lining there is a cloud, and so it was inevitable that I should also stumble across the grinning face of somebody who rejoices in the name of Rick Lax. I’m tempted to say his name sounds like a cure for constipation, but with a name like mine it’s probably wise not to milk that line too much.

It seems he’s making a big splash on Facebook right now. His page has over a million likes and a very impressive number of video views, which he is stridently proud of. I think perhaps if his ego wasn’t on display everywhere I wouldn’t pay him much attention. But let’s put that aside for the moment and consider Rick Lax, the magician.

The first of his videos I saw consisted of a mind-reading act. Think of a US state, take the last letter in that state’s name and hit “Like” to “lock in” your answer. Here’s a bunch of letters, some red, some white, some blue. Look for the letter you’re thinking of. It’s red, isn’t it?

It’s not hard to see how that one’s done. Yes, you could have chosen any one of 50 states, but if you take the last letters of those states, that only accounts for about half the alphabet. There are, by my reckoning, twenty states that end in the letter “A”.

It was one of those sub-par tricks that have been popping up on Facebook in recent years. It wasn’t even particularly well done: there were a few mistakes, including the “G” being the wrong colour, to the disappointment of the good citizens of Wyoming. I’d have moved on from there and not given it another thought, were it not for the fact that something, something, was nagging at me.

I think it was the blatant begging for “Likes”. You’re supposed to hit “Like” when you’ve watched the video and liked it. If you’re going to put pressure on people to “like” it halfway through, before the trick is even complete, you’re not really in a position to accuse Criss Angel of buying followers. Although at that point I didn’t know about his proud claim to be “America’s most popular”, the way the video screamed “Like me! Share me! Feed my craving for adulation!” irked me enough to want to find out more.

The problem I have with him is that I don’t know what to make of him. Fraud? Self-deprecating genius? Troll? I seriously have no idea.

Try this. Start with your age. Now add 5. Now subtract your age. You’re left with 5, am I right?

I can tell you’re not impressed. But this is seriously the level of all the mind-reading tricks of his that I have seen. When I was at school, we had similar mind-reading tricks that basically involved simple arithmetic, but at least you had to understand powers of two and algebra to figure out how they worked.

Think I’m exaggerating here? This is seriously one of his tricks (pay attention to steps 1 and 6):
  1. Think of your age.
  2. Add 3.
  3. Subtract 5.
  4. Add 7.
  5. Push “Like” to, you know, “lock in your answer”.
  6. Subtract your age.
  7. Add 5.
  8. Multiply by 2.
  9. Add 1.
  10. The answer is 21.
It seems to fool a very large number of people. Mr Lax himself warns people not to put any “spoilers” in the comments. Spoilers? This is elementary school stuff.

He also does some close-up table-top practical illusions, and they’re okay. They’re cheap tricks you can pick up at a store, and I later discovered why he was using them. They work, and will entertain your friends, but they’re not at the standard that would justify being called “mind-bending”. Pushing a coin “through” a sheet of latex? It’s not immediately obvious how that one’s done, but neither is it particularly amazing.

Digging deeper, I discovered that he works for a company that makes these tricks: he in fact designs them. Which is where my problem with him starts, because it makes sense of at least those videos. He’s demonstrating his own designs. All magicians have to start somewhere, and in any event as a way of enlivening a dinner party, they’re just the ticket; there’s a need for this sort of product, and that’s what he’s selling. I sort of wish he was a bit more honest about the fact, but perhaps that’s just how he does his marketing. All good.

Or not.

Because as I started poking around, I found that he seemed to be something quite big in the world of conjuring. He has, it seems, worked for David Copperfield. But he’s also given interviews and written articles all over the place; and in at least some of them he makes a plea for originality (and manages to imply that he counts himself as one of the 1% of truly original illusionists).

Originality is not, on the evidence I’ve so far seen, his greatest strength. Perhaps his most visually impressive trick is the one where he pushes a knife into his finger (although it's a pity that the fake blood looks like the thin dribble of ketchup you get when you forget to shake the bottle). Great stuff, but his claim to originality wears a little thin given that this is basically just a scaled-down version of the “X-sword” illusion created by somebody called Adam Steinfeld about twenty years ago. (Did I mention I’d recently been reading up on conjuring?)

But then, he did appear on a Penn and Teller show called Fool Us, in which magicians perform tricks in the hope that Penn and Teller would be unable to work out how it was done. Lax succeeded in fooling the duo with a card trick.

He’s good with a theatre audience, that’s for sure. But what of the trick?

Well, it seems impressive to me. It foxed Penn and Teller, or so it seems. This is miles away from the extraordinarily lame think-of-a-number stuff he serves up on Facebook. This, finally, is a man I could imagine working for David Copperfield.

And then you disappear down the rabbit-hole of internet forums of amateur magicians and afficionados complaining that the trick wasn’t that impressive, and that they could think of ways it could very easily be done. That may be beginners’ bravado (“Ooh, I could do that!”), but the accusation that Penn and Teller are in fact rewarding acts they liked as opposed to acts that actually outwitted them is hard to dismiss. Be that as it may, it is, undeniably, a good and highly polished routine, entertaining and, to those of us who aren’t magicians, baffling. Well, he says he was once thrown out of a casino for card-counting, so it could have been a memory feat, but still a very impressive one.

And there you have it: the two sides of Rick Lax. There’s the lame, attention-seeking, egotistical purveyor of cheap tricks taking advantage of the inexperienced and gullible to feed his ego; and then there’s the accomplished, charismatic performer who leaves the professionals (if not the I-know-it-all you-can’t-teach-me-anything beginners) scratching their heads.

There’s only one way I can make sense of this. One of the things he does is write about deceptive techniques used in places like Las Vegas, and how not to fall victim to them. Why not? Other magicians, like James Randi, Derren Brown and even Paul Daniels, have warned people against charlatans who use the same techniques they do, but in order to deceive and defraud rather than for entertainment. Maybe Rick Lax’s Facebook page is part of some sort of social experiment for his next book?

Friday, March 25, 2016

When a celebrity dies

This post is going to land me in a lot of trouble. I am going to be accused of heartlessness and insensitivity. Inevitably I’ll be told “if you don’t like it, ignore it,” which raises the question: how can I know to ignore something if I ignore it? People will explain that they need to express their “grief”, and I shouldn’t be trying to stop them.

Yet another celebrity has died. This time, it’s Garry Shandling.

Well, that’s sad. Not that I had any particular fondness for the man or even paid much attention to his work, but no man is an island and all that. I expect he was a great influence on the latest generation of comedians, to whom he has now passed the baton. It’s up to them now.

Last week it was Paul Daniels. If you’re not British, you may be asking: “Paul who?” Paul Daniels, a British magician who was instrumental in bringing conjuring acts to the mainstream. When he started his showbiz career, magicians were men in top hats and capes who came on stage accompanied by a smiling assistant and mystical music, and silently performed trick after routine trick to dutiful applause. Daniels was one of a new breed of acts who looked to add something extra — for him, it was humour, comedy and occasionally even slapstick — to make it interesting and fun, and also engaged the audience, inspiring the modern trend for close-up magic. Look him up on YouTube: this is the raw stuff out of which the likes of Derren Brown cut their cloth.

There was a time in the 80s when Paul Daniels was constantly on British TV (as well as a magician he was a quiz show host), so he was a big part of my childhood. He died last week, aged 77. Well, that’s sad. But his legacy lives on.

The “outpouring of grief”, though, that’s what gets me. In the sense that it irritates me greatly. All over social media, people fall over themselves to express their grief and shock at the passing away of somebody they may possibly have met once in their lives, and hadn’t even thought about for many years. It’s not just Shandling and Daniels, but the whole lot of them: actors, singers, writers, even record producers that few people had ever heard of until they died, but had something to do with the Beatles and therefore it is a great and profound shock.

And always the same, tired old clichés. “I have no words” (yes you do, you just used four of them). “A legend” (almost certainly not). “Oh, no” (what, did you just lose a bet or something?). “Gutted”, “devastated”, “numb with shock” — no, you’re not, because five minutes later you shared yet another lame Trump meme and commented “This is hilarious.”

And sometimes the sentiments are patently ridiculous. The number of people who were “shocked” at the death of Paul Daniels was quite remarkable, given that just one month previously all the British news media reported that he’d been diagnosed with a fatal and inoperable brain tumour. “Shocking” is the one thing Daniels’s death wasn’t, since we were all expecting it. On the contrary, it was quite merciful: his family said his tumour was preventing him from processing new information, so he didn’t know he was dying. He watched some TV, ate some ice-cream, fell asleep and then didn’t wake up. I’ll tell you one thing: that’s how I want to go.

And all this is from people who never actually knew him. Perhaps once they’d been “a volunteer from the audience”, or maybe they have his autograph or a selfie with him. They never knew the man, not really. Half of them might not have liked him much if they did know him: he had, for example, some pretty trenchant views on homelessness and taxation that a lot of people found unsavoury. He also boasted that, for example, without him there would be no David Copperfield, which is quite a claim. Whether it’s true or not, it’s not something I want him to be banging on about for half an hour in the pub.

If this is how people react to the expected death of somebody they never knew, one wonders how they might react to the sudden death of a near relative.

And then there are the woeful posts, tweets and so on about how so many awesome celebrities are dying at the moment. Unthinkingly, people take to the internet to broadcast their belief that God is just being mean and taking all the popular people, leaving us all down here bereft of their wit, genius, musical ability, or whatever qualities they were deemed to have.

Well, first of all, barely a week goes by without some celebrity somewhere dying. It’s what all celebrities do sooner or later. It’s what all of us do sooner or later. You’re going to have to face up to that one.

Second, the phonograph was invented in 1877, since when we have had the ability to record performances more or less permanently. We still have access to all these celebrities’ work, and in most cases those celebrities had stopped producing new material. In some cases — James Dean springs to mind — very promising careers are cut short. But in most, the deceased already has their best work behind them.

And third, as I hinted above, if they’re any good, their legacy will live on in the next generation. People who were inspired by them will add their own ingredients to the mix and keep that legacy alive. The good ones will do so creatively, and become the next great “legends” of their time, with fresh approaches and new ideas to keep everything moving along, making life interesting and adding to the great store of everything that is good and fun. Nothing is being taken away.

When somebody famous dies, it’s reported in the media. There’s no need for everybody to also splash it all over their social media feeds with insincere expressions of the kinds of emotion that the deceased’s immediate family may be feeling. And it is insincere, because you don’t really feel those emotions.

Ah, but how could I possibly know you don’t really feel those emotions? Because if you did, you wouldn’t be shouting them out to the bottomless void that is the internet. You would be contacting the family, expressing your condolences to them and asking if there’s anything you can do. And don’t forget, if I can see your “grief-stricken” posts, I can probably see the rest of your social media feed, and I can see all the goofy selfies you posted that day, the Russian dashcam video you shared and the fact that you’re “ecstatic” about your team’s ability to carry a ball over a line more times than the other team.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Security theatre

Once again, the news is dominated by a terrorist attack, this time in Brussels. At the time of writing, something like two dozen people are reported to have died in what seem like coordinated attacks on an airport and a metro station (a death toll which is likely to rise, as death tolls usually do). Once again, as the dust settles on scenes of what can certainly be called mass murder, thoughts turn to how vulnerable we all are, and how we can protect ourselves.

It’s a natural — and, to be honest, perfectly sane — reaction. It’s a shocking thing to have happen, and all the more shocking now that modern technology means that minutes after the event, we can see uncensored pictures and videos of the desolation and the walking wounded, bringing an even greater sense of immediacy to it all. It is, of course, likely perfectly true that this is exactly “what the terrorists want”, although by now we should probably recognise that pointing this out every time isn’t very helpful.

The problem, I think, is that security theatre will be stepped up, because the focus of the attacks was an airport.

“Security theatre” is basically the phrase used to describe security measures that are put in place not because they actually work, but because they make people believe they are safe. After 9/11, airport security was stepped up to quite ludicrous levels, and there is no evidence that this has prevented, or even could prevent, a single terrorist attack. In fact, the security measures don’t even appear to work, and attacks have continued. The real security goes on behind the scenes: detective work, surveillance and intelligence, that kind of thing. It’s when these methods fail that attacks can take place.

The obvious flaw in the airport security we currently have is this: even if it prevents people from taking bombs onto place, it doesn’t prevent bombings — as we have now seen. If they can’t bomb planes, they’ll bomb terminals.

I’ve long speculated about this. If I were a terrorist intent on dying for my cause, I’d go to an airport with my explosives and a boarding pass (which can very easily be faked, by the way). It would be a major airport at a busy time, and I’d get into the queue for security, which is usually a crush because airports weren’t built with this kind of security in mind. And in the middle of that crowd, I’d detonate my bomb. I suspect the casualty list would be extremely high: typically, these queues are trapped in narrow areas, hampered by the sheer number of people, the X-ray machines and those barriers they use to make the queues snake around so they can pack as many people into a tight space as possible. I could certain shut down the whole terminal, probably for a long time.

Of course, detonating a bomb almost anywhere in an airport would be extremely effective.

So, it’s probably natural to want to put security at the entrance to the terminal itself. But that doesn't solve the problem: it simply moves it elsewhere. Because then you’d just have crowds of people waiting for security outside the terminal instead of inside it, so that’s where a terrorist would do the bombing.

Or not. A terrorist could, instead, attack something else. On this occasion, they did attack the Brussels metro as well — why assume they wouldn’t? In the 7/7 bombings in London, 56 people died and over 700 were injured when bombers attacked three underground stations and a bus. Much more recently, several people were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Istanbul. Ankara saw over 100 people die last year, another 30 last month (including one German tourist from a neighbouring village to mine) and nearly 40 just a few days ago. And I’m sure we could all reel off a list of equally devastating terrorist attacks that had nothing to do with airports, starting with the Paris attacks last year that killed over 100.

The thing is, airport security isn’t doing anything; and increased airport security will also do nothing. The terrorists will simply target other things: metro and railway stations, shopping malls, night clubs, busy plazas, markets, you name it. What are we to do, put security checkpoints on every street corner?

This isn’t how to fight terrorism. It may be seen as a quick way to calm the nerves of terrified citizens, but that only works until the next attack. What’s actually needed is proper, competent behind-the-scenes intelligence work that actually targets the right people (mass surveillance of all our communications is another distraction, but that’s an entirely different subject). That’s where the resources need to be directed, not pointless security theatre.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Bonnie’s moustache

I have two cats called, with staggering originality, Bonnie and Clyde. Some of you no doubt know this already, but for the sake of those who don’t, Clyde is black and Bonnie is all black-and-white blotches. It’s useful, as it helps us to tell them apart.

One of Bonnie’s distinctive features is a black smudge on her top lip, which often elicits comment. Here’s a mugshot:

This shouldn’t really be an issue, of course, but there’s no end of people who draw comparisons between her upper lip and the facial hair of Adolf Hitler. Personally, I think that’s unfair (although I will concede that in this photo, she does strike a distinctly Hitlerish pose). If I thought she did look like the notorious dictator, I would submit that photo to the website Cats That Look Like Hitler, but I don’t think she does. Not unless somebody can find a picture of Adolf after a hilarious shaving accident.

My wife has more problems with this than I do. When describing Bonnie to other people, she’ll go all coy and say, “She has half of a... well, the only way I can describe it is half a Hitler moustache,” and then apologize profusely for mentioning him who should not be mentioned (not to be confused with him who should not be named). I have suggested she describe it as a Charlie Chaplin moustache, but she seems to prefer social awkwardness.

Be that as it may: whenever Bonnie has a cameo in one of my videos, I can be sure that somebody is going to mention my “Hitler cat”. If you do, that is your right: just know that she is, in fact, half a Chaplin cat. (We don’t know what the other half is, but it has us scared enough without invoking Hitler.)