March 2, 2001

A Letdown, A Lift, a Mixed Review, a Federal Decision, and (oh, no!) MORE Damn Triangles!

Strangely enough, though we get a raft of claimants for the Million-Dollar Prize who insist they can accurately predict earthquakes, nary a one saw the Seattle Quake of February 28th, coming. One of the noisiest of those claimants, you should know, lives out that way. In Seattle. What conclusion can we draw from this....?

We were disappointed by the "Inside Edition" treatment last week of their piece on John Edward, since they used none of my input for the replication of his "cold reading" techniques. And, the airing was scheduled for Wednesday, as I told you, and TIME Magazine informed their readers it would be done then. It was shown on Tuesday. The TIME coverage was excellent, however. We will post it here soon.

What follows is an excerpt from a review unknown to me before this of my book, "The Mask of Nostradamus." It is just so full of interesting comments, and legitimate corrections to my scholarship, that I will now include it in each copy of the book that we sell from the JREF. Peter Lemesurier, a confirmed believer, wrote this review a few years ago.... There are some points here I believe are not valid, but I will forgo comment....

Perhaps the biggest surprise about this well-known book is how little of it is actually about Nostradamus' prophecies. His biography and background, yes; Randi's proposed rules for would-be prophets, certainly; the oddities of sixteenth-century medicine, patently; a brief history of magic, spellbindingly; the principles of astrology, inevitably; the WWII shenanigan with fake Nostradamus quatrains, hilariously; some potted biographies of one or two other contemporary mages, briefly.

And it has to be said that all of these are superbly and entertainingly written, and the bits about the seer contain more accurate and up-to-date research about him than most of the popular books on Nostradamus put together. The best is yet to come. He makes complete mincemeat of Cheetham, Hogue, Ward, Roberts, Garencières, Leoni (whose massive efforts he nevertheless appreciates), Laver and Fontbrune and would no doubt have made mincemeat of me as well, given half a chance!

Yet he considers in detail only ten of Nostradamus' verses, together with their interpretations ten that (he says) are frequently advanced as examples of the seer's past "accuracy".... But then who can blame him? Given what Randi is trying to prove, after all namely that all prophecy is bunk, and Nostradamus' in particular it would have been rather a case of offering hostages to fortune. In the process he makes a wonderful job of demolishing the accepted interpretations, demonstrating that not only the associated translations, but the historical evidence on which the interpretations are based, are largely rubbish in the latter case especially, pretty convincingly. By far his best effort, though, is reserved for V.57, where he has actually researched the evidence for himself, and (as his photographs demonstrate) on the spot, too namely around Nostradamus' birthplace of St-Rémy-de-Provence. In fact, in this connection he admits defeat on only one problem namely the apparent lack of an ancient "temple of Artemis" at nearby Glanum to go with the "arch of SEX", the Roman "mausoleum" and the "pyramid". As it happens, I can actually help him on this. You see, the world's original "Mausoleum" was built in 353 BC for her dead husband King Mausolus of Caria by his queen, whose name was ... yes, you've guessed it, Artemisia....

As with any book, too, there are numerous honest-to-goodness errors. The picture of Nostradamus' bust over the fountain at Salon is in fact at St-Rémy. The "pyramide" at nearby Glanum is not the ancient stone-quarry itself, but the extraordinary rock-pinnacle that stands at its center (originally "la pierre-en-mi", presumably). It is not true that none of the seer's manuscripts survives (p. 6), since the "Orus Apollo" is there for all to see in the National Library, its hand clearly that of the seer's own signature. The modern French "notre dame" does not carry a circumflex accent (p.10). The various traditions that he went straight to Montpellier from Avignon, graduated at 22 and received his doctorate at 26 (p. 57) are old, unsubstantiated chestnuts that it ill becomes him to repeat. The name of Nostradamus' first wife is not lost to us (p.14) it was Henriette d'Encausse. His eldest surviving child was not César (p.16) but Madeleine. He was not "a former Jew" (p.40). The evidence makes it quite clear that he visited Paris in 1555, not 1556. His two-edged assertion to the Queen on that occasion that "all her sons would be kings" (if, indeed, he ever made it) was no more a "rosy prediction" (p. 42) than Randi's interpretation of it as such is perceptive. His statement (p. 50) that Nostradamus' works were banned by the Vatican in 1781 (presumably taken from Britannica) is not supported by any evidence that the Lyon Municipal Library has been able to unearth from the 25 editions of the Index that it has researched. So far as I know (and contrary to the assertions of Cheetham, Hogue and others) the Black Death/Plague was never called "Le Charbon" a term which in fact means "the carbuncle" and was sometimes applied to the associated buboes, or inflamed spots, rather than to the disease itself: certainly Nostradamus himself never uses the term in this sense. The assertion (p. 70) that Renaissance scholars never thought for themselves may have been true in the early days, but not by the time Nostradamus was writing. And Randi's hints about the possible non-existence of any surviving copy of the original 1555 edition are odd, given that two copies had already been discovered in 1984, six years before he published, and that one of them had long since been facsimiled and published by Michel Chomarat.

  Some of the above examples may be due to the unavailability of the information at the time, but this, certainly, is not one of them.

I can't resist this brief rejoinder. "Le Charbon" is a word used for one of the many "plagues" that visited Europe, anthrax. And though it may be said that Nostradamus was not technically a "former Jew," he was born into a family that only shortly before his birth, was Jewish and then converted. Close enough?

What to make of it, then? As far as this reviewer is concerned, at least, it is a splendid book that should be read by all Nostradamians always making due allowance, of course, for the author's obvious and well-known iconoclastic tendencies. It will sharpen their critical awareness considerably which has to be good for any search for the truth. And, as I say, they will learn more real facts from it than from most of the popular commentaries put together. Moreover, it is a delight to read. I love Randi's castigation of people who "use the theory they are trying to prove, to prove the theory they are trying to prove". Somehow that rings a few bells. And I cannot help but applaud his "law of parsimony", which states that "complicated explanations are less likely to be correct than relatively simple ones".

Alas, not everybody will agree with him. But, for this reviewer at least, the principle is one from which we may all learn.

FYI: "The Mask of Nostradamus" is now published in English, French, Polish, and Japanese. "Flim-Flam" appears in English, Norwegian, Polish, Spanish, and Italian. Chinese editions of both books are due later this year.

I've received a gleeful comment from an Uri Geller fan, celebrating what he refers to as, "a win for the good guys." Back in March of 1995, a huge sanction was awarded against Geller because of the frivolous nature of his lawsuits. The US Federal Court of Appeals made a statement in its written decision turning down Geller's appeal of that decision. Citing Geller's "litigious history," the court said that he:

" ... is a self-proclaimed psychic ... [who] has built a career and reputation on attempted demonstrations of these psychic "skills" ... Among Geller's critics is James Randi, an accomplished magician, author, and lecturer, better known as "The Amazing Randi" ... Since Geller's rise to prominence in the early 1970's, Randi has set about exposing various Geller feats as the fraudulent tricks of a confidence man."

The Court, responding to a further frantic appeal from Geller's lawyers following this statement, decided to substitute "Randi has set about attempting to exposing [sic]" for "Randi has set about exposing," as in the original. We can fully understand the dismay of Mr. Geller's lawyers and their vigorous efforts to modify the official statement of the Federal Court. The main body of the Court's statement remains intact, and the change is hardly "a win" for the Gellerites. I certainly approve of the fact that the phrase "attempted demonstrations" was retained, in describing Mr. Geller's work. Note that Geller is "self-proclaimed," while I'm "accomplished." Ahem. I'd also question which are the "good guys." In any case, I'm satisfied with either version.

You will remember that we recently ran a puzzle here that involved three electric switches (A, B, and C), one of which operated a hidden light. We asked what was the minimum number of trips to the light required to determine which switch was active. Now a reader has offered this remarkable and quite correct! solution, and it requires NO trips at all! Zero! That charmed Martin Gardner when I informed him of it. The reader suggests:

  1. Keep only switch "A" on for 1 day.
  2. Turn off "A" and then keep only "B" on for 1 week.
  3. Don't turn on "C" at all.
  4. Examine your electric bill at the end of the month.

This of course assumes that you have only that set of circuits in action, and no other drain on your electric system. Also, that you know the wattage of the bulb and your electric rates. This is an excellent example of thinking-outside-the-box, and I'm not only amused, but also in admiration of this solution. Is this reader a lawyer....?

This is the solution to the Three Shapes puzzle of last week. Most people got the triangle division right away, far fewer got the "L" shape, and even fewer the third one, not to my surprise. Christopher Jablonski came up first with the complete solution, and he used the method I used to solve the "L-shaped" figure. He wrote:

I reasoned that since it was made out of three squares, it needed at least twelve parts to be divisible into four parts (or did that not make any sense?). Basically you divide each square into four smaller squares and make miniature identical "L" patterns out of the twelve squares.

The parallelogram-rectangle mutant this one threw me at first, of course heck, it was designed to. But eventually I found the solution by making four "skinny" versions of the original, all lined up in parallel formation. Wondering how big the parallelogram on top is and its relation to the lower rectangle is pretty much a red herring, I suppose.

That last one was originally a simple square, which would of course be divided up into four rectangles. But a Dr. L. Vosburg Lyons, psychiatrist of New York City and an avid puzzle fan, came up with the "jogged" square idea, and greatly improved the difficulty.

By the way, please send any graphics for your solutions as JPEG files. I receive many "unable to display graphic" notices. And if your system sends all messages as a second attachment that must be sought out and brought up on screen, consider just including the text with your first message. Saves me much trouble and time. Thanks.

This week, another one right out of Martin Gardner's repertoire, and his own personal invention. Here we have a triangle divided into four other shapes: two triangles and two "step" figures. Take them apart and re-assemble them as shown below, and something very strange occurs. An obvious "hole" is now seen! How can this be....?

The area of both large figures is seen to be of 10X26=130 square units. But there's that hole of four whole units.....! Answers, as usual, to Don't believe the statement above! Check it out!

(Please note how slyly I have avoided here both the English and the metric systems of measurement. You'll recall that I announced this site was going metric. None of you spotted my use of the term, "footage" last week. I toyed with "meterage" but gave up on it....)