March 9, 2001

Text from Korea, a Herd of Psychics on Larry King, Pop Psych on Today, Galileo's Day, and Bye-Bye to Triangles....

I've had the co-operation of a Korean interpreter and I'm preparing a full English translation of the commentary on Uri Geller's latest TV appearance in that country. Fascinating material, I assure you. I mentioned this video here some weeks ago. I have to wonder whether Mr. Geller will try to obtain an injunction (one of his favorite ways to pass the time between compass-deflecting duties) against publication of that text.

We received a large number of inquiries by phone, e-mail, and fax regarding the Larry King Live show last Tuesday that featured "psychics" John Edward, James Van Praagh, and Sylvia Browne, along with Paul Kurtz of CSICOP, Leon Jaroff of TIME, rabbi Shmuley Boteach (a friend of Uri Geller), and a physicist, plus an ex-FBI officer. It was a look at the currently popular talking-to-dead-folks fad. King, a little to my surprise — since he has catered to these performers rather easily recently — was appropriately critical. But as expected, when viewers were allowed to call in to the show with questions and comments, the only ones accepted by the staff who filtered the calls, were those who wanted "readings" from the psychics. Those were certainly flops as evidence for the claimed powers, and there was much whining and many accusations offered in place of evidence.

Sylvia Browne, looking very fierce, was confronted by Leon Jaroff with her abysmal failure on her June 1989 appearance on my TV Special "Exploring Psychic Powers — Live!" and was asked to explain how that had gone so wrong for her. Just so you'll know, that audience twelve years ago had been told to only answer "yes" or "no" to Sylvia's guesses. The entire "reading" took 4 minutes, 51 seconds. Sylvia began by warning everyone that — in case she was wrong? — "a lot of times these things are in the future," then repeated that same caveat later during the guessing game when it became evident she was missing badly. She addressed, one at a time, three women and two men in the studio audience, offering them "Bill," "Kathy," "real estate," "school," therapy work," and "showbusiness," as guesses, all of which received clear "no" answers. She then offered "unemployment" and "traveling" as possibilities for the future, and gave a lame excuse for her obvious failure as she ended her performance.

So what did Sylvia Browne offer Jaroff and the CNN audience in explanation of this disaster? Indignantly, she told them:

They [the studio audience] were all Germans! And they couldn't understand a word I said! That was a setup, as you well know.... because they couldn't speak English. I found that out after, they were all Germanic!

No, Sylvia Browne, that is a blatant lie, as you well know. It may be what you have been offering your fans as an alibi, but it's not true. Only one member of that audience of 140 persons was German, and you spent a full one minute and seven seconds rattling off guesses for him, then found out he was German, only after he told you. Didn't you know that already, Ms. Browne? You conversed with the other four persons there in fluent English, didn't you? And yet you told the CNN viewers on Tuesday that they were "all Germans"!

That was a studio audience obtained by the producer from the usual resources in Los Angeles. There was no "setup" at all, and your claim that Ron Lyon — producer of the show — later admitted to you that it was a setup, is also untrue. Nor is it true that you couldn't talk to me on that occasion because I "kept running away" from you. I'm not the type to run away, Sylvia. As you well know, I was occupied with managing a 2-hour TV Special, and I had no time to listen to your endless theories, excuses, and notions.

But — Sylvia Browne has agreed to be tested for the JREF million-dollar challenge, folks! She said so, live, on the Larry King Show! We all heard her! Wow! I accept gladly, and I await a call from Sylvia's handlers so we can make arrangements for this historical confrontation. I'm all a-twitter with excitement, since we all know that the Biggies in the business — Geller, Van Praagh, Edward, and all the others — have assiduously avoided being tested for the prize. This is a breakthrough! Larry King himself said on the program, "She will meet with Randi and take the challenge."

Ah, but wait a moment. Could it be that Ms. Browne would back down? When her fevered brow has cooled, will caution appear? Will she be advised by spirit forces — or her manager — not to engage the evil forces of rationality and critical thinking? Will she "run away"? Perhaps. Only time will tell. Stay tuned right here, and you will be kept informed.... But I wouldn't hold my breath; we at the JREF are familiar with these ploys of loudly accepting in public and then quietly wriggling out of the commitment.

(I should add that I would also require Ms. Browne to provide appropriate evidence for other claims which she firmly stated on this show, that she (a) solved the World Trade Center bombing, (b) "cracked the ski-mask murder" case, (c) has "saved babies' lives," (d) "found people that were dead," (e) "solved crimes," (f) "worked with FBI," and (g) "worked with police departments." These are wild claims simply thrown out without any offer of validation, in hopes that a certain percentage of an audience will believe them to be true. If Sylvia's recollection of these marvels is as accurate as her statements about the 1989 show on which she bombed out, I think we won't have to add any credits to her account. I'm not Montel Williams; I require evidence.)

That Larry King Live program provided us with an excellent cross-section of some of the techniques employed in "cold reading." For example, when James Van Praagh came up with a total miss on a reading for a woman who called in to the show, both he and John Edward offered the excuse that perhaps the guesses James had made were actually for someone else! That's someone else in the audience, or someone — anyone — in another building, past, present, or future, known or unknown, even in another country! We begin to see that if such latitude is given, these operators simply can't be wrong!

A reader of this page, clearly seeing this gimmick, commented on the "save" that Edward tried to make for Van Praagh's failed reading attempt:

... Edward said that since the caller said that nothing [Van Praagh had said] made any sense, it most likely was because the "feelings" VP had, were connected to some other member of her family — her father, etc. I submit that maybe his feelings may have been regarding her postal carrier. Or the clerk in the convenience store where she bought a soda today. Isn't it handy to have so many excuses available?

Also, Van Praagh claimed that Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine said on an Oprah show, that Van Praagh "actually had a computer system wired to every single home in the United States" to gain information on subjects of his readings. And a TV camera in every light-bulb, perhaps? This is a fantasy of Van Praagh's, of course. No such claim was ever made by Shermer.

Please note that all these "psychics" came together to support one another's work, almost as if there is developing in the media and with the public the awareness that they're being flim-flammed, and it's now time for the miracle-mongers to co-operate to defend themselves against the dreaded forces of rationality and logic. Could that be?

On another matter.... Incredible! The NBC-TV Today show of last Saturday featured a public-service item designed to assist parents in dealing with the current must-do fad among kids to get their bodies pierced and/or tattooed, to keep up with Britney Spears, Dennis Rodman and other cool idols. They brought on psychologist Ann Caron, a mature, well-spoken woman who offered the usual "talk nice, don't confront, be reasonable" rules that we might expect of these vapid pop-psychology formulae. Then she hit listeners with a heavy threat they might use to good effect as an argument with their kids: body-piercing interrupts the flow of energy along the "meridians," it blocks this energy, and is especially harmful in the area of the navel — a favored location for rings, spikes, studs, and other medieval adornments — because the navel is a center for "body power" flow.

The Today host seemed a tad uncomfortable with this sudden plunge into mythology, but Ms. Caron blandly pursued it, running on until the segment was mercifully brought to an end. I'll bet that she'll be pursued by other talk-show hosts who will want to have her espouse this crackpottery for their audiences, too. She's a professional, you know....

A fascinating book I'm reading, Galileo's Daughter, by Dava Sobel, who also gave us the wonderful bestseller Longitude, has revealed to me much about the great scholar that I hadn't known. The difficulties of his day are brought to life by examining the correspondence between the father and his daughter, Suor Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun. Her solution for plague victims of the day was more prayer than medication, as might be expected. Sobel writes:

Prayer surpassed or at least augmented the many available treatments, which included bloodletting, crystals of arsenic applied to the wrists and temples, small sacks of precious stones laid over the heart, and unguents made by cooking animal excrement together with mustard, crushed glass, turpentine, poison ivy, and onion.... [The] large, painful, pus-filled lumps, called buboes, gave the pestilence the name "bubonic plague." ... they were the focus of treatment by doctors, some of whom advocated burning the buboes with incandescent gold or iron, then covering the wound with cabbage leaves; others preferred to . . . deposit three leeches on the site, topped by a quartered pigeon or a plucked rooster.... People continued to blame the plague on miasmas of swampy air, the full Moon, conjunctions of the planets, famine, fate, beggars, prostitutes, or Jews.

That plague of 1346 through 1349 killed about one-third of the population of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East — some 25 million persons. Note that due to ignorance back then, 650 years ago, "the full Moon" and "conjunctions of the planets," along with those eternal victims, the Jews, were considered evil influences. Happily, no one today would have these opinions, since we are enlightened to such a degree that we laugh at this 14th century folly. Right? (sound of crickets heard)

A reader tells me that I attributed the Penn and Teller trick with the two Coke cans, which is known as, "The God of Carbonation," to their second book, "How to Play with Your Food," when it is found in "How To Play in Traffic," their third book. Mea culpa....

I will share with you the somewhat petulant response last week's puzzle drew from one unhappy reader in the UK:

This is hardly worth the bother of a response. The diagrams or your interpretation of them is fraudulent.... Your diagram is fudged on the left hand side where the right vertical is not along the axis. All else follows from that the parts don't fit together in the lower diagram either where neither the vertical or horizontal runs along the axis. Unworthy in my view.

Well, well! Didn't we have our tea fix this morning? Or did we have an attack of the London vapors? For your information, all verticals and horizontals run vertical and horizontal in those diagrams, and I've no idea what "axis" you refer to. "Fraudulent"? That's what puzzles are all about, and I wrote very clearly, "Don't believe the statement above! Check it out!" In my opinion, you're an "unworthy" puzzle-solver, and I invite you not to look in on this page any more, lest you be further offended and get into another tizzy.

Reader Luke Threinen, apparently believing that this was a worthy effort, was the first to post his solution to that puzzle. It's an old chestnut, but worth repeating. The simplest way to look at it is this: actually, neither of the two larger figures shown are triangles. They're quadrilaterals (4-sided figures). The slope of the smallest angle in triangle "A" is 4-in-10 (.4), while that of "B" is 6-in-16 (.375). The slope of the large spurious triangle would be 10-in-26 (.385), a value in between the other two slopes. Thus, though it barely shows in the original diagram I provided, there is a "dip" at the point indicated in the upper shape, and that supposed hypotenuse is actually a very obtuse angle. Similarly in the lower "triangle," there is a "bump." A very long, narrow, effectively invisible triangle exists (XPY in the upper exaggerated diagram here) which encloses 2 of the 4 units of area that are missing in the "?" hole in the lower quadrilateral. The other 2 units? Read on.

Another way of looking at this: The area of the upper figure, if it were a true triangle, would be X10X26=130. But the sum of the areas of all the individual shapes (2 triangles and the 2 "step"-shaped figures) that make up that upper "triangle," is only 128 units. (That's X4X10=20, X6X16=48, and 6X10=60, adding to 128.) That's only 2 of the 4 units of the "hole," but the other 2 units are to be found in the "bulge" of the lower "triangle." I give you here an admittedly exaggerated version of the two diagrams. The bright green lines show the longest sides of the very long, narrow, triangles involved, each 2 units in area.

This problem, the invention of Martin Gardner, is similar to the carpet-cutting problem we ran here months ago, a fact that was pointed out by two readers. To complete the picture, here is the same problem in a different guise. The area of the upper figure is 64 square units, the lower is 65. Some of you may prefer this somewhat simpler version....?

And here's this week's puzzle.... It was sent in by a reader, and though I've made the construction, and worked on it for a couple hours, I can't prove my answer is correct! Martin Gardner recognizes it, and says it's a classic, with several solutions. I await your solutions with great interest!

The problem: We have a square, blue in our diagram. We want to bisect side TU, using ONLY a straightedge (no measuring, just making straight lines). The base SV has been extended on either side, and sides TS and VU have been extended upward. We have P and Q, two points randomly selected. We draw PT and extend it to intersect XV at A, and we draw QU and extend it to intersect YS at B. Next we draw PB and QA and extend each to intersect YS and XV at X and Y, respectively. First, prove YX is parallel to SV, and then bisect TU using that data.

This is the "alternate" solution to constructing the isosceles triangle with the base of the square as one side, using only a straightedge. I'd have thought that bisecting TU using only a straightedge was not possible, but this does it. Now you have to prove it.....

The very nice solution will appear next week....

I'm scheduled to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor" TV show on Tuesday to discuss John Edward and his techniques. Since I was mis-informed about a date and gave you one-day-off information on the "Inside Edition" show recently, this will be just a suggestion that I will probably appear with Mr. O'Reilly on Tuesday.... Hark! Was that the phone? Maybe Sylvia Browne calling to be tested? Drat! Just another false alarm. Well, we're waiting, Sylvia..... (More crickets are heard....)