Tuesday, November 02, 2010



The next session featured James Randi(!) being interviewed by Robin Ince.  It was a good and very enjoyable interview.  Randi was as charming and interesting as ever and Ince was funny, beginning by listing many of Randi’s achievements and accolades then saying “I’ll be asking about that in a moment, but the thing we really want to know about is your appearance on Happy Days.”  Randi reported that Henry Winkler was “a joy”, which really is what we wanted to know.

Randi talked about his youth, which just made him even more impressive.  He exposed at a young age a clairvoyant who was running a billet-reading scam using a one-ahead technique.  Punters had to write down what they wanted to know and seal it in an envelope.  The clairvoyant memorised the contents of one of these and discarded it.  Then on stage, pulled a random envelope out of the basket then without opening it, held it theatrically to his brow (probably) and described the contents of the one he’d previously memorised.  Whoever wrote that card would indicate that he’d got it right and the clairvoyant would rip open the envelope and examine the contents as if to verify it’s correctness.  However, since this was secretly a different envelope, he’d memorise the contents, discard it and pick another from the basket and repeat the trick.

Randi foiled this by sticking the back of the envelope slightly to the card inside, so when the guy opened it, it caused a bit of a kerfuffle which was noticeable.  When the guy opened the next envelope and started to recite what was on Randi’s card in the previous envelope, young Randi marched to the front and explained to the audience what the guy was doing.  It didn’t make much impact on the audience: the technique, although simple, is quite hard to explain as I’ve just found out and it was probably lost on them.  However, the police were called from the station across the road and he was taken away for disrupting a church service, causing his father to be brought home from a golf game and – by the sound of it – was rather severely punished. 

What confidence!  What courage!  At that age, I can’t imagine that I’d have been able to do this.  I might have made sarcastic comments at the back and explain to people I knew afterwards how it was done, but I don’t think I could have acted as Randi did.

Ince got Randi to deliver some of his well-loved set pieces, such as the tale of his hilarious destruction of Uri Geller on the Johnny Carson show. And his exposure of the even more awful Peter Popoff.

This latter was moving.  Randi was in tears describing the plight of a boy in a wheelchair scammed by Popoff and another woman distressed because Popoff had told her to give *ahem* god all her money, which would mean she wouldn’t have enough for the bus fare home.  Her friend was pushing her to give that money anyway, because god might not heal her if she didn’t give the full amount.  Which would make god the only being in the universe who’s a bigger wanker than Popoff. 

The interview ended with the first of two rapid-fire standing ovations, both well-deserved.  The second was a result of the JREF awards for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence contributions to skepticism.  This year, there were two categories:

  • A ‘professional’ category, which was very deservedly won by Ben Goldacre, one of the most hard-working people in the world, and
  • A ‘grassroots’ category, which was won by Rhys Morgan.

It was Rhys who received the standing ovation and he was understandably and touchingly overcome.  His story is worth mentioning.

Rhys is 15 years old and suffers from Crohn’s disease.  He was searching a web forum dedicated to the disease and its treatments and found references to a putative remedy called Miracle Mineral Solution.  He investigated this and found that it was in fact bleach.  Bleach doesn’t cure Crohn’s and is rather unlikely to be good for you.  The BBC article I link to above doesn’t tell the full story.  It explains how he brought it to the attention of the Food Standards Agency and succeeded in getting it banned for sale.  What it doesn’t say is that he also brought it to the attention of people on that forum (and others) and received a lot of threats and abuse for his pains.  He just wanted to highlight the issue to sufferers but was roundly criticised for ‘spoiling the magic’.  He persisted in spite of this and achieved this great result.

That’s the end of day 1! I can’t believe I still had day 2 to cover…

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