The Battle of the Selfie Sticks: Leave only Footprints, Take only Selfies

It is said that when you visit the Trevi Fountain and throw a coin in it, you will one day return. More precisely, you need to stand with your back to the fountain and toss a coin over your left shoulder. The spell of this magical act must be quite useful because every visit in the past I have thrown a coin into the fountain, and here I am yet again at this hot-spot of global tourism.

Trevi Fountain Money Suckers - The Battle of the Selfie SticksThe fountain was partially closed for tourists because the maintenance crew were sucking up all the coins. The city of Rome donates the thousands of Euros it retrieves from the fountain to the Caritas charity.

More impressive than the 80,000 cubic metres of water that pass through the fountain every day or the fact that it is made from Travertine are the hundreds of tourists that gather around the monument. Jostling for position to take the perfect picture, waving their selfie sticks like a horde of barbarians wielding their swords.

The Battle of the Selfie Sticks

The moral imperative of the contemporary tourist seems to be to “leave only footprints, take only selfies”. The selfie is the irrefutable evidence that you have been to this magnificent place—it provides the selfie taker with ultimate bragging rights. The selfie is the ultimate narcissistic act. No longer do we need to ask a fellow traveller to take a photo of ourselves. The stick has replaced an act of kindness with an act of self-gratification. On the positive side, it does reduce the risk of somebody sprinting away with your camera.

The battle of the selfie sticks was more amusing to watch than the fountain itself. This time, I didn’t throw a coin in the fountain. Whether I will return, depends on the goodwill of the gods of tourism.

The Airport Zombie Lurch: The joys and suffering of long-haul travel

The pleasant anticipation of flying to Europe is quickly squashed once you enter the virtual and bizarre world of the transit airport. Entering the airport is a battle in itself—first you need to participate in the security ritual to ward off the evil demons we call terrorists, then deal with the Australian Border Force, which must be the most unfriendly name for an immigration service. When you then finally enter the airport with a sigh of relief, you run the gauntlet of the duty-free shops. And then, the waiting starts …

The inimitable Douglas Adams expressed the special nature of airports beautifully when he asked himself why nobody ever says that something is “as beautiful as an airport”. Airports are functional structures with the sole purpose of moving as many people as possible along as many shops as possible towards their gate.

Airport zombie lurchWe flew from Melbourne to Rome and had a brief stop in the navel of the world, Dubai International Airport. DXB, as it is known to the initiated, is one of the global hubs where people from all seven continent, bar Antartica, gather on their journey to further destinations. Thousands of travellers waggle through the terminal reminiscent of a gigantic zombie lurch. Travellers are like the living dead and exist outside place and time—jet lagged and tired, but full of anticipation about their final destination.

Philosophers have written insightful books about airports. As Roy Christopher put it: “The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. An airport is a place made up of no-places.” Alain de Botton spent a whole week at Heathrow as ‘writer in residence’ and wrote an insightful meditation about  the people that occupy this place. Airports are places where thousands of people gather, but rarely do they meet. De Botton tells the story of these anonymous soles that we see, but never meet.

Finally, after thirty hours of travel limbo, we arrived in Rome. The feeling of being freshly showered, lying on a cool clean sheets after a very long day can only be described in one word, a ‘bedgasm’.

But not for long, time to battle the time difference, overcome our tiredness and explore the eternal city. Ready for the tourism zombie lurch past ancient monuments …

“I could have painted that”—Complex simplicity in abstract art

Abstract art: Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20

Jan Nelson (Australia 1955) Summer Collection (2004). Enamel on linen. RHS Abbott Bequest Fund 2004.20

Abstract art is often ridiculed by the uninitiated observer—”I could have painted that” are words you often hear whispered in galleries.

This statement contains a hidden argument: This painting could have been created by me because it requires little technique. I am not an artist; therefore it cannot be considered art.

Summer Collection by Jan Nelson is a case in point. The straight horizontal lines are indeed something that anyone with a basic ability to hold a paintbrush ostensibly could recreate. But is this a valid argument against the status of this painting as a work of art?

Abstract Art

Traditional concepts of visual art are focused on skill, with the highest level of skill perceived to be the faithful representation of what we perceive to be our external reality. The history of art seems to follow an evolutionary trajectory from the early beginnings in caves to the photo-realistic oil paintings of the seventeenth century. For the casual observer, this evolutionary process is reversed in the early twentieth century when abstract art makes its entry. The strip of images shown below shows this evolution, starting with a naturalistic painting of a tree.

Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan started his career by painting impressionistic works, such as The Red Tree from 1908, seen second from the left. Mondriaan later became inspired by the cubist movement and painted The Gray Tree in 1911. He experimented further with abstracting the idea of a tree and produced Flowering Apple Tree. Later in his career he became mainly known for his compositions with strict geometrical patterns and primary colours iconic for the De Stijl movement.

mondriaan

Contemporary art is no longer restricted to a copy reality, but a way to interpret reality through the observation and technique of the artist. Originality and visual impact are now more important than mere skill of faithfully reproducing what is seen.

Next time when you hear somebody say that they could have painted this, simply ask: “Why didn’t you?”.

Predicting future behaviour from past events: A magician’s view

In recruitment of new staff an often used golden rule often is that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour. Businesses rely on reference checks or even Google searches to find out as much as they can about their potential new staff. But, is past behaviour really a good proxy for predicting future behaviour?

A magician’s view

The silent part of the American magician’s duo Penn & Teller broke his usual silence and vow of secrecy when he explained a classical magic trick to a gathering of consciousness scholars.

Teller showed that magicians can use the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns by skilfully changing the method during the routine. Teller beautifully illustrates that in human behaviour, the past is in no way a reliable approach to predicting the future.

Predicting future behaviour in recruitment

it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour

We have to be careful when judging a person through second hand information gained from referees, Facebook searches and other forms of overt espionage. People are not billiard balls that operate in accordance with laws of physics. People have free will and can change their behaviour depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Most importantly, we can learn from our mistakes and grow as people by learning from them. Not hiring somebody who has made a mistake in the past could mean that you miss out on hiring a person with a high level of maturity and an ability to adapt. Therefore, when judging a person, keep in mind the words of Roman poet Horace: “Non sum quals eram”—I am not who I once was.

Tommy Wonder on Religion

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Tommy Wonder (1953–2006).

Dutch Magician Tommy Wonder provides an interesting insight into the nature of religion in Volume I of his  The Books of Wonder (1996).

He gives advice to magicians on what to do when a spectator discovers—or beliefs to discover—the secret to a magic routine:

“I’ve frequently wondered why people sometimes come up with painfully silly solutions and don’t stop to realize it. If they would give the matter more thought they would quickly see that their solution couldn’t possibly work. I believe their reasoning runs something like this: The moment a spectator sees a magical effect that he [sic] doesn’t understand, he is confronted with a problem, a problem that stands square in front of him like a granite boulder … Now if the spectator contrives some solution, in a way he has enabled himself to move the problem. He can roll this boulder out of his way, so that he is no longer confronted by it. The problem seems to be solved … his mind throws a big party. He’s solved the problem!”

This observation from the every day practice of a professional magician shows an interesting psychological mechanism at work. Somebody is presented with a seemingly unsolvable problem, which creates a conflict in the mind. As soon as a solution is presented, no matter how improbable, the conflict seems to disappear. Wonder continues:

“Because his mind is dancing and celebrating its victory, it never stops to realize that it only moved the problem … it still exists in another place.”

The psychological mechanism at work is a process of cognitive dissonance. When a magician makes a ball disappear, there are two observations which seem to have no causal relationship—the ball is there and the ball is gone. It is the job of the magician to hide the actual cause—this causeless event is the magical effect. Humans are inclined to remove any tension between dissonant observations, even if this means inventing miraculous connections.

Cognitive dissonance is often used as an explanation for the emergence of religion in pre-scientific cultures. The idea being that ancient people experienced a cognitive dissonance in their experience of natural occurrences, such as the daily disappearance and re-appearance of the sun. The explanations created to relieve the tension is what we now know as religion. This is, however, only a partial explanation. Although much of religion is provides explanations for the way the world is, for those who follow it religion is also a vehicle to provide meaning to life, something that cannot be provided by science.

Does all cognitive dissonance need to be resolved? Why can we not live with the tension of not knowing—accepting that there are questions for which we do not have an answer, or for which there even might not be an answer? Tommy Wonder touches on this when he argues that magicians should aim to defuse the cognitive dissonance experienced by the spectator, creating suspension of disbelief and giving rise to a feeling that magic really exists—even if it is only for a fleeting moment, as our rational mind quickly takes over, trying to resolve the dissonance.

Theatrical Magic and the Sciences

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

Perspectives on Magic: A book about scientific views of conjuring.

The past three years I have been studying the relationship between magic and science and studied hundreds of articles about the performance of magic tricks from many different fields of science. From this I found that the relationship between magic and the sciences is bidirectional.

Firstly, magicians use the principles of science to create the illusion of magic. They use the principles of psychology, physics, linguistics, engineering and so on to perform their tricks. The second relationship between magic and science is that Scientists study what magicians do. For example, psychologists try to find out how people can be deceived, occupational therapists try to help people improve people’s lives by teaching them magic tricks and scholars in the field of gender studies develop ideas on why so few women are involved in the performance of magic.

For my Perspectives on Magic project I have created an annotated bibliography of scientific research into theatrical magic. The table below provides an overview of the relationship between theatrical magic and the different fields of science. The middle column shows the fields of science used by magicians to create the illusion of magic. The last column shows the fields of science which have studied magic performances.

Theatrical magic and science

Sciences Magic Trick Methods Study magic and magicians
Physical Sciences Chemistry
Physics
Life Sciences Health sciences
Neuroscience
Ophthalmology
Physiology Physiology
Social Sciences Anthropology
Business studies
Education
Gender Studies
Film Studies
History
Law
Library Science
Linguistics Linguistics
Performance Studies Performance Studies
Psychology Psychology
Sociology
Applied Sciences Engineering Computer programming
Dentistry
Education
Nursing
Occupational Therapy
Formal Sciences Mathematics
Information Theory

You can read more about the relationship between magic and science in my book Perspectives on Magic.

What can Pigeons teach us about Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction is a often debated social problem. A lot has been said in Australia about the measures in place to combat gambling addiction. Specially slot machines, poker machines, or whatever they are called in your country, are causing financial problems for many people around the globe. These machines are programmed to be addictive as they tap into foundational psychological mechanisms.

Following the theory of instrumental conditioning, our behaviour is motivated by rewards and punishments. This is the basic mechanism used to educate children, the infamous carrot and stick approach.

The Psychology of Gambling Addiction

With a poker machine, every time we press a button there is a predefined, albeit unpredictable, probability that we are rewarded for that behaviour. In instrumental conditioning this is called a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. This method has proven to be very addictive. Even animals in experimental situations have been seen to become addicted to the conditioned behaviour. Watch the video below to see how gambling operators tap into non-rational drives to make us addicted to gambling.

We are using this same mechanism to change our cat Stinkey’s behaviour. She drives us crazy every morning in an attempt to get some canned food. Because we irregularly reward her behaviour we introduced a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement, which leads to addictive behaviour. Stinkey became addicted to begging for canned food.

We recently started to give her a little bit every night and create a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule and the obsessive begging has quickly extinguished.

Magic Library: Scientific Literature about Conjuring

Magic LibraryMany magicians are avid collectors of magic tricks, DVDs, books and anything else related to their passion. Some are quite fanatical and amass thousands of volumes on the art of deception, like the Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York shown in this video. Several such libraries exist in the world, including some academic libraries have also created collections on conjuring.

The Magic Library

Beth Kattelman from the department of theatre at Ohio State University published an article on one of these collections in Theatre Survey, published by the American Society for Theatre Research.1. Some notable academic collections of magic books and paraphernalia in Australia are the Will Alma Conjuring Collection at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne and the Robbins Stage Magic Collection, State Library of New South Wales.2 Some other academic institutions with a magic library:

Parallel to the literature about magic, written by magicians, a sub-genre of scientific writings from many fields of endeavour exists. These books and journal articles are mainly written for the colleagues of the professionals and scientists that created this work. Historians, social scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists, neuroscientists, film researchers and so on have deliberated on the role, workings and practical purpose of conjuring.

Most of this work is, however, locked behind pay walls and publishers charge exorbitant prices for a single ten-page journal article. Over the past three years, I have extensively researched this literature and created an online annotated bibliography on the science of conjuring to help unlock this vast resource.


  1. Kattelman, Beth A.  (2008) The American Museum of Magic/Lund Memorial Library and Other Resources on Magic and Conjuring. Theatre Survey (49) 2: 285-293. DOI: 10.1017/S0040557408000161 

  2. Awcock, F. (2004). Will Alma, mas­ter magi­cian. The La Trobe Journal, 74, 15–24; Gal­lacher, L. (2006). Cast­ing the spell: Magic in books. The La Trobe Journal, 78, 71–87. 

Social networks in 1796: Family Relations in an Ancien Régime village

Social networks are considered the latest development in how humans interact with each other. This is, however, not correct as a social network is based on relationships and not limited to electronic communication. Social networks are an integral part of human existence and are as old as humanity itself. The term has been popularised due to the rise of social electronic media.

Before modernity, before the rise of individualism, social networks were defined by kinship, which was mainly based on genetic connections between people. Kinship is, however more than a network of genetic relationships as it is the social language in which society is expressed. In pre-modern collective societies kinship defined the boundaries of society. In the time before Facebook, social networks in Catholic societies were recorded in church books.

I have undertaken research to determine the kinship boundaries for the Southern Dutch agricultural hamlet of Heugem, combining the 1796 census and local church records. In 1796 the hamlet consisted of 39 houses with 172 inhabitants, of which 54 below the age of 12. Almost 90% of the population was born in Heugem. The social networks of genealogical relations have been been graphically displayed using the Pajek software for the analysis of large networks. The analysis shows a high level of interrelatedness within the community, with the priest as the only person without relatives. The research also shows that the overwhelming majority of people were born and died in Heugem. As such, a high correlation between geographic and kinship boundaries was found.

Nodes for men are triangles and nodes for women are circles. Blue nodes indicate people born in Heugem, red nodes indicate those from outside the town, and white nodes indicate deceased people. Parent-child relationships are indicated with black arrows, while marriages are denoted with blue lines. Click on the diagram for an enlarged view.

Social network for Heugem in 1796

Social network for Heugem in 1796.

The preliminary results of this research will be presented at the XXXth Frontiers in Genealogy and Heraldry conference in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Catholicism is a Pagan Religion: Examples from Portugal

Catholicism is the only Christian religion that admires body parts of dead people.

Catholicism is the only Christian religion that admires body parts of dead people.

For hundreds of years Catholics converted tribal people from all over the globe to Christianity. This conversion was often combined with violence and conquest in a zealous quest to drive out the “false gods” of paganism.

But Catholicism itself is more like a pagan religion than it wishes to admit. During Eucharist, believers eat the actual body of Christ — not symbolic, but the real flesh as dictated by Papal dogma. This is pure magic and no different to the tribal rituals they once abolished. In Lisbon I got caught up in a large procession, Corpo de Deus, where this miracle was celebrated.

Another fine example of catholic paganism in Faro is the Capela dos Ossos, the chapel of the bones. An alter built from the bones of monks as a reminder of the temporal nature of our existence.

If anything all this makes Catholic religion a lot more interesting than the austerity in Protestant churches. The ability of Catholicism to incorporate ancient local customs has been its secret to success over the world.