Monday, January 14, 2008

Say It Ain't So, Randi!

James Randi, for those of you not familiar with his work, is the closest thing we have to a modern Harry Houdini. Like Houdini, "The Amazing Randi," has spent his career both astounding audiences worldwide with unrivalled feats of stage magic and debunking charlatans who seek to dupe and defraud the unwary by claiming to harness supernatural forces. Houdini became involved in exposing fraudulent mediums after the death of his mother, but Randi's debunking of supernatural fakery comes from an unshakable belief in the naturalistic world.

To further his ends, Randi established the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), which he used to put forth the ultimate "put up or shut up" challenge to the world's mediums, dowsers, psychics, spiritualists, faith healers, astrologers, and everyone else trying to make money from the gullible by pimping the supernatural: The JREF Million Dollar Challenge. The challenge guarantees in writing a prize of one million dollars who can conclusively prove the existence of any supernatural power or force. All applicants have to do is to submit their claim in writing and have their powers tested by JREF's experts. All tests are set up using scientific controls which do not allow cheating or the possiblity that success was caused by chance alone.

What could be simpler? What easier way could there be to get your hands on a million bucks?

Yet, in the ten years it has been around, JREF's million dollar prize has yet to pay off for any of its would-be claimants. None of the aspiring psychic millionaires has been able to pass a test that does not allow cheating or luck to be a controlling factor. After ten years the score is Randi: $1 million, Psychic Woo Woo's: 0.

Last week the bad news came. In JREF's Swift newsletter (, Randi announced that the end of the Million Dollar challenge would come on March 6th, 2010. It seems the sheer numbers of mystically-charged loonies crawling out of the woodwork to attempt the challenge has been overwhelming and the foundation's time and resources have been stretched to the limit, keeping the foundation from fulfilling its primary purpose: education. No one has even come close to proving the existence of the supernatural and, worse yet, the big-name psychics (the ones with TV shows, radio programs, and best-selling books) are so afraid to be proven frauds that they would not touch the challenge with a ten-foot pole.

Fans and admirers of Randi and his foundation certainly understand and respect the reasons the challenge must end, but we will miss it nonetheless. The challenge always hung over the heads of charlatans and their believers, a sword of Damocles ready to burst their bubble of nonsense should they dare attempt to face it. Their fear to 'go for the million' was all the proof we ever needed that there was nothing but air to the mystic claims of the Sylvia Brownes and James Van Praaghs of the world.

Worst of all, however, is the unfortunate truth that if the challenge can end, so, too, can Randi. The Amazing Randi, tireless crusader against those who would have us ruled by the irrational, is no longer a young man. His recent open-heart surgury leads us to the inexorable conclusion that he is mortal and must pass the way of all mortal men, despite the fact that his wit and wisdom are needed as much now as ever.

Perhaps when it happens Sylvia Browne can talk to him so that he can share his wisdom from beyond the grave ("I'm hearing a name. It starts with 'M'...or maybe 'R'...although it could be an 'A.' No? Well, think about it. It'll come to you. I think he had a full head mean he was losing his hair? Yes, that's what I'm seeing...). No, probably not.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bloggy. Bloggier. Bloggiest.

Google the phrase 'I hate the word blog' and you will see that quite a few of us do. It is not a very graceful or mellifluous word, but it is both honest and useful and it is this honesty and utility that have given it its place in modern usage.

Its honest derivation from the term 'web log' has, thankfully, deprived us of some pretentious term likely to be dreamed up by sociologists attempting to load it with significance. Granted, the term 'web' is no longer used like it once was and 'log' reminds one more of Abraham Lincoln's birthplace or William Shatner's voiceover of an ancient special effects sequence, but 'blog' soldiers on. It is unfortunate that the somewhat more literary connotations of a word like 'travelogue' could not have been incorporated, but things are as they are and any pretensions to literature will need to arise from blogs' contents and not the genesis of the term itself.

The utility of 'blog' is an even greater factor in its popularity than its honest origins. It has a forthright monosyllabism that lends itself to ease of use. Once one has gotten past the newness of the term, the conjunction and combination of its component sounds makes it seem surprising that no one before our own generation has put them together for the naming of something else. Why did our ancestors have nothing named 'blog?'

Its utility continues far beyond its brevity. 'Blog' easily jumps across the noun line into verb territory: "I blog," an acquaintance once told me. 'Blogging' is a popular pasttime and, adjectively speaking, 'blog' can describe posts, sites, and material. Oh, and just in case you thought the logosphere was entirely too pretentious, the blogosphere is dominated by plebeians and has almost entirely superceded it.

It seems more and more likely that those whose hidebound and reactionary views toward language cause them to revile the neologisms generated by information technology will be shoved aside by the force of a living, growing language. Acceptance of these new terms may well be the litmus test that determines which of us possesses the flexibility and mental adaptability to excel in the information age.

Unfortunately, I still hate the word 'blog.'