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Brief Notices XII

magicI have always loved magic. I am particularly impressed by hand magic, but I have also been enraptured by the best of the stage illusionists. Professional illusion designer and magic historian Jim Steinmeyer has written just the book for me. His "Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear" takes us back to the giolden age of the illusionists, from their beginnings in about 1850 through the Great Depression of the early twentieth century. In her excellent review of the book, Kirsti Potter says that "[w]ithout stooping to bleary-eyed nostalgia, Steinmeyer evokes a time before CGI, when wonder outweighed suspicion and illusions were magical."

I could never be a magician because I'd never remember all the steps needed to complete a trick. I'd get locked in a closet without a key or something. But now I have an excuse for this faulty memory of mine. Apparently, according to a controversial theory, some memories are actually destroyed by the very act of remembering them. They are, if you like, one-off memories, remembered once and then lost forever. It is a very complicated matter involving protein-synthesis, signal-transduction cascades, and CREB, the details of which, while fascinating, are rather advanced.

Equally advanced -- at least for a semi-Luddite like me -- is the idea of "stealth wallpaper". According to an item in the New Scientist, stealth wallpaper is a "type of wallpaper that prevents Wi-Fi signals escaping from a building without blocking mobile phone signals ... The technology is designed to stop outsiders gaining access to a secure network by using Wi-Fi networks casually set up by workers at the office." It is a bizarre world that needs this stuff!

I'm much more fascinated by quite the opposite -- a world in which there is no need for a word for "three" or "they". Such is the world of the Piraha, a small group, 200 perhaps, of hunter-gatherers in the Amazonian jungles. Here is a CNN article that discusses the tribe's inability to meet US math requirements -- d'oh! I was fascianted and did some digging. A Google search leads to quite a lot of similar material on Piraha linguistics, which is great, but disappointingly little on other aspects of their lives.

On the other hand, a group of aboriginal people who are receiving a great deal of coverage are the Australian Aborigines. Or, rather, their historical relationship with the conquering white colonists is coming under scrutiny. It is received wisdom that "the settler society had engaged in a pattern of conquest, dispossession and killing of the indigenous inhabitants." As this article from the Australian notes, this view has "influenced critical High Court judgments on land rights, including the Mabo decision". However a cadre of historians, led by Keith Windschuttle who wrote "The Fabrication of Aboriginal History", has attacked this as a "leftwing" view, unsupported by the historical evidence. Outrage in academe as the establishment closes in on itself.

August 21, 2004 in Brief Notices | Permalink

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