Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Art of Illusion

Illusions are fun. The best illusionists pass into history with mythological status. If I write the name Houdini, I don't have to say anything more. Your mind will fill in a rich picture of death defying illusions and escapes that seemed beyond what a human being should be able to accomplish.

The greatest illusion of all time, though, is one we never see. It is so good, so pervasive and so believable that it is all but undetectable. It is the illusion that goes on between your own ears. The illusion that you see the world as it is. You don't. You never have.

As a very simple example, click on the 'Start' button, below. You will see a uniform gray ring drop into place in the center of the split gray background. The start button will be replaced by three small views of the ring in different positions. Notice, in the opening state, how the ring is clearly one shade of gray. Now, click on the view to the left or the right. What do you see?

Each split side of the ring appears to become a different shade of gray. They are still the same, but your mind will see them as different. Try all you like, you will not be able to convince your mind that the two rings are still the same shade of gray. And yet, they really are. The vertical split presents the best illusion. The two halves of the ring are almost touching, yet the difference between them seems so great.

Interesting, isn't it? Even when you know the truth, you can't convince your mind to present it to you truthfully.

Here is another interesting illusion. Click 'Start' and six identical gray diamonds will slide into place, followed by seven identical discs, quartered into four different shades. Despite the fact that the only thing that has been drawn are those six gray diamonds and seven discs, you'll notice that your mind tells you there is something more—a hazy white diamond on the left.

Now, for a little fun. Click on the 'Spin' button and watch what happens. The moment the discs begin to spin, the hazy white phantom diamond disappears, only to reappear on the right side when the discs have finished their rotation. There is no trickery going on here beyond the trickery between your ears. You see things that aren't there and, try as you might, can't help but see them. You can, with a little practice, observe the process of the hazy diamond appearing, though. Give it a try.

What is going on, here? Do these illusions show faults in your visual system? Not at all. If anything, they show it's sophistication and power. Your eyes don't work just like little cameras, recording the amount of light bouncing off of (or being emitted by, in the case of your computer screen) objects. You look out in the world and interpret what you see. You literally create the picture of the world in your mind.

When you think about it, this is the only useful way for your mind to deal with visual data. If you did nothing but read color and luminance (brightness) values, you'd become hopelessly confused when the light struck certain objects in certain ways. For example, you depend on differences in luminance to figure out the contour of objects like stairs. If all you did was take a reading of the light without making assumptions and interpreting it as a whole, what would happen when a shadow was cast across the staircase?

You mind interprets more than just shades of gray when you look at the world. It makes assumptions and builds a picture based on movement, too. Take the dots, below. You will either see them apparently moving left/right or up/down. Whichever way it is, you'll probably find you have a very difficult time changing the orientation in your mind. Mostly people feel stuck with whichever way their brain initially sees the "movement." It can be done, though. Just click on the button for the direction you want to switch to and watch the moving dot.

Now, try a little experiment. See if you can train your mind to alter the apparent movement at will. The trick is this: anticipation.

Anticipation plays a key role in all of the illusions your mind creates. This illusion gives you an opportunity to play with it and see how it can be used to drive the illusion in different directions. In order to change the direction of apparent movement of the dots, focus on one of the dots, then shift your attention to the spot that you would like it to move to, either horizontally or vertically. For instance, if you see the dots apparently moving left/right, focus on the upper right corner. When a dot appears there, move your eyes down to the lower left corner. Suddenly, the movement of the dots seems to change orientation.

With a little practice, you can continually anticipate the apparent motion so that the illusion seems to be moving 360° clockwise or counterclockwise. Just keep moving your eyes to the next corner around the imaginary box the dots inhabit. As a dot appears in the corner you are looking at, look to the next dot around. Voila! The dots no longer move just up or down, they spin around in a circle!

Notice that you have changed nothing about the illusion itself. In the animation, there is nothing but dots turning on and off in a certain order. Everything about the apparent movement of the dots is made up by your brain.

Your mind likes to group things together, too. For example, you will see apparent motion in the dots, below. This time, however, there is really only one way to interpret the motion--as left and right. What about the dot next to the square in the middle? That one looks like it is hiding underneath the square as it move in tandem with the other dots, doesn't it?

Now, click the 'Hide' button to hide all the dots but the one in the center. Does it still look like it is moving under the square? Nothing has changed with the center dot. It is doing exactly what it did from the beginning, yet without the other dots for reference, you'd really have to stretch your imagination to see it moving under the square. With the other dots, however, it goes right back to its little game of hide-and-seek.

Before we get to my favorite optical illusion of all, let's think for a moment about what all of this might mean. There is a lot going on here beyond tricks of light and apparent movement. This interpretive ability of your brain extends beyond your visual system. The beauty of optical illusions is that they give you the chance to watch your brain in action—the very same action your brain takes, unobserved, every waking moment.

It is literally impossible to see the world as it is through casual observation. As you've seen through these illusions, you brain makes assumptions based on the data it has available to it to put together a picture that makes sense given your brain's existing programming. The first illusion shows how your brain makes certain assumptions about the shade of an object based on contrast. When the circle is whole, the brain interprets the ring as one object. Split them and the half circle that is on a darker background looks lighter.

The secret of the second illusion is the pattern of dark and light in the quartered discs. Two opposing quarters are the same shade of gray. The other two are dark and light. You brain recognizes this pattern, even if you didn't notice it consciously, and makes the assumption that the dark and light quarters are actually the same shade of gray, just like the other quarters. For that shading scheme to make sense, the lighter quarter must be covered by a translucent diamond that only makes it appear to be lighter in color. Your brain makes up the translucent diamond out of whole cloth. It isn't there, but the picture doesn't quite make sense (given your brain's assumptions) without it.

What you are seeing is your brain making up lies in order to maintain its assumptions about the world. It does this all the time. As you read the news or listen to a story, you don't read or listen to the actual facts and judge them on their own merits. Your mind, without your knowledge, is cooking what you hear or read to fit in with a preconceived model of reality.

Your mind's model of the world, for instance, probably includes the assumption that everyone is basically the same deep down inside. That assumption has been pounded into your brain from the time you were an infant. When you watch the actions of others, your interpretation of their actions is against the background of this fundamental assumption.

Try a little experiment, much like the one you tried with the dots, above. Think of the actions the U.S. is taking in the world right now. The background you've been given to view these actions is one of democracy, justice, freedom and the fight against evil terrorists. That background will lead you to view these actions in a certain way, no matter what you think of the leaders who are taking these actions. If you accept the validity of that background, you might argue that we have misstepped in our efforts to spread democracy, justice, freedom and safety from terror, but that the basic principle behind what we are doing is correct.

Now, just for the sake of having fun with illusions, imagine for a moment that everyone isn't really the same inside. Imagine that some people are missing a critical element in their makeup—something that we consider fundamental to being human. Imagine they lack a conscience. They are genetically incapable of feeling anything for other people than a hunger for power over them. Take it a step further. Imagine that the people telling you we are spreading democracy, justice and freedom while fighting a war on terror are afflicted with this lack of conscience.

How does you view of U.S. actions change?

Right this moment, there is a group of men and women in the most powerful political positions on the planet who are so afflicted. In psychological terms, they are psychopaths. Already, if you take the time to observe your brain working again, you might see that the very word "psychopths" conjured an image in your mind that will set the stage for how you will perceive everything else you read, here. Perhaps that picture was of a Hannibal Lecter type of character, or a Jeffery Dahmer. Whatever it is, take a moment to observe it and realize that this is nothing more than a programmed response. Your thoughts around the word "psychopath" were molded by your training and assumptions before you even realized you were having them, just like your perceptions of the shades of gray were altered before they even bubble up into conscious awareness.

A psychopath is a person who is genetically conscienceless. They have no feelings for other people beyond what might be described as hunger. They hunger for power over others. For some, this plays out as wielding the ultimate power of life and death. For most, it means wielding power over perception and the ability to manipulate others to get as much as they can from them.

Having no conscience, psychopaths can lie with impunity. The typcial methods for detecting lies will not work with them. All of those methods depend on detecting the unconscious physical "symptoms" of a lie, none of which manifest with a psychopath. Brain scans of the brains of psychopaths have shown that they do not react emotionally to things that normal people cannot help but react to. Different parts of a normal brain are activated when saying the words "death" and "rose," for example. Not so in a psychopathic brain.

This lack of emotional reaction doesn't come across as cold, like you might think. One of the skills a psychopath learns early in life is how to mimic the emotions of normal people. Since they don't have emotional triggers of their own, they can pick and choose which faux emotions they will display at any time in order to achieve whatever effect they desire. If they want to illicit pity from someone with a soft heart, they will put on a convincing act of crying. If they want to win the heart of someone fun-loving, they might have a smile on their face and a ready joke no matter what the circumstance.

Normal people, though, are largely emotionally driven. When our brains are putting together the picture of the world that makes sense from the data given, they will tend to focus on the parts of the picture that will have to do with affecting us emotionally. If something looks like it would stir an unpleasant emotion, it will be seen as dark and negative. If it looks like it might stir pleasant emotions, it will appear light. Our emotions are, to a large extent, the background against which we judge the various levels of gray in the world.

The psychopath's job, then, comes down largely to manipulating the contrast and apparent movement in the picture you are presented of the world. They might say words, like national security, war on terror and mission accomplished. These words have no bearing on reality, but they aren't intended to convey reality. They are intended to lead you to see things they way the psychopath wants you to see them. They are part of a linguistic illusion in which dark appears light and phantoms appear to fill in the gaps in the picture you are presented.

One example of such a phantom, not unlike the phantom hazy diamond above, is the so-called suicide bomber. No doubt, some of these have lived in the past, though logically there is not a single suicide bomber alive today. Are there as many as reported, though? Probably not. There are also reports of British agents posing as suicide bombers and people being set up as unwitting suicide bombers, only to discover the explosive planted in the trunk of their car before they went off. These stories do not fit the official story about the state of the Middle East, so they are ignored by the mainstream news media in the U.S. If they do happen to filter through to some Americans, they are dismissed. The illusion is too strong. Contradictory evidence like this seems to fly in the face of common sense. We can see for ourselves what is going on in the world.

Except, as we've already seen, we can't.

Perhaps you aren't convinced of that yet, though. Maybe you think that you really do see the world as it is and are not subject to the illusions that are born of your programming and assumptions. Here is another illusion that will show you just how dramatically wrong your brain's interpretation of the world can be..

What's the big deal, you ask? The big deal is that the squares marked A and B are exactly the same shade of gray!

The first time I saw this illusion, I just passed it by. Clearly the explanation was wrong. Squares A and B are absolutely not the same shade of gray...except they are. To convince you, I've added a little aid to this copy of the illusion. As you move your mouse over the squares on the grid, you will notice that they highlight as a light yellow. Click and the highlighted square will either disappear or reappear. Eliminate squares of the checkerboard until the squares around A and B are masked. See for yourself, they really are the same shade of gray.

Your mind cannot see the A and B squares by themselves as long as there are squares connecting them. It interprets the picture presented as a whole, making assumptions and interpretting the data to create a whole picture that makes sense to it that is in line with those assumptions.

The same thing happens with everything you observe. Between the squares of various points of interest in the world, you have been shown connecting squares carefully designed to lead you to interpret what you see in a very specific way. As with the above illusion, that interpretation comes without any effort on your part. It happens before you are even aware of having thoughts. You see a world, as clear as the nose on your face, that looks a certain way...and yet it isn't that way at all.

You have been lead to believe that Arab highjackers flew planes into buildings on 9/11. You have been lead to believe that Palestinians are nothing but a crazed bunch of suicide bombers who deserve to be kept locked up in Israeli prisons and behind walls guarded by armed men. You have been lead to believe that the U.S. had a right to invade Iraq and that it will have a right to invade Iran, too.

None of this is how it really is.

What you see are illusions created by controlled contrast between events, statements, conditioning and allegedly unbiased reporting. To get to the truth, you must dig. Of course, digging for yourself into the truth of matters is a lot of work. You're busy. You don't have time.

But, if you don't dig, you don't have a life, either. The world in changing rapidly, in ways you probably can't even comprehend at this moment. You have been lied to, manipulated and programmed to see the world in a specific way. This is not a way that is of benefit to you. The purpose of it all is to keep you quiet and docile until the time comes for the hammer to fall and you to be brushed aside like dust on the floor.

The question is this: do you wake up and do the work to see the illusion, or do you blithely work and entertain yourself into oblivion? The choice is yours and will remain yours until the moment the choice can no longer be made. Exactly when that will happen, no one can say.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Art of the Con

Not one of the people getting on the I-35W Bridge on August 1st had any reason to suspect what was going to happen that night. The day before, and the day before that, the bridge had held just as much traffic as it did on the 1st. The bridge had help up just fine since its opening in 1967. It had a history of holding the weight of vehicles traveling across the Mississippi River without any problems.

If someone with knowledge of the bridge’s lack of structural integrity stood at one end of the bridge trying to warn commuters of their imminent demise, he would’ve been laughed off as a nut case. Political cartoonists would have, if they had the time, probably drawn him as a long-haired, bearded, sandal-wearing lunatic carrying a sign reading “THE END IS NEAR!”

And yet, at 6:05pm on August 1st, the I-35W Bridge did collapse. The collapse was so sudden and catastrophic that some thought explosives had gone off. Cars plummeted into the water, below. A school bus full of children just managed to stop before going over the edge. Panic ensued.

Everyone on the bridge would’ve sworn it couldn’t happen, yet it did. Even the engineers in charge of inspecting the bridge didn’t see it coming. According to a report from WISN in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:

"During all of my time on the I-35W Bridge, I did not notice any unusual or unexpected swaying or rumbling," said Steve Weston, a project manager with Progressive Contractors of St. Michael, Minn. "No one in my crew made any such report to me. Right up to the collapse, I had no reason to believe that my crew and I were in danger."

That is, of course, exactly the way we like to see the world. We need stability. Without stability, adrenaline pumps into our blood stream and our heart rates stay dangerously high. The stress of prolonged lack of stability has a detrimental effect on our health. So, if we don’t find stability in reality, we make it up in our own heads. Lack of stability is just too much for most of us to handle.

In order to create this make-believe stability in our minds, we call on our recollection of history as justification of our fantasies. The bridge has never collapsed before. The country has always weathered the storm of hard times in the past. The system will correct itself and everything will soon go back to normal. Everything is under control, just as it has always been.

We, in the U.S., live in an empire, though some refuse to acknowledge it for what really is. Being an empire means having control. Control equals stability, or, at least, it feels that way. Empires provide a special form of history that makes believing in their stability easy for anyone calming themselves with such a fantasy. They can point to the rise of the country from humble, agrarian roots and a bold political experiment in democracy to the economic and military superpower of the world.

How can anyone doubt, with a history like that, that the empire will continue to grow? It has always grown. Anyone who doubts its continued growth and prosperity is a long-haired, bearded, sandal-wearing lunatic carrying a sign that reads, “THE END IS NEAR!” And, no one in their right mind listens to such lunatics, do they?

It is easy to forget just how many empires have come and gone during the known history of humanity. They all end. That is the history we need to keep in our minds. Every empire that has ever existed has come to an end. But this empire has not ended yet, you might argue. The keyword is “yet.” Every empire, up to its last day, could say the same thing.

The desire to believe that a history of success and growth means a future of the same is so strong that nearly every peddler of financial investments covers its legal butt with the disclaimer, “Past performance is not guarantee of future results.” Without that disclaimer, you leave yourself wide open to being charged with running a confidence game.

We seem to love stories about confidence games, yet seem to learn nothing from them. The Sting won seven Oscars, The Usual Suspects won two and The Grifters was nominated for four. Ocean’s Eleven (the original Rat Pack version) spawned an extremely popular remake which then spawned two popular sequels. The TV show Mission: Impossible spawned a movie franchise that was successful despite a growing dislike of its star, Tom Cruise. The list goes on and on. We go to the movies to watch them in droves, then rent the DVD's to watch them again, none the wiser two hours later.

The essence of a confidence game or, as it is usually called, the con, is exactly what the name implies: confidence. A con artist would convince their “mark” that a tremendous profit was to be made for very little effort. The success of the con is dependent on the ability of the con man to convince the mark that the proposition can’t possibly lose and the desire of the mark to make the profit. Often, the proposition, or setup, is something illegal. For example, in the movie The Sting, the setup used is one called “the wire.”

In the wire con the mark was made to believe that the con artist had someone on the inside at the telegraph office who was working the “gold wire.” The gold wire was the telegraph wire that delivered the results of horse races. The alleged inside man would delay delivery of the results of one of the late races by a couple of minutes in order to get the con artist the results in time to place a bet at a local pool hall and make a killing.

Of course, the con man does not have anyone on the inside at the telegraph office. Instead, he sets up a phony pool hall, complete with actors, to simulate the event. In order to really suck the mark into the proposition, he is not allowed to make any large bets for a few days. Instead, he is cautioned to go easy for a few days and just make a few bucks on races that don’t carry long odds so that suspicions are not raised. In one version of this con, carried out by the infamous con artist Joseph “The Yellow Kid” Wiel, the mark is actually lead to lose money on his first few bets.

For the first race he bets on, the results are delivered by phone. The “inside man” quickly blurts out twenty one then hangs up. The mark eagerly places his bet on the horse with the number twenty one to win and, lo and behold, horse twenty wins. When the mark later meets the “inside man” he is informed that he is an idiot for not being able to follow simple instructions. He was clearly told that horse twenty won.

A few more similar “miscommunications” and the mark is convinced there is a lot of money to be made and desperate to recoup his loses and make a profit. It is at that point that the sting happens. He places a ridiculously high bet that goes far beyond the house limits—not knowing, of course, that the “house” is phony and has no limits whatsoever. A show is put on for his benefit in which the bookie acts as if he simply cannot accept such a high bet. Finally, the “owner” of the operation steps in and, having seen the man consistently lose, tells the bookie to take the money.

Just as in the movie The Sting, the con might end with a faked raid by the police that sends everyone scrambling, including the mark who is forced to leave his large bet behind in order to escape jail. The con artists are safe from retribution because the mark can’t openly admit that he was willingly taking part in illegal activities.

The con does not have to involve illegal activities, of course…at least on the part of the mark. The con artist might claim to be the owner of a sizable chunk of land, even producing convincing documentation to prove it. George C. Parker made a living selling famous New York landmarks to tourists. His favorite was selling the Brooklyn Bridge. These types of cons went so far as to open offices that the mark could visit in order to instill confidence in their legitimacy. In the end, the mark engages in what he considers to be a perfectly legal and upfront business transaction that amounts to nothing but loss of their money.

These cons make for great movies because they seem so unbelievable. The wire is so involved, requiring the setup of a fake pool hall, the hiring of lots of actors and several days of manipulation, we can't believe anyone could actually pull it off. Only in the movies, we tell ourselves. However, the wire was a real con, used many times in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Cons could be incredibly elaborate affairs that spanned weeks or months of setup.

In any type of con, confidence is the key. As every con man knows, confidence is one of the easiest things to instill in another person. They understand that confidence and stability are necessary to the human mind. Rather than look with suspicion on the man who presents a deal that is too good to be true, most people will welcome him with open arms and count their blessings.

So it was with the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis. Everyone had confidence in that bridge right up to the moment it collapsed. And, so it is with our little empire. We have confidence. We need to have confidence. It has built that confidence in us slowly and surely. Anything less and we might see the sting coming and bolt for the door. It has built that confidence through indoctrination in its history—it’s rise from a lowly rebel nation to a global superpower.

But, past performance does not guarantee future results.

The stock market of the 1920’s was making a lot of people rich. The easy money to be made there drew virtually everyone in. If you had money, you put some of it in stocks. It was just the prudent thing to do. Even if you didn’t have money, you could buy into the game. The “beauty” of that market was that you could buy on margin.

You borrow some money to buy the stocks then put the stocks up as collateral for the loan. Since stocks were going up and up, it was a great deal. As a matter of fact, it was such a great deal that by 1929 the total debt on margin buying was six billion dollars. Yeah, that really is billion with a “b”.

In early September of that year, the market took a bit of a tumble by dropping, then rising, then dropping again. No need to worry. The market fluctuates. It had dropped like that before, but it had a history—a history of rising up stronger after the dip. Investors had confidence in the stock market.

This time, however, the market didn’t rebound as everyone thought it should. On October 24th, Black Thursday, investors began to panic. Selling orders overwhelmed the stock exchange’s ability to process the transactions. Financiers attempt to rebuild confidence in the market by buying as much of the stock as they could. It didn’t work. On October 29th, Black Tuesday, the floor of the stock exchange went chaotic. Traders on the floor (those guys you think of as staid and sober businessmen handling enormous sums of other people's money) were actually tearing at each other’s throats like crazed animals. In the end, thirty billion dollars—more than twice the national debt—had been lost.

It happens just that fast. One day, you have confidence, the next day…nothing. You’ve been taken for a ride and you have no means of regaining what you have lost. It is simply gone. We don’t want to believe that it happens, but it does happen, it has happened and it will happen again. Perhaps it will happen again very soon.

The warning signs are there. We are near the end of a very elaborate con game and we are the mark. But, we don’t want to see the signs. We have been promised a payoff at the end and we are too heavily invested in the game to quit now. We’ve lost some in the past, so we are putting it all behind the game, now. We are going to recoup our losses and then some!

Except, we aren’t. The mark never does. The only hope the mark has is to wake up to the fact of the con and end the game before it is too late. Letting the game play to its end is all the con artist wants. After that, you can have your regret for what could have been, what you should have done or what a fool you had been. The con artist has your valuables. That’s all that matters.

Still, here we are at the end of the game. We’ve seen the movies. We should know the game by now, but our confidence holds firm. We tell ourselves this con is too big and elaborate. No one could carry it off. Only in the movies. Instead, we blindly place our bets, mortgage our future and the future of our children, all for the big payoff we’ve been promised. It will come. It must come, dammit! The stock market will continue to rise, democracy will spread across the face of the planet and we will be welcomed as liberators.

And that bridge…the bridge to our future…we have confidence in it. It got us to where we are today, so it will get us to where we have been promised for tomorrow.

If you believe that, I have another bridge I’d like to sell you.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Art of Deception

The man sitting across the table from you is known for trickery. He is a stage magician. You know he employs trickery, so he tells you he is going to do a card trick in which he can't possibly manipulate the cards. In this trick, you will do all of the card handling. He won't touch the cards at all.

He instructs you to cut the deck into four piles. You do so. He then tells you that you are going to randomize the order of the cards by shuffling them around and moving cards from one pile to another. Pointing to a pile of cards, he instructs you to take the top three cards and place them at the bottom of that pile. Then, take the next three cards and place them, one each, on top of the three piles remaining on the table. You repeat the procedure with all four piles of cards. The cards should now be very well mixed.

The man then begins his patter in earnest. He asks you to confirm the fact that he has not touched the cards. You agree. In no way could he have manipulated how you would cut the cards or handle them. Again, you agree. With a smile, he asks you to turn over the top card from each pile. You are amazed. The four aces sit at the top of each of the four piles of cards. For a moment, your mind might actually entertain the possibility that real magic has been performed, though you "know" you've been duped.

The fact is, this trick can be taught in a couple of minutes to any child capable of understanding the instructions. It requires no fine motor skills for clever card handling since the performer does not even handle the deck. The only thing required is setting up the deck before the trick is performed and being able to do a little sales patter in which you get the audience to agree to a statement that is blatantly false.

Take a moment and see if you can identify the lie that makes the trick believable. Everything the magician says is true with one exception. The trick is based completely on a facet of human psychology that most people--stage magicians, salesmen and politicians aside--don't understand. When a person is given a number of facts that are demonstrably true, they will tend to group all statements in that group together, agreeing to everything said, including an embedded lie.

1. The magician asked you to agree that he did not touch the cards during the trick: True
2. He asks you to agree that he did not influence you in any way in how the cards were cut: True
3. He asks you to agree that in no way did he manipulate you in the handling of the cards: FALSE

In fact, the only thing he did was manipulate you while creating the illusion in your mind that you were making free choices. If you don't see the manipulation yet, read through the description of the trick again. The magician did not allow you to choose how the cards would be shuffled once they were cut into four piles. Instead, he guided you through a pre-programmed series of moves--three cards to the bottom then three cards on top of the remaining piles--designed to move the four aces to the top of the four piles from their pre-placed position at the top of the deck! If you want to understand the mechanics of the trick, grab a deck of cards and try it. Just put the four aces at the top of the deck then simply follow the trick as outlined above.

Once you understand how the trick is done, you'll realize it is a very cheap bit of manipulation. If you found your mind reeling at the description of the trick, you'll probably feel a bit of a fool at how easily you could be duped. The trick really is a child's game and a very old one, at that. Yet, people are still fooled by it.

It works with more than just cards. The phrase, "stacking the deck" means using a variation of this kind of trick to predetermine the outcome of any situation by placing what is to be chosen in a particular position then guiding the chooser through a predefined set of movements that forces that particular choice while giving the illusion of free choice. There are a number of other methods used to force a selection in stage magic. Many card tricks rely on forced selection, but the magician can't use the same force twice in his act. As he changes methods, he informs you that each new method is an assurance that he is not engaging in any sort of trickery. Maybe he fooled you on the last one, so this time he won't even touch the cards. Next time, perhaps he'll use the force called Magician's Choice. He'll give you three choices and ask you to pick one at random. You, of course, have no choice but to pick exactly what you are forced to pick.

How can that be? It's easy. Given three choices, A, B and C, suppose I want you to pick B. I ask you to pick one at random. If you happen to pick B, the force is done. If you pick A, I set A aside and ask you to pick from B and C. If you pick C, I declare that you've left your choice, B, on the table. Again, a cheap trick that most people will fall for if done with the requisite theatricality. Forced choice and sleight-of-hand are not only the prevue of stage magicians, though. Take a look at how it is done in real life.

The most enduring form of the forced choice in the U.S. and western Europe is the electoral process. This is such an obvious forced choice that it can, rather paradoxically, remain undetected even after it is pointed out. The key is the emotional involvement of the electors, which just happens to be the key to stage magic, too. Once you've convinced someone they are making a free choice, they will provide the evidence of the freedom of their choice for you. If human beings didn't possess this peculiar bit of psychology, stage magic wouldn't work. It wouldn't matter what the magician said. The forced choice would be seen for precisely what it is: forced. Instead, a little salesmanship on the part of the performer convinces the audience of what is to come before the trick is performed. The audience then dutifully sees exactly what they were told to see and the magician is free to manipulate events to his favor.

Here is another example of the techniques of stage magic at work. On the morning of September 11, 2001, you awoke to reports that the unthinkable had happened--a massive terrorist attack had occurred on U.S. soil. As the day unfolds, you learn the following facts. Four planes had been hijacked to be used as veritable flying bombs against high profile targets. Two of those planes, in front of thousands of witnesses and several video cameras, fly into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Later that morning, those towers collapse, leaving not even a bit of the structures left standing. In the Pennsylvania countryside, another of the hijacked planes crashes following an apparent heroic effort by the passengers to regain control of the aircraft from its hijackers. Also, something crashes into the Pentagon, causing massive damage, a huge fire ball and loss of life.

Eventually, it is announced that the damage at the Pentagon was caused by the fourth hijacked plane. This makes perfect sense to you. Four planes are hijacked, three are clearly accounted for, and something crashed into the Pentagon. The only logical choice is that the fourth plane crashed into the Pentagon. What doesn't occur to you is that you have been duped once again by another variation of the forced choice. Just like with the card trick, you don't think of the obvious, that the deck has been stacked and movements manipulated to force this particular choice.

Subsequent revelations about the inconsistencies in the official story of the event only further the illusion. A magician might turn your mind away from thoughts of the cheap manipulation he has performed by giving you a false choice of explanations for what you have witnessed. He only needs to give you one of the possible explanations, letting you provide the other in the privacy of your own mind. He tells you it must have been "magic." While you know it isn't true, his suggestion has clouded your thinking by introducing noise into your thought process. After all, if you were sufficiently impressed by the trick, that very thought likely went through your head. The same thing is done in the official story of the events of the day of 911. A false choice is set up by suggesting that the alternative to the official story is something preposterous, like holograms of planes flying into the twin towers, or rogue elements of the U.S. government committing this atrocity.

And here we see that a subtle variation of the trick, also used in stage magic, has been employed to divert your attention. You have been given two possible scenarios that contradict the official story. One of them is blatantly silly, one is not. Yet, as any stage magician, salesman or professional politician knows, your mind will group the statements together and dismiss the second with the first. In other words, the truth about the trick has been told openly, but in such a way that you will reject the truth, sending you down any number of dead-end blind alleys searching for the secret of how it was done.

Take a moment again to review what you were told and what you actually saw with your own eyes. If you want to see how the trick is done, do not accept anything the magician tells you at face value. He is a liar. His job is to give you as much truth and openness as possible, for the purpose of proving to you that he is not manipulating events in any way, so that the critical lie that makes the trick work will go undetected by the average observer. In the case of 911, you were flooded with demonstrable facts that were horrifying, engaging your emotions to a high degree. Remember, the key to all trickery is the emotional involvement of the audience in supporting the lie. Each fact presented made the ensuing lies all the more believable.
Two planes really did crash into the twin towers. A plane really did crash into the Pennsylvania countryside. Something really did crash into the Pentagon. All of this is a matter of record, so everything that comes after, your mind will tell you, is a matter of record, too.

But it isn't.

In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that a commercial aircraft could not have crashed into the Pentagon. There was, for example, no wreckage found at the scene that could have come from such a craft. For the craft to have hit the building as low as it did, its engines would have had to scrape the ground, yet the lawn in front of the Pentagon was left unmarked. The hole left in the Pentagon was barely as wide as the fuselage of such a craft. Assuming that the fuselage managed to fully penetrate the building and disintegrate, creating a hole that size, one is still left to account for the wings and engines. The official story would have the folding back and penetrating the building along with the fuselage. But there is simply no room for them to have made it through the hole.

In the case of the twin towers, the claim has been made that they collapsed--as did the building 7, later--due to a loss of structural integrity caused by massive fire and a weakening of supports from the shock caused by the impact of the planes. This was accepted as a reasonable explanation, despite the fact that the buildings were designed to withstand such a shock and no steel reinforced building has ever collapsed due to fire, before or since. Also, as any publicly available video of the collapse of the towers will show you, the tops of the towers leaned to one side as they began to fall, yet still managed to right themselves and fall into the footprint of the building. This would be impossible without a controlled demolition of the buildings.

You have also been asked to believe that each and every safeguard against such an event put in place by the U.S. military failed simultaneously on that fateful day, despite the fact that those safeguards had been called to action over 60 times in the preceding 12 months and worked perfectly each and every time. In the words of our stage magician, "it was magic!"

Of course, in the case of stage magic, the lies are told for our amusement. No harm done, maybe even a lesson learned. In the case of a deception like 911, the stakes are a bit higher. The art of deception is as old as mankind. Strike that. It is far older. It is as old as the universe itself. Deception is a key survival strategy for nearly everything that has ever been alive. How curious, then, that we—the one species we believe capable of rational thought on the planet—remain almost completely ignorant of the various means of deception. What’s even more curious is the fact that many remain steadfast in their belief that such deception is rare when the evidence contradicting that belief can be seen in even the most cursory investigation of nature.

Chameleons change color to blend into their surroundings. Some species of moths and butterflies have markings that are so close to the bark of the trees on which they perch that you can look right at them and not notice they are there. Carnivorous plants will mimic the smell of rotting flesh in order to attract the flies they like to eat. The list goes on and on, from one link in the food chain to the next. Why do we insist that this behavior ends with mankind?

The key, once again, is emotional involvement in a lie we have been told. Since the time we were children, it has been drummed into our heads. Everyone is the same inside. It’s a lovely democratic sentiment, but it is a sentiment that is contradicted by evidence. Just like in stage magic, we are directed away from seeing the truth through clever means of misdirection. The belief of what we are to see is planted in our heads before we ever see it. If we begin to suspect the truth, noise is injected into our thought process and true statements are mixed with false to use our psychology against us.

The simple fact is, all who look human are not human in the way we normally understand humanity. A small but very destructive minority of those who look human lack some of the most basic of human characteristics—empathy and conscience. These creatures use deception and misdirection to prey on human beings. If humans begin to suspect that all is not right with them, they will put a preprogrammed set of movements into play that are designed to steer you away from the truth. And, just like in the trick, everything they do is mechanical. Yet, as long as people remain unaware of their methods, their actions continue to befuddle and even amaze.

Another real world example of how this kind of trickery is performed. As you read this, the chances are pretty good that a soldier for the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is either using a Palestinian mother as a human shield while he terrorizes innocent people in their homes, ostensibly to search for terrorists, or is shooting a small Palestinian child in the back for the egregious crime of throwing rocks at an Israeli checkpoint in anger.

If this were any other country, you would be outraged. But this is not any country. This country was set up with immunity from criticism before it even existed. Do you see the correlation to stage magic again? The audience is told what they will see BEFORE they see it, preparing them to look for clues that validate what they were told and ignore what doesn’t fit. In the case of Israel, the audience was told that they are God’s chosen people who have suffered endlessly and now deserve to have this little plot of land to call home and live in peace.

What the audience misses is the fact that a large portion of the Jews who have made Israel their home are the descendents of converts to Judaism rather than descendents of the founders of that religion, and that they appear to be lead by some of the aforementioned almost-human predators, a.k.a., psychopaths. Even the slightest hint of criticism of Israel is met with cries of anti-Semitism, another bit of manipulation in which the only choice given is to wholeheartedly support everything Israel does or side with the Nazis. It’s another bit of forced choice that is as cheap as any described here…and it is remarkably effective.

The fact is, most Jews are caring, compassionate people who really do want to live their lives in peace. Because nearly everyone has had at least a Jewish friend or two and has observed this for themselves, charges of anti-Semitism can carry weight in their minds. Jews are not monsters, so how could these people claim they are doing anything but defending themselves against a relentless Palestinian terrorist mob that threatens their very existence? Let’s look at the statements in the same way we looked at the card trick.

1. Most Jews are caring and compassionate: True
2. Jews deserve a home in which they can live in peace like everyone else: True
3. Therefore, Israel is only defending itself when it imposes curfews, limits travel and even shoots small Palestinian children: FALSE

No one deserves a home at the expense of others. The Palestinians were living peacefully in the region for thousands of years before the U.N. created the state of Israel. Even after that event, Palestinians were gracious to their new neighbors. It was not until the leaders of Israel saw fit to demolish Palestinian homes and drive a people from a land that had been theirs for thousands of years that things turned ugly. Put yourself in their position for a moment and tell me you wouldn’t be just a little pissed off.

You may think I’ve given three examples of trickery in the real world—voting, 911 and the assumed irreproachability of Israel. In fact, I’ve only given one. The best tricks have multiple levels. One deception follows another until the audience is completely lost in the tricky with no hope of unraveling the secrets. The same is true, here. There are more levels to this particular trick, far more than we could talk about now. The rabbit hole is deep with a lot of branching tunnels that lead nowhere.

It is possible to unravel this trick, however. The key, as always, is to avoid taking any of what the magician says at face value. To see how the trick is done requires a little study and a willingness to accept that you have been tricked at all. Maintain your emotional attachment to supporting the lie and you will only fall further under the spell of the magician. Learn to open your eyes and you will suddenly see what has been going on right under you nose, undetected. One day, the trick will seem cheap and obvious and you will wonder how you didn’t see it all along.

If that day comes for you, the day your study has paid off and you can see the trickery of the magician, you will have a future.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Here is Your War on Terror

A war on terror is raging and the battlefield is all around us. That, at least, is what we are asked to believe. Most of us do believe it. Many of those who claim to believe that our government is nothing but a den of thieves and liars even believe them on this point. They might say that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, that we should pull out ASAP, that we should quit our imperialistic ambitions and...concentrate our efforts on the real terrorists.

We all know who the real terrorist are, right? Osama bin Laden, suicide bombers and all fanatical non-Christian and non-Jewish religious adherents. Those are the guys we have to worry about. Of course, you would never be so politically incorrect as to say that all Muslim are terrorists, but you do have to wonder, don't you? Just what is someone who worships a foreign god capable of? The citizens of Israel have a nice familiar god, even if they aren't exactly on speaking terms with his whole family. That's comforting, isn't it? Israel may be in the Middle East, but they don't seem Middle Eastern, if you see what I mean.

But Muslims, we are wise to keep a close eye on them. Take, for instance, the case of Sami al-Hussayen. To the public, he presented the face of a peace-loving father and doctoral candidate at the University of Idaho. The watchful, post-911 eyes of a local bank teller saw something more, however, and promptly alerted the FBI to a suspicious transaction by this Arab student.

The FBI sprang to action, working diligently to rid us of this terrorist threat living right in the heartland. Getting the "goods" on a sly terrorist agent like al-Hussayen takes time, however. The last thing they wanted was to have to take some of that precious time figuring out where he'd disappeared to. Fortunately, al-Hussayen provided them with the perfect excuse for tossing him in the hoosegow while the investigation proceeded. As it turned out, al-Hussayen had violated the terms of his visa.

Living in the U.S. under a student visa, as al-Hussayen was, one is not allowed to work. Yet, al-Hussayen, showing as much disregard for our laws as he did hatred of our freedoms, volunteered his time maintaining a website for a Muslim charity!! Even worse, he allegedly received as much as $300 over the course of five years of such "work," leading an immigration court judge to decree that he should be kept behind bars until the charges could be cleared up. Clink went the cell door for nearly 1 1/2 years.

The FBI scoured every nook and cranny of al-Hussayen's life. Virtually everything that could be known about the man was known by the time they brought their case to court. What did they find? As John Ashcroft put it, al-Hussayen was part of "a terrorist threat to Americans that is fanatical, and it is fierce."

Did the FBI uncover evidence that al-Hussayen was about to blow up the White House or unleash some other form of violent nightmare on the public? Not exactly. He was charged with having provided material support for terrorist activity, which sound like it could be bad until you realize that the material support was his volunteer work maintaining a website for the Islamic Assembly of North America.

Like most Islamic charities after 9/11, this one came under the close scrutiny of the U.S. government. While the website al-Hussayen managed seemed devoted to peaceful religious study, the government found that it did in fact contain articles written by radical sheiks. Some of those articles contained calls to violence against the U.S., including one article that mentioned hijacking planes and flying them into buildings that was written before 9/11. The site also contained a link for making donations to Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S.

Unfortunately, for the prosecution, it turned out that much of the anti-American material posted on the site was also posted on the site of one of their witness, as well as on the website of the BBC. In any case, there was no evidence that al-Hussayen believed any of the rhetoric in those articles and, certainly, he had never written anything like that himself. As for the link for donating to Hamas, it was never on the site during the time al-Hussayen was webmaster.

Evidence of al-Hussayen's other suspicious behavior was also presented. The FBI claimed al-Hussayen attempted to delay his graduation, in order to lengthen his time in the U.S. for terrorist fundraising, by changing doctoral advisors mid-year. They also noted that he moved his campus office from the computer science building to the one that housed the universities defunct nuclear reactor. Obviously, so they claimed, he was hoping to get his hands on some radioactive material he could use to make a dirty bomb. And, he was studying computer security systems. I'm sure I don't have to spell out what horrors he was planning to unleash in that arena.

The truth of the matter was, al-Hussayen was attempting to hasten his graduation by changing advisors. His former advisor was battling cancer. As for finding radioactive material lying around a decommissioned nuclear reactor--I can't even bring myself to comment. And since when can one be accused of suspicious behavior for engaging in a common field of study already offered by the university one is attending?!

That's right, I forgot. Sami al-Hussayen is Muslim.

His trial was notable because he was the first tried under the newly expanded definition of "material support" to include "expert advice and assistance." The government claimed that since he used his expertise in website design for a charity they were investigating as a possible supporter of terrorists (no such links were ever found, by the way), he was a terrorist himself.

In this case, al-Hussayen was lucky. Being a test case of sorts, the government didn't quite have it's act together and the jury hadn't been softened quite enough by Fox News terror alerts. al-Hussayen walked, free to volunteer again. Countless others after him weren't quite so lucky. They simply disappeared into the the bowels of a prison like the one in Guantanamo Bay, "extraordinarily rendered" to a place far away from the prying eyes of the public.

Sami al-Hussayen wasn't quite as lucky as some others, though. Take, for example, the Israelis founding dancing with joy in the shadow of the burning twin towers on 9/11. They even videotaped the event, mocking the burning of the buildings by holding their lighters in front of the camera as if they were lighting the building on fire themselves. I would hazard a guess that their immigration status wasn't exactly to-the-letter kosher, either. But, the lucky stiffs, they were merely shuffled out of the U.S. and onto Israeli TV where they were welcomed as heros. Talk about dodging a bullet!

There there is Luis Posada Carriles. He has also been charged with immigration irregularities. In his case, he just entered the country flat-out illegally and was caught. There isn't a lot of wiggle room in those kinds of cases. It is on the immigration issue that any similarity between Posada and al-Husssayen ends, however. You see, Posada is a known and self-confessed terrorist. Yet, the U.S. government refuses to either bring terrorism charges against him or extradite him to his native Venezuela, a demand made by that government, as is required by both Article 7 of the Montreal Convention and Article 8 of the International Convention for the Repression of Terrorist Acts Committed with Bombs.

Posada's known terrorist activities include blowing up an airplane (the only recovered human remains were those of a young girl whose brains and internal organs were literally blown away) and several bombings of hotels in Havana. Of course, that one sentence brings the entire thing into sharp focus, doesn't it? Not only is he not Muslim, he is OUR terrorist. In the eyes of the U.S. government, a terrorist is always one of "them." A man who blows the guts out of young girls isn't a terrorist if he is fighting our enemies (though I'm still not clear on how Cuba, of all places, qualifies as the enemy of anyone). No, a man like that is...well, in the case of Posada, he is on the CIA payroll. Go figure.

We all know there is no more honor amongst spies than there is amongst thieves. That in mind, one has to wonder just why Posada, a man who has worked for the CIA since the 60's, was trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Also worth pondering is why he was being financed by a man, one Santiago Alvarez, who had been indicted for an illegal cache of weaponry at his Florida home that included machine guns and rocket launchers! You've just got to ask what they were planning to do with all that. Yet, the U.S. has, after years, still refuses to bring terrorism charges against Posada. Rather, they keep him tied up, and away from the Venezuelan government, in immigration court.

It kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it? What if--and I know this is a big "what if"--but what if the war on terror isn't quite what we've been lead to believe? What if the stories about Islamic fundamentalists, crazed with devotion to the wrong god and lining up to splatter their guts all over our freedoms, aren't quite accurate?

I'd have to ask the same question of the U.S. government I asked of Posada and Aolvarez. Just what could they be up to?

Further reading: