"How in the World?"

James Randi --- Wizard ((no email))
Fri, 13 May 1994 03:21:00 -0400


Well, Readers Digest not only has done it again, but this one got right by
me in the dark. A 448-page, large-format, handsomely illustrated volume
titled "How in the World?" (1990) makes a brave attempt at explaining, in
general, how some rather interesting and not-well-understood things are
done. As you might expect, I turned to the sections in which I might be
expected to have some expertise.

First I looked up Houdini. Well, the "researchers" resurrected the old
canard about Houdini being trapped under the ice of the Detroit River (which
has never frozen over in recorded history) in 1906. The episode never
occurred, and the report -- by an over-zealous press-agent -- embarrassed
Houdini. The Milk Can Escape "secret" as shown here is so ludicrous that it
defies description. The one in Walter B. Gibson's book "Houdini's Escapes &
Magic, is only slighly less silly. Neither system would work. The writers
here have Houdini doing his packing-box escape with a set of "nail-cutters"
that have to be jammed between the planks and would not do the job at all.

Next came the treasured secrets of the magicians in general. Well, no sweat
there. The reader will come away just as befuddled as ever, if not more.
The levitation trick was never safer, and where they got that crapola I'll
never know. A photo of Harry Blackstone Sr. is shown with no identification
of the artist. A method given for pulling a rabbit out of a hat would take
rather much choreography, a half-blind audience and probably a very dead
animal. I just can't imagine what dummies dream these things up. Incredible.

John Keel, author of the book "Jadoo" (1958) now works cheek-by-jowl with
Loyd Auerbach on FATE magazine, that journalistic paragon of accuracy and
virtue, and is here credited with having solved the Indian Rope Trick. John
didn't know much back then, either. You see friends, the secret of this
classic trick is obvious to Mr. Keel. A fine, invisible steel wire is
fastened to the tops of two nearby hills. It hangs horizontally over the
market square at night, when the clever conjuror tosses a rope into the air.
The poor dupes who watch don't see the concealed hook at the end of the
rope. That catches on the steel wire and the rest is easy. The boy climbs
the rope, slides away along the wire concealed by heavy smoke generated by
the sneaky magician, and that's that. Give me a break!

Yet another howler is the Readers Digest version of the Cottingley Fairies
hoax worked on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The book says this affair "baffled
photographic experts and psychic researchers the world over." Poo-poo. Any
photographer who would be fooled by that mess woudn't know his hypo from
Alka-Seltzer. As for the "psychic researchers," well.....they may be right.
I must note that they give ME credit for having spotted the origin of the
fairy pictures; wrong! It was a Fred Gettings who did that.

The "secret" behind fire-walking is wrong, very wrong. The Leidenfrost
Effect is said to be the solution to it, which it isn't. The matter has
been solved by the skeptics in California, who regularly trot the embers
just for fun.

Three-Card-Monte is described in a highly ambiguous fashion, and the UK
origin of this section is revealed by the designation of the suckers as
"punters." You could read this forever and still lose your money to the
card-tossers. Sigh.

The book is up to the Readers Digest's usual standards.