Illusions, Magic, and the Perception of Reality

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Why do we see this image of the Penrose Stairs as being impossible? Optical illusions, such as this one, and magic tricks function because of at least two structures, perhaps we should call them limitations, related to our perception of reality, namely bodily structures (our sensory system) and conceptual structures )the frameworks around which we organize those perceptions). Considering these limitations becomes important not only for our perception of illusions but also for the work of observation and description that informs much scholarship and public discourse.

These reflections came out of watching David Blaine perform his ice pick trick in a conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson with Pharrell Williams and Scott Vener in their OtherTone Studio. Continue reading “Illusions, Magic, and the Perception of Reality”

A Name and A Story

Venus of WillendorfWhat’s in a name? In “How Algorithms Shape Our World” (a Ted Talk from 2011), Kevin Slavin describes the mysterious work of algorithms to determine prices on Amazon, recommend movies on Netflix, and control institutional buying and selling in the stock market, sometimes even beyond human control. In the midst of these issues, he makes a general statement about the context of naming (beginning at about 6:00 in the video below), “And they do what we’ve always done when confronted with huge amounts of data that we don’t understand — which is that they give them a name and a story.” Continue reading “A Name and A Story”

Who Are You? I’m A Nervous Flyer

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Who Are You?” asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.

Preparing for Departure: I Knew I Knew You!

I’m am extremely nervous flyer. Walking onto a plane – and preparing for the anxiety of the flight – I enact rituals of certainty. Such practices don’t begin on the plane. They commence in the airport once I’ve arrived at my gate. I might call them rituals of identification for in turning myself into data as often as I do when I’m enacting such practices, I am clear that such things rely on the strategies I enact in reading other people (for my own purposes) – i.e., ones that often involve strategies such as authenticity and strategic essentialism as I scan the crowd trying to take stock of the “who” I might be in company with on the plane. In being a nervous flyer and by reflexively examining my practices, I seemingly learn more about this thing we call identity – how I catalogue others for my own social interests (i.e., protection and safety) and thus, how others read me back. Continue reading “Who Are You? I’m A Nervous Flyer”

Making Magic Work

magicianAn old story has been making its rounds and sparking discussion online over the past few weeks and it was too good for me to pass up on giving it a little Culture on the Edge consideration.

I, for one, would like to see the so-called evidence this school has that a 15-year-old girl made a grown man sick by casting a magic spell.” – Joann Bell, Executive Director, ACLU, Oklahoma Chapter.

The story went a little something like this: Fifteen-year old student, Brandi Blackbear, of Union Intermediate High School was accused of “casting a magic spell” that left her teacher sick and hospitalized. She was suspended. A civil rights lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court in Tulsa, Oklahoma on behalf of the student, which indicated that the student was banned from donning and drawing Wiccan signs and symbols in school. Continue reading “Making Magic Work”

Blind Confidence

blindfaithNot long ago I posted about a paired example (one scholar in India and one in North America), each debunking what they both called other people’s superstitions. Apart from being curious as to why one of those critics met a tragic fate (the topic of my earlier post), I also find interesting the way in which the side they both share — what shall we call them: Modernists? Rationalists? Empiricists? Scientists? Secularists? — portrays those on the other; for “they,” as indicated just above, are superstitious people who rely on archaic beliefs in black magic, hocus pocus, faith (in fact, it is often called blind faith) whereas “we” boldly rely on our own cool-headed rationality and cold hard facts.

But is it as simple as that? Continue reading “Blind Confidence”