Removing Magic

So this was one of those real-life mysteries.

I like crossword puzzles. And in particular, I like indie crossword puzzles, because they tend to be more inventive and less censored than ones that run in newspapers. So I follow several crossword designers on Twitter.

Yesterday, one of them mentioned that people were having a problem with his latest puzzle. I tried downloading it on my iPad, and yeah, it wouldn’t open in Across Lite. Other people were saying that their computers thought the file was in PostScript format. I dumped the HTTP header with

lynx -head -dump http://url.to/crossword.puz

and found the header

Content-type: application/postscript

which was definitely wrong for a .puz file. What’s more, other .puz files in the same directory were showing up as

Content-type: application/octet-stream

as they should.

I mentioned all this to the designer, which led to us chatting back and forth to see what the problem was. And eventually I had the proverbial aha moment.

.puz files begin with a two-byte checksum. In this particular case, they turned out to be 0x25 and 0x21. Or, in ASCII, “%!“. And as it turns out, PostScript files begin with “%!“, according to Unix’s magic file.

So evidently what happened was: the hosting server didn’t have a default type for files ending in .puz. Not terribly surprising, since that’s not really a widely-used format. So since it didn’t recognize the filename extension, it did the next-best thing and looked at the first few bytes of the file (probably with file or something equivalent) to see if it could make an educated guess. It saw the checksum as “%!” and decided it was a PostScript file.

The obvious fix was to change something about the file: rewrite a clue, add a note, change the copyright statement, anything to change the contents of the file, and thus the checksum.

The more permanent solution was to add a .htaccess file to the puzzle file directory, with

AddType application/octet-stream .puz

assuming that the hosting provider used Apache or something compatible.

This didn’t take immediately; I think the provider cached this metadata for a few hours. But eventually things cleared up.

I’m not sure what the lesson is, here. “Don’t use two-byte checksums at offset 0”, maybe?

It’s Still Shamanism

Vatican Radio reports, Reliquary of St. Barbara visits Athens. The silver casket of Saint Barbara, martyred in the 3rd century, has been brought to Athens, where (emphasis added):

People of all ages and social backgrounds waited for hours in the sun for a chance to touch the reliquary, hoping for an answered prayer.  The casket contains the remains of Saint Barbara, who according to legend was martyred in Asia Minor in the 3rd century AD.

Last week the reliquary was taken to the Saint Savvas cancer hospital in Athens, where it was literally mobbed by people seeking a healing.  It’s due to be flown back to Venice at the end of this week, where it’s been housed since the Byzantine Empire sent it there about 1,000 years ago. […]

Worshippers questioned by reporters said that Christianity, and the saints, were their only hope after the failure of politicians and economists to right the world’s ills.

I honestly fail to see the difference between this and going to a shaman to use his healing fetish, other than the officials’ clothes having more gold thread and fewer feathers.

This particular juju happens to be Orthodox, but the Catholic church is also very big on relics, intercessory prayer, and healing miracles. As far as I know, the higher-ups in the church endorse such things officially, or at least don’t do anything to dissuade people from accepting such superstition.

Can anyone familiar with Orthodox or Catholic theology explain to me how sophisticated theology™ can coexist with such primitive superstition?

Connections

It occurred to me that humorists and magicians have something in
common: they both rely heavily on misdirection.

Disclaimer: I’m neither a magician nor a comedian (as you can tell from my
previous post)
so I may not know what I’m talking about.

Magicians use misdirection in their tricks, to draw the audience’s eye
away from the card being palmed, or to trick the mind into thinking
that the coin was dropped or the ball passed to the other hand.

A lot of humor also relies on misdirection, in that the setup to a
joke establishes a certain mental image of a situation, and the
punchline destroys that image and puts another in its place.

Where it gets interesting, I think, is when the audience knows how
things work. Comedians tell jokes to each other, and I’m pretty sure
magicians do tricks for one another. This brings another level of
difficulty to both crafts: how do you misdirect someone who knows
they’re being misdirected?

I’m not sure what magicians do to impress each other — perhaps
something along the lines of “Wow, while we were watching his hands to
see him palm the card, he was actually distracting us from noticing
that his assistant changed from a white outfit to a black one”. But
I’ve noticed a fair amount of meta-humor in The Simpsons and Futurama.
For instance:

[Fry is being Zoidberg’s Cyrano]
Fry: Start with a compliment. Tell her she looks thin.
Dr. Zoidberg: [calling to Edna] You seem malnourished. Are you suffering from internal parasites?
Edna: [pleased] Why, yes. Thanks for noticing.

Here, Zoidberg’s line leads us to believe that in his bumbling manner,
he has misunderstood what Fry was telling him. But Edna’s line reveals
that no, what he said is actually a compliment on this planet.

Of course, in order to make misdirection work, both the magician and
the comedian have to know how their audience thinks, in order to make
them think a certain way. I know that humor doesn’t travel well at
all: what’s hilarious in one country is merely absurd or
incomprehensible in another. I wonder if magic tricks suffer from the
same thing, or whether they tend to rely more on (presumably)
universal psychological elements, like the fact that an object moving
from A to B passes through all the points in between.

Also, are there types of brain damage that prevent one from being able
to appreciate a magic trick?

Are All Southerners Superstitious Fools?

Last year, the governor of Georgia asked his citizens to perform a rain dance to alleviate the drought in that state.

Now the mayor of Birmingham, AL, Larry Langford, has decided that the crime rate in his city is way too high, and that it’s time to try to look as though he’s doing something about it.

I suppose if it were me, I’d start by sitting down with the police to find out what they’re doing and what support they could use from the mayor’s office. And since the University of Alabama’s Department of Justice Sciences is conveniently located in town, I’d call them up and see what works in crime prevention. I bet the FBI or DOJ might be helpful, too: maybe they can recommend a few speakers, or send some brochures, or something.

But obviously Langford isn’t me, because his innovative solution is to dress up in a burlap bag and shout.

That’s quite clever, actually: when the criminals hear about this, they’ll be too busy laughing their socks off to resist arrest.

Either that, or Langford and a large number of people around him really are credulous superstitious fools who believe in magic. And yet somehow manage to function in 21st century society.

Rain Magic

Every so often, sophisticated theists will say that Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. misrepresent religion, that God is not an invisible sky-daddy who grants wishes, but some ineffable essence working within the laws of nature, or some such (see here, here, here).

And then something like this comes along:

That would be Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has asked Georgians to pray for rain today, and at lunchtime will convene with various religious and political leaders on the steps of the state Capitol to seek divine intervention in the state’s months-long drought.

There’s probably a polite way to say this, but I won’t (maybe I’m just cranky because it’s raining in Maryland, rather than in Georgia where they could use it): these people believe in magic. Primitive, superstitious magic, where if you say the right words and make the right gestures, the great sky spirit will grant you your wish.

Right here, in the United States, at the dawn of the 21st century. In the sixties, people thought we’d have flying cars. Instead, we have rain dances.

And this isn’t some fringe group. Not only does Governor Perdue believe that rain dances work, enough of his constituents do that he hasn’t been laughed out of office.

So, all you sensible theists out there, why aren’t you policing your own? Why aren’t you pointing out to these superstitious fools that what they’re doing is no different from spreading mistletoe on the ground and chanting? Pastors, why aren’t you educating your congregations and telling them that no, God doesn’t work that way?

In a recent speech, Daniel Dennett suggested referring to non-brights as “supers”, because they believe in the supernatural. But perhaps “super” is short for “superstitious” as well.