A Most Stupendous Podcast

If forced to name the greatest human named Stephen, Stephen Fry has to be somewhere near the top of the list. Eloquent and witty with an unparalleled love of of both language and learning. 

He has a new podcast called Great Leap Years - The Stories Behind Inventions. Specifically he's focused around inventions related to communication and information technology. It starts at the beginning with the development of language. If you're unfamiliar with the intense verbal tango that is listening to Stephen Fry, here's a sample of what you're in for:

You may know that I’ve had a lifelong interest in technology but you should understand too, I am not a scientist, technologist, engineer of hardware or software by training nor talent. It takes me a long time to understand scientific ideas simply because they’re nearly always founded in the abstractions of mathematics and I, since childhood, had an attitude to numbers that approximates my attitude to tigers: they are, to be sure, beautiful beyond words, magnificent, strange, fascinating, powerful. But they fill me with awe, fear, a deep sense of inadequacy, and a presentiment that unless I run away, I will wet myself.
— From Episode I - "When We Were Young"

The podcast is available through his website, but also through Apple Podcasts and quite free to enjoy. As far as I'm concerned, the episodes can't come out fast enough. 

h/t @pennjillette

Face2Face - Again

A few weeks ago, I sat down with David Peck, the host of the Face2Face Podcast and ridiculously tall Canadian magician Brian Roberts to discuss their upcoming lecture "Spare Change for Social Change."

Both David and Brian have appeared several times as guests on Magic Tonight. I've been a guest on David's podcast twice already (see here and here) and but this time I was able to steal the microphone and serve as interviewer and host. We met in the mysterious back room of the Browser's Den of Magic, who will be hosting the lecture later this month. 

We talked about the process of sharing and uncovering secrets and the value that different magicians place on different branches of the craft of magic. Eventually, David's inner philosopher reared its ugly head and we discussed the role of the modern performing magician in today's society. It was a very interesting conversation to be part of. 

You can download the podcast here (episode no. 263) or subscribe in iTunes. Tickets are available for the lecture on Saturday, February 26 at 6:00 PM, $20 when you reserve online


*The unhealthy obsession with "introductions" in the podcast is a dig at a previous appearance of mine on the "Discourse in Magic" podcast... long story.

In praise of Incrementalism

Two of my favourite authors are Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the duo behind the Freakonomics series of books and the eponymous podcast which has now been running for over five years. They have a wonderfully insightful approach to tackling problems using information and data.

"The Hidden Side of Everything"

"The Hidden Side of Everything"

Many of the most interesting, and arguable the most important, questions for society are also the ones where it is hardest to collect and evaluate hard empirical data. What often tends to happen — informally at least — is that questions that should be empirical questions (like "What is the air speed of an unladen swallow?") get delegated to other fields like philosophy — or worse, religion. (Remember that up until a few hundred years ago, there was no distinction between science and philosophy.)  It's important to recognize the difference between questions which are not scientific, and questions which are scientific but have practical challenges associated with gathering the data. You can't put a teacher through the Large Hadron Collider and measure its properties, but there are empirical ways of evaluating good and bad teaching techniques. 

Recently, the podcast featured to two particularly insightful episodes, back to back: In Praise of Maintenance and In Praise of Incrementalism. They argue that when it comes to things that improve the human condition, we often put our focus in the wrong place, putting emphasis on so-called "revolutionary" advances. They point out first that it's the more "boring" activities like keeping the roads intact and making trains run on time that account for most of the wealth (figuratively and literally) in society.

You can listen to the full episode here:

They go on to show (in In Praise of Incrementalism) that most of what we think of as spontaneous revolutionary advances are actually processes that are much more gradual that we often don't take the time to remember properly. You can listen to that one here:

Face2Face - Podcast Interview

I sat down recently to have a chat with David Peck, the host of the Face2Face Podcast. As far as I can tell, David is a man who never sleeps. In addition to putting out a prodigious number of podcast interviews (mine is number 222) he also teaches in the International Development Program at Humber College, practices magic and has a family. David has been a guest on Magic Tonight a few times, so this was a chance to return the favour.

Actually, I've appeared on Face2Face before along with the magician, skeptic and humorist Michael Close. This time, we talk about mathematics, magic and mystery, risk and about how to leverage small secrets, and why it’s not about how smart you are, but it’s about what you know.

Listen to the interview at DavidPeckLive.com or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

More Magical Mathematics

This will be the first of a series of three posts dedicated to mathematics, for no other reason then the coincidence that they all appeared in my life more or less at the same time. I'll begin with an interview with Persi Diaconis on The 7th Avenue Project. It's actually a little bit out of date (over a year old) and it relates, ostensibly, to his 2011 book Magical Mathematics (co-written with Ron Graham) Professor Persi Diaconis is a remarkable figure in magic who falls into that category of "greatest magicians no one has ever heard of." Provided you're willing to allow being interviewed for podcasts, being a published author and appearing on the front page of the New York Times never being heard of.

The interview is fascinating (and long). Perhaps it's the confirmation bias talking, but he seems to spend a great deal more time discussing magic than math — not that I would think of complaining. It also highlights the important but subtle difference between magical mathematics and mathematical magic. I noticed when the interviewer tripped up on the title and realized that there really is an important difference.

The stories involving Dai Vernon and Ricky Jay are also moving. Enjoy.

Deception on The Infinite Monkey Cage

There is a delightful BBC Radio Podcast called The Infinite Monkey Cage, with theme song by Eric Idle and hosted by Robert Ince and Brian Cox (the guy Stephen Hawking pushed into the river on the Monty Python reunion show.)

This is the episode from January 19, 2015, entitled Deception. It's available on iTunes or from the BBC.

No one does the panel discussion as well as the Brits and it's a very interesting discussion. And includes a magician and respected academic, Richard Wiseman.

One of the most intriguing things they mention, which I don't hear discussed very often, is that we are not very good at knowing when we are being deceived. There is a natural tendency to both accept things at face value, and to assume others will accept things at face value.

It also turns out that many of the "tricks" you are supposed to be able to use to detect deceptions (facial ticks and other visual cues) don't really work.

I guest listener be warned.