Notes about magic

January 2, 2012 permalink

Marconi, Hacked in 1903

Want to expose a rival’s poor security implementation? What better way than to demonstrate the weakness in public, in front of a gathered crowd? From a New Scientist story of very early 20th-Century hacktivism:

LATE one June afternoon in 1903 a hush fell across an expectant audience in the Royal Institution’s celebrated lecture theatre in London. Before the crowd, the physicist John Ambrose Fleming was adjusting arcane apparatus as he prepared to demonstrate an emerging technological wonder: a long-range wireless communication system developed by his boss, the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. The aim was to showcase publicly for the first time that Morse code messages could be sent wirelessly over long distances. Around 300 miles away, Marconi was preparing to send a signal to London from a clifftop station in Poldhu, Cornwall, UK.

Yet before the demonstration could begin, the apparatus in the lecture theatre began to tap out a message. … Mentally decoding the missive, Blok [Fleming’s assistant] realised it was spelling one facetious word, over and over: “Rats”. A glance at the output of the nearby Morse printer confirmed this. The incoming Morse then got more personal, mocking Marconi: “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily,” it trilled.

The radio-hacker was Nevil Maskelyne, a magician and rival inventor who was interested in developing wireless technology but who had been frustrated by the broad patents granted to Marconi. Bonus trivia: Nevil’s father was John Nevil Maskelyne, magician and inventor of the pay toilet, and his son was Jasper Maskelyne, a magician and inventor (see a family connection here?) who allegedly helped develop some of the famous optical diversions and camouflage trickery for the British military during WWII (his inflatable tanks remind me of the Potemkin Army thing I posted a couple of years back…)

November 22, 2010 permalink

Linguni a La Stigmata

From a 1992 New York Times review of one of my favorite books from when I was in school, Penn & Teller’s How to Play With Your Food:

A copious plate of pasta arrived, with no sauce. Teller suddenly stabbed his palms with a fork and rummaged through the strands of linguine. When a bright red river surged from beneath the plain pasta, Teller stood up, dripping red palms outstretched. Voila! The thrillingly gruesome “Linguine a la Stigmata.” Waiters smiled, diners at nearby tables didn’t notice a thing, and the linguine was served to one and all. …

“Violence is what gives you real excitement,” [Penn] continued. “It’s what gives us the rage to live. Without violence, you don’t really have art. You have to have your Shakespeare, your Greek tragedies. Teller and I are both very pro-violence in the arts, but only in the arts. No one wants to go on a roller coaster that’s slow and flat.”

But does that include sticking a fork into your eye? Absolutely. “Nothing is more life affirming than doing this stuff and not being hurt,” Teller said. “It’s cool to be startled. You laugh, and that’s a social activity. There are repartees, and there is ramming a fork into your eye.”