Princes of peace

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When you look down the list of all Nobel Peace laureates you come across many of the most important names of the twentieth century: Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama (14th), Mother TeresaMartin Luther King, Jr. The notable exception is Mahatma Gandhi, who was nominated in five separate years and may well have won if not for his tragic assassination–Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously unless the recipient dies after the prize is already announced (a very rare occurrence, but one that did indeed happen this year).

In the 110 years the Nobel prizes have been awarded, there have been twenty years in which the Peace prize was not given to anyone. The longest droughts were from 1914-1918 and 1939-1943, fittingly corresponding with World Wars I and II. (Note: Stalin was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to end WWII; Hitler and Mussolini were both nominated once). It would seem perhaps overly ironic and inappropriate to award someone for peace efforts during such war torn eras, yet isn’t that when we need messages of peace the most? The acceptance speeches of Nobel Peace laureates are some of the most wonderful and inspiring words to read and listen to. Following is the audio from MLK Jr’s speech. Check out the rest at the Nobel prize website.

Magicians of war

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What is the purpose of magic? When purely a stage show, magic is meant only to entertain, but some forms of deception have real-world functions and consequences.

I recently read the first part of a book called The War Magician: The incredible True Story of Jasper Maskelyne and His Magic Gang by David Fisher. The writing style is so overly embellished that I couldn’t finish reading it; I wasn’t surprised to find out that the factual accuracy of this account is in question. Yet, the story is fascinating. If Fisher is to be at all trusted, Maskelyne, a British stage magician descending from other famous stage magicians, volunteered to join the army after WWII broke out, and was deployed to North Africa. There, Maskelyne joined a group called the “Magic Gang,” which included such varied specialists as an architect, chemist, electrician, and art restorer. Again, if Fisher is to be believed, the Gang was able to conceal Alexandria and the Suez Canal from German bombers using mirrors and lights. They also convinced German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel that the British attack would be coming from the south by building a vast army of fake tanks complete with fake construction sounds and fake radio conversations.

Deception has long been a part of war to confuse the enemy. One of the most famous examples comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which he depicts the fall of Troy. This, of course, happened after the Trojans pulled a large wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers inside their city walls. The rest of the Greek army had sailed away during the day and then sailed back under the cover of night. The well-placed intruders opened the gates for their brethren, who came in and ransacked the city.

My favorite contemporary allusion to the Trojan Horse comes in the 1999 version of The Thomas Crown Affair. An actual horse statue is delivered to the Metropolitan Museum in New York early in the film carrying several burglars inside, who steal a Monet painting. The climactic scene at the end of the movie, in which Crown arrives at the Met to “return” the Monet, is another allusion to the Trojan Horse and a grandly orchestrated illusion. The magic in this scene is not meant to baffle the detectives, but make them realize that the sleight of hand, the trick, the deception was always in full view.