Getting Randi

By Phil Plait | January 13, 2009 1:00 pm

(switch hats)

One of the things I really wanted to do when I came on board the James Randi Educational Foundation was to vastly expand the reach of the JREF online. We already have a great website, an (over)active forum, and a blog.

Well, I am very happy to say we also now have Randi stepping (back) into multimedia! Rich Montalvo is JREF’s A/V guy — but calling him that is a little unfair, since he’s more of a one man production team. He’s been busy the past few weeks getting a studio set up at the JREF HQ in Ft. Lauderdale, with an eye toward doing a weekly Randi vidcast.

And the first one is now live! It’s on YouTube now:

JREF has a YouTube channel, and the weekly vidcast will be posted there. Also, Randi is contributing to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, the official podcast of the JREF. So if you want to get Randi, you can now go multimedia and multisensory.

Photo of The Amazing One from my bud Andy Ihnatko’s Flickr stream.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Cool stuff, JREF, Skepticism

Comments (52)

  1. Jack Mitcham

    I have to disagree with Randi on a couple of his points. Psychologically, $499.99 is easier to digest than $500. This isn’t a case of careless use of language, it’s crafted that way for a reason. I work in retail sales. I’ve actually heard a few customers call their significant others and say “It’s 1400 dollars” when the price is $1499.99.

    So, the reason it ends in a 9 is because it works.

    Also, some of the points he made about redundancies and the “filler words” seem quite nit-picky to me. As long as these things are used sparingly, I have no problem with them. In many cases, using words such as “you know…” offers a slight pause in the conversation to organize the next sentence in your head. It’s an opportunity to “think before you speak,” so to speak.

  2. Pascal

    such as “you know…” offers a slight pause in the conversation to organize the next sentence in your head. It’s an opportunity to “think before you speak,” so to speak.

    Nothing conveys wise thoughtfulness like a pregnant pause. What is wrong with silence as we gather our thoughts?


  3. Why couldn’t James have hung out with George Carlin? I remember George talking about a weatherman who was forecasting a “rain event”, and of course George wanted tickets. Simply hilarious!

  4. DaveR

    Filler words are not too bad in regular conversations, but when I see a professional public speaker (newsreader, politician, public relations officer, etc.) use them, then it becomes annoying.

    The one speech pattern I hear more frequently that really annoys me is “begs the question”. I can’t remember the last time I heard it used correctly. Annoys me to no end!

    Don’t even start me on “organic” foods…

  5. Sili

    I heard this on the SGU.

    I too was pretty annoyed with this rambling grousing by an old man. Not what I expected from The Amazing Randi. It sounded more like Andy Rooney.

    As for filler words – well, if you don’t use them, people’ll think your done and rob you of your turn of conversation. Some people actually prefer to think about what they say, rather than just rattle off talking points.

    That doesn’t mean that some aren’t just bad speakers or indeed wooly thinkers, but attacking language change is a straw man.

    And as mr Mitcham said, the .99 works. People only think about the leading numbers. Itø’s not rational, no, but how would you outlaw wooly thinking?

    But of course – the .99 habit helps to feed the equally irrational “Save the Penny!” people. Prices here in DK have ended in .95 for all my life, despite both .05 and .10 DDK coins went out of use while I was still a kid. We just got rid of the .25 DKK coin last October. This peculiar nostalgia for the penny seems like a better target for ire if we have to tilt at windmills.

    (Of course, the Euro has a .01 coin, so in a few years I have to abandon the moral highground.)

  6. Quiet Desperation

    Don’t even start me on “organic” foods…

    I dunno… I see some things on the grocery store shelves that seem as far removed from “organic” as chunk of aluminum ore. Especially in the children’s cereal section.

  7. Brown

    I visited the JREF yesterday, and saw the studio. You’d never know from this video how, er, modest the facilities are. They are adequate for their purposes, but they are far more compact than the set of a typical television studio.

    By the way, Mr. Randi was recovering from a rather nasty cold, but he was a gracious host and I enjoyed visiting with him. He told me he is looking forward to making more videos once he stops sniffling. Look for a video dealing with gobbledygook composed by a certain writer of bad science fiction.

  8. zaardvark

    It was all in good fun. The title of the video irks me though; wouldn’t a “problem with miscommunication” be good for communication? ;).

  9. is down for me. Did it fall victim to the “Plait Effect”? :)

  10. Amanda

    I don’t believe upholding standards on language is bad. I see spoken language as a link to intelligence. And if someone takes my pause as an opportunity to “rob you of your turn in conversation” (as Sili says), then that’s just rude, and my not wanting to sound like a clueless teenager is not my problem.

    Just because the “9” marketing ploy works, doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s just another thing that allows society to get away with Not Thinking.

    And if someone isn’t out there upholding standards on language, marketing and society, who is to blame when in 500 years we lament the average IQ of 70?

  11. Well, you know, as a College Graduate in English Literature/Writing (Liberal Arts) I do have one gripe that Randi did about seventeen seconds into the video:
    ‘to communicate verbally or by writing’.
    Verbally means ‘using words’ and covers ORAL communication (which is what it is replacing in common usage) as well as written. To be correct, it should be ‘to communicate ORALLY or by writing’.
    Of course, my English Language History teacher noted that the correct usage is whatever is current, irregardless 😉 of what a dictionary may say.


  12. theinquisitor

    Jack Mitcham, regarding the $999.99 trick, it may indeed work sometimes, but every time I see that I feel like I’m being insulted.

    If I saw the same thing on offer by another company for a straight $1000, I’d probably be more likely to buy from them just because they didn’t insult me with this pathetic little trick. Maybe that’s a marketing strategy that should be considered. Show some respect for your customers intelligence and maybe they’ll be less inclined to feel like they’re being swindled.

  13. @theinquisitor:
    “Show some respect for your customers intelligence and maybe they’ll be less inclined to feel like they’re being swindled”

    You’re kidding, right? :)

    I’d be less surprised by aliens landing than that ever happening.

  14. Shane

    Plesae, Please, Please put up as an itunes video podcast.

  15. Levi in NY

    I have a degree in linguistics, which of course makes me an incontrovertible expert on matters of language. It is not “carelessness” when you use words like “well”, “you know”, and “like” as filler in your sentence. They are used, as other posters have already mentioned, as words that we use when we don’t know what we’re going to say (that’s also why they should be avoided in public speaking—you should already know exactly what you’re going to say). But why do we say anything at all? It’s simple really. When we stop talking, that is typically interpreted as an indication that we’re done talking and that it’s somebody else’s turn to say something.

    And it’s not like the words Randi is complaining about are always without meaning—your choice of “filler” words and the intonation you give them can convey plenty of things: you’re a little iffy about what you’re saying (“It was, like, 2:00 when we got there.”), you think you are giving the listener new information (“There are actually lots of transitional fossils, you know.”), your next sentence stands in contrast to the one you just finished (“Usually my boss comes to work wearing pants. Well, today was different.”), that you have a feeling of some disbelief (“I mean, what kind of person comes to work without pants on?”), etc.

  16. Levi in NY

    “They are used…as words that we use”

    LOL I hope Randi isn’t reading; he’ll get an aneurysm from that repetitive redundancy.

  17. Diego

    Is Randi doing an Andy Rooney impression?

  18. bjn

    You know, Randi looks like Mr. Natural, and I absolutely love him a ton when he’s exposing charlatans who aren’t worth 99¢. I’m too pedantic for my own good, but for me this video’s firmly in the, “Hey kids, get off my lawn!” cranky old guy mode.


  19. OK, I am suitably chastened. I shall be henceforth increase my linguistic precision.

    One thing, though: Randi’s repeated use of “really” is a bit of a verbal tic that he may want to address.

    I get, though, that he ::really:: wanted to ::really:: change our usage of the language that we may ::really:: communicate.

    (I still love ya Randi! Don’t send Phil to beat me with a telescope, please.)

  20. Jack Mitcham


    “who is to blame when in 500 years we lament the average IQ of 70?”

    I’d blame you for not knowing that the average IQ is defined as 100, and it doesn’t matter how much more or less intelligent the species gets.


    “Maybe that’s a marketing strategy that should be considered.”

    I’m sure it has been considered, but I believe that the number of people who would want to pay an extra penny so they “don’t feel swindled” is sufficiently low that the .99 strategy will stay for quite a while.

  21. Levi,
    I remember learning French in middle and high school and the teachers frequently reminded us of the “meaningless” filler words that they used in that language. I still remember watching the videos where we would practice the “euuuph”, “alors”, “phuh”, “peut etre”, “voyons” (fake words spelled roughly phonetically) and other place fillers that would have some slight meaning to the native speakers, depending on context.

    It reminded me that I use such words constantly, and enabled ne to use them more consciously and meaningfully. It also gave me the unfortunate habit of thinking before I speak such that I often get railroaded by the more freely verbose. Ah, well.

  22. speaking of the price ending in 99 reminded of this character from Reboot.(click my name)

  23. Ehh. I’ve seen Randi do better. I’m sure he’s being tongue-in-cheek, but if filler words are our only problems we’re incredibly lucky.

  24. JoeSmithCA

    I absolutely agree with Randi on everything he has, he’s all natural and totally and completely absolutely accurate in everything he says completely. 😉

    You know if he hates the whole .99 pricing trick, I guess thats why some of his books sell for 19.98, 11.95 etc :)

  25. Seems like somebodys book had a price of $19.99.

  26. On the one hand, no one is fooled by the .99 trick. On the other hand, it is a moot point, because tax (13% where I am) makes it a random number anyway. On the gripping hand, the woman in Jack’s first post probably was NOT fooled by the price, but was using the “round-down” strategy as an excuse for a purchase she wanted to make, but didn’t want to tell her significant other the actual price.
    Many retailers now use the price as an indicator of product status (.97 means clearence item, .98 means sale item etc).

  27. KC

    .99 may work for fools…but the rest of us now how to round off to the nearest dollar! :-)

  28. llewelly

    Quiet Desperation:

    Don’t even start me on “organic” foods…

    I dunno… I see some things on the grocery store shelves that seem as far removed from “organic” as chunk of aluminum ore. Especially in the children’s cereal section.

    Now now Quiet Desperation. Most of those ‘cereals’ require the input of huge amounts of petroleum products. And as any geochemist can tell you, petroleum is organic, and it comes from the earth.

  29. Michelle

    Sure, tongue in cheek isn’t the biggest of our problems… But it’s nice to see Randi talk about minor things sometimes.

    More randi videos light up my day. I recently introduced one of my friends to his work, she’s overenjoyed. Yet another Randi fan!

  30. JackC

    My local “real” camera shop has every price in the store ending in .88

    I find that rather charming.


  31. When I was a young kid, I used to say “you know” a lot (I still do more than I’d like). But my mother (an English teacher at the time) would respond with “No, I don’t know” every time I said it. I found that very annoying at the time, but I think it really improved my communication skills.

  32. kebsis

    I don’t use alot of filler words, not for any particular reason, it simply is not how I speak. But I see no reason to be upset by them. I think they probably have more to do with peoples upbringing than anything else like ‘pausing for thought’. Notice how certain populations are more likely to use ‘you know what I’m sayin’?’, while others will use ‘like’, etc. Not much different than an accent, imo.

    Anyway, fighting the ebb and flow of language is like punching and kicking at the tides, but not as much fun and probably less productive. It strikes me as being cranky.

  33. Bramblyspam

    I like that idea of training people out of saying “you know”.

    My modest contribution to the cause consists of responding to “oh my god” by saying “Yes?”

  34. Adrian Lopez

    I’m not a fan of this particular video, but I’m absolutely giddy to have Randi back on a regular weekly schedule. I also can’t wait for his book, A Magician in the Laboratory (I think that’s what he’s calling it).

  35. GregInVancouver

    I like what Randi says and a weekly webcast is a good idea as Obama has found out, but nothing will beat seeing him in person.

    Randi will be in Vancouver at UBC on January 26th and I will be right there.

  36. potterbro

    apparently I’m not the only one who thought I was listening to Andy Rooney. While some of his points were valid… some of them were just the stereotypical “get off my lawn” old man grumpiness.

    I still respect the man, of course, and I hope that finds his groove with the videos.

  37. Troy

    I enjoyed it. I agree with some of the other posters it is a bit Andy Rooney, but Rooney is fun. I’ve noticed a correlation between age and complaintitude, possibly a new topic for Randi to explore? I was hoping he was going to get into how language could be transmitted and deciphered through time (and maybe space?). In addition that mesoamerican artifact in the background just begs for show and tell. As an aside, the use of pause words reminds me a bit of a translation I read of the Odyssey for a class. The phrase “Dawn again shows her rosy fingers” appeared rather frequently. A student in the class inquired about it and the professor made the astute observation it was much like your unscripted Sunday preacher who repeats things rhetorically or may even make grunts or noises in a rhythmic fashion. Just as the Odyssey (which was originally an oral work) on the fly composition sometimes requires the brain a bit of time to compose the next line. Like, um, maybe.

  38. I’m embarrassed to say that I never knew the Skeptics Guide podcast existed. Well that’s today’s productivity out the window…

  39. Caoimh


    I have to agree with some of the other commentators. This is not the way to attract a younger audience IMO. Grumpy old Randi rabbiting on and on like a bad George Carlin/Andy Rooney impression. I like Randi and have respect for his achievements, its just that I was somewhat disappointed after watching it. I thought Phil would be more progressive when it comes to these things.

  40. Isaac

    Randi is a wise man, but I think he’s presenting a lot of insignificant arguments in this video. Seems like a waste of his great personality and intellect to quibble about what amounts to semantics.

    From what I gather, the JREF was much bolder and more effective when Randi was in charge, and I wish Phil Plait would stop focusing so much on the internet and start focusing about politics and policy-making, which are much greater influences on a much greater number of people.


    I heard Randi ‘Speak’ on Hitchiker’s Guide last week. He’s becoming like Andy Rooney. He needs a ‘Stay Off My Yard’ Sign.


    And upon reading the comments…..other agree with me.


  43. Brown

    I was rather surprised that Randi did not trot out one of his favorite redundancies, one he was fond of discussing with the late Isaac Asimov.

    In “Julius Caesar,” Act 3, scene 2, Antony COULD have made his point by simply saying:
    “This was the unkindest cut”
    or he could have used a redundancy by saying:
    “This was the unkindest cut of all”
    but instead Shakespeare adds a further redundancy for Antony, to give him rhythm and emphasis:
    “This was the most unkindest cut of all.”

  44. K

    On another note in J. Randi’s speil was a remark about the use of “natural” in foods–as if that actually means anything. much less anything qualifying as good/wholesome. Well, if that bothers anyone there’s an eatery “out there” that claims it may be the only honest one anywhere telling it like it is, making no qualms that the food it serves will kill you…but its worth dying for, as reported by CBS News:

  45. Gary Ansorge

    Troy: complaintitude,,er,,,I’m sorry, I can’t even pronounce that,,,must be getting old,,,

    I’ll just note, when I asked my 81 year old father how he was feeling, he said,”I’m old. I ache. I can’t pee and a good bowel movement is highly unusual. How the heck do you THINK I feel?”

    Taking that into account, complaintitudessness would seem to be an understandable attribute of the aged.
    Now, get those cranky kids off my old lawn,,,

    Gary 7

  46. Redx

    # DaveR Says:
    “…The one speech pattern I hear more frequently that really annoys me is “begs the question”. I can’t remember the last time I heard it used correctly. Annoys me to no end!”

    Tell me about it. For a little while I went out of my way to use it correctly, and all it ever did was confuse people and derail whatever discussion I was in.

  47. GregB

    Here in California we have the west coast version of y’all. It’s “You guys” as in “What can I get you guys today?”

    The plural of “you guys” is “you guyses”. You’ll also hear “your guys’s” as in “How’s your guys’s food?”

    The simple word “you” or “your” is sufficient.

  48. semi

    >The simple word “you” or “your” is sufficient.<

    That's because the word "you" can be either singular or plural, and if you want to speak to a group of people, you want to be clear that you are addressing the group and not a singular individual. So the word "you" gets modified by these other words like "all" or "guys." Consider it a minor defect of the English language that gets addressed in the vernacular in a not very elegant way.

  49. ennui

    Sorry, Randi, you did not save 20 cents on your fill-up, you simply spent 20 cents less than you would have if the price were rounded. If you’re going to be a pedant, do it right.

    The only thing missing from this ramble was some fist-shaking exhortation to ‘get off my lawn.’ I’m a dedicated skeptic, but sheesh.

  50. AndrewC

    The Randi Speaks segments on the SGU fall in to one of two categories. It’s either the Andy Rooney nitpicky rant or a Grampa Simpson rambling story. I love Randi, he’s awesome when he’s on topic but I don’t much care for this stuff


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