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Archive for April, 2009

I’m currently watching the Daily Show and Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian, is on it and she is absolutely gushing over President Obama and his first 100 days in office.  My goodness lady, nothing’s changed!  She talks about nothing and is just spewing words.  Observe reality:

  • Bush’s strategy for dealing with the economic crisis was to spend a lot of money, particularly on failing financial institutions.  Obama has continued this policy and added a stimulus package, to boot (Bush passed a stimulus package last year, much smaller however).  John McCain likely would have done the same thing although the projects likely would have been different — military vs alternative energy.
  • In dealing with the Europeans, nothing’s changed.  People assumed it was because they didn’t like President Bush.  But in the latest European excursion, Obama asked Germany to do their own stimulus package.  They refused.  He asked Europe to pony up more troops in Afghanistan; they refused again.  Same thing there.
  • In dealing with Russia, Obama pledged to abandon Ballistic Missile Defense in Poland.  Since taking office, he has reversed that position in order to block Russia.  Bush’s policy was that the US was free to maintain bilateral relations with any country and even extend their membership in NATO.  Obama has reaffirmed this core US position.  US-Russian relations are about where they were in the Bush era.
  • In Afghanistan, Obama is continuing the Petraeus strategy – trying to bring in moderate members of their enemies into the government.
  • Iranian-US relations are about the same where they were before.  Iran has a reason for acting the way they do.  So does the US.  Nothing has changed, other than rhetoric.  But the geopolitical reality is that neither country has changed their core position.

A friend of mine, over lunch the other day, tried to tell me that lots of things have changed.  He was quite assured that things were now fundamentally different.  I’m afraid not.  The truth of the matter is that things may sound different but reality dictates otherwise.  And for my friend… reality bites.

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This past Saturday, April 25, I went down and auditioned for the 4th season of America’s Got Talent. It certainly was something to remember.

I got there around 8:10 am on a Saturday morning, the place was about a 45 mile drive from where I live. But if you want to win the million dollars, you’ve got to make sacrifices. Myself and a friend got there and checked out the line. Aw, geez… it was long; this was going to be a long day. I went and stood in line, and the people there looked deep into my soul and assigned me a number based upon the order in which I appeared.

After standing around in the cold weather for about an hour or so, the line started to move. Success! But it turns out they were just yanking us around. First things first, they had us line up and stand in a crowd so they could do the standard "Welcome to Seattle!" and then the crowd started cheering. We did it over and over and over again. By the 20th time (and I’m not exaggerating), I said to myself "You know, if us performers get one chance to get it right, then these guys should, too."

Next up, we got back in line. But this time, they ordered us by number. So rather than lining up randomly, we now were semi-ordered. I was number 375. So once again, myself and my friend waited in line. Standing outside in the cold weather (what’s up with Seattle in April?), after waiting for another two hours we finally got inside the convention center. I went up the escalator to the 3rd floor and handed over my registration. Would they call me out on being a Canadian citizen and technically ineligible to participate based upon my limited legal knowledge? No, they did not! I leaped the first hurdle!

Next up was the holding room. That’s the place where everybody waits to go in and perform. We went in there and sat down, and about 45 minutes later they called the next batch of performers. "Attention everyone!" came the announcement.

"Yes?" we replied.

"We are now calling performers with numbers 151-200."

"What number are you?" asked my friend.

"375," I answered. We looked at each other. We were going to be here for a while.

After waiting for a long time (this day was pretty boring for most of it), the producers got around to filming some of the performers. They announced that if you wanted to be on camera, come to the front of the room. From there, they were going to film 5-10 minutes of performers just practicing their stuff. Singers, dancers, acrobats, some lady spinning a loom while singing (?), some weird guy doing a weird break dance… they all went to the front. Along with me. We were just to go into our rehearsals while they filmed us. I did the same. Singers sang, dancers danced, and I stood there with a deck of cards practicing various card flourishes – one handed cuts, snapping over the top card over and over, and faro shuffles (ask me what that is later). We were not supposed to look at the camera while doing this.

So basically, if I don’t get on camera because I didn’t advance, then *maybe* I will be on TV for a split second while they show the summary of Seattle performers.

Finally, after 4 hours of waiting (hurry up and wait), they called performers 350-400. "Finally!" I said. "Let’s get this show on the road!" We went out of the holding room and they lined us up.

"Everyone who is not a singer," they said "take a step forward!" Out of the 50 of us performers, only 10 stepped forward. I estimated that around 3/4 of all the performers at the audition were singers only. Of the remainder, probably half were singers with a musical instrument. That left only a small proportion of us dedicated to non-musical acts, like dancing or magic. So getting back to my story, I figured that since there were only a few of us stepping forward, they were going to put us in a special room for non-musical acts. I was right about that. I furthermore guessed that this process would probably go by fairly quickly. I was completely wrong about that.

Two and a half hours later, waiting outside the meeting room, I was sitting around. I was fifth in line to go into the room to audition. Now keep in mind that this place was cold. I had to wear my jacket. I also had my sleeves down. Normally when I perform, I always roll my sleeves up. That’s to improve the psychological impact that it has on my audiences. My sleeves were unbuttoned, but they were still rolled down.

Finally, they called my number. "484!" I had to get a new number because someone else had the same number as me. It took me a few seconds to register my number because I had committed 375 to memory.

"Hey, that’s me!" I said. I took off my jacket, grabbed my deck of cards and went inside the room. But, I *forgot* to roll up my sleeves. Cut me some slack, I had been there for nearly 11 hours and was bored out of my skull. The lucky thing is that because I wasn’t doing sleight of hand magic, I don’t think that the impact of the trick was diminished that much. It’s basically a prediction/mentalist effect and there is no sleight of hand involved. Furthermore, the uncuffed look made me look casual, which is the look I was going for (I wore a dress-shirt, dress pants — or trousers –, a tie and a black vest). In other words, I was looking sharper than normal.

I walked into the room and I surveyed it. Six people, one of whom was the camera man. One guy was British and was clearly the judge in charge. I introduced myself as a magician and they seemed delighted. I think I may have been the first one they saw that day because it was clear from their tone of voice that I was a different act. I proceeded to perform my effect called Any Card, which you can see on my Facebook video page.

To start off with, I showed them a deck of cards and instructed them that I was going to shuffle it. They seemed a little unimpressed and confused (precisely the point) and politely waited while I chatted what I was going to do. I asked the British guy, the one in charge, to pick a card. He replied the Queen of Diamonds. I asked if he had a particular reason for selecting it and both he and the lady sitting next to him started laughing. Clearly, the answer was yes. I then asked the lady next to him to name a number and she said 17.

I walked forward to the British judge and handed him the deck of cards. I told him to deal down 16 cards (not 17) face up, counting out loud the number as he dealt it. He went a little too quickly and dealt out 17 cards. Luckily, I was prepared for this. I said to him "You could have picked any card, you picked the Queen of Diamonds. You could have selected any number," motioning to the lady, "but you picked the number 17. You’ve dealt out 17 cards. Now if the next one happens to be the Queen of Diamonds, that is not just a 1/52 chance of that occurring. That would be one in some astronomical number because you got to pick both the card *and* its position! So go ahead and slowly now, deal out that next card!" The judge dealt out the next card, face up. It was the Queen of Diamonds.

Everybody started to laugh. The judge sitting two down from him got up and said "Did he actually get it?" Yes, I got it right. 17 cards down and the Queen of Diamonds was right there. In other words, I *nailed* the trick. Nailed it.

They asked me a few more questions like if I only do close up magic (no, I don’t, I only did it today because it was going to be a small audience). They asked me what my finale would be and I gave a weak answer. I said I would do a book test wherein an audience member would pick a random work for a book, a book containing 50,000 words, and I would reveal it. Something clearly impossible. It’s a weak answer not because it’s not a good trick (it’s a great trick) but because what I should have said was I was going to do a trick involving physical danger to myself, blindfolded. That would have been more suspenseful.

They thanked me and then told me something odd. They said they would need to check my paperwork. "Uh, okay," I said and then I left the room. I went outside and waited for 15 minutes. During that time other performers entered and exited the room. If you’re perplexed about that state of affairs, please join the club. Finally, one of the guys came out to me and said "Okay, you’re free to go."

"What?" I said.

"You can go."

"I can?"

"Yes."

The conversation sounded a bit like I was being detained by a police officer doing an investigation but couldn’t find any evidence to hold me. Clearly, this conversation was not getting the results I needed in terms of clarity of answers. I don’t know what "look over my paperwork" meant. I hoped it didn’t mean I would be disqualified due to being a non-US citizen. I think it means that they will compare my act against the the rest of the performers and will let me know if I make the follow up, scheduled on April 29.

So at the moment, here’s what I know:

1. The judges liked my act, as revealed by their facial expressions.
2. They didn’t commit to me coming back as soon as I had finished my trick.

That’s where I stand. Stay tuned.

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About two years ago, I posted that I had a chance to go to an antispam conference in Austria.  I was invited by one of the organizers, but my manager said no.  Ergo, I couldn’t go.  I was disappointed at the time but I still got to travel a lot that year (2007).

Well, it’s now two years later and I have been invited to speak at an antispam conference in Geneva, Switzerland!  I once again asked my manager if I could go and he said that Microsoft wouldn’t pay for it.  So I thought “Well, I guess that’s that.”  Or is it?

He said I could still go if I paid for it.  But I was like “Me?  Pay for a trip?  Ha!”  I checked out the price of the flight.  A flight over there is only about $700.  But the cost of the hotel is ~$300 per night.  Oy!  Three nights is more than the flight over there!  So I figured there’s no way I’m going, I can’t really afford that.

But then I said to myself “Self?  Be honest here, when am I ever going to get a chance to speak at a conference at which I was invited?  I can get into the conference for free, a $1700 value.”  So I have been musing it over and I think I am going to go.  Might as well do these things when I can, who knows whether or not I’ll ever get another chance like this.

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The foot tell

I thought I would do one more series post on detecting body language.  I just started doing this recently and the topic is fascinating because it really works in real life.  Now, as I say this, remember that not all indicators are reliable.  Sometimes people adjust their body language for reasons other than revealing their emotions.  However, I have noticed that these hit often enough to be reliable.

The part of your body that sends the clearest signals of your emotions is not your face.  The face is certainly the richest source of information, but the one that always gives the deadest giveaways are your feet (and legs).  People sometimes try to control their facial expressions but the further down your body you move, the less you attempt to mask anything.  Your feet will give you away almost every time.

The most reliable indicator is something called "happy feet."  This is where your feet are bouncy or jiggly and it’s as if you are walking on air.  Consider a child at an amusement park, they are bouncing around and so excitedly and jumping up and down.  Yesterday, I was in a coffee shop with a friend and I saw a woman talking on the phone.  She was gently bouncing her foot but suddenly she started bouncing it with increased vigor.  It was very obvious that she was engaged in a conversation with a close friend or maybe a boyfriend. 

Even my dogs gave things away.  One of my dogs used to get very antsy.  She couldn’t stand still when she was excited, she would bounce up and down on her feet like she was walking across hot sand on a beach.  She never stayed on any one (front) foot for longer than one second.  Again, she had happy feet, a clear tell of her mood.

The Sausage 01

Next time you are with somebody or you go up to talk to them (probably do the latter rather than the former), watch to see what happens when you join the conversation.  Do they shift their position such that their feet are now pointing towards you?  If so, that’s good sign because (a) they changed their behavior, and (b) in a direction that indicates that their focus is towards you.  Conversely, if their feet are shifted away from you, you are not the number one thing in their attention at the moment.

The legs reveal so much.  In the interest of keeping this post short, I won’t go into any more details (lest I give away all of my secrets) but body language is a fascinating topic, and it’s relatively easy to spot.  I’ll keep you all updated.

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Liar, liar

Referring back to my previous post about your eyes being the key to determining whether or not a smile is genuine, I thought I’d move onto something related.  How do you know if someone is telling you the truth or is pulling a fast one over you?

Studies have shown that even professionals like police officers can only tell when someone is lying about 53-55% of the time, about the same as college students.  That’s about the same as a flip of a coin. So are there any signals that people put out that can clue you in?

Contrary to what you might think, the eyes do not have it when it comes to truthfulness.  Actually, that’s not quite right.  If someone is telling you a story and doesn’t look you in the eye, it does not mean that they are lying.  Indeed, there are many cases when a liar will *not* break eye contact and the only time they are lying to you is when they look right at you.  So how do you tell?

As a psychological magician, or mentalist, I study these things.  There are no tells that work all of the time.  You first need to establish a baseline pattern with someone where you know they are telling the truth and then start the difficult questions.  If they deviate from that pattern, you will know that they are truth-telling impaired.  Nevertheless, here are things to watch for:

  1. The eyes – if a person starts blinking faster than normal, it indicates that they are under more mental stress.  This indicates deception.
  2. Brief or repetitive answers – if someone answers your question and you ask them to expand upon it and they do not, but rather just rephrase it, that means they are lying.  Embellishment of detail is omitted.  Example:

    What did you do today?

    I went to the store.

    Oh, really?  How long did you go?

    I just went to the store.

  3. Tangential answers – answers that do not answer your question directly but instead do it by implication indicate deception.  For example, "Did you break the cookie jar?"  "Come on, why would I do something like that?"  The implication is that the accused did not break it, but he never states it directly.
  4. Pedantic quibbling – playing around with the details surrounding the premise of the question allows a liar to discuss something that is a less troublesome detail.  Example:

    Why are you always being so defensive?

    I’m not ‘always’ defensive.

  5. Voice pitch – changes in the tone of voice are clues.  If our voice becomes louder and higher in pitch, it means that we are drawing attention to something.  If it becomes quiet and muffled, then we are diverting attention away from it.
  6. Readily changing the subject – if you are questioning somebody about something and then change the subject, if they were lying about it then will readily agree to the subject change.  A less stressful subject allows them to quit thinking so much about having to construct a story.

There are other signs of truthfulness and deception, but this will do for a start.  I find the study of emotion and physiology quite interesting.  When it comes to facial expressions, it used to be believed that they were culturally determined, that is, we learn them from others.  But that was proven wrong in the 20th century; research Dr. Paul Ekman took pictures of people form the western world and went into the jungles somewhere and through interpreters, got the natives to answer what emotion the westerners were showing.  The natives got it right.

Vice versa, Ekman took photos of the natives and showed them to westerners and the westerners were able to guess correctly what emotions the natives were displaying.  From this arose the theory that emotions and facial expressions are biologically determined, not culturally specific.  I wish I knew that in my first year Sociology class.

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Funny quote


“Well, I think Antarctica has been relatively immune, maybe Greenland, as well, although not Iceland, as we all found out.”

-Carl Bass, CEO Autodesk


Mr Bass was responding to an analyst who asked whether there were any regions that had proven immune to the global slump.

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Have you ever seen somebody smile at you and then you wonder whether or not it is a real smile or if they’re just being polite?  Single guys ought to pay attention to this post, I tell you what.

Many people subconsciously know the difference between a real smile and a fake one.  If you do, you probably can read signals better than you thought.  But do you know which signals you are actually reading?

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to get better at reading non-verbal communication.  I’ve started researching it and I am finding that this stuff works.  Still, as a member of the male species, I whole heartedly admit that I am not great at consciously reading people.  Direct communication works best for me, so I decided to expand my abilities.

And that’s where I have come across the smile test.  Here’s how you distinguish between a real smile and a fake one:

  1. The Duchenne Marker – Use this to impress your friends for your next game of trivial pursuit.  The zygomatic major pulls the corners of the lips up to the cheekbones, resulting in an up-turned grin on the face of the person doing the smiling.
  2. The orbicularis oculi raises the cheek and crinkles the skin around the eye sockets.  This is referred to as crow’s feet, and older people can get permanent ones.  In my experience, checking the eyes during the smile is the most reliable way to distinguish between a real smile and a fake one.
  3. Another very subtle characteristic of real smiles is that the eyebrows tend to dip slightly.
  4. Finally, real smiles last shorter, perhaps 1/2 a second to maybe 4 seconds.  So, believe a short smile more than a long one.

Does this work?  Studies show that while there is no connection between our emotions and our words, there is a connection between our emotions and our physiology.  Real smiles really do conform to the above, it’s something that occurs subconsciously.

The BBC has a test you can do to test yourself.  I didn’t do as well as I had hoped but every one I got right was because of the four points above, especially number 2.  To try it out in real life, a friend and I went out to dinner tonight.  The waitress came to serve us and she smiled.  However, the skin around her eyes did not crinkle.  As she walked away, I told my friend that it was a fake smile, it wasn’t real.  So whereas before I may have been able to subconsciously figure it out, now I know what to actually look for.

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