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Archive for the ‘Hobbies’ Category

I don’t know what it is, but I really like fancy doors.

A couple of years ago when the wife and I were visiting Budapest, we had the chance to walk through one section of town where I took a photo of a fancy door and said “That’s the type of door I want on our house.” Of course, I’m never going to get a fancy door since they cost more than I am willing to spend on one.

Be that as it may, I like looking at fancy doors.

Last month (in September 2017) we were visiting the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was there on a work trip and the wife came along. We really seem like visiting art museums, having visited the Orsay Museum in Paris last October (the wife also went to the Louvre), the British Museum this past May, and a copper museum in central Arizona this past April.

Anyhow, we were in the Metropolitan Museum when I came across a door I really liked, so I pulled out my phone and snapped a selfie:

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You can’t really see the entire door, but you can see the intricate carvings on it. I like the fine attention to detail doors like this. I don’t know why but I think part of the reason is that it’s non-utilitarian. Doors are for getting into and out of buildings, so you make something that’s secure and attach it to the frame of the house.

A fancy door is about so much more than utility; in fact, it’s non-utilitarian. That is, it doesn’t add any functionality whatsoever, it’s just there to look nice. You’ve now put in time and effort into decorating a door beyond it’s original function.

And this door fit that description.

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Yesterday while here in Paris, the wife and I checked out the Orsay Museum in Paris. It is composed primarily of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, which covers a time period from about the mid-1850’s to 1914 (right up to the start of the first World War).

I wanted to go to this museum because ever since I started learning about art, I discovered I kind of like (some types of) Impressionism.

For you see, after the invention of the camera in the 1800’s, artists suddenly found themselves in competition with photographers as to who could create the most realistic recreations of real things. Artists realize they couldn’t beat photographers because the turnaround time between a painting and photograph was so disproportionally in favor of the photograph. So, artists realize they had to evolve.

And evolve they did.

They started(ish) with Impressionism. Impressionism takes a real scene and rather than painting a replica, it capture the essence or an impression of the original.

Some are more definitive like this:

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Others are a bit more abstract like this:

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And others yet are even more Impressionist, like these:

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And below is one of Monet’s more famous paintings:

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You can still see what’s there and what’s supposed to be drawn, yet these are clearly not exact recreations of the original subject matter.

That’s what I like about Impressionism, it’s not making me think too hard which a lot of later modern styles do.

I’ve thought a lot about the mural on our wall at home (I can’t find the link at the moment, but it’s here somewhere on this blog) and I think it’s a mixture of Romanticism and Impressionism. So, even back then when I had no idea about art, it still kind of spoke to me.

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And there’s this picture I also found in the Orsay. I have no idea what this is all about.

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Each year the wife and I try to give a certain amount of money to various charities. In each of the past five years I have managed to give more than the previous year. As it stands now in 2016 we are way behind but hopefully we will catch up in the remaining four months; the reason we are behind is because we have been throwing so much extra money at the mortgage on my place. Truth be told, I may not hit my goal this year.

Anyhow, I spread my money around with a lot of different charitable organizations based upon my perception of their need, and if I am interested in what they are doing.

The problem is that these charities don’t keep my information private. Somehow, they leak their information to other charities because I get lots of advertisements in the mail asking for money. These places guess – correctly – that if you give to one place you’ll probably give to another. While that’s true in my case that I am more likely to give to another, I have never given any money to a charity that has contacted me via mail for the first time. In fact, if I could figure out who selling my information, I’d stop giving them money. I basically just toss all their requests for money unopened into the recycling.

For example, I gave money to the National Parks and they send me stuff every month. They gave me a membership card that gives me absolutely zero benefits – it doesn’t even get me into the parks even though I gave them $500! It’s just a card that says “I’m a member.” I get this about once a month, along with a request for more money. I remember the first time I got it, I read through the benefits. After scanning it for five minutes I said “Wait, so this doesn’t get me into the parks? Then why are you sending this to me!”

Furthermore, the past couple of years I have given to a local organization that came to my attention because a friend worked there. In each of 2014 and 2015, I gave $1000. I guess that was a sizeable amount because in one of those years they phoned me up personally to thank me for it. The truth is that I set aside a certain amount of money each year to donate; I’m no hero, I took from my giving budget and gave to them.

Yet now they keep following up with me, emailing me to meet up in person, and sometimes calling me, too. I decline to take the calls and I don’t respond via email. The request is to meet up for coffee or something. I don’t respond because I am concerned they will try to get me to take on more responsibility for their organization, whereas I prefer to make myself feel good about myself by giving to a good cause. That’s all.

I’m thoroughly tempted to give out a fake address when I donate online, and even a fake phone number, and a disposable email address so I know who leaks my contact information. The fact is that there are a lot of worthwhile organizations out there, I only have so big a budget, and I am forced to pick and choose.

Your personalized return address stickers are very nice, but it’s okay, you can save the money from fundraising and instead direct it to actually doing what you say you do.

 

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Why study art?

A few weeks ago, for some reason I don’t fully understand, I started learning about European art history. My entire life I had zero previous interest in learning about the history of art. Sure, I enjoyed looking at images and I knew what I liked, but I couldn’t have cared less about the story behind it.

But then I read about a book about European history and art. I didn’t think I would care about the art part, but I did. In fact, I soaked it up like a sponge and I’ve been reading about it and watching YouTube videos (some on Khan Academy) a lot of the past few weeks.

I’ve noticed how my opinions have changed, even over the past few weeks. I used to not understand modern abstract art, and I thought it was stupid. Now I still don’t understand it but, but I no longer think it’s stupid.

So why study it at all?

I study it because it teaches me to be a good observer. Why do I like what I like? what details did the artist put into the picture? And why did he or she do it? Before, I couldn’t have told you. And I still can’t… not entirely, but I’m better than before. But by observing and paying attention to the details in a painting, it trains me to observe and pay attention to the details in real life.

Thus, I study art to get the context of a painting, as knowing the full context trains me to be a better observer.

Below is a picture entitled The Third of May, a painting by Francisco Goya of Spain, completed in 1814.

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You can see the original here.

Now, before when I was just looking at the painting, I’d say “Hmm, well that seems interesting” and gaze at it for 10-15 seconds and then move on. But no more. What do I notice now?

(Before I continue, I am cheating. This is one of the paintings they analyze on Khan Academy so I am remembering this off the top of my head).

First, it’s important to understand the context. During the Napoleonic era, France had invaded Spain. Some Spanish rebels led a resistance and the next day, the French military put down the revolt. This painting commemorates that, and it is the time period in which the painting takes place. It takes place on May 3, one day after the rebellion.

The next thing I notice is the structure of the painting itself:

  • It’s painted with depth. Prior to the Renaissance, paintings were “flat”, that is, in two dimensional space.  You can go here for an example (I’m not putting the picture here because I don’t want to divert attention away from the focus of the above picture). By contrast, in this painting, we can see the town way off in the background in three-dimensional space, the artist is using a technique to give depth that was popularized during the Renaissance.

  • The soldiers on the right are depicted in the shadows while the victims being executed on the left are in the light.

  • The victims on the left of the painting are also trapped in front of a hill. There’s no where for them to run.

  • The scene is depicted as taking place at night.

Next up is the social commentary that the artist is making:

  • The perpetrators in this scene are shown without their faces visible, a common motif in art to depict aggressors, a lot like this.

  • The look of fear is evident on the man whose arms are in the air. However, the artist is depicting him not as a victim in retaliation for leading or participating in a rebellion, but as an innocent victim – either he wasn’t involved or he was involved but the cause he was leading was a just one.

    How do we know?

    First, the man is dressed in white which is a another motif of innocence that is common in art.

    But second and more important, the man has his arms up in a pose that you would see on the image of Christ that you would see on crucifix. The theme in the Christian story is that Christ was an innocent sacrifice who was unjustly executed by an oppressive regime.

    And third, to cement the fact that Goya is drawing an exact parallel between the innocent Spanish resistance and that of the innocent Christ, if you look close-up on the palms of the man with his hands in the air you can see “holes” in the palms of his hands. This is similar to the image of Christ with holes in the palms of his hands on the crucifix.

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Thus, it is clear from the picture of the innocent man in the Christ-like pose that Goya is drawing a parallel between the Spanish resistance and the French putting it down, likening it to a justifiable movement where the ringleaders were sacrificed unfairly.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

All of that analysis wouldn’t have been possible without learning about art history, and now whenever I see a picture I try to look at it and do a quick analysis (actually, it goes pretty slow because I have to consciously analyze it).

It’s my hope that learning about art gives me a more well rounded point of view and that what you see is often just scratching the surface of what’s really there.

 

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I like to read articles about time management and how to be more effective. I also read blog posts about people who have started businesses, and I regularly get marketed to by people who encourage me to start a business on the side to make more passive income.

For example, one of the things I hear is to get up earlier, perhaps an hour or two. The benefits of this are that I could get so much more done.

The problem with all of these time management promises is that they always promise me more time so that I can work more.

  • That is, I should get up earlier so that I can get more work done than I do now.

  • Or, I should start a business so that I can have more income and that will require me to work more.

I’m not anxious to work more. I don’t think I work as hard as I could, or possibly even should, but the bottom line is that I don’t want to work more. I like having the free time to do what I want to do. I like to read, or watch Netflix, or bug my cat, or spend time with the wife, or go out with friends, and so forth.

My job also has me working extra hours when I am on-call, and I check email at off-hours, too. The checking email doesn’t bother me, but being on-call does.

Working more with a side-job would decrease my quality of life unless I enjoyed the work and didn’t see it as work (I don’t even practice magic as much as I should because I find practice – after a short while – tedious). I’m at a point right now that adding more money doesn’t add much to my overall happiness (short of being able to fly business or first class). But really, I prefer to have the time over the extra money. And getting up earlier to work more, or working an extra side job, eats into my more valuable activity – wasting time doing unfruitful activities (that is, time that does not lead to earning money).

So while I agree that all these time management techniques are useful if you want to fill up all your time, I don’t think I want to fill up all my time. Those empty time slots are important.

I will never get them back. I don’t need to fill them working.

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Recently, a couple of my friends started to have a lot of success in their careers performing magic. In 2014, Darcy Oake went on Britain’s Got Talent and came in fifth, launching his career into that of a traveling performer all around Canada and the UK. Another of my friends, Chris Funk, (who performs as a mentalist, just like me!) got onto Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, the episode of which airs on Tuesday. If he fools Penn and Teller, he gets to fly back to Vegas to open up their act. He hasn’t revealed if he’s won or not, but I suspect he did since he’s posted subsequent Facebook photos of performing in Vegas (where Penn and Teller are).

I got interested more seriously in magic when I was 15 or 16. And during that time I built up some of my skills. I used to spend a lot of time street performing where I really improved my skills. But over the past 5 years or so I haven’t done that much performing at all. I don’t practice as much as I used to, either.

Back when I was younger, I used to think I could be a professional magician and make lots of money if I practiced enough and got good enough. Yet here I am, years later, and watching my skills slowly drift downwards.

Why?

A few weeks ago, I read a post on the blogger’s site Financial Samurai entitled It’s virtually impossible to resist the allure of money. In it, he talks about how it’s hard to resist working at a high paying job when ahead of time you’d swore you’d instead deny yourself and change the world. For example, a college programmer might say “I’m going to go to Africa and help all the poor people learn computers, and I’d only get paid $20,000/year to do it. But I will deny my own comfort to advance humanity!”

But then, upon graduation and $50,000 in debt, the programmer is offered a high paying job at a leading tech firm. He rationalizes to himself “Okay, I’ll do this for a few years and pay down my debts. Then I’ll volunteer.”

Ten years later, he’s still working for a high paying tech firm.

The point Financial Samurai is making is that unless you’re rich, the allure of money is hard to resist when reality come a-knocking. We may say we have all these plans ahead of time, but reality has a way of getting us to change our mind.

If you don’t have money, you know what it can buy you (security) which you won’t have when you’re volunteering. After all, eventually you will need money – whether for family, for health care, or for pursuing your own interests. Indeed, while money doesn’t buy happiness, it does substantially improve your life the more of it you have (up to a point) to meet your basic needs.

People may say one thing (“I’m above the money!”), but our brains can do the math.

Financial Samurai’s point is that this is okay, too.

For me, in my younger days I was about the money. I used to want to be a lawyer or programmer because I knew those were high paying fields, and I was also interested in them. I used to want to have my own software company. When I got interested in magic, I used to want to be a super successful magician with my own show in Las Vegas or maybe New York City.

But yet I don’t.

Over the years, I’ve come to the glaring, ugly truth about myself – I am not entrepreneurially minded enough to do the things you need to do to succeed at your own business.

I’ve tried my hand at network marketing a few times and it didn’t go well. I couldn’t recruit anyone and didn’t want to annoy anyone by trying to recruit them. When I was trading stocks, I couldn’t discipline myself enough during down markets to not do stupid things. As a magician, I had the skills to perform (sort of) but not the skills to market myself. I didn’t want to have to build and manage a web site, make ads in a phone book, and relentlessly market my own abilities everywhere. I just wanted to perform magic, not build a business around magic.

This is why I never succeeded as a street performer (the hardest job I ever had). I couldn’t bark loudly enough at people to get them to watch my show and capture attention long enough. I should have created an all-silent act just like Teller but never did. Even today, I have trouble going up to people and saying “Want to see a trick?” Instead, I like to volunteer to perform when there’s a casting call for performers because then I know I have the audience captured and they can’t walk away; I can’t deal with the rejection.

I don’t market myself at work either, to my detriment.

So, building my own business is hard. But also for magic, I don’t practice enough. I used to do it a lot, but it’s faded a lot. If I really loved magic, I would practice more. Way more. The ugly truth is that… I like it but I don’t love it. Or maybe I would love it if I performed it more often? Or maybe I am going through a funk (note: I do still practice, just not enough to be a great performer).

But, the one thing I don’t have any problem motivating myself to do is program. I code things up all the time. That I love. If I ever want to automate something, I’ll sit down, open up a shell window and start writing some scripts to pull data and manipulate it.

I love that!

And I do it all the time, too. I do it at work, and I do it at home. I live to pull the data into Excel. That’s one thing I loved about stock trading, and that’s the experience of coding my own tools to do what I needed them to do. Trading stocks was one thing, but coding up the tools to give me the data I wanted was way better.

And because that fits my personality, it’s also something I do at work. I enjoy going into work many days because I get to use my skills at data analysis, and I am good at it. I find myself making progress all the time. And I get results. And I get to refine what I did.

And more importantly – I get paid well.

And I’m chasing that money, too. In order to make as much money performing magic as working at a tech firm, I’d have to have multiple shows per day or perform in a theater. But then I’d have to have a large team in place getting shows for me, and build an enter infrastructure around that.

My history shows I am not good at that.

But I am fantastic at fitting into an existing framework (my job) and making that better (building features) and getting results. And getting paid for those results on a predictable basis.

And I enjoy that a lot.

So I find myself looking back over my life and feeling like “Man, I am chasing the money… compared to what I said I’d like to do.” But at the same time, I feel like I should have gotten way better at magic and had successes like my friends have had.

But knowing where I excel – fitting into an existing structure – and where I don’t – self-promotion and sales – makes it a lot easier to rationalize why I took one path and not the other.

I am okay with that decision.

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This past year, I attended a “seminar” at work called Career Superpowers. In it, the speaker talked about being aware of where you were, and the circumstances of what led up to it, when you have great ideas and have flashes of inspiration. For him, he talked about how he has his best ideas while in the hot tub. He told the story of how his hot tub always broke down and, one day, he got so annoyed with he that wanted to get rid of it.

His daughter told him “But dad! You can’t get rid of it!”

“Why not?” he asked.

She said “How much does it cost to get it fixed each time it breaks down?”

“About $800.”

“You do all of your best thinking while you are in the hot tub. Aren’t your ideas worth more than $800?”

He agreed, and kept the hot tub. And he’s right. He’s aware of where he is (the hot tub) when he gets his best thinking done and told all of us to be aware of where we are, and what led up to it, when we have great ideas. And, we have to recreate those circumstances as much as possible to generate more of these ideas.

So what about me? Here are some times when I was inspired out of no where:

  1. The time I wrote a great blog post

    It was autumn 2014, I was at home and it was just after dinner. I had a good beer that night and got about writing a blot post for work. I got great feedback and consider it one of my finer works.

  2. The time I solved a problem for work while on-call in record time

    I was on-call last fall (autumn 2014), I was at home and it was 9 pm and the phone rang, like it usually does after hours while I am on-call. It was after dinner and I had a beer as well. I logged onto the network and solved the problem in 30 minutes, way faster than I had the day (or two days before).

  3. The time I had a great idea for work

    I had a great idea for an implementation of something for work which we are currently releasing. It really is an advanced breakthrough. It was a Sunday afternoon  this past March and I was having a massage. I was lying there on my stomach when all of a sudden I had a flash of insight. I ran through it in my head over and over again and we ended up doing it after I sold it to everybody.

  4. The time I had another great idea for work

    I can’t remember what this great idea was, but we’re doing it, too (my ideas are blurring together). I was at home, around 9 pm, and playing Candy Crush on my iPad. I had a beer that night, and the cat was on my lap purring. Suddenly, I had a great moment of inspiration and I rushed to write it down. We ended up doing that one at work, too.

  5. The time I had an idea for a German-themed brewery with an automated feedback mechanism

    This is an idea I am still fleshing out but friends I have told it to like it. For this one, I was on a hike with the wife out in the North Cascades and out of no where, this idea came to me. I managed to formulate it within two hours on the way back to the car.

  6. The time I had an idea for automating your eating menu

    Tonight, I was eating dinner, nearing the end, and we were talking about our Blue Apron delivery service, and how there was a new one that sources you food ideas from around the world. Suddenly, I had another flash of insight for how you could automate your weekly menu and use predictive analysis to build a profile of yourself.

As I was going through these, I thought to myself “Hmm, every one of these ideas occurs after I’ve had a beer.” But no, it’s not true. The latter ones occur when I’m doing physical activity, or just doing nothing.

But here’s what is true – all of my great ideas have occurred when my mind was not preoccupied with anything else, I was not working it hard. It’s pretty straight forward to hike, or play Candy Crush, or just eat dinner. Hiking is not relaxing, but it’s not mentally taxing (except for the drain of pushing myself to go another 5-6 miles).

Second, not a single one of my great ideas occurs while I am at work. That makes me stop and think. For sure, I do some great work while at work and I find myself productive on some days (that is, I have bursts of productivity and bursts of nothing getting done), but none of my great ideas in recent memory have occurred while at my day job.

Looks like my down time is where I do my best thinking.

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Today the wife dragged me on my longest hike ever – 16.4 miles! My previous record was 15 miles (maybe a little more) in New Zealand last year when we went around the town of Marahau.

Yet this one didn’t seem so bad.  Even though it gained a lot of altitude – 4000 feet – it was spread out over 8 miles in one direction.  This means it was an average of 500 feet per mile, which isn’t too bad.  I thought I was going to die on this trip, but I didn’t.  I survived!  The downside is that now the wife will be able to use this as a precedent (“Oh, you did a super long hike before, we can do another one!”).

The wife got me out of bed at 5 am (!) and we left the house by 5:30.  We drove 2+ hours to Leavenworth and then after a couple of pit stops, we began hiking by around 8:30 am.  I got my GPS out and prepared to record the trip.

I’ve noticed something about my GPS, though.  It has a Track Calculator, and an Odometer.  The Odometer tracks your moving speed, time spent moving and time spent stopping, as well as the instantaneous altitude and the total distance you’ve traveled.  If you don’t reset it between trips, it keeps going.

The Track Calculator tracks your route on a map.  It also has an odometer.  Yet the Track Calculator’s odometer is always less than the Trip Odometer.  Sometimes it’s off by a significant margin.  I’m not sure why that is, it could be that the map it tracks is not totally accurate and therefore it cannot be the right readings.  Therefore, for these reports, I use the Trip Odometer because I reset both it and the Track Calculator before each trip.

Anyhow, here are the statistics:

Name of track: Windy Pass
Distance: 16.4 miles
Starting Elevation: 3360 feet
Highest Elevation: 7296 feet (3936 above start point)
Elevation Gained: 4600 feet (includes total of all up and down parts on track)

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In the altitude chart below, the hike starts off a little steep then flattens, gets a little steep and then flattens, but it never gets super steep the way it did last week.  There’s also a little bit of up-and-down, up-and-down, which is why the total elevation gain above is not simply the high point – the low point.

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As for some images from the trail, here are a few:

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It’s a tough slog on the way up.  Even at high altitudes, it’s warm.

We saw a bunch of wildlife on the trail, too.

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Hello, I am a Marmot.

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My name is Mr. Goat.

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I am a chipmunk.

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We finally got to the top, 8.2 miles later.  It was a tough slog and we were at a good altitude, but it wasn’t too bad.  The wife was so happy she decided to celebrate:

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I felt pretty good so I decided to click my heels together.  I think I got pretty good air in this picture:

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As good as it felt to get the to the top, it felt even better to get back to the bottom.  My legs and feet were sore when I was done, and so was my shoulder (from where the backpack with tons of water was digging into it).

As always, here’s a Google Earth screenshot along with a link to the Google Maps image (the trail does not show up in Google Maps).

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And that was the longest hike I ever took.

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I read an article today on Yahoo! Finance about a former CIA officer who used to be involved in detecting deception.  In this interview, he analyzed some interviews that members of the press made with several leaders in the world of finance (Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, MFGlobal former CEO Jon Corzine and a couple of others).

I read through the interview along with the ex-agent’s analysis and I wish I had seen those same interviews.  I have been practicing detecting deception for a long time and I have gotten good at it.  I could completely understand what the agent was saying and probably would have arrived at similar conclusions.

On the other hand, detecting deception is notoriously difficult. It is not as simple as someone “not looking you in the eye” when they talk to you and therefore they are lying.  Instead, many liars have made up in their minds ahead of time what they are going to say, and because they are focused on it and concentrating, they look right at you when they lie to you.

Most people are very bad at detecting when someone is lying.  There have been tests on this and researchers have found that people can tell when someone is not telling the truth around 53% of the time – only slightly better than chance.

So how do you tell if someone is lying?  After all, I have two tricks in my mentalism repertoire that rely upon deception and if they don’t work out, I look quite the fool.

The answer is that you need to do several things:

  1. Establish a baseline – If you want to tell if someone is lying, you need to know how they behave when they are telling the truth.  If they deviate from this, it means something.  It doesn’t mean they are lying, but it does mean something.

  2. Look for signs of deception – There are some things that liars will do more often that people who tell the truth.  One example is the use of contractions.  A person telling the truth might say “I didn’t do it!” whereas a liar might say “I did not do it.”

  3. Look for signs of telling the truth – People telling the truth often do certain things.  If you know signs of truth-telling vs. lying, you can figure out if someone is trying to pull something over you.  For a truth teller, when retelling a story, they frequently jump back and forth, adding details and then resuming the story.

Detecting deception is not straight forward.  It’s tough!  There’s not a checklist you can follow that says “Oh, this guy is lying.”  However, by applying some body-language analysis, you can up your odds of figuring it out to 80% or 90%. 
That’s a lot better than chance.

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The wife and I went on a hike today to Bandera Mountain.  This is the first time I have gone hiking in almost a month; the last two weeks I was on-call and couldn’t go anywhere, and the week before that the wife was in California and I was at home doing something or other.

Anyhow, this hike isn’t too far from Seattle, only a 40 minute drive from where we live along I-90.  Not too bad.

Name: Bandera Mountain
Distance: 9.0 miles
High Point: 5129 feet
Low Point: 2166 feet (at the starting point)
Total Ascent: 3262 feet (includes some back tracking)

This hike was only 9 miles (including the walk from the car to the trailhead), but it was a difficult height due to all of the elevation gained.  It starts out relatively flat and then much of the ascent occurs towards the end as you scale to the top of Bandera Mountain (1100 feet in 0.6 miles which is very tough).  Even though this wasn’t the longest hike I have ever done, it was among the most difficult.

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If you look on the graph above, you can see that starting at the 3 mile mark it goes sharply upwards.  Going up that part was like going up a set of stairs.  Our average speed dropped significantly.

We went up to the top of the mountain and took a look around, although it didn’t seem as impressive looking out over the highway.  We then hiked back down a bit past the sharp incline and then walked to a lake, as you can see from the route above.  That was pretty neat because we took a picture from the top looking down and then a picture from the bottom looking up at where we were.

This is from the top of the mountain looking down at the lake.  You can see a patch of snow in front:

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And here is the view from the lake looking at the top of the mountain.  You can see the patch of snow at the top right where the above picture was taken:

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And of course, if you’re interested in where we actually were, below is a screenshot of Google Earth along with a link to Google Maps.

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And that’s what the wife and I did today.

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Ever since I got the GPS, going hiking has become a lot more fun.  I can create a trail ahead of time and upload it to the device, then I can view statistics about the hike afterwards.  It’s neat!

Even better, I’ve (almost) gotten the hang of figuring out how much further we have to go to the next point (whether it is a junction, a trailhead, or the end of a hike). The one thing that still annoys me about it is that it takes forever to acquire a signal. Thanks to its lollygagging, we didn’t capture the first 0.6 miles of the hike.

Today we went out to Lake Serene, which is a hike just outside of Goldbar, WA.  From our place it takes a little under an hour to get there. Even though it’s June, it’s still cold out and you have to dress for multiple weather conditions – warm, cold and rain.

Today, we had all three.  It was warm going up the trail, but cold at the top; I had to put on extra clothes. It also started raining near the top and didn’t stop until we came back down again.  The wife and I both got very wet. Indeed, this was the wettest hike I have ever been on (although not the coldest).

Below are the trip statistics:

Hike: Lake Serene
Distance: 7.5 miles roundtrip – includes the walk up to the waterfall
Elevation Gain: 2000 feet

Below is the Google Earth screenshot.  You can also view it in Google Maps but it doesn’t have the trailhead.

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Here’s a picture of me by the lake. You can see that there’s still a ton of snow on it:

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That picture is deceiving because it looks like the water is just behind me maybe three or four feet.  In reality, the water is about 30 feet behind me and I’m about 20 feet above the surface of the water; the rock slopes downward sharply and if you’re not careful (it was raining up there) you can slip and slide down.  But because of the angle the picture is taken from, it looks really close.

Here’s a panorama shot of the lake:

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Another optional part that is 1/2 mile each way at a junction (you can see on the map above how it breaks off a bit) is the waterfall. We went up there and this was one big waterfall.  You can get close to it and water is just spraying everywhere:

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I could only stand there for a few moments because the spray coming off of there was drenching me.  It doesn’t show up that well in the picture, but trust me, it’s there.

So that’s what we did today.

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A few years ago, my brother and I borrowed our friend Butters’ copy of the Japanese anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Spirited Away. I remember really enjoying the movie.  It’s the story of a young, immature girl being whisked into a magical parallel world and she has to grow up and find her way back home, and at the same time rescue her parents.

Spirited Away  {Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi}

Since that time, I have seen four other Miyazaki films:

Castle in the Sky (one of my favorites)

Castle in the Sky  {Tenku No Shiro Rapyuta}

Princess Mononoke (which is my least favorite of the five I have seen)

Princess Mononoke  {Mononoke-Hime}


Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle  {Hauru No Ugoku Shiro}

And finally, Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki's Delivery Service  {Majo No Takkyubin}

These are films that were originally made in Japan and for a Japanese audience, but they have been ported to North America and dubbed in English.

If you haven’t seen any of Miyazaki’s movies, you must see them, and you’ll get your chance if you live in Seattle.  They are coming to the Seattle International Film Festival at the end of June and beginning of July. Every day for about two weeks, they are showing two different movies.  Some of them are dubbed in English, while others are in Japanese but have English subtitles.

What makes Miyazaki’s films so good?

I don’t like all anime; I saw one called Spriggen which I thought was over-the-top violent.  There was a second one that was similar.  What sets Miyazaki’s films apart are that they are different:

  • The plots – The plot lines are more complex than traditional western movies.  In the west, there are clear good guys and bad guys and they are straight forward, most of the time.  We cheer for the heroes and boo the villains. Unfortunately, this carries over to real life and we frequently divide the world into heroes and villains (political parties, sports teams, even religions).

    Miyazaki is different.  Often times at the beginning there is a villain who seems bad, but halfway through the story you see things from their point of view and get a more sympathetic view of them.  They aren’t the bad guys anymore.  This makes you think hard before seeing things in black and white.

  • The themes – All of the films I have seen so far have young characters, less than 12 years old, as the protagonist.  In all of them, at the start of the story, they are immature and childish.  But as the movie progresses, they have to work and grow up and by the end, they are not the same characters they were before.  Growing up is an important theme in all of Miyazaki’s films I have seen.

I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of his movies, but also seeing some of the other directors (Hiroyuki Morita and Isao Takahata) with whom I have no prior experience.

Should be a good time. My parents are coming into town while these are playing, maybe I’ll take them to go see one or two of them.

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This past weekend, the wife and I went to the San Juan islands in northwestern Washington, which are situated between Washington state and Vancouver island.  The San Juans are slightly north of Victoria, BC.

We were there for Friday and Saturday, and then on Sunday we went to Orcas island.

While driving around the Orcas, we went for a hike.  This was a 7 mile hike round trip with around a 1000 foot elevation gain.  Even though I’ve been going hiking for over a year, I still don’t feel like I’m in good shape.  I get tired from doing tons of uphill walking, have to catch my breath and can’t wait until I’m done… and this is only 7 miles!  Last year, the wife forced me to do 8-12 miles!  And in New Zealand, there was even a 15 miler!

Anyhow, we did this hike on Orcas and at the top of Mt. Constitution, there is a lookout tower where you can climb up and view all around Puget Sound:

That’s me up there.

While at the top, I took around.  I couldn’t tell what I was looking at but luckily there is a sign that says what is what.  I read the sign and looked out in the distance and what I did I see?

Vancouver!

I used my phone and took a picture.  Below you can little white buildings beneath the snow on the mountains.  It doesn’t show up that well in the picture but you can see it very well in person.

I thought it was cool.  I’m all like “Vancouver!  Vancouver!  I see it!”

 

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So that’s what I did last weekend.

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More tools of the trade

Continuing on from my previous post about tools of trade, the common thread running through my hobbies is that I try to minimize the amount of stuff I have.  This works for stock trading, but not for magic.  I am always getting magic stuff.  Come to think of it, I am also always reading trading books.  Anyhow, here are my other hobbies.

Dancing

Ballroom dancing is something I picked up in late 2007.  All I need for dancing are a pair of dancing shoes and a bag to keep them in.  That’s it.  I require nothing else other than lessons and a place to go dancing.

Dancing is great because you can do it wherever there is a place where there is music and you don’t have to feel like a self-conscious dope whenever others are out there doing stuff.  I can do several dances either reasonably well or enough to get by.  I have no interest in competing, only going out socially.  I will admit that over the past year my attendance at the dance studio has dropped substantially.  But I still go out when I can and I enjoy it.

Hiking

This is a hobby I started last year (in 2010), and I got into it because my girlfriend dragged me into it.  There are lots of different hikes you can do in and around Seattle. I had no idea about any of them a year ago.

We go out hiking on a regular basis (more than we go dancing).  If my girlfriend doesn’t go out once every five days, she gets antsy.  You might say “Do you go hiking during the week?”  No, we don’t.  “So you only go on weekends?”  Yes.  “But the weekends 7 days apart, and your girlfriend gets antsy every 5 days.”  Yup.

Hiking requires more equipment if you want to do it right.  While you can get away with wearing runners, I have a pair of hiking boots.  I also have a set of hiking poles (come in useful when my girlfriend has picked a hill that goes straight up and then claims “Gee, I didn’t realize it was so steep!”… Whatever).  Other things you need are a backpack, a hat, and sunglasses.  All of that stuff I already had.  My girlfriend brings her own water bottle but I usually just buy a couple of bottles of water.

In terms of snacks, I really like beef jerky.  I also bring along Luna bars, or as I call them, “loser” bars (heh, heh, heh).  Sometimes we bring along sandwiches that we make at home and then eat them on the trail.

The minimum I like to go hiking for is six miles.  Anything shorter than that and I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything.  However, 8 miles is starting to get difficult.

I’m really not in any better shape than most of my friends.  I’m not overweight but I’m not a marathon runner or anything.  Still, I like the exercise that I get on the trail.  However, I must confess that sometimes my mind starts to randomly wander after I’ve been up in the mountain for a long time.  I could probably dictate my memoirs if I had the right equipment.

 

Well, those are the main hobbies I can think of.  In a future post I will describe my tips for traveling abroad.

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Tools of the trade

My girlfriend and I (she is actually my fianceé but it is a pain to type the letter é every time; after we are married I will upgrade her to wife but until then it is girlfriend.  If you don’t like it, start your own blog) met up with a friend of ours who is making up our customized wedding invitations.  We weren’t going to be too extravagant with these, but I have to say that our friend did a fantastic job and they look great.

Anyhow, she brought a long a bunch of doodads as she is a graphic designer. They were really handy tools to have.

It got me to thinking about what sort of handy dandy tools I have in any of my own hobbies.  I have a few of them, so here they are in no particular order:

Magician

I have been studying magic since 1994 when I saw a magician at a church picnic, although I got my first magic trick (the cups and balls) at a birthday party a few years before that.

As a magician, I have gone through a few stages.  I have wanted to do larger physical illusions, did close up magic for a number of years, and am currently on a mentalism kick. 

Due to my time spent doing street magic, I had to economize my toolset.  I couldn’t bring large illusions with me because I didn’t want to drag them around like other street performers.  I also had to be careful about what tricks I wanted to do because being outdoors, light props would blow away in the wind. 

My own particular personality is such that I lean heavier towards sleight-of-hand.  I got into sleights in the late 1990’s and have stuck with them ever since.  I have tended to shy away from gimmicked props (such as a trick deck).  I have a few gimmicked props but rarely use them.  The reason is that the number of tricks I can do with them are small, and if I ever don’t have it with me, my repertoire is limited. 

Conversely, with sleight-of-hand, I can do a whole routine with a coin or an ordinary deck of cards.  If I don’t have these items on me, I borrow them.  The ability to do impromptu magic is one of my favorite qualities about my style of magic.  True, I do require some special props but my favorite routines are the ones where the objects are normal and can survive inspection.

Mentalism is a different genre.  It leans heavier towards misdirection and less towards sleight-of-hand.  However, many of the effects that I do use sleights.  And if they don’t require them, I frequently toss them in.  People will often attempt to reverse engineer some of my effects but the reality is that this is a fruitless effort – I use some sleights that I perfected from my close up days and therefore catching me out is difficult.

I like to use cards, coins and post-it notes.  Those are my favorite props. Sometimes I have to modify them in order to make them work better, but they always survive inspection.  Nowadays, all of my props fit into four boxes at home.  That’s considerably less than a few years ago when I had larger things when I wanted to do larger illusions.  Luckily, mentalism packs small but plays big.

Stock Trader

As an amateur stock trader, I have very few tools of the trade.  I have read a ton of books and consider them all valuable, but at this point I try to execute on what I already know because I get fewer and fewer returns with new information.

I only use the following pieces of information:

  • A stock charting program, TC2000, which I use to view charts of stocks.
  • My broker, Scottrade, which I use to buy and sell stocks.
  • I read three blogs about trading.
  • I read five or six other sites about financial information.

I have found that with trading, more is not better.  For the most part, the market moves either up, down or sideways.  If I trade more, I just lose more money and so following the major trends is what works for me.  If the market is going up, I go long and ride it.  If it is in a bear market, I go short.  If it is sideways, I hold on.  Attempts to hop in and out are wrought with failure.

I spend a long time doing research for each stock.  I used to spend two hours a day doing research, now it is closer to 2-3 hours per week.  Usually, before I buy something, I have been tracking it for a few weeks to a few months.  I have a few pretty good indicators of market turning points from down to up, but not nearly as many from up to down.

Still, by simplifying my strategy, I have greatly improved my trading in 2011 compared to 2010, 2009 and 2008.

 

Well, I was going to write about a couple of more things, but that will have to wait for a future post.

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2010 was an exceptionally productive year in blogging for me. I had a goal to write one post every three days on this blog, my personal one, and one post every two days on my work one. This translates to 122 posts per year on this blog and 183 posts per year on my other blog.

So how did I do?

Well, on my work blog I wrote 209 posts, exceeding my goal by 14%. On this one, I wrote 194 posts, exceeding my goal by a whopping 59%! Taking together both of them, I wrote 403 posts, which is far more than I have ever written in one year. I blew way past my goals for 2010!

How did I do it?

For my work blog, it was a little bit of jealousy and pride. I was reading one reviewer one year talk about some anti spam blogs and he didn’t mention mine amongst all of them. He then talked about a friend of mine’s blog and said how he had good content (which is true) and then mentioned how frequently it was updated. In the previous year it had over 100 posts! I scoffed when I read that. Even in my worst year (2009), I had more posts than that. I resolved to ensure that out of all the antispam bloggers, I would be the most prolific by a long shot. While I am not the most active blog because some blogs have multiple authors, I do write the most out all of the ones I follow that also have a full time job and do not write as their primary job function.

It is my goal to provide relevant content and do it frequently. I am a big believer in providing valuable content and doing it enough such that readers notice. And it pays off because I have been published elsewhere, and gotten paid for it. Also, writing lets me expand my interests beyond spam and it gives me plenty of ideas to talk about at conferences. Thus, it embiggens the scope of knowledge. It also consistently has people come up to me at conferences and say “Hey, I read your blog!” thus, maintaining a blog about what I do at work has really paid off big time. I consider it a mini-resume.

My personal blog has different motivations and they are four fold. First, I like to keep a personal diary of sorts so that I can go back and see what I was thinking in the past. It’s like “Oh, that’s what I was up to back then!” I like to see what I was up to at a certain point way back when. It’s too bad I only have a blog going back to September 2006.

Second, I like to write my personal views on random subjects. I don’t really speak to them very often but I do write them down. I don’t care to force them others but if people really are interested they can read them and hopefully find them entertaining. The reality is that I have been blogging since the year 2000. I had a website in university that I updated every so often but I had to do it all manually (write the pages, upload them, create links). That was kind if a pain. From 2001 to 2003 I participated in Internet discussion boards. That wasn’t blogging, but it was talking about stuff I was interested in. In mid 2003 I took over a board I was participating on but shortly thereafter everyone left (it was dying anyhow). I converted it to a blog for about a year until mid to late 2004 and then shut it down.

I participated in some stock market and financial boards in 2004 and 2005, as well as some politics boards. Eventually I got bored with those and started my own blogs. Now I visit no discussion boards (which is kind of a shame because I learned a lot) but instead read lots of articles. So you see, i have been writing about stuff for a long time.

Third, I blog in order to prove my brother wrong. Years ago I wrote on here that I knew lots of people who start blogs, but 90% of those who do end up abandoning them within three months. My brother said that even though I pointed that out, the same thing would probably happen to me. Well, here I am three years later and I am still going strong. Indeed, every single post I write proves him wrong again. Ha, ha, ha! I don’t know if he remembers writing me that email, but I sure do.

Fourth, I blog because I am competitive. I have a few friends who blog, and I secretly want to write more than they do. They don’t know that I am competing with them, but I use it as motivation to ensure that I have the highest post count. Sure, they may have longer, more thought out posts… but I make it up in volume (like Walmart). When they have a post count that starts to get close to mine, I think “Eep! I have to get cracking!” why do i want to have the most? I don’t know, maybe because it is a competition I cab actually win. Now that I won 2010, it does not matter to me as much.

So that is why I write. Now hopefully 2011 is just as prolific as 2010!

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What is it about appliances?  They are supposed to be simple so people like me can use them.

Case 1: My washing machine has been doing something very annoying recently – it has been putting “rust” stains on my clothes.  Not all my clothes, mind you.  Just my favorite ones.  What do I mean by rust stains?  Well, I put clothes in there and when they come out, there are color streaks that are rusty in color either on the sleeves, neckline, or elsewhere (pretty much anywhere).  This can be either the inside of the clothes or the outside.  Several of my shirts have been ruined by this.

I asked the management of the leasing company to take a look at this, and it turns out that I have to wash out the washing machine with bleach.  Fair enough.  I have never done this before so how difficult can it be?

As it turns out it is very difficult.  I read the instructions on the Clorox Bleach Cleaner that I picked up from the store, and it says to pour the contents into the bleach dispenser.  Simple enough.  The only problem is that I have no idea where the bleach dispenser is on my washing machine.  Absolutely no idea whatsoever.

I tried searching online for some clues, but found none.  I look at the washing machine; there is the tumbler in the middle, but around the washing machine there is nothing else.  Nothing.  There is no little container, no slot, no compartment… it’s all smooth.  Dismayed, I thought that maybe the tumbler has a slot or something that comes off.  Well, I can twist the top but it isn’t coming off at all, it’s attached firmly to it.  It is not coming off, ergo, I cannot dispense any bleach.  So I am basically left in the situation where I am supposed to put something in the bleach dispenser but have no idea where the so called bleach dispenser is located.  I tried searching online for help but it was completely useless.  All I could find was that there is supposed to be a triangle thing in the bottom right hand corner of the washer.  Well, that most definitely does not exist on my washer, that’s for darn sure.

Case 2: I got new windshield wipers from the auto-store the other week.  I still haven’t installed them.  Why?  Because I couldn’t figure out the instructions.

On the back of the wipers, there are pictorial instructions on how to replace the wipers.  Either unsnap a clip or release a pin in the middle.  Well, my wipers do not have a snap at the base of the wipers.  There’s a pin in the middle, but it is firmly attached to the wiper and does not unscrew.  I looked at the wiper instructions and on the wipers themselves and there was certainly no mapping between my wipers and how it was supposed to work to switch them out.

The user manual was no help.  There wasn’t anything in there on how to remove them whatsoever.  I tried searching online and all I found were generic instructions.  Thanks.

 

These things sure seem like they should be simple to change out.  There’s a lot of things that I can figure out.  But these things – windshield wipers and bleach – make no sense to me.

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Serves him right

As I was saying, this past weekend weekend I did a magic show for a kids party.  When I do magic for kids, I don’t do much card magic or any mentalism (except I toss one in for the adults and play it up for them).  Instead, I break out a lot of my old school stuff which is heavier in sleight-of-hand, as well as being much more visual.  For instance, I do a Cups-and-Balls routine which I developed in the year 2000 that I can still do this day, but don’t have a venue to do it unless I am at a kids party.  That particular trick is a natural closer to a show because of its climactic finish.

Anyhow, at this particular show, there was a kid who was a little obnoxious.  There’s often one in a crowd, but not every crowd I perform for.  It depends on their age range.  If they are all less than 10, then typically not.  Some magicians don’t like performing for children, but I don’t mind it.  It’s actually not all that different than other crowds.  I don’t particularly care to perform for teenagers; that’s when they get a lot obnoxious, trying to impress all of their friends by acting all snarky.

This particular kid kept shouting things out like “It’s in your other hand!” or “It’s in your pocket!”  The thing is that he was wrong every time.  I don’t like to give hecklers the satisfaction of responding to them in order to validate their arrogance.  Just be quiet and stop ruining it for everyone.  If I were doing a street show I’d tell him to keep his mouth closed for that reason, but at a party I need to be respectful because I don’t know where his parents are and how they might react if I said something to him.  This kid was talking a little bit of smack and it was unjustified.

I finally did a trick that was very intensive in sleight-of-hand.  It is a trick that takes ~90 seconds to perform, and it involves the vanish of a pen cap over and over again.  It jumps from my hand to my pocket a couple of times, then other times it goes somewhere else.  It is a five-part effect.  Eventually, for the finale of the effect, I made the pen disappear.  It was right after I made the pen cap vanish and reappear in an odd location.  I then said, out loud, “Where’s the pen?” and started fidgeting around for it.  He then started saying “It’s in your pocket!”

I ignored him and said “Oh, it’s in the pen cap.”

“No, it’s not!  It’s in your pocket!” he exclaimed.

“No, it’s in the pen cap,” I replied.  This was my chance.

“Nooo!” he cried out, “it’s in your—“

I cut him off.  I then showed him the pen cap and proceeded to pull the pen right out of the pen cap.  He stopped talking in mid-sentence and everyone in the room laughed at him as I proved that I was right and he was wrong.

That shut him up.

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What to perform?

I’m a little conflicted at the moment.

In a few weeks time, I will be attending a church campout, and each year they have a talent show.  I like this because it gives me a chance to perform new material that I otherwise would not normally get to perform, especially my mentalism bits.  Unfortunately, I’m in a bit of a quandary.  I am torn between two different effects.  Here is a description of both effects.  I am not planning to do single effects, but tying a couple of them together.

  1. Invisible Touch.  This is an effect wherein I call up two spectators and have them sit about three feet apart from each other.  I get them both to close their eyes and tell them a story.  During the story, I physically touch one of them on the shoulder and using some suggestion and psychology, they both experience the touches.

    The follow up to this effect is I get one spectator to have a seat and then I stand to face them, about 3-4 feet away.  Again, using some more psychology and suggestion (and showmanship), I then move my hand up and to the side – never actually contacting them but staying several feet away – and the spectator feels me touch the side of their face.

  2. Travel Tales.  This is a follow up to my previous travel trick I blogged about a few weeks ago.  That one now works, I just need to get the showmanship up.  But that one is designed to work with the following one.

    I take out a small box which is sealed with a rubber band.  I then instruct a spectator to think of a place, or maybe even a word of their choice (I haven’t figured that out yet, if I want to have to travel things back-to-back).  They announce their word or place, let’s say that it is “New Zealand”.  It just so happens to be the very word I was thinking of!  What a coincidence and amazing example of suggestion!

    But wait, that seems a little lame.  And I wouldn’t want people to think those are the limits of my abilities.  Because look, the box has been sitting out in the open the whole time, at no point did I touch it.  I walk over to the box, open it and display a small note inside.  I take the note and drop it into the spectator’s hand and ask them to open it up and read it.

    It says “No joke.  I really was thinking of New Zealand.”

As you can see, both effects are pretty cool.  The second one is actually a bit easier because I have done them before in various capacities.  On the other hand, the first one is quite a bit creepier.  I’m not sure what effect I want to go for.

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Could it have been me?

I’m currently watching America’s Got Talent and they are at the part where the final 48 are auditioning for a chance to go to Hollywood to perform for the chance to win the show.  But first, they have to audition for the celebrity judges in Las Vegas before they go on.  They are now at the part where they are telling the various people if they make it… or not.  The people are either extremely happy, or their dreams are crushed.  Their emotions are written all over their faces.

I remember when I auditioned last year and I didn’t get a call back.  They just said “Okay, you can go” and let me go.  I wonder now whether or not what would have happened had I managed to get through?  Back then I was just a fledgling mentalist.  I didn’t have the high excitement that I started putting into my shows starting August 2009.  If I were to go back, how would I fare now?

And if I were selected to go forward, how would I react to the news that I was getting through?  Would I be overjoyed and jump with all my might?  Or would I take it in stride and smile and say “Thanks” ?  Would I immediately quit my job at Microsoft?  Probably not.  I wouldn’t quit until I was certain that I had won the show and had a Vegas contract signed to perform for a year and they would pay me a nice chunk of change for doing so.  And I am not even sure I could win because I don’t have an hour and a half’s worth of show quality material.  30 minutes, yes.  45 minutes?  Maybe.  90 minutes might be a bit tougher, although I do think that I have enough stuff to go from start to finish.

Maybe it could have been me.  Maybe next year.

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