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Archive for the ‘Magic’ Category

I was listening to a podcast today, the Hidden Brain podcast. It was about coincidences and how we, as people, think they have special meaning; but in reality the mathematics behind coincidences is that they aren’t that unusual after all. We tend to confuse probability with unlikelihood, and attribute meaning to it when we encounter it. We’re not good judges of randomness.

Anyway, the podcast went on and then gave the listener a chance to use probability in order to demonstrate their own magical powers. Here’s how the trick goes:

First, you get a group of people together and tell them you’re going to have a coin flipped 30 times. But before you do, give everyone a piece of paper and enter in columns of numbers 1 through 30. Each person in the group should then make a prediction of what a coin toss of 30 times in a row will look like. For example:

1. Heads
2. Tails
3. Tails
4. Head
5. Tails
6. Tails
7. Tails
8. Heads
9. Tails
10. Heads

And so forth.

One person refrains from writing their prediction. It is this person who is going to flip the coin 30 times in a row and write the results on their own piece of paper. They do this while you leave the room. So, in effect, everyone but one makes a prediction of 30 coin tosses, and then that one records the results of the actual tosses. You can’t see the results of anyone – predictions nor actual result – since you are in a separate room.

You then re-enter the room and gather up all the predictions plus one actual result (the reason why you have one person refrain from making a prediction and recording the actual result is so that you cannot tell due to a duplicate set of handwriting who has two sets of results – a real one and a prediction – because otherwise people will accuse you of doing this and narrowing your odds to 50/50 [1]).

You gather up the results, look them over, and correctly announce which one of the sheets of paper contains the actual tosses from amongst all of the predictions.

It’s an amazing magic trick!

So how is it done?

It’s done by using mathematics, and more specifically, probability and statistics. For you see, in the example above, the heads and tails alternate with regularity. Heads, then tails, then heads twice, then tails, then heads, then tails, and so forth. The results flip back and forth quite often because as we all know, flips of a coin are 50/50. It’s either heads or tails, and maybe we get two or possibly three results in a row. That’s what our predictions would reveal.

But in reality, a 50/50 occurrence in a coin flip will have long sequences of heads or tails. That is, we might get 5 or 6 heads in a row followed by 5 or 6 tails in a row. It’s unusual to sit down and flip a coin that often and get that result, but given 30 coin flips that’s almost inevitably what you will see in real life.

So what you have to do is look for the result with the longest sequences of heads and tails because that’s the one that will occur in real life, whereas everyone’s prediction will only have short sequences of heads vs. tails.

And that’s how you use probability and statistics to do a magic trick.

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Last year, I wrote a blog post about an old friend of mine who competed on Britain’s Got Talent and came in fifth place. Before the finale, I wrote that he probably wouldn’t win because magicians can’t beat musicians. Furthermore, I wrote that while I like magic, I picked an art that doesn’t connect at the same emotional level that music does and as a result, trying to compete in a talent show probably results in magicians coming up short.

Well, I was wrong about that.

In 2014 on America’s Got Talent, magician Mat Franco (a 26-year old magician at the time) did win America’s Got Talent. He now has a regular show in Las Vegas. I went to his site and watched several of his YouTube videos of when he was on the show, and he’s good. He’s better than I was at that age… or any age. But not only did I think he had good technical skill but he also had good showmanship, a bit of an “Aw, shucks” personality most similar to Lance Burton.

So, I guess magicians can win the talent show. But, that was a fluke, right?

Nope.

In 2015 – this year (!) – there were several magicians that made it to the final or semi-finals:

  • Oz Pearlman did mentalism performances (hey, just like me!) and I can (almost) do many of the effects that he did.
  • Piff the Magic Dragon is a comedy magician that I first saw on Penn and Teller Fool Us
  • Derek Hughes is a comedy magician
  • Aiden Sinclair didn’t make it to the semi-finals but still appeared on the show and impressed all of the judges

In the past, I’ve always thought that magicians couldn’t make it far on the show, getting past the audition but getting eliminated in the round thereafter. Or, only a single magician would go far on the show. But this year, there are a lot of magicians making it through.

I guess I was wrong. A magician can do well, he just has to be really, really good.

Hmm, maybe that explains why I didn’t get through.

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Salt-and-silver

I had a magic performance a couple of weeks ago and I decided to develop a new routine. I have never before performed this trick before. I like it because it is very heavy in sleight-of-hand and misdirection which are some of my specialties.

Enjoy!

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The results are in for the 2014 edition of Britain’s Got Talent, and Winnipeg magician Darcy Oake came in 5th. I watched his act online and I liked his finale a lot. In fact, even though I knew it was a trick, it did make me a little antsy because I wondered if he was going to get out of his straitjacket in time. How was he going to get down from where he was hanging? He performed it very well. As Simon Cowell said, I think we are witnessing the birth of a star.

Darcy, however, did not win.

I don’t think that I could ever win ______’s Got Talent, or even get on the show. As I wrote before, I am not good enough. I will go one step further and say that I don’t that any magician could ever win.

Why?

Because magicians cannot beat musicians.

imageimage

Long ago when I decided to specialize in magic rather than music, little did I know that if I wanted to become popular that I had bet on the wrong horse.

Why do I say this?

This is my opinion, but music “speaks” to people in a way that magic cannot (well, to be fair, that magic does not). For you see, I can listen to a song over and over and over again. But a magic effect is great the first couple of times before it loses its luster. But does a song? Most pop music does, but your favorite songs don’t (there are exceptions to some magic tricks but not that many; that’s why magicians don’t repeat tricks).

I think the reason for this is biological.

Suppose I were to ask you if you like donuts. You’d say “Yes, I do!” I ask why you like them. You’d say “Because they taste good!” I’d ask why you think they taste good. You’d answer “Because they are sweet!” I would then ask why you think sweet things taste good. You’d answer “Because… um… er… they do?”

You’d be hard pressed to explain why sweet things taste good. They just do. Why is that?

The reason is that your body runs on glucose. When our ancestors were evolving for millions of years, food was hard to come by. Our bodies evolved such that when we ate something that contained glucose, or sugar, we burned the sugar and glucose immediately for energy. Our bodies need glucose.

To ensure that we would eat it, our taste receptors that connect to our brains sent signals to the pleasure parts of our brain. When our taste buds register that we are eating sugar, our brains interpret these signals and give us positive reinforcement by releasing chemicals – this tastes good! The reason it tastes good is because our body needs it. Thus, evolution hard wired the liking of sweet things into our brains. That’s why you can’t explain why you like it. It’s a deeply implanted instinct.

Aside: the problem with us liking sweet things is that in the past, sweet things were scarce. Now they are abundant, but unfortunately our brains cannot turn off the signals that say “This tastes good.” We eat too much of it and then get fat.

Switching to music, there is a theory that music is “auditory cheesecake.” Cheesecake tastes good because it contains sugar and fat, two things that were necessary to our development. However, it contains too much of those things. Our brains can’t tell the difference, all it knows is that it contains these ingredients in abundance.

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Similarly, one theory of music is that rhythmic beats was necessary to our evolutionary development and just as liking sugar got hard wired into genes, so did the precursor to music (for evidence, consider that musical preferences are different across cultures, but music itself is universal across all cultures). Some think that the intentional steps of walking together in unison while hunting on the African savannah is a precursor to musical tempo, or perhaps the rain has a rhythmic, deliberate beat to it. In any event, music is not random. It is part of our past but served a different purpose and was necessary to our survival.

However, just as cheesecake is junk food, music today is basically auditory junk food. It sounds good, just like cheesecake tastes good. But just as cheesecake doesn’t really do anything for you other than taste good (and contain far too many calories), music’s “purpose” is that it sounds good but those sounds are triggering very old parts of our brains.

This is an oversimplification and music does more than that, but the point is that it’s an instinct in the brain that can be triggered just like our desire for sugar.

This gives music an advantage over magic. Music triggers something that is very part of the way our brains are constructed. Magic is different. Magic makes you think. You need to apply logic and unless you experience other emotions that are part of our genetic makeup as a result of magic, music will always have an advantage.

Music goes straight from sound to our brains.

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Magic goes from visual (plus sometimes sound) to our brains where our brains have to interpret what we see and then decide what to think.

That’s not the same thing and music has a definite advantage. Magic doesn’t trigger any automatic reflexes (for the most part). Some magic does, but it’s hard to perform and discover. To be sure, magic is entertaining. Many people enjoy it. It can trigger humor, wonder, and amazement. When it does, it is powerful. There are far fewer magicians that musicians, so scarcity works in magicians’ favor. But music has a shorter path to our emotions.

That’s why I think that a magician cannot win _________’s Got Talent. Magic is entertaining and fun to watch and I enjoy performing it. I personally prefer it over music… sometimes. But I am the exception, not the rule. People probably can’t explain why they prefer music over magic.

But I can.

And hopefully now, so can you.

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How did you do that trick?

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to perform a magic trick at a church campout.  Whereas the last couple of years I performed I did a mentalism effect, this time around I did a mentalism effect that turned into a “pure” magic trick.

The effect is this:

  • I ask for a member of the audience who has a background in first-aid.  I get them to come to the front and I hand them a first-aid kit.  The sit to the side of the stage with instructions that should something go wrong, they need top help me.  But not until then.

  • Next, I show the audience four wooden bases, but sticking out of one of the wooden bases is a sharp nail.  If it punctures my hand, it would be a very serious injury.

    I get second member of the audience to come up on stage and write his initials on a small piece of tape, and then I wrap the tape with his initials onto the tip of the nail.

  • Next, I cover the wooden bases with styrofoam cups and the cups are mixed up so that nobody, not even me, knows where the nail is.  The audience member then names a number 1 through 4 and I lift up my hand over the cup corresponding to it, and slam it down onto the cup.  Obviously, if the nail is there, I become very badly injured.

  • The first cup is called out and I slam my hand down.  But my hand is fine! The audience member then names a second number and I slam my hand down on it.  They then call out the third and final number and I slam my hand down on it, but each time I have escaped uninjured!

  • Finally, as the coup-de-grace, I say that the audience member did a great job.  But what would have happened had he called out the other number?  I then quickly raise up my hand and slam it down onto the last remaining cup.  Everyone expects me to cry out in pain, but I don’t!  Instead, I escape from that one uninjured, too!  The nail has mysteriously vanished and I wasn’t in any serious danger.  Success!

  • Originally, that was the final ending to the trick.  I did it that way in Vancouver in 2010 when I presented it for the first time at a conference:

    Nails

    But for this trick, I decided to take it one step further.  The original audience member with the first-aid kit has been at the front the entire time.  I then walk over to them and ask for the first-aid kit.  We peek inside and get rid of all of the stuff in there – bandages, gauze, and tape.  But at the bottom of the kit is a nail… with tape on the tip of it… with writing on the end of it!

    I tip the box over and the nail drops into the first-aid kit audience member’s hand.  She takes it over to the other audience member.  Was that the nail you signed earlier?  It is the nail you signed earlier!  It is!

    This is amazing!  The nail that the hand-slammer signed ends up in the box that the other audience member had been holding the whole time! 

    Absolutely incredible.

There was a small hiccup in the trick that I think I got away with, and the audience member I wish I had back.  But the rest of it went pretty well.

But today, as I was walking across the field, a young girl asked me “How did you do that last night?”  I answered with my usual response – I smiled and said “It’s magic!"  But now that I think about it, that was a poor answer.  Even though I want to preserve the secret, people deserve a better, more magical explanation.

This trick is the first one that I designed specifically to use both psychology and magic.  I intentionally added parts into it to enhance the quality of the effect:

  1. Breaking the “logic” trap.

    In order to get an audience to stop thinking about how a trick is done and more “into” the trick itself, I have to get them to stop thinking logically.  The more emotionally invested you are into something, the less energy you can devote to deconstructing how something is done.

    In other words, emotion gets in the way of logic.

    This is not easy to do in magic. Some people will always care, but there are always some that don’t.  How do I get them to care? By invoking fear – the fear that I would get hurt, or the fear of seeing blood, or the fear of a serious injury.  When someone tells you of a serious injury someone suffered (such as twisting their ankle all the way around), don’t you cringe, close your eyes and turn away?  You’re not using logic at that point, you’re responding to the emotion of fear (that you don’t want it to happen to you).

    The fear of personal injury to me is the first emotion I try to create in my audience.  This isn’t really the novel part of the trick, though.  I’ve seen magicians perform this type of trick many times.  But the danger principle works.

  2. Reinforcing the logic gap.

    In order to sell the audience that there is legitimate danger involved to me personally, I set it up ahead of time.  Why should the audience take this trick seriously?  Because I am taking it seriously.  I take preventative measures up front because if something really can go wrong, I need to be prepared for that.

    At the beginning, I ask for an audience member with medical experience to help me out and I give her a first-aid kit.  I then give someone else a pre-printed map to the nearest hospital and instruct them that if something goes wrong, me and my temporary nurse will need a ride to that hospital (at the conference, I put the address of the hotel on the big screen and instructed someone to call 911 and come to that address if something went wrong).

    Why do I do this?

    Because it reinforces in the audience’s mind that something dangerous is happening. If I am taking it seriously enough to set up preventative care, then they should, too.

    This little bit – the ride to the hospital and the audience member with medical background – are new innovations to the trick that I invented.

  3. Selling the uncertainty.

    When I am up on stage and I’m about to slam my hand down on the cup, I mustn’t do it with a high degree of confidence.  I may know that I will be safe, but I have to make sure the audience believes I think I’m in danger.  How do I do this?

    I act out the emotions associated with uncertainty.

    Three years ago I learned how to read body language.  I also paid especially close attention to what we as humans do when we’re nervous.  So, when I’m doing the trick, when I’m about about slam my hand down, I act nervous.

    For example, I raise my arm and touch the back of my neck with my hand.  I purse my lips together.  I tap my leg up and down just as I’m about to slam my hand down.  My hands tremble with indecision.  At one point, I backed away and walked around in a circle with my hands on my hips the way a person may do if they were undecided (something I personally do but it’s not a universal action across all people).

    These are all actions that we, as people, subconsciously recognize as pacification techniques.  We do them unconsciously when we are uncomfortable with our surroundings or situation.  When others exhibit them we pick up on them.

    I know what body language signals the emotion I want people to think I am feeling, and so I do them.  This further reinforces the logic gap because people are empathizing with my plight at a subconscious level.

    This is an innovation that I added to the trick.

  4. The kicker finish

    Originally, the trick ended with a surprise – the nail is gone.  But after I performed it twice, I began thinking “Where did the nail go? Where should it go?”

    That’s when it hit me. It should be in front of the audience the entire time. While I had the audience member at the front at first, I didn’t give her (or him) anything to hold onto.  But what if they ended up with the nail at the end? 

    How could they get it?  By holding onto a box or something that they had the entire time. 

    But what sort of box?  A first-aid kit, because it’s something they would naturally need.

    I like this finish because it introduces something up at the beginning and then closes with it at the end.  It’s a natural finish to the trick.

    One thing I forgot to account for are the theories that people would invent for how the nail got into the box.  To the audience member with the first aid kit, it’s very clear that when it is opened, I remove bandages and gauze and stuff and underneath it all is the nail.  It’s impossible for me to sneak anything in there.

    When I was practicing the trick, I would show both my hands open as I went to grab the box.  I wouldn’t call attention to it (too obvious), but the point is to ensure that I don’t put anything into the kit.

    During the trick, I have one hand on a microphone. Then I have to do an awkward hand-off between the mic and kit and only then can I show my hand empty, if only briefly.  I do unwrap the rubber bands and you can see my hand, but it’s not as clear this way.

    I say this because some people (i.e., one person) claim I stuck the nail into box while I was unloading stuff from it (i.e., I tossed stuff out and then snuck the nail in).  This is not how it works.  Unfortunately, it didn’t come across as clearly during the show as it did during rehearsal.

    The trick “object-to-impossible-location” is a pretty common one in magic.  The idea for how to get the nail into the kit came to me as I recalled a discussion with another magician about 7 years ago when I heard the story of how he borrowed a dollar bill, and then it ends up in the pen cap of the sharpie that the audience member had used to sign the bill and he had been holding the whole time.  He explained to me the technique.

    I don’t use quite the same technique; I’m proud to say that I use some mentalism and a variant of his method to accomplish it.  My innovation with the marked nail tip – and the way it is discovered by the audience – is something I haven’t come across before. 

    Anyway, the way it worked this time – the first time I have ever tried it – was better than I had planned.  My hand-slammer audience member was genuinely surprised when his nail ended up in the box at the end (I watched his body language).

    A slam dunk!

So you see, the answer to the question of “How did you do that?” is complicated.  It combines magic, suggestion, psychology, showmanship and misdirection all in an attempt to present an amazing effect.

I think that this one went pretty well.

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Today I had  a mentalism show down in Seattle.  I had a 60 minute slot but I prepared enough material for around 40-45 minutes.

I haven’t had a show that long since… ever.  I have had long shows but never continuously.  Prior to this I’ve always broken them up into two slots.  No such thing for this one.

As I was planning for it, I went through my repertoire of effects.  What should I do?  They needed to be larger stand-up effects, not close up, so everyone could see them.  Then, they had to be routined properly.  My mentalism library consists of a lot of predictions (do something, I predicted it ahead of time) and after-facts (think of something, I figure it out later).  As I was scribbling around my notes, I re-ordered my tricks a few times because I couldn’t have too many prediction effects.  I also had to make the best stuff come at the end.

Whenever I do a show, I’m always worried I don’t have enough material.  Will I get through it in only 25 minutes and then have a huge hunk of time left over? I can practice, but practicing always goes faster than performance.  I’m not sure why that is but I ad lib a lot when I perform.  Stuff comes to me as I’m doing the show and I just toss it in.  I become more creative when I perform on stage – much more so than close up.

I was also concerned ahead of time that there would be a small crowd.  I was performing on a stage at a street festival but I knew the same caveats would apply as when I street performed before – I am not talented enough to draw a huge crowd street performing.  I can entertain some people and draw others in, but I’m not good enough to draw the crowd, retain them, and keep getting more.  It’s a technique I have yet to master.

Anyhow, I settled on 10 effects and I ended up performing 9 of them.  Here’s my mental notes:

  1. I didn’t transition smoothly – When I do close up shows, I frequently put a lot of stuff in my pockets and when trick is done, I go right into the next one.  I can’t do that with stage shows. I was painfully aware that when one trick completed, I had to go and hunt through my props to get the next set ready.  The lapses between effects felt really awkward and when it was occurring, I was thinking “Shoot, I planned this very poorly.”

  2. Microphones are awkward – I don’t have a voice that projects so I prefer to use a microphone.  But it’s hard to use a microphone and do magic at the same time because it gets in the way.  I’m always tilting your head one way or the other, trying to ensure that my voice project.

  3. Two tricks went wrong – The first four tricks went well.  I was pleased with how they turned out as well as the reactions they got.  I forgot a prop at home so I had to construct a new one before the show, but it still worked out.

    However, tricks #5 and #6 were terrible, they could not have gone any worse.  One effect involves a spectator putting an object under a Styrofoam cup and I guess it.  Unfortunately, being outdoors, the wind blew them off my table.  Why didn’t I think of that ahead of time?

    The next trick involves me slamming my hands down onto the cups in an attempt to find which one has a nail under it.  Unfortunately, I was using my portable table and the first time I slammed my hand down, the table top slipped off the base and all of my props went flying about.  A complete disaster!

    The worst part is that these two were back-to-back.  That really sucked.  Unprofessional, not up to my normal game.

    The last three effects after that went well (I mistimed my invisible watch somewhat but still went okay).  I tried out a new trick that worked perfectly (!!!) despite never being perfect when I practiced it ahead of time.  Finally, my trick where a word from a book ends up on a spectator’s arm went well.  I had to do a lot of audience management.

Because of my two mess-ups, and my not-quite-100%-Invisible-Deck routine, but still getting 7/9 effects right, I grade myself a B-.  Not bad, but room for improvement to polish off and get to A+.

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My influences in magic

During my previous post, I was reading on Wikipedia that Japanese anime director Isao Takahata influenced filmmake Hayao Miyazaki.  That got me to thinking: which magicians have influence my style in magic?

I have made this list often in my head, but this is the first time I have formally written it down.  Here they are, in order:

  1. Lance Burton

    Lance Burton is a Las Vegas magician with a smooth, ballroom style of performing.  He wears a tuxedo when he performs and he is very good at sleight-of-hand.  He did a trick on TV during the World’s Greatest Magic in 1994 which is what inspired me to become a stage magician.  I have never seen him perform live, but next time I go to Vegas I am going to get tickets (my wife can consider this advance notice).

  2. Guy Hollingworth

    Guy Hollingworth is easily the magician who most influenced my style.  In 1996, during a TV special, he did two magic effects: Twisting the Aces (where a bunch of cards flip over in his hands) and Restoration (wherein he tears up and restores a signed playing card).  I later bought his book Drawing Room Deceptions, which contained some of the most difficult tricks ever to performed.  But I learned both of those tricks that amazed me!

    Hollingworth’s style was smooth and heavy in sleight-of-hand.  It’s because of him that I wanted to get really good at it, and for a few years in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s I was really good at it.  I’m still good, but not as good as I was.

  3. Alain Nu

    Alain Nu is a magician currently based out of Baltimore, Maryland (or maybe Washington, DC).  I first saw his TV specials on the Discovery Channel called The Mysterious World of Alain Nu.  What makes Nu so special is that he is a mentalist and is what first drove my interest in the topic.

    In 2007, I saw him give a lecture to my magic club where he showed a new twist on my favorite card trick The Invisible Deck. I was amazed when I saw it because I had been doing the trick for years and this new addition was absolutely fantastic and completely fooled me (fools others, too).  I bought his book and can do most of the ones in it, and have bought other effects from him including Any Card at Any Number and The Book Test where you pick a word from a book and I guess it. I’ve learned from him than any other mentalist.

  4. Derren Brown

    I first heard of Derren Brown in 2002 but I didn’t really get interested in him until 2009 when I started switching my act to mentalism. 

    I haven’t learned many of Brown’s effects but I have learned a lot from his performing style and borrowed some of it in my show.  Out of any magician I have ever seen, I have spent more time watching Derren Brown than almost anyone else.

  5. Penn and Teller

    When I was growing up, I enjoyed watching Penn and Teller.  They didn’t have very many TV specials, I only saw them once in a while.  But they were funny!

    It’s possible that they got me interested in magic from the very beginning because of how funny they were and even today they are still entertaining. I don’t do any of their tricks or even copy any of their style, but they are fun to watch and definitely care a lot about the art.  I can’t believe they’ve been around as long as they have.

Somewhat surprisingly, David Copperfield is not on the list.  I always heard of Copperfield and making the Statue of Liberty disappear, but he never appeared on TV specials that I saw growing up.  I don’t think I ever saw him perform until 2004 when I went and saw his show live.

Another performer that isn’t an influence on me is David Blaine.  While he did revolutionize TV magic with his style of performing, I never sought to emulate him or learn any of his effects.

Finally, the performer that has had no impact on me at all is Criss Angel.  In real life, he’s a really nice guy. I think he’s a good person.  But I don’t like his performing style, and I don’t like that he does “TV magic.” If you can’t do the same trick in person as you can on TV – at least 80-90% of your tricks – then it’s not really magic.

Those are my influences.

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As I was saying in my previous post, I nearly froze to death in Bath on December 8, 2001, because I was street performing in clothing unsuited to the climate.  It was fun doing shows but the cold weather made it too difficult to do more than one show.

Afterwards, me and another street performer decided to go to a pub and get something to eat.

The street performer culture is… interesting.  The people are not well off and nobody makes a ton of money.  Your clothes are all raggedy, you have to drag all of your stuff around and it gets beaten up; it’s not that comfortable a life.  But you do have freedom.

Oh, sweet, sweet freedom.

Anyhow, my friend’s name was Herbie Treehead.  I think this is his website but I’m not really sure.  The pictures on the website look like him but I haven’t seen him in 10 years.

  image

Herbie had kind of a clown act and did a little bit of magic and some juggling.  He showed me some of the ropes and I looked up to him as a performer, although I didn’t care for his lifestyle (as in, mine was too comfortable and I didn’t want to give it up).  I met his son a couple of times and he was a good dad.

I remember that Herbie gave me some feedback on my shows.  I can’t remember anything he said except the following:

  • I should incorporate the use of a magic wand into my show and use it like a real magical prop, the way that Harry Potter does.

  • Some of the things I did in my show were “f**king hilarious.”  I can’t remember what those things were.  He was probably referring to my witty jokes which the wife laughs at all the time.

Herbie and I both finished our shows and decided to call it day and headed down to a pub for some food and some warmth.  I don’t remember what I ordered but the two of us started talking.

During the conversation he says to me “Terry, why don’t you go to Australia?”

“Huh?” I said.

“Take your magic stuff and go to Australia.  And New Zealand.  Go on the road street performing!”

I was taken aback.  Go on the road, performing street magic?  Me!?!  I’m just a white Canadian kid from the prairies who was unemployed.  I couldn’t do something like that!  The very idea of traveling like that scared me.

“Yeah, go around the world.  Go to the far east, southeast Asia – or skip it – and go to Australia and New Zealand.  Then go to the States and then come back here.  Go around the world!”

I didn’t know what to say.  Go to Australia? (As I type this, I am getting really giddy recalling the conversation).  Could I do it?  I didn’t know!  The idea was so very enticing!

We continued chatting and he explained that I should take my street magic stuff with me and if anyone at Customs stopped me and asked me, I should say that it was a hobby.  That was true enough.  He explained that there was a buskers festival in Adelaide in March, 2002 (which I have always wanted to return to).

At one point I excused myself to the bathroom, prompting Herbie to roll his eyes and I corrected myself with “toilet.”  I came back, we finished up, and we left.  But the idea was stuck in my head – go to Australia performing street magic.  What an awesome idea!

I went home, toying with the idea.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go or not.  I was scared to travel by myself but I didn’t think anyone from my friends would come with me (they being too poor or had jobs).  I thought about asking another magician friend of mine, but then snapped out of it saying “He wouldn’t come.”  And he probably wouldn’t have, either.  I was on my own.

But by Monday night, I had pretty much decided that I was going to do it.  I didn’t make the formal decision to announce it until a week or two later, but in my mind I had decided to go because I started researching Round-The-World tickets.  It wasn’t that expensive back then, I think my total flight for seven stops around the world (London –> Singapore –> Melbourne –> Sydney –> Auckland –> Los Angeles –> Toronto –> London) was $2000.

The good thing about getting laid off in Europe is that they pay you money with a redundancy package. I got a nice payout and so I had the money to travel.  I was unemployed, was not in a relationship, and could go to the southern hemisphere and perform on the street again, scratching that itch!  There was no reason not to go!

Then, on January 28, 2002, I left England for my 3-month trip around the world.

And that’s the story of the time I went to Australia the first time, and travel the world.  It wasn’t even my idea, it was someone else’s.

It’s possibly the best advice I have ever received.

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Remember back when I was talking about the time I got laid off from my job?  Well, this is a follow up to that.

In the fall of 2001, it was tough slogging.  It was only 22 years old without a lot of experience, the dot com bust was in the middle of bursting, and I was a foreigner living in a country where if any employer wanted me, I had to have a work visa.

And I was unemployed.

Those days got kind of boring sometimes because I was trying to save money.  I also quickly suffered from demotivation.  I spent some of those days waking up later in the morning, watching TV for two hours and then wandering around town.  I would apply to as many jobs as I could and got a couple of interviews, but nothing panned out  I wondered what I was going to do because I sure didn’t have any leads.

During the summer of that year, I had started street performing magic.  I never made a lot of money at it and I struggled mightily at it (the most difficult job I ever had).  I don’t have the personality for it because you have to be really loud and boisterous and that just isn’t my personality.  I never really got the hang of that, and I still can’t do it (it has possibly gotten worse).

But still, week after week, I took the train ride from Chippenham to Bath, dragging all of my magic stuff with me on Saturdays, and would perform a show or two. I didn’t make much money but I got really good at sleight-of-hand.

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It was tough going during those shows.  I didn’t get many people to stop and when I did, I could rarely get them to sit through and watch an entire show.  After various tricks there is a natural “break” in the show and I was never good at retaining people.  I got the hang of drawing a crowd but not at retaining them for 30 minutes.

Or maybe I wasn’t that good a performer back then.  Who knows?

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Yep, these pictures are 11 years old!

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Anyhow, it was October and it turned into November and the weather started getting cold.  Now, I grew up in Winnipeg where it’s winter 9 months a year so I know what cold weather is like. However, winter in England is different.  It’s wet over there, and when the weather gets to just above the freezing point, you really feel the cold weather.  It gets inside of you and it takes forever to warm up.  That’s what England is like in the winter.

My only source of income during that time was street performing, and that wasn’t very much at all.  But I did enjoy performing if only for the reason that I liked getting better as a magician.  The problem is the weather was getting cold.  You see my picture above and I am in a shirt-and-tie; my performing costume was the same except I also wore the suit jacket to this ensemble.  This makes it too hot in the summer and not warm enough in the winter.  Yet that’s what performers do – anything to improve the quality of the show.

My last performance was in mid-November and I was prepared to put my cards away for the winter.  But on the second weekend in December, the 8th, I decided to get my stuff out and go performing one more time.  I missed it.  Even though it was cold outside, the itch to perform was too strong to resist and so that weekend, I went down to the town of Bath and set up in front of the Roman Baths to put on my final magic show of the season.

And nearly froze to death.

I don’t remember what I performed that day except for one trick, and that it was nearly impossible to perform.  Back in those days, I performed a routine where I had four red balls appear and disappear in my hands.  There’s a clip of it on YouTube a few years later when I performed in my basement on a snow day.

Anyhow, the trick requires a lot of manual dexterity to get the proper placement of the props in small amounts of time.  But because it was so cold, my hands seized up. I couldn’t move them quickly and I had to slow the trick waaaaaaay down.  By the time I was done, my hands were red and I had to get inside.

It was so cold that day!

More in my next post.

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Billiards

I have come up with a new effect.  I don’t know whether to call it Billiards or Pool.  I think that Pool is confusing because a pool can either be a swimming pool, or a game of pool.  Yet for some reason, billiards sounds wrong.

Anyhow, here is the effect:


You and I are in a place with a pool table.  It can be a pool hall, a community center, or even a friend’s home.  I then pull out two decks of cards, one red and one blue.  I give you a choice between the two of them, and you select one.  You then take one leaving me the other.  We both remove our cards from the deck and shuffle them.  I put my cards back in the box, but instruct you to leave yours out of the box.

We head over to the edge of the pool table where I place my deck on the side of the table.  You then take your deck and spread all of the cards out all over the table so that the cards are not touching.  They are spread to every corner of the table.  They are not touching so there is obviously some green space, but you get the drift – the cards are all spread out.

You then take the cue stick and the white ball and place it anywhere on the table and take a shot.  The ball bounces off one side, then another side, then a third side… bouncing and finally coming to rest on one of the cards.  “This is the card the ball stopped at?” I ask.

“Yes,” you reply.

I clear away the other cards, showing them face up and they are all different cards.  Every card is different.  Yet I do not turn the final card, the one resting under the ball, face up.  It stays face down on the table.

I then go to the other deck of cards.  “I was shuffling these cards earlier,” I explain.  “But I wasn’t just shuffling.  Amongst all of these cards, I turned one of them face up amongst the others.”  I then remove the cards and show them all spread out, all of the face down.  But I spread through them and then remove one card.  Let’s suppose that it is the Three of Diamonds – the only face up card in the deck.  “The three of diamonds,” I announce and take it out of the deck, placing it next to the ball on the table, face up. 

The situation is now this: a face-up three of diamonds is next to a white pool ball which is on top of a face-down card.

“Out of all of the cards that this ball could have landed on, it landed on this one,” I say, pointing to it.  “And the card that it landed on…” I remove the ball and pick up the card, holding it for a second or two.  I then turn the card over.  Everyone gasps.

The three of diamonds.


I think that this sounds like a pretty cool trick.

And guess what?  I tested it out once and it worked!  Pretty snazzy! 

Hot smile

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A pair of magical stories

Yesterday, I was doing some walk around magic for a community event put on by a local church.  This type of magic is pretty easy for me, I just walk around and find people and perform the same tricks over and over again.  Here are a couple of stories.

  1. I wanted to do a book test.  This is where I have a person select a word from a book and then I guess what it is.

    Before I started to perform, I put a little spin on the effect: I wrote the word that they were going to think of on my left leg underneath my pantaloons.  The idea was that just as I revealed the word, I would roll up the pant leg and show them their word.  Pretty cool, huh?

    I then went and did the trick and went through the motions.  However, right at the very end, just as I revealed it, I said “Hold on” and bent down and rolled up my right pant leg revealing… nothing.  The word was gone!

    Thinking quickly, I said “Uh, never mind.”  I then completed the trick by just saying what their word was and everyone was amazed.

    What went wrong?  Did the ink wear off?  Nope.  It turns out that I rolled up my right pant leg.  I should have rolled up my left pant leg.  D’oh!  Brain cramp!

    Gotta remember those types of things.

  2. I next performed a trick for a kid about 10 years old or so by the name of Sammy.  Sammy was interested in magic and when I was finished, he asked me to teach him a trick.

    I’m never too keen on revealing anyone a magic trick’s secret.  I’m slightly more keen on teaching something.  But the problem is that most people are so enamored of magic that they want to amaze all of their friends without taking the time to learn the art’s intricacies and, even more so, taking the time to master the trick.  It’s work and isn’t something that is picked up in 3 minutes’ rehearsal.

    Still, I decided to show Sammy a trick.  Sammy is not yet a muggle.  Adults I never show anything unless they beg, but maybe, just maybe, Sammy will keep up his practice.  I decided to show him a simple coin vanish, one of the first ones I ever learned and still use today because it is useful.  I showed him the mechanics and then watched him practice.

    Later on, he showed the trick to the mayor of Redmond.  He messed up the first time and then got it the second time, although he performed it exceedingly poorly (i.e., guilty hands).  Still, maybe he’ll keep practicing and will perfect the move and will become a sleight-of-hand master.  His desire to learn and then immediately perform it is what impressed me; kids are so much more malleable and they have a desire to do the cool stuff which is why I helped him.

    Maybe I saw a little bit of me in him.

Those are my two stories.

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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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The vanish of a coin

The other day I decided to show one of my co-workers some basic magic – a coin vanish.  I walked into his office with a 50 cent piece that I had received as change from a vendor a few days earlier.  I started talking about how unusual the coin way and let him see it.  It’s just an ordinary coin.

I then went to place it into my hand but as I did so, I accidentally dropped it.  I reached down, picked it up and put it back into my hand.  Both of my sleeves were rolled up as I started waving my other hand around it.  I opened it up… and the coin was gone.  Both my hands were shown empty, front and back. 

How did I do it?

This one is pretty simple.  I will reveal this one because it is a technique that I never use in real life because it isn’t practical.  The coin is ordinary and can be done with any coin.  As I placed it into my other hand, I “accidentally” dropped it intentionally onto the floor.  Oops!  Clumsy me!  I reached down to pick it up and as I did, I pushed it with my finger beneath my shoe and only pretended to pick it up.  I then placed the “coin” into my other hand, but of course it wasn’t there.  It was actually beneath my shoe.

With a wave of my fingers, I opened my hand, showing both of them empty.  The coin is completely gone!  Where did it go?  Nobody knows!

Of course, the coin is still beneath my shoe.  The real magician knows how to clean that up so that when he walks away, the secret is still concealed.  And that’s part of the magic that I will still keep to myself.

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Secret confession

I have a confession to make.

A year and a half ago, I performed a magic effect at a campout wherein I revealed the secret how it was done.  The effect was every entertaining, and I then revealed how I accomplished it.  The trick is meant to get people to enjoy seeing how it was performed and the techniques I used to pull it off.  At the end, I have a twist ending.  In this case, I performed a book test, and here is a quick rundown:

Initially, I pick someone from the audience and get him to help me out by standing to the side:

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Next, a member of the audience is randomly selected, a selection of three books is presented to the audience, they all vote on it and then this second member of the audience is encouraged to randomly select a word from the book.  At no time do I ever sneak a peek at the book, it is facing away from me the entire time:

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I then go through a few verbal effects and read her mind by using some suggestion techniques.  In the end, I guess what word she picked from the book.  Hooray!

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But, wait!  How did I accomplish the trick?

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I then explain to the audience exactly how I accomplished it.  I did it all on the fly.  When I presented the choice of three books to the audience, I used some verbal controls and they were all subconscious.  To illustrate it, if I were to say to you “Don’t think of a black cat”, what do you do?  You think of a back cat because the command “… think of a black cat” was there in the sentence. 

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In a similar manner, when the audience picked the book, I said that “… they could pick the book Alice in Wonderland.”  The command “Pick Alice in Wonderland” was in the sentence, and indeed, most people selected that one.  Then, I randomly chose a word in the book and influenced the second volunteer into picking that random word.  I used some word salad that didn’t make much sense like “see 148 say stop” which subconsciously said to them “When you see the page 148, say stop” and sure enough, when my audience participant saw page 148, she said stop as I was flipping through the book.  I did this a few times and that’s how I got her to pick the word I needed her to pick.  That’s how I explained it to the audience and everyone was impressed at how the trick worked.  It’s one heck of a risk, but if it works it looks amazing!  Just like how a juggler requires a lot of skill, a mentalist using suggestion requires a lot of skill in a high-risk environment like that.  If she doesn’t do what I need her to do, the trick fails.

At the end, I closed with a surprise ending.  My first audience member, the one who has been off to the side the entire time, comes back to me.  I then do the kicker ending – the word that the audience member picked after he had already been up on stage has been written across his arm!  Not my arm, but his arm!  It’s an incredible finish!  How did that happen?!  He is not a stooge.

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So, the effect of the trick is that I go ahead and explain how it was done, and at the end the audience is left wondering “Wow, how in the world did that word get written on the volunteer’s arm?  That’s impossible!”

I have been living with this secret for a year and a half now and I was planning on taking it to my grave and writing this up a secret document in my will so that when I died, they would read this out and people would realize that they had been fooled for the last xx years.  However, I am deciding to unveil this now because I think it’s time for the secret to be revealed, and it’s particularly awesome, and only a few people read this blog anyhow.

Some people don’t want to know how the trick is accomplished.  Indeed, I have found that most people don’t want to know because once they do, it’s no longer as impressive.  To them, it destroys the magic and I agree.  Thus, to them, my trick is still really cool but it’s a bit disappointing that I reveal a small part of it, although still retain the kicker ending.  That still salvages it.  And that part will not be revealed in this secret confession.

For you see, from the audience’s perspective, the trick consists of one secret – how did the word get written onto the arm of the spectator?  That one part of the trick fooled them.

However, from my perspective, the audience has been fooled with three secrets:

  1. The first secret they are aware of.  How did the word get written onto the arm of the spectator?  If you think you know, then I have this to say to you – unless you are a magician you actually don’t know how it was done.
  2. The second secret they are not aware of.  How did I guess the word the spectator was thinking of?  “Oh, that’s easy,” you say, “you explained it with verbal manipulation.”
  3. Or did I?  The third secret is the best secret and only I am aware of it.  The third secret is that I have fooled the audience into thinking I have legitimately revealed the secret of how I did the trick.  But here’s the thing – I didn’t reveal the actual secret! Ha, ha, ha!

    The audience thinks they now know how it was done.  But they don’t actually know because the explanation I gave is not at all true!  It’s complete misdirection.  To be sure, I say all of the things I said during the trick but it is not how I did it.  I said things like “pick Alice In Wonderland” and “see 148 say stop” and “choose journey.”  Yes, I do say all of those things but I say them all in order to tell the audience I said them and that’s how I accomplished the trick.  In other words, the entire trick is a setup in order to fool the audience into not even knowing that they have been fooled! 

    So to summarize, if you think you know how I was correctly able to guess the spectator’s word because I told you how I did it using verbal suggestion then you are wrong.  I tricked you into thinking that!  It’s not at all how I did it!

    And I believe that is the best part of the trick because it is the one that is the most satisfying to me – tricking the entire audience without them even knowing it!  The walk away thinking they know something, but they only know what I want them to know.

Thus, the first secret is still intact and now the second secret that was “revealed” goes back to being a secret.  Surely you don’t think I’d actually give away a secret to muggles, do you?  No, this particular reveal was actually an elaborate misdirection in order to provide a very entertaining trick to the audience (it’s a ton of fun to watch) and an entertaining trick to myself wherein I can admire my own cleverness.  Afterwards, a friend of mine came up to me and said I “Penn and Tellered” it, a reference to the two magicians who reveal how tricks are done.  I agreed with him (still performing even after the trick was done) but in reality I did not do a Penn and Teller because what I said I did was all part of the trick to accomplish a secret effect.

And now, reader, you have been let in to a clever little trick.  If you ever get a chance to see the trick again, maybe you’ll have something else to watch for.

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My own personal Inception

This past summer (2010), the movie Inception starring Leonardo di Caprio came out.  Its basic story is a group of people who are able to go into other people’s dreams while they are asleep and attempt to extract secrets from their minds.  The idea is that people are more open to slipping things while they are asleep in a dream then when they are awake.  The main characters in the movie go into the dream of a business man in order to get him to run his business differently.

Where Inception goes to another level is the concept of a dream-within-a-dream.  A character is put to sleep and dreams, and then within that dream, they fall asleep again and they infiltrate another dream (they go two levels deep).  The plot of the movie gets a bit more complicated but it really is a neat concept.

Well, while I was in Belize, I had my own personal dream-within-a-dream.  It was the weirdest thing.  It was so weird (to me, anyhow) that when I woke up I wrote it all down so I wouldn’t forget.  I know that if you have a vivid dream, when you wake up you will lose it if you don’t write it down.  This loss happens within a few minutes.  That’s unfortunate because we all dream every night but do not remember it.  This one I did not forget; after writing it down I managed to commit it to memory.  And now, readers, here is my dream-within-a-dream:

It all began with me working one night in a restaurant a lot like a diner.  I had my regular full time job at a technology company, but I was also working part time in the diner in order to make some extra money.  I had to work that night but I was also supposed to meet somebody later that evening.  I had arranged for them to meet me at the diner wherein my shift would end and then we could meet up.  It wasn’t strictly a social gathering, it was some sort of social gathering mixed with business.

However, I didn’t want this person to know that I needed the extra cash (?) and that I was working in the diner in order to generate the additional cash flow.  I wanted to hide in the back with the rest of the crew and do the dishes that came into the back.  So, me and the others were washing the dishes.  Just then, the person that I was supposed to meet walked into the restaurant and said hello to me.

I kind of froze.  “Shoot!” I thought to myself.  “He knows I work here!”  I didn’t want him to know (actually, now that I think about it, it may have been a she and we were supposed to go out on a date… I actually don’t remember this part).  He/she had come into the restaurant two hours early, way before my shift was supposed to end.

“Uh, hi,” I responded.  I tried to act cool, like my working in the back was no big deal.

“I’m here to meet someone else right now,” he/she said.  “But we can meet up afterwards when we were supposed to.”  They didn’t seem to notice that I was working at the diner, washing dishes, and I didn’t bring the point up.  Maybe I was going to get away with it.

“No problem!” I replied and went back to the dish washing.  I thought I kind of dodged a bullet there, my secret was either still safe or he/she didn’t care about it.  Myself and the rest of the crew continued to wash dishes for a bit, but we managed to finish about half an hour later.  We had nothing else to do.

“Hey!” said one of the guys.  “Who wants to go to a barbecue across town?”  I didn’t really want to go, but seeing as how I had nothing better to do, I agreed to go along with the rest of the guys and girls.  If it sounds like we were abandoning our jobs, well, that’s exactly what happened.  The diner was still open and we could have gotten more dishes, but we all thought it would be a good idea to walk across town and go to a barbecue (whose barbecue it was I do not know, but I assumed someone else did) before our shifts had actually ended.

We walked across town – it was a small town – and we came to a residential area. We started getting closer to the person’s back yard when we looked up into the sky and started seeing a bunch of smoke, a lot like a bunch of smoke signals.  We stood around the entrance to the backyard without going through the fence and started talking about random stuff for way too long.  After some time passed, I started getting bored and insisted we go back.  Our shift was going to end soon and so we should return (yes, I know, I wanted to go back to the diner just as our working shift ended).  We didn’t even go to the barbecue, we just stood around talking about nonsense!  That was something I didn’t really want to continue.

Everyone agreed to come along with me and we started walking back towards the restaurant.  I had about 15 minutes to get back there which was actually plenty of time.  But as we were going back we came across an abandoned washing machine.  Actually, there were a couple of them along with a dryer.  One of the people in our group said “Hey! We should try to fit inside the washing machines!”

“What?” I said.  This was a stupid idea.

“Yeah!” the rest of them agreed.  “Let’s try to fit inside!”  So one by one, they attempted to fit inside the abandoned washing machine.  Here is where the story gets weird (weirder).  One of the washing machines was not empty, it was full of water.  So, these people were trying to fit themselves inside of the washing machine even though it was not empty!  They were getting themselves soaked.

Even more strange, I recognized one of the members of the group.  It was a friend of mine in real life.  To conceal his identity, I’ll just call him Ryan B (to those of you who know a person in real life with those initials, yes,  it is the same person).  I said to myself “What the heck is he doing trying to fit inside a washing machine that is full of water?”  I watched in bewilderment as he tried to squeeze inside but couldn’t quite fit in because he was trying to keep his nose out so he could breathe without drowning, yet he was trying to close the lid at the same time.

I was starting to get really impatient with these clowns.  I had to get back to the diner in order to keep my previous appointment!

And that’s when I woke up.

To be continued in part 2…

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What I should have said

This past Saturday, I had another magic performance for a group of kids at a birthday party.  The age range of these kids was 8 and 9.  There was a mix of boys and girls, and there was about 15 of them.

Some performers do not like performing for kids, but I didn’t really have a problem with them.  However, this past show was more difficult.

There was one kid in the audience, like usual, who doesn’t seem to understand that almost every time he speaks up and claims to know how a trick is done (It’s in his sleeve!  It’s in his other hand!  It’s a magnet!) he is wrong.  The humiliation of being proven wrong when I show something is impossible only lasts for a couple of minutes and then he is at it again.

Truth be told, I expect that in a crowd there will always be at least one kid like this.  In fact, it’s more unusual when there isn’t a kid like this.  But at this last party, one kid was being particularly annoying because he was loud and ruining it for the other kids, even though they were telling him to be quiet.

Here’s how I should have handled the situation.

“Hey, kid,” I said, “what’s your name?”

“Adam!” he replied.

“Hey, Adam, stand up.”  He did so.  “Adam, I have something for you.”

“For me?”

“Yes,” I answer, “it’s a present.”

“A present?  What is it?”

“It’s a big box of shut the hell up!”

That would be kind of awesome.

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Full time magician?

Yesterday, I was out at dinner with my girlfriend and three work associates (not co-workers, guys from the industry) and one of them knows that I am a mentalist/magician.  The other two did not, so I performed an effect for them.  I performed a variant of The Invisible Watch/Deck with a different ending.  Whereas the Invisible Watch has a watch appear on my wrist and a thought-of card appear reversed in the deck, the variant I perform has the thought-of card appear in the deck and it is the only card in the deck that has a different color (on the back) from the rest of them.  I intentionally drop the bit with the watch in this trick even though it would still fit.  The reason is that revealing the card is reversed is the climax to the trick, but showing that it is a different color is “the kicker.”  The kicker in a trick needs to be stronger than the climax and should appear shortly thereafter.  The different color-backed card is stronger, in my opinion, than the reversal.  Having a watch also appear on my wrist detracts from the kicker.  Surprise after surprise ceases to be… surprising.  In other words, I modify the trick to maximize psychological impact even though I am perfectly capable of including this part.  It just doesn’t fit.

My friends assured me that the trick was very well done, and very impressive.  I thanked them and acknowledged it because this is one of my stronger effects (probably in the top 5, I think).  They then asked me if I would ever want to stop doing what I am doing (fighting spam) and be a professional entertainer for a living.

This has crossed my mind a number of times.  Would I ever want to switch professions?  The answer is yes but it would depend on a couple of factors.

  1. I would only want to do it if I could make a lot of money doing it, such as having a TV special or TV show, or a recurring show in Las Vegas (or similar).
  2. I would only want to do it if I were really good.

Now, being really good means that you have to excel at a number of factors:

  1. You must be a technically proficient magician.
  2. You must be a good performer.
  3. You must be able to put together a series of entertaining effects that builds, that is, you must be capable of constructing a show that maximizes psychological impact.

If I were to rate each of these skills on a scale of 1 to 100, then in order to become a full time magician you need a combined score of 240 with no score lower than 70 in any category.  For example, suppose that I were a master of sleight of hand and rated myself 100 in category 1, but I was a boring performer and only rated myself a 40, but could put together a decent show and rated myself a 70, adding those together is 210.  That’s not enough to be good enough.  Even if my show combining skills were 100 and the total score were 240, the score of 40 is less than 70 for being a good performer and that would disqualify me.

Professional performing means you must be good in multiple aspects of a show and not just the technical stuff.  You have to be a well rounded performer.  I’m not sure how I rate myself at the above categories but I don’t think I’m there yet.  I think I’m not too far away, but I don’t think I am quite good enough to pull together a 90 minute routine and be entertaining for that long.

But one day maybe I will be.

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Conference applause

So, at this conference I was at in Vancouver, as I was explaining earlier I did a trick.  The trick I performed was designed to invoke a psychological response in my audience.  I was explaining that the limbic system in our brains is what governs our emotions.  When our emotions kick in, that can cause us to act in ways that are contrary to our best interests.

There are two types of emotions, expected and immediate.  Expected emotions are how we think we will feel if an event comes to pass, such as if we don’t study for a test we will fail and that will suck.  By contrast, immediate emotions are how we feel at the time a stimulus is applied, but they are important because they are mental heuristics that save mental processing time.  But at lower levels of stimulus, immediate emotions act in more of an advisory role.  In order for us to take action, stronger stimulus needs to be applied.

My point in the trick was to invoke a fear response, a strong one.  In my presentation slides, I showed the address of the hotel and what room we were in.  I then said to a person in the front row “Get out your cell phone.  If I am doing this demonstration and I get hurt, it is not part of it.  Call 911, that’s the address.”  The idea here was to sell the setting that it was, indeed quite real with a possibility that something might go wrong.

I then set up the trick wherein there were 4 blocks of wood but in one of them was a 3 1/2” nail sticking out of it.  I then put a Styrofoam cup on top of each piece of wood and mixed them up, and then had a member of the audience mix them up.  In each case, the mix ups were shielded by either me or the audience member.  Now, nobody knew where the nail was.  I then proceeded to number the blocks of wood from one to four and had the audience member call out one of the numbers.  Whatever number he called out, I moved it forward and smashed my hand down on top the cup.  Clearly, if the wrong cup were called out, I would be severely injured.

I won’t describe the trick exactly because the finale is somewhat different than what you expect… and if you haven’t seen the trick I don’t want to ruin the surprise.  However, I completed the trick and as soon as it climaxed, people applauded!  That was pretty sweet because people always applaud when the presentation is over and it is expected.  This mid-presentation applause was spontaneous.  I didn’t ask for it but I still got it, and that was a nice touch.

I went on to explain that the fear response I generated in the audience (anxiety, nervousness and fear that I might get hurt) can be used to manipulate people.  I think that the point was made as people told me afterwards that I was successful in getting them to feel that emotion of fear.

It was pretty cool.

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Preparation

Next week in Vancouver, I am presenting a paper that I wrote entitled “The Psychology of Spamming.”  I could have called “The Psychology of Scamming” but that would have never made it past the screeners who selected the paper.  Essentially, the crux of the paper is why people fall for scams that are delivered via spam messages.  This is not a technical paper.  Instead, it goes into how our brains work, ties together emotion and then looks at how those types of things are exploited by spammers.  I did a lot of research on this one and some of the hypotheses I had going into the paper did not hold when all was said and done.  Indeed, I have an internal preview for it tomorrow and I am not ready for it.  Just thinking about it now makes me very nervous.

I’ve been thinking about incorporating a magic trick into this presentation, the way I do for almost every presentation that I ever do these days.  I’ve known which one I wanted to do for a while, and this weekend I finally got around to building the props for it.  Some of my favorite effects are tricks in which I build the props myself as I can customize them to my liking. The downside of this is that because of my inferior handiness, they usually don’t come out looking the way I want them to.  The one I built this past weekend is an exception to this and it is passable.

Here is the effect – I bring out four small blocks of wood about 4 square inches and 3/4” think.  Sticking out of the center of one of them is a large nail.  The nail is very real because I will take a piece of fruit on push it onto the nail, thus demonstrating its sharpness and danger.  I then put all four blocks of wood, called bases, on the table and cover each one up with a Styrofoam cup.  I have small pins in the bases into which to wedge the cups so they don’t fall off accidentally; they are held there by pressure.

I then call a volunteer up on stage.  The scene is this – there are four cups on the bases and beneath one of the cups is a nail sticking out of it.  I ask the volunteer to turn around and kind of shield the cups from view while I mix around the cups.  He then turns around and then we do the same thing except they mix the cups while my back is turned, shielding it from view.  At this point, nobody knows under which cup lies the nail.  I then take out four cards labeled 1 through 4 and place them in front of each cup, thus numbering the cups.  Beneath one of them is the nail, but no one knows for sure which one it is.

I then take out a blindfold and place it on myself and I ask the spectator to call out a number.  Suppose he calls out 3.  I then push block three forward, hold my hand over top of the Styrofoam cup, hold it there for a few seconds… and smash it down quickly crumpling the cup in the process.  If he would have called out the wrong number, I legitimately would injure my hand quite severely and have to be taken to the hospital.  I do this all in the name of entertainment and making a point.

We repeat this one more time.  The spectator calls out block 2.  I push the cup forward, hold my hand over top of it… and smash it down on the cup.  Once again my hand is intact.

One more cup to go.  The spectator calls out block 1.  I push it forward and hover my hand over it.  I give the spectator a chance to change his mind.  He says no.  I hover and hold my hand over cup 1 and prepare to slam it down.  I hold my hand up and just as I slam it down I move it over top of cup 4 and slam that one down!  The cup crumples and no nail has been impaled on my hand.  I escape with no injury whatsoever!

That’s the theory, anyhow.  We’ll see how it works out in real life.

The reason I do this is to illustrate a point.  When emotions get involved in our decisions, they can interfere with logical decision making.  Consider what I just described above.  Would anyone really do something like that in real life, idly watch by while someone attempts to almost injure themselves?  What about the emotional state of the spectator?  They did everything I asked of them without protest and I did this by invoking a fear response along with some anxiety.  By inducing fear, we become open to a more heightened state of suggestibility.  I hypothesize that the fear response is at least part of the reason why we fall for scams.  Furthermore, as humans, we don’t make judgments based upon the probability that something might occur, but only on the impact of it occurring.  Thus, in my demonstration, while it may be unlikely that I get hurt because what they are seeing is a trick, it is the fact that I could get hurt and it would be pretty severe that impacts the decision making process.

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I’m better than that guy

This past weekend, myself, my girlfriend, and some of her family + extended family when to the Puyallup Fair in Puyallup, Washington.  If it weren’t for her, I’d never go to these things because I don’t do those types of things (least of all with my friend Frank who would just moan and say he doesn’t want to go).  I wasn’t expecting all that much.  I’m quite used to fairs in the town of Oakbank, MB, where the fairs are pretty small and to be honest a bit lame.  It’s a small town, after all.

However, I was very surprised by the Puyallup Fair.  The grounds were quite large and they even had an amusement park.  It’s not like DisneyLand in terms of quality, or even the Red River Ex, but I’d say that it was on par with at least most carnivals that might pass through town.  There were also a lot of eateries from which to get food.  The drawback is that none of the food was particularly good (other than the one steamed ham I had which was decent) but hey, what can you expect from a fair?

One thing that I did get a kick out of were the stage shows that were available for free.  One was a comedy juggler act, the other was a magician.  I decided that I really wanted to watch the magician, so I dragged my girlfriend down to the open stage and prepared to watch his show.  Now, when I watch magicians, I am not normally trying to figure out how they do their stuff.  I don’t really care that much because I have my own repertoire of stuff available that I use to perform with.  Instead, I watch the showmanship of the performer to see if there’s anything I can learn (ie, borrow… ie, steal).

This magician did four effects:

  1. A comedy card trick where he makes the card float but then gives it away
  2. The Cups and Balls routine
  3. The Invisible Deck
  4. Vanishing Coke bottle (wherein a bottle of Coca-Cola is put into a brown, paper bag is crumpled up and tossed away).

I can’t help comparing himself to myself, and I am pretty sure that even though I am biased, I am better.  First of all, the order in which he structured his show was incorrect.  In magic (indeed, in any act) you have to build your show.  That means that either the impact of the effect gets stronger, or the props get bigger.  For that reason, he made the wrong selection of doing the Vanish Coke bottle last.  The routine only uses a paper bag and a coke bottle, and it vanishes once.  By contrast, the Cups and Balls has the balls vanish over and over again, it’s a longer routine, and the finish is very climactic.  It’s a fairly big effect especially for a street show.  It uses multiple props.  He should have put the Cups and Balls at the end of his routine and built towards it because it has a much better climax.

In addition, he should have done the Invisible Deck before the Vanishing Coke Bottle.  The Invisible Deck is a good trick, but in the right hands (ie, mine) it is a great trick.  He only performed it such that it was a good trick.  It was also a mix of mentalism with standard magic.  I try to stay away from that because they don’t belong together.  Doing a standard invisible deck is good but if you can mix it up with an invisible watch, then it makes a huge impact as evidenced whenever I perform it.

Finally, I probably would have done the Invisible Deck before his opening card routine (even though they don’t naturally flow together).  The reason is that he opened up with an invisible deck (zero props), goes to a card routine with magic wand (two props), then does the Coke bottle (two props but larger) and then finishes with the Cups and Balls routine (multiple props).  That’s the order I would have done it in as it builds and naturally finishes.

Of course, I probably would have done an entire mentalist show (only 20-25 minutes).  If I had, I probably would have done the following:

  1. The Invisible Deck
  2. Places (wherein a location is selected and revealed from a diary) or Travel Location (wherein I ask the spectator to think of a word/place and then I reveal it)
  3. Number, Please (wherein a called out number is shown to add up to numbers on the reverse side of a paper by me)
  4. Word Work (a book test where the word ends up written on the spectator’s arm) or Liar, Liar (wherein I find the person in the group of five that is telling the truth)

I think that would be an entertaining mentalism routine.

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