Portland magic month

Obama’s giving a major speech on health care tonight. But can Obama do this?

That’s Kostya Kimlat, one of the most talented card guys in magic. He’s giving a lecture in Portland this evening, so that’s what I’ll be attending instead of taking in the health care wonkery.

This happens to be a great month for magicians in Portland. At the end of month the first Portland Magic Jam is taking place, featuring a fantastic line-up that includes one of my personal favorite magicians, David Regal. Get the rest of the details here.

Recent reading

Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these. And since I took the “currently reading” list off the sidebar I should really do them more often. One complication: I’ve had less time for reading since leaving DC, where I could do my online news reading as part of my job and enjoy books each way on my Metro commute. It’s been harder to work reading into my Portland lifestyle. The ideal solution would be to spend more time reading on planes while flying to exotic destinations, but unfortunately I can’t afford this. In any case, here are a few recommendations:

The Prestige, Christopher Priest — The best novel about magicians I’ve read recently. Also the only one, but still a very good book. If you’ve seen the movie then you already know the two major plot revelations, but this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment at all; in fact, it lets one appreciate writing in the early parts of the book that would otherwise be mysterious or confusing. The dueling magicians are less violent and much more sympathetic here than in Christopher Nolan’s take.

This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer — The best novel about the Dutch colonization of Indonesia I’ve read recently. And it’s not the only one, because I read the entire series of four, known as the Buru Quartet. This and its sequel are the most character-driven and accessible. The third is dense with history, while the fourth changes perspective to that of a native collaborator. All highly recommended. (Incidentally, the name for my Ontosoroh cocktail, which uses the Dutch-Indonesian spirit Batavia-Arrack, comes from this book.)

Pets in America, Katherine Grier — As with most people named Grier, no relation. A fascinating exploration of how American attitudes toward pets evolved, with numerous historical accounts and illuminating photos and illustrations.

The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross — My lack of familiarity with the music discussed didn’t prevent from enjoying and learning a great deal from this history of twentieth century composition.

Born Standing Up, Steve Martin — I’ll read just about anything from Steve Martin. This, his self-account of developing as a comedian, was particularly fascinating to me for the ways his early training in magic helped him pull off his ecstatic physicality. A bonus treat for Vanderbilt alumni is his description of how a performance at the university accidentally birthed an ending to his act that he used for years. (Though interestingly, my father was there for it and remembers the details differently. Highlight from his recollection: Martin telling security officers that his name was Carmichael Towers!)

Selling bricks

Angus has a hard time believing that this scam really worked:

German police said on Monday that they have arrested one of two British men suspected of selling bags that they said held laptops and mobile phones but which in reality contained potatoes.

Authorities believe the pair tricked around 40 people in two German states driving around in a car with British number plates, convincing them to hand over cash for the electronic hardware but giving them spuds instead.

It does seem implausible, doesn’t it? My guess is that the reporter is leaving out a few details and that there were at least some phones or phone-like objects at the top of the bags to make them look real. This is a variation on the classic “selling bricks” scam. Magician and self-described former con man Simon Lovell explains the method and psychology that make it work:

Have you ever been stuck in traffic and seen a guy, carrying a box, walking through the cars? Have you ever seen him offer the contents to somebody and walk away with cash? If you have then you’ve seen somebody buy a brick.

The box is one for a top of the line video camera. A cursory look inside the box lets you see the camera. Well, you see the plastic and polystyrene around a camera shape, but you can see the lens and a few controls visible through the holes the manufacturer strategically places in the packaging to entice you to buy it in its more normal habitat of a store.

The price the guy is offering it for is less than a third of the retail price. Obviously it’s stolen but, what the hell, a bargain is a bargain isn’t it?

If you buy it, you larcenous little devil, you deserve the punishment. You bought a lens and a few cheap controls positioned around a brick to give the package weight. This scam is also done with video machines, CD players, televisions, and, in fact, just about anything that comes in a box.

When he offers it to you, you have only a few moments to make up your mind. The traffic will be moving in just a second and you don’t have time to examine the product. It’s a take it now or lose it forever deal. Enough people take it to make this quite a profitable little trade when the con man has nothing else to do for fun.

That’s from Simon’s informative and entertaining book How to Cheat at Everything. Originally published in the small-run, expensive magicians’ press, it’s made the leap to mass market paperback and covers in detail everything from bar bets and carny games to high-stakes card cheating. Highly recommended if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

If you’re in New York City you can also catch Simon’s live show at the Huron Club, where he demonstrates his cheating skills and off the wall sense of humor.

Sam the Bellhop for the 21st century

Via former card trick kind of guy Julian Sanchez, something completely different:

Scott Stein at C-Net wonders if this is the future of magic:

So, is this what magic kits will consist of in the year 2014–goggles, a camera, and a deck of coded cards? It certainly suggests that we’re about to enter a fascinating (and slightly terrifying) new age where nothing that you see–even live footage–will be able to be truly trusted.

If it is, I sure feel foolish for ordering the 500 page hardcover book of sleight of hand now sitting in my mailbox. Ultimately I don’t think that’s where we’re headed (though Marco Tempest’s demonstration above is very cool and certainly has its place). The modern ease of camera trickery and special effects make genuine demonstrations of skill and performance ability even more valued. This was part of the genius of David Blaine’s first specials. How do you make simple magic tricks play well on TV? By shifting focus to the dramatic reactions of real people on the street, who authenticate the reality of the illusions. This is part of what made him stand out from the staged, slickly edited magic shows of the time.

Below the break (bonus pun for the magicians in the audience), a couple other videos in the full-deck “story trick” genre.
[Read more...]

Decent exposure

This is why Penn and Teller are quite possibly the best magicians working today:

It’s a fine line between exposure of methods that cheapens the art and exposure that increases the audience’s appreciation for it. Penn and Teller are masters of walking that line, revealing just enough of the work to show how much thought, practice, and attention to detail can go into the simplest acts of sleight of hand.

The video is from this fascinating Wired article about magicians’ contributions to neuroscience, which includes a simple yet devious secret to picking people’s pockets.

[Via TMN.]

Oh no, my secrets!

I can’t believe I’d forgotten about this classic video. From Greg Rutter’s Definitive List of Things You Should Have Already Experienced on the Internet Unless You’re a Loser or Old or Something, here’s how you can become a master of seduction using cheesy magic tricks:

On the other hand, Us magazine (what else am I supposed to read between issues Imbibe and Reason?) reports that Holly Madison has left Criss Angel, so maybe this magic thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Below the break, a look at some contemporary magicians who can perform a smooth pass and a rear palm faster than the eye can see…
[Read more...]

Balls of steel

I’m going to be in Eugene, OR today to see Paul Gertner’s magic lecture. Paul’s a very creative magician, most famous for his cups and balls routine performed with loud, clanking steel balls. It’s not an effect that translates all that well to TV, but if you’d like to take a look here’s a clip from one of the old World’s Greatest Magic specials. The ending still looks pretty slick:

One of his effects is also at play in this bit of political propagandizing. While I hate to see good magic put in the service of political fanboyism, there’s no denying it’s a neat display. (The video might be from Paul himself. I’m not sure.)

The magic of stimulus

Is it just me, or does John Hodgman’s economic plan actually sound relatively reasonable?

We magicians have to hang together.

[Via Ellusionist.]

A new use for orange bitters

For the past six months I’ve been putting in a lot more practice time on sleight of hand with cards, trying to get back to the level of skill I possessed back in high school and early college. One thing I’ve noticed is that my hands have become drier since then, often making it harder to handle playing cards. My palm and fingertips don’t get the traction they need for some essential moves. This goes away to some extent with practice, but it’s still problematic.

Many years ago I bought a bottle of Chamberlain Golden Touch, a glycerin solution that works wonders for dry hands. Unlike oily lotions, it moisturizes without leaving a slick residue, imparting a slight tackiness to skin that makes card manipulation much easier. I’d barely used it until this year, but lately I’ve been wondering in the back of my mind where I will find more when it runs out.

Coincidentally, I recently picked up a few bottles of Fee Brothers bitters. Looking at the bottles, I noticed that glycerin is one of the primary ingredients (this may be why their orange bitters are sweeter than others). Bitters are great in cocktails, but would they also be good for skin? This afternoon I tested the idea with a couple drops of West Indies Orange.

Oh man, the cards handled like a dream. There’s one sleight in particular that I’ve struggled to get back. Even with an old deck I was suddenly performing it flawlessly. It’s amazing how much of a difference the bitters make. Even now, a couple hours later, I can still feel the difference. They work just as well as the Golden Touch, perhaps better. And while the Golden Touch smells somewhat medicinal, the bitters have a nice orange aroma. Plus they’re good in cocktails and available in well-stocked bars and liquor stores. Unless it turns out that the Golden Touch goes great in a Martini, I don’t think I’ll be buying any more of it.

(I realize this post is probably useless to everybody who reads this blog, but someday a magician with dry hands will find it on Google and thank me.)

Will no one speak for the magicians?

I learn via the L.A. Times that we’re getting a new penny. The portrait will remain the same, but the reverse will bear four new images introduced throughout 2009. The Times argues for getting rid of the penny altogether, while coin collectors delight at all the new designs appearing on American coinage. Yet whenever the Mint or the Treasury contemplates changes to our money, there’s one group whose voice is never heard: magicians.

Perhaps that’s because we’re a secretive lot, but the truth is that these new designs can be a real pain for us magic guys. We’re sometimes inclined to use — you didn’t hear this from me, mind you — coins that have been altered and gaffed to fit our nefarious ends. To do this it helps to know what the coins in our audience’s pockets are going to look like. This used to be easy; they all looked the same. Now we’ve got 52 different possible quarters, 3 nickels, and 5 pennies that could show up. Paper currency could be old style or new. The Kennedy half-dollar has remained mercifully unchanged and is the size most suitable for sleight of hand manipulation, but no one carries it anymore. The dime alone remains reliable. Thanks, government, for giving us only the tiniest of American coins to work with.

We magicians are a tricksy bunch and we do find our way around such obstacles. But still, life would be a lot easier if we had a powerful magic lobby standing athwart the US Mint yelling, “Stop!”

The expert at the lunch table

A British psychology professor and magician has called for adding magic classes to the national education curriculum:

Pupils should be taught “mind reading” card tricks and how to rejoin the ends of a magic rope after it has been cut in two, it was claimed.

Richard Wiseman, professor of psychology at Hertfordshire University, introduced the lessons to two groups of 10 to 12-year-olds as part of a study.

He insisted the classes improved pupils’ social skills and confidence levels and is now calling on them to be introduced in all schools.

Prof Wiseman, who is also a skilled illusionist and member of the Magic Circle, said they were more effective then standard classes in personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), which are designed to help children deal responsibly with life issues such as drugs and sex…

Fifty pupils at two schools were given hour-long “Magic School” sessions as well as their normal PSHE classes. They were then given standard psychological tests.

Confidence and self esteem scores measured before and after the lessons showed that magic had a significantly greater benefit than PSHE, said Prof Wiseman.

Actually, this doesn’t strike me as a bad idea, especially if it’s replacing limited amounts time that would otherwise be spent on PSHE activities that are likely fairly worthless on the margin. Lots of magicians first got into the art to improve their social skills and confidence. (Not me, of course. You know, other magicians.) My guess is spending time learning any practical skill, not just magic, would have similar results. Magic has the advantage though of offering some immediate payoffs in the form of simple, introductory tricks. I do wonder how much teachers need to know going in.

[Title reference here. Via iTricks.]

I am a girl from Sweden and like magic

Strongbad gives magicians a well-deserved skewering.

What would Jesus palm?

I really enjoyed this behind the scenes look from Mother Jones at the annual convention of the Fellowship for Christian Magicians:

To demonstrate one of his favorite bits of legerdemain, [Duane] Laflin selects a boy named Drake and asks him to mark a quarter.

“This quarter represents Drake’s life,” announces Laflin, delivering a stream of well-rehearsed patter. “Now, it’s a treasure, isn’t it?” He places the coin in a small box, and retrieves a silver cube, which, he says, represents God’s will for Drake’s life. “Would you like to know what’s in the cube?” Laflin asks. Drake nods. Music swells from a set of portable speakers. “There’s only one way for you to know—you must give up your life. You can keep the quarter or pick God’s plan for your life. What’s your choice, Drake?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Drake picks God’s plan. Laflin hands him the silver cube. Nervously, the boy lifts its lid—only to find that it contains six smaller boxes, nested like Russian dolls. Inside the final box is a handkerchief with two quarters inside. One is unmarked; the other is his original coin. “When you make the decision to live for God and give your life to him, God gives your life back to you so you can live for God,” Laflin says as Drake stares at the coins in amazement. After Laflin finishes his lecture, audience members—mostly middle-aged men and teenage boys—line up for autographs.

One of the magicians covered is Andre Kole, whose gospel show I saw in Texas many years ago:

For some gospel magicians, the very fact that their powers aren’t supernatural is proof that the biblical miracles were real. “I carry tons of equipment in order to do my shows,” says André Kole, a famed magician who consults for David Copperfield and has mastered an illusion where he appears to walk on water. “If Jesus was a magician, you’d have to visualize 2,000 years ago Jesus and the disciples walking through the dusty streets of Galilee wearing sandals, with three diesel trucks behind them carrying all their equipment.”

Kole puts on a good show, but really, that’s an absurd argument. (It’s not just a random quote — the argument is a central part of his presentation.) I don’t know anyone who believes that Jesus was a magician. I know lots of people who think we shouldn’t be taking ancient religious books as literal truth. Can Muhammad’s ascension to Heaven from the Dome of the Rock be explained by advanced Middle Eastern illusion technology? No? Then we’d better start pulling rabbits out of our keffiyahs, because we’re all Muslims now.

The FCM convention does have one thing going for it that I envy: “The five-day event coincides with a gathering of the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders.” The overwhelmingly male secular magic conventions I’ve attended would have been a lot more fun with a Gathering of Skeptical Cheerleaders going on next door.

Magic, mixology, and Mario

It’s a shame I don’t have $1,500 to blow on dinner in New York, because if I did I would not want to miss this:

A magician, mixologist and chef Mario Batali are combining for a new type of event. The Magic, Martinis and Mario event the first of which is taking place on September 18 at Del Posto, Batali’s restaurant in New York, offers more than just a dinner. Mixologist and Fine Living Network star, Tony Abou-Ganim will design custom cocktails for this special evening and teach diners how to recreate them at home. Also during the cocktail hour, entertainer Billy Harris will show sleight-of-hand magic tricks.

Each of the four courses of the Italian meal will be introduced by Batali and the dishes will be paired with wines from LaMozza, Mario’s own vineyard in Tuscany, as well as the Friuli Bastianich vineyard. After the meal Billy Harris will perform his stage show.

If they want to cut costs for the next event, they should find someone who can cover both the cocktails and the card tricks. I knew I’ve been on the wrong career path this year…

[Via Cold Mud.]

Beware of wizardry

This story of a Florida substitute teacher being fired for practicing “wizardry” is just bizarre:

The telephone call that spelled the end of Jim Piculas’ career as a substitute teacher in Pasco came on a January day about a week after he performed the disappearing-toothpick trick for a group of rapt middle school students.

Pat Sinclair, who oversees substitute teachers in the Pasco County School District, was on the phone. She told Piculas there had been a complaint about his performance at Rushe Middle School in Land O’ Lakes.

He asked what she meant.

“She said, ‘You’ve been accused of wizardry,’ ” Piculas said…

The school district puts a somewhat different spin on the disappearing-toothpick incident.

Performing a magic trick at Rushe Middle is just one of the reasons the school district gives for dumping Piculas from the substitute-teacher list. The others are: Piculas did not follow the lesson plans, he allowed students on computers even though another teacher said not to, and he told the fifth-period student peer that she was in charge.

Clearly just a cover for deep-seated anti-magician bias…

[Via Seeing the Forest.]

Magician or a bouncy

For the past few years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with magic. At its best, the art is a vehicle for self-expression, masterful skill, humor, beauty, and wonder. Yet at the level it’s usually practiced, performance barely rises above the level of adolescent talent show. (See Adam Gopnik’s excellent article in the March 17 New Yorker for a discussion of this.)

As a reminder of exactly where magic stands in the public perception, it’s useful to keep an eye on the Craigslist ads. This one, for example:

Magician or a bouncy for kids to jump in

I am having a birthday party for 2 of my kids on April 5th and I am looking for a Magician that will not charge alot but will do a great job and make my kids happy. or I am looking for someone that has a bouncer/bouncy, you know those big things that you blow up for the kids to jump in. I would like to borrow for a small charge just for a few hours/ half a day. Please let me know if anyone can help me, it would greatly appreciated.
Thank you so much

Got it? Magicians are 1) for kids, 2) not worth paying much for, and 3) roughly equivalent to a big, blow up bouncy.

Oh well, at least the bartender’s craft is treated with respect.

Criss Angel spoofs David Blaine

This is my favorite Blaine parody yet. I like Criss more after this, and the Johnny Thompson cameo is fun too.