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.]


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.]