BOOK REVIEW: Here Is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth

Here Is Real Magic: A Magician's Search for Wonder in the Modern WorldHere Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When stage magician, Nate Staniforth, becomes disillusioned with traveling around America performing magic tricks on college campuses — and the distinct lack of wonder that it entails, he packs his bags and flies to India to explore the centuries old magic traditions of the subcontinent. Part memoir and part travelogue, the first part explores how Staniforth got into magic and his struggle to achieve everything he always wanted, i.e. the ability to make a living performing magic – a desire far more would-be magicians have than the market will support. However, he finds a disjoint between the feeling of wonder and surprise that made him love magic and what he witnesses in the audience night after night – which include a heaping mix of indifference, skepticism, hostility, and even the occasional pious fear that he is dabbling in dark arts.

In India, he finds a mix of some of the same but also some very different perspectives on magic. One the one hand, he learns that magic tricks aren’t just a good way to break the ice with strangers, but also a means to bridge cultural divides. Sleight of hand doesn’t require perfect communication to build bonds between people. As he travels from Kolkata to Varanasi to Rishikesh to Hardiwar to Delhi to Jodhpur, he shares magic tricks with young and old alike, as well as getting to witness some of India’s magic. The highlight of the trip is when he meets with a family of street magicians from Shadipur Depot slum in Delhi, and can at last exchange ideas and learn about their long lineage as illusionists.

However, Staniforth also finds many Indians who are hostile toward the practice of illusions and magic tricks. To understand this hostility, one must know that historically “godmen” who used illusion and sleight of hand to convince individuals of their divinity were more common than those who practiced it as entertainers. This resulted in a couple different types of hostile witness to magic in India. On the one hand, there is the scientifically-minded individual who is distraught by the image of India as a land of superstition and naively pious followers. (A war on superstition in India probably made it harder to research this book because doing street magic is largely prohibited because of the history of duping people for personal gain.) On the other hand, there are those who are ardent believers who dislike magicians who do magic tricks because it contributes to a general skepticism about their gurus — who such individuals believe can actually do magic. It should be said that variations of those two types of individual could be found almost anywhere, including his home nation of America. What is more uniquely Indian is the individual who fits into a third category of simultaneously believing both of the aforementioned criticisms. That is, said individual believes that any illusion someone like Staniforth performs can be scientifically explained and is merely a deceit against the gullible, but at the same time this person believes that there are spiritual masters who can do “real magic.”

The title, “Here Is Real Magic,” could be received in many ways. However, taking it literally, as though the author believes that there are those in India with supernatural powers, isn’t consistent with the book’s message. In one sense, the title is meant to be controversial, but Staniforth is also indicating that he rediscovered wonder in India — not through the supernatural, but through surrender to the experiences he had there.

As an American who has lived in India for many years now, I found this book to be fascinating in places. I believe that it’s useful both as a call to rediscover the wonder that we usually lose somewhere before adulthood, as well as a primer into the similarities and differences between the Indian and Western mindsets on magic in the modern world. I’d recommend this book, particularly for anyone who has interest in magic.

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BOOK REVIEW: Houdini: The Ultimate Spellbinderby Tom Lalicki

Houdini: The Ultimate SpellbinderHoudini: The Ultimate Spellbinder by Tom Lalicki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a biographical sketch of the life—mostly the professional life–of Harry Houdini. I call it a sketch rather than a biography because it’s a short work (less than 100 pages) and it’s not the case that Erik Weisz (a.k.a. Ehrich Weiss, a.k.a. / stage-name: Harry Houdini) led a life too dull to merit full-length biography. There are several biographies available. I present this not as a criticism, but to make the reader aware that one will be reading the condensed version of Houdini’s story. If what you seek is a short and sweet description of the highlights of Houdini’s life, this is the book for you. If you are a huge fan and want to know as much as you possibly can including the intimate nitty-gritty, you might start with one of the full biographies and / or even the books written by Houdini [Full-disclosure: most of them were ghost-written as I understand it.]

Houdini was a fascinating person in many ways. Parallels have been drawn between Houdini and fictional heroes, notably Bruce Wayne / Batman. At first this seems like an inappropriate comparison because Houdini was a showman to the core—not one to hide his light under a bushel. However, what such comparisons get to is that Houdini was preternaturally fit for his time and his approach to illusions relied not only on his smarts but on his conditioning. He developed some tricks that other magicians couldn’t repeat even if they knew the trick in great detail. The average man just wasn’t physically capable of pulling them off. Today there are artists such as David Blaine who follow in Houdini’s footsteps, but Houdini blazed a trail in this regard.

There’s another way in which the Batman comparison may be more apropos than it first seems. While Houdini didn’t fight violent criminals like the Joker or Bane, he did take on the con artists—most notably mediums who preyed on grieving family members. Like most magicians today—notably Penn & Teller and James Randi—Houdini was adamant that his tricks were products of skill and involved no supernatural powers whatsoever. As I say, today magic is heavily populated by science nerds who love that magic is the exploitation of the limitations of our sensory and nervous system organs, and who reject the supernatural, but in Houdini’s day there were still many frauds and charlatans in the industry. (It should be noted that Houdini invariably discovered these medium’s tricks or the restrictions that he insisted upon to study the act were unacceptable and the mediums and they backed out, but when he put out a challenge that he could figure out any magic trick he was shown three times he was stumped. However, the magician who stumped him, Dai Vernon, made no claims of supernatural abilities. He was just a supremely skilled close-up magician and—to be fair—showed Houdini multiple versions of the same trick, making it virtually impossible for Houdini to pin down the trick. Note: this story isn’t in Lalicki’s book, but is something I read in another book, I think in “Fooling Houdini“.)

The book has quite a few graphics, notably photos and old posters. There is also a brief chronology and a biography at the book’s end.

I enjoyed this book. While it’s concise, it’s not colorless. It reads well. If you are looking to get a quick look at the life of this fascinating person, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the MindFooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book operates on two levels. The first is the autobiography of a magician, telling a tale from being gonged off stage at the “Magic Olympics” through a rising obsession with the craft before rolling into his redemption. On a second level, it’s a history of magic in the modern age (although there are occasional forays into more ancient history.) The author tells of the magicians that inspired him, some of whom he learned from personally and some were from the preceding generation, such as Dai Vernon—the magician who actually fooled Houdini. However, the book’s title doesn’t come from Vernon’s feat with the Ambitious Card Trick, but is instead a more general statement about the challenge of tricking magicians—an accomplishment a great deal more prestigious than fooling a pod of eight year olds at little Timmy’s birthday party.

Stone was a science writer turned Physics graduate student, and so the science of magic and mentalism comes out frequently. However, this book is distinct from one such as “Sleights of Mind” by Macknik & Martinez-Conde, which is focused entirely upon conveying the science of how magic tricks work (primarily neuroscience with a focus on how the sense organs and brain interact to a magician’s advantage.) In truth, I expected this book to more along the lines of “Sleights of Mind.” However, in a way, it’s a good thing that it wasn’t. Stone reviews the science that Macknik and Martinez-Conde drill down into enough so that it’s a good review if one has read that book (I had) or an introduction if one hasn’t. What Stone does a great deal more of is describing the perfection one’s craft. Along the way he shows us a blind card handler with a preternatural capacity for tactile control of the deck, he takes us to clown college to improve showmanship, and he meets up with some street hustlers of the 3-card monte variety.

Throughout the course of the book are ups and downs that maintain the tension. In fact, one chapter is actually entitled “It’s Annoying and I Asked You to Stop,” about the inevitable point at which a magician’s obsession with improving his/her skills stops being cute to loved ones. There is also a chapter about Stone’s [almost] being blackballed from the magic community for revealing secrets in a general readership magazine (I guess that’s a muggle-mag?) An important part of the story is Stone’s search for a Yoda, a wizened member of the magic community who can give him the deeper insight needed to fool a room of experts. He eventually finds said individual, but is not quickly adopted. (It has a hero’s journey feel through this part.)

I thought that the author did a good job of building an interesting story arc within a work of nonfiction. This increases the book’s readability, particular if one has no particular interest in magic. One need not be knowledgeable about the discipline to find the story interesting and to learn some fascinating tidbits. If nothing else, one will learn how con men cull marks, so one can avoid falling prey to their potent psychology (though I expect the subset of readers of books and those tricked into gambling 3-card monte is probably not huge.)

One area in which a reader might be dissatisfied is in the coverage given to mentalism and math-based tricks. The alliterative subtitle makes reference to “magicians, mentalists, and math geeks…” but the bulk of the book is about close-up magic; mentalism and mathematical methods don’t come in until the last few chapters. If you’re expecting that the coverage of those topics will be on par with that of close-up magic, this may not be the book for you. Still, while this was different from I expected, it didn’t hurt my impression of the book.

I enjoyed this book, and received some intriguing insights from it. I’d recommend it for those interested in magic and in particular the craft and science of it. Even if you aren’t that interested in magic, you might find the story of one man’s development of his discipline to be worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday DeceptionsSleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions by Stephen L. Macknik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Sleights of Mind explains magic tricks by telling one about the shortcuts, limits, and programming of brain (and attendant sensory systems) that facilitate such tricks. The reader needn’t be concerned that the book will spoil all the illusionists’ secrets for one. The authors carefully demarcate the beginnings and endings of spoiler sections that explicitly explain tricks. This allows a reader to skip over such sections if one doesn’t want to know the trick. I suspect few readers do skip the spoiler sections because that’s where the rubber meets the road in terms of the neuroscientific concepts being discussed. The spoiler sections are an attempt to comply with the magician’s code (the neuroscientist authors became magicians themselves) and to maintain a good relationships with the many magicians (some, like Teller or the Amaz!ng Randi, quite famous) who cooperated in the writing of the book.

Over 12 chapters, the authors explain the neuroscience of how various classes of illusion work. Most of the chapters address a specific class or subclass of illusion. The first few chapters deal with visual illusions. We look at the world in what seems like crystal clarity (at least with glasses on or contacts in), but there are many limitations and gaps in our visual processing system. While it seems like we are directly seeing the world around us, in point of fact, our visual experience is a product of the brain reconstructing information that the eyes take in—and it doesn’t do it as perfectly as our brain tricks us into believing. As the authors state it, “The spooky truth is that your brain constructs reality, visual and otherwise.” Chapter 3, deals with illusion in art, which is little outside the theme of the book, but it offers an opportunity to explain some intriguing facts about how the brain and eyes work in concert.

The next couple chapters (Ch. 4 and 5) deal with cognitive illusions. Just like our visual system, our conscious minds save energy by engaging in short-cuts that disguise the mind’s limits while offering the possibility of manipulation. The brain also works hard to reconcile what appear to be inconsistencies, and often this reconciliation leads us astray. Misdirection is discussed in detail. Our minds are primed to let certain actions and sensory inputs draw its attention, and humans are awful at paying attention to more than one input stream at a time. Teller explains that, “Action is motion with a purpose.” So, if one can give one’s movement a purpose (even scratching one’s chin) it will be ignored while movements seemingly without purpose are anomalous and draw attention. The authors introduce the reader to mirror neurons—the part of our brains that take observations of another’s actions and makes forecasts about that person’s intent. This system is highly hackable by magicians.

Chapter 5 informs us that we aren’t as good at multitasking as we think—which is to say we completely stink at it but tend to think we are awesome multi-taskers. The gorilla experiment is offered as a prime example of this situation. In the gorilla experiment, about half-a-dozen people, moving around randomly, pass a ball / balls among themselves. The subject is asked to count the number of passes. In the middle of this activity a man in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the rapidly moving passers. When asked whether they saw the gorilla, most people say they didn’t (and those who do see the gorilla invariably offer a count of passes that is vastly off the mark.) [If this is either unclear or unbelievable, you can YouTube it.]

Chapter 6 examines multi-sensory illusions. The quintessential example is how our brains lead us believe that the sound of a ventriloquist’s voice is coming from the moving lips of a dummy. (Also, it seems like voices are coming from the lips of actors on-screen in the movies, even though the speakers are probably off to the side in the walls or ceiling.) Synesthesia (cross-wiring between senses and brain such that some people may always see the number 5 in red or hear a C-sharp in green) is introduced to the reader.

Chapter 7 explores the illusions of memory. Just as with our vision and attention, our memories aren’t as indelible as they seem to be. We think we’re calling up a transcription of the events of our lives, but really we’re remembering the last remembrance of said event. This can lead to a migration / distortion of events in the same manner as the kid’s experiment whereby one whispers a phrase into the ear of the kid in the next chair and it traverses the classroom. The original sentence “The cat is on the windowsill” invariably becomes something like “Lenny Kravitz steals puppies from the till.” (Have you ever experienced a situation in which a person remembers the details of an event substantially differently from yourself even if the broad brushstrokes are the same?) Some entertainers use pneumonic tricks to convince audiences that they have supernatural mental abilities when—in fact—they have merely turned understanding of memory to their advantage.

Chapter 8 considers how in-built expectations and assumptions are exploited by magicians and mentalists. Again, these methods work because our brains employ all sorts of energy-saving shortcuts. For example, our brains often do the same thing as Google’s search engine—filling in the blanks by taking advantage of one’s experience to avoid the need for costly cognitive processing.

Chapter 9 explains that our “free choices” are often not so “free” as we think. One of the most disconcerting, yet intriguing, facts to come from the onslaught of brain imaging studies since the 1990’s is that our decisions are made on a subconscious level before our conscious minds are even aware the decision has been made. Prior to this, we’d always been under the misapprehension that we are consciously making all these decisions–big and small–because the conscious mind is just a big credit stealer (to be fair, the conscious mind doesn’t recognize that it’s so out of the loop in decision-making.) So many of our decisions are made in predictable ways by emotional / automated responses, and mentalists use that fact to their advantage.

Chapter 10 is a catchall for topics that didn’t fit into earlier chapters, including hypnosis, superstitions, and the gambler’s fallacy (i.e. the idea that a roulette number that hasn’t come up in a while [or slot machine that hasn’t paid off recently] is bound to pay soon—regardless of the probability distribution that actually rules the outcome.)

The remainder of the book tells the story of the author’s try-out for a magic society and discusses the question of whether knowing the neurological and psychological roots of magic tricks will kill magic as a source of entertainment. I found the latter to be the more interesting discussion. The authors are optimistic about magic’s survival, and offer good reasons. After all, almost nobody believes that magicians are conducting supernatural activities [not even people who take some wildly unsubstantiated beliefs as givens.] Even knowing how the tricks work doesn’t create the ability to see through the tricks because so many of the factors that magicians exploit operate on a subconsciously programmed level, and such proclivities would have to be trained away. People who want to enjoy the spectacle of magic aren’t likely to go to the trouble of training themselves in that way.

I enjoyed this book even though I’m not particularly a fan of magic—though I did find myself watching quite a few YouTube clips of the magicians mentioned in the book. If you’re interested in how one’s mind and sensory systems work, and the limitations of those systems, you’ll find this book worthwhile. If you’re into magic, you’ll like it all the more so.

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