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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Tulip 7

Night falls on Bangkok

Night falls on Bangkok

I’m speed-walking down the sidewalk off Sukhumvit Road like one of those elderly mall-walkers.  Like the mall-walkers, there’s an irony to my speedy step. I’m on vacation. I have no particular place to be, and no particular time by which I need to be there. Unlike the mall-walkers, my path is perilous. I have to weave around street-food vendors deepfrying springrolls or grilling satays (and fight my stomach’s urgings), evade the grasping taunts of idle tuk-tuk drivers, and wave off T-shirt vendors selling shirts featuring elephants, thaiboxers, and Singha beer.

I don’t know why I’m moving so quickly. It feels natural. It’s the pace of the city. To walk slow would be to swim against the current. If you want the truth, I walk fast because in the back of my mind, in the deep recesses of irrationality, I feel that if I slow down the city will collapse into me, forming a black-hole. It will start with a few tuk-tuk drivers, a beggar, a prostitute, and a few street vendors converging on me. They will create a gravity, attracting more vendors, beggars, drivers, and hookers. If I don’t walk fast, I fear that I will be crushed in the center of a dense mass of humanity.

Leaning against the marble wall of a bank façade, a master of timing, an Indian man blinks, touches his forehead, and grimaces–as if my approach causes him some sort of psychic pain. I brace myself for the scam. He steps away from the wall into my path, gently extending an arm.

He says, “Sometimes, you think too much.” He’s trying to convince me that he has insight into my soul by making a statement that, while perfectly correct, contains no information content whatsoever. He’s smooth in behavior and handsome of feature. I bet he makes a mint in his chosen profession.

An instantaneous battle rages inside of me. On the one hand, I’m an introvert– or perhaps a sociopath– something like that. Whatever my affliction, interacting with strangers is draining. On the other hand, I’m curious about everything. I know the man is a scam artist. It’s not that I was never on the turnip truck, but I fell off a couple of decades ago, and while it took me several bounces to come to a stop, I eventually became quasi-worldly. While I know he’s a scam artist, I don’t know what kind. I so desperately want to know that I stop.

After a greeting, he says, “I can tell your future. There are two women in your life, I can tell you how it will work out.” His speech is clear, and well-spoken, like he was born in Mumbai, but moved to Cincinnati when he was 15. He is, in all respects, a smooth operator.

However, he’s wrong already.  As I said, I’m not exactly a people person. It takes all my mental energy to even be monogamous, as opposed to nul-agamous. The idea that I’m maintaining two relationships would be a bit laughable to anyone who could really “see into my mind.” Whenever I hear about one of these guys who has two separate families, I always think, “How many hours a day did the good Lord grant you?” Because I can’t fathom living that way and not being in an utter state of exhaustion every minute of every day. I’d be a wreck.

However, I give him points for playing the odds. I’m a middle-aged man with a gray goatee walking down the street in Bangkok. I’m probably the only one fitting that description who hasn’t fallen desperately (and pathetically) in love with an “eighteen year old” bar girl who the man secretly thinks is 16, but who, in reality, is 29.

Incredulity must show in my face, because he changes tack. “Let me show you proof of my abilities.”

He extracts a flip-style pocket-notepad from the inner pocket of a tweed sport-coat that is grossly out-of-place in steamy Bangkok, but which lends credibility. He scribbles down something on a page so that I cannot see. He then tears off the strip of paper containing his writing. He wads the paper up.

“I want you to think of the English-language name of a flower. Have you got it?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I reply.

“Now think of a number between six and nine. Have you got it? Now think of them together.”

In my mind I see, Tulip 7.

He hands me the wadded up scrap. I unravel it. It reads, “Tulip 7.”

He then opens his day-planner and asks me to put in any amount that I feel is fair and he will tell me about my future.

What he doesn’t know is that I’m the exact wrong person to pitch his act to. As a skeptic, I make Descartes look like gullible. (After all, Descartes developed a “proof for the existence of God”–granted everyone deserves a nadir of thought, and that was clearly Descartes’.) The most fundamental thing that studying Economics and Political Science taught me was that humans are completely incapable of making meaningful predictions. I’d seen this guy’s act before from a guy named Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, but instead of getting a few baht on the streets, the political scientist got millions of American tax dollars for convincing the CIA that he could tell the future.

As I walk away, he says, “You have an ailment. I can tell you about it.”

I think, Good one, that’s a true test of my powers of skepticism, and I continue to walk, thinking out how the mentalist scammer did his trick… and wondering if I have cancer.