Smoke and mirrors

October 3, 2009

As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magicThe Magician’s Oath.


Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”. From the film The Prestige.

I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place some one is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death. That’s what attracts us to the man who paints the flagstaff on the tall building, or to the ‘human fly’ who scales the walls of the same building. Harry Houdini

We’re starting to realize that magicians have a lot of implicit know-ledge about how we perceive the world around us because they have to deceive us in terms of controlling attention, exploiting the assumptions we make when we do and don’t notice a change in our environment. There is an enormous amount of really detailed instruction on how to perform magic. People are always blown away by how detailed a description you’ll have.  Richard Wiseman

The world of prestidigitators, conjurors, mentalists, escape artists, and ventriloquists has long intrigued me. I love reading about the golden age of magic – from 1890 to 1930. In particular, as a sceptic, I am fascinated by the relationship between scepticism and magic. Magicians are engaged in deception and come into contact with the dark side of human nature and how easily we can be manipulated. This enables them to shine a light on the paranormal world I will be looking at three magicians to illustrate what I mean.

The first is Harry Houdini. Houdini is of course a household name. We have all heard of his famous stunts – escaping from straitjackets, making an elephant disappear, being lowered into water tanks and being buried alive. A lesser known part of his life was as a debunker of mediums and psychics. He began doing this in the 1920s after the death of his mother. It was his background in magic that enabled him to spot things that had escaped many scientists and academics. Later he would have to attend sessions in disguise. He was also able to show how photographers could produce fraudulent “spirit photographs”. I have read on some websites that Houdini was merely exposing the bad apples. But the whole enterprise of talking to spirits is a farce.

My second figure, James Randi, is less well-known, although he was described by Arthur C, Clarke as “a national treasure, and perhaps one of the remaining antidotes that may prevent the rotting of the American mind.” Randi is fully fledged magician who has escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down over Niagara Falls However the facet I am interested in is his sceptical persona. Randi certainly takes no prisoners in his exposure of psychics, mediums, faith healers etc. His definition of New Age is spot on: The New Age? It’s just the old age stuck in a microwave oven for fifteen seconds. 

Randi became of a public figure in the 1970s for exposing Uri Geller as a fraud. When Randi replicated Geller’s cutlery bending exploits he was accused of secretly using psychic powers. This echoed an accusation made by Arthur Conan-Doyle about Houdini many years earlier Randi has instituted a prize of one million dollars for anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal effect under proper scientific controls; nobody has claimed the prize yet.

My final choice is illusionist Derren Brown. He recently came into the public eye by predicting the winners of the national lottery. He then gave an explanation of how he was able to do it that was pure tosh. but that’s what’s so compelling about Brown – the way he mixes magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. He is perfectly open about his dishonesty. It’s part of the spectacle. You’re never quite sure what is real and what isn’t. When the person doing this is an entertainer that’s fine. It becomes fraudulent when somebody claims special powers.

Magic Effects: a list

October 3, 2009

Wikipedia has this typology of magical techniques. Of course, many magical routines use combinations of effects. Here they are:

 Production The magician produces something from nothing—a rabbit from an empty hat, a fan of cards from thin air, a shower of coins from an empty bucket, or the magician themselves, appearing in a puff of smoke on an empty stage — all of these effects are productions.

Vanishing The magician makes something disappear—a coin, a cage of doves, milk from a newspaper, an assistant from a cabinet, or even the Statue of Liberty. A vanish, being the reverse of a production, may use a similar technique, in reverse.

Transformation The magician transforms something from one state into another—a silk handkerchief changes colour, a lady turns into a tiger, an indifferent card changes to the spectator’s chosen card. A transformation can be seen as a combination of a vanish and a production.

Restoration The magician destroys an object, then restores it back to its original state—a rope is cut, a newspaper is torn, a woman is sawn in half, a borrowed watch is smashed to pieces—then they are all restored to their original state.

Teleportation The magician causes something to move from one place to another—a borrowed ring is found inside a ball of wool, a canary inside a light bulb, an assistant from a cabinet to the back of the theatre. When two objects exchange places, it is called a transposition: a simultaneous, double teleportation.

Escapology The magician (an assistant may participate, but the magician himself is by far the most common) is placed in a restraining device (i.e. handcuffs or a straitjacket) or a death trap, and escapes to safety. Examples include being put in a straitjacket and into an overflowing tank of water, and being tied up and placed in a car being sent through a car crusher.

Levitation The magician defies gravity, either by making something float in the air, or with the aid of another object (suspension)—a silver ball floats around a cloth, an assistant floats in mid-air, another is suspended from a broom, a scarf dances in a sealed bottle, the magician hovers a few inches off the floor. There are many popular ways to create this illusion of even the magician himself being levitated.

Penetration The magician makes a solid object pass through another—a set of steel rings link and unlink, a candle penetrates an arm, swords pass through an assistant in a basket, a saltshaker penetrates the table-top, a man walks through a mirror. Sometimes referred to as “solid-through-solid”.

Prediction The magician predicts the choice of a spectator, or the outcome of an event under seemingly impossible circumstances—a newspaper headline is predicted, the total amount of loose change in the spectator’s pocket, a picture drawn on a slate. Prediction forms the basis for most “pick-a-card” tricks, where a random card is chosen, then revealed to be known by the performer.

My media week 04/10/09

October 3, 2009

A while back I did a piece about metaphors. This article deals with many of the same themes: Thinking literally  The surprising ways that metaphors shape your world


The Crash – The Age of Risk. This two-part series from the BBC on the global crash examines the boom years before the bust of 2008.


When Writers Speak. This NYT article looks at  why many acclaimed writers are terrible at giving speeches and interviews. Here is an extract featuring the ideas of Steven Pinker:

In an e-mail exchange, Pinker sensibly points out that thinking precedes writing and that the reason we sound smarter when writing is because we deliberately set out to be clear and precise, a luxury not usually afforded us in conversation. True, and especially true if one writes for magazines where nitpicking editors with expensive shoes are waiting to kick us around for every small mistake. When people who write for a living sit down to earn their pay they make demands on themselves that require a higher degree of skill than that summoned by conversation. Pinker likens this to mathematicians thinking differently when proving theorems than when counting change, or to quarterbacks throwing a pass during a game as opposed to tossing a ball around in their backyards. He does concede, however, that since writing allows time for reveries and ruminations, it probably engages larger swaths of the brain.


NPR’s Fresh Air features an interview with Nick Hornby talking about his new novel, Juliet, Naked and his screenplay for the film An Education, which will be released next month.