Somebody on /r/MegaLoungeVI1 this week asked me what my favourite magic trick (to perform) is. And because it’s far easier to show somebody than to tell them, I turned on the webcam and did a one-take shot of this, my attempt at something akin to Derek Dingle‘s stunning interpretation of Larry Jennings‘ Ambitious Classic:
Given that it’s rare for me to film myself performing magic and be, on the whole, pleased with the result, I thought I’d share it with you all, too, in case there are those among my friends who haven’t had the opportunity yet to see me perform (apologies for the fake-sounding monologue – the sound was dubbed on later).
Why do I like this particular effect so much? It’s certainly not the thing that gets the best reaction from my spectators. In fact, if I were to ask people I’ve performed for what trick was their favourite, I imagine that not one of them would choose this. But for me, it represents the challenge of magic: it’s a moderately-complex series of sleights joined together into a rhythmic dance.
I’m not sure if that translates well, or whether one of those things, like describing code as poetry, that you already need to understand before you can understand.
In any case – if you were impressed by my trick, you should now watch a master performing it, and perhaps you’ll see how far I’ve yet got to go…
1 One of Reddit’s MegaLounges2, access to which is gained by being gilded in the prior MegaLounge (or /r/lounge itself, in the case of the first MegaLounge).
2 For the last 5 years, it’s been possible to buy “Reddit Gold” subscriptions, and for most of that time it’s been possible to anonymously gift individual months of Reddit Gold to other users (known as “gilding”), in acknowledgement of a contribution they’ve made on the site. Having “Reddit Gold” grants you access to the official gold subreddit /r/lounge; getting gilded while in/r/lounge gets you access to the unofficial /r/MegaLounge, and so on. There are several dozen ‘levels’.
Please forgive the non-magic talk, but I wanted to share with you something I made recently. It’s a plugin you can install into your web browser that does this (pic).
What’s that? It’s a top hat and wand alongside the name of /r/MagicSecrets folks. It’s only visible to other/r/MagicSecrets folks, of course, but it’s visible from anywhere on Reddit. So you can instantly spot fellow magicians whether they’re hanging out on /r/AskReddit or just commenting on kitten pics on /r/aww.
What it’s especially useful for is spotting folks in e.g. /r/magic when the discussion gets close to something that should only be talked about in here. You instantly know whether you should say “let’s go talk about this in /r/MagicSecrets” or whether you should simply say “this isn’t the place to talk about this.” But honestly, these last few weeks I’ve mostly just been using it to give me a smile when I spot magicians elsewhere: like when I noticed /u/Jokers247 in /r/ImGoingToHellForThis earlier this week!
Want to try it? Instructions are over on /r/MegaMegaMonitor. Apologies again for the off-topic post.
When I was younger, I thought that magic was all about secrets. I’ve since changed my mind. Twice.
That the secret of magic is secrets isn’t an unreasonable assumption. We all know that magicians famously don’t reveal how their tricks work, so it feels like the secrecy is what makes magic… magical. When as a kid I watched Paul Daniels make an elephant disappear on his (oh-so 1980s) TV show, and I remember being struck by the fact that he must be privy to some kind of guarded knowledge, and my school friends and I would speculate wildly as to what it was. I saw the same kind of speculation when Derren Brown predicted the lottery a few years back: although the age of the Internet changed the nature of the discussion, making them more global and perhaps more-cynical (not helped, perhaps, by Derren’s “explanation”).
But as time went on, I came to learn that the key to magic isn’t secrets.
That’s not to say that secrets aren’t important to the enjoyment of magic – they truly are. In the case of 95%+ of all of the magic tricks you’ve ever seen, you’d be considerably less-impressed if you knew how they were done! And that’s because, most of the time, the principle behind any illusion is something so simple that you just can’t see it for looking. As my childhood interest in magic grew, I acquired a small collection of props and books (one of which I rediscovered while removing things from my late father’s house, the other year), and my model changed: in an age when information is as easily-available as your local library, magic isn’t about secrets, I decided, but about practice.
Practice, practice, practice. A magician’s art starts alone, possibly in front of a mirror. And then it stays there for… quite a long time. If they’re interested in doing anything beyond the most-basic card tricks, a card magician has at least half a dozen different moves and sleights to perfect, from which they’ll be able to derive a multitude of different effects.
(There’s an anecdote about a young magician who tells her mentor that she’s learned a hundred tricks, and asks how many he knows. He thinks for a moment, and then he replies, “I would say about nine.” If you feel like you ‘got’ the joke in that story, then you’re probably either a magician or else a Buddhist: there are some strange similarities between the two.)
If they want to learn how to link rings or rejoin cut ropes or make things levitate, then the same rules apply. But even while that’s true, and practice is absolutely critical… practice is also not the secret of magic.
The key to magic – the thing that’s even more important than secrets and practice is… showmanship. I’ll come back to that, but first, let me tell you how I lost and, later, rediscovered magic.
I loved magic as a kid, but my interest in it (as a performer, at least) sort-of dwindled in my early-to-mid teens. I can’t explain why; but you’d be forgiven for assuming that perhaps I was distracted by discovering, like many teenage boys do, a different kind of ‘one-handed shuffle’ that provided far more-instant satisfaction. In any case: aside from a few basically-self-working card tricks here and there, I didn’t perform any magic at all for almost twenty years.
Until Christmas of 2013.
At Christmas, Ruth‘s little brother Robin visited. And at some point – and I’m not even sure why – he said, “I want to learn a card trick. Does anybody know any card tricks?”
“I might know a couple,” I said, thinking back and trying to put my mind to one, as I reached for a pack of cards, “Here: give these a shuffle…” I can’t remember what I performed first: probably a classic like Out Of This World or the Chicago Opener: something lightweight, and easy to learn, and based entirely in muscle-memory manoeuvres and not in anything as complex as even a basic misdirection.
And somehow that act of teaching Robin a couple of beginner card tricks, and challenging him to take that knowledge and develop them some more… that simple act was enough to flip a switch in my brain. Suddenly, I wanted to jump headlong back into magic again.
Since last time around, there’s not only books (and so many great books) but also DVDs from which to learn (and relearn) magical principles. I’ve been learning new sleights as fast as my brain – and my hands – can take it, and gradually building a repertoire of effects that fall somewhere between confusing and delighting. Because I’ve for so-long had such a strong belief in the importance of practice, I’ve been trying to find excuses to perform: to such an extent that I’ll spend some of my lunchtimes in any given week hanging around in Oxford’s public spaces, performing for random passers-by. Practice in front of a mirror is good and everything, but practice in front of a stranger is so much-more valuable… especially when you’re forced to think on your feet after a spectator does something that you didn’t anticipate!
I also accidentally ended up starting a local magic club: I joined a thread of people bemoaning the lack of a club in Oxford, on a forum on which I participate, and after I’d found a couple of other guys who felt them same way, suggested a date, time, and venue, and made it happen. Now it happens every month, and we few are the closest thing Oxford’s got to a magic society.
But yes: showmanship. If there’s a secret to magic, then it’s that. Any fool can find your card in the deck (even if you don’t know a way to do this – the “secret” – then I can guarantee that at least one of your friends does). Any magician can do it in several different ways (the “practice”), and thus keep you guessing by eliminating the options – how did he do it blindfolded? But a magic trick is only as enjoyable to watch as it is well-presented: like any entertainer, and perhaps more than many, a magician relies on their presentation style to make the difference…
This is an opinion that sometimes puts me at odds with some of the other magicians in the club. I’ll demonstrate a new routine I’m working on, and they’ll ask how it was done… and when I reveal that I used the cheapest, simplest, easiest or plainly cheekiest approach possible, they’ll be instantly less-impressed. There are plenty of magicians more-talented than I, for whom the artistry comes from the practice, and to see somebody achieve what is – to a layperson – the same result in a way that requires less sleight-of-hand or a less-subtle misdirection than ‘their’ way is apparently a little grating! They’d rather perform an illusion using their best moves and their most-sophisticated sleights than to simply do it “well enough” to get the desired effect (and thus, the desired reaction). Certainly, it’s desirable to have several ways to perform the same trick (just in case you end up performing it twice), but those ways don’t all have to be the most-complicated approaches you know: sometimes the magical equivalent of “look behind you, a three-headed monkey” is more than enough.
Last weekend was an exciting and unusual experience, full of exciting (expected) things interspersed with a handful of exciting (unexpected) things. Let’s go chronologically:
Thursday/Friday – Mario, Magic, Marriage
I left work, picked up a rental car (having unfortunately forgotten to take my counterpart driving license to the rental place, I had the choice of either cycling for an hour to collect it or else paying a fiver for them to run a DVLA check, and I opted for the latter on the grounds that an hour of my time (especially if I have to spend it cycling back and forth along the same stretch of road) is worth more to me than a picture of Elizabeth Fry. I drove home, packed a bag, said goodbye to Ruth, JTA, and Annabel, and drove up to Preston.
There, I spent most of Friday playing the new Mario game with my sister Becky, gave a few small performances of magic (did I mention I’m doing magic nowadays? – guess that’ll have to wait for another blog post) at various places around Preston, and went out for a curry with my mother, my sisters Becky and Sarah, and Sarah’s boyfriend Richard. So far, so ordinary, right? Well that’s where things took a turn. Because as Becky, our mother, and I looked at the drinks menu as we waited for Sarah and her boyfriend to turn up… something different happened instead.
Sarah turned up with her husband.
It turns out that they’d gotten married earlier that afternoon. They’d not told anybody in advance – nobody at all – but had simply gone to the registry office (via a jewellers, to rustle up some rings, and a Starbucks, to rustle up some witnesses) and tied the knot. Okay; that’s not strictly true: clearly they had at least three weeks planning on account of the way that marriage banns work in the UK. Any case case, I’ve suddenly got the temptation to write some software that monitors marriage announcements (assuming there are XML feeds, or something) and compares them to your address book to let you know if anybody you know is planning to elope, just to save me from the moment of surprise that caught me out in a curry house on Friday evening.
So it turns out I’ve acquired a brother-in-law. He’s a lovely chap and everything, but man, that was surprising. There’ll doubtless be more about it in Episode 32 of Becky’s “Family Vlog”, so if there was ever an episode that you ought to watch, then it’s this one – with its marriage surprise and (probably) moments of magic – that you ought to keep an eye out for.
Next, I made my way up to Edinburgh to meet up with Matt R and his man-buddies for a stag night to remember. Or, failing that, a stag night to forget in a drunken haze: it’s been a long, long time since I’ve drunk like I did on that particular outing. After warming up with a beer or two in our hotel room, the five of us made our way to the Glenkinchie Distillery, for a wonderful exploration into the world of whiskies.
And then, of course, began the real drinking. Four or five whiskies at the distillery bar, followed by another beer back in the hotel room, followed by a couple more beers at bars, followed by another four whiskies at the Whiski Rooms (which I’d first visited while in Edinburgh for the fringe, last year), followed by a beer with dinner… and I was already pretty wiped-out. Another of the ‘stags’ and I – he equally knackered and anticipating a full day of work, in the morning – retired to the hotel room while the remainder took Matt out “in search of a titty bar” (a mission in which, I gather, they were unsuccessful).
Do you remember being in your early twenties and being able to throw back that kind of level of booze without so much as a shudder? Gosh, it gets harder a decade later. On the other hand, I was sufficiently pickled that I wasn’t for a moment disturbed by the gents I was sharing a room with, who I should re-name “snore-monster”, “fart-monster”, and “gets-up-a-half-dozen-times-during-the-night-to-hug-the-toilet-bowl-monster”. I just passed out and stayed that way until the morning came, when I went in search of a sobering double-helping of fried food to set me right before the long journey back to Oxford.
All in all: hell of a stag night, and a great pre-party in anticipation of next weekend’s pair of weddings… y’know, the ones which I’d stupidly thought would be the only two couples I knew who’d be getting married this fortnight!
I’ve got a twist on a book test that I’m hoping to work into a performance in a couple of weeks time (cabaret-size), and I was wondering if anybody’s got any thoughts about it. Specifically: does it sound compelling?
The effect: I’ll be following on from a couple of other mentalist effects and selling this as a “modern” twist on a traditional idea. I’ll ask for a volunteer who has a familiarity with a certain (popular, contemporary, long-running) series of novels, and hand them a Kindle pre-loaded with the entire series, and ask them to inspect it/read any parts of the books to ensure they’re genuine. Meanwhile, three other audience members will collectively supply single-digit numbers which are joined together in an order chosen by the volunteer, to make a page number. The volunteer will then choose their favourite book in the series, turn to that page (you know – the hardest bit so far has been working out how to make a Kindle show page numbers!), and the first sentence will match a prediction that’s been in an envelope on-show since the start. The ebooks can continue to be inspected (and I’ll thoroughly be encouraging the volunteer to show pages to the audience, of course!).
The format has advantages e.g. (a) there’s no way I can see which book was chosen, unlike many similar illusions, (b) I can use a larger “library” than most, and (c) it fits into a patter I have about modernising traditional magic. But I have a few concerns, too.
My concerns: will people assume the Kindle is gimmicked (because it’s hard to see it’s not: people already don’t trust technology!)? What can I do to help the volunteer/audience see that it’s not?
Thanks for any thoughts!
tl;dr: book test but using a whole series of books on a Kindle, inspected by a fan familiar with the series, book chosen by volunteer, page number chosen by audience, first sentence matches on-show prediction. Is it compelling?
Have you ever come across non-transitive dice? The classic set, that you can get in most magic shops, consists of three different-coloured six-sided dice:
There are several variants, but a common one, as discussed by James Grime, involves one die with five “3” sides and one “6” side (described as red below), a second die with three “2” sides and three “5” sides (described as green below), and a third die with one “1” side and five “four” sides (described as blue below).
They’re all fair dice, and – like a normal six-sided dice – they all have an average score of 3.5. But they’ve got an interesting property, which you can use for all kinds of magic tricks and gambling games. Typically: the red die will beat the green die, the green die will beat the blue die, and the blue die will beat the red die! (think Rock, Paper, Scissors…)
If you want to beat your opponent, have them pick a die first. If they pick green, you take red. If they take red, you take blue. If they take blue, you take green. You now have about a 60% chance of getting the highest roll (normally you’d have about a 33% chance of winning, and a 17% chance of a draw, so a 60% chance is significantly better). To make sure that you’ve got the best odds, play “best of 10” or similar: the more times you play, the less-likely you are to be caught out by an unfortunate unlucky streak.
But if that doesn’t bake your noodle enough, try grabbing two sets of nontransitive dice and try again. Now you’ll see that the pattern reverses: the green pair tends to beat the red pair, the red pair tends to beat the blue pair, and the blue pair tends to beat the green pair! (this makes for a great second act to your efforts to fleece somebody of their money in a gambling game: once they’ve worked out how you keep winning, give them the chance to go “double or nothing”, using two dice, and you’ll even offer to choose first!)
The properties of these dice – and of the more-exotic forms, like Oskar van Deventer’s seven-dice set (suitable for playing a game with three players and beating both of your opponents) and like the polyhedral varieties discussed on Wikipedia – intrigue the game theorist and board games designer in me. Could there be the potential for this mechanic to exist in a board game? I’m thinking something with Risk-like combat (dice ‘knock out’ one another from highest to lowest) but with a “dice acquisition” mechanic (so players perform actions, perhaps in an auction format, to acquire dice of particular colours – each with their own strengths and weaknesses among other dice – to support their “hand” of dice). There’s a discussion going on in /r/tabletopgamedesign…
I’ve even written a program (which you’re welcome to download, adapt, and use) to calulate the odds of any combination of any variety of non-transitive dice against one another, or even to help you develop your own non-transitive dice sets.
Here’s another non-transitive game for you, but this time: I’ve made it into a real, playable game that you can try out right now. In this game, you and I will each, in turn, predict three consecutive flips of a fair coin – so you might predict “tails, heads, heads”. Then we’ll start flipping a coin, again and again, until one of our sequences comes up. And more often than not, I’ll win.
If you win 10 times (or you lose 20 times, which is more likely!), then I’ll explain how the game works, so you know how I “cheated”. I’ll remind you: the coin flips are fair, and it’s nothing to do with a computer – if we played this game face-to-face, with a real coin, I’d still win. Now go play!
Our second day at the Edinburgh Fringe brought new opportunities for fun and merriment. Once we finally dragged ourselves from our beds.
First up, we insisted that Matt joined us in watching the show of Young & Strange, a talented pair of magicians we first saw earlier this year, at the Oxford Fringe. Their act wasn’t quite so magical on a second viewing, and some of their tricks wear thin on the closer-inspection made possible by the tiny venue and the orientation of the lights, but they’re still remarkable showmen and real masters of their craft. Matt was invited on stage to assist with a trick involving separating all of the different denominations of currency into twelve numbered envelopes (1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1, £2, £5, £10, £20, £50). I tell you this because it’ll be relevant in a subsequent blog post. Seriously.
Later, we watched the incredibly disappointing Computer Programmer Extraordinaire, by comedian Raph Shirley. For all of his good ideas (and he certainly had enough of them to fill a 15 minute set, but 45 minutes seemed like far too long), his delivery was sorely lacking. Maybe we went in expecting something that we wouldn’t get – his “geeky” computer programmer persona didn’t really cut it for those of us who were genuine geeky computer programmers in the audience – but even if we put that aside, there weren’t enough laughs in the show to have been worth the time it took to “get there”, even at no cost.
Ruth, JTA and I then disappeared off to Whiski Rooms for a “Whisky & Cheese Tasting” event. This was really quite enjoyable, and I was surprised to be able to, under a little guidance (and with the inclination to pay particular attention to the subtler facets of what I was drinking), find entirely new flavours even in whiskies with which I was already familiar. Pairing whiskies with cheeses was also a new experience for me, and – even for somebody like me, who enjoys cheese in moderation but doesn’t have the palate for the full spectrum of cheeses – provided some fascinating opportunities to find new flavours.*
This – coupled with the drinks we’d already had and those we had later – left us rather tipsy. Although thankfully still nowhere near as drunk as Claire was, here in Edinburgh, when six years ago she did the most embarrassing thing in the world.
Finally, we reconvened with Matt for a dose of Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians. I don’t remember his name, but I was particularly impressed with the dry, deadpan delivery of the dutch comedian. If it comes back to me, I’ll come back and write his name in here: ____________________. Look, I’ve left a nice long gap and everything.
* For anybody who’s interested, the whiskies we tried (and the cheeses they were paired with) were: Tobermory 10 with Keens Cheddar; Jura Superstition with Old Smokey; Bruichladdich 10 with Adrahan; and Bowmore 12 with Dunsyre Blue.
As if we hadn’t been busy enough the weekend before last and the one before that, there’s more that I’m only just getting around to blogging! It was only when I thought about writing this up that I realised how much I’d neglected to write about already (and had promised people would be “coming soon”). So, without further ado; here’s what Ruth, JTA and I got up to last weekend.
Aside from our two attempts to conquer the Dunwich Horror (both attempts were failures, although the second was ever so close, ending with Ruth’s character in a one-on-one deathmatch with a Great Old One), our major event was a trip down to London on Saturday. After all, since the move to Earth, London feels like it’s pretty-much on our doorstep: so there’s no excuse not to take in a bit of culture once in a while in the heart of the capital. Of course, when we say culture…
Ye Old Cock Tavern
We started out in Ye Old Cock Tavern on Fleet Street, because – hey – early afternoon is a perfectly good time to start drinking on a weekend. They did some pretty good chips, too, which we picked at as we drank our pints and watched a crowd gather for a wedding at the church up the road, nestled between the old newspaper buildings.
Next up was Volupté, a burlesque club with a bi-monthly lunchtime Afternoon Tease. We started with a few fabulously-mixed and ludicrously ornate cocktails: only the first of many. The bar staff are simply entertaining to watch
Aside from the ongoing stream of cocktails (I particularly enjoyed the Porn Star Martini – which I’m seen drinking in the picture above – I don’t even remember what was in it, except that it came with a “shot” of champagne to drink before starting it), Afternoon Tease consisted of:
An extraordinarily erotic, genuinely tantalising peacock dance from a young lady going by Vicky Butterfly. She later returned for a second, different performance; not quite so arousing but equally mesmerising. That’s her in the picture, above.
Volupté’s special take on traditional tableaux vivants – gateaux vivants: a wonderfully mischievous woman posing behind little more than suspenders and a cake (with a fabulous parody of M&S food adverts gone by).
Scones and tea
A Miss. Rose Thorne, performing a tribute to Doris Day; and I can honestly say that I’ve never before seen a pair of gloves removed with such… deliberate choreography. Very impressive.
By the time we staggered out into the afternoon sun, we were very entertained and quite spiffingly drunk. Volupté gains my recommendation, although I shall have to check the state of my bank account before trifling with their cocktail bar again!
The Golden Hinde
Next up, we made our way over the Thames to visit the replica of the Golden Hinde, the ship in which Sir Francis Drake completed his famous circumnavigation of the globe.
Yeah, it’s just a big boat (and not even that big). Ruth was pleased, though, but she is almost a big a fan of boats as she is for optimised road junctions. Of course, not to break the theme, we stopped for a drink in each of the two nearest bars to the vessel, as well as a snack to give us the energy for the next leg of our adventure, when we whipped out our Oyster cards and zipped down to Hammersmith for…
Penn & Teller
Yes, thePenn & Teller, during their 4-day-only visit to the UK (the first in 15 years), doing their usual mixture of magic and comedy in their in-your-face style, in a spectacular London show. If you’ve gotten this far down the post before you realised how awesome my weekend was, well, what took you so long?
I couldn’t even pick out my favourite part of the show. Perhaps it was one of these:
Teller “drowning” at the end of the first act as part of a card trick (yes, really!) gone wrong.
A whole series of fabulous tricks done with evidently-confused members of the audience (especially the one with the woman they had blindfolded and throwing knives towards Penn, and narrowly missing – it was all done with electromagnets, see?).
Stunning examples of cold-reading done using jokes randomly selected from joke books, with a predictive “hot reading” twist at the end.
The thought-provoking ending, in which Penn (between bouts of fire-eating) asks the audience to think not about how they do what they do, but why, along with some clues related to his experiences as an audience member of various shows.
By remarkable coincidence, Sundeep and her partner, Ashley, were also at the Apollo to see Penn & Teller! Wandering back from the bar during the intermission we just bumped into her. As she doesn’t blog these days, for the benefit of those who might be wondering: she’s doing well, still on maternity leave and looking after Vanessa, her daughter (who’s looking quite cute in many of the billion or so pictures she carries around with her on her phone), and both are happy and healthy. Ashley – whom we hadn’t met before now – seems nice: he has a certain rugged-but-cute French look and he works for a very worthwhile charity, both of which give him good points in my estimation.
After leaving the show, we were peckish again, so we went around the corner to a cramped but wonderful-smelling Mexican restaurant for a round of Mexican-style tapas, which was delicious. By this point, we were just about ready to settle into a bus for the long but comfortable journey home, when…
Penn & Teller, Again
…wandering back, we spotted a small crowd of people near the Apollo. Wandering over, we discovered that Penn & Teller themselves were hanging out with folks outside the theatre, signing things and answering awkward questions.
Needless to say, we hung around for a few minutes and got the chance to meet the magicians themselves.
Ruth – perhaps as evidenced by her expression in the photo, above – did her usual thing when in the company of a celebrity (as those of you who knew how she behaved around Lloyd Kaufman will know) of becoming a giggling little girl. She also managed to make a fool of herself by mumbling a question about the stage lighting to Teller, to which he didn’t have an answer (not a result of his on-stage muteness, though: he’s certainly happy to talk in person).
Meeting some of the most fabulous (and eccentric) magicians in the world is perhaps the best way to end a night out in London. But there was one more stop on our journey as we worked our way back to a Oxford Tube stop (avoiding the Circle Line, which wasn’t running):
Yeah; perhaps not actually the highlight of the night, but as we were passing, Ruth insisted that we should get one more photo – for Adam‘s sake:
In case your eyes aren’t up to it, or if you’re simply unable to recognise this iconic London landmark, that’s the White City BBC Television Centre in the photo.
We got back to Oxford a full 15 hours after we’d first left: considerably more exhausted, more drunk, and merrily surfing the buzz of all the fabulous things we’d gotten up to over the course of the day. Sunday became very much a day of rest (and recovery) – we’re not as young as we used to be, as I discovered to my horror during my last party-sized jaunt into the capital. Exhaustion aside, however, this was a fantastic day out.
How’ve your weekends been? Not as legendary as mine, I’m sure.