The Penumbra - A Review

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Postby Craig Matsuoka » 06/03/02 03:44 PM

The Penumbra is finally here and its a winner. Ive settled in and let me tell you, the rooms here are great! (I think Ill raid the honor-bar later).

Gordon Bean and Bill Goodwin have put together a wonderful little bimonthly, which if the premiere issue is any foreshadower, may become one of the most important periodicals to grace the timeline of conjuring history (behind Genii of course :) ). The production is obviously an expensive one. From cover to cover, the magazine is professionally printed on glossy heavyweight paper. At only eighteen ad-free pages and this level of quality, itd be foolish to waste any of it on filler. Anyway, page count is irrelevant here, since the value of the material far exceeds what youd spend on a subscription. Issue number 1 contains four items. The real gem of the bunch is 51 Faces North. Yes, Stewart James famous unpublished solution is finally unveiled. For the first time ever, we get to flip to the back of the novel and find out whodunnit.

Lets rewind a bit. Paul Curry started all this madness when he drew up the plot for one of magics most fruitful endeavors of creativity, spawning literally scores of variants over the succeeding decades. It was dubbed The Curry Unsolved Card Problem. To bring any latecomers up to speed, heres what he proposed. Secretly steal a card from a deck and openly announce this card as the prediction. After shuffling the deck, the spectator deals cards into a face up pile and at any time he wants, he deals one of them face down. He continues dealing until the balance of the deck is face up as well. This single face down card proves to be the prediction. The problem (which Curry later solved) produced a torrent of ideas from innumerable experimenters including the innumerable Ed Marlo.

Just when people thought the problem was licked, enter the great Stewart James. I let out an audible gasp when the Penumbra article noted how James quietly worked out at least eighty methods for himself! He carried this plot into the realm of fantasy, when he proposed a stricter set of conditions for Currys Open Prediction. Quoting him from Ibidem # 3:

Fifty-One Faces North is the name I have given it. Borrowed cards may be used. A brand new deck is not required. The deck might even have cards missing from it, you do not have to know which ones or how many. You have only to be sure that the card you predict is there. You do not need privacy with the cards to set something. The deck is never out of sight for a moment. No card or cards are stolen from the deck. Borrowed writing material may be used. It is described as a prediction at the time of writing. The prediction is nothing more than the name of a card. It is known to all before the first card is dealt. No alternative meanings. No alternative effect. Strictly impromptu. Nothing but the borrowed articles used. When he starts dealing, you do not know where predicted card is. It would not help you to know, with this method. Nor do you know the location of any other card. You never know when he will leave a card face down, until after he has done it. Spectator deals straight through from top to face. Only variation is when he leaves a card face down. Not a once-in-a-while trick. If instructions are followed, it cannot fail. No card handled by you from first to last. Spectator himself checks that face-down card is predicted one. Believed to be a new angle on a known principle.

Sound impossible? Well, long before anyone struggled to come up with even one solution to 51 Faces North, James was busy devising two. The first was recorded in his unpublished typewritten notes dated July 15, 1955 (a facsimile is reproduced in Penumbra). Almost thirty years later in 1983, he scribbled yet a second solution. How Allan Slaight stumbled upon these notes is a great story, one thatll probably make you think twice about throwing stuff away.

James, like Marlo, was one of those rare individuals with the tenacity to plod through a myriad of possibilities. And again, like Marlo, hed likely work out a hundred different ways of doing the same thing. But, I suppose James talent was in arranging and winnowing all those ideas according to the requirements of the problem. While its astonishing to see how prolific he was as he tackled a creative challenge, even more remarkable is his genius in devising a systematic discipline towards it. Like a master Polynesian navigator, he knew which stars in a constellation of ideas would safely lead him home. Examining his journey toward point B is truly an education. 51 Faces North is a superb case in point and a testimonial to this woefully under-appreciated mind.

The trick he eventually worked out is actually the climax to a larger three-phase routine. Notably, the first two phases are not merely convenient ways to set up for the final phase, but more than that, they are essential to the logical and theatrically meaningful build-up of the routining. The way James constructs it; the ensuing events rise to ever-greater levels of impossibility. This is the genius of the man. From lesser minds it emerges as serendipitous synergy. Here, it is deliberate a purposefully contrived means to the end. While not an elegant solution in the strictest sense, it is brilliant. Both the 55 and 83 handlings utilize well-known principles and a modestly nimble mind. The latter of the two eliminates all sleight of hand from the outset, and places every action literally and figuratively in the hands of the spectator. Frankly, its exquisite beauty made me smile.

Encomiums aside, the trick begs the question will I actually use it? Well, thats a hard question to answer, since agendas differ. Hard-core students will love the clever construction and math. Pragmatics will dismiss it as an intellectual curiosity unworthy of their repertoire. At either extreme, itd be a huge error to simply ignore it.

An easier question to consider is were we better off not knowing the solution? When you scan the verdant and sprawling landscape of ingenuity it inspired, the answer becomes obvious. But what a delight it is to learn how badly we all missed the mark!

The next article details an electrifying psychokinetic demonstration by Phil Goldstein called Power Trip. You and the spectator each hold one of two AA batteries. One cell is fully charged and the other is empty. The spectator gets to test and handle both cells. As you concentrate on your dead battery, you slowly and visibly cause the power to transfer from his battery to yours. The built in power testers make this event highly visual. Youll find the methodology quite elementary and (dare I say it?) easy to master. Some of his psychological ploys and phrasing strengthen the equivoque and could be put to good use in other routines.

Tie Food is a humorous little quickie created by Gordon Bean. You cause a quarter to travel from the end of your necktie all the way up into the knot. He offers several additional suggestions including one that allows you to work with marked coins. The trick features a transfer/vanishing technique he calls The Direct Steal which he credits to other sources dating back at least fifty some odd years. Warning: Classic-Palmophobics beware!

Finally, Bill Goodwins King Brand is, for me, the second highlight of the issue. Its a visual three-phase ungaffed packet trick. Ugh, a packet trick you say? No wait, this is goodreally. Virtually impromptu, the plot parallels Phil Goldsteins overture where two face-up black cards sandwiched between two face-down red cards magically trade places. Goodwins routine features some strong convincers that turn this into a real showpiece. I especially like how the first phase sets up for the transposition. Youll learn a terrific Elmsley Count variant, which softens the recycling discrepancy present in traditional face-up Elmsleys. Theres a second variant thats a little tricky to acquire, but its worth learning if only for this trick. His simplified version of the good old double-deal is pretty sweet too. The final phase kills. Two black spot cards are handed to the spectator for safekeeping. You then quickly flash the face of the red king packet and just as quickly, they change places with the black cards to top off a fabulous routine. As is typical of his writing style, the explanation is very easy to follow and proactively addresses every potential handling difficulty. If youve read any of his lecture notes, youll notice how he writes so clearly that photos rarely become necessary. Other authors sometimes overuse audience views and neglect other important camera angles. Yet, Bill understands the wisdom of judiciously including photos taken from the performers perspective to clarify actions that might otherwise read awkwardly.

Congratulations to Mr. Bean, Mr. Goodwin, and every other Penumbrite on the birth of a fine magazine! And oh, if any towels are missing after I leave, it was my roommate.
Craig Matsuoka
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Postby John Pezzullo » 06/04/02 03:04 AM


Thanks for posting such a thorough review of "The Penumbra". It's appreciated.


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Postby Matthew Field » 06/04/02 06:47 AM

My "Penumbra" arrived, and it is great.

I expected the "51 Faces North" solution to be a letdown, and it is. It skirts the conditions put forth by Curry (and reiterated by James and quoted above) as neatly as any magic dealer's ad. The restriction, never articulated (but, again, mentioned in Craig Matsuoka's review above), is that the "51 Faces" phase follows two other phases, and the spectator deals to a freely chosen number, but one he selected earlier(and which the magician knows).

But that's not the reason to suscribe to the magazine. It is full of great material from great magicians.

Matt Field
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Postby Steve Bryant » 06/04/02 07:53 AM

Matt says

and the spectator deals to a freely chosen number, but one he selected earlier(and which the magician knows).
Um, the magician doesn't know the number until the spek begins dealing and not until he reaches it. I agree that the method is an expected letdown in that it isn't some earthshaking new secret (and that the spek doesn't just deal the face down card ANY time), but I do think it would play very well with a lay audience and I look forward to trying it. It doesn't displace my favorite take on the effect, which I think is Peter Duffie's and appeared in one of the magazines.
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Postby Tomas Blomberg » 06/05/02 05:53 AM

Craig Matsuoka wrote
An easier question to consider is were we better off not knowing the solution? When you scan the verdant and sprawling landscape of ingenuity it inspired, the answer becomes obvious. But what a delight it is to learn how badly we all missed the mark!
In February 20, 2000, Markus Zadina posted the correct solution at TSD. It was really interesting to read how cleverly Stewart James had solved a cumbersome part of Markus solution by simply not using it as a stand-alone effect. Very clever.

_Love_ the magazine, by the way. ;)

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Postby Craig Matsuoka » 06/10/02 11:26 AM

Gordon Bean also came reeeeeeeally close with his "One Gone South" routine published August 2000 in the booklet "Afterlife". The first phase is just a click away from James, and the last phase is identical to "51 Faces North".

My thanks to Bill Goodwin for providing this additional info.
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Location: Kailua, Hawaii

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