NY Times review of Alex Stone's FOOLING HOUDINI

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Postby Richard Hatch » 06/21/12 03:15 AM

Here's a link to the NY Times review of the book Jamy Ian Swiss reviews in the current GENII: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/books ... .html?_r=1
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 06/21/12 10:40 AM

I thought Janet Maslin was one of their film critics.
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 06/21/12 12:59 PM

WHILE SMELLING COFFEE FUMES

Perhaps its useful and enlightening to read how outsiders perceive books about magic and our world?

Yes, we usually know more things about our world than the outsiders do, and we have sharpened and fortified our biases regarding every aspect. This also emboldens us to passionately argue and defend all that we know. Nevertheless, magicians who wish to operate and succeed in what they love to call the real world should pay close attention to whats being written and said in that world rather than what is blowing in the wind of our insular world. Being informed magicians we often assume that our superior knowledge and understanding makes us unsusceptible to being deluded ourselves. And we often misjudge our relative status in that real world and overate our abilities to persuade the power brokers that control the real world and in so doing, influence outcomes in our world. Our press and pundits over the years have vociferously criticized, demeaned, and savaged many of their ownDavid Copperfield, David Blaine, Criss Angel, Penn & Teller, Uri Geller, Kreskinto name a few. This is not to say that these magicians have not received their fair share of praise from time to time, but my point is that the perceptionsthe good, bad, and uglycoming out of the real world are often significantly different from ours. My main point is that we should take into account as much as we can from BOTH WORLDS. Then perhaps we can figure out how to proceeddepending on our goals, agenda, and desire to weigh in on the game.
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Postby Meir Yedid » 06/21/12 02:18 PM

The review I found most surprising, interesting and contrarian to our worldview was the one that appeared in Scientific American.

At:

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/lit ... -yourself/

You may like it or be disturbed by it, but you should read it.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 06/21/12 02:37 PM

From the Scientific American review:

"Though initially cowed by the magic communitys overwhelming insistence on a code of silence (one that even got him kicked out of his local magic chapter, after he published an expos in Harpers), he has since come to believe that the emphasis on secrecy is not only misplaced, but detrimental to the very practice of magic."

I'll repeat that: Alex Stone believes that "secrecy is ... detrimental to the very practice of magic."

That's what I call an imbecile, and it reveals the reviewer's complete lack of understanding of magic that she falls for this crap and then cites the knowing of spoilers in a work of fiction as analagous.

That's idiotic.

The correct analogy is to explain to a spectator that at the end of "this" trick, your finger ring will end up on my keychain. Then you do the trick and fool the spectator. The spoiler here is to explain the narrative of the trick in advance--including the ending, NOT HOW IT WORKS.
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Postby Alex Stone » 06/21/12 03:43 PM

Richard,

You're misrepresenting my position by quoting someone else's review of my book, and that's not fair. If you read my book you'll see that my argument is rather different. What I argue is that the militant obsession with secrecy and the belief that magic cannot exist without it is flawed. The notion that any amount of exposure is destructive to magic has not, in my view, been borne out by the facts. (I cite Penn & Teller as one example, but there are many others.) I think the knee-jerk hostility directed toward anyone who challenges the received view that one should never under any circumstances reveal the method to a trick ultimately does more harm than good, because it turns people off to magic and sells magic short. Petty name-calling doesn't help much either, as Jon rightly suggests.

The handful of methods I disclose in my book are meant to build appreciation for the craft of magic and illuminate the many fascinating scientific principles underpinning the art. It is my belief that this approach stimulates interest in magic, and I have yet to encounter a single non-magician who thinks otherwise.

I respect you as a magician and a writer, and Im sorry you find my views objectionable. I only wish we could have a more civilized debate.

Sincerely,

Alex Stone
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 06/21/12 03:50 PM

Alex, you are in the process of being defined by others' view of your work in the public press. You have to deal with that. If they misunderstand your point of view, you have to deal with that, too, because it becomes your point of view by default.

The explanation of magic tricks in books for the public, or in magic sets, is never something I've had any objection to. Of course not, I've done it myself! And I haven't said anything about whatever tricks you may explain in your book. I find fault in exposing the secrets of tricks without the intent to teach the reader how to perform magic.

What Penn & Teller do is something entirely different (and my opinion has evolved on this over the years), which is to create art through partial education, and then defy the thing they have taught the audience in order to create magic.
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Postby Ian Kendall » 06/21/12 04:57 PM

This debate seems to come around every year or so. Most of the time someone will pipe up with 'exposure doesn't matter, it's the performance. A good performer will still get good responses' and the like.

The problem with that is that magic does, like it or not, rely on secrets. To paraphrase Mike's definition, magic is something that has no explanation; exposing the method provides a clear explanation. Without the secret of the method, you do not have magic, only theatre.

Here's a wee experiment you might like to try. Take your pet magic routine, and a friend with a camera. Over the course of the evening, approach twenty groups; for ten of them, perform your routine as normal and video their reactions. For the next ten, explain exactly how you are going to perform the effect, and then do so. Video them and watch their reactions.

Compare the two sets of videos and then decide whether secrets make a difference to the effect.
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Postby Eric Fry » 06/21/12 06:07 PM

To the extent that magicians are obsessed with secrecy, it's in relation to laymen, not other magicians. There are plenty of exchanges of information among magicians and plenty of innovation in magic. If some magicians are stuck in a rut, it's not because of secrecy but their own inclination not to be original.

From my limited experience performing as an amateur, I'd say the spectators most pleased with my performances have been those who were thoroughly mystified. Their nature was to accept and enjoy the mystery, not because they turned off their brains but because they saw something their senses and minds, which were active, couldn't explain.

It's true that magicians can enjoy watching a performance of magic that doesn't mystify them. But I'm not sure we can expect, or would want, laymen to have the body of knowledge necessary to enjoy magic on that level. As I said, some people love the mystery. I'd hate for them to lose that.
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Postby El Harvey Oswald » 06/21/12 07:46 PM

This book is a non-event. As has already been fully covered, notably by Jamy Ian Swiss, the author's chief qualification is having failed with historic ineptness at FISM. Thereafter he bounced around as a serial dilettante in multiple fields, seemingly in search of notoriety, any notoriety. The penchant for exposure is among his less fatuous traits. On the promotional video he fumbles with cards and coins while flatulating the sort of facile ideas you're trapped enduring when seated next to a dullard on an airplane. Magic "tells us" much about . . . life! If charisma has an antonym, he possesses it in abundance. His knowledge of magic and the fields he purports to derive insights about is correspondingly thin. Were he a less awkward and unappealing presence, he might have, instead, been Tucker Max. As it is, his periodic reinvention will take place publicly, and we can celebrate not being him.
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Postby erdnasephile » 06/21/12 07:46 PM

While mechanistic secrets form only a part of a magical performance, it is the most critical part because if you don't fool the audience, it ain't magic.

Many far more eloquent than I (namely Haydn, Close, and Swiss) have described how they love to create this delicious dissonance wtihin the spectator: their brains know it can't be true, but their hearts know it must be. Without secrets, the former cannot occur and thus, this lofty goal can never be achieved without them.

IMHO, Stone's argument that magic can exist without secrets is only true if one equates performing magic to showing people clever ways things are done. While this might be fascinating or amusing to some audience members, it panders to a low denominator indeed.

Fortunately, many of us aspire to greater heights.
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Postby Ted M » 06/21/12 07:55 PM

These discussions about secrets are often overly simplistic. Who likes to watch magic more than magicians -- the people who know more about its workings than anybody???

There are many different ways for an audience to experience a magic performance. To some extent this is shaped by the performer, and to some extent this is shaped by each audience member.

Some experiences focus on the power, presence and personality of the performer.

Some focus on the notion that supernatural powers may be in play.

Some focus on a narrative journey.

Some focus on novelty and/or surprise.

Some focus on the adventures of the props in the performer's hands.

Some focus on aesthetic grace.

Some focus on visual spectacle.

Some focus on problem-solving.

Some focus on immersion in the counter-intuitive.

Some focus on discerning reality from illusion.

Some focus on sheer impossibility and defiance of physical laws.

Some focus on mastery of skills.

Some focus on a power struggle between the performer and those who feel tricked.

Knowledge of secrets interacts with some of these experiences, but not all. Some are enhanced, while others are diminished.

This subject holds a complexity which has not been generally explored, but its exploration requires subtlety. Penn himself may be personally brash, but the ostensibly brash exposure pieces in Penn & Teller's act are, as Richard notes, unexpectedly subtle, multi-layered and complex in their operation and effect on the viewer. Jim Steinmeyer's Hiding The Elephant explores secrets in a way that offers its audience a far more thoughtful way to experience box illusions.

I would argue that Corinda and Slydini explored some of this territory on stage with their Powers of Darkness and Paper Balls Over the Head routines. The audience knows the secret, but how many would prefer to be that one person who didn't, and so was able to experience wonder?

The Masked Magician had no such intellectual goals. Does Alex Stone? Not having read the book, I can't tell. But from the reports I'm reading, it appears he may claim a more sophisticated approach than he actually delivers.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 06/21/12 10:16 PM

erdnasephile wrote:While mechanistic secrets form only a part of a magical performance, it is the most critical part because if you don't fool the audience, it ain't magic...


If we come across as looking to fool (=make others seem/feel the fool by demonstrating their ignorance or methods) rather than to deceive in context of entertainment - it could be that we are not representing our craft so much as embarrassing ourselves in public.

Can we keep our "mechanistic secrets" and more generally the means/how to out of frame in our discussions of things that audiences care to attend?
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 06/21/12 10:57 PM

Ted M is onto something...and, yes, the topic of secrets and exposure is cyclical. It doesn't take long for fellow commentators to reach the same impasses that inhibited their explorations from being deeply penetrating and philosophically satisfying in the past...Perhaps most of us have reached congenial conclusions on these matters long ago? If so, we are likely to do what we always do when this subject resurfaces: wink, nod, yawn, rant, and move on to seek whatever novelties remain to peak our imaginations.
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Postby erdnasephile » 06/21/12 11:14 PM

Jonathan Townsend wrote:
erdnasephile wrote:While mechanistic secrets form only a part of a magical performance, it is the most critical part because if you don't fool the audience, it ain't magic...


If we come across as looking to fool (=make others seem/feel the fool by demonstrating their ignorance or methods) rather than to deceive in context of entertainment - it could be that we are not representing our craft so much as embarrassing ourselves in public.


I agree.
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Postby Brian Morton » 06/21/12 11:49 PM

"I am not exposing the weaknesses of magicians; I am revealing their strengths. This book has been written with a spirit of respect and admiration for the great men and women of magic whose methods are described within these pages. An art form is only as great as the innovative people who create within it, and the artistic mastery of the great magical personalities should be shared with every newcomer to the craft."Herbert L. Becker, "101 Greatest Magic Secrets Exposed."

Magic is a science as well as an art, writes Stone, and in science, knowledge serves only to deepen the mystery. Each new find opens vistas on an unchartered territory at the edge of human understanding. Nestled within each answer lies another riddle in an endless stream of unknowns.Alex Stone, as quoted by Maria Konnikova in Scientific American.

"The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter."Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, "The Maltese Falcon."
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Postby CraigOusterling » 06/22/12 01:35 AM

When you expose techniques and methods, I must attempt to avail any person questioning me whom has seen YOU... on TV... In the press... SELLING YOUR *STUFF*. Well Bravo to YOU for collecting $ for making my job, life, and hobby more complex.

Thank YOU for making it MORE COMPLEX to perform for friends, the public, and anyone else whom have experienced YOU.

The only thing that would make me appreciate YOU more now is if you WIN the Darwin awards.

Impromptu I can re-engineer a routine to entertain a person or group who has knowledge of how an illusion is done. YOU will keep making $ exposing those fresh ideas and routines (that come from me). I sincerely thank you for keeping me on my toes.

Here is a GREAT trick for you...
Have you ever seen the back of my hand? Step right up and let me give you a closer look.
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Postby El Harvey Oswald » 06/22/12 02:36 AM

" I must attempt to avail any person questioning me whom has seen YOU"


I'm going to venture a guess that this book isn't one of the top-1000 things burdening you as a performer.
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Postby El Harvey Oswald » 06/22/12 02:39 AM

"Ted M is onto something."

Agree; Ted M. set out his framework very elegantly and provocatively.

By contrast, an insipid "for secrets"/"against secrets" goes nowhere, and has even less nuance than this not-very-good book.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 06/22/12 06:20 AM

El Harvey Oswald wrote:"Ted M is onto something."

Agree; Ted M. set out his framework very elegantly and provocatively. ...


@Ted M's position:
In reading that post I felt led to ask myself: Would any (all?) of those dynamics change if the entire audience were completely informed in advance of the program items, the stage rigging/lighting, had copies of the cue sheets and a correct and up to date knowledge of each item/sleight used in the performance?

IMHO most of not all of them would would shift so far as to make attending a magic show about the same as watching someone stack cups or demonstrate items from a magic catalog as instructional video.

IMHO tainting the audience's experience of the show with backstage concerns is not a good thing - back to Pope's lines about drinking Deep (if at all) from the Pyrian spring / A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
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Postby El Harvey Oswald » 06/22/12 06:36 AM

No doubt it's preferable that there be true surprise, and that secrets not be known. Yet I doubt very much that there will be a meaningful comprehension and retention by readers of this book that translates to any marked loss of enjoyment by those attending magic performances. A detailed explanation of the Zarrow Shuffle could lead the NBC Nightly News tomorrow, and for the rest of time, with zero consequence for those who do a good Zarrow Shuffle. The post at the Magic Castle Facebook page fulminating that this author exposed a false coin transfer -- and on TV! Canadian TV!! -- is just the same rote exposure blather that's more about expressing a sort of "magician solidarity" than actually expressing a substantial thought. While "illusionists" and those prone to referring to "Our Art" often take the same simpleton position on exposure, beveled bases and other equally transparent methods and redundant effects were making for tepid performances long before there was a Masked Magician.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 06/22/12 07:57 AM

EHO - the fact that we continue to have religion as an accepted and valued component in our societies should suffice to remind us that most people place great value on sentimental experiences of awe, reverence and wonder - of which the latter we are entrusted to offer in small doses.

No need to digress with examples of people in our craft demonstrating the validity of Pope lines referenced earlier. Many don't progress so far as to become sophomoric and IMHO there's little offered to reward those who strive to the sobriety mentioned by Pope. ;)
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 06/22/12 08:07 AM

Eric Fry wrote:To the extent that magicians are obsessed with secrecy, ...


We could do with a parallel to the line about 'for the love of money is the root of all evil' for magicians. Perhaps the love of secrets is the root of all exposure would serve?

@Alex - I will give your book a read as soon as I can acquire a copy. To date my position on attempting to gain respect for the craft by way of backstage education is that it's not a suitable path - as we live in an information age and most know that knowledge=power and likewise in an economy of attention where novelty and facile distractions trump insight into the classics at watercooler conversation.

Any thoughts on Aristophanes's play The Birds? ;) The flock here sometimes reminds me of Henson's Dark Crystal birdlike creatures, Skeksis.
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Postby El Harvey Oswald » 06/22/12 09:03 AM

While I would agree that a type of sentimentality perpetuates religion, I don't think it's the kind related to awe and wonder
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 06/22/12 09:38 AM

? awe shifts perspective and (imho) wonder leads to hope.
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Postby El Harvey Oswald » 06/22/12 11:49 AM

I don't do the A.W.E Shift.
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 06/22/12 03:19 PM

Good one, El Harvey!
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 06/22/12 08:54 PM

This sucks:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/24/opini ... k.html?hpw
Alex Stone decides to teach the entire readership of the New York Tims exactly how to perform a retention vanish.

Somehow I think we're going to see more of this.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 06/22/12 09:43 PM

I don't understand the purpose of describing the sleight or misrepresenting the principle that makes the "illusive" pass work.

There are other ways to demonstrate the active workings of our visual perception that don't depend on spending a year in front of a mirror practicing a sleight. Check out this image which seems to move as your eyes wander. :)

IIRC our mental image is built out of perceptions and those are in turn built out of features. Building a large field of vision mental image that seems to move smoothly even when we move our heads, blink or sneeze is a remarkable (IMHO astonishing) feat of illusion on its own.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 06/22/12 10:04 PM

Jonathan Townsend wrote:I don't understand the purpose of describing the sleight . . .


To generate more publicity for the book.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 06/22/12 10:58 PM

With the permission of the author, I'm posting Jamy Ian Swiss's review of "Fooling Houdini" right here. For those who haven't read their July issue of Genii yet, or don't get Genii, you'll find it adds much to the discussion here.

Books Reviewed
By Jamy Ian Swiss

Fooling Houdini
Alex Stone $26.99 (Reviewed in galley)
At the 2006 FISM close-up magic competition in Stockholm, Alex Stone, an ambitious journalist and amateur magician (who had gained entry to the competition thanks to an endorsement by the President of the Society of American Magicians), was red-lightedmeaning that he was stopped before completing his performance. Most red-lighting at FISM takes place because a performer runs over the allotted time, but Mr. Stone was the only act in the close-up competition (and one of few ever) to be given the hook because his performance was so utterly execrable and below par.

In some dimension of time and space, a man might, in the face of such public humiliation, retire to private self-contemplation, lick his wounds, and perhaps venture forth gingerly to beg forgiveness from those whose lifes work and art he had so publicly sullied. But to quote Richard Kaufman, who offered this comment on the Genii Forum in the wake of Mr. Stones next public step, People like to fail in public these days. A good wallow in your own failure is sometimes the road to success.

That next public step of Mr. Stones, proving Mr. Kaufmans prescience, was to write a 13-page feature article about his FISM experience in the July 2008 issue of Harpers magazine. Far from appearing embarrassed much less contrite, he took the opportunity to brag about his hard work and magic expertise, strutting his personal sense of intellectual and moral superiority over his fellow competitors and the larger community of magic, while posing as a working pro. Although in possession of an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard, Mr. Stone had apparently been absent the day his class learned the meaning of hubris.

The title of the piece that Harpers blared across the cover of the magazine was The Magic Olympics with Tricks Explained! And explain them Mr. Stone did, with gusto, illustrations, and in great quantity. Harpers editors, perhaps desperate to find an audience for a piece that risked being of interest only to the magic community (not exactly the magazines core readership), appear to have pressed the author to litter his article with abundant if meaningless explanations of magic methods, while they would advertise those contents right in the headline. Tricks explained! would doubtless sell more copies than Loser Loses.

To this reader it was difficult to decide which was more offensive: the writers preposterous conceit, or the wholesale quantity of gratuitous exposure (including the Muscle Pass, the Topit, the one-ahead principle, Retention Vanish, classic palm, Spellbound change, Tenkai Palm, Pickup Move, and believe it or not, much more). In the closing paragraphs of the piece, Stone managed to proudly display both facets in close proximity: first by exposing the method of an extraordinary signature illusion currently in use by a prominent creator and performer; then, in his final judgmental paragraph, promptly declaring it something brilliant, yes, but also sad. Was the illusion sad? The illusionist? The method? Or was it just the writer?

With his article as a springboard, the dauntless Mr. Stone now continues his pursuit of magic-based income with a new book, Fooling Houdini. The book opens with a 19-page reprise of The Magic Olympics. While Stone still cant resist mentioning a Topit or pointing out that Jeff McBride carries a thumbtip in his fanny pack, he now sings a different song about his experience at FISMdoubtless having been schooled by an editor or publisher in the notion that while a testament to the naked arrogance of youth might serve America (or at least the subset of us that subscribes to Harpers) for 13 pages, it was not likely to sustain consumers for a book-length read. Hence the author now claims that, nothing compares to the disgrace of being red-lighted in the middle of your act. I hadnt just lost, Id been humiliated. Id been eliminated because I was genuinely bad. I had no business trying to pas myself off as a world-class magician. A world-class hack was more like it. A champion loser. Mr. Stone is apparently capable of turning the occasional accurate sentence about himself, if nothing else in order to appear appealingly vulnerable to his readership, at least for awhile. But he cannot completely conceal his true self for the duration of the ride.

According to the press materials, Fooling Houdini recounts Stone's quest to join the ranks of master magicians. Along the way, the author manages to: attend Mystery School (which he learns about, sometime after his FISM escapade, via an internet search!); attach himself to a mentor (namely Wesley James, whom he profiles respectfully); meet Richard Turner; take the School for Scoundrels class on street scams; execute a false shuffle and cut in a social poker game without getting caught, and wonders if he will be able to resist the temptation to cheat in future games; take part in a small sample neuroscience experiment in New York City based on his ability to steal watches (one wonders what the results would be with a larger sample not only of subjects but of watch stealers of variant skill levels); attend Mindvention (and flatly asserts that the current interest in mentalism is in part due to the sluggish economy; no reference is provided.); attends clown school (your joke here); learns the Faro Shuffle; meets Dave Bayer, who co-authored with Persi Diaconis their famous 1992 paper, Tracking the Dovetail Shuffle to its Lair; and eventually enters the 2010 I.B.M. Gold Cups competition. And loses. You were expecting miracles?

Its an engaging outline for a book pitch, but our tour guide has precious little to offer in the way of genuine expertise or visionary insights discovered along his path. Alex Stone seems simultaneously a BS artist and a born mark; he believes the outlandish PR claims of others as readily as he hopes others believe his own. To declare authoritatively that a New York City Monte mob can pick up $10,000 in an afternoon is just laughable. Mr. Stone should check the mirror and wipe that chalk mark off his jacket (after he looks up what that means). Perhaps he might also check into the veracity of the anecdote he repeats about a flock of magicians doves flying across the Mexican border to find their owner (hint: wrong kinda doves). And when you start repeating the claims of Uri Geller as journalism, its time to hire a new fact checker.

Heres a partial sampling of more facts that Mr. Stone fails to check: He insists that magicians believe that it is actually a rule to never repeat a trick, as if he is the first to discover otherwise (when in actuality it is simply a safe guideline for beginners). He claims that Dai Vernons fooling of Houdini was what won Vernon his legendary standing in the magic world, and simultaneously rendered the Ambitious Card a standard. (Im not kidding, and neither is he.) He claims that the phrase Show me your Ambitious Card is a common greeting among conjurors. (Maybe we hang out in different circles.) He is apparently entirely unaware of John Thompsons standing in the magic community, and is equally oblivious to the fact that The Great Tomsoni is a deliberately ironic take on a stage name. Near as I can tell, he appears to describe Vernons New Theory Second Deal as the Sure Theory deal, without knowing its origin. He believes a Monte operator, with a single sleight, single trick repertoire, is an excellent magician. (In the interests of full disclosure, some statements about this writer are seriously in error as well [albeit those details may be corrected in the final publication].) And although he lives in New York City, he apparently doesnt know where its garment district is (he could have tried Wikipedia).

But perhaps the most fundamental gap in Mr. Stones limited grasp of magic, which he repeatedly displayed in his Harpers piece and continues to maintain in this book, is his insistence that magic begins and ends with the ability to fool people. This notion of course marks him as a neophyte (hes certainly not alone in the assumption, its just remarkable that hes still stuck there after all this time and effort), but he still declares that magic competitions are based almost entirely on the ability of competitive magicians to fool other magicians, and that The social order of this rapidly growing subculture is based largely on who fools whom. Im no fan of magic contests and indeed have been a frequent critic over the years, and it is certainly true that some contest successes are due to the audience and judges having been fooled, but really, just a glance from Mr. Stones silly vantage would lead one to wonder how Lance Burton managed to win the Grand Prix with his exquisitely executed act of classical material, or for that matter how Shawn Farquhar took the close-up Grand Prix by closing on an Ambitious Card routine. Is it possible there were some other qualities being rewarded?

His inability to progress beyond this narrow viewpoint however is partly due to the fact that he possesses no broader aesthetic vision than this of the core artistic nature of magic. He quotes Tamariz: Magic is an art that has two characteristics that separate if from other arts It should be impossible and it should be fascinating. But Stone demonstrates no comprehension of what this means, nor of the nature of the why and how and what the experience of mystery means to magic, magicians, and our audiences. Fascinating? Tamariz is speaking a language Stone is incapable of understandingand I dont mean Spanish.
But Stone also insists on exaggerating the importance of secrets so that he can then pretend to be an upstart challenger to the status quo. On the one hand he says that magicians value fooling one another over all else (an idea he clearly adhered to himself in the Harpers piece); in the next breath he huffs and puffs and blows down his straw man. Are secrets really the sole source of a magicians power? Stone asksas if no one has ever posed the question before (and apparently having never read David Devants response when he was ousted by the Magic Circle). But like most who use magic for self-promotion above all else, the only real value he sees in secrets lies in exposing methods for his own profit.

As compared with the Harpers article, exposure is the least of the books flaws and there is far less of it by volume, but Stone still chooses to fill a great deal of space presenting lengthy, convoluted, and self-contradictory defenses about his use of it. He compares magic secrets to baseball color commentary, impervious to any difference between art and sport. He apologizes to Wes James for the Harpers exposures, but when the S.A.M. threatens to expel him he tries to challenge the attempt in a fit of pouty indignation. Stone dismisses the value of secrecy at every turn and never acknowledges any understanding of the special role it plays in magic. If Id published my article in MAGIC magazine or Genii, no one would have complained, he observes, simultaneously outraged and mystified. The scandal came about because I wrote the article for Harpers, a mainstream magazine for laypeople. That he fails see the difference simply confirms a callow perspective. No matter how desperately you may desire peer recognition in the magic world, you have to earn it from within that world; no quantity of public articles and books will buy it for you. I once watched Alan Ace Greenberg perform a copper/silver routine at an afternoon show at the Fechters convention. Nobody cared that he was a billionaire. They would only judge him on the performanceand he knew it, and embraced the fact. This is the nature of meritocracy.

Stone even asks, regarding the difference between publishing for the artistic community versus for the public, And by publishing your material, dont you renounce all claims to secrecy? Actually, Mr. Stone: we dont. We might do so in the legal sense; but if the only thing you have is the courts to determine your sense of right and wrong, youre living a questionable moral life. Like so many artistic communities, magicians do not rely on mere legalities to determine our artistic and moral choices. There are more things in art and magic than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I myself have written that exposure is not very important, certainly not a moral issue, and that magic has sometimes benefited from it and will always survive it. But significantly, I also wrote (in Decent Exposure from Shattering Illusions [Hermetic Press, 2002]), If you have a sincere artistic motive, then do whatever you want and I will support you.

And thats the problem. Search Stones article, search the book, and I cant find an idea behind his use of exposure. Thats a far cry from the work of Penn & Teller, whom he tries to invoke in his defense. So while it could take another thousand words to address every fatuous defense Stone offers concerning the subject, I will simply leave it at this: his dependence on exposure is no moral crime. Rather it is merely like so much bad art: short on both taste and substance alike.

Mr. Stone touches on a variety of interesting subjects in his booksubjects he begins by knowing nothing about and ends by knowing a little more. But are there beautiful ideas, incisive leaps, maybe just some fine examples of the craft of the essay, or even an elegant turn of phrase to enjoy? Not so much. Mr. Stone is a confirmed dilettantebe it as magician, physicist, or literary stylist. And as for journalism, there is no subject here about which you cannot find far superior sources from which to learn.

Consider Stones discovery of the iconic Diaconis and Bayer paper, which determined that seven Riffle Shuffles are required to achieve a threshold of what we will simply refer to here as a random mix (without further defining that threshold). When Mr. Stone attempts to explain this to his readership, he then, in a fit of Nicholson Bakeresque deep footnotery, provides a footnote of approximately three-quarters of a page of reasons why the number seven is what? There are seven days in a week, seven primary colors, seven seas, seven phases of the moon, seven dwarves . This appears to be Mr. Stones notion of what constitutes an idea (or a sophomoric joke): to type number seven into Wikipedia and then use the results to add to his page count.
Thanks to Professor Bayer, Stone then comes upon a mysterious Diaconis card routine based on a mathematical principle known as the De Brujin sequence. The trick and its method are discussed in the recently published Magical Mathematics by Diaconis and Graham [reviewed in September 2011 Genii]. Stone then adopts this trick for his own use in competition, claiming to improve upon it; he neglects to recognize that the smaller packet version that Diaconis chose to use was a deliberate choice in order to clearly illustrate a point in his lectures. That Stone imagines he solved a problem that was in fact already long solved, much less that he saw something in it that the MacArthur Award-winning Diaconis had missed, reveals Stone for his true self. This is a man who takes an eight-hour workshop at The Magic Castle and pronounces, by the end of the workshop I felt like an expert. And later: I was an ace at the Three-Card Monte and could have started my own mob if Id wanted to. His capacity for bravado is apparently limitless, while he reaches the end of his quest as jejune as he began. When he enters the I.B.M. competition and loses, he pats himself on the back and pronounces himself redeemed when, in a moment suited for the Oxygen channel, he smiles at Obie OBrienwho was a judge at Stones FISM ejection and sits in judgment again at the I.B.M. contestand Obie smiles back at him. Cue strings! You go, girl!

Stones absurdly inflated sense of self is frequently rendered as transparent as his sleight-of-hand technique, putting the lie to his attempts at false modesty. So, while I regretted having offended the people whod devoted their lives to magic, as time went by I also felt a renewed commitment to rethink the traditions many of them espoused. And this: Magic exists in a kind of vacuum. My goal in writing the Harpers article was to pump some life into this vacuum. And there it is! Where oh where would we be without Alex Stone?

And that, in sum, seems the story of the man, the magician, the writer. In a magazine piece, a man who claims to be an expert offering insights into an artistic pursuit and community in fact reveals himself to be a novice who doesnt understand what hes trying to explain. Seeing the errors of his ways, he writes a book about his new path toward true mastery, guiding the readership through a yet more sophisticated tour. But in fact he remains at his core a perpetual naf, attacking a broader catalog of subjects but delivering no more than a superficial gloss of each. He ends as he begins, pumped with all the puerile grandiosity of a high school student, leaving himself and his reader little better off than whence they began.

Want to learn about Three-Card Monte? Read Whit Haydn or a dozen other standard sources, many available to the public. Interested in neuroscience and magic? Consider Sleights of Mind by Macknick and Martinez-conde. Interested in math and magic? Try Magical Mathematics by Diaconis and Graham. Want to learn about magic? Read a book written by a real magician.

In 2006, the actor Jason Alexander performed an original act for a week at The Magic Castle and went on to win Parlour Magician of the Year from the Academy of Magical Arts. In a subsequent on-stage interview with John Lovick at the Magic Live! conference, an audience member asked if Alexander had been at all nervous in any of his shows. He explained that despite his extensive experience in live theater, in fact he had been extremely nervous in every one of his 21 Castle performances. Why? As closely as I can recall, he said, I didnt want to be the [censored] celebrity who came to mess with your art and then [screwed] it up. With tears in my eyes, I leapt to join the standing ovation.

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind * by Alex Stone * 6 x 9 hardcover * 2012 * 320 pages * not illustrated * Harper * $26.99 * Reviewed in galley *
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Postby Meir Yedid » 06/22/12 11:09 PM

Ricky Jays take on the book:

Mr. Stone's misrepresentations of the magician's art are infuriating. We are asked to accept the pontifications of a tyro with no credentials, achievements, or noteworthy skills in his chosen hobby, though his amateur status is not the problem per se: the terms "amateur" and "professional" have no bearing on accomplishments or expertise in the magic artthere exist both great amateurs and poor professionals. To perform magic and fool people is easy. To perform magic marvelously or create magic brilliantly is incredibly difficult. Not to know the difference means you should not be writing a book. In the words of David Mamet, "never open your mouth till you know what the shot is."

To read the full Wall Street Journal Review go to:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142 ... 87644.html
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 06/22/12 11:25 PM

Strike two!
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Postby El Harvey Oswald » 06/23/12 02:11 AM

Despite being reluctant to partly part ways with RK, Ricky Jay and Jamy Ian Swiss, and suspecting I might well change my mind, I have to come down on the side of finding the NY Times piece interesting, and the description of the retention vanish useful in illuminating the point it makes. This example perhaps best exemplifies the author's point about secrets as, arguably, even if a spectator happened to fully retain this piece's description of the vanish, the experience of seeing it performed wouldn't be diminished, and it might be enhanced. How is this different from the "Sleights of Mind" book, except that book having been dressed up in the more dignified field of neuroscience? Additionally, speaking of "retention," it seems unlikely that people will retain any of the exposure in this book to a meaningful degree. That said, few of his other examples are so compelling, and the broader, more informed critiques/reviews above are entirely valid. (And when will someone insist that his publisher not opt opt for the insipid inclusion of "Houdini" in the title of a magic book that's not at all about Houdini? It doesn't happen every time; but this isn't the first time.)
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Postby Don Hendrix » 06/23/12 02:17 AM

I don't believe that the "Sleights of Mind" book revealed any "real" secrets.
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Postby El Harvey Oswald » 06/23/12 02:40 AM

My recollection is that "Sleights of Mind" did in fact reveal secrets/methods, though perhaps the "real" distinction identifies things more likely to actually be performed.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 06/23/12 03:37 AM

? They came [] close to exposing the Nemo 1500.
Their website is interesting and the illusion of the year link is worth exploring too
http://illusioncontest.neuralcorrelate. ... ists/2012/
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 06/23/12 09:44 AM

Some have argued that books attempting to explain in terms of neuroscience HOW the brain (mind?) is deceived (fooled?) reveal "real" secrets of magic. These are books explore underlying, basic, nitty-gritty principles. Books that expose step-by-step methods of specific tricks ("Flying," "Vanish of the Statute of Liberty," egg bag, Himber wallet, nail writer, one-ahead, etc.) are another matter...They are less abstract and specifically detrimental.

There was a time when magic books meant for the fraternity were largely sub rosa. They were not sold in main-stream book stores. They made their way into public libraries, but books like Greater Magic, Tarbell, Bobo, and others stayed out of the hands of the public for the most part. Back then it was also a much different political-ethical issue when a fellow magician went public with SPECIFIC secrets...and reaction (from the community of magicians) was to expel, censure, and castigate all perpetrators. (By the way, the list of "perps" is long and include many celebrated names.)

These days there appears to be a voracious appetite for exposure and transparency...everything from tell-all books, WikiLeaks, TMZ, and relentless searches for "smoking guns" and so on...Show me a "secret" and there is likely a posse somewhere hellbent to "uncover" and exploit it.

Anyone who has written a magic book that divulges secrets knows that once such a book is published, the secrets are "out there" to be potentially protected, honored, and constructively utilized by caring magicians. However, on the other sinister hand, if these secrets can be bought, borrowed, stolen, copied, and promulgated by "anyone" with money and wherewithal, they are vulnerable and can be more widely exposed and stripped of their potency.

Do we or should we admit a curious irony here?
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Postby erdnasephile » 06/23/12 12:55 PM

Jon Racherbaumer wrote:
...These days there appears to be a voracious appetite for exposure and transparency...everything from tell-all books, WikiLeaks, TMZ, and relentless searches for "smoking guns" and so on...Show me a "secret" and there is likely a posse somewhere hellbent to "uncover" and exploit it...


I'm not certain if the voracious appetite for secrets is necessarily greater than in times past, but I do think the Internet and the Age of Information have led to the notion that any type of knowledge should be free for the taking. This false notion has led a wide variety of current magical sins.

If there is one silver lining to the Stone episode, it is the fact that to access the information he is peddling (such as it is), the would-be secret monger at least has to make the effort to read. In that sense, it's much preferable to the Masked Magician, YouTube tutorials, and lousy magicians who do far more damage with their visual specific exposes (intentional or unintentional).
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Postby Lisa Cousins » 06/23/12 03:44 PM

While I'm outraged that he gave away our "Show me your Ambitious Card" greeting, I'm relieved he said nothing about our secret handshake, or the workings of our decoder rings.
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