Books-Publications

Every Trick Not In The Book

For my recent lecture at the Sid Lorraine Hat & Rabbit Club, I put together a small set of notes called Every Trick Not In the Book. The reason for the title is the contents is largely essays, although a careful reading will reveal the explanation of a couple of tricks inside. The cover image actually comes from the Hubble Space Telescope. I have a small number of copies left over. If anyone would like one, I broken down and set up a miniature store at www.jamesalan.ca/shop. It's a secret unlisted page that can't be reached through the site's normal navigation bar.

Every Trick Not In The Book

So Anyway... (The Book)

I've just finished reading the new memoir from the great John Cleese, So Anyway...

I have long had a special place in my heart for British comedy. When I'm setting up for my shows and need to do a sound check, rather than blandly recite "testing one two three", I'm usually reciting passages from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

When I was much younger, my employer at the time asked me what I thought of "Monty Python" and I told him I didn't really know what that was. It was autumn at the time and some time later I was handed a package for Christmas (I was too young to put two and two together at that point and they were exceptionally generous to me at that point and it could have been anything.) But Christmas morning I opened it to discover the complete Monty Python's Flying Circus (in VHS - which does give you some sense of my age). I promptly watched the lot and fell in love.

John Cleese was a particular favourite from the troupe. His material was physically distinctive - you could spot Cleese from across the room, whereas if you were to put them in drag (which for those unfamiliar with Python, happens frequently) I couldn't tell Terry Jones from Michael Palin. The Ministry of Silly Walks and the Self Defence Against an Attacker Armed With Fresh Fruit were particular favourites and I also enjoyed the iconic Parrot Sketch.

This clearly played a role in the decision to have Magic Tonight at The Bear in Pickering:

Silly Walking at The Bear

What I also discovered some many years later was that Cleese was fascinated by creativity and actually gives talks on the subject. (One such talk available here with lovely subtitles). It simultaneously strikes me as odd and makes complete sense how extremely funny people take the process of being funny so seriously. When they're on stage (or camera or wherever) you are watching them be funny and you don't get a sense of the thought process behind it. There really is an art and a science behind comedy, which you seldom realize because expert comic performers so rarely give the impression of being artful or scientific. Like magic, it's one of those areas where the purpose of the skill is to disguise the fact that you have the skill in the first place.

The book is also a really valuable source of advice for performers - especially new performers. Every few pages, he offers up one of those "If only I had known that back when..." tidbits. Tips on writing, performing, rehearsing, getting over nerves, timing the delivery of a joke. While the memoir portion the memoir is interesting, it's second to me as its usefulness a stage manual for life.

Most importantly the book is most definitely funny. If you want people to look at you funny (funnily?) put it on your iPad and read it on the treadmill at the gym and see what happens as you burst out laughing periodically.

Not Quite Ironic

When I returned home from performing last night (at a wedding... with two brides... isn't the twentieth century awesome?) to find the latest issue of Genii Magazine in my mailbox.  This issue contains a trick I submitted to them for publication several months ago and it has appeared. No one told me exactly when it was going to appear, so it was quite a pleasant surprise to see it. Genii has been around for over seventy-five years and I'm surrounded by some rather illustrious company. It feels a bit like a high school student sneaking into a really cool college party.

The trick is called "Card Under Irony" which is a strange variation of the modern classic trick, "Card Under the Drink". Before it was published, there was spirited debate here in Toronto as to whether the trick should have been called "Card Under Irony" or "Card Under Foreshadowing". Eventually it was decided both were equally appropriate and equally confusing so we flipped a coin.

It shows up on p44 in the Magicana column, edited by Andi Gladwin.

One small correction: somehow Photo 5 got inverted. So when you get to that part of the description, it's best to do a head stand to view the photo. Otherwise when you try to learn the trick you'll be confused when you're required to magically teleport a card from the left to the right side of the table.

One large correction: those hands aren't mine! Really the wedding ring should give that away. I'm still quite single and will happily accept suitors who enjoy card tricks.

If you don't already subscribe to Genii, you can do so here.

The Improbability Principle

Much to my surprise, it was quite a busy summer with a lot of time spent travelling between events. Everyone settling into the back-to-school routine has afforded me a little break and I’ve been catching up on my non-magical reading and there has been some really interesting stuff which I wanted to share.

 

That title probably seems wildly contradictory. How can improbable things happen every day?

One of the most important lessons you can learn is that when it comes to estimating probability, the human brain sucks. It sucks really bad. Of course it's not the brain's fault, it was designed that way. But it's a handicap we all have to get over so we can function in the world. Ever since Math for Data Management in Grade 12, I've known that the results that come out of probability calculations are deeply counterintuitive. It's not just that if you try to guess the answer you might get the wrong answer. It's worse: If you try to guess the right answer, cognitive biases will kick in and you'll be almost guaranteed to get the wrong answer. This book is, broadly speaking, the explanation why.

So books like this are an incredible resource. The content runs parallel to the themes in The Uncertainty Project (sadly the book contains no drag queen) and is extremely straightforward and easy to follow. If you want to know one of the most important ways the universe doesn't work the way you think it does, this is for you.

Waking Up

Sam Harris Waking Up

Much to my surprise, it was quite a busy summer with a lot of time spent travelling between events. Everyone settling into the back-to-school routine has afforded me a little break and I've been catching up on my non-magical reading and there has been some really interesting stuff which I wanted to share.

The release of Sam Harris' new book, Waking Up, comes almost exactly ten years after the release of his first book, the game-chaning, The End of Faith, which was the catalyst which ignited the so called "New Atheist" publishing revolution. That revolution yielded bestsellers like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and Breaking The Spell and did, to a large extent, change the way religion was discussed in public.

This book is in some sense his least controversial. It's slightly more difficult to argue with the results of scientific research than it is to abstract claims about faith, morality and free will. It may also be the most useful since it's directed at the individual instead of society at large.

Sam explains how to explore notions of spirituality and transcendence while keeping your efforts separate from all of the religious and new age mysticism and woo that often clutters things up. Spirituality is a loaded term. Christopher Hitchens used to try and discuss it calling it the "numinous" which was wonderful, except it was a word that no one understood so that conversation couldn't really go anywhere. It's a tremendously important conversation that the secular community has been dodging for a long time.

Rather than just dismiss the experiences of millions of people we need to figure out how to embrace those experiences, carefully picking out the nonsense while retaining the genuinely useful benefits we can get from them.

A better Lie Detector

For those using the Lie Detector app which is part of Denis Behr's trick in Seventeen Secrets Volume 2he made a small update which improves the working. You should go to his site and redownload the app to get the slightly better version. The method behind the trick remains exactly the same, but the output of the app has been made slightly clearer, which makes the effect clearer in the eyes of the audience. The change came about because of suggestions from Dani DaOrtiz while he was in Toronto recently.

For those of you that bought the book but haven't tried the trick because of the [secret stuff] involved, you should. It's one of the most ingenious combination of diverse principles that I have ever come across and the result is an iPhone that appears as though it can read minds.

Denis Behr - Photo by Johan Duker