david ben

What it means to be "The Best"

Tonight I have tickets to a magic show which is not only strange, but strange for very strange reasons. I'm going to see the Wonders & Miracles Grand Illusion Show at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Downtown Toronto. 

Toronto being one of the magic capitals of the world so a new show being presented for one night only by a young performer is not that strange. What is so striking about the show is what it claims for itself. 

The show actually started out even stranger. Earlier versions of their promotional materials promised "magic from Copperfield's team" — a phrase which reeks of of marketing doublespeak — although that particular line on the poster vanished, presumably after a member of "Copperfield's team" took notice, replaced by the delightfully vague "world-class magic inventions with Las Vegas level production."  But that is beside the point. 

The show now claims to be "The Biggest Grand Illusion Show In Toronto!" [emphasis in the original] 

Perhaps, in my thirties, I am becoming so old and curmudgeonly that I expect these magicians in their early twenties to have done their homework. It's forgivable that they are unaware that Toronto had extended runs of Doug Henning's Spellbound, David Ben's The Conjuror, that James Randi speaks fondly in interviews of coming to Toronto to see Blackstone, or that the Sony Centre has hosted some guy named David Copperfield (where have I heard that name before?). Perhaps these aren't so much alternative facts as a convenient case of selective amnesia for the purposes of advertising.

But even without being annoyed with a disregard for those pesky things called facts, it speaks to a larger problem. Most magicians that I know of have something in their promotional material which states — with greater or lesser subtlety — that they are the greatest in their field. David Ben once related a self-deprecating remark used by his mentor, Ross Bertram: "I'm the number two magician. [Why?] Because everyone else seems to be number one." And while I do know a few people that I think can justifiably claim to be the foremost in their field without having to add too many circles to the Venn diagram, it doesn't explain how 80%* of performers can claim to be some version of the best, greatest, foremost, most amazing, etc. 

Perhaps it's the sheer amount of advertising we are exposed to. Gradually we numb to it all and so the superlatives need to level up or we won't take notice.

As discouraging as this is, it's worse to consider that the customer base for this type of entertainment buys into it. Imagine a parent in Brampton planning their child's birthday and believing that the "best" magician in Canada is coming to their party for $150 without a hint of cognitive dissonance. If that's the case, no wonder freelancers of all sorts are finding it difficult to get paid decent fees when the "world's finest" are just a Google search away.

I've tried to build a career free from hyperbole. Part of what has helped me to do that has been the privilege of spending time with those I do consider to be the best. It's a well documented fact that over 50% of drivers consider themselves to be above average... a mathematical impossibility. Robert Trivers, in The Folly of Fools, talked about the advantages self-deception can bring. If you really do believe, deep down inside that you are the undiscovered Champion of the Universe, then that confidence comes across and may give you an edge in that job interview. You can, perversely, actually benefit from being just the right amount of delusional.  

*Not based on a random sample.

Jerry Coyne on Free Will

The Imagine No Religion conference recently posted the video of Jerry Coyne's presentation at their fifth annual conference in Vancouver earlier this year. This talk was actually given before his talk about Faith Vs. Fact in Toronto, but the video has just appeared. It's a great talk. 

When it comes to free will, for me the writing has been on the wall since I was a teenager. From what I was reading at the time, it was clear that the concept was indefensible. It came up in the writings of Richard Feynman and Scott Adams' God's Debris offered up a concise reductio ad absurdum.

But even then, it wasn't a very straightforward argument. In order to make sense of the claim that our sense of free will is an illusion, it would have been necessary to go into a lengthy digression about physics and just what exactly we know about the universe (or at that age what I had read that other people knew, since I didn't know calculus yet.) Through the study of magic and illusion I found a much more straightforward illustration of why free will is an illusion (I'm not sure if that's irony or poetic justice.)

A member of a magic audience may be called upon to make choices. Do I choose the red scarf or the blue one? Do I take the $5 or the $20 out of my wallet? Do I touch this playing card or the one three quarters of an inch to the left? Now the choice may not matter. The trick can proceed exactly the same way regardless of which card you select. Or it's possible that the magician influences your choice in a way you are unaware of so that the choice you feel you are making is actually a choice being made by the magician.

David Ben, in his book Advantage Play, Coyned the term "virtual participation" to refer to this situation where the spectator feels like an active participant but in reality their actions are not influencing the outcome. This opens the door to a possibility which is (to some) frightening. There can be influences affecting the outcomes of your decisions of which you are completely unaware. 

If those influences can come from outside your body (a magician priming you to make a certain choice such that the cues go unnoticed), then they can come from inside your body. Your brain already does quite a bit of "thinking" that you are completely unaware of. You're not making any conscious effort to keep your heart beating. You breathe without thinking about it most of the time you're awake (and all of the time when you're asleep.) Once you acknowledge the possibility that your brain is doing thinking you're not aware of (and really at this point, it's a certainty, not a possibility) then the question becomes how much of this thinking is taking place? Free will isn't all or nothing; it's a sliding scale.

Even before you have to concede the kind of strict materialism Jerry suggests, you already have to admit that free will is at least severely limited.

Most people who attempt to rescue free will do so by redefining it back into existence. Daniel Dennett makes a convincing case for embracing a definition of free will which is compatible with physical determinism. Since the chemical mechanisms which underly our decision making are so intractably complex they are unpredictable to the point where, for all practical purposes, we can label them as free without any measurable loss in accuracy.

At first glance, this seems like a slightly sneaky thing to do. It's not without precedent though. Frequently in science as our understanding changes, we give updated definitions to old terms. So the definition of what constitutes an electron has changed since it was discovered, the thing we called the electron is still the same thing, but our understanding of it has changed such that the previous definition was problematic and incoherent.

So the idea of free will has been replaced by the feeling we experience of having free will. Nothing in the world practically changes. We don't all of a sudden become lifeless automatons. The question still remains for beings with finite access to information and finite computational power: What is the most responsible way to behave given the information we have available to us. So if our actions are so unpredictable that they might as well be free, then we are, for all intents and purposes free.

So just get on with the card trick.

The Conjuror Returns

David Ben is one of my favourite magicians alive (and I don't just say that because of the stack of incriminating photos he keeps hidden away!) After Christmas, Magicana is bringing his show The Conjuror to Soulpepper. The Conjuror was originally written by David Ben & Patrick Watson in the 90s and continues to evolve and magically reappear periodically. The run was just extended because the first ten shows were nearly sold out. So if you'd like something fun and truly magical to do during the holiday you can check out The Conjuror with the whole family. Tickets are available at www.SoulPepper.ca.

David Ben Michael Coren

David Ben discussing The Conjuror on Michael Coren's The Arena

Photo: Cylla von Tiedmann

David Ben sneaking up on me on the way to a show on the side of a streetcar.

Three Pillars of Magic Presentation

In The Books of Wonder (while I object, in principle, to "must-read" lists, if I didn't, these would be on mine), Tommy Wonder wrote about the three pillars. His pillars pertained to method. Briefly they were:

  1. Sleight of hand/manipulation
  2. Special apparatus/mechanical principles
  3. Psychological manipulation (which fall under the popular catch all term "misdirection")

All magic is made possible by these means, either separately in combination and Tommy was among those who regularly made use of all three. (You may argue that mathematical principles have been left out. While they don't fit well under any of these categories, I wouldn't personally grant them the status of a fourth pillar. They're just not that significant.)

The presentation of magic is supported similarly by three pillars. I believe that magic shows (I'm thinking of formal shows that have a given length, strolling or restaurant magic tends to be a bit too improvisational to pigeonhole like this) are based on three forms:

  1. Rock Concerts
  2. University Lectures
  3. Screenplays

Rock Concerts

A magic show is deeply reminiscent of a rock concert. The most important similarity is that bands play individual songs that do not reference one another. Each song is a complete entity and the decision about which songs go in which order is not determined by logic or plot, but instead by other factors like mood, or genre.

University Lectures

Lectures are in there because unlike a concert, where regardless of whether or not you are familiar with the band in particular, you do not require special instructions to listen to a love song or watch a dance number. With magic, on the other hand, the audience requires a lot more catching up. You may have to explain the rules of the Three Shell Game, or point out that you are using Morgan Silver Dollars. There is more exposition required to bring the audience to a point where they can appreciate what's going on.


I could have said theatrical play, but screenplay focuses more on the writing which I feel is more essential. A screenplay has interaction between characters in a natural way (this is usually the magician interacting with the audience. They also incorporate all of the elements of dramatic tension and build and also devices like callbacks.

In Practice

Every (good) magic show I have seen is based on these three forms. What distinguishes them is the amount to which they contain each. Here are three examples from my own experience. Each are respected the world over, but their styles of performance are quire different. Nevertheless, they still fit into this framework.

For example, Penn & Teller come across most like a rock concert. The tricks they perform are separate units with a lot of flexibility in the order of the tricks. But they still write each as a screenplay and they also provide a great deal of exposition so they are not based exclusively on a rock concert.

Mac King best exemplifies the screenplay, with the abundance of structure and callbacks.

David Ben has the greatest feeling of a lecture with an abundance of historical information and exposition, but tricks are still divided like individual songs with relatively few callbacks between pieces.

In my own show, Lies, Damn Lies & Magic Tricks, I tried to make it more like a screenplay than anything that came before it. With the help of James Biss, I think the result was fairly strong. The downside is that the show feels very much like an integrated unit and it's now difficult for me to take some of those pieces and perform them in other shows because of the way they've been tangled in with the larger whole.