harry potter

All Hail His Satanic Majesty

When I became a magician, I never thought I would have to post something like this. But this is just too absurd. It begins with a short YouTube clip sent to me by my friend Jamie Stam produced by a user named "Xendrius".  Here:

If you're a sensible human being, you probably started by laughing out loud. I commented with:

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 10.51.28 PM
Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 10.51.28 PM

Then... I read some more of the comments (even though I know that's bad for me). Now I go through this emotional waveform that oscillates between amusement and sadness ever twenty minutes or so. As usual, the comments thread is a scary, inhuman place where awful things happen.

In particular, some people were trying to point out, quite rightly that these were not demonic manifestations and that they had very natural and explicable causes which did not require or indicate supernatural involvement. (Spoiler alert: they're right.)

Side note: a good proportion of their explanations were partially or entirely correct, which reminds me of a piece of advice from the late Canadian magician Ross Bertram, "at least one person in the audience knows how each trick is done, though not necessarily the same individual." [1] To this day, my sphincter tightens audibly every time I go to check comments on a video.

The video's poster, replied with various explanations about how "they" didn't get it and couldn't accept evidence which was staring them in the face. He was joined in by other users who agreed with his conclusions - that these magic tricks were the work of demons.

The most dangerous ideologies are the ones that are self re-inforcing. That's one of the reason religions survive for so long in the face of contradictor evidence: every pronouncement is appended (explicitly or implicitly) with a footnote that says you have to agree with what we say or an invisible sky person is going to send you to a realm of ever-lasting fire... oh, and you're not allowed to talk to the invisible person directly to seek clarification.

In the case of poor Xendrius, he's concocted a conspiracy theory for himself. (Actually several theories if you read the titles of his other videos. This guy's so into the Illuminati, he'd probably glow at night... I'm sorry... I won't do that again... I'm sorry.) But conspiracy theories are vicious because a lack of evidence supporting coverup can be inverted to become evidence in favour of an even better coverup. But the smartest man in the world said it better:

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

There's a similar line of argument used by insecure performers - I think I may have been guilty of using it myself once or twice - where you can deflect any unwelcome criticism by saying "but they just don't get it." It's a dangerous statement because it amounts almost to a tacit agreement; "I've got no argument, so I'm just going to end the discussion abruptly."


I thought we were past this. I remember vividly - and it's only happened once  - when a group declined to watch me perform for religious reasons. Definitely a WTF moment. We're supposed to be smarter than this. People aren't supposed to believe in goblins and demons and hobbits. Dim-witted parents aren't supposed to try and ban Harry Potter books in schools because they don't understand how fictionworks. (Which is a double shame because they are wonderful books that ooze with virtues like compassion, diversity, enlightenment, honesty.) At least we agree we shouldn't burn witches... don't we?

Maybe the reason this problem has lingered so long, is a linguistic hiccup: real magic. Lee Siegel pointed it out perfectly:

By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers...Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic. [2]

This another one of my linguistic campaigns, I'm hoping that we can reclaim magic as a secular word, something that refers to things which happen in the real world.

Actually, Richard Dawkins suggested to me that I call myself a conjurer. While it sounds like a nice idea in principle, I have a hard enough time getting people to spell Alan properly.

It reminds me of what I put in the programme for the first performance of Lies, Damn Lies & Magic Tricks:

Everything I say is true, except for the bits I make up. All the magic in the show is real, depending on your definition of real.

[1] Bertram on Sleight of Hand, Ross Bertram, 1983

[2] Wonders and Deceptions in India, Lee Siegel, 1991

Why does the universe...

Why does the universe continue to do these bewildering things to me? [1] I wrote earlier about my decision to bump Moab is my Washpot to the top of my reading list. Somewhere, more or less in the middle, the learned author digresses into his early love of magic.

In particular, he talks about one of his favourite magic books, Expert Card Technique. This is considered one of the great twentieth century collections of card magic, something I own, something I have spent quite a bit of time with, and something which is still available today as an inexpensive Dover reprint.

I know many people have had a passing interest in magic when they were young. Mr. Fry seems to have had a much deeper understanding that most and his thoughts on the subject were inspiring to me.

Magic, in the form of close up sleight of hand in particular, is an art-form I venerate... My 'chops' as magicians call technique, are not of the first order, it takes the kind of practice a concert musician is prepared to put into his music to perform just the standard pass with a pack of cards...

One particular passage struck me:

I suppose those who not like or approve of magic sense firstly that magicians are the kind of disreputable or vengefully nebbish outsiders who relish putting one over on others and secondly that they themselves, as the victims of a trick, are not quite confident enough in themselves to take it laughingly.

While I don't expect absolutely everyone to enjoy magic, I always marvel at that small percentage that seem to resist enjoying a trick.

I hope it's not that someone has had a bad experience, being picked on or aggravated by a magician in the past. I wonder if I've done something to rub them the wrong way.

I suspect that no one ever explained real magic (the stuff of Harry Potter) isn't real and real magic (the stuff that magicians can actually do) is actually fake. We're not out to convince anyone that we have supernatural powers; we just like to have fun pretending we do. But it sets the stage for a weird metaphysical logical fallacy:

If I can't explain how the trick works, that must mean that it's real magic.

Of course it's a false dichotomy. If you don't consider "I don't know" to be a valid option - certainly most of us are uncomfortable admitting we don't know things - then you back yourself into a corner. And if it's a particularly skillful magician (meaning you won't be able to figure out how anything works) then you are forcing yourself to feel uncomfortable.

Of course, that's not bewildering, that's just a happy coincidence that I would share something neat like that in common with a longtime role model. The bewildering part is that the discussion of magic, is strangely close to a deep and thoughtful discussion of buggery...

The jokes just write themselves. Feel free to leave yours in the comments below.


[1] Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy