Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

Interview with Author and Magician Alex Stone

Interview with Author and Magician Alex Stone about his book "Fooling Houdini."

Alex Stone is the author of FOOLING HOUDINI: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Harper's, and Discover. He graduated from Harvard University and has a master's degree in physics from Columbia University. He lives in New York City. 

Why did you decide to write Fooling Houdini?

I’d been interested in magic and science pretty much all my life, so having the chance to write Fooling Houdini was a real gift. It allowed me to explore these two passions simultaneously and share them with other people. Not only that, but no one had written a book about the incredibly cool and strange and vibrant subculture that is the world of magic and magicians, a world I’d already been embroiled in for several years. I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a book about this community. I had to write it.

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Who fooled Houdini?

Dai Vernon, arguably the greatest sleight-of-hand magician of all time. At the height of his career, Houdini boasted that no magician could fool him three times with the same trick. One night, at a dinner held in Houdini's honor at the Great Northern Hotel in Chicago, Vernon executed a sequence in a trick known as the Ambitious Card, wherein a signed card rises to the top of the deck after being placed somewhere in the middle. Vernon repeated the effect eight times before Houdini and his wife walked out of the banquet hall in defeat. Magicians still perform the Ambitious Card to this day. It’s like the little black dress of magic. It never goes out of style.

What are the Magic Olympics?

The World Championships of Magic—a.k.a The Magic Olympics—is a triennial magic competition sponsored by the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques, or FISM, the world’s largest and most prestigious magic alliance. It’s a week-long affair in which the greatest conjurors from all around the world come together and compete for prizes in various categories—from card magic to mentalism to stage illusions. It’s the most important magic competition there is, with thousands of attendees and over a hundred competitors from dozens of different countries.

What’s “fakelore”?

Ha-ha. That’s just a funny word for all the manufactured hype and bravado one finds in the magic world.

I found your description of the blind magician Richard Turner fascinating.  How can you do magic if you’re blind? Are there advantages?

If you ask Turner, he’ll tell you that his blindness is an advantage, because he’s able to do it all be feel. He has extraordinary tactile abilities. He can dead cut any number of cards. He can do perfect, or “faro” shuffles on a table—an incredible difficult thing to do. And it’s all done by touch.

Can anyone—even sighted people— develop his or her tactile skills?

Sure. Although it takes a lot practice.

What is cross-modal plasticity?

Cross-modal plasticity is when one major brain region takes over for another. It’s been found, for instance, that when blind people perform tactile tasks, the visual cortex is engaged. Not only that, but performance on tactile tasks among blind subjects is correlated with the level of activity in the visual cortex. This suggests that the visual cortex has retooled itself to process tactile signals. This is interesting, because it was long believed that each major brain region was only capable of handling stimuli from its own sensory channel—i.e. the visual cortex dealt exclusively with sight, the somatosensory cortex with somatosensory data, etc.

Do you apply psychology to your magic tricks?

Magic relies heavily on psychology—from influencing what people see and don’t see to manipulating their decisions to implanting false memories. Magic often strikes me as a kind of applied psychology.

How come Three-Card-Monte is still going strong, even though people clearly know they will be duped?

The three-card monte works not because people don’t realize it’s a scam. It works because the con artists is very skilled at convincing people that they can write themselves into the con—that they can beat the hustler as his own game. Not only that, but a typical monte scam employs a team of about six or eight people, each playing a distinct role. The shills, or confederates, will win and lose and cheat in various ways. This has the effect of convincing the sucker that he sees all the angles of the scam, and that he can beat it. It’s a very compelling ruse.

How come magic tricks still fool you even after you know the secret?

A lot of tricks exploit cognitive mechanisms that are hard-wired into our brains. So even if you know how a trick is done, it may still fool you. Also, the methods behind many tricks are quite sophisticated. So knowing the secret—or, really, secrets—won’t often help you when you see the trick performed. Plus, a good magician will vary his or her MO in order to keep you guessing. Indeed, magicians are always fooling each other with new (and even old) tricks. (That’s the whole point of magician competition such as the Magic Olympics.) It should also be noted that even if you know how a trick is done, it can still be very fun to watch, kind of like how a movie or a book can still be entertaining even if you’ve seen it before and know how it ends.

What do con artists and magicians have in common? Why are con artists the only ones we consider artists?

Many of the techniques used by magicians were developed by, or in tandem with, grifters and hustlers and con artists. Magic and cons are kindred arts.

You note that “magic is inseparable from deception.” Can you elaborate?

Because magic is basically a form of cheating for amusement, to borrow a cadence from the great 19th century French conjuror Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. 

A couple years ago you wrote a piece for Harper’s magazine revealing some magic secrets. How did magicians react?

I was excommunicated from my local magic society for breaking the Magician’s Code—like Gob on Arrested Development!

You signed an oath of secrecy when you joined the Society of American Magicians. Why did you break it? Did you have any idea some of your fellow magicians would be upset?

Indeed I did. I broke it because I ultimately believe that giving people a glimpse of what’s going on behind the curtain makes magic more interesting. Hiding everything from the audience is condescending. It infantilizes the spectator and makes magicians look like dicks. I knew some magicians would be cranky about it, especially the more doctrinaire old-school types. Still, I was surprised by just how upset some of them were. I’m pretty sure one guy tried to put a hex on me.

What are the similarities between magic and physics?

I think both require a similar kind of lateral, three-dimensional reasoning. Also, there are many direct connections between magic and math.

Who is Jim Steinmeyer and why should we care?

He’s an inventor of illusions and a writer. He’s a very clever guy who’s created some of the most famous illusions ever performed, including the one in which David Copperfield vanished the Statue of Liberty.

How did David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear? Could you do the same trick?

Here, let me Google that for you:

http://lmgtfy.com/?q=Vanishing+the+Statue+of+Liberty

You note that “attempts to demystify magic only tend to heighten people’s curiosity.” Why do you think that is?

Probably because it’s fun to know the secrets and it makes you want to learn more. Plus it makes the audience more discerning, which in turn increases the pleasure of being fooled by a trick that’s genuinely original.

Is magic good for getting girls?

As I say in Fooling Houdini: People often ask me if magic is good for getting girls, and the answer is yes. But it’s also good for making them disappear.

What is the greatest appeal of becoming a magician? 

Everyone loves magic. Even a simple trick allows you to connect with pretty much anyone in the world. Also, it’s really fun to fool people.

You noted a common refrain: “Magic happens not in the hands of the magician, but in the mind of the spectator.” Can you elaborate?

It all goes back to the psychology of magic. The “magic” resides in how a spectator perceives what’s happening, not in what’s really happening. Perception is everything.

William Hirstein told you “It’s almost as if part of magicians’ routine training ought to be a course in neuropsychology.” Why is that?

Magic is all about gaming innate perceptual mechanisms that govern how we see the world. That said, I think learning magic is in itself an informal course in applied neuropsychology.

What’s the neuroscience of stealing a watch?

You distract someone and remove their watch. Because their attention is elsewhere and they’re not expecting it, their brain usually fails to process it. This is an example of tactile insensitivity under conditions of sustained inattention. Essentially, it’s the tactile analog of inattentional blindness, which is the failure to perceive objects that appear in your field of vision when your attention wanders or you are not expecting them.

Do you think the emphasis on secrecy among magicians is helpful or harmful to the practice of magic?

I think it’s ultimately harmful, because it alienates the audience and sets up an adversarial relationship between the performer and the spectator. Plus if feels outdated and fruitless, given that we live in an age of increasingly free information. If you can learn how to built a robot while watching a dog ride a unicycle online, you can probably find out a lot of magic tricks are done.

Can you patent magic tricks? 

You can, but then it becomes part of the public record.

Do you think it’s important for a magician to make an act his own? Is that why you infuse physics and mathematics in your acts?

I do. I happen to like physics and math. And it’s nice to talk about the underlying mathematical principles involved in certain tricks, because some of them are pretty cool.

In her article “How to fool Houdini–and avoid fooling yourself” Maria Konnikova notes that:

“Secrecy seems anathema to innovation and creativity, to any real, meaningful progress, be it in magic or science. When we insist on secrecy, we may think we’re fooling everyone Houdini included. But at the end, the biggest victim of that deception may well be ourselves.”

Do you think there are lessons we can learn about secrecy in magic we can apply to scientific data?

I agree with Maria. Science should be as transparent and as open as possible. We need to be more open as a society. Honesty is seldom a bad thing.

© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

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