Bring Your Questions for Alex Stone, Author of Fooling Houdini

I get sent about 200 books a year by strangers who want me to provide blurbs.  About 199 out of those 200 will walk away empty-handed.   Most of the time I don’t even open the book – it would be a full-time job just to read everything sent my way.  Occasionally a subject will really interest me, and I will spend some time with a book, but certainly not read it from cover to cover.  And about once a year, I actually start reading one of these books and like it so much I can’t put it down. 

That book is Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind, by Alex Stone.  I happened to receive the book not long after I blogged about a book by two mathematicians on the mathematics of magic.  That mathematics book was excellent and taught me a lot, but wasn’t exactly a page turner.  In contrast, the first 30 pages of Fooling Houdini was some of the most engaging non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.

The book tells the saga of the author, whose pursuit of a Ph.D. in Physics gets derailed by his obsession with magic.  Alex is an excellent writer, extremely smart, and has great stories to tell.

I’m not the only one who likes the book.  The Boston Globe gave it a strong review.

Alex has graciously agreed to answer reader questions, so let fly with anything you think a fledging physicist turned magician might be able to answer.

This post is no longer accepting comments. The answers to the Q&A can be found here.


Eric M. Jones.

I often hear that fooling children with magic is very hard to do.

Comment?

frankenduf

do you know if there have been any fMRI studies of brains as they watch magic tricks?- im wondering what the neurological link is between self deception, cognitive dissonance, and apprehension of magic tricks

NotMagical

As the performer, it is obvious what the trick is and when/how it is performed in the execution, especially in misdirection and slight of hand. You can't imagine the audience will miss it, especially when the audience is large, and someone is likely to be looking right at the attempted deception at the exact moment it is performed. How do you overcome this fear that you will be discovered?

pawnman

Teller talked about this with the Smithsonian (I believe) magazine. He said part of it is this: if you make the trick harder than anyone in the audience would be willing to learn, they immediately think it is impossible. That may mean investing weeks of 12-hour days in a single 5 minute trick. If a person can't see how they would learn it in an afternoon, they assume it's "magic".

He also talks about making people laugh while you are executing the trick. It is very difficult to think rationally and logically while you are laughing.

Roy

I'm always fascinated to note the personal dynamics involved in a frequent self-experiment wherein I initially go to the most negative Amazon reviews of a book instead of starting with the most helpful. Often, these reviews exonerate the book with irrelevant criticism. Given the constraints of finite human existence, sometimes my interest in the book ends right there.

For the time being, this book falls into the latter category with a seemingly devastating one star Amazon review that reprints Ricky Jay's review of the book.

Do you consider any of his criticism valid?

Adam

How long have people been doing magic? Who were the first magicians? What were the first magic tricks like? Where does the deck of cards come from, anyway?

Are publishers really like vampires that sleep for a thousand years and then wake up the week your book is due and eat your face?

Do you think they will announce the Higgs boson on July 4? Moreover, am I the only one who thinks the Standard Model is a complete joke?

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Adam

How long have people been doing magic? Who were the first magicians? What were the first magic tricks like? Where does the deck of cards come from, anyway?

Are publishers really like vampires that sleep for a thousand years and then wake up the week your book is due and eat your face?

Do you think they will announce the Higgs boson on July 4? Moreover, am I the only one who thinks the Standard Model is a complete joke?

Gabe F

In the show Arrested Development, the character GOB (a magician) is a snob about referring to things as "illusions" rather than "tricks". Are there any sort of real life magician hang-ups like there, where the common term or description of something is scorned by insiders?

James

Do competitions like those hosted by FISM (incorrectly referred to as the Magic Olympics in the book) or the guest list of the FFFF convention provide an accurate ranking of magicians' abilities, or are there better objective measures that can be used?

For example, what process would you use to validate statements like "Some say [Wesley James] is the greatest underground magician alive." (Chapter 3)

The Wesley James comment drew my attention in particular because the only video of him commercially available [The Man Who Knows Erdnase, Magic Makers, 2007] was universally panned by magic critics for its lack of technical merit.

Andrew

People don't realise how easy it is to fool other people's mind? But how can this be applied from a mathematical perspective.

Derek

If you are a highly skilled -- but evil -- magician, and wanted to use your skills for financial gain through criminal means (or at least highly unethical means), what do you think would be the most profitable routes to take?

Eric M. Jones.

Why is it that magicians are almost all men. Why are there so very few women magicians?

caleb b

I dabbled in magic for a few years, but then lost interest because of the expense - people would always beg me to teach/show them how the trick was done, but not one single person was willing to ever pay me what I paid to learn the trick.

1) In my experience, the most simple tricks were the most effective (scotch and soda, simple double flips). Have you also experienced this?

2) What is your go-to magic trick if you are put on the spot?

3) How do you deal with people who only want to ruin the trick? Like when you ask them to pick a card and they take the deck from you, shuffle themselves, and pull out a card and refuse to give it back....do you walk away, shame them, or call an audible trick?

4) what would you say are the most important fundamentals of magic?

5) When a trick has failed, what do you do? Morph into another trick, repeat, or just admit it didn't work?

6) what type of close-up tricks have you found to be the most effective in terms of reaction? card, coin, sponge ball, other?

7) with so many internet resources out there "explaining" how tricks are done for free, is there any weight to the magician's code anymore? Of course people could have always purchased magic books in the past, but YouTube has given away a lot of information....has the price of magic dropped as a result?

8) if you were to build the ultimate starter kit for any beginner magician, what items would you include?

Read more...

mary lee

I am currently reading "Fooling Houdini". Fascinating, yes, mind challenging, yes and at times confusing. I am baffled by what, especially in the realm of psychokinesis is an alteration of perception on the recipient's part or energy that is really moving objects such as metal bending. I was watching a paranormal show one night on TV and the audience including those at home was told that if a fork were placed on top of the TV set, it would straighten. It did and that really freaked me out. Does energy really enter the objects or is it a perceptual change.? Whooooo knows?

Whodini

Mary Lee, I do not believe a fork actually straightened while sitting on your TV as a result of something a magician did on TV. Sounds like a friend-of-a-friend story. No respectable magician would believe it, either. That's the whole point of illusions - there is no actual magic happening. Magicians know there is always a trick/solution that does not defy the laws of the natural world.

Joe Allen

My first introduction to magic was a copy of Dunninger's Complete Encyclopedia of Magic. Many of the tricks made use of some basic technology (electromagnets, telephones)...but nothing remotely cutting edge for that time (the book was published around 1970).

How quickly do new technologies and discoveries find their way into magician's acts (e.g. computer-aided video recognition, cell phones, e-ink, wi-fi, improving battery technology)? Is there a preference toward the 'purity' of an method that does not rely on modern tech?

I enjoyed your book very much. Sadly, I was unable to make it to your talk at the Harvard Book Store.

Christine

My fiance is an actual working magician, and clued me in to the unhappiness caused by this writer and his book. Perhaps you haven't seen this scathing review by an actually successful magician-author:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303734204577464450347187644.html

Or this article in the New York Times, which points out that Mr Stone has long been expelled from The Society of American Magicians:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/books/fooling-houdini-by-alex-stone.html

I think it's terrific that Americans are showing interest in the performing arts again, and magic is perennially fascinating to many people... however I think there are many wonderful entertainers out there who you might provide publicity to than this dilettante.