Fooling Houdini Author Alex Stone Answers Your Questions

Alex Stone, author of the excellent new book Fooling Houdini, was kind enough to take questions from blog readers – and there were some tough ones! Here are his answers:

Q. 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? –Derek

A. Wall Street.

Q. Why is it that magicians are almost all men. Why are there so very few women magicians? –Eric M. Jones

A. I don’t really know, but I think it’s high time for that to change.

Q. 1) What would you say are the most important fundamentals of magic? 2) When a trick has failed, what do you do? Morph into another trick, repeat, or just admit it didn’t work? –caleb b

A. 1) Psychology. Understanding how people see things and learning to anticipate their actions. 2) I usually try to find an out. Or just run away as fast as you can.

Q. I often hear that fooling children with magic is very hard to do. –Eric M. Jones

A. Surprisingly so, yes. I talk about this in Fooling Houdini. Part of it may have to do with the way children pay attention. As adults, we’re very good at focusing on one thing while ignoring subsidiary distractions. This is great for getting stuff done, but it also makes you susceptible to misdirection, because magicians are good at getting you to train the spotlight of your attention on one thing—the wrong thing—while doing something tricky in the shadows. Kids, on the other hand, tend to focus on more than one thing at a time—their attention is more diffuse—which may make them harder to fool. Moreover, kids are relatively free of assumptions and expectations about how the world works, and magic is all about turning your assumptions and expectations against you.

Q. Do you know if there have been any fMRI studies of brains as they watch magic tricks? I’m wondering what the neurological link is between self-deception, cognitive dissonance, and apprehension of magic tricks. –frankenduf

A. The group that studies magic at the Barrow Neurological Institute may have done some functional imaging work of this sort. Here’s the link to their website.

Q. 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? –Roy 

A. That guy’s a legend. It’s an honor even to be criticized by him.

Q. 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. –Adam

A.  I’ve been doing magic since I was five. Magic itself is thousands of years old. Wow, you’re asking a lot of questions. Wait, I know who this is…is this Adam Kay? Why do you hate the Standard Model so much? What did it ever do to YOU!?

Q. 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? –Gabe F

A. “Illusions, dad! You don’t have time for my illusions!” A lot of magicians do, in fact, take issue with the word “trick.” One well-known Vegas conjuror has been known to remark: “Dogs do tricks. I do pure magic.” I personally don’t have a problem with it.

Q. 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. –James

A. That’s actually not true. Magicians commonly refer to the World Championships of Magic as the Magic Olympics. Lance Burton, for one, regularly calls them that at his Vegas show. As far as Wes James is concerned, I’ve seen his work up close and he is a genuine master. 


Eric M. Jones.

Alex,

Just finished your book, Fooling Houdini. Great stuff.

But regarding fooling children: I used to be a child and I don't recall being any better than adults at seeing through the trick. In fact I liked magic a lot as a child, and I am far far far better at seeing through illusions now because I know many approaches to creating an illusion that I never knew as a child.. So I don't get it.

I think the notion that children are better at seeing through illusions has never been tested. and is just hand-waving. Or do you have anything REAL on which to base this opinion?

RJ Roy

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

My first-glance response would be that because so many magicians make use of female assistants to... distract audiences, being female themselves would hinder the effect. I mean, if they're attempting to draw attention away from themselves due to having attractive female assistants, you don't want to bring attentino back to yourself by also being attractive.

That said, I agree. It is high time for that to change.

Eric M. Jones.

You mean, Magic Mike couldn't be a magician's assistant? But women (half the audience) are distracted better by women?

I can't agree.

RJ Roy

Maybe Magic Mike would be! I'm an equal-opportunity distractee. While I've seen some acts with male assistants, they seemed to be less common. Mind, I haven't gone to see a professional show in quite some time.

However, is there statistics that show that 50% of the audience is female? Just because the population is basically split 50/50 doesn't always mean all gatherings are split the same, to be fair.

As I mentioned, as a first-glance response, I can't think of another obvious reason. It certainly couldn't be personal skill; it's potentially arguable that women are more able in some of the illusion techniques then men. Could it be the professional atmosphere is less welcoming of female magicians? That's definately something that is well overdue for change, if so.

David

Did anyone else find his answers a little too "simple"? I am not a magician but I love magic. I have tricks I bought from a shop when I was a kid. Even I could have answered half these questions.

Q: "Why aren't there more women in magic"?
A: "I don't know but there should be!"

Have me on for a Q&A about cancer research.

Q: Why haven't we found a cure for cancer?
A: It's hard!

Derek

I was looking forward to a more detailed response to my "evil magician" question. Surely good magicians must encounter many occasions when they think, "If I had no ethics, it would be so easy to rip you off..."

J. Howard

Sorry. Read the Ricky Jay review on Amazon. He was asked if he considered ANY of his criticisms to be valid. The response? "It’s an honor even to be criticized by him."

That's not a response.

So perhaps ALL of his criticisms are valid? Even if half of his criticisms were valid, the book would be a waste of money and a waste of space on this website. Just because Steven Levitt wrote a nice commentary, doesn't mean it's a worthwhile book.

Hey, we all make mistakes. Don't undermind the credibility of your entire website just because you don't want to admit you were fooled by this guy.

Dan

Ricky Jay pointed out a couple of factual errors and accused Stone of literary largesse. None of Jay's criticisms were devastating and his only specific criticisms were not of a nature that would undermine the entire book or even any significant passage in the book.

The book was written for laypeople, not magicians. Jay's criticisms seem to stem from a personal aversion to this practice. Stone did not profess to ever be a master magician, nor did he claim that he alone invented the trick that was based on the work of Bayer and Diaconis.

Jay's most devastating criticism of Stone is that Stone used excessively glowing terms to describe the magicians with whom he worked. I don't think this flaw, if it even is a flaw, undermines the integrity of Stone's work, especially considering most of the book's readers are laypeople who would likely be fooled by most, if not all, of the tricks Stone describes the so-called "masters" performing.

If half of Jay's criticisms were valid, the book would be no worse. Just because Stone got a couple dates wrong and described his own trials and tribulations in magic in detail doesn't mean the book is suddenly unworthy of discussion.

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Ben z

I'm not a magician or even someone who knows a lot about magic, but I know enough about reviews in general to know that Jay's review can't stand as it is as devastating. First, as others have noted online, others refer to the events as the Magic Olympics...nowhere does Stone try and stretch the metaphor! What Jay says it really is is exactly what I got from the book. Second, he points out dates that are wrong, leading us to believe it's thus mostly wrong but he just doesn't have time/space/whatever to go through it....you can find elementary mistakes in any serious academic work like mathematics or history (for it to matter, it has to be across the board). Those dates don't even effect the narrative in an important way. Third, he kind of just says Stone isn't that great though Stone tried to trick us all in the book. Come on. He recounts everything. The reader can decide all that; Stone even doesn't win the 1st place at the end and writes as much.
As for the coin fact...I'm going to trust the MA in physics and not the pure magician...

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Koen

I have not read the review on Amazon, but I did read the book. Take reviews as they are; it's a personal opinion of one guy. Íf he didn't like the book, that's OK, but it doesn't mean no one else will like. Some critics take their opionion to seriously and mistake it for the truth.

My personal opninion: it's great book.

Randy Magic

Fooling Houdini is an eclectic book. I enjoyed reading it!

Mitch

I just finished reading "Fooling Houdini", so decided to see what others thought of it. I found it to be an engaging memoir of a young man pursuing his passion, Magic. In a relatively short book Stone relates magic to many disciplines, including psychology, neurology, physics, mathematics, cultural history and even religion. Along the way we are introduced to many fascinating personalities. I finished the book with a much greater appreciation of magicians' skills and dedication. Thanks, Alex, for sharing your story.