No (fair) Dice

Persi Diaconis is an ex-magician. He left the world of professional magic to become a professor of statistics at Stanford. But those influences are still reflected in his work as many of the simple tools used in the exploration of statistics — coins, cards, dice — are also favourite tools of the magician.

So nothing specifically to do with magic, but if you wanted to know how fair your super-complicated D&D dice were.

Watch to the end to get the link to the hidden part 2!

The Science of Gambling

When you’re a magician, the question comes up often, “Can I take you with me to the casino?” Never mind that there are no casinos in Toronto, my background in math means I’m fascinated by gambling but know enough about the odds to not want to do it in casinos.

The Royal Institute in London offers up its public talks for free online and I thought I’d share this really interesting talk about the intersection between science and gambling including using computers to cheat at the roulette and blackjack tables, the mathematics of shuffling applied to card tricks and strange ways to win at the lottery.

And the Q&A to follow up:

Magic and Neuroscience

In recent years, researchers in psychology and neuroscience have taken an interest in magic, and for good reason. Science advances by exploring areas where predictions are experience don’t match (think of Einstein and the strange precession in the orbit of Mercury). Magic is exactly one of those circumstances.

When you experience a piece of magic, then later reflect back after learning the secret, it’s often difficult to understand how you could have been fooled by something so simple — and the secrets behind magic tricks are often unbelievably simple. That means by the light of science there should be something interesting at work.

However most often when researchers try to tackle these issues, they miss the mark. After a superficial interview with a magician or a mentalist, they offer up their best guest at a just-so story. The most blatant example is the 2010 book Sleights of Mind written by two perfectly competent neuroscientists but whose explanations of tricks is downright goofy.

This recent article by Steven Novella at NeuroLogica is refreshingly astute and well worth reading.

Magicians have learned to use various cues to enhance such illusions. They may verbally create an expectation. They also use social cues, like where they direct their vision. Their eyes will follow the non-existent ball, encouraging our brains to top-down perceive it. Further, the entire act can create a meta-expectation that something fantastic will occur. Everyone knows that magic is not real, but the magician creates the impression that they have fantastic skill, and are doing something very complex. The astonishment of those around us may also encourage us to be astonished.

 

Ethical Magicians?

I’ve been listening to the episode of Discourse in Magic on “ethics”. The episode is an extended interview with my friend, Ben Train. The episode is over an hour long so I’m not sure how many people would be willing to sit through it. It raises some interesting points including ones with which I disagree.

Ben Train-19

Ben Train demonstrates mindreading on Magic Tonight.

I was interested in hearing the episode because while Ben and I have discussed this topic previously, I have no idea what the hosts of this program thought about it.

The episode is slightly misnamed. It’s titled “ethics and morals for the modern magician” although the entire episode is focused around one fairly specific concrete example which was actually a piece of mentalism.

Mentalism is a proper subset of magic but in the past decade has undergone a kind of grass-roots rebranding. A traditional mentalist was (ostensibly) reading minds and seeing into the future. The current mentalist tends to be more of a Sherlock Holmes-style character that gathers information by making very detailed observations and spinning those tiny clues into full fledged theories about whodunnit. One of the reasons that Holmes was so impressive was that he was a fictional character and he had the benefit of an omniscient author who could secretly feed him the right answer. Similarly, the mentalist has the tools of a magician at his disposal to secretly gain access to the requisite information and most of the “observation” is just to keep up the pretences.

The ethical problem they were obsessing over was, “What happens when the audience accepts the red herring?” Ben actually gave some specific examples that I found troubling — people who saw his show and were legitimately misled into believing untrue things. At the same time, I was also surprised by the realization that in my own work, I don’t have these problems at all and I couldn’t explain why.

I’ve been a life-long skeptic, inspired at an early age by the writing of Douglas Adams and Richard Feynman, and later by Penn & Teller’s Bullshit. I believe (deeply) that false beliefs are harmful and we have a moral obligation towards others not to spread them if we can avoid it. That makes performing magic problematic because a magic trick, properly executed, would seem to be spreading false beliefs; namely that something which should not be possible is. Performing magic while not being  giant hypocrite is a problem which doesn’t appear to have an obvious solution. That’s also why I perform so little magic for children, but spend a lot of time teaching magic to them. The idea that an honestly curious young person would ask me to explain something to them and that it should be my responsibility to not do that just bugs me too damn much.

Now it’s worth considering the possibility that Ben is simply not doing anything wrong. I know there are people who think that the magic they see on television is undeniable proof that demons are working through humans and that it is being covered up by the networks who are owned by the Illuminati. They are so far down the rabbit hole of wingnuttery that they are certainly beyond my ability to help. (And yes, they’re real, I’ve had conversations with them.) But to design a show with that sort of person in mind would be to lose all perspective.

Ben Train reading minds

Ben Train demonstrates advanced Mindreading

But there is probably more to it than that. This specific example is problematic because it implies, at least to some extent, that what is being performed is based in science. The label of science is what cranks and frauds reach for to gain credibility. You’re relying on the audience’s ignorance of science to justify your practice. For my own personal morality, that is a line I choose not to cross, and I don’t perform any material in this vein.

This tradition is not exactly new. Magicians have used science as a cloak for their work for over a century. Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin would claim he could make his son float by drugging him.

There are (at least) two ways around the problem, both of which they danced quite close to on the podcast. The first example they brought up was Captain America. Why is it that people are able to see Captain America without becoming concerned about the black market for Vibranium? Moreover, why can’t we bring our audiences to the same place?

Performers seem to have an inner shut-eye charlatan which is desperate to convince people that what they do is real. Not only do I have to read minds, I have to make it “believable” — whatever that might mean. Looking at the example of Captain America, it’s possible to realize the obsession with realism is misplaced. In order for something to be interesting, engaging or astonishing, it is absolutely not necessary for it to be real. In one of his Stanford theoretical physics lectures which he had facetiously dubbed “Quantum Mechanics for Old People”, Leonard Susskind said, “I never use the term real. I find it very misleading.”

You can get much more mileage by demonstrating something which is apparently supernatural and having faith (!) in the audience not to start a religion around you, than you can by demonstrating the same phenomenon with a pseudo-scientific explanation.

Part of that is simply having an attitude of respect for my audience. This comes from the other subject they briefly touched on: Penn & Teller. They follow in the “honest liar” tradition along with performers like James Randi. There is deception, but there is (confusingly) no attempt to hide the existence of the deception. When watching them, there is no pretence of trying to convince you of anything. [1] They know cool things, you don’t, that makes this interesting.

Unfortunately, we get in the habit of underestimating the audience. This stems from a time when we were younger. Most magicians start out primarily performing for children. When you’re surrounded by five and six year olds, it’s not hard to be the smartest person in the room. But I’ve seen many people carry that attitude over to their adult audiences. I try and take the opposite approach and when I walk into  room and assume that I am average or, more specifically, that half the room is smarter than me.

When someone is watching me do magic, I assume (possibly out of courtesy more then an actual evidence) that this person is scientifically literate and know some basic facts about the universe (magic is not real, astrology is bullshit, the dead to not return as ghosts to help with card tricks). I never have to say anything, but if by nothing other than subtext, I can get that across, that frees us up to enjoy the incredible things which happen without obsessing over fake causes. And if someone really wants to know how I learned any of this, I tell them.

Ethics are extremely important in magic. We do walk a fine line. Lying for money is never easy.

 

[1] When not convincing people that Teller is the Saviour of all synthetic fabrics.

Last time on Magic Tonight

Here are a few photos from last night’s instalment of Magic Tonight with my guest, Jason Palter, who is special in a way that defies description.

Magic Tonight runs Sunday nights in Downtown Toronto. Readers of this blog can use the code reality for a discount on the price of tickets and dinner when purchasing online.

Last week on Magic Tonight

Last week I was joined by a very special guest, David Merry. In addition to being a gifted comedian, David brings with him an impressive collection of severed human heads. I know readers of this blog find it difficult to tell when I’m joking. Oh well. Take a look for yourselves:

Magic Tonight continues Sunday nights at the Crimson Lounge in Downtown Toronto. Readers of this blog can use the code reality for a discount on the price of tickets and dinner when booking online.

Magic Tonight 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, I flipped back through our photo gallery from Magic Tonight. This year we did 85 shows (at least that’s the number we have photos from. We may have skipped a couple.)

This would not have been possible without the venues who graciously hosted us – The Crimson Lounge, The Bear and The Franklin House! I also need to thank the performers who appeared for us, in alphabetical order:

Bill Abbott, The Irritatingly Photogenic Keith Brown, Ryan Brown, Michael Close, Joe Culpepper, Matt DiSero, Michael Feldman, Ron Guttman, Ken Margoe, Chris Mayhew, David Merry, Zach Mirza, Bobby Motta, Mysterion, Glenn Ottaway, Paul Pacific, Jason Palter, Jenny Parsons, David Peck, Phil Pivnick, Steve Reynolds, Brian Roberts, Lukas Stark, Rob Testa, Ben Train, Jason Verners, Nicolas Wallace, Chris Westfall, Wes Zaharuk

But most importantly, our thanks to our audiences; the (literally) thousands of people who came out to see us perform. This would not have been possible without your interest and support.

So enjoy a little look back at 2015:

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(or watch the slide show on YouTube)

Magic Tonight continues in 2016. Readers of this blog can use the code reality for a discount on the price of tickets and dinner when purchasing online.

Last time on Magic Tonight

Our last show of the year for Magic Tonight was a delightfully fun sold out success. Most of the fun was provided by my guests. The ever charming Ben Train decked in Christmas sweater (odd because he’s Jewish… oh well) and the ever hysterical Glenn Ottaway (always willing to teach the young people in the audience some new words.)

Magic Tonight continues in 2016. Readers of this blog can use the code reality for a discount on the price of tickets and dinner when purchasing online.

Last week on Magic Tonight

It was a show that came from both ends of the spectrum on Sunday night at the Crimson Lounge: Jason Verners is probably the youngest performer we’ve ever had on the show and Ron Guttman has been reading minds since before either of us were born. We had lots of fun and we need to thank our sold out crowd… in particular the two ladies who took a special interest in the contents of my pockets and weren’t afraid to show it….

We’re continuing on with tickets available for our shows through the end of September. See who’s performing on our site in the coming weeks. Readers of this blog can use the code reality for a discount on the price of tickets and dinner when purchasing online.