Tuesday 12 September 2017

Sleights of Mind

Having resolved to go easy on the Youtube and Vimeo for 5 minute edutainment fix , I'm free/forced to start reading some books. I have a back-log from the last few Christmas-and-birthdays. Dau.I and I had 20 minutes spare time when I was hangin' with her in Dublin in the Spring. She propelled me into Hodges Figgis Dublin's largest and most venerable surviving bookstore.  It's currently owned by Megacorp Waterstones but is still full of books, some, remaindered, cheap enough for me to purchase. Accordingly, I bought a short handful of books that seemed to have possibilities. I have to be ruthless here because we are trying to significantly down-size the library at home. Then again, at €2.50, a remainder paperback is somewhere between a newspaper and a cappuccino in price. Actually it's cheaper than a 0.01c book at Amazon because postage-free. I got good mileage out of Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf.

But today's book today! And it is Sleights of Mind What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our brains by Stephen Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde with [much smaller print] Sandra Blakeslee.  It is holding its value on Amazon, so it must be good?!  The first two authors are married [to each other] and run parallel neuroscience labs in the BNI the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix Arizona. Sandra Blakeslee is a journalist who can write . . . about science. You can find her regularly in the NYT and, for one example, co-authoring VS Ramachandran's [prevPhantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. 

I'll get the snark out of the way by suggesting that Blakelee could, for readability, have been given bigger billing and a bigger pair of editors scissors: the book is not richer for TMI anecdotes about the family and friends of Mr&Mrs. Because a funny thing happened to my father in the Spanish Civil War is not sufficient reason to have a section in a book about Magic and Science.  Sometimes it seems as if the publishers can only market books of a certain length and authors are required to lurry in material to that measure.  Publishers could pay more attention to the physical book as a thing to read. The gutter margin is the additional margin added to a page layout to compensate for the part of the paper made unusable by the binding process.  It is a crucial 4-5mm narrower in my copy of Sleights of Mind than my copy of The Running Sky [prev] which makes it very difficult to hold in one hand to read.

I love magic shows, we all love magic shows, so in one sense we are complicit in not wanting to understand how we are fooled. Part of us wants to go with the flow and clap our hands with delight as the rabbits and silk handkerchiefs pour from the hat.  Not all magic is the same: some of it is technical, some of it mathematical, and all of it is perceptual.
  1. For technical a dove pan is a multi-layered piece of kit that can transform one thing into another; how it works is less important that the patter that accompanies it. The days of high-Victorian Marvo-the-Magician with a top hat and a pencil moustache are moving aside for performers who play it for laughs; but the dove-pan lives on. The box for sawing the lady in half is a bigger version of a container with compartments.
  2. For mathematical, even I can do a 21 card trick, and did again and again when I was 9 or 10 years old. At the start I just followed the protocol I had been taught gathering up columns of cards and laying them out in rows. This relentlessly pushes The Card to the centre of the reduced 21-card deck.  Three iterations are enough. If you do this slow enough and inept enough repeatedly in front of the same person, they will eventually twig that you gather up the columns of cards in an idiosyncratic way and the magic is exposed. Real budding magicians work hard on the peripheral flim-flam and misdirection so that the process is, as far as possible, concealed: they get more life out of the trick that way. More importantly they practice practice practice until the actions become muscle-memory and your hands can work independently while your mind controls the audience with obfuscation.  Art Benjamin did an early TED talk on his "mathemagical" perf which is more complicated but not that much more complicated. If you worked at it, you could do some of his tricks.
  3. Perceptual is most of the rest of  magic: the art of misdirection - look up there [and not down at my other hand]. What's interesting about the Sleights of Mind book is the acknowledgment that magicians for a couple of hundred (or a couple of thousand) years have known about the biases in human perception and worked with these to s[t]imulate the unbelievable.  Our eyes involuntarily track objects that move steadily across our field of vision. Our brains are incapable of multitasking: attention give here prevents it being given there.  Indeed, as Daniel Kahneman pointed out in Thinking Fast and Slow, task-switching itself consumes vital energy and multi-taskers are less efficient that those who complete tasks in series. The title says it all, it is less sleights magicians' hands and more bending the minds of the punters.
  4. Action: at about the same time we found Art Benjamin on TED, this show by Lennart Green surfaced. He acts as a bumbling bohunk playing it for laughs but works his magic behind this facade. tl;dr?  try this shorter show.
Summary: the book is a bit woolly and self-indulgent but worth the struggle if you're interested in knowing a bit more about how you tick - and maybe will help polish your crap-detector. Macknik and Martinez-Conde worked very hard on their task of understanding the pattern and process of magic. So much so that, at the end, they passed a test to be inducted into the Academy of Magic Arts in Hollywood. This is one of the trade organisations for those who make a living from bamboozling audiences, and they don't want ineptitude queering their pitch. The neuroscientists did not bring shame upon themselves demonstrating their mastery of a new way of seeing.

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