A review with a different take by Jamy Ian Swiss in
Genii Magazine

Fooling Houdini
Alex Stone $26.99 (Reviewed in galley)
At the 2006 FISM close-up magic competition in Stockholm, Alex Stone, an ambitious journalist and amateur magician (who had gained entry to the competition thanks to an endorsement by the President of the Society of American Magicians), was “red-lighted”—meaning that he was stopped before completing his performance. Most red-lighting at FISM takes place because a performer runs over the allotted time, but Mr. Stone was the only act in the close-up competition (and one of few ever) to be “given the hook” because his performance was so utterly execrable and below par.

In some dimension of time and space, a man might, in the face of such public humiliation, retire to private self-contemplation, lick his wounds, and perhaps venture forth gingerly to beg forgiveness from those whose life’s work and art he had so publicly sullied. But to quote Richard Kaufman, who offered this comment on the Genii Forum in the wake of Mr. Stone’s next public step, “People like to fail in public these days. A good wallow in your own failure is sometimes the road to success.”

That next public step of Mr. Stone’s, proving Mr. Kaufman’s prescience, was to write a 13-page feature article about his FISM experience in the July 2008 issue of Harper’s magazine. Far from appearing embarrassed much less contrite, he took the opportunity to brag about his hard work and magic expertise, strutting his personal sense of intellectual and moral superiority over his fellow competitors and the larger community of magic, while posing as a working pro. Although in possession of an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard, Mr. Stone had apparently been absent the day his class learned the meaning of “hubris.”

The title of the piece that Harper’s blared across the cover of the magazine was “The Magic Olympics with Tricks Explained!” And explain them Mr. Stone did, with gusto, illustrations, and in great quantity. Harper’s editors, perhaps desperate to find an audience for a piece that risked being of interest only to the magic community (not exactly the magazine’s core readership), appear to have pressed the author to litter his article with abundant if meaningless explanations of magic methods, while they would advertise those contents right in the headline. “Tricks explained!” would doubtless sell more copies than “Loser Loses.”

To this reader it was difficult to decide which was more offensive: the writer’s preposterous conceit, or the wholesale quantity of gratuitous exposure (including the Muscle Pass, the Topit, the one-ahead principle, Retention Vanish, classic palm, Spellbound change, Tenkai Palm, Pickup Move, and believe it or not, much more). In the closing paragraphs of the piece, Stone managed to proudly display both facets in close proximity: first by exposing the method of an extraordinary signature illusion currently in use by a prominent creator and performer; then, in his final judgmental paragraph, promptly declaring it “something brilliant, yes, but also sad.” Was the illusion sad? The illusionist? The method? Or was it just the writer?
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and by Ricky Jay
in the Wall Street Journal
"Fooling Houdini" is an ostensibly self-effacing memoir by an inept amateur conjurer. Alex Stone's quest to become a master magician, however, does not bring him nearly as close to that goal as he imagines. Instead, he skirts the borders of popular genres of memoir, producing a tale that, had it verisimilitude, might appeal in the universal tradition of triumph over formidable odds. Instead it shares genetic material with narratives in which that triumph is markedly exaggerated.

"Fooling Houdini" begins with Mr. Stone's arrival at the Magic Olympic Village in Stockholm. He competes in the Magic Olympics, and, as he says, is "humiliated." Let's be clear: There is no Olympic Village, because there is no Magic Olympics. What Mr. Stone attends is a triennial gathering of magic enthusiasts, sponsored by an international organization of magic clubs. The event includes shows, lectures and competitions in many categories: micro-magic, mentalism, card magic, illusions, etc. The contestants are occasionally very good—but to compare the victors to Olympic athletes, who perform quantifiably world-class feats, is ludicrous.
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. . . You’ve just performed what magicians call a retention vanish: a false transfer that exploits a lag in the brain’s perception of motion, called persistence of vision. When done right, the spectator will actually see the coin in the left palm for a split second after the hands separate.

This bizarre afterimage results from the fact that visual neurons don’t stop firing once a given stimulus (here, the coin) is no longer present. As a result, our perception of reality lags behind reality by about one one-hundredth of a second.

Magicians have long used such cognitive biases to their advantage, and in recent years scientists have been following in their footsteps, borrowing techniques from the conjurer’s playbook in an effort not to mystify people but to study them. Magic may seem an unlikely tool, but it’s already yielded several widely cited results. Consider the work on choice blindness — people’s lack of awareness when evaluating the results of their decisions.

In one study, shoppers in a blind taste test of two types of jam were asked to choose the one they preferred. They were then given a second taste from the jar they picked. Unbeknown to them, the researchers swapped the flavors before the second spoonful. The containers were two-way jars, lidded at both ends and rigged with a secret compartment that held the other jam on the opposite side — a principle that’s been used to bisect countless showgirls. This seems like the sort of thing that wouldn’t scan, yet most people failed to notice that they were tasting the wrong jam, even when the two flavors were fairly dissimilar, like grapefruit and cinnamon-apple.

In a related experiment, volunteers were shown a pair of female faces and asked which they found more attractive. Then they were given a closer look at their putative selection. In fact, the researchers swapped the selection for the “less attractive” face. Again, this bit of fraud flew by most people. Not only that, when pressed to justify their choices, the duped victims concocted remarkably detailed post hoc justifications.

Such tricks suggest that we are often blind to the results of our own decisions. Once a choice is made, our minds tend to rewrite history in a way that flatters our volition, a fact magicians have exploited for centuries. “If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely,” said Teller, of the duo Penn and Teller, to Smithsonian magazine. “This is one of the darkest of all psychological secrets.”

Another dark psychological secret magicians routinely take advantage of is known as change blindness — the failure to detect changes in consecutive scenes. One of the most beautiful demonstrations is an experiment conducted by the psychologist Daniel Simons in which he had an experimenter stop random strangers on the street and ask for directions.