Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Stuff: "Sometimes you're too honest about your feelings."

When I was young, I had these cheapo set of magic linking rings I purchased at Foodini's, a short-lived concept theme-restaurant that was given it's test run at a local mall before vanishing off the face of the Earth. I was never very good with them. The problem wasn't a lack of manual dexterity, but rather that I respected the skepticism of any potential audience enough that I only wanted to perform tricks that could be thoroughly scrutinized later. If the audience couldn't, after I'd finished, manipulate the rings themselves, then I would have felt their own sense of being conned too acutely and the trick would have felt shabby, even if it was expertly executed.

There was one ring trick I was really good at though. It involved taking three identical and unbroken rings linked in a linear series, like a chain, and moving the bottom ring up a link, so that the chain now resembled something like a key ring: the top ring now had two unconnected rings hanging off it. The magical transformation was removing the bottom link from the middle chain and linking it to the top. The change took less than a second and the results could always be safely handed to audience members.

My explanation might have already given away the game, but in case it isn't clear, the key to the trick was simply a matter of forcing a certain perspective on the audience. Remember that all the rings are identical. There was no linking or unlinking going on. I showed the rings in a chain, holding on to the Ring 1, with Ring 2 under it and Ring 3 at the bottom. Then I gathered them all into one hand, waved my free hand in front of them, and slightly shifted my grip so that I was holding on to Ring 2 and not Ring 1. When I released the rings, Ring 2 was the top link and Ring 1 and Ring 3 dangled from it. However, because I explained what I was going to do, people simply assumed the top ring was still Ring 1 and I'd somehow moved Ring 3. I could hand the rings to the audience and let them test it because their test was always the same: They wasted all their time looking for breaks or trying to somehow force what they though was Ring 3 to uncouple.

Instead of making me a cynic (that took a magic trick named "dating Stephanie," which I attempted years later and, thankfully, never mastered), I found the fact the whole trick revolved around a bluff and the contagious nature of misinformation far more interesting than the idea of magic itself. That instant conspiracy of suggestion and unjustified confidence in the very senses that deceived us in the first place was, itself, magical in a way.

I bring this up because, over at the online front of Skeptic magazine, they are featuring a spiffy downloadable PDF of ten easy lessons on how to be a psychic. Specifically, the piece focuses on the "cold read," the art of reading somebody you have no prior knowledge of. Now Skeptic offer this too you as a satiric bunking of humbugs, which is fair: humbugs are what psychics are. But offer it to in the spirit of art appreciation. In the museum of humbugs, there is no performance art as rigorously demanding or highly evolved as the cold read. Done with expertise and style, it can be a beautiful thing.

So, if you think you've got the wits for some quick cash or you're tired of cube life and would like to work from home, check it out.


Sasquatchan said...

took a trick named "dating Stephanie" hahah.. Wish you still posted diaries at the other site, if only to get the story there.

Curious how you can bring this up with out the south park "blainologist"/Blainetology episode which does pretty much the same.

CRwM said...


You lost me there. I don't watch South Park, so I have no idea what you're talking about. (Which also explains how I can bring this up without mentioning it.)

Shon Richards said...

In the interest of bringing up other shows you may not have watched, 'Leverage' had a wonderful episode where they broke down a cold read. It was amsuing in that one of the scam artists was completely taken in and had to have it explained to her.

More Horror movies need slight of hand and suggestion. I like being tricked as much as I do being scared.

zoe said...

there's an arthur c. clarke quote: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

that's what magic is, right? the ability to alter the perceptions of others, to make reality "change" for them? and knowing what people mean/want/feel instantly and without asking--i agree with you totally, a "cold read" would still take practice, attention to nuance, etc...
also, it's interesting to think that the person going to the psychic probably doesn't really have a grasp on the very issues that can be so plainly read on his/her face by a trained...artist. so in that sense, it's really just therapy--in that sense, witches were only really therapists (and herbalists), and it just looked like magic (read:evil) to people who didn't understand it.
or actually, does understanding it make it less magic?

great post, i loved the story, especially the part about the magic trick you never mastered :D