Thesis Statement

I had a pretty profound moment this weekend while working with one of the focus groups I mentioned last week. It was something a couple of the people said and it's related to a concept that I've been talking about here for almost two years, but they put it much more succinctly, and helped explain the "why" behind something I've been feeling instinctively for some time now. It could almost be a thesis statement for this site.

On the general form we give everyone to fill out before we start the group, there is a question we ask to get their broad feeling towards magic. We ask how much they like magic on a scale of 1 to 5. One being, "I don't like magic," and 5 being, "I love magic." These extreme ends are almost never selected, most people are a 2, 3, or 4. And, in particular, it's very rare for someone to pick, "I don't like magic," so when they do I always ask them about it. 

In this session, of the ten people there, two of them had selected "I don't like magic." Both were middle-aged women. 

Before we officially started the session I was informally talking with the two women as we sat at the table with the other participants. This was before we started recording the session, but to the best of my recollection this is how the conversation played out between me and the women who I'll call Anna and Beverly. Anna is a white woman, about 40, who had a background in theater. Beverly is a black woman in her mid-40s who is a stay-at-home mom who formerly worked in the finance industry.

Me: You both selected I don't like magic. That's pretty rare.

Beverly: Really?

Me: Yes. Is there a reason why? I always like to ask. I get some good stories. Was it a bad experience?

Beverly: No, it's just not for me, I guess.

Anna: Yeah.

Me: Not for you?

Anna: I just get a weird vibe from it.

Me: In what way?

Anna: Not like a supernatural or superstitious vibe. It's just a weird energy. It's like, "Look what I can do." 

Beverly: Right. "Look what I can do." And that's what kids say.

My partner who was at the table at the time said that everyone who was paying attention was nodding along too. 

Had my style of presentation not already diverged significantly from a demonstration of my "power" this would have been an even bigger moment for me. As it was, it just confirmed a lot of what I had been feeling about the performer/spectator relationship in magic and why making it about the magician has backfired for the modern performer.

We think we're coming off like a powerful god. "LOOK WHAT I CAN DO! BEHOLD MY AWESOME POWER!" We have these self-flattering pseudo-concerns, "Am I coming off too god-like? Do I need to tone it down?"

When really, many magicians are coming off as children craving attention. "Look what I can do!"

This is certainly much more in line with the reality of the reactions that many performers deal with day to day. "I just determined which hand was holding the coin by reading this person's body language and she said she wishes her kid was here to see this." "I just did my $400 book test and they asked me if I was available for children's parties." "I'm the most famous magician in the world. I've made 100s of millions of dollars. And the general public consensus is that I'm kind of a goofball."

This site is not about giving advice. I'm never trying to convince people that I have the answers. If I write definitively it's only because it would be annoying to read the site if I prefaced everything with "I feel..." or "In my opinion...." This site is only really about my journey with magic. And perhaps there is some universality in that and perhaps not. Selfishly, I like the poor reputation magic and magicians have. It lowers expectations and gives me something to play off of when I perform. So you can take or leave anything I say. It's genuinely fine by me. But if you've found yourself wondering why what you're performing doesn't have a bigger effect on people, and why they're not drawn more towards your performances, I can only say that in the past I've wondered the same things too. And the big change for me happened when I started shunning credit; when the essence of my performances became, "Huh, this is strange," "Check this out," or, "Look what you can do," rather than, "Look what I can do!"

The Engagement Ceremony

First, some terminology.

Presentation - A context and patter for a specific trick. 

Universal Presentation - These are presentations that aren't limited to any one trick. I guess "universal" is a bit of a misnomer, because they can't be used for any trick, but they can be used for many tricks. Some examples:

Word-Processor of the Gods from the JAMM #1 is a triumph effect, but that same presentation can be used for a number of other effects as well. For example any torn and restored effect, or any effect where an item reverts back to its former state.

In Search of Lost Time is a handling for the invisible deck, but you can use the identical faux hypnosis presentation for almost any other trick from the Hot Rod to color changing knives to a Zig-Zag. 

The Passion of Donny Ackerman is a word reveal, but could be used for any trick you apparently achieve through stopping time (and that too is something of a universal presentation).

The Little Idea is a universal presentation for many Tenyo tricks.

Presenting gambling tricks as a rehearsal for an upcoming gambling con you're working on is a universal presentation for those types of effects.

Universal presentations are ones that can be used for multiple effects, but you would not limit yourself to one of these presentations for all your tricks, of course.

Performance Style - Is a broad manner of presentation that encompasses some or all of your material. 

I've codified three of these in the past:

The Peek Backstage: Presenting an effect as "something you're working on" where you're looking for the spectator's input.

The Distracted Artist: Presenting effects without presentation as if they're something you're doing absentmindedly.

The Romantic Adventure: Immersive presentations where the effect is not performed for the sake of the effect, but where it serves as a demonstration of some bizarre aspect of the universe you're temporarily inhabiting with your spectator.

You can read more about these in JV1 or earlier on in the history of this site.

If I wanted to, I could limit myself to only one of these presentational styles. While doing so would limit my opportunities to perform, it wouldn't be odd or redundant for people seeing me perform over and over again in that style because these are broad styles that contain a whole universe of effects.

I believe thinking in the context of "performance styles" for the amateur performer is one of the more beneficial things you can do. At least it's been one of the most beneficial thing for me in my growth as a performer because performance styles are all about two things: the relationship between you and the spectator, and the spectator's experience of the effect. And how you handle those two things will have a greater impact on your performances than whatever material you choose or sleights you work on.

In JV1 I write that there are "hundreds" of other performance styles one could adopt and recently I have started using a few more regularly which I will be discussing here over the course of time.

The first of these is called The Engagement Ceremony and this was laid out in this post, Presenting the Unpresentable. And essentially it's just a style for process-heavy tricks that focuses on the process.

For a long time I bought into conventional magic wisdom that audiences hate "process." But then I started really paying attention to audience reactions. I think it's true that people hate boring people presenting a boring process. But if you're an interesting person presenting an intriguing process, you will find great interest from people.

People don't go see a psychic and want a lack of process. They like process. If they walked in and the reader just said, "Look out for your health. There is good news coming on the job front. See you later." The person would be like, "What the crap?" They want the process of the cutting and the shuffling of tarot cards, or using a pendulum, or tossing tea leaves or whatever the hell you do with tea leaves. People like the process.

Yeah, but that's for people who believe in psychics. Is it though? I'm not sure that's the case. I think if you believe in psychics, then you're fine if one just spits out the information. But if you don't believe then perhaps the process and the ceremony is the interesting part of it all. Again, I'm not sure. But I'm positive you can frame process as an interesting part of an effect, so long as you put your focus on the process and away from you. 

Process is like foreplay. Both in the sense that it builds anticipation for the climax, and in the sense that magicians avoid it as much as they can.

If I ask you to think of a number between 1 and 4, and I guess it, that's a pretty weak effect.

However if we go through some multi-stage ritual that, at the end, has you thinking of a number between 1 and 4, and it turns out that is the number the ritual predicted, then that's inherently much more interesting (as long as it's not an obviously mathematical "ritual").

If I predict what number you thought of between 1 and 4 that could be luck, or it could be the world's least consequential super power. But if I have you invest time in a process of ending up on a number between 1 and 4, then you're unlikely to think it's "just luck" because I wouldn't have taken up a bunch of your time with something that relied on luck. And if you're inclined to give me credit for what occurred then you don't just give me credit for predicting the number between 1 and 4, you give me credit for knowing the steps all along the way.

Anyway, this all is to say that I have been incorporating more process heavy tricks into my repertoire, as I just enjoy the low-key nature of that sort of interaction. "Let's follow these steps and see what happens." There is a passive element of this type of presentationIt that is very pleasant for both the performer and spectator and it's an nice change of pace from some of the other performance styles I employ.

The Box Step

Does anyone know the highest price a magic book ever sold for at auction? 

The Jerx, Volume One is going to be sold out by the end of this month. But I'm going to hold one copy back and humbly make it available for just $1 more than the previous record for whatever the most a magic book sold for was. I'm serious, so if anyone knows, let me know.

Coming in JAMM #2

This is choreography, literal footprint on the ground choreography, for switching any decent sized object in the course of a one-on-one magic trick. I use it as a deck switch, I also use it for the switch in Mind Reading, My Sweet. I've switched examined spoons, rubiks cubes, pens, and notebooks with it too.

The details will be in the upcoming issue of the JAMM. Subscribe here.

Ancient Chinese Secret, Huh?

A JAMM subscriber sent me footage of him performing Mind-Reading, My Sweet from issue #1. Or, at least, the end of that trick where the prediction is revealed. It's very enjoyable to me to see someone other than myself try out one of these more oddly structured effects. That trick is a good example of what I discussed last Friday, where structural weaknesses of a trick are subsumed by the presentation. There will be more discussion on that trick in the Letters to the Editor section of Issue #2.

I'm mentioning it today because the ideas that follow are related to that effect. One of them (the one I don't particularly like) was the precursor to that effect. And one of them (the one I really like) evolved along side of it. Neither of the ideas I'm about to discuss are actually possible at this time because they would require apps that don't exist. However, they might be interesting ideas to think about just in a brainstorming sort of way. 

I have a gazillion ideas for apps. Hell, I've been coming up with ideas for computer software and stuff like that since I was in 6th grade and wrote up a parody version of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego called Who In the Fuck Is Sherman Sanfrancisco. That is a good example of the issue with my app ideas, they really only appeal to me and maybe 6 other people. The Jerx App is the one idea I had with a more universal appeal, and that's because it's so simple and can do so many things. But most of my ideas are more along the lines of Breakfart, the app you fart into and it tells you what you had for breakfast.

So let's talk a little about the common ancestor that Mind-Reading, My Sweet and the effect that ends this post have in common. 

I had an idea where you would be able to predict anything a spectator names. Well, not you, but an incredible Chinese mentalist that you've been corresponding with. You could call him the great Foo Ling Yu. Congrats, now you're a comedy magician.

So you have a sealed envelope that this mentalist has sent you and you ask your friend to think of anything. For example, you ask her to think of a gift she once received. The best one, the worst one, or just any memorable gift. Your friend names a stuffed-animal turtle her dad gave her before he committed suicide.

"Ooooohhh sheeeee-it...," you say as you slink backwards out of the room.

I'm just kidding. She just says it was a stuffed turtle her dad got her for Valentine's day when she was 8.

You hand her the envelope and ask her to open it.

She does and finds a letter printed in Chinese characters.

"Oh crap," you say. "Normally we correspond over email and it automatically translates everything. Uhm... do you have a translation app on your phone?" She doesn't, so you open one on yours that translates whatever it sees through the camera. You set it to translate from Chinese to English and have her hold it over the letter. It translates it and the letter says, "I'm having a premonition of you meeting with a beautiful red-haired girl [or whatever describes your spectator]. When asked to think of a gift from her past, she will think of a turtle. I am very confident in this. Please use this information wisely."

At the end of the night she can take the letter with her and anyone who reads Chinese can verify what it says.

So, if it's not obvious, it's essentially a fake translation app. You print out a letter that has everything except the thought of object written in Chinese. Then when you open the app you secretly code what the thought of word is when you set the app to translate into English. Your spectator can watch you do this and see nothing suspicious. If you don't understand what I'm getting at, you can see this kind of covert input in this old Google trick

So the app asks you what language to translate into and you, apparently, type English. The app now knows the object the person is thinking of and inserts that into the translation that it overlays on the letter.

Ideally what would also happen when you secretly input their word is that a duplicate letter would print off, wirelessly, from your printer in another room. Then it's just a matter of swapping the letters at some point in the evening so she can take the letter home with her.

As far as ideas go, it's not that great. It lacks the charm of the non-app presentation used in Mind-Reading, My Sweet. I've seen the reaction that trick gets first hand, and now I've seen the reaction another person has had with it. And while it's not a particularly satisfying method for magicians, I find it to be a very satisfying unfolding of events for the spectator, and completely baffling assuming you handle the one move invisibly.

But it did lead to another idea which I really like, but again, it would require a custom app that would probably have limited appeal.

Ancient Chinese Secret, Huh?

Imagine this, a friend is visiting your house, he notices a new framed poster hanging in your living room. It's a paragraph of Chinese characters. He asks what it's all about.

You ask him if he can read Chinese at all, he says he can't. That's okay, you tell him, and you ask him to stare at the poster while you have him imagine the following scenario. 

"I want you to imagine you're an 8-year-old boy. You live in a rural part of southern China. One day you are walking home from school and off in the distance you see a clearing with an object sitting all by itself in the middle of it. You walk up closer and closer to the object until finally you can see what it is. What is it?"

"I don't know," he says.

"Just name the first thing that comes to your mind," you say.

"Uhm... a pickle," he says.

"Great." You ask him to stand next to the poster and you take a picture of him with it and text it or email it to him.

"I want you to find someone who can read Chinese and ask them what that says," you tell him.

A couple days later he reaches out to a professor at a local university and sends her the picture and asks her what the poster says. 

She writes back...

It says, "I was an 8-year-old boy. I lived in a rural part of southern China. One day I was walking home from school and off in the distance I saw a clearing with an object sitting all by itself in the middle. I walked up closer and closer to the object until finally I could see what it was. It was a pickle. While it did not seem like the most significant incident of my youth, I decided to print it up and put it on a poster because you never know what will turn out to be a magical moment."


This would be a variation on Aurasma, which is an augmented reality app. Essentially you can tell your camera to replace any object with another object when you're using it to take a picture. So, for example, you could set it up so anytime you have your camera aimed at a Bicycle joker, it would replace the image of the joker with the three of spades (or whatever). That's just a dumb card trick example. 

Here you would set it up so the image to be replaced would be the poster image, and it would replace it with an identical image except with the symbol for whatever word the spectator chose included in the text. Or, perhaps it could just replace a single Chinese character from the poster with the appropriate one to make the "prediction" accurate. Whichever looks better. You would need an app for this, of course.

So, your friend comes by, notices the poster. You tell them the story and have them say what they see in their imagination. Then you take a picture of him with the poster. As you go to take the picture you would type in whatever word he said into the app. Then the app would swap in the appropriate character for the incorrect character in the poster--augmented reality style (and ideally feather the image and balance the colors so it blended in well).

You take a picture, send it to your friend's phone and let him take it from there. I always like a trick that concludes when you're not around.

Damn Lies

If you own Marc Kerstein's WikiTest, you can click on the image below to download my take on the effect. It's not profoundly different, just a slightly altered presentation and method to take the effect out of the mentalism genre (I have enough mentalism tricks) and into a moderately absurdist 5-minute presentation piece.

The password for the pdf: Go to the WikiTest app > Go to Instructions > Go to "The Method" > Scroll down to the last paragraph, it's the word after "remotely" in lowercase letters. 

I don't know if it's the type of thing that will appeal to anyone who isn't me but I have a lot of fun performing it, so someone else might too. 

Gardyloo #18

My little sweeties... it's Valentine's Day tomorrow! You know those weird, creepy tricks that mentalists like where they try to imply that the reason for the trick's success is the "strong connection between the two of us"? Go perform one of those for your wife, for god's sake. Help in the fight against weirdos using magic. 

"This trick works because of our strong connection." Between you and someone you're not in a relationship with = you're a giant weirdo.

"This trick works because of the strong connection between the two of you." A zillion times better. But I often wonder how many people have had their signed card merge with the signed card of someone whose face they can't fucking stand anymore. Other than a situation where I really know the people, I don't like to imply their "bond" is causing the magic. Even at a wedding, I need to really be in on the situation between the two. I've been to some weddings where the participants were like, "Well... this is a big mistake. I know it. You know it. Everyone here knows it." I mean, that was the feeling in the air. That wasn't part of the vows or something. So I'm careful about that sort of thing. Just my philosophy.

"This trick works because of our strong connection." Between you and someone you love in a healthy relationship. I'm all for that. Be a sweetie. Do magic for someone like that.

Seriously, dude, if your name is Mark Sherman, and you live in Washington state, all my emails to you get bounced back. Get in touch with me and give me an alternate email address. Maybe your're dead. Or—it's your work address—so maybe you got fired. In either case, getting your JAMM subscription is probably not foremost on your mind. Hell, perhaps you got fired for getting things like your dirty amateur magic magazine subscription sent to your work address. I don't know. Just get in touch so we can clear it up.

Also, this goes for everyone, if I haven't responded to an email in regards to a specific issue between us, and it's been more than a couple of days, don't hesitate to get back in touch. I don't like to leave things dangling, so if I have, it means I've either lost track of the issue or I misunderstood something and thought something was taken care of that wasn't, so feel free to bring it back up with me. 



Reader Thomas Hodgson created this letter for his performance of Rest In Pieces. 

While the letter made perfect sense for him because it was performed near the beginning of the year, if you want to use it you may need to justify the "new year" as a new year of the service. "Yes, the service started in September of 2011. So this is the first puzzle for year seven." Or whatever.

You can download the pdf for these here.

I'm going to be conducting some magic-related focus-groups within the next couple of weeks for a project that is not primarily related to this site. We may have some extra time with the groups so if there is a trick or concept that you'd like tested in front of real people who are being paid for their brutal honesty, let me know.  

It would have to be something fairly quick to demonstrate and then get feedback on, however, because our time is limited.

The writing credit for The Amateur at the Kitchen Table in the January table of contents for Genii is nice and confusing.

It's got a real "Rambo First Blood Part Two" vibe to it.

Also, is "Andy" really a pseudonym? Is "John" a pseudonym for John Lovick?

If it helps I'll use my full name around here. It's His Honor Count Captain Andrew Winthrop von Munthe af Morgenstierne IV, B.V.M. 

Also, does anyone know if I'm the only person to get two books reviewed in Genii in consecutive months? I think I'm going to claim that I am. Who cares if it's true. No one is going to look it up.

A little Valentine's magic trick I put together. Would you believe you can do this in real life for someone? You can. I mean, there will be a giant box of chocolate on the ground at the end of the trick, but you can definitely do it.

The Hidden Benefit of the Unbelievable Premise

I've written before about how I prefer to present tricks with unbelievable implied methods. That is to say, the premise of the effect—what's causing the effect—not the actual method itself. I've spelled this out most clearly in this post, in the section The Sealed Room With the Little Door. 

I'm sure I went through a period, probably soon after Derren Brown came on the scene, where I thought it would be cool if people believed I was doing these things for real. That I was truly controlling their mind or reading their body language or something like that. But that didn't last too long for me. I think it's a style that obviously works amazingly well for Derren, but the idea that it could just work equally well for any other idiot who adopted it is kind of dismissive of everything uniquely "Derren" that he brings to the table. And I think it's a style that falls horribly flat for the amateur performer. "Oh, look. Apparently Timmy is now a mental mastermind. The kid who swallowed a roll of pennies to hear them jangle in his stomach is now able to tell me what memory I'm concentrating on based on my micro-expressions. Okay. Sure." I mean, if you're doing it as a goof, that's fine. But I've only ever seen people play it straight.

I'm at the point where I'm disappointed if people believe what I'm telling them. Sometimes when I'm with someone who's a little... spacey... what I consider a fantastical premise, she might think has some validity. "Of course you could tell the emotion I was concentrating on by reading my aura," she'll say, or words to that effect. So I'm constantly pushing my effects into weirder and weirder directions because I don't want them to be believed. 

But here's a dirty secret. Even if you do want people to believe you have some special powers, you're better off not saying, "I'm psychic." That's just a challenge to people. You're better off giving it some absurd explanation and then letting people back themselves into the idea that maybe it's something "real." On more than a few occasions I've heard someone say—either directly to me or second-hand—"Well, yeah, no shit, obviously he wasn't serious when he said he could do what he did because he had a blood transfusion from a werewolf. But how does he do it? Is he hiding something?" Not in those exact words, of course. But the notion that maybe there was something legitimately unnatural going on, and I was hiding it behind a bogus explanation, is something that comes up. It's not my intention to create this interpretation of events, but I'm fine with this jumble of truth and fiction and I can appreciate all the different layers of reality going on. I'm doing something fake and saying that it's real, but the thing I'm claiming is real sounds so obviously unreal that maybe I'm just hiding something real behind the guise of something unreal.

One huge hidden benefit of unbelievable premises, is that they can be used to disguise a method. And this is something I use all the time. I'll give you a simple example. Let's say we're at the public library. It's a big brightly lit place. I decide I'm going to float a dollar for you. I want to get into the shadows to hide the thread better so I tell you to follow me over to the corner (where it's not so bright). Then I levitate the bill (via "magic" or "mind power"). 

This is, possibly, a fine trick. But what you'll find when you perform for the same people over and over is that, while they may not be able to deconstruct your tricks, they can often become very good at spotting unjustified actions. "Why did he pick up the deck just to set it down again?" "Why did he have me put two coins in my hand in order to vanish one?" Or, as in the example above, "Why did he bring me over to this corner to float a bill?" These are all unnecessary expenditures of energy. And sometimes spectators can follow that thread of suspicion to at least a partial method. Some people are just naturally attuned to spot inconsistencies, and some people just become more relaxed the more often they're put in the position of being a spectator. Just as you become more comfortable performing the more you do it, people become more comfortable watching magic the more they do it. And that can cause them to question things that someone who is less comfortable watching magic will let slide. This is an issue the amateur performer has that pros encounter less. 

But here's where the unbelievable premise comes into play. If you make that questionable action part of an unbelievable premise, then it becomes not only justified, but it becomes dismissed as anything of consequence. They just see it as part of the fiction of the presentation; part of the thing they can ignore if they're looking for clues to the "reality" of what's going on. It's like sneaking out a prisoner in a load of laundry. 

Let's go back to the library. Now instead of dragging you to the corner for no reason to float a bill, I tell you to come over by biographies (that same darkened corner). "There's a lot of spiritual energy here because of the old books documenting the long dead." I have you choose a book and we tear a dollar sized chunk out of one the blank pages in the back (I'll make a donation to the library to cover it). We harness the spiritual energy and it begins to float. 

Now you don't question why we came to this part of the library to float a piece of paper. Instead you dismiss it as being part of the story I was establishing. If your intention is to unravel the trick, I've snuck part of the method past you disguised as presentation. 

In his review of JV1, Jamy Swiss said the presentation for The Miracle Worker (which was the updated version of this post) "might well amount to the most perfect misdirection for a Center Tear that you have ever encountered." And why? Because it adds a number of layers to the handling of a center tear that makes it easier (you can do it slowly, and you can take as much time as you want staring at the paper), but it disguises those layers in presentation. 

Now, I'm never suggesting people adopt the style I use. If you want people to think you're the real deal, that's cool with me (even if I think that's a psychological disorder). I'm just pointing out one of the not-so-obvious benefits of a presentation that provides an unbelievable context for a trick. When I have an effect with a weakness or a certain performing condition that needs to be met, I will always try and incorporate those things into such a presentation. 

And unfortunately, you can't hide your method in presentation if you want your premise to be taken as real. That does the exact opposite. It shines a spotlight on those questionable moments. You're opening your premise to scrutiny, and hence your method to more scrutiny.

If you own Marc Kerstein's WikiTest, I'd like to show you how I use this concept with that effect. My use of that app is just slightly different in effect, method, and presentation and it leaves a little memento of the effect at the end—not a "souvenir" because I don't expect anyone to keep it— but just an interesting physical reminder of what has happened. Don't get me wrong, WikiTest is pretty much perfect as is. But I like the presentation I've come up with because it fits my style, addresses a potential weakness in method, and allows for something a little different than presenting it as a mind-reading demonstration. 

If you're interested, I'll be making my handling available via a free pdf download for owners of the effect on this site next Tuesday.