The Road Not Taken


The picture above is one of my favorite optical illusions because it looks so simple. I don’t remember where I first encountered it, but the question it poses is not complicated: which of the two figures representing roads above are identical?

We’ll give you a bit of space here to consider before we continue




Most people say that the two figures on the left are identical, and the figure on the right is the odd one. But that is incorrect. The two end figures are alike and the middle picture is different. It’s difficult to believe, but I did a little experiment with Photoshop that will help to convince you.

Using Photoshop, I cut the figure on the right, leaving only its outline behind, and moved the figure over to the left, overlapping the leftmost figure. Here’s what it looks like:


You can see that the two figures are identical, and surprisingly even the road division lines line up, something not so apparent in the top picture.

Now let’s try the same thing, only this time we’ll cut the leftmost figure, and let it overlap the middle figure:


You can immediately see that the middle figure does not match the leftmost figure as it appeared to do so in the top picture.

Now that you know what’s going on, go back to the top picture. Does it change your perception? Not mine. It’s one of the most disheartening things to me about optical illusions—even though we know exactly what is going on,  our perceptual apparatus is still fooled.

Magicians like to summarize this kind of realization by the simple statement: “Misdirection works.”

Apply to advertising and propaganda at your leisure. It works even when you know what they are doing.

“If You Don’t See Now, You Never See Any More”: Tony Slydini’s Close-Up Magic


You don’t often get to see how the mechanics of sleight of hand and misdirection are accomplished by a master. But in this signature routine of magician Tony Slydini, “Paper Balls Over the Head,” the audience is in on the trick from the beginning.

Thanks to YouTuber Michael Lyons

Attention, Attention, Attention

attentionA while back, I posted a photo of an intriguing street mural called “Wordscape” that I had come across while strolling in Brooklyn; at the time, I had no clue as to who the artist was, other than the name on the mural. Fortunately since then, I’ve been in phone contact with the artist, Don Porcella, who now lives in California. I had a great conversation with him, and in the near future I hope to post the audio of the interview here.

Until then, I just wanted to comment on one thing that Don said to me: when a person goes to a museum or gallery, the average time that the viewer interacts with a piece of art is just three to seven seconds—that’s it. The artist may have taken months or years bringing a project to fruition, but that three seconds could be the entire length of time that a viewer engages with the piece of art. So the artist’s  job, as Porcella sees it, is to somehow persuade or seduce a person to stay and engage and interact a little longer. He wants people to see through the surface, and then take the time to go a little deeper.

That resonated with me, because it seems as if in all the arts, there’s that obligation of baiting the hook for attention. It seems almost whorish. But the novelist is taught that the first few sentences have to grab, or no one’s going to read the rest; a musician has to have a musical hook that gets the audience humming or singing along; the old vaudeville maxim declared that “you gotta have a gimmick.” The great British actor Ralph Richardson once stated that the art of acting consisted of keeping the audience from coughing for two hours.

In magic, too, the first obligation is to get the audience’s attention. Indeed, it’s doubly important in magic: not only do magicians need your attention so that they can perform for you, they need first to receive your attention, so that later they can deceive your attention. There’s the story about a teacher of coin magic—I wish I could remember who it was!—who would stop his students’ rehearsals of coin sleights barely before they had begun. He would admonish them that they were attempting magic when they hadn’t even made eye contact with their spectators yet. Without engaging the audience’s attention, there is no hope of manipulating it.

There are crude ways of getting attention and more subtle, artistic ways. Attention is deeper and longer lasting when the viewer makes that decision without coercion. But without attention there can be no art either on the part of the artist or the part of the viewer.

There is a classic Zen Buddhist story that goes like this:

A student goes to a Zen Master: “Master, will you please write for me the essence of Zen?” The Master immediately takes out a brush and writes the word “Attention.”

“Is that all?” asked the man. “Can you explain more?”
The master then writes: “Attention, Attention.”

The bewildered student says, “I don’t understand.”
The master writes: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”

Stage Combat (Part 2)

Last time in Stage Combat Part 1 I spoke about the relationship of theatrical stage combat to stage magic illusion. So, intrigued by the idea, I sought out a Stage Combat class. Here’s what happened.

The first session of the weekly class (an eight-week class) we are introduced to our teacher Gael, a small lithe woman who I am glad to see is closer to my age than to the age of the others in the class. I am hoping she will be merciful.

The class, she tells us, will focus on training in unarmed stage combat. The tradition she uses consists of techniques where no real contact will happen between combatants–it will only be the illusion of it. “No matter what anybody says, in the heat of acting passion, accidents can happen if you really slap, punch, or kick someone. If a director insists that you do it for real, just smile and go about using the proper technique that you will learn in this class. Remember one thing. The only one who cares about your next job is you. Get hurt on this one and there may not be a next job.”

After a few suitably gruesome cautionary tales about cases where directors helped to cause permanent injuries to their actors, we get started.

The warm-up begins. And so, though I am of an age where I get spontaneous offers of a seat when I am standing on a bus, I am soon rolling around on the floor with students half my age, stretching, bending, and kicking. Finally warmed up (and trying to hide my puffing and huffing) it is time to learn the basic techniques.

We start off with the most-used method called “wall technique.” We pair off, standing facing each other. I am paired with a young woman with dark hair and intense eyes. We are standing so that my back is to the audience, while my partner is facing the audience head-on. This time, I am the aggressor, my partner is the victim. We will switch roles afterwards. We stand an arm’s length away from each other plus six inches. I am to imagine a wall six inches in front of my partner’s face. Okay.

First, eye contact with my partner. Nothing happens before that. Second, a physical cue. I raise my right hand. That’s her cue to get ready. Third, I wipe my right hand in front of my partner’s face, brushing along the imaginary wall from right to left. I follow through with my hand, making sure that my right hand passes through the audience sight line on my left. This crossing of the sight line is crucial for the illusion to work properly.

Meanwhile, it is my partner’s responsibility to provide the sound of the slap. As my hand comes towards her, she “knaps.” That is, she makes a sound by hitting her two palms together in front of her body, clapping once sharply. Her action is hidden by a number of factors. First, because of the positions of our bodies relative to the audience, if she keeps her knap low, the sight of it will be blocked by my back. Second, even more importantly, the moment after my right hand appears to be croosing the line of her left cheek, she simultaneously turns her head to her right and brings up the left hand she just knapped with to her left cheek in one motion.

That’s the magic moment. That’s what sells it. Not so much the aggressor’s motion, but the victim’s reaction. Her hand to her cheek tells the audience where to look. That in combination with the sound is irresistible. The audience’s attention must go to that spot. The amazing thing is that the audience’s collective brain fills in the missing pieces of what it didn’t see as if it did and interprets the actions as a full-bodied slap.

Gael encourages us to take turns seating ourselves in the audience in order to watch the other pairs working. The illusion is perfect. The simultaneous sound and motion are compelling and fooling–even when we know that it is a fake. It’s just like good magic. I am thrilled.

But there is one thing I am not prepared for. The emotional consequences. More of that in Stage Combat Part 3, later in the week.

Rocco: The Art of Giving


Rocco the magician walks among us like an ordinary man.  He offers you a friendly smile and nods towards the shelled peanuts in his hand, encouraging you to eat some of them.  He walks through the audience, an amiable man. He is not here to take anything from you—not your dignity, your intelligence, or anything else. Nor is he demanding anything of you, your loyalty or even admiration. After all, you have just met. He offers you some peanuts. Simple. Peanuts. You liked those peanuts? Fine. Here’s something else.

Imagine you are watching, as the famous French conjurer Robert-Houdin put it, an actor playing the part of a great magician.  He approaches the audience. You are nervous because you have been insulted by one too many performers who call themselves magicians. You are mistrustful because you are tired of the demands of the magicians’ ego for applause for their pointless “tricks.”

If you are watching Rocco Silano however, you feel differently. He is an artist. You will applaud not just because he has flawless technique—more of that later—but because he makes the kinds of decisions that other entertainers don’t think about.

We are in a little backroom of a bar, The West End in NYC. If a magician were to unleash all of his or her power here it would be too much. After all, we are just here nursing our drinks looking for a good time. We don’t want to be transported to Asia to ride the back of a Siberian Tiger. Let’s see what fun we can have here.

So Rocco and his audience eat peanuts. Then he pushes the remaining peanuts into his empty hand and when he opens his hand a brief second later, in it are peanuts in the shell. As if time had been reversed. It’s a startling moment. And now he offers you the peanuts in the shell. Then the remaining peanuts go back in the hand and it can’t be, but it is: a Snickers bar.  He gives it away. Then a pack of gum and he breaks open the pack and offers the sticks. Then the sticks turn into more packs like the parable of the loaves. You don’t like the green-wrapper kind, poof, here are the yellow kind. It’s something small, but he does it for us because we’re friends. Soon pretzels appear from nowhere, large pretzels, small pretzels, pretzel sticks, pretzel rings.

I am sitting three feet away from him. I, like most of the others here who are versed in things magical, know exactly what must be happening. And I am still mesmerized. Misdirection works whether we know about it or not when performed by a master.

His empty hands are the horn of plenty. Here’s a lollipop for you. Now an orange for you. A miniature bottle of vodka for the gentleman. A tube of lipstick for the lady. He gets what so many performers can’t seem to understand. It’s about giving to the audience and that’s what he literally does. Look, if you had the power, wouldn’t you do the same for your acquaintances? You wouldn’t rain down jewelry and money—that would make their lives too complicated and they would be too beholden to you; look what that did to Elvis. But, hey, a couple of drinks and eats for my friends when we got together—that’s exactly what I would do.

We’ve established our relationship, there’s nothing to worry about, now we can watch his stronger magic.There are some beautiful moments where he tears up a newspaper piece by piece and then restores it. And for the magicians in the audience he does a beautiful coda. He now takes the restored paper and tears that again into little pieces. The little pieces transform into a lit pipe between Rocco’s lips.

He closes, finally ready to show us a “trick.” A card is chosen, signed. He cannot find it. He pulls cards out of the deck, but they are all wrong, not the card. He throws the deck away and then plucks cards out of the air, one after another from nowhere. But they too are not correct. The venerable Magician in Trouble plot. How will he escape? He puffs on what is now a cigarette and then smiles. He removes the cigarette from his mouth. Behind his lips, is a folded card. There can be no doubt now. The card is removed from his mouth and opened up. It is the signed card. He has just given us the gift of the impossible.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Elephant (Part II)


A few days ago I posted a fantastic story of an elephant who appeared to be drawing realistic self portraits. You can see the amazing footage here in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Elephant (Part 1).

It seemed too amazing to be true.  With some further investigation it turns out that what occurred is indeed amazing  but not quite what it was purported to be.

Desmond Morris, the zoologist who at one time had a bestseller with a book called The Naked Ape, got curious, so curious in fact that he went to Thailand to see the elephants in action. You see, it turned out that there wasn’t just one elephant with artistic talent, but several; it was becoming something of a cottage industry.

Morris reported his findings some years ago in the British Daily Mail. I’m going to link to the whole article because it is somewhat lengthy but well worth reading: the entire thing.

After you read the article, I hope you do not suffer from disillusionment.  To my mind it is an amazing achievement and says much about the skills of the elephants. Look where the elephant begins each time. How does s/he know with such accuracy? I am still astounded.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Elephant (Part I)

An elephant that draws. How can that be? Not just abstract blotches we agree to call “art,” but real recognizable drawings of, well, an elephant. A self-portrait of sorts.

Evidence of self-awareness we could never have predicted or is something else going on?

The magician Ricky Jay, besides being a world-class card magician with two Broadway shows to his credit, is also a respected historian of the strange. One of his books is entitled Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric, and Amazing Entertainers. Therein you will find true accounts of Toby, the Amazing Pig of Knowledge who was able to add numbers; a goose who was able to perform card tricks; Clever Hans, the psychic horse; and a bevy of Singing Mice.


But to the best of my knowledge, not even Ricky Jay has documented the phenomenon of the artist elephant.

So what is going on here? Other than footage that was sped up from the original, there is no trick photography. Your intrepid reporter will tell you his findings in Part II, later this week…


In magic, one of the first principles the practitioner learns is that of “misdirection.” In its crudest form, it exists when the magician distracts the audience pointing to the right and saying, “Look over there!” while the elephant is ushered onstage from the left. But over the centuries magicians have developed the technique of misdirection to a fine art. As I’m writing this shortly after Election Day, I’d like to take a look at some of the more refined techniques of misdirection while keeping in mind their use in the public sphere.

The late Tommy Wonder , one of the great thinkers and do-ers of magic (see the video above), objected to the term “misdirection.” He thought it should be called “attention management.” Several ideas were encompassed in this nomenclature. First,  if magicians don’t have the attention of the audience in the first place, they can’t misdirect. So the first obligation of magicians is to train the audience to pay attention to them. Establishing rapport always comes first, before anything else.

Second, the term “misdirection” itself misdirects. The magician does not just want the audience to be negatively pulled away from one stimulus, but rather to be positively moved in the magician’s desired direction. That is, interest and attention are manipulated in such a way that the audience never feels that their attention is being distracted away from something else; they believe that they are following their own interest all the time. In the ideal case, they are never aware that there is something from which they are being distracted.

How is this done?

1) The magician starts with  initial conditions different from what the audience believes the situation to be. That deck of cards pulled from the card case was secretly set-up beforehand, for example.

2) The magician performs  in-transit actions. That is, secret actions are performed at a moment when the action is not contextualized by the audience as belonging to the magic performance. For example, in the middle of an effect, the magician appears to be sweating and so drinks a glass of water that has been sitting to her left. In that action however, she has loaded the previously palmed spectator’s card under the glass for later discovery. The audience deletes those actions since they were outside the framework of the expected performance.

3) The magician plants false memories. Before the magician makes the final reveal, the fairness of the conditions are stressed. “Now you chose a card, put it in the middle of the deck, shuffled, so there’s no way I could possibly know what your card is.” Well, no. The spectator cut the cards several times, but never actually shuffled the deck. And that makes all the difference.

4) The magician performs a secret action at a time when attention has been relaxed. Magicians call that moment the off-beat. Typically, if a magician can make the audience laugh, at that precise moment there is an opportunity to perform a secret action in an undetected manner.

5) The audience’s eyes will follow the performer’s eyes; if the magician addresses a spectator in the audience, that spectator will look at the magician and the rest of the audience will look at that spectator. At that moment, secret actions may be performed in an undetected manner.

How do these principles of misdirection apply to political performance? I’ll leave that as an open-ended question for the reader. I’d love to hear what your ideas are.