Friday Free-for-all #30: Questions, questions

NOTE: Due to a formatting error by WordPress, the original version of this post was corrupted, with missing text. This is the corrected version, which should now make a lot more sense.

This originally started as me answering one random question generated by a website, but the questions eventually got to the part where they didn’t really need long answers. So, instead, it’s turned into a slow-motion interview with multiple queries. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments — or ask your own!

Do you text more or call more? Why?

I absolutely text (or message) more. Calling is a tool of either intrusion or rudeness: it tells the person you’re calling, “Pay attention to me right now!” If they choose to let it go to voicemail, then they’re saying I don’t have time to drop everything right now and talk

There are only a couple of people, of course, who get an immediate answer, but since most of the calls I get nowadays are robots or sales calls, I rarely answer my phone. It’s kind of ironic that the feature that was so useful about these pocket computers when they first came out (as not really computers) has now become one of the most useless.

What is the fanciest restaurant you have eaten at?

It’s a tie between two for very different reasons. One is “money fancy” and the other is “atmosphere fancy.”

The former was the Jonathan Club in Downtown L.A., and as you can probably tell from the name, it’s a private club that’s been around since forever. The reason that I got my poor ass in, along with a group of co-workers/friends of equal socio-economic status, was that one of the producers on the TV show we all worked on at the time belonged to the club and took us there as a thank you.

Everything about it just screamed prosperity. It was a huge place — I think it took up the entire twelve-story building — and was a combination of “gentlemen’s” club, restaurants, and private suites for members’ use if they happened to be in town on a business trip. (The club is part of a network with reciprocal membership.)

I think the place may have even had a gym and indoor pool and all the amenities. It was founded in 1895, so had been there over a century when we went.

It was certainly impressive. We worked our way through a large, carpeted hall edged in dark wood with side rooms off it, each one with full bookcases and wingback chairs for the members’ comfort.

The dining room was huge, with big round tables surrounded by very comfy leather chairs that actually had arms. It was the kind of place with white linen everything, a placeholder dish with a placeholder dish on top of that to start, all the kinds of glasses, and every possible fork, knife, spoon and weird tool available in the cutlery collection, laid out in order, all in solid (not plated) silver.

It was also a menu that had only a few select items each day, and seemed to fall prey a little bit to the California cuisine fallacy that was even more in effect at that time: “Let’s find really great food and a bunch of fantastic ingredients, then throw in one or two things that absolutely shit it up but which pretentious foodies will think are the dog’s balls.”

Yeah, like that. That’s why I wound up ordering scallops, thinking they were fish, since they seemed like the least messed-up dish. (I didn’t find out until long after that they’re actually clams, which I never would have ordered, which is kind of weird because I do love me some New England clam chowder.

The food was amazing, and so was the service. A waiter would appear to refill your water glass the second you drained it, clean the tablecloth with a crumb-brush as the busboys took away the dishes between every course and, if anyone happened to go to the bathroom, they would come back to find a new napkin neatly folded in its original spot.

Yeah, that kind of fancy.

I have no idea how much it might have cost, but this was the co-executive producer and frequent director of a one-hour, prime-time TV series back in the day when broadcast TV meant something. And, to be honest, the real money was probably in the combination of directing and writing work, and residuals from both.

The other fancy place, which I’ve been to several times, is The Magic Castle, in Hollywood, which I’ve written about before, so I won’t go into great detail here. I’ll just say that for a membership club that allows ample guests, the prices are pretty reasonable, and if admission to the main dining room seems a little expensive, remember that it includes admission to all the mainstage shows — something you aren’t guaranteed if you’re cheaper.

Unfortunately, it’s mostly closed right now because of the pandemic, but when and if it re-opens, it’s worth going, and it’s not as hard to get in as you might think. Look up an L.A. magician who seems to do the corporate/birthday party circuit, figure out when they’re having a club show, then go see it. Afterwards, rave about their tricks and ask if they ever perform at the Magic Castle.

A lot of them do because they’re members, but at their level they’re like the dozens of garage bands that used to play tiny music venues in L.A., and sort of work for the same perks. Sure, they get to invite people because that’s how they get their audience, and those people spend money.

It’s exactly the same thing I experienced on the musician end of it, when in order to get a gig we had to guarantee a certain number of people. Oh, they all got in free, but there was a two drink minimum. The club made money off the booze. We only made it off of tickets that sold.

A lot of the non-name magicians at the Castle probably heard the same thing that we did: “You’re doing it for exposure.” But like we hoped to someday be good enough to play a larger local venue like the (late) Troubador before hitting a big theater or even an arena, they hope to open for a more famous magician or other variety act or, holy grail, go on “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” and do what the title says in order to become Vegas famous.

Hm. Musician, magician. That’s only a two letter difference: us vs. ag, which actually makes sense… a band is a visible group, an “Us.” Meanwhile, a magician appears to be going solo (they’re not), but it costs a lot more money, really, for the tricks and their development than it does to becoming a working musician, hence it takes a lot of silver; atomic symbol, Ag.

Okay, I somewhat pulled that comparison out of my ass. But whether the former or the latter, I like to think that both types of artists deal in illusions — although I guess only the former also deals in allusions.

If you didn’t care at all what people thought of you, what clothes would you wear?

I don’t care what they think anyway, but the real snag is that it’s not legal, because I’d rather wear nothing because it’s just more comfortable.

Okay, it’s not totally illegal, and this is another topic I went more in-depth on two months ago. But America really needs to pull it’s repression out of its ass, lighten up, and learn from other countries where nudity is no big deal.

We all got’em — bodies and all the bits — and there really aren’t that many differences between them. But I bet that if we normalized nudity, it would eliminate body-shaming, help people with self-image, and greatly reduce things like eating disorders.

For one thing, it’s hard to point and laugh at someone else’s when you’re showing yours, most of us are not uber-fit supermodels, and it would demystify the human body to the point that porn might even become passé. It’s like the old joke about the two guys at a nudist colony (there’s a dated expression!) who don’t notice the attractive young woman until she puts on a tight T-shirt as she prepares to go home.

And general nudity might even really cut down on physical confrontations, because do you really want to start anything with that butt-nekkid WalMart security guard?

Wednesday Wonders: Jon on Scarne

Just a little over one hundred and seventeen years ago, a guy named Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia was born in Steubenville, Ohio. You won’t recognize that name. Seeing as how he died in 1985, you might not recognize the name he became famous under. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a magician doing card tricks, played pretty much any card or dice game, or counted cards in blackjack (at least, if you did it his way) then you know the name John Scarne.

Now why is a magician, card manipulator, and author of books on gambling showing up on a Wednesday Wonder post? Because there’s a corollary to Clarke’s Third  Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The corollary is “Any sufficiently advanced magic is the product of technology.”

Magic tricks have always been based on scientific principles. They are a combination of mathematics, physics, and psychology, and sometimes throw in chemistry, geometry, and topography, for good measure. Of course, the best magicians wrap all of that science in the arts, so that the perfect illusion (“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money.”) is a full-on performance wrapped up in a story, supported by stagecraft, acting, music, and the whole nine yards.

Of course, note that the word “stagecraft” is kind of meta, because what we in theatre call stagecraft is often what illusionists call magic, so it’s an infinite loop there. A magic trick is stagecraft. Stagecraft is a magic trick. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But what Scarne did goes even beyond all of that, and one look at this card manipulation film of his from the 50s should convince you of that. Yes, I’ve studied magic enough to know that he’s using all kinds of tricks, like false deals and double lifts and so on to do what he’s doing but… at the same time, while the trick seems focused on the Aces, he’s not manipulating four cards at once here. He’s controlling eight — and all of them in a specific order, full speed ahead.

One of his more famous appearances was as Paul Newman’s hands in the movie The Sting. Newman’s character shows some pretty impressive card manipulating skills, all done by Scarne, but if you watch that video clip take special note. At the beginning, we cut to the hands with the cards. Then, at 0:36, the filmmakers pull their magic. The hands move out of frame at the top just long enough for Newman to put his own hands back, then pull off a not so fluid full-flip of the fanned deck, as the camera casually tilts up to make us think that those were his hands all the time. Ironically, I think that the insert shot of the flubbed attempt to bow shuffle was actually Scarne and not Newman.

But knowing that part of the trick brings up an even bigger issue. The only way they could have shot this was with Scarne behind Newman and reaching around, meaning that he had to do all of that manipulation of the cards totally blind.

Let that register, then go watch that clip again as he keeps the Ace of Spades right where he wants it. And nice symbolism on the part of the filmmakers, since that card is traditionally symbolic of death, and death both real and imagined play a big part in the film.

So how does magic trick us?

A lot of the time, it uses psychology and subverts our expectations. An obvious move to do something innocuous, like pull a wand out of our coat pocket, might in fact hide one or more surreptitious moves, like grabbing an object to be produced or ditching an object to be vanished, or both, or something else. One of the best demonstrations of how this works was given by Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, on their show Fool Us.

Anyway… that video will teach you almost everything you need to know about sleight-of-hand.

Another way that magic fools us is to play with our perceptions of space, and as mentioned in the link above, the Zig Zag Illusion is one of the best examples of making the audience think that something is impossible while hiding the secret right in front of them. I happen to own several pocket versions of this trick, one involving a rope and the other a pencil, and the principle is always the same. The Zig Zag Trick involves deceptive optics, psychology, and misdirection.

Of course, one other big trick in magic, especially in card tricks, is math, and I’m going to give away one that I love to do to make friends go “WTF?” Here’s the effect: I deal out 21 cards, then ask then to mentally pick a card, not tell me, but only tell me which one of three piles of seven cards it’s in. I gather up the cards and then deal them out again, and ask which column their card is in.

This is where I pull the stagecraft, playing up the idea that I have psychic abilities while dealing out the cards, Here’s the trick. When you hit the eleventh card, set it aside, face down, then deal out the rest. This sets you up for the ultimate brain scorch as you casually turn up that eleventh card and ask, “Is this the one you chose?”

And of course it is, and your victim squees in amazement. And how does it work? Simple. It’s all math. Each step of the way, you take the pile of seven cards with your spectator’s chosen card and put it in the middle. Since your piles are 3 by 7, the end result is that the first pass will force the chosen card to turn up somewhere between 8 and 14 in the pile. Next time around, it gets jammed to being either 10th, 11th, or 12th, and the last deal nails it. Although, pro tip, after the second deal, the chosen card will be the fourth one in the chosen column, and the 11th one you deal out. So… much opportunity for building up the reveal while reminding your mark and audience that they chose the card freely, and never told you which one it was and, bam! Is this your card?

And, if you followed the instructions, it absolutely will be. Bonus points: Once you understand the math behind it, you can vary it on the fly, so that it’s not always the 11th card — 4th or 18th will work as well. You can even change the total number of cards, provided that you’ve memorized where the target card will finally be forced to.

Scarne totally got all of this, but it really feels like his insights have been forgotten 35 years after his death. ‘Tis pity… Now pick a card.

Wednesday Wonders: Seeing the real magic

Due to a personal family situation that I may or may not write about here later, here is a flashback of a popular article that was originally published in November 2018. Rest assured that I have not been to the Magic Castle during lockdown, since it’s not open anyway.

And now for a story that starts out a bit Hollywood-centric, but it will become more general as we go on.

I recently made another foray to The Magic Castle in Hollywood, which isn’t quite as hard to manage as it’s reputed to be. All you have to do is befriend magicians, and ask — or know people who know magicians. Or, if you have the money, you can become an associate member for a $1,500 initiation fee and $750 per year, or just stay in the adjacent Magic Hotel. If you’re into magic, it’s well worth the visit.

If you don’t have that kind of money and have to rely on connections, note that the valet parking is a bit pricey at $14 per car, but if you don’t mind a walk you can get there from the Hollywood and Highland Metro Station, or just use a ride-sharing service. The food is excellent but, again, on the higher end. However, eating in the dining room does get you admission to the main room shows, which is where the big effects happen, so factor that into the price of the meal. If you don’t mind missing the big shows but are still hungry, food at either of the bars is in the typical restaurant range for L.A., and it is likewise very good.

Now, like a lot of people who were once little kids, I went through my fascination with magic phase, and had the obligatory kits and tricks. There was also a magic shop a few miles from my house that I used to ride my bike to during my middle school days, and the owner was kind enough to let me hang around and watch him demonstrate tricks or watch magicians try out new effects or card moves.

The only problem was that when it came to doing magic I did not have the manual dexterity for it. My hands were adapted to playing piano, not to sleight-of-hand, so unless a trick did itself, I wasn’t very good at it, so I never pursued it. For a long time, I kind of resented magicians for this reason, until I discovered Penn & Teller. Their whole shtick is partly about revealing how some old classic tricks are done, but even then they’ll top it by using the exposed version to show what kind of mad skills it takes, or subvert it by then hiding a bigger trick behind the reveal — in effect showing you everything while hiding something even more amazing.

Anyway, it was ironically through their giving away of secrets (something that some other magicians absolutely hate them for) that really increased my appreciation of magic. I went on to learn about how all sorts of tricks worked, but then watching magic became an entirely different sort of thing for me. Audiences who don’t know the tricks (no, I’m not going to call them No-Maj, thanks!) are wowed and amazed and baffled. Meanwhile, when I watch, I appreciate the sheer talent of a skilled magician while I watch exactly how they’re misdirecting the audience. I may know the punchline to the trick the moment the magician sets it up and long before it’s revealed, but that’s an entirely different level of enjoyment.

I’d compare it to the difference in experience between a musician and a non-musician watching a performance. The latter may just appreciate the music on an emotional and aesthetic level. Meanwhile, the former may be watching it from a completely different place, which could very well offer frequent thoughts of, “Holy crap, how did they make those two keys fit together in counterpoint and have two separate lyric lines suddenly mesh perfectly?” (This is also known as “pulling a Sondheim.”)

The other night at The Magic Castle, I was lucky enough to be sitting at the right hand of the close-up magician who had invited my friend as he did a half-hour routine especially for our group at a green felt-topped table that was quickly surrounded by spectators not in the inner circle. And for his whole routine, I knew enough to ignore the misdirection and always watch what the hand he didn’t want us to look at was doing. I did catch one specific move that I think may have actually been just to fake me out because it shouldn’t have been necessary for the trick that followed, but as I found out afterwards, he was as onto me as I was to him. When I complimented him afterwards,  he said, “You’ve done magic, haven’t you?”

“No, I’ve just studied it a lot,” I replied.

During his routine, while everyone else was watching what he wanted them to, I was just as enthralled watching how skillfully he was pulling off what he was hiding — every palm and ditch, force and false cut, load and steal, every stack and double lift. In magician’s terms, I was giving him a burn. But my intent was never to go, “A-ha, you just (reveal trick)!” No. It was to be awed on an entirely different level. His skills are absolutely amazing.

The Magic Castle is like that, and the place is full of little bits of magic to be discovered, but probably one of the most remarkable is Irma, the ghost piano player who performs in the lounge behind the upstairs bar. The effect is simple. When she’s not on break, ask Irma for a song, and unless it’s something ridiculously obscure, she’ll start playing it. (I stumped her with Echame la culpa, but I figured that it wouldn’t be in her repertoire anyway.)

She’ll also answer questions with short musical bits. For example, someone in our party asked if she was in love with anyone, and this was answered with “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Obviously, the grand piano with no one sitting in front of it is somehow remotely operated, but the big question is how. And remember: Irma has been a part of The Magic Castle all along, since its opening in 1963, at which point the effect presented itself exactly the same way, more on which in a moment.

I’ve heard people theorize on it, conjecturing everything from tons of player piano rolls, to voice recognition and AI, to a hidden player pulling up sheet music via computer. And, of course, it all works through hidden microphones. The first two are unlikely, the third is unnecessary, and the microphones don’t explain everything that happens.

Once you start really paying attention to what’s going on, you’ll discover that there’s one thing a lot of people don’t realize. In fact, I didn’t realize it until we walked into the lounge with our magician host and Irma immediately started playing The Pink Panther, which he pointed out is his theme song. Also, when he set his trick bag on the table in front of us and went to the bar, the table slowly rotated so the bag was suddenly in front of me. When he game back, we told him what had happened and he said it was just Irma’s way of being funny.

After that, one of our party joined us with a glass of tequila and yes — Irma played a few bars of that song. Much later in the evening, after we paid one last visit to Irma and were on the way out, she started playing Anything Goes — the first song asked for that night by the one member of our party who’d never been there before and who had had the tequila. He had started walking out without a word.

So there’s no possible way that it’s just microphones, but I could not spot any likely place for cameras to be hidden. Not that it’s not possible, although it’s more likely that they still rely on the low-tech method of people with microphones behind two-way mirrors to relay information to the — pardon the expression — ghost in the machine that is the human player hidden somewhere. This would certainly be a logical use of some very old mind-reader act trickery, after all.

Personally, I’m entirely convinced that Irma is operated by a human piano player who is not relying on computers or AI or any other fancy technology. Rather, it’s a human who is just relying on their own talents and skill. And that is the biggest magic trick of all.

Remember that the next time someone amazes you with what they can do, and thank them for it — then go out there and be amazing at what you do.

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving! ¡Feliz día de la acción de gracias!