Monthly Archives: January 2015

Review ~ Sleights of Mind

Cover via Goodreads

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions by by Stephen L. Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde, Sandra Blakeslee

Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, the founders of the exciting new discipline of neuromagic, have convinced some of the world’s greatest magicians to allow scientists to study their techniques for tricking the brain. This book is the result of the authors’ yearlong, world-wide exploration of magic and how its principles apply to our behavior. Magic tricks fool us because humans have hardwired processes of attention and awareness that are hackable—a good magician uses your mind’s own intrinsic properties against you in a form of mental jujitsu.

Now magic can reveal how our brains work in everyday situations. For instance, if you’ve ever bought an expensive item you’d sworn you’d never buy, the salesperson was probably a master at creating the “illusion of choice,” a core technique of magic. The implications of neuromagic go beyond illuminating our behavior; early research points to new approaches for everything from the diagnosis of autism to marketing techniques and education. Sleights of Mind makes neuroscience fun and accessible by unveiling the key connections between magic and the mind (via Goodreads)

I checked this out from the library at the same time as Will Storr’s The Unpersuadables. Without really planning it, these two books are interesting companions, covering similar (and sometimes the same) issues of perception and deception. Although the more recently published of the two, Storr’s book seemed to have the older science. Or maybe it was that his reaction to the science felt strangely outdated. A lot of Sleights of Mind wasn’t new to me. I’ve been poking around in the theories of magic for a few years now and even attended a lecture event at ASU back in 2012 with Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde and magicians Jamy Ian Swiss and Joshua Jay. When Storr was surprised and appalled by how much our brain infers and how our memories are terribly malleable, I was was kinda saying to myself, “Well, yeah.”*

Sleights of Mind assumes all the mind’s confabulations are a given and endeavors to better understand the processes by looking at how magicians manipulate their audience.

By understanding how magicians hack our brains, we can better understand how the same cognitive tricks are working in advertising strategies, business negotiations, and all varieties of interpersonal relations. When we understand how magic works in the mind of the spectator, we will have unveiled the neural bases of consciousness itself.

Which is a pretty lofty goal and one that the authors are still pursuing.

Sleights of Mind and The Unpersuadables also have journey in common. Will Storr travels the globe investigating beliefs of all kinds. Macknik and Martinez-Conde travel to magic conventions and visit with world renowned illusionists. All involved are looking for answers. What I like about Sleights of Mind is its optimism. Some of the tricks our brain plays are really extraordinary and lead to good things like our sense of wonder. Understanding is only ever a good thing.

I do think that Macknik and Martinez-Conde give magicians a little too much credit for actually knowing what they’re doing on more than an intuition/tradition level. This is an example of the difference between what science does and what can result from technological advancement without scientific method. Magicians have come upon their techniques through a process of using what works, passing it on to the next generation of magicians who might tweek the methods, but rarely innovate through scientific method (observation, hypothesis, experimentation, re-evaluation). This isn’t to say that there aren’t some texts out there by magicians that look at the nitty gritty, but it’s rare. Learning what works has traditionally superseded *why* something works.

The book exposes many magic tricks. It’s hard to discuss why magic works without talking about how its done. Macknik and Martinez-Conde have become members of the major magic guilds in existence, which includes performing for a board of professionals at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Each exposure is marked with a spoiler warning because most of the injunction against letting laypeople know secrets is to avoid inadvertent exposure. This book is really only for people who aren’t going to be disappointed to find out the nuts and bolts of magic.

* One of the things that did catch my interest was the McGurk effect. This is a sort of weird perceptual misfire that can occur when what we see and what we hear differ. It’s easier to link to a video than explain it:

Except this illusion didn’t work for me. Some other videos that I surfed to did, but results were mixed. Which got me to wondering, is it my face-blindness? Is it my left-of-center placement on the autism spectrum?

Publishing info, my copy: Henry Holt and Company, 2010, Hardback
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: Non-fiction, Magic and Related Subjects
Previously: Susana Martinez-Conde was an occasional guest lecturer in one of the classes my husband Eric took for his Computational Bioscience masters. He even got to play with brains at the Barrow Institute… And as I said above we also attended a panel discussion at ASU. It’s on YouTube!

Magic Monday ~ The Sphinx, January 1905


I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

I decided sometime during the first week of January to read through some back issues of The Sphinx, the magazine that served as the news and method-sharing publication for the Society of American Magicians from 1902 to 1953. It wasn’t always unanimously accepted. Houdini himself started a rival publication in 1906, but it didn’t last long. I was going to do a monthly summary, but decided it would probably be too long of a post and only really interesting to me. Instead, I’ll share a tid-bit or two.

File:Golddin.jpgOn the /r/magic sub-reddit, someone asked about tricks that involve guns. Other than in the bullet catch, guns don’t get used much anymore, for obvious reasons. This didn’t used to be the case. The gun was a common prop for a good long while and used for trivial reasons. In a write-up about Horace Goldin’s program, Henry Whiteley describes when Goldin “takes silk handkerchief, vanishes it and produces from behind leg; places it on end of gun, fires, handkerchief vanished and reproduced from coat collar.” Shooting handkerchiefs, common everyday occurrence. Goldin goes on to innovate the sawing-in-halves illusion in the 1920s.


What Am I Reading?

I started reading The Magician’s Daughter by Judith Janeway last week, but I couldn’t get into it. After waffling, I picked up The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma. I think I’m going to be working on it for a while. I should finish my current non-fiction read, The Writing Dead, this week. I drew “The Greatcoat” by Nikolay Gogol for Deal Me In, and maybe I’ll be a schooly and read ahead for the Coursera class that starts next week. I’m setting my sights on officially learning my first programming language, Python.

What Am I Writing?

Spent a good portion of last week getting Eric’s latest project formatted and into circulation. This week, I need to get back to what I said I was going to be doing last week. I also realized that I know nothing about prisoner transport, was making things up, and I need to rewrite an earlier scene.

On the Blog

  • Review of The Hound of the Baskervilles – Changed my mind. Review of Sleights of Mind since it needs to go back to the library.
  • Deal Me In
  • And “What Else in January” that will include a few of my favorite non-DMI short stories of the month.

I also need to remember that I’m going to be mostly AFK on for the weekend and should write those last two posts before Saturday.

Deal Me In, Week 4 ~ “Private Grave 9”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Private Grave 9” by Karen Joy Fowler

Card picked: Jack of Spades

From: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, ed. by Michael Chabon

Thoughts: Archeological digs. In recent years, they’ve been at the center of action-paced adventure tales, like The Mummy and Raiders of the Lost Arc. Slightly closer to reality, the heyday of archeological expeditions boasted of curses and blood-thirsty tomb robbers.  But my first Thrilling Tale is kind of a quiet one.

As Howard Carter is making headlines uncovering Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt in 1923, our unnamed narrator is a photographer at an “also ran” dig in Mesopotamia. Not long ago the tomb of a princess and her servants, and subtle clay shards depicting dogs and goats would have been enough to appease the dig’s patron, but not with brick-a-brac of gold and lapis being unearthed elsewhere. And don’t mention the entire level of infant skeletons that were also unearthed…

Our skeletons are too numerous to be tasteful.

Despite this, a distant relation of the dig’s director visits. Miss Whitfield is “an authoress” with five successful murder mysteries to her name. She is also a disruptive force, a pot-stirrer. She’s looking for dissent among the peaceful dig-site hierarchy. “But if you did murder someone,” she innocently asks, “would it be Mr. David or Mr. Patwin?”

Co-currently, our photographer develops a picture of Princess Tu-api which appears (to him) to show her face as it might have been in life. Is it Tu-api who is inspiring his discontent and violent visions or the evocative Miss Whitfield?

About the Author: I’ll admit it. Even as I wish that the boundary between “literary” and “genre” fiction didn’t exist, I suffer from a sort of cognitive dissonance when authors I’ve pegged as literary (Joyce Carol Oates, for example) write a genre story or vice versa. The first read story I read by Karen Joy Fowler was the Nebula award winning “What I Didn’t See.” It’s maybe light on the fantastic, but the association is enough to place her in my genre heap. That she also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club completely befuddles me. I read Fowler’s  “The Queen of Hearts and Swords” during week ten of Deal Me In 2014.

Is This Your Card?

The Jack of Spades has an early cameo.

Write On Review-a-Thon 12

Write On Review-a-Thon

The Write On review-a-thon is a monthly event created and hosted by Brianna at The Book Vixen. This time, for the FIRST TIME ever, it’s 3 days dedicated to getting reviews done, whether you have one review to write or 30+. This edition of the review-a-thon takes place all day Friday, January 23rd through Sunday, January 25th. Let’s get those reviews done!

To-Do List:

  • “Private Grave 9” by Karen Joy Fowler for Deal Me In
  • The Two Sams by Glen Hirshberg
  • Sleights of Mind by Macknik, Martinez-Conde, & Sandra Blakeslee
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • January Short Fiction post / What Else in January post
  • The Sphinx, January 1905 – Actually, decided not to post this. It’s probably only interesting to myself.
  • Magicienne Monday setup (Not really a review but something I was intending to get done a month ago.)

Glad this review-a-thon is three days long. This is a mighty backlog for me!

Review ~ The Castle of Otranto

Cover via Goodreads

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole


On the day of his wedding, Conrad, heir to the house of Otranto, is killed in mysterious circumstances. Fearing the end of his dynasty, his father, Manfred, determines to marry Conrad’s betrothed, Isabella, until a series of supernatural events stands in his way. . . .

Set in the time of the crusades, The Castle of Otranto established the Gothic as a literary form in England. With its compelling blend of psychological realism and supernatural terror, guilty secrets and unlawful desires, it has influenced a literary tradition stretching from Ann Radcliffe and Bram Stoker to Daphne Du Maurier and Stephen King. (via Goodreads)

Goodreads blurbs are interesting. Sometimes spoilery, sometimes off-base. For example, in the case of The Castle of Otranto, I would not stick the label of “psychological realism” on it. Granted, published in 1764 near the beginning of the novel as a literary form, Otranto has characters who are at least meant to be characters rather than pawns of allegory and satire. But psychologically accurate? Not so much.

I like this Goodreads blurb better:

One of the first, great Gothic novels, and one of the most influential books in literary history, this thrilling tale abounds in adventure, suspense, and supernatural occurrences. In a realm where a villain reigns, mysterious events aid in fulfilling a prophecy that spells doom for the ruler and justice for the rightful heir.

One of the most influential books in literary history? I think there’s a strong argument for *that*. Gothic fiction became the flip-side to Romanticism. Instead of bucolic scenery and love, peace and harmony, gothic novels are full of dark forests, brooding castles, and lustful, scheming villains. But that comes later. For Walpole, this seems to be his reaction to the picaresque and epistolary novels that existed. Wikipedia notes that Walpole was admittedly influenced by Shakespeare. I can see this mashup of moral, travel-based adventure literature and the darker, supernatural aspects of Shakespeare.

Stylistically, The Castle of Otranto sets up so many tropes of gothic fiction. The castle and abbey with secret tunnels. The sinister landscape surrounding Castle Otranto. The lecherous villain and the imperiled women. Secret lineages. Walpole even sets up the narrative within a narrative, claiming that the tale of Castle Otranto is a translation of an Italian manuscript from the 1200s which is in fact a story from the 1000s. I don’t know if Walpole is the first to do this, but it’s certainly a reoccurring aspect of gothic fiction.

Story-wise? Well, it was published in 1764. It alternates between a bit zany and a bit dry.  Honestly, even though it was 100 pages long, it felt like it should have been half that. There are some genuinely creepy bits set amid some eye-rolling dialogue. And some of the twists? It could be argued (and probably is somewhere) that the modern soap opera is based on gothic literature.

Publishing info, my copy: Public Domain Kindle edition, transcribed from the 1901 Cassell and Company edition
Acquired: Amazon
Genre: Gothic!
Previously: This is the first Walpole I read that I know of. Obviously, not the first Gothic fiction.

Recently, I made a statement that Eleanor, in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, *wishes* she were in a gothic novel, but isn’t. I’ll stick to that considering that Hill House has many gothic aspects (the house, the tale of Hugh Crain and his progeny), but follows a different path. The Seance by John Harwood is more gothic than I realized when I tagged it as such. Lastly, I’m going to revisit, in the near future, Steven Wedel’s article “Horror’s Hearth and Home: The Use of Setting in American Gothic Fiction”.

See Also:

Gothic_Ken Russell

Magic Monday ~ Zig-Zag Girl


I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

Some illusions are so popular that they feel like they’ve been around forever. One such is Zig-Zag Girl. If you’ve watched a few TV magic specials in the past 50 years, you’ve seen it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if television is a major contributor to its popularity. It is a very visual trick. Smaller magic gets lost on television, even in the age of high-def. Zig-Zag Girl allows for a visual prop that is isn’t overwhelmingly complex and is still interesting when shot uncut with one camera angle.

The trick was innovated by Robert Harbin in the mid-1960s. To “protect” his invention, Harbin published it in a special edition book and only sold it to fellow magicians willing to sign a sort of non-disclosure agreement. The document stated that the purchaser would not reveal the secret to anyone else and only build the apparatus for personal use. Regardless, the illusion is in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the most copied. (via MagicPedia)

Below is Zig-Zag Girl performed by its creator, Robert Harbin, and a more modern rendition by Piff the Magic Dragon.


What Am I Reading?

cover58952-smallThe Hound of the Baskervilles is going much slower than I expected, especially for a reread. I don’t remember the story being this long. Maybe it just seems that way since I’m reading on my Kindle from a “complete works” collection. The percentage finished number rarely moves. Next up The Magician’s Daughter by Judith Janeway and probably The Writing Dead by Thomas Fahy. Both are ARCs, the only two I have from NetGalley at the moment.

What Am I Writing?

Last week, Eric took a look at the first 43K of In Need of Luck. We’ve nailed down a few plot points which require a little rewriting in a few earlier scenes. Our process isn’t to write a fast first draft beginning to end. Instead, we continually re-evaluate what’s going on and what needs improvement. Eric’s also been writing a scientific guide to Andy Wier’s book, The Martian, and we’ll do the editing and formatting on that this week.

On the Blog

  • Review of The Castle of Otranto for the Gothic Reading Challenge. If I finish it by then, I might include a gothic look at The Hound of the Baskervilles.
  • This weekend is the Book Vixen’s monthly Review-a-thon and I have a few things that need getting done.
  • And, I finally get to dip into Thrilling Tales for Deal Me In.

Deal Me In, Week 3 ~ “The Damned Thing”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Damned Thing” by Ambrose Bierce

Card picked: Two of Spades – A WILD card

From: Project Gutenberg


Week 3 and I already pick a wild card! Since my first two stories of the year were both 50-ish pages, I decided to look to my Obscure Literary Monsters list and pick something shorter. Shorter, this story was. A mere eight pages in Epub form. My only dissatisfaction was that I was enjoying it so much and it was over too soon!

Like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce tells this story in several parts, juggling chronology. We start in a cabin with a coroner, a dead body, and a “jury.” We are soon joined by William Harker, a journalist who witnessed the strange death of Hugh Morgan. The second chapter is Harker’s testimony which he has also submitted to his newspaper.

It was not written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction.

While out hunting quail, Morgan and Harker come upon something in the bushes, something which Morgan refers to as the Damned Thing. Here Bierce points out one of the fundamental tenants of horror fiction:

We so rely upon the orderly operation of familiar natural laws that any seeming suspension of them is noted as a menace to our safety, a warning of unthinkable calamity.

The third chapter reveals the dire wounds on the body and the verdict of assembly. They decide that Hugh Morgan was killed by a mountain lion because, obviously, Harker isn’t entirely in his right mind. And in the fourth chapter (yes, all this in eight pages!), we are allowed to read some of the contents of Hugh Morgan’s diary which has been kept a secret by the coroner. Morgan had his own ideas about the Damned Thing.

***Potentially Spoilery Bits***

JW McCormack’s take on the Damned Thing is quite occult and wants to tie it more closely with Lovecraft’s indescribable monsters even though Bierce gives it, through Morgan’s diary, a more scientific treatment. I disagree with McCormack. The unknown doesn’t have to be necessarily unnatural. It just has to be beyond our current understanding of natural. One of my favorite sub-genres is science fiction horror where the horror is the thing we don’t understand yet. “The Damned Thing” reminds me of one of my favorite scary bits of sci-fi: the monster in Forbidden Planet.

***End Potentially Spoilery Bits***

About the Author: My first brush with Ambrose Bierce was only a month ago and I’m still kicking myself for not reading him sooner. There is something the feels very American to me about Bierce. I’m going to assume for the moment that this is because he’s not a New Englander like Poe or Hawthorne. Nothing against New England, but there’s a difference in perspective between the East Coast and out “West.” In “The Damned Thing,” we hear coyotes and hunt in the chaparral.