Ever since I was little, I've loved magic. I used to watch the David Copperfield specials obsessively and was always fascinated by the tricks. I took a few magic classes when I was younger and learned some basic tricks. Of course, the pursuit of magic excellence is a lifelong endeavor and not really something you can do in your spare time. So as I got older and other things became more important to me, the few magic lessons I had learned were left behind. But my fascination didn't end.
Being a software engineer really means being a problem solver. My curiosity about magic, and my little bit of magic background, led me to thinking about a generic way to figure out how a trick was done. After some thinking, I figured out that magic tricks work because of a series of assumptions that we, the spectators, make. The assumptions are:
- This isn't possible. Your initial reaction to a trick is, "no way." It seems to defy everything you know about the universe. Things appear and disappear seemingly at will and with no rhyme or reason. It just can't be possible...right?
- You saw everything. Magicians are masters of diverting your attention. David Blaine must say, "look," about 20 times a minute. And so you look at what you think is the important thing.
- The magician is working alone. This is such a basic assumption that you don't ever question it. The magician is the one waving his hands around, and you're fixating on him (or her). It's who the camera focuses on and who your eyes go to. But is the magician really the only one involved?
- The props are legitimate. A lot of tricks involve props, either one the magician provides or one that is offered by someone in the audience. Most of the time, you take the props at face value, especially when the magician lets you inspect it.
- You had a choice. The magician asks you to choose something: a card from a deck, a number within a range, a color. Somehow, he/she is able to know exactly what you picked! That should be impossible because mind reading isn't possible!
When you add together all of these assumptions, you have someone who can't possibly figure out how the trick is done. There is no way to disect a trick so long as you're holding onto any one of these assumption. The way to debunk a trick is to start with each assumption and then assume the opposite.
The very first thing to do is assume that what you saw is, in fact, possible. The biggest block is continuing to assume that what you saw is impossible. Impossibility never leads to solution; possibility does. So accept that the end result of the trick is completely possible and not only that, there's a logical explanation for it.
Next, you need to assume that you didn't see everything the first time around. Your attention was distracted and directed to something or someone. Wherever the magician is instructing everyone to look is the exact place where you should not be looking. Typically, the real action is taking place away from everyone's focus; it has to, the trick wouldn't work if everyone was looking away from the subject. And then there's the things that happen right in front of your eyes that you don't realize. I've seen some incredible illusions using nothing other than slight of hand. Anytime an object leaves your sight, even for a moment, you can almost be assured that it was swapped out and is on its way to its final destination.
A key part of magic is the use of a secondary player. This goes back to the "lovely assistant" of old-school stage shows. Of course, the lovely assistant was primarily used as a distraction and prop...everyone looks at beautiful women. Nowadays, the secondary player isn't so obvious. They blend in with the surroundings, they may be the camera man, a guy in the crowd, a woman at a restaurant; it doesn't cost much to hire a small-time actor for a half hour. If your first thought is that the trick could only be possible if there was someone else involved then someone else probably was. No one can be in two places at once, not even magicians.
The props in a trick are always suspect. Just because you provided the magician with the prop doesn't mean that it actually gets used for the core of the trick. A quarter you pulled out of your pocket can't be melted and brought back to form within the span of five minutes but a trick quarter can be. At some point, the magician will swap out your quarter for the trick quarter and later on returned. Never assume that props are what they seem; they usually aren't.
Last, a lot of tricks that seem to involve choice actually leave you no choice at all. Techniques such as card forcing, where the card you pick is prearranged and subtley placed in your possession, makes you think that the choice is random when nothing could be further from the truth. The magician knew exactly what card you'd pick, exactly what you were going to say or write. Think about it: if you knew what someone's answer to a question would be, it would be easy to create a trick around that, right? Magicians use all of kinds of clues, both conscious and subconscious, to force you to make a certain choice. If you want to see this in action, do a search for Derren Brown.
The bottom line is that anyone can figure out how magic tricks are done when you reverse all of the assumptions we typically make about the tricks we're seeing. Magicians work very hard and are incredibly brilliant in their approaches, but they are human just like the rest of us. They need to play by the same rules; they just know how to manipulate the rules to dramatic effect. First and foremost, magicians are performers putting on a show. Never forget that and you're already going down the road to figuring out the tricks.
When I was in graduate school, we all had to write an applied research paper (which was also called a thesis paper, though realistically, we had no thesis to speak of). The goal of any such assignment in school is to pick a topic that you can stand to live and breathe for about three months while writing an 80-page paper. Somewhere along the line I got interested in appearance discrimination.
I've always been aware that how you dress can change how people act around you. Since college, I'd actually try dressing in different styles and see how people would react. Dress up one day, dress down the next, hats, coats...I had a lot of fun. If anyone was paying attention, they'd probably see me chuckling as I noted people's reactions. Appearances certainly affect the way others perceive you.
In any event, I decided to investigation appearance discrimination in the workplace for my paper. I read a lot of books and research to put together the paper. I found a lot of really interesting information. For instance, more attractive people tend to sort themselves into jobs where their looks will help them get ahead. It's a very natural sorting phenomenon where everyone eventually ends up in a job where they provide the highest value. For attractive people, they typically provide the highest value by being customer-facing, so lawyers at private firms, salespeople, etc.
You can make yourself more attractive by dressing up a bit. As it turns out, this can have a serious effect on your career. Those who dress better during interviews are more likely to be hired over someone who hasn't dressed as nice, all other things being equal.
These are just some of the interesting things I uncovered in my research. If you'd like to read the entire paper, it's available for download in PDF format: The Eye of the Beholder: Appearance Discrimination in the Workplace.
I used to spend a lot of time over my grandmother's house when I was little. One Sunday, I was over her house watching a cartoon called Banana Man on Nickelodeon. I hadn't really watched it before but hey, it was my grandmothers house, it wasn't like there was a lot to do there. My stomach started to grumble so I went to the bathroom and proceeded to throw up. And then I threw up again. And again. My grandmother came rushing in and I just couldn't stop throwing up. I don't remember the exact timeline after that, but I do remember my mom picking me up and taking me directly to the doctor where they gave me the requisite shot in the butt. Because that's what every kid wants after spending the past hour puking.
After that experience, I refused to watch Banana Man again. To my simple mind, the relationship was direct. I had never watched that cartoon before, and when I did, I got really sick and needed a shot in the butt. Since I didn't wish to repeat that sequence of events, I simply avoided watching the cartoon. I can easily look back as an adult and see how silly my thought process was but at the time it made perfect sense to me. Part of our soul demands that we investigate our situations and it's in our nature to look for this cause and effect relationship. The problem is that we often see this relationship where it doesn't exist.
Our minds are linear in nature; we just can't perform multiple voluntary acts at the same time very well. Whenever we're doing more than one thing, it's because all but is involuntary: breathing, digesting, blinking. We cannot simultaneously figure out two different puzzles; we can't carry on two different converations at the same time. When we're demanded to multi-task, we do so in a round robin way to create the illusion that we're doing multiple things at once. In reality, we're doing a single thing then stopping and doing another single thing and carrying on until all activities have been covered. Then we start again. We are linear.
Cause and effect defines a linear relationship between two points in time. Since our minds are inherently linear, this relationship makes perfect sense and so we look for it everywhere. If I had turned left instead of right, I wouldn't have been late; if I had approached her in a different way, she would've gone out with me. Our minds oversimplify reality into this linear relationship because otherwise it would be too difficult to disect. The problem is that reality is very non-linear.
At any given point in time there are any number of events occuring. The non-linear nature of reality is hard to fathom and even harder to explain. Our minds simply can't operate in the number of dimensions necessary to firmly grasp exactly why one thing happened and another did not; there are simply too many variables. So we simplify, and that's when we run into problems. My belief that a cartoon had made me sick is clearly wrong, but because the uniqueness of the situation was complete, my mind could easily make that jump. New cartoon is followed by being sick in a new way...it seems to make sense.
As my brother is fond of saying, correlation doesn't indicate causation. The fact that two events occur in close proximity to one another doesn't mean that there exists a relationship between them. Yet we draw those conclusions all the time. And then we drive ourselves crazy trying to switch up the variables to figure out if a different result could have been achieved. In doing so, we'll misidentify the cause expecting that its change will alter the effect. But the non-linear nature of reality doesn't really let you know the original cause.
Science tries to identify the cause through repetition, believing that achieving a given effect by following a specific sequence of events points more directly to the truth. By repeating the cause then the effect should also repeat...yet it doesn't always. And so medications come with warnings about side effects that have been observed but can't be traced to a specific cause, and some people are deathly allergic to peanuts while others enjoy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a daily basis.
When dissecting a cause and effect relationship, it's important to remember that you don't have all of the information. The closest you can really get to a true relationship is to a define a "most of the time" series of events. There's no such thing as absolutes in the universe, everything is relative and in constant motion. Don't let linear thinking get in the way of enjoying life. Second guessing past decisions assumes that you fully understand the cause and effect relationship of the circumstance, and there's really no way that you can. You might as well just stop watching all cartoons.
Last Christmas, my brother bought me this booked called The Richest Man Who Ever Lived. The premise of the book is simple: everything you need for success and happiness in your life is contained in the Bible, specifically in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is said to be written primarily by King Solomon, builder of the first temple in Jerusalem and regarded as the ultimate ruler. Solomon, who appears in the Old Testament, is described as being widely respected for his wisdom. He also was quite wealthy and powerful. The book of Proverbs, it's said, contains the rules that Solomon lived by to attain and keep success.
I was a bit skeptical about the book when I started; I'm always concerned when the Bible is cited as the only source of information necessary to achieve some goal. I had to say, though, that I was pleasantly surprised. I may even pick up a Bible to more thoroughly read Proverbs, as it seems that there really is some great and insightful information there.
The author, Steven K. Scott, isn't a great writer by any stretch of the imagination. I can't say that I enjoy his writing style in the least, but it was decent enough to continue reading the entire book. The chapters are crammed with examples of what happens when following Solomon's advice, and also what happens when the advice isn't heeded. Many of these examples lack evidence and there are a lot of generalities. His points would have been better served by hypothetical examples rather than trying to align well-known events with his viewpoints.
Perhaps the most ironic part of the book was reading about humility. Scott points out that Proverbs indicates the importance of humility in happiness and success. He says this in a book where he mentions how wealthy he is literally in every chapter. It seems that whenever possible, Scott wishes to remind you of his wealth, alternating between stories of how great a marketer he is because he made millions or explaining a bad investment where he lost millions. To be honest, his personal examples could have been completely dropped and the book's points would have still easily been made. Scott comes across as an arrogant know-it-all rather than a guide, which is what I think he should have tried to be. Perhaps some humility would have helped.
Aside from the overarching preachy, "I know best" attitude that pervades the entire book, the advice actually is quite solid. I was particularly impressed with the chapter entitled, "Overcoming the Most Destructive Force in Relationships," which is all about anger. I've read several other books on dealing with emotions such as anger (the best, by the way, is Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh) and I thought that the advice given here fell inline with a lot of the best advice I've read.
Overall, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived is a worth a read. If you can get past the tone of the book and the frequent references to how rich the author is, you'll find a significant amount of really good advice. The advice spans all parts of life, including business endeavors and relationships. Does Solomon have all the answers? Probably not, especially since he became a victim of his own pride later in life and lost all the power and wealth he had attained. Still, the book of Proverbs contains practical advice that we'd all be better off following. And I never would have known that without this book.
I tuned in today to watch the first game of the NFL season for my beloved Patriots. They were a bit out of sync early on, which was to be expected since Tom Brady hadn't played a snap in the preseason. The clock read 10:20 am Pacific Time when Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard rolled into Brady's left knee, forcing the reigning NFL MVP to let out a scream. Brady hasn't missed a start since he took over for Drew Bledsoe nearly seven years ago, a streak of 128 straight games that ranks him amongst the game's most dependable field generals. And yet there he was, 20 minutes into the NFL season, lying on the ground in pain. At that moment, I saw a return trip to the Super Bowl go up in smoke.
Even though the official word won't come until tomorrow's MRI, by all accounts it looks like Brady's ACL is torn. An ACL tear would mean no Brady until next season and would force the Patriots to run under fourth-year backup Matt Cassell. Cassell's New England career started out promising, drawing great reviews from coaches, sportwriters, and fans for his good arm and foot speed. After the first year, however, his production fell off significantly. There were questions as to whether Cassell would even make the team this year as he performed poorly in the preseason, never leading the team to a single touchdown. My dad and I spoke after each preseason game and we both had the same assessment, "if Brady goes down this year, we're screwed."
Cassell came in during the first quarter and performed admirably under pressure, successfully guiding the team to two touchdowns and a field goal, including a 50 yard pass out of his own end zone to Randy Moss. He's no Brady, but Cassell did about as well as could be expected under the circumstances. He got a lot of help from the running backs, with Maroney and Morris both running extremely well. The defense also played very well, especially against the run, for most of the game. It was at the end of the game that they gave up a huge pass play to Chiefs backup quarterback Damon Huard that nearly allowed them to tie the game. But the Patriots defense stiffened up and held out for the win.
The Patriots' future without Tom Brady isn't a good one. Cassell is unproven and if something should happen to him, we have only rookie quarterback Kevin O'Connell on the roster. The Patriots will surely be bringing in any out-of-work experienced quarterbacks they can get on speed dial this week. I said before the season started that the Patriots would win only six games if Brady missed the entire season. The Patriots are a very talented team on offense but Brady is their leader. How can you doubt a two-time Super Bowl MVP? Cassell hasn't started a meaningful game since high school, as he was a perenial backup at USC to both Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. In order for this team to win a much-improved AFC East, they'll need several things to happen:
- The defense must play better, plain and simple. The front three came up huge, stuffing Larry Johnson for most of the game, but the linebackers and secondary need to tighten up. They let too much get through today and put us in a bad position at the end of the game.
- The running backs must play well. If Maroney and Morris can provide the same one-two punch they had last year and average over 130 yards per game combined, they'll take pressure off of Cassell to win the game for the team.
- The offense is simplified. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loves to throw the ball deep and has all kinds of gadget plays to get the ball into his playmakers' hands. Those work great for Brady, but I don't trust Cassell to make those happen. If McDaniels can dial it back and keep the playbook simple, Cassell will have a much better chance of succeeding.
Fortunately, the Patriots have the statistically easiest schedule this season based on teams' records from last year. That gives Cassell a good shot at getting some experience, and wins, against a good number of NFL teams. With that, we may be able to scare up 8 wins and challenge for the division. It'll be tough with an improved New York Jets team, a scrappy Miami Dolphins team, and an actually good Buffalo Bills team, but the Patriots still have the most talent in the division so it should, theoretically be possible.
The most ironic part of this whole situation is that Tom Brady has been listed on the injury list for nearly every game in the past five years. Today was the first game that Brady wasn't on the injury list at all and he ends up suffering the worst injury in his career. As Pollard rolled into Brady's knee, I foresaw myself reverting back to the Patriots fan I was prior to Bill Parcells arriving in New England: every game was a crapshoot, and I fully expected them to lose. I waited seven months for football to come back, and now it's gone again. I'll still cheer, but I have a feeling that this season is going to be painful.
Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about politics. I typically refrain from talking about politics because it's one of those hot-button conversations that can set people off at any time. When I do talk about politics, I never mention who I'm for or against. In reality, I'm against all politicians...to me they're all the same. Just a bunch of people in suits that I don't trust, regardless of their party affiliation. For this conversation, I was expressing my displeasure with the options for United States President this time around. That led to my explaining politics as being analogous to professional wrestling. Then it hit me: this would make a great blog post.
For those of you who aren't professional wrestling fans, let me give you a little bit of background information. Professional wrestling has been around for a long, long time. Initially, the United States was setup into a series of professional wrestling territories, a geographic location wherein only one wrestling organization would work. There was an unspoken rule forbidding organizations from moving into already-established territories. Eventually, two large, nationwide organizations emerged: the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE) and the National Wrestling Alliance (later called World Championship Wrestling, WCW, after being bought by Ted Turner). The regional territories became breeding grounds for the next nationwide stars. The larger organizations would follow the careers of the wrestlers in various territories, and when they thought they were ready, give them a lucrative contract to join the nationwide tour. The result was that wrestlers would typically end up having 5-10 years of experience before making the leap to television and bigger crowds.
However, the territory system started falling apart, largely due to the actions of the WWE and WCW, who were in a furious battle to find the next big wrestling star. They would both raid the talent pools of location promotions, leaving them without talent and ultimately into bankruptcy. The problem was that there was no longer a "farm league" for younger wrestlers to develop in. WWE and WCW began trying to make their own talent by recruiting former amateur and professional athletes to become wrestlers. They would train them for a few months or a year and then bring them onto the nationwide tour. These wrestlers didn't have enough experience or training and inevitably ended up hurting other wrestlers or themselves, the result of pushing them into the limelight too quickly. But WWE and WCW were in a war, and any one wrestler could tip the balance, so anyone who showed even a little bit of potential was brought up quickly. The organizations were no longer happy to wait for someone to develop; anyone with promise must be on TV now. If the guy was good on a mic, able to deliver interviews that would rile up the crowd, he was pushed even faster. This seems to be the way that politics has gone recently.
Barack Obama shows a lot of potential and promise. No one can argue that he is a great public speaker and can whip a crowd into a frenzy in a matter of minutes. He's also only been in the Senate for 4 years. The Democrats are desperate for a victory and took the same approach that wrestling organizations have taken: find the most promising and vibrant guy that you can and push him to the top. He plays well to crowds so let's get him in front of crowds. But just like young wrestlers, a lack of experience means that he could ultimately end up hurting people. My heart sinks when I think about the candidate he could be 8 years from now, with a decade of experience in Washington and even more support than he has now. Similar to young wrestlers, the organization is forcing him into the limelight too early; if elected this November, his peak would occur towards the end of his second term. Wouldn't it be nice to have a full eight years of him at his peak?
On the other side of the ticket, there's John McCain. McCain is akin to an older wrestler who has come up through the territories and yet never won a world championship because he's just not that good. He's been friends and colleagues with former world champions but just hasn't been able to make the jump himself. McCain is towards the end of his career and because the Republican party needs to go in another direction, he's the only one that people recognize as both Republican and different. He's not all that good on the mic, which plays against him when compared to the young stud, Obama. He's the Hacksaw Jim Duggan to Obama's Randy Orton.
Another thing that's important to understand about professional wrestling is that it's not about muscular guys in tights beating the crap out of each other; it's actually about crowd manipulation, and professional wrestling promoters are brilliant at it. Politicians want to manipulate crowds as well and use many of the same techniques that are used in professional wrestling.
A wrestler is said to have "heat" if he can elicit a strong reaction from the crowd, whether positive or negative. In professional wrestling, it doesn't matter if you're loved or hated, you just can't be ignored. When the organization believes that someone worthwhile isn't getting enough heat, they take steps to rectify that. One of the most popular ways to get more heat for a wrestler is to pair him up with a beautiful woman to act as his valet/manager. The theory is that beautiful women always get crowd reactions, and since the woman is attached to the wrestler, that heat will eventually rub off onto him. This technique goes back decades and works like a charm. So when no one was talking about McCain as Obama was getting all the press, what did the Republicans do? Announce Sarah Palin as his running mate. While you can argue about the "beautiful" part of the wrestling analogy, the effect is the same. Pairing an older wrestler with a younger woman always gets more heat and also makes him instantly "hip."
On the other hand, young wrestlers need to be legitimized in order to get heat. It doesn't matter how good they are on the mic, if they can't perform, then they're doomed. Organizations tend to attach younger wrestlers with more experienced ones in order to legitimize them. This is typically done by pairing the younger wrestler with an experienced wrestler in a tag team or in a stable. Randy Orton, the youngest world champion in WWE history, was almost immediately placed into a stable called Evolution that featured himself, two very experienced world champions, Triple H and Ric Flair, along with another newcomer, Batista. Triple H and Ric Flair legitimized Orton and Batista, bring them legitimate heat while protecting them from making stupid mistakes.
So it was natural that Obama's running mate would be a much more experienced Joe Biden. He joined the Senate in 1973, giving him an incredible 35 years of experience in Washington and making him the sixth-longest tenured Senator. Talk about legitimizing Obama as a presidential candidate! Between them, they have nearly 40 years of experience!
And if you have any other doubts about the similarities between politics and professional wrestling, I'd invite you to take a look at the treatment given the candidates at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and then look at wrestler's intros. Here's Barack Obama and here's Triple H. Heck, look at the stages! Politics is just like professional wrestling in so many ways that it's laughable...and scary.