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Alex Stone is the author of a new book called "Fooling Houdini," about magic, psychology, and perception, in which he reveals how many illusions are achieved. In fact, last week in the Wall Street Journal he explained how to steal a watch. Of course, this flies in the face of the traditional magician's code of silence about how tricks are done. Stone disagrees with the code, claiming that "Magic is a science as well as an art, and in science, knowledge serves only to deepen the mystery. Each new find opens vistas on an unchartered territory at the edge of human understanding. Nestled within each answer lies another riddle in an endless stream of unknowns.” I get that, but I still prefer the wonderment. Anyway, Maria Konnikova's Scientific American column further explores Stone's idea:

 Literally-Psyched Files 2012 06 Fooling-Houdini-221X300

Take something as seemingly unrelated as fiction—or any writing, for that matter. Read all the books you will on the craft of writing, comb through as many interviews as you can with your favorite writers, collect as many ‘how to write a bestseller’s as you can get your hands on, and still, the writing you admire will not lose its magic or its grip on your imagination. Even knowing the entire plot, that surprise ending or that give-away spoiler—arguably the closest approximation to finding out the trick of a magic act—is unlikely to limit your enjoyment in any way. In fact, it might even make the process of reading more enjoyable.

In a 2011 study, psychologists from UC San Diego found that individuals who had seen a spoiler paragraph prior to reading a short story rated the story as more, not less, pleasurable. And that held true even of stories where the plot, the “trick” so to speak, was seemingly the center of the experience, such as one of Roald Dahl’s signature ironic twist tales or an Agatha Christie mystery.

Why? When we know the plot, the twist, the surprise, we become more able to focus on everything else: language, character, the intricacies of rhythm and technique.

"How to fool Houdini–and avoid fooling yourself" (SciAm)

Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone (Amazon)

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In early celebration of the Turing centenary this week, Ars Technica's Matthew Lasar has a lovely list of seven of Alan Turing's habits of thought, including this one: Be Playful.

There was something about Turing that made his friends and family want to compose rhymes. His proud father openly admitted that he hadn't the vaguest idea what his son's mathematical inquiries were about, but it was all good anyway. "I don't know what the 'ell 'e meant / But that is what 'e said 'e meant," John wrote to Alan, who took delight in reading the couplet to friends.

His fellow students sang songs about him at the dinner table: "The maths brain lies often awake in his bed / Doing logs to ten places and trig in his head."

His gym class colleagues even sang his praises as a linesman: "Turing's fond of the football field / For geometric problems the touch-lines yield."

Turing's favorite physical activity, however, was running, especially the long-distance variety. "He would amaze his colleagues by running to scientific meetings," Hodges writes, "beating the travelers by public transport." He even came close to a shot at the 1948 Olympic Games, a bid cut short by an injury.

The highly productive habits of Alan Turing

(Image: Alan Turing in 1927, Sherborne school archives)

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Last week, writer Ray Dolin, 39, made news when he claimed to have been shot in a random drive-by while gathering experiences as a hitchhhiker for his book "Kindness in America." Turns out though, Dolin actually shot himself. I guess PR is PR. From The Missoulian:

Dolin, of Julian, W.Va., acknowledged he concocted the tale about the random shooting after he was confronted by investigators at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Miles City where he is recovering, said Sheriff Glen Meier.

Authorities later arrested Lloyd Christopher Danielson III, 52, and charged him with felony assault. That charge was dropped Thursday, although Danielson remained in custody, accused of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol when he was arrested.

"Sheriff: Hitchhiker writing book on kindness shot himself"

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[Video Link] Miss Cellania of Neatorama says: "Many Russian drivers use a constantly-recording dashboard camera for legal defense in case of trouble, which leads to some awesome clips for the internet audience."

UPDATE: Read: "DASH-CAMS: RUSSIA’S LAST HOPE FOR CIVILITY AND SURVIVAL ON THE ROAD" on Animal.

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Here's a trailer for "Line of Sight," a documentary on underground bike-messenger racing that uses helmetcams to capture some pretty insane (and often terrifying) examples of cycling skill:

Line Of Sight is a rare view into underground bicycle messenger racing which has become a global phenomenon. For over a decade Lucas Brunelle has been riding with the fastest, most skilled urban cyclists around the world while capturing all the action with his customized helmet cameras to bring you along for the ride.

This is bike riding like you've never seen before, in gripping first-person perspective through the most hectic city streets, on expressways in Mexico City, over the frozen Charles River, under the Mediterranean Sea, across the Great Wall of China and deep into the jungles of Guatemala.

LINE OF SIGHT - Official Trailer

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[Video Link] Kirk Demarais (author of the great Mail Order Mysteries book) wrote a positive review of the PC train simulator Railworks, which is frequently derided for its lack of monsters, magic, aliens, or eastern european gangsters.

My respect for the Railworks community began to grow as it occurred to me that their passion does not require thrills, instead they are contented by life's subtleties. Their fantasies don't rely upon adrenaline or destruction, they just wish to peacefully command a Class 47 Triple Grey all the way from Oxford to Paddington. They bask in the sights of the uninterrupted countryside. Their serenity is found in the rhythmic valley echos of rumbling tracks. Hobbies are supposed to be relaxing, right? Most of my video gaming ends up driving me to internet walkthoughs in fits of frustration.

It wasn't just the Railworks state of mind that I envied, I also fantasized about having enough spare hours to leisurely delve into each sauntering level, gazing at my monitor blissfully, pausing only to adjust the camera angle every few minutes, or turn on the windshield wipers.

By the time Railworks 2 went on sale for eight bucks I was primed to join the ranks of the noble virtual conductors. I proudly bought a copy.

The cross-country journeys were as soothing as anticipated and I even felt like I was getting a pixelated glimpse into the United Kingdom where most of the missions take place.

Near the end of his review Kirk admits, "Such simple pleasures go a long way, but the truth is I can't say that I've been able to become one of them. I've played for twenty plus hours, but I rarely complete a level without acting on the urge to derail."

In defense of Train Simulator

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From the Twitter feed of Pixar story artist Emma Coats, a series of "Pixar story rules." Some of these strike me as specific to the Pixar business and/or filmmaking, but others are perfect storytelling koans that I plan on stealing for my future writing workshops. Here are a few of my favorites:


#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Pixar story rules (one version)

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

(Image: Pixar Animation Studio, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from superstrikertwo's photostream)

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