Monthly Archives: September 2012

A First Event Outing With The Telescope

First, let me apologize for being silent the past week or so. It has been very busy for me at my job and I have been anxious to get back to my writing.

Also, I’ve been stressed out getting ready for this weekend as I am the autocrat of Mists Coronet. (For my non-SCA readers that simply means that a weekend long medieval fair type event is taking place and I’m the guy in charge of the whole shindig.)

However, I realized that I have a wonderful opportunity this weekend as well.

We will be up in the hills, camping, away from city lights on a a couple of nights moving into a full moon! So, I’m bringing my Galileo telescope prototype with me to the event.

I haven’t had the opportunity to put buckles on the leather harness I was going to use to mount it on my tripod, but that is more critical for stellar observations. Lining up to observe the moon is very doable just hand holding the telescope.

So, for those of you who will be at the event and are curious, please feel free to come on by and take a look at the prototype. In the evening I’ll have it out and you can take a look through the prototype as well.

I promise you it’s a very cool sort of experience.

ps – My beard is nowhere near as big as Galileo’s.

“What did you say?” – A Quick Dip Into Carny Lingo

One of the things I love about carny culture is the language. There are terms that are used “backstage” by carnies which are colorful and amusing. As you might imagine it’s not exactly easy to ferret them out, though thanks to the internet they are surfacing more and more.

I happened to listen to a podcast yesterday from a show called Conjurors, Carnies and Collectors which featured one of my magic mentors, Jeff McBride, and discovered something I didn’t know; he’s an ex-carny. He worked two seasons of a carnival as a “concessionaire” taking money from the “marks” playing various “Flat Store” games. And he had quite the “ballyhoo.”

Okay, yeah, so I’m playing with words I know, but you can probably figure most of them out. The only ones you might not be completely clear on are:

  • Flat Store – Games you really can’t win.
  • Ballyhoo – the carny fast talk, usually associated with the pitch given in front of any particular show. In the case of a game designed to tell you what you need to know but generally so fast you miss it anyway. And, of course, how the “concessionaire” manages to effectively change the rules of the game on you as you are playing so that you’ll pay more to keep going.

Oh, and by the way, that guy out front isn’t a “barker.” “Barker” is a term used by “rubes.” He’s a “talker.” The “talker” gives the “ballyhoo” when he’s doing an “outside opening.” When he’s inside the tent narrating the show he’s the “lecturer.”

Cool huh?

But the term I’m caught up with at the moment is “Gadget Show” or “Mechanical Show.”

Turns out that a somewhat infrequent attraction to some traveling carnivals was this “gadget show” which featured mechanical devices on display such as tiny villages, where the figures and structures operated and moved. This falls nicely in line with my interest in the various Ancient Inventions that I started looking at a while ago.

One of the people interested in helping with my Carnival Project suggested a display of a reproduction perpetual motion machine from our SCA period (one he can make work *nudge* *nudge* *wink* *wink*) and I would like to try and create one or two of the devices described by Hero of Alexander.

Is there a reference for such a “Gadget Show” to go along with the sort of carnival/festival entity in our SCA period? This I do not know yet. It’s hard enough to find a good list of all the things one might find at a carnval/festival in the first place. But given the interest in automata and such that I can find, I suspect that it’s not outside the realm of possibility at least.

So there you have it. A little stroll through the land of Carny Lingo and I end up with more inspiration for a sideshow.

So many toys. So little time.

The Research Frustrations of “The Hundred Entertainments”

“Sword-swallowing, fire-eating, juggling, acrobatics, ropewalking, tumbling, and similar stage tricks had come from the nomads of Central Asia by the 2nd century BCE and were called the “hundred entertainments.” During the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) palace singers acted out warriors’ stories, the forerunners of military plays in later Chinese opera, and by the time of the Three Kingdoms (220-280 CE) clay puppets were used to enact plays. These evolved into glove-and-stick puppets in later years.”
– The Culture of China edited by Kathleen Kulper

While digging around to find some information on some specific types of juggling in history I found a curious reference to something called “the Hundred Entertainments.” I started digging.

The most complete bit of information I have so far been able to dig up is the above quote.

The problem is that it seems to be used almost exactly word for word in a whole bunch of advertising materials for “The Peking Acrobats” who have toured in a wide variety of places and spread their fliers everywhere.

Trying to find more about the actual nature of the Hundred Entertainments, on the other hand, is making me crazy. It is clear that there should be a wealth of useful information for my purposes regarding the continued development of my Carnival project, but finding it among the fliers for every venue the Peking Acrobats have ever been is a challenge.

I have managed to find a book on Chinese culture which appears to have a whole section on the “Hundred Entertainments” but it’s not available electronically. It is available from a used book seller for $3 so I’ve ordered it. Impatience abounds.

For now I shall shake my fist at the excellent advertising engine of the Peking Acrobats.

Girls, a Hula Hoop and a Video Camera – GO!

What happens when you take a tiny little video camera, put it on a hula hoop and take it to Burning Man?  Something rather interesting actually.

Okay, you must recognize that since this was done at Burning Man, there are few bits here which are essentially “clothing optional” but frankly I’m more fascinated by the effect of watching hula hoop action from this entirely different perspective.  Watching from the inside of the ring as it is rotating around the user, occasionally being handled as much as a juggling prop as anything else and just the sheer fun of the activity makes this a rather creative video.

Burning man is supposed to be about artistic expression as much as anything else.  But yes, this isn’t exactly “safe for work.”  Also, if you get motion sick easy you might have a moment or two of trouble with this one.

Crazy Yo-Yo stuff

A couple months back I was sitting in a little restaurant with my apprentice discussing I don’t know what and as we sat there we looked out the window and saw, across the street at a bus stop, these two kids about 13 to 15 years old.

One of them was playing with something and we weren’t sure what.  It looked like a Yo-Yo but he was handling it in ways neither of us had ever seen.  At times it seemed he was doing what we both recognized as basic yo-yo tricks and at other times there was a second object on the other end of the string being flung around as a counter to the yo-yo which allowed for moves which were totally foreign to both of us.

Eventually my apprentice decided to get up and go speak to the kid and find out what the heck he was doing.  I sat and watched from my seat as she walked out, engaged the kid who seemed to be extremely shy about what he was doing (he never seemed to look up once he realized he was being watched) despite the fact that I know she was extremely complimentary.  After all we were intensely interested and he seemed to be really good at what he was doing.

When she returned she told me all about what he had said and shown her.  Yes, it was a yo-yo but with a counterweight on the opposite end of the string which was a large plastic die drilled through the center and tied on.

We both wanted to find out more but like so many other things we forgot about it by the end of the meal and moved on to other topics of discussion.

Last night, after seeing the video of the astronaut doing Yo-Yo tricks in zero gravity I was reminded of this kid and his counterweighted yo-yo.  So I looked up a few things and discovered, as I have been discovering pretty frequently of late, a whole realm of “circus skill” which I wasn’t even aware existed.  So I collected some links and information together and created a new page here so I’d have something to remind me and come back to.

And below is a video of this style of yo-yoing, called Freehand, Counterweight or by it’s more technical term in Yo-Yo circles “5A”.


Editors Note:  THe original video I had in place went off line so I’ve replaced it.

It’s always been about the physics.

I used to play with Yo-Yo’s when I was a kid, like a lot kids.  Sitting in my chair here at home I have one within arms reach right now.

I was never particular good with one only being able to do basic throws, sleeping, walking the dog and around the world.  That was about it.  I certainly would have liked to have been able to do more and I practiced a lot when I was a kid, but I never got any further then that.

That guy on the plate?  He’s from Ancient Greece, about 500 BCE and he’s playing with a Yo-Yo.  So they’ve been around for a long time. But I haven’t had nearly that much time to practice.

But I think maybe, just maybe, if I had the advantage of a zero gravity environment I might be able to do some pretty cool stuff.

Certainly this guy is doing some cool stuff.

Was Galileo a Night Owl?

This morning I woke up like I usually do on a weekday at about 5:30 am.  Actually a little before that since I remember listening to the sound of the shower and waiting for my alarm to go off, wondering what song it would play.

I got up, took a shower, got dressed, packed my lunch and stepped out into the cold morning air.  It’s that time of year when the time change hasn’t occurred yet and the morning sky is only just starting to promise to lighten.

I looked up.

Over my head the sky was a clear and cold deep blue.  Only the brightest of stars remained visible.  The moon a perfect crescent and Venus shining brightly in the sky all looked back at me.

And, burdened as I was with my usual bags to take to work, my car keys in my hand, I stood there for a moment and appreciated the beauty of it all.  I wanted to run back in to the house and grab my telescope but I knew I didn’t have the time for it.

My wife came out to get into her truck.  She asked what I was doing and I told her.

She looked with me for a few moments and then I muttered “F*ck.  If I’m going to try and do these Galileo observations I’m going to have to start getting up even earlier.”

She laughed and said “Yup.”

Was Galileo a night owl?  Was he a REALLY early morning person?  I don’t know.

All I know is this –

I’m not.

Another Copy Cat Magic Act!

Unbelievable.  Just a couple of days ago I wrote of a copy cat act stolen from one of my mentors, Jeff McBride.  Today I come to find another, this time of a brilliant french magician, Jerome Murat.  These aren’t just cases of learning something from someone like a staging technique or idea, but rather it is wholesale theft.

I have never had the opportunity to meet Jerome Murat.  I doubt I ever will, but that should tell you just how much fame he’s achieved by virtue of this act.  He’s known around the world.  But some hack thinks “well I’m half way around the world from him, so no one will ever know.”

It’s wrong no matter how far away it is.

Behind the cut are two videos.  The first is the original performance from Jerome Murat.  The second is the thief.  When you watch them you will see the dramatic differences in such things as pacing, smoothness of motion, quality of animation and just sheer showmanship.

Read the rest of this entry

Testing a Pseudo Science Claim

Those of you who know me know that I am a hard core skeptic.  The claims of para-normal things like psychic energy fields, ghosts, mind-reading, psychic/faith healing and generally anything else that falls within the wide world of woo are things that I have severe problems with.  (And in the interest of full disclosure I did used to believe in some of these things.  All I can say is I got better.)

The James Randi Educational Foundation is an organization that has long been dedicated to debunking such claims.  They have, over the years, offered a 1 Million Dollar challenge which has been the bane of most claims.  I personally have used the threat of the 1 Million Dollar challenge on people who have told me that they have or know of someone who has paranormal abilities or paranormal experiences.

But the reality is that there are people who have tried to win the challenge.  People who either thought they could scam their way through the test or who genuinely thought they had a real “gift.”

As a magician I know a lot about the way to fake these “gifts.”  I’ve done it.  Without even trying I have convinced people that I have the ability to read their aura and to tell their future.  I’ve even once had a person request that I contact their dead pet.

I’m also familiar with how we fool ourselves into believing we might have such “gifts.”

I’ve read, for years, many of the reports of how various challenges have been tested by the James Randi Educational Foundation, but I’ve never actually witnessed a test.

Recently they actually ran through a real challenge and recorded the whole procedure.  It’s a long video (1 hour and 45 minutes), but if you are interested it’s worth taking a look.  Or at the very least you can skim it since the reason it is so long is that they repeat the same basic test 20 times to collect the data (not actually all 20 but enough to make it long).  Once you’ve watched the procedure a few times you’ll understand the whole protocol.

The follow up after the test is over, the Q&A afterwards and the information about “off the shelf tests” is very interesting.

Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

We’ve heard the phrase many times that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and we recognize that this is meant to suggest something along the lines of “well, they are so impressed by you that they want to be you.”

I was told this when I was younger as a way to sooth my ire at my younger brother who, like all younger brothers or sisters, followed their older sibling (me) around and did everything that they did.

It never really helped.

On the other hand I’m very proud to say that my younger brother is a totally awesome person all on his own and doesn’t need to be doing anything that I am doing.

Regardless we still have this idea lurking around in our cliché lexicon and we still seem to find it acceptable so long as it is happening to someone else.

I was disabused of that notion a long time ago, mostly through my years of theater and especially in my years of magic.  Why be a copy of someone else when you can be an original you?  Why burden yourself, especially as an artist, with a lifetime of being compared to someone you’re imitating to begin with?  It simply doesn’t make sense.

One of the men who taught this lesson best to me is Jeff McBride.  A truly fantastic magician, someone I’ve studied with, learned from and whom I consider as a mentor and guiding light that informs my artistic endeavors as a magician.  When you ask magicians who is a truly original performer, Jeff’s name comes bubbling right to the top of the list.

Not only is Jeff a truly original character but he has sincerely devoted himself to teaching other magicians to being as original as he, helping them find the path to developing their own character and presentational style.

So I, like many of Jeff’s other fans, was totally shocked and disheartened to discover that in Thailand, a place Jeff visits fairly frequently I believe, a young magician had stolen Jeff’s act.

I don’t mean a couple of moves or a couple of tricks or maybe a couple of lines.  I mean Jeff’s whole act.  This magician took, musically, magically, costume, move for move, step for step, Jeff’s entire award winning act.  I sat horrified last night as I watched a YouTube video (which thankfully has since been removed) of Jeff’s act being done by someone who was most definitely not Jeff.

This was, in fact, the very act that introduced me to Jeff in the first place.  I had no idea who he was until I first saw this act, but by the time it was done I knew that I wanted to be able to do things like Jeff.

And there it is, isn’t it?

You see, while we here have the cliché of imitation and flattery, from what I can gather it seems likely that in Thailand, someone doing such a faithful and accurate reproduction of your work may actually be a true and sincere form of flattery!

At this point we simply don’t know.  Was this an act of theft of a sincere mistake made by someone who thought they were paying a true compliment?  While I personally knew that I would never be a Jeff McBride, or even an imitation Jeff McBride, apparently this magician may have genuinely thought it was perfectly acceptable.

Theft in the magic community is rampant.  In most cases it’s subtle or even done without any conscious thought at all such as repeating a funny line in a story.  In some cases, however, it can be painfully obvious like one magician performing another magician’s routine but with a few minor changes so that they can claim it’s their own work.

And in some cases the copy is so blatant, so “faithful” that it crosses the line from theft and into something so absurd that you have to wonder how it’s even possible to imagine how they thought they would go unnoticed.

There is, in fact, a way in which a magician like me might perform one of Jeff’s routines.  It’s a very simple way that has always been available.

Buy it.

Yes, that’s right, magic tricks are for sale.  That’s why there are magic shops.  And if Jeff, or any other magician out there, puts an effect out for sale they are giving you the effect and the routine that goes along with it in the bag/box/book.  They choose what they are willing to let go of their own creations and what they are going to keep for themselves.

In writing my own book on magic, Scrolls, I encountered the problem of what I could and could not explain.  I used material that was released by other publishers and magicians but did so with their express permission.  When I didn’t have that permission I said “the explanation for this effect can be found from this other published work.”

This is how you do it.  This is how you learn material and how you feed your own knowledge.

How you feed your creativity is to watch other performers, or read books, listen to music, watch movies and otherwise experience life with an eye towards taking from it the lessons you need so that you can come back and craft something that comes from inside yourself and is therefore truly you.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?  Maybe for someone else it is.  For me it is not.

But perhaps a slight alteration to the cliché is in order.

Perhaps it could be “Being the source of inspiration is the sincerest form of flattery.”

A little more wordy I suppose, but for me at least, a better place to stand.


This is a video Jeff’s Act that was copied (the first half), the act that introduced me to his work.

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