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Houdini!!!

31 Oct

A story on the BBC this morning reminded me that this is the 90th anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini. Pop culture fame is fleeting. Young people do not know the stars of my youth (who could blame them), and, of course, the names of the great stars of the vaudeville stage have long passed from popular memory.

Yet, we all know the name of Houdini. The man who did not believe in spirits has obtained a kind of immortality.

There are a number of good biographies of Houdini. I recommend Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss  by Kenneth Silverman and Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by  William Lindsay Gresham.

The best way to shuffle cards

1 Apr

Recently, I have been reading Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s book The Theory That Would Not DieIn it, I came across the name of mathematician Persi Diaconis, who she mentions had worked as a professional magician. Always interested in magic, I large collection of rare magic books, I looked him up and discovered that he had done work on the mathematics of card shuffling.

To my surprise, just a few days ago BoingBoing featured a video about Diaconis and his work on cards:

 

 

Willie Nelson’s card trick

10 Sep

The title of my upcoming book on memory improvement is Remembering Willie Nelson: The Science of Memory Improvement. The title comes from the an incident where I could not recall the name of the great outlaw country singer.

It turns out that Willie is not just a great musician, he’s also a pretty good card magician. Here is video of him performing an impressive trick:

 

Hat tip to BoingBoing

Tales from my library: Houdini

9 Jan

Harry Houdini was my childhood hero. As a consequence, I have probably read more biographies of him than of any other person. Kenneth Silverman’s Houdini is excellent and, probably, the closest thing to a definitive biography, however I have two criticisms. First, it does not include references and, second, even though it gives an account of Bess Houdini’s life after Harry’s death it is silent about Arthur Ford and the “Houdini messages.”

Milbourne Christopher’s Houdini: The Untold Story is also quite good and does include an expose of Arthur Ford. It has the advantage of being written from the perspective of an accomplished professional magician.

But my unquestioned favorite has always been William Lindsay Gresham‘s Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls. The book is wonderfully written and coveys the excitement of Houdini’s career and performances. It includes a wonderful “opinionated bibliography” that I have always found a source of endless fascination. The book was written with the assistance of magician and escape artist James Randi.

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Gresham also wrote a great noir novel, Nightmare Alley, about a fraudulent spiritualist and his battle with alcoholism. The book was made into a terrific movie. Here is the trailer:

Who was Mirin Dajo?

2 Dec

Most extraordinary claims disappoint on closer inspection. The late Sylvia Brown did not really have psychic powers and, after over a century of trying, parapsychology has not produced a single convincing repeatable experiment.

Yet, there is a region of events that are not paranormal but fall at the extreme edge of the plausible. It is here that we find the case of the Dutch fakir, Mirin Dajo.

Dajo was able pass swords through his trunk without apparent injury. Here is a Pathe newsreel of one of his demonstrations:

 

Here is a paper by W. Peter Mulacz with an explanation of how Mirin Dajo accomplished his feats.

Unfortunately, there is a limited amount of information on Dajo available in English. I would like to more a know bout Dajo. I think his story is interesting psychologically and physiologically.

But beyond that, I would like to know more about Dajo’s beliefs and motivations. He apparently thought his performances would contribute to world peace and he was an advocate of Esperanto.

Pioneers of memory improvement

10 Sep

A central purpose of this blog is to help you use the science to improve your memory. Thus, it straddles the space between research and self help.

There have been a number of people who have contributed to both memory scholarship and the self help literature on memory.

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My model here is the work of the couple Chesley and Morris Young.

Chesley Virginia Barnes served as a cryptographer in World War II, She met Morris while they were both stationed in Naples. He was serving as an army physician.

As a boy growing up in Lawrence, Massachusetts Morris Nathan Young saw Harry Houdini escape from a strait jacket while suspended upside from the tallest building in town. Young got to shake Houdini’s hand and developed a life long interest in magic.

By age 17 Young was himself performing as a magician and his act impressed Houdini.

Young studied at MIT as an undergraduate and earned a master’s degree in chemistry from Harvard. He later attended medical school. He chose his specialty, opthalmology, because of his interest in how the eye could be fooled by misdirection and sleight of hand. His friendship with and admiration of Houdini led Morris to become interest in body control in general and memory improvement in particular.

Both of the Youngs wrote popular memory improvement books. Morris Young also published an extensive scholarly bibliography on memory. They amassed one of the largest collections of books and pamphlets on memory, which was eventually donated to the University of San Marino. Their writings blended insights from the practical experience of memory improvement techniques and from the scientific literature on memory. This blog tries to follow their example.

Sources:

Martin, D. (2002) Morris N. Young, eye doctor and collector, dies at 93. [New York Times, November 24, ]

Tanne, J. H. (2002). Morris Nathan Young. BMJ, 25, [December 14, 2002, p. 1424]

 

Was Moe Howard related to Harry Houdini?

9 Sep

Several years ago, I had heard that the wife of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges was a cousin of Harry Houdini. I searched the Internet and looked through my collection of Houdini biographies but could find no mention of this supposed connection. Indeed, several Internet sites dismissed this as an urban legend.

However, I was listening to this interview with Moe Howard from 1972 and Moe says quite directly that his wife was Houdini’s cousin. I searched the Internet again and found this explanation.

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