An evening of magic, laughter and Latin

posted: 2232 days ago, on Tuesday, 2011 Oct 11 at 16:27
tags: magic, College of Magic, events, Cape Town.

Magic - sleight-of-hand, conjuring, legerdemain etc. - occupies an interesting position in the landscape of the mind. It is honest deception and it isn't. It makes the impossible possible and transcends reality in a straight-forward down-to-earth manner. It's fun and serious. It's about discovery and concealment. And it's about guarding an almost-empty safe (the emperorís new clothes are kept inside). It's also like duct tape: it has a light side and a dark side.

Championed by the best, there are magicians who challenge the claims made by peddlers of the paranormal and other nonsense. Using their magic, masters like Harry Houdini, James Randi, Martin Gardner, Banachek, Derren Brown and Penn & Teller have stepped up and spoken out against flim-flam and bullshit.

It's delightful that Stuart Lightbody has joined their ranks. Stuart (27) started magic some 14 years ago at the College of Magic in Cape Town. "A friend of mine was doing it and I thought it looked like fun", he told magicians at a recent meeting of the Cape Magician's Circle.

In 2007 he performed his first one-man show, "52", a feast of card magic that I'm sad I missed. This was followed by "Sleight of Mind" with fellow College graduate Bryan Miles, which debuted at the National Arts Festival and then had a run in Cape Town. Stuart returned to the National Arts Festival the next year with "Telling Lies", which was about "reading people, body language, lie detection, and deceit in general, and magic as the art of deception".

His most recent one-man show, "Stuperstition", also debuted at the Arts Festival, where it won the Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award. Stuart describes it as being "about superstitious thinking and its shortcomings, so its a magic show but at the same time its a criticism of magical thinking, which is a quite interesting dichotomy. It's a bit controversial, we tackle a lot of modern superstitions that some people don't consider superstitions, which is always exciting."

This past Sunday, the entire Stellenbosch Magic Circle (OK, all three of us) and Hermann's charming wife Joy went to share in the excitement. The venue, Kalk Bay Theatre, looks like a converted church. It's been decades since I've been in one, and I can think of few better uses for a church than to turn it into a place of entertainment. It was Andrew Carnegie who said: "I give money for church organs in the hope the organ music will distract the congregationís attention from the rest of the service." Anyway, the Theatre is lovely, combining an intimate performance space on the ground floor with an open restaurant/bar above.

The show was a true delight. Sound and lighting were exactly as required, Stuart's performance was professional, and the material was thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining.

The magic was first-class: coin manipulation, card handling and mentalism, expertly performed. I was particularly delighted to see Slydini's "Paper Balls Over the Head" performed. For the magic alone, "Stuperstition" is a winner.

But beyond the prestidigitation, Stuart has a very serious point to make, and he makes it in a humorous, accessible, way. In a world saturated with rubbish, he is refreshingly pro-science without being aggressive. He should be headlining at the next Amazing Meeting.

Stuart tackles astrology, homoeopathy, speaking with the dead, psychics, and more; and he does it by weaving magic into his sceptical narrative. He argues passionately against the idea of entertaining mystery purely for the sake of mystery: that is merely a state of ignorance, he points out. Rather, he suggests that solving a mystery increases our knowledge while leading to the uncovery of new mysteries. What fascinates Stuart is how the mind works, that aeroplanes can fly, the dynamic complexity of our world, biological evolution, the nature of physics, the structure of galaxies: and the human female.

After the show, I spoke to some of the audience members.

"What did you think of the show?", I asked. "Astonishing!", "How does he do it?!", "A real gentleman", and "When is Part Two?"

Well, Stuart, when is "Stuperstition II"?

In his own words

"the fact that my subjective experience can be wrong ... I think the implications of that are quite deep but we manage as magicians to kind of gloss over that. We almost seem to actively turn magic into light entertainment. There's a place for light entertainment but I don't think that's the only thing magic can be."

"I remember the first time I saw "Out of This World"; I can remember exactly where I was, and I can just remember like my brain frying, like, trying to work something out, and not knowing that I didn't know how something worked, but that it was impossible, that there couldn't be a way that it worked"

CMC, 2011 August 02

"Superstitious people don't think of themselves as being superstitious."

"We've been sold the idea of the supernatural for thousands of years, often in a spectacular and death-defying fashion."

"Now if on the other hand I had been a travelling Gypsy and instead of using a pack of playing cards I'd used a pack of Tarot cards, and I could apparently tell what he was thinking and what he was going to do in advance using those Tarot cards, then for a lot of people that would have been a convincing demonstration of psychic powers."

"Now whenever people bring me stories of psychics, I like to point out how much people give away by what they say and what they do, and by what they don't say and what they don't do. We're constantly picking up on this information in conversation using our five known senses, but subconsciously."

"They naturally stand out to us, coincidences. We have what we call a sampling bias for them, we notice them. What we don't notice is every moment that goes by when a coincidence could have occurred and didn't. ... [if] you think about it, every moment that goes by is the opportunity for some sort of strange coincidence to occur, and given that our lives are made up of millions of such moments, it makes sense that every now and then a one-in-a-million coincidence would occur. That's not psychic, that's just maths.

"Now I don't mind being open and honest in my perspectives when it comes to psychics, because its the one area where you don't have to worry about hurting anyone's feelings. Because if these people could read minds, as they say they can, they'd already know what I think about their dodgy claims."

"Psychic phenomena can be easily explained using the combination of the lucky, the tricky and the fluffy. That's coincidence, con-artistry, and cold reading. If you add to that false memory, or confabulation, you'd understand why the stories of psychics are so exciting, and fantastical, yet whenever we try to test it thoroughly, or observe it properly, it turns out to be so disappointing."

"So astrology clearly works! That, or I'm cheating. Which is always the problem when seeing a convincing demonstration of the supernatural. And if you can't believe a first-hand account, can we possibly believe a second or third-hand account, let alone an account that's thousands of years old. Of course the mistake being made by people who believe that astrology works is the same mistake being made by people who believe that breaking a mirror causes seven years of bad luck or that wearing a lucky T-shirt can change your odds at roulette. It's known as cum hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy, which means to mistake correlation for causation. And its something that human beings do particularly well, or particularly badly, I suppose."

"The point that I'm making here of course is that if something appears magical, or supernatural for that matter, chances are its just something we're not seeing, some piece of the puzzle that we're missing. Often if we could step back, view things more objectively, the answer would become clear."

"Most psychics claim to receive their information through some sort of intermediary, which brings me on to the type of psychic that gets under my skin the most: psychics who pretend to talk to the dead. You know the type. There's that famous one on television, John Edward, he's got that show Crossing Over with John Edward or Bending Over for John Edward.. these are people who have lost someone, people who are desperate to make any sort of contact, and whenever you have desperate people with money there are con-artists who are willing to take that money from them. It's a sad thought."

"Now there are probably people here, ladies and gentlemen, who believe in ghosts or spirits of some sort. The interesting thing about these beliefs is that when we form them, we don't necessarily do it based on examining the evidence at hand, based on the most logical conclusion that we can, we do it based on our own personal experiences, and based on the experiences of those that we trust, the stories we hear. And that's probably a good way to form your beliefs. If we see something with our own eyes, if we hear it with our own ears, if we feel it in our own bodies, then it must be true, mustn't it?"

"And its called the scientific method. That's the very reason that scientists use large sample sets, why they do double-blind studies, why they have control groups, that's why they measure and quantify everything and see if other scientists can reproduce the same experiments and get the same results. All this is to minimize and account for human subjectivity, including the subjectivity of the scientists. And if you're looking for the truth, and I think we all are, you'll find there's no better way. But science has a bad rap. Every now and then science shows us that something we believed for years is in fact, untrue. And the strange thing is, that instead of feeling liberated by that, liberated from your false belief by science, people take it personally."

nothing more to see. please move along.