The Core of Every Trick

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Magic is an art — as capable of beauty as music, painting or poetry— Teller says, but the core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experiment in perception:

Does the trick fool the audience? A magician’s data sample spans centuries, and his experiments have been replicated often enough to constitute near-certainty. Neuroscientists — well intentioned as they are — are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries.

He shares a few principles magicians employ when they want to alter your perceptions:

  1. Exploit pattern recognition.
  2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.
  3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing.
  4. Keep the trickery outside the frame.
  5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks.
  6. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.
  7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.

For instance:

I slip a queen of hearts in my right shoe, an ace of spades in my left and a three of clubs in my wallet. Then I manufacture an entire deck out of duplicates of those three cards. That takes 18 decks, which is costly and tedious (No. 2—More trouble than it’s worth).

When I cut the cards, I let you glimpse a few different faces. You conclude the deck contains 52 different cards (No. 1—Pattern recognition). You think you’ve made a choice, just as when you choose between two candidates preselected by entrenched political parties (No. 7—Choice is not freedom).

Now I wiggle the card to my shoe (No. 3—If you’re laughing…). When I lift whichever foot has your card, or invite you to take my wallet from my back pocket, I turn away (No. 4—Outside the frame) and swap the deck for a normal one from which I’d removed all three possible selections (No. 5—Combine two tricks). Then I set the deck down to tempt you to examine it later and notice your card missing (No. 6—The lie you tell yourself).

(Hat tip to Ross.)

Vascular Neck Restraints

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

The sleeper hold of pro wrestling is a legitimate submission move known to jiu-jitsu grapplers as the rear naked choke — because it doesn’t use the collar of the gi jacket — and to judoka as hadaka-jime (Japanese for naked choke).

In law-enforcement circles, it’s known as a lateral vascular neck restraint, and it has fallen out of favor, because it was blamed for a number of deaths. Now, a new study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology demonstrates what grapplers have known for a long, long time — chokes are safe and effective:

The results “demonstrate that the [only] important mechanism causing unconsciousness during VNR is decreased cerebral blood flow due to bilateral carotid artery compression,” the study team reports. Mitchell comments, “This did not come as a surprise. When the supply of blood-borne oxygen to the brain is cut off by at least 50%, the brain cannot sustain consciousness.”

Blood pressure, heart rate, and heart function were not adversely affected during or immediately after VNR application. A sensitive receptor located in the neck, which can send signals to the nervous system thereby evoking changes in heart rate and blood pressure, was not stimulated to an important physiological degree by the carotid compression, Mitchell says, despite speculative assertions about this in the past. Nor was there any evidence that blood vessels in the back of the neck were shut off during VNR, which some critics have speculated could ultimately cause the heart to stop. “Carotid compression did not threaten to produce a stroke or suffocation or create a near-death experience,” Hall observes. Vital signs for all participants continued normal after the carotid compression was released and they came to, the study found.

Respiration in some subjects was interrupted, “but apparently only because they voluntarily held their breath,” Mitchell says. No blockage of the airway could be detected.

Relatively little pressure is required to induce unconsciousness in most people with a properly applied and maintained VNR. “This is an important finding,” Mitchell says, “because even the smallest officers should have no trouble attaining and maintaining the minimal pressure required.”

Subjects with bigger necks and a higher BMI tend to reach the point of eye fixation leading to unconsciousness more quickly — “important street information,” Mitchell says, “that confirms anecdotal reports from trainers and officers.” The reason is unclear, although he guesses that these people “may have more tissue that can be used to compress the vascular system with the same amount of pressure.”

When the technique works, it works fast. Mitchell advises: “If you are applying and holding the VNR properly and the resister is not going out after 11 to 13 seconds, the technique is probably not going to work and you should transition to another force option.”

A proper VNR inflicts only mild discomfort, but as the tap-outs during the research confirmed some subjects readily submit once the hold is in place because they sense what’s coming and they don’t want to experience unconsciousness. Butler says this is frequently the case in actual street encounters.

Gun Kata

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

I suppose I had heard the term gun kata — I’d certainly heard gun-fu — before io9′s list of 10 of the most awesome sword fight scenes ever introduced me to Equilibrium, but I wasn’t familiar with that film’s rather unique take on fanciful gun-based martial arts:

Gun Kata is a fictional gun-fighting martial art discipline that is a significant part of the film. It is based upon the premise that, given the positions of the participants in a gun battle, the trajectories of fire are statistically predictable. By pure memorization of the positions, one can fire at the most likely location of an enemy without aiming at him in the traditional sense of pointing a gun at a specific target. By the same token, the trajectories of incoming fire are also statistically predictable, so by assuming the appropriate stance, one can keep one’s body clear of the most likely path of enemy bullets.

The Gun Kata shown in Equilibrium is a hybrid mix of Kurt Wimmer’s own style of Gun Kata (which he invented in his backyard) and the martial arts style of the choreographer. They disagreed on the appropriate form of Gun Kata, with Kurt Wimmer advocating a smoother, flowing style and the choreographer supporting a more rigid style. Much of the Gun Kata seen in the film is based on the choreographer’s style. Kurt Wimmer’s Gun Kata is dispersed sparsely throughout the movie, most notably in the introductory scene with the silhouetted man, played by Wimmer himself, practicing with dual pistols.

The climactic fight scene starts off with samurai swords, for some reason:

The Equilibrium Fans site has much more.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

A rough image of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has been brought out of the Walt Disney Company archive for the unveiling of their new video game, Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two:

The mischievous Oswald was co-created by Disney before Mickey, but he was lost in a 1928 contract dispute with Universal Studios. Oswald hopped back to Disney in 2006 when CEO Bob Iger brokered a deal that sent sportscaster Al Michaels to Universal-NBC. Oswald’s first appearance since his return came in 2010s “Epic Mickey” as the ruler of a forgotten realm.

“We’ve always known about the character and loved him and wished that we could do things with him, but he wasn’t a character that belonged to us,” said Walt Disney Co. archive director Becky Cline. “In 2006, we were over the moon when Bob Iger made (the deal).”

Miss Cline noted that most of the drawings from Disney’s early Oswald cartoons were destroyed, likely because there was a lack of storage when his studio moved to a new facility in Burbank, California, in 1939. She said the image of Oswald comes from a box of drawings that was found in the 1970s and has been preserved in the Disney archives for the past 40 years.

The image, drawn on paper in graphite, comes from the 1928 animated short film “Sky Scrappers.” It shows Oswald shielding himself from falling bricks with an umbrella.

Daft Punk Connection

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Daft Punk’s upcoming album is going to feature a couple tunes by — I couldn’t make this up — Paul Williams, the songwriter who produced hits for Three Dog Night (“An Old Fashioned Love Song”), The Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun”), Barbra Streisand (“Evergreen,” which earned the Academy Award for Best Song) and The Muppets (“Rainbow Connection”).

Getting out of Fishtown

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

In Coming Apart, Charles Murray urges his elite readers to eschew “Belmont” communities in order to engage with the working class residents of “Fishtown” communities.

One City Paper writer gave that a go and was quick to say, “goodbye, Fishtown!” He didn’t like people yelling and throwing trash everywhere.

Over at Foseti‘s, commenter Sardonic SOB adds this:

I recently read the beautifully desolate book Deer Hunting With Jesus, and the author pointed out that a lot of the problem with the rural areas he was chronicling was that the smart kids grew up and got the Hell out.

Not that this hasn’t always happened, to some extent, but the thing that’s different now is that it’s more or less automatic. If you’re smart, the school’s going to pick it up in tests, and you’re going to get college scholarships, and you’re going to move away, and it’s easy for you to find a job in a city after you graduate. You don’t stay and become the town doctor, or the town lawyer, or the judge, or the mayor, or the county clerk, which before the bright but not blazing might be comfortable doing.

Before, you had to be smart and ambitious, brave enough to leave and driven enough to want to. Now the educational-/employment system is like a giant vacuum sucking all the talented young people out of rural areas, small towns and lower-class neighborhoods like Fishtown, ne’er to return. So the people there have no core of talented, intelligent (even relatively speaking) community leaders to keep things moving in a positive direction. Metaphorically, they take their top ten percent (or whatever) out behind the barn and shoot them on graduation day. Or rather, they might as well, since they leave and never come back: they are lost to the community forever. You can’t keep doing this for multiple generations and not expect serious negative consequences.


Monday, March 19th, 2012

Electronic readers, like the Kindle, are the ultimate brown paper wrapper, boosting sales of women’s romantica:

As with romance novels, romantica features an old-fashioned love story and pop-culture references like those found in “chick lit.” Plus, there is sex — a lot of it. Yet unlike traditional erotica, romantica always includes what’s known as “HEA” — “happily ever after.”


Romance fans were among the earliest adopters of e-reading. Nearly 40% of all new romance books purchased are in digital form, says Kelly Gallagher, vice president of Bowker Market Research. In erotica, the digital portion is that high or higher, he says. It is about 20% for other adult trade genres — except for mysteries, which have recently caught up with romance.

The Politics of Playgrounds, a History

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

America’s first playground opened in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1887:

Groundbreaking at the time, the playground included swings, slides and even a ride in a cart pulled by a goat. Most popular, though, was the Roman temple carousel, complete with doric columns. This was replaced in 1912 with another wooden carousel. It was so popular that it even did a turn at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

Do-gooders with a passion for improving the plight of the urban poor latched onto playgrounds as a progressive ideal. John Dewey argued eloquently that play was as important as work for children, and groups like the Outdoor Recreation League provided slides, seesaws and professional play leaders to slum areas.

Professional play leaders? That does sound… progressive.

A Field Guide to the Middle-Class U.S. Family

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Anthropologists have studied the American family and found that American parents train their children to remain dependent and self-centered:

Each family was filmed by two cameras and watched all day by at least three observers.

Among the findings: The families had very a child-centered focus, which may help explain the “dependency dilemma” seen among American middle-class families, says Dr. Ochs. Parents intend to develop their children’s independence, yet raise them to be relatively dependent, even when the kids have the skills to act on their own, she says.

In addition, these parents tended to have a very specific, idealized way of thinking about family time, says Tami Kremer-Sadlik, a former CELF research director who is now the director of programs for the division of social sciences at UCLA. These ideals appeared to generate guilt when work intruded on family life, and left parents feeling pressured to create perfect time together. The researchers noted that the presence of the observers may have altered some of the families’ behavior.

How kids develop moral responsibility is an area of focus for the researchers. Dr. Ochs, who began her career in far-off regions of the world studying the concept of “baby talk,” noticed that American children seemed relatively helpless compared with those in other cultures she and colleagues had observed.

In those cultures, young children were expected to contribute substantially to the community, says Dr. Ochs. Children in Samoa serve food to their elders, waiting patiently in front of them before they eat, as shown in one video snippet. Another video clip shows a girl around 5 years of age in Peru’s Amazon region climbing a tall tree to harvest papaya, and helping haul logs thicker than her leg to stoke a fire.

By contrast, the U.S. videos showed Los Angeles parents focusing more on the children, using simplified talk with them, doing most of the housework and intervening quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task.

In 22 of 30 families, children frequently ignored or resisted appeals to help, according to a study published in the journal Ethos in 2009. In the remaining eight families, the children weren’t asked to do much. In some cases, the children routinely asked the parents to do tasks, like getting them silverware. “How am I supposed to cut my food?” Dr. Ochs recalls one girl asking her parents.

Asking children to do a task led to much negotiation, and when parents asked, it sounded often like they were asking a favor, not making a demand, researchers said. Parents interviewed about their behavior said it was often too much trouble to ask.

Disaster Movies: Lessons Learned

Friday, March 16th, 2012

The CDC shares some lessons learned from disaster movies:

  1. Do not try to outrun a tornado in your car!
  2. When there is severe winter weather, the best thing to do is remain safely indoors.
  3. The chef should have been more careful about washing his hands so that he could have avoided spreading the animal virus to humans. The simple act of frequent handwashing has the ability to save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention.
  4. If a tsunami is approaching, beaches are not the best place to congregate.
  5. While real earthquakes are not caused by giant man-eating worms, if you find yourself in the middle of an earthquake, you should not climb on top of unstable objects or stand in a doorway or attempt to run to other rooms.
  6. Instead of driving into an abandoned mineshaft, follow designated evacuation routes.
  7. In case of an alien invasion, do not attempt to save humankind all by yourself.

Automatic Operation

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

The second film in the US Army’s fundamentals of small arms series demonstrates the three kinds of automatic actions. As you’ll note, gas operation and blowback operation appear positively elegant compared to recoil operation:

Fundamentals Of Small Arms

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

This US Army film from 1945 demonstrates the fundamentals of small arms with a giant model of a bolt-action, magazine-fed rifle that slowly reveals its complexity:

Buying Weapons in Mogadishu

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Here is a price list for some popular weapons in Mogadishu’s arms market:


120 mm – $700 ($55 per mortar bomb)
82 mm – $300 ($25 per bomb)
60 mm – $200 ($18 per bomb)

Anti-aircraft guns (truck mounted)

23 mm – $20,000 ($2.50 per round)

37 mm version also available, but there is currently no ammunition in stock. Other, smaller variants are available for between $4,000 and $5,000, with their rounds quoted at $1 each.

Anti-tank weapons cost $5,000, while a rocket-propelled grenade launcher is quoted at $200, plus $150 per grenade.


A new pistol from Yemen is $650, a second-hand one from Russia is $400 and a new American pistol is $700. A new Belgian pistol is $500 and a new Russian one is $1,000. Rounds cost between $1.50 and $3 each.


An Indian-made AK-47 costs $140. Better quality versions from North Korea cost $600 and the Russian original costs $400.

Hand-grenades go for $25 each, landmines $100.

Video Games Are Good for You

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Video games are good for you:

A growing body of university research suggests that gaming improves creativity, decision-making and perception. The specific benefits are wide ranging, from improved hand-eye coordination in surgeons to vision changes that boost night driving ability.

People who played action-based video and computer games made decisions 25% faster than others without sacrificing accuracy, according to a study. Indeed, the most adept gamers can make choices and act on them up to six times a second—four times faster than most people, other researchers found. Moreover, practiced game players can pay attention to more than six things at once without getting confused, compared with the four that someone can normally keep in mind, said University of Rochester researchers. The studies were conducted independently of the companies that sell video and computer games.

Scientists also found that women—who make up about 42% of computer and videogame players—were better able to mentally manipulate 3D objects, a skill at which men are generally more adept.


A three-year study of 491 middle school students found that the more children played computer games the higher their scores on a standardized test of creativity—regardless of race, gender, or the kind of game played. The researchers ranked students on a widely used measure called the Torrance Test of Creativity, which involves such tasks as drawing an “interesting and exciting” picture from a curved shape on a sheet of paper, giving the picture a title, and then writing a story about it. The results were ranked by seven researchers for originality, length, and complexity on a standardized three-point scale for each factor, along with detailed questionnaires.

In contrast, using cellphones, the Internet, or computers for other purposes had no effect on creativity, they said.

How Many People Can Manhattan Hold?

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

How Many People Can Manhattan Hold? Lots more:

As crowded as the city feels at times, the present-day Manhattan population, 1.6 million, is nowhere near what it once was. In 1910, a staggering 2.3 million people crowded the borough, mostly in tenement buildings. It was a time before zoning, when roughly 90,000 windowless rooms were available for rent, and a recent immigrant might share a few hundred square feet with as many as 10 people. At that time, the Lower East Side was one of the most crowded places on the planet, according to demographers. Even as recently as 1950, the Manhattan of “West Side Story” was denser than today, with a population of two million.

By 1980, with the subsequent flight to suburbia, the population fell to 1.4 million. Then crime dropped, the city strengthened economically, and real estate prices started a steady climb, defying broader downturns in the economy as any dip in the market came to be viewed as a buying opportunity.

But those numbers measure Manhattan at its sleepiest, literally. Census figures count only residents, neglecting, as E. B. White famously wrote, “the New York of the commuter, the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night.”

If a whole city can be created and destroyed in a day, Manhattan comes close. During the workday, the population effectively doubles, to 3.9 million, as shown in a new report by the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management of New York University. Day-trippers, hospital patients, tourists, students and, most of all, commuters, drain the suburbs and outer boroughs, filling streets and office space with life. Wednesday, it turns out, is the most populous day of the week, and special events, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, push the total past five million, offering a glimpse of what an even more crowded Manhattan might feel like.