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An article about Apollo Robbins, virtuoso pickpocket. The self-taught Robbins does not practice his impressive skills for theft, but rather as a theatrical pickpocket, and has been recently working with cognitive science researchers investigating how human attention works, and how a masterful pickpocket or similar manipulator can exploit its properties:
He is probably best known for an encounter with Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail in 2001. While Carter was at dinner, Robbins struck up a conversation with several of his Secret Service men. Within a few minutes, he had emptied the agents’ pockets of pretty much everything but their guns. Robbins brandished a copy of Carter’s itinerary, and when an agent snatched it back he said, “You don’t have the authorization to see that!” When the agent felt for his badge, Robbins produced it and handed it back. Then he turned to the head of the detail and handed him his watch, his badge, and the keys to the Carter motorcade.
Robbins needs to get close to his victims without setting off alarm bells. “If I come at you head-on, like this,” he said, stepping forward, “I’m going to run into that bubble of your personal space very quickly, and that’s going to make you uncomfortable.” He took a step back. “So, what I do is I give you a point of focus, say a coin. Then I break eye contact by looking down, and I pivot around the point of focus, stepping forward in an arc, or a semicircle, till I’m in your space.” He demonstrated, winding up shoulder to shoulder with me, looking up at me sideways, his head cocked, all innocence. “See how I was able to close the gap?” he said. “I flew in under your radar and I have access to all your pockets.”
But physical technique, Robbins pointed out, is merely a tool. “It’s all about the choreography of people’s attention,” he said. “Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”Robbins figured out his craft independently, though has since dealt with criminal and/or ex-criminal pickpockets, including a criminal virtuoso whom he tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit to a think-tank including pickpockets, card cheats and ex-cops; the article does go into the tradecraft and argot of the professional criminal pickpocket and the institutions of this trade (which, notwithstanding whilst it may be in decline in America, is alive and well elsewhere; by the way, did you know that the band School of Seven Bells is named after a pickpockets' academy in Colombia?)
Street pickpockets generally work in teams, known as whiz mobs or wire mobs. The “steer” chooses the victim, who is referred to generically as the “mark,” the “vic,” or the “chump,” but can also be categorized into various subspecies, among them “Mr. Bates” (businessman) and “pappy” (senior citizen). The “stall,” or “stick,” maneuvers the mark into position and holds him there, distracting his attention, perhaps by stumbling in his path, asking him for directions, or spilling something on him. The “shade” blocks the mark’s view of what’s about to happen, either with his body or with an object such as a newspaper. And the “tool” (also known as the “wire,” the “dip,” or the “mechanic”) lifts his wallet and hands it off to the “duke man,” who hustles away, leaving the rest of the mob clean. Robbins explained to me that, in practice, the process is more fluid—team members often play several positions—and that it unfolds less as a linear sequence of events than as what he calls a “synchronized convergence,” like a well-executed offensive play on the gridiron.
(via Boing Boing)
Stage magician Teller explains some of the cognitive principles behind the magician's craft:
1. Exploit pattern recognition. I magically produce four silver dollars, one at a time, with the back of my hand toward you. Then I allow you to see the palm of my hand empty before a fifth coin appears. As Homo sapiens, you grasp the pattern, and take away the impression that I produced all five coins from a hand whose palm was empty.
2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.
3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing. We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke. A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally.
Pandit Surinder Sharma, avowedly India's most powerful black magician, claimed on television to be able to magically kill any person within three minutes. The president of Rationalist International, Sanal Edamaruku, took him up on that, with unsurprising results:
After nearly two hours, the anchor declared the tantrik’s failure. The tantrik, unwilling to admit defeat, tried the excuse that a very strong god whom Sanal might be worshipping obviously protected him. “No, I am an atheist,” said Sanal Edamaruku. Finally, the disgraced tantrik tried to save his face by claiming that there was a never-failing special black magic for ultimate destruction, which could, however, only been done at night. Bad luck again, he did not get away with this, but was challenged to prove his claim this very night in another “breaking news” live program.Sharma repeated his attempt on Sanal's life some hours later, at night, with millions of people watching; the attempt ended with the magician cutting a dough effigy with a knife and throwing it into a fire, with Sanal laughing, and with black magic's prestige taking a battering throughout India.
(via Boing Boing)
An inquest into the suicide of two young people in Sydney blows the lid off the Goth subculture threatening your children. Goths, who are recognisable by piercings and a liking for Marilyn Manson and Korn, are into magic and the occult and given to self-harm and even suicide pacts:
Late yesterday, a school friend - a member of a Goth clique at the South Coast high school the girl attended - told the inquest her friend had been into white magic, Wicca, not the dark magic she said some Goths followed.I wonder what the serious Wiccans make of teenage angstpuppies appropriating their religion as a badge of hormonal alienation.
She said while some "heavy Goths" were into self-harm and talked of suicide, it was only once - on the night her friend ran away and came to stay at her house - that she mentioned suicide.I think I've witnessed the "heavy Goth" phenomenon. They'd be the ones hanging around shopping centres in size-XXXL Marilyn Manson/Cradle of Filth T-shirts, pale flesh bulging out from fishnet tops.
Psychologists are now looking at magic tricks for answers to how the mind works. Developed and refined over centuries, such tricks and techniques are now being recognised as containing a lot of folk knowledge about the low-level workings of consciousness and perception:
A card trick that lasts four or five minutes, for example, might have 20 pages of detailed text to describe exactly where to look, what to say, what to do and so on. And a lot of the understanding of a trick has to be from the perspective of the audience.
Our brains filter out a huge amount of the mass of sensory input flooding in from our environment. Kuhn explains that we see what we expect to see and what our brains are interested in. "Our visual representation of the world is much more impoverished than we would assume. People can be looking at something without being aware of it. Perception doesn't just involve looking at an object but attending to it."
Any technology indistinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced, an essay putting Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum on its head.
But I submit that if the best we can do is make technology as dangerous, non-robust, capricious, arcane, alienating, marginal, and costly as "magic" -- then we have really crappy technology.
The author, Vanessa Layne, has also written an interesting essay on why creativity flourishes in urban centres rather than small towns, looking at economic and anthropological arguments. (via Charlie's Diary)
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