Book Review: More Sneaky Feats

This book by Tom Ferrell and Lee Eisenberg is subtitled “The Art of Showing Off and 49 New Ways to Do It.” Published in 1976, the audience is clearly teenage boys, which I still consider myself to be.

There are several great little stunts described in this book, most of which are accompanied by Eisenberg’s charming illustrations.

a scan by gordon meyer

I was already familiar with many of the stunts (given my lifelong obsession with the subject), but there were many new ones, too. Some of the ones that caught my eye include:

  • Tearing a phone book in half. I already know how to do this, but the method here is slightly different. This is undoubtably a vanishing skill, as finding a phone book to destroy is harder than ripping it.
  • Sticking a card to a wall. I wonder if this also works with beer mats.
  • A “Grandmother’s Necklace” style stunt using thread spools that ends with a dramatic, visual penetration.
  • A cat’s cradle style of buttonhole penetration.
  • A fun sight gag where a loose thread on your lapel or shirt turns out to be many yards of thread. (Spoiler alert: it’s unspooling from inside your pocket.)
  • A fantastic version of the Cartesian Devil, made with an eye-dropper.
  • A coffee can rolling boomerang that I simply must try soon.

This is the second volume in the Sneaky Feats series. The first volume apparently has 53 stunts, so I will keep my eye skinned for a copy of that. I found the present volume on Cherokee Street in St. Louis, inside a delightful used bookstore run by a gruff, pandemic-denying old man. If you want a copy (and you know that you do), I recommend the multi-volume compendium, which is currently available on the Amazon.

Book Review: Robot Magic and The Maker Magician Handbook

These are two separate, but related books, by Mario Marchese. He’s a specialist in entertaining children and performs under the name “Mario the Maker Magician.”

The books, like all publications from MAKE: and O’Reilly, are wonderfully designed technical instruction. Marchese’s clear intention is to inspire and encourage young adults, but grown adults can enjoy them too. (Particularly his unrestrained enthusiasm!) The projects and the author have a clear “do-it-yourself-with-what-you-have” vibe, and that permeates all the way through to the list of materials, which frequently reference using pizza boxes as a source of cardboard.

cardboard robot

The audience for the first book, the Handbook, is the most clear. That one focuses on simple (but very clever) magic apparatus and there isn’t much presumption of interest in magic, beyond having picked up the book. The second book, Robot Magic, aims higher with its magical jargon, and its reliance on downloadable starter code. But the physicality of the props that you’re building are given in exhaustive detail. It’s an interesting and contrasting instructional mix, but it avoids a much longer, dry book. It all works.

The book is supplemented by a web collection of sample cut-and-paste code, and videos of many of the projects. This video example at his site is a fine one to start with if you’d like to get a feel for the whole.

I truly enjoyed both books, and I found myself wishing they had existed when I was a youth. I’m more of a software guy, and for the first time I found myself understanding some electrical and mechanical concepts that had never quite sunk in for me. (My micro-servos should arrive soon.) These are widely distributed books, so you can find them almost anywhere, but in the spirit of things, see if your local bookseller or library has them before getting them at the Amazon, eh?

Know when Alexa is listening

The news is filled with stories about the Amazon Echo devices are spying on you. Well, that's overstated and ill-defined. (You've consented, so technically it's not "spying'.)

The Echo devices do indeed record what's going on in your room. They are constantly listening for the "wake word" that activates their processing. Unless you've changed it, the wake word is "Alexa." Determining if "Alexa" has been spoken takes place locally, on the device, so your recordings aren't constantly leaking out of your home.

But, if the device determines that you did say "Alexa" (even incorrectly) the recording of what you said after is sent to Amazon's servers for analysis. You didn't really think your $49 plastic computer was doing all the processing itself, did you?

In the Alexa app, you can set your Echo devices so that it plays a tone whenever it thinks the wale word has been spoken. This is well worth turning on because you will discover just how often the Echo mishears you. (Spoiler alert: very, very often.) And what you say following that tone is uploaded in a recording to Jeff Bezo's personal email.

Or maybe it's not. The problem with all of this is that Amazon, unlike Apple and even super-creepy Google, hasn't documented what they do with your recordings. You can go into the Alexa app and delete all your recordings (if you're able to figure out how) but there are no assurances that they are truly deleted. It's possible they're are only removed from the list you see. Unless and until Amazon becomes transparent about their practices, all you can do is hope and trust them.

Digital vs Print publishing in a niche market

Two years ago, Craig Conley, Fredrick Turner, and I published a book, The JINX Companion. It's a reader's guide for a magazine that is very important in the community of performing magicians.

As you might imagine, publishing books for magicians is a small and specialized business. Although there are very highly-regarded and successful publishers in the field, Conley and I both have publishing experience, so we decided to tackle the project ourselves. Additionally, among our team of four (Michael Warwick is our contributing production specialist), we have technological expertise than is atypical in both publishing and magic.

We sell The JINX Companion in three formats:

  • Print-on-Demand: Production and fulfillment is provided through CreateSpace, which as an Amazon company also provides access to that marketplace. Additionally, we sell the printed copy on our own website (via a CrateSpace storefront) and at select magic shops.
  • PDF: Order processing and delivery is using Payloadz.
  • iBooks: Apple provides order processing and delivery via the iBookstore.

We are releasing the sales and lifecycle snapshot below with the hope that it will be useful to magic publishers who are considering digital releases. (Click to view a larger version.)


Tinderbox: rediscovering an old friend

The Map of Chicago Magic is a side-project of mine. I started it in 2008, but after a couple of years of manually editing the Google Map, I had to give up on future updates as it become impossible to find, order, and maintain the data set. (A victim of its own success, in many ways.)

For more than a year now I've been working on extracting and cleaning the data so I could re-launch the site with a new, more sustainable approach. I don't have a lot of time to dedicate to this project, but I wanted to keep it living.

Recently, I finally reached the point where I was ready to begin authoring the re-imagined site. I was lured by static generators such as Webby, Django, Blogofile, and so on. I spent a good 20 hours or so researching and trying out countless versions of those type of tools. I also looked into using Wordpress or Moveable Type. Without getting specific, the problems I ran into ranged from seemingly abandoned projects, poor documentation, and frankly overly complex and obtuse approaches to relatively simple problems.

In the end I turned to using Tinderbox from Eastgate Systems. I've been using it for over a decade for my Usable Help blog, but honestly, I hadn't touched the code behind that for more than five years. My under-the-hood skills were rusty, and lots had changed since the last time I got into the details. But starting from scratch, and with just 3 or so hours of work, I had a functional prototype up and running. And when I decided to generate a KML file for use with Google Earth,it only took about 30 minutes to add that feature.

So while the lure of "something new or trendy" is strong, sometimes it's better to dust off a familiar tool and just get to work. There's a lot to be said for commercial, documented, and stable software when it comes to actually shipping something. Thanks, Eastgate.