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For your long weekend read: The secrets of the great magician

While the secrets of his tricks are not revealed in this article, a profile of master magician Ricky Jay, the piece will still make you feel like you’ve just seen something impossible happen in front of your eyes.

Among the tricks described: Cards merely thought of but not named aloud by bystanders appear rolled up inside the necks of wine bottles, pristine blocks of ice seem to materialize inside cars on hot days, cards flicked into the air toward the audience return like boomerangs into the hands of the magician, who is calm through it all, mesmerizing the audience with the power of his words and his patter.

Published twenty-five years ago in The New Yorker and reposted on their website on the occasion of Jay’s death last month, the article itself is a magic trick. You think you’re learning about magic, but actually you’re learning about a lost world of mountebanks, eccentrics, mad men, old world charm, lost treasure, and books so rare they’ve been almost entirely forgotten, even by the profession that lives by their secrets. You think you’re reading about a magician, but actually you’re reading about a great artist, atop his profession but also secluded from it.

Ricky Jay, you will be missed.

Copy critique: When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!

Here’s another gem from the FDR presidential library and museum in Hyde Park. It’s an effective pair of headline and call-to-action, the kind we’d still discuss creating today. And the rhetoric itself is something you might recognize from ads to raise awareness of climate change, or advocate car pooling.

Eleven words of copy. One ghost Hitler. All you need to change hearts and minds.

From the commonplace book: Daniel Bell on why you have no time

From the The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society:

When productivity is low, time is relatively cheap. When productivity is high, time becomes relatively expensive. In short, economic growth entails a general increase in the scarcity of time.

This is from a later section in Bell’s great book, in a section called “The New Scarcities.” Before the abundance of mass production, it was material goods that were scarce. Now that most people have what they need (and more) materially, it is abstract things that become scarce, specifically for Bell information, coordination, and time.

While experiences to be had and objects to be enjoyed multiply, time remains finite. While we now have hundreds of restaurants where we can eat dinner, we will only have enough time and appetite for one dinner per day. And furthermore the cost of choosing where to have it and the anxiety that we might be having it somewhere better or with someone better are additional costs which were not felt as acutely as before.

We are time poor because we are rich in so much else.

How do you solve problems?

When I have to solve a problem, I need silence, time, and no interruptions. For most of my life I assumed this was how everybody did it, and noisy and more collaborative approaches struck me as just invasive or dumb. Thanks to my sister, who forced me to take a psychological test that defined my “workplace personality,” I learned that my way of solving problems is just one of many effective approaches.

What I take for interruptions are what others think of asking for help. What I take for needless time-wasting in chatty meetings others think of as necessary collaboration. I still despise either of those approaches, but I do know they can be valuable and that others think of them as work.

So, when life presents you with a challenge, what’s your approach? Retreat or collaboration? What drives you nuts about the way your colleagues approach problems?

My Memory of George H. W. Bush

I sang in the Yale Whiffenpoofs, an a cappella group that’s been around for over a century and was invited more than once to sing for Yale alum George H. W. Bush. My group met him during the administration of his son. We were singing at the Yale Club in New York and he was in the front row.

It’s traditional for every set the group sings to end with The Whiffenpoof Song, and all alums get the honor of being invited up.

We made a point of saying that all honorary Whiffs were welcome to come up and sing too, which caught the president’s attention. He hesitated a bit, then got up and joined us. He hadn’t sang while at Yale and he’d been made an honorary member by some past group while in he was in the White House.

But he joined us anyway. He knew all the words to the song and put his arms over the shoulders of the Whiff on his right and left during the chorus, as tradition demands. And afterward he shook each of our hands and seemed to genuinely appreciated the honor, as perhaps only a Yalie can.

I didn’t agree with his policies and wouldn’t have voted for him if I’d been able back in the 1990s. But he had a grace, charm, and gravitas which filled the room. We could use his touch in the world of presidential politics today.

 

For Your Long Weekend Read: Deciphering the Library of Herculaneum

Here’s what may be the mother of all long-term data storage problems.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it sealed the extensive library of a wealthy Roman under many feet of ash and earth. Scrolls that wouldn’t have otherwise survived two thousand years were preserved intact and dug up in the 1750s. Since then, they’ve pinballed around Europe, exchanged as gifts between kings and emperors and been locked away in rarefied institutions. They might contain lost works by some of the superstars of antiquity, like Sappho and Aristotle.

Trouble is, nobody can read them because they are lumps of blackened carbon that crumble to dust when you try to unroll them. A few have been deciphered but the majority remain rolled up.

Now, a group of scholars and physicists are trying to use equipment capable of peering into the scrolls without unrolling them, detecting details at the molecular level. A grain of sand left by a reader in between two layers, the faint raising from page-level of dried ink, or the groove of a stylus are all detectable.

Even though this piece came out in The New Yorker three years ago, it’s news to me. It’s the kind of wonder that doesn’t often make it to the headlines, but should.