Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Magic - Essay from Newsletter 80

Now you don’t


About a month ago I shipped a package to Maggie.

As is my custom, I took out my iPhone and snapped a picture of the receipt to send it to her so that she would have the tracking number.

When I held the phone still to focus on the text, a yellow box appeared around the tracking number. I tapped on it and a popup appeared offering to track the UPS package.


How did it know what portion of the receipt was interesting to me?

How did it know that this was a tracking number and that it was a UPS tracking number?

Of course all this could be explained - but the seamlessness with which this trick was performed was pure magic.

Nothing up my sleeve

What made this extra fun was that I hadn’t bought a new phone (at that time) and I didn’t know that my phone could now do this new trick.

I had installed a beta release of iOS 15 and tried to use the text recognition that Apple had talked about in its developer conference keynote and it had just frustrated me.

But this was several updates later and I hadn’t tried the feature again.

Without me knowing or noticing, my phone had learned a new trick.

Without me having to do anything different, it had just popped up at the right moment and quietly said, “hey, I want to show you something.”

The other thing about this mind-blowing convenience that I didn’t have a month ago is that a month from now I won’t even notice it and two months from now it will annoy me if it doesn’t work perfectly.

We go so quickly from this magic stage to a feeling of entitlement for this thing we didn’t know we needed before we had it.

It’s the new Christmas toy that has lost its luster within weeks.


I was listening to Larry Wilmore’s interview with magician Joshua Jay on how magicians think.

Jay talked about a trick he used to do with playing cards.

In this trick he would “imprint” one card on another.

The audience member would select two cards, Jay would show them both of them and then he would tap one on top of the other and the other card would now display the first card.

I’m sure you’ve seen that trick.

Then Jay would tap the card against his shirt and his shirt pattern would appear on the card face.

He’d tap the card against his mouth and flip the card over to reveal his lips appearing on the card face.

When he first performed the trick twenty years ago, audience members would scream with delight and amazement. It was a great trick that amazed and astounded them.

Ten years later their response was muted.

Recently, they didn’t respond at all to the point that he’s removed it from his act.

He asked several audience members about the trick before retiring it. He wanted to know why they didn’t see it as being a big deal.

They told him that they assumed the card was some sort of printable paper that can take on any pattern.

That’s not yet possible and it isn’t how the trick works but us having phones and tablets and kindles that feel like printable paper that can display anything have provided a context where the trick no longer is interesting to an audience.

A disappearing trick

On this tenth anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death, I think back to the many keynotes of his that I watched.

He was literally a magician.

He loved the reveal.

Watch him pull a complete computer out of a manilla envelope.

Watch him put an entire catalog of music on a device you can place in your pocket.

One of my favorite presentations of his was his introduction of the iPad. I’ve written about this before because it was one of the rare occasions that many of those watching missed the trick.

Maybe it was the same as Jay’s audience - the context of the iPhone had changed the landscape in ways that the trick just couldn’t work.

If you watched Jobs’ demo you saw the iPad disappear. The sheet in front of him allowed him to read a newspaper, watch a movie, or travel anywhere.

How the trick works

A recurring bit in Sherlock Holmes stories is when Holmes makes an extraordinary statement about a client that he is meeting for the first time.

“I see,” he might say, “that you are a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan who has recently gotten a flu vaccine despite claiming medical exemption for the COVID vaccine.”

“However could you know that?” sputters the man.

“Oh,” says Holmes, “once I tell you how I was able to deduce these elementary facts, you will be disappointed at how easy it was to do so.”

I’m not sure that’s true.

Penn and Teller have a great bit where they do the Cups and Balls trick and then they do it again with clear cups so you can see exactly how they do it.

Seeing how the trick works doesn’t ruin the trick at all.

Appreciating the magic

Teller says that magic is the difference between what the eye sees and the mind knows. Great magicians spend a lot of time engineering a trick so that we don’t, won’t, and can’t believe our eyes.

Someone takes a maraschino cherry and pops it in their mouth in front of you. They eat the cherry and then appear to be working hard for a moment before producing the stem but it’s been tied in a knot.

You know that they couldn’t possibly have tied the stem in a knot but your eyes tell you that they have.

The solution is surprisingly simple but your mind can’t see it.

Last month Apple performed their yearly trick of producing new phones.

Critics looked at this array of marvels and shrugged. They said, “it’s not that much better than last year’s phones.”

The phone is absolute magic - but the context has made some of us immune to this annual reveal.

And that phone, remember, is designed to disappear in your hand. You forget about the phone as you use it to capture pictures of the world around you. You don’t even think twice when you pull it out of your pocket to find a fact that settles an argument. You’re in the middle of taking a picture of a receipt and the tracking information appears with a simple tap.

Sure, much of it is from iOS 15 and the software inside - but we shouldn’t lose our ability to marvel at it.

I don’t go to a magic show wanting to know how they did the tricks. I go to be entertained and amazed.

Twenty years ago - before the iPhone - a friend was visiting. We both had Palm V’s, ‘cause of course we did.

I’d do something on my device and he’d say, “huh, my Palm doesn’t do that.”

I’d reach over and repeat it on his Palm and he would giggle with delight like a little kid.

That’s how I feel every year when I learn all of the new tricks I can perform.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 80. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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