The Card Trick that Stumped Houdini

Originally published in The Daily.

The most important rule of magic — other than remembering to check for rabbit-droppings before putting your hat back on — is never to perform the same illusion twice on the same occasion. The temptation can be excruciating: The trick has already proven its ability to fool, and the audience has proven its susceptibility. But the magician who gives his audience a second chance to catch him out always slips up eventually, especially if the audience includes an eagle-eyed fellow magician.

New Republic

Body Shots

Originally appeared at The New Republic.


Let Us See the Angel Flights

U.S. Marines, not noted for their sentimentality, call the flights that carry their dead comrades home “angel flights.” I witnessed my first of these at a remote airfield in Anbar province, Iraq, in 2005. For about an hour, all activity on the tarmac ceased, including my own unloading of a 727 in my job as a commercial shipper. A furious Marine officer ran to confront me and demand that my pilot cut the 727’s engines. The pilot protested–his plane was nearly unloaded, and he wanted to fly to a safer airport as soon as possible–but the Marine permitted no debate. The engines powered down, and in the desert silence, from a distance of a few hundred feet, I could hear the clopping of individual boots as hundreds of Marines filed in to stand at attention and watch the chilled metal box proceed slowly into the belly of the plane.


Law and Disorder

Originally published in Abu Dhabi’s The National.

At the entrance to the Afghan police and military base in Zhari district, half a dozen wrecked police trucks sit in a small dirt lot. As a first sight greeting visitors to the base, they are a poor recruitment tool for new policemen. The most intact truck is missing its windscreen and a door, and has caked blood on one seat; it will never drive again. The worst off is a twisted clump of metal, scorched so badly that any blood would probably have cooked away in the fire that followed the initial blast of the roadside bomb that did it in.

New Yorker

Policing Afghanistan

Originally appeared in The New Yorker.

Letter from Pashmul

An ethnic-minority force enters a Taliban stronghold.

In late 2007, in Pashmul, a tiny cluster of villages in southern Afghanistan, Muhammad Khan began his tenure as the police commander by torching all the hemp in a farmer’s field. Farmers in the area had grown plants up to seven feet tall, and, being teetotallers, like many Afghans, they smoked hashish constantly. Afghan soldiers and policemen in the area also smoked, to the exasperation of the NATO troops who were training them. But Khan wasn’t from Pashmul and he didn’t smoke. He ordered his men to set the harvest ablaze, moved upwind, then turned his back and left, with an expression of indifference.

Atlantic Monthly

An Air-Conditioned Nightmare

In Afghanistan, some soldiers are pampered. Should they be?

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD—Being on a big military base, even one in a relatively dangerous spot, can feel a bit like being on a cruise ship. Grand exertions are made to ensure comfort, and leisure is organized: basketball at six, bingo at 11. B-list celebrities, armed with camera-ready smiles, are on deck to shake your hand. The food is rich and plentiful, and cooked with the primary goal of not sickening anyone. And there’s no exit, other than jumping overboard, or over the concertina wire. Base life is, as Samuel Johnson might have said, like being in prison, with a chance of being mortared.

Atlantic Monthly

Steinway and its Discontents

This book is really the story of two eccentrics. The first is Gould, easily the most finicky in a strong field of stubborn kooks on the concert-pianist circuit. The second, and more interesting, is the collectively eccentric industry of concert-piano builders, as epitomized by Steinway & Sons and the peculiar men (they are all men, at least in this account) who keep their products in tune. Other books have documented Gould’s eccentricities better — this one wastes a great deal of space reprising tired anecdotes about his summer overcoats, his extreme sensitivity to touch, and his diet of Arrowroot biscuits and ketchup — but the Steinway thread reveals an unfamiliar and fascinating side of the classical-music industry.

Atlantic Monthly

The Muftis of Cascadia

In the UK, during the early days of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a similarly buffoonish quasi-governmental body moved to stop the film International Gorillay from being released in Britain. A hit in Pakistan, the movie portrayed Rushdie as a whiskey-soaked Jewish lothario who intended to subvert Islam by running a network of discos and casinos. Rushdie himself intervened to lift the ban, saying the offense was real, but not worth the practical or moral harm done by banning what amounted to just an exceptionally dumb movie — even if it was a movie that encouraged his own murder. British audiences watched the film, and thanks to YouTube, you can too.