The Fine Art of Complexity Management

Posted by Piers Cawley on Aug 8, 2003

Picture this: A magician sits in front of you with a pack of cards in his hands. He turns over the top card, it’s the Two of Hearts. He has you sign it. He then turns the card back over then takes the top card from the deck and pushes it home somewhere in the middle. He asks you to snap your fingers, then he turns over the top card of the deck again. It’s your signed Two of Hearts.

What I’ve described is the opening of one of the classics of card magic, called The Ambitious Card, in which a signed, selected card repeatedly jumps to the top of the deck in ever more implausible conditions. On the face of it, the effect is simple, the card just keeps jumping to the top of the deck. Behind the scenes, the method is simple too; you just have to execute a hidden move so that it looks like you’re really doing what you claim to be doing. And there’s the rub. Though I say so myself, I can execute the required move with no little skill, but if I stop to think of the complexities of what I’m doing, I won’t be able to do it well. I certainly can’t explain how it’s done to another magician, well, I can, but the explanation goes along the lines of “Just practice ‘til it looks like the real thing”.

What does this have to do with complexity management? Well, apart from the fact that a good magic trick should be presented in such a way that, no matter how complex the method, the audience just sees the magic, obviously. But there I go again, using the tool we all instinctively use to manage complexity. That tool is the word ‘just’. We all do it, we push the complexities of something behind what I’ve taken to calling a ‘Just Story’. Here’s a just story for sole meunière:

The fish, fried in butter, is transferred to a serving dish and over it is poured a quantity of freshly cooked, hissing, foaming butter. A squeeze of lemon juice, a scrap of parsley, and the dish is ready.

Couldn’t be simpler, could it? Well… Elizabeth David, in French Provincial Cookery goes on to explain the full complexity of the dish so: