Magic and Method

Arthur C. Clarke (or Lex Luther) once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.”

Bloggers often site this quote when talking about Apple and their suite of products, partly because Apple uses the word “magic” in its marketing campaigns. But truthfully, there is magic everywhere. The problem, I’ve noticed, is that the magician never gets to appreciate the magic itself.

Years ago, I was in a band that I thought was pretty good. We went in to the studio and spent a lot of time and money making a “record.” We worked hard on the 10 songs we planned to record. We performed take after take after take until it was right. We layered on a wide variety of instruments to accent the sound and really make it great. We even paid Jerry Tubb to master it, which is the process of adjusting the volume, bass, treble, and a thousand other little things until it sounds great. Jerry Tubb has down Mastering work for Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dwight Yoakam, Waylon Jennings….Jerry Tubb knows what he is doing.

Yet from start to finish, it always sounded like something was missing. “Can we make it sound more like the last Wilco record? Can we get the drums to sound a bit more like “Love and Theft?” “Do we need to bring the harmonica up in the mix to make it pop?” We tried every trick in the book to make it sound more like this or more like that. The truth is, it sounded fine. The (few) people that ever listened to the record thought it was pretty good. It captured the sound of our band awfully well, they said. Some of them learned the lyrics and sang along at shows. Some just played it a few times on their car stereo before moving on to something else.

I’m not arrogant enough to call that record “magic”, so let’s use another phrase: our problems with the record came from the fact that we had made the sausage, so it didn’t taste as good when it came time to take a bite.

Before that I worked in government. After a deep love of politics until I graduated from college, I almost immediately quit once I saw the process in place. The magic is awesome. The magicians are intolerable.

Before that i worked at a radio station. The DJs were almost entirely scripted with no control over playlists. The “top requests of the night!” were decided by the programmer manger, not the people calling in to vote. Most of the contests and giveaways were rigged. The magic of driving around late at night listening to the Rolling Stones blaring can’t be matched. The magicians on the other side of the dial are really rather boring.

Lately, I’ve been learning to write computer code. I started with HTML and have moved on to PHP/MySQL with an eye towards Python or Perl next. The more I learn, the more the “magic” of the internet starts to disappear. The more I learn to do with a computer, the more I realize that what goes on under the hood at Facebook and Twitter and Amazon isn’t magic at all, but rather millions and millions of linerally (sp?) executed details.

Most people out there make magic of some sort, only it doesn’t seem like it to them. I recently had a sprinkler system put in my back yard. It would have taken me a month to accomplish what a professional did in two days. It was magic to me, commonplace to him. More and more in life, I find the same thing happening all over the place. The magicians rarely enjoy the magic. The processor doesn’t get to enjoy the taste of the sausage.

I don’t have any suggestions on how to enjoy the magic/sausage you make in your life. The chances are good you are capable of doing something that appears amazing to most people but really seems fairly pedestrian to you. Just keep doing it, I suppose, because the chances are good that someone somewhere thinks its magic, or at least really good sausage.

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