Practical Magic

Found a pretty neat blog called Paleofuture.  It's a fairly extensive log of past predictions of the future.  Including what the Thomas Edison Park thought the world would look like in 2011.  My favorite prediction is  that we'd be able to carry entire libraries in our pockets-- printed on wafer-thin leafs of nickel. As is true of his entire professional life, these predictions are brilliant forward thinking with some key flaws. The man who failed to predict that the phonograph would be used to listen to music (and despite the contemporaneous popularity of the player piano) was, in fact, mortal. And yet, what he created (or took credit for creating) was so new and wonderous that nonetheless he was dubbed the Wizard of Menlo Park; a Merlin of his own time.

I've been reading through Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and it's had me thinking about what the word "magic" means in the real world. In the series, economics is referred to as "the reflected sound of underground spirits," and much of practical witchcraft relies on herbalism and what is known as "Headology," or the practical effects that a known practitioner of magic can acheive without uttering a spell when amongst non-magic users.  Witches and wizards do, in fact, posess "real" magic, but that's because the Discworld is a world where magic is a real, physical force. But the word "magic" is still idiomatically used to describe, well, the sort of things that involve the same kind of deception as a conjurer's act, or the same kind of dexterity and creativity that Harry Houdini became famous for. It differs from superstition only in that it actually works.

Arther C Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and I think it extends further than that. In earlier times the shaman would take you in to their yoda-style living spaces and serve you a strange tea that would send you into a different state of consciousness and it was magic.  Today the active chemicals are crystalized and used for the same effect and it's called pharmacology.

The difference? Science is an open process. Magic is cloaked in mystery, whether by coercion or lack of deeper understanding. It consists of disguised invention as well as manipulation of forces that one cannot adequately explain. The economically measurable impact of an extension of unemployment benefits is science. The known predictive nature of an original NFL team winning the Super Bowl is magic.  The known impact of antibiotics on a bacterial infection is science. The known impact of antibiotics on a viral infection is magic (As is the similar effect of a sugar pill, but in the case of antibiotics, the consequences of antibiotic overuse make it dark magic).

The fields of economics, diplomacy, medicine, psychology, political science, artwork, music, drama, comedy and sex, among others, are mixed practices.

Home field advantage was magic until it was discovered that while its measurable impact didn't vary based on era or distance of travel or method of travel, it did vary based on the distance of the crowd from the officials. Another clue dropped when the Seattle Seahawks-- whose fans were outnumbered to the tune of an away game in Super Bowl XL-- got fucked over by the refs. As it turns out, while the impact of the crowd on the players may anecdotally be a psychological boost for the home team, it's far more evident that the officials are more likely to swallow their whistles when the home team is doing its thing. They don't want to be seen as deciding the outcome, and by their inaction, they influence the outcome.

It's also important to note the significance of the word "witchcraft," as the meaning of the word has a similar twang. When you examine the context of its usage in history, from the Dark Ages to Salem to Pat Robertson declaring feminism to be "a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians," to the signs featuring President Obama as a witch doctor. the meaning that emerges is "women with ideas above their station." Merlin was the picture of wisdom in the Arthurian legends, but a woman who practiced the same arts as he (and indeed, as those of that era who were styled as "wizards" historically) did was assumed to be up to no good. Come the age of Christianity, it all was verboten by an authority that wanted a monopoly on spiritual healing.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit in the past couple of days, because despite the fact we're at 9.4% unemployment that a solid State of the Union address does not statistically increase the political capital of the President delivering it, and despite the fact that the party that has any ideas that can statistically increase the number of jobs in this country has less power than it did two years ago, the 91% of respondents who agreed with the President's policy proposals have me feeling bullish about the coming year.

Because among many other things, that dude is magic.


  1. Liked the whole magic/Edison thing. I've given up feeling bullish though I want to

  2. It has to turn the corner some time. Might as well be now.