living computation / Dave Ackley

Ordinary magic

The art of making things go your way.

In professional conjuring and conventional ‘magic tricks’, it’s the observer’s perceptions that go the magician’s way, following carefully crafted paths until the audience finds it has perceived some astounding impossibility.

But for you as magician rather than audience, as mind-leader rather than lead, magic is ordinary, unsurprising, mundane: nothing but effective, hopefully, at making things go your way.

Appropriately situated, you extend your hand and intone noises sounding like “Please pass the meat,” and in many cases chances are good that meat will suddenly be within your grasp.

Wow, wow! Holy moly! How you do that? The family dog amazed, transfixed, green with envy.

A magic spell uses language to make people think or act as the magician desires. The spell must be understood to work, but nothing else is essential: Spells can be emailed, written on subway walls, cast across continents and millenia.

The vast flexibility of our human computational hardware, and the great programming power of our ‘natural languages’, make us particularly vulnerable and valuable as targets of spells.

The incessant clatter and din of mass market broadcast spells ultimately pales beside the narrowly cast spells with which we enthrall each other one on one.

The irresistible spell, the life-changing spell big or small, is cast by the ordinary magician of good will right next to us, who rightly guesses the situation in our head and in the exact moment of grace casts upon us the spell we need to move further.

Effective spells often weaken over time, rendered cliché by ubiquity, until they only work on the kids. Worse, spells encountered out of context can immunize otherwise vulnerable subjects against the power of the spell.

So it’s far from clear that it’s smart to gather up magic spells into widely-available collections…but I can’t help it. As best we can, we need to arm the ordinary magicians of good will. The interestedMagicians of ill will, as always, must be dealt with separately. will find it, perhaps only; the rest will not care and will stay vulnerable for when their moment arrives.

From the Big Book of Ordinary Magic:
To state is to overstate.

Indications:Apply in tempo to control excessive second-guessing, verbal backpedaling, and paralytic weaseling.

Thoughtful people often attempt to speak precisely and without exaggeration, and this is often a great virtue, but it can be taken too far and become an impediment, particularly when the speaker is nervous“It was the greatest! I mean, I think it was… Well maybe not the greatest, in the entire universe of space and time, but certainly among the greatest; in the top five probably, or ten, or anyway well in the top hundred for sure. Well not absolutely for sure sure, I mean, I haven’t actually researched it and counted, but I’d really have to think it’s really likely that it’s a top hundred… pretty likely….

Contraindications:This is intended neither for those who are prone to exaggeration anyway nor those who are prone to silence. But in such cases one may look elsewhere on the spell ring:

  • To say nothing is to state.
  • To state is to overstate.
  • To overstate is to say nothing.

Provenance: “To state is to overstate” is entry #1 in the General use section of slogans.txt.

The shortest path between two ideas is the path you took.

Indications: Apply in tempo to control excess embarrassment, anger, irritation, or feelings of stupidity after a perhaps long-delayed realization or decision. May also be effective when a choice or decision is imminent but yet to be taken.

Contraindications:Not intended for headstrong subjectsFor them, consider instead Spend half your effort finding the trail, and half your effort following it.. It is helpful, though not required, that the subject be familiar with the “…is a straight line” phrase.

Provenance: “The shortest path…” is entry #26 in the General use section of slogans.txt.


Indications: When an insight is discovered or otherwise encountered, make up a short pithy phrase to represent the insight and increase its memorability.

This spell is in order following a recognition that a good insight has emerged. It is particularly useful if the idea arrived by a circuitous route, helping to determine if the insight holds up outside its original matrix.

Contraindications:The spell is intended for insights with a significant linguistic intellectual component. It must be used with particular care, or simply avoided, in moments of awe or other essentially experiential or non-verbal contexts.

Caution is also needed in contexts such as marketing where ‘slogan’ is effectively a technical term.

It can be unsafe to say this spell aloud if anybody is unfamiliar with it, because then its novelty might derail the insight before it has been consolidated. It is recommended to use the spell first, then talk about it afterwards, if it worked well.

Provenance: The earliest known usage of this sense of ‘sloganize’ is due to Peter Neuss in Pittsburgh, PA in the 1980’s.

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29 Jun 2004
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