Dispatches from Andyland "Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever!" — The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

March 12, 2007

The Conservation of Magic

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew @ 12:42 am

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the podcast of the Penn Jillette radio show, and the last episode was titled The End. The end of what I wondered, the show? The possibility of 1997 XF11 hitting earth? The biblical concept of armageddon? As I listened, I found out that the show had been canceled. According to Penn on the show, a one hour show was difficult for radio stations to schedule live at around the time he was doing it (2PM Eastern, 11AM Pacific) He couldn’t do a three hour show along with his other commitments. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me. A few weeks before I tried to look for a live audio stream of the show and discovered that only Chicago and Las Vegas had him live. The rest played a pre-recorded copy later in the day. (I’m sure that a pre-recorded radio call in show doesn’t do well.)

Oh well. When I found out it was canceled I considered adding Showtime to my satellite package so that I could at least watch Penn & Teller: Bullshit. I’d also get the new This American Life television series that starts soon. Eventually I decided that I could probably buy the first four seasons on DVD, the current season as soon as it comes out on DVD, and This American Life either on DVD or from iTunes Music Store for less than it would cost me for a year of Showtime.

A few times on Penn’s show, he remarked that the only reason that magic tricks are at all impressive is that magicians are the only people foolish enough to spend the hours practicing a trick enough to make it look impressive. You can show someone a card trick and they’ll say “that’s neat!”, but if you tell them that you spent two hours a day for the past two weeks practicing, they wouldn’t find it neat enough to try for themselves. In some ways I find that similar to Terry Pratchett‘s concept of The Conservation of Magic in his Discworld novels. The energy exerted in doing something magically is about the same as doing it non-magically. (of course, the difference is that one is talking about fake magic in the real world and the other is talking about real magic in a fake world, but no matter.)

After finding out Penn’s radio show was canceled, I realized that I wanted to have a collection of as many episodes as I could. Some of them I hadn’t listened to yet, some of them I might want to listen to again or reference. Luckily, CBS radio didn’t immediately pull all of the pages referring to the radio show. One page had all of the podcasts, so I grabbed it and figured I’d work on downloading all of the referenced files.

At first, I was figuring on using XSLT to grab the download URL off of each show’s mention. It would up being that a quick perl script with regular expressions was easier. Once I had all of the files, I found out that they didn’t have ID3 tags, identifying them. Now I might be back at the XSLT solution again, pulling the description of each show and the name of the file I just downloaded and inserting the show’s description as ID3 data. I’m doing this on and off, and by the time I have something that might pull the show’s data out of the HTML file, I realize that the reason the files don’t have ID3 tags is because they aren’t really MP3 files at all, they are HTML documents that contain error messages that complain about an invalid content ID. Now that I’ve realized that I didn’t actually get the audio files, I go back and found out that now CBS has pulled the site, and the MP3 files aren’t there any more.

Last Friday, I fixed a bug in a system by slightly altering the XSLT templates that were processing the data. When I co-worker thanked me for fixing it and I told them I was just a slightly different XSLT invocation, he replied “If anyone around here would know the proper XSLT magic, it would be you.” It wasn’t enough to get all of the Penn Radio MP3s though. I’m guessing if I just clicked the download button 200+ times I would haven fetched more radio shows than writing the proper XSLT template. There is a certain point where the Conservation of Magic comes in and it takes less time to just do it by hand.

3 Comments »

  1. For as many of the Discworld books as I’ve read (which is
    far, far too few), I don’t remember reading about the Law of
    Conservation of Magic, but like everything to do with Discworld, it is
    perfectly reasonable, and makes much more sense than many real life
    things, like Digg, or VoiceML (WTF? No, seriously, WTF?), or the
    continued success of Matt’s Script Archive.

    More than anything else, our time lost to^W^Wspent with Zope showed me
    that there is no such thing as magic. But the term “magic” is
    important, because it captures an important idea: Someone else
    did the hard work
    . In Zope, it’s the unmanagably insane
    __getattr__; at Boston.com, it’s the poor sap who
    spent months reading the XSLT Cookbook and
    implementing generic XML feed parsers as a Zope product; occasionally,
    it’s the jackass who prints Apache for little light reading.

    I’m
    guessing if I just clicked the download button 200+ times I would
    haven fetched more radio shows than writing the proper XSLT
    template.

    Yeah, but what’s the fun in that? I know that a significant part of
    the appeal of the task was that you could write software to do the job
    for you. It’s not about efficiency, it’s about percieved effeciency,
    and reusable knowledge, and not being a monkey.

    Now that
    I’ve realized that I didn’t actually get the audio files, I go back
    and found out that now CBS has pulled the site, and the MP3 files
    aren’t there any more.

    “Hey, someone’s trying to spider the MP3’s off our site. I’ll show
    him…”

    “If anyone
    around here would know the proper XXX magic, it would be
    you.”

    I used to tell people that there was no such thing as magic, only
    ignorance; but people would rather believe in magic, as if believing
    in magic relieved them of the responsibility of having to understand
    things. But like everything, magic is about trade-offs: The cost of
    not taking the time to learn how something works is that it remains
    mysterious and frightening, i.e., “magical.”

    $ tail -5 ~/.fortunes
    %
    The Law Of Conservation Of Magic:
    The energy exerted in doing something magically is about the same
    as doing it non-magically.
    %

    Comment by Darren Chamberlain — March 12, 2007 @ 8:56 pm

  2. occasionally,
    it’s the jackass who prints Apache for little light reading

    I was thinking about people who would know Apache’s behavior by quoting the version, file, and line coordinates of Apache when I wrote the previous blog entry The place you meet people who know all kinds of stuff but I was trying to think of all of the non-technology stuff that I’ve learned from co-workers.

    “Hey, someone’s trying to spider the MP3’s off our site. I’ll show
    him…”

    I don’t think it was that intentional. The site was designed to be a promotional vehicle. If they have no show they have nothing to advertise and the site is useless to them. Maybe even less than worthless because it tells people about the content that CBS used to have but doesn’t. (“Would you like a radio show that is a irreverent mixture of politics, science, skepticism, and showbiz? Well look someplace other than CBS’s FreeFM network, because they don’t broadcast it anymore.”)

    Comment by andrew — March 13, 2007 @ 2:51 pm

  3. […] month or so ago, I wrote a post called The Conservation of Magic that talking about how things that seem to be magic require work by someone, somewhere, at some […]

    Pingback by Dispatches from Andyland » Blog Archive » The application of the Conservation of Magic — June 27, 2007 @ 10:56 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress