May 07 2011
A discussion on Slashdot today mentioned a story that Don Lancaster told in one of his columns. I’ve enjoyed Don’s column in The Midnight Engineer for years, and I built some of the projects in his many books, including the Cheap Video Cookbook back in my days playing with a KIM-1 (one of the first-ever microcomputers, a single bare circuit board with just pushbuttons and an LED display; I had to build my own power supply for it). An anonymous poster on Slashdot related Don Lancaster’s “flute story”, and I looked it up on Don’s site. He’s repeated it several times in his newsletters and books. Here’s the Slashdot version:
“Many years ago, I was at a rock concert. The opening act was a single flute player standing solo in front of the closed stage curtains. His job was to warm up the audience for the high priced talent that was to follow. He was good. But as he went along, the musical vibes got stranger and stranger, then totally bizarre. He was playing chords on his flute. Combined with utterly unbelievable riffs. Much of the audience got impatient and bored at what seemed like a bunch of god-awful squawks. Then I happened to notice a friend beside me who had both been in and taught concert band. He was literally on the edge of his seat. He turned to me and slowly said ‘You Can’t Do That With a Flute.’
Of the thousands and thousands of people in the theater audience, at most only five realized they were witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime performance of the absolute mastery of a difficult and demanding instrument.
Always play for those five.”
Another Slashdotters wondered cynically if the effort was worth it. I think that represents a certain lack of pride in his work. Maybe you’re not up to a high skill level, but isn’t it something to strive for? If you have that skill, isn’t it worth demonstrating?
My son Arthur is something of an amateur magician and we know a few professionals, and how many of the standard tricks are done. While most of an audience is impressed at the mere performance of a trick (so long as the magician is competent enough to keep from accidentally revealing the method), other magicians in the audience will be impressed at how skillfully it’s performed — especially if the magician can do what seems to be the old trick in a new way that even fellow magicians can’t figure out. Or, who like Penn and Teller performing the ancient cup-and-balls trick with transparent cups and telling the audience what they’re doing, can still pull a few surprises. Penn and Teller are playing for the five.
I write (among other things) hard science fiction. I like to get the details right, even in off-the-wall stuff like a conversation with an intelligent slime mold (“Light Conversation”). Sometimes I’ll take hours to get details right, calculating orbits or the exact distances and directions between different stars. Most SF readers will neither notice nor care, they’re just looking for a good story. But I care. Of course I want readers to enjoy my stories; it’s important that the details don’t get in the way of the entertainment, and if they do I’m failing my primary purpose. However there are a few who will notice, who may even do the math. They — you, since probably some of you are among them — are the ones I take that extra effort for. Sure, I want everyone to enjoy my writing (although realistically I know that it’s impossible to please everybody), but I write for the five.
Like Don said, play for the five.