"Only for those with the eyes to see..."
May 23, 2011 2:03 PM   Subscribe

What are some performances, tasks, or other skills where the really difficult, impressive parts actually look quite unassuming and may need a trained eye to appreciate? I'm not talking about "Oh, he makes it look easy/effortless" but rather watching something and then finding out afterward that you were looking at completely the wrong thing. E.g., in Rothfuss's "Name of the Wind," the protagonist snaps a lute string during an important audition and finishes anyway by re-arranging the rest of the song to use only his remaining strings. Half the audience thinks he passes the audition because he played a beautiful and difficult song, but the musicians in the crowd know it's because he improvised the end to a difficult song on a damaged instrument.
posted by d. z. wang to Grab Bag (49 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
David Wells says he was still half drunk when he threw a perfect game.
posted by starman at 2:11 PM on May 23, 2011

I am told that when actual violin players see a master violinist, they generally watch the right hand (holding the bow) rather than the left hand (which is doing all the exciting fast fingering) because that's where the real artistry is.
posted by dfan at 2:13 PM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

On the same wavelength as David Wells, Dock Ellis says he threw his no hitter while on LSD.
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:16 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lot's of programming is like this. You might spend hours, days and even weeks just analyzing and pondering, only to end up with dozens or hundreds lines of code. To the untrained eye, it looks like the programmer spends 90% of the time being unproductive.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:18 PM on May 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

If I understand correctly, an important criterion in judging Chinese cuisine is the uniformity with which the ingredients are cut. A chef would be judged negatively if the size of his dice varied between 1/8" and 1/16".
posted by Trurl at 2:20 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The sixth piece of Darius Milhaud's piano suite Saudades do Brasil, "Gavea", starts out entirely on the white keys; the pianist only has to move his right hand up and down the keyboard in the same shape. After a sudden big chord, the piece resumes... and the right hand has now moved up a step to C# major, where despite the music sounding very similar to what came before, it now has to navigate tons of black keys. Kind of a cruel joke on the pianist given that no one in the audience notices how different the parts are under the hand unless they have perfect pitch or have played the piece themselves.
posted by dfan at 2:23 PM on May 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

Pretty much all top-level equestrian sport falls into this category, but I am posting mainly as an excuse to link to the video of Ahlerich's one-tempi changes in his victory lap at the 1984 Olympics, AGAIN.

Put simply: the canter is an asymmetrical gait, in which one hind foot lands, followed by diagonal feet, followed by the opposite front foot. The last foot to fall is called the "lead," and the horse is most balanced on the side of the leading leg, so that for example you would turn right on the right canter lead.

Ahlerich is changing leads every stride, at Reiner Klimke's signal. Only horsepeople know that this is an extremely difficult, high-level dressage movement, and Klimke, who was a lawyer, is performing it invisibly while waving his top hat.

That clip just never gets old to me :)
posted by rdc at 2:30 PM on May 23, 2011 [16 favorites]

Not sure this is quite what you're looking for, but I'm a sighted person who can read braille (with my eyes). Every time I go to a public place that has braille, I read it to see if it's correct. Sometimes it isn't, and I enjoy pointing it out to whoever is nearby. I remember going to a hotel once where all the room numbers were off by one. In my current office, both the women's and men's restroom say "MEN". "Notice that the dot patterns are exactly the same!" I tell people.
posted by Melismata at 2:35 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Screenwriting is definitely like this. An audience or inexperienced script reader will focus almost exclusively on dialogue, which is the least important part of a script. Without the underlying structure and character development, no individual line will have much meaning. Months of years of work goes into structuring scripts, yet it does not appear in the words on the page in a literal sense.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:36 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Competition fencing is like that. The really clever moves happen in a split second, usually after both contestants just kinda bounce around a bit sizing each other up. Then, WHAM, its over. Fencing is really boring to watch unless you know what you're looking for. I would imagine many martial arts, boxing, wrestling etc is like that too sometimes.
posted by elendil71 at 2:47 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of sleight of hand stuff is like this.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:48 PM on May 23, 2011

In sewing, plaids that match. If it's done well, you don't even notice. If it's done sloppily, it screams at you. Lots of things about sewing are like this--it takes a heap of effort to make a seam or hem that doesn't pucker, or a garment that fits well. The better the effort, the less likely it is that the detail will be noticed.
posted by Corvid at 2:51 PM on May 23, 2011 [7 favorites]

Isn't just about everything a lot harder than it looks to the untrained eye?
posted by COD at 2:52 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Many people assume that an editor's only function is to check spelling and punctuation. In reality, I would hazard a guess that sort of thing accounts for only about 5% of the job. (ocherdraco gives a nice overview of the many tasks book editors may do in addition to being glorified spellcheckers.)

Also, more broadly, there's the dismissive "ugh, my kid could do that" phenomenon when it comes to looking at a lot of modern or contemporary art -- e.g., disparaging Picasso for his cubist or abstract works because he "didn't know how draw" or "make things look real" when of course he could draw and paint like a master by his late teens.
posted by scody at 2:57 PM on May 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

As a guitarist, I'm impressed by any well-played guitar part that has a clean tone and isn't covered up by many other instruments. Almost any guitar part, even if it seems very simple and trite, is going to call for the guitarist to make subtle choices, which tend to make more of a difference when there's a clean tone. A guitarist using a distorted tone and backed up by loud drums and bass has so much more leeway for minor irregularities that won't even register as "mistakes." As one example (not that it's the most impressive, but I just happen to know the details), Ian MacDonald reports in his book Revolution in the Head that the Beatles had to play 60-odd takes of "And I Love Her," which on the surface would seem to be one of their simpler songs. As MacDonald points out, the arrangement (clean, sparse guitars with a quiet rhythm section) leaves everyone so exposed that there's no room for error. This is much more impressive to me than guitarists who crank their distortion to full blast and show how many notes per second they can play.

Another musical one: to be a drummer playing a normal beat is a huge challenge. You normally don't pay much attention to the drummer, but if the drummer gets even a little "off," everything about the music (not just the drums) would suddenly sound very amateurish. This is a far greater skill than playing a 5-minute drum solo that gets a standing ovation. If the audience is specifically applauding the drummer, they're not focusing on the drummer's most subtle and important task.
posted by John Cohen at 3:01 PM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

By the end of your first bluegrass-style banjo lesson, you will be in awe of anyone who can play even the most basic tune smoothly at regular speed. It involves literally thousands of hours of practice of mind-numbingly repetitive picking patterns to build that rapid picking-hand muscle memory. More patience than I'll ever have!
posted by usonian at 3:05 PM on May 23, 2011

Tennis is very much like this, as well. People who don't watch a lot of tennis or who don't play tennis rarely pick up on differences between different kinds of ground strokes beyond forehand vs. backhand--and pretty much never can spot the difference between a topspin shot and a flat shot. But it is precisely those differences that make the game so exciting.
posted by yellowcandy at 3:12 PM on May 23, 2011

Another musical one: to be a drummer playing a normal beat is a huge challenge. You normally don't pay much attention to the drummer, but if the drummer gets even a little "off," everything about the music (not just the drums) would suddenly sound very amateurish.

Great point. This reminds me of how Ringo is often dismissed in terms of his musical contributions to the Beatles, and yet he's actually been quite influential among drummers and his studio work was incredibly solid:
In his extensive survey of The Beatles' recording sessions, Mark Lewisohn confirmed that Starr was both proficient and remarkably reliable and consistent. According to Lewisohn, there were fewer than a dozen occasions in The Beatles' eight-year recording career where session 'breakdowns' were caused by Starr making a mistake, while the vast majority of takes were stopped owing to mistakes by the other three members.
posted by scody at 3:18 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Similarly to the violin example, whenever you see someone masterfully play a woodwind like a saxophone or clarinet it's tempting to assume that most of the practice went into the fingers, but the tonguing and embouchure -- everything that's going on in the mouth -- is really where the art is. To get a consistent tone requires constant minor adjustment of the pressure on the mouthpiece to compensate for the register and for the natural imperfections/compromises in tuning. And if you've ever heard a middle schooler play a saxophone, there's a lot of "thock-thock-thock" to the tonguing because it's actually quite hard to start and stop the flow of air partially or gradually as is required for smooth, natural articulation, and that takes a lot of practice.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:19 PM on May 23, 2011

At a juggling performance there were the general public and other jugglers and all the jugglers were at the front and all the public were at the back. The applause was interesting. Either the back half of the audience would applaud (for some crowd pleasing track that we'd all seen a million times) or the front half would go completely nuts and the back half would start applauding a few seconds later (presumably they assumed that they must have just seen something great, even if they had no idea what it was).

I saw a guy mount a giraffe unicycle in a way that had every unicyclist in the crowd wimpering. I have never, before or since, seen it done that way. I would have bet money that it wasn't possible. People who knew nothing about unicycle riding saw nothing impressive.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:22 PM on May 23, 2011

When I see a handknitted sweater that doesn't change gauge between portions that are knitted in the round and flat, or between colorwork and solid areas, I'm pretty impressed.
posted by peachfuzz at 3:24 PM on May 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am told that when actual violin players see a master violinist, they generally watch the right hand (holding the bow) rather than the left hand (which is doing all the exciting fast fingering) because that's where the real artistry is.

Oh, and I meant to second this! Whenever I watch someone in a movie or TV show who's supposed to be playing the violin, the bow hand gives away the game entirely as to whether or not the actor knows what they're doing.
posted by scody at 3:24 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fire twirling - it's really quite easy to spin the staff around very quickly and make all sorts of cool sounds and look exciting. It's much harder to move it slowly and keep the balance perfect - performers who start slowly and rhythmically are much more proficient than those who leap straight into the speed.

Circus - a lot of the impressive moves on the silks (the big spinning drops and so forth) are 'simply' a matter of tying yourself in the right knots. I'm much more impressed by performers who can climb the silks and do the easy moves with grace - it shows a much greater affinity for it, to me.

Again on drums - if someone's playing a solo for a few minutes, playing fast is impressive but, much like fire twirling, being able to master the slow stuff is much harder. There's an incredible solo that was on Metafilter a few years back - I can't even remember who it was - that involves whisper quiet rudimentary patterns around the kit, but reveals much more talent and mastery than another blistering thrash around the set.

Swing dancing - you can see this when a mixed crowd is watching a good couple dancing. The crowd pleasing moves - throws and fast turns and so forth - get everyone excited. The dancers in the crowd will be the only ones applauding when there's a piece of delicate, almost invisible footwork that shows they're so in control of the dance they can afford to concentrate on these tiny, almost insignificant parts of it.
posted by twirlypen at 3:37 PM on May 23, 2011

Cooking in a professional kitchen is a bit like this - watching a group of chefs at work is like watching a ballet (with more swearing).
posted by brynna at 3:43 PM on May 23, 2011

DNA sequencing. Most people think that you get a tissue sample, do some lab stuff, put it into a machine and BAM, there's your DNA sequence. Some people know that it takes time and hard work to obtain a DNA sequence. Only geneticists who put in the lab time know that obtaining DNA sequences can be a painstaking process that blurs the lines between art and science. Even with advances in technology, you still have to check that the automated sequencer has "read" the DNA sequence correctly. That means that you check a significant proportion of base reads against a chromatogram, to check that your DNA sequence is correct. You might have to check 500 + bases for multiple specimens, and at some stage it comes down to an informed - but also instinctive - judgement call.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 3:46 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Graphic design. Designing something like the Nike swoosh involves a lot more work than most people realize.

On a related note, although most people here probably don't think like this, I was once told that any 9 year old can design a web site.
posted by MexicanYenta at 3:51 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lot's of programming is like this. You might spend hours, days and even weeks just analyzing and pondering, only to end up with dozens or hundreds lines of code. To the untrained eye, it looks like the programmer spends 90% of the time being unproductive.

Story goes that Sam Goldwyn hated writers because he could never tell when they were actually working and when goofing off.

Though to see a writer staring at a blank page to my mind would look like the hard part.

The clown dancers (see dance master in The Red Shoes) have more going on than the run of the mill.

Keith RIchards says that composing a ballad is falling off a log compared with composing a good rocker. (Dylan ever do a rocker?)

The opposite phenom is perhaps easier to spot. Classical Gas is not a hard piece to play. A lot of modern dance types would be stumped by ballet.

Isn't just about everything a lot harder than it looks to the untrained eye?

I expect the point is, things that impress the trained eye even more than the untrained
posted by IndigoJones at 4:06 PM on May 23, 2011

In piano, there's lots of stuff like this, but the most obvious is playing something quietly, or playing something with different voices, like fugues. The first isn't really all that *impressive,* per se, but it's definitely harder in most pieces than playing loudly, but it's the loud stuff that sounds more impressive. Playing quietly is slightly tricky because if you hit the key too softly, there will be no sound at all, and this threshold varies a bit according to piano, individual key, and location on the keyboard.

Things with different voices are hard because it's not the typical "one dynamic level in this hand, and this slightly different dynamic level in the other hand" (to oversimplify). You have to slightly bring out certain fingers depending upon which one of the voices they're currently in, and this could change multiple times in the span of a second, and they may not even be adjacent fingers. (i.e. your left pinky and index finger could be played immediately before a voice that picks up with your right middle finger and thumb, while your left ring finger and thumb and right pinky are playing a second voice and your other fingers are on a chord for the third voice. Then which voice every finger belongs to will all change a literal fraction of a second later.) This is why a lot of Bach is considered technical and impressive if done right, when the non-pianist will *hear* something that sounds, in comparison to Chopin or Beethoven, dead simple.
posted by wending my way at 4:20 PM on May 23, 2011

People underestimate how difficult, mentally, playing American football is. Especially playing on the offensive line. To the untrained eye, it looks like a bunch of fat bastards falling into each other, but have you ever seen an NFL or even an NCAA playbook? The amount of information that needs to not only be committed to memory, but to be internalized and put into action is astounding. And the the on-the-fly adjustments and reads they have to make is incredible. It makes sitting for one of the CFA exams look like a cake-walk.

People accept that playing quarterback requires intelligence, but the guys on the O-Line have to know all the plays the quarterback knows, as well as all of the plays the running back has to know. They have to understand all of the possible strategies, blitz packages, etc a defensive coordinator could throw at them. A couple of close buddies of mine played O-line at a Big 10 school and hearing them dissect NFL tape is a trip. It is so tragic that these are also the same guys who get worst of the football collision related head trauma.
posted by AceRock at 4:23 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Good typography is invisible -- time and care goes into adjusting leading, kerning, and hierarchy, eliminating widows, orphans and rivers, and aligning everything to a common baseline, but the point is to NOT call attention to this stuff, because that would detract from the legibility of the text.

Non-designers are impressed by flashy graphics and fancy layouts, designers are impressed by beautiful typesetting (well, and the other stuff too).
posted by ella wren at 4:33 PM on May 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Interesting question. I saw a blues band with a trumpet at a small club. Good band - nice sound in the trumpet. I think I was the only one who spotted how much work he was going through because of a sticky valve. I had a bottle with me and dropped it on stage in front of him and he looked so tremendously relieved.

Other things that tip off a really good player - high and loud is easy. For example, the trumpet part from America from West Side Story at the end looks like flute music. A top-notch player could play that at any dynamic, at tempo and in tune.

I worked at Adobe when the new logo was revealed. I, software engineer, was sitting in front of typographers. My first reaction was, "huh, not bad". The typographers behind me gasped in horror and spent the next few minutes fervently whispering disparaging remarks that included such words as kerning, weight, blackness, hinting, and so on.
posted by plinth at 5:27 PM on May 23, 2011

I have done only a little juggling and such. Nothing big, easily forgotten if I do not practice. I had gotten into it indirectly because of Labyrinth, in the early nineties I watched a special on the man who came up with the glass ball trick in it, and did the trick blind, standing behind David Bowie.

This year, I saw Michael Moschen from the front row. After watching him for just a couple of minutes I felt like a dog nudging a sack of beans with his snout. Juggling does not begin to encompass what that man does. He isn't about numbers — only going up to five items — he's about the control. He juggled balls using the bottoms of his feet to make music. Most people would look for the number of balls kept in the air, I am looking at this man who did tricks with his nose. I don't think there was a single surface on his body with which he could not control the motion of items, sometimes with different simultaneous rhythms. He would make things move as if movement was what those things were destined to do, independent of any human activity. Some people can bring things to life, but he gave them Fate.
posted by adipocere at 6:05 PM on May 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Think about this - what would a friend be missing if they could not see links on Metafilter?

This is great rap's hidden genius. Most of the people who like to listen to it might hear the beat, sing along to the lyrics, and get a reference or two. But there is an entire hidden conversation going on in great and even average rap that is so intricate.

Most people listen and think "ah, that's catchy", and you play it and can rap along with many of the lyrics. But someone well-versed will hear things that are impossible for normal listeners to pick up. To hear these conversations you have to have an extensive knowledge of rap that is beyond what can even be told to someone. To pick it up you not only have to have listened to a lot of rap for years, you also can't have had a limited fandom (i.e. just like 'pop' rap or just like backpack rap), because the references in the music are expansive and from all types of rap. You will need to have friends who did also, because there are just too many rap acts out there with too many songs for one person to pick it all up by themselves.

There are phrases, words, even intonations that are callbacks to earlier works. Add to that how rap songs often use samples from other rap songs (that typically do not get credited) This adds depth and meaning to a song so that essentially a regular listener is listening to a great 2-d song, where an experienced rap listener is on the verge of Miegakure.

So it enables you to do all sorts of fun things. When the Cocoa Brovas (Nee Smif N Wessun) released their song about getting sued for copyright infringement by Smith and Wesson, halfway into the song there's the line "I got a letter from the corporate....". So while you may just jam to it, a rap *"listener" might move to thoughts of the extension of the power structure in this country and if extending might to enforce a copyright is intertwined with the power structure that imprisons people just like these rappers. All thanks to that brief Public Enemy reference. Variations of the phrase are actually used multiple times in that Cocoa Brovas song.

So another way this comes into play is recognizing new talent. Jay Electronica is a really gifted mc who might just be another above average rapper but he has gems in his lyrics. Take his song "Suckas"

"Jay Elect reigns supreme over everything." This is a call to the work of rapper Krs-one, who often says his stage name is an acronym for "knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone".

A few words later, to someone unfamiliar, you can't even parse 'bdddd stickum, ha ha ha stickum', but the beat is hot and it sounds good. He's referencing the Fat Boys beatboxing. Which for rap heads could bring back memories of that white "Crushin" cassette tape, and a time when they were popular enough to be in movies. Jay Electronica is calling up these memories and feelings, essentially talking to you through this and saying he respects these artists, he understands the history of the genre, and he listened to those who were known for their contributions to the craft.

In other songs he rhymes two words together that calls to Wu-Tang. In 'Exhibit C' he says "My uzi still weighs a ton, check the barometer", and calls to Public Enemy. Rappers call out to old groups, previous songs, new and established concepts - but for most people it just "sounds good".

*And even "listener" would tip off a rap "listener" as a reference to Eric B & Rakim.

The fun thing about this for me is that rap ends up becoming infinite. I go back and listen to songs from the 80's and 90's and I hear a line and go "wow" because I realize a current song I like was referencing that song and elements around it. So when some try to suggest 'it isn't music' like this is 1983 all over again, I'm thinking Yeah, it's so much more than just music.
posted by cashman at 6:40 PM on May 23, 2011 [12 favorites]

Going along with cashman's example, Jay-Z does a good job of explaining some of the references in his lyrics in his book Decoded. Fascinating stuff even for non-rap fans.
posted by AceRock at 6:52 PM on May 23, 2011

Not sure this is what you're looking for ... But I'm a lawyer and I've concluded that most stages of litigation are won in the preparation stages prior to the actual stage you're watching. I guess that's a way of saying "preparation is everything."

Say you're watching a masterful attorney demolish an opponent at trial. The trial is actually the easy part. It is carefully scripted based on months of preparation, evaluation, and strategizing, which was the hard part. If you see an attorney catch a witness in an inconsistency on the stand, chances are the witness was boxed in weeks before the trial ... The attorney had documents and deposition testimony that left no way out, it just had to be executed at trial. Even seemingly unscripted moments at a trial are often carefully planned. The trial is won in the care and deliberation of the planning. Similarly, the earlier stages are "won" in the preparation that goes into them. What you're watching, the performance, is the easy part compared to the preparation.
posted by jayder at 7:19 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's like doing two shows at once: one for the common audience, and one for fellow magicians.

There was one of Penn & Teller's shows or documentaries (I didn't think it was a Bullshit!, but I can't figure out what else it would have been.) where they go around various places looking at street magicians/geeks/fakirs.

One guy was a geek who ate a bunch of glass for Penn (a former geek) and alter Penn said that he was showing off and ate more than he probably should have.

Another was some guy showing Teller his cups and balls routine. Apparently he went through all kinds of false moves, ending up so that to the rest of the crowd it looked like the trick didn't work at all, but Teller was apparently very, very impressed.
posted by cmoj at 7:27 PM on May 23, 2011

How about bicycle racing (on the road); to people who aren't cyclists it looks like a bunch of people riding bikes for a long time *yawn*.

To someone who's into it there is a lot going on; on a flat stage who's at the front doing the work? (It takes a lot of energy to be the first rider, it's much easier to draft someone).
If there's a breakaway (a small group off the front of the main group) who's in it and where are they in the GC? (GC: General Classification, where each rider's total elapsed time places them in the standings in a multi-day race). Is anyone chasing the break and if so why? Does it have a chance of making it to the finish before being caught? (Most times, no).

On a mountain stage is a team working well together? Are riders taking turns leading their best climbers up the mountain? (Their job is to ride themselves into the ground, allowing their climber to rest until s/he takes over and the REAL battle begins).

That's barely scratching the surface, other folks explain it better, but that's a little bit of the idea.
posted by dolface at 7:53 PM on May 23, 2011

Seconding Corvid's point about sewing - a lot of things about sewing and especially costume design are tricky in this way because they must focus on the things that you don't notice rather on those things that you do. I'd go so far as to say that a lot of fields of design falls into this category: there's not necessarily anything striking about a costume, theater set, advertisement, or logo that's laid out right. But a flaw can often be glaring. That means that designers have to put a tremendous amount of work into making things look effortless.

On a different note, a lot of talent in any kind of partner dancing is only evident to the people who one dances with. Looking flashy in front of an audience is completely different from being able to lead a move that is unknown to your partner, give just the right amount of weight, or pick up on and respond to the subtle movements that your partner makes.
posted by one little who at 9:37 PM on May 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Believe it or not, boxing can be like this. The movements and angles can be so subtle and change so quickly.

As people have said with other things, one aspect, the punches, can be eye-catching, but the footwork, angles, body movement, anticipation, knowledge and thinking are usually what make those punches possible.
posted by ambient2 at 10:58 PM on May 23, 2011

Ballroom dance (or as twirlypen says, swing dance): the technically difficult parts aren't always the impressive-to-the-average-audience-member parts.

(This drives me insane about shows like Dancing with the Stars, when they frame the video so that you can't actually see the footwork...)
posted by SymphonyNumberNine at 2:17 AM on May 24, 2011

A lot of the stuff you see in print every day is like this. Very few people pick up a newspaper or magazine and say "Wow, that layout is gorgeous! And the type - what a great, bold choice!" But at the same time, when you pick up your kid's school newspaper, or your church's newsletter, you know those items are, in contrast, low rent.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:45 AM on May 24, 2011

Springboard diving. The basis for your score is how many flips and twists you did, combined with the judges' score. The judges primarily score on your entry. The audience will only notice your entry. 90% of being able to do the dive at all, much less have a clean entry, is having good board work. For example.
posted by anaelith at 3:23 AM on May 24, 2011

In river-running, it is often more difficult to row a calm line (route) through a rapid than an exciting one.

When you're new to rowing, you're constantly fighting with the river. You end up pushing and pulling and manically re-correcting through every rapid. This is the equivalent of some one zig-zagging through a parking lot the first time they get in a car. But this can lead to some very exciting rides for the passengers: Oh look! we almost hit that rock but we just barely missed it! Oh my! Look at us going over that giant wave half sideways and getting splashed! Oh gee! Look at you rowing like a beast to pull us away from that large scary wall!

In contrast, when people have a lot of boating experience, they're better at using the power of the river to their advantage. They can see their line through a rapid and they can stick to it: they set up way beforehand and only have to do minor corrections mid-course. They don't draw wild Z's and curlicues on the river with their boat; they draw S's and elegant integral symbols. However, they often don't look like they're working very hard or doing any serious conquering of the elements. I guess this sort of falls into the making-it-look-easy camp.

But I think it's still relevant to your question because non-boaters think that running rapids is supposed to be a flash-and-boom sort of exercise, and so they are often more wowed by the badly-run rapids than by the well-run rapids. I certainly got more compliments from well-meaning people as a younger boater, when I would get to the bottom of a rapid trembling, than I did when I could get through rapids smoothly.

And as a boater myself, I am most impressed by the lazy-seeming, shark-like slide down the first drop of a rapid by someone who has set themselves up perfectly. To my eyes, the mad, frantic rowing of someone who can only keep their boat away from the most immediate obstacle in front of them marks that person as someone who hasn't been boating for very long.
posted by colfax at 3:26 AM on May 24, 2011

I used to bellydance, and my teacher always said that dancing at a banquet or charity do was a completely different art form to dancing for other dancers. Non-dancers will gasp if you just stand behind a veil doing hip-eights, and want the flashy, twirly moves. Dancers are looking to see how well you isolate the muscles (moving the right hip/arm/shoulder without the left moving too, and vice versa).
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 4:30 AM on May 24, 2011

Construction has so many examples of this. Do you know if your carpenters had to discard one iteration of the cabinets of your built-ins because they were 1/4" too large and didn't fit into the wall? True talent is never wasting materials.

You will never see if your tiler put up appropriate backing for your tiles in the shower or on the floor unless you watch the work as it progresses. The only reward for this labour is that your tiles do not fall off in a couple of years and that the underlying wall is protected from water damage.

Look in the corners of a room where the baseboards meet. In a lot of modern construction, the baseboards will not align. Getting this straight is hard.

Look at the grain of the wood on the floor or in the cabinetry - is there continuity in the colours of the grain? Somebody went to a lot of trouble picking the appropriate pieces of wood and laying them out so that they'd fit on the floor or cabinet.

I could go on, but absolutely everything in your home is affected by the quality of the work underneath it, and a lot of the work is invisible until it breaks.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:09 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tennis crowds often cheer loudest for the hardest shots, especially overheads. But the most impressive shots are often the sharp angles or gentle dropshots. Similarly, players earn cheers by running far to chase down a shot, but great players also have great anticipation, so they have started to run in the right direction even while the spectators are watching the opponent hit the ball.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:19 AM on May 24, 2011

Snowboarding is very much like this. An untrained eye might look at a trick and be impressed by the number of rotations. A slightly more trained eye will look at the 'he makes it look easy' factor. But someone who lives and breathes snowboarding will look at the trick and feel it in his body.

And sometimes a trick feels right. This isn't really correlated with how hard the trick is, but has more to do with looking at the jump/feature you're hitting, and bringing together the right direction and axis of rotation, the right grab and the right landing for the particular piece of nature your dealing with.

Here's an example. This trick, and its presentation, has literally brought tears to my eyes more than once. It's a 540, something many people can do, so I suspect this seems crazy to the uninitiated. But the editor recognizes it too - the music hits a climax right after the landing. It's followed by tricks that harder, but not quite as right.

Deconstructing why this trick is so right is like being an art critic, it won't do it justice, it will sound pretentious, and it's somewhat subjective. The most important thing, I think, has to do with when he is blind to the landing. He is exactly twice in this trick, right after the takeoff and before the landing (as with any backside 540). Flying blind through the air can be scary thing, you feel it in your stomach. The last blind 180 is done right as gravity starts to pull him down, and at this point the music even takes a pause to let you savor the moment. The tingle in the stomach is exaggerated in this trick by the kind of jump it is, a step-up. Too little speed and you'll hit a wall, too much speed and you'll take a hard flat landing, but hit it right and you'll land soft as if on a pillow. More than that, for reasons I can't articulate, spinning up towards the wall like he does in this trick is esthetically perfect. No, I'm definitely not doing justice to this masterpiece.
posted by cheerleaders_to_your_funeral at 8:53 AM on May 24, 2011

Ooh I thought of a good one. Everything Les Twins do. It looks random and spazzy and sort of goofy, but the body control those guys have is astounding. One movement might be some finger twitching that anyone can do and the next some kind of dip to the ground that's actually barely possible.
posted by cmoj at 3:27 PM on May 24, 2011

A lot of sleight of hand stuff is like this.

Penn and Teller do a great demonstration of sleight of hand that shows a seemingly simple activity that's actually much more complicated than it looks.
posted by klausness at 4:31 AM on May 26, 2011

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