Saturday, January 25, 2014

Voodoo Computer Repair

I have been contemplating the nature of cats this week.  It would be hard not to in this house, for our home is overrun by a multitude of feline philosophers.  Both of them.

How can two cats continually occupy so much raw acreage in a single tract house?  On every horizontal surface there seems to be stretched out a sleeping cat, belly up, seeking warmth from a fluorescent bulb, one delicate paw placed across his eyes to protect him from the harsh reality of a covered 40 watt bulb.

I suppose there are many reasons to think about cats.  I like the way they are beholden to no one.  Any fool can earn the love of a dog (Hell!--even Hitler owned a dog that evidently worshipped him, even as Adolf fed him a cyanide capsule to test its efficacy.  If Adolf had owned a cat, the feline would have had a fighting chance at outliving the dictator.).  The love and trust of a cat must be earned.

What I have spent the better part of the last hour contemplating, however, is their capacity to learn something through experience.  As Mark Twain once put it:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid.  She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.

To call this behavior human would insult the cat.  However, it illustrates how people work with technology they dont understand.  For the last forty years, I have seen the principle applied to the functioning  of computers. 

Sooner or later, everyone's computer will not do what they want it do.  Trust me, it is nearly always not the computer malfunctioning, but some form of operator head-space error.  After punching every button on the keyboard followed by tapping on the monitor screen—suddenly, the computer produces the desired effect.  What the operator should have learned was that a little patience was required.  What the operator will "learn" is that tapping on the screen works. 

This is exactly as much, and no more, than the cat would have learned.  From now on, whenever frustrated—which is every time this person uses the computer—the first thing that will be tried is tapping on the screen.  It doesnt matter that this procedure did not work the first time (or any time thereafter)--the cat will not sit on the stove-lid.  The monitor gets tapped.  Now that I think about it, the cat might be ahead on points: the cat wouldn't get aggravated at the new technology, it would just search it for the warmest spot on which to nap.

Strangely, this behavior may possibly be hereditary.  I have observed pilots tapping on the glass cover on an aircraft fuel gauge to make sure that they are getting a true reading--something that was briefly appropriate during World War I.  If a pilot is young enough to have passed a flight physical in the last thirty years, he is far too young to have ever flown a plane in which this procedure would have worked.  This has to be the result of young pilots learning from older pilots.

My father learned to drive in the 1920's on a Model T-Ford, the automotive equivalent of that cat's hot stove-lid.  Henry Ford made 15 million of those Tin Lizzies and he put the world on wheels--but by today's standards, those cars were difficult to drive.  The car boasted a 22 horsepower motor and an automatic transmission.  The jalopy had three pedals: the left pedal was low gear, the middle pedal was reverse and right pedal was the footbrake. The hand brake worked on the back wheels and also operated the clutch. The throttle was a hand- operated lever on the steering column below the steering wheel. 

Years later, mentally at least, my father was still driving that old Model T.  Modern cars didn't have a gas pedal--they had a "foot throttle".  "Pump the foot throttle!" he would exhort every time I went to start the car.  "Give it a little gas before you start it."

The fact that the car was fuel-injected and you could have pushed that pedal through the floor boards didn't matter.  This method had worked once in 1929 and every car since had gotten it's pedals exercised prior to starting.

This is called "Voodoo Repair".  People dont try to learn how their technology works: they just want to know the proper ritual that will make the magic work.  Arthur C. Clark once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  This is why today, anyone who is even remotely competent with computers (or any other technology) is routinely called a "wizard."

Evidently, for most of the human race, we passed this point several thousand years ago when the wizards of the tribe produced fire.


  1. You almost got it right. Dad's exact phrase was pumping the "foot feed."

  2. You are, of course, right. I was afraid that no one but the two of us would be able to understand what he meant.

    Remember how he would crank the throttle back and forth on a lawnmower before attempting to start it? Probably one of the reasons that at any given time we owned three dead lawnmowers.

  3. Fascinating topic. There are probably a number of other behaviours and even biases that we have, which aren't built upon logic.

    Like having a sense that anyone who has at least one cat is probably an okay guy or girl. I know I have that bias, even though there's truly nothing to base it on. When observing one of those dastardly villains in a James Bond film, calming stroking his white Persian cat, one can't help thinking "well gee whiz. The guy can't be *all* bad."

    As a guy who works in IT (while dreaming of finishing my novel, quitting my job, and taking to the road as a fully-fledged, whisky-guzzling hack), I've encountered a number of situations and behaviours which if nothing else, gave me pause to laugh.

    The guy who, instead of tapping the computer screen, pounded on his keyboard with increasing rage. (The logic goes: "I'm just not pressing the ENTER key hard enough. I should try harder. That will make it work.") He broke a number of keyboards that way.

    Or my brother-in-law who, upon seeing the mouse cursor on the screen for the first time, decided he needed to hold the mouse in the air, so that the mouse cursor would see it and mimic his behaviour.

    Or the lady who, when her Windows screen froze, came up to me, eyes filled with horror. "I don't know what happened!"

    I couldn't help it. I had to feed her fear further. "What did you do? WHY DID YOU BREAK IT?"

    I quickly reassured her I was only joking. She didn't think it was funny.