• Sleight of Hand, Magic, and Psychology

    Today, our office has a mass migration from Microsoft Outlook to G-mail.  As with most things technology related, it mostly went smoothly, with a few minor hiccups.

    I’m somewhat well known around the office for my skills with technology.  My office mates will call me before the help desk.  You see… I’m magic.

    It all started about four years ago.  I overhead a cube mate complaining about her laptop, so I fixed it for her.  For all intents and purposes, she was the office manager at the time.  She started telling people to ask me.  If I could fix it, then the user didn’t have to wait on the help desk and tech support.

    One time, I just walked up to a computer and (jokingly) fussed at it.  Then the person I was helping did whatever wasn’t working and it worked.  My reputation was born.  I could fix recalcitrant computers with a stern look.  I was magic.

    Now, I work in a medium sized office and the average education level is multiple college degrees.  These people work with statistics, evidence based decisions, and critical thinking skills every single day. Yet, to the office, I’m magic.

    I have several hypotheses for why this has happened.

    First, I like computers.  I spend too much time on my computer (or, as my wife calls it, “The Mistress”).  I think that computers should make our lives and work easier, not harder, so I spend a lot of time just playing around and seeing what the software can do. Plus, I’m not scared of computers or software.

    Something like Microsoft Excel is a huge program with thousands of tools and features.  Literally hundreds of books have been written about it.  I don’t know everything about it, but I know more than most.  And I can teach others how to do things.  I’m not magic, just taking the time to learn and break it a couple of times.

    Second, modern computers are amazing complex systems.  A single computer may have several user programs running at once, 10-12 background programs running, and a hundred or so background services running.  The interactions between different softwares and between software and hardware is impossibly complex.  Very often emergent behavior occurs.

    In this case, emergent behavior means that the computer is doing something that the programmer didn’t directly tell it do to.  This is generally bad, but it can be good sometimes.  The internet itself has a number of emergent behaviors.  For example, the sharing of files, pictures, and videos is a programmed behavior.  But the emergence of internet memes and viral information is not programmed and a form of emergent behavior.  It’s not even based in intelligence and no one person decides that a video will become viral.  It’s a collective experience.

    I am aware of this emergent behavior and prepared for it.  For example, this morning, a coworker couldn’t cut and paste from one program to another.  So, I got the information into another program and the cut and paste worked fine.  I’m not magic, just prepared to deal with strange behaviors.

    The thing is a suggestion on how I can make computers behave just by standing near them as the person works.  This is simply psychology.  People don’t read complicated (or even easy) directions closely.  They think that they know and so gloss over a very important point.  I can’t count how many times I’ve done this.

    But when someone is standing there watching you, people tend to focus more and not miss little things that they would have otherwise missed.  Then, when it works because they have actually followed instructions correctly, they are amazed.  They just don’t realize that they weren’t doing it correctly until I showed up.  It’s not magic, just focus.

    My concern is this.  If a whole bunch of really well educated, generally areligious people think that I’m magic because I know more than they do and they are blind to their own issues; how can we possibly reach the people who have almost no critical thinking skills and are not as well educated?

    Religion make people feel good.  Science tends to make people feel dumb.  Science is hard.  Critical thinking is hard.  Honest self-reflection is the hardest thing of all.  It takes a lot of effort, for what appears to be minimal return.  Especially compared to a guy who says that you’ll be going to paradise when you die.

    It not magic, it’s just sleight of hand and psychology.  Both religion and me.


    Category: CultureReligionSkepticismSociety


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat