Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mocking The Monkeys

So I was listening to this lecture about developmental psychology, and the lecturer was talking about the experiments they were doing with young children. Every once in a while she would go back and compare the performance of the children to that of monkeys. Now, I am not sure who should be insulted, but I am fairly sure someone should. There seems to be a good case for the kids since the research equates their mental capacity to that of a monkey. The monkeys on the other hand also seem to have a strong case as no one seems to try and challenge babies with climbing a tree or living with Jane Goodall.

You hear stuff like monkeys can do this , monkeys can do that all the time, and I would always say it sounds interesting…sounds interesting, But is it really? Is it interesting? Its not like there's some actual work we are planning on having monkeys perform, right? Its not that we can gain some deep and meaningful understanding of life, the universe and everything by having monkeys perform these weird tasks.

Now, this sort of thing presumably took quite a bit of work to get to, you sometimes have to live with the monkeys or train them to perform or understand certain rules, and you have to do controls…very hard work. And its not just limited to monkeys, there's the whole story with Skinner and his pigeons, rats and mazes, and generally speaking a whole lot of experiments involving animals performing all kinds of strange tasks.

So I had to ask myself,"why?" , "why go to all this trouble?" ,why would anyone spend all this time and money to show that a monkey has the mental capacity of a two year old? And then it hit me – why does Jay Leno ask random pedestrian to locate Iraq on the world map(obviously its somewhere in Australia), or what the DC stands for in Washington DC (don’t believe all that district of Columbia stuff. It obviously stands for De Capital). Also, why are there shows like "are you smarter then a 5'th grader" or "beauty and the geek"? simple – to show how people are stupid so that you can sit at home and mock their ignorance.

Sure, mocking people isn’t "nice", its entertaining, but its not nice. Still, must we mock the monkeys? i mean, there are so many things humans are ignorant about, surely our time and resources are better spent mocking one another.

So please, if there's one thing you take from this post, let it be that "Prison Break" stopped making sense once they broke out of prison.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Computer Voodoo

The following is a true story, and unlike most stories that begin with this kind of statement, it actually is true!
I know this for a fact, as I was personally involved with this voodoo magic.

For the past few days, my computer has been acting strangely with everything USB. Windows started throwing annoying messages about how my "USB Device is not functioning" claiming that "USB Device Not Recognized" it was all very annoying, even more so because when I connect a mouse or a webcam, it’s very obvious to ME that they are a mouse or a webcam. For some reason windows disagreed with me...even stranger, it recognized these devices just fine before and I couldn't see any reason it might suddenly forget. I tried reasoning with Windows, explaining to it that it makes no sense for it to claim that whatever was working not 2 minutes ago is suddenly malfunctioning beyond recognition. This explanation left little impression on windows and it insistently repeated that “USB Device Not recognized”.

Of course, it's a well known fact that computers are, for the most part, malfunctioning piles of junk which for some reason we care deeply about and take good care of only to have them reject us at times of grate need. In some sense, they are very much like ungrateful teenagers (who, btw are probably the largest group of computer users. coincidence? I don’t think so!).

So anyway, back to my story.
Since for the most part the devices were such that I used rarely, I did what most users would do, ignore the problem and hope for the best. Unfortunately, the problem didn't think that was such a good idea and got worse until the system decided to reboot (it rarely asks my opinion of such things. i guess it assumes it knows better than I do what I should do with the next 5-10 minutes of my life, namely, stare blankly at the screen while as it boots). Even more unfortunately was that my previously functioning webcam stopped being recognized. So again, I did what most users would do - I connected it to a different USB port...windows wasn't impressed, so I resorted to Google (fortunately my USB based cable modem decided to work for the time being).


After a few minutes of browsing the various forums I found a collection of solutions from removing all the devices in safe mode, to reinstalling windows. Well, I didn't much feel like either, so I kept reading...and one unlikely solution kept popping up. This solution involved what is technically known as "Computer voodoo".

"Computer voodoo” is a highly complex technical term that loosely means "doing something really weird in the hopes that it will somehow fix your problem". This voodoo is usually accompanied by an unlikely explanation, targeted at the computationally (and when it comes to computers – rationally) challenged. A regular voodoo solution would look something like: "your windows keeps crashing because of a virus! Bang your mouse on the table tree times and left click then right click". While the voodoo explanation would be something like: "banging your mouse encourages the virus to migrate into the mouse's memory. left clicking + right clicking then erases the mouse's memory , killing the virus!" (I am sure that I could convince at least some of you of this in other context).

voodoo solutions, as well as voodoo explanations exist for the same reasons superstition exist - people will do and believe anything if said in a convincing, authoritative tone! They will believe even more if it’s written down.

The thing that separates regular Voodoo from Computer voodoo is the absurdity of the proposed solutions, and the incredibly large amount of otherwise intelligent people that are willing to participate in strange rituals if anything electronic is involved (Reboot voodoo is the most common, replacing the ancient bang-it-twice-on-the-side voodoo used by my ancestors)


In the case of my strange problem the voodoo solution involved the following - shut down your computer, disconnect all devices , disconnect main power, wait for half an hour. The voodoo explanation given was something about static charge accumulating on the USB hubs. If we analyze this voodoo, we can see that there are 4 separate voodoos involved:
  1. Shutdown the computer – this is a variation of the restart voodoo, but separating the voodoo into its ingredients, first the shut down, and later, the start up.

  2. Disconnect main power- another common voodoo. It is believed that electricity holds magical powers and can infiltrate through the sturdiest of switches. Disconnecting a device from the main power helps to convince it that it’s really off, forcing the electrons to leave the possessed device.
  3. Disconnect all devices – follows from the main power voodoo, the electrons might not truly leave but take residence in the attached electronic devices, and then return once the main power is connected. Only way to be sure is disconnect all of them.
  4. Wait for half an hour – all things must rest; this is the basic assumption behind this voodoo. Your computer has been hard at work and its acting up because you never let it get a good rest. Leave it alone for a while. When you come back it will be well rested and eager to work.
In any case, I decided I would try this solution, I didn't really expect it to work in spite of the various user comments like "I don't believe it, but it worked" (seriously , who are you kidding, this is EXACTLY the sort of thing claimed by people who are trying to trick you into buying things on the shopping channel)

Why did I try it you ask? I am a firm believer in the least effort approach. Other solutions required that I DO stuff, this one merely involved my NOT DOING things. I consider not doing things to be considerably easier and much less damaging than doing things, so I shut down, disconnected the power cable, and waited.

...
...

Obviously, you all expect me to say that I turned my computer back on and, that to my surprise everything worked.

Well, that's exactly what happened (had you there didn't I)!

As you all know, I believe in computer voodoo as much as the next ex-technician/support guy/programmer. As the creator of many voodoo explanations myself, I can usually tell when someone is trying to get me to do something really silly, just for the perverse pleasure of knowing that somewhere out there people are turning off their computers and just sitting around waiting for things to fix themselves...but I have to tell you. It really does work.

Finally, I recommend that next time you have a problem, not just computer related. Shut down and wait for things to sort themselves out. The passive act of waiting facilitates the flowing of cosmic rays and realigns the stars and atoms along the energy lines in the universe, smoothing the flow of good Chi and flushing out the bad Chi.

true story.