[iDC] Why Magic Stinks

Bruce Sterling bruces at well.com
Sun Oct 8 20:36:29 EDT 2006

*Jef's dead now, but I'm sure his mana is smiling on the idc list and  
this discussion from beyond the grave.

Bruce Sterling


Silicon Superstitions
ACM Queue vol. 1, no. 9 - December/January 2003-2004
by Jef Raskin, Consultant

When we don't understand a process, we fall into magical thinking  
about results.

We live in a technological age. Even most individuals on this planet  
who do not have TV or cellular telephones know about such gadgets of  
technology. They are artifacts made by us and for us. You'd think,  
therefore, that it would be part of our common heritage to understand  
them. Their insides are open to inspection, their designers generally  
understand the principles behind them, and it is possible to  
communicate this knowledge—even though the "theory of operation"  
sections of manuals, once prevalent, seem no longer to be included.  
Perhaps that's not surprising considering that manuals themselves are  
disappearing, leaving behind glowing Help screens that too often are  
just reference material for the cognoscenti rather than guides for  
the perplexed.

This loss of information is unfortunate, as any activity involving  
the exact same actions can have different results—that is, wherever  
there's "random reinforcement" (as the psychologists say) is fallow  
ground in which superstitions rapidly grow. Fishing is a good  
example. When out angling for rock fish, you generally use the same  
lure as everybody else. There is not much technique to it, so the  
number of fish you catch is proportional to the time your lure is in  
the water. Those who spend time fiddling with the equipment  
beforehand catch fewer fish. It's a mathematical certainty. I choose  
my equipment with one aim in mind: Eliminate hassle. So while my  
fishing companions use fancy reels and fight the occasional tangle, I  
use the closed-cap kind you give to youngsters because they seldom  
foul. On every trip I have fished to the limit as fast or faster than  
anybody else has on the boat. They don't laugh at my "primitive"  
equipment anymore, but they do ask me if there's some special stuff I  
rub onto my lures to get the fish to bite or if I have some other  
"secret." They don't believe the true explanation, which I am happy  
to share. It's too simple, and there's no "secret" stuff or device  
behind my success.

In fact, people love mysteries and myths so much that they create  
them when an explanation seems too simple or straightforward. "Why is  
Windows so hard to use?" I am asked.

"Because it was designed badly in the first place and has grown by  
repeatedly being patched and adjusted rather than being developed  
from the ground up."

"But, "say the inquisitive, "there must be more to it," thinking that  
some deep problems inherent to computers force the outward  
complexity. The only forces involved are what Microsoft mistakenly  
thinks the market wants—and inertia.

In particular, superstitions grow rampant when testing is subjective,  
difficult, and (usually) not performed at all. There is a purely  
magical belief in the idea that you can hear the difference between  
different brands of audio cables, for example. You can buy a simple  
one-meter audio cable with gold-plated RCA connectors at both ends  
for a few bucks, or you can buy one with "time-correct windings" that  
the manufacturer claims will "provide accurate phase and amplitude  
signal response for full, natural music reproduction." Price? $40.  
Or, if you are especially insecure, purchase a one-meter cable that  
has "3-Way Bandwidth Balanced construction for smoother, more  
accurate sound" for a mere $100 from Monster Cable (http:// 

I've had the fun of testing if people could tell the difference—they  
couldn't. At audible frequencies small differences in capacitance,  
inductance, and resistance in a cable will make no audible  
difference, and there are no significant differences in the pertinent  
electrical parameters among popular brands. One ad, also from Monster  
Cable, says, "Choosing the right cables can be a daunting  
task" (especially if you read the ad copy) and it explains that  
"Underbuying is all too common." This last claim is true, as far as  
the marketing department is concerned.

I e-mailed Monster Cable and challenged the company to conduct a  
simple test with its choice of equipment and listeners. My proposed  
setup was simple: a CD player, an audio cable to a power amplifier,  
and a set of speakers. All I would do is change the cables between  
the CD player and the power amplifier, flipping a coin to determine  
which cable I'd attach for the next test. All the listeners had to do  
was to identify which was the inexpensive Radio Shack cable and which  
was the Monster cable. I would videotape the experiment so that a  
viewer could see what cable I was using and hear what the listener(s)  

We had a friendly exchange of e-mails, but when I proposed this  
experiment, I got no further replies. It seems to me that if there  
were a real difference, the company had nothing to fear.

All testimonials and most magazine reviews are based on situations in  
which the reviewer knew what audio equipment was being used. Owners  
and magazine reviewers have a vested interest; the former needs to  
justify the money spent, the latter needs to preserve ad revenue.

One claim that is obviously false without requiring testing involves  
weighted rims that are sold for audio CDs. The makers claim that the  
added mass will help the CD spin at an unvarying rate. This is true.  
People who know a bit of physics are aware that a greater mass is  
accelerated less by a given force, so any disturbing force will have  
less effect on the rate of spin of a heavier disk. The makers also  
claim that this will make the CD sound better with less "wow" or  
"flutter," which on tape recordings or vinyl records was the result  
of uneven motion of the recording medium. The claim for better sound  
is false and relies on the ignorance of owners of CD players.  
Ignorance is superstition's guide.

What the suckers who purchase these rims don't know is that the CD  
player reads ahead of where it is playing and stores the musical data  
in semiconductor memory, which acts as a buffer. The information in  
memory is clocked out by an unvarying crystal oscillator. Any  
unevenness in the speed of rotation of the CD (so long as it is  
sending data to the buffer faster than it's being played) is simply  
irrelevant to the sound. In fact, this was one of the points of  
genius in the design of the CD player, making the quality of sound  
independent of the mechanical quality of the rotation of the media.  
With the introduction of CDs, flutter and wow instantly vanished to  
inaudible levels. Weighted rims are simply irrelevant.

When I was a graduate student I did the simplest possible experiment.  
I placed a pair of amplifiers on a table: one fancy and expensive,  
and the other plain and cheap. Both had wires that ran to a switch  
box. The switch was clearly labeled as to which amp corresponded to  
which position.

Subjects were allowed as much time as they wanted; they operated the  
switch themselves, and all they had to do was to report in which  
position of the switch the system sounded better. All but a few  
reported that they could tell the difference, and almost all  
preferred the more expensive unit. One person said that as far as he  
was concerned, the switch "wasn't doing anything at all." That person  
was right: I was using only one amplifier and the switch was not  
connected to anything. The results were statistically significant,  
and showed that people can fool themselves with alarming ease.

Computer systems exhibit all the behaviors best suited to create  
superstitious responses. You will try something, it won't work, so  
you try it again—the exact same way—and this time it works, or not.  
That's random reinforcement. The effectiveness of many programming  
and management practices thus are not measurable.

Most of the principles of "extreme programming," for example, seem  
reasonable to me, and I was using many of them long before they had  
acquired their present absurd name. The people who promulgate the  
idea, however, are also those who created the paradigm. Most reported  
results aren't even single-blind, much less double-blind. We rarely  
understand, in any detail, the processes going on behind the tasks we  
do with computers. We're using megabytes of code written by others,  
code that is indifferently documented and inadequately tested, and  
which is being used in ways and in combinations unforeseen by its  

No wonder we tend to act as if computers are run by magic. Many of us  
(including me) use the exact sequence of operations for a task  
because it worked once and we don't dare to vary it (even when  
somebody suggests a different method). The now obsolescent SCSI  
(small computer system interface) bus was that way, too: Some  
configurations worked, whereas others that seemed to obey the rules  
on cable length, termination, and device addresses did not. Once we  
had a setup working, we wouldn't change it; it was as if we had  
achieved some heavenly arrangement.

I invite readers to share examples of superstitious behavior in the  
technological world with me. Meanwhile, be a skeptic: Ask yourself if  
what you're doing is based on fact, on observation, on a sound  
footing, or if there is something dodgy about it—if there's a touch  
of superstition in your interaction with technology.

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