[iDC] Why Magic Stinks

Gere, Charlie c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk
Mon Oct 9 06:06:23 EDT 2006

Thanks for a great post and article. The link below leads to a piece
from the Observer newspaper in the UK last Sunday, which is an excerpt
from Steven Levy's new book. It seems to illustrate just what Bruce and
Jef Raskin are saying


Charlie Gere 
Reader in New Media Research
Director of Research
Institute for Cultural Research 
Lancaster University Lancaster LA1 4YL UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1524 594446
E-mail: c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk

-----Original Message-----
From: idc-bounces at bbs.thing.net [mailto:idc-bounces at bbs.thing.net] On
Behalf Of Bruce Sterling
Sent: 09 October 2006 01:36
To: idc at bbs.thing.net
Subject: [iDC] Why Magic Stinks

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

Bruce Sterling


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

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

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

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

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) said.

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

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 creators.

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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