IT superstitions: Astrology, sacrifice, and demons
People who work in IT have a certain reputation for being logical, rational, and unswayed by the mysterious or supernatural. Many techies would like the outside world to see their fraternity as a band of Mr. Spocks, solving problems with the same dispassionate logic that drives the machines and networks that they tend.
But if that's so, why is there another strand in computer lore, with oft-retold tales of voodoo-powered rubber chickens that can fix a PDP-11, or of magic switches that could crash a computer in defiance of physical laws?
Naomi Kritzer, a sci-fi and fantasy author who's had a chance to observe techies in their native environment, says, "I would love to see someone write a book about animism among computer professionals, because despite the fact that they're supposed to be the dispassionate logical people, they all believe that the computer has a consciousness -- a malevolent consciousness that is doubtless out to get them." And so, to get ready for Halloween, let's examine the superstitions and irrational beliefs that lurk beneath the surface of our seemingly rationalist industry.
From folk magic to the occult
Some IT superstitions are, well, pretty much the same superstitions held by everyone else. "I seem to do a lot of knocking on wood," says Jeffrey Powers of Geekazine.com. "I suppose it's because my desk is made of wood." Reed Carpenter, a software tester for Canon at Microsoft, has a close and somewhat more IT-focused variation: "When I have a system meltdown (bluescreen, etc.) and have to reboot, I always tap my mouse on the desk three times."
Those seem low-impact enough, but some get deeper into atypical analysis. George Nemeth, a service management specialist at Opitem, is in tune with astrology, keeping a particular eye out for Mercury retrograde. "Just before this astrological phenomenon happens, I start getting calls from people with Website and email problems. It's uncanny!" He never really followed astrology much, he said, but "my fiancee pointed out how much busier I got around Mercury retrograde. It became a joke between my co-worker and I on a weekly email newsletter I used to do. Things tended to go awry for no good reason."
When it comes to other systems of belief, techies are willing to go pretty far afield if they're desperate. Michael Robinson says, "Some years ago I directed a small team developing a frame grabber -- a board that would digitize a video signal from a television camera and place it in computer memory. For some reason we just could not get it to work properly. I promised the group I would bring in a demon to help us find the problem."
Wait, a demon? "It happened that I had at home a small Balinese demon statue. In Balinese mythology demons are horrible-looking creatures that serve a beneficent purpose by driving away evil spirits. I had come across the statue in an import shop and picked it up to decorate my mantelpiece. The statue looks like a sort of humanoid vulture/dragon with outspread wings. The next day I brought the demon statue to work and trained the camera on it. Although the statue was only about four inches high, since it was right in front of the camera, it looked huge and imposing in the video image. We started work and within about a hour we had located the problem and fixed it. From then on the frame grabber worked flawlessly."
Balinese demons are one thing, but some geeks turn to even darker powers to help them in their times of need. Pete Warden, now a software engineer at Apple, mentions sinister doings at a previous gig. "Part of my job was testing graphics cards, which meant pulling them in and out of machines all day. It was very fiddly, and the widely accepted rule was that any given card wouldn't work unless you'd cut yourself at least once trying to wedge it in. They all needed a blood sacrifice." Are these machines we've built hungry for our very flesh and blood?
If there is to be sacrifice, of course, the geeks will be the ones to carry it out. This mindset -- with the IT pros appeasing their electronic gods -- is not terribly uncommon, and can result in an interesting set of rituals. Bill Zetter, who's been a software pro for nearly 30 years, explains how he deals with an operating system's holy of holies: "When editing programs or regular text files, I use Emacs; but if I'm going to be editing a system configuration file -- in Unix/Linux, that's pretty much anything in the /etc directory -- I use vi. There is no rational reason for doing this. It's more like a ceremony, or somberly putting on the priestly vestments before performing the holy task of changing the system."
The germ of truth
While some of us believe that the motions of the planets and human sacrifice affect the machines under our care, more of us might cling to behaviors that hew a little closer to reality. Geekazine.com's Powers says, "I wouldn't say I am as much superstitious as I am obsessive compulsive" -- and sometimes a little OCD can help provide a useful safety net. Some behaviors identified as "superstitions" by some IT folk really just amount to being careful -- unreasonably careful, in some cases, but that's better than not being careful enough, isn't it? Russ Willman, who manages the tech center at Vibrant, sums it up: "Never put the cover on until after it has passed diagnostics. Never tighten the last screw until after it has passed diagnostics."
There's another bit of superstition that falls under the category of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Though IT gurus are often loath to admit that they don't know everything about what goes on inside their boxes, they can be hesitant to mess with something that works, even if it's baffling. Chris Harrold, the principal consulting engineer at Sanity Solutions, describes this mindset: "The 'Repeat without questioning' superstition says that if the steps you took to fix a problem worked, you must take those same steps again, regardless of what step actually fixed the problem. Really, this is probably just laziness in not figuring out what actually fixed the first issue, but this superstition persists nonetheless."
The machines you talk to, and other whimsy
Harrold has an insight into another half-conscious irrationality that geeks are prone to: the personification of their gadgets. He calls it the "things with names live long" superstition: "Giving your equipment names gives them the will to live longer and they will not fail as often -- or ever, in some cases."
Many people view the naming and personification of their computers as an affectionate little ritual -- it's like an electronic pet! One Unix sysadmin who prefers to remain anonymous recalls her days working in support in an engineering lab: "If I went on vacation, I would come back and have to walk the lab, petting all the computers in the lab to let them know that I was back and they could stop being cranky. It settled them down."
But for others, attributing sentience to their machines just helps draw the battle lines into sharper relief. "It's a well-known fact that you have to make your computer respect you," says Mathew Walls, a computer science student at Australia's Swinburne University. "If it's not behaving well, threaten to downgrade it in some way. If it's been working well, reward it with some extra hardware -- put in a spare CD drive or something. That also gives you something you can remove if it disrespects you by not working right without inconveniencing yourself."
And then there are those rituals that just seem to make life in the somewhat staid realm of IT a little more fun. Josh Martin, a grad student at the University of Arizona, has a little figure of Beaker, Dr. Honeydew's assistant from the Muppet Show, dangling from the electrophysiological equipment that he tends as a good luck charm. Software engineer Martin Fisher used to celebrate those days when he'd push code from the test environment to live production server by playing Salt-n-Pepa's "Push It."
Finally, there are some irrational ideas so deeply ingrained in our minds that we don't even recognize them as superstitions any more. "Personally, when something doesn't work right, I just smack it hard with the palm of my hand," says Dalton Rooney, IT and Web Manager for StoryCorps. "Usually works."
What's your IT superstition? Chime in below in the comments.