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Video: Common habits of superstitious computer users

From avoiding upgrades to refusing reboot requests, Bill Detwiler takes a lighthearted look at superstitious end-user habits IT pros should debunk.

IT pros tend to use their powers of deductive reasoning and critical thinking when confronting a technical challenge, but less-knowledgeable users often come up with beliefs about computers that owe more to superstition and magic than pure science. In this episode of TR Dojo, I'll take a lighthearted look at some of the superstitious habits you may encounter with your users.

For those of you who prefer text to video, you can click the Transcript link that appears below the video player window or read Jaime Henriquez's article, "10 habits of superstitious users," on which this episode is based.

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About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

143 comments
bizchamberlain
bizchamberlain

Fear of upgrades. It may be superstitious, but I am not the only one who believes that MS Windows and IE Explorer seems the most stable after the original install. With 10-20 patches/month, it doesn't take long before Windows and IE start becoming unstable. I don't have that problem with application updates and upgrades. Do a clean install every 6 months seems to work pretty well and then just do the service packs. What about IT pros that are superstitious? Why do some Techies believe that 'reloading' or 'repairing' windows will solve whatever is wrong with you application or hardware? Insanity; they believe that by giving this advice over and over, that maybe eventually it will work.

dianelab
dianelab

Upgrading to the latest version of macosx/windows could cause some specific hardware to behave badly (i.e. the deckink video board from blackmagic whose drivers are sometimes uncompatible with the upgrade) so not always superstition but carefullness

philip_jones2003
philip_jones2003

None of my users take me seriously unless I'm wearing a grass skirt and paint myself with woad. It also boosts their confidence if I approach the machine as though it were a cornered rat and shake a bone rattle at it. If when they call me on the phone (They are not sophisticated enough to use smoke signals by burning plastic pencil sharpeners) then I can usually procrastinate by telling them I have to consult a goats liver before visiting. According to their star signs I usually tell them something like: 'Today the letters a, c, o and t are unlucky for you'. If they ever give me a bad time then they get a, e, i, o and u. These chicken bones are aligned to maximise printer efficency...... Wonderful thing superstition.

alan
alan

My all time favourite was one of my users who was sitting out in the passage when we went in to check her PC for a virus. When asked why she was sitting so far away from her office she replied. "It's got a virus and I was afraid that I might catch it too"

inet32
inet32

To be fair, as an end-user I've called to LOTS of IT pro's who also engaged in superstitious behaviour. Telling the user to reboot in the absence of any hard evidence that rebooting is called-for is just as superstitious. So is telling the user to install a particular upgrade or service pack without having any basis to assume that said upgrade or service pack addresses the problem. Upgrades and service packs usually delineate what their changes or fixes are and I usually insist on going over the list point-by-point to find out what makes him/her think this will fix the problem - usually they have no idea. Another superstitious IT pro suggestion to fix anything having to do with displays is to install a new video card driver. Video card drivers are among the most dangerous software on a typical PC because they operate at I/O privelege Level 0 (ring 0) so if you have one that doesn't regularly crash your PC you should ONLY replace it for a VERY strong reason. Whenever I call up my DSL ISP, Verizon, they insist on doing an ipconfig /release and ipconfig /renew, not to mention a dnsflush, and also power cycling my router and DSL modem regardless if I've already done that, and all without specifying what exactly they thought it had to do with the issue I called about. I'm an engineer so I want to analyze the problem by gathering data and figuring it out. The IT pro's I end up talking to seem to just be following a flowchart or recipe, so they seldom seem to use their knowledge of software, operating systems, computer or network architecture to analyze the problem. To me just doing something blindly without being able to explain why you think this addresses the problem is the height of superstitious behavior.

jim.lackey
jim.lackey

my guess is that the main reason users are reluctant to re-boot is loss of data

Ravnor
Ravnor

A lot of times I'll get a call from a user with a problem and when I get there and they try to recreate the problem, it doesn't happen. They think I've got some magical power or 'resonance' with the computer. Somehow I haven't actively tried to dissuade them of that belief :-) Kinda like when I pull into the mechanic's driveway and the noise in my car stops. But I know that's real magic.

stuigi
stuigi

It's not just with computers. I always get a laugh at the person who constantly presses the elevator button expecting faster reults.. That being said, I laugh at myself for the same reason

Baumann
Baumann

Well, unless you're a stuck in the microsoft world I suppose. Mean uptime in our shop exceeds 6 months (and we've had a couple go years) - in general, only kernel updates require reboots. Unfortunately, some of our users think rebooting *IS* the solution. Ever had to rebuild a scrambled root file system? Granted, we're a shop of mixed OSX and Linux machines. Can you say unix based?

jdemand
jdemand

Thank you, almost funny enough to dump coffee on the keyboard. Although I do have the dumb machine convinced that there really is a brick next to the monitor for conflict resolution :-) jeffD

alicia.seffernik
alicia.seffernik

Too Funny. I love the exorcism... Now would someone stop feeding the Gremlins after midnight please?

areclark
areclark

I've always wanted a DWII commend. (Do What I Intend),

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

How can one virus generate such a disruption?The virus either attack the software program or they attack the computer as it functions.For one virus to work the computer would have to have a massive virus presence in the chips.There would be an underlying structure of lies to the computer itself to permit this.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

One that always kills me is when people, usually older people, insist on turning off their PC if they walk away from it for an hour or so. Reasons: "It will wear out if I leave it on all the time" "It will get too hot, it needs a rest." "It will consume too much electriciy" Of course all comments that usually accompany older electrical products/appliances before more envro aware electrical components came out, some 20+ years ago. On a slightly different note: I JUST had a guy complain about a nasty virus "Vista inflicted upon him." He said that his sister has an XP computer and visited teh same wesite without issues, when HE visited with Vista he said he started getting pop-ups etc. and now has a virus that's stopping him from connecting to the internet. My first question of course was if his sister used the same anti-virus and spyware prevention that he does. His answer was a hesitant, 'YES'. I said it was rather odd because Vista is actually far mroe secure than XP is and offers a lot more security features. I knew something was up so I asked for more info on what was being used, his answer was that he had turned it all off when he was browsing! DAMN IT, VISTA, WHY CAN'T YOU SURF UNPROTECTED!! :D So to get back on track, sort of, another superstition is that Vista (or some other OS) is flawed because it got a virus. When all along, the XP computer was protected, the Vista machine was not. DOH!

jpeitzer
jpeitzer

I would say the 5,000 documents in the print queue is probably the single most common. Of course I also have the walk over and the computer works thing quite often. My daughter thinks that computers are afraid of me. But one thing that really gets me is giving the same computer to say ten different people and maybe 8 or 9 have no problem with it and one can't get it to work at any cost. This is the one that gets me. How a perfectly good computer in some users' hands turns to garbage. It has to be the way they are using it but there doesn't seem to be anything specific to be able to tell these people to help them. I usually chalk it up to Karma and just figure they will require more assistance then normal users.

trud
trud

Even if it's the customer's next door neighbor's uncle's cousin's friend that hosed things.

dbecker
dbecker

All computers are merely tools. There are definite rules to make them work. I explain to my clients the background of how things work in layman's terms. I've been told that I'm the only one who can explain things in terms that people can understand. A lot of that is using the proper analogy, employing language with vocabulary words with precise meaning and having empathy for both the client and love for the technology. Having said all that, I tend to dispel superstition and show that there are real reasons for things happening the way they do. I convince my clients that I am not a god and a mere mortal like them. All it is, is that I have specialized knowledge beyond their expertise in the particular area. That does not make me better -- just different from them, for I too respect their expertise in areas with which I am neither competent or familiar. My chief tools in enabling my clients to work through their problems are ouija boards, tarot cards and talking to the dead [one knock means yes, two no]. For really difficult problems, using demons may be useful, but beware -- they lie! You see, sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

FatNGristle
FatNGristle

"I had happen right after you guys did your server work, what did you do to my computer?"

garyleroy
garyleroy

#3, if it doesn't work, keep doing it again, really translates to "if it doesn't work, keep doing it until you've really messed things up". How many of us have turned a printer on, or put it online, or booted a machine to be greeted with 400 pages of the same thing, as we frantically scramble to cancel the queued printer jobs? Or someone else who doesn't know how to cancel them, sitting there watching the 400 pages print? Unwillingness to upgrade or reboot may be from old habits or ignorance, not superstition. Not long ago, upgrades did not go as smoothly and catastrophes (especially to those without tech ability) were common, and rebooting is the most common time for system failure. Where they go wrong is thinking that if they leave it on, instead of keeping their stuff backed up, it will be OK. And "upgrade? The computer works, why do I need to upgrade?" is an understandable attitude for non-techies who don't understand the complexities of being connected to the web and being able to do all the things we now do normally. I know a few who are from the depression era, and insist on shutting off the computer if they're not going to use it for 15 minutes. They just can't stand the idea of leaving it on unless it's in use right at the moment, which of course decreases its usability by a lot. Then when they boot, it's trying to update the system, update the AV and do the normal housework, and they're repeatedly clicking their application wondering why it's not starting.

alpaca
alpaca

Read my Dad's book "Managers and Magic" for an early take on such behaviour. We are irrational creatures and spend all our time projecting...:-)

Sepius
Sepius

I have one user who, when I go to check his problem, the system is working fine. He says that when I touch it, it works. So now I have to "PAT" his computer every morning when I come into work, and it seems to work fine all day. Does that make me superstitious for playing along?

Animal13
Animal13

I personally like to reboot my machine once a day. I have a laptop that I put to sleep several times a day and it gets squirrely (Icons don't work, it gets sluggish, etc.) if I just keep it running. It speeds up if I reboot and it seems to just work better...

domiles
domiles

I work mostly via phone with home users and the most common superstition I have seen is really a phobia. They believe they will break the computer if they do anything other than browse the internet and email! I patiently explain that to break the computer they will have to throw it across the room. They might disrupt something but it can be fixed. Getting them over the fear of "breaking the computer" is very difficult. In person, I open the case and explain the parts and what they do and stress it is a machine, a tool. Sometimes it actually works.

rciafardone@gmail.com
rciafardone@gmail.com

And I would recommend that you suggest a general introductory course for all employees in you company, because THAT WAS EXTREME...

rciafardone@gmail.com
rciafardone@gmail.com

@inet32: HI, I don?t think asking user to reboot is a superstitions habit. In my experience 90% percent of all issues can be solved rebooting the system, and I am not making that number up. It is rare the occasion in which something is really wrong with a WinOS machine. Fail to print? Disconnected from the LAN network or Internet? Can?t log on a particular app? Can?t enter a network drive or shared folder? Word, Excel or what have you is acting weird? Mouse doesn?t respond? Keyboard doest respond? Etc, Etc? Windows is not the most stable (cough? cough?) of OSs and when you work on a large network with many different apps running at the same time, with switching from program to program, the system recourses just get dirty, and rebooting is the fastest solution. The alternative is connecting remotely or going down there and check what services got screwed or what little process got stuck and clean it by hand, that takes way longer that just rebooting the machine. I agree on the patching part, BUT is a good idea for security reasons to always patch the system. Unless the user is in a hurry I always check is the system is up to date but I have never ?solved? I problem by patching the system nor recommend it as a solution. The Verizon thingy tells me volumes about your ?experience? on IT, you seam to not understand how tech support works when is online or on the phone, most kids on support are basically drones, they don?t think, they have a manual with a set of steps that you must comply in order to them to narrow the problem down to the source, is not superstitious, is the fact that they are not there with you, they don?t know what you have done, and they need the system to be in a certain state for them to proceed. 99% of the time those in tech support are not ?techies? at all, they are just kids that at least know how to read and were trained for 1 particular task. Plus in my experience most users don?t really know what they have done or they do know but lie about it.

domiles
domiles

I bet if valid survey was done on this we would find, as I have in the work place, they just do not want to wait for it to re boot! The time wasted while all the AV and other stuff checks for up dates is wasted time to most people. I am working at home so I am able to just go do other things while I wait most of the time, but in an office one is supposed to seem busy and productive at all times.

bob
bob

I'm not the most patient person in the world!

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

Why is it that when I install a new driver, or upgrade an application on a MS OS, that I need to reboot for the changes to take effect? I have been building computers and their software for 25 years, but have never needed to ask the user to power off and power back on their system unless I am changing out internal hardware. This is a serious question - I stopped writing software back in the late 80's before MS took over my computer. Similarly, I did most of my work on networked Unix systems through to the mid-90s. We were never asked to reboot the systems on our desks. In fact, if you did reboot you would get sh*t from the admin police. MS takes over my development machines and - reboot, reboot, reboot .. Why can't they figure out how to change the OS settings on the fly? Ok, rant over .. I could go on forever .. Les.

Baumann
Baumann

I have my own superstition - I know it's no longer valid, but too many years of doing it have made it habit. Verily, the number of the syncs shall be 3. Left over from the BSD 4.2 unix days -where the first sync made sure the files were flushed, but not the directories. The second sync got the directories.. and the 3rd was for good measure.

Jessie
Jessie

The human body is one big electrical device and I firmly believe that some people operate on an electrical current that is incompatible with computer life.

Pat9008
Pat9008

You got that quote wrong. It goes "sufficiently advanced technology can be indistinguishable from magic". Pretty sure it's from Arthur Clarke - great SciFi author and student of technology.

MWatch
MWatch

The user that can walk past a file cabinet and it stops working. It's a real emergency when they break the coffee pot.

j.ringham
j.ringham

I can spend a lot of time just looking at or patting computers, printers, etc.when things are going bad. They always work in my presence. The other day I got a zip disk out of the machine by just touching the eject button! They had been using a screw driver to help eject the disk. So I must be magic, yes?

rciafardone@gmail.com
rciafardone@gmail.com

I am at my desk bored to death, with nothing to do (wich i think is the ultimate goal of any IT, get everything working so that it seams that you are being paid for nothing) and BANG some user calls telling his machine just went crazy. I told them to not touch anything and let the screen as it is so i can see the error or whatever. I got to the place and BANG it is working, or worse... is not working but as soon as i move the mouse or touch a key everything starts to go just fine. I ussually ask what was the user doing when things got weird, i try to replicate the conditions but nothing, everything is just dandy. Users are starting to think that i have some sort of "aura" that fix things with just my presence... Anyone has been in a similar situation, so freaking frequently...?

settle.g
settle.g

I teach my users that rebooting is a GOOD thing and should be done daily. Also, when in doubt, shutdown/power off can 'fix' certain problems e.g. sluggishness. I tell them not all programs are written well or as well as they could be and some just have problems. It helps them overcome the fear of rebooting and teaches them the PC is really just a machine.

edh1215
edh1215

superstition... it's necessary. PC's need to be rebooted daily or at least every couple of days. This is especially true if you are one of those users that leaves your PC logged in, but locks the PC and goes home for the night. I hate those users. They wonder why they have issues.

simon
simon

As an old time Unix hacker, I have to say that it's not only users who are superstitious - back in the early 80's, when working on Unix character-based terminals, we believed that the memory had to be flushed back to disk (using the sync command) prior to shutting the system down, or else massive data corruption would inevitably occur (there was little evidence to back this up). So the shutdoown procedure became: # sync # shutdown -g0 ... (I can't remember the rest of the command). This was in spite of the fact that the sync command was also part of the init/rc scripts called by the shutdown command. Then somewhere along the line, someone decided that to be absolutely sure, you had to sync at least 3 times. So the shutdown command became: #sync; sync; sync; shutdown -g0 .... And then of course, issuing 3 syncs on one line was a little to fast, perhaps the computer wouldn't be able to keep up? The shutdown became: # sync # sync # sync # shutdown -g0 - with a little pause after each line, just in case you were typing too fast. All this, because no-one wanted to be the first one to break the system by doing it differently. Of course in those days it wasn't superstitions to be afraid of a re-boot: there was always a small, but finite, chance that the system wouldn't come back up again- probably because some idiot hadn't done the incantation of "sync; sync; sync"! Oh, and in case you are wondering, if I ever use the command line to reboot my linux system, of course I type sync three times, I'd be a fool not to!

sfenner
sfenner

I get tired of programmers wanting a scheduled reboot of a server because they don't want to take the time to fix their code that is causing the memory leak, or whatever. Probably 90% of the response to a batch job failure is re-run the job and it ends normally. Who cares that their job fails on the first run 75% of the time. I also am annoyed by tech support people who ask, "Do you have the latest patch installed?". I already looked at the patch list and did not find any current patch that addresses the problem I am having. The fact that their software company releases so many patches tells me they do not have quality code to begin with.

domiles
domiles

I realized how useless this was when a small child, but I do push the "close door" button when it is available and a mob of people are not trying to enter.

domiles
domiles

I wear battery watches that keep running for five or more years with no need to change batteries. I also can not use the touch screens in stores to pay with my debit card. They will not work for me unless I use a pen or other item on the touch screen. I can shut down the whole system with one touch. Our main frame would just groan and shut down when our payroll person wore a pair of very old ivory earrings. I do believe in the magnetic force of living things, in fact I have been a hands on healer most of my life. Is it superstition? Maybe, but I will move the mouse in circles to be sure the computer has not frozen. I also know there are little men inside my desk top who love to play tricks like the IT people who told all here and I have the shamrocks growing in my living room to prove it! I vacuum out the little guys and dust bunnies once a month, but they come right back. Seriously, there are people with different magnetic fields who can affect the harmonic balance of power supplies, the spin of drives and other things and for that reason I will not ever be converted to a touch screen system. So find a computer that works for the lady that has the problem. She may be one of us highly charged people.

jdeglers
jdeglers

I have worked on (well, almost...). I walk up to a machine (PC, Car, lathe, jig borer, milling machine, grinder, HVOF spray gun...), chant a few words just loud enough for the person who called me to hear, touch the device in question, then BANG!, it works (sometimes it really does go BANG!) Sometimes I'll dig deeper, but most often it's something simple (porn -er- media running in the background pulling system resources, stretched cable, reversed connection on the safety circuit...) that needs to be fixed. I share the joke, teach the user the solution, and we both part happy!

npbatiller
npbatiller

I agree, superstitious or not, it really happens. Many of my clients make frantic calls and tell me the computer just would not work. As soon as 'touch' it or turn it on, it works smoothly as ever.

amoeba
amoeba

Printers, pcs, servers, you name it and it is in the computer world, I have 'fixed' it by merely showing up in the same room. I usually have the user show me what they did to cause it to 'break' and it does not replicate. Must be the machine empathy some of us have... =8^D

K_Green
K_Green

The whole 'aura' thing happens all the time. In fact, I actively (but jokingly) tell my users it is issued whenever you start working in IT. It has the power to scare wayward technology back into line. Joking like that helps set them at ease, and realize that their uncertainty / mistakes are just part of the game. I then tell them that I, for example, lack the 'fix automotive equipment' aura. Finally, I try to explain as much of their issue as I can in layman's terms.

SgtPappy
SgtPappy

I stay logged in and lock my computer when I'm away. I reboot my xp box once a month whether it needs it or not. This usually occurs after an update. I stay logged in all the time and when I'm not there I lock it. I run Gimp for photo editing, listen to music using itunes, surf the web, use MS Office, play Tribes II nightly, and I have absolutely zero problems with performance.

Histrion2
Histrion2

What's wrong with leaving your computer logged in and locked overnight?

rykerabel
rykerabel

I never reboot my home PC, but then my home PC has server quality hardware in it (ECC ram, etc etc). It has run for over two years with no issues. Now my work PC I have to reboot every night. Hardware plays a very big part in computer dependability, but the OS is much easier to blame.

rciafardone@gmail.com
rciafardone@gmail.com

You are right on that, but... that is not a replay for what i posted... I think you should have replied the message above mine (the one i replied to).

DM67
DM67

Divine presence. All proficient IT workers have it.

sboverie
sboverie

It is weird but when the user has a deadline, or needs to get something done quickly, that is when problems arise that increase the anxiety of the customer. When they complain about their computer being possessed I tell them that it is not possessed it is the Critical Need Sensor has detected that there is a critical need and has gone into action to prevent action. The way to turn that sensor off is to chill out and relax.

kgilley
kgilley

I call this the intimidation factor. The device (PC, server, printer etc.) can somehow sense that someone with the ability to rip their guts out is nearby. This intimidates the device to straighten up and act right or face the consequences. Works 99% of the time in my shop.

info
info

I have that aura, apparently. I'd be less likely to believe it if I hadn't seen things (remotely) ALWAYS fail to work, and then behave when I show up. Some offer to pay me to stand there while they finish an important task. ;) I tell them that it isn't an aura, the equipment is just scared of me...before I figure out what they were doing wrong, or what was wrong, that caused the failure. But despite being a 'pro', computer hardware is complex enough that even some electronics guys refer to it as 'magic' at times. For instance, a home PC I was helping someone else with once, this thing REFUSED to work despite ANYTHING we did to it. After 30 minutes, I took my hammer out of my tool kit (it was a home kit I happened to have with me) and waved it at the mini-tower with a really stern look (hamming to calm the user down). The computer INSTANTLY started to work, and never had any problems since that. Coincidence? *Eerie music...* ;)

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