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2005/08/02 When all other explanations fail..

An article in Wired titled Mind over Matter discusses some researchers who claim that human thought can have effects upon physical events - such as falling ping pong balls and other things. The supposed effects are weak, and other researchers say it's all wishful thinking, but frankly I was more interested in the reactions than the research itself. These fall into three main categories: total disgust (ridiculous, nonsense, can't happen), wishful fantasising, and creative thinking. For the disgusted bunch, I will only remind them that a lot of the things we now accept as true were once roundly dismissed as hokum, and for the wishful dreamers, try to remember that what you see may not be exactly what you get, but something that looks like an ant is not likely to turn out to be an elephant.

The creative thinkers are the bright ones. If true, they ask themselves, how can it be explained? My first thought was the idea of parallel universes: in other words, it's just coincidence but it happened more frequently in one or more. In some other universe, the apparent effect is less. Fun stuff, but not germane to this web site. What is related is how creative thinkers don't react to problem solutions with "That's impossible!". In other words, as Sherlock Holmes said, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

In program debugging or system troubleshooting, that's often the case. We construct theories as to the cause of our observed problem, and create tests to prove or disprove each one. If we do it well, if we really understand how to create our tests, this lets us find the problem source. During that testing, we need to avoid the "That's impossible!" attitude and we also need to avoid wishful thinking (somebody broke in here last night, cracked our passwords, and removed one file in the /tmp directory!).

Trouble shooting isn't always easy, and it can be confusing when two or more observations seem to conflict. That's when you really need to step back and be creative: how can these apparently contradictory facts both be true? Maybe one "fact" is a bad observation, or maybe one doesn't really preclude the other if.. if what? That's the question.



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