Save computer time by learning how a pigeon thinks

pigeons circling fire Chris Metcalf
Photo by Chris Metcalf

Has this ever happened to you?

Last night was one of those.  My programs were acting squirrelly and a password that I’ve used for years suddenly forgot how to unlock any doors.

My cats dived for cover as the air turned blue. I turned off the computer.  I turned on the computer.  I re-entered the password, not once but several times. I typed each letter precisely, making sure the caps was on/off at the proper times. No luck.  

Then I looked up old passwords and tried them.  I deleted the program and reinstalled it and then entered all the passwords again.

That cave remained stubbornly locked tight.  No “Open Sesame” for me.  I didn’t belong, the computer knew it, and I was just too pigheaded to recognize the fact.  Uhuh.

Finally after several hours of futile effort I turned off the machine and went to bed.  Sleep didn’t come right away as I lay there fuming. Of course, this morning I got up more clear-headed and took things a little slower. The password clicked in and I gained access. No problem.

What was going on here?

I got stuck in a mind loop that B.F. Skinner discovered when he worked with pigeons.  Using Operant Conditioning, he’d drop food pellets into the cage whenever the birds pecked in a certain spot.  After a while, the pigeons go to that spot and peck, expecting food.  If the food was intermittently dropped, they’d continue the pecking long after the ‘food reinforcement’ was discontinued.

Now humans are supposed to be smarter than that.  If we go to a vending machine and give it a dollar we expect a Coke.  When it doesn’t arrive, maybe we’ll put another dollar in, but probably not.  We’ll get a drink of water at the fountain and go back to class thirsty, but only a dollar down.  We expect returns.

If, on the other hand, we go to Las Vegas and start playing the slot machines, they only reward us at random intervals not each time we put in a quarter.  Do we stop after the first non-payment?  Of course not!  Just like Skinner’s pigeons, we continue feeding the machine money, hoping for an eventual (random) payout.

And that brings us to computers.  Are they reliable, like vending machines, or do they give us intermittent reinforcement, like the slots? Based on the way I was hitting the keys last night, I am thinking the latter, only with a LOT of frustration and angst attached.

My computer wasn’t susposed to act like that, and I felt just like a two year old having a tantrum.  Like Charle Brown’s Lucy, I wanted restitution for all the time I had chosen to waste.  It wasn’t fair.

It taught me a few things:

1. Computers like, people, will screw up from time to time.  Maybe it’s the weather, or a stray bite that gets dropped, or a power surge or whatever.  But it doesn’t take the Blue Screen of Death to signal a failure.  Computer snafus are often a lot more subtle than that. It’s not rational, but it happens.

2.  There are times when even best efforts won’t guarantee success. I did everything I could think of, and it still  didn’t work.  Events are sometimes (in fact a lot of times) out of our control.

3.  Label the problem.  What caused me no end of anguish,  was not the computer’s software problem, but my own sense of impotence in the situation.  It dragged up other times when I have also been stymied, and my reaction in this instance was way more than called for.  I blew! 

If I had figured out what was going on, all that other ‘stuff’ might not have compounded the problem.

4. Know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.  There was a point before I started to  loop in an endless series of efforts when I could have stepped back, and walked away. I didn’t.  I need to recognize that point a little earlier in the game.

All in all, it was a truly humbling experience.  I wonder if the universe was sitting back and laughing at my efforts, somewhere far, far away.  I can only hope that it doesn’t happen again, soon.  I have no idea where to leave a cosmic bribe of milk and cookies.

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About Intrepid Explorer

By writing we discover the world
This entry was posted in -Self-, Life Hacks, Stress management and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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