Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

Publication date: 24 January 2009
Originally published 2008 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Allow me to take you back, way back, to 1992.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the new United Nations Secretary-General. Nirvana's performance on Saturday Night Live made clear that Kurt Cobain was an artist with a long and productive future ahead of him. Sir Tim Berners-Lee had come up with some goofy hypertext thing that only worked on the NeXT and obviously wouldn't catch on.

And Commodore released the Amiga 600.

The editorial staff of Australian Commodore and Amiga Review crowded around the A600 we'd just managed to scam for review.

Well, technically we didn't really crowd, since there were only two of us. But we... we kind of bustled. Yeah.

Eagerly, we plugged the new cut-down Amiga into a 1084 monitor, stuck in a Workbench disk, and booted it.

"Oh yeah. That's faster," said Andrew, the Editor.

I, the Assistant Editor, did not disagree.

We didn't, you see, at that point know that the new baby Amiga was actually clocked at exactly the same 7MHz as the previous Amiga 500, and every other Motorola-68000-powered Amiga for that matter. We thought it could very easily be faster. It'd pretty much have to be faster, wouldn't it? It certainly wasn't any cheaper than an A500, so if it wasn't faster then it'd probably be a huge commercial failure.

So we thought it was faster.

But it wasn't. And was indeed a huge commercial failure.

Why did we think the baby Amiga was faster? Because we were fooling ourselves. We weren't even attempting to do science. We were just eyeballing things and going with our gut feelings.

Fast-forward to today. An iPod Shuffle's now clocked more than ten times as fast as an A600, but people's gut feelings haven't become any more accurate.

The best-known way in which J. Random Gamer reaches fallacious conclusions about computer performance is by observing that some tweak or new piece of hardware has raised his 3DMark score by three hundred points... while failing to notice that the old score was 11,000, and the new one is 11,300, which is of course a difference of less than three per cent.

But many people don't even get that far.

They reckon, for instance, that their new $40 mousemat is making them play much better. But they aren't even able to quantify how well they used to play, let alone account for confounding variables like quality of the opposition, how well-rested or caffeinated they are, and so on.

(It is, in fact, not even theoretically possible to truly measure the relative talent of different players of a game, unless they can all play in one game at once. And even then, someone who got a lousy score might have just been lousy in a free-for-all, and been able to beat all the rest if they played one-on-one. I write more about this here. Digression ends.)

More importantly, people often buy more RAM, when video card fill rate to paint the full expanse of their huge new monitor is what they actually need. Or they buy a new video card, when the reason why their games are choppy is because they're spread over five fragmented gigabytes of the inner tracks of a hard drive. Or they buy a new hard drive to speed up a computer that's thrashing the drive like crazy... because it's not got enough RAM.

And then, a surprising amount of the time, they decide that the problem really has been solved, because they never really quantified it in the first place, and because they don't want to look like a tit for spending $500 on, in effect, almost nothing.

And, of course, the same lack of analysis can get you into big trouble in more important areas of life than how well, or how smoothly, you can play Fallout 3. Every day, people sink their life savings into worthless shares or lumps of copper because Uncle Larry reckoned they were a sure-fire can't-lose investment, or head off to some crystal-waver to have their cancer treated because a pamphlet in the health-food store said doctors kill more people than guns, or vote for someone who promises to make everyone rich by just printing more money.

People often don't realise how fallible their perception, and even cognition, actually are.

I mean, just take perception:

Things that are still appear to move. Things that are moving appear to move in the opposite direction. Hills going down look like hills going up. Things that're far away appear to be close.

And that's just the tip of the perception iceberg. Start listing logical fallacies and you'll be there all week.

Name anything you like that is not superficially obvious, and you can find a bunch of people somewhere who're perfectly happy to believe the superficially obvious interpretation, or come up with their own imaginative worldview.

Take the fallibility of your perception and your cognition into account, or end up believing random things. The choice is yours.

Getting back to the nice harmless computer side of this situation, my friends in retail have no problem at all with unscientific customers. Those customers may occasionally ring and complain that whatever they bought last doesn't quite seem to have entirely licked the problem, but then they'll probably buy some other random thing. A fool and his money are welcome almost everywhere.

My own motto, though, is that if something's worth doing, it's worth knowing what you're doing, and why, and how you can tell if it's really working.

Unfortunately, I'm having some trouble fitting that motto on a T-shirt.

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