To troubleshoot, mix two parts observation with one part magic

Believe it or not! With some technology problems, the mere act of seeing is fixing -- or so it would seem

Anyone who is technically inclined is well versed in the observer effect, even if they may not be sure what that term actually means. In science, the observer effect is defined as the changes made to an object under observation because the object is under observation. Note: This should not be confused with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. That said, it has quite a bit to do with Murphy's Law.

To see the technology brand of the observer effect in action, simply identify a problem with a form of technology, then present the problem to someone who knows the technology quite well. In a startlingly high number of cases, the problem will either cease to be an issue, or it will appear to have never been a problem in the first place. The very act of a knowledgeable person looking for the problem seemingly vanquishes it altogether.

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One day, many years ago, I cured a problematic FreeBSD server with a simple laying of hands. That tale may seem apocryphal, but I can assure you it's true, and there were witnesses.

This phenomenon isn't limited to the usual clueless family member who can never print anything without help or gets flummoxed when presented with the impossible task of updating the software on their phone by hitting a few buttons. This happens both up and down the technology chain, from the doofus with an iPad to a seasoned network administrator who can't locate the source of an intermittent network connectivity issue. At some point, another deep network geek will show up and poke around for a few minutes, then the problem will disappear, never to return. There will be a few shrugs, a joke or two, and the whole thing will be forgotten among the relative chaos of a busy data center.

This isn't just about computing either. It happens everywhere. This is what causes a car to fail to start while in the owner's garage, yet the same vehicle fires up immediately as soon as it arrives on a flatbed at the mechanic's shop. Bad engine noises that were so persistent they could drive someone to madness disappear instantly when the mechanic pokes around under the hood.

I heard such a story, long ago, when I was a teenager. I had recently purchased a top-of-the-line RCA VCR, which was the style at the time. My technical curiosity led me to a discussion with the tech at the local television store (a real thing back then) who related the following tale.

It seems that this store had sold a VCR to an older woman who was not technically inclined, but was quite adept at operating what was cutting-edge technology at the time. She swore up and down that the VCR she had purchased was misbehaving and not recording her daytime soap operas properly. She brought evidence into the shop in the form of unwatchable recordings with unintelligible audio. However, these glitches happened only every so often. Most of the time, the unit operated as expected.

The tech ran every test he had, looked at every potential cause for the problem, and came up empty every time. Yet the next week, this woman would bring the unit back with the same complaint and the same evidence. After several of these iterations, the tech finally reached his breaking point and, in a fit of pique, taped a picture of himself to the inside cover of the VCR and sent it home with the woman.

He never had another complaint about that machine.

Doing what we do, we can't rely on the unknown, the "mysterious fix." If it seems like magic, that's because we haven't dug into it enough to trace the actual root cause. Some are OK with that -- let the magic happen, and they'll only get involved if the magic stops for whatever reason. For the rest of us, the mystery creates an itch that is non-negotiable. We have to figure out why the magic happened, because we all know it ain't magic.

That's where we discover that the car wouldn’t start in the garage because the wiring harness had frayed, and the act of towing the car to the mechanic moved the harness enough to bridge the fray. The bad engine noise was caused by hanging hood insulation hitting the fan only when the hood was closed. When the mechanic opened the hood, the noise disappeared. This is where a network admin visibly inspects a switch exhibiting bizarre behavior and traces a few fiber paths with his hands, inadvertently reseating an SC connector that was ever so partially loose -- and the problem disappears.

There is not, and never will be, a fix for Cousin Eddie with an iPad, but rest assured there is no magic in the observer effect in high tech -- but an adventure certainly awaits. The game, as it were, is eternally afoot.

This story, "To troubleshoot, mix two parts observation with one part magic," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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