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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dropped Knives, Head Lice and PFM

by Sarah Raplee

                Have you ever wondered why seemingly off-the-wall superstitions hang around for hundreds, if  not thousands, of years? Or where new superstitions come from?                 Read on for my mostly unscientific analysis.

My sweet Italian mother-in-law had a superstition in her pocket ready to pull out for any occasion. Some of her beliefs are shared widely in the US: If you break a mirror, you’ll have seven years’ bad luck. Walking under a ladder is unlucky. If a black cat crosses your path, something bad will happen to you.

                She also held many more obscure beliefs: A bargain is guaranteed to be kept if the people involved spit in their hands and shake on it. Eating raw potato or raw hotdogs will give you worms. If your right palm itches, you’ll receive money. If your left palm itches, you’ll give away money. If a crow lands on your roof, sickness or disaster will strike you or those with whom you live. If you drop a knife, someone close to you will die.

                A number of these beliefs make a certain kind of sense. Eating raw pork or potatoes can make you sick—just not from worms. Crows often feast on dead things (think plagues) and follow armies into battle. Knives are weapons; being careless with weapons kills people—you get the idea. This type of superstition may have along lifespan because there is some truth (at least historically) in them and they have very strong emotional associations, like illness, war and death.

                Some superstitions are rhymes and rituals.  Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back. If you’re holding hands with a friend and you let go to go around an obstacle on opposite sides, one of you says bread and butter, then the other replies cheese and crackers to avoid bad luck. Children love rhymes and call-and-response rituals, so they learn them from older kids and then teach them to younger kids, perpetuating the superstition.

                Many superstitions are specific to people from a certain cultural tradition. Years ago I worked with a Mexican-American woman who was a naturalized US citizen. She told me that some mothers in Mexico deliberately infect their small children with head lice to protect them from ghosts.
                Seeming superstitions exist that cross so many cultures in one form or another that I believe there may in fact be truth to them. For example, people in many cultures believe in the power of a curse or the Evil Eye. Interestingly, modern scientific research gives credence to the power of focused intention to affect outcomes. (Quantum physics, anyone?) Many cultures believe certain symbols or objects offer protection. An article in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind reports that recent research indicates metaphors have powerful subconscious effects on behavior.

                New superstitions show up in cultures over time. Some may be an attempt to find logic when we are faced with things we can’t explain. When I worked as a technical writer for a large corporation, I became friends with a smart guy named Brian, our department’s computer and internet troubleshooter. At one point, all the tech writers were experiencing a particularly nebulous and intractable problem: our saved work disappeared from the server on a regular basis.

I jokingly said to Brian, “Maybe we’re suffering from Bad Computer Magic.”

He laughed. “Actually, we have a name for what causes situations like this in the Information Technology Department. We call it PFM—Pure Fx%!-ing Magic.”

What do you think? Are we simply dealing with systems too complex for our minds to understand? Or might there be a ghost in the machine?

Happy Halloween!

12 comments:

Judith Ashley said...

As always, Sarah, I learn from you. Who knew the scourge of pre- and elementary school (head lice) could protect the children from ghosts! Wonder about scabies - well, no I don't.

It doesn't hurt to be friendly to your machines. I've named my car and thank her for getting me somewhere. I'm nice to my appliances (don't slam the doors, etc.). Where I fall down is in keeping my computer and its area dusted. Hopefully no bad karma for that!

Love the picture of the dog and laptop. Anything that brings up a smile is a good thing!

Paty Jager said...

Wow Sarah, now I know why my kids picked up head lice at school. LOL

I believe in cyber gremlins who swoop into unsuspecting computers and drive the humans crazy by making things not work like they are supposed to.

Fun post!

Maggie Jaimeson said...

It makes sense to me. We need bad bugs to ward off worse bugs. :)

In terms of computers, even though I'm a techie I have to admit that certain people have bad computer karma. Part of it I think is the approach. Approaching a computer with fear and trepidation almost ensures something will go wrong. Approach computers with confidence and a little bit of arrogance and you might find they perform better. :)

I also truly believe that a few individuals carry with them, or somehow create, a magnetic field that screws things up. I have a friend who I can sit next to and watch her do things on the computer that are absolutely correct, yet something crazy happens. She also has problems with digital watches, modems, and certain alarm systems.

Magic? Perhaps. Magic is anything I can't explain rationally. That encompasses a lot.

Pippa Jay said...

I was known at work as the computer killer. Anything electrical that I worked on for more than a few days would always start to play up. I think this might be because I used to take so many electrical things apart as a kid - maybe I gave off that kind of vibe. :P
I don't know about a ghost in the machine - it just seems the more sophisticated and complicated things are, the more there is to go wrong. Now everything seems to have a computer in it, and to go wrong more often. I do believe in the power of positive thought though, and subconscious suggestion. That's where I think magic and superstition have hung on for so long and become so ingrained as truth.

Vivienne Lorret said...

I'm shuddering over the head lice portion of your post, but I'm also strangely curious. I must find out why this is supposed to keep ghosts away from children. Thanks for putting a wrinkle in my brain, Sarah! :)

Sarah Raplee said...

I was surprised to learn of the ghost belief, too, Judith! We've named vehicles before, too, but not the current ones. Not sure why,,, I fell in love with the dog and laptop picture. It made me smile, too.

Sarah Raplee said...

I believe in the gremlins, too, Paty! Thanks for stopping by.

Sarah Raplee said...

I've known people who had that problem, Maggie. Difficult to function in the modern world!

Thanks for chiming in!

Sarah Raplee said...

That's funny, Pippa! You must have been a very curious child. I'm sure you're right about the power of positive thought and subconscious suggestion playing a role in perpetuating superstitions.

Thanks for sharing!

Sarah Raplee said...

I'm curious about where the head lice belief originated, too, Vivienne. Let me know if you find out!

Vivienne Lorret said...

I'm still looking, but I couldn't find the link between head lice and ghosts. However, I did find a reference to "wood lice" and the weather. http://www.philbrodieband.com/jokes_superstitions.htm

So, if you ever want rain...
;)

Diana Mcc. said...

Fun post, Sarah! I know when I worked I had a gremlin living in my computer. If something was going to go wrong, it would at the most inappropriate times!!! Like when the report needed to be on the bosses desk. And me and my co-worker always referred to the computer as a male, because we felt a female computer wouldn't cause all the problems.