Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Primed Staplers and Superstitious Pigeons

The stapler wasn't working yesterday. In any busy office, that isn't news. But it's a new sort of stapler: a Cartridge Electric Stapler. It has a roll of 5000 staples, one of which it's supposed to spit out when the edge of the paper to be stapled pushes a metal tab in the business end of the little machine. Pow! Papers stapled. The coil of 5000 staples is intriguing stuff – a thin, flat, flexible metallic strip – and if all goes well it's a l-o-n-g time between refilling staples. Yesterday all was not going well. The stapler had a fresh cartridge but all it did was gum the paper.

Investigating the problem, I found some instructions on the cartridge. Are we all tired yet of fine-printed instructions on everything, everywhere, and nothing sufficiently intuitive that it just works the way it seems it should?


Pull out 1"
Bend down
Twist off

Prime a stapler? OK, pull out an inch of the staple roll, bend it down and break it off. Then insert the cartridge so it snaps into place.

Alas, priming the stapler did not work too well. Now the stapler gummed the paper four times out of five or so, but the remaining time it stapled. Knowing that the last automatic stapler we used in our office wanted paper inserted in a counterintuitive way – you had to proffer the leading edge, not just the top corner; that way the tab was activated – I tried different ways of inserting the paper. Edge first, corner first, press hard, press lightly; adjust staple position back and forth with a lever on the bottom of the stapler.... Nothing worked perfectly or failed completely. Pow. Pow. Pow..... Finally a crisp Pow! A staple! But then back to flabby pows.

I determinedly experimented until my boss looked over and chuckled. Then I remembered reading about a famous experiment where pigeons were given bird food at totally random intervals. The birds ended up with odd mannerisms that they had incorrectly associated with making food arrive. Hungry pigeons walked around in circles, cocked their their heads, or whatever else they had happened to be doing once when the food appeared. Because the food kept coming randomly, their superstitions seemingly worked just often enough to encourage them.

Human religiosity can unfold like that. On the other hand, many religions have a least one time-honored strand that says stay far, far away from magical thinking.

So. The stapler is doing what the stapler is doing; nothing more and nothing less. No blame.

Where is the old manual stapler?

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