Saturday, August 23, 2008

Refrigerators and Superstitions

Last Saturday, my refrigerator stopped working. It didn't stop working completely -- it just stopped working as hard as it used to. It was still keeping food cold, but the freezer wasn't cold enough to keep things from partially thawing, and the ice maker stopped making ice. I couldn't figure out what was wrong, but the refrigerator is about 18 or 19 years old, so I decided it's probably just going through a teenage rebellion phase.

I gave it a day to see if it would start working again, but it didn't. So on Sunday, I looked up the names of a few authorized service centers. I figured a repairman might be able to take a look at the refrigerator and see what was wrong with it. I also looked at a few refrigerators online, just in case I had to buy a new one.

I was too busy during the week to call any of the authorized service centers, and I was too lazy to go refrigerator shopping, but an interesting thing happened. When I got home Tuesday night, I checked the freezer and there was a batch of freshly made ice in it. So I figured the refrigerator must have been aware that I was thinking about having it fixed or replaced, and it decided to start working a little harder.

Do I really believe that refrigerators are self-aware? Do I really think refrigerators can intuit human intent? No. Of course not, because I tend to be rational about most things.

Rational people tend not to be superstitious, and if you ask a lot of people if they're superstitious, I bet most of them will say they aren't. That's a good thing, but we live in a world so full of superstitions that sometimes we don't even recognize them.

A long time ago -- maybe about thirty years ago -- I briefly went out with a woman who lived in unit 12A of her apartment building. One day, I realized that the apartments were numbered 12, 12A, and 14, which meant that she was actually in unit 13. She sort of freaked out a little when I told her that. She didn't pack a suitcase and move out that night or anything like that, but she was genuinely upset about living in what by any other name was actually unit 13 of her building.

But that's nothing. Office buildings today are routinely built without a 13th floor. There's no floor 12A either -- the 13th floor is simply gone. It just goes from the 12th floor the 14th floor. So our superstitions are built right into our architecture, and the funny thing is, I bet most people wouldn't have any problem working on the 13th floor of a building. Of course, I've made the mistake before of thinking everyone is as rational and level-headed as I am, so maybe I'm wrong. But I do think it's kind of strange that even though our technology has advanced to the point that we can build super-skyscrapers that soar hundreds of stories into the sky, not one of those buildings is likely to have a 13th floor.

The problem is that even as we get smarter about some things, like how to build tall buildings, we remain just as stupid as our ancient ancestors were about other things, like superstitions and irrational fears. I guess that means that intelligence and stupidity are located in two different parts of the brain. I like to think that for most of us, the stupidity portion of our brains has atrophied while the intelligence portion has developed, but it seems like there are a lot of people for whom that isn't particularly true. People believe things without even knowing why they believe them, and that's not likely to change in the near future, no matter how quickly our skyscraper technology develops.

But back to more immediate concerns, I'm hoping that our refrigerator technology has grown in the last 18 or 19 years, because I think it's just a matter of time before I'll need a new refrigerator. The current one does its job well enough at the moment -- I don't really need ice, and if I turn the knob to its maximum setting, things in the freezer stay more or less frozen. But I'm mot in denial about this -- I know that some day soon the refrigerator will probably die on me and I'll have to get a new one.

Unfortunately, according to a friend of mine, they don't make refrigerators like they used to, and if I were to buy a new one today, it probably wouldn't last for 18 or 19 years. So for now, I'm just avoiding the issue. That's because the procrastination portion of my brain is pretty well-developed, maybe almost as much as the intelligence portion.