The Mac Paradox

by Chris Seibold Mar 23, 2006

The first paradox most physics students are introduced to is Schrödinger’s cat. The gedanken experiment proceeds as follows: imagine a cat in a box with a vial of deadly prussic acid. Also present in the box is a radioactive source which will decay with a 50% probability. Should the atom fling off a bit of radiation (an alpha particle) a Geiger counter will detect the event, the vial of prussic acid will be broken and the cat will…and that is where the paradox comes in to play. Since the cat is in a box there’s no way for an outside observer to know if the prussic acid has been released. The quantum mechanical interpretation of the situation is that the cat is half alive and half dead. That outcome is impossible to imagine, so for the sake of convenience, think of the cat in a state equivalent to a very fierce Sunday morning hangover.

The realm of half-live cats is interesting, but it provides little real world relevance. Macs, on the other hand, suffer from an equally vexing paradox and, in this case, the effects are a bit more tangible.

We are all familiar with Windows’ woeful security record. Zombie computers, malware running amuck, hard-drive zeroing viruses, etc.. Honestly, it is a mess. The thing is that the bad stuff rarely happens to the computer literate. They know well enough to stay away from warez sites, to avoid email attachments from offshore casinos and moms, and to keep a firewall up and running.

Of course, not all computer users are computer savvy. Most people haul the computer out of the box, hook the morass of cables up and expect it to work. The behavior isn’t too surprising; people are not generally required to install a myriad of add-ons for the vast majority of consumer products (bread being an exception, you’ve got so many choices when making a sandwich).

You likely know someone like this, and they’d benefit from owning a Mac. Not only is the Mac inherently safer but, and this is important as well, there is less of an incentive to target the machines. Mac enthusiasts will howl at this point. They will scream that the market share isn’t the thing that makes the Mac a safe haven in a cyber sea of badness. Their exhortations will be true, it isn’t market share alone that is responsible for Apple’s security record but it doesn’t hurt either. In the end, the truth is that the “why” isn’t nearly as important as the “is.” For the foreseeable future the Mac is much safer.

The disinterest of many computers owners is precisely the reason why their Windows based machine is easily compromised, and, not surprisingly, the exact reason they’d never consider a Mac. These aren’t the kind of people who give careful consideration to the computer they buy, they are out for a machine to surf the ‘net, check their e-mail, and download some Don Henley songs off of Limewire.* They assume that since everyone else buys a PC, it’s their only option.

The only way to overcome buyer apathy is by getting more popular and being seen as a legitimate option. Microsoft seems to be helping out with the constant Vista delays, but even if Apple can capitalize on Microsoft’s missteps, expect many more OS X security problems. The Mac won’t become any less secure for the majority of people but it will attract a new breed of user on the way to being seen as a real option: the clickiot.

This might be a good time to define just who a clickiot is. A clickiot (and you know several) is someone who thinks they know a little something something about computers but, in reality, is most dangerous computer user of all. They’ll download something, say a file promising 5,000 choices in the kitten wallpaper genre, and just start clicking. If a box pops up that says:

“We know kittens are cute but this is actually a keylogger that steals your ebay ID, passwords and zeros your hard drive. Do you want to proceed? Y/N”

The clickiot will then carefully weigh the notion that all their data is about to go the way of the pterodactyl against the joy they will receive from a kitten filled desktop. What comes next is predictable, a big old click on the “yes” button.

The same users will then go crazy complaining about their insecure computer. Since there is no computer made advanced enough to prevent people from being stupid if the Mac were to grow in popularity Apple’s share of the tragically confident would grow as well. As the clickiots complain ever more loudly, the Mac will suddenly seem less secure to the permanently disinterested.

That is the essential paradox for the Mac platform, it’s a fantastic machine for those uninterested in the vagaries of computing but to be aware of the Mac’s benefits you have to be interested enough in computing to be able to use a Windows machine effectively. But since they can already use a Windows machine securely much of the allure of the Mac is gone.

*True story, I was once helping a relative with their Windows machine. The machine was suffering from some sort of infection. My relative was certain that it had happened when she downloaded a Don Henley song. I thought to myself “What kind of sick little monkey packs a virus with a Don Henley song? They’re downloading Don Henley, they’ll be suffering plenty soon enough.”


  • And of course, in a great irony, no one responded to this excellent piece from Chris on apathy!

    Chris Howard had this to say on Mar 24, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • It put me to sleep.  I skipped ahead to read the comments.

    What's the Frequency Kenneth? had this to say on Mar 24, 2006 Posts: 11
  • Actually, Chris, I didn’t respond because I thought his interpretation of Schrodinger’s cat was a little questionable and that the analogy to Mac users was not particularly applicable.

    What he’s describing might be more aptly described a Catch-22, which isn’t what Schrodinger’s thought-experiment is about.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 24, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • “That is the essential paradox for the Mac platform”

    Hehehehehehehe. That being me :D

    ** smile

    (although nothing is there)

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Mar 27, 2006 Posts: 299
  • I’m with Beebs on this one… It’s a Catch 22, not a Schrodinger’s Cat.

    Regardless, the whole Problem Lies Between Keyboard and Chair thing is all to ubiquitous in today’s society. Remember when Macs had that little app to teach you the basics of the GUI, like drag and drop and point and click? I think when you buy a new computer, you should have to suffer through something akin to that before you’re allowed to do anything. It could come post-start-up-registration-process and then if you’ve already registered a computer, you don’t have to go through training.

    I mean it. Computers are tools, and tools can be dangerous in untrained hands.

    Waa had this to say on Mar 27, 2006 Posts: 110
  • Uh, I only point this out cause someday Beeb might need a Physics consultant on one of his blockbusters, but Shrodinger’s cat is a catch 22. See you want to know if the cat is alive or dead, but if you look you take a measurement and thus ruin the experiment. Catch 22.

    The interpretation of the experiment (half alive, half dead) is the result of trying resolve the paradox. Others would argue that the interpretation is meaningless since, until something is measured, it doesn’t exist. And still others would say that that the cat both lives and dies, one universe is spawned for each choice (multiverse).

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Mar 27, 2006 Posts: 354
  • Shrodinger’s cat is a catch 22.

    No it isn’t.  Shrodinger’s cat is an analogy to the quantum principle that states that a particle exists in two simultaneous states at once, but once observed, resolves to a single state.  The cat is both alive and dead at the same time until observed, at which point it becomes one or the other.

    A catch 22 is more of a predicament. describes it as a contradictory or self-defeating course of action.  The phrase actually comes from the play of the same name, in which a soldier pretends to be crazy to get out of the Army, but is denied because only a sane person would want out of the Army.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 09, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • What you’re trying to say is that S. cat illustrates the concept of indeterminancy. Yet, it is still a paradox. According to the copenhagen interpretation of QM nothing exists until it is measured (which is giving it short shrift, but that is the jist of it). So, according to that views the cat really is both alive and dead at the same time. That can’t be, thus the paradox. A perfectly sensible line of reasoning leads to an obviously self defeating conclusion. Plus, by making and obseration in this case you are killing the at so the experiment is never completed.

    For a little historical context it might be worthwhile to remember that QM had a lot of doubters, notably Einstein who famously said “God does not play dice with the universe” (Which is true, God’s a big LARP fan from what I hear). Many people propsed hidden causes, ways in which determinancy could be still be a undamental part of reality and just not be observable. Bell’s theorem pretty much crushed the “hidden causes” idea. So we are left with a scientific branch full of paradoxes (a particle and a wave etc)

    Loved Catch 22, chocolate covered cotton balls and all. But it is the same deal. You can’t get out of the army because you don’t want to fly, any sane paerson would say that. On the other hand if you’re really crazy you want to fly and wouldn’t ask to get out of the army.

    In the end they are both paradoxes, with levels of differentiation to be sure, but paradoxes nonetheless.

    S cat as a paradox (not an analog):

    Catch 22 as a paradox:
    Paradox: When your assumptions lead to two contradictory conclusions. When two things that are cannot both be. (A Catch-22 can be interpreted as a paradox. See therein lies the catch-22).

    none of which should be taken to mean that the article wouldn’t have been improved by calling it “The Mac Catch 22”....

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Apr 09, 2006 Posts: 354
  • To say that are both paradoxes and therefore both the same thing is like saying that both triangles and sqaures are geometric shapes, and therefore they are the same thing.

    A catch-22 has nothing whatever to do with indeterminancy.  Likewise, Shrodinger’s cat has nothing to do with logistically self-defeating predicaments.

    The catch-22 is analogous to your Apple example.  Shrodinger’s cat isn’t.

    To be Shrodinger’s cat, a user would have to be using both Windows and OS X until such time as he’s observed, probably by his mom switching on the light in the basement.  At that time, he’s using one or the other.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 09, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • I didn’t say they were the same thing, I said they were both paradoxes. I expressly noted that there were levels of differentiation.

    Youo’re the one who intimated that they were, somehow, fundamentally differrent. Your example is completely appropriate at this point: I’m pointing out that they are both paradoxes (geometric shapes) and you’re saying they are different because there are finer levels of resolution. Something I’ve already agreed to.

    Now S cat as a catch 22 is a bit more involved but it is still there. The way the experiment is set up if you look into the box, thus introducing a huge amount of radiation, you automatically kill the cat. So it’s a catch 22, if you want to know the state of the cat, you kill the cat. So actually performing the experiment and taking a measurement (the point of experiments) defeats the experiment. A classic catch 22.

    The interesting thing is that no matter how clever your refinements are to the experiment you laways ruin the experiment when you take a measurement.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Apr 09, 2006 Posts: 354
  • The way the experiment is set up if you look into the box, thus introducing a huge amount of radiation, you automatically kill the cat.  So it’s a catch 22, if you want to know the state of the cat, you kill the cat.

    You are really, really misunderstanding the S. cat experiment, Chris.  This is not what it is saying at all.  Opening the box doesn’t trigger anything.  The cat is ALREADY either dead or alive, based on what the particle does, not the observer.  Interdeterminancy simply says that UNTIL you know by observing, the cat is in both states at the same time.

    In your interpretation, the cat is definitely alive until you open the box and kill it.  But even that wouldn’t be a catch-22 unless your stated goal was to save the cat, not simply observe it.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 10, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • No Beeb the cat is not either dead or alive until you open the box, the cat is BOTH dead and alive until you open the box, that is the point. The cat is both 100% dead and 100% alive AT THE SAME TIME. Thus the paradox.

    Opening the box, in the setup I have outlined always kills the cat because the radiation always breaks the vial of prussic acid. As I noted earlier, you can set the experiment however cleverly you wish (and this has been done a lot with particles) and you’ll never beat the indeterminancy.

    Youngs famous double slit experiment is a great example of not being able to beat the system. In the Double Slit experiment light acts like a particle when there is one slit for it to pass though and like a wave when there are two slits. But, a clever researcher might say, what if I do the experiment so that I’m only firing single photons instead of a bunch. That, surely, will force the photons to act as single particles. This experiment has been tried and it turns out, one slit: particle, two slits: wave.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Apr 10, 2006 Posts: 354
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