There’s an unofficial final interview at my job. After several getting-to-know-you meetings, the architecture questions, the good-cop-bad-cop, can-you-actually-code session, and the phone call to let you know you can eat something besides ramen next week, there is one more test to pass: can you actually get into the office?
It’s not because anybody’s stopping you. There’s no Sphinx barring the gate. They don’t yank the wires on the elevator and make you hack the control panel. It’s a door and a badly copied key.
I spent five minutes trying to get the key for this door to turn on my first day. The next four days weren’t much better. It went beyond frustration, deep into psychological torture; as you struggle, fingers chaffed and raw, the key will spontaneously give, but in the wrong direction, so your body, sensing victory, releases endorphins that your brain has to immediately crush with the news that no real progress has been made. I was nearly in tears by day three. Even when the lock opens, it’s a hollow victory: there’s no working toward something that is finally achieved in glorious vindication of your effort, it’s just a meaningless struggle with a black box mystery that suddenly ends for no apparent reason.
My first week, I was consumed with getting through the door to my new job, and a part of me believed that this was an honorable struggle with a difficult opponent, and I would get better at it, so I didn’t stop and try to analyze the problem. It would take something abrupt and surprising to get me out of that mindset. In this case, it was getting in a little late on Tuesday, jamming the key into the lock, and having it turn instantly.
I stood in shock for a solid ten seconds. This changed the nature of the problem. Before, I would have overcome it the same way most unfamiliar yet constant challenges are mastered: I would get a little bit better without knowing why, each day taking a little less time to open the door, my brain automatically honing the muscular algorithm for getting the key to turn, as if there were a series of movements too subtle for the conscious mind to grasp. I would tell people, “you’ll get it after a while,” elevating the skill to ninja-Zen mystery: a matter of dedication, will, and a complete misunderstanding of what a ninja is.
But if I could shove the key and turn it immediately, that couldn’t be true. I had a couple of options. I could assume a god, the God, some angel, a deceased relative, elves, some spirit of the universe, Carl Jung, the position of Mercury, a positive swing in my Western misconception of karma, or the fickle fates themselves had seen fit to relieve me of a momentary burden this once, and I should thank them by their preferred means.
Instead, I took the key out the lock. I jammed it in again with no luck. I tried to think about what was different the first time. Sometimes when the key gave me the false positive by turning the wrong way, it did in fact turn the right way immediately after, so maybe that had something to do with it. I tried that five or six times, with some progress on a couple of attempts. However, that didn’t follow with the initial observation, which was a single and savage clockwise turn. It also didn’t fit with my limited knowledge of how standard tumbler locks work; I knew of no logical mechanism should allow for turning one way to ease turning the other way. There might be an argument for it, but it would require something extraordinarily counter-intuitive, and there was no real evidence anyway, so I discarded the hypothesis.
Back to the original data point: a single and savage clockwise turn. Now how does the system work? A tumbler lock relies on the position of the tumblers. The key positions those tumblers. So I either have a bad copy of the original key, or it was a shitty lock from the beginning. It doesn’t matter, all that matters is the key cannot do its job efficiently on its own, so there’s another system at work. The only other system was me, specifically my arm.
In all my previous attempts to open the door after discovering it was going to be the single worst part of my day, I approached it like most people would approach a bad lock, by pushing the key straight in, wiggling it, and making minute adjustments to the depth of the key. This makes sense, after all: it’s about the position of the tumblers, so a small misalignment of the key’s depth would be a likely culprit. However, in my experience, this kind of alignment problem is quickly overcome by inserting the key as far as it can go, then putting pressure on the rotation while pulling back. After a fraction of a second, the key finds its place and snaps open. If the lock is sticky and slow, this might be more difficult, but the lock in front of me was not.
I decided what was different was the savagery of the morning’s attempt. So what did that empty rage change about the motion of my arm? My hunch was downward pressure. I did a few more trials, this time applying downward pressure to the back of the key. Four out of six times, the lock opened within a second or two. I was on to something. I thought about what that downward pressure was actually doing. If I depress the back of the key over the fulcrum of the front of the lock, it must be lifting the front of the key. Apply the environment: if the key was cut a little too low, the tumblers wouldn’t rise enough, so the key would have to be artificially raised to compensate.
I tried lifting the key before turning, and now the lock clicked open immediately every single time, like the exact opposite of magic. I broke the news to the office and they all laughed and told me I was right, that’s the trick, which confirmed my hypothesis, as well as my suspicion that I was working with a bunch of bastards.
I won’t lie and say there are no emotional or personal components to my skeptical world view, but situations like this are the reason I stick with it. Being skeptical and applying the scientific method isn’t something you only do with beakers and goggles: it’s an approach to the getting through the day that consistently makes life easier.