The Biggest, the Fastest

By Charles Miller

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague stimulus being perceived as significant. The word comes from the Greek, and means something faulty or wrong. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia—seeing patterns in random data. Like it or not, the hard disk in your computer has a bad case of these syndromes.

Years ago, as I was driving on US Highway 93, I topped Railroad Pass and saw the city of Las Vegas, Nevada laid out before me, 20 miles distant. It was exactly what I expected to see and having visited the city many times I was able to make out some of its landmarks—not so much because I could see them clearly, but because I knew where they should be. Suddenly my brain alerted me that the airport had moved from one side of the city to another, something clearly impossible, and for several minutes I stared in utter confusion as the city crept closer. A few miles closer I was able to deduce that the landmark I first identified as the airport control tower was actually the newly constructed Stratosphere Tower, miles from the airport. Then I was able to shake off my confusion and I could see what was really there and not what I thought was there. What I had experienced was pareidolia.

The German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad defines this as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness.” Christopher French, head of Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmith’s University, said, “It makes sense in evolutionary terms that we evolve brains so that if they make a mistake, they are more likely to see something that isn’t there, rather than miss something that is there…” And thus it follows that the little brain coded into the logic chips in the hard disk of your computer is programmed with this same logic.

Decades ago when hard disk technology was being developed, the engineers all realized the system could never be 100 percent accurate, so they devised error checking systems to correct the inevitable mistakes that would occur when data was being read from the disk. Error Correcting Code (ECC) has been programmed into the logic of every hard disk since. When on the first pass a hard disk fails to read data accurately, it fills in with what it assumes should be there. This is how ECC corrects errors when necessary.

Over the years, as ECC technology advanced, the reliability of hard disk storage was improved. Then at some point an injudicious decision was made in some corporate boardroom when management asked the engineers, “If your hard disk is error-free up to a speed of 50 megabytes per second, why can’t we push it to 75 megabytes per second and depend on the ECC to fix all the errors?”

The engineers probably had a fit, because they knew that pushing the speed of a hard disk until that caused constant reading of data errors, then depending on error correction to correct all the misread data, was insane. Yet insanity prevailed, and today every hard disk pushes its performance far past the point of reliability and depends on ECC to correct all the misread data. This is the reason behind so many hard disk failures. Hard disks today are bigger and faster, but this has come at the cost of reliability. For the sake of being able to market a hard disk that is faster and has more capacity than the competition, manufacturers have pushed the limits of the drives far past where they should have. Now they use ECC all the time, when it was intended to be used only as a safety net. This is market-driven because manufacturers of hard disks see that consumers do not want smaller, slower, more reliable hard disks. They want the biggest and fastest their money can buy.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at)


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