Schrödinger’s Cat

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

One of my clients, now deceased, was a retired professor with a PhD in mathematics. Once when he was experiencing some Internet connectivity issues and frustrated he did not understand why, he pointedly asked me, “Does that mean the Internet connection was up or down?” I made a friend for life when I responded, “Was Schrödinger’s cat alive or dead?”

For those who may not be familiar, Schrödinger’s Cat is a paradoxical thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger to illustrate the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects. The scenario posits that a cat could be simultaneously both alive and dead in a state known as a quantum superposition. If you do not understand all that, you are not alone because Schrödinger and Albert Einstein exchanged letters about this in the 1930s, and today some mathematicians still hold differing opinions.

Getting back to my friend the doctor, he was frustrated when he could not send or receive e-mail, and I told him there was nothing wrong with his Internet connection. It turned out that Hotmail was in the middle of an outage, making it appear to the doctor that the Internet was out when in fact he could have surfed to other places on the web. My telling him his Internet connection was okay was in line with Schrödinger’s Cat that is both dead and alive until observed. When the doctor observed Hotmail he thought the Internet connection was down while when I observed the connection status locally I thought it was okay.

I run into this a lot when I ask clients if their Internet connection is working or not. Often they will say the connection is working when in fact it is not because they tried to pull up a web page that was in the cache of their browser, giving them the false impression that their computer was connected. Just as often they will say that their Internet connection is down because they cannot connect to a particular web site when the problem turns out to be that only was experiencing a temporary outage in California or Washington state where the servers are located. In both cases the user jumped to an erroneous conclusion based on their observations, but a conclusion that was correct from their point of view at the time.

And then to make things even more confusing, there are issues related to the quality of your Internet connection when it is up. Latency and jitter affect how long it takes for information to get to your computer. E-mail programs could not care less if some packets are delayed a few seconds, while Voice over IP and video streaming applications might crash if there is too much latency or jitter in your internet connection.

So, just as in the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox, your Internet connection can be both simultaneously up and down or good and bad at the same time depending on the observer.

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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