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Let me unpack that for you - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
j4
j4
Let me unpack that for you
Another post over there. Not pleased with this one, to be honest; I was rushing to finish it and I don't feel like I said what I was trying to say.

ETA: link fixed -- of course, the date part of it changed because I didn't actually post it till after midnight (FAIL!).

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braisedbywolves From: braisedbywolves Date: November 18th, 2009 12:34 am (UTC) (Link)
link's wrong: 17th not 18th, dude.

I suspect that the people behind "let me google that for you" don't have elderly relatives, or are just pricks to them.
braisedbywolves From: braisedbywolves Date: November 18th, 2009 12:38 am (UTC) (Link)
Haha also computers frequently give error numbers because it is not politic for an error message to say "I was hungover that day"/"You are in the configuration space where this simply can't work, but we can't tell you that"/"Oh are Adobe still being pricks about this?"
j4 From: j4 Date: November 18th, 2009 10:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh god yes. And that's before we get to the error-messages-you-didn't-mean-to-leave-in... Fortunately I only had to explain "Internal error: TOO MANY BADGERS" to people who found it nearly as funny as I did.
braisedbywolves From: braisedbywolves Date: November 18th, 2009 12:45 am (UTC) (Link)
Obviously I mean '18th not 17th' :)
tigerfort From: tigerfort Date: November 18th, 2009 12:57 am (UTC) (Link)
That depends on whether you mean "you typed x not y" or "you meant x not y". So you were right (or wrong) both times :)
emperor From: emperor Date: November 18th, 2009 08:00 am (UTC) (Link)
The point about error messages is key, I think - people are taught when a box comes up and your program dies to click "restart" just like that. "Oh, I dunno, it's just not working" seems a common response to "what was the error message?".
Somehow we've reached the state where your average user doesn't even think that reading the error message might be something you'd want to do.

I have a fiend who teaches IT in schools; I wonder if the curriculum includes "what to do when things go wrong"?
j4 From: j4 Date: November 18th, 2009 10:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Somehow we've reached the state where your average user doesn't even think that reading the error message might be something you'd want to do.

I blame Microsoft. If you can't do anything about the error (other than reboot or reinstall your OS), why should you waste time reading it? Or if you can click 'OK' and can carry on doing what you were doing, clearly the error wasn't that important. (This is a very very condensed version of a very long rant about conditioning people to accept mediocrity, so I hope it still makes sense without all the connecting bits left in... erm.)

"what to do when things go wrong"

Be an antelope!
simont From: simont Date: November 18th, 2009 10:51 am (UTC) (Link)
Be an antelope!

I once witnessed, on a newsgroup I read for other reasons, an exchange in which someone had posted a substandard bug report, and a regular poster asked them to go and get more information to improve it. In passing he directed the reporter to HTRBE, and also added the instruction "And when you come back, tell us the names of the animals mentioned in it, to prove you've read it".

I had certainly intended the silly animals to stick in people's minds, but it had never occurred to me that that was what they were useful for!

(I've also become gradually more convinced, over the years, that when I wrote "antelope" I actually meant "gazelle", but it's too late now.)
cartesiandaemon From: cartesiandaemon Date: November 20th, 2009 01:10 am (UTC) (Link)
Come to think of it, I do exactly the same thing they do if I'm dealing with something which is out of my experience. If I just did something to a fraatgaz and get an error message that says "the floozle is inconpartabing" and I've no idea how floozles are related to fraatgazes, I will probably first try fixing a few of the things I think are likely to be wrong, before trying to work out what happened to the floozle, and what sort of fraatgaz might have caused that.

In exactly the same way someone might see an error message, "cannot open file 'Tuesday'" and not realise that maybe the space in 'Tuesday minutes.doc' was the problem.

Except that some people are willing to learn, and some people have no hope they'll ever understand it, so shouting for help is the only option.
ewx From: ewx Date: November 18th, 2009 08:24 am (UTC) (Link)

At the end of the day, it’s all about communication: the programmer, the software (insofar as it can be regarded as an agent), the user, the IT support guy — they’re all trying to pass information (in the broadest sense) from one agent to another without losing data.

This can be quite a problem even within a single program: if you have several components on top of one another then the error that occurs near the bottom can end up stripped down to nothing more informative than “something went wrong” by the time it reaches the top. (And that's even before a user, perhaps even at the best of times floundering in the deep end, tries to interpret it.)

crazyscot From: crazyscot Date: November 18th, 2009 09:51 am (UTC) (Link)
Bugbear du jour: a filesystem which returns an int on every call but only ever returns one of two constants, FAIL or OK. This is despite calling back to the OS to access the underlying storage device and potentially getting a wide range of error codes because myriad things might have gone wrong. I am loath to add a static int LastError ...
vatine From: vatine Date: November 18th, 2009 11:05 am (UTC) (Link)
The most amusing of those was the sequence of events that caused (some networked file system or other) to mogrify an initial "permission denied" to "no more space" and a "file system full" to "insufficient permission".

I have thankfully purged the exact details of what happened through the layers, but...
hatmandu From: hatmandu Date: November 18th, 2009 08:34 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, interesting piece, your satisfaction notwithstanding. In fairness to XKCD, I think he was more teasing the process in the IT support person's mind rather than saying 'anyone could do this'. (You're right that there's a lot of embedded skill and understanding.) I certainly do exactly what that flowchart suggests when people ask me for help as I 'know about computers' (ie know how to Google effectively - which I worry is now replacing all knowledge previously in my head...[*]).

By the way, I'm enjoying your NaBloPoMo greatly - it's a damn sight more constructive, in my jaded-had-to-look-at-too-many-people's-shit-novels view, than NaNoWriMo.

[*] The books on the shelves are now shuffling nervously. Be calm, my beauties. I'll never replace you.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 18th, 2009 10:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I think he was more teasing the process in the IT support person's mind

Yes, deffo. I feel a bit guilty using lovely xkcd as a springboard for a bit of a po-faced rant, but I wanted to have the rant, and the cartoon was what triggered it in my mind. :-} SORRY, RANDALL!

I certainly do exactly what that flowchart suggests

Me too! Though I also try to (gently) let people know that that's what I did, e.g. rather than just saying "You need to upgrade the fnargle widget" I'm more likely to reply "I googled for 'error: low fnargle' & the results suggest that upgrading the fnargle widget should fix this: [link to page explaining how to do it]". Basically, I don't want to maintain the "mystic priesthood" view of "people who know about computers"; I want to show people that there's no magic to it, that it's not so much "expert knowledge" (and it's certainly not "programming" or "science") as pattern-matching, experience, realising that 999 times out of 1000 someone else will already have solved the problem, and knowing where to look for the answer.

To mangle Benjamin Franklin, "Let the first lesson be information retrieval, and the second will be what thou wilt."
hatmandu From: hatmandu Date: November 18th, 2009 10:41 am (UTC) (Link)
pattern-matching, experience, realising that 999 times out of 1000 someone else will already have solved the problem

Absolutely!

But I think you've mangled Fight Club and the Monks of Medmenham there.

I'm off to Google 'fnargle widget'.
pjc50 From: pjc50 Date: November 18th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
The real skill is "abstract conceptual reasoning", which is not a common skill and looks exactly like magic to people who can't, won't, or aren't in the habit of doing it. After all, it relies on manipulating things that don't exist.
addedentry From: addedentry Date: November 18th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
rather than just saying "You need to upgrade the fnargle widget" I'm more likely to reply "I googled for 'error: low fnargle' ...

This is also important for covering your back when it doesn't work.
cartesiandaemon From: cartesiandaemon Date: November 20th, 2009 01:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes, deffo.

Reading several of these rants, I find myself wanting to say "but that person wasn't necessarily at fault", and then reading the post again, and saying "hmm, but it didn't SAY they were at fault in the first place"
j4 From: j4 Date: November 18th, 2009 10:40 am (UTC) (Link)
Damn, I hit 'post' before finishing, sorry. I was also going to say: yes, I too worry about having outsourced all my knowledge to Google (and I do try to remember stuff occasionally just to see if I can still do it). And I'm glad you're enjoying my blogging! Or at least enjoying it more than you'd enjoy my novel... (I keep wanting to do NaNoWriMo but if it's true that everybody has a book in them[*] then I think mine is probably non-fiction. Though 'fiction' and 'non-fiction' are very boring and restrictive labels, blah blah.)

[*] it's too dark to read
hatmandu From: hatmandu Date: November 18th, 2009 11:05 am (UTC) (Link)
NaNoFiWriMo. Si.
simont From: simont Date: November 18th, 2009 10:02 am (UTC) (Link)
The sentence I was closest to disagreeing with was the one about Google not being able to read your mind. It may not be there yet, but it's beginning to get just a little scary every so often :-)
j4 From: j4 Date: November 18th, 2009 10:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Heh, yes. Occasionally I find myself thinking something vague like "What was that thing I was thinking of? Began with a 'B'..." so I type 'B' into Google and it autosuggests the thing I was thinking of. Now, okay, that's probably because it was something I looked at or searched for earlier. But it's still a bit uncanny!
simont From: simont Date: November 18th, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
"What was that thing I was thinking of? Began with a 'B'..." so I type 'B' into Google and it autosuggests the thing I was thinking of.

Is that because in your case it's always "badger"? ;-)
j4 From: j4 Date: November 18th, 2009 03:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Is that because in your case it's always "badger"? ;-)

No! ... Maybe.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 18th, 2009 10:48 am (UTC) (Link)
BTW, may I explicitly and publicly say thank you again, both for 'How to report bugs effectively', which is excellent, and for the DODECAHEDRAL BADGER! which is also excellent. :-) The badger has now survived three house-moves and still makes me very happy! *hug*
simont From: simont Date: November 18th, 2009 10:55 am (UTC) (Link)
You're very welcome! :-)

(Of course, should the badger fail to survive anything, I've still got the net, so one of us could easily make another one.)
ewx From: ewx Date: November 18th, 2009 10:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm reminded of a particularly powerful AI in a SF novel I read a while back: while it can't read your mind as such, it can run accurate simulations of you fast enough to reliably work out the best way of talking or tricking you into doing what it wanted.
pjc50 From: pjc50 Date: November 18th, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
Relatedly there was Asimov's "psychohistory", the idea that Foundation was built upon that humans in aggregate were predicatable enough to architect a society on that basis.
pjc50 From: pjc50 Date: November 18th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
.. what the hell went wrong with my writing? I apologise for that sentence.
lnr From: lnr Date: November 18th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're absolutely right that that diagram is *far* too high level for a lot of users. Someone mailed us today with a problem with their email, I'm working from home today (parcels!) so tried asking a few simple questions by email to try and work out even what program she's using, but she'd rather I come and see her tomorrow as it's just too technical. And I'm not implying any criticism here, I don't think she's stupid at all, she just doesn't know the names for things or how to describe what's going on.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 18th, 2009 04:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
I can't help wondering what these people do when they have to do telephone banking, say....

- "What's your card number?"
- "Oh I don't know, I'm hopeless with numbers."
- "It's the long number across the front of your card..."
- "Look I'm sorry but I don't know anything about maths, but I've got the card here, can't you just come over from Bangalore and have a look at it yourself?"
tigerfort From: tigerfort Date: November 18th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Given that at least some people appear to avoid internet banking because it's "too complicated", I wouldn't be surprised to find that the same group don't use phone banking either. But yes. (Also, this presumably makes life difficult for such people when/if they do something sufficiently out of the ordinary that the bank asks for a check that they've not lost their card :)
1ngi From: 1ngi Date: November 18th, 2009 06:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
I clicked with trepidation as I noticed the geek tag and wondered if I was about to find something beyond my ken. So it was pleasant to discover that you understand that for so very many people (I suspect the vast majority) it all beyond their ken.

But the I guess so are microwaves and washing machines. Only when washing machines flood your kitchen they don't pop up a handy note in the powder drawer explaining which bit of the machine just packed up. I guess this is where the expectations are established - you hope that Washing Machine Repair Man and Computer Repair Man all speak the same language.

And they don't.

Love the heading 'Calling a spade the thing that you dig with'. Awesome.
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