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2005/07/18 Troubleshooting Skills

A regular theme on the newsgroups is newbies complaining about the crankiness and "RTFM" answers from "gurus", and the regulars complaining about the hopeless stupidity and laziness of the newbies.

While there are sometimes suggestions as to how to improve the manners of those who provide answers, it's the opposite remediation that is expressed more often: the newbies just need to learn how to "think" and they could solve most of these problems themselves. I'm guilty of it myself here sometimes: I expect people to at least TRY to search for an answer before asking something trivial and wasting everyone's time (and my bandwidth!)

Well, like most things, it may not be all that simple. For at least some of the people asking "dumb" questions, they may have little choice, or rather this may be their deliberate choice because they know from bitter experience that they can't do much better no matter how they try.

For example, I'm clumsy with my hands. I'm just not "neat", the only way anything I build will come out plumb and level is if I spend the entire day checking and rechecking. Most of my hammer strikes will miss, and that's in spite of many years of practice I had working with my Dad (who could build anything). I'm lucky if I don't hurt myself, too. My wife had me hang a shelf once: it cost $200.00 for a professional to come fix the mess I made and then hang the shelf. It might have cost me $75.00 if I just had him do the work originally.

So when something needs building, I don't even try. It's too difficult, too consuming of my time, too expensive: it's really far cheaper for me to hire a professional than to do it myself.

Some of the people who ask "moronic" questions are like that. Computers have beaten them, confused them, frustrated them. They just don't "get it". What's easy for some of us is pure pain for them, just like the pain I feel trying to repair a deck. I can DO it, but it takes way too long and it angers me and affects everything else I do. Forget it, let someone who is good at it do the job.

That doesn't mean they are "stupid". They might be, but they might be much smarter or even brilliant at other tasks. If all of the people I know were suddenly cast back into a stone age society, none of us would have the necessary skills to survive. However, some of us would, and those folks would be the more adaptive, the more creative problem solvers. I'd bet even some who (like me) would be ill adapted because of physical problems like poor eyesight would develop techniques to overcome and survive.

While some would be frantically stumbling around begging for help, others would be observing, testing, thinking. Some of them would die anyway (mistakes happen), and some would survive just by dumb luck or by trading other skills, but a common thread of the most likely to survive would be that they don't ask a lot of questions. If you did a Google search for the newsgroup posts of the better contributors, you'd mostly find people who have never asked many questions at all, and if they did, the questions and answers were highly esoteric. Were you privy to the rest of their lives as well, I suspect you'd also find the same pattern: people who are capable of figuring things out by themselves even when given poor tools and a paucity of information to go by.

People aren't equal mentally. I'm a lousy musician, and would die quickly in a society where ability to recognize pitch was necessary to avoid death (the bird beasts that sing in high C are dangerous, the other warblers are not). I am a good general problem solver and have earned my living doing that for a long time now. I have fair "people" skills, which helps, but there are people with far better intuition and knowledge of human nature. Now who's "smarter" - the musician, the politician, the problem solver? Depends on what you are testing and why.

That's not to say that everyone is good at something. Some people are piss-poor at everything. That's just unfortunate for them. An ex-partner's father once said to his son "Never complain about stupid people. Stupid people put me where I am today". The only change I'd make to that is to note that just because someone is "stupid" about computer problems doesn't necessarily mean they are stupid about everything. They may in fact be a lot smarter than I in a LOT of other areas, and I keep that thought firmly in mind.

So can you teach people to be better at solving computer problems? Maybe, but in my view, sloppy thinkers remain sloppy thinkers. It may be possible to teach logic to some degree, but at the best you get small improvement.

There are three factors that make for good problem solvers. The first is logic and causality. This can be taught, or at least most people can be taught that much.

Memory is the second requirement, and it is short term memory that is most important. Apparently most people can't remember more than seven discrete items (numbers, names of objects, whatever) without help. Some are even worse than that: how many people do you know who have to write down a phone number they plan to use within moments? Too many.. You can improve memory with effort, but it is with effort, and I'm not sure that memory "tricks" will help with this, because the problem really is the relationships between chains of events: if a, then b and if b then c, etc. By the time you get most people out to "if d", they've forgotten how "a" played into it, and if it's "if d and b was also less than f", forget it. They can't follow and never will. They may be great musicians, politicians, comedians, whatever, but they just can't follow a long chain of logic.

The final thing is inspiration, or the ability to see relationships that didn't exist before - recognizing patterns and similarities. This is what separates great problem solvers from mediocre. Somewhere here I have a book called "The Flash of Genius" (out of print, Alfred Garrett, 1963, Van Nostrand) that talks about that. You can't learn that overnight. You need a lifetime of reading, of learning, of noticing, of analyzing and even at that, person X is going to be better at it than person Y just because their brain works better for this task.

I don't think you really can teach this to someone who doesn't have ability. My Dad tried to teach me his skills - he was a guy who could build a spiral staircase, could (and did) construct an entire house by himself with absolutely no help, etc. He tried to teach me, but I just didn't "get it". I could beat him at chess when I was seven, but I never could build even a bird house that wasn't sadly amateur.

Bottom line: there are poor problem solvers, there are mediocre problem solvers, and there are those who are really good at it. People don't exhibit great movement within those classifications.



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© Tony Lawrence







Mon Jul 18 17:33:27 2005: 808   anonymous


For example, I'm clumsy with my hands...Most of my hammer strikes will miss...that's in spite of many years of practice I had working with my Dad (who could build anything).

It's the opposite here: my step-dad couldn't build anything, although his aim with a hammer wasn't quite as bad as you describe. <Grin>

So can you teach people to be better at solving computer problems? Maybe, but in my view, sloppy thinkers remain sloppy thinkers. It may be possible to teach logic to some degree, but at the best you get small improvement.

There are three factors that make for good problem solvers. The first is logic and causality. This can be taught, or at least most people can be taught that much.


Most of what I've seen in efforts to "teach" logic have been for naught. A key ingredient of any logical effort is the ability to inductively reason. For example, one cannot fix whatever ails a computer unless one can infer by external clues (BSOD, squealing speaker, etc.) what is going on inside. The ability to do this sort of thing, methinks, is innate, not learned, and is what makes a good doctor, forensic scientist or computer repair person. How else to explain all the computer science grads with whom I've had to deal over the years who couldn't solve a murder "mystery" if the perp were standing five feet away pointing a smoking pistol at the stiff on the floor? They obviously exhibited a modicum of intelligence, passed the required tests while in college and were awarded a degree, yet they can't "figure it out."

Memory is the second requirement...The final thing is inspiration, or the ability to see relationships that didn't exist before...I don't think you really can teach this to someone who doesn't have ability.

A fourth item would be focus: the combination of interest and mental discipline that allows one to concentrate on the problem at hand and to exclude the extraneous.

In all cases, I'm not sure that you can truly teach any of this. You can set an example, give the student some insight from your own experiences, perhaps contrive some problems and walk him/her through the process you might employ to work out a solution, but I don't think you can teach logic and reason in the same way in which you might teach one how to construct a sentence or extract a square root on paper. As I rapidly close in on retirement and look back at the decades I've spent working on and solving technical problems of one sort or another, I've come to realize that my ability to do so is innate, not learned.

I think this basic "rule" applies to anyone with special skills -- especially skills that are able to connect seemingly unrelated events into a coherent thought train. For example, you can teach music theory all you want and even get someone to a state where they can make sounds come out of an instrument that more-or-less correspond to what was printed in sheet music. However, that person's ability to be artistic and transform those audio vibrations into that unique blend of sound and rhythm that we call music comes from within. It can't be taught, only developed.



Wed Mar 21 02:12:43 2007: 2925   anonymous


This entry is stellar. thank you for the clarity and for the honesty. there are several training programs which claim to teach these skills. In fact the simple layout of your blog states it beautifully...find what you're good at, work hard at it, hope you have more brain for logical ts-ing than others in your field.

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