Rethinking What It Means To Help Someone

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Before you read this, please take a moment to realize that I am one of those bonk heads too. I am just as guilty of succumbing to the very real and normal human frustrations that we all have as rather highly experienced geeks when faced with some of the insane and borderline retarded questions that get asked on IRC. Please read it in full before you think to yourself “but, but!”

My guess is that your response to a lot of this may well be “I just don’t care, so what, so I hurt someone’s feelings, big deal, boo hoo.” But the point I’m trying to make is deeper than that. I’ve already covered the fact that people should have thick skin in my newbie’s help guide but some people just go above and beyond the call of acrimony and – though I never felt it an acceptable excuse in the first place – the excuse of “Too bad, boo hoo” just doesn’t cut it for me.

The Optimistic Angle

Where’s The Love?

Maybe you’re trying to show me tough love. Maybe you’re trying to teach a man to fish as the saying goes. I know how to fish though. Some people, sure, they need to be taught. Google doesn’t always come up with the right results, especially for single word searches. I’ve been programming for years. I know all the core concepts even if I get my terms mixed up sometimes. Please don’t mistake me for a confused newbie, I generally do know what I’m doing even if I don’t call things by the right names. Try me sometime, just give me that “spoonfed answer” that you think for some reason won’t “truly help me”.

You might be surprised when I say “oh, wow, yeah I get it now, thanks I guess I was confused and wrong, I’ll give it a go.” I understand that you’re not psychic, but I’m not asking for you to be psychic, I’m asking that you pause for a moment to think about the best and most efficient way of helping me – if that requires prompting me for further in formation then please do so, politely.

Or even better yet, sometimes it wouldn’t kill you or me to just give me the actual direct answer if we know it. Most newbies who shouldn’t be spoon fed won’t know what to do with the answer and this will become obvious, at which point the discussion of spoonfeeding or a link to this blog post may be appropriate. Most people who don’t need to be spoon fed will be quite grateful for the answer because it saves us valuable time.

The Band Wagon

The whole anti spoon feeding movement, like too many things in this world, has become an end rather than a means. It has become a default first resort, retort and excuse for not helping out of laziness. Many people such as myself undertake the learning of new projects. We read the manual, we read documentation, we google for things, we start building something, and then we have a question. Often it’ll be a very simple question about syntax because the language is new to us. The concepts are by no means new, nearly all languages have data structures and control flow.

Usually we know specifically what we need, but then upon joining the local discussion group for that specific language, we’ll get laughed or yelled out of the room because we “didn’t read the documentation.” Which might be fair: the documentation (somewhat obviously) on that point has not been read.

However – for sufficiently advanced and elite computer geeks, when attempting to research a new technology and have fun while learning about it and prototyping some sort of cool app – taking the time (often times upwards of hours or days or weeks) to fully and thoroughly read the entire manual for a language that is only the base for a more complicated framework that is the target of study, is just not practical.

That’s only assuming that this exercise is being performed for the fun and love of academia and self improvement! This is to say nothing of the business world where in you may often find yourself in a paid position creating an application using a technology set with which you are just now becoming familiar. The argument commonly levied by most elitist and snobby geeks is that you are not qualified for your job and should therefor not be performing it.

A Different Perspective

Truth is not so important here. That may be true, but there are other alternative truths. Perhaps you are in fact very qualified because of your fundamental understanding of core programming concepts and your creative problem solving abilities. Maybe you’re not working in a directly computer related discipline yet you need to write software for your scientific research and you have a masters degree.

The realities of business and economy and profit all dictate that you can’t afford to spend weeks or months to learn a language thoroughly, however, being the well educated creative thinker that you are, you can most likely still create the bulk majority of your application because you do understand how things work, as opposed to specifics. This is the difference between e.g. having a working knowledge and a bad memory versus having a photographic memory and little working knowledge. Einstein himself (as well as my calculus teacher in college, though I don’t mean to compare the two in any other capacity) admitted that his algebra was horrible.

An Imperfect Technology

We have reference manuals precisely because it’s usually impractical for most people to consistently retain that much information in their heads all the time. It’s much more efficient to know how the system works overall and thusly understand what components need to be looked up in the manual, bit by bit. Not all documentation was created equal. Often times manuals are not exactly obvious and when looking things up in a manual (or on google) it can, in fact, take quite some time to find the answer you were seeking.

Humans who do specialize in a certain technology and who are already familiar with a majority of the manual’s contents are – and will be for a long time in to the forseeable future – a much better resource than a dumb and literal search engine. I can say to a human “hey, you know those things that are kind of like, alive like we are and have this stuff on their bodies that looks kind of like shag carpeting and that are self transporting on four prong like things and that lots of people commonly own as friends?” Most normal humans might answer something like “err, do you mean a dog or a cat or something? like a poodle?” and I would probably say “yes! that’s the thing! thanks.”

Try putting that in to google. The first result almost assuredly will not be the wikipedia page about poodles.

Giving Ourselves Credit

Humans are highly intelligent and borderline psychic. Vocal auditory verbal communication relies on the anticipation of what is likely to be said. Our brains are constantly predicting in advance what words are the most likely to come out of the other person’s mouth, this helps our internal dictionaries with the potential lookups. Get creative with me here for a second. Think of it like a filter function in Haskell sort of cross bred with an index in MySQL. If you pre-filter the possible dictionary lookups based on an index, then your comphrension speed will be faster than if you have to search through possibly all the words in the dictionary every time.

Pedantic hackers on the internet love to use the phrase “We’re not psychic, you know.” And though I empathize and understand the frustration that generally leads to this expression, I must counter argue that: yes you are. At least a little. Give yourself more credit, and give me more credit too. Give us both more credit, for being human, for being amazing marvels of engineering so far not even remotely paralleled by the most advanced AI and robotics technology.

When you say things like “I’m not psychic, you know.” in these sorts of situations, you’re really devaluing the entire human race. It’s the same thing that happens when people complain about how urgent their problem is and how much they need you to help them fix it now now now. You’re doing the exact same thing when you resort to tactics like the comment about not being psychic – you’re placing the value of your time above theirs. Of course, you are in fact in a position to do so since you hold the keys to the information that these people seek. I’d just like you to possibly consider how honorable this is, to horde information from someone. Much less to do so while professing innocence and true good will.

It takes a bigger man to beat up a smaller one, and it takes an even bigger man yet to beat that guy up. That’s the joke anyway. The reason it’s a joke is because there’s an implicit moral value here which is that the bigger man is the one who does not need to fight or be greedy and horde his belongings.

To be sure, there are plenty of situations where it is near impossible to understand what someone meant, but the great thing about being human is that we have inference. Usually we can infer that a person is asking a question or needs help and we also have the capability to query that person further. Please be a more positive example of the human race, please demonstrate that we really are worthy of being called the most advanced beings on the planet.

The Middle Ground

This is I feel the most important section I’d like you to contemplate and take with you after reading this article.

A Word On Truth

Truth is a slippery subject. Once you have airtight logical arguments that are valid by any syllogistic standards, the only thing left to debate, is truth, and ultimately, truth is about as close as you can get to undebatable. On the one hand you’ve got objective truths that are fairly well proven through laws and theories of physics. On the other hand you’ve got subjective truths that are very difficult for anyone to prove one way or the other such as the existence of a God or gods or the moral and ethical questions involved in whether and when to kill or not. Most of these questions cannot be answered – and have relatively little to do – with logic. They heavily depend upon a set of starting axioms that are held to be self evident.

Given the wide variety of axioms and maxims that people hold as self evident truths, it is natural for humans to be able to select among any of them. Naturally people tend to select those “truths” that are most comfortable. Usually this means the most commonly accepted by a family and or peer group. However, when we all powerful all knowing immensely intelligent beings known as geeks train our massive brains on this situation, I think most of us will find that not all truths are exclusive of one another – that, in fact, multiple truths can co-exist amongst one another and what matters more is what these truths do for us and when we select them.

It could likely be said about a single person that this person is both incompetent (he doesn’t know a widget from a wombat) and ill tempered at work. These are generally negative traits. It might also be said that this person is highly skilled (he’s an amazing poker player, piano player, golfer, etc) and cheerful at night amongst friends. These are generally positive traits. Both of these conflicting accounts of information might both be quite true.

Common amongst many people is the variation in their own day to day self esteem. I’m sure most of us are familiar with the phenomenon whereby many women “feel fat” on some days and don’t feel fat on other days. Most people from an objective stand point will have seen no change in weight, and a simple “scientific” check with a bathroom scale can confirm this, but the thinking in that person’s head leads them to have a very different view of themselves.

There are certainly situations where this is true of men, for example professional sports players or musicians. Professional performers. Some nights they’re “on fire” and can’t be touched. Kings of their domain. One small mistake can cost careers and fortunes untold. Has the fundamental skill of that player really degraded? More than likely not if they are still in peak physicial health. Thier opinion and the opinion of the world, however, can change in an instant over a difference as small as a centimeter – the difference between winning the game and loosing it. This seems very important to the people so intimately involved in the sport, but if we look at it objectively – not much has changed. Compared to 99.9% of the world population that professional performer is and will be for most of his life so much better and so much more skilled than anyone else it’s almost rediculous, but the truth can be posed both ways, he’s both a winner and a loser – a winner to his loving fans and a loser to the rest. He himself, his person, his skill set, has not fundamentally changed, but a very real and present truth – the truth about what people think of him and thusly how the rest of his life may be impacted, has in fact changed.

The main point here, is to take stock of a more detached world view and use that detached perspective to make choices that bring the most benefit the most people. Take a deep breath and regardless of whether you are asking or answering, take a quick look at whether your negativity – however you justify it – is really an honorable solution that reflects well on you as a human and on society as a whole.

Think about how a potential employer would judge you for a position given some of the things you say on the internet.

The Negative Angle

Ok so lets get real for a minute. You were likely to have been given this article because someone on the internet thought you were being a royal bonk head and in an exasperated attempt to maintain a shred of dignity and self respect, decided that you were in the wrong. Now you might disagree. Obviously. You know what they say about opinions. Seems to me you might be a bit like an opinion. My guess is that even if you were correct in your technical assay of their situation or on some minor (or major) detail of your technology, you were wrong in how you were representing the human race – in short, you were being a bonk head about the whole thing.

So let me express to you, as the spokesperson for the individual who likely gave you this link, some of the ire this person may be feeling and why you are in the wrong for causing this. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll change your ways. More than likely you won’t, but I wouldn’t be writing a persuasive essay if I didn’t think that this was possible and that it might sway human opinion. What I am advocating for, ultimately, is a return to some simple core human values – the values of being truly positive, being genuine and making a real effort to communicate and help one another.

I challenge you to read this section and face yourself. I bet you won’t. I bet you’re not strong enough. I bet you’ll write it off in your head by explaining to yourself that I’m not worth your time, that you’re better than me, that I don’t really know what it’s like to be you or how it feels. My guess is that you can dish it but you can’t take it. My guess is that you’re the sorry fat ugly slovenly depressed anti-social (most likely male) individual in this situation and that you make yourself feel better by beating up people on IRC – a medium where you both are king of your domain because of your elite knowlege and where you do not stand more than a 0.1% chance of feeling any repercussions from your hateful actions.

Do talk to your mom like that? I bet you don’t. Do you say those same things to random groups of drunken men who are twice your size? I bet you don’t. I bet you like being able to chew your food. So why would you say those kinds of things to people on an anonymous medium over which you face no consequences for your actions? Oh right, you got beat up on the playground when you were a kid. Yeah I know, it sucks, it hurts. But guess what? To paraphrase your kind… “Too bad, boo hoo.”

I bet you kick puppies too.

What’s Your Problem, Maaaaaaan?

My problem? Is you. Ok possibly not you, but almost certainly it’s the way you are behaving. You are being a hypocrite. You are pretending like what you offer is help. You’re not helping. No really, seriously, you think you’re being cool, or witty, or sarcastic, or righteous, or that you’re justified or something, but you’re wrong. You’re none of these things and just because you and your two or three other !@#$% head buddies on the net think you’re cool does change the fact that you’re not helping. You really probably don’t care, in fact, you’ve probably stopped reading by now and you probably won’t read the rest of this – I’d love it if you prove me wrong, but you probably won’t because you’re, likely as not, actually a real !@#$% head.

You might say “but, I’m right.” That doesn’t matter, that’s not the point, you’re not helping, not really. Truth is not always the most important ideal as I delineated earlier. This is not to say that falsehood is a better ideal, the point is simply that there can often be many variations of the truth that are all true in some way at their core. Ok yeah yeah, I know I know, this isn’t a democracy, if I don’t like it leave, you’re helping me for free, out of the kindness of your heart… but wait… really? No, I mean really?

Seriously, you’re helping me for free out of the kindness of your heart? So that’s why you’re slyly (or sometimes overtly) insulting me and my intelligence without ever taking a moment to get a little background on me and my life experiences. That’s why you’re engaging in faulty logic by assuming that since I made some sort of small mistake – such as mis capitalizing the formal noun of your favorite technology – that I must be way the !@#$% and gone up on Bonkers avenue. In other words, you have made the (faulty) conclusion that because I am a newbie to your technology that I am a newbie to all technology.

I won’t insult you by assuming that you haven’t studied syllogistic fallacies or formal mathematical logic. I give you the benefit of the doubt and I credit you with likely having the intelligence to understand why this is faulty logic. Actually this is me insulting you in a round about way by pointing out that you are likely to be acting against the very morals and standards to which you hold yourself – this is known as being a hypocrite.

Signal To Noise

The issue here is a simple one of signal to noise. I recall an old adage that goes something like: if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all. I really think that more support venues explicitly had rules barring rude or derogatory behavior because it so often is just uncalled for.

Dealing With Newbies

Please trust me that I know how infuriating newbs can be and how dumbfounded and aghast I am at the questions I see asked. How I don’t even have words to begin to describe the idiocy that is flowing forth from some people. That aside, consider that in as much as you don’t like it when those people get upset – maybe those people don’t like it when you get upset. It’s a pretty simple quid pro quo situation. You be civil to me, I’ll be civil to you.

Apathy and Indignation

All too often I feel this nagging suspicion that many people don’t actually haunt the support networks in search of people to help, but rather, quite the opposite, they hang around simply for the thrill of the kill – the wondrous adrenaline fueled satisfactory rage that courses through the veins whence another newbie has been slain – another newbie has been put in his place – another one bites the dust, and all because of the mighty sword which is your ninja fingers on a computer keyboard so expertly slicing and dicing that poor person to bits until they have not a last shred of dignity. You have won. You won the fight on the internet. But you know what they say about fighting on the internet, no one wins, because no matter what, you’re both retarded. It takes two to tango and consider that even if that person is obviously being stupid in some manner, the moment you start to attack them, you have lost.

The Easy Way Out

It is my personal observation of my own self and my own psychology, and thus an extrapolation of this into the actions of others, that has lead me to realize that the not so subtle animosity and incredulity I see on a daily basis on the internet is actually the easier way out.

It’s easier to make assume that a person knows less. It’s easier to assume that a person is an idiot. It’s easier to assume that a person is beyond help. It’s easier to assume that the person is not worth helping. It’s easier to assume that the person is just plain distasteful on all counts.

Avoiding Accountability At All Costs

Why? Because that means less work. That means less effort, and especially it means less energy potentially wasted. People come and go on the internet so quickly. It’s almost a crap shoot whether or not your help will be at all meaningful to a person. It’s near impossible to see the real world effects of the help that you provide because it usually just disappears into the aether along with that person when they disconnect ne’er to return.

But It’s Free, Maaaaan

Yeah well you don’t see people lining up at new york city garbage plants to claim their free garbage. Nope, quite the opposite, you usually have to pay someone to get rid of it for you because no one will even take it for free.

You’re here for free too. You chose it. You are obviously here for a reason, generally that reason is either camaraderie amongst your peers or to provide occasional support, or both. Don’t give me that line about “well the help is free, I don’t need to help you.” Yes that’s obvious, so don’t. You are not obliged to berate people either but you seem to be able to find time for that.

Don’t Need It, Don’t Want It

What I mean to say is, I don’t want to deal with the extra garbage. Let me beat a dead horse for a moment, maybe I can explain.

  • If you’re going to give me flack for not asking the question perfectly or for some small transgression or lack of data then I don’t even want to talk to you.
  • If you’re going to slide me a helping of resentful sarcasm along with the so called support that you are giving me, I honestly would rather have neither.
  • Since you are not obligated to help me, I would much rather you didn’t if the support contract I must agree to includes your !@#$% as well.
  • I am generally smart enough to figure out my problem on my own and if you’re only going to give me cryptic answers from which I must trim the fat of your ill humor in addition to deciphering what you really mean, then it’s not worth my time.

Maybe that’s exactly what you want. You want me to go away. All I have to say to that is, wow, dude, you suck. You’re a mean, indignant sorry excuse for a human. Shape up a little and do our species a favor – represent us with a little more dignity.

Call Me Baby

Oh, and who are you to judge me and play holier than thou by determining whether or not “spoon feeding” me will or won’t help me. If you don’t want to do what you considered “spoon feeding” then don’t. In as much as telling someone that you’re ignoring them is perhaps the most reliable troll bait in existence, think about what it means when you tell someone that they are, essentially, incapable of thinking for themselves and making decisions about what’s right for them in their lives. That’s a pretty arrogant assertion.

This also applies to people who make it verbosely obvious that they won’t help because e.g. someone is working with heavily out of date software. Yes I know it’s out of date, it was written three years ago. We all know that future maintenance is the largest overhead, we know that it’s the reason you should write good software, but the truth is that we write code for other coders and we write the functionality for people and businesses that need to get their business done. The functionality often far outlives the code – beyond some programmers’ wildest expectations. Look at COBOL and the Year 2000 problem.

The Oxymoron.

The Music Business. Good Morning. Army Intelligence. You know the old saw. Technology and business values so rarely align, it seems. Businesses are reluctant to upgrade software. Coders are reluctant not to upgrade software and see the businesses as moronic and myopic. Again, truth has many faces. This is not to defend the business practices that are in fact moronic and myopic because I’m sure there are plenty of coders who run businesses who manage to stay up to date and use well written software etc. etc..

The issue here is with the elite technocrats who know the truth of technology and deny the truths of business. Lets find a better middle ground, a best of both worlds. My guess is that since some software is so far out of date, you just don’t know the answer anymore or don’t have the old tools available to confirm or deny anything so you wouldn’t be able to help if you wanted to. Then out of frustration you point out not that you’re powerless, but that the other person is moronic and or myopic for using such bad technology?

Seriously, do you yell at phone support people too? Do you punch kittens in your spare time? Ok fine, you’re probably right… the outdated technology is a time suck and a resource waste but it’s not really your decision – that’s up to the business – so just don’t help if you don’t want to. There’s no point in belaboring that a person should upgrade software. Upgrading software causes business headaches. Talk to business people. This is a truth for them.

Excuses, Excuses

Here’s an example of some of the most common memes in use by elite hackers used to justify their actions. I have personally encountered all of the following obstructions to assistance, as well as other obstructions too numerous to detail and count in just one blog post.

“What? Ask the person for clarification? Whoa whoa whoa, wait a minute… you mean you want me to be patient and simply… you know… ask the person for a little more info? That takes, like, time… and, oh man, like, effort and stuff – besides that it just kind of hurts my brain to do that, to stoop to the level of those people. I mean if they’re not smart enough to freaking spell the name of my technology right, wow, you know, I just don’t even know where to begin – it’s obvious they haven’t read anything at all ever in their lives and are probably lonely freaks of nature staring at a computer screen with no friends.”

“He didn’t say he read the manual, therefor, he hasn’t read the manual yet. It’s quite clear and obvious that because he didn’t mention that he was doing widgelfluzimication that he wasn’t doing widgelfluzimication and furthermore he looks funny and talks funny and I just don’t like him and the things he says make it abundantly clear that he doesn’t have a clue. So what if it took him about a minute in a half for him to type the message explaining what he’s doing when it only took me about 300ms to type out: ur !@#$% retarded – before I even gave him a chance to prove otherwise. What? You’re arguing with me?! How Dare you!?”

It’s no surprise that people get offended at this type of behavior. It’s replete with one of the most insulting constructs known to man, the fallacious self justification of antagonistic actions. This is the same type of logic that people use to abuse or cheat on their partners, that other men and women use as rationale for going to war. This is called narcissism.

Absolute Power Corrupts, Absolutely

When faced with no consequences people choose to be !@#$% heads – look at power, look at psychology. This is actually well documented in more than one place.

On IRC we call this op syndrome. Once you have the power, it goes to your head, and even if you were a polite, genuine and well meaning person before, you become a monster – not because it’s right, in fact I think deep down you know it’s wrong, but because you can. You probably relish the adrenaline rush you get from arguing with people and kicking them out of your little club house. You are an addict. You are addicted to your own adrenaline – it’s pretty simple. Polypeptide chains and their role in the nervous system and in every cell in your body for that matter, are quite well documented. Also, the more you do this, the less effect it has. So then you end up craving satisfaction from your own endocrine system and you don’t get it, thusly causing you to become more angry and depressed and apathetic, thus causing you to act like that much more of a !@#$% bag to other people around you.

Seriously, do you do this to people in real life? Pick yourself up out of the gutter of hatred and apathy you inhabit. Go outside, take a walk, buy a pet, get a girlfriend (or boyfriend), get a cat or a dog, get some exercise, do something to improve your existence. If you have all those things, why are you sitting on the internet arguing with people? What good does it do to go kick puppies in your spare time? If you are, however, like most people, looking for something more to your life, why not admit that and just try to be happier and nicer to people, I think you’ll maybe get a better response.

You have everything you want out of life so, rationally your decision is to go degrade the quality of other people’s lives? How did you reach that conclusion. No seriously, this kind of stuff keeps me awake at night, thinking that people like you really exist. I’m not trying to say I’m perfect. If you point out that I’m ever doing any of these things, I think and hope that I am liable to stop for a moment and take stock and say, hmm, yeah I guess I might be acting like a bonk head right now, that’s weird, I thought I was cool, maybe I should change.

All Is Not Lost

You cannot be marginalized, you are not a meaningless statistic. The actions you take have an impact on other people. Forget heaven and hell. How will people remember you. Realize that no matter what, no matter if that person can connect your actions with your real face and your real name – you were the source of their frustrations. That is truth. If you don’t want to live with it, then change. If you don’t care, then you are part of the problem, not the solution. Please rethink what it means to help someone.

The End

Thank you for your time.

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