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You can't tell people anything (2004) (habitatchronicles.com)
405 points by memexy 14 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 191 comments

I often think of this as "it's hard to tell people the solution to a problem they don't have", or don't know they have.

I think it's one of the major problems in the entire structure of the educational system... it's all telling people solutions to problems they don't have yet. Sometimes this is just unavoidable; I'm not sure how to turn geography into a problem you have. (I mean, you can fake it, but people's brains know when it's a fake problem.) But a lot of times in math and science I think we'd be much better off leading off with the problems, and giving the students time to grapple with the problems without the answers, because then the answers would stick.

I've mentioned on HN before the git training curriculum I have made for my workplace... it's an interactive tutorial, and rather than just walking you through solutions, it's really more a guided tour of the problems that every git user encounters, then the solutions. We do merge conflicts, detached head (easy for git experts to forget how confusing that state is!), getting confused about why the things I used "git add" on now doesn't show diffs, etc. It seems to work reasonably well.

> "it's hard to tell people the solution to a problem they don't have"

It's my main complaint with how maths and physics were taught in school. I didn't understand electricity, trigonometry, integrals etc until long after school when I started tinkering with microcontrollers and robots, and had to solve real-world problems. Then, suddenly all those concepts sprung into life and got real meaning with clear and observable effects.

The only standout was my biology teacher, a former agronomist at a major food producer (rare to encounter someone with real experience), who made us do all sorts of practical things. I particularly remember a display of sugar in drinks that we put together: each of us had to bring a bottle, and he gave us glasses and made us fill them with sugar to match the content written on the food label. That was the day I stopped drinking juice.

Most of my engineering degree felt like that. I especially remember control systems classes where we learned all kinds of details of how to run the math to place poles and zeros blah blah, sometimes even with some incredibly simplistic example of launching a rocket and controlling its trajectory or something, but... you just never felt like you had any idea how/when/why you would use this stuff in a real work environment. (And once I graduated I discovered that almost no one does; at best they're using basic PID controllers. I doubt even the professors could have given real life examples of the more complex stuff in use.)

Good story.

Reminds me of a great story by Neil Stephenson about his experience of learning by doing the experiments:


That hyperlink did not work for me -- I think that you wanted to post https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_J4QPz52Sfo&t=4511 ?

(just listened -- great story) :-)

Yes, that's correct, thanks for finding it fast! I have obviously constucted the youtu.be link incorrectly: there should have been "?" instead of "&" in the link. The correct short form should be


I agree with this. I was always a bit of a science nerd, even in primary school. But was just never any good at maths, ending up in the bottom stream in intermediate. It wasn't till part way through that that I started self-teaching myself programming (I had a 40 minute wait for the school bus, and a teacher who gave me an Apple II programming manual along with a BASIC disk, so a good start) that all of a sudden this maths had a place in my brain to go, made sense, and all of a sudden I was getting 90%+ in tests.

These days I can read a bunch of docs and make a start at something, but I still really like having a problem to solve in order to synthesise the information into understanding.

> I often think of this as "it's hard to tell people the solution to a problem they don't have", or don't know they have.

This may be way off in another field, but this is actually frustrating to me as a father in another way: when we watch shows or read books with our child so many of the stories are so far detached from reality as to make me ask, "Why are we asking kids to care about this?" I have particular ire for Disney's penchant to make kids think they need to be groomed for life in royal society when they have effectively a 0% chance of ever needing to learn those life skills in that context. I much more appreciate shows that explore how people need to learn to interact with their peers at home, in public, at school etc. I know it's tempting to also want to kind of detach the concept from actual people with animals and such, but my daughter is not an elephant or a car, she doesn't possess a magical amulet or the ability to fly or to submerge the whole state in sub-zero arctic winter. I know it's fun to dream and imagine, but I wonder sometimes if we're communicating: "the world around is impossibly complex and you need superhuman ability to solve it. You don't have those and so you're ill-equipped to do anything about it." Some days, that may be true, but I appreciate stories that emphasize we have a reasonable degree of power within our own human faculties and learning to leverage and use those faculties is far more effective than showing kids flashy superpowers or magical worlds they won't have or see. All this, from a guy who spent numerous of his childhood days imagining himself as Mega Man absorbing everyone else's superpowers, engrossed in Star Wars and TMNT. Shrug

I disagree. I think stories like this are important. They teach you to take a hypothetical scenario seriously. It teaches people to ask "what if X were true?" and to seriously consider the ramifications. This is a springboard into abstract thinking. Without people taking the hypothetical seriously they will want to deal with concrete things and will have trouble with abstract reasoning.

Imagine you were trying to have a discussion about racism with someone. You would tell them "How would you feel if one day you woke up black and people were biased against you due to your skin color?" They would tell you that it's the dumbest thing they've ever heard. Who have you ever known that woke up with a different skin color?[0] For someone to take an argument like this seriously they have to be willing to engage in a hypothetical scenario. Waking up with a different skin color is as fantastical as the stories you're talking about. This means that they won't engage with your hypothetical scenario.

[0] This is an argument made by James Flynn in his amazing TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vpqilhW9uI

I just dont think disney or superhero story do anything for understanding of racism or history or human relationships.

I mean, they are fun, but seriously.

Nothing wrong with that, I don't think there's a fixed list of "Learnable things" attached to any piece of content. It's mostly about the interpretation.

So if a kid doesn't watch enough superhero/disney/scifi movies they won't understand racism...?

I agree that stoking kids' (and adults') imagination is useful and has benefits. But it sounds like you're claiming they literally won't be able to conceptualize anything outside of reality without them.

Why do you take this so literally? If you don't regularly run does that mean you're incapable of running? No, it doesn't. It means that you're not as good at running as you could be if you practiced more. The same applies to this.

If a kid is willing to take hypothetical scenarios seriously in a story I'd be willing to bet money they're more willing to take other hypotheticals seriously too. Moral reasoning tends to require hypothetical scenarios. If the other party isn't willing to engage in them then you can't make an argument based on them.

I'm simply saying that these stories help you take what if scenarios more seriously.

> So if a kid doesn't watch enough superhero/disney/scifi movies they won't understand racism...?

There is quite a massive distance between "You can take some lessons about racism from this content" and "If you do not consume this particular content you will not understand racism."

To add to your complaints, so many narratives designed for kids have such a clear delineation between the good side and the bad side. I'm not sure it's great for kids to be so steeped in the belief that the good and the bad are always and immediately obvious.

Another qualm I have, similar to yours, is the number of kids' shows that focus on "problem-solving" but then have the solution be some sort of magic item they very recently acquired, instead of needing to choose a solution from among several non-obvious solutions. Naturally, it's hard for very young children to follow anything very complicated, but it seems like at the very least, they could not opt for magic when it's entirely unnecessary (if they're trying to teach problem-solving).

I think I saw an essay linked on HN once about how many popular kids' shows have fascist worldview (examples were Thomas the Tank Engine and Paw Patrol) Now before you roll your eyes, these shows have nothing to do with murdering the "wrong kind" of people or destroying democracy, but it had a point: there is a fixed world order, the moral of the story is that of you disobey authority or move out of your role, bad things will happen.

Kids also lap this up. They are be in a phase where they need a sense or order in a chaotic world. It's a developmental phase. At some point when they grow up some great books, movies or games will hopefully provide disruption.

> I think I saw an essay linked on HN once about how many popular kids' shows have fascist worldview (examples were Thomas the Tank Engine and Paw Patrol)

Neither of those have even vaguely fascist worldviews. Particularly, non features the militarism or ultranationalism or xenophobia associated with fascism.

TTE arguably is problematic in other ways stemming from the fact that the bulk of the major characters are, in fact, items of property—technically state property though in the presentation of the narrative of the show they are virtually indistinguishable from personal chattels of the Fat Controller (Sir Topham Hatt in the US versions) or the Thin Controller (Mr. Percival in the US), including a number of them being threatened with imminent destruction for not being “really useful”.

> there is a fixed world order, the moral of the story is that of you disobey authority or move out of your role, bad things will happen.

That's not at all particular to fascism, it's the dominant rule of most historical societies and of most morality stories directed at children, including most fairy tales which long predate the development of fascism.

It's also not really a fair criticism of Paw Patrol, though it certainly is of at least much of TTE.

PBS Kids and Mister Rogers are wonderful educational TV. Almost everything else in the "20 minute cartoon industry" is garbage.

I really enjoy the australian cartoon Bluey, and think it generally does a good job demoing "practical" childhood skills. And parenting skills, for that matter.

> I have particular ire for Disney's penchant to make kids think they need to be groomed for life in royal society

Er, none of Disney’s films—well, at least not the princess ones, there might be something I'm unaware of elsewhere in the body of Disney-branded (and even more likely in the broader Disney-owned) catalog—has anything to do with grooming children for life in royal society. They are largely adaptations of fairy tales that use stories of royals specifically because they are interestingly exotic to communicate lessons of quotidian life aimed directly at children of more common means (often the adaptation changes the intended message to something modern and empowering from the original message which is often something like “don’t stray from the course society has set for you on pain of death”.)

Similarly, almost all the YA novels involve a transformation from ordinary mortal, perhaps even social outcast, to someone who has superpowers and/or is the special chosen one (and the story is the journey to overcome challenges and believe in yourself). They go way past "everyone is special" into "you're a failure if you don't change the world".

Here I am, over 50 and I'm still waiting for my superpowers to kick in...unless it's the power of mostly being adequate, and occasionally useful and creative.

I thinks there’s three main reasons for this:

1) It’s boilerplate hero’s journey and that shit works. It’s a tale as old as tales.

2) Looking for agency and power over your life is a theme adolescents connect with easily.

3) Harry Potter was a bonanza. That explains the recent spate of copycats, but the actual format way predates it. I don’t know about you, but I grew up buying Spider Man comics from the rack at the bodega. It’s the same thing.

It also certainly isn’t limited to YA media, and is probably more pernicious when it’s aimed at adults who should theoretically know better. The Matrix is a prime example, but there are plenty more where that came from.

Well, superpowers are quite boring if everyone around has them as well. For example, Harry Potters wand is not that impressive compared to a smartphone.

I really enjoyed watching episodes of The Busy World of Richard Scarry with my small children. The characters are all animals, but the kids in the show solve most of their own problems and defer to adults for appropriately serious matters. They still do whimsical things like going to outer space or back in time in one of Mr. Fix-it's contraptions, but the solutions to their problems are not magical. I found any programming I selected had to have some amount of whimsy in order to retain my kid's focus. The Magic Schoolbus was another good one. Both of these shows seem to have modern sequels now, but they don't appear to be as charming as the originals.

Have you found any good counterexamples? We let our three-year-old watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and I love it because it is exactly this: short (~10 minute) stories about situations and conflicts that a young child will encounter in everyday life. I’d be really interested to hear of other good shows & books like this.


I don't know how "real life" it is, but Sarah and Duck [1] is about the best young kids show we've come across. It used to be on Netflix, but they took it off. We've bought all 9? seasons on Amazon by now though. It's a great show of just of just completely mundane things with a bit of imagination tossed in.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_%26_Duck

Agreed, and as a parent I can watch it with my kids over and over and I still enjoy it. Not quite as good, but close: Puffin Rock.

Pingu is also very good. If you haven't seen it, it's a Claymation penguin and his family. He's not a goody goody--on the one hand is just funny, but on the other hand it gets to explore his kid-life and kid-choices. TH other fun thing is, they all speak a language made up by the Italian opera singer that voices them.



I really, really prefer the original Mr. Rogers to Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. The latter feels like it abandoned the pacing that made Mr Rogers so calming and effective.

It is for a bit older kids, but comics from Raina Telgemeier are real life like. Some are autobiographical.

Stick with PBS Kids and Sesame Street and Mister Rogers reruns.

If I remember correctly, babies learn to distinguish vowels from consonants from near birth when adults speak to them in that annoying high pitched "coochy coochy coo" dialect. After 6-12 months of life this starts to hold them back as they need to transition to hearing normal sounds and seeing the people mouthing them. The puppets with hinge-flap mouths, exaggerated and insanely high pitched accents in Sesame Street are ridiculous. I would strongly discourage letting your little ones watch this show.

Also Sesame Street is very New York. The rest of the world doesn't live like this. I recommend local kids TV shows with real humons performing. Some short cartoons are fun, many of them are terrible, but the sum total of TV is dose dependent. Turning it off straight after their favorite show might result in a little argument but you'll be pleasantly surprised when 5 minutes later you catch them doing something (anything) else. Usually something creative, social, and developing fine motor skills, if not simply running around outside. And subsequently you'll find them turning it off themselves.

Many countries had local versions of Sesame Street. I watched the spanish one when I was a kid and felt totally identified with the people and scenarios there. Neither all the characters had high pitched voices (just rewatched a bit to confirm my memory :)

I remember some Christmas special that (contrary to my country's version) had all these different characters, black and Asian kids, Big Bird and the story took place in this extremely urban setting of NY. This was in the late 80s or early 90s and I still remember how big of a difference this was for me.

I haven't been a kid in...too long, but I have a decent recollection of Sesame Street, and I don't recall an excess of high pitched voices.

Elmo and several of the girl muppets are pretty shrill, but Oscar, Grover, Big Bird, and all the humans are normal. Kermit, Bert and Ernie have that rounded "muppet voice" which is kinda in between.

Screen time isn't great but Sesame Street is hands-down among the best childrens' television in existence.

Man, I kinda wanna watch Sesame Street now...

At the age when kids watch Sesame Street, they understand spoken language well and there it is ridiculous to worry about their ability to learn language.

Also, even kids that are hold back due to in high pitched accents are hold back little bit for like two months maximum, so it completely absurd to worry about any of that.

> The rest of the world doesn't live like this.

How so?

I think mythology is an important metaphorical tool, but I'm inclined to agree with you. Disney movies are engineered to sell, usually by indulging kids' fantasies. One of the big numbers in The Little Mermaid is literally, "I have so many toys, and now I'm in love." It's kid-crack. Kids like candy.

I like Mulan though, and The Lion King. I think those are some very cool movies with very good life lessons.

Mulan is great! The Lion King though, The evil dark skinned lion and his dark skinned underlings with immigrant accents take over and the world goes to shit. Only the light colored royal lineage can be in charge if you want a nice world.

Ehh, that reads like shoehorning in a political agenda to me. The hyenas aren't dangerous because they're foreign, they're foreign because they're dangerous. Their actions make them a threat - they're sneaky, mean and evil. That's why the lions don't accept them.

Timone is also foreign.

But like, if you want a parable they already gave you one: they aren't immigrants, they're Nazis.

> they're foreign because they're dangerous

They’re only dangerous because they’re excluded from the kingdom and are given little chance to survive. The entire narrative of Scar having control over them is based on him providing them with food, because their lands contain none. In the scene where they’re introduced, Scar brings them meat and his entire promise to them is “stick with me and you’ll never go hungry again”

Scar is evil and seeking power, but the hyenas are only following him because they’re looking for a better life, because what they have at the start is meagre.

At the end, when they turn on Scar, the threat seems to end, so it seems that only Scar has an agenda and the hyenas just want to live their lives. With Scar remover, the lands return to normal despite the hyenas still existing (although we’re not shown what happened to them, iirc).

Sure, they’re ruthless, but that’s at least somewhat understandable given their situation.

I don't think this is accurate. The hyenas are fundamentally sadistic and difficult to satiate. That's why they're poor - it's what got them banished. They make them hyenas to reinforce it's not brought on by the situation, they're just like that. You run the risk of a racial analogy whenever you use species to articulate personality but i don't think it's intended, even subconsciously.

I think it's actually a very deep analogy to real fascist regimes. Recruit the type of poor who beat people up in bars via rhetoric that implies the rich are responsible for both their situation, and that behaviour. One implication is that the rich are the only ones who are exploitative, and the leader of the revolution in particular is not. "When we win, I will be good to you." Then you end up with a dictator.

At a meta-level the point is that the hyenas are the type of people who are insatiable, which is why they're persuaded by empty promises of power and why everything turns to wasteland once they're in charge.

But even then, conflict is a fact of life. If the hyenas hate you, allowing them to take charge will suck for you, even if it's nice for them. It's not a nice point but IMO it's an important life lesson.

> The hyenas are fundamentally sadistic and difficult to satiate. That's why they're poor - it's what got them banished.

Based on what? I’m only basing what I said on the original movie as I never saw any other content. I see the lions portraying them that way, but I see no obvious reasons to believe it’s true from the content of the movie. Maybe I’m misremembering, it’s been a while, but from what I remember they were a bit extreme but that just seemed like desperation.

> They make them hyenas to reinforce it's not brought on by the situation, they're just like that.

Except real Hyenas aren’t just like that which is why the movie got criticised by hyena conservationists.

I haven't seen the movie since I was a kid, but don't the hyenas live among the bones of elephants? That gives me the impression of insatiability. They gorged themselves on elephants yet they're still hungry.

Or maybe they were driven out of the fertile food-rich lands by the lions? Why is it presumed that they must be evil, their motivations were only ever shown to be that they were hungry.

Daniel Tiger is pretty good about working with others and focusing on our emotional maturity.

You might like My Little Pony. It is with animals, but it is a lot about how relationships really work.

I am with you on superheroes. They do nice power fantasy, but lack actual tension, because main hero is unrealistically over the top strong. Consequently, the mechanics of "how the world works" are also all wrong.

+1 on My Little Pony. Equestria Girls is great - characters can be irrational and selfish and mean, and friends have serious arguments and fallings-out, but their commitment to their mutual friendships works out in the end

> Disney's penchant to make kids think they need to be groomed for life in royal society

That's not about teaching your kids to live in royal society - that's grooming your children to know they are not part of it.

Yeah, I agree. It seems to support the idea that you’re not good enough, pretty enough, etc. And then you go to Disneyland pay them to make you feel special after all the issues of self-worth they fueled with their shows.

> it's all telling people solutions to problems they don't have yet

This is why I think really getting started on an activity is so important. Those imagined problems become real problems.

Traditional education tries to take a stab at this with “project based learning”. But the huge problem is actually trying to apply the skills you learned in a class will probably just show you how terrible the class is. So the projects get all twisted up or dropped.

I think this is very insightful. I hated higher level mathematics specifically because I couldn't see any use for it. Due to a variety of circumstances I ended up taking my math classes out of sequence with the physics and EE classes in my EE degree and as a result I'd get a concept introduced in math that had no apparent use, only to find out the next semester or year what you would use it for. Very frustrating at the time.

As I developed my 'self learning' style it became clear that I was way more successful (retained more knowledge with a better understanding) if I could "make up" some problems and then work them out with the thing I was trying to learn.

>>> I hated higher level mathematics specifically because I couldn't see any use for it.

That's why I loved it. But I think this is a dilemma of teaching any number of subjects: How to convey both the useful aspect and the intrinsically interesting aspect, for lack of a better term.

You loved something because you didn't see any use for it ?

Why not? It's a stereotype for pure mathematicians to like what they do because it's not applied, even though - like all stereoptypes - it has to be taken with a grain of salt.

The thing is, once something is applied, it has to deal with all the complexity and uglyness of the real world. But if you stick to abstract ideas, you are only limited by your imagination and logic. The mundane aspects of an applied field can detract from the pure beauty of an abstract subject.

I am not saying that this is always true, and sometimes it is nice to see applications of some abstract concepts. But many people intentionally shy away from applications towards a more theoretical field.

My relationship with math had two sides. In college, I majored in math and physics, plus I was also learning electronics and programming on my own. So I was immersed in the uses of math.

But you kind of get to a point after a couple years or so where you've learned enough math to handle the physics coursework -- including being able to pick up new math topics quickly as needed. And that's also the point, like 3rd year, where math really begins to come alive as an end unto itself. I loved the abstract stuff and the beauty of proofs, and it was as much of an escape from reality as a way to engage with it.

Abstract math is a good proxy for how human mind works and deduces and reasons about complex topics. I can understand if you do not see beauty in that, but stretching that to "you liked it because it had no use" is inappropriate.

Edit: I imagine you were just tongue in cheek, though.

While you could construe the negation to be what you propose, it's not uncommon to read it as "not having to have a use in mind".

Yeah, me too! It also opens up the question about how we adapt the curriculum to every individual student? Or at least select for more likeness in interests so the lectures would be more suited (though of course, majority of uni professors would feel it's either "my way or the highway").

The part I hated about maths was all the memorization required ;)

I think it's one of the major problems in the entire structure of the educational system... it's all telling people solutions to problems they don't have yet. Sometimes this is just unavoidable; I'm not sure how to turn geography into a problem you have. (I mean, you can fake it, but people's brains know when it's a fake problem.) But a lot of times in math and science I think we'd be much better off leading off with the problems, and giving the students time to grapple with the problems without the answers, because then the answers would stick.

This is known in educational psychology as 'generation' and is considered an effective strategy for learning.

Yeah definitely. Get the kids to plan a trip around south east asia. What do you pack, what languages do you need to learn learn, what customs should you be aware of? How much would you need to save to be able to afford the trip?

By the end of that they'll know where Laos is, you don't need to rote memorize that fact for an exam. It's a fake problem, but also a fun one, with learning being the side effect.

> "But a lot of times in math and science I think we'd be much better off leading off with the problems, and giving the students time to grapple with the problems without the answers, because then the answers would stick."

i usually make this point this way: we're all experiential learners. experience is evolutionary pressure at work and is therefore the most reliable teacher. learning other ways relies heaviliy on our ability to simulate, be present in, and empathize with the problem, which is a larger ask of the learner, and why it's less successful (but not unsuccessful, as we have the capability).

> it's all telling people solutions to problems they don't have yet

I think this applies more so to adults who've had their childhood curiosity crushed.

Children are naturally curious. The problem with the educational system is that we want to apply the same lowest common denominator formula to most kids in most schools.

If you let kids do a little bit of what they actually want, you'd have chaos with a ratio of 20-30 kids to a single adult. That's what makes school suck - the only way to make school work is to crush children's natural urges and make them sit and be quiet.

This works well for producing obedient workers to send off to spend their life in factories.

Yuck, we don't even need that many factory workers anymore, so now we're sending everyone to do more schooling, to work in paper-pushing factories called corporate America. It's all quite unfortunate.

This comes with the assumption that everything worthwhile to learn is interesting.

Having boring stuff to learn has its own merits. If everything is fun to learn, how do people learn to learn? Or rather: How do they learn to find the interesting angle in a boring problem?

Everything worthwhile to learn is interesting, more specifically, if you identify what makes you worthwhile to you to learn, that also makes it interesting.

> I'm not sure how to turn geography into a problem you have

An old office mate once quipped that: "Ham radio is just a conspiracy on the part of the world's geography teachers to make their subject interesting."

"[Education is] all telling people solutions to problems they don't have yet" — I experienced this exact thing very acutely in college.

In the first year of my EE degree, I had to jump back a quarter in math to relearn some concepts I just hadn't grasped in high school. This complicated the rigorous schedule laid out for the first two years, as it meant I was no longer taking the prerequisite math classes the quarter before the required EE classes — instead I was taking them concurrently.

Despite the troubles I had with the college of engineer's registration process (I wasn't following their rules), taking the classes concurrently with the EE courses that actually applied that knowledge (for example, taking Electricity and Magnetism at the same time as 3D calculus) was a completely different educational experience! Maybe I was lucky in that the classes were paced similarly, but learning theory in math class and then going the next day to a practical application of that knowledge was an amazing experience.

In my senior year, I worked with the professor I was doing research under to give feedback to the engineering and math departments about my experience, but sadly I don't think anything ever came of it. It's really too bad too — it's a pretty small change to make in the scheduling and I think it would help the people who are more practically minded vs. theoretically minded (builders vs. thinkers). My education was much more tailored to the latter, despite me being squarely the former.

> giving the students time to grapple with the problems without the answers, because then the answers would stick

Well said :- )

How do I create a computer game with monsters and a hero? By learning how to program. Ok so I need to learn how to program

Leading off with the problem, caused years of intensive studies, in my case (long ago). But if instead starting with for loops and if statements, I'd think that would have seemed boring.

The example of git has another aspect to it - teamwork. If you are working on your lonesome then you really can have just the one branch and use git for backup purposes. You get a nice record of your work and you can roll back files to before the stage when you broke them. The rest of git beyond that seems a bit complicated, perhaps something that a genius linux developer might need but not necessary for your simple presence on the web. Heck, tarballs seem better suited to the task in hand and git really does seem to be solving a problem you think you don't have.

However, if you are working in a team with live code that needs to be updated in a formal way then the rest of git makes sense. It no longer seems to be theoretical mumbo jumbo, you have to learn this stuff to get work done and to stay on the team. At that stage you have someone such as a team lead who is able to actually teach you. It does relate to the project in hand and is not just some textbook example. You become a convert and git is solving problems you do have.

There is a slight chicken and egg with this though as you need to be able to use git to be in the team but learning it properly needs the team environment. It is like learning to play cricket all by yourself.

Maths is not something that the real world provides great examples for. Personally I get excited if I have to use basic trigonometry for work. If I have to use something like simultaneous equations I am ecstatic about it. Yet in maths education this real world 'advanced stuff' is just beginner grade. It doesn't even get a mention in the two inch thick maths textbooks from my undergraduate degree. The two inch thick maths textbook is utterly devoid of a single real world application, it is just symbols all the way.

If I was to make a TV series then it would be on the history of mathematics. In the day job I once used a formula that some Persian guy worked out 2500 years ago. I can't remember the specifics but I had a great feeling of standing on the shoulders of giants. This Persian guy didn't have a calculator, a computer, a biro, paper as we know it, the internet to quickly find answers or even the number zero. Yet his maths was neater than every example on Stack Overflow I found to help me with what I needed. So what was the problem he had to solve to come up with brilliant maths? How can we use his maths to solve problems in today's world? As soon as you start looking at maths with some incredible history telling the story it comes alive and is interesting. Importantly in this way of learning maths the actual formulas can be looked up rather than learned by rote. It is the application that matters rather than the abstract.

Yeah, I agree; I've found it's much easier to explain (or learn!) a concept if you start from "why are we doing this? What problem are we solving?"

Trouble is, it's hard to get a class of 30 kids interested in the same problems at the same time for exactly as long as the mass-production curriculum allows.

Agree. I'm against the cohort system. It was at best an accident of history that it was the best we could do; it shouldn't be considered a virtue and we should be moving away from it as rapidly as we can.

> leading off with the problems, and giving the students time to grapple with the problems without the answers

Sounds good, but how do you get them to grapple? You only turned "tell people the solution to a problem they don't have" to "tell people of a problem they don't have". I don't see how this (alone) will make a difference.

You can tell people a problem that they would realistically run into in the near future. Built it up in a way that they can actually see they having trouble due to the problem.

To flip that around, if you cannot make them grapple with the problem, you’re not actually teaching them. You could coerce/persuade them to follow the process and hope they get it soon enough, but you might likely be flushing all that effort down the toilet, from a long term perspective (if they don’t grapple with the problem soon enough before they forget about the process). For the really important few processes, you could try to encode them into rituals.

That's too powerful an objection; you haven't proved that I'm wrong, you've proved education in general is impossible for certain people who take certain attitudes towards it, if they refuse to engage at all.

I'm going to surprise you and just agree. Some problems don't have solutions. That doesn't mean that the people who are willing to engage and will grapple with the problem won't find my way a lot more effective.

I know this sounds shallow and it is and I've out grown it (I think) but could a young person's 'problem they have' be parental expectations?

It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between this and a student's academic performance.

In my experience pushy parenting works. Kids tend to come out of it kinda awkward but broadly academically successful and morally upstanding. No way in hell I'd do that to my kid, but it's not a strategy doomed to failure.

In education this is called “project based learning”. It can be difficult without a budget and often requires buy-in from administrators, but is definitely a thing.

What you describe is CPM math (com.org). I taught with this material for a few years right before common core came out.

I would love to see your training guide/tour.

I also call this the head nod effect. It's particularly a problem in technical discussions. I've come to the conclusion that 90% of the time 90% of people don't understand what 90% of what's being said. You essentially have to start from a point of already understanding entirely what the person is saying to be able to keep up, unless they're just saying something completely trivial.

The glue that keeps the illusion that communication is happening alive is that pernicious little head nod. No one wants to be the person that stops the speaker every 30 seconds to get clarification on every piece of jargon and ill-explained thing that comes out of their mouths. So the slight misunderstandings snowball until you're really getting a fraction of whatever the speaker is trying to communicate.

At this point, unless the head nod is aggressively positive, I have come to assume it actually means they have stopped following fully. I then have the decision as the speaker whether to ask for questions or just slow down a bit or stop altogether and see if they naturally show their curiosity.

> What’s going on is that without some kind of direct experience to use as a touchstone, people don’t have the context that gives them a place in their minds to put the things you are telling them.

The beautiful irony is that I simultaneously understand what the author means by this and I find it completely incomprehensible. Well, it's not that bad, but I guess it's just that the concept has morphed into such a complex shape of neurons in my head that doesn't seem to quite fit the words this author is saying, so it doesn't jive quite right. I think I know what they mean, but maybe I don't.

> No one wants to be the person that stops the speaker every 30 seconds to get clarification on every piece of jargon

I have found that one of the best thing about attaining Seniority at work (as an SDE) and the trust associated with it is you don't have to worry about proving yourself to anyone, and can afford to look stupid.

I actually learned this from Principal engineers who over and over would start questions with "I'm sorry, I'm an idiot who must be missing something obvious, but can you explain this it doesn't make sense to me?"

I have found doing this exhilarating and ADDICTIVE, because of how often the question ends up revealing that the person just glossed over something or doesn't understand something themselves.

Now instead of trying to understand people, I find myself trying NOT to understand something and make sure I'm not letting any hand waving or imprecision trick me into thinking I understand something when it isn't properly explained.

I was fairly recently asked what the point of implementing a web application using React was, and what advantages it would bring over just doing it without a framework/UI library.

I couldn't really give a proper answer there, at the spot. But that doesn't mean I don't have an answer, it just means I wasn't prepared for the question. Like, how do I explain why locality is helpful? I'd need to spend some serious effort planning how to explain such a concept. And that's just a small part of the answer to the question.

My point is that sometimes the answer to the question you're asking is just huge, and requires a lot of context to understand. And providing such answers on the spot is very hard. So I think we should cut people some slack when they can't immediately provide an answer. Sometimes things are just not very obvious.

Just to be clear, I don't want to discuss the merits of React here. My point is just that sometimes things are too complex to explain fully in every situation. Everything cannot be understood from first principles. You need abstractions to be productive. By all means, question the abstractions, but perhaps not always?

I'm really struggling to empathize with your point here.

I SUSPECT you are expecting that the questionner is going to hold you to an incredibly high and rigorous bar and in fact I don't think that's true. If you say "It will improve our user's perceived client latency" i expect that is sufficient - IF TRUE.

And this is the key. In software everything is a tradeoff. I don't know what the tradeoffs with using React are, but tenerally the industry trend right now is React is worth it. But why? I think it's a fair question to understand that, otherwise you're just cargo culting an architecture without understanding it.

BTW blindly following a trend is itself a choice and a tradeoff. You might not need a deeper answer for using React than "A lot of people use React, so if we use React it'll be easier to hire people to continue to make changes." That's a valid technical decision to use something!

I'm not a frontend engineer, BTW. However I just googled Javascript Locality and React Locality and found basically nothing reasonable except https://stackoverflow.com/questions/45069206/does-data-local...

So I do feel like i'm going to illustrate my point here and ask you "What is locality in this context? Why is it important? Is React the only way to achieve it? What are we choosing as a tradeoff?"

I think I did a poor job of explaining the situation I was referring to. My point was I could’ve made a better job explaining a concept, but I just wasn’t prepared for or had the capacity to do so at the spot. Explaining complex things in an ad-hoc fashion with no preparation is hard, is what I’m saying.

Locality is about having the code for one feature in one spot. If you can remove a feature by deleting one piece of code at one place, for example an entire file, then the feature is local to that file. It allows you to make changes and remove features without understanding the entire application. Without it, you have to understand the entire codebase to make any changes, which goes from hard to impossible as the project grows. This is why globals are a pain.

Locality is related to code cohesion and loose coupling.

React encourages locality because you’re only supposed to pass data one way, which gives you a sort of tree structure where you can remove a branch without affecting other branches.

Of course you can mess this up in React as well, React is no silver bullet and you can do it without React.

There is so much to talk about here, but none of that is relevant to the point I’m trying to make, which is:

I should probably have been able to explain all of this to the person asking, but it’s a lot harder to do so verbally with no preparation than it is to write it down like this.

The context here might be that we are in a design review - you are presenting a design. Maybe it's verbally, but maybe it's a document.

Ideally it's a document, so you can describe it by writing it down.

But if someone asks a hard question that you didn't prepare for, well you still have to make a best effort to answer it verbally.

You can use "I'll write down my thoughts and get back to you" to SOME things, but not every time.

My original context was rather that of a junior developer asking a more experienced developer what choices to make, and then questioning them. Which is good, but sometimes the knowledge gap is just too wide to deal with then and there.

Given what you wrote, to me it sounds like the asker suspected React was the wrong tool for the job. Not every front-end required an all-out framework with its own weighty cd/ci pipeline. It’s possible the scope of the project was just some static HTML backed with a snippet of JS. If you are dead set on using React then you need to be ready defend the technical tool _choice_, not React itself.

I also ask these simple questions and it’s funny to watch the head-nodders rush to prevent the question from being answered by the presenter by jumping in with what is often incorrect information. There is a powerful desire to maintain the illusion that the whole room understands what is being said, to the point defending it can be instinctual.

Over time this behavior changes as it becomes known I’ll follow up to a cover-up with even simpler questions. :) Some of them have started asking their own!

> one of the best thing about attaining Seniority at work.. you don't have to worry about proving yourself to anyone

but to reach Senior, you must head nod a lot when you're junior (and then later research it yourself if interested), because otherwise you'll likely be deemed stupid and won't make it to Senior.

Not only deemed stupid, it can also be perceived as an attack by making the presenter "look bad" and up in retaliations.

People remember how they felt a lot longer than who was factually correct.

Agreed with you, but I think you don’t push enough on:

> I then have the decision as the speaker whether to ask for questions or just slow down a bit or stop altogether and see if they naturally show their curiosity.

Much like people don’t get 90% of what is said 90% of the time, I find that 90% of the time speakers don’t really want to cause understanding in their audience. They want to show off how smart they are, how cool their solution is - they want validation and recognition, but not to teach.

If your goal is to create understanding in your listeners, then you have to also be listening to their feedback (vocal or not) and aggressively adapting your approach based on the feedback you get, rather than rattling 500 words that sound SO GOOD in your head.

You are likely to end up in a situation where the “listener” is doing most of the talking, and that’s a great sign! But people think of a great teacher/explainer as someone who finds the magic words to make the right connections in their student’s head, but that’s not really how it works.

This is why I insert multiple choice questions throughout my lectures to test understanding of the concepts. They're usually brutally simple, but once you've taught a course a few times and see how students get confused afterwards, you can put answers that diagnose that misunderstanding in pretty straightforwardly, and having to actually figure out a multiple choice question and then getting it wrong are enough to force people to integrate information.

> The beautiful irony is that I simultaneously understand what the author means by this and I find it completely incomprehensible. Well, it's not that bad, but I guess it's just that the concept has morphed into such a complex shape of neurons in my head that doesn't seem to quite fit the words this author is saying, so it doesn't jive quite right. I think I know what they mean, but maybe I don't.

You might already know about this but you should ready about the "Memory Palace" technique used for remembering lots of things. Using a physical space in your mind to "store" information.

Personally, I need a place for things to live for me to remember it. That either needs to be a physical space - I write something down to help me remember it, in a way because the memory is on the paper in my mind, or at the end of a linked list of memories, so that I can remember it by the things it's associated with.

I've noticed this linking of physical space and memory many times, and I've heard of this memory palace technique, but I've never given it a shot. Thanks, perhaps I'll try it with some learning I'm doing on the side.

> When people ask me about my life’s ambitions, I often joke that my goal is to become independently wealthy so that I can afford to get some work done. Mainly that’s about being able to do things without having to explain them first, so that the finished product can be the explanation. I think this will be a major labor saving improvement.

This is an excellent explanation that mirrors my own life goals, but I have struggled to put the sentiment into words this well. At the end of the day, I just want to spend (waste?) all of my time doing AI research or working on a cure for cancer, but I want to do it my own way.

Same. Over the years I've become obsessed with becoming financially independent, so that I can work on what I think is important and don't have to explain it to others. In the process, I've completely lost interests in achieving any success in the day job, which is the polar opposite of myself 10 years ago. Everything at work just feels so pointless now. I feel really bad but just can't help it.

I recommend the book or the blog posts of JL Collin. His posts are all about how to achieve financial independence


Websites that aim to help people become wealthier, and yet are sprinkled with ads, inevitably give an impression that their owners consider ad revenue a viable source of income.

If that is so, I’d be reluctant to follow any advice given on such a site, as I do not want to be in a position where I rely on ads for own financial independence.

Or they feel leaving money on the table by not running ads is pretty stupid?

Or users turn off Javascript on the page and never see the ads to begin with.

The content degrades into becoming ads for their books, seminars, shovels for gold miners, etc.

By the time get-rich advice becomes even moderately popular it's either applicable only to saturated markets, selling the dream, has hard requirements outside the reach of most (birth, luck, credit, liquid assets, etc), or some combination of those.

It's like writing a book on how to become wealthy, and the advice it gives you is to write a book on how to become wealthy.

Of course they never admit the truth, that the only way they got rich/famous was by writing self help books and have never done anything real outside that.

I know someone who did exactly that. They can't quit their day job yet.

His advice is simple: stick your money in low fee index funds.

>> Mainly that’s about being able to do things without having to explain them first

It seems as good a rational definition of faith as any.

How is your way different from the current way it's done and what benefits would there be to your way?

My way involves a lot more risk that nothing useful will be produced.

I basically want a higher risk / reward than what working in this field as an employee would provide. I wouldn’t be able to try far out ideas if I wanted to keep my job, because it may be the case that one avenue of research never goes anywhere for years.

Peter Higgs has some interesting thoughts on how he would probably not have produced anything valuable if his work had occurred in the current academic environment that prioritizes frequent publications in high impact factor journals (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/06/peter-higgs-...)

I share your goals.

I'd put it this way: your way involves a lot more risk of dead ends, but also offers a lot more of focused, productive deep work.

In general sense, companies are set up to derisk work. It's a trade-off - we get consistency, but also mediocrity.

In my case I just want to follow the rabbit hole to wherever it takes me without worrying about showing results to anybody.

Why can't you do that now?

It generally leads to being fired for not completing milestones, which leads to not having income to support yourself.

How much monthly income would a person need to support themselves and work on what they want to work on?

Depends on the location but living without a job is not really feasible without government assistance of some sort which is usually tied to stress and extra work proving you need the money. For example in many US states you have to prove that you are constantly looking for a new job and are willing to accept any kind of job offered in order to receive unemployment assistance. This is a far cry from being relaxed enough to work on projects in peace.

Have you heard of the 4% rule? That basically means if you save up X amount, you can spend 4% of X every year, in perpetuity, given some reasonable return like 7%. So if you can live on $80k/year, save and invest $2 million.

I can live on much less than $80k and I actually currently do. But $2 million actually sounds like a reasonable goal. If I can get it down to $1 million then that will be achievable.

Yes, if you can get your expenses under 40K a year, you'll be good. I read a lot of financial independence / FIRE forums. Some people are much more conservative and think 4% is too high. They prefer the 3.5% or even 3% rule. For a very early, longer retirement, they are probably right. The 4% rule was based on a "normal" 30 year retirement.

Is this similar to FIRE?

In my experience what we have in a lot of places are cultures of anti-competence.

In a competence culture, you try to understand your sphere very, very well, including not only the current facts of the matter but how those facts might change under different circumstances. Then you try to understand enough of spheres of people around you that you can bracket what will affect you, and how you will affect them. It's implicitly understood that the functioning of the entire enterprise comes from people doing this.

In anti-competence culture, the functioning of the entire enterprise is mysterious and located somewhere else where it's not your problem. You only know as much about what you're doing as you need to barely keep going. You try to know as little about what's going on with others as possible, and if there is any interaction between you, you try to minimize and even resist it, in the hopes that you will have to change as little as possible or changes will be discovered to be unnecessary or deemed to be too expensive.

You want to stay in the cultures of competence. What the article is describing is just how much of the other kind is out there.

It's not the culture of anti-competence (although, yes, that exists).

How many times have you tried to communicate a novel idea to competent people just to have them dismiss it with obvious problems that clearly don't apply to your idea? That doesn't happen because they can't evaluate your idea, it happens because they don't understand the idea itself.

When the innovation is small you can get away by repeating it again and again. At some point people stop, take your idea into account, and suddenly understand why none of what they said applies. But when it is something too different, you can't do this one either.

One thing I've noticed is the better an engineer gets, the better they are at shooting down every idea they see. While I have seen many cases where a person did it anyways and failed, I have also seen many cases where they did it anyways and where massively successful.

Indeed, I suspect there is a curse of expertise. If you're an expert, you begin seeing everything as so nuanced, as so fragile, that you will dismiss lots of radical innovation as too simplistic. (And I think especially it affects motivation to actually try something new.)

But if somebody somewhat naive comes along, and just pushes through with sheer effort, they might succeed where many experts have predicted a failure.

Or more likely, the newbies will solve the “unsolvable” problem by removing some of the constraints that the old guard was holding inviolable. The newbies crow about their success for a few years while everyone struggles to work around the constraint violations.

NoSQL is the biggest example of this. Ignore everything we learned about ACID and just use key-value stores with no transactions or relations. People can build their own if they need them, right? And duplicating data to work around missing relationships is not a problem because storage is cheap? Then we get an explosion of new databases, each of which solve a subset of the missing functionally problems, with varying degrees of success.

I suspect this came across as more snide than I meant it. Sometimes holding a treasured constraint is the wrong thing and the old guard of experts failed to understand that not every business problem needed the full solution. But it annoys me for some reason the attitude of “we just solved this problem that experts could not solve for decades” when the nuance is that only a subset of the problem was solved, with potentially extraordinary effort required to re-introduce those missing constraints.

I can't quite buy your example, because NoSQL is pretty much a reinvention of VSAM and IMS DB (not IMS DC).

Regardless, I don't think it's necessarily that the expert would not want to drop some design constraint. It's more likely that it is genuinely hard to decide, which of them to drop and which of them to keep, because there are so many and problems are complex.

But if you're somewhat new (not a beginner either), you don't see all these, and you can benefit from the ignorance. Unfortunately, I think it cuts both ways, it's far more likely that ignorance will actually hurt you. But for a small number of people, ignorance can lead to lucky innovation.

I call that the Procrustean Bed: Simplify the solution by cutting pieces off the problem.

There doesn't even need to be great effort. Sometimes the experts are just so good at making every idea look like shit that they don't even try.

Neh, the better an engineer gets, the better they are at asking questions which make the person with the idea realize there are some problems with his idea. These problems may be fixable.

Shooting down ideas is not productive. Making sure ideas are realizable is.

One thing I've noticed is the better an engineer gets, the better they are at shooting down every idea they see.

This was two jobs ago. Razor sharp developer, could come up with any feature you asked him to. Which was the problem, if ideas didn't originate from him, good freaking luck getting him to work on it. He cost us to miss a few critical deadlines because of his refusal to let other people do their jobs unless it satisfied his demands, company refused to fire him because he had been around so long and carried institutional knowledge about the application but also refused to de-silo himself-thereby making the entire engineering effort dependent on his knowledge.

Guy went from a severely annoying veteran on the team to being given management duties over the team once our old boss retired due to health concerns (irrelevant to the job itself-he just drew a very unlucky health card). I and several other developers were out the door soon after because none of us wanted to report to him.

Company later got acquired. I like to peep in on their "About Us" company roster page every now and then. He's still there. But I've seen 3 different people in three years in my former role reporting to him show up on the roster, and then disappear and then get replaced by a new face.

"People don't quit jobs, they quit bosses".

One obvious example of that is when Dropbox was presented here as a startup and was shot down in glorious fashion.

That is a great example. The only ones I could think of were internal to my office, and didn't want to go posting about them on HN.

I would amend this to: the better an engineer gets while still staying a salaried engineer.

Calcified engineers are more likely to enjoy the high-level corporate environment. Flexible ones leave to start companies, contract, whatever.

  > the better an engineer gets, the better they are at shooting down every idea
Are they really better or just more confident with time ?

I completely agree and love the sentiment here, but I'd modify it slightly. What the author is saying is that you can't get a person to go from 0% to 100% understanding just by telling someone. The avatar example is great - you're not going to convince people 100% that avatars are game-changing by telling them once.

On the other hand, incremental nudges are possible. e.g. when you tell someone "hey, we're going to have avatars," you might nudge from from 0% to 1% conviction that avatars will be interesting. Maybe that seems pretty useless...

But there's a way to harness it! One way to tell someone something and have them actually understand it is to have them engage in long-form content. Have you ever wondered why books need to be so long to explain topics which you could summarize in a sentence? It always perplexed me why authors like Malcolm Gladwell could write for 50k words what could be distilled into a couple of sentences, or why talks spend 60 minutes going over a couple of points that someone would summarize in a few bullet points on a YouTube comment. But eventually I realized that the extreme verbosity is crucial. You can't bring anyone from 0 to 100% understanding in a single sentence, but if you string enough sentences together, and attack your point from enough unique directions, then you really can start to move the dial.

The problem is that when you talk to someone and you say "avatars are coming!", you've got this big picture in your head of what that could possibly mean, you've thought deeply about all the possible ramifications and associations that avatars bring, and your sentence has so much implicit meaning to you. But since no one else you're telling has that knowledge, that sentence only carries a small sliver of the full context and meaning that you understand. To really get it across, you need to convey your entire context. Which takes a really long time.

And that's why you can't tell anyone. Well, not easily.

P.S. This comment got so long that it came dangerously close to wading into meta territory, but I managed to successfully avoid it. Oh wait.

Yes! I've thought the same ever since I saw the following Malcolm Gladwell Ted talk


The point of the talk is that when you are developing a product you shouldn't aim to sell one perfect version of your product. You should have a small range of slightly different products that cater to several niches. Instead of one "perfect Pepsi" you have a few: Pepsi, Pepsi Lite, Cherry Pepsi, Pepsi Zero (or whatever).

He repeats versions of the following phrase four times in the same fifteen minute talk:

> They were looking for the perfect X, and they should have been looking for the perfect Xs

It makes the talk extremely memorable and has stayed with me for ten or so years since I saw it.

I've felt similarly about why traditional university education tends to have value, and why coding bootcamps cannot generally convey the same value within six or twelve weeks.

I coded a lot in university, but realistically, probably less during coursework than a very intensive bootcamp would, and certainly on things that I don't even begin to touch anymore (OS, AI, databases (not accessing, writing one), compilers, etc). The value was never in the coursework, really; as the professor says to Peter Gregory in the first episode of Silicon Valley, the true value of a university experience is intangible.

It seems it's all about context. Nobody talks about context. Communicating context is difficult, you have to really understand it before you can talk about it. Therefore context is left out most of the time.

I don't think you are necessarily wrong. But in some way the text also says the exact opposite: That people will understand 0% until they have a magical "Aha" moment by which they will understand 100%.

I hope you’re enjoying yourself over there dang. I enjoy that you keep it light.

HN needs transclusions and comment notifications. The folks that commented on the previous articles would have worthwhile things to add if they could be pinged.

> When people ask me about my life’s ambitions, I often joke that my goal is to become independently wealthy so that I can afford to get some work done.

If this isn't the best argument for a survivable UBI, I don't know what is. But, alas, you can't tell people anything.

Is it? UBI surely relies on taxes, which would evaporate if everyone retired early to live off their UBI.

Are you thinking of income tax as the only tax that exist?

No... corporation and dividend taxes require companies to be making profit, and companies almost always need working employees to do that, and sales tax only exists when people buy things - that's not happening anywhere near as much when everyone is only earning a basic income. What did I miss? And let's not forget there are still all the other public services to pay for.

I can certainly see potential in the idea of UBI, but primarily as a means of support when it's needed, not as a spur to retirement at 35.

People interpret your words in context of an existing framework of understanding.

If I tell you "we're adding a button to the help page", you understand that "button" means "software GUI element" and "help page" means "hypetext page on the world wide web". You do not immediately get out needle and thread and start poking holes in paper.

The challenge, then, is telling people that the framework itself is wrong. In order to understand what you're saying, your words have already gone through and been filtered by the very framework you are trying to change.

VR really suffers from this. How do you get someone excited about VR by showing them flat images of it on a typical display? You can't. If you could translate the experience to a flat display then, by definition, VR wouldn't really be adding anything.

By letting a person experience the thing itself directly, you sidestep a lot of that framework and context. You don't need to get the point across in metaphor, analogies, or simulation. You don't need a persuasive map when you can literally drop them into the territory and let them both draw their own map and directly see for themselves in what ways the map is lacking.

Speaking of VR, do you have a favorite headset? Or have you used one that you thought was good?

Discussed in detail here today:


Short answer: Oculus Quest


I don't. I've never actually tried VR. :)

For me this has happened with business advice. I was a teenager when people told me variants of:

* Validate quickly

* Know your customer

and eventually that became

* Fail fast

* Test your idea

And I didn't even realize what it _meant_. I didn't grok it. The first time I encountered the concept of a Painted Door in product design in practice I suddenly understood pieces of these. And the first time I failed to really understand the customer, and failed to fail fast, and so on, I understood those things. But I had to experience it to know it.

It did help to have the vocabulary so I could spot where I failed, though.

>> When people ask me about my life’s ambitions, I often joke that my goal is to become independently wealthy so that I can afford to get some work done. Mainly that’s about being able to do things without having to explain them first, so that the finished product can be the explanation.

OMG Yes.

This reminds me of "Genchi Genbutsu" or "Go and See". Very basically it means there's incredible value in direct observation. Telemetry can help, but sometimes you have to schlep your actual human body to a place where another person is to see what they are seeing. Obviously this is much harder these days.

I think of the inverse as taking someone on a journey. You can't tell people anything, but you can give them context and show them things and maybe they will learn part of it.

Sounds like one of the principles in Nat Greene's book "Stop Guessing". It has 9 principles of problem solving and one of them is called "Smell the problem." He has an example in the book of a machine which was wrapping packages of toilet paper and they could never run it above a certain speed and that was limiting the output of their factory. Eventually they had to look in the machine while it was running faster than it normally could to see a screw would extend out into the path of the plastic sheet only when it was running above a certain speed. So they were able to fix it for free, when the alternative workarounds were to buy a whole new machine.

I use that a lot at work and often it involves packet captures and other low level tools to observe hard problems at the lowest available level to see what's happening, instead of guessing and coming up with possibly expensive workarounds based on guessing.

A thousand times this. The better I get at debugging, the less inclined I am to guess and check. It’s almost always worthwhile to learn or write a tool that will show you what is actually happening. This can feel like getting sidetracked, but it isn’t. The answer almost always becomes clear.

I have seen a case where so many people wanted to go and see part of a company’s operation that it started putting on a traveling stage production of itself, setting up in an HQ conference room every few months. I joined early enough to see it in situ and found that the touring version was nothing like the real thing.

Anything truly new is met with everything but understanding.

Back in 2006 I had the seeds of an idea that you probably know today as a "deep fake", but I was calling it "personalized media". By 2008 I had a fully operating feature film quality automated actor replacement pipeline (my background is visual effects.) However, even with a working system nobody could understand the ramifications this could have on education, entertainment and advertising. Even today, I'd be surprised if you, dear reader, understand the ramifications of being able to replace actors in filmed media. The shortsightedness of, well everyone, is obvious. People think of creating porn when they think of a deep fake, yet that is the dumbest implementation of the technology one could waste their time doing. Why not create an advertising system where consumers, and their friends appear in video advertising using the products being advertised? Add celebrities and you have virtual celebrity experiences. Add political candidates and you have virtual meet your candidate experiences. Educational media where you and your classmates are on location in historical events. This is just the smallest example of how far media with the viewer embedded in it could go. I pursued the idea until I went bankrupt.

the Russian film and novel "Generation P" from around that era explores the implications of this tech. It's very ahead of out times. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_P_(film)

Looks very interesting, I will have to watch.

Its a shame of your bankrupcy, but I do wonder what all the other ideas really are, Tupac on Coachella, Carrie Fisher in star wars, Trump's face on a baby, and maybe like in the old movie Simone true virtual stars (sim one, get it), what the real ramifications are. Maybe I don't get it but it is not anything different than those Elvis lookalikes on Times Square.

It is actually significantly different. Imagine being a typically American White Christian and seeing a compelling narrative where you are borne Black, you see yourself as a Black version of yourself in the media mirrors, and you experience a powerful story about the harshness of life as a Black American child. That is significantly more powerful than a Times Square Elvis.

That's called blackface and is sort of what Elvis did.

You can watch porn with anyone you like edited into it.

You can watch a ShamWow infomercial with yourself in it.

You bet your life savings that the second would be more popular with the general public? You're right, I don't understand.

Even trying to steelman your position I don't want any of those things; a video of me in a Tesla? Why? A video of oneself meeting Elvis? I guess someone would want the novelty of that maybe once? Virtual "Meet Trump/Obama/Sanders/Warren?" nope.

Films and TV shows regularly have an actor leave/die and replace them with a different one playing the same character, and we're all fine with it. I'd much rather watch a good presenter touring Pompeii than watch fake-myself touring Pompeii.

I can much more imagine the response to "Hey! It's YOU driving a new Mercedes in that advert!" would be "Do I really look that pale?" or "Stop putting me in every damn advert you creeps!".

For specific demographics, media with you and your associates in it will appear like highly seductive magic, and it can engender brand loyalty in a manner only seen in Trump supporters.

This is true for education as well. You can hear or read something and think you understand it, but you really don't unless you can reproduce the explanation, compare it to a ground truth, and verify that you got it.

The percentage of time you are doing that exercise is the percentage effectiveness of your education.

The nice thing about programming is your program is its own ground truth (programs are proofs). It either does what you expect it to or it doesn't (for the most part).

I've found interleaving (https://www.learningscientists.org/interleaving) and spiral approach (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiral_approach) helps. First came across the spiral approach when reading the pickaxe book to learn ruby (https://pragprog.com/titles/ruby/index.html) and the idea stuck so now I try to approach new subjects using the same technique by gradually making the "spiral" smaller as I focus in on a given topic.

> One final point: I expect none of you to really get what I’m talking about here, because this principle also applies to itself.

This is a bit discontenting... as the author himself notes:

> without some kind of direct experience to use as a touchstone, people don’t have the context that gives them a place in their minds to put the things you are telling then.

Generalizing from mine and friends’ experience, all who have ever tried explaining anything in depth have been exposed to this, thereby we–I expect the HN crowd have all been there–should understand this, we should “get it”.

As an ending note, both OPs post and my comment are grossly simplified; for example, even with “a touchstone” people won’t understand with mere exposure confronted with anything of slight complexity, they probably won’t get it until knowing the stone inside out; I remember after half a year with programming in high school, many people that genuinely tried to learn, still didn’t get why they should bother with getting the syntax exact...

This happened to me the other day with something called Lab Streaming Layer. A friend of mine explained it to me and I nodded and said, "Yeah, that's cool."

Then I saw this video and the penny dropped: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1at7yrcFW0 Introduction to Modern Brain-Computer Interface Design - Christian A. Kothe ; Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience, University of California San Diego

I go back to my friend, all excited, and tell him what I saw, and as I'm describing it I realizing that I'm just repeating back to him just what he told be the other day! I stopped and apologized.

I like to think I'm on the ball but sometimes things just go over your head even when you think you know what's going on.

I think I got what he tells because that summarizes pretty well the challenge I face to sell my core product.

It's a "private youtube".

Obviously not pioneer nor innovative, but we don't follow those many gurus who advocates for building fast growing startups and not getting yourself into the not-scalable consultingware trap (things operate a little different in developing economies with risk-averse investors, but that's another story).

Anyway, it's been a bit tough to get into the market since the clients who take the value of such product as obvious already have their providers; and the other ones who have similar scenarios but never considered such solution often ask why in the hell they'd pay for a private youtube when google already gives them a full featured one, for free.

The Dao that can be told is not the true Dao.

Is the true DAO the one before the fork, or after it?



I suspect that, in addition to the difficulty of communicating anything using words, there is often a situation where people are not actually listening; people can't be told anything.

I think people aren’t good at understanding statements that are not actionable or offer them no immediate benefits.

That's a different problem. I believe that Kednicma is talking about people who aren't even trying to understand.

Let's say the conversation is about Haskell, and some random HN commenter wanders in who has never used Haskell. (Let's call him AnimalMuppet, just to put a name on.) You can't really explain monads to him; he has to go try them to get what's going on. But there's a difference between AnimalMuppet saying "Tell me why you'd want to program that way", and saying "No, monads are not a burrito, they can only give metaphorical indigestion, not the real thing." One is trying to understand (without the background to be able to do so). The other is just wanting to argue, without even caring whether the basis for doing so has any relevance to the discussion.

"It is useless to have a conversation with those who will not listen." - me, but it sounds deep and almost Buddhist, so maybe I stole it from someone.

I found this lecture pretty informative: The Craft of Writing Effectively - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtIzMaLkCaM

Training is hard.

I've been training remarkably difficult-to-train people for decades, with really spotty success.

Part of it was that I have never been "trained to train," so I cleared the minefield by dancing through it.

I have learned to take Responsibility for communication.

In my experience, if "they" don't "get it," it's my fault.

The biggest problem that I have, is starting at too high a baseline (sounds like what happened here). In many cases, I need to back up, and do a "preflight" of "the basics."

This reads like sales speak. My experience is the opposite. Some people take to concepts like a duck to water, some people are dopey and forget things you told them an hour ago, some people (most people) want you to hold their hand every step of the way and will actively try to avoid figuring things out independently.

I want to say it's enthusiasm that matters, but a lazy smart person takes less time to train than an enthusiastic moron, in my experience.

If you're paid to train people it's healthy to take responsibility for that but IMO it's not realistic or true. Training someone with poor aptitude is like swimming through tar. It's palpably different.

> This reads like sales speak.

I am not a sales person. I have been training people as a volunteer for decades. I have never made a dime (in fact, I am usually out-of-pocket by a fair amount). I am not a professional trainer or orator (or even a particularly good one), but I am an experienced one.

The people I have trained have faced enormous challenges in life, and are trying to get back up, after having been knocked down. I have not had the luxury of an eager, high-functioning audience. In fact, the audience has sometimes been actively hostile, and my training has not been effective (more often than I’d like).

Their enthusiasm is often unlike anything many folks will ever encounter; born of desperation, but so are the challenges. Many are folks with “knee-jerk” reactions to authority figures, which means I have needed to approach them carefully, and my personal demeanor and attitude could have a huge impact on my effectiveness.

The stakes have often been quite high (life and death). It’s been important for me to ensure that people get the help; not that I feel proud.

I simply wrote about my personal experience. This was not a typical “Internet armchair expert” post. Please note that I made a point of stating this was my experience.

"Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." –Attributed to Nasrudin, but made famous by Will Rogers.

I understand that your experience is different. I appreciate and honor that. I only ask that you provide me the same courtesy.

Please have some compassion. The world needs as much of that as possible, and I feel that social media has been highly corrosive to empathy.

Hey, thanks for whatever you're trying to do out there. I grew up among a bunch of kids with pretty poor prospects, and we all started building invisible barbed wire fences around ourselves from an early age. It takes guts to try to do any improve-the-world work pro bono, and even more so when you're working with people who don't shower you with praise for it.

I'm sure that even when you seemed to get nowhere or worse, occasionally some of those expressionless faces across from you squirreled something important away that helped them later on. Make sure you get the rest you need so you don't burn out too quick.

Thanks. I’m not exactly tilting at windmills. I’m part of a much larger organization.

I’m also tough as nails. I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years.

I have, in the aggregate, made significant inroads, but there’s plenty more needs doing, and one of my more important capabilities, is the ability to step aside, and let the next generation take the reins.

I am now actually looking at doing training of software developers. It’s a different venue, but I also have a great deal of experience in that arena.

I'm still amazed those guys were able to cram the Habitat client into a Commodore 64. I can why Fujitsu didn't take the risk of trying to cram a somewhat more ambitious client into the tiny user side machines of the era. If it doesn't fit, the whole project fails. Here's a video of the gameplay, running on a Commodore 64 emulator.[1] Remember, this is 64KB (not MB, not GB) over a 300 baud connection.

The trouble with Xanadu was the business model. Everything is pay per view in Xanadu. It's all about micropayments. Really micro micropayments. Edit something by someone else, as with Wikipedia, and you get a tiny fraction of the revenue. Ted Nelson wanted to track the history of every snippet. Also, the design was all built around centralized servers. Not open at all.

[1] https://youtu.be/VmpAnhp31C0

> "What’s going on is that without some kind of direct experience to use as a touchstone, people don’t have the context that gives them a place in their minds to put the things you are telling them. The things you say often don’t stick, and the few things that do stick are often distorted"

I was just thinking about this today when reading about "Petrodollars", Gaddafi, and all the wars and hostilities started with countries that try to sell oil for anything but US dollars. There is a lot of complexities to geo-politics that are far outside the confines of the simple versions that are transmitted over and over again in news and popular culture. When we come across these big complex issues, it's hard to synthesis this new information into understanding, or an extended worldview, because there is nowhere to stick it in the first place. It takes a lot of mental energy to build the scaffold to hold new information. I think the aversion to expending mental energy is one thing that leads to just ignoring these things, or seeking the easy path of conspiracism.

It is the graphic and emotionally compelling part of these stories that my mind tends to be able to hang onto. In the case of Libya, video of the young Tuareg men in now ungoverned southern regions driving their beat up car from one town to the next and being shot at by snipers. Think about the HK or BLM demonstrations. It is often these tactical scenes that are transmitted to us, more than the cultural or political side. I guess the manipulation of these emotional images is just propaganda and is as old as conflict. ("the other side are baby eaters")

Maturation as a critical thinker is a long hard process that can't be done alone. I worry that it is not something that we as societies are generally not well set up to do. With the shift to a tribal, partisan world, where there are more informations comes from privately employed Public relationships specialist, than Journalist working in the public interest, what will be the state of scaffolds in many peoples minds, and will they be able to support being told anything new..

Related (a proposed mechanism for this effect): Expecting Short Inferential Distances [1]

1: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/HLqWn5LASfhhArZ7w/expecting-...

It is hard to explain something which is in your mind and haven't implemented. But, for my day-to-day talk with something who don't know my situation, I explain by jumping in her situation and give the feel by comparison.

For example, if I have to explain her about how I feel today at work when I was assigned with front-end task that I don't know as I'm back-end developer and just spent complete day to solve that small problem. I usually use her context like, you're tailor and you know how to make shirt but now you assigned to do some alter work on pant because you know tailoring.

You really can't tell people anything when they are starting their first business.

You may be able to offer them hard won wisdoms about revenue, cashflow, the nature of what a startup is, why they shouldn't be wasting time on making a logo and why not to hurry to trademark their business name etc etc, but the lights are off.

They'll only come to understand the importance of your advice as they make the mistakes and pay the price - i.e. blowing 3 months of their financial runway getting a logo, website, business cards and trademark, only to go out of business 3 months later because they've run out of cash.

this is a lot like Wiio’s Laws “Communication usually fails, except by accident.” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiio%27s_laws

also, I can’t remember the source but someone wrote that if a person says “I understand” then they probably don’t, but if they say “I don’t understand you but I just thought of something myself” then you probably had a successful transmission

relevant Ted talk, "don't tell people what you're doing tell them why you're doing it" - https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_insp...

I don't like to be dismissive, but that video is pure fluff.

> whether it's Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright Brothers, they all think, act, and communicate, in the exact same way. And it's the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it.

I very nearly stopped watching right there. Does this kind of nonsense really appeal to anyone? It strikes me as bordering on insulting.

Wikipedia describes this guy as an 'author and motivational speaker'. He makes a living claiming to have cracked the one weird secret to success, but is not a visionary, a pioneer, or a leader.

It's like someone selling you an investment strategy. If it really worked, they wouldn't be selling it, they'd be busy making millions.

well it appealed to me or I wouldn't've shared it, and I think his advice is eminently useful to anyone frustrated that you can't tell people anything - ie: rather than specific details you think might interest them, try sharing your motivations, beliefs, vision and once they get that (and if they're still interested) let them ask for specific details. iow: you can't guess the details that will interest them, and if they're not interested then they're not listening to whatever details you're sharing, so get them interested first (by explaining why they should be interested, or why you're interested, your motivations, etc.)

I gave up trying to explain and started answering questions with the same thing back. What will having a CICD system accomplish? We will get a complete CICD pipeline.

No mention of an architecture diagram - to, you know, tell people something.

Sure explains the mess at Fujitsu.

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