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I am very real (lettersofnote.com)
943 points by etrain 2003 days ago | hide | past | web | 150 comments | favorite

This submission could not have come at a better time.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been contemplating making a submission urging HNers to be human, and to recognize that everyone else who comments here is also a human, and that stories about startups and notable figures are essentially about humans - humans who all have families, friends, ambitions, desires, flaws, struggles.

All too often I see people here forgetting about that. I myself have been guilty of it in the past too. But there's something about the negativity and criticism here that grates on me more than on other sites. I think people here tend to assume that being an engineer/programmer means that not only must they treat their code with utmost logic and rationality, but that they should look at life in the same manner - that to be an empathetic and emotional person puts them at some sort of optimizational and productive disadvantage. All that leads to is cold, harsh discourse and criticism without considering the more abstract, but very real ways humans feel and behave. It's sad to see.

So, I guess this is that submission. Next time you write a comment, ask yourself if you're being human and remind yourself that whatever you're about to say is directed at another human.

Stop being robots, and just act human.

I agree with you, and there is a specific type of pedantry I find especially grating. I'm talking about the constant insistence on citations and double-blind studies, even when it isn't appropriate - even when someone obviously means only to share their own experience. There's an aggressive form ("Citation Needed") and a passive-aggressive form ("Say, friend, that's a bold claim! I sure am interested in this. Do you have a source where I might read more about it?")

Sometimes, this is completely appropriate, as when someone is using an anecdote as their only support in a vigorous debate, or when information is clearly being presented as factual, when it probably isn't. But as "Citation Needed" has become a rampant meme in its own right, I think it is increasingly applied in knee-jerk, cargo-cultish, and inappropriate ways.

Sharing anecdotes and experiences is one of the fundamental ways that humans share information about the myriad little nooks of the world that we move through. I know it isn't science. I'm quite well read on cognitive biases, statistics, and the scientific method; and I do not need to be reminded about these by HN commenters continually, every time somebody shares a story, or an opinion based on their experience.

I'm concerned about a chilling effect on the sharing of anecdotal information. There is information - information that I can use - in the many experiences related by others. I don't need or desire to get fully 100% of my information from peer-reviewed scientific studies. I know the difference between science and personal experience, and I would much rather bear the burden of telling the difference for myself, as the reader, than to have fewer people talking about their personal experiences.

Thanks for eloquently stating a problem I've noticed for a while. I think there's a fear of not coming off as a hard-nosed, logical thinker, so the constant need for citation is a proxy for "I believed XYZ because some authority said it was true. If I'm wrong, it's not me, it's because I was mislead."

The world is full of single data points. If you see an anecdote, see it as a data point, but more importantly, see it as a metaphor which could apply to your situation.

Sometimes I think some people wouldn't hug their kids until a study said it was ok (hrm, weren't there studies in the 50s saying you should do the opposite?). I'd like to think I'm rational, but sometimes you need to move beyond the cover-your-ass safety net of "the study says" and do what feels right. Citation? Here's a meta-study that most medical research studies are false (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/).

Erik Naggum had a flamy comment on that topic: http://groups.google.com/group/comp.lang.lisp/msg/e5af8ef3f8...

The study you mention brings me to another point: In some cases the discussion here on HN revolves about believe systems, papers an references cited are often selected for an argument by authority. Moreover: would a paper in itself be enough? wouldn't you have to, critically follow through to the reviewing peers? concurring papers? This is indeed death of any discussion and it proves nothing in the end.

Typical thread of citations against citations: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3749114 but the debate is never coming beyond the point of "how do yo know this?" questions, masking "I don't like your point" as "you have no data backing this up".

Exactly. I saw that back and forth thread on education and it made me cringe.

Good point. To disagree so strongly when anectodal evidence is shared regardless of context became a culture in itself rather than a model for rational behaviour and is disruptive.

Academic science is an entirely different story. It's a growing body, and it grows by using previous information in its body, so any probability of disruptive/wrong data entering the system has to be reduced as much as it can with strict discipline. To apply the same standard to our daily lives is absurd - you could as well be against spoken conversation because it's too lossy and converse using pen&paper - speech recognition is tricky after all.

This doesn't take much more than common sense to get - you could formalize it for specific cases statistically, maybe using shannon entropy and such - anectodal information is still information and the loss of information by virtue of not being backed up by scientific method is in most cases insignificantly low - just think of it as an efficient compression algorithm.

If you aren't ethically against lossy audio/image/text compression, there is no reason to take such a strict stance against anectodal information. Most times it's very useful, just have your rationality filter/bs detector and the like on at all times like they should be.

You make a lot of good points, but I feel that by lumping in people asking for more information with the "Citation Needed" people you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I, myself, have asked "Do you know anywhere I could read about this a little more" of people, maybe not sharing anecdotal experiences, but definitely anyone discussing a topic I'm interested.

As Wikipedia shows us, assuming good faith is crucial to a civil discussion. There's a fine line on the internet between good faith and passive-aggressive behaviour, and in doubt you should always try to assume that that person asking for more info really is curious.

Let me be more clear. Whether this is a problem is entirely dependent on context. It's not really about the words used. There are times when asking for more information, even citations, is completely reasonable and expected. No objections there.

There are also times when, I believe, a reasonable person knows darn right well that the 'source' is the commenter's personal experience. In those cases, asking for a source looks like rhetorical mischief, only intended to discredit the person's point of view. "That's not science, therefore your comment has no value."

I'm suggesting that as 'citation needed' has become a cultural badge, it seems to be increasingly misused. All I'm hoping is that people will think twice: "Do I really reasonably expect that the information presented is a matter of fact, and sourced somewhere? Or am I using this community-accepted phrasing sardonically, as another way of saying, 'That's like, your opinion, man.'"

Now I'm afraid of asking for a reference for anything. God forbid I'd like evidence so if I share a claim with others I have as solid foundation.

You are providing your own chilling effect by demanding others adhere to your personal standards.

Let's not go to extremes, please. The parent has not called for a ban on requests for more information. Part of being human, as the GP requests we act, is using our discrimination. Context and balance are indispensable.

Citation needed

Thank you. Well said.

When I was a student of software engineering, I felt strongly that there was not enough emphasis given to what effect the use of computers has on humans, and what sort of software we ought to make to benefit humans. This is related to Tim O'Reilly's call to "Work on Stuff that Matters" (http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/01/work-on-stuff-that-matters-...). It's not about the machine or the money -- we must add value to people's lives.

This is a different issue than that of being kind to each other on Hacker News, but I happen to think it is deeply related.

In some circumstances, I am spontaneous, playful, and extremely open to my environment and aware of other people. When I spend a lot of time programming, however, I tend to become more cautious, analytical, and insensitive. Partly this is because any time spent programming is, generally speaking, spent away from people and in ignorance of our bodies (and hence, our environments). This is one reason why I think it is so important for engineers to have diverse interests.

It's not just so that we will be kinder to each other on Hacker News. We are, in a very significant way, the people building the future. We need to make sure that we are in the right frame of mind to build a future we want to live in, and not one that is anti-social and inhumane.

Perhaps the reason dystopian sci-fi has so much resonance is because we are already experiencing, unconsciously, the dehumanizing effects of technology.

I ran into this problem myself in the 90s when I first got into the whole internet forum thing. This is something that has worked for me, though YMMV:

I re-read every post I write in my head, and pretend I'm saying it to the other person IRL who is sitting across the table from me. Would I use the same words? The same tone?

The internet is, in its current form, dehumanizing, you have to take care to maintain your own humanity and the humanity of the semi-anonymous non-faces you're interact with.

The negativity on HN doesn't bother me so much as the tone and language. Instead of criticizing, many posters here outright bash. Remember OMGPOP's sale to Zynga? The word "coward" got tossed around as if the company was staffed by an army of unfeeling Mecha-Hitlers.

Yeah, this 'say it to their face' rule is a great one.

One specific addendum: if your words come out sounding like something the comic book guy from the Simpsons would say, rewrite.

Relevant xkcd:


(I like this one. It's a lot more poetic than the "someone is WRONG on the INTERNET" one.)

If a post gets me emotionally fired up, I often type up my response. Read it. Then delete it. Then type it up again. I find just getting the emotional response out helps.

I first really learned to program on an LP-Mud that was in the early to middle stages of development. We had lots of live interactions that went just fine, but our message board conversations were often teetering on the brink of flame wars.

The exact same handful of people, usually around five or so, talking about the same subjects, but with really different results.

So there's something about the forum or message board format that is dangerous, I think.

With live chat, of course, misunderstandings surface faster so you can correct or elaborate as needed, but I don't think that's the whole story. I think that somehow people read tone into the messages that isn't there. I'm not sure exactly why. Over-aggressive pattern matching maybe. You get an idea in your head around the first or second sentence and then fit the rest to that idea.

Elaborate on this; write a blog post. I'll gladly give you another up vote.

> But there's something about the negativity and criticism here that grates on me more than on other sites.

Honestly, I have had the opposite experience. Everyone here seems focused on getting work done and making great things, yes, but the little criticism that I do see is always well thought-out and explained. Instead of it 'grating' on me, I value it highly, because it's almost all of excellent quality.

> I think people here tend to assume that [...] to be an empathetic and emotional person puts them at some sort of optimizational and productive disadvantage.

Who? That's a foolish viewpoint that I cannot believe anyone here would hold. I haven't run across anyone who seems like they subscribe to this belief — have you?

That is of course an assumption I'm making, but one that's come from years of using HN. More recently there was the article about the girl from Pakistan who received technical certification and sadly passed away. There was a good amount of comments that took a fully rational approach to assessing her credentials concluding that what she'd done was not worthy of praise. That seemed terribly inhuman, and I feel people of this community are more prone to act that way.

I remember that. The nice thing about those comments is that most of them seemed to be focused entirely on correcting journalistic exaggeration, and not on maliciously bashing someone, even if that was the way they were perceived. I know, that doesn't really sound like a nice thing, but I've seen enough actual malicious behavior to much prefer the "inhumanity" of only acting like an asshole as a purely accidental side-effect of being persnickety about technical correctness.

There are a lot of aspects of the Human Condition that I'm not too fond of, so feel free to act inhuman with good intentions around me any time!

I seem to recall there was also a substantial reaction against those comments.

> > I think people here tend to assume that [...] to be an empathetic and emotional person puts them at some sort of optimizational and productive disadvantage. Who? That's a foolish viewpoint that I cannot believe anyone here would hold. I haven't run across anyone who seems like they subscribe to this belief — have you?

I, and I suspect many others, have subscribed to this belief. When working on purely technical problems, I find that there's no need to bring emotions in. There's just the problem, the problem, and nothing but the problem. When I bring emotions in, I lose focus on the technical aspects of the problem, which are all that I need to solve it.

A problem never made you mad or excited? Did you never get motivated or deterred by a problem?

I think keeping emotions out is an illusion.

Here's my personal experience with these sorts of issues: http://joshkaufman.net/working-in-public-is-weird/

Well written, thanks for sharing. Here's my viewpoint, from the situation of the people asking things of you: http://peterdowns.com/posts/ask-for-help.html

Nerds, we need to have a talk: http://thingist.com/t/item/4372/

Has this been to the front-page yet? I have noticed this a lot...especially about frameworks and platforms.

It was around a year ago...

See also Derek Sivers' "A real person, a lot like you": http://sivers.org/real .

Well reasoned :-) I am reminded of the pithy epithet "Haters are gonna hate." sometimes when I read comments on HN and elsewhere.

The pendulum of 'responsibility' in our society has been swinging toward 'group' responsibility and away from 'personal' responsibility for a while now. The number of people who feel disenfranchised or held back or discriminated against, can reach further now with the Internet than at any time in the past. The combination of these two situations has as one of its outcomes and out pouring of emotion (generally hate) against the 'others.'

I realize that when the pendulum is heavily into the 'personal' side of responsibility those people are more likely to commit suicide rather than to spew vitriol. Clearly that is a bad place to be as well.

The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, where people take personal responsibility for their own challenges and the group takes responsibility for those things which are (or should be) beyond the responsibility of any one person. The canonical example is education, where the group should be responsible for making sure educational opportunities are available and the individuals should make sure they take advantage of all of the opportunities afforded them.

It is a new thing in the world that the meanest and foulest 10% of society have the ability to reach just as many people as the nicest and wisest 10%, I cannot predict the eventual impact of that fundamental change.

I agree, the pseudo-anonymity of the internet allows us to more freely criticize each other, but is that necessarily a bad thing? We can't improve without feedback, and negative feedback is useful too.

So yes, be more mindful that there's a person behind whatever you're responding to, and try to be polite, but at the same time don't hold back your opinions because you're afraid you might hurt someone's feelings.

It's really the politeness that is key. It's the difference between "You suck" and "Your X could be improved by Y" Sadly the tubes are clogged with the former and the latter is much less common. I wonder how many of us really remember learning to program and all the "stupid" questions we asked. Or installing that "Linux thing" the first time, or whatever. As we get farther away from that point it can be harder to remember just what it was like.

I am not so sure human is something one ought to aspire to be. There is a certain comfort in dealing with people who, when they criticise your ideas, you can be confident that they are doing so purely from a rational position.

I believe it is worthwhile to pursue and encourage this mindset, if I am wrong about something, I want to know about it, not be encouraged to pursue a path of questionable value purely because it might be perceived as mean to educate me.

I want to be treated this way and I want to treat others this way. It is not at all innately vicious or an excess of negative emotion, if anything its precisely the opposite, the complete absence of emotion.

Agreed. I think something along these lines every time someone says things like "I hope that xxx company goes under," etc. I guess it's all too easy to forget that there really are people with families and lives behind everything.

It's very easy to dwell on that too. Companies rise and fall, some are well lead, others not. A frequent jump is to raise the "family card" in order to prop up a failing business. The error in the latter case is ignoring people on the other side of the equation.

You think it's worse here than on other boards?

Most internet boards are worse than this one, I see lots of comments elsewhere of people saying "you must be a retard" , "kill yourself" etc

Rather, it means things are worse on this board than they could be. And that is enough reason to advocate for more civility here.

Comments like "Kill yourself" would never be tolerated around here, but that does not mean people are encouraging and positive.

Instead of being encouraging, you see a lot of pedantic nitpicking and subtle criticism

I quite like this side as a way to feed my pedantic side since nobody else will let me.

There's more criticism and less encouragement here partly because people here are just harder to impress on the whole.

The anti-humor thing can get annoying sometimes, although I'm glad it's not full of people posting "witty" variations on internet memes every other post. Sometimes you see a post that has an original and relevant joke or something that is meant tongue in cheek to just get downvoted to oblivion.

Instead of being encouraging, you see a lot of pedantic nitpicking and subtle criticism

Tip: if those nitpickers are getting you down, imagine that it's Sheldon Cooper doing it :)

I normally come here for the articles, not the discussion, but it doesn't seem too bad here. However, tech forums can often become a place of arrogance, pride, and incivility, and it never hurts to look at yourself in the mirror now and then.

The most common personality types on HN are INTJ and INTP. Might have something to do with it

Source: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=943722

I got curious what you meant by 'INTJ and INTP'. I founds this in the WikiPedia:

"INTJ (introversion, intuition, thinking, judgment) is an abbreviation used in the publications of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to refer to one of the sixteen personality types."

Ah, Myers-Briggs, a pyschometric system. I've read some criticism about it: (two excerpts)

An American woman, Katherine Briggs, bought Jung's book and was fascinated by it. She recommended it to her married daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, who had a degree in political science. The two of them got hooked on the idea of psychological metrics. Together they sat down and codified their own interpretation of Carl Jung, making a few important changes of their own. Jung had everyone fitting into one of four basic buckets. Myers and Briggs decided that each person probably combined elements, so they modified Jung's system and made it a little more complex, ending up with four dichotomies, like binary switches. Any combination of the four switches is allowed, and Myers and Briggs reasoned that just about every personality type could be well described by one of the sixteen possible ways for those switches to be set. Basically, according to Myers and Briggs, we're all represented by a four-digit binary number.

[...] the MBTI's practical use is overwhelmingly unscientific, and it's often criticized for this. Criticism ranges from the pragmatic fact that neither Jung nor Myers and Briggs ever employed scientific studies to develop or test these concepts, relying instead on their own observations, anecdotes, and intuitions; all the way to charges that your MBTI score is hardly more meaningful than your zodiac sign.

Source: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4221

While not nearly as important, the idea that authors are real makes me immediately relate to my own experience that customers don't seem to understand that software is made by real people too. People with feelings, who are fallible. Several comments on blogs or reviews on the app store show to me that people don't feel they are being insulting or rude if they aren't facing the person they criticize. The more I wrote this comment the more I started to seem the Internet as a whole falling victim to anonymous words that cut deep. We've had to develop unnaturally thick skin.

Even as a developer of software, I've at times found myself forgetting that software is written by real people.

Just a few months ago, I bought an app from the Mac App Store. I became disenamored with the app due to a glaring fault. I regained consciousness about halfway through writing my negative review on the App Store (that'll be my excuse for getting as far as I did), with the thought, "Why don't I first email this guy and see if he'll fix it before writing this review?" So, I closed the review form and opened an email. Sure enough, he responded within the hour, and a new release came out the next week with my suggestion built in.

My next email to him was explaining why he should raise the price of his app. He was a real person.

I once had a cow-orker who thought software came from "the internet" - he literally could not fathom writing a program himself.

I can't understand this logic. Did he think the internet was some magical place that created all his games and apps and so on? How did he think about manufacturing then? Or artwork? Or movies? How does someone get so far in such a technology based society without knowing that there are people behind all these things?

In my experience there is a large class of people who lack basic curiosity about how things work. They are content to believe that things just "exist". I haven't done much research into this, but I would be interested in seeing if this is considered more an education problem, or if some people simply don't have the capacity for curiosity.

Yes, I've noticed this as well. Growing up as a kid I was always interested in how things worked. Luckily my dad was an engineer and was more than happy to answer all my questions. In university I was also surrounded by people who were fascinated by how things worked. Because of that I'm still very surprised when I meet people who show no such interest. That said, I now know quite a few people who fall in that category. They're all very smart people, with good educations, but they're just okay with the fact that things exist.

The dangerous thing about this attitude though is that these people often underestimate what it takes for something to be created. You see this when politicians are eager to cut on education or when someone looks for a programmer to 'quickly implement their briliant new app'. Note that these people aren't necessarily dumb, but they've just never thought about what it takes for things to be built or designed.

No, they are dumb, and you can find them in abundance in pretty much any MBA entreprenuership class.

I have a friend who is a teacher, she had to explain to her class that no, they did not have mobile phones during the Great Fire of London, no, not even "bricks". Some of the class didn't believe her.

There are people involved in the manufacturing of Oreos and iPods and office cubicles, but if you compare it with shopping at a farmer's market or a craft fair and meeting the person who made the thing you are buying, it can all seem so abstract and distant.

Someone might rail against "all the preprocessed crap" that you can buy in a grocery store (and people do, all the time), with only the barest awareness that there are people involved in making those products, too. To people who are not software developers and don't know software developers, things like Google Search and Facebook and Microsoft Office might seem like they similarly spring up from within the bowels of huge companies, never really fully owned by any human who touches them, until they are released onto our computers as more cold, inhuman artifacts of the modern world.

Surely we here all know about the people behind the software, but most of us still don't think about the people behind the Oreos.

There is, or used to be, some show on I think the History Channel about how a lot of these processed foods are made. It was fascinating and disgusting in equal measures.

I think the real difference is that in one case you have someone watching a puree of HFCS, artificial thickeners, and almost-real-food slide down an assembly line following directions with little room for personal initiative, and in the other case you have people painstakingly writing code line by line, having to think carefully about each of them. There are a lot of people involved in manufacturing, but there isn't much thought and care compared to individual craftsmanship.

It's much cheaper to manufacture copies of software than it is to manufacture copies of oreos. It might make more sense comparing the individual who painstakingly crafts each line of code to the individual who painstakingly crafts each line of the recipe, the fabrication process, the machines that cook the oreos, and so on.

Maybe we should sell software at craft fairs? Personalized perhaps...

Like a child thinks meat comes from the supermarket

Presumably he approached it the same way he approaches real life. Nobody makes rocks, rocks simply exist, to be used as we might please.

Has he ever seen anyone make a movie, or a program? Some people really are bad at looking at abstract layers.

Did he think that software was somewhat generated automatically by some machine? Or was it just that he had no idea how to write a program in the same way that I have no idea how to build a particle accelerator but appreciate that someone must.

David Foster Wallace's take on this was that my own reality is so overpoweringly real, that it's hard to see you (or anyone else) as real.

everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it's so socially repulsive.... Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real....

The remedy he proposed:

[Instead:] if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible - it just depends on what you want to consider.


What works for me sometimes in dealing with customer-service folk is to ask them what they would do in my position.

While I agree with your suggestion for dealing with Customer Service, I don't agree with Mr. Wallace's proposed remedy. Why should I have to imagine someone in a piteous position in order to be able to empathize with them? Can't we just accept people for who they are and empathize because they are just like us?

You might as well ask, "why can't we just make ourselves smarter?" Our brains don't always work in the way we want them to work; what's wrong with proposing a brain hack that results in a desired emotional output?

Wallace's hack is particularly cool because it uses the prefrontal cortex (over which you have at least some level of conscious control) to create stories that trick your limbic brain into generating the preferred emotional response.

I've seen this referred to as "riding an elephant", because the "rider" (the conscious mind) can skillfully manipulate the "elephant" (the bulk of the brain), but ultimately remains at the larger creature's mercy. Great image.

Thanks for that explanation. I've seen the "riding the elephant" analogy before and it's quite fitting. Usually the rider can't do much, but this trick seems to work.

Because humans often make the fundamental attribution error: I am having a bad day, you are a dickhead, he is a dangerous lunatic.

I do something similar when I see a crazy driver in traffic... I imagine that he or she might be on their way to an emergency room to care for a loved one (or is perhaps a doctor). I try to feel sorry for them for being in a position where they are trying to hurry.

I actually read to do this in some silly self-help book (Don't Sweat The Small Stuff, perhaps?) years ago. It's helped a lot.

When I see someone in a hurry I usually give them the same kind of pass.

Really, we've all been there. In an absolute hurry. I don't necessarily imagine them in a scenario where the hurried pace is necessary; I just know that in the moment things feel far more urgent than they need to.

Considering that the advice genuinely helped you, why do you refer to the book as silly?

That's a good question.

I think it's been answered pretty well by other people here w.r.t. the mixed reputation of self-help books, with a side of embarrassment for admitting I read one (which is really nothing to be embarrassed about).

I think a lot of self-help books are dismissed by most people. I would love to know why.

Because a lot of them are pure nonsense that can do more harm than good. There's a weird mish-mash of useful and garbage, and it's hard to tell which is which unless you already know about the field.

Some of them lack science. Worse, some of them are actively anti-science.

I agree that there some great books, with useful helpful life-changing advice.

And even the good books have maybe an essay or three blog posts worth of actual information stretched out over a few hundred pages for salability.

It is amazing how much that kind of thinking can help. Especially since I have tried to adopt considering the persons situation before getting mad at them, when I see myself or others getting mad at somebody and accusing them of something, when they are in the (car|line) (next to|behind) us.., it makes me ashamed to realize 1) I'm being just as much, if not more of a jerk, and 2) maybe they aren't actually being a jerk at all...

Here is the full audio of him delivering this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5THXa_H_N8 (part 1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSAzbSQqals (part 2)

Highly recommended listening.

This is an interesting take that I had not expected to read when going to this comments section, but you're absolutely right. But this applies to almost everything. Every time I read a report of a sanctioned (non-criminal) or poorly evaluated public school teacher, I think of my friends who are teachers: how they've had to juggle everything in their personal lives in addition to the emotional and physical drain that comes from being passionate about teaching children, especially if the school's administration is terrible.

After that, it's harder to judge the teacher in question, knowing that there could've been any number of strains that led to a troublesome incident or poor performance report.

It is unfortunate that, given how important teaching is, we still don't have good ways to evaluate which teachers are good and which are not.

It doesn't help that teacher's unions vociferously oppose the development or introduction of such methods.

It doesn't, but think about it from their perspective. Do you base performance on number of A's given? On scoring on standardized tests that only show how well you taught students to take tests? Where do you include "opening a student's eyes to the power of reason and science" or "planting a seed of a deep love for literature" or even just "being a person a student wants to be like"?

It isn't much different than how've question of how to evaluate coders. Any mechanism that can be easily proscribed can be easily gamed or is meaningless. Any mechanism that truly measures worth is extremely complex, doesn't scale, and may have issues with labor laws.

I wouldn't want that crap legislated by state legislatures, either.

We manage it for doctors, lawyers, accountants, airline pilots, architects...

It's more than that though. One problem a lot of people have with regard to software is that they think it is trivial work. As though it requires merely "doing it right", as though it's a matter of just assembling widgets into something else in a straightforward manner. An analogy would be, say, a fast food cashier. All it takes is punching the buttons for the desired options, right? Creating software is the same sort of thing just with slightly more complicated options, right? They don't appreciate that it's a complicated creative endeavor that requires inventiveness and trade-offs and architecting and artistry.

I think this might be one reason why Apple's products are perceived differently, because the aesthetics are more apparent and that clues people into some aspect of the complexity behind the software.

This is an unfortunate but real human trait.

There's a book that describes the effect in war. The basic premise is that it's easier to kill people by dropping a bomb on them from an airplane than it is to shoot them with a rifle on the battlefield.

It's because in the latter you see your victim. And immediately relate to that victim [edit: 1]. Which makes shooting him or her exceedingly difficult.

It's an interesting parallel.

The book is called On Killing, by US Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.

[1] Unless the shooter is psychotic.

> Unless the shooter is psychotic.

Nitpick: You mean "psychopathic", not "psychotic". People with a psychotic illness are more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence, and are much more likely to harm themselves than to harm another person.

"Psychotic" also works here, but for a different reason. While a psychopath may be able to perceive, but unable to empathize with, a person, someone in the depths of psychotic delusion may be unable to perceive a fellow human being. It is perhaps not nearly as common "in the wild", but it does occur (the killing of Tim McLean by Vince Weiguang Li being the example that comes most easily to mind). In fact, generating a sort of "target psychosis" has been the aim of most modern infantry training for some time, since teaching people to see, recognize and react to targets is an awful lot easier than training them to kill humans, even under severe threat. (Human-shaped targets were introduced to training after it was discovered that most infanteers never actually fired an aimed shot at an opponent in either of the World Wars.) Similarly, you can sniff war on the horizon when the machinery used to dehumanize the enemy is started up.

An article about the reasons infantry fire or not:


I read somewhere (citation needed!) that the percentage of soldiers who deliberately fire their weapon at the enemy has increased from WWI to the Iraq conflict, which some put down to violence in movies and video games. After watching excellent Iraqi conflict documentaries like Restrepo and Armadillo (Danish movie) and seeing how soldiers react to conflict, there could be merit to that argument.

You're right about the percentage increase. This is for two reasons - first, because most of the close-range shooting on the ground was done by special forces who're trainined to overcome that resistance. Second, because many of the deaths are from bombs - either shelling from ships at sea, or from aircraft and UAVs. Those last three remove the personal element, and that makes "pushing the button" really easy and guilt-free. We as humans who pride ourselves on empathy can be pretty savage :-(

I could be mis-remembering the article in question, but I think the percentage increase referred to soldiers who fired their weapon (e.g. assault rifle or sidearm) directly at an enemy they could see - meaning that we've become more desensitised to violence over time.

I also recall that snipers are trained by shooting watermelons - the impact of a high velocity round on a watermelon is not too dissimilar to an impact on a human head. Snipers see the carnage in all its gory detail because of their magnified scope so it's necessary to desensitise them in training.

Edit: slo-mo watermelon getting shot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO3XsZpOiBA

> meaning that we've become more desensitised to violence over time.

And yet the rate of violent crime continues to go down, bear-baiting and dogfights have gone from national pass-times to illegal aberrations, and dueling is pretty much extinct.

The best lesson I have learned after dealing with lots of frustrated users is that their initial contact is more like how you'd interact with an inanimate object than a human. If someone yells at me personally, it seems a bit unreasonable... but if someone gets frustrated using my product and "virtually" throws it on the ground and stomps on it, that is a feeling I can understand. Once they have that off their chest, and I respond in a reasonable way, the follow-up conversation is always more respectful and humane. Just need to figure out how to read that initial communication and understand that they aren't mad at you, they are just frustrated with your product. Also, don't take it so personally that you miss out on the valuable bug report (or ux critique) that is so often embedded in these messages.

It’s not anonymity, exactly, but (for want of a better term) noncorporeality. We all know plenty of people whose online personae are bold and crass, even though they write under their real name. In person, we’re wired to observe certain social niceties to fulfill, I don’t know, some innate sense of tribal duty. It’s a whole lot more difficult to shout at a man than at his words on a page. Bodilessness is dehumanising—for good and ill.

The color of the envelope does not change the message it contains. The only difference between what I write to you online and what I would say to you in person is one of detail and quality, as I have more opportunity online to compose. The problem of rudeness and insults is not due to any inherent flaw of the Internet itself, but rather due to the fact that most children aren't taught that anonymity, although a necessity, is not for the purpose of becoming unaccountable.

"Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority ... It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation -- and their ideas from suppression -- at the hand of an intolerant society."

http://groklaw.net/articlebasic.php?story=20051007151046741 (The First Amendment Right to Anonymous Speech - Delaware Supreme Court Ruling in John Doe No. 1 v. Cahill)(2005-OCT-15)

> The color of the envelope does not change the message it contains.

I would consider this half-true. As Marshall McLuhan said: "the medium is the message". What is communicated is defined by the complete sum of the experience of the receiver, which includes subtle nuances of how that message is packaged.

That said, I agree with your core point.

My favorite part:

>Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

Thanks again, Vonnegut.

>But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I might have gasped out loud.

Burning a book (good or bad) is the lowest form of expression humans can stoop to. If people understood the fact that a book is simply a personification of ideas, and ideas good or bad, cannot perish in a fire, the will realize the folly of engaging in a futile act like burning a book.

One of the inevitable consequences of the digital revolution will be that, there will come a time, when a controversial book will be published exclusively in digital format with no physical copies to burn. I don't know if this necessarily good or bad, but the fact that idiots can't burn a book will provide me some amount of pleasure.

Only two differences with digital books come immediately to mind.

1) There won't be any smoke. At least now we can see the act and know of it. It will be much more invisible when someone can just enter a phrase into a lookup table that ultimately filters packets.

2) Not only will the book be censored but any discussion of the book being censored will be censored. Invisibly.

I'm not so sure that this type of book-burning is tied to the physicality of books, rather than a symbol of rejection. Certainly, there have been instances throughout history, such as when the Nazi government or the Catholic Church have carried out organized purges of particular written works on a societal level, where the supply of the work has been materially impacted to the point that it is difficult to obtain.

But I assume you're referring more to examples such as this story, of small groups using book-burning as a publicity stunt, or a public symbol of their rejection of the work. In those cases, I doubt the lack of physicality makes any difference; if they wanted to protest a digital-only book, they'd simply print it out on something flammable first.

Good point. I was not necessarily referring to the physicality of books but the notion these book-burners subscribe to, that if they symbolically burn a book, the idea will perish. Your point of the Nazis burning the books out of supply only illustrates the point that to burn a book in the hope that the idea will perish, did not necessarily work.

I can imagine the SAAS site for this now: "BurnABook.com".

1. Enter a Book Title

2. Pull text of first chapter from Amazon

3. Animate flames around the words burning.

4. Provide FB and Twitter links to share your burned book.

I'm sorry, I just had to share this: http://xkcd.com/750/

>but the fact that idiots can't burn a book will provide me some amount of pleasure.

"There's more than one way to burn a book." - Kurt Vonnegut.

While it may no longer be possible to literally burn a book in that scenario, censorship is alive and well on the web.

"And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake..."

What happened?

I'm guessing like most people who write for a living that he had a carbon (assuming this is before word processing) or a disk file found in his papers after his death.

I presume he actually kept a copy or draft himself (so the "only copy" part was not strictly true), which he published seven years later in his autobiography, figuring that was long enough after not to be taken for opportunism but mere historical interest.

Vonnegut published a copy of the originally private letter to the people of Drake, in his autobiography "Palm Sunday", pages 4-6.

For some more background, the local newspaper looks back on this story 35 years later:


Is there even any logical basis for the idea that banning curse words or otherwise offensive language "protects" children?

The word itself causes no harm. Tell a child a curse word they don't know and they aren't stricken back as if you had slapped them. It has no meaning or value until you describe what it means and when to use it. Then once it's explained to them, assuming they weren't harangued by their parents into fearing the word itself, there's the use in a book such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

"Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio – a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see..."

Contrast this with a book like Where The Red Fern Grows, where a boy's dog (who he loves dearly) is disemboweled in front of him and he has to literally stuff his intestines back into the dog's bloody carcass.

If the high purpose is indeed to protect children they should be taught about the world so they'll know how to deal with it. Sure, there's ugly things about the world and for the most part we try to isolate ourselves from it, but burning it doesn't make it go away. The end result may be it enforces in the child the idea that they can choose to destroy any part of society they dislike, regardless of anyone else's opinion and without a reason other than their feelings. Personally I can't think of anything more frightening.

The moral purity police are always with us and always find some excuse to save other people from damnation: witch hunting, regulating the surface area of women's clothing, statutory rape, and so forth.

I'm curious, how, if "... no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands." is true, how is it reproduced on this site?

Shaun here - I run Letters of Note.

Presumably Vonnegut kept the draft, or kept the original and sent McCarthy the one copy. The letter's text was later included in Vonnegut's book, Palm Sunday, as mentioned on the site.

As an aside: thank you for the great web site.

Thank you. It's a pleasure.

Your site always makes my day. Keep the good work!

well, that's certainly disappointing.

He also wrote, "Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?"

The web site got the letter from a book that Vonnegut put together and published in 1981. Presumably he saved a copy himself, as many letter writers do.

Every time I read a story like this, I'm reminded of Dunbar's number and David Wong's excellent (and very funny) summary: http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html

The "Monkeysphere" explains a huge amount of silly human behavior.

Thank you for sharing this link, this actually helps explain a lot of stuff I've been wondering about for a while.

Yeah, my description of the Monkeysphere is: "The Universal Theory of Human Behavior". I wish more people knew about it. Just doing my part. :-)

I've been obsessing a little bit over Ready Player One over the past couple weeks. Not that it is an amazing piece of literature, it surely is not that. But it is highly entertaining and an incredible work of meta fiction. It is a fiction about a fictional world in which essentially all other fictional worlds co-exist, and they all celebrate each other. I would recommend it to anybody at all without reservation (if you don't read speculative fiction you'll just ignore my recommendation anyway, even though I think this book would have the power to open some doors to you).

I have not read Kurt Vonnegut, but was intrigued by the specific reference to him as the main character's favorite author, a certain kind of twisted high praise in the context of the book as a whole. I have not heard much about Kurt Vonnegut beyond recognizing the name and the Ready Player One reference. But reading this letter, and with the added bonus of the implied recommendation from Ernest Cline, I've heard enough.

Where's the best place to start?

Slaugherhouse-Five is his best-known book, and was the book referenced in the article. I would say to start there.

Here are the grades Vonnegut himself gave his own books (in Palm Sunday):

Slaughterhouse-Five: A+

Cat’s Cradle: A+

The Sirens of Titan: A

Mother Night: A

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A

Jailbird: A

Player Piano: B

Welcome to the Monkeyhouse: B-

Breakfast of Champions: C

Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons: C

Palm Sunday: C

Slapstick: D

Happy Birthday, Wanda June: D

I also found Ready Player One very entertaining. My favorite Vonnegut book is Cat's Cradle so I say start there.

I was curious how this document was released, if only one copy was distributed to a person who was probably not inclined to share it. The first newspaper reference on Google I could find is dated June 1982.


Anyone have access to Factiva or LexisNexis?

Vonnegut himself released it, in his book, Palm Sunday.

But in the letter he claims that the copy the recipient is holding is the only copy. Was he lying or did he somehow have it returned to him?

Looks like this letter is 1973, the book 1981. His ultimate point is that he wasn't exploiting the letter for attention. 8 years after the incident, I think it's safe to claim the potential for exploitation is gone.

EDIT: Oh, you mean you took him literally, that he didn't even have his own copy. Well:

"And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands."

It sounds like this could imply that he could be holding onto a copy himself. Interesting point, why would you do that if you didn't mean to exploit it, at least eventually? Or maybe he just likes to hold on to things for records.

I know personally I keep copies of every letter I send, simply to refer back to if and when the recipient responds to me; it's useful to know what questions I asked when the answers come in.

That's a lot easier now than it was back then. Maybe he used carbon paper but there was no photocopying and obviously no word processing, at least nothing that an individual outside of a specialist organisation would have access to.

It's obviously the most likely explanation but still, it perhaps stretches what might be considered usual for the period.


(Note to self: Don't skip the italicized, parenthetical text before an interesting piece of content)

Everyone seems to be confused by the "I am sending you the only copy" aspect of this letter. I'm sure he kept excellent records, and keeping a copy (or the original) for himself would be a standard business practice for someone in the communication business.

It is no different than you sending an email to someone saying, "I'm sending this note to you alone rather than posting this publicly, ..."

As for why he would keep a copy: no different than why you keep copies of your emails. Should the recipient respond, he'll have his original to reference if the person responding takes items out of context, attributes statements not actually made to Vonnegut, amongst other benign or nefarious mistakes.

This is very weak. We should not burn books because it might hurt the feelings of authors? Surely that means it's ok to burn the books of dead authors?

The reason why we should not burn books is because

- it deprives potential readers of the benefit of reading them

- the free circulation of ideas is the cornerstone of a free society, and trying to restrict it is the beginning of tyranny

- arguments should be fought with arguments, not fire

But the feelings of authors really don't have anything to do with it. KV shouldn't have felt insulted that someone burnt his books. He should have been ashamed for the human race that anyone would burn any book (and not just his own). He should have punched the guy in the face.

this letter is a very good example of tailoring an argument to the audience.

Do people burn books online? Is there a correlative action to tossing vilified literature in the fire? The attitude characterized by McCarthy's response to Slaughterhouse-Five retreats from reality to the ideal. As media channels have diversified and the input streams exponentially increased, can I burn something by choosing not to consume it? Obviously we cannot take in everything, but I think the filter bubble, both imposed and self-manufactured, creates a sort of insularity and a disconnection from the broader human experience. If I only read what I like or relate to, it makes me less real.

Good question.

I think there's no similar action analogous to burning books online, so people inclined to do so are left to other kinds of action, like writing angry comments and blog posts.

> Do people burn books online?

SOPA/PIPA comes to mind.

This is exactly why the 6th Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees the right to face your accuser.

"in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him"

It's harder to accuse someone, or even insult or disparage them, when you have to face them. And that is something that should be hard to do.


I am curious for more. Does the source book have more on this story? I'd like to know whether the letter was ever shared in the community.

It must have been shared with at least one other person as it explicitly states that there is only a single copy in existence. For us to be reading it means either the recipient or the person they shared it with subsequently shared it with others.

"Copy" probably doesn't refer to an actual copy, outside of the one Vonnegut probably made for himself -- it refers to the one sent.

Still rather deceitful of Mr. Vonnegut.


The first time I read it, I also had that interpretation. On subsequent reading, it does seem like copy meant a copy that is not the original. Not so much, "the only copy in existence".

Suffice it to say, I was sufficiently confused as well.

To me the key sentence is:

>You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

A great way of saying that if you don't learn on your own to discern good from bad, you will never learn to do it, and learning requires exposure to all sides.

"If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own."

Tell me you don't buy this?

And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands.


I still can not believe how awesome this man was. This is exactly how all people should be.

I wonder what the school board would have done with Fahrenheit 451.

This was an amazing letter. Great lesson for me on so many levels.

isn't government actually run by people too?

Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

I was depressed for weeks when he died.

If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If Kurt is an American, Kurt must allow book burning.

If you are an American, you must not down vote.

I guess you stopped reading at that point, because he goes on to say:

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

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