Look, whatever, but can’t you just…

It won't work.
It won’t work.

Long ago, the first technician figured out how to make a better termite-scooping stick, and showed one of her tribe-mates how to do it. The tribe-mate made a perfunctory effort, but missed the trick entirely. “Fine,” said the technician, “I’ll just make one for you.” Pretty soon every time one of the tribe had difficulty scooping out termites for dinner, they turned to the technician.

“I showed you how to do it, like, a million times,” said the technician. “Whatever,” said the tribe; “Don’t confuse us with all your technical grunting. We just want it to work.” And the technician gnashed her teeth and wrung her hands and died early from stress.

When I see posters like this, I feel a bit like that termite-stick technician. I’d like to talk to the poster designer, but after long experience, I’m afraid it would go something like this…

Me: “That set of gears won’t work. If you try to turn any one of them, the other two will stop it. You should use a different illustration”
Poster designer: “Whatever. I’m not an engineer; I’m just trying to make a point about education.”
Me: “You are using a classic ‘impossible machine’ to illustrate your point. This image shows up in nearly every test of mechanical reasoning as a negative example.”
Poster designer: “But most people won’t even think about that! I’m just trying to say that parents, teachers, and schools should work together.”
Me: “Were you using the picture ironically? Like a meta-message about not being at cross-purposes?”
Poster designer: “No, nothing like that. It’s just that gears turn smoothly together, and…”
Me: (chest pains) “Call 911!”

When people call us for help, we really, truly want to help. But the caller often has a misconception about what will sort of assistance they need. They tend to think of technology as magic.

With magic, you recite the incantation properly and stuff happens. The most important thing is not to know how it works, but to write the incantation down exactly. There’s no real reason why it works, and no explanation for why it doesn’t work.

With technology, there are real reasons why things work or don’t work. If the user can gain understanding of just a few basics, they can navigate around obstacles that would have them dialing the help desk for the tenth time that month.

By “basics” I refer to things like the difference between hardware and software, or the concepts of file management, apart from acting on a file with an application. It’s amazing how far these bits will get you. “Click here, then click there” is not “basics”, it is procedure. And procedures constantly change as programs are redesigned and updated.

In practice this means I wish users would put away their yellow legal pads. Many people start writing down every word I say, but they’re not listening; they’re in stenographer mode. They want a procedure. Tomorrow, the procedure will break, but the basics will remain the same. No matter; they will be picking up the phone in a moment.


  • Do a Google image search for “impossible gears” and this arrangement will appear. And so will a number of oddly-shaped gears that are not impossible. A bit of thinking reveals the difference.
  • File management: it’s the key to a kingdom of wonders. You can hold that key. You can be the key-master.
  • How to get on my bad side: use any of the following phrases…
    • “Whatever…” (waves hand aside). Seriously? That’s just offensive.
    • “Can’t you just…” (Anything that follows that phrase will be hugely impractical)
    • “I don’t want to learn anything new!” (I hear this a lot more often than you’d think, from people who are apparently not living in their preferred century)
    • “My computer is slow” (from people who won’t learn any keyboard shortcuts that would save them more time than the occasional hourglass ever costs them. For crying out loud, that ‘Windows’ key has been on the first row since 1995, It’s the equivalent of an overweight person who wants a carbon-fiber bicycle frame because it’s 900 grams lighter than the steel frame.)
    • “There was a message on screen that said something.” (It makes a lot of difference what, exactly, the message said)
  • My standard lecture is this: You step through a time-warp, and suddenly you’re in 1870. You get busy learning the technology of the day; you learn to ride a horse, trim an oil lamp, write with a fountain pen, use an outhouse, and maybe communicate in Morse Code. What you don’t do is rant about how things were better when you lived in the future. Of course they were better, but you need to get a handle on the technology of the time in which you live.
  • Despite the artist’s intention, the education illustration that inspired this post might actually describe how teachers, students and parents (don’t) work together.

County clerks have way more responsibility than we thought

Suppose the court had gone a different way

Dateline: Mawkish county courthouse, 2017

Times have changed...
Times have changed…


The young couple, clad in jeans, t-shirts and tennis shoes, made their way to the counter. County clerk Betty Morrell looked them up and down as they offered papers, filled out in blue ballpoint pen.

“We’d like to apply for a marriage license,” said the young man. He seemed nervous, a little breathless. His hand shook. Morell took the paper and scanned it.

“Amber Harris, age seventeen. You going to marry this young man?”

The young woman brushed back her stringy blonde hair. “Yes maam,” she said. We’re of legal age!”

The clerk leaned farther over the counter to examine the young woman’s belly; it was flat. “Hm,” she said. “You’re not pregnant, are you?”

“You shouldn’t ask that question!”, protested the young man. “We don’t need your approval to get married!”

Morrel looked down at the paper again. Then she looked closely at him: “Listen, uh, Brent… ever since the Kim Davis case of 2015, you DO need my approval – my personal approval – to get a marriage license. The court decided that clerks are personally signing off on the marriage being applied for. It’s a big responsibility, and we take it seriously.”

The young couple tried to protest, but it was no use. “Look at you,” said the clerk; “you have no plan, no resources, and girlie, all you want to do is get out of the house. And you want to make it worse by marrying a man in his twenties who will sponge off you and cheat on you. License denied!”

“We’ll be back!” said the young man. “Just you wait!” And with that they turned and left. A tired-looking woman in her late twenties stepped to the counter.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” said the clerk. “What can I do for you?”

“I’d like to apply for a concealed-carry permit,” said the woman. “The judge put a restraining order on my ex, but I’m afraid he’s going to kill me.”

“Oh, my, that’s awful, honey,” said the clerk. “But I can’t give you a carry permit – I’m Quaker, and it’s against my religion!”


  • Discuss this post on Facebook, G+, and Twitter
  • Fortunately the court decided that the clerk isn’t required to sign off on every marriage, because that just wouldn’t make any damn sense at all. How exactly would we run a society where everyone has to abide by everyone else’s religion?
  • The government does respect Kim Davis’ beliefs. She has every right to have them and abide by them, when acting as Kim Davis.
  • Stupidity, not religion, put Kim Davis in jail.
  • Cuttlefish expands on The Right To Swing Your Fist