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.