Thursday, February 27, 2020

Forget The Coronavirus

     I’m thinking of a disease that should really worry you. You may already be aware of it, but it’s against the odds that you give it the priority it deserves.

     First, an illustrative conversation:

CSO: I tried to install Office on my laptop, and it failed!
FWP: Which version were you trying to install?
CSO: Not the Web-based one. It said my copy was installed on another computer!
FWP: But which version, specifically?
CSO: The one I’ve been working with! I’m so pissed. Do you have an uninstalled copy?
FWP: Sweetie, please gratify my curiosity: Which version?
CSO: (puzzled) What do you mean, which version?
FWP: Office 2007, 2010, 2013, or 2016?
CSO: Oh! 2013, like I have at work.
FWP: (collapses from exhaustion)

     I’m not a hardass. Really, I’m not. But the above exchange, which fits into a schematic with which I’m entirely too familiar, has become so commonplace that these days I follow a policy of responding to such emissions with a grunt. Engaging the complainant more deeply would likely leave me paralyzed with despair, in mourning for the English language, catapult me into a towering rage, or all three.

     Take a moment over this incident, Gentle Reader. Diagnose the underlying malady. Not the symptoms; the true disease from which the symptoms all spring. Then and only then should you proceed to the remainder of this tirade...assuming you don’t feel an urgent need to lie down in a dark room with a cool cloth over your forehead.

     There are a lot of symptoms on display in the above. One of them is mine: a need for specific information and a refusal to go on without it. Engineers can be like that. Don’t just tell us that the program crashed. We need to know the prior condition of the program, what input immediately preceded the crash, the specific error message (if any) the program emitted, your maternal grandmother’s blood type, and what you had for breakfast. Without a full and proper description of the context, we can do nothing for you.

     The modern tendency is to dismiss those needs and scream for immediate assistance. Note the word scream. I used it deliberately. What information does a scream convey, other than “I’m really upset” -- ?

     The answer to that question will get us close to the malady. Is anyone ready with it? Anyone? You in the back row with the mozzarella goatee: Is your hand up because you have the answer or are you just relieving a cramp?

     That’s right: Nothing. Apart from the fury of the screamer, a scream offers the hearer no information whatsoever. It gives the hearer nothing to go on.

     Now, I’m aware that the occasional scream can relieve all manner of unpleasant tensions and stresses. When mated to hoarse breathing, rigid muscles, and “OhGodohGodohGod” it can even be gratifying to hear. But that’s the limit of its utility.

     It’s not just the new Number Two who wants information.

     This delightful disembowelment of an especially fatuous New York Times article is valuable for many reasons. I urge you to wallow in its charms. However, it slightly under-weights the root problem beneath the symptom it addresses: why it is that so few young Americans are able to write comprehensibly.

     The author, writer Lori Janeski, hits a lot of high, sweet notes, including the willful refusal of the very teachers supposedly dedicated to attacking the problem of poor writing to address the need to judge: i.e., to openly declare a poor attempt at written expression poor, and to rub the student’s nose in his failure. That is indeed a critical need, but we must ask the next question. What countervailing force prevents these ostensibly well-intentioned teachers from saying “This is unsatisfactory” or any equivalent? Why can’t (or won’t) they do so? What is the underlying disease?

     Would you be ready, willing, and able to do so, Gentle Reader? If not, why not?

     “Negative feedback,” we are told, is bad. It can wound the student’s “self-esteem.” That could get him to thinking he’ll never win the big game, get the girl, or become president. He might succumb to existential despair, turn to sex with sheep, and end his life in a back alley, drinking Woolite.

     But negative feedback is the indication that you have to shape up. Without it, you’re far too likely to go on as you’ve begun, making the same mistakes over and over. Sometimes pain and effort will be involved. Negative feedback, in the form of a lot of extra-base hits, a four-digit ERA, and repeatedly being sent to the minors, is why pitchers learn to throw a curve ball, despite the pain – and you can take it from me, there’s plenty of pain, both during and afterward. Most of the feedback Nature gives us is negative. If Nature hadn’t told Australopithecus erectus that he was being an asshole for not using the antelope femur as God intended, he wouldn’t be on the Moon today.

     The “Self-esteem uber alles” movement is the antithesis of negative feedback. It’s the overarching reason why Johnny can’t read, write, spell, do simple arithmetic, hold a job, or master the terrifyingly advanced concepts involved in loading and operating the dishwasher. “Feelz” have been given pride of place and “knowz” relegated to the outer darkness.

     I could go on in a thousand different directions, but life ends too soon. Suffice it to say that we cannot reasonably expect better from our young folk unless we are willing to wound their feelings – that is, to say “This sucks; you can do better, and before I’m through with you you will,” and mean it.

     When you find yourself becoming too concerned with Johnny’s feelings, apply the remedy parents of earlier generations used to such good effect: the prospects for Johnny’s future. I mean, do you want him living in your basement until he’s old enough for a nursing home? Think, man, think!


1104wrhmr6r said...


Mike Smith said...

Lack of specificity in responses drives me insane.

Wife: Can you get my glasses
Me: Where are your glasses?
Wife: In my purse.
Me: ... ... WHERE IS YOUR PURSE???

Drives me bat sh!t crazy.

How hard is it to just say "Can you get my glasses from my purse by the front door?"

Sam L. said...

I don't read the NYT. I despise, detest, and distrust it. (The WaPoo, too.)

Linda Fox said...

Specificity is the normal way that men communicate.

Vague language is the norm for women.