Friday, 3 April 2009


I'm not entirely sure where this is going, but bear with me. Hopefully a point will start waving and shouting at us as we proceed, and I can skid to a halt at its feet and pretend that's where I was trying to get to all along.

Now, a couple of weeks or so ago I got into a bit of an ill-tempered argument with a good friend of mine. It was a stupid argument, not really worth having. One of those that comes from both parties being tired, not understanding the other properly and having the added confusion of conducting the conversation through the medium of little typed words in between doing work. Standard issue falling out because what you wrote in your email isn't what the other person read, even though both of you were looking at the same words in the same order. I suspect, moreover, that no small part of the problem was that I was trying to make a general point, but doing it very badly and ended up coming across like I was bludgeoning a specific issue I knew very little about to death from a position of complete ignorance.

Which, as it turns out, is deliciously ironic because the point I was fumbling towards was this: There's a fascinating world view shift between three groups of people - those who actually know what they're talking about for a given subject, those who think they know but don't, and those that are fully aware that they don't know jack.

I'm talking about something a little more subtle than the persons own perception of how good they are at something (although, a little aside here, I know there's an interesting paper about this, and I'd love to link it here. I think it's this one that I've seen referenced before but, ho ho ho, it's pay-to-view only and I don't have a whole world of spare cash to throw at checking whether or not I'm right. Chances are I'm wrong and I'll need to go on a merry chase through several references and more pay-to-view articles to find it. Nice one, Science. Just you go ahead keeping your findings under lock and key. No wonder people turn to mentalist woo-merchants because they seen no difference between their statements of absolute truth and What Scientists Say, since joe public can have a hell of a time trying to track down the papers to read for themselves. Anyway, I digress.). Rather, the perception they have of the entire field that they're talking about.

Here's an example that I haven't been recently fighting with my friends over. Now, I happen to know, on account of spending quite a long time looking up the details and poring over them, that for lots of applications you don't need to use Windows. Especially for embedded or server based applications. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that for many applications you would be better served by using an alternative OS. I don't think that's a particularly contentious position to take. I'm not saying that you should never use Windows, just to be clear, simply that sometimes it's not the best choice for a given system. Point in case, I've recently worked on a system that needs to be running a tiny, fast, secure, kiosked OS that pretty much just exists to get a single application running and pass hardware control through to it. Now, you can do that with Windows. But you're paying for software you just don't need, and that (from the position of sitting there and trying) is much harder to cut down to the core that you want. But I've had conversations with people - recently - that have flatly stated, variously, that "no one uses anything but Windows. Ever" and "our customers insist that everything connected to their network must run Windows. Everything". The former statement is patently false (just check the statistics for the number of *nix web servers, the number of people in the media that use Macs, etc, etc) and the latter is highly debatable. So, they insist that ip enabled security cameras run Windows? They'll have a job. Such devices don't even have an operating system.

But the interesting thing, I think, the really interesting thing is that the people making the above statements Knew They Were Right. They honestly, and without any hint of one-upmanship or nonsense like that, thought that they were in a position to make these firm statements because they believed they were in the position of knowing all about that field. Now, talking to other people about the same situation shows that people who simply don't know anything about it - and know they don't - will tend to pretty much come out and say that they don't know but will often express surprise, or even outright incomprehension, that something is the way it is. But then, from the opposite side, people in a position of immersion in a field will be bemused and often unable to understand the decisions and world view that people less immersed hold. So, for example, I'm generally bemused at the way that most people seem happy enough with proprietary, closed-source software. I can't really understand why anyone would want to put up with the restrictive world of Apple. But then, I'm perfectly happy to spend an evening hacking around compiling a new kernel with debug outputs to find out why a new bit of hardware isn't working (and I suspect most people aren't). I like to know that I can have a poke under the hood if I want to (and I suspect most people couldn't care less).

So, to get back to what started this, which provides a somewhat less techy and perhaps more accessible example, I was trying to explain why I found the world of people who really know about cycling weird. A bit of backstory here - for the past ten years, my primary mode of transport has been a bike. Until this year, it's been either a very crappy bike, or a reasonably OK if you know no better bike. The best I could afford when I bought them - and, given I was a student at the time, that should paint a relatively clear picture. Even so, I've racked up many, many miles on them. Our holidays tend to involve getting on the bike and heading off into the wild blue yonder for a week or so. Our weekends often require significant pedalling to get us where we're going. Until we moved to our current house two years ago, we would transport all of our groceries through the medium of panniers. All of my commuting would be done on a bike. And now, with a one and a half year old son, we have a kickass trailer which I haul around the local countryside as often as we're able. So, in summary: I would say that over the past ten years, I've cycled quite a lot. But I can only do the most rudimentary maintenance, and have never been in any kind of cycling club or anything like that. And I certainly don't know much about bikes.

On the other hand, I have friends who know an awful lot about bikes. They have multiple bikes costing (to me) eye-watering amounts of money. And, frankly, I just plain don't understand why they'd want them. And I'm not going to - I use my bike to haul stuff (and me) around places. I can't possibly afford to have another bike, and what would I use it for? I could just about understand having a mountain bike as well as my general purpose workhorse bike, but... well... there're no mountains here. And I can't imagine why I'd ever want to ride a singlespeed bike. It looks like a world of pain for no good reason to me. Of course, from their point of view, I don't know what I'm talking about. I freely admit this. But then, that's the difference: They do cycling. It's a big part of their life. I, on the other hand, ride my bike sometimes. Of course we're going to see the entire world of bikes in totally different ways, see different things as reasonable, etc. But what I didn't realise before I started asking them about bikes (because I wanted to buy a new one that was a little more efficient than the old one) was just how little I knew. I went from a position of thinking that I knew a reasonable amount about a subject to realising that I really didn't know that much at all. And, thinking about it, you have to worry because...

...what if the things I think I know, I actually don't? How does one tell that one know nothing about a subject? You have to know enough to know that you don't know much... but if you don't know enough to know you don't know much then you might think you know lots but actually know next to nothing. And the view you have of that aspect of the world, that you know is reliable, might actually be a complete fantasy based upon your current ignorance. But you don't know that, because you know so little that you think you know a lot. I think. Maybe.

And now I need to go and have a lie down in a darkened room until I manage to un-knot the above.

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