The two pennies

Recommendations from computer scientists

One should never, like never ever, no matter what, ask a computer scientist for advice. ›xkcd.com/974‹ indicates the problem. However, from my point of view, reality is much harder. I will try to transform my image of it into the engineering realm.

If you turn to a collegue with the question “Where can I find a Phillips screwdriver around here?”, that means you need a screw driver to tighten a (one!) Phillips screw. The size will fit more or less. An engineer lends you a Phillips screw driver and the size fits more or less. A computer scientist doesn’t. If you are lucky and you picked a collegue that suffers only from a mild case of informatis in the first stage, he will point to a little box with a set of screw bits and a ratcheting screwdriver. One has to twiddle a liddle but ok. A little more problematic but still acceptable is the hint to use the cordless drill over there. It is usually much faster in deed, but screws are often hard to reach and the bulky thing won’t be of help despite all its flexibility and speed. However, a true computer scientist with heart and soul will plunk down a building center right in front of your nose. No – that doesn’t cut it. All the sings in it are – if there are signs at all – in klingon. The ads on the outside lure you in with the promise that, from the ressources and tools available in this building, you can create a combine harvester with just two clicks; or an airplane (nearly the same for a computer scientist anyway).

Usually, this situation puts me into an inner conflict. I’d rather try to tighten the screw with my thumbnail. But I don’t want to hurt the computer scientist. If it is an open source building center, I am also often tricked by the seemingly great cost-performance ratio. So, every now and then, I swallow and accept the invitation to a journey into the dark catacombs of informatics. At first you notice, that you need a ladder to reach to the things on the shelves. “What, you don’t have one?”, the computer scientist collegue enquires, who kindly accompanies you for some steps. “You can get one in the rear, near the threlve-edged flange muffles. But you have to register it first at the pay desk. Then you have to assemble it. It’s all done quickly and straightforward.” Said, tortured, done (yes, I shortened a little here).

Intimidated by the unimaginable and ungraspable flood of things, first of all one looks for an information. Here you can get advice from specialists, but also from experienced or less experienced and less friendly customers. However, near the information there is a fat book containing all the questions that were ever asked. First, you have to read it entirely, so that no question has to be answered twice, ever. Here, one can see the questions by others: “I managed to get my nuclear powerplant running on QIYAPBRNT (QIYAPBRNT Is Yet Another Pointlessly But Recursively Named Tool) and it produces power but the polarity is reversed. What’s the problem?” And the answer: “That’s a bug in the recent pre-alpha release version 0.4.832. As a fix, the cables will be connected incorrectly by default in version 0.4.833.” I think I don’t have to explain on how many levels this is disturbing.

After a day in hell of torture and despair and with a lot of luck, one can be the proud owner of a thing, that barely reminds of a tool. Of course it is intended for Linux-handed persons but with the almost fitting, unstable adaptor, it can also be operated by normal humans. After just 17 trials, the screw holds perfectly and the appreciated computer scientist collegue smiles with a swell of pride in his chest; proud, that his science once again simplified the life of a person.

But how can you avoid running into such a situation? With a little practice, this type of computer scientist can be identified easily. They reveal their identity by using words like “framework”, “useful”, “uncomplicated”, “from now on” and such. Then, one only has to take care that noone of them ever takes a look at ones screen and that one never asks them for advice. This needs active training. “How can I ... again?” is faster dropped than one imagines.

In this sense, regards to all the engineers and computer scientists out there.