Thursday 4 November 2010

Press any key to continue

As far back as I remember there's been the amusing story of the user who reads the instruction on the screen "Press any key to continue" and then asks, "Where is the any key?" As funny as the anecdote may seem, as silly as the person may look, there is another aspect of the story which brings up, for me at least, the question of whom between the two of us deserves to be called stupid.

Between 1986 and 1993, I taught almost all aspects of computing. Working as a part-time teacher, I spent time at eight technical colleges offering continuing education to adults where I dealt with the use of computers, programming, history of computing and the use of certain software such as Microsoft Word and WordPerfect. Even though I held down a full time job, I still managed to accumulate more than three thousand hours of classroom time. - [laughs] Some weeks I worked a 40 hour work week and taught six 3 hour classes!

During this period of my life, I had the opportunity to experience firsthand the funny story mentioned above. At that time, I worked in a hospital where I was involved in the maintenance of certain computer systems. One day, one of the secretaries called me to ask where the any key was. Her question left me perplexed, so perplexed that I decided to go to her office to see for myself what was on the screen of her computer because I had never heard this before and couldn't for the life of me imagine what she was talking about. Once there, I read on the screen this famous command "press any key to continue". With considerable effort, I avoided laughing and explained to the secretary the true meaning of the instruction while maintaining a serious professional manner.

However, I then reflected on the reason why this person did not understand the instruction. It crossed my mind that we know so little about a subject; we cannot even formulate a good question correctly. At first glance, I can easily say that the person is not intelligent. However I realized that when we are one hundred percent ignorant of something, what is obvious to one person, is not necessarily so obvious for another. When you are not an expert, when you are completely ignorant, even the simplest of concepts can be incomprehensible.

A wise man once said that there were no stupid questions, there were only stupid answers. After some experience in life, I came to understand that this adage is good advice for a teacher or for any person offering to answer a question. When giving a lesson, the teacher must always keep in mind the perspective of the person who just started the lesson, who knows nothing, who is probably overwhelmed by an overload of new information and totally confused. In answering questions from a student, the teacher must remember what it's like to know nothing. If the teacher can remember that, he or she would be better prepared to find the right explanation in order to answer questions from a student. At least that's the approach I always took when giving my courses to adults and judging by the reaction I had, this approach was appreciated.

We all had a chance to react badly to something seemingly stupid: laugh, look disgusted, even scold the person in question. However, I think we need a little humility, a little kindness because there are always circumstances in which we ourselves have shown ourselves to be stupid.

In 1972, I took a calculus course at university. In high school, I took courses in mathematics, but I can say that I was not very strong in this area. Calculus turned out to be incomprehensible and I was the personification of that amusing expression: math and me, that makes two. I studied hard, I tried to do additional work and I even took private lessons with the teacher. However I realize that I never grasped the material; I answered by rote. I arrived at the right answer not because I understood the question; I arrived at the right answer because the question was similar to another question that I had already done. I had not grasped the concept or the idea behind the computation needed to find the right answer. Over the years, I've realized that the calculus requires a certain level of abstract thinking that I do not have.

At the end of the course, I passed with a mark of 72% which indicated to me my lack of understanding. Yes, I passed but without having really understood anything. Why didn't I understand? I was always sat in the front row of the classroom trying not to miss a single word spoken by the teacher. It didn't matter. In fact, right next to me, there was a guy who always got 98%. He said several times that calculus was so easy for him, he didn't need to study. He had even admitted that sometimes he came into the class after having smoked a joint. I do not know how he could do so well never mind doing so under the influence of a drug. I've always joked since then that maybe what I needed to do to better understand calculus was to smoke some marijuana before class!

At one point in the course, the professor introduced the concept of imaginary numbers. Without explaining fully the idea because I do not understand it myself, I'll just say that this is a complex number denoted by the letter i in italics, the so-called imaginary unit whose square root is -1. I still remember that I spoke with the teacher after her lecture complaining about the difficulty I had to find my way among the real numbers and she dared to present so called fake numbers? Here I am, William in Wonderland.

I return to this "any" key. I can laugh at the person who asked me where is the "any" key. However, I know that the professor of my calculus course and my colleague of this same course would have laughed at me and my inability to grasp any concept of this branch of mathematics. I fully understand the meaning of the phrase "Press any key" but I'm not smart enough to grasp calculus. Ha! Maybe sooner or later we all find ourselves in circumstances where we are "Forest Gump", the eponymous protagonist of American film, a slow person.

I do not understand how i or any number could have a -1 as its square root, however I was given to understand that this idea is important in many areas of civil engineering. Since I see examples of engineering everywhere, I could say I'm surrounded by i without being aware of it. I do not understand the quantum but I admit its importance if I think of atomic energy. This is what I find frustrating and funny. I'm smart enough to recognize that something exists such as this imaginary number or a quantum because I can see the application of these ideas in my everyday life. But I'm not smart enough to understand these things. Computing, quantum mechanics and me, that makes three. This level of abstract thought is quite beyond the bounds of my gray matter. What is frustrating? Recognizing that something exists without being able to understand it. What is funny? Recognizing that something exists without being able to understand: I'm smart enough to recognize that I'm not smart. Ha!

All things considered, this is the moral of my story. Sometimes we're all a little too quick to make fun of someone who does not understand something, who asks a question that may look a bit stupid at first glance. Keep in mind there are always circumstances in which we can find ourselves where we ask a question that might also look a bit stupid in the eyes of someone else, someone who is just a little smarter than us. Be kind; pass it on.


Wikipedia: Any key


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My ex husband didn't know his ABC's.

He thought Target was spelled with an O, because there's always an O in the commercials.

He was 31 years old.

Some people really are stupid.