Monday, March 16, 2009


"It's not there."

I sighed. "Don't use the search function," I said.  For at least the fourth time.  He hit the search function again, trying to show me what wasn't there.

"It's not there," he repeated.

"Partner, we're looking at source material in three different languages. No one transliterates it the same. I can think of six different ways an American would try to spell the name you are looking for and there's a real possibility that they would mess up the order. Our naming system is different than yours. A computer won't pick that up."

He said he understood, but every time I glanced over I could see the little "find" box. I'll have to redo all of his work later.

How do you teach someone that they are smarter than a computer?  Computers are great for certain types of problems, but there are certain problems- the complex, fuzzy ones and the ones with subtle patterns where the human mind is much better adapted.  But people get these ideas about what is hard, like math, and if computers make it easy and never make a mistake and smart people are good at math and computers are better...

Math isn't easy (clarification- higher math isn't easy for me) but it is simple. The processes are pretty much laid out.  Other problems- like people and conflict and language, most of the human-sized stuff- are really complex, but it is a kind of complexity that our brains are trained to handle  This guy, my partner, is brilliant. Fluent in three languages and working on his fourth, lots of interests, an advanced degree in a technical field and he worships the power of technology.

There's a part of me that enjoys the tedious detail work of analysis. I especially like it when I can invent or choose my own methods and sources.  I've done some work here where just a little niggle back in my brain said to look at something again... it's rewarding in its own way.  Some detail that no one else may ever really see or use, something that will be buried in a long list and filed and probably forgotten. But something a computer would never have caught, would never have felt the niggle at a name that was clearly wrong. Not long enough to correlate strange spellings and common pronunciation errors and how Americans try to write sounds that they can't largely distinguish the differences between* and family naming custom in the native country and BOOM a whole new door opens.  So it's probably useless, but I find fun where I can make it.

* The 's' in Saddam and the 's' in Hussein are entirely different letters with entirely different (to Arabic ears) pronunciations. I can't tell sin from sad (those are the names of the letters) in conversation.


Drew Rinella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Drew Rinella said...

I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt that niggle is a real word. I would totally google it were I not at work. I'm afraid of what I might find!

ush said...

Never heard of a niggling doubt then?

Fred Ross said...

To totally miss the point of your post...

Actually, computers are lamentably bad at higher mathematics. They can be used as tools, but the real trick is passing material between symbolic reasoning, visual cortex, spatial awareness, and "muscle memory" (no idea how to explain that except that I remember a lot of proofs by the "physical actions" necessary to generate them). And it's not easy for anyone, even after you've removed the barrier of human language from your thinking.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

>"How do you teach someone that they are smarter than a computer? "<

Short Answer: You can't.
Long Answer: You can't, because computer training and comprehension, unlike, say, reading and literacy, are such nebulous functions that 5 different graduates of the same computer course will understand networking 5 (or more) different ways.

I try to teach people to analyze what they are asking a computer to do, look at it like any other tool in the box, and see if they can twist it's functions around to their will. Give them a few examples of this, your explanation of how names could be spelled is excellent. I once had a boss whose last name was "Albright", and pronounced "All-Bright".

Which was exactly how people wrote it down when he said it, especially over the phone. I watched as dozens of orders went to the wrong departments (sometimes never getting to our building at all) because of this little mistake.

In your example, the other guy seemed a bit...Dense, I guess is how I would say it. And typical of an ITT tech graduate. Please tell me that isn't where he got his education. That's how we wind up with people who say things like "Well, that SHOULD do it" or "It's SUPPOSED to work", or how about "The manual SAYS that's where it's supposed to go".


...Sorry for raving. I have dealt with this so much in my professional life, reading this post has brought about PTSD for techies in me.