6J King Kong and the Error Messages

January 7, 2008

In my job, I teach classes about how to use computers, mostly to people who don’t know very much about computers, people who are often filled with fear and resentment about computers.

I will say immodestly that I am fairly good at what I do. There are several reasons.

For example, I am not very good at computers myself. Frequently, a skillful person is not a very good teacher of his skills. People for whom some skill is easy (whether it is cooking a large banquet or painting a portrait or fixing a sputtering engine or a sputtering faucet) generally don’t understand the frustration of people who find such tasks bewildering. I understand my students’ bewilderment all too well, giving me a head start because I start closer to the back of the pack. (Back start for going backwards?)

A basic ingredient of acquiring a skill is paying close attention. Many experts who set out to teach have paid such close attention to the details of their craft that they try to share all they know with their pupils. Such expert teachers often resemble demented pitchers trying to pour their contents into tiny glasses.

I have explained a concept with great care to a person who was looking at me with a look of great concentration and comprehension for ten minutes and then realized the person had not comprehended a word I had said, and in a few cases, was sound asleep with his eyes open. This does not surprise me as I am capable of looking as if I am listening carefully when I don’t understand any of what is being addressed to me. In fact, by the time I had reached high school, I had developed the ability to look at a teacher with an expression of rapt attention while safely in dreamland. An expert, however, is able to carry on for an hour without noticing that a student has passed away during the lecture, left his body, undergone reincarnation, and been born again.

On the other hand, students are often equally clueless about teachers. For example, my students think that because I know a little about computers as evidenced by my ability to use technical words such as default and zoom with fluent authority, I know everything there is to know about computers.

As I was teaching a computer class at a Jewish community center a couple of months ago, an alert and live gentleman in his eighties expostulated, “I wish you would explain computer error messages to me. I don’t even want to know what they mean. I just want to know what to do about them!”

He then pulled out of his wallet a detailed email error message that he had painstakingly written down in every detail. (I praised him effusively, as many people—myself, for example—fail to write down the exact words of their messages.)

He added, “This message appeared every time I tried to access my email. I tried many ways to fix the problem but nothing seemed to work. Then one day, when I hadn’t done anything different, it went away by itself. It just stopped appearing, for no reason. This makes no sense. Why does this happen!”

Foolishly, I tried to explain that there are many possible error messages with many possible causes, some of which relate to a particular computer, and so on yada, yada, yada. I finished by explaining that I had no idea what had caused his computer’s problem, how it should have been fixed, or why it disappeared on its own..

He stared at me with a look on his face that clearly said, You are part of the conspiracy who know the secrets behind how computers work—more important—how they fail to work—more important yet—how to make them work—but like everyone else who is on the conspiracy, you are going to hide that knowledge from me.

Since then, I have thought of several other responses I could have made. (This is one of many reasons I don’t do comedy. I am a very slow thinker.)

For example, I could have directed him to this web page which clearly explains most computer errors, especially the important ones.


I also could have said, “Part of the answer—like the answer to many problems—is to live long enough for the problem to go away by itself.”

For example, people were fearful for years that a giant gorilla would damage tall buildings in New York City. However, decades have passed with no giant gorilla attacks in Gotham. It’s fairly clear that the tall buildings in New York City are now quite safe from attack.

My final thought was that I should put him in touch with my Aunt Henriette. For one thing, they are both of Jewish descent. Second, my Aunt Henriette no longer has a husband. Third, my Aunt Henriette has the same faith in my ability to solve computer problems and answer computer questions as the gentleman  in my class. As far as women in their 80s go, Henriette is a babe. As far as gentlemen in their 80s go, the guy in my class is a dude. (I don’t know if he presently has a wife, but all my readers know what men are like.)

Aunt Henriette also has something for sale, which, as her manufacturer’s representative, I will offer to you, my kindly readers. However, I will say that I will still love you if you sit on your wallet. Though, I will still take your money if you fall under the spell of my silver tongue. So you will have to take full responsibility for your own decisions in this matter. As far as I can tell, you are all  adults over the age of consent. In any case, I will treat you as such. If you are not, don’t disabuse me of my illusions about you.

However, as what she has to sell is a calendar, Henriette is now rather late to the New Year’s Eve party.

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8 Responses to “6J King Kong and the Error Messages”

  1. pandemonic Says:

    This is a great post. Many important things are contained in it. The most precious are the haiku error messages, which would be hysterical if they weren’t so true. The other is that people who know how to do something well cannot teach. This would be me trying to train people in at our office. There is intense frustration on both sides.

    Which year is this calendar, by the way?

  2. modestypress Says:

    My Aunt Henriette’s calendars are for the year 2008.

    (There are four calendars.)

    It’s that late yet, but getting later by the minute. More to come, if I have enough time.

  3. modestypress Says:

    “Not that late yet” I meant to say.

  4. missholley Says:

    I am not electronically minded, but my husband is. Many years ago when we bought our first DVD player, he was attempting to teach me how to use it. He was explaining EVERY LITTLE FREAKING THING about how and why you push this button or that. I became very frustrated and asked him to just write down the instructions. I kid you not…he gave me four pages (front and back, complete with diagrams) on how to work the freakin’ DVD player.

    As it turns out…you only have to do about four easy steps to make the thing work.

    Just give me the simplest explanation on how to do something…I don’t want to know how or why the thing works…just tell me what buttons to push.

  5. pmousse Says:

    One of the great achievements of my life is having taught an art class once, despite the fact that I am not particularly artistic, and definitely not skilled. I was asked to teach the class because I was related to someone who was in fact artistically talented, and somehow, someone believed it might have rubbed off on me. Not so. Before each class, I had to be taught all of the various drawing, painting, sculpting skills that I was to teach that evening. Then, I would pass along what I knew. I was patient, and the students and I had to learn much together. The cool part is that someone taking the class went on to choose the visual arts as her career, and makes her living that way now.

  6. modestypress Says:

    I tell students in my classes, “The best thing for you to do now is find somebody who knows less than you do about computers and teach them what you just learned. They may not learn much, but you will solidify and deepen your knowledge, because you will be explaining it to yourself.”


  7. The advice to learn by teaching is brillant, spot on, and priceless.

    In other news, the next time someone asks you about error messages, I think you should synthesize all of your possible responses into one unanswerable riposte that directs them to a website which will tell them how to live long enough for King Kong to destroy their computer.

  8. modestypress Says:

    I may just dress up in a combination of a Peter Townsend/King Kong suit to teach my next computer class, destroying a computer in the process. I will be fired, but famous. I haven’t figured out how to make a lot of money during the process. There is usually a fatal flaw (or a dozen) in my usual schemes.


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