Southern Man

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Describe The Goal, Not The Step

As Southern Man was busily working this morning he noted this post at Armed and Dangerous and followed it to a nice article entitled How To Ask Questions The Smart Way. While intended for hackers software developers it was generally good advice, and one section read like this:
Describe the goal, not the step

If you are trying to find out how to do something (as opposed to reporting a bug), begin by describing the goal. Only then describe the particular step towards it that you are blocked on.
Southern Man makes this error all the time. In particular, the way he makes this error is:
Sally forth to accomplish some task.
Find that the tools (or whatever) required to accomplish the task aren't available.
Forget about the task and spend an inordinate amount of time looking for those particular tools.
Just the other day Southern Man was hitting some geocaches during lunch break. On finding one he sought to sign the log but found that he had lost his pen. Thus, he forget entirely about the task at hand (signing the log) and was immediately consumed by finding his pen (locating the tool). Which he did, by backtracking to a previous cache and finding his pen right there on the ground. Then on return he noted, to his chagrin, that the cache owner had already provided a "writin' stick" in the container. That's half an hour spent walking, for no purpose, because Southern Man got caught up in finding his pen and forgot about the goal, which was to sign the log. He fell into a similar trap during the supercomputing symposium. In serial computing, the n-body problem is modeled by computing the interactions between each pair of objects, one at a time. The speaker (Bob Panoff of challenged us to think about how this problem could be solved on a computing cluster. Southern Man dutifully began to work on parallizing that serial process - only to be reminded that the goal was to solve the n-body problem on a cluster, not modify the old algorithm. Again, Southern Man (and most of the audience) focused on a tool, not on the goal. Sure, he (and the audience) were deliberately set up to fall into that trap, but it's still embarassing. Full disclosure: Southern Man admits that he falls into all of Bob's traps.

Southern Man is not even going to relate the many times this sort of thing happens to him out at The Land. THe only bright side of working along out there is that no one is there to witness his many errors. Perhaps writing this post will help him better focus on solving problems.


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