A game of inches

Written by Brett Thomas

October 21, 2007 | 11:55

Tags: #64-bit #american #ars #ars-technica #education #football #writing #x64

Companies: #digg

Oh, how I love autumn. The leaves changing, that cold nip in the air, the scent of wood-burning stoves and leaf-burners....and football. I love football season and look forward to it every year.

Being as this is a rather worldwide audience, I suppose that I should specify, though. Being a Yank, football here is a little different than it is everywhere else. So for those of you unfamiliar with the rules, I invite you to learn them all (as well as everything else about the game) by reading here. I'm just kidding, that's a lot of information, and I'd be lying to myself if I thought even half of you would care that much about the truly finer points.

In fact, every season, I find out a little more about how much I don't know about the sport, as much as I love it. There are people I converse with who can tell me stats of all the league's best players, all the trades, all the games. It's amazing, really, just how much info there is. And by the time you've seen what a playbook can consist of, suddenly the players don't seem so dumb anymore, either.

I think that my greatest epiphany about football came when I was still in the infancy of learning about it. I couldn't understand why every play wasn't a run for the end zone. After all, there's a hundred yards to go - surely you should be able to find one out of eleven men open enough to run all the way down it? It was then that one of my game-devoted relatives told me, "Brett, football isn't a game of points - it's a game of inches. 360 inches - you have four tries to get there, and then you can do it again. Eventually, you run out of field. THAT is where points come from - 360 inches at a time."

Over time, I grew more and more familiar with it. You could say I'm around the 35-yard-line now, and I'm comfortable with that. It's enough information to give me a true appreciation for the game, without being one of those guys you hate to bump into at a party. "Hey, did you see him throw the other day? Man, 308 yards is alright but I don't think it warranted a QB rating of 163! I mean, when you calculate it against the number..." You know the ones - the guys who have too much information and are all too eager to prove it.

I'm somewhere between the proverbial goalposts on a lot of things, I guess - a jack of all trades, master of none. There's always someone who knows less than I do, and someone who knows a lot more. I think that's true about a lot of things in life, actually - but you never become so hyper-aware of it as when you put yourself on display in a public sense; for instance, writing this column for you now...or my recent 64-bit computing article.

"There's always someone who knows less than I do, and someone who knows a lot more."

I am amazed at the breadth of comments I got about the article, everything from "Thanks, this is just what I needed to finally wrap my head around the subject," to "This article is so full of errors, it would take a whole separate article just to correct it," and a bunch in between. There's even an entire forum thread elsewhere full of people finding every way to call me an idiot and tell me how wrong I really am.

Some of these people are way more off base than I could have ever hoped to be, whipping out their e-peen just to have it lopped off by documents from AMD or Intel. Others were right about a couple of errors, which I freely acknowledged. But the end result left me with a striking revelation.

Here are people who have this incredible, deep understanding of the subject, but the only way they show it is by trying to laugh at me for the information I have or have not explained to their satisfaction...information that would have taken a 360 page technical manual instead of a five page, easy-to-read article.

I thought about signing onto that forum and leaving a rebuttal - maybe kill them with kindness, maybe point out their own errors. Maybe even just tell them that if they thought they all knew so much, they should go get jobs in the industry and write explanations for years upon years of engineering, trying to condense it down. But then I realised - I'd just be them, only taking my astute high-ground in the arena of writing instead. I would be a troll.
This isn't just my sob story. This, my friends, is that guy at the party...and if you look through your past forum posts, you'll find that we are all him sometimes. Sitting quietly, lurking, signing up to bash a piece of writing we don't agree with, or to jeer at a new forum guy asking how to connect his graphics card up. We may have thought we were being witty, but we should not be proud of it.

How much time would it have taken for that person who wrote a huge forum post over there to instead write me an email or post in our forums to say, "Hey, I think you may have oversimplified some things, so I wanted to tell you this so you could edit it if you agree?" Yet there is the time to bash the article outright - and worse, when nobody understands the technology because there's no information aside from a tech manual or a marketing campaign, he'll find time to mock anyone who asks about it for their inferior knowledge.

Everywhere we turn online, this seems to happen. To ask a question on an issue is to be called a n00b. To try to explain something incredibly complex by distilling it to concepts is to be called an idiot. Groups form as people pat themselves and each other on the back for quoting obscure texts that bury the overarching understanding and ideas in a torrent of minutiae and further references. And then everyone wonders why nobody but the most dedicated have any knowledge on the subject at all.

"That's what makes enthusiasts - the drive to know more about something they haven't devoted their entire lives to."

People don't want to read technical manuals and shouldn't have to take five years at uni to understand the benefits of something they want to buy...but they do want a general knowledge of why it works. That's what makes enthusiasts - the drive to know more about something they haven't devoted their entire lives to. Most people are happy to just appreciate some of the complexity and the basic concepts.

I didn't write my 64-bit article because I'm a twenty-year assembly programmer, nor do I have a degree in computer engineering. In fact, the reason I wrote it is because I'm not that guy. Have you ever tried to have something explained to you by a real expert in their field? Most people who went to University know - knowledge doesn't make the best teacher, that's a skill all on its own.

When someone goes to study or learn something new, he or she will do it best in an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. Time and again, that will be somewhere that is friendly and low-stress, where questions are encouraged and the tutor and the pupil can relate to one another.

The Internet could be that place. A place where we can group with other like-minded people, for instance people who are enthusiastic about a pastime we greatly enjoy...like computers. Or it can be a mental measuring contest where he with the shortest straw gets laughed out of the Good-ol'-Boy's club.

So the next time you sit down and are about to hit "Post" on that missive pointing out every flaw, blasting at every missed point or just plain laughing at the inherent stupidity of the guy in front of you, just take a minute and think. He may not be an expert, but odds are that unless you're using it every day, you probably aren't either. We all sit somewhere between the goalposts.

Maybe we each need to take a step down from our delusional ivory towers and reach out a hand to pull some people up to a better level of understanding...because learning anything, particularly in this field, is a game of inches.
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