Nate Bargatze on Remedial Classes

Comedian Nate Bargatze talks about his experience taking remedial classes at a community college in Tennessee:


The Iron Law of Stack Exchange

Stack Exchange logo
The Iron Law of Stack Exchange (Stack Overflow):

They hate hard questions from new users.

Fundamentally, voters and respondents on Stack Exchange like scoring points with answers that are obvious, easy to write, and don't take excessive amounts of thought. So there is some amount of irritation to questions that are fundamentally hard, and resist such easy answers. This perceived annoyance is exacerbated by a new (relatively low-ranked) user asking a question on any site, and the first instinct by members is often to look for some way in which the question can be rejected as being poorly-formed.

 Symptoms of this reaction include:

  • Closing or down-voting a question on poorly-justified grounds.
  • Editing the question to change it to an easier one.
  • Accusing the question of being an "X-Y problem", that is, the inquirer is confused and really should have asked a different, easier question.
  • Complaining about interactions that are common across the Stack Exchange network, but which a new user might not know is commonplace, and so be cowed in that way.

As one personal example: the Stack Overflow coding site is not my top network destination, but over the years I have asked a number of questions there. As a CS faculty member and past professional developer, by the time I need to reach out externally for help, I've exhausted a rather deep search for answers, and my questions are likely to be fairly hard to crack. This almost always results in exasperation and negative votes from users of the site.

In my last question, I asked about a feature of a certain piece of software, which seemed like it should have a rather obvious behavior (based on how relative pathnames should work in the OS), but I couldn't get it to work right. Several comments suggested the obvious behavior, which I was pointing out was failing. The only actual answer came from the actual developer of the software, who again asserted how it should work -- and whom, after some back-and-forth, I ultimately convinced about there being a bug in their work, that they agreed to fix it in the next version.

Despite this rewarding result, no one else could successfully answer this question, and it was (as usual) downvoted into negative territory. Immediately thereafter my Stack Overflow account was actually locked out from asking further questions because of the history of negative votes it garnered.

Given the downward trend of traffic to Stack Exchange in the last year or so (even predating the earthquake of generative AI in that time), it seems like potentially a difficult problem for the site. Over time, it would seem that most of the low-hanging fruit will already be answered, really only leaving hard problems yet to be dealt with -- and these are specifically the ones that are met with more hostility and likely to be ejected by the most dedicated users of the site.


ChatGPT Roundup

Cartoon bot chatting

Have we arguably stepped into the singularity? As of last November, OpenAI's release of the ChatGPT language-model system has upended most everything in sight, and in particular, sent educators everywhere scrambling to deal with the ramifications. This chatbot can seemingly craft custom essays, reports, scientific papers, newspaper articles, programming code, and solutions to many (although not all) mathematical problems. Immediately, for free, and in ways almost no human can detect.

Here's a roundup of news stories that I may update in the future:

Image courtesy Craiyon. :-)