The grass in my yard is long. Shockingly, embarrassingly long. It’s an awful tangle of shin-high weeds (knee-high, in a few spots) that can conceal small objects. On either side of me are retirees who maintain yards that look like the green at St. Andrews. My yard has yet to be touched by a blade this spring. Most people have mowed at least twice by now.
My mower is malfunctioning. It starts, runs for a few seconds, stalls. It will keep running if I manually pump the prime button, but the moment I stop doing that, it stalls. I messed with the choke, put fresh gas in the thing, and changed the oil, according to the ancient folklore. Problem is unchanged. I don’t know anything about engines. Don’t have the money to fix it. This morning I decided, “Screw it. I have the internet. This is a simple machine. I’m sure a million other people have run into this problem. I’ll just Google around, find the answer, and fix it myself.”
I was able to find a lot of suggestions like this one:
- Spark plug — clean and regap, or replace.
- Air filter — clean or replace
- Carburetor — clean, check float for sticking.
- Perhaps the flywheel key is sheared? Inspect and replace.
- Check the fuel line and clear blockage.
This was very interesting. Obviously anyone who could perform all of the above would have already done so. I mean, I know what a carburetor does, but if you offered me a fiver if I could point to it, your money would be safer than Aquaman’s virginity. If I could identify, disassemble, inspect, repair, and re-assemble one, I sure as hell wouldn’t need anyone to suggest doing so. I can’t imagine what sort of person could make use of this advice. You’d have to know everything about the construction of engines and nothing about their operation.
This week Penny Arcade had a comic about the infuriating problem of asking other nerds for help. Everyone has heard the jokes about someone asking for help with something innocuous in Linux and being told to recompile the kernel. I used to think this was simply a nerd problem. Tradition tells us that nerds have no social skills, and so they don’t know how to impart information. They’ll mix information of different knowledge levels:
Look for the START button in windows. It should be in the lower-left of your screen. Move the pointer onto it and left-click. Once it’s open, select “run…”. Type “command” and hit enter. Now use the command line to create a batch file to back-up and replace the old ATI dirvers. That’s it. You should be good to go, noob.
And this morning I realize this is not a nerd problem, it’s a people problem. In fact, if you search for staling mower problems, you’ll find threads that look exactly like “graphics card problems” threads.
- Thread with detailed description of problem. No replies.
- Terse explanation of problem. Suggestion to buy a different brand of hardware next time.
- Vague and borderline illegible description of problem. 35 replies, all of which conflict with each other before getting sidetracked into a flamewar about 2-stroke engines vs 4-stroke engines.
- Rambling explanation of problem. No replies for five days. Then the original poster followed up with, “Nevermind. I fixed it.”
Exchanging information about complicated problems involving complicated devices is usually going to involve complicated solutions. It’s actually comforting that this problem affects everyone, not just people writing and using software.
For my part, I obviously don’t know enough to be able to glean useful knowledge from the internet. I think it might be time to give up and pave the yard.
Q: How many software Engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Can’t be done. That’s a hardware problem.
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