A link to this blog appeared on Reddit, and a reader posted a critical comment which it’s worth addressing in detail. The big picture I’m describing is not one that readers will have seen before, and that’s a situation where it’s often necessary to allow misunderstandings to provide the structure for clarification. Please be warned that the comment contains language which is common in Reddit flames, although I would not use it normally on this blog. If vulgarity distresses you, please skip this post!
Insofar as he says everyone can program, he is a complete fucking moron. It is blatantly impossible.
I wouldn’t go so far as saying that everyone can program. There are some people who just can’t get their heads around formal syntax - they can’t get the semi-colons and other little things right, because they aren’t at all familiar with that kind of precision. Others don’t like working with keyboards and screens, and in the current generation of technology that’s a big problem. Maybe one day we’ll have some kind of gesture based immersive Squeak environment with voice recognition and inference, but for now the little things can still be a problem. When it comes down to it there are even some people who can’t cope with being indoors, and rainwater plays havoc with most current hardware!
What I do claim is that (almost) everyone who is currently working as a programmer can become one of the currently rare super programmers who deliver super productivity. They were born with the necessary faculties but background social stress, which is addictive for most people, takes those faculties offline. To become a super programmer they need support to reduce their level of stress, bring the missing faculties online, and become aware of them. Furthermore, in people who do not wish to be programmers the same faculties are important for doing other things, which I suspect include things like being able to correctly evaluate some kinds of biopsies using a microscope, and all kinds of creative arts.
In the twenty years I’ve been exploring this, I’ve met two people who I couldn’t get anywhere with even though all the conditions were right. One was a male who was unable to give up a very aggressive approach which had served him well in the usual snake pit of bombast and blame avoidance. The rest of his team were able to build authentic self-confidence and quickly got better at seeing what each other were on about. This led to a deepening and enrichment of everyone’s understanding of the technical problems they had to solve, and their project quickly transformed from the site’s greatest embarrassment to the only one that produced clean results in every one of the customer’s acceptance tests. He was trapped in a zero sum game, and every success made his nightmare worse. Everyone on a stressed-out team is something of a nutter, but this guy’s problems went way deeper. My guess was that he’d probably been like that since he was a toddler. Eventually he transferred to a sales support engineer’s job, where he did very well. He knew where he was in a stressed-out and basically distrustful context where his aggression enabled him to break deadlocks. There are some situations where the military idea that a quick decision is better than a correct one applies, and there he was happy.
The other was a female who was similarly trapped in a simple strategy that she’d obviously learned as a small child. I don’t know what became of her because I didn’t spend as long with that team, but I will say this - little girls go kind of weird when they reach 50 and it doesn’t work at all any more. What she was doing working in a local government IT department I do not know.
I’ve described these two cases because they make an important point. I am not a psychotherapist, and I’ve never made any attempt to pretend to be one. I’ve only ever been able to destress teams by giving them good reason to be self-confident in technical areas. In almost every case that’s been enough. You do not have to be a “people person” to use this approach, there is nothing “fuzzy” about it. If workers need professional help that’s their private business and not yours, but sometimes you can support them if they want to do something more suited to them as they are.
Look, I have known people who write P and not P in consecutive paragraphs. They don’t just believe in contradictory ideas, they believe in two exact negations separated by maybe 5 seconds in time. And it’s not an “error” since even after it’s pointed out to them, they don’t see the fucking problem!
I absolutely agree. It’s astonishing but it’s true. The approach I describe in this blog is no trivial thing. It includes a radical reconsideration of just how peculiar the state we usually call “normality” really is. We didn’t evolve to be stressed out all the time, and now that as a culture we’re addicted to a background level of social stress it has profound effects on our cognition. I describe this phenomenon of believing contradictory statements, even when the contradiction is pointed out, in the section Expecting Self-Consistency. When stress reduces a person’s ability to juxtapose, they stop being aware of self-consistency (or the lack of it) in any collection of statements. Tell them two contradictory things and the alarm bells of contradiction don’t ring.
How does a person know what’s what if at the time, they cannot detect contradiction? Instead of using their own good senses they rely on compliance. If someone else tells them X and Y, they will accept X and Y as true, and will not worry that X contradicts Y. They haven’t been told about that, so they don’t worry about it. So long as they have complied with what they have been told, nothing else matters. Just as self-confidence is a self-sustaining spiral of improvement, so the lack of trust in our own good senses is a self-sustaining spiral of decline.
It’s also an empirical fact that most people cannot handle logical syllogisms. They can’t comprehend that “if A then B, and A, then B”. And this isn’t due to lack of education because we’re talking about college students here. Hell, I have known professors teaching symbolic logic who don’t comprehend logical syllogisms. Try to wrap your head around that one.
But it might not be. How can we tell? This is the origin of long-term stressed out people’s attitude to “mere facts”. We must not be to blame, so unless someone has told us B, we should not accept it. This is why, in stressed out schools with stressed out teachers “socializing” children by addicting them to stress, children will get detentions for contradicting clearly incorrect statements made by teachers. Only compliance can save us from the unknowable chaos that surrounds us.
As to professors, likely more of them are in the grip of social stress addiction than programmers are. They stand up and go “Blah blah blah”, the students write down every blah, but the content often isn’t significant at all. I once saw a remarkable demonstration of this by a gifted Economics lecturer. Part way through a talk on classical elasticity of demand he started to talk utter nonsense. He didn’t give any “Laugh now” cues with his tone of voice or cadence, he just said that demand for products usually purchased by women did not exhibit significant price elasticity because research has shown that women’s brains are smaller than mens, and on like that. Most of the students just kept scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. The minority of students who were lucky enough to keep their wits about them in conditions of addictive social stress did notice, but it took a few minutes before their rising disquiet cued the majority that something was going on, and then they started performing the political protest procedures that they had been habituated to - also by rote.
In the modern school systems of America and the UK, the scribbling students would be called “alert” and “able to focus”, while the really alert ones would be called “unable to resist distraction”, which is often “co-morbid with oppositional syndrome”. The introspective, stress addicted worm swallows its own tail, endorses its own errors.
And to beat them all, I have known people who can’t comprehend structural identity, even after an hour trying to explain it to them. They can’t comprehend, and will not accept, that two molecules of CO2 are absolutely identical and that swapping their positions swaps their identities.
You see, they can’t comprehend the abstract concept of an abstract concept because they don’t believe in the existence of abstract concepts. Because abstract concepts don’t exist in their brains.
I think that second sentence was intended to read, “… swapping their positions doesn’t swap their identities.” After all, that’s what equivalence means. I describe this on the Logical Effects page. It’s the same as the Monty Hall problem.
A person familiar with juxtapositional awareness will be able to spontaneously notice things, in an “all-or-nothing insight” way. Therefore when they do the famous symbol based thinking, they are able to bear in mind that the symbols are a (partial) representation of an external reality. Without this experience, the symbols and the reality are confused. The map becomes the territory. So in the Monty Hall problem, the internal symbols of the initial statement of the problem don’t change when the host supplies additional information, so people can’t believe that their choice might now be improved by changing. The same thing prevents people from getting their heads round Bayesian statistics.
So they can do symbols, but what they can’t do is the reality that the symbols represent. Anything involving imperfect knowledge or external identity becomes very confusing. This returns to Dijkstra’s observation that in mathematical proofs, “The underexploitation of the equivalence, i.e. the failure to exploit inherent symmetries, often lengthens an argument by a factor of 2, 4 or more.”
Consider: Prohibition creates the market for gangsters to make huge profits. Anyone who wishes to take drugs this weekend will be able to acquire them. Therefore, clearly, the solution to the gangster problem is… more Prohibition!
It is a sorry state.
Now you tell me, how the hell is it ever possible for such people to learn to program in any environment? How is it even conceivable? You would have to be some kind of fucked up retard to deny the overwhelming empirical evidence. Evidence which is literally all around you if you will just open your eyes to it.
People in the stressed state can’t program. Period. We have a software industry which is like a black comedy, with projects going over budget by orders of magnitude and many other problems, because the ability of some people to program most of the time, and most programmers to program on rare occasions, has led us to believe that all programmers can program all the time.
Try the experiment of going round your colleagues, inviting them to write a simple program to say, read in a string, reverse it and output it. It is shocking to discover how few of your colleagues will be able to swing round, open a file and type in such a program.
However, as I have explained in great detail, these problems come from social background stress preventing the prefrontal cortex from functioning in a way which permits programming. If we give people good reason to be self-confident we can reduce background stress and they turn on like lightbulbs.
It seems to me that the poster of this comment has become so distressed by the stress-induced stupidity all round him, that he has not bothered to follow the directions on the page What To Do Per Individual before making the empirical observations. It’s strange that after I’ve described much deeper problems than the poster has, the poster believes that I’m unaware of problems.
Many people who are immune to social stress addiction because of a broken DRD4 dopamine receptor, or an very active DAT allele, have been driven to a state of demented despair by the seemingly cynical, dishonest, arrogant, slothful, conspiratorial, delusional and evasive behaviour of those around them, which is just like the behaviour of those who induce a delusional state by raising their dopamine levels by taking cocaine.
If you program then know this: most people do not think like you, most people CANNOT think like you, most people can never comprehend you. But you can understand them if you just learn the basic concepts that underpin their minds. Of course, if you do this, you will become elitist.
If I did not know from personal experience that it’s a matter of health, and most people have all the truly normal faculties but in a dormant state, then I would be an extreme elitist. Try the following idea, which is something which might produce feelings of either satisfaction or compassion, depending on the depth of your rage: There’s a phenomenon called the “second childhood”. In this, elderly people develop unpredictable and exploratory behaviours like dragging abandoned shopping carts out of rivers. We know that advancing age reduces the neurochemical response to stress, and retirement significantly reduces a person’s participation in the social stress economy, so they wake up and really do become more like kids, before stress addiction sets in. This exploratory behaviour is annoying to their middle-aged, stress-addicted offspring, who start describing them as mentally handicapped - as they do their non-stress addicted children.
Now there’s another strange effect associated with the “second childhood”. The elderly person find that their memories of childhood are sharp, but their memories of most of their life are poor and indistinct. This is usually described as a bizarre failure mode of the elderly people’s advancing senility, but in the stress addiction model there’s a more chilling interpretation. As children they experienced their lives fully, and they remembered their experiences in the way that human memory should work. Then, at around age 6 they went to sleep. They stayed asleep until 65, when they woke up again, old and near the end of their lives. Those shoddy memories were all they had of most of their existence.
I have concluded that social stress addiction, as exposed by studying the mysterious subject of the practical industrial psychology of computer programming and then identifiable all over the place, is the greatest curse the human race has ever suffered.