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Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: language

Why I don’t talk about learning curves

I don’t want to pick on this person, so I won’t use their name, but I saw this in a blog post today:

The most common complaint people have when learning Haskell is the steep learning curve.

It’s a very typical example of a mistake I see all the time, which is that when people say something has a steep learning curve, they mean that it’s difficult to learn. It’s understandable why people would think that way — steep things are difficult to climb.

However, the X axis on the plot of a learning curve is the resources invested, and the Y axis represents the level of mastery attained. You can look it up. So a steep curve means that initial progress in learning is very rapid. The fuller definition of a steep learning curve is that initial progress is rapid but that the curve plateaus and progress becomes difficult.

Unfortunately, the rampant misuse of “steep learning curve” means that if I use it correctly, nobody will actually get what I’m talking about. If I use it incorrectly, then I’m part of the problem. The end result has been to discourage discussion of learning curves using that terminology at all. Nobody seems to mind.

Profanity limits your audience

When is it OK to swear? Scott Hanselman takes on the issue of using profanity in conference presentations, blog posts, and other public communications. I find this interesting because he brings it up in light of the Don’t Give Your Users Shit Work blog post that I linked to the other day. The main reason I didn’t link to it in the first place was the title. I don’t normally use profanity here, and I wasn’t really sure about using it even in a direct quote.

The thing is, I’m not a shrinking violet. In fact, I generally describe myself as being nearly impossible to offend, and I am never offended by profanity. However, I share Hanselman’s concerns about using profanity:

My question is, do swear words add as much as they subtract? Do they increase your impact while decreasing your potential audience? I believe that swearing decreases your reach and offers little benefit in return. Swearing is guaranteed to reduce the size of your potential audience.

In my opinion, using coarse language in public, whether it’s in a blog post, a conference presentation, or a meeting with a bunch of people don’t know well, violates the Robustness principle:

Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send.

If the impression people take from something I wrote or said was, “That guy has a foul mouth,” then chances are that I wasn’t able to get my point across. Besides, if you are sparing in your use of profanity, when you do swear, people really pay attention.

Links from June 17th

Boiling the frog

Atlantic Monthly writer James Fallows is on a mission to get people to stop using the boiled frog metaphor because frogs won’t actually stay in a pot of water as the temperature rises to a boil. He proposes as an alternative a cat litter box metaphor.

Here’s an email I sent to him explaining why one is inadequate as a substitute for the other:

I don’t think the cat litter box analogy is a perfect substitute for the boiled frog. The point I take away from the litter box is that people to become accustomed to conditions that make people who are not so conditioned wince. The point of the boiled frog analogy (despite the fact that it is not scientifically accurate) is that if environmental conditions change slowly enough, people will not perceive that change until it’s too late.

If I get a job on a chicken farm, the first day it’ll smell the same as it does a year later, but it won’t bother me nearly so much. I’ve changed, but the situation has not. In the boiled frog case, it’s the environment that’s changing. So despite the fact that the analogy is nonsense, it remains useful.

I expect it’s here to stay.

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