Linguistically Challenged

I’ve been troubleshooting computers since high school and college and for me that means to you that I’ve been troubleshooting pc’s since before there were pc’s.  I didn’t specialize in DOS, or IBMDOS. I moved right from the Apple IIe versus Commodore64 debate through the Windows versus MacIntosh debate.  I declared Windows the victor and survived WinNT, 3.11, 95, 98, ME, XP, Vista, and 7.  For work, I’ve had to learn MS Server 2000, 2003 and 2008. In the aging decline of XP and flakiness of Vista, OSX came to the periphery  of my troubleshooting skills and I had to be able to dabble back where I wasn’t an expert again. But every interface has something that it’s trying to show you so I adapt.

I’ve long maintained that the vast majority of my skill is the simple ability to read and understand English. To read a Microsoft White Paper is to experience both the specific technical language of computer science majors and the vagueness of English written for English-as-a-second-language technicians.  Even though it’s in perfect English and grammatically correct and you understand every word, you are left wondering “What does that mean?” It’s as if they are written for CS Majors to let them know that they aren’t doctors and simultaneously written for doctors to let them know that they aren’t CS Majors. And anyone in between to let them know that they picked the wrong degree and should get someone who has been trained by Microsoft to fix the problem. I’ve become proficient but cautious about my ability at reading these white papers.  It’s amazing how small a word ‘not’ is and how easy to miss in a casual first read.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been working through Linux.  Using Ubuntu and CentOS, doing virtual hosting and recompiling kernels at work to get into a new market.  I’ve had to read bash scripts and xml and php and conf files.  Re-awakening my ability to work from a command line to get a job accomplished.  But mostly I’ve been having to read forums and blogs.  There isn’t a great deal of information on Ubuntu Server if you are looking for a solution to a problem that isn’t covered by Canonical.  You have to find someone else who has had the issue and hope that they have solved it.  Occasionally you get lucky and the problems is made obvious in a log somewhere. “Couldn’t find file” and you just have to figure out how to get that file installed.

That brings me to my inadequacy.  While I’ve gotten good at reading a sort of technical but non-specifically bland MS white paper and know the common jargon of the cult of Microsoft, i.e. registry, regserv. Trying to read Linux forums is intensely attentive.  There are many instances of the exact same issue that I’m having, but with different flavors and different languages of Linux.  I could not possibly be expected to use Red Hat instructions in the CentOS command line.  Ubuntu uses apt-get and CentOS uses yum. I’ve got to keep my rpm’s and my tar.gz’s separated in my mind. But even while doing that, I have to keep in mind that although the problem that I’m having may be described in the same way on the forum, it may not actually be the same problem as the person presenting the solutions believes that they are solving.  At times, there is no common language for what is being experienced.  Often, the proposed solution is to get off the forum and get together personally and solve it. And, of course, there are those that don’t want you to do it the way you intended but to use this alternate method that they themselves devised. The really infuriating responses are the ones that expertly restate the problem in gloriously specific tech-euse and end by saying that if this is what you are experiencing, that they can’t really help.

My ability to read and follow instructions has landed me in my current position and pays me well.  It simply isn’t universally applicable that people in my same position have gotten there by the same method.  I’m having to learn a new language to do my job.  A language of multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-technical multiverses that exists in forums around the world. My life is interesting, isn’t it.

And I adapt, again.


  1. greg smith

    For some reason, which is inexplicable to me, some people seem to think lawyers use obtuse jargon. At least with lawyers, the conventions have been developing for at least two millenia, not merely two decades.

  2. Wil C. Fry

    “some people seem to think lawyers use obtuse jargon”

    At least for me, the problem is that lawyers often use jargon when much simpler phrasing would seem (to the layman) to suffice. Of course, the opposite problem is that the laymen often don’t realize the vast implications of seemingly simple lawyer jargon terms. 🙂

    As far as computers go, they’ve made the opposite mistake in my opinion: trying to use everyday words but assigning new meanings. To complicate the matter, different programmers use different words for the same thing. For example: “options”, “settings”, “preferences”. And I have a few applications that have options *and* settings.

    And for what it’s worth, both lawyer-speak and computer-speak are far above my pay-grade. I just blink and move on to something I can understand like aperture, ISO noise gain, auto-exposure bracketing, etc. 🙂


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