Solution by proximity

It’s a weird feeling. It’s sometimes frustrating too. I’ve felt confused, confounded and conflicted. Before I tell you more, I need to tell you about…

The wise sorceress

Polgara the Sorceress was famous, respected and feared. At a king’s house, she’s well received. Of course, the fact that she could turn His Majesty into a toad might have something to do with the warm reception.

But she’s really a nice person. And when she happened to stay, sometimes, in the mornings, people come knocking at her door. Like the queen. Or a good friend. They’d knock at her door, and be surprised when she calls them in by name, even though they didn’t speak, only knock.

Hesitantly, they’d open the door and enter her room. “Tea?” offered Polgara, holding a cup of her own. Some small talk would ensue, and then they revealed the real purpose of their visit.

“Oh I don’t know what I should do. Perhaps I could…”
“I want to do that. What do you think?”
“I suppose I could talk to him. Do you think he’d listen?”

Inevitably, they’d come to their own conclusions, and decide for themselves, and thank Polgara for her assistance. Polgara didn’t really say or do much. She nodded and encouraged them during most of the conversation.

“Another cup of tea?” she offered.
“Oh no, thank you. I know exactly what to do now. I really should be going. Thank you.”

Manifestation of a super power

It started when I was studying in the university. I was in the computer lab doing the programming homework tasks together with more than 10 other students. Having completed the core programming task, I set out to refine the code, what was termed “beautifying the code”. You know, making it presentable and hopefully scoring a better grade.

So my friend, knowing I’ve completed my homework, came over to my work desk and asked for help. She said she’s been getting segmentation faults and had been poring over her code, but couldn’t find out what’s wrong. She tried different stuff, recompiled her code, got other kinds of errors, fixed those errors, and still wound up with the segmentation fault.

So I walked over to her desk with her, and she sat down, and on a whim, recompiled her code. She ran her program, and amazingly, it worked. She swore it failed just seconds ago. Well, she didn’t exactly swear, but she was fairly certain of the existence of the error.

Computers by Kohlerphoto
[image by Kohlerphoto]

I didn’t really do anything. I just walked over and stood there beside her. I nodded at the appropriate points in her explanation. That’s it.

Over the course of my undergraduate days, more than a few of these similar incidents had errors miraculously correcting themselves. Cannot compile program and don’t know why. Entered input and got a wrong output. The errors all went away and all I did was stand beside the frustrated coder.

This even carried into my professional career. A colleague told me he got a server problem, and asked me to take a look. So I walked over to his computer, and when he’s replicating the cause of the error, he couldn’t. The server became fine.

These sorts of incidents don’t happen a lot, but they occur frequently enough to catch my attention. Do I have a hitherto unknown super power? The power to solve programming errors by simply being near? Oh dear, my ego’s going to burst… *smile*

Sometimes, they already know the answer

Seriously, I’m not an egotistical buffoon. Ok, please forgive a slight laxity in modesty. You are a great programmer. Perhaps our awesomeness in programming is so awesome that the light from our awesomeness can wash away the evilness of compilation errors. Simply by being awesome, I mean, being there.

Anyway, I got to thinking. Maybe, just maybe, those people who ask you for help already know the answer. Or they’ve already gotten an answer, but didn’t know they did. They ask you, because you’re a nice person, and they respect you, and frankly they’d much rather ask you than spend another minute with that insidious error mocking them.

All you need to do is offer encouragement, and sometimes hope.

Psychic debugging skills are cool. I also think it wanes in awesomeness compared with Polgara’s power of solution by proximity.

Have you solved someone’s problem lately by simply being near?

Comments

  1. Christopher Tay says:

    Normally, the situation is the reverse. A piece of software works just as it should except during demos :p Nice to know that its going the other way round too. 🙂

  2. Vincent Tan says:

    It’s a pity I can’t call upon this super power of mine at will. Think of the possibilities! Invite me to your server room to miraculously flush out evil hackers, computer viruses, 404 file-not-found’s! Muahahaha…

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