Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Always, always check your facts...

... or "How not to let your ego ruin your class".

Dear Reader:

Some time ago I took a course on computer security. It's a hot topic and one can only hope to remain up to date with the latest developments.

There were many things I knew, many others I thought I did but nevertheless ended up having a better grasp of, and many many more of which I didn't even think about.

Some instructors were better than others. However, there was one who shall rename nameless for now and whom I thought would end up among the best.
Alas, this was not the case after all; now it's a good time to tell you why.

So there we were, instructor and students, studying the history of operating systems in general and their vulnerabilities. Although the instructor admitted he didn't have a background on computer science (he's a chemistry major from the early 60's), he relies a lot on his personal experience on the good old days.

Now, first hand experience is always pretty valuable... Except when paired with a huge ego. If that unfortunate mix happens, you end up with a class full of anecdotes that makes you think of The Wonder Years.

Anyway, he began to talk about early Unix systems and casually mentioned Xenix. Maybe that word sounds like gibberish to you, dear Reader, and you would be quite correct to assume its current significance is almost nil were it not for a funny fact:

For a while, Xenix was a Unix-like operating system fully supported by Microsoft and geared towards enterprise computing.


* My own memory. Doh!
While I am younger than the instructor, due the my early initiation into computer science and folklore encouraged by two wonderful parents, I had access to many then-current product catalogs for software and hardware. One of them is the 1984 edition of the Radio Shack's catalog which I still have in my possession. Turn to the section where the TRS-80 Model 16 business computer is announced and you'll see Xenix as an option:

-- catalog image to be placed here --

* The almighty Wikipedia.

Check this article for further info.

Image source: Wikipedia

I mentioned this unusual fact to the instructor, but he quickly dismissed it as utter and totally false rubbish.

Two different sources for my fact: One of them a still vivid memory from 22 years ago which could be checked rather easily. Obviously, one of us was mistaken. Guess who it was:)

Anyway, as I was deciding on the most concise and clear way to point out this error to the instructor, a second thought began to emerge:

I couldn't win.

If I managed to point out the mistake to the instructor, he would be discredited in front of the whole class and his ego would not take it lightly. A Pyrrhic victory.

If I remained silent, honour would not be satisfied and the instructor would go on thinking he is right.

So what did I do instead? To whom did I really want to show the truth?

I fetched the Wikipedia article on Xenix on my PDA and began to discreetly pass it around the class. They all smiled to me after reading it :)

Something has to be said about an instructor whose ego won't let them accept new perspectives and corrections to his facts. But on that day two things happened. First, he made me completely lose all confidence on his lecture and the course in general. Second, I learned to focus my efforts on those who would be receptive -- maybe lose a battle, but always looking towards victory in war.

Life went on and grades were awarded; the kind that cannot be altered because of a trivia dispute.

So now the time has come:

Dear Dr. Guillermo Mallén, regardless of how bright you are, please check your facts first and read the bloody label on the 5.25" diskette.

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