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January 31, 2013  |  Rocket Science for Beginners  |  6850 hit(s)

The title of this entry does not, as far as I know, reflect an actual book title. But based on something I saw today, maybe it could. Here's an article I saw today on the ArsTechnica site:

Keep it secret, keep it safe: A beginner's guide to Web safety

I was initially interested, because although I am more-or-less conversant with the basics of safe browsing—using wifi safely at a coffee shop, for example—there are certainly other people in our household who might value some tips "for beginners" about how to use the web safely.

Then I actually read the article. Here are a couple of examples of advice for those beginners:
Clicking the browser's padlock icon while visiting Facebook, for example, gives us the most relevant information about the certificate and its encryption algorithms: the certificate has been signed by VeriSign and the connection uses TLS 1.1 with 128-bit RC4 encryption.


If you want to roll your own [VPN] server, you can use free software like OpenVPN (or, for Mac users, the VPN server included in the $20 OS X Server package).
Frankly, I'm not really sure how grateful my wife would be to learn these things.

Obviously, the issue has to do with the term "beginner." It's not actually clear to me who exactly the author had in mind as a beginner, but it's not my wife, or my kids, or a bunch of other people who are perhaps not quite ready to examine the certificate chain for the current session.

Scene 2. The other day I was working on a programming problem and someone handed me a working example in the programming language named Python. I don't, er, speak Python, so I had to set up my computer with the requisite tools. In the process of looking for instructions about this, I ran across an article that included the following gems:
You want to use Python on a Windows 7 machine but you don't know what you're doing. What you do know is that in order to go anywhere and do anything you've got to install packages. Or maybe you don't even know that yet.
The good news is: it's easy.
There is no bad news.
See all that stuff flying by? Forget about it.
I was more than willing to overlook the perhaps too-flippant tone because the article in effect carried out its promise to document the process for (real) beginners.

So. If I see a title that involves the phrase "for beginners," I have a specific idea of what the reader is expected to know (or not know). Perhaps the author of the ArsTechnica article knows something about the audience for articles in that publication such that when he writes "for beginners," he actually means "really technical, but new to this thing." That's quite legitimate, if sometimes a little misleading. (One of the problems I had in finding information about Python "for beginners" is that the assumed starting point for most of the information I found was someone who already knew programming, operating systems (often Linux), tools and technologies (.tar), etc.)

As with any piece of technical writing, you need to have a clear sense when you start of who you're talking to. For a lot of writing, it's not a bad idea to actually lay this out at the beginning of your piece. And if you're going to use a term like "beginners," it seems like you have more obligation than usual to actually indicate what you mean by that.

Alan   31 Jan 13 - 10:55 PM

In a bit of serendipity the very next thing a looked at after reading this post was: http://xkcd.com/1168/

mike   31 Jan 13 - 11:28 PM

"Bomb Defusing for Beginners."