headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

November 2021

Avoiding Heroes

I have a personal problem with superheroes. While many of my peers delight in them, to me they mostly seem like beings with extraordinary power who can force others to bend to their will. Popular movies and literature juxtapose them with similarly powerful villains as justification. To me, though, the Hero and Villain trope gets us in trouble.

I recently asked on Twitter:

Twitter help: if the person who dashes in to solve a big problem is a "hero," what name do you give to the person who quietly prevents problems from becoming big?

It generated an amazing response! There were almost a quarter million views, and over 400 replies. Many of the responses were of other heroes, some of them fictional superheroes. There were also roles of people they'd seen behave this way in the past, and even a few specific names. There were characteristics of such a person. There was also a widespread perception that such a person is not appreciated--that they are ignored or punished. People are well-aware of the problems that accompany hero culture.

The most intriguing response I got was that the existence of a hero signals a systemic failure. This was accompanied by the recommendation of a delightful book, A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher. This young-adult book is a quick read about a situation that requires a 14-year-old girl to play the part of a hero, when it never should have been allowed to get that far.

Letting Small Questions Grow

When I was much younger, I went from being a theatre technician at a free theatre, to being an organic vegetable farmer. As a small-time farmer, I got to work even more hours for less income than I'd made in free theatre. Therefore when I got the opportunity to help with the renovation of the theatre, I jumped at the chance.

The theatre technical director had a plan to improve the seating platforms while the theatre was being brought up to current building and electrical codes. These platforms provided interesting sight lines for the able-bodied theatre patron and sometimes were incorporated, in part, into the performance set. The upper level down one wall, however, tended to be lightly used because it was difficult to access. There were too few ladders, requiring a long stretch down occupied platforms, and a few awkward elevation changes between platforms. The technical director was excited to fix these problems.

He showed me the model of his new design. It looked great! I wondered, though, about some of the construction details. In the model, the platforms were cardboard with wires poked through the holes. In reality, the platforms were 3/4" plywood with angle-iron frames around their perimeters and held up with vertical angle-irons to which they were bolted. I thought about asking, but decided not to, thinking "I'm sure he's thought this out."

We set to work building platforms and, as they were coming together, to installing them in place. The first problem we discovered is that 1/2" bolts will not reliably fit in 1/2" holes. The holes have to be drilled exactly perfectly for that to happen. So we got a slightly larger drill bit and pushed on, re-drilling the holes we'd already made.

Then we came to some challenges in connecting the platforms to the vertical supports. The platforms were mostly quadrilaterals, but not rectangles. Few of the corners were right angles. He designed custom pieces for the places that didn't work out well. This required more cutting and drilling of heavy steel angle-irons, slowing our progress.

The worst part, though, was when we'd gone about 2/3rds of the way down the wall and were having a hard time connecting things and keeping the supports vertical. It turned out that in his calculations, he'd neglected to account for the 3/16" thick steel of the supports. This error was cumulative down the wall. Ultimately the theatre opened with the last third unfinished and unavailable for use. We'd run out of time, and the show must go on.

Or Not

I had learned a lesson that I've found extremely valuable since then.

When something doesn't make sense, ask about it.

I hadn't asked because I didn't want to bother him and I had confidence in him. Had I asked, we might have saved a lot of rework and a problem that brought the effort to a halt. There have been other times when I've hesitated to ask so I don't appear to be a fool, or so I don't embarrass the person I'm asking. In the latter case, the question is not always appreciated, but I've still found it worth asking. There are worse consequences that foolishness or embarrassment.

Asking a question, while sometimes requiring a bit of bravery, is anything but heroic. But sometimes it's just the thing we need to avoid reliance on heroes.

Make it safe for others to ask you questions, also. Invite them to do so. Encourage them. Celebrate them when they do. It's the only way we can wean our society off the hero addiction.

/signed/ George

P.S. Do you have a story about when you averted the need for heroics or when, like me, you saw the opportunity but didn't take it? Let's talk! I call it a Discovery Session but we can use it for other conversations.

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