Ten Stupid Questions

Teachers sometimes tell students that there are no stupid questions. This is a huge lie; many questions are so stupid they make my teeth ache. I don’t have a great definition of “stupid question” but it’s something like:

A question that only wastes time. Neither the asking nor the answering benefits anyone.

Here are a few of my own stupid questions:

  1. What’s the right way for a male professor to explain male/female connector terminology to a female student? (No, I haven’t been asked this, but one of my colleagues has.) The hazards to avoid are mortal embarrassment or a sexual harassment case.
  2. Why do so many blog authors populate their entries with images not at all related to the topic of the blog post?
  3. What’s the beverage with the highest alcohol content that a person could survive on indefinitely? I mean, if food was plentiful, but no other liquid was available? Clearly some sort of 0.5% near-beer could sustain life indefinitely, and clearly bourbon would kill you even faster than unassisted dehydration. But what about 3.2% beer or low-percentage wine?
  4. Why do alcohol-related web sites in the US ask for age verification before permitting entry? Also, why is this age verification so stupid that a competent six year-old could get past it?
  5. Why do computers suck so much? I’m constantly on the verge of apologizing for being a computer science professor. (Not to students — they asked for it — but to regular people who are forced to interact with crappy software systems.)
  6. Why am I not hungry when I wake up, even if I was ravenous before going to bed?
  7. How can Amazon.com’s search engine suck so badly after 15 years in the business? I just used their book search form to look for author “King, Stephen” and title “It” and the obvious match was 10th in the list (a few years ago I did this search and it was 20th). I routinely use Google, instead of Amazon, to search for books in Amazon.
  8. Why do drivers making left turns often get only partially into the left turn lane? Why do they also routinely swing right before turning left, even though they’re driving slowly enough that it’s obviously unnecessary to increase the radius of the turn?
  9. Why is it a tiny bit embarrassing to run into a coffee shop employee who I know from a previous coffee shop they worked at?
  10. Why are there students who make the effort to come to class and then read the newspaper the whole time? (They even do this when it’s 100% clear there will be no pop quiz or similar.)

I shouldn’t wonder about these things but I do.

9 replies on “Ten Stupid Questions”

  1. “male/female connector terminology”

    Flowers. Androecium (from Greek andros oikia: man’s house) and Gynoecium (from Greek gynaikos oikia: woman’s house).

  2. I think that the 3rd question is actually very important for all the students out there.

    The 5th question is actually one I ask myself all the time too. People tend to write software which works but needs a significant knowledge on how to handle it.

  3. I pride myself of asking stupid questions and would very much like to find out the answer to question 3.
    Also, I think questions can be qualified as stupid if normalized to the situation (e.g. a perfectly reasonable question asked by a freshman quickly becomes a stupid one when asked by a senior grad student!)

  4. RE: # 6 I’m not a doctor, though I did like to play doctor back in the day, but I think the answer is related to the glucose released overnight by your liver. When you blood sugar levels rise, you may feel less hungry.

  5. Months spent in American classes keep on reminding me your first sentence in this blog.
    From time to time, I was amazed by peer students asking “stupid” questions in class and thinking: Isn’t it obvious? have you actually heard and understood what professor said and think? When professor asks “stupid” questions, most Chinese students will be silent: I can say 40%: isn’t the answer obvious? no bother to answer. 30%: have some thoughts, but not sure…what if I were wrong? — silent; 20%: didn’t catch the what the questions in English as a non-native speaker; and the last 10%: no clue, but gimme more time, I should probably know, but for now, no answer.
    I am starting to feel that is the reason of this phenomenon is that we were never told by Chinese teachers that there are no stupid questions! There are those stupid questions making you stupid! As a result, we don’t like to talk much more about things and interact with teachers, despite that most cases, our questions are not that “stupid”. But now I am starting to appreciate the American style, since for educational purpose, it is not wasting of time either asking or answering.

  6. Hi Shuying- I’m glad you’re starting to see that it’s good to have students asking questions in class. I definitely prefer this because it makes class more interesting and because it helps me figure out when people don’t understand something. Often, if one students asks a question, there are 10 students who also didn’t understand the same thing, but didn’t want to ask.

  7. As for #10: I once did that for a “multiprogramming” class (small kernel, semaphores, processes, etc) where it was clear that the course materials (web site, PDFs, paper stuff) weren’t good enough and that there would be a part of the curriculum that would be oral only.

    This was for a DEC Alphas in the late nineties, my first time programming those. The IT-department didn’t see fit to get the machines prepared and running until shortly before the intense three-week (or whatever) project period in which we would write the missing parts for a kernel which we got most of the source for.

    I knew my time was going to be short during the project period because it overlapped practically perfectly with another class’ project period so I desperately wanted to scout things out early but I couldn’t.

    Those jokers in the IT-department deprived me of the chance to discover a couple of months early that the default gcc parameters (as used in the makefile they gave us) would cause the compiler to occasionally emit code that used the floating-point registers for copying stuff from memory to memory. This is bad when you don’t know yet how to handle the kernel traps that causes in a kernel that has protected the fp-regs (a standard HW feature that allows processes that don’t use fp to context switch faster). I discovered it within a couple of hours by doing a disassembly and looking at the code before I tried to run it. My costudents just discovered their code crashed and didn’t get an explanation until they got a new makefile on the course’s ftp site a couple of days later.

    I already knew perfectly well how to write kernels (having written a couple for fun in high school), how to do embedded, how to write DOS TSRs, how to write C, how to wrestle with build tools, and how to write assembler for at least a handful of CPUs…

    I still needed to go to those f*cking lectures to listen to an old fart who was at least borderline incompetent in order to stand a chance of passing the class.

    I was pissed — so I sat in the front row and read Tortilla Flats.

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