The Wisdom of Crowds

According to James Surowiecki, author of “The Wisdom of Crowds”, group decisions are often better than those that could have been made by any single member of the group. One interesting anecdote Surowiecki offers comes via Francis Galton, who observed that the crowd at a country fair accurately guessed the weight of an ox when all their individual guesses were averaged, far better than any individual in the crowd.

On the other hand, this only goes so far.

Last week one of my machines asked if it could update the core Operating System kernel from 4.15.0.43.45 to 4.15.0.44.46. The upgrade worked flawlessly, but immediately thereafter I was unable to use my USB-connected keyboard or mouse. I took my question to the community forum that supports the Linux Distro that I use, posting a detailed breakdown of what had happened, an extract from my system log and waited… Then I got a response, which read (typos and all):-

Tnis isn’t as unusual as many newer Linux users think. Not at all. No one can say what may have happened with very few system details posted and then it’d be iffy whether you get a response.”

Hang on, were the “very few system details” down to me? Did I fail to provide enough detail? OK, I’ll ask. I did – a polite request for clarification, backed up by an offer to detail any additional detail that the responder would like to see. They soon replied (again with typos intact):-

Post the text output of

inxi -Fxz

(Was going to put this in but got interrupted.) And you should try rebooting while holding down the left shift key to bring up the grub menu, then boot from the previous kernel. If it works fine then, remove the newest kernel and reboot.”

Except… that by the time that this helper was asking me to reboot to an older kernel, retest and, if I discovered that the issue went away… I had already done all these things and posted the results in to the thread above where I was given these instructions.

I did as asked, however, and posted the inxi results. The next post?

Well, according to this …” {a link was provided}, “… you should try installing the 4.15.0-15 kernel.”

So once more I went back and politely pointed out that my very first post had already clearly stated that I was running 4.15.0-43.45 – a significantly more recent kernel than 4.15.0-15. So: why would I go back 28 patch levels?

Funny old thing, the person who had stepped in to help, who has been a member of our community forum since December 2012 and who has made over 4,700 posts in that time, did not bother to reply again. Curious, I went back and looked through their post history. I discovered in this process that the person concerned is blunt to the point of being rude, obtuse and cryptic when giving advice (for example telling an inexperienced user to do a complex task with no hint as to how to do so) and, when left facing a situation in which their knowledge or advice was found to be wrong, would either argue, drop from the thread, or do both.

The irony here is that there is a good chance that my “helper” is a super-nice person in real life and just didn’t come across well in a discussion thread. But somehow, I don’t think they’re quite as expert as they might be making out.

It’s an interesting challenge for those of us who seek help on forums. There will be times when the person “helping” actually knows less than you do. Which can be a bit scary if you have to rely on resources like this to get help when something breaks!