Is second-hand advice better than no advice at all?

Commenter Grow Up (if you're so grown up yourself, why not use your real name?) took issue with the second-hand advice I gave when the discussion of protecting sensitive data. In that discussion, I gave second-hand advice on how one could protect information, and one reader apparently thought I was trying to malign said second-hand advice or was holding it up as non-authoritative. (In case you forgot: Everything here is non-authoritative. It's all just my interpretation of the world around us. And that interpretation is often wrong. Don't make me bring back the nitpicker's corner.)

I added the second-hand advice only because upon re-reading, I noticed that I wrote a lot about what you shouldn't do but didn't write about what you should do. I didn't want to put my own neck on the line in an area I am not an expert, so I passed along second-hand advice instead, figuring second-hand advice was better than no advice at all.

It may surprise you that I am in fact an expert at very few things. I do have a rather extensive background in general programming principles, and I use that experience to "fill in the gaps" in places others may need help doing so. For example, I'm pretty good at the "Imagine what the world would be like if that were true" game because I've seen a good amount of the computer world and can think of scenarios that others may miss. On the other hand, I'm good at the "What if two people did this?" game only because I bother to play it at all. (Usually, the answer to the question "What if two people did this?" is obvious. People merely forget to ask it.) I'm also good at reverse-engineering history. I can see how something evolved and work out why it ended up that way.

So, suppose there's a topic that I know a little bit about but not enough to come up with an expert recommendation. For example, I may want to caution you against doing something but I don't have a good answer as to what you should be doing instead. Here are my options:

  1. Become an expert in the topic and develop a personal recommendation. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well.
  2. Pass along somebody else's recommendation. Second-hand advice is better than none.
  3. Develop an uninformed recommendation. Even though it's bad advice, at least it's my bad advice.
  4. Don't provide any recommendation at all. If you can't stand by it, then don't write it.
  5. Don't write the article in the first place. If you can't do a complete job, then don't do it.

The first option is not going to happen; I don't want to become an expert in the topic. The last one is also unpleasant, because I do want to warn against what I consider to be a bad practice, or at least I may have some thoughts that I think are worth sharing. The middle option isn't very pleasing either. Besides, this is a blog, not a textbook. If you want a thorough treatment of a topic, you're looking in the wrong place. There are plenty of other bloggers who throw out half-baked ideas. I should be able to do it, too.

Like I just did.

Comments (28)
  1. nathan_works says:

    Perhaps something like “Results from application of advice may vary depending on age and level of skill.”

    [Nice. -Raymond]
  2. Waage says:

    There are some to whom the world needs to be perfect, and each and every action they do within that world has to be perfect.

    They walk within this world happy and constantly judging the others who do not perform at their "level" of excellence.

    I find this arrogance quite annoying but usually i just laugh and move on.

  3. steveshe says:

    Because of your admitted areas of expertise and your significant amount of experience I think your half-baked ideas arte better than many others best attempts. Please ocntinue to share with those of us who appreciate what you do and ignore the rest. If they are not smart enough to understand what you are doing here,  then does their opinion really matter anyway? I say no, it doesn’t. Of course, thats just my opinion, half baked or otherwise.

  4. John says:

    What if the second hand advice is bad?  Then you’re better off giving no advice at all.  But how do you know if the second hand advice is bad?  You are no expert, so you rely on your source.  But what if he is really not an expert?  What if he has built an intricate network of support only to fool people like you into giving bad second hand advice from so-called experts?  Did you ever think about that?

  5. Cavaler says:

    John – Paranoia can be really unproductive…

  6. Leo Davidson says:

    You can’t be right all of the time, even on things that you actually are an expert on.

    Since you updated the post when you found there was a problem I don’t see what anyone can complain about.

  7. Kapil Kapre says:


    Paranoia also keeps you limber.

  8. Brian says:

    Was that entry on VirtualLock linked from Slashdot or something?  It appears to have a higher than usual number of asshats and zealots.

  9. MS says:

    I just don’t get why nerds feel the need to score points over minute details, especially when they’re demonstrably wrong or just being completely unpleasant about it.  Its like some sort of Aspergers where they only pretend to be knowledgeable on something.

  10. Steve D says:

    "Tuesday, November 18, 2008 4:17 PM by Dale"


  11. CGomez says:

    Frankly, guesses found on this blog are probably better than most people’s facts.

  12. SRS says:

    @Cavaler – "Paranoia can be really unproductive" – yes, that’s what they want you to think.

  13. Robert says:

    Completely safe, tested on dogs!

    Safe when used as directed!

    Avoid prolonged use!

    Use with caution

    Made from Select Hops, mountain spring water choice grains,etc

    Do not exceed recommended dosage.

    I heard they were making a movie of this Phillip K. Dick classic.  That makes about 4 or 5 now.

    Anyway, useless lighthearted disclaimers may be the solution you need.

  14. Hobie-wan says:

    @ Nathan

    Nice. I wonder if I can get away with that at the bottom of my emails at work. = ]

  15. frymaster says:

    "They walk within this world happy and constantly judging the others who do not perform at their "level" of excellence"

    what makes it worse is that they do not as a rule hold themselves to the same standards. "I’m only human, be tolerant of my mistakes" "I only get paid blah, what makes you expect better?"

  16. Everything here is non-authoritative.  It’s all just my interpretation of the world around us.  And that interpretation is often wrong.

    Some content of this blog may be taken as authoritative despite your attempted disclaimers that

    1) you’re often wrong

    2) your posts are merely your interpretations

    Both of those disclaimers are true of /every/ piece of writing.  What makes something authoritative is whether the author is an authority on the subject.

    Despite your attempt to convince us otherwise, like it or not, you /are/ an authority on some things.  This makes everything you say on those things authoritative, like it or not.

  17. @Cavaler: Stay Alert! Trust No One! Keep Your Laser Handy!

    @Kapil Kapre: Trust The Computer. The Computer is Your Friend.

  18. Ifeanyi Echeruo says:

    Maurits, Raymond Chen is not an authority on all things Windows in the hard and fast way you would like him to be. In fact a lot of the time Raymond defers to a higher authority… executable code and published documentation.

    Until the words "Because Raymond said so" prevent termination of employment I’ll follow Regans advice. "Trust but verify."

  19. Larry Hosken says:

    Maybe your dedicated staff of fact-checkers can, when verifying that you are accurately passing along this second-hand advice, add a hyperlink to the source of that advice.  That way, members of the audience could click the link to go to a place where that second-hand advice is, uhm, first-handified.

    Eh?  What’s that?  You don’t have a dedicated staff of fact-checkers?  Well then, instead of a link, maybe you can add a "[citation needed]". I think I saw that phrase in some web article or another that folks treated as pretty authoritative.  Uhm, I forget exactly where, though. [citation needed]

  20. Dale says:

    "… do have a rather extensive background in general programming principles, and I use that experience …"

    You know Raymond, I prefer to take my guidance from someone who’s been working in the trenches, rather than some *smarty*, who chips in with a snide comment.

    Don’t change a thing!

  21. Cheong says:

    Larry Hosken: Well said, except when it happens that the "second hand advice" is deliver by word… It’s a bit too much to just ask "whoever your friend is" a question and request him / her to make a blog entry so you can link to it.

    Raymond already quoted that the information is come from "the memory manager folks". I think that’s the best he can reasonably do. If you think it’s not enough, perhaps you’re asking too much.

  22. Mark (The other Mark) says:

    If you find that Raymond doesn’t do what you feel is a "good enough" job, if you don’t think the advice is worth what you paid for it, hit him where it hurts. Cancel your subscription!

    If enough people do so, he’ll be forced to alter the value of advice to cost of advice ratio, either by increasing the value of the advice, or decreasing the cost of it.

    Where’s a copy of the SLA that came when I purchased access to this blog, I’m pretty sure it spec’d out the percentage of advice that has to be infallibly correct…

  23. Larry Lard says:

    Perhaps something like "Results from application of advice may vary depending on age and level of skill."

    If you’re going to do that, you have to add "I can’t believe I had to write this."

  24. > Where’s a copy of the SLA

    It’s right here (Terms of Use link below)

    Note especially this clause (capitalization in the original):


    This applies to /all/ MSDN documentation, not just MSDN blogs… and yet, I maintain that (certainly) the more traditional documentation /can/ be taken to be authoritative, and (further) that /portions of Raymond’s blog/ can be authoritative.  Authoritative content /can/ have technical inaccuracies.

    [I post with my own personal authority, not with the authority of Microsoft Corporation (which is the sense of “authoritative” I’m using here: Approved by a controlling authority). -Raymond]
  25. Ben Voigt [C++ MVP] says:

    <quote>[I post with my own personal authority, not with the authority of Microsoft Corporation (which is the sense of "authoritative" I’m using here: Approved by a controlling authority). -Raymond]</quote>

    I think that meaning is better expressed as "authorized".

  26. Phil W says:

    Actually (and I hope this isn’t a nitpick) a more useful question than "what if two people did this" is "what if three people did this" if the question is about programming principles. I’ve found that having three players in a thought experiment can show up more potential problems than just two, especially where there are queues or other resource availability issues.

  27. David W. says:

    What is juvenile, as you imply, about using an alias on the Internet? It’s one of its most powerful features!

  28. Friday says:

    Paranoia is healthy – you get to live longer [citation not needed].

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