Trigger warnings

September 12, 2016

JackGanssle-September 12, 2016

Navel-gazing has always been a feature of the academic world, but one is left somewhat aghast at the reputed state of affairs at some universities in the USA today. As I understand it some students, with the complicity of administration officials, are terrified of being exposed to ideas they find uncomfortable and therefore want “trigger warnings” to prepare their delicate psyches for emotional overload.

What amazes me is just how much effort is being expended for something so unimportant. These coddled youngsters have no idea what real life will throw at them after graduation. University life is already a bubble where youngsters are shielded from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. That bubble is turning into unassailable armor.

As an engineering student I took very few liberal arts classes so was not exposed to this sort of thinking. Philosophy 101 struck me as a bunch of arguments tortured into some ghastly form to meet the professor’s ideology. The one English literature class was actually pretty good, though I have to admit attending so infrequently that the teacher once greeted me as a “prodigal son” after a long absence.

But back then, in the early 70s, you couldn’t walk across campus without being exposed to all sorts of notions. Religious folk of all sects were pushing their belief systems. Some were pretty odd. Socialists complained about The Man. Marxists wanted to overthrow pretty much everything. Reefer madness proponents competed against the smoke-ins. Route 1 was routinely shut down by war protesters.

No one I knew was offended by any of this. Most greeted the ideas with a casual, “weird, huh?” or a “right on, man.”

On reflection, though, I now know that I’m living in severe emotional distress from exposure to some ideas back then that weren’t made safe by an appropriate caution that thinking is dangerous. For instance, those tenured guardians of youthful emotions should have given these important trigger warnings:

“Trying to understand Maxwell’s Laws might make your head hurt. (And, you’ll never really understand them anyway.)”

“The integral of (1/x) dx is WHAT?”

“Studying engineering is orthogonal to partying.”

“If you’re lucky you’ll squeak through statics. Next semester: dynamics where now everything is moving!”

Then there are the microagressions we’re all reading about. Now, “micro” means 10-6 times something, and given how unimportant most of college is, a microagression is obviously a nothing. Nada. QED. (Whoops – sorry! That’s a TLA for a Latin expression, and we know that Latin was spoken by Romans who weren’t always nice, so I profoundly apologize for giving offense).

But here are a few microagressions that might be worth issuing warnings for:

  • Use of tabs instead of spaces for indentation. Some rubes from unsophisticated areas may use ASCII 9 instead of the proper number of spaces to indent their code. Retreat to a safe space, take several cleansing breaths, and use a text editor to “replace all.”

  • Use of spaces instead of tabs for indentations. Those liberal elites from big Eastern cities may demonstrate their pomposity by tediously inserting the proper number of spaces dictated by their prep-school SAT coaches. Hack into their machines, type “rm –r *.*”, and knock off a bunch of $18/six-pack craft beers while watching them wail.

  • Some may forgo caffeine for a week and show off their superior dexterity by using a soldering iron with a 1/64” tip to attach a 0.65 mm-pitch device to a board. Real developers grab a 150 watt soldering gun and smear 63/37 solder (with lead, not that new-age RoHS stuff) on the board. With enough solder wick you might be able to remove some of the shorts. Remember that a short is the most efficient way to transfer electrons from one node to another. Heck, have you ever heard of a “long?”

Alas, it’s not enough to defend yourself against microagressions. Some are truly of the macro category and are so offensive one may want to retreat into a fetal position for the rest of the semester. Avoid this as several hours curled up in bed may lead to a serious case of sobriety. For instance, when your roomie spends $1000 for a set of audio cables “with superior bandwidth due to the use of special copper alloys and helically-wound conductors” don’t yell and rant. Don’t whip out an audio analyzer to show, well, actual data. Instead, while he’s in the clinic undergoing shock therapy after learning that there is another political party in the USA, replace one channel with the cheapest Radio Shack crap cable you can find. After his release ask him to do a blind channel A Vs B test. Write down the adjectives he spouts and have fun matching them with the same airy persiflage used by wine connoisseurs.

Then there are “safe spaces,” which I assume means a closet under the stairs where one hides from goblins. A bit of advice: dark silicon is NOT a safe space. Despite what the professor says, at some point those transistors will be powered up, and you may find yourself assaulted by all manner of horrifying quantum tunneling. Even Einstein was offended by this notion, and we know what happened to him – he died! You could, too!

Digital circuits are also not safe spaces. Perhaps your parents used the birds and bees talk as practice before addressing this delicate subject, but digital is really analog. Resist the temptation to believe that a one is really a one. All sorts of transgressions lurk under that Boolean perfection, and you can be sure that some will make your life a living hell. Usually the Student Union has a support group for those shattered people dealing with 0.5s.

Finally, despite the fact that Mom and Dad are forking out $50k/year for tuition, this is your education. Never pass up a chance to skip a class to protest the latest assault by the intellectual elite whose only mission in life is to, well, make you think.

(Note: No animals were injured in the writing of this column. Approved by the MPAA for children over 75. At least half of the letters used are open source. Choking hazard. Partially not written on a Windows machine. Gluten free. Do not remove label under penalty of law. Dispose of in accordance with local regulations. Satire may be dangerous to your mental health.)

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness on embedded issues. Contact him at His website is


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