Teaching GnuPG to noobs

Robert J. Hansen rjh at sixdemonbag.org
Wed Jun 17 16:15:07 CEST 2015

> What has your experience been teaching inexperienced users how to use
> GnuPG properly?

Varies between extremely good and extremely bad with very little
in-between.  When addressing people who have the motivation to learn and
the ability to think analytically, it's been great.  When addressing
people who lack one or the other it's frustrating, and when addressing
people who lack both it makes me prefer dental surgery.

> What are common pitfalls on the part of the instructor?

The most common one I've found is not understanding the material as well
as they think.  This tends to come through most in the metaphors an
instructor uses.  For instance, I frequently encounter instructors who
tell the class to imagine a lock with two keys, one that locks it and
one that unlocks it, and they proceed to use that lock metaphor to
explain crypto.

It's absurd.  Who in the class has ever seen a lock with two keys, one
that locks it and one that unlocks?  The metaphor's ridiculous: the
locks the students are familiar with require *no* keys to lock and only
one key to unlock.

When I see an instructor use inappropriate metaphors, who doesn't
understand that these metaphors are inappropriate, it makes me think the
instructor has a superficial and fragile understanding of the material.
 And frankly, there are a lot of those people out there.

(One metaphor I've been playing with lately, but haven't decided yet
whether it's a good one, involves magical sealing wax.  This magical
sealing wax can only be cut or shaped by one person -- the person who
owns it.  If you seal a message with this person's magical sealing wax,
only that message recipient can open it.  And if you see that someone
has pressed a signet ring into it, you know the person who owns the wax
did it, since only they could shape it.  So if Alice were to affix her
magical sealing wax to a message and press her signet ring into it, and
then fold the letter and seal it with Bob's magical sealing wax, only
Bob could cut the magical sealing wax to read the message and he would
know that only Alice could have put her signet on the blob of wax at the
end of the letter.

Is magical sealing wax a better metaphor than a lock with two keys?
Yes.  Is it better *enough*?  I don't know yet.)

> What aspects are the most challenging for new users to understand?

Anything that gets explained with a poorly chosen metaphor.

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