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The wife of a friend of mine is a junior analyst and recent hire at her company. Recently a senior research scientist on the team asked her to make a Powerpoint slide to illustrate chances. The slide would have to contain a million dots, one of which had to have a different color.

She confirmed that the request several times. The million dots was a literal requirement and it couldn't be 1000 or 10000. Other suggestions such as having 1000 dots and each dot represents 1000 other dots were not accepted.

The friend made a slide with a couple thousand dots and had his wife claim there were a million. This worked for this situation, but it does raise a question: How do you handle such unfeasible requests from a senior?

Have you ever faced technically (and otherwise) ridiculous work-related requests from more senior colleagues or management, and how should you handle these situations? Are there good ways to avoid getting into enraging arguments? Does it work to flat out refuse to perform the request? Are there good ways to try to find a sensible workaround? Does it make sense to use a little deception to create the impression that you did exactly as asked? What approach would seem to work best?

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    "a million dots" in powerpoint is silly, but they fit on an image fairly okay. A single colored pixel on a 1000x1000 pixels image would work. – Erik Dec 19 '16 at 21:36
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    @erik - indeed, there's a couple of different ways of handling that request. Actually creating 1000 dots in Powerpoint and copy-pasting them seems almost as silly as the original request. – AndreiROM Dec 19 '16 at 21:38
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    Most of this post is the anecdote, and as you can see it's already attracted one answer about the million dots instead of about dealing with such requests. It also sounds like an opinion poll right now. Please edit to focus this more. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Dec 19 '16 at 21:50
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    At least she didn't ask for seven perpendicular lines: youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg – kevin cline Dec 19 '16 at 21:58
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    I'd suggest editing to remove dramatization. It's unnecessary and distracts from the actual problem. Otherwise good question – rath Dec 19 '16 at 23:55
172

To distill the story down to its core elements: the employee is a new, junior member of the team; a senior team member asked for help preparing a presentation; the specific request is objectionable.

How the employee responds should depend on the way the request is objectionable:

  • If she doesn't know how to perform the task, she should say so and ask for a pointer. A team-oriented way to do that is to say something like "I'm happy to help, but I've never actually done that before -- can you point me at any useful documentation?"

  • If she knows how to do it and she knows there's a technical problem, she should address that. For example: "the dimensions of the slide are NxM, which means we have X pixels available. That's not enough to show that many dots. How can we get the resolution we need? Or is there another way we can show one in a million?" Note the last sentence, which asks for help in solving the problem rather than just saying "no".

  • If she disagrees with the request (e.g. thinks it's ridiculous, as described in the question), then as a new, junior team member she should ask for education. Phrases like "I'm having trouble understanding X" and "could you explain more about Y" are helpful here.

As a new employee and as a junior employee she is something of an unknown to this senior team member. If she just pushes back -- for a one-time task, a presentation that will be history in a month -- she risks getting a reputation as either incapable or not team-oriented, which will harm her future working relationships. I've watched a lot of junior employees join teams over the years, and the ones who do best long-term are the ones who show a spirit of teamwork and ask questions. The ones who "know" that the request is stupid don't do as well.

Once she has more of a track record, either there or if she were a less-junior hire, she'll be in a better position to push for different solutions.

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    I think your answer is the most relevant. As the request comes from a scientist, it's quite likely that they have a way in mind to programmatically generate a random image. Within that context the request may not be silly at all, but also not as trivial as the 1000x1000 square solution. They may assume the analyst has certain programming skills. – Casperrw Dec 20 '16 at 10:21
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    So - take any old crap until you have earned your dues? – Mawg Dec 20 '16 at 13:28
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    @Mawg no, take a single (non-recurring), work-related (this isn't "go buy a Christmas gift for my wife" stuff), non-insulting (also not "fetch my coffee dear") task, make sure you understand what's needed, ask any necessary questions (the scientist might have had an easier method in mind), and just do it. The employee is new and junior; if your first encounter with senior staff gets you labelled as uncooperative or worse, things are not going to go well. Don't put up with real crap, but there's a difference between that and "looks stupid to me". – Monica Cellio Dec 20 '16 at 14:16
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    This looks like a test question. What is being tested is not one's ability to draw a million dots. – reinierpost Dec 21 '16 at 9:55
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    What makes the request "objectionable". The senior wants to demonstrate "one in a million" visually. Neither an uncommon nor difficult request. The junior lacked the knowledge, skill or experience necessary to realize how simply it can be done and makes a fuss of it instead. – Paul Smith Dec 21 '16 at 12:47
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Give him this picture.enter image description here (The White dot is under the "i" in "him" - it’s Actually visible!) This is 1000x1000 all black pixel image with a single white pixel.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Dec 21 '16 at 23:26
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    add a red circle around the white dot (or a bright arrow pointing to it), and you actually have a great answer, which is what the customer wanted – WetlabStudent Dec 23 '16 at 0:05
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    N.B. This answer does not quite display optimally on this SE site as presentation is handled now. I looked at length at the image as it appears on this page, and could not discern a white (or silver, or grey) pixel. However, in Chrome on a 1920x1200 monitor, right-clicking on the image above and selecting "Open Image in New Tab", displays a square with a bright white pixel maybe 50 pixels from the left and 10 pixels from the top. – Christos Hayward Dec 23 '16 at 19:33
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    @JonathanHayward I think the sub-optimal presentation is part of the point. – David Grinberg Dec 26 '16 at 0:30
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The way to handle a request like that is to understand what the "customer" wants, and to ignore their implementation suggestions (in consulting, it's important to understand the difference between requirements and suggestions).

The "customer" wants a visual of "one in a million" in their PowerPoint presentation.

The "customer" suggests drawing a million dots by hand in PowerPoint. As your friend's husband found out, that is not the best technical solution.

As the technical expert, you determine the best technical approach, implement it, and deliver what the customer wanted. The "customer" doesn't need to know about the implementation details under the hood, they just need to be satisfied with the end result.


In this particular instance, your friend did the bad thing: followed the customer's technical suggestion but because of limitations of that solution, failed to implement what was requested, but claimed it was complete. The customer was satisfied with 1 in several thousand rather than 1 in a million, but your friend falsely claimed delivery of 1 in a million.

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    Agreed. The problem here was not the request, it was the response. Asking for an graphical illustration of 1 million to 1 is not ridiculous. It's entirely reasonable for a presentation based on large numbers. The OP's friend did themselves and their colleague a disservice by fudging the numbers. Neither of them actually understood the magnitude of the point they were trying to illustrate, and they wound up with a lackluster illustration because of it. – Necoras Dec 19 '16 at 23:34
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    But the request IS a problem. This non-technical person thinks they understand enough to design the technical solution. The response in this case risked angering the requester if he found out that she did not do as he asked. I'm afraid my style is to tell the requester that I, as the expert they are asking, do not know how to do what they're asking for. I can offer other solutions to address the problem they're really trying to solve, as opposed to the solution they attempted to design and are insisting on; that what I have to offer is my expertise. I can't say it always goes well. – rcook Dec 20 '16 at 3:16
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    Yes. Separate the "what" from the "how". – Konerak Dec 20 '16 at 7:44
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    Does a typical projector even have a million pixels to devote to displaying such an image? (I know there are are 1920x1080 projectors now, but are they common?) – chepner Dec 20 '16 at 13:15
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    @chepner 1024x768 = 786,432. 1152x864 = 995,328. 1280x1024 = 1,310,720. Anything larger will have more than a million addressable pixels. Now, if the actual resolution of the projector is sufficient to display each pixel clearly is another matter... – a CVn Dec 20 '16 at 14:28
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Every job will have a certain number of tasks that someone will regard as silly. Sometimes they even are silly. Often they are just things that are necessary for one reason or another but the person being asked to do the task is not necessarily aware of the reason why they must be done or just doesn't want to be the person who does them.

I have seen people regard timesheets as silly, but the corporation needs them filled out to be able to bill the clients. No billing, no one can get paid, not so silly really.

I remember one time when a very junior auditor just out of school thought it was silly for him to make copies of something on the copy machine. He wanted the clerks to do it and the director of the whole organization had to point out to him that junior auditors were the people with the most available time to perform the task and that the clerk he wanted to do it was already over-scheduled. Yes it seemed like a silly task for someone of that profession but, in fact, it was the best use of the resources available. When the way you come to the notice of senior management is through complaining about a "Silly" task you don't want to do, that is not a good thing.

In the case above, it was the guy's speech to give, he is entitled to decide how he wants to present it even if you think it is silly.

Never get into an argument over a silly task. That is counterproductive. You can state your reasons why something else would be a better use of your time or why another technique might be better. But do so calmly and without making a jerk of yourself. You also need to save your credit with your boss for truly important stuff. Arguing for an hour about a silly task that would take ten minutes is "silly". Never strongly argue anything that is not critically important. You want people to pay attention when you object, not roll their eyes because you are at it again.

However, in the long run, someone higher up in the organization is paying your salary and doing these sorts of things tends to help make them into allies not opponents and that is good for your career. Luckily for most of us, this sort of silly stuff gets drastically reduced as you gain seniority in an organization.

So really the best way to handle the infrequent silly stuff is to just do it if they aren't convinced by your initial discussion. It wastes the least amount of time, it creates the least amount of political problems for the future, and generally creates good will and a reputation as a team player. The more junior you are the more important it is to not get a reputation as someone who is going to argue everything.

However, if the silly stuff becomes too frequent (more than 1-2 hours in a week every week as a rule of thumb) or is overcoming your ability to do the job you were hired for, that is a different case. Then you need to have a heart to heart with your manager about what is going to be affected by these duties and if he or she is still convinced the silly stuff is more important, then find out why. If you don't like the answer, then it may be time to move on.

  • This seems like good advice in general, but it seems to me that it fails to address the situation described in the question. The task requested of the OP's friend's wife, if done in the manner she and the OP interpreted it, would likely take several work weeks of non-stop mouse clicking (and probably lead to a repetitive stress injury). I assume you're not really suggesting that she should've just sat down obediently and started clicking away until somebody told her to stop? – Ilmari Karonen Dec 22 '16 at 1:31
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Some things to consider:

What are your other obligations?

If some part of your time is dedicated to this person, and they have nothing else for you to do, then what's your objection? Yes, it's a frivolous request, but they're paying for it.

If, on the other hand, you are pressed for time or have higher priorities, you address the request in that manner.

Sir, literally doing 1 million dots will take me 3 days because of how slow it makes my computer, and I need to finish X, Y, and Z in that time also. Can we find another way to get your point across?

Will following these instructions make the requester look foolish to his/her peers?

If your honest professional opinion is that this request is counterproductive - it won't get across the point that the requester is trying to make, and will in fact make him/her look foolish, or naive, or ignorant, then you should object in those terms.

Sir, the accepted way to show multiple orders of magnitude in a graphic format at these kinds of conferences is log scales/multiple zooms & insets/some other technique. I'm afraid doing it the way you suggest will reflect poorly on you and on our institution.

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    These are good points, especially when combined with Monica's point that the requester may have an easier implementation in mind. You don't want to take a week to do a task when the way the requester really wanted it done would have taken 10 minutes. – Kys Dec 21 '16 at 21:57
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This may have been a reasonable request, but it is hard to know because too little information is given about the specific requirements. Your friend and/or his wife seems to have made some assumptions to fill in the gaps, and based on these assumptions, the request became unreasonable.

First try to communicate with the requestor to fill in the gaps. Don't assume that your colleagues are technically incompetent. If that doesn't work, try to choose assumptions that make the task easier rather than harder. Be imaginative! The problem might be that you are stuck in a too narrow frame of mind.

Here is a 1024x768 pixel image I made with 1 million random blue dots and one red dot (click to view it in full size). The blue dots are partly transparent and the red dot is a bit larger to make it stand out more. The blue dots are perhaps not individually discernible (this does not seem to have been a requirement), but they are all visible, they look like a huge number of small dots, and they are in fact 1 million. This took me 10 minutes to make. If the boss doesn't like it, it's at least a good start for a discussion about specifics.

A million blue dots and a red one

I know this was not supposed to be about how to make the actual slide, but since the comments to all answers seemed to devolve into discussions about the pixel resolution of projectors, I thought I might as well post it.

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    How can an image of the size 1024 x 768 contain 1 million blue pixels. There are only 786431 pixels in the picture. That means that you are allowing some pixels to represent more than one dot. If you're going to do that, why not just have a picture that's two pixels in size. One pixel for the uniquely colored dot, and the other pixel that represents a million dots laid one on top of the other. – Itsme2003 Dec 23 '16 at 20:25
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    @Itsme2003 Why should a pixel only be able to represent one dot? This would mean that each pixel only carries 1 bit of information (dot or no dot). Letting each pixel represent up to a handful of dots (as in my image) is reasonable in my view because anyone can easily distinguish a handful of shades of the same color. Nobody can distinguish a million shades of the same color. – jkej Dec 23 '16 at 23:12
  • A pixel must represent only one dot because otherwise the picture is ambiguous and it's impossible to know how many dots a shaded pixel represents. As an example, are you using only two shades, or four, or 256. Again, if you let a pixel represent multiple dots then why not let a pixel represent a million dots. Your point about nobody can distinguish a million shades of the same color is irrelevant because no one can distinguish from your pixels if they represent one dot or one thousand dots. Besides, it's clear from the original question that a dot is referring to unique points. – Itsme2003 Dec 25 '16 at 17:31
  • @itsme2003 It was my impression that the spirit of the request was to "show" one million dots, not to have one million distinguishable dots. When viewed on any regular screen anyways, a bigger picture with space between every single dot will not look much different - or it may even look worse if it's scaled badly (I would imagine it could just look like a big blur, and one would be much less able to differentiate the individual dots than in this picture). – daboross Dec 26 '16 at 10:13
  • Also the distribution of dots, would be "equal" so the visualization will give the impression that is sought after. – cognacc Dec 27 '16 at 4:43
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Have you ever faced technically (and otherwise) ridiculous work-related requests from more senior colleagues or management, and if so, how did you handle them?

Anyone who has worked more than a few years (a few months?) has received ridiculous work requests. Sometimes you just have to do them. Other times: maybe not. I'll just use a couple of images to show just how ridiculous this request is.

The first image is, per wikipedia, "the first printed photo using a halftone in an American periodical." The print media have used halftones (and the color equivalent) because the human eye cannot see one dot out of a few tens of thousands of dots, let alone one dot out of a million. The second image is a rather low (640×426) resolution portrayal of George Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. There are a bit more than a quarter of a million of pixels in that second image.

Seurat painted more than a million hand-painted individual dots to make that picture. It took him more that two years to do so. One will not see those individual dots in a 640×426 rendition of that painting. One would need a rendition containing about 600 million pixels to truly see Seurat's genius. (Even better, see the painting for yourself. It's currently in Chicago.) One of the points of his pointillism was that unless one looks very closely, the individual tiny points cannot be made out by the human eye, and that close-in view precludes seeing the big picture.

It's not just the human eye that presents a challenge with regard to this request. The limited screen resolution of most projectors is also highly problematic. Many projectors display less than a million pixels (e.g., the widely-used 1024x768 projectors), and that includes the room taken up by the header, footer, and margins on a PowerPoint slide. A projector with a 1024x768 resolution cannot portray a million individual dots, let alone a million individual dots that are distinguishable as individual dots. Even an HD projector cannot portray a million individual dots, each of which is distinguishable as an individual dot.


So how to deal with ridiculous requests? In the late 1990s I successfully dodged a ridiculous bullet by asking in which millennium the requester wanted the answer. (I also stressed that the answer could not be the upcoming millennium, just a year or two away.) I took this as a teachable moment and talked about the curse of dimensionality. Then I looked for alternatives.

Here we have two curses: The curse of how the human eye works, and the curse of the low resolution of the projectors one should expect to encounter at a conference. One needs to tread carefully here. Without the aid of some very good software that highlights the differences, it is very, very hard for the human eye to detect a one out of a million outlier. And if that software has been used, it's the software rather than the human eye that has already detected that outlier. The challenge for the software is to make this outlier visible to the typical human eye on a display with a typical resolution.

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    @PieterB -- But the eye cannot see the other 999999 dots as dots. All we see is a uniform background of blackness. – David Hammen Dec 20 '16 at 14:19
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    The requirements were about the one dot being visible. There was no requirement that all the other dots should be individually visible as dot. – Pieter B Dec 20 '16 at 14:43
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    @PieterB -- That's your interpretation. I doubt it was the intention of the "SENIOR RESEARCH SCIENTIST". Besides, you aren't seeing one white dot in a 1000x1000 black image. The SE network downsamples large images. You're seeing one grayish dot in a 640x640 image. – David Hammen Dec 20 '16 at 14:51
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    The image is not downsampled if you click on it. You will get the 1000x1000 picture. It's a white dot an a black background, one white pixel in a 1000x1000 grid of black pixels and it's clearly visible. Not grayish whatever. From the OP the question is : "I want you to draw a million dots. Then show one in different color that should be visible." The 1000x1000 black image with one white pixel is an image that fulfills the requirements. – Pieter B Dec 20 '16 at 15:21
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    A lot of people are saying what the human eye can or cannot see. The truth is that the human eye is capable of seeing a single match lit a the distance of a mile under the right conditions, likewise it cannot see that same match lit at a distance of a mile under other conditions. The image can be manipulated to demonstrate the desired effect, and a lack of understanding the desired effect in presentation by dismissing the request as silly is the core issue with this question. One cannot apply their values (it's silly) to others when little understanding of the request has been demonstrated – Edwin Buck Dec 21 '16 at 0:33
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Ok, but it will take days of clicking and you'll need to give me a written record of the task so I can claim health insurance on my wrist

Help him understand the cost of the task. He wants the impossible done for a tiny benefit. If he realises the cost both to you and him, he'll change his mind.

I could do that, or we could do "this" instead, which might be better

He thinks a million dots would be cool. As other answers have said, it doesn't look cool, it looks like a black square with a single white pixel (that you can't really find nor appreciate). Actually making an image with 6000 dots might be more visually impressive (wow, that's so many dots!) Don't simply tell him he's wrong, but offer an alternative.

  • I could have "checkerboarded" and it would have only been twice as big. – Morons Dec 20 '16 at 0:04
  • Hmmm, above you said that it only needed 1000x2000 ;-) – Mawg Dec 20 '16 at 13:35
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    There are a zillion ways to do this without "days of clicking". – mattdm Dec 26 '16 at 17:16
  • For example doubling and copy paste if you insist on doing it manually. 1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256,512,1024,2048,4096,8192,16384,32768,65536,131072,262144,524288,1048576, then substract 32786,8192,4096, etc (easier to see if you substract from the 48576 to much each time) in total about 20 operations. Also you can make 10 copy 10 times, copy that 10 times (1000) copy 10 (10000) copy 10 (100.000) copy 10 times = 1000.000. That is 10+10+10+10+10+10=60 operations operation. – cognacc Dec 27 '16 at 5:02
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Defenses against ridiculous requests:

  • Show that it is straight out impossible:
    Sorry, how do you want to present it ?
    Erm, I want to show the pixel randomly placed.
    This is not possible. A 1920x1080 screen has only 2 million pixels, so there is only black-white, black-white without any order because there is simply no place.
    Uh, really ?
    Yes, really.

  • Show that the request is not only ridiculous, but will fail:
    Ok, I only want 250 000 pixels.
    Wait a second . There is the pixel...
    Where ?
    [Shove him 50 cm / half a yard before the screen].
    There. Hmmm, it seems your presentation is doomed, the pixels are too small.
    Crap.

  • Tell him how long it takes:
    Ok, 50 000 pixels. Are you able to draw 50 000 pixels ?
    Sure. Oh wait...
    What now ?
    If I draw 1 pixels in one second, I need to have 50 000 seconds. That are 2 working days a eight hours. Are you quite sure you want it ?
    Hmmm, I must ask....

  • Ask the boss (remind him of the other projects you are working on):
    Erm, boss, I have the request to draw 50 000 pixels ?
    What ? Who needs to draw 50 000 pixels ?
    My superior. I just wanted to inform you that project reallyreallyimportant will delayed by this request.
    Erm, let me think about it. I will inform you.

  • Find out what he really wants and search for alternatives.
    What exactly are these 50 000 pixels for ?
    Hmm, I want to make how difficult it is to find something which is rare.
    Why don't you make two pictures: one drop and one bathtub. Then it is intuitively clear how difficult it is to find a specific drop in a bathtub.
    Wow, nice idea. Let me think it over

  • Bother the superior with detail questions.
    Hello, I have just a little question I forgot to ask...
    Uh, what ? I am currently working (Yes, I know)
    Do you want a Gaussian distribution or a linear distribution of the points ?
    What is the difference ?
    [Long and very, very technical description]
    Erm, why is that important ?
    I want to do good work, exactly as you requested.

  • Give him what he desired, not what he requested.
    Essentially what has been done: Giving him many, many points which look like a million, but are not one million points. Caution: You must be very sure that neither the person himself or the person who sees your work will see through the deception.

  • You cannot avoid the task.
    I want to get the points, never mind how you do it!
    Ok.
    [Make 16 working hours for the request, work on your own projects and hire a professional (in that case a programmer) who gives you your image for the prize of one hour].

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    *Use MSPaint, make a 1000x1000 image, click once in that image: done. – Pieter B Dec 20 '16 at 7:56
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    I would consider it part of my job dealing with "impossible requests" by finding a way to make them both possible and (more) efficient. Not just to find a way to avoid doing the task. The reason for the downvote however, was Bother the superior with detail questions. I think this suggestion could be outright harmful. – James Webster Dec 20 '16 at 7:58
  • @PieterB: You might have to zoom it before clicking. I tried it without zooming and 4 pixels were coloured. This comment is not at all related to the question. – Nitish Dec 20 '16 at 12:36
  • @ThorstenS. Not sure why you are getting downvoted, I think the answer has merit, +1 from the OP. – A.S Dec 20 '16 at 13:03
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    @Aymor, I think most of these are bad suggestions, with reasons ranging from wastes time / doesn't show initiative in the case of You cannot avoid the task to outright harmful in the case of Bother the superior... Though I agree the latter might cease further similar questions, it's for the wrong reasons. In this case, you don't even care about the answers, you are just looking for a way to not do the task as asked and you risk that being obvious. – James Webster Dec 20 '16 at 15:27

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