A Comic Break

July 9, 2006 — Posted by Al Shalloway

I've been pretty serious so far in my blogs, but I thought I'd have some fun with this one. I have always loved jokes and headlines as ways of illustrating how our communications are very ambiguous. One of my very first requirements courses used the writings of Lewis Carroll (Alice In Wonderland, ...) to illustrate this. In the wonderful (but unfortunately, out of print) The Magic of Lewis Carroll, John Fisher talks about how Carroll wrote many of his stories to teach mathematical logic to his niece.

One of my favorites is:

`Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on.

`I do,' Alice hastily replied; `at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.'

`Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!'More...

Another one, which tells us of the value of using our words as we mean them:

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knockdown argument'", Alice objected

"When I use a word", Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

Headlines are also great. My favorite:

English Left Waffles On Falklands.

(and I'll bet those Argentineans have eaten them by now!)

Many (most?) words are inherently ambiguous. Even a simple word like clip. What does it mean? To 'put together' (as in clipping a coupon onto the pad)? Or 'to remove' (as in clipping a coupon from the newspaper)?

Or, how about "temper". Straight from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

4.A (1) to soften (as hardened steel or cast iron) by reheating at a lower temperature (2)`to harden (as steel) by reheating and cooling in oil

So is it to soften or to harden?

Anyway, I was reading some jokes and thought a few of these should get honorable mention:

A guy shows up late for work. The boss yells, "You should've been here at 8:30".
The guy replies, "Why? What happened at 8:30?"

A young man called directory assistance. "Hello, operator. I would like the telephone number for Mary Jones in Phoenix, Arizona."
"There are multiple listings for Mary Jones in Phoenix," the operator replied.
"Do you have a street name?"
The young man hesitated, and then said, "Well, most people call me Ice Man ..."

Joe and Dave are hunting when Dave keels over. Frantic, Joe dials 911 on his cell phone and blurts, "My friend just dropped dead! What should I do?"
A soothing voice at the other end says. "Don't worry, I can help. First, let's make sure he's really dead."
After a brief silence, the operator hears a shot. Then Joe comes back to the phone.
"Okay," he says nervously to the operator. "What do I do next?"

A grasshopper hops into a bar. The bartender sys, "You're quite a celebrity around here. We've even got a drink named after you." The grasshopper says, "You've got a drink named Steve?"

A panda walks into a bar, sits down and orders a sandwich. He eats, pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter dead. As the panda stands up to go, the bartender shouts, "Hey! Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn't pay for the food."
The panda yells back, "Hey, Man. I'm a panda. Look it up!"
The bartender opens his dictionary to panda: "A tree-climbing mammal of Asian origin. Characterized by distinct blank and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves."

I was just going through that course and came across a couple of other ones:

"Nothing is too good for our customers."

The following appeared in a requirements document. "The exception information will be in the XYZ file, too." The programmer, when he saw this comment, figured - "why duplicate the exceptions" and took the audit code out that was documented (since it was also in the XYZ file). What was meant was that besides the normal requirements stated for the audits, they should also be in the XYZ file (meaning, putting them in the XYZ file was an additional requirement, not that they were in another file besides the XYZ file). You guessed it, later they needed these now, nonexistent audits, and this cost the company several $100k.

I'm afraid I could go on and on (and will unless somebody stops me!). So I'll end with one of my all-time favorites from Sylvie and Bruno Concluded by Lewis Carroll:

Mein Herr looked so thoroughly bewildered that I thought it best to change the subject. ‘What a useful thing a pocket-map is!’ I remarked.
‘That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,’ said Mein Herr, ‘map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?’
‘About six inches to the mile.’
‘Only six inches!’ exclaimed Mein Herr. ‘We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!’
‘Have you used it much?’ I enquired.
‘It has never been spread out, yet,’ said Mein Herr: ‘the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.’

If you want more, go to our Visual Miscommunications.

Scott Adds:

* It was the first day of the kindergarten class, and the teacher was laying out the rules. She said: "if you have to go to the bathroom, hold up two fingers." One little boy in the back of the room piped in: "but, how will that help?"

* A headline: "Farmer Bill Dies in House"

* On an ad: "Offer ends Thursday, or while supplies last"

* My favorite Irish Bull: "Sure, I'm thin, and you're thin, but he's as thin as the two of us put together!"

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


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