Jul 212010

It seems that some people have problems following instructions.  Simple instructions.  Apparently, I’m one of those people.  I recently got directions to an arena where my sister was going to show off her skills at cutting.

Shouldn’t be too hard.  It wasn’t like it was “Turn left at the buffalo” – it looked pretty simple.  But I should have taken a clue from the fact that it seemed to be worded a bit oddly:

From Highway 2: Approximately 6 kms. East on Highway 567, 1 km. North.

Now written here it looks a bit odd, but when read on my iPhone, it was even better:

From Highway 2: Approximately 6 kms.
East on Highway 567, 1 km. North.

So I diligently drove 1km east on 567 and then headed North, expecting that the total drive form Highway 2 was going to be 6km.  I was wrong.  Once I had called for better instructions and actually arrived on site, I did some troubleshooting to see how I could have misread the instructions so completely.

I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I’m not sure that you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

I attribute it to punctuation and formatting.  The authors of the instructions (not my sister, she was just copying and pasting) had no idea how to correctly abbreviate kilometer or kilometers.  Ok, they were close, but km isn’t supposed to have a period after it unless its the end of a sentence and kms is a strange combination of distance and time.  The kms should have been a hint that I needed to change how I parsed the sentence and its punctuation.

Instructions are interesting beasts.  They typically make a lot of sense to the person who wrote them.  They’re perfectly clear, how could you possibly not understand them?  Ask computer programmers who spend their whole days writing instructions for computers to follow; there are times when computers refuse to follow the simplest instructions.

Three legs in the air

Three legs in the air

It’s best to ensure that if you’re writing important instructions that you get somebody who doesn’t know much about what you’re describing to try to follow them, before you publish the set of commands.

My sister’s cutting competition went reasonably well overall.  The cattle were able to follow her instructions, and if they didn’t, she was able to clarify rather quickly.

 Posted by at 7:07 pm
Jul 162010

I saw an ad on the side of a city bus the other day, which asserted

Lock it or lose it

Plus some details about how you should lock your doors to prevent crime.  This sort of thing is pretty common.  Nice people beware, criminals, do your worst... What does it say about our society?  What does it tell people who are prone to stealing things?

It reminds me of a conversation over a meal during a company Christmas party about ten years ago.  Somebody was talking about an acquaintance who was a real ‘computer security evangelist’.  This acquaintance would drive around town with his laptop looking for insecure wireless access points.  When he found one, he’d notify the owners that their system was insecure.  What alarmed me was that the person telling the story seemed to think this was a positive activity.  I asked him if he would consider it admirable for me to walk down the street trying doorknobs and when I found a door that was unlocked, go inside and tell the inhabitants that their house was insecure.  That started a lengthy debate  which promptly got off topic.

This is an interesting mentality.  I’ve seen signs and T-shirts with things like “Trespassers will be shot on sight”, or “Trespassers will be violated” on them, but these are typically intended as a sort of joke.    Instead, the serious signs are a warning to the honest folk that if they don’t lock their belongings away, or remove them, they might be stolen.  Does this play into the old line of “finders keepers”?  So if I go into some remote parking lot, and I check all the cars for cool stuff, can I feel better about myself for taking it because the previous owners should have known better, and this will teach them a lesson?

It’s probably no longer this way, but about 17 years ago I went to a conference in Japan.  While there, I met up with a friend who had been living there for a year or so.  He indicated that Japanese culture was really quite something compared to western culture.  The example he gave was that you could probably leave your brief case at the train station next to a bench and come back and get it the next day, complete with its original contents.  Wow.  In these days, if it hadn’t already been emptied of valuables, somebody would try to detonate it for fear of a terrorist attack.

 Posted by at 11:34 pm