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Define Pnambic
Copyright © 1981, IEEE - Reprinted without Permission
"Any clod can have the facts, but having opinions is an art."
Charles McCabe,
San Francisco Chronicle
From: The Open Channel, IEEE Computer, November 1981, pg. 112

The Open Channel is exactly what the name implies: a forum for the free exchange of technical ideas. Try to hold your contributions to one page maximum in the final magazine format (about 1000 words).

We'll accept anything (short of libel or obscenity) so long as it's submitted by a member of the Computer Society. It's really bizarre, we may require you to get another member to cosponsor your item.

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain"

Occasionally, a specific technology (or lack thereof) advances to a stage of development where either fresh definitions of old words or completely new words have to be invented to describe conditions or components of the fast-rising field. Sometime the new words are a result of pronouncing acronyms (such as "scuba" or "LOX"), while others arise as perversions of words that imply meaning from the root (e.g., "spazzed"). Some of these created words are adaptations of preexisting terms, with the definitions changed to find the application (such as "hack"), while other, usually less universal, terms are nonsense words, or abbreviated forms of common (sometimes derogatory) expressions, such as "gronk," or to "flame."

The computer science industry has absconded, adapted, or invented terms like "kludge," "glitch," "number crunching," "hack(er)," "spool" (v.), "swap," "shuffle," "network" (v.), and "jiffy." I have coined what I believe to be a new adjective, "pnambic," which describes a common condition of computer systems. The formal definition of the word is given below:

Pnambic (NAM-bic) adj. [Acronym from the film version of the "The Wizard of Oz," originally written by Frank Baum, as the true nature of the wizard is first discovered : "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."] 1. A stage of development of a process or function which, due to incomplete implementation, or to the complexity in principle or execution of the system, requires human interaction to simulate or replace some or all of the actions, inputs, or outputs of the process or function. 2. Of or pertaining to a process or function whose apparent operations are wholly or partially falsified. 3. Requiring prestidigitization.

Prestidigitization (pres'-ti-dij'et-e-ZA-shen) v. 1. To put into digital notation via sleight of hand. 2. Data entry through legerdemain.

An example of a pnambic system may be found in an early demonstration of the Hearsay-I speech recognition system given at Carnegie-Mellon University in the mind-1970's. In it, the user spoke a simple phrase into a microphone, and the program was supposed to recognize and understand the phrase. What really happened, though, was that the program read a set of canned, premanipulated data and recognized and understood that instead. This was a demonstration of a pnambic system.

Students in computer classes are often guilty of submitting the results of pnambic programs, where at critical (and non-functional) stages in the program run, the hardcopy terminal is intentionally turned off-line, and the correct responses are typed in by hand. This avoids having the program (fail to) print the correct responses.

Another example might be the demonstration of a pnambic building control program. The person demonstration the system might say: ". . . and as the person enters the room, he triggers the sensor," (flips switch), "so that when the ambient light level drops below a certain level," (turns dial), "the room lights automatically come on" (points to an indicator). "Oh, no, wait, that was the sprinkler system. Um, let me try that again. . ."

Daniel Klein
Manager of Software
Mellon Institute of Research
4616 Henry St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15213.
Copyright 1981, IEEE - Reprinted without Permission
Modified Apr 2000, Jun 2002
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