Pnambic Origin

What does the name PNAMBIC mean? The word PNAMBIC is derived from the phrase “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” It was originally defined in an amusing article published in the IEEE Computer magazine. A followup Letter to the Editor does a better job of expressing a positive notion of pnambicness.

Pnambic Computing is about solutions, not technology. Computer users want to solve their problems, not worry about how the technology works. Our skills allow us to harness incredibly complex technologies, but that doesn’t matter if the result is not a solution. And sometimes a manual process gives a better result then one based on complex technology.

Although the original definition carried deragatory implications, a simple solution with impressive results is the right solution in many situations. The one caveat – a significant deviation from the original definition – is that the solution must actually solve the relevant problem. Just don’t worry about how it works. It’s pnambic.

The Open Channel

“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

Letter to the Editor

From: Letters to the Editor, IEEE Computer, February 1982

Now you see it, now you don’t, revisited

I am writing to support pnambic* systems rightful place in system design methodology. While Klein seems to cast aspersions on pnambic systems, I (a pnambicphile) have put them to good use on several occasions. Once when defining a computerized process control system, I used a CRT with cassette tape recorder to compose and store all possible displays. To demonstrate man-machine interaction for various operational scenarios, a script was read and a new display was pulled from the tape at appropriate times. This pnambic system was portable, and allowed me to obtain the opinion of management and potential customers at low cost before system specifications were actually written.

In my current project, a computer driven color graphic pnambic system will be used to define man-machine interaction requirements for a real-time control system. I am inspired by Klein’s letter to remove the drab “Man-Machine Interface Development Lab” and replace it with one reading “Laboratory for Applied Pnambic Science.” We are indebted to Danial Klein for defining the term pnambics, and I believe it deserves a respected place in system design, perhaps as a branch of simulation.

*Pnambic (NAM-bic) adj. [Acronym for “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”] defined by Daniel Klein in Open Channel, Computer, Vol. 14, No. 11, Nov. 1981, p. 112.

Sam Harbaugh
Harris Coproration
P.O. Box 37
Melbourne, FL 32901

Copyright 1982, IEEE – Reprinted without Permission

What's with that pn anyway?

One of the most common questions about Pnambic Computing is How is the name pronounced? The answer is very simple: NAM-bic. The first syllable is stressed, and the p is silent.

The p is silent, as it is in all other words that start with pn. In fact, there are three consonants forms where the initial p is silent: pn, ps, pt. This gives quite a few number of words. It’s not just pneumonia. Some of the more common ones are: psalm, psyche, ptomaine, and a whole host of dinosaur names. A quick review of any standard dictionary gives quite a number.

The following list of 83 entries is taken from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. There are many more words that are constructed from common prefixes. The prefixes are listed, but only a few of the derived words are included.

pn Words

Air, especially with regard to a lung disease (18 entries)

  • pneum-
  • pneumo-
  • pneuma
  • pneumat-
  • pneumato-
  • pneumatic
  • pneumatology
  • pneumatolytic
  • pneumatophore
  • pneumococcus
  • pneumoconiosis
  • pneumocystic carinii pneumonia
  • pneumograph
  • pneumonectomy
  • pneumonia
  • pneumonic
  • pneumonitis
  • pneumothorax

ps Words

Biblical references; simulated entities; mental health; low temperatures (43 entries)

  • psa
  • psalm
  • psalm book
  • psalmist
  • psalmody
  • Psalms
  • Psalter
  • psatery
  • psephology
  • pseud
  • pseud-
  • pseudo-
  • pseudepigraph
  • pseudepigraphon
  • pseudepigraphy
  • pseudo
  • pshaw
  • psi
  • psilocybin
  • psilophyte
  • psi particle
  • psittacine
  • psittacosis
  • psocid
  • psoriasis
  • psych
  • psyche
  • psych-
  • psycho-
  • Psyche
  • psychedelia
  • psychedelic
  • psychiatry
  • psychic
  • psycho
  • psycho-
  • psych-out
  • psychronmeter
  • psychrophilic
  • psylla
  • psyllid
  • psyllium seed
  • psywar

pt Words

Flight, especially flying dinosaurs; a Greek astronomer; and saliva (22 entries)

  • ptarmigan
  • pteranodon
  • pterid
  • pteridine
  • pteridology
  • pteridophyte
  • pteridosperm
  • pterin
  • pterodactyl
  • pteropod
  • pterosaur
  • pteroylglutamic acid
  • pterygoid
  • ptergoid process
  • pteryla
  • Ptolemic
  • Ptolemaic System
  • ptomaine
  • ptomaine poisoning
  • ptosis
  • ptyalin
  • ptyalism