Thursday, October 23, 2014

Instructions and Removing Ambiguity

Recently I found the following image on Facebook. I plan to use it with my students this semester as a starting off point for conversation.


This is a perfect description of someone dealing with ambiguous instructions. Context and assumptions come into play as does words that mean different things to different people. To some people “put some spaghetti on the stove” implies a multi-step process that results in cooked spaghetti. Or failing that at least spaghetti that is cooking when the wife gets home. To someone not used to cooking the obvious request is the literal one shown in this picture.

This brings to mind the old programming joke about the need for a “do what I mean” instruction that many of us have wished for from time to time.

When we ask people to do things we have a certain level of expectation that ambiguity and missing steps will be handled by the person we are talking to. Things like shared experience, known training, and common vocabulary and idiom are a big help here. Computers don’t (yet?) have much of this. We have to be very clear about what we want them to do.

BTW one of my friends, I have some geeky friends, suggested on my Facebook posting “Depends on if those were primitive operations or if it was a method call with anticipated output of cooked spaghetti.” A good point which also suggests that the method call could be better named to more clearly indicate what was happening in the method. Smile

All in all I am hoping for an interesting classroom discussion around this image.


Garth said...

I am not quite sure what is wrong with the picture.

Alfred Thompson said...

A number of people tried to explain it to me but was left feeling the perhaps the fault lay in the instructions.