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Bad information, and the trouble it can get you in
by Bruce Ure at 15:44 05/01/05 (Blogs::Bruce)
My wife and I went to a white-goods shop the other day to consider fridges. We've decided our two small fridges comprise a sub-optimal spacial arrangement, and we've finally enough cash in the accounts we've been using to save for the children's futures that it's actually worth plundering them for something else.
We were looking down the rows of fridges and on each one there was the inevitable panel of information (usually about half the information you need, the other half being out of reach of even the least stupid of the spotty adolescents busy trying to look busy). I don't know if you've ever looked into modern refrigeration technology but there exists a feature in some fridges which makes them what is known as "Frost-Free". What this means is that you don't have to defrost the fridge by melting the ice-monster every few months: there is some clever mechanism or process built in that prevents the build-up of condensation which otherwise leads ineluctably to the formation of said monster. Or something.

Anyway, as Frost-Free is such a big seller, it's one of the main criteria the shop want you to know about when you're making your decision. So they put it as one of the tick boxes in a group of about four or five, larger than the surrounding text, for easy reference. The tick box is, of course, labelled "Frost-Free" and it sits next to ones labelled things like "Metallic Finish" (duh), "Anti-bacterial Shelves", and "Efficiency Class A".

As we looked along the white and, er, metallic towers, I noticed that some of the tick boxes had a large tick in them - as you might indeed quite reasonably have expected - but the only other annotation or mark I could see in any of them other than a tick was "n/a", in quite small writing.

"N/a" to me usually means "not applicable". It's quite well-known, I believe. However, this was not enough information for me. I immediately thought OK, so is "n/a" telling me that this fridge is not frost-free, or is it telling me that there is no data available for this fridge and that it either is or isn't frost-free but it doesn't know? Or to put it in the language of a programmer, did "n/a" represent "null" or "false"?

My wife was adamant. "That means it's not frost-free."

I said "But it could mean there's no data for it; the system doesn't know, so it says 'n/a' -- otherwise surely you'd expect a big cross, to complement the big ticks of the ones which are frost-free?" I tried to explain the concept of a null value in a database. "It means that rather than yes or no, the database doesn't know. It's in a state of not yet having been told whether something is true or false." She fixed me with that familiar "You're talking bollocks again" stare.

I glanced around for more tick boxes on more fridges and tried to find one with something other than "n/a" or a tick--I was hoping for a cross, if the truth be known--but I couldn't. I was reluctantly forced to come to the same conclusion as my wife, but I wasn't giving up on my principles yet and carried on trying to explain what I was waffling (apparently) about.

By this point other people were becoming interested, and I was forced to give up eventually, in a fit of internal frustration, rather than endure another public humiliation, which was what my wife was secretly hoping for. But I didn't quit before at least three other people--terminally stupid people who really ought to do the rest of us a favour and remove themselves from the gene pool--had involved themselves, and we discovered on asking a slightly more senior member of staff (significantly fewer spots) that it meant "not available". The assembled idiots uttered various "Oh!" and "Aaah!" noises of enlightenment, which only reinforced to me their stupidity.

Not done for yet, I asked the nice man whether "not available" meant "not available on this model" or "not available on this specific fridge but might be available on a different fridge of the same model" (like cars, I was thinking), but he looked at me slightly worriedly, and as if I was the idiot in this transaction.

I suggested they might for consistency consider a cross for "No" if they are going to have a tick for "Yes", got a blank response, paused for a moment and went on, undeterred: "Ok, then if you want to use 'n/a' for fridges where Frost-Free is 'not available', why for those fridges where it is available do you not just have 'a'?" But he looked as if he was thinking about calling security.

It all felt so unjust. The fact is that the people who specified the design for these tickets (and I like to think it couldn't possibly have been the programmers though of course it could) were complete cretins and produced something which when looked at correctly is confusing at best and plain wrong at worst. The frustrating paradox is that if you look at it from a point of view of an incomplete understanding, otherwise known as 'stupidity', then it's not.

I think there should be a notice at the entrance to the shop reading "Our information displays are designed so that only those below a certain level of intelligence can understand them."

We ended up leaving for another shop. I refuse to give my money to these people.


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Bad information, and the trouble it can get you in Bruce Ure - 15:44 05/01/05
Silly rabbit... Simon - 17:38 05/01/05
... n/a stands for "not 'alf!", and is a positive affirmation of the frostfreeziness inherent in that particular item.

Seriously though, marketing folks hate the presence of big fat crosses on their products and to them "Not available" is a friendlier concept than "No it bloody doesn't come with slimline salad dressing".

If you want to sell something, slap a load of "A"s, ticks and smiley faces all over it.

Don't forget to substitute "B"s for "A"s on the middle of the range model so that those who think they remember hearing something in "skewl" about the first two letters of the alphabet being in that order can work out why the midrange one is a bit cheaper.


Re: Silly rabbit... Bruce Ure - 17:43 05/01/05
"Come and see the frostfreeziness inherent in the system...."


Re: Silly rabbit... Bruce Ure - 13:31 06/01/05
Thinking about this... yes I agree they don't like huge crosses all over the place, so why not just leave frostfreezitude out of the list of tick boxes, rather than put "n/a"?

They leave other stuff off apparently at random so why not? Complete absence of the tick box then implies it doesn't have that feature.

Or, use a small cross?

Or, leave the tick box blank. That might even be less ambiguous than "n/a".

There is a danger here that one might be considered to be taking this a little too seriously.


Re: Bad information, and the trouble it can get you in Hugo van der Sanden - 09:29 06/01/05
I think you have misinterpreted the meaning of "not applicable" - it doesn't mean "don't know", it means "the question makes no sense in this context".

In this case, consider a refrigeration unit that achieves its goal by using a fashionable Dyson vortex to generate a whirlwind of frost which it then blasts at the to-be-refrigerated [0] contents thereby cooling it. Clearly such a fridge cannot be frost-free - the use of frost is an integral part of its workings - hence the answer is not simply "no", but "not applicable".

While you can extend boolean arithmetic to cope with three-valued logic to cater for "don't know", I don't think you can construct a similar extension to cater for "not applicable" - I'd think of it like genetics, in the sense that it is neither dominant (like SQL's NULL) nor recessive (like perl's "undef").


[0] Latin would be "refrigerandi"; you have to respect a language that understands the need for passive future gerundives.

Refrigerandi Simon - 13:55 06/01/05
As in:

Nos refrigerandi te salutant!

or refrigeranduri maybe? I tend badly to decline Latin verbs, as a rule.

Re: Refrigerandi Hugo van der Sanden - 00:45 07/01/05
Refrigeraturi would be the active future gerundive (masculine nominative plural, of course - I assumed Bruce wouldn't be seen dead having any feminine stuff in his fridge).

Of course it shouldn't have been nominative, as you no doubt astutely spotted and were too kind to mention: it should have been accusative - "blasts at the to-be-refrigerated contents" would probably use "ad" ('to or towards'), a preposition taking the accusative and therefore (assuming also that the contents were neuter) refrigeranda.

Another nicety is that even though Latin has a word for 'thing', it is hardly ever used ("De rerum natura" aside) - any adjective assumes it (or maybe "man" or "woman" depending on context) in isolation, so "in the direction of the things to be refrigerated" would just be "ad refrigeranda". Gorgeous language, and such beautiful plumage - such a shame it's temporarily stunned.


Re: Refrigerandi Bruce Ure - 06:03 07/01/05
> even though Latin has a word for 'thing'

Hence res publica = 'thing of the people', otherwise know as 'republic', IIRC.

I am with you on its fantasticness although nowhere near as competent with it as you clearly are. Now there's a surprise.

I can however point out that you made an elementary apostrophe gaff in your previous post, which makes me feel a tiny bit better.