Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In which I tell incomprehensible jokes (revisiting the "barriers to communication" discussion about jargon)

Last week, Trevor Carpenter tweeted:

God predestined me, before the foundations of the world, to be friends with you Arminians.

This prompted me to reply:

@trevorcarpenter And the Arminians have decided to work really really hard to be friends with you.

I would bet that a pretty high percentage of the people on Twitter who saw our tweets had no idea what we were talking about. If you're interested, there is a Wikipedia article that outlines some of the religious controversies that Trevor and I attempted to encapsulate in 280 characters.

Every discipline, whether it is religion, biometrics, or photowalking, or whatever, tends to develop its own terminology. There are good things and bad things about this. The good thing is that it allows the practitioners of the discipline in question to quickly communicate a concept to another practitioner. For example, if I say "ANSI/NIST" to one of my co-workers, the co-worker will immediately know that I am talking about ANSI/NIST-ITL 1-2007. Or perhaps ANSI/NIST-ITL 1-2007 and ANSI/NIST-ITL 2-2008.

This points out one of the problems with terminology. Sometimes we don't all agree on what the terms mean. To use a fairly obvious example, people who discuss religion do not all agree on what "God" is. In the example from the previous paragraph, it is sometimes unclear whether a reference to "ANSI/NIST" merely includes the traditional binary version of the interchange standard, or whether the XML standard is also meant to be included. And, of course, outside of the biometrics industry "ANSI/NIST" can mean something completely different.

Another problem with using these terms is that they tend to shut non-practitioners out. In fact, when I previously wrote about this topic in 2009 in my mrontemp blog, I cited an example of jargon which is completely comprehensible to me, but not to most of the billions of people on this planet.

BCA needs ESB support, and since we know this now, we don't need to CCB it in. We can start with FEC and write the appropriate STRQs and MRs to get us to M-11. Of course, we'll follow P_RGP in the SPP to do all this. And of course BCA will need all the ANSI/NIST and EFTS stuff we do - you know, WSQ and all that. But the ADS handles that with no problem, as does the DES, of course.

Now I could explain that entire paragraph, but it would take me a number of paragraphs to do so. In essence, an explanation would be much longer than the original statement, which has the virtue of compactness.

In fact, it's kind of like comparing an XML file to its much smaller binary representation.

That's an ANSI/NIST joke. (Using the broader definition which includes the 2008 definition. Obviously.)
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