May 23, 2009


Yesterday I was telling my graduate medical students about a very unfortunate administrative SNAFU.
When I booked my forthcoming holiday (back in January), it started after this semester finished. I discovered only yesterday that the University had changed the academic calendar since then, and to my great distress I now find I will miss the last 2 weeks of tutorials, which is very unfair for the students, who will have to have a fill-in tutor leading up to the exams.

I was being so apologetic that it took me a while to notice the puzzled faces. It turned out they had no idea what I meant by SNAFU. I then tried them on FUBAR - same incomprehension. What a gap in their knowledge!

So the tutorial on bone cancer was briefly delayed while I explained these extremely useful acronyms. I was pleased to see a couple of them taking careful notes, because they will soon be working in SNAFU-rich public hospitals.

For readers similarly bemused by the terms, I can't do better than point to the Wikipedia article for an explanation. I particularly like this prim comment:
"It is sometimes bowdlerized to "Situation Normal: All Fouled Up" or similar, in circumstances where profanity is discouraged or censored."
Indeed, but the original version is far more descriptive.

The article on FUBAR is shorter but no less instructive, and as usual leads to all sorts of unexpected discoveries, like a very clever parody called The SNAFU Principle, which will ring bells with anyone involved with large organisations, particularly those with a number of different "management" levels. Here are the first and last verses, to give you the idea:
"In the beginning was the plan,
and then the specification;
And the plan was without form,
and the specification was void.

And darkness
was on the faces of the implementors thereof;
And they spake unto their leader,
“It is a crock of shit,
and smells as of a sewer.”
"And so it was that the general manager rejoiced
and delivered the good news unto the Vice President.
“It promoteth growth,
and it is very powerful.”

The Vice President rushed to the President's side,
and joyously exclaimed:
“This powerful new software product
will promote the growth of the company!”

And the President looked upon the product,
and saw that it was very good."

Of course I can't end this post without the obligatory reference to DMOZ/ODP, which fills all the criteria for a fertile SNAFU breeding ground: it has a vast community of volunteer editors doing the actual work on the directory, and a small, largely absent, and determinedly out-of-touch management team. Communication between the two groups is sporadic, and rife with misunderstandings due to the very different priorities involved. Every now and then a brave editor will try to point out some of the more damaging "foul-ups", but such impertinence is poorly received, and no changes ever result, despite a bewildering procession of New Staff Members who arrive with great fanfare, announce all sorts of improvements, and then vanish without a trace.
SNAFU, for sure, but at least it keeps going. I only hope it doesn't decline further into FUBAR.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As a young engineer, I was taught to label broken equipment as NFU. It was explained to my tender ears that this represented Not For Use.

I don't think that was quite correct :)


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