It's just the TAM LED

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On the base station for the wireless telephone system at my apartment there is a red light. I looked up in the manual to see what the semantics was. The relevant diagram was clear and explicit. The line pointing to that light on the picture of the base station unit said: "TAM LED". Neither "TAM" nor "LED" had been previously glossed anywhere in the manual (the diagram was fairly near the beginning, on page 10). That is a classic example of the sort of thing I refer to as nerdview.

You don't need to tell me what a TAM LED is; I did figure it out. I have a Ph.D., and years of experience as a linguist, and a broad acquaintance with technology. I just wonder whether my old mum would have puzzled this out or would have just thrown the manual away in disgust. Is there any excuse for being so utterly cryptic in a document that is intended to help the uninitiated? What is going on in these engineers' (and technical writers') heads?

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61 Comments »

  1. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    Sometimes it doesn't make any difference even when you RTFM, does it?

  2. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

    So when the LED comes on, does that mean there's an Argentinian Tank (Tanque Argentino Mediano) nearby, or that a TAM Airlines plane from Brazil is flying too low over your place?

  3. Dick Margulis said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    Don't blame tech writers. They know better. Blame managers too cheap to hire tech writers so they assign the task to an engineer instead.

  4. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    So is this a light that comes on when the station detects the utterance of a tense/aspect/mood marker?

  5. bianca steele said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    Even more likely is one of the following:
    1) The engineer's old internal documents were simply copied into the text.
    2) The engineer tried and tried to let the tech writer know there was a problem, and that the "correct" term as already used in internal architectural documents was not what an end user would understand and therefore was incorrect–and the tech writer ignored her because the architect had written "TAM LED".

  6. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

    TaM, LEd!

    (Thanks a Million, LaTeX Editor!)

  7. Dan Velleman said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    Well, this is a linguistics blog. Must be a tense/aspect/mood LED. Comes on when you've got an actual, current, ongoing phone call. Turns off if the call's hypothetical, prospective, or finished already.

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    Wait a minute! TAM is the subject and LED is the predicate. Now it all makes sense.

  9. JGen said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

    Telephone answering machine, perhaps?

  10. Zora said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    There's a book called _The Inmates are Running the Asylum_, by Alan Cooper, which discusses another aspect of nerdview: engineers designing the user interface. They're notoriously bad at this, per Cooper. Their stock answer is a menu system.

  11. Robert Young said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

    As a tech writer; what Dick Margulis x10

  12. Robert Young said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    oops, clicked too soon, that should have been what Dick Margulis said x10. Here it is known as CYA (cover your ars*) documentation. It doesn't have to be good, it just has to exist.

  13. Dan Milton said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    The TAM LED was apparently patented in 1999.
    See: http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/5938772.html
    which explains all.

  14. Tom O'Brien said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    I recently tried to help a friend who kept running into the blue screen of death. We got the computer up and running, but it kept crashing. I recall a final message, in which the heading was "Windows Vista Home Edition"; directly underneath was an admonition to contact your system administrator or tech support department. How many homes have a sysadmin or tech support department? I wonder if anyone but the public reads these things and sees how silly they are?

  15. Jonathan Lundell said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

    The phone on my desk is pretty much completely iconified, which is even more confusing. What passes for its TAM LED (I'm more used to seeing 'TAD') is completely unlabeled–not even an icon.

    I see a button with an upraised hand. Greetings? Stop? I dunno. The envelope icon is presumably how I check for messages, but then what's the dogeared document icon?

    I wouldn't blame the engineers for this one; somebody actually designed those icons. They look pretty good. I just don't know what they mean.

  16. mollymooly said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    Often, the message generated by a label like "TAM LED" is "if you don't already know what this button does, the function it performs is like to be useless to you, if not actually harmful".

    In a subset of cases this may in fact be the appropriate message; in a partially overlapping subset it may be the intended message.

  17. Harlow Wilcox said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

    "You don't need to tell me what a TAM LED is; I did figure it out. I have a Ph.D., and years of experience as a linguist, and a broad acquaintance with technology."

    Okay, but I'm curious about whether having a Ph.D. did, in this case, allow you to decipher the puzzle; if you only had, say, a master's degree, would you still be wondering?

    [Having a Ph.D. was crucial. It gave me the confidence to believe I could succeed in guessing it. It also adds more than two inches to my perceived height, gains me higher consulting fees, and attracts lovers. Nobody should underestimate the power of having a Doctorate. I never leave home without mine. —GKP]

  18. Bobbie said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

    When I worked as a technical writer, I tried to compile a list / directory of all the acronyms used by this military-contract firm. First I asked all the engineers for their suggested acronyms, and then I asked them to explain each term. That resulted in a **lot of variations on each acronym — sometimes with the result that none of their answers were the "official" correct usage!

  19. fiddler said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

    @Robert Young: As a tech writer; what Dick Margulis said x10.

    As a tech writer, what Robert Young said x 10 more.

  20. GAC said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    When I first read this I thought "Why wouldn't they label it with the function of the light rather than the type?" It was only when I saw the patent application that it became clear that TAM -is- in fact, the function of the device.

  21. Doug Sundseth said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

    While expanding "TAM" would have been useful, I don't think it would help grandma to know that she is looking at a light-emitting diode. There are some acronyms and initialisms that you are probably better advised not to expand. (e.g., RADAR, LASER)

    Icons are not necessarily better, either. Most icons reflect their associated function about as well as simplified Mandarin characters reflect their original meaning to a non-speaker of any of the Chinese languages. There are a very few icons that are widely understood, mostly from extensive use, but most are cryptic at best.

  22. Rosie Redfield said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

    Is ANYONE going to explain what TAM is intended to stand for? I have a PhD too and many years of technology experience (though not linguistics), but that doesn't seem to help.

    [I decided not to explain it, Rosie, because I thought you would find it patronizing. I will just say that you are letting us Doctors down. Robert Langdon would have guessed it by now. —GKP]

  23. Joe Fineman said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

    The purpose of the manual is to give the user a good excuse for being confused.

  24. fs said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

    @Rosie Redfield: As Dan Milton pointed out above, the TAM LED was patented in 1999 – in the patent description, TAM is noted to be an abbreviation for "telephone answering machine".

  25. Aaron Davies said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    There are some acronyms and initialisms that you are probably better advised not to expand.

    This (as the kids say). Would you expand FM and AM in a radio manual? AM and PM in a clock manual? I submit that LED, especially since the introduction of the lightbulb version, is now in this class.

    [Yes, most of us are aware of what LEDs are. But who the hell cares that the little spot of light is powered by light-emitting diode technology rather than laser, incandescent bulb, fluorescent tube, or candle? They could have said light, for heaven's sake. —GKP]

    I frequently see the mainstream press obsessively expanding internet acronyms like HTTP and TCP/IP, and tend to find it amusing–do they really think "Hypertext Transfer protocol of Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol" conveys any extra information to their readers, or is slavish obedience to the house style an example of journalistic nerdview?

    [Quite right here: sometimes expanding the abbreviation is more nerdviewish than not expanding it. People just don't think, that's the problem. —GKP]

  26. Mark F. said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

    But it isn't a question of whether or not they should have expanded the abbreviation. They should have labeled it "Answering Machine Indicator" or "Incoming Message Light" or some such. It's just that, given that they didn't, the best Geoff could hope for was further explanation elsewhere. Which wasn't forthcoming either.

  27. Mark Mandel said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    Aaron Davies said:

    This (as the kids say). Would you expand FM and AM in a radio manual? AM and PM in a clock manual? I submit that LED, especially since the introduction of the lightbulb version, is now in this class.

    No. You can't use a radio without knowing that AM and FM are different bands or things. Not true of this indicator AT ALL

  28. Brett said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

    @mollymooly: I have known some people who wrote manuals, who definitely kept what you said in mind. Their job was not to explain the functions of a device; it was to explain how to control the functions to somebody who already knew what it did. Ever read an oscilloscope manual? It's useless you've already learned to use another oscilloscope.

  29. GAC said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 2:48 am

    BTW, I admittedly should read the application before I say this, but what makes a TAM LED patentable? Isn't it "obvious" that you could put something on a phone that lights up when you have a message waiting?

  30. Neener said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 3:24 am

    Dick, Robert, and fiddler:

    Are tech writers more expensive than engineers (apparently good ones should be)? And if so, a hundred times (X10 X10)?

  31. Neener said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 3:29 am

    Oh, and GAC, it was the TAM, not the TAM LED that was (apparently) novel, non-obvious, etc.

  32. D.O. said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 4:02 am

    I just ran throug Wikipedia disambiguation for "tam". What a reading!

  33. Robert T McQuaid said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 4:48 am

    An artist once explained that a good way to learn about beauty is to draw pictures of ugly people.

    I am a computer programmer, and I have learned a lot about good writing by reading computer manuals.

  34. Peter Taylor said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 5:08 am

    @Doug Sundseth, I'm not sure that "laser" still qualifies as an acronym. Etymologically it is, but given that it's had a cognate verb (to lase) for so long that it's found in dictionaries for word games I think it's fair to say that it's just a word nowadays.

  35. Lugubert said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 6:14 am

    And then the manuals written by the engineer gets translated in another country by secretaries, because they appear to be cheaper than finding a professional tech translator. And then the company is surprised by the rising number of malfunction complaints by customers.

  36. Alen Mathewson said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    I followed the link above to the earlier nerdview piece (using rubbish collection in Edinburgh as an example) so I hope you will excuse a slightly tangential comment. The link piece had a comment referring to 'pan loafy' and you indicated that you were not familiar with this rather lovely term. Traditionally in Scotland two basic types of bread loaves are sold; plain loaves and pan loaves. I am not at all sure what the gastronomic difference between them is, but culturally they were miles apart; 'ordinary' working class people ate plain loaves and middle-class or (aspiring middle class) people ate pan loaves. When I was a child the term 'pan loafy' was used to describe anyone or anything that appeared to be getting ideas above their/its station, adn although I haven't lived in Scotland for many years, I believe the term is still used. Whilst I can think of various examples of food being regarded as 'high class' I cannot think of another example where the food is used linguistically in quite this way.

  37. Cecilieaux Bois de Murier said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    Re the PhD: In my experience, people with PhDs are less, not more, likely to figure out practical aspects of daily life.

  38. JJM said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    Years ago, I had to call a municipal senior citizens' advice bureau on behalf of an elderly relative. I was greeted by the following recorded message:

    "X County Senior Citizens' Helpline. At the sound of the tone, leave your seven-digit identifier."

    Seven-digit identifier? What the hell was that? Then it dawned on me: it's your phone number.

    I finally got a live voice and she confirmed that the message meant "leave your phone number".

    I rather irately suggested that perhaps they should just say that. I could imagine some poor old dear totally baffled by that message.

    But then. maybe that was the point.

    Senior citizens calling in for help would just be eventually be completely deterred from doing so. Then the help bureau staff could just put their feet up, drink coffee, play computer games and collect their pay.

  39. JJM said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    Oops! That last line should have read:

    "Senior citizens calling in for help would eventually be completely deterred from doing so. Then the help bureau staff could just put their feet up, drink coffee, play computer games and collect their pay."

    Obviously I need more coffee.

  40. Troy S. said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    It seems to me nerdview might in some cases be explained by what psychologists call the "curse of knowledge" – the tendency for people to overestimate how widely-known their own knowledge is. People naturally assume that everyone gets approximately the same education growing up, which simply isn't true. It's also hard to remember what it was like before you knew something. This can make brilliant people terrible communicators. I know, because I'm quite the example myself.

  41. Jonathan Badger said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    Even though the "rules of writing" say you are supposed to gloss every acronym before use of the acronym alone, in reality it isn't quite so rigorous. For example, in something about biology, with the exception of a textbook, it would be silly to gloss DNA or RNA; people are just expected to know what those mean. Likewise, in something about computers, LCD, LED, CPU, RAM, etc, are fine unglossed. Now, TAM is admittedly obscure. That should have been glossed.

  42. Karen Kay said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    Don't assume that a professional writer was involved.

    Karen,
    Recently outsourced technical writer

  43. Sili said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    I need to pay better attention to the blog-identifier in my reader. I expected this to be by Phil Plait and about some souvenir gizmo from The Amazing Meeting.

    Obviously I suffer badly from nerdview. At least I'm being made aware of my failings. Thank you.

  44. Alan Palmer said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    Even I, completely lost when encountering most nerdspeak, know that an LED is a light-emitting diode. What that is is a completely different matter; I just think of it as a small coloured lightbulb. However, I am still none the wiser concerning the meaning of TAM. I tried looking it up in AcronymFinder but there was nothing there that obviously fitted the bill. Please put me out of my misery! What does it mean?

  45. Faldone said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    @Sili. The Amazing Meeting was my first reading, too.

    @Alan Palmer. It's the seventh one down.

  46. Daniel said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    There's also a space issue to take into consideration. Not being able to see the phone, its possible that limited character space meant that had to be able to say "Message Light" in a small area. They might not have had room to say 'message light" so they went with something that fit into what they had, which was 6 or 7 spaces.

  47. Alan Palmer said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    Belay that last comment of mine. I just looked a little closer at . AcronymFinder and I assume it stands for Telephone Answering Machine.

  48. Anna Phor said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    MESSAGE has seven characters, exactly the same number as TAM LED, if you count the space. A blinking red light which says MESSAGE? I'd know what that meant. Double points to the designer who made a blinking red button that said MESSAGE, and played your messages when you pressed it.

  49. Faldone said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    But note that TAM LED was in the manual. We don't know what was on the phone.

  50. Gary said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    @Anna Phor; "message" is exactly what mine says next to the message light, in space-saving lower case too.

    I've had success with non-writers who present me with gibberish by asking them "what are you trying to say here?" They'll sometimes say just what they should have written.

  51. Liz OShea said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

    @Alen Mathewson: While no one is called pan loafy in Ireland (that I have heard), we do have pans of bread, as in 'white-sliced pan'. The difference between plain and pan is yeast.

  52. ChrisB said,

    November 4, 2009 @ 12:42 am

    # O I forbid you, maidens a',
    That wear gowd on your hair,
    To come or gae by Carterhaugh,
    For young Tam Led is there.

    # There's nane that gaes by Carterhaugh
    But they leave him a wad,
    Either their rings, or green mantles,
    Or else their maidenhead.

  53. GAC said,

    November 4, 2009 @ 1:41 am

    @Neener
    Thanks. That's what I get for being lazy.

  54. Dionne said,

    November 4, 2009 @ 7:55 am

    I need to add my howls of protest to Riddler, Robert and Dick's. And Neener, the answer to your question is, no we don't! In a perfect world we would, but sadly, Tech Writers are regarded as a luxury most companies can't or won't afford. I am almost 100% certain that there was no Technical Writer involved in this particular manual, simply because it is anathema to us to leave something like that without a decent explanation. I have written many "write-only" documents, which I know will never be read by anyone, but I still make a point of writing clearly as if the person reading knows nothing about the topic. When people ask me what I do, I say, I translate technical into user. I am now going to review that to say I translate Nerdview into user.

  55. Aaron Davies said,

    November 4, 2009 @ 8:42 am

    @Alen Mathewson: a quiche-eater is a girly-man. the united states of arugula is a nation of gourmets. arugula was also briefly a signifier of obama's alleged elitism.

  56. bianca steele said,

    November 4, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    @Dionne re translating technical into user: You would think, wouldn't you. It might depend on the industry. Telephony possesses many arcane secrets.

  57. empty said,

    November 4, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    Etymology of this Irish pan: is it related to French pain, Spanish pan, …? Or is it about being baked in a breadpan?

  58. dr pepper said,

    November 4, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

    @ Alen Mathewson

    "upper crust"
    "joe sixpack"
    "ham and egger"
    "mac-X"

  59. seriously said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    It's an old Scottish folk song about the fairy knight TAM LED and the lady Janet.

  60. Mason Adams said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    The telephone system we are using today still uses the legacy Tip and Ring -48 Volts line which is susceptible to noise.;-`

  61. Matt McIrvin said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 12:06 am

    @Aaron Davies: And there was Michael Dukakis's famous remark in 1988 when he suggested that farmers in Iowa should grow Belgian endive. He got a lot of ridicule for it.

    I suspect the reason that people tried to turn Obama's mention of arugula into an attack on him was that it vaguely reminded them of the Belgian endive incident.

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