August 09, 2003

Those who are not authorized are not authorized

My gym's plural its sign reminds me of a story about another sign, in another place and time.

In the spring of 1970, I was patching up helicopters at an Army camp near the place where Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia come together. We had a problem with tools, parts and supplies disappearing, and our first sergeant blamed it on outsiders wandering through our work areas. I had access to sheetmetal, paint and stencils, so he told me to make up some big signs to warn off passing lurps, crews from other units, and such-like suspicious types.

"Here's what I want," he said. "Big red letters on a white background: 'PERSONNEL WHO ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR.'"

I wrote it down and looked at it

"Don't you think it's kind of redundant?" I asked.

"What do you mean 'redundant'?"

"Well, it kind of says the same thing twice."

He looked at the message for a while. "OK, I see what you mean. So instead, let's make it: 'ONLY PERSONNEL WHO ARE AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR ARE AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR.'"

I wrote that down too.

"Sarge, I hate to say it, but I think that one's got the same problem."

Silence. Grunt. Silence."If you're so smart, what do you suggest?"

"Well, the usual thing is 'AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.'"

Silence. Suddenly, a big grin. "OK, college boy, now you tell me this -- 'authorized personnel only WHAT?'"

Too quickly, I answered "well, I guess it's something like 'authorized personnel are the only ones who are allowed, uh..." Lamely: "... allowed to be in the hangar.'"

Triumphantly: "Ha! And what does 'allowed' mean, smartass?"

In the end, I made up six signs, with big red letters on a white background, reading 'PERSONNEL WHO ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO BE IN THE HANGAR'".

Tools, parts and supplies continued to evaporate at the same rate as before. And a third of a century later, I still don't have a really good answer to the question "authorized personnel only WHAT?"

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 9, 2003 09:12 AM