While reading the user manual for a piece of old electronic equipment, Max Maxfield started to wonder about the worst user manual of all time.
I can imagine PR and marketing groups at oscilloscope manufacturers around the globe seeing the title to this column and thinking, "Please, please, please, let this be about our competitors and not us."
Well, if you happen to be a member of one of those PR or marketing teams, you can settle down and relax. I'm talking about a hypothetical oscilloscope user manual.
Do you recall the classic line "It was a dark and stormy night," made famous by the Peanuts cartoon character, Snoopy? As fate would have it, this actually was the opening sentence to an 1830 book by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. A legend in his own lunchtime, Bulwer-Lytton became renowned for penning exceptionally bad prose. The opening sentence to his book Paul Clifford set the standard for others to follow.
"It was a dark and stormy night" is now generally understood to represent an extravagantly florid style with redundancies and run-on sentences. In fact, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest was formed in 1982 to celebrate the worst extremes of this general style of writing. Contestants write a single sentence representing the worst-possible (though grammatically correct) opening sentence for a novel. Actually, I submitted the following entry for the 2008 competition.
As the hours passed, the expressions on the partygoers' faces became increasingly bemused and bewildered as my mother -- having grabbed the conversational reins with gusto and abandon using one of her classic opening gambits of "I bumped into Mrs. Forteskew-Smythe at the fishmongers the other day..." -- proceeded to inundate the gathered throng with a myriad of seemingly innocuous and unrelated details "...you remember, she was the oldest of three sisters; the youngest, Beryl, was a slut, while the middle girl eloped with a transsexual Australian taxidermist and they had two sons who couldn't bring themselves to touch any form of fruit, and..." and I could see the question forming in everyone's minds: "Can she possibly tie all of these tidbits of trivia together and somehow bring this tortuous tale to a meaningful close?"... and I cowered against the wall wearing a tight, grim smile because I knew, to my cost, that she could.
Sad to relate, I never heard anything back from the contest organizers, apart from a brief email message informing me that I could be assured that my offering would be "given the consideration it deserves." Maybe they are still mulling it over.
But I digress. All this was brought to my mind recently as I was skimming through a user manual for a piece of old electronic equipment. (No, I'm not going to tell you which one.) It wasn't long before I started to wonder if I had mistakenly gotten hold of an entry to a Bulwer-Lytton-esque competition for the worst user manual of all time.
This led me to start ruminating about possible opening sentences for a user manual. I started bouncing ideas for the worst oscilloscope user manual of all time. But before I
bore delight you with my meandering musings, I'd really like to hear what you have to say. Remember that this has to be a single sentence that sets the stage for the horrors to come. Do you have any suggestions?
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting