By Bob Hueston on Nov 14, 2007
Its origin is the phrase "PAy No Attention to the Man BehInd that Curtain", a quote from The Wizard of Oz (1939). When Dorothy and her chums return to see the Wizard, they are faced with the image of a giant head surrounded by flames. But Toto the dog notices a curtain and pulls it open, revealing the man behind the Wizard. "Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain," says the Wizard, trying to draw attention away from his exposed true self. You also may have seen it spelled PNAMBC.
Panambic is such a useful term, and can be applied in many ways to emphasize that the underlying mechanism is irrelevant to the outward behavior; in other words, what matters is what you see, not how it works. I prefer to use it as an adverb, as in, "The underlying mechanism is panambic."
I first heard the term "panambic" back in 1994. I was working for a large videoconferencing company at the time. They made systems the size of large microwave ovens that cost $20K each, but realized that the market was moving toward lower-cost set-top boxes. They knew they could reduce their system to fit in a small form factor, but wanted to start getting a feel for customer interest. So a small team set off to build up a mock-up: It was a standard cart with doors on the bottom and a TV on top. Atop the TV was a small box the size of a VCR with a movable camera on top. One of the developers plugged the cart into an AC outlet and an ISDN jack, and the videoconferencing system came alive. They placed calls and demonstrated the high-quality audio and video. Everyone was amazed. I asked the designer how they built a functioning prototype so quickly, and his answer was simply, "Panambic!" Then he opened the doors of the cart to reveal one of our large videoconferencing systems concealed in the base. The set-top box was nothing more than a hollow plastic mock-up. The camera was real, but the wires all led down the back to the expensive videoconferencing system. Of course, panambicism can back-fire; once executives saw the working mock-up, they expected a real, shipping product in short order!
(Years later I saw a similar situation depicted in a Dilbert comic strip. I wondered if this sort of thing happened often. Or did one of my videoconferencing colleagues contact Scott Adams.)
I once had a field service engineer file a bug (a bug!) that complained that the software accomplished something he thought was impossible and couldn't understand how the software did it correctly. I simply closed the bug with an evaluation saying, "It's panambic." I suspect that poor field service engineer is still wondering what that meant.