I caught this revealing error on the always entertaining Photoshop Disasters and thought it was too good to resist pointing out here:

Bag of Jasmin Rice

The picture, of course, is a bag of Tao brand jasmine rice for sale in Germany. The error is pretty obvious if you understand a little German: the phrase transparentes sichtfeld literally means transparent field of view. In this case, the phrase is a note written by the graphic designer of the rice bag’s packaging that was never meant to be read by a consumer. The phrase is supposed to indicate to someone involved in the bag’s manufacture than the pink background on which the text is written is supposed to remain unprinted (i.e., as transparent plastic) so that customers get a view directly onto the rice inside the bag.

The error, of course, is that the the pink background and the text was never removed. This was possible, in part, because the the pink background doesn’t look horribly out of place on the bag. A more important factor, however, is the fact that the person printing the bag and bagging the rice almost certainly didn’t speak German.

In this sense, this bears a lot of similarity with some errors I’ve written up before — e.g., the Welsh autoresponder and the Translate server error restaurant. And as in those cases, there are takeaways here about all the things we take for granted when communicating using technology — things we often don’t realize until language barriers make errors like this thrust hidden processes into view.

This error revealed a bit of the processes through which these bags of rice are produced and a little bit about the people and the division of labor that helped bring it to us. Ironically, this error is revealing precisely through the way that the bag fails to reveal its contents.

Precision Expiration

Here is a photograph (and a closeup) of a bag of pretzels I was given on a cross-country plane trip today.

Bag of Synder's Pretzels Big and Closeup

When I first saw “May 11 DC20 2008 00:12,” I thought, “Wow! That’s an extremely precise expiration date!” In transit over several time zones I then thought, what time zone do they mean?

Of course, expiration dates are ballpark figures that mark thresholds in the gradual process of product degradation. They are arbitrary, of course. It’s not as if these pretzels will be great on May 10th and inedible two days later. Unless the pretzels have been set to self-destruct, the addition of an expiration hour and an expiration minute seems, well, unnecessary.

What’s happened here is a design error. The label is, in fact, two different types of data printed in two separate columns. “May 11 2008” is the expiration date. “DC20 00:12” is the number of the machine or production line that produced the bag and the time at which the pretzels were made. Taken together, the information can be used by the producer, Synder’s of Hanover, for quality control purposes to find out what machines, workers, and batches of supplies produced a particular bag of pretzels. In all likelihood, Snyder’s prints these labels with a system that, for cost reasons, tries to minimize the amount of printed area on each bag.

For Snyder’s employees familiar with the system, the labels are completely clear. But those of us not familiar with the system are left confused. Error can be thought of as the chasm between user expectations and technical interaction. Like most of the errors I discuss here, this flub represents failed communication and reveals the mediating technologies.