Close Enough

I'm still not sure where Outlook learned to count.
I’m still not sure where Outlook learned to count.

Recently, I was sending an email to a group of people and I noticed a message in Outlook: “this group contains about 31 recipients” – About? There really is no “about” about it. It’s 31 or it’s 30 or it’s 32. I’m not the word nerd that some of my friends are, but this kind of poor word choice bothers me. There is a precise number of individual names in that group, and Outlook should be able to count them. It’s binary, you know ones and zeros, there’s nothing in between, there’s no “maybe” state in core memory.

OK, there’s no “core” in core memory either. There used to be. Back when I started programming, core memory consisted of tiny wires wound around little iron cores. One wire could magnetize the core clockwise, one could magnetize the core counter-clockwise and one could tell the magnetic state of the core. Kind of like a highway project. One guy digs the hole, one guy fills the hole in and one guy watches to see if the hole is dug or filled in.

During my career, I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of messages and reports and I don’t ever recall generating reports with the word “about” in them. “We wrote about $100,000 worth of premium last month.” No. Reports don’t say things like that. People do. People guess at stuff all the time and hide their lack of knowledge behind “about” but not computer programs.

Imagine your bank statement saying “you have about $500 in your account.” I would say that. I would write a check based on that level of accuracy. In fact, I would write a check for $500. If I could write a check. For now obvious reasons, my wife handles the checkbook. My wife would never use the word “about” when talking about our checking account.

I once worked on a systems implementation project where my manager suggested that we could estimate bank account balances from a backup tape that was a couple of days old. I thought the idea was absurd, but only because I knew that there were customers out there like my wife. My bank could totally estimate my account balance and I would never catch them. I would look at it and think: “that seems about right.”

So why am I getting all bent out of shape over Outlook’s lack of precision? Why do I care how many people are going to receive my email?

Because things that we expect to be precise should be precise.

I may not know how much money is in our checking account but my wife does. I expect her to know. I may not know how much gas is in my car’s gas tank, but the gauge better be accurate. When that warning light dings, I expect to have enough gas to make it to a gas station (unless I’m between exits in Iowa, then I would expect to be pushing my car soon).

On the other hand, if I don’t expect something to be precise, then it doesn’t matter. I used to own a Triumph Spitfire. For most of that car’s life, the gas gauge didn’t work. I could still tell if I needed gas though. The gas tank was a rectangle, with a little reservoir at the bottom. It sat vertically, behind the passenger compartment, in front of the trunk, sorry, boot. If the tank was full, the gas didn’t slosh around. If the tank was nearly empty, i.e. only in that little space at the bottom, it didn’t slosh either. So, I would quickly swerve the car from right to left. If there was a sloshing sound, we had enough gas.

Speaking of cars, my favorite race car driver, Tim Wilkerson recently lost a race by 0:00.0001 1/10,000 of a second! If that seems a little too precise, you should know that you can measure the distance a car travels in that time when it’s traveling over 300 miles per hour. Sorry, I’m rambling, but that’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about. I expect NHRA to be able to measure time and the distance traveled by cars moving at 300 miles an hour – because that’s what they do.

One last ramble and then I’m done. Photography has moved from precise to close-enough. I remember when knowing whether to shoot at 1/100 or 1/60 mattered. I also remember the wave of disappointment that would roll across my face after opening the yellow envelope containing those under/over exposed images. Today, it’s snap, no, snap, no, snap, dammit, snap, ugh, snap, yay! I might miss the occasional bird in flight, duck in the river and car going by, but eventually, I get the shot. I even have a picture of Tim Wilkerson, albeit, from the starting line.

65 thoughts on “Close Enough

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  1. I couldn’t agree more, Dan, and not just because I’m an editor. I don’t like that “about” feature either. Nor do I like Twitter rounding up the number of followers I have. It was putting “12K” long before I actually had 12,000. Sorry, but 11,975 isn’t “12K”.

    I am, however, enjoying the thought of having about $500 in my bank account. You know, roughly. Somewhere in that neighborhood. Maybe more!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Dan, what I’m about to say is I love your posts. Well…I could get distracted or change my mind and never say it, right? I’m not a fan of the word “about’ either. It’s an in-between thought or action word. Love this post, clever writing. Christine

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Since I’m not very good with numbers I belong to the “About” category. Although I agree that in specific cases numbers should be the rule. The gas tank made me smile because I used to drive a car that got a broken gauge. I made rough estimates of my milleage, which wasn’t the safest way to go. I suppose that there are truly two categories of people: the ones who are precise and love numbers and the ones who are more approximative and dreamy with numbers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I rather like the idea of being “dreamy” with numbers. That sounds romantic r very carefree in a way that doesn’t imply “inaccurate” – thanks for dropping by and lending your support, especially during April!

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  4. Can I just say how much I like your wife, Dan? Seriously, the more you say about her, the more I think we could easily be friends. And yes, people, be precise! The only place “about” belongs is in the cooking time of a recipe. And even then it’s only “about” when you’re sharing the recipe with someone who will be using a different oven. There’s bound to be some flex there. But when you’re making your own recipe that you’ve made a dozen times before? And in your own tried and true oven? Yeah, it’s “x” amount of time, every time! Precision… it’s a beautiful thing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I use “about” when it doesn’t matter to me ex: I live about an hour south of San Francisco. Now it can take longer depending on traffic, or if the wind is good, and traffic light I really can make it in 50 minutes. About an hour works. :) For my bank statement, gas tank, what time you want me somewhere, and what time I want you where ever I want precise numbers.

    That crackling fire looked wonderful, and I’d be where MuMu was getting warm. We have a wood burning stove, and a raised hearth that I sit on right in front of the fire to get warm. Well I would and did when we were allowed to burn wood, and have wood fires. They’ve banned them, and want to ban all fireplace burning except for gas, and maybe pellets. “( Guess I’ll be just “about” warm next winter since the heater never really does get me totally warm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh no! Banning wood burning stoves. Ugh, that would never work here. I think I might be constantly bailing my wife out of jail. Her defense would be that “the cats demanded a fire” because they do. They go in and pace around as if to say “hey, put a match to this thing and lets get some heat.” thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Yeah….my husband won’t be reading this. He likes to figure out his gas mileage. Exactly. Well, really, he wants to know his gas mileage but I whip out my phone to figure it out while he drives. So 117.4 miles gets rounded to 117 so I can tell him ‘about’ how many mpg he is getting. No, that will not do. He wants exact. Seriously? Bank account? Exact. Car mileage? ‘About’ works for me! He would love this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny. The only time I was exact about gas mileage was when I had a Dodge Durrango that had an electronic readout that calculated MPG. I always had to prove that thing wrong. I had plenty of opportunities because the car got “about” 13 mpg, 15 on the highway. Thanks for the comment Lois.

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  7. Totally agree that tonality of communications can really influence your opinion.

    Fabio Carneiro – from Mailchip was saying the other day that their usage in the UK plummeted and there were complaints when they updated some of the messaging around the send process.

    In the US it was acceptable to have a little humor. I guess the brits were too worried about hitting send to so many recipients and wanted business talk from a business tool. https://boagworld.com/season/11/episode/1111/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Let’s see, oh yeah, I already have you in the camp of women who agree too often with my wife :) Thanks for the comment. Maybe if I drove more in the midwest, I’d care more about the gas level. Here in CT, there’s a gas station every 50 feet.

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  8. I like the way you could tell about the gas tank fuel level in the Triumph :D That is crazy about the Email. I have never seen anything like that. So funny. This will go to about 31 recipients, God willin’ and if the creek don’t rise, I guess. :D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that message made no sense at all. Why bother to tell me? I mean, I knew “about” how many people were in the group. The sloshing was actually a very reliable method. I replaced the sending unit in the tank three times, but I never ran out of gas in that car. Still, it left me at the side of the road for other reasons.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. oh my goodness absolutely – and I do not even know how that word would be there – why is it about – because you copied yourself too? or are they including the three employees that are also receiving copies of all emails – and so is that part of their full disclosure to let you know a few more people will be privy to all that you send and receive?

            Liked by 1 person

    1. It worked! I swear it worked really well. If you’ve ever owned a British car, you know about anything remotely attached to the electrical system. You had to be resourceful :)

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  9. So it appears that context is king!

    I remember a grade school exam question asking “how many times zones are there in the Soviet Union?” I wrote “about 11” and got credit for it because the actual answer (at the time) was 12. How about that!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think it is the generation raised by the 60’s kids who don’t want to commit (our fault — we raised them!). Even to the number of people on the recipient list. They write this, and their language reflects it. But I’m biased and annoyed with many of them so there you are. Caught me on a day when I’ve about (oops) had it with people about (oops) 30.

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  11. That “about” by Outlook is odd. It’s a Microsoft online email service, which is all about computers – you know the computer language… 1 12 11 121 12212 etc. It’s a science where precision counts for everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. That guy lost a race by 1/10,000 of a second!!! What a speed! Is anything still visible at that speed? I noticed that we only see things because they move much slower relative to us. So that as speed increases, visibility decreases until the object ceases to exist. When we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Someone argued that the only proof of existence is time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They have a photo-finish camera set up. I think he lost by less than an inch, but he clearly lost. I would guess that from inside the car, you have no clue until you see the win light go on in the other lane.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I liked the “about 31” message. I sometimes see my wordpress statistics and, judging from the number of visitors and the flags, there are either bunches of people taking supersonic airplanes around the globe, or the physics of subsonic flight would never explain some results (sure, they sometimes say these are aproximate results on the info pages…)

    Liked by 1 person

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