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.