On blogging: Sometimes the details don’t matter

In my previous post I gave several examples of writing made more effective by the inclusion of specific details.

Details can make your writing more effective, but they can also be distracting, and trying to provide too much detail may make it harder for you to express the meat of the post. That’s one of the reasons that Wikipedia is your friend. You can use links to Wikipedia articles that have details so your posts remain more concise.

And sometimes the details don’t matter.

Earlier this morning I took my dog out for his first walk of the day and also to retrieve today’s copy of the New York Times. I heard my neighbor Mr. O’Donnell say “Happy Birthday” to one of his daughters as she was about to get into her car. I shouted a “Happy Birthday” to her across the lawn. She mistook the message as a query and replied that she was 28 years old today, so I knew it one of the O’Donnell twins. They and my son Michael were classmates.

Later on in the morning on my way to vote I felt bad because I didn’t know her name and so was unable to use her name in my birthday greeting.

Then I realized it didn’t matter — she’s a twin, so she and her sister have the same birthday. “Happy Birthday O’Donnell Twins.”

Her’s another example I heard from Professor Max Goldstein at the Courant Institute almost forty years ago. Max was the director of the computer center at Courant and before coming to NYU had spent many years at Los Alamos.

While at Los Alamos in the 1950’s Max was part of the team that produced a book that contained 100,000 random numbers, back in the days when computers were not widely available and so there was a need for such a list for use by researchers. He helped supervise the typists and clerks as they assembled the document. Los Alamos, then and now, designs nuclear weapons, so the clerks and typists were well aware of the need for scrupulous accuracy in their work.

One day one of the typists came to Max and apologized, saying, “I just mis-entered several of the numbers. How do fix it?”

Max replied, “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” She was astounded that a mistake didn’t matter, though of course in this particular case it really didn’t matter.

It was a random error, in a random list of numbers. Who would know?

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