"Quest For a Number"

Wayne Baggett - March 22, 1996

    I spent much of today searching for a number. Numbers are very important to the HST, partly because almost everything is done with computers, and computers love numbers! I am working on one of the new instruments which hopefully will be placed aboard HST next year, and I needed to know the value of a specific piece of information so that I can use it in the computer programs for which I'm responsible. Unfortunately, the only people who know what the number was are 2000 miles away , so I had to contact them in order to get it.

You see, I work in Baltimore, Maryland (try to find it on a map), but the instrument is being built in Boulder, Colorado (try to find Boulder, too), so getting the information I needed is not quite as simple as walking down the hallway to someone's office. Also, since the instrument is still being built, the number wasn't available in any books or papers that I can access. I basically had two options: use the telephone, or send electronic mail. Because the person I needed to "talk" to (let's call him Joe) is very busy himself, I decided to use email so that he could decide when to answer my question.

So, I sent Joe the question "What is the value of Read Delay?" ('Read Delay' is an important quantity for a certain use of this new instrument.) The time was 11:00 in the morning in Baltimore, but it's only 9:00 in the morning in Boulder (think about why this is so), so I figured I might have to wait a while for the answer and continued working on other things while I waited.

I checked my mailbox just after lunch, and I found a message from Joe: "It is 570 (175 for the readout & 395 for the delay)." Well, it was good for him to get back to me so quickly, but what he described wasn't what I thought I was asking about -- we had a problem with our definition of what 'Read Delay' meant! I had to ask him to clarify his answer, so I sent him another email (this is now the third email message to be sent across the Internet for this question!) telling him what I thought 'Read Delay' meant and asked him to clarify the definition for me. The time was now 1:20 in the afternoon, Baltimore time, and nearing lunchtime in Colorado.

While I waited for Joe's response, I worked on some other stuff I needed to finish: I reviewed a manual for the new instrument to make sure that it was written correctly, I answered some questions for another person here in Baltimore, and other such mundane things -- nothing as exciting as finding out just what that number was!

At about 2:15 I checked my mailbox again, and Joe had replied! Finally, I would learn just what value and meaning 'Read Delay' had. He told me that his description was correct, and that the source of my information for the definition of 'Read Delay' was wrong. In fact, 'Read Delay' does indeed have a value of 570, but I was only interested in the part that was 395! We were both right! Finally, I sent him a response to thank him for the information and to restate the value just to be sure that I had everything right. An hour later, at about 3:20pm Baltimore time, Joe sent the sixth email to confirm my newly-learned definition and the value of 'Read Delay'. Thus, the HST project has taken another tiny step toward the future.

Unfortunately, the number will probably change next week.

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