Get the Name of the Bit

I've written before about the concept of "get the name of the dog" in reporting. This is an oft-repeated maxim of Roy Peter Clark (who got it from the St. Petersburg Times). When you're reporting first-hand, details matter, and readers demand them. If you tell a story involving a dog and omit his or her name, they notice, and the story's incomplete.

I had a "name of the dog" moment while reporting on the Voyager missions recently for The Economist. I've got a piece going up online soon at the Babbage blog based in part on an interview with the mission's chief, Edward Stone, who has run the project since its inception in 1972. He mentioned that the most recent true glitch was a "flipped bit" in the memory of Voyager 2. They dumped the core, downloaded it (a neat trick at 160bps and 18 billion kilometers), figured out the problem, and reloaded the software. This happens even on earth due to cosmic rays, silicon expansion, and other random facts. It's remarkable the Voyagers haven't had more of these. But I realized when I got back to Seattle from Pasadena, I didn't know what state the bit had flipped between.

Get the name of the dog. I found NASA's log on the matter, and, sure enough, they report that the bit flipped from 0 to 1. It's in the story. Now, the state of a bit and the name of the dog aren't the same thing. But reading that a bit flipped from 0 to 1 is more specific and more concrete than reading that a bit "flipped." It also explains what happened to less technical readers: a value changed and they know what values were involved. No, I didn't get the memory location. This isn't a 1980s BYTE magazine article.