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Principle of Some Astonishment: Remind you of any Wikipedia articles?
We reproduce this month an essay begun in early 2017 by EEng, and brought to perfection with the help of his glittering salon of loyal talk page stalkers. Enjoy.


Principle of Some Astonishment

Can we get you on Mastermind, Sybil? "Next contestant, Sybil Fawlty from Torquay; specialist subject: the bleedin' obvious! " Basil Fawlty
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

— Strunk, The Elements of Style (1918)

In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give your style.

Sydney Smith

Most first drafts can be cut by 50% without losing any information ... Look for clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away ... Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn't be there.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.

— Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars (tr. Lewis Galantière)

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Sometimes editors clutter their prose with pedestrian details that the reader likely already knows or would naturally assume. Rather than informing readers, this wastes their time and saps their attention. The following are examples of articles belaboring the routine and obvious, at times painfully:


You mean the game pieces can be stored for later use? I'm astonished!
In the article Pick-up sticks:
Each piece in the game also has a point value, with more challenging pieces being worth more. At the end of play, points are tallied up and the pieces can be thrown again or stored in a container for another use.
Comment: Of course the points are tallied up at the end of play. Of course we can either play again or put the game away "in a container". (If the rules said to ignore the score sheet at the end, then called for players to burn the game pieces or use them to commit ritual suicide, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)


In the article Notre-Dame de Paris fire
Some lead joints in stained glass windows melted in the heat of the fire.
Comment: DUH.


In the lead of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft:
Once inside, the pair revealed their true intentions, tied up the guards, and spent over an hour stealing art from the museum's collection, which they loaded into their vehicle.
Comment: The guards probably sensed their visitors' "true intentions" around the time they got tied up, and our readers will make the same inference vicariously. Furthermore, in this modern age most readers will envision art thieves as having a vehicle at the ready. (Had they absconded via public transport, or summoned an Uber, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)


In the article San Francisco Zoo tiger attacks:
They created a distraction which caused the tiger to turn towards the officers, who shot and killed it. After the shooting, officials removed Tatiana's head, paws, tail and gastric contents for examination.
Comment: Removing the tiger's head before shooting it, assuming you could somehow manage that, would no doubt have rendered the shooting superfluous.


In the article US Airways Flight 1549:
The weather recorded at 2:51 p.m. was 10 miles visibility with broken clouds at 3,700 feet, wind 8 knots from 290°, temperature -6° C.
Comment: Of course it was recorded, otherwise how would we know it?
Sullenberger asked if they could attempt an emergency landing in New Jersey, mentioning Teterboro Airport ... air traffic controllers quickly contacted Teterboro and gained permission for a landing on Runway 1.
Comment: The word quickly is superfluous, because our readers' innate cunning will inform them that controllers generally act with dispatch in such situations. (Had they instead been lackadaisical, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)
However, Sullenberger told controllers that "We can't do it," and "We're gonna be in the Hudson," signaling his intention to bring the plane down on the Hudson River because he was too low to glide to any airport.
Comment: The part from "signalling his intention ..." on is probably unnecessary, because our readers aren't mentally defective. They will conclude without being told that when Sullenberger said "We can't do it ... We're gonna be in the Hudson", he's hinting that (a) he's going to land on the Hudson and (b) he's taking this unconventional step because more orthodox landing sites are out of reach. (Had he instead done it because he wanted a bath, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)
Immediately after the A320 had been ditched, Sullenberger opened the cockpit door and gave the "evacuate" order.
Comment: The immediately bit seems unnecessary. (Had the captain made a cup of tea before ordering "Evacuate!", THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)
The first fire chief on scene transmitted a "10-60" to confirm a major emergency.
Comment: If the fire chief, seeing people crowded onto the wings of a sinking airliner, had radioed, "False alarm – no big deal", THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.


In the article University of Texas Tower Shooting:
He then drove to a hardware store, where he purchased a Universal M1 carbine, two additional ammunition magazines and eight boxes of ammunition, telling the cashier he planned to hunt wild hogs. At a gun shop he purchased four further carbine magazines, six additional boxes of ammunition, and a can of gun cleaning solvent. He then drove to Sears, where he purchased a Sears Model 60 12 gauge semi-automatic shotgun before returning home with his purchases.
Comment: If he'd bought all that stuff and then left it at the store, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.


In the article Charles Whitman:
Whitman was reportedly the youngest person in the world ever to become an Eagle Scout at that time.
Comment: Are people becoming Eagle Scouts elsewhere than "in the world"? Perhaps on Mars?


In the article Club of Rome:
The Club of Rome raised considerable public attention with its report Limits to Growth, which has sold 30 million copies in more than 30 translations, making it the best-selling environmental book in world history.
Comment: I think you see where I'm going with this.


In some proposed text for the article Apollo 11:
On July 23, the last night before splashdown on Earth, the three astronauts made a television broadcast
Comment: Ditto.


In the article Saving Private Ryan:
In Washington, D.C, General George Marshall is informed that three of the four Ryan brothers have been killed within the last week, and that their mother is about to be notified of their deaths.
Comment: Lest readers imagine they were notifying her that she'd won the Pillsbury Bake-Off.


Caution: May contain babies.
Caution: May contain oranges.
In the article Citrus juice:
The most commonly consumed type of citrus juice is orange juice, which as the name implies, is extracted from oranges.
Comment: But then baby powder isn't extracted from babies, I suppose.


In the article Stone's representation theorem for Boolean algebras:
The theorem was first proved by Marshall H. Stone (1936), and thus named in his honor.
Comment: And here I thought it was proved by Marshall H. Stone but named for some other Stone.


In the article Murder of Jo Cox:
Murder of Jo Cox
LocationMarket Street, Birstall, West Yorkshire, England
Date16 June 2016
Attack type
Shooting, stabbing
WeaponsFirearm, knife
Deaths1
PerpetratorThomas Mair
He witnessed the assailant stab Cox, who fell to the ground, before shooting her and stabbing her again shoot her, then stab her again. The attacker left the scene, but was pursued by an eyewitness who followed him and telephoned police to describe his location identified him to police. Armed police officers attended the incident, and arrested a suspect.
Comment: There's a lot to say about this one.
  • who fell to the ground: Persons stabbed and shot, then stabbed again, usually go down. (Extra points for the ambiguous suggestion that the witness shot and stabbed the victim.)
  • left the scene: If the shooter/stabber had stuck around, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
  • was pursued by an eyewitness who followed him: That's what pursuers do.
  • telephoned police to describe his location: Usually people calling for help give the location.
  • Armed police officers attended the incident: Even in law-abiding, Queensberry-Rules, you-got-me-copper-fair-and-square England, readers will imagine that amongst officers dispatched to the shooting/stabbing of a Member of Parliament, at least some will be armed with more than their charming accents and unfailing courtesy.
  • and arrested a suspect: That's what happens when an eyewitness points out the gunman. Had police let him off with just a stern talking-to, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.
As for the infobox, unless told otherwise readers will assume that a shooting/stabbing will have involved a gun and a knife.


In the article Death of Elisa Lam:
On the morning of February 19, an employee went to the roof, where four 1,000-gallon water tanks provided water pumped from the city's supply, to the guest rooms, a kitchen, and a coffee shop downstairs. In one of them, he found Lam's body, floating face up a foot below the water surface. Police responded.
Comment: [Left as an exercise for the reader]


New York City
City of New York
Clockwise, from top: Midtown Manhattan, Times Square, the Unisphere, the Brooklyn Bridge, Lower Manhattan with One World Trade Center, Central Park, the headquarters of the United Nations, and the Statue of Liberty
Multiple choice: In what article does the infobox at right appear?
(A) New York State
(B) New York County
(C) New York CITY <== hint
(D) New York University


In the article Rodney Alcala
Her murder would remain unsolved until it was connected to Alcala in 2011.
Comment: Murders usually remain unsolved until they're solved.


In the article Glenn Miller:
On December 15, 1944, Miller was to fly from the United Kingdom to Paris, France, to make arrangements to move his band there.
Comment: Oh, THAT Paris!


In the article Ted Bundy:
He broke through the ceiling into the apartment of the chief jailer—who was out for the evening with his wife—changed into street clothes from the jailer's closet, and walked out the front door to freedom.
Comment: While it's nice to know a busy chief jailer still has time for his spouse, absent mention of a confrontation the reader's common sense will tell him that no one was home. (Had Mrs. Turnkey helped Bundy pick out a tie, or had Bundy walked out the door then gone around the corner to turn himself in, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.)


In the article Seth Black (serial killer):
At the request of Scottish detectives, the Metropolitan Police conducted a search of searched Black's Stamford Hill lodgings to determine whether any incriminating evidence existed at Black's address.
Comment: Yes, well, that's usually what they're trying to determine. (And click the link for a surprise.)


In the article Eric Muenter:
Morgan lunged at his attacker and tackled Muenter to the ground as he fired two rounds into Morgan's groin and thigh. Morgan's butler finished subduing Muenter, beating him senseless with a lump of coal. Morgan quickly summoned a doctor and recovered, returning to work on August 14.
Comment: If financier J.P. Morgan got shot in the groin and didn't summon a doctor, or summoned him other than "quickly", THAT would be worth mentioning in the article. (Kudos to the butler for his skill with the coal.)


In the article Irish Boundary Commission:
The Irish Boundary Commission was a commission which met in 1924–25 to decide on the precise delineation of the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.
Comment: So ... the commission was a commission?


In the article Donald Trump:
He signed tax cut legislation which cut tax rates for individuals and businesses.
Comment: A sax player who plays saxes, a fax machine that sends faxes, a tax cut that cuts taxes. (Just whose taxes is another question.)


In the article Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry:
The Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry is a society devoted to the history of alchemy and chemistry. The Society was founded as the Society for the Study of Alchemy and Early Chemistry in 1935.
Comment: Surprise!


In the article Hardcore Henry:
After she replaces a missing arm and leg with hi-tech cybernetic prostheses, mercenaries led by the psychokinetic Akan raid the ship.
Comment: Are there low-tech cybernetic prostheses?


In the article Bunk bed:
The bunk or bunks above the lowest one may have rails to keep the user from rolling out and falling to the floor while sleeping.
Comment: For those innocent of the workings of gravity.


In the article 1257 Samalas eruption
Very large volcanic eruptions can cause destruction close to the volcano ...
Comment: For those innocent of the workings of volcanoes. (This is the least of what's wrong with this passage. Follow the link – if you dare!)


In the article Truth or Consequences, New Mexico:
Hot Springs officially changed its name on March 31, 1950, and the program was broadcast from there the following evening, April 1
Comment: For those innocent of the workings of the calendar.


In the article Battle of Tali-Ihantala:
On June 28, air activity was high on both sides as Finnish bombers and German Stukas pounded the Soviet formations. The Soviet Air Force also attacked from the air and hit the staff of the Finnish Armored Division hard with bombers from the Soviet 276th Bomber Division. and the Soviet 276th Bomber Division hit the Finnish troops hard.
Comment: Soviet Air Force Soviet 276th Bomber Division bombers attacked from the air, you say?


On the dabpage Horváth

The surname "Horvat", without the "h" still exists and is the most common surname in Croatia or the Croatian diaspora.

Comment: No comment.


In the article Chloe:
Chloe (also Chloë, Chloé) is a feminine name for girls.
Comment: There really should be more feminine names for boys and masculine names for girls.


In the article Henry Riggs Rathbone:
Rathbone successfully graduated from Phillips Academy in 1888, from Yale University in 1892, and from the Law Department at the University of Wisconsin in 1894.
Comment: Graduations are usually successful (except of course a graduation from Yale, which by definition is the first in a lifelong string of degradations).


In the article Stokes Croft:
Stokes Croft is the name of a road in Bristol, England.
Comment: An earlier version read Stokes Croft is what the name of a road in Bristol, England is called.


In the article Distomo
The aluminum producing company Aluminium of Greece has its production facilities in the coastal village Agios Nikolaos.
Comment: Ha! Obviously these people don't know the difference between aluminum and aluminium.


In the article Caribou, Maine
The Caribou Public Library is a Carnegie library. Designed in the Romanesque Revival style by local architect Schuyler C. Page, it was built in 1911-1912 with a $10,000 grant from industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
Comment: Is there a Carnegie library that Andrew Carnegie did not finance? Or was there some other heretofore unknown Carnegie financing American libraries with whom he might be confused?


In the article Alice Herz-Sommer
She lived for 40 years in Israel, before migrating to London in 1986, where she resided until her death, and at the age of 110 was the world's oldest known Holocaust survivor until Yisrael Kristal was recognized as such. Kristal was also a Holocaust survivor, and was born two months before Herz-Sommer.
Comment: For readers with short-term memory deficits.


In the article Soyuz-FG
... resulted in the destruction of the rocket. The crew, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin, escaped safely and successfully.
Comment: Whatever that means.


In the article Trinity Cathedral, Saint Petersburg
About four hours after the blaze broke out, one of the three remaining cupolas had been damaged but the fire was contained. A department spokesman later confirmed that the fire had been extinguished.
Comment: Lest the reader imagine it burns to this day.
In the article M25 motorway
By 1993 the motorway, which was designed for a maximum of 88,000 vehicles per day, was carrying 200,000 vehicles per day.
Comment: Now if they'd put the Tour de France on the M25 and you could see 200,000 bicycles, that would be worth watching.


Capacious captions for unerring identification

In the article
Assassination of Abraham Lincoln:
In the article
Horst Wessel:
In the article
The Wizard of Oz (1939 film):
From left to right: assassin John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, Clara Harris, and Henry Rathbone
Wessel as an infant with his mother and father, 1907
The film's main characters (left to right): the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy, Scarecrow, and the Tin Man
Bert Lahr, in costume as The Cowardly Lion
It's a common misconception that the
man with the gun is Mrs. Lincoln.
You don't say!
The word "unnecessary"
hardly does justice.
Not a bad case
of hirsutism?



Various views from Donald Trump: In the article The Pentagon:
A view of the Turnberry Hotel, in Ayrshire, Scotland
View of the crowd attending a Trump rally in the U.S. Bank Arena, Cincinnati, Ohio on October 13, 2016
Southwesterly view of the Pentagon in 1998, with the Potomac River and Washington Monument in background
The reader will know without being told that
this is a "view".
We're safe in assuming that the reader
will intuit that this "view" shows a "crowd".
Thus not some other five-sided
megastructure for some reason being
shown us in the article
The Pentagon.



Honoring James Agee: In the article Theta waves: Meanwhile, back in Cambridge:
James Agee Park in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee is named after the author.
Example of an EEG theta wave
Woodcut representing a view of Gore Hall at Harvard University
Who would have guessed? Could have been worse – it could have said
"Picture representing an example of an EEG
theta wave"?
Bingo!



The lead (and only) image in Twist tie: The lead image for Icebox: In the article The Desire of Ages:
Twist ties of different colors.
Labeled black-and-white image of an icebox
A picture of the book
Great example of an image
that doesn't need a caption.
We can see it's labeled, we can see it's black-
and-white, we can see it's an image, and the
discerning reader will realize, given that this is
the article
Icebox, that it's an icebox.
Recently inducted into the Principle
of Some Astonishment Hall of Fame –
caption and image both.



In the article
Boston Consolidated TRACON
(whatever that is):
The lead image for
CNN International:
The lead image for Earth:
The Boston Consolidated TRACON from the outside
CNN International
Cnn logo red background.png
CNN International logo
LaunchedSeptember 1, 1985 (1985-09-01)
Owned byTurner Broadcasting System country = United States
Earth
The Earth seen from Apollo 17.jpg
The Blue Marble photograph of Earth, taken during the Apollo 17 lunar mission in 1972
No shit, Sherlock. (Turns out this is the logo
for
all CNN brands, not just CNN International –
an example of the impulse to add the obvious
leading, instead, to addition of the inaccurate.)
And here I thought they had a giant indoor
lawn, miniature building-within-a-building,
and artificial sky
.
Earth. Yes, Earth. Planet Earth.
The lead image in the article Earth.



In the article
Elizabeth II:
In the article
Senghenydd colliery disaster:
In the article
Harry Elkins Widener:
The Queen with Edward Heath (left) and First Lady Pat Nixon, 1970
Because we weren't sure which one is
Edward Heath. (Apparently you're on
your own for Pat Nixon vs. the Queen.)
The funeral of one of the dead miners, miner E Gilbert, a colour sergeant in The Salvation Army
Funerals are for dead people.
Harry Elkins Widener
Harry E. Widener.jpg
Harry Elkins Widener
Born(1885-01-03)January 3, 1885
DiedApril 15, 1912(1912-04-15) (aged 27)
Known forNamesake of Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library
Signature
Harry E. Widener signature.png
Did we mention that it's Harry Elkins Widener?
Crowds wait for news at the Universal Colliery after the disaster
Yes, since they're not clairvoyant.


From the article Scottish National Antarctic Expedition:
Man on right in Scots highland costume, playing bagpipes, while on the left a lone penguin stands. The ground is covered in ice, with a high ice ridge in the background.
Expedition member Gilbert Kerr (left) playing the bagpipes beside a penguin, March 1904



Comment: Bearing in mind that left and right are reversed south of the equator.

Special section on modes of exit and ancillary details of death

In the article Murder of Deborah Linsley;
She sustained eleven stab wounds to the face, neck and abdomen, of which at least five were to the area around the heart ... The coroner highlighted that, although passengers reported hearing "a commotion", nobody investigated. A verdict of unlawful killing was returned.
Comment: If the verdict had been suicide, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.


In the article Lyndon B. Johnson;
At approximately 3:39 p.m. Central Time on January 22, 1973, Johnson suffered a massive heart attack in his bedroom. He managed to telephone the Secret Service agents on the ranch, who found him still holding the telephone receiver in his hand.
Comment: I'm trying to imagine the alternatives.


In the article Grace Kelly:
Rainier, who did not remarry, was buried alongside her following his death in 2005.
Comment: Had Prince Rainier of Monaco been buried alive, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.


In the article Simon Meyer Kuper:
On the evening of 8 March 1963, Kuper, who was at home with his wife and daughter, was shot through a window by an unknown assailant. He died of his injuries twelve days later.
Comment: If he was shot by an unknown assailant but died twelve days later on being surprised by a train, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.


In the article James Sisnett:
Sisnett died in his sleep of natural causes on 23 May 2013, at the age of 113 years, 90 days.
Comment: If the 113-year-old man died in his sleep not of natural causes, THAT would be worth mentioning in the article.


In the article Murder of Kristine Fitzhugh:
Music teacher Kristine Fitzhugh (born 1947–2000) was murdered on May 5, 2000 in her home in Palo Alto, California.
Comment: Obviously.


In the article Karen Carpenter:
Paramedics found her heart beating once every 10 seconds. She was taken to nearby Downey Community Hospital for treatment.
Comment: Thanks for clarifying.


In the article Gary M. Heidnik:
Heidnik was executed by lethal injection on July 6, 1999, at State Correctional Institution – Rockview in Centre County, Pennsylvania. His body was later cremated.
Comment: Let us hope so.


In the article Roy L. Dennis:
His body was donated to UCLA Medical Center after he died.
Comment: Ditto.


In the article Miguel Serrano
He remained in contact with neo-Nazis elsewhere in the world and gave interviews to various foreign far-right publications prior to his death.
Comment: Ditto.


In the article Wiley Post
Post with Will Rogers before their deaths, August 1935



Comment: Ditto. Or maybe they'd already died and Dr. Frankenstein reanimated them.

Principle of Complete Puzzlement

The opposite of the Principle of Some Astonishment is the Principle of Complete Puzzlement: some details don't belong because, though neither obvious nor even predictable, they're completely irrelevant and will puzzle the reader as to the reason for their inclusion.


In the article Chuck Schumer:
In March 2009, Schumer announced his support for same-sex marriage, noting that it "was time". Schumer previously supported civil unions. At a private risotto dinner with gay leaders ...
Comment: Evidently we're to conclude that the gay risotto loosened him up.


In the article Trayvon Martin:
On the evening of February 26, Martin was walking back alone to the fiancée's house after purchasing a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea at from a nearby convenience store.
Comment: Somewhat awkward product placement. As The Washington Post put it, "Skittles can't seem to escape political controversies."[1]


In the article 2015 Thalys train attack:
The remaining passengers were taken to a gym in Arras, where they were searched and identified before being allowed to proceed to Paris.
Comment: Good to know they could get in some cardio while waiting.


In the article on courageous flight attendant Barbara Jane Harrison:
On the day of the accident, as was often her practice when on duty, Harrison was wearing a black wig.
Comment: Even in death a girl should always look her best, I guess. (Personal note: give the article a read; she was truly a hero.)


In the article Lightning strike:
Sixty-eight dairy cows, all full of milk, died on a farm at Fernbrook on the Waterfall Way near Dorrigo, New South Wales, after being involved in a lightning incident.
Comment: Perhaps they used all that boiled milk to make cocoa.


Michael Kinsley's "Department of Amplification: William Shawn and the temple of facts" (The New Republic, 1984 – and well worth a read in full) is a pitch-perfect sendup of The New Yorker as "a weekly monument to the proposition that journalism consists of the endless accretion of tiny details":

The June 18 New Yorker has an article about corn. It's the first in what appears to be a series, no less, discussing the major grains. What about corn? Who knows? Only The New Yorker would have the lofty disdain for its readers to expect them to plow through 22,000 words about corn (warning: only an estimate; the TNR fact checkers are still counting) without giving them the slightest hint why. Here is how it starts (after a short introductory poem):

When the New England farmer and botanist Edward Sturtevant retired, in 1887, as head of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, in Geneva, he left behind a bulky manuscript that was published in 1919, twenty-one years after his death, as "Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants." Dr. Sturtevant, who was also a graduate of the Harvard Medical School, but never practiced medicine, had scoured the world’s botanical literature for mentions of all the plants that human beings were known to have eaten (he did not count tree bark, which in times of famine was often one of them), and had come up with among more than three hundred thousand known plant species, two thousand eight hundred and ninety-seven edibles. (Latter-day scientists believe he may have missed as many more.) But, of all these, only a hundred and fifty or so have ever been widely enough consumed to figure in commerce, and of those a mere handful have been of any real consequence.

Now, there are some facts for you. No doubt every single one of them has been checked. You stand in awe as they tumble toward you, magnificently irrelevant, surrounded by mighty commas, mere numbers swollen into giant phrases ("two thousand eight hundred and ninety-seven"), all finally crashing over you with the bravura announcement that nothing you have just read is "of any real consequence." How true this is! From the end of the paragraph, you gaze back on the receding vistas of inconsequence, as far as the eye can see. Even supposing we would like a bit more information about corn, and even supposing we might be relieved to know how many other plants, edible and otherwise, are not going to be discussed in this article, why are we being told about a man whose count apparently was off by half? Even supposing we need to know about Dr. Sturtevant’s book, when it was published, and when the good doctor died, why do we need to know when he retired? Even—stretching it—supposing that we need to know that this gentleman "was also a graduate of the Harvard Medical School," why, oh why, do we have to learn that he "never practiced medicine"? As for the business about tree bark, that has just got to be conscious self-parody.

Remind you of any Wikipedia articles?


  1. ^ McGregor, Jena (September 22, 2016). "Skittles can't seem to escape political controversies". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 22, 2016.