Relative risk


At the Grocery Boy, Jr. near my house (the one with the premium ice that will be less than $1.00 until sometime in 2114), there’s a sign behind the counter advertising cigarette prices. At the top of the sign, there is a statement:

Dare to Compare!

Now, I’m the cautious type. I wear my seat belt. I’ve almost completed my 53rd consecutive year of not skydiving.  Never once have I tugged on Superman’s cape, spit into the wind, pulled the mask* off Clayton Moore (that old Lone Ranger guy), and I wouldn’t think of messing around with Jim. (Disclaimer: I only know one Jim, and he’s far, far away.)

But I do compare things. Truth be told, I’m something of an elitist. Not that I think I’m better than other people in general (I have ample evidence to the contrary). But I believe strongly that people and products can be better than other people and products in individual categories of human endeavor.

However, apparently this behavior carries some sort of unstated danger, particularly when it comes to prices. It’s a subtle risk, though. I have only recently been able to discern exactly what sort of danger I place myself in when I contrast the relative cost of two things. To wit:

  • If the prices here are lower than elsewhere, my lack of thrift exposes me to general public ridicule if I leave without making a purchase, possibly impairing my sense of self-esteem. (Disclaimer: No, it doesn’t. If your sense of self-esteem is ever impacted by the opinions of others, please consult your dictionary for the new and improved definition of “self”.)
  • If the prices here are higher than elsewhere, I face the fiscal imperative to shop elsewhere, which exposes me to hazards such as the apparently drunk texter I passed on the road last night while enroute to elsewhere.
  • If the prices here are the same as elsewhere, I am inevitably forced to confront the possibility of price collusion by certain elements of Big Convenience Store, and its deleterious effects on our capitalist economy.

These are real risks, with potentially devastating consequences.  (If you don’t think so, consider the terrifying double-dog dare.)  And yet, except at public schools, we are willing to expose our children to comparison and competition on a daily basis, in some cases (see video) actively encouraging children to evaluate their relative cuteness, often to the detriment of their understanding of the temporal relationship between raisins and grapes.  I weep for future generations.  (Disclaimer: No, I don’t.)

As I was leaving, I noticed a sign in front of the store:

Your search for the
FRIENDLIEST store on Earth
ends here

I get it now. I can’t afford to compare the friendliness of stores. I wouldn’t dare.

* I also would not pull off the dark sunglasses he wore after Big Lone Ranger sued to make him stop wearing the mask at supermarket openings.

(Disclaimer: I have been looking for a reason to post this AT&T commercial, which I consider to be the greatest commercial of all time. Or would if I wasn’t scared to rank the greatness of commercials.)

I don’t remember the point of this

From time to time, someone will characterize their superior knowledge of a given subject by saying to an opponent, “I’ve forgotten more about that than you’ll ever know.”

Pretty scathing indictment, wouldn’t you say?  I would have, until I thought about it driving home this morning.  While it is supposed to mean “I’m smarter than you!”, it really just conveys the idea, “I’m experiencing noticeable memory loss in this area!”  And the greater your knowledge, the more severe my amnesia is.

Not only that, if I started out knowing everything about a subject, and you only knew 50% of the subject, my having forgotten more than you know (say, 51%) means that I now know only 49% of the subject, and therefore your mastery of the data currently exceeds mine.

Don’t you just hate it when a perfectly good insult is ruined by math?  I might, but I’m just not sure any more…

Using the tools at hand

People in olden times (yore) were weird.

I don’t mean the goofy costumes.  People today wear goofy clothes.  There are people in Anaheim and Orlando who are actually paid to wear Goofy costumes.

No, I’m talking (of course) about their system of weights and measures.

Take for example, the observation, “You can’t swing a cat without hitting X.”  This statement is meant to convey a sense of ubiquity.  Obviously, X is so common, or so close, that any feline-wielding fool could find one.  But why on Earth would the standard be one outstretched cat-length?  Not only does swinging a cat seem cruel to the cat, it’s likely to result in a fair amount of damage to the swinger.  And it’s an awful lot of effort to determine that something is within 5 feet of you (assuming a 36″ sleeve length and a 24″ long cat being held by the tail).

Moreover, how does something like this get started?  What was that first conversation like? Continue reading

How do I trust thee? Let me get a ruler…

Today, I accidentally contemplated the concept of trust.

It started off so innocently.  I was talking with one of my coworkers about a third coworker, and my friend joked, “I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.”  It’s one of those sayings I’ve heard all my life, and never really given it a second thought.

Until today.

When did trust start being measured in terms of distance?  It seems rather capricious to associate trust with how far you can throw someone.  “How much can we trust Bob on this?”  “Oh, about 2 feet 8 inches, I would guess.”  The implications are troubling:

  • Does this mean I can trust my friend’s 5-year old son Christopher more than his mother?
  • Am I automatically less trustworthy than I was in second grade?
  • Are karate black belts and Olympic shot putters especially gullible compared to the general public?  And did they just become more trusting over time?  (Disclaimer: Do not take advantage of karate black belts.  You’ll be sorry.)
  • If we’re watching the game, and I go into the kitchen to get some pretzels, do I become less trustworthy?  Do you?  Is trust relativistic like time, where it depends on whose frame of reference is moving?  And what if I come back without pretzels?  Should you trust me more because I’m within your throwing range, even if I lied about getting snacks?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I don’t like the way that guy’s looking at me.  I’m going to go lift weights until I can trust him.