Wednesday, April 30, 2008

4-30-08: What are the Odds?

I listen to the Tony Kornheiser Show daily via podcast, and there's a running joke he does that I find hilarious. A few weeks back, some kid tried to outshine NASA and said they had mis-calculated the odds of some asteroid hitting the Earth. The kid, I think middle-school age, put the odds at something like 1 in 450. That's a lot worse than the 1 in 45,000 that NASA engineers had predicted. It turns out the kid, who is smart despite what people may think, was still not right, and was corrected by NASA. Kornheiser brought up the story on his show, and said: "It seems pretty simple to me of what the odds of this thing hittin' us would be. It has to be 50/50: either it hits us or it doesn't!"

Then I thought of all the goofy events people put odds on. It's pretty amazing. I've seen people put odds on a quarter falling off a sleeping, intoxicated, fellow's head. The prize was the quarter. I do not know how that worked, since it of course fell off. Alcohol was involved on both ends.

I just finished The World is Flat on a plane ride from Tampa on Sunday, and started a book called The Numbers Game: by Alan Schwarz. It's an interesting book about how fans of baseball have fallen so deeply in love with the numbers behind the game itself. Schwarz does a great job at explaining the personalities behind the craze, and I think the subject goes well beyond baseball. I think it's human nature.

People have always tried to put their lives in order through numbers, some more than others. Sure, not every one is like Will Ferrell's character in Stranger than Fiction, who was an IRS agent who counted the number of times he brushed his teeth in the morning, but we all put numbers to something. Even if it's  the odds of a disaster happening, or how often you shave on a sunny day (always a good idea; keeps a good tan line), numbers always come into play.

But why is this? Why do numbers factor so easily into our lives. I think it's pretty simple: we are naturally attracted to simple mathematics and order. It's difficult to organize your life using colors or shapes, so why not numbers? It seems pretty simple to me, and it's great food for thought. As far as if I'll use numbers to organize some part of my life today, I'd put the odds at 50/50.

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