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Playing The Percentages
by Mad Dog


Bogdanoff won her seat by a margin of 0.1%. While that sounds small, remember that percentages, like presidents, donít always tell the whole story. 
Itís official. Ellyn Bogdanoff won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives by a measly 12 votes. To put that in perspective, itís the same as the number of people who sit on a jury, the number of ways Wonder Bread claims to build strong bodies, and the number of times you have to be told to pick your underwear up off the floor before you actually do it.

   When you look at it that way, 12 can sound like a lot, but donít tell that to Bogdanoffís opponent, especially if you live in his district and didnít go to the polls. Heís probably not in the mood to hear that right now because, as we used to say when we were growing up, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Of course it turns out it can also count in darts, sex, and the Academy Awards if you figure what it can do to box office receipts to be nominated and not win, but I guess we werenít tuned into those things during our formative years, because we thought darts were dangerous, sex meant gender, and we werenít allowed to stay up late enough to watch awards shows. Though we did always wonder who the hell Oscar was.

   Bogdanoff won her seat by a margin of 0.1%. While that sounds small, remember that percentages, like presidents, donít always tell the whole story. Take Starbucks. Go ahead, you can find one on every corner. Well, except in West Virginia. See, they just got their first full-fledged Starbucks coffee shop, meaning residents there will finally discover that, despite what they learned in school and the clothing department of Sears, tall means small, medium is grande, and venti means twenty in Italian but large in Starbucksian, a language as made-up as Klingon but only half as much fun since the people who speak it donít wear funny costumes.


But numbers can also have a positive spin. You could say that West Virginia has seen an infinite percent increase in the number of Starbucks. Pretty impressive when you look at it that way, isnít it? 
   Considering the chain has 7,200 outlets in 30 countries ó 31 if you count West Virginia ó that means the Mountain State has only 0.01% of the Starbucks. If this were an election, West Virginia would definitely lose. On the plus side, it means the state can change the motto on their license plates to: ďWest Virginia. Fewer Starbucks than front teeth.Ē But numbers can also have a positive spin. You could say that West Virginia has seen an infinite percent increase in the number of Starbucks. Pretty impressive when you look at it that way, isnít it? Heck, itís just about enough to make you think the state really is almost heaven. Assuming, of course, that you donít need a grande soy milk decaf caramel frappuccino in heaven.

   Small numbers donít have a lock on perceptional problems. Large numbers can also be deceiving. Recently, Michael Shafner, a graduate student at Michigan State University (motto: ďNo, theyíre the Other Michigan CollegeĒ), looked at his computer and discovered that it had found a prime number. And he didnít even realize heíd lost one. Actually, it was part of a project called the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, in which his computer, along with thousands of others, ran a program in the background which searched for new prime numbers. Prime numbers, for those of you who tuned out your math teacher because you figured youíd never need it in life but now realize that it means you have to read this extra sentence in order to have any clue what Iím talking about, is a number that is divisible only by one and itself. A Mersenne prime is irrelevant to this discussion, which is a nice way of saying Iíve read the definition an exponential number of times and still have no idea what theyíre talking about. Exponential means I definitely have no clue what Iím talking about. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph.


The prime number he found is 2 million digits larger than the previous record holder. Thatís even longer than the number of digits you dial when using your calling card, though not by much.
   The new prime number Shafnerís computer uncovered has 6,320,430 digits and would need about 1,500 pages to print out, which of course would serve no useful purpose other than to get him laid, though you have to wonder who would want to go to bed with someone who fell for a line like, ďHey baby, want to see my huge prime number?Ē The prime number he found is 2 million digits larger than the previous record holder. Thatís even longer than the number of digits you dial when using your calling card, though not by much. While the 2 million more digits sounds like a lot, itís actually only a 46% increase. This proves that, contrary to what you keep telling yourself, size does in fact matter, though numbers in percentages may be larger than they appear.

   Another example of deceptive numbers involves dominoes. Not the pizza place that delivers in 30 minutes or less except when they can convince you your clock is wrong, or the Van Morrison song which classic rock stations play in between Moondance and, well, Moondance. No, these are the little black tiles with white dots which you played with as a child, never figuring out what could possibly be fun about them. Not long ago, a 24-year-old woman in Singapore, knowing what was fun about them, set up and knocked over 303,621 dominoes, breaking the previous record by 22,040. While that sounds like a lot, itís actually only 8% more than the old record holder. Sure using them added 42 hours to her set-up time, but obviously she has nothing better to do and needs a hobby. Okay, she has a hobby. What she really needs is a life.

   Keep all this in mind the next time someone bandies around some numbers, particularly percentages. Ask them to elaborate, elucidate, and most of all, tell you what the hell bandying is supposed to mean. And remember, numbers donít lie, people throwing numbers around do.

©2004 Mad Dog Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
These columns appear in better newspapers across the country. A low percentage of them, but don't let that fool you.

 

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