Friday, September 20, 2013

Being Innumerate is not an Accident

There have been two incidents with an effect on Canadians this week in which corporations, one very large one perhaps smaller; but both with the resources to understand technology. Instead demonstrated that they have no grasp at all of what random means.

The first one is an incident where a recently deceased young woman had her photograph stolen by a dating site and used in targeted advertisements on Facebook. The owner of the company that perpetrated this apologized by calling it an accident. Which is ridiculous. What they did they did on purpose, using random images in ads. If one could recover all those adds, and track down the young women who's images were misused you would probably find the majority of them would not be happy. You would also likely find that a larger number than you expect would have as good a reason for outrage as the family of Rehtaeh Parsons. You might expect that the odds of someone seeing a person they know in one of these adds is small, as Ahn Dung was counting on, but that expectation neglects the fact than people join Facebook in cultural groups. It was going to happen to someone, Ahn Dung got caught this time. If you don't believe me, do the math. If you don't know enough math, ask Randall Munroe.

The odds of winning the grand prise in Lotto 649 are 1 in 13,983,816. That doesn't stop someone from winning every few weeks. Ahn Dung was betting he would not "win the lottery". Coke was also apparently counting on not winning the lottery. Let's combine a random English word with a random French word and print them under bottle caps. What could possibly go wrong?

The basic English vocabulary is 850 words. To make the arithmetic easy lets round that up to 1000 and assume the same of French. So such a campaign would generate 1000 × 1000 = 1,000,000 combinations. How many bottles of vitamin water does Coke produce in Canada? According to Coke they produce 1,700,000,000 servings of Coke per day world wide. So that is one serving of Coke for every 4.2 people on earth per day. Including the people in areas where enjoying an ice cold Coke is not on their daily to-do list. Vitamin water probably doesn't sell as well. Maybe 1 in 42 or 1 in 420 would be a good estimate? The population of Canada is near enough 35,000,000. Even at 1 in 4,200 per day, that would be 8,333 two word combinations per day. After 120 days you could expect one of every combination to be floating around. But I don't think Coke would be selling anything that had that poor a market so one might count on "you retard" being printed once every 12 days. Retard is not in the 850 word basic English vocabulary, so their word lists are larger than that. But even 2000 words from each language would only result in 4 million combinations. Retard is not the only French word that might be seen as offencive in an English context as one CBC reporter found out.

We pride ourselves on being the most technologically advanced culture the planet has ever seen. More scientists are alive today than have ever lived before. Sadly most of use don't have a single clue how it all works, even something as simple as basic probabilities. No wonder when it comes to complex decisions we get things so consistently and horribly wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment