Counting is as easy as 1,2,3 - unless you're trying to count things like endangered species, wasted money and niceness, says Michael Blastland in his regular column.
This week, Go Figure sinks - without trace probably - into the weird world of trying to count. 1,2,3 and all that. How hard can it be? That's our point. To count in the real world can be to flail in custard especially, as in these examples, when trying to count stuff that's missing, or lost, or didn't happen.
Some things are easy to count...
Such as? Here are attempts, past and present, somewhere between madness and genius, to try to count the more slippery stuff. They include congestion (cars not noses), lost money, fish and, with wonderful topicality, wasteful spending.
See what you think of the ingenuity of each, then test your own powers of invention on our counting challenge. But beware, one of the examples below is a hoax.
COUNTING LOST THINGS
Crows in New York State were trained to use a slot machine. They learnt to deposit coins in exchange for peanuts. The inventor, Joshua Klein, believes corvid intelligence is underestimated and could be put to human use. One idea was to use the device to count or at least estimate - and maybe recover - the quantity of lost change lying around. But would the crows find only money lost, or also learn to steal? Claims about the crows subsequently became the subject of bitter argument.
Go Figure rating: Barking mad. There must be an easier way.
2. COUNTING LOST TIME
A bloke - most likely a bloke in, let's say a white Focus for anonymity - was employed to drive around making sure that if anyone overtook him, he overtook someone else in return. This was known as the "Floating Car". It was used to try to calculate congestion on the roads. At a speed at which as many cars were slower as were faster, the car would be travelling at roughly a median speed. If congestion typically slows the speed of a typical car, and if we have a sense of how long the journey should take with traffic running freely, then the journey time of the Floating Car would give one rough measure of time lost to congestion.
Go Figure rating: Weird but, in a time before real-time traffic sensors embedded in the road, the solution has a curiously British practicality about it.
3. COUNTING RARE CREATURES
This runs into the problem of co-operation. They don't fill in census forms and don't stay still. And if they are rare, how do you find them to count them?
Others, not so much
Have they gone, turned shy, or just moved? Answers to the problem have ranged from counting animal poo, counting the eaten creatures that are in the animal poo - if it's the eaten creatures you're interested in, counting the number of dead animals on the roads in order to estimate the number alive, or dead insects on a small square of plastic stuck to your car, counting footprints or using automatic cameras to snap passing tigers. Or, in the case of fish, trawling with old equipment even in places where you might not expect to find fish, in order that the fishing industry's ability to find and gather fish with modern technology doesn't disguise the fact that there are more places nowadays where the fish aren't.
Go Figure rating: Nothing wrong with these. Good old ingenuity and, in the case of the fish, real statistical care.
4. COUNTING WASTE
How do we know if money is wasted? If we get nothing at all for it then it seems obvious that it's wasted. But what if we get something but not as much as we think we should have? How much is wasted then? That depends how much we think we should have got. If there are obvious alternatives to what we got, at prices that can be easily compared, the calculation is easy. The trickier case is if you buy something where there may be only one supplier - like a nuclear weapons system - or other cases where there is no easily comparable alternative. It's not always appreciated that in order to count waste or value for money it helps to have a clear idea of how else you could have spent the money and what value you would get for it elsewhere. We need a counterfactual. And if we don't have one or we have no other comparable price data? The answer some recommend is surprising, but widely used in government and elsewhere to assess value for money - the tried and tested wild stab in the dark.
Go Figure rating: If you don't have data, guessing sounds like cheating but can be inevitable. So can be OK, provided you're honest about it.
AND YOUR CHALLENGE...
Which of these examples is invented? The crow story is half-true. There really was a crow slot machine and Joshua Klein really does argue that we can use corvid intelligence to find things, but not seriously lost change. The rest are true, even the degree of guesswork in counting value for money.
And how nice is a hug?
Now for the challenge, something really slippery and hard to define. How about: how would we measure niceness? Let's look for a measurement of the national extent of niceness, not just in one individual. How you would capture the average extent of a subjective impression? A CCTV smile-recognition system at random sampling points? Though you can smile and smile and still be a villain, as Shakespeare said.
Or how about an inverse measure - of the percentage of phone calls to public service providers that remain below a given level of decibels? Not sure about that one either.
Send us your ideas, via the comments form below, with your usual genius for invention, for how to count the number of times - on average - people are nice each day, in order to construct an internationally comparable niceness index.
Below are some of your suggestions.
I suggest counting at cars joining a queue of traffic from a side road. If you count the number of cars that move straight past the junction (nasty/indifferent drivers), and the number that let a car in to the queue (nice drivers) - the proportion of nice to nasty gives a clue to how many human encounters in a day are nice or indifferent. If you also count number of times car horns are used, that would give good indication as to how much rudeness there is too.
Caroline, Southend, Essex
The problem with the smile-recognition cameras is, as Shakespeare pointed out, that smiling is not usually in itself an act of kindness. It is merely a useful indicator of good intentions. As such, it is open to abuse by those hoping to disguise evil intentions. We should instead find a context in which smiling itself is an act of kindness. I suggest we ask sellers of the Big Issue to count the number of persons who smile at them, then compare this number against the number who ignore them or look the other way. This ratio should offer a useful indication of how many of us are willing to offer an act of kindness, at no cost to ourselves, without the need for any additional measuring infrastructure.
Michael Gibb, Oxford
Niceness is surely a frequency of good deeds in relation to how many evil things you do. To define a good deed, it is an act that is selfless and has many by products for others. Such as giving to charity, fostering children etc. You could either work out a percentage of the deeds you do that are good or alternatively work out the difference between good and bad. The higher the value, the nicer the person.
Will Morris, Bolton
The number of boxes of chocolates and flowers bought on a non-holiday, adding the number of hugs caught on CCTV, divided by lonely people. Then you can average.
Moria O'Crouglch, Dallas, Texas, US
A measure could be to look at setting up a situation where a good samaritan is required. For example, a blind man's stick falling in a busy place and see how many people walk past, compared with the frequency of visiotrs in the area. If 5 walk past before the 6th helps and there are 1000 people in the street then that gives a standard eaily standardised for international use. Do this with a few different situations and the count mean, median or whatever is most appropriate.
eddie white, edinburgh
Some sort of ratio between money donated to charity between money spent on unnecessary luxuries would be good. Say a ratio of money donated to registered charities (pure donations, not including purchases from charity shops and other things) to money spent on sports cars, HD TVs and meals out costing more than £15 a course. This would give a measure of generosity, which is one facet of niceness. Maybe we could attach microphones to a sample of people that can count the frequency of nice phrases like "I love you", "Well done" or "I'm proud of you" as a measure of niceness to people in a social context.
Get a decent sample of the population, and mail them all a questionnaire. Explain that you know it's long and boring, but they'll be helping you so much, and it means a great deal to you. Make the questionnaire enormous, and full of poorly thought out questions that are a nuisance to answer. Then count up the percentage of the questionnaire that each person answered before their irritation outweighed their desire to help you (weighting later questions because the first question is going to be less irritating than the four hundred and ninth) - the result is their percentage niceness. Once you have the percentage niceness of everyone in the sample, you can work out the average niceness of the lot.
Phil Barker, Scarborough, UK
Count how many car drivers say thankyou/ recognise you giving way by putting an open hand up. How frequent is it to put up two hands to tell a pedestrian it's clear to cross in front of you.
Do any shops still operate "Honesty Boxes" for newspapers, etc? Some might even have kept daily records of total amount deposited divided by total cost of goods taken over a period of years. That would give you a pre-existing dataset for analysing how "niceness" has changed.
Chris, Durham, UK
This is a very interesting question. I suppose it depends on the definition of niceness - some people are givers, listeners, courteous, etc. etc. My thought to contribute is as follows: we need to find to find a countable action (in any of the above categories) but most crucially it should be an action which is of the same 'cost' to the giver regardless of their specific circumstances (thereby removing the need to baseline the relative value of the nice action). For example an action like letting traffic out is hard to take as a count because some people have slower reactions or are driving with different goals (if the driver is late for a wedding are they are rude as a driver who is in no rush?) Another example of niceness is giving gifts but this is very dependent on the time, wealth of the giver. Therefore I am trying to think of things which are countable, and also allow the same short decision period for the tested subject, the same likely cost to them (money, time, effort, etc.). Could this be something like holding a door open - takes no time at all but is a nice thing to do. hmmm it's tricky
First of all, you need to define niceness. Nice is rather a strange word - it used to mean silly or foolish and now means anything from refined to crafty or clever. If we were to agree on a meaning of 'considerate', how about monitoring a section of narrow country lane and seeing how many drivers are willing to back up quickly and how many try to bully their way through?
John, Tiverton, Devon