Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Soft Sell

I remember that when I was a kid we were honored by a visit from an encyclopedia salesman. One evening he came to our house and sat himself at our dining room table. I remember thinking that he was a young fellow, or at least he seemed so. Clean cut, jacket and tie, pearly white smile and shiny black brogue shoes. I also remember that he was a smooth talker.

He was a great salesman. Pitching the Encyclopedia Britannica couldn't be easy, but it was the 1980s and Wikipedia didn't yet exist. He spoke with great honesty about all the benefits of the 20-volume set to a family with teen and pre-teen kids. "And what would you use it for?" he asked me as I leaned awkwardly against the piano, fidgeting the way a 9-year-old does. "For school work, I guess". The salesman smiled and spread out his hands, palms open, gesturing at the children. He beamed.

I'm sure that my parents didn't hear the spiel. I'm positive that they were oblivious to the salesman's statistics of how many of his customers ended up as Nobel Laureates. I think their mind was on the price.

I don't remember the going rate for the set, but if you take the current price of $1,200 and convert it to Australian currency (which is where I am from), it would be approximately $1,675AU. According to McCrindle Research (pdf), the average wage in Australia in 2008 was, conveniently, $1,000AU per week. Rounding it off, that makes the cost of the encyclopedias about 1.675 weeks salary. According to the same study, the average weekly Australian salary in 1983 was $324AU, making the cost of the set approximately $543AU. So that would be my guess (see "Creative Journalism").

When the salesman left the house, I wondered why our bookshelf was not adorned by the 20 magnificent volumes of the famous Britannica. My parents most likely breathed a sigh of relief. The salesman was good, but not that good.

Today I answered a knock at the door. It was an encyclopedia salesman. I almost called the Israel Antiquities Authority to make sure this guy is put in a glass box on display in some museum. I just could not believe that they still existed.

My salesman was not as smooth as my parents' was. My guy was dressed in ill-fitting navy blue track-pants, a plaid shirt and a coat that, from its length, looked more like a bolero than anything else. Sporting a bushy moustache, he breathed out heavily through his nose after each sentence. And he never stopped talking. One sentence ran into the other and I couldn't understand what he was saying half the time.

All of a sudden the price dropped by 30 shekels, and I hadn't said a word. I decided to keep mum, maybe I could bargain him down some more. I just looked at him as he kept jabbering on. After he dropped the price by another ten shekels, I decided to put the guy out of his misery. "After all," he sputtered, "I'm selling this at a loss".

Unlike my previous experience, this time when the salesman walked away, I didn't have to eye the empty space on the shelf. We bought a ten-volume set of the childrens' encyclopedia. They are actually very good and come with nice glossy pictures. Just my style.

Encyclopedia salesmen are a rare species. How could I refuse a bushy moustache and a jovial, albeit, unshaven face? The swanky suit and tie, smooth-talking thing was unnecessary. All through the sale I had no idea what he was talking about, but I smiled respectfully, looked concerned as appropriate, and laughed heartily when he laughed as I handed over my credit card.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Name Game

Let's say that you wanted to open a new business. Whatever name you choose for your business will have to say a lot about it in only one or two words. For example, choosing a name like "Nik's Cakes" does tell consumers that you sell cakes, but why is "Nik's Cakes" better or worse than "Bob's Cakes"? It's boring, unimaginative and not very sexy.

Go to and you will get lots of good advice about choosing a business name:

Curl Up and Dye may sound cute now, but after six months, you and your customers will become very weary of the joke.

Yeah, especially if you sell cakes.

If choosing a name for your business is hard, how difficult it must be to choose a name for yourself. Imagine that you had just ratted on a mafia boss and were taken into the witness protection program. You get to live in a new location with a new job, new life and, of course, a new name. What are you going to call yourself? Bob Smith? I think not. How about something more interesting, like "Alfonzo de la Cruz" - perhaps that's a little over the top, especially if you are a Hassidic Jew. It's hard. Your name is your identity. How much does it say about you?

Actually, not much.

Do you really think that Bobby Blacksmith is really a blacksmith, or that June Tailor is really a tailor? She isn't, her father wasn't and her Grandfather doesn't know suede from silk. It's just the name she was born with. Nothing more and nothing less. Anyway, it's probably easier to inherit a name than have to choose your own.

But if you have to choose a name, why not go with the most popular? If everyone is doing it, why not you, too?

According to the 1990 US census, the following is a list of the top four most common surnames:

1. Smith 2,772,200
2. Johnson 2,232,100
3. Williams 1,926,200
4. Jones 1,711,200

It seems the Jones' couldn't keep up with the Johnsons'.

If you have to choose your own name, settling for one of the classics could just be tiresome. However, if you wanted to disappear into the sea of Smiths or Johnsons or Williams, well, it's probably not so hard. And blending in with the crowd could be just what you need when dodging the mafia. It's got to be harder to find a "John Williams" than an "Alfonzo de la Cruz".

Then again, if you have ever watched a movie where someone joins the witness protection program, you will know that inevitably the mafia sniffs them out. The witness invariably takes a bullet in the head while executing a hairpin net shot in badminton, or when about to perform a Zwischenzug (look it up) in a pool-side game of chess. So you may as well give yourself an interesting name. Spice up the headline news a little for the readers:

Last night, Alfonzo de la Cruz, the Jewish Hassidic owner of the famous "Curl Up and Dye" bakery, was gunned down by an unidentified mafia hitman. "Mr. de la Cruz played it bravely and valiantly, despite being in a difficult position," said his protector, Detective Bob Johnson. "Our investigations so far have found that he would have been check-mate in two moves, anyway".

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Creative Journalism

I am the first to admit that my level of mathematics is not top notch. Numbers make me dizzy. I once had to be quietly escorted out of a 67th floor elevator. The night-janitor found me curled up in the corner in the fetal position, softly calling for Mamma. All those buttons. All those numbers.

So when I posted my last blog, I didn't really look too carefully into my sources. In fact, as soon as I saw numbers and formulae, my eyes began to glaze over. Digits danced before me in a hazy cloud of fog. If the author says there is a 2.5 billion to one chance of winning the lottery, then that is good enough for me.

Subsequent to that post, I was made aware that I should have done the math myself. It seems I could have increased my chances of winning by 720 times. I was told that if I had read my source's entire article, not just the one paragraph, I would have come to a different conclusion.

I didn't have the patience or the inclination to delve into the intricacies of the matter. Face-value was good enough for me. You see, it's not whether or not the facts are correct, it's whether they are plausible enough to seem correct. Standard journalistic practice.

"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story" is more than a motto; it's journalism's guiding principle. This quote, attributed to either Frank Dobie or Delbert Trew (according to this article, at least) has sold more newspapers than I'd care to count*. Just ask any Fleet Street executive.

The University of Toronto actually has a course called "Creative Journalism":

Creative Journalism uses new and provocative forms of style and content to challenge and change the contemporary media.

In other words, they learn how to mix creative writing with real journalism to make the news more pallatable, exciting and entertaining than it actually is. To do so, they study high-quality publications such as "Rolling Stone, Pitchfork Media, and alternative weeklies". A passing grade is only achieved if your articles begin with "Once upon a time..."

So forgive me for not reading through my source's entire article. Forgive me for not searching for corroborative evidence. Forgive me for not checking that 1+1 does, in fact, equal 2. When it comes to informing the public, 1+1 can equal whatever you want. And why not? If it weren't for creative journalism, we'd be forced to find entertainment in the rivetting fiction of the the stock market results.

*No. I did not obtain any source for this statement. Just believe me, it's easier.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Playing With My Mind

G-d is playing with my mind.

A few months ago my wife and I decided to buy a lottery ticket. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. What irked me was knowing, not so very deep in my heart, that I was flushing money down the drain. I mean, what are the odds?

According to this site on Lottery Math,
The odds of a "Lotto" style lottery can be found with the formula: n! / (n - r)! r! where n is the highest numbered ball and r is the number of balls chosen. This is called in math a combination. An easier way to think about it is if there are 40 balls and 6 are chosen, there are 40 possible numbers that can come up first, leaving 39 that can come up second, then 38, 37, 36, and finally 35 on the final number. To find out how many numbers that is you multiply 40 ×39 ×38 ×37 ×36 × 35 = 2,763,633,600 making the odds 2 and a half billion to one.
Two and a half billion to one?! The money spent on the ticket could easily have gone to purchasing at least one bottle of beer with a 100% chance of satisfaction, assuming sufficient saltiness of the pretzels, sunflower seeds or peanuts.

But we hadn't yet read this site that says there is a better chance of dying from flesh-eating bacteria (1 million:1) than there is of winning the lottery (2.5 billion:1). So we played.

We won...

..our money back.

"Alright", said G-d, "I'll let you get away with it this time. Next time buy the beer".

Not too long ago I experienced another weak moment. I bought a lottery ticket, letting the machine pick the numbers so I could have someone to blame. I put the ticket in a drawer at home and forgot about it.

Yesterday, while searching for something else, I came across the lottery ticket. The vain hope of fortunes beyond my wildest imagination coaxed me into putting it in my pocket. Later on I found an excuse to wander down to the shops. I did a few errands, purposely eying the lottery store from across the way. Eventually, I found the wherewithal to actually enter the store, knowing that in a few moments a teenage service rep would shatter my dreams with a dismissive shake of his head.

He scanned the ticket.

We won...

...our money back.

G-d is playing with my mind.