Jan 28, 2010 by

I like the moon and how it lumbers across the sky at night…er, at an orbital velocity of roughly 2288.3858 miles per hour. Weird hu. Well, scale is funny that way. Now, stand real still and be very quiet…give it a second….to quote the nation of Haiti, “you feel that?”. The earth is spinning at around 1,000 miles per hour. Can’t feel it can you? Naw, of course not. In fact, I’d bet you can’t even really comprehend those two facts. I’m sure you understand all the words in the sentences but I doubt you really comprehend them. I know I don’t. The comment on Haiti, well, I’m guessing you comprehended that one all too well and probably feel one of several ways about it.

Here’s the problem with scale: we don’t do a good job of comprehending scale outside of the normal boundaries of daily experience. So what do we do? We compensate emotionally for the things we can’t understand cognitively. Realistically, our mental rulers are just so big; they are exactly how big they need to be for our survival; no bigger. So when we try to hold that pitiful, egocentric ruler up to something to big,  we’ll quickly run out of breadcrumbs and will never get home. Why is this important? Well, because if you understand this about yourself and others you can watch for it. Its not really hard to find; its just hard to recognize.

For example, this Charity hospital thing. Its been going on and on. Be that as it may, lets look at what happened yesterday.  WWLTV reported

It was a major victory for local officials who have argued that the facility suffered more than 50 percent damage from the storm…50 percent is the magic number, which forces FEMA to pay for the hospital’s replacement, as opposed to its repair.

Ok, so that’s some kind of rule right? Whatever. Doesn’t matter.

So then I went to came across an interesting statement on Business Week

The decision ended a long-running dispute between the state and the federal agency, which argued that damage to Charity Hospital was not as severe as the state claimed.

Ok, a dispute between the State and the Feds.

And somewhere in the mix it seemed like I should check out what Owen Henkel, the owner of SaveCharityHospital had to say

We now have enough funding to gut and rebuild Charity Hospital.

Now if I only want to look at scale the questions to ask are pretty easy.

Why is there a 50% rule? I believe there are statistical reasons for this kind of thing if the movie “Fight Club” is a good source.

Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.
Business woman on plane: Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?
Narrator: You wouldn’t believe.
Business woman on plane: Which car company do you work for?
Narrator: A major one.

What is a reasonable comparison between the scale Owen Henkel and the SaveCharityHospital website; the State of Louisiana, the Federal Gubment? Well, I don’t know Owen Henkel but I know he has a website and I know there are an estimated 4,492,076 people in the State of Louisiana. So since not all those people have websites, we can say that the State of Louisiana is something less than 4,492,076 times bigger than Owen Hankel. Nothing against Owen obviously since this would be true of anyone living in Louisiana who had a website. Additionally, we can say the Federal Gubment is at least 50 times larger than the State of Louisiana since there are variations in state populations and non-state “territories” and “Districts”

What is the scale of the Charity Hospital “gut and rebuild”? What is the scale to “replace Charity Hospital”? To me, relative to the previous question, its a moot point. The Reason being, that the scale of both of those projects is well beyond the ability of anyone one individual, regardless of whether they have a website or not. Just as well, its far too small for the Federal Gubment to try and do – for they are too big and clumsy to orchestrate either job.

So having read just over 750 words to get to this point in my little story, what have we learned? Well, we learned that I have a very limited understanding of scale. And that was my point: We all do. Does that mean you shouldn’t have an opinion or start a website? No, go ahead – its good for you. Does that mean we should all temper our opinions a little when the subject involves something of substantial scale? I think it does. I understand the desire to want to be right; I really do. And this is especially true of the big questions: the existence of god, economic theory, healthcare reform, the myth of the female orgasm, etc. But I think, more so than being right, there is something admirable in understanding that you’re taking on a big, sometimes heady issue, deciding where you stand on it, and still being open to other opinions and arguments in so far as they are convincing.

The thing I see the most, however, is that when something is of such a scale that our little, egocentric rulers won’t suffice, people tend to use emotional arguments and anecdotal evidence. And although convincing to the self, they are not convincing to others. In just the same way that getting attention is not a convincing argument to anyone other than the person who quite surely feels like a martyr.

Note: Scale has a similar effect on very small things and time but I really just wanted to beat Styborski’s word count so I’ll save those for another time

Correction: According to Frenemy, Owen Henkel does not run the SaveCharityHospital site. I based the statement on the Registration of the domain name alone. I have no other way to easily verify who owns/runs the site. And to be fair, that wasn’t my point.

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