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It's all relative

8pm, 29th March 2007 - Geek, Rant, Interesting, Philosophy

Everything's relative: Relativity by M. C. Escher.How do you put a value on taste? How can you say "I give that meal 83% and the dessert 94%"? How can you know that there isn't a meal out there somewhere that's twice as good as the one you just had ?

The trouble is that taste is a relative measurement, not an absolute measurement. Most measurements we consider useful are absolute measurements such as "That meal cost £12." or an absolute measurement expressed in relative terms: "That meal cost twice as much as the meal I had yesterday." but some things cannot be measured in absolute terms.

To illustrate, take Maurice Greene. Maurice Greene is fast. Some might say that he's the fastest man in the world. (Asafa Powell might disagree, having beaten Maurice's time over the 100m by two hundredths of a second on three seperate officially recognised occasions.)

Still, nobody can dispute that he's fast - but I'm faster.

How is this so? Well, I can jump on my bike and pedal faster than Maurice (or Asafa) can run. So Maurice is fast, and you would say that he's the fastest man in the world until you saw me on my bike. Now he's not the fastest man in the world, his top speed is only half my top speed! But why stop there? You can jump in your car and double my top speed again. Donald Campbell might seem fast in his Bluebird going at half the speed of sound but that that is only until you consider a manned space rocket which is going around 20 times the speed of sound as it approaches the atmosphere from outer space.

Speed is relative to the fastest (and slowest) you have ever seen. Until you have been in a rally car doing 200Km/h on twisty dirt roads then you will think that 100Km/h on the highway is fast - the fastest you have ever been - afterwards, it feels slow. This is rarely more pronounced that when driving in rural Australia and approaching a small town after having spent several hours with no speed limit and without even having to turn the steering wheel. Having to stick to 50Km/h all the way across the 2Km wide town will make you feel like you could get out and walk faster.

So today, when I was pondering the value of my lunch and determined that it was 30% more expensive than the alternative next door but 70% larger I figured this was a good deal. Then I started thinking about other determining factors and realised that although the taste of the meal I had today was definitely better than anything available next door, I couldn't say it was twice as good or even 25% better because to do so would be comparing both meals to the very best and the very worst meals I have ever eaten. That would be similar in comparison to lining Michael Schumaker and Lance Armstrong up on their respective machines and taking bets on which one would complete the 500Km course first. Of course, it would also be utterly meaningless to anyone who had not also eaten the same two (best and worst) meals that I had eaten and hence trying to explain to someone that this cafe was 3% better than the other one but on the scale I was using that actually represented a significant difference would be an exercise in futility.

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