Monday, May 24, 2010

On The Disappearance Of Teaspoons and other philosophical conundra

According to the most accurate and reliable source of rigorously qualified information available to mankind (wikipedia), a teaspoon is:

"an item of cutlery (in American English, also called flatware[1]), is a small spoon, commonly part of a silverware (usually silver plated, German silver or now, stainless steel) place setting, suitable for stirring and sipping the contents of a cup of tea or coffee. Utilitarian versions are used for measuring."

This is a teaspoon.

Seeing as how you are on the internet right now, chances are you have already come across this scientific study on the disappearance of teaspoons from the workplace.  Most of us just stop at simply asking "where the bloody hell have all the teaspoons gone?" but when the question arises in a group of epidemiologists, they go ahead and do what they do best - a longitudinal cohort study - and publish it for peer review.  It's brilliant, it is.  There are graphs and everything.

For those not into reading the full study, here I have copied the abstract:


Objectives To determine the overall rate of loss of workplace teaspoons and whether attrition and displacement are correlated with the relative value of the teaspoons or type of tearoom.
Design Longitudinal cohort study.
Setting Research institute employing about 140 people.
Subjects 70 discreetly numbered teaspoons placed in tearooms around the institute and observed weekly over five months.
Main outcome measures Incidence of teaspoon loss per 100 teaspoon years and teaspoon half life.
Results 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared during the study. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days. The half life of teaspoons in communal tearooms (42 days) was significantly shorter than for those in rooms associated with particular research groups (77 days). The rate of loss was not influenced by the teaspoons' value. The incidence of teaspoon loss over the period of observation was 360.62 per 100 teaspoon years. At this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons.
Conclusions The loss of workplace teaspoons was rapid, showing that their availability, and hence office culture in general, is constantly threatened.

Beware - spoon piracy area.

But wait, there's more.  As part of the discussion in the study, a link is made to a classic of scientific philosophical literature, Garrett Hardin's The tragedy of the commons in which is described a situation where individual farmers decide for their own gain to overgraze common grazing land with their livestock, thus ultimately destroying the utility of the commons for everyone, including themselves.  So too with the teaspoons in the institute studied.  As individuals seemd to have chosen - consciously or otherwise - to remove a teaspoon from the common space (the tearooms) presumably for their own benefit, not only did their peers suffer from a lack of easily accessed teaspoons, but they would have also.  Despite teaspoon numbers being replenished throughout the course of the study, in a post-study survey 73% of respondents indicated dissatisfaction with teaspoon coverage.

And this is where it gets interesting.  This is where an attempt was made to extract more value and sense from the data - the statistics were extrapolated, and some surprising results emerged:

"If we assume that the annual rate of teaspoon loss per employee can be applied to the entire workforce of the city of Melbourne (about 2.5 million), an estimated 18 million teaspoons are going missing in Melbourne each year. Laid end to end, these lost teaspoons would cover over 2700 km—the length of the entire coastline of Mozambique1—and weigh over 360 metric tons—the approximate weight of four adult blue whales.2"

 The thing is, you can easily believe it, can't you?

 Ever heard the phrase "Lies, damn lies, and statistics"?  Its origins are debated, but its meaning is fairly clear.  Statistics can be manipulated to show anything.  It's worth remembering two things (at least) when wandering into this territory: Firstly, that correlation is not necessarily causation.  Secondly, the correct statement that "a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not necessarily a square."

On the subject of teaspoons, a writer in an open letter to the Ministry of Defence, responding to the news that the latest generation of British submarines perform very poorly in terms of stealth, suggested that they design the next version based on the shape of a teaspoon.  The reasoning would appear to be sound, and you have probably repeated the experiment successfully yourself.

" I shit you not that I can virtually guarantee when dong 'the pots' I will search the remaining water for any missed items.  After a good firtle with both hands I declare the water clear for emptying into the sink.  But no, oooh no.....
....there, undetected in the bottom, is a teaspoon!  BASTARD!!!  I wouldn't so much mind if this happened on the odd occasion, but I can tell you every fookin' time I'm doing the washing up the bastard teaspoon will evade my detection.  So off you go, rule the seas with your teaspoon-shaped sub.  No-one will ever, EVER find it.  Yours sincerely, Ninj."

I find his reasoning reasonable, don't you?
Or squares and rectangles?

Then there's the now well-known proof that global warming is caused directly by a decline in the number of pirates. (Correlation vs causation, remember?)

My father was a maths teacher, but also a fairly gifted mathematician.  The quote about squares and rectangles above came from him.  He also pointed out the absurd, yet true, statistical fact that half the population is of below average intelligence.  My own years-long study of this phenomenon not only seems to bear this fact out, but also another related factoid has emerged - a vast majority of Australians prefer to express this truism in reference to the half being below average, as opposed to the half above average.  I wonder how this would parse in other cultures.

Probability wasn't his favourite area of expertise, but he certainly had a good enough grasp of it (and himself) to stay away from the temptations of the racetrack and those lovely lovely horses.

Here's where we really fool ourselves.

With the disappearing teaspoons above, a probabilistic result was one of the outcomes - a half life of teaspoons was determined (ie the time it takes for half of the population of spoons to disappear).  This can be done because only two possible outcomes for any given spoon were considered - disappearance, or non-disappearance.  When we look at gambling though, like wagering on horse racing, a very different thing must be considered.

A bookmaker frames a market, or in the case of modern totaliser-type betting pools, the market frames itself.  The punters' expectations of the probability of various outcomes (eg certain horses winning) are expressed as odds, say 10 to 1 (or $10).  These odds would represent a horse which some consider could win, and are prepared to gamble that it will, but most don't.  However, when calculating the probability of any event (eg a horse winning a race) what you really need to calculate are the chances of every other possible outcome that could occur.  and no punter wants to think like that.

Because the whole point is to 'beat the odds'.

It's how we live our lives.

Done well, it means that we can carry on enjoying life not crippled by fear of all the dire fates that could befall us at any moment (my favourite meme of being killed by falling space junk - preferably a zero-g toilet seat), and enjoy a bet on the thoroughbreds.  But done badly it means we fall prey to exactly those fears of what might happen....

,,,,it makes us steal that teaspoon for ourselves.  Which we then don't want others to see that we have lest they think us not engaged with the common good, so we hide it in our desk drawer.  Where we can't use it.  And a bunch of other bastards besides ourself have done the same thing and then we want a nice cuppa and.....

...."Where the bloody hell have all the teaspoons gone???"

Just lastly, the answer was never found.  No-one knows where all the teaspoons go.


  1. The average number of legs for all humankind is less than two.

  2. See? This is just beautiful. Of course it's < 2. The life expectancy of a recipient of a PEG tube (like me) is really low, like averaging only a year or so, because most PEG tubes are placed in end-of-life-nearing circumstances anyway. Then again, maybe these things ARE KILLING PEOPLE!!!