Saturday, January 10, 2015

Let Me Count the Ways

It's hard to make sense out of all the, well, stuff out there. From smartphones to surgery, from toothpaste to travel, from retirement to restaurants, there is nothing of which there is not too much. We want it all, dammit, but we can't figure out which one of the all we want. And so we turn to ratings and reviews and rankings.

But even there it's hard to cut through the clutter. Punch up any movie or burger joint or oven mitt, and there are literally hundreds of competing viewpoints. On a recent visit to Washington DC we went online to check out a restaurant. It had the kind of food we liked, was in the neighborhood we would be in, and looked attractive from the pictures. First review: "Great place, friendly staff, good prices!" Next review: "Sucks. All the reviews you see here are lies." What's a mother to do?

And so rather than crowdsource, we turn to supposed impartial sources. After all, there are a million websites that rank, curate, sort, compare, dish, judge and otherwise determine where any individual thing fits in the global order of similar things. They seem to come in two flavors, the ranking and the listing. But in each case, there are issues as well. For the first, it's mostly spurious objectivity; for the second, it's spurious subjectivity. The result is that it can be simultaneously amusing, informative, yet still not helpful.

Consider the first, the empirical ranking. You would think it would be of value to know the "10 Best Family Cars" or the "5 Best Beaches on the East Coast." But according to whom? And what's the criteria? Do you need seating, cupholders or a kick-ass entertainment system? This is truly a case of one man's SUV being another soccer-mom's minivan. Or vice versa.  

For instance, Bankrate publishes a list of the "10 Best States for Retirement." A helpful guide, you would think, especially since it's not based on any single person's anecdotal experience, but on tangible metrics. According to the notes, it included "the local weather, access to health care, cost of living, crime rate and tax burden." Not content with even those broad measures, they continue: "This year we fine-tuned the process by evaluating government statistics on health care quality, and we improved our measurement of weather to include levels of sunshine and humidity." They also threw in some touchy-feely liberal stuff, like the "Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a comprehensive survey gauging people's satisfaction with their surroundings."

The result of all this spreadsheet crunching? Honey, pack the dog, we're moving to South Dakota.

That's right: the result of all that analytical mumbo-jumbo is the Mount Rushmore state. Now, nothing against the folks there. And perhaps on a point-for-point basis it does stack up well versus, say, Massachusetts. But let's be frank: have you ever heard of anyone heading there to while away their golden years? Yes, crime and taxes may be low, and it's health care system may be ranked high, but there's NOTHING THERE. And look a little deeper to one of its other nicknames, mainly the Blizzard State.  You tell me if you want to be age 70 sitting in Box Elder (population 7,800) wondering if you can get to the Pizza Hut before the roads close.

As to the second type, the listing, they are subjective in the extreme, both in topic and inclusion. That said, it's hard to argue with "10 Clothes Middle-Aged Women Should Avoid" (Number 7: hair gadgets) or "5 Breakfast Crepes Worth Waking Up For" (Number 4: Cornmeal Crepes with Figs and Pears). But my career choice is unlikely to be affected by "5 Dream Jobs You Probably Didn't Know Existed" (Number 5: Water Slide tester). And I'm pretty sure I would know I was in trouble even without "7 Signs You Don't Make Enough Money" (Number 2: You Can't Cover Your Bills). Then again, it was helpful, if not necessary, to know "5 Things Starbucks Won't Tell You" (Number 3: You can order a Fruity Pebbles Frappuccino).

I guess any help is still help. After all, I'd like to lose a little weight, so "7 Ways to Eat Less" is a welcome guide. Still, while number 4, "Put your fork in your non-dominant hand" might work, I don't know if I have enough napkins.


Marc Wollin of Bedford only needs one reason to have a cookie. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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