Racing in Lane Number Seven
Imagine you have this hypothetical job: Once a year you are in charge of selecting the top 20 high school 100-meter sprinters of the nation.
The job is simple: You go to this annual meeting where all high school seniors go to compete, and at the end of the competition, you collect the running times and choose the top 20 fastest students.
You feel you are doing an excellent job. After 30 years, you decide to do some statistics based on your results. To your surprise, you notice that nobody, not even one kid, running in lane number seven has been in the top 20 fastest of the nation. Even more, all top-20 fastest runners were evenly distributed among the other lanes.
You then decide to make a quick investigation about this odd result and go to the track field the day before this year’s competition. What you discover is that lane seven has a puddle of water around the two-meter mark, and has been so for all these 30 years. All kids who have used this lane to compete have been unable to overcome this hurdle and failed to show in the top-20 shortest times, independent of their talent.
Suddenly you feel bad. The job you thought you had done so well, had been, in reality, poorly done because you only took in consideration the final time as the selecting criterion. Next day in the morning, before going to the track, you come up with an idea to solve this problem. Since you have no time, power, or money to fix the puddle in lane seven, you decide that you are going to adjust the running times to compensate for the puddle in lane seven. Based on your statistics, you come up with a simple formula: If the student is running in lane seven, you reduce his time by one second; if the student is running in any other lane, the time is not altered.
You feel happy. You got this good idea that is, in your opinion, fair for those unfortunate kids running in lane seven. Even more, you realize that there is no need to spend money repairing the puddle in lane seven. For the next five years, you use this formula as a selecting criterion.
Things are going smoothly. You are three years from retirement when suddenly you are sued. The mother of one student running in lane four claims that her son had a better time than the runner in lane seven, but he was not selected in the top 20 and did not get any award. What do you do? You are confused. You thought your formula was excellent. You thought you could apply it forever. You even got a promotion when your boss knew how much time and money you had saved the organizers of the competition.
Some say you should only reduce the time by 0.5 seconds instead of one second. Others say you should have a quota and always pick one kid from lane seven each year, disregarding the running time. But you realize that no matter which formula you use, you are not fixing the root cause of the problem. You know very well that the solution is only one: To eliminate the puddle in lane seven. The problem is at the beginning of the race, not at the end of it. The solution is lengthy and expensive, but the only one that works. But you have a problem to solve right now.
Kids can’t wait. You reach the only possible solution to all this chaos: To use the formula until the puddle in lane number seven is fixed. You communicate your decision to all sprinters. They now know the formula, and they know it is a temporal one. Three years have passed using the formula, but no more suits have been filed against you because you promised it was going to be a temporal solution.
Days before your retirement, the annual competition is about to start for the first time with all eight lanes repaired and in excellent conditions. You can’t wait to see the outcome. Surprisingly, the statistics reveal that no sprinters running in lane one made it to the top 20 best times. But this time, with much confidence you say aloud: Everybody had the same opportunity, and there is no need to apply any formula. The selection was made based on the content of their talent, not on the number of their lane. Nobody complained ever after.
C. A. Soto Aguirre©
Originally published in the Ann Arbor News on April 24, 2003.