April 5, 2013
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In a Talking Heads song, there is a line, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” In statistical terms, the enjoyment level of heaven would be 100% with a standard deviation – or variance – of zero. The song tries to express that as long as the deviation is zero, the enjoyment level could be 100%, 80%, 40%, or 0% and it would all be the same. Because, without variance, how would you know any different?
An oft-used phrase, “It’s all relative,” has more meaning than we typically intend when we casually toss it out. Any evaluation of any experience is based upon past experience. Our report of that experience is either expressed in relative terms or, failing a basis of comparison, a threshold evaluation. How was your day yesterday? “Good.” Good, relative to other days I’ve had. How was your skydive yesterday? “Awesome!” Awesome, compared to other activities like working. Or maybe, “Good.” Good, compared to dying. Living through an experience is an example of a threshold evaluation.
I bring all this up in memory of getting over a nasty cold. I don’t get sick. Well, although that sounds like an absolute, I mean I don’t get sick with any regularity. Less than once a year. Living like that, you forget and take for granted how good it feels to be healthy. My standard deviation was falling.
This can apply to just about anything in life. You don’t know how bad (or good) your relationship was until you start a new one. You don’t know what life can be like when you’re suffering chronic pain. You don’t recognize how convenient having a car is until your car doesn’t start. Breaking out of a rut is nothing more than adding a deviate sample to your population in order to increase the mean.