Friday, September 03, 2004

By the Numbers

There are big goings on planned for my city this weekend.

Probably this is the only reason that there are students in class on a Friday. Instead of going home or road-tripping or otherwise heading the hell out of here, they know that this is the place to be. Every city has its festivals and traditions and annual happenings, and now we are announcing the start of fall with our largest tourist draw.

Where I used to live fall was the time for the Apple Festival. It would take place downtown, and there would be venders and booths and crafts and food and folk dancing and all that sort of stuff. And apples, of course. It would be at the beginning of October, if I remember correctly; I recall having to wear my winter coat, as years spent in sunny climates had weakened my resistance to the cold. Certainly an event worth going to. Probably brought in dozens of people from as far as Skaneateles.

But here we are expecting lots and lots of people. Not only that, but lots and lots of beer, I'm sure. Entirely not my type of thing. Definitely I will stay home. Probably will paint the windows or work on my research or knit or something. Certainly I will not go near or through the downtown area. Definitely I will not get on the freeway.

As a long-standing tradition, it has its lore, and I had been repeating the figures without really thinking about them. Maybe things have been exaggerated or maybe things have changed and populations have shifted over the years. I don't know. I'd been told that for this weekend that our city will be the largest in our state and that the event venue would be the fourth largest city in our state. Had I thought about it for even a moment, I would have realized that those numbers could not possibly be right, that even without looking them up, that it just wasn't so.

Part of it is that people have a hard time visualizing large numbers. As an in-class activity I asked my students to estimate the population of our city. Some of them thought that several million people live here. (No.)

Now I've looked up the numbers (I can see where the "fourth largest" factoid — while wrong — may have come from, but the rest is just hyperbolic optimism), and I need to figure out how to work this into the estimation topic in my class.