By Bobby Neal Winters
The pleasures of small-town life are manifold and one of them is our annual fall festival with its associated Craft Round-up. The fall festival is an occasion to wander amongst the various mobile food establishments sampling funnel cakes, bratwurst, sweet potato fries, curly fries, buffalo burgers, steak sandwiches, and other means of putting Lipitor to a test of its abilities.
For those who can pry themselves away from the culinary sensations, there are the booths of the Craft Round-up where the artists and artisans of the region can display their wares and occasionally set something.
I attend every year, mainly for the bratwurst, but I fill in the time it takes to digest by visiting the craft booths. One such booth caught my attention. There was a banner above the booth that declared the owners to be “The Old Shavers.”
There booth featured carvings of wizened old men with corn-cob pipes and bashed in hats who were holding jugs of moonshine. There were also sweet looking grandmotherly women in bonnets and aprons among the carvings and an ample number of loose-skinned old hound dogs.
I have a number of friends who are quite fond of such things, so I saw this as an opportunity to do a little early Christmas shopping. The items were priced reasonably for such things but strangely. Rather than being priced a round figure, they sported prices like $5.01 and $10.03.
I picked out the bust of a wise-looking Native American woman which was priced at $25.07 and presented it for checkout.
“That’ll be twenty-five dollars and ten cents,” the venerable gentleman said.
“I beg your pardon,” I said, “but I am confused. It’s marked twenty-five dollars and seven cents. I don’t mind the three cents extra, but why the extra.”
The venerable gentleman looked very serious.
“It’s marked $25.07 because that’s what it cost,” he said. “I round everything up to the nearest dime because I don’t use pennies or nickels. It’s against my religion.”
I was experiencing the dual reactions of flabbergasted-ness and curiosity.
“Pennies and nickels are against your religion?” I tried to keep rude inflections out of my voice. “Why?”
“Lincoln and Jefferson where evil so I will not traffic in their images.”
I had just laid down a twenty-dollar bill, a five-dollar bill, and a dime.
“Oh,” I said, picking up the five. “I’ll just take this back then because I wouldn’t want to offend you.”
“That’s all right,” he said, retrieving the five from me. “It’s okay if it is on paper.”
I collected my purchase and wander off shaking my head slowly from side-to-side in confusion. Soon I had put the strange incident behind me comforting myself with a root beer float over at the Methodist church.
It was there that Suzanna Doughcoup our local homicide detective found me and took a place by me at the table.
“Sue,” I said, spooning the root beer coated vanilla ice-cream into my mouth, “to what do I owe the pleasure.”
She looked rather stern and attempted to look more so at the sound of the word “pleasure.”
“I am afraid that I take no pleasure in larceny,” she said.
“Larceny?” I echoed stupidly. “I thought murder was your specialty.”
Her visage brightened somewhat at the mention of murder.
“Yes, it is,” she said. “But unfortunately there is not enough murder in this town to justify a full-time homicide detective so I have to spend my time on less important matters like taking care of thieves.”
I took a sip of the ice cream flavored root beer and pursued the conversation further.
“So who are the thieves?”
She looked at my Indian-head bust and nodded toward it.
“I see you’ve met them,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, “you mean the Old Shavers?”
“Yes,” she said. “You see how wily they are. They price their items off the round numbers and then round everything up to the nearest dime. That is misleading and I think that’s stealing. There is no telling how much that adds up to over the course of a day. You’re a mathematician, so I thought I’d come to you to get an estimate. You know how little things add up.”
As a matter of fact, I’d been thinking about it. I went over to the church ladies and fetched a napkin and a pen along with a piece of cherry pie.
“Well,” I said, beginning the calculation with a flurry of the pen, “we can figure that every person is overcharged between zero and nine cents, inclusive, and that this amount is uniformly distributed.”
Sue’s face was as blank and hard as an empty chalkboard, so I continued.
“That means, on the average, each transaction over charges the customer by four-point-five cents. The discrete version of the uniform distribution has an easy formula for variance which in this case works out to thirty-three divided by four.”
I find that by the time I get to the word “variance” in any statistical discussion the eyes of those listening have glazed. Sue was no exception to this, but, I do admit, it was harder to tell.
Sensing the indifference to the beautiful details of the calculation, I began summarizing.
“To make a long story short, if we assume there are 1000 transactions, we can calculate the margin of error to be about two cents with 95 percent confidence.”
Sue paused and thought for a minute.
“What does all that mean?” she asked.
I paused myself so as to phrase my response in the most useful manner possible. Then I began.
“They cheat each person out of an average of four-point-five cents. If they have 1000 customers, that means they have cheated their customers out of a total of $45, but there is a margin of error of about $20 which means they have cheated people of between $25 and $65, and I can be 95 percent sure of that.”
Then Sue did something I have seen her do only rarely. She smiled.
“You can be my expert witness then. I think that I will take this to the DA.”
Before I could say anything else, she disappeared. I thought that I would do the same, so I strolled from the church lawn down the street, following the smell of funnel cakes and hoping against hope that I could elude the formidable Detective Doughcoup for the remainder of the day.
My hopes were for naught because less than an hour later she found me three quarters of the way through a funnel cake and praying for a quick death after a day of over-eating.
Her normally stoic expression betrayed disappointment.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, trying to sound as interested as my heartburn would let me.
“The DA won’t prosecute,” she said. “I found him down by the ribbon-sliced fried potatoes. He said that everyone who bought anything there had the choice to buy it or not, and that nobody was making them. He also said the Old Shavers could just raise their prices up to a round number if they wanted to, anyway. But lastly, he said the margin of error was too high.”
I nodded, feigning to share Sue’s disappointment.
“Well,” I said, “you might be comforted to know that there are professional criminals who do penny-shaving. The sometimes infiltrate banks or places that to a lot of computer transactions. They set the computer to always round down instead of rounding fairly so they are stealing money beyond the second decimal place.”
“Really?” Sue asked, seeming curious.
“Yes. They steal, on the average twenty-five ten-thousandths of a cent with every transaction. If you figure this is done for a million transactions that adds up to about $2500 and you can calculate the margin of error to be about $50 with a 99 percent level of confidence. So you are only going to be off about fifty bucks on way or the other.”
She still looked disappointed.
“That’s not going to help me now,” she said.
“I tell you what,” I said, rubbing my sternum. “If it makes you feel better, you can prosecute every food vender in this festival for murder after I die of heartburn.”
That made her smile again.