Believe it or not, this is a serious question. You see, not to long ago I read an article titled Deep Thinkers and came away amazed by how intelligent dolphins appear to be.
Allow me to quote the first three paragraphs of that story to provide some background for this unusual comparison.
First off, we learn that some dolphins have been trained to keep their pool clean by removing litter in exchange for fish:
At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.
But Kelly has demonstrated that she's figured out the system much as a clever child would:
Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on. This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.
Not bad, huh?
It gets better. She realized that it was possible to move even farther up the food chain, so to speak...
Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.
Contrast this with my experience at Costco on Sunday. Costco, like Sam's Club, is a "warehouse" store that specializes in selling bulk items at a discount. You pay a membership fee for the privilege of shopping there and presumably make up for it by spending less for the goods over the course of the year.
After you go through the checkout line, you have to stop at the exit so that someone can take your receipt, look at it, look at your cart, and then mark it with a marker. (Fry's electronics does this sort of thing to, but I generally don't bother to stop on my way out.)
This time the door check person took at bit longer than I'm used to and she became visibly concerned. Something wasn't adding up. She moved me and my cart off to the side to investigate without blocking traffic.
I asked what the problem appeared to be, since I had no idea. She said something like "well, there are 9 items in your cart but only 8 on the receipt." At that moment I realized two things:
- Counting is apparently the first line of defense for these people. It makes sense as an initial sanity check. I suppose that you'd also want to look for unusually high or low total dollar amounts too. Either could be a red flag.
- There's an obvious solution to finding the unaccounted for item. It may not be the most scalable algorithm, but we're talking about nine items here. It's a very small hay stack.
The next 5 minutes provided a lesson in pure comedy and a testament to our failing education system.
The checker, clearly frustrated, spent a few minutes looking at my cart and the list of items I purchased. She was unable to figure it out and refused my offer of help. Eventually she gave up, reached for a clipboard, and began looking for something. Was it a standard form? A procedure to follow in response to such an unthinkable event? I have no idea.
So then I opened my mouth and said something like "you have a list with 8 items on it and I have 9 items. This shouldn't be rocket surgery." She put the clipboard down and I started to think she realized how crazy this all was. But what happened next only served to amaze me even more!
She called a co-worker over to help.
On the one hand, this was quite funny and sad. On the other hand, I was relieved that someone else was going to come over and show her how to resolve this apparently insurmountable crisis so that I could be on my way home with at least 8 of the 9 things I thought I had purchased.
The two of them, working together, managed to crack the puzzle and devise an algorithm that identified the big box of oatmeal as the "missing item." Amusingly, I had figured that out several minutes earlier while looking over her shoulder, but I kept quiet to see how long it would take.
I surrendered the oatmeal and headed out to my car, shaking my head and laughing to myself. On the drive home I remembered the dolphin story and wondered how many fish you could buy instead of paying the useless door clerks at Costco.
I leave the "winning" search algorithm as an exercise to the reader. :-)
Posted by jzawodn at September 18, 2006 05:20 PM