In corporate boardrooms aloft city streets, evil executives scheme and plot. Their aim, of course, is to convince the consumer to choose their product over that of their competitor. This is no easy task, however, since today’s consumer pays little attention to most advertisements. Every company proclaims that their product is the fastest, cheapest, safest or most efficient of its kind, but today’s intelligent, educated consumer sees right through these straight-forward tactics. Simply stating that your product is superior doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

This is why companies have begun to explore alternative methods for attracting potential buyers. One such tactic is offering a membership that allows customers to accumulate points that may then be redeemed for various goods and services. The concept of a rewards program for members is indeed a brilliant one, as it offers an incentive for customer loyalty as well as a database of clients ready to be harassed by phone calls during their dinner. Apart from the minor inconvenience of call center drones and requests for membership at the till, this system has one massive problem: inconsistent point value.

Every program has a different value for its points and dispenses them at a different rate. Some companies offer one point per dollar spent, some offer 1,000 times that amount. Most customer memberships offer some kind of bonus for signing up because they know that customers do not want to waste their time filling out tedious forms. At every turn, employees politely offer you admission to their rewards program, touting the wonders that lie within. Rejecting their offer without a sound explanation is dangerous, as these point peddlers are often quite adamant that you understand what a generous gift they are bestowing on you. What they often fail to advertise is the rate of accumulation and practical value of the points. Without these two key pieces of information, how can one determine whether or not it’s actually beneficial to apply for membership? The bonus for admission could be 10 points or 10,000,000 points; it makes no difference unless they clearly define the point value in practical way.

Another disappointing feature of customer memberships is the point redemption system, which is usually complex and indirect, like riding the bus. The selection is often lackluster, offering customers a choice between a package of used napkins or 25% off pork snout with a purchase of 5 or more. Some systems are better than others, so let’s look at a few successful variations of the point-rewarding program.

One avenue to a viable point-reward system is assigning the points an actual dollar value. Some stores do this by offering store currency, usually printed on paper, to customers after their purchase. The value of this currency is often minimal, but at least the redemption is direct and consistent. Unfortunately, the production of this currency can be more costly than the currency’s value, which results in higher operating costs and, ironically, higher prices. This store currency functions in a similar way to a coupon, though it is more effective because it does not require the customer to purchase certain items at a certain time, and it can be accumulated.

Coupons have often been considered a legitimate tactic for those with a tight budget, but this is only because these people do not consider the cost of cutting coupons. Coupons cost time. Shopping around for the lowest price and clipping coupons may appear to save money, but only if the time spent has no value. Time does have value, and a the value of a person’s time is defined by their job. If their position pays $20 per hour, then they must be saving at least $20 for every hour of bartering and coupon hunting, otherwise they would be better off working.

Another option is the air miles program which many companies now use to attract and reward customers. This is an ingenious idea, because it compensates faithful customers with a vacation that will result in additional spending. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the value of air miles was corrupted. One air mile does not always translate into an actual physical mile of travel aboard an airplane. Air miles may now be redeemed for gift certificates, car and hotel rentals or even a car wash. Since the value is now arbitrary, your precious collection of air miles could take a nose dive at any moment.

A few companies have taken customer membership in another direction. Instead of offering free memberships and rewarding customers for their purchases, the membership has an annual fee and it merely grants the member access to the store. By comparison, this membership may seem inferior, but it is extremely effective. By charging potential customers a fee simply to enter the building, the member gratefully accepts the “reward” of shopping at their store. Through preying upon the human affection for exclusivity, the company is able to squeeze a few bucks out of its customers in exchange for allowing them to buy its products. What a deal.

Still another way of using points is by offering them in exchange for money. Some online stores require their customers to purchase points or tokens in order to buy their products. This method is commonly used to disguise the actual cost of products and remove the negative feeling of spending money, for it is much easier to part with points than dollars.

Regardless of what method is used to dispense the points, they should come in one of two forms. Point value should either be based on actual currency value or it should be reduced. In this instance we are talking about mathematical definition of reducing. The points should be reduced to the lowest common denominator, which is the lowest number of points that can be earned or spent. If a membership program rewards members with 1,000 points for a minor purchase and the cheapest redeemable item is 50,000 points, then they should reduce the point value by a multiple of 1,000. If a company is going to reward members with points or air miles, it should do so in a manner that does not attempt to exaggerate or distort the value.

This principle should be applied to all areas. A great example would be sports, since many of them suffer from convoluted scoring systems. Tennis, for example, awards 15 points for each point scored. In basketball and American football, teams may score multiple points at once, but the minimum number of points a team can score is 1, making them good examples of a reduced point system. In professional boxing, the fight is judged round-by-round, with the round winner receiving 10 points unless an infraction occurred. By always awarding the winner the same amount of points, the system is functionally reversed from that of traditional judging. Instead of rewarding an athlete with points for a maneuver, the opponent is punished with fewer points. In addition, the round loser is rarely awarded less than 9 points, and its extremely unlikely to see less than 8.

Whether it’s rewards programs or sports, even school grades or fuel consumption, it’s important to establish a system that does not unnecessarily complicate. Part of the purpose of mathematics is to simplify the functions of the universe so that we may understand them, but by using needlessly complex systems, we are creating inefficiency and inconsistency and becoming enemies of progress.

Next time someone asks you to subscribe to a membership program, ask them the value of their points.

Zero One Infinity

In life there is great uncertainty. Humans are constantly seeking explanations and crafting theories, struggling to decipher what is meaningless and categorize what is random. This urge to eradicate uncertainty gives rise to superstitions, rituals and maxims. We crave a fixed framework which correlates our behavior with our experience. More often than not, no such correlation exists, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

In primitive cultures, the harvest of creatures and crops is a matter of survival. Because of the paramount importance and unpredictable nature of these harvests, members go to great length to ensure a bountiful yield. Sacrifice, worship, and ritual are common practices aimed at inducing a favorable outcome. Despite their lack of empirical support, these rituals are often based on inductive reasoning. Imagine, for example, a hunter, before setting out in search of prey, kneels down and rubs dirt on his hands. After having a successful hunt, a correlation is made between the behavior and the result and a ritual is born.

Though we have shed our primal roots, we still operate with an expectation that certain behavior will produce certain results. Slogans such as, “you reap what you sow,” and, “the early bird catches the worm” represent the common association of hard work and fiscal gain. Although these slogans may define a general pattern, as guiding principles they are as reliable as a rain dance or animal sacrifice. There are many notorious quotes by renowned thinkers which describe these  patterns, yet they all fall distinctly short of absolute credibility. Sometimes the diligent are punished while the lazy are rewarded. Sometimes the deceitful are praised while the honest are ostracized.

One avenue to certainty is statistical probability. Instead of attempting to mold rigid models to predict results, we can rely on the malleable and empirical nature of probability. Although this method has great value in certain areas, it does not satisfy our craving. Knowing that honesty is the best policy 57% of the time does not inspire honesty.

Though correlation and reasoning may not produce stable hypotheses, there are other tools which can be used to provide certainty. Mathematics is a field in which certainty is abundant; every equation has one result, one solution. In math, there is no interpretation, no ambiguity and no subjectivity. Unfortunately, mathematics does not correspond to our experience, but his cousin, physics, can be more helpful.

Everywhere we look, we can find patterns and trends in the universe. Truth can be found in the gravity of a black hole and the structure of an atom. The concept that no two things are identical is an example of extracting truth by observing our physical world. This idea reminds us that we should never treat two people or situations the same way. There is another principle which we can pry from the laws of the universe, one which can teach us a great deal about life, death and morality. This concept is known as the Zero One Infinity Theory.

The theory describes how objects and events of significance only manifest in one of three ways:

  1. The object or event has never existed and will never exist in the future.
  2. The object or event will only exist once, or under one condition, for a finite length of time.
  3. The object or event has always existed and will exist for all of time.

From this theory we can learn many things, let’s look at two examples. First, that cosmic and spiritual objects and events must exist in one of the three forms. For example, there is either no such thing as reincarnation, one reincarnation (or under one condition), or eternal reincarnation. The same rule applies to the number of inhabited planets, best men, deities and universes. One need not know a great deal about physics to realize that it does not make sense to only two universes in existence.

The second thing we can learn is that moral behavior in our lives should exist in one of the three forms. For example, we should either never tell the truth, tell the truth under only one condition, or always tell the truth. This also applies to things like theft, divorce, drug use, abortion and eating animals. All significant human behavior should be forbidden, permitted or required under one condition, or always permitted or required. Applying this pattern to our moral code will chisel the surface of the slope of judgement into the rigid and defined steps of judgment.

Some argue that a fourth option should be instated, that two is a legitimate number of occurrences. Though their thoughts are pure, these poor people are mistaken. Any amount of occurrences or exceptions beyond the first is arbitrary and shall be relinquished to the hands of infinity. Humans attach significance to many numbers for many reasons. We might value two because most external body parts appear in pairs, or because relationships require two people, we value three because three points are required to draw an enclosed shape and we value ten because of the decimal system. Regardless of the reasoning, these supposedly sacred numbers are generated by humans, who cannot be trusted in such matters. Principles of this magnitude must exist beyond humanity, uncorrupted by our interpretation. Though the number two may its own significance, you cannot have two universes or two gods. As Isaac Asimov stated, “Two is an impossible number, and can’t exist.”


Life is full of tests. These test can take many forms, including blood, pregnancy, road, animal, aptitude and weapons. Today we will be focusing on written tests, specifically those used in the North American secondary and post-secondary education curriculum.

These tests take many forms, since each teacher has a unique style and some subjects require specific testing methods. A math test, for example, would likely have students solve equations, while an English test would steer toward essays and short paragraphs. Though tests may vary in design, they all have one thing in common: ambiguity. Before we unravel this obscurity, we should first define the nature and intent behind a test.

A test, in the form we are discussing, could be defined as a set of questions or problems given to a student in order to determine knowledge and aptitude. In addition, tests are most often expected to be completed by the individual during class, without the aid of electronics or books, by the end of the period. A test is usually given after a section of course material is completed, or at the end of the term, attempting to assess a student’s grasp on topics recently discussed in the class. Now that we know why we take tests in school and how they are generally dispensed, let’s find out how they are ambiguous.

Imagine you’ve just finished covering World War II in your history class and you are told that there will be a test the following week. The teacher informs you that the test will be on World War II and that it will have some long form questions. On the night before the day of the test, you diligently study your textbook and notes, attempting to cram your brain full of facts in preparation for the exam. When class begins you sit down at your desk, pencil firmly in hand, heart firmly in throat, while the tests are distributed. After receiving your copy and carefully reading the first question, your body swells with anxious heat as you realize that, for whatever reason, you skipped over this section of the textbook. Discouraged and perspiring, you flip the page, glancing at later questions. Panic and diarrhea set in as it becomes apparent that this test is asking for exactly the answers that you didn’t review. How could this happen? You thoroughly examined your notes, the teacher’s handouts, as well as key topics in the textbook, yet you are about to fail the test. The culprit is ambiguity.

When teachers notify their class about an upcoming test, they are deliberately vague about the content of the test. They tell you the chapter and general test structure, but they don’t tell you exactly what questions will be asked. The reason why teachers hold back and do not reveal the details of the test to their students is because of a hidden tension caused by a flawed testing system.

Tests are supposed to determine aptitude and knowledge, to find out if a student is absorbing information. There are two ways of going about such a task. The first is by, without warning, asking the student to answer questions about course material. The second is by alerting the student of an incoming test, allowing ample time for adequate preparation. Unfortunately, by announcing to the class that they will be tested, the teacher eliminates the test’s capacity to determine whether or not the student has absorbed information during the class. The test no longer measures knowledge and understanding, instead it measures a student’s ability to cram information into their brain the night prior to a test. If a student wished to display their grasp of course material, they should consider studying to be a form of cheating. Unfortunately, students are compelled by parental and administrative pressure, as well as personal satisfaction, to ceaselessly study for these ineffective examinations.

Teachers know about this tension, that is why they give hints about the test’s content. They abandon the first method of testing when they reveal the existence of the test to the class, yet they corrupt the second form when they refuse to disclose the test’s exact content. A test should either be unannounced, aimed at testing what the student has learned from the class, or entirely revealed so that the student is not left wondering whether they have studied the correct portions of the textbook.

There are two additional factors which influence the form of testing employed in schools. One is the fact that teachers know that by being vague about test content they can coax students to over prepare.  If they disclosed the exact test questions to the class, the students would merely read those portions of their notes and textbook, skipping over the untested portions. For some reason this is unacceptable, and the students must suffer. Teachers want students to study for questions that won’t be on the test, so they don’t reveal exactly what the questions will be. This is how we arrive at our desk, draped in the despair of impending failure.

The other factor is the refusal, by teachers, to accept that most of what a student learns through a course will be forgotten shortly afterward. Teachers, being former students themselves, surely know that little of what they learn in class is retained after the semester. Rather than attempting to infuse information into students by passionate instruction and lively metaphor, teachers abandon hope of passing on enduring knowledge, using tests as merely a vessel to assault young minds with a surplus of feckless facts.

Teachers should consider the aim and design of their testing. If they wish to know whether or not their students are learning during class, then give tests without notification. If they require their students to answer questions beyond what they have learned in class, then give sufficient notification and complete disclosure. Students should no longer be tormented by enigmatic examinations and obscure test tactics.