Numbers count

But the lessons of Sesame Street are yet to be learned

by Bigg Byrd


Originally published in the September 1989 issue of Cyclops USA.


The trouble with numbers is they are so definite and quantitative. Most words have shades of meaning that can be pushed around or bent to suit ones needs. Take, for example, a statement by a politician that there will be “No new taxes.”  Some people seem to think that statement has a clear meaning. I look forward to hearing the explanation in 1992.


Unless they are wrapped in a lot of ambiguous words, numbers have the unfortunate property that they can be checked. In fact, it is possible in certain circumstances to prove that a number is wrong. You seldom have that kind of problem with words.


Words can be used to obscure numbers. For example, USCF (United States Cycling Federation) treasurers were responsible for keeping the books and paying the bills of the Federation until the Executive Director took over in 1983, but some of them had not mastered arithmetic and had to rely on their verbal skills to cover up that fact.


The treasurer at the beginning of this decade seldom managed to balance his checkbook, but he handled that problem by keeping an enormous cash balance in the checking account and shouting very loudly at anyone who asked why his financial reports didn’t make sense. He lost a lot of earnings on the funds that should have been invested instead of covering his arithmetic deficiencies, but at least he seldom bounced checks.


Despite the intrinsic dangers of dealing with numbers, Sesame Street regularly exposes children to these risks by teaching them to count to 10 and even higher. One would expect that most Sesame Street alumni have mastered this art and perhaps would even be able to apply it to counting people, but sometimes kids get confused and count the same number more than once. Unfortunately, so do some coaches and press release writers.


Counting to 10

A USCF press release late in 1988 proudly announced the results of the National Prestige Classic series and listed both men and women riders who were in the “top 25” on points. However, careful examination of these lists revealed that there were 26 names on each. There were ties on points on both lists, which apparently confused the compiler – for example, there were two men tied for 6th place, which meant the next person down was in 8th place, but he was shown in 7th, hence the rest of the list was off by 1.


No big deal, perhaps, but accompanying this press release was another one announcing the 1989 U.S. National Teams, for which the top 10 finishers in the National Prestige Classic competition were automatic qualifiers. Sure enough, this team included the top 11 men from the NPC list. This fact was promptly and discreetly pointed out to the coaching office through channels, in recognition of the fact that having more than the planned number of members on the team could cause budgetary problems. Not surprisingly, the answer came back that no mistake had occurred – that the 11th rider on the list was a “coach’s selection.”


That was a nice attempt at a cover up, but it didn’t work. You see, the National Team list had asterisks by the names of each rider who was an automatic qualifier and, sure enough, Mr. 11 had an asterisk. While the coaching staff may be a little weak on counting, we hope that they learn to manage their budgets efficiently so as to get the most possible out of the National Teams, give or take a rider.


Counting noses

You might think that computers are better at counting than people. That is true only if they are given proper instructions. It is not a tough job for a competent programmer, but there is apparently no such person on the staff of the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USCF database program for licensee registration, which was written by one of their people in 1979, has been producing statistical garbage ever since then, and nobody seems to be able to fix it.


If you look at the tables of numbers of riders by district and by age group in the back of the USCF Rule Book you might be led to believe that we accurately know how many licensees there are in the Federation at any given time, but the fact is that we do not – those numbers have been faked for years because the computer outputs don’t make sense. For example, the draft 1989 Rule Book showed that the total number of riders by district last year was 31,717, while the total by age was 31,769. Why the difference of 52?  The Rule Book editor gave up asking that question long ago – he simply applied some creative arithmetic to the district numbers to make them add up to 31,769 and let it go at that.


Les Earnest has confessed to having started this cover-up in 1979. As editor of the Rule Book, he had been including registration data obtained from Tim Nicholson, who had voluntarily put together the first USCF computer registration system in 1974. Nicholson’s system had the nice feature that it produced consistent results. In fact, one of the early applications of that program was to detect a pattern of voting fraud in New York that was traced to certain USCF directors [See Morin Sincere, “Paper tigers,” Cyclops USA, October 1988].


When the first statistics were taken from the IBM computer at the USOC, Earnest discovered that they were internally inconsistent. The late Mary Cappy, who ran the program at that time, said that she would get the USOC programmer to fix it for the following year, but that somehow didn’t happen, so he fiddled the numbers again. Earnest repeatedly wrote memos about this problem to various staff members over the years, with no results. He pointed out that it would be worthwhile to compare the number of licenses issued with the total licensing fees that had been deposited, as a check on whether there were any financial “leaks” in that part of the system.


In 1984 he finally talked Executive Director Dave Prouty into hiring an outside computer consultant to fix the program. One was hired and paid substantial fees, but he somehow didn’t manage to make it work correctly. In fact, he unexpectedly disappeared one day, leaving no forwarding address.


The editor of the 1986 Rule Book tried to cover up the trouble with the numbers by not showing the number of riders in each district, but another consistency check was overlooked: the total number of men listed by category, which is for men 18 through 34 years old, should equal the total number of men listed in the age groups 18-19, 20-24, 25-30, and 30-34. In fact, those numbers are rather far apart in the Rule Books for 1986, 1987, and 1988. They match in the 1989 book because they were “cooked” again by Earnest.


This kind of thing would not be tolerated in a business, of course, but nonprofits are supposed to be more tolerant when they are receiving “free” computer services from a donor such as USOC. Undoubtedly some clubs have been cheated out of votes as a result of this inconsistency – or perhaps some have received undeserved votes. No doubt some district representatives have lost riders and consequently lost income; or maybe they gained – we will probably never know.


The best solution to the problem at this point appears to be to get off the USOC’s IBM dinosaur, put the registration data on a PC, and use one of the many database programs that are available for those machines. In order to do that it will be necessary to hire someone who knows a bit about computers. A sharp high school student should be able to do it, but for reliability it will be preferable to hire a “pro.”


Counting postage

The USCF administration’s inability to count postage has cost the Federation well over $100,000 during the last few years. Rule Books had been sent to licensees via bulk mail up until 1984 because it was inexpensive. In ’84, the administrative processing of licenses got severely screwed up and, in order to partially cover up this problem, Executive Director Dave Prouty decided to send the Rule Books via first class mail so they would get there sooner. He apparently didn’t bother to check into what it cost to do this.


This amazingly bad idea was institutionalized in succeeding years, causing the Federation to spend in excess of $20,000 per year more than was necessary. When Earnest got involved in editing the 1989 Rule Book, he asked why it was not being bulk mailed. The answer from the staff was that it was “too complicated” to use bulk mail.


After Earnest refuted that claim and pointed out that large sums of money were going down this rat hole, it was agreed by Executive Director Jerry Lace that the ’89 Rule Books would be bulk mailed. When Earnest later inquired whether the back cover of the Rule Book was being printed with the bulk mailing permit number to facilitate the process, he was told that this idea had been dropped on advice of the USOC mailroom, which claimed that “the savings would be insignificant.”


Earnest was certain that this advice was in error and checked with the Postal Service. He learned that mailing first class would cost at least $1.05 per book whereas they could be sent as bulk mail for about 9.5 cents each. Multiplying the 95 cent difference by the expected licensing volume of 34,000 yielded an expected saving over $32,000 for one year. Thus, this project got turned around once again.


With any luck, bulk mailing will again now be institutionalized within the USCF administration, which will save rather large sums each year. But don’t count on it. In fact, don’t count on anyone being able to count – check the numbers yourself. Then get someone to check you!


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