Day 399: The Waffle House Index & Other Weird Metrics

originally published February 2, 2013

When news of an impending disaster fills every little sweaty crevice of our eternal news cycle, we hear every breed of expert chiming in with their damage predictions, safety warnings, and helpful advice for sneaking up on your neighbor with a blunt object to steal his food. You know, just in case. But behind the televised faces there is a vast network of professionals, preparing for every eventuality. These people have their own jargon, a trade lingo that doesn’t always wriggle into our collective lexicon through public discourse.

This doesn’t only apply to disasters; every industry has their own language garnishes, their means of referring to their trade in a way we common-folk either wouldn’t understand, or wouldn’t think to spin into a phrase. For example, did you know that when the folks at FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) are prepping for a super-storm, they don’t always speak in terms of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale? Sometimes it’s easier to refer to the storm in more practical terms. Ideally, with a link to breakfast.

On May 22, 2011, an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado struck Joplin, Missouri. EF5 refers to the Enhanced Fujita scale, the way tornado strength has been measured in the United States since 2007. EF5 is at the top of the scale, meaning the tornado treated the buildings in Joplin like John Goodman sitting on a Cadbury Crème Egg. Yet the two Waffle House restaurants in the area – which obviously weren’t flattened, but sustained significant damage – remained open. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate remarked, “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

This led to a metric known as the Waffle House Index. When FEMA-folk are discussing an impending hurricane or tornado, they will call upon one of the three possible notches on the Index:

  • Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, so power is still up and damage isn’t so bad.
  • Yellow means the restaurant is serving a limited menu (the chain actually has a plan for this), meaning they might be running off a generator, or food supplies may be low.
  • Red means the restaurant is closed and/or scattered in bits around the county.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could order a Big Mac and have it actually served to you looking like that?

Deceptive advertising aside, the Big Mac Index is a well-known set of numbers published each year by The Economist. It stems from a half-joking article by Pam Woodall in their September 1986 issue, and continues to be referenced as a means of measuring the purchasing power parity between two currencies. Basically, this means you can use a high-calorie sandwich to see if you’re being ripped off on the Euro.

Here’s how it works: you divide the price of a Big Mac in one country by the price of a Big Mac in another country, not adjusting for the currency. So if a Big Mac costs $3.57 in the US, and £2.29 in England, you come out with a total of 1.56. Then you look at the exchange rates – let’s say you can get two US dollars to one pound. Two divided by one is two. Since the Big Mac rate (1.56) is lower than the exchange rate (2), then the second currency (the British pound) is overvalued. If the Big Mac rate were higher, then the other currency would be overvalued. The ideal here is for the same item to have the same value, no matter which currency is being applied.

The more I re-read the math behind this, the happier I am that I am not an economist.

Speaking of numbers, did you know that bananas are naturally radioactive? Actually, any food rich in potassium contains a little bit of natural radiation – nothing to be alarmed about, unless you have plans to eat six or seven thousand bananas in one sitting. I’m not judging here, just trying to give you a heads-up.

The Banana Equivalent Dose is an unofficial way to measure radiation exposure. Since a banana contains about 9.82×10-8 sieverts, one can measure the amount of radiation thwacking a human body after a nuclear accident in terms of how many bananas one would have to consume to soak in the same amount. That’s a lot of math – if a nuclear disaster occurs near me, I’d prefer a simpler scale: am I screwed? Or not?

Interesting fact: a truck full of bananas driving through a Radiation Portal Monitor, which they use to detect the smuggling of nuclear material at your local port, will set off a false alarm. Yum!

I initially thought the Christmas Price Index would be another way to measure how much we’re getting screwed over on overpriced whim items for stocking stuffers (did I really need to spend $25 on a rubber pad to keep my wife’s phone from sliding across the dashboard?). It’s actually much more clever than that. In 2012, the Christmas Price Index was $25,431.18. That would be the cost to purchase one of every item in The Twelve Days Of Christmas.

PNC Wealth Management  has set a number of standards for calculating this total. The pear tree is priced at a local Philadelphia nursery. The National Aviary in Pittsburgh sets the price for the swans and the geese. The maids a-milking are priced out as minimum wage laborers, while the ladies dancing rate is set by the salary of a dancer with a Philadelphia dance company. The local ballet sets the cost of leaping lords, while the Pennsylvania musician’s union rates calculate the costs for the pipers and drummers.

Calculated each year, the Christmas Price Index is a good measure of inflation, or at least inflation on stuff nobody actually buys. We have more than doubled the Index when it was first calculated back in 1984, when everything cost only $12,623. The rate has gone down only three times, by 0.62% in 1988, by 21.72% in 1995, and by 7.56% in 2002. Otherwise, it just keeps climbing, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one.

If you want to pick some serious nits, you can also look at the True Cost Of Christmas, which is calculated with the same numbers, but with the correct amounts of each item as they show up in the song – so, a partridge and a pear tree times twelve, two turtle doves times eleven, and so on. The cost to fulfill all the requirements of that song last year would be $107,300.24.

I’m glad none of that crap was on my wife’s wish-list.

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