The Cone of Uncertainty...

bigger than a breadbox


The evenings were growing colder and the time between sunshine and total darkness was shrinking in noticeable and significant chunks more and more every day. The daily grind was also exacerbated by the almost immediate loss of daylight at approximately the end of the day. People knew it was going to happen but the dramatic loss of natural light still startled folks; no matter how experienced or hopeful. One minute it was gray and freakishly cold and literally the next minute, it was black and freakishly cold as if someone turned off a light.

This winter was a tough one for everyone; even the hardiest of souls had grown tired of the cold and the relentless and never-ending darkness. People wanted to open their windows and walk outside without adding even more layers on top of their already-layered bodies. The simple act of talking to your neighbor or walking your dog was complicated by the automatic hunt for winter hats and gloves, no matter the task at hand. Nothing was easy.

The day the road underwent repairs was the last collective straw for the town. The potholes had gotten so bad and the townspeople demanded some type of resolution to the problem. Ignoring the impending collision of the reality of frozen roadways and still-steaming asphalt patches, the town woke up to a main street literally heaving with chunks of frozen and irregular portions which had been vomited back onto the road due to bad timing and the power of physics. The folks looked at all the work from the previous day and collectively sighed; it was time to either leave town or figure out a way to learn to live with the frigid season which had long refused to leave.

"We had one day of peace and quiet," said the first man huddled next to a gaping yaw of freshly frozen asphalt and triumphant pothole.

"It was a nice day," said the next man. "However, I am a bit concerned about our collective decision-making prowess. It seems abundantly clear we should have waited until the temperature warmed up."

The other man looked at him and began walking back into the café and said, "You may be right but we can't have perfection always standing in the way of something better. Even if better only lasts for twelve hours."

The crowd nodded and resigned themselves to the fact that things were worse than usual but the cold forced a majority of these epiphanies to occur as they began to walk inside to get warm.

The collective will of the town found themselves assembled inside the café and cups of coffee were magically appearing in front of them as the owner scurried around to make sure this potentially large menu order remained inside the friendly confines of her restaurant. People weren't eating out as much these days and most the younger generations avoided traditional sit-down opportunities because they were too busy doing whatever they did to be bothered with something as mundane as a bowl of soup and a chicken salad sandwich on toast.

The large round table near the back of the restaurant had assembled all the usual suspects; the mayor, a quorum of council folks, the police chief, the head of public works and the town manager. This table quickly filled with food and soup when the town manager declared the event a formal meeting, thus eligible for official reimbursement.

"I think it is the winter clouding our judgment," said the mayor. "I would have never allowed a road repair in the middle of a cold snap if my head wasn't filled with gray, cold thoughts."

"You are too hard on yourself, Billy" said the Police Chief. "Any of us should have stopped the plan but we all wanted to do something worthwhile. Hunkering down and waiting for Spring seems like the smart play now, but sometimes you have to do something or we'll all go crazy waiting for that day to come."

"What we have here," said one of the younger council members, "is the Cone of Uncertainty."

"And what is the Cone of Uncertainty?"

"Simply put, we didn't know what we were doing and those vague or non-existent nouns caused our immediate need to repair the potholes to take precedent over common sense and physics."

"Can you put that even more simply?"

"Sure. We were all stupid because we made stupid decisions based on stupid ideas. However, we didn't know what we didn't know before we started."

"Well, that is a bit clearer but not necessarily better. However, I can't argue with you. But it sounds more like the Cone of Stupidity."

The group, relieved the pressure was now released, focused on eating their lunches and trying to figure out a way, within their means, to provide some value to the local folks but a vast majority of the ideas were blocked effectively by winter. The harsh realities of this year's winter had broken even the most hardy souls and it was going to be at least a few weeks before people could begin to think of their lives outside of the below-zero headlock which was never ending, omnipresent and a royal frozen paid in their collective asses.

"You know," said the head of Public Works, "I have never complained in my life about winter. I have always felt that it was a reality to live with and something not worth complaining about too much. But this winter has broken me."

"Me too," said Catherine.

Catherine was the owner of the restaurant and had worked there since her early teens. She eventually bought out the owner but truth be told, the amount of money which actually had changed hands was only a few hundred dollars. The building was technically sound, thanks to the numerous and ingenious efforts of many tradesmen over the years who had viewed the restaurant as their own. The town was small enough that many legacy records regarding land ownership had not survived but in the defense of the system, no disputes had ever arisen. The former council, quietly passed a motion, in which all land management documentation, was established as it was that day and any disputes for land or usage would be arbitrated by the council on an as-needed basis. To date, no one had asked for their help nor did they seek anyone out to proactively involve themselves in any way.

That lack of unwanted involvement was the hallmark of the city and on most issues; consensus was complete to a person. One issue which everyone had agreed on: this winter was too long, too gray, too cold and most likely be viewed as the frozen straw which would break the frozen camel's back.

"I am either too old or too cold to argue about this," said the mayor. "I screwed up because I just wanted to see something done and the effort seemed to more important than the actual result. The only cone I can figure out is a dunce cone so why don't you all just impeach me?"

The crowd laughed; no one wanted his job and he could have gunned down five citizens in the middle of the street and let their bodies fall into the now slightly-filled potholes and no one would have entertained an impeachment. He was the man of them, their inspiration and this whole pothole issue would be forgotten by dinner. In fact, the bodies may have been looked as an non-traditional alternative to the hot asphalt and would have raised public confidence appropriately.

Catherine quieted the laughter by asking, "What are we going to do about this winter?"

"Good question," said the Chief of Police. I can't take much more of this crap. I have been dealing with winter for fifty years but this one is winning. I am sick of cold feet and I need to see some sunshine. The gray is sucking the life out of me."

"It's the cone!" said Kit Thompson.

Kit was the youngest council member, riding the wave of the existent youth vote in the last election and the one with the most energy. Kit was a well-meaning farmer with a civic calling which had followed her though the student council when growing up. She also felt it was her responsibility to introduce new ideas to the staid group and to challenge the majority rule when it needed some questioning.

"It is the cone, I tell you…It's the cone," said Kit with a dramatic slip of coffee.

"It appears you are back to the cone thing, Kitty?"

"I certainly am. All this can be traced DIRECTLY to the cone of uncertainty."

When Kit emphasized the word "directly," she did so with a combination voice inflection and a small but sincere lifting up in her seat as to push the emphasis along with her body motions. She had used that tactic several times prior so the emphasis was a bit muted but her point was made nonetheless.

"Explain yourself, Kit. And try to keep your thoughts together in a nice line."

"Okay, I will explain and use little words. All you guys have to do is pay attention for five minutes and answer a few questions. If you can't do it, let me know now and I will get back to work."

The table grew quiet but Kit refused to talk until each person acquiesced to the original rules. She sat there, drinking her coffee and nibbling on her sandwich until every person had promised their compliance with her request. Finally, the last holdout, the Public Works Commissioner looked at her and nodded.

"Finally," said Kit. "We are finally getting some where."

The table finished their lunch and Catherine pulled up a chair as well. Any future customers would have to get their own coffee and water and talk directly to the kitchen about their lunch but that wasn't too unusual for the customers so Kit enjoyed the group's complete attention.

"Okay, I am going to show you why the cone of uncertainty can explain why this winter is killing us all."

"Are you going to talk about the potholes?"

"Nope, I don't care about the potholes because winter is the real problem. Are you okay with that?"

"I am fine with it…I was just curious about the potholes but go ahead."

Kit cleared the area in front of her and put down two water glasses.

"The first glass is where we start and the second glass is where we finish. While these two glasses represents the start and ending of winter, it could be anything from the start and end of a trip, the start and end of the pothole discussion or the start and end of anything."

Kit looked up at the group and smiled. There were not a lot of laughs so she prepared herself for a tough audience.

"Now, let's say if we can control the weather, we could turn the winter off and on like a switch and publicize to everyone the exact time and date winter would end. But, as most of you know, no one can control the weather and while we like to think we can predict it, we really have no idea in terms less than one month periods."

The group nodded and one said, "It should end fairly soon."

Kit said, "It should but you never know for sure. All predictions have some uncertainty in them and things you can't control, have even more. You can only make a best guess and make adjustments along the way. Everyone still with me?"

The crowd grunted affirmatively and Kit continued.

"The cone of uncertainty describes all the potential and real unknowns and uncertainties in a project. It started way back at NASA when they had to estimate stuff when they had no idea on anything. Many of their projects had never been done before so these guesses, while well-meaning, were nothing other than complete shots in the dark."

"Still with me?"

"I am with you, Kitty" said the mayor. "Keep going."

"Well, the theory goes if you have no idea what you are talking about, you add an uncertainly factor of four times to the estimations. So, if you are wondering how long it will take to fix the roads, and you have no idea how to do it, you have a plus or minus factor of four."

"Give us an example."

"Okay, we will use the roads. I have no idea how long it is going to take to fix them but once the weather warms up and we find the money, I estimate it will take one month without playing around with the cone variable."

"Which means it could take as little as one week (one fourth of one month) for four months (one month times four). Correct?"

"Correct. But I wish to also state that agreeing to disagree wears out fairly quickly as a parlor game."

"Understood."

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