Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Higher math in a Kansas case

The diagram of a car crash is drawn at a scale of 1 inch to 20 feet. The distance between two points on the diagram is 3 and 3/16 inches. How far apart are two locations shown in the diagram?

You would think that an expert in the field of "accident reconstruction" could answer this question correctly with a pencil and paper or a calculator (if not in his head). But today's online New York Times hosts a re-enactment of the deposition testimony of an expert accident reconstructionist who refused to try without his "formula sheets" and computer.

Here is a small part of the transcript:
A. Three and three-sixteenths inches.
Q. And that is, when you convert that from the scale, what does that convert to?
A. Sixty-eight feet, approximately, sir.
Q. What are the numbers?
A. Three and three-sixteenths.
Q. OK, well here, run it out for me (handing the witness a pocket calculator).
A. Run it out?
Q. Yeah, calculate it for me.
A. (Working on calculator) And again, I'd do this on the computer.
Q. You can't do it, can you?
A. Not without my formulas in front of me, no sir. I can't do it from my head.
Q. You're not able to do a simple scaling problem with a calculator?
A. I don't wish to. I don't wish to make any mistakes. I use instrumentation that does it exact [sic].
Q. You can't show us, based on the numbers you just gave me, that will spit out the 68-foot distance, can you?
A. Not here today I can't, no.
This colloquy suggests an extra-credit problem: Multiply 3 and 3/16 by 20. Do you obtain 68?

Film-maker and comic writer Brett Weiner dramatized this and more of the transcript without changing a word to achieve this surreal video, Verbatim: Expert Witness. Last year, a similar film, Verbatim: What Is a Photocopier?, won the audience award for best short film at the 2014 Dallas Film Festival. There, an IT guy in Ohio struggles with yet another deeply technical issue -- the meaning of the term "photocopier."

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