Saturday, March 7, 2015

Still Life With Robin: Where Do the Stars End?

Egres73 via Wikimedia Commons
by Peggy Robin

By now everyone on the planet has seen #thedress, the viral internet photo that some people see as gold and white and others, looking at the same image, see as blue and black ( 

The puzzle I’m about to pose is less amazing in terms of differences in visual perception, but it does have more significance – because the way you see the image will result in a different economic outcome for someone else (unlike #thedress dilemma, which had no practical consequences whatsoever – it was just mind-blowing).

Here’s the puzzle: When you look at this layout of stars, which is the last star?

*   *
*   *

There are two ways to read this: 1) As two columns of stars, in which case the last star is at the end of the second column. Or 2) That there are two rows of two stars each, followed by a third row with just one star -- which makes that single star the last star of the bunch.

The reason this matters is that it's the layout of the Uber driver ratings system. If you want to give your driver a 5-star rating, which will help that driver attract more riders in the future, you have to click on the last star. That means the one that Uber's software design team has designated the last star. But do they think in colums or rows? This was the question I faced after my very first Uber ride, which I took in Manhattan during Thursday’s snowstorm. I wanted very much to reward my intrepid driver, who was able to negotiate a safe path around some unexpectedly closed streets and down many others narrowed by banks of snow and slush, to get me safely and efficiently to my destination.

I may be a novice at Uber ratings, but I'm no stranger to handing out stars on other interactive sites, and was sure I could puzzle out the correct answer. Looking at the spacing of the stars seemed to me to be the best clue. If you were meant to see two rows of two stars and a third row with one, I reasoned, then the stars in the rows needed to be closer together. And why the need for separate rows, anyway? You would normally expect to see all five stars in a line. So the answer, to my eyes, had to be that these were two columns of stars, the first column with three stars in it and the second column with two. With confidence in my logic, I clicked on the last star in the last column….and guess what? Uber immediately told me I had given the driver just 4 stars! Apparently, there are three rows of stars.
And there’s no do-over. I could not find a way to take back the rating and re-submit a new rating with 5 stars. Now I know which way the stars go, but it’s too late for my driver, robbed of his well-earned 5th star. Next time I know to see the layout as rows, not columns, and after my next Uber trip, will be sure to keep that in mind when clicking on stars. Now if I could only see the blue and the black in that damn dress!


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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