January 16, 2012

Midas in Hollywood

Today’s topic is not precisely statistics, but the ability to do simple arithmetic and look up facts online are useful statistical skills.

At the Golden Globes awards, the dessert at dinner was sprinkled with edible gold flakes “at US$135 per gram”. This led to descriptions like “untrammeled excess” and “a dessert that is literally as difficult to acquire as gold dust”. Journalists don’t seem to have enquired as to how difficult or expensive it is to acquire gold dust. Obviously they don’t remember Goldschlager — the vile cinnamon schnapps with gold flakes popular in the 1990s — which is quite possible, given its after-effects.

One of the distinguishing features of gold is its ability to be hammered very, very thin.  A gram of gold can make a square metre of gold leaf. So, at gold-bullion prices, a 10cm x 10cm sheet of gold leaf, to cover an entire plate, would cost less than a couple of dollars. A 1cm x 1cm piece, enough to make some impressive gold flakes, would be a couple of cents. And in fact, culinary gold leaf is available at close to bullion prices: Amazon.com is out of stock at the moment, I found a British supplier that sells 8cm x 8cm leaves for 66p each (in packs of 25). Culinary gold is cheaper per serving than, say, saffron, which wouldn’t have excited any comment.

The gold flakes would be cheap compared to the ‘fresh berries’ (in mid-winter) in the dessert and not even a rounding error compared to the vintage champagne (Moet & Chandon 2002) served with it.

I’m sure there are better uses for the money spent on the Golden Globe awards, but the cost of gold flakes is just so not the issue.  The campaigners and reporters are making the same mistake that the TV ads for investment gold want you to make: to forget, like King Midas, that gold is just another  commodity metal.

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Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »

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