Saturday, January 19, 2019



            Many years ago, when my collection of plants was small, I tried to get the best azaleas. I knew that large, red flowers, completely covering a bush, would be the best. I've chronicled elsewhere my search for such. I thought I knew what was best. Maybe I shouldn't have been so dogmatic. The concept of “best” isn't simple.

The BEST landscape view, in my opinion. Tunnel View, Yosemite, May 2009

 For example:

            We're obsessed with celebrating the best. Who, or what, is the best of maybe thousands. Second best is largely forgotten.

            Pro Football fans will remember many Super Bowl winners but struggle when recalling the loser, who would rank second that year of 32 teams.

            How would you compare baseball players Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey, Jr.? Mantle had several seasons better than any one of Griffey's, but personal failings limited his number of years. Griffey performed at a high level for many years. Performance is measured by “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR). From 1952 to 1962 Mantle was the best or one of the best. This was followed by a rapid decline. Ken Griffey, Jr. was a star from about 1990 to 2007, never reaching as high as Mantle, but close.

            Bobby Fischer was the best chess player of his time, not only based on rating, but also a World Championship. The man he beat, Boris Spassky, never attained the height of Fischer's rating, but was still a World Champion and a feared Grandmaster for many more years than Fischer's brief dominance.

            Who's the best writer? Do you think that Leo Tolstoy or George Orwell had #1 best sellers?
             The best singer? In both categories, we can list people who have been one-hit-wonders but had no staying power. Are they better than artists who have never attained the top standing, despite being “one-of-the-best” for decades? Bruce Springsteen and “Martha and the Vandellas” reached “only” #2 on Billboard.

            There are no metrics for comparing the best artists, philosophers, politicians, or eccentrics (sorry, didn't mean to repeat myself). Every period of history has examples of those unrankable categories, even with a NY Times bestseller list available, or a Christie's Auction measuring value in dollars.

            A transitive relation says: if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.             Unfortunately, real life has many non-transitive relationships. Suppose Oklahoma beats Texas in football. Then Texas beats Ohio State. Logically, Oklahoma is better than Ohio State. When Ohio State beats Oklahoma, we see that sports, and much of life, is non-transitive. It happens all the time.

            Another example: voting. With candidate A getting 40% of the vote, B getting 35%, and C winning 25%, voters have chosen A as the winner. But if voters only chose between A and C, then C would win. How is that possible? Well, one way would be that voters for B, no longer able to vote for her, choose to back C, who would get 60% of the vote. Voters for C really don't like A. It happens all the time.

            The mathematical concept of a lattice is another example with items which can be ranked, but not necessarily compared.

            More important to me than the above are azaleas.

            Some plants in my garden massively cover themselves with flowers and are a focal point. Approaching the plant, you realize that each individual flower is not special in any way.

            On the flip side, there are some plants with intricate, multi-colored flowers that bear slow inspection. But (you knew there was a “but” coming) the plants are scraggly and uninteresting.

            Which of the two categories of plants is the “best?”

            In my garden, if a new bed could host hosta, ferns, and heucheras, everything would be fine. If only one type could appear, then hosta, which are larger, would be my choice. But if I could only have one plant there, heucheras would get my vote. Though small, they are much more colorful! Which do I think is best?

            Perhaps the concepts of “best,”, “We're Number One!” and “Champion” need to be retired, living out their lives on the porch, watching the world happily go by without them.


  1. FUNNY thing, Barney - looks like you're joining my campaign of words that need to be replaced in our common language. It's funny because it's a thing that happens whether or not we campaign. It's funny being aware of it during my lifetime.

    1. Actually, I'm more bothered by words that have been hijacked in my lifetime than words that need to be replaced. But, that's an essay for another time, and probably not on the gardening blog.