baby, it’s dark inside: the downside of posting online reviews

Here’s a scary story for Halloween. And it’s true.

Around 2007, I needed an electrician to address a faulty fluorescent light bulb in the guest bathroom. I had just signed up for Angie’s List, a subscription service that offered a database of “reliable” businesses, so I signed in and found Dominic.

Dominic was a good choice. He showed up on time. He was professional. He was knowledgeable. He analyzed and fixed the problem in under five minutes. As I recall, the fluorescent tube didn’t seat tightly. He charged $75 for the service, probably his minimum call-out fee.

Being a responsible Angie’s List participant, I wrote a review of my experience. The way the site was set up, the user rated several elements of the job (Was the problem fixed? Was the serviceperson on time?). You gave a letter grade for each and wrote a short narrative to sum things up. I gave Dominic “A” ratings for everything except for price, for which I gave him a “C.” According to the site, a C rating meant average. Dominic neither gouged me, nor cut me a deal. His prices were average. I was being fair.

A week or so after the review was posted, I came home to a dark house. The electricity was out. Based on the quality of food in the refrigerator, I guessed it had been out for several hours. My neighbors’ units were all fine. It was just me.

I checked the circuit breaker, which was the extent of my electrical knowledge. No problema. I was about to call Dominic for an emergency, off-hours visit, but my brother knows about these things, and even though he was 2,000 miles away, I thought he could give me some pointers.

Luckily, he answered his phone, which he never does, and he began working through what might have happened. After the basics, he suggested I check the main circuit breaker, which was located in my backyard, along with main breakers for my neighbors’ units. As I headed to the box, he mentioned something pretty significant would have to happen for the main switch to trip, but he was running out of ideas.

Even if the circuits hadn’t been labeled I could have identified my breaker because it was the only one in the “off” position. With my brother on the phone, and my fingers poised to dial 9-1-1 if the whole place blew, I flipped the switch. Voila! Power. It went on. And it stayed on. For the next five minutes and for the next 14 years. Just like it had since 1997, the year I’d moved in.

I’m not too savvy when it comes to statistics, but here’s my calculation: The main circuit breaker tripped once in 24 years, 8,766 days. The probability of a trip was about 0.0114%. And it happened a week after a mostly good, but not perfect, review of an electrician who knew who wrote it and where she lived. Coincidence? Maybe. But I’ve always been a teensy bit suspicious about how Dominic spent his lunch hour the day my house went dark.

May your Halloween be deliciously scary, but your day-to-day adventures a little less so.

Happy Candy Day, Sweet Readers.

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