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Word Problem
by Bruce Holland Rogers

    Stan has traveled 29.3 kilometers from his home in Toronto to the home of his friend in a Mississauga high-rise. Before he gets out of his car, Stan puts on a surgical mask, leather gloves, and sunglasses.
    Stan wears the mask because he is worried about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a disease which has a global case fatality rate of between seven and fifteen percent -- estimates vary. He is also worried about Ebola haemorrhagic fever, which has a global case fatality rate of about 90%. Two nearly-recovered patients with SARS are presently 47.2 kilometers away from Stan in Toronto General Hospital. The nearest Ebola patients are in Africa, 12,580 kilometers from Stan.
    Stan is not worried about Mrs. Imelda Foster, who is cleaning a penthouse apartment. If Stan even knew about Mrs. Foster, he would appreciate her enthusiasm for bleach as a disinfectant. Mrs. Foster's eyesight is not what it used to be, and she compensates by going over the same surface repeatedly.
    Stan wears gloves because he is worried about spider bites. The only venomous spider in Ontario is the northern widow, Latrodectus various, which produces venom fifteen times as toxic as the venom of a prairie rattlesnake. Although the spider injects much less venom than a snake with each bite, nearly one-percent of L. various bites are fatal. Fatalities are concentrated in the very young and the very sick. Stan is thirty-seven years old and in good physical condition. Still, he does not put his hand where he cannot see, and he wears gloves just in case.
    Stan is not worried about Tanya Scott, the four-year-old girl who lives in the penthouse apartment where Mrs. Imelda Foster is cleaning. If Stan knew of little Tanya's existence, he would appreciate Mrs. Foster's diligence with the vacuum cleaner everywhere in the apartment, even on the balcony. There are zero spider webs in the penthouse apartment.
    Stan wears sunglasses. The sun is expected to radiate peacefully for another 5 billion years, but in the course of that time its luminosity will double to a brilliance that Stan finds alarming.
    Stan does not worry about a glass swan figurine weighing 457 grams. Yesterday Tanya Scott moved the swan from its place on the coffee table to the balcony railing where she could see it in the sunlight. Tanya left the swan on the railing. Mrs. Foster does not see the swan when she brings the vacuum cleaner out to tidy up the balcony. She knocks the swan from the railing with the vacuum cleaner wand.
    At the moment that the swan begins its descent, Stan is 38 meters from a point directly below the falling swan. He is proceeding toward that point in a straight line and at a steady pace of 3.2 kilometers per hour. A falling object accelerates at the rate of approximately 10 meters/second/second. The railing is 112 meters above the sidewalk.

Question: Is Stan worrying about the right things?

About the author:
Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have won two Nebula Awards, the Bram Stoker Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Some of his work has been published in over a dozen languages. His short-short stories are available by email subscription at Rogers lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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