Friday, June 11, 2010

716 Take A Number

716 Take A Number

The markets gyrating and oil spilling into the gulf at who-knows-what-rate, maybe it's time to consider some ways we use numbers.

We all rely on them. We're trained to believe they are immutable, absolute and real. And in a vacuum, they often are. But they're rarely in a vacuum. Given that, it's pretty easy to fudge a figure. But it's not just fudging figures and cooking books that rattle our cages. It's more basic. Numbers, like words, often represent concepts. And when they do, we often don't grasp what they're trying to tell us.

Some examples, starting with little stuff: let's say the temperature on a January night is ten degrees, with the wind blowing from the north at at ten, giving us a wind chill factor that makes it feel like five below zero. C'mon. Five below, eight below, six above? Meaningless. We don't feel the difference. It's cold, and that's all we know. Same in summer. It's 96 degrees on an August evening and the humidity is 85%. You can't tell the difference between 94 and 96, all you know that it's rrrrreally hot and sticky.

The distance between New York and Los Angeles is about 3,000 miles and once you're wheels up, it takes in the neighborhood of six hours until you're wheels down, assuming all goes well, and no one is sets his shoes on fire or smokes in the boys room or loses his temper or makes bomb jokes. To Mars, the trip takes about a year. To Pluto, maybe eight years, which we still can grasp. But how about to the nearest solar system? That's measured in light years and once you're at that level, you have no context, no bearing and no clue.

Let's say a car hits a light pole in front of your house. End results include a busted up car, a busted up light pole and some cuts and bruises. Easy to understand. But if it's a 200 car pileup on the highway, even if you see the video on television, you have no real understanding of it.

A Marine is killed in Afghanistan. We "get" that and we mourn. Ten or 20 or 50? That we don't conceptualize. It's just numbers and they don't mean anything to us.

A tsunami or hurricane with significant damage? Unless we're there, it's just numbers. Does it make a difference if there are 180 thousand dead and injured and a mere 125 thousand? Of course it does. But it's unlikely we have an emotional understanding from the numbers alone.

Maybe this is built in self protection. Sympathy with a human calamity and making efforts to help are normal human reactions. But were the numbers and the concepts they represent fully able to hit us in the heart, we might be distracted to the point that we no longer could function.

So maybe there's a good reason to keep the "num(b)" in numbers.
Shrapnel:

--Anyone want an extra 716 commas, unused and in their original wrapping? They're the ones that haven't been placed between "own" and "but" in the signoff below. Thanks to all who advised against using them, which is everyone who responded.

--Congrats to the Blackhawks, winner of this year's Stanley Cup. First time since 1961. We Islander fans can sympathize.

--What goes around comes around. New York State has changed the background of its license plates to yellow, which last was used in 1986. Once again, cops on your tail will be able to read your tag.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010

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