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If you have never taken morphine, the cognitive effects can be surprising. A while ago I went into the hospital for surgery and was kept for a few days after, with a morphine drip in my arm. I felt perfectly lucid. But the lucidity had holes in it, through which alternative views of events would seep in and out. When my wife visited, she told me a funny story about a squirrel trying to hijack our backyard bird feeder. I listened carefully. Then she stopped. Apparently she thought the story was over. I had to ask what happened with the other things: the five Chinese things. She made me promise I wouldn’t use my cell phone for business calls.
Also, a doctor visited. He showed up in the doorway of my room, along with two interns. He introduced himself and his friends. He said they were the pain team, and he asked “How is your pain?”
I reflected on the situation. I had heard that some hospitals, or maybe nursing homes, occasionally brought in pets to keep the people happy. If I recalled correctly they brought in entertainers, too. The doctor had an odd way of scrunching his eyebrows. As I studied him, it dawned on me what the case must be: “Are you a comedian?”
The doctor said “Oh yes, I am. Now, how is your pain, on a scale of one to ten?”
Put that way, the question broke through the haze. And it bamboozled me. I don’t think about pain in quantitative terms. Intensity-wise, pain is either scary bad or just annoying. It either stops what I’m doing — can’t move, can’t sleep, can’t think — or it is, as they say, tolerable. Pain might recede and swell, like the phases of the moon. It can be felt as a piercing sensation, an oppressive ache, or some other feeling. Pain has many aspects that cannot be described by a number.
To satisfy the doctor, I fished up a number. But the memory of the incident lingered. I added it to a growing catalog in my head of the many things in life that we quantify. We assign ratings by the numbers to everything from job satisfaction to a person’s attractiveness to the quality of a movie. The trend is vexing. It’s a mental perversion. The art of measurement, which was invented as a tool for understanding and building, is applied where it doesn’t belong and gets turned into a device for dithering. Don’t a lot of the numerically rated items simply come down to either-or propositions? You quit the job or you stay. You go on a date with the person (maybe to see the movie) or you say no thanks. Stop playing with numbers and make a choice, already.
We are being seduced by statistics and numbed by numerology. And I admit that the we includes me. Thinking back to the hospital stay, I noticed a telling detail. Although I had no clear idea what the Chinese things were, I figured I knew how many there were. Five. And I must have thought the number mattered or I wouldn’t have said it. Here’s a case of a quantification skeptic learning how deeply quantification is drilled into himself.
Very often, numbers do matter. They matter when they represent realities that matter. We learn this from childhood. If Johnny gets three cookies and I get two, I will want to know what’s up with that.
People have wanted a quantitative grasp of their world since prehistoric times. The ordered markings on one ancient “tally stick,” the Ishango bone, suggest that members of an African culture more than 20,000 years ago took a systematic approach to counting and calculating. Artifacts from the early Egyptian dynasties, about 5,000 years ago and thereafter, show numbers put to all sorts of uses: to count cattle and captives, to compute the shapes of buildings, to teach students how to multiply and divide.
The beat has gone on throughout the so-called march of progress. Much of what we do today has been made possible by people using numbers to get a handle on things. I wasn’t always a writer. In college, I earned an engineering degree. Thought I might have a future designing airplanes. You should be grateful I didn’t stick with it, because the persons who do that work have learned to be far more adept than me at computing loads and stresses and rates of change. Thanks to the number-crunchers, the wings won’t fall off. Thanks to numerical analysis of physical phenomena, your toilet flushes just right — most of the time, anyway — and the billions of tiny transistors in the main chip in your phone run software that directs you to a restaurant, and takes a picture of your meal. Which is made from ingredients delivered through supply chains figured out by math.
Numbers give us warning signs: blood pressure. Money in the bank account. Parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Sometimes we don’t heed what the numbers tell us. But when we do, we often find that by mastering certain numbers we can master the corresponding parts of reality.
All of which helps to explain the over-fascination with numbers. Because they are so useful, they have acquired a mystique. Adding quantification to anything can make it look rigorous and credible. As the practice grows, more and more numbers cascade over a population in which many of us don’t have the basic mathematical fluency to question or judge the numbers. It’s common for people to scoff at numbers they don’t like — the old “lies, damned lies, and statistics” mindset — while paying undue homage to others. And nearly all of us let our lives be run by numbers, to an extent we take disturbingly for granted.
Do you eat by the numbers? I am constitutionally thin, so I don’t count calories. However I like to stay fit, and as part of that pursuit, I go to a gym where racks and stacks of weights are labeled with numbers. I follow routines of lifting and moving X-much resistance Y-many times. And every morning at home I step on a scale that had better show Z pounds, plus or minus one or two. If I’m going to be thin I want to be fashionably thin, not like a skinny snake with a bulge in the middle from swallowing a rat.
Could these goals be met without quantification? Of course they could. For exercise, I could do something practical, like volunteering to carry bricks and boards at a Habitat construction site. There are objects at my gym that I’ve lifted and lowered thousands of times without making the world a bit better. As for monitoring body weight: that’s easy. No need for a scale. All you need is a pair of pants. If they get tighter you’re gaining and looser means the opposite.
But the numbers are reassuring. They give me comfort and confidence. When I hit my numbers, it’s like scoring 1600 on the SAT, in order to get into a college where only 5.2% are accepted while the rest have to go somewhere that’s not in the top 40.
You’ve probably heard all the criticisms of standardized tests and college rankings. Allow me to put in my two cents. As someone who in fact aced the SAT and similar tests — but who then goofed off probably more than he should’ve at a fine university, and who in adult life has displayed episodes of colossal stupidity — I would not trust any attempt to put a number on a person’s intelligence. To begin with, just as there are different kinds of pain, there are different ways of being smart. Intellectual intelligence, the kind I scored high in, consists of knowing about things plus mental agility. It’s a great asset in activities from Jeopardy! to R&D. But the course of one’s life may depend more on the bundle of qualities called emotional intelligence: staying in balance through the twists and bumps, making good plans and following up, etc.
There are tests for emotional intelligence, too, though I would argue that this kind utterly defies measurement. We are talking about measuring somebody’s soul. Furthermore, even the best test of this or that type of smartness will capture only a slice in time. Humans can learn. It’s our evolutionary calling card. Bobby Fischer, the late world chess champion, first made waves at age 14, when he jumped from winning “junior” tournaments to beating grownup masters for the U.S. title. Asked how he did it, Bobby gave a simple answer: I got better. Can you put a number on a person’s ability to get better? On the desire to get better?
Fischer’s later life became a grotesque case of excelling in one kind of intelligence and failing in others. He grew into the world’s best at chess, then lost the championship by refusing to defend it. Contrarian and outspoken, he devolved from being a dapper, quotable media celebrity to a disheveled spewer of anti-Semitic hate speech and absurd accusations. At times, Fischer went almost penniless and stayed in friends’ homes, even while ignoring million-dollar offers to play the game he loved. Never formally diagnosed with a mental illness, he remained rational enough to avoid being committed for treatment, despite clashes with legal authorities worldwide. Bobby Fischer’s final score: a ranking by experts as the 3rd-greatest chess player in history. And a lonely, premature death at 64 in Iceland, a country willing to grant residence to a global pariah. Statistics that might explain who he really was have eluded computation so far.
Numbers aren’t strictly a human invention. They seem to be embedded in nature. Mother Nature has an inherent fondness for ratios and limits, and the numbers in her genes are transmitted to her children.
The days of our lives are numbered. Each of us has a counter inside. You will get a certain number of heartbeats — a large but finite number — and when the counting stops, you’re done.
It is important not to be spooked by this fact. Living in constant dread of the inevitable may actually cut your tally stick shorter.
And yet, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, we rage, rage against the counting of the beats. While at the same time, to paraphrase Eliot’s Prufrock, we measure out our lives in countable chunks of whatever. In dollars per hour and minutes per hour; in schedules and bleeping reminder alerts on the phone. In percent body fat and BMI and KPIs (key performance indicators) and ROI.
On the societal scale we also accept a weird conundrum — our primitive, numerically driven system of government. It is a system based on forming hostile hordes that vote against one another. The side that accumulates the most votes, by as little as a fraction of one percent, gets to control the contested turf. This system has reduced the management of our country to a bitter numbers game. It’s a divider, not a uniter, walling off chances for creative collaboration. We accept it because it has insulated us (so far) from a much worse number-problem, having a single tyrant or cadre rule the millions. But is it an optimum solution?
Now that computers can do an amazing variety of chores, it’s easy to forget what they are designed to do. Computers compute. Grounded in a simple number system (1s and 0s), and programmed in exotic ways, they can deploy mathematical and statistical methods to churn out results that don’t look quantitative at all. Images. Words. Opinions.
This is astounding. And unsettling. It seems to imply that by starting from numbers, one can get anywhere. Conversely, It implies that even the numbers we can’t see are capable of running us.
Perhaps one of the new AIs could write this essay more skilfully than I’ve been able to. I don’t know. And I don’t worry about whether an AI will take my job, or start thinking for itself so selfishly that it wrecks the world. As for the former risk, all I can do is keep exerting my flesh-bound powers to “add value” and therefore justify a place in the market. As for the latter, I suppose I could send a letter to someone about it. Like, to my numerically chosen rep in Congress. A letter by ChatGPT would be nice.
Copyright 2023 Mike Vargo
Mike Vargo is a runner, bicyclist and freelance writer who lives in Pittsburgh.
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I think humanity, in the end, will live a life of no work. And many a think-tank has already speculated that it will be cheaper to keep most of us at home and pay us a reasonble salary. After all, they can’t let 5 billion people simple starve to death. And money will be there – as it is now.
What I took from this article as the most thought-provoking bit is that numbers make music, images, words, opinions. The Universe is numbers. The mind boggles.
Still, I am glad I am on the last leg. Shall watch it all from somehee else when it all truly takes off.
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Well-said, Rose Mary! Thanks.
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This is one of those long articles I was going to put off til after breakfast, but then I read a little and then a little more and now my hot protein drink is lukewarm and I have finished the article. Excellent. Worth it. Thank you!
HA! Thanks for sharing this, Barbara. I think the article is excellent as well.
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Thank you, Barbara. And I’ve just visited your blog – best wishes with your next steps!
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And by the way, if anybody else is reading this string: Click on Barbara’s name and see her blog post of April 18.
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Thank you, Mike. Yes, I enjoy reading Barbara Huntington’s blog.
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