Monday, October 17, 2011

When Numbers Get Serious

"Innumeracy" is the math-class equivalent of illiteracy. More than a lack of an ability to read, people-- especially (and increasingly) Americans-- are very "bad at math." I am sure this can be proven with, yes, numbers.

Simon starts this song, one of the few on the topic, with the line "I have a number in my head." This is a reference to the common way of helping children decide who goes first in a game-- the adult thinks of a number, and the child who guesses closest to it goes first.

It can also be a reference to the idea of an "ear-worm," a song that gets stuck in one's head, often for no apparent reason ("I don't know why it's there.") In this case, the word "number" would be slang for "song," as in, "That was a hot jazz number."

With the advent of personal computing in the 1980s (something that has been in the news again, due to the recent passing of Steve Jobs), everything seemed to be reduced to numbers. Also, the National Debt was (and remains) a very serious number. Prices, dosages, credit cards, UPC codes on products and Social Security codes for people... things are increasing labelled to be able to manage the vast amount of information necessary for the (ahem) smooth running of a complex society: "When numbers are serious/ You see their shape everywhere."

However, if all things (and even, thanks to computer imagery, pictures of things) can be reduced to 1s and 0s, what's to keep those numbers from "slip-sliding" into each other: "Dividing and multiplying/ Exchanging with ease."

Our speaker's first conclusion: "When times are mysterious/ Serious numbers are eager to please." As Mark Twain put it-- "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." You can get numbers to say just about anything you'd want, they are so eager to please.

Then, the speaker worries about a problem that today we call "identity theft": "Here’s my address/ Here’s my phone [number]/ Now, please don’t give it to some madman." With just a few numbers-- one's credit card, phone, birthdate, Social Security number, and driver's license number, even an unskilled criminal can destroy your credit rating and plummet you into debt.

The ability to manipulate numbers is both necessary and confounding: "It’s a complicated life/ Numbers swirling, thick and curious/ You can cut them with a knife." And you had better have your knife ready, for when numbers attack: "When numbers get serious/ They leave a mark on your door," branding you as unworthy of credit... or credibility.

Telephone numbers are one of the more personal sets of numbers one has-- the code to communicate with you at will: "Here's my phone/ Call me if you can." But what if they do? "Urgent! Urgent! A telephone ringing in the hallways." You had better fulfill your end of the deal, and respond when summoned.

Because the people who are masters of numbers-- including accountants, bankers, stockbrokers, economists, tax professionals, scientists, and even doctors-- seem sorcerers to the rest of us, the ability to manipulate numbers can easily turn into the ability to manipulate people. (In fact, aside from our leaders reducing people to numbers, our language does to, as in: "One could readily see that a great number had thronged to the concert.")

And so: "When times are mysterious/ Serious numbers will speak to us always." Is the market up or down? What is gold trading at? How has the unemployment rate changed, and the interest rate, and inflation? Ask the so-called financial wizards: "That is why a man with numbers/ Can put your mind at ease."

Of course, there is no shortage of numbers: "We’ve got numbers by the trillions/ Here and overseas."

The next line, were it written today, would contain the word "China," since today, "Made in China" is the new "Made in Japan" (for a while, it was also "Made in Taiwan.")

What is the escape from all this? Where is the safe place, where one's identity cannot be stolen? Maybe personal relationships: "So wrap me... In the shelter of your arms... I won’t do you any harm."

And yet, even here numbers creep in: "I will love you innumerably/ You can count on my word." Why? "When times are mysterious/ Serious numbers will always be heard." More marriages break up over money than any other reason (of course, once the divorce lawyers get involved, there is even less to go around).

Ultimately, this nightmarish dividing of reality into packets of information is meaningless. Everything is of one piece, which is a conclusion that both religious and atheist observers have reached: "After all is said and done... the two becomes a one."

Next Song: Think too Much (b)

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