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Numerical Nonsense and Numbing Numbers

Peter M. Lutterbeck @ January 9, 2008 # One Comment

Not those telephone digits again! Have you observed in today’s movies when phone numbers are provided they frequently begin with “555”? Naturally this is trivia, and of course using other numbers might encourage someone to dial the full number and begin stalking the actual person in a given community. Would viewers really try to dial such numbers? Can you imagine the litigation that would ensue if something untoward would happen? I might start subscribing to the “Stalkers Gazette.”

This quirky phenomenon jogged an entire cascade of recall of the endless American passion to decipher all happenings into numbers and permutations. The most benign and convoluting pursuit relates to the traditional American sports of baseball, football and basketball with ice hockey, tennis and especially golf getting on the bandwagon of an ever expanding statistical analytical mania. Then there’s World Cup stats for skiing, ski-jumping, motorcycle races for a wide range of cubic centimeters, and so on to virtually include every competitive activity. Will synchronized swimming be next? To reinforce the athletic importance in our daily conversation, the entertainment industry introduces ever more “sporty” expressions. How often have you heard, “how many times has he scored?” (referring to encounters with the opposite sex) or “three strikes and you’re out” or “slam-dunking” your point to get across a message. For the bizarre appraisal, how about “that’s from left field.” Note the use of “an end-run” to avoid conflict in troubled times. Isn’t this an ingenious way for men to bond and exclude females? And for emphasis, many commercials are set in the men’s locker room. Are these places where bank loans fetch attention? Michael Jordan’s jersey sells everywhere, but without the number”23” there’s no real sale—it’s not considered authentic.

TV coverage is laden with splashes of performance statistics that could be confused with space station status reports. It’s reached the point where we men are lost without our women to fetch the beer since we wouldn’t want to miss the next panel of numbers. These would provide soul-searching insight why the favorite is off and the tabloid account of a 3 a.m. disco might have accounted for his losing to an unknown.

Now for more serious events such as the Gulf War I. CNN was virtually convulsed tabulating the number of scud missiles that targeted Israel as in whether it was now number 33 or 34, and of these, how many were partially or completely destroyed by anti-missiles. As a few splashed in the water, commentators were breathless to learn from their crouching on-site reporters whether the latest was the third or fourth. Interviewing locals on the number of loved ones lost and at what hospital they were being treated for how long was bizarre. What did we expect them to say and were they keeping score cards on misery? Do the reporters get overtime for these inane questions? The incessant queries as to exactly how many were injured or dead, or how many were children involved – whether it was 42 or, due to another report, 43 or even 44, took up critical reporting time denying insight into bigger issues such as whether evacuation procedures were in place or if noxious gases or even germ warfare was in progress. Of course, in due time most was covered. The point is only that attention to “numbers” was disproportional approaching the upper end of the Richter Scale Status for Trivia. The bombardment of numbers numbs the nervous system. To wallow on people’s misery and response to catastrophic happenings qualifies for Tales from the Crypt.

Further back in time that was so disturbing to me was the reporting of the Vietnam War. Aside from the human aspects – and they were often placed aside – the Viet Cong body counts made by speedy U.S. jets often gave comfort to the American public because on a certain 7-day period the average weekly count had been exceeded by 32% for the month and 23% above the average for the past three months! If one didn’t pay enough attention, one might have thought the report was coming from the New York Stock Exchange.
At the time, I lived in a city where a company resided that provided the landing gears for the U.S. combat jets. Each time one or more was shot down, the stock price rose and many of the locals “cheered” for their stock holdings in this company.

The latest fad tossed about in the media is the number of homicides by different age groups. Some cities report dramatic falls in killings and even robbery. One omitted explanation might be due to a drop in potential victims as eventually more are apt to escape to what they believe as more peaceful surroundings. Now it appears that killings continue throughout the nation, but are scattered reaching the smallest hamlet. And how reliable is the accounting?

On a grander scale of numbing numbers are the reports of genocide and refugees in the Balkan and African communities. However tragic, such statistics obliterate a sense of awareness and comprehension. We hear of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and eventually millions. Will the American press shy away from numbers due to downsizing their foreign correspondent staff? Or lack of computer capacity for body counts?

Anyway, Joe Blow in Nowhere, U.S.A. is too busy securing his home and purchasing guns to protect himself. He doesn’t believe the numbers how safe he is. There is something absolute about a number and especially when your own number is up. And then it’s 100%.

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