The Closet Moderate: BREAKING: Humans Have Ten Fingers, Toes

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

BREAKING: Humans Have Ten Fingers, Toes

This 100 days triumph has got me annoyed, but not for the reason you may suspect. It bothers me for the same reason that the news stories a few years ago bothered me when they when on and on about the n-thousandth soldier killed in Iraq: the genesis of the story was that something has occurred involving a certain number, that number being a power of ten (or a multiple of a power of ten). These stories derive their significance from the fact that God (or Darwin) has created us with ten digits at the end of our limbs. If we had eleven fingers, like the villainous race of aliens in L. Ron Hubbard's bizarre classic, Battlefield Earth, we might have to wait until May 20th for this celebration. If we had evolved from the three-toed sloth, it would have happened on February 25th.


I'm not doubting that our Pontifex Maximus has served 10^2 days in office, or that he deserves to be deified by a grateful nation. It's demonstrably true (at least the first part is). Nor are these other bothersome stories false: 4*10^3 American soldiers were killed in Iraq; the Dow Jones Industrial Average once passed over 10^4, and has now receded below that figure. It's true, it's all true.

My problem is that these stories have little to do with their purported subjects. Instead, they are broad opinion-as-news pieces that use the 10^n figure as a bootstrap. The First 10^2 days stories have nothing to do with what President Obama did on April 29. The Dow 10^4 stories do not explain the details of the trade that moved that index above 10^4 points. The Iraq casualties stories do not talk about the life of the 10^3th man killed, what he died for, or why he fought. What they do contain is an editorial disguised as a news story. The First 10^2 days [Isn't Obama Great?!?]; Dow 10^4! [Will the Bull Market Never End?!?]; 10^3 dead in Iraq [Bush Lied, Kids Died!]

I've heard this "event" described as a milestone. Codswallop; a mile has 5,280 feet, as every schoolboy knows. This might be a hectometerstone, if anything. But people like to celebrate things, so why not get on the bandwagon? This is only The Closet Moderate's 96th post, but fear not: in base-12, that's 80!


Ellen said...

Ah, the math nerd sings in you... excellent post. If only everyone saw through cheap hooks so easily.

Anonymous said...

Well, as long as we're throwing out all these arbitrary distinctions, why should it be a number of days (rotations of the earth) at all, rather than, say, a proportion of the time it takes Venus to go through phases, or the lifespan of an average marmot?

Your last comment (about 96 being 80 in base 12) reveals the real value of these arbitrary base-10 (and other) distinctions; without them, as was pointed out by the great Harold Pinter[fn1], you can just draw the markings according to where you want your conclusions to be. Having an arbitrary but objective testing point avoids manipulations by interested parties; would you side with the tennis player who says it's meaningless that he didn't reach the arbitrary number of 3 sets first, or the football team whining that nobody pays attention to who was winning after 47 minutes of playing time?

And there's no particular reason why the stories about these marker days should be more biased than others. I think most of the hundred-days commentary has basically followed the prompt, "Obama's been in office about long enough to judge how he's doing." Similarly: "the Dow Jones sure is/was awful high," and "a whole lot of soldiers have died in Iraq." Without some kind of arbitrary marker, these stories can disappear into the Sorites paradox (because there's never one particular soldier, after the first, whose death makes the cost of war officially "high").

Oh, and I'm afraid you haven't entirely allayed my suspicions about the reason "this 100 days triumph has got you annoyed."

[1] No, not really, I'm just trying to irritate you.