NUMBERS, NUMBERS, NUMBERS
Milan, 9 May 2017
In Los Angeles, with some prodding from our daughter, my wife and I started our exercise regimen again, quietly put aside when we left Bangkok. Once a week, we went to a shop on Wilshire Boulevard to check progress. We would get on a machine which would do some sort of body scan and give us our body weight, our percentage of fat, our water retention ratio, and other fascinating pieces of data about ourselves. Bottom line: we were losing weight and our body fat percentages were dropping, but only very gradually. There was nothing for it, we were also going to have to go on a diet.
Once back in Italy, I took over the kitchen. This was going to be done scientifically! Every morsel of food we wanted to eat or drink would have its caloric make-up clocked into my computer and would be rigorously measured before it passed our lips. So I burrowed into vast online data banks of nutritional values, dusted off the kitchen scales, and got to work. And now my life has been taken over by numbers: 200, 250, 300 calories, 60, 80, 100 grams, 5, 10, 15 ml …
Meanwhile, we have ramped up our exercise regimen, where numbers also invade our minds: 10, 9, 8 seconds to go, 15, 16, 17 lifts, …
At the same time, we have been anxiously watching the results of the French elections: 21.5%, 32.8%, 46.6%. On Sunday night, we got the final numbers: 66%, 34%. But soon we will be anxiously scouting the news for the numbers in the French legislative elections. And then the U.K. elections …
And then there are all the timetables we seem to be scanning all the time: 10:47, 12:52, 14:35, 16:50, …
And we mustn’t forget the bank account and the investment portfolio and the euro-dollar exchange rate: 1.110, 1.060, 1.035, 1.091, …
Numbers, numbers, numbers …
As Charlie Brown might have said:
But wait, I mustn’t shoot the messenger. Numbers aren’t the problem. Numbers are beauty. The Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos once said, “I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren’t beautiful, nothing is”, while several thousand years earlier Pythagoras had put it more poetically: “There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres” and “The stars in the heavens sing a music if only we had ears to hear”.
No, it’s just that life is now horribly complex – I turn once more to Charlie Brown.
Long gone are the days when human beings could get by counting “one, two, many”, although it seems there are still a few remote tribes who can get through life with just this as their counting systems.
For this they needed to count: how many bushels of wheat did you give this month, how many skins of beer, how many goats, how many days of work, how many, how many … They invented tokens like these to keep count.
And gradually, gradually, those tokens led us to this: roomfuls of accountants, keeping count of everything.
And now we have computers keeping count.
Well, I may mutter curses at the Mesopotamians, but do I want to live like this?
I don’t think so. So I’d better just get back to the kitchen and start counting the numbers for supper.
Mesopotamian city: https://app.emaze.com/mobile/@AWCFWOLL
Mesopotamian tokens: http://www.maa.org/press/periodicals/convergence/mathematical-treasure-mesopotamian-accounting-tokens
Roomful of accountants: http://www.scoutingny.com/love-sex-on-the-upper-west-side-the-filming-locations-of-the-apartment/
Roomful of servers: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3rfici
Kalahari bushmen: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2016/03/17/how-britain-connived-in-the-end-of-the-kalahari-bushmen/