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August 23, 2003

Hard Times for the Numbers Fixated 

Paul Goodison has blogged some kind words about us. He also recalls:

Today I've sat through another presentation from my erstwhile MD. He was a bit more contemplative than the last presentation I went to, but what struck me again today was how much store he sets by numbers. Every piece of information is quantifiable, to the extent that when challenged by a fairly reasonable question, he attacked the questioner on what 'proof' did he have for his point of view? What were the numbers?

For Paul's boss, and for all those others out there who insist on reducing the mysteries of human interaction to a set of metrics, may I recommend reading Charles Dickens' Hard Times. There you'll find the tragic tale of Thomas Gradgrind, who runs his life on the basis only of hard facts, before meeting the all-too human consequences of his madness.

Or go to one of my favourite pages on the web, Literal Answers to Rhetorical Questions, wherein the ghost of Thomas Gradgrind offers such insights as:

Would you like to swing on a star?

Even supposing that I were to wish to do such a thing, it would be quite impossible. Swinging requires that the force of gravity be exerted in the direction opposite to the pivot of the pendulum, whereas if one were somehow to succeed in attaching a pendulum to even so small a star as a white dwarf the predominant pull of gravity toward the star would convert any such attempt into a rapid vertical plunge toward its surface and almost immediate death by evaporation.

Gradgrind also offers his statistically robust, highly measurable responses to questions like: Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Where Have all the Flowers Gone? and How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris?.

I think this provides a vital pushback to those who reduce humanity to numbers in the name of good management.
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