Posted tagged ‘numbers’

Simpler Palin and the Numbers fiasco post.

August 29, 2008

Update: For perspective, by all means check out Sarah Palin’s new blog. (h/t Kevin Drum)

I just posted 1300 words trying to find a new angle to suggest just how bad John McCain’s judgment was in choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate.  Two quick hit follow ups:  the key to remember is that this choice reveals more about McCain’s fitness for the office he seeks than it does about Palin’s for hers.  Andrew Sullivan calls this an F.U. choice and that seems to me to be about right.

And as I was hitting “publish,” it occured to me that there was a really simple numerical comparison that would suggest which level she has reached in her climb through the minor leagues of American politics.

That is, while it seems at least plausible that someone with the title “Governor” might be a reasonable potential President, someone who has been the mayor of a middle sized city for twenty months would never have been considered a viable Vice Presidential nominee.

The American city nearest in population to the state of Alaska is Fort Worth, Texas.  It’s budget of 1.2 billion dollars is about one fifth the size of the state’s.  San Francisco’s budget of about 6.1 billion is right in the ball park

So try it on just for the sound of it.  How does “your next Vice President of the United State’s, Fort Worth Mayor Sarah Palin” sound?  Not so plausible?  Or, “Twenty months into her first term leading the City and County of San Franciso, Mayor Sarah Palin is ready to lead the free world?”

Alaska is a little state.  It’s not easy running anything — I sucked wind trying to keep my tiny, tiny little production company going.  But there is  an enormous qualitative difference between Governor Palin’s existing base of knowledge and that required to play in the Show.  She’s been playing in the Cape Cod League until now — maybe batting clean-up, but still, you don’t leap from the Brewster Whitecaps to the Washington Nationals in one step.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “Baseball players practicing,” 1875.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Integers we have loved — in honor of National Poetry Month

April 15, 2008

This blog talks a lot about the importance of quantifying things — using numbers to abstract from the details of experience. What I rarely add in sentences like that is that there is a purpose to such abstraction: to find meaning deeper than the surface impressions with which we begin.

Well — you take insight where you can get it, and this morning, I got up early to attend my son’s Second Grade class Poetry Cafe. There each of the sixteen kids got up and recited a favorite poem from memory. One of my son’s friends, Sparky, got up and declaimed about four stanzas of Mary Cornish’s “Numbers.”

Soulless thug that I am, I had never come across it. Hearing it in that squeaky seven-year-old voice, I found it captured precisely the idea I have labored to express. Numbers are generous, in that “they are willing to count anything or anyone.” All I’m asking is that we embrace such kindness.

National Poetry Month it is…so enjoy.

Numbers

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition–
add two cups of milk and stir
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
garden now.

There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.

–by Mary Cornish.

Originally published in Poetry magazine, Volume CLXXVI, Number 3, June 2000.

Image Person Scott Foresman, “Abacus,” copyright donated to the Wikimedia Foundation.

The half a percent solution: More on why we are losing/have lost the war in Iraq

February 22, 2008

Congressman Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania gave a brutally clear interview on NPR’s On Point program yesterday. The whole thing is worth a listen, but a key comment came fairly early on.

Murphy was promoting his new memoir and talking about his experience as a member of a unit of the 82nd Airborne in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. As the occupation was beginning, a total of 3,500 soldiers from that division had responsibility for a district of Baghdad that was home to about 1.5 million Iraqis.

Bit of background here: Murphy’s dad was (is?) a Philadelphia cop. Murphy had expected to be one himself, but the twists and turns of a somewhat hellraising youth led him to ROTC and a career in the US Army. But he knew from policing, and he’s got Phillie in his bones. The key fact that Murphy gave his listeners is that from a policing point of view, Philadelphia is just about the same size as his area of operation in Baghdad.

How many cops does Philadelphia use to police its 1.5 million residents? 7,000. Oh — and a couple of other things: Police officers in Philadelphia speak the local language, live in neighborhoods in (and, to be sure, around) the city, and many if not most have family roots that go back one or more generations into that community. The 82nd Airborne in Bagdad…not so much.

To Murphy this was just one more example of how badly conceived and led the Iraq operation was from the beginning. That’s certainly true, and the more important meaning of the comparison.

But to me what stood out from that couple of sentences in an almost hour long interview, was the importance of scientific –and more precisely — quantitative reasoning in every day life.

One of the great things about real quantitative reasoning is that it is a very efficient way to think about appropriate problems. Individual military engagements, of course, are all different; there are procedures, training and plans you can make to improve your odds of success, but there is no simple algorithm that is going to get your platoon through every contact with the enemy.

Warfare, however, does have some quantitative approaches that make individual successes more likely and minimize both the liklihood and the consequences of single set backs. That’s the point behind the old cliche often attributed to Omar Bradley: “Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.” (The quote turns up all over — see this for example.)

That is, actually getting right the calculation for the number of spare parts you need to keep a tank running across Russia makes a big difference to your chances of success — see Richard Overy’s excellent Why the Allies Won for details.

Coming back to Murphy’s anecdote, the other virtue of quantitative reasoning as applied to Iraq, (besides being essential — i.e. we see what happens when our leaders ignore it), is that it is efficient.

It enables you to learn a lot about different courses of action, retrospectively or in prospect. And it does so very quickly. It turns out that in many situations you don’t need much knowledge to be able to infer a great deal more, with great confidence. Simple models based on relatively simple and easy to get data actually can do a lot of heavy lifting.

(As an aside — the PBS kids show Cyberchase takes this as its core theme. My seven year old son is addicted, and I’m glad.)

Try this one on for size: what are minimums for policing large urban populations during an occupation? You could start by looking at a few large cities already at peace — Philadelphia for example. We know, thanks to Captain-turned-Congressman Murphy that Philly runs out about one cop for about every 200 citizens.

You can take that as a working average for cities with a diverse populaton with some identity divisions between them, a working civil government, an established rule of law, and a common language, shared history, and a fair number of common civic symbolic unifiers — a disdain for Santa Claus at Eagles games and so on.

In other words, 1/200 is your starting approximation for policing requirements when you begin to think about taking over the responsibility for order in an unfamiliar territory.

You would, if you were the least bit prudent (or if your own skin and those of soldiers under your command were at stake), probably try to work out some of the factors that might alter that number: things like ethnic/sectarian divisions more intense than you were used to; language barriers; the absence of existing civil institutions; the lack of a history of rule of law and so on.

The bottom line is that there is no rational way to come up with a number smaller than that required to police a city at peace whose police force patrols with the active consent of the overwhelming majority of the policed.

Hence, the decision to station just 3,500 soldiers whose duties included but were not limited to maintaining civil order in an occupied city neighborhood as large as Philadelphia was an obvious error — one of a pattern of blunders that has cost so much for so long.

And the key lesson to draw out of all this belaboring of the obvious? It took only two numerical facts to reach that conclusion: the number of police in Phillie; the number of troops in the neighborhoods of Baghdad. You don’t have to be brilliant to think clearly.

You just have to choose to do so, and to employ the intellectual tools human beings have spent millenia developing to do so.

I want a President that can count beyond “one, two, three, many.”

Image: Etienne Jeurat, “Prostitutes transported by the Police,” 1755. Source: (via Wikimedia Commons) The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. Licensed under a GNU Free Documentation License.