Saturday, March 04, 2006

in praise of numerical knowledge

When I was younger, I spent quite alot of time in art classes, practicing drawing, even as the art world turning to digital media. Then, through the transmutation of the liberal arts, I shifted from artist to art historian to psychologist to linguist to computational linguist. All of the math classes I have taken have not involved calculus, but instead have been varying iterations of my final high school math course, Probability and Statistics. Statistics are the anti-cartoons, instead of absrtactness, they are hard reality. One does not place them in the same inspirational realm, because they tend to be used to illustrate a problem, a case of misplaced priorities. Yet predictive capablities are at the heart of what makes humans successful as a species, as well as individually. Observe these statistics from Slate:
My former colleagues at the World Bank have also been counting away: How many official signatures does a farmer in the Central African Republic need to obtain before he's able to get his bananas on a ship bound for America or Europe? 38. How many official procedures must a businessman in Lagos go through in order to legally buy a warehouse? 21.

This kind of counting—done with the help of local lawyers and public officials—shares common ground with Galenson's work. It transforms a qualitative impression ("Nigerian bureaucracy is painful") into a quantitative fact; it does so through the intermediation of experts, and uses a perfectly transparent process.

[...]the World Bank report Doing Business in 2006 can show Central African Republic officials which 37 of the 38 signatures aren't required in a well-functioning economy such as Germany.

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