On reasons to quantify

Math and Me, a Love-Hate story

I have a love-hate relationship with math. I stopped doing my homework for Kumon, the rote-practice math enrichment tutoring service, in grade 5, unbeknownst to my poor parents forking over the equivalent of my allowance every month to hard-working student markers flipping through blank worksheets. My grade 12 math teacher was awesome, and did the best to sow a passion for math in me, seeing how well I engaged and excited I could be with it all, but I could sense some vague, underexpressed disappointment when I told him I was majoring in Communication. Discrete math left its mark on me, because I let classes make their mark on me; but the final exam, filled with clear grasps of word problems and concepts and piss-poor implementations on any question requiring anything so much as resembling a calculations, soured me finally to the numbers. In this way, perhaps, I feel a great desire to be a computer scientist – since I’m in desperate need of outsourcing the heaviest lifting and counting to the machines, but I recognize enough how they tick to have an idea of where they can go.


Sometimes the arguments to mend my fences with math are nowhere to be found. Other times, they express themselves to my mind so clearly. This time, I’m blogging about it to make sure that I not only forget, but I make sure other people help me not to forget.

The reasons to quantify (in the sense of conducting rigorous, interesting quantitative research) have made one such revelation to me, somewhere between the lecture on China and the Urbanism of Ambition and the opening statements at the SCARP Symposium. It strikes me now that the minutiae of everyday life express themselves often in the unconscious, mute numbers that quietly (or sometimes, even quite loudly) describe our behaviour. We have more methods of capturing, storing, aggregating and sorting that data than we ever have previously. That means there has never been as much potential information and knowledge to be gleaned from this data ever before, to confirm, flesh out and better articulate wisdom. This wisdom may in many cases be things we already know, anecdotally, individually or even in larger organized groups, but for which we may collectively doubt, question and want to test because of its slippery, formerly difficult to illustrate nature.

Untold Number Stories

I want to tell the story of the numbers that get lost in our “pressed-up-to-the-glass”-ness of living our lives – together, often in cities but also organizations, communities, or small groups – subsisting the way our parents have shown us how because it was the way it worked for them, or the ways that we have shown ourselves to work for us. As we do more in the world that is counted and always counting (by which I mean “online”), the mere act of attention, and all the things that follow – sharing, conversing, consuming, action and production – become quantifiable. It begs us to be ever attendant to the limits of what the counting tells us – not the full inner story, but the shape and form of its cruchy outsides, and the impact and influence they have, colliding and dancing with other crunchy outsides.

Before I lose myself dreaming the dream of data, I remember what I learned during a 15-page essay on artificial intelligence: the gooey insides certainly, centrally matter. Those parts that can be sensed, felt, even measured, but perhaps not counted quite so easily. Counting finds footprints, measuring is a shoe catalogue and a diagnosis of feet. This is what well-rounded research is: numbers on the ground, numbers like days, counting together into years and stacking into educated, sound decisions; and descriptions, rich with the poetry and meaning of a moment not-so-hard to imagine, a little bit of old songs we can’t help but know and new songs we don’t know we already sing. Gathering this knowledge and wisdom is not entirety and sum all of life, but if it means scaling up enrichment, engagement, enlightenment…

Which Means…

Sure, I’ll go actually read The Zen of Empirical Research now.


Stephen Rees also reminds me of the things that we don’t know that we don’t know. These things speak to us in prophesy, precursors, shifts in the wind. I get the feeling that that’s what a good grasp of history and regional comparison is for – after all, this has all happened before and it will all happen again.

One Comment

  1. don't get me started on kumon and our mathematically ignorant culture and the failure of schools :-) needless to say our child will NOT be going to kumon or anything like it

    Posted March 14, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

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