Friday, February 07, 2014

The ontology of a number or What does it mean to get 1000 hits?


Last week, Google logged 100,000 hits to my blog; time to reflect. The blog exists since summer 2006, and I have managed to burden the world with 315 posts, no more than 10% of them are any good. So it is a minor miracle that the blog has attracted so many hits. One must keep in mind, a lot of my readers were robots – in the last year or so up to 20%. One of the most voracious fans I have called http://vampirestats.com. There used to be fewer robots among us? But hey welcome to the human family, since you came.

Google, the obsessive and meticulous bean counter keeps track of the most popular posts:
905
877
795
331
271
247
233
211
210
207

I understand about the #2 – The TFA main site picked it up, and they have a large audience. Why did the very top one about the non-linear text picked so many views, I have no idea, none at all. It was not that profound, more of a reflection on the web site we built for NCATE.

It is very hard for me to fathom who in France or Latvia looked at my blogs, which have always been intended mainly for internal audience – for people with whom I worked. Here is the number of hits by country.
United States
79489
Russia
6823
United Kingdom
867
Malaysia
844
Canada
798
Philippines
676
Germany
574
France
372
Ukraine
354
Latvia
331


All numbers are weird. Anything represented as a set of numbers gains in some respect, but also loses in other respects. That’s the game – by assigning something a quantitative characteristic, you make the devil’s pact and strip away all features not measured. Numbers always tell us more and yet infinitely less than stories, pictures, smells, and tactile sensations. Numbers are profoundly autistic, alienating, and just plain strange. If we don’t see this, it is because we have grown up with them, and worked with them for so long. They start seeming more homely and more familiar. But just take a hard look at any number, attached to something you actually experience in your life – the average number of children among your siblings, the rate of divorce in your extended family, and number of teeth your babies had on average by 18 months – you will just see how the quantitative way of understanding the world is distinct, frightening, and yet also weirdly comforting. Numbers are like the blanket a child uses to fend off monsters and wild animals – works well with the former, does not do much to the latter.

As I was working with masters students today and yesterday on their data collection plans, I wish I knew how to explain that with data, the reality is twisted and distorted – and at the same time achieves an awesome clarity and purity, inaccessible to us in any other way. I wonder how this double nature of numbers can be felt and experienced. Numbers are perhaps the strangest human invention, so abstract, it sings like the music of the spheres; it blinds like the sun in the windshield.

1 comment: