DAY 209: Who counts?

April 24th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m getting a bit upset these last few days about the prospects of a) a nuclear war and b) a General Election – although these two disasters could cancel each other out in some incomprehensible way. In the meanwhile:

[This could be the start of my new book. In an inspirational moment, I realised that the beginning of the story of how mathematics oppresses people today’ is precisely how we count them, and what’s at stake. But read on:]

As you can read in my earlier book, mathematics and mathematicians began in Iraq (that’s one version of the story) when the despotic rulers singled out a privileged caste of ‘scribes’  whose value was that they could read, write and count – in particular, the people, their sheep, 600px_Numbers_and_measures_-_01_Proto-sumeriam_tablet

PROTO-SUMERIAN TABLET from Jemdet Nasr in Iraq records the rations allotted to a total of 40 men in the course of a five-day week. The signs farthest to the left in the top three rows indicate «Day 1», «Day 2» and «Day 3». The text on the reverse of the tablet indicates that each of the men received rations equivalent in value to two minor units of barley per day. Barley was the currency of the period. The triangular sign near the right end of the fourth row probably means «workers». The tablet is in the British Museum. (Joran Friberg) 

their rations of beer, and so on. Counting was – and still is – an important means of control. So let’s begin by looking at some recent examples of what , or who, gets counted, and the problems of the process.

1. The ongoing project ‘Iraq Body Count’, is dedicated to maintaining a count of the number of civilian deaths in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003. (In fact, combatant deaths are listed separately.) Clearly, the count can never be complete, and indeed it is constantly being updated by new reports. The figure for Wednesday 5th April 2017, for example, reads:
Wednesday 5 April: 119 killed
Mosul: 64 by air strikes; 3 executed; 1 by shelling.
Tikrit: 35 by suicide bomber, gunfire.
Baghdad: 4 by IEDs; 1 body.
Yusufiya: 2 by IED.
Hawija: 3 executed.
Baquba: 2 policemen by IED.
Rutba: 4 children by shelling.

These bald figures are supplemented by listings of individuals where possible (‘Anwar Mohamed Daoud’ or ‘Mother of dead girl’), with time and place and the incident recorded. There’s no doubt that underlying the scrupulous counting (and meticulous statistical analysis)IBC is a political exercise, intended to counter an official amnesia.

To make it more explicit: official statistics or lists of the dead in a conflict omit the identities. [The important exception is the patriotic war memorial whose function is to commemorate ‘our’ dead – who, by definition, have a personal identity which we deny to the enemy.]

2. The population of the ‘jungle’ informal refugee camp in Calais, opened in 2015 and closed in October 2016, has been a subject of intense controversy. The jungle was, for over a year, home to more than a thousand refugees, from Syria, Afghanistan and the Middle Eastern and African countries; it was forcibly cleared and destroyed in October 2016. Both the authorities and the charities at several times made estimates of the population, which was in any case always shifting, with constant arrivals and departures. There are essentially two ways of counting:

maximal or ‘census’, where you literally count every single person, ensuring that each is counted once and only once, which assumes that this is possible;

more approximate or ‘sampling’, where you divide the population into ‘clusters’ and estimate (i) the number of clusters and (ii) the population of each, using statistical methods to estimate how accurate the result is. In this case, the estimate comes wit a measure of its likely accuracy.

In either case, we have a contentious area; the numbers  varied widely between the authorities’ estimates and the charities’ figures. The best known example was the count, which attempted to be a census, carried out in February 2016 when the authorities announced their intention of clearing the southern part of the camp and relocating the displace residents in ‘containers’. The charities (MSF, Emmaüs, Care4Calais and others) appealed to the Lille court to reverse this decision, and to support their case carried out a detailed ‘count’, going fromcaltents tent to tent (they claimed) and  doing their best to ensure that every (even transient) resident was listed. They came up with the figure of 5497 residents, as against the official estimate of about 1000 – arrived at by sampling. The difference could hardly be more striking, and the implications for the proposed clearance were important. 1000 people could fit into the containers, 5000 couldn’t.

However, this apparent mathematical victory was not matched by a legal one: the Lille court did in fact give the green light for the proposed demolition.

One could also cite the politically important figures of attenders at demonstrations.  Of course it’s not possible to count these fluctuating populations, but again the estimates are hotly argued about, as was shown in the storm about Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ claim, as in:

‘Todd pressed Conway again on why the White House sent Spicer out to make false claims about crowd size, asking: “What was the motive to have this ridiculous litigation of crowd size?”
“Your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our president. That’s not your job,” Conway said.
Todd followed up: “Can you please answer the question? Why did he do this? You have not answered it — it’s only one question.”
Conway said: “I’ll answer it this way: Think about what you just said to your viewers. That’s why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.”‘
The ancient Babylonians might by this time well have been scratching their clay tablets. Were there alternative numbers of goats you could enter on your tablet? Obviously yes, for the purposes of tax evasion – but what then, as Pilate said, is the truth?
This was highlighted by the recent ‘Marches for Science’ _95746029_sciencegenevaacross the world – but I digress.Where I was (was I anywhere?) was trying to stress the importance, not only of counting, but of who you count and why. This is clearly a cue for Fairouz’s immortal song: ق ديش كان في ناس (‘Addeesh kan fi nas’, or how many people there were – though it’s not clear how many there were, or why Fairouz wanted to count them).
A ‘Black lives Matter; poem, with only tenuous connections to the rest of this post:
on tuesday,
dylann roof was sentenced to his death.
on tuesday we tried
to make one body feel like nine.
to make one body feel like justice.
on tuesday we said
there has got to be some price to pay
for entering the house of god
with a sinful tongue
and a,
six days later,
we remembered the rev. dr. martin luther king, jr.
we looked at the world,
called it a place with potential for change,
called it that because there has to be some softer way
to look at bloodshed,
for sanity’s sake.
if not then
all that remains is a solitary image of dr. king rolling in his grave because he knows,
knows that breathless black bodies
are a constant,
are transcenders of time,
whether sunken in rivers,
hung from taut ropes,
or bathing in blood on historic church floors,
singing, singing, screaming, shrill
for some messiah bringing mercy, mercy, mercy.felicia sanders wants mercy:
prays for it, wills it down from up above,
unfolded from the hands of god
so that it might fall upon the head and in the eyes
and within the very being
of the man who killed her takes a certain grace —
one so foreign to me i can hardly write of it —
to see god in such men who deliberately defy Him,
to ask that heaven’s gates
be so indiscriminate and overt.
i would want him to burn for this.
but it is not my say,
not my life,
not my long, resounding, unflinching “hallelujah!”
not my certain type of grace.

breathless black bodies
are a constant,
are transcenders of time, a recurring motif.
but so too, then, is the black body full
of breath,
that inhales and exhales faith
without ceasing.

such is the black body
that sees a little bit of god in dylann roof,
that prays that he prays for forgiveness,
that thinks there to be but one kingdom,
and he, too,
a worthy subject.

the solitary image of dr. king rolling in his grave
is not a surprise.
the black body has always known
so well
how to die.

but felicia sanders hopes her son’s killer finds mercy.
perhaps the one thing the black body has always known better
is how to love.


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