You may have noticed that my retirement activities, at least in plague-free times, have essentially nothing to do with my past employment as a research chemist and patent agent. My classes at the local branch of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) tend to include history, music, art, and religion. I read to preschoolers. I sing in choral groups. I chant occasionally at synagogue. I study Jewish texts. I love words and read a lot. The closest I come to anything technical is maintaining a spreadsheet for our local Hadassah chapter.
So how did I come to major in chemistry? [Yes, this relates to the Torah portion. Bear with me.] As I look back, I think it wasn’t simply that I found it interesting and challenging. Nor was only it that in 1970 I no longer felt I had to be an elementary school teacher (worthwhile, familiar, “a good job for a woman”). I wanted a stable career, not an unreasonable desire back then, with interesting, challenging work and good pay. I also wanted to stay away from fields that were too subjective. [I remember my mother’s story of always getting C’s from one particular high school English teacher. She finally handed in an essay her older brother had got an A on at Penn; it got a C.] Even though I enjoyed history, literature, and the like, I wanted to feel I was being judged fairly and objectively and, in my naivete, thought that meant science, where results were quantitative and their worth obvious. [Excuse me while I laugh hysterically for a few moments.] Numbers don’t lie.
However, their meaning is not always obvious, especially when you’re talking about data. [In God we trust. All others bring data.] It’s important to know how you got the data, how reliable your method is, and, especially with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, your motives and values. [See, e.g., Failing the Test — The Tragic Data Gap Undermining the U.S. Pandemic Response] Do you want to learn where the hot spots are geographically so they can be cordoned off? Do you want to analyze your region’s death rate trajectory? Do you want to identify what groups are most and least vulnerable? Do you want your region to reopen so badly that you are willing to ignore hot spots or distort data to “show” that the death rate is dropping, even if it isn’t? If you’re afraid of finding too many positives, are you unscrupulous enough to just limit the number of tests or prevent release of the results? After all, if you don’t see it, it isn’t there.
Which, finally, brings us to this week’s Torah portion. Bamidbar (literally, in the wilderness, i.e., of Sinai) is the name of both the portion and the new book. The book is called Numbers in English. This portion has a lot of counting and numbers in it. As I wrote here a few years ago, direct counting of people is generally frowned upon in Jewish law and even seems to evoke fear of the attracting the evil eye (Rashi, “the evil eye controls something which is counted”). The half-shekel head tax we read about in Exodus 30:11-16 enabled a census of men, aged 20 and up, via indirect counting, the purpose being individual expiation. The money went toward the Tabernacle service.
The Israelites are only about 13 months into their journey, so why is there another census? This one is primarily to identify men 20+ to bear arms, since they are supposed to begin their conquest of the Promised Land in only a matter of months. The potential soldiers are duly counted, a total of 603,550 men. The tribes are assigned positions where they will camp around the Tabernacle, three tribes on each side, in the order of march: first, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun; second, Reuben, Shimon, and Gad; third, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin; and fourth, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. Total: 603,550. The order comes from a consideration of military strategy, family birth order, mother’s rank, and future potential (e.g., even though Judah was only the 4th son, he is the de facto leader and that tribe goes first).
The Levites are counted separately, males aged 1 month and up, because their function is separate, namely, the Tabernacle’s maintenance, set up, disassembly, and portage. The Levite clans are encamped adjacent to the Tabernacle on all sides. They serve in lieu of the first-born Israelites. Right now, however, there happen to be more first-born Israelites than Levites, so the extra ones are “redeemed” for 5 shekels each. This is where we get the pidyon haben ritual, the re-enacted redemption of a month-old, Israelite, first-born son.
Still more counting: This coming week, we will complete the counting of the Omer and observe the least-noticed major holiday in the Jewish calendar, Shavuot. More on that soon.
Please Don’t Answer This 2020 Census Survey (shortened)
Hi, there! My name is James Crow, and I’ll be asking you some questions for the 2020 census.
First, I’m happy to report that it’s completely optional this year!
Yes, accurate census results are used to redraw congressional boundaries and school districts, as well as to allocate federal funds. But no, the Administration definitely isn’t intentionally loading the census with unnecessary questions and hurdles, with the aim of systematically undercounting the population!
I hope you don’t mind my knocking on your door at 4 a.m. Page one of two hundred and ninety-one. Let’s begin.
What is your name?
What is your Christian name?
What is your phone number? We may call if we don’t understand one of your answers. Or just because.
How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2020?
Are you a citizen of the United States? This answer will be sent to every department of your state and local governments as well as to every neighborhood-watch member in your Zip Code.
Are you a good citizen of the United States?
What is your place of origin?
Like, where are your parents from?
Please describe your skin color, using only the words “white” or “suspect.”
What is your sex?
Also, what is your sex like?
What is your Klout Score? Remember, that’s the total number of impressions you’ve made across all social-media platforms, multiplied by your credit score, divided by your age, subtracted from your net worth.
What’s a secret you wouldn’t want anyone to know?
Now, translate your secret into Mandarin.
Between you and me, are you really a citizen?
Please describe your thoughts on that “Roseanne” revival from a few years back.
Snogdorf gorzle fleebus kriggins: always, sometimes, or never?
Describe a time when . . . you know what? We get it. You want to be counted. We all want to be counted.
On behalf of the United States Census Bureau, thank you for your participation. See you in 2030. Or maybe not.
Puns on Counting
*How does a farmer count his cows?
He uses a COWculater.
*I’ve failed in Maths more times than I can count.
*Tried to count to 1,000 in my car yesterday, but only got to 500 before I wrecked.
I hit the median.
*What do you call a hen that can count?
*A Mexican magician stands up in front of an audience and says, “I’m going to disappear on the count of three.” Then he starts counting: “Uno, dos…” And then he disappears, without a tres.
Jokes about Testing
- Why is animal testing a bad idea?
Because the animals get nervous and give all the wrong answers.
- Recently, monkeys escaped from an animal testing lab and broke into the adjacent chemistry lab. Some ingested potassium metal and exploded.
There were Rhesus pieces everywhere.
- What did the scientist testing his invisibility potion say?
Am I making myself clear?
- Not to worry. I was only testing the smoke detectors.
On a totally unrelated subject. Supper is ready.
Quotes about Data
- Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all. Charles Babbage
- Whether or not I like a piece of data has very little bearing on whether or not I am likely to accept it. Jordan Peterson
- Experts often possess more data than judgment. Colin Powell
- I’ve seen how the issues that come across a president’s desk are always the hard ones – the problems where no amount of data or numbers will get you to the right answer. Michelle Obama
- Any time scientists disagree, it’s because we have insufficient data. Then we can agree on what kind of data to get; we get the data; and the data solves the problem. Either I’m right, or you’re right, or we’re both wrong. And we move on. That kind of conflict resolution does not exist in politics or religion. Neil deGrasse Tyson
- Maybe stories are just data with a soul. Brene Brown