Covid-19 by the numbers

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Historians of science debate it, but many consider the first example of “true science”—defined as the effort to numerically describe natural world phenomena—to be when the ancient Greeks calculated the ratios of musical tone intervals. The Greeks discovered that a string of the same thickness and tension as another but twice its length vibrated at a frequency an octave lower, meaning the ratio of an octave is 2:1. The ratio of a perfect fourth was calculated to be 4:3, a perfect fifth 3:2, and a tone (whole step) 8:9.

This process of quantifying intervalic harmony came to structure the Greeks’ entire way of thinking, extending beyond the strings of the lyre all the way to the heavens. They soon formed an early version of astronomy in which the planets were thought to exist in various degrees of harmony with one another. Sometimes consonant and other times dissonant, the planets orbited at differing harmonic intervals above or below another. Venus and Earth were a minor third apart.

This is hailed as scientific thinking—translating reality into numbers, identifying patterns, and inferring broad conclusions. But describing the distance between Earth and Venus as a minor third, we now know, is not science but poetry. While the ratios have proved correct and useful for musical tones, they are a useless framework for analyzing astronomical patterns. Numbers have that kind of seductive power. Their seeming objectivity projects a certainty that is both comforting and dangerous.

I’ve been thinking about the ancient Greeks as we continue to battle Covid-19. We are deep in the process of describing this novel virus using our own modern quantitative language. The pandemic has brought with it a dizzying array of numbers to decipher: total confirmed cases, running death toll, case fatality rate, R0 (the rate of infection), growth rate, daily test totals, 7 day case average, incubation period, six feet of social distancing, and at-risk age ranges are just some of the most common metrics. Obviously, vital research is being conducted using these quantities, and this is not meant as an anti-intellectual or conspiratorial screed. But some days I feel like we are the ancient Greeks, staring at the sky and charting the planets using major and minor musical scales.

Almost every day, I visit the CDC Covid Data Tracker, which collects all these numbers and more. The interactive graphs and quantitative specificity exude an air of authority. Yet, crucially, each of these metrics is an approximation, a best guess. We will never know the true totals and rates. No matter how many decimal places we account for and log-adjusted rates we calculate, numbers are crude, blunt instruments that can only ever describe the vague contours of the pandemic.

Now that we are beginning to open the country back up I worry that our obsession with numbers may be leveraged for callous justifications. Although numbers help us stay vigilant, they can also be wielded to justify reckless action. Blind confidence in numbers has the potential to transform a rubric of compassion and caution into a cost-benefit ledger sheet of risk vs. reward, inoculating us from the horror of death by cloaking it in impersonal percentages.

I think about my personal relationship to the the Covid-19 numbers, how they factor into my current state of mind. Normally, when I’m dealing with quantities, the smaller the number the more intimate, and the less abstract, it is. I’m able to see things few in number as themselves, not as quantities. “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic,” as they say. But this pandemic is peculiar. As the numbers add up, and the death toll rises, I feel less distant from this. Instead I feel the pandemic closing in on me; the mounting case figures feels like I’m sinking into quicksand.

I also think about the political significance of the numbers. We’re over 135,000 deaths now and confirmed cases are once again rising. Who’s to blame for all this senseless death? The president? Governors? Mayors? Individual Americans? Will anyone be tried for crimes? I happen to believe the more we focus on the personal transgressions of individual Americans the more we are distracted from holding the true perpetrators—politicians—accountable. They must pay us to fight this thing, or else we won’t fight it, not because we are bad people but because without actual relief such as paid leave, unemployment benefits, healthcare, and mortgage/rent suspension, fighting the virus by staying home currently amounts to a different kind of death—financial ruin.

Finally, I think about the numbers yet to enter the equation. When there is a vaccine, a new number will emerge as the most salient: how many people will get it and who? And if I know America, someone will be turning a huge profit. I fear the calculus to come.

Numbers are prisms. Held right so the light hits at the correct angle and a whole spectrum becomes visible. Held wrong, or stowed away in darkness, and the prism is empty and blank, nothing inside. Numbers are better than nothing, and I believe all policy decisions going forward should draw on the best numbers we’ve got. Once we do get a handle on this thing, though, I hope we are careful not to confuse harmony with astronomy.

Assonance and brand names

What’s in a name? Assonance. Assonance, of course, is the repetition of vowel sounds in successive words. I’ve long theorized, without any real research to either confirm or deny,* that one way to create a memorable or pleasant name is to use assonance. Incidentally, this mostly applies to brand and band/album names, I’ve found.** For example, the fifth studio (and third best) album by The National, a band I like, is titled “High Violet.” Now, there could be some artistic rationale for the title, but there is no corresponding track name and as far as I can tell no mention in any lyrics of either “high” or “violet.” At the risk of oversimplification, I’m left to conclude that, on some level, The National decided on High Violet because it sounds cool. Whether or not that’s why they arrived at that name is irrelevant, because it does “sound cool.” Why? Because the long i in “high” assonates with that in “violet.”

At least, that’s the only reason I can find for pairing High with Violet. Moreover, other, non-assonant but equally conceptually distant word pairs don’t sound as cool or pleasant or memorable. Consider: does Low Violet work as well? What about Quick Violet, Wet Violet, Brown Violet, Dumb Violet, Credible Violet, Expensive Violet? Now consider these assonant alternatives: Dry Violet, My Violet, Sky Violet, Why Violet, Like Violet, Shy Violet, White Violet. The second set preserves the same pleasance as High Violet, presumably through assonance.

But maybe you disagree with me or you don’t like assonance, yet you still want to pair your words in some subtle, playful way. You’re left with three other common phonological maneuvers: rhyme, consonance, and alliteration. Unfortunately, all three are too easy, too campy, too childish. Assonance achieves a more sophisticated attention to phonological detail. It suggests rhyme, but doesn’t go so far as to rhyme for you; it repeats open and round vowel sounds, not harsh, quick consonants (consonance); and unlike alliteration it doesn’t occur at the beginning of words, something you might find in a tongue twister or nursery rhyme. No, assonance is adult.

Assonance can occur within a single word, like Nirvana. And single word names/titles are trending hard, last I checked, especially for restaurants and bands.*** But what I’m diagnosing here is more the deliberate assonating of two or more conceptually unrelated words to create some ambiguously pleasant aura; that assonance, then, becomes the only connection between the words. Iconic band names frequently employ it: Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joy Division, Rolling Stones, and so on. And corporate America confirms my thesis too. When their names consist of more than one word, corporate brands love assonance. Out of the 50 most profitable brands, only 10 have names consisting of more than one word (though the one-worders often inter-assonate, like Toyota and Microsoft) but 6 out of those 10 use assonance. Examples include Coca-Cola, General Electric, Wal-mart, Home Depot. In general, brand names tend to have less conceptual distance between the name and product they offer (Home Depot is a home improvement store, after all) than artistic projects which involve layers of interpretive distance. But that proves my point further: even when constructing a practical brand name, using assonance can make your name/title that much more memorable. What if Home Depot were called Home Warehouse?

Maybe I will tell my students that I am renaming this Rhetorical Device Thursday to Assonate Day.

*I only do this with silly theories of no importance. I promise I don’t make a habit of willful ignorance.

**This is because over the last 7 years if I’ve ever been trying to name something, it’s either a band I’ve been in (all of which have had terrible names, maybe with the exception of Mote) or a hypothetical Brewery Zack and I will start and the subsequent beers we will brew. The name of one of the last beers I brewed used assonance–it was called “Hot Gold,” a phrase I got From Toni Morrison’s Sula.

***Bands also have a fixation on one word plurals (e.g. Battles).