Friday, October 2, 2015

Numbers...and Meaning

I knew that I would have to wait to see my specialist.  He's not just a doctor, and a good one, but also one who is in great demand.  Yes, I had an appointment...but perhaps the sign in the waiting room will give you the idea:
     "If you have been waiting more than 20 minutes since your appointment time, please check with the receptionist."

I have learned to bring a notepad. This time, I wrote down the numbers I had dealt with this morning.

How many numbers in day?  And for how many different purposes? We think of language as the thing we cannot do without; yet, how many different languages do numbers speak?

License Plate
Measure of fluid
Phone number
Pass code
Parking fee
Steps taken
Blood pressure

Each number speaks in its own system. The remarkable thing is that anyone in this society looking at the numbers themselves - listed below - can interpret the meaning of each, with little difficulty:

357 TRW
32 ml

This interpretation is not difficult; and that may be part of why we miss the meaning - or, more accurately, forget to search for the meaning.

In the context of data computing, we may struggle with the differences between data and information. They are differences that I have found difficult to convey to colleagues who use the same sets of data that I use. Attending a class taught by a friend this week, I heard what might be the best contrasting definitions:
  • Data is "given"; information is "taken."
  • The word data comes from the Latin donner; information from the root for structure.
  • Data involves raw observations; information attempts to create knowledge.
  • As a result, data = measures; information = beliefs.
The measures were created in order to capture observations more precisely, in order to clarify extent.

The irony is that the greater the precision, the more likely we are to be removed from the information - the ultimate meaning.

Just as I noticed that I had been waiting about 25 minutes, I heard the receptionist call my name. "The doctor has been held up unexpectedly by an extended surgery...."


  1. Another nice story.

    You have slowed down and as I write this on April 13 I notice you have not published an essay since November. Hope all is well

    Jim Bunn
    Dewitt MI

  2. Hi, Jim. Thanks for your comment.
    We have had several very difficult years - from 4 years ago, when we had all four of our parents, to now, when we have lost them all. Also lost two young nephews. I have retired (last month) with the idea of spending much more time with family all over the country. I am also planning to get back to writing. Thanks for noticing!
    Joe Lane