Sister Mary Linebacker

Isn’t that terrible? I can’t remember her name. She was my math teacher in the fifth or sixth grade. About five feet tall with shoulders four feet across, this was one tough looking penguin. Thus the moniker. Nobody makes nicknames like Catholic school kids.


I was a somewhat indifferent student generally, but totally indifferent to Math. No amount of flashcards or chalkboard sessions could capture my imagination no matter how hard she tried, how deep her growl, how heavy the ruler.


Now I feel really bad about that. I should have tried harder.


Now, Math rules.

Tuesday’s election? Just an exercise in Math. If you denigrate the poor, gays, non-whites, and working people, the math doesn’t work. You can’t get enough votes to win either by Electoral College or popular vote. I’m no Nate Silver, but this seemed pretty straightforward from the onset. Imagine if I’d studied.


Now government turns its fractured, short-supply collective attention to the deficit. Again, the math seems very rudimentary to me. To dig out of a hole of this proportion we will need to increase revenue (that’s taxes for people and corporations alike) and decrease spending if we’re to effect this change in the next millennium. It’s not pretty, but it’s clear. It’s just Math.


On election night I sought refuge from the refuse of ear-bleeding punditry by watching “Moneyball” for about the third time. Yes, I love baseball, and its numbers are probably the only reason I’m reasonably proficient at Math at all. In addition to being a great baseball story, “Moneyball” is really a great story about Math, about facts, and how those who organize and interpret them correctly win. That last bit’s important. It’s not quite as simple as just adding or dividing. The magic is in understanding which numbers matter and which don’t. Forty home runs don’t matter. One-hundred runs scored do. This separating the data wheat from chaff isn’t a gut thing. It too is the process of rigorous calculation, model-creation and deductive reasoning. There’s no mention of belief, doctrine, or faith. We’re past ‘trust me’ and fully into ‘prove it.’


Those practitioners of the dark arts of telling when a storm’s coming by an achy knee, predicting the plague by reading faces in the clouds, or seeing visions are going the way of the dinosaur. Their numbers are getting smaller and smaller. Guessing is gauche. Calculating is cool.


The very best scene in the movie is when cool-quant Billy Beane meets with equally quant Red Sox Owner John Henry. Just as Beane used analytics to decide which players to invest in more than anyone had done before, Henry ran his investment empire the same way. Not by who you know but by what the data show. Henry tells Beane that the old-model country-club types who held the reins for so long by instincts and relationships would not go gentle into that good night. Gentle or not, they were on the way out, though.


“I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always. It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods, it’s threatening their jobs, it’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go bat shit crazy. I mean, anybody who’s not building a team right and rebuilding it using your model, they’re dinosaurs. They’ll be sitting on their ass on the sofa in October, watching the Boston Red Sox win the World Series.”


As a Yankee fan I’m sad at just how right he was. As an American, I’m thrilled. Data is democratic– small ‘d’. It’s neither red nor blue, gay nor straight, rich nor poor. It’s simply either right or wrong. Use it and you’ll go far. Ignore it at your peril.


Sister Mary Linebacker would be pleased. Just a hunch.

One Comment on “Sister Mary Linebacker”

  1. Ken Dardis says:

    “At every crossroad on the road that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.” – 1911 Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, Maurice Maeterlinck


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