for 18 July 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.



Mad About Cow

By gently detaching statistics from
the tumescent academic or corporate
context of studies and reports and
bringing them into the world of
literature, Harper's has been a
pioneer in the digital arts. Their
Index may be the best page of
writing in American magazines - and
it doesn't even have any verbs.
But if readers are enticed to think
that the Index's statistics,
separated as they are from the agendas
of marketers and point-proving
consultants, are just the facts -
they should think again. Literature
may not have the same type of agenda
that the Pepsi Challenge does, but
it's a context for the counting all
the same. The Harper's Index colors
how we think, though the mental
image provided happens to be
paint-by-number. Perhaps the only
difference is that in the
recontextualized world of this page,
there is no pretense that statistics
have real meaning. Here, all that
matters is that they can do more
than provoke, amuse, and make us
imagine how things do (or don't)
really relate to each other. These
statistics (ripped once again from
their most recent context, from the
June issue of Harper's) should
prove this point:
Number of cows in Britain for every
unexploded land mine in Cambodia:
Immediately, in the landscape of the
mind, British cows flow, lowing,
from laden aircraft carriers onto
the fertile but deadly fields of
modern Cambodia. As the air sings
with their sacrifice, bovine
Valkyries descend to take these
brave minesweepers' souls to their
final ethereal resting place.
Cambodia is once again safe for
agriculture and pastoral frolicking.
The conscience of the American
military is assuaged. The diet of
Southeast Asia takes a turn as the
region is graced with cheap,
hormone-free beef, seemingly from
The numbers had always been there -
nestled away in almanacs and
military reports, hidden some here
and some there, in dairy and beef
industry newsletters. But without
the context, without Harper's, we
never would have realized: It can be
done. There are enough. There are
Percentage of the U.S. retail price
of a pair of Pocahontas pajamas that
is paid to the Haitian who sewed
them: 0.06
Unjust retailers! Exploitative
entertainment megacorporation,
playing on the heartstrings of
America's guilt about indigenous
people and then bending offshore
workers into sweatshop service! But
as the initial ire subsides, the
realization sinks in: How much
Haitian sweatshop workers are paid
and how much Pocahontas pajamas sell
for have less to do with each other
than do British cows and Cambodian
land mines. The price of Pocahontas
pajamas, in fact, has only a stitch
to do with clothing.
More relevant - and less quantifiable -
is the way in which brands imprint
themselves into the innocent pink
minds of children. On the other side
of the piddling coin which is
proffered to Haitian workers: these
textile laborers, whose need for
healthy working conditions, proper
diet, stable government is
completely legitimate, really can
manage pretty well without
American-sized doses of the almighty
dollar. Crass to say so, we're sure,
but the cost of living a healthy,
productive life in Haiti is lower
than it is in the United States. And
only Americans are stupid enough to
waste their money on overpriced crap
like Pocahontas pajamas.
While often evocative, lines from the
Harper's Index also can sometimes
show just how wrong people can be.
This month's Harper's informed us
that Kinky Joe's Erotic Furniture
produces a "Menage à Trois
Chair" that seats five - indicating
that Kinky Joe, although no doubt a
crowd-pleasing designer, needs to
bone up on his French.
It's not just the Indexed who are
sometimes in error, however. The
Indexers, interns at Harper's
magazine who work for glory only
(getting paid, therefore, far less
than 0.06 percent of the retail
price of a pair of Pocahontas
pajamas), do occasionally nod off:
This month they indicated the
"number of people who accessed" a
Web page down to the person - their
referer logs must be more advanced
than ours.
There are the more clear-cut
mistakes, too, obvious to the
Web-savvy and to second-wave
dog-paddlers alike. As a Harper's
intern once mentioned in passing,
"You'd be amazed by all the stuff in
the Index that is just wrong." It's
not just because you get what you
pay for in research assistance -
sources are often in outright error.
But just as truth can be stranger
than fiction, we expect the Harper's
Index to sometimes be stranger than
truth. If it jars us from our seat,
the Index has succeeded. Although it
may not clear the mines from
Cambodia, or save the Haitian
workers, the magazine world's most
incisive page can at least provide a
statistical smack upside the head -
and perhaps prevent us from taking
numbers too far out of context, or
looking at the important issues in
life through purely digital glasses.

[Zero Baud Archive]

courtesy of
The Internick