BY DAVE MEDD
Copyright is held by the author.
IN THE 1897th year of our Lord, Indiana state legislator Taylor I. Record attempted to redefine an immutable aspect of the universe in which we live. Granted, it’s a rather theoretical aspect of our universe, but that would strongly suggest the particular difficulty of redefinition. Wouldn’t it?
Under the advice and influence of the back of the napkin quackery of physician and (rather poor) amateur mathematician Edward J. Goodwin, Mr. Record introduced a bill in the legislature with the edifying if exhaustive name: A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature of 189.
Please note a couple of key phrases here. “. . . [A] new mathematical truth.” Apparently the old one was subject to considerable revision. “. . . [F]ree of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same”. Yes, at its root, the bill involved money. To be fair, Dr. Goodwin, who was bequeathing this truth to the fine state of Indiana, was doing so royalty free out of the goodness of his heart (he’d sworn to do no harm). It was the rest of the world that was going to pay, no matter what bills they passed. Bills, he figured, were coming his way. His figures, unfortunately, were a problem.
You see, Dr. Goodwin had proven a mathematical impossibility. This, of course, is impossible. Apparently, no matter how long he stared at his impossibility, to him it still existed. He’d shown that ? = 3.2. If you’re moderately aware of grade 10 geometry, or can punch a button on a dollar-store calculator, you know this is not the case. Further, if you do that calculator punch, you’d be quite aware that not only was Dr. Goodwin a little off, he was a lot off. Any physician that takes a number that should round to 3.14 and bumps it to 3.2 is not one from whom you’d care to receive a medical bill.
Thankfully, more sensible heads prevailed, though only after the bill had passed the house without a dissenting vote. The state Senate saved the day and it disappeared into a form of urban legend that happens to be true.
Should such a reality-redefinition attempt be made again, one would like to think a legislative body would make appropriate inquiries and not have to rely on a body of sober second thought to prevent the state from altering demonstrable truth. As history doomed to repeat goes, this rejection seemed quite a good ending. But sometimes history is doomed to be altered.
Come 2040, a similar thought occurred to a somewhat similar mind. Unfortunately, that mind didn’t belong to an overly ambitious mathematically inclined doctor. It occurred to an overly ambitious, presidentially inclined, politician.
Randolph “Fort” Harrison was also the victim of a mathematical bug. The bite occurred as an economics major prior to his requisite law degree on his way to the federal Senate and the eventual presidential primary. The bite`s itch, which never subsided, didn’t involve changing established mathematical constants but rather a disdain for well know patterns seemingly based on chance. To Fort Harrison, patterns based on chance were un-American. Patterns were to be based on merit and effort or be hard theory, like flipping a coin. If the coin was fair, fine, the pattern would be half heads, half tails. Fort accepted that. It made sense. But a baseball player that bats .340 is just a damn good baseball player, not a part of a predictive pattern of other ball players. Cream rises to the top not because it’s “due” to. It rises because it`s cream.
The idea of lucky breaks just wasn’t right. He hadn’t needed them. He worked hard, made good decisions, was rewarded. Granted, if pushed, he’d admit that meeting his wife in the beer line of a baseball game he was only at because a meeting ended unexpectedly early could be interpreted as a lucky break. But if not her, he’d have met someone. Somewhere.
Besides, if he now did make a poor decision, missed some possibility and she caught him out on one of his indiscretions, who knew how she’d react? That initial, unlikely meeting could prove very unlucky indeed if she over-reacted. But if he made good decisions, kept in mind what could happen, it wouldn’t be a problem. “Probability said it was bound to happen” or “it had to happen to someone” are just expressions for people that can’t admit when they didn’t cover all their bases or can’t accept that the Good Lord moves in mysterious ways.
Coins and dice follow patterns. Accidents and events have explanations, corporeal or divine.
It was in the Senate that Fort first thought to do something about this. “How could people believe something that isn`t even there? That people themselves could manipulate through hard work? And then base decisions on it? Even call it science?” It was a situation that needed addressing.
Thinking back to his undergrad economics work, Fort identified an initial target. The bell curve. He thought everything wrong with it was built right into its formal name: the “Normal” curve. It makes almost everyone Normal. By its very definition, it limited excelling. What kind of encouragement is that? Get rid of it and more people will excel, won`t be dragged down to average status — if not worse — with so many others. Fort figured he was about to fix America.
His initial attempts went . . . nowhere. He was an ideologue from an inconsequential state and held little influence. There were also a number of other Senators and Congressmen well versed in economics. Fort ended up under siege and his initial bill proposal fell easily.
The itch, however, persisted. When a wave of dissatisfaction swept the country, things were primed for an ideologue from an inconsequential state. He certainly hadn’t done anything yet that could truly be held against him. At 6’4”, he stood tall on his soapbox.
“Do you work hard at your jobs, good people?”
“Should one of the many that do an average job rather than your good one earn the money you do? Should those people of normal effort push you out of your job because someone likes them better or they happen to be in the right place at the right time?”
Fort knew the pulse and he knew how to convince people that their pulse meant they should be in better shape than their neighbour. The magic was, he could convince their neighbour, too.
“I can make it happen, good people! I can prevent the nobodies from dragging down the achievers! I can prevent the merely average from receiving more than they deserve! You know someone, don’t you? Someone that is adequate or, worse yet, full of delusions of adequacy, that is rewarded more than you and doesn’t deserve it. Am I right? ”
Of course he was right. Now he would do something about it.
Out came the sketch that made all the difference. No one, it seemed, could speak against its wrong-headedness, to its inherent opposition to the American dream. If one did, clearly, you didn’t believe in the American dream.
Of course, protests were raised: “If everyone excels, the ‘normal’ will simply improve.”
And: “Mr. Harrison, most people do work hard at their jobs. Those that don’t are in the minority, they are to the bottom end of the curve! There’s no more of them than there are those that truly excel.”
But voters would have little of it. Each one knew they worked harder than most. They knew they deserved better and Fort Harrison was going to deliver what they were due.
It was no landslide. It was close. Fort’s opponent came up with counter strategies. She tried to keep the percentages, examples and charts simple. But every success was met by shouts of “average” and “normal,” and a demonization of everyday actions fitting distinct patterns as unnatural and asserting a hubris over the workings of nature. (Of course, Fort never said “hubris”.) A 51.5% to 49.5% Fort win seemed inevitable. Every pundit that did some homework could predict it within about 0.2%. The patterns didn’t lie.
Within weeks of inauguration, the Senator that had easily inherited Fort’s seat proposed a bill: the Normal Curve would be declared non-existent. Like Record’s ? bill 150 years before, legislative fiat was to dance with mathematical reality. Except now there was a subtle difference. While Record and Goodwin were considering altering an undeniable reality, Fort was attacking a pattern based on past evidence more than pure theory. Certainly, there is a mathematical definition of a perfectly belled curve, but no one in their right mind wanted to look at it.
The patterns Fort attacked were real to everyone. They didn’t need an incomprehensible formula. They just meant that mediocre workers, mediocre performers and mediocrity in general received more than deserved. And past patterns, unlike ontological necessity, can change going forward.
The bill passed. Clearly, this was what the people wanted. It was three days later that an average sized woman with an average sized husband died giving birth to a 32-pound baby. Shortly after, an odd string resulted in which every baby, male or female, in the country fell between 7.5 and 8.5 pounds. Every single one. None less, none more. For months.
This didn’t happen elsewhere. Every country with reasonable healthcare had birth weights that followed a Normal Curve, as they always had. Less fortunate countries had more underweight, not surprisingly, but they still followed the pattern, just with a lower “normal.” But nobody had every baby fall in a one pound range. Except Fort’s domain.
Car accidents suddenly peaked and dipped. On a random Tuesday night, thousands would die or be badly injured. Not in a single catastrophic weather-related accident, but in cities and roadways clear across the country in perfect conditions, wholly separate from each other. To Fort’s extreme embarrassment, some Fortune 500 companies suddenly failed, their workforce completely disinterested in their jobs. Other companies quickly filled the gap, marvellously competent, but would just as quickly inexplicably flame out. Those at the top, the CEOs, the CFOs, were at an utter loss as to how to hire workers that could give them a degree of stability. Their own previously rock solid perseverance then evaporated.
In early spring, right at the start of Fort’s beloved baseball season, a diminutive second baseman smacked a 119-mile-per-hour fastball 537 feet. That’s when Fort finally conceded that action was needed. The tipping point, however, had passed. Fort was sliding down the wrong side of the curve.
“What has happened here is an affront to the laws of nature! President Harrison has taken it upon himself to dictate to Nature how to act, how to distribute Her benefits and Her hardships, Her natural courses of action. She has struck back. Mr. Harrison is an abomination against Nature and he must be removed!”
Fort’s opponent had learned well. She emphasized every “Her” she used in reference to Nature. She erased the percentages and charts and now wrote boldly, but in vague terms, with coal black charcoal on snow white paper. With exclamation marks. It pained her, but it worked.
Three weeks into the baseball season, a fan talked himself part way through a security detail speaking of his mutual love of the game with Fort to discuss how their beloved game was to be saved. In a show for the cameras, Fort waved him through. It would be a great photo, he and the fan sorting out the game. The fan shot him point blank, in the precise mid-point of the sternum.
Contrary to constitutional practice, Fort`s party simply stepped aside and Lilly Nokomis assumed power two days later. While far from likely, it wasn`t impossible, nor even particularly surprising. Extreme circumstances yielded extreme results.