Way back in the distant past, I studied maths. In fact, due to some bad choices early in my life, I actually got as far as starting to study maths at university, although I moved to a less challenging course after the first year.
Despite not completing the maths degree, I remember enjoying the history of maths module and I have fond – though somewhat blurred – memories of learning about relativity through stories of stick figures who chased each other across the blackboard, one of them flashing a torch at the other with the light never arriving as they were travelling so fast.
I think I was more interested in the theory and the elegant patterns of pure maths than the applications, although I did take a module in Operations Research and remember a little about network analysis and critical nodes in processes, which may even be relevant to real life.
Undoubtedly, though, my least favourite module was statistics.
I remember very, very little of what we studied, though I have a vague, and quite possibly erroneous, recollection that you can use the Poisson Distribution to demonstrate that if you go into a shop and there is more than one queue, the chances are that the queue you join will be the slow one.
Anyway, the main reason I’ve been reminiscing about my maths background is because I’ve just spent an entertaining half hour or so browsing Tyler Vigen’s Spurious correlations website. The site is based around a fascinating collection of statistical data on variables such as the number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in, visitor numbers for different tourist attractions, weather stats, educational qualifications by subject and gender, deaths due to different causes… and it allows you to choose from the data sets and produce charts showing correlations.
There are so many correlations – sunlight in California // visitors to Disneyland, Paris – lawyers in Oregon // women’s master’s degrees – per capita consumption of cheddar cheese (US) // people killed by immunosuppressive agents…
Strangely, I don’t ever remember it being pointed out on my stats course that correlation doesn’t imply causation, but I think it’s clear that those particular correlations are coincidental.
But what about the clear correlation that is shown between per capita cheese consumption and the number of people who die by becoming tangled in their bedsheets? Is it possible that the people who died were suffering nightmares brought on from eating cheese just before bed?
I have no answers, but I do have a couple of – tangentially relevant – poems. The title of the first means “the Eve of St John’s”, which really makes it about midsummer night’s dreaming:
Noche de San Juan
I dreamed of you last night and woke
to moonlight, sheet-tangled feet
cat-twisted and cold.
I drowsed again, through decades, slipped
between cities and crossed continents,
embracing and embraced,
now chasing and now chased,
no pause between the kisses passed
from partner on to partner
down through the yearning years.
I dreamed of you last night
and woke to moonlight.
This second piece is one I’ve been revisiting every few years to see if it will ever become the poem it ought to be. It’s been so long since I wrote the first draft, I should probably just ditch it; I probably won’t, though, as I am particularly fond of the title.
Kept awake by the smell of onions
Some nights you stumble into bed,
thick breath rasping over the corrugations
of your throat. I don’t wake up, and yet
I recognise those nights you lie beside me
snoring, full of booze, or sleep, or cold:
my dreams reverberate a snarl of tigers,
bears and ogres. On other nights, the bed
is drenched in sweat; our slick skins glide
against each other, while I drift on in dreams
of sailboats, seals and seaside holidays.
The nights you leave the bedroom door ajar,
your film-noir binges cast their flickering Morse
across the walls; and when your one-last-text
re-routes you down the rabbit-hole, your face
reflects your quest, yet on I slumber, undisturbed,
in placid monochrome. The nights you bring
the lads back from the pub and set to making
midnight Marmite toast, I sleep on through
the clattering of cutlery, cans and glasses,
jam session strum and pick, or TV hum.
Then, when the alarm calls time, shattering
my visions of the apocalypse, I wake to find
the kitchen counters strewn with crumbs
and sticky knives; morning-after debris
litters the lounge and the sofa cushions
the inert body of an unexpected guest.
Experience says I’ll sleep through anything:
no night-sweats, snores, or partying
upset my rest. Tonight, though,
raw and pungent, the smell of onions
insinuated itself into my dreams
and twisted me awake. Now, I’m lying
in the dark and staring at the ceiling.
You lie, cheese-dreaming, by my side.