Look outside. A huge storm of reports, surveys and research studies is blowing across the continent. You can't go outside without bumping into someone's margin of error. Be careful you don't step in a pie chart.
This morning in USA Today, for example, there's a story in the Life section headlined "Happiness is the American way." The story says we are the third-happiest country in the world. I mean that is literally what it says: "The USA is the third-happiest country in the world, and Americans are the third-happiest with their sex lives, according to a global survey."
Now we know! It's all reduced to precise numbers. It says 27 percent of us are, for example, very happy with our sex lives.
Obviously there are some unanswered questions here. Did the survey only tabulate responses from people who actually HAVE a sex life? What about people whose sex life is still entirely theoretical? Does the survey have a position on the eternal question of whether a sex life has to involve another person?
The biggest flaw with this, I think, is that it fails to note that it is possible to be "very unhappy" with your sex life but, an hour later, due to changed circumstances, be "very happy." There are significant "when" issues here.
Another new study LINK TO http://www.bus.umich.edu/research/nqrc/acsi.html, cited on the front page of today's Post, says that, on a scale of 1 to 100 of increasing customer satisfaction, the U.S. government scored a 68.6, not far below the rating for the private sector, of 72. Many of us may be surprised to hear that we are "customers" of the federal government. What exactly does the government sell? If I buy something and don't like it, can I refuse to pay taxes in lieu of a refund? I had always been under the delusion that, rather than being a "customer," I was just a "citizen" and future "inmate."
Yet another report is coming out momentarily from the Census Bureau, the Statistical Abstract of the United States, LINK TO http://www.census.gov/prod/www/statistical-abstract-us.html, and it tells you everything you want to know about yourself except why you're in such a bad mood. For example, in the year 1900, there were 3 million people aged 65 or older. Now there are more than 34 million such people. This reveals something we've suspected all along: Old people are breeding like flies.
Today's Post also reports on a new study showing that television is -- get ready for this -- increasingly filthy LINK TO LISA DE MORAES COLUMN. There were 2,156 instances of vulgarity and obscenity on television in the 1998-1999 television season. And that was just on "Jerry Springer"!
Did we mention yet the new study on mental health? It's from the U.S. Surgeon General LINK TO kaufmann's story for pm extra or to surgeon general's site if you can get to the report. i couldn't. trg. Everyone should read it, because the simple fact is that there's hardly a soul alive who doesn't have mental illness somewhere in his or her life. The report says that nearly one out of five people suffer from "mental disorders." This doesn't mean they're crazy. "Crazy" is a horribly stigmatizing word, and that's why so many people decline to seek treatment. They won't be as ashamed, apparently, if they are merely told that they have "a mental disorder."
Now, finally, a story that does not fit into any numerical, statistical framework: The Columbine massacre.
TIME Magazine has just published a harrowing account of the videos made by the killers before the shootings. Many of us in the business have tried mightily to make sense of what happened out there, to get some purchase on this eruption of madness, and it has been for the most part a futile exercise. The TIME story gives us a bit more to go on -- such as the desire of the kids to become celebrities and inspire a movie ("Directors will be fighting over this story").
Putting aside for a moment the daunting psychological and moral issues, there's one statistic that comes to mind. It's the measure of lethality. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wanted to kill 250 people, they said. They made a bunch of bombs. The number of people killed by those bombs: Zero. The number of people they killed with their guns: 13. Then they shot themselves.
It's not the most profound point to make, nor necessarily the most important issue, but the next time someone tells you that "guns don't kill people, people kill people," remind them that guns sure make it a lot easier.
Special note: A couple of readers objected to the way Friday's column used the word "aggravate." They alleged that the word properly means "to make worse." But Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, lists a second, colloquial definition, "to exasperate; annoy; vex." We used "aggravate" in that sense. And checking "colloquial" in the same dictionary we see the notation that it "does not indicate substandard or illiterate usage." PHEW! If anyone wants to share his or her own true tale of aggravation for possible use in a future column, write to email@example.com.
A final bulletin: Am still seeking good questions for a millennial edition of Why Things Are. Please contribute. Thanks!
Rough Draft appears 3.0 times per week at 1300 hours at washingtonpost.com.