Brian MacMillan

03 Pernicious Numbers

BM Pernicious Numbers

Pernicious Numbers

In 2011 pernicious numbers hit the news when a graduate student studying financial manipulation discovered that pernicious numbers were used by Cornelius Vanderbilt to take control of the Hudson River Railroad, in 1864, fully 60 years before their first recorded use, by the Colorado National Guard, to calculate the munitions required to end the Ludlow Strike.

Pernicious numbers are those numbers that may have a different value than represented. They can be difficult to understand for those of us who expect one to equal one, or for commercial scales to be properly calibrated.

Studies have found that certain people have a remarkable aptitude for pernicious mathematics, including virtually every CEO who has successfully been cleared of financial fraud charges on appeal. Former Florida Governor Rick Scott is said to be able to factor a balance sheet into its pernicious and non-pernicious components in minutes; while gangster Myer Lansky once spontaneously presented twelve formally consistent answers to the question, “What are my odds on that crap table?”, using only pernicious numbers and elementary arithmetic.

Pernicious numbers are used extensively in accounting, ballistics and forensics. They often appear in pairs, for example in double entry book-keeping and at dinner parties.

Infographic: J.P. Morgan used knowledge and power to manipulate 20th century financial markets in much the same way that banking transnationals do today.

It is important to note that although vexing numbers sometimes lead to trouble, pernicious ones always do.


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