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The year that the U.S. stock market first regained its 1929, pre-crash peak?



BLOCK: The price at a Reykjavik restaurant of a whale kebob called Moby Dick on a Stick?

NORRIS: Nine dollars.

BLOCK: Number of years the Harper's Index has been published?

NORRIS: Twenty-five.

BLOCK: And to help us mark that milestone of what the magazine calls its statistical poem, we're joined by Harper's editor Roger Hodge. Mr. Hodge, statistical poem, explain.

Mr. ROGER HODGE (Editor, Harper's Magazine): Well, the index is a list of 40 statistics that are very artfully arranged. It's very compressed in the way that poetry is. I often think of it as a statistical poem.

BLOCK: And carefully arranged. Sometimes it seems like it may start with, sort of, more sobering statistics, and you'll end up on something, well, like Moby Dick on a Stick.

Mr. HODGE: Exactly. And one of the things that we try to do is keep it surprising so that the reader doesn't really know what's coming next.

BLOCK: Well, 25 years ago, how did this all start?

Mr. HODGE: The index was born from Lewis Lapham, my predecessor's observation that many newspaper articles are built around a number. And his thought was why not boil it down to one line, one number and try to convey a newspaper's worth of information on a single page?

BLOCK: And is it part of the mission of everybody at the magazine, basically, to be scouring articles for that one number, date, statistic that just makes you go, wow?

Mr. HODGE: It's just part of our daily process. You're constantly noticing numbers or potential numbers or even just the shadow of a number that might be useful for the index.

For example, for years we talked about how many fireflies would it take to equal the sun and it turned out to be 14,286,000,000.

BLOCK: It does seem sometimes, if you read this carefully, that it's something that doesn't start with a number. It starts with something that's happened. And then you're almost working backward to figure out how you could attach a number to that.

Mr. HODGE: That's exactly right. We brainstorm, and we think how can we quantify this? How can we compare Bush and Clinton? Well, one way to compare Bush and Clinton is to count the number of times Bush said I in his state of the union addresses and compare that to the number of times Clinton said I in his state of the union addresses. And you get 36 for Bush and 103 for Clinton.

BLOCK: You have, in honor of this 25th anniversary, you've put up a search engine of all the terms that have been in the Harper's Index over the years -and you can waste many good hours this way - but I did notice this.

Back in 1986, percentage of Americans who say they find life dull, six percent. And, coincidentally, the first statistic in the current issue, percentage of Americans who think their lives serve an important purpose, 94 percent. So really, nothing has changed since 1986. Those two numbers match up perfectly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HODGE: That's a great accidental juxtaposition. I mean, I don't think we necessarily knew we had done the opposite number, although we might have.

BLOCK: Is part of that juxtaposition - is it, sort of, to point out hypocrisy, to kind of be a little snarky sometimes?

Mr. HODGE: Definitely. Sometimes it's celebratory, and sometimes we're definitely trying to twist the knife.

BLOCK: As you look back over these many thousands and thousands of entries over the years, is there one that really sticks in your mind as your all-time favorite?

Mr. HODGE: Well, I guess my favorite number of all time is - it's a very lighthearted number - which is the average number of peas in a pod.

BLOCK: Oh, what is it?

Mr. HODGE: Eight.

BLOCK: Eight. Well, somebody's going to find that information very useful, I know.

Mr. HODGE: I hope so.

BLOCK: Well Roger Hodge, it's been fun talking with you about the Harper's Index. Happy anniversary.

Mr. HODGE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Roger Hodge is the editor of Harper's. The Harper's Index is now 25.

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