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Posts Tagged ‘measurement

“If the shoe fits”*…



When a large retail outlet is in its final throes, it can be fascinating to walk around one, not necessarily because you want to buy anything, but because of the things the natural selection process of panic-shopping surfaces. (When something is 90 percent off, you have to really not want it to leave it sitting there.) So when I learned my local Sears store was closing after more than 40 years in business, I made two stops: One, nine days before its closure; and two, on its final day. As you can imagine, the trip surfaced different sales items each time, even though it was the same massive store both times, but the different levels of decay put different levels of focus on what was there. And during the last time, I found myself utterly enthralled with a device I’ve seen a million times, as have most of you. Something about the removal of its full context, as well as the clear amount of use the product had received, made the device stand out that much more. I’m, of course (of course!) talking about the Brannock Device, a mainstay of shoe stores for decades. What’s your shoe size?…

From the ever-illuminating Ernie Smith and his Tedium newsletter, an appreciation of a device that all of us have used, but the few of us have stopped to appreciate.  The “barleycorn measurement scheme” (a barleycorn is the difference in space between one shoe size and the next); the history of shoe sizing; an appreciation of Charles Brannock and his efforts– even a visit to a minor league baseball game that honored Brannock’s creation– it’s all here:  “How the Brannock Device—a measuring tool you’ve definitely seen but didn’t know the name of—made it a lot easier to figure out our shoe size.”

* traditional


As we wear it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that the rubber heel was patented by Humphrey O’Sullivan (US patent #618128).  O’Sullivan, a printer tired of slipping on his inky floor, began by nailing a piece of rubber floor mat to his own shoes; after developing the product and patenting it, he launched a company to market his podiatric progress– in a way aimed at pedestrians pounding the (wet, icy, or otherwise slippery) pavements in America’s growing cities.

safety heel source


Written by LW

January 24, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It is not enough that I succeed, others must fail”*…



Who said “it is not enough that I succeed, others must fail”? According to Tiffany Watt Smith, in this spry book, it might have been Gore Vidal or Genghis Kahn. According to the internet it is either La Rochefoucauld or Somerset Maugham. Having thought about it a bit, it might actually have been me, or perhaps it was Watt Smith herself. The point is that it doesn’t really matter since taking pleasure in another’s misfortune turns out to be a pungent but free-floating feeling that pops up everywhere. The flavours might change – as an academic cultural historian Watt Smith is far from suggesting that emotions are universal across time and place – but there is something familiar to us all about the odd stab of pleasure we get when an enemy or even, God help us, a friend, stumbles.

So it is odd that the English language does not have a word for this grubby little pleasure – instead we have to borrow from the German and call it Schadenfreude (literally “damage-joy”)…

Kathryn Hughes considers that delicious feeling of satisfaction at the “epic fails” of somebody else in a review of Tiffany Watt Smith’s Schadenfreude- the Joy of Another’s Misfortune: “Damage-joy.”

* see above


As we try not to snicker, we might recall that it was on this date in 45 B.C.E. that the Julian Calendar came into effect.  It was the predominant calendar in the Roman world, most of Europe, and in European settlements in the Americas and elsewhere, until it was refined and gradually replaced by the Gregorian calendar, promulgated in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII.

(The Julian calendar remains useful for some scientific, especially astronomical, purposes, as it provides a linear count of days from a starting point. which was introduced by Joseph Scaliger in 1583.  Julian Day 0 is defined as noon on Monday, January 1, 4713 B.C.E. (in the Julian Calendar).  Regardless of leap years and calendar changes by the Romans or Pope Gregory, the Julian date number enables the easy calculation of the number of days between two dates by simply taking the difference in their Julian day number. This is useful, say, for astronomers’ calculations of the dates of eclipses.  Thus, the Julian day number of a day is defined as the number of days since noon GMT on 1 Jan 4713 B.C.E. in the Proleptic Julian Calendar, and each Julian day number runs from noon to noon.)

122918-03-History-Calendar-768x439 source


Written by LW

January 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A measurement is not an absolute thing, but only relates one entity to another”*…




Until now, [the mass of the kilogram] has been defined by the granddaddy of all kilos: a golf ball-sized metal cylinder locked in a vault in France [a replica of which is pictured above]. For more than a century, it has been the one true kilogram upon which all others were based…

Made of a corrosion-resistant alloy of 90 percent platinum and 10 percent iridium , the international prototype kilo has rarely seen the light of day. Yet its role has been crucial, as the foundation for the globally accepted system for measuring mass upon which things like international trade depend.

Three different keys, kept in separate locations, are required to unlock the vault where the Grand K and six official copies — collectively known as ‘‘the heir and the spares’’ — are entombed together under glass bell-jars at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, in Sevres on the western outskirts of Paris.

Founded by 17 nations in 1875 and known by its French initials, the BIPM is the guardian of the seven main units humanity uses to measure its world : the meter for length, the kilogram for mass, the second for time, the ampere for electric current, the kelvin for temperature, the mole for the amount of a substance and the candela for luminous intensity.

Of the seven, the kilo is the last still based on a physical artifact, the Grand K. The meter, for example, used to be a meter-long metal bar but is now defined as the length that light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second…

The metal kilo is being replaced by a definition based on Planck’s constant, which is part of one of the most celebrated equations in physics but also devilishly difficult to explain . Suffice to say that the update should, in time, spare nations the need to occasionally send their kilos back to Sevres for calibration against the Grand K. Scientists instead should be able to accurately calculate an exact kilo, without having to measure one precious lump of metal against another…

More of this weighty story at “The kilogram is changing. Weight, what?

* H.T. Pledge, Science since 1500


As we muse on measurement, we might send well-calibrated birthday greetings to August Kundt; he was born on this date in 1839.  An astronomer-turned-physicist, he developed a method to measure the velocity of sound in gases and solids using a closed glass tube (now known as a Kundt’s Tube).

AugustKundt source

We might also spare a thought for another physicist, Niels Bohr; he died on this date in 1962.  A Danish physicist and philosopher, Bohr was the first to apply quantum theory to the problem of atomic and molecular structure, creating the Bohr model of the atom, in which he proposed that energy levels of electrons are discrete, and that the electrons revolve in stable orbits around the atomic nucleus but can jump from one energy level (or orbit) to another– a model the underlying principles of which remain valid.  And he developed the principle of complementarity: that items could be separately analyzed in terms of contradictory properties, e.g., particles behaving as a wave or a stream. His foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.



“The heart of science is measurement”*…


In October 1958, Oliver R. Smoot (future Chairman of the American National Standards Institute) repeatedly laid down on the Harvard Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, so that some of his Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers could measure the entire length of the bridge in relation to his height. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, the bridge was found to be 364.4 “Smoots” long (plus or minus an εar). The prank quickly became the stuff of legend (to this day, graffiti on the bridge still divides it up into Smoot-based sections) until finally, in 2011, the word smoot was added to the American Heritage Dictionary, defined as “a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches.”…

More exceedingly-specific units of measurement, and the stories behind them: “10 Ridiculously Precise Units of Measurement.”

* Erik Brynjolfsson


As we quantify quantity, we might spare a thought for Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he died on this date in 1990.  A Cambridge philosopher who specialized in the philosophy of science, he focused on the logical features common to all sciences.  Braithwaite was concerned with the impact of science on our beliefs about the world and the appropriate responses to that impact.  He was especially interested in probability (and its applications in decision theory and games theory) and in the statistical sciences.  He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1946 to 1947, and was a Fellow of the British Academy.

It was Braithwaite’s poker that Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly brandished at Karl Popper during their confrontation at a Moral Sciences Club meeting in Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s. The implement subsequently disappeared. (See here.)



“If something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That’s why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.”*…


In the age of GPS and Google Maps, it is hard to believe that maps can include places that don’t exist. But author Malachy Tallack argues that maps are as much “a cartography of the mind” as they are a way to figure out where we are. In his new book, The Un-Discovered Islands, Tallack takes readers on a journey to imaginary places—mythic islands, mapmakers’ mistakes, mirages, and outright hoaxes. [E.g., explorer Robert Peary discovered a continent that wasn’t there.]…

Some islands, like King Arthur’s Avalon, were pure legend. Others were mistakes or outright hoaxes.  Learn why some islands blur the line between life and death; how others have moved about on the maps; why we’re living in an era of un-discovery; and relatedly, why ancient mapmakers were afraid of blank spaces: “These Imaginary Islands Only Existed on Maps.”

* Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth


As we seek solid ground, we might spare a thought for Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, KCB, FRS, FRGS, MRIA; he died on this date in 1857.  A career naval officer and hydrographer, Beaufort devised, in 1806, a simple scale that coastal observers could use to report the state of the sea to the Admiralty.  Originally designed simply to describe wind effects on a fully rigged man-of-war sailing vessel, it was later extended to include descriptions of effects on land features as well.  Officially adopted in 1838 (and in use to this day), it uses numbers 0 to 12 to designate calm, light air, light breeze, gentle breeze, moderate breeze, fresh breeze, strong breeze, moderate gale, fresh gale, strong gale, whole gale, storm, and hurricane. Zero (calm) is a wind velocity of less than 1 mph (0.6 kph) and 12 (hurricane) represents a velocity of over 75 mph (120kph).



Written by LW

December 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

“What gets measured gets done”*…


Goodhart’s Law: when a measure becomes a target, it cease to be a good measure.

In other words, if you pick a measure to assess people’s performance, then we find a way to game it..

More illustrated explication at Sketchplanations.

* one of many aphoristic echoes in the vernacular of a statement by William Thomson, the Scottish physicist also known as Lord Kelvin


As we’re careful what we ask for, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that Oxford mathematician and amateur photographer Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson– aka Lewis Carroll– delivered a handwritten and illustrated manuscript called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” to 10-year-old Alice Liddell.  The original (on display at the British Library) was the basis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland… which was published exactly one year later, on this date in 1865.



“if we’re measuring the wrong thing, we’re going to do the wrong thing”*…


Money and markets have been around for thousands of years. Yet as central as currency has been to so many civilizations, people in societies as different as ancient Greece, imperial China, medieval Europe, and colonial America did not measure residents’ well-being in terms of monetary earnings or economic output.

In the mid-19th century, the United States—and to a lesser extent other industrializing nations such as England and Germany—departed from this historical pattern. It was then that American businesspeople and policymakers started to measure progress in dollar amounts, tabulating social welfare based on people’s capacity to generate income. This fundamental shift, in time, transformed the way Americans appraised not only investments and businesses but also their communities, their environment, and even themselves.

Today, well-being may seem hard to quantify in a nonmonetary way, but indeed other metrics—from incarceration rates to life expectancy—have held sway in the course of the country’s history. The turn away from these statistics, and toward financial ones, means that rather than considering how economic developments could meet Americans’ needs, the default stance—in policy, business, and everyday life—is to assess whether individuals are meeting the exigencies of the economy…

Eli Cook explains how America pioneered a way of thinking that puts human well-being in economic terms: “How Money Became the Measure of Everything.”

* “GDP is not a good measure of economic performance; it’s not a good measure of well-being.  What we measure informs what we do. And if we’re measuring the wrong thing, we’re going to do the wrong thing.”    – Joseph Stiglitz


As we muse on metrics, we might spare a thought for Henry George; he died on this date in 1897.  A writer, politician and political economist, George is best remembered for Progress and Poverty, published in 1879, which treats inequality and the cyclic nature of industrialized economies, and proposes the use of a land value tax (AKA a “single tax” on real estate) as a remedy– an economic philosophy known as Georgism, the main tenet of which is that, while individuals should own what they create, everything found in nature, most importantly the value of land, belongs equally to all mankind.

George’s ideas were widely-discussed in his time and into the early 20th century, and admired by thinkers like Alfred Russel Wallace, Jose Marti, and William Jennings Bryan; Franklin D. Roosevelt sang his praises, as did George Bernard Shaw.  But with the rise of neoclassical economics, George’s star began to recede.  Still, more modern thinkers like Albert Einstein and martin Luther King were fans.

In a sequence that mimicked George’s arc of influence, it was George’s work that inspired Elizabeth Magie to create The Landlord’s Game in 1904 to demonstrate his theories; ironically, it was Magie’s board game that became in the 1930s (as recently noted here and here) the basis for Monopoly.

In 1977, Joseph Stiglitz showed that under certain conditions, spending by the government on public goods will increase aggregate land rents/returns by the same amount. Stiglitz’s findings were dubbed “the Henry George Theorem,” as they illustrate a situation in which Henry George’s “single tax” is not only efficient, it is the only tax necessary to finance public expenditures.

Henry George



Written by LW

October 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

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