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Posts Tagged ‘measurement

“I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth”*…

From ancient Egyptian cubits to fitness tracker apps, humankind has long been seeking ever more ways to measure the world – and ourselves…

The discipline of measurement developed for millennia… Around 6,000 years ago, the first standardised units were deployed in river valley civilisations such as ancient Egypt, where the cubit was defined by the length of the human arm, from elbow to the tip of the middle finger, and used to measure out the dimensions of the pyramids. In the Middle Ages, the task of regulating measurement to facilitate trade was both privilege and burden for rulers: a means of exercising power over their subjects, but a trigger for unrest if neglected. As the centuries passed, units multiplied, and in 18th-century France there were said to be some 250,000 variant units in use, leading to the revolutionary demand: “One king, one law, one weight and one measure.”

It was this abundance of measures that led to the creation of the metric system by French savants. A unit like the metre – defined originally as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole – was intended not only to simplify metrology, but also to embody political ideals. Its value and authority were derived not from royal bodies, but scientific calculation, and were thus, supposedly, equal and accessible to all. Then as today, units of measurement are designed to create uniformity across time, space and culture; to enable control at a distance and ensure trust between strangers. What has changed since the time of the pyramids is that now they often span the whole globe.

Despite their abundance, international standards like those mandated by NIST and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are mostly invisible in our lives. Where measurement does intrude is via bureaucracies of various stripes, particularly in education and the workplace. It’s in school that we are first exposed to the harsh lessons of quantification – where we are sorted by grade and rank and number, and told that these are the measures by which our future success will be gauged…

A fascinating survey of the history of measurement, and a consideration of its consequences: “Made to measure: why we can’t stop quantifying our lives,” from James Vincent (@jjvincent) in @guardian, an excerpt from his new book Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement.

And for a look at what it takes to perfect one of the most fundamental of those measures, see Jeremy Bernstein‘s “The Kilogram.”

* “I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth. Although my mind was sky-bound, the shadow of my body lies here.” – Epitaph Johannes Kepler composed for himself a few months before he died

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As we get out the gauge, we might send thoughtfully-wagered birthday greetings Blaise Pascal; he was born on this date in 1623.  A French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and inventor (e.g.,the first digital calculator, the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe), his commitment to empiricism (“experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics”) pitted him against his contemporary René “cogito, ergo sum” Descartes– and was foundational in the acceleration of the scientific/rationalist commitment to measurement…

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Happy Juneteenth!

“It may be roundly asserted that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve”*…

But sometimes it takes lots of ingenuity… and often, a great deal of time…

The United States National Security Agency—the country’s premier signals intelligence organization—recently declassified a Cold War-era document about code-breaking.

The 1977 book, written by cryptologist Lambros Callimahos, is the last in a trilogy called Military Cryptanalytics. It’s significant in the history of cryptography, as it explains how to break all types of codes, including military codes, or puzzles—which are created solely for the purpose of a challenge.

The first two parts of the trilogy were published publicly in the 1980s and covered solving well-known types of classical cipher. But in 1992, the US Justice Department claimed releasing the third book could harm national security by revealing the NSA’s “code-breaking prowess“. It was finally released in December last year. 

A key part of Callimahos’s book is a chapter titled Principles of Cryptodiagnosis, which describes a systematic three-step approach to solving a message encrypted using an unknown method… 

See how those three steps work at “Declassified Cold War code-breaking manual has lessons for solving ‘impossible’ puzzles.”

* Edgar Allan Poe

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As we ponder puzzles, we might send intelligent birthday greetings to Alfred Binet; he was born on this date in 1857. A psychologist, he invented the first practical IQ test, the Binet–Simon test (in response to a request from the French Ministry of Education to devise a method to identify students needing remedial help).

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“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”*…

… so, how we measure it matters…

In 2015, Greece, Thailand, Israel, and the UK were equally unequal. That is, all four countries had the same Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality.

The number suggests that the spread of incomes in the four nations was the same. However, a close look at the poorest and wealthiest in those societies reveals a very different picture. The ratio between income held by the richest 10% and the poorest 10% ranged significantly, from 13.8 in Greece to 4.2 in the UK. 

The fact is, just because the Gini coefficient is so well known doesn’t mean it’s a particularly useful measurement. Its appeal comes from its simplicity—a number between 0 and 1 that can encapsulate a complex distribution in a single figure—as well as its popularity. It is also regularly published and updated by powerful international organizations like the OECD, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund

However, it has a number of serious limitations. So many, in fact, that the World Inequality Database, one of the world’s leading sources of income inequality data, steers clear. And it’s not alone. While some economists defend the Gini coefficient’s continued use, most agree that as a way to understand income inequality, it’s insufficient on its own…

A primer on the dominant measure of economic inequality, and on some alternatives/supplements to it: “Gini coefficient: An introduction.”

* Plutarch

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As we aim to understand, we might note that today is the Summer Solstice, the day on which the earth’s north pole is maximally tilted toward sun, and there are more hours of daylight than on any other day of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern, it is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day). The June solstice is the only day of the year when all locations inside the Arctic Circle experience a continuous period of daylight for 24 hours. And perhaps more immediately, it is the “official” start of Summer.

(The 21st is the traditional date; in the event, the solstice falls on the 20th, 21st, or 22nd– this year, on the 20th… still, the traditional date is the one folks tend to mark.)

Not coincidentally, today is also National Daylight Appreciation Day.

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“It’s not the size of the nose that matters, it’s what’s inside that counts”*…

Dimensions.com is an ongoing reference database of dimensioned drawings documenting the standard measurements and sizes of the everyday objects and spaces that make up our world. Created as a universal resource to better communicate the basic properties, systems, and logics of our built environment, Dimensions.com is a free platform for increasing public and professional knowledge of life and design…

Dimensions.com is an ongoing public research project founded by architect Bryan Maddock and continues to be developed through the architecture practice Fantastic Offense.

The measure of man’s manufacture: Dimensions.com

(See also “Not too big, not too small… just right” for an earlier look at a similar initiative…)

* Steve Martin

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As we realize that the ruler rules, we might it was on this date in 1951 that the first long distance direct dial call was made (from Englewood, New Jersey, to Alameda, California) in the U.S.– area codes became a reality. The North American Numbering Plan had been published in 1947, dividing most of North America into eighty-six numbering plan areas (NPAs). Each NPA was assigned a unique three-digit code, typically called NPA code or simply area code. These codes were first used by long-distance operators in establishing long-distance calls between toll offices. By the early 1960s, most areas of the Bell System had been converted and DDD had become commonplace in cities and most towns in the United States and Canada. By 1967, the number of assigned area codes had grown to 129. There are currently 317 geographic area codes in the United States and an additional 18 non-geographic area codes, totaling 335 US area codes.

Area code handbook by the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania issued in 1962 to promote the newly introduced direct distance dialing (source)

“Only time (whatever that may be) will tell”*…

Scientists have measured the shortest unit of time ever: the time it takes a light particle to cross a hydrogen molecule. 

That time, for the record, is 247 zeptoseconds. A zeptosecond is a trillionth of a billionth of a second, or a decimal point followed by 20 zeroes and a 1.

Previously, researchers had dipped into the realm of zeptoseconds; in 2016, researchers reporting in the journal Nature Physics used lasers to measure time in increments down to 850 zeptoseconds. This accuracy is a huge leap from the 1999 Nobel Prize-winning work that first measured time in femtoseconds, which are millionths of a billionths of seconds…

More at “Scientists Measure The Shortest Length of Time Ever: in Zeptoseconds.”

* Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

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As we acknowledge alacrity, we might spare a thought for James Clerk Maxwell; he died on this date in 1879.  A mathematician and and physicist, he calculated (circa 1862) that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light– kicking off his work in uniting electricity, magnetism, and light… that’s to say, formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, which is considered the “second great unification in physics” (after the first, realized by Isaac Newton). Maxwell laid the foundation for modern physics, starting the search for radio waves and paving the way for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.  In the Millennium Poll – a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists at the turn of the 21st century – Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.

225px-James_Clerk_Maxwell

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

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