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Posts Tagged ‘measurement

“Imperial is lit, but Metric is liter”…*




The English-speaking world has been famously (and, many argue, problematically) slow to switch to the metric system of measurement.  One of the reasons is the way in which traditional “imperial” measures are baked into our understanding of products and services we use every day.

Consider the barleycorn, which is still used as the basis of shoe sizes in English-speaking countries.

In ancient Rome, the inch (which was one twelfth of a foot) measured the width across the (interphalangeal) joint of the thumb. By the 7th century in England, the barleycorn became a standard measurement with three ears of corn, laid end to end, equalling one inch. It took until the thirteenth century before the inch was officially sanctioned. Under pressure, Edward II (r. 1307-27) eventually succumbed to appeals from scholars and tradesmen to issue a decree to standardise measurement (Ledger, 1985).

Henceforth an English inch was the distance measured across three barleycorns. Thirty nine (39) barleycorns laid end to end became a foot, and 117 laid end to end became a yard. Whilst the barleycorn decree of Edward II had nothing to do with shoe sizes per se, many shoemakers began to use shoe sticks. Tradesmen had traditionally used the hand span method of measurement, which preferred the quarter of an inch unit, but after the introduction of the barleycorn measure, many began to adopt the third of an inch unit. With 39 barley corns approximating the length of a normal foot this was graded Size 13 and became the largest shoe size. Other sizes were graded down by 1/3 rd of an inch or one barleycorn…  [source]

The barleycorn is but one of the old English measures that. more or less obviously, still shape our encounters with and experience of the world:


Forgotten, but not gone: the barleycorn.

* bad joke


As we muse on measurement, we might send inventive birthday greetings to Charles Franklin Kettering; he was born on this date in 1876.  An engineer, businessman, and inventor (the holder of 186 patents), he worked at National Cash Register (where he created the first electric cash register with an electric motor that opened the drawer), co-founded DELCO, and was head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947.  He invented the key-operated self-starting motor and developed several new engine types, quick-drying lacquer finishes, anti-knock fuels, and variable-speed transmissions.  In association with the DuPont Chemical Company, he was also responsible for the invention of Freon refrigerant for refrigeration and air conditioning systems.  While working with the Dayton-Wright Company he developed the “Bug” aerial torpedo, considered the world’s first aerial missile.  In 1927, he founded the Kettering Foundation, a non-partisan research foundation devoted to answering the question: “what does it take for democracy to work as it should?”

220px-Time-magazine-cover-charles-kettering source


“You have to be in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your perspective”*…




Hailstones are balls (or spikes, or flattish pancakes) of frozen precipitation that measure at least 0.2 inches across, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Severe Storms Laboratory. Several other types of smaller frozen precipitation are known as “ice pellets,” reports the National Snow & Ice Data Center, and may take the form of graupel (soft balls of water droplets clinging to a snow crystal and looking like Styrofoam) or sleet (essentially icy raindrops). In the sky, either of these can serve as an “embryo,” the little nucleus around which a hailstone can grow. The longer a fledgling hailstone stays lofted in a thunderstorm’s fierce updraft, the bigger it gets. Beyond that minimum 0.2-inch threshold, there are a few finer distinctions between hailstones, thrown around by researchers and sometimes forecasters at the National Weather Service. “Severe” hail has a maximum dimension of one inch or more, “significantly severe” stones are larger than two inches, and “giant” hail is bigger than four inches.

“Giant” sounds pretty big, but this crop of researchers didn’t think it seemed quite big enough. A hailstone of more than four inches is “certainly very large,” says Matthew Kumjian, a meteorologist at Penn State University and lead author of the paper. But, he adds, while stones of that size are rare, “they are not exceptional.” Hailstones bigger than four inches are reported 30 to 40 times a year in the United States alone, he says. Stones larger than six inches, though, are few and far between. Kumjian’s co-author, graduate student Rachel Gutierrez, combed through reports and found about 10 confirmed instances in the last 10 or 15 years, mostly in the U.S. (There were a handful of unconfirmed reports in Australia, Africa, and Asia, but photos or official measurements were missing.)

The researchers suspect that there are probably more of these spectacularly sized hailstones dropping down across the country, but they’re likely going unnoticed. When measuring hail, time is of the essence: Hailstones vanish fairly quickly, especially in hot or humid conditions, or if they shatter on impact; even large ones with cushioned falls might be overlooked. The most severe hailstorms in the United States are in the Great Plains, Kumjian says, where people are spread fairly far apart…

They’re huge; they’re rare; and they’re melting all the time: “The Slippery Problem of Measuring Enormous Hunks of Hail.”

* Matthew Kumjian, a meteorologist at Penn State University, on measuring hailstones


As we check the weather, we might recall that it was on this date in 1883 that the volcano on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa began to release huge plumes of steam and ash. Roughly three months later, on August 27, it erupted in earnest– with a sound so loud that it circled the earth four times.  (As big as the explosion was, it was not the biggest in history: experts suggest that Santorini’s eruption in 1628 BCE was three times as powerful.)

300px-Krakatoa_eruption_lithograph source


Written by LW

May 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP”*…




Is the world becoming increasingly prosperous? It would be hard to answer “yes” right now, at least so far as the leading high-income economies are concerned. Yet the longstanding bellwether of economic progress – inflation-adjusted GDP – has been growing across most of the OECD since 2010, suggesting that everything is fine.

Some 80 years after GDP was introduced, nearly everyone (apart from the indicator’s stewards) has concluded that it is  of economic progress. But there is no consensus yet on a possible replacement. Reaching agreement on an alternative will require a new concept of prosperity and a new way to measure whether living standards are improving…

Over eight decades after its introduction, there is a widespread consensus that GDP is no longer a useful measure of economic progress.  Its successor will need to be compelling and tell a persuasive story, consistent with experience, of what is happening in our economies.  Diane Coyle offers some leads on possible successors: “What Will Succeed GDP?

* Simon Kuznets


As we grope for good gauges, we might recall that it was on this date in 1848 that a political pamphlet by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, was published.  Commissioned by the Communist League and written in German, it appeared as the Revolutions of 1848 began to erupt.  Subsequently, of course, Marx elaborated on his argument (with Engel’s help, after Marx’s death) in Das Kapital.


Cover of the first edition



Written by LW

February 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

“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

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