Beyond Measure

Beyond Measure coverBeyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants
James Vincent
read by the author
HighBridge (November 01, 2022), 10 hours and 1 minute
print edition published by W. W. Norton & Company
$13.31 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

In Beyond Measure James Vincent offers a fascinating history of the development of measurement across the centuries.

Vincent begins with ancient Egypt, where priests used marks on a wall to measure the depth of the Nile River each year. This process goes back as far as 3000 BCE, and the process continued well into the first centuries of the Common Era when Muslim rulers controlled Egypt.

The author discusses how measurement was first taken from the human body. For example, a cubit was the length from the elbow to the figure tip. That, obviously, is imprecise but standards evolved over time. Vincent describes how debates over measurement included battles between parties with opposing interests. For example, a measure of tightly packed grain favors the merchant buying the grain while one more loosely packed favors the farmer who grew it.

Vincent goes into detail about the creation of the metric system. He describes how it grew out of the French Revolution. One of the primary complaints by those rebelling against the monarchy was the lack of a fair and equitable system of weights and measures. He also discusses the resistance to the system by those who preferred the English system. They insisted, for example, that while a decimal-based system is useful in some instances, sometimes you just want to divide things into halves or quarters or thirds. (As a dedicated home cook I am tied to the English system. When watching someone like Nigella Lawson on television (she’s British) it makes me crazy when she tells me to add “ten mils” of this or “twenty mils” of that.)

One of the most interesting parts of the book comes near the end where Vincent discusses how benchmarks for standards have changed. For a long time the definition of a meter was said to be the length between two marks on a metal bar stored under lock and key in France. (That’s what I learned in school.) And a kilogram was the weight of a platinum alloy cylinder, known as the “Le Grand K,” similarly stored under lock and key. However, scientists discovered that these physical objects changed in length and weight over time, if ever so slightly. The meter was eventually defined as the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 seconds. In 2018 the General Conference of Weights and Measures met in Versailles and voted to redefine the kilogram based on the Planck constant, a formula that comes out of quantum physics. The new definition can be expressed in a few different ways, but it has to do with measuring subatomic particles. We can say a kilogram is “the mass of 1.475521 4 × 1040 photons at the cesium hyperfine frequency trapped in a microwave cavity.” Vincent describes the celebration at the convention after the vote took place.

The author also writes about the science of surveying, which facilitated territorial expansion in the United States and elsewhere, about statistics, which in addition to its useful side led to the reprehensible pseudoscience of eugenics, and about the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which measures and sets benchmarks for all sorts of things, from peanut butter to electronic communications. He explains how Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, brought statistics to the military, how Google and Facebook began measuring our behavior to facilitate targeted advertising, and how the myth of ten thousand steps a day being optimal grew out of a marketing gimmick created by a Japanese company, based on a pun in the Japanese alphabet.

Two words appear frequently in the book with which I was not previously familiar: metrology and metrologist. Yes, the science of measurement is both a discipline and a profession.

James Vincent does a capable job of reading his own book. Beyond Measure is highly listenable with a lot of interesting information.

a brief gadget-buying frenzy

earbudsI decided to buy a pair of earbuds for my iPad. My hearing aid connects to my iPad, but sometimes the iPad insists that my hearing aid is connected to my iPhone (even though the iPhone might be off). Rather than be aggravated, I thought that a new pair of Bluetooth earbuds would be a good solution. (You may know a pair of earbuds will only connect to a single device.) Terry said she liked them because they light up when in use, so she could tell when I was listening to something. That was not the case when I was in the kitchen, for example, and listening to an audiobook or podcast on my iPhone with my hearing aid or the smaller, non-illuminated earbuds I was using with my iPhone. So I bought a similar pair for my iPhone. I selected white, since the first pair was black.

Alexa routine screen shotWhen they arrived, however, I liked the original pair better, since the black case allowed me to see the charging data even when the case was closed, which the white one did not. Since I use the earbuds on my iPhone much more often than on my iPad, I paired the original black pair with my iPhone and the new white pair with my iPad. They’re very comfortable and I love the digital power level display.

Thinking about gadgets, I was looking at the digital timer connected to the lamp in our living space and thinking about what a pain it is to adjust when the clocks change in the spring and fall or when the seasons and changing light required an adjustment. That’s when I had one of those “I could’ve had a V8!” moments. We have two smart plugs that work with Amazon Alexa, one for the light in the dining area and another for the table fountain in the bedroom. Why not, I suddenly realized, get a third for the light in the living area? So I did. The initial setup was a bit tricky, but now that I have done it adjustments will be simple. And no more drift. The digital timer would run fast, so when the light was set to turn on at 6:30 p.m. it would eventually turn on at 6:27. And we’re also no longer constrained to two on/off cycles a day, nor does the cycle need to be the same every day of the week, both limitations of the digital timer.

watchThen there’s the story of the watch. I had two solar-powered digital watches, which, on account of the pandemic I didn’t wear much. They both stopped working and so they now sit in the box for the next household hazardous waste drop-off event. But now that Terry and I feel more comfortable going out to eat again, and now that I am back attending church in person, I decided it was time to have a functioning watch. (It’s bad form to pull out your iPhone to check the time when in church.) I looked on Amazon for solar-powered watches and was surprised to discover that they were all well over $100.00. I realized that a watch with a standard battery would do and found a Casio that syncs to the time signal out of Ft. Collins, Colorado for around a third of the price of the solar watches. The Q&A on Amazon suggested the battery would last five years or longer, which I found reassuring. A quick trip to the local watch shop for a new band and I’m set. (Casio makes quality watches with crummy bands.)

All right. That’s enough. I’m in good shape gadget-wise for quite a while now.

Third Girl from the Left

Third Girl From the Left coverThird Girl from the Left
Christine Barker
Delphinium Books (March 14, 2023), 316 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $23.99

I have long been a lover of theater, and of musical theater in particular, so when I read about Third Girl from the Left, it went straight to the top of my reading list.

Christine Barker grew up a Navy brat, living with her family in a variety of locations around the world as her father was transferred from base to base. He finally gave up the financial security of the Navy for physical stability when he moved the family to Santa Fe, New Mexico and entered the real estate business. Christine had a passion for dancing, but while other arts were well-supported in Santa Fe, dance was not. She therefore took the bus to Albuquerque on Saturdays to get what dance lessons she could.

Participating in a national dance competition gave her visibility to the theater program at UCLA, where she enrolled, as her father insisted she spend two years in college and maintain a B+ average before considering entering the world of professional dance. The moment she finished her second year she headed off to New York City.

In New York she trained in Alvin Ailey’s studio, but it was Michael Bennett who opened the door for her when she didn’t make the cut there. He gave her the opportunity to participate in the national touring company of one of his early shows, which led to her being cast in the London production of Bennett’s then-new show A Chorus Line, which opened in Toronto before heading to London. When an agreement between the actors’ equity groups in New York and London required that the American performers give way to British, she returned to New York. There she got the role of Kristine, the dancer who couldn’t sing, in the Broadway cast of A Chorus Line.

Barker writes in detail about her life in theater, discussing the trials and tribulations of her lifestyle choice. She describes trying to advance her career by taking acting lessons and auditioning for television commercials. She discusses the stress of performing in a Broadway musical. Barker became frustrated when friends and family didn’t understand what she did. Various iterations of “eight shows a week” becomes a mantra in this portion of the book.

The author is candid about her relationships. She had two failed marriages, the second breakup being especially traumatic as she bought a condo loft with her husband in partnership with her brother John, an artist. Husband number two was out of work, didn’t want to look for work, and didn’t want to agree to a divorce, although he finally did. She also discusses the difficulty of professional relationships. I learned that Michael Bennett could be arbitrary and a real jerk, but Barker fully gives him credit for her entry into professional theater.

Barker was in the show in the eighties when interest rates were high (adding to the condo loft mortgage woes) and the Reagan administration refused to acknowledge the reality of the AIDS epidemic. (She does not hide her feelings about Reagan.) Many of the men with who she worked in the theater were gay, one of the few safe places for gay men in the seventies and eighties. Another brother (she had four) named Laughlin, a successful attorney, came out to her as gay, insisting that she not tell the rest of the family. The last portion of the book chronicles Laughlin’s battle with AIDS and his partner’s denial. Barker eventually gave up her role in A Chorus Line and supported herself by doing television ads while she looked after Laughlin until his death. This was the early days of the AIDS epidemic, long before it became the manageable disease that it is today. Laughlin’s partner succumbed soon thereafter. Martin, Bennett’s chief lieutenant with whom Barker had a close relationship, died of AIDS later, as did ultimately Bennett himself.

That final portion of the book is grim in the extreme, but for anyone interested in the realities of life in musical theater, or for anyone interested in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York, Third Girl from the Left is indispensable reading.

Humanly Possible

Humanly Possible coverHumanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope
Sarah Bakewell
Penguin Press (March 28, 2023), 464 pages
Kindle edition $15.99, Amazon hardcover $27.00

I rarely buy a Kindle book where I don’t first download and read the sample. Humanly Possible is one of those exceptions. Not only did I want to read the book because of its subject matter, but the author made the book all the more appealing to me. I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, so I knew this book would be good reading as well.

Bakewell covers a lot of territory here. She begins with Petrarch, who was born in 1304 and takes us up to the present day. The book is arranged by topic, and is roughly chronological, but not entirely so: there is some overlap with respect to time periods.

The author is firmly in the humanist camp and is quite upfront about the fact. She is, however, not at all hostile to religion. She ungrudgingly discusses the role of the church in preserving knowledge and learning during the Middle Ages. She writes about how Petrarch, when he found a manuscript in a monastery that he wanted would sit down and copy it by hand.

In some respects Bakewell covers similar territory to that which Martin Puchner discusses in his recent Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop, but while Puchner takes a global perspective, Bakewell stays strictly in the West. This makes sense because she is documenting a certain way of thinking that is peculiarly Western.

Although Bakewell generally maintains a positive outlook, she does not shirk from addressing the unpleasant in her account. In particular she documents the thought and philosophy behind the fascist movement in both Germany and Italy in the years before World War II. It’s a part of that time period with which I was not familiar, and it is disturbing, to say the least.

Bakewell documents the “God is dead” movement, and despite that famous Time magazine cover from the sixties that distorts our perspective of this line of thought, it was not of twentieth century origin. Charles Swinburne wrote about it in 1870.

The author devotes a good deal of space to Bertrand Russell, and rightly so. He lived to be ninety-seven and was active right to the end. In addition to his work in philosophy and in political and social causes, Russell had quite the busy personal life and was not a believer in monogamy.

I have one minor quibble with Bakewell. She refers to the Unitarian movement as “quasi-religious.” In fact, the Unitarian Universalist Association is fully recognized as a church. I spent several years in the Unitarian Church in the eighties, and I know from personal experience that there is a wide range of thought within the organization: from atheist to agnostic to fully believing in God.

The final chapter is a sort of rundown of various humanist organizations currently in existence and reads rather like an advertisement. That aside, Humanly Possible is a valuable contribution to the subject of humanism. It is both readable and informative.

Inventing the Truth

Inventing the Truth coverInventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
edited by William Zinsser
Mariner Books; 3rd ed. edition (May 20, 1998), 236 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $11.19
purchased during a BookBub sale for $1.99

When I saw the Kindle edition of this book on sale for $1.99 and noticed the subtitle I immediately grabbed it. It didn’t hurt that the editor is William Zinsser, author of the highly regarded (including by me) book On Writing Well.

In 1986 William Zinsser hosted a series of lectures sponsored by the Book of the Month Club at the New York Public Library entitled “The Art and Craft of Memoir.” Five of the chapters in this book are transcriptions of the authors’ discussions about their experiences writing their memoirs. In 1995 Zinsser sat down with his tape recorder and spoke to four additional authors to get their reflections on the same topic.

All of the conversations included here were interesting but I particularly enjoyed the reflections of two authors whose memoirs I have read. I read and thoroughly enjoyed Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood when it first came out in 1987. I have been a big fan of Dillard’s ever since reading her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the seventies. It was enlightening to read about what she chose to include and what she chose to omit (and why). It was only in the past few years that I have read Alfred Kazin’s 1952 memoir A Walker in the City, though I read and loved his book New York Jew shortly after it was published in 1978. Kazin discusses how the book he planned to write was not the book he ended up writing.

Toni Morrison’s contribution is somewhat different. Rather than discussing the process of writing her own memoir (I don’t believe she has written one), she talks about the structure of the books published by former slaves. We all know about Frederick Douglass, but many other freed or escaped slaves wrote their own autobiographies or memoirs, and she discusses the common threads in those works.

The bibliography is a treasure trove. The authors who contributed to the book offer their list of memoirs and autobiographies that influenced them. It’s enough to keep one immersed in memoir for a long time.

This Kindle edition of Inventing the Truth has its problems. There are typographical errors and in one case a line of type that simply doesn’t belong. But that’s not enough to prevent enjoyment of an interesting and at times enlightening collection of interviews.

a week to leave behind

I was on call for jury duty last week. It’s not something I like, but I respect my civic duty. However, since the height of the pandemic and lockdown I have been sleeping later and when I need to get up early I am not functioning well by early afternoon. Add to that the fact that the courthouse is twenty miles and thirty-five minutes away. That’s not bad in and of itself, but to get there I have to take a country highway through a pass in the hills in the early morning light in order to arrive at the courthouse by the 8:00 a.m. start time. Given that would be before the sun was fully up, and given that my night vision is not what it once was, I did not feel safe or comfortable making that drive.

calendarI asked my doctor to excuse me from jury duty, and he generated a document that did just that. The court, however, ignored the document, perhaps because he didn’t provide any reason for my being excused. So I was still on call.

This meant checking the web site each afternoon to see if I needed to go in the next day. Fortunately, I had a high group number and remained on standby. When I checked the web site on Thursday afternoon it showed my status as “Ended.” I was delighted about that, but geez Riverside County, not even a “thank you” for being available all week?

Then there was Friday. A day of interruptions and disruptions.

My calendar told me I needed to change the air filter in our HVAC system. I went into the garage to get a new filter and there was no filter. So I made a trip to Home Depot. We took care of that, but then checking my email I had a bill from Kaiser for some outrageous amount for my shingles vaccine. Seems that was entered as though I was not on a Kaiser plan, even though I am. So to resolve that I called the phone number on the bill. Turns out that number was for people who use Kaiser but are not on a Kaiser plan. I then had to call Kaiser directly to get the error taken care of. Of course I spent a lot of time on hold, but I finally got that worked out.

After that, I was sitting at my computer minding my own business composing an email when the doorbell rang. There was a guy from our electric utility, Southern California Edison, who said that our power meter had stopped transmitting data and needed to be replaced. The power was off for only a minute or so, but when the Wi-Fi router came back online our iPhones and two of our Amazon Echo devices did not like the connection. So I had to do another power cycle on the router to resolve that problem. Finally it all worked out.

But it’s a new week. Yesterday Terry and I had a marvelous Easter dinner of pressure cooker pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy. We used china Terry inherited from her granny and silverware that my grandparents and great aunt and uncle gave to my great grandparents for their fifty-ninth wedding anniversary. A wonderful start to a week that we expect to be much more normal than last week.

an indulgence

When I did my 2022 income taxes this year I noticed I did not have a lot in the way of expenses to offset my freelance income. Not that I made all that much, but I thought too much of that income was exposed as taxable.

Then in mid-March I was looking at my freelance business income year-to-date. Still not that much. But I also looked at my business expenses year-to-date again and realized that there wasn’t that much there in the way of expenses to offset my taxable income.

OED logoI had been thinking about the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), since Oxford University Press had shut down my much-loved free Oxford Dictionaries Online and ultimately redirected its successor, Lexico, to, a site for which I have no use.

The OED online was once absurdly expensive unless you had access through your public library or other institution. But they have since updated their pricing policy, and for individual users in the United States it’s now $100.00 a year. (I was going to say “only” but at that price it’s not really “only.”)

So I took the plunge and indulged myself. I’m glad I did.

I have learned some cool things already. The English word Easter is cognate with the Old Dutch ōstermānōth, that is Easter-month, or April. But, and here is the cool thing, it is also cognate with the ancient Greek ἠώς (eos), or dawn. We find the word in the Iliad: “The rosy-fingered dawn (eos) brings her message of light to men and immortals.”

I was reading a book that discussed Jerome’s hagiography of St. Hilarion. According to the OED, the first use of the word hagiography was documented in 1631. The OED tells us that the sarcastic use of the term (“Usually somewhat depreciative” as they phrase it), referring to a biography that excessively praises an individual without noting anything of their shortcomings, only goes back to 1924.

Fun facts.

I’m going to thoroughly enjoy my OED access.

Earthquakes and Gardens

Earthquakes and Gardens coverEarthquakes and Gardens: Saint Hilarion’s Cyprus
Virginia Burrus
University of Chicago Press (February 19, 2023), 211 pages
Kindle edition $20.49, Amazon paperback $27.50

The structure of Earthquakes and Gardens is somewhat unusual. Author Virginia Burrus provides a summary of Jerome’s hagiography of St. Hilarion before offering a series of essays on related topics, some closely related to Hilarion and others less so. Each essay begins with a quote from Jerome’s work.

Burrus’s interest in Hilarion derives from his close association with the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Although Hilarion was well-traveled (he spent time as a disciple of the renowned ascetic St. Anthony in Egypt and lived in the Holy Land) he spent the last years of his life on Cyprus. Jerome writes about the ruins of Cyprus caused by an earthquake years before Hilarion’s arrival (hence the “earthquakes” in the title), and he describes how Hilarion moved from his first home on the island to a more remote one next to a garden (hence that part of the title.) The garden was near a ruined temple, perhaps dedicated to the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

In a marvelous essay entitled “Poetry and Place,” Burrus writes about how ancient poets wrote about Paphos, the principal town on the island, and about Aphrodite. From there the author writes in detail about earthquakes, and what we know about earthquakes that occurred in antiquity. In that same essay she segues into a discussion about a modern art exhibition in rural Texas. She then writes about the archaeology of Paphos, and how parts of buildings that were destroyed by earthquake or other means were used in the construction of newer works.

In other essays, Burrus writes about the geography and landscape of Hilarion’s garden, and the comparisons Jerome makes between Hilarion and Anthony. Jerome takes the trouble to note that Anthony cultivated trees and ate from their fruit, while on Cyprus Hilarion left the trees in the state in which he found them and did not eat their fruit (perhaps because the trees were in a garden dedicated to a pagan goddess).

This was not the book Virginia Burrus intended to write. Her plan was to visit Cyprus and write about her experience there. But COVID disrupted those plans, as it did those of so many others. So she wrote the book without the travel. She plans, she tells us, to make it there yet. Perhaps by the time of this writing this she will have done so.

From the beginning of the book I knew that Burrus and I shared a bond. She opens the book writing about experiencing the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. I was at work in a small software company in Mountain View, California on the San Francisco Peninsula when the quake hit. I knew she would be a fine tour guide on this Cyprus trip. I was not disappointed.

With respect to genre, Earthquakes and Gardens is hard to classify. It’s not really a religious book, but those interested in saints and hagiography will find much to appreciate. Certainly there is plenty here for those who enjoy the study of antiquity. There is material for people who enjoy reading about agriculture and horticulture. Certainly those who like geology and are interested in the study of earthquakes will find plenty to appreciate. Most of all, however, the book is simply good reading for anyone who loves fine writing and a well-constructed essay.