Thursday, November 17, 2016

A line connects two dots, right?

A couple in Anchorage – Meg and Zach – gave an incredible gift to the community. They bought the house across the street from theirs and turned it into Anchorage Community House. There are classes there, an art room, a tool check-out library – it’s a great idea.

My brain needed a rest from political ads, conversations, and coverage; so a couple of weeks ago, I took a class to make a plant stand. Not only would I learn how to make a plant stand, but I’d actually end up with one. It could lift the schefflera off the new carpet and be USEFUL.
Zach had the wood and tools, and my job was to cut the pieces and screw them together. We measured and marked the wood with pencil. Then I used the circular saw to cut along the lines. I learned the word kerf, which is the cut the saw makes.

The thing is, it’s hard to keep the saw exactly on target. Even harder when you have Third Third eyes and you’re not exactly sure – once you have the safety goggles on – where the line is anymore. The cut – the kerf – has its own dimension. So every now and then, Zach would say something like, “You’re missing it” when I guessed I was in the right spot. Zach compared all the post lengths and worried they weren’t exactly even. And I would tell him not to worry, that the plant stand was going to stand on carpet after all.
A couple days later, I read the book A Tenth of a Second about how measurement had to develop if science was going to develop. The author, Jimena Canales, starts with astronomy and how different astronomers got different measurements for when a star was in position in the sky. This caused lots of problems for mapmaking, even for determining the exact length of the meter (which is based on the earth’s circumference). It all comes down – among other things – to reaction time, how long it takes a person to see, process, and note a star’s transit across the sky. It was a huge international mess in the 1800s.

In 1835, an astronomer named Francis Baily showed that even normal, everyday measurements fell victim to the problem. Some people measured from the middle of a line, some from the top edge, some from the bottom. Even if you just have to connect two dots, it matters whether you’re starting from the inside edge of the dot or the outside edge, from the middle or the side.
The dictionary calls it the “personal equation,” and it affects just about everything humans try to measure.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there I was trying to escape all the election coverage: this opinion piece, that editorial; this article from one newspaper, that article from another; NPR vs Fox News; one pollster vs another … a million different viewpoints. And there’s no way Zach and I could have agreed on where a pencil line “began.”

It puts a lot of things in perspective when you realize there’s inherent bias in even using a ruler.

But even with all that, my plant stand still holds my plant up just fine.

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