Monday, March 9, 2009

On Numbers

An old co-worker (JustFoster) set up a blog and in one of his first "public" posts he wrote about Daylight Savings.  I'd also like to look at Daylight Saving as a way to ruminate on the concept of numbers in a foreign place.  On first glance the most obvious change:  Time Zones.  I am six hours ahead of the east coast (most of my friends and family), and nine hours ahead of the west coast (a select few).  I'm also a full twelve hours ahead of Hawaii (an extremely select two).  This all changed during Daylight Saving.  For a long time I took for granted the idea of Daylight Saving.  Yes, we turn the clocks back and forth... don't know why, don't care why, the sun is nicer in the spring because of it.  This was until I said to my boss last Friday, "hey, its daylight savings this weekend."  He replied, "no... no, its not."  I learned that Europe in fact has a much later daylight savings than the US, and this is only a recent event.  Pre-2007 the US had a later Daylight Saving adjustment, the US moved up the date because of both conclusive and in-conclusive evidence (not sure how this works) that there will be a 1% reduction in energy usage if we pushed Daylight Saving earlier into the spring.  I won't argue, but it got my mind working on other differences.
A co-worker casually mentioned that "numbers are the same everywhere."  For a long time I had a similar belief until I really thought about the differences between Metric and Imperial.  I'm going to go a bit abstract for a moment but bear with me:  Metric is based on the number 10... simple.  Imperial is based on the number 12... also simple.  The truly important portion of this is the factors involved.  Take Metric and 10, it has the factors 2 and 5... and 10 but that's not really a factor.  Metric is an extremely easy system because to change powers you just add or subtract a 0 from the end and halves are easy as well.  Imperial on the other hand is a bit more complex.  There are Four factors:  2,3,4,6.  This makes life easy and complex.  Easy because more factors usually means it is a lot easier to create fractions and teach the addition and subtraction to youth.  Complex because you have to choose between a standard factor of 2 or 3.
Lets look at a ruler.  If you are designing a ruler and take one inch you have two options within your factors for how to split things up.  2 is much easier because every knows a half.  3 is a little tougher.  On the other hand, you can never split a number using the factor of 2 alone and end up with 1/12.  This results in a ruler usually being divided into 16ths or 32nds.  Now we have to do math based on the number 12 as well as the number 16 (or 32... and so on).  Dumb.  
These numbers pervade our existence in many other ways including money and time.  For now I'm much more interested in Money.  There are people who would prefer if the American money system moved to a base 12 system in order to create simpler math for lower denominations.  The issue is that we are in fact close to the system already with our coins.  Even though our money is based on 100 cents in 1 dollar, our coins are still very confused as to which system they would prefer.  The most obvious is the Quarter.  25 is clearly a factor of 100, but 1/4th is not an easy fraction created with the factors of 2 and 5.  The coin is a relic of an older time.  The Euro for instance contains a 20 cent coin (1/5th) as well as a 2 cent coin (1/50th) also a 1, 10, and 50.  The Metric (base 10) system remains consistent in their coins.  
Christ, if you've made it this far you deserve a picture.  That's a picture of a bronze man riding a camel... in Antwerp.  This isn't meant as a lesson by any means... just me thinking about the confusion w/in the American system.  I'll write again soon about how I'm progressing in the Metric system via architecture/food/temperature.  Hint: not well.


  1. i like the picture.

    oh, and interesting musing.

  2. you forgot the $2 bill...
    even though its not popular in currency it still exists and i think adds to the base 12 confusion
    i wiki'd the history of this and found this out.
    "In 1976 use of the two-dollar denomination was resumed as part of the United States bicentennial ($2.00 is equal to two hundred cents) and the two-dollar bill was finally assigned as a Federal Reserve Note"

  3. i vote for paris and also vote for the metric system...are we still voting??? probably not, eh? anyway, i love the metric system in cooking, however i love the name for our English system - "avoirdupois". look it up...