A measure of who we are

Lately, I’ve found that I’m becoming fascinated with change, not so much because it is happening to me -I’m always changing- but more with its measurement. There are so many ways to measure things -so many units, so many scales- it seems like every time I turn around someone has come up with a new one. I mean petabytes? Come on, I’d barely mastered the megas, let alone the gigas, and then somebody decided we needed teras -where’s it all going to stop?

It seems to me there’s just too much quantitation -it’s only driving us deeper into an etymological labyrinth and pretty soon we’re either going to find the Minotaur, or we’re going to run out of usable words. Whichever way, I figure it’s trouble.

Somebody has got to authorize a paradigm shift before anarchy is loosed upon the world. I think we ought to go back to basics, back to an atavism: qualitation. Long before we had the times table, we had comparatives, eh? Big, bigger; heavy, heavier -what’s not to like? And it’s pretty easy to follow, too.

Of course there are problems if you want specificity, and stuff, but let’s face it, if you’re thirsty, you aren’t 6 thirsty, or 7.204 thirsty are you? It’s more like a ‘sort-of’ thirsty, and a very thirsty, right? A relationship between several gradations. And if you want to pin it down more, it can be a ‘glass-of-water thirsty’, or perhaps a ‘many-cans-of-Coke thirsty’. You don’t even have to mention the petas unless you want to.

The idea is not new, of course -atavisms are not supposed to be new- but just because it’s been tried before doesn’t mean there’s a best-before date or anything. Retro is coming back, I understand. And anyway, there was an encouraging article in a BBC Future series that gave me hope: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180726-the-measures-that-dont-need-maths

Let’s face it, somethings are hard to put numbers on. An example the article sites is the Mother Cow Index –the value of land as it relates to the number of pregnant cows it could sustain- but I think they are just kidding us on that one. A more useful example, I think, are grades, like beginner, intermediate and expert. Of course, just who gets to decide worries me a bit.

But they do make a useful distinction between Ordinal and Interval qualitations. ‘Ordinal scales allow for the difference among items, but not the ratio between them.’ For example, ‘An “extremely satisfied” response on a customer service ranking is not triple the satisfaction of “somewhat dissatisfied”’ On the other hand, Interval measurements are those in which ‘values can be arranged in a meaningful order, and the difference between two values matters.’ For example, ‘an earthquake that measures 6.0 on the Richter scale is many orders of magnitude greater than a small trembler of 3.0.’

That’s getting a little too numbery for me, though -too quantitative, even though it’s sometimes hard to know just how much of what it’s measuring. No, as far as I am concerned, I prefer the system which measures in metaphors. Take beauty, for example. ‘One Helen is enough to launch one thousand ships (a milli-Helen launches but one)’, or, say, the kind of quantity that measures how many Olympic swimming pools would be filled -although I have no idea what that means. And, of course, the quality of something being as fine as a lover’s kiss.

It’s a system that’s catching on in such unlikely places as the Food Court in one of Vancouver’s biggest malls, so I know I’m on to something.

I hate Food Courts, mainly because of their feral smells, and the risk of having to share my table with people with loose and largely untamed dentures. But every once in a while, weak with hunger, and wracked by borborygmies, I capitulate and am pulled by the need for a 12 grain bagel at Tim Hortons in one of the legion stalls (I am assured each time by the clerk that its ’12’ is an Ordinal-based Qualitative assignation and that since she has never counted them, is not meant to be construed as a Quantitative description for legal purposes).

On one less than auspicious visit to an already raging Court, I managed to slip into a just-vacated booth with my double-double, and an uncut, untoasted, ungarnished Ordinal 12 grain. I was just trying to convince myself that I was unlikely to catch anything bad from the still-warm seat through a pair of woolen briefs and my freshly laundered jeans, when I happened to eavesdrop on the head from the booth behind me that was talking to its partner.

“Jeez, George, where did you get that burger?” it asked.

“Pretty big, eh?” the man across the table yelled. I assumed the head was hard of hearing. “I got it from ‘Fatso’… Over there.” He must have pointed his finger, I guess. “They just opened last week.”

“That’s the size of a city bus!” the woman said, moving the back of her head uncomfortably close to mine.

I didn’t dare move my head, or turn around, but I assume the man had managed to stuff some of it in his mouth and was struggling to answer. Fortunately, he waited until his teeth had converted it into something more manageable for his throat before he decided he could let some words escape. “I just got the ‘Baby T’, he said, and I could hear him fiddling with his plate again.

“What’s the Baby T?” she asked, shoving something plastic along the Formica table.

Another, few seconds of chewing sounds, and then what sounded like a painful deglutition. “Tyrannosaurus,” he finally managed, speaking through what sounded for all the world like a tomato. Maybe it was an onion ring, though -I still hadn’t turned around to look. “You should see the T Rex. Oh baby!” He chewed a bit more of the remnants lounging around his teeth. “I mean it’s the size of  an apartment building, Janey.”

Janey was busy rattling her way through some foul smelling concoction that required the constant scraping of her plastic utensils on something made of Styrofoam and then slurping it noisily. “Why would they ever make a burger building sized, George?” she managed to mutter between gulps and disgusting, phlegmy smoker’s coughs.

He obviously had time to think about it during his next excavational foray into the burger’s innards. “There’s a prize for eating it, J,” he said excitedly, when he could breathe safely again. “If you can eat it all before their next coffee brews, you get it free. You gotta time it, eh?”

Janey took a final scrape at whatever was swimming around in her bowl, and burped -quietly, though, all things considered. “So how long does it take coffee to brew?”

“Dunno.” He tried to answer, but I could tell his mouth was busy again. “All the guy would tell me was that it usually takes about as long as it does to wash a sinkful of dishes.”

“Mmmh…” Janey didn’t pursue it further -the explanation obviously made sense to her. And, judging by the grunting, and heavy shuffling as they slid along their seats to stand, they both seemed sated – completely full, I suppose, although I really had no desire to prove that impression quantitatively.

I was curious to judge the T Rex burger for myself, however, and stopped by Fatso to shape it into my own Ordinal Metaphor. A picture is worth a hundred numbers -or am I being too quantitative?

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