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Sunday, August 13, 2006

The trouble with measurements

Taking correct measurements has been one of the biggest problems for mankind. In ancient days, difficulties with measurements were limited to the marketplace; the markets still remains at the center of measurement related challenges: How much milk/water is there in the milk, what is the actual weight of old newspapers you have sold to the kabadiwala, how many carats were their in the supposedly 24 carats wedding jewellery? One frequently comes across stories of even small bags showing well over the allowed baggage limit in airport weighing machines. Problems with accurately measuring times of birth mean supposedly incorrect horoscopes for millions of Indians and thereby potentially thousands of rupees worth of astrologer stones and cancelled marriages. Sometimes measurement challenges are much personal: who has the largest genitalia in the batch?

When it comes to organized efforts like corporations, measurement related problems pose bigger challenges: How much revenues and profits has a company made? Very difficult to say, if you remember Enron and more recently Apple. Which channel has the maximum viewership? Ask any channel and they will have sufficient data to prove that the honor goes to their channel. Scientists especially are masters of deception by disclosing measurements that support their theory and blissfully forgetting those that don’t.

Nations and national feelings are frequently involved in measurement related controversies. The world is yet unclear as to which is the tallest building in the world: Sears, Petronas, 101, or CN tower??? And which is the largest fountain in the world: Singapore Suntec, Chicago’s Buckingham or Mumbai Kandivli’s Evershine Park fountain? No government can be sure about the actual rate of their GDP growth (The Chinese therefore take an easier route). And how much enrichment capacity does Iran have?

Countless efforts have been made to overcome measurement related challenges: Expensive and hi-fi arrangements at International bureau of weights and measures, Paris, strict accounting rules and systems, watchdogs like IAEA. But the problems remain: ask any housewife who goes shopping and you will know. Consequences can be dangerous: For example, the Israeli president Ehud Olmert has the need to kill a sufficient number of Hezbollahs to prove that he can be a defense hardliner despite his non-military background; a must in a military-theocratic state like Israel. Correct measurements for the number of Hezbollahs killed is therefore critical to limit the casualties for innocent Lebanese civilians, whose grieves can’t be measured anyways.


Anonymous said...

how right you are. there are things that can be measured and things that cannot. i think those which cannot be far out number those that can. but again what s the measure> great observation, great reading. something to think about.

Arun Ravi said...

Measurement is often a tool for the management psyche. It always gives ample opportunities to control your situations in a way you need. The derivatives of these measurements are comparisons, apparaisals, applauses,pointed fingers, threats, projections and mere statistics. One can be handled or mishandled using them. What a nice day to spell these words.. The very same day we measure and project the so called freedom.

rajeev said...


Nice blog!

Why don’t you consider writing about some of the new “India 2.0” sites that are creating a little buzz as well?