Qua-, metrics, a golden nose

“You manage what you measure.”  Poppycock.  Misattributed, misquoted, missed chaff for short attention spans.  The Godzilla zone of management, of information dispersal.  The expectation of immediate satisfaction.

(While I’m skeptical, in general, of anyone who tries to convince me of anything, I did agree with Ellen DeGeneres when she spoke about the 140-character limit and said, “‘The British are coming!’  Did he need to say anything more?  No.  No, he didn’t.”  But short form narratives and explanations still give me pause.)

I’m fascinated with our obsession… our need to measure.  Why measure?  To delineate, categorize, bifurcate, distinguish.  My friend, the philosopher Kyoo Lee, helped me begin to think about the homo sapien brain as an engine of compensation.  We see it in maintaining homeostasis (physical).  I think we overlook it in psychological homeostatic mechanisms.

(Kyoo has a presentation here (PPT) on “Desiderius Erasmus” and speaks about it here (MP3, about 32 minutes) on June 6, 2014 in a lecture on “Philosophy and Documentary Poetics“.)

Some of those mechanisms are poorly understood.  Some research has been discovering unsuspected connections between the brain and the nervous system via the lymphatic system.  This means that some social behavior, even some conditions (think: autism, depression, even schizophrenia), are triggered by the immune system.

Looking to the stars.  Early humans found innumerable meanings in the innumerable stars.  We were measuring.  Sometimes not just quantitatively, but qualitatively.  (If Tycho and Kepler did not produce horoscopes, they could not have funded their research.)

Of these four images (my recreations), one is from a Greek papyrus scroll, one from a carving inside a 莫高窟 (“Mogao cave,” pinyin: Mògāo kū), one a Pawnee etching on a buffalo hide, and one Sumerian on a clay tablet.  Can you place them?

Our brains categorize.  They do it, unbidden.  Gestalt’s isomorphs (sign stimulus, releaser) activate ISMs.  And they are demonstrably subject to catastrophe theory.

W. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker are both invoked when these variants appear; e.g.: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”  Quantitative goals / measures / metrics.  But what about when you measure the wrong thing?  What consequences… Some say, “That’s exactly what Deming was getting at!”


When I studied for a Six Sigma blackbelt, I was reminded of a story – probably apocryphal, so let’s call it a myth: A certain airline company wanted to perform a six sigma analysis on their baggage handling efficiency.  It turns out their numbers were quite good: nothing statistically unusual or anomalous.  Deeper analysis showed that they received more complaints on Monday mornings.  But once again, the data didn’t reveal anything unusual about Monday performance of baggage delivery.

One cherubic employee opined: “Monday morning business travellers are in a rush to get to their destination.  Perhaps their expectations are higher, skewing their perspective on the timeliness of bag arrival.”

A shrewd manipulator pondered: “Why cherubic?  That adjective doesn’t fit at all… But I see an opportunity here regardless.  If we land Monday morning planes at the farthest terminals of the airport, it will take the travellers longer to reach baggage claim.  Our bags will arrive statistically on par, but their sensitivity to lateness will be reduced.”

Proposed maneuvers enacted, and the complaints reduced to the mean.  The metrics only mattered when considering the context of perception / expectation.  The quant, empty without the qual.


(By user:cleonis in the english wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Apparent_retrograde_motion.gif, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17249599)
Known, among other things, as the greatest astronomical measurer, Tycho Brahe produced meticulous records; esp. of Mars.  He was looking for a parallax: it would prove that Mars was farther away from Earth than the moon, and closer than Sol.  It would shatter the theory of celestial spheres – the concept, the belief, the faith – of harmonic resonance.  That everything is ordered, and neat, and of course everything works in perfect circles.  He’d aleady done this, in fact, with his observations of both a supernova in 1572 (the “fixed stars” are in fact not fixed) and of a comet in 1577 (celestial objects do not move in spheres).  Not that he was the first… but he was among the most exact.

(Of course, the Mayans were so demanding that they invented a base-20 mathematics just to measure what they observed.  Our story, however, zooms us back to the Euros.)

Tycho’s massive instruments produced highly precise quants.  But it took Kepler’s focus on causality to make them efficacious and revolutionary.  The geometric models above are identical from the perspective of an observer on terra firma.  Tugged between tidal forces of celestial harmony and remaining true to the data, Kepler cultivated a pluralistic mindset (also influenced by his lifelong experience at the northern battlegrounds of Catholicism / Lutheranism / Calvinism, for some an existential argument, but in which Kepler reconciled everyone).  He wrestled with Tycho’s rigorous records to reconcile the meandering planets (Greek: planētēs ‘wanderer, planet,’ from planan ‘wander’).

Like twin ends of the same vibrating string, the quant and the qual particles appear different depending on the dimensionality in which they are perceived.


Some things are the same.  “Tragedy transmutes suffering into rapture by altering the focus of the mind,” writes Joseph Campbell.  Suffering = Rapture.  Two qualitative assessments of a condition that may appear quantitatively the same.  The difference in experience is interdependent.

Pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit: प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद).  Something to which I will (must) return.


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