September 13, 2004

Historic feet

Having Freedom Tower rise to a symbolic 1776 feet is a brilliant idea, and not arbitrary at all. I believe that this practice will catch on, so as a public service I would like to propose historically more relevant names for New York's other tallest buildings.

  • Empire State Building, 1250ft: Stockholm City Building (City founded 1250 AD)
  • Chrysler Building, 1046ft: Hungarian Pagan Revolt Building (1046 AD)
  • American International Building, 952ft: Erik Bloodaxe Building (Crowned Norse king for a second time, York, 952 AD)
  • The Trump Building, 927ft: The King Athelstan Building (Unified England, 927 AD)
  • Citigroup Center, 915ft: Iberian Famine Center (915 AD)
  • Trump World Tower, 861ft: Paris Raped Again by Vikings World Tower (Vikings sack the city 845 AD, 856-7 AD, and again in 861 AD)
  • G.E. Building, 850ft: Feudalism in Europe (F.E.) Building (Feudalism developed 850 - 1000 AD)
  • CitySpire, 814ft: CharlemagneSpire (Carolingian emperor, Lived 742? - 814 AD)
  • One Chase Manhattan Plaza, 813ft: Zero Usury Plaza (Usury was prohibited by the Pope (again) at the Council of Mainz, 813 AD)
  • Conde Nast Building, 809ft: Arabian Nights Building (Harun al Rashid, 5th Abbasid Caliph, 763 - 809 AD; built up Baghdad; was the inspiration for The Book of 1001 Nights)
  • Bloomberg Tower, 806ft: Paper Money Tower (China invents paper banknotes, 806 AD)
  • Posted by Stefan at 06:23 PM GMT

    1776 and 2001 are the only two years in which lower Manhattan sustained heavy damage from warfare.

    Posted by: Sterling on September 14, 2004 04:58 AM

    I really didn't want to have to explain, but here goes: Feet are an arbitrary unit of measurement for heights of buildings. If you want some physical thing to have symbolic meaning, use proportion, angles, symmetry -- anything that you can derive from mathematical first principles. Units of measurement, on the other hand, are all arbitrary.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 14, 2004 08:12 AM

    Stefan, funny very funny. . .in Hollywood an outdoor shopping mall The Grove based its street address on Chinese numerology with provident numbers 1,8 and 9, for luck, prosperity and power respectively. Notice the additon of the first two numbers 1 and 8 equals 9 and adding them with the third, 9, they equal 18 (1 and 8). . . . . .and so one, and so on.

    Posted by: kevin mcclellan on September 14, 2004 10:20 AM

    At 1776 feet, itÝs an homage to all the years that the U.S. didn't exist as a part of Western Civilization. Is that something the Americans really want to be emphasizing? Maybe next door to it they could stick up a really loud and obnoxious building that stands at a measly 226 feet just to bring home the point even more.

    Posted by: Anon on September 14, 2004 03:33 PM

    Except that most of those 1776 years you refer to were not exactly civilized, were they now? Spanish history especially.

    I think 1776 was a fine year in the annals of civilization. (If you were a white male property owner, but still.) It's just this feet business I can't get over.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 14, 2004 03:41 PM

    I don't know about your feet, but mine are not at all arbitrary, and the height/foot relationship for most of us is pretty similar. The Jersey foot only used to be smaller than the English foot because Jersey folk were stunted. There was life prior to the Enlightenment.

    Posted by: Trevor@Kaleboel on September 14, 2004 04:23 PM

    Well, this certainly puts the kibosh on the US going metric (but I suppose I knew that after Freedom Fries).

    Posted by: la depressionada on September 14, 2004 05:00 PM

    Stefan-- would you like to explain how you would go about designing a building that, by use of proportion angle and symmetry alone, conveyed the idea of the American Revolution (or What the American Revolution Stood For, or 1776 Years From the Time Around About When Jesus Was Born, or...).

    Would 1776 stories suit you better? 1776 windows? Perhaps ten windows, each an almost-half porthole of 177.6 degrees (oh no, cheating, degrees are arbitrary)?

    If it is the concept we care about portraying, surely the best way to signify 'freedom' is to deny the tower's predestination, and not build it.

    Posted by: charles on September 14, 2004 07:29 PM

    Or you could build it to whatever height in feet is the same as the year it is completed, making it the world's first self-referential building, celebrating itself.

    The advantages of using feet, come to think of it, is that the building simultaneously also commemorates the amount of months between the years -1 (there was no 0) and 1776, in inches.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 14, 2004 08:06 PM

    Oh, and there is a non-arbitrary unit of measurement for angles in math: the radian. 2 * pi radians make a full circle. Pretty obvious once you derive it.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 14, 2004 08:17 PM

    So, 60 degrees, near as damnit. And while we're near 60 degrees, why not that? Its the angle of an equalateral triangle after all. Choosing something to do with the circle is so.... arbitrary.

    Posted by: charles on September 14, 2004 10:04 PM

    The arbitrariness test is passed if aliens would see the building and think, "hmm, 1776, I wonder why?".

    For example, You could make the floorplan a polyhedron that has 1776 sides to it. or you could divide 1776 into its prime factors (2*2*2*2*3*37) and make it a shape with those lengths for sides (though the 37 would have to curve back on itself).

    Aliens, who don't have feet, would definitely conclude 1776 is important to us if the building had these features.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 14, 2004 10:30 PM

    Ugh. OK, OK - it's a silly association. Can't we just drop it?

    Posted by: Sterling on September 14, 2004 10:42 PM

    (1) I'm sure the first reaction of people on hearing that the building had 1776 sides would be 'oh, a nearly-circular building.' Try something more practical.

    (2) And this is important because the building is to be visited weekly by aliens who really care about its 1776ness immensely? As opposed to the type of aliens who visit in (on) Independence Day, who, despite fighting the holiday traffic to get to NY that very weekend, didn't appear overly concerned to learn about local history.

    (3) The answer to the question "hmm, 1776, I wonder why?" is 'it's a time period in an arbitrary system of recording.'

    I'd have made the tower the height of 1776 times the width of the first letter of the word 'freedom' in 1776 font kerned times new roman which, spookily, is about 1776 feet.

    Posted by: Charles on September 14, 2004 10:49 PM

    I also just realized that all the world's buildings already glorify 1776 -- as long as your unit of measure is the building's height divided by 1776.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 14, 2004 10:55 PM

    Charles, where is it written that a polyhedra with many sides has to be circular? It could be amoeba-shaped, for example.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 14, 2004 11:25 PM

    Ugh. OK, OK - it's a silly association. Can't we just drop it?

    Posted by: Sterling on September 14, 2004 11:47 PM

    I like how all you eurocentric bitches assume the aliens would use a base 10 system, even if they didn't have feet. Or would that be arabcentric bitches? Damn, they invented math! The terrorists have clearly won.

    Posted by: Mr. 99th Percentile on September 15, 2004 04:44 AM

    No, no, no, none of the above reasoning presupposes a base 10 system; 1776 is the same amount regardless of which base it is written in.

    Base 10-ism does rear its ugly head every time we celebrate 100-year anniversaries, but that is not the case here.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 15, 2004 06:44 AM

    Sterling --I think the same about the Republicans, but you won't drop *them*.

    Stefan --I guess I was really thinking about the practical bit. 1776 sides seems to me like it would either be alomost round and/or certainly create a lot of offices that would do poorly with standard office furniture in them. Thus we would end up with lots of discarded eames soft pad chairs blocking the sidewalk, causing accidents as pedestrians walked in the streets (or declining productivity, as pedestrians sat in them).

    99th and Stefan both-- related question. I guess the world everywhere prior to the arabs inventing zero all used a system akin to roman numerals. Does that count as having a base at all? So if arabs also invented the base system as a byproduct of zero, why come up with base ten (rather than five, as it might be)?

    Good non-orthodox Christians presumably would have gone for base three, while orthodox ones might have been stuck with base one, which really would have put a downer on progress in mathematics.

    Posted by: charles on September 15, 2004 01:36 PM

    Though a base 1 system is not technically possible, you probably meant by that "using pebbles," and this does indeed have the distinct advantage of not requiring your digits to be in a specific order, unlike with all other bases (or even the Romans -- how silly of them). You can thus carry your numbers around with you in a sack, though this does get burdensome for larger numbers.

    Posted by: Stefan on September 15, 2004 02:35 PM

    Base 8, Base 10, it all sounds like hip hop to me. But we currently use a Base 10 counting system, so I picked that. Problem with the aliens is that our projective visions of them are essentially anthropomorphic -- when drawn, or written about, or made, they inevitably have bilateral symmetry, propel themselves using limbs, have language systems that often depend upon a lung/vocal box process (granted, this is the one area where more deviance from human processes are allowed, but that's probably because the one area where we have progressed far from our biological roots is communication, so we are able to envision radically different systems), that, while soundling perhaps like Radiohead, nonetheless requires a fixed atomsphere, but is somehow adaptable when they get here, unlike our problem of "In space, no one can hear you scream". But maybe they can. And, if translatable, perhaps their description of the tower would be "Amazing -- a tower purple high. How odd."

    Posted by: Mr. 99th Percentile on September 15, 2004 02:37 PM

    Which could also be translated as "amazing --a purple mountain majesty. How unique" --which gets across the point rather nicely, doncha think.

    Posted by: Charles on September 15, 2004 03:19 PM

    . Yes. Besides the sea of mutual derision, the web will also herald the death of wit. Presuming it's still kicking at all.

    Posted by: Mr. 99th Percentile on September 15, 2004 03:30 PM

    I don't mean to dig stephen gees back up again, but aren't all measuremental units arbitrary? if 2* pi radians = a circle, isn't that just as arbitrary as 3 feet = a yard? or 1776 feet = the height of the freedom tower?

    I mean, if I defined a new unit called the smadian, and said that 3*pi smadians = a circle, isn't that just as correct, only less accepted?

    Posted by: Dinu. on September 15, 2004 09:25 PM

    No. Numbers are abstract, but they're not arbitray. You can quibble about the labeling (why 'five' and what does a 'five' look like?) but there are underlying principles to numbers that make them fit together, for the most post, and as of yet, no one felt the need to take smadian mathmatics into consideration. You could probably try solving your equation 3*pi smadiams=circle, which would probably make redundant the concept of a smadian. It's as basic an epistemological question as asking why is the sky 'blue' and not 'red' and rather high-school, don't you think?

    Posted by: Matthew on September 15, 2004 09:40 PM

    there are one or two very basic units in mathematics. Radians are one; pi, e, 1, 0, and i are others. These are not arbitrary, they're universal.

    Posted by: Felix on September 15, 2004 09:54 PM

    I wonder if Matthew and Felix agreeing is memefirst's version of godwin's law?

    Posted by: Charles on September 15, 2004 10:10 PM

    Let me save you, Charles. I misspoke a litte. You don't actually derive radians; they are simply the most natural way to express angles, it turns out:

    "It has the property that the arc length around a circle is simply given by the radian angle measure times the circle radius." (Wolfram should know)

    If you use it, everything in maths becomes a lot easier: calculus, operations on the complex number plane, you name it: use radians, and math works with you, not against you. This is not quite the same thing as finding an infinite series that converges on e, but it's safe to say that if the aliens built a spaceship that made it to New York, they're using radians.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 15, 2004 10:34 PM

    If I recall my A-level maths correctly (and there's no reason I should), one of the rather cool things about radians is that they don't have units. So if you're multiplying something's velocity, say, by the angle at which it was launched, then you can stay in m/s, say, rather than some weird unit of m/s multiplied by degrees. In other words, you have to say that an angle is 60 degrees, but you don't have to say that it's 1.3 radians: you can just say that it's 1.3.

    Posted by: Felix on September 16, 2004 12:26 AM

    damn, you guys sure are a bunch of NERRRRRDDDSS!

    Posted by: not british on September 16, 2004 12:38 AM

    Exactly Felix, radians are really just a ratio denoting the relationship between the radius and circumference of a circle; if the circumference of a circle is 2 * pi * r, what is the length of the arc denoting a right angle? pi/2 * r. Here, pi/2 (radians) is the ratio; r is what has units.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 16, 2004 09:56 AM

    And these aliens that come down, fascinated with all things radian, will of course design their UFOs accordingly, and some lucky earthling will be the first to shout upon seeing them: "look, its pi! in the sky!"

    Posted by: Charles on September 16, 2004 01:00 PM

    Was that an attempt to prove your non-nerdom?

    Posted by: Matthew on September 16, 2004 02:38 PM

    vg, Charles. Gold star. Ignore Matty.

    Posted by: Felix on September 16, 2004 03:11 PM

    I will do. I know he's just jealous he didn't get there first. He should go off and found punsecond, the looser webiste.

    Posted by: Charles on September 16, 2004 05:22 PM

    Or, Punchecons, where I go around pummeling World Bank employees.

    Posted by: Matthew on September 16, 2004 05:50 PM

    Look, it's neocon vs. noecon.

    Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 16, 2004 06:02 PM


    Posted by: mike on September 16, 2004 06:03 PM

    Are we at all confirmed that the number 1776 isn't Alien´L337 for something we don't have a definition for in Milky Way´Earth´English?

    Do aliens even call that particular jargon L337 at all? If so, was the L337 that they speak/spake/spoke/will speak/typed, etc.! derived from 10-30 year olds (another problematic measure) who play video games (do they have eyes?) on their version of the Internet (notice capitals, Wired) (as invented by their version of Al Gore)... need we go on?

    Posted by: luxuryluke on September 16, 2004 07:29 PM

    btw, 1776 is the name of aforementioned Alien's (alpha-based?) language that most resembles the morphing English L337.

    in layman's english, it would be properly dubbed "ittb".

    The horse is dead, it's off the street, moving along smoothly now...

    Posted by: luxuryluke on September 16, 2004 08:05 PM

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned the arbitrariness of 1776 as a measurement of the number of revolutions we've had around the sun, counting from an equally arbitrary moment in time. If aliens were to land here, they would be completely incapable of inferring any correlation between the height of the building and a moment in history, even if they measured things in feet.

    Even if the building was 1776-sided, we might imagine this exchange:

    "Hmm, 1776 sides. What do you make of it, Maude?"
    "I haven't the darndest."

    Posted by: eric pan on September 17, 2004 01:27 AM

    Well, the year, as number of revolutions around the sun, is not arbitrary in the same way that feet are; it actually has meaning, since seasons change. The significance of 1776, however, is rather arbitrary because it refers to the birth of Christ, which really shouldn't technically have anything to do with it.

    At any rate, it doesn't matter. The height of the building isn't intended to impress aliens. It was intended to impress the contest judges, and I think it's awfully gauche.

    As a side note, the French started a new calendar from year 1 at the same time they created the metric system. It didn't take. The word "radical" comes from "radix", the Latin word for "root", essentially meaning someone who gets down to a problem's fundamentals. Which, as history has shown again and again, tends to lead to very naive social experiments. The notion of factoring 1776 down to its "roots" (or at least, primes) seems like a similar exercise in masturbatory numerology. As a reductio ad absurdum, though, Stefan's point works pretty well.

    Posted by: condour on September 17, 2004 03:57 AM

    Which King invented Standard Measurements? And when was it in relation to French's Metric? Or was it a King at all? Was it a communally established norm for measuring, or was it "declared"?

    Posted by: luxuryluke on September 17, 2004 04:47 PM