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Odds and ends from staff and contributors to The Lamp.


✥ Wisdom says that in the beginning, the Lord divided the earth and the heavens by setting a compass on the face of the deep. It was not until the last few centuries, however, that man made the measure of all things above and below the work of his own hand. We take the measure of the world and ourselves a hundred times a day, with rulers and kitchen thermometers and bathroom scales and, everywhere, clocks. Scientists have honed our capacity to measure to unimaginable degrees of precision, and the entire span of the globe has been plotted to within a hair’s breadth, tracked by satellites which coordinate their movements by subatomically verified timekeeping.

Behind all this is a basic surety: a meter is a meter the world over, a gram as good a gram in Bombay as in Paris. Even the idiosyncratic units customarily used in the United States are, now, defined in reference to these universal standards. The enlightenment dream of measurements “for all times and for all peoples” has been realized—or at least worked out to the kinds of decimal places that only specialists worry about.

These universal standards are the product of generations of creative problem-solving on the part of European scientists and engineers, and it is these efforts to bring order out of the uncertainty of nature and the variety of custom that James Vincent ably relates in Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants (Norton, pp. 432, $32.50). Vincent brings out the characters of enlightenment science and tells the story of how they were able to develop the instruments and techniques which ensure our assessments of the world around us are precise, replicable, and universal.

The book is too long—readers could have been spared the potted history of ancient philosophy and pseudo-profound musings on pre-modern attitudes and the enchantments of the Medieval universe. Wearying, too, is Vincent’s malingering over lifestyle tracking and self-quantification fads. There is a lot to be said about these social and spiritual trends, classical and contemporary. Whether they have much to do with the kilogram, though, is harder to compass.

— Christopher McCaffery

✥ I don’t usually go shopping at 9:00 p.m., unless it really is an emergency. But the other day, my eye was caught by a poster taped to the sliding glass door of the Safeway near my house. THE MOST FUN YOU WILL HAVE IN A GROCERY STORE, it proclaimed, advertising two hours of revelry in the aisles, complete with a hired D.J., a tattoo booth, and a giant Connect Four station. I’ve gone to this Safeway about once a month for more than a year, and I had never heard of anything like this. Yes, I remembered an odd cocktail party hosted there about a decade ago, where the company’s C.E.O. rolled out a red carpet for all sorts of strange local eminences. But that was a prank, a play on the fact that my parents’ generation called the store, which is wedged between Georgetown and Glover Park, the “Social Safeway.” It was a weird convention of Washington’s Gen X residents to nickname Safeways: The empty, understaffed Safeway in McLean was long known as the “Soviet Safeway.” The Safeway over in Southeast was the “Scary Safeway.” And so on. But those nicknames are unknown to my generation, that young cadre of shoppers not yet sworn to the multi-billion-dollar supermarket chain. Hence the Friday night social.

When my wife and I walked in, the D.J. was already there, right by the checkout, bumping a remix of “Check the Rhime” which seemed to repel the young and old alike. Q-Tip’s bouncing voice reverberated off the glass doors in the freezer aisle and the echoey din drove the late night shoppers to the produce section. There, a Safeway employee was setting up a booth for hard seltzer tastings. Kids in Georgetown gear stood in line, no doubt already connoisseurs of White Claw, High Noon, Truly, and the more obscure brands on offer. Elsewhere, a few people fiddled with a malfunctioning air hockey table. A station for ice cream sundaes had been set up, but there was no ice cream.

We surveyed the scene. How this show was supposed to excite young people about shopping—one of those inescapable lifelong chores, like laundry or dishwashing—was beyond me. We had seen enough. “Late nights at Safeway!” The D.J. shouted as we descended the stairs to the street. “You’re listening to 95.5 WPGC. We’re all up in your groceries!”

— Nic Rowan

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