Posts Tagged ‘tuning’

Taking the Scales of Justice Seriously as a Model for Sustainable Political Economies

February 28, 2019

We all take standards of measurement for granted as background assumptions that we never have to think about. But as technical, mundane, and boring as these standards are, they define our systems of fair dealing and just relations. The image of blind justice holding a balance scale is a universal ideal being compromised in multiple ways by chaotic forces in today’s complicated world arena.

Even so, astoundingly little effort is being invested in systematically exploring how the scales of justice might be more meaningfully and resiliently embedded within our social, economic, educational, health care, and political institutions. This well may be because the idea that people’s abilities, behaviors, and knowledge could be precisely weighed on a scale, like fruit in a grocery store, seems outrageously immoral, opening the door to treating people like commodities to be bought and sold. And even if the political will for such measures could be found, the regulatory enforcement of legally binding contracts and accounting standards appears so implausibly complicated as to make the whole matter not worth any serious consideration at all.

On the face of it, a literal application of the scales of justice to human affairs echoes ideas discredited so thoroughly and for so long that bringing them up in the here and now seems utterly ridiculous, at least, and perhaps truly dangerous, with no possible result except the crushing reduction of human beings to cogs in a soulless machine.

But what if there is some basic way in which measurement is misunderstood when it is taken to mean people will be treated like mass produced commodities for sale? What if we could measure, legally own, invest in, and profit from our literacy, health, and trustworthiness, in the same way we do with property and material things? What if precision measurement was not a tool for oppressive manipulation but a means of obtaining, sharing, and communicating valuable information? What if local contextual situations can be allowed a latitude of variation that does not negatively compromise navigable continuity?

Circumstances are conspiring to take humanity in new directions. Complex new necessities are nurturing the conception and birth of new innovations. A wealth of diverse possibilities for adaptive experimentation proposed in the past–sometimes the distant past–are finding new life in today’s technological context. And science has changed a lot in the last 100 years. In fact, the public is largely unaware that the old paradigm of mechanical reduction has been completely demolished and replaced with a new paradigm of organic emergence and complex adaptive systems. Even Newtonian mechanics and the basic number theory of arithmetic have had to be reworked. It is also true that very few experts have thought through what the demise of the mechanical root metaphor, and the birth of an organic ecosystem metaphor, means philosophically, socially, historically, and culturally.

Bottom-up manifestations of repeating patterns that can be scaled, measured, quantified, and explained open up a wide array of new opportunities for learning from shared experiences. And, just as humanity has long understood about music, we know now how to contextualize group and individual assessment and survey response patterns in ways that let everyone be what they are, uniquely improvising playful creative performances expressed using high tech instruments tuned to shared standards. A huge amount of conceptual and practical work needs to be done, but there are multiple historical precedents suggesting that betting against human ingenuity would be a losing wager.

Two new projects I’m involved in concerning sustainability impact investing and a metrology center for categorical measures begin a new exploration of the consequences of this paradigm shift for our image of the scales of justice as representing a moral imperative. These projects ask whether more complex combinations of mathematics, experiment, technology, and theory can be overtly conceived and implemented in terms of participatory and democratic social and cognitive ecosystems. If so, we may then find our way to new standards of measurement, new languages, and new forms of social organization sufficient to redefining what we take for granted as satisfying our shared sense of fair dealing and just relations.

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New Ideas on How to Realize the Purpose of Capital

September 20, 2018

I’d like to offer the following in reply to James Militzer, at

Rapid advances toward impact investing’s highest goals of social transformation are underway in quiet technical work being done in places no one is looking. That work shares Jed Emerson’s sentiments expressed at the 2017 Social Capital Markets conference, as he is quoted in Militzer’s posting, that “The purpose of capital is to advance a more progressively free and just experience of life for all.” And he is correct in what Militzer reported he said the year before, that we need a “real, profound critique of current practices within financial capitalism,” one that would “require real change in our own behavior aside from adding a few funds to our portfolios here or augmenting a reporting process there.”

But the efforts he and others are making toward fulfilling that purpose and articulating that critique are incomplete, insufficient, and inadequate. Why? How? Language is the crux of the matter, and the issues involved are complex and technical. The challenge, which may initially seem simplistic or naive, is how to bring human, social, and environmental values into words. Not just any words, but meaningful words in a common language. What is most challenging is that this language, like any everyday language, has to span the range from abstract theoretical ideals to concrete local improvisations.

That means it cannot be like our current languages for expressing human, social, and environmental value. If we are going to succeed in aligning those forms of value with financial value, we have a lot of work to do.

Though there is endless talk of metrics for managing sustainable impacts, and though the importance of these metrics for making sustainability manageable is also a topic of infinite discussion, almost no one takes the trouble to seek out and implement the state of the art in measurement science. This is a crucial way, perhaps the most essential way, in which we need to criticize current practices within financial capitalism and change our behaviors. Oddly, almost no one seems to have thought of that.

That is, one of the most universally unexamined assumptions of our culture is that numbers automatically stand for quantities. People who analyze numeric data are called quants, and all numeric data analysis is referred to as quantitative. That is the case, but almost none of these quants and quantitative methods involve actually defining, modeling, identifying, evaluating, or applying an substantive unit of something real in the world that can be meaningfully represented by numbers.

There is, of course, an extensive and longstanding literature on exactly this science of measurement. It has been a topic of research, philosophy, and practical applications for at least 90 years, going back to the work of Thurstone at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. That work continued at the University of Chicago with Rasch’s visit there in 1960, with Wright’s adoption and expansion of Rasch’s theory and methods, and with the further work done by Wright’s students and colleagues in the years since.

Most importantly, over the last ten years, metrologists, the physicists and engineers who maintain and improve the SI units, the metric system, have taken note of what’s been going on in research and practice involving the approaches to measurement developed by Rasch, Wright, and their students and colleagues (for just two of many articles in this area, see here and here). The most recent developments in this new metrology include

(a) initiatives at national metrology institutes globally (Sweden and the UK, Portugal, Ukraine, among others) to investigate potentials for a new class of unit standards;

(b) a special session on this topic at the International Measurement Confederation (IMEKO) World Congress in Belfast on 5 September 2018;

(c) the Journal of Physics Conference Series proceedings of the 2016 IMEKO Joint Symposium hosted by Mark Wilson and myself at UC Berkeley;

(d) the publication of a 2017 book on Ben Wright edited by Mark Wilson and myself in Springer’s Series on Measurement Science and Technology; and

(e) the forthcoming October 2018 special issue of Elsevier’s Measurement journal edited by Wilson and myself, and a second one currently in development.

There are profound differences between today’s assumptions about measurement and how a meaningful art and science of precision measurement proceeds. What passes for measurement in today’s sustainability economics and accounting are counts, percentages, and ratings. These merely numeric metrics do not stand for anything that adds up the way they do. In fact, it’s been repeatedly demonstrated over many years that these kinds of metrics measure in a unit that changes size depending on who or what is measured, who is measuring, and what tool is used to measure. What makes matters even worse is that the numbers are usually taken to be perfectly precise, as uncertainty ranges, error terms, and confidence intervals are only sporadically provided and are usually omitted.

Measurement is not primarily a matter of data analysis. Measurement requires calibrated instruments that can be read as standing for a given amount of something that stays the same, within the uncertainty range, no matter who is measuring, no matter what or who is measured, and no matter what tool is used. This is, of course, quite an accomplishment when it can be achieved, but it is not impossible and has been put to use in large scale practical ways for several decades (for instance, see here, here, and here). Universally accessible instruments calibrated to common unit standards are what make society in general, and markets in particular, efficient in the way of projecting distributed network effects, turning communities into massively parallel stochastic computers (as W. Brian Arthur put it on p. 6 of his 2014 book, Complexity Economics).

These are not unexamined assumptions or overly ideal theoretical demands. They are pragmatic ways of adapting to emergent patterns in various kinds of data that have repeatedly been showing themselves around the world for decades. Our task is to literally capitalize on these nonhuman forms of life by creating multilevel, complex ecosystems of relationships with them, letting them be what they are in ways that also let us represent ourselves to each other. (Emerson quotes Bruno Latour to this effect on page 136 in his new book, The Purpose of Capital; those familiar with my work will know I’ve been reading and citing Latour since the early 1980s).

So it seems to me that, however well-intentioned those promoting impact investing may be, there is little awareness of just how profound and sweeping the critique of current practices needs to be, or of just how much our own behaviors are going to have to change. There are, however, truly significant reasons to be optimistic and hopeful. The technical work being done in measurement and metrology points toward possibilities for extending everyday language into a pragmatic idealism that does not require caving in to either varying local circumstances or to authoritarian dictates.

The upside of the situation is that, as so often happens in the course of human history, this critique and the associated changes are likely to have that peculiar quality captured in the French expression, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same). The changes in process are transformative, but will also be recognizable repetitions of human scale patterns.

In sum, what we are doing is tuning the instruments of the human, social, and environmental sciences to better harmonize relationships. Just as jazz, folk, and world music show that creative improvisation is not constrained by–but is facilitated by–tuning standards and high tech solutions, so, too, can we make that the case in other areas.

For instance, in my presentation at the IMEKO World Congress in Belfast on 5 September, I showed that the integration of beauty and meaning we have within our grasp reiterates principles that date back to Plato. The aesthetics complement the mathematics, with variations on the same equations being traceable from the Pythagorean theorem to Newton’s laws to Rasch’s models for measurement (see, for instance, Fisher & Stenner, 2013). In many ways, the history of science and philosophy continues to be a footnote to Plato.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Measurement as a Medium for the Expression of Creative Passions in Education

April 23, 2014

Measurement is often viewed as a purely technical task involving a reduction of complex phenomena to numbers. It is accordingly also experienced as mechanical in nature, and disconnected from the world of life. Educational examinations are often seen as an especially egregious form of inappropriate reduction.

This perspective on measurement is contradicted, however, by the essential roles of calibrated instrumentation, mathematical scales, and high technology in the production of music, which, ironically, is widely considered the most alive, captivating and emotionally powerful of the arts.

The question then arises as to if and how measurement in other areas, such as in education, might be conceived, designed, and practiced as a medium for the expression and fulfillment of creative passions. Key issues involved in substantively realizing a musical metaphor in human and social measurement include capacities to tune instruments, to define common scales, to orchestrate harmonious relationships, to enhance choral grace note effects, and to combine elements in unique but pleasing and recognizable forms.

Practical methods of this kind are in place in hundreds of schools nationally and internationally. With such tools in hand, formative applications of integrated instruction and assessment could be conceived as intuitive media for composing and conducting expressions of creative passions.

Student outcomes in reading, mathematics, and other domains may then come to be seen in terms of portfolios of works akin to those produced by musicians, sculptors, film makers, or painters. Hundreds of thousands of books and millions of articles tuned to the same text complexity scale provide readers an extensive palette of colorful tones and timbres for expressing their desires and capacities for learning. Graphical presentations of individual students’ outcomes, as well as outcomes aggregated by classroom, school, district, etc., may be interpreted and experienced as public performances of artful developmental narratives enabling dramatic performances of personal uniqueness and social generality.

Technical canvases capture, aggregate, and organize literacy performances into special portfolios documenting the play and dance of emerging new understandings. As in any creative process, accidents, errors, and idiosyncratic patterns of strengths and weaknesses may evoke powerful expressions of beauty, and human and social value. Just as members of musical ensembles may complement one another’s skills, using rhythm and harmony to improve each others’ playing abilities in practice, so, too, instruments of formative assessment tuned to the same scale can be used to enhance individual teacher skill levels.

Possibilities for orchestrating such performances across educational, health care, social service, environmental management, and other fields could similarly take advantage of existing instrument calibration and measurement technologies.

Tuning our assessment instruments to harmonize our relationships

January 10, 2010

“Music is the art of measuring well.”
Augustine of Hippo

With the application of Rasch’s probabilistic models for measurement, we are tuning the instruments of the human, social, and environmental sciences, with the aim of being able to harmonize relationships of all kinds. This is not an empty metaphor: the new measurement scales are equivalent, mathematically, with the well-tempered, and later 12-tone equal temperament, scales that were introduced in response to the technological advances associated with the piano.

The idea that the regular patterns found in music are akin to those found in the world at large and in the human psyche is an ancient one. The Pythagoreans held that

“…music’s concordances [were] the covenants that tones form under heaven’s watchful eye. For the Pythagoreans, though, the importance of these special proportions went well beyond music. They were signs of the natural order, like the laws governing triangles; music’s rules were simply the geometry governing things in motion: not only vibrating strings but also celestial bodies and the human soul” (Isacoff, 2001, p. 38).

I have already elsewhere in this blog elaborated on the progressive expansion of geometrical thinking into natural laws and measurement models; now, let us turn our attention to music as another fertile source of the analogies that have proven so productive over the course of the history of science (also explored elsewhere in this blog).

You see, tuning systems up to the invention of the piano (1709) required instruments to be retuned for performers to play in different keys. Each key had a particular characteristic color to its sound. And not only that, some note pairings in any key (such as every twelfth 5th in the mean tone tuning) were so dissonant that they were said to howl, and were referred to as wolves. Composers went out of their way to avoid putting these notes together, or used them in rare circumstances for especially dramatic effects.

Dozens of tuning systems had been proposed in the 17th century, and the concept of an equal-temperament scale was in general currency at the time of the piano’s invention. Bach is said to have tuned his own keyboards so that he could switch keys fluidly from within a composition. His “Well-Tempered Clavier” (published in 1722) demonstrates how a well temperament allows one to play in all 24 major and minor keys without retuning the instrument. Bach also is said to have deliberately used wolf note pairings to show that they did not howl in the way they did with the mean tone tuning.

Equal temperament is not equal-interval in the Pythagorean sense of same-sized changes in the frequencies of vibrating strings. Rather, those frequencies are scaled using the natural logarithm, and that logarithmic scale is what is divided into equal intervals. This is precisely what is also done in Rasch scaling algorithms applied to test, assessment, and survey data in contemporary measurement models.

Pianos are tuned from middle C out, with each sequential pair of notes to the left and right tuned to be the same distance away from C. As the tuner moves further and further away from C, the unit distance of the notes from middle C is slightly adjusted or stretched, so that the sharps and flats become the same note in the black keys.

What is being done, in effect, is that the natural logarithm of the note frequencies is being taken. In statistics, the natural logarithm is called a two-stretch transformation, because it pulls both ends of the normal distribution’s bell curve away from the center, with the ends being pulled further than the regions under the curve closer to the center. This stretching effect is of huge importance to measurement because it makes it possible for different collections of questions addressing the same thing to measure in the same unit.

That is, the instrument dependency of summed ratings or counts of right answers  or categorical response frequencies is like a key-dependent tuning system. The natural logarithm modulates transitions across musical notes in such a way as to make different keys work in the same scaling system, and it also modulates transitions across different reading tests so that they all measure in a unit that remains the same size with the same meaning.

Now, many people fear that the measurement of human abilities, attitudes, health, etc. must inherently involve a meaningless reduction of richly varied and infinite experience to a number. Many people are violently opposed to any suggestion that this could be done in a meaningful and productive way. However, is not music the most emotionally powerful and subtle art form in existence, and simultaneously also incredibly high-tech and mathematical? Even if you ignore the acoustical science and the studio electronics, the instruments themselves embody some of the oldest and most intensively studied mathematical principles in existence.

And, yes, these principles are used in TV, movies, dentists’ offices and retail stores to help create sympathies and environments conducive to the, sometimes painful and sometimes crass, commercial tasks at hand. But music is also by far the most popular art form, and it is accessible everywhere to everyone any time precisely as a result of the very technologies that many consider anathema in the human and social sciences.

But it seems to me that the issue is far more a matter of who controls the technology than it is one of the technology itself. In the current frameworks of the human and social sciences, and of the economic domains of human, social, and natural capital, whoever owns the instrument owns the measurement system and controls the interpretation of the data, since each instrument measures in its own unit. But in the new Rasch technology’s open architecture, anyone willing to master the skills needed can build instruments tuned to the reference standard, ubiquitous and universally available scale. What is more, the demand that all instruments measuring the same thing must harmonize will transfer control of data interpretation to a public sphere in which experimental reproducibility trumps authoritarian dictates.

This open standards system will open the door to creativity and innovation on a par with what musicians take for granted. Common measurement scales will allow people to jam out in an infinite variety of harmonic combinations, instrumental ensembles, choreographed moves, and melodic and rhythmic patterns. Just as music ranges from jazz to symphonic, rock to punk to hiphop to blues to country to techno, or atonal to R & B, so, too, do our relationships. A whole new world of potential innovations opens up in the context of methods for systematically evaluating naturally occurring and deliberately orchestrated variations in organizations, management, HR training methods, supply lines, social spheres, environmental quality, etc.

The current business world’s near-complete lack of comparable information on human, social, and natural capital is oppressive. It puts us in the situation of never knowing what we get for our money in education and healthcare, even as costs in these areas spiral into absolutely stratospheric levels. Having instruments in every area of education, health care, recreation, employment, and commerce tuned to common scales will be liberating, not oppressive. Having clear, reproducible, meaningful, and publicly negotiated measures of educational and clinical care outcomes, of productivity and innovation, and of trust, loyalty, and environmental quality will be a boon.

In conclusion, consider one more thing. About 100 years ago, a great many musicians and composers revolted against what they felt were the onerous and monotonous constraints of the equal-tempered tuning system. Thus we had an explosion of tonal and rhythmic innovations across the entire range of musical artistry. With the global popularity of world music’s blending of traditional forms with current technology and Western forms, the use of alternatives to equal temperament has never been greater. I read once that Joni Mitchell has used something like 32 different tunings in her recordings. Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young are also famous for using unique tunings to define their trademark sounds. What would the analogy of this kind of creativity be in the tuning of tests and surveys? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to seeing it, experiencing it, and maybe even contributing to it. Les Paul may not be the only innovator in instrument design who figured out not only how to make it easy for others to express themselves in measured tones, but who also knew how to rock out his own yayas!

References and further reading:

Augustine of Hippo. (1947/2002). On music. In Writings of Saint Augustine Volume 2. Immortality of the soul and other works. (L. Schopp, Trans.) (pp. 169-384). New York: Catholic University of America Press.

Barbour, J. M. (2004/1954). Tuning and temperament: A historical survey. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Heelan, P. A. (1979). Music as basic metaphor and deep structure in Plato and in ancient cultures. Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 2, 279-291.

Isacoff, S. M. (2001). Temperament: The idea that solved music’s greatest riddle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Jorgensen, O. (1991). Tuning: Containing the perfection of eighteenth-century temperament, the lost art of nineteenth-century temperament and the science of equal temperament. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University.

Kivy, P. (2002). Introduction to a philosophy of music. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Mathieu, W. A. (1997). Harmonic experience: Tonal harmony from its natural origins to its modern expression. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International.

McClain, E. (1984/1976). The myth of invariance: The origin of the gods, mathematics and music from the Rg Veda to Plato (P. A. Heelan, Ed.). York Beach, Maine: Nicolas-Hays, Inc.

Russell, G. (2001/1953). Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization (4th ed.). Brookline, MA: Concept Publishing.

Stone, M. (2002, Autumn). Musical temperament. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 16(2), 873.

Sullivan, A. T. (1985). The seventh dragon: The riddle of equal temperament. Lake Oswego, OR: Metamorphous Press.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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