Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Zip blog.

No blogging till Friday. A full report to follow.

I was wrong about the conclusion of Christmas yesterday, since a little piece of it came in the mail today--a seasonal lagniappe from an architectural firm I’ve never heard of, a copy of the Zagat Survey for Chicago and Milwaukee. The postmark was illegible, but the note that came with it was dated December 20, and it full of holiday cheer. The zip code was wrong, however, so I suspect the package had been in the bowels of the USPS for a few weeks now.

Considering that it was created by anonymous committee in an enormous impersonal organization, the old U.S. Post Office of the early 1960s, the term “zip code” is pretty cool, if you think about. I’ve read that it’s a fortuitous contraction of “zoning improvement” code, which sounds much more like the creation of a committee. The British are stuck with the pedestrian “postcode”--which incidentally look like the alphanumeric strings my toddler makes with magnetic letters, W34 8TX or some such. Had the UK invented the term “zoning improvement code,” I wonder what they would actually call it. Maybe the Zed-Eye Code. Or “bony movements” in some parts of London. Language is fun.

Which reminds me of an excellent presentation on mathematics and memory I heard once. It was so good that I remember a few of the points made more than a quarter century later, since it was during the national meeting of Mu Alpha Theta, the high school math honorary, in the summer of 1978 in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. I wasn’t all that active in Mu Alpha Theta, but I was a member, and the national meeting offered a chance to ride a bus from Texas to Wisconsin, so I took it.

It was a fine bus epic of my youth, but that’s another story. I actually attended a couple of the presentations, and the one I remember was given--I think, a little logical reconstruction is involved here--by one of the math professors at the University of Wisconsin at Steven’s Point, a native Canadian. He said that memory studies had been done on recalling strings of numbers and letters, and that for the purposes of remembering a string, five or six numbers was the easiest. A string of letters wasn’t quite as easy, and a random mixture of letters and numbers wasn’t easy to remember at all.

He also, I believe, had some comments to make about the efficiencies in terms of sorting mail using the respective code systems. Anyway, he said that postal codes like that of the United States (and I believe of the Soviet Union, which used six numbers) were much easier to use and remember than the British alphanumeric system. “My native Canada,” he said, “had to choice of imitating the United States, with its easy code, but instead it imitated the worst system, the British.”

I’m not sure I’d be that hard on the British and their codes. After all, they need some little daily complication to replace the penny-shilling-pound system they so casually tossed away in a fit of rationalization.


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