The Five Whys of Renaming a Middle School

We are about to go down a rabbit hole, or three or four, so I will give you the punch-line, the spoiler ending, up front. Juan Crespí Middle School, which sits on the northeastern edge of San Francisco Bay, was formally renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School Wednesday, on Soskin’s 100th birthday. And there was much rejoicing.

But Why? I asked. Not Why choose Soskin. That’s easy. She’s a badass social justice warrior, as I’ve said before in my pre-pandemic 2019 blog, Betty Reid Soskin: Social Justice Ninja Warrior.

Why was the school named for Crespí in the first place? Who was the dude? How did he get picked for the naming? Why did they decide to rename it now? I had questions. Of course, each question led to more questions. In my previous work life, we were trained to uncover the root cause of problems by asking Five Whys. When you do that on the Internet, suddenly, the morning disappears. There’s always more than meets the eye. But it’s all good.

So, if you want some answers and to learn a little about the history of the Spanish New World expeditions, missions, epidemiology, and the politics of nomenclature, then settle in for a few minutes. The Internet beckons. La madriguera de coneja–the rabbit hole–beckons.

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Z is for Zero

The Hindu concept of zero, the void, the circle. Graphic from pparihar.com.

A circle is an infinite number of points all equally distant from a single center. That definition came from Euclid, a Greek, although the Greek’s didn’t use zero. Aristotle was afraid to divide by the void because it wasn’t descriptive of the real world.

The Chinese and the Sumerians used placeholders in their counting, adopting different marks for the tens and the 60s digit, since Babylonians used base 60. But they didn’t have a zero.

The Mayans had a zero–they used base 20–which allowed them to produce large astronomical calculations that generated accurate solar and lunar calendars using only sticks. But their isolation prevented trade, which limited their civilization.

The Romans had zero, of course! Nulla. The Romans had sophisticated plumbing and developed roads that lasted for millenia. But Romans disdained to use nulla in their numbering systems, so even though their business records were hierarchical and detailed, they were limited. Growth is limited if a number like 397,654 is CCCXCVMMDCLIV.

The Arabs developed zero; they developed algebra. But the Arabs learned it from the Hindus.

https://i0.wp.com/1.bp.blogspot.com/-Rn5ziNDI1kk/UN4HBQcfF8I/AAAAAAAAAII/j746CCLUC6E/s1600/indian_zero.gif?w=525
Graphic from Pparihar.com.
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W is for Wedgwood

Wedgwood “Jasperware.” Photo from House Beautiful.

There is something in me that loves a good chart. I can’t help it. Some people are stopped short by a pair of soulful eyes or a kitten sleeping, but give me a good table of figures, and I am hooked.

Josiah Wedgwood, manufacturer of pottery to English royalty, must have felt the same way because he was a pioneer in cost accounting. Not only that, but he designed beautiful dishes.

Wedgwood cost breakdown. Neil McKendrick, Josiah Wedgwood and Cost Accounting in the Industrial Revolution, 1970.

Bad Knee, Big Brain

Wedgwood was born in 1730, the 11th child of a potter who transformed his father’s small, midland English artisan studio into a manufacturing empire. He survived smallpox, though it left him with a knee too weak to run a potter’s wheel. As a result, he concentrated on design and gravitated towards glazes. He stumbled on to the latest science–chemistry–and that allowed him to transform the cheap, black bowls of the family shop into multi-colored, sophisticated figurines and dinnerware for aristocrats. He married someone who had money and found business partners with connections into high society. It paid off.

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