Tuesday, August 05, 2008

let. to ed. re. "It’s Still a Big City, Just Not Quite So Big" -- NY Times

Here's a letter to the Times that wasn't published:
I was very struck by the recent article, which explained that the figure for New York City's land mass had decreased by about 5%. We are accustomed to thinking that the size of the city is a fixed, unchanging number. But the fact that this number has changed so dramatically -- without any apparent cause -- underscores how many other numbers that we have come to regard as fixed and unchangeable can so easily be altered through better measurement and careful statistics. There are many other numbers that we regularly deal with in the commercial or natural world that we have come to regard as unchanging facts, but when probed in detail, actually are mere estimates. It seems that, with greater study, very large error bounds and systematic biases can have dramatic effect. This all goes to show that there's a somewhat shaky underpinning to the numerical foundations of our common sense.

Letter in response to:
It’s Still a Big City, Just Not Quite So Big
Published: May 22, 2008
Somehow, Michael S. Miller resisted the temptation when he got home not long ago. “Honey,” he would have been completely justified in proclaiming to his wife, “I shrank the city.” Mr. Miller, a geographer for the Department of City Planning, has calculated that New York City is 17 square miles smaller than it was long thought to be. For two decades, the city’s official directory, the Green Book, has stated definitively that the five boroughs encompass nearly 322 square miles of land....