December 5, 2011

December 5, 2011


As if I didn’t have enough evidence that America is slowly falling behind the rest of the world in areas where it really counts, I recently learned that we are the only country not using A4 paper. Here I was, thinking that A4 was just something quirky they use in Europe, like coins with holes in them, Parliamentary government, and the metric system. It’s cute and all, but the grown-ups will stick to solid coinage and inches, thankyouverymuch.

But when the entire rest of the world has caught on to something, I have to wonder whether our “first in friendship, fourth in obesity” mindset (Parks and Recreation joke) is doing us some harm.

I did not realize that A4 paper is just one member of an entire class of math-induced paper sizes. To wit, Wikipedia:

ISO paper sizes are all based on a single aspect ratio of square root of 2, or approximately 1:1.4142. The base A0 size of paper is defined to have an area of one m². With the given aspect ratio of square root of two, this corresponds to a piece of paper with a longer side of one metre multiplied by the square root of the square root (that is, the fourth root) of two and the shorter side being the reciprocal of this value. Rounded to millimetres the A0 paper size is 841 by 1,189 millimetres (33.1 × 46.8 in).

Successive paper sizes in the series A1, A2, A3, and so forth, are defined by halving the preceding paper size along the larger dimension. The most frequently used paper size is A4 (210 × 297 mm).

Now, obviously, we see some warning signs here. First of all, you’re asking us to do math. A tricky proposition even on our best of days. Ratio? Square root? FOURTH ROOT? Are you pulling my leg or what? In addition, you’re giving numbers in metric, which…no. Just no.

Yet there’s a sort of elegance in the way all the paper sizes scale. It reminds me of high school math, when we looked at the ratios of the spirally seashell (a nautilus, maybe?). Or the Fibonacci sequence. The whole point of the ISO paper system is that you can fold a piece of A4 paper in half and get two A5 papers. I feel like this would revolutionize both the greeting card and PowerPoint industries.

Maybe I’m just feeling friendlier towards our European brethren because I’ve blown through the entire Millennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and so on) in like a week and a half. It’s like, maybe a society where people all live in apartments, eat nothing but sandwiches and coffee, and put little lines through their o’s is not so bad after all. They invented Ikea over there, so they’re already shown us that there is A Better Way.

And if even the Brits are doing it, well, c’mon. Those people drive on the freaking left. Their system of currency is so complicated, tourists pay for things by dumping a fistful of coins on the store counter and hoping the cashier picks out the right amount. If the Brits can get their act together with this paper sizing stuff, America really needs to get its game on.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Canada stands with us on this. But they also have a coin called the tooney. So, tough call.

1 Fish in a Sea of Diet Coke:

Huh. I had a long post written out complaining that it didn't make sense to have an irrational number as the aspect ratio (since by definition, an aspect ratio is a fractional representation of a decimal, and an irrational number, of which sqrt(2) is, cannot be accurately represented as a fraction) until I realized why it was chosen upon attempting to offer a better system:

A more convenient system, such as a 1:1.5 (or more conventiently, 3:2) aspect ratio, will always alternates between two different aspect ratios with the Fibonacci folding pattern that they use - ie if you start with a 4x6, then double the height, you have an 8x6, which is a 4:3 aspect ratio, then double again to get an 8x12, which is back to 3:2.

However, with the sqrt(2), Fibonacci folding will always retain the same aspect ratio. (Which, as a side note, I figured out on my own on accident, and then looked on Wikipedia and saw that that information was included in the opening paragraph. THANKS, WIKIPEDIA.)