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Public Policy and π

Originally published May 15, 2012

On March 14, we celebrated Pi (π) Day for the third consecutive year since it was officially recognized by Congress. This was the day – 3/14, get it? – that Congress marked for this celebration by passing a resolution in 2009. Now when I say Congress, I’m technically incorrect, since it was only a House Resolution that was passed. As far as I can tell the Senate had nothing to do in the matter. (As a matter of fact, if you do a search on the Senate website for either Pi or  π you get no hits at all.)

House Resolution 224
was sponsored by Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee and15 cosponsors. (Gordon appropriately chaired the House Committee on Science and Technology at the time.) It passed handily with a vote of 309 to 10.

Since this concerns Washington, the inside-the-Beltway crowd will want to know more about the political implications of this legislative action. What are the names of the 10 anti- π legislators? What are the names of the 30 who abstained? Can they be swayed one way or the other on the π issue? Did the representative from Alaska request special treatment for Eskimo π? Will a π caucus emerge? Will the anti-π forces in Congress form a coalition? Is the whole Senate anti-π or just π-neutral? Who are the π lobbyists and are they duly registered? Will this develop into the π-gate scandal?

Banter aside, we have to remember that our legislators are seldom noted these days for their rational behavior, which may be why they decided to recognize an irrational number and give π its own day. On the other hand, maybe they will eventually move to cover all irrational numbers and officially honor Irrationality Day.

Seriously now, the main rationale for the House Resolution, of course, was to use Pi Day as a way of encouraging the study of math and science in our youth. Larry Shaw founded Pi Day at the San Francisco Exploratorium in 1988, and they just celebrated their 14th year of honoring π. The fact that March 14 is Albert Einstein's birthday adds to the math and science symbolism of the day.

We all know that π is that fascinating number (3.14159265358...) that has been expanded to about 10 trillion decimal places. It is classically defined as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter; but π is one of those entities that seems to be omnipresent in so many different aspects, settings and equations that shape our everyday lives – behind the scenes, of course – that it is often assigned almost mystical qualities.

Yet the fact is that π is a very serious number with a very substantive history. It is first supposed to have been mentioned by the Babylonians, and the Egyptians had an approximation, as does the Bible. But in general it was the Greek mathematician, Archimedes, who is credited with having come up with the first theoretical calculation of π: 223/71 < π < 22/7

I don't want to belabor the math in this article, but rather explore the interesting intersection that π does have with public policy. There are at least three important areas for us to explore:

  1. Public policy should be impartial and fair.
  2. Public policy is essential to address change.
  3. The timeliness of public policy is critical.
What does π have to do with fairness and impartiality? As we all know, random number generation is a very useful tool in a number of applications in which impartiality or fairness is important, and this is so very central to governance and public policy. The fact that any sequence of the digits in π is random is very convenient in that respect.

The first time I took advantage of the “impartiality” of π was in the late 1960s. I was the Statistician for the World Judo Federation and was in need of a random number generator to address a problem. The process of generating the initial draw in a competition was complex, time consuming and confrontational. Tournament organizers would create the Judo "repechage" brackets by folding pieces of paper with the competitors’ names and placing them inside Ping Pong balls. The balls were then inserted into a large glass bubble and blown around until a gate was opened and one ball dropped into a basket. Then, the judoka’s name was extracted from the ball and copied into the position in the bracket that was selected in parallel from an identical contraption. It was very important to do this in an unbiased manner. (Think, for example, of bracket selection and initial order of competition at Wimbledon. Who is the unlucky chap that gets to play Nadal or Djokovic in the first round?) In search of a better way, I wrote a computer program for drawing those starting brackets using sequences of digits from π in an algorithm. It worked very well and the effect was transformational.

Pi and its randomness made a clear contribution to fairness in this example, but random generators are important for a significant number of simulation exercises essential to model traffic on a highway, outpatients in a hospital, arrivals and departures at an airport, or a number of military situations.
So, how about π and change? Governments are always concerned with change. If I remember correctly, Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign was based on the "need for change." Well π is very frequently right in the middle of change.

Growth, positive or negative, is at the heart of our current economic concerns and all the econometric models that attempt to predict the impact of following one policy or another, in very many ways are going to cross paths with our fascinating π. In fact, we know that calculus was developed primarily as a tool to investigate change, and change is such a constant theme in any growth equation, not just economic growth, that we cannot avoid π.

Beyond that, we know the importance of the natural sciences in so many aspects of our daily lives and how government must involve itself with them. Biology is associated with – at least – the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs. Physics evokes programs at NASA, the Weather Bureau, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Chemistry reminds us of what is being done at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Energy.) And the Department of Defense, of course, intersects practically all the natural sciences in its activities, as well as mathematics itself. (Think encryption and the National Security Agency – NSA.) And Maxwell’s Equations, importantly featuring π, are integral for anything involving electricity and magnetism in the form of instrumentation or devices like computers.

And what can we say about π and timeliness? Any program that addresses public policy must be funded. In our system, funding happens through an appropriation that is enacted in a budget. Central to all this, of course, is time. Budgets are approved annually and applied in fiscal years. Expenditures are usually tracked and reported at specific times: daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly. Therefore, time is an essential component of the public policy arena. The problem is that often we need to find a way of expressing time-dependent functions using another variable, such as frequency. That is exactly what Fourier Transforms accomplish and, as a result, have become a very important tool in financial economics and hence in much of the budgetary modeling so important to effective governance and public policy. Fourier Transforms prominently feature π.

In conclusion, π got its name because in Greek "perimeter" (περίμετρος) starts with the letter, π. It is only fitting that both public and policy start with the letter “p”, the Latin equivalent of π. We enthusiastically approve of Pi Day and congratulate the House of Representatives for having made it official.

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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