Friday, March 28, 2008

Taking sensible measures

On this blog in the past we've discussed the nature of what it is to be British. We've dismissed many icons as false because they are no more British than giraffes are (the Sunday roast, fish and chips, Cricket etc.). They are things that we have adopted (or stolen) and incorporated into our cosmopolitan and mongrel culture. And good thing too. It means that we can enjoy the best that the world can offer us, from Indian cuisine to Italian shoes. And it has made English the most flexible, vibrant, descriptive and richest language on the planet.

However, one trait the British are often accused of is stubbornness. Take the Euro for example. Most of the rest of Europe has been happy to embrace a single currency. It makes a lot of sense. I'm off to Lanzarote for a short holiday in June and myself and the other Brits will be the only ones having to pay twice to have our currency converted. Maybe there are sound economic arguments for staying out of the Euro - I'm not an economist and really have no idea - but any fanciful notion of retaining our heritage is bunk. The Pound is an Italian invention given to us by the Romans and, because it was legal tender throughout their empire, was the original Euro.

We have already accepted one change in currency when, in the early 1970s, we switched from the complex 'old money' of pounds, shillings and pence, to the more streamlined decimal system that we use today. Having used both systems in my lifetime I can say with all honesty that the new system is much easier to use. And that's probably why, apart from a few hardliners protesting at the time, we Brits accepted decimalisation. We weren't stubborn then. Nor have we been stubborn in accepting the changes from vinyl to CD to MP3, or from analogue to HDTV, or from film to digital cameras. We've accepted, and in many cases embraced, these changes. It's because most of them improve our standard of living or make things easier for us.

My size 9 shoe is about a foot long. You know what they say about men with big feet? It's completely false. Sigh.

So why are we still so stick-in-the-mud about weights and measures? Why are butchers and grocers and other tradespeople willing to be prosecuted as martyrs to preserve feet and inches, pounds and ounces, quarts and gallons?

Warwick Cairns has provided me with the answer. I've just finished reading his fascinating and entertaining first book - About the size of it. It's been a real eye-opener. I won't steal his thunder (or his sales) by revealing too much but he explains the origins of what we like to call 'imperial' measurements and why they are so comfortable for us. Take the 'foot'. Not surprisingly, as a rough estimate, a foot isn't far off being a foot long (the difference in size between the average sized lady's foot and gent's foot is not as large as you might think). It's a visual, always available measure of length. Your hand - when measured across the widest part - fits three times into the length of your foot. And a thumb's width across its widest part fits four times into the width of your hand. All of which means that there are twelve thumbs in one foot. Sound familiar? And there are three foot lengths in one leg length, so a walking stick (or yard stick) also becomes a measure ... and so on and so forth.

My hand is four inches wide - a third of my foot.

What Cairns shows us is that the older non-metric measurements are easier to use because they are drawn from the world around us and, particularly, our own bodies. By comparison, centimetres and metres and other artificial constructs are alien and not so easy to estimate. Just ask a kid to draw a line that is their Dad's foot in length. Then ask them to draw one that is 30cms in length and see which is the more accurate; and these are kids who've been brought up with decimal measures. So it may not surprise you to learn that most societies around the world have created measuring systems based upon their body parts. It's why bricks and rail tunnels and boats and CDs are the size they are. Manufacture (the clue is in the name as it derives from the Latin for 'hand') is all about making products that are easy to use, which is why things are made to a standard of measures set by our bodies, not some arbitrary mathematical subdivision of the size of the world.*

My thumb is one inch wide. Amazing. I seriously need a manicure.

There is a principle in science called Occam's Razor. It states that 'All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best'. In other words, the easiest way to do something is probably the right way. You test all the different ways of doing a task and then use the razor to 'slice' away the inefficient and least-practical. I would suggest that if we applied Occam's Razor to measures, we'd end up retaining our yards, feet, inches, miles, pounds, ounces, gallons, fathoms and gills. Sadly, it's probably too late now as the government seems intent on the change.

So how come they still post speed limits on roads in miles per hour?

Get the book here.

* You may not be aware of this but the length of the metre was decided by calculating the distance between the North pole and the equator (a quadrant) and then subdividing by tens. Hence what we call a metre is 1/10,000,000th of a quadrant. Oh, and it's wrong. It assumes the Earth is round. Which it ain't.


Me said...

Another informative and off the wall post - thanks!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Cheers m'dear!

Michele said...

I would suggest that if we applied Occam's Razor to measures, we'd end up retaining our yards, feet, inches, miles, pounds, ounces, gallons, fathoms and gills. Sadly, it's probably too late now as the government seems intent on the change.

We stomped our feet and pouted when our government tried to convert us to the metric system so we'd be on the same system as the rest of world. And our cries and whines of "It's too hard!" worked! ;-) Eddie Izzard did a hilarious stand-up bit about it in Circle.

We still have to learn the metric system, of course. But we don't have to like it. ;-)