Tag Archives: Desert Island

Measure for Measure

I was musing earlier today, while reading the motoring section of my weekend paper on the peculiarities of presenting data in different forms. Fuel consumption figures, in EU standard comparisons, are given in litres / 100 km, i.e. a measure of what it costs to go 100km. The measure I convert to, because it is the one that has meaning to me, is miles / gallon i.e. a measure of what you get for your money.

We have just come through (I hope we’re through it) an extended period of conspicuous and often thoughtless consumption where people became quite expert on subjects such as cost, affordability, credit etc. but increasingly distant from the concept of value. Buying a house with a loan of six or seven times your annual wage may be affordable (A bank test which means not that you can afford it, but that they have a reasonable chance of getting their money back), but in all but recent historical terms it is poor value, tending towards perversity. The calculations people make during all these periods of brief collective madness are often based on what is often referred to as the “Bigger Fool” theory; that is to say I may be making a foolish move here, but it will make me money when I sell it on to the next chap. When applied to the housing market, participants consider themselves financially astute, when applied to any other pyramid or Ponzi scheme, participants are viewed as greedy and gullible.

During the approaching period of austerity (If you can call it austerity to aim to borrow only half as much from your grandchildren in five years time to fund your current lifestyle), I suspect more and more of us will be pondering more about value than cost. Probably a painful lesson but also probably beneficial.

Returning to units of measure, I attained what little education I have during the time when the UK was joining the EU (In a sort of sidling offhand way). During this period SI units were being introduced into our education, to the delight of scientists and engineers. Most of the British public seemed wary of giving up our Imperial measures for ones which were not just foreign (And therefore suspect) but mostly French (And therefore probably flimsy and unworkable). The French counterpart to this attitude has always been, when looking at the British, “Yes of course it works well in practice, but does it work in theory?” This sort of question can lead to revolutions and the overthrow of monarchs, so probably shouldn’t be asked out loud.

I remember a physics teacher delivering what he clearly believed to be a compelling argument for the change of units along the following lines … “Imagine you are on a desert island and have nothing with you but a watch. As long as it’s running, it doesn’t have to be set to the correct time. Now construct a pendulum which beats once a second. That pendulum is one metre long. Now construct a box with sides one metre long using that measure. (The materials and tools were to be improvised of course). Now fill your box with water and it will take 1000 litres and weigh one Tonne. So with just a working watch you can measure a Tonne. That Boys, is a coherent system of measurements.”

I have yet to see the full force of this argument, but then I have never yet been stranded on a desert island.