Seeing as I actually made my first ever national radio appearance on Wednesday over this one, I though I may as well blog it.
Radio X’s Department of Petty Rage were looking for a Petty Rage Partner for Dave, who had issues with non-standard units of measure. He worked in shipping and had problems with people describing the lengths of ships in terms of football pitches and The Shard. There’s an example here of a ship the length of 6 jumbo jets.
Given I work for a company with an office in The Shard and also work with non-standard units of measure on a daily basis, I texted in and was asked to be on the show. My specific issues at work are with things like buckets and pails. Not least is a pail something I associate with wells, but there are two other parts to this.
The first is that no-one knows how big the bucket or the pail actually is. Is it an industrial bucket, or is it a kids sandcastle bucket? No-one knows the volume, except when they actually do – we have to input a conversion from the arbitrary, non-specific unit to an actual unit of weight or volume that people understand.
And that’s kind of the point with the comparison units. I don’t know how big The Shard is (I could look it up) and football pitches have degrees of tolerance which are, incidentally, measured in standard units of length.
The Americans even went and produced a standard non-standard and I still don’t know if I can use just any cup to measure things for a recipe because, for some reason, I can’t work out whether the actual standard volumes are proportional amongst all the standard cups or whether, sometimes, it’s important to actually use the weight and scaling doesn’t work.
And then what if we have cyclical units? What if The Shard is measured in the length of ships which are measured in lengths of football pitches which are measured in partial Shards. It’s just ridiculous.
It’s ridiculous because, as useful as comparisons are, why not just use the standards that were invented specifically because everyone will know how long they are or how heavy they are? Whether one uses the metric system, imperial (I’m looking at you, America, Liberia and the country formally known as Burma) or a strange combination of the two like the UK, everyone knows how big their pint is or how big their kilo of sugar is.
Comparison units actually defeat their purpose. In attempting to help quantify something in a way people think makes sense, they actually make it more complicated, and what’s the point in that?