Unit Protesting


Before we start, I want to make it clear that - although I often use US spelling in stuff I write - I refuse to accept that "tire" is a way of spelling the round black things that you put on a car. I'm English, and tired (sorry) of seeing that weird spelling, so from here on in we'll be using the proper spelling: "tyre". And, annoyingly, Word has just red-wigglyed that now I've typed it. I guess an indication of how I have to produce most of my verbiage with Word set to US English. And this post is not even about spelling or languages. What is it about? I suppose it's kind of another grumble about technology in general. And about measuring stuff. So, if you are already in a bad mood, this might be a good place to stop reading and go off and do some yoga or listen to a Coldplay album.

It all started when my wife came home with a gleaming new set of bathroom scales (though, as there was only one of them, maybe it should be "a bathroom scale"). Like most gadgets and appliances these days, it proudly proclaims that it has a "bright and easy-to-read" digital display. And, more than that, it can tell you all about your health - things like your body mass index, water retention rate, and overall wellbeing. And probably your shoe size as well. "Amazing!" I thought, "I wonder how it knows all that".

The answer is, of course, that when you first put the batteries in, it asks you loads of questions such as your height, age, body shape (you get five choices for this one), exercise regime (four choices), and sex (you only get two choices for this one). This would be OK, but we unfortunately fell at the first hurdle. Despite wiggling the switch underneath to tell it to display in stones and pounds, it insisted my wife enter her height in centimetres. We are both of that lost generation who learned imperial measures at school, and now find ourselves cast adrift into a whole new world of metric things. It's like going in to work one day to find the management has ruled that everyone and everything will now be spoken/read/written in a foreign language. One you don't understand.

I know that a foot is around 300 millimetres, or 30 centimetres, or 0.3 metres (see how complicated it is already), and a metre is a bit over a yard. So I can do mental calculations such as converting "it's about 300 metres on the left" into roughly 325 yards or nearly 1000 feet. Of course, everyone in England blames the French for us losing our proper system of measures (it must be their fault because the letters in "meter" are the wrong way round). Just because they think it's easier than remembering that there are 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5.5 yards in a perch, 4 perches in a chain, 10 chains in a furlong, and 8 furlongs in a mile. I mean, what's complicated about that?

So I used a calculator on the Web to do the conversion, and we finally got to the bit where it said "setting saved". Except that, when you stand on it, all it does for 10 seconds is display a fascinating series of flashing light trails across the "bright and easy-to-read" digital display, followed by "Error". We're nearly an hour in and still no sign of being able to find out our weights. Not even in some funny unit like kilograms. I know how to convert those into proper weights because I remember the mnemonic "One and three-quarter pounds of jam weighs about a kilogram". Except that, as someone pointed out a few weeks ago, it's not a very good memory aid because the important bit ("one and three-quarter") doesn't actually rhyme with anything. So it could just as easily be "one and a quarter", or "two and a half", or "one hundred and seventy three".

Anyway, having dispatched my wife to the store where she bought the scale to exchange it for a new one, we started the process again. At the end, when it came to the "stand on it and see what you weigh" moment, we got a different result this time. It said "Err-374". Thing is, we weren't interested in it telling us our BMI, liquidity ratio, or some meaningless number that relates to our wellbeing. Certainly, by now, my wellbeing was not what it was two hours ago. Why can't it just tell you your weight? Maybe even, and here's a shocking thought, by using a big calibrated spring with a pointer on the end that goes round a dial covered in numbers. After all, inside there's probably just a big spring connected to sensor that sends signals to the chip that converts them into numbers (or not in our case). So it's not like it's any more accurate or reliable.

This worrying advance in digital displays is not confined to bathroom scales either. I splashed out a noticeable volume of cash some while ago on a digital tyre pressure gauge because all the old-fashioned ones I have give slightly different readings, and I thought it would be a good idea to get a proper accurate and reliable one to replace them. No chance. Not only does it decide at random what units to display the result in, but consecutive readings seem to vary by 20%. And none are near to the average of my old-fashioned manual ones. The one that seems to be most accurate is the "looks like a pen and the inside pops up" kind like my Dad used to use when I was a kid. In fact, it's probably the same one.

And here we come up against another unit protest. Tyre pressures have always been measured in pounds per square inch, which seems innately sensible because the common range goes from about 30 to near 60 so it's easy to read and adjust the pressure. Get within a couple of p.s.i and its fine. But my new car handbook has all the tyre pressures in BARs. Not even in a semi-believable foreign measure like millimetres per second or kilograms per hectare. Can you imagine the people who invented this in some design meeting?

Marketing guy: "We need a new way to measure the pressure in car tyres."
Engineer: "OK, how about we use a scale that starts at one and nearly goes up to three?"
Accountant: "Sounds great - that will save on printing costs and we'll need less numbers on the dial."
Manager: "That's a wrap, do it!"

OK, so I know that BAR is connected with atmospheric pressure, but now instead of "36 p.s.i. all round" I have to figure out where 2.18 is on the tiny dial of one of my other old-fashioned gauges that only has a marking every half a BAR. I suppose it's something to do with the European Union - most everything else is their fault. Just think how easy it would be if our global society could actually get to grips with using some standard measures and units for things. Starting, please, with time zones. I'm time shifted by 8 hours from my work colleagues, though for a couple of weeks of the year it's actually 7 hours or 9 hours because we can't even agree when daylight saving time starts and ends. Wouldn't it be easy if we all just switched to a single World time, like the Swatch Internet time that's been around for ages.

Except that we'd need to make sure it didn't change our four o'clock teatime here in England, when we all stop for cucumber sandwiches and a pot of Earl Grey.

Comments (1)

  1. Alex Homer says:

    I just had an email from someone who said they were "exhausted" with seeing the pipes underneath a car being called "mufflers".

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