The Appropriateness of Scale

I have a new watch, and I’m very pleased with it. Sorry, you were probably expecting something a little less mundane. While wearing my previous watch I decided to reach in to a bath to pull out the plug. Given that the watch was meant to be water resistant to 100 metres – splash proof, in effect – I was surprised that the whole thing fogged up a day later. Either way, I now have a new watch.

One of my favourite things about the new watch – aside from the fact that it tells me whenever one of you lovely people likes my blog – is the fact that it tells the time in words. It turns out that that is fundamental to how I understand time. It requires less processing for me to tell the time in words. It may be different for you; it may not. Not only does it use words for time, it is also very fuzzy with it.

My attitude to language is always that more precision is better. Words, their order, the punctuation between them, all carry so much information: they need to be assembled carefully. Why, then, do I love the fuzziness of my watch’s timekeeping? Because it is appropriate to its task. It shows time as I actually experience it: for instance between, say, 10:13 and 10:17 it will read “quarter past ten”.

To me, that is appropriate. My old watch would read 10:16:07, and that always took an extra level or two of processing in my head to come out at “it’s about quarter past ten.” To me, that level of time measurement is only appropriate if you’re measuring something very fast. The passage of time – as experienced throughout a normal day – is nowhere near as fast as someone running a race.

Competition requires that level of accuracy. That is the appropriate context for measuring time to the second. The fuzziness of my watch wouldn’t cut it. Then again, it’s very much not meant to.

Imagine measuring distance. What scale would you use? I’m not talking about metric versus imperial here; that discussion comes later. Would you use the same scale for measuring a hall-way in order to buy a new carpet as you would to measure the distance to a nearby galaxy? I do hope you wouldn’t. Then again, you may know the conversion factor between feet and parsecs better than I do (more or less 0.000,000,000,000,000,009,88 in case you were wondering). We intuitively understand a scale must be appropriate to its job: We wouldn’t measure the capacity of a thimble in pints, after all.

The same applies to currency. A 1.5 litre carton of milk in Iceland costs, at the time of writing, 215 Króna. Not 2.15 or 21.5: 215. That equates to £1.64, €1.88 or $2.09. I don’t feel that a currency where basic staples are measured in the hundreds has its head screwed on right. And it’s not that the Icelandic economy is failing, and that that’s an abnormally high price: it’s always like that.

It’s quite feasibly a Nordic thing, however: the exchange rate across most of the Nordic lands (Not Finland: they’re in the Eurozone) sit normally at the 10 to the pound level. That would make this carton of milk 17.77 Norwegian or 13.96 Danish Krone. (Yes, they have different spellings in each of the different countries. In Sweden it’s Krona.) I suppose it’s what you’re used to, but I don’t like it.

The longer the string you have to read, store or manipulate, the more open to error it is; the more dangerous those errors can be: reading 765,432 as 756,342 could be so much worse than reading 7.65 as 7.56. I tend to take the view that if something is measured in hundreds, or thousands, it is probably drifting away from being appropriate. If something is measured in units, it is probably fine.

Imperial measurements have always seemed to exist on a very domestic, human scale to me. A person is measured in feet and stone, not metres and kilogrammes. Pints, pounds and ounces all feel like the kinds of measures we can actually use in daily life: Metric exists on a more industrial scale.

We need to separate what is appropriate from what we are used to. My opinions about cartons of milk in hundreds, and height in decimals, have nothing at all with the notion of that which could be seen as appropriate: it has everything to do with that which I find familiar. There is no difference in distance measurements made in kilometres and in miles; not as far as being appropriate goes.

They’re both only really appropriate for relatively short distances. Once you’re crossing countries a larger unit would probably suit better. Say a Decamile (10 miles) or a Hectomile (100 miles). The distance from Edinburgh to London would be 4.14 Hmi or 41.4 Dmi; both of which are very lovely.

The pint is, as I have literally always opined, the greatest of the imperial measurements. It is the perfect unit of liquid measurement for all of the essentials in life: milk, blood and beer. Superb.

We see this alteration of scales to their most human, least error prone, base all of the time. Imagine a library. Actually, imagine that the libraries weren’t being gutted and culled, and they were still the temples to knowledge they were when I was a child. That’s better. Now, imagine a book in a library.

There are far too many books in a library to hold on to it as a number, so we subdivide. First we think of shelves. 30 or 40 books on a shelf. Stack the shelves in to a rack. Excellent, 8 or 10 shelves in a rack. That’s 240 to 400 books on a rack. Assemble the racks in a row, about 6 racks to a row. That’s 1,440 to 2,400 books in a row. Let’s average it to 2,000. 2,000 book in a row. That’s not all of them.

Let’s think of a room. Give us 12 rows in a room; that’s 24,000 books. Not a bad library. How many rooms on a floor? Let’s say two: 48,000 books per floor of a library. But how many floors? Mine has three. That’s 144,000 books in one library, averaged out. More easily it’s 432 racks. That’s a more manageable amount. More so than 2,592 shelves, but less so than 72 rows. We change the scale to the most human, most appropriate amount; it’s a natural instinct: it makes life so much easier.