Thursday, March 01, 2007


An innocuous little piece in the newspaper today caught my eye, cunningly hidden on Page 38 of “The Times”. On a day when the front page was the news that eating too much Low-fat Strawberry Yoghurt can act as a female contraceptive, and that too many vitamins may increase the risk of death, the NHS Pension Scheme report for 2006 was also published – boring or what, because it only got onto Page 38.

The way the article was presented raised the issue of how we perceive numbers. So many things today are defined by numbers that we sometimes lose perspective on them. A simple, bald statement in the paper explains that the total estimated liabilities, ie the amount of money needed to pay all the pension scheme members has gone up over the last year. These members, totalling 1,260,000, fall into three categories - people currently receiving a pension, people currently working in the NHS who are building up the right to a pension in the future, and people who have worked for the NHS in the past and have a right to an NHS pension in the future.

The total amount needed to cover these liabilities is £165bn. Doesn’t sound much, does it, written like that? Try writing it as £165,000,000,000, because that’s what it actually is, and it looks a great deal more daunting. Or as another alternative, if you use 50,000,000 as the number of people in this country, that’s £3,300 for each and every one of us, man, woman and child, whether we’ve worked in the NHS or not. Or to put it yet another way, if every single person in the country worked solely for the NHS Pension scheme, it would take us everyone 2 months to produce the money to pay it off. You don’t get the same sense of “Bloody hell” when you read £165bn – so it’s not particularly surprising that they write it down like that. It really is “The way you tell them.”

Thinking more widely, the units of measurement we use tell us a great deal about our style of life. I spent my early life sometime in the last century, being educated on distances very differently from today. We had 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5½ yards in a Rod, Pole or Perch (Why three different names for the same distance?), 22 Yards in a Chain (or Cricket Pitch), 220 yards in a furlong, 8 furlongs in a Mile, and so on. Even walking out into the sea from the beach meant that a Mile was suddenly 6,076 feet compared to 5,280 Feet on dry land. But it all made meaningful sense. You could “feel” the distances. If someone said something was a Chain long, you simply had to think of Freddie Trueman bowling a Yorker, add on to it a layed-out batsman, and you were there, within a cricket boot or two. Simple.

The really dumbed down idea of millimetres, centimetres, metres and kilometres, with its Namby-Pamby constant factor of 10, takes all the fun out of it, and makes it all far too boring and more difficult to understand. How does the average man get the feel of 1/299,792,458th of the distance travelled by light in an absolute vacuum in one second, when he’s measuring up his bedroom for new carpet to please his wife?

But, back to the newspaper. “The Times”, either wittingly or unwittingly, has reacted to this problem, and for some time now has used its own system of distance measurement, which is far more effective and simple than these ghastly immigrant units of measure we are forced to use. The basic unit of distance they use is the London Bus, which is defined rather beautifully and elegantly as "the length of a London Bus" – simple, you see! For the avoidance of any doubt, that’s a Routemaster, not one of those nasty, squirmy bendy things. Longer distances, usually vertical ones are always expressed in multiples of Nelson’s Column. Area starts in units of Football Pitches. We all know what one of those is, so it becomes a simple intuitive thing rather than a learned fact all too easily forgotten. Large areas, however, to avoid the need for phrases like “Oh it’s around 1,300 football pitches”, which, until the Olympics Building programme nears completion none of us can begin to visualise, are all multiples of the area occupied by Wales. We've all stared at a map, and know pretty well just how big that is. And that’s it. Simple, intuitive and easy to understand, and susceptible to graphic demonstration quite perfectly.

Some of you may think that the London Bus is far too large a base unit, but we haven’t finished yet. We have hands, fingers, and arms which are far more intuitive than the centimetre. Most of the time, we do not need absolute accuracy, we just need something close. Who, in reality, needs the digital accuracy of knowing, say, time to the nearest second? It’s quite irrelevant for most of us. But because we can have it, we have it.

No, the Arms Width is a perfectly good measure for something approximating to ¼ of a Bus – we could call it a “Cab”, to maintain the intuitive element. Anything smaller can be measured in Arms, or Hands, or Fingers or various multiples thereof. Actually, the word “Cubit” has for some unknown reason just flashed into my mind – can’t think why.

Areas could use subdivisions of the Football Field – the Goal, the Box, the Dug-Out, and so on all lend themselves consistently and rigorously to this structured approach. The idea of 10 Spit Blobs equalling One Red Card has a real degree of visual elegance about it that 0.0073 Hectares can never approach. I mean, is there anyone out there, apart from the underclasses of Estate Agents or Council Tax House Banding estimators who can truly say they have any idea how big a hectare is? But if you called it A Football Field, everyone would be on the money straight away, and isn’t that what it’s all about? We do complicate things so.

So, that’s agreed then. We could call it something like the Ton, Rod, Fortnight System to differentiate it from the SI system we currently use but despise so much. All we need now is a plan of action to get this slight change implemented.

Any ideas?

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