Double vision blog: How long is a piece of string?

Копирайт изображения Lisette de Roche

Have you ever wondered why Ukraine and most other nations in the world drive on the right?.... and have you ever wondered why the UK and a handful of islands and Commonwealth countries drive on the left making up around 35%?

It seems that illustrations on the whys and wherefores can be interchanged at will: Apparently the British drive on the left because in times of feudal and violent societies everyone preferred to keep their right arm (their weapon bearing arm) nearer to their opponent and their scabbard further from him; thus both would pass each other on their right sides.

A right handed person wearing a sword finds it easier to mount a horse on the left side and it’s also safer to be towards the edge of the road and not in the middle of the oncoming traffic.

However, I am reliably informed that the Medieval bolyars in Russia and Ukraine preferred to travel on the right hand side of the road because they held their shield in their left hands. Big farm wagons pulled by several pairs of horses would have the driver sitting on the left rear horse so that his right arm was free to lash the team.

He wanted to be able to look down and see his wagons wheels were kept safely clear of the oncoming traffic on his left side.

These different explanations are of no consequence to all the left handed people; but they have always been in the minority!

An official edict for traffic to keep to the right in 1752 was issued by Empress Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna) of Russia. As Russia’s right hand side traffic control included Ukraine so the British Empire compelled its colonies to the left hand side.

Closer inspection of British habits shows that we seem to belong to the ‘awkward squad’ in many ways and anyone learning about them would be baffled and possibly even impressed at how we jumble up so many everyday measurements and still manage to make sense of them.

Копирайт изображения Lisette de Roche
Image caption AlfBob who needs a haircut

An English bishop by the name of John Wilkins had been inspired by Simon Stevin from Flanders, who published ‘the art of tenths’ in 1585.

John Wilkins invented and published a plan in 1668 for a system called ‘Universal Measure’ which was the forerunner of metric and decimal systems that much of the world uses now.

Strange then, that we didn’t begin to embrace it until 1965 and that half a century later I still drive 6 miles to get half a dozen sausages from the butcher and when I stop off at the builders merchants to buy timber, they ask me how many pieces of 2 x 3 or 4 x 3 Inches of 3 Meter lengths I would like.

It makes calculating the cubic value very confusing. The glass of wine that I may drink with supper will pour from a 75 centiliters bottle but if I buy a crate or box it will have 12 in it: so much for metrification and decimalisation.

My friend’s 12 year old daughter is growing fast and she proudly announced that she is 5 feet 2 inches tall.

Копирайт изображения Lisette de Roche
Image caption Pantomime Horse no 4 is 14h 2”

Born in 2003 she can only have been taught the metric system in school and yet she does not say that she is 1.58 M.

If she could have her wildest dream granted she would have a pony to ride that was 14 / 2 Hands!

Somehow she has absorbed without question that horses and ponies are measured in hands and inches. A ‘hand’ is the width of your palm with the thumb tucked in and measures 4 inches.

If her wish came true she might trot around the paddock thats half and acre in size and measured in rods and chains. Meanwhile AlfBob the dog needs a haircut of his soft curly locks.

Копирайт изображения Lisette de Roche
Image caption The average man’s foot is unsurprisingly one foot long

"Mummy says he's only getting an inch off - but how much is that?" When her Dad showed her she stormed off shouting "Mummy, there is no way he's getting an inch off, that's over 2 cm! He'll be very nearly bald!"

Happily her concern for AlfBob not feeling the cold in the coming winter won the day because he came back washed and fluffed without losing any locks. I am fond of the old descriptive terms of measurement because I can imagine them in scale: My thumb measures an inch and the average man’s foot is unsurprisingly one foot long! A yard is the distance from my nose to my outstretched finger tips. 91.44 cms means very little to me.

Having these simple visual measurements means that if you want to measure your garden at home but don’t have any rods or chains in the shed you can still work it out with your feet.

When someone asks a question that could have several different answers the English sometimes reply “how long is a piece of string?” The best answer is: Twice as long as half its length!

Українська версія блогу - тут.

Blog 1: My Ukrainian shovel and salt

Blog 2: Lambs, Lions and Birds

Blog 3: Democratic bureaucracy versus corruption

Blog 4: The tides are turning

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