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EVERY LINE IS THE PERFECT LENGTH IF YOU DON'T MEASURE IT*
Did you see the moon smiling at us tonight as it rose tonight? I wonder what it saw that made it so happy? The sky was so clear and black and spangled with stars and that cheshire-moon grinning down. If he'da had fingers, he'da snapped 'em!

The other day at work, one of the product marketing managers came over to ask me what the correct measurement term in English was to use for a length that was longer than feet but not into miles. "Yards," I said, "Football fields are measured in yards, and that's a long distance," but then she shook her head and asked, how many yards before you change to miles? Is it excessive, for example, to say 900 yards? There are 1760 yards in a mile, so I didn't think that sounded weird. "But," she asked, "Wouldn't you say 0.whatever miles instead?"

"I don't know," I answered. "You're asking the wrong person." And I put my hands over my ears and said, "Numbers: lalalalala!"

The reason she was asking was because on our product datasheets, we always give measurements in both metric and imperial terms, because our marketing material is used worldwide, which means we have to satisfy both the US/UK customers AND the rest of the world.

Then, I made the mistake of telling her that I can't visualize distances that way; that I can't estimate lengths over about 12 feet. Everyone in earshot stood up and looked at me with astonishment. "What? What do you mean?"

I explained that I can't tell you how long it is from here to there in terms of measurement. If it's over 6-12 feet, I'm at a loss. I would have to pace it off and even then I'd probably be wrong. I have no concept of spatial relationships in terms of measurement unless it's really, really short. Another woman exclaimed, "But don't you know how long a mile is?"

"No," I said. "I have no idea. I don't think like that about distances. I might know intellectually that it is 17 kilometers from our house to the south Lund exit, but I can't apply that virtual distance to any other stretch. I think of distances in terms of TIME usually. It takes 15 minutes, approximately, to travel that same distance."

Both of them boggled at me. The second one said, "But didn't your math teacher ever show you how to reckon in distances, like having you stand somewhere and pointing to a building and saying, that's a mile or whatever?"

"Well, if any of my teachers ever did that, I've long forgotten it, but I don't think so." I can tell you how far apart your hands are, or your fingers (in INCHES or FEET, not in metrical terminology), but my limit is about 12 feet. I haven't ever really NEEDED to be able to estimate distances either. Especially since it seems everyone around me can do it.

When I came home that same day and was relating this story at the dinner table, Anders and the kids thought it was hilarious. My numbers impairment amuses them. And it turns out I was wrong about my assumption that I could estimate 12 feet because that's what I thought the ceilings in our house were, but they're not. They're a little over EIGHT feet.

I asked Anders if he could say, looking out the window, how far it was from our house to the neighbor's front door. Within seconds, he had answered, "About 20 meters." Both kids were boggled that I had no idea, and couldn't even guess, even in feet. And they cracked up completely when I tried to explain how I figure out differences between 1 meter, 2 meters, 1 yard, 3 feet and 6 feet. Because I have it stuck in my head that 3 feet equals a meter, WHICH IT DOES...APPROXIMATELY. But I kept saying that 6 feet was about 2 meters or rather, that 2 meters was about 6 feet, and Anders and Martin kept reacting not only like I had 2 heads, but that both of them were spouting the most ridiculous nonsense. "Mom!" Martin said, "1 meter is 3.2 feet!"

"Close enough," I said and then I gave them the clincher on how my mathematical mind works: "Six feet is about two R2D2's."

*Title from a quote by Marty Rubin
 amused
mood: amused
music: Rebecka Törnqvist—I Forget


Comments

I have the exact same relationship to distance! I know that we lived about 500 meters from Kronprinsen in Malmö and I could stand outside the apartment and appreciate it, "yes, 500 meters, that's 500 meters between me and that blue building" but I could NOT tell you anything else that was 500 meters from anything else, not even close.

And (I admit very sheepishly) I have a real mental block about measuring in centimeters. I even carried around a little ruler with me everywhere to make those numbers more real, but I still just stare blankly at Björn when he says, "you want a doohickey that's about 22 cm tall, right?" because I don't know if said doohickey will reach the ceiling or be hidden under a little mushroom.

hahaha! I always have to have people SHOW me what they mean when say anything in millimeters or centimeters. STILL can't grasp it despite 15 years in metric-land!

I remember meeting up with dbrus and her husband in Brooklyn once and he asked how far I had driven to get there. I said it was about three hours. ;-) Dawn said, "See, I told you everyone measures by time, not distance." or something along those lines. It screwed me up royally when they switched the exits on the highway up in Maine to correspond with the number of miles you have been travelling on the road. I can now NEVER remember my mother's exit number, despite the fact that I have driven that stretch of road countless times. And even though I may be able to appreciate, yes, it's 28 (or however many) miles from Portland, where the highway starts, to her house, when the kids ask how much farther, I tell them 25 minutes.

I was never taught any such method for figuring out distances. It's not just because we don't use the metric system here, we just think about distances differently. Maybe it's because it's such a big country. Yeah, that's my answer.

It definitely seems to be a cultural thing, if not an American thing!

This post coulda been written by me! (well except that I never could have put it down so eloquent heh:)) Up to 12 inches I do okay but beyond that.. not so much. Well, one large step is approx 1m - or so I've been told ;) But never quite got that right either as my one step is way different then S. his one step so how could BOTH be a meter? Guess thats where the approx comes from /laughs but that makes it useless pretty much for real measurements right? :P When it comes to larger distances I most often "measure" in time it takes me to get there by car then in km. Or I look it up on googlemaps! ;)

Approximately is such a nice word, isn't it? It covers SO MUCH!

i'm a swede and my math teacher never took me anywhere.
i have problems estimating distances too. plus, if you go places like iceland or svalbard where the air is CLEAN you have to try to recalibrate your "ögonmått" and it screws you up even more.
and i have the exact same distance to work as you do. in time as well!!!

The woman who said that is Canadian, but it made me wonder how much of the time/distance thing is American. A lot, apparently!

And that distance was actually to Anders' work...I only have 10 minutes to north Lund :)

agreed

this is something i think about daily. for example, when checking train timetables- it might tell me my end distance is 700meters from the tbana. i have to then plug in my ADDRESS to the tbana to remember that i live 500meters from the entrance... 500meters OR, in my head, a 3minute walk.
ugh, i wonder if it is am american thing?

Re: agreed

Seems pretty definitely an American thing! :D

Mathamatical Whiz

Hey Everyone,
Please don´t be so hard on Lizardek, she is after all an ENGLISH Major.

@Liz, How many yards in a football field? and how many football fields in a Mile? How many kilometers in a football field? American Football or Soccer? If you walked around a Football field, how far have you walked?

How many R2D2´s is a C3PO?
My sister measures Miles in frog lamps. always has. always will.

Of course I know how she feels, I used to measure the cost of anything in Happy Meals.

-Lizardbro

Re: Mathamatical Whiz

Lalalala, I can't hear you!

Re: Mathamatical Whiz

Also, you spelled Mathematical wrong. If I can't do distances or numbers, I can at least spell! Muahahahaha!

Well I'm much the same way Liz. I can't even guess-timate how tall a person is, unless they are right next to me and I am trying to figure it out. I would be a terrible witness describing a criminal. ("Well, officer, I didn't notice how tall he was...")
I too measure distance in how long it takes to get there. 'It's a 15 minute walk, a two hour drive, etc.'
And No One ever taught me to estimate distances. I have no idea how far it is from my house to the neighbors.

So what I'm saying is, you are not alone. And I'm also saying that I didn't know everybody else could do this. I just thought some could and some couldn't.
Oh, and I do believe 900 is ok to use (football field is 100yds, right?) but I don't have any idea how far that 900 yards would be.
The one thing I can estimate is yardage of material, and I'm pretty good at it. I use my outstretched hand to the tip of my nose. That's 1 yard.
I used to work in a fabric shop.

That's nearly 1 R2D2!

The fabric or the football field?

haha! A football field is 100 R2D2s!

I, too, measure in time rather than in distance. When it comes to distances, anything that measures more than my height puts me into "really bad estimate" territory.

Frankly, time is more useful -- I don't care how many miles it is to my sister's house, but it is terribly important to know that I have to allow 50 minutes for the trip.

I completely agree!

From Megsie

Count me in with the cool kids who measure in time. I am definitely NOT in the mathematical camp. Good thing I am in good company here! :)

Re: From Megsie

We ARE the cool kids! :D

(Anonymous)

I measure by time too. But I'm intrigued that Swedish teachers can teach kids how to measure distances further than 12 feet away. Can you ask your children the secret? I'd love to know.

Julia@kolo (who still doesn't know how tall she is in cm)

haha! I only know how tall I am in centimeters because when I had my healthcare checkup last year, they measured me and I was astonished to learn I was 3 centimeters taller than I thought I was (and than is recorded on my driver's license)!

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