Measuring Without Tools, Part 1

It’s often useful to know how large something is. But most people don’t carry rulers or tape measures around with them, and most people are also bad at guesstimating lengths by looking at them (or, at least, they think they’re bad enough that they don’t try). People have tried to create apps with rulers, but they all suffer from the problem that they can’t measure beyond the small length of the screen. There’s one thing you can never leave home without, though, no matter how hard you try, and that’s your body. And once we’re finished growing, most of our body parts stay at pretty much the same size.

People have measured by comparing the lengths of things to themselves for millennia, but nowadays if you go up to people on the street and ask them how long a fathom or cubit is, they’ll probably give you blank stares. Fortunately, it’s actually really easy to estimate distances using your body: just learn a few measurements and then add and subtract them for any distance you need.

Below is a table of the measurements I remember. The Accepted Estimates are surprisingly accurate in most cases (although I don’t have one offhand for all these measures), but if you’re going to go to the trouble of remembering values, I figure you might as well do it right and measure yourself first. I use inches because I end up using them nearly exclusively in the United States unless I’m being precise or scientific or going for an exact value on something that was originally measured in meters, and in all those cases I’ll have a measuring tool. But if you prefer metric, this technique will work just as well with any system of measurement.

My values are included only for demonstration purposes and will be inaccurate for you, of course. (+ indicates the true value is slightly higher and – indicates it is slightly lower.)

Unit Description My Measurement Accepted Estimate
Fathom distance between tips of middle fingers with arms fully outstretched 71- inches 100% of height
Cubit distance between end of elbow and tip of middle finger 18+ inches (17 from inside of elbow) 18 inches
Foot distance between heel and tip of big toe 11 inches (12+ with shoes) 15% of height
Span distance between outer tips of outstretched thumb and pinky (#4 on this diagram) 8¾ inches ½ cubit, 9 inches
Small Span distance between outer tips of outstretched index finger and pinky 6 inches (right hand)
Hand distance from side to side across hand, including thumb held flat against hand (#2 on this diagram) 4 inches 4 inches
Two Fingers distance between outside edge of index and middle fingers when spread apart 4+ inches
Ring Finger length of palm side of ring finger 3 inches
Thumb distance from tip of thumb to first knuckle 1 inch (to first line on knuckle) 1 inch
Pinky width of pinky finger at nail ½ inch

You don’t need all these measurements to do a good job estimating. For most short distances, knowing the cubit, span, hand, and thumb values will probably be enough. However, the more you know, the easier it is to adapt to values that fall into inconvenient places. For instance, I added the short span to my list because it’s otherwise awkward to measure half a foot—my choices would be using a hand and two inches (nasty) or a span minus a ring finger (requires the item being measured to be mostly covered up). As another example, the two-fingers measurement is less accurate than the hand because I can stretch my fingers apart to a lesser or greater degree, but it’s a lot easier to measure the length of an object on a table that way than by holding it up to my hand.

If you have a ruler and a tape measure, most of these values should be pretty easy to measure for yourself, with the exception of the fathom—it’s difficult to measure a distance without having room to move your arms in, and you have to stretch them all the way out. It’s probably easiest if you can grab someone else to help you, but you can do it by yourself too if you need to. Find a wall or long vertical space you can write on temporarily (this can be the hardest part!) and grab a pencil and tape measure, and mark or have someone else mark both ends of your fingers against the wall (don’t forget to get as flat up against the wall as you can—the error adds up with a five-to-six-foot measurement), then use the tape measure to measure between them. You can make this even easier if you can put one fingertip up against a shelf, doorframe, or perpendicular wall, so that you only have to make one mark.

For the most part, your left and right hand and foot measurements will probably be basically the same, but you should still check both sides and note any differences, or just use one side. I have found two noticeable differences for myself: the line on the knuckle of my right thumb that marks one inch almost exactly isn’t present at all on my left hand, and my small span is a full inch longer on my left hand (I suspect it has to do with stretching to play the violin over years).

I said your measurements should stay basically the same above, but as we age, our bodies do change, so if a few years have passed, it’s probably a good idea to crack out your tape measure again and make sure the numbers are still where you thought they were.

Once you’ve measured and memorized a few values, grab a ruler and practice estimating and then measuring the size of some objects. You’ll probably be surprised how accurate you can be. This works especially well because many items are measured in neat multiples of inches; for instance, a standard photograph isn’t going to be 4.25 x 5.9 inches, so if it’s about the width of your hand and halfway between that and a span in length, you can safely assume it’s a 4×6 photograph.

Also don’t forget that you have your height to work with (which nearly everybody already knows unless they’re currently growing rapidly). If you’re measuring vertically and an item is nearly your height, you can stick your hand on top of your head and measure from there.

(To be continued)

The Smartphone Manifesto

This week I made the decision to get a smartphone. I’m heading off for college at the end of the month, and I thought it would be nice to have a phone that I actually carried. You see, I previously had an iPod Touch and a flip phone, which was nice because the phone was cheap to own by modern-smartphone standards (\$15/month) and the iPod did almost everything an iPhone does. The problem was that I used the phone so rarely I stopped carrying it around, which meant that it lost almost all of its value as a cell phone. Besides, I figured, it would probably be nice to be able to text sensibly in the modern world, and having a mobile data connection is pretty useful too. And my grandparents graciously volunteered to pay for the phone and the connection throughout my time in college (thanks!), so there seemed little excuse not to go ahead.

But I recognize that for someone like me, who wants to maintain control of my life and not be interrupted and distracted constantly, I’m playing with fire. It’s too easy to let a smartphone get out of control. At least with my previous setup, it was relatively impractical to be texting people constantly while also trying to work, or to start browsing the Web while hanging out with other people. That’s changed now; as much as people say the iPod Touch is an iPhone without the phone, it’s different to have an always-on connection, even if you nearly always have wifi anyway. So that’s why I’ve written up this little manifesto for myself. It doesn’t have to be right for you as well, but maybe you like some of the ideas in it.

What a Phone Should Not Be
First and foremost, and really covering all the other points as well, no technology should ever be in control of me, whether a phone, a computer, or even a pencil and a piece of paper. I should remain in charge of my life and the way I choose to use my time.

#1. A distraction
I find that there is almost nothing in the world, no matter what people would have me believe, that truly requires my attention immediately. It can wait for a few seconds, fifteen minutes, an hour, maybe even a couple of days. Just because my phone or computer decides to beep or buzz does not obligate me to respond to it. Nobody is going to be in danger if I don’t answer an email as soon as it comes in. I’ve turned off notifications on incoming email on both my computer and my mobile devices; I still check my email fairly frequently, but I do it when I deliberately decide I am going to go check my email, not because someone happened to send me an unimportant message at that moment.

My phone should be similar. I believe there is no shame in using the “do not disturb” switch and ignoring other people for a while. If it’s truly an emergency, people can always ring me again immediately (which bypasses the function on my iPhone) or call someone else near me. Even if I decided not to be disturbed and it completely prevented someone from getting in touch with me in an emergency, it probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. After all, the person calling me has a phone, so they can always call someone else, or 911 if it’s really that bad. And before we had cell phones, the entire world dealt with being unable to reach each other at any moment for hundreds of years. Sure, sometimes it’s nice to be able to contact someone right away and get an answer to my question or get their help, but I believe what we’re giving up—our ability to concentrate and work undisturbed—is far more valuable in the long run.

So if you call or text me, I might answer and I might not. If I don’t, I don’t hate you and I’m not ignoring you, and I will get back to you if you can have a moment’s patience. Text messages don’t self-destruct if they’re not read immediately, and there’s this handy thing called “voicemail” that lets people talk to me and tell me what they need even if I don’t answer, and I can call them back soon.

Unfortunately, this is a hard thing to do in the modern world; people get upset when they call or text someone and they don’t answer right away. Because I’m trying to take charge of my own time and my right to refuse incoming messages until a better time comes, I will try to give other people more leeway here too. And even if I am annoyed at other people for not responding to me, it remains their right to do so (assuming they’re not being paid to answer people on time).

#2. Indispensable
It’s fine for my technology to be useful and to give me abilities I wouldn’t have otherwise. I couldn’t talk to anyone I know at any time I desired or access the entire world’s collective knowledge without a phone or computer. I even have an app called Chromatic Glass that helps me see distinctions between colors I can’t see without it (I have fairly bad red-green colorblindness). I refuse, however, to let a phone be the only way I can possibly accomplish a task, and I want to be prepared so that I will never feel utterly lost without it. I once overheard a student behind me on the bus complaining to his friend that he had lost his phone, and so now he couldn’t buy more drugs because his only record of his dealer’s contact information was in the phone he’d lost. Obviously he had larger problems than dependence on his phone, but it is important for me to consider what would happen were I suddenly forced to work without my phone. I keep as much of my data as possible synced to different places so I can still access it elsewhere if necessary, and I try to have alternate ways of accomplishing roughly the same things that I can with my phone. I don’t want to feel like I would be lost without my phone (or even my computer, which I rely on far more). Even if nothing ever happens, I don’t believe it can be good for me to put all my trust in my devices.

I believe there is no shame in deciding I don’t need to be connected to the world for a while and leaving the house without my phone. Sometimes it’s good to remind myself that I’m not going to die or become helpless without my mobile device. (I don’t normally feel that way, either, but I have still panicked more than was warranted when I have temporarily lost my iPod, and this feeling tends to get subconsciously pressed into me by other people’s conceptions of mobile devices.)

#3. The default action
When I don’t know what to do, I don’t want to just pick up my phone and start playing with it. Technology has a way of becoming the first thing people think about, and sometimes therefore the only thing we think about. That makes it more indispensable and more in control of us, rather than the other way around. It limits our ability to think for ourselves and our ability to simply sit and be bored. Personally, when I bought my iPod Touch I tried downloading some games, and I found I really didn’t like it. The feeling of sitting down and having nothing else to do and therefore pulling out my iPod and zoning out was just something I found deeply disturbing. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong for everyone, but it means I don’t have any plans to do it again. A mobile device being my default choice when I have nothing to do, to me, means I would never have time to think. For people that choose to use mobile devices in this way, I think it is important to decide deliberately to do so when in a given situation rather than to do it automatically.

What a Phone Should Be
At first I thought I might write a list of attributes like in the preceding section here, but I hardly think it’s actually necessary. The difficult thing with a smartphone is not to envision possible uses or ways it could make your life better—there could hardly be anything easier (as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of apps available for download at the touch of a button). You have a device with thousands of times the processing power of computers that only half a century ago took up an entire room, and it fits easily in your pocket. It has access to basically any information you could possibly want to look up. It can record the world around you and play it back on demand. It can listen to your voice and understand what you want it to do (well, sometimes). As Clarke’s Third Law says, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And it’s not hard to imagine what kind of mileage you could get out of magic.

No, the real challenge is figuring out what you shouldn’t do with it. And basically, I think that can be summed up by saying you should remain at a certain distance from it. Remember that your phone is supposed to be a helpful tool for you to use how you wish; that’s why you’re paying good money for it, after all. Smartphones weren’t designed to tell you what to do and interrupt you when you want to be working. But it’s easy to let it happen.