Monday, January 10, 2011

Measuring the cost

There seems to be something of a growing murmur in the media about petrol prices again - with reports that the recent VAT rises and duty increases has pushed the price to £1.30 a litre. The trouble is, it doesn't sound that bad at first - only when you realise that that is the equivalent of almost £6 a gallon does the significance of the cost hit home.

Of course, we all realise that the cost of filling our cars up is higher than it has ever been, but most people do one of two things. They either fill their car to the brim and pay with a credit or debit card or they put in £10, £20 or £30 worth at a time and pay cash If, like me, you, you do the latter then £20 worth of petrol will always cost £20 regardless of whether that is 10 gallons or 3 gallons.

Petrol prices are exorbitant and they have a significant impact on the economy. Most goods are transported around the country by road and the higher the cost of doing this the more prices go up to compensate. The government like to tell us that they are doing this for our own good to ward off the catastrophic man made global warming which doesn't exist - but the reality is that they do it because it raises bucket loads of revenue for them to waste on their numerous vanity projects.

My real complaint about petrol prices, though, is the continued war by the establishment on natural, human measurements in the form of British Imperial in preference for Napoleonic or, as the establishment likes to call them, metric measurements. It's been going on for years, but has increased in pace in recent years. The weather reporters frequently tell us that we can expect 10 centimetres of snow and no one understands what they are talking about. Most of us do rough conversions in our head - 10cm is about 4 inches.

The annoying thing about the petrol prices, though is that nobody measures their cars economy in miles per litre - it's always miles per gallon. That is what the car manufacturers base their performance figures on - mpg and mph, but for some reason we're now expected to do mental conversions in our heads.

Metric measurements might be great for the scientific community, but they are not great for human use. If someone tells you they are 5' 10" tall you know how tall they are and whether they are short, tall or average height. If someone tells you they are 182cm tall most of us don't have a clue. Similarly, if someone tells you they weigh 12 stone 6lbs you can visualise their bulk and know instantly whether they are fat, thin or average. If someone says they are 56kg you don't have a clue what shape they are.

More importantly, though, with imperial measurements we know what we are getting when we buy something. So if we buy a lb of butter we know it's a lb of butter. If the following week it's only 15oz we notice that. On the other hand, when we buy 476g of butter one week we don't necessarily notice the next week if it's 470g.

This happens a lot since we started moving to metric. Manufacturers reduce the amount by seemingly insignificant amounts but continue to charge the same for it - and we don't notice because few people, unless they actually check and record it, realise that what they bought last week weighed 2 g more than the same item they bought this week for the same price. It's inflation by stealth.

Imperial measurements are human measurements. They are easy to understand because they relate to human things. They relate to human things because they are based on human things. When we are told that we can expect 4 inches of snow we know that is roughly a palm span deep. If we're told it's going to be 15cm we don't have the same guideline.

Likewise, petrol prices of £1.30 a litre mean little to most people because they don't realise what that actually is - although they know it is more than it was a fortnight ago - but when you explain that that is almost £6 a gallon it all becomes clear.

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