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How Travellers Measure Up PDF Printable Version E-mail


How Travellers Measure Up


How We Invented the Scun and the UDO


Barry and Margaret Williamson

April 2016


As travellers cross borders and as their countries change, so does the apparent size of things. Distances, lengths, heights, areas, volumes, speeds, weights, fuel consumption, tyre pressures and even temperatures can change for no reason and without warning. Even more challenging, things appear for which there is no apparent measurement! And it doesn't help that on the Continent of Europe a decimal point is a comma and the separator between thousands is a full stop.

Here are a few examples of variations in how things are measured:

Distance and height: We were brought up with what were modestly called 'Imperial' measurements: the inch, foot, yard and mile. Some of these remain, in places that were once occupied by the English in their former role as Imperialists. The United States of America happily measures the cosmos and the sub-atomic in feet and inches. Their only loss seems to be the 'yard', a word they reserve for the place where they hold their sales.

For the most part the rather more boring 'metric' system imposed by Napoleon on much of Europe has now conquered the world, with a few interesting exceptions. For example, throughout Europe TV screens and bicycle wheels, tyres and inner tubes are still measured in inches. In metric Australia, a place once called 'Five Mile Creek' is still called 'Five Mile Creek'; 'Eight Kilometre Creek' would not have the same resonance. Although house sizes in Australia are now quoted in square metres (see 'Area' below), that essential extra for the true-blue, dinky-die Aussie, the shed, is still measured in feet. In Sweden, one 'mile' is helpfully defined as being equal to twenty kilometres. In metric India, we have often been told that a place we are seeking is 'two furlongs, straight on'. It never is!

Overall, we prefer to work and think in kilometres when on the road and particularly when cycling: we get more of them. To get kilometres out of miles, multiply by 8 and then divide by 5, giving an increase of 60%. The same thing happens with speed!

However, we do prefer feet to metres when measuring height. Having climbed a 1,000 ft hill (on foot or by bicycle) it is always disappointing to learn that it is only 303 metres. Equally, to achieve 1000 metres, you would have to climb higher than Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain at 3,162 feet or only 964 metres above sea level.

There is also an increasing tendency for road signs, advertising and tourist information to give distances as times. For example: on a road sign 'McDonalds 5 minutes', on a footpath signpost 'Waterfall 45 minutes', in Australia 'Cairns 5 hours'. The latter probably assumes an average speed of 60 mph (about 100 kph) or a mile a minute too ambitious for a motorhome and useless for a cyclist. Times attached to walks or climbs can lead to competitiveness and sometimes disappointment.

Latitude and Longitude: Fortunately, a common basis for expressing latitude and longitude is in use throughout the world. Longitude is based on 180 degrees () measured east and west of the meridian passing through Greenwich Observatory. Latitude is based on 90 degrees () measured north and south of the Equator which is at 0; the Poles being at 90. Since the circumference of the Earth is about 25,000 miles (40,000 km), each degree of latitude is about 70 miles (112 km).

The co-ordinates of Punta Braccetto on the south coast of the Sicily, where this piece was written, can be written in three forms:

N 36.8170        E 14.46568       (degrees with decimal places)

N 36 49.026    E 14 27.941     (degrees, and minutes with decimal places)

N 36 49 1.1ʺ    E 14 27 56.4ʺ (degrees, minutes and seconds)

We prefer the simplicity of the first form and it's not easy to convert from one to another.

The Caravan Club publishes an absurdly named campsite guide 'Caravan Europe', which ignores its large membership of motorhomers and forgets that the UK is also in Europe. It adds to confusion by treating latitudes west of Greenwich as being negative! For example, the co-ordinates of Bordeaux are given simply as 44.75529, -0.62772.

Completing this article, we are just to the east of Bordeaux with co-ordinates very nearly N 45 and E 0: a unique point halfway between the North Pole and the Equator and right on the Greenwich meridian!

Area: An acre of land is 4,840 square yards. A one acre square would have sides of 69.57 yards. More helpfully(?), an acre is the area of one chain (22 yards) by one furlong (220 yards). The use of the acre is restricted to the measurement of agricultural land in the UK and the USA; other large areas in these countries are often compared with a football field or a tennis court or the size of Wales! Elsewhere in the world, large areas are expressed in hectares, this simply being an area of 100 metres by 100 metres. The traveller may well need to know that one hectare is near enough 2.5 acres.

It's useful to know that in many mainland European countries, the size of a house is given by its total floor area in square metres. In the UK the size is given in the degree of the estate agent's hyperbole.

Volume: Even in England, the pint has been largely superseded by the litre and there is no easy conversion. One pint is 0.568 litres and one litre is 1.761 pints! If the pub gives you half a litre of beer and says it's near enough a pint, it isn't! One gallon is 4.55 litres, which is near enough four and a half for a quick calculation at the diesel pump.

Where two systems diverge completely is in calculating fuel consumption in a car or motorhome. Most people in the UK, including dealers and garages, still think in 'miles per gallon', even though fuel is priced per litre. In mainland Europe they use 'litres per 100 kilometres'. For example, our motorhome's 32 mpg converts into 8.8 litres per 100 km. Work your own out!

A further complexity is that the British gallon is 20% larger than the American one. So, for example, the fuel consumption of American cars and motorhomes, already much greater than that of European models, will seem larger yet (30 mpg becomes 24 mpg in the US). The British pint is equal to 20 fluid British ounces, the American pint is only 16 of the slightly larger American ounces, but we will leave that problem to the cooks.

Australian Beer Measurements: Thanks to Rebecca and Kevin in Queensland for letting us know that different Australian states use different words to describe the eight measurements they use for beer. The full story is in Wikipedia and the following table gives our summary:  









 115 ml

 4 fl oz

 small beer






 140 ml

 5 fl oz







 170 ml

 6 fl oz


 small glass





 200 ml

 7 fl oz







 285 ml

 10 fl oz


 half pint




 ten ounce

 350 ml

 12 fl oz







 425 ml

 15 fl oz







 570 ml

 20 fl oz


 imperial pint






Cups and Spoons in the Kitchen: Often used in recipes, these measurements can refer to both weights and volumes. Moving between British, metric and American cups and spoons can cause confusion! The only complete agreement is that one tablespoon is three teaspoons!

  American system:  1 cup is 236 cc     1 tablespoon is 14.78 cc    1 teaspoon is 4.93 cc

  Metric system:       1 cup is 250 cc     1 tablespoon is 15 cc         1 teaspoon is 5 cc

  British system:       1 cup is 284 cc     1 tablespoon is 17.76 cc    1 teaspoon is 5.92 cc

One British cup is defined as half a British pint. One American cup is defined as half an American pint but that is 20% smaller than the British pint, as we have seen above. This gives rise to the differences in food measurements. Working between an American and a British recipe without conversion factors can add 20% to the volume of ingredients used.

Weight: Those in the know would call this 'mass' but that word has not passed into general use. Providing gravity doesn't vary too much, weight and mass stay the same. One pound (British or American) is 0.4536 kilograms. This makes one kilogram equal to 2.205 pounds; at 2.2 this makes it among the easiest conversions. One stone (still a popular way of expressing British human weight) is 14 pounds or 6.35 kilograms. 12 stones is always going to sound better than 76 kilograms or 168 pounds for an American.

Some confusion arises when it comes to the ton, an important matter for people trying to keep their motorhome's weight down below 3.5 tons. The British ton is 2,240 pounds, the metric ton (1000 kilograms) by lucky coincidence is almost the same at 2,205 pounds, but the American ton is only 2,000 pounds.

Pressure: This is of prime importance when dealing with tyre pressures, although it also affects air suspension and weather forecasts. The British measurement of pounds per square inch ('psi') is still used throughout the world, along with the 'bar'. One bar is almost the same (within 1%) as the standard or normal atmospheric pressure, which is 14.7 psi. This is very useful since the relative pressure of 5 bars (about 70 psi) in our bicycle tyres and the rear tyres of our motorhome is also 5 times the pressure of the atmosphere on the outside of the tyre.

The everyday metric units for length, area, volume, weight (mass), speed etc are the same as the scientific ones. For pressure, things diverge enormously. Science uses the 'Pascal', which is one Newton per square metre. One Pascal is equal to 0.000145 psi! The Newton is, quite appropriately, a measure of force and won't be defined here.

Temperature: We were brought up in 'Fahrenheit' and it has taken a deliberate act of will to stop thinking in it. The Americans still use it, and it works well for them. Herr Gabriel Fahrenheit was an early 18thC German physicist who proposed a temperature scale based on the freezing point of an equal mixture of salt and water (brine) and the temperature of the human body. This gave him 0F and 100F. Later it turned out that the freezing point of pure water was 32F and its boiling point 212F, a scale of 180. At about the same time a Swedish Astronomer, Anders Celsius, developed a scale based on 0C (freezing water) and 100C (boiling water) making a simpler scale of 100 and therefore called 'centigrade'.

More recently called the Celsius scale, it is now based on two fixed points that have much greater accuracy: Absolute Zero (-273.16C) and the triple point of water (0.01C). Fortunately, this gives the same result as the old Centigrade scale with the temperature of the human body remaining at around 37C; while water still freezes at 0C and boils at 100C (at an atmospheric pressure of 1 bar).

To convert Fahrenheit to Centigrade, deduct 32 and divide by 5 and multiply by 9. Centigrade changes into Fahrenheit by multiplying by 5, dividing by 9 and then adding 32. Simple! As regards the weather, 16C is approx 60F cool in some countries, a nice day in the UK.

Temperatures on British gas ovens are given in 'Marks' where Gas Mark 1 = 150C (275F) and Gas Mark 9 = 230C (475F). Each Mark increases by 25F or 10C. A handy reference is that 200C is about 400F or Mark 6. Of course, setting the oven to say 375F (190C, Mark 5) gives that temperature at the top shelf. The middle shelf will be about 350F, the bottom 325F. Our motorhome oven saves all this calculation, with settings of Off, Low or High and just one shelf.

Electricity: When asking a campsite receptionist about the power available at an electrical hook-up, the most common answers include 'don't know', '230 volts', 'enough to boil a kettle', 'normal' 'I do not understand' and 'it's on a meter'. In Greece, the plugs overheat when too much current is drawn; in Morocco blowing a fuse can darken the whole campsite, if not the nearby village. Fortunately, the language of mains electricity (volts, amps, watts, ohms, frequency, phase, etc) is universal, even if few people know what the terms mean or how they interrelate.

Uncertainty is not eased by electrical plugs and socket designs that vary between countries. Worst of all, the reversible continental 2-pin plug causes alarm and despondency among some Caravan Club members over the perceived dire threat of 'reversed polarity'.

Inverters are designed to convert a 12-volt direct current supply from a battery into a mains voltage of 230 and an alternating current of 50 Hz. They work well in a motorhome, except when asked to run a charger for (say) an electric toothbrush. A friend blew three such chargers before he discovered the reason!

How an American motorhome copes in Europe, when it is designed for a mains supply of 120-volts at a frequency of 60 Hz, is another problem which we no longer have to worry about.

Energy and Power: 'Energy' is one of the most abused of words in modern usage, particularly among proponents of alternative medicine, the paranormal, diet, exercise and so on. Few can define it, let alone measure it. Equally, the relationships between energy, power and force are so confused that the words are often used interchangeably.

There is a range of different ways of measuring energy and power: ampere-hours (Ah) for a battery, kilowatts (kW) for the power needs of many electrical devices, kilowatt-hours (kWh) for costing electricity, kilograms (kg) or litres (L) for bottled gas, horsepower (hp) for some engines, British Thermal Units (BTU's) for space heating, amperes (A) for electrical sockets, calories (cal) and kilocalories (Cal or kcal) for food energy, minutes of exercise . . .  and so on. The heat energy required to cook food is often expressed simply as a temperature (or a Gas Mark number) or the high-medium-low wattage setting for a microwave, and the time in minutes. Freezing and refrigeration involve a removal of energy!

The correct or scientific measure for energy is the Joule (J) and how much simpler life would be for the traveller (and others) if it could be taken out of the laboratory and put to general use! Then comparisons between different energy suppliers (electricity, gas, petrol, sunlight, wind, engines etc) and energy users (computers, kitchen gadgets, heaters, cars, bicycles etc) could be made so easily.

Currency: Nineteen countries in Europe now use the Euro, which leaves at least fifteen that do not: nine EU members plus Norway, Switzerland, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina who are not in the Union. Montenegro is not in the EU and certainly not in the Euro Zone, but it still uses the Euro as its currency. Exchange rates against the Euro vary from around 310 for the Hungarian Forint to 0.80 for the British Pound. Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina have their currencies pegged to the Euro; the exchange rate for other non-euro currencies vary against the Euro and against each other.

As the British pound varies in value against the Euro (swinging in recent years from near parity to a high of almost 1.5 Euros in the heady summer of 2015), it will also vary against all the other European currencies. At the time of writing, it is in steady but hopefully not terminal decline in response to the nonsense of the UK Referendum. Fortunately, we find that most non-euro countries will accept Euros or a credit card for many payments, avoiding the need to obtain any local currency when simply passing through! This echoes the days when the American Dollar and the Deutschmark were accepted everywhere, often with great pleasure behind the Iron Curtain.

Other Measurements: Sometimes travellers find themselves without a handy measurement, with no standards to hand and no easy numerical scale. So they have to invent their own. Here are two of our examples.

The Scun: Of their nature, villages, towns and cities vary in size and there is no handy way of expressing this. Just a number (eg the population of Hull is about 300,000) doesn't really help. Scunthorpe has a population of 50,000 and we find that a useful standard for a measurement, the 'Scun'. For example, Delhi is 334 Scuns, London is 120 Scuns, Athens is only 13 Scuns, Hull is 6 Scuns, Blackpool just under 3 Scuns and Calais equals 1.5 Scuns. Immediately, the relative size of each place is clearly seen.

In Greece, Finikounda is a mighty 0.01 Scuns. Perhaps we should have a milliScun or mScun, making Finikounda 10 mScuns. That's a good way of comparing it with the nearby hamlet of Grizocambos, at about 0.5 mScuns.

The UDO (UberDeutschOrden): In the course of our travels we have met expats (expatriates) in a number of European countries including France, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Portugal. They are a varied group and only seem to have two things in common: their vagueness about why they have become expats and the degree of absurdity inherent in their way of life. One of the absurdities is to say the reason for living in someone else's country is that there are too many migrants in their own!

Meeting a pair of German expats in a remote detached house in the southern Greek Peloponnese led us to establish them, their house and their lifestyle as the standard unit of measurement for Absurdity, the UDO (named after its proud albeit unwitting founder, Herr Udo). If all the following factors are present (as they were on this occasion), the Absurdity score would be 20 UDO. Of course, not all expats reach such an accolade the Germans will always win this one. To get a score, count how many of the following apply in a given case:

    1. The House is the expat's dream of the detached villa in its own grounds.
    2. The Position of the House is remote, on a hillside with a sea view.
    3. Access is difficult and needs a good car, preferably a 4x4.

    4. The Expat Lifestyle is based on gossip, parties and cheap alcohol.
    5. Visitors to the House are assumed to be of a lesser breed and of little knowledge.
    6. Conversation is replaced by endless anecdotes about the acquisition of the plot, the building of the house and problems with local bureaucracy/workers. These trivial stories fill the one-sided 'conversation'.
    7. Security is a high priority giving a prison-like atmosphere: dogs, alarms, electric gates, wire fences and fear of intruders. House-sitters are essential while away.
    8. Communication with the outside world is absent, with no landline phone, mobile phone signal or internet. Even the postman does not call.  
    9. Family Visits used to be a feature when the children were younger but diminish after the initial interest flags and boredom sets in.
    10. Luxury: living in ostentatious luxury while surrounded by the poverty and austerity of the 'locals' in neighbouring villages.
    11. Obsessive-Compulsive behaviour with absurd attention to the minutiae of daily living.
    12. Local Facilities completely absent, with complaints that nothing is within walking distance.
    13. Pointless Hobbies include painting tiles or growing olives (labouring for days to make a few bottles of oil that could have been bought easily and cheaply at the local mill).
    14. Alcohol is plentiful, bought or home-made including wine and home distilled 'raki'.
    15. Stereotyping:  Telling stories and ridiculing locals, with racial and other stereotyping.
    16. Local Connections: Little interest or involvement in local activities; failure to learn the local language.
    17. Pets: Keeps one or more dogs, usually 'rescued' from local strays.
    18. Self-Awareness: Not really knowing who they are or why they are there. Unable to see themselves as the locals see them (particularly true of Germans).
    19. Group Membership: Making and meeting friends among other expats rather than local people.
    20. Knowledge of the Country: No interest in its history, politics, economics, geography, etc.