Using the tools at hand

People in olden times (yore) were weird.

I don’t mean the goofy costumes.  People today wear goofy clothes.  There are people in Anaheim and Orlando who are actually paid to wear Goofy costumes.

No, I’m talking (of course) about their system of weights and measures.

Take for example, the observation, “You can’t swing a cat without hitting X.”  This statement is meant to convey a sense of ubiquity.  Obviously, X is so common, or so close, that any feline-wielding fool could find one.  But why on Earth would the standard be one outstretched cat-length?  Not only does swinging a cat seem cruel to the cat, it’s likely to result in a fair amount of damage to the swinger.  And it’s an awful lot of effort to determine that something is within 5 feet of you (assuming a 36″ sleeve length and a 24″ long cat being held by the tail).

Moreover, how does something like this get started?  What was that first conversation like?

First Man: Boy, there sure are a lot of wildebeests out this afternoon!

Second Man: Funny, I hadn’t really noticed.

First Man: See for yourself.  Here, take Fluffy’s tail and swing her around.

Second Man: OK.

Fluffy: MWRROOOWWWRRRR!

Wildebeest: Ooof!

Second Man: Hey, you’re right!  Could you take Fluffy back, and hand me a tourniquet?

An even more nonsensical unit of measure involves shaking a stick.  I’ve heard rich people being described as having “more money than you can shake a stick at”.  There seems to be a threshold number of things that respond to stick shaking, and if the count exceeds that number, it is impossible to shake a stick at them, apparently.  Unfortunately, the conversion factor from numbers to stick shakes has been lost.  Nowadays, researchers are forced to use trial and error methods.

First Man: OK, we’re up to 42 wildebeests.  Here’s the stick.  Go!

Second Man: Yep, still shaking, although my arm’s getting tired.

First Man: Fine, let me go get another wildebeest.

Second Man: Why couldn’t I have swung this stick instead of Fluffy?

First Man: Because the number of wildebeests you can shake a cat at is much smaller, and you’ve already lost enough blood.

Second Man: Never mind.

The scientific method is a harsh mistress…

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