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Rules of Thumb


My friend Bob in college (the one with all the Uncle Jim stories) used to say, “A rule of thumb generally doesn’t involve thumbs.” Bob might have been partly right about that, although the phrase “rule of thumb” probably came from craftspeople doing rough approximations with their thumbs. I for one am glad we have rulers and measuring tapes now, although rules of thumb are interesting to think about. I’ve collected a few rules of thumb.  I hope you find them entertaining and useful:

A city street is most visually appealing if its width is the height of the buildings along it. (New York City is probably an exception.)

If your feet are cold, put on your hat. (And your shoes and socks.)

Prehistoric archaeological sites do not occur on slopes greater than 20 percent (9 degrees). (Apparently those societies were not much on skiing.)

To find the most interesting books in a library, look for the shelf where returned books are stored before they are reshelved. (I actually do this.  It works!)

If the cats aren’t sleeping on the radiators, turn down the heat. (If the cats aren’t sleeping, something is very wrong.)

Bird calls are mostly adjectives with few verbs. They don’t tell you what they are going to do – only how well they are going to do it.  (No idea how anyone came up with this.  Who knew birds know grammar?)

It takes two minutes for the sun to drop out of sight once it touches the horizon. (Watch quickly.)

Arctic icebergs are tall and narrow. Antarctic icebergs are shaped like sheets. (So if you’re shanghaied on a ship and get out of deck, you’ll know which polar zone you’re in.)

Nearly half of all unsolicited proposals for novels will be about disasters. (Don’t write about disasters unless you want your book to be one.)

You are middle aged when your high school and college days are featured as nostalgia on TV. You are at old age when your wedding presents are sold as antiques. (What a great way to tell without actually counting!)

Be especially cautious if you’re bicycling near a hospital, movie theater, or nursing home. Visitors to those places are distracted and aren’t paying attention.  (True if you’re driving as well.)

If an ad is well designed, it will look just as good upside down. (It just looks upside down to me.)

Plan on one reindeer for every 75 pounds of supplies. (Endorsed by Santa, I suppose.)

If you’re standing on an overpass, you can count on five out of ten drivers on the highway below returning a wave. (If you’re standing on an overpass waving, you need a new hobby.)

The diameter of a machine screw in inches is 13 times its gauge number divided by 1,000, plus 60 thousandths of an inch. (Useful if the diameter is not marked on the box.)

Odd-numbered ages seem older and more worldly wise than even-numbered ages. (Soon I will be worldly wise…again.)

To estimate the surface area of your body, multiply the surface area of the palm of your hand by 100. (Don’t know why you need to know the surface area of your body, unless you are planning on painting yourself.  In that case, you can cover 450 square feet with a gallon of paint unless you’re me and cover 600 square feet with a gallon, which is why one coat never covers when I paint.)

Only 1 in 50 published novels gets optioned as a movie, and only 1 in 200 gets made into a movie. (And you give up all rights to your story when you option your novel, unless you’re Stephen King.)

A book of poetry sells no more than 800 copies, on average. (Sad but true.)

Ten people will raise the temperature of a medium-size room one degree per hour. (Invite some friends over this winter and save energy.)

In interior decorating, a fashion cycle lasts from 7 to 15 years. (There are fashion cycles?)

Trash never stops. (This from a friend in the trash business, who would know.)

And finally:

Hold your thumb at arm’s length against a distant background. Estimate how far your thumb jumps on the background when you look at it with one eye and then the other. The background is ten times that distance from you. (At last!  A rule of thumb that involves using a thumb!)


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