Elements of Bile

Metric illustration from 1877. Note the capital K.

By The Metric Maven

When I first attended University, my English instructor became concerned about my competence with the language. She insisted that my writing was so riddled with problems that I must be tested for a learning disability. I sat for about eight hours of testing. The next week I returned to have my results analyzed. The woman looked at me with an almost relieved countenance and said “oh, your problem was easy to identify, you spell logically instead of correctly and generally use a single letter in place of redundant ones when spelling, you don’t see any rhyme or reason in why capitalization occurs so you only do it at the beginning of sentences, and  you see many grammatical rules as arbitrary and inconsistent, and so you do not follow them. We can fix this!”

I have done what I can to conform to the requirements of “standard” English over the years, but I have more regard for what appears to be rational usage than “proper” usage. Longtime readers know that I have a real problem with using a small k for kilo. The ordinary frequencies of radios waves are described as Hz (hertz), kHz (kilohertz), MHz (megahertz), GHz (gigahertz), THz (terahertz) and upward. All the metric prefixes for magnification in this series are capitalized—except for?—kilohertz. Longtime readers also know that I would do away with the prefix cluster around unity, and only use them for historical reference as atavistic prefixes. No more deca or hecto in the case of magnifying units. This would make the kilo prefix k, the only one which is not capitalized for the magnifying prefixes. I would then use capital K so that all the magnifying prefixes are consistent, and their capitalization would be a clue that they are magnifying prefixes. The frequencies I cited would then become KHz, MHz, GHz and THz. Distances would become Km, Mm, Gm and Tm. We would have Kg, Km and KL for kilogram, kilometer and kiloliter respectively.

Shinkansen (Osaka–Tokyo) Bullet Train Speedometer ~ 1964

Shinkasen (Osaka-Tokyo) Bullet Train Speedometer ~ 1964

Incidentally, I recently gave a lecture to a chemistry class at a local all girls high school and mentioned that small k was the accepted symbol for kilo, but I would make it a capital k. The teacher approached me after the lecture and indicated that it was her understanding that capital K is the recognized prefix for kilo. “Where did you get that idea?” I asked. She opened the chemistry textbook used for the class and in the first section it had all the metric prefixes listed, and to my amazement, the K for kilo was capitalized. I was dumfounded and stared for a moment in disbelief. It was clear to me that a capital K is so logical, that it had somehow made its way into a high school chemistry textbook. Recently I also saw a PBS documentary about a famous train crash in Japan. The documentary had historical footage from 1964 of Japan’s early bullet trains and for a moment the speedometer of a train was shown. It had Km/h with a capital k (or should it be capital K?). It was clear to me that many peoples minds automatically attempt to make the metric prefixes logically consistent, independent of “accepted usage.”

I’m sure there are plenty of reactionary minds which would object to a capital K for the metric prefix kilo on the basis that it would be confused with Kelvin. I’ve made it plain in  a previous blog that I believe the practice of naming units after scientists never should have occurred. There are also those who point out that the kilogram is a base unit (one must admit its an odd base unit that has a prefix.) and we must for some reason be reminded of this by using a lower case k—for mass and all other uses!–km, kL, kHz, and so on.  This assertion is nothing but a goldfish bowl filled with red herrings. Rational consistency in engineering and science takes precedence over “heritage.”—or as the English might say “heritage”.

In my usage, all the magnifying prefixes would be upper case, K, M, G, T, P, E, Z, Y and all the reducing prefixes would be lower case m, µ, n, p, f, a, z, y. This would produce an “element of style” which would be consistent with technical usage. All metric prefixes would differ by 1000, the upper case would magnify and the lower case would reduce the base unit. Could we all just agree on the gram as a “heritage virtual base unit?” This proposed usage would be a consistent expression that any grade school student could master in a day and use for the rest of their life. It would be a consistent rule for the literary expression of metric prefixes that one could count on, unlike “i before e except after c and in words like neighbor and weigh.” And weight of course.

Longtime readers have heard this all before, but what I’m proposing in this essay goes far beyond capitalizing K when using the kilo prefix. I have my own ideas about the capitalization of their accompanying words. I would capitalize Kilohertz, Kilogram, Kilometer and all the words which use a magnifying metric prefix. In general, if a word is describing a metric prefix-unit combination, and the prefix magnifies, then it should be capitalized, and if it reduces, then it should be lower case. For example Petagrams would be Pg, and mg would be milligrams. In astronomy Km would be Kilometers, Mm is Megameters, Gm is Gigameters and so on. All the names would be capitalized. If one is working with electronics, mm is millimeters, µm is micrometers, nm is nanometers and so on.

The only barrier between myself and this usage is the “keepers of style manuals.” They will complain about my use of KHz, but not object to  a sentence which states “the weight of a piano is many kilograms” which is a fundamentally flawed statement. If it were written “the weight of a piano is many Kilograms” I’m sure there would be guffaws and outbursts about the capital K. It would probably be lost on them that grams are mass and newtons are metric “weight” which is a much larger problem.

I’m going to institute this style practice in my blog, and fully expect there will be some wagging of bony fingers, and venting. My only defense will be to state that I have developed my own consistent style manual, which is named for what it might generate by its usage, The Elements of Bile.

Archer and The Metric System

Sterling Archer, incognito as Randy, holding a 750 mL bottle of liquor. Is that metric?

By The Metric Maven

This post is intended for mature audiences. Reader discretion is advised.

I have always had a taste for adult animation, but I never thought it would have anything to do with the metric system. I had watched Frisky Dingo, but was unaware of Archer until a little over a year ago. What I was not prepared to face, was well crafted jokes based on the metric system.

Archer is a secret agent working for his mother’s spy organization, called ISIS. (The name of the organization will change in the next season for obvious reasons) Archer is not prone to philosophical musing when approaching a problem. He cuts the Gordian knot.

When I learned of this series I binge-watched it from the beginning. I was surprised to hear my first metric related dialog, ever in an animated series, in the episode Killing Utne. The plot involves Mallory (Archer’s mother) throwing a dinner party to lobby for a lucrative ISIS contract. An attractive blonde haired woman unexpectedly shows up and generates this dialog:

Krieger: “Like to get a physical from her.”

Cyril:  “Or with her.”

[Cyril’s girlfriend Lana approaches from behind and puts her hand on Cyrill’s shoulder and begins to squeeze.]

Cyril: “OW-OW-OW-OW-OW.”

Lana: “I wonder if Dr. Pantyround(?) knows how many pounds it takes to snap a human collar bone.”

Cyril: “She probably uses the metric system.”

Pam: “Yeah, what to they use?—kilowatts?”

Krieger: “No, in this case it would be pascals.”

In season 2 episode 1 Swiss Miss, Archer has taken an interest in the underage daughter of a European Baron. Archer finds he is unable to correctly estimate her age which draws some ire from his colleagues:

Archer: “Lana, she doesn’t look like she’s just turning seventeen.”

Lana: “No, she looks like she’s just turning eighteen.”

Archer: “Exactly, plus Europeans use the metric system which—-.”

His mother Mallory cuts him off at that point. Clearly Archer has a very limited understanding of the applications of the metric system.

Blood Test has Archer involuntarily providing a sample of blood for a paternity test:

Barry: “We take a blood sample from Archer.”

Mallory: “Blood! My god what year is this?”

Archer: “I know right.”

Mallory: “Why can’t you just take a DNA swab?”

Barry: “A blood sample is enough to determine paternity, and after we take a liter.”

Archer: “A LITER! how much is a—”

Barry: “Archer will be left in a weakened state, which should prevent his attempting to compromise the test.”

Archer: (Delusional) “Turtlenecks I invented the turtleneck…”

Mallory: “But look! You’re bleeding him dry!”

Archer: “Seriously Barry, how much is a liter?”

Barry: “About eight gills.”

Archer: “What’s a gill?”

Barry: “Does that help?”

Archer: “You’re just talking in circles buddy.”

Barry: “Thanks Dr. Vansig.”

Archer: “What’s a gill?”

Barry: “Next, under ODIN guard the sample is taken to the vault of First Savings bank. I don’t know why I told you where, but it doesn’t matter.”

Archer: “What’s a gill?”

Barry: “As the bank and vault will be surrounded by ODIN agents. Merely an added precaution–”

Archer: “Is that metric?”

Barry: “–as the vault is basically one big shit-storm of anti-intrusion devices. Tomorrow, in full view of both parties, we will test the sample, here, along with the blood sample from the wee baby Shamus. Thus insuring complete accuracy of the paternity test. Any questions?”

Archer: “Yeah Barry, I’m still unclear on the liter-thing,– ”

Barry: (Sighing) Ohhhh.

Archer “–visa-vee a unit of volume.”

The volumetric humor continues in the next segment, sans metric.

Archer is the only program I’ve ever seen which has metric-Ye Olde English jokes, and they are not uncommon.

In season 5, ISIS has been forced into bankruptcy and inadvertently enters into drug dealing. Their accountant, Cyril tries to explain how much cocaine they have left in their vault. The episode is entitled House Call:

Cyril: “And so if I could direct your attention to these visual aides, You will see that from our initial supply of 1000 kilos of cocaine we–“

Archer: “Hang on Dummy, we had a ton of cocaine.”

Cyril: “No–we, well we had a tonne t-o-n-n-e also known as a metric ton but—”

Mallory: [stated with incredulity] “Metric!—Who uses metric!”

Lana: “Every single country on the planet except for us, Liberia and Burma.”

Archer: “Wow really?”

Lana: “Yup.”

Archer: “Cause you never really think of those other two as having their shit together.”

***

Cyril: “So as you can see, we are already down to 125 kilos of cocaine, which was worth about six million dollars. So–”

Archer: “Hey–wait, how much is that in pounds?”

Cyril: “Forget pounds!—we’re doing kilos!”

Archer: “No I meant pounds–”

Mallory: “Sterling!” (Sterling is Archer’s first name)

Archer: “Exactly, as in Dr. Who money.”

Mallory: “How do you stand here and crack wise when this is all your fault.”

Archer: “My fault!  I only lost 44.092 pounds of it mother, it’s Pam’s fault we had to give the Yakuza 100 kilos, and this other five—spoiler alert—she ate.”

Lana: “Yeah, and would now be a good time to talk about Pam’s cocaine addition–”

Pam: “Or the inspiring story of her heroic struggle to finally triumph over it!”

Lana: “What are you eating?”

Pam: “Yogurt!”

***

[Pam becomes uncontrollable and has to be restrained.]

Lana: “So what do you suggest we do?”

Mallory: “We throw her a party!—with an enormous cake!  Cyril, can we spare another five pounds of cocaine!?”

Lana: “MALLORY!”

Mallory: (exasperated) “2.27 kilograms then, who are you?—Thomas Corwin Medenhall!?”

There you have it readers, the only joke I’ve ever encountered which has Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (1841-1924) in it.

There are many other metric jokes in the Archer animated television series. I will document no more, and leave it to you–if interested–to watch for the others. They are dispersed, and for a person predisposed to measurements, hilarious. But strangely instructive.

Pleasant Watching.

Postscript: Linda Anderman is raising money in support of her effort to create a metric documentary. She is currently very close to her financial goal. The link to her campaign is here. It is an all or nothing proposition which ends on midnight tonight. There are very few opportunities to support metric, please do what you can to support Linda’s effort.