Stream of Metric Consciousness

By The Metric Maven

A coffee klatch denizen, NY Joe, kindly brought me a book titled The Macmillan Dictionary of Measurement. It has over 4250 entries and Joe was sure I’d find it interesting reading. He was right, there are many interesting aspects of the book that caught my attention, and some not in a good way. One entry took me by surprise and would have been a nice addition to my DBTC chapter Multiple Metric Systems and Metrology. There I point out the existence of the MKS (meter-kilogram-second), CGS (centimeter-gram-second) and MTS (meter-tonne-second) systems. I encountered an entry about the crinal in this dictionary, which I reproduce below:

Yes, the DKS decimeter-kilogram-second system!? I’ve encountered this system no where else in my research over the years. One might almost think it a joke, but then I’ve seen the seemingly unending historical pre-metric units, and many of them also appear to be jokes. My favorite reference has a crinal in it, and the first definition is 1 decinewton. Indeed, let’s just rid ourselves of the prefix cluster around unity. This is unit proliferation, pure and simple.

I also learned that base ten logarithms, like that used to define the decibel, are called Briggs logarithms after the early British mathematician Henry Briggs (1561-1631). In 1616 he drew up the first base ten logarithm tables. Who knew? For those who find British Thermal Units too straightforward, there is also the CHU or centigrade heat unit, equal to the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1 degree celsius. That is a serious pigfish definition. It is also known as the pound-calorie. The international angstrom is a unit of length, but it is defined with a red line in the cadmium spectrum, at a temperature of 15 C and a pressure of 760 mm of mercury which is 6438.4696 international angstroms. “It is very nearly the same as an ANGSTROM UNIT (10-10 m).” What? very nearly the same? Why not call it “the horseshoe?” We also encounter a prefixed angstrom called a milliangstrom. We need a unit that is 10-13 m in length? There is also the kip, which is a: “Little-used unit of mass for measuring the load on a structure equal to 1,000 pounds avdp. (half a short ton). It was named after the first letters of kilo imperial pound.” This is serious pigfish on parade. Shoe sizes are defined, but mondopoint does not have an entry, or a single mention in the dictionary. I have written about mondopoint here and here.

The dictionary even relates a unit called the eric:

Eric [comparative values] In medieval Ireland, the blood money paid by a murderer or accidental killer (to his family) to the victim’s family in full and complete satisfaction for the death, so that no further punishment or obligation would be imposed or sought.

There is also “the finger.” As we know a hand is about 100 mm in width. Four fingers of width implies a finger would be about 20 mm (25 if the world made sense). Of course in old timey movies we see western characters order two or three fingers of alcohol, which is not exactly independent of the size of the glass.

This dictionary has very little use for milli. Millimeters and milliliters appear depreciated for centimeters and centiliters. When millimeters do appear it is often with mixed fractions.

The dictionary has the Kilotonne, which is a metric prefix applied to a Megagram which is actually a Gigagram as I point out in my essay A Kilotonne is how much in metric? The dictionary lists (with lower case of course) a megabar, megabit, megacurie, megadyne, megahertz, megajoule, megaparsec, megarad, megaton, megavar, megavolt, megawatt, and megaohm, but no Megagram! Clearly the authors of this reference, need to become a bit more acquainted with the metric system in my view. They proudly have listed tonne and kilotonne, but no megatonne, or gigatonne. Both of these nested concatenated prefix “units,” which are megamegagrams or gigamegagrams are seen constantly in reporting about global warming and elsewhere, rather than using Teragrams or Petagrams, which are properly expressed, and devoid of the archaic pre-metric “ton”, which only serves as a thumb to suck, or a skirt to hold are absent. Of course the dictionary also has metric ton and tonne

One day while using public transit to meet with me over brunch, Sven noted a fellow wearing a tee shirt like the one below:

Over the years, there has been a meme of sorts that indicates that spelling is somehow a measure of something that is intellectually indicative about a person. As I’ve pointed out, we have a number of Shakespeare’s signatures, and no two are spelled the same. The two people who wrote this book identify themselves on the dust jacket: “[one]….is a packager who produces popular dictionary and reference books in the fields of science, semantics and medicine” and “[the other]…is an editorial consultant who specializes in religion, foreign languages, place-names, and music.” They both spend an inordinate amount of time defining collective nouns, such as a murder of crows, murmuration of starlings, or a muster of peafowl. These are not exactly precisely defined units or values. The reference is indeed written like what one would expect from specialists in language, who I’m sure can spell, but have no metrology background.

Often people ask me to talk about old archaic pre-metric units, but I have no interest in doing so. There are so many “metric” and “pigfish” sub-optimal units to discuss, and then plead for people stop using; I want to concentrate on them. I encourage people to switch-over to pure efficient metric, without the tonne, micron, angstrom, or other “exceptions.” If you want to know about archaic or obsolete units that no one has ever heard of, consult John Quincy Adams. Relating numbers in the most meaningful manner possible begins with good streamlined metric usage.

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Trying To Outrun Ye Olde English

By The Metric Maven

If you’re studying Geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but Philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.

– Steve Martin

I spent a lot of my youth reading about philosophy. I mostly took classes in, and read books about, the philosophy of science. It has been of great interest, and I tended to agree with Steve Martin. Recently, I realized that it is possible to remember just enough about Ye Olde English units to screw me up for the rest of my life. The problem was inculcated into my psyche in High School. I had a serious Basketball Jones, and was almost addicted to playing the game. My coach was not amused when I was not that excited about track, and might have even thought about opting-out. After some time, I realized I was just good enough to run a leg on a relay team, and participated. The world of the mid 1970s was one where metric was in the news, but track still had the 100 yard dash. The rest of the world ran the 100 meter dash.

The relay I often ran was the 440 yard relay, where each person would run 110 yards and then pass a baton off to another person. There was the 880 yard relay where each person would run 220 yards and pass the baton. The distances generally discussed were 110 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards and the mile. Below are images of two ribbons my team won for the 440 yard and 880 yard relays when I was in High School.

The relay team had to place at the district track meet to move on to divisional. Going to the divisional track meet meant you could travel to a large city, experience something different, and hang out with your fellow athletes. One year, a few of the participants from our school were not able to place in any of their chosen events, and it looked like they would have to stay home.

The coach had an idea that definitely demonstrated just how much these unfortunates wanted to participate at the divisional track meet. The last event, which had still not occurred, was the mile relay. It was a terrible gut race. Each person would have to run one-quarter of a mile. My mind immediately realized that each person would have to run a 440 yard leg. The 440 was an all out gut-race. It is so short that you had to run as fast as possible for the entire length of the race. It was so long, that your body was completely spent and almost convulsing by the time you reached the finish line. The group wanted to go badly enough they did the mile relay, placed, and went to the Divisional Track Meet with the rest of us.

What seemed obvious to me at the time was that a 440 yard relay was also often called a quarter-mile relay. The 880 yard relay was also called a half-mile relay. It implied that someone had thought about our Ye Olde English measurement system, and made it possess a symmetry that made sense. A 440 yard relay, had four 110 yard legs, the 880 yard relay had four 220 yard legs, and of course the mile relay would have four 440 yard legs. The symmetry was great and clearly there were 1660 yards in a mile. It made sense, all the others had dual digits: 110, 220, 440, 880 and 1660 made perfect sense. Why would I question it?—it sounded perfectly right. The problem for me was that this incorrect sequence of numbers was attached to my mind as strongly as a leech with superglue.

When Peter Goodyear read Chapter 4 of Death By 1000 Cuts, he noted:

I’ve just read Chapter 4 of Death By A Thousand Cuts. Some of it was new to me, and quite interesting. I noticed one error.

On page 54 you have a list of factors involved in US measurements and you write:

…when one has to cognitively relate factors like 2, 3, 12, 16, 1660, 5280 and so on.

(Emphasis added by me.) I think 1660 should be 1760, shouldn’t it? The number of miles in a yard.

When I read the sentences, I wanted to angrily stare up into the sky, and with my best William Shatner impression yell: “Khan-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n!” Yes, it should be 1760 yards, I’ve had this pointed out to me multiple times, over multiple decades, and my mind always defaults back to 110, 220, 440, 880, 1660. When you think of 8 plus 8 it’s 16, and there is another eight right next to the other eight so it must be 1660 my feeble brain informs me. It has to be the next number in the sequence—right. It only makes sense. As I said, cognition is important. Well, I always end up jotting it down, and hand adding, or add 880 + 880 in my calculator, and discover that yes the sum is 1760 yards, not 1660 yards! When l wrote the passage in Chapter 4, my mind even thought for a moment about the nice symmetry—that doesn’t exist! When Peter pointed this out, I knew it was right, did a face palm, and thought: “I wonder if anyone has any idea why I would write down 1660 instead of 1760?” Well now I’ve had the chance, and no matter what, I’m still wrong, and I’m convinced that I will do it again someday.

So I decided to lash out, looking for someone—anyone—to blame other than myself for my cognitive impairment. I realized that if my High School had changed to metric in the 1970s, as was all the talk in the papers, I would never have been exposed to this numerical horror. There would have been the 100 meter, 200 meter, 400 meter, 800 meter, and then 1500 meters? What? Why is that? Why not 1600 meters? Well, at least I can convert them from meters to Kilometers with ease: 0.1, 0.2, 0.4, 0.8 and 1.5 Km.

Sometime ago, when I was doing some research, I called my old High School in Montana. I asked if the track distances were now all in metric. I talked with a woman who recalled my tenure there. She said they did. Earlier records had been converted to metric and they no longer used yards. I’m still a bit surprised that my old High School changed over to metric in Track. Nowhere else in their everyday measurement lives has anything changed, but track did, but not football of course!