That Very Special K

By The Metric Maven

Special K

In my teenage years, I, like many of my contemporaries would stop at an A&W Drive Inn for a root beer and food. One day my friend Rick asked one of the car hops, “what does A&W stand for?” The car hop looked puzzled and indicated she didn’t know. It became an oft-used way to attempt to initiate a conversation with the car hops, who were exclusively female in those days. Not one of them knew the answer.

My youngest sister began working at an A&W during my High School years, and when she had the misfortune to have me as a customer, I asked the question. She looked at me with a countenance which indicated how sophomoric, obvious, and slightly irritating the question was. Then she replied “Allen and Wright.” I was dumbfounded; she was the first to know. “How did you know I asked?” Her instant reply was “It’s on the checks.”

Another question is “what does the K in Special K stand for?” The Wikipedia page on Special K is of no help. Never fear, because on the internet you can always find an “answer”—no matter how much of an urban legend it might be. The first offering is that it stands for Kalium, which is Potassium, and was the essential nutritional addition that was touted as an important part of your healthy diet. What is the symbol for Potassium in the periodic table of the elements? Why K of course!—a capital K! Well, when folk origins are offered, they can be interesting, or prosaic. The internet then alternatively claim’s the K is for Vitamin K! A more down-to-Earth suggestion is that, well, the K stands for Kellogg’s, the manufacturer, and eponymous identifier for one of the Kellogg brothers.

That’s a lot of capital K’s to sort out, and as you might have guessed this essay is about the strange and illogical use of lower case and upper case k in the metric system. The idea that a lower case k should be used for Kilo, whereas all magnifying prefixes above Kilo, are upper case, makes exactly zero sense. It makes such little sense, that I’ve seen it in a high school chemistry textbook defined as capital K, which in the odd BIPM universe would be a “typo.” I see speedometers on the dashboards of Japanese bullet trains that have Km/hr, and other examples where the intuitive usage, capital K, is implemented, rather than the ecclesiastical usage.

When I challenged the use of lower case k as the prefix symbol for Kilo, Metric Bishops scampered out of the woodwork with justifications for this confusing usage. I was told that the lower case k was to remind everyone that SI is essentially the mks system, and so the kilogram is the base unit, and not the gram. This seemed one of the least useful reminders ever. So the kilojoule kJ, kilometer km , kilosecond ks , kilonewton kN—and so on—must all also be lower case? They are not base units. But Megajoule MJ, Gigameter Gm, Terasecond Ts, Petanewton PN and so on are all upper case? This seems absurd. No, this is absurd. It appears ad hoc and post hoc to me, and not deliberative.

Other Metric Bishops chime in with what they see as a better argument. Well, if you use capital K, it could be confused with temperature in Kelvin. Sometime back I understand the degree was taken away from K for temperature, which makes the muddle worse in my view, rather than improving it. I also have never liked the name Kelvin. Naming measurement units after scientists is essentially a national conceit. I’ve elaborated on my dislike of eponymous units in my essay Eponymous Measurement Units and Planet George. Centigrade was a perfectly non-anthropomorphic name, that was changed to Celsius after it had long been an accepted label. I would like to use milligrade, and go back to a non-person unit name for everyday temperature, and eliminate one more centi. Oh, no, no, no, we can’t use K for a prefix and for temperature!—that would be wrong—a Metric Bishop asserted. Strangely the reuse of mm for milli and meter does not cause any concern, but two upper case K’s do? Well, it has all been put in the sacred text say the Bishops, and what is done is done.

I had not given much thought about what manner of heresy might work to free metric from the dogma of the special K for Kelvin, when the answer popped right up unexpectedly. I was reading an essay about the absolute temperature scale titled “The Height of Up” in View from a Height by Isaac Asimov. Asimov states:

As I’m not for the “convention” Dr. Asimov mentions, I will go with degrees A for Absolute temperature scale. It seems to me that the term “absolute scale” is more self-explanatory than is “Kelvin scale,” and in my view unit names that suggest the meaning of a unit serve engineering and science better than the last names of historical humans. I’m sure the Metric Bishops can’t see any way that we could change from this anthropocentric nomenclature as it is “too late,” but I think it is never too late to make a rational change, like switching over to the metric system in the US. If you need a human based virtual last name to go with degrees A, then let’s go with my favorite candidate, degrees Asimov.

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Chapter 1 The Metric System

By Randy Bancroft

I had great hopes for Dimensions of the Cosmos in its first edition. It seemed like a book that is fully metric, explains the metric system’s use, and presents interesting anecdotes that might be of interest to the general public. I contacted somewhere around 1000 literary agents (the net makes this possible) over around four years or so. I had a few nibbles, but no real interest. One took some interest, but wanted me to write a completely different book, and finally revealed her familiarity with a contemporary anti-metric author. When I demurred, the title was attacked, and the reaction was “you’ll never have lunch in this town again.”

I have managed to get technical books published, but the latest edition of my best known textbook is published by a non-profit publisher. Two metric people I know suggested I self-publish. They claimed self-publishing this is not the realm of losers anymore. I was very much against it, but after some persuasion, I chose a self-publisher who is nearby. I went through a bunch of hoops, and a lot of money, only to realize this publisher does not have the best reputation. My results were consistent with this. At the time, I did look into their reputation, and there was little negative feedback online.

When the book was originally announced, a number of people immediately asked where they could get it for free. I had hoped I would make up the financial outlay for self publication with a small number of sales. This did not occur. I still believe the book concept is good, and continued updating it over the last 4 years. I have added about 100 more pages. It is clear that in the current publishing climate, and American zeitgeist, a book of this type is as welcome as thorn bush in a nudist colony. The other aspect of our current cultural climate is that if something is free, it has no merit. Certainly my release of Death By 1000 Cuts chapter-by-chapter over the last year-or-so only served to emphasize this truism, and pass judgement on the work’s merits. (Shout out to C.Z. for being the singular exception).

Reform that promotes the general welfare in the US, is, in my view, non-existent. People like myself are derisively called “organized do-gooders” by long-time American “progressives” such as Frank Mankiewicz, or worse by “futurist” Stewart Brand, who did their best to block any metric reform, and succeeded spectacularly. Personally, I think this country has enough organized do-badders, and could use some real reform, but no democratic mechanism for this to occur seems to exist.

Worse, I would think that I would take my own advice. When I first looked into what existed on the web about the metric system about ten years ago, I found a very up-beat person in the bay area (San Francisco) who wanted to start and organize a metric group, and seriously push for US metrication. He sent out emails, tried to drum-up interest, and set up a meeting at a local library to form the group. The organizer was bereft when no one showed up. I could watch the sadness and disappointment mount in his posts as he realized he could not find one other person to help form a group. I tried to keep track of his web presence, but soon he disappeared into never-never land bit bucket of cyberspace. I thought he was very naive, I knew there was no chance, and even trying convert the US to metric was a waste of time.

Around that time, I found Pat Naughtin, and was very pleased at his useful discussion and promotion of the metric system. I signed up for his newsletter and was appreciative someone was promoting metric. When he passed away, I was very upset. There was no one else promoting metric. I didn’t want Pat’s efforts to die. I spoke with Sven, and started the metric maven website, despite knowing what happened to the now unknown person in San Francisco. I did not take my own advice, and began writing metric blogs, with well over 200 published thus far. It has been seven years, and I still hear calls for “voluntary adoption” by “metric proponents,” and realize there is no real constituency out there for metric reform.

I had written Dimensions of the Cosmos with the hope that the second edition might find a publisher. I no longer suffer from that unrealistic hope. With the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is probably even less likely I could find a publisher. I’m planning on releasing it, chapter-by-chapter, with the hope of a person on a desert island placing a note in a bottle, and tossing it into the ocean.

It has not been professionally edited, but I have done my best to proofread it.

Here is the preface and Chapter 1 of The Dimensions of the Cosmos The Metric System

If you like this work, please go to my Patreon page and contribute

Here is an email I received from reader J McClellan on 2020-07-16:

Howdy Maven –

Just thought I’d share this with you. I certainly know I don’t have to sell you on the power of SI, but perhaps you can use this visual aid when educating the recalcitrant American on the ease and practicality of going metric.

I am NOT a handyman, though now I see I don’t have myself to blame when the shortcomings are obviously that of being forced to use a barbaric “system” of measure I’ve NEVER been able to wrap my American head around.

Behold, 2 tiled floors – One hewn in the good kings foot, one using 500 mm tiles and the precision of the mm.

After much exhaustion and hoop-jumping, I was able to acquire a metre stick and 500mm tiles for the second bedroom

Cutting and fitting these tiles in “16ths”, “8ths”, stopping and adding fractions ended up with the typical American – “close enough” mindset and the quality of the end product is quite evident. And I promise, I tried!

The second picture was the master bedroom, using the mm.

I guess I’m not so bad at this handyman thing after all.

Keep doing what you do, you are making a difference!


The World Is Waiting…

Premetric Measurement
Measurement using millimeters