Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wednesday Math, Vol. 92: Robinson's New Higher Arithmetic, Part 2

As you may already know, there are different names for flocks of birds depending on the species. A covey of quail, an exaltation of larks, a murder of crows, a parliament of owls, etc. Here's a link to a longer list.

Slightly odder, the same species can have several names for groups. Geese are only in a gaggle if they are on the water. In the air, they are a skein or if in a V formation, they form a wedge. On the ground, a group of geese are known as those goddamn poop machines.

I made one of those up myself. See if you can guess which one.

This is definitely flowery use of language, but this is for birdwatchers to use when talking to one another. It's a hobby and jargon is expected. I understand people feeling poetic about birds. Birds are pretty.

Browsing around in Robinson's New Higher Arithmetic, we find poetic jargon dealing with things that shouldn't be hobbies. In the 500 page book, over 50 pages are devoted to weights and measures. Most of this superfluous verbiage deals with the English measurement system, though as we will see next week, there are also other systems of measure that are now completely obsolete, and a good thing, too.

In the English system, it's almost never a nice power of ten that separates one measurement word from another. It would be nice if 10 flurbs made a flink, but no. It's 12 inches or 16 ounces or 16 grains or 20 pennyweights or 16 drams make up the next biggest size measure to which a special name has been given.

There's one exception. 100 pounds is a hundredweight. Well, it's easy to remember at least, yes? I'm not sure "a hundredweight of flour" is any easier to say than "100 pounds of flour", but at least it's a power of ten.

Oh, if it were only that simple.

100 pounds of butter is a firkin.

100 pounds of grain or flour is a cental.

100 pounds of dry fish is a quintal.

100 pounds of nails is a keg.

100 pounds of clay is a cheesy pop song from the sixties.

If that wasn't bad enough (and me going for an antique pop culture gag didn't already make it worse), some geniuses decided the English system need the long ton as well as the regular ton, which is 2,000 pounds. In the long ton system, 28 pounds is a quarter and four quarters makes a hundredweight, which weighs... 112 pounds. Twenty hundredweight makes a regular ton if a hundredweight actually is 100 pounds, but if we use the 112 lbs. = hundredweight, twenty of those makes a long ton, 2,240 pounds.


Some people may hate the metric system. I understand their annoyance, though I don't agree with it. A good thing about metric is that it's consistent. The prefix Kilo- means thousand, no matter what. Kilogram = 1,000 grams. Kilometer = 1,000 meters. People in computers who use base 2 a lot noticed that 2^10 = 1,024, which is almost a thousand, so they use the letter K to talk about 1,024 bytes. They borrowed the K from kilo, but they do not use the prefix kilo. Similar stuff but not the same, and they don't use the same word.

We've trimmed a lot of the useless fat off the English system in the 100+ years since Robinson's was published, but there's a reason why every country on the face of the earth except one (guess which one?) has decided to give it the heave-ho.

Next week: Other obsolete measurement systems.


47th Problem of Euclid said...

Are you aware of the FFF (Furlong, Firkin, Fortnight) measurement system? A microfortnight is roughly 1.2 seconds. The rate of speed of one furlong per fortnight is roughly one centimeter per minute. Slow. The speed of light is roughly 1.803 terafurlongs per fortnight.

47th Problem of Euclid said...

PS: the VMS OS used microfortnights in the TIMEPROMPTWAIT variable. And we wonder why the folks at Digital hated UNIX?

Matty Boy said...

I knew about furlongs per fortnight being the most useless measurement system ever, I did not know the firkin was part of the system as well.

I was going to write "the firskin was thrown in for good measure", but obviously, it wasn't.