enough measurement systems to fill a Rhode Island the size of Jupiter
October 10, 2019 1:13 PM   Subscribe

The boundary wikipedia maintains between *unusual* units of measurement and *humorous* units of measurement is permeable and probably subjective; the rate of flow from one to the other might well be measured in miner's inches (Colorado, Arizona, or New Zealand standard).

The shake (10 nanoseconds) and jiffy (varying lengths of time, depending on field of use) are still on both humorous and unusual lists; the smoot (5 feet 7 inches) had been on both but, despite some pushback that people actually use it, is now classified as merely humorous. The Waffle House Index (previously), the banana equivalent dose, the foe, and the centipawn are all notable, highly specialized units in some sort of use; funny but functional. For all its Pratchettlike appeal, the FFF (furlong-firkin-fortnight) system doesn't seem to be used that much except for giggles (as measured in aH, natch).

For your further consideration, a list of measurements that don't even qualify as unusual (failing wikipedia's "notable" criterion): Ponder the archaic Finnish peninkulma, the maximum distance over which you can hear a dog bark; the hedon, a unit of pleasure in ethical mathematics; and the cran, a measure of uncleaned herring equivalent to 42 British wine gallons (US). (Lovely old fishing pictures on that last link, which describes the quarter cran basket.) And for your melancholy / steampunk / poetical needs, obsolete units of measurement too.

Oddball systems of measurement previously.
posted by miles per flower (45 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
No one will ever beat the furlong*-firkin**-fortnight*** system.

*not Edward
**not Hunt Emerson's cat
***not you-know-what
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:32 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

The deed to the family farm that's been in the family since the original Mexican land grant in 1835, lists the distances in varas (equal to 3 pies!), traditionally 33 1/3 inches.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 1:33 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]

lists the distances in varas

Varas/ rods used to be a standard unit of measurement, every marketplace had a rod length somewhere that the merchants could go to with their measuring sticks so they could check they weren't getting shorted.
posted by sukeban at 1:36 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

What, no banana for scale converter?

Sadly, no one has developed RockHammerForScale.info, because that's more of a real-world practical thing.

To clarify, banana are used for scale, but that's more of an internet thing than IRL thing.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:37 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]

Hmm, the "rack unit" is listed under unusual units of measurement, but the HP (horizontal pitch) is not. Both are important to Eurorack modular synth nerds, so they're all over my daily web surfing.

Both HP and rack units are listed on Wikipedia's "Units of length" page though.

In Eurorack modular, standard modules are 3U (rack units) tall while "tiles" are 1U tall -- but there are two different incompatible sizes of tile modules described as 1U: Intellijel's and everyone else's.
posted by Foosnark at 1:38 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]

(Uh, just realized that the "Hunt Emerson's cat" link above has some NSFW bits in it, sorry folks.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:39 PM on October 10

I tried to get a pint of beer in an aussie pub and was offered a schooner.
posted by w0mbat at 1:46 PM on October 10

One fun tourist game to play in Europe is to look for evidence of the standard Ell, typically at the market square. It's a measure of length based on the length of the forearm, and often was enshrined in a piece of metal affixed to the wall in the marketplace that everyone could compare to. I've mostly seen them or the ghost of their presence in Scotland, various "Ell Streets" and probably at least one "Ell Pub".
posted by Nelson at 1:49 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]

In a professional presentation I’m giving next week I include a helpful footnote explaining that 20,000 megawatts is enough power to send roughly 16.53 DeLoreans to 1985. Y’know, for context.
posted by nickmark at 1:52 PM on October 10 [14 favorites]

I think I work in the only field that still uses slugs as a legitimate measure of mass.

I also appreciate the higher order time derivatives of position:
posted by backseatpilot at 1:52 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]

How about a "Gimli" for the quantity of aviation fuel that will get a Boeing 767 from Montreal to Manitoba, just barely?
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:18 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]

Came to see if they had the sydharb, wasn't disappointed. (Interesting that a sydharb is 562 gigalitres; I recall it being a rounder number.)
posted by acb at 2:25 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

On the other hand: there's no entry for the unit of political time known as the scaramucci.
posted by acb at 2:30 PM on October 10 [15 favorites]

(equal to 3 pies!), traditionally 33 1/3 inches
Pie is Spanish for foot so a slightly smaller foot than the English.
posted by Botanizer at 3:35 PM on October 10

(equal to 3 pies!), traditionally 33 1/3 inches
Pie is Spanish for foot so a slightly smaller foot than the English.

This is important information for students of golden-age Spanish martial arts (there are dozens of us!) because the law at the time limited swords to a maximum blade length of 5/4 vara (about 104.4cm or 41.1 inches), and the primary author on the subject informs us of the many disadvantages of a longer weapon, not least that those carrying them are marked as "either arrogant, worried or quarrelsome or that he has little spirit, since he trusts more in the length of his sword than in himself." Whereas those carrying proportionately-sized swords are "considered to be...brave and courageous" (Pacheco de Narvaez, Grandeza de la Espada, 1600, trans. Mary Curtis).

So we know that brave people carry short swords, but we need the value of this measurement to know the exact length which it is socially impermissible to exceed.
posted by agentofselection at 4:02 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]

Rhode Islands are the only area measurement you need!

Roger Williams approved!
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:08 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]

The Northern California Ranch that has been in my family for a century has water rights denoted in miners inches. I had no idea that Southern California or New Mexico miners inches were different! Thanks for sharing
posted by CostcoCultist at 4:46 PM on October 10

So is Rhode Island roughly the size of Wales?
posted by Fuchsoid at 4:53 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]

RI is more flexible than Wales.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:04 PM on October 10

Hah, they don't have the quad. This, by the way, is an excellent article. If you see the quad in the wiki, it's because I'm just about to add it.
posted by hypnogogue at 5:12 PM on October 10

Americans will measure with anything but the metric system

My car gets forty rods to the hogshead and that's the way I likes it!
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:42 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]

"In issue 33, Mad published a partial table of the "Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures" developed by 19-year-old Donald E. Knuth, later a famed computer scientist. According to Knuth, the basis of this new revolutionary system is the potrzebie, which equals the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm"

Is this real? Apparently, it is.

posted by smcameron at 5:48 PM on October 10 [9 favorites]

They've got the Mickey sub-categorised wrong - it's not a unit of length, it's a unit of resolution. Like the pixel.
posted by Pinback at 6:11 PM on October 10

Disappointed to see that while attoparsec gets a mention, they have overlooked the speed of attoparsecs per microfortnight.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:17 PM on October 10

That ship did the kessel run in 1.2 x 10^19 atoparsecs.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:13 PM on October 10

My favourite obsolete measurement is the pim (or possibly payyim), which was two thirds of a shekel in Biblical times. The word appears only once in the Bible, in 1 Samuel 13:21. It was very likely a Philistine word, and had been obsolete and its meaning lost for at least two thousand years, maybe three. Even the fact that the word meant some sort of weight had been lost. You can find the story here but, long story short, someone noticed that the word "pim" was written on a little stone weighing two thirds of a shekel, they found it on other weights, and a word lost for many centuries was recovered.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:17 PM on October 10 [10 favorites]

I tried to get a pint of beer in an aussie pub and was offered a Schooner

For some reason, SA pubs believe the word pint is just another word for a schooner. I don't mind that interstate you might need to say middy rather than pot, or butchers' rather than glass, but using one glass-size-name for another glass-size is just demented.

From the OP: I like centipawns. Needs to be some other measurement to degrade the centipawn rating of knights as the game progresses - maybe even increase rooks and bishops.

Also also: no listing for .beats?
posted by pompomtom at 8:19 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

Also also: no listing for .beats?

I think that that favors the Swatch people as, even by the giddy standards of late dot-com boomery, coming up with a new unit of time just because you're Swatch and think that you can unilaterally coax people to adopt it is a whole lotta hubris. .beats is the CueCat of measurement.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:02 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]

What a fun post! Based on private commination, I'm pretty sure the people involved with the Smoot would not be offended that it's listed as humorous.

The metric time section could use a bit of updating with SF fiction references. (And anyone who has ever said KerMetric in that context should be made to walk the planck.)

Though, when it comes to silly, apothocaries' units give all the humorous ones a run for their money. My most glorious and also most shameful trivia win was knowing how many scruples are in a drachm.
posted by eotvos at 12:24 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]

For some reason, SA pubs believe the word pint is just another word for a schooner

Which seems weird, because a SA schooner is the same size as a Victorian pot; both are half an Imperial pint, or 285ml.

A proper NSW schooner is ¾ of an Imperial pint (425ml) and therefore very nearly the same size as a US liquid pint (473ml).

Be that as it may, my local boutique brewery serves its own pale ale in proper 570ml pints, and it is glorious, which I believe makes it your shout.
posted by flabdablet at 12:25 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]

In "non-conventional":
Helen of Troy (from the Iliad) is widely known as "the face that launched a thousand ships". Thus, 1 millihelen is the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship. Other derived units such as the negative helen (the power to beach ships) have also been described.
Not mentioned is Thom Holwerda's WTF/minute as a measure of code quality.
posted by autopilot at 12:38 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]

20,000 megawatts is enough power to send roughly 16.53 DeLoreans to 1985

That's assuming 1.21 gigawatts is a constant amount needed for time travel, and not a function of the amount of time traveled, though. Maybe 1.21 gigawatts is just the power required for traveling thirty years backward/forward, and you'd need 1.371 gigawatts to do 2019->1985.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:38 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]

I think the "Attoparsec per microfortnight" is a speed measure roughly equal to about an inch per second, which might be enough to make it useful here and there.
posted by DreamerFi at 3:02 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]

Also, it looks like the colloquial Australian unit of length, the “bee's dick”, may come from the Germanic Muggeseggele.
posted by acb at 3:12 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]

One supposes that the RCH is prohibited in most contexts.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:01 AM on October 11

I almost forgot about the Aviation Monetary Unit (AMU), generally agreed to equal $1,000. Generally used to discuss how much that shimmy or funny noise is going to cost you. In terms of magnitude, a couple of AMUs is generally not worth mentioning; anything over 5 or 6 AMUs might raise an eyebrow. 10 or more AMUs and now you're talking real money.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:37 AM on October 11 [3 favorites]

20,000 megawatts is enough power to send roughly 16.53 DeLoreans to 1985. 

1.21 gigawatts = 1.21 jig-a-watts
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:45 AM on October 11

Rhode Island is gonna be pissed if DC ever gets statehood and steals their smallest-state title. Texas is still mad about Alaska.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:08 AM on October 11 [3 favorites]

A couple things I’ve been chewing on since falling down this rabbit-hole of indeterminate depth:

- That the length of a moment varies by season but is, on average, 90 seconds. (As a medieval measure, it was one-fortieth of an hour, which itself was one-twelfth of the time between sunrise and sunset.)

- This gross detail from Le Corbusier’s Modulor scale system (modern version of the Vitruvian Man):
Whilst initially the Modulor Man’s height was based on a French man’s height of 1.75 metres (5 ft 9 in) it was changed to 1.83 m in 1946 because “in English detective novels, the good-looking men, such as policemen, are always six feet tall!” The dimensions were refined to give round numbers and the overall height of the raised arm was set at 2.262 m.
- Imagining anxiety at measuring the peninkulma (“the distance a barking dog can be heard in still air”). I know it’s not meant to be a unit with such precision, but a few steps inside the edge of the circle with radius of 1 peninkulma, you still hear your dog barking and while maybe you know why he’s still barking you’ve already walked like five versts from home and maybe there’s some new thing he’s barking at, some danger he’s warning you of, maybe you should go back and check. Also, did you even shut the gate, is he still following you? (You totally forgot to shut the gate.) Then a few steps further on, outside the edge of a circle you can’t see, you’re still measuring it, the woods go silent. They were already still but now the absence of barking seizes all your attention, muffles all other sound. Is this the edge of your hearing? Is it quiet because he got back into the house and is now eating your dinner? Is he just quiet because he’s caught your scent and is now using all his breath to run to come play with you & see how you are because you forgot to shut the gate, probably on purpose, the purpose of making sure your best friend is free to run after you to make sure you're ok in the woods on such a still day? I would not be very good at this
posted by miles per flower at 10:49 AM on October 11 [6 favorites]

Needs eponysterical tag.
posted by yoga at 12:28 PM on October 11

The general speed limit on the roads here is 60 km/h. According to WolframAlpha, that's almost exactly 100,000 furlongs per fortnight.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:58 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]

Rhode Island is gonna be pissed if DC ever gets statehood

Rhode Island still has an advantage as a unit of measurement. It is not only relatively small, and therefore applicable to a lot of situations, but it is also very flexible. Depending on whether you count the bay or not, the area of Rhode Island can be between roughly 800 mi.² and roughly 1800 mi.². This is very convenient in the estimation game.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:19 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]

DC would have worked a lot better as a unit of measurement without the Alexandria retrocession.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:24 PM on October 13

If they moved the boundaries of Sydney Harbour a bit further out, then a sydharb could be defined as a terapint (570 gigalitres in Australia, 568 in England).
posted by acb at 2:36 PM on October 13

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