Whimsical Units Of Measurement

Fame Beauty


Both of these come from a story by StanislawLem, called Kobyszcz� or (probably) Hunt for Happiness. I read it in the Dutch translation of an English book called View from another Shore, which features stories from several European ScienceFiction writers. Something may have been lost in the triple translation, so if someone has access to a better source, please help me out here (AnswerMe). -- AalbertTorsius

A Thaum is the basic unit of magical strength. It has been universally established as the amount of magic needed to create one small white pigeon or three normal-sized billiard balls.
from TerryPratchett. It is mentioned quite often in the Discworld Novels featuring Rincewind

Pratchett also invented a background character named Richter, who developed all sorts of ingenious measuring devices, such as the Rev Counter for use in ecclesiastical circles.

Speed Time Force Distance Area Volume Frequency Bogosity Complexity Flow/Flux Stench CPU speed: (well, not exactly) Frequency: Poverty of Language: Trauma: Skill at playing basketball:

Rate of Speech:

Duration of Speech: Quality of Literature:


Academic Difficulty


A distance "in terms of unexpected hassles creatively surmounted, wrenchingly difficult decisions made, and pits of despair climbed out of by the emotional fingernails ... on a par with any given day of the Lewis and Clark expedition." NealStephenson: CryptoNomicon

A humorous list seen circulating around the Internet via email:
  1. Ratio of an igloo's circumference to its diameter = Eskimo Pi ( => Ratio of an igloo's diameter to its height = Eskimo Two)
  2. 2000 pounds of Chinese soup = Won ton
  3. 1 millionth of a mouthwash = 1 microscope
  4. Time between slipping on a peel and smacking the pavement = 1 bananosecond
  5. Weight an evangelist carries with God = 1 billigram
  6. Time it takes to sail 220 yards at 1 nautical mile per hour = Knotfurlong
  7. 365.25 days of drinking low calorie beer = 1 Lite year
  8. 16.5 feet in the Twilight Zone = 1 Rod Serling
  9. Half a large intestine = 1 semicolon
  10. 1,000,000 aches = 1 megahurtz
  11. Basic unit of laryngitis - 1 hoarsepower
  12. Shortest distance between two jokes - a straight line
  13. 453.6 graham crackers = 1 pound cake
  14. 1 trillion microphones = 1 megaphone
  15. 1 million bicycles = 1 megacycles
  16. 365.25 days = 1 unicycle
  17. 2000 mockingbirds = two kilomockingbirds
  18. 10 cards = 1 decacard
  19. 52 cards = 1 deckacard
  20. 1 kilogram of falling figs = 1 fig Newton
  21. 1000 grams of wet socks = 1 literhosen
  22. 1 millionth of a fish = 1 microfiche
  23. 1 trillion pins = 1 terrapin
  24. 10 rations = 1 decaration
  25. 100 rations = 1 C-ration
  26. 2 monograms = 1 diagram
  27. 8 nickels = 2 paradigms
  28. 2.4 statute miles of intravenous surgical tubing at Yale University Hospital = 1 I.V. League

"How often do you play for the school chess team?" - "With a frequency of about one microhertz."

See the first published paper by DonKnuth, The Potrzebie system of weights and measures, MAD Magazine 33 (June 1957), pp. 36--37 (illustrated by Wallace Wood).

What is a potrzebie anyhow? Feed that word to Google and you get a lot of Polish websites. Unsurprising: it's a Polish word - means something along the lines of "necessary" (needed/required/wanted) modulo losses in translation.

The definitive answer: Mad publisher (in both senses) William Gaines encountered the word "potrzebie" on a the label of a bottle of Polish aspirin. Most Americans pronounce it potter-zeebie, but the Polish pronunciation is nearer poh-CHEB-yeh. If I recall correctly - from a conversation with a Defense Language Institute translator some thirty-eight years ago - it's the genitive form of a noun meaning need. (Used in an instruction meaning "repeat dose as needed" or some such, I guess. Thanks for this detail!) (Actually, not genitive, but dative or locative. From the probable context, I would guess locative: "in need", in the sense "when needed". There are seven distinct cases in Polish.)

Also http://www.strw.leidenuniv.nl/~vdmeulen/deeper/Articles/WeirdUnits.html

Knuth also (whimsically, as it happens) invented an -yllion notation for big numbers (citation, anyone? "The Mathematical Gardner"). One hundred was 10^2, one myriad was a hundred hundred (10^4), one myllion was one myriad myriad (10^8), etc. So I guess that makes one centyllion equal to 10^(2^102).

Strictly, the ks, Ms and Gs aren't "whimsical", they are the official S.I. units derived from s. They really should be used in favour of those irrational minutes, hours, days, weeks and years. -- StephanHouben

They are used in DeepnessInTheSky, by VernorVinge.

That would be great if you lived in a basement and never went outside. Days are rather useful, corresponding to the patterns of light and dark in the BigBlueRoom. Weeks are useful because seven things are easy to manage in working memory, and because if we had a lunar calendar they'd fit rather nicely into our months (with a little adjustment). 24 hours per day and 60 minutes per hour is a wonderful idea, because being based on 12, days and hours are easily divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6, rather than just 2 and 5 like those lame decimal systems (and 60 is divisible by 5 and 10 as well, but I don't need to tell you smart people that).

Actually, now that we have computers to do the arithmetic for us, a base-10 system of measurements is kind of dumb. I would much rather have a base-12 system that I can divide up by 3 easily. How about 60 cm in 1 m? 60 cents in one dollar? Then I could buy things that are 3 for a dollar without them ripping me off for that extra third of a penny!

Computers do the arithmetic, but you want a base that helps mental division? Shome mishtake, shirley?

It's not a mistake, and quit calling me Shirley.
It's a Vinge thing. His ex-wife, JoanVinge?, used the same notation in her book, The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1982). -- EricJablow

My physics teacher used to say that when he grew up, volume was measured in tumps and shedfuls. I forget exactly how many tumps you need to get a shedful.

My chemistry teacher used to measure things in "chunks." A chunk was about half a mole, I think.

A while ago, a discussion of water pressure came up on a BBS I frequent, which ended with the increase in water pressure on a sheet of glass being measured in stone/square mesopotamian great cubit/fathom.

How do you measure fun?


Well, a Fun-Size Snickers bar is, what, one ounce?

From http://www.theonion.com/ -

Q: How big is your bong?

A: A thousand millibongs.

I once saw it asserted that there was an official measure of insulation in use in the UK, of BTUs per square foot per centimetre per degree Kelvin. Or possibly Fahrenheit. It's a bit of a write-only unit anyway. It could have something to do with the BTU being defined as "one calorie pound degree Fahrenheit per gram Kelvin". "Pound per gram"; "Degree Fahrenheit per Kelvin"; you gotta love it. (I suppose it's better than just throwing in an arbitrary constant of 251.99576111111... which everyone would just approximate anyway!)

Dunno about that, but UK domestic gas bills give consumption in cubic feet, but charge per kilo Watt hour, via a conversion involving BTUs.

BTUs are used to calculate the required size of a radiator for a particular room volume, say. A DIY store's website may explain it. Another daft British unit is the kilowatt-hour. Let's follow this one through: it's rate of consumption of energy (kW) multiplied BACK UP by time to get back to energy...

No, it's pragmatic. Appliances are rated in kilowatts. This tells you how many units you'll use each hour you operate the appliance. In practice, that's pretty useful.

Why don't they use kilojoules, then? cos then everybody would have to know that W=J/s and that is presumably too hard for some? Probably because of the factor of 3600 that creeps in when you convert from hours to seconds: running many home electrical appliances (televisions, room lights, ovens, etc.) for only a second or two might be construed as silly. Running them for an hour or two sounds more plausible: J. Random Householder would have an easier time of estimating how many hours an appliance typically runs for and wouldn't then have to convert that estimate to seconds to get a total power consumption.

A couple of informal units of measurement, which might refer to volume or mass or weight (I'm not sure) are boatloads and shiploads. A boatload is enough material to fill up a boat, while a shipload is enough to fill up an entire ship. Unfortunately I have often heard people use "buttload" instead of "boatload," and you may have already heard what they use for "shipload"...

Indeed I have - an odd variation on that is the "metric shipload"

I personally prefer the "metric fuckton"

Over the right-hand side of the Altantic, we use Shedloads. Quite a lot. Shedloads in fact.

EuropeanBillion vs AmericanBillion

What's so whimsical about the Newton? It's the standard SI unit for force. And many other units are derived from it - the units for torque (Newton-meter), work (the Joule is a meter-Newton), pressure (a Pascal is a N/(m^2)), etc. it's not the unit itself that is whimsical but its derivation from the weight of an apple that is whimsical, I have seen company press releases that actually did compare a force to a weight in apples where 1 apple happened to exert 1 N

WikiPedia has lots more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furlongs_per_fortnight.

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