# U.S. going metric?

Once again, I find The Onion making a surprisingly valid point in the guise of humor.

From Whatever happened to adoption of the metric system in the U.S.?, Cecil remarks:

[quote]
It was a typical let’s-please-everybody muddle. Dual posting of highway signs in miles and kilometers cost money without any compensating advantage and, by calling attention to the fact that one kilometer equals .621 miles, made the metric system seem needlessly complicated. The folly of dual measurements persists to this day. Rather than baffle consumers by pointing out that a gallon of milk equals 3.78 liters, it would be better to simply replace gallons with four-liter containers. The two-liter pop bottle no doubt succeeded because it was just that simple.

Whereas, Metric System Thriving in Nation’s Inner Cities in The Onion has this to say:

Peg Bracken (author of The I Hate to Housekeep Book) once pointed out that in terms of mental measurement, a kilogram is about the heft of a good-size cabbage, a gram is very close to a raisin, and a kilowatt (for housewives baffled by their power bills) is best visualized as being “small and round, like a peppercorn”. However, on the crucial issue of whether it’s pronounced “kill-AW-met-ter” or “KILL-oh-meter”, she is unfortunately silent. She was writing in the early 1960s when the metric system was still only something you might run across in French (i.e. “foreign”) cooking.

OK, the cabbage and the raisin I can see, but I fail to see the value in associating kilowatts with peppercorns. Wouldn’t it be better to associate it with ten light bulbs? Besides, it’s not as if electric power is ever discussed in non-metric units… I’ve yet to see a hundred foot-pound per second light bulb.

Oh, and by the way,

That’s easy; it’s “klick”.

Oh, well, you’d have to read the rest of the chapter to get it. She was addressing the issue of housewives who have trouble visualizing exactly what a kilowatt is, anyway. I don’t think she was meaning, “This is how much a kilowatt weighs.”

And now, unfortunately, I must kill you, Chronos, for confusing the issue with “klicks”. Vass ist das “klicks”?

I thought “klicks” was what space pirates measure distance in, in Robert Heinlein books. Rocket Boy, how far is it till we make Io? About 20 klicks…

No?

Ah, you’re invoking a third set of measurements, the sci-fi system. This wondrously flexible approach to weights and measures means you can travel 10 light-years in five seconds one week, and 500 miles in 6 hours in another. Shapeshifting aliens can have a mass of 200 kilogrammes when they take the form of a large piece of machinery and 4 ounces if they take the form of a white rat. A ten-second countdown can routinely take 15 or more minutes.

Clearly a superior system, puny Earthman.

No, no, Heinlein sticks to real measurements: You can rest assured that Heinlein’s shapeshifters either keep a constant mass or explain what happens to the rest of it, and his countdowns are not only the length he says they are, but the length that they should be. I thought he made “klicks” up, too, until one book (The Cat who Walks through Walls?), where a character is mentally calculating a landing, and mutters something about “10[sup]5[/sup] centimeters in a klick…”. I believe that the term has its origins in the military, which is where Bob would have learned it.

Well, he never does explain where the extra weight (but not mass) of the magic box goes in Glory Road. Just some handwaving about extradimensional math or something.

Yes, the term comes from the Army, which switched to kilometers in the 50s or early 60s, I think. But Heinlein was in the Navy back in the 30s, where they were using nautical miles and fathoms and such.

Then again, Heinlein was quite influential among some segments of the Army (from what I’ve heard, Starship Troopers[sup]1[/sup] is almost a must read for members of the armor corps), so perhaps he coined the term and the Army picked it up. Anyone have an earliest use by Heinlein of “klick”? (The OED is no use, it doesn’t have the word.)

[sup]1[/sup] As far as I can tell, the extensive use of the phrase “bought the farm” in ST was the reason the term was used (revived?) during the Vietnam War.

Now I can’t get rid of the mental picture of the drug dealers in my neighbourhood using raisins to check the weight of the deals they are selling…

In New Zealand (metric since the 70’s), it seems to me that I hear “kilometre” pronounced with the emphasis on the first or second syllables pretty much interchangably.

More often, though, we simply refer to distances in “k”. (“How far is it to Auckland?” “About 50k.”)

I have never met “klick” outside fiction, mostly Heinlein’s. Definitely never in real life. (Or what I call “real life,” anyway. YMMV.)

Well, if you say “50k” to me, I automatically think “50 kilobytes” and I’m not even a computer maven or anything.

Okay, so “klick” is an old Army term? From the 1930’s and 40’s? Meaning what? A kilometer? Or something to do with fathoms and nautical miles?

It’s not in the OED, eh? It’s not in Merriam-Webster, either. I feel MUCH better now.

(1) “klick” or “click” – meaning a Kilometer, in Army parlance, gained prominence during the Vietnam Era. As to why, I dunno 'bout Heinlein, my WAG would be that the maps used had a major gridline at each KM mark. (The USArmy standardized to metric pretty quick for purposes of mapmaking and artillery since in Europe they had to coordinate with NATO)

I believe the other references were made to point out that Heinlein’s service having been in the pre-NATO Navy, a latter Army term would be less likely to influence him.

(2) as to why would you need to visualize a KWH as discrete objects (“peppercorns”) you got me, though in hindsight that whole “kitchen” guide to metric now sounds quaintly condescending.

JRD
living where gas, soda and hard liquor are sold by the liter, distances are labeled in Km, and the nurse takes your temperature in Celsius; yet beer and milk are sold by ounces and quarts, speeds are posted in MPH, and nurse measures your weight and height in pounds and inches…

A) For unknown reasons, “kilometer” came to be pronounced “kiLOmeter” in English. The international standards wallahs, however, have asked that please, in every language, the metric prefixes be pronounced consistently. So unless we want to start using “kiLOgrams”, we should use “KIlometers”.

B) Note that 1024 is now properly “kibi”. This isn’t just pickiness; for traditional reasons (many late 50’s, early 60’s business computers, which were the first users of disk drives, were decimal-based), disk drives are measured in even 1000’s. A “kilobyte” of RAM is 1.024 kilobytes of disk, causing no end of confusion.

If memory serves, Heinlein has a character in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress declare something to the effect of, “She thought of an electron as something the size and shape of a small pea.”

Not quite a peppercorn, but then, not quite an actual quote either.

I’ve been working with computers for about 16 years now and I have never heard that interpretation. 1 KB is always 1024 bytes whether you’re referring to RAM or disk space.

I checked with the “free online dictionary of computing” (see their article on “prefix”) and I don’t see the difference between RAM KB and disk KB being mentioned.

Allow me to jump to the inestimable Mr. Kennedy’s defense. While, strictly speaking, you’re right, Arnold, I do recall in my early disk drives describing capacity in round numbers, even though when you got down to the details, you’d see “actual” capacities along the lines of the expected powers of 2 that are so familiar today. Someone else will probably correct me in detail, but I seem to remember that part of this had to do with disregarding directory space on a disk when discussing the capacity and things like that.

In any case, I distinctly remember some time in the mid-80s or so when capacities began to be discussed more accurately, though perhaps no less obtusely to those not accustomed to thinking in binary, hexadecimal, or other non-base10 terms. (Not that I think in those terms – plenty of people will tell you I barely think at all, but that’s another matter altogether.)

Case in point: What’s the capacity of a standard 3.5 inch removable disk? Despite the common notion, it’s not 1.44 megabytes. Its predecessor, the 5.25, had 720 kilobytes, with “kilo” carrying its usual computer meaning of “1024”. The 3.5 inch disk has twice that capacity, or 1440 kilobytes, which is either 1.47 base-10 megabytes, or 1.41 base-2 megabytes.

Regarding “klicks” for kilometers:

http://www.ipl.org/ref/QUE/FARQ/militaryFARQ.html

Regarding Heinlein, realize that his writing spanned from the late 1930s (1938, IIRC) to the mid 1980s. It is entirely possible that the references to klick’s in his writing are all from after the Viet Nam war. What is the earliest cite you have? What book or story?

Ducky, I’m sure when Heinlein used the word klicks, he did mean it as an abbreviation for kilometers. Heinlein did like to use actual measurements and use them correctly. Explaining how something could move so incredibly fast was the creative part. (See The Number of the Beast )

dtilque said:

Ah, but Glory Road was one of his few fantasies, rather than strict science fiction. And at least he bothers to mention that there should be some inconsistency there, rather than ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist. He doesn’t bother with creating a technical explanation because it is unimportant to the story, and the character is allowed to remain ignorant of the technical details, just like you don’t have to know what happens inside the wall when you flip the switch, as long as the light comes on. You might know, but you don’t have to.

As for pronunciation, it has to do with ease of speaking. Accents can change in the English language between word forms of the same word. No examples on hand, but between verb and noun forms, or adding appendages, you will see this frequently. So kilometer is easier to say as “kil ah’ muh ter” than as “kill’ o meter”. Plus a “kill o meter” would sound too much like some Irish mechanical device for counting deaths. However, “kill’ o gram” has a better flow than “kill ah’ grum”. Plus, it is inherently more clear by retaining the “gram” pronounced correctly.

The abbreviation for kilograms is “keys”. I think that comes from hearing the Spanish pronunciation, and then simplifying. A “kee lo gram” or a “kee lo” is then a “kee”, or key. Not sure specifically how kilometer became a klick, but the k is usually used to tie it to kilo.

bungie_us: since you said the magic words “you’re right, Arnold”, you count as one of the great thinkers of western civilization in my book.

Chronos, here’s what the dictionary article to which I provided a link above has to say about the 1.44 MB “floppy”:

<<Confusing 1000 and 1024 (or other powers of 2 and 10 close in magnitude) - for example, describing a memory in units of 500K or 524K instead of 512K - is a sure sign of the marketroid. One example of this: it is common to refer to the capacity of 3.5" microfloppies as “1.44 MB” In fact, this is a completely bogus number. The correct size is 1440 KB, that is, 1440 * 1024 = 1474560 bytes. So the “mega” in “1.44 MB” is compounded of two “kilos”, one of which is 1024 and the other of which is 1000. The correct number of megabytes would of course be 1440 / 1024 = 1.40625. Alas, this fine point is probably lost on the world forever.>>

In other words, you’re right (as always), the 1.44MB is not the correct number.

One small point: Formatting method plays a role also. The old double-sided 3.5" floppy formatted to 720K for DOS, but officially to 800K for Macintosh (though, practically speaking, it was usually on the order of around 796K, and could be as low as around 750K if you had lots of different types of files on the disk.) The 5.25" floppy could be formatted in different ways by different systems as well. Many disks were sold using “rounding” at first, but that was abandoned as it got easier to fill disks up, and thus those extra coupla K (always there) became more “valuable.”

Okay, so NOW I’m sitting here wondering why Heinlein would have his characters use a term that means only 6/10 of a mile when measuring distances in space, where the distances are, or so NASA and Star Trek would have me believe, truly mind-boggling. Kinda like saying how far it is from New York to Chicago in feet instead of miles.