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Units of annoyance November 27, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in Uncategorized.

Probably everyone who has taken a physics class has memories of learning unit conversion using ridiculous units.

One of my favorites involves taking some sort of velocity (perhaps a cow approaching an alfalfa patch at a leisurely pace) and convert it into furlongs per fortnight.

I really like the metric system. I like how it’s easy to convert units, that the prefixes are all specified, etc. But like the US, some folks in scientific circles still adhere to crazy units in the form of CGS. Granted, conversion with CGS is significantly easier than in Imperial units because they’re just scaling of SI (or MKS) units. But throughout my educational career, I always used SI, so that is what I’m most comfortable with. Therefore, when I come across CGS, I feel like I’ve found some obscure relic from an earlier time.

There are some scientists who still use oersteds. I’ve at least run into that once or twice (and did some conversions in a class on paleomag). What’s worse is that some people still use maxwells. This was a new one for me. I’d never heard of a maxwell.

I admit that if anyone ought to have a unit named after him, it ought to be Maxwell. (Never mind he’s already got four equations and demon named for him…it’s just not enough!) But I really prefer good old SI units with their tesla per meter squared.

I’ve also run across, in the engineering literature, references to things like “megacycles”. Apparently this is an older way to refer to a natural frequency and now would instead be megahertz. However, it threw me for a while because I had assumed it was referring to a radian frequency.

I am surprised, however, that the IEC established the use of hertz as the official unit of frequency about the same time as SI units were instituted. Yet, CGS is still used (admittedly for convenience) while the last papers I’ve seen published with megacycles are from the early 70s.

Searching out the meanings of obscure and rarely used units causes me a bit of annoyance, and I think there ought to be a way to measure that annoyance. It makes sense that this annoyance should be proportional to the amount of time searching out the meaning of such unit (designated tsearch) as well as how long the unit is being used past it’s relegation to the unit graveyard (tdeath). For simplicity, we should assume this should be a linear superposition.

Annoyance = ptsearch + qtdeath

I have no idea what the relative values of p and q should be. I do think that it should all be integer values so that you don’t have to become any more annoyed in searching for a calculator to compute the values though. And the units should be lokis.

It took me longer to find the use of megacycles than maxwells, but maxwells are still being used 30 years after megacycles. Intuitively, I’d say the annoyance should be larger for maxwells.

So what is your obscure unit of choice, and how annoying is it?



1. Laura G - November 27, 2010

I totally agree with the annoyance factor (even though I havn’t had to deall with many conversions for a while) I’d like to propose some values for Pp and q. . . I’m thinking that the value of p should be on a definable scale based on emotional response to said search as follows:

-2 – you had so much fun searching that there’s nothing you would have rather been doing

-1 – You will look back on that time spent searching with a warm fuzzy feeling

0 – Completely ambivolent to time spent searching

1 – Slight to moderate irritation at having to spend time on this task.

2 – Extreme agitation including (but not limited to) increased blood pressure, tears, reddening of the face and interferance with sleep.

q is a little more difficult since t(death) is linear but q seems like it should increase at a greater rate the larger the value of t(death) since it probably correlates to an increasingly disproportionate search time as well. Maybe there an irrelevance factor in there affecting the value of q????

Love your blog Cherish!!! So fun.


mareserinitatis - December 1, 2010

Thanks! I love the suggestions for p and q. I guess I was too lazy to put further brain power into it, but that’s okay, because I really like what you came up with.


2. Jonathan Point - November 27, 2010

I agree with Laura that q should follow some exponential function related to the absolute value of t(death). This means that ultimately, t(death) should converge to a fixed point (t(death) = (death)) and beyond this point becomes a constant, rooted in spacetime, measured from the point at which (death) occurred…

Great subject!.

BTW, ‘cycles’ sounds better than ‘Hertz’. When I’m on ham radio, I rarely use (mega)Hertz, unless I’m talking hundreds. “Meet you on 7075kc” (as in ‘kay-cee’) sounds much better than “meet you on 7.075MHz”…

Maybe there’s a branch of science metrics where we deliberately choose to use ‘old’ units just because they sound better?


mareserinitatis - December 1, 2010

Geology has the problem of using old terms, so I guess I’m not too keen on it. However, I concur that kc is more audibly aesthetic than the alternative. And hams tend to use a language all their own, so they can get away with it.


3. Fluxor - November 27, 2010

Angstrom is one that is often heard here at work, as in the gate oxide thickness is 50 angstroms, or 32 angstorms. The unit is hard to type, an A with a little circle on top. I think it’s used because saying 32 angstroms just sound so much better than 3.2 nanometres.

Form me, cycle=hertz is a pretty intuitive. But then again, I tend to shun radians like the plague.

What I find interesting is how unintuitive some units are for some of my American colleagues despite them using those units day in and day out. The best example is temperature. They can talk about testing circuits at room temperature (25C or 27C), at min temperature (0C or -40C), or at max temperature (125C), but when I do a bit of weather small talk with them and mention it’s 10C here today, they get lost.

Personally, I think we should start using archane words for numbers and mix units from difference systems in a verbose fashion, e.g. this engine boasts an average output power of two scores and a quarter of a dozen British thermal units per hour is also capable of a peak power measuring a baker’s dozen less two trios calories per second.


mareserinitatis - December 1, 2010

I have a hard time mentally converting between metric and imperial units myself despite using both regularly.

BTW, you misspelled nanometer. šŸ˜‰


4. From the obscure units file « FCIWYPSC - January 4, 2012

[…] seems almost like a hopeless version of my discussion of annoying units from earlier: there is no way that expressing angular span in terms of degrees is going to change in the near […]


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