How do you measure up?

I’ve recently been looking up a number of measurements for a book in progress.  To my delight, I’ve learned that there are many humorous systems of measurement.  Some made me laugh out loud.  Others produced a quiet giggle.  I thought you might enjoy learning more about them.

Most of us have heard of the (in)famous “furlongs per fortnight” as a measurement of speed.  It’s actually part of the FFF System:  “The length unit of the system is the furlong, the mass unit is the mass of a firkin of water, and the time unit is the fortnight. Like the SI or metre–kilogram–second systems, there are derived units for velocity, volume, mass and weight, etc.”  For science fiction writers, “The speed of light may be expressed as being roughly 1.8 terafurlongs per fortnight (or megafurlongs per microfortnight)“.

Science and science fiction has been a rich vein for measurement humorists to mine.  For example, Douglas Adams, famed author of “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” and its sequels, gave us the sheppey:  “A measure of distance equal to about ​7⁄8 of a mile (1.4 km), defined as the closest distance at which sheep remain picturesque”.  A New York second was defined by the late and much-lamented Terry Pratchett, in his novel “Lords and Ladies“, as “the period of time between the traffic lights turning green and the cab behind you honking”.

Hard science has its quirks, too.  For example, volume can be measured in barn-megaparsecs:  “When a barn (a very small unit of area used for measuring the cross sectional area of atomic nuclei) is multiplied by a megaparsec (a very large unit of length used for measuring the distances between galaxies), the result is a human-scaled unit of volume approximately equal to ​2⁄3 of a teaspoon (about 3 ml)”.

Carl Sagan, the late scientist and writer, has been immortalized with not just one, but two “values”.  His name may be used as a noun:  a “sagan” is a unit of measurement equal to at least four billion.  There’s also “Sagan’s Number“, described as “the number of stars in the observable universe … This number is reasonably well defined … but its value is highly uncertain.”

The speed of light has been used to derive beard-seconds, “inspired by the light-year, but applicable to extremely short distances … The beard-second is defined as the length an average beard grows in one second. Kemp Bennett Kolb defines the distance as exactly 100 angstroms (10 nanometers) … The beard-second establishes a related unit of time, the beard-inch which is 29.4 days (or 58.8 days according to Google)”.

There are historical standards, too.  For example, Helen of Troy was renowned as a very beautiful woman, said to have possessed “the face that launched a thousand ships” (i.e. to invade Troy and rescue her).  Her name has thus become a unit of measure of beauty.  For example, a millihelen has been defined as “the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship”, whereas a negative helen is “the amount of negative beauty (i.e. ugliness) that can beach a thousand ships”.

There are many more humorous and tongue-in-cheek systems of measurement out there.  Wikipedia has a long list of them, but there are even more that are not included.  What are your favorites?  Let us know in Comments.



  1. I’ve always been partial to the Bryant – a measure of how many books you have.

    There is the Old English (traditional) bryant which is 4577 and has various sub-measures

    1 Bryant (B) = 4577 books
    1 Habryant = 2289 books
    1 Sitter (or Rhoom) = 1104 books
    1 Dinky = 161 books
    1 Wallshel = 23 books
    1 Bedside = 17 books

    There’s also the metric Bryant which is 1000 books


    1. I’m not exactly certain about the Rhoom (maybe it should be renamed the Khindle?), but seventeen books in a Bedside sounds about right. Just as long as one can still reach the alarm clock’s Snooze Button at 0530, 0535, 0540, et cetera…

      1. My alarm clock goes off at 9-minute intervals. Maybe I should come up with a name for that?

        I think “stupidclock” is perhaps not terribly descriptive, though.

    1. I was going to mention the smoot. I have no idea if it is/was an actual unit used by some group of college students or not, or just a creation of Parker’s.

        1. Well, if it’s a legit Google unit, then it’s settled. Been a long, looong time since I read any Spencer novels. I seem to recall a gun battle being fought at ranges measured in smoots, buy I can’t for the life of me recall how many feet in a smoot.

              1. Further research unearths the fact that the shots were fired at a range of just a few smoots, no more than ten, with accuracy more real-world than the ridiculous Kojak-style crap of guys with snubbie .38s hitting crap 49 meters away. NOBODY that has shot a 2″ barrel pistol of any caliber and hits a CAR at that range, yet Kojak/Magnum/Columbo and that ilk were shooting out TIRES at that range.

                Yeahright. I didn’t swallow that crap even as a kid. (sigh) Hollywood.

                File under the learning sumpin’ new every day folder. The entire smoot thingy, which I had chalked up to Robert Parker’s fertile imagination, is in fact a real and rather well-known brainchild of the febrile fraternity minds at MIT. Who knew? Even has its own YouTube explanatory video.

                1. Forgot to mention: Smoots are mentioned in his novel “A Catskill Eagle.”

                  I liked the Spenser novels, even as a guy that does not normally read private eye stuff. Why? Prolly the fact that they were as much stories of his love for Susan Silverman as anything else.

      1. Have you ever read any of the official prank accounts put out by such places as Caltech? College students can and will get up to the damnedest things. (BTW, the Caltech prank books were quite obviously used as source material for the movie Real Genius. Almost every crazy occurrence in there has a documented original source, including the computer-entry “enter as often as you wish” sweepstakes, right up to the incorrect calculation of probable wins.)

  2. During a discussion of exactly how one quantifies a micro-aggression, someone introduced the mega-aggression (one million aggressions). It is denoted as the Kratman. There was some debate if the kilo-aggression is properly called the Drake or the Tamerlane.

      1. Apologies if this is the wrong place to ask, but if the original discussion occurred on the Bar I missed it.

        So, why does “Drake” (presumably David) even get a look-in here? Because Joachim Steuben was both a Psycopath & Gay (‘cos I don’t recall it ever being implied that the former was due to the latter)? Because Tovera is Psycopath & “Asexual” (or more accurately, not discernably interested in that form of social relations)?

        I’d think Mercedes Lackey would be more deserving of a place on the list, for how her attempts to present Gay & Lesbian characters sympathetically, before it was fashionable, are now “Problematic”, “Offensive”, & “Transphobic” according to all the screeching a couple of years ago…

        1. Because when the question “if things are measured in micro-aggressions, what’s a kilo-aggression on this scale?”, the answer is based on the amount of aggression, not the specific incident or accident that people measure in pico, nano, or microaggression.

          Presumably, because when Joachim Steuben is on a rampage, worrying about whether or not one’s offended by a microaggression for or against one’s currently perceived gender or attraction to other perceived genders is overwhelmed by orders of magnitude compared to the fist that just hit you / mortar fire / armored division landing / nuke it from orbit levels of macroaggression going on.

        2. Micro-aggression is an alleged offense against the current state of political correctness. Basically, it is thought crime, and most accusations are not against committed foes of political correctness..

          Lackey is merely an artifact of political correctness’ successful emulation of the French Terror. She’s not successful enough in the Inner Party to be driving the current state of political correctness, and her immense volume of published work means that it would be prohibitively difficult to keep it revised to meet current standards of political correctness. She’s lived her life seemingly caring a great deal more about political correctness than Dave.

          Now, Kratman gleefully mocks political correctness. So, potentially a much larger unit on the same scale as micro-aggression.

          Drake is more politically correct than Kratman, but has a very strong record as a mil-sci-fi writer, and as someone who writes very harsh books. So it can be justified as a more than Kratman as a courtesy. Furthermore, Steuban had himself killed when his sexuality posed a threat to his own agenda. And how are you concluding that Tovera is asexual? Mundy, sure, that can be justified, as of not having read the last book. Last I heard, Mundy, who is closest to Tovera, did not know, and explicitly ignored periods of Tovera’s time that might have revealed it, for fear of what she should find.

          Tamerlane is simply one of the few non-left historical figures that can be said to have clearly exhibited more cruel bloodlust than Kratman.

        3. Not at the Bar, but at According to Hoyt, and we were making fun of the entire “micro-aggression” thing, and trying to decide what, precisely is a femto-aggression, nano-aggression, and so on. And what one would name them.

        4. Mostly because Drake really doesn’t care who he might offend. Also, I’ve seen him listed among a group of “right-wing” authors who came into SF during the 1970s and–no joke–helped spawn the alt-right.
          Yeah, anyone who’s actually read Drake knows that’s stupid, but there you have it.

          1. @BobtheRegisteredFool: The fact that Steuben can priortize his agenda over his sexuality (even if his agenda is arguably driven by his feelings for Hammer IIRC) is IMO a better argument for someone’s sexuality being their own business, as long as they don’t insist on making it everyone else’s, than those who *do* insist on making it everyone else’s business…

            @60guilders: That does seem rather… blinkered of them, yes (I was going to use “short-sighted” but that implies clearer vision than I think is displayed in what you describe).

  3. Rankine. Dram. Talant. (sp?) Cubit.

    I’d also point out unitless numbers. Like Reynold’s number and Mach number. These are measures whose units cancel, and can say something about certain systems.

    1. I know Rankine is Fahrenheit version of Kelvin…. but having seen certain TV specials… one would expect it to (also) be a measurement of fish, or at least bass.

        1. BWAHA! Awesome!

          Therefore, we can assume Floppy Cameltron is over 9000!

          And this is not even his final form!!!

          [running away giggling]

  4. I am having bizarre issues with my wordpress account, but the last post worked.
    Celsius degrees, as created by Celsius. The same size as degrees Celsius, but backwards. Water boils at 0 and freezes at 100.

  5. The Weber – a quantifying noun used to estimate the size of an extremely large collection of identical or similar objects. Eg. A Weber of missiles will be a wave of fired missiles with a density such that it is impossible to render each individual missile and a spread measured in light seconds or minutes. (Derived from various action sequences written by David Weber.) A RIngo is a similar unit equal to about .1 Weber.

  6. i find the Mickey funny.

    My mouse has a resolution of 8000 mickeys per inch, but i tend to use it at 2400. (assuming it is equivalent to dots per, but i am thinking it would be either half or double dots per)

  7. There is of course that infamous unit of measurement the CRH, or curly red hair, beloved of those who work around machine tools. By definition it is that tiny amount necessary for a tool or fixture to be in perfect alignment. Can also refer to the amount any given piece of work is either too big or too small to meet specification.
    EDITED BY MODERATOR: Please keep it family-friendly.

  8. I’ve actually measured the diameter of various (natural) colors of human hair. Red hair is the largest diameter, and runs .0035-.004.”

  9. I like how the speed of light can be measured as roughly 1 foot per nanosecond. Which gives us an upper bound for the possible operating speed of optical computers.

    1. Actually, not as much a you think. Current processors have multiple waves of electronic signals passing through them simultaneously, in a pseudo-parallel processing arrangement. There’s no reason that optical computers can’t do the same thing.

  10. The question in your title and the question in your closing paragraph are different.

    To address the title: Pick your coordinate system and measurement techniques. You will probably be working in length and/or angles. Some angle units: radians, milliradians, gradians (?), minutes, seconds.

  11. My standard reply to “Age is just a number” (one of my least favorite phrases) is, “No, age is a number combined with a unit of duration.”

    1. I thought the Reg was the place that came up with the Banana Equivalent Dose for radiation, but it isn’t listed at your link. IIRC the BED is 0.1 micro Sievert but I may have my millis and micros confuded

    2. “This is enough water to fill almost 20 Olympic swimming pools.”

      When the Folsom Dam had a gate break, one idiot commentator decided that since a basketball is about one cubic foot, it would be useful to convert cfs to basketballs. So instead of however many hundred cfs, he said however many hundred basketballs.

  12. “A New York second was defined by the late and much-lamented Terry Pratchett, in his novel “Lords and Ladies“, as “the period of time between the traffic lights turning green and the cab behind you honking”.”

    With all due respect to the late Mr. Pratchett, he was off by an order of magnitude. I’ve always heard that particular period of time defined as a NANO-second.

    1. Which is still slightly longer than the Ohnosecond. That moment between you realize It Went Wrong AND Can’t Be Fixed In Time… and it actually falls down/blows up/goes wrong.

  13. I’ve always liked “shake” == “10 nanoseconds” since “three shakes of a little lamb’s tail” always struck me as an incredibly dumb saying (maybe because I didn’t grow up around lambs).

  14. This is merely an odd use of a unit of measure, but still, it is VERY odd to people who are not into higher-level Physics: In Quantum Mechanics, many calculations measure time in meters. As in, the amount of time it takes light to travel one meter, or about 3.34 nanoseconds.

    1. Those are aware of Grace Hopper understand. Time IS distance (and for astronomers distance IS time.. the moon is very roughly one and a quarter [light] second away…) and to waste a whole microsecond? That’s a LONG(ish) wire. A millisecond? Good Heavens!

      1. I actually got to attend one of the Grand Old Lady’s lectures. I was amused when she hauled out her nano-second but I da*n near collapsed when she hauled out a quite hefty coil of wire and explained that people kept dismissing the nano as trivial so this was a microsecond. She didn’t offer to unroll it but I always wondered if anyone ever called her on the actual length. She said she would have produced a millisecond but that it would take several trips with a forklift to bring the wire into the room. She was a character.

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