The more things change

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How many furlongs are in a fortnight?

By John Pawlak

It’s human nature to cling to the familiar. We look at the way things are and we are comforted by the fact that things have always been this way and they’ll always stay this way.  
Things that cost more are always better than things that cost less. Chicken soup will always cure any illness. The Earth has always revolved around the Sun.  
And men have always been smarter than women (just don’t tell my wife I said that.)
Life just seems to make more sense when we ignore the simple fact that things do change.
One of my favorite subjects of change is standard units of measure. Take the inch for example. What could be more firmly rooted in history than the common inch?
Throughout our lives, we’ve inched toward our goals.  
We gave someone an inch, they took a mile. We’ve come within an inch of our sanity. At times, we’ve refused to budge an inch!  Yes, an inch is an inch is an inch. Unless of course you’re talking about Nine Inch Nails.
I used to think it was an incredible coincidence that an inch was equal to exactly 2.54 centimeters.  I mean, why not 2.541 cm? I assumed that 2.54 cm was an approximation.
But in 1959, the inch was standardized to be 2.54 cm.  After that, we could safely use inches and feet in any country and know that we were speaking the same language.
Well, not quite. An “international foot” is 12 inches.  A “survey foot” is also 12 inches, but uses the definition of an inch as 2.540005 cm.  This discrepancy results in a difference of about one foot every one hundred miles.
So what other units of measurement are not quite what they seem to be?
A great example is the riddle often cited to young children: “Which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?”
When children answer, “A pound of gold!,” they are corrected and told both weigh the same amount (one pound).
However, that’s incorrect. Feathers are measured using the avoirdupois system. An avoirdupois pound weighs 16 avoirdupois ounces (each being 437.5 grains), totaling 7000 grains.
Gold is measured in the troy system. A troy pound weights 12 troy ounces (each being 480 grains), totaling 5760 grains.
Hence, a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold.
Even a ton can vary. The British ton weighs almost two percent more than the US ton.  
If you’re ever given the choice, take the British ton. And call me in case you need any help carrying all that gold home!
Most people know the general definition or size of a tablespoon or a cup or a pint.
But when Peter picked a peck of pickled peppers, did he understand the difference between a peck and a kenning? A peck is four forpets, four pecks make a bushel, and a kenning is half a bushel.  
A mutchkin is four gills or half a chopin. Two fins is a firkin, two firkins is a kilderkin, and four kilderkins is a puncheon.
My favorite is a hogshead (two hogshead equals a butt).  
It just so dignified to go to the market and order half a butt of wine.
It’s fun to look back and laugh at the ridiculous measures people created to manage finances, crop sales, precious metals, and other trade goods.
It makes you wonder how much they’ll be laughing in the future when they talk about the use of the word “trillion” to describe government debt.
If we’re lucky, rampant inflation here will mimic the fate of the Zimbabwe, whose currency inflated so fast that by 2009, they were printing $100 Trillion bills (worth about the cost of a tube of toothpaste).
And when a trillion dollars buys a pack of gum, they’d laugh to think that our nation was tearing apart at the seams for such a trivial amount of money.
They’d laugh to think that political careers were made and destroyed over debates on two or three packs of gum.
 So why wait?  Laugh at it now.  I mean, seriously, can’t you take a joke?
 John Pawlak
Los Alamos columnist