Units of Measurement

Ursa major

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This thread managed to average one instance of the word “math” for every 26 posts, and suddenly now that’s one in 8.
It soon adds up...


...but the last thing we want to introduce here is division....
 

Anne Martin

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I'll avoid the m-word, but I'm writing in US English, and my protagonist is British, so I'm really confused, especially since my setting is Hell.

I'm mostly OK with metric, since I lived for a long time in the UK, but saying something is about a foot long seems more elegant than saying it's about 30 cm. That implies a precision that is unnecessarily refined. What is worse is that my story has some numerical associations with the numbers 3 and 13. My protagonist is in a 13-sided room with a nominal radius of 13 feet and a presumed height of 39 feet. There are 12 clans because that is 1 short of 13 - 13 being the "Arcane" number - not sure why, it was just an arbitrary choice, although associated with bad luck. There are 13 Books of the Arcane. There are 9 ditches in the 8th circle of Hell, which actually coexists with the 9th circle, as my character discovers. Each ditch is 26ft across and 13ft deep.

If I made all of these measurements meters, they would be huge, and saying that the radius of the room is 4.25 meters, just doesn't cut it. Brits, of course, are ambidextrous as far as distances/lengths go, and the story happens in the "present", so at the moment, I'm measuring fast and loose. Be advised that the room isn't a physical room, but a perceived (mental?) space that loses its dimensions, except for at various moments during the story. I just had a couple of chapters in which the room was a physical space, but in the current chapter it is a safe space in a dark (void of light) landscape of infinite distance in all directions, except down. (There is a floor.) It's sort of like a TARDIS, in that this "room" is in a (fictional) subcrypt under St Paul's Cathedral in London, where the ceilings are probably only 7ft high. (39' inside, 7' outside.)

I don't know where this is going, but I just wanted to put it out there, and say that I've had readers complain when I went metric and others complained when I wasn't.
 

Pyan

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I remember reading a book (can't remember which one) on Kindle, and it seemed to have been run through some sort of imperial/metric automatic translator. It was really jarring, as you had sentences that read something like:

"It was a jewelled dagger - the blade was about nine inches (22.86cm) long"

and

"That day they rode at least thirty-five miles (56.33km)"

Kinda took the magic out of the story...
 

Wayne Mack

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I'll avoid the m-word, but I'm writing in US English, and my protagonist is British, so I'm really confused, especially since my setting is Hell.

I'm mostly OK with metric, since I lived for a long time in the UK, but saying something is about a foot long seems more elegant than saying it's about 30 cm. That implies a precision that is unnecessarily refined. What is worse is that my story has some numerical associations with the numbers 3 and 13. My protagonist is in a 13-sided room with a nominal radius of 13 feet and a presumed height of 39 feet. There are 12 clans because that is 1 short of 13 - 13 being the "Arcane" number - not sure why, it was just an arbitrary choice, although associated with bad luck. There are 13 Books of the Arcane. There are 9 ditches in the 8th circle of Hell, which actually coexists with the 9th circle, as my character discovers. Each ditch is 26ft across and 13ft deep.

If I made all of these measurements meters, they would be huge, and saying that the radius of the room is 4.25 meters, just doesn't cut it. Brits, of course, are ambidextrous as far as distances/lengths go, and the story happens in the "present", so at the moment, I'm measuring fast and loose. Be advised that the room isn't a physical room, but a perceived (mental?) space that loses its dimensions, except for at various moments during the story. I just had a couple of chapters in which the room was a physical space, but in the current chapter it is a safe space in a dark (void of light) landscape of infinite distance in all directions, except down. (There is a floor.) It's sort of like a TARDIS, in that this "room" is in a (fictional) subcrypt under St Paul's Cathedral in London, where the ceilings are probably only 7ft high. (39' inside, 7' outside.)

I don't know where this is going, but I just wanted to put it out there, and say that I've had readers complain when I went metric and others complained when I wasn't.
I usually fallback to measure in units like foot lengths, steps, or paces (two steps). Make the room 13 foot lengths. This way I can avoid the whole imperial versus metric argument and I can also quickly check on how long a distance looks by getting up and walking.
 

Anne Martin

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I usually fallback to measure in units like foot lengths, steps, or paces (two steps). Make the room 13 foot lengths. This way I can avoid the whole imperial versus metric argument and I can also quickly check on how long a distance looks by getting up and walking.
Of course, women's feet and paces are generally shorter than men's, but your point is taken.
 

Ursa major

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about nine inches (22.86cm) long
That would be a good example -- in a tutorial about how not to write -- of how to pull the reader out of the story in two different ways using very few words.

Of course, women's feet and paces are generally shorter than men's, but your point is taken.
Not to mention that feet come in a... er... wide variety of lengths, whatever the sex of their owners.
 

farntfar

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You get it in the news all the time.
The court awarded him £799,376.47 (a million dollars)
Still it's better than before the decimalisation of sterling when it would have been
............ £799,376 9s 7d (a million dollars)
 

Ursa major

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You get it in the news all the time.
That's even sillier than the examples quoted in that story: unless fixed in some way, the value of a currency is changing (probably by the millisecond, if not more frequently) when compared to that of other currencies.
 

Danny McG

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it was decided that the UK would convert to metric in the future, and the new generation should learn the new system
I remember the dull maths teacher thinking he was a proper wit (but he never was) because he gave us all a blank exercise book for his new fangled lessons in the Metric system.
He insisted that we all wrote our names on the front and below it we had to write *drum roll*
'Thoroughly Modern Milli'

Only the class creep chortled, we all sighed because it was basically a fresh subject on top of our busy workload,and we were by then very familiar with the old Imperial system
 

Anne Martin

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I remember back in 1976 (in the US) when they told us we would be metric by 1980. NY and MI changed to selling gas by the liter, and bottles of soda as well. And then they all changed back after Reagan became President.

In my sci-fi, my currency is all unified (CU=Currency Unit) and all measurements metric unless my protagonist has some kind of time anomaly, i.e. born in the 20th Century, lives in the 33rd Century.
 

Pyan

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I like the SF convention that the currency unit is a 'credit'. You know where you are with credits.
 

Pyan

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Why would base 12 be any more cumbersome for math than base 10? Multiplying and dividing by 12 becomes much easier.
Unless you're relying on your fingers (and/or toes)...
 

Yozh

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Don't burden your audience with math.

Metric units make sense if you're doing math, and the more we have to do math on measurements, the more we learn to appreciate metric. Use metric on worlds where measurements have to be communicated more precisely than the weight of a sack of grain. This usually becomes an issue when fast-moving vehicles start colliding on a regular basis. Thus, any society with fast-moving vehicles will move to a measuring system that makes math easier.

On worlds where science and math are limited to a select few, use local measurements. If you have to mention the measurements too often, you're trying to pack too much quantitative into your story, and you should shift it to qualitative.

Base 10 makes sense when people are in the habit of using it for math. Try this: Write down a five-digit number. Divide that number by three. Now divide that number by 10. See the difference? Base 12 is better for measuring because it's easier to cut a measurement in half than it is to cut it in 10ths, but as soon as you start doing math on it, base 12 becomes cumbersome.
Base 12 is only cumbersome for math when your counting system is base ten. There's nothing magic about the number ten.

However, I think creating a "conmath" with different base would be a bridge too far for most SciFi readers.
 

Anne Martin

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Base 12 is only cumbersome for math when your counting system is base ten. There's nothing magic about the number ten.

However, I think creating a "conmath" with different base would be a bridge too far for most SciFi readers.
I think my head would explode.
 

Yozh

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I think it’s not overly complicated unless there are pointless extra differences, such as a different base number according to the time of day, or what month it is, et cetera
The thing is, if you are using a different base you'll need different number names & symbols after 9 for it to make any sense at all, and that's where you lose the reader. (see e.g. What is hexadecimal numbering? )

I could see a story where main character has to navigate some foreign world with "weird" math as an interesting aspect, but wouldn't want to tax the reader with learning it.
 

farntfar

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I agree that division by 10 is not an easy thing except mathematically.
I can visualise half a foot or a quarter of a metre by visualising the known quantity of a metre and dividing it by 2 or 4, but visualising 10 centimetres as a tenth of a metre just doesn't seem easy. Instead I'll get there by visualising it a unit in its own right, or else recognise it as as a 1/3 of a foot.

As a conceptual thing, a 1/10 of a metre or a 1/10 of a kilogram is something that you generally think of as a unit in its own right. Mind you, that's also true of inches, which you never really think of of 1/12 of a foot except when doing calculations.
 

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