The Mickey, the Smoot and Other Unusual Units of Measurement

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Besides feet, gallons, kilometers and other such scientifically-accepted terms, there's a whole host of unscientific, colloquial units of measurement we use almost without thinking about it. How many times, for instance, have you heard something's height compared to the Empire State Building? Or been told that something was so many football fields long? This is a look at some of our more unusual units of what I call "folk" measurement -- some more widely used than others.
The mickey, for instance, was coined by computer scientists, and is defined as "the smallest detectable movement of a mouse cursor on a screen." The length of a mickey changes depending on the equipment being tested, but is generally about 0.1 millimeters.

Coined by Slate.com writer Collen Murphy, a Warhol is a measurement of length of fame, and is, naturally, fifteen minutes. Murphy explains: "A thousand warhols could be a kilowarhol or, perhaps, a jewell, after Richard Jewell, the man who generated news reports for months despite having failed to participate in the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. A milliwarhol, or about nine-tenths of a second of fame, might appropriately be named after the tyke whose rescue became a brief focus of attention last summer after he fell through the hole of an outhouse."

The Routemaster double-decker bus is a popular unit of comparative measurement in Britain, and is used to measure length (so why does it matter if the decker is double?). A colossal squid, for instance, is about 2.5 double decker buses. (See above graphic for other comparative bus measurements.)
smoots.JPGThe Smoot was coined as an MIT fraternity prank in 1958, was named after pledge Oliver Smoot, an is equal to Smoot's height, 67 inches. His fraternity brothers used him to measure the length of Boston's Harvard Bridge by having him lay down repeatedly -- every 67 inches -- and they made markings accordingly. (The bridge is 364.4 Smoots, plus or minus one ear long.) The markings are still there, apparently at the request of Boston police, who found the Smoot measurements useful in determining the exact location of accidents (one such marking is pictured at left). The Smoot has since become something of a cult unit of measurement (among nerds), and Google incorporates the Smoot in both their Calculator program and in Google Earth. (The latter provides such useful information as the distance between Chicago and Dallas in Smoots: 756,128.11, give or take.)

The Pinkwater was coined by NPR hosts Click and Clack as a measurement of seating comfort. Named for writer Daniel Pinkwater, a 1.0 Pinkwater seat would be "pretty comfortable," whereas most car seats fall somewhere in the 0.7 Pinkwater range.

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July 16, 2008 - 6:53am
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