Posts Tagged ‘metric’

The “Powers of Ten” Cheerleaders

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

The United States of America has been nominally metric since 1866, but for all practical purposes we are not and probably never will be metric. Too bad. In 1975 Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act mandating complete conversion within a decade. Of course it was a spectacular failure.

However, geek enthusiasm for metrication was high in the mid-seventies, when I was a student, and one of my favorite visual artifacts comes from those heady days. A cartoonist and artist named Chas had a day job doing graphic arts for the College of Marin, my alma mater. He produced a fabulous image of metrical cheerleaders for some long forgotten seminar that quickly passed into history.

Today, the USA is only one of three countries in the world that are not metric. We are joined in our base-twelve ignominy only by Myanmar and Liberia. Personally, I have invested much time and money in my workshop where almost every tool, and all of the big power tools, are Imperial measure. Yet I would be just as pleased to go metric today as I was in 1975.

But Moore’s Law is bringing us more zeros on both sides of the radix than we ever thought possible. We have surpassed megabytes with gigabytes, and microseconds are hella slow compared to nanoseconds. So what was a legal curiosity in the seventies is a practical reality in the teens, and I am proud to display once again The Powers of Ten Cheerleaders, by Chas.

The Powers of Ten Cheerleaders, by Chas

The Powers of Ten Cheerleaders, by Chas

All of this power of ten stuff was brought to my mind the other night when a friend began talking to me about something called “femtocells“, extremely small, local cellular telephone cells. Since Chas’ illustration, I’d never encountered the prefix “femto” until now, and it reminded me of those great cheerleaders.

It is telling that while “femto” is still uncommon and “atto” waits in the wings, “tera” is an everyday reality. I’ve got a terabyte of disk space sitting on my desk in a box no bigger than a paperback book. What comes after tera?

In the seventies, the Cheerleaders were rah-rah-ing about going metric, but today they can be just as effective shouting out for the ever bigger capacities and ever smaller latencies in our digital wonderland.

UPDATE 4 May 10:

It wasn’t hyperbole to think we were running out of big numbers. An article in the London Observer about zettabytes sent me to Wikipedia where I found we’re up to yottabytes (peta and exa come between tera and zetta).