The Metric System

A centimeter? If any centimeters come crawling into this room, I'll step on 'em!

Sally, Peanuts

Before explaining why you should learn to love the metric system, we should give the traditional measurement systems a fair hearing. They do have a few advantages.

The Few Advantages of Traditional Systems Over Metric
Units usually correspond to something understandable in your environment.

A gram is about the weight of a paperclip, a litre is a half-bottle of soda, and a meter is the distance from the floor to some belly-buttons. A yard is about one step, a pint is a big glass of milk, and a pound is about how much that milk would weigh. Fahrenheit degrees are a 0-100 scale of normal temperature: 0° is quite cold, 100° is quite hot.

There are usually specialized units that work on whatever scale you need.

Inches measure paper, feet measure furniture, yards measure houses, and miles measure cities. Because metric units differ by factors of 10 or 100, there is often no convenient unit for measurement at a certain scale. For instance, there is no metric unit scaled to find the height of people. Most adults fall between 150cm and 210cm — 5 to 7 feet.

There are units tailored to every particular purpose.

For instance, miles defined in terms of feet and yards are intuitive for measuring land. But when navigating by sea or air, nautical miles are more convenient. The equator can be divided into 360 degrees. Every degree is divided into 60 minutes. One minute on the equator is one nautical mile. So you know that when you've travelled 60 nautical miles, you've gone about 1/360th of the way around the world. 1 nautical mile is about 1.15 land miles. Even though both types of measurements are very useful for their distinct purposes, in the metric system, you cannot have two units that differ by this little. One must be ten times larger than the other.

The steps between units are often small and intuitive.
  • 1000 meters is 1 kilometer.
  • A few feet is a yard.
    • A few yards is a rod.
      • A few rods is a chain.
        • 10 chains is a furlong.
          • 8 furlongs is a mile.

These gradual steps can help you picture large things intuitively. If you can imagine a foot, you can imagine a yard. If you can imagine a yard, you can imagine a rod, and so on.

Traditional units, with their intuitive definitions and scales are very well suited to imagination. When you can imagine a furlong (1/8 of a mile) and a rod (5.5 yards), an acre being a 4 rod wide field that's 1 furlong long is pictureable. Originally, an acre was how much land one man could plough with one ox in one day. A furlong was the length of one furrow.

Traditional units naturally express an estimation's margin of error.

Because there are units for every scale, my choice of units expresses my confidence in an estimate. Telling you my couch is about 10 ft. 6 in. wide expresses more confidence than saying it is about 10 ft. wide. Because metric units differ by such great amounts, there is often no way to do this. I must say my couch is about 3 meters or 300cm wide. The former implies my margin of error is 1 meter, and the latter that it's 1cm. In reality, I must depend on the roundness of 300 to imply that my margin of error is 10cm.

Large units often divide evenly into useful whole numbers of smaller units.

Because all metric units differ by multiples of ten, you can only evenly divide them into 2 or 5 smaller units. Traditional units often favor numbers like 12 and 60 which can be divided into 2, 3, 4, or 6 equal pieces. For instance, I can split a yard-long plank of wood exactly into 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, 18, or 36 equal pieces with the inch marks on my ruler. For a 1 meter plank, I must divide into 2, 4, 5, 10, 20, 25, 50, or 100 pieces. Any other division requires estimating, like splitting it into three 33.3cm pieces.

The Advantages of the Metric System
It is the standard system for the whole world.

In many respects, Esperanto is a great candidate for an international language. But English actually is the de facto lingua franca. Don't be one of the few people who learn Esperanto and not English.

The units of measurement are all powers of 10.

This means you never have to look anything up since there are 1000mL in 1L instead of 16 tbsp in a cup; 2 cups in a pt; 8 pts in a gal. You may not mind not knowing how many tablespoons are in a gallon, but in science and engineering, you often compare tiny things to giant things and are happy to know there are exactly 1 trillion picolitres in a litre.

John Baez on inches.

Cairo Composite Manager

This is what I had to do to get Cairo Composite Manager working to get expose-like behavior for normal Gnome.

Sergey Davidoff has a working version in his ppa. Follow directions here.

Because I have no idea what I'm doing, this advice should be taken with a grain of salt. I make no claims that following my directions won't erase all your data and destroy your computer.


The xbindkeys-1.8.3 available in the current ubuntu repositories crashes after pressing 7 listened for keys.

Because I have no idea what I'm doing, this advice should be taken with a grain of salt. I make no claims that following my directions won't erase all your data and destroy your computer.

  1. Put the latest xbindkeys tarball in some directory (I like to use $HOME/src)
  2. tar xvzf xbindkeys-1.8.5.tar.gz
  3. cd xbindkeys-1.8.5
  4. sudo apt-get install libx11-dev guile-1.8 guile-1.8-dev guile-library
  5. sudo ./configure
  6. sudo make
  7. Get some error. But just sudo make a few more times anyway.
  8. sudo make install


I've seen ways to count to 6, 10, 15, and even 31 on one hand.

I've found the most natural method to be one that counts to 20 taught to me by my friend Romie. Instead of counting fingers or memorizing hand positions you count the joints and tips in your five fingers. Each finger has four, so you can count to 5 × 4 = 20 on one hand.

For 1 through 16, point at the joint or tip with the thumb of the same hand. For 17-20 use the middle or index finger, whichever comes up more naturally. For 17, you're really just pointing at the pad of your hand — it's too hard to feel the joint under there.

Hand Diagram

Try this at home! It's nice to be able to count so high on one hand and it's less cumbersome than more exotic methods. Of course there's nothing to stop you counting 20s on your left hand and units on your right, allowing you to count to 20 × 20 = 400 on two hands.

St. Nicholas Icon

St. Nicholas counts to 8


This post used to have a long rant about how much I hated L.A. because idiots kept slamming their cars into me. This song is in the same vein and much less whiny.

When it's grey in L.A. I sure like it that way,
Cause there's way too much sunshine round here...
I don't know about you, I get so sick of blue skies
Whenever they always appear.

And I sure love the sound of the rain pouring down,
On my carport roof made out of tin,
If there's a flood, then there's gonna be mudslides--
We all have to pay for our sin!

And I suppose that they'll close canyon roads,
And the freeways will all start to clog.
And the waters will rise and you won't be surprised
When your whole house smells like your wet dog...

When it's grey in L.A. it's much better that way,
It reminds you that this town's so cruel.
Yeah it might feel like fun when you're sporting sunglasses--
But really, you're just one more fool!

I'm just a chump,
This whole town's a dump,
We came out here to dump all our dreams
Of making it big, but we're stuck in a sig alert nightmare--
That's just how it seems.

And I suppose, Laurie David sure knows
All those cars we drive heat up our earth;
And sea temperatures rise, and those constant blue skies
And brush fires can sure curb your mirth!

Brad Grey's in L.A. yeah okay! I should stay here
There's no place that's better I know,
For a wannabe star, stuck in a car
On a freeway with nowhere to go...

When it's grey in L.A. I sure like it that way,
Cause there's way too much sunshine round here...
I don't know about you, I get so sick of blue skies
Whenever they always appear!


All of the extremely dirty words in English are monosyllabic (some examples). It's always been funny to me that there were certain grunts we can utter that make people uncomfortable and make children giggle and blush.

I always figured there must be some words like these in Chinese. They would have the added bonus of having a single chinese character, i.e. a picture that would make people uncomfortable. When I'd ask my Chinese friends, the closest they'd give me was something that translated to "his mother" or "your mother". These were no good because

  • They use two characters.
  • The characters themselves aren't inherently bad; the phrase is dirty. This is equivalent to saying someone sleeps with their own mother. That's not a swear word, it's an insult.

As it turns out, my Chinese friends were being coy. There is a single character — a picture — a single flat-toned syllable that makes Chinese speakers blush. It is bī.

This word is funny on many levels.

  • It's an inherently dirty word as it's a vulgar word for female genitalia.
  • It's made from the characters for 'body' and 'cave' stitched together.
  • Combined with the word for 'cow' (níu), it means ‘cool’ in a cocky, aloof way.
  • Combined with the word for 'stupid' (shǎ), it's derogatory. "You stupid female genitalia!"
Character(s) Pinyin Unicode
牛屄 níubī 725B-5C44
傻屄 shǎbī 50BB-5C44


Community College Addresses in the Los Angeles area

It took me a while to find all of these addresses; I hope this does somebody some good.

  • Los Angeles City College
    855 N. Vermont Ave.
    Los Angeles, CA 90029
  • East Los Angeles College
    1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez
    Monterey Park, CA 91754
  • Los Angeles Harbor College
    1111 Figueroa Place
    Wilmington, CA 90744
  • Pierce College
    6201 Winnetka Ave.
    Woodland Hills, California 91371
  • Los Angeles Trade Technical College
    400 West Washington Blvd.
    Los Angeles, CA 90015
  • Los Angeles Valley College
    5800 Fulton Avenue
    Valley Glen, CA 91401-4096
  • Los Angeles Mission College
    13356 Eldridge Avenue
    Sylmar, CA 91342-3245
  • West Los Angeles College
    9000 Overland Avenue
    Culver City, CA 90230
    (I taught here and it paid well!)
  • Moorpark College
    7075 Campus Road
    Moorpark, CA 93021
  • Santa Monica College
    1900 Pico Boulevard
    Santa Monica, California 90405
  • Oxnard College
    4000 South Rose Avenue
    Oxnard, California 93033
    (I taught here and it was great!)
  • Compton Community College
    1111 E. Artesia Blvd
    Compton, CA 90221
  • Long Beach City College
    Pacific Coast Campus
    1305 East Pacific Coast Highway
    Long Beach, CA 90806
  • Long Beach City College
    Liberal Arts Campus
    4901 East Carson Street
    Long Beach, CA 90808
  • Coastline College
    11460 Warner Avenue
    Fountain Valley, CA 92708
  • Pasadena City College
    1570 E. Colorado Blvd.
    Pasadena, CA 91106
  • Mt. San Antonio College
    1100 N. Grand Avenue
    Walnut, CA 91789
  • College of the Canyons
    26455 Rockwell Canyon Road
    Santa Clarita, CA 91355
  • Los Angeles Southwest College
    1600 West Imperial Highway
    Los Angeles, CA 90047

Beautiful Things

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.

Henry Miller