My Appropriately-Sized Rhode Island Terror


I just knew going in that describing the size of Rhode Island in terms of football fields was going to be a popular one, because it just had that certain xkcd-ish nerdly panache to it, by combining geodesy, sports, and things that other things get compared to a lot even if you don’t really know or care much about the things. So I was happy about all that.

But, and I know this is ridiculous: I was deeply worried about whether I would get this right. I knew that by giving stuff that could be not obviously wrong numbers I was potentially arousing the powerful Worldwide Nerdly Precision League. This is a shadowy group, communicating primarily by means of pun cascades and posts that convert things — any old things: speeds, fuel economies, lists of Vice-Presidents of the United States with their pets — into stupid measurements like “furlongs per fortnight” all the while trying to troll others into correcting mistakes they pretend to make. Rouse them and they will hound you past death, trying to pin down whether you meant the London firkin or some other non-London yet nevertheless English firkin, such as the Bristol firkin, and they will not accept that you could care less, an expression that they’ll also debate with you.

So in my quest to get the measurement of Rhode Island right I discovered there are no two sources on the entire Internet that agree about how big Rhode Island is. A lot of them just round it off to the nearest ten miles, even though that risks rounding the state down to a slender twig blown about in the strong wind. Some of them give up altogether: Wikipedia just describes Rhode Island as being “larger than three elephants standing end to end, but not much. Not those elephants, a different three elephants”. Finally I gave up and found the United States Coast Guard’s Geographic Information Services depository and got a map of Rhode Island that if the Coast Guard is fine with I can live with. I trust the Coast Guard to keep track of Rhode Island even though it’d save them a lot of craggly little corners if they lopped off the whole island and went with those pretty straight borders on the east of Connecticut and south of Massachusetts instead. I guess that might risk their running a cutter or whatever they have into Quonset but the people of Quonset have dealt with worse. I imagine. They’ve done a lot of stuff, what with making huts and not being Woonsocket, I guess.

But this set off a new problem because the best GIS software I could find was QGIS, which is open source. Open source software is different from professional software because, when you want to get a piece of professional software, you download it and then run it. With open source software, you download it, and then discover that to run it you have to download something else. When you download that something else and try to run it, you find out you have to download some other thing. That other thing you can download, but to actually run it you have to resolve some package dependency issue. You Google for that and discover one StackOverflow page with somebody describing what sounds like your problem, except that when you describe your problem there’s antecedents and verbs and the sentences parse. It seems close enough, though, so you follow what you think is the best answer, as it’s the one in which all the sentences parse even though the paragraphs don’t, and the settings it describes aren’t exactly in your version of the software but some things described with imperfect synonyms are, even if none of them are under the described menu options, which are different anyway, that the StackOverflow answer says. This works, except that every time you start the program it pops up an alert box containing nothing but an exclamation point and three buttons marked “OK”, “Dismiss”, and “Cancel”, all of which do the same thing if you click them twice, which is to go away and let you use the program, except every now and then the software switches the typeface over to I’m going to guess Korean and you have to delete the preferences and start over. But it’s worth it because if you complain about it someone tells you to pitch in and help fix the problem instead of just complaining.

It was easiest to measure the lengths not at all because while you can turn on a grid to make measurements of stuff in QGIS, it’s open-source software, so while you can do pretty much anything, there’s no guessing how except that it won’t be anything like you learned from any other program you ever used, ever. But when I found how — it required three sherpas and a gyrocompass — it was easiest to measure the state in kilometers and I was going to accept that, because I could convert the size of a football field into meters and just do the stupid division like that. I finished all that and scheduled the article to be posted and went off to play pinball all day.

Except. Right about when the post was scheduled to appear I thought: did I convert “120 yards into meters”, or did I screw up and enter “120 feet into meters” instead? Did I make Rhode Island three times as big as it should be? Or worse did I somehow make it one-third its rightful size? I did my best to struggle on with making a shiny ball bounce against a diverse set of things a lot of times, but I kept thinking of how I’d get home to face dozens of comments from the New England Chapter of the Worldwide Nerdly Precision League, and I’d have to flee my home and move to some other country where they don’t play American football. And not a small country either, something that would take dozens of thousands — literally, scores of great grosses — of football fields cricket pitches to cross. I swear, I spent hours thinking I might just be an idiot for having come up with numbers like “1772” or “1999” or even “788”. At least the “4940” I was pretty sure about.

Anyway, mercifully, I got back home and checked my notes and it looks like I was wrong about being mistaken, and I had not messed up calculating this bit of nonsense. So there’s that. You’re welcome, all.

As I make it out by the way Rhode Island is about 86.4 kilometers east-to-west, about 97.5 kilometers north-to-south, and about 247 meters top to bottom because nobody’s told me about any part of the state that’s dry land but below sea level, so if you want to figure out what that is in terms of Canadian football fields or cricket pitches or pinball table sizes good luck.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

4 thoughts on “My Appropriately-Sized Rhode Island Terror”

    1. I’ve been happy just rounding about with nonsense.

      I do remember a Usenet quarrel that turned remarkably bitter when someone insisted that it was The Rule, when rounding something that ended with a 5, to round down if the digit before was odd and up if the digit before was even — that is, 2.5 would round to 2, while 3.5 would round to 4 — and that everyone who didn’t follow this rule, which was absolutely everybody else in the group because we never heard of this rule ever was being foolish and wrong and probably did indecent things with transcendental numbers when they weren’t being watched.

      I’ve since found a couple references that suggest this as a way of, on average, reducing the accumulated rounding error you get from having a particular rule for dealing with rounding 5 off, but the weird bitterness that created that flame war was just magnificently bizarre.

      In short, I miss Usenet.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems awfully fussy, at least. I can understand figuring you’re doing well enough to get people to “round 0-4 down to zero, 5-9 up to the next zero”, which is probably why I never encountered the odd/even rule until my relative old age.

      Like

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