Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

What is Normal - Part 8: Public Holidays

© 2015 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

A public holiday is a day designated to celebrate a specific event, such as a country's independence, a patriot's birthday, or a major religious occasion. If a public holiday falls on a weekend, it might be celebrated on the nearest weekday. And if it falls on a weekday, it usually means that workers have that day off, with pay. People working on a public holiday generally get extra pay for doing so.

Public holidays can occur on the same day each year, be fixed to a certain day of a given week, or on a day tied to an alternate calendar (such as one following the phases of the moon, rather than the sun). (In the US, the Presidential Inauguration Day is celebrated once every four years.)

Countries made up of states, provinces, and other such subdivisions often have both national and state-specific public holidays. For example, in the US, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a federal holiday. However, not all US states recognize that day, and even in those that do, there is no requirement that private companies give their employees the day off. My birth state, South Australia, has Proclamation Day to celebrate the establishment of government there as a British province, in 1836. (My father-in-law, John Hill, was named after his ancestor, a crew member on the HMS Buffalo on which Governor Hindmarsh arrived.) Texas celebrates its independence from Mexico on Texas Independence Day. [South Australia and Texas are "sister states", both having been created in 1836, although Texas did not join the US until some years later.]

In the UK and parts of the British Commonwealth, a public holiday is known as a bank holiday.

For a list of public holidays by country, click here.

For more discussion on holidays in general, see my July 2012 essay, Are You Getting Enough Vacation?

New Year's Day

As its name suggests, New Year's Day is the first day of the new year. And while most westerners immediately think of January 1st, people in other cultures use non-Gregorian calendars, or other methods to determine their holidays. Many places—such as Sydney, Australia—celebrate with fireworks at the stroke of midnight. In the US, New York City has the famous "dropping of the ball" in Times Square. Vienna, Austria, is famous for its New Year's Concert.

Chinese New Year is the first day of the lunar calendar, and typically occurs between January 20 and February 20.

The short-form name of the Vietnamese New Year (which is also lunar-calendar based), is Tết. According to Wikipedia, "The Tet Offensive was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, launched on January 30, 1968 by forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam against the forces of South Vietnam, the United States, and their allies. It was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian commands and control centers throughout South Vietnam. The name of the offensive comes from the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese New Year, when the first major attacks took place."

Koreans get time off at the start of both solar and lunar new years. I ask you, "Is that fair?"

Many Muslims use the Hijri Islamic calendar, which is also a lunar calendar

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, occurs in September or October.

The Russian New Year, Novy God, used to be September 1, until Tsar Peter I decreed something else.

National or Independence Days

Some countries gained their independence by force while others were granted independence. The US celebrates in a big way every July 4th.

Australians celebrate Australia Day on January 26 to commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet of British Ships in 1788; however, the country actually became independent on January 1, 1901.

Each July 14, the French National Day, Bastille Day, commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution with the Storming of the Bastille.

While Cinco de Mayo (literally, "the fifth of May" in Spanish) is widely celebrated, it is not any country's Independence Day despite claims to the contrary.

The Celebration of the unification of East and West Germany process occurs on German Unity Day, on October 3.

Religious Holidays

For Christians, the two biggest holidays are Christmas and Easter. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and usually occurs on December 25. According to Wikipedia, "While the month and date of Jesus' birth are unknown, by the early-to-mid 4th century, the Western Christian Church had placed Christmas on December 25, a date later adopted in the East, although some churches celebrate on the December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which, in the Gregorian calendar, currently corresponds to January 7, the day after the Western Christian Church celebrates the Epiphany." Others celebrate on January 6 or 19.

In Australia, we Aussie kids got presents from Father Christmas; American kids have Santa Claus (or "Santa" for short); to my Dutch friends, Sinterklaas delivers presents December 5; while others get a visit from Saint Nicolas.

Australia's development of its own unique National culture really came to the fore in the 1970s with the advent of the Aussie greeting-card industry. Prior to that, Aussie Christmas cards depicted winter scenes from England, which is rather silly when you consider that Down Under, its summer! Thanks to Aussie ingenuity, Santa can now be seen sitting in a deck chair, in his swimming trunks, at the beach with a six-pack of beer (as God intended).

To read more than you ever wanted to know about Christmas trees, click here.

Another memory from my Aussie youth was the calendar entry marked Boxing Day, on December 26. I never knew what that meant until a few years ago when I decided to research it. Way back when, the lord of the manor would distribute a "Christmas box" to certain servants and tradesmen.

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. According to Wikipedia, "Easter is a moveable feast, meaning it is not fixed in relation to the civil calendar. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, the full moon that occurs on or soonest after 21 March (taken to be the date of the equinox)."

In Australia (as with other countries as well), Easter is a 4-day long weekend. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are church-going days; Saturday is the time to take a breather, historically with seriously reduced shopping hours; and Monday is a huge sporting day. Unfortunately, that holiday also sets the highest highway death toll for a weekend. The first year I lived in the US, my wife and I were busy making plans for what we were going to do with our up-coming Easter long weekend. Imagine out surprise when we found that great Christian country had no Easter public holiday at all!

Now as for the Easter Bunny, it's not clear to me what role he played in the resurrection.

It is interesting to note that some major Christian religious holidays occur right about the same time as some pagan predecessors. In order to convert their subjects, they found it useful to preserve certain feast days, but to give them a new meaning, sneaky devils!

Eid al-Fitr, the Feast of Breaking the Fast, is celebrated by Muslims to mark the end of Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting.

Jews celebrate a number of days, including Pesach (Passover) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

When I was taking Spanish lessons in Antigua, Guatemala, a major celebration there was Todos Santos (All Saints Day), on November 1. I managed to get to the town of Chichicastenango where I witnessed the grand parade in which a religious statue was carried through the streets. Several years later, I was in Vera Cruz, Mexico, for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), for the same holiday. We cleaned up the cemetery around the graves of departed relatives before shooting off fireworks. You've likely heard of Halloween (All Hallows' Eve or All Saints' Eve) celebrated on October 31.


It's probably a toss-up as to which US holiday is bigger, Independence Day or Thanksgiving. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November to honor the giving of thanks by the Pilgrims after they establish their settlement in New England in 1621.

The theme of Thanksgiving is to "go home to be with family". As such, it's the busiest travel period of the year, and if major snowfalls occur, chaos erupts. Many people take a floating holiday on the Friday following, so they can have a 4-day weekend.

In my 35+ years of living in the US, I've had more than a few Americans ask me how we celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia. Each time I've had to remind them the Pilgrims didn't quite make it to Australia; duh! That said I do have memories of attending Harvest Thanksgiving services at my local Lutheran Church. The altar and surrounds were decorated with fresh produce and homemade food and drink.

Canada's Thanksgiving predates America's, and has to do with giving thanks for surviving a long sea journey from England through the perils of storms and icebergs. It is now celebrated on the second Monday in October, and is tied to the close of the harvest season.

Rumor has it that the Brits celebrate their Thanksgiving on July 4 (US Independence Day), when they finally got rid of those troublesome colonies!

Labor Day

According to Wikipedia, "Labour Day (Labor Day in the United States) is an annual holiday to celebrate the achievements of workers. Labour Day has its origins in the labour union movement, specifically the eight-hour day movement, which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest. For many countries, Labour Day is synonymous with, or linked with, International Workers' Day, which occurs on 1 May. For other countries, Labour Day is celebrated on a different date, often one with special significance for the labour movement in that country. In Canada and the United States, it is celebrated on the first Monday of September and considered the official end of the summer holiday for most of the respective countries, as public school and university students return to school that week or the following week."

In the US, this is a national holiday on the first Monday of September, while in Australia it is celebrated on different days in different states and territories.

Midsummer Day

According to Wikipedia, this day, "also known as St John's Day, is the period of time centered upon the summer solstice, and more specifically the Northern European celebrations that accompany the actual solstice or take place on a day between June 21 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures."

While this day is celebrated in numerous countries, I've personally witnessed it in two: Denmark and Finland. Copenhagen is home to the famous Tivoli Gardens, and I was in town on business and had my wife and young son with me. On Saint John's Day, we went to the gardens for an evening of entertainment, and to see the burning of a huge witch. As the fire raged, my son asked where the witch went after she was burned, to which I replied, in English, "She comes back as your mother-in-law." Those Danes nearby who understood English smiled on hearing that.

I was visiting Finnish friends in Helsinki, and for the holiday weekend, we drove to their lakeside cabin, complete with sauna (as God intended; after all, this was Finland!) There the day is called Juhannus Day after John the Baptist. In the evening, we made our way through the ever-present dark clouds of mosquitoes to the local village where we ate great food while being entertained by singers of folk songs. The culmination was the burning of a large witch on a platform out in the lake.

Apparently, it is not necessary to actually burn a witch. All along the coast and lakesides around Scandinavia, ordinary bonfires can be seen burning on this night.

Nowadays, the closest we have in the US to a festival with a witch burning is Burning Man. [I might just add this to my own bucket list.]

Miscellaneous Days

The UK and member countries of the British Commonwealth celebrate the Queen's Birthday; however, they don't always do it on the same date, or on the Queen's actual birthday. Some years ago, at the last minute, I bought a cheap 3-day weekend airfare from Washington DC to Ottawa, Canada's capital. On arrival, I discovered it was Victoria Day, named for the birthday of that foxy babe Queen Victoria. It now designates the reigning sovereign, whoever that may be. Ottawa is a fine city to visit at any time of the year, but a reason to go there in May is to witness the spectacular Canadian Tulip Festival when more than a million tulip bulbs are blooming in a small area with half a million pedestrians going around to see them. As to how this festival got started, let's just say it has something to do with the Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands being there during WWII, and leave it for you to read about that offline.

A major public holiday in Australia (and New Zealand) is Anzac Day, April 25, when the country remembers its people who died fighting or who served in wars. This day has its roots in the tragedy of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) soldiers at Gallipoli in Turkey during WWI. Many towns start the day with a dawn church service at a war memorial often referred to as a Cross of Sacrifice. The big military holiday in the US is Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday in May, while Armistice Day is widely observed on "the 11th day of the 11th month" in countries involved in WWI.


Back in the old days, the peasants slaved away in harsh conditions for long hours each day, usually for at least six days a week. In order to allow them to let off some steam, the landed gentry and church gave the workers a day off and a celebration now and then. As best as I can tell, in the Western world, that is still pretty much the reason behind most public holidays.

What is Normal - Part 7: What’s in a Name?

© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In previous installments, we've looked at all kinds of things that we take for granted, sometimes on a daily basis. This time, we'll look at the names by which some things are known. These include people, countries, and geographic features, among other things. In some cases, the same thing may have different names or have essentially the same spelling, but with a different pronunciation.

Mention to a native English speaker the term English Channel and it's a good bet they'll know you are referring to the body of water separating England and France. However, some months ago, I was looking at that waterway from the French side, in Brittany, and there they referred to is as la Manche. Meanwhile, the Dutch call it Het Kanaal, and the Spanish el canal de la Mancha. Similarly, from time to time, we hear the term Baltic States used, and many of us think Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of which border on the Baltic Sea. However, the Germans and Swedes refer to that body of water as the East Sea (die Ostsee and Östersjön, respectively).

On my first trip to Amsterdam, I decided to go in search of the famous Van Gogh Museum. Now I've found that the vast majority of Dutch people speak a reasonable amount of English, so along the way I stopped and asked a local for directions. He replied that he'd never heard of the place. I said that surely he'd heard of the world-famous Dutch painter van Gogh. But no, apparently not. I persisted and after more discussion, I learned that I was using the English pronunciation. In Dutch, it is something like van Hhhoch. That is, the two g's are pronounced differently from each other and different from the hard-g sound in English. (Similarly, the Dutch town Gouda—and its famous cheese—is pronounced Hhhouda in Dutch.)

My final example here has to do with road signs in countries or areas that are bilingual, such as Finland, Wales, and Ireland. In general, the two names for the same town look nothing like each other.

Country Names

This is the age of the Internet; browsing web pages and sending email are parts of many peoples' daily lives. Now while many website and email addresses end in ".com", that suffix is used primarily by US-based entities. (Certainly, control of the allocation of such names lies in US hands.) As such, each country has a 2-character country code, so it can have its own unique addresses. For example, the official website of the British Monarchy is www.royal.gov.uk, that for the German Parliament (the Bundestag) is www.bundestag.de, and Honda's Japanese home is www.Honda.co.jp. As such, we deduce that the respective country codes for these countries are uk, de (Deutschland), and jp. [In fact, the country code for the UK is gb, but uk is also reserved.] When used in an Internet context these codes are not case-sensitive. That is, uk, UK, Uk, and uK are equivalent. By the way, as you travel around the world to various tourist attractions, you'll often find guide/souvenir books for sale. The language in which they are written is usually indicated by an abbreviation. For English, that abbreviation is GB!

The complete list of official 2-character country names in English is defined by the standard ISO 3166-1 alpha-2. Consider the codes for Australia (au) and Austria (at). One can argue a strong case this these can be confusing. As such, a 3-character version—ISO 3166-1 alpha-3—was introduced. In this, Australia (aus) and Austria (aut) are more distinguishable.

From an English-centric point-of-view, most of the 2-character codes are obvious. However, some require a bit of detection to recognize and understand. Here are some such examples: Algeria: dz (from the colloquial Arabic word Dzayer), Cambodia: kh (the home of the Khmer people), Chad: td (known in French and Arabic as Tchad), Croatia: hr (Hrvatska in Croatian), Estonia: ee (Eesti in Estonian), South Africa: za (Zuid-Afrika in Dutch), Spain: es (España in Spanish), and Switzerland: ch (from the Latin Confoederatio Helvetica).

Changes over Time

Some countries and place names have changed over the years, and some have even reverted to older names. For example:

  • In elementary school, I learned that Ceylon was a great exporter of tea. Now it's Sri Lanka.
  • Persia became Iran; however, after the US-hostage crisis, the Iranian taxi drivers at Washington National Airport suddenly became "Persian" to distinguish themselves from the modern-day Iranians.
  • Abyssinia became Ethiopia.
  • The African state of Tanganyika became Tanzania.
  • The boundaries of Transjordan changed and it became Jordan.
  • At its beginning, Australia was called New Holland (and its island state, Tasmania, was Van Diemen's Land).
  • Northern Rhodesia became Zambia.
  • Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, an old tribal name.
  • The military government of Burma decided to call its country Myanmar.
  • In 1947, East and West Pakistan were spun off from India, and after a civil war, East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh. (Pakistan was initially referred to as Pakstan, which came from the following province names: Punjab, Afghania Province, Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan.)
  • The former Yugoslavia was (eventually) broken up into Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. However, as Greece has its own province called Macedonia, it refuses to acknowledge the name of the independent country claiming the same name. As such, many maps show the country name as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)".
  • Anatolia became Turkey.
  • What was Siam is now Thailand.
  • Cathay became China.
  • Modern-day Iraq came from Mesopotamia.
  • The island of Formosa became the country of Taiwan.
  • French Indo-China became Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
  • Malaya plus Singapore became Malaysia, and when Singapore split off, what remained is still Malaysia.
  • British Somaliland became Somalia.
  • Namibia was formerly Damaraland and German South-West Africa.
  • Hawaii was formerly called the Sandwich Islands (named for Captain James Cook's benefactor, The Earl of Sandwich).
  • Present-day Belize was once British Honduras.
  • Part of the New Hebrides became Vanuatu.
  • Kiribati was formerly the Gilbert Islands.
  • The Ellice Islands are now called Tuvalu. (Interesting, its country code, tv, is used by certain TV-related businesses!)
  • The Dominican Republic was formerly known as Santo Domingo, the name of its current capital.

A quick look at my 1900 Rand-McNally World Atlas shows the following country names that no longer seem to be around: Dalmatia, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Galicia, Transylvania, and Transcaucasia. (By the way, at that time, Ireland was part of the UK; and Poland, Finland, and the Czech Republic did not exist, but Prussia did. And the Arabian Peninsula was yet to be carved up.)

A number of well-known cities have had their names changed as well. I grew up with Peking and Bombay, but now they're Beijing and Mumbai, respectively. Of course, Constantinople became Istanbul, and Edo became Tokyo. St. Petersburg became Leningrad and then back again. Likewise, Volgograd became Stalingrad before reverting. Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, was renamed to Titograd and back. And the East Prussian city of Königsberg became the Russian city Kaliningrad.

Closer to home, some 25 years ago when rural roads in northern Virginia were given names as well as route numbers, Route 287 became Berlin Turnpike. Apparently, that was its name many years earlier, when it lead to Brunswick (formerly Berlin), Maryland.

Going back to Biblical times, we have cities and states like Carthage, Nubia, Thrace, and Troy. (Ironically, in the US, Trojan is a brand name for condoms, so the esteemed name lives on! I can see Helen of Troy doing a commercial for them: "Just the thing to take on a hot date with a good-looking Greek!")

Differences between Languages or Cultures

I love the topic of geography, especially maps, and when I travel abroad, I like to look at maps in the local language. I certainly have trouble finding places I know. Those darn foreigners have names for everything! For example:

  • What the English-speaking world calls Holland is really The Netherlands (of which two provinces are North and South Holland). From my experience, people from Germanic-language countries use names that look much like one of these two. However, the French name is Pays Bas and the Spanish name is Países Bajos, meaning "low countries", as in "nether lands".
  • Of course, most of us are familiar with Deutschland being the German name for Germany. Some of its neighbors call it Aleman or some such. However, the Danes call it Tyskland and its language Tysk. However, the Italians call it Germania and its language tedesco.
  • What I call Munich the Germans call München.
  • London is known as Londres.
  • Capetown is Kapstadt.
  • And Cologne is the alter ego of Köln.
  • The Finns refer to Finland as Suomi.
  • The Germans call Hungary Ungarn.
  • Geneva can be Genf.
  • In Spanish, England, Wales, and Scotland become Inglaterra, Gales, and Escotia, respectively.
  • To the French, the United Kingdom is Le Royaume Uni.
  • What the English-speaking world knows as the United States (US) is known as VR to the Germans (Die Vereinigten Staaten) and the Dutch (Verenigde Staten), as EU to the French (Les États-Unis), and as EE.UU. to Spanish speakers (Los Estados Unidos).
  • Of course, USSR stands for the United Soviet Socialist Republic. So why then do Russians write it as CCCP. Actually, it's a trick question: In this case, the letters CCCP are from the Cyrillic alphabet not the Latin one, so with the Cyrillic C being equivalent to the English S, and P the R, we have, in Russian, Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik. That is, SSSR in English, which is CCCP in Cyrillic.
  • What I know as Copenhagen, the Danes call København.
  • The Italians like to have their own names too, for example: Firenza (Florence), Roma (Rome), and Napoli (Naples).
  • Drive a BMW? Well, they come from the Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works) whose initials in German just so happen to be the same as in English.
  • Ask an Argentinian about the Falkland Islands and they might take offence. They call those islands the Malvinas.
  • The country I call Belarus, the Germans call Weißrussland.
  • The city I know as Bratislava, the Germans call Preßburg.

The Danube River is well known. However, as it meanders across Europe, it goes through some name changes: It rises in Germany where it is called the Donau. It goes on to become Duna, Dunaj, Dunav, Дунав, Dunărea, Дунáй, and Tuna before it reaches the Black Sea.

We've seen a number of examples of common abbreviations being different across languages. I'll leave you with one more, from the main railway company in Switzerland. Is it the SBB, the CFF, or the FFS? The answer is YES! As the Swiss have three main official languages— German, French, and Italian—and a fourth minority one called Romansch, the company is called Schweizerische Bundesbahnen, Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses, or Ferrovie federali svizzere) depending on the language of the speaker.

People's Names

Some years ago, I was traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, and I had the need to find someone's telephone number. So I located a directory and proceeded to search. However, unbeknownst to me, a Spanish person's name consists of a given name (sometimes called Christian name) followed by two family names (sometimes called surnames). Apparently, the first family name is the father's first family name, and the second the mother's first family name, except, of course, on Wednesdays that fall on a full moon! Of course, even that complicated rule is too simple. According to Wikipedia, "In Spain this order may now be reversed, according to a new gender equality law." It seems that the first family name is the formal/legal one, so use that when searching a list alphabetically.

We take for granted that certain people's names were exactly as we learned them. However, were the New Testament guys really called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Actually, they weren't; these are simply modern-day translations to "equivalent" English names. (The same goes for the names of Jesus' disciples.) For example, the popular English man's first name John might translate to Johannes, Giovanni, Ioan, Juan, João, Jean, Johan, Jan, Hans, Jens, Ieuan, Ifan, Ianto, Ioan, or Sîon. And William might translate to Wilhelm, Willelm, Williame, Willem, Guglielmo, Guillermo, Gwilym, or Liam. [Follow the two hyperlinks for more details.] In the case of William being Guillaume, I only learned that a few years ago when I visited the grave of the so-called "William the Conqueror" in Caen, Normandy, France.

If you'd like to know about the meaning of various family names in a number of languages, click here.

Some National Oddities

The UK (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a country made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Okay then, so what are those four entities? States? Provinces? But no, Wikipedia says England is a country and that is has its own national football team! It says the same about Scotland and Wales, but for Northern Ireland, it says, "It is variously described as a country, province or region of the UK, amongst other terms." Yet it has an entry for a Northern Ireland national football team. Can one country "contain" another country? Is there something funny going on that the Queen and Prime Minister are not telling us? [Yes, there is, but that is a whole other story!] If we look a bit harder, we find that Wikipedia has an entry for Countries of the United Kingdom in which it claims that the UK is a "sovereign state under international law" made up of four countries. Now that article goes on to say, "[These countries] … compete separately in many international sporting competitions, including the Commonwealth Games." However, I don't believe that's the case for the Olympics.

Now the British Crown has some dependencies (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) and overseas territories (which include Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Falkland Islands, and Gibraltar), but these are not part of the UK, per se. All of these appear to have their own 2-character country/internet codes.

Many people know that the US (United States of America) is made up of 50 states and a Federal Territory, the District of Columbia (or Washington DC). However, there are also populated and unpopulated territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and Midway Atoll. (The inhabitants of some of the populated territories are not US citizens.) Although a US territory, Puerto Rico has country code PR, and competes in the Olympics as a separate entity.

According to Wikipedia, "The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a sovereign state … [whose] … four parts— Aruba, Curaçao, the Netherlands, and Sint Maarten—are referred to as countries. … [There are also] three special municipalities (Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba)." The four parts each have their own 2-character country/internet codes while the others share those for the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles.

So, when is a country not a country? It appears that the answer is "as clear as mud"!


Think Motown music and you think of the "motor town" of Michigan, USA, Detroit. Now pretty much everyone I know pronounces that name as de-troit or dee-troit, both with a hard 't' ending. A lot of that area was explored and settled by the French, so it is no surprise there are many names there having a French connection. The French word détroit means strait in English, as in a narrow waterway. For example, the waterway that flows from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and then on to the Mediterranean Sea is known in French as les Détroits (The Straits), shown on maps as the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. In the case of the city of Detroit, the waterway flows from Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair and on to Lake Erie. In French, détroit is pronounced day-twa, which I think you will agree sounds much more sophisticated. Given its current sad situation, Detroit needs all the help it can get, so a more sophisticated name just might work.

What is Normal - Part 6: Weights and Measures

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I was raised in Australia in the 1950s and '60s, where the Imperial System of units was used. In 1970, I started working in chemistry where everything was metric. Then, in the early 1970's, Australia adopted the Metric System. In 1979, I moved to the US, which has a modified version of the Imperial System. However, I still travel regularly to countries that use the metric system. As a result of these varied experiences, I can easily switch from feet to meters, from miles to kilometers, and from pounds to kilograms.

The Imperial System, or variants thereof, is sometimes referred to as the foot-pounds-second (FPS) system. At times, the metric system was referred to as the centimeter-gram-second (CGS) system. Later, there was the meter-kilogram-second (MKS) system, but that was replaced by the International System of Units (SI). Of course, it is perfectly normal that there are other systems as well, including the tongue-in-check FFF system.

The Imperial System

I well remember being in a group of students marching around the yard in elementary school reciting various weights and measure values, such as the following: 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 1,760 yards in a mile, 5,280 feet in a mile, 63,360 inches in a mile, and so on. [I remember doing likewise with multiplication tables!]

Add to those numbers things like 16 ounces in a pound, 2,240 pounds in a ton, 2 pints in a quart, 4 quarts in a gallon, 640 acres in a square mile, and water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and boils at 212 degrees F, and you soon see the problem. There is neither rhyme nor reason with respect to the multiplier; you simply have to learn these by rote!

It's right about now that I'm reminded of one of my most often-cited quotes: "Nothing is a complete waste; it can always serve as a bad example!" [Anon]

The Metric System

Compared to the Imperial System the metric system is infinitely simpler to teach, learn, and remember. For a given category of measurement such as length/distance there is a single base name, the meter (for which I'll use the US spelling). The quantity is expressed using one of a small family of optional universal prefixes resulting in things like millimeter, centimeter, and kilometer. Here are the basic prefixes:



Common Usage Example


One thousandth

milliliter, milligram, millimeter


One hundredth

centiliter, centimeter


One tenth

Note that decibel is not an example


<base unit>

liter, gram, meter

deca (or deka)



hecto (or hecta)





kilogram, kilometer, kilobyte

Other commonly used prefixes are mega- (megabyte, megahertz, megapixel, megaliter), giga- (gigabyte, gigahertz), tera- (terabyte), micro- (microsecond), and nano- (nanosecond, nanometer). For the complete set click here.

Note that in the world of computer science 1KB (one kilobyte) is often understood to be 210 bytes, which is 1,024 bytes, a number slightly more than 1,000.

By the way, a milliliter (ml) is the same thing as a cubic centimeter (cc).

Differences between the US and Imperial Systems

According to Wikipedia, "United States customary units are a system of measurements commonly used in the United States. Many U.S. units are virtually identical to their imperial counterparts, but the U.S. customary system developed from English units used in the British Empire before the system of imperial units was standardized in 1824. Several numerical differences from the imperial system are present."

About 20 years ago, I was visiting friends here in the US when their son and I got talking about what he'd been learning at boy scouts. He told me that a gallon of water weighed 8 pounds, to which I replied that that didn't sound right. As far as I knew, a gallon weighed 10 pounds. It turns out we were both right when you took into account the contexts in which we each had learned our measures, he in the US and me in Australia. At approximately 4.5 liters, an Imperial gallon is about 20% bigger than a US gallon (which is about 3.8 liters). Correspondingly, an Imperial pint is 20 fluid ounces while a US pint is only 16.

Back in the early 1970's, when asked how much I weighed, I replied, "12 stone 8 pounds". However, the US does not use the stone. As a stone is 14 pounds, for Americans, the equivalent weight would be 176 pounds.

The US also has short versions of several weight units. For example, the US uses the (short) ton, which has 2,000 pounds, while the long ton used by Imperial unit folks has 2,240 pounds. The Imperial hundredweight has 112 pounds, whereas a US hundredweight is only 100 pounds. Do not confuse a short or long ton with a metric ton (or tonne).

There have been various attempts to have the US "go metric"; however, none has succeeded on any grand scale. In any event, the fact that the US does not require imports to conform to the US system, combined with the influx of products from countries that do use the metric system means that a mixture of measures exists. For example, one can buy a car with 350 cubic-inch engine or a 5-liter V8.

America's immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico, use the metric system, and as one gets close to those borders, one sees distance signposts in both miles and kilometers.

Abstract systems

If you cook with recipes, you will be familiar with measures such as cup, teaspoon, and tablespoon. And while these have formal definitions, we tend not to think of them as such. For me, I know that to cook white rice, I simply need put 1 cup of rice in 2 cups of cold water, and boil. (Of course, I could just as easily substitute a drinking glass or a bucket for the cup; the proportions stay the same.)

Some years ago, I stayed with a family in Japan, and I asked if I could cook a Mexican meal for them and their neighbors. They were delighted not only to try Mexican, but also to see a man in the kitchen, something that is apparently quite rare in that country except for chefs in restaurants. (It was a challenge to find all the ingredients to make tacos.) The problem arose when the three women pulled out their notepads and were ready to write copious notes on how to prepare the food. I started cooking the ground beef. "How long do you cook it?" I replied, "Until done!" "At what temperature?", they asked. "Adjust the heat as you like", I replied. Of course, when it came to adding spices, I simply said, "Add sufficient to taste." This so frustrated the onlookers that they put away their notepads; it was clear they needed strict rules to cook, and I almost always "fly by the seat of my pants".

Dealing with Conversions

It is likely that relatively few people will experience a change in their weights and measures systems unless they emigrate or their country adopts the metric system. However, for those of us who travel internationally on a semi-regular basis, we do have to change contexts if we are to understand our local environment. Just how much does gasoline cost in Country X? Seeing a price of 1.73 Euros/liter on a pump gives you no clue as to how many US$/gallon that is, and vice versa. And although the signpost says that its 23 miles to the next exit, just how far is that in kilometers? Another example is tire pressure. In the US/Imperial world, we measure the number of pounds-per-square-inch (psi); however, in the metric world, they use kilopascals. And as for fuel efficiency, the familiar miles-per-gallon (mpg) becomes liters/100 km, which employs a reversed ratio. Fortunately, many cars sold in the US today have speedometers in both US and metric units, so drivers can tell just how much over the speed limit they really are driving when they cross into Canada or Mexico.

From my Aussie experience, I remember my mother having trouble with sugar. Previously, it came in 4-lb (pound) bags, and for a whole host of things she made in bulk—think preserving fruit in jars—she knew how many bags to buy/use. However, when the metric system was adopted, the bags were now 2kg, which at about 4.4lbs is more than just a little bit larger. A major adjustment was needed. Similarly, she needed to convert the degrees C in recipes on printed packaging to her degrees F, as she wasn't about to replace her old oven "just because some fool in government changed the measurement system".

A common thing to buy for lunch was a 1-pint carton of flavored milk; however, the metric equivalent was 600 ml, which is significantly larger. Basically, certain assumptions that had been proven correct for years were no longer true, and some manufacturers took advantage of that by downsizing their product yet keeping the price the same. How would the average consumer tell the difference? [I recall that this kind of thing was widespread when various countries converted to the Euro.]

Length, Distance, and Thickness

Depending on the size of the thing being measured, we use different units, for example: A thou (a US mil) is a thousandth of an inch. Although it's used in various contexts in engineering and manufacturing, I first came across it when checking/setting the gap in an automobile's sparkplug, using a feeler gauge. Metric versions measure in hundredths of a millimeter.

Regarding altitude and ocean depth, we talk in thousands of feet (or meters). Occasionally, we use miles, as in Denver, the mile-high city, and in near-earth space.

When it comes to human hair and cells, we use micron, which is a synonym for micrometer. And as the name implies, nanotechnology is measured in nanometers.

Most of us raised in the British Commonwealth learned that the length of the pitch for the game of cricket is exactly 22 yards long; that is, one chain, and that there are 10 chains in a furlong and 80 chains in a mile. A chain is 100 links or 4 rods (or 4 poles or 4 perches). (The length of horse races is often stated in furlongs.)

The term mile is shorthand for statute mile, and is 5,280 feet (1,609 meters). The latter term is used to distinguish it from the nautical mile, which at 6,076.1 feet (1,852 meters) is longer. A nautical mile is approximately one minute of arc of longitude at the equator. An international treaty defines territorial waters as a 12 nautical-mile strip along a coastal at the average low-tide mark.

The fathom is a non-metric unit equaling 6 feet. It is mostly used in the context of water depth. Initially, it was the distance between an average man's outstretched arms. According to Wikipedia, "It is customary, when burying the dead, to inter the corpse at a fathom's depth, or six feet under. A burial at sea (where the body is weighted to force it to the bottom) requires a minimum of six fathoms of water. This is the origin of the phrase 'to deep six' as meaning to discard, or dispose of."

Another nautical measure is the cable, which is one tenth of a nautical mile.

Many of us know that Jules Verne wrote a popular book called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and that some characters in European fairy tales wore seven-league boots. But just how much is a league? Its three miles. Originally, the term referred to the distance a person or a horse could walk in an hour.

By the way, back in the good old days, the meter was defined as "one-quarter of one ten-millionth of the circumference of the Earth (along the great circle coincident with the meridian of longitude passing through Paris)"; however, nowadays, it's based on the speed of light. [Why can't they just leave things alone?]


Yes, we all know about vehicle speeds of miles/hour (and kilometers/hour), but what about stuff that goes really fast? How do we measure that? The fastest thing we know of is the speed at which light travels in a vacuum. At 186,282 miles/second (299,792,458 meters/second), that's pretty darned fast. [The second fastest thing I know of was my 8-year-old son when spitting out a slice of dill pickle—which he knew in advance that he didn't like—that I had bet him a dollar he wouldn't eat!]

Now we think of seeing things instantaneously; however, with the earth being approximately 93 million miles from the sun, at the speed of light a sunray takes about 500 seconds (that is, 8 1/3 minutes) to reach us. This distance from the Earth to the sun is one astronomical unit. [By the way, sunlight reflected by the moon takes only about 1.2 seconds to reach Earth.] As such, looking very long distances—such as with a space telescope—we see light that has traveled a very long way and thus gives us a picture of what used to be there. We currently have no way to see what is actually there now! A more earthly example is in communicating voice via a satellite link; there is a short delay. And the time it takes to send a message between Earth and Mars takes about 5–20 minutes depending on those planets' positions.

For those of you who have a lot of time on your hands, there is the light year, which is the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one Julian year (that is, in 365.25 days). That's 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kms). [Of course, if you worked in astrometry, you'd prefer the parsec instead.]

For all of you budding interstellar space travelers, after the sun, our nearest known star is Proxima Centauri, which is about 4.22 light-years away. As that is some 32 trillion miles (42 trillion kms) away, you'll need to get an early start.

Compared to light, sound travels v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, at a mere 1,126 feet/second (343.2 meters/second). According to Wikipedia, "The speed of an object … divided by the speed of sound … is called the Mach number. Objects moving at speeds greater than Mach 1 are traveling at supersonic speeds." (By my calculation, my subcompact car tops out around 0.08 Mach; don't blink or you'll miss me as I race on by!) One application of this knowledge is in figuring out how far away a storm is. When the lightning flashes, it reaches an observer more or less instantaneously; however, the accompanying thunder takes 5 seconds to travel each mile (3 seconds each km), so each second delay between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder is 1/5 of a mile (0.32 km).

To all you "Sesame Street" sailors, today is brought to you by the letter arrrr (as pronounced like a pirate), and a knot is one nautical mile (1.85 km) per hour, which is about 15% faster than 1 statute mile/hour. And yes, the name comes from counting the number of knots in a line.


In the metric system, smaller areas—including a house lot—are measured in square meters, while a farm would be measured in hectares, with a hectare being about 2.5 acres. Every so often, I meet a farmer in my area here in rural Northern Virginia. When I ask him how much land he has, he typically replies, "About 75 acres." To which I reply, "That's not a farm! In Australia, my sheep dog had a yard bigger than that!" [The farm on which I was raised had 4,000 acres, and the average size farm in my hometown area these days is 6,000 acres.] Now if you go into the Aussie outback to visit a sheep or cattle station, you're talking property sizes in the hundreds of square miles, and where people commute by light aircraft. There are 640 acres in a square mile.

In Australia during the Imperial days, the floor space of a house was measured in squares where a square was 10x10 feet. An average-size house in my hometown area was 12–13 squares. The 3-storey townhouse I lived in for many years here in the US was 26 squares, and many McMansions in the area I now live are 50+ squares and sit on 5 acres; what a country!

If you are looking to measure teeny, tiny things, check out the unit barn.


The two most common temperature scales are Fahrenheit, written as °F, and Celsius (also known as Centigrade), written as °C. Water freezes as 32 °F (0 °C) and boils at 212 °F (100 °C). And just in case you don't know the conversion formulas, here they are:

°F = ((°C × 9) ÷ 5) + 32
°C = ((°F – 32) × 5) ÷ 9

Trivia question: Which temperature is exactly the same number in both °F and °C? Answer: –40. Don't believe me; use the conversion formulas above.

Now it's worth noting that the boiling temperature mentioned above is not universal. This is because it is defined in terms of one standard atmospheric pressure. Specifically, the boiling point of water is lower at lower pressure and higher at higher pressure. For example, go up 1,000 feet (≈300 meters) and the atmospheric pressure decreases by about 4%. So, when cooking in the mile-high city of Denver, Colorado, for example, you'll need to reinterpret some of your recipes.

As you well know, some people have way too much time on their hands, and so the Kelvin scale was born. The starting point for this is absolute zero (0K is −273.15 °C and −459.67 °F), the temperature at which all thermal motion ceases. [For me, I'm certain that 70 °F (21 °C) is already too cold. In any event, in the Australian vernacular, absolute zero is known as Bloody cold or Colder than a witch's tit!] The Kelvin scale simply is the Celsius scale with 273.15 subtracted. Not to be outdone, some scientists not of the metric faith and with idle hands came up with the Rankine scale, which also represents absolute zero, but with a value of 0 °R. This scale simply is the Fahrenheit scale with 459.67 subtracted.

Here are some numbers you might find interesting:

  • The normal human body temperature when taken orally is approximately 98 °F (37 °C).
  • The hottest temperature ever recorded on earth was 134 °F (56.7 °C) in 1913 in Death Valley, California
  • The surface temperature of the sun is about 9,941 °F (5,505 °C), which as Icarus discovered to his own peril, was a little too hot for high flying especially when his feathered wings were held together with wax.
  • At an altitude of 34,000 feet (10,460 meters), the temperature outside my plane while flying recently over remote Canada on my way to Japan was –63 °F (–52.8 °C). As a result, I kept my window wound up tight!

Odds and Ends

Here is a pot-pourri of other units:

According to Wikipedia, a span "is the distance measured by a human hand, from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger. In ancient times, a span was considered to be half a cubit." Do you know how long your hand's span is? I find that useful when I'm buying something whose size I'd like to check, yet I don't have a tape measure handy.

If you want to measure the height of your horse, you'd do so in hands, one of which is 4 inches long. When it comes to fractions, this is a rather interesting unit. Specifically, the "decimal" places use a number in base 4 rather than base 10 (decimal). For example, consider a horse 58 inches high, which is 14½ hands. This is written as 14.2 hands, not as 14.5, as you might expect. A horse an inch taller would be 14.3 hands, and one another inch taller would be 15 hands (not 14.4)!

Now that I've moved to a house in the country and I have a potbelly stove, I'm considering buying some firewood. In the US (and Canada), that comes by the cord. A cord of wood occupies a volume of 128 cubic feet (3.62 cubic meters), or a stack about 4x4x8 feet. The metric folks use the stere. In the UK, the term fathom can be used to measure a quantity of wood. Now, I ask you, "Is that normal?"

We've all heard about gemstones having "x-carats", but just what is a carat? It's a unit of weight equal to 0.007055 ounces (200 mg). A carat is subdivided into 100 points.

If you do enough crossword puzzles or play enough Scrabble games, you'll come across the printers' measures em and en. Some of their siblings are pica and point.

If after reading this you still have free time, check out bushel, dram, grain, pennyweight, and scruple, plus avoirdupois weight, troy weight, and apothecaries' weight.


For more information than you probably will ever want to know about units of measure, click here.

In 1972, in the week following Australia's implementation of the metric system, I was at my neighborhood deli. An elderly gentleman ahead of me said that he wanted two kilograms of milk, at which the owner looked over at me and smiled, and served the man two liters. Yes, it was amusing, but at least the customer was trying to get with the program.

During the changeover Down Under, there was a national debate on the pronunciation of the word kilometer, and even the then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, got into the debate. Was it ki·lo·me·ter or ki·lom·eter? The best response I can make is that we don't say ki·log·ram or ki·lol·i·ter. [Regarding Gough, the joke goes that he had a sure-fired way of shortening the unemployment lines; simply ask the people to stand closer together!]

In the 1970's, the band 10CC had quite a few hit songs. If you follow the hyperlink and read carefully the section titled "Original line-up, 1972–76" you'll see that the band's name refers to a volume of a certain body fluid emitted from a male's nether regions. After that, the name The Beatles seems almost banal!

By the way, did you hear about the one-armed fisherman? He caught a fish this long! (Holds up one hand.) Now that joke hardly measures up, does it?

What is Normal – Part 5: Numbers and Counting Systems

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

We all know how to count. How do we count? Well, we just "know" how; there probably are some rules but most of us have long forgotten them.

In so-called "primitive" civilizations, they had (and perhaps still have) symbols for no more than the numbers 1, 2, and many. Didn't they ever need to count things, and, if so, how did they do it? The answer is, "They used tally sticks", which, as Wikipedia states, "… was an ancient memory aid device to record and document numbers, quantities, or even messages". Basically, the first time a shepherd let his sheep out to pasture, he carved a notch in a stick for each sheep that passed him. Then when he brought them back home again, he checked that he had one for each notch. [Tally sticks are not to be confused with tally marks.]

Now the Roman numeral system has been around for a while, if fact, since the Romans; hmm, funny about that! And while you might have amused yourself on occasion when trying to decipher the vintage of a movie copyright, if you've ever tried to do arithmetic using that system, you'll soon see why it didn't take off. Besides, you needed different symbols for the digit 1 in the numbers 1, 10, 100, 1000, and so on. Fortunately, the idea of place-value notation came along in the 5th century. But even then we didn't get a symbol for the idea of zero for another 100 years. [I well remember observing a heated discussion some 25 years ago between people who thought zero was special while others thought it "was just another point on the number line".]

For quite a few centuries now, the predominant number system has been one based on the number 10; hence the term decimal, from the Latin decimus. We'll look at that number system later, along with number systems in general. The system most of us use now has the digits 0–9, which are referred to as Arabic numerals or, more correctly, Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Things You Might be Taking for Granted

When writing large numbers, we often talk of having thousands separators, as in 1,234,567, which many Europeans would write as 1.234.567 or even 1 234 567, where the space separators are non-breaking spaces. (For a discussion of decimal comma see the March 2010 essay, "What is Normal? – Part 1: Getting Started".) But life is not like a box of chocolates, and some people group their digits in twos or threes, or combinations thereof. (Is that normal?)

Then there is the issue of how to write negative values. In some contexts, people use a preceding minus sign. In others, they enclose the number in parentheses, while in others they might use a DB prefix of suffix to indicate a financial debit (with CR being used to indicate a credit).

The digits in numbers are written left-to-right in decreasing position value, right? So if what we commonly use are referred to as Arabic digits and Arabic is written right-to-left, how does one write a multi-digit number in Arabic? Although I'd learned the answer to that question some time ago, it wasn't until I actually edited in Microsoft's Word some Arabic text containing numbers, that I fully appreciated it. Yes, the text is written right-to-left, but within that text, numbers are written left-to-right. Now while a word-processor can handle that by dynamically inserting extra digits to the right as they are typed, that is not true with handwriting. That is, when writing such text by hand, one needs to leave sufficient space for the whole number to the left of the previously written text, and then proceed to write the digits left-to-right.

When English speakers speak multi-digit numbers, they do so in the order the digits are written. That is, 57 is said "fifty seven" with each word separate. But that's not necessarily how the Germans do it; to them, 57 is written and pronounced as one word, "siebenundfünfzig", which literally is "seven and fifty". And yes, Germans like to write a large number a single very long word. For example, 3,526 (or 3.526 using their period thousands-separator) is written as "dreitausendfünfhundertsechsundzwanzig". That makes for interesting problems when breaking such long words across lines when typesetting. And what's with the French word for 80? I'm referring to "quatre-vingts", which literally is "four twenties". Sacré bleu!

The Decimal Number System

Let's look more formally at the decimal number system, the one we use every day, for things like prices, street addresses, and telephone numbers.

Consider the number 12,458. (The comma here represents the thousands separator, but as we know, that is not universal.) We all "know" that number represents the value twelve thousand four hundred and fifty eight. How do we know that? Well for starters, the decimal number system has 10 distinct symbols, the digits 0–9. Decimal numbers are written such that the value of a digit is based on its position within that number. For example, the digit 5 can represent five, fifty, or five hundred. (This is different from some other number systems such as those developed by the Romans and Japanese.) Let's break down the decimal number 12,458 into its parts, as follows:


1 × 10,000


1 × 104



2 × 1,000


2 × 103



4 × 100


4 × 102



5 × 10


5 × 101



8 × 1


8 × 100






The digits, starting from the right-most one going left, are referred to as the ones digit, the tens digit, the hundreds digit, the thousands digit, the ten thousands digit, and so on, for obvious reasons.

Consider the following example in which we add two numbers together:





When two digits are added, the result may be larger than one digit, in which case, we carry 1 to the next column to the left. For example, 6 + 8 = 14, so we carry 1 and put down 4. The next column to the left now becomes 4 + 7 + 1 = 12, the 1 is carried and the 2 is put down. And so the process is repeated. With subtraction, when we subtract one digit from another we may have to borrow 1 instead of carrying it. For example:





Whether we realize it or not, we need to know 400 rules to do basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of two decimal digits. We simply have to remember them! And even though we can take a few shortcuts (3 + 4 is equivalent to 4 + 3, for example) there are still a lot of rules.

If we were to build a machine to perform these basic arithmetic operations, it would have to know all these rules. It would also need a way to represent each of the 10 digits. Mechanically, this is possible; an old-style automobile mileage odometer is one example. However, representing 10 different states makes the machine more complicated/expensive. This is particularly so if the machine is based on magnetic, electrical, or electronic properties, as are modern computers.

The decimal number system is based on the number 10. The numbers we normally write then are base-10 numbers. We can write such numbers with the base explicitly shown. For example, the number 123 can be written formally with a decimal base using the notation 12310, where the base is shown as a subscript. In ordinary usage, the subscript is omitted because the writer means "base-10 number system" and most readers know only that number system. However, other number systems are in common use in computing, as we shall see below.

For the most part, people other than computer programmers and engineers, and mathematicians can ignore number systems other than base-10.

The Binary Number System

The rules we have seen for writing base-10 numbers can be applied to numbers of any arbitrary base. In fact, it's really the other way around; the base-10 system is a specific instance of the general number system idea.

To have a number system with base B, we simply need to pick B unique symbols, assign distinct values to them, and specify their value order. Therefore, to have a base-2 (or binary) number system, we need two symbols; 0 and 1 are used where 0 is less than 1. Here are some base-10 numbers and their base-2 equivalents, with the latter written in parentheses: 0 (02), 1 (12), 2 (102), 3 (112), 4 (1002), 5 (1012), 6 (1102), 7 (1112), 8 (10002), 9 (10012), 10 (10102), 100 (11001002), 1,000 (11111010002), 10,000 (100111000100002), 100,000 (110000110101000002), and 1,000,000 (111101000010010000002).

The larger the number system base (or radix), the bigger the number that can be expressed with a given number of digit positions. Conversely, the smaller the radix, the more digit positions are required to express a given number. Since 2 is the smallest possible radix, it produces the most unwieldy numbers, as shown in the examples above.

Numbers written in binary can get verbose, but they have one very important property: The number of rules needed to perform arithmetic operations on them is very small compared to the base-10 system. For example, in addition, we have 0 + 0, 0 + 1, 1 + 0, and 1 + 1, with only the last one producing a carry.

If we were to build a machine to perform these basic arithmetic operations, it would have to know only a few rules. It would also need a way to represent each of the two digits. This is easy, regardless of whether the machine is mechanical, magnetic, electrical, or electronic, so much so, that modern computers deal directly with base-2 numbers.

We've all heard the word bit. Just what is a bit? The term bit comes from the words binary digit. The longer term is cumbersome; while we can say that a given number can be represented in 16 binary digits, it's much easier to say it can be represented in 16 bits. An 8-bit computer processes values eight bits at a time while a 16-bit computer can manipulate 16 bits at a time. From this, we can reasonably assume that a 64-bit computer is more capable in some sense than a 32-bit computer, a 16-bit computer, and an 8-bit computer, in that order.

The Hexadecimal Number System

After decimal, the most commonly used number system these days is hexadecimal (or hex for short). As its name implies, it has a base of 16 and, therefore, needs 16 symbols. The symbols used are 0–9 and A–F where A–F have the values 10–15, respectively. Lowercase a–f can be used instead of A–F, and upper- and lowercase letters can be mixed in the same number. If you think a number containing letters looks silly, remember in the hexadecimal system A–F are digits. Just take a mental step back and remember that the assignment of symbols to meanings (as with letters and digits) is simply a convention.

Here are some base-10 numbers and their base-16 equivalents, with the latter written in parentheses: 0 (016), 1 (116), 2 (216), 3 (316), 4 (416), 5 (516), 6 (616), 7 (716), 8 (816), 9 (916), 10 (A16), 100 (6416), 1,000 (3E816), 10,000 (271016), 100,000 (186A016), and 1,000,000 (F424016).

Mere mortals generally don't have to understand the hexadecimal number system, but if you have ever configured a wireless device to the internet using a password or access key, you may have found yourself entering a "secret code" that looks something like 4749D8B754. That's because these things are often required to be hexadecimal numbers. [I've also seen screens full of hexadecimal numbers scrolling or frozen on malfunctioning airport flight displays and even once on an in-flight screen when the video system was being reinitialized.]

Other Number Systems

There are an infinite number of number systems; pick a base, chose the corresponding number of distinct symbols, and, voila, you have a new number system. However, you might have difficulty convincing others to use it.

Now you don't have to be a computer or math nerd to deal with number systems other than decimal, although it does help. Back in the really old days (even before your parents were born, as in the 3rd millennium BCE), the Sumerians used the sexagesimal number system, which had a base of 60. They very generously passed that along to the Babylonians. Clearly, back then, counting on one's fingers was not possible! There are traces of this concept with us today. For example, in our time system, there are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour. And when looking at latitude or longitude on a globe, there are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in a degree.

Another culture that was very advanced with respect to math and science was the Maya. Their number system used base twenty (vigesimal).

While an understanding of alternate number systems and computer-based arithmetic is not necessary for most computer programming tasks, without such knowledge programmers cannot exploit certain kinds of hardware or programming languages, or understand some of the principles on which modern computing is based.

Back in the old days of computing (1970s and earlier) many of us programmers had to be familiar with the octal number system, which has base 8. As you might expect, the digits in that system are 0–7. [I really do miss the DEC PDP-11!]

To read more than you probably want to know about number systems, click here.


With respect to numbers and counting I do have a pet peeve, namely, the misuse of number when digit is meant. The number 123 contains three digits, 1, 2, and 3. It does not contain three numbers! That is, a number consists of one or more digits. A number cannot contain another number. So use the terms correctly or Mr. and Mrs. Spank will have to make a trip to bottyland! [That's a famous quote from QEI's nanny in an episode of the second series of Black Adder.]

We all know about percentages, and are used to seeing signs like "Sale, 50% off!" But did you know that percent had a sibling, per mil? A per mil is a tenth of a percent or one part per thousand, and is written using the symbol ‰. Now let's see who's the first to post a comment about seeing this symbol in a publication.

A number of companies sell calculators that allow numbers to be entered and displayed in various bases. I've been a fan of HP scientific and programmable calculators since 1970, and I own an HP-16C. This calculator supports binary, octal, decimal, and hexadecimal modes of operation; allows ones- or twos-complement or unsigned representation; has bit-manipulation operations; and supports word sizes up to 64 bits. It's so reliable I can always count on it!

What is Normal - Part 4: Dates and Times

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

“What is the time now?” and “What is today’s date?” seem like straightforward questions. However, you might be surprised at the answers as you move from one “normal” context to another.

I remember well one of my first trips to Japan where I bought a ticket to ride on some public transportation in Tokyo. (This was well before the days when ticket machines “understood” a variety of languages including English.) I looked at the ticket to see if I could understand anything, and I noticed what looked like a date, but then again not! I don’t remember the exact details, but it was something like “20-IX-03”. In fact, it was that day’s date, using modern Japanese style. Specifically, it was the 20th day of September (the 9th month) in the 3rd year of the current emperor’s reign (Heisei, the name of Emperor Akihito’s reign). Being a computer nerd, I immediately saw the problem in dealing with such dates; without also knowing the emperor on which the date was based, the date was ambiguous. Now, I was quite willing to have the Japanese use Arabic numbers for days and years, and to use an era system for years, but the use of Roman numerals for months seemed odd. Is that normal? As they say, “Whatever floats your boat!”

In this installment, we’ll look at some interesting aspects of calendars, dates, and times. However, before we set out on that adventure, let me give you something to think about in the meantime. How often do leap years occur? If you think, “Dah! Every 4 years, of course!” you’d be right most of the time, but not always. We’ll revisit this question later. Oh, and by the way, not all minutes are created equal; some have more than 60 seconds.


Well now, what could be simpler than a plain old calendar? What indeed.

A solar calendar—like the one I use in Virginia—is based on the cycle of the sun, which involves the 365-and-a-bit days it takes the earth to go around the sun.

The Julian date system is simple; each day has a number 1 more than the previous day, starting at January 1, 4713 BC at noon in Greenwich, England (otherwise known as Julian Date Zero [JD0]). Fractions of days are supported, as are negative values, which indicate days prior to JD0. Whoa, who uses that system? Apparently, astronomers do, but you know how spaced-out they are!

Now one must not confuse Julian dates with the Julian calendar system, the latter being put into service by Julius Caesar (the guy who invented Caesar salads, I think) way back in 45 BC, when he retired the old Roman calendar, whose warranty had expired many years earlier. Under the Julian calendar, days were numbered from 1–365 in non-leap years and 1–366 in leap years. This allows day n in one year to be much like that same day in any other year, which makes it convenient for agricultural activities like planting and harvesting. Unfortunately, anyone wearing a Julian calendar watch quickly noted that this calendar system gains about three days every four centuries. [Don’t you just hate that when that happens? People arrived late for castle sieges, and some even missed short wars completely!]

If you look closely, the Julian system still manifests itself. Desktop paper calendars and diaries are still sold with the Julian day number shown for each day. Sometimes each day page also shows the number of days left until the end of the year (365-or-366 minus the day’s Julian number).

Sometime in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII had way too much time on his hands (as Popes often did back then), and he put into effect the—da da—Gregorian calendar. [Did he name it for his best friend Bob? No, it was all self, self, self! Poor Bob had to wait some 410 years until Microsoft named a product after him.] Anyway, at the stroke of midnight at the meridian that passed through the Vatican’s main outhouse, Wednesday, September 2, 1582 gave way to Thursday, September 14, 1582, and 12 days went missing. [Despite rumors at the time, they were not the 12 days of Christmas!] Today, much of the world uses the Gregorian calendar.

The era calendar used in Japan is a bit like a very simplified Julian date system, but not altogether quite, if you get my meaning.

It should be no surprise then that a lunar calendar involves the cycle of the moon. The Islamic calendar is lunar. Certain religious celebrations are based on the lunar cycle. For example, “Easter is a moveable feast, meaning it is not fixed in relation to the civil calendar. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the northern hemisphere's vernal equinox.” But then, you already knew that, right? As a result, Easter can fall as early as March 22 and as late as April 25.

Now while Pope Gregory may have had time on his hands, others had even more spare time, and they invented lunisolar calendars, which—yes, you guessed it—had aspects tied to both the sun and the moon. [Actually, I think these were April Fool’s pranks that simply got out of hand, much like the German language.] In fact, strictly speaking, the date of Easter is a combination of solar and lunar considerations. The Hebrew and Hindi calendars are lunisolar.

For a list of calendars used around the world, click here.


I grew up thinking that month and day names began with uppercase letters, and that each had a long form and a 3-letter abbreviation. However, that is not the case in many other cultures.

Now as to how one might write a date is wide open. In an earlier essay, I mentioned how an Australian was traveling around the US and sent me email saying she was coming to my area on 6/5. My challenge was to figure out if she meant June 5 (US format) or May 6 (Aussie format). Yes, some cultures write dd/mm/yy while others write mm/dd/yy. These days, much of my business and personal correspondence goes to an international audience. As such, I write dates as yyyy-mm-dd, using the century and leading zeros, if necessary, to be completely unambiguous. [The ordering of parts in this format is understood pretty much universally although in some cultures the dash is replaced by a slash or period.] In another essay, I commented on the proliferation of the US date 9/11 (the day the World Trade Center in NYC was destroyed) in countries that would otherwise write that date as 11/9. There are always exceptions to the rule, I guess.


In Part 1 of this series I wrote, “On what date does summer begin? In the US summer begins with the Summer Solstice, on June 20th or 21st, when the sun is furthest north. For countries in the southern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice is on December 20th or 21st. However, in some places equinoxes and solstices are considered to be in the middle of the respective season or at least some weeks after that season’s start, but never actually at their start. For example, in Australia, summer starts on December 1 and ends the last day of February.” [That’s what happened when you drink too much beer for breakfast!]


Fortunately, there seems to be general agreement around the world that there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day. The differences then in writing a specific time come down to whether one uses a 12- or 24-hour time format, the hour/minute/second separator, and the set of symbols used to represent the corresponding values 1–12 or 0–23. [Although the Arabic number system is widely used around the world, it isn’t the only number system.]

I’ve lived my whole life using a 12-hour system, as in AM (ante meridiem, Latin for “before noon”) and PM (post meridiem, Latin for “after noon”). However, I have spent many months traveling in countries that use a 24-hour system. Once I got a digital watch (and now a pocket computer) that supported both systems, I changed it accordingly when I traveled. I did this partly so my watch would match transportation schedule signs at airports and train stations; I also did it to try and “get with the program”. Basically, if the locals could master such a system then why couldn’t I? After all, this was the normal way of doing things in their environment. After some years of doing this I freely admit to still getting confused by times after lunch; for example, distinguishing between 17:00 and 7 pm.

So, how does one write the 12-hour suffix? Take your pick from a.m./p.m., am/pm, AM/PM, and A.M./P.M. As to whether one puts a space between the time and the suffix is a personal choice; I use a space followed by am/pm, but remember I’m not normal. And what about the separator between the hour and minute value? Most commonly used are the colon (:) and the period (.), although some French-speaking cultures separate them with “ h “.

Although I’m a 12-hour person, that system has the anomaly that times like 12:05 are earlier than 1:05 when everyone knows that 1 comes before 12. In reality, the 12 acts as zero!

Several times I’ve visited US Government Department offices, I’ve seen analog wall clocks with 24 hours around the face (fortunately in Arabic numerals rather than Roman). That takes some getting used to; for example, what at a glance appears to be 6 o’clock is really 12 noon! There also are analog timepieces with two concentric circles; one numbered 1–11 with each number paired with an inner ring of 13–23, with 12 paired with an inner 0 or 24. And even the use of Roman numerals can cause some grief; apart from the “usual” way of writing them, alternate versions use IIII instead of IV, and VIIII instead of IX.

When I fly, there usually is a duty-free catalog by my seat. Whenever I flip through one and come across a very expensive watch, I’m amused by the fact that it can keep such accurate time, yet one can only read it to the nearest 5 minutes!

Now if you asked a good lawyer, “How many hours are there in a day?” you might get the answer, “How many do you want there to be?” And, indeed, politicians (who often have been trained as lawyers) can “stop the clock” or “extend the day”. For example, some years ago, I visited the State House in Carson City, the capital city of Nevada, and sat in on a legislative session. Afterwards, I was reading some information about the legislature. Members meet every two years and can meet up to 120 days, but they only get paid for 60 days. By law, they must conclude their business before the start of the 121st day. On a number of occasions, as midnight on the 120th day approached, it was clear that more time was needed, so the members passed a bill that extended the day by several hours, having 13 o’clock pm, then 14 o’clock pm, and so on. I have heard of other situations where the chamber clock was stopped, so, technically, the official time stood still while business was finished.

Time Zones

Back in the days of travel by foot or horse, one could not go large distances in short times, so one couldn’t see the impact of the earth’s rotation in relation to movement on the earth’s surface. Fast-forward to railways, and passengers needed to make connections; timetables came into being. It was no longer acceptable for each town to have its own idea of the time; some synchronization was needed. And once planes and cars arrived, it was possible to travel long distances much more quickly. And so the idea of time zones came about with the earth being divided into 24 1-hour vertical zones (called lunes), nowadays starting at the meridian running through Greenwich, England, whose zone is known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). [In military parlance, time zones have designated letters with GMT being “Z/Zulu” time.]

Within most countries, there is only one time zone, and in most cases, the difference between adjacent time zones is one hour. I just happen to be from a country that is abnormal. Australia has three time zones; however, the central zone (in which my hometown is located) is 30 minutes behind the eastern zone, and 90 minutes ahead of the western zone. Other countries/areas that have half-hour differences include Afghanistan, Burma, India, Iran, Newfoundland (Canada), and Venezuela. Nepal has a 15-/45-minute difference from its neighbors. I now live in the US, which spans six time zones: Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, Alaska, and Hawaii, going east-to-west. Only Russia spans more time zones (10), and, in some cases, its neighboring zones differ by two hours instead of one. (Given the width of China, one might expect it to have multiple time zones as well, but it has only one.)

Summertime/Daylight Saving Time

The idea of moving clocks forward to increase the number of working daylight hours is not new. However, it is more prevalent in areas outside the tropics as tropical places already have more daylight hours even in winter. In fact, in the tropics, one doesn’t talk about seasons as summer through winter; one talks about rainy and dry seasons. This difference manifests itself in Australia. For example, Queensland and the Northern Territory (states that are in adjacent time zones) are in the tropics, and don’t have summer time. On the other hand, South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria (among others) are much further south, and they do have summer time. In summer, you get the interesting situation in which South Australia is 30 minutes behind both New South Wales and Victoria, to its east, yet 30 minutes ahead of Queensland, which is also to the east. And Queensland is an hour behind its neighbor to the south.

And let’s not forget what my dear old mom used to say, “That daylight savings business is silly and, besides, all that extra sunlight has caused my curtains to fade!”

Back in the Good-Old Days

Back when I was in history class in primary school, I learned that the modern western calendar was based on the birth of Jesus Christ, and that dates before that were written with the suffix BC or B.C. (English for “before Christ”), while dates afterwards had the suffix AD or A.D. (anno domini, Latin for “in the year of our Lord”) or no suffix at all. [Contrary to a vicious rumor started by members of the People’s Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People’s Front?) AD does not stand for after death.] Historically, BC was written as a suffix (as in 23 BC) and AD as a prefix (as in AD 1066); however, it is now commonplace to both written as suffixes.

Apparently, not all the world is Christian—Thank God for that!—and in these politically correct times, we need a lay approach to dates from the pre- and post-whatshisname eras. So, AD became CE, which stands for Common Era or Current Era (or if you insist, Heaven forbid, Christian Era). And BC became BCE, which stands for Before the Common Era or Before the Current Era (or Before the Christian Era).

Now there is no year 0 in this system, but, when written on a time line, there is a single point that designates the change from midnight Year 1 BC to 00:01 Year 1 AD, which I am sure you are happy to know. However, the lack of a year 0 led to a huge problem that during the recent millennium change resulted in people arguing for days over when the new millennium actually began. Wikipedia (which you all know contains lies!) claims that, “most experts agree that a new century begins in a year with the last digits being "01" (1801, 1901, 2001); new millennia likewise began in 1001 and 2001. A common misconception is that centuries and millennia begin when the trailing digits are zeroes (1800, 1900, 2000, etc.); moreover, this convention was widely used to celebrate the new millennium in the year 2000.” So, those of you who celebrated in 2000 had it all wrong, but then you could do it all over again in 2001 to make up for it. Oh, by the way, at an archeological dig in the Middle East, scientists recently found documentation of a previously unknown Y1K problem. It caused absolute havoc at Cash Machines at the “Scribes and Pharisees Savings and Loan Association”, which had failed to recalibrate its abaci.

Leap Seconds

Has your life become a drag? Well if you have been paying very close attention you may have noticed that, lately, the earth isn’t rotating as fast as it used to. In reality, a day is a small fraction of a second more than 24 hours. This proved too much for some lawyers (who, apparently, bill by the millisecond), so over drinks at a bar the concept of a leap second was born. Yes dear reader, from time to time, when your back is turned, and without any warning whatsoever, an extra second is added to some unsuspecting minute, giving that minute 61 seconds. Now you might well ask, “Who is doing this?” and “How often are they doing it?” “Is it a ploy by my boss to get me to work longer without extra pay?” The simple answers are, “Bruce”, “zero, once, or twice a year”, and “Yes”.

Now for those of you having atomic clocks in your basement, this is very important to know, because you should be making leap-second adjustments from time to time (get it?). For a detailed list of when adjustments have been made in the past, click here. The adjustments are always made at 23:59:60 on June 30 and/or December 31. It doesn’t happen every year, and in some years, it happens at both times. As the earth slows down, leap seconds will need to be added on a more frequent basis. Unfortunately, unless your timepiece isn’t connected to the internet, you’ll have to adjust it manually; just push the “add leap-second button”.

Now the really good news is that the lawyers drinking at the bar that night were quite visionary. They not only allowed for the addition of an extra second, they also allowed for one’s removal. So, if the earth should ever get struck by the Mother of all Comets at a very low angle from the west, and the planet starts spinning faster, we’ll all die horribly. But we’ll die—rest-assured—that our atomic clocks will still be keeping the correct time for the cockroaches and other primitive forms of life [shame on you for thinking “used-car salesmen”] that survive the catastrophe!


Just when you thought GMT had been around long enough to be trusted, someone had to go and invent something else, namely, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). GMT wasn’t good enough for him; oh no, he had a much better idea.

The good news is that unless you are intimately involved with very high-precision timepieces (e.g., atomic clocks) or highly synchronized computer networks that manipulate the world’s financial systems, you needn’t worry about UTC, which by the way was responsible for all this leap-second nonsense. [By that way, it’s actually quite surprising just how much money you can siphon off from the financial network in that extra second!]


Do you use the terms this week or next week? To understand what they mean, one needs to know what day it is today and the day of the week on which the week starts. In the latter case, there are multiple customs: many people start their week on Sunday, while others believe that Monday is the first day.

Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “When was that made?” Yet at the end of the credits, the copyright date is written using Roman Numerals, which, for films produced before 2000, makes it hard for most mere mortals to fathom. The general thinking about this is that is a deliberate obfuscation mechanism to hide the actual date, so you don’t automatically think, “This is an old [as in lame or not up-to-date] movie”.

As to the time now and today’s date, I’m sitting here in Szczecin, Poland, where it’s 15:05 and, according to the trusty Gregorian calendar next to me, it’s Piątek (Pt), Lipiec 1, 2011 [3:05 pm on Friday (Fri), July 01, 2011; that is]. According to the Um-al-Qura calendar, the date is AlJumaa, Rajab 29, 1432, whereas the Hijri/Lunar calendar says it’s a day later at AlJumaa, Rajab 30, 1432. On the other hand, the Saka era calendar says it is Sukravara, Asadha 10, 1933.

Now back to the earlier question, “How often do leap years occur?” Using the Gregorian calendar system, a leap year is one that is a multiple of 4, but not also a multiple of 100, unless it’s a multiple of 400. [Hmm, that sounds like it’s related to the Julian date system, which gained about three days every four centuries.] So, while 1600 and 2000, for example, were leap years, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not. As such, the next leap year after 1896 was 1904, a gap of 8 years. Now go and challenge your friends and neighbors with that, if you have time, that is.

What is Normal - Part 3: Money

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

When I was eight or nine, based on an ad in a kids magazine I sent off for a starter set of coins for a collection. Some of them were rather exotic and they all came from faraway places. Although I have only a few of those original coins now, I do have a large set of coins and banknotes that I have collected during the past 30+ years on my visits to 50-odd regions of the world. In more than a few cases, the country I was visiting was in the process of changing its currency, in which case, I often got a set of the old and the new. In the case of banknotes—sometimes called bills or notes—I limit them to amounts worth less than US$10. I also have a habit of looking at my change and I often spot an uncommon special-issue coin or banknote. After many years of having my collection stored in plastic bags and boxes, I finally got around to mounting it into sheets of plastic holders and 3-ring binders.

As we shall see below, not all monetary systems are created equal. Remember, normal is relative—things can and do vary dramatically from one country to the next.

How Well do You Know Your Money?

Most people take money for granted; they work, they earn money, and they save and/or spend it. [I've heard two theories regarding spending vs. saving: "Money is made round to go 'round", and "Money is made flat to put in a stack."] Many people don't notice or know the names of the people and scenes depicted on the currency that they use every day. [Attention Americans: Which US banknotes feature people who were not presidents? On the penny, does Lincoln face left or right? No peeking now!]

Here are some questions for you regarding your own currency system, and money, in general:

  • Who are the faces on each of your coins?
  • Who are the faces, or what are the scenes, on each of your banknotes?
  • Some coins contain Latin inscriptions. If you have any such coins, what do the inscriptions mean? (For example, US coins have e pluribus unum.)
  • Why does my name (Rex) appear in some (typically older British Commonwealth) coins? And when might it start appearing again on new coins?
  • Are living people ever shown on coins or banknotes?
  • In some cultures, coins have heads and tails sides. What are the formal names for those?
  • Do different denominations of banknotes have different colors and/or sizes?
  • What anti-counterfeiting measures, if any, do your banknotes contain?
  • Why is the same person on contemporary coins from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Fiji?
  • Where in North America is the Euro legal tender?

See later below for some answers and comments.

Currencies and Their Symbols

Most of us deal with one currency, our own local one, be it $, £, ¥, or €, for example. However, if we read articles that involve multiple currencies we might need more than local currency symbols. Let's take the case of Australia, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, Hong Kong, and the US, all of which use their own local dollar currency. How can we distinguish between them? Each currency has a 3-letter code of which the first two letters ordinarily correspond to the host country's code. The third letter denotes the currency. Together, they make up the 3-letter international currency code standard, ISO 4217. For example, the dollar currencies mentioned above have the following respective 3-letter names: AUD, BSD, BMD, CAD, HKD, and USD. Non-dollar currencies use the same naming scheme; for example, Chinese Yuan (CNY), Danish kroner (DKK), Japanese yen (JPY), South African rand (ZAR), Swiss franc (CHF), and UK pound (GBP). [Yes, the GB designation ignores Northern Ireland.] One exception to this naming scheme is the Euro, which has the 3-letter name EUR; it is not associated with any one country. Of course, if we read historic information about countries that have since adopted the Euro we'll see their previous currency codes; for example, Austrian shilling (ATS), French franc (FRF), German deutschmark (DEM), and Spanish peseta (ESP).

The most commonly traded currencies all have symbols, most of which are readily recognizable. However, if you have to write an amount in an electronic document and you have no way to enter the corresponding symbol, you can use the generic currency sign ¤, assuming your software supports it. It's a small circle with four short lines radiating out at 90-degree angles, as shown. Computer keyboards for some European languages actually have a key for this symbol.

Currency symbols can be misleading. For example, "When is a $ not a dollar?" Not only is that symbol used for dollar currencies, it is also used by peso currencies in numerous Latin American countries. [When Mexico issued its New Peso 20-odd years ago, it used the local notation N$.] The Japanese yen and Chinese Yuan share the ¥ symbol. The UK pound and some other pound currencies share the symbol £ with some lira currencies.

Currency Divisions and Denominations

To many people, currency is made up of two different units of which one larger unit is made up of 100 smaller units. The UK decimal pound, dollar currencies, and the Euro are examples. However, some currencies have three units.

Before decimal currency was introduced in numerous British Commonwealth countries (including my own, Australia), they used a pound, which was made up of 20 shillings, each of which was made up of 12 pence. This pounds, shillings, and pence system was often written as £sd, or lsd, from the Latin words librae, solidi, and denarii. Although many countries used a dollar for their decimal currency, the UK kept the pound, but instead of its having 20 shillings, or 240 old pence, it had 100 new pence.

In 2009, I visited Jordan, whose currency is the dinar (JOD), which is divided into 100 qirsh (or piastres) or 1,000 fils. It's a decimal system, but it has three units. However, it appears that fils are fading from use, as one cannot buy anything with such small-valued coins.

The currency of China is the Yuan, which, domestically, is referred to as Renminbi. 1 Yuan is 10 Jiao, and 1 Jiao is 10 Fen. Again, it appears that the smallest unit is fading from use.

So are there any currencies that have only one unit. Yes, and probably the best known is the Japanese Yen (JPY). Prior to the Euro, Italy had a single-unit currency, the Italian lira (ITL). Italy was my first port of call in Europe, and I remember well buying a pair of shoes there for 30,000 lira, which sounded like a lot of money.

For the most part, coin denominations are unsurprising, such as 1, 5, 10, and 50; however, a few things warrant a mention:

  • Dollar currencies in North America and the Caribbean use a 25-cent coin while those in Asia and Australasia use a 20-cent coin.
  • Some dollar (and other decimal) currencies have a 2-cent coin.
  • Various old-time pound currencies, in which the third unit was the penny, had a halfpenny (pronounced ha'penny), and a quarter penny (called a farthing).
  • Some coins have their own names separate from their value; for example, in the US, a 1-cent coin is called a penny, a 5-cent coin is a nickel, a 10-cent coin is a dime, and a 25-cent coin is a quarter. To some old-timers, a quarter is also 2 bits. Some old British Commonwealth currencies had quid, crown, half-crown, sovereign, guinea, and florin.

Millionaire for a Day

According to Wikipedia, inflation "is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time Inflation". As we have seen—and some of you might have experienced first-hand—there is inflation and there is INFLATION! While in western countries we talk about annual inflation in the order of 2–5% per year, the inflation rate in Zimbabwe in 2008 was 98% per day, which meant that prices doubled every 24.7 hours! [I'm reminded of a cartoon I once saw in which a shopper recalled how she used to take a purse full of cash to buy a cart full of groceries, but, these days, she spends a cart full of cash on a purse full of groceries!]

As inflation ramped up in Argentina in the 1980's, the government introduced the austral, which was equal to 10,000 pesos. But then came hyperinflation, during which prices climbed more than 100% some months, and 10,000; 50,000; and 500,000 australes banknotes were issued. I happened to be there in 1991, just before they introduced the new peso at a rate of 10,000 australes. When I changed money at the land border with Chile after having crossed the Patagonia, I got a bunch of those "big bills". For a day, I was a millionaire, although the buying power of my stake was pretty low. One interesting byproduct of that was there were no coins. To use a pay phone, I had to go to a kiosk to buy a metal slug that I then inserted into the phone.

I was also in Mexico when they divided their peso currency ($) by 100 to get the new peso (N$).

Another well-known inflationary event took place in the Germany's Weimar Republic between 1921 and 1923. I have a 10 million Mark banknote from 1923.

The Euro

If you have traveled to Europe in recent years, you'll almost certainly have encountered the Euro. At a glance, the banknotes from each country look the same, and they are, except that the series number prefix does indicate the country in which each one was printed. The coins are another matter altogether. The design on the front of each coin is the same across all countries, although there are now two different sets. (A quick look at the older set shows that Norway is missing from Scandinavia leaving a suggestive image of manhood formed by Sweden and Finland.) Those countries that adopted the Euro after the second design was introduced only use that new one while the early adopters have both. The backside of each country's coins was chosen by various means within each country. For example, Ireland chose the harp for all eight denominations, Greece chose eight different images, and some other countries chose one image for the 1-, 2-, and 5-cent, another for the 10-, 20-, and 50-cent, and a third for the 1- and 2-Euro. (See the European Central Bank's web site for the details of each coin and banknote set.)

In 2009, I was at the Vatican City [preparing for sainthood, as you might expect!], which has its own set of Euro coins; however, they are not in circulation. Like stamps, they make for a big money spinner from the tourists. When I went to a souvenir store to ask about getting a set, I was politely informed that sets started at €130, which for eight coins having a face value of €3.88 seemed like a sin! Needless to say, I do not have any of those.

As inflation has eroded the value of many small coins, some countries round all financial amounts to the nearest multiple of 5. [In the case of Australia, this resulted in its removing its 1- and 2-cent coins from circulation.] In the case of Finland, although 1- and 2-cent coins were minted [you can buy them from coin shops] they are not in circulation. Now, the 1- and 2-cent coins are legal tender in all countries that support the Euro. So, must a Finnish merchant accept five 1-cent coins from Germany or France, for example, as payment for a 5-cent bill? I don't know.

France has several overseas departments all of which are formally part of that country. As such, they use the Euro. These include Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Guiana in South America, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Although numerous former French colonies used a franc currency that was tied to the French Franc (FRF), they do not now use the Euro. Instead, they use the Central African CFA franc (XAF), the West African CFA franc (XOF), or the French Pacific Franc (XPF), among others, which are tied to the Euro.

Uncommon but Valid Denominations

When I arrived in the US in 1979, a dollar coin had been introduced and there was a big promotion to get people to use it. However, as the new coin was almost the same size and thickness as the quarter (25 cents), this Susan B. Anthony coin never took off. A few years ago, a larger and different colored dollar coin featuring Sacajawea was introduced, but it too languishes. [In my humble opinion, so long as the $1 bill is kept in circulation no dollar coin will become mainstream in the US. Note that a US$1 bill wears out—and gets shredded—in less than a year while an equivalent coin will last many years.]

The US also has a 50-cent coin and a $2 bill; however, they are almost "as rare as hen's teeth". In fact, many Americans don't even know they exist. The main problem is that cash drawers do not have extra places to put these two denominations, so when they are received in payment, the cashier puts them in the space under the cash drawer.

More than 25 years ago, when I made my first trip to Disneyland I got Disney dollars, $1 bills with Mickey's face on them. Interestingly, in recent years here in the US, there has been a surge in the creation and use of private currency that is only accepted within some small geographical area only. Apparently, this was to encourage inhabitants to spend locally.

Privately Issued Currency

The first time I came across an instance of a non-governmental name on currency was in 1979 in Hong Kong. Back then, equivalent sets of banknotes were issued containing the names The Chartered Bank and The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. [The latter's abbreviated name is HSBC, which is now a well-known worldwide bank.] When I went back to Hong Kong in 2005, it had become a Special Administrative Region of China, and an extra set of banknotes labeled Bank of China (Hong Kong) was in circulation.

The next instance was in Scotland where I found banknotes issued by The Royal Bank of Scotland Limited, Bank of Scotland, and Clydesdale Bank PLC. According to Wikipedia, there have been eight issuers of banknotes in Northern Ireland.

Just Where Can I Use a Given Currency?

Except for the Eurozone, for the most part, each country has its own currency, which is accepted throughout its territories. However, some currencies are used legally (and sometimes not so legally) outside their home country. The US$ is probably the most common. It is legal tender in Bermuda, the Dutch Antilles, East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Panama, among others.

Numerous towns in countries bordering the Eurozone also take Euros.

In 1992, I went to Russia. During my two weeks there, I never did change money legally. Given the steady increase in inflation back then, everyone was eager to change Rubles into hard currency (GBP, USD, or DEM) as a hedge. So whenever I needed Rubles, I didn't have to look far.

Special, Unusual, and Interesting Coins and Banknotes

Just when you thought you'd seen everything, along comes some new style of coin or banknote. Here are a few I've encountered:

  • 50-cent banknote (BSD)
  • $3 banknote (BSD)
  • 3 Ruble coin (RUR)
  • Square coins with rounded corners (ANG, BSD)
  • Coins with holes (DKK, JPY, NOK)
  • A 12-edged coin (the current 50-cent piece from Australia; believe it or not there is a World Record for the number of these that can be stood on edge one on top of another)
  • Coins having two pieces each made from a different metal (EUR, GBP, MXP)
  • Aluminum money so light coins can blow away out of one's hand (INR)
  • Bi-lingual banknotes (CAD, CHF, FIM)
  • Plastic banknotes (AUD). Yes, they do shrink when ironed!

And, of course, there are plenty of special-issue coins.

Overseas travel and currency exchange

How much is my currency worth abroad? There are many web sites that can give you up-to-the-minute rates of exchange for all the mainstream currencies. However, there are some things to understand before you lock in on a rate:

  • Traveler's checks are bought at a lower rate than that at which they are sold.
  • If you buy traveler's checks a long time in advance of your trip, the exchange rate could become more or less favorable before you use them.
  • Credit card companies often charge a 3% currency transaction fee when you are traveling abroad and using a currency different to that from home. This fee appears on your statement separate from the item bought, and might even be posted days later. Watch out!
  • Some hotels give you the option of paying your bill with your credit card in the local currency or in your home currency (at least for EUR, GBP, and USD). Understand what charges you credit card company tacks on before you do the comparison. (It's probably a moneymaking racket for the hotel.)
  • Too many people tell themselves that foreign money is confusing, thereby making it a self-fulfilling prophesy. Come up with a reasonable approximation of the local currency unit and don't hold out wads of cash to vendors and tell them to take what they need. Their needs might be quite a bit more than the transaction price.

Why do rates change? From time to time, national banks revalue their currency based on a number of factors that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say that a big swing can make your vacation abroad significantly cheaper or more expensive. (In recent years, I've stopping thinking about the cost when I use the EUR, GBP, and JPY.) In the 31 years I've been gone from Australia, the AUD went from USD 1.25 down to USD 0.65, and back up to USD 1.02.

Can I have a bank account in another country? Check with your tax agency. Most require you to declare foreign accounts, the account country might also need you to file a tax return in its country, and it might withhold taxes on any interest earned.

Can I have a bank account in the US recorded using another currency? I don't believe so. However, some countries do allow such accounts.

Based on personal experience, I have one warning to Americans in particular about using cash machines abroad, if they use a PIN containing letters instead of digits. US phones have had letters on them as well as numbers for a long time, and this trend naturally moved to keypads. However, this is not the case in many (most?) other countries. So, there I was in Alsace, France, wanting to get money from a cash machine; my PIN was alphanumeric, but the machine had only digits. As a result, I now have a list of the translation from letters to digits stored in my pocket computer. I can attest that it is very frustrating to have all the things that you need to get your cash, yet not be able to get at your cash!

Formatting Currency Amounts

Give 10 different cultures the task of developing a system of formatting numbers and currency amounts, and you may well get 10 different results. As part of my work in developing international standards for computer programming languages, here are some of the formatting differences I've had to deal with:

  • The radix point for some is the period (.) while that for others is the comma (,), as in USD 1.56 vs. EUR 1,56.
  • The "thousands" separator for some is the period (.) while that for others is the comma (,), as in USD 1,234 vs. EUR 1.234. The Swiss actually use a single quote, and, I believe, the French sometimes use non-breaking spaces. Now, I ask you, is that normal?
  • Note the quotes in "thousands" above. Some currencies group digits in other than blocks of three.
  • For some, the local currency symbol or international currency name is written as a prefix, while for others, it's written as a suffix.
  • As to how positive and negative signs/amounts or Debit/Credit indicators are printed varies widely.

The Envelope Please

Answers to the quiz:

  • Who are the faces on each of your coins? That depends on your currency, but they probably are past presidents, royalty, or national heroes.
  • Who are the faces, or what are the scenes, on each of your banknotes? Again, that depends on your currency, but they probably are past presidents, royalty, or national heroes. In many cases, they look like they suffered from constipation or very much needed to pass gas to release some pressure. In the case of the "politically correct" Euro, they were deliberately chosen to be abstract and not actual places.
  • Some coins contain Latin inscriptions. If you have any such coins, what do the inscriptions mean? (For example, US coins have e pluribus unum), which means, "Give us your poor, your tired, and your hungry", or in Chicago, "Give us your money, all of it!" (Actually, it means, "Out of many, one".)
  • Why does my name (Rex) appear in some (typically older British Commonwealth) coins? And when might it start appearing again on new coins? Rex is the Latin word for king (hence the name of this blog). In Latin and romance languages, adjectives follow the nouns to which they apply, so King George is written George Rex. As the Latin word for queen is Regina, contemporary British Commonwealth coins carry Elizabeth Regina. Standby for Charles Rex (maybe) and William Rex (fur shur dude).
  • Are living people ever shown on coins or banknotes? Yes. Usually they are reigning monarchs or not-so-benevolent dictators.
  • In some cultures, coins have heads and tails sides. What are the formal names for those? For coins, the front/heads side is the obverse, and the back/tails side is the reverse. These terms can also be used with banknotes, flags, and medals, among other things.
  • Do different denominations of banknotes have different colors and/or sizes? That depends on your currency. US banknotes used to all be the same size and color; however, now other colors are being added with each new re-design. Australian dollar (and numerous other currency) banknotes increase in width and/or length with each increasing denomination. Most currencies use different colors on different denominations
  • What anti-counterfeiting measures, if any, do your banknotes contain? They probably have one of more of the following: special paper, ink, serial numbers, watermarks, metallic threads, and holograms.
  • Why is the same person on contemporary coins from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Fiji? Because she's the Queen of England (and the British Commonwealth) and you're not!
  • Where in North America is the Euro legal tender? Formerly an overseas department of France, the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon—that are just off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada—are now an overseas collectivity.


On average, I make 4–6 international trips a year. As a result, I often have leftover currency from a previous trip. In fact, for emergency purposes, in my computer bag I keep about USD 20-worth of banknotes in each of the following currencies: US dollars, UK pounds, Japanese yen, Swiss francs, and Euros.

From 1999–2008, the US stopped making "standard" quarters. Instead, it issued 50 state quarters, 10 per year, in the order of each state's joining the union. Now if you have all 50 (I'm still missing a couple), you may think you have a full set, but quarters were also issued for each of the federal territories. And to make it more challenging, US coins are branded P or D depending on whether they were made at the Philadelphia or Denver mints, respectively. So a full set is 50 Ps and 50 Ds! And now we've got special-issue nickels and dollars.

If you are looking for a unique gift for that hard-to-shop-for friend, see if your national mint (or private coin shop) sells packets of shredded banknotes that have been taken out of circulation. You might also be able to buy uncut sheets of banknotes. (For example, the US Mint sells sheets of sixteen $1 bills. Hmm, I wonder what my creditors would say if I tried to pay them with such sheets?)

People around the world know that the US Secret Service is charged with protecting current and former US leaders and their families. You know, those men and women always talking into their lapel in movies! Nowadays, this service is part of the Department of Homeland Security; however, when the service was created in 1865, it was part of the Treasury Department, where its initial responsibility was to deal with crimes relating to that department, such as counterfeiting. It still plays that role today. It wasn't until 1901 that the service started protecting presidents (by which time three presidents had been assassinated).


What is Normal? – Part 2: Writing Systems

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


In the first installment, I introduced the general topic and posed some questions to get you in the "What is Normal" mindset. In this part, I'll deal with writing systems. These days, as most of my travel is international the most obvious deviation from my normal routine is being surrounded by written communication in a foreign language, and sometimes with a writing system quite different from my own. [Should that be "different to my own"? British and American English vary.]

I started writing this article in a hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. [And I proofread it in a hotel in Helsinki, Finland, three months later.] Prior to that time, I had been to Sweden once, for three hours one winter's afternoon in Helsingborg after a short ferry ride from Elsinore, Denmark. I know absolutely no Swedish, and have had very little exposure to Swedish people or culture. [I do have some CDs by ABBA and I'm familiar with the Swedish Chef from The Muppets TV show. So that probably qualifies me to be an armchair expert on Sweden on the talk-show circuit.]

From the moment I stepped off the plane at the airport, I saw Swedish writing all around me. Fortunately, some important signs were in English, but as Swedish is a Germanic language—and I have some basic competency in that—I could also understand or figure out some basics. And the fact that quite a few signs used international symbols for things like toilets, money changing, train station, luggage lockers, and such made it all straight forward (unlike when I arrived in Israel [Hebrew] and Jordan [Arabic] last November).

I've been interested in natural languages for many years, and have made a stab at Spanish, German, and Japanese. And I've picked up some basic vocabulary in a few other languages as well. Then I got into formal computer languages, and that led me to formal grammars. Along the way, I worked on specifications for computing environments to support different linguistic and cultural customs. And some years after I started writing for publication, I even managed to get a decent grasp on my first language, English. So let's just say that I'm an occasionally enthusiastic self-taught amateur linguist.


To be literate one must be able to read, write, and comprehend what one has read or written. And in the general understanding, this is extended to include numeracy, the ability to understand numbers and basic arithmetic. So when you hear that a person is illiterate that typically means they lack these capabilities. However, they may well be able to speak and comprehend, and even have an extended vocabulary. In short, they aren't stupid! [Unfortunately, here in the US, we've had more than a few instances of professional athletes graduating from a 4-year university and still being illiterate. "How can that happen", you may well ask.]

Fluency has to do with one's command of a language. I've seen references to the idea that being fluent in a language means knowing the basic grammar and having a vocabulary of 2,000 root words. Over the years, I've done my share of learning word lists in several languages, and each time after having learned 10 new ones, I've felt pretty good, until I realized that that was just the tip of the iceberg. While I may know the words for bird and flower, for example, I'm quickly reminded that doesn't help me distinguish a crow from a sparrow, or a rose from a tulip. As a wag once said, "Those foreigners have different words for everything!"

When I started high school in 1965, only the students in the "A" stream (of which I was one) could take a foreign language, and we had to choose from Latin, Latin, or Latin. Yes my friends, Latin was the only choice, apparently because some Education Department bureaucrats had decided South Australia was most vulnerable to attack from the Romans! And boys like me who didn't care for Latin had to take Agricultural Science instead, while the girls' alternative was Drawing. Speaking of Latin, you may have heard of the famous quote attributed to Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered); well, the modern-day version is Veni, vidi, Visa (I came, I saw, I shopped).

Here in Fairfax County, Virginia, to graduate high school in the public school system students are required to take one foreign language for three years, or two languages each for two years. Most schools offer Spanish, French, and German. The high school my son attended also offered Japanese, Russian, and Latin. And most American Liberal Arts 4-year colleges require students to take two semesters of a foreign language or to show proof of fluency to get an exemption.

In 1986, an excellent TV series called The Story of English was aired here in the US. It showed the evolution and distribution of the language as the British Empire expanded around the world. One aspect that I found most amusing was that in more than a few interviews subtitles were added so viewers had a chance of actually understanding what was being said. They may have been speaking in their normal form of English, but it certainly wasn't mine.

Let's move on now to how the written word is actually written.

Alphabet Soup

Simply stated, an alphabet is a set of letters each of which is represented by a distinct symbol. [For the purpose of sorting words alphabetically, the set of letters can have one or more orders; that is, collating sequences.] As I'm writing this in English, I'll use that language to start my discussion. English has 26 letters, which come in two flavors, lower- and uppercase. [Follow the lowercase link to see why they have these names. In Australia, I learned them as small and capital letters, respectively.] Not all alphabets have more than one case. And not all letters in one case have a corresponding letter in the other case (the lowercase ß in German being one such example). And to make it a bit more interesting there is an artificial third case, title case (or letter case). This comes into play when typesetting headings and titles in publications.

For most people using an alphabet, they think of it as the alphabet, not as an alphabet. However, numerous alphabets are in use. For example, the Greek alphabet has 24 letters and two cases. The Classical Latin alphabet had 23 letters (that from modern English without J, V, and W, and with U written as V) and two cases. [Nowadays, Latin alphabet is used for any alphabet derived directly from Latin, so the English, Swedish, and Spanish alphabets, for example, are Latin alphabets.] The modern Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters and two cases. [Initially, the EU had two official alphabets, Latin and Greek, and if you look at any Euro paper money, you will see the words "EURO" (Latin) and "ΕΥΡΩ" (Greek) printed on them. However, now that Bulgaria has been admitted, Cyrillic has been added as the third official alphabet.]

In English, each vowel and consonant has a different symbol; however, the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets have letters for consonants only. They use other devices to indicate vowel sounds.

Uppercase letters in English are used sparingly, such as at the start of the first word in a sentence, to start proper names, and to write acronyms. However, in German, every noun is written with a leading uppercase letter.

Some alphabets use what look like multiple letters to make a single letter. For example, Spanish has the letters ch and ll. And yes, they do occur in both cases, and if these letters start the first word of a sentence, only the first in each pair is capitalized. Spanish also has rr, but that is really two r's, not a single letter. In Dutch, ij is sometimes considered a single letter; I've certainly seen it as a separate key on a typewriter keyboard.

In the good old days, once we had mastered printing, we moved on to cursive writing. And we were told of the importance of penmanship. However, for many of us, as we grew older, our cursive needed no encryption to keep its meaning secret. Our handwriting bordered on the illegible. The interesting thing now is that with the proliferation of keyboards and keyboard-like interfaces, all electronic communication uses printed letters. As such, does the teaching of cursive still have a place in modern education?

Western European languages have mostly evolved from the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian) or the Germanic languages. As I have a basic grasp of Spanish and German, and a smattering of words in French, I manage to read quite a few signs as I travel through Europe and its former colonies. And having also studied Japanese for a while, I tend not to get bothered by seemingly strange or arbitrary rules. After all, perhaps English is the strange language!

Now what about all those dots, bars, and squiggles that we see written above or below various letters in European alphabets? Take French (please!). It has the same 26 letters as English. However, it adds diacritical marks to aid in pronunciation. These are the acute (´), grave (`), circumflex (ˆ), dieresis (¨), and the cedilla (¸). The main combinations are: à, â, ç, é, è, ê, ë, î, ï, ô, û, ù, ü, and ÿ. The English word facade comes from the French façade; the cedilla clearly tells the reader to pronounce the letter c as an s, but as English has no such marks, that hint has been lost. You simply have to know that is how it's pronounced.

Spanish also uses the acute accent mark on its vowels, as in á, é, í, ó, and ú. Once again, these are not new letters, but marks to tell you where to put the emphasis when pronouncing them. In the absence of these marks, the stress goes on the penultimate syllable. These marks can also be used to give the same-spelled word different meanings. For example, sábana means bed sheet while sabana means savannah. Spanish also uses the dieresis, but only on ü. On the other hand, the word señor (meaning a formal version of mister) is widely known by speakers of other languages; however, ñ is a letter in its own right, not an n with a diacritic. Once again, when it was taken into English, the tilde atop it was lost. However, when English took on the word canyon from the Spanish cañon the letter y was added to retain the original pronunciation.

And what about them there umlauts in German, as in ä, ö, and ü? There is some dispute about whether they are separate letters or simply diacritical marks. In any event, they certainly indicate the pronunciation. My family name is Jaeschke, which when written in German is Jäschke, with the a-umlaut having the e sound in egg. [When I went to register the internet domain name www.Jaeschke.com, a German with the a-umlaut version of the name already owned it, so I went with www.RexJaeschke.com instead. Currently, domain names and email addresses have to be written using the English alphabet, so the German ä gets written as ae.]

Occasionally, in English-language typesetting you will see the dieresis (¨) used with English words. This mark is placed over the second of a pair of adjacent vowels to indicate that those vowels should be pronounced as separate sounds rather than as a diphthong. The most common word having this is naïve. Another one is the word Noël, which means Christmas.

The Norwegians and Danes have 29 letters in their alphabets, with the 26 English ones followed by Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å. [Two uses of these letters in English publications come to mind: Æsop's Fables and encyclopædia.] However, the Swedes like to be different, so their set of 29 letters ends in Å/å, Ä/ä, and Ö/ö. Finnish looks like Swedish with the W/w missing, but its roots are completely different, so the visual similarity is misleading.

Diacritical marks turn out to be very useful, and I can see why people have difficulty in pronouncing many words in English, which has no equivalent visual pronunciation guide. One letter pattern in English that has numerous sounds is ough. There is ow in bough, uu in through, oo in though, au in thought, u in enough, and o in cough (and probably others).

Regarding pronunciation in English, look at the front of a good dictionary to see the list of pronunciation symbols and their sounds. For example, man is pronounced măn and plane is pronounced plān. (The ˘ is a breve and the ˉ is a macron.) There is a whole phonetic alphabet used to describe how letters in other alphabets are pronounced.

Even the sounds of the same letter in the same language can vary from one country to the next. The classic example in English is the letter z, which in the US is pronounced zee while the rest of the world says zed. Of course, with the American version of Sesame Street being exported around the world, that is changing. [By the way, Big Bird is not always yellow. For example, in The Netherlands, he is blue.] Also, the way in which small children are taught their letter values varies between countries. For example, I first learned the short sounds a, b, c, etc. rather than the long names aye, bee, cee, and so on. That is, "the a and the t make at in bat"; not the "aye and the bee make at in bat", which would obviously be quite unhelpful.

Each time I travel to a country that uses an alphabet that is somewhat new to me, I look at a local computer keyboard. At a glance, everything is the same, but on closer inspection, quite a lot is different. As many European keyboards have more than 26 letters and/or keys for diacritical marks, the layout is different and some keys serve more than two purposes. The key sequence I have the most trouble finding and using is that to generate the @ symbol when sending email. And what's that ¤ key for?

At one time, I studied a world atlas in Greek for several hours trying to see what I could figure out about that language. Having taken math and physics classes for some years, I knew most of the Greek letters, but still it was a challenge. Legend has it that Saint Cyril—for whom the Cyrillic alphabet was named—and his brother developed that alphabet from Greek and took it into Bulgaria from where it spread through the eastern Slavic countries on up to Russia. So if you look at the history of those areas you can see where certain influences were made, by the alphabets used in those areas. One unusual example of this is the Serbo-Croatian language. The eastern practitioners wrote it using the Cyrillic alphabet while the western ones wrote it using a Latin alphabet. As a result, you have two groups of people speaking the same language, but neither can read it in the other's written form.

I freely admit to having had almost no interest in history during my school years. [After all, as someone once said, "History is nothing but one damned thing after another."] However, having traveled to some of the places I learned about (the Tower of London, Runnymede, and the Waterloo Battlefield, for example) I started to relate to more and more of it. And now I actually like the subject, and I see its influence on language evolution and distribution.

One thing about other languages that can be confusing is their use of a letter that you have in your own language, but with the two having completely different sounds. One example is the Russian letter C, which is pronounced like the English S (except on Wednesdays between 10 and 11 am, and in leap years). And to make it interesting, the Russian P is like the English R. If you look in photos or films covering the Cold War, the Soviet missiles and space rockets always have the letters CCCP painted on the side. These stand for "Союз Советских Социалистических Республик", which—as I'm sure you all know—in English means, "Soyuz Sovyetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik". Now "Soyuz" is Russian for "Union", so CCCP in Russian became "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" (USSR) in English. [Speaking of the Cold War, there is a story about how the US spent $1 million to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in space. The Soviets simply took a pencil!]

Putting the Em·PHA·sis on the Correct Syl·LA·ble

In Part 1, I wrote, "… my Japanese friend Misato would say that not only doesn't she have any lowercase letters—poor Misa—she doesn't have any letters at all or even an alphabet!" So what does she have? As well as Kanji (which we'll discuss later) she has two syllabarieshiragana and katakana—which together, are referred to as kana.

Where an alphabet has symbols for letters, a syllabary has symbols for syllables. Typically, a syllabary symbol has a vowel sound proceeded by an optional consonant. Some examples in Japanese are ah, kah, sah, go, zo, do, kyu, shu, and ryu. [Note that Tokyo really has only two syllables, to·kyo, not the three that Westerners insist on using, to·ki·yo.] Hiragana and katakana each have 100+ symbols with almost complete overlap. And just about any word can be written in either. Having two systems seems redundant to me, and students of Japanese must learn them both. Loan words from foreign languages are always written in katakana. Hiragana is used to write particles, a curious language element that does not exist in English.

Speaking of loan words, Japanese words all end in a vowel sound or n. So loan words have to fit this model and the syllabic pattern. For example, hotel becomes ho·te·ru, taxi becomes ta·ku·shi, and cheese become chi·zu. [While bread is also an imported idea, it came via the Portuguese, so it finished up as pan, which not only fits the Japanese model, but also comes from the Latin panis.] Rather than invent new words whose meaning is equivalent to foreign words, Japanese takes them literally with slight tweaks to "make them fit". My favorite is a·i·su·ku·ri·mu, icecream. Although these extra vowels allow the words to fit the spelling model when written in Romaji, they are unvoiced, so when spoken, the words sound very much like their English counterparts.

More than 10 years ago, one of my textbooks was translated to Japanese. As my first and last names were of foreign origin, they had to be written in katakana. However, there is no direct way to do that without adding some extra vowels to fit the required syllabic pattern. Here is the cover of that book:

[The same book was also translated to Russian, in which case, my name was written as Рекс Жешке.]

When one starts learning a language, one is told to learn to read and write as well as to speak and listen. In general, that makes sense, but when I started looking at Japanese, the idea of learning 200 kana seemed way too much work. [And that's without learning any of the thousands of Kanji characters!]

Other languages use a syllabary, but the Japanese ones are the most widely used.

Early versions of telex and telegram services were limited to as few as 32 symbols, which for most westerners was sufficient for a single-case version of their alphabets. So, did the Japanese have access to these services?

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (Or is it?)

It turns out that alphabets and syllabaries are latecomers in the written language stakes. At the beginning of the written word, we had pictograms, which used symbols that resembled the physical object for which they stood. [Even today, the Chinese and Japanese symbol for entrance is a mouth.] Of course, we have since invented many words that have no obvious physical representation, although pain might be symbolized by a picture of a dentist! Ideograms were also developed and they are symbols representing an idea or concept.

The best known of these kinds of writing systems are the hieroglyphics from Ancient Egypt and the characters used in Chinese, and which were adapted by Japanese (Kanji).

When I was dabbling in Japanese, I did try to learn the Kanji for basic numbers, and I had some success. So even though I could tell how much I was paying when buying from street food stalls, I still had no idea what I was buying. And to make it interesting, many vendors used a combination of Arabic and Japanese digits. For example, 100 would be written with a Kanji 1 followed by two Arabic zeros.

Although I've asked numerous native speakers how they know how to pronounce what I affectionately call "chicken scratchings", I am still none the wiser. In fact, I think they simply have to remember each character. As to how they look up words in a dictionary is a complete mystery to me. And to make it a wee bit challenging, ideogram-based languages seem to have no concept of inter-word spacing, little or no punctuation, and no upper- or lowercase.

To survive in present-day Japan, a student must master the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, have a good grasp of the Kanji ideograms (some with multiple meanings or readings), and then be able to at least read and understand a good deal of English. Many advertising billboards and TV commercials use all four writing systems together! And as for how one enters these kinds of characters on a keyboard simply is fascinating.

Writing Direction

If you are old enough to remember typewriters, you'll recall that large arm on the right that you had to push to the left to return the carriage to the left side and down to start a new line. Of course, with computers this has come to be known as—surprise—a carriage return.

Standards for computer programming languages support the concept of one or more characters that cause a display cursor or printer to advance to the first position of the next line. Of course, for Westerners, that means, "go back to the left side and down". That is, their writing systems are written left-to-right, top-to-bottom. I have no idea why those languages are written that way, but I know of no superior property it provides, so it is no surprise that some writing systems (such as Hebrew and Arabic) go right-to-left, top-to-bottom, and others (such as Chinese and Japanese) go top-to-bottom, right-to-left. I am not aware of any that go bottom-to-top, although that could be perfectly normal, right?

Most writers of Western languages are right-handed, which allows them to read easily what they have written as they write. Not so for lefties, like my son. In many cases, this forces left-handers to hold the pen at a very strange angle. [Speaking of lefties, back in the good old days (the Middle Ages) many people believed that those who wrote with their left hand were possessed by the Devil, and so they were considered evil. The word sinister comes from the Latin word of the same name, and means left-handed. Dextrous comes from the Latin dexteritas, from dexter, which means on the right.]

A few years ago, I made my first visit to the new British Library in London where I discovered its treasure room. [Among other things, it contains the first folio of Shakespeare's complete works, some very ornate Korans, and the lyrics of a well-known Beatle's song scribbled on an airline napkin. I highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity.] Off in one corner was a room with computer terminals that provided access to a digitized version of one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Now Leonardo (or "Yo Leo", as his close friends addressed him) was never accused of being normal. In this notebook, he wrote left-handed, from right to left, and back to front. That is, you need to look at a mirror image of the writing to see it in its "normal" perspective.


We've barely scratched the surface of this topic. For example, we haven't talked about sorting order in word lists, punctuation, grammar, or even the spoken word, which is a completely new topic of its own. But, of course, we have to leave something for future installments.

I'll leave you with the following anecdote from my travels in South East Asia in July 1979. I was in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve, had just been released there. The Malaysians loved movies and the ticket price was cheap, so each showing was packed. However, Malaysia has four official languages: Bahasia Malay, Chinese, Indian, and English. Although the soundtrack was in English, that was not the first language of most patrons, so they read one of the three sets of subtitles that covered the bottom half of the screen. At the same time, they were talking loudly amongst themselves making it difficult for those few of us trying to listen. For them that was normal.

What is Normal? – Part 1: Getting Started

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


This is the first in a series on this topic. It contains observations I've made after the following experiences: living for 25 years in Australia and another 30 years in the US; working with and hosting people from other regions and countries; and making more than 350 domestic and international trips for both work and pleasure.


Ask anyone what the word normal means and it's very likely they'll understand it to be something like "according to formal or informal rules, usual, ordinary", while its opposite abnormal means "to deviate from the usual or normal". Being normal is often associated with being socially accepted while to be abnormal has negative connotations. This is not always fair; it might just mean different. As for me, I have never claimed to be normal and I've never aspired to be usual let alone ordinary. And, many years ago, I decided that it was easier and much more useful and interesting to be different than it was to be better. [Like normal, better is another of those relative words, better than what?]

What is often forgotten about normal is the fact that its meaning depends on the context in which it is being used. For most people their everyday interactions are with people in the same local area in the same local language using the same local customs. They are all operating in a normal fashion. However, 100 miles away, people from another community interact with people in their local area, in their local language, using their local customs, all of which might be quite different from those of the first group. Yet the second group is also behaving normally. As for me, in a normal week I speak by phone with and write via email and instant message to people from a number of countries, from Asia through the Americas to Western and Eastern Europe.

Well that might be interesting from an anthropological point of view, but why should the average (dare I say, normal) person care? As long as there have been humans on this planet, they have grouped together in small bands, and then larger ones, right up through states and nations. And this has resulted in the creation and evolution of language and customs. They have traded with their neighbors, intermarried with them, and gone to war with them. And quite often, they have had significant misunderstandings with each other, based on differences in religion or custom.

In today's highly interconnected world very few of us can avoid being exposed to the customs of other groups, some of which are radically different from our own. Unless we are intent on becoming isolationists the challenge is to try and understand things from their perspective, probably without having experienced it or anything like it ourselves. Our normal is not their normal, and suggesting they should behave like us is at best naïve or ignorant and at worst foolish.

We are Products of our Own Environments

While we certainly inherit some things genetically, I'm a great believer in people being shaped by their environment; the larger their environment the greater the number of influences on them. In my own case, I spent my first 16 years in a rural community of South Australia (SA), most of the time living 5–30 miles from a town of about 5,000 people. My parents had a 6th-grade education. I had no role models for higher education or any profession, no or limited access to television, and limited choices of radio stations. Once every few years we made a day trip to the state capital. The most exotic thing I did was to spend several weeks on an Aboriginal Mission (which is much like a Native American Reservation here in the US) when I was 15. My environment was quite small.

Despite its enormous size, Australia was a country in which most people got from Place A to Place B by driving, and if it couldn't be driven in a reasonable time people didn't go there. [This changed somewhat once airline deregulation happened just as it did in the US.] As a result, people didn't go far on vacations and their exposure even to people from neighboring states was very limited.

After WWII, Australia supported a series of large immigration waves, each of which had a significant and permanent impact on the nation. The first to come were the English and Scots, then the Greeks, Italians, and Yugoslavs, and they came in the tens of thousands. After that, the economic refugee "Boat People" from Vietnam arrived, followed years later by the Sikhs, and more recently by people from various parts of the Middle East. As many of these people worked as itinerant fruit pickers, they took seasonal work on my hometown's citrus, grape, and stone fruit properties. Over time, they stayed permanently and started social clubs, sporting teams, newspapers, and radio programs, and for the most part, they integrated into the local community.

From age 16 to 25, I lived in Adelaide, a city of about a million people that is the capital of the state of SA. While there I bought a car, traveled to several other states, took my first airplane ride, became politically aware, and started voting (which is compulsory in Australia; is that normal?) I also discovered music, theater, and computers. My environment got substantially bigger. [However, I realize now that I didn't take advantage of it nearly as much as I could have.]

At 25, I left Australia for a multi-year adventure abroad. At that time, I had visited a number of regions of my large home state (which is nearly 150% the size of France or Spain) and I'd visited small parts of a few other states. Then, over a 7-week period, I visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Italy, Switzerland, France, and England. By the time I arrived in the US, my environment had become much larger, especially as I wasn't going home at the end of the trip. In fact, those seven weeks were just the beginning of the adventure.

Despite my extensive travels and interactions, I can still be surprised when it comes to normalcy. One such example occurred during my first visit to the state of Western Australia (WA) several years ago. [Each time I go back to Australia, I try to visit different bits of it to see what it was I had unknowingly left behind.] I was touring the southwest corner of that state when I came across a small town with a butcher shop. Right about then I had a yearning for some smoked sausage of the kind with which I'd grown up called mettwurst. Interestingly, the butcher knew exactly what I wanted, and asked me if I was from SA. I replied that I was, at which point he reminded me that the recipe for mettwurst came to Australia with the German immigrants in the 1840's, but they only settled in SA, so mettwurst was not normally available in other states. [Subsequently, I spent time discovering more about my own family background and state's history. As a result, I found that much of my knowledge about Australian customs really was specific to my home state or region.]

Another example involves books. I have worked with Nihon-jin (Japanese people) for more than 25 years. I've visited and travelled in Japan on numerous occasions, and I've hosted quite a few in my house, so I've come to learn quite a few things about their culture and customs. Being a book lover, I like to go to bookstores when I travel, and I do so in Japan. Most books written in Japanese have the front cover where we Westerners would say is the back cover, and vice versa, with the text going down the page in columns from right-to-left, and with pages being numbered from right-to-left. So when I see a stack of books on a table in a Japanese bookstore, I have this incredible urge to go and "turn them up the right way". I know they are already the right way up, but after all these years I still have not yet adjusted to that difference.

Getting in the "What is Normal?" Mindset

So what does normal mean to you? Without thinking too hard about them, answer the following questions:

  • On what date does summer begin?
  • If it is 11 o'clock in the morning in New York, ignoring any adjustment for Daylight Savings Time, what time is it in Paris, six 1-hour time zones to the east?
  • What date does 1/12/2009 represent?
  • Write the following value as a number: Three thousand four hundred point five.
  • How many lowercase letters are there?

Now let's go over each question and see how your answers compare with those from other readers of this blog.

On what date does summer begin? Here in the US summer begins with the Summer Solstice, on June 20th or 21st, when the sun is furthest north. For countries in the southern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice is on December 20th or 21st. However, in some places equinoxes and solstices are considered to be in the middle of the respective season or at least some weeks after that season's start, but never actually at their start. For example, in Australia, summer starts on December 1 and ends the last day of February.

It's 11 o'clock in the morning in New York, and Paris is six 1-hour time zones to the east. From where I'm sitting near Washington DC, I'd say it was 5 pm in Paris, but my friend Stéphane—who lives there—would probably say it was 17:00. [It has been many years since I've worn a watch. However, I do carry a pocket computer that has a clock. When I travel to a country that uses a 24-hour clock, I change my computer clock to use the local time display format just to "get with the program" and to experience a different kind of normal. This is also useful when I look at transportation schedules as they typically use the local time format.]

What date does 1/12/2009 represent? In the British Commonwealth (and numerous other) countries, dates are written "day/month/year", in which case, this date would be December 1, 2009. However, in the US it represents January 12. [I am reminded of two things regarding date format differences. I had a traveler coming to stay and she informed me by email that she'd be in my area around 5/6. She was from Australia, but had been touring the US for some months, so I didn't know if she meant May 6 or June 5. I had to ask; otherwise, I might have been preparing for her visit on the wrong day. The second has to do with the attack on the World Trade Center (is that spelling normal?), which took place on September 11, 2001. Here in the US, that date is referred to as 9/11; however, I was surprised to also see it written and hear it spoken the same way in Australia where it would normally be 11/9.]

I write the value "three thousand four hundred point five" as 3,400.5; but my German friend Astrid would write it as 3.400,5. In France, Stéphane would write 3 400,5 (with a non-breaking space as the thousands separator) and in Geneva, a French-speaking part of Switzerland, Daniela would write 3'400,5. What we native English speakers generally refer to as the decimal point is actually known to others as the decimal comma or decimal separator.

As to how many lowercase letters are there, being an English speaker, I'd say 26. However, my Russian friend Sonja would say 33 (using the post-revolution Cyrillic alphabet) and my Danish friend Keld would say 29 (the 26 English letters followed by Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å, in that order). [Years ago, during a lecture I gave in Copenhagen, I said naïvely that the Danish alphabet had three extra letters (meaning the 26 English letters plus three more). A member of my audience raised his hand and politely informed me that his alphabet had exactly the right number of letters; there were no extra ones! That day, I learned a valuable lesson about normal.] On the other hand, my Japanese friend Misato would say that not only doesn't she have any lowercase letters—poor Misa—she doesn't have any letters at all or even an alphabet! (Which begs the question, "Is there such a thing as a crossword puzzle in Japanese?") She writes using Kanji ideographs from Chinese, and symbols from the Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries. [You should have seen the stunned look on the face of the young sales person here in the US when during a stay with us, Misa signed a credit card slip using Kanji and the clerk had to check it against the "signature" on the back of her card! "That doesn't look like a real signature," he said.]

Having done that little exercise, let's go back to a statement I made earlier: "The meaning of normal depends on the context in which it is being used."

Computer Software and the Concept of Locales

In my initial blog post, I said that I was going to write about things outside my work, but bear with me while I get a bit closer to that subject. After all, my work is my life and my life is my work! [I promise not to be a complete computer nerd, however.]

You are reading this blog post using a web browser, and its controls and menus very likely are annotated in your native language, whatever that may be. How then does someone design and implement such a program so that it supports multiple languages and conventions? 25 years ago, I attended my first meeting of a committee that was producing a standard specification for the very popular C programming language. As some implementers of the resulting standard wanted ways to support different cultural conventions the committee invented a foundation stone—called a locale—for doing that. Simply stated, a locale is a named collection of local conventions of nationality, culture, and language.

Here are some examples of locales. A US locale supports the English alphabet, a 12-hour time format, a month/day/year date format, a comma thousands separator, and a decimal point, among other things. On the other hand, a France/French locale supports the French alphabet, a 24-hour time format, a day/month/year date format, a space thousands separator, and a decimal comma. Note the use of "France/French". That is necessary because former French colonies, which still speak French, might have conventions different to those used in France. Likewise for the languages of the other colonial powers, such as the Dutch, English, Portuguese, and Spanish.

In the two examples above the whole country uses the same set of conventions. However, that is not always the case. For example, Canada supports two official languages (English and French), Belgium supports two (Dutch and French), Finland supports two (Finnish and Swedish), and Switzerland supports four (French, German, Italian, and Romansh). And to make it interesting, some towns near one or more borders use one or more conventions borrowed from across those borders.

Implementers of computer programs determine which locales they will support and produce corresponding versions of their products. The larger topic of supporting customs and conventions in computer software is known as internationalization (or I18N for short, as there are 18 letters between the first and the last) and the application of I18N techniques to produce a particular flavor is known as localization (or L10N). As my involvement in information technology standards increased and globalization in business took off, the ideas of I18N and L10N dovetailed very nicely with my own interest in natural languages, customs, and travel.

Broadening Your Own Horizons

Not everyone has the opportunity, time, or budget to travel abroad, to work with or host foreigners, or to do any number of seemingly exotic things. And not everyone wants to. [That said, I've long maintained that by definition experiencing foreign travel must be positive. Either you have a good time, meet interesting people, and possibly even adopt some changes in your lifestyle as a result, or you have a bad experience that causes you to appreciate more what you have back in your own country and home. Either way, you will learn something about yourself and your own circumstances relative to the rest of the world.]

Here are some small ways to be pleasantly abnormal without expending much effort or expense:

  • Travel to the next town, county, or state just to have a look around and meet the locals
  • Read an article, book, magazine, or newspaper that it outside your ordinary fare; spend time browsing at your local library or bookstore
  • Talk to people who've traveled and asked them why they did and what they learned about themselves
  • Select a radio station at random; listen to music in a different language or from a different culture
  • Talk to visitors from other towns, states, and countries; talk to immigrants
  • Visit a museum or art gallery; go to a concert or see a play; try to sit through a ballet [I fell asleep during Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, Russia. You wouldn't believe how long that damned swan took to die!]
  • Look at alternate news sources [I get my daily world news in English from DW-TV (Deutsche Welle in Berlin, Germany) and I watch programs regularly from and about Japan, in English.]
  • The Internet truly can be your oyster, and if you don't have a computer, get free access to one at your local library
  • Look up in a dictionary new words you come across; improve your word power; do a crossword
  • Set out to learn something new and useful at least once a month

Now, add at least five of your own ideas to this list.


In future installments in this series I'll look at a number of different aspects of cultural differences. These will include writing systems, calendars and dates/times, numbers and counting systems, currency, measurement systems, forms of address/names, computer keyboards, electrical and phone plugs, driving, address formats, country and place names, surviving with chopsticks, and some cultural things such as which gestures might get you in trouble and which indicate to observers that you are dead!

I'll close this first part with a story about the first night I ate in the US after arriving in August 1979. I was seated in the restaurant at my hotel in suburban Washington DC and I'd ordered a salad and an entrée (which in the US is a main course; go figure!) The salad came, but being a good little Australian I waited for the main meal to arrive before I started my salad. After all, everyone knows that you eat your salad with your meal! Well I waited and I waited some more and finally I asked the waiter. I was politely told that he was ready to serve my main course just as soon as I finished my salad. Welcome to normal!