Counting Your Metric Good Fortune

By The Metric Maven

James Panero, a person who likes to think of himself as the “preeminent voice of American cultural conservatism” demonstrated his reactionary bone fides (that’s Latin you know) by attacking the metric system on world metrology day in the Wall Street Journal. The essay is thankfully paywalled. The value should be meted in a negative denomination, like -$1.00, as you will want your money back after you’ve read the essay. Apparently, realizing that some of his readers, might not have the patience to read, he explained his views to Tucker Carlson on Fox News in a video. Panero is, of course, horrified that the metric system came out of the French Revolution (despite the fact Englishman John Wilkins originated the metric system in 1668) , which sanctimonious “science communicators” also need to actually research. In Panero’s view even:

Worse than the abandonment of human measure is the imposition of decimal division. From calendars to clocks, French radicals went all in for 10. That works well for abstract calculations, as with dollars and cents, but not when measuring things in the real world. The Romans counted in 12s, as in the hours on a clock and the inches in a foot. The Babylonians used 60, from which we get minutes, seconds and degrees. A simple system of 8 still exists in our ounces—and in computer bytes. Eight, 12 and 60 divide easily into halves and quarters, even thirds, while a decimal system does not. A third of a meter is roughly 33.33 centimeters, a third of a foot exactly 4 inches.

James Panero, an ersatz version of the ersatz writer John Bemelmans Marciano, demonstrates the rational superiority of pre-metric measures by expounding on their divine complexity. The Romans, of course, did not “count in 12’s,” yes they did have 12’s on the clocks they inherited from earlier civilizations, but they counted in tens. I will refer to Wikipedia, which states:

Roman numerals are essentially a decimal or “base 10” number system. Powers of ten – thousands, hundreds, tens and units – are written separately, from left to right, in that order. Different symbols are used for each power of ten, but a common pattern is used for each of them.

So, no they didn’t use 12 for counting. But he is right, they did have 12 inches in a Roman foot. Which is a point I will get back to, after not ending this sentence in a preposition. So he argues the merits of 60, 12, and 8, and in the only irrelevant cliche metric antagonists can ever seem to offer, he reacts with horror that 1/3 of a meter is 33.33 centimeters. I react with horror that he did not use 333 millimeters, but that is a tell of ignorance so bad he would be quickly vanquished from any poker game.

So he is impressed that 12 and 60 both can be divided by half and thirds? Well they also can be divided by 2, 3, 4, and 6 (not counting 1 and the number itself). That’s just four factors for 12! Why 60 can be divided by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30! Wow that’s ten factors. With just the right amount of ignorance about a subject, in this case the metric system, I’m sure our heroic cultural critic thinks I’m making his point for him. He does not realize that when using metric to build a dwelling, the basic module is 400 mm, which can be divided by 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 16, 20, 25, 40, 50, 80, 100 and 200. That is 13 factors not counting 1 and 400. In other words, by actually planning and evaluating the arithmetic chosen, metric has easier usage than units that have been selected by the magical method of technical or market Darwinism. Panero’s preference is clear:

Nearly all customary units derive in some way from use. The acre was the amount of land a yoke of oxen could till in a day. The fathom is 6 feet, the span of the arms, useful when pulling up the sounding line of a depth measure. The meter is unfathomable, ……..

As Penero is so conservative that he certainly must use oxen on his farm, perhaps an acre makes sense. I might point out that a fathom is also about 2 meters. People can generally count by groups of 2s. You know, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 meters ……. which is close enough metrology for a “cultural critic” who uses oxen. But the “meter is unfathomable”?—I think I just pointed out it completely is fathomable in 2 meter increments.

The topic of this essay is counting. Put simply, it is the advantage that is obtained when a counting system has the same base as a measuring system. Take the Romans and their 12 inches in a Roman foot, yet, they used a counting system based on ten, and used feet with 12 inches. We currently use a base 10 system which uses 0-9 to represent numbers. If we want to use 12 as a base, we need to add symbols, perhaps a and b, like hexadecimal does. So it would be 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, a and b. So we would have a = 10 and b = 11 and 10 as 12. I’m sure it will be perfectly logical to understand that page a is old page 10, in all the newly numbered books in our duodecimal utopia, and page b is now old page 11. The next page is of course 10, which is old twelve. It all makes sense now!—the simplicity is obvious!

People say they want base 12 counting, but don’t really understand what that means. What they actually mean is the use of a grouping of base 10 integer numbers by 12. In other words they want integer groupings that are easy to divide with decimal numerical representation! When discussing small numbers of items we often just use direct base 10 values. For instance, we purchase a six-pack, or eight-pack, or 12-pack or 24-pack. Those are a mouth full, but we live with the long designations.

We also have collective pet names for useful integer groupings. For instance we purchase a dozen eggs, but not 0.99 dozen eggs. We would reject the non-integer number of eggs as one is clearly broken. What happens at a grocery store when you select a dozen eggs, you, or often the cashier, checks to make sure one of them is not broken. A dozen is 12 integer items, period. We have created more pet names using this pet name. For instance a square dozen is a gross or 144 items. A great gross is a cubic dozen or 1728 items. A small gross? That is ten dozen!—or 120 items. This is not a measurement system, as it only contains groupings of integer values. A googol is a pet name for 10100. These are useful values for dividing up integer objects. In the case of metric construction, the millimeter is the integer value, and a grouping of 400 millimeters is a module–with 13 factors.

We have collective nouns for animals without a clear numerical designation, such as a murder of crows, which I guess means more than 1, as a group is two or more according to dictionary definitions.

There is a clear advantage to using base ten for counting, and also for a measurement system, as there is no numerical “pet name” conversion. The grouping is the same for the integer part of a measurement value, and for the decimal part of the measurement value. 123.465 meters has a grouping of 100, with a grouping of 10, and then one for the integer part. The decimal part has groupings of 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000. They are all multiples of base 10. Now if we use a length of 123 yards, 2 feet, 7 inches and 2 barleycorns, we have reverted to other groups or pet names. We have three feet in a yard, and 12 inches in a foot and 3 barleycorns to an inch, the cognitive confusion is almost optimum, and the usefulness minimum when compared to a consistent grouping. I would think this would be obvious to a grade school student, but not perhaps to a Wall Street Journal cultural critic.

He chortles with a furtive shot at the redefinition of the Kilogram, but also uses a very, very high pitched dog whistle:

With the European Union being cut down to size, can we hope for a return to British imperial units, which the U.K. was forced to abandon after it joined? A pint’s a pound, the world around, and it beats walking the Planck.

As I point out in my essay How Did We Get Here?, the origin of A Pint’s a Pound the World Around comes from the lines of a 19th century song with these lyrics:

For the Anglo-Saxon race shall rule
The earth from shore to shore
Then down with every “metric” scheme
Taught by the foreign school

A perfect inch, a perfect pint.
The Anglo’s honest pound
Shall hold their place upon the earth
Till Time’s last trump shall sound!

It’s quite a celebration of colonialism and racism Mr Penero. As a cultural critic, you should be aware of from whence this has come. And by the way, the pint is not a pound the world around.

Pet names for units can be fun though. For instance a mouth is about 3 inches, and a foot is 12 inches, so a foot in the mouth would be 15 inches, or one Penero.

Queen City of The Rockies

By The Metric Mwalimu

click logo for Nerd Nite Denver Metric Lecture

I live in Denver Colorado. So your semi-humble Metric Maven is constantly bombarded by the phrase: “Mile High City,” and the number 5280. Even the Denver Nerd Nite logo is a pseudo-element with 5280. The mascot of the Denver Broncos is named Miles. Clearly, it must have been apparently early on that my fair (now getting rather overcrowded) city had a special and obvious geographical significance of existing at one mile above sea level to earn that nickname. The true story is more complicated. Denver is fortunate that it has its own “historian at large,” Phil Goodstein.  He has written many books about the history of Denver, and its component neighborhoods. In his book Robert Speer’s Denver 1904-1920, [1] he addresses how Denver obtained its nickname—The Mile High City. It is reproduced below:

Among other things, the Convention League wanted Denver to dump its nickname as the “Queen City of the Plains,”  or “Queen City of Mountain and Plain.” Both appellations had been used since the 1880s. Other metropolises called themselves the “Queen City” in the late 19th century, including Cincinnati, Seattle, and Buffalo. Against this, the Convention League urged labeling Denver the “City of Hospitality,” advertising to one and all that it was a pleasant place to come and spend money. The Denver Times  suggested calling Denver the “City of Homes” to advertise how many residents owned their own abodes.

These proposals never amounted to much. Already in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Denver had sometimes described itself as the “Garden City of the Plains.” Prior to Speer’s taking office on June 1, 1904, some simply sought to call Denver “The City Beautiful.” Such was the slogan of “Seeing Denver,” special tourist excursion streetcars operating from the Brown Palace. The title dropped away as “city beautiful” became more generic than a distinctive moniker. During the 1910s when Denver was starting to develop its mountain parks system, the Real Estate Exchange urged promoting the town as at the “Foot of the Rockies.” The Colorado Publicity League endorsed the trademarked slogan, “Denver: Front Door of the West.” Others urged labeling the metropolis the “City of Sunshine,” and the “Top of the World,” the community where the mountains met the plains. Shortly after World War I, Denver embraced a new identity as the “Mile High City.”

Originally, locals paid little attention to the town’s altitude. Nineteenth-century reports listed its elevation as approximately 5,170 at 15th Street and the Platte River to about 5300 feet above sea level. Around the beginning of the 20th century, residents began to stress Denver’s mile high status. Tramway [A local tram company] denoted this at its cable powerhouse at Colfax and Broadway. The red sandstone cornerstone of the 1888 edifice read “one mile above sea level.” It quickly came out that engineers had misjudged the altitude. The company responded by placing a sign on the second story telling passersby the elevation. On occasion, other businesses referred to themselves as “mile high” this or that. Nonetheless, not until the second decade of the 20th century did Denver begin to have the self-mage as the Mile High City. After the “City of Hospitality” failed to take root, the “Mile High” moniker burst forth. (When the city demolished the Tramway powerhouse in 1913 to make way for the Civic Center, it gave the cornerstone to
the Chamber of Commerce which placed it in the dining room of its Temple of Commerce at 1726 Champa Street.)

Prior to World War I, there had been no consensus about the town’s altitude. Even
when Denver Municipal Facts promoted Denver as  the Mile High City in 1911, it listed the town’s altitude as 5284 feet above sea level. A comparable tourist promotion brochure issued in 1916 had Denver at 5,190 feet. In 1913 a civil engineering report listed the extremes of the city’s height as between 5,126 and 5,482 feet above sea level. Nor have geologists always agreed about the city’s exact elevation.

This came out at the Capitol. Mile High champions observed the seat of the government was exactly one mile above sea level. So one and all would know and
appreciate this, the state placed a brass plate on the west steps of the building in 1909, declaring as much. During the first half of the 20th century, the city installed brass markers around town to pinpoint locations a mile above seal level. As was the case at the Capitol, they disappeared.

After vandals had stolen the fourth such medallion from the Capitol steps in 1947, the building’s longtime superintendent James Merrick, ordered workers to engrave a step on the Capitol, stating one standing atop it was a mile above the ocean. In 1969, college students, seeking to confirm the altitude, discovered the step was only about 5,278 feet above sea level. (Already in 1913, an East High School Physics teacher had asserted it was off by four inches.) In the wake of the 1969 report, the state placed a new Mile High emblem a few steps above the engraved inscription. A 1988 modification of the definition of sea level led to a new survey in 2002, which challenged the accuracy of the second marker. This lead to the installation of a third emblem on the west steps of the Capitol in September 2003.

This explains why John Shafroth (1854-1922) never seemed to have any mention of Denver’s mile high status appear in his bid for the metric system in Congress. The name had not been minted and marketed yet. No one in the Congressional hearings on metric would be familiar with Denver as the “Mile High City,” and throw it out as a bit of
rhetorical hectoring as they opposed the logical measurement system. David Baron in his interesting book American Eclipse refers to Denver as The Queen City as it prepared for the arrival of the total solar eclipse of 1878.

What is not mentioned is that the tokens marking one mile, are on the State Capitol Building, not the city and county building, The city government of Denver is clearly not one mile above sea level. It seems like using the building that is supposed to represent the entire state is cheating, and leaves out the majority of Colorado’s population. Below is an elevation map of the Denver City and County Building:

click to enlarge

Google reports it as 5243 feet or about 11 meters shy of a mile. Below is the elevation reported for the Statehouse for reference:

click to enlarge

As I’ve pointed out, different countries have different definitions of sea level, so no matter where we chose our location for a mile above sea level, that will only be for the US definition of sea level. Once the world considers using the center of our planet as a reference, then the Mile High City is no longer a mile high.

Clearly, there is only one fair way to resolve this situation, the entire state of Colorado is the only US state which is 1 Kilometer above sea level. We should change the signs at our Colorado state borders to read “Welcome to Colorful Colorado — The Kilometer High State.”

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[1] Goodstein, Phil,  Robert Speer’s Denver 1904-1920, Denver New Social Publications 2004 pp 108-110