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.

The Swedish Chef of Metric

By The Metric Maven

I’ve always had a soft spot for Sweden, even though I have never been there. I spent some of my youth living in the American ersatz version called Minnesota. I liked living there enough that a local grocer in my Iowa hometown would say “we don’t allow Minnesota Swedes in here” to rib me about it.

I try not to read too many of the online comments in reaction to my views on the best usage of the metric system from Europeans. Generally I’m told how they are from long-time metric countries, and I, who live in perhaps the last non-metric country, have no standing to discuss metric. Italians tell me they happily use deciliters, and the French embrace centimeters like freshly baked bread. I don’t get that excited, and tend to yawn at their oral gesticulating. I’m only concerned about the US, and should a miracle occur and it become metric, would push it do so with the best metric implementation possible—by 1000. I also have no emotional connection with Italy or France.

Pierre, the master chef, machinist, woodworker and histrionic anti-metric warrior, loves to go for the emotional jugular when amiably pointing out the “difficulties” in using metric to test my mettle, but he did not have good knowledge of an effective European target. Point to the French all you want Pierre, I have no emotional entanglement. But as a stopped watch is right twice a day, Pierre managed to hit an accidental bullseye when he brought up the Swedes in an email:

Next, bad news for you, I’m afraid. But, maybe I can benefit, so it’s really good news.

As you can see from the book “Scandinavian Quilt Style blah blah blah” Scandinavia doesn’t use the metric system! I’ve deleted the part of the book actually related to the contents, except the important page, which I’ve thoughtfully highlighted for you to make it easier to read. You are welcome.

Money quote:

I work with inches. I have used inches for years, my instructions are in inches and the people I sew with all use inches. All the designs in this book were made with inches and the instructions were written while sewing.

Published by a European publisher. For Europeans.

The good news (for me) is that there may be an opening to be an Imperial measurements consultant in Norway. Somebody’s got to help them transition back into the civilized world. Don’t be afraid of inches tour ’18. Yah!

Well, I did my best to remind myself that the clothing and textile industry from the days of Samuel S. Dale onward have done their best to repel any logical implementation of the metric system. Indeed, for some reason woodworking Swedes also hang onto their non-Anglo-Saxon inches, like crayfish at kräftskiva, but I’m also told that woodworkers often don’t bother to measure anything. I kept averting my eyes from Pierre’s prose, as if I was watching Freddy Kruger chasing down teenagers. Then Pierre continued his schadenfreude laden monologue:

This whole metric system thing is soooooo easy, huh?

Here’s a page from noted Swedish food author Erica Palmcrantz Aziz …. In her brand new book Superfood Boost, she presents a lovely voice trying to convince us to eat raw kale as often as possible. Yum! She also has a page on growing your own sprouts.

Here is that page. I call your attention to that first paragraph. The rest makes more sense, if you don’t mind moving your sprouts around from container to container for no reason.

Now, …. I’m sure that you are just like me and measure out precisely 1.5 fluid ounces of mung bean seeds, each time you sprout. But, how handy to know that in Sweden, she would use, and correct me if I’m wrong, one deciliter of seeds. That sounds like about a pound, which would fill my kitchen sink with product.

I’d use a tablespoon or two per quart jar. Apparently, their metric jars must be much bigger in the festive, kale eating world of Stockholm. (Actual quote from her book, “Kale is not just for Christmas anymore” p.27)

Later she says this: “Massage and toss the cabbage (and by this, she means kale) with some olive oil, salt, and lemon, or

add it to a smoothie or juice, or enjoy it with a creamy dressing. “

So, slather that stuff with a traditional Swedish ranch dressing and it’ll help you get it down. You know, for health.

Another time she says a benefit of kale eating is, “To fill up on chlorophyll, which is said to purify and detoxify the blood”

Now, I have a liver for that function, but your shitty cold-weather desperation tundra food “is said” to detoxify my blood?

We’ll let’s have some of that.

Massage your kale, Maven. Embrace the deciliter. Purify your blood. A wealth of wisdom here. You might want to download it.

So 100 mL and 500 mL was too difficult to use in Sweden?—deciliters are a better idea? Oh…the pain “Børk! Børk! Børk!”

A point I have made over the years is that countries that adopted the metric system in the 19th century are at a disadvantage over those who waited until the late 20th century to convert. Sweden, showing their progressive nature, embraced the metric system in 1876, after ignoring it for 9 years of their 10 year conversion, but like most metric countries, they adopted it, and then never thought about upgrading its use. This lack of introspection really cuts me to the quick. The happy Sven jokes I heard in Minnesota, are not as fun when I think of this fact. The use of deciliters and such by the Swedes indicates they are Mormons Making Coffee when it comes to the metric system. New Zealand (1969), Australia (1970) and South Africa (1971) use millimeters in their housing construction. They fearlessly use milliliters and grams without the prefix cluster around unity to cook.

Please Sweden, don’t leave me bereft, measure your meatballs in grams, measure their diameter in millimeters, and express their volume in milliliters. Until you do, it will perennially feel as uncomfortable as a warm winter for me. Don’t make me wait until Fimbulwinter freezes hell over, although that might still happen before the US becomes metric.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page.