It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”

This phrase is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and has been taken to indicate that people will immediately recognize the utility of a new invention, and especially in the US, adopt its use and abandon the inefficient. It’s contrapositive is also used as a rationalization that if an idea has not been adopted, then it clearly is deficient, and deserves oblivion. It is an assertion that people are not creatures of habit, who will cling to familiar methods and viscerally reject new ones.

This assertion seems to immediately breakdown by not matching the observed actions of humans. The desire to continue with the familiar over the unfamiliar is overwhelming for most people. The familiar is then taught to the next generation and mantled with words like “heritage” and “traditional” to justify continued usage in the face of a possibly better method.

Recently my friend Pierre, who has a considerable knowledge of cooking, brought me a recipe for Steak and Kidney pie. This quite surprised me as I would probably not eat that dish, even after a bet gone bad. Why on earth would he bring a recipe that he knows I would never make, and if told what the dish was, would not eat. It soon became clear the importance of the recipe was not about food, but about methods. The recipe is British, which immediately raises my culinary suspicion. It is described as “British Pub Grub.” If the recipe is not by Robert Irvine, I would almost certainly pass. Here is the recipe:

- Click to enlarge

It starts out well, calling for ingredients in grams, and milliliters, then begins to become less rigorous when it asks for a “few thyme sprigs” then degenerates into tablespoons and a “bunch of flat-leaf parsley,…” The Chef then moves on to instruct us that we should “Cut the beef into 2.5cm pieces.” Centimeters!? No wonder the British lost their empire. After coating the beef with flour we are next instructed to “Heat a wide, heavy based pan, then add a few knobs of butter…” What?! Suddenly grams are no longer of use? The Metric Maven then found himself so light-headed that procuring a paper bag to put over his head became a priority. Couldn’t the recipe be a little less precise?—I still almost have a vague idea what the quantity might be.

The beef based ingredients are then to be enclosed in “500g good-quality ready-made puff pastry.”  But we must first “Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6.” Gas 6?! what on earth is Gas 6? Well, Gas 6 is a “Gas Mark” which was originally called Gas Regulo Mark 6. Why? According to Wikipedia:

“Regulo” was a type of gas regulator used by a manufacturer of cookers; however, the scale has now become universal, and the word Regulo is rarely used.

Universal? Universal? I’d never heard of it until Pierre brought me this measurement train wreck of a recipe. Then I’m informed that similar “scales” exist in France and Germany? Here are the conversions (according to Wikipedia):

Conversion table
Gas mark Fahrenheit Celsius Descriptive
14 225° 107° Very Slow/Very Low
12 250° 121° Very Slow/Very Low
1 275° 135° Slow/Low
2 300° 149° Slow/Low
3 325° 163° Moderately Slow/Warm
4 350° 177° Moderate/Medium
5 375° 191° Moderate/Moderately Hot
6 400° 204° Moderately Hot
7 425° 218° Hot
8 450° 232° Hot/Very Hot
9 475° 246° Very Hot

Different manufacturers and oven types do vary, so this table cannot be relied upon; instead, cooks should refer to the cooker instruction book for the oven type used, or calibrate the scale using an oven thermometer.

What is this? A next step up from the Easy-Bake Oven? The pastry is to be rolled out to the thickness of a ₤1 coin! Ahhhhhhhhhhh!–doesn’t he know what a millimeter is!  In my view Gas Marks and Knobs resonate with an actual quotation of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

We in the US and apparently some in the UK desire “a foolish consistency” over “a rational simplicity.”

You might have noted that I said “actual quotation.” Well, the mousetrap quotation of Emerson, presented at the beginning, appeared seven years after his death. The original quotation upon which the fictional one is based is (again according to Wikipedia):

The phrase is actually a misquotation of the statement:

If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

In my viewpoint, this actual quotation appears to praise good craftsmanship, and quality work, and is not an aphorism about technical innovation and the populace. We in the US have embraced “a foolish consistency” of weights and measures for over 150 years by not embracing the metric system, and eschewing the imperial measurement chaff.

The only way we will start to modernize the US, is to first embrace the metric system and other modern international standards. We have been waiting for the fraudulent appeal to our vanity, embodied in the false mousetrap quotation, to bring us the best for over 150 years. It’s time for America to stop playing hooky and pass metric conversion laws, with funding, and a plan to bring metric to the US, and embrace a better future for out nation.

Post Script

Assistant Professor Hong Qin of Spelman College has asked that I make my readers aware of a survey he and his students are conducting on metric, scientific literacy and attitude.  The survey is here should you be interested in taking it to provide them with more data.

Best,

MM

The Metric Philosophers

By The Metric Maven

One Year Anniversary

This is the one year anniversary of The Metric Maven blog. One year ago on π day (2012-03-14) I published my first blog post. At about the same time, I contacted several prominent engineers, scientists and a celebrity chef, hoping for endorsement, or at least comment, on my proposal for a revival of the original Shafroth Bill  for the mandatory metrication of the US. I was looking for people who were well known as effective communicators in science and related fields, and who might have been expected to be sympathetic to metrication, or had made metric-favorable comments in their public venues. These included astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, fellow engineer Bill Nye, and proponent of science in cooking, Alton Brown of Good Eats, and others. I sent requests by e-mail and by USPS.

Now, I was not expecting a 100% response. In fact, I would have been astounded. But the actual response was just as astonishing: deafening silence. Perhaps it was a fool’s errand, but I wanted to try the experiment anyway.

One thing I believe I’ve learned over this year, is there seems to be three vertices to an impossible triangle of US metrication. At one vertex are anti-metric people,  at the second vertex are people who insist they are pro-metric, but never want a law, or compulsory plan, or public funding, or penalties for not using metric, or intervention of any kind. The third vertex consists of those, who, like myself, want metric legislation to press the issue, institute a quick metric changeover, and finally bring the  US into the modern era.

The anti-metric people probably will not change their minds about the issue unless something catastrophic occurs to them personally. Something like a misdosage of medicine is given to a loved one, or themselves, because of the lack of US metrication. Perhaps not even then.

The people who state they are pro-metric but are unwilling to see any legislation mandating metric, despite the clear mandate found in the US Constitution to do so, are the most curious to me. They cite “philosophical reasons” for their resistance to legislation. Every time I hear this from one of these “pro-metric” personages, I can only think of a scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Two philosophers show up to stop a computer named Deep Thought from computing the answer to Life The Universe and Everything. Here is the exchange:

“We’ll go on strike!” yelled Vroomfondel.

“That’s right!” agreed Majikthise. “You’ll have a national Philosopher’s strike on your hands!”

As Deep Thought wryly observes:  “Who would that inconvenience?”

These pro-metric “philosophical allies” seem to believe that history does not apply to the enlightened culture in which we live. We apparently have no need for laws against child labor, driving on the wrong side of the road, selling contaminated food, perhaps even murder? Philosophy will eventually vanquish it all. They might object that there is a line, and I’ve crossed it by indicating they would be for repealing laws against murder. I’ve had enough philosophy to identify a (slippery slope) continuum fallacy. How about we move that imaginary philosophical line so that mandatory metric legislation is included in what may be done, somewhere just before murder?

Being of a more empirical and practical bent myself, I see that we’ve had over 150 years of no laws, and also no metrication. That, as Vroomfondel the philosopher argued, “is a solid fact!” So, the plan from these metric advocates is that we continue without a plan and wait
for philosophy  to metricate the US. Could I humbly suggest, that perhaps after 150 years we should try something else? All other countries use metric, with the minor exception of the tiny two, Liberia and Myanmar, and have since the 1970s—you know, back in the 20th century.

The pro-metric philosophers however claim to have a plan, a plan they are sure will work. In their view it’s clearly a problem of product labeling. If we would just allow metric-only product labeling, then suddenly metric only labeled products would flood in from countries all over, business and commerce would suddenly move to all metric. So the problem is we have not “allowed” metric-only labeling in the US? This is asserted even as the same philosophers point out that we already have laws stating that metric is the “preferred” US measurement system. How could I think that we would need anything else beyond a statement to achieve metrication? Perhaps a nice letter, or thinking happy thoughts would be the catalyst that would finally bring metric to the US. When I hear these assertions, how can I not but think of the eloquent philosophers Vroomfondel and Majikthise?

So, how strictly is the US requirement of imperial units along with our “preferred” measurement system enforced? Well, in terms of enforcement, I think it’s probably somewhere just below jaywalking, but possibly above disposing of chewing gum on a public sidewalk.

These days I find more and more metric only labeling on store shelves. For instance, at a local meat market, I purchased French butter, which has proven very good for making cookies. Below is a photo of the dangerous contraband!

The butter lists only grams! and has graduations on the back in 25 gram increments! Worse yet!  It’s all in French! Indeed I had to ask the proprietors if it was butter to be certain. They looked at me as if I was daft and said: “It’s in the butter section, right? Yes, it’s butter.” As most unsalted butter is foil wrapped I could also assume that. Later I spied a sign in the window of my local convenience store advertising one liter bottles of soda, period, no imperial value listed! I observed convenience store non-imperial scofflaws again, during a recent road trip, where 0.5 liter bottled water was advertised on another convenience store window sign. This of course does not violate packaging laws, but does show no one really notices.

I’m then confronted with “Well, see, it’s working, we are right, you’ve made our point.”  Really?

In response to the conjecture by The Metric Philosophers, who believe that passing a law allowing metric only labeling, would bring about metrication in the US, I point out that the requirement for imperial labeling is ineffective, and not enforced. It has probably not been enforced the past, so passing legislation allowing metric only labeling is moot. That I find metric-only examples is seized upon by The Metric Philosophers, as proof metric is springing up all around us and they were right all along! Yet, I see no metrication occurring, and unfortunately observe numerous cases of metric backsliding. Perhaps it would be best if this  group of Metric Philosophers did go on strike.

There is an interesting twist to this “labeling issue”—Australia’s experience. You know, the English speaking country that did change to metric. The country which was poo-pooed in the 1975 US metric hearings. They might have some insight to offer. In his monograph Metrication in Australia, Kevin Wilks offers this assessment:

In hindsight, the early conversion of quantity statements on packaged goods and changes in package sizes had little impact on public education due largely to the universal existence of the supermarket method of marketing, in which packages were selected by the customer by visual size rather than by quantity name in either imperial or metric.

The supermarket proved to be one of the least effective educational tools. A longtime friend, who a couple of years back listened to a few of my conversations about metric, confessed to me not long ago: “I never really looked at the quantity labels in the supermarket until after you talked about them.”  I doubt she still looks at the labels to decide what size she will purchase. Metric Philosophers who believe that allowing metric only labeling will produce a philosophical tsunami which would directly lead the US to metric conversion, should consider looking into the actual experience of other countries before they make such a pronouncement. In the days before supermarkets, when people purchased commodities in bulk quantities, which were only meted out by someone like Sam Drucker,  going to the grocery store might have been more effective and instructive—because there was no pre-packaging..

I would like to believe that the “pro-metric,” anti-legislation cohort of Metric Philosophers is small, but that does not seem to be the case. It appears that pro-metric pro-legislation, pro-funding, pro-active, pro-plan persons like myself are a metrication minority. Like the impossible triangle shown above, none of the three vertices connect, at least not in this world. In my viewpoint, the pro-metric anti-legislation Metric Philosophers are more effective anti-metric apostles than are the passive anti-metric people. These Metric Philosophers seem willing to wait forever, generation after generation for their philosophy to bring metrication to the US. I myself, would like to see it happen during what’s left of my lifetime. In the end, it could be laws that bring metrication to the US, but they might be laws which are penned by the rest of the world, which finally force the issue. This possibility might be smaller than just waiting. Still, I’m sure the metric Vroomfondles and Majikthise in the US would still insist their philosophy would have worked—eventually.

Most of all what I learned during this year, is that there is probably no rational hope that this country will change to metric, perhaps for generations. Mother Jones magazine had an article in January of 1999 called Waits and Measures which invited its readers to “Meet the least powerful men in Washington.” The author was of course speaking of metric advocates. We are identified as the least powerful political lobby. If it’s possible, it appears we have become even less relevant over the last 13 years. The article profiles Jim McCraken who at that time ran the United States Metric Program. Today it appears that this position is held by Elizabeth Gentry. She won an award for her metrication work. The press release states:

• Elizabeth Gentry, NIST, Department of Commerce
Ms. Gentry was selected in recognition of her exceptional leadership as metric program coordinator with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Commerce. Ms. Gentry serves as the nation’s focal point for voluntary conversion to the metric system. She led an effort to persuade states to amend their laws and regulations to permit manufacturers and retailers to voluntarily use metric units on their packaging. At the same time she worked to ensure the laws of other countries to continue allowing current U.S. labeling while the transition occurs.

Indeed, metric in the US is voluntary, voluntary, voluntary. But, what measurement “system” must be ensured and preserved by our government? And backed by the same compulsive laws The Metric Philosophers claim to abhor? Why the farrago of imaginary units used in the US of course—certainly not metric. The Metric Philosophers never seem to object to these laws. Apparently this disused rusting junkyard of units is so important, and sacred, that all other countries must keep living with our Imperial/USC/ACSOWM/IS packaging—forever. Oh, I’m sorry—I mean during the “transition.” This would be the same open ended transition period approved by The Metric Philosophers, during which metrication will be achieved by the vigorous action of Philosophy. Metrication must not be held to any definite time constraint. I guess Tinkerbell would die otherwise. Ms. Gentry’s big metrication accomplishment, for which she received an award, is to try to allow metric only usage on packaging?—I think I’ve made myself clear on the potential effectiveness of that tactic.

I also learned this year that in every era, from John Kasson in the 19th Century until today, the US has such pressing problems, which are so important, that metric should never think itself worthy enough to be on the national agenda–ever! We just can’t fit it in. It’s not a serious issue Very Serious People contend. Congress has more important work to do investigating the use of steroids in sports, and re-naming public buildings.

I’ve written 40 essays, including this one, over the last year. You can imagine my embarrassment at not realizing that I should never have bothered. I should have just waited for The Metric Philosophers to make it all happen, with their efficient and effective inaction and reliance on the certainty of philosophy. I should have just waited at home until Home Depot, Lowes, ACE and TrueValue Hardware stores, suddenly sold millimeter metric only rulers and tape measures, in response to the intense philosophical pressure the Metric Philosopher’s ideas will certainly exert.

Laws, planning, organization and funding have not been tried in the US, but were instituted in Australia, and there, they did make a difference. These policies brought metric to Australia. All they did was alter their existing laws which required the use of imperial to now require metric. Different industries could decide how they would implement metric, but not whether they would. Perhaps we should give it a try here in the US. Perhaps we should adopt a new philosophy?