By The Metric Maven
John Bemelmans Marciano gave a lecture on CSPAN’s BOOK TV (2014-08-12) to promote his book Whatever Happened To The Metric System?, which neither answers the proposed question, nor discusses the metric system itself. In his lecture, Marciano makes straw-man statements like:
The reason that the metric system was needed in the first place was that decimals aren’t such a great way to divide things. Have you ever tried dividing a pizza into ten slices or five slices it’s not very easy. It’s really easy in four, six, eight, if you have a Sicilian pie you might do it in twelve or sixteen. … the only thing that ten is good for is counting on your fingers. ….they’re excellent for tallying, when you have to have a running tally of something, but they’re just not good for fractions.
Anyone who casually is acquainted with arithmetic will see that decimals are one of the most useful creations of mathematics. They are straightforward in magnitude, whereas fractions are an incomplete thought. The only way to further simplify numerical expression is with measures that can eliminate decimal points in everyday life. The metric system does this with grams, milliliters, and millimeters. The use of integer values in place of fractions is an upgrade from an abacus to a modern computer. Marciano seems to have done little research on the metric system, or is willfully ignorant.
Marciano continues with both a revisionist and radically incomplete history of the metric system. “So whereas decimals were supposed to make math and currency and everything available to everybody, it actually just made it available only to people who were really truly well educated.” Marciano appears to be implying that decimals were created and adopted so the power elite can rule over the innumerate populace. They are so complicated of a concept that only those who are highly educated can comprehend them? How on Earth does anyone use decimal currency? For Marciano, metric is not a commie plot, but a capitalist plot? Decimals are apparently an antidemocratic force in our society?
He goes on to argue that the return of kings to Europe was very sad for John Quincy Adams “who had about the biggest crush on the metric system of anyone.” That statement is amazingly off the mark, perhaps by a few Gigameters? You are invited to read my essay about John Quincy Adams, and you will find that JQA had nothing remotely like a “crush” on the metric system, which is well documented in his own words. John Quincy Adams was the John Bemelmans Marciano of the 19th Century. Marciano clearly did not spend any time reading John Quincy Adams’ Report on Weights and Measures, or he would have known this. But this does not stop Maricano from interpreting it: “He [JQA] actually wrote, while he was Secretary of State, the greatest work ever written about measurement, and he talked about all the great things about the metric system….” JBM’s assertions are clearly at odds with JQA’s Report.
Marciano protests too much when, after he was asked by an audience member if he is anti-metric, he states: “I am pro-metric, but I am also pro-customary measures. … I think we should keep it all.”
I see this statement as completely disingenuous. I’ve read Marciano’s book and his online editorials, listened to his NPR interview and this BookTV presentation. Marciano’s pro-metric assertion is doublespeak. Keep it all? Is Marciano for everyone choosing an old measure and using it if they want?
Marciano then states, to prove his pro-metric bone fides, that he thinks liquid measures should be metric. Marciano then reaches down and produces a bottle and states:
One fascinating thing of measurement is the growler. The growler started up… the growler is actually an old system of measure that was revived .. I think they were Wyoming brewers who..who restarted it. A growler is half a gallon .. its filled with four pints .. what I think the growler speaks to is that the craft brewing movement came out of the U.S. and it’s… I think the reason that the pint gets to be used is …it seems like this more honest system of measurement. Ben and Jerry’s when they wanted to have sort of a more .. homespun they revived the idea of using a pint for ice cream .. a pint really sounds like ..it comes right off of the farm. …almost all of our dairy is still in — solely in customary measures. ..when you realize it’s still ingrained in people’s minds is when you actually buy in a whole unit. You’re not just buying 14 ounces of something you’re buying a pint of it, a quart of it, you’re buying a half-gallon of it. If it’s just something like 14 ounces or you know point four six milliliters we just pay no attention to it.
Well, Marciano stops there when talking about liquid measures. I don’t see any argument using actual numbers with the metric system, or where he thinks one should use metric units for liquid measures. (Perhaps he could mention mis-dosages?) He does not follow through with his assertion that he is pro-metric for liquid measures. Marciano instead explains why people in the U.S. just love the current mess. Marciano’s final statement about 0.46 milliliters could be taken as hyperbole for how clueless people are about measures, or worst of all, it could be he is numerically clueless that 0.46 mL is 460 microliters, a value that would probably not be found on a store shelf.
What caught my attention more than all of the muddled assertions, was the notion of a growler. When I first heard Marciano discuss this unit, I figured it was just one more of the thousands and thousands of confusing pre-metric units that have existed in history. I have a number of engineering references for measurement units, and none of them mention a growler. I looked on Wikipedia, no entry for a measurement unit called a growler exists, but there is an entry under “beer bottle” with a reference to 64 ounce or 32 ounce growlers. The 32 ounce is sometimes called a howler for half-growler. This smells like marketing, and not measurement. The growler is almost certainly a made-up vanity unit for the microbrewing industry, which does not see the irony in using a metric prefix for self-identification and then marketing in Ye Olde English.
The growler is just a vanity unit, made up for marketing purposes. It appeals to novelty/pseudo-nostalgia and has no standing for measurement. It’s no different than using coffee speak to order a tall cafee au lait dry single skinny. A growler is simply a hipster vanity unit.
There is a long worn pre-metric unit for one-half gallon. It is the pottle, and it is also equal to 32 gills to make the quantity plain for my U.S. readers who we can assume understand English measures and not metric. As Marciano is for all of them, perhaps we should include all gills:
This reference from 1850 helps us to understand this new and important faux unit—the growler—even if there is no entry for it. One notes that U.S. measure is Great Britain’s old measure. Because when it comes to measurement, Marciano is for all of them, we should include all known growler quantities. Assuming a 32 gill growler:
- British Growler = 4545 mL
- Irish Growler = 3263 mL
- Scottish Growler = 3389 mL
- U.S. Growler = 3785 mL
So the growler varies from 3.26 liters to 4.55 liters. Yes, clearly the old measures are, as Marciano asserts, much more honest. Perhaps we should create a unit called the Enron?
I’m very surprised that an expert on measures like Marciano missed pointing this out to his audience, especially when following up on his assertion that he saw the metric system as a better idea for liquid measures. Why the imaginary growler? Perhaps pottle doesn’t have the marketing appeal of a growler and sounds too much like what one does after drinking said imaginary unit. Marciano likes to use Tom Wolfe as an A-list metric opponent, but Marciano, despite his protestations, seems to relish representing contemporary Bonfire of the Vanity Units.
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Whatever Happened to the Metric System?
A member of my Sunday morning coffee klatch came across nothing but metric signage at a prison museum in Deer Lodge Montana. He took a photo of the sign which explains what a meter is for visitors who are unfamiliar with it: