Bonfire of The Vanity Units


By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

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 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.

— click to enlarge

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.

Related essays:

John and the Argot-nauts

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:


If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.

7 thoughts on “Bonfire of The Vanity Units

  1. A gill is a 32nd of a gallon, but a 16th of a half gallon or pottle. All your growler sizes actually define the related gallon and are 2X too larger.

    It is a customer-supplied container the store fills (and will refill) with draft beer. Of course, if you don’t have one, they have empties to sell you. While it has a top, it is loose, not sealed, and vents the CO2 bubbles from the beer, hence the name. It growls. (I don’t know if growlers exist in those other cultures or it is strictly a US thing)

  2. Be charitable in your reading of Marciano’s remarks. These measures are not about precise material measure, they’re about approximate immaterial measure.

    The ‘honest’ quality here has more to do with the wholeness or completeness of an experience. Traveling 40 Km isn’t more or less impressive than running 26 miles, but using the vanity measurement ‘marathon’ communicates not just distance, but that it was covered on foot, in one continuous event. It connects you to the very human idea of the event; a shared experience.

    Having ‘a pint’ is the same way. The honesty is not in communicating the amount of alcohol or ice cream consumed, but in saying that it was consumed in one sitting, from one container. The singular ‘A’ turns an action into an event. The size of the pint may very from place to place or over time, but the surrounding details don’t.

    Many of these measures are anonymous, like a ‘pot of coffee’. The goal of the phrase is not to communicate the quantity of the drink, but the experience. If you tell me you had 240mL of coffee, I know how much coffee you had. If you tell me you had ‘a pot of coffee’, I know you had access to a coffee machine, spent a long time doing something near the machine (taking breaks to refill your cup), and were probably alone (else you’d have shared it).

    Other times, the measures are a direct result of marketing: If you tell me you had a venti, I know you went out for it. Rather than be upset over the unit, rejoice in the extra data!

    Even metric can get in on it: I had a 2-liter of soda. The important information there isn’t how much soda I had, it’s that I didn’t pour it into a glass. I sat down with a big bottle and stood up with an empty one. I didn’t have 6 cans. I didn’t finish an opened bottle and drink the complementary amount from a new one. Those might have been the case if I had [2 liters], but I had [A 2 liter].

    If you leave physical measures, then there’s absolutely no ground left to stand on. There’s a HUGE difference between [4 seasons] and [the boxed set]. It’s never shocking when someone indicates they’d like to have [a word] with you and proceeds to use more than one. And while the number of units contained may vary dramatically from instance to instance, [a family] is not poorly defined.

    And here’s an example I think you’ll HAVE to concede: When you tell people about what you posted to your blog, is it 1500 words or one post?

    I’ve never had a growler. I don’t know if they’re meant to be had in one sitting at a bar or brought to be shared at a party or sampled from over the course of a week. But I am confident that there is some value to the custom of having [a growler] vs a half gallon. Maybe it’s a particular container, like knowing a 12oz can is aluminum, or maybe it tells you about the nature of manufacture, like a bottle of wine vs a box of it. Maybe it’s the smallest feasible amount of a batch, suggesting it is a unique taste. “The difference between a million and a billion is the difference between a sip of wine and 30 seconds with your daughter, and a bottle of gin and a night with her.”

    • A very good perspective Chris, and a point well-made. But beer exists in a world of commerce, and selling it in ambiguous units is a dis-service to the consumer.

      I live in New Zealand, which has done an excellent job of transitioning from customary units to metric. However, you can still go into a pub and ask for a “pint”, for which you will get a non-mandated quantity of beer. The pub itself gets to choose what consistutes a “pint”, and it is generally rather less than the weights-and-measures pint that I grew up with in the UK. I find this irritating, but I appreciate that a litre of beer is too much for a single serving, and it may feel a bit funny asking for a half.

      I would never say to someone “fancy going for 500ml of beer?”. However, going for “a beer” is normal, and there are other abbreviations that have entered the vernacular such as “a couple of quiets”. If you use this phrase, it conveys good information about how much beer, and the style in which it shall be drunk.

      In NZ this is just about the only significant hold-out (personal height is possibly another – people just seem to “get” how tall a 6 foot person is in a way that they don’t “get” centimetres), and it annoys me.

  3. In previous comments I have stated that I have written Alabama’s congressmen about the reasons the U.S. should go metric. I received the following reply today from Senator Richard Shelby, (R) of Alabama, about three items that I emailed him of several weeks ago. His response about metric was the third item in his letter. I am forwarding it verbatim. I believe that Shelby’s views on metric mirror the majority of those in congress.

    “Finally, I understand your support for a conversion to the metric system. While I appreciate the arguments about the advantages certain American businesses would have by converting to the metric system, I do not believe the United States can afford to convert to the metric system at this time. Not only would all traffic signs have to be changed, but an expensive educational campaign would also be needed. Our current system of measurement works well, and I see no need to go to the expense and trouble of changing it merely for the sake of standardization.”

    • Woodie,

      Thanks for all of your efforts with your Senator. I greatly appreciate your undertaking this uphill task.


    • Translation of “politichese” – as we say in Italy – blablabla: we only mind our own “business”, and don’t care about the world, etc. etc.

      Needless to say, a rather unacceptable reply, indeed…

      BTW, politicians won’t ever change anything for the better, unless *really* stimulated by the times, the people, etc. etc.: in today’s apathetic situation, they probably cannot do anything (even those open to improvements).

      No actively imaginating people/populace – no progress…

  4. Reporting of the recent winning of the Nobel Prize in Physics for work on neutrinos still seems remiss in giving an estimate of its tiny mass, which seems to be about 1.8 billionths of a yoctogram. [Anyone have an update, whether a point or interval estimate?] Of course if such a mass is reported in the press, then it will probably be in Kg as it’s not likely a yoctogram would pass muster with editors.

    Wrt Mr. Marciano and his wayward book, the Maven’s essay here knocked him down but perhaps someone still has to deliver a knockout punch…

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