Furlongs per Fortnight

By The Metric Maven

At the first university I attended, it was assigned as a “joke exercise” to compute speeds in Furlongs/Fortnight. I’m not sure what the lesson was supposed to be in this case. It was clear Furlongs per Fornight was an absurd use of units, but was it because they were not metric?—-or because they are an “inappropriate” use of medieval units. My favorite reference book, Measure for Measure has a single conversion factor entry: Furlong/Fortnight -> miles/hour [Campbell Factor] 0.00 372, and thus far I have not discovered who Campbell might be, or have been. So assuming I’ve converted correctly 1 Furlong/Fortnight is 166.31 micrometers/second or about 10 mm per minute and 600 mm per hour. For those who want to add more absurdity, and for those who are just fine with US Customary, there is the FFF system, which uses the Furlong, Firkin and Fortnight as its base units.

Of course, this is just a contrived use of units that is clearly absurd right? Clearly, one would never encounter an everyday computation this absurd. Well, then you underestimate the absurdity of our “customary units.” I often look to see what search terms are used by visitors to The Metric Maven website, and the current list looked rather prosaic, until I hit the sixth entry. It reads: “How many tablespoons are in a quarter cup?” My mind lurched to a halt taking this in. In one question we find so many adverse aspects of the current non-system of measurement it requires elaboration.

First we address the tablespoon issue. Now I hope the person asking is sure it is a tablespoon and not a teaspoon. As I’ve addressed in the past, the confusion of teaspoons and tablespoons is a perennial problem in US kitchens. It also has the downside that it has the potential to kill people. Assuming the inquisitor wants tablespoons, we might just quickly convert it to metric in milliliters. A tablespoon is 14.8 mL which I will round to 15 mL for our purposes.

We next encounter a fraction to dilute the volume of the cup for reasons which are not particularly apparent. It’s quite possible, that the person involved needs 1/4 cup of water for say a taco mix recipe or something, but has only teaspoons and tablespoons in their post-high school flat, and no US measuring cups. Well, we want a quarter cup of liquid, but only have a tablespoon. So a cup converted to metric is 236.6 mL, and we will divide this by four to obtain 59.1 mL which we will round to 60 mL. I might hear some objecting to this, but if the recipe was born of precision, it would have been in metric in the first place.

So now we have a teaspoon is 15 mL and 1/4 cup is 60 mL, we use these integer values to see that wow!–it’s 4 tablespoons in a 1/4 cup! What an interesting coincidence, but also, yeah, a complete coincidence. There is no way that these medieval units would have allowed one to readily realize this fact using them exclusively.

Now let’s look at the same problem from a metric perspective. We need 60 mL of water, milk, olive oil, whatever. Well, we can find a 15 mL measuring spoon and use four of them, or we can find a measuring cup and fill to the 50 mL graduation, then estimate another 10 mL. In the case of water, you could use a scale to measure 60 grams of water which is 60 mL using any vessel after zeroing the scale. It seems like one has a lot of options with a rational measurement system. But why bother when you can just use a search engine to find out the answer? The same type of solution was offered in the early 20th century by Fredrick Halsey, author of The Metric Fallacy. The technical device he offered up that would make the metric system unnecessary was the slide rule.

Technical innovations will not eliminate poor and non-intuitive methods of measurement expression. For instance, another question in the list of search key phrases is “how to use 1/8 inch measurement on yardstick.” Well, I have written about the absurdities of yardsticks in my essay Stickin’ it to Yardsticks. US residents might find it absurd that a person doesn’t recall common denominators, and such. What is absurd is making US residents use fractions on measuring rules at all. If they had a millimeter-only meter-stick there would be no need for fractions, or decimals. The person involved would not need to look on the internet, only understand integer addition and subtraction, and there are plenty of calculators available for that.

Thank heavens we still don’t use Roman numerals when the rest of the world uses Hindu-Arabic ones with decimals, we might rationalize using them in the age of the internet.


Tim Hunkin, a designer and maker from the UK has released his first video about The Secret Life of Components. He discusses chains, and as you will see, uses nothing but millimetres, including a mm-only ruler. He threw out all his quarter-inch US chains as he found the use of “imperial” too confusing. Note that he uses the word mil for millimetre, as is common with British engineers. In the US, the mil is a feral unit. Of course, we also use a pre-metric measurement unit called the chain to build roads in the US. I’ve written about it here.

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Okay—What’s The Scoop on Two Scoops

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

I have no idea when I first saw the commercial. It’s part of our collective commercial culture. We all know there are “two scoops”  of raisins in a box of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran. Internet academics ask that if there are “two scoops” of raisins in a box, then is there a larger ratio of raisins to cereal in the small boxes than in the large ones? Gregory J. Crowther, Ph.D. and Elizabeth A. Stahl, J.D have done the research and published it in the Science Creative Quarterly. They formalized the hypotheses into: always two scoops, or the scoops are proportional to the box size. The boxes come in 15, 20 and 25.5 ounce sizes. Or when related to people with refined culinary sensibilities:  425, 567 and 723 gram sizes. These intrepid explorers of knowledge at SCQ counted the raisins in these different size boxes, and have reported their results as a range. The credibility of these scientists suffers as they report their results in Ye Olde English units, but I have converted them to the metric system so they may be seriously discussed:

425 gram box  201 (47.29 raisins/100 g) — 241 (56.71 raisins/100 g)

567 gram box  381 (67.12 raisins/100 g) — 294 (51.85 raisins/100 g)

723 gram box  308 (42.60 raisins/100 g) — 331 (45.78 raisins/100 g)

This data forced them to abandon their original hypotheses which they labeled A and B. Like most research it creates more questions than it resolves. They now offer these alternative hypotheses to contemplate:

(C) Kellogg employees are poorly trained in the operation of the scoops.

(D) Kellogg factories are equipped with a very large number of scoops of different sizes such that no two scoops are alike.

(E) Kellogg allocates raisins via some stochastic process rather than with scoops.

I have translated their conclusion to SI so that my readers might understand their weighty observations:

CONCLUSIONS

If you like raisins, you should buy Kellogg’s Raisin Bran in [567 gram] boxes, which appear to contain the most raisins per [100 grams]. If you dislike raisins, we recommend the [723 gram] boxes or, better yet, a raisin-free cereal.

To achieve truth in advertising and avoid lawsuits, The Kellogg Company should replace its misleading “Two scoops!” slogan with a statement listing both the mean number of scoops per box (presumably 2) and the standard deviation (roughly 0.4).

Number 50 Disher — click to enlarge

Their research did not provide an answer to “what size is the scoop used for allocating raisins to the boxes?” They did not even offer a hypothesis of what its size might be. Thankfully I have my friend Pierre to diligently work his way through the US culinary forest of literature where there are “ounces, and pottles and quarts—oh my!” The question of scoop size first entered my mind when Alton Brown of Good Eats was discussing the dispensing of—probably cookie dough? He pointed out there is a number printed on the inside of the disher, on the sweeper. My sweeper has a 20 on it. So how big is this scoop? Why 1/20 of a quart of course. You all can visualize that—right? Pierre obtained this information from a top cooking reference which explains the volumes found in US scoops (and confuses mass and weight):

Well, this graphic uses the Scoop  Number like a gauge and 20 is 1/20th of a quart or 0.05 quarts–but only tell you that in the text. The quarts are suppressed and you are offered alternating fluid ounces and cup values to explain the fractional gauge values. I’m even more confused when I use my conversion program to check the table. Well, number 20 should be 0.05 quarts which is 1.6 ounces? The answers are 1.5 fluid ounces and 1.75 ounces. Wow, my converter doesn’t offer either of those:

Ok, let’s get this straightened out. Certainly it must get the metric volume right—right? Well the output is 47.31 mL instead of 45 mL. Ok, that’s enough of this. I truly appreciate Pierre’s hard work finding the cooking reference, but I’m going over their head to Wikipedia. Their entry for scoop has this table:

Wow, there it is, Wikipedia explains the number is scoops per quart, has 1.6 US fluid ounces, and 47 mL, which would be the correct rounding from 47.31 mL. I also have a number 50 disher, which is conveniently left off of the list.

This mess, and other culinary metrology disasters, inspires me to write a one sentence book with the title: Why Johnny and Jane Can’t Cook. The sentence: Because the US does not have the metric system.

But all of this has been for not, as Wikipedia explains, there are more than one kind of scoop:

In the technical terms used by the food service industry and in the retail and wholesale food utensil industries, there is a clear distinction between two types of scoop: the disher, which is used to serve ice cream, measure a portion e.g. cookie dough, or to make melon balls; and the scoop which is used to measure or to transfer an unspecified amount of a bulk dry foodstuff such as rice, flour, or sugar.

Alfred Cralle

The disher or ice cream scoop was created by a Pittsburgh inventor one Alfred L. Cralle in 1897. Mr Cralle at least had the good sense to create a scoop which is calibrated. Even if it is in Ye Old English volumes.  This would certainly allow a merchant to keep track of the amount of ice cream or other commodity they sold to the public which would in turn help them stay in business.

Wikipedia has an illustration of a transfer scoop:

Transfer Scoop — Wikimedia Commons

Scoop of Raisin (85 Scoop)

Transfer Scoop of Raisin (85 Scoop) — Two Scoops would still be two scoops of raisins.

“Two Scoops? I love the idea Darrin”

Uh—oh. This image looks like one of the two scoops shown on the Raisin Bran cereal box, which are expertly utilized by Sol who is apparently a two fisted scooper. I’ve seen this kind of scoop many, many times. I’ve seen it vending screws and nails at hardware stores. When this is done, one always uses a scale to measure the quantity for pricing purposes. These scoops are ubiquitous in grocery stores and supermarkets. They all have one thing in common, I don’t recall ever seeing one with any sort of graduation on it. They are just used to transfer bulk quantities to a scale of some sort, which does measure them. So, at the end of our measurement quest, we have been yet again taken in by a marketing scheme. A transfer scoop does not imply any manner of quantity. It only will transfer the raisins to a device, such as a mass or volume scale, which will then be used to quantify the substance. So kids, there is no such thing as two scoops of raisins, no matter how much that amiable animated sun cheerfully claims otherwise. There is only an unaccountable advertising campaign, which almost certainly designed it that way. Sorry you had to hear it from me first kids.

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The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

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