In For a Farthing…


Tom Palmer offers up an ironic defense of old British money, the metric system, and matriarchy here.

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  1. That’s certainly the first feminist argument I’ve heard against the metric system! Neat. I guess in some female non-logical way I _feel_ like he may have a point.

    One thing’s for sure, I’d rather make my feeble cooking attempts using things like tsps. and tbsps. and cups rather than try to sort out how many tablespoons go into a recipe calling for 5 grams of something (as British recipes now do).

  2. Measuring ingredients by mass / weight for cooking instead of volume? Bleeaaahhh :-p

  3. Yes. The most useful thing in a London kitchen (aside from a gas stove if you’re lucky enough to have a gas line) is a scale.

  4. I didn’t even know Britain used a decimal monetary system until sometime in the early 80’s — due to the cultural time lag I bet. A lot of those PBS shows were like 10 or 15 years old – and all the English novels I read were at least 40 or 50 years old… Anyway I was real disappointed – it caused a severe blow to my Anglophilia, by making England seem as bland as everywhere else…..

  5. In 1950s Australia (pre decimalization in 1964) children started to learn the elements of the Sterling system in about the fourth grade. It was considered an essential life skill. It is of course basically a Duodecimal system, althought they didn’t explain that to us. We pretty much had it down by the fifth grade.

    I don’t recall whether girls had fewer problems than boys but I do recall it as a vigorous mental exercise.

    My father thought that his students in Australia were better mathematicians than those in Canada or the US and credited it to the fact that the Australians had had to master a Duodecimal system at such an early age.

  6. the Australians had had to master a Duodecimal system at such an early age

    So do Americans (1 foot = 12 inches).

  7. Good point.

  8. But do you recall being drilled for the better part of two school years on the 1 foot = 12 inches etc?

    Far more people use a currency on a daily basis than the system for measuring distance.

  9. British prostitution lost its charm when metric came in. No more “tupence for a bit of the kneel-&-bob, guvnah?”

  10. Palmer began with an anecdote about his mother’s confusion with old British coinage, yet later argues that metric systems usurp power from women.

    I’m confused.

  11. Pooh was thoughtful when he heard this, and then he murmured to himself:

    But whatever his weight in pounds, shillings, and ounces,

    He always seems bigger because of his bounces.

    “And that’s the whole poem,” he said. “Do you like it, Piglet?”

    “All except the shillings,” said Piglet. “I don’t think they ought to be there.”

    “They wanted to come in after the pounds,” explained Pooh, “so I let them. It is the best way to write poetry, letting things come.”

  12. NoStar….it’s an “ironic defense”…a parody….

  13. Andy,
    CRAP!!! As a practicioner of parody and the satiric arts, I should have understood that.

    I was under the misunderstanding that the first warning signs of old age was loss of erectile function, hearing, and memory.

    I never considered my sense of humor would be the first of my faculties to leave me. I think I’ll go console myself my whacking off in the bathroom. If my hearing would only give out, I wouldn’t get distracted by all the pounding on the door and the cries of “Hey, You old fart, other people need to use the bathroom too!”

  14. Who controls the British crown?
    Who keeps the metric system down?
    We do! We do!

    Sorry, couldn’t help myself…

  15. English vs. metric: another Rorschach test….

    I find the English system of measurement superior to the metric system for almost all common uses. And it’s more libertarian, too, being standardized from spontaneous interactions among people over time rather than imposed by government from on-high based on entirely non-human measurements.

    English: man is the measure of all things.

    Metric: the measure of all things is one forty-millionth of the polar circumference of the planet.

  16. MikeP, the new definition for a meter is “the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second,” if it helps. The English system isn’t any better, in the US the foot was defined as 1200/3937 meters from 1894 to 1959 and changed to 0.3048 meters in 1959. In Britain I believe it’s something less useful like 1,200,000/3,937,014 meters which makes it about 36 barleycorn. So at least it’s consistently bad.

    I almost agree with the article but would go one more step and just eliminate pennys. Since I don’t think there would be a lot of support for making bits and half-bits, I’d try to put Ted Kennedy on the nickel and change dimes and nickels to wits and half-wits.

    “My car gets 80 furlongs to the hogshead, and that’s the way I likes it!” – Abe Simpson.

  17. The English system isn’t any better, in the US the foot was defined as 1200/3937 meters from 1894 to 1959 and changed to 0.3048 meters in 1959.

    Acually the United States Survey Foot is still defined that way to maintain continuity in the Public Land Survey System. This is still the standard unit for Civil Engineering.

  18. MikeP:

    Sure, traditional lengths may be somewhat-based on human proportions, but volume and weight were arbitrary. Further, the relatively new (since the scientific revolution) measurements for pressure (inches of mercury), power or energy (horsepower, BTUs, calories), temperature (degrees Fahrenheit), etc. are not only arbitrary, they have no real merit other than they were used in the first investigations into the phenomena. Some attempts at rationality were made (i.e., pressure measured in pounds per square inch), but for the most part, “first to market” dominates. No matter how unwieldy or inconvenient. Or arbitrary.

    However, one thing that puzzles the heck out of me is why something like the distance to the sun is stated as 150 million kilometers, instead of 150 terameters. I mean, jeez, what’s the point of having a scalable system if you ain’t gonna scale?

  19. D’oh. 150 terameters should be 150 gigameters. Kilo, mega, giga.

    I’m a dumbass.

  20. Portlander,

    you answered your own question 🙂

  21. I find the English system of measurement superior to the metric system for almost all common uses.

    Well, my foot isn’t a foot long – so it seems pretty arbitrary to me. Therefore the system that works on base 10 rather than base 12 or base 5280 is probably the better one overall. In any event, the only reason we still use the oddball measures is because we [the USA] ran the world economy throughout the 20th century.

  22. “I find the English system of measurement superior to the metric system for almost all common uses.”

    To bake a cake it is about the same. To build a bridge? I’ll take metric, thanks.

    Come to think of it, the UK isn’t really well known for cuisine, either …

  23. English isn’t better merely because some units are based on human metrics. It’s better because it was tried and improved through time to be useful to the large majority of people.

    In particular, you don’t find multiples of 10 in English units because that factor is not the most useful. 10 is divisible by 2 and 5, and that’s it. English weight and volume measures, on the other hand, are generally powers of 2. English distance units carry factors of 3 and 4 around. That’s what people have wanted, needed, and devised through history when they measured things. People want units that are pleasantly integral in the dimensional magnitude of interest, and they want pleasant multi-factored conversions to nearby dimensional magnitudes. That’s how people behave.

    Note how a meter is about a yard. If it were about 40 yards (1/1,000,000 around the earth), it wouldn’t be useful. Note how a foot-long ruler is about 30 centimeters — not 3 decimeters or 300 millimeters. Neither the decimeter nor millimeter is as useful as an inch for those who want to use inch-sized units. But the centimeter suffices in a pinch.

    Oh, and factors of 10 with temperature? Just be grateful that the decimalization of time units didn’t stick.

    And by the way, I completely agree that metric is better in science and engineering. My position on English units is simply about the common uses of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, et al.

  24. Jason, I was in England recently and the food was excellent. Did I mention that I ate mostly Indian, Turkish and Lebanese food? 🙂

  25. To build a bridge? I’ll take metric, thanks.

    I’ve done it in both. I’ll take English.

    I’m half kidding. The system one prefers is probably most likely due to familiarity.

    Incidentally there was a move afoot to metricate (metricize?) highway projects. Most engineers had very little problem since the last couple of generations of engineers have been trained in metric. It was the contractors who bitched like hell because of the replacement or retrofit costs for equipment calibrated in English units. They got Congress to pass a law to not allow Federal funds to be used for any highway project in metric units. How the squared the bill with the 1976(?) Metrication Act is beyond me. But then I doubt Congress considers legality when there’s a constituency to satisfy.

    Incidentally the foot was decimalized for civil engineering and surveying in about the 1890s. Decimalization aids in making the rapid calculations required in thess disciplines. Mathematicians consider it imprecise.

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