January 20, 2009

Measure for measure

THE LOCAL MEDIA are driving me nuts. They announced the other day that a nearby flooding river had risen “one quarter-foot.” Quarter-foot indeed. Three inches, for crying out loud. I guess we were lucky they didn’t try to make it sound even more dramatic. They could have said (if they’d had the sense to think about it) that the river had risen 12 quarter-inches, or even 24 eighth-inches. Wow, take to the hills!

It is apparent to me that modern journalists are not taught their numbers or anything scientific. (They’re not taught grammar either, but let’s not go there for the moment.) Today’s young whippersnapper journalists have a lot to learn. But all by themselves they’re attempting to change our system of measurement.

What they’ve never heard of, apparently, is base units. These are the milestones of our measuring system, so to speak. For example, let’s take units of length. The first base unit is the inch, which you can divide into as many thousandths as you like, but when you get to 12 inches you reach a milestone called a foot. Only the ill-educated and insensitive can stomach a measurement of 13 inches. It’s one foot one inch, dammit. That’s the way God intended it. After three feet, we come to yards and furlongs and miles. And a pox on those heathens who mix them in with each other.

Thanks to the poor example set by our budding journos, backsliders are among us everywhere. Supermarkets sell milk by the quarter-gallon. There’s no such measurement. It’s a quart. Why do they think it's called a quart, for Pete’s sake? Yes, right, it’s a quarter-gallon. Duh! Two pints in a quart, four quarts in a gallon.

But when last did you drink a pint of beer? No, it’s not the alcohol that has affected your memory cells. It’s the media’s ongoing love affair with the metric system. A beer bottle these days holds 355 milliliters because it sounds much fancier in the news than a pint. Some supermarkets (a pox on them, too) even sell milk by the liter, when everybody knows that American cows give milk in gallons; only French cows give milk in liters, and the milk I drink definitely doesn’t come from France.

And there’s the question of boats. For only the worst reasons, boats in America are measured in pounds. If you own a nice 35 footer it might weigh 12,000 pounds. That’s a huge figure, a number a normal human being can hardly imagine. Ten pounds I can see in my mind’s eye, 150 pounds OK, 350 pounds a sumo wrestler. But 12,000? That’s exactly why tons were invented, to keep the brain calm; 12,000 pounds is 6 tons (or 5.357 tons, depending on how many pounds you think there should be in a ton). Six is a figure my stressed brain can handle. If I feed it 12,000 it’s going to run amok and have a nervous breakdown.

The other night I had a nightmare. In my dream I’m servicing the diesel engine in my boat. I need to change the fuel filter, but to get to it I first have to remove some accessories. As I unbolt the gronkulator, the starboard frobbit falls off. It’s corroded right through, and I obviously need a new one. I can see it’s the size of a half-teacup (quarter-beer mug) so I go to the nearest gronkulator service shop, where a nice man in white overalls looks puzzled when I order my new frobbit.

“We only measure in thimblefuls,” he explains carefully.

Oh gawd, how many thimblefuls in a gronkulator frobbit, for goodness’ sake? How many thimblefuls in a half-teacup? “At least 12,000,” I think carelessly.

I woke up screaming and am now having therapy sessions. I blame the media for this. Quarter-foot indeed!

Today’s Thought
There is measure in all things; certain limits, beyond and short of which right cannot be found. —Horace, Satires.

The trouble with keeping cats is that they’re so unpredictable – you never know how they’re going to ignore you next.

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