MiSTings and More

Measure for Measure

I come from a long line of people who swam against the tide. I cannot positively assert that I am descended from the folktale character who was so contrary that when her husband threw her in the river, she floated upstream.

* Short version: “riksmål” is its adherents’ name for the North Danish dialect known everywhere west of Oslo as “bokmål”.

I guess you had to be there.

What I can say that my great-grandfather was a clergyman in western Norway best known for his 1934 book, Hvorfor jeg blev riksmåls­mann.* Hvorfor jeg blir det. This cannot have made him popular with the neighbors.

Let’s start with a basic fact: Measurements do not exist in a vacuum. You don’t simply dash in like Figaro, measure your bedroom, and then fold up the tape measure and walk away. Those measurements will be used. Added and subtracted to other figures, multiplied by two or four or twenty, divided into halves or quarters or sixths.

This much is obvious to you and me. It was not obvious to the upper-middle-class Frenchmen who invented the metric system, because they had never measured anything in their lives. Measuring was for women and farmers and artisans; it was something that happened in kitchens and fields and work­shops, not in parlors—or legislative halls. When you use measurements in your everyday life, you need them to be flexible. And if there’s one thing a base ten system is not, it’s flexible. If Homo sapiens had not happened to have evolved with ten fingers, it’s doubtful any civilization in the world would have counted by tens. When did you last need to divide a recipe by five?

Computers count by twos. To deal with larger quantities, you can go octal, hexadecimal, base 64 and beyond. But in the end there’s only one divisor.

In real life, threes crop up pretty often. That’s why so many things come in twelves: eggs in a dozen, inches in a foot, pennies to a shilling. It’s the ideal hybrid: 2×2×3. Lots of twos, the occasional three. The extra two lets you step up to fours and sixes.

Did I say that those longago Frenchmen never measured anything? There’s one obvious exception. They all had watches, using increments of twelve and five, 24 and 60.

* Note, please, that I’m not talking about the “metric” clock. Trick termi­nology, there. I said decimal and I meant decimal.

You’ll notice that no place in the world—not even France—has gone over to a truly decimal* timekeeping system, dividing the day into 10 or 20 hours of 100 minutes each, further broken into 100 seconds.

The twelve-part division of the day meant, in turn, that longitude couldn’t change either. The two go together. A circle does not absolutely have to have 360 degrees, but the total number has to be divisible by 24. 2×2×2×3. Two twelves.

Does all this mean that I think it was wrong of the UK to decimalize its currency? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it does. A country that cannot trust its residents to divide by twelve is in serious trouble. And, for that matter, what on earth was wrong with four paise to the anna, sixteen annas to the rupee?

* England, not UK. The guinea predates Union by a few years.

You can dispense with guineas, though, because let’s be reasonable. As far as I know, England* is the only country on earth that ever maintained a separate currency for use only by the upper classes. Tradesmen charged in pounds; professional men charged in guineas. We’ll let that one go. Besides, nothing else divides by seven. It’s an even more useless number than five, adding to confusion rather than reducing it. Even the Early English Text Society—which cannot have had many working-class members—hedged its bets by listing the membership fee as . . . one pound, one shilling.

If those Frenchmen had really wanted to be useful, they’d have codified a series of infinitely regressing dozens and grosses. Today we’d be rattling off powers of 12 as readily as your average computer geek spits out powers of 2. As it is, I have to do a moment’s figuring even to arrive at 1728.