Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Measured Pace of Progress

The idea of progress is showing signs of over-ripeness—little brown spots on the pristine green of the pear. I think the idea came into flower with the French Revolution, and one of its rational hopes was that measurement would start obeying sensible rules, everything decimal, s’il vous plait—milli-, centi-, and meter; kilometer; milli-, centi-, and liter; deciliter, hectoliter; milli-, centi-, and gram, kilogram, metric ton. It didn’t quite happen; and what with the pear over-ripe, metrication isn’t in our future either.

I was reminded of that today. I was helping proof our second oldest product, Market Share Reporter, the upcoming volumes (he shakes his head in disbelief) will be the seventeenth edition. This book covers the world of things on sale across the world, tangible or otherwise, and in the things that you can touch all kinds of measurements surface.

I note that long, metric, and the standard U.S. ton are still all alive and well although they are 2240, 2205, and 2000 pounds respectively. The hundredweight still also comes in two varieties, although the Imperial cwt, 112 pounds, is fading—used these days only for weighing bells intended to be rung. The c of cwt stands for the Latin centum. I note that it takes 20 Imperial cwt to make a long ton. Long tons are still used for aviation fuel. The long is sometimes referred to as gross ton. To complicate matters, a deadweight ton (dwt) is the carrying capacity of ships, and it comes in tonnes (1000 kg) or in long tons (1016 kg). Tonne is the synonym for metric ton, and when you proof you’ve got to be aware of that, strike through the word and say metric ton instead for the U.S. readership. Looking these things up I discovered that there is also an “old” hundredweight (108 pounds), but that will only be of interest to medievalists.

The Brits did not like the French Revolution, something we know from history. Today it seems that they like the French better than the Germans. They use the French spelling for litre; the Germans say liter. So do we. At ECDI we want things spelled one way or the other, not both ways at once.

Coal is sometimes reported by “millions of tons of oil equivalent,” sometimes as metric tons, sometimes as tons. All good analysts have on their desk—I can see mine from here—little handbooks that let us render anything into anything else. Gas in cubic meters? When I want cubic feet. No problem. Oil is usually reported in barrels, but the gallon comes in two versions. A U.S. barrel is 42 U.S. gallons but 34.972 Imperial gallons; sadly, whichever gallons you use, you only get 19.74 gallons of gasoline out of a barrel of oil. But not all barrels are born equal. Barrels used for food or chemicals hold 55 U.S. gallons.

Diamonds? Millions of carats. Cotton? Bales. How much do these weigh? 480 pounds. Bushels? Pecks? When do I wake up? I’m dreaming of the future, and it holds lots of jīns, lǐs, and dàns. Those are Chinese measurements equivalent, respectively, to about a pound, about 550 yards, and 23 gallons. The dominant economy tends to impose some at least of its measurements on its trading partners sooner or later.

Sometimes one also runs into something like this. “The world market is worth Rs 3,000 crore.” Come again? This turns out to mean 30 billion rupees (Rs). Crore stands for 10 million and modifies the number shown. I guess the Indians like small numbers. The rupee being worth 2 cents, that market (for beer in India) was worth $615 million in 2008.

But enough. Progress is slow. And it may be recessive.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article that clearly shows what a disjointed hodgepodge of units imperial and USC is. Maybe with China's ascendency American measurement influence will fade. One has to give China credit for not caving in to US measurement"imperialism" in aviation like the rest of the metric world that meekly accepted America's medieval dictate.

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