Our founding fathers were Penny Wise. They created the world's first decimal currency.

Sadly, we remain Pound Foolish. The rest of the world uses simple metric systems of measurement, while we Americans continue to struggle with yards, pounds, and tablespoons.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish. Time to wise up, America!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Roman Numerals, Football, and Tradition

From my basement, I hear the whistles and cheers of Super Bowl Sunday. Super Bowl XLVI: who wants it more.

Isn't it great that American football keeps interest in Roman Numerals alive? Everyone should learn Roman Numerals, so that they know how many years the Super Bowl has been played. So that they can figure out the dates on statues, old gravestones, and movies. I love the brain stretching exercise kids experience when they learn Roman Numerals.

Quick. Which Super Bowl was this? Why is the I before the V on this one, and after the V on this year's logo? That's an easy one. What year is this: MCMLXXXIV? I got married that year.

And that husband of mine just insisted that I join him in the basement for the half-time show. Madonna in Roman Centurion garb. She gets it. Football. Roman Empire. Now, back to my thoughts.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, everyone in the Roman world used this system of numeration. Then Rome declined and fell; over time, people adopted Arabic numerals and the Roman kind fell out of favor. I wonder which culture held out the longest, insisting that Roman Numerals were part of their heritage, a tie to the grandeur of the Empire.

But at some point during the Dark Ages, by around the 14th century, Arabic Numerals had replaced Roman Numerals, except in certain esoteric domains: on clock faces, in scholarly books' prefaces, in enumerating royalty.

A system that worked better replaced the traditional one. And that's how it should be in measurement. We can keep yards for football stadiums and feet for baseball records. But let's adopt kilometers for our highways and centimeters in our schools.

History has long ago forgotten the culture that clung to its Roman Numerals. I'd like to find out who they were. Perhaps I will uncover that bit of history someday. But I can't imagine that America wants to be the modern version of that culture. Isolated in commerce and industry. Left behind in mathematics, science, and engineering. How did we find ourselves here?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Water Bottle Mysteries

Our well provides us with delicious drinking water. We drink from the tap and fill our own water bottles whenever we head out the door. I avoid buying bottled water.

So I had to wander about my house looking for a plastic water bottle to photograph. I found this one in the freezer where I store plastic bottles to use when I want to keep food cold in a cooler.

Check the label. First the fluid ounces. 16.9. Hmmm. That's more than 2 cups: 1.05 pints. But look: the 3rd number is a nice round 500 mL. Why is the metric unit listed third? Is someone trying to hide it?

Bottled water can also be purchased in liter and 2-liter bottles. Everyone knows how much liquid those bottles hold. They've become familiar.

But we also buy water in gallons. Why gallons? Why not 4 liters? Maybe we already had those milk jugs. That gallon sure does look clunky and out of place among the other sleak bottles.

I spent a while looking for an explanation of how water came to be sold in metric units. And why the gallon is now the only non-metric container for water. It must have been one of those laws passed in the metric 1970's. I'll have to keep digging for the rationale.

But that gallon catches my eye. Clunky. Old-style. Time to update. And time to call 500 mL by name, not hide it behind 16.9 fluid ounces.