Metric

by Belle Waring on January 14, 2006

While cooking dinner tonight I was doing my usual intuitive translation between celsius and fahrenheit (i.e., roughly correct and I can’t be bothered to go look at the computer), and I thought, “I wonder if the US is ever going to go metric?” When I was a kid I assumed it was just a matter of time, since everyone had to learn about it in school. Now, though… Still, it would seem really stupid if in the year 2642 people were saying things like “that asteroid is nearly 1,000 miles away”, and then the robot would be like “I think you mean 1,609 kilometers, sir”, and then the captain would get all mad and start muttering about Euro-weenie AI’s. Then again, that whole French revolutionary 100 minute hour never really caught on (though the watches are amazing(scroll down)). Will the US never capitulate to the one-world-government types pushing the metric system? We eventually submitted to the flouridation of water, after all, and that was a threat to our bodily fluids. What would the Englishmen of the 19th century novels, caught up in the mysterious minutiae of l, s, d, and guineas (none of which I have ever bothered to fully understand), make of the looming euro?

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{ 87 comments }

1

bad Jim 01.14.06 at 6:17 am

Actually, I take a certain malicious pleasure in telling my aged mother the outside temperature in Celsius. At 3 AM in southern California it’s 11°C (a rather warm, dry winter, even for here) and she, who grew up in western New York, where truly low temperatures were routine, will believe me for only a moment.

When I attempt the same trick with my brothers and sister, nieces and nephews, all of whom own passports and most of whom can at least mumble in another language, they reality check and seamlessly translate it as Celsius. I’m not sure how many of them could give their height or weight in cm or kg, though.

If even the Brits, if I read the Guardian aright, are still stuck at times on what they might call imperial measure, I suspect that we Americans will continue in our exceptionalism for quite some time to come.

2

Thlayli 01.14.06 at 6:31 am

£1 = 20 shillings (s.)
1 shilling = 12 pence (d.)
1 guinea = 21s., or £1.05 in today’s money.

3

Belle Waring 01.14.06 at 6:43 am

I knew that about guineas, actually, but it always seemed such a useless measure. why have a special word for one pound plus one shilling?

4

Brendan 01.14.06 at 6:44 am

The problem with decimal time (and presumably the reason it never caught on) is that it’s not actually any easier than ‘normal’ time.

The reason that metric caught on is that many (most?) people find imperial measures etc. totally incomprehensible. Metric is just much easier (especially for kids to learn). (I’m thinking specifically of weights and measures).

5

Chris Bertram 01.14.06 at 6:57 am

Guineas are weird. But they seem to be just a prestige thing. I remember going with my mother to departments stores in Nottingham c.1965 and asking why the dresses were denominated in guineas as being told that that’t just the way things are, for dresses. Why prestige should call for a strange and hard to use metric I have no idea — call a sociologist (Kieran?).

I think that the English, or at least those of a certain age, schizophrenic about temperature (I am, anyway). The switch from Fahrenheit to Celsius happen in my lifetime and some things seem to work naturally in F and others in C. So a hot summer day is still about 80 degrees (phew what a scorcher) whereas freezing is 0 and all cookery is Celsius.

6

soru 01.14.06 at 6:59 am

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guinea_%28British_coin%29

The value of the guinea had fluctuated over the years from twenty to thirty shillings, and back down to twenty-one shillings and sixpence by the start of George’s reign. A Royal Proclamation of December 1717 fixed the value of the guinea at twenty-one shillings.

soru

7

Z 01.14.06 at 7:26 am

Why prestige should call for a strange and hard to use metric I have no idea

Well, prestige is exactly wat is not common, isn’t it? So it goes very well with what is not practical, and that in any field. Prestigious computer geeks will use an obscure shell, prestigious religious figures will quote the gospel in greek (and the old testament in hebrew), prestigious clothes are unpractical and so on… Social agents wishing to gain or maintain their status will typically strive to be as unpractical as possible (students wishing to gain the status of scholars will make a point of using rare words and respecting grammatical rules fallen in desuetude, music lovers wishing to be music connoisseurs will praise unknown or notoriously hard to like composers…). Indeed, it has been shown that prestigious stores will sometimes (read most of the times) undertake actions that are directly against their economic needs or against practicality in order to gain status, or prestige.

You were right to ask for a sociologist, since some (Pierre Bourdieu being a prime example) devoted their work to this very question. You could read La Distinction to learn more about that that you could wish.

8

delagar 01.14.06 at 7:54 am

We ain’t submitted to the flouridation of water in Arkansas, by gum. Because that’s socialism, that is, I’m telling you. And we ain’t have none of that down here!

9

Amardeep 01.14.06 at 8:11 am

I have a slightly wacky theory that certain number ranges are are more congenial to working out real-life problems than others. 15-30 is more congenial than 40-60. Most distances (in both miles and feet) one deals with on a day-to-day basis tend to be in the smaller number ranges using American/ Imperial measures.

I don’t think the resistance to the metric system in places like England is ideological in the sense of “we resist rational universal measurements because we’re idiosyncratic and English,” but rather that people are simply more comfortable working with smaller numbers.

I concede that it might be learned, but it might also be something more fundamental and cognitive… in which case, yes, we will still be annoying our HAL Inspiron 9000 computer overlords in the year 2461.

10

david tiley 01.14.06 at 8:14 am

Delager spits through broken teeth at the pavement, making a perfect silver dollar of sizzle in the summer sun. Eighty degrees hot? He giggles and pumps gas through all four hundred cubic inches of his chromed engine…

Or something like that. In Australia, even our hotrods are quoted in litres. But not liters, for we think ourselves civilised.

It’s easy. A cricket pitch is a chain. Though my smugness is undermined by the fact that I have forgotten how many rods, poles or perches that adds up to.

11

CKR 01.14.06 at 8:56 am

That’s fluoridation. As in fluorine, the element, not flour for making bread.

I suspect that at the moment, those of us radical liberals who might be pushing for metrification have other priorities. But it keeps seeming ridiculous to those of us who travel that the US chooses to isolate itself in this way. But what’s one more?

12

Elliott Oti 01.14.06 at 9:01 am

Most distances (in both miles and feet) one deals with on a day-to-day basis tend to be in the smaller number ranges using American/ Imperial measures.

A mile is around 1.5 kilometers, so mile distances are roughly a third less. But a meter is three feet, so distances expressed in feet are three times as much.

In fact, I would say the converse is the case, imperial measurements tend to be much larger in numeric terms than metric.

Take temperature: 80 degrees is a literal scorcher in degrees Celsius, for instance; 80F = 27C.

Or weight: 200 pounds versus 90 kilograms, for instance.

Or height: 1.83 m versus 6 feet. Since the foot is a relatively large unit Imperial users will often append inches – 6 feet 2 inches, for instance. But the inch itself is a tad large for many purposes so you often see that subdivided again (in eights), leading to wordy results such as “the pole vaulter cleared 12 feet 5 and one half inches” instead of “the pole vaulter cleared 4.40 meters”

Or areas; a typical real estate ad might state that a particular house has an area of 2000 square feet. That number’s an order of magnitude larger than the metric equivalent.

I don’t think the resistance to the metric system in places like England is ideological in the sense of “we resist rational universal measurements because we’re idiosyncratic and English,” but rather that people are simply more comfortable working with smaller numbers.

It definitely is idiosyncratic. Not only are the numbers not usually smaller, not only are the units awkwardly scaled, they also bear little relationship with the other metric units in common and technical use (watts, volts, amperes etc).

In addition metric units have not existed since time immemorial; just a couple of hundred years ago each country (and often each locality within a country) had its own mishmash of units, complete, incomplete, consistent or inconsistent. In that regards, the introduction of the metric system has been a boon and the Imperial holdouts are just that: idiosyncratic holdouts who can get away with holding out due to a combination of factors including, but not limited to, institutional inertia, jingoism, and large internal markets.

13

Kieran Healy 01.14.06 at 9:09 am

I live a mile or two away from the only section of U.S. Interstate Highway “marked exclusively in kilometers”:http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/signs/#i-19-tucson — I-19 from Tucson to Nogales. (It really brings the tourists rolling in, I’ll tell you.)

14

connie 01.14.06 at 9:10 am

Use the Bob & Doug McKenzie approximation for C to F temps: double it and add thirty.

“So, if I drink a six pack, that’s like, 42 metric beers.”

15

Brett Bellmore 01.14.06 at 9:11 am

Industry has largely converted; I do all my designs in metric, with the software translating the dimensions to English units for the geezers in the tool room. Of course, you’d be amazed how often “Metric” parts have dimensions like 6.35 or 12.7 mm. LOL

16

Matt 01.14.06 at 9:32 am

As I keep trying to explain to my metric-loving Euro-wife (no coincidence she grew up as a communist, I says) the reason we’ll never switch from the good American English system is that it’s so intuitive and logical. If the pure eye of reason can’t just intuite that a foot is 12 inches and that a proper living person should be 98.6 degrees next you’ll be trying to tell me that Ross and Moore and the like couldn’t really intuite the good or something and it’s all anarchy from there.

17

Bro. Bartleby 01.14.06 at 10:21 am

In the year 2642 at the galactic police check stop they will first ask, “Who was the real home-run champ in the 20th century?” Of course “Babe Ruth” will be your free pass, but a “Barry Bonds” will get you the trick question in a rapid fire, “How much do you weigh?” And if you sputter, “One hundred and eighty-five pounds” you will be waved on as just another simple human, while only a confused borg will blurt, “88.45 kilos.”

18

Daniel Wolf 01.14.06 at 10:50 am

Perhaps one reason that the guinea remained useful at the market and in gambling was because it could be divided by seven.

The US may have managed to hold on to English measures long enough to erase the disadvantages through modern information processing technology. If translation is cheap enough, there’s no reason to learn another set of terms.

Interestingly, it is in US currency that the advantages of a mixed division are apparent. With the quarter-dollar coin, and a fairly rare 50 cent piece, Americans end up having to carry less change in their pockets than Euro holders, who are stuck with 20 and 50 pieces that get exchanged more slowly than quarters.

(In my opinion, the two greatest American inventions are the quarter dollar coin and the indestructable bowling ball),

19

Kieran Healy 01.14.06 at 10:51 am

Looks like the question should be added to the Voight-Kampff test.

20

Francis 01.14.06 at 11:52 am

pikers, the lot of you. we should be using the Kelvin scale for temperature.

21

Alan Peakall 01.14.06 at 12:04 pm

Indeed francis, this would have the benefit of sparing us the more witless weather forecast presenters describing tomorrow’s temperatures as being half (or twice) today’s.

Allegedly overhead at Livermore Lab:

The fusion plasma requires a temperature of ten million degrees, but I forget whether that’s celsius or absolute.

22

cm 01.14.06 at 12:28 pm

The US is the largest single market for consumer products and construction materials, and all trade “partners” are dancing to its whims. It’s that simple. Whatever you want to sell to your customers has to be made to fit into the customer’s unit system. Essentially the inertia of a large installed base.

23

hinglemar 01.14.06 at 12:53 pm

Canada’s been metric for decades but lumber is still dimensioned in feet and inches, people still use Fahrenheit, weight is still pounds, height is still feet and inches.

Civil construction (roads, sewers, water) is metric but house construction is specified in metric but built in Imperial. It’s a “soft metric.” When they specify 400mm spacing they really mean 16″ (406.4mm).

24

Jonathan Kulick 01.14.06 at 1:00 pm

Rappers have mostly converted to metric, as many lyrics refer fondly to 9mm handguns and 5.0 L engines. But they’re still committed to 40 Oz. bottles of malt liquor.

25

joejoejoe 01.14.06 at 1:00 pm

Utility isn’t enough. The metric system needs some popular culture love to ultimately prevail. Eminem has 8 mile. Robert Frost has miles to go before he sleeps. Until the metric system gets some people literally singing it’s praises I can’t see it overcoming what’s left of the english system in the US.

26

trotsky 01.14.06 at 1:43 pm

Bite your tongue. My California city voted against fluoridating the water supply just five years ago.

27

ArC 01.14.06 at 2:18 pm

hinglemar, I love the Canadian ambiguity about using the metric system.

28

ArC 01.14.06 at 2:19 pm

joejoejoe, Ghostface and Raekwon did a song called “Kilos”… is that the sort of thing you were thinking of?

29

abb1 01.14.06 at 2:26 pm

Pirates like guineas (or, rather, gold guineas). They hide them on desert islands, then later come back to dig them out.

I like ‘stone’. What is your weight in stones?

30

dca 01.14.06 at 2:39 pm

Note that in New Zealand (and I suspect elsewhere British) weights of people are still in stone.

Guineas were, traditionally, used for doctor/lawyer fees–perhaps also because they were a gold coin?

In California, some years back, the state highway dept went metric (you can imagine they are a big buyer). However, the current governor, despite growing up metric, has had this reversed.

31

Slocum 01.14.06 at 3:04 pm

I suspect that the U.S. is already as metric as it needs to be and the need has diminshed since electronic calculators and computers have become so cheap and ubiquitious (as they were not in the 70’s when the push to convert to metric measures was moving forward and then abandoned).

So, science in the U.S. is metric, building construction, highway distances, and consumer weights and measures aren’t, and I don’t see any reason they going to be — since since there doesn’t seem to be any disadvantage that the U.S. is incurring by sticking with them in those areas.

For woodworking and home repair, I find imperial measures to be superior. For most purposes, cm and half cm is too coarse and mm too fine–being able to halve or double precision of measures by switching between 1/4, 1/8th, 1/16th, and 1/32 inch is very useful as is the divisibility of 12 inches by half, quarter, third, sixth, etc. Wall studs are never going to be spaced other than at either 16″ or 24″ intervals, and 4′ wide panels are going to be around forever. The costs of changing these measures would be very large, and what would the benefit be?

One thing I think is interesting about the topic, though, is that I think it demonstrates the difference between the power of the elites and experts in the U.S. vs other industrialized countries. Elsewhere, the powers that be decide that metric measures will be adopted (or capital punishment abolished), and they are able to successfully impose these changes even against popular opinion. In the U.S. the rabble say, “screw that”, and it doesn’t happen. The rejection of the EU constitution was a notable exception (what were the elites *thinking* putting that to a popular vote? I doubt they’ll make such a mistake again any time soon).

32

Justin Slotman 01.14.06 at 3:11 pm

I understand the whole foot-and-inches system not being rational, though as long as football is in yards we’re not going to change. Miles–I mean, I think in miles, but I understand why they’re not easy to deal with. But Fahrenheit has it all over Celsius as a way to measure temperature as human experience: it’s basically a hundred point scale, with hot days being closer to one hundred and cold days being closer to zero. So it’s basically decimal, which is pretty intuitive for most of us. The degrees are smaller, so every individual value is a little more meaningful. It’s just a more natural way of talking about the weather, in my completely unbiased opinion.

33

Chris Bertram 01.14.06 at 3:17 pm

14 lbs = 1 stone, by the way.

34

Slayton I. Mustgo 01.14.06 at 3:20 pm

Guineas are pounds with a 5% tip added. Price quoted in pounds, paid in quineas, very aristo.

35

John Quiggin 01.14.06 at 3:25 pm

Perches were still being used in real-estate ads when I first moved to Queensland ten years ago. A perch is about 25 square metres or 30 square yards.

36

Ted 01.14.06 at 4:05 pm

The town where I live voted to remove the fluoride from the water in 2004 (not the stupidest decision made at the polls that year by a long way, but still hard for me to believe) and then voted to put it back last year.

37

hinglemar 01.14.06 at 5:01 pm

hinglemar, I love the Canadian ambiguity about using the metric system.
At the grocery store prices are shown as $/lb but at the till it’s $/kg.

Canadian Football is still in yards.

Ski dimensions are metric everywhere but snowboards are Imperial.

My Dodge RAM is a random mix of metric and Imperial.

I blame the French.

38

Hektor Bim 01.14.06 at 5:06 pm

One industry that has completely converted to metric is the drug industry, both legal and illegal. Everyone takes Tylenol in milligrams, and people are always caught with kilos.

39

derrida derider 01.14.06 at 5:18 pm

The US is the largest single market for consumer products and construction materials, and all trade “partners” are dancing to its whims.

Absolute rubbish. The “metric zone” is vastly bigger than the US. But you have hit on a point – smaller countries with open economies (including my own, Australia) moved to the metric system mostly at the behest of their exporters. IOW we danced to our trading partner’s whims – but the US is not our main trading partner (this effect could explain Canada’s foot-dragging).

IMO the biggest single cost of non-standardisation is thread sizes on bolts.

40

Bro. Bartleby 01.14.06 at 5:51 pm

“14 lbs = 1 stone, by the way.”

Is that the kidney or gall conversion system?

41

Mary 01.14.06 at 6:16 pm

dca,

Is that age dependent? I’m Australian, and my mother thinks of her weight in stone, but people my age think of ours in kilograms. The last holdout seems to be height: people my own age don’t understand what I mean by being 194cm tall (in fact I phrase it that way for the aura of mystery — why on earth does anyone feel the need to ask how tall I am, can’t they see?), but I suspect that children being born now are more likely to.

42

Kenny Easwaran 01.14.06 at 6:24 pm

Interesting that we’ve got 20 oz and 2 liter sodas, while in Europe they’ve got .5 liter and 2 liter.

43

jim 01.14.06 at 6:51 pm

English people (I don’t know about the rest of Britain) thought in coins until quite recently, certainly into the sixties, which is why the guinea continued as a price marker. There were golden guinea (and half-guinea) coins, as there were sovereigns and half-sovereigns.

I can remember when “three half-crowns” was considered to be a fair price for all sorts of odd items; seven shillings and sixpence, but thought of as the three coins; the half-crown being the most common “silver” coin. The bingo call for 76 was “seventysix, seven and six, was she worth it?”

One suspects the inflation of the seventies killed this sort of thought.

44

Geraldo 01.14.06 at 8:35 pm

Clothes shops in Britain LOVED guineas because they could, and often did, quote prices as 11½ Gns [Eleven and a half Guineas] or whatever
Customers could never work that out and just thought it was about £11+ but of course it was rather more than that….
I think a calculator with a conversion factor is called for – modern ones don’t have a groat conversion button….

45

Joshua W. Burton 01.14.06 at 9:24 pm

Do you realize how expensive it would be for the US to replace the statute mile?

46

Joshua W. Burton 01.14.06 at 9:39 pm

In the last couple of months I’ve used, let’s see: joules, calories, GeV, inverse fermis, THz, kT TNT, quads, solar masses and Planck masses to discuss energy. I don’t have much use for horsepower or BTUs, but the supposition that the SI Esperanto isn’t evolving its own gloriously quirky creole is simply naive.

Anyone here buying hard disks by the picomole yet? Do your Ikea shelves show load capacity in kg, or (correctly) in newtons?

47

Joshua W. Burton 01.14.06 at 9:52 pm

Now that we have been doing metrology for a couple of centuries, we’ve discovered that technologically we can measure time to about twice as many decimal places as anything else, and that ratio has held true for so long (and likely future technology so favors future improvements in timekeeping) that we may as well adopt our units to the facts of life.

In principle, of course, you can add as many “dimensionful” constants of nature as you like, with each of them (c, hbar, k_B, etc.) forcing a new unit and a new set of conversion equations on you. For example, there is no fundamental argument for (and in some problems, strong practical argument against measuring height in horizontal length units, or pathlength in root(cross-section) units; in each case, the necessary conversion (fathoms to nautical miles, parsecs to femtometers) becomes part of the “rotation equations”, as c is part of special relativity’s various boost transforms. Writing these ugly dimensionful equations down is usually a mistake—the man forced by circumstance into using asymmetrical units (pilots measure altitude in pressure-equivalent feet, everywhere on earth) can find his own way out, whether it’s candelas and watts, years and light-years, or what have you.

But the question, “how many units shall we carry around?” has only two sensible answers, one for foundational metrology and one for working science and engineering. The first is “just seconds, please”, because it happens that’s all we can measure worth a damn, and probably forever will be. The second is what I advocate deciding on a per-subdiscipline basis, so that kilograms-force and newtons can happily coexist. The foot and inch are bad only because the same person has to deal with both all day long. One fundamental unit (the second), and about two hundred derived units to which metric (or where apt, binary) prefixes may be applied, seems about right.

Seven is just the wrong number, meeting neither need. Blame the French, indeed.

48

dearieme 01.15.06 at 12:53 am

In rural France one can still buy stuff in pounds (libres). In Italy, you can buy sweets by the etto (roughly a quarter pound). German engineers won’t measure pressure in SI units (Pascal) but prefer kg/cm2. And Americans measure presidents in “ninnies”, as in “Clinton was a sordid ninny, Bush is a smirking ninny” etc.

49

Belle Waring 01.15.06 at 2:53 am

it’s true that the US drug market has gone metric, with the notable exception of the 8-ball (=1/8 oz). or so I hear.

50

John S 01.15.06 at 2:56 am

About drugs, legal and otherwise — cocaine is most often measured in grams, with the exception of the “eight-ball,” which is an eighth of an ounce. I imagine that this is down to the fact that an ounce of cocaine is an almost unthinkably huge amount, at least on the consumer end of the chain.

For marijuana, ounces (and fractions thereof) seem to be the more common unit, even in legal terms: the possession law that Denver recently passed explicitly sets the permissible amount at one ounce, rather than twenty-some grams.

51

Errol 01.15.06 at 3:11 am

dca, Is that age dependent? I’m Australian, and my mother thinks of her weight in stone, but people my age think of ours in kilograms.

That’s my experience in NZ as well, except that weight-conscious people follow the trade lead and always talk about kilos.

52

abb1 01.15.06 at 4:10 am

Good luck trying to compare (mentally) fuel efficiency of your European car (liters/100km) with that of your American car (miles/gallon). It’s very frustrating, I must say.

53

Mike 01.15.06 at 4:27 am

The problem with decimal time (and presumably the reason it never caught on) is that it’s not actually any easier than ‘normal’ time.

Of course it is. Decimalised time would allow one easily to figure out the number of days, hours, minutes, and seconds between any two time specifications, instead of having to convert everything to seconds and then re-convert back to base 60.

24 hours, 60 minutes, etc., will also make no sense when (if) we ever get off this rock and start colonising other worlds. Having a standardised, decimilised system would be useful for ‘universal’ timekeeping.

54

mark s 01.15.06 at 6:21 am

useful that is if we happen to discover a planet whose years, months and days are already related by powers of ten — otherwise, just as fiddly

i think we should re-convert to imperial but drop our v. parochial species-centric finger-fetish and switch to base 12 — everything instantly simpler

55

Chris Bertram 01.15.06 at 6:31 am

BTW, everyone should read James C. Scott’s discussion of units of measurement in his _Seeing Like a State_ .

56

Syd Webb 01.15.06 at 7:06 am

Mary wrote:

Is that age dependent? I’m Australian, and my mother thinks of her weight in stone, but people my age think of ours in kilograms.

Ayup. People of a certain age still think of their personal measurements (weight and height) in imperial but use metric to measure external things.

57

Syd Webb 01.15.06 at 7:14 am

daniel wolf wrote:

Interestingly, it is in US currency that the advantages of a mixed division are apparent. With the quarter-dollar coin, and a fairly rare 50 cent piece, Americans end up having to carry less change in their pockets than Euro holders, who are stuck with 20 and 50 pieces that get exchanged more slowly than quarters.

A 25 cent piece may have a certain odd charm but it has lost favour recently in the greater world.

In 1966 when Australia decimalised their currency they took the 1-2-5 path of 1,2,5,10,20 and 50 cent pieces and 1,2,5,10,20 etc dollar notes. The 1-2-5 path was followed by New Zealand, Britain and recently Europe.

The idea is that most purchases can be made with three or fewer pieces of currency. Thus a $9 purchase can be made with a $5 a $2 and a $1 whereas in the USA one would be forced to use five notes, a $5 and four singles.

[Of course the transaction could also be done with a $10 taking a single dollar in change. But this is just playing into the hands of shop-keepers who would charge us $9.99 to make an ~$10 item appear cheap.]

The advantage of a quarter is that it allows one to conveniently buy something costing 25c. But if one lives in a country where items frequently cost 25c this may merely be the product of merchants reacting to the availability of such coins, rather than a reflection of the quarter’s true utility.

58

Ronald Brak 01.15.06 at 7:21 am

The U.S. should change for the sake of their kids, unless of course they are expecting the next generation to be born with 12 fingers.

And no one has to stop making imperial size bolt threads or two by four planks. The market can work that out. Packets of bolts and so on will just have to be marked with both sizes in both systems for a generation or two.

59

Slocum 01.15.06 at 9:13 am

The U.S. should change for the sake of their kids, unless of course they are expecting the next generation to be born with 12 fingers.

But, of course, U.S. kids do all learn the metric system for weights, measures, and temperature in school as well as english measures (rather, metric measures are what they learn in school — english measures are what they pick up by osmosis), it’s just that metric units are not commonly used for many everyday purposes (though every U.S. kid knows about how much a liter of coke is).

And no one has to stop making imperial size bolt threads or two by four planks. The market can work that out. Packets of bolts and so on will just have to be marked with both sizes in both systems for a generation or two.

In point of fact, there are no such things as 2×4 planks and haven’t been for a long time — those dimensions aren’t as important and have shrunk (to 1 1/2 x 3 7/16 at this point). For lumber, the dimensions that matter are the 16″ stud spacing and the 4 x 8 sheet of plywood or drywall, etc. What Canada has done in this regard is pretty silly — they’re still selling 4′ x 8′ sheets but are listing them at some oddball metric size. But of course, out on the job site, I have to assume Canadian carpenters still use rules marked in feet & inches since the panels still *are* 4-feet wide by 8-feet long and the studs need to be on 16″ or 24″ centers to match. Same thing with beer. When in Canada, we buy 12oz cans of beer (same as in the U.S.), but in Canada, the cans can’t SAY 12oz, so they, again, have some nonsensical metric measure printed on them.

What’s the advantage to Canadian kids of selling various things in nonsensical mystery sizes that only make sense if you ‘know the code’ (that they’re really being sold in english sizes and come out to nice round numbers in those units).

60

Chris Bertram 01.15.06 at 9:39 am

Mentioned above that rugby union is metric, soccer is denominated in yards (with metric translations). Hence the 6-yard box etc.

61

scott 01.15.06 at 9:39 am

it’s true that the US drug market has gone metric, with the notable exception of the 8-ball (=1/8 oz). or so I hear.

What’s really goofy is that everybody considers “28g = 1oz”, and thus you end up with a “448g lb.”, or so I hear:o)

Call it ‘Metrics… American-style’.

62

Slocum 01.15.06 at 9:42 am

BTW, everyone should read James C. Scott’s discussion of units of measurement in his Seeing Like a State .

I second that nomination and would also recommend Ken Alder’s “The Measure of All Things”:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/074321675X/103-9626524-0773426?v=glance&n=283155

Which contains an excellent account of the standardization of weights and measures during the French Revolution. The adoption of standard measures that were the same everywhere was the revolutionary change — metric vs english is immaterial in comparison:

“…the French savants’ scheme to reform weights and measures was a revolutionary rupture, far more readical than the sort of translation involved in the switch from, say, Anglo-American units to the metric system. Indeed, the revolutionaries intended the metric system to eradicate the assumptions underlying the old just-price economy.”

One of the most interesting things about the non-standard measures is that they were deeply embedded in the economic thinking of the time and served as ‘fudge factors’ when prices were inflexible. So, for example:

“In an age where bakers dared not charge more than the ‘just price’ for a loaf of bread for fear of precipitating a riot, bakers who wanted to preserve their livelihood when the cost of flour rose simply baked a smaller loaf.”

Of course, the ‘just price’ way of thinking hasn’t entirely disappeared even yet. Perhaps when next gasoline hits $3/gallon in the U.S., gas station owners (to avoid being accused of gouging) should hold the price constant and just sell smaller ‘gallons’ ;)

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Tim Worstall 01.15.06 at 11:24 am

# 34.

Guinea, pound and a shilling.

Nearly, Started out as an auctioneer’s thing (horses especially). Price plus auctioneer’s 5%. Everyone knew what everyone was getting, seller, salesman and the buyer knew what he was paying.

Or so I’m told, anyway.

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MikeN 01.15.06 at 11:49 am

I grew up in Vancouver thinking in Fahrenheit, but after the conversion went to work in oil exploration on the Prairies and in the Territories, so above zero I think in degrees F; below zero in Celsius- but 40 below is cold in either (cue the Rodeo Song)

Working as a surveyor on Pacific Great Eastern (now the less-poetic BC Railway) we used tenths and hundredths of a foot for chaining and levelling and decimal fractions of miles for distance-“the bridge at mile 57.2″

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MikeN 01.15.06 at 11:54 am

And also from my younger days-
How many pounds in a kilo?
2.2 and a bag for the dealer

66

Ray 01.15.06 at 1:08 pm

“For most purposes, cm and half cm is too coarse and mm too fine—being able to halve or double precision of measures by switching between 1/4, 1/8th, 1/16th, and 1/32 inch is very useful”

No comment, I just want to admire this again.

67

PersonFromPorlock 01.15.06 at 8:42 pm

Why the easy assumption that the metric system is the best one? Basically, one meter is one 40 millionth of the Earth’s polar circumference, which is about as odd a standard as you can pick.

Why don’t we set up a conference to design the best possible measuring system; something based on, say, the light-nanosecond (about a foot)?

(If it occurs to you that people now using the metric system might not feel that the change would be worth the effort… why, then, you’ve just figured out why America hasn’t gone metric.)

Seriously, though, I do wonder if there might not be some advantage in designing some wholly new system of weights and measures.

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eudoxis 01.15.06 at 9:11 pm

The medical system in the US is in metric. (A “pint” of blood is actually 500cc.) So is all of science. What was the most costly conversion error? I think it was Hubble.

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cac 01.15.06 at 11:10 pm

As a 40 year old Australian I’ve been exposed to the metric system for pretty much my entire life.

The result is that I think in kilometres, kilograms and degrees celcius but I’m 6 foot not 182 cm or whatever it is. Like most (all?) Australians I’m utterly mystified when suspects are described by police as being 170 cm or whatever tall.

I suspect when it comes to height there is something about feet and inches that lends itself to easy use. It’s possible that my kids might have a different view but I’m not sure how as their exposure to the metric system will not have been much greater than mine.

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chris y 01.16.06 at 1:39 am

A Rod, Pole or Perch = 5 1/2 yards, or a quarter of a chain. Haven’t any of the older Brits on this site got an old school exercise book lying around? All this stuff, along with Troy weights and the like, used to be standardly printed on the back covers, so you didn’t have to learn it.

71

Ray 01.16.06 at 3:54 am

“Why the easy assumption that the metric system is the best one?”

Because base 10 is simple. It’s not that a metre is a more ‘natural’ length than a foot, its that its easy to go from metres to kilometres to millimetres. How many inches in a mile? How many square inches in an acre?

Also: Duh!

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david tiley 01.16.06 at 8:43 am

The tens are great; the problem is the base size, which is too small – see comment twelve.

The other terrible problem is that the unit of travellers’ length is multi-syllabic.

“How many miles to Babylon?” or “Ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go” just doesn’t play in kilometres.

Can anyone think of a bit of popular verse that works with kilometres? We would accept “kays” or ‘klicks”.

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Ray 01.16.06 at 9:38 am

If you’ll accept ‘kays’, a word of one syllable, then you’ll accept “How many kays to Babylon?”

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Cranky Observer 01.16.06 at 9:44 am

> For woodworking and home repair, I find imperial
> measures to be superior. For most purposes, cm and
> half cm is too coarse and mm too fine—being able
> to halve or double precision of measures by
> switching between 1/4, 1/8th, 1/16th, and 1/32
> inch is very useful as is the divisibility of 12
> inches by half, quarter, third, sixth, etc.

Thank you! I find exactly the same thing.

I always did get some amusement out of being lectured by my British coworkers on this subject. This coming from a country where length is measured in meters, liquids in liters, road distances in miles (leading to fuel economy in mi/l???), liquid(beer) in pints, weights in kilograms, weights(body) in stone, and where one could be put in jail for selling bannanas in lb. I would point out that in every US grocery store since 1985 you have been free to ask the cashier to set the scale to kg and get your receipt in same without being arrested!

Much as I like being able to count on my fingers while doing standard base 10 math, I have over the years (particulary while doing construction work) come to the conclusion that a base 12 system is better for measurements, as it allows even halfs, quarters, and thirds. Too bad the Metric Committee didn’t think about that.

Cranky

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Cranky Observer 01.16.06 at 9:47 am

>> “Why the easy assumption that the metric system
>> is the best one?”
>
> Because base 10 is simple. It’s not that a metre
> is a more ‘natural’ length than a foot, its that
> its easy to go from metres to kilometres to
> millimetres.

Any base is easy when you have a fair amount of practice. There was a time when I was using both base 8 and base 16 heavily, and I could do arithmetic in any of the 3 with no difficulty.

The problem is with the inconsistency of English/ANSI units, as you note. Over time I have come to believe that a base 12 system is preferable for measuring, but there is no doubt that it would have to be a _consistent_ base 12 system.

Cranky

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Chris Bertram 01.16.06 at 9:57 am

Further data point: the Pfund and the livre (set at 500g) are both widely in use for selling produce in markets in Germany and France.

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hirvi 01.16.06 at 10:05 am

At least metric doesn’t use the same word for different measures – as in ounces of cheese and ounces of whiskey; and no one will ever ask you to lease office space in kilos or degrees Celsius :-)

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chris y 01.16.06 at 11:27 am

Dearieme @ 48:

The Italian “etto” is a good metric ettogrammo, 100g, a bit light for a quarter pound.

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Ray 01.16.06 at 11:49 am

The number system most people use is in base-10. How many complaints would we hear about metric being unusual if it was in base-12? Not fewer, I’m pretty sure.

The ‘advantage of fractions’ is just silly. Yes, you can divide 3/8 in two to get 3/16. So what? You can divide .564 in two to get .282, which is just as easy to do. You can get as precise as you like in metric but imperial measurements soon get unwieldy – who wants to talk about twenty-one one hundred and twenty-eigths when they could say .1640625? Who wants to _multiply_ fractions with different divisors? And then go back to base 12 to step up or down a size?

British people (and Irish people) use feet, pounds and stone for everyday distances because its a common system used by people too old to learn metric, and it has a legacy effect. And if you’re talking about people’s heights, or weights – simple, imprecise measures that aren’t usually operated on – imperial measures are fine. But better? Hardly.

80

abb1 01.16.06 at 12:08 pm

What about the angle measurement? 360 degrees – why not 100 or 1000? Wiki says it’s probably because of the number of days in a year. Time to metricise?

81

Elliott Oti 01.16.06 at 1:33 pm

Basically, one meter is one 40 millionth of the Earth’s polar circumference, which is about as odd a standard as you can pick.

The meter was originally so defined because (a) one 40 millionth of the Earth’s circumference results in a unit of usable size comparable to the yard, the ell etc. and (2) more importantly it makes the definition and calibration of the unit distance independent of any particular physical “yardstick” stored in some monarch’s safe. The meter is now defined in terms of time and the speed of light. (All basic SI units, except for mass, are now defined in terms of universal physical constants. Only the kilogram is defined in terms of an actual, physical reference mass). In addition, Imperial units are also defined in terms of SI units. The foot is a derivative of the meter.

For woodworking and home repair, I find imperial measures to be superior. For most purposes, cm and half cm is too coarse and mm too fine—being able to halve or double precision of measures by switching between 1/4, 1/8th, 1/16th, and 1/32 inch is very useful as is the divisibility of 12 inches by half, quarter, third, sixth, etc.

I find this not wholly logical. The cm and half cm may be too coarse, but the inch is even coarser. Subdivisions of the inch mitigate this, but if the mm is too fine, then so are 1/16 and 1/32 inch. 1/4 inch is about a half centimeter, and 1/8 inch about 3mm. Wood and metal work functions just fine outside Imperial areas too.

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Doctor Slack 01.16.06 at 1:52 pm

hinglemar: Canada’s been metric for decades but lumber is still dimensioned in feet and inches, people still use Fahrenheit, weight is still pounds, height is still feet and inches.

Interestingly enough, Imperial has often persisted here as a way of measuring things of a personal scale. It’d be weird to tell someone your height in meters, your weight in kilos or your body temperature in degrees Celsius — but it’d be just as odd to tell somehow how many “feet” tall the CN Tower is, or how many miles it is to the next rest stop, or what the expected high temperature for the day would be Fahrenheit (indeed, they probably wouldn’t know what you’re talking about).

People are so accustomed to switching between systems for everyday use that it often doesn’t even occur to them that they’re doing so: one isn’t mentally switching gears to Fahrenheit in order to figure out body temperature, it’s just that that’s the way that particular thing is measured.

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Slocum 01.16.06 at 2:38 pm

I find this not wholly logical. The cm and half cm may be too coarse, but the inch is even coarser. Subdivisions of the inch mitigate this, but if the mm is too fine, then so are 1/16 and 1/32 inch. 1/4 inch is about a half centimeter, and 1/8 inch about 3mm. Wood and metal work functions just fine outside Imperial areas too.

The point is that with an english tape measure, you can easily choose a the degree of precision appropriate for any given measurement. Yes, 1/8 inch is about 3mm, but there are no repeated 3mm markings on any metric rule I’ve seen. The ones I’ve seen are marked only with cm, 1/2 cm, and mm. Of course it’s possible to build a wall, book-case, or deck that way, but it’s more of an inconvenience. Or at least, I found it less convenient to use metric for those purposes when I tried it.

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Elliott Oti 01.17.06 at 5:54 am

Yes, 1/8 inch is about 3mm, but there are no repeated 3mm markings on any metric rule I’ve seen. The ones I’ve seen are marked only with cm, 1/2 cm, and mm. Of course it’s possible to build a wall, book-case, or deck that way, but it’s more of an inconvenience.

I’m not in a position to give authoritative advice on woodworking, as I’m famous for being all thumbs (and left thumbs at that), but in the rare cases that I need rough-and-ready precision somewhere between the millimeter and the half-centimeter I simply round up to the nearest even millimeter. In the distant past, when I used to do some metal milling work, we had measures with half-millimeter marks as well. Seems to me to cover more or less the same range with the same precision as your list.

85

Tim 01.17.06 at 2:45 pm

My Pet Theory about the US’s use of the metric system:

The only group of people in the US who use the metric system consistently (in multiple types of measurement and on both large and small scales) is the military (ok, scientists, too, but there really aren’t that many of them). And people who like the miltary aren’t big fans of rationalization/metric, and people who like metric ain’t that big fans of the military.

Historical reasons, obviously, but an interesting divide.

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Doug K 01.17.06 at 7:31 pm

What really irks me is having to maintain two toolboxes, one imperial/US for American cars, another metric for everyone else’s. And I really hate when I find what I need is a 5/32″ spanner, but all I have is 1/8 and 3/16. That doesn’t happen in metric, it’s 10mm or 11mm, no freakish subdivisions.

The first time I came to build something with 2×4’s I drew up a blueprint based on having lumber that was actually 2″ by 4″. Foolish innocent me.

S. Africa went metric in 1967, so I learnt British Imperial measures in primary school. My wife, 5 years younger than me, never did: so I still have to translate occasionally, usually recipes.

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Dave Menendez 01.18.06 at 3:25 am

What about the angle measurement? 360 degrees – why not 100 or 1000? Wiki says it’s probably because of the number of days in a year. Time to metricise?

That would be the radian. Very convenient for trigonometry and calculus, but possibly less useful in real life. I think there’s a pretty strong argument that 90º is easier to grasp than 0.5π radians.

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