Monday, March 19, 2007

Smash the Metric System NOW!

I'd love to see the metric system abandoned. See the world return to all those wondrous old premodern units of measurement, rod and bushel and firkin and scruple and dram, Russian vershok and Chinese li. Leave the metric system for use by scientists and engineers and geeks. And for the rest of us, let a hundred flowers bloom!

The metric system is just one more way we drain the world of variety and color. Just one more way we banish and exile all those funky old units of measurement, pint and quart and gallon and hogshead, and in their place set up a drear universal mathesis. The metric system was the brainchild of utopian French revolutionaries, and it was like a blast of Brussels, European Union bureaucracy arrived 200 years early. Meter and liter and gram, kilometer and centimeter and millimeter. Death to the inch and foot! Off with their heads!

Thank God the French revolutionaries didn't succeed in displacing our calendar as well. They tried, to the tune of ten-day weeks, and the months of Brumaire and Thermidor and Floréal and Pluviôse. But they failed, thank God. Whenever utopians tinker with the calendar, that way lies madness.

However, in the realm of physical measurement, the revolutionaries have conquered, and the world has grown gray with their breath. I've always been thankful that the United States has resisted the metric system. Along with, what? Liberia and Burma? The United States has stood firm contra mundum in defense of foot and pound and ounce and inch and rod and yard.

Truth is, I'm quite familiar with the metric system. I began learning it around age 10 or 12, when every month I would receive an intriguing little box in the mail, a series called Things of Science. I rapidly learned the metric system, and even gained a feel for it. I have an intuitive feel for meter and centimeter, just as I do for yard and inch.

But let's face it. The metric system just doesn't have soul, like all those old traditional measurements. Cubit, the length from fingertip to elbow. Foot, the length of the king's foot. Rod, the length of so many men's left feet lined up heel to toe after church on a Sunday morning. Like so much else that is boring and modern, the metric system was designed to reduce a colorful world to greytones, like The Wizard of Oz in reverse, and banish color and poetry from your life and mine. The metric system is like that teacher in school who says don't laugh, don't smile, and don't chew gum in class.

Granted, in the pencil-and-paper world where it originated, the metric system did have one signal advantage: it was a purely decimal system, and thus you could convert from one unit to another simply by shifting your decimal point. 2.364 meters = 236.4 centimeters. A lot easier than figuring 11 feet 4 inches = 136 inches, or 3 gallons = 24 pints.

But in today's world this advantage has evaporated: it's a trivial matter for software or calculator to convert from one physical unit to another, be they decimal or be they not. It is no problem for calculators to have conversions built right in, from firkins to oxgates to vershoks. Not that most of today's younger generation is able to do much arithmetic by pencil-and-paper anymore: ask them what 2 times 3 is, and they'll reach for their calculator. So again, just what is the practical advantage of "100 centimeters to a meter" over "36 inches to a yard"?

And I can tell you, the way the metric system is actually taught more than obviates any advantages it might ever have had. I taught the metric system, back in my days as a teaching assistant in math. The way we were told to teach it, it wasn't just "one meter equals one hundred centimeters." It was more like "one meter times one hundred centimeters per meter equals one hundred centimeters." Or even "8.31 inches times 2.54 centimeters per inch equals 21.1074 centimeters." This is a good way to teach physical units, for those who are going on to study physics or chemistry; but not so good for those to whom this was their first exposure to the metric system.

I mean, the students were confused as all get-out, and that's on top of their more basic confusions, such as the persistent notion that "the metric system is more accurate than the English system." What? That might've held in the days when one dingleheimer was defined as the distance from tip of the nose to elbow; but nowadays one yard is legally defined as exactly 3600/3937 of a meter. How much less accurate is that? Oh well, elementary confusion always has its seven-league boots on (7 leagues = 21 miles) before clear thinking gets out of bed.

Meanwhile, in a world where one conversion unit is just as easy as another, and electronic gizmos do all the calculation anyhow, I'd much rather see us return to the funkiness, the soul, of 2 gills to a cup and 2 cups to a pint and 2 pints to a quart and 4 quarts to a gallon. 16½ feet to a rod and 4 rods to a chain. 1¼ yards to an ell. 100 pounds to a hundredweight, or 112 pounds to a long hundredweight. 12 ounces Troy to a pound Troy, or 16 ounces avoirdupois to a pound avoirdupois; where a pound avoirdupois weighs 7000 grains, and a pound Troy weighs 5760 grains. Not to mention a tower pound (5400 grains), a merchants' pound (6750 grains), a London pound (7200 grains), a Jersey pound (7561 grains, used on the Island of Jersey from the 14th century to the 19th century), and a wool pound (6992 grains).

And let all the other myriad traditional units of measurement, Russian and Dutch and Japanese and Burmese, return to their customary use as well. Like I say, let a hundred flowers bloom! Leave the metric system as a Masonic handshake amongst scientists and engineers. And let us live our lives in full blooming pretechnicolor. Smash the metric system NOW!



Blogger The Tetrast said...

You know, I was just thinking yesterday about how nice it is that we've resisted the Metric System. But I didn't post about it. When is this addiction to posting supposed to develop? Just so you know, I do not call for a base-four system of metrics, despite any rumor or testimony to the contrary.

Monday, March 19, 2007 8:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a pint's a pound the world around

Monday, March 19, 2007 9:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, and I heartily concur. We're not only losing warm words like foot and pound, but mother and father.

So we will be numbered "Sentient carbon No. X."

And by the way, what is a stone?

Bill @ IB

Monday, March 19, 2007 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...


Great minds think alike! As for when the blogging bug kicks in, I find mine comes and goes. Sometimes I have tons to blog about, sometimes I couldn't flesh out a blog post topic to save my life.


Welcome! Sit down, put up your feet, make yourself at home.


And it will have to be in Esperanto, whatever Esperanto for "Sentient carbon No. X" is.

Note also how brother and sister are losing ground to "sibling," and (especially) how husband and wife are losing ground to "spouse." Even where it's an individual whose gender is not in doubt.

Wikipedia says that the stone as a unit of weight varies depending on what is being weighed. A stone of wax is 12 pounds, a stone of sugar is 8 pounds, etc. I've always heard the stone used as a unit of body weight equal to 14 pounds, e.g. "he weighs 12 stone" meaning "he weighs 168 pounds."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 8:27:00 AM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

I prefer "sib" to "sibling" unless the persons in question are quite young. I definitely speak of some sciences as "sibs" rather than "sisters" in order to avoid scornful furies.

Four generics: Parent, sib, spouse, offspring. Not among my "fours," as far as I can tell.

On the other hand, some gender characteristics seem to me to be built into the Four Causes.

Maybe I'll eke a post out of this!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 9:23:00 AM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

By the way, I read your essay to the third part of which you linked, "Little Utopias Run Auck." Excellent and quite Burgessian. You depict quaint little crazy social/politcal movements, in which the reader might initially take some quasi-escapist amusement and diversion -- yet, as you point out, those "amusing" little worlds reveal things which, in larger madnesses and horrors, are more skillfully hidden. Not so escapist after all. Quite an effect, and the subject matter is already intriguing all the way through. Tre bone farita!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 8:56:00 PM  
Blogger The Tetrast said...

Sorry for the typo, that was supposed to be "Little Utopias Run Amuck."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 9:05:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Thank you! I wrote Little Utopias Run Amuck back in 1989, on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. I remember what a pile of books on utopianism I had to read to research that one. And somewhere around here, I've also got a mock cover of Commentary magazine which I "photoshopped" to make it appear as if my piece was one of the articles within.

Back in the days before Photoshop, at that. I believe I used a sheet of Letraset dry-transfer lettering, purchased in the Gothic Bookstore at Duke.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007 8:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info, Paul. Figures a stone depends on what you're weighing.

Meanwhile, as far as your essay, do I tell you now that the word's spelled amok?

Bill @ IB

Wednesday, March 21, 2007 12:50:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

LOL! The editor has spoken!!!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007 1:00:00 PM  

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