I’ll concede upfront that the metric system is probably the best system for science and for doing auto repair. The people who do those things seem to like it, and they know their fields better than I do. However, I am too smart to do auto repair and too dumb to do science so I don’t really care. Use the metric system as a specialized system of measurement in those fields all you want, like Kelvin or Sabermetrics.
But for day to day use, the metric system is stupid. America’s courageous resistance of the metric system stands as one of the proudest chapters in our history. One of our virtues is our pragmatism and another is being big and rich. When presented with the metric system we were pragmatic enough to see that it is inferior for daily use and big and rich enough to tell everyone else to cram it with walnuts.
Those unfortunate peoples who have embraced the metric system out of pseudo-rationalism, or who were forced to capitulate to it and now want to maintain the illusion of making a rational choice, will say that the metric system is superior for three basic reasons, each of which is bullshit. Let’s go through them.
1) “Le aauuhahaha… your whole system of measurement is based on arbitrary things, like a king’s foot. But le metric system is not arbitrary at all!”
Do we really want to bring up the subject of kings and rational attitudes towards them? Because, most of you metric people live in countries where the proper thing to do is to prostrate yourself before inbreds who were chosen by God to wear golden hats. All of the metric states I have been to are lovely countries full of fine people and delicious food, and at least a few things that were done better than in the U.S. I’m just sayin’…
But let’s set that aside. Firstly, the foot as a unit of measurement dates back to ancient Greece. It is not like some guy picked a random body part from a random king and said, “let’s measure everything by this guy’s feet!” Otherwise, we might have been stuck with impractical units and wound up having to say someone is 2.1 torsos tall, or “yeah, that restaurant is down the road about 8600 KPs (king’s penises).”
People picked a man’s foot because we are human beings. We use our human bodies to interact with the world. So it makes sense and is practical to use our bodies to measure that interaction.
I’m sure they tried hands, heads, femurs and other things, but the foot stuck because it works well in practice. For example, something that was ten feet high was just beyond a man’s reach (they didn’t have black people back then). If you are six feet tall, you are tall. If you are under five feet tall you are very short. Someone who is a foot taller than the next person is much taller. 100 feet is a tall building or a high ledge and if you fell off you would die.
If a king’s foot ever did become involved, it was just because someone said, “hey, our feet are all different sizes, we should have a uniform foot.”
Then someone else said, “Why not use the king’s foot?”
Then the first guy said, “OK, fine.”
How willlllldly irrational!
So the truth is that imperial measurements are not arbitrary at all. To the contrary, they are the product of centuries of pragmatism. Saying that the imperial units are arbitrary is like saying that it is arbitrary for cars to have four wheels and for pants to have two legs. Maybe a more charitable example would be eggs being sold by the dozen. They don’t sell eggs by the dozen because the inventor of the egg carton’s lucky number was twelve. They do it because that’s about how many eggs people want and because dozens and half dozens of things fit well into packages.
The metric system is, of course, based on measuring everything using the circumference of the earth. Why? Well, we do live on planet earth. But other than that it is… guess what? Arbitrary as shit! Could just as easily be the circumference of the moon, or a cantaloupe or the length of The Nile. That base unit did not come from centuries of practical use. It came from some guy pulling it out of his ass.
So this first criticism has it backwards. The imperial system, based on centuries of practical use, is the opposite of arbitrary. The metric system, based on a whim, is as arbitrary as can be. Therefore, if you want to use a system that is not arbitrary, you should use the imperial system.
Clear your mind. Pretend there are no units of measurement at all. It’s not an Anglo vs. Continental thing or an America vs. the world thing.
All of our memories have been wiped out and we are piecing together a new society. For day to day purposes, does it make more sense for us to measure each other by how many feet tall we are, or by how many earths tall we are? 6 feet or 1.82 40 millionths earths?
This is the core of the whole issue. It brings us to the second criticism of the imperial system, which is here:
2) The metric system divides all its units into tenths, but the imperial system does not.
I am an open minded guy. I’ll concede the point that the cartoon makes about dates. I don’t think it’s a very big deal either way, but if someone said we should all switch to DD/MM/YYYY, I wouldn’t care.
But the other point is bullshit. Yes, the metric system is based on units of ten. The advantages of this are that 1) It takes you a bit less time to learn measurements when you are in second grade and 2) ????
If it is always better to measure things in tenths, why not time? Do we find it difficult to keep a handle on the fact that there are 24 hours in a day, but 60 minutes in an hour? And seven days in a week? And 365 days in a year! Oh my God, my head is going to explode! It’s almost impossible to keep track of! Because I’m too intelligent and logical to grasp it!
Since the way people measure time now is so irrational, let’s sit back in our armchairs and devise a superior system, which we can then impose on people until they adjust to it and it seems normal to them.
As it stands now, the “day” is the length of time that it takes for the earth to rotate once. Isn’t that kind of arbitrary? Why should we base our measurement of time on the way we experience time? To truly embrace the metric spirit, we would base units of time on something more independent of our own experience. Perhaps, the period between the big bang and the formation of the earth. Isn’t that more objective? The answer is no. But it might seem that way if you were blinded by pretentiousness.
So our basic unit of time can be unimaginably large and applicable only on the cosmic scale. Then we can divide that up into smaller units for day to day use. “Why bother with all of that,” you ask? Because now we can say things like, “I have an appointment in 1.35 eighty trillionths of the time between the big bang and the formation of the earth,” in the same way we use the metric system to say that someone is 1.85 40 millionths of the circumference of the earth tall.
Since that’s a bit hard to imagine, because it is so stupid, let’s just keep the day at the same length. But there can’t be 24 hours. Since everything must be divisible by ten, days can either have 100 hours or 10 hours.
10 hours makes the most sense, I suppose. 100 centihours in an hour. So your hour long session with your doctor or trainer or prostitute is now .42 hours or 42 centihours. What activity takes an hour? It’s hard to think of one. A handful of very long movies are one hour long, but it is pretty uncommon for something to take an hour. A good night’s sleep is between 3.3 and 3.75 hours.
“Did you get your 3.5 hours of sleep last night?”
“No, I only got 2.9 hours. I need at least 3.1, or I’m groggy all day!”
Is that awkward? No, it can’t be because it’s based on units of ten.
We could also work out how to manage with 10 day weeks, 100 day months and 1,000 day years. Seasons? The work week? Please. It is irrational to weigh the practical use of the units above the tremendous value of having them be divisible by ten.
Of course, people are flexible enough to adapt to metric time. If we all said a good night’s sleep was between 3.3 and 3.75 hours, we’d get used to it. Just like people who use the metric system are used to saying that tall man is over 182/100ths, but once you get over 210/100ths, you’re freakishly tall. Or saying that all moderate outside temperatures fall in the 20s.
Let’s try again to look at this with an open mind. There is no system of measurement. Aliens have forced everyone on earth to watch a marathon of “2 Broke Girls” and, as a result, our minds have been completely erased.
Two systems are proposed and before voting for one, you take each out for a test drive.
A) I have to buy new clothes for the kids. Not only has the temperature skyrocked by seven degrees, from the low twenties to the mid twenties, they’ve grown 5 100ths and 8 100ths respectively. I think one day, Steve might be almost 2 units tall. Not, like almost 2 units, as in 195 100ths or something. But definitely more than 3/4ths of 2 units. Maybe 180 100ths. Oh, can you pick up 350/1000ths of ground beef on your way home?
B) I have to buy new clothes for the kids. The temperature has already gone from the sixties to the eighties, plus Sarah has grown two small units and Steve’s grown three! I think one day, Steve’s going to be over six units tall. Can you pick up a unit of ground beef on your way home?
3) Everybody else is doing it.
This is probably the best argument in favor of the metric system. “Just give in so we can all be on the same page.” Maybe life would be easier if we’d all just conform. Like people in a theocratic dictatorship. One belief. One way of doing things. No conflict. Like an oozing hive of mindless invertebrates.
So, I concede that this point, and this one alone, has some merit. I would counter it by saying that the imperial system has character. Even though we don’t use ‘stone’ as a unit of weight in America, and I don’t really know how much it is, I like when I hear the British use it. It adds some flavor.
The colorfulness and descriptiveness of the imperial system is due to the fact that it is rooted in imagery and analogies that make intuitive sense. That is why the foot beat out the nose and the KP to be a unit of measurement in the first place. If someone is seven feet tall, that paints a picture that 2.13 meters just doesn’t. Similarly if I say the temperature was in the 90s and it crept up into the 100s, that’s a vivid picture. It just isn’t captured as well if I say it was 32, and it rose to 36. Yes, someone raised in the metric system will understand what is being referred to, but the reference is made with impoverished language.
I’m not saying the metric system is totalitarian in itself, but this is, of course, the goal of stripping down language in 1984. To remove shades of meaning. To make language a colorless, bland way of making reference to things.
Certainly, the spirit of the metric system is totalitarian. The popular and practical is overwritten by the inane whims of a vanguard of intelligent fools who try to impose a system that they have determined to be superior on the basis of nothing more than their own reflection. This is why totalitarianism and pseudo-rationalism go hand in hand. It requires a totalitarian, or at least highly conformist mindset to adapt the “logical” systems devised by some guy in his office and to reject the pragmatic. Because in the absence of such a mindset, the pragmatic will, almost by definition, triumph.
It’s tempting to be melodramatic here, but I am going to keep my Nazi comparisons reasonable. I’m not going to say the metric system is evil like Hitler or Napoleon or the other tyrants who were popular where the metric system is used. Maybe it’s a coincidence that they used the metric system to build KGB interrogation chambers, guillotines, concentration camps and the hideous Turkish toilets that dominate the continental bathroomscape and maybe it isn’t.
But those systems, whether they imposed racial hierarchy, command economies or measuring the size of a doorway in earths, were all embraced for the same reason. They were embraced by people who did not believe in pragmatism, but favored imposing bland, conformist, “rational” systems devised by the few on everybody. And all of those systems turned out to be stupid and impractical, including the metric system.