Youtube Video: A Guide to Imperial Measurements with Matt Parker | Earth Lab

Matt Easton mentioned in one of his latest videos why he still uses and prefers imperial units to metric ones, which has completely baffled me.

I know that humans are creatures of habit, but why anyone who knows both imperial and metric units would still prefer the imperial ones is a complete mystery to me. But I do not wish to rant too much, so I let someone else to do that (content warning: razor sharp sarcasm).


  1. consciousness razor says

    Matt Easton mentioned in one of his latest videos

    Matt Parker. You got it right in the title — were you using different units for that?
    The silliness isn’t really so pervasive in practice. Furlongs and leagues and such are rarely used, only for certain very specific applications. And I had totally forgotten I had ever heard of “hands” as units of distance, for instance.
    Also, for all I know, he may have just made up several of the very bizarre/obscure ones…. I wouldn’t be too surprised if he tossed in a couple of Parker Square examples to throw everyone off. I mean, maybe some British folks use a few of them or something, but I was totally unaware they even existed. (On the other hand, I’m from the US, and being totally unaware of stuff isn’t saying all that much).
    Sixty Symbols posted this video a couple of weeks ago: Bizarre Units used by Scientists. I will note that it’s longer than Parker’s video, containing approximately 7.928 x 10^-4 more fortnights of shame and befuddlement. For what that’s worth….

  2. says

    @consciousness razor
    I was talking about this Matt Easton’s video. That the maker of this also Matt is just a coincidence.
    As far as hands etc. -- I am aware that they are not used in US. But for example height of people is measured in feet and inches, but heigh of horses is measured in palms (or hands? I do not really care). In geography, height is measured in feet, but distance is measured in yards and miles. For example mountains are x feet tall, but distance between two cities are X miles, and your garden has Z yards. Why?
    So yeah, the video is exacerbating for effect, and is deliberately using the old Brittish imperial system (the US one is a bit streamlined), but the siliness is really there. Only many of you americans do not see how inane your measurement system is.

  3. says

    I once read the difference explained like this: 1/100 metre is 1 centimetre. 1 cubic centimetre holds exactly 1 mililitre. 1 mililitre of water weighs 1 gram. 1000 grams are a kilogram, 1000 mililitres a litre. You need 1 calorie to heat 1 litre of water 1 degree centigrade, which is 1/100 of the way between freezing and boiling point. All those units connect logically, whereas the answer to the question “how much energy do you need to bring a room temperature gallon of water to boi?”l is “go fuck yourself!” because none of it makes any sense.

  4. consciousness razor says

    I was talking about this Matt Easton’s video. That the maker of this also Matt is just a coincidence.

    Ah, I see. You were using different units. ;)

    In geography, height is measured in feet, but distance is measured in yards and miles. For example mountains are x feet tall, but distance between two cities are X miles, and your garden has Z yards. Why?

    Well, it’s partly for the same reason you measure people in meters (or centimeters) but distances between two cities in kilometers: because there’s a large difference in scale. Going across the US means traveling around 3000 miles, but going up from sea level to the summit of our tallest mountain (Denali) would mean traveling up a mere 3.8 miles. Cities aren’t that close to one another (except odd cases where the same metropolitan area has multiple named “cities” within it), so you use a bigger unit of measurement. Saying Denali is 20,310 feet tall makes it sound big — that seems an appropriate type of number to use in this context, because it is big. And 3.8 is not a big number. That’s for an extreme case with elevations, and talking in terms of hundredths or thousandths of a mile for more typical cases would also be kind of strange. (I bet that, for similar reasons, elevation in the metric system is usually given in meters, not kilometers.)

    But yes, I would definitely be happy if they all came in nice clean multiples of 10 like the metric system. Our system is pointlessly complicated. I’ll admit yards are a convenient size at times…. I do think in those terms (rather than a meter, which is awfully close to the same length), but it would be handier if there were something in the range of five or ten feet instead of three. And calculations would be much better if it were ten of something — trying to remember things like the number of feet/yards in a mile, square feet/yards in an acre, acres in a square mile, etc., is no good. Forget about the obscure (and more or less obsolete) units like furlongs; the everyday ones are bad enough. If I have to convert from one to another, I tend to get all mixed up about it and have to work through it all over again, even though I’ve been using these units my whole life, have a good memory, and so forth. If it were something simple like 100 or 1,000 or 10,000, it would be no problem at all.

    Oh, also, if you need to use bolts, screws, other kinds of hardware, or all sorts of things actually, then come prepared for sadness…. We’ve decided on a nightmare blend of both English and metric units, which is even worse than the English silliness by itself.

    Anyway, it’s just a bunch of crap that’s become ossified in the culture at this point … that’s simply what many people are accustomed to, like Apple products, and they are afraid of change. I can’t really explain it, but it does seem like a lot of the changes of modernity do still feel new (and potentially scary/troublesome) to people here, while in Europe and elsewhere, it’s perhaps a different story. So, we get a lot of irrational, reactionary, conservative boneheads who make dumb decisions for the rest of us.

    By the way, I’m sure many geographers (and others in similar professions) do use the metric system in the US, since they get to set their own standards. It’s just that unfortunately we haven’t made it a standard for everyday or common use. That of course means kids have to learn (or be confused by) two systems, instead of doing more useful/interesting things in school.

  5. fusilier says

    I can’t speak to anything else, but it’s very easy to divide things in half, visually. So when building something (I’m a Neandertal wooddorker) 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, or 1/32 inch is intuitive. 5mm as one-half centimeter works, but _3_ mm???

    YMMV, to be sure


    James 2:24

  6. says

    @fusilier, as a non-neanderthal craftsman I can tell you from experience that your argument is bogus. When working in metric, you can halve things as much as you wish, that is basic geometry and has nothing to do with measuring in any specific unit system whatsoever.

    Anyhow, 3 mm is 3/10 of 1 cm what is so difficult or counterintiutive about it and why are base 2 fractions magically better than base 10 fractions? What is intuitive about 1/32 inch? And what practical difference for a woodworker is there between 3 mm and 4/32 inch?

    The best thing about metric system is that centimetres, metres, kilometres are all metres with a prefix. It is all one unit.

    Whereas inches, feet, yards and miles are four units for just lenght measurement, and the fractions between them do not add up in any logical sense whatsoever -- twelve inches per foot, three feet per yard, 1760 yards per mile. I mean seriously, that measurement system is not intuitive and not logical. It is a dinosaur.

  7. Jazzlet says

    The length I have measured most often in my life was initially taught to me as 5/8th inch, it’s the standard seam allowance when making clothes. But it converts very handily into 15 mm which is just as easy to remember. I was taught both systems growing up, imperial in sewing and cookery classes, and metric in science classes. The imperial in the sewing and cookery classes were mainly because the teachers were older, and because all of the equipment was imperial. When the school got a major refit all the old imperial equipment was replaced with metric equipment, the old teachers retired*, and suddenly all of our lessons were in metric, no problems at all.
    * There was a major reorganisation from lower and upper schools to lower, middle and upper schools which was why the refitting happened. The school I attended had been a Grammar School for girls that passed the 11 plus, now it was to be an upper school for all the girls from the area, and some of the older teachers didn’t want to teach the incoming ‘riff raff’ so they took early retirement. It wasn’t just that they would have had to teach in metric.

  8. fusilier says

    Charley @7

    When I say Neandertal, I mean I don’t use power tools*. I measure for dovetails using dividers, and dividing in half works a heck of a lot more repeatably than trying to grab a ruler and measure. I use story -sticks, and I use the chisel that appears the best size, not the one that is the proper measurement.

    I’d never _measure_ to 4/32 inch, just dividing the distance to 1/8 is close enough. If I recall my 4th-grade fractions correctly, of course :^) :^) .

    I’m fully aware of the origins of the metric system, and before I retired, I taught my allied health students to _never_ try and convert between US and metric; did you know that the RN certification tests still require knowledge of drams?!?!?!


    James 2:24

    *OK, I _do_ have a lathe and it runs off the 110V lines…

  9. says

    @fusilier -- halving with divider is exactly what I was talking about. That technique is older than any measuring system and is completely independent of any measuring system whatsoever. So I still fail to see how is imperial better for a woodworker and what your point is.

    I rarely measure in my workshop. For example when I was building my belt grinder, I do not remember measuring anything, except the outside and inside of the ball bearings so I can buy the correct materials to fit.

    I am non-neanderthal according to your definition of neanderthal, since I use powertools whenever I can (i.e. if I have a power tool for given task, I will use it, if I do not have it, I will buy it, and if I cannot buy it, I will try to build it).

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