That creepy, inelegant metric system


Once upon a time, I would have said this was satire, but satire is dead now. Tucker Carlson and the Wall Street Journal complain about the metric system in a tirade that belongs in The Onion.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson railed against the metric system of measurement in his show on Wednesday night, describing it as inelegant and creepy. James Panero, a cultural critic and executive editor of The New Criterion, joined Carlson for the segment.

Panero recently wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal attacking the metric system with its meters and kilograms and urging America to stick to its customary system of measurement, which resembles the old British Imperial system.

Almost every nation on Earth has fallen under the yoke of tyranny—the metric system, Carlson said. From Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Lusaka to London, the people of the world have been forced to measure their environment in millimeters and kilograms. The United States is the only major country that has resisted, but we have no reason to be ashamed for using feet and pounds.

Panero called the metric system the original system of global revolution and new world orders.

Carlson replied: God bless you, and that’s exactly what it is. Esperanto died, but the metric system continues, this weird, utopian, inelegant, creepy system that we alone have resisted.

What a strange perspective to have…that other countries have fallen under the yoke of tyranny—the metric system when, rather, it was adopted because a common system of measurement is a great benefit to trade.

As for being the system of global revolution, that’s just a nice bonus feature. Using the metric system doesn’t cause revolution, but but being able to communicate and share does foster international unity.

They make other looney claims.

His guest said America should stand strong against pressures to switch to the metric system, bringing it in line with much of the rest of the world, because customary measures such as feet, inches, miles, and pounds helped foster the Industrial Revolution and put men on the moon.

The Industrial Revolution was not a product of British Imperial measurements, it was just the system they were historically using while they went through that period. Don’t give me that bullshit about putting men on the moon with feet and pounds — the scientific community has universally accepted the metric system, including the US. Our recalcitrance is to our detriment, not our advantage, as for instance:

NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used English units of measurement while the agency’s team used the more conventional metric system for a key spacecraft operation

That Americans continue to use an antiquated, bizarre system of arbitrary units is a joke. Use metric for a while and it just makes more sense. I’m bilingual in metric and Imperial units, and it feels odd to have to switch to the archaic measures to communicate to American audiences. 30° is a warm summer day and 5mm is a small insect, dammit.

Carlson characterized the metric system is completely made up out of nothing.

They all are! You want to see some arbitrary argle bargle, read the history of imperial units.

Mile, any of various units of distance, such as the statute mile of 5,280 feet (1.609 km). It originated from the Roman mille passus, or “thousand paces,” which measured 5,000 Roman feet.

About the year 1500 the “old London” mile was defined as eight furlongs. At that time the furlong, measured by a larger northern (German) foot, was 625 feet, and thus the mile equaled 5,000 feet. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the mile gained an additional 280 feet—to 5,280—under a statute of 1593 that confirmed the use of a shorter foot that made the length of the furlong 660 feet.

Elsewhere in the British Isles, longer miles were used, including the Irish mile of 6,720 feet (2.048 km) and the Scottish mile of 5,952 English feet (1.814 km).

A nautical mile was originally defined as the length on the Earth’s surface of one minute (1/60 of a degree) of arc along a meridian (north-south line of longitude). Because of a slight flattening of the Earth in polar latitudes, however, the measurement of a nautical mile increases slightly toward the poles. For many years the British nautical mile, or admiralty mile, was set at 6,080 feet (1.85318 km), while the U.S. nautical mile was set at 6,080.20 feet (1.85324 km). In 1929 the nautical mile was redefined as exactly 1.852 km (about 6,076.11549 feet or 1.1508 statute miles) at an international conference held in Monaco, although the United States did not change over to the new international nautical mile until 1954.

Yeesh. Give me multiples of ten any time.

Don’t get me started on shoe and dress sizes, either.

Comments

  1. remyporter says

    The metric system is inelegant! Instead of using factors of 10, it should use factors of 12 or 60. 60 seximeters to a meter. It’d cut down on the number of decimals we have to use. The Babylonians knew what they were at.

  2. phoenix3 says

    I bet Tucker and his buddies would be horrified to know that the standards which NIST maintains for weight and length and against which all US customary units of weight and length are referenced are the meter and the kilogram.
    In other words, the meter and kilogram are the masters, and feet and pounds are merely subsidiary units

  3. imback says

    We should all just use Kelvin for every temperature reading. Kelvin is the temperature unit used in science because you can insert it right into, say, the ideal gas law without any conversion term. And you don’t need to use that weird degree symbol ° either. If today’s high is 300 K, that is like 27 °C or 80 °F.

  4. jonmelbourne says

    The metric system is the tool of the Devil! My car gets forty rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way I likes it!

  5. redwood says

    Someone should just tell them that they can drive the highways at 120 (kph, equal to 75mph). Or their cocks can be 12 1/2 units long (instead of 5). Isn’t saying that it was good enough for the Industrial Revolution so it should be good enough for now like saying we should all be driving steam-engine cars? This argument also reeks of the one that says that all of the great scientists 400 years ago were men, so women aren’t smart enough to be scientists now. Utter bullturds.

  6. Paulino says

    The Metric System Queen tyranny:
    “You will give me the measurements freely! In place of the Elegant system you will set up Decimals. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! I shall measure the Sea in liters and the Sun and the Snow in cubic meters ! The Dreadful wind the Storm in km/h! The weight of
    the foundations of the earth in metric tons. All shall love me and despair!”

  7. says

    Basic American Exceptionalism carried to it’s irrational conclusion. Fortunately I never have to suffer the fools of Fox News gladly or otherwise. If I did, I would have had to have numerous new TVs to replace the screens broken by the objects thrown at them. Why so obsessive in this cult of the daft. God knows it is daft in the UK with areas in all different systems but we just get on on the basis of live and let live, natural conservatism, legislation and old age. Why get uptight about it why dealing with horses for courses?
    For instance: fuel is sold in litres, but consumption is in mpg, speed in mph. Distances in miles on the road but timber is sold by the metre.
    Architects work out areas in square metres but estate agents sell land in acres and building by the square foot.
    All good fun and keeps the American tourist off balance. All good for a laugh round at the pub.

  8. Rich Woods says

    @Chris Phillips #7:

    All good for a laugh round at the pub.

    “Now then, mate. I’ll have 568.26ml of Best and a packet of ready salted, please.”

  9. laurian says

    What? The question here is is Carlson completely bereft of ideas or is he dumber than a hammer? I’m going with both. For anyone who has had to wrestle with a fractional measuring system does all their carpentry math in base metric then translate as needed but an asshole frat fuck wouldn’t know shit about that either.

  10. says

    The reason for the UK resisting the metric system is obvious. An Imperial pint is bigger than half a litre. So if we switched over completely to the metric system, we’d get less beer.

    It baffles me why the USA hasn’t switched long ago. The US pint is about 475ml. Switch to metric measurements, and you’d get 25ml more beer in each glass!

    :)

  11. ridana says

    All part of the Republican plan to take us back to turn of the 19th century. I’m still a little surprised when they say it so specifically though.

  12. says

    It was as a Caltech undergraduate that I learned that the speed of light is 1.8026×10^12 furlongs per fortnight and my abstract algebra professor joked about trying to get “gigafirkins” included in the state standards for elementary school units of measurement (and he was as surprised as anyone else when it was deleted during the editing process in Sacramento).

  13. Bob Dowling says

    (Speaking as a mixed Imperial/Metric Brit)
    The historical tragedy is that we never split the Roman mile into a thousand double paces: instant metric system!
    (Though what the Romans had below the pace was devoid of powers of ten.)

  14. says

    And then there’s paper sizes. Just switch to the sensible international A and B paper sizes, where every size has the same aspect ratio.

  15. says

    Perhaps Ratfucker Carlson would like to go back to pounds, shillings, pence, halfpence, farthings, crowns, and guineas? Maybe open sewers? Children in coal mines? Leaded petrol? Half a day off per week for church? Feudal baronies? Fucking serfs? Public hangings?

    When do we get to line these fucking morons up against a wall and let loose with the milkshakes already?

  16. says

    I once heard the difference summed up thus:
    1m is divided into 100cm
    1cmX1cmX1cm is a cubic centimetre which holds exactly 1ml.
    1ml of water weighs 1 gramm (at 4°C)
    1 calorie is the energy needed to heat 1ml by 1 degree C, which is 1% of the difference between the freezing and the boiling point of water, whereas the answer to the question “how much energy does it take to bring one gallon of room temperature water to boil?” is “go fuck yourself!”

  17. says

    Also, Tucker shouldn’t moan about metric – it’s tailor made for someone who clearly still counts on his fingers.

  18. zenlike says

    A combination of American Exceptionalism on steroids, the ol’ streak of anti-intellectualism that has always pervaded the US, and some conspiracy nuttery thrown in for good measure.

    It would be funny if this was spouted by some crank yelling at a street corner, instead, it is spouted by people appearing on the most viewed “news” channel and in the third biggest newspaper. The US is basically fucked as a society.

  19. says

    Uh, eh, yeah. The imperial system is sure superior. And logical. And exceptional.

    The land of the free, home of the brave and all that.

    /s

    I can think in silly units, but it takes an effort and they make no sense whatsoever. Milimeters are much better suited to measuring tiny things than fractions, an grams are much better suited to weighing than ounces.

    Insisting on using the outdated imperial system is a sign of backwardness and obtuseness, nothing else.

  20. cgilder says

    Doing hydrology in the US is so flipping stupid. We have to use cubic feet per second, gallons per minute, and acre-feet BY LAW for anything involving the govt. Montana state agencies also have this unit called a miner’s inch that I still haven’t figured out. Conversions are the devil’s workshop for errors, that’s for sure.

  21. JoeBuddha says

    zenlike – And that’s different… how? I think of fox news as the media equivalent of a crank yelling at a street corner. Only with a bigger audience.

  22. says

    Doing hydrology in the US is so flipping stupid. We have to use cubic feet per second, gallons per minute, and acre-feet BY LAW for anything involving the govt.

    Speaking of it, seconds, minutes and hours could use an overhaul

  23. andiek712 says

    What the hell does anyone have against the metric system? Is this American exceptionalism taken to the extreme, a concerted effort to bring down science as much as one can, or merely stupidity for stupidity’s sake?

    When I was in high school I had a teacher who claimed he could teach us every single thing about the metric system in five minutes — and he did! Even the most obscure points about the metric system can be taught in the time in takes to watch an average commercial break. So really, these idiots can’t spare five minutes to learn something and yet they’re allowed to be on TV? Hell, they’re allowed to talk to other humans? There’s something wrong with that.

  24. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    I would point out that the current metric system is certainly not “just made up”. All units are now defined in terms of fundamental physical constants, with the precise definition selected to match the historical values. The gram and kilogram were the last holdouts. Fucker should be made to select whether he’d rather walk a beam measuring 2 decimeters or 0.4 millifurlongs over a tank of sharks with frigging lasers.

  25. Anisopteran says

    Why stop with keeping British measurement units? You could adopt the old British currency system, which we only switched over from in the 1970s:
    £1 = 20 shillings (20s)
    1 shilling = 12 pence (12d)
    So £1 = 240 pence
    1 penny = 2 halfpennies and (earlier) 4 farthings
    Also threepence, sixpence, florins, groats… All very natural and intuitive, and based on Roman currency. What’s not to like?

  26. johnson catman says

    Charly @20:

    Insisting on using the outdated imperial system is a sign of backwardness and obtuseness, nothing else.

    So . . . business as usual for Faux Noos, conservatives, and republicans in general.

  27. Sean Boyd says

    But…but…we REBELLED against the British Empire? Wouldn’t it make more sense to reject their measurement system too?

    (sportsball warning)

    For fun, the other day I was doing some numerical simulations of a home run hit in a Seattle Mariners game about a week ago. MLB has an elaborate tracking system, so usually there’s all sorts of data on these things. But the system was down, hence my simulations. This lead me to dealing with both drag and the Magnus force (rapidly rotating baseball) and that’s a bit outside my bailiwick. I found some info, including someone who had done very detailed computations involving decaying spin rate, curve fitting some experimental data to compute good approximations to drag and lift coefficients. In principle, it all seemed straightforward…except that this guy had used metric units in some places (density of atmosphere, for instance) and imperial elsewhere. Gaah!

  28. lucifersbike says

    @18 Hank. Are you sure Tucker has ten fingers? He might prefer base 12.
    While we’re on the subject, the alphabet is not really quite the thing – invented by Semites and adapted by the Greeks and Romans. Degenerates, the lot of them. I’m sure the loons would love to bring manly, outdoorsy, Randian runes back. This would save the rest of the trouble of reading Mr Carlson’s drivel.

  29. says

    As for being the system of “global revolution”, that’s just a nice bonus feature. Using the metric system doesn’t cause revolution, but but being able to communicate and share does foster international unity.

    As it happens, the metric system did grow out of a revolution: the French Revolution. One of the drives for its creation was a popular call in France at the time for a universal set of measures. Prior to the Revolution, each region of France had its own local version of the pound, mile, etc. which made trade difficult: people were forever getting swindled (“you were expecting a delivery of 500 pounds of flax? Ah, m’sieu, we use the Rheims pound here, not the Paris pound. Sucks to be vous, eh?”)

    The Revolution, responding to grievances expressed not only by villages throughout France in 1789 but also as early as the Estates General of 1576, which had insisted that ‘everywhere in France there should be but one yard, one foot, one weight, and one measure,’ decided to enforce uniformity. It established a single standard system of measurement, thus facilitating trade and encouraging greater honesty in commercial transactions…

    (Source: Denis Guedj, The Measure of the World: A Novel, 2001

  30. PaulBC says

    As my HS physics teacher liked to say, so many years ago, “Would you rather do that in slugs?”

    I switch between systems (“About 2 inches by one centimeter”) though I have never fully internalized Celsius. I lived in Europe for a year and tried hard not to have to convert C to F. None of this is rocket science (uh, except when units confusion causes Mars probes to crash, so maybe it is rocket science). We should have standardized long ago.

    I had a conservative friend in the 80s who acknowledged that metric was an easier system for doing calculations, but insisted that we kept the English system so our weapons designs would confuse Soviet spies. Sigh. I give up. And Tucker Carlson sounds even nuttier.

  31. PaulBC says

    When they come to impurify your precious bodily fluids, you can bet they’ll be doing it in milliliters!

  32. says

    lucifersbike @ 30: In fairness, base 12 might have been better for the metric system because 12 has more factors– 2, 3, 4, and 6– than 10, which only has 5 and 2. It makes dividing things without fractions easier. Apparently, Alan Turing, who was otherwise a fan of metrication believed the UK should have kept its pre-decimal currency system because it made splitting dinner bills easier!

  33. PaulBC says

    Next time Carlson needs an IV or blood transfusion, I hope he is careful to ask for the bags measured in English units.

  34. says

    PaulBC @ 32:

    As my HS physics teacher liked to say, so many years ago, “Would you rather do that in slugs?”

    So true. I once had the opportunity (misfortune?) to view the European (metric) and US (imperial/ English) editions of my freshman physics textbook side-by-side. It was… not pretty. Apart from rarely-seen units like the slug¹, using the imperial/ English system forces you to carry factors of proportionality all over the place, whereas the metric system’s units are designed in such a relationship with one another that these factors are normally equal to unity (see here for an example). As a result, the worked examples in the US edition were extremely messy compared to the metric ones in the European edition.

    ¹ I doubt if wilfully-ignorant ideologues like Tucker Carlson even know that the slug exists as a unit in the system they love so much, never mind what it’s used for…

  35. sirsamvimes says

    As Pterry said in Good Omens

    “NOTE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE AND AMERICANS: One shilling = Five Pee. It helps to understand the antique finances of the Witchfinder Army if you know the original British monetary system:

    Two farthings = One Ha’penny. Two ha’pennies = One Penny. Three pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and one Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.

    The British resisted decimalized currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated.”

  36. says

    Apparently, Alan Turing, who was otherwise a fan of metrication believed the UK should have kept its pre-decimal currency system because it made splitting dinner bills easier!

    It would be much easier if people just adopted the Southern European standard of standing rounds.

  37. davidc1 says

    the Southern European standard of standing rounds. We do that in GB .We are clinging on to Beer being served in Pints ,same with milk .

  38. franko says

    Please re-read comment no. 2. phoenix 3 is spot on! From Wikipedia: “Under the Mendenhall Order of 1893, metric standards, developed through international cooperation under the auspices of BIPM, were officially adopted as the fundamental standards for length and mass in the United States, though some metric standards were used in practice before then. The definitions of United States customary units, such as the foot and pound, have been based on metric units since then.”

    My vote for the most stupid unit remaining in use in the USA? The ‘cup’ as used in virtually every recipe.

  39. says

    I still prefer Fahrenheit for weather. Anything over 100 is too fucking hot, anything under 0 is too fucking cold. Humanity basically lives in the middle.

    If you’re a scientist you should be using Kelvin so the Celsius scale is doubly useless.

  40. petesh says

    I well remember driving a British car in Germany some time back and wondering (briefly) why the Germans were all driving at a little over 60 mph.

    BTW the public rationale for eliminating the £sd currency was the difficulty and expense of manufacturing (especially) cash registers. Somehow the transition to binary went unnoticed. Any school kid could tell you how much you got back from half a crown if you bought two big chocs at fourpence-ha’penny; one and nine, of course. And let us not forget those entrepreneurs who bought by the kilo and sold by the ounce …

  41. Dr. Pablito says

    I’d like to be the one to stand up for the sensibility of the imperial system, notwithstanding the asininity of Mr. Carlson. I’m completely bilingual in both systems too, and I recognize the sense of dealing with measurements that usefully break into fractions rather than dealing with decimals. Machinist work is extremely natural when working in inches and dealing with fractional sizes of drills, screws, and other fasteners. Carpentry is simple in inches and feet, because the fractions are intuitive and simple to work out in your head. Cooking in imperial units is a snap because of fractions and things being divisible by 8 and 16 and 3 when necessary. Recipes halve and double or triple. It’s powers of two rather than ten, jeez. And what, you want a metric equivalent to hexadecimal? You realize that the binary system underlies all this stuff, right? People who just dumbly parrot this line that metric units are so much better because decimals also insist on using digital clocks and somehow believing them better than analog clock faces. And now they’ve thrown out the very useful mental construct of the cyclical nature of timekeeping. Or they are the calculator-dependent innumerate. I get those students who work out problems or measurements and then tell you an answer with twelve significant figures because that’s what the calculator says or they get all pissy because there does not exist a drill bit which is 0.30132″ or a screw that will fit that. It’s just a little mental agility, and recognizing the utility of different units and different mental math tricks. Plus a huge problem with the metric system for the innumerate is that sloppiness in the position of a decimal point can lead to huge problems. And you get students who give you an answer in what they claim is meters, when they sloppily started with one input in kilometers and so have fouled things up by a factor of 1000. Or getting sloppy with cm and mm, so that they tell you something off by a factor of ten. I see that one all the time, even in professional literature. Sheesh. It’s not the fault of imperial units that people suck. I recognize the utility of standardization and the rationality of the basis measurements in the metric system, but let us not throw the baby out with Mr. Carlson’s bathwater. Harrumph.

  42. Dr. Pablito says

    OMG, #41 franko, no, no, no, cups are very useful! They are 8 ounces or 16 tablespoons, and there are half-cup, third-cup, quarter-cup measures. It’s a quarter of a quart, a half-a-pint. A liter is just a quart plus a shot, so your cup is really only a scooch less than 250 ml. Let me keep my cups!

  43. raffo says

    Except when the cup is a coffee cup. In that case it is 6 freaking ounces.

  44. says

    Dr. Pablito

    Cooking in imperial units is a snap because of fractions and things being divisible by 8 and 16 and 3 when necessary. Recipes halve and double or triple.

    franko, no, no, no, cups are very useful! They are 8 ounces or 16 tablespoons, and there are half-cup, third-cup, quarter-cup measures.

    I like it when people deconstruct their own argument within a few comments.
    Sorry but no. I cook, and more importantly, bake a lot. I often use American recipes and no, there’s absolutely nothing intuitive about fractions (ever tried teaching them?) and there’s nothing brilliant about cups. Scaling up is always easy, but calculating 2/3rds out of 1/3 cup of cocoa powder isn’t, especially not if you need to convert it into a different measurement so you can now use decimals to calculate the amount of tbsp. There’s also nothing intuitive about knowing that you need 7 cups of flour but not knowing how much you need to buy now.

  45. rietpluim says

    I fail to see what is intuitive about feet and inches. They are just arbitrary units.

  46. springa73 says

    To be fair, despite the greater simplicity, and dare I say “elegance”, of the metric system, most people in most countries would probably still follow their clunky old systems if the governments hadn’t mandated using metric. Why? Most people, I think, don’t like the inconvenience of having to become used to a new system, even if that system is in most objective respects better. The US is just different because the government never mandated a switch to metric, so people continued to use the system that they’re accustomed to.

  47. starblue says

    CatMara @ 34: No, the beauty of the SI system is that it uses the same base 10 multipliers that we use to represent numbers. If you want multipliers of 12 you should better switch the number base to 12, too, to keep computations simple. Historically it was the reverse, base 60 with many divisors was replaced by base 10, except for some vestiges for times and angles.

  48. sirrod says

    …….and I’m still waiting for the 10 hour day, the 10 day week, and the 10 month year.

  49. Nemo says

    The strangest part to me is “made up out of nothing”. Start with the meter. It’s meant to be one ten-millionth the distance from Earth’s north pole to the equator (i.e. 1/4 of a circumference). Newer measurements make that slightly off, but it’s close enough. That’s a pretty sound, logical basis for a unit, I think. Better than, say, the length of a random king’s foot, or three barleycorn seeds, or whatever the hell the “customary / imperial” units are meant to be based on.

    Now, make a cube with decimeter-long sides. That’s a liter. Fill that cube with water, at sea level — that’s a kilogram. Freeze it, that’s 0 degrees. Boil it, that’s 100 degrees. And there’s your whole system, basically. Every unit logically linked to the others, all derivable from common materials plus the meter, which is derivable from Eratosthenes.

    Nowadays, of course, for purposes of precision and reproducibility, the units are formally defined in different ways; ways that might seem arbitrary, if that’s all you knew about the units. But that’s only how they’re defined, not what they’re based on.

  50. PaulBC says

    There are pros and cons to using fractions vs. decimal. But keeping things in decimal makes the process a lot more uniform. Does anyone really miss the stock market tickers with prices like 25 5/8? Anyway, I don’t.

    If I could get everyone to use a new radix, I would probably go with hexadecimal. 16 digits is not too much to keep track of, and they convert nicely to binary. Plus (unlike octal) bit positions 0-3 convert can be express in two bits 00, 01, 10, 11 without waste. I realize base 12 is considered nice because of the factors, but I doubt we do enough mental arithmetic now for it to matter much.

    We are probably stuck with base 10 numbering, and given that, metric is a reasonable standardization.

  51. says

    @Dr. Pablito, #44

    I have never, ever met any people doing the mess-ups in metric that you are describing. I do not remember ever meeting anyone over the age of about ten who would confuse meters and kilometres, or centimetres. Children here learn te system in elementary school and because it is intuitive, it is easy to learn.

  52. numerobis says

    Carpentry is simple in inches and feet, because the fractions are intuitive and simple to work out in your head

    Yeah, I really love trying to work out (2 3/8″ – 5/32″) / 2. It’s so much easier.

    (That’s to cut a 2 and 3/8 inch piece in two equal halves, keeping in mind that the blade itself is just over an eighth of an inch wide.)

  53. Petal to the Medal says

    XCIX bottles of beer on the wall
    XCIX bottles of beer
    Take one down, pass it around
    XCVIII bottles of beer on the wall…

  54. says

    I know, people who have an easy time with numbers like to sneer at the “base of ten so you can count on your fingers” thing and I have to tell you that you need to stop because it’s abelist as fuck. I teach kids with learning disabilities and our fingers are wonderful tools because thankfully there are 10.

  55. nomdeplume says

    Carlson sounds like a computer in which a virus has caused serious damage to the System. As, of course, does Trump.

  56. ck, the Irate Lump says

    Canada has the weird position of using both systems extensively. We’ll measure the weather using Celsius, and cook in Fahrenheit. Measure distances in kilometers, and measure ourselves in feet and inches. Buy two litres of milk, and then dole out 1 cup of it in a recipe. And so on. Too much of this is because the US still refuses to meaningfully adopt metric as its standard measurement system. There may be plenty of reasons why metric isn’t perfect, but the nonsense about divisors being better with imperial seem to have been reverse engineered from wanting to justify never changing.

  57. blf says

    Don’t forget stones ! Some number of pounds (14? 22? feck if I can remember…).

      ─────────────────────────

    Some yonks ago, in teh NKofE, the company I was working for closed their research centre at the University and insisted everyone work in the main facility. The University was more-or-less in the centre, and an easy walk from home (and many nice pubs, complete with the dreaded “pint”). The main facility was outside the city, and whilst within cycling distance, not really in walking distance. So to help ease the annoyance of the those of us at the centre, they offer compensation for the additional travel involved (and assumed a car was used).

    So I submitted my claim in kilometres. I got back a snooty note saying please use normal units. So I resubmitted my claim using the shortest-distance “mile” I could find so as to maximize the “miles” I had to travel by “car”… Paid for a few extra pints!

  58. ck, the Irate Lump says

    Dr. Pablito wrote:

    And what, you want a metric equivalent to hexadecimal? You realize that the binary system underlies all this stuff, right?

    If only we had something like that… We could call it ‘decimal”, and it’d take the world by storm. There are lots of methods used in computer code to deal with decimal numbers, from things like BCDs to floating point formats, depending on needs and tolerance for things like rounding errors.

    I get those students who work out problems or measurements and then tell you an answer with twelve significant figures because that’s what the calculator says or they get all pissy because there does not exist a drill bit which is 0.30132″ or a screw that will fit that.

    Or you could use metric and use a 10mm drill bit or an M10 screw (rounding up). The units aren’t the magic here. Now tell me which fractional drill bit I should use to fit a #10 machine screw.

  59. cartomancer says

    I’m going to stand up for not using specific units at all, and just leaving everything delightfully vague.

  60. says

    ck@62 it was funny hearing a couple of little kids on CBC’s The Current the other day talking about the rising water on Toronto Island. One mentioned the water being a foot deep someplace. I would have though she’d measure that kind of thing in meters, but presumably she knows her own height in feet and inches.

  61. zetopan says

    @52 sirrod: “…….and I’m still waiting for the 10 hour day, the 10 day week, and the 10 month year.”

    The length of a year used to have 10 months in it. October = 8, November = 9, and December = 10.

  62. gijoel says

    One twit in England has dedicated himself to replacing metric measurements on road signs to miles.

    Can’t these idiots do volunteer work, or something more worthwhile.

  63. Rob Grigjanis says

    zetopan @67: Yes, it had 10 months in it, but the length of the year was 10 months, starting in March, plus a 60ish-day period that had no month designation. I’m sure cartomancer could do a better job of explaining, if he wasn’t currently committed to delightful vagueness ;-)

  64. nomdeplume says

    @67 you might check that – two months in the middle were renamed for Roman emperors (Julius and Augustus) so this pushed the other three two months later than their names imply. I think there were always 12 months (based of course on the Moon).

  65. says

    Carlson should get a random number of toes and fingers amputated to make calculating Imperial units easier.

  66. stuffin says

    Doesn’t Tucker know he gets paid using the metric system. I bet if they changed they way he has to count his money he would learn to love the metric system.

  67. consciousness razor says

    raffo, #47:

    Except when the cup is a coffee cup. In that case it is 6 freaking ounces.

    But at home, I use my grandfather’s old coffee cups, which hold 10 US fluid ounces. That is 295.735 mL, 60 teaspoons, 5/4 US cups, 10/128 US gallons, and so forth.
    So it’s sort of like metric – it has a “10” — only better because there’s coffee.

    GilielL, #60:

    I know, people who have an easy time with numbers like to sneer at the “base of ten so you can count on your fingers” thing and I have to tell you that you need to stop because it’s abelist as fuck. I teach kids with learning disabilities and our fingers are wonderful tools because thankfully there are 10.

    But it goes way beyond simply counting. The standard algorithms we use for multiplication/division are taught in terms of decimal/base-10 numerals. You use the positional information of the numerals to help you break a bigger/tougher problem down into smaller/easier parts. There’s nothing special about “10” — it could be done with any numeral system — but elementary school math students aren’t generally taught any other way. It’s hard enough to get people to learn one. If they eventually study computer science, they’ll also learn (to some extent) binary and/or hexadecimal. But even so, I bet there’s not a single computer scientist who thinks (or thought) instinctively in terms of binary – they really understand things in decimal and have to translate from that.
    The funny thing is hearing some people talk about the supposed convenience of certain fractions in the American/imperial/whatchamacallit measuring system. There is a somewhat valid point to be made that, unlike 10, 12 is a highly composite number (i.e., it has more divisors than any integer smaller than it). However, whenever you’re using fractions, that isn’t anything other than multiplication/division, which we all learn to do in decimal/base-10. Writing down “4/7” may not be exploiting decimal notation like the long division algorithm does; instead, it just tells you that you’ll somehow need to divide those two numbers. Or maybe what you do is just hold those two numbers in your head and intuitively contemplate them together somehow, without actually doing division … but that’s not exactly math. If we’re talking math, you will be doing it in base-10 (as I and everyone else assumed, when I wrote “4” and “7” without fanfare). And the same goes when you divide by 12, of course.
    Maybe sometimes you don’t have to bother with long division, because the problem you’ve set for yourself is relatively simple. It’s “convenient” because you made it so that the problem would be convenient. (You fudged the numbers a bit, didn’t measure that accurately, don’t need such accuracy, etc.) That seems to be what some people are saying is okay.
    But it could also be considered easy if we only used fractions involving multiples of 1/7, for instance. I’ll be the crazy person to propose that, for the sake of argument, if we can it’s legitimate to create easier problems for ourselves. So … no matter what multiple of 1/7 it is, the decimal expansion for non-integers will contain repeat a cyclic permutation of “142857”. Thus:
    1/7 = 0.142857
    2/7 = 0.285714
    3/7 = 0.428571
    4/7 = 0.571428
    5/7 = 0.714285
    6/7 = 0.857142
    7/7 = 1 (or 1.000000… or 0.999999…)
    Since these values increase, you should notice that the permutation after the decimal point starts with the smallest number and goes up from there (i.e., in order, they start with 1, then 2, then 4, 5, 7, and finally 8). Meaning I didn’t need to write the entire list above for you to know that. That’s all there is to it. You can plug it into your calculator, do even better than the calculator by hand, or simply remember something shorter than a phone number.
    Isn’t that convenient? I mean, sure, you can say I can’t solve other problems with this, but what if I don’t want to solve other problems? What’s the argument supposed to be at this point? (I’m asking people like Dr. Pablito.) If we’re more or less stuck with decimal numerals, since it would be a very radical move to toss that out, then how is there any real improvement with using multiples of 12 or whatever else? I mean, this is sort of like competing religious claims: they can’t all be right, but they can all be wrong. So try to tell me why mine is wrong in a way that doesn’t invalidate yours. If you can’t do that, well then your argument isn’t so great, is it?

  68. chigau (違う) says

    in base 10
    any number that is divisible by 3; its digits add up to a number divisible by 3
    works for 9, too

  69. chigau (違う) says

    and with three digit numbers
    if the middle digit is the sum of the other two, that three digit number is divisible by 11

  70. David Empey says

    For real fun, look up how the ancient romans specified the day of the month. It wasn’t just “eleventh day of” whatever month, it was “so many days before the nones, or ides, or calends” of a month, the calends being the 1st, the nones either the 5th or the 7th of the month, called “nones” because it was 9 days (only actually 8, because of the weird roman “inclusive” counting convention) before the ides of the month. So in the last half of a 30-day month, the 17th (for instance) would be called the “15th (only actually the 14th) day before the calends” of the NEXT month.

    Why don’t we use that system, Tucker?

  71. consciousness razor says

    Another fun choice for us heretics would be 1/11. Only two digits are repeated in the decimal expansion: for any number divided by 11, the remainder is r * 9. So for example, 62/11 = 5.636363… (“63” repeating). You know 11 * 5 = 55, which leaves a remainder of 62-55 = 7, and you know 7 * 9 = 63. At most, the remainder can be 10 * 9 = 90 which of course is two digits. I don’t know if or when kids are taught any modular arithmetic in school (except perhaps mod 12 for clocks), but they should probably learn more.

  72. petesh says

    @63: 16 ounces to a pound, 14 pounds to a stone. (I weighed 10 stone in high school, not that we called it that, and about 11 now; makes sense to me, although I think I weigh about 155.) But don’t get me started on tons. Or tonnes. Let alone acres, hectares and suchlike. Thing is, computers dont give a shit, programming them to tell you whatever unit you want is no biggie. So raise another pint (20 oz or 16, your choice) or half-litre (or half-liter) to diversity, but please grab a cab take a taxi home.

  73. ck, the Irate Lump says

    timgueguen wrote:

    I would have though she’d measure that kind of thing in meters, but presumably she knows her own height in feet and inches.

    The depth of snow is usually referred to in inches, too. Most people will say that there was six inches of snow instead of 15 centimeters of it. The United States is a bad influence on us.

  74. tinkerer says

    Dr. Pablito #44

    Machinist work is extremely natural when working in inches and dealing with fractional sizes of drills, screws, and other fasteners.

    Speaking as an engineering draughtsman and machinist who grew up using imperial, no it most certainly isn’t extremely natural! Decimal inches are fine, but fractions make everything take twice as long and mistakes far more likely, and mixing them together is ridiculous.

    Imperial machine tool dials are marked in decimal inches but often it’s 1/8″ or 1/4″ for a full rotation which immediately screws with straightforward decimal inches. Drawing dimensions mix decimal and fractions. A clearance drill hole for a 5/8″ diameter bolt would be 41/64″, now quickly tell me how far the edge of that hole is from the centre in decimal inches so I can check that it will not be too close to adjacent features when I’m on the milling machine. And don’t get me started on letter and number drill sizes, or the US small machine-screw sizing system, or AWG wire gauges!

    When I first came into contact with the metric system it was like a breath of fresh air, suddenly everything was sraightforward. The only advantage of imperial is that it makes you good at mental arithmetic, but at the cost of lost time and more frequent mistakes.

    Fractional inches made sense for hand carpentry before accurate measuring tools became commonplace as it was convenient for spacing things out evenly, but that time is long past for most types of work.

  75. ospalh says

    My favorite crazy US unit is the gallon.
    It’s the volume of a cylinder with a diameter of 7 inches and a height of 6 inches. But that is an irrational number, so they picked the next integer, 231 inch³. That gives you the nice prime factors of 3 × 7 × 11.
    Good luck with that.

  76. KG says

    I teach kids with learning disabilities and our fingers are wonderful tools because thankfully there are 10. –
    Giliell@6

    Yes, our fingers are very useful peripheral digital devices! Much more extensive methods of counting and doing arithmetic using these devices used to be taught (involving bending different combinations of fingers). These declined in use as Hindu-Arabic numerals and reasonably cheap paper became available.

    The UK is still partially Imperial, although much less than the USA. We’ve switched from Fahrenheit to Celsius, just about (my wife still finds the former more intuitive), most things are sold in kilos, litres and centimeters, but some still in pounds, pints and inches, road signs are still mostly in miles. I know my weight in kilos, but just had to look in a table to find that I’m 177 centimeters tall. As in the USA, the reactionary right continue to moan about the godless furrin tyranny of the metric system.

    I recommend Ken Alder’s The Measure of All Things, which recounts the heroic effort to measure the exact distance along a portion of the meridian running through Paris, so as to find out how long one ten-millionth of the distance from pole to equator is – during the turmoil of the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre went north, Pierre-François-André Méchain, south. The monumental task relied on new surveying methods and instruments, and unfortunately, Méchain made (and covered up) a slight error early on, which meant their meter was about .2mm short. But the work also revealed that the earth itself is slightly wonky – different meridians have different lengths.

    I’m still waiting for the 10 hour day, the 10 day week, and the 10 month year. – sirrod@52

    The French revolutionaries did try to introduce at least the first two of these (and the 100 degree right-angle), but they failed to take. Babylonian traditions are evidently very resilient!

  77. ospalh says

    KG@83
    The first two + twelve 30 day months. The remaining 5–6 days were public holidays, « Sansculottides » , and not part of any week.

  78. graham2 says

    liter ? its litre!. Do I have to cross the Pacific to correct this for you ?

  79. alkisvonidas says

    KG@83.

    The French revolutionaries did try to introduce at least the first two of these (and the 100 degree right-angle), but they failed to take. Babylonian traditions are evidently very resilient!

    I’d say that for time and angle measurements, divisibility is far more important than decimalization. You want to have as many integral subdivisions as possible, and 10 just offers you divisibility by 2 and 5. 60 offers you divisibility by 2,3,4,5,6,12,15,20, and 30, which is why base-60 was used for all serious math involving fractions in the ancient times.

    Also, base-60 time measurements were already universal at the time the metric system appeared, and the French introducing their decimal hours, minutes, seconds and weeks only “fixed” what wasn’t broke. People got confused about what time it was, and the decimal week was unbearably long for work/leisure organization. If you want to measure time and avoid pesky conversions, stick to decimal multiples and subdivisions of the second; if you’re doing astronomical work, use Julian days; and if you’re doing geology or paleontology, use Mya.

    Don’t even get me started on the grade, their decimal angle unit; 100 grades in a right angle, that’s just brilliant :-/ No way Jose, either stick with good ole’ degrees for designating angles, or radians for doing math with them. All the grade bought us was a useless extra button on calculators.

  80. ospalh says

    Nemo@53
    Hear, hear!
    But itis not the whole system. There are the ampere, mole &c. The customary/imperial versions of which … simply don’t exist. As soon as you do much more than grocery shopping, you simply need the SI.

  81. says

    My favourite take on the difference between Imperial and metric engineering is this:

    For imperial tapping, drill sizes are read off a chart with a complex array of different drill sizes.

    For metric tapping you just take the thread size (in mm), subtract the thread pitch (in mm) and you get the tapping drill size (in mm). Simple, you do it in your head as you open the drill bit box.

    I don’t need a tapping drill chart anymore…

  82. davidc1 says

    @68 Daft old fart ,and of course he voted for britshit ,to be honest i have never seen a road sign in metric in GB .

  83. numerobis says

    consciousness razor:

    But even so, I bet there’s not a single computer scientist who thinks (or thought) instinctively in terms of binary – they really understand things in decimal and have to translate from that.

    Hi!

    Nope, we really are that weird.

    It’s very common to think in binary, or in hex. I don’t think in binary when I’m buying groceries, but I don’t really think in decimal when I’m thinking about quadtrees or trying to compress data.

  84. says

    My brain can’t do this anymore, but back when I was doing a fair bit of machine-code level tinkering, I most definitely visualized everything in terms of bits — opcodes were patterns, behavior was specified by regions of a byte, a relative jump was defined by this chunk of bits. How could anyone deny the elegance of two’s complement arithmetic? Also, back in the era of 1mHz 8-bit CPUs, you really had to focus down your data to maximize use of every bit, so of course you thought in binary terms.

    I’ve since drifted far away from my coding days, and once your data was in 32-bit chunks there was less of a premium in taking every bit into account.

  85. says

    OMG, I just looked up imperial drill size bit system and holy Molly what an incomprehensible mess. Numerical designations mixed with letters and fractions – there is no way convincing me that this is an intuitive system to learn.
    In metric, however, if I want to drill 0,3 mm hole, I use 0,3 mm drill bit. Easy peasy. The size of the hole is the name of the drill bit. What a difficult thing to remember! (not)
    I have zero experience with machining in imperial, but based on this fact alone if someone tells me that it is better than metric, they are either ignorant, fooling themselves or outright lying. It might be easier for someone who grew up with that nonsensical system of units, but objectively metric is better, no contest.
    That imperial is “divisible by more factors” is pure nonsense. OK, a foot is divisible neatly into whole inches intervals by 2, 3, 4 and 6. And the inches themselves are divisible by multiple power of 2 numbers. But there is no official 1/3 fraction of an inch anywhere in fraction charts. There is no logic to that, none whatsoever.
    So where is the divisibility advantage, exactly? Foots nearest metric equivalent of 30 cm is divisible neatly into whole cms intervals by 2, 3, 5, 6, 10 and 15, already more factors than the foot was. And when working in mm – as a proper machinist would – the divisibility into whole numbers is even bigger, including the 4 which was missing when working in cm. And subsequently, millimetres allow for far greater accuracy than even decimal inches.
    As for hand carpentry, for divisions you only need a straightedge and a compass, irrespective of the units used. Fractions of inches might be better to document the process, but they are not necessary for the manufacture and are not perfect either – with geometry, you can divide any length to any fractions to your heart’s desire, thirds, halves, sevenths, whatevers.

  86. kurt1 says

    Using arbitrary units to own the libs!
    Usually I would not care, but every time i want to cook a recipe I have to convert all the bullshit units.
    Also “inelegant” stop telling on yourself FTucker.

  87. springa73 says

    I once knew a guy who argued that the US or UK imperial systems were superior precisely because they were more difficult – the difficulty remembering and converting units helped people develop stronger mental math and memory skills. I wondered, if that was the case, then was anything that made any kind of mental work easier bad for the brain. After all, written language means you don’t need to use memory or spoken language quite as much – should humans go back to having strictly oral and memory-based societies? I know it’s a reductio ad absurdam argument, but I just can’t buy the “it’s harder, so it’s better” argument.

  88. springa73 says

    Should clarify: I realize my response was a reductio ad absurdam, but I don’t think that “it’s harder, so it’s better” is a good argument. Like tinkerer@80 said, the US/Imperial system probably does help one become better at mental math, but at the cost of more time spent and more mistakes made. I tend to think that it is more important for a measurement system to ensure minimum mistakes and fast calculations rather than give the brain an extra workout.

  89. consciousness razor says

    It’s very common to think in binary, or in hex. I don’t think in binary when I’m buying groceries, but I don’t really think in decimal when I’m thinking about quadtrees or trying to compress data.

    Well, that’s more or less what I meant, not that it isn’t part of your thinking at all. I won’t dispute the fact that you people are weird. But if you need to make a grocery shopping simulation, let’s say, then binary probably isn’t where you start. And the user is almost certainly not thinking in binary, so checking that it works as intended for them (in dollars and cents, boxes of cereal, or what have you) will also involve decimal in the end.
    I’m fairly comfortable with duodecimal (for music) and much less with hexadecimal (mainly for graphics) … Never had a use for binary. I think I’m weird enough, so I’ll leave you to it.

  90. consciousness razor says

    I know it’s a reductio ad absurdam argument, but I just can’t buy the “it’s harder, so it’s better” argument.

    But Socrates was apparently being serious when he argued books are bad for your memory and make you a worse thinker. He was not a writer. This is very super bad, according to him. He thought our eternal souls had all knowledge from memory, and he could prove that they must be eternal by virtue of the fact that a slave could solve a math problem without being told the answer ahead of time. (Now that’s what I call a reductio!)

  91. KG says

    But Socrates was apparently being serious when he argued books are bad for your memory and make you a worse thinker. He was not a writer. This is very super bad, according to him.

    Well, according to Socrates according to Plato! Without whom, and a couple of other writers (Antisthenes and Aristophanes IIRC), we’d have no idea any such person as Socrates existed. (Why isn’t there a “Socrates mythicism” gang of dudebros? As if I didn’t know!)

  92. cartomancer says

    #67, 69, 70

    Rob Grigjanis is quite correct – the original Roman calendar consisted of ten months of 30 or 31 days, beginning in March, with the winter period left as an inchoate 60 odd day mass that was not assigned to any month. Roman tradition had it (according to Plutarch) that the second king of Rome – Numa Pompilius (almost certainly fictional, but assumed to be late 8th century BC) assigned the months of January and February to the winter period, but the year still began in March until 154BC, when it was changed to January to facilitate appointing new consuls two months early to prosecute a war in Spain. So January and February were originally the eleventh and twelfth months, not the first and second. As such the original numerical names of the months were accurate for a good 500 years – most of the life of the Republic – and became normalised and traditional. The original fifth and sixth months were called quintillis and sextilis in the normal fashion, to be replaced with July and August in the early Principate (after 31BC).

    There was also an intercalary month to stop the seasons from shifting out of sync with the months of the year. This was the month of Mercedonius, which was inserted into the middle of February every two or three years when the Pontifex Maximus decreed that it should be. the Julian calendar’s insertion of a leap-day at the end of February is a vestige of this tradition. Note though that Mercedonius didn’t come between February and March, it came between February 23rd and February 24th – you had 23 days of February, then you had your Mercedonius for 27 or 28 days (the Pontifex Maximus got to choose), then you had the rest of February. This was because the Terminalia festival, celebrating the god of boundaries and endings, Terminus, was on the 23rd of February, and that was considered the appropriate time to have an intercalary month. There is also speculation that certain pythagorean hang-ups about unlucky numbers played a part in some capacity.

    I think this shows comprehensively that delightful vagueness is the way to go.

  93. nomdeplume says

    #101 Thanks Cartomancer, nicely explained. I hadn’t realised about the “inchoate 60 odd day mass” – which seems odd. Nevertheless there were 12 months, not ten, whether they all had individual names or not. Because Moon. I’m also puzzled by the moves of January from the end to the start. I always thought that it was named for the god Janus who could look forward and back – ie from the old to the new year. But this wouldn’t fit if it was originally a month at the end.

  94. cartomancer says

    nomdeplume. #101,

    January was still considered a time of beginnings and endings in a seasonal and religious sense – it was the end of the dwindling of the days up to midwinter and the beginning of their lengthening to midsummer. Late Roman writers on religion (Macrobius) emphasise that Janus has some qualities of a solar god (there was an, almost certainly wrong, speculation that Ianus and Iana (which became Diana) were equivalents of the Greek Apollo and Artemis, so the point at which the sun begins to climb higher in the sky from its lowest point would be a reasonable time to celebrate a solar god.

    Though, really, we know a lot less about the symbolism and significance of the Roman calendar to the Romans themselves than we like to think. For instance, although it is named for Janus (or, at least, for doorways – ianuae), some of the oldest Roman farming manuals say that Juno was actually the tutelary deity of the month. Janus was a fairly ubiquitous deity in Roman cult practice anyway – his cult was presided over by the rex sacrorum himself, rather than a specific priesthood, and his realm was all kinds of transitions, so he was really a year-round deity presiding over the change of each month and day as well as the year as a whole. It probably wouldn’t have made much sense to the Roman religious mind to fix him so directly to one specific point in the year (he was an important harvest deity in the late summer and early autumn too – marking the transition from growing to gathering). Most of the ancient speculation on his character and role that informs modern speculation comes from 1st Century BC writers – Cicero, Varro and Ovid – who were well used to a year that began in January. It would have been an obvious primary association for them to make, but perhaps not so obvious to their predecessors centuries earlier, for whom the year began with the beginning of the spring campaigning season (the province of Mars, hence, March).

  95. trav42 says

    ck. #79 I’m a Canadian and I learned Metric, but of course I grew up in our mixed-unit culture. I use feet, but they contain 30cm. I use pounds, but they are 500g. I use cups, but they are 250ml. Ounces and degrees Fahrenheit, on the other hand, are purely the work of Satan. When I grocery shop, I see the prices listed in pounds under the prices in kilos and 100g (or visa versa), but I ignore them. I think Canada is gradually changing and maybe in another generation or two, people like me will be the norm.

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