It’s Thursday morning, but I still keep waking up early, as I have for the last week and a half, thanks to jet-lag. I need to go and check out some apartments today, because we won’t have a chance tomorrow with it being the 4th of July holiday, but it is still too early. Being up at 6:00am is definitely out of character for me, so I thought I’d take this time to get this off my chest.
Yesterday was our first full day here in New York. During that time I looked at an apartment that was 5.1 miles away, bought a juicer with a capacity of 64 oz. and drank a 1pt., 0.9 fl. oz. bottle of water out of our 40°F fridge. In a previous post I wrote about over-hearing an American man in a pub in India, who came out with this pearl of wisdom:
“I kinda understand metres, because I watch a lot of golf, but I don’t really get kilograms or Celsius. What we really need is some kinda global measurin’ system the whole world can use!”
It took a lot of internal fortitude to not slap him, tell him we already have one and show him this:
That’s right, only three countries in the entire world haven’t officially adopted the International System of Units (SI or the metric system) as their official system of weights and measures: Myanmar, Liberia and the USA. It should, however, be noted that Myanmar’s Deputy Minister of Commerce says his country is taking steps to officially adopt the metric system. Now, all of these countries use elements of the metric system occasionally, but I was beginning to feel like Rain Man with the sheer amount of mental arithmetic I had to do yesterday.
Sure, I understand the irony of other countries trying to get the USA to adopt their way of life, but this just makes sense. For all of the Americans, Liberians and Burmese reading this, let’s use this cube (right) as an example. The metric system is based around multiples of 10. If you were to fill this cube with water, it would contain 1 litre, weigh 1 kilogram, freeze at 0°C and boil at 100°C. Also, the metric system has names to cover different ranges of the same measure. Instead of using names based on the context of the measure, the names of the units of measure used in the metric system consist of two parts
- a unit name, for example “metre”, “gram”, “litre” and
- an associated multiplier, for example “milli” meaning 1⁄1000, “kilo” meaning 1000.
The result is that there are a variety of different named units available to measure the same quantity, such as 10 millimetres = 1 centimetre, 100 centimetres = 1 metre, 1000 metres = 1 kilometre. Each unit and each prefix has a symbol, not an abbreviation, associated with it. Simple.
Now, lets look at the archaic clusterf__k that is the imperial system and compare it to the metric system (right). Where is the logic in any of that?!? Even writing the date is completely and utterly illogical! It’s almost as if the rest of the neighbourhood has upgraded to broaband, but the USA is still using dial-up.
I grew up watching a lot of sports, especially basketball, as a kid, plus, the metric system was introduced in Australia in 1966 and my parents didn’t really learn it, so I’m pretty decent at measuring heights and weights and I can convert between the two reasonably easily in both systems; 1′ = 12″, 1″ = 2.5cm, thus 1′ = 30cm and 1m = 3’4″ (approx.). With weights, 1kg = 2.2lb, therefore I am 200cm and 100kg, or 6’7″ and 220lb.
I also know that a mile = 1.6km and I even have an equation for converting temperatures in Fahrenheit to Celsius: (x°F – 30) ÷ 2 = x°C (approx.), therefore, our fridge temperature, 40°F, is roughly 5°C.
But why is any of this necessary? Why the refusal to change and make life easier for themselves and the rest of the world? Is it ego? Stubbornness? To deliberately be different and a pain in the ass, like some pissed off teenager? Maybe this article could help answer why:
The U.S. Metric Program may be the loneliest office in Washington. Located about 30 minutes from the White House, its headquarters is in the much larger—and better funded—“measurement standards laboratory” at NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology).
For years, Ken Butcher was the sole employee working for the Metric Program (there are now two employees). Charged with guiding the whole country through the gargantuan task of metric system conversion decades earlier, he admits progress can be measured in centimeters.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act into law. It made metric the “preferred” system, though using it was strictly voluntary. But if Russians could forgo the arshine (28 inches), surely Americans could learn to forget the gallon. Global trade demanded a standard and although late, the U.S. would not be left behind.
THE RISE AND IMMEDIATE FALL OF METRIC GAS STATIONS
As a young metric converter in the mid-1970s, Butcher was assigned to update West Virginia to the new system. He said almost as soon as the first metric gas station opened in West Virginia, his office—the one trying to help people swap gallons for liters—had to shut the station down.
When a retailer charged 35 cents for a liter of gas versus $1.40 per gallon, cars lined up around the block, causing other store owners to complain.
“They were losing so much business. Then they realized the guy at the metric gas station wasn’t pricing his gas the same way they were”—consumers were paying more and not realizing it. “They complained and pressured the state government to stop the metric system,” he said.
As the years went on, the Metric system wasn’t only derided as confusing. It was a communist conspiracy! If the Americans converted under a multi-million dollar price tag, it was prime time for the Soviets to invade our weakened economy, according to the author of the 1981 book, “Metric Madness: Over 150 Reasons for NOT Converting to the Metric System.”
Government downsized under Reagan and cut the U.S. Metric Board in 1982. Butcher was the only person left.
THE METRIC MOVEMENT TODAY
To be clear, Butcher said, the Metric Program doesn’t promote the adoption of the metric system. Even if they wanted to, they don’t have the resources. Many people over the years have offered to promote the metric system for $20 to $30 million of government money. He laughs.
Armed with a scant budget, Butcher said the extent of the government’s metric campaign is arranging workshops at Rotary Clubs and schools. Part of his job is educating skeptics that they do in fact use the metric system every day. He sometimes gets caught up in conversations where people learn where he works and then vow their loyalty to the inch-pound system. “Don’t need it, don’t want it,” a lady at Costco once said to him. But she was buying tires in metric sizes and didn’t realize it.
“My point is, we’re going to use it—we’re going to be using more and more of it,” he said.
So why make the switch? Safety, for one. Butcher said that there are an increasing number of truck drivers on the roads in the U.S. who grew up in Mexico, or Europeans who migrate to the UK. They are the ones who get stuck under bridges more often than others because they can’t convert 12’ 6” in their head before they hit the overpass.
He said the biggest reason why people haven’t switched is not the millions of dollars it would cost. “If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy,” he said. “But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary.”
I’m still not buying it. Of course, there is the obligatory conspiracy theory, but when you’ve fallen almost 50 years behind Australia in terms of progress, there is a serious problem. Besides the fact that conversion is easier, requiring just the movement of a decimal point, here are some more reasons for the USA to adopt the metric system:
- It’s the language of science, medicine and international commerce.
- Teaching two measurement systems to children is confusing.
- Human conversion errors are inevitable.
- Its use is necessary for travel outside of the USA.
- It’s much easier to conceptualize 1 gram verses 1/28th of an ounce or 1 millilitre verses 1/29 of a liquid ounce (rounded measures).
- There are fewer measures to learn. Most people will use metres, litres, and grams versus more than 10 for liquid and dry measures alone. But, most importantly…
- To look less foolish and ignorant to the rest of the world.
Depending on sources, there are between 189 and 196 independent countries in the world today. If approximately 98.5% of all countries, or 95% of the world’s population, can convert, why can’t the country that considers itself the world’s “Superpower” do it? Perhaps it’s because…
“CubeLitre” by Cube.svg: Image created by H McKenna based on source code by Marcelo Reis.derivative work: Cristianrodenas (talk) – Cube.svg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CubeLitre.svg#/media/File:CubeLitre.svg