originally published February 4, 2014
As a young child, awash in homework that involved converting decameters to hectometers and other such metric mathery, I asked my father why the Americans (from whence he came) continue to make use of inches, feet, ounces, pounds, gallons, quarts and Fahrenheit when the system we use, where everything is neatly divisible by 100, makes more sense.
“Not now,” he told me. “I’m sleeping.”
And so I remain historically in the dark and culturally trapped between two opposites. Height I measure in feet and inches, travelling distance in kilometers, fluid containers in millilitres, and for penile length I’m thinking of switching to centimeters because it sounds more impressive.
Canada had tossed away its metric water wings long before I wandered into the school system, and we have been kicking it in the deep end of kilos and centis and such ever since. Imperial measurements I learned on the mean streets: a pint only appears in my mind with ice cream inside it, and a mile is a unit of distance that simply sounds better in a song (“I would walk five-hundred kilometers” just doesn’t fit the rhythm).
So how about the arguments against the metric system? Why won’t the Americans, Burmans and Liberians hop on board?
It ain’t natural.
We have been using non-metric measurements for as long as we’ve needed to know how far it was between the angry woolly mammoth and the nearest tall tree. In some parts of Malaysia, the locals referred to the distance between towns in terms of ‘rice cookings’, believing that everyone walked at roughly the same rate and they all knew how long it took to cook a thing of rice. Sure, the context of how big one ‘foot’ was would depend on which member of the populace is doing the measuring, but that’s how it was and we damn well liked the spontaneity of it all.
It goes against good conservative values.
What, you honestly think the millilitre is anything but a commie liberal plot to redistribute wealth and give us all the gay? Come on! Some of these measuring tools have been around for millennia. And we’ve regulated all the units now so if you’re hanging out with the little-foot crowd a foot is still twelve God-fearing inches. If buying whiskey by the quart was good enough for my great-granddad, it’s good enough for me. You measure your poutine, your haggis, your baba ganoush in litres and grams, pinko. I’ll take my 12-ounce steak, thank you very much.
It’s government intervention.
The metric system came into being at the start of the French Revolution, and was adopted by the new government in 1795. But among the French people, the authorities cramming a mandatory switch of all measurement systems into the collective consciousness was perceived as a tetch on the obnoxious and austere side. The metric system was immediately associated with elitism, which was anything but a compliment for a nation that had just mandated some blade-enforced distance between their rulers’ heads and their respective bodies. It took until 1837 for the system to filter into the norm – that’s a long road, and they invented the thing.
The metric system comes from France.
I’m sure that’s pissing someone off in America.
It’s somebody else’s government intervening in our lives.
Squeaking the metric system into the crevasse of British routine was not an easy fight. Metrification simply reeks of continental stank, as it’s believed that the European Union is the one pushing for mandatory metric standards across the continent. The truth is that the UK had been pushing to go metric more than ten years before the nation sought to join the European Economic Community. But local shopkeepers won’t give up – they want to sell by the pound, import by the pound, and they’ve gone so far as to claim that the EU’s focus on metric measurements is a violation of their free speech.
Actually, they’ve gone further than that. In 2004 some poor souls in the European Court of Human Rights had to listen to the Metric Martyrs – an advocacy group who alleged that their very human rights were being metaphorically urinated upon by this insistence on metricity. People in England have been criminally charged for not using the proper weighing equipment, or for displaying signage with imperial units instead of metric.
It’s only a matter of time before blood is shed.
Companies will use the new measurements to screw us over.
Switching to metric packaging is going to encourage companies to tweak the amount of goodies we receive without us knowing it. That one-pound bag of flour you used to buy is now only 0.5 kilograms; it looks similar, but those units don’t convert quite so smoothly. They must be messing with you.
Except that they’re probably not. Most of the round-numbered metric measurements work in the customer’s favor: 0.5 kilograms of mushrooms is actually 1.102 pounds, one meter of shag carpeting will get you 1.094 yards, and that two-litre bottle of Pepsi on the shelf is a better buy than the two-quart bottles they used to sell, which only work out to 1.89 litres. In fact, when Pepsi introduced the 2-litre bottle in the US, the reception was fantastic. People liked getting a little more gulp for their buck.
Switching to millilitres for cans is a bit trickier though – 12 ounces is much catchier than 355ml.
The decimal system isn’t as easy to manipulate.
Sure, you can cram a thousand meters neatly into a kilometer, and doing the math between these measurements is a piece of cake (or ten deci-pieces if you’d rather). But when it comes down to divvying up a meter or a kilogram without switching units, there are limitations. A quarter-inch shows up on a ruler; a quarter-centimeter does not. This is a minor complaint, but it has a smidgen (or at least 75 centi-smidgens) of validity.
How deep can I run that joke into the ground?
What about the 2×4?
Yeah, that’s a sticky one. A 2×4 would come out to 50.8×101.6mm. Nothing simple about that.
What? No seriously, this is an argument against the metric system. Some anti-metricos claim that there is an evolutionary advantage for those with mathematical aptitude under the old system. It’s trickier to figure out, and therefore those with math-inclined brains will do better. Those with difficulty in the subject will (somehow) die out and the human race will thrive.
I can’t even begin to pick this one apart; it’s almost too absurd. Forget that mathematical aptitude doesn’t necessarily mean access to mathematical education, and that this argument eventually has the wealthy and schooled in society better equipped to deal with imperial measurements. I simply don’t see the correlation between geometry and survival. Perhaps I’m just being short-sighted.
This is ultimately going to be someone else’s war. I’m sure I’ll survive the rest of my days balanced between the two systems without any difficulty. The metric system makes more sense – it really does. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to remember how tall I am in centimeters or how much I weigh in kilos. There’s only so much of my remaining time that I’m willing to surrender to math.