Defining Our Terms: Metric vs. Ye Olde English
If you’ve been to elementary school in the United States, you’ve encountered the metric system. As you’ll remember, it’s a system based on ten. There are 100 centimeters in a meter. 1,000 meters in a kilometer, etc. This goes for volume, weights, distances, mass, force, energy, power, and temperature. There are handy prefixes to delineate which way you are moving in the system: micro, milli, centi, deci, deca, hecto, kilo, and mega.
Americans use what are known as the “U.S. Customary Units” (USCU) a descendent of the “English System” and cousin to the nearly extinct “Imperial System.” It’s based on old farmer body parts, the distance llama spit flies in a fair wind, and the length of wood best suited for burning witches. There are no handy prefixes. There are no prefixes. Unless you include the curse words you mutter when you forget how many 2/3 cups are in a gallon. There are fractions, however. Lots and lots of fractions.
The differences between USCU and Imperial Units are very small. Since they are both derived from the ancient English System, I will take my cue from “The Metric Maven” and refer to USCU as the “Ye Olde English” system both for clarity and out of spite.
Here are Some Reasons We Should Have Gone Metric a Long Time Ago:
1. The Metric System is a Better System
We are by and large, a base-ten species (with a few notable exceptions), likely due to the number of fingers on our hands (unless your hands have been mangled by freak carpentry accidents caused by poor conversions from centimeters to inches). We think in tens. We live in tens. We make love in tens.
Percentages are based on how much of 100 something is. We use percentages all the freaking time.
Decimals. Decimals are much easier to understand than fractions. Ask any librarian.
Scalability. You can move up or down in any quantity easily. Look at a map. See those two cities 10 centimeters apart? Want to know how many kilometers are between them? Just scale up. Easy-peasy.
It’s symmetrical and beautiful and synchronous. At what temperature does water freeze? Zero. At what temperature does it boil? 100. Simple. Like I said, humans really go for things that are multiples of 10. And before you get all bent out of shape about atmospheric temperatures, see the entry for Decimals above.
Universal Application. The overwhelming majority of human beings on earth use the metric system on a daily basis for all of their needs and have found it to be superior to their old way of doing things.
2. We Are Pretty Much Alone in the World
Burma, Liberia, and the good ole’ retrograde US of A are the only countries on earth that haven’t fully adopted the metric system.
Let that sink in for a minute. China, Russia, Canada, and Mexico all use the metric system. The wealthiest nations on earth: Qatar, Luxemburg, Singapore. The poorest nations on earth: Somalia, Burundi, Central African Republic. When ISIS or Al Qaeda plan to attack the United States, they use the metric system. When the European Space Agency lands a probe on a comet they use the metric system.
All of our bitterest enemies, strongest rivals, and closest allies use the metric system. America may have an outsized influence on world affairs, but we aren’t bigger than the rest of the world combined.
There are myriad reasons that this matters. Brotherhood of man, assisting in supplying (or receiving) international aid, among others, and these are all fine and good, but even the fact that we are the laughing stock of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to move the needle for metrication deniers.
Faux-folksy politicians like to wax eloquent about how the United States is supposed to be the greatest nation on earth. Yet, strangely, we are decades behind the rest of the planet on this issue (and several others as it turns out).
The fact that we are in the minority is to our disadvantage.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading.
3. Ye Olde English / Metric Conversion Errors Cost the United States Millions of Dollars Every Year
In an increasingly global marketplace, being an outlier is more than an inconvenience, it’s a liability. Any company that imports or exports products, that uses foreign parts or components, or interacts with weights and measures in virtually any capacity is forced to deal with conversions between the metric and Ye Olde English systems constantly.
Conversion errors occur frequently and catastrophically. I used to work for an import/export company. We dealt with metric conversions on a daily basis. Despite copious due diligence, errors were made. Money was lost. I can only imagine that this reality is multiplied by thousands of businesses each year resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue.
And those are just the run-of-the-millimeter conversion errors. Every once in a while we get in the mood to really outdo ourselves and vomit gobs of good money down the toilet.
Exhibit A) Tokyo Disney’s Space Mountain had to be shut down because an axle on one of the roller coasters snapped. The cause? Conversion error.
Exhibit B) A Canadian passenger plane ran out of fuel due to not one but two conversion errors.
Exhibit C) Perhaps most famous of all, NASA’s Mars Orbiter spacecraft crashed in 1999 because one team of engineers used Ye Olde English while the rest (along with the rest of NASA) used metric. The result? $125 MILLION taxpayer dollars burned up in the Martian atmosphere. Don’t hate on NASA either. Them’s my boys. Hate on the outdated, outmoded, American policy that forces people to switch between two systems in the first place.
4. Conversions Cost Time & Effort
Every time Americans interact with the metric system they are forced to make a choice. They can either take time to convert from the anachronous moth-eaten Ye Old English system, or scratch their head in befuddlement.
In a world where seconds, nay, miliseconds matter in world events, why would we want to be minutes behind?
This isn’t just a problem for Mickey Mouse, NASA, or international shipping conglomerates. I mean anyone who tries to mechanic a foreign-made car or (God-forbid) calculate their luggage weight before traveling abroad. Americans abroad are lost in hectares of kilometers, kilograms and milliliters. Take any tour of a culturally significant site outside of the hallowed USA and any mention of weight, distance, or temperature will struggle to penetrate our mental faculties constipated with outdated Ye Olde English yokelisms.
Yes, I know you can just Google it. By why? Why bother? Why not use the better system in the first place and save the risk of wasted money and wasted time converting anything?
Wasted time is tragic, but befuddlement is tragic too.
5. Our Backward System Hurts Our Children
You know where Americans rank in math and science? Poorly. You know what’s partially to blame? Conversions. I’m not saying that switching systems will magically fix our pitiful school performance. But it will clear one hurdle for our kids. All that time we spend teaching two different measurement systems and the means of converting from one system to another could be spent teaching them something useful and relevant.
Teaching our kids Ye Olde English is like teaching them to gather food with sharpened sticks and blunt rocks. It doesn’t make sense any more. There is a better way. Staying in a retrograde system doesn’t help anyone, it puts our kids behind.
What’s more? All the advances in science and math going on in the rest of the world are blindfolded from our kids and unintelligible to them because they don’t intuitively understand what the units mean. Fewer kids get excited about math and science. Fewer kids study it.
We fall further behind.
6. Metric Conversion Errors Could Literally Be Killing You.
In February 2016, the Centers for Disease Control announced that it was revising a report on unsafe levels of formaldehyde found in Lumber Liquidators flooring laminates sourced from China. The problem? The CDC’s original report improperly used meters (as the Chinese suppliers did) in its calculations instead of feet (the system used in American construction) in calculating ceiling heights. This downplayed the risks associated with the formaldehyde levels. The revised report, which corrected the conversions, places the risks 3 times higher than the original estimates.
In other words, because the United States uses a different measurement system than the rest of the world, a government agency nearly made a faulty report which could have resulted in cancer for as many as 30 people per data set, as opposed to the 9 as originally reported.
An understandable knee-jerk response might be to blame the CDC for its incompetence in this case. Fair enough. The point remains, however, that if we were a fully metricated country, this, and similar conversion problems would never have occurred.
7. Good news! You already use Metric Units!
Surprise! Americans use the metric system every day!
- We measure our soft drinks in liters! And our engines! And our wine!
- Our athletes swim and run 100 meters, 5k, and 10k distances! At the same time!
- Want to go to jail for possessing illegal drugs? Smuggle-in some kilos of cocaine and the DEA will prosecute you with the metric system!
- Would you rather fight your neighborhood drug kingpin for distribution control in your hometown? Take a 9 millimeter handgun and shoot that dude. This is America!
- Oops! Gun battle didn’t go so well? That’s okay, just go to the hospital where they’ll treat you using… THE METRIC SYSTEM! Yay! Need 1,000 Cubic Centimeters of Morphine STAT? They got it! All your medication will come in metric units for the rest of your life.
- Want to rethink your career choice? Good idea. Perhaps you should consider going into computer programming, where kilobytes, megabytes, and gigabytes are measured metrically. Or satisfy your inner artist with digital photography which uses megapixels.
- Still prefer shooting people with guns? Join the US Army which measures distances in klicks, military slang for kilometers.
- Want to blow even bigger stuff up? Become a Nuclear scientist and measure nuclear blasts in kilotons of TNT.
- Or, you know what? Just become any scientist in any field, whatsoever. Or an engineer, for that matter. Virtually all American scientists use metric units for measurements.
- Do you know why we use calories to measure our food intake? Because a milliliter of water takes up one cubic centimeter of space and requires exactly one calorie of energy to increase its temperature by one degree centigrade. See how beautifully the metric system locks in with itself? Try figuring out what the relationships between those things are in the Olde English System. You’ll break your neck.
Many of these are holdovers from America’s frustratingly half-assed first attempt at going metric in the 1970s. Some, however, are the result of agencies or industries just wholesale deciding that metric is the better way, and following through with metrication on their own. Their staying power in American life is evidence that we can, in fact, make the switch to metric, and that it won’t kill us or make the stars and stripes dissolve into a smoldering poop pile on the ground.
8. Winners Never Quit / Quitters Never Win
Right now we’re losing.
It is true that we tried this once. Lots of people like to complain about how they spent the 1970s converting between metric and Ye Olde English. How it was such a waste of time. How they could have spent that time doing something else.
We quit in the middle of the transition. We gave up. We said that something the rest of the planet has done was too difficult for the USA.
The thing is, if we had stuck to metrication then, we wouldn’t have these problems now. I would have been raised in a metric world and the temporary discomfort of my parent’s generation would now be ancient history. The problem of a world with two systems will not go away. The longer we wait, the further behind we will get. We need to make the switch now, bite the (9mm) bullet and get it over with. That way my kids don’t have to have these headaches.
Which leads me to…
9. The Reasons Against Going Metric Are Insultingly Stupid
Generally the arguments/sentiments against going metric fall into three camps:
CAMP A – The Pessimistic Prophets of Doom:
This will be too much work! Can you imagine trying to convert all this stuff to metric? It would be chaos! We’d lose our minds. This is an impossible transition. It would never work!
Sure, it would be difficult for everyone, no question. It will require a lot of money and a lot of effort. But not more effort or money than it will cost to keep our out-dated system in place for the long run. And, it is not impossible. As an example why don’t you look at ALL THE OTHER COUNTRIES ON EARTH which have managed, somehow, by hook or crook, to figure out a way of getting it to work for them.
CAMP B – The Sentimental Sycophants:
The Ye Olde English system connects us to the past, to our ancestors. We are maintaining a way of life that has existed for hundreds of years. If we give it up it will just fade away and disappear.
The argument from tradition is an understandable and useful motivator for preserving cultural institutions such as dying languages, traditional dress, folk music, and dancing. It makes no sense however, in regards to mathematics, science, or technology. If we had applied these traditionalist protectionist ideas to mathematics, we never would have used the calculator, the internet, or modern GPS. We would still be navigating using a compass and sextant. No, actually, a sextant is too advanced, we’d still be blindly following herds of caribou across the frozen north.
Technology and innovation require that we prune away antiquated technology and modes of thinking. The Amish are entitled to their way of life, sure, but I’m willing to bet those guys won’t be the ones to come up with a cure for cancer.
CAMP C – The Prevaricating Patriots:
The metric system is UN-AMERICAN! It has to do with everything we don’t stand for. It was developed by the FRENCH for crying out loud! We are independent free thinkers. We don’t care about the rest of the world.
You don’t seem to have a problem with Ferraris or Gangnam Style. We live on a planet that is also home to non-American human beings. Choosing to impale yourself on the pinnacle of jingoism mountain is not only stupid, it endangers the rest of us. Just because it’s foreign doesn’t mean it’s bad. Despite what you may have heard, other countries are better at things than we are.
Choosing to stay with Ye Olde English is like choosing to believe that the world is flat. Sure, you can get through most of your day without your inane and backward belief system harming you, but you will still be wrong, and if you ever choose to wander away from the shore, you might just die of scurvy.
But here’s the kicker. Are you ready? I don’t think you’re ready. I’ll give you a minute.
*Drums fingers on table*
Too bad, ’cause here it comes.
Our Non-Metric Units Were Not Created by Americans.
We didn’t invent them. The British did. Yeah, those British. The Ye Olde English System belongs to the Evil Empire we hated so much we fought two wars to be independent of. Those British. This is THEIR invention. You know what else is culturally British? Tea. And what do we do with tea? That’s right. Throw it into Boston harbor. I would suggest a similar strategy for their measurement system. A system which the British themselves abandoned fifty years ago.
So, if you want to be a colonial holdover to your imperial oppressors, and hate your country, and prefer to pledge allegiance to the queen of England and her outdated and abandoned measurement system that’s your prerogative I guess. But don’t wave an American flag when you do.
That’s all I’m saying.
10. In Conclusion
I can accept American exceptionalism when it puts us ahead of the pack. When it’s, you know, to our advantage to be different. But when it puts us behind the rest of the world it feels myopic and stupid. I mean, this is science-denying / moonlander-denying levels of stupidity.
Staying in our old-fashioned measurement system inhibits our young people from engaging in scientific discovery. Since we can’t readily understand what a big deal it is that the Voyager spacecraft move at 16km per second, the match never touches the fuse of our imagination. There is no curiosity. No engagement. No advancement.
We are left with sentimental feelings about the things we used to do instead of leading the charge into the future. Instead of innovating we ruminate. We watch the dust settle on our monuments to the past.
Just change it already.
It won’t hurt that bad.
11 – 5,280 Further Reading
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