Saturday, January 10, 2009

Traditional System does not Measure Up

I woke up this morning and went downstairs to brew a pot of decaf. But much to my chagrin, I noticed the bag was empty. So now I needed to decide something. Should I get dressed and drive the five-kilometer trip to the grocery store in order to purchase a half-kilogram bag of coffee or should I just go to the coffee shop down the block for a quick 500 milliliter cup? Either way I would have to go out in a cool drizzle, because the temperature was hovering just above freezing at 2 degrees.

Actually, I just made up that story in order to show a point. Did you notice all the measurements I used were in the International System of Measurements, that is to say, metric units? If you are reading this as a resident of the United States, it probably sounded unfamiliar. If you live anywhere else in the world, you probably thought nothing about it.

Ever since 1875, the industrialized world has officially used the metric system. In fact, the U.S. was one of the original signatories to the so-called Treaty of the Meter, which standardized metric units and formed the International Bureau of Weights and Measures.

The British were among the last of the European nations to use the metric system. In 1965, they began the conversion from the old British system of measures to the new SI (International System) units.

Canada is a British commonwealth, so it, too, has switched entirely to the metric system. Travelers crossing the border into Canada are met with road signs that give distances in kilometers and speed limits in kilometers per hour and bank thermometers that display the temperature in degrees Celsius. There is no duel system in place. The bank signs don’t go back and forth between Celsius and Fahrenheit; the road signs don’t give kilometers and miles. It’s all just in metric.

Back in the U.S. the states that border Canada might have road signs that give duel measurements. And along some stretches of Interstate highway in other states there might still be duel measurements given on signs that were part of a test back in the ‘80s, but for the most part, we still measure distance in miles, temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, and speed in miles per hour.

We pour milk from gallon jugs, order 16-ounce cups of coffee, and buy butter by the pound. We measure height and room sizes in feet and waist sizes in inches.

We, as Americans, are not unfamiliar with the metric system. We even use it for some things. It would sound strange to hear someone say they just purchased half a gallon of Diet Coke. We all know that soft drinks come in two-liter bottles. A liter is a metric unit of volume. In the days of film cameras, we bought 35-millimeter film. And we measure tire tread depth in millimeters, but we measure the tire’s air pressure in pounds per square inch.

Our recipe books are still largely printed using cups, ounces, and tablespoons instead of liters, milliliters, and grams. But our medicine is dispensed in grams and milliliters. When it comes to measuring, the U.S. is kind of schizophrenic. But the traditional measuring system is clearly the dominant personality.

All school children are taught the metric system, with its use of simple base units and prefixes as multipliers. Students learn quickly how to convert one unit to another. It’s all based on the decimal system. The traditional system is based on, well, nothing. It’s arbitrary and makes no sense whatsoever.

It’s easy to remember that there are a thousand grams in a kilogram and a thousand meters in a kilometer. But why for goodness sake are there 12 inches in a foot, three feet in a yard and 1,760 yards in a mile? Why are there 16 ounces in a pound and 2,000 pounds in a ton?

And on the Celsius temperature scale, water freezes at 0 degrees and boils at 100. But using the Fahrenheit scale, water freezes at 32 degrees and boils at 212. Metric units are clearly easier to convert from one to another. They are based on things that make sense. Traditional units are not.

The U.S. government has taken some steps to encourage conversion to metric. The medical and scientific fields have been using exclusively metric units for decades. Most manufacturing plants that do business globally also use metric units. But the general public hasn’t caught on yet.

Our traditional English measuring system is internalized at an early age despite what we learn in school, because the weatherman still tells us the temperature in Fahrenheit and road signs tell us the distance in miles.

But in this age of global communication and a world economy, Americans will find that it makes more sense to leave the old system behind and join the rest of the modern world when it comes to measuring things. And we don’t need a lengthy process of using both systems together for comparison. We just need to go cold turkey. It might be a bit painful and confusing at first, but we will very quickly adapt. And we’ll be happy we finally made the switch.

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