Gallons of Freedom, Please!

Thursday, January 03, 2013

I found this petition -- urging Barack Obama to "make the Metric system the standard in the United States instead of the Imperial system" -- amusing at first, not the least because of its misuse of the term "imprecise" to describe the units of measurement Americans customarily use. Precise means, "definitely stated, defined, or fixed". Since most of the American versions of Imperial units have been defined in terms of the Metric System for over a century, I can't help but wonder what benefit would accrue from replacing one imprecise system of measurements with another.

On a more serious note, I will grant that our customary system can be cumbersome. Nevertheless, what difference, aside from minor inconvenience (which computers are great at easing, by the way) does it make what units one uses, so long as they have a precise definition? Among Americans used to the "Imperial" system, it is easier to communicate measurements now than it would be if everyone had to start constantly dropping everything to make (truly) cumbersome conversions to and from the Metric system. (Twelve inches to a foot is far easier to use mentally than, say, 2.54 centimeters to the inch.) When Americans and non-Americans have to communicate measures, there is the fact that a conversion step represents a point at which error can creep in, but how would converting really be much more different in practice than translating between languages? Our customary system does not impede progress: Practically all scientists use Metric units in their work. Nor does it slow education: Just how hard is it to recall that there are twelve inches in a foot? And might getting practice multiplying and dividing by numbers other than multiples of ten offer good practice in arithmetic?

Advocates of the government forcing everyone to use the Metric system -- a true advocate of the metric system would appeal to individual choice based on reason to gain actual support, rather than large quantities of "converts" at gunpoint -- seem not to be bothered by such things as the costs of converting to the Metric system, such as changing signage, or the intrusion of being required by law to post everything in units of both systems. Nor do they seem bothered by the unnecessary inconvenience to ordinary people of making such a change. Rather than give good reasons to individuals to make the change, they try to force people to do so by attempting to misuse government force. This is disturbing to say the least.

As a scientist, I find the metric system useful and I like it for that reason. As a child, I even supported the last national effort to convert. I am older and wiser now: Whatever the merits of the metric system, I'll be damned if I am going to get behind a fascistic effort, such as this, to force it down everyone else's throats. Science and progress require freedom, and this means of making the metric system more widely used is, in this light, far too costly.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "Nevertheless, what difference, aside from minor inconvenience (which computers are great at easing, by the way) does it make what units one uses, so long as they have a precise definition? Among Americans used to the "Imperial" system, it is easier to communicate measurements now than it would be if everyone had to start constantly dropping everything to make (truly) cumbersome conversions to and from the Metric system."

Well, so long as you know when you or your computer has to make the conversion, it's no problem, but if you don't realize it, it can cost you a bit over $550 million.

Steve D said...

There ought to be an app! (rather than a law of course) Actually, I quite sure there already is.
As far as I can tell, the US is already basically a metric country. So many things are already in metric- there are a few vestiges left I suppose like road signs and weather men. But I agree with your premise that it makes no real difference and it seems like one of the most puerile uses of government to force us to change.
I do find it amusing though, that some of my fellow scientists can use it up and down all day long in their work but have no idea what Celsius means in terms of what temperature to set their house at.

Gus Van Horn said...


Yikes! And also just the sort of dramatic example the "convert at gunpoint" advocates would use to distract everyone from the other greater, but less dramatic costs, as well as the impropriety of what they want to do.


Yes. I have noticed that lack of integration before. Also, that's a clumsy conversion to have to make, since it involves both a unit conversion and an addition to account for their different water freezing points.


Snedcat said...

By the way, Gus, on a hunorous note, I'm a fan of the FFF system of units. The thought of using it in the laboratory has a certain 43-Man Squamish feel to it.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's great, and it has somehow escaped my attention until now.

Some people actually organize games of Squamish. Were I involved, I'd see to it that the dimensions of the Flutney were specified in Furlongs.

Snedcat said...

And throw in some Potrzebie units.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

When converting for Celsius in everyday temperatures, I use a couple of reference points that are easy to remember.

35 C is 95 F
28 C is 82 F
16 C is 61 F
10 C is 50 F
4 C is 40 F
0 C is 32 F
-40 C is -40 F

If I need intermediate numbers then I do the 5/9 or 9/5 conversion on the range and add or subtract.

I first came across this when driving past a bank sign that displayed C and F - and noticed that 28 and 82 were paired as were 16 and 61. Easy mnemonic there. And yes, 4 C is actually 39.2 F but it's close enough for extrapolation for mundane world usage.

Anyway, the best use I've had of the conversion is in SciFi books that use Celsius to give me an quick take on why the temperature was important to the narrative.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Oh, no! I have been exposed as a mere hack in all things Mad.

(How did I not know about that?)


Good mnemonics. Your approach is similar to, but finer-grained than mine. I use 37 (normal human body temperature), 22 (room temperature in the labs where I used to work), and 0 to very roughly help me cover the typical range of temperatures I encounter. You have a couple of extra points in there that are easy to recall. Thanks.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you ask, "(How did I not know about that?)" It's tempting to rib you mercilessly about it, but in fact I only learned about it a couple of years ago myself as a bit of trivia about Donald Knuth. I'd say we both need to get complete sets of Mad and master the classics.

Which reminds me of a Russian friend of mine whose father is fond of quoting apposite lines from Ilf and Petrov, the great Soviet humorists, and when a person doesn't catch the allusion he just says, "You must learn the classics."

An example you liked thereof when I told you about it, oh, let's see, 15 years ago now: One of their stories concerns a magazine editor and a hack writer--though presented throughout in mock epic mode as great literary artists. Their descriptions are filled with little swordflashes of wit that make you laugh out loud just as you've gone on to the next phrase. One such is that the editor's eyes were "filled with the emptiness and the blueness of the skies of March," or at least in effect--it's subtler than that, as I remember it.

[Cue a dissatisfied grumbling and rumbling, then a bit of Internet rummaging.]

--Ooh! Turns out an English translation is up on the Net! It renders the passage thus:

Then Moldavantsev happened to glance at the editor’s eyes and felt more afraid. The eyes were so bright with a March sky emptiness streaked with blue that he decided to enter into immediate compromise.

It's serviceable, but it doesn't capture the quick wit of the Russian and embroiders the original into the bargain--fine enough, I suppose, for a foreign reader, but useless for my purposes. Rummaging around some more, I found the Russian text (here, if anyone's really that curious), and the second sentence literally means: "The eyes were so springlike/vernal [both words capture connotations of the original] that a March emptiness and blueness could be sensed there..." The brilliance of the Russian is due to the fact that without actually saying "sky" it uses words associated in Russian literature with the March skies, including pustota "emptiness," which establishes a context of the appearance of the sky in spring, but then, when you recall "emptiness" is here applied to a person's eyes, it's deadly.

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! I actually have all the classics, up to a few years ago on DVD.

Some time after I replied to your last post, I looked at the drawing related to Potrzebie units and found that it looked familiar. I also then remembered that Donald Knuth had contributed. I didn't know who Donald Knuth was until grad school, though, so I may have learned about this from you at some point.