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Weights and measures for the 21st Century

The Anglosphere is divided over the metric system… sure, it makes vastly more sense but, damn it, it is just too damn French!

But do not despair! That scholar and wit, the inimitable Diamond Geezer, has come up with a new and vastly superior system of measures suitable for the 21st Century. For example:

Length – the freedom
Definition: the distance one tank can advance in one minute

  • the distance from Basra to Baghdad = 1 megafreedom

And who says genius is dead in Britain? Oh, yeah, that was me. Sorry.

Update: As usual, blogspot’s archives are phuked up, so just go here and scroll down.

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21 comments to Weights and measures for the 21st Century

  • Nice one, Perry! Though I don’t actually agree the metric system makes vastly more sense – after years of living in countries where generations have been brought up on kilograms and kilometres I’ve noticed most people there have weaker senses of distance and mass than folk-measure users.

    In fact, they make more mistakes within the “simpler, more logical system”, some very dangerous mistakes – like the difference between megapascals and kilopascals, a confusion avoided by engineers who use pounds-per-square-inch [psi]. I’ve seen pipeline engineers in metric countries mix up kilopascals and megapascals [a lethal error] on maps, because the pascal [one kilogram per square metre] is already hard to visualise [one kilogram per square centimetre is too many syllables, of course] even before the kilo and mega prefixes.

    As with language diversity, I say the more measures the merrier, freer, and safer.

    By the way, can anyone confirm a rumour a friend of mine heard that some small group of people in England is planning to throw metric rulers on bonfires this coming November 5th?

  • David Packer

    I agree with Mark, the assumption that the metric system “makes more sense” does not stand up to scrutiny.

    Many teachers report that the similarity of the names confuses children, and as Mark points out, many adults too.

    While we’re at it, what’s a third of a meter?

    Freedom to choose which system was best suited to a task was the rule in the UK from 1897 onwards, why is it now vital that old ladies in Sunderland buy their bananas in metric?

  • Stephen Hodgson

    I think metric has its uses in the field of science and it certainly makes calculations easier (so long as people don’t make the tragic mistake, highlighted by Mark, of confusing mega and kilo – but I should hope people capable of frequently making such a silly error would not be trusted with any truly important scientific work).

    I do strongly object to people being told that they must use metric measurements (such as the EU has done) and that they must learn metric. It is most fortunate that British state schools do still recognise the existence of the imperial system of measurements although all that really seems to amount to is a one-hour maths lesson during the GCSE Maths course which mentions that there are alternatives to “SI” (Système International) – which is a bit of a French-sounding name for a system containing the word ‘international’ but nevermind.

    I think Diamond Geezer’s proposed system is slightly flawed in that by using prefixes such as ‘mega’ he is implementing part of the metric system. Presumably if Basra to Baghdad = 1 megafreedom then it takes a million minutes (close to two years) for a tank to travel from one city to the other? It’s still a nice idea.

  • After half a century of official metrication, Japanese office and factory space is still rented or sold in tsubo, a fine traditional unit of area they prefer which, at about four square yards each, gives a good measure of enough room to stand a small desk, cupboard and chair.

  • I don’t agree that the metric system makes more sense, overall. Although the decimal orientation of the system and the orders-of-magnitude nature of the unit prefixes may be simpler to comprehend and deal with in computation (using a calculator or a slide rule!), the folk units of measurement evolved from a need to deal effectively and quickly with practical situations and human beings’ real-world limitations in terms of computation and accurate measurement. For example, liquid measure in gallons, quarts, pints, cups, gills, etc. is based on successive halving or quartering of the volume — something more easily comprehended and accomplished by a human with the lowest-tech tools and limited grasp of arithmetic than division by fifths or tenths. How many know that a “pint” of water corresponds fairly closely to a “pound” of weight? Although my etymogical dictionary indicates that the two words come from different roots, I am struck by the fact that they differ only by vowel and consonant shift. Some of you Brits pronounce “pound” so closely to the way we Americans pronounce “pint,” that it is hard for me to imagine that there is no historical connection between the two terms. Coincidence it might be, but how convenient it is, to be able to create a fairly accurate pound-weight reference by pouring a pint of water. Or, weighing water to determine a desired volume when no measuring cups are available, but a scale is? How does one generate a kilogram or half-liter reference on demand?

    I’ve found the basic units of the metric system tend to be uncomfortably ill-suited for daily human use. The kilogram is pretty heavy, the gram too light. The meter tends to be longer than people need, the centimeter just a smidgen too short (though the kilometer is a good, brief walk). The liter is more than most people can drink in one sitting — the half-liter or quarter-liter seems more commonly needed, while it tends to be a smidgen too small for use as a measure of such things as the capacity of a swimming pool or even an automobile’s gasoline/petrol tank. I will say that the celsius degree seems to correspond more to the minimum variation in temperature that a human can distinguish, than does the Fahrenheit degree, although the range of comfortable temperature, from freezing to sweltering, seems too narrow.

    I freely admit that a lot of my impressions are subjective, that humans can get used to anything, and that people tend to prefer and champion what they already know. But it seems from here that the metric system is more convenient to the macro and micro-scale measurements and computations that were made necessary by the scientific and industrial revolutions, whereas the traditional systems are, necessarily, more attuned to the “human scale” of everyday needs of individuals and interactions of pairs or small groups, not to mention the unaided human’s ability to do arithmetic, whether on a pad of paper or in his or her head.

    I guess whether the metric or traditional system makes more sense depends on what you regard as “sensible.” For all its organic eccentricities, the traditional system makes a lot of sense to human beings in terms of everyday life, even if it doesn’t make sense in intricate scientific calculations or in dealing accurately with the mass- or micro- quantities of modern industry. And of course, it makes sense for people wanting to trade or otherwise interact with each other to use the same units; if most of the world is using metric, it behooves someone to learn metric. I’ve made myself “bilingual” in this respect, but I have come to appreciate the appropriateness (and even the organic genuis) of the traditional system more and more as the years have gone by and I’ve had a chance to compare traditional vs. metric in a variety of situations.

  • S. Weasel

    I will always and forever think in picas and points (twelve points to the pica and six picas to the inch, hence 72 points to the inch). It’s a remarkably handy subset of english measures used in publishing.

    Have any other trades developed their own peculiar systems of measurement? Anyone?

  • Posie

    There was a time in Britain when market traders could calculate the change out of a five pound note for £4.16.9 like lightning, and still count in a diddle factor of tuppence. People aren’t as quick witted under the fascist metric system.

  • Stephen,

    You’re quite right that two years is much too long a time for a tank to travel from Basra to Baghdad, given that the actual journey took closer to three weeks. However, that makes the distance between the two cities approximately 30 kilofreedoms instead, and I don’t think President Bush would be at all happy to associate the word freedom with any prefix that sounded like killer.

    I should instead redefine one freedom to be the distance a tank can travel in one second. Then all the maths works out rather perfectly, and Basra to Baghdad is indeed 1 megafreedom.

  • James captures it: the metric measures are either too big or too small for everyday comfort. Though, inspired by the pint weighing around a pound, the French did decree that one liter of water weighs one kilogram {if at sea level} – as James points out, a liter is more than you want to drink, a kilogram is more than you want to eat, and the two together are three syllables more than you want to say.

  • Guy Herbert

    And of course there are some useful non-SI metric units, too. Dynes anyone? electronVolts? Calories?

    Truth is, SI is a product not of science but of scientific bureaucrats. We do need common standards and common definitions, but it is not necessary that all constants be one, and every unit have a great-and-good name that disguises its nature.

    (Alert for the Prince of Wales: If humanity needs to employ bureacrats occasionally, we should take precautions to ensure that they don’t escape into the environment. Otherwise we may find all manner of normal human activities are mysteriously disintegrating to be replaced by meaningless, arbitrary, but precisely replicated procedures.)

  • S. Weasel, there are a lot of trades which keep their own measures in fact.

    I realise I’m droning on rather tediously here under this post, but… Horse-breeders in several metric countries [even the metric Dutch of Holland] are surprisingly faithful to their traditional horse-size measures – as it helps to track back their breeding records. Violinmakers and restorers often use Venetian inches [slightly larger by about 1/8″] because Stradivarius used those and his drawings are still referred to. And beekeepers use a truly natural unit, called the beespace [around 1/4″], which varies slightly by bee species but is fixed for each species – it is the measure according to which the bees themselves are genetically hardwired to build honeycombs. The list goes on.

    Meanwhile the freight measure on which almost all cargo trade is now done is the twenty-foot unit. In defiance of reality, metric Europe nostalgically persists in labelling their container-port cranes and trucks with descriptions like <2.44 metres>, though all freight containers worldwide measure either 20′ x 8′ x 8’6″ or 40′ x 8′ x 8’6″. [So you can’t accidentally store a container on its side, before you ask]

  • As a Canadian living the US I must say I prefer to do science and engineering in metric, but anything else in Imperial units.

    i.e. Mega pascals, meters, newtons. 1 litre of water (and most/many liquids for estimation purposes) is 1kg- 10cm on the side cube.
    It scales nicely and the orders of magnitude are obvious. (Forget the prefixes, everyone *I * know uses E notation, 1E5 => 100,000, or exponent)

    But a house and people are in feet and inches & pounds like god intended, and plywood is sold in 4’x8′ not some wierd mm measure. Metric ply & lumber…shudder. Perish the thought.

    IT’s just easier in a low precision human scale enviroments to use highly evolved trad. measures.

    Both systems work fine, and can be gotten used to, I can;t see why the EU is so nasty about forcing it though. Forceing that there be metric available I agree with, some commonality of measurement is helpful, forcing it’s *exclusivity* is just dumb, nasty and bureaucratic BS.

    Fred

  • Trouble with blog*spot archives…try these:

    #1

    [and this one for posters to use in a post]:

    #2

  • Big Bad Wolfe

    New SI unit of agenda-driven exaggeration: the Jenin.

    Definition: The Jenin massacre: 5,000 reported dead, 50 actually dead = factor of 100 = 1 Jenin.

    Usage example: the looting of Iraqi museums. 170,000 artifacts reported looted, 25 actually looted = factor of 6,800 = 1.9 Jenins. (It’s logarithmic, like the decibel.)

  • Thanks MommaBear – I got my archive sorted out!

  • Stephen Hodgson

    It’s occurred to me that I rarely, if ever, quote my height and weight using metric units. It’s also apparent that none of my friends, no matter how much they’ve come to rely on metric measurements as a result of having to use them in maths and physics, will describe themselves as 1.78m high and weighing 62.7kg.

    Of course we’ve been lucky enough to retain the pint and the mile as standard measures in Britain although there are bound to be some Eurocrats who despair that in Britain you have to ask for a pint of beer rather than 0.568 litres.

  • Scientists usually use metric units, but as has been mentioned, they quite often use non-SI metric units. Angstroms, millibars, microns. Anyone for the cgs system?

    In Australia in the 1970s, from when I was a small child I was never taught anything other then the metric system. The sizes of the base units don’t seem too large or small to me, and everything seems pretty natural. I like the fact that the system is based on tens and that the prefixes are the same for different units.

    I weigh 87kg and I am 178cm tall. I think this may mean that I am about 180 pounds and 5 foot eleven, but I am not quite sure. (I haven’t the foggiest idea how many stone I weigh). The metric units do me fine, and I have no real wish to learn the imperial system.

    I think a lot of this is very subjective, and I think there is a lot to be said for the statement that you are comfortable with what you are brought up with.

    And Fred, yes, we do have metric ply and lumber in Australia, and the size of houses is measured in square metres. The world hasn’t ended.

    On the other hand, I agree that the pint is a fine unit.

  • Pete

    The greatest force on the planet, the US Federal Government, tried to get us to convert to the Frentric system. We defeated them. Today the US, tomorrow the world!

  • >>>The greatest force on the planet, the US Federal Government, tried to get us to convert to the Frentric system.<<< THAT'S IT! Pete's a genius! All we have to do is spread the rumour that the personal income tax is a FRENCH invention, and the 16th amendment will be repealed in an eyeblink! The Feds'll never know what hit 'em!