Furlongs per fortnight

Last night, I ran across this stupid petition at the White House’s We the People site:

The United States is one of the few countries left in the world who still have not converted to using the Metric System as a standardized system of measurement. Instead of going along with what the rest of the world uses, we stubbornly still adhere to using the imprecise Imperial Unit - despite the fact that practically every other country that we interact with uses Metric.

Why should we convert to using the Metric System? Because it’s superior, less convoluted - everything is ordered in units of tens, while the chaotic arrangement of the Imperial System slows things down for us - not only in terms of education, but also businesses, science, foreign relations, and daily life.

Why do I say it’s stupid? Let me count the ways:

  1. The United States doesn’t use Imperial Units, it uses US Customary Units. For most types of measurement the two are the same, but there are differences. The distinct difference between Imperial gallons and US gallons was indelibly etched in my mind back in the 70s when I had to buy gas while on vacation in Canada.
  2. There’s nothing imprecise about US Customary Units. We don’t still define inches as the breadth of the king’s thumb.
  3. Because trade and manufacturing are global, metric units already are common in industry. I see lots of engineering drawings of machine parts, and it’s normal for dimensions to be given in millimeters.
  4. For the most part, these petitions are just masturbation. They aren’t how bills get written.
  5. A law (the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act) was passed in 1988 declaring (in Subtitle B, Part 1, Subpart F, if you’re scoring at home) the metric system the preferred system for weights and measures for US commerce, thus proving how effective these sorts of laws are.

My tweet about this,

Get your facts straight, petitioners. We use US Customary Units, not Imperial, and they’re as precise as metric units. petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-…
Dr. Drang (@drdrang) Thu Jan 3 2013 11:21 PM CST

was interpreted by several people as a sort of cranky anti-metric rant. While I fully admit to being cranky, I’m not anti-metric, just anti-stupid.

@drdrang @tofias My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it!
Joe Ura (@joeura) Fri Jan 4 2013 11:19 AM CST

I will say, though, that the main attraction of the metric system, the decimalization of units, isn’t nearly as important as it was when the system was introduced or even during America’s big metrication push when I was a teenager. You’re looking at the reason right now—you might be holding it in your hand. Ubiquitous computing makes it easy to convert between the great menagerie of inches, feet, miles, acres, gallons, ounces, pounds, tons, ounces (the other ones), and so on. Not only is it a snap to do the necessary multiplications and divisions, you don’t even have to remember the conversion factors.

I’ll also admit to a fondness for traditional units. They arose organically to meet specific needs. Inches are for things we hold in our hands, feet are for the buildings we live in, and miles are for our towns. There’s a certain rightness to using different units on different scales rather than just sliding a decimal point one way or the other. The metric system was imposed from above by an elite; customary units were crowdsourced.


15 Responses to “Furlongs per fortnight”

  1. Jeff says:

    The only way I ever get frustrated with US Customary Units is with the always murky distinction between mass and weight. Always shows with lbs mass and lbs weight always being weird to write (but required for proper unit conversions).

  2. Dr. Drang says:

    My rule of thumb, Jeff, is the pounds are force except when you’re doing heat transfer. And since I never do heat transfer…

  3. flapple says:

    It is clear that you like the imperial measurement system (I use that term because that is how I have traditionally referred to the system used in the US, and your post is in support of traditions).

    And you do come across as cranky. I don’t know what you see, but I see nothing “stupid” in the petition, and your arguments you gather for your position come across to me as nit-picking that doesn’t really address the core issue raised:

    1. The difference between imperial and customary are tiny and essentially irrelevant to the argument.
    2. No one said imperial measurements were imprecise.
    3. The fact that there are metric and imperial systems used in parallel is in fact one of the key problems in the US.
    4. Of course this is true, nearly all views on public policy expressed in the public space are not “how bills get written”, I presume that you are not suggesting that the only public expressions on issues of public interest should be made in the way “bills get written”.
    5. your point supports the petition - voluntary action is ineffective.

    And your comment on ubiquitous computing supports the petition as well. If people in everyday transactions need a calculator to do what people in metric countries just do in their head then you clearly have an inferior system.

    I think metrication in the US is an interesting example of American exceptionalism. The land of liberty and freedom only encouraged people to move to metric, including the ‘75 and ‘88 Acts, and ended up with the hodge-podge they have now.

    In contrast, here in Australia we used what I believe is a superior approach, the government passed a law in that made metric compulsory from 1966 onwards, banned the use of imperial and converted to metric. Nowadays imperial measurements are history, like local time and the horse and buggy. Quaint, but no way to run your country.

    The worst thing about the US approach is the running of two measurement systems side by side. Remember you lost a spacecraft to Mars because of this!

  4. Allen MacKenzie says:

    Oh, flapple. I came here to write something else, but then you totally derailed it with your tirade. What do you mean, “No one said imperial measurements were imprecise”? The petition refers, in the first paragraph, to “the imprecise Imperial Unit.”

    I actually do prefer Metric units. But I agree completely with Dr. Drang that if you want to make this argument, then you should actually make an argument, not a petition based on asserting things inaccurately and imprecisely. And, as Dr. Drang points out (there are other laws that support this, as well), the Metric system has legally been the standard in the U.S. for decades. (Now, it would be possible to pass additional laws that would actually move the needle on this problem—for instance, legislating that road signs all be converted to metric only. But that’s not what the petition calls for. And “banning” the use of customary units in the U.S., as you say was done in Australia, would be contrary to our entire system of laws.)

  5. Lukas says:

    The United States doesn’t use Imperial Units, it uses US Customary Units.

    When I see people refer to the US system by name, they almost always say “imperial units”, whether they’re American or not. Granted, the name is technically wrong, but that’s a bit like complaining that people use “literally” when they mean “really, really”.

    There’s nothing imprecise about US Customary Units.

    Well, I don’t know what the petitioners meant, but it does tend to result in imprecise outcomes if you’re not very familiar with it, because you’re more likely to just round stuff off to avoid doing complex conversions in your head.

    Because trade and manufacturing are global, metric units already are common in industry.

    This just sounds like an additional reason for making it prevalent everywhere, to avoid needless conversions.

    For the most part, these petitions are just masturbation.

    Hard to tell. Online petitions in general tend to be useless, but these in particular might actually get politician’s attention in some tiny way. As a general rule, I don’t think that pointing the spotlight on things is ever completely useless; if you do it enough, that’s how you change what people pay attention to.

    A law (…) was passed in 1988 declaring (…) the metric system the preferred system for weights and measures for US commerce, thus proving how effective these sorts of laws are.

    But you just said that that metric units were already are common in trade and manufacturing. So the laws are effective?

    the main attraction of the metric system, the decimalization of units, isn’t nearly as important as it was when the system was introduced. (…) Ubiquitous computing makes it easy to convert between the great menagerie of inches, feet, miles, acres, gallons, ounces, pounds, tons, ounces (the other ones), and so on.

    The fact that you need to get your cell phone out of your pocket and type in measurements in order to use the US system strikes me as an argument against it, not for it. As somebody who lives in Europe, the idea that I’d have to convert lengths or mass or weight using a computer strikes me as rather insane, and a huge waste of everybody’s time.

    I’ll also admit to a fondness for traditional units. They arose organically to meet specific needs. (…) There’s a certain rightness to using different units on different scales rather than just sliding a decimal point one way or the other.

    That’s an argument I often hear from Americans, and I don’t buy it. That US units feel better to Americans is probably mainly due to the fact that they’ve been using them all their lives. To me, metric units feel better than US units, because I’ve been using them for all of my life. And they do meet specific needs. Millimeters and centimeters are for paper, meters for human-sized things, kilometers for distances, for example.

    US units aren’t intrinsically more natural or more intuitive (unless your foot happens to measure exactly one foot), they’re just more familiar to you.

  6. Allen MacKenzie says:

    Ok, the things I was going to say:

    I’m surprised by the resilience of Imperial units in Ireland. Commerce and government are completely metric, but if you ask someone how far something is or how long something is, they will, more often than not, answer in miles or feet. Or if you ask them their weight, they will almost certainly answer in stones. (If you thought pounds and ounces weren’t sufficiently confusing, allow me to introduce you to the stone.) The completion of metric conversion in Ireland is quite recent, but I’m still surprised at how resilient the old units are.

    A strange thing about the metric conversion in Ireland is that distance on road signs (distance to next town, etc.) was converted to km many years before speed limit signs were converted to km/hr in 2005. I think that I would find that confusing, as I’m constantly doing mental speed/distance arithmetic while driving.

    Also, if you want to talk about U.S. laws, then I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

  7. Allen MacKenzie says:

    Oh, one more thing, and then I’ll shut up. The best argument for metrication is probably the simple fact that it is the international standard. According to the CIA Factbook, the only three countries in the world that haven’t converted to SI units are the US, Burma, and Liberia. Not exactly great company.

    Source (although I did actually check the CIA Factbook, this article is mildly entertaining): Metrication in the United States.

  8. Elliot Clowes says:

    I think it’s worth noting that although here in the UK we officially use the Metric system, it is not embraced. If you told someone a distance in kilometres they would look at you funny. All our road signs are in miles and our car dials display MPH. We also use the ancient and weird Stone unit for weighing people, but seem to use kilograms for everything else. Weirdly, again, we use feet and inches for people, but centimetres for everything else. It’s very inconsistent over here.

  9. Alex Reid says:

    The situation in the UK seems to be Imperial measures for personal measurements, and metric for most other things, with the exception of distances by road (we’d just spent a lot of money on a new road signage system when we metricated, and there was understandable reluctance to do it all over again. Modern road signs are actually placed round metres/kilometres apart, though, and the marker numbers the emergency services use to locate you are actually the number of kilometres down the road you are). We also serve beer in pints, but that’s far more of a cultural thing.

    As a man in my twenties, I give short distances in metres, longer ones by car in miles, or by bike in kilometres. I think most people my age would be hard pressed to tell you how many inches there are to the foot, how many feet to the yard, and how many yards to the mile. I’ve also noticed that one unit in particular, the degree Celsius, has almost completely supplanted Fahrenheit, even amongst older people who use more Imperial units.

    So be warned: a half-arsed metrication is in some ways more confusing than just sticking with your current system. Though, as usual, people cope much better with these things than some suggest. Britain seems to muddle through, anyway.

  10. Dr. Drang says:

    I’m just going to point out that because of what I do for a living, I am continually converting between customary and SI units. I understand, probably better than flapple and Lukas ever will, the value of shifting to SI. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the charm of customary units and understand why peculiar units are convenient for some purposes.

    If you don’t understand immediately why it might be a good idea to get the name of the US Customary Unit system right when you are petitioning the US government, I’m not sure what argument I can make to convince you.

    Lukas, you should actually read what I wrote before trying to use my words to refute me. The 1988 law isn’t the reason SI is used in industry, globalization is. In businesses that tend to be entirely in the US, like construction, customary units prevail despite the law. And when you work entirely within the customary system, conversion—between feet and inches, for example—are actually pretty rare and easy to deal with.

    Allen, the 1975 law was part of the push for metrication when I was a teenager. I didn’t mention it because Reagan took the teeth out of it when he defunded the government’s main metrication agency in the early 80s. The 1988 law was a sort of backtracking.

    I enjoyed reading the accounts of mixed system use in countries that officially “went metric” more than a generation ago; I’ve heard similar stories from Canadian friends. They prove the appeal of the old units. “500 ml” will never be as poetic as “a pint.”

  11. Cameron Higby-Naquin says:

    Very interesting discussion, so far! My view is that a system of measurement is a tool and as such you need to use the tool that works best for your situation. Some examples:

    1. I find feet to be much, much more convenient for describing the sizes of everyday objects than either centimeters or meters. The former are usually too small and the latter are usually too big. This is not about how the units feel, this is about using the right unit for the job. Conversationally, where scientific precision is not required, it’s easier to talk about a 4-foot table than a 1.2-meter table.

    2. Volumetric units in the US system (tablespoons, cups, pints) are separated mostly be factors of two and three. This is nice for doing math in your head when baking, where you will often be doubling or halving recipes. It’s not obvious to me that metric units make this easier: larger numbers (e.g. 88 mL doubled is 176 mL) are harder to keep track of. The more useful unit is the one with the scale that matches what you’re using it to measure.

    3. Even “the metric system” is not one monolithic entity. My background is in astronomy and a lot of the math there is much nicer if you use non-SI units like parsecs, AU, solar masses. Actually, for very far objects, the most common way to express distance is as a redshift. But even in more terrestrial fields like electromagnetism, there’s a pretty deep split between meters-kilograms-seconds (MKS) units and centimeters-grams-seconds (CGS) units. Check out all these different units.

    All this is just to say: units have to do a lot of jobs out there, and it might be too much to ask a single system to do all of them the best.

  12. Maria S says:

    As a Swede I have been fortunate to grow up with SI units with one exception: we usually use the Swedish mile when discussing driving distances although road signs are given in km. As it happens one Swedish mile is equal to 10 km so the conversion is simple. From the link you will see that the mile was 10.688 km before the adoption of the SI units in Sweden in 1889 after it was conveniently rounded of. The use of the Swedish mile, I suppose, is partly due to long distances between cities, at least compared to much of the rest of Europe, making it more useful than km.

    I have taught chemical engineering at universities and would not particularly have liked to deduct even more points on exams for the wrong conversions with Imperial units — it was common enough with SI units. I have a very fond memory of an exam which gave the temperature in degrees Rankine and the following discussions with some quite upset students. I’m very happy to had had no part in that exam!

    When I taught transport phenomena I used an American textbook (affectionately called WWW but had nothing to do with Internet addresses), which alternated between SI and Imperial units in solved examples. As a results, students only read half of the examples if we didn’t say that some examples were very important, i.e. might be on the exam, to study. If I’m not mistaken the book has a new edition with correct units…

    I think the reference in the petition to Imperial units being imprecise is regarding the definition of Btu. Depending on the definition used, the Btu can differ by 0.5 %. It will probably have no consequence for day-to-day use but in an engineering and economical context it could have.

    Anyway, units as well as definition is a big can of worms. Have a look into the dimensionless Froude number. From a pure fluid mechanical point of view, i.e. Navier-Stokes equations, it is equal to the velocity squared divided by the gravitational acceleration and a characteristic length. In ship hydrodynamics, the square root of that number is used instead. I once had to use a correlation from a peer-reviewed article to do some calculation that involved the Froude number — to this day I don’t know if I used the correct Froude number as the definition of the Froude number was not given in the article (sloppy reviewers and editors…).

  13. Lukas says:

    Lukas, you should actually read what I wrote before trying to use my words to refute me. The 1988 law isn’t the reason SI is used in industry, globalization is.

    I think it’s fair to note that this distinction is neither clearly emphasized in your essay, nor obviously, self-evidently true :-)

    I’m just going to point out that because of what I do for a living, I am continually converting between customary and SI units. I understand, probably better than flapple and Lukas ever will, the value of shifting to SI.

    No doubt, but even when you don’t have to deal with them professionally (which I sometimes do), to people outside of the US, your units are a constant source of consternation and confusion in books, movies, and on the Internet.

    Cameron said:

    I find feet to be much, much more convenient for describing the sizes of everyday objects than either centimeters or meters.

    I suspect that if there was really such an obvious need for a specific unit at that kind of size, people would use decimeters (1 feet = 3 dm).

  14. Dr. Drang says:

    This is what I wrote in the original post, Lukas:

    3. Because trade and manufacturing are global, metric units already are common in industry.

    I’m not sure how much clearer I can get.

  15. Alan says:

    I saw this petition the other day and thought it was stupid as well, but for a different, simple reason: the cost of every industry in the U.S. to converting to metric units would be enormous. Some sort of gov’t-mandated conversion would cause an uproar for U.S. manufacturers, and would be incredibly impractical.

    New industries/companies are more likely to use metric, old ones are not going to change.