Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Metric System

The United States isn't on the metric system. Or is it?

Whenever there is a slow news day in a foreign country, someone will do a news story running down the United States is being an anachronism for not using the metric system. It is interesting that we never switched over to the metric system in terms of measuring distances on maps and speed limits and things of that nature.

But are we really not on the metric system? Because industry and science, for the most part, are using the metric system. Go to any Automobile plant today and they're using metric nuts and bolts on the cars. In fact, American automakers started using metric parts back in the 1980s. For a while, there were some metric and some non metric parts on the same car, but today pretty much everything is in metric sizes, except perhaps wheel lugs.

There may be a few exceptions.  I recall reading an article in NASA Tech Briefs about a standardized bolt used on the International Space Station.  And as you might have guessed, it's a 1-inch Bolt. Confusion apparently still exists in NASA with regard to the metric system. Satellites have gone off course and failed to deploy because somebody forgot to convert kilograms to pounds or whatever.

There have been incidents in aviation, too. The famous Gimli glider is a classic example, where a Canadian airline pilot landed a jet plane on an unused runway in central New York, after running out of fuel.  That was caused, in part, by confusion of converting gallons and liters to kilograms and pounds, and as a result, they weren't aware how much fuel was left in the plane. The fact the fuel gauge was malfunctioning was also a problem.

In science and technology, the metric system makes sense. But what about for everyday colloquial measurements? In that regard, the metric system really is irrelevant. There is no inherent advantage to measuring the amount of flour you put in your cake in liters versus cups. There's no inherited advantage in setting speed limits in kilometres per hour over miles per hour.

And in some instances, with colloquial measurements, the metric system makes no sense at all. When measuring room temperature or atmospheric temperature for daily use, the metric system is really a poor choice. The Fahrenheit scale, which was developed in Italy, stretches from the freezing of water at 32 degrees to boiling at 212 degrees - providing nearly 200 degrees of gradation between those limits.

The Centigrade or Celsius scale, the other hand provides only 100 even degrees between those two points. In terms of measuring room temperature or how warm it's going to be outside, this scale provides a very poor level of  granularity.

This means that an order to use the metric system for measuring room temperature, you have to use fractional values, requiring an additional digit in reporting temperature. In the Fahrenheit scale, only two digits are required, but in the metric system you need three digits and a decimal point. This means making displays larger and also reporting in fractions - a half-a-degree at room temperature in Celsius makes a difference, in Fahrenheit, it is negligible.

The weird thing is, countries that use the metric system for colloquial measurements, still use English units when talking informally.  British car shows and magazines talk about 0-60 times (in miles per hour) and 1/4-mile times as well.   And you hear more about "miles per gallon" than you do liters per kilometre (or the inverse) in many foreign car venues.   In terms of everyday measurements, it is true people talk about a liter of milk or a kilo of cheese (that's a lot of cheese!) but I also see our foreign friends talk about how long things are in feet, or how many miles it is to walk to the next village.  The English system is more comfortable, perhaps, for more informal measurements.

I have a size-12 shoe - I can pretty accurately pace off any measurement in foot-increments, because my foot is a foot long.  And you know what they say about guys with big feet - they wear big shoes!  Just kidding.  But I can accurately pace off a yard, because it was based on the pace of a human being.  I can measure an inch fairly accurately with the tip of my forefinger.  So-called English measurements were developed from everyday experience, which makes them useful for everyday measurements.   This is not to say that anyone should go back to those measurements, only to point out how they came to be.

Will the US ever go full-bore metric?  Will we adopt metric units for colloquial measurements outside of science and industry, in instances where it really doesn't matter?   I mean, whether you buy your gasoline in gallons or your milk in quarts really isn't all that earth-shattering.  Whether the bolts made in Latvia will fit to a transmission made in Livonia, is.

Ironically, the technology that drives metrification may in fact delay it in the US.   Problems like that of the Gimli Glider or space probes run amok are less of a problem these days, as computers automatically convert units into any measurement system, just as they translate languages.  Every electronic gadget sold worldwide is programmable to display in metric or English, in 12-hour or 24-hour clock modes, Fahrenheit or Celsius, and so on and so forth.   It really isn't as much of an issue anymore.  When I travel to Canada, a simple press of a button or two converts my speedometer and navigation systems to display kilometres instead of miles, in terms of distance and speed.

So, technology, oddly enough, may be the ultimate barrier to implementing metrification in the United States.  At this point, the dual-system is so ingrained, why bother?   We've done work-arounds, in terms of technology.  But it brings up the question, Why did the United States resist metrification in the first place?

Part of the problem, of course, were right-wing reactionaries, who saw this as some sort of internationalism - a plot to take over America.   You still see this today. In researching this article, I came across and old Corvette forum, where one fellow opined that the metric system was a foreign plot to "take away jobs!" from deserving Americans.  We get all types here, including John Birch Society types who think flouride in the water was part of a Communist plot.  So there was a lot of that - people feeling that our way was the best way, and why change?    Change is scary, to many people - hence Brexit.  So ironically, we stuck with the "English" system (clearly not ours!) which is not the same as the Imperial system (when I was a kid, we would go to Canada and buy gas in Imperial gallons!) or the "Whitworth" tool measurement system used on old British cars (and to say we are idiosyncratic!).

The reason it never worked out in the States was how we tried to do it - with dual signs in both Miles and Kilometers - one foot in each realm - which some thought would get people "used to" the metric system, but just created confusion and doubled the cost of signage.  If you are going to go Metric, you have to go all at once, not in baby steps.  It would be like if the UK were to decide to drive on the correct side of the road - they could not do it on some roads, and then adopt it road-by-road.  You'd have to do it all at once, expect major disruption at first, and then stay the course, despite the inevitable accidents and chaos.

Of course, many of my British friends give me shit about the US being on the English system, while at the same time, they drive on the wrong side of the road - not even in step with their European counterparts.   And please, no crapola about the left side driving based on olde Knights who wanted their sword arm free or whatever - that just smacks of urban legend.  The reality is, the Brits came late to the auto party, and even tried to suppress automobiles in the early days of the technology.   I suppose right-hand-drive cars were a way of protectionism, as they tried to catch up with France of all places.

But again, like metric/English conversion, technology makes this change kind of irrelevant.  Car designers have built-in ambidextrous design into most cars these days, so they can sell to all markets. If you want to deliver mail for the Post Office as a contractor, your local Subaru or Jeep dealer will be glad to sell you a right-hand-drive model here in the States.

Confusion exists, still, though, and I related before how my Dad, a typical American wanker, totaled a brand-new rental car at the first roundabout outside of Heathrow, by turning right into the traffic circle. 

Speaking of which, it is a crime that Trump is protecting this cunt of a diplomat's wife who murdered a young motorcyclist in England - claiming diplomatic immunity for a car accident. If I was President, I would send her back to the UK to face her 30-days in British luxury jail.  But I digress.

So, will the US ever move toward the metric system?  At this point, it is kind of moot.  The odds are about the same as the UK switching to left-hand-drive cars.   Why bother?   Just a lot of expense for not a lot of savings.   The metric system has already taken over pretty much everywhere in industry, science, technology, and medicine.   Doctors are prescribing in milligrams and cc's, not in pounds and fluid ounces.

In other words, the US is already on the metric system where it counts.   For things that don't count, like cake recipes, and how far it is to the nearest town, or the dimensions of a wall stud (which we might call a 2x4, but of course, it isn't 2" by 4" exactly.  Speaking of which, guess what they call a 2x4 in Europe?  Yup, they still call it a 2x4!).  Colloquial measurements just aren't that important, which is why our European friends still talk about miles-per-gallon, 0-60 times and 1/4 mile times (in countries that do not have quarter-mile drag strips, if they have drag racing at all!).

I suppose, over time, the weight of history will force more metrification in the USA.   People already talk about liter-bottles of soda, or liter sports water bottles.   It is slipping into the lexicon, and people are slowly - slowly - getting more comfortable with metric measurements.   I suspect temperature, however, will be the last to go.   I just don't have a feel as to how comfortable 21.8 degrees Celsius is, versus 22.7   Sometimes, I think our foreign friends don't really know, either.

What works great for science, doesn't always work well in daily life.