© 2012 Lance. All rights reserved.

Arbitrary Retarded Rollercoaster

I saw this image on Google+ today. You can click the little version to make it bigger.The point, of course, is that the system on the right is better because it makes more sense. The metric system’s features include Logical Smooth Sailing, and you want that, right? Sure you do.

Stop Making Sense

Nearly all arguments for the metric system come down to this: “it makes sense.” One variation on this theme is that the metric system is easier to learn, a fact which is supposed to be self-evident. I’m pretty skeptical about that. I don’t remember staying up nights as a kindergartner fretting about how many inches were in a foot. In fact, all available evidence is that it’s pretty easy to learn the parts of the English system that are relevant to the learner.1

Calculations in the metric system are supposed to be easier, but that argument doesn’t make much sense. In a world without the metric system, would elementary school curricula skip over division by twelve? Of course not. And if you’re going to learn it anyway, why not put it to use converting feet to inches?

I guess there is one pro-metric argument that comes from another perspective: the U.S. is standing in the way of universal adoption of a standard system of weights and measures. The U.S. and only two other countries—Liberia and Myanmar—have yet to adopt the metric system. If the whole world were on one system, you wouldn’t have to carry two rulers everywhere, and Ford Motors could save a bunch of money on white speedometer paint. But if we are going to accept that it is good to implement an international standard if doing so will help to ease unnecessarily difficult communication, then shouldn’t everyone learn English? I know that English doesn’t have the same global adoption rate that the metric system does. But go into the boardrooms and C-suites of the 500 (or 1,000 or 10,000) largest companies in the world and I’ll bet you’ll find the adoption rate near 100%. Why not just stop teaching kids all of those other languages?2

So here’s an argument against the metric system: it is a kind of madness. It is a kind of benign madness, and there’s no reason to try to convert or cure those suffering from it. But it is madness nonetheless. It will be easiest to illustrate this with an example.

My daughter, are you familiar with a paper size called “A4?” It’s the thing that your printer asks for when you get a document from European counsel. It has always seemed normal to me that the U.S. and, say, France would use different standard paper sizes. Why not? We speak different languages, use differently-spaced train tracks, etc. The name “A4” seemed a bit strange, the fact of its existence did not. But then I learned what “A4” means, and I was horrified. Steel yourself:

The Madness in Tray 2

PC LOAD LETTERSuppose that you start with a single sheet of paper with an area equal to one square meter, and that the length of the long side of that sheet is equal to the length of the short side multiplied by the square root of two. That piece of paper is called A0. If you cut A0 in half the short way, the lengths of the sides of the resulting sheets are proportional to the lengths of the sides of A0. That is, the little half sheets, like their daddy, have sides in the ratio 1:√2. Both of these smaller sheets are named A1. Cut the A1 twins in half the short way, and you’ve got four sheets of A2, still with sides in the ratio 1:√2. Cut again to obtain A3 and again to get A4. Now you have something on which to print that European letter. You can go further: A5, A6, etc. Every sheet will look like a smaller version of the original. This system is enshrined in an international standard called ISO 216.

OK, cool. So why do it that way? If you printed a poster, and then wanted to print the same poster in a smaller, handheld size, but you didn’t want to have to change the design (other than scaling it down), then I suppose ISO 216 would look pretty good to you. I have my doubts about whether there is any other scenario in which ISO 216 does anyone any good.3

In fact, what we see in ISO 216 is math gone mad. ISO 216 delights the part of me that was delighted by calculus. But it is an absolutely ludicrous basis for a standard. Did none of Europe’s countries have customary printing sizes that could have served as a model for the European standard? I’m thinking of a paper size, for example, that might have been honed by generations of common practice to be useful to the tradesman and pleasing to the consumer’s eye. Was there nothing like that in existence when somebody declared “we’re doing it the ISO 216 way from now on; it tickles the mathematicians?”

Of course there were traditional sizes. But they went with ISO 216 anyway. Somebody gave preference to conceptual tidiness above all other things. For some reason, the fact that A0 can be efficiently cut into two sheets with the same dimensions was enough to justify throwing out all of the old standards. If ever a system was arbitrary….

I Blame Robespierre

I was not surprised to learn that the idea embodied in ISO 216 has its roots in the French Revolution. That would be the same French Revolution that was conducted by people who developed and actually implemented—for twelve whole years!—a new calendar.

  • The French Republican Calendar had twelve months of exactly 30 days each (with a few extra holidays filling the gap at the end of the year). Because that makes more sense than having a mishmash of 28-, 30-, and 31-day months and solved the problem of nobody being able to remember how many days were in September.
  • The weeks all had ten days, which saved the country the horror of months and years that do not begin on Mondays.
  • Every single day of the year had its own name—either a plant, a mineral, a tool (for days ending in zero), or an animal (for days ending in five). This saved everyone a lot of trouble when waking up from comas. Instead of the poor Englishman, who had to ask “but of what month!” when he was told that it was the seventh, the Frenchman could be told that today is “Oat Grass,” and then he would instantly know that it was the first septidi in Prairial. Easy peasy!

I’ll admit that I was not present for the French revolution, but I suspect that there was no real need for a new calendar, other than that the old was associated with the ancien regime. But they did it anyway because the French Revolution took the same people who enjoy jawing about how they would design a calendar from scratch and gave them the authority to implement the results of their flights of fancy. These are the same people who figured that lopping off peoples’ heads was OK when they did it because their head-lopper was developed by a doctor; they are the same people who invented ISO 216 sizing; and they are the same people who invented the metric system.

Some of My Best Friends are Metric Systems

I don’t mean to associate today’s users (or even proponents) of the metric system or ISO 216 with the revolutionaries of 1789. Those systems caught on better than the calendar did, and, since the metric system and ISO 216 are here, people might as well use them. But the metric system, like the French Republican Calendar, is the offspring of a failed and bloody social experiment. Given the metric system’s pedigree, it is not unreasonable to demand better reasons for adoption than “it looks neater on paper.”

And even if it is fair to call the English system an “Arbitrary Retarded Rollercoaster,” well, isn’t that a fair description of the way that we experience life? And does anyone really think that using a niftier system of measurement is going to change that? I happen to like this retarded rollercoaster, and I like the quirky ways that we use to measure it in the United States. I don’t believe that American kids suffer from having to learn the number of inches in a yard (or even that a yard is about a meter). The buildings that we build from English system blueprints seem to do OK, and cakes baked with cup measures and teaspoons taste pretty good. If you want to convince me that America should adopt a new scheme, you’re going to need a better reason than that the new scheme makes nerds squee.

Otherwise, I’ll go on believing that Americans are lucky to live a few feet above the high water mark of the metric system.


1 I can’t believe that we still call it “the English system” even after the Brits sold out. Way to go, fellas. You fought back Napoleon and Hitler only to capitulate before l’Organisation internationale de normalisation. [See the first comment below—it appears that the British proletariat are still with us.]

2 I’m not advocating that everyone learn English or for the eradication of other languages. Vive la différence, I always say. My point is just that “everyone else is doing it” is not, by itself, much of an argument.

3 And anyway, why should a flyer look exactly like a related poster, except smaller? They have different purposes. Probably, you’d want to lay the flyer out differently whether or not the paper sizes are proportional. Similarly, our cell phones would not be improved by making them into smaller versions of the phones on our desks. And it wouldn’t make much sense for cargo trucks to look just like Ford F150s, only much larger.

9 Comments

  1. The UK may well have to officially use the metric system for weights and measures, at least when it comes to selling goods, but ask any Brit about their personal measurements and they’ll give you their height in feet and inches, their weight in stones, and their baby’s birth weight in pounds and ounces. And no one uses kilometres for distance.

    But Fahrenheit is fucked up.

  2. All rectangles, be them pages in your printer, your monitor, your smart phone screen, or your windows, should be The Golden Ratio, dammit! I shall impose this upon my peoples shortly upon gaining power.

    Speaking of ϕ, it’s quite handy that the conversion rate between kilometers and miles is so close to ϕ, because you only have to remember the “.6” part, and just add 1 before multiplying if you’re converting from the smaller unit to the bigger.

    The five work, two rest, work week seems to work well on a psychological level (although we should experiment), which gives us 52 weeks in a year. The real idiocy of our current system was to not notice that 52 factors very nicely…into THIRTEEN months, not twelve.

    I do prefer yards over meters, because it makes me feel like my five-iron goes a lot further in the US than in Spain.

    Very rarely – about once every two years – the fact that the metric units for volume and mass are bound through the density of water does come in handy (e.g. we don’t have a measuring cup with which to measure out 200 cL of water, but we do have a scale), but it’s really quite rare.

    And I agree with Simon about Fahrenheit. What the °F?

  3. Lance

    I propose a “The Thing” scale, where 100 degrees is the temperature of the output of an M2A1-7 flamethrower and zero is the temperature at which Kurt Russell freezes.

  4. Also, you skipped over the date writing issue. The Europeans descrambled it properly, but I personally prefer how (I think) the US military does it, “year-month-day”, with the most significant digits to the left like all western numbers!!! Computer alphanumeric sorting then works properly as well.

    • Lance

      Agree. I started using a new notetaking program at work. It has an option to automatically add the date to the filename, but no option to format it differently than “Dec. 11, 2012.” That’s lame.

  5. bawa

    As someone born and brought up in the metric system, still does not say why the imperial (and one of many) is better. This article reminds me of the time when we had cousins from the UK over for a year. Their maths seemed to consist mostly of learning how to convert or add up/ subtract/multiply all those pounds, shillings, pence, ounces, yards, miles, feet, etc. Not scientific but the learning curve appeared to be considerably higher to acquire basic abilities.

    However, the biggest practical objection I have is when US recipes want me to try and get butter into a cup or a tablespoon!

    • Lance

      bawa, thanks for commenting. I’m not necessarily saying the English system is better. Only that I see no particular reason for the U.S. to convert to the metric system.

      Where were you born and brought up in the metric system?

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