Education

Friday A/V Club: Vintage Metric Propaganda to Warm Lincoln Chafee's Heart

Plus an anti-metrification argument from the Whole Earth Catalog's Stewart Brand

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When Lincoln Chafee entered the White House race earlier this week, he declared that America should "be bold—let's join the rest of the world and go metric." Whether you love that idea or hate it, it was a jarring moment. Who expected a presidential candidate in 2015 to start talking about that?

It was not always thus. Here is The Metric Film, a vintage piece of metric propaganda from 1975:

If you were in a public school between 1975 and 1982—the years the feds were trying to push the country onto the metric system—you saw a lot of movies like this. (Most of the ones I remember involved a character called Metric Man, whose adventures can be revisited here.) You may find it fun to contrast the beginning of The Metric Film, which mocks the origins of the English customary measurements, with the section starting at 5:48, which gives us the absurd history of the meter.

When an anti-metric perpective appeared in these movies, it was generally represented by a caricature of a backwards-looking lout. (In The Metric Film, he shows up at 8:42.) If you're interested in hearing from an actual metric skeptic, here's what one of the most militant and articulate anti-metrification crusaders—Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brandhad to say in New Science magazine in 1980:

Crisis on Infinite Measurement Systems
Orsatti Productions

There is no doubt that metric—SI to aficionados—has its uses for science. It handles grand abstractions niftily, it micro-measures with subtlety, and it is planetary in usage. (Curious that international science research is reported in English and measured in French.) And it is somewhat adaptive to scientific advances, always ready to declare a new unit gratefully named after somebody or other.

But why, Oh new scientists, was science never applied to the business of conversion itself, or to the possible merits of customary measure? When the American General Accounting Office belatedly got around to estimating what it would cost for the United States to convert to metric, it concluded that it could not conclude, but for sure costs would be in the billions of dollars. Sound high? Our Defense Department has been trying to push metric ("100 per cent by 1990") as well as the misbegotten MX Missile System. When congress baulked at the cost of the MX, the Defense Department took metric out of the project and saved $25 million. The most recent announcement from the Pentagon says that it will henceforth follow rather than try to lead in matters metric.

The genius of customary measure, it turns out, is its highly evolved sophistication in terms of use by hand and eye. Convenient sizes, whole fractions, bodily-based—admirable. Metric works fine on paper (and in school) where it is basically counting, but when you try to cook, carpenter, or shop with it, metric fights your hand. In Japan, which has been trying to go metric for 40 years, architects design in metric and the contractors blithely build (even skyscrapers) by the traditional shaku-sun measure. (A shaku, interestingly, is almost identical to our foot.)…

Sometimes the ignorance of education metricators can take your breath away. A major plank in their platform said that metric would save 25 per cent of teaching time in arithmetic because "fractions will no longer be necessary." Presumably they hoped to abolish the idea of ratio.

I'm tempted to quote the entire article, but I'll stick to suggesting you read the rest here. Chafee is good on some of the issues—when it comes to amnesty for Edward Snowden, his forthright yes is more libertarian than Rand Paul's position—but on this topic, I'm with Brand. Where it makes sense to switch to metric, Americans have converted voluntarily. Where we haven't, we aren't just being stick-in-the-muds; the metis of the conventional system actually makes sense.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. “be bold?let’s join the rest of the world and go metric.”

    So his definition of bold is “do what everyone else does”?

    NEW DONKEY FRONT-RUNNER!!!!

    1. Why change? Most Americans have an innate understanding of how far 10 miles is. If the distance is 10 kilometers, I have to covert it to miles in my head to get the right perspective. Same with pounds and kilograms.

      1. Meh…getting a feel for new units would have been a fairly quick process.

        I have two hot rods (911/Miata) that require metric tools. I’m fairly proficient at determining whether I need a 12mm or a 14mm socket. I think Snap-On and Craftsman were really behind stalling out the move to the metric system. Sell twice as many tools.

  2. The Metric System is the greatest Communist plot to get a foothold into the United States since Social Security.

    1. And fluoridated water!

      1. Goddamnit! If you’re not first, you’re last!

  3. Most of the anti-metric backlash was born of the notion that if the US accepted the metric system, they would have to also reject football and baseball for soccer, or possibly hockey. It was just a bridge too far for too many Americans.

    1. Official rink dimensions for the NHL are given in feet see page iv, and soccer uses yards.

      1. Soccer goal is 8 ft by 8 yards.

        Ive always thought it would improve the game if they did switch to metric. Make it 2.67m tall and 8m wide.

        Would increase the goal size juuuuust enough.

  4. “The Metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it.”

    1. “Gone is the hogshead, cask and demijohn! Gone is the sugar barrel, pickle barrel, milkpan! Gone is tub, and the pail, and the tierce!”

      1. +76 Trombones

  5. I might have had a modicum of respect for Chafe if he’d said something like “Let’s be bold. Let’s go duodecimal!”

    The only reason metric “makes more sense” than English measures is that we use a base ten counting system. But, the weakness of the base ten counting system to accommodating threes and fours – fairly commonly occurring numbers – really does make it not the best choice.

    Now, you might counter that the switching costs of going duodecimal are prohibitive. But, then you’re only making the same argument the rest of us make with regard to the metric system.

    1. Switch to Hexadecimal to make computing easier. No converting to decimal!

      1. binary or gtfo?

    2. Adopting the metric system would improve everyday life for precisely no one, and would in many cases create confusion and dischord where none existed before.

      The only reason to even consider the switch is to satisfy the fetish of a particular class of self-proclaimed intellectuals who ascribe to a curious definition of the word “civilized” that is wholly synonymous with “European”.

      1. Adopting the metric system would improve everyday life for precisely no one, and would in many cases create confusion and dischord where none existed before.

        One of the simple lessons I gained from a long and checkered career was, when someone is pushing a new system on you, ask the simple question, “What will this system give me that I don’t have now but desperately need?”

        If the answer is not immediately obvious, then don’t adopt.

        1. “Why, a renewed standing in the world, of course!”

      2. a curious definition of the word “civilized” that is wholly synonymous with “European” white

        FTFY

  6. As I see it, Metric or Imperial is one of those “causes”, like spelling reform, that a small but very vocal minority care about, and the rest of us just wish they would shut up.

    See, metric is all about being divisible by 10. It’s ddcmil points and computer programs and science and engineering. And the people who are involved in those areas don’t understand why everybody doesn’t just do it their way.

    Imperial is about the day to day. About measuring by eye and hand. So Imperial measurements tend to be about handy comparisons (teaspoon) and being easily divisible by three and four.. People who handle cloth, or cook, and so forth use Imperial and just don’t understand why everybody doesn’t do it their way.

    And the rest of us? We wish they would sit down and shut their pie holes.

    1. Tru Story: my thumb joint is exactly 1in across. talk about HANDY.

      1. Which is the actual origin of the “rule of thumb”.

        1. No one knows the real origin of the term ‘rule of thumb’.

          One apocryphal story is that an English judge once ruled that the maximum permissible diameter of the stick that one should use to ‘chastise’ one’s wife was the width of one’s thumb, but that has never been fully documented.

          Needless to say, I get great amusement when I hear the phrase used by someone who professes to political correctness.

      2. From my elbow to my longest finger is exactly one cubit. What we call “electrician arms” in the theater biz.

        1. From my elbow to my longest finger is exactly one cubit.

          Isn’t that the definition of a cubit? Should I have just heard a loud whoosh as the joke soared by?

          1. “What’s a cubit?” -Noah

            1. Thank you, Mainer. I was afraid someone was going to let that one slip by!

          2. I probably should’ve just said 18 inches; a very common measurement for the spacing of theatrical lighting units. Stage hands usually use this body part to measure the distance rather than pull out a tape measure. Not everyone’s are exactly 18 inches. Mine are. I was just replying to your thumb joint being handy comment. Though I imagine I’m probably missing a joke in there somewhere.

      3. My wingspan is a fathom, which was handy for measuring line in the Navy.

    2. Imperial is about the day to day.

      There is nothing intrinsic in Imperial that makes it about day to day except usage. In the end though it doesn’t matter to me, I have to use both so I do.

      1. When I make wine, I have to think in US (wet) gallons for the fermenters, liters (more specifically in 750 mL) for the bottles, and sometimes Imperial gallons for the must.

        I basically end up converting everything to bottles (750 mL) and work from there.

  7. I suspect we’ll switch when we’re no longer the world’s dominant economy. I.e. we never did because we didn’t have to.

    1. Growing up in the US I was shamed into believing that only the US sticks to Imperial. Now I live in the UK. It was all propaganda. Imperial is still more common than metric in the UK. Road signs are in miles per hour and I order my fish by the pound. Only the temperature is different – that seems to be centigrade everywhere.

      1. Don’t forget people giving their weight in stone.

      2. When I lived in the UK the locals used Celsius for cooler temperatures (say, 85F).

      3. I could adapt to meters and grams but you’ll have to pry the Fahrenheit degrees out of my cold dead hands.

      4. And they are fighting the attempts to metrify the pint too.

        Orwell’s rant in 1984 about 1/2 liter and liter is awesome. But doesnt make any sense if you dont realize an imperial pint is 20 ounces. Although an imperial ounce is slightly smaller than a US ounce, so an imperial pint is a bit over 19 US ounces.

      5. I think it would be funny if the US converted all fastener sizes to Whitworth overnight without telling anybody.

      6. Being from the Great White Pacific Northwest, I have been using the SI units for nearly 40 years now and have pretty well adapted to them.

        So much so that, when I was driving in Washington a couple of years back, I found myself having to mentally convert the highway signs to kilometers and KPH.

        I also order in grams at the deli.

        The only thing I really do not get the feel of is celsius temperature.


      7. Only the temperature is different – that seems to be centigrade everywhere.

        It’s because water freezes at 0! And why would you want to measure temperature below that!

      8. Brits will use kilograms, kilometers and MPH in the same sentence when talking about cars.

    2. I think you’re correct, I’ve never really understood why Canada switched though. It makes way more sense for them to have stuck with Imperial units.

      1. Canada looks to Europe instead of the US. They’re our girlfriend who depends on us for their money but hooks up with some grimy foreign guy across town.

        1. So is Canada a slut or a ho?

          1. A frumpy chick that wants everyone to like her so she does stuff….

  8. Unless metric time is part of the deal, fuck it.

    1. I’ve made jokes about not being truly metric without metric time when Europeans hold forth about how backwards America is for not embracing the metric system, and the reaction is invariably quite pissy.

      Incidentally, I think in metric for most things and would generally prefer it, but I think that the example of metric time and its lack of adoption well shows that it’s not the be-all end-all superior solution.

      1. “Remember this moment, people, eighty past two on April 47th, it’s the dawn of an enlightened Springfield.”

        1. I’ve made jokes about not being truly metric without metric time when Europeans hold forth about how backwards America is for not embracing the metric system

          Strictly speaking, we are on metric time. Metric just copies the customary system there, throwing the decimal stuff out the window and declaring the basic unit of time to be the second.

          Also, for some reason the system’s basic unit of weight has been officially declared the kilogram, not the gram.

          1. See my mks vs cgs comment.

            There are two primary systems, currently it is meter-kilogram-second. Previously is was centimeter-gram-second.

            The gram is too small to pair with the meter.

          2. True metric seconds is more common in sci-fi. The nonplanetary don’t need hours and days.

            1. True metric time, I mean.

            2. Unless humans actually colonize another planet with a rotation speed near that of Earth, I suspect we will always use UT in space. I don’t know how people would adapt to a planet with a rotation of 16 hours or 30 hours. (There was some research done about 20 years ago that found that humans cut off from any cue as to day/night cycle drifted to a longer diurnal rhythm.)

              O’Neill colonies, if they are ever built, will use UT.

              1. 60 million years of evolution… we’re designed around the 24 hour day.

          3. The kg is the same order of magnitude measurement as the pound, hence it is large enough for most measures people have to deal with on a daily basis without the numbers becoming unwieldy and small enough without havie to go into fractions or decimal. There is also how apparently it was decided dekagrams and hectograms are not useful for everyday use,

  9. I don’t foresee Chaffee doing well in Colorado since he wants to rename their capital The 1.6 Kilometer High City.

  10. If you need metric, you learn it, for work or your personal life.

    I estimate bolt heads in metric before reaching for a societ when working on my car. If I were I scientist I’d use it since it suits that well. If my country exported globally I’d use it. What does it gain us to switch everything over by force of law?

    1. Because you can force people?

      1. You don’t think that control is underlying this proposal, do you? Pfft. Balderdash. It’s just for our own good. We’ll be thankful later.

    2. You know what is bad though?

      Most of science is mks but nuke engineering was primarily cgs.

      So the metric folks cant even get everyone on the same metric system.

  11. We use a metric system for money, what the hell else do they want?

    1. When I was a kid all the Brit lit I read was in farthings and such. I was crestfallen when I found out they had long since ditched all that for boring decimal pennies.

      1. My mother swore the British system made more sense. Then she spent 45 minutes trying to explaining it to the rest of the family until we all got bored and went back to Gilligan’s Island.

    2. Quarters? /huhsmartguy?

      1. .25 is fine in metric.

        1. I’m not actually sure what my objection was based on.

  12. I like the metric system, but I also like to divide things by 6 sometimes. My problem is with the efforts to force us to use one system or another. I love old timey measurements like cubits, ells, chains, and furlongs. It’s cool.

    1. That is why time works so well, 60 can be divided by 2,3,4,5,6 plus 10,12,15,20, and 30.

    2. I love old timey measurements like cubits, ells, chains, and furlongs. It’s cool.

      This. Fathoms, knots!

  13. As an armchair history buff, I actually like the odd and various colloquial measuring systems. They all make a certain sense in their own way, and add interesting color to the conversation.

    1. If you look up the ‘pound’ equivalents used around the world before the metric system, they varied from around 350 grams (Troy pound = 373g) to 600 grams (Hapsburg pound = 560g)..

      One of the benefits of using the metric system is that everyone knows the quantity you are speaking about.

      Using it consistently helps prevent your spacecraft from crashing on Mars.

      1. Using it consistently helps prevent your spacecraft from crashing on Mars.

        Or running out of fuel midflght?

  14. “The genius of customary measure, it turns out, is its highly evolved sophistication in terms of use by hand and eye. Convenient sizes, whole fractions, bodily-based?admirable. Metric works fine on paper (and in school) where it is basically counting, but when you try to cook, carpenter, or shop with it, metric fights your hand.”

    So the metric morons are, almost literally, Burke’s “political geometricians,” shaping the world to fit their clever ideas and paper diagrams without regard for the real-world impact.

    1. Except for the fact that “customary measure” you refer to was really an arbitrary measure imposed by a local monarch.

      Every single country in Europe had a different system of measurement.

      The ‘English Mile’ is actually the ‘London Mile’, which was imposed by fiat. Before that time, there was a different ‘mile’ in virtually every county in England and Scotland. The inch and foot were also different in different locations.

      The same chaos applied with weights and liquid measures.

      Add to that the fact that American measures of volume were not the Imperial measurements.

      The only ‘genius’ of customary measure is that people are used to it. But you can’t use anything but a system of standardized measures for anything above the level of a village economy.

      1. Add to that the fact that American measures of volume were not the Imperial measurements.

        The American gallon derives from the old English wine gallon, the Imperial gallon derives from the old English ale gallon, and the dry gallon derives from the old English corn gallon…

        Which is heavier, a pound of gold or a pound of feathers?

  15. Look, Americans measure in inches, Europeans measure in centimeters.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeO3Kgp4JTg

    (guess what – it’s NSFW)

  16. David Burge ?@iowahawkblog Jun 3

    “426 cubic inches”: Hemi.
    “7.0 litres”: homo.
    #DeathToMetric

  17. Where is Miss Metric???

  18. “Uggh, don’t tell me that you, too, are converting to decimal!”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjFaKD9BuOc

  19. MY arbitrary unit of measurement can beat up YOUR arbitrary unit of measurement!

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