Brand-ing In 30 Seconds?

By The Metric Maven

Metric Day Edition

One evening I found myself at a table discussing the metric system. I explained all the advantages for the average person, and I could see the wheels turning as the participants realized how useful a change to metric would be. A person to my left, trying to be helpful, said: “you know, Steward Brand would be a good person to contact, he could be a great help.”

He could see the pained look on my face as I replied: “Stewart Brand is vociferously anti-metric.” The person was incredulous and asked why. All I could say to him was “I have no idea, but it’s not based on an informed rational viewpoint.”

Stewart Brand studied Biology at Stanford, but, as I’ve pointed out previously, was untouched by an understanding of the metric system. Universities are notorious for their lack of metric instruction. The acquisition of scientific knowledge does not in and of itself produce a scientific person. Brand was famously involved with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and participated in early sanctioned LSD research. It is hard to say if this had any effect on his metric views, as LSD apparently affects people in a spectrum of ways. This is discussed in the excellent book Storming Heaven LSD and The American Dream.

Brand is best known historically for The Whole Earth Catalog, which was subtitled “access to tools.” It pushed DIY (“do it yourself”), self-sufficiency, ecology, and “alternative education.”

Brand appears to be one of a number of 1960s era gurus like Timothy Leary (1920-1996),  and Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983),  who had a new vision of the world to offer. Interestingly when it comes to the metric system, Brand does not bother to educate himself; he retreats to a reactionary position. Pat Naughtin points out that metric construction, using millimeters, saves about 10-15% of construction costs, when compared with imperial. This would definitely save a lot of trees and resources. The simplicity of using grams and milliliters were never incorporated into his expanded consciousness it would appear. How many resources could have been conserved if we had but implemented an efficient version of the metric system in the US in the 1960s? Considering we have historically been the most wasteful country on Earth, it would have been substantial. This apparently willful ignorance of metric, does not reflect well on Brand as a person who seeks out new ideas.

Brand, and others at the time, seemed to have a utopian vision for America, and set out to live communally and embrace a new world order. It was popular at the time to create Buckminster Fuller style geodesic houses. I was a young boy when a person from my small town began to construct one just North of town. I was fascinated by it, and especially interested the crows nest type of construction at the top, for use as a telescope platform. Years later I would have a more critical assessment. I realized that in general, most furniture is constructed with straight lines, and clearly would not fit into a circular space efficiently. Brand was big on tools in his catalog, but apparently had a dogmatic view of acceptable measurement units.

The Fuller style home of my youth was very competently constructed and designed, but clearly those constructed by commune members, could have used the advice of persons more technically versed in design and measurement than themselves:

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By the mid to late 1970s this movement had all but vanished, and Brand became involved in computer utopianism. In the future, we would be “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.” This  change in intellectual focus did not mean he would re-examine his views about the metric system. In October of 1980 (1980-10-30) Brand would pen a short missive disparaging the metric system,  publishing it in the pages of New Scientist. It was titled: “Stopping metric madness!” Brand traded on his position as “special advisor” from 1977-1979 to Governor Jerry Brown of California to say:

“As a member of the California Metric Conversion Council I get to watch the very forefront (foreback? backfront?) of the process.”

He points to the voluntary nature of metric in the US as the reason why metric implementation died and then chortles:

Tricky word, “voluntary.” It was stuck in the bill at the last minute by legislators who realized it would not otherwise pass, and it has unhinged all the efforts of metricators since, because it forced metric to grow on its merits rather than by decree.

This makes sense to a computer utopian who believes that a world without politics can spring forth from the computer networking of the planet, and that pure and divine technological darwinism will bring about a utopian society, based on merit—sans the metric system of course. Considering how well the commune movement of the late 1960s into the 1970s went, it should give any reader pause as to Brand’s prognostication ability as a professional “futurist.”

Brand then uses the “metric apartheid” argument to place the metric system into a scientific getto where he believes it belongs:

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 scientific 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.

First Brand impresses the credulous with his knowledge that the proper term for the modern metric system is SI, implying his intellectual bone fides. Then Mr. Brand takes the side of the Practical Man, who is against Longhairs that use the metric system for
their abstract, esoteric and impractical work. Real persons of the land use inches (any version they want I guess). For a person who is a Guru that promotes the idea of an entirely new society (communes in the 1960-70s, and computer utopianism in the 1980s) he sure is traditional about measurement. He also has no idea that the system part of the metric system originated with Englishman John Wilkins (1614-1672) and so
his sentence which tries to make the metric system foreign to the English world should say: (Curious that scientific research is reported in English and measured in English.) Apparently, one can be on a metric board in California, and have no actual knowledge about the metric system, as long as you have a societal and political brand. I find myself in complete agreement with Brand that units in the metric system should never have been named after individuals; but that is but a red herring when it comes to the utility of the metric system.

Stewart Brand then goes on to indict science for its shallowness of thought:

But Why, Oh new scientists, was science never applied to the business of conversion itself, or to the possible merits of customary measure?

I guess I could ask why science has not looked into the merits of Roman numerals?—or the business of conversion from Hindu numerals to Roman ones?–or perhaps the merits of not learning to count at all?

Brand goes on:

Our Defense Department has been trying to push metric (“100 percent by 1990”) as well as the misbegotten MX Missle 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.

One must question Brand’s credulity when he uses a military budget estimate to argue that a number as specific as $25 million was “saved” on a military contract that is almost always cost-plus, or treated as such. In my personal experience I’ve seen nothing but hostility toward the metric system by the DoD, and its contractors.

Then Brand states:

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 skaku, interestingly, is almost identical to our foot.)

Either Brand is spectacularly ignorant of the metric system, or he simply is acting as willful propagandist against what is obviously a better system of measure. He reveals this when he argues that metric as taught in schools is “basically counting” and only works on paper. Again, he is arguing against Longhairs and their abstract view of the world for “The Practical Man” who does not need no book learnin’. If Brand ever used metric in cooking, he would realize that all his measures would be “counting” or simple whole numbers. The man with a degree in Biology, should certainly realize that grams produce whole number measures for “practical cooking,” as do milliliters (mL), and millimeters. Yes, the world of metric allows one to use all integers in the everyday world, which reduces errors, and in turn is more efficient, and reduces the resources used by humans, and is better for the ecosystem. This understanding of metric as counting, and then denying it is much easier and efficient, smacks of wilful ignorance promoted by an anti-intellectual guru, who enjoys gathering a human following that adheres to his group-think creation.

Stewart Brand sees “genius” in our customary measure. He points out the similar length of “our foot” to that of the Japanese skaku. Somehow this similarity is supposed to have some deep and profound meaning, as if some manner of “harmonic convergence” of measurement has occurred. Data always works out well when a person can choose what data to keep, and what to throw away, when “confirming” a hypothesis. So how close are foot units from around the world? Here’s a list:

Babylonian Foot 353.9 mm

Canadian Foot 325.0 mm

Egyptian Foot 360.0 mm

French Foot 324.8 mm

Greek Olympic Foot 320.5 mm

Greek Foot 308.9 mm

International Foot 304.8 mm

Iraq Foot 316.0 mm

Netherlands Foot 283.1 mm

Phonencia 495.0 mm

Roman Foot 296.0 mm

Russian Foot 304.8 mm

South African Foot 304.8 mm

US Survey Foot 304.8 mm

Japanese Foot 303.0 mm

So Brand likes to point out that “our foot” is almost identical to the “Japanese Foot.” That is indeed quite a coincidence when one looks at foot values from around the world given above and their large divergence from “our foot.” The assertion also seems rather meaningless, unless you are a Futurist Guru producing a polemic, and cherry picking numbers.

According to Brand, “metric fights your hand,” which probably would come as a surprise to construction workers in Australia, UK, and South Africa. A “hand” is about 100 mm, and 100 mm is a great metric module. Indeed metric counting works very nicely for construction workers in Australia, and a 600 mm spacing allows for an amazing number of factors that make calculations easy. Brand is either ignorant of metric usage or so culturally captured that he cannot admit the obvious.

Brand goes on to assert that every time a company in the US has gone metric, the jobs then move overseas. No need for a study or a citation, just a statement. The Guru is above it all stating:

Among the embarrassed were the good liberals who had first pushed metric and didn’t like finding themselves in bed with multinational corporate heavies.

He can see they are both wrong! It’s the metric system that is the common problem! Murderers and thieves both drank milk when they were young! It should have been water! See the correlation! The Guru is here to enlighten you.

Brand finishes with this paragraph:

The question that remains is, why are governments and educational systems such suckers for ideas like metric conversion and nuclear energy that sound terrific so long as you don’t think about them for more than thirty seconds.

Wow, the mind boggles at the grade-school level conflation of metric and nuclear energy for visceral reaction. He now (as of 2005) indicates that environmentalists should embrace Nuclear Energy. The real question that might be asked is “if Stewart Brand can change his mind about Nuclear Energy, what is it about the metric system that keeps him from changing his mind about the metric system?” Is it that he would need to spend more than 30 seconds thinking about it?—and a futurist certainly can’t spare that much time in the present.


The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

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Concise Metric Symbols

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

My Stepfather sent me an interesting metric artifact that reminds me of the Rosetta Stone. First a bit of background.  It was not uncommon in the past that plastic 75 mm x 110 mm card-like cases, which have a plastic card inside of them, with technical information were available for sale, and for institutional promotion. A good college friend had one that I was jonesen for in the worst way. I did make a photocopy of it, well part of one side of it. I have taken a photo and the image is below. I was completely enamored, but had no idea how to obtain one, and my friend could not recall where she obtained it. The amount of information on this small plastic card was amazing, and with young eyes, provided easy access for any science or engineering exam.

The edge of this image of the plastic card has a copyright symbol, a year, 1968, and Concise International CO., LTD. The internet has made any esoteric item’s history easily found. The Smithsonian has a page with the exact model my friend owns. It is the Concise 6000 Science Tables and Circular Slide Rule:

Concise Science Tables and Circular Slide Rule – Front View

The outer plastic case has a four inch rule on one side, and a 10 cm (tsk…tsk) or 100 mm on the other. The front has a circular slide rule, and the back a copy of the periodic table of the elements. At the top of the table is a Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion chart. The plastic card inside contains an incredible amount of mathematical, chemical and physical data, as well as conversion factors. The International Slide Rule Museum
has an eclectic group of Concise products. They were made for a number of technical institutions as promotional items. I was quite interested in the one which was created for electrical engineers:

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There are many different versions shown online, but my Stepfather sent me one that is unique to me. The front side of the plastic cover is shown below:

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I have essentially zero understanding of the Japanese language, so the ideographs for metric quantities caught my attention immediately. Below are the symbols for lengths.

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What is interesting is the symbol for meter is a single character. That character has another to the right of the meter symbol for millimeter, and a different symbol to the right for Kilometer. The values are nice and concise and seem metric in form, but the prefix is on the suffix side. The symbols for inch, foot, yard, chain and mile require three symbols it appears. They are clearly foreign to the Japanese and require more description than their metric counterparts. The Japanese lengths tend to have more compact symbols, but not always. According to Wikipedia the values are:

bu = 3.03 mm

sun = 30.3 mm

shaku = 303 mm

ken = 1818 mm

cho = 109.1 meters

ri = 3.927 Kilometers

The values for mass are given as:

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We can see the carat has a very complex symbol. The symbol for the gram is distinctive and follows a similar suffix rather than prefix location for modifying the gram. Despite the designation of t for tonne, the symbol looks more like that for Megagram, Mg, and in my view should have been designated as such. The grain, ounce, pound (assuming US?) have complex symbols, and the long and short ton have even more complex looking symbols. The native Japanese mass values appear far more concise than the Ye Old English ones. Their values are:

fun = 375 mg

me = 3.75 g

kan = 3.75 Kg

kin = 600 grams

The back side of the card holder has more equivalent values:

The cubic and capacity are at bit curious:

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The symbol for liter has a nice look of a volume. The symbol is shown in the symbol for cubic centimeter, but it would have been nice to have it be a milliliter with a two symbol combination as with millimeter and Kilometer. The liter symbol appears to be included in  the symbol for cubic meter. Somehow there appears to be an understanding they are all equivalent to multiples of the volume of a liter. I will not attempt to offer values for the Japanese volumes.

The front of the interior plastic card has length and mass conversions:

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The back has area and volume equivalents.

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While the internet has made such conversion charts mostly obsolete, it is interesting to look at some of the archaic values. The one which is new to me is the register ton, which is equal to one hundred cubic feet. According to Wikipedia, this volume unit was used to describe a ship’s total interior volume.

It is interesting that even without any understanding of Japanese, they appear to have used a logical symbolism that can be, to a certain extent, teased from the context. Mathematics may be the universal language, but the metric system is the universal relationship between the physical world and mathematics—well—except in the US.