The Visible and Invisible Infrastructure

By The Metric Maven

Fifth Year Anniversary

When someone asks you “A penny for your thoughts,” and you put your two cents in, what happens to the other penny?”

— George Carlin

Five years ago I posted my first metric essay titled The Invisible Infrastructure. The thesis of the article is that our measurement system is part of our national infrastructure, and it is seriously dilapidated. The problem is that unlike our visible infrastructure, our bridges, roads, water systems and railroads, people don’t notice the decay of our measurement infrastructure. The situation is much like people who learned to manipulate Roman numerals, and only casually encountered the Hindu-Arabic version. Their ignorance of the new system, combined with the resistance to abandoning a known set of numerals, and how to manipulate them, and then learning a new set, stalled the worldwide introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals for 1000 years.

The creation of a nation’s infrastructure and its maintenance requires a national policy, and the power to enforce the policy. The manufacturing centers of a country rely on state of the art support of a modern infrastructure to function. Alexander Hamilton wrote the first industrial policy proposed in the United States. Hamilton wanted the US government to encourage innovation by the citizens of the US, support the constant improvement of the nation’s infrastructure (known as internal improvements) so as to usher along US commerce and develop a manufacturing industry for the young Republic.

Abraham Lincoln, who had received a patent and was greatly interested in engineering and science, endorsed Hamilton’s policy. The policy was so popular that it was embraced by every president after that until well into the late 20th century.

Around 1980, it became fashionable to argue that an industrial policy for the US was not necessary, in fact, it was suddenly thought detrimental. It was asserted that a mysterious set of unseen collective philosophical forces would usher the country along without any need for any intelligence to guide it. All problems from climate change to pet grooming would be solved without any need for a government or politics. It was insisted that the new orthodoxy was scientific, and “no more than you can change the laws of Newton, could one go against this received wisdom.” The dogma asserted that if these non-government forces did not produce a given outcome, then it was not an important problem to begin with. When the received philosophy did not embrace an empirical reality, it was said to transcend this meager earth-bound reality. This has produced a received dogmatic mythology that quells any introspection.

In the case of the metric system in the US, individuals like John Shafroth tried to intervene and legislate the metric system directly in the early twentieth century. At that time it was possible for individuals in government to see that infrastructure, both visible (railroads, water systems, sewer systems) and invisible (the metric system) were needed by the republic, and they set out to bring them into being. In the early 1920s, it became popular for theory that is decoupled from measurement to reign. In 1921, despite example after example of how governments (including the US in the Philippines) had brought the metric system to numerous countries, these examples were all dismissed. The implementation of the metric system by these nation-states was somehow unnatural because people had implemented it through governments, and not allowed the metric system to spring from the chaos of individuals. Charles McNary, Chairman of the 1921 Metric Hearings asked:

“If the thing is uneconomical, then the great law or the science of commerce ought to adjust it. It does in other things. Why does it not operate in this field if everybody is losing by it, from the packer to the consumer? Why does it not correct itself?”

The metric system vanished in a puff of accepted mythological sophistry. There is example after example of the concrete benefits using the metric system brings to crafts and trades, but measurement cannot compete with a viral meme that possesses the most politically powerful, and scientifically vacuous minds that populate our political class. A theory that ignores contrary data is a dogma, and this dogma has a powerful grip on the US psyche. Its grip is so powerful, that even as the visible infrastructure is decaying before everyone’s eyes, we are told that actions to improve our infrastructure are not proper if legislated into existence. When legislated, then according to dogma it is too expensive, and that if infrastructure was important to the economy, it would appear spontaneously.

Large infrastructure projects have historically been financed by the public, and the profits then reaped by powerful individuals. The Erie canal was funded by government.
The first transcontinental telegraph across the US was financed by the US government. The Interstate Highway system was financed by the US government. The internet was financed by the US government. The GPS System was funded by the US government. There was no spontaneous action by an unseen philosophy acting on large numbers of people, there was vision and planning by individuals on behalf of the nation.

Clearly conditions have existed in the past where visible infrastructure has been legislated into existence, why not the invisible infrastructure that is our weights and measures? One aspect of the invisible infrastructure is that it is not clear who would immediately benefit. When roads are constructed, road construction companies bid for government contracts to fabricate the infrastructure and they, in turn, profit. The implementation of the metric system does not have clearly defined winners—other than all the citizens of the US. As I’ve pointed out previously, the implementation of a national infrastructure upgrade would be the perfect time to switch to metric and for the public to financially benefit from its greater efficiency.

A second complication is that the structure of our government in the US is rather unique. It appears to have been the first of the modern representative democracies and suffers from the antiquated political infrastructure that is our Constitution. The 1978 GAO report on the metric system notes that Parliamentary systems of government require far less legislation to implement the metric system than would the US. Unicameral parliamentary governments appear to be a much more direct form of democratic representation than is the baroque 18th century structure of the US government which isolates citizens from their government.

When mixed with American anti-intellectualism and scientific ignorance, mathematics, arithmetic and measurement become political positions. The most obvious example is Charles Grassley of Iowa who single-handedly filibustered the implementation of the metric system for road signs in the US in the late 1970s (he remains in the Senate to this day). He sees the system that originated in Britain (i.e. the metric system), as a foreign form of measurement. Denial of scientific concepts, based on an ignorance of science, will not influence how mother nature conducts her business one yoctometer. Independent of political philosophy, Roman numerals will remain more complex and confusing than decimals. Fractions will still require common denominators for addition, whereas integers do not, and the metric system is still simpler than the anarchy of US Ye Olde English units that do not form a system at all. As long as this ubiquitous measurement ignorance camouflages the Ye Olde English expenses experienced by our nation, these costs and confusion will not be addressed. The general public and the political class is as unaware of the decay of our invisible infrastructure of weights and measures as people were of microbes before the invention of the microscope.

When Americans are asked about the metric system, there is often a visceral reaction, followed with a sarcastic hubris that only ignorance and ad hoc jingoistic rationalization can nurture. We’re the greatest country on Earth! We put men on the moon!—without the metric system! We did put men on the moon, with considerable help from German scientists, and using a guidance computer that did its internal computations using metric. I have personally heard political aids of my representative claim with a dismissive wave of their hand that “we tried to change in the 1970s—so leave us alone now.” or “that ship sailed in the 1970s and is never coming back.” Americans celebrating a failure as a triumph?—it is a strange rationalization indeed for a “can-do” nation. The invisible infrastructure of weights and measures is perhaps the most important concept ever created in the history of science, engineering, and commerce. It most likely predates a monetary system. The very word ruler implies the importance of a standard length deriving and enforced by a government.

Another aspect is that metric has become a test for social norm in the US. Americans use ‘merican ‘measures and if you inquire about metric your very patriotism or
“Americaness” might be questioned. Any thought of metric change is immediately seen by established media outlets as a possible audience alienator and in turn a ratings enhancer. The only cooking program I ever followed with great interest was Alton Brown’s Good Eats. He did his best to explain the science behind cooking, and I noticed that once in a while he would try to sneak in a measurement in grams, but the show is overwhelmingly Ye Olde English. Brown is now working on a follow-up show to Good Eats and revealed to the Guardian:

“When Good Eats aired on Food Network, he said he wasn’t allowed to cover certain subjects, such as cooking rabbit, liver or chicken gizzards.
The channel also refused to let him use the metric system, he said.”

Astronomy magazine also eschews the use of actual metric, as do other popular science magazines. Obviously more mainstream media outlets are Olde English only.

The invisible infrastructure is invisible because it is ubiquitous and so integrated into one’s mind that it is not really cognitively noticed. When one first learns to drive a car, every aspect of this activity exists at a very conscious level of one’s mind. Which way do I move the turn signal to make it go left or right? How do I press the clutch and shift
in a way the gears don’t grind? Where is 1st, 2nd, 3rd and reverse gears. As one drives, the information integrated into one’s mind moves to a much less conscious level. A person can drive in this automatic mode to the point that one’s mind wanders and does not recall driving along a well known street, only the beginning and the end points. The measurement system one uses becomes rather automatic after it is used for a long time, independent of its utility, or ease of use. No matter how complex a language might be, a child can learn it, and incorporate it to a an “invisible” cognitive level. We often take little note of the complexities and irrationality of our language, because we are so comfortable and have long experience with using it. As has been said, i before e except after c and words like neighbor and weigh, this means that Einstein got this wrong twice. Most people don’t notice that the th sound in they and theater are different, the mind has moved this information to an invisible level.

The cognitive invisibility of our usage is confused with utility. We are at ease with it and so we do not evaluate it. It is like a magic trick that works over and over to mask its flaws. We don’t question the utility of fractions, and contemplate eliminating them, we just continue, year after year, using a table of “decimal equivalents” rather than just using decimals directly in our invisible measurement infrastructure. We cannot imagine
going even further and using a unit that in most cases can produce numbers that are all integers and eliminate a decimal point for most everyday work. If one has 250 mL of milk and adds 300 mL of oil no decimal point is needed in everyday cooking. This is true for grams, and of course using millimeters as the default small unit in everyday life is both of massive utility, and even for many US “metric users” unthinkable.

Our decaying invisible infrastructure is thought to be responsible for 98 000 deaths in the US healthcare system each year. It invisibly adds a 10-15% cost to every home
and building constructed in the US. We cannot predict how well our shoes will fit when compared with well defined metric shoe sizes. We must maintain two sets of tools, one for metric and one for Olde English measures. Years ago Pat Naughtin estimated it costs each US citizen about $16.00 per day to maintain our decaying measurement infrastructure.

The US public has an invisible wall of ignorance that conceals scientific and engineering information that is crucial to the survival of human civilization. Be it resource depletion from overpopulation, or carbon emissions that produce global warming, or other scientific topics, the information is generated in metric, and when properly presented, is most understandable and intuitive in metric.

Last week the American Society of Civil Engineers released its report card on the visible American infrastructure. The US received a grade of D+. They do not offer a grade for our invisible weights and measures infrastructure, but I suspect it is close to D- or F at best.

When I was a young boy with a single digit age, I saw a commercial I’ll never forget. Time may have distorted my memory of it, but as I recall there was a young black woman in a cabin teaching another black person how to read. A terrible pounding was then heard at the door and a voice wanted to know what was going on inside. The two people looked terrified. I asked my mother why teaching a person to read was illegal? She explained that teaching slaves to read was against the law during that era. “But why?” I asked. “Because they will begin to think and question, and be exposed to new ideas. This makes them less controllable to those who have enslaved them.” I was shocked that people would enforce ignorance on a population to control and exploit them. It was horrifying. Now and then, when I think about the lack of the metric system in the US, my mind looks back on that commercial, and its larger contemporary meaning.

Related Essays:

The Magic Infrastructure

The Invisible Infrastructure


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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Institutional Myths About The Metric System

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

We were reminded on December 23, 2016 by Elizabeth Gentry, coordinator of NIST’s Metric Program, that on that same date in 1975 (1975-12-23) Gerald Ford signed The Metric Conversion Act. In an essay titled Busting Myths about the Metric System, Ms Gentry indicates that the CIA map of countries that use the metric system is “simply untrue!” and further states:

While it’s true that metric use is mandatory in some countries and voluntary in others, all countries have recognized and adopted the SI, including the United States.

Indeed, the US recognized the metric system in the 19th century, and allowed its use, but did not mandate it. The use of the word adopted by Ms. Gentry is curious, to most people this word means that a person has taken an idea for their own use, usually abandoning the old method.

The only change in our relationship with the metric system, that I’m aware of, was when John Kasson made the metric system legal for people in the US in the 19th century. From that moment on, our association with the metric system, from a legal point of view, remains unchanged. This was pointed out by a member of the American Bar Association in the 1975 metric hearings.

Ms. Gentry goes on to state:

Dr. Russ Rowlett at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill emphasizes on his website that becoming metric is not a one-time event but a process that happens over time. Every international economy is positioned somewhere along a continuum moving toward increased SI use. There are still countries that are amending their national laws to adopt mandatory metric policy and others pursuing voluntary metrication.”

Dr. Rowlett is a retired professor of Mathematics.

The statement that no country is 100% metric, is the sort of argument that anti-metric crusader Fredrick Halsey trotted out in the early twentieth century, as proof that no country has adopted the metric system. This assertion is a version of the continuum fallacy. Suppose you are broke, and I give you a penny, are you rich?, how about a second penny? at what point can I give you one more penny, and you are now “rich?” It is also cast in the form of at what point do you remove a hair from a persons head that he is now “bald?” If one adopts this view, then no country on Earth is metric, and Halsey is right. One can only offer a defined partition that has no firm basis. Should the drinking age be 18? 19? 21?, when does a person become an adult?

A graphic called “The Metric Continuum” is offered for the US, which appears to be an attempt to normalize the fact that the US is not even close to a metric country. The measures in the US are nothing but a farrago of medieval units, and sorting them into a Metric Continuum Fallacy changes that not one yoctometer.

While no one-time event will make a country 100% metric, but it might get it to more than 90% metric very quickly. I recommend Dr. Rowlett read Metrication In Australia. Without that one-time event (if I can use event to mean a decade) Australia might be in the situation that Britain finds itself, stuck about halfway or so–but it’s hard to say how metric Britain actually is. It is difficult to know how metric the US, UK or Australia are as there has never been a professional audit and study to find out. The figure often trotted out, that the US is 50% metric, appears to have its basis in proctology.

Ms Gentry also invokes the idea of mandatory and voluntary “metrication” in her statement. This really obscures the situation in the US. We’ve had voluntary metrication
since 1866. John Shafroth realized that we needed mandatory metric in 1905 or so, but it was soundly defeated. In 1921 it was argued that voluntary metric was the way to go, and again in 1975, people like Clayborn Pell deluded themselves into the idea that voluntary metrication was fast bringing the the metric system to the US.

But wait! Wasn’t the metrication of Australia voluntary! What was voluntary in Australia, was how each industry would become metric, not if industry was going to become metric. There were fines and encouragement to become metric. There were deadlines called M-days for different sectors of their economy to become fully metric. US politicians willfully allowed the public to believe that Australia’s metrication was spontaneous, and quickly appeared without any government intervention or guidance. Alan Harper who directed Australian metrication wrote to Congress and told them so:

It is, of course, not possible to mount a wholly voluntary metric change in the sense that every individual has a free choice. Consider the conversion of statutory speed limits and other changes calling for embodiment in legislation. “Voluntary” in this
context has to be taken to mean that the choice of a program and plan for conversion in a sector is made voluntarily by national leaders in that sector but thereafter it is supported by all the pressures that can be marshalled, through procurement, legislation, appropriate amendment of technical standards, adherence to the program by government and large organizations and so on.

Unless your Metric Board can enlist such support for the programs developed voluntarily, the agreement accorded many of these programs may in the event prove too fragile to ensure their implementation and aspects of your metric operation which provide their own incentives will get out of kilter with those needing some additional stimulus for their accomplishment.

Harper would later tell the Metric Board in person that he could not have made Australia metric with the US laws as they exist.

Voluntary metrication is a myth, and an institutional one embraced within the US government. Another myth is “we tried in the 1970s and it just didn’t work.” Another version of this myth is that the US government tried to impose the horrible metric system on its citizens who then revolted and cowered their representatives into repealing the legislation, showing a true example of democracy in action! That is a common myth and completely false.

Later we are told by Ms. Gentry that:

It’s been legal to use the metric system since 1866, and metric became the preferred system of weights and measures for U.S. trade and commerce in 1988.

Well, let’s talk about the legislation of 1988. First the Reagan administration and Congress wants everyone to know that metric is Voluntary, Voluntary, Voluntary:

6) The Federal Government has a responsibility to develop procedures and techniques to assist industry, especially small business, as it voluntarily converts to the metric system of measurement.

and not in the Australian sense of the word voluntary when dealing with metrication. One can see from the design of everyday objects that the US, in practice, “prefers Ye Olde English.”

Non-Preferred US Packaging (click to enlarge)

There is some fear that metric countries around the world might suddenly adopt our measures, and put us at a competitive disadvantage if we fully adopt metric. The legislation addresses this imaginary concern:

(b) POLICY. Section 3 of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 is amended to read as
follows:

SEC. 3. It is therefore the declared policy of the United States

(1) to designate the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce;

(2) to require that each Federal agency, by a date certain and to the extent economically feasible by the end of the fiscal year 1992, use the metric system of measurement in its procurement, grants, and other business-related activities, Except to the extent that such use is impractical or is likely to cause significant inefficiencies or loss of markets to United States firms, such as when foreign competitors are producing competing products in non-metric units;

(3) to seek out ways to increase understanding of the metric system of measurement through educational information and guidance and in Government Publications; and

(4) to permit the continued use of traditional systems of weights and measures in
nonbusiness activities

By nonbusiness, it is fairly clear that the business defined above is government business. Private industry is completely off-the-hook. So what does preferred mean? Most people would see it as a primary choice with a second acceptable choice in case the first is not available. One might prefer beef to chicken, but chicken is fine.

The very word prefer does not enforce metric in the US, it is just more of a statement of almost equivalent substitution. Two options that are almost on an equal par in the general vernacular. Often the design of our everyday objects reveals that metric is not preferred. Ms Gentry goes on:

It’s impossible to avoid using the metric system in the United States. …..  I envision U.S. metric practice like a huge iceberg. Above the water’s surface, U.S. customary units appear to still be in full effect. In actuality, below the water’s surface we find that all measurements are dependent on the SI, linked through an unbroken chain of traceable measurements.

It is also impossible to avoid Roman numerals in the United States, but I’m not sure what that would exactly mean. Envisioning “metric practice” as an iceberg, which seems to imply that 90% of US usage is metric and 10% is what we see? This is not what I’ve experienced in my visits to US engineering and production facilities that still exist. People can’t even purchase millimeter only tape measures, or rulers, or drill bits, at any US hardware store.

I realize that Ms. Gentry’s position is a difficult one. She operates under a law that has no teeth, and essentially sees metric and Ye Olde English as more-or-less equivalent, and states that one is “preferred” like buffalo over beef in a sandwich. When the public signed a We The People petition requesting that the US Government make the metric system mandatory in the US, her former boss was tasked with the required reply, and told us all how great it is to live in a measurement country which is “bilingual.” This metaphorical assertion is an absurd non-sequitur. I had much to say about his anemic response here.

I realize that given the situation in the US, one would do their best to keep a positive tone, but one of the first things a person must do to remedy a problem is to
recognize its existence. The US has a weights and measurements problem, it is non-metric to the extreme, which makes it complex and prone to error, which in turn wastes resources. There is no everyday usage in the US that compels a person to use metric. Not at the post office, not at the DMV, not on our roadways, not when using our airlines, not when watching a weather forecast, not when buying paper, not when buying a television, not when making purchases at a grocery store, not when cooking with a recipe, not when buying natural gas or electricity (no Kilowatt-hours are not metric), not when at a cafe, not when purchasing gasoline, or a car—even though all the parts of a car are of metric sizes, not when purchasing furniture,  and not when buying parts for home improvement. The metric exceptions in our nation are minor, and examples difficult to come by. Prescription medicine may be metric, but patent medicines are notoriously Ye Olde English. I would wager a majority of Americans could not estimate how much a gram is, despite milligrams and microgram dosages existing on medicines. Metrication in the US is an almost complete failure. Presenting myths that it is otherwise, is, in my view, counterproductive and serves to propagate the current inaction.

                                                                     ***

The Metric Maven has published a new 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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