Metric Day Edition
I’ve had a difficult time coming up with a subject for this year’s Metric Day essay, so here are my random observations since the last Metric Day.
The two metric stories which dominated what little publicity metric received over the last year were 1) Lincoln Chafee mentioning that he thought the U.S. should become metric and 2) The possible replacement of the only metric road signs in the U.S. with non-metric versions.
Lincoln Chafee tossed out the idea of converting to the metric system as a bit of a throw-away line, but the metriphobic press reacted like a duck on a June bug. Anti-metric poster-child John Bemelmans Marciano penned No, America shouldn’t go metric with all the Pavlovian fervor he could muster. CNN was only too willing to publish Marciano’s reactionary polemic. John Stewart of The Daily Show, who, like any comedian, goes for laughs first, and thoughtfulness—whenever it works out, said this to his two million viewers:
Jon Stewart: Alright Chafs, hit us with your Hillary crushing vision for America.
Video of Chafee: Here’s a bold embrace of internationalism. Let’s join the rest of the world and go metric.
[Audience Laughter] Stewart blankly stares at the camera.
Jon Stewart: The time has come America, to switch to centimeters. [Audience Laughter] And why use cars when we can relax and exercise by traveling only by recumbent bicycle. Wait where’s everybody going I haven’t passed around my homemade .. blondies yet. Why would you launch your campaign by evoking one of Jimmy Carter’s most notable non-hostage related failures?!
Video of Chafee: Only Myanmar, Liberia and The United States aren’t metric…
Jon Stewart: You want to be our president and yet you don’t know we don’t give two shits about other countries? Or…or if I may, to put that in metric terms, point oh two millifeces.
Which I’m sure Mr. Stewart knows is actually 20 microfeces. Of course Stewart would use centimeters, without any irony, and assert that President Carter was actively for the metric system (he wasn’t, he’s a Metric Philosopher). Beating up on the metric system is fun!
Stewart has also gone after metric ignorance at times, such as when he lampooned Rick Sanchez for asking how high nine meters is in English, but this segment only pointed out that England actually uses metric.
Not all the coverage was uniformly negative. NBC News on their website had the headline: A Case for Liter-Ship: Advocates Cheer Lincoln Chafee’s Metric Proposal. CNN had Lincoln Chafee: Go bold, go metric.
The changing of metric signs on I-19 provided an opportunity for CNN to publish the lack of the metric system in the U.S. as “A Great American Story” entitled Refusing to Give an Inch — Why America is Anti-Metric. This vapid and vacuous article did not educate or inform, it merely parroted the conventional mythological narrative, and provided yet another soap box for John Bemelmans Marciano to release incoherent and content free criticism. The I-19 road signs are being changed because they don’t meet new reflectivity requirements. It is interesting there is total silence about the cost of changing the signs because of their reflectivity, but if they were Ye Olde English, and they were to be changed to metric, then metric signs would be “too expensive.” As I said previously, if all the road signs in Arizona need to be replaced, then why not with metric? If not now–then when? Clearly the road sign arguments over cost are just a regressive political position dressed up as “fiscal responsibility.”
I saw a reminder this year that basic roadway measurements are important. In Westwood Massachusetts a bridge which is 3200 mm in height above the roadway (10′ 6″ for those who need two units to describe a distance) often tears the tops off of trucks. This happens often enough that the police have set up a camera to record the intersection and document the truck shredding. Over the years, about one truck per month is decapitated by the bridge. Some truck drivers believe they are going to make it without consulting any arithmetic and discover the hard way that Seeing Is Not Measurement. While implementing metric cannot help truck drivers who estimate distances without numbers, it can make it simpler for those who do.
My attention this metric day is drawn away from the two flash-in-the-pan mainstream metric stories, and to personal everyday hidden stories of metric in the U.S. My friend Lapin has attempted to persuade the principals in his small engineering company to go metric. Lapin pointed out how much easier millimeters are to use, but the metric system was yet again dismissed, and inches remain the default. One person there indicated that the best place for a millimeter only tape measure was inside of a hydraulic press, so that it could be as completely destroyed as possible. Engineers I know who work in Aerospace have long ago given up any thought of a metric switch-over. These stories clearly tell me that without government intervention, a U.S. metric changeover will not take place in the next 1000 years. The workings of our Frozen Republic are so slow, that it will probably take 1000 years before congress even returns to the issue. The 2013 We The People Petition was summarily dismissed with a missive from the former Director of NIST, that was pure anti-metric Edward Bernays. There appears to be no hope in the U.S. for a metric change-over.
Is there any other possibility? I can think of only one, and, although it’s almost certain not to happen, it probably has a higher probability than the U.S. government affecting change. It is that the rest of the world finally tires of our pig-headedness and directly punishes the U.S. economically for its continued non-use of the metric system. I could still see this failing, as what little manufacturing is left in the U.S. would probably just design one product for the U.S. market and another for any other place in the world they sell goods. Cost is never as important as maintaining the Ye Olde English “Heritage.” Americans are also notorious for resisting any “outside ideas” unless they can quietly co-opt them. After World War II the U.S. created the interstate highway system after experiencing the German Autobahn. There has been very little exposure to efficient use of the metric system in the U.S. and so people either react in a positive way or viscerally in a negative way depending on what their model of truthiness tells them.
There is little to celebrate on this Metric Day other than the simplicity and elegance of a system that is as unknown in the U.S. as fortune cookies are in China.