Metric Stream of Consciousness

milky-way-black-holeBy The Metric Maven

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!

Beaver County Times 1979-08-05 Beaver Pennsylvania

Beaver County Times 1979-08-05 Beaver Pennsylvania

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.

truck-teaseMy 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.

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9 thoughts on “Metric Stream of Consciousness

  1. Sorry, Maven, for a Comment based solely on your opening sentence. (I will of course read the entire essay, as always, later.)
    Here it is:
    “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.”
    Here’s what it should be:
    “I’ve had a difficult time coming up with a subject for this year’s Metric Day essay, so here are my haphazard observations since the last Metric Day.”
    Comment: Something that is truly random cannot be based on any thinking whatsoever. Thus, haphazard would be a better word here…

  2. I have felt for some time that the U.S. will be forced by our trading partners to adopt the SI as the only way it will happen. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, then a representative, declared that it was against our democratic principles to have SI forced upon us, helping to defeat the conversion in a speech around June of 1977. I believe that the rest of the world needs to be very firm and tell the U.S. that as of a certain date all trade will be suspended. This will include international airline travel, the neighboring countries of Canada and Mexico, for example, will no longer accept American vehicles with dual measurements on the instrument panels, aircraft and ships of the U.S. would not be allowed transit in another country’s territory, no manufactured goods will be shipped into or out of the U.S. These measures are rather draconian, but I see no other way. Whenever I bring up the reasons why I believe the U.S. should go metric, I feel that I’m looked upon as some two-headed space alien with evil intentions by those to whom I am speaking. It does amaze me that many of the engineers and others in scientific fields are anti metric. I’ve received comments similar to the one you write that your friend received. A degreed, and now retired, mechanical engineer friend of mine really surprised me with his opposition to SI. I’m amazed that the U.S. has held out so long in its opposition.

  3. Lincoln Chaffee’s metric proposal was useful in encouraging debate on the metric system. A quick search through Reddit’s metric forum ( shows that since Chaffee made his announcement there were about ten newspaper, blog and magazine articles listed advocating the metric system and six against with a couple more sitting on the fence. Surprisingly, some small-town newspapers were in favour of metrication even though the major networks and newspapers weren’t.

    On the problem of trucks running into bridges: British trucks over 3 metres high are required to have a sign in the cab stating the vehicle’s height in feet and inches and optionally in metres. Perhaps US authorities should introduce this measure.

  4. Another excellent essay by the Maven, this one written with somewhat haphazard observations.

    Here are a couple of more observations that many are oblivious to:
    – Those beloved mixed numbers in gas stations and on the stock exchange are gone, and so decimal numbers are used primarily in everyday life except in one Big field. (Guess which one?)
    – Maybe it’s those “progressive” dictionaries that are anti-SI. As strong evidence, let’s look at a truly modern prescriptive dictionary and look up something involving heights (such as that of a mountain) to see just what units we find!
    Click here and choose a definition involving something where a measurement (or estimate of such) of it is expected to be given:

    • Oh yes, the full title of the dictionary is The American HERITAGE Dictionary of the English Language (Fifth Edition; uppercasing mine).

      What other common dictionaries in the U.S. have adopted SI as the primary units? Probably none!

  5. Just wanted to bring to all of the readers’ attention an article from the Associated Press that I read on several news websites today. The article is about plans of the City of Montreal, Canada, to dump raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River. The article states that the river runs “114 miles (183 billion kilometers),” along the border with New York. The writer seems to be a tad mistaken, I believe. This is just one more sad commentary on the U.S. not coming to grips with SI, as I presume that the AP writer is American.

    • I have been following AP’s use of SI somewhat since the 1970s and it has been completely USC until relatively recently. Too bad for the “billion” blunder Woodie C gives us here as AP seems to be more with SI in recent years. [By the way, it looks like 183 billion micrometers would be correct!…;^) ]

  6. As the good, old Protagoras said: man is the measure of all things – of those that are, because they are, and of those that are not, because they are not…

    What does the “man” called USA want? What does the people want? (And thus also politicians, at least ideally…)

    We, the people, want the metric system, among other – even more important – things: when will this obvious thing happen?

    Anyway, here’s an interesting classic Greek philosopher image, with a metric ruler (sorry, but I found it only in Italian):

    … So, politicians and people – what is your measure…? 😉 🙂

  7. In today’s NYTimes there is an article about Theranos, a start-up company in medical testing intending to beat the established ones that collect many milliliters of each person’s blood for multiple tests by collecting a bit in “a tiny tube of blood that the company calls a ‘nanotainer’.”

    One has to wonder if this indicates a nanoliter of blood. Extremely doubtful. Maybe a microliter (microtainer?)? Doubt it. A milliliter in a microtainer for multiple tests? Still doubt it.

    Looking forward to seeing how this plays out…

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