Fading Away

By Randy Bancroft

10 years ago on Pi Day, the Metric Maven website posted its first essay, The Invisible Infrastructure. My advisor and long-time friend Sven predicted I might have a 6 month run before running out of subjects to discuss. I thought he might be right, but decided to do my best to research the metric system. Now it has been 10 years and over 250 essays. I wrote a history of the metric system in the United States, Death by 1000 Cuts. I also wrote a book exploring the use of the metric system that includes all the current metric prefixes, titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. I approached literary agents for years without any ability to engage their interest. I self-published Dimensions of the Cosmos, which proved to be a disaster. Despite this, I wrote a second edition of The Dimensions of The Cosmos. I finally decided that it would be best to offer both books online for anyone who is interested. I’m planning on continuing to offer chapters from The Dimensions of the Cosmos on this website until the entire monograph has been published, and then post the book as a single complete file.

What has become painfully clear over the last ten years is that the political system in the United States has no ability to reform itself, and I will not see another discussion of metric conversion in my lifetime. It has become painfully obvious, that at best, I’ve been writing for posterity. At this point, I feel I’m an American stranded on a small non-metric island, with one bottle into which I can put a note, and throw it into the sea, hoping that posterity takes an interest.

In the US, there is an overwhelming belief in the efficacy of technical Darwinism. That a better mouse trap will lead the world to your door. This statement is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he never used the word mousetrap. The need for a government metric mandate to implement the metric system in the US proves to the followers of this mythology, that the metric system is clearly inferior to the farrago of units produced by “market Darwinism.”

Years before the pandemic, I read Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it, by Gina Kolata and The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. I was quite concerned about a possible new pandemic, but furtively hoped it would never happen in my lifetime. In 1918, no one knew what a virus was, and only its size could be determined using filters. These became known as filterable viruses. There was nothing medical science could offer, other than masks, and there was uncertainty as to their efficacy in those days.

When the Covid19 pandemic arrived, viruses were scientifically understood, but developing a vaccine would be difficult, and take time. To my astonishment, researchers were able to fast-track a new method of vaccination, with 10 years of groundwork, using messenger RNA. I was gobsmacked, it was a scientific miracle. The researchers had set a goal of 50% effectiveness, and instead, it was north of 90%. The vaccine did not need to be grown in eggs, it could be quickly manufactured using PCR. Talk about a better mouse-trap!

Despite this amazing development, a large number of people simply refused to be vaccinated. Considering the death rate of SARS Cov-2 is as bad or worse than that of the 1918 flu, one would think the rational reaction would be for everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Even after numerous anti-vax proponents perished, their followers continued to endanger themselves and the community by remaining susceptible. For them, seeking the vaccine remained anathema. In 2020, Alabama had more deaths than births. This has never happened before. Finally, there was government action to mandate vaccinations. A visceral and violent reaction followed. I recall the first assumption made in my university class on economics was that people are rational. I’ve seen little evidence of this. My essay Zombie Metric Reform illustrates the fallacy of the rational consumer. The most fictional part of the pre-pandemic movie Contagion, was that after a vaccine was found, everyone would get it.

It struck me, that the reaction against vaccine mandates, is the same general type of excuse trotted out over and over in the US. Any call for a metric system mandate is met with red-faced invective. The Metric Maven post that generated the most comments ever, 94, was The Metric Philosophers, which called for a metric mandate, and questioned those who have waited 150 years for technical Darwinism to bring the metric system to us. It appears this view upset some readers so much, they never returned. I don’t believe the US political system has the ability to govern in a way that promotes the general welfare, only specific welfare, and so I don’t expect the metric system to ever be adopted in the US.

Offering my books and essays online for free, was offering free vaccine to those who would not take it no matter what. One day on LinkedIn I replied to a person arguing against the metric system for use with printed circuit boards. An engineer I had known for ten years, replied to my rebuttal, by insinuating I was a commie, or maybe just a pinko?–for the temerity to promote the metric system in the US. Wow. I offered some metric essays for him to ponder, but as Thomas Paine said:

To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead ….

When I think of the use of medieval measurement units in the US, I cannot help but think of this quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

The metric note in a bottle I offer to throw into the cyber-sea, is a collection of what I believe are the most important essays I’ve written for the general public, and posted over the years. I have given this collection of essays the title: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It has the subtitle Essential Essays by the Metric Maven. You may download it below, or in the metric resources section of this website.

After 10 years, I plan on stepping back from posting essays on the metric system in the future. I may still post every month, if a subject appears, or I may not post again if there is nothing of interest to discuss in the future.

I want to thank all those that made this effort possible: Pat Naughtin, Peter Goodyear, Mike Joy, Amy Young, Sven, and to others I’ve probably overlooked, I apologize.

I Am a Metric Minimalist

By The Metric Maven

I’ve seen many criticisms about my questioning of the use of deciliters for cooking, or centimeters for measurement. My viewpoint has been represented in ways I don’t deem accurate. Where I believe we should eliminate some metric usage, I would like to be called a metric minimalist. Ronald Zupko, in his book Revolution in Measurement: Western European Weights and Measures Since the Age of Science, lists a considerable number of pre-metric units: the digit, the palm, foot, span, cubit, step, shaftment, nail, hand, finger, fathom, … ad nausium.

He states:

Tens of thousands of new units were introduced and hundreds of thousands of local variations emerged from the Atlantic seaboard to central and eastern Europe. There were more than a dozen principal methods by which unit variations arose prior to the creation of the metric system in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It should be noted that there were other causes for metrological proliferation as well, but the items presented here were responsible for the greatest number, and range of new units over time, especially in the British Isles, France, Italy, and the German States.

and:

The final source of unit proliferation came from many urban and rural craftsmen….

Every type of craftsman would create their own units. The important term used by Zupko is “unit proliferation.” This is the human compulsion to create their own units, and in many cases change their dimension over time. When the metric system was introduced, human nature rather than critical thinking determined the number of prefixes to use with the units. In the case of the metric system, it had minimized the number of base units, but allowed for an introduction of “prefix proliferation” which acted as a proxy for the human compulsion for unit proliferation. I have remarked on the introduction of factor of two prefixes, demi, and double when the metric system was originally introduced. How could one ever get by without a prefix that doubles and halves units? This manner of equal dividing measure has existed since antiquity, how could it possibly be eliminated? Well, clearly we’ve managed to muddle through without these two “essential” prefixes.

The original set of metric prefixes included provisions for a number that had been deemed essential since antiquity, that is a myriad. (see chapter 1 of The Dimensions of the Cosmos) A myriad is 10 000, and was the largest number employed until the word billion was later introduced. The myria prefix was deemed “essential,” it was “obvious” it should be included, so we could produce a linear distance of 1 myriameter, or 10 000 meters. It was “clear” this number would be of great utility, but all it really provided was a psychological salve to alleviate the loss of a familiar part of the pre-metric world. The reasons that demi, double and myria were included were not for utility, but psychological resistance to giving up what one had already been incorporated and learned from pre-metric tradition. I discuss this in my essay Isaac Asimov — Technophobe. It was finally realized that myria was not particularly useful, and the prefix was eliminated. Despite all the people who argue the metric system is based on ten, it is base ten, not based on ten.

The metric system was based more on ten when the original metric prefixes were first presented in 1795 and sans milli. There was no millimeter mentioned, only a centimeter and decimeter. When the millimeter arrived, the populace was still inculcated, from antiquity, in the use of inches with fractional subdivisions. An everyday unit would “clearly” need to be around the size of an inch, so centimeters were embraced. This acceptance was probably because no critical thought was given to their actual utility and the inertia of “we’ve always done it that way.” I write about intellectual inertia in my essay Metamorphosis and Millimeters. Millimeters are “just too small” was the “obvious” objection. Secondly, the idea of decimals was so revolutionary that one could see they were much easier than fractions. The intellectual leap to using millimeters without decimals for everyday use, came about a century later.

People often confuse common prejudice for common sense; this appears to be the case with centimeters. In my essays I spend a considerable amount of time explaining that any common everyday use of centimeters generally requires a decimal point. Centimeters are too large of a unit. The inclusion of a decimal point causes one to linger, providing a larger cognitive load than integer values of millimeters. I write about this in my essay Who Says!? Critical thought about this usage is very rare. People do not see the need for millimeters, only the want of centimeters. To this day the centimeter meme propagates strongly through the metric population. My Nerd Nite lecture continues to provoke a tsunami of vitriolic comments on YouTube, to be precise, 1393 comments as I write this. The majority of these appear to be from outraged Europeans, indicating I’m stupid, “can’t he see there are 10 mm in a centimeter?”, or simply ignorant, “this guy doesn’t know anything about the metric system.” It is the shriek of authoritarianism that is so popular in the current zeitgeist. These are not people who want authority, but people who want to be under authority. They offer simple bumper sticker refutations devoid of content. I’ve written two monographs, and have about 250 essays about the metric system, but I never see any scholarly introspection on these. I just see “I live in a metric country, that makes me an expert.” They don’t have to read any of the tens of thousands of words I’ve written, or look at the large number of references I provide, because this is the internet, and that’s how it works now.

This brings us to the group that is very upset at my unwillingness to be a supplicant to the proclamations of the BIPM. Their argument appears to be:

The BIPM said it.
I believe it.
That settles it.

I addressed this dogmatic fealty in my essay The Metric Bishops. Again there was the typical carping after the essay was posted, but one person left a comment of his surprise that the rest of the commenters simply ignored some of my reasoned points, and went more for ad hominem instead. There are those in the US that like to claim they came from the school of hard knocks, learning from experience, but what I see is that it has produced chronic tramatic encephalopathy, and they should engage in actual study.

How can the BIPM allow the word tonne as a legitimate name for a Megagram, and after indicating one should not concatenate metric prefixes the BIPM allows kilotonne, which is a kilomegagram—as legitimate metric usage! What am I looking for?—metric minimalism. The use of tonne is inconsistent with BIPM proclamations, but when I point out contradictions in the sacred text, I’m viewed as some sort of metric apostate, rather than a person who is trying to examine metric usage, and argue that we should make it as minimal and cognitively efficient as possible. Instead, I’m just “some jerk who doesn’t know anything.”

I see most of the histrionics about my metric system usage critique arise from Europeans, or Brazilians, or citizens of other countries; but they are not my audience. My audience is intended to be people in the US. From the lack of comments, I can see that my discussion of the metric system in the US evokes about as much interest in US citizens as catnip at a dog show. If the metric system were ever to be implemented in the US, I would like to see it implemented in a much better manner than much of the rest of the world has done. The problem is that this is not just unlikely, but in all likelihood, the word if, means never. To all the people of the rest of the world who are totally satisfied with their metric usage, I can only offer the quotation that is found everyday on the masthead of the Denver Post:

“There is no hope for the satisfied man.” Post founder Frederick G. Bonfils, 1861-1933