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.

8 thoughts on “Fading Away

  1. Thank you for logging all of your work in one place for future reference!

    I only discovered your blog a few years ago, but I’ve referenced it multiple times at work in service of the cause of metrication. I’m in an awful situation where I work in a customary country (the US) in an industry that is mainly metric (satellites) at a company that is mainly statue, in a department that is mainly metric, on a project that is mainly statute. What’s even worse is that I came here from the rarest of gems: A US aerospace company that was entirely metric, so I know how good it can be.

    Your blog has been a valuable source in the long and ongoing Sisyphean task of bringing metric to my current company. So thanks again for everything you’ve written!

  2. A fellow (who was trying to sell me a Dvorak keyboard) once told me about a man who kept hitting himself on the head with a ball peen hammer, because it felt so good when he stopped.
    Let us know if stopping makes you feel better. 🙂

  3. Maven; I will miss your monthly blogs. I’ve really enjoyed reading them and refer to them from time to time when I need clarification on “facts,” that I come across in both print and conversations with those in opposition to SI. I’ve commented in the past about the negative replies that I’ve received from the senators and representatives that are from my state of Alabama. About the only way I see the U.S. going metric is if the rest of the world totally boycotts the U.S. in trade, tourism, and everything else until we are forced to adopt SI. I have visited Canada, the U.K. and New Zealand and they are also not totally metric, but are further along than the U.S.
    Wish you the best of luck in whatever you have planned for your future.

  4. A simple “thank you” for all your effort is in order here. To say I’m sorry to see you go is an understatement of vast proportions but let me tell you, I understand the sentiment. Best of luck in all your future endeavors. I have a lot more to say, but fail to have the motivation to find the words.

  5. Metric Maven,

    “cyber-sea” is well-chosen, but you wrongfully discredit yourself. Having discovered this blog in August, I have read every essay available on the site- and have become such a metric advocate I now own a gram-scale, two millimeter-only tape measures, and a millimeter-only cutting board.

    Your articles have influenced me greatly, and have made me a Metric and millimeter advocate. America has many issues, governance and folly among them, but that is no reason to be disheartened- if you can make someone a metric advocate as strongly as I, I and others will soon make taught-metric-only babies, then by the next generation Metrication might be popular again. I tell my friends and family to metrify, so far I have taught one Celsius, but it is a start, since the merits of Metric are now so obvious!

    I cannot lament enough the difficulties of being metric in America though. Finding metric-only measurement items is hard enough (millimeter-labeled items I would not have found without the links you provided). Having others understand metric units in common speech is even harder.

    As in idea for a future post, do you mind covering the differences between American and Metric measures of paper grammage (areal density)? So absurd are the US measures that even my book-binding teacher and a professional printer sincerely believe there is no standards for paper density (despite there clearly being a metric standard for the rest of the world). It would be nice to understand how Metric consumers have it compared to Customary consumers… wait you already covered this in “The Metric Paper Tiger”.

    Perhaps if future articles covered specific pursuits where Metric would be an improvement (like the ppm to mg/m³ Article, “Parts is Parts”, which I loved, or “Metric Cooking”), even just from a consumer standpoint, it might draw more who would otherwise not consider Metric.

    While knowing no promise of future articles, I eagerly await to next!

  6. There was a joke doing the rounds in the 1980s about IBM. “Q. How many people are needed at IBM to change a failed light bulb. A. None. IBM declares darkness standard.” And we all know what happened to IBM. In 1993, it declared an $8 billion loss, then the largest in US corporate history. For IBM’s exceptionalism and hubris in the 1980s, read US exceptionalism and hubris in relation to its measurement “system” during the last decade. But from abroad, things look very different. 95% of the world’s population live in countries that have adopted the metric system, and in these countries most people use the metric system in their daily lives. With each passing year, usage of the metric system increases around the world. So don’t lose heart, Randy. The end of USC could come suddenly, like the fall of IBM, and it could come sooner than you think.

    • Thanks for brightening my otherwise dreary day with some words of motivation and hope!

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