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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

"A kilogram of flesh" sort of breaks up the iambic pentameter, I guess

A couple of quick other-peoples'-blogs related notes before I carry on with the uninteresting substance of this post (this week, a rant!).

Last week I had the interesting new experience of having mine be someone's blog of the day. Bill found my blog searching for the Peanuts strip I used in last month's the comic strip nameaquote game and dropped me an e-mail. Fascinating, entertaining guy and his is a fascinating, entertaining blog (linked over on the bloglist on the right). He's a church musician (check out his website - I'd love to put together a group like Fly By Light someday), a fellow adult ADD-ian, and his kids must have scriptwriters working for them. Spend some time perusing the archives on his site - very much worth your time.

In other blog-ish news, tomorrow will mark the unveiling of Jesse Klosterboer's new blog, which will be focused on discussing the sort of fundamental life issues that his mind gravitates towards like no one else I've ever met. Sounds like it will be a very cool format - Jesse will lay out his thoughts and feelings about the issue du jour and then (in theory, at least) the comments will be a lively discussion and everyone will end up having learned something new and having been exposed to new thoughts and viewpoints and generally better people. I'll add a URL to my URList as soon as Jesse sends me one.

And on to the rambling nonsense - this week, Meaningless Musings takes on the metric system!

I was first introduced to the idea that the metric system is fundamentally better than the Old English system (the one we generally use now - feet and ounces and quarts and miles and whatnot (it's also commonly called just the English system, but to avoid sounding like I'm talking about how they measure things in Britain (which, to make things more confusing, I sort of am - but they have their own super-quirky system with stone and crumpets and things) I'll use the longer name)) in sixth grade. Miss Koshatka was talking to our science class (I don't believe it was anything fancier than just "science." Maybe General Science or Really, Really Basic Science or something. We were just sixth graders, after all, and not sixth graders in a world-class school district by any means) and she explained to us how horribly backwards and wrong the U.S. was to not yet have switched over to the metric system. All of Europe uses the metric system! she told us. It's so much better! It's easier! It's more fun! It goes with any color pants! We must must MUST all start using the metric system and we must do so NOW or we might as well just let the Enemy march right in!

Obviously I exaggerate a little, but the basic idea that we were somehow functionally lacking as a nation because of our choice of measuring systems really hit me. Wow, I thought, I hadn't realized I was doing anything wrong. So for the next few weeks I dutifully learned about grams and kilograms and meters and liters and corrected my parents when they used Old English units and generally tried to be a good little 11-year-old citizen.

Over the rest of my academic life I've heard the same spiel again and again, albeit never again with nearly as much political rhetoric: the Old English system is fundamentally inferior to the metric system. The U.S. is doing itself a disservice by stubbornly resisting change, but certainly the day is just around the corner when we'll open our collective eyes and beat our yardsticks into plowshares and join the global community. I really don't think I've ever had a science teacher since Miss Koshatka fail to make some variant on that speech, and every time I hear it I think it's more ridiculous than the time before. Let's examine some of the arguments for metricizing, what say?

The main argument (indeed, I don't think I've ever heard the "We suck 'cause we're not with the times, measuring-stuff-wise" argument made without this point being front and center) is that unit conversion is very easy with the metric system. 1000 meters in a kilometer makes it very easy to determine that there are 3879.24 meters in 3.87924 kilometers, or - if you really want to have some fun - 387,924 centimeters! 30 milliliters is 0.03 liters - or 30 cubic centimeters! One minute is... well, still 60 seconds. They didn't mess with that.

Being the good little sheep (na-na na-na na-na-na-na - Leader!) that I was, it took me years to question the intrinsic value of those easy conversions, but once I started thinking about it, I realized that I was often having a strong "who cares?" reaction. 1.7 kilometers is 1700 meters? Who cares? I can't think of a single thing that I would ordinarily measure in kilometers but need to also know in meters, or vice-versa. The two units are used in totally different reference frames - it's 160 kilometers to Waverly, she's 1.8 meters tall. Easy though it is to convert in my head and say it's 160,000 meters to Waverly and she's .0018 kilometers tall, those numbers are meaningless unless they're converted back. In fact, I think the metric system suffers from not having a sub-meter unit bigger than the centimeter (indeed, I wonder why the decimeter isn't ever used for just that reason). Feet and yards are both in that convenient Gets Used Every Day range where even though the conversion is a mentally taxing three feet to a yard they're still both useful. More so than, say, the easily-converted-betwixt nano- and micrometer.

Same thing with weights. 1000 grams in a kilogram? Great! Who cares? Things are either grams or kilograms; it's nifty but not useful that the conversion's easy. Liquid measure is sort of muddled since the soda companies have familiarized us with liters (trying, no doubt, to save us from intellectual Purgatory. Bless them), but again I'm not convinced that the cup-pint-quart-gallon system is worse than the milliter-liter one. Just like with feet and yards, allowing a measure to be twice another instead of a thousand times more than another creates several units all within a practical, useable range. I am sort of surprised that gasoline companies haven't figured out yet that people would probably think gas at 90 cents a liter was a steal, though.

My favorite, though, is the Old English vs. metric temperature comparison. With temperature the metric system loses its ace - there aren't kiloCentigrade degrees (I guess those'd be 1000 degrees, though) - and so to maintain the moral high ground the boiling and freezing points of water ("Boiling and freezing points at STP," it was once explained to me by a high school science teacher, which made me sad for us as a society but was pretty funny) were set at zero and 100 degrees. This, of course, is the only logical way to set those numbers. Two of my science professors (one at Wartburg, one at Kirkwood) have waxed rhapsodic on this emminently logical choice. How Herr Fahrenheit must be rolling in his grave to think that his temperature system has random numbers like 32 and 212 as the state-changing points for water!

Good grief. And also who cares?

The freezing point of water is absolutely an important temperature in daily life - at least in daily winter life up here in the Midwest. But I don't know of anyone who had trouble as a child remembering that 32 degrees is where water freezes. I'd wager that anyone who did would probably have trouble remembering zero as a freezing point, too. The boiling point of water is important in various culinary arts like making raman noodles or macaroni and cheese, to be sure, but it certainly isn't something one needs to know the temperature for. I've never used a cooking thermometer when boiling water; I put some water in a pot and put the pot on a stove and when it's no longer Not Boiling Yet then I assume that it's boiling. Couldn't care less whether that happens at 100 degrees or 212 degrees. I think there is logic in the Kelvin system - setting absolute zero as the zero point - but absolute-zero-like temperatures being pretty much exclusively the realm of research facilities and Eau Claire, Wisconsin it's an impractical system for most of us.

I'll concede that zero and 100 are handy reference point temperatures, but I think that's just another argument for the Fahrenheit system. Zero degrees Fahrenheit is a reasonable cutoff temperature between tolerable and really freaking cold. Zero degrees Centigrade is just freezing - chilly, to be sure, but not necessarily even heavy coat weather (at least here in Iowa). Zero degrees Fahrenheit and temperatures below are temperatures not to be trifled with. On the other end, 100 degrees Centigrade is far past lethally warm; it's a useless number for daily use. 100 Fahrenheit is the high-end cutoff between tolerable and intolerable. So without meaning disrepect to my learned professors, I'd argue that setting zero and 100 at the endpoints of tolerable functioning temperatures makes more sense than setting them at the freezing and boiling points of water. Let the water molecules use Centigrade in their little water molecule communities.

Obviously, I don't want to hold us back from achieving intellectual glory, but I'm unconvinced that being able to quickly calculate how many dimes could be laid on end between here and Chicago is the key to clearing the path. Next time you hear the We're Hopelessly Behind The Rest Of The World speech, roll your eyes at the speaker for me, okay?

I hope I didn't steal Jesse's first idea for a significant concept for discussion with this post...

Comments:
I love the leader!
 
Hmmm... while you do make impressive(-ly circuitous) arguments to the contrary, I kinda *like* the metric system. Maybe I've gone native... but I think the use of kilometers-per-hour as opposed to miles-per-hour promotes safer driving by giving drivers the ability to mention casually that they were "cruisin' down the autobahn at 150..." without endangering life and limb. Like, more testosterone for your buck! Or Euro.
 
Greg - but do you love the leader more than this new.... Hover-bike?

Jess - I'm not saying I don't like the metric system, I'm just expressing how silly I think the opinion that it's somehow intrinsically superior is. I hadn't considered the testosterrificness of using kilometers instead of miles (similarly, last summer backpacking in Banff we got tremendous mileage (pun intended) out of noting how very many kilometers we'd hiked in a given day), but I don't think that outweighs the advantages of having some units that aren't a factor of 1000 apart from each other.
 
If only our planet was equipped with lengthy sentient flyswatters, then these sorts of thoughts would not be allowed to come to fruition in such a flagrant violation of group think. I will comment on time, which got merely a mention in your blog. I have whiled away many an hour pondering metric time (before even the Simpsons poked fun at the idea). The idea seems so simple instead of separations of 60/60/24 the system would be base 10. This situation seems to meet the vary criteria you mentioned. Adding minutes hours and days is something that is not all together foreign, ex. scheduling. For a more frivolous example: movie times. It would be nice if a running time of 123 minutes meant an hour and 23 minutes and not two hours and three minutes. The time I spent doing that conversion was precious and it all could have been avoided had we just used metric time.

So if we consider metric time for a moment we are presented with problems. For instance we need a new unit. I will call the new unit the crod for the purpose of this discussion in honor of the blogger. It doesn’t matter what duration the crod is because it’s metric the scalability is infinite in both directions. If we arbitrarily pick a day to be ten crods then a week is 70 crods and 100 days are a kilocrod. Meanwhile we have 1,000 centacrods in a day and 10,000 millicrods in a day. I have no idea if we would run into problems pertaining to there not being a unit that is fundamentally useful in measurement for daily tasks. It would certainly be an adjustment that would not go unnoticed, which I am told is why they didn’t change it during the French Revolution when they did everything else. A centacrod (if I did the math right) would be about a minute and 26 seconds long, and a decicrod would be about 14 and a half minutes. Once again we may see the need for a unit between the decicrod and the crod. That is really small potatoes compared to the time zone problem. Do we want 10 time zones or 100 time zones? To have 100 time zones would be ridiculous, and if there were only 10 we might as well do away with the whole idea of time zones all together. Now that’s an idea with merit, but it does enter us into a completely new topic so I think I will conclude my rant.
 
Nope, nope, nope. It all falls apart because you're still using the 7-day week. If you're going to go decicentric (yes, I just invented that word), then do it!
 
Yes, yes, yes… we could go to a ten day week then a week would be a hectocrod. A ten day week with a three day weekend would be roughly equivalent to a seven day week with a two day weekend, but then we have upset every major religion I can think of, and at the end of the year we still run into problems. A year by definition would have to be 365 decacrods, 36.5 hectocrods, or 3.65 kilocrods. Perhaps if we were to use our technology to affect the earth’s rotation around the sun and perhaps the rotation of the planet as well we could create a world that would be more metric sensitive. Though it would create the added problem of naming the extra three days of the week that we create.
 
Mark, when are *you* getting a blog, hmmm????? And if we're going to dink around with the earth's rotation around the sun, could we also maybe tinker with that pesky roundness a bit so we could do away with time zones altogether? it would really make my life easier...
 
Did you know that a kilobyte is equal to 1,024 bytes?

Just when you thought the metric system was making the universe more orderly...
 
I'm willing to offer my name up for one of the new days of the week. I'm selfless that way.

And of course, one of the new days should be Rodday.

And I guess Mark should get the other day for coming up with the hectocrod in the first place.

So that takes care of that.
 
If I get a day then I have to decide if I would like to call it Markday or DeVriesday. Markday doesn’t seem right, and DeVriesday is too long so I think I would shorten my day to Deday.
 
Dave, as always you have the facts with you. 1024 is 2 to the 10th power though so it is kind of like the metric system in binary.
 
Mark, but doesn't it make you wonder how far a kilometer really is?

As a further thought, it occurs to me that we should never let the Metric System folks get hold of the calendar, because they'd be certain to arrange things so that every year had the same number of days (or centiyears or whatever). Then there would be no leap years, and Emily would never have a birthday.

She wouldn't like that.
 
I would like to apologize for my original comment of this post. Apparently the first sentence doesn’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy movie, and if you have seen the movie then it’s just dumb.

So we must carry on with the knowledge that perhaps a kilometer is 1024 meters and the fact that February 29th exists, even if somewhat sparingly, is vitally important to some people.
 
You have forgotten the one key advantage to the metreic system... it is very easy to double cookie recipes...500 g. of flour becomes 1 kg very easily!

If I had to deal with pounds and ounces I'd probably end up adding too few chocolate chips or something equally as disasterous (like crashing a Mars lander).
 
Fair point, I guess, although I usually just add the originally-called-for amount twice if it's not an easily doubled quantity. Never feels like I'm wasting an egregious amount of time, but I certainly agree that if the metric system can lead to larger batches of chocolate chip cookies that's a powerful argument.
 
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