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Monday, August 27, 2012

Wherein I Nod Sagely Whenever the Metric System is Mentioned...


Long, long ago, when large reptiles ruled the Earth and the nightlife was dull, dull, dull, the U.S. flirted with the Metric System.

The elementary schools were abuzz with it. No more inches or feet. No more how-many-pints-to-a-quart or how many fluid hectares to a tablespoon. No. We would join the rest of the civilized world in the supremely logical world of the Metric System, where life would be measured by 10s and 100s and all kinds of other numbers ending in zero. We would, at last, have a common language.

And so, at the insistence of my parents and an un-wielding school system, I attended school – in Brainerd, Minnesota, yet! Home of Bus Brawls and Dirt-Road Trailer Courts – and endeavored to learn the Metric System.

And I did. I learned the Metric System (seems like that should be capitalized, doesn’t it? Like Brotherhood of Man or Emergency Exit). I believe I did quite well at it, too, capably computing how many pounds to a kilogram (2.2 and a smidge more) and how many centimeters to a meter (seven). I may be a little off there – it’s been a while since the fourth grade! – but no matter, as it's all come to naught anyway…

Whatever happened to our Metric System?

Here we are, how many years later, and the U.S. is no closer to the Metric System than we are to that hover suit I was sure I would have by now. Outside of telling you how much Diet Coke is in a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke (two liters), I no longer even know what a centimeter looks like or whether or not it has more legs than a millimeter… Speaking of which, I had one of those in my basement the other day. Ack! Not a fan of insects.

You know, if we’d just kept at it, we’d all be used to it by now and we wouldn’t look like maroons when people from other countries say things like “Oh, it’s about 75 kilometers from here” or “He’s over two meters tall”. We’re thinking, so how far away is that in real life? And isn’t two meters really short?

I defy you to find a typical U.S. citizen who has a concept of either of those measurements.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

And in the meantime, what say you and I grab a quick pint, huh?

50 comments:

Joanne Noragon said...

Oh dear. I thought you were from the bi-measuring generation. Both systems make perfect sense to my daughters. I fear metrics win with my grandchildren, who will pop around the corner for a quick half. Liter that is.

Vicus Scurra said...

Pearl! It is not just that the US is out of step with the rest of the planet, but that they cannot even grasp the concept of how long a foot is.
I am still waiting for my replies from CNN:

http://vicusscurra.blogspot.co.uk/2006/03/another-crabby-comment.html

http://vicusscurra.blogspot.co.uk/2006/03/i-am-not-obsessed.html

joeh said...

I think the problem was in trying to teach the conversion. We all know (as you point out) how much coke is in a 2 liter bottle...2 liters!

Instead we learned a meter is a big yard...etc etc instead of this is a meter, a meter is a meter.

Amy said...

In the optical world we use millimeters for everything. On some of the exams they will ask the question in inches, and then one has the dubious task of converting. It's something I retain just long enough to take tests, and file it in my "will commit to memory later" file.

Shelly said...

I vividly remember my 7th grade math teacher telling us how, by the time we were adults, yards and feet would be relegated to the history books.

Add that disappointment to the keeness of the letdown I still feel of the failure of the Jetson's hover cars to emerge, and you'll see why I've had to block out a large portion of my middle school years.

Pearl said...

Joanne, alas, we started in one direction and finished in the other!

VS, I am smiling already. Off to check these links out...

joeh, I agree! I feel the same way about "baby talk". Just use the real word!!

Amy, I did that with a whole year's worth of pre-calc. :-)

Pearl said...

Shelly, :-) I blacked out a large portion of my 30s for the same reason: disappointment. :-)

Happy Frog and I said...

Technically I know how to use both but I always end up avoiding the metric system for some reason. It is always pints, stones and pounds and miles for me. I'm not speaking for everyone in the UK mind, that would be weird.

vanilla said...

Oh, I suppose I am not the typical US citizen within the framework you suggest, for I do know. But then, I was one of the teachers charged with the responsibility of getting you to learn the system back in the age of reason and logic. We all know how that worked out.

ellen abbott said...

um. actually I think there are 100 centimeters to a meter. but don't ask me to convert that to inches or yards.

Simply Suthern said...

I grew up during the 70-80s period when the bolts on cars were 50-50, english and metric. Now I seldom use my fractional wrenches.

I much prefer the metric system for engineering. The units convert so easily. I can do either one but it would sure be nice to just pick one.

haphazardlife said...

I'm of the generation who grew up with the two here in Canada. I weigh myself in pounds, but meat in kilos, I drive in km and km/hr - miles take forever (20 miles is soooo long!), I'm 5'6" tall but buy fabric in meters and have no idea of how many yards I'd need.

Silliyak said...

Start by keeping track of how many liters of chicken soup you're consuming, copious amounts I hope. Which makes me wonder about the cats feelings about chicken. One of ours is strickly seafood (bonita flakes!) and we have just discovered some chicken based treats that the other likes (the store owner calls them kitty crack)

Sparkle Farkle said...

The day my school teacher nuns threatened us St. Jeromers with the "M"etric "S"ystem was the day I turned into Chicken Little covering my head from pieces of the falling sky! Old math, new math, it didn't matter. All math scared me. Still does. Just writing this means I'm going to have to run next door and borrow a cup of Xanax! (And, yes, I will be shielding my noggin as I bound across the lawns to her front door.)

Eva Gallant said...

I hope the conversion never happens in my lifetime (well, that probably means in the next 20 years, if I'm lucky), or I'll be totally lost! I can't tell a liter from a kilometer!

Buttons said...

You should move to Canada to brush up on your skills we have it. I must say weighing in in Kilos makes me sound much lighter:) B

Buttons said...

Wow just read Happy frogs comment I wonder what I weigh in stones? :) B

CarrieBoo said...

Aha! Now with pint, you're talkin'. After moving back and forth between Canada and England, I thoroughly confused about measurements, and then England even went and changed it at some point, I think. I can't be sure. I'm too confused! I always thought millimeters were kind of cute. :)

14 pounds to a stone, I think. But better to throw away the scales altogether.

Indigo Roth said...

Hey Pearl!

American pints? A ladies' measure. It's 16 fl.Oz, right?

In the UK, it's 20 fl.Oz! Hell yeah!

"A pint of water weights a pound and a quarter" as my mother taught me. I probably looked at her funny, as I was raised on metric.

I have no memory of how many pecks are in a bushel, but as a peck is a small kiss, I can only assume a bushel is at least second base. So, quite a few.

Roth x

bill lisleman said...

The metric is easier to use once you are in it. But if you don't grow up thinking and experiencing in those measurements it's very hard to relate. Relating to a pint is much easier and tastier for me.

esbboston said...

I was able to find out there are 676,280,454.05 US Tablespoons in a Hectare Meter.

By the way, maroon is probably my favorite color. Do you have a favorite color?

jabblog said...

We 'went metric' in UK many decades ago but still little children will say their daddies are '6 feet tall' so I don't think it's really 'taken' yet. We went decimal in our currency and HAD to adapt - there was no choice. We stopped converting in our heads - it was too horrendous to realise how expensive everything now was!!

Geo. said...

As long as plumbing is gauged in inches we'll never go entirely metric.

Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

Now Pearl, don't worry.

The rest of the world knows how insular and introspective and even stubborn you lovely Americans can be, so the issue of Metric versus Imperial measurement is as nothing compared to the balls-up your lovely State department is making ver Assange.

We all still love you. (speaking metaphorically)

I do believe that in the sciences, metric has long since been supreme, even in the USA.

Ian Lidster said...

I hate the fucking metric system. We had it 'imposed' on us in Canada a few years ago -- a ploy to suck up to the French -- and I still can't handle it. I don't 'think' metric. I'm happy when we're in the US and distances are noted in miles because I still think miles, not bloody kilometres. I don't know what a km looks like, but I know what a mile does. That's my rant. Thank you.

Douglas said...

It's just a system of expression. The distance from your house to the store (or the nearest bar) is the same no regardless of whether you use kilometers or miles. It will take you just as long to get there. Weights feel the same whether they are in grams or ounces. The amount of water, whether it is called 500 ML or 1 pint,.9 fl oz, in that flimsy plastic bottle of (probably tap) water is the same.

Bodacious Boomer said...

I remember when we were told that we'd have to learn metric here in the US. They even tried it here for a week or so in our class; then it went the way of the dodo like Esperanto did here.

wendy house said...

There's a wierd irony in the USA fighting for Independence from the UK then keeping the Imperial metrics whilst the UK officially dropped most of them. It's cost the USA a lot of money on NASA projects with conversion errors ...

The Jules said...

As a seventies baby in England, I tend to use both. It's a seamless arrangement, like a forced marriage twixt a squid and a koala.

A person's height is always in feet and inches, my car travels in miles per hour but I often use kilometers for distance. Weight is in grams and kg unless its a person's weight, where it's in stones.

Microwave timing is always done in furlongs.

jenny_o said...

I just missed being schooled in metric here in Canada, but have gotten used to distance, speed, fabric, and meat in the "new" system, only because I had to. I rather like the Jeopardy questions that ask how many feet in a mile because my kids don't know and I do. For a change.

Actually distance is easier in kilometers. When I used to try to figure out how much longer it would take to get to where I was going, the math that was required - with speed in mph and minutes as 1/60th of an hour - was enough to nearly put me off the road :)

Friko said...

Ha, that's nothing compared to the agony of a meter maid who has been transplanted to a land of inches and gallons and threepenny bits and has to make sense of everyday living.

As for the billions of times I've broken the speed limit because I'm never sure if the speedometer is talking about miles or kms, you really don't want to know.

Oodles! (now there's a nice, easy to understand unit of measurement)

Roshni AaMom said...

A pint? As in....how many ml in that one?! :P

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Sure, I'm reasonably good with the metric system. That's what we used in the hospital, and that's what we use in amateur radio. But I'm AWFUL at remembering how to convert from metric to the (ahem) "real" units.

Gigi said...

I remember when they tried to pull that stunt on us in school. I probably cried. I don't do math at all and had a hard enough time with the multiplication tables, much less figuring all that out.

My husband just bought a car that is Canadian. I hopped in it the other day to run somewhere and was totally flummoxed because the speedometer was in KMs!

Al Penwasser said...

The Metric System (heck, I'll capitalize it, too) is a fine system. Even though I'm an American, I think it makes a lot of sense and I wouldn't mind if we went to it. But, that being said.....we will NEVER adopt it. You know why? Football. Seriously, can you imagine, "Well, it's third and 3 meters." Nope, don't see it. Even CANADIAN football uses yards.
Come to think of it, THEY use the Metric System everywhere else. And they have French people (NOTE: I realize that probably makes no sense).
I may need to rethink my position.

Al Penwasser said...

Another "Come To Think of It": wasn't the Metric System designed by the French? A-HA!!!
NOTE: And I realize THAT probably doesn't make any sense, either.

Hilary said...

When the metric system was introduced to Canada, I thought I'd never adjust. That was almost 40 years ago (I'm stunned to discover that it's been that long) and I suppose I've pretty much adjusted but I still think in terms of the length of a yard over a meter and I tend to translate centemetres to inches.. unless it's 10cm.. then I know that's how wide I had to dilate before giving birth. I'm dead serious. I imagine the width of a newborn's head to determine 10cm. It saves me translating it to 4 inches. ;)

Lin said...

Oh, I remember the metric system! I think I was in the fourth grade when they tried brain-washing us with that stuff. It's a good thing that it never succeeded because I'd have to remember all that stuff along with how many quarts are in a gallon and what the heck is a pint, anyway? I'm lucky I can figure out what my name is--how the heck can I do all that too???

HermanTurnip said...

Metric System?! Metric System! What are you, a Communist? (you can't see it, but I'm scowling and wagging a yardstick in your direction)

Charlotte Ann said...

Brainerd? Isn't that the home of teh Blue Ox..and Paul Bunyon? Hubby works with a guy from there!...
Oh..yeah..metrics...
About that Blue Ox......

The Elephant's Child said...

For our sins we do have the metric system. And some of it I am fine with, but I cannot deal with height in centimetres. Brain blockage of big dimmensions. Sigh.

Symdaddy said...

As a child of the Imperial age I was bludgeoned into becoming a Metric-an.

Now, after a long journey through adulthood measured in kilometer's rather than miles, I find it difficult to recall the pounds and ounces that once were the measures used to dole out the sweeties I used to buy.

Yet (and this never ceases to amaze me) there are so many people, younger than I am, that have no idea how to deal with something as simple as a centimeter and persist in using feet and inches, ounces and pounds, pints and gallons.

It's amazing that such a progressive (don't laugh) country as the USA is still firmly embedded in the old system whilst everyone else has become metric-ised.

NotesFromAbroad said...

I am a US citizen, living in a Metric land.
My husband figured it out long ago, I am clueless.
Symdaddy just doesn't want to admit that he is smarter than the average non-metric person..
I will continue to be non-metricized .. just because.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

What sucks is that because we couldn't agree, we are stuck having to learn BOTH systems and NEITHER make much sense to me. So I'm size/distance/volume challenged for life now.

mybabyjohn/Delores said...

Canada went metric a few years ago. Anyone 50 and over still talks in pounds, feet, gallons etc.... When we hear the weather report and the announcer says 23 degrees celcius we look at each other and say "what's that in real temperature?" and we all reach for our pocket conversion booklets.

Diane said...

haphazardlife said it all for me! Thank you BTW. And two meters is really tall! I know because I have a son two meters tall. Plus two inches. :)

River said...

joeh is right, teaching the conversion almost never works well. I'm reasonably comfortable with both metric and imperial measuring systems. A pint is 600 ml, well it is here in Aus, 2 pints make a quart, because 8 pints is a gallon. A litre (liter)is 1000ml or an Aussie pint and a half. A metre is 100 centimetres, a decent hem on a girls skirt is 4 inches which is 10 centimetres, plenty of let-down there.

Tempo said...

Australia kept at it and we like it very much thank you Europe... (that was the only good thing we got from Europe) It was easy for me as I was a kid but the older generation had some trouble adapting to the 26 hour day with a 51 minute hour, apart from that little hiccup it was quite smooth.

Chef Files said...

We've gone metric?

Sextant said...

It's all in what your used to. At work the mechanical engineers measured flows in gallons per minute and temperature in Fahrenheit. The sparkies (electrical engineers) had no concept of Fahrenheit beyond what they saw on the weather report and wanted all electrical measurements corrected to temperatures in Centigrade.

We measured leak off flows in cc/unit of time. I have a pretty good idea what 1 cc 5cc 10cc and 100 cc look like . I couldn't begin to guess how many tablespoons, ounces, or teaspoons such volumes would be.

All our drawings were inches but occasionally a foreign customer would want the measurements in mm. The mm measurements didn't make much sense especially with threaded fasteners.