Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Question for Metric Snobs

I was reading this article in Cracked, entitled 5 Bad Ideas Humanity is Sticking With Out of Habit.

The top idea in this category, or course, is the imperial system of weights and measures. In Australia and Europe, this is always a source of much snickering at the US - can you believe they still use feet and inches, pounds and ounces? How gauche! How jejune!

There is no doubt that the imperial system is clumsy and ungainly. As a very smart mathematician friend of mine once put it, 'I'll switch to the imperial system when you can tell me how many ounces there are in 4.356234 tons'. The point being that it's trivial to tell you how many milligrams there are in 4.356234 tonnes.

Part of this is simply familiarity though. If you're doing scientific calculations, metric rules the roost. But if you just need to keep track of what you weigh, or how big a packet of sugar you need to purchase, it honestly doesn't make much difference.

The question is not "Having gone through the fixed cost of switching, do you agree the new way is better?". The question is "Do the benefits of switching outweigh the fixed cost?". And to see if Americans really are backward in that question, you need to compare attitudes in areas where neither society has made the switch.

Cracked suggests one easy one - ditching the QWERTY keyboard. As the article notes, the QWERTY keyboard was designed to minimise the chances you'd hit two keys next to each other due to typing consecutive letters in a word, since this would jam old style typewriters. But it results it incredibly inefficient finger use, because the letters you use a lot (vowels like e, o, i and u) aren't in easy to reach positions. Designs like Dvorak are much better for that.

So, hands up all the Europeans and Australians who are up for a mandated, wholesale switch of keyboards?

Yeah, I thought not.

Or to take an even more extreme example that's not in the Cracked article, Decimal Time. This is the process of dividing a day into 10 hours, with each hour having 100 minutes, and each minute having 100 seconds. When done this way, the decimal second is equal to 0.864 standard seconds, and there are 100,000 decimal seconds in the day.

With decimal time, the last piece of the puzzle for calculations falls into place! If you want to work out speeds in kilometres per hour, or kilometres per second, the whole thing just cancels out! Everything becomes divisible by 10, and society gets this benefit for ever, just like when they switched to the metric system of measurements.


Are you eager to throw away all your watches, and be mandated to give times in decimal time on pain of getting a fine? Probably not. And that's exactly how the Americans feel about switching to the metric system of other things.

Personally, I'd be up for a switch in all of them - Dvorak, Decimal time, the whole lot.

But if you're not, you may want to ease up on the Yanks.


  1. Well said. Also, the French came up with that decimal time thing, but even they didn't adopt it. By the way, they're also responsible for the metric system.

    1. Yeah, apparently decimal time was a bridge too far even for them. More's the pity really, it would have made things a lot easier.