Furlongs per fortnight

Last night, I ran across this stupid petition at the White House’s We the People site:

The United States is one of the few countries left in the world who still have not converted to using the Metric System as a standardized system of measurement. Instead of going along with what the rest of the world uses, we stubbornly still adhere to using the imprecise Imperial Unit - despite the fact that practically every other country that we interact with uses Metric.

Why should we convert to using the Metric System? Because it’s superior, less convoluted - everything is ordered in units of tens, while the chaotic arrangement of the Imperial System slows things down for us - not only in terms of education, but also businesses, science, foreign relations, and daily life.

Why do I say it’s stupid? Let me count the ways:

  1. The United States doesn’t use Imperial Units, it uses US Customary Units. For most types of measurement the two are the same, but there are differences. The distinct difference between Imperial gallons and US gallons was indelibly etched in my mind back in the 70s when I had to buy gas while on vacation in Canada.
  2. There’s nothing imprecise about US Customary Units. We don’t still define inches as the breadth of the king’s thumb.
  3. Because trade and manufacturing are global, metric units already are common in industry. I see lots of engineering drawings of machine parts, and it’s normal for dimensions to be given in millimeters.
  4. For the most part, these petitions are just masturbation. They aren’t how bills get written.
  5. A law (the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act) was passed in 1988 declaring (in Subtitle B, Part 1, Subpart F, if you’re scoring at home) the metric system the preferred system for weights and measures for US commerce, thus proving how effective these sorts of laws are.

My tweet about this,

Get your facts straight, petitioners. We use US Customary Units, not Imperial, and they’re as precise as metric units. petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-…
Dr. Drang (@drdrang) Thu Jan 3 2013 11:21 PM CST

was interpreted by several people as a sort of cranky anti-metric rant. While I fully admit to being cranky, I’m not anti-metric, just anti-stupid.

@drdrang @tofias My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it!
Joe Ura (@joeura) Fri Jan 4 2013 11:19 AM CST

I will say, though, that the main attraction of the metric system, the decimalization of units, isn’t nearly as important as it was when the system was introduced or even during America’s big metrication push when I was a teenager. You’re looking at the reason right now—you might be holding it in your hand. Ubiquitous computing makes it easy to convert between the great menagerie of inches, feet, miles, acres, gallons, ounces, pounds, tons, ounces (the other ones), and so on. Not only is it a snap to do the necessary multiplications and divisions, you don’t even have to remember the conversion factors.

I’ll also admit to a fondness for traditional units. They arose organically to meet specific needs. Inches are for things we hold in our hands, feet are for the buildings we live in, and miles are for our towns. There’s a certain rightness to using different units on different scales rather than just sliding a decimal point one way or the other. The metric system was imposed from above by an elite; customary units were crowdsourced.