Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Letter to Polt: Metric On the Empire

[This started off as a response to Polt in a recent post... I thought I would expand on it.]

Polt: Thanks for the conversion from Celsius, your non-Metric American readers appreciate it. :)

Actually, as I was remarking to P-Doug the other day, in spite of the fact I was educated from start to finish in Metric, Celsius temps only "work" for me when it's cold. Zero is freezing? That makes sense to me. But 20... is that really warm, or do I need a jacket, or what? But I know 60 in Fahrenheit is about when I can go bare-armed, 70's pleasant, 80's hot. So I fall back to what Bob and Doug told me years ago on The Great White North album: "double it and add 30". 20, 20, 30, that's 70. Okay, jacket stays home. :D

I find my life is a curious and often contradictory mix of Metric and imperial. The imperial I come by strictly culturally; from the very first day I started school in the early 70s, I was taught in Metric and Metric only. I undertand the Metric system and I've often said "I have no sympathy for anyone who can't count to ten," but that said, I am in practical terms unfaithful to the official measurement system of my country...

I think this can be generally said of Canadians, though. I remember that in the 70s, for a while, it was actually illegal to put imperial weight and volumes on products, but evenutally the government relented and said it was permissible so long as the official Metric measurements were included. Now if they hadn't done that and they'd stuck to their guns, I probably wouldn't have the practical experience with imperial I do have, and I might not rely on it as much as I do.

Here's how it works for me. (Temperatures are discussed above, so I'll avoid redundancy on that score.)

Linear measurements: I tend to reckon speeds in kilometres, but distances in imperial: inches, feet, miles. Something about the direct proportion of 60 miles in 60 minutes is just too convenient to shake off, and I find myself multiplying kilometre measurements by 0.6 to get an idea of how many minutes that's going to take me to cover... what I'm really doing there is figuring out how many miles it is.

Volumes: litres work just fine for me for milk and gas, and pretty much anything else. But when it comes to beer and booze, you're talking ounces and pints (real pints, not those pissy little ones they have in the States). This, I think, is extremely common in Canada. Beer and pop are sold in 355 mL cans, but in reality, that's exactly 12 oz (US). There are some Metric sizes, of course, like litres and 750 mL bottles, but some 'comfy' standards die hard.

Weights: pounds. Pounds pounds pounds pounds pounds. I can picture holding a pound of butter in my palm; I know that that is. Kilograms... I don't know, I just never latched onto the concept. I know what I weigh in pounds (don't ask), I know how far a pound of meat goes, I know what a quarter pounder is, I know how many ounces an average chicken breast is.

The weight thing brings me to the heart of the matter. I think the reason I have such trouble really, practically adopting so many Metric measurements is that they seem divorced from everyday use. Metric was formulated out of scientific principles, usually tied to water (1 cubic centimetre of water at a certain temperature is 1 gram; it freezes or melts at 0 Celsius...). And on a logical level, I deeply admire that. But it results in measurements that don't seem practical to me. They're either too large, or too small. A gram is too ridiculously small. A kilogram, on the other hand, is too large. Conversely, an ounce is something you can typically hold in your fingertips; a pound, in the palm of your hand. A foot is easy to visualize; hold your hands out in front of you a comfortable distance, and that's about a foot. A metre is a little harder to visualize; again, it's just too big somehow. Even when I was a kid learning Metric in school, all the "Metric" rulers were 30 cm long... in other words, a foot. A square foot is easy to picture; a square metre rather more elusive (more on this in a moment, though). The only everyday Metric measurement I'm at home with is the litre, and that's probably because, by sheer serendipity, it's nearly the same as a quart... milk cartons got a little skinnier when I was a kid, enough that I could tell, but not enough that it made a difference carting it home from the store. So, all things considered, it's hard for me to imagine a time when imperial will be behind me.

Housing standards, even now, seem to have stayed almost completely imperial, though. But that said, something interesting happened several years ago when my parents put their house on the market. I was helping them measure the square footage of the rooms, and they told me that the Toronto Real Estate Board wanted the measurements in square metres. And I thought, who the hell wants to know the "square metreage" of a house? But when we came to do the math, I suddenly realized why they suggested it, and why we use Metric in the first place. Multiplying 387.4 cm by 258.5 cm is a piece of cake. Trying multiplying 15'9¼" by 11'3¾" sometime. But if you get the m², all you have to do to get the evil square footage is multiply by 10.7639104 (call it 10.75 and be done with it). 19.25 m² is about 207 square feet; two measurements, two math chores and you're done. Okay, sometimes, Metric wins. :)


James said...

Litres work just fine for me for milk and gas, and pretty much anything else
Kilograms... I don't know, I just never latched onto the concept.

The concept's really easy if you have litres: 1 litre weighs 1 kilogram.

Strictly speaking, 1 litre of water weighs 1 kilogram. But milk's close enough to water in density that it works for milk as well.

That's actually the original definition: 1 litre was defined as the 1000 cubic centimeters (ccs), and 1 gram was defined as the weight of cc of water (at room temperature at sea level, or some such caveat). So 1kg = 1000g = the weight of 1000 cc of water == the weight of 1 litre of water.

Polt said...

Wow....a post just for me! How special do I feel? :)

Thanks for the info. I tell you, in the 70's in elementary school, we were taught the Metric system. i understand how grams, centigrams, hectograms, etc, etc, relate to each other (as well as meters and liters), but I just can NOT get a hold of the conversions.

I know that a kiloliter is a 1000 liters, but a liter? it escapes me. I do know that a meter is about a yard long, so that gives me some frame of reference.

And as for temps, when i was in toronto in 2003, I was waiting for the elevator and got to talking to this older couple in thier 60's. They were British. At any rate, the guy gave me quick approximate converstion equations for figuring C to F and F to C. I wrote them down in a journal I take to Toronto every time, so I have them handy then. But otherwise, nope couldn't do a temp conversion for ya to save my life.

But thanks for taking all the time to figure those out. but just the fact you had to figure them out shows how much more confusing Metric makes life, eh? :)

Lone Primate said...

Well, we're living in an age when we're in transition. I honestly do believe that if you were to come back in 200 years, there'd be nobody seriously using imperial measurements. I do think they're going to go by the board. They are simply so much more logical to handle, in terms of the math (think of my area calculations for example). It's like when the British finally decimalized their currency in 1971. Before that they had pounds, shillings, and pence... 20 shillings in a pound, 12 pence in a shilling; it must have been madness trying to make change. I wonder if anyone seriously misses that mess.

I think the most stunning outcome of the changeover came when Mars Climate Orbiter crashed. I could not get over the fact that some people, in NASA, in the 1990s, were still doing calculations in imperial! You'd think someone would have hammered that down decades ago.

Lone Primate said...

The concept's really easy if you have litres: 1 litre weighs 1 kilogram.

That's a useful way of conceptualizing it. I don't know if it'll ever push pounds out of my mind as a typical means of guesstimation, but at least now I'm armed with an alternative.