The Strategic Retreat

In defense of American measurements

American rubbish bin

Europeans love to tell Americans about American flaws. You can’t spend 1 hour in a Thai hostel without some Dane letting you know that your country is doing everything wrong. Which, can be OK; pointing out flaws from a different perspective can be beneficial. Maybe you’ll see something you’ve never noticed before. But, more often than not, they aren’t looking for a discussion but an opportunity for beratement. It’s not so much pointing out something from a different angle but explaining how everything in your country should be the way it’s done in their country. They know how they do things and refuse to accept that different circumstances require different approaches. Only mad dogs and Englishmen don’t adapt to the facts on the ground. Young Euros just love diatribes pointed at, what they view as, a personification of a country. Nothing gets them going like a soliloquy based upon a steadfast, unwavering argument untailored to a specific audience. Except maybe generalizing groups of people, all Europeans love to generalize and stereotype based on nationality. Every last one of them.

Regardless of their position’s merits or the opinion of the harangued they will give pre-canned condescending speeches. I guess you don’t build empires without a desire to force your will upon others. But in real life there are a thousand facets to every story and there are some legitimate reasons why Americans do some of the things we do. In the real world there are benefits to imperial weights and measures and we’re not just doing it to piss you off.

I’m not saying American measurements are better than SI measurements. I am saying that they are better for certain things. If you ever reach a point where you believe one side is 100% right and the other 100% wrong, you really need to re-evaluate how you look at the world. In my day-to-day life I find benefits for both American and European measurements. Some methods of measurements are better in SI and some better in imperial. On a spaceship, SI is always better. On an 1850s farm, Imperial is almost always better. I live on neither.

Most people believe that whatever they are used to is the proper way of doing things. It’s hard to think outside of one’s self and that’s an important thing to realize. It’s much easier to accept egocentricity and attempt to account for it than it is to fix it in its entirety. Few Europeans have been exposed to American measurements for a significant period of time and thusly don’t understand their benefits, only the negatives. They’re different and don’t math as well so the assumption is that they’re inferior. I spent 2013 using SI and I found many benefits to it, I also found real-life hindrances. I may be a little biased but here’s my honest comparison.

Temperature

SI: Celsius/Centigrade is great for science. Water freezes at 0 and boils at 100. That’s awesome. That’s super easy to remember and is based in reality. I dig things that are based in reality.

AM: I am not water, I’m Jeff. Sure, I’m mostly water but I’m also a bunch of other stuff. I mainly use temperature to know what the weather outside is like. In Fahrenheit 0 is oppressively cold and 100 is oppressively hot. Fahrenheit is like Celsius in that it also has a 0-100 scale but for individual comfort, rather than a change of state. Or, it could be looked at as a change of state for my wardrobe. 0 means I need to have a coat and shoes on, no exceptions. 100, shorts only. In Celsius that same range is -18 to 38 degrees.

I have 2 problems with Celsius for outside temperature: The units of measure are larger than my perception of temperature and the range of outside temperature comfort doesn’t fit nicely in a 0-100 format. In fact the range of “not bad weather” is like from 20-30.

There are too few units to express the change in temperature. You have to jump nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit to get 1 degree Celsius change. There’s a huge difference between 70 and 72 degrees. 1 degree Fahrenheit change is perceptible but you have to wait for nearly a 2 degree change for it to register in Celsius. It’s also way too easy to get to a negative temperature in C. I shouldn’t have to pull out a minus sign until it gets abnormally cold, not standard winter temperature. If I’m adding a minus or extending the temperature to 3 digits that better be for a significant reason. I’m not made of signboard characters you know.

For science: Celsius is the clear winner.

For living my Walden Pond life: Fahrenheit is better for what I want it to do.

Dates

The U.S. format is Month/Day/Year. The Euro format is Day/Month/Year, there will also probably be a funny looking 1 and a 7 with a line through the center in the Euro date.

SI: This way makes way more logical sense, you have a descending order of specificity, going from more specific to less. This makes total and perfect sense, for a computer.

AM: The individual date means nothing without the context of month. I could see it being last, that would make more sense than its current form but it would also be less useful to me than the American method of writing it out. The month gives me context. You say a month, bam; context. The month gives me more context than any of the other numbers, because weather patterns are cyclical and I can instantly picture the general setting based off just that one data point. Context, then specifics, then timeline. When talking to your friends on your front porch this is the easiest and best way of setting a scene. You don’t start talking about a new character without an introduction, that’s just bad storytelling.

It makes less sense, when wanting things to be in order or being super anal about descending/ascending but it works really well when communicating with other humans. I can see using Year/Month/Date on a spaceship or by intelligent robots but I believe that day/month/year is the worst of all worlds. It neither sets context nor presents things in a logical progression.

For Science: Euro system is not optimal and should be reversed.

For living my Walden Pond life: The American system is better for setting a narrative.

Distance

feet and meters

The U.S. system is inches, feet, yards and miles; chains, furlongs and leagues aren’t really in common usage these days. Si uses meters(metres).

SI: Hot damn is that’s not simple. You need to know one unit of measure and how to multiple/divide by 10. Seriously, that’s elegant. It was originally calculated by a base 10 division of a meridian and is directly tied to mass and volume of water, via other SI measurements. It not only works well on its own but is part of an inter-working structure that involves grams and liters.

AM: It’s better for cutting wood. One foot is divisible by 12 inches. Base 12 sucks on a spaceship and in a computer but is nice when working on a house. It halves to 6, that halves to 3. Divisible by 2,3,4 and 6. SI is divisible by 5 and 2. The base unit for feet is about the size of your foot, or inner elbow to wrist, of a 1850′s man at least. That’s not nearly as sciencey as a fraction of a meridian but a heck of a lot more helpful when you’re building a home with 6 tools in the middle of nowhere. The unit lengths are also more realistic. SI jumps down from 1 meter to a decimeter, which is about 4 inches. That’s great in science but in the real world it’s lacking a middle measurement length. People are generally of a height range that is difficult to measure in decimeters or meters. Because people fall into that range most of what we build falls into that range. It’s not a big problem when dealing with mass production or when measuring things unrelated to fitting a man inside but can be less practical when trying to do what humans generally try to do, clothe and shelter themselves.

For science: This isn’t even debatable, SI is leaps and bounds better.

For living my Walden Pond life: If I’m framing a house I think the unit of “feet” is handy to have around and the division of inches is easier to work with.

Weight

The U.S. system mainly uses ounces and pounds. SI uses grams.

SI: Just as awesome and straightforward as meters. A gram is 1/1,000 of a cubic decimeter of frozen water. Simple and easy.

AM: The SI units for weight have flaws we saw earlier in temperature and distance. The units are too large and it doesn’t divide evenly when building a house.

For this example by “building a house” I mean, selling and buying drugs. If SI was uniformly better we would use it exclusively when selling illegal drugs in the U.S. But we don’t. If you’re buying pot in the U.S. the system of measure is primarily grams, ounces, pounds and kilograms. This is because it’s way easier to divvy up a pound into ounces than to do the same with dividing a kilogram into hectograms and decagrams. A pound is 16 ounces, divisible by 8, 4, 3 and 2. SI doesn’t have a good ounce equivalent, because SI is based on convenience of a base 10 system not on measurement units that people most commonly use.

As for the units being to large; body weight. A 220lb person is 100 kilos. You have to lose or gain 2.2 pounds to change a digit. For the weight of people, that’s too spaced out.

For Science: Noticing a trend here, SI wins and wins by a lot.

For living my Walden Pond life: A combination of the two. Imperial is better for what I need in my day to day life. Sometimes jumps of 10X are too much and sometimes they are too little for the different weights in my day-to-day. But there’s also not a good imperial weight that replaces grams. Grams is useful to me in my real life.


Based on my comparisons I believe that SI is better for science and as such should probably be adopted overall. But, the functional use of the American system is not replicated by the SI system. This shows that SI is not the end-all of weights and measures and has flaws of its own. Furthermore I believe that the European method of writing a date is only the 3rd best of the possible day/month/year options. The totality of my findings are that; America should do more to switch to the European system in 2 out of 4 categories I’ve mentioned(due to their overall merit) and should probably change temperature just for the sake of conformity. Everybody should switch to Year/Month/Date. It would allow us to keep Month/Date when speaking of the current year and give greater context when speaking of the past all whilst having a consistent and rational order.

About Jeff

Jeff was born in the back of a War Game Store on the day the first Star Trek movie came out, to a computer programmer mother and a father who wrote the story for Dragon's Lair. Jeff has an MBA, a CSM, and a penchant for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.