Metric Measure for Measure: Measuring the Measuring Systems to Your Measured Advantage

Posted on December 23, 2011


I remember being taught the metric system as a young kid in school and sharing the annoyance of my classmates when we were told the state education board had mandated the teaching of the metric system–even though anybody with any sense knew the US system was better. America was on the verge of winning the Cold War and switching our system of measurement so close to the finish line seemed like an unnecessary risk. And what system of measurement were the Soviets using? The Soviets were using the metric system. And if we accepted the metric system, wouldn’t that kind of be like saying the Russians were right?

I say nyet, Russia! Gorbachev can keep his centimeters and kilograms!

When I became an adult and moved to Europe for the first time, I made three startling discoveries:

Discovery #1: The metric system was superior to the US measurement system. And not just a little superior, but a lot superior. Like Star Wars #4-6 versus Star Wars #1-3 superior. Like Sean Connery to Roger Moore superior. Like Conan O’Brien to Jay Leno superior. All multiples and divisions of the decimal units are factors of the power of ten and those factors of ten all correspond to a scale of prefixes. This makes converting numbers from high to low and vice versa remarkably easy to do in your head. It makes engineering faster, more accurate, and ultimately roller coasters more roller-coastery; it makes cooking easier and souffles more delicious. The US system is based on multiples of nothing and a relationship between numbers based on seemingly superstitious standards like the length between a king’s nose and thumb.

Discovery #2: It wasn’t just the Europeans that used the metric system; it was every single country except the United States. And I’m pretty sure alien planets use the metric system as well. If you were abducted by aliens and you heard them discussing your impending anal probe, I bet you a kilogram of Klingon gold the estimated depth of insertion would be given in centimeters.

Discovery #3: The US system we took pride in as children wasn’t even a US invention but was largely a holdover from the British imperial system. And British is in Europe, right? And wasn’t Europe the place that did everything not as well as America did it? How were we supposed to defend one European system against another? My entire worldview was shattered. And when you learned how those imperial measurements were determined, you realized if aliens invaded earth and gave us a test as a chance to prove our civilization was advanced enough to be worth saving, the aliens would zap us just as soon as we explained any of our scientific observations were based on measurements stemming from the length of King Henry I’s nose to his thumb or the size of the house a shoe could be thrown over successfully.

I’ve spent almost eleven years living abroad and I’ve gotten comfortable using the metric system, and the greatest advantage of being fluent in both is the ability to choose numbers from either system according to which will sound better in a given situation.

When speaking to kids:

“You’re getting so big. Last time I saw you it seemed you were only 50 inches tall, but now you must be 127 centimeters.” (Exact same height.)

Gaining weight feels less discouraging in kilograms:

“I must have gained 2 kilos from Christmas dinner.” (Sounds better than gaining 4.4 pounds.)

Losing weight sounds more inspirational in pounds:

“You’ve got to hear about my new diet. I lost 20 pounds by eating nothing but poison.” (More impressive than losing 9.1 kilos.)

Use a combination of the metric and imperial systems in describing the size of the girl who beat you up:

“She must have been 158 centimers tall and 130 pounds.” (Sounds more defensible than a sound beating at the hands of a 5’2″, 59 kilogram girl.)

If you’re asked in a job interview to name a strength and you want to give your bench press record, use pounds:

“I bet I’d be the only manager on staff who can bench 300 pounds.” (Will win more respect in a staff meeting than only benching 136 kilograms.)

If you’re asked to name a weakness, and you divulge your cocaine addiction and the amount of drugs you go through in a year, use the metric but choose megagrams over kilograms.

“I cut my consumption down to 1/10th a megagram last year.” (Sounds less addicted than 100 kilograms in a year, although 100 kilograms would still be better than 220 pounds.)

When your spouse asks how many beers you’ve had as a preface to getting you off the roof and making you put pants on because you’re spoiling your son’s birthday party, use kiloliters of liquid volume instead of liters.

“I’ve been barely even having to drink 0.003 kiloliters. If I’m not even can’t managing to shoot fireworks off these roof after only to drinking 0.003 kiloliters, what kind of any pathetic dad would that be making me being?” (0.003 kiloliters sounds a lot more manageable than 3 Liters or the equivalent of 9 beers.)

And last of all, if abducted by aliens, I prefer to get bad anal probe news converted to nautical miles.

“This won’t hurt a bit. We’re pretty sure we can learn all we need about you humans from 0.000269 nautical miles of anal probing.” (Sounds like less of a reason to worry than 1/2 a meter, and definitely better than 500,000 micrometers.)

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