Metric, Schmetric…

p1040376I was happily slurping my bowl of instant pho the other day while idly perusing the nutritional data on the label when I spied an amazing thing. The net weight was specified in grams. This was metric soup! I looked at another item, a can of beans. Here again a metric value. Even the green guy on that can of corn was metric. What is going on here? Have some insidious agents from a clandestine EU bureaucracy infiltrated our sacred domain? Have we been hacked? Horrors!

Actually, this is nothing new. I clearly remember a display of similarly labeled products p1040377displayed in a classroom at Cal Poly more than fifty years ago. The fact is, we have been on the metric system for all practical purposes even longer than that. This is a fact that was overlooked by the erstwhile Jimmy Carter during his sweater clad years in the White House, by the legion of petulant haranguers  pining for the chance to buy a metric cup of coffee (8 oz. = 237 cc), and especially by all those for whom science is religion and should be the measure of all things -metrically determined, of course.

p1040378Alright, I kid. I also scoff. While the metric system has been widely accepted and used, its merits are generally misunderstood. The justifications for adopting it miss the real reason it came into existence; standardization. Up until the time of Columbus, world trade was relatively limited and local weights and measures prevailed no matter where you took your corn. But as communications improved and trade increased, the ability to order goods by weight or volume across national borders became critical. it was this motivation that lead to the creation of the metric system. Then it was adopted by France during the reign of Napoleon and has spread across the globe since then.

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We use the metric system often, especially in nutrition and medicine.

Here is where the system shines. The difference between that and the British Imperial system is that he metric system is coherent. It was developed over a period of time as an integral whole, whereas the Imperial (and American) systems grew out of a myriad of specialized systems.But even though units differ, these systems are all tied together such that local variations no longer exist.

So why object to the metric system? Why haven’t we made the switch? Let me be clear. I do not object to the metric system, but I do object to some of the arguments made in its favor. As to why it has not been adopted, a passage from the Wikipedia article on the history of the system is very revealing.

In 1790, a proposal floated by the French to Britain and the United States, to establish a uniform measure of length, a meter based on the period of a pendulum with a beat of one second, was defeated in the British Parliament and United States Congress. The underlying issue was failure to agree on the latitude for the definition, since gravitational acceleration and therefore the length of the pendulum, is proportional to latitude: each party wanted a definition according to a major latitude passing through their own country.

Alas, as is ever true, politics ultimately rules, and so we have the situation as it is today. Political consideration must always be accommodated, even though there are now universally accepted standards in place that require no earthly reference. Sadly, the whole issue has fallen into the red-blue conflagration and is not likely to resolved, or even taken up, anytime soon.

So why did Jimmy Carter fail? one must consider the character of the systems and remember that the impetus for the metric system was standardization. The reality was -and is- that adopting the metric system would give little or no benefit to the average American. In our day to day lives, we benefit from the standards that exist but, other than the numbers (as on those labels), nothing will change. How we fry our eggs, mow our lawns, drive to work, and all our other activities, will not be impacted at all. Moreover, if adopting the metric system in place of the current units included adopting European standards (which I think would be the inevitable follow-on) for such things as nuts and bolts, wire sizes, pipe, lumber and a myriad more, an enormous expenditure would be required and in the end, we would have nothing new, nothing better, just nuts and bolts, wire sizes, pipe, lumber and so forth.

Hidden in all the noise is the fact that most of the English and American units of measure were developed at a time when precise measurements were rarely needed. The peasant trying to cultivate his 40 acres with a wooden plow and maybe a horse, hardly needed to calculate anything to four decimal places. Nor would it matter to him if it were described as 16.19 hectares. He could pace off the size of his field knowing that his foot was, well, a foot. His outstretched arms were his height which would be somewhere between five and six feet. He would likely know that there were 640 acres to a square mile, or a section.  In effect, he carried his standards with him. It is this human element that the metric system eliminates. Our hardworking peasant would have no reference with which to estimate anything in metric units.

There is more. The metric system is decimal based and why not? We have ten fingers to count on so it seems natural. The irony is that the development of computers ultimately required some pretty fancy software to do decimal arithmetic. Computers, at least the ones we use most, are inherently binary. One exercise for software developers early on was to code division such that 4/2 was not reported as 1.999999… Ironically, the old systems of measure rely heavily on division by two, something which is easy for humans to do physically. In liquid measure, for example, the units were jack, pint, gill , quart, pottle, gallon, each a multiple of two. Thus two pottles make a gallon and so on.

Proponents of the metric system ought to pay more attention to their arguments. Case in point, the supposed difficulty of the English system. In one episode of The Big Bang Theory, in response to a comment made by Sheldon as to why we don’t use the metric system, Amy says, “…because Americans can’t handle the metric system?” But consider, if the metric system is so much easier, it would be no problem. In other words she is saying that Americans are too stupid to understand the system. But the fact is that we have no problem with the English system when we use it. The admonition “use it or lose it” has real meaning here. In that it is coherent in design, the metric system is easier and we have no problem using it when the need arises.

As for ease of calculation, there really is no difference. it is quite simple to conjure up example problems that demonstrate this but they are very limited. The fact is, anyone who is reasonable adept at mental arithmetic will find it easy to multiply 3/4 by 5/8. (The answer is 30/8, or 3 – 3/4.) The decimal equivalent will send most everyone looking for the calculator or pencil and paper. Try it for your self.

So why haven’t we adopted the metric system? The answer is that we have in many ways but as I have stated, there is no pressing need. Do you wake up every morning dreading another day without it? Of course not. It would have no useful impact on our daily lives. I suspect, however, that it will take over gradually. From things I have heard, it may be that many teachers are simply neglecting to teach the English system of measurement. stressing the metric instead, even though they have an obligation to teach what is the accepted standard. The demand does not exist because it does not matter whether our speedometers indicate miles or kilometers per hour, or for that matter, furlongs per fortnight*. (A standard of measure peculiar to Cal Poly engineers. A furlong is 1/8 mile, another binary example. How long is a fortnight? Give me a couple of weeks…)

And there it is. Those trying to push us into the metric system are generally misguided and want it for all the wrong reasons. By adopting it, we have nothing to lose but our humanity.

  • A furlong per fortnight was the insiders gag at in the EL department at Poly in my day, far too long ago. One furlong/fortnight, or f/f, comes out to about 6mm per second. Calculating the speed of light in f/f was der riguer  for any self respecting engineering student.

Kamala, O’ Kamala!

I belong to an organization called AHEPA. That is the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. It is closely associated with the Greek Orthodox Church but not officially tied to it. The proximity is due to the fact that most of our members are Greek-American and thus the relationship is strong. This is unlike the Knights of Columbus, a philanthropic charitable organization which is wholly a part of the American Catholic Church.

The knights are currently in the cross hairs of the presidential ambitions of one Senator Kamala Harris, recently California Attorney General and also recently highly visible in the Kavanaugh debacle. There, in spite of her beaming campaign photos, she displayed an icy, almost reptilian demeanor when interrogating Judge Kavanaugh.

And she is at it again. Since she is still a member of the Senate Judiciary committee, she is now raising objections to the nominee, Omaha attorney Brian Beuscher, based on his membership in the Knights of Columbus. The Knights, being an element of the Catholic church, follow the teachings of the church in regard to abortion, among other things. Ms. Harris’s interrogation of the judicial candidate focused on those issues as if the Knights were some far right extremist organization bent on a return to the medieval world.

Predictably, a howl went up from pundits on the right, as this was a clear violation of article 6 of the US constitution, which expressly forbids any religious test for public office. What has gone unmentioned is that it is certain that Harris knows this and was not attempting to expand her knowledge of Catholic doctrine. Given her presidential ambitions, this was an exhibition aimed at pandering to her -possible- base and shore up her credentials as the standard bearer of the far left.

It does have more ominous implications, however. She was joined in this attack by Senator Mazie Hirono, and this is not an isolated exception. Numerous similar attacks have been recorded in which Democrat Senators question the propriety of nominees involvement in religiously based organizations. Matthew Continetti, writing for the National Review, detailed many of these incidents. As he summarized it,

“No longer is the debate over Christianity in the public square. It is over Christians in the public square. And this is an argument in which people of every faith have a stake in the outcome.”

Looking on this as an AHEPAN and an Orthodox Christian, I can only shudder at what might come to pass under a Harris administration.

I know Where the Grinch Lives…

The BBC Internet news feed featured an item recently, a story about a panel of “experts” warning  parents not tell children about Santa Claus. The story must have got some push back because it disappeared rather quickly. Stories on the Beeb often linger for days, sometimes weeks but this one vanished almost as soon as it was posted.

Those experts stated that parents should not lie to children as it might do irreparable psychological harm to the kiddies when they finally realize they have been deceived. They are right, of course. Parents shouldn’t lie to their children.

Except…

Anyone who is or has been a parent knows that it is not that simple. Not every child’s questions should be answered, or can be answered in a way a young child can comprehend. And then there are those questions parents would rather not deal with right at the moment. Kicking the can down the road is a useful strategy, and sometimes a little deception satisfies. (Ask my grandsons about the gypsy detector…)

So what brought on the BBC article? One might keep in mind the ever present need to generate copy, and the ever present desire for a little attention and publicity among those “experts”. But take them seriously for a moment, even if it is a stretch.

First, if this is a problem, there ought to be evidence of the consequences. But there is no crisis of confidence, no traumatized tykes rioting in the streets because they have been told that Santa isn’t real. Instead we are treated to the sight of Santa being joyously greeted at the annual Macy’s parade. Parents scramble to get the kids to sit for pictures with “the jolly old elf” and Christmas programs abound in churches and schools (in spite of the ongoing grinch-like effort to euphemize them into “holiday” programs).

The simple fact is that Christmas and Santa flourish regardless. Parents find that Santa motivates toddlers to some semblance of good behavior. Children look forward to Christmas and the mad exchange of gifts of every magnitude. In short, Christmas and Santa go together and, even with all the frenzy of gift shopping, it is happily anticipated by one and all, no matter what they think or know about Santa.

But there is a dark side to this matter. Those “experts” are up to something more than quashing a harmless little fiction. I look back to a Christmas short story that became a family tradition when I was young. In the telling, a preacher in a country church explains to his Sunday school class how Santa came to be. As the preacher told his young charges, Jesus is for grownups but Santa Claus is for kids.

There in a nutshell is the whole issue. The reality is that Santa Claus is a stand-in for God and what the experts really want is to destroy the faith of children. Implicit in their argument is that, as Santa is not real, God does not exist and all children should be raised to be happy atheists. Sadly, too many have followed that path.

Still, Christmas and Santa persist. Sure, we make up fictions about Santa and the North Pole. Sure, no expedition to the North pole has stumbled upon a vast toy factory or flying reindeer or any of the rest of it. But the Santa story teaches children to understand faith in the face of relentless secularism. And, as one Facebook meme put it, they go from believing in Santa to becoming Santa. The whole concept of generosity is wrapped up in the annual gift giving binge. No one can participate in the spirit of the holiday if they cannot enjoy both getting and giving. Experts fail to see that but children absorb the idea that there will be gifts under the tree and from that grow to understand and have faith that God will  provide.

For me, I still hear the bell even though I know that Santa Claus is the modern manifestation of the true story of a generous ancient bishop. The generosity of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra is legendary and he has been greatly revered throughout history. We honor him still. I, for one, do not think that Christmas or Santa will fade  away. It will be a cold day in this world if Christmas is reduced to a mere winter holiday. And while I dream of Christmases past, I wonder what story Charles Dickens might have told had he listened to the experts.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!