The Evil, Imprecise, Confusing Metric System

Dec 28 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Yet another alert reader just sent me a link to this extremely
humorous blog
. It's not recent, but it's silly enough that it's worth pointing
out even now. I'm not one hundred percent sure that this isn't a parody. Looking at
the blog as a whole, I think it's serious. Pathetic, but serious.

According to scientists, The French / Eurotrash "metric" system is in a state of crisis today, as scientists discovered that the weight of the "kilogram" is flip-flopping faster than John McCain at an episcopalian rally.

The Kilo - a unit with an identity crisis: This is one of the approximately 30 standard kilograms stored in a French castle. The polished metallic pellet a the center of this contraption is made of an alloy of precious metals, provided at government expense. Only in Europe would government subsidize such folly!

Since Europe converted to the metric system a few years back, this could have a grave impact on that continent's faltering economy. Imagine a situation where customers wishing to buy some meat, or fill their car with gas literally have no idea how much their goods will cost, simply because nobody knows the exact definition of a weight.

Jesus, the humble carpenter no doubt used a ruler to measure his wood every day, however the Bible clearly states that he had no need of the metric system.

How much simpler life would be if we only adopted the standard units of weights and measures mentioned in the King James Bible? Biblical measures are authorized by God, and like God are not tied down to fickle matter. This is yet another example of how Science only really makes sense when it is rooted in the Bible.

As you can see, the post is a fundie rant about the evils of the metric system. That is
something that has always struck me as strange. Even for biblical literalists,
I've never understood quite why units of measurement are such a big issue. It's not
like even the most literal reading of the bible provides any precise definition of
measurement units - it mentions units at various places, but doesn't
define them. And it's a strangely blind and inconsistent
kind of demand for consistency. After all, they don't complain about the fact
that the US uses dollars as a unit of wealth instead of shekels. They don't
complain about how we use feet and miles for length, rather than cubits and leagues.
It's just the metric system that's a problem.

There's just so much foolishness per word in this that it's hard to know where to start.

How about "only in Europe would government subsidize such folly"? Every heard of
NIST? That is, the national institute of standards and technology? The guys whose
purpose is standardization of units, measurement, procedures, formats, etc? The guys
who maintain this official
list of standards for measurement?
The guys who last year had a budget of nearly one billion
dollars
? Somehow the cost of a 1 kilogram metallic cylinder hardly seems like such
a great folly in comparison to a billion dollars a year. And it certainly hardly fits under the "only in Europe" category - there's probably not a government anywhere on earth that doesn't have a standards authority like NIST. Certainly a quick web-search turns up authorities that standardize units of measure in the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, China, Japan, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Russia - among others.

Getting back to the main subject though, what's the real problem that our buddy Tristan is mocking? Here is a link to a pop-sci article about it from the USA Today. When the metric system
was standardized, they produced a collection of incredibly carefully tooled metal cylinders. The careful tooling made the cylinders as identical as it was possible to make any set of objects. The mass of the master copy of these cylinders was the precise, official definition of the "kilogram" unit. In recent measurements, they've found that the mass of the master kilogram has varied by approximately 50 micrograms relative to the average of the masses of the copies. In fact, it appears that all of
the cylinders are drifting apart very slightly. Over the course of 120 years,
that means that the mass of the standard kilogram cylinder has apparently changed by
5×10-6 grams. The cause of this discrepancy is unknown.

The standard weight measure of the metric system has, therefore, potentially
changed by 5×10-7 percent - or one half of one one-hundred millionth of a percent.

Wow, I'm quaking in my boots about how on earth I'm going to know how much
meat I'm getting when I buy a half-kilo of steak!

I'm making light of it, but it is a cause for concern. When you multiply that
discrepancy by the billions of tons of things that are measured in trade between
different countries, it does add up. For example, doing a back-of-the-envelope
calculation, over the course of a year, it could add up to a discrepancy of several
hundred kilograms of oil in American imports. Oh wait... That's really not a cause of
concern. It's in fact far below our ability to notice - the precision of how we
measure oil has a larger margin of error of several kilograms per tanker;
we wouldn't notice that much discrepancy in oil imports per day.

Of course, we'd naturally be much better off if we use biblical units. After all,
the standard cubit had a lot more precision than the meter. After all, a biblical cubit is
defined as "the length of Noah's forearm", which is clearly much more
precise and less subject to dispute that the definition of a meter.

No responses yet

  • Eamon Knight says:

    Shelley the Republican? I call parody -- but yeah, it's impossible to be sure. There are too many real people out there who are about that whacked, or worse.

  • Eric Mannes says:

    I'm pretty sure that this is parody.
    This says:
    "Ubuntu (from the Swahili term meaning 'We will rape your children') is the very opposite of Redmond, WA's awesome Vista Home Server operating systems. For example, Vista includes powerful blogging tools such as notepad.exe, which I sued to write this article."
    Digging back, I find a post here which claims that the Russian Mafia forced someone to install Linux...
    It seems a tad too ridiculous to be anything other than some sort of poorly-written joke.

  • Vorn says:

    Shelley the Republican is, as far as I am aware, a parody. There may be people that crazy in the world, but most of them are afraid of the internet.
    Vorn

  • Jonathan says:

    Good parody.
    But done laughing, consider what the metric system is useful for: power of 10 calculations (science stuff). Regular people have reason to be suspicious. We visually count in multiples of 2, not 10, by dividing in half, not by moving decimal points.
    Apparently, in other countries, conventional units have reappeared in metric cloak. In others, the old habits of dividing by 2 mock base 10: why would anyone sell anything by 250g? Yet it happens fairly widely.
    I encountered these ideas in "Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy," a nice quick read.

  • Orac says:

    Dude, you've been punk'd! Shelley the Republican is definitely a parody blog.

  • Janne says:

    Just out of curiosity, does the pound have a reference weight or is it simply defined relative to the kilogram, like the inch is defined in terms of the meter?

  • Chris' Wills says:

    Just out of curiosity, does the pound have a reference weight or is it simply defined relative to the kilogram, like the inch is defined in terms of the meter?
    Posted by: Janne

    The UK & US pound weights have reference weights, else they couldn't be standardised. As do grains of course.
    The inch is not defined in terms of the meter.
    The British Imperial units of length (adopted by the US) existed prior to the metric system and standard lengths where held in the Tower of London and references in other major cities.
    This standardisation of weights & measures happened early on in England & Wales (didn't occur in the other parts of the UK until they adopted it later)
    Nowadays the legth standards are based on the speed of light, so if you have the equipment no standard legth is required, however weights & measures inspectors still carry reference sets.
    What is more interesting and I still haven't found out why it happened, is the US having short liquid measures (US gallon is less than an Imperial gallon).
    This did cause me grief on occasion; I'ld order up lube oil, say 10 gallons, and receive only 6.7 gallons from the US supplier. After that happened a couple of times I always asked if they supplied US or Imperial measures (nowadays the US manufacturers kindly supply the litre equivalent on the nameplate).
    The metric system (more fully SI) is as good as any other, it is having a common standard that matters, not what it is, it is good for trade.
    #4 makes a good point. The metric system is hardly useful for normal shopping; even the french have/had the poid (almost the same as a pound) though they don't call it that.
    Ceiling tiles are officially metricated (305mm x 305mm) but it is really just 1ft x 1ft and is the standard for most ceiling tiles worldwide. Same goes for fluorescent tubes, their true length is multiples of feet and their diameter is measured in multiples of 0.125(one eighth)ins.
    I was sad when the UK money went from LSD to LP. 12d = 1s, 20s =£1; replaced by the boring 100p = £1.
    Silly factoid:
    8 furlongs = 1 mile
    5 furlongs = 1 kilometer (approx)
    perhaps we should adopt the furlong as the unit of length worldwide :o)

  • Arno says:

    It's either a joke (to be honest, this really is too much ridicule crapped together to not be a joke) or Shelley is *very* misinformed: Europe did not "convert to the metric system a few years back". I'm Dutch, 39 years of age, and have never used anything else than metric. England, however, is another story. But that's only a small part of Europe. Albeit larger than The Netherlands 🙂

  • Arno, I have an Englishman right next to me who takes offense at the notion that Britain's a part of Europe. He does however quite happily use metric measurements, because he's 1) studying science and 2) smart.
    Here in Sweden we've all quite happily been using metric for as long as anyone can remember. It's not just that powers of ten are easy to work with, it's that all measurements are connected - a litre is 10cm cubed, etc etc.

  • Lassi Hippeläinen says:

    And one kilogram is one litre of water for most practical purposes.
    #7: "The inch is not defined in terms of the meter."
    Oh yes, it is: exactly 25.4 millimeters. Has been since 1958.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inch

  • YHBT. YHL. HAND.
    {Otherwise, I love the blog!}

  • NM says:

    "even the french have/had the poid (almost the same as a pound) though they don't call it that."
    Poid means weight (as opposed to mass). Pound is translated to "livre" (british pound => livre sterling); referring to weight, it has meant 1/2 kg for 200 years now. It was mostly used singular, as in "une livre, un kilo, un kilo et demi"; hardly everd use nowadays.
    As for 250g, well it's the fourth of a kg, nothing to do with non-metric measures.

  • Who Cares says:

    The problem parodied is real.
    Real enough in that they are currently working on a replacement. That and the fact that the kilogram is only standard not yet defined by physical constants but by an object.
    If they can get it to work one of the possible replacements will be a silicon sphere containing X atoms.

  • sharon says:

    Shelley the Republican really is a parody site. Somewhere online you can still find an archived version of the 'about' page where they used to spell this out explicitly; I presume they have more fun leaving people in uncertainty. But the fact that it's so hard to tell is a pretty telling comment on the state of American politics, isn't it?

  • Chris' Wills says:

    #10

    #7: "The inch is not defined in terms of the meter."
    Oh yes, it is: exactly 25.4 millimeters. Has been since 1958.
    Posted by: Lassi Hippeläinen

    Doesn't get away from the fact that the inch was a defined standard prior to the metric system.
    Yes, 25.4mm is equivalent to an inch by definition; is that the definition the USA uses?
    #12 As for the poid, I sit corrected.

  • I have an old anti-metric book that is every bit that ridiculous. Funny stuff, only not.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    The metric system (more fully SI) is as good as any other, it is having a common standard that matters,

    Matters most, yes. SI has several attractive features, such as a (fairly) minimal set of basic units, so few conversion constants, and a regular structure for (most) every aspect, so fewer mistakes.
    Actually, the kilogram is an historical anomaly in another aspect besides being based on an artefact. The SI basic unit, kilogram, isn't based on the original metric unit, gram. (This is even more awkvard as molar masses are still expressed in g/mol.) As always, we can blame the politicians. 🙁
    Besides several possible improvements considered in an upcoming revision which would base six of the seven base units on invariants of nature, such as the possibility of doing away with the need to specify base and derived units, I have seen a proposal to use the opportunity to introduce the new mass definition under a new and simpler unit name to phase in under the following years. I don't know how serious such a proposal could be, and I can't find it today. Perhaps someone else can.

  • Lassi Hippeläinen says:

    #15: Of course the inch has a longer history. There have been different inches for millennia. Even the USA and UK had slightly different values. It caused trouble in WW1, because bullet calibers didn't match. That's why the inch was eventually tied to the metric system.
    The best excuse not to use the metric systems is its sexist nature. It was designed mostly by men.
    I kid you not: http://www.freedom2measure.org/

  • Daniel says:

    I think the fact that someone is storing cylinders as reference for the Kg unit is just insane...
    I once also read somewhere that there's a problem with the metric system because the "1 meter" object stored as reference is shrinking, and this is even more apocalyptical than the 2000-year bug.
    Everyone knows (at least in Europe) since elementary school that 1 Kg = 1 liter of water = 1 dm^3 of water.
    Using water as reference between mass, volume and size its what makes the metric system robust and easy to use.
    Perhaps they should store a bucket of water somewhere safe... but thinking again... someone would then claim that the water is evaporating and consequently we will all get thiner and shorter...

  • student_b says:

    @19
    Are you joking or...?
    Have to as, my sarcasm meter broke after I've visited the comment page at climate audit... :/

  • student_b says:

    as=ask
    Argh, I have to go to sleep. I've screwed up five comments in a row. 🙁
    Or more coffee...

  • Xanthir, FCD says:

    While the metric system doesn't quite conform to our natural tendency to halve/double things, it's so extremely convenient for scale changes that it doesn't matter too much.
    Heh, I read freedom2measure. They've got one okay argument, one good correction that I do often see metric proponents make, and everything else is rubbish.
    First off, the correction is that Standard units are indeed just as accurate as metric ones. I have heard people who promote metric try to make that argument before, though possibly not so much now.
    The good argument is that a small number of Standard measures are more mentally convenient than the metric measures. To my mind, this is basically just the inch (the centimeter is close to the same convenience, but it's not actually an SI unit). Our liquid measures aren't anywhere near as reasonable, nor are the weight measures (I can mentally judge kilos much more easily than pounds). And don't even get me started on the area measures! The acre is the most ridiculous piece of crap measure I've ever heard of. ^_^
    Funny thing is, my chem teacher in high school wanted to do away with liters, because we had a perfectly good volume measure already - mm3.
    Now, decimal is an interesting proposition. Time as traditionally defined is obviously not an appropriate measure for science - the base unit is the day, which is constantly lengthening and will continue to do so until we become tide-locked to the Sun. However, the day is also clearly the most useful measure of time for human sensibilities, and so any attempt at decimal time should base itself on that. Similar arguments apply to the year, though the convenient fiction that the year is an exact multiple of the day is belied every four years. On the other hand, the second is the base unit of time in science, and its value affects almost everything - changing that would cause ripple effects through virtually every formula in science.
    Probably the best thing to do is to define two separate time measures - one for tracking intervals using the 'traditional' second that the SI system currently uses, and one for tracking time (as in "What time is it?"). The second one would have the day as the core unit of time, with certain multiples being given the standard colloquial names.
    Frex, .1 Days would be an hour, and obviously would last a good bit longer than our traditional hour. A mDay would be a minute, and would end up being 86.4 SI seconds. The next practical step would be to drop down by another 100 to form the second. To avoid name collisions with the SI second, we'll call this a jiff for now. However, the jiff ends up very close to the SI second - about 1.16 jiffs to the sec, actually. Is the second important enough to overcome the jarringness of this almost-but-not-quite-significant difference? It might be better to drop a jiff to a full μDay, with 11.6 jiffs to the sec. This preserves SI prefixes and makes the jiff substantially different from a second. As well, the jiff becomes a more useful unit for times when the second actually matters, such as in races. A race being decided by a tenth or a hundredth of a sec is now a full jiff or at worst a tenth of a jiff.

  • andy says:

    Those of us who cook / bake know well that American and British/Canadian spoons/ounces/cups/quarts/gallons are not the same. Which is why I only measure in SI (grams/mL).

  • g says:

    Quibble:
    5 x 10-7 % is not "one half of one one-hundred millionth of a percent", it's one half of one millionth of a percent. (But it *is* one half of one one-hundred millionth, period, which is presumably how the mistake crept in.)

  • I once also read somewhere that there's a problem with the metric system because the "1 meter" object stored as reference is shrinking, and this is even more apocalyptical than the 2000-year bug.
    This is not a current problem as a meter is presently defined as how far light travels in 1/299,794,258th of a second. The meter has not been defined by a physical object since 1960.

  • DiEb says:

    5 x 10-7 % is not "one half of one one-hundred millionth of a percent", it's one half of one millionth of a percent. (But it *is* one half of one one-hundred millionth, period, which is presumably how the mistake crept in.)

    But 5×10-6 g = 5x10-9 kg is one half of one millionth of a percent of 1 kg ...

  • jeffk says:

    It's funny; as a science student I've always thought the metric system was fantastic and couldn't figure out why we didn't switch to it. But once I got into physics grad school, I did discover one thing: the english system is much more useful for machining. It turns out a thousandth of an inch - or a "mil", not to be confused with a "millimeter" - is a surprisingly useful unit.
    I mean, we should still switch, but I can see why industry holds out.

  • gibbon1 says:

    I have a little rant as to why the metric system bites. Is very simple. There are four basic properties, time, distance, force, and mass. Of the four time, distance, and force are sensate, the fourth mass isn't.
    So in American units we have
    Time: Second
    Distance: Feet
    Force: Pound
    Mass: Slag

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    I'm not sure I understand gibbon1's comment.
    Force is of course given in newton (not Newton!), but in some places you see people express force by the weight acceleration given by a mass, both to relate to something they may be more used to and as a means to avoid conversion.
    That is both confusing and throws unnecessary conversion factors into later equations, yes. And that is probably why it isn't supported by the SI system.

  • VJB says:

    Back when I was a grad student 40 years ago, a friend converted a large number of physical constants to the Stone-furlong-fortnight system of units, and found that many were very close to unity times some factor of ten. He thus concluded that this system is the natural basis for measurements. Something similar can be seen here: http://www.experiencefestival.com/a/List_of_strange_units_of_measurement_-_FFF/id/5069086
    I wonder where the invar standard furlong is stored (under precisely controlled temperature--in fahrenheit--of course)?

  • daenku32 says:

    I bet a Columbian drug lord knows how much a kilo weights.

  • Xanthir, FCD says:

    I, too, don't understand gibbon1's comment.
    Why are newtons ridiculous? I really don't understand this at all.
    I've also *never* seen kilograms used in place of force. I've seen it used in place of weight in colloquial terms (that's how I use it, frex), but that's a very particular usage of force that isn't really subject to confusion on the Earth's surface. If you need to work in newtons it's very easy - one kilogram of mass on the earth's surface weighs approx 9.8 newtons, which can be rounded to a nice, simple 10 newtons without much practical loss in accuracy.
    As an aside, the extremely rare Standad mass unit of slugs is relatively inconvenient for normal usage, as it translates to about 30 pounds of weight on Earth.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    But 30 pounds would be about 4 gallons of liquid, right? So it is naturally a binary weight, I take it. 😛

  • Charles Tye says:

    The Creator himself probably uses dimensionless units and Planck was his prophet.

  • SteveM says:

    #10:"And one kilogram is one litre of water for most practical purposes."
    Yes, and "a pint's a pound, the world around"
    and isn't a cubic foot of water 64 lbs?
    Regardless. The value of "the metric system" is that there is only a single unit of length, a single unit of mass, a single unit of volume. The "english system" uses different units of lengths for different magnitude scales; inches for small lengths, then feet, yards, miles, leagues, etc. for ever larger scales. The metric system just deals with larger distances with the 10^3 increments of prefixes but it is always the meter whether measuring the atom or the solar system. No compicated unit conversions (how many inches in a mile? how many centimeters in a kilometer? which is easier to figure?).

  • Doug Spoonwood says:

    [As you can see, the post is a fundie rant about the evils of the metric system. That is something that has always struck me as strange. Even for biblical literalists, I've never understood quite why units of measurement are such a big issue.]
    If the site actually had spoken seriously, then I think the notion that certain words cause certain thoughts and eventually certain perceptions, concepts, viewpoints, etc. might play a key role in explaining why fundies *would* care about this. After all, the "ID" movement largely seems to have thought that merely by using scientific *sounding* words, they could influence enough people to think their ideas scientific. Units like meters don't provoke thoughts of the Judeo-Christian book of books. But, if one talks about cubits instead... well then people who've read those books or heard those stories might think about the temple of Solomon.

  • Chris' Wills says:

    ...As an aside, the extremely rare Standad mass unit of slugs is relatively inconvenient for normal usage, as it translates to about 30 pounds of weight on Earth.
    Posted by: Xanthir, FCD

    Is that why a fight is sometimes called a slugging match? :o)

    ..No compicated unit conversions (how many inches in a mile? how many centimeters in a kilometer? which is easier to figure?).
    Posted by: SteveM

    Well an old person like me can work happily in any system, even in the odd almost imperial USA system.
    I do still think in Imperial and have to convert to this new fangled SI. Then again, my foot is a foot, my inch an inch and my Yard a yard.
    I also think that the imperial and USA systems have the advantage of having people think in various bases, rather than just tedious base 10 :o)
    May you all have a seriously Happy New Year (when it comes), irrespective of if you are drinking gills, litres or just a slug of gin.

  • SteveM says:

    Chris Wills wrote: Well an old person like me can work happily in any system, even in the odd almost imperial USA system.
    same here. It is also the fun part of working in the disk drive industry. We routinely mix SI and Imperial units; angstroms, nanometers, velocities in inches per second, radii in inches and micro-inches. 39.37 and 25.4 get constant use around here 🙂

  • robd says:

    Over the last century, many countries have moved to using metric;
    I haven't heard of any move from metric to another system.
    So, how long will the US hold out?

  • So, how long will the US hold out?
    Another 10, 100, or 1000 years.

  • Mu says:

    You are all forgetting that the evil metric system was a result of communist murderers, aka the French revolution! Of course you need to know your history to get upset about that. Oh, and we're driving on the right sight of the road and have 100 cent to the dollar for one reason, and one reason only: To be different from the British. Changing units to satisfy some unreasonable hatred is a common trend throughout history, we might well get back to cubits under President Huckleberry.

  • #32: Actually a mass of one slug weighs approximately 32 pounds. It's the mass that accelerates at 1 ft/s^2 under one pound of force.
    #35: I've seen that expression before and would like to know where it comes from because it's not true. An English pint is a volume of ten fluid ounces and an American pint is a volume of eight fluid ounces. They don't weigh the same, and that's ignoring things like changes in temperature and assuming the same liquid (presumably water) in each. In addition, I came across one work of fiction which claimed that the reference liquid was milk, the density of which is going to depend on its fat content.

  • As a little boy, I was always puzzled by my mother saying: "a pint's a pound, the whole world round."
    Oddly, given that her degree was in English Literature, summa cum laude, Northwestern, she ended up as a primary school Math teacher in an inner city Brooklyn, New York, classroom. Until she died of cancer at age 46.

  • andy says:

    "A pint's a pound ..."
    Wrong! The Imperial pint is defined as 1/8 of an Imperial gallon, which in turn was defined in the early 19th century as 10 pounds of distilled water.
    Again, you chauvinistic Americans assume too much. 🙂

  • For what liquids, at what points in economic change, given inflation, deflation, exchange rates, and retail versus wholesale vendors of differing liquids, was it true that:
    "a pint's a pound STERLING,
    the whole world roundLY WHIRLING?"

  • Xanthir, FCD says:

    If I heard that, I'd be quite sure she meant £1, like JVP.

  • Nomen Nescio says:

    We visually count in multiples of 2, not 10, by dividing in half, not by moving decimal points.

    maybe you USAians do, but us born-and-raised Europeans more often move that decimal point, i've found.

  • complex_field says:

    "Jesus, the humble carpenter no doubt used a ruler to measure his wood every day...."
    just like me! definitely a parody.

  • eddie says:

    Your foot is a foot, your inch is an inch...
    ...and your wife is very disappointed.
    But seriously. It can't be a parody. That would be stooping to the level of straw-man argument and nobody respects that.
    I still think it's a genuine advert for windows vista.

  • James Taylor says:

    Clearly these guys have never worked for the US government whether contracting or military service. It's only the private sector that adheres to the imperial measurement system. The US government itself uses the metric system and demands that all construction bids submitted be made in metric. The US military measure klick is a contraction of kilometer and everything is generally communicated in meters or some other metric measure appropriate for scale. Frankly, the only reason the US hasn't converted completely is because of the amount of retooling in the private sector required, reeducation of the populace and special people like those described above.

  • eddie says:

    More from STR blog;
    http://www.shelleytherepublican.com/2008/02/07/great-joy-let-us-pray-together-and-live-forever-together.aspx
    includes the quote;
    "Our Lord cometh and I get down onto my very knees before him and open up my mouth in joy and ecstasy:"
    Now, who says xians hate gays?