Peter, don’t be a martyr

(H/T @RopesToInfinity)

Shylock didn’t ask for 454g of flesh…and no one wants to drink a litre of wine, says PETER HITCHENS

Because of course the traditional English pint of wine is much more convenient.

Anyway, most of the article is either scaremongering, rubbish, or doesn’t make sense, so here are the highlights.

Would it really be so difficult for those of us who still feel British to say: ‘No, thank you, please measure that in pounds and ounces,’ to the trader who offers us kilos, and to complain when the national broadcaster uses foreign expressions to replace perfectly good English ones.

It already is legal to offer to measure goods in pounds, as long as there as there is a kilogram measurement available too. The “metric martyrs” didn’t get in trouble for selling objects in Imperial, they got in trouble for not offering metric.

In truth, the only properly non-metric nation on the planet is America, the most technologically advanced, economically successful country in human history – and the most free.

Regardless of whether America is the most technologically advanced or the most free – how you’d measure either of these is beyond me – surely it would be difficult to say that metric Japan is not technologically advanced, or that metric Sweden is not free, and the metric EU is a larger economy than America. Whether or not a country is free or wealthy probably has very little to do with what they write on their rulers.

Besides, American scientists? They use metric. Every scientist does – metric forms the basis of the SI system; a rational, universal system of measurements based on the fundamental properties of the universe.*

I cannot imagine a kilogram, let alone a gram, or a metre or a litre or a hectare. I work out what they mean by converting them into the proper measures that have their roots and origins in the land, as I do – an acre is a day’s work at the plough, a fathom the width of a man’s outstretched arms.

For those of us who don’t plough fields with oxen, that might be a little less useful.

Why? Because our customary measures are a sign that we – almost uniquely among the nations – still run our own lives. These measures are rooted in daily life, are human, and honest, because they are polished in use, sound like what they are (can’t you hear a gallon sloshing in its bucket?) and because you can use them in poetry.

There are miles, inches and fathoms in the Bible and Shakespeare, and if you converted them it would sound ludicrous. Imagine Hamlet jeering as he holds Yorick’s skull: ‘Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint 2.5 centimetres thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.’

Why stop there? Bring back the lovely poetic bushel! The hogshead! The shaftment! The ell!

You see, this is the big problem with Hitchens’s argument. For all that he complains about “totalitarianism”, and measures “made up in an office”, the modern Imperial system is every bit as artificial as the metric system. Once upon a time, there were hundreds of different units, all created by people in different trades, in different parts of the country, and each one was pretty convenient for them.

Of course, that system was such a mess. Over the years – starting with the Magna Carta – the number of units was slowly whittled down (bye bye Scots measures) and the ones that were left were standardised (no longer was the Cheshire acre twice the size of the standard acre), culminating in the Weights and Measurements Act 1824. Measurements across the whole country were unified, and it became illegal to sell goods using the older units – more or less exactly what happened when metric was introduced.

Outside the oompah-band and leather-shorts regions of Germany, you will not see anyone drinking beer in litres either. This is because a litre is a measure made up in an office, whereas the old-English ‘bottle’ (equivalent to about 72 centilitres) and the old-French ’bouteille’ (the same) were enough for two people to share over a meal.

It has now been rationalised into 75 centilitres, three-quarters of a litre, but no further. And that is itself a significant departure from the metric system, which is based on counting our toes and doesn’t like quarters because ten can’t be divided by four (or three, for that matter).

Of course not, a litre of beer is rather massive. Anyway, metric doesn’t care what you divide things into. The whole point of metric is that it’s based on the decimal number system, so you can divide it however you like. If you want to split it into fours, that’s easy. If you want to split it in thirds, or fifths, or even sevenths, that’s no problem. On the other hand, if you want to split a mile into 7 pieces, how do you do that? It’s 0.143 miles, but how many feet is that? The answer is a bit more than 754 feet and 3 inches, but that’s an absolute bastard to work out in your head, unless you know your 5280-times tables off by heart.

The metric system officially doesn’t have such a thing as a foot. It scorns this useful measure, going straight from the metre down to the centimetre. But here’s a funny thing. School rulers in metric countries are not one metre long, but 30 centimetres, which is almost exactly a foot. Timber and building materials are often sold, in metric countries, in 30cm units. Just don’t call them feet.

So, err, why is measuring things in 30 cm units a defeat? Again, the metric system doesn’t care how you divide your measurements, so 30 cm is a perfectly valid length for a ruler… so is 50 cm, or 10 cm, or 87 cm, or any other length that takes your fancy.

It is almost invariably forced on people and nations by dictators, revolutions or invasion. It may have its uses in international commerce and science, though Man went to the Moon in feet and inches. But nobody ever wanted it in private dealings.

And NASA’s decision that it, and it alone, would continue to use U.S. customary units instead of metric resulted in the crash of the Mars Climate Orbiter. At any rate, every measurement system has been imposed by force by some people – why do you think India used Imperial until after it declared independence?**

Long story short, we use metric because it is more convenient than Imperial, not less – though, as Hitchens’s past record shows, given a choice between foreignness and inconvenience, he’ll take inconvenience every time.

* Except for the kilogram, which is admittedly still based on a chunk of platinum in a bank vault in Paris. Hopefully not for much longer though…

** Wikipedia also mentions occupied Japan using American units, but I can’t find an independent source for that so I’ll leave it in this footnote.

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  1. #1 by Richard Adair on Sunday, 30th January 2011 - 12:18 UTC

    Yes yes, I know I know. We shouldn’t. We mustn’t. We have to keep our composure and not visit the real Daily Mail website to make a comment. Website hits means advertising revenue and we don’t want them to financially benefit from writing crap, but the Imperial vs SI issue is something that really gets to me.

    Science and Engineering is the best way to push our nation and economy forward, and we don’t use imperial units in science and engineering. He talks about America being the most technologically advanced nation on the planet (debatable because all developed nations contribute to research and development), but it’s America’s scientists and engineers who brought about that advancement of technology, and they use metric measurements.

    So I felt I had to write a comment. And best of all? At the moment (a good few hours after I submitted the comment), it isn’t on the page. And yet there’s other Daily Mail articles with comments criticising inter-race relationships. Seriously :(

    Anyway, this is what I wrote…

    Newtons? Joules? Watts? Farads? Degrees Kelvin?

    Confound these foreign units!!

    Just live and let live. Engineers, Scientists and Technicians (People with real jobs, not just professional whingers like yourself Pete) will use SI units for their accuracy. But maybe they’ll still use customary units in a butchers or grocers too. That’s the point: A rise in SI usage won’t necessarily lead to a fall in customary usage. You said so yourself, from France to Russia traditional units are still being used.

    PS: The pound is defined as 0.45359237kg and the yard is defined as 0.9144m.

  2. #2 by BenB on Sunday, 30th January 2011 - 14:27 UTC

    I feel I have to point out the existence of the roundly ignored decimetre.
    Metric measurements are so much more intuitive and straightforward than Imperial ones. Give it a generation or so and Imperial measurements will be nigh-on extinct in the UK (the pint will last I imagine), and everything will be nice and easy.

  3. #3 by Nikki on Sunday, 30th January 2011 - 14:36 UTC

    He is a strange little man. How anyone can get so het up over something so insignificant is beyond my remit.

    An interesting note though: I went to Stockholm in December, and they still serve beer in pints. I was just reluctant to buy one at £6.90 a pop!

  4. #4 by johnband on Sunday, 30th January 2011 - 15:15 UTC

    Everything in Australia is metric. And beer is served in pots (285ml), schooners (425ml) and pints (570ml). Similarly in the UK, beer is served in pints, which are a metric measure (570ml). This has absolutely bugger-all to do with the units in which said names of quantities of beer are calibrated, in either country.

  5. #5 by Tony Sidaway on Sunday, 30th January 2011 - 17:26 UTC

    The metric martyrs resonated with a reactionary streak in human nature which functions irrespective of the facts of a case–I really don’t think their supporters cared that their conflict with the law was completely and solely over their refusal to serve and display metric measure as an alternative, and that the EU had no objection to their responding to requests for half a stone of spuds. We have a tendency to dig in our heels.

  6. #6 by Phil Hall on Tuesday, 1st February 2011 - 9:39 UTC

    The Peter Hitchins of this world are trying to tell us that metric is foreign and that it is unpatriotic to adopt it.

    Well, the SI is an international system that is being developed and maintained by a consortium of nations on the basis of mutual interest, for scientific, techincal and commercial purposes.

    In any case it’s not all that foreign to the uK. British scientists have played a significant part in its development (e.g. Professor Andrew Wallard is BIPM director) and some of the key unit names are in honour of British scientists e.g. newton, watt, kelvin, farad).

    I wouldn’t be too leniant on the idea of retaining customary/imperial units for the man in the street. They don’t cope well with more than one system. As Peter Hitchin amply demonstrates, the opposition is totally irrational, so we have to impose a single system for their own good.

  7. #7 by Olddad on Tuesday, 1st February 2011 - 10:17 UTC

    All this fuss about converting to the metric system makes as much sense as Don Quixote’s fight with a windmill. Australia switched to the metric system in the 1970s without all this nonsense. And, yes, we still enjoy Shakespeare, too.

  8. #8 by Steve on Tuesday, 1st February 2011 - 13:17 UTC

    just a few corrections.

    BendB – how many generations do you want? The UK has been trying to go metric for hundreds of years – even the enforcing stuff of recent years are ignored

    johnband – A pint is 568ml -ish. The odd rules dictate you cannot sell 568ml though. IT must be a pint (you work it out).

    This argument usually brings out the old middleclass brigade of nay-sayers who are too aloof to prefer imperial but will use it all day long in conversation!

    I say keep them both. Let me choose. I know which one I tend to choose based upon workouts needed since Christmas stuffings!

  9. #9 by Paul United Kingdom on Tuesday, 1st February 2011 - 17:26 UTC

    Hitchens is a bit slow if he is defending traditional measures of beer, over a hundred years too late in fact. The traditional measure of beer was the quart, it was laid down in the Magna Carta “There shall be one measure of wine and one measure of ale and that measure shall be the London quart” It changed during Victorian times with the advent of serving beer in glasses as opposed to earthenware pots.

  10. #10 by Stephen H on Monday, 21st March 2011 - 12:10 UTC

    #4-johnband. No – UK pints really are just that. Pints. The ludicrous rules means that Shandy can be sold as 568mL (which is a pint) but beer must be sold as 1 pint (which is a pint). If you cannot see the ridiculousness of this situtation then you really don’t know what is going on over here.

    Also – someone takes about a generation. Ha! How many generations do you want? And does it rile you that each new generation is more anti-metric than the previous one. And why could that be eh? Is it because the under 20’s hate the word ‘litre’ or ‘kilometre’ (usually deliberately pronounced wrongly)? Think carefully. There is one overriding factor that has mad us Brits want to protect and keep our quirky, odd, but loveable different measures to the bloc to the east. Tell you what – why don’t THEY change to OUR system? Wouldn’t that be better? After all we’ve got 70m of us and 300m Americans with a mainly same system. C’mon folks lets get the demography right – role back napoleons silly litttle idea and standardise on something far more useful (so useful that even aussies use the ‘foot’ cos there is no round metric alternative). SI is for the scienctists. Lets leave it there.

    • #11 by atomicspin on Monday, 21st March 2011 - 23:04 UTC

      Err, if you want to use the demography argument, there are also 6.5 billion people who use metric. Metric users far outnumber Imperial/US customary users.

      And really? In my experience, it is overwhelmingly older people who are opposed to metric, as you’d expect for people who are coming to terms with a measuring system they’re not used to. People pronounce “kilometre” as “kil-om-it-er” because that happens to roll off the tongue fairly easily, not because they’re raging against the dying of mile.

  11. #12 by Stephen H on Tuesday, 22nd March 2011 - 10:52 UTC

    “Old people”. Oh yes. That old one. Like the reason people use lb and oz for new babies. For granny. This has been used for so long now that this ficticious ‘granny’ must be nearing 150 years old by now! A littlle insight – they have been trying to metricate us Brits for over 4 decades (maybe more). They even tried forcing us to realise how good it is. Yes we use some metric where its mandated but the language of the street (and, of course, on the street signs!) is imperial. I was schooled in the 80’s when they removed imperial from the curriculum. In the 90’s they had the good sense to re-intriduce ‘imperial measures in common use today’ into the curriculum, Of course, for me, imperial is so easy I simply learned it organically, from peer groups, from the media and from home.
    Incidentally I would never argue for ridding this country of metric. I leave that sort of sentiment to the fruitcakes who get so offended by certain words that describe distances, volume, etc and want to make them illegal. To erradicate, to destroy them. “Inch” – there it is, eh? such a powerful emotional 4 letters for those who haven’t got round to enjoying life yet.

  12. #13 by Stephen H on Tuesday, 22nd March 2011 - 10:56 UTC

    “Err, if you want to use the demography argument”

    I’m trying to form the argument on those people who affect the world most – ie UK and europe and USA. Not crackpot places like afghanistan, syria etc who aren’t exactly the best ad for metric.

    And yes, before you say it, you have China on your side. Slightly different ways of implementing state decisions though, eh? ;-)

  13. #14 by Tony Sidaway on Wednesday, 23rd March 2011 - 12:56 UTC

    Stephen H, I think you’re just imagining difficulties. Nearly all of our UK business is now done lawfully in metric measure with some allowances for customary measure such as beer in pints. Distances and speed limits are still displayed on road signs in miles and miles per hour.

    So, our distribution systems are normalised so that goods can pass freely within Europe and everybody knows how much they measure and weigh, while the everyday customs have been left untouched as much as possible. It works.

    Born in the fifties, I don’t know without converting how much I weigh in kilos but equally I would find it inconvenient to compute the gravitational force in pounds exerted on a 6-1/4 ounce block of wood. It doesn’t bother me a bit because if a nurse weighs me I get the weight in whatever units are convenient to me, and I’ve never felt the need to use antiquated units when performing engineering calculations in my head.

    Hunky Dory. Or as Keith Olbermann might say with a cheeky grin: I’m in the catbird seat!

  14. #15 by Stephen H on Wednesday, 23rd March 2011 - 17:20 UTC

    To Tony S
    I fully agree with you – I realise that ‘in the backroom’ metric is used for easier trade – even US goods have metric stamped on them for that – I was talking about life in general – which you then went on to. So I guess we actually agree.

    Even white goods get the ‘humanzation’ treatment (convert to imperial) – like, check commet for internal diameters of fridges, check John Lewis for dimensions of a table or check Audio-T for the dize of a TV screen. My money is on the fact that all these things were manufactured in metric and then converted.

    My issue, if it is one, is the nay sayers that want all our mph signs ripped up in order to see signs with a different number on them and also those muppets who want it to be illegal for me to buy a pound of apples (presumably each store would need a policeman to enforce that one).

    Here’s a great example of how it is in the UK….

    My wife gave birth to our first almost 2 years ago and when he popped out (actually, lifted out) he was weighed, of course, on metric scales. Then the “foreign sounding but probably lived most his life in the UK’ doc said to the nurse ‘What’s he weigh?’ to which the nurse replied 7lb 3 oz. Not only do they convert on the fly but they talk to each other that way (the reason he asked is that he decided to join this world a month too early).

    And here’s another one that can only happen in the UK.
    Ask 100 people how tall they are.
    Now go to the nearest swimming pool and work out the relevance of the numbers by the pool (ok ok a lot show both but many dont).
    This makes the UK the only place in the world where lives are put at risk just to play politics with how measuring is done.

    Just incase you were wondering – I’m not typing this ‘all angry like’. I just think its flippin daft when people do imperial and (some) councils, shops etc do metric.

    So, yep, I know of the metric behind the doors.

    It’s not everywhere though – I’ve worked for guinness, the police, and an entertainment company (I can’t think of others right now) and there’s a great deal of imperial in those.

    So – do we at least all agree that having both available to us is not a bad idea?

    Good.

    But I would not drink a pint of wine.

  15. #16 by Tony Sidaway on Thursday, 24th March 2011 - 9:53 UTC

    You say: “My issue, if it is one, is the nay sayers that want all our mph signs ripped up in order to see signs with a different number on them and also those muppets who want it to be illegal for me to buy a pound of apples.”

    And does anybody propose this? I think if you look around you will have to agree that such people are very rare indeed, if they exist at all. They’re probably rarer than those unfortunate people who have convinced themselves that the Apollo project was a hoax or the earth is hollow.

  16. #17 by Stephen H on Thursday, 24th March 2011 - 12:08 UTC

    Yep – they are rare – but when you find one- boy are they loud !

    Oh and the earth is ‘sort of’ hollow. It said so on a documentary. Damn, what was it called…. “Journey to the centre…..”, “Journey into the centre of…” – something like that.
    All monsters and everything.

  17. #18 by Tony Sidaway on Saturday, 26th March 2011 - 0:09 UTC

    Time to down that pint of wine, I think!

  18. #19 by Stephen H on Saturday, 26th March 2011 - 0:35 UTC

    Sounds like a good idea to me! Unless you mean’t to put a ‘put’ before the ‘down’ !

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