Unless they’re French.

The French love logic. If the French found logic living on a street corner with a hand-made sign saying, “Will Q.E.D. for food,” they’d take it home, feed it, and buy it a whole new set of clothes. But while there’s no question the French love logic, they do so the same way ducks love water: paddle around in it all day, then just let it roll right off their backs.

Take the French Revolution. Under the banner of rationalism, French citizens rose up against their royal oppressors and instituted a new era of reason and enlightenment: the first order of which was to kill off a goodly portion of those who had taken part in the revolution.

The second order was to turn everything into ten.

The metric system, with which the world’s more sheep-like populace is so enamoured, was just one of many decimal systems instituted by the French following their Revolution. Under the new enlightenment, a minute had 100 seconds, an hour had 100 minutes, and a day had ten hours. The 12 months of the year gave way to ten months, into which the days were equally divided — as much as possible, that is. With the year continuing to have 365 days (no matter how often the revolutionaries threatened to have it guillotined if it didn’t behave more logically), trying to evenly distribute the days into 10 months was a bit problematic. The leap year also proved difficult and, due to a clerical error, never did get fully worked out. (I’m not making this up.) A short 12 years later (note: not ten) the whole thing was dropped and everyone went back to 24 hour days and 12 month years.

The only thing that lasted was their system of measurement.

The foundation of the metric system is the meter, which, by merest coincidence (involving hundreds of hours of careful calculations), happens to be almost the same length as the provenly useful yard, which was roughly equivalent to the distance between an average person’s nose and the end of his outstretched arm. To the French, this was a wholly illogical criterion and in the name of rationality they defined their meter as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole (as measured through Paris). Of course, back then science was still in it’s infancy, and the definition has since been replaced with one conforming even more closely to French logic: the distance light travels in one 299,792,458th of a second.

I’m saying — rolls right off their backs.

From the meter, everything is a matter of division or multiplication by tens. The next unit smaller than a meter is the centimeter, which is about half an inch, and the next unit larger is the kilometer, or roughly the length of ten football fields. The Imperial System, on the other hand, has no set number of units determining when one measurement becomes another. Its sole criterion is usefulness. The basic unit of the yard is divided into three feet, and the foot into 12 inches. As we move to to larger units we have the furlong (220 yards), the mile (eight furlongs), and the league (three miles). While this proves remarkably handy in human terms, giving us an appropriate unit of measurement for each situation, it is anathema to French logic.

During the course of their plunge into logic, the one thing the French never appeared to ask themselves was why 12 had come to play such a pervasive role in measurement to begin with. After all, we have ten fingers and ten toes. Where did 12 come from?

The answer, as anyone schooled in math could have told them, is that base 12 (also called the “duodecimal system) is pretty well the perfect number for fractions. While 10 can only be evenly divided by 2 and 5, the number 12 can be evenly divided by 2, 3, 4, and 6. And since all measurements of length in the Imperial System involve the foot (12 inches, remember?), cutting or dividing things into halves, thirds, fourths, and sixths never results in irrational numbers.

And to those who complain that they’ve never known how many gallons are in a hogshead, or other obscure units, *that’s because you don’t have to*. For some industries, however, these “obscure” units are surprisingly handy.

As for that easy conversion from one unit to the next so vociferously promoted by metric enthusiasts? You know, where all you have to do is move the decimal point to go from, say, centimeters to meters or grams to kilograms? Turns out that misplacing the decimal point is one of the most common mistakes people make in mathematical operations. In Canada we’ve been metric since the ’70s. Here’s a typical conversation I have with the clerks behind the meat and cheese counters — clerks who are in their late teens, early twenties, and have never been exposed to anything but metric.

“That’s 1.2 kilograms.”

“Do you happen to know what that is in grams?” I ask innocently. (The answer is 1,200 grams.)

“Oh, uh. That would be 120 grams.”

“You sure?” I ask dubiously.

“Um. No, wait. It’s 12 grams.”

“Ah! Thanks. The metric system certainly is a lot easier than Imperial, isn’t it?”

“Margarine is in the dairy section.”

*• No category, Section C: Humour*

ettarose

May 9, 2009

Ugh! The kids are learning it in math. Why? I demand to know why because the whole friggin thing confuses the hell out of me. Why can’t they figure out everything in inches? Are they moving to Canada in their future, or wherever? I refuse to take math again, just to help do stupid homework!

probablydontlikeyou

May 10, 2009

Despite having been forced into the metric system back in the ’70s, in Canada we still measure our TVs, microwaves, and furniture in inches. We drink “cups” of water (hell, there isn’t even a metric equivalent), and if asked, we’ll say we’re 6 feet, 2 inches tall. (Well, not all of us — only those who are 6 feet 2 inches tall.)

Feet, inches, cups — many of the Imperial units hang in simply because they are convenient. They make sense. Any place that has switched to metric ends up being a bastardization of both systems. Metric is just too illogical.

Chelle B.

May 15, 2009

One good thing about it is that when it is really cold in Idaho, it looks really, really, REALLY cold in Quebec. But only because I don’t know how to convert F to C. :)

probablydontlikeyou

May 18, 2009

Yeah, but isn’t it kind of weird when you go out in 38 degree weather and suffer heat stroke?

Alexander Scott

August 6, 2012

The author seems to be under the misapprehension that Logic and Convenience are interchangeable, as well as being spectacularly ill-informed.

Look at the numerical system used the world over: base ten, virtually without exception (apart from the occasional programmer using binary or hex). The twelve-hour clock, and the twelve-month calendar, are simply hangovers from ancient Babylon. The 365-day year is an artefact of astrophysics – even with the best will in the world, we’re not going to be able to change it, so we may as well cut our calendar to fit.

Of course, in many cases, we don’t bother to use the ‘correct’ or even convenient Imperial units: we measure altitudes in thousands of feet, screen sizes in tens of inches, and (in the USA) people’s weights in hundreds of pounds, rather than use the supposedly more ‘convenient’ yards, feet, or stones.

By defining a single unit for each variable – the metre, kilogramme, etc. – and allowing the use of defined prefixes as shorthand for multiplying factors, the metric system can cover the measurement of any quantity from the subatomic to the galactic scale and allows anyone with a modicum of sense to understand the numbers involved. The Imperial system of different ‘convenient measures’ for each field may be ‘more convenient’ for those already initiated, but makes it far harder for anyone outside that specialism to understand the quantities involved.

The example of the incompetence of store staff is simply a comment on the idiocy of certain members of Canada’s service sector, not on the Metric system they (try to) use. One wonders what the result would have been if I had asked a similar question in Imperial measure – given the usual academic ability of people in such a line of work, I would expect no better,

Frank Lee MeiDere

August 6, 2012

Damn! That reminds me. Another problem with the metric system is that its proponents are a batch of humourless juveniles.

Eduardo Vianna

June 14, 2016

“That’s 1200 pounds.”

“Do you happen to know what that is in ounce or stone?” I ask innocently. (The answer is 19200 ounces or 85,71429 stones.)

“Oh, uh. That would be…”

“You don’t know it?” I ask.

“Um. No, wait. It’s… I have no idea.”

“Ah! Thanks. The imperial system certainly is a lot easier than metric, isn’t it?”

“Margarine is in the dairy section.”

Frank Lee MeiDere

June 14, 2016

:) Good one.