Why everything you know about the Metric System is wrong and what it means for Identity Systems

Recently as part of my work with Cub Scouts I had to prepare a lesson on the Metric System. That started me thinking about the myths and misconceptions of the Metric System, why it isn’t used in the United States, and what that all means for Identity Systems.

First let me say I am a big fan of the metric system (I have a MS in Aerospace Engineering). And living in the United States, I almost never use it. And those not contradictory statements. The reason that I never use it is that for my day to day life outside of work it simply offers no advantages to me. When studying engineering in college I used the Metric System almost exclusively. However after going into the software industry I haven’t used it professionally since.

Here are some myths and misconceptions:

Myth #1 – The Metric System is a base10 system which is far superior to base 12 systems. The metric system has been adopted world-wide (except for those crazy stuborn Americans) because of the inherent superiority of base10 mathematics in every day use.

BTW, what time is it where you are? What coordinates does your GPS show? How steep is that incline? Have you ever tried to saw a 1 meter board into 6 even pieces?

The point is while base10 is much better for doing calculations with a calculator, base12 is better for some calculations you need to do in your head. That is because 10 is divisible by only 5 and 2, where as 12 is divisible by 2,3,4, and 6.

Myth #2 – You shouldn’t use the English (Customary) System for technical purposes because the conversion between feet and inches and pound and ounces is much harder than converting between meters and kilometers and liters and milliliters.

When doing technical work you don’t ever need to convert between feet and inches. You really every need to convert between meters and kilometers either. Once you are using scientific notation it doesn’t matter. 10,000 feet is 1x10E6 feet and 10,000 meters is 1x10E6 meters. Neither unit system is easier than the other in scientific notation.

Myth #3 – The Metric System is superior because all units are derived and reproducible from the properties of natures. For instance the Celsius 0 and 100 are freezing and boiling point of water. The meter is derived from a Meridian of the Earth.

While the Metric System was once naturally derivable, it was long ago discovered that physical properties that they originally used vary too much to give an accurate definition.  For a while they where defined against physical models (for instance a certain platinum bar was used to define the meter). That was eventually viewed as too risky. Now all units are defined in purely arbitrary, but reproducible terms.

Myth #4 – The stubborn Americans will eventually convert when enough are “educated sufficiently”. It’s only ignorance that keeps the Americans from converting willingly like the rest of the world.

The Metric System originally became accepted only at gun point. The point of Napoleon’s guns to be exact. The real telling point comes from the Wiki entry:

As of 2007 only three countries, the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar (Burma) had not mandated the metric system upon their populace.

Ah, breathe in the Orwellian goodness of that statement. The Metric System is so superior to other forms of measurement it has been mandated on the people by the force of law. All for their own good of course.

The point is while there is a huge advantage to everyone being on the same system of measurement, the choice of Metric versus Customary is purely an arbitrary choice. Since people make these choices based on personally perceived value combined with a natural resistance to change, most will not willingly convert to a new system without being forced to under threat of punishment. Or put simply:

Change is hard. Inches are easy.

What does all of this have to do with Identity Systems? Change is painful. Like measurement systems, people will make do with their current Identity System (mostly user IDs and passwords), because they understand it and it works sufficient for their day-to-day lives.

Yes, it’s a mess. Yes, it’s not very secure. But it works for most people. They understand it. They are comfortable with it. Most will not switch to an alternative like OpenID or CardSpace unless they see real value. Or put simply:

Change is hard. Passwords are easy.

16 responses to “Why everything you know about the Metric System is wrong and what it means for Identity Systems

  1. As an American who watched our society kill conversion to the metric system. But I do take exception to one point you made. “Since people make these choices based on personally perceived value combined with a natural resistance to change, most will not willingly convert to a new system without being forced to under threat of punishment.”

    Punishment is certainly one way. But, I have seen people do a great job of working around systems even when strong punishments are in place. But even if it worked 100 percent of the time, there are other options.

    People change when the status quo becomes less attractive than the alternatives. The notion of the burning platform comes to mind. This gets to your phrase “personally perceived value.” I have seen people in organizations embrace change because they felt the need to do something different. If they didn’t change the company could go out of business, or they would lose market share, or they would fall behind the competition. Or, because they took great pride in their work and didn’t want to lose that something that made their organization special.

    Rick Maurer

  2. An interesting read, this post. You missed an important point, however, about how fractions are horrible. Horrible, horrible fractions.

    I loathe them so.

  3. Pingback: Much ado about metric « Identity Blogger

  4. I did some conversions:
    1 gallon = 8 pints; 1 pint = 0.125 gallons
    1 yard = 3 feet; 1 foot = 0.333333333 yards
    1 mile =1760 yards; 1 yard = 0.000568181818 miles
    1 foot = 12 inches; 1 inch = 0.0833333333 feet

    1 pound =16 ounces; 1 ounce = 0.0625 pounds

    I need a calculator to know hom any feet on inch is.


    1 m = 100 cm = 1000 mm ->
    1 cm = 0.01 m
    1 mm 0.001 m
    1 km = 1000 m
    1 m = 0.001 m

    1 kilogram = 1000 g
    1 g = 0.001 k

    I don’t need a calculator for any of these because the conversion factor is in the name.

  5. The previous poster points one of the most common misconceptions about the Customary System of measurement, that is that one ever has to do unit conversions.

    You can, if you want, perform all linear calculations in feet or meters without ever having to convert to inches and centimeters, respectively.

    Centimeters is a mere convenience in the metric system just like inches is a convenience in customary. You don’t need to use them where they don’t help.

    The judgment about when and when not to due unit conversion is something people have figured out on their own for centuries, and add no additional burden.

  6. That last point only seems to stand up if all measurements communicated within a society are in a single form of the measurement system (ie: feet OR meters, as oppose to feet AND inchs).

    I tried to pour a pint from a gallon and just got drunk.

  7. People will, given the choice, make the decision what units to use for a given situation.

    Sorry about your pint/gallon situation though.

  8. I hope so. A quick browse along the grocery store shelves suggests people ain’t there yet though. Maybe one day.

    In the mean time we’ll just have to soldier on with pints of milk, quarts of beer and gallons of gas. Fortunately there aren’t many recipes that include all three.

    Lovin’ the optimism. To utopia and beyond!

  9. Well it’s long time post, but think why imperial system is bad: it is not always consistent 12. So it is really bad. It gets even worse when we try to convert to square or even cubic :12 x 12x 12, now say how many is it. Cubic meter is 1000 cubic decimeters (10 dm is 1 meter). If twelve would be natural, we wouldn’t use decimal numeric system. In monetary world metric style system was shown superior over customary like systems. The counting became easier. The argument against nature laws changing in metric system is worthless, because customary system has no reference to them at all and at least boiling point of water and meter hasn’t changed a much. How feet should be measured and can’t be changed, bullshit.
    In temperature measurement farenheit is really messed unit, with no reference to the real processes.

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  11. “Ah, breathe in the Orwellian goodness of that statement. The Metric System is so superior to other forms of measurement it has been mandated on the people by the force of law. All for their own good of course. ”

    It’s not Orwellian at all. It has for centuries been recognized that fixing the standard of weights and measures is a legitimate power of government. It’s even in the U.S. Constitution, “The Congress shall have Power…[t]o…fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;…” (Article I, Section 8). It seems that some of the Founders–Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington especially–wanted us to adopt a proto-metric system, and they expected that Congress would show leadership in its adoption. Here is a good source on that here:

    Click to access USAMetricSystemHistory.pdf

  12. Pingback: Exactly how big is a kg? | Identity Blogger

  13. I would love if the scientists used metric (and maybe spoke Esperanto?) but I would like to keep the English units for the reasons you describe and more. It’s not that hard to know both English and metric. I don’t see why what Americans currently do is bad….

    I was born an American, but now live in New Zealand (which, btw, is a great place) and the Metric system really annoys me. Sure, it’s great to do math with, but most of the time, when you’re measuring something, you’re not doing it so you can do calculations on it, and metric units aren’t as useful as English units, because English units were invented by real people hoping to convey real-world information. The metric system… defining length as a portion of the length of a meridian? Could there be a method less based on human experience? When I was walking from the North Pole to the Equator last year, this is about how far I had gotten when I thought, “gee, I’m one ten-millionth of the way there!”

    Problem 1: Because units are not human-based, you have to memorize more reference points or abandon units altogether. For example, a person might say they’re 190 cm tall. It takes a lot of units the width of your finger to get to the height of a person. The same person is 6 foot 3. 6 foot 3 is immediately recognizable as three inches more than tall. If you know someone 6 foot 3 in the US, and you describe them to a friend, you probably say “he’s 6 foot 3.” If you describe your tall friend to a friend in New Zealand, you say, “he’s really tall… I mean, he doesn’t hit his head on door frames or anything, but he’s taller than most people we know.”

    Problem 2: Sometimes you can be stuck with too much or not enough precision. My office has a digital thermostat. When it’s set to 23 degrees, most folks complain that it is too warm. When it’s set to 22, we’re chilly. Thanks, Celcius. You may think it’s neato that 0 freezes and 100 boils, but really, you just condensed the range of reasonable temperatures for a human to be in from 20-100 to -7-38. 50C onwards is useless to people just living life.

    Problem 3: Precision has become a mystery. People here talk in millimeters – sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes it’s not – you can never tell. The way I was taught to describe a measurement was that the smallest part of that measurement defined the precision, for example, something four feet long is longer than 3.5 feet and shorter than 4.5 feet. Something that is 4 feet, no inches is within a half inch of being 4 feet exactly. Or if you mix in decimals, like many Americans do, something that is 4.00 feet long, is really, really close to being 4 feet exactly. Here, people are always saying things like, “It’s 1200 mm long” when they don’t mean anything nearly that precise. They might mean something like it’s 1.2 meters long, but for some reason, they express it in mm. This happens with milliliters and grams too, though maybe not as much (or as noticeably). I know this is a usage thing, and not strictly the fault of the metric system, but I think separating the units from a human-scaled derivation may have broken the sense of which units are appropriate for which job.

    Problem 4: People think 100km/hour is fast because it’s got 3 digits. 100 miles/hour is fast. 😉

  14. If the metric system is so great why is it the building industry still all standard measurement even in Canada, plywood and dry wall still 4 by 8 , 2 by 4 are still 2 by 4 and come in 8, 10 12 and 16 foot length studs are put at 16 inch centers , because it all works very well.

  15. I’m from New Zealand, I grew up on the metric system. I’ve lived in the US for 18 months now, there is nothing wrong with the imperial system, I actually prefer it and find the (more piratical) units of measure easier to deal with.

  16. Can someone tell me specific cons to why the metric system should not be the primary source of the U.S? It would help me very much, it’s for my argumentative essay. Thank you!

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