15 September 2010


METRIC SYSTEM. The US is one of only three nations in the world which have refused to adopt the metric system (see map above, click to enlarge -- the metric world is shown in green) -- the other two nations are Burma and Liberia. It is a measure of our stubborn culturocentrism that we lag behind the rest of the planet in converting from the arbitrary and ungainly English system of measurement. The metric system is the common language of the sciences, commerce, aviation, and personal use. It's utility and simplicity are easy to manipulate and comprehend -- a standard set of prefixes in powers of ten are used to derive larger and smaller units from the base unit.

For example, consider the metric unit of length, the meter (equivalent to approximately 1.09 yards). The simple addition of the appropriate prefix yields the following:

1 kilometer = 1000 meters
1 hectometer = 100 meters
1 decameter = 10 meters

1 decimeter = 0.1 meters (a tenth of a meter)
1 centimeter = 0.01 meters (one hundredth of a meter)
1 millimeter = 0.001 meters (one thousandth of a meter)

Whether doing simple math in the grocery store, or complex calculations in physics, chemistry or biology, the metric system is intuitively simple and direct. Now compare this ease with units of length in the English system:

12 inches = 1 foot
3 feet = 1 yard
1760 yards = 5280 feet = 1 mile

As a child, I had to learn by heart the English system in all its absurd complexity, as well as learning fractions and their equivalents in percentages (percentages being nothing more than a variant of the metric system !! ). For instance:

1/2 = 0.5
1/3 = 0.3..... (..... means the preceding number is repeated indefinitely)
1/4 = 0.25
1/5 = 0.2
1/6 = 0.16....
1/7 = 0.14 approximately
1/8 = 0.125
1/9 = 0.1 ....
1/10 = 0.1

Those who grew up with the English system cringe at the thought of learning to convert units of distance, area, volume, mass, temperature, etc., to the metric system. Yet the conversions are simple to memorize, and once you are accustomed to using metric, you begin to think in metric. No more conversions necessary. Child's play. Even an old dog like myself can do it in his head.

I was reminded of the measurement dilemma by an article in today's NYTimes. In the early 1980s, the road signs on a stretch of Interstate 19 from Tucson to Nogales, AZ, were changed to show distance in kilometers (one mile = approximately 1.6 kilometers, while one kilometer = approximately 0.6 miles). I'm intimately familiar with this stretch of highway, and never once had any trouble deducing my position using either system of measurement. Apparently, the current gubernatorial administration of Luddite Jan Brewer has decided to abandon this tiny step toward joining the rest of the world -- I-19 is to have new signs installed showing distance in miles, not kilometers. What a shame. Rather than being a beacon of education and understanding, America's only highway with signs using the metric system will revert to the tired and cumbersome English system. I suppose there's one thing to be said for our backward ways -- we're consistent.

The other thought that occurs to me is that, given Arizona's recent attempt to abrogate Federal immigration laws, and the inherent racism behind that attempt, might the retreat from metric measurement along I-19 also have a racist component? That highway is the essential corridor between Tucson, with its significant Latino population, and Nogales, the nearest port of entry between the US and Mexico. Use of the metric system on I-19 encouraged travel and commerce back and forth between the two countries. Squelching such a welcome would be consistent with Arizona's increasing xenophobia. I'm just sayin'.

STEWART. Regular readers know that I am opposed to racism or exclusionary thinking, including the current, ugly spread of anti-Muslim sentiment. Comedian and talk show host Jon Stewart brilliantly skewered Islamophobia recently. I invite you to take a few minutes to enjoy his pointed satire -- no matter what your political or religious beliefs, you're bound to find a laugh (or two, or 3.33..... ).

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