Sunday, October 10, 2010

The metrickiest of National Metric Days

The date being 10/10/10 isn't nearly as exciting as it seems -- since there's 12 months, we've had something like that each of the last 9 years and have two more coming, but that's just one of many similarly interesting patterns (1/2/3, 3/2/1, 10/1/01, 12/3/21, and so on), and if you add them all up, it'd be an odd year that something like this didn't happen, particularly early in centuries.

But 10/10 every year is also National Metric Day, so this is the metrickiest of National Metric Days. And that seems like a good opportunity to talk about metric. Not that I haven't railed about this before. But I can try to be more advocative than rantish. (And while I'm at it, why not post at 10:10? At least in my timezone.)

You can memorize the formulae to convert between Imperial and metric, and that's perhaps a necessary step, but no one will ever get to using metric comfortably that way. You can't get comfortable using kilometers until you can, without any particular effort (like converting), have a feel for what a kilometer is.

Why is Celsius uncomfortable? Because when someone says it's 26°, you don't know if that's warm or cold, without stopping to do some math. But if someone says it's 79°, you know what that means not because you can calculate it, but because you have hundreds or thousands of experiences with it being 79° and you know how that felt. In the same way, if someone tells you the thing you have to lift weighs 45 pounds, or the drive you have to make is twenty miles, or that you're supposed to drink a half-cup of some mixture, you don't do any calculations, you just know from experience.

So if I say to you, "boy, I was so thirsty, I drank a whole liter of soda!" do you stop and do a conversion in your head? Probably not. You probably picture a one-liter bottle of soda, or half of a two-liter bottle of soda, and you just know how much I drank. You're already ready to convert to liters. If tomorrow someone switched out your measuring cups and the text on your recipes and the labels on all the non-soda items at the store, you might not feel ready but you would actually be ready.

So how would we get the same kind of comfortable exposure to grams (excluding people who traffic in drugs, who probably already have that), meters, Celsius, and all the frequently used multiples and fractions of these? What would it take for us to do as pretty much the entire rest of the world has done, bite the bullet and do it? Is it merely that we aren't convinced of the benefits -- and if so, how many of us have not had to struggle with the math of 5280 feet in a mile, or how to multiply up a recipe and figure out how many cups is in some large number of tablespoons?

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