A Better Standard?

"It was about fifty meters from shore …"

"What?", my friend asked me, incredulously. "Meters?!"

I couldn't believe I had committed such an abomination – I had actually employed the dreaded metric unit for linear measurement.

What humiliating hypocrisy!

You see, I am self-designated Keeper and Defender of The English Units of Measurement (Houston Office).

In my defense, I had just returned from beautiful Nova Scotia. Perhaps my guard was down, witnessing Nova Scotian pride, the Gaelic language, Celtic music, bagpipes, kilts, and endless pubs. ("Halifax has the greatest number of pubs per capita in Canada!", the Haligonians claim, which is saying a lot.)

I also noted the high ratio of Nova Scotian flags (a blue St. Andrew's cross on a white field) to the Maple Leafs, which is similar to the ratio of Lone Star flags to the Stars and Stripes found here in Texas.

Somehow, when one observes a culture that rich and proud, their use of the metric system seems not so important. And, once the Maritimes secede, they'll no doubt revert to the English system.

But I've always thought the whole push to convert to the metric system was very intrusive and largely pointless – even as a wee lad in grade school, aside from being irritated, I sensed something was being taken away.

It wasn't until many years later that I learned the metric system was first implemented by atheist French revolutionaries (talk about being redundant!).

And the revolutionaries weren't satisfied with "standardizing" measurements of space and substance – they wanted to compromise temporal measurement as well, which gives one a hint as to what they were really up to (and probably also provides a hint as to what my grade school was up to – that was way back when schools could still post the Ten Commandments).

Specifically, they wanted to "digitize" all forms of temporal measurement, which included a ten-day week called the "decade."

It has been observed that the week is the only unit of measurement (temporal or otherwise) not based on nature. Indeed, the spiritual implications are manifold:

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exod. 20:8-11)

(About one third of the space dedicated to the first Ten Commandments is reserved for the Sabbath. It should also be noted that Revolutionary Policy was in no way deficient in ignoring the other nine commandments.)

There are also seven "feasts of the LORD, even holy convocations" (Lev. 23), which outline God's plan of salvation, personally and universally.

And, these seven festivals span seven months. The holy year begins on the first day of the first month (the first yearly convocation is on 14 Nisan, Pesach, Passover, signifying, among other things, the payment of our sins in the sacrifice of Christ, Lord of Lords, head of the Church), but the civil year begins on the first day of the seventh month (1 Tishri, Rosh Hoshanna, The Feast of Trumpets, signifying, among other things, the return of Christ, King of Kings, the eventual head of Government).

So, the revolutionaries not only completed the brutal murders of the crown and clergy, but by implementing a decimal temporal system, they were removing the remembrance of God, and in turn worshiped nature instead of nature's God.

The nature and history of the metric system was perfectly crystallized during a presentation I attended about five years ago. The presenter, a Ph.D. no less, but an engineer of course, said, "You will notice that I only use Good Christian Units."

I'm not certain how literal he was intending to be, but one thing is certain, I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that phrase.

Just a few months ago I was submitting a few technical papers for an international conference, when one of the conference organizers reminded me to employ metric units whenever possible (it's often extremely impractical to use metric units). Well, I laid the whole Good Christian Units thing on him, and told him that I intended to report values in English units, but would include the Pagan Units in parentheses. (He laughed heartily, fortunately.)

Of course, The Constitution does allow the Federal Government to "fix the Standard of Weights and Measures." Certainly among the primary motives was to remove hindrance to free trade among the (sovereign) states. But why not the English standard?

I understand the theory (and simplicity?) behind the metric system, but frankly, I just don't see the technical benefit in most applications. But, there are notable exceptions.

For example, the Systeme Internationale (SI), which is an "improvement" and expansion of the metric system, has its useful aspects. From personal experience, I can affirm the SI chemical naming convention is very useful in conveying the exact structure of a molecule.

Even so, I really don't see the point in calling a commonly known substance such as TNT (Tri-Nitro-Toluene) by any other name. If I remember my organic chemistry correctly, the SI name would be 1-methyl-2,4,6-trinitro benzene. But, I don't believe you would accomplish the desired level of terror if you told someone they had better think twice about messin' with ya u2018cause your packin' 1-methyl-2,4,6-trinitro benzene.

(Hmmm … maybe the SI form actually is more intimidating; nevertheless I'll bet he'd cold-cock you before you ever got the name out.)

Having qualified my disregard for the metric system, I believe many have misinterpreted the big goof regarding the mix-up of units associated with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Mars Climate Orbiter.

It was stated that "the u2018root cause' of the loss of the spacecraft was the failed translation of English units into metric units in a segment of ground-based, navigation-related mission software." Well, yes … and no.

I believe the real underlying cause is more cultural – engineers tend to be more "conservative" (of the many hundreds of engineers I've known, I've met maybe one that strayed far from political conservatism), while (egghead) scientists tend to be more "progressive." Thus, in general, engineers, like those more likely to be found developing the navigation software, prefer English units, and (non-engineer) scientists, like those more likely to be found at JPL, prefer the metric system.

(It's difficult for me to consider scientists in the field of astronomy, like the late Carl Sagan, without remembering Swift's Laputians: "Their heads were all reclined either to the right or the left; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith. Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars …")

I would also like to add: In the first chapter in the first course of any engineering curriculum are lessons in: conversion of units! It's not that difficult – this is not rocket science!

This incident says much more about project management than it does about universal standards of measurement. (They did say they were squeezed for time, money, etc.)

Now, aside from the blasphemous and nihilistic aspects of the metric system, forcing these units upon the populous is just plain silly.

For starters, many of these units of measurement don't mean anything to the vast majority of us. I've known how to convert from degrees Centigrade to degrees Fahrenheit for a quarter-century, but I can't tell you how many times I've said to myself after watching a European weather briefing: "So, what's the real temperature? Let's see … 23 C is … 1.8 times 23 … which is about 41 … plus 32 … Hey it's 73 degrees outside!"

Also, since weather briefing temperatures and dew points are almost always reported in integer numbers, and since degrees Centigrade are 80% larger than degrees Fahrenheit, the values will always be 80% more coarse when reported in Centigrade rather than Fahrenheit.

And Pascals as a unit of pressure? Gimme a break. Yeah, 101,325 Pascals is soooo much better than 14.7 lbf/in2. (Poor Blaise Pascal – of course he deserved the honor to have a unit of pressure named after him, but I have to wonder how thrilled he would be to be associated with the Atheist System of Units.)

Plus, I can just imagine the scene at the National Weather Service after converting to the metric system, as the first killer hurricane of the season bursts into the Gulf of Mexico: "Hey, this system has sustained winds of 76 meters per second … is that bad?"

On top of the cultural, comprehension, and safety issues, one of the first things that crosses my mind when someone discusses converting to the metric system is the nightmare it would be to convert (more likely replace) billions of scales, meters, etc., costing untold billions of dollars!

This kind of conversion might be practical for Swaziland (though I doubt it), but certainly not for us.

Anyway, I've always suspected that the desire to convert to the metric system was deeply Freudian – due to either anal-retentiveness or the insecurities of short-changed bureaucrats who would like to measure in centimeters instead of inches.

So what's wrong with having more than one standard? One based on long-held traditions and history, the other(s) employed by science, when it so wishes?

Yes, it is always a challenge to determine whether any given government is more evil or more stupid.

A superlative example is the saga of Steven Thoburn of Sunderland and Peter Collins of Sutton, the English cause celebres who have been dubbed "Metric Martyrs."

For those unfamiliar with the story, the EU passed a law prohibiting the sale of goods in anything other than metric measurements. Mr. Thoburn (as well as other greengrocers) thought (first mistake) that since many of his customers would be uncomfortable with the new standard, a proper solution would be to install a scale that weighed goods in both metric and Imperial units. Mr. Thoburn was even so thoughtful as to price his items using both systems of measurement.

Ah, but his thoughtfulness earned him the wrath of the local Procrustean officials, so they prosecuted poor Mr. Thoburn. The judge said that the case should never have been brought before him, commented how hard-working and decent Mr. Thoburn is, but said his hands were tied.

The prosecution (not including an appeal) cost Sunderland taxpayers over $110,000, and his defense cost over $50,000 (raised through donations).

(For tons (Imperial, not metric!) more on all of this, visit

The words of Mr. Thoburn, before judgment was passed, are plaintive:

All I did was sell a pound of bananas to a woman who asked for a pound of bananas – what’s wrong with that? … I wake up at night in a panic and try to work out how we got to this state and how my mates and I could find ourselves persecuted for doing nothing more than selling fruit and veg. It’s a nightmare from a sci-fi horror movie and we’re living through it right here in England.

Well, it's a "sci-fi horror movie" that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley would have sadly recognized.

Next thing you know they'll be dragging Mr. Thoburn off to The Hague for a show trial, citing Crimes against Humanity. But of course, they'll first need to set up the International Criminal Tribunal for The Former England.

You know, that Old Tyrant King George is beginning to look like a dream compared to Tony Blair – at least George didn't sell his subjects into European slavery!

There are many of us that wish you well, Mr. Thoburn.

I lift my glass to you … would someone please pull me a pint?

August 22, 2001