Why the Metric System sucks

Oleg Volk, who is an awesome photographer and is a really nice guy (seriously, ask anyone who knows him) has a partiality to the Metric system. From Facebook, Oleg points to this really cool graphic.

Sweet. Now if only I had some wall space near my kitchen I could use this graphic instead of constantly asking my wife.

Oleg, being from Russia, wonders why we don’t use the Metric system and save ourselves the problem of conversions back and forth in the US Customary System. I hate the Metric system. I hate it with the passion of pretty much any system that someone dreams up to replace a perfectly useful system we already have. The reason? Here’s the comment I left.

The metric system is based upon two arbitrary things. #1. The number of fingers normally present in humans. #2. The distance from the equator to the North Pole at sea level divided by 10,000,000. It’s now defined as “the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.” Or, basically the length of the agreed upon metal bar in a museum in France.

Riddle me this. Who actually measured that distance and divided it up into meters? So basically, we’ve got a system that’s exactly as arbitrary as the old “foot” meaning “Ehh, about *that* much” as the person holds their hands a random distance apart. In this case that random distance is about three times the random distance of the guy showing you the foot.

Now, please divide the meter by 2, 3, 4, & 6 and give me rational number usable by normal humans. Base 10 happens to be how our number system is designed, and it’s based upon the arbitrary use of the number of fingers the average human is born with. It’s no better and no worse than any other number base. The advantage to using base 12, as the foot uses is that it is easily divisible by 2, 3, 4, & 6. Half a foot? 6 inches. 1/3rd of a foot? 4 inches. All helpfully marked on your handy measuring stick. Please pull out your measuring stick and measure me 1/3rd of a meter. Be precise.

So if the metric system is so awesome, how come we don’t have metric clocks? 10 hours in a day? 100 minutes per hour? Nope, we use 24 hours, which is, as you might be aware, 2 x 12 hour half days. Which is really helpful when working out longitude. All you need to know is what time it is in England when the sun is at it’s apogee (Archer, in comments, correctly points out that I meant ZENITH, not apogee), multiply the hours by 15, and BAM, there’s your longitude in degrees, minutes, and seconds. Let’s see you try that with a radian.

Then there’s the silly attempt by non North Americans at using some “rational” base for electricity. We use 60Hz. The quick among you will recognize that 60 is merely 12 times 5. That means it can be easily divided by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, & 30. This is important when you wish to use some speed on your electric motor other than 60 revolutions per second. Simply wire the motor in a different way and you can have a motor that turns at any of those fractions of 60 revs per second. This doesn’t work in Europe because they got all metric with it and specified 50Hz. Because? I don’t know why. Perhaps they were just being obstinate.

Then there’s the fact that it’s French. That’s enough to doom it as far as most of us are concerned.

UPDATE: Thanks to Robert Evans in comments. Check out this section of Tristan Jones’ Saga of a Wayward Sailor. He hits the same points as I do. Start from “Shocking Harridan” in chapter 15 and keep reading. I wish I could cut and paste, but it’s not set up to allow that.

6 responses to “Why the Metric System sucks

  1. Tristan Jones discussed this many years ago in his book Saga of a Wayward Sailor:

  2. OMG, that’s funny. I’m posting the section.

  3. “All you need to know is what time it is in England when the sun is at it’s apogee….”

    Minor correction: “… sun is at its zenith …”

    “Apogee” is when an orbiting object is farthest from the object it orbits around. (Also see “perigee,” when the object is closest to the body it orbits.)

  4. Thanks, Archer. You are correct. I will correct that.

  5. Good job doing all that without resorting to pointing out that if God had wanted us to use metric, the M1911 would have been given to us in 11.43x23mm.

  6. Actually, this chart is a good illustration of why the US/Imperial system sucks. How many different units do we need in the same system for measuring volume, anyway? I count six separate (and different) units just to measure one attribute.

    So basically, we’ve got a system that’s exactly as arbitrary as the old “foot” meaning “Ehh, about *that* much” as the person holds their hands a random distance apart.

    Most measurement units are based off some arbitrary base, whether it’s metric, imperial, or whatever. At least the metric system ties most of its base units together pretty handily (i.e., 1 liter = 1 decimeter^3 = 1kg of distilled water), and has only one type of measurement in general use (certain scientific uses may have specialized units) for each attribute.

    Now, please divide the meter by 2, 3, 4, & 6 and give me rational number usable by normal humans.

    500mm, 333mm, 250mm, and 167mm. That’s as fine as most people would need, is on most measuring devices that are long enough, and is easily readable on those devices. Now, please divide the foot by 5, 7, or 10 and give me a rational number usable by normal humans.

    The metric second is a holdover of imperial measurement and a consequence of local astrography. It’s still arbitrary (though it’s the least arbitrary base unit), but probably unavoidable as a consequence of the planetary day/night/year cycle.