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The annoying metric system

The next time you're in the kitchen, grab a measuring cup and look at it closely: not at the side you actually use, but the other one. The side divided in milliliters. The metric side.

Ask yourself: Why don't we use that side? Why do we measure sugar in cups and tablespoons rather than milliliters? For that matter, why does butter come in pounds and milk in gallons?

Outside the kitchen, why do we buy gallons of gas and earn frequent-flier miles and measure our waists in inches? Why haven't we heeded the continual calls for a conversion to the metric system and switched, like almost every other country on this planet, to a system that we are told is simpler and more logical than our current "English" system?

Advocates of the metric system usually put it all down to ignorance and inertia: Stupid Americans just fail to realize the superiority and beauty of a system in official use everywhere but Liberia, Myanmar and here, and they are too lazy to learn a new one, no matter how simple.

However, they fail to realize something as simple as division by 10: that although the English system is quirky, it has psychological advantages over the system they find so appealing.

Those advantages are to be found not in the armchairs from which they discuss the system but in everyday life: The metric system's basic units are either too large or too small for many purposes. Users of metric measures must make do with subdivisions of which it is sometimes difficult to have an intuitive grasp, because one of anything is easier to remember than 10 or 100 or 240 of anything else.

The truth about the annoying metric system is that it was devised by scientists and works very well _ for scientists. Certainly, it can be successfully applied to the workaday world. Cooks and carpenters the world over use it every day, and metric recipes are easier to scale than those in English measures.

But the metric system lacks the simplicity and psychological satisfaction offered by our so-called English system _ so-called because, well, official England doesn't use it anymore.

Unlike our traditional system, which developed helter-skelter over the centuries, the metric system was a rational enterprise. Amid the tumult of revolution, the French set out in 1790 to devise a universal system based not on variable standards (the length of a human foot, for example) but on scientific grounds: the size of the Earth or the weight of a certain volume of water.

Like many schemes of the Enlightenment, including the French Revolution itself, it was a good idea that didn't quite turn out as planned. As it happened, measuring devices were not quite precise enough for the task, and metric units for many decades were based not on the universal quantities for which the scientists had hoped but on artifacts now kept in Sevres, France. The kilogram is still based on one such artifact. And so the basis of the metric system is just as arbitrary as that of any other, including ours.

More important, however, the men concocting this system seem not to have been thinking of everyday life. In all likelihood, they did not cook, neither did they reap or sew. The units they bequeathed us work beautifully in the laboratory, but for everyday purposes they lack the simplicity and human scale in which our traditional system abounds.

Look around you:

THE KITCHEN: The metric system's basic unit of volume is the liter, roughly a quart. That's a fine measure for certain purposes, but how many recipes call for a quart of anything? Need a cup of sugar? That's 240 milliliters. A tablespoon is 15 milliliters. A teaspoon is 5 milliliters. Now, which is easier to remember?

THE GROCERY: Here the basic unit is the gram, or 0.035 ounces, a unit so small it has no known application in real life, unless you like to weigh things in terms of paper clips _ a gram weighs about as much as one. From there, the metric shopper can shift to the other basic unit, the kilogram, which is 2.2 pounds: a bit too heavy for the usual order of meat or butter. There is nothing as handy as the ounce; you would have to settle for steps of 28 grams each. Ask at the deli counter for 450 grams of cheese; that's a pound. For products measured by volume, you return to the liter. Pick up a gallon jug of milk; it holds 3.8 liters. If you want a pint of sour cream, you'll need to look for the 470-milliliter size.

THE WORKSHOP: The metric system's namesake is the meter, a unit a little longer than a yard. Again, that is a fine measurement in its place, but what of boards measured in feet or tools measured in inches? Metric users must make do with the centimeter, less than half an inch, or the millimeter, a unit so small that it is more suited to the computer than the workaday world. There is nothing in between but measures of double- and triple-digit complexity: A simple 2-by-4 becomes a board measuring 38 millimeters by 89 millimeters, since a 2-by-4 is actually smaller than 2 inches by 4 inches.

THE ROAD: Distances are measured in kilometers, a prissy little unit that equals 0.62 miles. That may be satisfactory in Europe, where cities are but a few hundred kilometers apart, but across the vast spaces of this country, such measurements rapidly become unwieldy. Atlanta, 458 miles from Tampa, suddenly recedes into the distance, 733 kilometers away. Want to gas up your car? That 15-gallon tank will take 57 liters. And the 70 mph speed limit on the rural metric freeway is 112 kilometers per hour: "Honestly, officer, I was only doing 110!"

THE OUTDOORS: The Celsius scale, while orderly, is actually less precise than the Fahrenheit thermometer: Each Celsius degree is almost 2 Fahrenheit degrees. A Celsius thermometer cannot show the difference between, say, 70 and 71 degrees F without resorting to decimals; they're both 21 degrees C.

Since the metric system was devised, some Americans have urged its adoption in this country. In 1866, Congress made its use legal in this country, and in 1875, the United States was the only English-speaking nation to sign the Metric Convention.

Metric's advocates grew louder and more persuasive in the 1970s. As economic dislocations inspired uncertainty about this country's global competitiveness, Americans reconsidered many traditions and customs, including their customary system of measurement. Metric measures began appearing on U.S. speedometers, soda bottles, time-and-temperature signs, the outfield fences of Major League ballparks and even a few highway signs and gasoline pumps.

The metric urge diminished with the economic surge of the 1980s, but still the cry for meters and liters and grams is heard. Still we are told that the trade deficit will shrink and children's innumeracy will diminish and the world's contempt for American obtuseness will soften if only we will put the freezing temperature of water at zero degrees and measure our journeys in kilometers and our land in hectares.

Those pleas, however, seem unavailing. Our meteorologists still warn of frost in the 30s, our speed limits remain in miles per hour and we still buy acre lots for our houses. Perhaps we do so out of a stubborn laziness or a willful isolationism.

But perhaps we do so because we would rather borrow 1 cup of sugar than 240 milliliters; perhaps we prefer a footlong hot dog to a 30-centimeter frankfurter; perhaps we would rather buy a pound of nails than 450 grams.

The arguments for the use of metric, particularly in exports, are persuasive, and the day may come when our children or our grandchildren borrow their sugar in the hundreds of milliliters or buy their lumber in fractions of a meter.

But they will have lost something: a certain basic, human-sized simplicity that we now enjoy.

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