Reader Question: My Problem With the Metric System?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Johnny asks: What is your problem with the metric system? It’s not a religion, a government system or anything else but a simplified measurement system. Being a British engineer I very much appreciate this metric system as it makes structural and especially vibrational analysis calculations much less prone to error (e.g. mass and weight definitions). Surely you can see this by ditching the old British Imperial System (that you’ve re-named “US CUSTOMARY UNITS”as a camouflage) and seeing the merits in the metric measurement system.

My reply: I dislike homogeneity for openers. America used to be different from Europe. It is becoming just like it, in part because the metric system is being forced on us by the government-corporate nexus. It is not being demanded organically, by the people.

Is it more “efficient”? Perhaps. But America did become the leader in pretty much everything mechanical without the metric system. So it’s debatable.

Metric is also anodyne. I’d like  a couple of pounds of ground beef … vs. however many grams that is. A quart of good whiskey vs. a got-damned liter. No offense meant. Cubic inches of engine. Horsepower.

Metric is the non-binary gender identification of measurement. And has all the romance of a computer instruction manual.

There is more to life than standardization – which is for ants, not human beings!

. . .

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  1. I think the girl with the buzzcut in that pic in the article is that girl who played the Israeli soldier in the film “World War Z”.

  2. What gripes me is that I spent my high school years building up a really nice set of Craftsman SAE sockets, wrenches, etc. only to have them gathering dust for the last several years since pretty much all cars now use metric hardware.

    • Mike, I have both, but I do still like my old Craftsman 3/8ths and 1/2 inch drive set I bought back in the ’80s. I have a ’68 Ranger Camper Special that I use them on, almost exclusively these days. It’s kind of funny using my metric sockets and hex heads with my 3/8ths and 1/2 inch drive ratchets and breaker bar, though.

  3. Metric is a more simple system, yes. However, most Americans, my millennial self included, think in inches. My eyes can see a 5/8th inch nut and know exactly which wrench is correct without trying several first. This is why it can’t be changed. It’s like learning language. I can speak some German and French, but American English is my first language, therefore the one I’m going to use more accurately and effectively. Same with weights and measures. Extra conversions leave LOTS of room for error.

    • Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes with the wrenches! I can see a 7/16 or 9/16 nut and know exactly what wrench to grab. When using metric wrenches, not so much. With metric nuts (like when working on my bikes), I only know what wrench to use by experience; I need a 17mm wrench for this nut, a 15 for that bolt, etc.

      • There is only one inch system. There are two three metric systems. DIN, JIS, and AISI metric. These define what bolts get what head and nut sizes and which wrenches/sockets are skipped in a set.

        It’s as easy to know as inches if you stay in one metric system, but here in the USA all three are in play.

      • My old barge is all SAE but I do have some metric tools having owned and worked on other vehicles over the years. Some are close enough to substitute for each other. Frequently I use 8mm and 5/16″, 13mm and 1/2″, 14mm and 9/16″, etc., pretty much interchangeably. It’s not exact but unless a fastener is badly rusted or damaged it works without drama.

        A lot of my tool collection is good-old Made-in-USA Craftsman from the 1950s through 1970s. These days though with most Craftsman made in China and Harbor Freight’s quality improving I tend to go with the latter. (I figure if I’m getting China-made tools I might as well pay less for them.)

          • I have used a 5/16 tool on tight 8mm fasteners. A six-point socket works fine. A 12-point box wrench, or open-end wrench, will be trouble.

            • Yep, and I have those little cheap ratchet 12 points I bought at HF. I have other wrenches, just can never seem to find them there are so many small sets in their own boxes I keep in the roll-around, the pickup and the trucking bucket.

          • Yep. I have two ratcheting battery wrenches, a 5/16ths and an 8mm. The trouble is that they both have blue plastic handle covers and I don’t see so well these days.

  4. I like the metric system because everything is based on units of 10, which makes it easier to convert from one unit to another. A meter has 100 centimeters; a centimeter has 10 millimeters, and so on. With the English system, a quart equals 32 fluid oz; there are 12 inches to a foot; there are three feet to a yard; and on it goes. The metric system is eminently more logical.

    That said, I cannot THINK in metric terms. If you say 10 km, that means little to me; I have to convert it to miles first. If you say 10 miles, I can visualize that in my mind. If you say 1,000 liters, I can’t picture that; say 1000 gallons, then again, that means something to me. When watching F1 races, when they talk about speeds in terms of km/h, I can’t picture that; if they spoke of speeds in terms of mph, then I can again visualize this in my mind. The English system teaches one to be very good with fractions, because they’re often used when making measurements of length.

    I guess what I’m saying is that, while I prefer the logic of the metric system, I feel a lot more at home using ours because I can VISUALIZE everything in terms of the English system.

    • The English system feels right because it’s humanistic: based on units that are common in everyday life, rather than something slapped together after the French Revolution in their zeal to throw out the old (and tried and tested and known) and replace it with the new. Thank god their attempt to introduce the ten day week and ten month year failed.

    • In other words, the difference between what works on paper and what works in practice.

      Something academics and fresh-off-the-boat foreigners often have trouble understanding.

  5. As an engineer in the USA I must deal with both sets of units. I must deal with standard parts in both sets of units. in-ft-lb etc is more like nature while mm-m-kgf-N etc is generally better for calculation.

    When it comes to ‘feeling’ something like a car through numbers the inch system is generally better.

    I have often done calculations in metric and presented in inches, feet, pounds, etc. Then there are some old time engineering that is best calculated in inches, etc. Depends on what you’re doing. In the metric system the same stuff gets a bit weird. But that cuts both ways, another calculation that’s easy in metric can be cumbersome in inches etc. It just depends.

  6. “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” — Lazarus Long (Robert A Heinlein)

      • Reading Heinlein and van Vogt at an early age is at least partly responsible for my own mindset. Subversive stuff, that, in the best way possible.

        “The right to buy weapons is the right to be free.” — A.E. van Vogt, “The Weapon Shops of Isher.”


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