Saturday, March 07, 2015

This Post Is 15/16 Of A Foot

Alfred W. McCoy cites "endless incarceration, extrajudicial killing, pervasive surveillance, drone strikes in defiance of national boundaries, torture on demand, and immunity for all of the above on the grounds of state secrecy." "They," he suggests, "represent the real American exceptionalism."

On a lighter note, however, Vox's Zach Beauchamp writes

Virtually every country on earth aside from the United States measures temperature in Celsius. This makes sense; Celsius is a reasonable scale that assigns freezing and boiling points of water with round numbers, zero and 100. In Fahrenheit, those are, incomprehensibly, 32 and 212.

This isn't just an aesthetic issue. America's stubborn unwillingness to get rid of Fahrenheit temperatures is part of its generally dumb refusal to change over to the metric system, which has real-world consequences. One conversion error between US and metric measurements sent a $125 million NASA probe to its fiery death in Mars' atmosphere.

Once upon a time, forty years or so ago, it appeared the USA might step up and join the rest of the civilized world in using the metric system. Beauchamp continues

Congress passed a law, the 1975 Metric Conversion Act, that was theoretically supposed to begin the process of metrication. It set up a Metric Board to supervise the transition.

The law crashed and burned. Because it made metrication voluntary, rather than mandatory, the public had a major say in the matter. And lots of people didn't want to have to learn new systems for temperatures or weights.

"Motorists rebelled at the idea of highway signs in kilometers, weather watchers blanched at the notion of reading a forecast in Celsius, and consumers balked at the prospect of buying poultry by the kilogram," Jason Zengerle writes in Mother Jones. Organized labor fought it as well, according to Zengerle, so workers wouldn't have to retrain to learn the new measures.

President Reagan dismantled the Metric Board in 1982, its work in tatters. Congress's dumb implementation of the law ensured that America would keep measuring temperature in Fahrenheit.

Today, the US is virtually alone in the world in staying off the metric system, joined only by Burma and Liberia (Burma announced its intent to metricate in 2013).

Susannah Locke, also of Vox, explains

The measuring system that the United States uses right now isn't really a system at all. It's a hodgepodge of various units that often seem to have no logical relationship to one another, units collected throughout our history here and there, bit by bit. Twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, 1,760 yards in a mile.

The metric system, by contrast, was intentionally created with ease and simplicity in mind. And as a result, it's incredibly efficient to use. All you need to do is multiply or divide by some factor of ten. 10 millimeters in a centimeter, 100 centimeters in a meter, 1,000 meters in a kilometer. Water freezes at 0°C and boils at 100°C....

Not being metric-fluent can hamper collaboration and communication across borders. And it's not just annoying, but can add real costs. For example, many US manufacturers need to make two kinds of products for every item — one for here and one for there. Foreign manufacturers also have to modify products just for the US market (or decide that maybe it's not worth the bother).

The map (by NBS, via USMA) below was drawn up in 1971 but no nation has abandoned the metric system since then, and the USA remains one of a very few holdouts. Switching would be one of the few things this nation could do to acknowledge intensifying globalization without costing American jobs.  It isn't likely the country's opinion makers will make another stab at adopting the metric system. Being one of the last of a dying breed has its own advantages, such as once again proving that we are, indeed, as exceptional as we tell ourselves we are.

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