# [permaculture] quarter acre in size

jedd jedd at progsoc.org
Wed Jun 13 10:51:17 EDT 2007

On Tue, 12 Jun 2007, Toby Hemenway wrote:
> I've been too busy to do much but lurk here for a while, but a couple of
> posts in the last couple weeks got me wanting to comment:

I'm flattered that it was one of mine that got you hooked!  ;)

> Disclaimer: As an American scientist I use both English and metric with

By which you mean imperial and metric - as English and US
have different takes on miles and gallons and who knows what
other ersatz standard measurements.  Just another reason to
love metric - there's one version of it.  It doesn't change depending
where you are standing at the time, nor indeed what time it is.

> Pro: You can divide things by ten.

This sounds like a well balanced, reasoned, considered argument,
if that's the sole positive they would deign to proffer.

How about the integration between volume, mass, distance,
and area (actually all 7 of the SI units are relatively easy to
convert to, from, between).  I'd happily argue this is a bigger
sell than the divide by ten.  Actually, I think it's the 'consistently
divide by ten' feature that's more important .. it could be any
arbitrary number, it's just that ten happens to be the basis of our
numbering system so it's *even easier* to handle.

A kilometre is 1,000 metres, a metre is 100 cm,  a cm is 10mm,
and so on.  10cm x 10cm x 10cm gives you a litre, and if it's
water it'll weight exactly 1 kilogram.  100 x 100 metres gives you
a hectare, and so on.  If you're unfamiliar with a word, you can
work it out from the roots (kilo, hect, deci, deca, pico, and so on).

Compare a mile -- you may know it as 5,280 feet (if you're talking
about a US mile), or maybe it's 5,279.989 survey feet, or 5,684 feet
if you're in the Netherlands that afternoon, or 4,951 if you're
looking at a text from Canada written before 1963.  It gets an order
of magnitude more complex if you want to talk about other types of
valid miles:

o international nautical
o UK nautical
o US nautical
o international
o Scottish
o statute
o survey (US)

Okay, so you've settled on a type of mile and a type of foot, and
you divide one by 5280 to get the other, and you divide that by
12 to get inches, or multiple it by 3 to get a yard .. and so on.  If
you want an acre (let's assume we're talking about a US acre to
simplify it) this is, obviously enough, 43560 square feet (assume
a certain type of foot, too).  This doesn't break into a square at
all, as you end up with 208 x 209.4230769.   Nice!   I'll refrain
from trying to work out volumes of water landing on units of
area - that would just be cruel.

Smart guy, that fella.

> Con: And here followed about 5 pages of cogent argument pointing out that
> with calculators and computers there's little advantage to dividing by 10,

.. up until you're without a calculator, or have a desire to keep
your brain from turning into rice pudding, or ...

> that Metric was devised by Robespierre and his Revolutionary gang

Well, yes, those damned French people - can't trust 'em.  (Though I
can't find any references to Robespierre's contribution - I thought it
was primarily Lavoisier - still French, so still can't be trusted to
come up with a coherent measurement system because some of his
descendents were damned fools for thinking invading a sovereign
country to grab their oil was inappropriate.)

Mind, your temperature was developed by a German bloke with
a flu, hence the rather embarrassing muck-up with the 100 mark on
the scale.  Oh dear.  How sad.  Never mind.

My temperature system - a nicely metric one - was developed by a
Swedish chap (bork bork!) who died some 20 years before that
rascally Robespierre was even a twinkle in Mr Robespierre's eye,
and indeed several countries distant.  (Countries being a perfectly
valid measurement of distance, don't you know, though you do have
to ascertain if its an International Country, a European Country, a
South American Country, or an African Country (the shorter of the
bunch, of course).)

> specifically because it was unlike anything that had gone before and had no
> relation to anything in the real world, and that its levels of false

Facts not in evidence.

I don't believe that was the primary motivation for developing a
system that wasn't based on the size of some particular dead middle
eastern guy's shoe size.  AFAIK the motivation was to escape from the
range of inconsistent 'standards' .. conflicting standards are
something that, 200+ years later, miles, gallons, etc are still
plagued with.

Kind of gives their position a fair bit of credibility, I'd say.

Every measurement system is necessarily going to be arbitrary, and
asserting that things are valid because they're based on the ill-
defined 'real world' kind of misses the point (apart from being
unsubstantiated).

While chains may have a historical relevance, I'd argue that most
would / could not find them useful, or even explain their origin.

> I think for permaculturists the argument
> that metric has nothing to do with human or natural history and objects is
> so obvious that I need pursue it no more.

For me, as a would-be permaculturist, the argument that a multitude
of inconsistent and inherently confusing, non-translatable measurement
systems are somehow more human or natural is spurious and indeed
a country mile from being obvious.

Asserting that someone who disagrees with you is, implicitly, an
idiot for doing so .. is an old and, given what I know of you,
somewhat disappointing construct.

Anyway, your argument is fundamentally flawed given Celsius
was based around the freezing and boiling points of water - a system
that everyone on the planet could (and can) relate to.

Even if they're feeling a tad feverish that day.

> ... and the other familiar items that give measurements some
> humanity, as opposed to knowing how many diameters of a
> Cesium atom, or whatever, there are in a meter, as it's defined.

Bwahaha .. I have some excellent news for you, then.

Your foot (in the US unit, not the end of your leg, sense) is now
defined as a derivative of the distance travelled by light in vacuum
in 1/299,792,458th of a second .. and indeed has been for

(I'm curious - what did you think your foot was based on anyway?
For fun, answer before doing some research .. most people make
a false assumption with this particular one.)

Is this more or less supportive to your argument in favour of feet
as a 'natural' distance?

> Very few people are; meters
> don't fit people. But we know lots of people who are about 6 feet, or about
> 5 feet tall. It's a human scale.

Metres are inhuman?  What a bizarre (and unjustified) claim.

The *scale* isn't human, otherwise we'd all be one fnord tall.

I'd suggest that when you say human scale, what you actually mean
is that 5 or 6 is a round number (or rather, an integer that you are
reasonably comfortable with (or more specifically, something you
grew up with)).

> Scaling by a factor of ten as metric does is too coarse and crude to be of
> much use in the real world. Any good architect or designer will tell you
> that jumps in scale of more than 2- to 4-fold lead to ugly, mechanical
> designs. And that problem of too much precision and poor scaling robs us of
> context as well as utility.

Toby, really, come on .. this bit is particularly bollocksy.

How can you assert the above, and then go on to defend your
position with things like :

> To cut them, we measure again, more carefully: 19-3/4 inches. We've
> divided our scale by 2 again to quarter-inches ...

You're arbitrary limiting metric, with no good cause, to only be
divisible by ten, while asserting that imperial has sole rights to
use fractions, just to prove an untenable point.

Why can't, for example, we talk about 8 cm as a fraction of a
10cm gap, say.  Instead you're saying that if you've got a metric
tape measure you're necessarily limited to making windows that
are 1cm, 10cm, or 1 metre across -- and they can't have any height
to width ratio other than 1:1 or 1:10, lest they break some unwritten

> See how nice that 2-fold scaling is?

You can't complain that metric is redundacised by the existence
of calculators, and then claim that the great thing about imperial
is that you can divide by two.  Even the yanks I've met can divide
most numbers by two, given enough time ... even if that number
may refer to a metric unit rather than an imperial one.

It's a math problem, not a one letter suffix problem.

> Besides, English has spawned all those nifty mnemonics like "a pint's a
> pound the world around," and "give them an inch and they'll take a mile."
> How many catchy mnemonics has metric generated in the last 200 years?

I think you mean pithy aphorism .. but regardless, is that actually
the acid test for the validity of a measurement system, how many
cockney twits can come up with a twee observation that uses a unit?

"We have to think metric, every inch of the way" is the only one
I can think of, but probably isn't a compelling example.

Perhaps more interesting is that science documentary (something
in it talking in kilometres.  That Gene chap was pretty smart, too.

> Metric may
> be easier in some situations, just like pesticides are easier than actually
> learning about insect cycles, but that doesn't make it appropriate for a
> living world.

Nice implication, there.  <puts tub of glyphosate back down>  But
again you're making a weak form of argument by comparing people
who disagree with you about the stupidity of a measurement system,
to people who (in our world) are the dumbest and most irresponsible
stereotype we can muster.

I suspect we're approaching Godwin's law after only two messages.

Inconceivable.

Jedd.