[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.

 George Orwell had a theory about how to make people dumber.

 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

 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
 several decades.

 (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
 non-divisible-by-ten rectangular paradox.

> 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
 about trekking through space) from a few years ago had everyone
 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.



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