[permaculture] metric vs Imperial [was: quarter acre in size]

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Thu Jun 14 04:24:21 EDT 2007

On 6/13/07 7:51 AM, "jedd"  wrote:
> By which you mean imperial and metric -

In the US, imperial means the system the British once used, with the bigger
gallon than ours. What's called US in other countries is usually called
English in the US, to contrast it with metric, which the English now use.
Bizarre, isn't it? But language, unlike math, is not universal. All the
appeals to standardization in the world won't fix that, thank goodness.
>> 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,

I always thought that doing a little elementary arithmetic was what _kept_
your brain from turning into rice pudding!

Jedd, I was surprised how hard you came down on my attempts at humor,
garroted every deviation from the dictionary, and assumed nastiness on my
part. For example,

>> 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.
> 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.

No, I meant that literally: Isn't it is obvious that metric is grounded in
pure logic, not in historical context and human idiosyncracy? So I saw no
point in developing that idea. Permaculturists already get the idea of
cultural context. No insult implied. You can abandon your disappointment and
return me to the pedestal I deserve.

>> 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.

Okay, now I will get serious. I'd hate to think you are unfamiliar with
Christopher Alexander's "Pattern Language" or his magnificent "Nature of
Order." 10-fold leaps in scale, which in metric we are led toward since they
are built into the system, create dead architecture. And unneeded precision,
resulting in lifeless design, is inherent in metric. That decimal just begs
to be extended! There's a reason pre-fab housing and knock-down furniture is
all metric. 

> 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.  . . . 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.

Gack. You've so utterly missed my point I can barely believe it's not
intentional. Maybe all the carpentry and cabinetmaking I've done has made me
assume everyone's familiar with the constantly shifting scales needed to do
construction. My metric carpenter buddies get it instantly. Dividing by two,
inherent in the US and Imperial system, yields more appropriate scales for
making everyday objects than the 10-folds inherent in metric. It's not that
2 is easier than 10; It's that our tools define what we can imagine
building. Two is closer to the "quantum jumps" between everyday scales, like
from rough carpentry to finish; 10 is too big.

>> a pint's a pound . . . mnemonic

> 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?

"pint's a pound" is a mnemonic ("an aid to memory") but "give 'em an inch"
is, indeed, an aphorism. But that's still the point. The number of people,
whether cockney twit or whatever bashable group you'd care to insult, who
roll an idea around in their mouths and hearts, and make it part of their
culture, is an excellent measure of the wisdom and human scale of a system.
Validity? A mile is as valid a unit as a meter. But a meter is dead. A mile
is alive--that's why there are so many kinds of them.

Take Esperanto. Like metric, it is logical, easy to use, and
interconvertible. But no one adopts it. Esperanto is imposed by reason only.
It has no heart, and such a language is useless and dead no matter how
logical. Hence that other bit of pith: "A foolish consistency is the
hobgoblin of little minds." I'd hate to see a global language imposed. For
the same reason I don't like a global measurement system for everyday use.

Metric is great in scientific work. It tickles me that the SI units for
density, viscosity, area, length, and velocity all cancel out in the
Reynolds number. Around scientists or those whose only exposure to
measurement is metric (poor sods!), I use metric. Around non-eggheads in the
US I use US Imperial. In Canada I use metric with the younger people and
English Imperial with the older. Point is, most measuring is of the
vernacular kind: people cooking, filling fuel tanks, cutting boards. I don't
need the Reynolds number that often. But setting up rainwater catchment with
a cubic foot of water holding about 7.5 gallons, or putting teaspoons into
quarts never seemed too daunting. The mind is flexible enough to juggle
feet, miles, pints, cubits, cun, and all the other oddities that have
accumulated via the untidy process of history. Metric slashes all that away
for the sake of logic. Haven't we been down that road often enough to be
leery of it?

Sure, measurement systems have numbers in them, so there's a good argument
to be made for interconvertibility. Hence some, but only some, of the spread
of metric. However, the spread of an idea is not confirmation that the idea
is beneficial. I was serious in my pesticide analogy, but I should have
developed that idea further. Most of the arguments for metric could be made
equally well for globalization and corporate capitalism (yes, we're
perilously close to Godwin's Law here, aren't we! But I'm not merely
resorting to a tired debating ploy.) Globalization requires standardization,
interconvertibilty, a shared system of meaning and communication. It is the
enemy of diversity. No language but English, no money but dollars (for now),
and coercing or demeaning those who use the Euro or Yuan (Saddam's
triggering crime was selling oil for Euros). That standardization makes it
easier to ship stuff around the globe, and "raises the standard of living"
with the supposed benefits that the Wall Street Journal blares on its
editorial page. But there's a good argument for preserving local cultures,
languages, and, intrinsic to those, systems of measurement. Watching metric
sweep the globe by government edict, and render extinct one local system
after another makes me think of all the sleepy villages I visited in the
1970s that were not on a cash economy. They've all been sucked into the
world system now, and their cultures are tottering if not extinct.

To my knowledge metric has always been imposed from the top down; that's
what I meant about Robespierre. It was a gratuitous and cheap shot to tar me
with the Bush brush; Americans who support the butchery in Iraq are pretty
rare on this list. And I'm half French. Yes, it took Lavoisier to help
invent metric. But it took a bloody-handed revolutionary government's edicts
and civil chaos to install it. The Revolution also imposed a failed metric
10-hour day, but you could argue that 365, 7, 24, 60, leap years, and oddly
shaped Time Zones are unwieldy, too. There, a sense of historical importance
won out over the imposition by law.

Maybe somewhere there has been a group of villagers petitioning their
government: "We want to ditch the unwieldy system we've been using to build
our homes with and that is the basis for the irrigation system that
underlies our whole culture" (a la the Balinese) but I don't know of any.
And that might give you pause. No, metric is not some evil plot for global
hegemony. But it's one more little nail in the coffin for every culture that
doesn't conform to the Western industrial model.

Pro: it's interconvertible and standardized.

Con: it rhymes with "Western industrial global hegemony" and contributes to
the extinguishing of local culture.



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