Thursday, September 20, 2007

Weights and Measures

Responding to this post about the metric system from Doug Noon:

In Canada, the metric system was implemented gradually while I was in school - first distances and temperatures, then weights and measures. The parts that were used, I learned. the parts that were not yet in use, I didn't learn. The result is that my intuitive sense of measurement is a mixture of the two:

- temperatures - I understand Fahrenheit, but if asked, will always respond with a Celsius temperature, and it bugs me when weather maps (eg., from Weather Underground) are all in Fahrenheit, so much so that I only use Environment Canada online weather maps.

- distances - kilometers only. I understand miles, but they're too long. Driving 100 km in an hour is something that makes sense to me. Shorter distances? Meters. There's a large grey area there - I don't have a good intuitive idea 0f 20 feet or 60 yards, whatever. And please don't give me a length in 'football fields'.

- height - feet and inches. I know I'm just a hair under 6 feet. No idea what that is in centimeters. When I'm measuring wood for carpentry, I will use both inches and centimeters - whichever way the ruler is facing, I don't care.

- weight - pounds and tons. I know a kilogram is 2.5 pounds. But I don't know how many kilograms I weigh (I'd have to calculate it). I know what a gram is, but I don't use grams any more. There's 28 grams to an ounce. But I don't really know how heavy an ounce is.

- liquid measures - don't ask me what a fluid ounce is, I have no idea. I understand liters. Quarts are like liters, only a bit bigger. I know gallons, but I never have enough of any fluid to actually have a gallon of anything. Yet, when describing fuel efficiency, I only understand miles per gallon - 8 is bad, 40 is pretty good. I haven't a clue what liters per 100km looks like. What is bad? I don't know. 5?

- land - acres and square miles. But, mostly,. acres. Because we had a 1 acre lot when I was a kid. And the land where I lived was divided into quarters (160 acres), 4 of which made a square mile. That's what I believe, anyways. Hectares? Funny square acres.

- energy - my mother dieted so I understand calories. Only in theory, however. I actually had to look up a couple of weeks ago how many calories people should consume in a day, 2000 - 3000. Which makes 60 calories good, 400 calories bad. Unless you're starving, in which case good and bad are reverse. The equivalent in joules? Please, I don't even know where to begin. That said, I consume power in watts and kilowatts, and pay for it by the kilowatt hours. Every appliance is compared to my gold standard, the 2500 watt hair dryer I bought as a kid. Horsepower? No idea what that is. Cars have, what, 12?

- pressure - I read a lot of science fiction, so I understand 'one atmosphere'. Kilopascals? Forget it. Millibars? Forget it. For pressure, I understand 'low' and 'high'. For my bicycle tires, I use PSI - but I had to look up a few months ago how many PSI to fill my tires (65). How many PSI is the atmosphere? Not a clue.


  1. Hah! I thought I was the only one with a freaky hybrid of Imperial/Metric internalization.

    Long distances are in km.
    Short distances are in feet. (I watched Aliens last night, and had to keep converting the rangefinder's distances from meters to feet in my head)

    heavy weights are in pounds
    small weights are in grams

    liquids are in litres

    temperature is celsius

    I'm not sure why they didn't just throw the switch and teach us all metric at once. It's not like we had a really thorough understanding of weights and measures at that age anyway, and now there's a whole generation wandering around with a messed up hybrid of measurement systems.

    Now, to try reintroducing the metric clock and calendar...

  2. This is exactly the same experience I have, a mish mash mixture of everything. I'm 37, but my sister in law who is 35 has almost all metric with no understanding of imperial measurements at all. Just goes to show where we were in the government implementation timeline.

  3. Funny thing - I'm a science grad student (i.e. scientists work in the metric system), in my 20's, and I still use both!

    Furthermore, a few of my friends around the same age and I were recently talking about just this - the only reason we knew our height in cm or our weight in kg was because we had memorized it from our driver's license.


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