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Give them an inch

Posted By mrk On February 16, 2009 @ 1:52 pm In Alberta Venture | Comments Disabled

My Open Range column from the February 2009 issue of Alberta Venture [1]:

We teach kids two languages. Why not two systems of measurement?

“How far until we take out of the river?” called one of my paddling companions near the end of a kayak run down the Castle River some years ago.

“Uh, about a mile, I guess,” I replied.

“What’s that in kilometres?”

“My God, Rachel [not her real name], you’re a teacher!”

“But I’m not a math teacher.”

I was in elementary school when the metric system came to Canada. It didn’t heat me up terribly whether we’d henceforth bellyache about our weather in degrees Celsius or Fahrenheit. Having a scale in which 0 equalled blue ice and 100 a whistling teakettle made sense to me. Nor did I read dark conspiracies into what seemed like just another Euro-style fetish of Pierre Trudeau’s. But the remorseless purging of a system of measurement that embodied priceless pieces of our history and culture came to bother me. Like the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s eradication of words like “acorn” and “buttercup” from its latest edition, something was lost when Canada officially went metric.

Teachers nowadays may be clueless about the length of a furlong or weight of an ounce, yet certain elements of the old Imperial system have survived more than three decades of bureaucratic grinding. Having everything interchangeable on the basis of 10 – the metric system’s main value proposition – isn’t always better. Some time back the son of a good friend began working in construction. Taught by the figurative if not literal colleagues of my paddling teacher-friend, he had hit age 18 with no inkling of anything but centimetres and kilograms. A few months later he came over to help me with a building project and happily laid out eight-foot-high walls using 2×6 studs cut to within one-sixteenth of an inch. He’d easily internalized a system whose logic may escape a committee of thin-lipped federal bureaucrats – but that works beautifully. Why? Because its basic unit is almost limitlessly divisible by two. Whole buildings can be designed on the fly with little more than a pencil and a chunk of scrap lumber.

Other elements of physical reality also continue to mug the metric system. If you drive in the countryside and ever wonder why intersections appear at such regular intervals – and usually run at right angles – thank the Dominion Land Survey. Begun in 1871, it laid out much of Western Canada in a neat system of sections (square miles) and townships (36 square miles, six miles per side). A road allowance passed between each section, forming most of today’s network of country roads and highways across the Prairies. Every land transaction still reflects that history – even if a quarter-section ends up described as 64.749703 hectares in the title documents.

It really doesn’t have to be all one or the other. Dual or mixed measurement abounds. In the energy sector, natural gas production appears in cubic feet in one reporting document and cubic metres or gigajoules on another. Where’s the harm? The mountain guides I go snowcat skiing with have no trouble recording snowfall in centimetres and the elevations we ascend in vertical feet. Car tires use both systems at once – the width of rubber hitting the road is in millimetres, the wheel diameter the tire fits in inches.

The aviation industry’s retention of feet for measuring altitude and pounds for fuel may be partly affectation, but the role of nautical miles is pure poetry. One nautical mile (1.15 statute miles) equals one minute of arc, and 60 nautical miles one degree out of the 360 that describe the Earth’s circumference. In the ages before digitized navigation, this enabled mariners to calculate and relate key variables in their head. A ship travelling at 10 knots (nautical miles per hour) would traverse one degree of latitude (or longitude at the equator) every six hours. With decent charts and a few basic tools, you could sail the world’s oceans. In elegance, simplicity and logic, this system has no lessons to learn from metric. No surprise that the 20th century’s pioneering aviators also used it. The nautical mile is still used in international treaties.

Such measurement messiness, such deviance from logical perfection drives bureaucrats and metric purists bananas. Every time the ski magazine I write for mistakenly publishes the occasional lift statistic in vertical feet, slumbering zealots awaken to pen missives demanding 100% metric compliance. They’re way off-base. Totalitarian adherence to a single system presupposes primitive technology, an uneducated population, an arduous conversion process and manual records-keeping. We’re talking the mindset of ancient Sumerian kings here. Conversion between measurement systems is a snap nowadays with application-loaded computers and the Internet – technologies at everyone’s fingertips. Something the progressive architects of Canadian metrification apparently failed to anticipate.

A modern country should have room for two systems of measurement. If we tell kids that growing up into a well-rounded human being requires speaking two or more languages, shouldn’t we feel similarly open to complementing litres and kilograms with gallons and pounds? If the brain can memorize tens of thousands of additional words, a few dozen extra mathematical relationships should be manageable. Understanding that an inchworm isn’t quite three centimetres suggests a more nimble and powerful mind than one locked into recognizing only one distance between two points.

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[1] Alberta Venture: http://albertaventure.com

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