]> In Finland

In Finland

Part 8 of 11
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This is a blog of various impressions and experiences during the first of my settled life in Finland, home of my Finnish vaimo, in 2010-2011 and 2013-.

Humanity and Metricity

January 13, 2015

Far from the center though it is, Finland is in Europe and one thing Europe is well-known for is using the metric system. Of course, the rest of the world uses it too, but they don't tend to make a big number out of it. Whereas some Europeans have a tendency to put on airs when talking about that "other" system of "crazy" units. The points typically made by metric snobs are that that "other" system is primitive, difficult, and silly, but Americans keep on using it because they're dumb creatures of habit unable to make the effort to change. Now the last bit may have some truth to it, but the first is mostly wrong and betrays a lack of understanding of the role units play. In fact the "imperial" system (referring to the British, though as with many other things there are a few differences between what Americans use today and what was brought across the pond) has many features to recommend it, and its enduring use surely owes as much to these as any servitude to custom or shortage of intellectual capacity.


Let's take units of length to start with. "Pfft," sniffs the metric proponent, "5280 feet in a mile, where's the sense in that? 12 inches in a foot?! How quaint. What IS a foot anyway? MY foot is a lot smaller." And, "Look here, 10 millimeters in a centimeter, 100 centimeters in a meter, 1000 meters in a kilometer -- what could be simpler?" Well, yes, it's marvelously easy to convert between these "units" which are simply powers of ten of one another, since we happen to use a base-10 number system. But do we actually NEED to convert at all? I suppose engineers and scientists may find themselves doing so, but the whole point of having different units of length (whether you call them "foot" and "mile" or "centi"-this and "milli"-that) is that you use the right unit for the right job! You don't need to know how many miles tall a person is and you don't need to know how many feet it is to the gas station. And since you aren't converting what really matters is whether the unit you are using is sized right for the situation. And unfortunately, metric units often just aren't. They were designed not for practicalities but to meet an ideal: a meter was supposed to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator -- and then constraining to decimal relationships after that. The unfortunate outcome is a complete mismatch of scales.

Let's look at the height of a person, for instance. I'm 6'2", or, if you don't need to be exact, a 6-footer. That's two single-digit numbers, maybe just one. In metric on the other hand I'm 188 centimeters, a three-digit number. Which one is easier to remember? Which one conveys more information right off the bat, with that first digit? Wait, wasn't it the metric system that was supposed to be making things easier?

Maybe you're thinking, "Who cares about one digit, I can perfectly well handle three," at this point, but remember that the whole purpose of having these centi- and kilo- units in the first place is to get to smaller numbers. If we were all happy with decimal places and/or lots of zeros we should just measure everything in meters and grams and be done with it.

Oh, maybe this wasn't a fair example, of course our "ancient" and "primitive" units are sized to a person. Measuring a man is a cop-out. Other things will be harder. OK, well what about the height of the ceiling in the room? The width of my desk? The width of a train track? Hmm, maybe a lot of the things we want to measure actually have some connection or relationship to us -- fancy that!

And again, scale matters with miles and kilometers. How many miles can a man walk in a day? About 10 at a relaxed pace, not straining for too many hours. Perhaps 20 if pressing the pace over most of the daylight. Both clear, round numbers. In kilometers? Let's see, I guess that would be 16 and 32 respectively, though I bet if you asked a "metric person" they'd have to think for a while and then probably come up with an answer like "20-30". While this can't be said to be "wrong" per se, the additional mental effort needed to keep track of larger numbers is there, and it just feels like the kilometer is a little too small for the human scale. And this is not surprising -- the kilometer is an arbitrary construction resulting from the meter (another arbitary construction as we just saw), and picking the closest power of ten to get something approximately right. The mile on the other hand is an archetype hewn out over the millennia, scaled as perfectly as it could be to human perceptions and capabilities. Yes, now we drive cars and fly jet planes, where perhaps the human scale is less relevant, but we still walk, still run, and we still look out across the water to the horizon. (That's three miles, by the way, or 4.7 kilometers.)

Inches and centimeters have a similar scale issue, though admittedly the lack of a smaller unit equivalent to the millimeter scale leaves the imperial system struggling a bit. The need for such precise measurement is historically new. But it's worth stopping to mention another favorite laughing point of metric boosters -- the fact that there are twelve inches in a foot. "Twelve!" they snort, but what do you get when you take half of twelve and then half again? Still a round number, while you're diving down to fractions with tens. And don't even try to talk about taking a third. But halves, thirds, and quarters of things are quite common in everyday life. Splitting is fundamental to how we make sense of and parcel up the world, and operate in it. Twelve wasn't just picked out of a hat, it was chosen through hard lessons of experience precisely because the conveniences it afforded for division outweighed the benefits of a ten base for interconversion. We didn't just grow ten fingers yesterday, or adopt the decimal numbering system just before the time of Napoleon.


What about weight? Things are even more problematic for the metric system there, which settled on the gram and the kilogram as the "common" measures of weight. (Again for reasons, having to do with the density of water, devoid of practical intent.) Grams are so small as to be effectively imperceptible -- and are generally talked about in unnamed bundles of 100 -- whereas the kilogram is a rather blunt instrument, to put it kindly. The ounce on the other hand is readily grasped, and the fact that there are sixteen in a pound is again an advantage for fractional math. Half and half and half again, and you can still take one more and have a whole number of ounces. In metric the same sequence goes 500 - 250 -125 - 62.5, none but the first that memorable or particularly easy to calculate with. Giving the weight of a person in kg requires either imprecision or stepping into fractions, but the American system isn't much better here, requiring three-digit numbers just like height in centimeters. The British rather sensibly still use the stone, a weight of 14 pounds, so that common body weights range from 7-15 stone, with pounds used for detail like inches in height.


As far as volume, the liter is of a useful size, but reasonable steps up and down are both missing. The milliliter is too small to be of much use, so in cooking the deciliter is often used, but then for small amounts the system is abandoned for tea and tablespoons (how primitive) and for larger ones people just suck it up and deal with the large numbers. A 10-gallon fish tank is about 35-40 liters, and a 50-gallon one 180 or so. Fuel tanks hold 40-70 liters, and that's what you get to multiply the per-liter price by when you fill your tank with gas. Fun.


Finally, temperature. What could be wrong with the centigrade degree, you might ask? Finally here is something based around human scales. Zero is the freezing point of water and 100 its boiling point, both important temperatures in common daily life. Indeed, it sounds nice. The problem again comes with the size of the unit relative to perception. You can't have everything, and by tying the ends of the scale as was done and wanting a nice, round number in between, the resulting unit is just a bit large. The problem here is not so much of lack of accuracy (even a centigrade degree is probably smaller than we can really notice), but in spacing. The temperatures most commonly dealt with fall into the small range of 0 to 30. Whereas in Fahrenheit we can talk easily of temperatures in the 50's, 80's, etc. and everyone knows right away what we are saying, the same distinctions in centigrade are much less intuitive. The corresponding ranges are basically 10-15, 15-20, 20-25, and so on. Again, one digit vs. two, and it makes a far greater difference than it sounds. "Low teens" and "high single-digits" just don't roll off the tongue the way "50's" and "40's" do nor do they roll into the mind on the other end any better. And as far as the 0-100 range is concerned, 0 in Fahrenheit equates to "very cold" whereas 100 is about the temperature of a human. It was only recently in history that we actually started measuring cooking temperatures or really caring about anything much above that 100.

Dates and Conclusions

One last comment. Although strictly speaking they have nothing to do with the metric system, Europeans often mention date formats in the same breath while laughing about American measurement silliness. Why on earth do we have this mixed-up arrangement where we put the month first, then the day, a smaller time unit, and then finally the largest? How much more sensible it is to put them in order smallest to largest as they do!

At least, that's how the argument goes. The logic however, that's quite another thing. How do we write numbers? From largest to smallest. 123 is one hundred, twenty and three, not one, twenty, and three hundred. Similarly with times: 10:30 is ten hours and thirty minutes. Written like this, we get the main gist up front, then the detail secondarily. The human mind works well with this arrangement, and we can see it in how we communicate in other areas as well. For example, we might talk about a Ford Mustang or a BMW 328i, not a Mustang Ford or 328i BMW.

Thus when it comes to dates, we should rather be writing them the opposite of how the Europeans do: 2015-01-13 for January 1, 2015. And indeed, the Chinese do it exactly this way, and international standards follow this approach as well. But this misses one crucial fact. Most of the time when talking about dates, you don't need or care about the year. Everyone knows what year it is and you just care that your vacation starts on June 5 or your mother-in-law comes to visit on September 12. Or, maybe your son's birthday is on May 10, and of course that's every year so it doesn't even make sense to state it. And it is for this reason the year comes last in the American format -- because usually it's ancillary information at best. You get the main gist up front -- what month something is going to occur in, and then the detail later. Just like numbers, times, and everything else. You don't have the year distracting things because in 9 cases out of 10 it's assumed or implied already.

Anyway, I don't know if this has convinced any Europeans to start campaigning for a switch back to more human-centric units, but I hope it at least shows there is some reason on the other side and not just dumb obstinacy. And whatever can be done to reduce snootishness in the cross-Atlantic dialog (in either direction) is always a good thing, right?

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