August 30, 2010

Measuring up to metric and imperial systems.

No really, metric is interesting. Returning to America has reminded me of the absurdities of imperial measures in everyday life, but also that metric enthusiasts overstate the benefits of metric. Although Thomas Jefferson proposed a decimal system for America in the 1790s, I don't doubt that if further metrication was proposed now it would be condemned as a foreign invention, and contrary to American tradition.

When I first moved to America I was irritated by silly imperial measurements, but more outraged by silly international students who, though intelligent enough to be studying abroad, could not comprehend alternative measurement systems. Being a sometime contrarian I found more virtues in the imperial measures than I first suspected.

Not the least of these virtues is that there are fewer miles in a marathon than there are kilometres. Of course at the same speed the miles take longer to pass. But mentally I find a marathon would be best measured in miles to 20 miles/10km to go, and then in kilometres. After 20mi/32km time is appearing to pass so slowly in most marathons that the achievement of an extra 0.6mi/1km is good to know about.

Other virtues can be found in the temperature scales. When you get below freezing it's nice to still be referring to positive numbers. This saves words, you don't have to say "negative eight," you say twenty. It also allows you to push back the point of being expletively-cold to below zero in fahrenheit, which is about right.

The point is that when you're only thinking about one measure it doesn't matter whether that is metric or imperial. So long as you know the practical implications of the distance or the temperature it doesn't actually matter what scale it is measured on.

Instead, the absurdities of the imperial system are when you have to convert between scales, and when you are relating two measures to each other. Lets take the first of these issues. Ounces and pounds are common measures of weight, and there are 16 ounces in a pound. OK so far, though base 16 is not the most intuitive (base 12 makes more sense than many realize). The problem comes in the store, where some items are weighed in decimal amounts of pounds rather than whole ounces. The conversion isn't obvious between scales when you have some cheese measured at 0.593 pounds and you recipe called for 10 ounces.

It's worse for volume and liquid, there are multiple measures -- fluid ounces, cups, pints, quarts and gallons. Quite why it is sensible to have 10 fluid ounces in a cup, 20 in a pint, and then (then!) switch to 2 pints in a quart and 4 quarts in a gallon. It's not intuitive at all.

The chances of changing this mess are small, since changing United States institutions is difficult at the best of times. Of course the costs of not-ideal measurement systems are small every time you use them, but add up over time and across society. They are probably worth the transition costs, but it will never happen.

Posted by eroberts at 3:04 PM

August 3, 2010

Excuse me!

One thing I didn't anticipate about moving back to America 10 days ago was that things I got used to in the 7 years I previously lived here could appear like new cultural experiences and misunderstandings.

To wit, I had completely forgotten how Minnesotans drive me insane by saying "excuse me". PLEASE STOP IT.

In New Zealand you do hear people say "excuse me" as a genuine polite acknowledgment of minor social faux pas (burping, reaching too far for the condiments at dinner, stepping into someone's way by accident). But when I heard "excuse me" in New Zealand it was reasonably frequently used by the wronged person—the person who only had to hear the burp, the person who saw another's arm come across their plate on the way to the mustard—as a sarcastic way of indicating that the uncouth person should have acknowledged their bad ways. I think (and I'm no linguist) that people in New Zealand say "sorry" more frequently as an expression of genuine contrition for these kinds of offences.

Soon after arriving back in Minnesota I was in the store, and waiting to turn the trolley/cart out of an aisle. Someone passed in front of me with the right of way (applying road T-junction rules to the supermarket) and said "Excuse me." This was ridiculous because they had the right of way, and I had stopped briefly waiting for them to pass. To say "excuse me" raised my hackles. I felt the rush of annoyance one feels when strangers are rude to you in public without cause. Why, I wondered, are they being so rude and suggesting that I should have apologized when they had the right of way and I was waiting. There have been several other sarcastic Minnesotans since then, saying "excuse me" and obviously prompting me to apologize for my behavior.

Reflecting on each situation, I think they were just trying to be polite. Indeed one of the reasons I think they are being sarcastic in saying "excuse me" is that, to my mind, there's nothing for them to apologize for in the first place! Thus my next instinct is they must be suggesting I did something wrong. So, it would be a lot easier for me if people in Minnesota could just stop saying "excuse me."

Posted by eroberts at 8:17 AM