# The metric changeover – a continuum or a barrier to surmount?

Readers may have seen versions of world maps showing ‘non-metric’ countries, usually Liberia, Myanmar and the US. The previous article on Metric Views generated comments about the qualifications for membership of this select band, and we now consider this further.

During a discussion with a journalist from the Washington Post, Elizabeth Gentry of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) advanced the view that metric transition could be seen as a continuum, with every country in the world at some point along a line from 0% to 100% metric. This interview may be viewed at  http://www.youtube.com/user/UKMetric#p/c/76165B395B031A51/0/xXK-QJ_9SLs with Gentry’s comment beginning at 1:23.

This view of metric transition, which brings to mind a long, straight and level road with travellers strung out between the beginning and the end, may suit the purposes of NIST, but it is sometimes unhelpful in assessing countries’ progress and relative positions in their metric changeovers. In particular:

• It is unclear how a country’s location on the line should be determined.
• There is little agreement on the point at which a country may be said to be metric. 50%? 60%? 75%? 90%?
• Since all countries use metric for such activities as scientific teaching and research and for measuring electricity and illumination, the starting point of a country’s metric transition does not correspond to 0% of metric use.
• Most importantly, there is a point in the metric transition when the going gets tough, when standards and regulations have to be rewritten, when manufacturing industry has to retool and to restock, when package labelling has to change and measuring equipment to be replaced, when the changeover on the roads has to begin, and when schools have to revise the curriculum and to buy new text books.

Perhaps we should forget Gentry’s continuum, and think of the metric changeover as resembling the crossing of a mountain barrier. At the point where the going gets tough, this is when the easy amble across the plain and through the foothills ends, and when the assault on the mountains begins.

A bleak mountain pass is no place to linger, but having crossed the summit and reached the slopes on the other side, the going gets easier. People become familiar with the new measures, and begin to appreciate the simplicity of the new system and perhaps also its logical basis and universal application. Success in one area feeds into other areas, and those holding out to retain the old measures find it increasingly difficult to stand aside from the mainstream. This is when some might decide that a country has become metric.

So how do we decide when a country has made it through the mountains and is heading downhill to the green pastures on the other side? Readers may wish to make their own suggestions. We think these tests might be sufficient:

• Is teaching in schools primarily in metric?
• Does the government use metric for most purposes?
• Are metric-only labelling of packaged goods and the sale of ‘loose goods’ in metric permitted?

So, where does this leave the usual suspects, and what about those world maps?

Myanmar and the US do not do too well. Both seem to have become established in the foothills and show no sign of planning serious attempts to cross the mountain barrier, although, as the last article hinted, America may one day surprise us.

The information about Liberia drawn to our attention by Michael Glass in his comment on the last Metric Views article indicates widespread use of metric by government, but is this enough to class the country as metric? One suspects also that its neighbour, Sierra Leone, has work to do before it can really be seen to have passed the barrier. If any of our readers has recently visited either of these countries, or any other country which is known to be dragging its heels, then Metric Views would be delighted to hear from you.

And what about the UK? A “yes” to each question underlines the progress made, often at a snail’s pace, over the past 45 years. Metric is becoming firmly established and accepted in many aspects of life, as reflected in Michduncg’s comments on the last article. But the UK Department of Transport has been left behind, and seems to have set up camp on the other side of the mountains, always happy to explain why this is not the right time to tackle the crossing. Perhaps it should make contact with Myanmar, which is over there somewhere and could probably use a few transport specialists familiar with Imperial measures.

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### 29 Responses to The metric changeover – a continuum or a barrier to surmount?

1. Ezra Steinberg says:

Some other indicators of real metrication of a country are:

* All public and all (or most) private signs are fully metric (no Imperial)
* Mass media (both publicly underwritten and private) usually or always use metric only (no Imperial) for all topics (not just science or medicine)
* People in ordinary conversation (both at work and just out and about) spontaneously use metric units all (or nearly all) the time.
* People describe their physical characteristics (such as height and weight) in metric. (This one is typically the last sign to evince itself in a society converting to metric.)

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2. Martin Vlietstra says:

It is debateable whether an assessment of the degree of metrication should include electrical and lighting units – they have always been metric. It should be worth noting that the British scientists Maxwell and Kelvin led the way in defining electrical units such the electrical unit of power was identical to the mechanical unit of power.

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3. Mary says:

Martin mentions electrical units, take for example the kilowatt.
I think in many countries domestic power (energy) - electricity and gas use is measured in kilowatt-hours.
Which nations are fully SI and use joules [? megajoules] for domestic energy consumption?
I don't think this is mentioned in an earlier article on units of energy and power:
http://metricviews.org.uk/2010/04/how-should-we-measure-energy-and-power/
[It is actually - Editor]

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4. Ezra Steinberg says:

One step forward might be to find ways to make a big "to do" every year over John Wilkins and his ideas about a measurement system that lays the foundation for the modern SI. Since he is one of the few persons ever to have headed a college at both Oxford and Cambridge, that just adds spice to the sauce!

He was born on January 1, so that might not be the best date to pick since one would be competing with New Year's Day stuff. He died on November 19, though, so maybe UKMA and supporters can create a publicity campaign (any "moles" over at the BBC ... or what will be left of it by the time the Tories have had their way?) to promote Wilkins and his foundational idea every November 19th!

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5. John Frewen-Lord says:

The analogy of the mountain is interesting. When I lived in Canada, during the time when the initial metric conversion process was in full swing, the analogy used by the federal government of the day (and quite appropriate for Canada!) was a snowball being pushed to the top of the hill. By 1977 or 78, it was almost (but not quite) at the very top, and all set to gather its own momentum as it rolled down the other side. In 1979-80 however, there was a bit of a 'metric martyr' protest, most visibly by a gas station owner who refused to convert his pumps from gallons to litres. Although he had to convert in the end, his protests were successful to the degree that the government from then on decided to take a 'softly softly' approach. And we all know where that has left Canada - in as big a muddle as Britain (though in quite different areas). The snowball didn't quite reach the top, and in fact has rolled back down quite some distance since.

There is no doubt, from Britain's and Canada's experience (and probably Australia's and South Africa's as well) that complete conversion to metric usage in a country requires strong government leadership, at least until that snowball has reached the very top of the hill and needs no more than a gentle push to get it to roll down the other side, getting ever bigger and completely unstoppable. Only then can we say that a country has reached the point when it is predominantly metric (nowhere is fully metric - there are too many things around that are expressed in imperial units no matter where in the world you are).

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6. derek says:

John makes an important point when he talks of becoming "predominantly metric" and says "nowhere is fully metric".

In recent years, the debate in the UK has moved away from 'metric versus imperial' to 'metric versus a metric/imperial hybrid system'. BWMA is not, I think, campaigning to return measures in the UK to the situation in 1895 when only scientists used metric measures, but trying to retain the hybrid system in the form that existed in 1995. UKMA on the other hand would like to see 'the full adoption of the international metric system in the UK as soon as practicable'. The disagreement is about where we want to be on Gentry's continuum.

John mentions the snowball analogy used by the Canadian government. I am sure the UK snowball is over the top of the hill, and has started to roll down the other side. Unfortunately, it is now stuck in a snowdrift.

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7. Martin Clutterbuck says:

I agree with Ezra on indicators of real metrication, and think that the most significant are the last two points - people use metric in general conversation and measure their weight and height in metric. If we ever get to this situation, to my mind, the changeover will have been completed.
The media, in my view, are best placed to lead people to the metric side of the mountain but programmes such as Supersize vs Superskinny on Channel 4 where Dr Christian Jessen only talks imperial certainly does not help!

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8. Michduncg says:

Martin Clutterbuck - I agree very much with you on the use of Imperial measurements on TV. I think this is a result of the amount of so many US imported TV programmes. If you ever watch the Aussie equivalent on Sky, they are in kg - we need more of this on prime time! The recent reporting from Libya and Japan has posed some problems for the BBC, with the usual scenario of the on the spot reporters quoting distances in kilometres only for this to be converted into miles by the anchor people in London. That said, the 'F' word has not been mentioned much at all so far when referring to the weather, although no doubt that will rear its head when temperature hit the 30s. I would urge all UK residents to email the BBC anytime they use imperial measurements to complain. But also make sure that you let them know when they do things right.

On the plus side, regular listeners of Radio 2's drive time programme with Simon Mayo will be familiar with 'Homework sucks', where listeners phone in daily with some connundrum that puzzles them. Last week, for example, someone asked how many helium party balloons it would take to lift an average man. The working out was quite interesting. The final answer was provided by a lady that advised that a standard 11" helium balloon could lift 9 grammes. Assuming an average man weighed 12 stone, she went on, this converted to 76.36 kg or 76,360 grammes so 8, 484 balloons would be required. What was interesting, and it is always the case when maths is required, is how people knew to convert to metric to make the maths easy. Also, many of the factual and science programmes refer to metric measurements when describing structures and mass, and scientific data.

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9. Michduncg says:

Martin Clutterbuck - I agree very much with you on the use of Imperial measurements on TV. I think this is a result of the amount of so many US imported TV programmes. If you ever watch the Aussie equivalent on Sky, they are in kg - we need more of this on prime time! The recent reporting from Libya and Japan has posed some problems for the BBC, with the usual scenario of the on the spot reporters quoting distances in kilometres only for this to be converted into miles by the anchor people in London. That said, the 'F' word has not been mentioned much at all so far when referring to the weather, although no doubt that will rear its head when temperature hit the 30s. Also, many of the factual and science programmes refer to metric measurements when describing structures and mass, and scientific data. I would urge all UK residents to email the BBC anytime they use imperial measurements to complain. But also make sure that you let them know when they do things right.

On the plus side, regular listeners of Radio 2's drive time programme with Simon Mayo will be familiar with 'Homework sucks', where listeners phone in daily with some connundrum that puzzles them. Last week, for example, someone asked how many helium party balloons it would take to lift an average man. The working out was quite interesting. The final answer was provided by a lady that advised that a standard 11" helium balloon could lift 9 grammes. Assuming an average man weighed 12 stone, she went on, this converted to 76.36 kg or 76,360 grammes so 8, 484 balloons would be required. What was interesting, and it is always the case when maths is required, is how people knew to convert to metric to make the maths easy.

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10. The snowball analogy is interesting. And if human beings were wholly rational, perhaps it might have rolled right down the other side by now. But what's both frustrating and also wonderful about us is that we're not - we do things, and choose things, for all sorts of reasons. Culture, tradition, habit, cussedness... And who's to say we're wrong, and who has the right to tell us to stop it? Sometimes it's nice just to stop and play in the snow! Me, I use metric for camera lenses and one or two other things, but imperial for rather more, and I'm happy that way.

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11. michduncg says:

Warwick - I am at the opposite side of the hill from you I think. I use metric whenever I can and Imperial when people look at me like a Martian! As for the whole tradition thing - thats just pants! Many were the old teachers in my primary school in the 1970s who said 'thank heavens we don't have to drill you all on silly old measurements'. In that I include the headmaster, a 60 something ex-RAF bomber pilot. And our modern industries would have all closed down long ago and if they had not adopted adopting the metric system, allowing them to deal seamlessly with international partners around the world. How Boeing must be wishing they had gone metric as their internationally subcontracted Boeing 787 Dreamliner slips 3 years behind schedule. While it has many other technical problems, its is no secret that the usage of inch-pound measurements by Boeing when every other major civil aerospace company in the world is metric is acknowledged to have caused difficulties.

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12. Ken Cooper says:

Would the above posting be from the same Warwick Cairns that has previously expressed sentiments like the following?

"From where I stand now, I find myself looking at another demolition-site, only this time it’s not old houses being reduced to rubble but this country’s ancient system of weights and measures.........I think that this thing, this casual wiping-out of our heritage, of our living link to the world of Shakespeare and Chaucer, is one of the most wicked and unforgivable acts of cultural vandalism I have ever seen in my life, and that it is cause for lamentation and weeping. And I think that the next time someone tries to teach my children that they’re ‘forty centimetres tall,’ or four hundred, or whatever it is that they are in metric, or the next time someone talks to me about things weighing so many ‘kee-los,’ I’m going to punch their lights out."

It's nice to see he's at least come round to using metric for camera lenses.

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13. Yep, that's me.
And I stick by it.
There are many ways the world could be more 'rational'. We could all speak the same language, for one thing. That would simplify huge areas of life, and far more than just tinkering with measurements. We could certainly start by doing away with Gaelic and Welsh, if we were that way inclined: after all, what do they add, from a rational point of view, but confusion and clutter? And all the cost of those bilingual roadsigns. But if we did, the world would be a poorer place for it - just as it would be if we did away with traditional measures. Cultural vandalism is a mild expression for it.
But camera lenses always have been metric and I feel no need to translate them into inches.

p.s. the electronic (kindle/iPad) edition of my book 'About the Size of It' is coming out this year – for anyone who fancies a sustained bout of praise for traditional measures in techno-fogey form.

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14. michduncg says:

Warwick, do you read Chaucer in his original Olde English, or the translated modern version? English has changed from the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare, even Dickens. Measurements have done the same. They are not part of our heritage as such - if they were then the Metric Prototypes produced in 19th century Britain must also be part of that.

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15. Cliff Steele says:

Warwick,
It's traditional, in many regions of many countries to use parochial words to describe certain things. Some words used in Cornwall are not understood by someone from, say, Yorkshire and a person from Milan would certainly find it hard to understand a strong Neapolitan dialect. I love these differences and agree that the world would be a poorer place if they died out.
If a road sign, a national newspaper or television service uses parochial or colloquial words in lieu of the universally understood word, however, the result is misunderstanding and confusion.
SI units have been taught in schools for forty years. It is the most efficient system of measurement and understood world wide. If people want to continue using furlongs, rods, yards or whatever, as consenting adults amongst themselves, there's no problem. It's quaint.
However, when the inefficient system is the only option given (such as road signs in miles and yards) and when the Ministry of Transport actually dictates that it is illegal to use the better option, there is a big problem. When British tabloid newspapers feel it is necessary to censor internationally news reports of a 20km exclusion zone in Fukushima and change it to a 12 mile exclusion zone with no metric equivalent (even in parentheses) it shows that love of tradition has outweighed common sense.

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16. Michael Glass says:

The comments here remind me of the rival slogans from a generation ago: "America: love it or leave it!" and "America: change it or lose it!" Sometimes tradition is wonderful, but sometimes traditions become outmoded. And part of our tradition is to adopt something because it is better, or easier or simply because it is the new fashion.

Roman numerals are part of our heritage, but for sheer practicality, Arabic numerals beat them hands down, and they are slowly losing what little ground they have. The Julian calendar stood for 1500 years, but it was superseded by the Gregorian calendar, because it was more accurate. The metric system swept away the babel of conflicting traditional measures in Europe and spread around the world because of its inherent advantages. In that case the gain was far greater than the loss.

English-speaking people clung to their traditional measures: they may have been inconsistent, but at least they were uniform, or at least they appeared that way. Even so, the practicality of adopting metric measures meant that one after another, English speaking countries also abandoned the older measures and adopted the universal measures. Even Liberia, surrounded by metric countries, is adopting the metric system.

So when it comes to tinkering, it is the US and the UK that are tinkering with the old weights and measures when almost all the rest of the world has moved on.

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17. Ken Cooper says:

Warwick

Chaucer (1343 – 1400) and Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) both predate the Imperial measurement system (1824) by many, many decades.

In Chaucer’s time, there were at least 4 different feet in use in England & Wales alone, and the “yard” would have been known as an “ulna”. An ounce only weighed 437 grains, thus making a short-weight avoirdupois pound of 6992 grains. Of course, yet another “pound” (6750 grains) was used to define the (wine) gallon, which at that time was around 216 cubic inches, again well short of the current imperial measure.

Things had improved by Shakespeare’s time, as weight and length were broadly similar to today’s imperial values, but there was still serious confusion involved in measuring volume. A slightly larger wine gallon (which had no statutory basis) had found its way into common use, and an Exchequer gallon of just over 268 cu. in. was also defined. Neither have any relationship to the current Imperial gallon.

So, in 1824, when the Imperial System was properly codified, Chaucer & Shakespeare may have recognised the names of some of the units, but it would not always have been the units that they used themselves. Perhaps your “living link” is not as strong as you think.

Effectively, the instigators of the Imperial System were stating that the measures used by Chaucer & Shakespeare were not fit for purpose and had to be redefined in terms that were suitable for the measurement needs of the time. I expect that someone (perhaps an ancestor of yours?) stated that they were “cultural vandals” when they “forced” this “new” system on the populace?

You also said “But camera lenses always have been metric and I feel no need to translate them into inches.”

You can occasionally still find camera lenses marked in Imperial, but the vast majority are marked in metric only. That’s a good example of a field where metric has become the norm without any government compulsion whatsoever – something you BWMA types deny has ever happened.

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18. philh says:

Not to mention of course that Imperial units have been revised yet again since 1824 and are now defined with reference to the metric system.

e.g. 1 inch = 0.0254 m exactly, hence 1 foot = 12 x 0.0254 = 0.3048 m, 1 yard = 36 x 0.0254 = 0.9144 m and so on.

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19. John Frewen-Lord says:

Warwick Cairns bemoans the supposed loss of tradition and history in the UK by fully adopting the metric system, and that the UK would become less 'British' as a result. I think he is wrong in making that assumption. I found Australia to be just as Australian as it always has been, regardless of the fact that it is one of the most metric English-speaking countries on the planet. Canada's conversion to the metric system can be said to have made it even more Canadian than it was - it provided an additional little bit of differentiation between it and the USA, notwithstanding the US's prolonged and continuous efforts to obliterate what little is left of Canadian identity. I am sure the same can be said for all the other countries that have converted to the metric system from whatever system they used previously - in no way did they lose any sense of their original traditions, culture or identity as a result.

The same is true of Britain - we have a rich history of embracing change and exploring the new, and completing our conversion to the metric system is very much a part of that history.

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20. Peter Griffin says:

Warwick asserts that the "world would be a poorer place" if the world was more 'rational'.

Perhaps he is unaware of the costs of maintaining an irrational attachment to archaic measurement units. e.g. there was the \$125 million dollar failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter mission in 1998, and the "Gimli Glider" incident in 1983. Not to mention ongoing bridge strikes in the UK caused by height restriction signs that contravene the Vienna Convention on Road Signs, and prices being made less transparent to consumers by the use of different units in different shops.

I have an idea for a new book, it would have the title, "The Consequences of Not Knowing About the Size of It". Maybe Warwick would like to write it.

http://articles.cnn.com/1999-09-30/tech/9909_30_mars.metric.02_1_climate-orbiter-spacecraft-team-metric-system?_s=PM:TECH
http://www.metricationmatters.com/docs/CostOfNonMetrication.pdf

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21. I think we're going to have to agree to disagree.
When I read about things like us contravening the Vienna Convention on road signs I get this terrible urge to laugh and say "Yes..? And..?" or "Tough Mozartkugeln, my Viennese friends."
And when people talk about price transparency, I think, "Well, we managed perfectly well on that front for centuries before the metric people stuck their bloody oar in. So whose fault is that, then?"
And even the Mars thing makes me think that the problem lies mainly with introducing metric to an industry that managed to get to the moon without it.

You're probably not going to convince me. I'm probably not going to convince you.

But does anyone have a view on the language thing?
If having more than one system of measures in the world is confusing and costly, then by the same logic having more than one language in the world is even more so.
And if it is a bad idea to bring up children to be 'bilingual' in metric and imperial, is it as bad or worse to bring them up being bilingual in, say, English and French?
And what about all those irrational rules of grammar and spelling in most vernacular languages? Surely a single, logical system like, say, Esperanto would make more sense to people who want the same thing in measurements?
So is it your ambition that everyone should speak one rational language? And if not, why not?

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22. Jake says:

With regard to Warwick's comment about children being 'bilingual' in metric and imperial, the simple fact is that they aren't! They may have some knowledge of each system based mainly on using them in certain situations, but they are usually incapable of converting between the two. Who knows how many yards, feet or inches there are in a mile? Or how may feet in a furlong? You may say you don't need to know, but that is to condone ignorance. In metric, the relationships between the units are all so easy as they are decimal, like our currency and the way we do maths. It is so easy to do calculations in metric, simple things like measuring the area of a room to carpet or tile it or to measure how much wallpaper you will need to paper it. These calculations are very tricky in imperial because you have to convert between inches and feet or even take accout of quarter and half inches.

As far as the analogy with language is concerned, the fact is that the English language is already winning out in many ways across the globe. Certainly within Europe generally and the EU more specifically it is now the first language learnt by everyone at school and many Britons will not fail to have been impressed by the language skills (not only in English) of our continental cousins. The richness of language is part of our global culture, but conflicting systems of measurement are nothing but an obstacle to understanding. There is nothing culturally significant about the remaining imperial units still in legal use in the UK. If there were people like Warwick should be calling for gallons, firkins, hogsheads, poles, perches, rods, etc. to be put back on the statute book as soon as possible. Some of these old units have interesting names and I like reading about them - in a history book or a museum where they belong! The situation could be remedied so relatively easily in the UK and until we do so we are depriving ourselves of the advantage of having a proper 'single' system of measurement that eveyone can understand and use on an everyday basis.

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23. John Steele says:

If Warwick gets his wish, you will certainly have interesting nutritional labels on your foods.
Fat, carbs, protein and trace elements in grains (at 15.43235 grains/g). Energy values in BTU (3.96832 BTU/kcal).

While you couldn't measure your current or voltage in such an environment (or the brightness of lightbulbs), you could price your electricity in BTUs.

English has clearly won over both French and Esperanto as the modern "lingua franca" for the world. I think it is time to let the SI win as the measurment system.

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24. Michael Glass says:

There is a distinction to be made between number and language, even though there is also an obvious relationship. When Arabic mathematicians discovered the use of zero, this advance was initially resisted in Christendom, on the ground that it was somehow irreligious. Fortunately, this was overcome, and Arabic numerals were imported into the West, to our great advantage.

The metric system continues to spread because it is better than the alternatives. The resistance to this change strikes me as strange as the resistance to other advances. But that could be a matter of perception. I have the advantage of experiencing the change to the metric system that happened in Australia in the 1970s. I know from experience that it is nothing to fear, and that nothing of significance was lost.

There is an old book called "Roads to Ruin" by E. S. Turner. Here the author points out how the most useful and necessary reforms have been opposed by some of the best and the brightest. Unfortunately, some quite decent reforms have been howled down and defeated because the dead hand of tradition got in the way. An older generation was aware that Beta was better than VHS, but this became quite academic when DVDs came along. We are vaguely aware that the dvorak keyboard is better than the standard QWERTY keyboard, but QWERTY rules the world. The logic of spelling reform is unassailable, but public interest is nearly zero.

The metric system, however, is different. Whether we like it or not, it is advancing, even in English-speaking countries, and as it is obviously better than the alternatives it makes no sense to resist this reform.

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25. The Glob says:

Warwick implies that being 'bilingual' in metric and imperial is a good thing. There is just one problem with that idea - it doesn't work out like that. To add to what Jake says, did not one survey say that 1 in 3 British adults could not calculate an area in either metric or imperial back in 2002?

I wonder if anyone has done a formal investigation of a link between the failure to finish metrication (and/or retaining imperial) and the numeracy problem? And I wonder how much worse the numeracy situation is today, 9 years later?

Unfortunately, views like Warwick's are not uncommon. Sadly, even some people of my generation hold similar views to Warwick, and believe the myths unquestioningly - judging by one of the comments on one of my articles.

@Michael Glass - Very good comments. Just a minor point though, it was actually Indian mathematicians who first discovered zero as an actual numeral, and the numerals themselves are also of ancient Indian origin, so strictly speaking these are Indian numerals. These numerals, including zero, would later get introduced to Arabia. Indeed, these numerals were known as "Hindu numerals" in Arabia. The medieval Europeans did not know about the origin of the numerals when they first encountered them, so simply called them "Arabic numerals". This system of numbers is definitely superior to Roman numerals.

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26. derek says:

Remek Kocz, a member of USMA, recently visited Belize in Central America. This was formerly known as British Honduras and was recently in the news as the home, or not, of Peer Lord Ashcroft. Remek reports:

"This brings us to Belize, which is a country that I'd argue is more USC than the US itself. Why? In addition to everything that I saw being non-metric, there is no FPLA. So locally packaged food is in pounds and ounces only. Everything that I saw there was in USC: fuel, roads, temperatures (yes, Fahrenheit only), vertical distances, groceries, property dimensions. Which begs the question, why is Belize omitted from the very short list countries that do not use the metric system? Belize is a very poor country, with a dysfunctional government (per the locals I spoke to), and it's probably highly unlikely that they have any kind of metrication plan on their hands. So why not US, Liberia, Burma, and Belize?"

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27. George Carty says:

@The Glob

Actually, the numerals that are used in Arabia are called "Hindu numerals" because they are very similar to the Indian originals. The "Arabic numerals" used in the West are rather different, and the only area of the Muslim world where they were used are the Maghreb countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (plus al-Andalus while it existed, and IIRC Libya switched over in the '80s).

Incidentally, can the Arab world's language muddle (which is probably one of the biggest reasons for its relative backwardness) be likened to the UK's measurement muddle?

The spoken languages which all Arabs learn from their parents are mutually unintelligible with those from other parts of the Arab world, as well as being very different from the standard Arabic ("fusha") language taught in schools and used in the vast majority of written communications. A useful analogy for Westerners would be to imagine fusha to be equivalent to Latin while the spoken dialects are equivalent to the Romance languages.

Would total metrication of the UK be as difficult as trying to eradicate Arabic dialects and impose fusha as the sole language of the Arabs?

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28. George Carty says:

Sorry, when I said "only area of the Muslim world" to use Western numerals I really meant the only such countries where Arabic script is used -- of course Muslim countries that use the Latin alphabet (like Turkey, Uzbekistan, Malaysia etc) or Cyrillic alphabet (like Kazakhstan) would use the Western numerals.

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29. The Glob says:

@George Carty - You are correct. the numerals as used in the Arab world were derived from the Indian originals. And yes, in the West the numerals are a bit different but they are ultimately derived from the Indian originals as well.

I personally believe that the metric system (SI) owes its existence to the Indian numeral system and all its derivatives, including the the notion of the number zero and decimal points.

Interesting question regarding the language muddle. Personally, I think it would be much easier - even despite the current political difficulties in the UK - to finish metrication totally, than to impose one variant of a language over an entire Sprachbund - for example the Arabophone nations which you mentioned.

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