Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Metric System

Every so often, a link pops up on reddit to a map of the world showing the three countries that don't use the metric system. I'm all for switching to metric. It's about a century overdue, but it's worth pointing out that these maps are misleading. While the rest of the world has officially switched to this easy-to-use, 10-based system, the customary measurements haven't really disappeared from every country but the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar. I've been hanging out with a lot of Brits, and they tell me that in England, while small measurements are done in meters, distances on the highways are still marked in miles, and speed limits are still in miles per hour. And they swear they will never stop drinking pints of beer.

Here in Ecuador, you do travel kilometers and drink milliliters, but you buy gas by the gallon ($1.48 for regular). When I get my laundry "lavado, secado, and doblado," I pay $.40/pound. If I buy produce outside of a fancy supermarket, it's also usually sold by the pound, not the kilogram. I suspect there are a couple of psychological factors contributing to the persistence of the pound. (And I´d bet the gasoline thing is political.)

First, people don't love using fractions, and the kilogram is a big unit, so you can't just use whole kilos. People are going to want to buy half a kilo of raspberries, or a kilo and a half of tomatoes. Pounds are just small enough that are lots of times, in the scaleless commerce of the Ecuadorian streets, at least, when a pound or two pounds or three are useful choices.

Second, since pounds are smaller, prices seem lower. A laundry would rather advertise $.40/lb than $.88/kg, even though it's really the same. If American gas stations can't give up ending gasoline prices in 9/10 of a cent to make it seem a penny cheaper, stores in a country familiar with hyper-inflation aren't likely to switch to metric when it would make it appear that their prices have suddenly more than doubled.

So even if multiplying by 10 is way easier than multiplying by 2 or 3 or 8 or 12, I doubt the world will ever be as free of inches and miles, pints and pounds, as those infographics make it seem.

(Searching for the map, I stumbled on this entertaining essay on how the metric system is and isn´t used in Belgium. The writer concludes that it´s really useful to be able to divide your measurement units by 3 and 4, and thus you get things like the standard size of wood being 120cm long and 2.4cm thick. Pretty interesting.)

No comments: