Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Metric, Imperial and playing the mythical past against the real future

These days, when I visit Britain it is impossible to miss the fact that the country seems to be retreating into some backward looking myth of its own past.

For example, I still find it astonishing that the country has still not fully adopted the metric system. As I try to wrestle with the conversion of Miles to Kilometres and Fahrenheit to Celsius I recall with a certain sense of frustration that the Imperial system is no longer taught in schools, but we are still stuck with the fact that we drive in approximately 1.6 kilometre increments and drink in 548 millilitre increments. As for temperature, I really can not get my head around Fahrenheit. Apparently only the US and Belize still use it, yet still we hear the British weathermen converting the Celsius measurements in each forecast.

When can we move on and not bother with the cumbersome nonsense of dual measurement?

It is not as if we have to give up the traditional measure of beer- they even sell Pint cans of beer in Estonia- but to continue to maintain Imperial measurement in every day general use is not only stupid, it is expensive.

Yet the resistance to the metric system remains stubborn and the support these guys get from the right wing press borders on the lunatic. Simon Heffer recently devoted an entire article to why the decimal system- introduced to British money in 1971- was a bad thing! This is a level of Conservatism that is practically Neanderthal. It essentially rejects all change whatsoever. Any novelty is rejected, and change automatically labelled "a bad thing". No wonder the UK seems so backward looking these days: it IS backward looking.

The fact is that the current situation of the UK is not sustainable. Retreating to the past and seeking to take refuge in some comforting myth of the 1950s- as the Daily Mail seems to try to do every day- can not address, let alone solve, the problems of today. If an unthinking admiration of all things new is foolish, it is no less foolish to reject the new out of hand.

It is surely time to accept that the middle ground- keeping some old measures, but adopting some of the new- it expensive and pointless. No one under the age of 50 has been taught the Imperial system, it is time that we fully adopted the Metric system. Sure, there is a cost in altering road signs, but that is a one time cost and since there is a plan to alter speed limits across the country anyway, could we not start by simply putting 130 Kmh on the Motorway signs instead of new 80 Mph signs?

Of course the Paleo-conservatives will resist. In fact that is the point: it is time to tell these unblinking NIMBYs that change is a natural process, and that quite often it is for the better. Only a fool would think that the pre-decimal system was superior, 40 years after it was abolished: after all it was hardly a rash decision, since it was first proposed before Parliament in 1824.

After nearly 40 years of actually using the Metric system, it is time we adopted that fully too.


Tim Fenton said...

The feature of Heffer's piece in the Telegraph, to which you link, which gives the game away is that, when he attempts to show his mastery of pre-decimal maths, Heffer gets the answer wrong:


Lavengro said...

Back in the 60s, when metrication was first planned, motorway distance signs to exits and service stations were changed to 1/3 and 2/3 miles for later adaptation to 1/2 and 1 km. They are now back at 1/4 and 1/2 miles.

Barrie England said...

Thank you for speaking out against such nonsense. I’m old enough to have learnt imperial and not metric units at school, but I have no difficulty with the latter. What I do have difficulty with is constantly having to convert from one to the other. We buy petrol in litres per £, but measure its consumption in miles per gallon. How’s that for a rational approach to fuel economy?

doctorhuw said...

Despite being 28, I was taught both metric and imperial measurements at school - I have no trouble using either or both. Indeed, it's a good exercise in mental arithmetic.

The problem is that nobody around me over the age of 20 understands metric. So I tend not to use it very often.

As for speed limits - wouldn't a fairly major problem be that most cars in this country are adapted for distances and speeds in mph? I do have a dual speedometer, but the metric measurements are very faint. Again, not a problem for me, I can adjust in my head. Would everyone find it so straightforward?

Barrie England said...

It could be done gradually, like the way in which in a land far, far away traffic changed from driving on one side of the road to driving on the other.