17 October 2012

Metric System

Soon, the United States will stand alone as the only country that has not yet fully embraced the Metric System, as the economic powerhouses of Burma and Liberia (the only other holdouts) appear to be preparing to make the switch in the near future.

Even though we haven't adopted the system, we are still exposed to some of the measures.  Our soft drinks come in 2 liter bottles, not 2 quart bottles.  Many of you buy your street drugs in grams, and your wine to wash them down with comes in a 750 milliliter bottle.  So, we are not totally ignorant of the system, but you definitely realize how out of step we are when you have to encounter it every day.

The last big push to adopt the Metric System in the US was in the late 1970s, and it was taught heavily in my elementary school, so I developed a bit of familiarity with it, and it was during that time that certain industries made the conversion (like Big Soda), but it was half-hearted and the movement fizzled.  I remember a Shell gas station that switched to selling gasoline by the liter, and everyone simply avoided the station since no one could do the math in their heads to see if it was cheaper than the gallons of gas available down the street.  It was a great time to do it, since gas was first hitting $1 a gallon, and many of the old pumps only went up to 99.9 cents.  But, instead, most places just started selling gas by the half gallon to get around the problem, since most Americans can multiply by 2.

Kilometers definitely fly by on the freeway much faster than miles do, and your body weight sounds a lot better in kilograms.  Luckily I learned a metric temperature rhyme many years ago that has come in very handy here, since the forecast is given only in Celsius, and often in Afrikaans, so I get to do a double conversion...

0 is freezing
10 is not
20 is pleasing
30 is hot

I run through that poem a few times a week as I try to figure out my comfort and attire zones.  I am definitely a 20C person (68F) rather than a 30C person (86F).  It can get to 40C here in the height of summer (102F) but fortunately, it hasn't really got much above about 34C in Pretoria since I've been here (93F).

The one measure that tripped me up was calories.  Turns out that even though a calorie is based on other metric measures (involving the heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius), it itself is not a Metric measure for whatever reason.  The Metric measure is called a Joule, and so your 12 oz can of Coke in the US with its 142 calories is a 330 ml can of Coke here with its 595 kilojoules, so you can just divide by about 4 and get pretty close.

I think the last remaining kilometer sign in Research Triangle Park may have disappeared recently, yet another sign that the US still really isn't interested in going Metric.