Dear Ed

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dearedDear Ed,

Is the imperial system of measurements making a comeback? I see insidious signs of it everywhere.

S. Pook


Dear S. Pook

Funny you should ask me that. Australia went metric (which is nothing like going commando) in a series of incremental changes from 1966 through 1988, but you wouldn't think so. Even the Australian mathematics curriculum teaches kids about imperial measurements, which is either a) expanding their horizons or b) a sure sign of defeat.

Anyhoo, this morning I was reading about the craters revealed by thawing permafrost in Siberia, 'where temperatures fall far below zero'. At first I thought, 'That's weird. I thought Siberia was much colder than that'. Then I looked at the byline ... and it was an article syndicated from a US newspaper and thus featuring (without mentioning it) measurements in Fahrenheit. So, problem one for the metric system: syndicated news. If the US is the imperial power of the English language, Australia is the equivalent of Vladivostok.

Then I went to the big green hardware store in search of a metre ruler so I could rule some long straight lines on plasterboard. They had a metre rule, too, in shiny aluminium with measurements printed on one face. It had imperial measurements at the top of the ruler and metric measurements at the bottom. The only drawback was that if you used the metric edge and placed the ruler under the line you were ruling, you had to read the numbers upside down. If you're already mathematically dyslexic and inclined to turn 48 into 84, it's not a bright idea to start reading numbers upside down. Problem two for the metric system: one-size-fits-all products. Again, it was a US product, so who cares if non-Americans (AKA the rest of the world) have to use it upside down?

After putting up the plasterboard, which turned out to be a whole other spatial experience that involved much cursing and invocation of deities, I switched on the TV for entertainment. I happened upon a British doco about ancient Egypt, and at least it didn't have a voiceover by the guy who voices the National Geographic docos and snorts bowls of steroids for breakfast. But the doco was all in feet and inches. And miles and yards. I could only go for so long doing conversions (6 feet = about 2 metres; 2 miles is about 3 kilometres; repeat) before the conversion facility in my head unspooled in a heap on the lounge floor like a burst tape measure with imperial measurements on one side and metric measurements on the other, neither of them any longer comprehensible. Problem three for the metric system: much Australian TV is purchased as a job lot, and provided the viewing populace have something to look at, who cares if they actually understand it? At least they won't go twitchy from lack of digital images.

I think the big assumption is that if English is the main language spoken in your country, then you can put up with imperial measurements. If you happen to live in a country that used to be coloured pink on a world map, it's now assumed that an understanding of imperial measurements is in your DNA.

But don't get me started on gallons and pints. Or body mass measured in pounds. Or why a US gallon is different to an imperial gallon. It seems the US signed up to go metric in the 19th century but never actually carried it through. Perhaps they were afraid they would feel diminished if they went to bed a strapping 6 foot 6 inches tall in the imperial system and woke up the next day 'only' 1.98 metres tall.

Imperially yours,