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The Trouble with the Meter (08 Apr 2005)
The conflicts over metrication tell a messy truth: no single system of measurements is ideal for all uses. Like any object of human design, a measurement system trades one advantage for another. In its avoidance of thirds, for example, the metric system has no colloquial equivalent of the foot. Decimeters are seldom used; the system skips an order of magnitude from the centimeter to the meter. And liters exceed normal individual human thirst.

On the other hand, the millimeter has its own advantages. Around the thickness of two fingernails, it’s the smallest unit we find useful for measuring common objects; a dime is 1.35 mm thick. It avoids the contortions of arithmetic involving sixteenths and thirty-seconds of an inch. Only where objects are regularly divided in half, as in carpentry and the building trades, does the inch come into its own. What is being measured dictates the appeal of the system used to measure it. The metric system has become the world’s lingua franca, but traditional measures, rooted in the body and its crafts, are its tenacious vernacular.
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