Monday, January 31, 2022

Metric Schmetric

Tools of the trade,
which work best, centimeters or inches?
It depends. 
Practically everybody knows that the Metric System is the universal standard of measurement around the world except in Myanmar, Liberia, and the good ol' US of A. Instead, each of those countries use their own version of the Imperial System of measurement. Ironically, Great Britain, the nation whose empire spread that system of weights and measures around the world has itself, largely abandoned it.  

Practically everyone also knows the reason that most of the world has rejected the Imperial System in favor of Metric, is because the latter is vastly superior, or so they say. 

Them's fightin' words to staunch defenders of the Imperial System, who say that while Metric may be in theory, more rational and easy to learn, their preferred system of measurement is more relatable to real life, human experience. 

Quite honestly, I agree. Throughout human history, sizes and quantities have been measured by using easily relatable equivalents of weights, sizes or quantities. A brilliant example of this is the foot. Of course, actual human feet come in different sizes, and the foot we use as a unit of measurement in the Imperial System, is larger than the average human foot, but it's close enough. Likewise, the inch is roughly equivalent to the average distance from the tip of the human thumb to the nearest knuckle of that appendage, and the yard is close enough to the length of an average human stride.

Compare that to the meter, the steppingstone for the Metric System, whose size is determined to be roughly one ten millionth the distance between the earth's equator and the North Pole. This may have far reaching implications for scientific measurements, especially since all metric measurements from weight to volume to linear distance are derived from the meter, but this lofty relationship is a little hard to relate to when measuring more mundane things such as your height, or how much sugar to put into your cake batter. 

None of this would make much of a difference since the meter and the yard are roughly the same, and a centimeter is a little more than one half an inch. The problem is, because of Metric's slavish dependence on the number ten, (a number that is evenly divisible only by the numbers two and five), there are no useful intermediate metric equivalents to say, the foot. A devotee of the Metric System would offer the decimeter, but that's still only about one third of a foot and honestly, I've never encountered anyone in my life who's used the decimeter. 

Without the constraint of the number ten, the Imperial System is free to use measuring units such as the foot, which may be better suited to what you're measuring.

For example, to measure the height of a person using the Metric System, you would use centimeters, or a combination of meters and centimeters. 

My Imperial height measurement is 5 feet, 8 inches. In metric I am 173cm, or 1.73M tall. 

To my ears anyway, when measuring the height of a human being, the centimeter is too small of a unit, and the meter is too big, while the foot, exactly one third of a yard, and itself broken up into twelve parts, inches, which in turn can be divided up into fractions, is just right. 

Consider this: 

A person who is exactly 6 feet tall, a mere four inches taller but psychologically a world of difference from my height, is barely a blip of a difference in metric, 183cm. 

You'd have to be 2M tall or greater, nearly 6' 7", the average height of an NBA player, to gain bragging rights of crossing into another height threshold. And as far as I know, no human being has ever been 3M tall, so according to the metric world, height wise we humans are divided into giants, really, really short people, and everybody else.

Maybe someone like me who is on the height-challenged side should welcome the fact that Michael Jordan and I fall into the same height category as we both are between 1 and 2 meters tall, but that just doesn't seem right. On the flip side, Eddie Gaedel would also fall into that category.

The lack of intermediate units of measurement is even more pronounced in cooking where the Imperial System provides us with a plethora of units to accommodate various types of volumes such as the teaspoon (and fractions of it), the tablespoon, the fluid ounce, the cup, the pint, the quart, and the gallon. In metric we only have the milliliter and the liter. OK again, yes there are such things as centiliters and deciliters but hardly anyone uses those.

Despite that however, somehow, people living in the metric world seem to manage. 

They also manage Celsius, the system of temperature measurement employed in virtually all the places where metric is employed, though it is not technically a metric system. 

I'm not sure why, but my arguments claiming the superiority of the system invented by Daniel Gabriel Farenheit over the one invented by Anders Celsius, usually fall upon deaf ears by my friends, acquaintances, and family members including my father, who grew up in the world of Celsius. 

"It makes so much sense they say; 0 degrees Celsius represents the freezing point of water and 100C represents water's boiling point."

To which I respond: "That's great if you're interested in the temperature of water, but the range between 0 to 100 degrees Farenheit better represents the range of air temperatures that people experience in much of the world. Beyond those numbers, it's either really really hot, or really really cold" 

Besides, I tell them, the temperature of the boiling point of water is irrelevant to me. If some day by chance I ever needed to use it for practical purposes, (I haven't yet), I'll have no problem remembering the number 212. 

This is typically met with the response: "You're an idiot."

Guilty as charged. 

The truth is, none of the arguments above justify not joining the rest of the world in terms of our official system of weights and measures. 

There is one over-riding reason to join Team Metric that trumps every reason for not: conflicting measuring systems create problems that range from embarrassing, to costly, to tragic. 

In 1999 NASA lost a Mars orbiter because one team of engineers working on the project were using Imperial in their design parameters while the rest of the teams were working in Metric. That mistake was both embarrassing and costly. 

Truly serious, life-threatening issues can and do arise when for example, administering medicine and the wrong dosage is administered because both Metric and Imperial measurements are given as options. 

So why don't we just bite the bullet and adopt the Metric System?  

Well I'm afraid that ship sailed forty years ago when Ronald Reagan put the kibosh on this country's effort to officially adopt metric by de-funding the United States Metric Board, the agency initiated by Gerald Ford who gave it the authority to impose the change on the country. Cost-cutting and a preference for a voluntary rather than compulsory change were cited as the reasons for de-funding the board. Despite that, a good part of this nation did switch over to Metric. 

From this article in PolitiFact:

Today, not all, but many federal agencies -- including the military -- use metric units almost exclusively, according to a statement from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Many metric experts estimate that the United States is (currently) 50 percent metric, said U.S. Metric Association President Don Hillger, a meteorologist at Colorado State University. While most Americans use customary units in their homes, those in science and heavy industry typically use the metric system.

You wouldn't necessarily know that as in public, the U.S.'s version of the Imperial System is still king. Food is still sold by the pound, gasoline by the gallon, meteorologists still report barometric pressure in inches and air temps in degrees Farenheit, speed limits are still posted in miles-per-hour, and so on. 

I have no doubt it will remain this way for the foreseeable future. After all, if we couldn't manage to go Metric in the 1970's and 80's, perhaps the most progressive period in this country's history (yes even with President Reagan in charge), imagine trying now when we can't even get people to wear masks and vaccinate themselves in order to help protect their lives and the lives of others.  

If there's anything Americans hate today more than science and conforming to the norms of the rest of the world, it's being told what to do. Talk about American exceptionalism.

Oh well as they say, "if life hands you a lemon, make lemonade." In that vein, we Americans who do not fear science and all that is foreign, should learn to embrace the Metric System along with the Imperial System of weights and measures, as in different aspects, both have advantages over the other. With its consistency, the metric system works great for performing calculations, especially where accuracy is of the essence. With its variety of intermediate units and relatable equivalents found in the real world, the Imperial System is great for visualization, estimation, and of course, for cooking.

However, if you feel the need to get all haughty as some of you do, (you know who you are), over how great, universal and life changing the Metric System is, consider this. It is based on perhaps the most arbitrary of natural occurrences, the fact that human beings typically have ten fingers. In other words, because of happenstance, we have based our entire number system and by extension, our most common measuring system, around the number ten. Considering that alone, we'd have been better off having a more versatile number of fingers on our hands, such as twelve.

The problem is the universe does not work exclusively in tens, in fact it hardly ever does. Take for example the way we measure time. One day is equal to the amount of time it takes for our planet to complete one rotation about its axis. One year is the amount of time it takes for our planet to make one complete revolution around the sun, to be exact, 365 days, 5 hours, 59 minutes and 16 seconds. Those extra hours, minutes and seconds are why we need to have leap years.

The passage of time is typically measured in days and years. Notice the number 10 does not figure into any of that.

We may like nice, tidy numbers but nature could not care less.

Furthermore, in astronomy, planetary distances are not measured in meters, kilometers, megameters, gigameters or anything having to do with the number ten. They are measured in astronomical units (AU), one of which is equal to the average distance of the earth to the sun (roughly 150 million kilometers). Greater distances are measured by the distance light travels in one year, the light year, which measures approximately 9.46 trillion kilometers. 

Another astronomical unit used to measure great distances is the parsec. If you imagine an enormous, narrow right triangle, with its base measuring one AU, and its opposite angle measuring 1/3,600 of a degree, the length of a parsec equals the length of the other leg of that hypothetical triangle. That figure works out to be about 30 trillion kilometers, This measurement is critical as the way astronomers measure the distance to nearby stars is by observing the difference in their relative angle to other stars, observed six months apart when the earth is at opposite ends of its orbit around the sun. Pure trigonometry this, a branch of mathematics based around the numbers 360 and the irrational number pi, with little significance placed on the number ten.

Now the length of a parsec does not correspond to anything observed in nature, but it is an extremely useful tool to help accurately measure the distance of very far away objects. Conversely, a light year is not a particularly useful unit in accurately measuring distant objects (as it requires conversion to the parsec), but it is a very easy concept to comprehend, even if the actual distance of a light year is not. So, when someone like the popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson goes on TV to talk about some event that happened far away in the universe, to make it easier for us to understand, he will use light years to describe its distance from us, not parsecs. Even though neither the light year nor the parsec have anything to do with the Imperial or Metric systems, the way they are used is as good an example as any I can think of, to describe the relative usefulness of both systems.

So lighten up metric freaks, your system works just fine, sometimes. I use it quite often for certain measures that require calculation and precision. But I don't use it for everything. Sorry.

My point is this, measuring systems are merely tools to accomplish a job, one should not place a value of one over the other, it's like saying one language is inherently better than another. As with anything, you choose the right tool for the job. You probably wouldn't use a jeweler's hammer to drive a ten-penny nail into a block of wood, nor would you use a sledgehammer, even though technically, both could do the job. 

Like being multi-lingual, one only benefits from being proficient in more than one measuring system. 

In an ideal world, we would have one standard, default measurement system that is universally accepted and understood. Despite its limitations, Metric fills the bill probably better than any other system we have. 

That doesn't mean other systems shouldn't coexist to augment the standard's shortcomings. 

Given that, in a free world, no one should be disparaged for using the measuring system that works best for them, as long of course that the rest of the team is on the same page. 

It's certainly a lot easier than growing an extra finger on each hand.  


Sunday, January 16, 2022



Maceo Snipes

Witold Pilecki

Look at these faces. 

They are the faces of two indisputable heroes of justice, freedom and democracy.

Beyond that, Maceo Snipes and Witold Pilecki, men whom I suspect have never been mentioned in the same breath until now, had a few other things in common. Both had agrarian backgrounds although at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. Snipes was a sharecropper in the U.S. state of Georgia, Pilecki, the descendant of a noble Polish farming family. Both men served their country in the fight against fascism during World War II, Snipes as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army, Wilecki as an officer in the Polish Army and later, the Polish Resistance. 

After the war, both men took a courageous stand which would cost them their lives. Both soldiers were killed not by foreign, enemy combatants, but by their own countrymen. And both were shunned, buried in unmarked graves, their actions and sacrifice virtually forgotten for decades. 


Along with roughly 1.2 million African American men and women who answered the call to serve their country during WWII, Maceo Snipes returned home to be treated exactly as he left, a second-class citizen.  

However, things were beginning to change albeit at a snail's pace, especially in places like Taylor Country, Georgia where Snipes and his family worked the land they rented from a white man. In 1946, federal courts struck down a Georgia law preventing black people from voting in that state's gubernatorial primary elections. Proponents of the law stated that blacks could vote in the general election, but as Georgia at the time was essentially a one party (Democratic) state, general elections were mere formalities, the real choice came in the primaries.

Needless to say, that decision didn't go over well with the good ol' boys of the local chapter of the KKK who in no uncertain terms made it crystal clear that any black man or woman who dared turn out to vote in that particular election would be met with retribution.

On July 17, 1946, Maceo Snipes defied those well publicized threats and showed up to vote, making him the first black person to vote in a primary election in Taylor County. He would be the only black person in the county to vote in that particular election.

The next day, four Klan members made good on their promise. They showed up at Snipes' farm and shot him in the back. With his mother, Snipes was able to walk several miles for help. He ended up at the local hospital where he was forced to wait several hours to see a doctor. When the doctor finally got around to treating him, he informed Snipes that he'd need a blood transfusion but unfortunately there was no "black blood" available to save his life. In the Jim Crow South, blood was also segregated.

Maceo Snipes died of very treatable wounds two days after he was shot.

Adding insult to injury, the Klan put out word that anybody attending Snipes' funeral would meet the same fate he did. So, his uncle and the local undertaker buried Maceo Snipes in the middle of the night in an undisclosed location. 

At their trial, the men who killed Snipes claimed they confronted him in order to collect on a ten-dollar debt. They testified that Snipes refused to pay up and drew a knife on them. The men pleaded self-defense in his killing. 

Despite there being no evidence other than their word that Snipes either had a knife or owed them money, AND the fact that he was shot in the back, Snipe's murderers were exonerated. 

But Maceo Snipes did not die in vain. His lynching, along with the lynchings of two married couples, including a pregnant woman the same week, inspired this letter to the editor, written by a 17-year-old student at Morehouse College:

I often find when decent treatment for the Negro is urged, a certain class of people hurry to raise the scarecrow of social mingling and intermarriage. These questions have nothing to do with the case. And most people who kick up this kind of dust know that it is simple dust to obscure the real question of rights and opportunities. It is fair to remember that almost the total of race mixture in America has come, not at Negro initiative, but by the acts of those very white men who talk loudest of race purity. We aren’t eager to marry white girls, and we would like to have our own girls left alone by both white toughs and white aristocrats.

We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.

Years later the Reverend Martin Luther King Senior whose namesake son wrote those words, claimed that letter to the editor was the “intimation of [his son’s] developing greatness.”

It could be said that an entire movement was inspired by the death of Maceo Snipes.


After participating in the futile battle against the German invasion of his country in the first days of September 1939, Captain Witold Pilecki, a cavalry officer and intelligence agent, became one of the founders of the Polish resistance. The following year, he volunteered for an extraordinary mission, to infiltrate a German internment camp in the Polish town of Oświęcim. 

To enter the camp, he would have to allow himself to be arrested by the Germans which he did in September of 1940. Despite severe beatings, a near starvation diet and a bout with pneumonia, Pilecki managed to organize a group of follow prisoners to help undermine the efforts of their captors. This included helping improve prisoner morale, deliver news from the outside, distribute food and extra clothing, and set up intelligence networks to communicate the goings on inside the camp to the outside world.

That camp would become known to the world by the name the Germans gave it, Auschwitz.

From inside its walls, Pilecki bore firsthand witness to the depravity of what would become the most notorious of Nazi death camps. Doing so he provided valuable accounts of the horrors of the place to the allies, (who were skeptical of his reports), along with pleas to do something to debilitate the camp, all of which went unheeded.  

All in all, Pilecki spent nearly two-and one-half years inside Auschwitz serving as the Allies' primary source of intelligence from the camp. When it became clear to him that his efforts were no longer fruitful, Pilecki with the help of other prisoners, escaped. He rejoined the Polish resistance as a soldier fighting the Nazis, participating in numerous campaigns including the Warsaw uprising of 1944, which resulted in him once again being captured by the Germans. He spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp.

One would think all of this would result in Pilecki immediately being hailed as a national hero by war's end, but it wasn't to be. Instead, Pilecki continued his work in the Polish underground, this time against the Soviet Union who would occupy his country after Europe was divided up amongst the allies after the War. In this capacity Pilecki worked steadfastly against another form of tyranny and oppression until his capture by the Polish Ministry of Public Security in May of 1947. Under the captivity of the Polish Communist Party completely under the influence of Joseph Stalin, Pilecki was brutally tortured in the hopes of obtaining information on fellow members of the anti-communist underground. Those efforts were unsuccessful. One year later, Pilecki was tried and convicted in a show trial, and shortly thereafter, executed. 

Little was known of Witold Pilecki for the next forty years of Soviet hegemony during which time he was declared a traitor and an enemy of the state. It wasn't until his posthumous "rehabilitation" after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, where his exceptional heroism was finally revealed and recognized.


Until quite recently, I would have viewed these men purely as historical figures, heroes who lived during a thankfully bygone period of history, brilliant symbols of people whose struggles and personal sacrifice succeeded in making the world a better place for those of us who came after them. But recently my world view has changed and now I'm not so sure.

Had you told me six years ago that we'd soon be seeing the following, I would have said you were crazy:

  • A grifter, hoodwinking seventy million Americans into believing that "only he" could fix this country's problems, if only they elected him President of the United States, which they did. 
  • Americans openly carrying Nazi and KKK flags, chanting racist slogans in public being called "fine people" by the president of the United States.
  • The president of the United States openly embracing dictators and trashing our allies, leaders of democratic states.
  • Thousands of that president's supporters inspired by his lie that an election was "stolen from him", attacking the most salient symbol of our democracy, the U.S. Capitol, in the hopes of overturning an American election.
  • Employees of a national "news" network acting as personal advisors to the president during that attack, begging him (unsuccessfully) to call off the insurgents whom they knew were acting on his behalf, then turning around and telling their viewers that the insurgents were actually Democrats in disguise.
  • Politicians from that failed president's party who rightfully condemned his actions, in a year's time doing a complete 180, taking back their words, purely out of fear of the former president and his supporters' wrath. 
  • One of the two major political parties working tirelessly to undo the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 
  • Members of that same party doing everything they can to ensure by whatever means possible, that they will never lose another election.
  • And on and on...

Perhaps you feel I'm over-reacting, that things aren't as bad as I'm making them out to be. This isn't the world of Maceo Snipes and Witold Pilecki, we've come a long way, haven't we? After all we don't have gulags or concentration camps in this country, not yet anyway, and lynchings seem to be for the most part, a thing of the past.


But frankly after what I've seen in the past six years, nothing would surprise me.

It should be noted that no reasonable person in Germany in 1920 would have predicted what was to become of that country in the following decades.

So the battles of Maceo Snipes, Witold Pilecki and ountless others, are not battles of the past but, sad to say, ongoing battles. 

I pray to God it won't come to pass that there will need to be blood shed in order to save our democracy and defeat once and for all the scourges of racism and fascism. I pray that good will, logic and common sense will prevail, and that no parent's child will have to suffer the fate of Maceo Snipes and Witold Pilecki in the fight to preserve decency and justice in our world.

But I assure you many are willing pick up their torch should the need arise. 

Look at those faces above; they are indeed the faces of the BLM and ANTIFA movements of their day.