Canada - caught between metric and imperial
Last updated on December 8, 2012, 17:20 by Sebastian Mihai
I am originally from a country where the metric system is used exclusively, and the imperial system is just something you hear about in foreign movies. Moving to Canada, I knew that the Americans used the imperial system exclusively, but wasn't quite sure what to expect from my new homeland.

Simply put, I found inconsistency. Most Canadians I've asked have told me the imperial system seems awkward (with which I agree), and would rather prefer universal usage of the metric system in Canada. However, we just can't seem to get away from the damned inches, feet, and pounds.

A short story

"I woke up at around 8:00 that day, and checked the weather. It said there'd be 22 degrees (M), which is quite warm for an October day. Got dressed, got in my car, and as much as I would've liked to step on it, the limit in the neighbourhood is a measly 40km/h (M). At work, someone wanted to know how tall I was. Knowing that my first instinct response would confuse, I answered, "I'm 5-10. Five feet, ten inches tall (I)". Later on, somebody was telling a funny story about two friends, mentioning how they were a distance of ten feet from each other (I).

As the work day was coming to a close, I checked the weather. The website said there's wind from N/W, 25km/h (M) strong, 2cm of snow (M), and a ceiling of 2900ft (I). I stopped at the grocery store on my way home. Against my better judgement, I decided to buy soft drinks. I couldn't decide whether to buy 2-litre (M) bottles, or 20oz (I) six packs. In the hardware aisle, an adjustable wrench caught my eye; being adjustable, it could replace both my imperial-sizes wrenches, as well as the metric-size ones. Since I was to have guests in the near future, I also stopped at the beer store, and bought a 40oz (I) beer bottle.

I was quite hungry by the time I was done shopping, and decided - again, against my better judgement - to stop for a fast food hamburger. I purchased one quarter pounder (I) with cheese. My next stop was the gas station. The price of gas dropped somewhat, to $1.18 per litre (M), so I filled up.

Once home, I heated the oven by setting the dial to 450 degrees (I), and warmed up some food. Passing by the bathroom, I decided to check my weight. Not quite happy with the number of pounds (I) the scale was showing, I decided to skip the quarter pounder next time."

A little math

And that's what I'm talking about. Throughout a regular, run of the mill day there is a mish-mash of the two systems. Want to see how silly the imperial system is? Check this out:
- 1 foot is 12 inches
- 1 yard is 3 feet
- 1 mile is 1760 yards

Now for the metric version:
- 1 metre is 1000 millimetres
- 1 kilometre is 1000 metres

The fun really begins when you're working with small dimensions, in engineering, architecture, etc.. In the imperial system, you'll see madness such as:
- 3 inches and 3/8
- 2 inches and 17/32

,basically using powers of two for denominators. It's like someone was just terrified of division by ten, or was just concerned about his job security. How much larger is 3 inches and 3/8 than 2 inches and 17/32? First, convert 3/8 to 12/32. 3 inches and 12/32 is 108/32 inches. 2 inches and 17/32 is 81/32 inches. So the first one is 27/32 inches larger. Nice.

In the metric system, measurements will look like this:
- 178mm
- 96mm

How much larger is 178mm than 96mm? 82mm.
I won't even go as far as the division, or taking roots of imperial measurements.

Why the hell is the imperial system still around? We like base 10 numbers. We go crazy when someone's birthday is a whole number of tens (20, 30, 40, etc.) We like centuries and millennia. Hey, if the imperial system is all the rage, why not convert US Dollars as such:
- 1 USD is 20 shilling
- 1 shilling is 12 pence.

That should make things interesting at the cash register. And while we're at it, let's stop this century/millennium nonsense. From now on we'll only work with sexturies, which are 60 years long. We're already doing that for smaller units of time, anyway.

The cost so far

The cost of these inconsistencies? The Canadian "Gimli Glider" accident in 1983, when a Boeing 767 jet ran out of fuel in mid-flight because of two mistakes related to in calculating the fuel supply of Air Canada's first aircraft to use metric measurements: mechanics miscalculated the amount of fuel required by the aircraft as a result of their unfamiliarity with metric units.
And here's another one. The root cause of NASA's 1999 loss of the US$125 million Mars Climate Orbiter which crashed into Mars was a mismatch of units - the spacecraft engineers calculated the thrust forces required for velocity changes using US customary units (lbf*s) whereas the team who built the thrusters were expecting a value in metric units (N*s) as per the agreed specification.
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