The Measure of a Man
My wife asked me for a tape measure the other day to find out if some Ikea furniture would fit a space. Turns out I don’t have a tape that measures in centimetres. Canada got the metric system in 1970 and they spent a great deal of time trying to undo the unwieldy British system which we learned by rote in primary school - 1760 yards in a mile, four pecks in a bushel, four quarts to a gallon, two thousand pounds in a ton, and so on. I know metric is supposed to make sense because it is based on increments of 10, 100, 1000 just like our decimal systems. 100 centimetres in a metre, one thousand millimetres in a metre etc. But the fact is…. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone use those measurements in real life. Does that strike you as odd?
On the human level, people have historically used what was within easy reach, that standard often being the human body since everyone has one. A horse is how many hands high? How many feet is your living room? You don’t need a measuring tape to figure that out, do you? An inch. Where does that come from? If you go to the French translation, “pouce” you realize it means “thumb”. An inch is give or take, the width of your thumb. A cubit, for builders, is the length of your forearm. If you are spanning rope and want to know how deep to set anchor, every man can let out a rope measuring by fathoms, the measure of two outstretched arms, about six feet. And so on.
There is a logic that is intuitive, based on nature. Still, things which defy nature are often put upon us as facts. Soft sciences which seek to be hard sciences, offer up a coterie of fancy graphs and charts, and statistics that look impressive but are hard for the everyman to verify. It can leave you somewhat suspicious.
Economists for example, can beam about how the economy is booming, when the stats are simply numbers in motion. If there were one hundred men, and one got filthy rich, an economist could claim that the economy is booming, despite the ninety-nine who remain in poverty. There are people so in love with data that they are often disconnected from what is staring them in the face.
You can also quickly anger those who are trying to school you in the facts, and this alone makes me suspicious. Facts should speak for themselves because they are by nature self-evident and therefore dispassionate. It makes me wonder if the ‘facts’ might just be someone else’s agenda - which is not exactly the same thing. The proposed issues of the day are often just a tug-o-war between what you think, and what others would like you to think.
In terms of the metric system, I suspect the switch was at least partly ideologically based. Trudeau, who had no love for Americans, wanted to poke them in the eye and show them how very European we are, despite that our North American economy tends to be tied more often than not.
How tall are you in centimetres? You don’t know, do you? Or maybe like me you have to check your driver’s license to make sure. A lesson comes from all of this. Common sense revolves around age-old conventions that are common for practical reasons - they make sense. Those experts who browbeat you against your better judgement, are often not your friend. I would say, trust yourself. You can be your own expert.
Next time you go into Ikea armed with a tape measure in inches, to figure out if that 190 cm couch will fit into your eight foot space, smile and know that you may be committing a subversive act.
Second thing is, chances are you are not alone. How do I know this? Last time I went to Ikea I asked the teen behind the counter what some components measured in inches. Guess what? He had a cheat sheet taped to the computer so that he could convert to the units people use in real life.