An adapted version of a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012.
What I would suggest, therefore, is this: Whenever you sign a boycott or a petition, any time you email a corporation or a Congressperson to ask that they change their own behavior or force a change in someone else’s, first think of five things that you could have done, relative to the same issue or a closely related one, in the past month, but did not do. Then think of one thing that you could do, and do it. The five things ensure that you don’t get to feel self-righteous about your action; the one ensures that you take personal responsibility for the issue.
Recently I was rereading Aldren Watson’s Country Furniture and was reminded of his observation that early American woodworkers were, as they had to be, generalists. In England the profession was ancient and structured and specialized; in the colonies a woodsmith had to be joiner and turner and sawyer and everything else, and as the cities grew and urban shops specialized there were always smaller towns where a generalist might be of service. There simply were not enough skilled workers — enough workers, period — to permit great specialization. What was needed in that environment, Watson wrote, was a “singular adaptability to find practical solutions,” not a learned understanding of existing solutions.
For that matter, a woodworker would be lucky to be able even to specialize in working wood; likely he raised some of his own food and perhaps ran one or two side businesses. Early American villages, Watson wrote, were only tenuously connected to the larger world, and so “Each person in the small community did all the things for which he had an aptitude.”
For the benefit of Canadians, Jacobins, progressives, engineers, and stuck-up stickybeaks of all stripes, I herein explain why the metric system is inferior to traditional systems of measurement for those who work with their hands, think with their right brains, and prefer not to resort to a calculator for every little thing.
Metric vs. traditional systems
First, I don’t like the term “metric system.” Either it refers only to the meter and ignores all of the other units of measure (which is silly), or it implies that it’s the only system that is metered (which is also silly). What is commonly called the metric system is part of a much larger system of measurement known as the International System, or SI. (The abbreviation is backward because it comes from the French, and they do everything backwards.)
The SI is all decimal, and its units, which include familiar ones like the watt and the second and less-familiar ones like the joule, are all interrelated in a very nice way that I won’t trouble to explain here. (You can read about it here.) It’s a very nice system, for many purposes — but not for all purposes. (I’m unnecessarily familiar with it from having been, at some time late in the last century, a theoretical physicist in training.)