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How many feet in a liter?

Rick Sanchez: How many feet and how many inches are in 10 meters?

George Stephanopoulos: How many feet and how many inches are in 10 meters? What is it, 330 feet?

Sanchez: No, in 10 meters.

Stephanopoulos: Yeah.

Sanchez: Ten meters is like, it’s like 11 or something, right?

---George Stephanopoulos interviewing Rick Sanchez. (Ten meters is about 33 feet.)


We rented a carpet cleaner not long ago and were trying to figure out how to use it without calling in an engineer from N.C. State. 


The instructions called for two ounces of carpet cleaner per gallon of water. The tank, the instructions said, held nine liters. 


“What in the name of Isaac Newton is a liter?” I squawked. 


I went to the dictionary and looked it up. A gallon is 3.785329 liters. The carpet cleaning was getting complicated and we hadn’t even figured how to cut the thing on. 


“Just figure it holds about three of those big Cokes,” Sandra deduced. 


That made more sense to me than 3.78 something, but we didn’t have a big Coke. We did, however, have a 2-liter Coke. 


“How many 2-liter Cokes can you get in a 3-liter Coke?” I asked Sandra. 


“Well,” she replied, “the serving size is 8 fluid ounces or 240 mL, whatever a mL is. There are eight servings per container and each serving contains 100 calories.”


This may seem a bit funny to you until you realize that way, way back in 1988, Congress passed a law to move government away from the English system of gallons, pounds and feet and to change us to the metric system. As a matter of fact, our highway signs were supposed to be changed to metric by 2000, but the plan was cancelled, probably because of things like the carpet cleaner incident. 


We’ve got a sort of seepage of metric numbers into our daily lives. For instance, we don’t think anything odd about buying a 2-liter drink, although most of us could explain the theory of relativity faster than tell what a liter is. And we accept the term “fat gram” just as readily as if we’d said “a turn of groceries.” 


Jamie once found out about metrics on her way back to college. We’d had the car serviced and sent Jamie on her way. She called home, upset about the car. She was doing 65, she said, but the car was barely moving down the highway. Everything, including an old lady on a bike, was passing her. It took me awhile, but I finally realized that the mechanic must have hit the button that changed the speedometer from miles per hour to kilometers per hour. If she’d gone 60 mph, the speedometer would have shown 96. When it showed 65, she was actually going 40 mph down the interstate. 


We did finally get the carpet cleaned, but using two different unit systems cost a U.S. company more than headaches. In 1998, Lockheed Martin failed to use a metric measurement in the thruster performance data of the Mars Climate Orbiter. Instead of orbiting Mars, it descended dangerously and burned up in the Martian atmosphere. 


The United States is the only industrialized nation that still officially uses the system of miles, gallons and pounds and I, for one, would like it to stay that way. To see how righteous our cause is, you have to understand how we came upon our system of measurement. 


Our foot, for example, came simply from the length of a person’s foot. Our mile comes from the Latin term for a thousand paces. A yard was the distance from the nose to the thumb of King Henry I. These are measurements that make sense. These are exact and when we use them we know what we are talking about, just as if we’d said “a mess of turnip greens.” 


The metric system, on the other hand, was developed by scientists, of all things, which explains the confusion of it all. These scientists took the distance from the North Pole to the Equator, on a line running through Paris. Then they divided this into 10 million parts. One of these parts they called a meter which is, ridiculous as it seems, 39.37 inches. They could have just gone from the end of their nose to their thumb, but they had to be different. 


It’s no wonder the world’s so messed up. Everywhere else in the world, drivers are pulling up to the service station and being told that their oil is 1.101097 liters low. If we go metric, Texans will be wearing 37.80 liter hats. Give ’em 2.54 centimeters and they’ll take 1.609347 kilometers. 28.349527 grams of prevention is worth .453592 kilogram of cure. 14.512 metric tons and whataya get? Another day older and deeper in debt. 


Soon these metric people will be messing with other sacred traditions of ours such as clothing sizes, just as they are our other precision measurements. 


You can go into any clothing store in America now and wear a different size in each store. That’s the American way: Something for everybody. 


I guess you just have to take it with a grain of salt. Or is that a gram of salt?