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Going metric

Back in 2011, inspired by a now silent friend, I started trying to 'learn' Celsius. Apparently I never blogged about this? As she put it, it's like trying to become bilingual in a very tiny language. At first I put my weather sites into dual mode, but I found it was too easy to just read the Fahrenheit, so then I went with Celsius only. I also worked at creating mental Rosetta points, e.g. memorizing the conversions of every 5 degrees C. Also, and at least as usefully, creating mileposts where I knew what it felt like. 0 is easy, 32/freezing, but 21-22 C mapped to my ideal comfort range, or 18-23 for a broader range. Then, noting that 5 C was 9 F (round to 10), and that a difference of 10 F usually means wanting a change of clothing or behavior, while a change of 20 usually means needing a change, I could try to evaluate e.g. 10 C by relation to the mileports: two 5 C shifts warmer than freezing, but 2 cooler than comfortable. (Though, from experience in London, I also know that 10 C (50 F) can range from "cold, wear a jacket" to "walk vigorously in a T-shirt, feeling a bit chill but overheating with another layer.")

By now, I'd say I'm still not fully bilingual, but I'm used to weather reports in C, and I think can take them straight within my usual range. Extreme temperatures like -13 have me consciously converting back to F to evaluate them, and slipping 40 C to 104 F just happens automatically for some reason. I have gotten to the point where seeing a number in F sometimes makes me think of what that number would mean in C instead. "17, nice! Oh, wait."

So, now I want to push things further, and have just put my Google Maps app into reporting distances in kilometers. I've also noted my height and weight in metric; granted I've done that before, but now it's part of a bigger program, plus I've thought more about metric heights.

I grant that the 5-6 feet range feels very natural for human heights; then again, like the supposedly natural F scale, it's actually pretty leaky, especially at the high end. A simple conversion gives 152-182 cm, bleah, but 150-180 is just a bit lower. 150-190 covers most Western adult heights; 150-200 would cover nearly everyone. Perhaps more usefully, American women average in the 160s, with thick tails in the adjacent decades, while men average in the 170s, again with tails.

One useful thing is to acquire numbers in a domain you don't have them for. E.g. I've thought of domestic living space in terms of square meters since college, since I had no referent for that before someone measured our dorm rooms in square meters for a more informed roompick. So I think of a small single as 6 m2, larger as 8, large double as 16, and these are rooms I'm both experienced with and have no competing square footage numbers for. Likewise, while the dimensions of the US are primarily 3000x1000 miles for me and km requires an adjustment, I didn't remember mileage to Montreal, so the 500 km number I just looked up gets to have primacy. And for local distances I've attended more to walking or transit time than to physical numbers, other than the rough (and excessive) mile between Red Line stations, so if I want to learn km distances they can slip in without competition.

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Damien Sullivan

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