Down with the metric system!

There is a problem facing society, but no one is willing to talk about it. Virtually every journalist, television reporter, and blogger has personally encountered this problem, and yet – silence. The problem is the metric system. Not just the metric system, but the US customary units as well. Basically, in order to be useful, a measurement system must:
  1. Have well-defined units that everyone agrees on.
  2. Give people the ability to measure things and understand quantities.

Neither system really meets both of these criteria. The metric system, although it meets the first point, fails miserably on the second. The US system fails the first point semantically, and does a really poor job on the second point.

Allow me to illustrate:

Scenario 1: The news has just reported that a 4,081,440 - foot wide asteroid is heading toward the Earth.

Scenario 2: You just heard on the radio that a 695,622 km² area of the ocean has become an oxygen-free dead zone.

Now, think quickly – how do you react to this news? Do you panic? Do you relax, secure in the knowledge that the asteroid will burn up in the atmosphere and the dead zone will clear up in the spring?

Nobody knows! What the hell is a kilometer? How I measure something be that many feet wide, when I only have two feet, and neither one is a foot long anyway?

Now imagine if we had a new system in place:

Scenario 3: The news has just reported that an asteroid the size of Texas is heading toward the Earth, and you just heard on the radio that a area of the ocean the size of Texas has become an oxygen-free dead zone.

We need to standardize on a new set of units that actually reflect what is in use today. I am not the inventor of this system, but I would like to codify it and propose a name: the Journalistic System.

The Journalistic System is actually in use today—just open up a newspaper or turn on CNN. Below are some common units. Later, I will post my completely empirical and scientific method for determining and naming units, and some conversion tables.


  • Football Fields. “The new convention center covers 3 football fields of space.â€?
  • Manhattans. “A remote island twice the size of Manhattan.â€?
  • Rhode Islands. “The wildfire covers an area the size of Rhode Island.â€?
  • Texases - “An asteroid the size of Texas.â€? (note: in this case, we are talking about the cross section)


  • Grains of Sand. “The transistor is thousands of times smaller than a grain of sand.â€?
  • Olympic Swimming Pools. “Each day Americans eat enough barley to fill 20 Olympic swimming pools.â€?
  • Earths that Could Fit Inside. “Jupiter's Great Red Spot is so large that 3 Earths could fit inside.â€?

Data and Information

  • Number of Songs. “This portable hard drive can hold 20,000 songs.â€?
  • Libraries of Congress. “The database for this particle accelerator holds as much data as the Library of Congress.â€?

Food Energy (calories) and/or Fat Content

  • Big Macs. “The new salad, with dressing, is equivalent to 3 Big Macs.â€?


  • Human Hair. “The stress cracks were thinner than a human hair.â€?


  • Empire State Buildings. “The new oil platform will weigh more than the Empire State Building.â€?


  • Currently undecided. Multiple units exist - size of a baseball, size of a tennis ball, football, bowling ball, peach, orange, grape, etc.


  • Chicagos. “At this rate of population growth, it is like adding three Chicagos each year.â€?


  • Starving Children Meals. “What you spend on a cup of coffee could feed a starving child.â€?
  • Cups of Coffee. “What you spend on a cup of coffee could feed a starving child.â€?
  • Inner-city School Teachers. “The cost of the war is enough money to hire 2000 teachers for our inner-city schools.â€?

  1. How are those of us who are not from the US, and are geographically challenged (I have no idea how large Manhattan, Rhode Island, or Texas are). What size football field are we talking?

    September 4th, 2006 at 11:38 pm
  2. Good questions, Tim. For one thing, we could add a few more units – I have seen the phrase “the size of France” used quite often. I’m working on an scientific method for determining the units, I’ll post it soon.

    September 5th, 2006 at 12:51 am
  3. The journalistic system does make sense, although may not be understood everywhere. If a fire is describes as being the size of Golden Gate Park, people on the East Coast would not be able to understand it, but people in San Francisco would get it. Likewise, a disaster area the size of Central Park would be impossible to understand, as there are several parks with that name, New York, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Fremont, CA. A structure the size of the Golden Gate Bridge would be easier to visualize, as it is well-known.

    Thomas Bailey
    September 27th, 2006 at 8:46 pm
  4. You have left out hail as commonly mentioned in the news/weather:
    Hailstones the size of golfballs/baseballs/grapefruit …
    NOTE: hailstones are NEVER the size of hailstones.

    Gareth Harris
    August 3rd, 2007 at 4:38 pm
  5. Golfballs and baseballs are standardized. Grapefruit is variable. On the tree in my old backyard, the grapefruit at the top is much larger than the fruit near the bottom.
    Fruit sold at the grocery store is more uniform than home-grown.

    Thomas Bailey
    January 28th, 2008 at 1:28 pm
  6. [...] but most modern linguists are descriptivists, so why not? And don’t even get me started on the units that journalists tend to use on TV, where you’re more likely to encounter “football fields” as a measure of area [...]

    Units that Measure Up: From Giga-watts to Hella-tons |
    April 12th, 2010 at 1:35 am

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