Making Our Measurement Systems a Little Bit Better

map from statista, CC BY-ND 3.0

One of the things I often lament about the massive centralized systems modern humans seem predisposed to develop, is that they grow so large, complicated and cumbersome that they become essentially incapable of being changed, even if there is overwhelming agreement on both the need for change and the nature of the change that’s needed.

An obvious example is the utter incapacity of world governments to rid ourselves of the scourge of moving clocks back and forth twice a year. Early this year, the US Senate unanimously (!) agreed to forever cease semi-annual clock changes, starting in November 2023. One would think that this would be enough to make it happen.

But no, the House doesn’t consider it a priority, so it is unlikely to even be put to a vote there, and, yet again, the proposal will die and will go back to the drawing board.

Canada and many other countries already have laws ready that will likewise dispense with clock changes — as soon as the US enacts theirs. (It’s too confusing for international commerce and airlines to have two different systems.)

This is a totally dysfunctional situation — governments and citizens all over the world overwhelmingly want a simple change made in the law to stop forcing them to change their clocks twice a year, but still, it doesn’t happen.

How we measure things seems to be a frequent exemplar of the dysfunction of human systems. Here are some more examples of mis-measurement, and some simple ideas to improve how we measure things:

  1. The measurement of years in “BCE” (BC) or “CE” (AD) terms. This is a silly anachronism, especially when there is no year zero in this calendar. It makes computing time spans needlessly complicated, and is completely arbitrary. What would make more sense would be to add a number to all years that would make every year a positive number. If that number were 10,000, for example (the age, some say, of the oldest human civilizations), our current year would be 12022. I’d suggest a symbol be used instead of letters of abbreviation to denote it — maybe the symbol » (to represent ‘the arrow of time’). So in historical documents we’d refer to 300 BC as »9700, and we’d denote last year as »12021. In current documents we might replace the leading 1 with the | symbol so that last year would be the more familiar »|2021. Some scientists who often reference much longer time periods, where the precise year is unimportant, use the abbreviation BP (‘before present’), so that ‘300 million years before now’ is written 300MYBP (or MYA). For this, we could use the complementary ‘less than’ symbol, so it would become 300M«. 
  2. Let’s also look at our current conventions for calendar months and weeks, a horrible hodgepodge of historical accidents and misunderstandings. If we really need to keep 7-day weeks, then Hank Green’s idea of having 13 months of 28 days each, with an extra day at year-end (a global holiday of course) makes sense, so that (i) the first of every month falls on the same day of the week and (ii) every month is the same length. (There would be two extra days in leap years). Personally I like the idea of making weeks shorter, such as only 6 days long, keeping the two weekend days of course, so that the four day work week becomes a fait accompli. And I like the idea of 10 months, so that would mean 36 days per month (6 six-day weeks a month, all of them starting on the same day every month), with a five-day carnival at the end of the year (six-days in leap-years). With ten months instead of twelve, we could eliminate the silly Imperial Emperor months of July and August, so that the names for the last four months of the year actually make sense (eg October becomes — ta da! — the 8th month). The only logical way to denote dates without the confusion of whether 9/11 is September 11th or November 9th, is to use the unambiguous and computer-sorting-friendly Y.MM.DD format, so that in Hank’s calendar, today (September 23rd, the 266th day of this non-leap year) would be »|2022.09.14 (the 7th day of the 2nd week of month 9) and in my calendar it would be »|2022.07.14 (the 2nd day of the 3rd week of month 7). In either case you could shorten it by omitting the |2022. — but please, no slashes, hyphens or ambiguous 2-letter months (eg MA which could mean either March or May).
  3. Can we please, once and for all, get rid of the ludicrous system that has two ten-o’clocks every day? The 24 hour clock has been around a long time. It’s time to use it everywhere. I’d love to move the whole day to metric, with ten, one-hundred minute hours per day, and each minute lasting 100 seconds. My seconds would click by about 15% faster than the current measure, but we’d make it to the end of the day at the same time, and my h:mm:ss notation would be so much easier to work with than the current base 60. But that’s probably a bit ambitious when we can’t even get rid of clock changes no one wants.
  4. And can we please get with the metric system, all of us, at last? If you want to fondly remember furlongs and farthings, fine, but don’t make the rest of the world use your arcane Imperial nonsense, or convert back and forth from/to it.
  5. It would be great to have one global ‘basket’ currency, against which all others would be measured and into (and out of) which all others could be converted. Currencies would make so much more sense if their value was based on some objectively-determinable formula (based on the actual production of real goods and services and the quality of life that that production ‘buys’, and not $%#& GDP). So instead of being at the mercy of damned grifters, speculators and hedge funds who play currency exchanges like lotteries, grossly distorting their real relative value, we would have stable currencies, easily converted. When it comes to currency values, ‘the market’ is an ass.
  6. And while I’m bashing GDP, how about a replacement for it based on a mix of objectively measured and subjectively-felt well-being? The fact that anyone still considers increases in GDP as in any way representing a healthy economy or a ‘good thing’, is insane. And at the very least, we should be using median per-capita measures, and GINI indices of inequality, not ‘averages’ of billionaires and paupers.
  7. Two of the most important measures of economic health we use now are unemployment rate and rate of inflation. Let’s start using the real numbers instead of the trumped-up fake numbers produced by governments ever since Reagan, Thatcher and their lying counterparts in other countries started distorting them in the 1980s.
  8. And please can we get rid of pennies, nickels, and other vestiges of ancient times that have no value and which cost a fortune to produce, manage and account for? And while we’re at it, if your currency is regularly used in vending machines, it should be in coins, not bills. That means US $1 and $5 and Canadian $5 and UK £5 and Euro €5 bills should now be coins. And for Pete’s sake, if your bills are still all the same colour in this day and age, give your head a shake. It’s »|2022 after all!

There are, of course, much greater injustices that could be quite simply corrected if lawmakers were to grow spines. For a start, we could reintroduce usury laws that would make it illegal to charge interest at more than 2% above the rate of inflation. The bankster usury that is now permitted on loans, lines of credit and credit cards means that many citizens are paying interest at an annual rate of 30% or more on their debts (the US median rate, for the 99%, is about 16%), which is simply obscene. And we could return to taxing capital gains (unearned income) at rates at least as high as the tax rates on earned income.

Still, fixing how we measure things might be an easy way to start making everyone’s lives easier, and give us a much clearer picture of what is currently going on in our society and economy than the current awkward, outmoded and obfuscating ones.

Thanks to Kelly Gavin for prompting my thoughts on this post. The snarky tone is my own.

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2 Responses to Making Our Measurement Systems a Little Bit Better

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    Mostly good ideas. I do have couple of comments, though:

    The metric system for temperature is too coarse. One degree Celsius covers too much change in temperature. I prefer the finer Fahrenheit scale. Other than that, metric is great.

    If you’re going to tax capital gains fairly, the gains should be real, ex-inflation. As is stands now, if one buys a building lot, does nothing to it but keep it for 30 years and then sell it, virtually all of the sale proceeds are capital gains just due to inflation.

    Even more important that all this measurement fuss is the crime of English spelling. It’s about time that we switched to something like the Intə(ː)ˈnæʃənl Fəʊˈnɛtɪk ˈAelfəbɪt for all languages, including English. Reading it can be adjusted to in one day and kids could learn to spell with it far easier than conventional English. Almost all homonyms are easily distinguished by context.

  2. Brutus says:

    I like this post quite a lot, even the snarky tone. Doubt any movement will be made on any of these proposals, though. Our inherited systems have too much tradition and cognitive inertia behind them, and that’s before experts in various fields begin jockeying for their pet units of measure. Further, many of these systems instantiate slow, incremental learning over many generations. The Y2K fiasco revealed how vulnerable quick-and-dirty formulations can be for lack of foresight.

    I’d be satisfied if instead more people would use existing systems (e.g., 12 midnight and noon rather than 12 am and 12 pm) and correctives and punishments were established for all the manipulation and fraudulence.

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