Saturday, August 20, 2005

The DEA can count, sort of

I was reading the news online tonight, and I was particularly struck by this quote:

The agency [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] calculates that 454 grams of methamphetamine produces one pound of product and a single gram is enough for one hit. The DEA said those figures are on the high end of methamphetamine use. — AP wire service; stringer's name omitted to protect the anonymity of my source
Well, isn't that remarkable. Last time I checked, 454 grams of something produces a pound of that something with about 407½ milligrams left over. (Hey, that last .00008 gram — that's on the house.) In other words, the progress of the federal government's so-called War on Drugs is so fantastic that they have finally figured out that a pound of something is a little less than half a kilo! Wow!!

Permit me to give some additional pointers to the gummint officials in this last bastion of non-metricness on the planet. A litre, also spelled liter just to be persnickety, is about half the size of a two-liter Pepsi bottle. In fact, it's almost exactly the same size as one of those one-liter Mountain Dews that are so good for staying awake on the Interstate if you can't stand the smell of coffee. Of course, if you get one of those 20-ounce bottles, you're on your own, 'cause that's even more than an Imperial pint, whether of Guinness or of other liquid. Your good old 12-ounce can, now that's a little more than a third of a litre, but it'll also spill on your lap while you're driving and make you smack into the back end of an SUV, besides making it look like you peed your pants. Theoretically speaking, that is.

You do need to be a bit careful about pints and especially gallons, though, because there are two different brands, Imperial and American. Think of it like Coke and Pepsi, only they're different sizes instead of different colors. The Imperial fluid ounce is actually smaller than the U.S. fluid ounce, but yet there are more of them to a pint or a gallon. Are you confused yet? Let me put it this way: when that nice tour guide the other day was saying that something was so-and-so many litres, "or divide by 4½ to get gallons," he made a boo-boo, because a U.S. gallon is only about 3.78541176 litres, give or take a few molecules, and referring to an Imperial gallon in the 21st century — well, that's just downright quaint.

Since we're actually talking about three systems of measurement here — American, Imperial, and the entire rest of humanity — I should perhaps do a little side-by-side comparison of some useful conversion formulæ for estimating weight. Take water, for example. If your waterbed holds 617.32758 litres of water, and if we pretend that you're sleeping at Standard Temperature and Pressure, then that water will weigh exactly 617.32758 kilograms, not counting the algaecide. Better yet, you can figure out the exact number of liters in the bed by measuring its length, width, and height in decimeters (units of 10 cm) and multiplying them together to get volume in liters.

On the other hand, if you have a container that holds 10.000 Imperial gallons, since 1824, that would be exactly 100.00 pounds avoirdupois. But if you have one U.S. gallon of water for your trip to Burning Man, that would be exactly 231 cubic inches, or exactly 6 x 7 x 5½ inches, or about 6.135792439662 inches on a side, and it will weigh 8 pounds, 5.792 ounces, because Queen Anne thought wine tasted nicer than ale back in the way olden days, and everyone knows how loyal 21st-century Americans are to early 18th-century English monarchs. And they say Americans have no sense of tradition!

By the way, a hectare is exactly 100 metres on a side, or 1/100 of a square kilometre. An acre, on the other hand, is exactly 1/640 of a square mile, or 208 feet, 8.523906853 inches on a side (0r 165 feet by 264 feet). Perhaps more useful is to know that 1 hectare is about 2½ acres, or 1 acre is about 0.4 hectares. 40 acres and a mule is a smidge over 16 hectares plus an animal.

What is my point exactly? Having just spent six weeks travelling in the Rest of the World, I really have to stop and wonder why America wastes so incredibly much time and energy focused on these antique units of measure, If we just go metric, like every single other scrap of land on the planet, then we won't need all these silly conversion factors any more. A meter will simply be a metre with a variant spelling, and 454 grams will return to its rightful role as a little less than half a kilo. (For the benefit of those travelling to Amsterdam, an eighth of an ounce is just over 3½ grams.)

Many of you are thinking to yourselves, but wait, there's, like, a war going on, and you're yammering about the metric system, and yet you have the audacity to say that President Bush is out of touch with everyday reality. Well, yes. Our unthinking devotion to an insane system of measurement whose only virtue is that we already use it, is an eerily apt metaphor for the way that President Bush views the entire world — not to mention the unthinking devotion of many of our citizens to an insane alleged Commander-in-Chief whose only virtue is that it'd be fun to watch him get drunk.

Either that or chalk it up to jet lag.

By the way, the AP report did go on to mention that the Bush Administration has coughed up an additional $16 million to treat methamphetamine addiction. Why, that's more than two hours of War in Iraq we could have paid for if it weren't for those stinky meth addicts. Yup, the War on Drugs sure is important to this administration.