What is this "km" you speak of?

Two recent stories—both in the New York Times—make me think the United States may be more ready than ever to interact with the rest of the world.

We’re a great nation, and all—arguably the best place to live in the world. But we’ve often got a bone to pick with all those other countries that populate the globe.

One of those prime bones has been the dreaded metric system, which some would have you believe is a necessary step in the path toward world government. But a chink appeared in the armor we erect against metric—and in Arizona, of all places.

Last week, a Times writer came all the way to Arizona to report on a road-sign anomaly and controversy. On Interstate 19, an odd accumulation of road signs designate distance in kilometers, rather than miles. Those signs are “a throwback to an American experiment with the metric system in the early 1980s that did not get far off the ground.”

Now that the signs are old and worn, and barely reflective, expectations were high that stimulus money could be used to replace them. And the new signs would use miles rather than their metric equivalent.

But then Arizona business owners started crowing. They had spent decades and dollars educating drivers on which exits to use to reach their restaurants, motels and other businesses.

“Keep the metric,” they said.

Countries that have officially adopted the metric system (green). Only three nations (out of 203) have refused to or been unable to officially adopt the International System of Units as their primary or sole system of measurement: Burma, Liberia and the United States.

The whole situation lasted so long that the deadline for stimulus monies was missed.

The story even talks about something called the—you guessed it—U.S. Metric Association:

“A group based in California, [which] advocates conversion to the metric system, has tallied numerous metric signs around the country, most near the borders with Canada and Mexico. But I-19 may be the only Interstate highway that is almost completely metric, making it stand out from all the other stretches of concrete crisscrossing the country.”

Even the conservative Fox News commentator Sean Hannity weighed in, lampooning the sign project as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Is Fox even going the extra mile for the metric system? So Internationale of them.

I can tell you one person whom this may make happy—my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Federico. In about 1974, the task fell to him to educate a bunch of kids in the metric system—the wave of the future.

He didn’t have much luck. Blank stares and almost outright revolt confronted him as the St. Columba School kids wondered if they had tumbled into a foreign film—which none of us had ever seen.

The logic and simplicity of a system based on Base 10 escaped us. We preferred the oddities of our own measurement. Familiarity breeds comfort.

We schoolkids were part of an American phenomenon—one that is not phenomenal. After all, we are one of three nations that “have refused to or been unable to” adopt the metric system. Do we really want to hang out with Burma and Liberia? The residents of Green Valley, Ariz., say no.

Well, maybe we should start getting as comfortable as those residents. The second piece from the Times is a column by Thomas L. Friedman. He reveals that China’s blogging community is approaching 70 million—million with an “m.”

The world no longer belongs to the United States, Friedman points out—if it ever did.

“In recent years, with the U.S. economic model having suffered an embarrassing self-inflicted shock, and the ‘Beijing Consensus’ humming along, voices have emerged in China saying ‘the future belongs to us’ and maybe we should let the world, or at least the ’hood, know that a little more affirmatively.”

So influential are those Chinese electronic voices that the U.S. State Department has begun to grant bloggers access to American leaders, “even inviting bloggers to travel in the car with the U.S. ambassador, Jon Huntsman.”

Speeding along, Ambassador Huntsman probably chats about policy and international relations. And outside his car, the blur of road signs that rush by likely never mentions a “mile.”

And that might make Green Valley—and Mr. Federico—very happy.

Read more about the metric system here. And don’t forget the U.S. Metric Association.

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