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Metrication matters - Number 11 - 2004-04-10


1 Feedback - notes and comments from readers 2 Editorial 3 Oddities - measurements from around the world 4 Tips - pointers and methods to make your measurements easier. 5 Signs of the times 6 Quotations 7 Q&A - readers' questions and answers 8 Rule of thumb 9 History 10 Hidden metric

1 Feedback

From England: You're right about the metrication issue. Anybody of my age or younger I will be 41 next month has been taught the metric system since the age of 5. On leaving school we have to discover the mysteries and learn some parts of the old Imperial measures! Do you realise how mad it actually is here? Take the industry I work in the oil industry. I calculate fuel volume in litres, speed in miles per hour but distances in kilometres. The price of fuel is pence per litre but consumption is calculated in miles per gallon!

2 Editorial

Journalists and metrication (This is a little bit longer than usual I got carried away!)

It seems to me that one of the primary areas of solid resistance to metrication can come from the journalistic community. We seem to find it somewhat excusable for common folk not to get SI precisely right, but we really get excited when a journalist gets it wrong; we tend to believe that the media should know better and get it right 100 % of the time, but we might also consider:

  1. They are trained in the linguistic tradition where if you can look up a word in a dictionary you get a 'correct' definition.
  2. They often have been poorly prepared to interact with a metric world by the schools they attend especially in the USA.
  3. Dictionaries always describe the way words were used in the past; they do not prescribe definitions – they only offer past descriptions.
  4. The problem of standards with respect to spelling and pronunciation arises from the approach to this subject taken by professional linguists. These folk firmly believe that spelling and pronunciation are set in place by popular usage. They seem to be quite unaware of their own place in setting usage standards both in spelling and pronunciation.
  5. Dictionaries only contain descriptions of the most popularly used words; they do not contain definitions of little used words. For a recent example, when some scientists found that they could measure time in attoseconds recently, it threw the media into a frenzy of creating millionths or billionths and trillionths of quadrillionths (or some-such) to try to explain the word, attosecond, that does not appear in their dictionaries because it has not been used enough yet to appear on the linguistic radar.
  6. Spelling checkers are based on dictionaries. If the majority of a population spell color without a 'u', then that is the 'correct' spelling (say in the USA); if the majority of people spell colour with a 'u', them that is the correct spelling (say in the UK); if some people spell color and some people spell colour (say in Australia), then linguists will reserve their judgement until a popular consensus is reached this may take hundreds of years. This means that Kilometre (rather than kilometre) will be a 'correct' word if the dictionary writers see it misspelt often enough.
  7. If spell checkers were based on standards, such as those written by the the Bureau International de Poids et Mesures (BIPM) then we could be assured that we were getting it right (see http://www.bipm.org/ ), but it is most unlikely that a working journalist would visit the BIPM site. Linguists operate on the principle, set by the founding writers of the Oxford English Dictionary, of working 'On Historical Principles'; this refers to the way they work by citing references to the way words have been used in the past and this applies to both spelling and pronunciation.
  8. These problems arise when we lesser mortals go to a dictionary to find the 'right' or 'correct' answer to a spelling or pronunciation problem. Linguists have no intention, and they never had any intention, of providing us with a 'right' or 'correct' answer, they simply supply us with erudite knowledge about the history of the word or phrase. To a linguist, a survey can be a satisfactory basis for describing how a word was popularly used in the past, therefore it fits the 'On Historical Principles' method that they commonly use. As a side issue, a linguist's approach to 'standard' language has nothing to do with a standards writer's (such as the staff at BIPM) approach to writing standard words (such as kilometre), standard symbols (such as ML for megalitre), or standard procedures (such as determining the dust content of the air we breathe). The definition of a standard by a standards writer is absolutely opposed to the description of a standard by a linguist. The two groups are trying to achieve opposite ends of the same scale; the standards writers are seeking uniformity while the linguists are actively supporting and encouraging diversity.
  9. Journalists become journalists because they are identified early in their primary school years as 'good at writing' without them also carrying the corollary 'bad at sums'. I have personally met a number of journalists who are afraid of numbers of any kind; one admitted to me that he gets physically nauseous if he has to do a story with 'lots of numbers', and I know others who will avoid or circumvent any numbers whenever they can. The number problem becomes highly focussed for those who work in public relations in a scientific or technical environment such as NASA. NASA journalists and public relations staff badly and urgently need basic training in metric and SI units.
  10. Sheer laziness also plays a role. A good reporter, faced with something like the SI unit 'attosecond', picks up his phone, finds an authority like a mathematics or science professor, double-checks the spelling and establishes a firm definition. The journalist then explains the term and also attributes the information to the authoritative source. In addition, the reporter might also go on the internet to find a spelling and a definition on a web page. A good reporter would probably do both.

On a lighter note, I wonder how much it costs the media industry to 'dumb down' metric measures. I suspect that it would be an extremely large amount of money if the time wasted on this pointless task could be evaluated. Let me give you two examples.

a. It was reported, in the (USA) media, that Noman Saad Eddin al-Noaimi referred to quantities of '2.2 pounds' and 'at least 22 pounds' of materiel; clearly his first quotation referred to 'one kilogram' and his second to 'at least 10 kilograms', in Iraq. See: http://apnews.myway.com//article/20040309/D816SR080.html

b. An Associated Press report wrote 'Libya acknowledged stockpiling 44,000 pounds of mustard gas'. I suspect that the original amount was 20 tonnes, so this looks like a double 'dumbing down'; the first conversion was from 20 tonnes to 20 000 kilograms, and the second conversion was from 20 000 kilograms to 44,000 pounds. See: http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/africa/03/05/weapons.libya.ap

The reporters who 'dumbed down' the original figures for us had to research the conversion factors and then have these checked by their sub-editors, at a cost of time (and possible error meaning more time) to their employers. Note: I have ignored the time it took me, and I suspect many millions of others, to reconvert the written numerical values back to their original values.

3 Oddities

This item came from the Los Angeles Times. It is a travel report about travelling in that part of China where they are building the Three Gorges Dam. 'After lunch, the ship docks at Fengdu, or what remains of it. Across the river we see the tall buildings of a teeming city carved out of wild land in just four years; the new Fengdu. What remains on this bank is below the eventual high-water line of 175 metres above sea level. The line is marked by one of hundreds of red signs dotting the Three Gorges region that say, simply, '175'. 'We step off the boat and into a city of rubble, poverty and, oddly, much laughter. Fengdu is one of 13 cities and 1392 towns and villages being razed, every last piece of wood and iron snapped up for reuse before it slides beneath the water, along with 10 000 years of Chinese history. Above the old city stands a temple related to Fengdu's history as the "City of Ghosts," a story of superstition, well-preserved for tourists. The cruise line has arranged for a guide and an excursion to the mountain, which is above '175'. The full story is at: http://www.latimes.com/features/printedition/magazine/la-tm-china12mar21,1,983381.story?coll=la-home-magazine

4 Tips

Measure your cubit. A cubit is the length from your elbow to the tip of your longest finger. My cubit is conveniently 500 millimetres long, so if I place the tips of my two long fingers together, it is one metre from my left elbow to my right elbow. My wife's cubit is 450 mm long so to measure a metre (for when she wants to move furniture for example) she leaves a 100 mm gap between the tips of her fingers. A cubit has been used as a convenient (portable) measure since ancient times. For example, the pyramid builders used it, and it is mentioned in the Bible in instructions for Noah to build an Ark (and no doubt their wives used it for moving the furniture! (Hhhrrrmmmph! signed Wendy).

5 Signs of the times

I saw a sign the other day that used an abbreviation (Mtres) instead of the symbol for metres (m). The sign read 'Clearance 2.6 Mtres' instead of the preferred form 'Clearance 2.6 m'. To use 'Mtres' as an abbreviation hardly seems worth the effort.

6 Quotation

'It is safe to say that after the metric system has been adopted by the U.S. and our people have become accustomed to its use we would no more dream of going back to the present system of weights and measures than we would think of carrying on the processes of arithmetic through the medium of the old Roman letters in place of the Arabic numerals we now employ.' Alexander Graham Bell, 1906

7 Q&A

Q: When the national (USA) weather service gives temperatures in degrees Celsius, and then the local radio and TV stations report the same information in degrees Fahrenheit, when and where does it get converted to degrees?

A: As far as I can find out, all of the weather data collectors in the world cooperate in gathering the world's weather data. This means that they all agree to use 'standard' units; and the 'standard' unit for reporting temperatures to the public is the degree Celsius. Following collection, all weather reports, including models and maps, are supplied in degrees Celsius. So, to answer your question, it's your local weather reporters who do the conversions. If these reporters took a moment to reflect on what they are doing, they might soon realise that it would be easier for them, and it would save them a lot of time, if they didn't convert weather reports at all.

8 Rule of thumb

Kitchen designers allow about one square metre of shelf space for glassware and china, the same again (1 m2) for pots, casseroles and other cooking equipment. They also allow half a square metre (0.5 m2) for each member of the household for general storage. Kitchen designers use this as a starting point only; they know that individuals vary greatly in the way they cook. By the way, I am always on the lookout for 'Rules of thumb' to add to my collection. I prefer metric ones but I also convert 'Rules of thumb' from any old units to SI units. Please send any 'Rules of thumb' to

9 History

At a time when everyone lived in small communities and few travelled, standard measurements weren't needed very often, so villages and small regions developed their own measuring units. Before the invention of national or international standards, each village had a standard jar, vase, basket, or bushel that all the villagers used for measuring liquids and grains. Naturally, the next village had its own containers so everything had to be re-measured for trade between villages. Last night, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of meeting a unit of measure that was new to me. The units were 'puttonyos' and they measures on a scale from 3 to 6. Sadly, a search on Frank Tapson's web page see: < http://www.ex.ac.uk/cimt/dictunit/dictunit.htm#list>; failed to find puttonyos; even Russ Rowlett's wonderful list of units doesn't refer to them, see: http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/units/dictP.html I suspect that puttonyos are from the time that individual villages and small regions had their own measuring units. Please let me know if you find a definition of puttonyos.

10 Hidden metric

Recently, I used my small household electric drill for some 10 millimetre holes. I drilled the holes without fuss, and it wasn't until later that I mulled on the matter of the drill size. Nominally my electric drill is specified as a 3/8 inch drill, which, on calculation, converts to exactly 9.525 millimetres. Since I had no trouble with a 10 millimetre and even a 10.5 millimetre drill bit, I began to wonder if my drill was really designed as a 10 millimetre tool in the first place, with a 0.5 mm allowance for fitting drill bits, and this metric measure is then hidden by calling it a 3/8 inch drill.


Pat Naughtin Geelong, Australia

Pat Naughtin is a writer, speaker, editor, and publisher. Pat has written several books and he has edited and published many others. For example, Pat was the lead writer of a chapter of a chemical engineering encyclopedia, and recently he edited the measurement section for the Australian Government 'Style manual: for writers, editors and printers'. Pat has been recognised by the United States Metric Association as a Lifetime Certified Advanced Metrication Specialist.

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