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Metrication matters - Number 31 - 2005-12-10

Dear Subscriber,

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for those actively involved, and for those with an interest in metrication matters.

You are very welcome to forward copies of this newsletter to help your friends with their metrication process. We appreciate this, as many new subscribers come by this means. However, please send the whole newsletter including the details at the end about our privacy policy and about how to subscribe.


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

Harry Wyeth, from California, comments on last month's walking pace article.

It is true, at least for me that a walking pace is just about a yard (900mm), and a running pace is about a meter. I have run around 400 m tracks many, many times, and usually I put in quite close to 400 strides per lap.

Note: Harry, at 1.76 metres is just above the USA average height for males of 1.75 metres.

Harry concluded:

These are good rules of thumb, like the one I like best: 100 m in one minute at a moderate walking pace.

Natalie McGregor, from Melbourne in Australia wrote to say:

Thanks, Pat, for your informative newsletter; and for your very impressive website!
See: for the latest revision 2005-12-06

2 Editorial

From time to time there is a discussion about which nations of the world are yet to 'Go metric'. These always involve the USA and usually two others, most often Liberia and Myanmar (Burma).

However, this discussion often ignores a basic truth.

The reality is that all nations in the world, including Liberia, Myanmar, and the USA, are on the pathway to full metrication but they are at differing points along this path. For example, Liberia and Myanmar are both substantially metric countries that trade internationally in metric units. Visitors to these places report that they also use metric units for most things internally with only a few exceptions like old (ancient) petrol pumps calibrated in British Imperial gallons.

The USA is at quite a different place on the metrication path. Lorelle Young, President of the United States Metric Association (USMA), estimates that at least 60 % of industry in the USA operates on the metric system. To me this figure appears too low; on my last visit to the USA, in early 2005, the industries I visited were almost all metric.

To me, the strange thing about metrication in the USA is that so many people find it fashionable to hide their use of the metric system from others.

As an example, I visited a mine where the miners used metric machinery, minerals extraction used metric chemistry, electrolytic extraction used metric electrical units, and all analysis was in grams and kilograms. They then sold the finished metal ingots in pounds!

I also saw this same procedure in several other industries. In fact, I found that this practice to be so common that I coined a term for it. I called it 'Dumbing down at the door!'

3 Oddities

Recently, while reading Aldo Buzzi's 'Journey to the Land of the Flies and other Travels' my wife, Wendy, came across this intriguing line:

When the landowner gave vodka to his peasants, or the officer to his soldiers, it was measured in buckets. The bucket was a precise measure: 12.29 litres. In restaurants the unit of measure was the gram. You ordered fifty or a hundred grams.

I was immediately fascinated by the precise measure of 12.29 litres until I remembered that vodka has a density quite a bit lower than water so 12.29 litres is probably the volume of 'precisely' 10 kilograms of vodka when the density of the vodka is 814 kilograms per cubic metre. Besides, this would also fit with the practice of serving vodka by the gram. (For enthusiasts who want to do some calculations on this issue, the density of pure alcohol is 789 kilograms per cubic metre and 80 proof vodka is 40 % alcohol.)

When I researched this topic on Google, I found this highly unreliable site about mixing screwdrivers at http://www.krellis.org/papers/screwdrivers.html written by Dr. Timothy J. Wilde who says of his qualifications, 'Dr. Wilde's degree is conferred by the Dynamic Network Services School of Drunkenness, a completely non-existent entity which has absolutely no power whatsoever'.

The density of vodka is significantly less than that of orange juice. Thus, the vodka rises to the top of the container, making the beverage incredibly alcoholic at the beginning, and nearly alcohol-free during the remainder of consumption. This is considered a difficulty by some, and a feature by others.

4 Tips

This tip is a follow on from last month's tip on estimating people's heights.

Remember your own body mass in kilograms, and also remember that the average Australian or North American male has a mass of about 85 kilograms and the average mass of a female is about 75 kilograms. When you walk into a room full of people scan the room to find the average male and the average female; knowing that they are close to 85 kilograms and 75 kilograms respectively (and by knowing your own mass quite accurately) you can then guess with reasonable accuracy the mass of the other people in the room. To give yourself some latitude for guesstimations, make your mass estimates end in 0 or 5 to give your self a range of 5 kilograms. And, to be polite, round the figures down to the next lower 0 or 5 your friends will feel better!

If you missed reading last month's newsletter, you can find it and all previous Metrication matters newsletters at /newsletter by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.

5 Signs of the times

Nat Hager III from Pennsylvania reported on the USMA discussion list

On the bright side of the coin, a trip to the local pharmacy is a rather pleasant experience. About half the shampoos, skin creams, and other lotions; as well as mouthwash are now in hard metric sizes.

Pierre Abbat from North Carolina reports that Maria and Ricardo's Tortilla Factory have packages of 12 whole wheat tortillas that are 100 g each.

Jim Elwell, from QSI Corporation in Salt Lake City, reports that the American Journal of Public Health (http://www.ajph.org ) contained this abstract:

Results. The median distance from any school in Chicago to the nearest fast-food restaurant was 0.52 km, a distance that an adult can walk in little more than 5 minutes, and 78 % of schools had at least 1 fast-food restaurant within 800 m.

Fast-food restaurants were statistically significantly clustered in areas within a short walking distance from schools, with an estimated 3 to 4 times as many fast-food restaurants within 1.5 km from schools than would be expected if the restaurants were distributed throughout the city in a way unrelated to school locations.

Jim remarked, 'Clearly the article was written using metric distances'.

Another friend in the USA reported:

A friend of mine just purchased a new high definition TV. On the box there was a description of its size as being 106 cm. There were no inch descriptions anywhere, not in parentheses, not in small print. It just said 106 cm.

6 Quotation

The measure of a man is what he does with power.
Pittacus (c.650-c.570 BCE)

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.
Ann Landers (Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer 1918/2002)

7 Q&A

If someone at the hospital asks a patient his height and mass, to fill in a form specifying metric units for these, and he answers in feet and pounds, what happens? Does she ask him again, specifying meters and kilograms, or does she convert the figures?

Paul Trusten R.Ph., a pharmacist from Texas answered:

As a hospital pharmacist, I deal with this issue daily.

The correct patient mass and height, in kilograms and meters respectively, are crucial parameters for drug dosing. These values MUST be in metric units for calculating doses of certain antibiotics and chemotherapy agents. In those instances, wrong numbers can prove to be harmful, or even fatal.

Now, to your question about how patient height and mass are obtained, and I'm assuming you are asking about how this is done in the U.S.

The answer is that, too often, it is it is done by chaos, plain and simple.

In the mostly metric world of healthcare, you would think that these parameters would be taken by using metric measuring devices and recording the results in metric units only. Sadly, this is not so in America. It's a fascinating fact that this is a sore point at which U.S. customary units make their way firmly into the system. It has to do with people. Both nurses and patients still think non-metric when these questions arise. The patient states weight in pounds and height in feet/inches, and that is the way they are recorded in the chart. Only on a whim do I get metric units, and, oddly, only the mass, not the height. 'Metrophobia' is alive and well in U.S. healthcare. It would be a very unusual patient who would come along and state his or her mass in kilograms and height in meters.


I agree that the best method is to eliminate all conversion and to use kilogram and meter scales to measure the patient, and use software that simply accepts the numbers and posts them with the obvious symbols. We can only continue to hammer away at officialdom to adopt that practice. I assure you that I am doing just that.

Paul Trusten R.Ph., Editor, Metric Today

8 Rule of thumb

In traditional measuring systems, the dimensions of the human body were the basis for many short distance measures. Because these varied widely from person to person, any attempts made to make these, widely differing, measures into 'standard measures' met with only limited success.

Here are some of these that were chosen because they fit reasonably well within the metric system. As these are not, and they never were standards of measurement, your own measurements will most likely vary from these.

  • Little finger nail 10 millimetres
  • Digit (the width of one of your first 3 fingers) 20 millimetres
  • Small span (from the tip of your thumb to the tip of your outstretched forefinger) 200 millimetres
  • Large Span (width of your outstretched hand, from the tip of your thumb to the tip of your little finger 250 millimetres
  • Cubit (length of your forearm from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger) 500 millimetres
  • Height (women) 1.65 metres
  • Height (men) 1.75 metres
  • Fathom (your arm span from one fingertip to the other with your arms stretched out to the sides as far as possible) 1.8 metres.

9 History

In the ancient city of Lagash in Mesopotamia, the governor Gudea (2141/2122 BCE) erected several statues of himself. One of these showed him with some plans and a ruler showing the size of various units. It appears that, at that time, a palm was about 100 mm, a large cubit was about 500 mm, so a frequently used double cubit was close to the length of a modern metre.

Sometime after this, the Babylonians devised a unit of mass based on a hand of about 100 mm. They built a cube where each side had a length of one hand (100 mm). This was known as a ka and it had a capacity very close to a modern litre. If you filled a ka with water, it became an important unit of mass, called a great mina, which had a mass very close to the modern kilogram.

At this early time, there were no fixed standards, so units with the same name could vary in amount from place to place and from time to time. The cubit, for example, varied from about 400 mm to about 650 mm. No doubt, much of this variation arose from merchants who were somewhat less than honest.

Some of the variation in units also arose from taxation; there was a royal cubit and a common cubit. The king, queen, or Pharaoh simply bought using the royal cubit and subsequently sold using the common cubit the difference between these two measures was the amount of tax. In Egypt the common cubit was close to 500 mm, while the royal cubit was nearer to 600 mm. Physical evidence still exists for some of these old measures.

The ancient Egyptians also had a long distance measure called an atour, which was equivalent to 10 000 m or 10 km a curiously decimal number.

10 Hidden metric

Many vehicles are now fitted with a Global Positioning System (GPS) device that accurately tells your position anywhere on the surface of the Earth. This was initially developed by the Department of Defense in the USA and internally it uses metric units. However, when the GPS became commercially available the makers dumbed down the display for fear of retrograde whiners and whingers who might loudly insist on old pre-metric measures.

Feedback provocation

I am still seeking your feedback on how you use 'Metrication matters' and on any of your thoughts that might help to improve 'Metrication matters' to make it more suitable for your purposes.

This question is a deliberate attempt to provoke feedback and any of your thoughts that might be useful to share with other readers of 'Metrication matters'.

What do you think is the greatest problem preventing the final and rapid acceptance of the metric system worldwide?

Just send your response to with the words 'greatest problem' in the title.

Don't forget that our privacy policy is simple we don't share any information with anyone. We do not rent, trade or sell email addresses to anyone for any reason.


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Pat Naughtin
Geelong Australia

Pat Naughtin is a writer, speaker, editor, and publisher. Pat has written several books and has edited and published many others. For example, Pat has written a chapter of a chemical engineering encyclopedia, and 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.

Copyright notice: 2005 Pat Naughtin All rights reserved.

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