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Metrication matters - Number 36 - 2006-05-10

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for those actively involved, and for those with an interest in metrication matters. Previous issues can be viewed at Metrication matters newsletters by scrolling to the bottom of the page.

Help a friend if you know somebody else who can benefit from this newsletter, please forward it to them and suggest that they subscribe. If a friend passed on this newsletter to you, please check the details of the free subscription at the end.

Dear Subscriber,

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

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

Help a friend if you know somebody else who can benefit from this newsletter, please forward it to them and suggest that they subscribe. If a friend passed on this newsletter to you, please check the details of the free subscription at the end.

1 Feedback

From Harry B Wyeth
Just a note to let you know that I always enjoy your newsletter here in rainy and dysfunctional California!

Thanks Harry, I appreciate your thoughts. Your kindness gives me great encouragement.

Recently, I received some thoughts on the dumbing down of measurements as they cross the border into the USA.

From Stephen Gallagher:
When an American reporter mentions a distance at a foreign location as being in 'yards', I suspect that they are making an approximate conversion from meters. In American English, yards have declined in usage except in things like American football, golf, and a few other areas. That's not to say you won't hear yards being used, but for most topics, distances in feet are a lot more common.

From Remek Kocz:
That's always been my hunch. I've learned to spot the hidden metric in American news reports by listening for the word 'about' that precedes any of the United States Customary measures. The telltale 'about 6 miles' for 10 kilometres or 'about 30 feet' for 10 metres is a dead giveaway. In a way I feel sorry for the US news organizations having to go to all this trouble.

From Mike Millet
I compared the same two Iraq stories one on Canadian television and the other in the USA.
The Canadian story gives the distance as 200 meters and the MSNBC one as 200 yards.

and then he added:
Yards? Meters? Meters? Yards? In some ways I pity MSNBC but it's still annoying :)

The media in the USA seem to be unaware of the metric progress already made in their own nation, so they feel a need to translate all measured information they receive from outside the USA back to old pre-metric measures. In every other nation information is naturally measured and reported in metric units, so the USA is the only place where the metric units have to be dumbed down for internal use.

Bill Hooper from Florida responded to Mike Joy's paper tearing challenge in Metrication matters 35. Mike's challenge was: 'If I tear a piece of paper in half and place it on top of the other piece 50 times, how high will the pile be?'

From Bill Hooper
Bill began his reply with the words:

It's easy.

And then he went on to calculate in some detail that the height of the stack would be about 2 to the 50th power or:

112 600 000 000 metres.
Bill concluded that the height would be:
about 75% as high as the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

He also said that the height of the stack can also be expressed in other (larger) SI units:
112 600 000 000 metres
= 112 600 000 kilometres (= a bit over 100 million kilometres)
= 112 600 megametres
= 112.6 gigametres (and it's about 150 gigametres from the Earth to the Sun)

Thanks Bill,

From Guy Le Couteur
Eugene Debs (1855/1926) is a bizarre person to quote in your newsletter since he also said 'I don't want you to follow me or anyone else. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, somebody else would lead you out.
See: http://www.eugenevdebs.com/

2 Editorial

I have observed for a long time that the transition from fluid ounces, gills, pints, quarts, gallons, and barrels to millilitres, litres, and cubic metres is a relatively smooth operation. I believe that this is because there are only three metric units in everyday use and that these are all related by 1000s.

1000 millilitres = 1 litre
1000 litres = 1 cubic metre

As an example of this success in the USA, recently (2006-04-18), Paul Trusten, R.Ph. from Texas reported:

In Albertson's last night, I saw a huge store display of 2 L Coca Cola bottles bearing a sign representing them as 2-liter bottles. There was no mention of fluid ounces or quarts on the sign. This matter-of-fact exclusive statement of the liter tells me that the liter is a part of U.S. psychology.

I have also observed that the transition from ounces, pounds, quarters, hundredweights, and tons to grams, kilograms, and tonnes goes smoothly because there are only three metric units in everyday use and that these are all related by 1000s.

1000 grams = 1 kilogram
1000 kilograms = 1 tonne

I have observed that the transition from thous, sixteenths, tenths, quarters, halves, inches, links, feet, yards, rods, chains, and miles to millimetres, metres and kilometres goes smoothly because there are only three metric units and that these are all related by 1000s.

1000 millimetres = 1 metre
1000 metres = 1 kilometre

Finally, I have observed that the transition from thous, sixteenths, tenths, quarters, halves, inches, links, feet, yards, rods, chains, and miles to millimetres, centimetres, decimetres, metres, decametres, hectometres, and kilometres does not go smoothly because there are many more than three metric units in everyday use and that these are related by various combinations of 10s, 100s, 1000s, 10 000s, and 100 000s.

Put simply, if you have the opportunity to lead a metrication project, avoid centimetres like poison!

See: /articles for the pdf article 'centimetres or millimetres which will you choose?'

3 Oddities

The Ohio Wesleyan University is about to build a new indoor swimming pool that will be 50 yards long. It appears that the Ohio Wesleyan University is unaware that swimming competitions both internationally and within the USA are raced in pools that are 50 metres long.

They would probably be better off if they built a 50 metre pool and then built in an insert to make it a little shorter at 50 yards to suit the prejudices of the current board of directors. Then, when a new board of directors come to realise they are living in the 21st century, they can simply remove the insert. You can easily reduce a 50 metre pool to 50 yards by using a removable insert but you can't convert a 50 yard pool to 50 metres without major reconstruction.

You might be interested in this interchange that appeared on the USMA mail listserv at:

Pierre Abbat wrote to me to ask:
Do you know how to convert dogs to degrees Celsius?

Dear Pierre,
I'm at a loss. I don't know the unit 'dogs' at all.

Pierre replied:
As I understand it, it is a temperature scale that increases with colder temperatures. For instance, one speaks of a three-dog night.

Dear Pierre,
Thanks for the explanation.
Now I recall this term as an old Australian sheep drover's expression for coldness at night. A 'three-dog night' was when it was sufficiently cold to have three dogs sleep with you in your small (dare I say pup) tent.
I don't think that there is a direct conversion to degrees Celsius as the idea of a three-dog night is highly subjective and varies widely from person to person.

When I sent a copy of this correspondence to Paul Trusten, editor of Metric Today, he added:
Many years ago, when I lived in Aroostook County, Maine, the dog requirement would have been 'too numerous to count'.
Some nights found the local temperature down to minus 40 degrees Celsius. I remember the temperature because that temperature is a direct conversion from Fahrenheit to Celsius 40 F = 40 C exactly.

And finally I received a note from Jim Elwell, President of QSI Corporation in Utah:
My Sales Manager is an active trainer of sheep dogs (Border Collies) and competes with them regularly all over the Western USA.
I sent her Pat's comments, and she replied "We still use the phrase! One of the trainers we know often sleeps in a tent, and on cold nights we ask him "Is this a two-dog or a three-dog night?"

4 Tips

If you are in the USA and you drive a car, look for the switch that changes the electronic displays to metric values. Here are some thoughts from Michael Payne in Virginia:

Recently by chance, while on vacation I ended up with 2 separate rented Chevrolet Impalas. These have a menu to change the speedometer display and information from 'English' to metric the speedometer display to km/h.

Not only that, the menu now displays all odometer and trip odometer information in km, fuel economy L/100 km, average speed to km/h, tire pressure to kPa for each wheel, and the external temperature to degrees Celsius.

I'm not particularly enamored by these cars, but I have to admit GM has done a good job changing the display to accurately display everything in metric. I found it particularly interesting that the tire pressures were 210 kPa cold and heated up after driving to about 240. The display was displayed to the nearest one kPa'.

5 Signs of the times

Scott Hudnall of California asked on the USMA maillist:

Has anyone seen the Cavit Wine commercial on television? It's ALL METRIC (no conversions, no dual-units). I've seen it on both the National Geographic Channel, and The Science Channel. The commercial can be viewed at http://www.cavitcollection.com/ and although the television version has a narrator with an American accent, no attempts are made to translate anything :)

6 Quotation

Recently, Daniel Bateman, community outreach manager for the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, addressed students from schools within Educational Service Unit No. 15 who gathered in McCook for a program on the International Space Station and space shuttle.

Among other things he said:

While most of America insists stubbornly upon the continued use of inches, feet and yards to measure things, everyone else uses the metric system. The space station measures 108 meters by 80 meters, but that doesn't mean much to Americans. Tell Americans the space shuttle is the size of a football field, and they'll understand'.

Bateman strongly encouraged anyone who,

wants to be competitive, successful and/or rich, to learn and comfortably use the metric system'.

7 Q&A send your questions to

Dear Pat;
I am working with a drawing done in Germany. Some of the horizontal dimensions have a prefix of ca. and then the number 42 000. I can work with the 42 000 but the ca. is driving me crazy. Can you please help?
Regards, Buddy

Dear Buddy,
I have not seen this myself but I suspect that the ca. that you refer to is short for circa. It is not used as a prefix.
Historians have used the word circa for many years. They put circa before dates to indicate that the date chosen is approximate or estimated. I usually simply replace the word, in my mind, with the word 'about'. As an example, you might think of the Norman invasion of England as being circa 1100. I would read this as 'about 1100'.
It looks like the German designers might have simply borrowed the word 'circa' from historians.
Cheers, Pat Naughtin

In a subsequent email from Buddy, he said,
'If you translate ca. from German to English you get approx. Thanks.

8 Rule of thumb

It is likely that the expression, Rules of thumb, comes from the use of parts of our bodies to make measurements. In particular, carpenters use a thumb width as 25 millimetres. In this sense the phrase, 'Rule of thumb', uses the word rule in the sense of ruler, not in the sense of regulation. I have often seen crafts people using:

  • their thumb to 'measure' 25 mm,
  • either their little finger nail or their little finger width to 'measure' 10 mm,
  • their long finger width to 'measure' 20 mm, and
  • the width of their hand with the thumb to 'measure' 100 mm.

There is an old tailors' 'Rule of thumb' that says 'twice around the thumb is once around the wrist twice around the wrist is once around the neck twice around the neck is once around the waist'. This works fairly well for me until I get to my waist ah well!
This particular 'Rule of thumb' turns up in Gulliver's Travels when the little people of Lilliput used it to make Gulliver some new clothes after measuring only once around his thumb.

9 History

In the early 1790s, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743/1794) wrote of the then entirely new metric system that it was:

'For all people, for all time'

Before the 1790s, throughout the previous centuries, many different ways of measuring evolved, developed, and were modified by custom and local adaptations. Because of this independent development, and the fact that they arose from numerous places of origin, most of the old measuring methods lack any rational or coordinated structures.

On the other hand, the metric system, or more recently and more formally, the International System of Units (SI), is the most up-to-date, rational, and coherent system of measurement ever devised.

SI is an enhanced version of the various metric systems that has been in use since the 1790s. Everyone in the world now uses SI, or one of the older metric systems, and for about 95 % of the world's population it is the only system they use.

10 Hidden metric

Don Hillger, the webmaster of the United States Metric Association see: http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/ wrote to say:

I watched PBS Nova's The Great Robot Race the other night.
Although there was no mention of metric usage in the show's narration that I remember, I did notice that the Red Army contenders were using meters per second in programming their vehicle speeds, as displayed on a board in their command center. At one point there was a close up of that board, but no conversion or mention of those numbers.
So, in spite of the non-metric use in the narration, it was encouraging to see that behind the scenes metric prevails. This is another case where metric use is hidden from the public, whereas in other cases the units are hidden by conversion.

On the 'Myth Busters' television program my wife, Wendy Pomroy, noticed that they were squashing cars so that the metal came out of the crusher in 2200 pound blocks. That looks a lot like 1000 kilograms (or 1 tonne) of scrap metal to me.


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 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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