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Metrication matters - Number 44 - 2007-01-10

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

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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

1 Feedback

Pierre Abbat, from North Carolina, wrote to admonish me about my use of a mixed number when I referred to a 1 1/2 litre gratin dish. Pierre wrote:

This is one of my pet peeves. As written, it is grammatical, but doesn't make sense: it means that a dish has 1 capacity of 1/2 litre. Some people write "1-1/2" but that's equal to 1/2. The correct way to write a mixed number, if you can't use a horizontal fraction bar, is 1+1/2, in parentheses if necessary. Of course you can write 3/2 (common in Lojbanistan before metrication) or 1.5 (which goes better with metric units).


Barbara Hall, from Melbourne, wrote to describe a measurement experience at her house:

Recently a chap came to put plastic high up around branches of a eucalyptus tree at our place to stop possums passing that way. He had to climb up a long way. While dangling up there he noticed that he had forgotten his metric measuring tape. He asked us for the loan of a tape but the only one we had was an old one we had borrowed from a surveyor to check our property boundaries against a very old title deed that was written in feet and inches. Our tree man duly measured the branches in inches, went to a local hardware store where he found that NO-ONE at the quite large store knew how, or had any means or ability, to convert the old measurements to metric.

Stan Doore, from Maryland, is a keen promoter of metric posters in libraries, science and elementary school classrooms. SI refers to the International System — the modern metric system. Stan writes:

Posters do a great job on making people aware. Get all of the schools to do it and you've educated the next generation to the SI.

In particular, Stan likes to promote the SI Chart: Derived Units with Special Names that you can obtain from the USMA web site at: http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/fliers.htm

Another poster you might find useful is a one page comparison between the complete set of units for the modern metric system (SI) and some of the old pre-metric measures currently in use in the USA. This is a dramatic demonstration of the power of the metric system and you can download the pdf file from /articles where it is the third from the top.

2 Editorial

At the beginning of the year, many people choose to set their metrication goals for the coming year.

There are many ways of setting your metrication goals. One of the best that I have found is the idea called ‘Setting SMART goals’. I don’t know who devised this acronym but I have found it to be useful in all sorts of applications. However, I have made one small addition to provide for establishing who is attributable (that is, who is ultimately responsible) for achieving the goal. My version seeks to establish SMAART metrication goals where the initial letters stand for goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Attributable
  • Realistic and
  • Timed

You can find out more about the SMAART goal setting process by reading the article: ‘Setting SMAART metrication goals’ at /articles

3 Oddities

The measurement for the speed and movement of a computer mouse is sometimes called ‘a mickey’ or more formally ‘a mickey (mouse)’. A mickey merely counts the number of ‘dots’ or ‘pixels’ that your computer mouse moves your screen cursor in a particular direction.

4 Tips

While we're on the subject of computers, maybe now is the time to change your computer to metric units. This story is from Paul Trusten, R.Ph., the Public Relations Director of the USMA. Paul wrote:

It came from my department — right in the next room!

One of my pharmacy technicians beckoned to me to come into the sterile prep room. She pointed at the computer screen, which showed the grid used to prepare a certain type of packaging label. "What is this line?" she asked, pointing to the one-eighth inch line on the scale they had the program set to. This is an American woman asking me this! She then asked, "What is this decimally?" I explained the inch lines and their approximate decimal equivalents, but then stopped dead in my tracks and asked, "Why don't we switch your scale to millimeters? Then you can use a decimal scale right along." With one mouse click, I changed the ruler to metric. She was overjoyed. All that was needed was a scale. Nothing was being thrown off our change in units.

By coincidence, I was also thinking about setting computers to use metric units this month. My approach was to consider the cost of following the defaults set by computer engineers in word processing packages such as Microsoft Word. I discovered that with a simple change that only takes a few seconds you can easily reduce your overall paper costs by more than 20 per cent.

To explain my findings, I wrote a short article called, 'Page borders — Inches or millimetres'. You will find it at /articles when you scroll down.

5 Signs of the times

Ezra Steinberg, a member of the United States Metric Association (USMA), shared these signs of the times with his fellow USMA list readers (Note: USC stands for United States Customary and it means feet, inches, pounds, ounces, etc.):
I bought a new FRAM air filter for my car and was surprised to see their version of NAFTA packaging. It was in English, French, and Spanish with the recommended change interval given as 12,000 miles in English (no SI) and 20,000 kilometers in French and Spanish (no USC.).
I saw a Discoveries This Week episode where a fellow who climbs glaciers (and sounded and looked just like a classic Southern California surfer 'dude') spoke about the size of the glaciers and how he performs his techniques using 'meters'.
Even on the science shows I watch that give the narration only in USC, most of the scientists (including the Americans) talk freely using SI most of the time.

Mike Millett, a college student from the USA, wrote to say:
It was shipping day where I work today and as I was bored I decided to amuse myself by seeing just how many products I put away were labelled in metric only terms. I was shocked by the results. Of all the laptops I put away, I believe I saw one or two that were marked in dual units. The rest were marked in kilograms (usually 5kg box weight). The box of routers I put away was very clearly marked 23.3 kilograms, and the individual five packs of them were also similarly marked.

And Michael Payne, from Virginia USA, noticed:
While cruising up I-95 between Fredericksburg and Washington DC I saw one of those displays that gives the speed of traffic passing by, except this one was giving the speed in km/h. I'm sure it was an error on the part of someone but amusing to me nonetheless. Or perhaps the person who set it up prefers metric?
Michael Payne

6 Quotation

John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State for the USA, in the first national metric study in 1821, reported:
Weights and measures may be ranked among the necessaries of life to every individual of human society. They enter into the economical arrangements and daily concerns of every family. They are necessary to every occupation of human industry; to the distribution and security of every species of property; ... The knowledge of them ... is among the first elements of education, and is often learned by those who learn nothing else, not even to read and write.

Adams concluded the report by recommending the metric system as a national standard for the USA — in 1821.

7 Q&A


I thought that the UK ‘went metric’ years ago. When I visited there recently there was still a lot of talk about old measuring methods such as miles and pints. What happened?


There have been three major Weights and Measures Acts in the UK in the last half century. They were in 1963, 1976, and 1985. These all gradually abolished old pre-metric measures for economic, public health, public safety, and administrative purposes, and only metric units were to be allowed, but the legislation of 1985 was flawed in that some conservative politicians succeeded in allowing for exceptions. There are only four ecxeptions. Thet are:
  • miles, yards, feet and inches for road traffic signs and related measurements of speed and distance
  • pints for dispensing draught beer and cider, and for milk in RETURNABLE containers
  • acres for land registration purposes
  • troy ounces for transactions in precious metals.

These four exceptions are sufficient for some people in the UK to believe that little progress has been made toward metrication and that it is possible to return immediately to the old pre-metric measures. The United Kingdom Metric Association (UKMA) describes the present situation as ‘A Very British Mess’ (http://www.metric.org.uk/ ). simply because of these four relatively unimportant exceptions.

8 Rule of thumb

Flour, cornstarch, confectioners' sugar, dried spices, and other powdered ingredients have a density that is close to 60 % of water. This means that a teaspoon of one of these will be close to 3 grams (60 % of 5 mL) and a tablespoon in Australia will be 12 grams (60 % of 20 mL). Of course this rule will mean that a tablespoon in the UK or the USA will be 9 grams (60 % of 15 mL). Notice how I found the mass for the flour in grams by knowing that a millilitre of water has a mass of 1 gram.

9 History

This quotation is from Norman Stone, the former information officer of the Metrication Board, London:
Some traditional weights and measures are funny enough in themselves. I cannot say 'two fardels equal one nooke' to myself without smiling, and I am delighted that the fathom once meant the distance a Viking encompassed in a hug. There is something laughable in the fact that the gauge of railways in Britain is almost exactly the same as the distance between the wheels of a Roman chariot. And who would not be amused at the recollection that the basis of much modern town-planning is the acre, an area ploughable in one day by a team of two oxen?'

10 Hidden metric

Remek Kocz refuses to read National Geographic (NG) because of their apparently anti-metric policies. Remek says:
I usually don't bother reading it because of their steadfast refusal to use metric. A few days ago, though, I was given a NG copy in Polish, so I gave it a try, half worried that I may see dual measures in the text. My worries were quickly put to rest – everything was solely in metric: text, maps, graphs and charts. Still, I was having a chuckle as I recognized numerous artifacts of USC measures. One particular offender was an article on the EU's use of alternative fuels. It referred to a 183 m wind turbine that was to be built by Denmark. 183 m is exactly 600 ft. Hmmm, Danes using feet. Yeah, right. Somehow I think the whole thing went like this:

  • Danish engineers: 200 m wind turbine.
  • NG reporter in the US: 656 ft wind turbine.
  • NG editor in the US: 600 ft wind turbine.
  • Polish translator for NG: 183 m wind turbine.

... Sloppy, very sloppy. I would have thought that they'd be more careful with international versions.


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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