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Metrication matters - Number 70 - 2009-03-10

Dear Subscriber,

Metrication matters newsletter is now up to number 70. If you scroll own to the bottom of the page at /newsletter you can read all previous issues. The Metrication matters web page at http://www.metrictionmatters.com.htm is also worth checking as it is constantly changing.

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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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

Lynette wrote about Metrication matters 69:

Loved this one !!!

Stanley Doore wrote from Washington DC to say:

It's coming slowly Pat. And, on the table.

When he wrote to inform me that:

McDonald's restaurant is moving in the right direction.

On its new tabletop flip device telling about its history and food quality, except for calories, metric was used throughout (g & mg etc). Only totals were listed in both oz and grams. It's a major step toward the SI.

Stan Doore

2 Editorial

'Hooray for unit pricing' was my wife's comment when she first saw the rolling out of unit pricing at our local supermarkets.

Wendy used to carry a calculator to convert into a common measuring unit for comparison. She put it this way:

Suppose that your favourite brand of cereal is sold in three different sizes: the 300 gram box for $3.39; the 600 gram box for $5.25; or the 750 gram box for $7.40

When I am buying cereal, I divide the price by the mass in kilograms to calculate the price per kilogram. Then, I can compare the price per kilogram of each box. For these examples, they work out like this: $3.39 divided by 0.3 kilogram equals $11.30 per kilogram; $5.25 divided by 0.6 kg equals $8.75 per kilogram; $7.40 divided by 0.8 kg equals $9.87 per kilogram. So I choose the 600 gram box.

Wendy reckons that marketers have traditionally not made this easy especially if they work on your assumption that 'bigger is cheaper'. And she gave this example:

For a can of tuna: 95 grams at $0.87 = 9.16 $/kg; 185 grams at $2.48 = 13.41 $/kg; and 425 grams at $4.67 = 10.99 $/kg – the smallest was the cheapest.

Now all the supermarkets have their shelf labels with unit prices either in prices per kilogram or in prices per 100 grams. As Wendy so clearly put it:

Hooray for unit pricing!

3 Oddities

A friend in the USA passed on a reference about a plea from a bar tender to President Obama for the USA to 'Go metric!' In part, the barman, Gary Regan, wrote:

Dear President Obama:

... I think that I can safely say that I speak for a large number of American bartenders when I ask you to consider encouraging, or even demanding, that everyone in this great country of ours make a far bigger effort to "plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States," words taken from the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

That's right, Mister President, we made a commitment to go metric more than 30 years ago.

You can find the full text of this article at: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/02/27/FDDG15LUI7.DTL and if you are interested, Gary Regan includes a recipe for his conservatively named:

'We Really Really Love Our New President Cocktail'.

4 Tips – pointers and methods to make your measurements easier.

One of the best ways for you to help the inevitable progress on the metric system in your community is to write letters to the newspapers. This is especially effective if you write to refute the often outrageous claims of some writers who are opposed to metric units. Here is a very good example from the UK: http://www.worthingherald.co.uk/worthing-letters/Battling-with-the-imperial-old.4997677.jp

For some years, I have challenged writers of anti-metric articles to put their support for old pre-metric measures into action. I respectfully suggest that, as supporters of old measures, they should not:

  • wear any clothing made using metres of cloth,
  • drive in any cars made using millimetres,
  • use any electrical utensils as these use only metric units, etc.

You can find a summary of these thoughts in the article, Don't use metric! at /docs/DontUseMetric.pdf and I challenge you, too, to avoid using the metric system for (say) a single hour.

5 Signs of the times

The article at http://heraldnet.com/article/20090228/OPINION03/702289998 delighted me with its content and especially this thought:

Glaciers recede, continents drift, and stars run out of fuel at a faster pace than American metrication.

I wrote to congratulate the writer, Richard Slettvet, and as I did so I noticed another letter of congratulations, from Frank Baumann, that included this rather sad paragraph:

Finally, a true story: A friend, granted, not a college, but a high school graduate, in all seriousness once explained to me why the metric system would never be adopted in this country (USA). Why, I inquired. "Because it is too approximate". Explain, I said: "Well, look at it, a kilogram is approximately two pounds, a Liter is approximately a quart, an ounce is approximately 30 grams, a gallon is approximately 4 liters, and a kilometer is approximately two thirds of a mile. A modern country like ours needs a more accurate system!"

With that sort of knowledge, God bless America! (We are going to need it).

And on a similar theme is this letter to the Las Vegas Sun newspaper: http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2009/feb/28/conversion-metric-system-would-be-wise where, in conclusion, the writer asks:

President Barack Obama is willing to spend our money on supposed change, so why not spend our money on something that will get the next generation of America up to speed with the rest of the world: the metric system!

6 Quotation

This quotation is from 'Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child' by Nöel Riley Fitch (Doubleday 1997).

Jack Shelton in San Francisco, whom Clark Wolf calls the first food writer (pre-Claiborne) to call himself a "restaurant critic," was Julia's most devoted reviewer. He praised two qualities in her: ''Julia knows how to listen" and she possesses an "unslakable thirst for greater knowledge." The women who worked with her all recall her intense curiosity and her investigation of food-related issues, contacting national scientific groups such as the Bureau of Weights and Measures when she went on a losing crusade to promote the metric system.

What makes this quotation interesting to me is that Julia Child was born in 1912 and lived most of her life in the USA.

7 Q&A


I received this request from a student in the USA, and as I prepared a reply, it occurred to me that others might also find this collated material useful. I have removed the student's name and address.

Dear Mr Naughtin,

In my history studies I have encountered an odd word, toise, which appears to be related to measurement of some kind. Can you help me understand what it means?


The word, toise, is a history lesson all by itself. Toise can mean a length, an area, or a capacity (volume). Which of these toises is right depends on the context of the history you are reading. For this answer, I will stick to a toise of length. By the way, I pronounce toise as twah-ss.

If you are reading about the history of measuring in France before the metric system, you could find: the toise du Grand Châtelet, Picard's toise, Cassini's toise, the toise de l'Academie, the toise du Pérou, or the toise d'ordonnance. All of these are slightly different in length at about 1.95 metres. However, if you are reading history after the introduction of the metric system, later writers generally use Napoleon's toise de Système Usuelle, which is exactly 2 metres long. Unless you have reason to be exact and precise in your writing about the toise, I'd stick to the idea that a toise is (about) two metres.

If you want to know about a toise of area or a toise of capacity (volume), you could start at http://www.sizes.com/units/toise.htm but be warned, you might have to learn a lot about Canadian stone mason's union rules to understand historical passages like this:

In Toronto a toise of rubble masonry is 54 cubic feet; when this rule is adopted, the cubic contents of the wall in feet, including half openings, are measured and reduced to the toise. In Ottawa and Kingston the toise is 62 feet, but walls less than two feet thick, are measured as two feet, and openings under ten feet are not deducted. In Montreal the toise is 72 French feet, usually estimated at 86 English feet, being really 86 60/100 feet, and one half of all openings over ten feet wide, are deducted.

8 Rule of thumb

As a rough 'Rule of thumb', is it fair to say that it takes about one kilojoule of energy to heat a cubic metre of air by 1 °C?

9 History

I have been thinking about the various definitions of a toise given above. It is good to remember that before the metric system there was no system. The earlier measures simply varied according to the whimsy of usually small groups of people or even individuals. They were never designed or devised as complete 'systems' of measurement. Here is a selection of measures from Hemyock Castle in Devon, UK (See http://www.hemyockcastle.co.uk/measure.htm#other ).

Search for palm to see how the width of the palm of your hand could be 3 inches (75 mm). Width of man's palm, while directly under this entry, your hand, presumably the width of your palm, could be Width of man's hand 4 inches (100 mm); used for height of horse at its withers (shoulders). Formerly, approx 5 inches (125 mm).

Search for foot to find that a foot can be 9.8 inches (approx Anglo-Saxon = 250 mm), 11.6 inches (approx Roman = 295 mm), or 12 inches, length of (large = 305 mm) man's foot.

So, in the good old days your hand could be about 75 mm, 100 mm, or 126 mm and your foot could be 250 mm, 295 mm, or 305 mm. When you look at these, it is sad to think that some folk want us all to 'go back to the old ways'. I suspect that they often do this in the simple ignorance of not knowing how complex and unreliable the 'old ways of the good old days' actually were.

10 Hidden metric

Jeremiah MacGregor wrote about the extensive fires we had here in the state of Victoria during the last month. Jerry wrote:

Earlier in the week there were reports on the fires on NBC news. These were all that I saw, and everything was spoken in English units. The reporters were Americans (American accents) and when Australians were interviewed, no measurements were spoken. Thus to the American audience, the entire experience was English all of the way. If an Australian had spoken metric, that part was edited out.

I wrote back to Jerry to let him know that fire fighters in Australia have had a hard and fast rule since 1974 that only metric units are used when fighting fires. For example, in the state of New South Wales the rule is that using anything other than metric units is a 'reportable offence'. This rule is simply to protect the lives of the fire fighters — using multiple old pre-metric measures is simply too risky — people can die from such stupidity.

The recent fires in my home state of Victoria, in Australia were quite extensive. After a week of extremely hot days we had an exceptionally extreme hot day on 2009 February 7. It was 47.9 °C at the airport near Geelong. On this Saturday some 300 fires began to burn out of control all over the state. Overall:

  • 210 lives were lost,
  • 2029 properties were destroyed,
  • 78 townships were affected, and
  • 400 000 + hectares were burned.

Note that we use hectares to measure the size of fires here. This means that a small fire 100 metres by 100 metres is a one hectare fire and all other fires are given in simple whole numbers of hectares. There are no fractions (no vulgar or common fractions and no decimal fractions) when you are measuring bush fires in Australia.

These fires burnt for about a month and they were eventually controlled when we got some rain on 2009 February 4.

All reporting of all fires in Australia is done using metric units. The Australian media consistently does this because in all Australian fire services metric units are mandatory. It is far too dangerous to try to use multiple measuring methods when your life is immediately threatened by fire. Multiple measures can mean death!

Here is a report from 'The Age' newspaper (http://www.theage.com.au/national/heavens-open-and-a-hellish-season-ends-20090304-8oif.html ) that shows some of the New South Wales (NSW) fire fighters on their way home giving the 'thumbs-up' sign of success. These are a small part of the 1000 fire fighters who came from other states to help us here in Victoria. There were also many fire fighters from New Zealand, Canada, and the USA (usually from the states of California and Washington).

If you were given any other figures — say by news media in the USA — then the news media reporters in the USA dumbed these down to old pre-metric measures of various kinds to hide the fact that Australians use the metric system. In a sense, you are being treated like little children who need to be protected from the big bad metric world! Hhhrrrmmmph!


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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