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metrication matters - Number 83 - 2010-04-10

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

You can read all previous issues at /newsletter if you scroll own to the bottom of the page. The Metrication matters web page is also of the same vintage — you can check its current look at http://www.metrictionmatters.com.htm

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Dear Subscriber,


1 Editorial 2 Feedback - notes and comments from readers 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 Editorial

In the 1980s and early 1990s I often heard that major international companies aspired to have a 'Big Hairy Audacious Goal' (or BHAG pronounced Bee-Hag). Often these companies were stunned when they achieved great progress by aiming for something that when first put forward seemed to be quite impossible. It seemed that the BHAG took on a life of its own and inspired people at many levels in the company to make significant progress toward the 'Big Hairy Audacious Goal'.

Have you ever tried a 'Big Hairy Audacious Goal' that applied to metrication in your workplace and what were its effects? If you haven't tried a BHAG yourself, have you heard of anyone who has attempted the BHAG approach to their metrication?

2 Feedback

Cameron Low wrote from Scotland to say:

Hi Pat
Thank you for MM; always items of interest.
Cameron Low

Cameron included a sign from a wind farm where the 30 km/h speed limit had been retrofitted with a sign that read 19mph. Cameron wondered how the retrofitting might have happened; he wrote:

This sign is at the entrance to a big wind farm a few miles south of Glasgow, Scotland. 30 km/h 18.25 mph not 20 mph, too sensible.

Last month I wrote:

I will now play with the idea of calling old pre-metric measuring words geriatric measures.

Ken Schuster objected strongly:

"Old", "geriatric"? Sorry, Pat, but my 67-year-old butt feels kicked. There's an enormous difference between "old" and "obsolete". "Geriatric" certainly does not mean worthless, unusable or ineffectual.

Perhaps I will need to reconsider – any suggestions would be helpful.

Many thanks to everyone who bought, and is using, the 'Metrication Leaders Guide' through the web page at: /MetricationLeadersGuideInfo.html We have been very pleased by the feedback about the positive and rapid metrication results achieved by our readers.

3 Oddities

In an article headed, 'Pints or Litres, Who Cares?' it was reported that a restaurateur in England has broken the measurement law that requires beer to be sold in pints. The article begins:

Nic Davison, an accountant and owner of Kuchnia Polska (lit: Polish Kitchen) restaurant in Doncaster, has been served an infringement notice by the Trading Standards Institute, that threatens a court appearance and a 2,000 fine, for using metric instead of imperial measurements.

Apparently they are guilty of serving Polish beer in their restaurant in the same metric units in which it was made and packaged. You can read the full article at: http://ourstory.com/thread.html?t=456900

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

One day my wife Wendy noticed that I had left a stainless steel ruler on the kitchen bench after measuring a small repair job. The ruler was 300 millimetres long and it was calibrated in millimetres only. Wendy washed it and used it to measure the depth of the jam she was starting to reduce. She then went away on other tasks, coming back a few times to again measure the reducing depth. Only when the jam was getting close to readiness did she need to stand there stirring and watching that it didn’t catch. The stainless steel ruler now hangs near the stove along with the measuring spoons and the egg lifter – I don't hold out any hope of getting it back!

5 Signs of the times

Martin Vlietstra from the UK sent an email that quoted from a debate about hospital scales in the British House of Lords:

Does she (the Minister) further understand that last year, LACORS, the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, carried out a major survey that found that 30 per cent of weighing machines in hospitals were switchable between metric and imperial units and that a staggering 10 per cent were permanently switched to imperial units only?


Is she aware that the importance of this topic relates to the fact that the dosage of many powerful drugs is now calculated according to the weight in kilograms of the recipient? If, in error, such a calculation used imperial units, there would be a serious risk of under-dosage or, more importantly, major over-dosage.

A full transcript of the debate can be found at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200910/ldhansrd/text/100225-0001.htm#10022584000562 and you can watch the debate in the House of Lords at http://news.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/hi/house_of_lords/newsid_8530000/8530547.stm

By the way, baby scales are interesting devices in that they do not just take a single measure like a butcher might with a slab of meat. Scales for a baby's mass take multiple measures then use advanced statistical software (maybe to allow for kicking and wriggling) and then to provide any required level of accuracy and precision – even to within a single gram.

6 Quotation

This is an extract from the Report on Weights and Measures by the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Adams' report was presented to Senate of the USA on February 22, 1821.

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; to every transaction of trade and commerce; to the labors of the husbandman; to the ingenuity the artificer; to the studies of the philosopher; to the researches of the antiquarian; to the navigation of the mariner, and the marches of the soldier. To all the exchanges of peace, and all the operations of war. The knowledge of them, as in established use, is among the first elements of education, and is often learned by those who learn nothing else, not even to read and write. This knowledge is riveted in the memory by the habitual application of it to the employments of men throughout life.
John Quincy Adams

7 Q&A


'Are we there yet?' is a cry that anyone who has ever travelled with children knows only too well. Is there an equivalent that applies to the metric system and its implementation? How will we know when the answer to the question 'Are we there yet?' is there an indicator that provides a positive 'Yes – we have arrived – we are now fully metric?'


The answer to your question comes from observing the inevitable metrication process in many different places and from many different crafts, trades, and professions. Metrication can happen so quickly that the people involved think of their metrication upgrade as more-or-less instantaneous, or metrication can happen so slowly that the people involved (like the children in the back seat) think that the metrication process is an unpleasantness that will never end.

It all depends on the process chosen to make the metrication change. For example the wine industry in the USA chose to 'Go metric' using whole numbers of millilitres to measure their product. To make this fair to all producers they lobbied the government to regulate the labels so everyone could compete fairly. The result was that millilitres (spelled milliliters in the USA) replaced all old content specifications seemingly overnight. Conservative politicians fought for and won a secondary indication in old pre-metric measures expressed in brackets after the real contents measurement such as 740 mL.

Then the same thing happened with beer, spirits, and soft drinks. Again these metrication processes seemed to be instantaneous.

The two common factors in these fast and smooth metrication processes were the choice of a single metric system unit that can be expressed almost always in whole numbers and an underlying – maybe even unwritten – policy document that might read something like this:

For all drinks we will use millilitres to describe the volume of the contents of each bottle or can – or litres if the container is large enough, that is more than two litres. We will not use decilitres or centilitres.

These two common factors in combination – a single metric system unit and a written policy statement – seem to work and work well wherever they are applied.

So to the question of 'Are we there yet?' with the contents of bottles and cans containing alcoholic drinks the answer is definitely 'Yes' for both the UK and the USA. But with respect to (say) milk containers in the UK and the USA the answer is definitely 'No', and the most probable reason is that the two common factors, whole numbers and a statement of policy, have not yet begun to be applied.

By the way the policy statements that work best seem to be short – I think of them as 'postcard policies' in that they might easily fit on the back of a postcard.

8 Rule of thumb

As a rough guide, it is fair to say that it takes about 1.25 kilojoules of energy to heat a cubic metre of air by 1 °C. For engineers, this is based on the observation that the specific heat capacity of dry air is 1.006 kJ/kg°C and that a cubic metre of air has a mass of a little more than a kilogram (1.21 kg/m3 at sea level and at 20 °C)

9 History

When the mile arrived in England with the Roman armies it was based on the marching of the Roman soldiers. The word mile derives from the Latin word for a thousand and it indicated a distance of 1000 double paces. It was about 1500 metres. The calculations go like this: an international military pace is 750 millimetres; a double military pace is 2 x 750 = 1500 millimetres; 1000 military paces = 1500 metres.

10 Hidden metric

The cotton industry in Egypt calls 50 kilograms of lint cotton one kantar of cotton. This means that anyone who wants to understand this major component of the Egyptian economy needs to learn about the old arcane measuring words of ancient Egypt instead of simply recognising that cotton is measured in kilograms.


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.

Pat is the author of the e-book, Metrication Leaders Guide that you can obtain from /MetricationLeadersGuideInfo.html

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