The Intellectual Metric Embargo

By The Metric Maven

Thanks to the Patrons who are supporting me on Patreon! We will be alternating between a new Metric Maven essay, and a new Chapter of Death by 100 Cuts: A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States each month. Next month Chapter 2 will be published. Now for this month’s essay:

In recent months, I had lunch with my friend and colleague Dr. Don. I presented him with a copy of the Dimensions of the Cosmos, and related that Australians and others use nothing but millimeters when constructing a house. Despite his considerable education, incisive mind, and knowledge, the answer was predictable for an American. He said “the numbers are too big.” I assured him this was a ubiquitous notion that is entirely wrong. After I explained why millimeters work so well, he indicated he understood, but like most Americans, it will probably not alter how he measures in the future.

The use of centimeters as a pseudo-inch is so natural to Americans that any deviation from relating inches to centimeter “metric inches” is thought to be ramblings of a fool in the face of “obvious” knowledge. The destructive anti-meme of centimeters was (is?) on display for all the English speaking world to view on Wikipedia (2017-11-21). The current page on tape measures is quite a mess, and the page is flagged as needing scholarly sources. The text in the entire article has inches, and centimeters without a prose mention of millimeters in the body of the article.

They discuss tape measures in the United States, but it’s centimeters all the way down with a shout out to an imaginary three scale problem of adding metric divisions:

Some tapes sold in the United States have additional marks in the shape of small black diamonds, which appear every 19.2 inches (48.77 cm). These are used to mark out equal spacing for joists (five joists or trusses per standard 8-foot (243.8 cm) length of building material).

Many tapes also have special markings every 16 inches (40.6 cm), which is a standard interval for studs in construction. Three spaces of 16 inches make exactly 4 feet (121.9 cm) which is the commercial width of a sheet of plywood, gyprock or particle board.

It should also be mentioned that the sale of dual metric/customary scale tapes is slowly becoming common in the United States. For example, in some Walmarts there are Hyper Tough brand tapes[10] available in US customary units and Metric units. Unlike US rulers, of which an overwhelming majority contain both cm and inch scales, tape measures are longer and thus traditionally have had scales in both inches and feet + inches. So, inclusion of a metric scale requires the measuring device to either contain 3 scales of measure or the elimination of one of the customary scales.

When the UK is mentioned, it’s centimeters all the way down:

Tape measures sold in the UK often have dual scales for metric and imperial units.
Like the American tape measures described above, they also have markings every 16 in (40.6 cm) and 19.2 in (48.8 cm).

The strangest aspect of this Wikipedia page is the illustrations. A US tape measure is shown that is capable of measuring to the nearest 1/32 of an inch with (0.79375 mm) for reference? Why not just put 794 um? That sounds even more accurate.

The next illustration shows a millimeter only metric tape measure, but never mentions this fact. Here is how it appears on the Wikipedia page:

Below that is a dual scale (they don’t designate US and metric) tape measure with inches and centimeters on it:

The use of inches and centimeter pseudo-inches is so automatic, that the difference is never acknowledged even when it is staring them right in the tape measure. The assertion that numbers in millimeters would be too large is a unexamined fictitious restriction, or as those people who write vacuous pop business tomes might say, they’re not thinking outside of the box.

I have written for and edited Wikipedia articles in the past. I logged-in and made these changes to the article on 2017-11-21:

click to enlarge

I also changed the absurd number of decimal places on the 1/32″ illustration:

The Wikipedia page was almost certainly authored by an American, and reflects the intellectual blindness of the difference between millimeters and centimeters. Before my edits, there was no notice of the difference in the illustrations. Time will tell if my edits are erased or reversed. I only changed the US section to millimeters as I do not feel knowledgeable enough about other countries to edit their entries.

I often find myself feeling like a reverse-time fossil hunter. I have all these metric millimeter only tape measures that I can only hope could become ubiquitous in the US at some future time. Below is a number of future non-fossils, plus one that I hope will
become extinct and morph into a curiosity:

click to enlarge 1) Starret Classic Tru-Lock Tape 5m (US no longer manufactured) 2) Lufkin 5m FL35SI 12B (Australia) 3) Super Craft Tape Measure 5m SCM2010 (Australia) 4) Stanley Millimetre scale 8m 30-459 (Australia) 5) Lufkin 8m Autolock AL 825M 6) Starret Tru-Lock 4m C12-4M8 65781 (US no longer manufactured) 7) Fastcap Tru 32 US 5m (currently manufactured in US) 8) Stanley 8m (US centimeters)

One can clearly see that in Australia, millimeter only metric tape measures are plentiful and utilized. In the US, the very notion of a millimeter only metric tape measure is intellectually dismissed instantaneously because of an ingrained cultural urban legend that large numbers are a problem. Strangely, this is never applied to using feet for altitudes of aircraft or the elevation of mountains. Teachers in our schools, the scientists in our universities, the engineers in our corporations, and Jane and Joe American have all absorbed this intellectual anti-meme to the point it is proverbially believed, and ubiquitously employed, to dismiss millimeters as the best metric unit of length for everyday work. This is the “intellectual” argument offered. The path of least thought is to equate the use of inches with centimeters, and claim to have “gone metric.”¬† As I’ve stated in the past, this is simply using the metric system with the same poor usage of Ye Old English “customary” and improving the situation not-at-all.

In the figure above, there are eight things, and one does not belong. It is the US centimeter/millimeter, or if you prefer, centimeters with tenths of centimeters tape measure at the bottom. What a person sees upon casual inspection is all integer values, but in the case of centimeters, their size must generally be broken into smaller divisions for any practical everyday use, that could more easily be expressed in millimeters.

There is not just a physical invisible metric embargo in the United States, there is also an unconscious intellectual metric embargo woven into the fabric of our educational system and society. Until we find a way to deal with the immediate dismissals that act as Pavlovian reactions that inoculate Americans from thinking about the metric system, we will never see it in the US.

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The Shrinking World

By The Metric Maven

In the 1960s and 1970s it was common to hear people talk about “our shrinking world.” What they meant by that was the speed of transportation had increased
by such a large amount that traveling from one part of the globe to another took mere hours. A journey that might have taken years in the past, could now be traversed in days. It is my understanding that humans had reached more-or-less every region of the globe by the medieval period in Europe. From that point on, their  isolation from one another decreased such that today people travel to Easter Island on a regular basis as tourists.

What appears to exist for many people is a sort of cognitive dissonance about our planet. People will drive through Wyoming and think the world is so large that humans have no ability to affect it. There is plenty of room, you can see it with your own eyes. The problem is that often we cannot see changes with our eyes, we require instruments to augment our feeble senses, and what they can reveal is sobering.

Thomas Midgley (Wikimedia Commons)

In the early years of the twentieth century, gasoline engines suffered from knocking. The spark plug in an internal combustion engine is meant to ignite the gas/air mixture arriving from the carburetor in a homogeneous fashion, but can combust in a localized manner. This causes knocking. In 1921 Thomas Midgley (1889-1944) discovered that adding Tetraethyllead (TEL) to gasoline eliminated knocking. Early on he also discovered that the addition of alcohol could also solve the problem. Adding alcohol would have very little profit potential, whereas adding lead was patentable and would maximize it. Midgley argued publicly that there was no substitute for TEL, when he knew otherwise. There was a willful disregard by Midgley and his partners for the health hazards that lead could cause, which is borne out by the fact they named the additive “Ethyl” so that any mention of lead could be avoided.

The Latin word for lead is plumbum. This is why the symbol for lead in the periodic table of elements is Pb. Lead is a very heavy material, and that is the origin of the phrase “to plummet to the Earth.” It became clear long ago that lead was also poisonous, and could make a person “plumb crazy.” Medical researchers warned that lead in gasoline could poison the nation. Workers exposed to TEL during manufacture suffered from paranoia and had to be institutionalized, others simply died. By 1945, everyone on Earth was fueling their vehicles with leaded gasoline.

In the 1968 movie, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good, a virus outbreak that makes everyone nice to one another, is finally cured by adding an anti-virus vaccine to gasoline and petroleum products. The movie plot shows it was a proverbial idea in the 1960s that putting the cure into petroleum products would make certain that every one on Earth would be exposed. In that era, I recall seeing the sides of gasoline pumps with a large sign warning us that the gasoline we were purchasing contained lead. The idea that lead was poisoning us all seemed proverbial. Yet, with capital to burn, petroleum public relations groups implemented a campaign of denialism, their research “showed” that TEL was harmless. I’m sure that if people didn’t want to purchase gasoline, that was their “choice” and so all was well and no intervention was needed.

An article in New Scientist[1] claims that by the time lead was removed from gasoline

“… with some 75 trillion litres of leaded gasoline burned, science woke up from its amnesia about the dangers of lead.”

New Scientist decided to go non metric with an Olde English prefix modifier, trillion, which helps to obfuscate what the number means. The volume of gasoline in metric is 75 Teraliters. It is estimated that two grams of lead per gallon (yes that’s how it was expressed–in pigfish) was in gasoline at the time. This works out to about 0.5284 grams/liter (forgive the excessive decimal places in the conversion, it actually helps in the end). When one multiplies 75 TL by this value, we end up with a total of about 40 Teragrams of lead belched into the atmosphere. But how bad is this for each of us? Well the population of the planet is 7.5 Giga-people. This works out to about 5 grams of lead for each person on the planet.

So, how bad is this? Well the upper limit for blood is 10 micrograms of lead per 100 grams of blood. There are around 5 liters of blood per person, so we can approximate this as about 5 Kg of blood or 5000 grams. This works out to about 50 micrograms of lead in the bloodstream for an adult human before he is considered poisoned. Assuming we go with double this value, 100 micrograms, we each could have been poisoned at least 50 000 times by the amount of lead released as a result of Midgley’s desire for fame and fortune. For Midgley, our entire planet became an externality. The good news is that since lead was banned in gasoline, the levels of lead in the blood of children has dropped to 1/3 what it was at its peak.

I have been criticized in the past for insisting that the large metric prefixes (Kilo through Yotta) should be taught in school from the youngest age possible, and memorized,
like multiplication tables were before the advent of calculators. 75 trillion liters is not metric, it’s Olde English Pigfish. 75 Teraliters tells me a quantity in a compact way, as does a Terabyte drive (that is a massively big number). Tera immediately tells me the magnitude is 1012 (I remember the value of this prefix as tera sounds like twelve). Using the large prefix, with some basic assumptions about the mass of water and its volume, because of the clever design of the metric system, I quickly estimated the amount of lead each of us had the potential to ingest, and how badly this could poison us all. When metric is not used, it simply allows for the obfuscation of meaning, like “Ethyl.” As I’ve said in the past, we may not be able to directly understand large numbers, but we can express them within a metric world where their values can be understood in terms of what they mean to our planet, or the size of our universe. With the metric system We can realize that our planet is finite, and that it is possible for a single human
being to poison the entire Earth, and everyone who resides there, independent of whether they have ever used a gasoline engine, or not.

The use of ammonia for refrigeration was a dangerous practice in the early twentieth century. Thomas Midgley was celebrated for also creating Freon, the first of the CFCs, that solved the danger that ammonia presented to humans. Unfortunately it would later be discovered that CFCs were destroying our ozone layer, and an ozone hole began forming over Antarctica. But that is another story, which also involves large metric prefixes used to shrink our world, and make it understandable.

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[1] The One-Man Environmental Disaster New Scientist 2017-06-10 pp 42-43