The Swedish Chef of Metric

By The Metric Maven

I’ve always had a soft spot for Sweden, even though I have never been there. I spent some of my youth living in the American ersatz version called Minnesota. I liked living there enough that a local grocer in my Iowa hometown would say “we don’t allow Minnesota Swedes in here” to rib me about it.

I try not to read too many of the online comments in reaction to my views on the best usage of the metric system from Europeans. Generally I’m told how they are from long-time metric countries, and I, who live in perhaps the last non-metric country, have no standing to discuss metric. Italians tell me they happily use deciliters, and the French embrace centimeters like freshly baked bread. I don’t get that excited, and tend to yawn at their oral gesticulating. I’m only concerned about the US, and should a miracle occur and it become metric, would push it do so with the best metric implementation possible—by 1000. I also have no emotional connection with Italy or France.

Pierre, the master chef, machinist, woodworker and histrionic anti-metric warrior, loves to go for the emotional jugular when amiably pointing out the “difficulties” in using metric to test my mettle, but he did not have good knowledge of an effective European target. Point to the French all you want Pierre, I have no emotional entanglement. But as a stopped watch is right twice a day, Pierre managed to hit an accidental bullseye when he brought up the Swedes in an email:

Next, bad news for you, I’m afraid. But, maybe I can benefit, so it’s really good news.

As you can see from the book “Scandinavian Quilt Style blah blah blah” Scandinavia doesn’t use the metric system! I’ve deleted the part of the book actually related to the contents, except the important page, which I’ve thoughtfully highlighted for you to make it easier to read. You are welcome.

Money quote:

I work with inches. I have used inches for years, my instructions are in inches and the people I sew with all use inches. All the designs in this book were made with inches and the instructions were written while sewing.

Published by a European publisher. For Europeans.

The good news (for me) is that there may be an opening to be an Imperial measurements consultant in Norway. Somebody’s got to help them transition back into the civilized world. Don’t be afraid of inches tour ’18. Yah!

Well, I did my best to remind myself that the clothing and textile industry from the days of Samuel S. Dale onward have done their best to repel any logical implementation of the metric system. Indeed, for some reason woodworking Swedes also hang onto their non-Anglo-Saxon inches, like crayfish at kräftskiva, but I’m also told that woodworkers often don’t bother to measure anything. I kept averting my eyes from Pierre’s prose, as if I was watching Freddy Kruger chasing down teenagers. Then Pierre continued his schadenfreude laden monologue:

This whole metric system thing is soooooo easy, huh?

Here’s a page from noted Swedish food author Erica Palmcrantz Aziz …. In her brand new book Superfood Boost, she presents a lovely voice trying to convince us to eat raw kale as often as possible. Yum! She also has a page on growing your own sprouts.

Here is that page. I call your attention to that first paragraph. The rest makes more sense, if you don’t mind moving your sprouts around from container to container for no reason.

Now, …. I’m sure that you are just like me and measure out precisely 1.5 fluid ounces of mung bean seeds, each time you sprout. But, how handy to know that in Sweden, she would use, and correct me if I’m wrong, one deciliter of seeds. That sounds like about a pound, which would fill my kitchen sink with product.

I’d use a tablespoon or two per quart jar. Apparently, their metric jars must be much bigger in the festive, kale eating world of Stockholm. (Actual quote from her book, “Kale is not just for Christmas anymore” p.27)

Later she says this: “Massage and toss the cabbage (and by this, she means kale) with some olive oil, salt, and lemon, or

add it to a smoothie or juice, or enjoy it with a creamy dressing. “

So, slather that stuff with a traditional Swedish ranch dressing and it’ll help you get it down. You know, for health.

Another time she says a benefit of kale eating is, “To fill up on chlorophyll, which is said to purify and detoxify the blood”

Now, I have a liver for that function, but your shitty cold-weather desperation tundra food “is said” to detoxify my blood?

We’ll let’s have some of that.

Massage your kale, Maven. Embrace the deciliter. Purify your blood. A wealth of wisdom here. You might want to download it.

So 100 mL and 500 mL was too difficult to use in Sweden?—deciliters are a better idea? Oh…the pain “Børk! Børk! Børk!”

A point I have made over the years is that countries that adopted the metric system in the 19th century are at a disadvantage over those who waited until the late 20th century to convert. Sweden, showing their progressive nature, embraced the metric system in 1876, after ignoring it for 9 years of their 10 year conversion, but like most metric countries, they adopted it, and then never thought about upgrading its use. This lack of introspection really cuts me to the quick. The happy Sven jokes I heard in Minnesota, are not as fun when I think of this fact. The use of deciliters and such by the Swedes indicates they are Mormons Making Coffee when it comes to the metric system. New Zealand (1969), Australia (1970) and South Africa (1971) use millimeters in their housing construction. They fearlessly use milliliters and grams without the prefix cluster around unity to cook.

Please Sweden, don’t leave me bereft, measure your meatballs in grams, measure their diameter in millimeters, and express their volume in milliliters. Until you do, it will perennially feel as uncomfortable as a warm winter for me. Don’t make me wait until Fimbulwinter freezes hell over, although that might still happen before the US becomes metric.

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Kilowatt My Ride

By The Metric Maven

The first manifestation of my interest in both art and engineering was when I first saw some of the crazy models of Kustom Kars created by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. I had obtained a small plastic Rat Fink from a novelty dispenser, and in my single digit youth experienced a fascination with metallic sheen, so I spray painted the small plastic image with gold paint. I witnessed the last few years of the American Graffiti era in the US. On Saturday nights in my small town, I watched a string of cars cruising down main from a second story window. Myself and others would identify each car cruising main street, each had a customized low pitched rumble emanating from their engines. They pointed out cars like a ’57 Chevy Nomad, ’68 Camaro with moons along with three digit integers for each engine displacement. The bigger the number the better. There was the 289, 350, 383, 442, 396 and 454, which all became familiar. The Beach Boys had a song called 409, which a news segment assured me was a fictitious engine displacement number. One evening I saw a late 1950s Chevrolet Impala with a 409 on its side. I thought it was a joke. I knew the person driving it, and asked if it was real. He said “everyone seems to ask me that.” He pulled out the oil dipstick and it read 409 SS. Never had a single number of measurement seemed so romantic. I should have realized The Beach Boys would know more about cars than a TV reporter. In 409, the Beach Boys make a direct metaphor with a horse, as the refrain goes: “Giddy up giddy up 409”

There was not much mention of horsepower, but one would hear values from 300-400 when engines were discussed. It wasn’t something that was readily measured. The time in the quarter mile, or who had beaten whom in late night racing, was the metric used by those who still cruised Front Street. The first and second Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s brought the era of muscle cars to an end for the average teenager. The 1970s was the era when US cars began to become metric.
Only in recent years did I begin to realize that all those three digit engine displacement numbers had all become two digits with a decimal point. When I drive along the streets of my metropolis I see numbers like 3.7 L or sometimes numbers over five liters, which I know is a serious amount of engine displacement.

Engine displacement in cubic inches was a proxy for the power output of a car engine in the 1960s-1970s, a 289 was not going to be as powerful as a 396, but they were not direct power descriptions. They were also strictly tied to Otto gasoline engines. Another type of engine introduced in that era, the Wankel engine by Mazda, was not. It did not have a set of pistons, but instead a stator and rotor, which caused a mismatch between its displacement and that of Otto engines. The Mazda had a 10A engine (10 suggesting 1 Liter). In races this caused considerable confusion, and often the displacement quoted for Wankel engines was doubled. The old “reliable” three digit displacement in cubic inches was not consistent, even for gasoline powered cars.

Dodge Demon

The Kustom Kar Kulture of the 1960s and 1970s has been preserved, but is no longer a mainstream activity of modern youth. The nostalgia for these cars is epitomized in the television series Counting Cars. They are almost exclusively cars from before 1980 and exclusively non-metric. But time has moved on, hot cars remain, but have morphed. My friend, Dr. Sunshine, has a friend, Good Randy, an extreme car enthusiast, who keeps him up on current car culture. Dr. Sunshine one day showed me an image of a car on his smartphone, and asked if I could identify it. I had no idea, other than it looked pretty cool. It is the Dodge Demon, and it is currently the most powerful production car ever created. Rumors were flying that it would have 1000 horsepower or a mere 746 Kilowatt. My mind reeled at the amount of energy flow involved. I made an off-hand comment about how electric motors are much more powerful than mechanical engines. Dr. Sunshine pointed out that in car races electric cars are not allowed, specifically Teslas, which they disparagingly call “the world’s fastest golf cart.” He told me the Tesla has a “ludicrous mode,” where the car is able to go from 0 to 100 Km/hr in 2.8 seconds. I smiled and said that in this case “Maxwell beats Newton.”

Three digit engine displacement has been a problematic proxy for energy output when comparing Otto and Wankel engines, and now electric motors. Electric motors outperform engines,  but don’t have a displacement value, as they are not heat engines. The obvious metric, in a metric age, would be watts. Energy in the metric system is measured in joules. The amount of energy flow is in joules per second, which is defined as a watt. The use of watts provides a measure that is common for all vehicles, steam powered, gasoline powered, diesel powered, natural gas powered, or electric powered. The way to get a feeling for the energy output of vehicles is to compare them with known historic and contemporary vehicles directly and unsegregated. The appropriate prefix would generally be Kilowatts, but to maintain integers (Naughtin’s Laws) I’m going to produce the table using watts:

I suspect that persons in their 20s, 30s and possibly 40s do not have any feeling for a 289 engine versus a 454, as all modern cars have liters on their sides. (My 1959 Volkswagen Beetle had around 1200 mL (cc) written on its rear lid or 1.2 L.) If they have any feeling for the displacement of engines as a proxy, it would probably be in terms of liters. That proxy disappears with electric cars. In my imagination, it would be interesting to see 131 KW on the side of a Toyota Rav 4, and 215 KW on the side of a passing Tesla 2.5 Sport. The Toroidion would have 1000 KW or possibly 1 MW depending on the desires of marketing. The expected values would be from 25 to 1000 KW for cars in general. Looking at the table we can see that my 1959 chartreuse Volkswagen Beetle had about ten times less power than my friend Rick’s 1968 Plymouth Road Runner.

Of course, the power output alone doesn’t given any feeling for the amount of acceleration one can expect. A fast car in the era of Muscle Cars was around 12 seconds or so for a quarter-mile as I recall. A quarter-mile is about 400 meters, so this could be changed to 400 meters. Humans have run the 400 meters since the first modern Olympics in 1896. The current 400 meter world record is 43.03 seconds for a human, so a fast street legal car would take about 12 seconds or so to cover the same distance. The Dodge Demon has the production car record with 9.56 seconds. The Demon is about four times faster in the 400 meters than a human can run. The Tesla Model S takes 10.44 seconds. The world’s fastest horse ran 400 meters in 20.57 seconds. So a horse can run 400 meters about twice as fast as a human. The fastest production car with a heat engine is about twice as fast as the fastest horse.

I won’t hold my breath waiting to see a Jeep Wrangler with 354 KW in chrome letters, a new three letter power designation value, that is actually equal to power, but a person can always dream. Mike Joy sent me an ad from Australia that gave me at least a little hope for the future:

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Related essay:

One Hundred is Everywhere!


The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

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