The New Traditionalists

New-TraditionalistBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

One of the great legacies of Pat Naughtin, in  my opinion, is his willingness to examine traditional usage of the metric system, and suggest improvements. Before I encountered his writings and lectures, I had been inculcated with the idea that when one crosses a prefix boundary, there should be an abrupt transition to the next prefix. If my last data point was 900 meters, and the next data point is 1200 meters, then one should write down 1.2 km instead of 1200 meters. I believed that this rule had been carefully considered by academics at my university, who were much wiser than myself.  Their other admonition, no concatenated prefixes, no micromicro or kilomega, made good sense and so I thoughtlessly swallowed their prescribed use of the metric system whole. Over the next couple of decades of my career, this metric dogma had become fixed. Because I mostly used inches, pounds and such at my place of employment, metric was just an internal abstract concern. My theoretical work was computed in pidgin metric, but the final number would be expressed in Ye Olde English representation. Pat Naughtin encouraged me to question my basic assumptions about metric usage. My consulting work gave me the opportunity to embrace metric exclusively. I was then able to try out Naughtin’s suggestions and develop my own thoughts. It was liberating.

From the beginning of my blog, I have made a considerable number of metric proposals. Some are ideas that would require government coordination to achieve, others could be adopted by individuals. Here is a list:

Some of these suggestions were met with minor brouhaha’s. Often BIPM documentation was cited, chapter and verse, and displeasure expressed. I continue to use these, and seldom do readers make much of a fuss these days. These have become so comfortable, they’re invisible to me.  So it came as a bit of a surprise when I read this from a metric advocate[1]:

“Don’t use centimeters!” “Use only the millimeter!” go the cries from would-be metric purists over which scale of reference to use in a particular measurement situation. Add to these screeds those who would adhere to “units” that find their definitions in metric terms such as “the” Angstrom and “the” micron, and one has a customary system within the SI. This is not the plan envisioned by the architects of the international measurement system. SI units were meant to thrive on newfound logic, not newfound tradition.

The word purist is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as:

a person who has very strong ideas about what is correct or acceptable and who usually opposes changes to traditional methods and practices

This definition applies to someone who opposes change. Eleven examples of suggested change are summarized in the bullet points above. I’m clearly on the side of change. One of the proposals is to eliminate the use of centi. In my view, to argue for the use of centimeters, in the light of the millimeters proven usefulness, is to be a slavish follower of tradition.  A person advocating nothing but the status quo is a purist, but a better term might be New Traditionalist. The archives of the association this New Traditionalist represents, document the anti-utility of centimeters. This hard earned realization has apparently been sacrificed on an altar of tradition and amnesia. The centimeter is back.  Strangely, New Traditionalists do not call for the use of earlier traditional metric quantities, such as the myriameter (10 000 meters), or the double deciliter, demi-deciliter, double centiliter, double gram, demi dekagram, double dekagram, demi hectogram, and so on. A myriameter is based on ten, just like the centimeter, why don’t we need a myriameter?

At least he agrees with me that the angstrom and micron should be banished—I think. The prose is rather opaque. I guess he is saying that people like myself are trying to create a replacement tradition without any rational basis behind it? I have explained my reasons for the proposed changes in considerable detail. I’ve provided links in the bullet points above to blogs that explain my rationals.

Only a New Traditionalist, would defend a “…plan envisioned by the architects of the international measurement system” that includes the use of tonne with SI. First, tonne is easily confused with the Ye Olde English ton (long or short) because it is a homophone (i.e both ton and tonne have the same pronunciation). Second, the use of a metric prefix with tonne, is obfuscating. For example, the use of Kilotonnes undermines numerical comprehension. When one encounters 39.37  Kilotonnes, and then wants to actually use this value in a metric computation, it must be first be recognized that a tonne is a Megagram. Then we apply the Kilo prefix to obtain KiloMegagram. This violates the BIPM commandment “thou shalt not concatenate prefixes,” but is accepted for use with SI? This is the plan envisioned by the architects of SI?—based on logic?

The simplicity of the metric system is buried when one has to decode an “accepted” metric expression. For example, the number of grams in 4.7 Gigagrams is straightforward, it is 4.7 x 109 grams, the number of grams in 4.7 Kilotonnes is not. New Traditionalists apparently are fine with the idea that the tonne is not part of SI, but is accepted for use with SI. It is ignored that when tonne is used with metric prefixes, it automatically violates the rule against concatenating prefixes. This is a practice the New Traditionalists apparently embrace with exaltation as part of “..the plan envisioned by the architects of of the international measurement system.” The lack of rational usage one finds with the implementation of the tonne in SI is epic. The dead weight of tradition is obvious when the tonne is logically examined. It appears New Traditionalists want to save SI from improvement and clarity. Tonne is clearly “a customary system within the SI”, but there is no objection from the New Traditionalists.

It is further stated:

However, there is a certain amount of facility that one, both as a user of decimal arithmetic and also eventually as an SI citizen, develops in placing the decimal point.

The fraction or multiple of the base unit should be selected by the eye and the mind, and not by heraldic prescription.

I guess the first statement is simply a claim that it is easier to use decimals when one uses decimals? If one doesn’t need to use decimals at all, isn’t that easier?—and in the case of millimeters for everyday work—empirically demonstrated to decrease errors?  This does not seem apparent to New Traditionalists. I find this blind spot as baffling as those who don’t see how much easier decimals are to use than fractions. Everyday people have the choice of using the side of a ruler with decimals, or a side with fractions. People in the U.S. continue to use the ruler side with fractions instead of the side with decimals.  I’m sure New Traditionalists find the fact that people don’t seem to see this obvious decimal simplicity, and use the decimal/centimeter side of a US ruler, as confounding as I find the New Traditionalists not realizing that integers are simpler than decimals, and therefore millimeters are the obvious choice.

Centimeters seem to have become a kind of fetish for The New Traditionalists. Curiously, there seems to be no fetish for centigrams dekagrams or centiliters. No chemist, or average person argues that we need to use centiliters with decimals instead of milliliters alone for volume, or centigrams dekagrams with decimals in place of grams. Why would we complicate metric length by using centimeters with decimals, when millimeters perform the same simplifying function as milliliters and grams? The choice of milliliters allows for the use of whole numbers when dealing with volume, as does the use of grams for mass. Millimeters should be an obvious choice, but for New Traditionalists, they seem to be as un-obvious as decimals are for the users of Ye Olde English fractions.

Decimal representation is absolutely essential to my engineering work, and when needed, nothing better exists. But for everyday use, it should be clear to any average person that using whole numbers on a millimeter scale is much easier than using whole numbers combined with a fraction involving 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 or 1/16. A millimeter ruler automatically has a precision of 1/25th of an inch!—and it’s much simpler to use! I don’t see how any of my metric usage suggestions are a form of medieval “heraldic prescription,” that might have been produced at an SCA meeting. As longtime readers know, I’m very much against Ye Olde English.

The New Traditionalist further states:

It is not expected that humankind will memorize the entire list [of prefixes] and be prepared to refer to it mentally when challenged to select a frame of reference.

Humankind faces a considerable number of challenges that require as much numeracy as possible—if we are to confront them rationally. Global Warming is an existential threat. The late Pat Naughtin demonstrated that with well selected metric prefixes, quantities relevant to understanding global warming, can be readily understood in relation to one another and evaluated by anyone.

Currently sea level is rising about 3-4 millimeters per year. Since 1880, tide gauge records show there has been a 200 millimeter cumulative increase in sea level. The total amount of water in the Earth’s ocean is about 1386 Exaliters. The area of the Earth’s ocean is about 335 square Megameters. With these values, we can compute an average ocean depth of about 4.14 Km. The 335 Mm2 area of the global ocean has increased its depth by 200 mm. If we multiply the total area of the ocean by the increased depth due to global warming, we arrive at the total increase in the ocean’s volume. This works out to an additional volume of about 67 Petaliters over the last century. The total amount of fresh water on Earth is about 109 Petaliters. The majority of the water entering the oceans is from melted ice. This water is drinkable; but when it is mixed with the ocean it becomes unfit for human consumption. There is not enough fresh water to dilute the ocean enough to make it drinkable. I made this point in my essay To Infinity….and Beyond. The additional amount of fresh water lost to our salt water ocean each year is about 670 Teraliters. This is drinkable water lost to humanity because of global warming. The amount of drinkable water on Earth is already critical. A minute amount of this increase in sea level is from the warming of the oceans, but with these values, and metric numeracy, one can readily estimate important quantities. The loss of naturally stored drinkable water each year is clearly an important quantity.

In this country, we readily make up songs to recall the names of all the 50 states. It would seem to me that developing a song, and teaching all 16 metric prefixes, from grade school through high school, is not asking much. Each prefix could have the size of an object in the song for reference. In my view this would be a much more worthwhile exercise than using a song to learn the names of the first 44 Presidents of the U.S. We can all recite our abc’s, and their are only 26 of them. Sixteen metric prefixes should not be a problem. I cannot see why New Traditionalists would excuse our populace from naming and committing to memory, all the metric prefixes, and understand their relationships. The issues we face as humans are more and more intertwined with science and engineering. The more directly a populace can understand quantities involving peak oil and energy or water resources and global warming, the better chance we have of making informed decisions. Rather than passively deferring these decisions to others, who may have conflicts of interest, people need to be informed. Promoting an ignorance of large metric prefixes, is truly the purview of New Traditionalists. Exclusively using only the prefixes that existed before the microscope and telescope were invented, only preserves the limited intellectual scope found within the mind of the 17th century, when we are confronted with 21st century problems.

When I look at the metric system, I see possibilities for improvement and streamlining. I argue for my position as rationally as possible. New Traditionalists embrace stasis and the apotheosis of current BIPM rulings. When people in the U.S. started using the capital letter L for liter when writing milliliters (mL), I’m sure there were New Traditionalists who were against this altered usage worldwide. Eventually the improved clarity of the new symbolism was realized and accepted. Reflexively defending the status quo, when better options have been proposed, is defending tradition and thoughtless obedience. It is the opposite of scientific discourse, it is theological discourse.

[1] Metric Today Volume 50 Number 5 September/October 2015 Page 3.

Lost In Metric Non-Conversion

Cargo-PlaneBy The Metric Maven

Isaac Asimov once wrote an interesting essay called Lost in Non-Translation. I don’t recall its details, other than he pointed out the considerable confusion caused by the difficulties that occur with translations from one language to another.

Our translation tale begins when I serendipitously ran across a small article in an old issue of the USMA’s Metric Today (July-August 2001 Vol. 36 No. 4 page 8) . I was surprised I’d never heard about this incident:

MT-ArticleEight people were killed and over 40 injured?—and this incident seems lost to metric history? The KE6316 event happened only about four months before the famous loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter that September—and the first metric incident, KE6316, that cost human lives, went comparatively unnoticed? This gobsmacked me. I immediately turned to Wikipedia and the flight mishap was listed. Here is what it has to say:

  • 15 April 1999Korean Air Cargo Flight 6316 (McDonnell Douglas MD-11) from Shanghai to Seoul took off despite the Korean co-pilot’s repeated misunderstanding and miscommunication with the tower and the pilot. The aircraft climbed to 4,500 feet and the captain, after receiving two wrong affirmative answers from the first officer that the required altitude should be 1,500 feet, thought that the aircraft was 3,000 feet too high. The captain then pushed the control column abruptly forward causing the aircraft to start a rapid descent. Neither was able to recover from the dive. The airplane plummeted into an industrial development zone 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) southwest of Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport. The plane plunged to the ground, hitting housing for migrant workers and exploded. Damage: Destroyed Injuries: 37 on ground Deaths: 8 (all 3 crew and 5 on ground) Airframe: Written Off[22]

When I read this account, I was floored to see that the metric-medieval unit confusion, which was at the root of the incident, was not included in the Wikipedia description of the accident. What on Earth? The article has a reference. Perhaps the reference is at fault? Let’s see what it has to say:

MD-11F cargo plane HL7373 was operating flight KE6316 from Shanghai’s Honqiao Airport to Seoul. The plane was  loaded with 68 tons of cargo and pushed back from it’s stand. Shanghai Tower then cleared the flight as follows: “Korean Air six three one six clear to destination flight planned route flight level two niner zero. After departure turn left direct to November Hotel Whiskey. Initially climb and maintain niner hundred meters. Departure frequency one one niner zero five. Squawk six three one six.” The engines were started and the airplane taxied to runway 18. Shortly after 4pm the flight was cleared for takeoff. After takeoff the first officer contacted Shanghai Departure and received clearance to climb to 1500 metres (4900 feet): “Korean Air six three one six now turn left direct to November Hotel Whiskey climb and maintain one thousand five hundred meters.”

When the aircraft climbed to 4500 feet in the corridor, the captain, after receiving two wrong affirmative answers from the first officer that the required altitude should be 1500 feet, thought that the aircraft was 3000 feet too high. The captain then pushed the control column abruptly and roughly forward causing the MD-11 to enter a rapid descent. Both crew members tried to recover from the dive, but were unable. The airplane crashed into an industrial development zone 10 kilometers (6 miles) southwest of Hongqiao airport. The plane plunged to the ground, plowing into housing for migrant workers and exploded.

There it is in the reference, Shanghai told them to ascend to 1500 meters and then maintain that altitude. The actual quotation is given. The first officer twice thought that the authorized altitude was 1500 feet despite the fact that initial altitude value of 900, and the second, 1500, were both given in meters. The captain immediately decreased the altitude, and went into a dive from which they could not recover and crashed into a construction area.

I doubt the author of the Wikipedia summary had any malice, or intentionally obscured the the fact that the root cause of this crash was a confusion between metric and antique measures. At least I hope this is the case. The first paragraph of the reference material quoted above is in meters and the second changed to feet without directly pointing out the metric-Ye Olde English confusion. It can easily be inferred with a careful reading. The Wikipedia article condensed the first paragraph of the reference prose into a single sentence and buried the source of altitude confusion, but left most of the second paragraph intact.

What I do think is that measurement itself is so out of the minds of most people in the US, that they will convert to Ye Olde English exclusively, and thoughtlessly bury the lede six feet under. All one reads in the Wikipedia account is there was confusion about the altitude in the cockpit, but not its root cause, which was a confusion between Ye Olde English units and metric. In the case of the DART incident, the metric-medieval conversion error was obscured by NASA by burying it within a tome of a report. Here are two catastrophic failures, DART and Korean Airlines KE6316, which are independent of the Mars Climate Orbiter debacle, that have been lost to metric history. Both incidents demonstrate that measurements matter.