Evanescent Measurement Policy

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

One day I was visiting a production plant which creates and molds materials for electronic components. I noted they were measuring the length of the component in barleycorn inches with a few zeros at the front of the decimal. The data was being entered by hand onto a paper table held with a clipboard. I indicated that it would be wiser to measure in millimeters so the data didn’t contain so many leading zeros and provide such an easy opportunity for error—and there would be less redundant digits to write down. They next measured the mass of the object in grams with a scale that went way way down into the microgram range. It also had a large number of leading zeros to the right of the decimal point.

After they had obtained the mass (in grams) and volume (using inches) they computed the density or mass/volume. I was told it was expressed in grams per cubic centimeter. I did have an attack of the vapors realizing they were using pigfish measurement, and then converting to metric, and worst of all used cubic centimeters. The metric system has a nice unit for volume called the liter. A cubic centimeter may be a volume dimensionally, but it is a milliliter which is an appropriate volume unit in my view, and identical to a cubic centimeter.  The cc is a part of the cgs system, and has long been abandoned.

Along the way I was shown the dielectric material in granular form before it undergoes processing for later fabrication into electronic parts. The materials chemist was pleased to tell me that they were all created to be about 100 microns in diameter. I cringed slightly, and then said “you mean micrometers?  Micron is a term from the 19th century and is not expressive.” Little was said after my comment and we moved on.

During a discussion about part fabrication difficulties, mils (thousandths of an inch) were bandied about constantly. I finally asked about the surface roughness of the material. I had determined it could contribute to the problems they were having. I was given a value in microinches. A metric prefix with Ye Olde English?—sigh. I could only reply with “I have no idea what size that is.”  I was then quoted a value in microns. Again with the microns? I wanted to do a face-palm, but refrained.

I have been on many tours of engineering and production facilities. It was only when I was at this particular establishment that I realized, I’ve never toured ANY company that has a measurement policy or measurement coordinator. It is not discussed, contemplated, seen as a concern—nada. When I bring up metric measurements, it is as if my statements and questions vanish into a black hole of indifference.

A week or so later another engineering client sent me a drawing which has a part made from a similar ceramic material. The dimensions on the drawing were all in inches, but in the notes, the metalization thickness on the part was called out in micrometers. The second note described the density of the part in grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc). I just stared at the drawing, and thought about my recent visit. Inches, micrometers, and the cgs unit g/cc all on the same drawing? Three different measurement types on one drawing. Why does this strike only me as bad engineering practice?

Density is mass per unit of volume. The density value on the drawing was 3.73 g/cc +/- 0.1%. In SI the milliliter (mL) would be an appropriate volume which would be 3.73 g/mL +/- 0.1%.  The cgs/SI/Ye Olde English mixing of units has become so accepted in the US that it goes without notice apparently. As I said, thus far I’ve never seen a company that has a “Measurement Coordinator.”  This would be a person who would help create a measurement policy and apply Naughtin’s Laws as well as the rule of thousands. That person would examine, simplify and coordinate measurements to maximize the understanding of data presentation and reduce possible mistakes—and implement the metric system. It never occurs to business management that measurement coordination could be a cost or efficiency issue.

I’ve always been tasked with design work, and never anything which would involve setting measurement policy. Pat Naughtin was the first to discuss the fact that NASA’s measurement policy is “change to metric, if you want to, use centimeters and/or millimeters, if you want to.” In other words NASA simply didn’t see measurement policy as a problem which is in need of any coordination or effort. This means they don’t see it as a problem at all, and so they do not have a measurement policy. Unfortunately the current former head of NIST also has a “do your own thing” measurement policy.

In the back of my mind I wondered what the reaction of one of my clients might be if I brought up the possibility of a measurement coordinator. I had concerns about it, and the next time I was on the phone with Sven, I asked him what he thought the reaction might be from management and a group of engineers.

Sven: “They would not see any need for it, and they would look at you as if you were wearing a gunny-sack with a belt and sandals, had a long beard, and were holding a sign which read REPENT!”

MM: “I was afraid you would say that.”

Every engineer I know believes they understand measurement units and measurement. There is no need for a policy, we “learned” it all in college. Some co-workers have indicated to me that metrology is what people do who really don’t have any engineering talent. You can imagine how my psyche greeted that notion. I’ve met way too many “engineers” who embrace measurement methods which are ad hoc and unsound. They chase down blind alleys of impromptu measurement and waste time. But as long as a product “gets out the door” and appears to work—there is no problem here—move along.

Isaac Asimov in an essay called Forget it! pointed out that often measurement units that should have been abandoned long ago, continue to be used. The units are also only imperfectly forgotten, which leads to an even more chaotic usage. The cgs system was abandoned many years ago, but the inertia of unrestricted usage propels them into the future.

I spoke with a medical researcher at a block party last summer, and mentioned metric. He proudly stated he uses metric in his work and cited the cubic centimeter. I pointed out that the cc was part of centimeter-gram-second system, and the cgs system is not compatible with SI. He should be using milliliters. He looked at me as if I was daft, and going out of my way trying to be annoying.

The technical drawings I received with cc’s on them, show an incomplete ability to forget cgs, as do the density measurements performed by another client. Recall they first started in inches with a long number of zeros past the decimal point, then converted the inches to cc’s, and then finally computed grams/cc for a density. The inch is Ye Olde English, the gram is SI, and the cc is cgs. Both the inch and cc should be forgotten and eschewed; but the 10th, 14th and 19th  centuries live on in the US, never forgotten or allowed to be. They are the products of the “unexamined engineering life.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Pat Naughtin’s call for measurement coordinators and measurement policies in industry. As he himself pointed out, often questions of measurement are considered so minor, that scales and other measurement instruments are chosen and ordered by secretaries or interns. To show they are giving the company the most value, they order dual or multiple scale measurement devices. This perpetuates the farrago of units in use.

NASA demonstrated itself to be immune to the notion of measurement coordination even after the Mars Climate Orbiter disaster. The much less well-known DART “mishap” even appears to have been obfuscated with a mantle of junk prose. It was more important for NASA to deny there is a need for measurement coordination, than to address the problem. I really have no idea what it might take for the technical community, educators and the public to realize that measurements are the real currency upon which our modern technical society operates, and there is a need to coordinate and simplify them. I can only hope for the US metric coma to finally recede, the country to wake up, and then finally address the problem.

To Infinity…..and Beyond !

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

When I was a boy I had a friend who shared my interest in electronics. A new wonder device had been created around that time, it was called an operational amplifier or Op Amp. It was all new to me at the time. My friend stated with rapt excitement: “they have infinite gain!” I looked back at him in astonishment, and then thought “That can’t be possible.” A number of years later I was in a class on electrical circuit theory when the instructor began discussing Op Amps. He drew a diagram on the board and called it the “infinite gain mode” which suddenly caught my attention again. The Professor had a slight grin and said “actually the gain’s not infinite, it’s around 1000 to 100,000.” This is very, very large, but not infinite. In many cases one can assume it’s infinite and that’s a good enough mathematical approximation.

Last year I was watching a news report about Colorado flooding, and the large number of oil and gas structures which were flooded because of it. Some of the containers and rigs were toppled and releasing petrol-chemicals into the flood water. This alarmed a number of citizens who were quite concerned—but not the intrepid reporter. She offered a Cochranism to vanquish people’s fears: “the solution to pollution is dilution” the Very Serious Woman asserted. I cringed when I heard this. Like the Op Amp, I knew that the underlying assumption was that the amount of water on earth is infinite. To most people, this seems like a quite reasonable assumption, but it is a fantasy.

The amount of water in the oceans is given in Wikipedia as “1.3 billion cubic Kilometres … This can be thought of as a cube of water with an edge length of 1,111 Kilometres.” I’m sure these values are accurate within known evaluations, but they are expressed in a less than concise manner.  When I rework the figure to obtain a metric volume, I end up with 1.372 x 1021 liters. This may be compactly expressed as 1.372 Zettaliters (1.372 ZL) or 1372 Exaliters (1372 EL). I also wrote it as Exaliters, because by now most people have heard of Exabytes, which makes this prefix one which is now in general use. It will also be useful to write it this way for the explanations to come.

Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink ; Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink.

The unfortunate fact is that from a human standpoint the oceans are already “polluted,” and there is no more pure water to dilute the oceans to the point where they are safe for humans. What I mean by this is that the oceans contain about 35 grams per liter of dissolved salt. This salt makes seawater unfit for human consumption. This, in the view of humans at least, is a form of “pollution.” To the life which lives in the sea, it is not pollution, salt for them is an essential compound. In our anthropocentric view, all but 3% of the water on the earth has not been polluted with salt. The assumption that the amount of water on earth is infinite breaks down, there is not enough “salt-less” water to dilute the oceans down to the point where they are safe to drink.

Of course “fresh water” is not salt-less. Wikipedia states:

Fresh water can be defined as water with less than 500 parts per million (ppm) of dissolved salts.[6]

What they have given is a number which appears numerically descriptive, but is next to impossible to use for any direct numerical comparison. The parts-per notation actually promotes innumeracy in my viewpoint. As Wikipedia states about the parts-per notation: “they are pure numbers with no associated units of measurement.” They are not SI. Wikipedia even calls them “pseudo-units” which I believe is appropriate.  We have been told there are 35 grams of salt per liter in sea water—but  how many grams of salt are there in a liter of “fresh water” If we knew that, we could easily make a direct comparison of the amount of salt in seawater and freshwater. The Wikipedia article does not express it in a useful numerical manner.

After considerable searching I came up with an unsubstantiated claim that seawater is 220 times saltier than fresh water. This would mean the amount of salt in fresh water would be about 159 milligrams per liter (159 mg/L). Now we can make a direct comparison:

Salt Water:  35 000 mg/L
Fresh Water:    159 mg/L

These values would, if scientifically stated, also have the temperature at which this data is accurate. The volume of water and the amount of dissolved salt depend on temperature.

But at least we can now compare values—if only approximately. When numerical values are presented as they are in the media, or as often occurs in Wikipedia, these offerings  obscure actual numerical understanding, by presenting an artificial, but  seemingly intuitive number, which is accepted as information by the public. It is a literary metaphor masquerading as information.

The Great Lakes are massive, and contain a large amount of the world’s fresh water. Wikipedia claims they have 22 671 cubic kilometers of water. Provided I have converted correctly this is 22 671 x 1015 liters or 22.671 Exaliters. The Great Lakes contain about 21% of the world’s surface fresh water so, the total fresh water would be about 110 Exaliters. So the amount of water in the oceans compared with that of the great lakes in terms of Exaliters (EL) is:

Ocean: 1372 EL
Great Lakes: 23 EL
Total Fresh Water: 110 EL

The total amount of salt in the ocean would be about 48 000 Exagrams (Eg) according to these estimates. The fresh water salt total would be 17.49 Exagrams which we will round to 18 Exagrams. So the total amount of water on Earth would be approximately 1482 Exaliters, and the total amount of salt found in the world’s oceans and fresh water would be 48 018 Exagrams.

If we divide 48 018 Exagrams/1482 Exaliters the Exas drop-out and we have 32.4 grams per liter if we used all the fresh water in the world to dilute the ocean’s water. The use of appropriate metric units and prefixes, with Naughtin’s Laws, show very easily that in the case of salt as a water pollutant, there is not enough fresh water on the planet to dilute all the water below about 32.4 grams per liter. All the water on the planet would then be undrinkable by humans.

In short:

Oceans Contain: 35 grams of salt/liter
Oceans + Fresh Water Contain: 32.4 grams/liter

Dilution only provides more pollution.

Alan Weisman in his book Countdown, which is about resource limitations and population, has this to say on page 29:

Yet techno-fixes for what limits Israel and Palestine’s existence crash into certain realities. Eilat’s desalination plants are now surrounded by by giant mounds of salt. Some gets sold as Red Sea salt for aquariums, some as kosher table salt, but markets can absorb only so much, and dumping the excess back into the Gulf is a hypersaline hazard to marine life.

It is my understanding that Australia has resorted to desalination plants to provide fresh water for their population. When information is reported by the media and others using non-SI methods to express it, these values are simply made opaque and unusable for the common citizen, but provides them with the illusion of information. The woman reporter offered an aphoristic rhyme in place of an analysis. Perhaps the Rime of the Ancient Mariner might be a good reading assignment for her if she insists on literature in place of information. Go forth Ms Anchorwoman and wander the earth. Tell all the people you see about SI,  Naughtin’s laws and The Elements of Bile.

An important point of this calculation is that polluting fresh water with anything that makes it undrinkable, such as petrochemicals, reduces the small reserve of drinkable water that exists on the earth which does not have salt in it.

It was a complicated and tortuous route for me to collect all the information available and convert it to a metric form which was easily compared and useful for computational comparison. The sad fact is that our teachers and educators appear ignorant about the metric system and its effective use. To my knowledge there is no public school instruction about the use of metric prefixes and units as proper ways to express quantities. Much time is wasted on unit conversions which utilize time which would be better spent on the proper expression of quantities for comparison. The lack of attention to this need is one of the basic reasons why “Johnny is innumerate” and cannot see through a false colloquialism such as “The solution to pollution is dilution.” This is an illusion. Proper use of the metric system promotes numeracy. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but innumeracy will quite probably kill the humans.

Postscript/Double Bulldog Dare Edition:

top-wimtba-logo-245x134John Bemelmans Marciano has written a supplementary article to his book Whatever Happened to the Metric System? Marciano’s book is a cherry picked collection of odd ideas and personalities which he conflates with the metric system, and makes no real effort to answer the question posed in its own title. Sven’s review addresses a few of these deficiencies, but is not exhaustive. Marciano’s current article (2014-12-15) rephrases the question: Why Won’t America Go Metric? It is given space on Time magazine’s blog, and is also cross-posted to a blog which has as its masthead: “What It Means To Be American.” It will probably not surprise readers that an essential part of what it means to be American is to cling to medieval units. Marciano opens with “We Americans measure things our own way” and chortles that they are “…measures that are all unfathomable to foreigners….”

When it comes to citing the economic and societal advantages of the metric system, Marciano’s displays a seemingly willful lack of interest. Pat Naughtin’s metric information is available with a simple search, both in video and written form. My blog contains considerable information about the practices and advantages of metric, but it seems that Marciano is impervious to this readily available information. His book never touches upon the non-decimal use of the metric system in Australian and UK construction, which saves them about 10-15% compared with our medieval measures. This does not fit into his dyadic view that: “……foreigners, nearly all of whom have been brought up in a decimals-only [i.e. no fractions] environment.” have no other options. Marciano cannot contemplate the use of integers in place of fractions and their numerical benefit. He only sees usable numbers as decimals or fractions.

Marciano states that “The United States is metric, or at least more metric than most of us realize.” and goes on to claim: “The metric system is, quietly and behind the scenes, now the standard in most industries, with a few notable exceptions like construction.” (and transportation, and agriculture, and electronics manufacturing…..) This engineer has visited a number of U.S. commercial engineering design and manufacturing plants over the last five years, and found they still use Ye Olde English measures—as does all of Aerospace—and NASA—with the notable exception of JPL, which is allowed to use it, but only internally. We have Marciano’s perception and my anecdotes, and both are unreliable. Marciano offers no actual studies or data to substantiate the amount of metric which is used in the US, because as far as I know, there has been no funding or systematic attempt to study this. Nobody knows, and we are likely to remain ignorant indefinitely as metric seldom penetrates the national consciousness. When it does, it is ephemeral, and what general information is available hardly supports Marciano’s bald assertions.

So what is Marciano’s final answer to his own question?

Why is it that America hasn’t gone full-on metric? The simple answer is that the overwhelming majority of Americans have never wanted to. The gains have always seemed too little, and the goal too purist.

Yes, indeed, it’s obvious! That’s why we abandoned the idea of going to the moon in the 1960s—the goal was just too purist—and what of practical value would be gained? There is also an unstated assumption, that whatever the majority of Americans desire, our government quickly implements. But I do agree that the the answer he offers is simple. I might have said simplistic.

Marciano pulls out a favorite polemical chestnut used by anti-metric people when discussing metric change in other countries: “In all these cases, however, conversion was dictated by democratically deficient governments bucking the will of the people.” I want Australia to take note that you have a “democratically deficient government” according to John Bemelmans Marciano. He does not appear to have read Metrication In Australia, or if he did, found its information of insufficient importance to include in his book or note in his article. I guess the absence of any metric riots in Australia was just not worthy of note, as was his statement: “The 1880s imposition of the metric system in Brazil led to a full-scale uprising that lasted months.” And shame on you too New Zealand!—how can you live with yourselves!—no riots! Clearly you lack democratic values!

Marciano then delivers a bombshell: “The world’s most anti-metric nation–Great Britain–grudgingly began to ditch its Imperial system in the 1970s.” Marciano can say this with a straight face? I guess he couldn’t be bothered to read my blog where I publish UK junk mail with all housing and grocery store fliers given in metric ONLY. Marciano can claim Great Britain is the most anti-metric country on the planet, but in practice this champion of anti-metricism appears to be metric everywhere except when implementing highway distance signs. Logically, this also puts Great Britain on Marciano’s list of “democratically deficient” countries. Marciano is an American. Did he forget that America is always number one?—in everything—including anti-metrication!

Finally, this:

There is no question that a uniform global system of measurement helps cross-border trade and investment. For this reason, labor unions were among the strongest opponents of 1970s-era metrication, fearing that the switch would make it easier to ship jobs off-shore. (Which it did.)

If you would like to see an abbreviated version of what was actually said by the AFL-CIO about metric in the 1970s metric hearings, it is here. I really, really, really, would like to see a single study cited by Marciano supporting the notion that our embracing the metric system (which, as near as I can tell, we didn’t) made it easier to offshore jobs. (I would also caution Mr Marciano that one cannot just place what you believe to be a proverbial truth, without substantiation, in parenthesis, to make it true.) This throwaway assertion that metrication was a significant contribution to the offshoring of US jobs, combined with the lack of information of how metric the US actually is, causes his article, in my view, to degenerate into farce. His “measurements as culture” trope is becoming the last refuge for those without a reasoned argument.