Metric Parochialism

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Saddle Mountain — Wikimedia Commons

By The Metric Maven

I’ve noted from time to time reader comments that go something like this: “clearly The Metric Maven’s never lived in a metric country, or he would understand the importance of centimeters.” This of course ignores the fact that Pat Naughtin lived in a metric country and was the person who (along with Sven) first brought me to a realization about centimeters and other kludgy uses of the metric system. It also appears to confirm the proverbial idea of the provincial American in the minds of non-Americans.

What was most amusing for me as I read this criticism, was the knowledge that I had, in fact, lived in a metric country as a boy. I had resided in Mexico. The first metric surprise met us as we crossed from Laredo, Texas into Nuevo Laredo Mexico; it was the road signs. They were all in Kilometers. As we headed down the open road with the sun setting in a burned orange pastel sky, the large reflective road signs only told us how many km it was to Monterrey–no miles–no mas. In those days no American car had a speedometer with graduations in Kilometers, only miles. As we were having a family discussion about this, and whether we were currently speeding or not, it was suddenly realized that a second set of small numbers existed on the speedometer of our Volkswagen Beetle. They were graduations in in km/hr. In a microsecond, the small numbers which had gone almost unnoticed for so long became of paramount importance. We had the Rosetta Stone for travel in Mexico, because of the Germans. Had we been in a provincial American car, life would have been much more complicated.

I looked over at the illuminated dial of the speedometer and realized that we were just above 100 Km/hr, so a good guess at an average rate of speed would be about 100. The distance to Monterrey was about 234 Kilometers, which I realized immediately was around 2.3 hours. It really struck me what an amazing coincidence that was–and how simple.

The metric system continued to surprise me now and then in Mexico. The first time we stopped for gas, the amount of gasoline registered on the pump was far more rapid than I expected. I puzzled for a moment, then it hit me. It’s selling us gasoline in liters. One morning a delightful young woman who made my acquaintance at the American school greeted me. I mentioned it had been very hot and seemed even hotter today. She agreed and stated:

“Yes, very hot, I heard it’s going be almost 40 degrees today!”

My mind screeched to a halt. I babbled in astonishment “Forty degrees?”

She restated her assertion “Yes, 40 degrees.” with a bit of impatience with my confusion and a countenance that insinuated I might be a bit dense.

Suddenly the realization hit me: “Oh, oh, you’re talking metric?” With this revelation, I could see the surprise on her face that I seemed clueless about something so prosaic as the weather, melt into recognition. We were now speaking the same measurement language. An American in Mexico would even have a hard time discussing the weather it appeared.

I have a vague memory of a science magazine I bought there, but a clear one that the magazine had a length which it compared with a test tube’s length—in millimeters.

Life in Mexico for the next few months proved interesting. There were many unfamiliar foods like potato chips with chili and lemon or the section a large white plant of some type with seasoning, but one could almost always get a hamburger anywhere. A woman who was helping my mother with our apartment made what she called azucar tortillas or “sugar tortillas.” They were a pre-teen epicurean delight, and an almost perfect complement to a bottle of Coca-Cola. When the time came to leave Mexico, I asked for the recipe. I had a translator friend present to help with the documentation. Then a stumbling block appeared, the cooking was all done in metric and they had no idea how to change it to American measurement. Once again I was foiled by the lack of metric use in the US. That was the last time I ever had azucar tortillas. I looked on the web as I wrote this, and to my astonishment, I found a recipe for Sugar Tortillas. I made a batch and they are exactly as I recall. The irony is not lost on me that the recipe is in Ye Olde English and I had to convert it back to metric.

Metric_Maven_Sugar_Tortillas_Small

Sugar Tortillas — Back from Ye Olde English Oblivion

The strange assumption (in my view) made by commentators who live in other countries is that they have perfected their use of the metric system, and I should submit to their usage. I have instead come to the conclusion that many metric countries could use metric reform. This leads me to a statement by John Bemelmens Marciano (JBM). In his metric challenged book, Whatever Happened to The Metric System, he complains about the complications of metric measures:

I moved to Rome in 2000 and spent most of my time learning Italian. In order to make dinner, I also had to learn to talk metric, as nearly everything in the market is bought by the etto, which is short for ettogrammo, or hectogram. But measures are a lot harder to learn than most foreign vocabulary. Whereas a casa is the same thing as a house and a macchina precisely a car, an etto is about halfway between three ounces and a quarter of a pound. Our standards—feet, pounds, quarts, degrees—are nouns, which we conceive as something concrete. To think of them as anything different takes a serious taxing of the brain. (page 5)

The exclusive use of grams allows one to use integers for everyday values of mass. A hectogram is 100 grams. This is the mass of a hamburger that I make on a regular basis. I go to my meat market and ask for 0.45 pounds and when I get home it’s very close to 200 grams. I measure and make two 100 gram burgers (give or take a couple grams). When one looks at the masses offered in a British supermarket, they are in grams or Kilograms alone. There are no decagrams or hectograms. The British—who are still not completely metric—clearly saw the simplicity of grams with integer values and don’t bother with the prefix cluster around unity. I suspect that because the UK waited so long to become metric, that when they did, the British were more thoughtful about its implementation. Countries like France (1795) and Italy (1861) transitioned without the 20/20 hindsight that Australia would utilize a century or so later. In my essay Familiarity Versus Simplicity we see a 19th century American pro-metric organization pushing for an amazing amount of unit proliferation within the metric system in 1877. I’ve had many discussions about the implementation of the metric system in the US and as we are essentially the last, we should do our best to implement it in the most streamlined fashion possible.

Hector-Grams

Click to enlarge

JBM lived in Italy and found the adjustment to the language easier than coping with their weights and measures. He complains that:

Americans in Europe are constantly being called upon to defend their country against all sorts of attacks. Why do you Americans think you should be different? Why can’t you admit when someone else’s way is better? Europeans find our system of measurement a perfect example of our stubborn stupidity. Why on earth do we insist on keeping such a nonsensical, archaic system of measures when there is another system that makes perfect sense and is used by the entire rest of the world?

In answer to such questions, I at times acted like Wolfe’s “good little colonial,” but I did think that Europeans do certain things better than Americans. In my heart of hearts, however, I never believed that one of them was the metric system.” (page 5-6)

JBM then managed to write an entire book with metric in its title without bothering to learn anything about the metric system. If he had he might have questioned the usage, not the system.

I had an odd encounter a couple of years back at an engineering meeting. The device we were building was to be for a European country. Strangely they used a Canadian company as a supervisory contractor, and I found myself across a table from three engineers who were all from separate European countries. We were going over the specifications and the measured performance of the device when one of the foreign engineers had had about enough. He was tired of seeing inches, foot-pounds and all of the Ye Olde English that permeated the US engineering work. He pointed out that the European country who had funded this project specified it to be exclusively in metric. The other U.S. engineers (working for another company) began an attempt to defend the incredible amount of pigfish introduced into this “metric only” design. The European engineers would have none of it. One began to castigate the US for not converting to the metric system, and the US engineers in particular for fighting it.

The engineers in the room took note that I had remained quiet throughout the brouhaha—which they realized was a bit of an anomaly. The lead European engineer queried me for my thoughts. I took a breath and said (as best as I can recall):

I completely and totally agree with you. The US should have become metric years ago. It is an embarrassment that we have not. If I had my way we would change TOMORROW. However the use of metric by metric countries is often kludgey and poorly implemented. You have several of your specifications in centimeters, this is poor practice. The Australians use millimeters for building construction and never need a decimal point. If we are using millimeters with a decimal point, you know it’s engineering precision. There are many other effective ways to present metric data and specifications that I would be glad to discuss afterward.

One US engineer in the room actually gasped when he heard the Australians build their houses with all metric in millimeters. This was before I found out that the UK also uses millimeters. After one US engineer thought about it he said: “sweet!” The European engineers across from me had a look of surprise and seemed uncertain what to say. The US engineer in charge of all the specifications began removing centimeters with decimal points and changing them all to integer millimeters. Indeed when we needed a decimal point with millimeters, it was for precision parts. I also insisted on changing values like 0.012 millimeters to 12 micrometers. US engineering drawings with metric dimensions are generally in millimeters.

JBM could not offer a statement like mine to the Italians, because he knew nothing about the elegant use of the metric system. After he wrote a book, ostensibly about the metric system, one might expect that he would know enough about it to realize the poor usage he described. It was not like this information was hidden. I was writing my blog at that time. Pat Naughtin’s videos, missives and newsletters were and are on the web. At a certain point, this sort of ignorance by an author who proclaims to know enough about the metric system to author an anti-metric polemic speaks for itself. One can remain provincial even if they have traveled extensively, and be worldly even if they have never ventured outside of their city.

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Metric Hosers

Bob-and-Doug-RelaxingBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

When I decided I would change my engineering lab over to metric, I immediately and unknowingly encountered the limits imposed by the Invisible Metric Embargo. I was mantled in American ignorance about what I needed for tools. Finding them would become an odyssey. “Where could I get a decent “meter stick?” was my first question. Clearly Canada is a metric country. I will get online and purchase rulers from there I thought. I spent a lot of time and found only wooden meter sticks. They were all in centimeters, and within the confines of my blissful ignorance that seemed fine. At that point I was only disappointed with the poor quality of the rulers I obtained. I use a milling machine to create printed circuit boards (PCB) with millimeters and wanted a fairly large sized scale. I measured the board dimensions with the Canadian metric ruler in centimeters, shifted the decimal point in my head and then would check against my millimeter drawing.

About that time I wrote a pro-metric editorial for a local paper, and in response received emails from Pat Naughtin and Mike Joy, both from Australia. Pat congratulated me on the editorial; Mike wanted to provide help. When I described my current work, Mike offered to send me a millimeter only ruler. I did not want him to go to the expense, and I really could not see the need. Mike insisted. He told me that he had used centimeters, and they had caused mistakes. He assured me I would see the light after he sent me “real metric rulers.” When the 300 mm and 600 mm rulers arrived at my door, I was engaged with milling a PCB. I removed the rulers from the shipping container even as the mill was running. When I started to check dimensions, I was truly shocked by the amount of eliminated mental effort produced by this simple change. I immediately planned on banishing my centimeter “yardstick” from Canada to an uncomfortable place in my garage.

Sven counseled me about centimeters a fortnight or so before, and I really didn’t see why they were a problem. I began watching Naughtin’s videos, read his metric epistles and the light went on—centimeters really are a bad idea. I had already purchased a centimeter tape measure and now I really did not want to use it. Naughtin pointed out that Canadians, despite their official metric status, did not adopt metric in their housing construction. I went online and looked for millimeter only metric tape measures in Canada. I looked and looked but all the hardware stores offered mostly inches, centimeters, or combinations thereof.

Not long after this, Mike Joy visited the US and brought along a very nice Australian millimeter-only tape measure. I offered to purchase it from him, but he had a person in Vancouver Canada to whom it was promised. I was really jonesing for the tape measure. This was yet another confirmation that Canada was not the place to find millimeter-only metric tools and is part of the Invisible Metric Embargo.

I wanted to put together some type of metric cookbook, and I figured Canada might have some I could purchase. I contacted a number of persons in Canada who had Canadian cook books for sale. They informed me they all used Ye Olde English measures. One woman was clearly confused why someone from the US would want a cook book in metric. Peter Goodyear (another Australian) later offered useful links to some useful Australian cooking websites.

I have only spent about three hours in Canada, and most of those were in a restaurant. I had come to the conclusion that Canada was not nearly as metric as it would appear. I wondered about England, and based on my Canadian experience began to doubt how metric it might be. Derek Pollard of the UK Metric Association convinced me that the UK is about 80%-90% metric. England is not Canada, It is very close to being a completely metric country.

I began to see both Canada and the UK as inverse metric m&m’s. Canada has a thin outer metric coating and looks metric on first glance, but hidden inside its slim shell is an unappetizing center of Ye Olde English/Imperial usage. England’s m&m outer shell makes it look like an Imperial nation. Roadways have miles, pints are sold in pubs, metric martyrs are in the news, but when you get past the outer shell, the interior of the English m&m is all metric.

Lufkin-Vertical-mm-Tapemeasure

Courtesy of Peter Goodyear

In Early February of 2016 a small engineering company in Ohio contacted me. They found the Metric Maven website and wanted to know if there was any place, other than Australia, where they could purchase millimeter only tape measures. I told them that the Fastcap 32 was the only one I knew of available in the US, and it is not nearly as high a quality as my Australian ones. The Fastcap 32 was not good enough for this engineering company’s needs. I finally directed them to a number of Australian sites. They had the same concern I did when I first ordered some from Australia, that the tapes which arrived would be in centimeters and not millimeters. I had to tell them that I’d never found a millimeter only tape measure in Canada (not even an inch/mm tape) and there would be little hope other than Australia to purchase one.

Less than a week later an email arrived from a recently retired woodworker in Canada. He had been thinking about switching to metric in his work, and it came to him that a millimeter only measuring tape would be a very simple way to dimension his work all in integers. He stated that he had come to this conclusion independently and then did a web search to see if a mm only tape measure existed and where he could obtain one. The search directed him to this US based website, where he found images of millimeter only tape measures. The woodworker was quite surprised to find that an Invisible Metric Embargo exists in both the US and Canada. He could not find a mm only tape measure in Canada, nor in the US.

On 2016-03-05 a carpenter from Western Australia had an “ask me anything” thread on Reddit. Here was a bit of the exchange:

Mr Gupples: always wondered about stud placement in metric countries. maybe you guys dont use the metric system, i dont know. do you do 16 on center there? are plywood sheets 4 x 8?

Australian Carpenter:  Stud placement is typically 600 center to center. That’s basically 2 foot. It gets tighter in cyclone prone areas. 450 centers. That’s 1 and a half foot. All measurements in millimeters.

We still use feet and inches but not for anything precise. Some older blokes will still call a sheet of ply an 8 by 4 rather than a two four by twelve.

Samz0rpt1: weird. canada uses 16 oc and 4 by 8 sheets. so do you guys have metric tape measures or do you use metric imperial ones like what you would get in home depot (hardware store)

Australian Carpenter: Meteic [Metric] both sides.

The use of millimeters is seen by Samz0rpt1 as “weird.” He wants to know how on Earth millimeter tape measures can be obtained. I’m assuming he is probably Canadian and is as surprised as the retired Canadian woodworker about the Invisible Metric Embargo. I see this shock on the faces of US engineers every time I tell them about metric construction. Provincial, thy name is American.

I won’t chastise Canada too much for their non-metric ways in housing construction. They clearly know better, but they have the overwhelming negative influence of an ill-tempered Olde English bully to their south with which to contend. This antique non-metric country to Canada’s south still constructs all their houses in inches, with all other compliment of irrational Ye Olde English measures for plumbing and such. The best way to help make the US more metric might be if Canada would take the lead with metric construction, because I see no way the Frozen Republic in the US will ever mandate metric. Canadians, please try to muster up as much outrage as was found when the beaver was to be taken off the nickel, and implement millimeter metric construction in Canada. It only took the Australians about 18 months to complete. Perhaps this will help the backward neighbor to your south to finally see the advantages of metric they currently cannot even contemplate.

When John Shafroth was introducing metric legislation in the US at the end of the 19th century, Canada was on board. Here is an article from the December 30, 1900 issue of The Times of Washington:

Washington-Times-1900-12-30-Metric-CanadaCanada began its metrication 70 years later, but has stalled out with a metric system implementation that is but a veneer. It’s been 115 years, it’s time to ignore the US and complete your metrication. If you did, this American would thank you for it.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page

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The Metric Maven has published a new 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.