The Metric System for MacGyver

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

I’ve often found myself working at a client site where Engineering test fixtures, or other setups are not metric, even though the technical specification may be in metric. In a few instances, technicians had placed lumber yard—yard sticks, marked only with inches, on the fixture as a “reference.” Without a metric ruler available, What’s a Metric Maven to do?

I had a visit from a metric advocate several months back, who helped my situation. We were having lunch at a local eatery when he looked down and said, “looks like that salt shaker is about 100 mm tall.” I wondered how he had determined that. He showed me his index finger and said “your index finger is about 100 mm in length.” He then placed it next to the salt shaker and and said “see, it’s just about the same.”

He continued “if you need to have the approximate length of a single millimeter, it’s very close to the thickness of a dime.”

I later went home and measured my index finger. I was quite surprised.  It is very close to 100 mm, as the photo below shows. Women’s index fingers are shorter, generally about 80 mm, but often their middle finger is about 100 mm to the back end of the knuckle. The dime was indeed fairly close to a mm, at 1.34 mm thickness.

In the metric desert which is America, I often must resort to approximating distances with my index finger. I did this in the case of the yardstick test bed mentioned previously, and arrived at about 700 mm for a radio link range. It turns out that the distance across the knuckles of my hand from side to side is also 100 mm.

We now have a way to estimate metric lengths without a tool, but what about metric mass? It turns out that any store where you can purchase plain M&M candy, gives you access to an approximate metric mass standard. Each plain M&M weighs nearly one gram. I have taken eleven of them, placed them on a scale in the photo below. As you can see, they have a mass of ten grams.

Many Americans have told me they have no idea what a gram is, but when I tell them it’s about the weight of one plain M&M, there is instant recognition. If you read the nutritional label on a package of food, and it states that a serving contains 25 grams of protein, fat or sugar, that’s a mass of about 25 M&Ms. You can also estimate the mass of the serving size this way.

Should you have a small balance, or seesaw available, you can estimate metric volume.  First you would place two identical small containers on either end of the seesaw, at equal distances from the center (fulcrum), so it remains balanced. You could then fill one container with say 50 M&Ms, and the other with enough water to just balance. The amount of water would be about 50 milliliters. Draw a line inside of the container and you have a 50 mL estimating cup.

If you have no M&Ms, or a balance available, but have a working knowledge of origami, you can create an approximate one liter volume by making an inflatable cube from a sheet of paper. If this cube is then  filled with water, it becomes an approximate one kilogram mass estimate.

A decimeter is a metric unit not commonly in everyday use, but is equal to 100 mm. Fortunately, this length is used to define the liter and the kilogram. I say fortunately because we have already shown an index finger is about that length—100mm.

Unless you have a formula for the dimensions of an inflatable cube, given the initial paper size, one would have to experiment, to find the initial square paper size, that yields a cube with 100 mm edges. Conveniently the very hands you use to fold the paper, have a finger length which allows you to estimate 100 mm each time you make a cube. Here is a neat video showing a woman creating an inflatable paper cube.

The metric system is an amazing method of measurement. With only your finger, some plain M&Ms and a makeshift balance, or alternatively, paper folding, your finger, and some water, one can estimate all the basic metric units one generally ever needs in everyday life for length, mass, and volume. The metric system can be very MacGyver-like, but is also the most precise and accurate measurement system ever devised. It is a system for the common man and the engineer/scientist alike. It’s time we all used it.

The Invisible Infrastructure

By The Metric Maven

A considerable amount of ink and computer bits have been dedicated to lamenting the crumbling and corroding infrastructure of the United States. Along the roads linking small town America, the decaying physical infrastructure of the US is on display for all to see. The crumbling concrete and corroding metals which make up the physical infrastructure of the US is obvious, yet many people choose to ignore it, or deny its existence—despite its ubiquitous presence. There is however, an invisible infrastructure that is as important to our economy as roads and bridges are for transportation, copper wires and optic fibers are for internet communication, and the electrical grid is for manufacturing.

The decay of this invisible infrastructure in healthcare is responsible for 98,000 American deaths each year. Our anachronistic invisible infrastructure needlessly costs every American $16.00 per day. Other countries saw the need for an upgrade of their invisible infrastructure long ago—and invested. This deterioration is obvious to those outside of the US, yet Americans viscerally deny there is even a problem. They embrace this eroded invisible infrastructure as if it is a shrine which should never be altered. Ninety five percent of the world’s population long ago saw it as a serious problem, and repaired it. Americans continue to resist. Australians repaired their invisible infrastructure by the late 1970s and have saved 15% on the construction costs of their housing ever since.

What is the invisible infrastructure of which I speak? It is our provincial uncoordinated farrago of weights and measures. All other countries in the world—195 of them, with the exception of Myanmar and Liberia, switched over to the metric system over thirty years ago. US measurement remained stagnant as Australians began to build houses with dimensions in whole numbers, without decimal points or fractions. How did they do this? By using millimeters and eschewing centimeters. Australian houses are constructed only using millimeters, and in some special cases meters and kilometers are allowed. It took Australia less than two years for their construction industry to become completely metric.  This logical simplification of housing construction is unimaginable for the US populace which has embraced decade’s old, stale attitudes about measurement.

Americans complain about the cost of retooling to metric, when in reality we are the only society on this planet that maintains two sets of tools, one “traditional” and the other metric. Switching to metric-only in the US could eliminate up to half of the tooling costs experienced by this nation, but we cling to vacuous ad hoc excuses in our desperation to resist change. The rest of the world see these excuses for what they are, transparently frivolous, and after over more than one hundred years of American procrastination—exasperating.

Ninety five percent of the world’s population has a clear understanding of a kilogram, but no understanding of a pound. If you think the value of a pound is a clear and articulated measurement, then provide an answer to this question: “which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?” As Americans we all certainly realize that a pound of feathers weights more than a pound of gold. After all feathers are measured using avoirdupois pounds and gold is in troy pounds. When expressed in ounces? Gold weights more than feathers—make sense? In metric, reality is preserved and they weigh the same.

The invisible infrastructure of America is incompatible with the rest of the world. A mandated change to the metric system, would stimulate the economy, provide more jobs, increase our competitiveness, and promote public health, yet we trade away all these advantages for nostalgia. But it is a false nostalgia, for a set of measurements which are no more American than is Peking Duck. Miles were introduced by the Romans. A mile consists of 5280 feet? This was a rationalization of other English distance measurements with the 5000 feet of the Roman mile. It’s time for business and government to become streamlined for the 21st Century by embracing solid mandatory legislation for converting the US to metric in less than two years.

Related Essay:

The Magic Infrastructure